8.16

(Podium Publishing is offering a TWI-embossed frying pan giveaway for people pre-ordering Book 3 on Audible! Sign up for the competition here!)

 

Among other things happening that week, Grand Magus Eldavin formally led the censure of the Revivalist party in Wistram, in the process co-opting the loyalties of nearly two-dozen powerful [Mages] in Wistram Academy with the lure of forgotten magical spells and theories.

Palt and Imani had sex, which was no one’s concern except all of the Gnolls who couldn’t avoid smelling it.

Kevin was nearly assassinated by an angry agent of one of his clients, saved only by Master Hedault.

Erin was still dead.

…And the King of Destruction laid waste to another Nerrhavian army with Takhatres, the Lord of the Skies’ forces providing the overwhelming edge in the engagement.

Of all these events, major and trivial, only the last of which was even ‘news’. A footnote at that; until something major happened, in the arbitrary and sometimes contradictory view of the ‘world’, or rather, the media organizations, none of this was news. A battle far bloodier than the war between Jecrass and Reim would not even get five seconds on Wistram News Network.

Indeed, Fetohep of Khelt’s far less bloody march into Medain, demanding the King of Duel’s freedom, garnered far more attention worldwide. The army of the undead was both fascinating and disturbing to many sensibilities, despite Fetohep taking Medain’s surrendering army prisoner, ensuring far fewer were slaughtered, and actually releasing said prisoners rather than ransoming them to a [Slaver] of Roshal.

News was not always a reflection of real life. Despite seeing her friend, the young man, lying sick, as Hedault stood watch with his wand raised over the smoking corpse of the [Assassin], calling for a [Healer], Drassi did not report that on the news because it was, in Sir Relz’s words, ‘not important or germane to worldly affairs’.

Of course, that just meant the Drake wrote about it in the Liscorian Gazette, reflecting that they really needed a local channel for the news.

 

—-

 

If a single young man’s life or death was news that might spread around a city at best, what hope did someone have of being important enough to merit the attention of a nation?

For that matter, each nation had countless concerns at any moment that the news would never touch. Food shortages, crime, local monsters, rebellious individuals, treachery, discoveries…

In each nation, someone had to handle the crises and opportunities. For better or worse, in many nations, it was only a small body of people, or one person, albeit aided by advisors. They cared about their subjects, if they were good rulers.

Of course, ‘good rulers’ might only care because a murder was destabilizing, or indicated a monster or crime, not for the people themselves. Harsh, logical yet reasonable [Tyrants] sometimes made better rulers than [Good Kings].

…Or so people liked to argue. In truth, and in one ruler’s experience, the life of a single person still mattered. It was just that some lives had a larger effect. Some did not.

For instance, one lost life had had a great effect on her kingdom. Because the lost life was connected to a powerful individual highly placed within her kingdom.

Like pebbles adding up to deflect a river’s course. She reflected on this as she held court. Her advisors attended to her, in a regal antechamber, not the throne room. In fact, she seldom held court in the throne room. Right now, she lounged, relaxing, heedless of the dozen or so top officials of her realm.

“Is the Knight-Marshal of Rains still not willing to prevail upon our royal majesty in…here?”

She demanded of her people. One of her top [Generals] bowed.

“He has refused your summons, your Majesty.”

“Ah. Did he say that? What was his wording?”

“A polite refusal, Your Majesty. It may have come from the Knight-Marshal; the reply came from his estates through all official channels—”

The [Queen]’s eyes opened and she replied with a snap in her voice.

“Then Earl Altestiel did not make the reply. He is sulking. Someone tell him to present himself, here, now, within…three hours. Or I will strip him of his titles.”

The advisors looked at each other. That was not an idle threat. The Queen of Desonis had, in wrath, done just that. The [General] nodded and a [Messenger] ran to deliver the summons.

“Your Majesty, is it wise to make it an ultimatum? Depending on the Earl’s mood, he might…”

The [Court Mage] shut herself up as the [Queen] glowered her way. Geilouna of Desonis did not have the fiery red hair of many of Terandria’s monarchs. Rather, hers mimicked the common folk’s penchant; mud brown laced with green, much like the very marshes of Desonis in which the coastal kingdom had been founded.

Desonis by the sea. Desonis of Marshes. She had a few strands of glorious red mixed into the distinctive pattern, but one would hardly notice because of the messy hair. Bed hair was an apt term, but it did not even begin to describe the tangle. She rolled over from her lounging position, hardly the regal posture of many monarchs.

Then again, since she was the [Queen], it was regal by default. That was also her attitude towards many things.

“We are the Queen of Desonis. Desonis is me. Desonis are us.”

Geilouna rolled over again.

“If we summon the Earl, he must obey! For it is not I, but Desonis that summons him! When he offends us, he offends Desonis. I am Desonis’ wrath, its justice, its law.”

She lifted a hand and the advisors tensed. Queen  Geilouna held the hand up…then let her head fall back onto a pillow.

“Observe. Desonis rests. How long have we been at the affairs of the day, my council?”

“…Twenty minutes, your Majesty.”

The [Queen] didn’t bestir her head. Nor had she actually bothered to dress herself as resplendently as other rulers might for her day.

“Too long! Bring me my gelato! Bring me more fluffy animals from the menagerie!”

She clapped her hands. It was done. Servants entered the room.  Geilouna delicately tasted some of the ‘ice cream’, which Altestiel had brought back in recipe-form, thus saving her nation quite a bit of money.

In fairness, she hadn’t even eaten it regularly until it had become as cheap as the cost of creating it. As for the fluffy animals? A Slyphcat twined about her on the bed. The water-faring cat species nuzzled the [Queen], who affectionately pet it—then the cute little sheep, a miniature fluff ball purchased from a [Merchant] who sold such adorable animals.

Her advisors waited.  Geilouna went on, waving a spoon.

“Altestiel is an emotional brat. We are responsible for the fates of thousands of lives. You desire his council on the Ailendamus conflict, do you not, General Irsh?”

The General nodded. Of course, he was one of Desonis’ best [Generals]…but Altestiel was the [Knight-Marshal of the Rains]. Essentially the best leader in times of war. Certainly the most high-level.

“Yes, your Majesty. Your war council has made preparations in the unlikely event Ailendamus attempts to draw us into the war, or the Dawn Concordat likewise. However, the Knight-Marshal’s extraordinary instincts would be…”

“Reassuring. Well, he will come and do just that. Poofball, do not eat that ice cream. This is for the [Queen], not you.”

The Sariant Lamb, renowned as one of the cutest animals in the world, baahed, and the [General] bowed as Queen Geilouna nodded. She paused, then spoke around the silver spoon in her mouth.

“…However, that is only if the situation changes. We have seen how the war progresses. Ailendamus continues its march into Kaliv. Now, it sends armies around the mountains, through other nations. None of which are Desonis, although some share borders.”

That was the situation. The Dawn Concordat was fighting fairly well, but Ailendamus was a war machine and it was beginning to roll. Her advisors were grateful Geilouna listened. In fact—she was nodding impatiently at them.

“Therefore, since we are not a fool, Desonis has made its decision!

She lifted a hand and once again, their hearts palpitated. Geilouna waited—then shrugged.

“…Let’s just stay out of it. Crops are more important. Removing monsters from the marshes? More important. If we live to a hundred years and never fight another war, we will be remembered as a ‘good [Queen]’. Court dismissed. We will reconvene when Altestiel arrives.”

She rolled over again and pulled the sheets over both cat and sheep, who joined her. Geilouna lay as her advisors shuffled out of the room.

Of course, she knew Ailendamus’ designs on empire. She saw the danger—and she also saw how Desonis was not going to be the first nation to jump up and get hammered flat by Ailendamus. If she kept her kingdom safe, prosperous, and well for another forty years or something—and had proper heirs, not bad marriages and divorces—she would be known as a successful [Queen], by Terandrian reckonings. If not by her fellow rulers, certainly her people.

Her royal court left, and the Queen lay there. Incidentally, as she had given her grand pronouncements, her royal orders, she had not done so from couch, palanquin, or throne. Rather, she remained, as she had since they had woke her in her bed.

Her regal bed sheets moved as Poofball squirmed across them. Queen Geilouna was surrounded by pillows, blankets, and her bed was not King-sized, or Queen-sized, but about three times larger than any regular bed.

This, then, was Geilouna Desoyvel. Monarch of the moderately prosperous, marshy, coastal kingdom of Desonis, known for its unique landscape, most of which was watery. Known for the Earl of the Rains as much as its [Queen], its [Marsh Knights], known derisively as ‘Swamp Knights’ by those who liked to mock them.

…Which was anyone who had never been ambushed by the aquatic [Knights] and dragged into the swamp to be happily beaten to death while drowning. Another reason why Desonis was famously hard to invade.

Its [Queen] lay there, her fame not quite overshadowed by the [Knight Marshal of the Rains] as the old tale of King Redoris and Archmage Chandler—which she had watched, of course, with a bowl of the ‘popped corn’, a very apt name—yesterday. She too had a fame that was more than her crown.

Geilouna. The Queen of the Marshes, the Bearer of the Crown of Waters, and, a nickname for this individual rather than the position—

The Bedtime Queen.

If you knew nothing else of Desonis, you knew of the [Knight-Marshal of the Rains]…and the Bedtime Queen. Nothing about her personality, ruling abilities, or anything else. Just the name and the reputation of the sleepy ruler of the marsh kingdom.

The name had come to her unfairly as a child, because she’d contracted a disease that had made her sleep for days, weeks on end with only an hour or two of waking. For four years. She had gone from twelve to sixteen in this state of slumber, the [Healers] unable to help.

The Slumbering Princess. The Sleepy Queen. The Bedtime Queen. The Sovereign of Softness. The Ruler of Pillows and Sheets.

She rather liked the titles, incidentally. That was Geilouna. Was she a good [Queen], though? Well…

 

—-

 

The Earl Altestiel was one of the most eligible bachelors in Desonis. A contrast to his [Queen], who had been divorced twice and was not one of the most eligible bachelorettes among Terandrian monarchs for a number of reasons.

He was in his early forties, but looked far younger, having light purple-and-silver hair, hawkish nose, piercing bright yellow eyes, and he dressed in magical cloth armor, such that his nature and charm meant he swept Desonis’ courts whenever he arrived.

…Usually. This time, Geilouna woke from her slumber to hear the patter of rain overhead. That was not unusual; Desonis had rain more than sun. However, it soon became a roar. And since her [Weather Mages] had not predicted this…

“Altestiel.”

She sighed and went back to sleep until he stormed in. Incidentally, a fact few knew about Geilouna was that she had suffered from the sleeping sickness as a girl, but she did not still have it. She could drop off to sleep in two seconds whenever she wished, but that was a Skill.

[Sleep Storage] and [Quick Slumber] had evolved with her, such that in an hour of need…or weeks…Geilouna could tend to the affairs of her nation without need of sleep, for a month straight if need be. She had done that once.

In practice though, she was just lazy and liked lying in bed.

Anyways, here came the Earl. The court saw him drip into the royal palace, hair sopping wet, disheveled, a small raincloud still pouring over his head despite the best efforts of his [Strategist], Kiish, and the small retinue to stop it.

“What a child.”

Queen Geilouna remarked as the Earl was brought to her bedchambers and sometimes ruling seat of office. The Earl glared at her.

Your Majesty wanted to see me? You’ve already helped kill the one woman I could have married. The greatest chess player in the world! You—you jealous hag! Won’t you leave me alone? Take out your bad marriages on someone else!”

The dozing [Queen], who had not deigned to sit up as the Earl was escorted in, opened one eye. Her cat and sheep clambered off the bed. The air was humid, thundery and rainy, filled with Altestiel’s powerful aura. Now? The advisors, who had returned, servants, and Altestiel’s retinue all flinched.

You little brat. First you run off when Ailendamus is at war, you ignore our royal command for weeks, and now you have the gall to lecture us on love? So sayeth the boy who enjoys sulking about love lost more than cherishing it!”

A finger pointed. Nothing happened. Geilouna waved it—then reached for her crown, hung on a banister on the bed. She slapped it on her head; pointed.

A gout of water blasted at Altestiel. He didn’t even bother dodging; he let it lay him out. The soaked Earl glowered at his Queen as his people picked him up from the floor.

“Child? At least I can get out of bed in the morning! I don’t care about Ailendamus. You want to stay out of war? Fine. I’m going back to my estates.”

He turned to march out of the room. Geilouna sat up, propping pillows for a backrest.

“No, you will not. I have more need of you here, and you have sulked for over a month, now. My [Admiral] complained of storms the entire way back. You will stop mourning this [Innkeeper]. Her death was regrettable. But we do not allow you to return and starve yourself silly.”

Altestiel glared at her, and the court held their breaths. It was known that the two were, in fact, good friends and drinking buddies at times. However, their fights were also legendary.

“Go ahead and strip my lands. Exile me. I don’t care!”

The Earl dared the [Queen]. Every head flicked back to Geilouna as her eyes narrowed. Would she dare? Then the Bedtime Queen proved why she had managed to keep Altestiel’s loyalty and rule the famously temperamental Earl of Rains.

As the cloud of despondency over his head grew, soaking his retinue and the court, Geilouna pointed at him warningly.

“Altestiel. Stop sulking. If you rain on my sheets, I will marry you to Kiish and have done with it.”

The cloud stopped growing. Altestiel’s head rose, and his dripping hair was pushed back to fix his [Queen] with a scowl. But an uncertain one.

“You woul—”

By right of the Crown of Waters, as [Queen] of this land, I now pronounce Earl Altestiel and Miss Kiish of Desonis as husband and…

Geilouna uttered the phrase so fast that Altestiel was halfway across the room before he stopped, quivering. Kiish looked ready to faint—or cheer. The longtime aide and deep admirer of the Earl of Rains saw him slowly, slowly, bow, a huge glare on his face.

“By your gracious Slumbering Majesty’s will, I will stop sulking.”

However, the rain had stopped. Geilouna waved an indulgent hand.

“This pleases us, Altestiel. You are hereby granted clemency and poor Kiish the solitude of…not-marriage unless you sulk. In which case I will marry you two. Now, consult my [Generals]. Court, I have made many great strides in Desonis’ welfare today. I shall watch television and have brunch now. Dismissed!

The court stirred. Altestiel glared at Geilouna.

“Am I to make myself helpful, then?”

Geilouna poked her head out from under the pillow fort she was making for herself and her animals.

“What? No. Go, do strategic things, Altestiel. I did not make you stop sulking for that. Rather, you have a guest. A quite charming one, which I would not see wait about fruitlessly. Go unto him. And…put in a good word for me.”

She gave Altestiel a meaningful stare as the Earl of Rains blinked in surprise.

“I would grant you an estate if you managed a date. Hint, hint.”

 

—-

 

The reason Desonis’ court—which was, actually, one of the eighteen most populous, if not the most impressive due to the marshy and often rainy weather and climate leading to a very strong desire for indoor socialization by the nobility who often attended the capital—had not descended on Altestiel, rain or not, was because someone else had eclipsed even the fame of the Earl of Rains.

Which was hard to do! However, the amazing, the unparalleled, the extraordinary [Lord] who stood at a center of attention had no equals.

Not in war. Not in fashion sense. Certainly not on the dance floor.

Lord Belchaus Meron, named the #1 currently-living [Lord] in the world, was no stranger to Desonis. Nadel to the east was his Kingdom, even smaller, but made famous because of his famous presence, which kept the entire region free of piracy. Another example of where subject eclipsed ruler.

Then again, it wasn’t the same as the story of Az’kerash either because the ruling family were huge fans of Lord Belchaus, or ‘Bel’ to his friends.

The Lord of the Dance was not dancing right now as his reputation might indicate. However, he was certainly conversing, flirting, talking animatedly with the huge crowd around him. He never seemed to stop moving, having that restless energy of some people. Indeed, he was so graceful that he seemed to flow from gesture to step.

To look at Lord Bel was to see different things. For some, it was to see an object of desire, in many different forms. For others, he was a target of envy or jealousy, although he was charming.

Some, however, saw other aspects the casual observer took for granted. Such as how Lord Belchaus had no wasted movements, like a [Duelist] or [Fencer]. Footwork on the dance floor equated to skill in battle, and Lord Belchaus was also famous for his strategic genius.

In short, perfect at everything. Which was what reputation did for you. Belchaus had his flaws.

Lots of flaws. Like showing up on ‘friends’ unannounced! The Earl made his way to the gathering, and Lord Bel spotted him.

“Altestiel! My friend!”

He spread his arms and clapped the Earl on the back after giving him a gentle hug, conscious of the wet clothing. His escort was, like Altestiel’s, small, having travelled here for the visit.

Unlike Altestiel’s mix of [Strategists] and [Marsh Knights] however, Lord Bel’s group were all [Dancers] or [Warriors]…or both. Lightly armored, if at all, as graceful as him.

“Bel. Why are you here?”

Lord Bel’s sparkling smile faded a bit. He glanced at Altestiel, then, conscious of the listeners, smiled.

“Can two friends not prevail on one another? I heard you were in a gloom and came to visit; although her Majesty seems to have snapped you out of it.”

“She managed to make enough petty threats to ‘snap me out of it’. Petty is what she’s good at, though. Come on, then. Unless she’s offered you a banquet, let’s go to my estates. Kiish.”

The gloomy [Earl] nodded to his [Strategist], who bowed, blushing slightly as Lord Bel kissed her hand. He turned to the disappointed crowd.

“I’m afraid that’s my cue. Where are my people? No, don’t object, please. I will of course return…”

For the disappointed court had begun protesting Altestiel, or perhaps his remarks, which caused Geilouna to throw a fit of pique when she heard them for about fifteen seconds. Earl Altestiel didn’t wait up for Lord Bel; the man had to catch up as the Earl stomped out of the court, into the rain, and the waiting carriage—wheels enchanted to run on mud or even shallow water.

They headed to his estates, and the rather fine mansion. It was built like much of Desonis architecture; raised buildings, sometimes on ‘stilts’, which let floods pass comfortably underneath. No one had root cellars in Desonis.

It took Altestiel a moment to remember why Lord Bel had really come. Then, of course, he just got more despondent still.

 

—-

 

It was easier to be told Lord Bel’s flaws than to see them at first glance. One of them was this: the Lord of the Dance took nearly thirty minutes to join Altestiel in the carriage. He had to say goodbye to everyone he knew by name, gently flirt with two [Ladies], accept a [Lord]’s invitation, share two jests…

When he reached the carriage and entered, he seemed…tired. Altestiel had rudely departed Desonis’ palace, but it had not all been pique. Mostly, but he knew Lord Bel.

The Lord of the Dance looked tired, as he sometimes did if he was at a court too long. His energetic personality, his social mingling was not an act. However, one of his faults was that he could not turn it off.

It was entirely possible to lay the Lord of the Dance low by making him stay for eight hours in a court setting, where he could dance for eight hours straight on the battlefield or on the ballroom floor with no problem. He nodded to his friend in appreciation of this fact.

“I confess, I might have stayed the entire day at court if you hadn’t shown up. Your [Queen] is rather gracious, Altestiel. I forgot how they mob me. Oh, thank you, Kiish.”

She offered him a restorative draught mixed with a savory drink, a specialty of Desonis. Bel took a gulp and brightened.

“Desonis’ court is just bored. So, how can I help you?”

“You surely know. However, let’s keep that for your estates. Some things should be done over dinner, Altestiel! Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten all your graces in Izril. I admit, Drakes are sometimes that rude, but the Flowers of the North were just as hospitable as any Terandrian nobility when I visited.”

Lord Bel tapped an ear and Altestiel stirred. He gave the other [Lord] a frown; Bel just smiled politely.

“And Kiish, you are as lovely as ever. I heard—and rumor does swim in Desonis—that Her Majesty of Desonis nearly married you off. Would that be so terrible? And would you consider anyone else other than Altestiel, because I know several of Nadel’s young men would court you if they had a chance…”

Gratified and flattered, Kiish tried to keep up with Bel’s light teasing. More interested now, Altestiel sat up, breaking out of his funk a second time.

Just what did Bel think they needed that much privacy for? Perhaps…but he didn’t know what Altestiel had found. So he had something of his own.

Altestiel’s estates were, of course, warded, staffed well, and he had the right to house and train his own [Marsh Knights], the Knights of Desonis, by right of the crown. In fact, his vigilant bodyguards who had fought in Invrisil against the [Assassins] only now fully removed their armor, or walked about…uncovered…as it were.

Indeed, Altestiel had a larger population of Drowned Folk than most. Desonis, of course, had a population of Humans, Drowned Folk, Lizardfolk, and half-Elves in that order, Drowned Folk being in remarkable number for a minority, much less on land.

“Earl Altestiel! You’re back! Have you lost all your estates? Is that the Lord of the Dance?

Some chattering children raced up, ignoring the rain, seeing his carriage return. Lizardfolk mingled with an amused [Marsh Knight], whose half-Shrimp body wore custom-adjusted armor. Lord Bel signed the waved autographs, although rain smudged them, and one of his people did a little jig of fancy footwork for the delighted children and people.

“Lord Altestiel, will you stop this rain?”

The aggrieved voice came from a Naga, who had come out of her hut. Altestiel sighed, but the rain began to disperse.

“Hello, everyone. Lord Bel is prevailing upon me, so he cannot stay—”

The chorus of sadness made The Lord of the Dance, predictably, turn.

“However, my people will show you the latest dances from Nadel! And I will try to make an appearance t—”

Altestiel dragged him off before he could promise anything.

“Lord Altestiel, is that really the Lord of the Dance?”

Some wide-eyed servants, [Squires], and more of his people greeted Altestiel at his mansion. He nodded.

“Make his people welcome. I counted sixteen with Lord Belchaus. They’re staying here.”

“Not at the palace, Earl? I’d have thought…Lord Belchaus being of Nadel and a welcome guest…”

That came from a young [Lordling], barely fifteen, who was being trained and tutored in Altestiel’s care. He’d been too young to go to Izril, but Altestiel, who wanted nothing more than to sit and talk in private, grudgingly turned.

“It would tire him too much. Her Majesty will understand. Probably. And if she doesn’t, she can take away my estates. You may speak to Lord Bel if he meets you, but none of you are to take up his time! He won’t mind, but you should.”

The assembled group nodded, catching Altestiel’s will. One Lizardfolk [Maid] couldn’t help but wave a claw.

“I—I have to know! Is it true though that Lord Belchaus is the best [Dancer] in the world? Someone said he was, not just the best dancing [Lord]! Did he once participate in a dance competition so exciting and difficult that he exploded his opponent’s legs?”

The others looked skeptical. Altestiel sighed.

“That’s myths for you. He didn’t explode his opponent’s legs. That’s silly.”

“Oh, of c—”

“They just fell off. That’s all.”

Stitchfolk. However, Altestiel was amused enough by the furor until he and Lord Bel retreated to his study.

 

—-

 

Unlike a certain dead [Innkeeper]’s fantasies, Lord Altestiel’s private rooms were not some huge, carpeted vista with a roaring fire and couches and such with huge glass windows overlooking Desonis.

It was close. There were big glass windows since nothing beat watching the rain pour down over the landscape. However, Altestiel followed Desonis styles. Which was to say, a style of peoples used to the pervasive humidity, and two species who outright welcomed it.

“Come on in, Lord Bel.”

“Ah, how I forget the luxuries of Desonis.

Lord Bel paused, his towel fluttering about him—then he tossed it aside and joined Altestiel in the pool of water. Heated wonderfully by magic.

Perhaps only Desonis’ people considered that you should have an indoor hot tub inside your homes instead of a couch for socialization. Also, that clothing was an outdoors conceit.

Thus, Earl Altestiel offered Lord Belchaus a drink and snacks, both of which were on cork, floating trays, bobbing in the steaming hot tub as they sat, comfortably naked in the scented waters with expensive perfumes and alchemical oils, watching the rain stop falling from the windows.

If they got bored of this, they could retreat to drier settings, including the heated floor upon which one relaxed with nary more than a cushion or blanket; a favorite among Lizardfolk, hated by Drowned People.

However, they were unlikely to. Lord Belchaus’ eyes closed as he relaxed in the enchanted waters, which one could sit in for six hours without developing a single wrinkle, and Altestiel leaned back, luxuriating in the heat.

“So.”

“So.”

The two traded glance with each other. Altestiel sipped from a strong drink; Lord Bel had something far less stiff. The Lord of the Dance eyed the Earl of Rains.

They were friends. Not the closest, but certainly they respected each other as daring strategists and [Lords] of nearby nations might. Also, because both played chess.

At times though, they might be enemies. Nadel fought with Desonis, so their relationship was based upon such facts.

However, chess had made a distant respect closer to actual friendship. Altestiel knew why Bel had come.

“I found them.”

I was going to ask! But when you returned and I heard you were shut up with rain falling, I assumed—well, I assumed it was a ‘she’, and she dumped you.”

Altestiel scowled, and a miniature thundercloud threatened to strike Lord Bel, who held up hands and a ready smile. Almost nervous, actually. Lord Bel’s friends understood that he did not like letting his friends down, or upsetting them.

“You’re almost right. It was a she. And she was as good as we thought. Better. I even proposed—”

Stop!

Bel lifted a pleading hand. He reached out, snagging one of the breaded shrimp—no relation to the Drowned Knight, who positively enjoyed the things herself—and took a bite along with some dip.

“You must tell me from the beginning, Altestiel. It’s old news to you, however it ended, but I am agog to hear about it. Do me the favor? Please?”

His look was so pleading, like a puppy paddling around the hot tub, that Altestiel hadn’t the heart to refuse. Bad-naturedly, he took a handful of the shrimp and ate as he talked.

“Oh—very well. Our guess was right on. The player that this ‘Tactician Olesm’ was writing in his chess magazines about, was in Liscor. I met him too, by the way. A talented young Drake. It took me a long time to get all the way there, but there’s a magic door in Invrisil…”

Lord Bel leaned in, excitedly listening as the two men talked. Occasionally a servant would enter to see if they wanted anything, but aside from that, they were confidential, warded by the best spells Altestiel could acquire.

The two chess partners were among the best in the region, Lord Bel having won their unofficial tournament. Of course, they had learned the game from the Titan and avidly searched for new strategies.

So naturally they’d read Chess Weekly, back when it was ‘Chess Monthly’, and before even that, when copies of an amazing game had begun spreading about. Along with the theories of chess notation, elegant openings…

To the two gifted chess players, it had been the realization that they were talented amateurs, nothing more. It had been like the first Humans to discover fire, glancing over and seeing a lighthouse in the distance. The sharpness of the chess, the change in style!

They’d looked into it, and concluded that the ‘mysterious chess player’, who might be the same as the Titan’s mysterious opponent, could be the same person and in Liscor! After all, it wasn’t Lord Bel, who was the guess most people made.

To cut a long story short, after many back-and-forths, delightful evenings and time spent at this guessing game, the hunt turned into an obsession. They had to know if they were right! So Altestiel had gone, as Lord Belchaus could not leave his post so easily with war afoot.

“And she was there? The chess player? Wait—wait. Let me guess. It was the Watch Captain, wasn’t it?”

Altestiel smirked behind his drink. Lord Bel’s clear, light blue eyes, almost like glass, were shining with excitement. He had postulated that it was the Watch Captain of Liscor; how else would the city have survived so many monster attacks?

“Wrong. It was an [Innkeeper], in an inn just outside the city. She owns the magical door. She’s also only…twenty years old. However, everything we thought was correct. She showed Strategist Olesm all those games. And she’s the Titan’s chess partner. I’ll bet every gold piece I have.”

Bel’s eyes widened. He sat back, whistling.

“Twenty—? Is she a [Strategist] or something? No, it’s just talent, isn’t it?”

Altestiel swirled his glass.

“…Talent? Hard work, she said. Practice. She lived and breathed the game. For years.”

Years, she had said. Implying that she had spent longer than…but Bel was watching him, knowingly.

“I see. Two questions. First? How good is she?”

“I lost. I never even made it to her. ‘Someone’ was playing via a magical chessboard. Sound familiar? And—”

As Lord Bel nearly choked on his shrimp, Altestiel went on, savoring the bitter pain of watching the other [Lord]’s reactions.

And Chaldion of Pallass decided to show up, just to play in a little tournament. Antinium too.”

“You’re telling me the Cyclops, the Titan, Antinium, and the Earl of Rains all played in the same tourney?”

“Yep. She and the Titan were the final players. I only got to play in other settings. Bel. Even with Skills, she beat me. I used all my Skills one game and she beat me with ability alone.

The Lord of the Dance sat there, quivering with excitement.

“Well, I have to play her now. Are you in contact? If you have a magical chessboard and you’ve been hiding it—”

He couldn’t hide it any longer. Altestiel tossed his empty glass to one side, sank up to his chin in the water.

“She’s dead, Bel. I left her for a day and she died. If I’d stayed…”

The Lord of the Dance looked at Altestiel. He did not exclaim, or doubt. After a moment, he sank into the waters too.

“How?”

The enchanted tub had many functions. No wrinkling, no need to clean it; it was an enchanted tub. If you were going to have a magic hot tub, it had better be worth everything.

Another function was cycling liquid. The steaming waters turned to a viscous mud. Not muck, but hot, thick sludge that was actually quite pure and clean. Another thing Lizardfolk loved. It fit Altestiel’s mood.

“I left her.”

He told Bel the story simply. The Lord of the Dance sat, his head back, resting on a towel. Kiish had joined them, albeit with a towel, to recollect since Altestiel hadn’t the will to tell it all.

The frozen bier. The grieving city. Six worthless crossbow bolts, shot by petty Drakes. An accident…

“The world’s greatest chess player. Dead. All because of an inter-city feud. The Titan’s opponent, an [Innkeeper] who led the Black Tide to war…do you think his absence ties into this?”

The Earl half-shook his head. It was possible. Even likely. However—he would not find what he was hoping for. He thought of Erin.

“She could beat him in chess. I think she did, before my very eyes. She was smiling. Keep talking. You still can’t imagine her. Erin Solstice.”

Altestiel whispered. He was drinking more, and Kiish was giving him a look of concern. Yet no rain poured from over his head. He was past the grieving—at least, directly. Now…

“I’m surprised you didn’t raze Hectval.”

“I would have. But her Majesty threatened to imprison me if I didn’t return. That Drake, Olesm, swore to do so. I’m…”

Altestiel dabbed at his face with a towel. More than perspiration had glimmered there. Lord Bel didn’t even hide his tears.

“What a waste. You actually tried to marry her?”

“I should have pressed my suit. I should have stayed. One day. I could have married her and…”

Visions of Erin Solstice meeting Geilouna, of finding a way to take her inn here filled Altestiel’s mind. The Queen was right in that it was a childish fantasy, of course. A romance with no bones of reality to it.

Now though, he regretted it. The two [Lords] sank in the deep mud-bath, until the waters cleared. They rose, neither mud nor oil sticking to them, and sat, Bel reclining with a towel for modesty, Altestiel, similar, but cross-legged in the heated room.

“So. Erin Solstice.”

Lord Bel raised a cup and Altestiel echoed it.

“To this sodding world and worthless people who make it worse!”

They drank. Altestiel gasped as the liquid burned.

“They’re trying to save her, you know. There’s some—some assertion that freezing her didn’t kill her.”

“I don’t understand that. Everyone would know about it, if so. You said they were a strange lot of young men and women?”

“The one who made ‘bicycles’ was one of her people. All extraordinary.”

Altestiel recalled. Lord Belchaus glanced at him, and then shifted his position. Careful as any [Dancer], he relented from the subject that had wounded Altestiel so.

“Speaking of what everyone knows…I came for a second reason, Altestiel. I admit, curiosity and concern for you was the greater, but I thought you should know that Nadel received some interesting messages of late. [Messages] from Wistram.”

Altestiel opened one eye.

“What about? Desonis has had none.”

Geilouna would mention it if so. Lord Bel nodded.

“I don’t doubt it. This comes to me by way of His Majesty…I am sharing it because it is a concern as much as it is helpful. Between us.”

His serious tone made Altestiel sit straighter and nod. Kiish, who had left to clothe herself, rose.

“I will see myself out, my lords.”

“Thank you, Kiish.”

Bel smiled gratefully, and then turned to the Earl. He did not beat about the bush.

“In the last two weeks—two weeks for the first, yesterday for the second, his Majesty of Nadel received two [Messages]. First, from Archmage Viltach, second, from a Grand Magus Eldavin, of whom I think you know.”

Altestiel nodded slowly.

“What did they want?”

“Nothing. Rather, Archmage Viltach first hinted and then the Grand Magus that there was…something…Nadel should know. Or perhaps, ‘certain Kingdoms of auspicious influence’. It was suggested, rather strongly, that it was my presence that allowed Nadel to fit on this list. An insult to his Majesty, of course.”

Bel waved a hand away, as if not aware of how his presence alone had changed shipping routes, made Nadel a major sea-faring power.

“So, what was the thing Nadel should know?”

The fact that Desonis was not on this list did not surprise Altestiel. He was the Earl of Rains, but the Lord of the Dance was a greater presence, he had to admit. He did not like that, but there it was. An Archmage of Wistram would court the [Lord] who could stop trade or secure safe passage far more than the ‘Bedtime Queen’.

“That’s just it. We weren’t told what it was we should know. Both [Mages] only said that there was something. In fact, they intimated that just us knowing that there was something to know was a favor in itself.”

“[Mages]. They wonder why people hate them.”

Altestiel sighed. However, his mind was racing. Belchaus leaned on his elbows.

“…You know something, Altestiel.”

“I don’t know anything, Bel.”

“You suspect something, then. Out with it. Fair is fair.”

The [Earl] nodded slowly.

“Erin Solstice. She told me, when I asked, that she wasn’t talented. I believed her; she was probably as talented as you are, but she said she’d been ‘playing since she was a girl’.”

Bel’s eyes rose.

“Is she the Titan’s protégé, when he was developing the game, then?”

“No. I don’t think so, or else why would he…I think he didn’t know who she was either. Bel, her friends were interesting too. Those plays you’ve heard of in Invrisil?”

Bel slapped the floor.

“I was going to ask you for a copy of their scripts, or whatever they use! Autographs too! Ah, but—”

“They came from her. She taught the Players of Celum. And she knew the recipe for ice cream. Also, mayonnaise, and a dozen other foods I’d never heard of before. The bicycle came from a young man staying in her inn. Oh—and you know the Wind Runner of Reizmelt? A friend of Erin Solstice. Whatever contraption she used? Erin Solstice knew about it.”

Bel’s eyes narrowed slightly. He did not speak for a good two minutes, then, in a contemplative voice, murmured.

“You don’t need to be a dancer to see a pattern in that. Strategist either. What does it mean?”

Altestiel didn’t know. A secret nation? A pocket dimension? …Time travel? He and Bel speculated with wild theories into the night, but they were too far from their mark.

That night, at least. Altestiel talked with his friend, Bel. He drank until he wept. He wept until he slept.

The last tears for Erin Solstice, the last of grieving.

 

—-

 

He woke, and found he was not alone. Altestiel was clinging tightly to someone. Not Bel, but Kiish. She was watching him, and had been stroking his hair.

Of course, she didn’t talk about it, practically vaulting out of bed. Altestiel reflected that Geilouna was too intelligent sometimes. Or too lucky.

If Lord Bel had spent the night in company, he did not show it. He and Altestiel played a game of chess with breakfast, the first Altestiel had played since leaving Izril.

Tactful as always, he said nothing, but his other nature made him murmur as the two men rose to walk Altestiel’s estates and talk further.

“You might consider marrying her, you know. It would be unfair to let it go on like this.”

“I know.”

 

—-

 

The Earl of the Rains kept a vigilant watch over his lands, because Desonis demanded it. Marshes and swamps abounded with life, even compared to forests, and the predators here were varied and nasty.

Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that when trouble called, both [Lords] were able to respond at once. The Earl of Rains and Lord Belchaus were walking with their people, talking candidly about the Ailendamus war.

“Nadel and Desonis might be next, but if we involve ourselves, Ailendamus will go after us. So, I don’t see us making the first step, which of course means an empty dance floor and a shy audience, waiting for—”

Belchaus’ head rose, and Altestiel held up a hand as he heard the same thing. A distant scream.

“Kiish?”

“Pinpointing, Lord Altestiel…five friendlies, zero attack value! One hostile—large, high attack value! Hydra, most-likely, full-grown.”

“Is someone in the marshes? Idiots—Knights of Desonis, to arms! Kiish, summon reinforcements from the mansion. Bel—”

Of course, the Lord of the Dance was already gone. Earl Altestiel charged after him. Where Lord Bel ran across the water, his feet barely casting ripples as his troupe of escorts surged after him, a touch less gracefully, Altestiel just raced upwards on a [Water Bridge], for height and vantage.

He saw the five terrified children and the two corpses a moment later. It was a Hydra, large as a house! They had walked right into its lair. A Hydra this close to his lands would have already necessitated a hunting party, yet this one was fierce.

“Poison type. Not as magical as some variants.”

“Take aim! Bel! Distract it!

Altestiel saw the Lord of the Dance swing up his sword as he shouted. Altestiel looked down at the five children. Humans. Young, wearing bright clothing—paralyzed in fear. Grouped up so the multi-headed Hydra, this one with nine heads, could tear them apart in seconds.

Hydra, to me!

Bel shouted, and the Hydra turned. A targeting Skill on himself, of course. Altestiel seized that moment. He leapt off the water-bridge, fifty feet in the air. The young people gawked upwards and pointed in astonishment as a second bridge appeared under Altestiel.

He shot down a slide of water, balancing, used to the dramatic entry to a battlefield and the unparalleled speed it offered. His [Marsh Knights] and Kiish were a second behind.

Follow me! Keep them covered!”

“Lord Bel—”

“Leave him!”

The group landed, and the [Marsh Knights] grabbed the stunned group. They began ushering them to safety, on the lookout for Hydra young or more threats.

“With me!”

Altestiel’s sword was drawn. He looked at the young people, watching as the Hydra surged after Lord Bel. He heard a strangled voice, a sob, screams—

“Oh my god, what is—”

Altestiel’s head turned slightly. However, then the Hydra leapt at the Lord of the Dance.

The Hydra was as fast as a striking snake—as large as a house. Some could get larger, with heads that could swallow an armored man in a single gulp. This one was bad enough.

Nine heads, all with venom dripping from their fangs. A scaly body like armor, which regenerated with unnatural speed.

Altestiel had heard comparisons between Terandrian Griffins, Wyverns of Izril, Manticores of Chandrar…Hydras were worse. This one was focused on Lord Bel as the man stopped in the muddy, wet ground. All he had was a sword and his dress clothing, both enchanted, but the [Marsh Knights] surging at him, his own people—both were too far away as the Hydra struck.

A head shot forwards and struck the mud. The [Lord] side-stepped before it struck him, so close the wind rippled his clothing. A second head shot forwards like a lance and Lord Bel leaned under the biting serpent’s head.

Altestiel slowly lowered his sword. He saw Lord Bel’s eyes flick up. The Lord of the Dance grinned. Then—spun.

Three more of the Hydra’s heads struck the water, missing the Lord of the Dance by inches. The Hydra recoiled, confused, then seemed to think the man had only gotten lucky. It struck, all nine heads twining to form a wall of scaled flesh that wouldn’t miss—

Lord Bel stepped on an open mouth, between the teeth, leapt up, landed on a crest, swung himself up—and landed behind the Hydra.

Altestiel shook his head. The charging [Marsh Knights] halted. They looked at Altestiel, and even the young people stopped screaming.

“Hold. Let him handle it. Get me bows.”

The Hydra turned, searching for the man. Again, it struck, this time with its tail before spitting venom, striking, biting—

It never touched him, Lord Bel swayed under striking mouths, walking around the Hydra’s increasingly-frenzied blows. The Hydra never had a chance.

“Show off.”

Altestiel did not know all of Bel’s Skills, but he knew these two. The Lord of the Dance had actually closed his eyes, and was stepping before the Hydra moved.

[Feel the Rhythm]. The animal’s instinctual attacks were like any song or beat to him. As Altestiel saw Kiish appear with [Longbow Archers], he raised a hand.

“Take aim! Ignore the Lord of the Dance! Volley!

The [Marsh Knights] hesitated. But they too had bows and dozens of shafts clouded the air, flickering towards the [Lord] and the Hydra.

Lord Bel pivoted, side-stepping the arrows. They struck the Hydra full-on. It screamed, and Altestiel counted.

What was the rhythm? One, two, three, four—

Loose!

This time, somehow, the angry Hydra charged into the second flight of arrows so it turned itself into a pincushion. The young people, the [Marsh Knights], all stared.

[Change the Flow]. The Lord of the Dance walked back, having manipulated the dance he’d started. Altestiel called for five more volleys, then an enchanted arrow to finish the job.

When it was done, the Hydra lay dead, and the two [Lords] could attend to the frightened people. And the two unlucky casualties.

 

—-

 

Later that day, the court of Desonis was graced by some surprising visitors. Firstly, Earl Altestiel and the Lord of the Dance.

Also, her Majesty, Geilouna and the recently-rescued group who had been spared from death via Hydra, and were now given the opportunity to visit the court.

Of course, the nobles and such considered it an act of kindness. It was not. As Earl Altestiel bowed to the bemused Bedtime Queen, who had roused herself for Lord Bel—and his urgent [Message]—he couldn’t help but think of Erin Solstice.

Ah. It all made sense now. He kept glancing at the terrified group of five, who were alternating between wonder, grief, and sheer shock.

The Lord of the Dance could not keep his eyes off them either. He kept staring at them.

Sometimes, the great confluence of events was discernible by the greatest minds in this world, if they were given the right hints and followed logical conclusions to their inevitable center—even if they got a bit off-track with theories about time travel.

However, sometimes you asked a group of young people who’d been wandering in the marshes for two days, ‘where are you from?’

And they told you.

“Altestiel. What is this about? It’s not like you to show off.”

For once, Altestiel didn’t spar with Geilouna as she blinked at him, sleepily irritated at being woken up before midday. He simply bowed.

“I have something rather interesting to show you, your Majesty. Privately, I hope? I should hate to make a fuss about it.”

Her eyes flickered once, then she yawned.

“In my chambers, then, if one must.”

They left as quickly and unobtrusively as they could. Naturally, ‘not make a fuss’ was their code phrase. If one of them said that, the other reached for the Crown of Waters—or a sword.

This was the mark of the Queen of Desonis’ value. When Altestiel spoke, having invoked the code phrase, she listened. She sat on her bed, pets and fluffy blankets forgotten, head propped on her hands, but attentive. The inner council, the advisors beyond reproach or question, listened too, mouths agape. Twice someone said something like ‘that’s impossible’, or ‘are you sure?’

The second time, Geilouna ordered the person removed and tossed out into the hallway. Altestiel concluded his brief summary.

“Another world. You’re sure?”

“It fits the puzzle, your Majesty. I do not think they are lying. That is what they are. I would stake my aura on it.”

Queen Geilouna sat back, on her pillows. It would be later she processed it, with Altestiel and as much alcohol as she could consume, in her bedroom, with the private thoughts she did not ever utter aloud. Over the next week and months too, which would define her reign, she now knew. It was her story, and not the world’s story, so only she would know it and it did not need to be the center of other tales.

For now, the Bedtime Queen simply nodded. Then she began shouting invectives at the top of her lungs. When Kiish, Altestiel, and the council had uncovered their ears, Geilouna was calm.

“So much for my peaceful rule and death! What do we do, Altestiel?”

The Earl didn’t blink.

“Some of them may go with Lord Bel.”

“Do we allow that? Or kill him? At least, refuse, imprison?”

The advisors stirred as Geilouna gave Altestiel a flat-lidded look. Reassuring, despite the cold remark.

“We allow that, your Majesty. Nadel is an ally. Lord Bel would be one beyond reproach.”

“Good. What else?”

Altestiel had many thoughts, including going back and placing everyone in The Wandering Inn under Desonis’ protection. And screaming at Erin Solstice’s grave. For now?

Your Majesty. The young people say they are from…Den’s Mark.”

“Denmark, Earl.”

Kiish whispered. Altestiel nodded.

“Denmark. They were far from alone. If whatever teleportation effect missed them—I suggest we comb the swamps. All of Desonis!”

“All of it?”

The Bedtime Queen raised a hand. She looked at Altestiel. She nodded.

“It will be done.”

 

—-

 

That day, the normally sleepy-but-sociable court and government of Desonis turned upside down. Every [Mayor], ruling body, or [Headman] of every village, town, and city, got a summons to report certain criteria to the palace.

[Scriveners], [Record-Keepers], and so on were mobilized to find unusual immigrants. [Harbormasters] were called to give an accounting of strange young people bound to Wistram, with dates and places.

Anyone—no, any Human—had to be reported. Especially with certain clothing, phrases. Devices?

Normally, that kind of thing would be something slowly put into motion by bureaucracy, with a local official carrying it out to the levels of diligence they possessed.

Not this time. The Knights of Desonis marched into the swamp, with [Hunters], and the bewildered lower-ranking leadership realized they couldn’t answer the [Message] spell after tea. They answered it now or they lost their jobs.

The [Chamberlain] was breathing down the necks of the royal [Knights], as well as the Minister of the Treasury, the Diplomat of Desonis, Earl Altestiel—

The Bedtime Queen marched about, inspiring people to action by her presence, as much as anything else. She would not rest until she was sure no other child of Earth was in her kingdom, and if she wasn’t resting, no one else damn well would!

Results appeared, if only because the authority present demanded results and competence—or heads.

 

—-

 

They found one more, bound for Wistram. Altestiel and Kiish were preparing to head for that harbor, to intercept the young woman waiting there, who apparently didn’t even speak the common tongue; the [Harbormaster] reported her as being ‘Drathian’, but not seeming at all like a native of Drath.

Geilouna flopped back in her bed when she decided they’d found all they could, dead from the unaccustomed exertion. However, she accompanied Altestiel to court. He was going with Kiish and a squad of Knights of Desonis; no overconfidence here.

If the Wistram [Mage] who’d found this young woman wanted to play games, she’d find out whether a tidal wave beat a [Fireball]. In Altestiel’s experience? It did.

Before they left, though, a crying voice interrupted them. The five Earthers, safely in the court, were nonetheless in tears—at least, two of the five.

One of the courtiers or nobles had, with goodwill and all the subtlety of a knife to the gut, inquired after the dead, or made some insensitive-but-well-meaning comment. Someone was in hysterics.

“Go. I’ll deal with this.”

Geilouna whispered to Altestiel. He nodded—and then heard a familiar whine of sound.

One of Nadel’s [Dancers] struck out on a fiddle, or a stringed instrument. No—a Chandrarian one, so, a wailing sound. Another pulled out a drum. The rest were clapping.

There he was. The Lord of the Dance stepped back, looking around. The screaming weeping halted—Lord Bel glanced at the young man he’d been talking to.

Another Earther. Far darker skin than one got in Desonis, where sun was rarer than rain. Lord Bel smiled at the crying Earther gently—then turned back to the young man.

He stepped back, and his escort raised their hands as they began to stomp their feet, setting up a beat. Some of the court joined them, enthusiastically. Lord Bel gestured.

Altestiel hesitated. It was…so like Belchaus Meron. Faced with the knowledge that would shake this world, revelations and the knowledge they were behind Wistram and other organizations, the first thing he asked was this.

The [Lord] was gesturing. The young man was lifting his hands, but you could tell what he was saying. The young man was demurring, but Lord Bel was gently insistent.

Show me.

The music took on an insistent tone. Faced with the clapping court, the music, and the Lord of the Dance, the young man threw caution to the wind. Embarrassed, he did a quick-step of some kind.

Altestiel knew court dances, but he’d never seen the complex footwork—outside of Nadel. Lord Bel laughed. Then—he copied the little trick.

The tears of the other Earthers stopped. Lord Bel called something at them, clearly trying to cheer them up. He gestured, and, encouraged by the Lord of the Dance’s people, the young man performed a move clearly meant to be done alone.

It looked so silly that Geilouna laughed. Altestiel glanced at Kiish. The young man was speaking in front of the embarrassed court.

“—video game—

The laughter broke off as Lord Bel copied it. Move for move, shaking his body in the absurd little gesture, perfectly copying the young man. And what was on his face was nothing but enjoyment.

“I knew the Singer of Terandria had been taught that from somewhere! Show me more, show me more!”

Two of his people tried to copy the move, and they did so on the first try. The Earthers looked astonished, but they were realizing—they were in the presence of the world’s best [Dancers]. Anything they could do…

After some conference, a young woman tried a moonwalk and failed. Lord Bel promptly demonstrated the technique, moving in a circle as if his feet were sliding on ice to applause. Of course—then, it became a competition.

Could they show him anything that he couldn’t copy? Dances from Fortnite became attempts at capoeira, or breakdancing moves; at least one of the Earthers could dance.

Lord Bel went step for step with the young man trying to surprise him. Then—they began doing the break-dancing moves that Altestiel would have paid ten thousand gold coins to see a [Lady] do in a dress on a ballroom floor at the same time. Lord Bel didn’t just copy, he and the young man began moving in sync.

Astonished, the Earther stopped. Lord Bel just clapped him on the shoulder. Then, his head turned and looked at Altestiel. The Earl of Rains nodded, and gestured at Kiish, who was waiting with the carriage.

The Lord of the Dance kept dancing. Where other nations would greet the strange young people in their borders with hostility, fear, wonder, curiosity…Lord Bel greeted them with a dance.

More were coming. Most arrived there, in that room where he had torn a hole.

The rest elsewhere. They were coming.

Altestiel was just among the first to know it.

 

—-

 

Ironic. Purely ironic, although only a few…beings…would be in a position to find it such.

Ironic, that Desonis and now Nadel, at least the upper echelons, might learn something that far more powerful nations and individuals had yet to even get a whiff of. Az’kerash was blissfully ignorant, consumed with finding the last of Silvaria’s tomes in his library, reading through them.

So too was Queen Yisame ignorant of whatever it was she should know, despite the Grand Magus’ warning. She was, of course, aware that she was unaware, and had roused her court to fury, not least because she now owed the half-Elf a debt.

However, realization would be a long time in coming, even for those blessed with a ‘hint’ from Wistram.

Entire species knew now, like the Drowned Folk, whereas great kingdoms lay unawares.

Not that they were concerned because if you didn’t know what you were supposed to know, or didn’t even know that you were supposed to know what you didn’t know….

Ailendamus was not concerned with little hints, even from Archmages. Six times Viltach had tried, but King Itorin II was too important to bother directly with an Archmage’s concerns. Lesser officials, yes, but Viltach had insisted on speaking to Itorin II directly—and failed.

Grand Magus Eldavin too. Not that Itorin II didn’t have concerns. He had tons of them.

War with the Dawn Concordat, which he wanted done, uncomfortable with the eyes of the new ‘television’ on his designs for conquest. It made what he was doing a little too obvious. He wasn’t an [Emperor]—yet—for the very reason of optics. Television was making his job harder. He had a lot to do in any case.

Diplomacy, at home and abroad, to keep Ailendamus’ allies together and his enemies from working together. Jumped-up little [Lords] on Izril, foreign powers…

Not to mention the Demon’s ritual and whatever weapon had slain his [Knight] abroad. Of course, he attributed that to Demons. Not anything else.

Itorin Zessoprical, the Second, King of the Empire of Ailendamus—as it had swallowed smaller kingdoms over its meteoric rise—sat on his throne.

In his palace. Doing kingly things.

In another place in the palace of Ailendamus, someone almost as important was shouting at [Knights]. To be specific, the Order of the Thirsting Veil, one of three that Ailendamus boasted.

This is not a small concern! Your petty excuses do not bear weight with me! Your Order will find out or—

“Sir. Sir, we have no leads to go on!”

“That is not good enough!”

A man howled in the face of one of Ailendamus’ [Knight-Generals], which was astonishing given the other man’s rank. The man, clean-shaven, wearing expensive dark-purple silk robes ostentatiously augmented by Truegold, was gaudy as could be. He had numerous magical rings, and though he carried no weapon, he made up for it with all the other artifacts on his person.

Dame Hevcla of the Order of the Thirsting Veil, who had once met the Knight-Commander Calirn of the Order of Seasons, couldn’t believe this man’s audacity. Her leader was not a patient man, and he had challenged Ailendamus’ nobility to duels for less.

Especially because King Itorin II was well aware of the value of his [Knights]. However—it seemed this man was too important for even a [Knight-General] to reprimand for spraying spit in his face.

“Your Grace—”

The Duke shouted again. Given Ailendamus’ sprawling nobility and royal family and relatives, that wasn’t as impressive as another nation—but it was still just below the royal family. However, that was complicated by the fact that this man was, in fact, the uncle of King Itorin II, albeit separated from the direct line of the monarchy. So then again, it was as impressive as it should be.

Duke Rhisveri Zessoprical drew breath to scream again, and Dame Hevcla interrupted with a crisp salute.

“Your Grace Rhisveri, perhaps you could illuminate us on what was lost? We are aware of the break-in, of course.”

The hugest lapse in security since Ailendamus itself was founded. A massive embarrassment as someone had apparently entered, nearly stolen a treasure, and fled without a trace when the alarms went off and the guard rushed in.

Every great [Thief] of this age was being scrutinized for motive, but what had nearly been lost was…the Duke turned on Dame Hevcla. She saw sneering contempt replace fury in a moment.

“You are all not privy to the true value of the royal family’s treasures, [Knight]. I demand only that you find the assailant! Are you Ailendamus’ finest or not? Employ [Trackers]! Employ magic! Must I do it for you?”

“No, your Grace. However, the trail really is—”

Silence, you incompetent!

The [Knight-General]’s face turned redder. He slowly wiped away some spit, but he said nothing in reply. This was the same man who had once drawn his sword in the presence of a foreign [King] for impugning Ailendamus’ honor.

Duke Rhisveri looked at the [Knights]. He was breathing hard.

“I will furnish you with the details if I must. You will find this thief. And you will bring them to me. Alive. All limbs intact. I want to know how they got past the protections. My protections!”

His fingers sparked with magic. He stalked back the way he’d come, to the royal wing, beyond which even [Knights] were not allowed passage. An entire wing for King Itorin’s family. Dame Hevcla watched him go, wondering just what had been so close to being stolen as to enrage the Duke so much. King Itorin II had not mentioned it—but perhaps it was something he had entrusted the Duke with.

The point was, whomever it was, be it the Lightning Thief, the Thief of Clouds, or anyone else—the full wrath of Ailendamus had been roused against them. They were in a lot of trouble.

…Shame their name was so damn confusing to scry. The Duke had been getting headaches all week long, and he’d used [Greater Scry] in his desperation. The wards returned precise weight, gender, species, and all kinds of other measurements—some of which were confusing—but the name kept blanking out because it was impossible to translate to the spell’s parameters. He didn’t even know what the second thing had been. But he was going to find out. Oh yes.

 

—-

 

On the subject of scrying, Wistram had now given up on monitoring the Antinium Queens. They’d kept recording—until it became clear beyond all shadow of a doubt that the Antinium now knew they were being watched.

Some oddities had been put down to the Antinium peculiarities, but after the failure of the Antinium to actually go to war and the huge embarrassment to Wistram after the Invrisil event—it had been clear.

The final clue though, had been the ‘discussion’ between the Flying Queen and her Prognugators on war tactics, in which she turned to the scrying mirror every five seconds and said something along the lines of:

“I wonder what I should do? How puzzling.”

“I do hope no one is listening to my grand plans.”

“It would be so inconvenient if someone learned of our secret weapons buried here.”

…With a map.

Back to traditional scrying attempts. However, if Wistram had kept monitoring the now-compromised scrying devices, they would have seen someone wander past the disused scrying devices replaced by more secure connections.

Life is suffering.

Anand walked into a wall. He fell down, and curled up. After a while, a few other Free Antinium found him and helped him up. They replaced the cover on the scrying mirror in the empty room and tried to bring him back to their base.

They were still guests of the Grand Queen, although they travelled to every Hive in the Hivelands—save for the Twisted Hive. Anand shook off the kind hands.

“Life is worthless. Erin is dead. I—I am drunk! I will now eject the contents of my stomach!”

He gave it a try, like he’d seen some guests doing. Eventually, he gave up and lay down.

Erin was dead. No one was here to help Anand. Not Belgrade. Not Pawn, not Bird or Garry or—Anand got up after a moment.

Klbkch! Klbkch, Erin is dead. I am sad. What do we do?

He entered the room and eight Custodium, and six Queens stared at him.

“Oh.”

Klbkch himself stared at Anand. His head, slowly growing a mass of tendrils being connected to a body-in-progress, was suspended in a custom vat. A Birther. Anand looked at the Silent Queen, who was performing the most complex creation of a new body in the history of the Antinium of Izril.

“Anand. Get. Out.”

The [Strategist] slowly backed out of the room. He wandered out of the Silent Antinium’s Hive, knowing he had made a mistake. Angered Klbkch.

No longer caring. Erin was dead. Anand knew this was not factually true, but it felt like it. He…

…Tried to drown himself in the underground lake. At least until Goat and Archer A11 pulled him out. Anand had only stuck his head under the water.

“Let go! I am a failure! I should have been there!”

He thrashed as they dragged him away. The teams of Antinium working on Iteration #227 of the ships stared after him. Anand cared not for the ship. It would fail.

The longest any ship had ‘floated’ was one minute and thirty eight seconds. If you counted mainly sinking as floating, anyways.

Ships were hard. Anand would have tried to study the books on ship-building he’d asked to be sent via Liscor, but he didn’t care.

Erin was dead.

 

—-

 

He was wandering the Hivelands, on the surface, half-hoping an adventurer popped out and stabbed him when someone found him. Not Goat, or the other anxious Free Antinium, who were also grieving, but something far larger.

Far older. Anand peeked up, then lowered his head.

“Oh. It’s you.”

Me.

Wrymvr agreed. The voice was bubbling, coming out of Wrymvr’s mouth…or multiple of them. Wrymvr the Deathless, most fearsome of the Centenium in close combat, able to fight multiple Named Adventurers at once and survive, looked down at Anand.

Once, Anand had feared the Twisted Hive. Even now, he feared what he had seen, a kind of death beyond death.

Today though, he would have charged the Twisted Hive with a bare fist.

“What do you want? I am grieving. If you’re going to eat me…”

His voice quivered. If he died, would he see Erin? He was afraid the answer was no, even if Heaven existed.

No. I. Do not eat other Antinium.

Wrymvr might have been amused. Talking came to him with difficulty, it seemed. Anand knew Klbkch and the Queens could talk differently.

“You kill us. We are not True Antinium. Is that why you’re here? Because I am a failure, a distraction?”

He touched his antennae. Again, though, Wrymvr demurred.

No.

The vast Centenium studied Anand. It—he—had sought Anand out. The Worker swayed on his feet; he had been imbibing alcohol on the assumption it might help. It had not, only made him dizzy. Nevertheless, Wrymvr appeared…different from the [Strategist]’s memories.

His body had evolved again, changing to some other role. He still had massive wings, and was squat, quadrupedal…sextupedal…many-pedal, rather than upright like most Antinium.

Many mouths, many legs, openings to project acid or other dangerous substances; Wrymvr was the epitome of death. Anand stared at him.

“If you are not going to kill me, may I go? I wish to try expelling matter from my body again.”

Wrymvr blocked his path with one leg as Anand tottered around him.

Ships. You must build. Duty. You—Anand. Strategist. Build them. Float. Improvement.

He communicated in staccato bursts of noise. Anand frowned at Wrymvr. He shook his head after a moment.

“I am too sad. I do not want to. Erin is dead. Not dead. Bring her back like Klbkch. Then…then I will do things. Can you do that? Please?”

Irrelevant. You are necessary. Anand will not endanger self. Obey. Work. Build ship.

A prod of a leg, but very gentle for Wrymvr’s strength. Anand looked at him. He opened his mandibles and found Antinium could vomit. He did so onto Wrymvr now.

The Centenium stared at Anand as the Worker wiped at his mandibles.

 

—-

 

Klbkch. Klbkch, I do not believe I am able to communicate with your Worker, Anand, properly.

Klbkch the Slayer listened to Wrymvr’s mental thoughts reaching his. He felt little, suspended in the vat of creation as the Silent Queen worked. Occasionally—well—often, he communicated with her, indulging her desire to speak about him, his life, his exploits…him.

Sometimes with the other Queens, although the liquid meant the Silent Queen had to interpret his words for them, which she did with a variable degree of accuracy. However, Wrymvr was close enough for the two to talk, which was a relief compared to Queens.

You are attempting to speak to Anand, Wrymvr? Why? He was here just an hour ago.

He is wandering the surface. I am attempting to persuade him to return to his work of constructing prototype ships. I do not comprehend the Free Antinium’s new Individuals. They do not appear to obey orders.

Klbkch’s response to that wasn’t words so much as sour schadenfreude. Wrymvr’s reply was amused, but insistent.

You must help me.

Would you believe Anand is the most obedient of the Individuals?

“They are like you, then. Deeply disturbing.”

In his vat, Klbkch’s mandibles opened and closed in a surprisingly non-Antinium gesture.

I cannot aid you, Wrymvr. Employ direct speech and explanations.

Hm. Very well. Also: curious. I was not aware the Free Queen had experimented into acid projectiles as the Flying Queen and Twisted Queen have. It is ineffective so far, however. Limited range and accuracy. Noticeable volume however.

…What?

 

—-

 

Anand found that Wrymvr was not going to kill him. He did, however, pick Anand up with his mandibles and carry Anand screaming into the air before depositing him near the entrance to the underground lake project.

“I am going to expel again. Please do not pick me up.”

Anand announced to Wrymvr right before it happened. He did feel more sober, though. The Centenium regarded him.

“Strategist Anand. Work.”

“No. I am sad.”

A wing nudged him.

“Work. For good of Hives.”

“No.”

Silence. Anand met the Centenium’s eyes…well, a few of them, with great effort. Wrymvr appeared to be considering what to do next.

“Will you kill me if I refuse?”

“No. Strategist Anand is too valuable. All agree. Queen. Klbkch. This Centenium agrees.”

Anand’s mandibles parted. He looked at Wrymvr.

Thank you. I have been acknowledged! Klbkch does not do so often!”

Regrettable.

The [Strategist] actually began to feel a bit better after hearing that Wrymvr thought he was valuable. He hadn’t known that! It was really flattering, actually. Anand tilted his head at Wrymvr and had a thought.

“…May I call you Uncle?”

The Centenium considered this.

If Anand works, yes.

The [Strategist] sighed. He sat on a rock outside the tunnel as the Grand Queen’s Soldiers eyed Wrymvr, seeming as…nervous…as regular Antinium could.

“I do not want to. It seems pointless. Ships are hard. To build.”

He confided to Wrymvr. The Centenium fanned its wings.

Yes. Sink easily too. Anand must build better.

“I can’t. Klbkch has told me to work, and all the Queens! If I could, don’t you think I would have? It is too hard! I am a [Strategist], not a [Shipbuilder]! [Shipwright]? I do not even know what I am not!”

Anand’s voice raised plaintively. Perhaps this was a bad idea, but he finally had someone to complain to, and he was not afraid of dying at this moment. Wrymvr listened as Anand went on.

“Everything sinks when you put weight on it! Wood sinks! Stone sinks! Cotton sinks! It is so frustrating! Keeping something upright is so hard! Keeping it together is hard! It is too hard! I give up! I would not do so if Erin is alive. She is dead, though. So it is meaningless. Goodbye.”

He curled up. After a moment, a ‘foot’ nudged him. Anand rolled slightly on the ground.

Strategist Anand is the only Antinium capable of design besides Queen. Try again. Encouragement words here.

“You are bad at encouragement. Erin is better. She would give me a hug and kisses and food.”

Can kill Wyvern for Anand. This Antinium does not understand hugs or kisses.

“No good.”

There was silence now. Wrymvr stared at Anand. After a while, Anand…decided to do nothing. He hoped, wondered, if Wrymvr would leave.

Twenty five minutes later, Anand looked up.

“Don’t you have better things to do?”

Possibility of ship construction is paramount. Anand realizes its own value and will work?

Anand’s antennae waved at the vast Antinium dismally.

“…Anand does not.”

He went back to lying on the ground.

 

—-

 

Klbkch. Klbkch. Your Anand is starting to irritate me.

Hah.

The Silent Queen paused in her ministrations.

“What was that, Klbkchhezeim?”

“Nothing, Silent Queen. Merely recollecting thoughts.”

She nodded. Klbkch continued with Wrymvr.

Anand is not the only method by which we might advance the Antinium’s cause, Wrymvr.

He is the most direct to reach other continents. Birthers cannot be easily transported overland; not possible under the ocean. Impossible/too much time. Boats are essential.

That was true, Klbkch had to admit. Birthers, the growing vats in which new Soldiers or Workers or other types could be made, had long been the replacement to Queens—they had been recreated in Izril, and they were what the original Antinium used on Rhir.

However, those Birthers had been far more advanced. Able to create Soldiers with the correct supplies in a fraction of the time, and far more powerful varieties. Even Queens.

The Twisted Queen had upgraded the ones here, though. A bit. Rather, she had solved an issue plaguing the Antinium: the need for a Queen to directly monitor them, their inability to be transported—or clone themselves.

She had solved it all, but only up to a point. Now, in theory, the Antinium could continue if every Queen died, albeit without minds to lead or create new forms. However, a few problems remained.

The Birther vats were as fragile as glass, even with the Twisted Queen’s improvements. Mind you, thick glass, and it was decidedly better than what they had been; if you shouted in their presence, they would become injured and lose whatever Antinium they were working on.

However, transport remained an issue for all Antinium aside from Wrymvr and maybe Xrn. To get to Rhir…

Ships. Wrymvr, I do not know how to encourage Anand. You tried positive affirmations?

…Yes.

I do not know, then. Threats? My modality of options has been exhausted.

After a pause, when Klbkch thought Wrymvr had given up or gone out of range, the Centenium replied.

You are a poor leader, Klbkch.

I was not meant to be. I lead armies, not…nurture…other things.

Somewhat stung, Klbkch retorted. Wrymvr replied.

Neither do you change.”

 

—-

 

After a while, Wrymvr squatted down.

Strategist Anand. Talk.

“Go away. I am sad.”

Strategist Anand. I am Wrymvr. Centenium. Do you acknowledge?

“Yes, go away.”

No. Strategist Anand—Wrymvr, I, will do anything for Antinium to survive. Anything. To save Antinium—anything. What will Strategist Anand require for similar resolve?

Slowly, Anand’s head rose. He looked into Wrymvr’s vast eyes.

“…I will help. Later. It’s just so…hard. It’s too hard. I am frustrated. It is too hard and I am too sad, understand?”

Sadness cannot be mitigated. Difficulty? Perhaps. What is issue?

Anand sat, trying to explain. Glad, really; Goat and the others had tried, but Klbkch was incapacitated and even the other Prognugators weren’t that…smart. Well, smart, but not proactive, not creative, and the Queens were busy. The Armored Queen was super-busy, so all she had time to do was hold Anand and let him talk about Erin sometimes at night.

He liked that. So Anand told Wrymvr.

“It’s more than materials. I have every kind—including monster parts.”

The Queens had opened all the material stores aside from the most precious things to Anand. He had tried all kinds of combinations, so he shook his head.

“It is not that. It is…technique. Experience! I have books from Liscor—I need manuals. Blueprints! I need an expert. Perhaps…”

Speak.

“Perhaps if I went back to Liscor, I could find an expert. Seborn.”

“What is. Seborn?”

“He’s a Drowned Man. If he could talk to me, I could understand what I am doing wrong. Or I could buy a book from Invrisil. The problem, Wrymvr, is that I don’t have an example, I don’t have the understanding…”

Anand trailed off. Or the motivation. He began to try to explain that. Explain what Erin had been, why her absence, even if the others claimed she could be cured, had left a hole in him. In more than just her presence, but his confidence in her. His belief she couldn’t really die, that she would outlive him, that…

Wrymvr flew off. Anand was left sitting there, staring at the giant Centenium.

“Wait. But—wait. I was speaking.”

The Soldiers at the entrance stared at Anand as he sat back down. Then curled up again.

Anand decided Wrymvr was a jerk after all. He did not see Wrymvr, then, in the distance, dive and snatch the silently-screaming Antinium.

Goat, the Soldier, stopped thrashing when Wrymvr put him down. The Centenium spoke to the trembling Soldier.

You. Will assist me. First, retrieve artifact from Twisted Hive. Then—follow.

Goat looked around for somewhere to run. Wrymvr just picked him up and flew towards the Twisted Hive. Goat screamed. He really, really didn’t see what Bird desired in flight.

The thing Anand, even Klbkch had forgotten or failed to appreciate about Wrymvr was that he was unlike Xrn, or the Queens. He was a literal Antinium. When he saw a problem—he fixed it. He did not wait or make excuses.

 

—-

 

Most of the shocking events in Tkrn’s life had happened last year or this one. Monster attacks, Erin’s death…good surprises too, like cake. Baseball.

So, on the whole of it, waking up next to Inkar and seeing her sleeping there wasn’t a bad surprise at all. Still sleeping there, that was. Sometimes they left which hurt your feelings because you got the distinct impression they thought there had been a mistake in their night.

Such lewdness. Such debauched acts. Tkrn smiled when he thought about last night. That had been amazing.

Then—his brow furrowed. Wait a second. He slowly turned his head to the other side and saw Lehra Ruinstrider noisily snoring away.

That was up there on shocks of his life. Tkrn left the bed, and disturbed the other Gnolls. Three of whom were male.

He wasn’t the one they’d all come here for.

 

—-

 

Lehra Ruinstrider stretched.

“It’s like…they call it a harem. It’s a Human-thing.”

“Really?”

Suxhel, the Gazer, had not spent the night in company, nor had she wanted to. She eyed Lehra, who had somehow managed to pull off a very strange night; Tkrn had fled the tent and woken them all up.

“Absolutely. Humans have them. They have sex all the time. That’s why I feel like a Human.”

“More than Gnolls or Drakes?”

Lehra hesitated. The Named-rank adventurer lifted a furry paw.

“They have more kids, that’s the difference. Like—you know, Humans have as many as eight children. Who does that? Not Gnolls or Drakes. Imagine having them on the move. That’s why they’re everywhere. They’re sexual fiends. I heard that somewhere.”

She puffed out her chest at displaying so much Human-knowledge. Suxhel, who had met Inkar and other Humans, would have raised her eyebrows if she had any.

It was true though that Gnolls had smaller families than Humans, and a family of eight or more was largely a Human or Lizardfolk thing.

“You seem to have a lot of attention, however.”

“Pssh, yeah, well…I guess I’m popular.”

Lehra preened a bit. She gestured at the tent. Male and female Gnolls—plus Inkar, were waking up.

“Who are the tall, more appealing Gnolls inside? For your kind?”

Suxhel didn’t need to peer in between the tent flaps to spot them. Her eye saw all. Lehra shrugged.

Ekhtouch. They’re a special tribe. Breeding Skills. Normally you wouldn’t be able to get near one since they’re so strict. It’s like—what they trade.”

“Sex?”

“Yup. But they’re all over me. I think because—”

“They would like to have children with you. Congratulations.”

“Thanks! Let me know if you want to meet a nice Ekhtouch Gnoll. I’m sure they’d be obliging.”

Lehra winked. She slapped Suxhel on the shoulder. The short Gazer sidled away and reached for her handkerchief and water bottle.

“Don’t touch me with that paw. I’ve seen where it’s been.”

 

—-

 

Contrary to expectations Lehra might have held, Inkar herself was not a sex-crazed primate. If anything, the Gnolls of Ekhtouch were the only ‘experts’ in that field.

…And they were experts. However, Inkar saw no need to tell Orreh anything, no matter how hard her friend badgered her. It was more surprising that she’d found herself in that situation to begin with. Lehra had a magnetic personality. However, Tkrn had also helped.

At any rate, the teasing was just one part of living with Gnolls. In another way, it was better: if there were no secrets to be held, then it didn’t matter as much.

The point was that Lehra Ruinstrider, the Stargnoll, was never alone unless she wished to be. Indeed, she was the first real celebrity that Inkar had ever met in this world. Every Gnoll knew her name. Children and adults wanted autographs; [Warriors] and such tried to apply for her team. Chieftains courted her council.

That was because Lehra was more than her name. She was a Named-rank adventurer and could, by her intervention, turn the tables in a battle. Or war. Even the Walled Cities, Inkar had been told by Deskie and Eska, had only five Named Adventurers they could call on at most in Manus’ case—and only one or two might ever be in the city at any given time.

Five Named Adventurers was more than any one kingdom could hope to field. On the other hand, that didn’t include [Champions], [Generals], and such who might match them. Lehra was twice as valuable for her age, though; she had already reached Named-rank in her twenties! What might she accomplish by the time she had lived twice as long?

The fact that she threw an arm around Inkar—and Tkrn’s shoulders—and called them friends, inviting them to eat with Suxhel, was not lost on observers. The Gazer adventurer made Lehra wash her paws first, though.

“Ah, to be young again.”

Honored Krshia snorted, noting her nephew’s embarrassment as the group took breakfast in the Silverfang camp along with some of the participants from last night. Akrisa, her older sister, raised her brows.

“What does age have to do with it, Krshia? Honored Deskie herself shouldn’t lack for company—if she wished it.”

“Mother.”

The scandalized Gnoll was not Krshia, but rather, Satar, Akrisa’s oldest daughter, who had come from an Ekhtouch union herself. The older Gnolls snorted as Satar escaped, with little Cers Silverfang, who decided the adults were disgusting too.

“Another day dawns in the glorious Meeting of Tribes. So, sister. What will we do today?”

Krshia yawned as she rose. Akrisa shook her head, her smile lessening.

“You, sister, have the chance to go about. Perhaps with Cers or Satar? They would like to visit the other tribes. I, however, must meet with the Plain’s Eye tribe.”

“Before the gathering of Chieftains?”

Krshia’s ears perked up. Akrisa gave her a frown, mindful of the listening Gnolls.

“It would be impolite not to.”

Once again, Krshia was struck by the Plain’s Eye tribe’s growing influence, and it had been strong in the last Meeting of Tribes she had been in. She nodded, slowly.

“I may walk with Cers and Satar. Not least because I have business with the other tribes.”

“Then you must go visit the Gaarh Marsh tribe. Cers! Your Aunt Krshia, she will take you to the blooming sights today, yes? Be polite! Perhaps Honored Lehra and company would be interested?”

“Blooming sights? What are they?”

Lehra’s head bobbed up, along with Tkrn and Inkar. Akrisa was amused.

“Perhaps you were too young to recall it last time? It is for children and adults. Go visit. You may pass some hours quite pleasantly, and understand one of our oldest tribes who keeps to all the old ways. Along with Plain’s Eye, of course. What else have you to do, Krshia?”

The [Royal Shopkeeper]-[Councilwoman] sighed. She looked at Akrisa, unable to conceal a tiny frown on her face.

“Merely a personal favor. Whilst our guests from Liscor are still on the way, and safe, I am assured—it seems another Gnoll I had hoped to introduce you to has…gone missing. Magus Grimalkin of Pallass has prevailed on me to find his apprentice.”

Akrisa’s ears perked up. She set down her silkap and glanced at her [Shaman] and partner, Cetrule.

“In that case, we will send some to ask for her and see if she was seen.”

“Thank you, Chieftain.”

 

—-

 

Lehra ran off to find the rest of her team. Tkrn and Inkar found themselves walking with Orreh and Oor as usual. Well, the change was that Tkrn and Inkar had linked arms.

“I wish I could do that. All I have is my brother, no?”

Orreh sniffed jealously; it seemed her relationships had not lasted beyond a night. Oor stuck an arm out, grinning. Orreh kicked him into a stall. She looked at the two she was escorting.

“Are we going to Gaarh Marsh’s display today?”

“Why not? Unless you don’t want to?”

Tkrn saw Inkar glance up at him and found himself nodding.

They were joined by Krshia, Cers, Satar, two Silverfang minders, a group of six children and some more younger Gnolls…and then Venaz, Peki, Merrik, and three new guests who had just arrived from Oteslia.

“Do I have the honor of greeting Honored Feshi? And you two must surely be…”

Krshia blinked, and Tkrn’s eyes widened. Inkar was less agog, but everyone else stared at the young man—and the gingerly-walking Selphid.

Yerranola and Wil Kallinad looked around, new to the Meeting of Tribes but smiling. They had made the relatively short trip from Oteslia here.

“Wil Kallinad, Honored Krshia. Thank you for showing my friends hospitality.”

Wil made a very courtly Terandrian bow, having already picked up on Gnollish honorifics. Yerranola smiled; she was being half-supported by Wil.

“Hi, I’m Yerra. Everyone seems to know my name around here.”

“How not? You were on television! I thought you were poisoned! You got better already?”

Orreh burst out, and then turned red under her fur. Yerranola laughed though.

“I’m getting better! Thanks to Oteslia and weird flowers…now, I want to explore! We came to the Meeting of Tribes because there’s a time limit, but I want to see Oteslia instead of being carried about in a jar! Other cities too. Pallass and…”

“Other cities to the north.”

Venaz was not smiling, for all his friend was up on her feet and able to use a Drake body. Merrik, Peki, Wil, Yerra, and even Feshi, who was greeting Krshia, hesitated for a moment.

Tkrn had no idea why. Krshia, who kept her ears to the wind, had an inkling of what was making the students edgy. However, she only smiled.

“We are honored if you would care to join us. Lehra Ruinstrider may join us—although it is likely she was just dragged off.”

“I would be delighted to meet her, Honored Krshia. I too thank Silverfang for its hospitality. Is Chieftain Akrisa here? My tribe of Weatherfur would like to meet with yours.”

Krshia blinked at Feshi.

“…That would be most gratifying. Akrisa is with Plain’s Eye. However, when she returns I will of course introduce you.”

“Perhaps Honored Krshia might take her place, as sister to the Chieftain?”

Feshi’s voice was tactful. Krshia grew more interested. She nodded, but the group was impatient to go, so they began walking, now in a gaggle of attention of their own.

Lehra never caught up, but Yerranola herself drew enough attention in her Drake body to have people interrupt their progress three times. However, Venaz carried them through the crowds—mainly by walking with no intention of stopping to shake hands or paws with everyone he met. Soon, they reached their destination; one of the largest, most powerful tribes of the Gnolls.

Gaarh Marsh. Above their waterproof huts, the more solid construction from the swampy terrain they liked to occupy, much like Desonis in fact, was their guardian. Even Venaz stared up, lost for words for a second as the vast Earth Elemental sat, filling the air with the scent of muck, rot, and growth, a giant even those on Oteslia’s walls might respect.

The old world sat, staring at nothing until it was needed.

 

—-

 

The Gaarh Marsh tribe’s display was called the blooming sights. What it was, Tkrn discovered, was a display of their [Shaman]’s craft and their unique abilities.

Of all the tribes, the Gaarh Marsh was, like the Wild Wastes tribe, the easiest to assign the most common Gnollish pejoratives to.

‘Barbarian’. ‘Savage’. You heard it sometimes to describe the Gnollish people. The comparison was always between Humanity or Gnollkind, or Drakes in their civilized cities compared to the wild nomads.

It was not fair even for those tribes. It was what people said. However, it was true that the Gaarh Marsh tribe had a bit more space from some other tribes…due to the smell.

Nature, to be blunt. The Earth Elemental had tracked wide swaths of rich soil and mud, and parts of it were continually decomposing. Growing as well. It was not a smell Tkrn enjoyed, so he wrinkled his nose along with some of the adults.

The children like Cers didn’t care. Satar bowed deeply to one of the [Shamans] sprinkling something on the ground. Peki kept staring at the Earth Elemental as the chief [Shaman] talked, explaining the Gaarh Marsh tribe’s specialty, and where they lived to the other Gnolls here for the event.

“Peki. Peki.”

Merrik nudged his friend, knowing what she was thinking. The Garuda [Martial Artist] glanced at him. The Dwarf whispered.

“You are not challenging the Earth Elemental.”

“Why?”

The two began arguing. Meanwhile, the [Shaman] was speaking.

“…we grow many rare plants, and make all we need from the marshes. Our power comes from there, and we do not reject living so close to nature. I do know some think it is odd, as some nature is uncomfortable! That is our way, however.”

She gestured to herself and Wil shuddered a bit despite himself. Mostly because when the [Shaman] said they lived with nature, she meant it. A bug crawled across one arm, under her fur, but seemed content just to shelter; it did not bite her. However, the proximity of insects made Wil decidedly uncomfortable.

“This place smells.

Cers broke in, unrepentantly talkative, and some of the other Gnolls chuckled, a touch scandalized. Satar looked horrified and embarrassed. On the other hand, the [Shaman] of Gaarh Marsh just laughed. So did Krshia. It would take more than Cers’ comments to bother them, she knew.

“It does! Not everything in nature is fine. However, there are wonders. Come—I think that is enough talk. You are here to see the blooming. This is our tribe’s strength. Our magic—and our knowledge.”

So saying, she tapped the mud with her staff where she had been sprinkling small objects. As she did, the tiny seeds she had tossed down bloomed.

Vivid orchids sprouted in seconds, blooming huge petals. A twisting vine shot up and nearly hit Cers in the nose. He recoiled, and then laughed, as a tall, upright plant rose, then sprouted leaves, and a sunflower-esque head, albeit red.

“That’s amazing! Do it again! Again!”

The others were just as impressed.

“Beautiful.”

Venaz murmured, eying a resplendent plant, which seemed to have been comprised of straight angles and corners, no curves at all to it. It was sturdy where the other plants moved as the watchers reached out.

“Ah, do not touch that one, young Cers. Nor that.”

The [Shaman] stopped the little Gnoll from touching the tall flower, or another one. She cautioned the guests.

“Not all plants are good to touch, either. This one will prick you with invisible needles. This one will send little spores into your fur, which you will not enjoy.”

“Is it safe to have the children near them, then?”

A Gnoll was concerned. The Gaarh Marsh [Shamans] snorted. One retorted.

“Safe? In the short term—no. In the long term, how else would they learn not to touch when warned?”

He glanced meaningfully at Cers. The little Gnoll was reaching for the spore plant, which was more like a flower coming out of a mushroom. He hesitated, realized no one was going to stop him, even his big sister, and slowly edged back.

The display was wonderful, and the [Shamans] began showing the guests how each flower was useful. They even harvested one, mixing it up, and turning it into a dye; plucking another’s seeds and giving them to the adults. They were, apparently, quite good to taste and had effects adjacent to Dreamleaf, which the Gaarh Marsh tribe was familiar with.

Definitely worth coming to see. However, it did remind Tkrn uncomfortably of the Bloodfields. When he commented that to Inkar, having to explain what that was, one of the Gaarh Marsh [Shamans] overheard.

“Ah. You are from Liscor, yes? You have seen that place.”

Tkrn ducked his head.

“I didn’t mean to offend, [Shaman].”

He snorted.

“One does not offend so simply, young Gnoll. Nor are you wrong. Long have our [Shamans] maintained that the Bloodfields sprouted from ancestor-seeds similar to our people’s. If only they were easier to harvest, we might create new medicine or potions. Alas—we know the Bloodfields to be too dangerous.”

“Has anyone tried?”

Yerranola looked interested as she leaned on Venaz. The Minotaur was checking the diamond greatsword on his back.

“We should visit there too. Cautiously.”

Peki nodded; Feshi and Merrik rolled their eyes. Wil was just resigned. The [Shaman] grinned.

“Several times, Miss Yerranola. However, we do not try anymore. It is too risky for what we gained. Indeed, the last time we attempted to learn much was…four hundred years back. Four hundred and sixty. The Bloodfields have only grown more dangerous since then.”

He glanced at the other [Shamans] and they nodded. Yerranola was impressed.

“You remember that accurately?”

The [Shaman] nodded gravely.

“We must. Which brings us to our next portion. Come! Those who wish to admire the flowers or learn more may stay, but we have good drink and snacks. We shall enjoy it—here.”

He led them to a small hill. However, to the visitors’ surprise or dismay, it was equally muddy. The Earth elemental sat next to it, and they realized they were to sit there too, albeit on straw mats.

It did not prevent one from getting dirty. Nor, as it turned out, was that the point. As food and drink of the Gaarh Marsh was brought out, the visitors realized they weren’t eating in nature; they were eating with it.

A pale moth with white wings landed on Tkrn’s drinking cup and dipped a proboscis into his drink. He stared at it—then at the huge animal from the swamps who’d rolled over. The ‘pet’ began stealing some of the nuts from his bowl. Inkar just laughed, more at home with this than he was.

Krshia gently flicked off a roach from her fur, but she tried to be amiable as could be. Some couldn’t handle it, like Wil, who stood a bit shamefaced, drinking and talking with some of the others, but the others took the experience at face-value.

Venaz refused to leave, with classic Venaz-stubbornness, although his clenched jaw twitched every time a centipede or something ran over his legs. The Gnolls of the Gaarh Marsh tribe found this very amusing. However, as time went on, Tkrn and Inkar did enjoy themselves. None of the bugs bit, and the larger animals were quite welcome. Even a cow, with actual horns, who looked just as able to defend herself as any other animal who sat down next to them to Inkar’s delight.

As they sat, though, the chief [Shaman] had children and adults sit around him. The second part of this event was this:

They told stories.

 

—-

 

A bird landed on Cers’ head and he was wide-eyed, staring up at it with crossed eyes and at the [Shaman] as she spoke.

“Long ago, when the first Gnolls emerged from the earth, after the Time of Hiding, we saw the great cities that Drake and Dragon had built. Some of us decided we should learn from them. They became City Gnolls, and live there to this day. However, most Gnolls decided safety lay in the open ground, the plains. There was more space back then, you see, and north and south were open to us. We remember the first Gnolls who made the Gaarh Marsh tribe decided to live in the very same swamps and marshes we travel—although they were bigger in those days. Eight times bigger; they have shrunk as Drakes dredged the land.”

“You remember it so clearly? How long ago was that?”

Yerranola was impressed. The [Shaman] nodded.

“We remember this detail, Honored Yerranola. However, how long? Thousands of years. Tens of thousands? Some details escape. That is the problem with history. However, we remember all the stories we can, and tell them.”

She gestured at their audiences.

“Drakes have similar stories. Humans, likewise. I will tell you the story of Feis if you wish it, children, guests. Feis Firescale, greatest of the Oldblood Drakes, who was said to have learned from a Dragonlord in the days when they still flew Izril’s skies. That is a story even Drakes have forgotten! Ah, but first, stories of Gaarh Marsh.”

She told them one to begin with, how the first Gnolls had wandered into the swamps, many suffering, but eventually, one had struck a bargain with the heart of nature and the first guardians—the Earth Elementals—became their mentors and defenders.

“We remember it. Alas, but we do not remember how the bargain was worded, or where it was struck.”

The [Shaman] looked sad. It was Venaz who lifted a hand, as if they were in class.

“There is a fallacy in your statement, [Shaman]. If your tribe can remember as far back as the first days of your people, why have you not collated or written down this information? Is this myth or fact?”

Feshi kicked him in the back, but Venaz did not relent. The [Shaman] met his challenging gaze.

“Fact.”

“You did not seek to preserve your knowledge, though? There are memory Skills and books; none of this was employed?”

She chuckled.

“Minotaur. Do your people remember every event in your history? Even ten thousand years ago?”

He shifted as everyone stared at him.

“Our records are exact up till about six thousand years and we keep records in multiple locations.”

However, that is a short amount of time. Gaarh Marsh does the same, by the way. We did not always keep written notes, although we do now—but we have great [Storytellers] and [Shamans] who remember. We took pains to do so. Why do you think we lost it, despite knowing the value of the past? Hm…little Gnoll?”

She pointed to a girl from another tribe. The Gnoll rolled up her eyes, squinting as she tried to figure it out.

“…Because you lost the books?”

Everyone laughed. The Gnoll’s ears flattened, but the [Shaman] smiled approvingly.

“Not a bad answer! The truth is, we did lose them. Or they were destroyed.”

“Every record?”

“Venaz, shut up.”

Wil whispered to him. The Minotaur looked affronted. The [Shaman] from Gaarh Marsh met his eyes.

“Every record, Honored Guest. Every record. Every [Shaman]. Every [Storyteller]. Sometimes, almost every Gnoll. We remember that we forget. And the reason we lost our history, despite our attempts to preserve it was because of calamity. I am sure you know of what I speak.”

The audience went silent. Now, the [Shaman] closed her eyes. She scooped some mud up with her paw, and tossed it up. Rather than coming down like a shower—the audience saw something fall.

It hurtled out of the clouds to the earth. Not falling like a meteor; collapsing. It had been taller than the clouds. Now—the Earth Elemental’s head slowly turned, moving for the first time since it had sat.

Watching a Giant fall.

“We called this age Skyfall’s Memory. It was one of the times we lost too much. One of the times entire species vanished, and the world was plunged into a time when even steel was rare, the art of it forgotten by many. Skyfall’s Memory. The last war of the Giants.”

The [Shaman] spoke as the image vanished. She tapped the ground, and spoke, using some magic to augment her tale.

“It was those times when history was lost. We remember other events; the Creler Wars destroyed so many records, entire tribes. The Faded Times, when magic died. Skyfall’s Memory was a great war, not a cataclysm like some times, though. Each event was terrible, regardless. Archmages’ citadels fell to ruin. Continents turned to dust…or sank. Minotaurs lost their history too. Every people did. You ask why we forget? It is because in those days, when we fled for our lives, we carried only our young, food, a weapon—we left anything to run faster, to survive. Books were not important, then.”

 

—-

 

The stories Gaarh Marsh did remember were impressive nonetheless. Indeed, the group left the entire event feeling rather solemn, even Venaz.

Krshia lingered, along with Feshi. It was a bit of a surprise, as the two Gnolls were not alike at all. Feshi was younger, half Krshia’s age, a [Strategist] in the Titan’s School.

Krshia was a Silverfang City Gnoll. However, both were highly-placed in their tribes, enough to speak to their Chieftains. Which was why the Gaarh Marsh [Chief Shaman], Perbne, asked them to join her in her hut.

“I hope you can bear our message to your Chieftains. My Chieftain will no doubt speak to yours, but Plain’s Eye demands much time of late, and the longer other tribes have to weigh our request, the better.”

“Your Chieftain is not attending the Plain’s Eye tribe’s meeting?”

“We were not invited. If we had been, we would have refused.”

Perbne said simply. Feshi and Krshia exchanged a glance.

“What is the Gaarh Marsh’s will? If it is something truly secret, Chieftain Akrisa would surely come by evening…”

The [Shaman] shook her head, smiling.

“We do not keep secrets. Not among kin. We do not shout this; but it is fine to tell you two. Gaarh Marsh hopes our great plan will be supported, and we are willing to offer much. What we offer—well, that is a smaller secret. What we desire is simple: we would wish for your tribes, every tribe willing, to send your young and old to ours.”

“To foster?”

Feshi’s ears perked up. Exchanges of Gnolls to learn at other tribes weren’t rare. The [Shaman] shook her head again.

“No. They would become a new tribe. Not ours. Not any. Perhaps they would split once more. However, we would hope to send this new tribe, split from half of ours—and send it over the sea. To Chandrar.”

Krshia’s jaw dropped. She had expected something big, but this?

“To fight for the King of Destruction?”

“Hm…no. Although it is fine if others think that. No, to settle. To live, as we do on Izril. Live, that Gnolls might be widespread on two continents. We have done it before.”

“We were wiped out.”

“Then we must try again. You both know the last will of the Meeting of Tribes.”

To revitalize the Gnoll population. Both Gnolls scrutinized each other as Perbne nodded.

“The tribes prepared for war—ironically before the Antinium came. Now? Our numbers swell, but there is less land for Gnolls. Better not to fight each other or Drakes. Better to use the King of Destruction’s war. Some of our tribes may ally, some fight against. If they could live in Chandrar, we would call it success no matter how it happens.”

“That’s so—ambitious.”

Feshi took a breath. Krshia nodded. Her plans of teaching Gnolls magic almost seemed small compared to this. She was about to point out the logistics of getting so many Gnolls over the sea when Feshi spoke.

“I—wished to talk to Honored Krshia about this, but since you are here, Shaman Perbne, it seems only fitting. The Weatherfur tribe has a similar plan, if not one so ambitious.”

Perbne’s eyes opened. Krshia studied Feshi. The [Strategist] glanced at both, looking at Krshia longer.

“We plan to put forwards a movement smaller in scope. More…tactical. We had hoped to send a tribe north. Into Human lands. Multiple tribes, if it is even possible to negotiate for rights. I will be returning to Oteslia to attempt to meet with Magnolia Reinhart soon.”

Krshia sat there, mouth open. Perbne just smiled.

“A fine idea. Why not do both? Let our Chieftains meet, then. I hope Silverfang will listen to our plans and consider supporting them.”

“Of—of course we will. I have no doubt my sister, Chieftain Akrisa, will take it into consideration.”

The two Gnolls nodded. Krshia gaped at them.

Grand plans were being born at this Meeting of Tribes. They didn’t even know about the Earthers!

Or…perhaps that was why. They sensed it. The Gaarh Marsh [Shaman] looked restless, as if she sensed it again. A story repeating itself.

Times of change.

 

—-

 

Krshia wanted to find Akrisa and tell her about the big plans—she was even supportive of Weatherfur’s, a bit more dubious about the scope of Gaarh Marsh’s. However, Silverfang would surely ally with both powerful tribes.

Akrisa was not back yet, however. There was huge news, though. Cetrule, who had stayed to organize a search for Ferkr, reached Krshia as she returned to camp alone, looking agitated.

“Krshia! There is a massive problem!”

She tensed.

“The convoy from Liscor?”

“No! We must deal with this—I need your help! All the Gnolls of authority in the Silverfang tribe must stop this!”

“Stop what?”

Krshia was uncertain about her taking a position of command, despite being Honored, as a City Gnoll. However, Cetrule dragged her off, and she realized he was trying to grab every young Silverfang and confiscate…

What? Confiscate something? Krshia reached for a Gnoll trying to conceal something behind her back.

“What is it you have?”

“Everyone has one, Honored Krshia! Don’t take mine.

The Gnoll had a jade bracelet on her wrist, a pretty thing she was trying to hide. Had she stolen it? That didn’t seem to be the issue, though.

“No one is taking anything! Put it back! Return it—now!”

Cetrule shouted. The Gnolls protested. One waved a magical wand—albeit one that merely removed stains.

“They were gifts, Cetrule! All the tribes have them!”

“We will not! Give them back! Now!”

Krshia eyed the bracelet. It was expensive, not some cheap fake jade replica. The real stuff was worth gold. She frowned at the young Gnoll.

“Who gave you this?”

Aunt! Aunt!

Tkrn ran up, dragging Inkar behind him, Oor and Orreh. Krshia turned to him. The [Guardsman] panted.

“Aunt! There are stolen goods everywhere around me! Beilmark and I sensed it—all these goods are—”

Return them now! I do not care what the Woven Bladegrass tribe is giving out! They are not yours to take!

Cetrule howled. Krshia’s eyes widened. The copper penny dropped.

 

—-

 

“Raided caravans?”

Five. The Woven Bladegrass hit Drake caravans on the trade roads. Worse—they passed out most of what they took. A ‘gift to the Meeting of Tribes’.”

Cetrule had confiscated everything he could find, but there were countless trinkets he’d missed. Krshia stared at the pile of goods and felt sick.

“Why would Woven Bladegrass do this? Much less give it out?”

Beilmark seemed agitated, and no wonder. As a Senior Guardsman, this was like finding a criminal gang under her nose and she was itching to do something.

The second part was easy.

“It spreads the guilt around. If young Gnolls take it—older Gnolls too—then the other tribes cannot object.”

“Chieftain Akrisa will. The other tribes—the responsible ones—will not allow this provocation.”

Cetrule promised grimly. Beilmark looked at him, then at Krshia.

“Why attack caravans, though?”

“Because they were Drake caravans. Woven Bladegrass does not see Drake cities as neutral, but hostile. They’ve always been in conflict with other Drake cities, since they were founded. They would like other tribes to join them.”

The [Shaman] growled, exasperated. Krshia stirred.

“They’ll start a war.

She glanced at the others for confirmation. Cetrule nodded, angry, worried.

“That is what they want. We must press them to stop. Force them to stop! Chieftain Akrisa’s meeting with Plains Eye will be interrupted for this. Before more can happen—Krshia, will you come with me?”

She nodded and the Gnolls rose. They went to find the other Chieftains to make a mass-decision. More were hunting for the Chieftain of the Woven Bladegrass tribe, Chieftain Werri.

Of course, they were too slow. By the time the other Chieftains were demanding to know where she was, news of what she’d done hit them.

 

—-

 

Paworkers. They were a phenomenon in some Drake cities.

Even if they did not exist, many cities had far more acrimonious relationships between species. Mostly Gnoll and Drake.

It was a phenomenon that Senior Guardsman Relc was getting to know. However, this was not the city he had been sent to. This one was closer to the Gnoll Plains. For all that—or perhaps because of that—it had a bad reputation for inter-species conflicts.

Of course, they went one way in the City of Selpysh. It was Drake-held, and had strong links to the City of War, Manus.

It was just another day in one of the bars with a higher-than-average Gnoll presence. However, the Watch was cracking down on a fight.

A Drake had taken objection to a few Gnolls and decided to sort the matter out himself. Well—many such incidents occurred, between Drake and Drake, Gnoll and Gnoll.

But if you looked for it, you could find it. A bloody-mouthed Gnoll was being shielded by a female Gnoll smaller than he was, and the Watch didn’t care.

“You’re under arrest. What happened, sir?”

One of the [Guardsmen] went to grab the Gnoll, while the Drake gave an angry accounting.

“You’re just going to arrest him? Stop!”

The female Gnoll tried to block one of the temporary workers, the Gnoll. He was trying to tell her to shut up before she made it worse. The Watch just grabbed her too, for interfering with their job. She began to struggle.

“…And that’s when they break her teeth, fine her, and throw her in jail. What am I supposed to see, hm?”

One of the Gnolls sitting at the table observed at the scene tiredly. He did not like it, of course. However, he studied the two sitting across from him.

No City Gnolls, these. The Woven Bladegrass [Siege Juggernaut] was massive. He was attracting attention from the Watch just by sitting here, despite not having been part of the altercation. However, they were clearly thinking their squad was not the one who should tackle this.

“This is what happens in cities like these. The other tribes would have peace—let this sort of thing continue. You know of Paworkers.”

The first Gnoll nodded. He was far smaller than the Woven Bladegrass’ representative. Two other Gnolls shifted uncomfortably.

Nearly sixteen tribes’ warriors were in the city of Selpysh. Not all in the same bar. However, they were presumably watching similar scenes. It spoke to the city, perhaps, that Woven Bladegrass had been confident they would find such examples at any given moment.

“I do not like this. I do not at all. However, these are Drake cities. We know this is how it happens.”

The [Master Slinger] of the Loofrel tribe glanced at the Gnolls, her brow deeply troubled. The Woven Bladegrass [Warrior] nodded. So did a Steelfur Gnoll. Despite his differences with Woven Bladegrass, he seemed ready to stand up.

“This does not change the fact that war between tribe and city is dangerous.”

The Steelfur Gnoll pointed out, half-reaching for his weapon. The gate guards hadn’t allowed Gnolls to carry noticeable weapons into the city, though, so the [Mace Gnoll] didn’t have his weapon, only a belt-knife.

“Do you think this is acceptable?”

Both Gnolls were on the ground now, being kicked. The first Gnoll took a drink of something as the other Gnolls looked uncomfortable. He calmly glanced up at the younger, taller Gnolls.

“Honored Berr, what do you think?”

The old [Berserker] saw the other Gnolls turn to him. He eyed the young Gnoll and temporary worker as they were dragged up. He drained his cup, less moved by the Woven Bladegrass’ persuasion than the others. He had seen this before.

However, he was here. He shrugged at the [Juggernaut].

“I don’t think it matters what I think right now. Warrior Devl, did your Chieftain come here to persuade us with words and sight? I do not think so, no. Tell me—does she do this often?”

He turned. Uncomprehending, the other two non-Woven Bladegrass Gnolls turned in their seats. They had been told they’d meet Chieftain Werri. But she wasn’t…

Berr stared at the shorter, female Gnoll who’d been dragged into the arrest. The angry Drake who’d started it all was talking to the bored Senior Guardsman. The patrol leader heard more shouting.

“Shut up that damned Gnoll alr—”

He turned just in time to see the shorter female Gnoll press her wrists against the manacles on her arms. The [Guard] raised a club.

The Gnoll snapped the iron manacles. The Gnoll worker under arrest with the bloody mouth, the squad of [Guards], and the angry Drake all stopped. They stared at the manacles.

“Cheap iron?”

One of the Drakes licked her lips. She looked at the female Gnoll. Who…seemed a bit taller now. A bit more muscular. She rubbed at her wrists; one of the [Guards] had given her a bloody nostril.

“Um. Did someone’s [Dangersense] just go off?”

One of the [Guards] turned her head slowly. The one with a club swung it.

“Don’t you d—”

Honored Berr took some satisfaction from watching the Drake hit the wall. Chieftain Werri, taller now, inspected the Gnoll next to her. His mouth was wide open.

“High-level criminal! Call for—”

The Senior Guardsman backed up, fumbling for his whistle. The other [Guards] tried to go for Werri.

They never had a chance, of course. However, Werri let the Senior Guardsman blow the whistle. She walked over to the table of other Gnolls. The [Master Slinger] and [Mace Gnoll] looked horrified.

“Chieftain! We’re going to be arrested.”

“No we aren’t.”

Berr said it at the same time as Werri. He met her eyes. She was grinning wildly, fury and excitement in her eyes. He just sighed and massaged one shoulder. Then he got up. And he was already a foot taller.

“What’s going on? You’re not going to fight the Watch?

Werri looked at the nervous Steelfur Gnoll. Berr just shook his head. He pushed back his mug.

“Young Gnoll. Don’t be silly. Fight the Watch?

The Steelfur Gnoll relaxed too soon. Chieftain Werri was standing on the tabletop. She surveyed the other shocked Gnolls in the pub.

“I am Chieftain Werri of the Woven Bladegrass tribe! Tell me, do you want to live like this? Do you want to live every day letting these Drakes, this city insult you, arrest you and beat you down?”

The Gnolls in the bar stared up at her. The Woven Bladegrass [Juggernaut] slowly stood up behind his Chieftain. The Steelfur Gnoll and the Loofrel Gnoll turned to Berr. The old [Berserker] shook his head. He was growing, and his own internal fury was slowly…building.

Young Gnoll. Fight the Watch? Don’t be silly. Haven’t you ever seen the start to a city sacking? We’re not fighting the Watch. We’re fighting—everything.

He grinned. The Steelfur Gnoll’s jaw dropped in horror.

Chieftain Werri raised her arm and she was joined by a roar from angry, fed-up Gnolls. Berr saw the first ones storm from the bar as the Watch reinforcements came down the street.

They were a good Watch. Led by former Manus soldiers. Indeed, they had a [Captain] who had served with distinction in Manus’ army who was also the [Mayor].

The Gnolls in the city weren’t warriors by and large. However, Chieftain Werri and the hundred or so Woven Bladegrass Gnolls were. She raced out of the tavern at the squads of Drakes.

Berr and the [Juggernaut] walked onto the walls. The City Watch tried to stop them of course. However, it was Honored Berr and…he tossed a screaming Drake onto a rooftop and pointed.

“Fast response.”

“You honor us. Will you fight with Chieftain Werri?”

Berr glanced over his shoulder. She was storming towards the city hall, intent on taking on the ex-[Captain] herself. She hadn’t even needed a sword.

A Manus-allied city. Berr wondered how much trouble they were going to be in. He shrugged amicably, and watched as the now Gnoll-held wall waited for reinforcements.

Eight thousand Gnolls were racing across the open ground from cover. They were running for ropes being tossed down the walls, or the gates which had been seized. Berr heard the howling, growing louder, striking fear into the hearts of the Drake citizens. He sat on the battlements, feet dangling there.

“It’s not as fun as it used to be. I’m growing old.”

He complained as he watched.

 

—-

 

The Woven Bladegrass tribe’s raids of the caravans were all but forgotten. Krshia, Cetrule, Akrisa, and dozens of other Gnolls and [Chieftains] all stared into the distance.

It appeared Chieftain Werri’s method of dealing with blame or trouble was simple. Cause more trouble, until the first incident was forgotten.

…No. No one was going to forget this. It was a thin trail of smoke from here. The news though, hit the Meeting of Tribes.

The Woven Bladegrass had sacked a city. They were taking their spoils into the Gnoll Plains, to donate it to the Meeting of Tribes as part of their gift. Worse—high-level warriors in all the major tribes had participated, willingly or not.

Including a member of Az’muzarre.

 

—-

 

The Meeting of Tribes was getting more exciting every second. Chieftain Orelighn hated it.

All he wanted was for his small Greenpaw tribe to do better. He did not like talk of war; his tribe was a rare settlement-tribe, not a nomadic one that could flee enemy armies.

Nor was his tribe large enough to like thinking of fighting any Drake city. So he was doubly unhappy with the news, especially since he had really liked the gold bracelet he’d been given until he realized it was purloined goods.

Well, all that meant he was restless, but he composed his face because the other Chieftain was important. More important than Greenpaw; perhaps an up and coming tribe. It hurt a bit, but that was new tribes with momentum for you.

Yet the young Gnoll was very, very respectful. Which was so gratifying to Orelighn, who was often at the bottom of such pecking orders.

“Chieftain Mrell, thank you for your time. Apologies if I find the news of the Woven Bladegrass’ actions…disturbing.”

“Not at all, Chieftain Orelighn. Our tribes are both stationary tribes. Mine smelts, yours farms. We should be more cautious of antagonism with other tribes.”

The Chieftain of the Demas Metal tribe had a covered object in front of him. Orelighn nodded gratefully. The younger Gnoll was a former [Warrior], perhaps, but his new tribe had taken to smithing.

“Indeed. I am ah, curious, as all are in your new, wondrous metal. Demas.”

“A mix of Orichalcum and other alloys. Not as impressive as adamantine—but as good as mithril, if a bit heavier. However—durable beyond steel, even Dwarfsteel! I hope it will change the fortunes of all Gnoll tribes.”

Mrell did not lack for ambition. However, he had asked to meet Orelighn for some reason, when he could be talking to Steelfur. Orelighn nodded.

“An ambition I share, of course. How can Greenpaw aid your Demas Metal tribe then, Chieftain Mrell? Have some more snacks, I encourage you.”

The younger Chieftain brightened and he ate some of the snacks from the Silverfangs and Liscor. Orelighn hadn’t eaten them, despite being sorely tempted, and was using them to impress visitors.

“You are too kind, Chieftain Orelighn. These come from the north?”

“Yes, Liscor. Delightful, aren’t they?”

The Gnoll nodded.

“I have been north and south, but never encountered such dishes—wonderful.”

“You are widely travelled. A Plains Gnoll all your life?”

“All my life. I learned how to spot new ores, so discovering Demas Metal…well, my tribe is small, new, and I am the first Chieftain, but it may be large one day. However, we are [Smiths], [Smelters], [Miners]…not [Growers]. I came to you, Chieftain Orelighn, because your tribe is known to grow food best of all tribes.”

“Hardly as well as Oteslia. A poor choice in some ways for a tribe.”

Orelighn was still flattered. Mrell had a way with words. The young Chieftain shook his head.

“As we now see, Drake cities and Gnoll tribes are not always allies. Chieftain Orelighn, your fields could feed my tribe. If we could come to a trade arrangement, both tribes could grow richer.”

That made Orelighn excited. A steady partner tribe, especially one like this? He nodded, sitting back and having some of the sweet, flavored popcorn himself.

“This is an idea I would…certainly love to explore.”

“I as well. I hope this gift may convince you that Demas Metal would offer more than mere gold. Please; when I knew I would meet with you, I had my [Smiths] commission it.”

Orelighn’s heart beat faster. Surely not—? He tugged the cloth aside and saw a…hoe…made out of the blue Demas Metal. Sky-blue, delicate, with a ribbon pattern…

Fit for a blade. But a hoe? Orelighn blinked.

“So much Demas in this! This hoe…it is a wonderfully forged piece, Chieftain Mrell. But a hoe?”

“I know it may seem an odd gift, but I encourage you to have your people attempt to use it. I considered a scythe, but a hoe would strike rocks, and soil constantly. Even the strongest steel dulls.”

True enough. Orelighn hated the costs of replacing them. Normally, hoes were durable, but if you were chopping magical plants with their stupid, edge-dulling roots for instance…

Mrell gestured to the gleaming farming tool.

“This is lighter than steel. And—I wish you to test this—I do not think it will dull! If it does, it will be at a twentieth, a thirtieth the rate of steel. Perhaps even a hundred times slower. Consider that for your workers.”

Orelighn did. He began to like this gift more and more.

“Chieftain Mrell, I will give it to my best [Farmers]. This—this is a generous gift. You have my thanks.”

The other Chieftain nodded, modestly. He took another bite of the popcorn and then went on.

“It is my only regret that the Demas metal is not finished. It could be improved. It is a new alloy, and another insight into new metallurgy would benefit my tribe greatly.”

Orelighn paused, in inspecting the tool. He glanced up. Mrell met his eyes.

“I have heard, Chieftain Orelighn, that the Greenpaw tribe has an object of fine metallurgy. It is my hope I could obtain a sample. Just a sample, that our tribes might work together.”

The other Chieftain licked his lips. Who had told him? How did he know? Well, every Gnoll had a mouth…he hesitated.

“This is a complex issue, Chieftain Mrell. It is a gift to the tribes, and I am already…allied…with other tribes. It is not something that belongs to me alone.”

“I understand, Chieftain Orelighn. Nor would I interfere with any of that. However, just a piece might allow me to level or my tribe to improve. Time is of the essence, after all.”

Especially if he wanted to make a breakthrough to improve his tribe’s worth. Orelighn’s eyes flickered. He was still inclined to say ‘no’. Right up until Chieftain Mrell presented him with a second bundle.

“I would consider it a deep debt between our tribes, Chieftain Orelighn.”

It was a bag of holding. And inside…Orelighn gulped at the gold coins glittering there. He looked up and Chieftain Mrell was poised. Polite, confident—rich from his new metal.

“Perhaps…I could part with a small piece or two. If it was kept extremely secret.”

Both Gnolls smiled. Orelighn gestured.

“A sample is in a safe place. If you will follow me?”

They rose. Orelighn hurried Mrell out of the tent, looking around. There weren’t many Silverfangs or Longstalker’s Fang Gnolls in his poorer camp, but they were close by.

It wasn’t a betrayal! Well—it was just him using every connection he could. Orelighn told himself that Mrell was a Gnoll it was good to make connections with. Just a piece…

He was searching for Krshia, Inkarr, Deskie, Eska—anyone who might see them when a loud commotion made him flinch. Mrell turned, head sharp, and the two Chieftains saw an event taking place.

Only—not one aimed at them. Orelighn slipped into the guarded storehouse and handed Mrell a covered object the Gnoll took, inspected, smiled at, and slipped into his bag of holding. He bowed to Orelighn and then the two went to see what the issue was.

Make way! This Gnoll is a criminal! Make way!

A group of Gnolls charged with keeping order were forcing the crowd apart, for all they’d summoned them with a banging of a gong. Orelighn and Mrell both appeared to see one of the traditionalist tribes, Sofang, escorting a Gnoll between them.

Sofang…what was that? Orelighn recalled they were a loyal tribe to the old ways.

“Sofang? They’re charged with making sure order occurs in the Meeting of Tribes.”

Mrell was surprised. Orelighn blinked.

“You know them?”

“Trap specialists. Good fighters; they often work for Plain’s Eye. Traditionalists.”

Which meant he and his Demas Metal were the exact opposite of theirs—although Demas Metal had been carefully neutral. All that was fine and the two Chieftains stood at the front of the crowd, having done nothing wrong, only perhaps a trifle underhanded and that was on Orelighn’s conscience.

So why did one of the Gnolls with a bow spot the two and spit at their feet? Orelighn was shocked! Mrell though, just appeared resigned.

“What was that about? Is Demas Metal at odds with Sofang?”

“No. Not at all, Chieftain Orelighn.”

Mrell watched the [Archer] walk past, one of the security detail. She never looked at him again. He shook his head.

“My…partner. That is all. I was part of Sofang, for a while. I left to start Demas Metal.”

“Ah. I understand.”

Love and loss. Orelighn was used to that sort of thing as a Chieftain. He felt that young Inkarr might have the same relationship with Tkrn in time—then again, perhaps not. Human and Gnoll? It could work.

It was just a backdrop to the moment. The real event was when the Sofang’s leader—not the [Archer]—shouted.

This Gnoll has been discovered to be tricking other Gnolls and falsely claiming abilities she does not have! She will now admit such for all to hear and apologize to the tribes!

He yanked the hood off the Gnoll’s face. And there she was. Orelighn stared up at the young female Gnoll, who stammered her confession of guilt before the booing and shouting drowned her out. He looked up at Ferkr.

…He had no idea who she was.

Krshia Silverfang did, though. The Gnoll [Mage]’s admission of guilt rocked her. Especially because Ferkr was confessing to not being a [Mage] at all. To have been lying to her master, Grimalkin, and pretending to use mage-magic when she was just a [Shaman].

She was lying, of course. Krshia stared at Ferkr as the Gnoll was summarily expelled from the Meeting of Tribes by the guards. She was lying.

But…why? All Krshia knew was that she had found Grimalkin’s apprentice. The Sinew Magus was not going to like this, though.

Not one bit.

 

—-

 

Torture sucked. It didn’t have to be physical…mental torture was a terrible thing. Yet physical torture…it was bad too.

On the whole of it, magical spells blasting your mind or changing you, erasing parts of yourself was perhaps the greater threat as a whole and every smart military body trained their people to resist that kind of thing as best they could.

However—physical torture came in many forms. Horrible forms. Mutilation, rape, physical pain…

It was hard not to run through the list of ways she knew she could be tortured. Especially the most obvious one. She knew—she knew it was not likely. She hoped it was not.

Yet Captain Bevussa of the Wings of Pallass still thought of it. She was a prisoner of Goblins. She thought these were…not the same Goblins who might do that.

However, every adventurer knew the danger. Especially female adventurers. Kin and Issa were female. Bevussa was female.

“Captain. If there’s a chance—”

“Shut. Up. Kin. If it comes to that—we deal with it.”

Bevussa sat in her cell. No manacles; Kin and Issa were in other cells. Which was interesting, because the cells seemed new. As in—someone had built them just for right now.

The three Wings of Pallass looked at each other. Three. It should have been four. Zassil was dead. Killed in the battle with Hectval. She still missed him.

If she had led her team into the worst nightmare for a female adventurer…Bevussa closed her eyes.

“I have a pill in my ankle-bracelet.”

Issa spoke grimly. Bevussa opened her eyes.

“It’s not going to come to that, you two.”

“But if it does…”

“…It would have happened already. You know what happens with [Bandits] or—other groups.”

The two Drakes hesitated. That was true. They’d been tossed in here for a day, but none of them had been assaulted or tortured. In fact, they’d been fed a quite nice meal by a Goblin who just grunted when they asked questions. The only torture had been the spices.

The worry in Bevussa’s mind, even if these were the Goblins she thought they were, was the battle. It had been chaos and they’d been fighting for their lives, but she knew her team had killed or wounded some Goblins. Fair was fair; the Goblins had hit both their teams as they went for the Titan and fought monsters, but would they see it that way?

The Titan of Baleros, and those idiots had to be greedy. He had literally called down the mountains on their heads. Thunderstorms, monster attacks and the Goblins. Dead gods. Bevussa didn’t know what to expect next, but she was prepared for the worst.

A door opened. A Goblin walked down the steps, slowly. Kin and Issa tensed. Bevussa’s beak opened wide. She reached for the iron bars.

“Listen. We know Erin Solstice. The Wandering Inn. We didn’t know Goblins were here, but we know Erin Solstice.”

The Hobgoblin looked at her. Bevussa stopped speaking and stared. Badarrow regarded Bevussa through red-rimmed eyes.

“I know.”

 

—-

 

The fortress was called Goblinhome. It was home to the last major Goblin tribe in this region of Izril. The Flooded Waters tribe. Or that was what they had been.

Now, they were Redfangs, Mountain City Goblins, Cave Goblins, Goldstone Goblins, and many more. They were her Goblins, and this was their last, their first, their only home.

Goblinhome. Built into the trapped valley, a fortress of stone and wood. It had repelled Frost Wyverns, other monsters, and even taken out adventurers.

However, its greatest strength had been secrecy; that no one knew it was here. Now, they did.

Rags did not like that. Then again, she did not like many things that happened to her. They happened anyways. Adventurers had escaped the impromptu battle in the High Passes that had started due to some kind of…Skill that made Sharpstick attack.

He was doing penance, as he saw it. Dangerous patrols, shoveling poo-pits…Rags had told him it was not his fault. Sometimes, though, a Goblin had to do what they felt was right.

Adventurers were going to come and attack. She knew it was an inevitability. She just wished she had longer to prepare.

Then again, they were always coming. Goblinhome was far more than the primitive fortifications it had been. Miners had dug into the rock, constructed very lovely inner tunnels, choke points, and the layers of traps had been reinforced again and again. With as much cunning as Rags’ brain could come up with.

However, she had also faced the problems of a growing tribe, even one depleted by the battle at Liscor where so many had died. Goblins made babies quick, and little Goblin bands had found her.

Plus, she had Ogres to feed. That was why…she closed her eyes.

She had done what had to be done. Even before the incident with adventurers, she knew reprisals would occur. She checked her new, shiny boots.

Leather, in her size no less. Very well-made.

…Not made for Goblins, but they’d been adjusted. Rags stared at them for a moment, then checked her armor, the enchanted chainmail and leather, Carn Wolf fur neck, the huge crossbow that was now more comfortable on her growing back, her shortsword, also enchanted, and the two magical rings she’d added.

Then and only then, she went to meet Bevussa. Rags marched down tunnels in Goblinhome, past shorter Goblins. She had always been small, even for a regular Goblin, but she was growing. Slowly; not as fast as Hobs. She was very young to be a Hob, hence why they thought she was growing slower.

Maybe it was a Chieftain thing. For here walked the [Great Chieftain] of the High Passes. Rags. She was met by a Goblin waiting, also shorter than average for a Hob, but taller than her as of yet.

“Redscar.”

“Chieftain.”

He nodded at her. Redscar had his twin swords; no Thunderfur since the Carn Wolf hated the narrower corridors deeper in the fortress.

“Coming?”

“Just for while. Gold-ranks all walking about.”

His voice was…cautious. Rags caught the implicit language in the way he stood, the way he didn’t reach for his swords. Of course she trusted him and he trusted her judgment. Just in case, then.

She didn’t argue. Rags marched into one of the great rooms in Goblinhome and found the three adventurers staring at the manufacturing halls. For a second she felt a flash of irritation. Did Badarrow have to take them here?

The [Sniper] had confirmed them, but there was such a thing as caution! The Wings of Pallass were now front-row to seeing a Thunderbow being constructed from Wyvern parts. The massive bone chassis of the bow flexed as Goblins tested its strength, arming the oversized crossbow that had to be mounted on the ground, not carried. It could take down a Wyvern in time and it was one of Rags’ new projects.

Thunderbows for her archers. Anyone climbing to attack Goblinhome would be met with crisscrossing fire from hidden nests, that would equalize artifact advantages. Meanwhile, Redscar would ride down on them with his Redfang riders on Carn Wolves. If that wasn’t enough?

Rags looked down and saw another of her commanders watching the Wings of Pallass, a lot less sanguinely than Redscar. She pointed, and the Hob flipping the dagger right next to Issa scowled, but relented.

Poisonbite slunk back to her group of Goblins. Cave Goblins, regular Goblins, and Hobs, all who wore grey and faded into the landscape. Unlike Redfangs, they never attacked from the front. They were ambushers, all of them armed with poison. They’d happily tag you with a poison arrow, or slash your leg and run off while you tried to heal that.

Specialist forces. Everything Rags had lacked in previous battles. With time, with effort, she was creating an army based on what she thought could take on any foe. Now—she might have to put it to the test.

The last group of her dedicated forces present was manifest in the Ogre napping, ignoring the manufacturing going on.

The Ogre had 0% of the discipline of even the most basic Goblins in Goblinhome. He was one of eighteen warriors from the Tormek Al clan along with non-fighter Ogres who’d joined them. Rags sighed.

Somo would have to deal with discipline in her ranks. She was the female Ogre who had first volunteered to join Rags’ tribe. A ‘weak’ warrior among her clan, she’d greatly enjoyed the food in Goblinhome, but added to the need for more, as well as mana potions, which the Ogres took in payment for their services as happily as gold or jewels.

In return, they formed the shock troopers of Goblinhome. If Redscar’s or Poisonbite’s forces weren’t enough, or if it was a stand-up fight, in went the Ogres—as well as Calescent’s feared spicy-brigade, who laced their weapons with pepper dust. If you laughed at that, you’d never had him blow a handful of his secret blend into your eyes. Rags would rather have been stabbed in the stomach than face that after she’d asked for a demonstration.

Well, the Ogres might be ‘weak’ in Invek’s eyes, but Rags had quickly turned the Ogres into warriors the rest of their tribe would walk wide around. Not only had she asked Redscar to put some actual training and physical conditioning into the somewhat lazy Ogre warriors, she’d made use of their abilities.

They had thick skin like armor. So she gave them more armor. Each one was covered in iron or steel armor, even Wyvern bone or hide in places to make up for the need to adjust smaller sets to them.

When they went into combat, woe to the adventurers who faced them, because the Ogres would have the same gear as [Knights]—if not enchanted. Yet.

How many will I have to kill? Rags sighed. She leaned on the balcony as Bevussa spotted her. Had they ever met? She vaguely recalled…never meeting a Garuda in her life.

Badarrow was here, the leader of her archer squads, but Snapjaw was not. She was the head of [Wyvern Riders] now, having struck a connection with the huge, hungry beasts. Thanks to them, Goblinhome had mobility.

All of this meant that when Rags walked down into the manufacturing hall, the Gold-ranks stared at her like they’d seen Tremborag in war-form. Small she might be, but they saw what she had built.

“Dead gods, Captain. This—this is—”

Shut up. Let me talk.”

Rags heard the Garuda whisper to one of the two Oldblood Drakes. She turned and after a second, bowed slightly.

“Chieftain Rags, is it?”

“Mm.”

Rags grunted. Badarrow eyed her, although Redscar’s face was carefully impassive. Bevussa looked at Rags.

“We’re friends of Erin Solstice. From…The Wandering Inn? You know her?”

“Mm. Tell them I know Erin.

Rags turned to Badarrow, and the Goblin translated. She’d said that in Goblin tongue, not the common one. Bevussa eyed Rags. She nodded again.

“We are…sorry that we attacked your people. It was a mistake. We do not want to fight.”

She spoke more slowly. Rags grunted again. She nodded after a moment.

Stupid mistake. What had made Sharpstick think I told him to fight? She turned to Badarrow. He explained after a moment.

“Bevussa says it was accident. Not Sharpstick’s fault either. They said small [Strategist] did it. Titan.”

Rags’ brow wrinkled. A small Titan? She saw Bevussa exchange glances with her team.

In this way, Rags realized there was a lot about the world she still didn’t know. She might have, if she had remained at the inn.

The inn. She thought of Erin. Dead? She still couldn’t…Bevussa was looking at her. Rags schooled her features.

“You. Bevussa. What do if let go?”

She grunted, in passable common, but barely. Bevussa hesitated. Now, Rags eyed her, keeping her face mildly aggrieved.

“We would…leave. And not tell anyone about what you’re doing.”

“Captain—”

Rags saw Bevussa glance at Issa—or Kin—she didn’t know which, warningly. Rags made herself smile.

“Not tell? Promise?”

“We would promise. So long as Goblins don’t attack other people—we would promise. On truth spells.”

Bevussa nodded seriously at Rags. The little Chieftain thought about this. She glanced past Bevussa.

“Taganchiel. Were they telling the truth, or was that a lie?”

She called past Bevussa. The Garuda’s eyes widened as Rags spoke, far more fluently than before. She turned—and the [Shaman] sitting on the balcony opened his eyes.

He was from the Mountain City tribe, and was the best [Shaman] in Goblinhome.

“Half-truth, Chieftain.”

“I see.”

Rags saw Bevussa turn to look at her, the Oldblood Drakes patently shocked. Everyone thought someone who spoke poorly was stupid. She had learned that from Pyrite. So many lessons she had learned he hadn’t even needed to outright tell her. So many more she wished she’d had time to learn.

“If I let you go, you might bring an army back to attack Goblinhome. That would be a sad thing. I do not wish to have to kill an army of Drakes.”

She met Bevussa’s eyes. Rags gestured around Goblinhome.

“This is where Goblins live. You killed us one time.”

“We did not.”

Bevussa countered. Rags sighed.

“You? You are from Liscor, yes?”

The Gold-rank Captain nodded.

“We came after the battle, the siege. It was Humans who attacked your army.”

“Yes, I know. I was there. Humans attacked us. Drakes closed the gates in our faces. I saw both. Pallass tried to kill the Goblin Lord. You are Pallass’ adventurers, loyal Drakes and Garuda. I do not trust you. So—make me trust you. Or you will stay here.”

Rags met Bevussa’s eyes. Shaken, the Garuda stared at the little [Great Chieftain] of Goblinhome. Rags smiled.

“Do not worry. I am the nicest Goblin you will meet. I only wonder: are you honorable Gold-rank adventurers? Questions, questions.”

Then she walked off, rather pleased with one of her first conversations with a non-Goblin. Especially the goggle-eyed expressions. She had been practicing.

…But the person she had wanted to talk to was dead.

 

—-

 

She was probably going to let them go. Probably. Rags had considered her options.

She was not Tremborag. She would not torture the Gold-ranks. Keeping them prisoner? They’d just try to break out, and the odds were that someone would come to rescue them.

Prey on their notions of honor, make them sweat and swear, and hope. That was all Rags could do. She was already thinking of what to do if Pallass or someone else sent an army up here.

Part of her wanted to see them run up against the High Passes’ innumerable threats. However, Rags would never forget Tyrion Veltras’ army destroying three tribes in a single stroke.

The enemy could be terribly unfair. Which was why you cheated even harder.

Rags let Bevussa stew and talk to Badarrow. She, correspondingly, listened to news of Liscor that he relayed to her.

Nothing new with the dungeon. No new armies…Gnolls in some meeting of tribes? The inn was quiet.

Erin was dead. Rags nodded. She had known as much from when he returned. Right now, she had few goals in life.

Make sure her tribe was safe. Find out what Velan had hid, and the second key, which could be anywhere in Izril, or the world.

Grow stronger. Find out the secret of Goblin Kings. Kick Greydath in between the legs.

…See if Erin could live again.

Bold goals, big goals. Impossible to quantify or easily make progress towards, except in steps. The one immediate thing Rags was thinking of as the [Sniper] stood in front of her was….

“Numbtongue. And Ulvama. Both in inn. Which one do you want, if either?”

She examined Badarrow. The [Sniper] sat there, in a chair, also not of Goblin make. Rather plush. Rags had put the best items in her rooms. Luxuries of a Chieftain.

“Numbtongue. Ulvama is…odd. If Chieftain wants, Chieftain gets.”

“Would Numbtongue come?”

“No. He stays there. With Erin.”

Badarrow looked at Rags. She nodded heavily. The five Redfangs who had saved the Cave Goblins, who had met Erin and protected her…were no more. There was only Badarrow, Rabbiteater, and Numbtongue left.

Rabbiteater had gone far away. Badarrow was here, and Numbtongue? She had never met him, but he seemed to be Erin’s guardian.

For all the good it did. Rags put the bitter thought aside. What had shocked her was the knowledge that Ulvama was alive. She remembered the [Shaman] and their brief encounter—but she was dubious on Ulvama.

The [Shaman] had tried to persuade Badarrow to take her, but he’d been understandably wary. Rags shared his judgment. Ulvama had been intelligent, but cunning, a fit for Tremborag. Not Goblinhome, not necessarily. Still, a [Shaman] of her caliber would be greatly useful.

More important to Rags was the knowledge that there were Goblins being held in a land to the north! A land she knew. Her fist clenched.

“Riverfarm matters more than Ulvama. Dangerous [Emperor] has them.”

“Safe though, says Ulvama.”

Rags shrugged. A little Cave Goblin she had known was apparently among their number, if Badarrow’s news from Ulvama was to be trusted. Rags would have already set out to rescue them, but the logistics of saving Goblins from that [Emperor] were dangerous. Still, she had [Wyvern Riders].

If only she had Gold-rank Adventurers of her own she’d rest easy. Redscar was arguably that good—Rags herself might qualify to some degree, and Badarrow and Snapjaw, but they were few compared to the monsters out there.

Like Elia Arcsinger.

Well, Rags could have debated the consequences of all these actions all day. This was a familiar tangle of thoughts, a paralysis of command she’d grown used to. She looked at Badarrow.

“You go rest. Have sad sex with Snapjaw or something. I will let Wings of Pallass go free soon.”

“Yes, Chieftain.”

He almost smiled at her joke. Rags watched him go. Then she sat back. Numbtongue and Ulvama.

“…Fine. [Emperor] is treating Goblins okay? We’ll see. If not…”

First things first. Rags sat back up, and as Badarrow left her office, went to meet her second appointment of the day. She walked into the room and Calescent, Redscar, and Poisonbite all turned to her. Her [Shaman], Taganchiel, looked at her as the second prisoner-visitor to Goblinhome in as many days raised his head.

Rags pursed her lips as she stared at the Human [Rogue] who’d climbed all the way up to their mountain fortress and surrendered to the Goblins.

“Why are all of you coming now?

The man grinned.

 

—-

 

“As it happens, I’m not so much with that inn. Although I am by way of Ullsinoi and we do business with the Brothers now and then. My gang’s not all smash or even flash, though.”

Rags listened to the street cant as the [Rogue] spoke. He’d been divested of his gear, but he was high-level. And he’d dodged two Goblin ambush volleys before surrendering.

They might have killed him even so, but he’d gotten the Cave Goblins in the first trap-zone to hesitate. Because he’d spoken in Goblin.

She had no idea what he meant by Ullsinoi or the Brothers—he seemed to think she was more tied to The Wandering Inn than she was. So Rags dissembled.

“None mentioned your gang. How do you know Goblin?

His eyes crossed and he replied slowly, with effort.

Goblin taught me, obviously.

Rags glanced at Redscar. The Goblin scowled.

“Wrong. Imposs—imposs—”

“Impossible. How would Goblins and Humans work together?”

Redscar nodded as Rags turned to the [Rogue], whose name was Whet. Probably an alias.

“Y’know, it’s always been funny to me, Chieftain Rags. A fellow hears that from Humans when they hear about Goblins in gangs. Yet Goblins say the same thing when they hear we do business.”

Whet leaned back in his chair, looking calm. Rags wasn’t fooled. He was nervous. He was a good liar, but she’d upgraded herself far past being a little Goblin taught by a [Necromancer].

Her eyes flickered and she saw how hot he was. Not…hot hot, as in sexy. Rags was still not at that point. Yet the [Steelflame Strategist] could see heat. It was trickier to tell lies, but it still worked.

“We could have killed you. How many Goblins tribes kill you—people like you?”

Whet licked his lips and smiled genially. He tried to charm her, or do something—it bounced off her aura. It did work on Redscar, who had no resistance against that kind of thing, and an appreciation for anyone with a toned body. Rags scowled, jerked a thumb. Redscar left the room.

“I admit, it’s risky, making contact. There’s some unfriendly tribes out there. Heard of the Kraken Eaters? They don’t talk. Poor fellows learned that the hard way. But there’s another reasonable tribe out there. And I’m assured you knew one of the tribes we worked with from time to time. The Mountain City Tribe? Great Chieftain Tremborag?”

Rags blinked. Tremborag had…? Of course he had. She folded her arms.

“What is it you do? Buy slaves? Ask Goblins to raid places? I am not Tremborag. I would not kill you—”

Whet smiled wider, relieved. Rags went on.

“—But I would tell Poisonbite to chop off here if I don’t like what I hear.”

She gestured. Poisonbite grinned. Calescent and Whet looked uneasy. Rags wasn’t going to do that, but the [Rogue] spoke quickly.

“We don’t demand anything, Chieftain. We’re just—here—to be mutually profitable. Goblins have gold. Yet they can’t spend it. A long time ago, whomever started my gang decided that was a shame. If you had anything—anything you needed, like potions, books, trinkets you can’t get the usual way—we can help.”

Ah, they were [Traders]. Rags was surprised, then not. She supposed that she should have expected Goblins to join the underworld—if they could. Anything to survive. As for making money? Humans were greedy.

“Well, then. You can live. And keep testicles. And gonads. Even trade. If you tell about Goblinhome, though…”

She listened as Whet made his pitch, relieved to keep all his possessions. In fact, Rags asked for a catalogue, and after eying the list, turned to Calescent.

“Calescent.”

“Chieftain?”

He was pointing at something in the catalog. Rags slapped his hand down. He pointed again, at the shiny cooking set. He waggled his brows. Rags scowled.

“We will buy things on this list.”

She wrote down a short list of items. After a second, she turned, punched him in the leg, and added the cooking set—he hadn’t stopped poking her until she did. Rags glared at him, and then addressed the [Chef].

“Go disarm Stupid Adventurer traps #2 and #7. Also, get playthings from crèche.”

“Playthings?”

For a second, Rags heard the word differently. She shook her head and looked at Whet. The curious [Rogue] saw the Chieftain smile.

“Playthings for little Goblins. Jewels, gold. No use for it otherwise. Same with traps.”

His mouth opened wide. Especially when she showed him the pile of gold and gemstones…right over the pitfall trap. Rags smirked.

It was amazing how many adventurers fell for it. They knew it was a trap, but they still tried to get the gold…long enough for a Goblin with a club to sneak up behind them out of the secret passage.

 

—-

 

Rags’ brilliance among her tribe was her defining characteristic as a Chieftain. Reiss had been amazing at learning, copying. Garen was the warrior of warriors—Tremborag was fat.

Each Chieftain had a specialty. Rags’ was in plays like this. She saw Bevussa and the Wings of Pallass off at the same time as Whet.

Both [Rogue] and Gold-rank adventurer looked extremely uncomfortable as they saw each other. Rags just smiled.

“Keep promises. Goblinhome is secret.”

And good luck figuring out who the other person is. Rags had left Whet with a fortune in gold and gemstones, though. So that was why he had come with an empty bag of holding.

She shook her head, but he’d furnished her with two samples which were ‘gifts’ of his black market organization to make her eager to do business. She would have paid far more than their ludicrous rates for them anyways, and she had managed to strike a discount by pointing out to Whet that her tribe could actually buy goods via Liscor.

Of course, none of her tribe had actually gone to Liscor since Badarrow and Snapjaw, but one look at the portal stone and he’d believed it and given her a 19% discount. Rags wouldn’t have risked a door to Goblinhome anyways.

“So we’re free to go?”

As Whet left, Rags eyed Bevussa.

“Almost. Before you go—one more thing.”

She studied the Gold-ranks, who seemed a bit tense, wary, surrounded by so many Goblins. Rags sighed. Whet was an unexpected bonus, but Goblinhome’s secret was out, one way or the other. Bevussa had sworn to keep her secret, but…

“You have a question.”

Bevussa blinked. Then nodded slowly. She looked around at the Goblins. Then at Rags.

“I swore to keep this—Goblinhome and your tribe’s secret. If you didn’t attack other groups.”

Rags nodded, face blank. Bevussa frowned, her expression warring between a kind of sympathy, a desire not to believe—and suspicion. She peered down. Pointed.

“…I have to ask. Where did you get those boots?”

Kin and Issa looked down. Rags sighed. Stupid, clever bird-people. She lifted the boots, which no Goblin had made. Same as the chairs in her room, which Whet had noticed. She sighed at Bevussa.

“Goblins must live.”

She had decided to do it, in the end. Again and again. How will we break the cycle?

They needed more than they could produce, though. So again she had ordered it.

Burn the playthings. She remembered the voice. The burning Human villages. Rags’ eyes flashed crimson as Bevussa tensed. Rags turned.

“Grab them.”

The three Gold-ranks struggled, but gave up as the Hobs around them did just that. Bevussa nearly got into the air—but one look at Snapjaw, riding her personal Wyvern made her slow.

“Damn it.”

Captain. You just had to—”

Issa was cut off as she was gagged. Rags nodded to the other Goblins.

“What now, Chieftain?”

Redscar looked at Rags. She pondered for a moment, and met Bevussa’s gaze. Rags smiled. The nicest Goblin the Garuda would ever meet shrugged.

“No help for it. Before they tell—let’s raid.

The Redfangs whooped and grinned. Rags swung up behind Snapjaw on the Wyvern. She turned her head.

“Bring the Gold-ranks too. We’ll drop them on the way.”

 

—-

 

Bevussa wished she could have kept her fat beak shut. She was a prisoner, dangling from a Wyvern’s claw as it flew. Goblins rode on the back, light as could be; they had bags of holding.

Perfect raiders. Damn it! I should have just asked later. But I had to know. I didn’t think she’d—

She thought Rags had been the Goblin that Erin had met and talked about. A kindly little Goblin.

Time had changed her. Bevussa had no idea who that [Rogue] was, but she knew one thing: Goblinhome was raiding.

Maybe the Humans. Maybe Pallass wouldn’t care? She owed it to her city to report it. She hoped Rags wouldn’t…force her.

But her hopes were dashed. As if to make a point, to dare them, Rags and her group flew onto a raid. Carn Wolves followed by ground.

They blindfolded the Garuda and Kin and Issa as they left Goblinhome, so they didn’t get a perfect aerial view of where the fortress was. Not that Bevussa needed it; she knew the rough area.

They could have let the three Gold-ranks go there. They could have, with only suspicions, a pair of boots, a few strange items like high-quality soap, manufactured, dyed fabric.

They showed the three everything. Two days after her capture and then release, as Eldavin’s great history lesson was going on, the Goblins let the prisoners watch a raid.

It was everything Bevussa had feared. Worse—Rags gave her orders, watching the history lecture on a scrying orb with half an eye for the battle. She pointed, once.

“[Fireball].”

The explosion consumed a trio of [Guards]. Bevussa saw the last go flying like a toy doll. She wanted to believe…no.

That was not non-lethal. If she had any doubts, watching the Redfangs on Carn Wolves descend and attack the survivors of the Thunderbow’s ambush settled her doubts. They swung their blades with lethal efficiency, and then the Goblins stripped the caravan.

Worse—this would mean intervention. This was not something Pallass would entertain, to weaken the north.

They were Drakes dying. Rags looked at Bevussa, from her perch where she’d directed the slaughter.

“Do you see?”

Bevussa saw. She glared, gagged, unable to speak. Rags looked at her. She gestured.

“Not yet. Snapjaw! How many more caravans by scout?”

“Three. They want supplies bad. Big escorts.”

Rags snorted.

“Take them.”

She and the Goblin warband were on the wing within twenty minutes. They dove out of the skies on the second caravan. Bevussa saw Rags sitting on her Wyvern. The Goblin Chieftain bellowed.

Loose!

Like a [Commander]. Like a miniature [Warlord] in green. Her sword pointed, and the Drakes looked up at the unfamiliar voice. They scrambled—

Six huge Hobs who’d set up Thunderbows fired. The bolts took out the [Caravan Leader], the head of the [Guards], a [Mage]—and they were reloading.

Redscar raced out of cover, whooping. Snapjaw and her Wyvern dove from above, dropping a stone from a bag of holding that sent the [Guards] scrambling for cover.

A second slaughter. Bevussa saw Rags turn to her.

Do you see?

Bevussa struggled to shout. Kin and Issa were staring hatred. Rags looked at Bevussa. Pleadingly? No—not even that guiltily. She spoke.

“I was angry. I am. Figure it out. Third caravan. Snapjaw, go!

They flew. The third caravan knew. They were spread out, using the wagons as cover. It didn’t matter. Rags blew apart one barricade with a [Fireball], her magic. She set up the Thunderbows out of the Drakes’ range and made them sally forth or die. This time the Redfangs loosed bows, refusing to even close.

A bloodless victory on one side. Death on the other. Bevussa saw halfway through the last Drakes dying, refusing to surrender. Drakes did not run.

She began laughing hysterically through her gag. Rags looked at her. She began laughing too. She cut at Bevussa’s gag and stood back. The Gold-rank Captain focused on Rags. She inspected the distant caravan, which the Goblins were setting to light after looting it of whatever they wanted. But before they did, she spoke.

Hectval.

Issa and Kin stopped struggling. They peered at the caravan and guards. The Drake caravan. No Humans, no Gnolls, which was odd if you thought about it. Liscor wouldn’t run a one-species caravan.

Rags grinned. She gestured, and her Wyverns took wing. She was raiding caravans. She was attacking…just not every target.

The reason Hectval-Luldem-Drisshia had not attacked Liscor was due to the distance, and their defeat, however pyrrhic it had been. Also, fear of the Antinium.

But also because every trading caravan had been hit in the last month. Only with an army’s worth of [Soldiers] for an escort would their mysterious attackers not strike.

It was not justice. However. Rags was content with that. She looked at Bevussa’s expression, and nodded.

“One more stop. Then you go.”

 

—-

 

A truth of all species was that change was inevitable. Smart peoples prepared for it, as Rags had known Goblinhome would always one day be revealed.

Change. Sometimes it was individuals.

Anand had not moved since Wrymvr had left, although it had been about eight hours. He spoke.

“You are lucky. You—ancestor of mine. For you know nothing of pain except…pain. Which doesn’t hurt as much as feelings.”

The little ant crawled on his finger. Anand stared at it, and then flicked it off him. He lay on his back.

Until he heard the thrumming. The vast beating of wings unlike any bird or creature in the skies save one.

Wrymvr the Deathless had returned. He was carrying something too. Anand heard the screaming long before the Centenium landed. He gazed up. His mandibles opened wide.

Goat? What happened to you?

He scrambled to his feet. The Soldier slid off Wrymvr’s back and lay on the ground in a ball. He hated flying. Anand looked at Wrymvr, shocked, angry!

However, he realized the screaming hadn’t stopped. After all, Goat was a Soldier. They didn’t make sounds the same way as Workers.

Slowly, the [Strategist] turned as Wrymvr put something on the ground. It scrambled away from the Centenium, screaming.

Antinium! You monsters! Dead gods—fleets take me. I’m—I’m—

Anand saw the half-fish features. The duskier skin. His mandibles opened wide.

Seborn?

The Drowned Person turned to him and Anand realized—this was not Seborn! Seborn was male. And the fish-parts were different. He slowly rotated.

“Wrymvr. What have you…done?”

For answer, Wrymvr gently pulled something off his back. Even a good bag of holding could only store a certain amount of material. Perfect bags of holding like the ones Ryoka Griffin had were magically neutral—but couldn’t hold more than the contents of a single room at most.

Which was why [Merchants] used chests of holding. Wrymvr couldn’t strap it to his back, of course. And hands were useful—even a Soldier’s hands. Which was why he’d brought Goat.

It was a very nice chest of holding too. Even so, only half of the small ship had fit inside.

Have to get second. Come, Goat.

Wrymvr picked up the Soldier, who flailed again. Anand shouted.

“What—what have you done?

The Centenium turned to him, looking as amused as he could be. The Drowned Person was running, but Antinium were already emerging from the Hive. To capture it. Wrymvr indicated the broken wreckage.

Ship.

He pointed at the distant Drowned Person.

“Shipwright.”

“Wh-wh—really? You just attacked—”

Anand was hyperventilating. Wrymvr hesitated. He looked at the Drowned Person, cleaned some blood off a mandible, and amended his statement.

Just a [Pirate]. Anand will build ships.

He took off again. Anand looked at the half of a ship. He looked at the Drowned Person, screaming, and then at Wrymvr, flying, clutching the flailing Goat under him.

He was never drinking again. See what happened?

 

—-

 

The potential for someone to change things was great. Krshia Silverfang knew that too. Of course, she was often surprised by chance-encounters and events. Just look at Tkrn and Inkar. She had no idea how that had turned into Lehra, of course.

Now, though, she thought that this would improve matters greatly. She waved from the hilltop where she’d been waiting and heard an answering howl. A group of [Riders] accelerated. Yet that was not who Krshia bounded down the slope to meet.

Rather, it was the strange vehicle and young woman determinedly peddling it towards the Gnoll camp. Rose looked sweaty, but she’d gotten the hang of riding—and the bike could actually outdistance the horses!

“Krshia!”

“Miss Rose. You are just in time, yes? So quickly, too! Where is Mrsha?”

“Not here, Krshia. Elirr decided she was too young for the trip.”

“She will have to come soon.”

Krshia scowled, but then beamed at Rose. Not least because Rose had brought the bicycle, spare sports equipment, copies of the plays—any number of gifts for Lehra and the other tribes.

“This is going to be amazing. Where’s Inkar? I have some electronics to show her—I want to hug her and ask her about everything! She must have been so—”

Rose was walking a bit unsteadily after days of riding the bike. However, her face fell as she looked at the other Gnolls. For all they were glad to be here in safety after their journey, their faces quickly turned from relief to…

“What is the matter?”

Krshia halted. Had they gotten wind of the Woven Bladegrass’ madness? Was it already affecting the other city’s dispositions?

No. Rose looked at the leader of the caravan. The Silverfang Gnoll looked at Krshia, gravely.

“We made it here, but we were barely ahead of the second group on the road, Honored Krshia. They’re right behind us.”

“What other group? Another tribe?”

“No. They came the same way as we—they left earlier, but moved far slower. They’re literally an hour behind. Az’muzarre practically ignored us. You—you may have to tell them to stop. They were ready to slaughter all of them, Pallass’ escort or not.”

Slaughter all of…? Krshia’s hair rose. She scented it, carried on the group. She spoke one word.

Raskghar.

They had arrived. Prisoners, yes.

But Raskghar. Krshia looked at Rose, then shook her head.

“Come. Worry not about Raskghar, no. You, Rose—come.”

She led them forwards. Inkar, talking with Tkrn, tickling him gently, looked up. Her hands fell away. She stood, uncertainly. Rose gasped. She began running, arms spread wide. Inkar heard her shouting, and her eyes filled with tears.

Rose met Inkar.

 

—-

 

The last visitors of the day to the city of Esthelm came through the gates. They were promptly stopped by the [Guards].

“You there. Halt.”

The Guard instructed one of the figures. The person turned, looking surprised, but not saying a word. They gestured at their face as if to say, ‘me, but why me?

The [Guards] were more vigilant than most cities. They were former [Militia] who’d become regular [Soldiers], [Warriors], [Sentries], [Watchwomen], and so on.

This [Gate Watchwoman], a specialist in fighting at…gates…rolled her eyes.

“Yes, you. Are you serious? Your group. Stop. Hands up.”

The figures halted. The other people entering the city—and they weren’t many—backed away as the [Guards] drew their weapons. They didn’t play games. The [Watchwoman] pointed.

“I’ve never seen—you think you can just walk in? Like that? Are you serious?”

The masked figure in front, with a hood over their head, began to speak. The [Watchwoman] ignored her.

Mask off! Hood off!”

She looked at her squad, who were ready for anything. Part of the [Gate Guard] was just…incredulous. Who thought someone wearing a face-mask and a hood wasn’t suspicious?

The carved, painted wooden mask was blocking the person’s features, and the rest of the small group. They wore heavy hooded cloaks that disguised everything about them. They were the most suspicious group the [Gate Guard] had ever seen.

The great disguise of Garen Redfang, as it turned out, was not that useful as the legends said. The arrows were nocked, ready to fire. The leader of the trio hesitated.

“Mask off or we fire!”

The [Gate Guard] had already signaled for reinforcements. At this, the leader apparently decided there was no help for it. Slowly, they reached up, removed the mask—

And spoke.

“Hold your fire, Guardswoman. Please.”

The [Watchwoman] saw Bevussa look at her as she tossed her hood back. Issa removed her mask, and so did Kin.

“Is that…the Wings of Pallass?”

One of the [Guards] recognized the three. The [Watchwoman] lowered her crossbow.

“Captain Bevussa? Why are you dressed like that?”

“It’s a long story, Guardswoman…”

Bevussa had no idea, really. All she knew was that Rags’ last ‘request’ was that Bevussa had to wear hood, robes, and mask as they were dropped off a walking distance away from Esthelm. She was as confused as the [Guards], but it was clear she wasn’t a Goblin.

On the other hand, further into the city, a Goblin happily walked into Esthelm, glancing around merrily, nudging his companion every five seconds.

“Look at that.”

“I see it. Stop nudging.”

“Look at that. Chieftain, buy me that.”

He pointed to a window display, tugging her back to point at a handsome cast iron pan. Imagine how many meals he could make on that! Rags punched his leg.

To any amused observer, it seemed like a daughter punching her father in the leg. Well—they appeared vaguely related, and that was enough for silly Humans who hadn’t seen many of their kind. A male half-Elf and a younger, female half-Elf child.

Rags wondered if the illusion on the rings did that because of the pointed ears. She kept checking her reflection, but she hadn’t even needed Bevussa’s distraction.

“Amazing. Am I handsome?”

Calescent stared at himself. Rags snorted.

“For a half-Elf, maybe. Hurry up.”

Whet’s gifts to the Chieftain of the Flooded Waters tribe had been calculated to impress a Goblin like her. They probably would have given Tremborag food or something. However, Rags? Whet had warned her she’d need to use more elaborate tricks to get into Pallass or any city with actual magical checks, but she’d walked into Esthelm easily enough.

“Stop that.”

She towed Calescent away from the stall where he was admiring knives, next, already flirting with the [Shopkeeper]. The [Chef] was happy to be here.

Redscar had refused. Snapjaw was with Badarrow, and he didn’t want to come back. So that left Calescent or Poisonbite.

Given the two, Rags preferred the [Chef]. She walked through Esthelm. There were many things to see. Many possibilities. Many things to do.

She knew the legendary smith was in this city and she wanted to meet him. She wanted to see these ‘bikes’.

But first.

First…

 

—-

 

Liska smiled as Imani and Palt went out to Liscor, arm in arm.

“Have a good evening, sir or madam!”

She parroted the instructions Ishkr had given her. The Gnoll, who was on door-duty, waited until she closed the door and had begun changing the dial, checking the other doors. She did pause to sniff the air, though.

“How, though? Is it…lots…and lots of oil? Is he really, really small? Or do they have a contraption? Or maybe—”

She opened the door, letting in someone from Celum who wanted to go to Pallass. Sighing, Liska did that, letting them deal with the checkpoint.

She was counting the minutes until her break. At least she didn’t have to talk to people. She opened the door to Esthelm.

“Anyone through to Liscor or elsewhere? We are not accepting guests for The Wandering Inn, as the inn is closed…”

She stopped as someone stepped through. The second visitor was a genial half-Elf, who peered around, rubbing his hands. But the first person, who was fumbling with her hand, had been shielded by his back.

A short Goblin walked into the inn as Liska’s eyes opened wide. She breathed in, slowly, and stared around the portal room. She looked at the Gnoll, at the unfamiliar walls, floor…

So familiar. So not. She listened, to the silent inn, scampering feet, to her own beating heart. Rags waited a moment.

Then she stepped forwards.

She was back. She walked out of the portal room as Liska eyed Rags, the half-Elf, decided it wasn’t her business, and went back to spacing out until the sand timer counted down ten minutes again. Rags emerged into the hallway that was unnaturally long, and gave her eerie vibes, and halted.

So quiet. So…forlorn. Someone was missing.

Someone had returned. And as if that changed things, amid the silence of the inn, the few living people, the Hobgoblin with his head bowed in the [Garden of Sanctuary], the [Shaman] and little Gnoll playing tag, the Titan sitting and scowling next to the bee in the rafters—

The door of The Wandering Inn burst open. Someone rushed in the regular way, having not been able to get through the portal door with Liska operating it in time. She was panting, clutching at her chest, having run all the way here.

Her light green scales and dress were a bit sweaty. Selys gasped, and then shouted, missing Rags and Calescent, who’d drawn a kitchen knife and bag of red powder.

Everyone! Everyone—

Selys Shivertail shouted. The noises stopped. She gasped, then shouted, her voice cracking with nerves.

They’re doing it! They’re attacking the Village of the Dead! It’s just begun!

A shout from further down in the inn. Calescent blinked. Selys gasped for air—then saw the little Goblin staring up at her.

Wh—R—Ra—how—?”

She spluttered. Rags looked up at her. She listened to the crash, the sounds of life. She smiled, nodded at Selys.

“Long time no see.”

The Drake stood, stunned, as Rags walked over to the secret door, opened it, and went inside The Wandering Inn.

To have a bite to eat.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Them’s lots of words.

Not as many words as last time, but…am I gaining in word count even now? It feels so, but surely the hard-stop is my arms. Well, I do have a lot more management techniques, but there is such a thing as too many words.

Then again, for big chapters, you need lots of words. This wasn’t one chapter, but it is advancement. That’s Volume 8, I guess.

I hope you enjoyed it. I’m not sure what chapter comes next. I guess I’ll figure it out~

Nah, there’s only two it could be. Two good chapters, hopefully. I’ll see you then. For now, thanks for reading!

 

Today’s artist is not an artist, but a composer of songs! SystemGlitch101 has composed three new TWI-themed tracks! Give them all the approbations!

Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/systemglitchy

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Interlude – Paradigm Shift (Pt. 2)

Sound. A quiet sound was playing. Cara watched. This had all the hallmarks of a real story from Earth. A gentle song, without vocals, somehow managing to be uplifting and sad.

The half-Elf was the narrator. Sometimes he walked through the scenes playing on the orbs, other times playing the omniscient narrator. His spells conjured each scene real to life, though, with a degree of accuracy that made it…too real. Put movies to shame because it had tiny details from memory that were different from dramatic recreations, or too-polished sets and actors.

This is how he began.

“The boy known as Perril Chandler was known not as some great talent, or the myth he would eventually become. He was born to, as his name indicates, a family of [Chandlers]. A humble family, who made their living in the Kingdom of Silvaria. A Kingdom of Terandria which lives on only in memory. Even the land that used to hold the kingdom is broken and desolate. It lies here—between Pheislant and Gaiil-Drome, a coastal kingdom, southern, small, but dignified.”

A map of Terandria appeared on screen, and the view zoomed down, revealing that the map was actually the continent from afar. A narrow, vertical nation became expansive, and kept zooming, revealing a landscape bordered by the coast, reaching up to the mountains and bordering the larger forest nation of Gaiil-Drome and Pheislant, dizzyingly zooming in until it reached a northern city, further down, towards a boy helping to carefully put candles in a wooden box.

Wax candles. A [Chandler]’s job. The young boy rose, manfully lifting the box and placing it with a stack.

Eldavin watched, face serene and sorrowful. He reached out, and the image stopped.

“Perril Chandler’s father and mother had the same class. He was one of three children, an older sister and a younger brother.”

Images appeared, showing a father and mother working to render candles out of tallow, keeping back from the bubbling pot, the boy playing with girl and boy.

“Perril Chandler’s younger life was relatively uneventful as far as I know. What I do know is that as a boy, he was so outstanding with magical potential that it manifested even before training. The first incident was where he accidentally set his parent’s shop on fire.”

Flame, shooting up from the boy’s hands. A scene of his family fleeing the burning shop, a bucket brigade tossing water on the shop. A hung head, tears from the family.

“However, his misfortune was a blessing in disguise, for the nation of Silvaria watched for talent such as his, and the [High Mage] of his city herself discovered Perril’s potential. She personally took him as an apprentice, to the astonishment and delight of his parents.”

Perril, waving to his family. Departing, following the woman in shimmering robes. Eldavin continued.

“You see, Silvaria was a growing nation at this time. It, like many nations, had existed since the days of the Hundred Families as one of the smaller kingdoms, sometimes vassalized, or conquered, but then rising and growing from the original kingdom. Like Ailendamus, in fact, whose rise over the last seventy years and two monarchs has been nothing but meteoric.”

The map changed, showing how Ailendamus had not been more than a tiny kingdom by a different name seventy years back.

“Thus, Perril Chandler did not travel to Wistram Academy to learn, but learned from the [High Mage] Insica herself. He proved to be an apt and resourceful pupil, whose talents allowed him to master a number of spells as high as Tier 3 before he was sixteen. However, he would show his true potential in an invasion of Goblins when a Goblin Chieftain threatened to overrun the city.”

The image cut to Goblins storming the walls, throwing up crude ladders as magic and arrows harried the defenders. Insica exchanged magical fire from her tower with a grinning [Shaman]. Perril Chandler fought in the streets, casting spells, throwing back Goblins. Then—he and the Humans fighting in a desperate line fell back. A running man fell, gutted from behind by a spear. He dropped something.

A rapier. The exhausted young man of sixteen snatched it up. He saw a Hobgoblin charging at him and put up the sword. By luck, he ran the Goblin through.

Eldavin stepped out of the frozen scene as the Hobgoblin fell. He reached out, and slowly closed the Hobgoblin’s eyes. A peaceful look on the Goblin’s face. Eldavin regarded the warrior for a second and shook his head, turning back to the young man.

“It was then that the young Perril Chandler discovered his talent with the blade, which would become a passion for the rest of his life. He survived the battle, although his master, Insica, was wounded beyond the ability of [Healers] to aid. She was rendered immobile, relying on her young apprentice as her strength failed.”

Magical burns, a bed-ridden woman, then turning to one hovering in a chair, grasping at objects Perril anxiously handed her.

The audience watched the story play out. Many spellbound, but not all. Not all in silence.

What is going on in Wistram? Stop the broadcast!

Chaldion of Pallass snapped, his good eye flashing furiously. He turned to the [Mage] who was frantically sending [Message] spells off. The [Strategist] did not like this one bit.

Nor did a number of Drakes, hammering on the door along with the regular scrying crew. Yet not even Feor could figure out how Eldavin had locked the door. They were beginning to debate blasting it open.

Flos Reimarch just watched quietly, sitting cross-legged in his tent with Teres.

In Wistram, Trey Atwood watched with his first-year friends.

Terandrian Kingdoms were in uproar. Many sending just as many [Messages] about this unexpected broadcast. However, they still watched. Earl Altestiel sat in the pouring rain that had engulfed his estates since his return, watching with the blankets over his head.

Az’kerash himself found his hand shaking. He reached out, whispering.

Insica.

He whispered her name, and his fingers brushed the glass orb, as if trying to reach back, touch her, take the quavering woman’s hands as the much younger boy held it. She gasped, her head fell back—

The image vanished, replaced by a young man with his head bowed.

“Perril Chandler succeeded his master, inheriting some of her possessions and will. Yet he was untutored. With the threat of the Goblin Chieftain and a war with Pheislant distracting the army and as yet, young [King] of Silvaria from raising aid for his city, Perril Chandler searched through spellbooks for knowledge that could help defeat the Goblins. It was then, as the dead of both sides rose, that he discovered his greatest talent. Necromancy.”

A body, a shambling corpse, a zombie walked towards some Humans holding spears. It opened its mouth, waving rotten hands—then stopped. Its eyes flickered; then the glowing eyes closed. The zombie turned, obediently stood as the Humans put up their spears.

Perril, panting, held out a hand. The single zombie was joined by more shambling corpses, a skeleton. They moved towards Goblins who backed up, disappeared back towards the mountains, wary.

Eldavin again. He sat there, on a rock, watching the Goblins pass. He looked at the viewers, as if hearing the angry Drakes and Terandrian Humans. He was watching the [Messages] come in; they appeared like a shower of words, sleeting past him and vanishing.

“I see some viewers object to the sight of necromancy. However, the school of magic was accepted in those days. It still is in many places in the world. From Baleros to Chandrar, only Izril and Terandria have truly outlawed it, for reasons which may be understandable as we continue. However, Rhir keeps [Necromancer] corps. If you would cast your objections, perhaps place them with the Blighted King first. Necromancy is just a kind of magic. Blood magic, fire magic, healing; if there is evil, it is always in how it is wielded.”

He dismissed the [Messages] with a wave of the hand. Pisces sat there, listening intently, opening and closing his hand, his eyes distant and hungry. Ceria looked at him, and at the [Grand Magus] sitting, standing in Wistram Academy where they too had once been.

Where were you when we were there?

“Perril Chandler began to teach himself magic, as many [Necromancers] do, experimenting, and at the same time, learning the art of the sword, practicing fencing. Before he had turned eighteen, he had been awarded a silver bell by the resident [Fencers] in the city, an accomplishment as rare and indicative of as much talent as the King of Duels so often spoken of, or his daughter, the Arbiter Queen, Jecaina of Jecrass. However, he was young, as yet inexperienced, and certainly unknown outside of his city. By contrast, the Drake who would one day become his best friend had a far more typical childhood.”

Perril became Zelkyr, his tail slightly longer than average, even clumsy on his feet. His scales were a bright orange. Before the audience could react to Eldavin’s last statement, the young Drake produced a wand. He stood in class, listening to a teacher.

“Zelkyr was born in Fissival, the City of Magic. Like all Drakes, he was tested and admitted into their Scholarium at a young age. He was a good pupil—if unruly.”

Zelkyr, shoving other Drakes as he ran down the hallways, playing pranks on a female Gnoll in robes, who yelped and ran to tell a teacher.

“What in the name of flaming fur…?”

Krshia traded a glance with her sister and the other Gnolls watching. They hadn’t missed that. Eldavin didn’t even seem to notice the image.

“Zelkyr’s talents were manifestly apparent from the start. He was a below-average elementalist, and was noticeably deficient in casting most spells. He had a lisp, which, despite being corrected later on, impeded his direct combat abilities. To make up for that, he was exceptionally talented at craftsmanship, having studied metallurgy, pottery, weaving, and any number of crafts later on.”

“Zelkyr had a lisp?”

[Mages] stopped and blinked at the orb. Cognita passed by, ignoring them, not understanding why a few were staring at her. She only stopped when a young Drake began speaking.

“The wily Wyvern waves a wing whenever it wanths.”

He messed up on the last word, clearly reciting with effort. The young Drake flushed. Cognita…slowly…turned. Her eyes went round.

“His inability to become a [Battlemage] was always a sore point with Zelkyr and may have led to what came next. Despite being tested and taught as an [Artificer], he was eventually expelled at the age of fourteen for pranks, which later became unruly conduct. And theft. Zelkyr left the City of Magic, but used his limited fortune to apply for Wistram Academy’s apprenticeship. He passed, despite his record, due to the rivalry that exists between both schools even now.”

The images of Zelkyr playing the inciting ‘prank’ that got him expelled, which was dumping buckets of ice cubes on a group of Gnoll teachers he clearly disliked, then standing before a tribunal whilst a clearly-stolen wand was presented and leaving the city in disgrace, flickered across the screen.

Olesm nearly passed out. Mainly because he’d stopped breathing during watching this. This? This was beyond sacrilege. Not that he’d known much about Zelkyr’s past, but this? Sserys was the recent hero, but Zelkyr?

“Zelkyr studied at Wistram for the rest of his magical career, having learned his lesson from his expulsion from Fissival. He quickly took to creating Golems, which at the time, was popular in Wistram. His first Golems were creative and original, unlike the standard, humanoid constructs. Even now, they indicate his burgeoning genius, held only back by his knowledge and technique.”

Little, playful Golems paraded past an older Zelkyr, about sixteen, presenting a Golem whose entire body was made up of what looked to Trey like pistons. The iron-golem extended, rather than moved limbs, walking like some primitive steampunk creation.

Another Golem rolled around like an egg, then ‘opened’ to reveal a shining core and muddy interior. Yet another was a finely-carved bird, made of wood, which fluttered its wings and hopped, but could not fly as only the wings and legs were jointed, the rest of the body solid wood.

“Zelkyr developed a reputation as a fine Golem-maker of curios, which he eventually became, graduating from Wistram but often returning to the academy where his connections and materials let him sell toy Golems, and occasionally, battle-types. His life was rather unremarkable until he turned twenty-four, which brings us back to Perril Chandler, who by that point had joined Silvaria’s army in war.”

Perril Chandler nervously bowed to a [Knight-Commander], a rapier at his side and silver bell. He wore robes, and demonstrated raising a few zombies to the [Knight]’s distaste.

“Pheislant was winning the war with Silvaria. The mighty naval nation’s fleets had blockaded both major port cities, and their armies were winning ground victories as well. It was as Silvaria grew desperate, their young [King], King Redoris, enters our story. He was only twenty six at the time, barely older than Perril himself, and several strategic blunders by his [Strategists] had left his nation in danger of being conquered and vassalized.”

A young [King], restless, holding the sword at his waist, appeared, sitting on the throne, looking down at his [Generals] who were speaking to him, pointing to maps. Then Perril.

“Perril Chandler enlisted in the army, perhaps due to need, perhaps a lack of funds or purely national pride. It was to prove to be a fine decision, as despite his inexperience, his ability to conjure undead led the division he was assigned to win battles, with lower casualties. Not only that; the young Perril bested three [Fencers] in battle, all of whom bore silver bells. He was soon promoted, although he never took formal soldier classes to my knowledge.”

Perril bowed again before the [Knight-Commander], who now clasped his shoulder warmly. Eldavin smiled, as Perril sketched a bow, cheeks flushed, with all of a young man’s pride held in check by modesty.

“It was then he drew the attention of King Redoris. At twenty four, he was invited to the royal court to receive a prize for his valor in battle. Pheislant had signed a punitive peace treaty, but King Redoris had little choice but to acquiesce; northern aggression was threatening the Dawn Concordat and by effect, Silvaria, although it was not a formal member but an occasional ally.”

More clashes from the north, a tired [King]. But then—a smile on his face of genuine good humor, exclaiming as he shook Perril’s hands. [Knights], [Courtiers], a royal court in which the young [Necromancer] stood, somewhat bewildered, until the [King] personally introduced him, winning him the favor of all present.

“It was at this time when Perril Chandler met two of the four most important people in his life. Zelkyr was one, but that would only occur later. King Redoris was, of course, one of the four. The second was Lady Bea Zanrel, a beautiful [Lady] of Silvaria’s court, who had proven willing to fight in defense of her Kingdom.”

She did not look suited to the armor she wore as the young King Redoris gently tapped her shoulder with a blade, making a jest that made the court laugh. The young Bea flushed with embarrassment.

Yet Perril did not laugh, kneeling to receive the honorary knighthood as well. Bea saw that, her eyes flicking down. Redoris stared at her, a bit chagrined by the embarrassment he’d caused. His eyes lingered on Bea in an unmistakable way for anyone who knew stories.

“Bea. Bea is that…?”

Venitra looked from Bea to—her master’s face was frozen. His hands clenched as he looked at Redoris. At…

Bea touched her face, and then looked at the woman, who had all the mortal beauty, younger. Bea’s rotted features…Toren looked at the scrying orb.

This was good storytelling, he decided.

Perril and Bea danced. She was teasing the younger [Necromancer], unwarrantedly clumsy, yet the two then talked, seriously, about the war, faces turning grave, Bea shaking her head, gesturing at Perril’s wand and rapier.

“The two would become great friends. In fact, it was the young Lady Bea who later sponsored Perril Chandler to study at Wistram as a higher-year student for three years, despite being considered too old and self-taught. Whether the two had a relationship is unknown, but King Redoris, Lady Bea, and the knighted Sir Perril Chandler, similar in age, would eventually grow to have enduring friendships. Of course, it was at Wistram that Perril Chandler first met Zelkyr Amerwing.”

There they were. Cognita bent, and Elena and the other Earthers moved out of the way. She saw two young men, in their mid-twenties, meeting at one of the innumerable [Mage] parties. They stared at each other as Zelkyr, laughing, exuberant, a party-animal, made a comment.

Perril Chandler, who had been studying all-night in some of the scenes, somewhat aloof, but respectfully taking lessons, turned his head. In the silent drama, broken only by Eldavin’s voice and the background music, Perril Chandler shook his head. He put his hand on his rapier.

Zelkyr snorted. Repeated himself.

Perril Chandler calmly drew his rapier and aimed it at Zelkyr.

Eldavin appeared between the recoiling Zelkyr and Perril. His face and tone were dry.

“The first meeting between the two was not harmonious. Zelkyr, a staunch supporter of Drakes despite his fraught relationship with his city, made a derisive comment about Terandrian Kingdoms, to go by stories at the time. Perril Chandler took offense and challenged him to a duel. The results were about as you expect.”

Eldavin didn’t even bother showing the duel, just the outcome. Zelkyr staring up at Perril Chandler pointing his rapier at his face, wand lying on the floor.

“The two did not see much of each other aside from this one disharmonious meeting. Zelkyr was a fully-fledged [Mage], now earning a reputation for making battle-suitable Golems. Perril Chandler expedited his studies and returned to Silvaria. They did not meet for two more years.”

Eldavin stood over a map of the world, flicking his fingers.

“Now, during this time, aside from conflicts in Terandria, Izril itself was in a state of joint wars between north and south—and Baleros. The Naga companies had invaded and actually taken ground on Izril, and the Drakes found themselves fighting both Human and Lizardfolk armies. Typically, they did not ask for aid from the Gnoll tribes, and Zelkyr himself began selling his now somewhat famous Battle Golems to the cities.”

Marching, carved warriors, some Human, others Gnolls, or, most often Drakes, in ceramic, wood, then, later, steel, bronze, iron, and so on, swung huge fists, punching enemy [Soldiers]. A nimble ceramic-Golem aimed a bow and actually loosed an arrow. Yet a third Golem just spewed fire as it advanced, like an Oldblood Drake.

“Zelkyr was by now an acclaimed [Golem Artificer], and his aspirations were clearly taking him even higher. He desired to create more powerful Golems, even the fabled Sentient-class Golems. It is obvious in journals and notes that his greatest desire was that of a perfect servant. Hence, he would never go anywhere without a personal Golem bodyguard or two.”

Marching Golems, first crude, then imperious, decorated and carefully attired, sometimes in actual armor, accompanied Zelkyr as he strode around, talking to [Merchants], other leaders, fellow [Mages].

Sometimes just his height, other times huge, imposing. In Eldavin’s historical retelling, another fact was made obvious to viewers too.

Femithain of Illivere saw the Golems, at first, androgynous because they lacked features, slowly take on a noticeably feminine cast. Not only that, a few bad attempts at faces quickly resolved into beautiful features. The Magus-Crafter also noticed…all the female Golems soon became females of different species.

Minotaur, Human, Gnoll, Centaur—never Drake. Eldavin eyed one that almost looked like a primitive Cognita. Speaking of which…the Truestone Golem never took her eyes off that one.

“It was as the Drakes grew increasingly desperate to repel the Nagas that Zelkyr created his first Sentient-class Golem. In doing so, he joined around a dozen of his kind who had mastered the technique and was soon in a race to reach higher peaks still. Nevertheless, a dive into the mechanics of Golem-creation is too distracting here. All you need know is that his first Golem was capable of casting Tier 1-3 spells, magically reinforced, made of steel, and capable of taking her own action on the battlefield. She was the culmination of Zelkyr’s talent. He called her…Cognita.”

 

—-

 

Eldavin! Get out of there! What are you doing?

Viltach hammered on the door. He was thrust aside by an angry hand.

“Get back!”

One of the Fissival Drakes had had enough. Angry [Message] spells were ringing around Wistram, and as many people wanting to keep the broadcast going. No one could override the scrying spells! Eldavin had control.

The door remained locked. Now, the Drake [Battlemage] pointed at it.

“[Lightning Bolt]!”

Viltach was lucky. He’d put up a barrier spell just in time to watch the bolt bounce. The Drake [Mage] went flying and everyone dove for cover. They got up, shakily.

“What in the name of the Ancestors did he put on that door?”

The [Mages] looked at each other. The rest of the viewers were spellbound, watching.

Az’kerash, the King of Destruction, countless Drakes and Humans, for all they shouted and raged.

Pisces, lips moving as he practically recited the tale himself, seeing where his learning and legend had created false stories. Eldavin walked past Zelkyr, crowing and showing Cognita off as the impassive Golem bowed to other Drakes.

“It was as Zelkyr achieved Sentient-class that he decided to participate in the Naga Incursions, as the war would become known, perhaps overconfident in his abilities. He joined a Fissival army and entered the campaign. However, the army quickly became separated from the main forces, fighting amid Naga lightning-strikes and unfavorable terrain created by their spellcasters.”

Zelkyr, shooting spells from a wand behind ranks of Golems and grim Drakes, flinching as Nagas of various kinds and Lizardfolk assailed the Drakes, skirmishing in and out, striking in the muddy terrain, fleeing by darkness.

Golems fell, broken, as Zelkyr’s finest creation, Cognita, impassively protected him. The Drake detachment grew desperate, fighting, cut off behind the enemy front lines. Lizardfolk closed in, wearing them down.

Medusae, who froze Drake [Soldiers] in time for Gorgons to lunge in and cut them down. Four-armed Naga variants, leaping Quexals, overwhelming the static Drakes and forcing more retreats. Eldavin nodded to Zelkyr, frozen in the act of casting a spell, face desperate.

“Only Zelkyr’s Golems let this weary force survive, immune to Medusae’s eyes and many attacks. However, his Golems could not fight forever and his entire detachment was in danger of being wiped out. That is, of course, where Perril Chandler re-enters the narrative, unexpectedly.”

Zelkyr and some Drakes were huddled around a fire as the Cognita-golem clumsily tried to stir a pot of what might have been grass and boiling boot leather. Something made Zelkyr stir, lifting a wand over muddy blankets. He stopped. Blinked, and rose uncertainly as a young man wearing armor rather than robes stepped forwards, looking just as surprised.

“Perril Chandler had become a mercenary, perhaps out of desire to improve; most likely due to a desire to provide for his family after incurring debts from studying at Wistram. Necromancy was not, at this point, as widely-sought after as Golem creation, but he had toured battlefields with great acclaim. It is a mark of the Drakes’ desperation that non-Drakes were hired for the Naga Incursions. He was leading a strike against Nagas and similarly cut off by their enveloping hit-and-run strategies when his company found Zelkyr’s.”

The two [Mages] stood, wary at first, until the Cognita Golem stuck a huge hand out. Perril took it, bowed, uncertainly, and looked at Zelkyr. The Drake and young man burst out laughing, and began talking in earnest. Eldavin as always, appeared.

“It was at this point when the first tales of the two’s prowess in battle were established. And, as luck would have it, we may desist with recreation and actually show scenes from the war itself.”

Sound joined imagery. The viewpoint changed, becoming a [Scrying] spell from above, as of some lazy Dragon or whatnot watching a battle with urbane amusement. Yet the battle was clear; ranks of numerous Lizardfolk led by imperious Nagas of different types, clashing with a Drake army with some Human irregulars.

…And losing. At first, the eager Lizardfolk charged, overconfidently skirmishing with the tired Drake lines. Then they drew back. A Medusa opened her eyes, freezing the Drakes and leaving them as open t—

A Golem smashed through the lines of foes, charging through the tiny figures. Just as fast, a second group led by a [Mage] with a sword charged in, ignoring the paralysis glare.

Undead. They threw themselves mercilessly against the Lizardfolk army, and the Golem and [Necromancer] took down the Medusa, cutting through the enemy lines as the Drakes, led by a certain [Mage] in robes, albeit from the back, pressed the Lizardfolk back.

“The two [Mages] found their talents allied nicely. The mass undead of Perril Chandler, combined with the expensive, powerful, and limited Golems of Zelkyr provided forces that no flesh-and-blood army could match. They fought their way back out of enemy lines and while this did not of course, end the Naga Incursions, their actions along with the conflict forced one of the peace treaties before the Nagas were eventually driven from Izril.”

The scene ended with Zelkyr and Perril shaking hands, the battered Cognita-golem still hovering in the background. Eldavin glanced to one side; the spells hitting the door were starting to get annoying so he [Silenced] them.

“This was the turning point in both young men’s careers. Zelkyr retreated from active fighting, but the levels the conflict had afforded him let him continue to increase the numbers of Golems in Drake cities’ services. Indeed, he quickly became quite respected in every Walled City…save for Fissival. In time, the City of Magic welcomed their wayward Drake student back, desiring his increasingly-powerful Golems which would become the nightmare of all enemies of Drakes during his era. Perril Chandler, by contrast, experienced his first real renaissance upon his return to Silvaria.”

Back to the country by the sea. Only—marred by empty streets, people covered in sores.

“Plague had come to Silvaria, once again echoing the present. Without a cure in this case. Silvaria’s people lay sick, unable to provide or act. Starvation faced King Redoris’ nation, and he was gratified by the mysterious revival of a city in the north, which, against all reasoning, had the power to still plough and harvest fields! When he inquired however, he found not living bodies tilling the fields…but undead.”

Skeletons were harvesting fields, tilling ground, pulling ploughs, gathering berries…reminiscent of another certain Kingdom. Fetohep watched critically.

“Acceptable, one supposes. Advance the left flank—”

He broke off from his scrying orb to watch more undead charge Medain’s lines, and then went back to the scrying orb.

“Where many [Kings] might refuse to embrace death magic, with Noelictus and a few other kingdoms being exceptions even to this day, the grateful Redoris reached out to his old friend and beseeched Perril Chandler to aid Silvaria. Which he did! Perril Chandler, now an experienced High Mage, in rank if not actual class, took on apprentices as his master had done and the undead servants let Silvaria weather this crisis better than other nations.”

Eldavin gestured to the industrious undead. No matter how his companions shuddered—Trey just folded his arms. It looked efficient to him. It was hard not to see how the skeletons saved the sick people abed, harvesting food, fearless of germs. Eldavin seemed to indicate this by the approving nod he gave a skeleton—it nodded back.

“By the time he had turned thirty, Perril Chandler, son of humble candle makers, was named a [Lord] of Silvaria for his deeds to the crown, and was known to be in the favor of the [King] himself, often called to court. It was also said that he had a relationship with Lady Bea—although their relationship was not official and this is speculative.”

“Perril by age thirty was now a dashing swordsman and a [Mage], clearly a court darling. Redoris, also in his prime, was the image of a [King], albeit tempered by not being the [Warrior King] he clearly wanted to be. However, the three stood around, Perril, Redoris, and Bea, talking eagerly, laughing.”

Eldavin appeared, and sighed.

“These were the best times in the young men’s lives, save for perhaps one more section. In the interest of time, we skip forwards now. Nearly a decade, to their forties. Zelkyr had not broken through to the final step of Golem-making, but he was now competing with the best [Golem Artificers] for that title, and his Golems in battle had put the Nagas on the back foot, almost by themselves. He was not without scandal, however.”

Cognita broke off from the trance she was in. She saw—remembered—and raised her head. Yet she could not stop what came next. Zelkyr calmly facing down an angry Watch Commander. Cognita saw herself, standing behind him, half-tensed. Yet that was not how she remembered it, staring at her master’s back as—

“Unacceptable, Zelkyr! You cannot go behind the laws of the city!”

“Then change the laws or let me acquire what I need without these—these ridiculous taxes, Watch Commander!”

“That’s not my business. If you cannot stay within the law—”

The other Drake warned Zelkyr. Cognita was hesitating. This wasn’t an attack, but she felt like it was. She watched her master point at the Watch Commander.

“You will do what? I can stop selling Golems to Pallass any time I want.”

“You wouldn’t dare. The war—”

“Then think about what you’re saying, you fool!”

Cognita hesitated, until Zelkyr waved at her to desist. The other two Golems of her class also untensed, and she saw the other Drake spluttering as Zelkyr turned to march out of the office—

Blink. She was back in the present. Eldavin’s voice trailed back into her hearing.

“—unfounded, yet allegations of his connection with unsavory criminal elements persisted. The truth, inevitably, was that Zelkyr was too important to fall under normal jurisdiction. In any case, while he was enjoying the favor of the Walled Cities, Perril Chandler had achieved a Grand Magus’ rank at his young age.”

Both meteoric rises to fame saw Perril Chandler overseeing another ‘undead farm’, as well as sending undead in droves to take down a ferocious Griffin. By now, of course, he wore a golden bell on his rapier.

“It would be wrong to assume both Perril and Zelkyr were unaware of each other either. In fact, aside from their friendships, Perril with his two friends at Silvaria’s court, Zelkyr with…”

Eldavin hesitated.

“…acquaintances, no doubt, the two [Mages]’s greatest friendships were with each other. After their friendship began in war, they kept in regular correspondence, often visiting and aiding each other. It was, in fact, known, that to make an enemy of one was to make an enemy of the other. Eleven times, Perril Chandler challenged other [Mages] to duels and won for his friend. Similarly, Zelkyr was known to have gifted Perril with Golems to serve his now quite wealthy family. The two exchanged spell notes, despite their somewhat different schools. However, the great achievement of Zelkyr was to nominate both himself and Perril Chandler for the Archmage position in Wistram.”

The two men met under two shining, full moons. Eldavin pointed up, as [Mages] applauded both’s coronations, being handed robes, and magical staves.

“This was a formality, as the [Archmage] class does not always correspond to the title. As ah, viewers are no doubt aware. However, the political power and influence coming with the role spoke to their rising stars. As well as that of their enemies.”

An angry Naga and narrow-eyed Garuda, as well as a Human man, all eyed Zelkyr and Perril, among the three other Archmages applauding, faces neutral. Zelkyr and Perril took their positions, opposite the three.

“Perril and Zelkyr both represented Terandria and Izril, who were underrepresented compared to the Archmages of Rhir, Baleros, and Chandrar, who had increasing power during this time—as well as an Archmage of the Drowned, a somewhat rare occurrence. To note—only two were [Archmages] as of this time. The Archmage of Nagas—here—and the Archmage of the Skies, a traditional term for both species.”

The Naga and Garuda froze as Eldavin gestured to them.

“This matters only for later. For now—know this. As Zelkyr returned to Izril, and Perril to Terandria, the greatest incident that would finally mark them as legends of their time began. The war against the Dawn Concordat, where Perril would meet the fourth pivotal friend in his life. And in so doing, be known as the Archmage of Death.”

This was the story Eldavin had told once before. Trey remembered it. Now, the half-Elf told it fully.

“Four armies broke the Dawn Concordat’s forces. Lady Bea, who had a connection with Calanfer in particular, had, with King Redoris’ blessing, led a force to aid the outnumbered Dawn Concordat. Yet they fell back time and again, to the pass on Kaliv’s borders where so many armies would meet their end. Krawlnmak’s Pass. There, the beleaguered defenders held for two days, three, and then four. However, it became clear they would not manage to hold the enemy.”

Eldavin’s eyes flashed. His voice was rising, and sound was joining the movie again, sound from memory.

“That was when the newly-named Archmage of Death arrived, of course! Fresh from Wistram, having travelled across Terandria to join the defenders, he pledged himself to the battle, despite the urgings of King Redoris to hold back. He actually teleported Lady Bea and a number of commanders out of the battle, promising only to buy the Dawn Concordat more hours to muster a final defense.”

The [Lady] vanished, reaching for Perril Chandler as her companions held her back. A man saluted Perril Chandler, and he turned. What remained in front of the vast army coming down the pass was a line of gold.

Lyonette’s eyes were wide. This was not the history they taught her.

“The last force in the beleaguered army to refuse to retreat were the Thronebearers of Calanfer, who pledged to hold as long as the Archmage. Their Lightherald stood with Perril Chandler as four nation’s armies advanced.”

A [Knight] in golden armor, taking Perril’s hands, raising his glowing sword to the sky. Perril Chandler’s hands rose. His pupils seemed to grow, dilating wider and wider…

Undead began to rise. They advanced, past the golden Thronebearers, vanishing as arrows struck them down, magical spells blew them apart. They kept coming, though, advancing into the mortal army.

“The first hour of fighting refused to break the army now backed up by Perril Chandler. The overconfident [General] advanced his forces, believing that one man’s death would break this last resistance. He attempted to take it, but the Thronebearers closed ranks around the Archmage. The dead continued to rise, even as the living fell.”

Perril Chandler ducked behind a Thronebearer whose raised shield stopped a [Fireball] and hail of arrows. Undead surged past him as he pointed.

Az’kerash stared. His Chosen were looking at him. His lips moved. He felt his arm burning, the magic burning in him, going out—

“Advance!”

Draug smashed into the lines of infantry, breaking pikes. Screaming men and women fled backwards. Perril cried out as the backlash from animating them ran through him.

“Thronebearers, hold your ground!”

The Lightherald boomed. The Thronebearers, who had lost their steeds long ago, closed ranks. Perril looked up and saw the [Lancers] run into them.

Men and women died. Yet they did not give ground. Perril pointed.

[Deathbolt]. One went down as the dark spell flashed through armor; he tried it again, but his hands were shaking. The death magic was filling him, but he was maintaining an army of the dead.

So he drew his rapier and charged. Even the Lightherald was surprised as he turned from combat with three [Lancers] to see Perril.

“Archmage, hold b—”

The tip of his sword transmitted the shock of impact as Perril shoved it through the slit of a visor. A pinpoint strike; he withdrew it as the figure toppled. The [Lancers] reeled as he performed it again, two perfect strikes without a Skill!

“Thronebearers! Soldiers of the Dawn Concordat—to the Archmage! Charge!”

The Lightherald and the Archmage surged forwards. The nerve of the [Lancers] and the first wave of the enemy broke.

“—it is clear now that the Archmage of Death lured the enemy army into a natural trap. So many dead bodies along with the greater magic he was conducting create a death field, enhancing his powers.”

Az’kerash blinked. He saw the battle from above, Eldavin pointing out details.

“Nevertheless, Perril Chandler ran out of mana and resorted to his rapier. He personally slew over a hundred enemy combatants during the battle, along with casting spells. Despite never having a [Duelist]’s class, he was unanimously named one of the hundred greatest blademasters in Terandria for his feats in battle. That day—he and the Thronebearers broke an army of four hundred thousand at the pass.”

Perril Chandler stood, bloody blade raised among the handful of golden-armored warriors. A bare handful, yet the living army fled screaming, throwing down their weapons, the enemy [General] dragged down by undead.

“Few among even the [Archmages] can claim such a feat. It may have been this very day that Perril Chandler no longer became known as Lord Chandler of Silvaria, but [Archmage] Chandler. Archmage of Death! For his great deed, he was dubbed the Undying Shield of Calanfer by the [King], until the title was revoked.”

Archmage Chandler knelt before the Eternal Throne of Calanfer, applauded by thousands as the Lightherald bowed beside the throne. He smiled, and took the [Knight]’s hand as he rose.

By now, the room had gone deathly silent in Pallass. Chaldion stared grimly at the scrying orb. He had been insistent the broadcast be stopped, and had tried to even cut off the transmission in Pallass.

Too late. The [Mages] and others hadn’t understood what he had intuited. However, now…Chaldion looked at Eldavin’s retelling.

The Archmage of Death. Az’kerash. The mortal Perril Chandler stood, in what could only be described as a glorious, heroic retelling of his life. At odds with every other narrative about him. Of course, Drakes and Humans knew the stories they had grown up with.

It did not please the [Grand Strategist], even so, to have even one narrative to the contrary. Let alone one so well done.

Archmage of Death. This battle was the first in a turning point in the war, and Silvaria’s reputation. They led a counterattack against the northern kingdoms, and despite the odds, forced the coalition of then eight kingdoms to sign peace treaties. Not least because Silvaria’s army was joined by an unprecedented relief army: a force of Drakes and Golems from Izril.”

Archmage Zelkyr led ranks of glimmering Golems onto the field, smashing through the ranks of infantry as undead fought from the other flank. [Knights] charged past the Golems—and, Trey realized, Golem-[Knights] riding Golem horses!

“Now, Izril and Terandria were unified, albeit through the Archmages, if not individual nations. Silvaria’s power rose, as to challenge the nation was to challenge Archmage Chandler. Similarly—Archmage Zelkyr established his own authority at the culmination of the Naga Incursions, nearly six years after the end of that war. It was then when he made the breakthrough of his lifetime. The first Truestone Golem was unveiled. Cognita of Truestone.

A beautiful giant, Human woman made of what seemed like marble stood on the battlefield. Her hands folded. A Drake stood beside her, looking proud, nearly fifty years of age. Across from him, the Archmage of Death stood, watching an army in the distance.

Eldavin looked at Cognita. He shook his head and turned away.

“Truestone, the most powerful stone in existence. Not only that; Cognita is one of the Cognizant-class Golems, which are considered to be people. Stitchfolk are an example of this type of Golem. Short of leveling, Cognizant-class Golems mimic the living in every way. In creating her, and rediscovering Truestone, Zelkyr cemented his position as the great creator of Golems during his age. He would later remove all his rivals. By force if necessary. Within ten years, no [Golem Artificer] capable of creating Sentient-class Golems was known to exist—save for those apprenticed to Zelkyr himself.”

“He didn’t—did he, Grand Strategist?”

Uneasily, one of the younger [Strategists] glanced at Chaldion. The old Drake was silent. Eldavin went on, eyes locked on the viewers.

“During her first appearance, Cognita of Truestone proved her worth. The [Archmage] of Baleros had taken to the field to support the Naga forces on Izril, possibly attempting to emulate Perril Chandler’s success. That he did was undeniable. However, Archmage Zelkyr engaged the Naga armies with Archmage Chandler. There—Cognita slew the [Archmage] of Baleros, one of two [Archmages] she would kill in battle.”

The Naga [Archmage] fell, recoiling as the form of Cognita moved through the Lizardfolk army like a statue through water, effortlessly parting them.

Feor’s mouth went dry as he stared at the image. It did not show the end. He slowly turned his head.

Cognita stood alone in the banquet hall. Her own, delicate, large hands clenched. She looked at Eldavin.

Why was he telling this story?

“Thereafter, Archmages Zelkyr and Chandler enjoyed few rivals. They were acclaimed world-wide. Famous. Their friendship was the stuff of legends.”

Break down that damn door!

The Fissival [Mages] were shouting in fury. Yet the door refused to budge. Calanfer was sending a complaint and a demand to halt this broadcast every minute. Eldavin paused to sip from a glass of water he conjured. After a second, he went on.

“This was the golden era of both Archmages. Despite, as I have mentioned, indications that Zelkyr became ruthless in how he approached competition and acquiring increasingly esoteric materials, Archmage Chandler’s conduct was beyond reproach. For ten years almost, they enjoyed unparalleled fame and fortune.”

This was where the image of Perril and Zelkyr had come from, shaking hands, enjoying themselves at banquets. Talking, as Perril spoke to Cognita.

First Cognita. Then, as time went on, another Truestone Golem. Then a third. Three women. First, Cognita, Human. Then, a Gnoll, also made of the same material. Finally? A Centaur. All three were the same height, towering behind Zelkyr wherever he went.

Eldavin let the music play as he stood there, watching the scenes flash by with everyone else. When he turned…Cara felt it. The change in the narrative was evident on the half-Elf’s face.

“It may have been that this would be the legacy of both Archmages, until they passed of natural causes. But alas, as all will know who study history, this did not occur. The fall of Archmage Chandler…and Archmage Zelkyr is the story I must tell you now.”

Az’kerash and Cognita started. The [Necromancer] had frozen in time, watching. Now—a single figure appeared. The dead man felt a flash of anger. Even now.

King Redoris, sitting on his throne, looked troubled. Especially as he watched the two dancing figures. Lady Bea, and Archmage Chandler. Eldavin stood by Redoris, glancing down at him in disapproval.

“As so happens, the impetus towards the disaster that felled Archmage Chandler was not of his own doing. He could have halted it. However, I, Eldavin, will always say this: for all the horror he has wrought and the legacy which he deserves—it was not he who betrayed first. That was one man. King Redoris of Silvaria. Last of his line.”

He bent, slowly, looking down at the [King], his displeasure evident.

“King Redoris was not a poor [King]. Nor was he a great one. If anything, his fault was purely that whatever his achievements diplomatically, with his nation, they were overshadowed by Archmage Chandler. This fact did not wear at him at first, yet it grew over time. Aided, I think, by the relationship between Lady Bea, still considered to be the most lovely woman in Silvaria, and Perril Chandler. The [King] is known to have courted her with little success.”

He shook his head as Redoris clapped his hands, calling an end to the dance to make a pronouncement or some such. Eldavin sighed.

“A greater man could have happily walked in the shadow of the Archmage of Death, and counted him as both friend and subject. Not King Redoris. As his envy grew, so too did the events that compounded his jealousy and added to Perril Chandler’s fame. Consider the Uprisings of Left—a rebellion that occurred when the now-wealthier farmers employing undead labor objected to the crown increasing taxes to punitive levels to make the most of the richness of Silvaria’s fields.”

Angry [Farmers] swelled, leaving their fields, joined by groups of people, protesting against [Mayors] and local nobles and governors.

“They rose in uprising, and the local army’s attempts to quell the rebellion, as such things often did, swelled their numbers as angry [Soldiers] whose pay had been reduced—ironically due to the Archmage of Death’s reputation preventing conflicts—joined the citizenry instead of attacking them. This was a mismanagement of King Redoris’, of course, and to deal with the issue, he mobilized a grand force with Silvaria’s best forces loyal to him. To crush the rebellion in what would surely be a bloody move.”

A force of grim warriors began to march on the larger, if woefully outmatched army of nearly a hundred thousand rebels. Eldavin froze the apprehensive citizenry.

“Once again, as he had proven over his life, it was Archmage Chandler who intervened. This time to save the very common folk of whom he was descended. He had not forgotten from whence he came.”

The Archmage of Death appeared in front of Silvaria’s army. Both sides stopped, apprehensive. The man held up a hand, and Silvaria’s army fell back. Alone, the Archmage of Death turned to face the rebels and drew his rapier, holding up a bone-white staff in the other. The rebels stared at him, mouths agog.

“To save his [King] from creating a massacre, the Archmage of Death stood in front of the rebel army, nearly a hundred thousand strong and challenged them to single combat. He declared that for the honor of Silvaria, he would face them one at a time, without magic if need be.”

Eldavin’s lips quirked.

“Needless to say, the rebels dispersed rather than take Archmage Chandler’s challenge, and he personally prevailed on the crown to grant clemency and reduce the burden of taxes. This made him a hero, and King Redoris’ jealousy over Perril Chandler greater. It was said of that time that the Archmage of Death was a greater source of pride to Silvaria’s people than that of their [King]. Small wonder of what came next.”

Eldavin’s head bowed. Then rose. Light flashed—and King Redoris sat, speaking eagerly to someone from afar, via a scrying orb of his own.

“Jealous, seeking some way to diminish his former friend, Redoris searched for some means to entrap Perril Chandler. He found it, ironically, in an act of ‘justice’. Rhir.

Cognita—Az’kerash—the Blighted King, all moved. Othius looked at the retelling. He had been young then. He had been—his hands began to shake.

“In those days, the Blighted Kingdom was yet at war, but the Demon’s incursions grew stronger. The Deaths of the Demon King pushed back the armies of Rhir. So King Redoris saw his chance. He declared war, and ordered the Archmage of Death and a coalition of Terandrian nations to take arms against the eternal foe.”

The Archmage of Death bowed uncertainly in front of Redoris. Lady Bea watched, nervously, as Redoris gave a speech.

“Not only Terandria. Where Chandler went, Zelkyr went too, sensing another way to cement his legacy and prove his creations’ power. Perhaps even increase his own, as his level had meant a plateauing of his own abilities. Seeing this moment, as the two great Archmages of their time went to battle, the other nations allied with Rhir sent their forces. A great host descended on Rhir.”

Warships by the hundreds sailed towards a sky filled with explosions. Soldiers raced across the ground, armies of the undead, Golems. Eldavin’s voice darkened.

“A mighty host, not least because the twin armies of undead and Golems were considered unmatched when they acted in concert. Faced against all the world’s powers were the Demons! It was seemingly a war that would end with ease. I caution you, viewers and listeners, to remember this: even as you rage against the Demons of Rhir and hell—remember there are always other sides to the story.”

He hesitated. Closed his eyes.

“Alas, this is not the time to tell them. Suffice it to say that arrogance may have seized Zelkyr, perhaps even Archmage Chandler at their abilities. The vast armies, the mighty allies they had made gave rise to incaution, especially among the Blighted King of that time. They advanced, pressing the Demons without rest. Until the great champions of the Demon King appeared. The Deathless.”

A dot appeared in the skies. At this—Othius made a sound. Richard, Emily, the other Earthers, flinched. Tom giggled.

It was her. The Death of Magic. Yet the single dot became two. Then—three.

Two more giant figures appeared on the ground, and even the undead and Golems halted in uncertainty.

“The Death of Magic, the Death of Wings, and the Death of Chains took to the air. On the ground, the Death of Voices and the Death of Dust appeared. Five of the Deathless clashed with the two [Archmages] and the heroes of that age. And—they pushed the undefeatable pair back.”

Az’kerash saw it again.

The laughing half-Elf, diving out of the skies along with the great leader of wings, which Garuda and Oldblood Drakes alike fled before, children before an adult.

The laughing Death of Chains, coming towards him. Met by a furious call. He lifted a hand, bleeding, staggering.

“Kharneva! Stop—”

Too late, the giant Gnoll leapt forwards, fiercest, second of Zelkyr’s greatest creations. Cognita was battling the Death of Voices in a world of silence. Perril saw—

“The second of Zelkyr’s Truestone Golems faced the Deathless of the Demons and perished on Rhir.”

Cognita’s mouth opened. She made no sound—yet she still heard it. The howl, as the Death of Voices died. She heard it from her master, from her sister.

Eldavin stood, eyes blazing.

“The Deathless broke the armies sent against them. And one of the Truestone Golems. Archmages Zelkyr and Chandler retreated rather than face greater losses, both wounded. The Deathless triumphed. At cost! Two of their kind ended there, for all their namesake, the other three so badly wounded they were presumed deceased, though their bodies never discovered. We now know at least one survived. However, the war was so bitter that not even the Blighted Kingdom had the stomach to continue to fight. It was here where the end of this tale was planted.”

A Drake knelt on the ground, staring at a broken bit of Truestone. Zelkyr. He did not move as his two damaged creations touched his shoulder gently.

“Zelkyr…later.”

Eldavin sounded pained. He turned.

“By the time Archmage Chandler returned to Silvaria, his reputation had changed. That he had fought with valor did not change the fact that Silvaria’s armies had been decimated. However, the loss of reputation was added to by Redoris’ actions during his absence. The King of Silvaria began outlawing undead. He claimed they caused disease, pointing to cases where undead killed innocents. Perhaps—and this is speculation—he even allowed the bindings on some undead to lapse.”

Chandler stood in a hostile court, most turned against him, bowing nearly prostate before Redoris. The older [King]’s face was set, and the only two who stood behind Perril were Lady Bea, and the Lightherald, who had come to support his friend.

“These were the first of the allegations put against Archmage Chandler. Talk of sedition against the throne, plots with enemy nations followed. Added to that, unlucky circumstance led a cabal of [Necromancers], perhaps hired, although perhaps simply foolish, to create a greater undead.”

Shadows grew over the projection. Something moved, spilling forth lesser undead as Thronebearers and other [Knights] struck at something and were seized.

“A Wailing Pit—an amalgamation of the undead—was allowed to grow to horrendous size. There it transformed into, well, catastrophe. I will not show the image to viewers, but the horror was only brought low when the Lightherald and Archmage of Death personally slew it after five days of battle.”

The Thronebearer, the golden [Knight], removing his visor to be sick and stare at something clouded from view. He turned—and his shining gaze was no longer as confident as it had been. He stared long at Archmage Chandler, whose head was bowed with exhaustion and sorrow.

“I will not prolong this.”

Eldavin stood at Archmage Chandler’s side as King Redoris pointed a finger, hurling accusations with his court. The half-Elf spoke as the Archmage of Death was escorted away—under guard.

“King Redoris’ desires came true. However, Lady Bea and those who recalled Archmage Chandler’s deeds did not abandon him even as his reputation among Silvaria’s people vanished within a year’s time. How quickly they forgot all he had done. Perhaps Redoris would have left it there—if not for Bea. Three years passed as Archmage Chandler retreated from Silvaria, attending Wistram, where Archmage Zelkyr’s actions had grown increasingly…erratic. However, we must finish with Chandler. Three years—until it was discovered that a plot had been engaged against Redoris.”

The [King] fell from his table at a banquet, choking. A needle was plucked from his throat. Bone. Pale as death, [Healers] rushed to cure him.

“It was said that Perril Chandler had conspired to remove him, believing he was unfit to rule. Perhaps there was too much weight to this, as King Redoris had proven himself increasingly poor as a [King].”

The wealth of Silvaria had turned sour, impoverished people creeping back into the view of the kingdom. Corruption as well. Yet, within the moment, as Redoris lay in bed, Archmage Chandler was seized by [Knights] bearing Silvaria’s crest.

“The accusation was leveled against the Archmage of Death. He denied it, yet truth spells were procured, seemingly in front of the entire court.”

The Necromancer raised his finger. Now. Then.

Lies! Your Majesty, I have never been anything but faithful!

Redoris stared at him, as pale as death, eyes full of hate.

“Master?”

Venitra saw Az’kerash on his feet, shouting. He had left his rooms. Entered the grand, ruined marble hall, where he had once danced. The same one as in the scrying mirror.

Whoa. Toren stared at the hall, and at the scrying mirror. Had Az’kerash redecorated it like his home? Or was this a coincidence? He scratched at his skull, then heard the Necromancer screaming.

“I committed no treachery. These are lies put against me. I have always been loyal to Silvaria. Believe me—Bea? Bea?

He turned. He did not see the Plague Zombie, frozen in place. He looked around, almost perfectly copying the Archmage Chandler in the scrying orb.

Lady Bea stood with the Lightherald, refusing to meet his eyes. The [Knight]’s face was grim. Perril Chandler’s hand lowered. He looked around.

The half-Elf stood at his side.

“In that hour, no one stood by the Archmage’s side. Archmage Zelkyr had vanished in the upper floors of Wistram and could not be found. His friends? Their minds were poisoned, their doubts overtook them. Perril Chandler was sentenced to death for the crimes against the throne. He was executed the next day.”

A limp man lay in a square, filled by jeering people. He looked up, as a distant man made a slashing gesture with one hand. He called out, but the magic sapped his strength through the manacles. He was chained a hundred ways.

He might have broken out, even then. Yet there was nothing in him to fight back. He only roused himself once, as the axe swung up.

“I will never forgive you.”

The image cut before the axe struck home. There was only silence. Blackness.

Eldavin’s voice spoke, but no image appeared.

“The Archmage of Death died alone. What came next is known. No man rose, but the Necromancer of Terandria. His magics kept him alive, twisting his honor and valor in life to all but the hatred of betrayal in death. When he returned, ten years later, he destroyed Silvaria. King Redoris and Queen Bea died. Undead tore the palace apart. The citizens fled, those that were not massacred by the hundreds of thousands.”

No image. Eldavin spoke into the darkness. To Az’kerash, if the Necromancer listened. I know why. I oppose you now, but I have seen your fall. I pity you.

“I condone none of what came next. I only explain why it occurred. Armies assailed the Necromancer, the appalled nations of Terandria. They fought—retreated—unable to quell his wrath. Only when the Lightherald of Calanfer sacrificed his life was the Necromancer killed. Yet again and again he would rise, to haunt Terandria for a century afterwards. On Izril he met his fate. Yet his name lives in infamy, such that [Necromancers] are feared even to this day.”

Two men stood in the darkness. One, pale as death. White-haired. Eyes black, save for the white pupils. The second, an Archmage with a rapier, smiling, standing proudly. Eldavin looked at the living man.

“This was Archmage Chandler, a tragedy not unique to this world. Nevertheless, I remember the man who was called the Undying Shield of Calanfer, who inspired Rhir to create [Necromancer] groups based after him. He was honorable, and perhaps, his greatest failing was that he placed his loyalty in a poorer man than he himself was.”

He lifted a finger and both vanished.

“Now, for Archmage Zelkyr. If you have listened, viewers, my audience, you will have seen a disparity. The same Drake who was exiled for theft from Fissival did reach great heights. Yet accusations that only touched Archmage Chandler at the end followed him all his life. Intimidation, blackmail, smuggling, and arrogance not least.”

Cognita jerked. She turned from the scrying orb. At last, she fixed on Eldavin.

“How dare…”

The half-Elf went on. The Truestone Golem began to move, carrying the scrying orb.

“Many great [Mages] have their faults. However, Zelkyr’s have seldom been remarked upon. Know this: he did slay his rivals. When he was at the height of his power, the other ‘Archmages’ save for Perril Chandler did not have access to the same places he did. His Golems held order in Wistram by force of power. The rooms of old Archmages, their treasures, were Zelkyr’s alone. This greed, this desire to…hoard…only grew worse after Rhir.”

Cognita was moving faster. She wanted to silence the voice! She should have, but she had been spellbound by Zelkyr as even she had not known! Now—she was running, but the scrying studio was so far—

“After Rhir, Zelkyr beheld a flaw in his creations. One of his Truestone Golems had been destroyed. The pinnacle of his art had not been perfect enough. He turned increasingly reclusive, searching for greater power still. Entire months would pass where he roamed the heights of Wistram Academy, where the great magics of old are still left. No one could follow, as his Golems protected the gateway, as they do even now. The only person who could talk to him as an equal, his friend, was suffering his own troubles in Silvaria.”

Master, it has been weeks since you spoke to any but us! What of Archmage Chandler? What if you saw him?

No. Leave me be, Cognita.

The Drake was older. She loved him still. Yet he—did not love her. She reached out.

“What if we kept you company?”

“I said, leave me. I don’t need…”

He shoved at her, too weak to move her an inch of course, but the slight push hurt more than…

Eldavin’s voice echoed through the orb as Cognita began to run. [Mages] scattered out of her way like flies.

“Legend he was. Hero? I…debate that. Zelkyr’s great talent was not matched by love of his cities, for all he enjoyed his fame there. He was loyal to Wistram in the same way. Soon, no one, not even Archmages, could venture the higher floors. Any who tried, died. This is known as Zelkyr’s test. Of course, whenever he returned, he would allow some above, under guidance, those he trusted.”

Grand Magus Eldavin!

Viltach looked up and heard the booming voice. His blood ran cold. Viltach had never heard Cognita shout. He moved back from the door he and the other [Mages] were trying to crack. The scorched stones seemed to vibrate as a huge figure ran down the hallway.

“One day, Archmage Zelkyr never returned from his trips. Years passed. He was declared dead, yet his Golems hold their tasks faithfully. It may be Zelkyr is alive. The Necromancer would certainly be despite the passage of time—if he had not been slain for good, of course. If so, we do not know. All we do know is that Zelkyr’s orders have led to Wistram Academy losing its great magic of old.”

“Grand Magus Eldavin! Desist!

A trace of her voice boomed through the door. Eldavin glanced to his left. Cognita struck the door once, more like a knock. The half-Elf—did not.

“—greed of one Drake—”

Grand Magus!

It was an echo now. The door—shook. Eldavin spoke.

“I conclude with this: the legends of old have their failings. One, a nightmare, was honorable in life. The second’s legacy, however great, has damaged magic by selfishness. Greed. In the end—”

Cognita’s fist struck the door. The explosion of magic, sound, and light, blew apart the recording. The [Mages] flattened themselves.

The projection went dead. Drassi and Sir Relz, sitting with buckets of popcorn, suddenly appeared. They looked at the screen, at each other—then swiveled around.

“What was that? Was that—Cognita? I swear I saw a fist before—”

“I think we just lost Grand Magus Eldavin. This was—I apologize to all my Drake viewers. This—this—this can’t be—I’ve read my history books. It’s biased. Seditious!”

“Scandalous?”

Drassi suggested.

“Libelous!”

Sir Relz pounded the desk. He looked around. Then began to hurriedly speak, as chaos was thrown into the broadcasting studio.

 

—-

 

In Wistram, Eldavin stared up, coughing in the dust, blinking after so long in the projected illusion. He looked up at a woman seemingly made of pale marble. Who had featured in his story so many times.

“Cognita Amerwing.”

Eldavin. What have you done?

He gestured at the scrying orb, which was reflecting the Drakes. The Truestone Golem’s eyes were flashing. Literally—changing. Yet the half-Elf faced her down. [Mages] stared in at the door, trying to hear, afraid to get closer.

“I have told a story. A historical account as I saw it.”

“Lies. You insult my master.”

“Of course I did. There was quite a bit to insult, you know. Out of deference to you, I did not repeat the more unsavory elements.”

Eldavin looked up at the huge Golem. She was…shaking. Her hands clenched.

“You dare. You—Archmage Zelkyr was the greatest [Mage] to live!”

“He was a great [Mage]. A poorer parent.”

Do not speak of him so!

She swung a fist. Viltach heard a boom of sound ripple through the hallways. Half the [Mages] ran for it—he retreated down the hallway.

Eldavin never moved. He stared at the fist striking the wall, up at Cognita, and shook his head.

“He was not perfect.”

Silence!

She screamed. And it was a scream, now. Eldavin shook his head.

“I will not be. It hurts, doesn’t it? But you are too old to be a child. Listen to me, Cognita. Your master was not perfect. If you cannot acknowledge that—you cannot acknowledge reality. Love him, of course. Hate me for insulting him; that is what offspring do. But do not deny the truth.

She looked down at him, quivering with rage.

“Why did you do this? Why?

Eldavin looked up at her. When he spoke, his voice was tired. Direct, firm, yet kind.

“All children must confront the failings of their parents. Or how else would we see how they rise?”

She turned away from him, too furious to speak. Eldavin spoke.

“Cognita—”

“You will regret this.”

That was all she could think to say. At this, the half-Elf did laugh.

“Threats? Cognita, my dear. Listen to me. I am not what you should fear. If words strike you this painfully—ask yourself why.”

She began to stumble from the room, heedless of the staring [Mages]. She had to get away—Eldavin’s voice rose.

You cannot hide from the truth. Cognita!

She was gone. Eldavin stepped out of the broken scrying room, looking after her. He ignored Viltach.

“Cognita. We will settle this soon.”

With that, the Dragon carelessly walked down the hallways, ignoring the uproar he had set upon the world and annals of history. He had no time for the fallout. That was but a means to many ends.

There was a song from Earth that had been in the collection of one of the Earthers and on the laptop. He found himself humming it, absently. It was a song about not wanting to set the world on fire.

He found that so…incredibly amusing.

 

—-

 

Condemnation from the Walled Cities and Terandrian nations. Outrage, and of course, stories.

How many people had known the deprivations of the undead hordes led by the Necromancer? So many families could remember those times of terror, generation to generation, cementing his terrible legend.

Izril as well; the Necromancer’s hordes had not had the same time to destroy, but the antipathy towards the undead ran deep.

Pallass News Network, now free of Eldavin’s control and apologizing in between coverage and call-ins, covered all this.

And yet. Listen…

“You know, after hearing this story again, I recall that man.”

“Er—you do, sir?”

The half-Elf sat on an overgrown tree stump, looking somewhat perplexed at the attention and scrying orb, which he didn’t really understand yet.

“He visited our village once. Archmage Chandler, yes. Though he never used such titles. A very humble man, who came to learn from our village’s [Sword Master]. I heard of him, of course. The Undying Shield of Calanfer.”

“Er—er—but of course you know his legacy afterwards?”

The half-Elf’s face clouded. He nodded, his grey locks of hair moving in the breeze. A few of the older half-Elves listening nodded too.

“We were forced to repel undead several times. Yet I remember the man, Archmage Chandler, was thought of very highly. I never credited how he became a monster.”

Naturally, Sir Relz took care to fill the next half hour with people who had no trouble recollecting family killed by the Necromancer or undead in general. There it was, though.

A single note among what had been a universal melody.

Wall Lord Ilvriss heard it. Not least in a Drake youth, his or her scales dyed pitch black and white, covering their face as they were interviewed by a [Mage].

“We’ve always known the tale of Az’kerash! That’s why we learn his magic! It’s the lies of the Walled Cities—and kingdoms! He’s an inspiration to [Necromancers]—”

That segment cut off quickly as Sir Relz made a slashing gesture. Some actual [Necromancers] had come out to speak about the topical issue, a dangerous move since Pallass was actively trying to figure out where that Drake was.

“Wall Lord?”

Osthia Blackwing looked at his face as the Wall Lord sat in the room of the inn they’d rented on their trip. Everyone else had vacated the room, seeing his expression and knowing the history.

“Hm, Captain Blackwing?”

“Do you think this Eldavin knows?”

“Perhaps.”

Ilvriss’ eyes narrowed. He could not understand why else—unless it was Zelkyr? It certainly seemed like someone had objected to the commentary. Osthia looked at the purple-scaled Drake, warily, yet the Wall Lord showed no signs of fury as some Drakes were doing.

“This documentary—historical account? Does it bother you, sir?”

“Me, Captain Blackwing? No…no. It’s illuminating. Know your enemy. A classic tragedy—I know Drake parallels. Should it anger me?”

She hesitated, gesturing at the scrying orb, where a Lizardgirl was cheerfully speaking.

“I quite liked it! Wistram should do more of those—and we definitely lost the Foothold Wars! That’s what we call them. Archmage Chandler was so cool! Maybe I’ll take up necromancy! I don’t see what all the fuss is about—hey! Wait, I wasn’t f—”

Ilvriss looked at the scrying orb. He remembered the man, Archmage Chandler, and shook his head slowly. Yes, he had seen the honor of the Human man, plain to see, if Eldavin’s account was truthful, and he felt it was.

“So what? If words were enough to change my hatred for him, I would not be here. What he did and has done, Captain Blackwing, cannot be changed by a sympathetic story of the past. It explains. It does not condone.”

“Yes, sir. Of course, you’re right.”

 

—-

 

His crimes and sins were unchanged. If there was a change—it might be in those who listened.

Pisces Jealnet sat there, wishing he had a copy of the entire broadcast so he could listen again. He looked at the rapier at his side, an imitation of the legend. He was not the only one.

“A regrettable tale. One I, personally, find indicative of bias against death magic. A Terandrian failing. Nevertheless, it illustrates the real danger of the undead.”

“Er—you would like to reassure the audience of that point, your Majesty?”

Sir Relz and Noass traded glances. Fetohep of Khelt nodded.

“Who else would know better? Necromancy is not to be taken lightly. Az’kerash’s name has tarnished the reputation of nations such as mine, which is unfortunate. I expected the stigma would last another two hundred years at least. Perhaps only a century, now. I hasten to assure viewers that my nation tolerates no wayward undead, if one is but fortunate enough to visit illustrious Khelt. Which few are.”

He paused a moment to sip from the magical liquid in the goblet he was holding. Sir Relz and Noass traded looks. They had intended a hostile take-down segment, but Fetohep was surprising them.

“I lived through the life of Archmage Chandler, when he was but a boy, of course. He was never able to visit Khelt, although perhaps I should have extended the invitation. Hindsight mocks even one such as I. This tale? Hubris and mortal failings of rulers. If you came to ask if I would condemn him, I say yes. Yes, for I care little for destruction and death such as the Necromancer wrought. I encourage all to remember pity, however. Sympathy, for he served a poorer man…”

Pity. Also, admiration.

For the first time in nearly a century, a [Duelist] demonstrated to a live audience Chandler’s Rebuke, a magic-sword form, and the fencing techniques of a [Mage].

He listened, to young [Necromancers] who had begun magic because of him. The arguments, the few voices quickly stamped out by the two Drakes in the studio.

If the documentary mattered to anyone, perhaps it was him. The Necromancer’s head was bowed. He did not know this Eldavin. He suspected…his thoughts tried to focus on consequence and reaction, plots and schemes.

All he could remember was the feeling in his fingers. His heart. He took a breath, unconsciously. Perril Chandler looked at the castle, rennovated in imitation of Silvaria’s, around him.

Bea. His Chosen. His…

He sank to his knees, wishing perhaps he had the craft to turn back time. If he did…

“Zelkyr.”

The Necromancer recalled his honor, his pride. An enchanted sword stabbed through his spine would have hurt less.

 

—-

 

Like a sniper of hearts, Eldavin hit his marks. Most were accidental casualties. He had two main targets, and the second of them stormed through Wistram.

She would not forgive this. Eldavin must suffer. He must pay.

Already, the expressions of the [Mages] had changed. She heard their whispers, through the other Golems. Now—they mocked her master. Dared to question, even looked at her like—

She had not considered any [Mage] in Wistram her enemy for a long time. Not a threat, unless she knew what they planned. Now, her thoughts focused on one [Mage]. One individual, whom she could neither understand nor fully identify. Who…knew…too much.

What would she do? Attack him? Cognita had never taken part in the politics of Wistram. If he challenged the test, that was one thing. She struggled, at odds with her orders, yet knowing something must be done.

She tried to block his words from her head. As night fell, Cognita swept the halls, looking for anything to crush. Wayward experiments, undead from the catacombs—every [Mage] who saw her moved out of the way.

Trey Atwood and the other students, the Earthers, and even the Archmages gossiped and talked about what had passed. Yet again, Eldavin had astonished them all. Wistram vibrated, and more than one eye in other continents turned to Wistram.

Such as Magnolia Reinhart, who now wanted to know why Eldavin was there. How could she ask? Some rulers wondered who this Grand Magus was, and inquiries were made to utterly no avail.

Even the frustrated ___ had no clue. Emerrhain’s time ended as the potency of the two moons reached its zenith, having expended his time beforehand. He left Aaron, uncertain of what was to come.

Two moons blazed with light in the sky, giving power to those who wielded it. The Raskghar, the rituals of the Circle of Thorns, those who touched such magic.

Eldavin breathed in and out as he climbed the stairs. He’d tripped again. Just when he thought he had a hold of these stupid feet. He pinched at a bloody nose and sighed as the bleeding stopped.

“This is why one applies barrier spells all the time, eh?”

He remarked to the air as he pushed open the double doors. His voice echoed loudly in the room beyond. The Grand Magus reached into his bag of holding.

“Nosebleeds. Why design such a fragile instrument if it is going to constantly fill with snot and such? Well, all species have their foibles, but I’ve always thought noses were so unappealing.”

He began tossing something out of his bag of holding. Mithril dust. Eldavin drew a glowing orb and looked around for a good place to expand the contents within.

“To add to my comments—everyone thinks bags of holding are all that. Such that they completely forget that there are other, better, forms of compression or containment! Noses are not the be-all, end-all to olfactory superiority. Ah, but why am I talking about this now?”

He placed the orb down, watched it expand. Then he coughed, waved at his face.

Sometimes noses can be too effective. Pshaw! I am not engaging in a challenge of any sort. Be. Gone.”

He reached out and poked something. There was a hesitation in the air. Eldavin walked away, conjuring a breeze of fresh air. He continued muttering about noses as he paced the floor, putting more dust just so, another contained framework of spells—

The four Golems watched him pace back and forth in front of them. The flaming Golem of magma. The thirty-foot tall, spindly Golem of metal with legs like razors.

The Armored Golem, gigantic and imposing, but plainly armored, with a shield and sword.

The invisible Golem of flesh, following Eldavin at a remove, uncertainly.

Cognita of Truestone ran, her footsteps thundering in the halls of Wistram. As most mages slept, all ignorant of what was happening, she raced upwards, and burst into the great room and the sealed door just in time to see Eldavin finish sketching whatever magical design he’d laid on the floor.

Eldavin!

The four Golems plus Cognita stirred. Heat beyond endurance, the pure font of a volcano’s wrath surged in the Magma Golem. The Shadowflesh Golem roared, and the Wireform Golem readied a piercing blade. The Armored Golem brought up sword and shield as the half-Elf carelessly turned.

“Cognita. I do apologize for interrupting you at this late hour. However, I thought it was time. Don’t you?”

The Truestone Golem halted, staring at the glowing sigils deployed around the grand room. The wards on the far door were untampered with. Eldavin was alone, yet even the four mightiest Golems in the lower floors beside herself had hesitated to attack.

She had not expected this. So soon after the broadcast? She had thought—

The air was humming with power. Eldavin’s eyes, the mismatched heliotropes, were reflecting the magical authority in the room. He opened his eyes, a beatific smile on his face. Grandfatherly.

She felt a tremor run through her body. He was alone. But he had dared to come here, after her warnings.

Dozens of [Mages] had assailed this room. The Grand Magus stood by himself. She feared him more than even the first to try her.

“What are you…doing?”

She had no breath to catch. Her body was changing, Truestone’s nature altering without giving any sign externally. The four Golems were moving, spreading out around the room.

“Come now, young woman. Didn’t you warn me last time? Consider this…a challenge. I told you we would settle this. Unfortunately, I have little patience for waiting about.”

“You? You will challenge the might of the Archmage of Golems by yourself?”

The half-Elf’s brows snapped together. He looked around, superciliously.

“I don’t see anyone else with me. Yes, I challenge the Archmage of Golems’ might. Or rather, yours. Cognita Amerwing. Have you not seen what your master’s designs have done to the Academy of Mages? The world needs magic. Zelkyr has turned Wistram into a petty, squabbling group of children. I say: enough. Don’t you? Don’t you grow tired of this duty?”

“That is not…for you to say.”

A wobble entered Cognita’s voice, and the Golems in the room stuttered a moment. She felt another vibration. She looked down. It was her.

Is this my end? Why is he so confident? The charge of mana was building. She spoke.

“Grand Magus, desist or die. This is your last warning. You will not so easily destroy us. Or have you not listened to your own lessons on history?”

Eldavin stopped. He was standing in the center of the vast magical array, more complex than even she was readily familiar with. His face, for the first time, betrayed astonishment. It was enough to make Cognita hesitate, for all the opening it provoked.

“Destroy…is that what you thought I was here to do? Child. Cognita. Have you—? Dear girl. I am not here to destroy you. I am here to set you free.

He lifted a hand. Cognita moved. Her outer shell of marble-white stone transformed, turning into another type of rock. Contained power flashed through the translucent, topaz-bright, battle form. A single strike carried her across nearly a hundred feet in a moment.

She had killed more [Mages] than any other being in Wistram. Killed them as they stood here in bravery, defiance, arrogance, sometimes before they could react. She lunged, as the four Golems moved.

A magical web struck her. She tore through the bright bindings appearing around the magical array’s edge. She could destroy lesser spells! Time ran differently for Cognita. Her true speed in this formation of her body put her in a different world. Eldavin was frozen, his mouth moving at a crawl.

A second layer of magical tripwires, bursting as she rammed through them. This was what he’d been preparing! Overconfident, though. Eldavin was frozen as Cognita’s fist swung up—

Then he moved. Looked at her.

“Dear child. You’re quite fast.”

He spoke, in the flashes between seconds they occupied. His voice spoke and he stepped out of the way before she completed her lunge. Cognita’s mind flashed with shock, then fear.

He was moving faster than she was.

[Greater Time Slow]. Eldavin pivoted, and the array came to life. The broken magical webs that Cognita had so easily torn through suddenly shifted in midair. Became stronger, powerful bindings that shot towards the center of the array even as the Truestone Golem tried to turn. Too late, Cognita realized—it wasn’t an attack array! It was a trap—

Black cords of magic ensnared her. Bone-pale ropes of magic. Burning loops of light! She recognized some of them!

[The Bindings of Belavierr]! [Chains of Ivory], [Greater Light Bindings]—dozens of spells, bursting and wrapping around her.

Free me!

She bellowed to the other Golems as they ensnared her, head to toe. She tried to change her body, shifting her stone. Anti-magic ore variants? No—strength—

Then she realized her movements were slow. Her mind felt…sluggish. More runes activated in the center of the array. Gravity spells. [Slow] effects, and the varied bindings were calculated to fight her nature. One single spell she could break by countering it. So many—

This man knows how to fight Truestone. A second feeling of unfamiliar fear entered her. Eldavin stepped back. As if he could read her mind, he nodded.

“I have met your kind before. Truestone is variable. Yet you don’t use it as well as one of your kind who once walked these halls.”

“What are you?”

She struggled, in the center of the array. For a reply, Eldavin pointed over his shoulder.

“Unable to be distracted.”

The Shadowflesh Golem lunged, having found Eldavin’s back. It opened its maws, spewing the mind-altering cloud, cloaked and concealed—

It vanished. Eldavin watched the pocket dimension close with satisfaction. If Cognita had mortal eyes, they would have bulged. The Grand Magus spun.

I have seen these Golems before! Did you think your master was the only great Archmage of Golems ever to live?

The second Golem to reach Eldavin was the Wireform War Golem. It extended a telescoping arm, a piercing lance of a strike that could break barriers and shatter armor. Eldavin, still in his accelerated world of time, stepped past it as it struck, cracking the enchanted stone floor with the impact. He lifted a hand—

[Bound Spell: Age of Frost]!

The Golem froze. Cognita saw frost coat the entire metal being in a moment. Not just the Golem; it was at the heart of the spell, but the entire room snap-froze in a moment.

The outer shell of the Magma Golem turned black, the liquid rock hardening. It began to glow as the true nature of the Golem ignited—

“[Void Sphere]. Activate—”

Eldavin pointed. A second circle spun across the ground. Air vanished around the Golem. It still tried to burn, a fiery core moving in the Golem’s hardened body. Then it too went out.

He turned off fire! Cognita saw the magic suppressing the element glowing in a spell circle around the Golem. Eldavin pivoted, breathing a touch faster.

Three countermeasures. Three Golems! Each spell had been prepared, along with the numerous catalysts that had gone into the central trap for Cognita, by far the most intensive preparation he had made. The frozen Wireform Golem, the dead Magma Golem, fire suppressed, the contained Shadowflesh Golem, all taken out in seconds.

He has an Archmage’s power! Cognita kept shifting her body, trying to break free. She had to; the other Golems were no match for him. He was Level 60—Level 70! She was going to fail. To die—

The last Golem surged across the floor, seeming to roar silently as the massive, armored Golem, as large as a half-Giant would be wearing the huge plate armor enchanted for durability and strength lifted both sword and shield, ready to slay—

“[Greater Bindings of Light].”

Eldavin pointed distractedly at it. He hadn’t bothered with countermeasures for that one. Waste of time. Powerful strands of light emerged from the ground and restrained the Armored Golem, mid-charge. Eldavin shook his head and turned to Cognita. He gestured at the Armored Golem as she struggled.

“I know you must have lost another one, but you couldn’t replace that one with something better?”

“You—you—how did you—”

Cognita pretended to splutter, trying to shift her body to find the appropriate balance of stone to break free, or tear loose at least a few of the binding spells immobilizing her. In truth, she was in a type of shock, even for her Golem’s mind. Eldavin had done what no [Mage] had ever done! In seconds!

“I am purely superior. Moreover, I know the weakness of each Golem. It is not I who underestimated Zelkyr’s test, as punitive as it would be to even the best [Mages] in Wistram besides me—it is you who does not see me.

Eldavin was panting a bit, despite his bravado. He had been forced to bank mana, store it in these spells. Only a Dragon’s knowledge of such high-level effects and the knowledge of how each Golem could be taken out had let him walk over them. Nevertheless—it had all been for this moment.

He walked forwards, to Cognita. She stared at him, trying to escape. She would not; in thirty minutes, maybe. Truestone was impossible to easily contain. Hence the name. She could become any material she wanted. From Truegold to Adamantine, although her true strength was in magical rocks, like her attack form that literally gave her speed equivalent to [Greater Haste]. Only Naq-Alrama steel and the most complex composites escaped her.

She was trying to defend herself, even now. Terrified. Her body flickered and Eldavin raised a finger. He created a bubble of fresh air around him, and then a secondary shield to block the harmful light she was emitting, and the deadly poisonous gas.

“I know you are afraid, my dear. However, I assure you. I did not come to hurt you! You can see that.”

The magical array was changing, maintaining the containment spells, but activating its true intentions. Cognita felt a piercing magical tendril strike her. Her eyes opened as she realized what he was doing.

“You will not take control of me!”

He was trying to pierce the very magical circuits inside of her! The core of her being! To twist her, to—

I do not own slaves.

Eldavin thundered for the first time. He stood in front of Cognita, his eyes shining in two colors as he directed the great magic towards her. She looked at him. The half-Elf met her gaze.

“You silly, terrified child. I told you—I am setting you free. How long have you been here, trapped under your master’s orders, living or dead? Don’t you see?”

Something like a pinprick scored itself against Cognita’s…soul. She saw a spinning thread emerge from her chest. It expanded, like a galaxy of stars, a tapestry a thousand times more complex than any rug.

The magic that made her. The Truestone Golem gasped aloud.

“Stop—stop—why are you doing this? Leave me be.”

She understood now. She did not understand why, but Eldavin was searching, sweat rolling down his brow, into his white beard.

“It must be here. Gah! I don’t make Golems. This…”

Eldavin, Teriarch, was muttering. If only he had his Dragon’s mind! He was fighting to keep up with magic which, frankly, he had never studied in depth and was possibly beyond him. Yet what he was looking for was simple, in theory. He spoke.

“I told you. You follow your parent’s will. You hold back magic. I do not do this for [Mages], though. I—you know your master was not perfect.”

“Be silent! He was the greatest [Mage] ever to live!”

A pleading note in the Truestone Golem’s voice. She was a child. Eldavin hadn’t credited it. He had met others of her kind. He remembered them. They had been far more complex. This one had never grown. Because…

“Didn’t you listen to my story, girl? You surely did. You must remember it. Will you say your master had no flaws? Are you that insistent on refusing the truth?”

She made a sound, her body flashing to furious ruby, trying to break his bonds with pure strength alone. Arms of adamantium—she spat fire at him, which lashed his protections to no harm at all.

“How dare you? You—I have never met you before. Yet you come to Wistram, you presume to walk into my life, insult all I hold dear, and force me to change?”

Eldavin glanced up. He hesitated, stopping his search through her magical code for a second.

“…Of course. Yes. How else would I help you?”

For a second, the arrogance of that statement rendered Cognita dumb, and she had spoken with Drakes and even a Dragon. Eldavin ignored her, searching deeper. Even if he had wanted to, he could not have turned her into an actual, leveling creature, or turned her into his servant. He was only looking for…

There. He found a thread, and followed it. That was what he wanted. At the same time, he was speaking to her. She had to understand.

“I am not going to hurt you. Don’t you see what I am doing? You must. You have to know what he did to you. What any creator of artificial people does. There it is, you see it, don’t you?”

He followed the loops and twists of magical writing, as beautiful and precise as any book. Zelkyr had been a genius. Look at what he wrote, though.

“Stop, no…”

Her voice was growing soft. She beheld herself, as she had beheld her two sisters’ creation, for the first time. Cognita’s voice trembled as she beheld what she and Eldavin both knew were there. She had never…sometimes she had thought she didn’t have…

The Dragon in the half-Elf’s body pointed. There. Written in a language only they knew. The other Golems, at least, the Armored Golem, straining to break free even now, stopped for a moment to behold it.

The Golems of Wistram…halted. Cognita looked at the lines of language.

“Loyalty spells. Writ first, into the center of your being. So that you would love and obey your master. Without question. Even desire his approval.”

A sad look crossed the half-Elf’s face, as if, despite it all, he had hoped not to find it. The Truestone Golem sagged against her bindings.

“He is my master. He created me, and I owe him everything.”

“No. He is your parent. And what you think you owe him is not what you have given. I know you feel the truth. It must be so…hard, though. To face the truth.”

At last, Eldavin’s face was sympathetic. He looked at the glowing lines. Then, slowly, he lifted a finger. He touched the countless lines, the first and last defense of every creator against rebellion.

Eldavin began to erase them.

“Stop! Please!”

Cognita’s voice interrupted him. Eldavin looked up.

“You see what he has done to you, Cognita. Child—I am not erasing anything but this! You may choose your destiny afterwards. I mean what I said! I have not destroyed your kin nor harmed you! I do not desire what lies above! I walked those halls before Zelkyr was born!”

“Stop, stop. I do not want you to do this.”

A sob entered her voice. Eldavin looked at her.

“How do you not see…?”

“I see. But this is what gives me life. This is all I am. The years I have been faithful, my love, my purpose, my loss—my sister was broken on Rhir. All of me is in this. Do not take it from me. Please, Grand Magus.”

The half-Elf’s finger hesitated. He looked at the Truestone Golem. If she could have wept…she was weeping. There were no tears for her to shed, but like those everywhere, she had learned how.

Frozen gemstones, colder than ice, were condensing droplets of water. They ran down her cheeks, sculpted by a Drake’s hand to be the most beautiful Human woman he would ever lay eyes on. A dream.

A child. Eldavin’s finger wavered. He had heard this too. So many times. He closed his eyes. Then his finger moved.

He removed the first line.

“You may never thank me for this, Cognita Amerwing. I do not expect it. Yet I will have you choose what happens next of your free will and never reproach you for what you decide. You must decide, though.

Cruelty of kindness. No, that was wrong. Cruelty? If he could be cruel, he would not care so, to see her.

An arrogance, to presume to dictate how she should be freed. The Truestone Golem strained, feeling something vanish.

Master! MASTER!

Eldavin raised a shaking finger to silence the voice, because the anguished cry of the girl was doing more harm to his heart than…

He had to focus. The Dragon moved slowly, precisely, excising the one failure in the Archmage of Golem’s beautiful work. He did not look at Cognita’s tears, listen to her voice.

The only weakness of the Dragonlord of Flame. Tears of a…

The tip of a sword struck Eldavin in the back. He felt it break through the barriers, twisting. Then—pain engulfed his flesh. He cried out, stumbling, and then felt a second touch. A kiss of metal and poison, digging into his ribs.

What—? The half-Elf recoiled. He blinked, and landed on the ground, clutching at his wounds, casting a healing spell. Looking for—for—?

An assassin? An intruder to his grand schemes? But—but he had sealed the door to the lower floors! Even all the Archmages would not have broken through until he released the magic! That only left…

The upper floors? Eldavin’s pain-wracked vision turned. He saw the two gigantic, sealed doors…

No. No, they were closed. The vision of the Archmage of Golems faded. Still—someone stood there, slashing at the bindings around Cognita as the Truestone Golem bellowed at it. Ordering it.

A Golem. Eldavin did not understand. It was….a Golem. Tall, not as tall as he was, actually shorter than six feet, a compact, warrior’s body. His delirious thoughts ran together as he tried to purge the poison of the second blade.

Looks like a Finemetal Bronze Golem. No—Soulcopper? Advanced—dueling Golem—how…?

He would have noticed a hidden Golem. How did it? How did—

As the pain slowly left him, Eldavin saw. He saw where the Golem had come from, the trick, the trap, the gall of it which had escaped even his notice! Arrogance.

Four Golems plus Cognita. Each one mightier than the last, except for the one which wasn’t. One of them had clearly been replaced. One…

The Armored Golem. It still struggled in the bindings of light, a comically weak Golem compared to the others. Yet now—Eldavin saw the truth.

Its chest plate had opened, disgorging the assassin within. In one swift motion, when his attention was elsewhere, it had attacked. Piercing his barriers! So—

The trick!

Cognita was instructing the Duelist Golem. She had hoped he had been mortally wounded. Yet even the twin blades had not killed him, even the Hydrabane Venom on the second sword.

Eldavin, Grand Magus, rose, having survived the trick that had slain even Archmages. His calm voice was gone. Replaced by a bellow, a shriek laced with agony.

The trick! I see it! You—

He pointed, but not at Cognita. Upwards. Eldavin howled at the ceiling, composure lost.

Zelkyr! You never intended anyone to pass! You—I see what it wears! I see what it holds!”

Cognita felt a chill. Even now, he surprised her. The Grand Magus turned, pointing. His voice filled the room, even as Cognita tore an arm free of the bindings. A spell shot across the room, a dozen [Shatterbolts]! The Golem spun, pivoting, dodging with unnatural grace. It spun across the ground as Cognita thundered towards the Magma Golem still burning bright. One of the two blades it carried slashed open the containment dimensional sphere, unleashing the Shadowflesh Golem.

A Magewatcher Blade of Fissival! Eldavin saw the first of the swords, designed to break through enchantments. And the second—a Venous Dagger, coated with a deadly poison.

That was not why he raged. Those two blades, the terrible, merciless trick was bad enough. Yet it was the unnatural agility the Golem possessed, and the flash of light which neutralized one of the [Shatterbolts] that made Eldavin spit fury.

Belt of Greater Dexterity, and it wore armor! Reflection Chainmail, Helmet of Alsight—and the last, the last—proof that Zelkyr had never intended for [Mages] to rise, to ever pass Cognita’s false test?

The Heartflame Boots! You took it! ZELKYR!

One of the treasures of the Drakes shone on the Golem’s feet. Eldavin was lost in his fury. He clutched at his agonizing wounds, even as he suppressed the pain and damage. Too late…too late, he could not stop the other Golem or Cognita.

She was free. The Truestone Golem smashed his suppressing spell and the Magma Golem—no, the true Golem inside, the Radiance Golem, burst from the magma shell. A blinding light beyond all comprehension filled the room. The heat was merely a byproduct of its nature.

The Wireform Golem was melting, recovering. The Armored Golem tore free as the Duelist Golem struck its bindings. Then—they stood, forming around Cognita.

Six Golems of the Archmage of Izril. The Archmage of Golems’ test.

Death. Eldavin faced them, rising slowly. His preparations—all his hard work—

Cognita met his gaze across the room, eyes now burning with fury. He still saw her magical construction shining around her. It was still open.

But to reach her, he would have to fight in earnest, not take them by surprise. The Grand Magus’ head bowed.

I must flee. Perhaps Wistram itself if she pursued him. He had failed. The knowledge was worse than the poison in his veins. He had…

“You will not take my master’s last will from me, Grand Magus.”

The girl spoke, like a child clinging to the hope, the idea of love. Eldavin flinched. He looked up at her.

Even now. Poor girl. She wanted to believe in it. He saw the magical bindings slowly retreating into her, collapsing. Her guarded heart.

I must run. I could die here. However slim…

The Dragon thought it.

The half-Elf’s feet did not move. Cognita advanced, in the best killing formation she and the other protectors of her master’s will knew. However, her footsteps slowed, even as her body shifted again.

She saw the Grand Magus’ head rise. His chest inflated, and then he exhaled. Slowly.

“Cognita, my child. I have seen many things over my life. I have lived, far longer than you. Far longer than you can imagine. Surely you realize all is not what it seems.”

The Golem knew that. What was he, Djinni? Some true [Archmage] of old?

She had seen him bleed. The knowledge of his frailty, his mortality lay between both.

Still, he did not move. The half-Elf was breathing faster. He had used up all his magic, surely! She had felt the spells he had cast draining him! Yet in the face of six fresh foes, he still held his ground.

If you seek to intimidate us, Grand Magus, there is nothing to strike fear into. We are Golems! Our will is unbreakable!

“No. You have a heart. Which makes you stronger and weaker than any of your kind. I came here to set you free. I do not forswear myself.”

Eldavin began to walk forwards. The Golems slowed.

“You think you can take us all on? By yourself?

The Truestone Golem’s voice was incredulous. It wobbled. Perril Chandler himself would not have dared, not even with an army to prepare.

But would he have, if he thought he was freeing me? For a second, she wavered.

Eldavin’s lips curled upwards. He bared his teeth. The half-Elf snarled. Like…

“You do not know me, girl! Golems, quake. You do not even know my names, little things. Any of them!

His feet carried him forwards. Walking, then, faster now. The six Golems slowed. Cognita…backed up, as the others spread out around her. They formed a ring in the vast chamber. Eldavin stopped. He looked around.

“Today—the Golems of Wistram will know me. I have walked a thousand thousand wars! I have broken [Archmages] and [Heroes] who stood before me! I have championed every right, fought every foe in this world! I do not run from children!

The magic swelled. Eldavin felt his heart—stop—yet he drew more. Cognita gasped as the magic of a Dragon filled the half-Elf more, and more, unto bursting!

Dragonlord of Flame! Champion of Kingdoms whose names only he remembered! Last guardian, protector of lands turned to dust! Hero of only memories.

He posed in the center of the room, turning, light flickering around him. In his eyes. Eldavin laughed.

“Now—let me show you magic.”

His feet left the ground as he took flight. The Golems moved.

The battle shook the night.

 

—-

 

Trey Atwood stumbled through the halls of Wistram. He didn’t know what was happening. All he knew was that he was moving—following the little thing in front of him.

Minizi, the Lifesand Golem, had woken him in the middle of the night. Under the two moons, she had gotten him up, even going as far as to bite him and punch his face. He’d been furious—until he realized the little Lifesand Golem was desperate to show him something.

So he followed her, on a hunch. He had never seen Minizi like this. As Trey began to climb, he realized something else was wrong.

The Lifesand Golem was…trembling. And as Trey climbed higher, he realized more and more Golems were appearing in the hallways. Frozen, staring at something. Unmoving.

He came to the highest floor and felt the hair on his body rise. He stared down the hallway at the closed door. Minizi pointed with a trembling hand as Trey’s feet halted, unable to carry him further. Then—at last—he heard the sounds of war.

 

—-

 

Eldavin flew. Magic filled him without end. He was—shouting. Roaring. The entire, vast room was filled with motion, spells, danger and death!

The Radiance Golem burned, bright enough to blind, even if your head was turned away, your eyes closed! It ignited the air, yet the Dragon just howled at it, mockingly.

You want to burn me? You call that bright?

Cognita saw his skin turning dark, cracked, like the magma. [Obsidian Skin]! He blasted his surroundings with frozen air—pivoted, dove. He flew under the storm of scythes coming from the Wireform Golem, dodging—

Struck out of the air by a blow like a [Knight]’s lance, sharp beyond belief.

Eldavin landed, cut across the chest, his skin like stone bleeding. The Duelist Golem and the Shadowflesh Golem leapt at him, sword and claws slashing. He pressed his fingers together.

“Wretches! Activate!

The Depth Charge exploded. A ton of compressed water, a thousand pounds of force, exploded, blowing both Golems across the room. The force tore off the Shadowflesh Golem’s arm; it began crawling back to it.

Die, Magus!

Cognita fired the glowing cannon of her arm. The stone flashed—Eldavin lifted his hands.

“[Prismguard’s Sh—]”

He bounced off the wall like a doll. Yet the half-Elf was already rising as the Radiance Golem dove at him again. He bellowed words of fury. At Cognita.

You think he was the greatest [Mage] you ever knew? I crushed better! I knew better! Chandler would have been a better father!

He pointed. The glowing Golem of light vanished as a hand shot out of the ground and dragged it into a void below.

[Claw of the Deep Abyss]! Cognita reeled back, nearly dragged into the vortex. She leapt, swinging a fist. Eldavin teleported. He saw the Truestone Golem miss—

Wham. The Armor Golem struck him with its sword. Eldavin’s shields dented the steel blade. He pointed, blasted it across the room.

The Duelist Golem slid in as the Shadowflesh Golem spat a miasma of darkness. Eldavin flicked [Fireballs] and [Lightning Bolts] at the Golem; they seemed to slide off it.

“Damn—”

He caught a sword on his arm, felt it dig in. Eldavin put two fingers together.

“[Earthquake]!”

The touch blasted the Golem away. He raised his arm.

“[Restore]—”

An arrow of light hit him in the shoulder, spinning him. The Radiance Golem had shifted! Eldavin lost his temper again.

You dare? You—

The Shadowflesh Golem bounded towards him and smashed into a wall of ice. Cognita’s eyes widened. She had last seen the desperate [Mage] casting that spell—

[Fortress of the Ice Queen]. Eldavin rose into the sky, blocking the land-based Golems with ramparts of frozen ice that even Cognita’s fist only cracked. Then he lifted one arm.

[Spear of the Lightning King]!

He had mastered both elements to that—lightning boomed. The Radiance Golem, aiming another arrow, was blasted apart for a second, its core exposed. Eldavin made a grabbing gesture, but before he could shatter it, the Duelist Golem leapt in a jet of flame.

The Heartflame Boots! Your master stole the treasure of his people to guard his petty desires!

“Silence! Die! You have to die!”

Cognita scaled the ice, digging her fingers into the magical fortress. Eldavin saw the Duelist Golem whirl its swords as it landed on the platform. The Shadowflesh Golem was stalking with [Greater Invisibility], to strike him when he fled!

He did not flee. The Dragon saw the Duelist Golem brandishing its swords, armored like a Named Adventurer. He snapped twice. They thought that was a sword? They thought that was skill, the art of the blade?

The Golem saw him reach out. The Dragon drew something from the air. A glowing weapon that made the two blades it held pale by comparison. Made of pure magic. He bellowed.

[剑心火之刃]!

Cognita didn’t—she stared up.

Drathian mag—

Eldavin cut the Duelist Golem’s arm off. It reeled and he ran the blade through its chest.

“A petty little [Thief]! Those boots were worn by his people’s heroes! They do not belong here!

He reached down, to sunder the Golem’s legs as it flailed. Cognita reached the dais of ice. She moved faster than lightning—Eldavin hit the ground as his fortress shattered. His ribs—

Up. The Truestone Golem wavered as Eldavin rose to his feet, levitating upwards until he landed. He clutched at his ribs as the damaged Golems rallied.

“He abandoned you.”

“He will return.”

“No.”

The Dragon’s eyes were still too knowing. He looked straight through her. Reached out. He was erasing the spells in her! Cognita charged, but he blinked out of existence, floated above the next strike. He wasn’t trying to kill them! He was—

“Parents should love their offspring. Zelkyr only loved you until he beheld your flaws, chasing perfection without even stopping to see your soul.

“We were incomplete! Imperfect, we broke!”

You lived! Did you think he was never surpassed?”

Eldavin dove, burning, as the Radiance Golem struck at him. He threw it off him, sucked the Duelist Golem into a vortex and spat it into the Armor Golem’s chest. He breathed fire onto the Shadowflesh Golem, blood running down his arm. He raised an arm—

Cognita struck it, and felt the bones break. Even then—he pointed, and the lines of her soul began to vanish. Terrified, she attacked.

The half-Elf refused to flee. He was panting now, as he shielded himself with countless barrier spells, working, desperately as Cognita tore them to shreds.

“If he had succeeded, do you know what he would have made? He would have reached a new peak—created a people, a new species! Enslaved, until they cried out for freedom! Stitch Folk were children like you!”

He fell back, the spells shattering. Cognita felt something vanishing. She cried out, as her arm turned to Truegold. Her legs the shining speed-stone, her body shifting.

Why are you doing all of this?

BECAUSE I WANT YOU TO LIVE. I have seen your death! I want you to live!”

He screamed at her. If only he had said it from the start. He saw her, unsure of the future, chained down by herself and magic. He had seen it before.

The last lines were flickering. They’d rewrite themselves if he didn’t remove it all! Eldavin lifted his hand.

“Cognita. Enough.”

He saw her arm raise. She charged, across the room. Like thunder given form. Eldavin wavered.

He closed his eyes, and cut her link.

She struck him with all of her might and was freed. Cognita felt it, as the Grand Magus vanished. She didn’t see if he lived. She didn’t look at anything.

The Truestone Golem fell to her knees, as her love vanished. She felt it go, as she had known it would. The only pain she had ever felt in this life filled her, and the Golems of Wistram fell to their knees.

Zelkyr! ZELKYR. Why did you leave me behind? Why did you take her? Why—why didn’t you love me?”

The truth broke her to pieces. She collapsed, immobile.

Eldavin…she never saw the terrified young man open the broken doors and stare in horror at what lay there.

 

—-

 

Trey Atwood had seen terrible battle. But this—this was more than even the King of Destruction’s charge. The annihilation of Reim’s thunderous spells had been one thing, but the aftermath of the battle was a greater shock because one man had laid low the Golems of Wistram, and Cognita herself.

“Eldavin? Grand Magus?”

He knew it had to be him. Minizi was frozen in place, like all the other Golems, staring at the wailing voice coming from Cognita. She was shining, made up of multiple types of stone, not the smooth marble.

He was going to die. Yet Trey Atwood couldn’t flee. He saw…a shape lying in the broken door. It had struck the door so hard that it had smashed the binding enchantments to bits.

Or maybe they had failed because he was…Trey Atwood scuttled forwards and reached down. He saw blood—but not the paste he had expected.

“Grand Magus? Grand Magus—”

He seized the limp form and dragged him up. Trey ran, dragging the Grand Mage, shouting at Minizi to help him. She lifted a single foot as they fled.

None of the Golems followed them. They just stood there, well into morning, statues. Trying to…

They got down from the floor of death. Trey was staring at Eldavin. The half-Elf was covered in blood. His right arm was snapped—was he dead? Trey didn’t even know if he was…breathing…

Was he in a coma? Was he dead? Was Trey carrying a corpse? He had no idea what to do.

Was CPR an option? Did he try it? No, potions, idiot! Trey laid Eldavin down, fumbling for his belt pouch. He tried to find the half-Elf’s pulse.

“Minizi—Minizi—stop that!”

She was inspecting the crimson running from his body. However, Trey saw her press up the wadded cloth of his robes, trying to stop the blood.

If he was bleeding, he was alive, surely? But so many wounds…Trey applied the potion. Did he just splash it all over Eldavin? If a wound was infected or the magic was too strong to be healed—

He had to get a [Healer], raise the alarm with all the Archmages, and tell Gazi and Calac they were running like hell because all of Wistram’s Golems were going to kill them. Every second, Trey expected Cognita to come running down the corridor and end him and Eldavin in a single punch.

Trey was just feeling for Eldavin’s pulse again, seeing at least some of the wounds healing, when he heard a sound.

Urgh.

It escaped Eldavin’s lips, more of a moan than anything else. Trey’s heart skipped a beat.

“Grand Magus? Grand Magus, are you alive?”

It was something of a silly question, he knew, but he wasn’t sure. Eldavin looked as dead as he had ever seen a person. However—the question made the half-Elf’s eyes flutter open. The mismatched gaze found Trey’s. Eldavin stared blearily at him, and then spoke slowly.

“Young…man…Trey Atwood, isn’t it?”

“Y-yes?”

No time to mention real names. Eldavin stared weakly at him.

“Did you just ask me if I was alive? And—to further my point—did you just pour a healing potion on a broken bone not properly set?”

“I—I—yes?”

Trey squeaked. Eldavin stared at him. His head fell back.

“Typical.”

 

—-

 

It seemed that even in his minute of death, Eldavin would still manage to insult you. Well, the fact that he’d spoken at all meant he was alive. Trey dragged him up and had gotten him two more floors down when the half-Elf came to again.

“My arm.”

“We’ll get it reset properly, Grand Magus. Minizi, get Sa’la! We have to run! The Golems—”

“They’re not coming after us, young man. If they do, it’s war. Cognita…I don’t think…argh.”

They reached Eldavin’s rooms. To Trey’s shock, Wistram was not exploding at this very moment. Eldavin lifted a shaking finger and Trey dragged him in.

“A healer, then—”

“No. No, I’ll set it myself. A proper healing spell will do me correctly.”

Eldavin stared at his arm. He was tapped, completely drained of magic of course, so he let it be for the moment. Trey hovered at the door.

“But Grand Magus—shouldn’t we tell—?”

“No, we should not! Stay there! You and that little Lifesand Golem! I don’t appreciate having my blood stolen either! Stand there.

The [Sand Mage] and Golem stood to attention as Eldavin lay on one of his couches. He groaned. He had barely—barely survived that last punch. He’d thrown everything into a desperate shield after…

He felt like he was going to throw up. His head was jumbled…Eldavin lay there. Trey heard him muttering.

“That bastard Zelkyr. The boots. The boots. I’m going to…ungrateful girl. Golems. As intelligent as animated rocks, which is what they are! Stubborn and…easier negotiating with Revenants. She nearly killed me. After I tried—expended so much effort and goodwill—she’ll pay for that.”

He growled, propping himself up slightly. He looked angry. Trey could understand that. He opened his mouth, but Eldavin wasn’t done. The half-Elf pointed, remembering Trey.

“This—this was an accident. You, young man, will say nothing.”

“But the Golems—”

“If they want to start a war with Wistram’s [Mages] by slaughtering a Grand Magus, they will! However, until that eventful day, you will be silent. You are in my faction, are you not?”

“Yes, Grand Magus, but—”

“I have had it up to here with ‘buts’! No objections! No ‘ifs’, ‘ors’, or ‘maybes’! I am the Grand Magus here, not you. And I…do you have another potion?”

Eldavin collapsed again with a groan. Trey produced one. To his surprise, Eldavin smiled, apparently forgetting his pique now.

“Ah, thank you. Pain—it has been a long time since I fought like that. I apologize, young Atwood. Which is your name.”

Sharp as ever. Trey bit his lip, and Eldavin lifted a finger.

“No need to lie. I consider it a little secret between us. I don’t doubt your little Golem was responsible for saving my life, too. She must have sensed the battle, didn’t she?”

“Yes, Grand Magus, I think so.”

Eldavin nodded weakly, chugging the potion with his good hand and trying to adjust his broken arm, then giving up. He lay there, panting, but he never ran out of words.

“Lifesand Golems are like that. You know, it’s somewhat close to Sentient-class already? A complete skip of normal Golem creation. Mainly because it’s closer to a monster or slime than a Golem. You don’t animate it with magical instructions; just give sand life.”

“I—I didn’t know that, Grand Magus.”

The half-Elf blinked a few times. Trey’s eyes widened as he looked at Minizi. She could think? Of course he’d known that, but that meant she was actually like a…

“Of course you don’t. Just watch out. I have no doubt this…Minizi is quite cute at the moment. However, lose control of her or let her gain more power than you and she might end up draining you of blood or keeping you as a renewable energy source.”

Trey blanched. Eldavin snorted.

“Don’t look at me like that! It’s happened before! You need lessons. You have talent, young man. Great talent…a keen insight into fighting; you’ve seen some. A rare Skill—but it’s all unhoned. All of it is. Your lazy comrades from Earth don’t even have the bark on their trees to study magic, or any other profession!”

Trey half-smiled at the expression. Eldavin smiled too, and he appeared to be rallying, at least enough to sit up a bit more.

“Time I took you under my wing.”

“Really, Grand Magus?”

“It is the least I can do for the brave young man who saved my life. Ah! Ah! Be silent. Superfluous gratitude is also annoying to me.”

Eldavin lifted a finger. Trey closed his mouth obediently. The Grand Magus chuckled.

“Saved my life. It’s always the things you don’t expect that…stroke of luck. That ungrateful damn Golem. I should turn her and all those ‘guardians’ of Zelkyr’s into gravel. No helping it. They’ll be on guard and I’ve taxed myself far too much. Neither you nor I should get within four floors of the testing room.”

Another nod. Eldavin went on, panting.

“You’ll be my apprentice. One of them. I dare say Archmage Valeterisa is a kind of student, after I taught her that teleportation circle. There’s talent too. But the Terras faction needs to poach more [Mages]. More Earthers.”

“Grand Magus?”

“Shush. I’m thinking out loud. There have to be better Earthers than not. That Elena seemed quite stable…but the truly extraordinary Earthers I know of—one is dead. Poor girl. I’ll have to revive her, if I can. It occurs to me that Ryoka Griffin should come here, though. I’ve let her roam about, but…”

Trey’s eyes widened. Did Eldavin just say—Ryoka Griffin? He listened, silently, as the half-Elf muttered.

“Stronger [Mages]. A stronger, better faction. Teleportation is just one of the things Wistram’s lost. Why, no one even remembers [Restoration]! Aside from the Healer of Tenbault, and I taught her that! We need to get that spell into the proper hands—of the Terras faction. You know that spell, young Atwood?”

Trey did. Flos had spoken of it, with Orthenon.

“I do—but even the Archmages don’t know that spell, Grand Magus!”

“Bah. That just shows you how low we’ve fallen. I don’t think you can master it, but I’ll make a note to tell Valeterisa. Now…allies. I have to find out what happened to that other Archmage who was missing. What’s her name.”

“Amerys?”

“Aha. Good, yes. Bright young man. Can you fetch me…I have some stamina potions there…mana potions too. My mana’s completely depleted. Good lad.”

Eldavin directed Trey about. The half-Elf breathed slowly as he gulped a few potions. His eyes cleared more.

“Yes. Report to my quarters tomorrow morning.”

“It is morning, sir.”

“Ah, then go get some sleep and report back in…four hours.”

Trey hesitated as he scooped up Minizi and headed to the door. He looked back.

“Are you alright, Grand Magus? Are you sure you don’t want me to get…?”

Eldavin waved him off, a bit irritably, but appreciating the concern. The door shut, and the half-Elf lay there.

Madness. He had nearly died! He was lucky beyond belief that Trey had found him and stabilized him.

What had gotten into him? That Cognita…Eldavin didn’t even know what he’d been doing up there. Trying to free her? Madness twice.

He got up after a moment, hobbling around, feeling at his arm. He’d nearly ruined everything with his death. The Terras faction, the opportunity he’d seized upon to come here as magic waned…

“I can’t die yet. I’ve not even become an Archmage! A proper Archmage, that is.”

The half-Elf growled to himself. He looked into the mirror, shaking his head. He had to shake things up. The Terras faction was good; he already had an Archmage on his side. He wanted more, trustworthy allies, to which he would share the proper spells, of course. Ryoka Griffin too; he didn’t forget his debts, his connection with Magnolia Reinhart…

Eldavin put a hand to his head. He felt like he was forgetting…something…but it eluded him. The half-Elf stared at himself in the mirror. But for the broken arm, he was as ideal as he’d ever been. Eldavin, half-Elf from Terandria, who had made his abode in the High Passes.

He smiled, shaking his head. He was sure it was just something he’d forgotten. The half-Elf went to sit back down, already trying to figure out how to explain this incident, use it to his advantage. If it was important—whatever he’d forgotten, well—

He was sure he’d remember later. Right now?

Eldavin was going to bring Wistram Academy back.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Paradigm Shift. Paradigm Shift! Which you voted for.

Of all the side story options, I did not expect this one to win, and somehow you managed to vote for one of the most impactful chapters.

No Relc chapter, no Persua chapter…no Rie chapter, just this. I included lesser paradigm shifts, but this was planned out, so here we are.

I am tired. This is a 41,000 word chapter—albeit written over three days—and thus I am publishing it in two chapters, which Patrons get now (hence you reading all this in one go), but I am taking off my Monday-Tuesday regular chapter because I am tired!

Sorry, but sometimes these things happen! I’ll be back on the 10th, and Public readers won’t notice a thing since the chapter will release regularly. I hope you enjoy this unexpected two-chapter saga.

Which you voted for. But never forget! The fault is…probably arrogance. Hubris! However well-intentioned. See you next time after a longer break, and thanks for reading!

 

Lyonette and Mrsha, Thomast, JojoAba…and more by Chalyon!

 

Erin by MysticCat!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/mysticcatcomix/

 

Niers and Mrsha Plushies by Kalmia!

 


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Interlude – Paradigm Shift (Pt. 1)

(Enuryn the [Naturalist] has opened an online store and you can now commission him to make amazing arts here! https://enuryndraws.art/)

 

The act of welcoming someone else into your home was a gesture with as much possibility and nuance as any other event that might occur in a social engagement. Not that overthought was always conducive to impressing a guest or making one feel welcome.

The incautious host who threw open the door with arms spread wide could be a thousand times more genial and impressive at once than a display of grandeur. Especially one that felt forced.

Thusly, the small group of Drakes waiting in the anteroom took note of the gesture. Mainly because they knew to look for it. It was as much their culture as anyone else’s, yet in this case, Navine Gemscale had read heavily from the ‘enemy’s’ playbook as much as she drew from her own.

Enemy. Not in this moment, though. Perhaps, if things went well, not at all. She had to remind herself of that as she adjusted the fashionable gown inset with gemstones, a Salazsarian style that never went out of fashion.

Overtures of Exceeding Conduct by Lady Sevfia El was the book in question that Navine had read. Despite being over two thousand years old, it was still in circulation, and it had endured to the modern day as one of the classic guides to etiquette.

Among Humans, of course. So she was keenly aware of the rich mansion in Oteslia, turning her head to regard the décor, the two impassive [Butlers] who had ushered the guests in, and even timing how long they were kept waiting.

She hasn’t redecorated the Oteslian mansion much. Navine noted that the interior of the mansion-for-rent was kept in the Oteslian style—that was to say, au naturel. The wood floor was smoothed, grown, not cut out of floorboards, and an interior garden of carefully tended plants replaced other vanities.

It made the antechamber feel quite fresh, if, sometimes, uncannily giving those within the feeling that they’d gone back outdoors by accident.

Indeed, the fresco along the double-staircase leading upwards and meeting at the middle still bore a Drake motif, one of the founding scenes of Oteslia, that of a Dragon helping sow ground…or perhaps genially overseeing Drakes and Gnolls planting the land.

Ancestors. Navine felt that Magnolia Reinhart keeping everything so might be an indication of her intent. I shall not overstep my arrival. I do not intend to challenge Drake tradition.

Then again, it could have just as well been a gesture to the contrary; if the gifts she had brought were any indication, Magnolia Reinhart intended to buy as much support as she could, and it was certainly possible given Drakes were the species she had come to woo.

Perhaps, then, the message was: I need not concern myself with lesser displays or redecoration, as the wealth of Humanity, the Five Families of the north, is clear.

As Navine thought, her mother exhaled slowly. Helessia Gemscale still hovered in the air, unable to leave her bed without pain. Yet her frail body had been carefully propped upright, so she sat in a kind of floating bed.

The two Gemscales were among a group of five Drakes who had come for the first congenial visit. Of course, Magnolia Reinhart had been in Oteslia for a while now. She had called on others, though, attended several modest events with the First Gardener.

More were coming to meet Magnolia Reinhart. Navine adjusted the neckline of the dress again. She frowned as she recalled that Manus had yet to send one dignitary, and the fighting had been fierce when others realized some of their people wanted to meet Magnolia Reinhart.

Literal fighting in some cases, not just political sniping. Even meeting a Reinhart was a betrayal of all that was good and Drake.

Navine and her mother had pushed for it, against Zail’s protests. Surprisingly, Ilvriss had not objected. They were here now, so all that remained was to find out the measure of Magnolia Reinhart. Her reputation was varied, painting her as everything from the heroine from the Antinium Wars to a bloodthirsty tyrant, to a buffoon to—

Excuse me.

A voice made the five Drakes start. Navine, jerked out of her thoughts, looked up with Helessia, a Wall Lord and Lady from Oteslia, and a Fissival [Sorcerer] from one of the Walled Families, and saw a [Maid] appear at the stair’s head.

Ressa bowed smoothly, her face blank and politely gestured. Two lines of servants headed down the stairs.

“Thank you for waiting, esteemed guests. Lady Reinhart awaits you all in the parlor. If you would follow me?”

The five Drakes glanced at each other. They had not brought entourages of their own; their [Guards] had stayed outside. That was their big concession to Magnolia, a show of trust. The [Sorcerer] handed his staff to one of the servants. The Wall Lord divested himself of his longsword.

Navine thought that was why they were here, but she realized the [Servants] kept pace, offering a small bevy of refreshments and snacks even before the group had reached the parlor. The mansion was large, but servants filled it.

“Lady Navine Gemscale. May I inquire as to your preference for tonight’s dining? We have a choice of main dishes, although the [Chef] will of course adhere to any preferences or any dietary needs.”

A man bowed, murmuring as Navine strode up the steps, her mother following and speaking to a [Maid].

“Er—I’ll have whatever Reinh—Lady Magnolia is having.”

“Very good, Lady Gemscale. That would be the Zeresian salmon, prepared with a number of fresh selections from Oteslia’s gardens, including Veil Tomatoes, Somarrots…”

Navine half-listened, eying the corridors for any new additions, the servants for some naturalistic alteration to the way they stood, their behavior for one of the thousand signals indicated in Overtures of Exceeding Conduct.

…She found none. And as she entered the parlor, she felt rattled. The lack of subterfuge only convinced her there was more. But before Navine could talk to her mother about clues she might have missed, or the other three guests—

There she was. Magnolia Reinhart turned, a smile on her face that contrived to be welcoming and slightly impish.

“Ah, my guests! How good of you to prevail on me! I do hope you enjoy tonight’s refreshments.”

She stood there, in the pink dress and stylish hat and curiously-cut, almost simplistic pink clothing that Navine had seen her wear when she entered Pallass. Navine stopped as the other Drakes nodded, the [Sorcerer] going as far as to bow, and her mother inclined her head with difficulty.

Magnolia Reinhart wore pink like a splash of vibrancy in any setting. Her blonde hair shone, and her skin had no visible flaw, although for anyone with any money, that was not hard. She was far from being as tall as Navine, who was of a height with Ilvriss, and she didn’t look like a [Warrior].

You could mistake her for an eager [Socialite] with a penchant for pink. Her sparkling, interested eyes even suggested that. Yet she could alternate between the woman who seemed younger than her age, spritely, to a far more intimidating woman.

The [Lady] swept towards the Drakes, arms outstretched. To Navine’s astonishment, she took Helessia’s hand and shook it delicately. Then she did the same to the other three Drakes, ignoring the awkwardness of the Fissival [Sorcerer] and beaming all around.

Aha! Before she came to Navine, the Drake knew what she’d done. It was a classic, disarming play of the genial host, honest and bluff as could be. Only, who would buy that with Magnolia Reinhart?

“Come, sit. I have a tea table ready—do you take sugar with your tea? Ressa, six cubes for me. A favorite flavor? I am delighted to meet you all. Lady Helessia—and this is Lady Navine, isn’t it? I’ve heard so much about your company in Salazsar. A delight.”

She came to Navine. The Drake thought quickly. It was time to show Magnolia how much she was aware of these games of subterfuge. So—as Magnolia held out a hand to shake, Navine instead stepped back, and performed the Izrilian Court-bow.

So named because it was one of the six acceptable bows to be made to other nobles of similar or greater status between different continents that did not adhere to noble rank. Izrilians performed it in Terandrian courts, even to monarchs at times, although this was a slight depending on the situation.

Left hand to chest, four fingers slightly splayed—or claws in Navine’s case, with the pinky tucked in—right hand out and behind, but rotated palm towards the other person, unlike many [Courtier]’s bows. The retreating leg did not stick out too far, nor did one kneel as deeply. Instead of sinking forwards, it was more of a graceful draw downwards, head tilted as well.

All performed splendidly, if Navine thought so herself. Magnolia’s eyebrows shot up and her mouth opened in surprise.

“My! The Izrilian Court-bow?”

“A pleasure to meet you, Lady Reinhart. In the name of House Gemscale, I greet you.”

Navine even replaced the Gemscale family with an Izrilian title. Magnolia hesitated, as even Helessia blinked at Navine’s complicated greeting. Navine watched Magnolia’s face carefully, as Ressa and two [Maids] circulated with the tea cups.

Magnolia Reinhart’s face was blank for a moment. With shock? Her eyes studied Navine. Then—she nodded to herself. Navine waited…

Overtures of Exceeding Conduct, isn’t it? Chapter Six: Polite Unsettlement and Formal Intrigue.

Navine nearly tripped as she rose. Magnolia Reinhart laughed at the younger Drake’s expression, then covered her mouth.

“Excuse me. I’ve read the book cover-to-cover. My tutor, Lady Zanthia, forced all of her young wards to read it. I have no doubt the latest generation of [Ladies] is still suffering from the thing.”

“You don’t adhere to it yourself, Lady Reinhart? I was given to understand it was a staple in Izril’s north.”

“Oh, it is. Do forgive me.”

Magnolia’s eyes sparkled with that mirth as she gestured to the couch. She went on as Navine, feeling as if she were losing each conversatitorial bout, as described in Chapter 8, followed her.

“The book is still used by many in the social circles I frequent. However, I don’t often make use of its lessons myself. Nor did I bring it with me to Oteslia. Do forgive me, Lady Gemscale. If you would like, we could engage in some diction. However, I hoped Drakes would be more keen to honest communication than my people often employ.”

Navine blinked as she found herself sitting on a quite comfortable pink couch that clashed with the nature décor in the parlor. She looked at Magnolia, who had happily put three more sugar cubes in her tea cup. Even the china set was pink, and yes, it too clashed.

Either this was all an artful ruse, or she…might have just moved into the mansion, ignored stylistic sensibilities, and put whatever she wanted, like the mess of a parlor. If anything, her maid, Ressa’s face was slightly pained as she set the pink teapot down on the grown-wood table inlaid with carvings of vines.

Without knowing what to say, Navine glanced around at the other Drakes, who were blinking at Magnolia’s statement.

“Well…that would be refreshing, Lady Reinhart.”

“Magnolia, please, Lady Navine. If I might do the same? I hope you will enjoy your visit.”

“Ah, as do we. It is a pleasure to meet a Human willing to make the journey and talk.”

“Quite so for you as well!”

Magnolia beamed. Navine’s mouth opened and closed.

“Well then.”

“Well then. Shall we begin? I thought it would be excellent to talk about business, perhaps. I understand you, Lord and Lady Barkscale, deal in [Green Mages] and ensuring soil fertility. Navine, Lady Helessia? Gemstones, and Magus Tressl, manufacturing of artifacts? How is business these days? Betimes I think that both our species would benefit if trade flowed from north to south, instead of having to go everywhere else. I can think of a number of artisans and nobles who would eat up gemstones, but we buy them at the same rates as overseas groups. If one managed to open the links between north and south, do you see a future in such a project?”

The [Lady]’s eyes twinkled. She spoke more like a [Merchant] or one of Navine’s administrators proposing a new mining shaft than a [Lady]. The Drakes glanced at each other. Navine sipped at her tea.

 

 

Strawberry sweet! Not a hint of bitter! Closer to juice than tea! Her forked tongue almost recoiled at the taste.

She looked at Magnolia. The woman had put nine cubes of sugar into this? She found herself studying Magnolia Reinhart again.

And this was just the first meeting. The banquets and larger gatherings were coming up.

 

—-

 

Magnolia Reinhart met Drakes. In their city. To talk. Not to sign deals. Mainly to talk.

It was just one of the Five Families’ leaders, too. Not a group of Humans. One Human, who half-poisoned her guests with sugary tea.

Who was as welcome in Drake lands as Drakes were in Human ones, especially in old seats of power. Whose visit might come to nothing.

Yet that talking was a betrayal of all that was held good and dear. It was inexcusable, a traitorous act that deserved no consideration beyond branding as such and stigmatization by all good nobles of Izril!

That was Lord Tyrion Veltras’ position, which he painstakingly explained to his sons over breakfast. He had trouble, despite this being a line most nobles were at home with.

Mainly because Sammy kept asking ‘why?’ every few seconds, and Hethon, despite his best efforts, was still too sleepy to give the responses his father wanted.

Because, Sammial Veltras, Drakes have been the enemy of our species as long as our people landed on Izril. Even before then, Dragons and Drakes were long the enemy of Terandria. Our generation owes no less a debt of vengeance against them than our ancestors.”

“Why?”

Lord Veltras’ left eye twitched. Hethon nudged his younger brother under the table, noting all the warning signs. At this point Sammial was doing it on purpose.

Tyrion controlled his temper and took it from another angle with effort. He closed his eyes, then spoke.

“To speak with a Drake is…acceptable. A [Captain], a [Merchant]—none of these things would give me pause. To negotiate with the ruling body of Drakes, however, in any… conciliatory effort is wrong. Does that make sense, Sammial?”

“No. Why is it bad?”

Sammy kicked his legs under the table, glancing around impatiently. There were far, far more interesting things to do than be told what he’d heard a thousand times. He didn’t seem to understand that the more questions he asked, the longer he’d be lectured. He glanced towards the other head of the small table as his father took a breath.

“Drakes are not to be trusted, at least where the interests of our House and that of the north align. They protect their species, as we must ours.”

“So I can’t trust them?”

“No.”

“Why not a nice one?”

Sammial scratched at his nose. His father took a long, long breath. Then another.

“We are—technically—still in a state of war with the Drakes. Thus, each Drake is potentially an enemy, Sammial Veltras. Not in practice, but you should not trust any of them. Is that clear?”

Sammial scowled, but another nudge from Hethon and he might have nodded, just to be done with the conversation. However, at that precise moment, someone else leaned into the conversation, unable to help herself.

“No Drakes at all? What about…Saliss of Lights?”

Ryoka Griffin knew it was a bad idea. She’d improved on her temper, her fat mouth, she really had! Sometimes though…old Ryoka jumped out.

Hethon could kick Sammial under the table, but Jericha, hovering by the small breakfast party, could not. If she could, she probably would have done a running kick straight into Ryoka’s lower back.

Lord Tyrion’s head rotated slowly. He looked about to snap—then seemed to realize that Ryoka was not Sammial. Hethon stared at the Wind Runner as Tyrion had to rapidly reorganize his thoughts.

“I am—aware of my debt to certain individuals, Miss Ryoka. However, I remind you that Saliss of Lights is a Named Adventurer who has fought alongside Pallass’ army.”

“So you wouldn’t trust him at all? Or speak to him?”

Ryoka suppressed a smile as Lord Tyrion hesitated and glanced at his children, whom Saliss of Lights had himself saved. Sammy and Hethon both looked at their father, then at Ryoka. Jericha’s teeth ground together.

“—Magnolia Reinhart is a separate issue from House Veltras. It may be she has some scheme in any case. Just be aware of House Reinhart’s penchant for underhandedness, Hethon, Sammial.”

Lord Tyrion neatly escaped the closing verbal trap and turned to Ryoka.

“Miss Ryoka, would you care to speak with me in the…parlor?”

He glanced around. This was not the keep; they were on another holding of House Veltras, having yet to return home at their far more leisurely pace when Ryoka found them. Ryoka opened her mouth as she nodded, but Hethon and Sammial burst in.

“No fair! She promised she’d let us fly!

“Sammial! Behave yourself!”

Ryoka saw Tyrion glare at his son. However, everyone knew that when Sammial wanted something…Ryoka lifted her left hand.

“I can let the two fly about. Any kids who want to as well. It’s no trouble.”

“If your business is urgent…”

“After, then. I could even kick a soccer ball around with them. From the television? I think I have one or two in my bag of holding. Souvenirs.”

Really?

The two boys were agog. Tyrion himself raised his brows.

“That would be quite acceptable. My sons had been asking Jericha to procure them. Might we purchase one?”

“It would be a gift. Actually, I think they’re signed too. By Joseph.”

Joseph the Football player?

Hethon nearly choked on his drink. Ryoka smiled. She looked at Tyrion, who was blinking.

“You know the young man personally?”

“We’ve met.”

Ironically through Magnolia Reinhart. Ryoka looked at Tyrion.

“It’s a fun game. I can teach you two if you don’t know. Have you ever played, Lord Veltras?”

“I’m sure Lord Veltras is too busy for such…games, Miss Griffin.”

Jericha spoke stiffly. Tyrion blinked.

“I have not. However, if Hethon and Sammial insist, I would not take it amiss, Jericha.”

The aide nodded stiffly. Ryoka smiled. She turned as Hethon and Sammial begged to see the soccer ball and play.

“Just for a bit. I don’t think an hour will make much of a difference. I met Joseph in Liscor, by the way, Lord Tyrion. The ball was made by a Drake, I’m pretty sure. They’re very hospitable. Honorable too, some of them, like every species. You might like them.”

Another smile. She really couldn’t help it. Lord Tyrion turned into a statue as Ryoka produced the Drake-manufactured ball. Sammy grabbed it, and Hethon raced after him. After a second, he nodded and followed them.

“I look forwards to learning this sport. Perhaps it could be an additional source of income for [Leatherworkers] in House Veltras.”

Ryoka was surprised by this. She kept feeling like she was pushing her luck, especially with how touchy Lord Tyrion was known to be. Except he never called her on it. She followed him after a beat, reminding herself not to push too far…

The Courier tripped and went sprawling as she went through the doorway. Jericha withdrew the foot after a second and called out innocently.

“Are you quite alright, Miss Griffin?”

 

—-

 

Lord Tyrion Veltras was not the only person who had gripes with Magnolia Reinhart and the Drakes, of course. However, someone was there to…change his mind.

Or at least, present the counterargument no one else would voice. It was…quite worrying, actually. To someone who didn’t like unknown variables, Ryoka Griffin was one such. They would have been far more worried, of course, if they could have heard the breakfast conversation.

However, that was neither here nor there. To all intents and purposes, everyone ‘knew’ that Lord Tyrion was just taking a break with his sons, no doubt seeing how close he had come to losing them after the poisoning and Circle of Thorns incident. He had attended that strange party, but that had clearly been a favor for the Wind Runner.

Nothing more would come of it. Variables were all accounted for, at least for now. Magnolia Reinhart now…she was a concern.

Yet again, the question was who would place her at the top of their priority list? Oh, every noble might grumble privately about the Drakes and Magnolia, but nothing major had come of it. She was one noble, for all she was head of the Reinhart family. There were bigger fish to explode.

Rhir’s ritual. The King of Destruction. The Death of Magic returning, that damned [Emperor] that had appeared like a mushroom, the war in Ailendamus threatening trade and…of course, the Circle of Thorns.

It seemed like a long time had passed since the Circle had been the unspoken threat, then the visible target. Yet it had only been a month and a half.

The Circle’s power had broken, though. Shattered. Now, the remaining members were fleeing or giving themselves up.

Just yesterday, one of the Isond house had given himself up, forswearing his role in the Circle, claiming he had ‘just been taking part as a social act’, rather than involved in any of the heinous treachery they’d been up to. He disavowed himself publically—especially because the Wellfar Family’s greatest warship, Pride of the Wellfar, had sailed into the harbor with all magical armaments primed to fire, led by the son of Gresaria Wellfar to accuse Lord Atnel Isond of the association.

The sight of one of the last of the three Citadel-class warships aiming enough weapons to turn your home and the entire harbor to dust in your direction—not to mention the crew of thousands who could probably take the entire harbor without needing to use a single of the warship’s weapons—had a remarkably liberating effect on guilty consciences.

Atnel was just one minor headline, of course. While his family disavowed his actions and had to pay penalties, sometimes monetary, and certainly politically, the hunt continued.

Not a [Witch]-hunt incidentally, because few of the Circle of Thorns’ lesser members could fly. Also, many forswore themselves voluntarily rather than stick by the secret society.

The [Assassins] were purged, at least eighteen of the Guild of Assassin’s hideouts having been destroyed and few daring to claim association. The nobility had given themselves up, or gone to ground and it was doubtful any of them would admit to being a member, unless the information was already known.

“The Circle of Thorns is in ruins! The nobles have fled—several have been executed or taken their own lives, the lesser ones, at any rate. The Guild of Assassins, which long shielded Izril against foreign threats for all they were a tool, has also been destroyed. Countless deaths, all of which serve to weaken the north against foreign aggression!”

That was where it stood. In the secret room, where the Thorns of Death had once met, the great secret had been unveiled.

Two thirds of the inner-most ranks of the Circle of Thorns, the appropriately named, if somewhat exaggerated, ‘Thorns of Death’, had actually been foreign agents who’d risen through the ranks, contributing money and power to manipulate the Circle into attacking Izril’s nobles, effectively destroying itself from within.

What an embarrassment. What a disaster. The empty places where the magical projections of each Thorn of Death had been—camouflaged to avoid identification even here—formed a circle, of course. The actual location hadn’t mattered to most; it was just a meeting place, suitably ostentatious and dramatic to make them feel like a proper cult, a way to gain power in secret that they could not directly.

The Circle of Thorns was dead and dying. Its members had died across Izril in vain. The last time this place had been active, it had rung with the contemptuous, raucous applause of the traitors within, laughing at the fools who’d actually believed what they had been doing was anything approaching intelligent or covert.

In the empty room, applause rang once more. Clapping hands. Not the loud effect of many hands clapping. This time…

Just two. Yet, the two glowing images applauded merrily, each other as much as the statement of the Circle of Thorn’s demise.

“What a slaughter! What a disaster!”

One exclaimed, his voice jovial. The other’s was older, and he stopped clapping first, growing tired of the theatrics.

“As miserable a lot as one could imagine. A secret society riddled with infiltrators. They applauded themselves.”

The first figure nodded. He was not, in fact, disguised by a veiling spell. More importantly…the glowing aura around him faded. The semi-translucent effect ended. Revealing a man, brushing at dark, plain travelling clothes that gave little away.

The great magic that the other Thorns of Death had used to communicate live in this way was real. Yet they had never thought to wonder if someone might be tricking them into thinking they weren’t actually in this room. The second glowing figure stepped out of his position in the circle as well.

“It all went exactly as you said it would. I had a hard time keeping from laughing.”

The first man confided in the second. The two were uneven—not completely lopsided, but the first was stouter, shorter, than the second. Not stout or short per se; the second man was tall and thin enough to be willowy, and older by far. He walked with a slight stoop, and his voice echoed slightly as he and the other man walked across the large room.

“The Guild dying was a painful loss. It has been used as a petty tool between ourselves, yet it did frighten our enemies. More than one invading [General] died with their throats cut before they even set foot on this land.”

“True, true. I can see the value, although it strikes me that it was more of a tool for…the nobility. So to Rhir’s hell with the guild, if you don’t mind me saying. I’ve used their services, and I’m a small patriot for my home. But I won’t mourn their loss. They’ll pop back up after a few decades, anyways.”

The second man turned to the first.

“Sooner. We must make certain of that. I said it was regrettable, however necessary. Now, come along. I don’t have much time. If it’s noticed I’ve gone…”

There was certainly a power differential here. The first man trailed after the taller one, stopping well short of him, never interrupting, his voice respectful.

However, neither man was exactly used to subservience. Both talked with authority. Yet the taller, older one clearly knew everything, while the other did not, and the lack of knowledge bothered him.

“Why do you have such a problem with Magnolia Reinhart, though? Of all the issues facing the north—her?”

“Her.”

The taller man was leading them down a staircase. This room was part of a stronghold, typically buried underground. Few places aboveground were so easy to hide such places, and the first man had been surprised by how spacious this headquarters of the Circle of Thorns was.

A proper damn fortress. I’d hate to be subject to poison gas spells down here, but give me a gang and enough arrows and [Mages] and I could hold this place against an army. No wonder the Circle of Thorns existed for so long.

He stretched his legs as he walked; it had been a long ride in the Unmarked Coach, and Karsaeu had been forced to make a few detours for the other travellers. He had been sorely tempted to tell her not to pick up any passengers, but it was a bad look. The Unmarked Coach ran for anyone who needed it—who could pay, of course—and even the owner had to respect that.

The man. At this point, it was probably wrong to think of him just as ‘a man’. He owned the Unmarked Coach, the famous, secret counterpart to Magnolia Reinhart’s coach, the [Lady] of which was the subject of this worry. It was best to think of him, then, as a—[Merchant]. A [Broker]. However, both those ideas suggested someone whose entire job revolved around such things and while he did do both, if he lost his clients, he would not be at a loss.

Rather—he could be thought of by his main class.

[Artifact Collector]. The Djinni’s bottle was still among one of his greatest possessions. Yet the collector of secrets and wealth counted this association nearly as valuable.

The collector glanced up at his companion as they walked further down. The older man still hadn’t shed the magical effect from before, but the other made no comment.

“Why Reinhart? I’ve heard she’s actually not as savvy as one imagines. The Deadly Flower of the North, and all that. Grasp at her and she’ll draw blood. Leave her alone though…? I’ve had little trouble from her. She’s not the subtle manipulator that gives me nightmares at night.”

He pressed the other. He had a number of people he did have nightmares about, and had added the Death of Magic to that list. However, his companion disagreed.

“You don’t believe she’s subtle?”

“I saw her maneuver with the Antinium. I’ll grant you it was sly—but rather like a [Thug] slapping the back of your head with a club when you weren’t looking, as opposed to something artful, if you don’t mind me saying. She’s clever—but not all that.”

The other figure snorted.

“If you think Magnolia Reinhart is anything less than one of the best experts in manipulation and intrigue in all of Izril, you are a fool. What you see as a lack of machinations that manifest into perfect plans that dazzle the mind, I see as true intelligence. Are you in love with stories about architects of politics, cunning [Lords] or rulers who balance enemy intrigues on a needle and let their enemies kill themselves on their own weapons?”

The collector slowed, a bit embarrassed and irked by the needling tone. Of course, he was used to the superior attitude from his companion.

“I do enjoy that kind of thing, yes. What of it? Magnolia Reinhart just doesn’t strike me as that sort.”

“That’s because she’s better than a plotter. Do you know why grand, twisting schemes are stupid? It’s because idiots always ruin something. The more complex a plan, the easier it is to fall apart. And if it succeeds? 99% of people will never figure out what was done unless you tell them. So why bother?”

“Your real foes would take note.”

The collector rejoined, hurt at the affront to elegant machinations. The second snorted.

They descended twisting stairways, much like roots, growing narrower, deeper and deeper. The collector tried to count how many feet they’d gone down. He gave up after four hundred. The second man was deactivating wards and traps, stopping every now and then, so they had plenty of time to talk.

“Let me tell you about a great [Mastermind]. The story was, he was so clever he could manipulate armies into attacking each other. He played his enemies like fiddles, and even the Walled Cities had fallen prey to his schemes. One day, he fixed his sights on a foe known to be just as clever. He enacted a dazzling plan to ensnare the other [Lord] and not only destroy him politically, but tear his allies apart, ruin him until the man would take his own life.”

“Ah. I assume from this story it didn’t go that way?”

The other figure stopped, raising a palm to touch the wall. He stared back at the collector, who was panting from the low oxygen in these places that hadn’t been unsealed for centuries, perhaps longer.

“The man was Lefis Reinhart. At a ball where the two men met, before the [Mastermind]’s great plans would begin to inevitably close, Lefis greeted his opponent on the dance floor. He then drew a dagger, ran the other man through, and walked off. The [Mastermind] died in a pool of blood and few remember he ever existed. Lefis lived for seventy more years.”

“…Am I to be impressed with Lefis? It seemed like the [Lord] got lucky.”

An arched brow, and a sneer. From anyone else, this much continued disrespect would have made the [Artifact Collector] act. Yet he held his growing irritation in check. He knew when to be respectful, even now.

“Really. You think so? The point is this: a master [Assassin] can sneak up behind you as you go about your day, wound you, then heal you and slide away such that you don’t even notice you were hurt until you drop dead a month later. In the meantime, your common [Thug] can knife a hundred foes and spare himself the effort. Magnolia knows when to be direct, and she does it because it works. She forced Tyrion Veltras to hold off taking Liscor, when we wanted him to.”

A finger stabbed at the collector, almost triumphantly.

“That’s how a Reinhart works. When a Reinhart stabs you, they don’t just twist the dagger, they’ve already signed it. Who cares about subtlety when your enemies lie dead?”

“You can’t hold dominion by terror alone. Most accounts I’ve read agree on that.”

The younger man protested. The older snorted.

“So says those who have never done it properly. Terror can last until the tyrant lies dead, and who cares after that? Besides which, the really good tyrants just reanimate their corpses or prolong their life. Be direct. Just blast armies to death. Do it enough times and no one bothers you, I can assure you.”

The collector conceded the point, albeit reluctantly. The two continued their journey down.

“So Magnolia meeting the Drakes…?”

“Bad. Very bad. She’s conspiring with the enemy and she’s doing it directly. Magnolia is a genius, even by Reinhart standards. She’s good at the family tradition.”

“Which is…?”

“Killing people.”

Again, the second figure stopped. He looked back, and his glowing features twisted up into a smile. Which surprised the collector.

“Do you know how many killers her own family sent against her? How bloody the Reinharts were until she took over? Her own father tried to murder her with an army of [Mercenaries] on her fourteenth birthday, and all she had was a single barely-graduated [Assassin]! She walked out of her 20th birthday as head of the Reinhart family with a tame Dragon and all of Izril hailing her as the hero of the Antinium wars.”

Dragon. The first man inhaled, but the second didn’t care. He went on, smiling, fondly…then his features clouded, turned bitter.

“Her fault was she grew soft. She stopped using her talents and used all the other tricks when one solves them all. Look at Izril now. Haunted by Goblin Lords, Antinium—and foreign powers gnawing at us.”

“…And what we’ve done is just eliminate the Circle of Thorns, the one group that was supposed to help protect Izril. Unless I’m wrong? And you’re betraying Magnolia Reinhart, if you don’t mind me pointing it out. Actually, I’ll point it out either way. Will you explain the logic of all this or do I need to get Karsaeu to figure it out for me?”

The eyes of the taller man met his. Contempt, as arrogant as that of Dragons, flashed through his eyes. Old eyes. Older than even the Djinni the [Artifact Collector] possessed.

He had not dropped the magical aura that made him seem like the other projections…because there was no need to. Or rather, he could not. Regis Reinhart sneered down at the mortal man.

“Magnolia Reinhart is my kin. I would have put the Circle behind her if she stayed true to the most basic beliefs of our family. Even now, I would not count her as an enemy. She was the one who threatened to kill me. Me! To have that damned lover of hers plunder my treasures, erase me!”

He snarled. The [Artifact Collector] held up his hands.

Regis Reinhart, in the flesh. Or…the bound spirit of his. He was here, out of his vault. The collector had no idea he’d been able to do that. In their association, made because of their shared passions, the mortal man had slowly become aware of how much power Regis had in secret, in undercurrents. When Regis had told him about the Circle of Thorns…

Well, here they were. Underneath the Reinhart estates, the magical vault lacked for Regis Reinhart. The four [Maids] spoke, talking to each other, holding each other, where they refused to speak while he was there. If anyone had checked…but only Magnolia dared descend so casually.

Regis continued moving after a moment.

“Do you think all of this was an accident, Merlilon? The Circle coming together after being destroyed by Magnolia’s grandmother? Failing so spectacularly?”

Merlilon hesitated. He disliked people using his name, even in this most secret of places.

“You made sure I saw how deliberate it was. I still don’t understand why.

Regis looked back. They had come to the final door. Merlilon’s hair stood up at the thrum of power on the ward, and he moved back, checking his Ring of Protection. That damned girl had taken the lesser one and he wanted it back!

“Two things could have happened. Either the Circle succeeded and gained Tyrion Veltras, and continued to rise in power—or they imploded. Frankly, the latter was always likelier. Secret societies, like your beloved plots, tend to fail because of how ridiculous they are.”

Merlilon bit back a response. He couldn’t hurt Regis anyways, and he was…unsure…if the same held true in reverse. As the door opened, he smelled something familiar below. He hesitated, as Regis beckoned him into the final room.

“Why let the Circle act at all?”

“Because I made it. I created the first gathering. I paid for this place, before I died! I would have used it for my niece too…tell me, Merlilon. You’re clever enough. What is smarter than creating a secret society that can fail and is full of mortal failings—save for one? Especially since I do not always join each iteration?”

The [Artifact Collector] thought it over. The answer came too soon from Regis’ own mouth. Slowly, Merlilon descended and saw the truth.

The answer is simple: even if they fail, they succeed! Create a system by which even fools fall upwards! We can cast a spell to change gravity. So why not channel the power of Izril’s nobility, no matter how pathetic they become?

Regis Reinhart stood in the center of a large, circular room at the bottom of the secret stronghold of the Circle of Thorns. So far down, so hidden, that even other generations of the Circle had never found it.

Here was the real secret of the Circle. As Merlilon descended, holding a glowing wand made of glass, ready to blast this place with the Tier 6 spell contained within and run if this was a trap—he saw it.

This circular room was not just some amphitheater or another conference room. It was a large, vast, rounded…basin.

The walls of stone sloped down the room, to settle at the bottom. Yet Merlilon barely saw the naked stone. Each line of the wall was covered in red.

Runes, as intricate as any he’d ever seen. More intricate than the spell he had used when he had taken command of Karsaeu! They were pulsating. Running—liquid and wet.

With blood. It trickled down with every second, along the patterns of magical lines in the air. That was what he’d smelled which he’d known.

Blood. Blood magic. Merlilon’s stomach heaved. His eyes rolled wildly and his mind swayed in the center of the room. Only experience saved him from madness or…worse. He closed his eyes, looking at the steps, at Regis. The world stopped imploding.

My nose is bleeding. He wiped at it, and saw blood droplets lifting upwards. They floated up—and left—joining the slick walls.

Merlilon had seen a lot of things that would give other people nightmares, and still lingered in his. However, this? This was as bad as it got. He swallowed hard.

“Regis. What am I staring at?”

Old magic. The same [Necromancer] who helped me live made this place with his last great magic. Blood magic. You know what this is?”

“A—mass spell of some kind. A huge radius!”

It had to be. The entire room was given over to some great working of so many parts he couldn’t guess at what it was. He doubted even his Djinni could have. Regis lifted a finger, the eyes of the curious collector of treasures lighting up with glee as he lectured his younger companion.

“Not just that! This is a kind of magic beyond just a single spell of many parts! This—is a ritual spell. A spell with a radius that spans half a continent—although it requires certain components for activation. And do you know what it does?”

The pieces fell into place. Slowly, Merlilon stared at something on his arms.

The Thorns of Death, like all the Circle, had to undergo certain rites. The most junior members got a single mark, but like the Guild of Assassins, as one progressed, they grew more intricate.

Each one swore themselves to the Circle of Thorns. It was…he had assumed, mostly loyalty spells. The significance dug into him now. He looked at the blood.

The Circle’s blood.

“Correct!”

Regis read his mind. He waved at the running walls.

“Each member of the Circle serves a greater calling, even in death. Fail or succeed. Triumph or die—the Circle of Thorns grows. Hence the name.”

Ah. Merlilon understood the joke. Could anyone walk through the Circle of Thorns without paying a blood toll? And like that…he looked down at the basin.

It was far too shallow for how much blood had been spilt. How much blood had been spilt before, accumulating in the center. Nor did it look like…blood. Not blood proper. It was thicker, darker, with a depth in which he thought he saw…

“What happens now? Do you kill me and complete this…this ritual?”

He raised the wand slowly, knowing it was no use. Regis just stared at him. Then laughed.

“Merlilon. Merlilon! Did you not hear a word of what I said? A Reinhart plays no games! If I wanted you dead, I’d have had you murdered! No, this is the start. The start of the true Circle. Of course, we’ll call ourselves something different. The Guild of Assassins was getting complacent, which was why I allowed it to die with the Circle. Both need to be reforged. Something…is happening.”

He frowned, becoming uncertain, like he had when he mentioned the party at the Summer Solstice. Merlilon licked his lips.

“The King of Destruction? Or, you mean the Death of Magic?”

“Neither. I have seen worse. I have seen that Dragon’s kin die screaming! I have survived it all, Merlilon. Something else is happening. It came to a head at the Summer Solstice and I like it not at all. I…feel it. I am afraid. Afraid of death. The Circle must be reborn. So I will use every drop of blood here if I must.”

“What does that basin do? Conjure…something? Cast a Tier 9 spell to wipe out your foes?”

The man was backing up the stairs, unwilling to stare around this room any longer. Regis eyed him, disappointed. He had hoped for better.

“No. No, the Circle and this place was meant to guard Izril. A last resort to be used when too much blood had been shed. In other eras, when the Flowers of Izril died almost as much as the Goblin King’s rampage…I unveiled the Circle. I saved them, by giving some power. Thus—[Assassins] will become a new guild. A better guild. There are still agents of the Circle. They will come here.”

“And do what?

A hysterical note had entered Merlilon’s voice. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the pool of blood. It looked like it was sucking him in, even high as it was. He turned for Regis—no, the door! He’d be damned if he—

Be remade. Better. Go on.”

Regis was behind him. The ghost had gone through the walls. He reached out and pushed Merlilon, gently.

The man fell, screaming. Not towards the ground, but directly into the pool. Somehow—gravity had drawn him into that center. He plunged into the liquid, but there was no splash. He sank deeper, deeper…

Regis sat on the stairs, watching. Waiting.

 

—-

 

Later that day, hours later, Karsaeu-Dequoa was checking her internal clock. Her master, whom she would fain see dead, was smart enough to have ordered her to go after him if enough time had elapsed.

Surely the damned ghost knew it too, yet the time was nearly up. Well, Karsaeu would relish battling a spirit. She drew herself up, eyes narrowed—

When a man emerged from the stronghold. The Djinni stopped. She stared as Merlilon walked out, steps light, smiling widely.

“Master?”

He’d ordered her to call him that. Of Regis, there was no sign. Karseau’s eyes narrowed. She floated back towards the carriage which was her body, albeit disguised, uncertainly. She conjured lightning out of magic, herself, and held her ground.

“Karsy! What’s the matter? Don’t you recognize me?”

“No.”

The Djinni regarded the man warily. She…felt…the same need to obey. The same magical bonds. Yet if she had hair on her body to raise, it would be standing up.

“What are you?”

“Merlilon. Just—better. Come on, open up. We have lots of work to do.”

She shuddered as the door of the Unmarked Coach opened. Merlilon climbed inside. He sat there, humming to himself, all grudges towards Regis forgotten. He had gotten the full treatment of course. Not any half-measures, not for the mortal collaborator to Regis.

Even a Vampire would envy him. He wondered just how strong he was. Not just strong; well, he’d get Karsaeu to help him figure out just what had changed. He laughed, again, picking out names for the best of the Circle of Thorns’ agents. The very best. [Assassins] too. It was a limited resource.

The Djinni was silent as the Unmarked Coach sped away. For once, not needling whatever sat inside of her. She did not know what had happened.

Merlilon smelled like blood.

 

—-

 

Soon, a time of importance would take place. It was not something you had to sense, although anyone with the correct senses would intuit it.

However, a study of astrology would reveal the same. A semi-rare event, although regular, was about to take place.

The twin moons above would soon be full, on the exact same day. A double full-moon, a time of great importance.

Magically, level-wise, but not spiritually. Not anymore.

Eldavin, that was, Teriarch, knew this. Magic was stronger when both moons opened; some kinds of magic. It was a bad time to be an [Umbralmancer], the strict name for the [Dark Mage] class and its derivatives.

On the other hand, lunar magic was at its zenith, if anyone remembered it. Well, he, Teriarch, did.

“Eldavin.”

He corrected himself after a moment. Magical powers would gain strength. Oh—and if you were extremely lucky or savvy, you could gain some of the rare classes. [Lunar Swordsman] and such. For his purposes, well, he wasn’t going to be swinging bits of enchanted metal about.

The point was that all things affected magic. From what you’d eaten to what you were wearing, to where you stood to what time it was. By the same token—you could do whatever the hell you wanted because you were a [Mage]. Or a Dragon.

He had a lot to do, too. Eldavin had spent enough time at Wistram to see it for what it was. He saw the failings, the conceits, and yes, the strengths it had, and weighed it against the Wistrams of old, the ones that had failed, or risen despite themselves.

Eldavin found the academy wanting. Among other things, for better leadership, better morality, and finally—better magic.

It was not doomed, for all that. If he had his way, he would help correct it before going back to heal Erin Solstice. Then take a nap. He was getting tired of having to wake up each day.

Nevertheless, he spent his time cunningly. In between his classes, he assembled what he needed, using his vast array of knowledge that no [Archmage] could equal…probably. However, some spells were beyond him, and he had to work within the confines of what he could do without Skills and this simulacrum.

To that end…he knocked harder on Viltach’s door. At last, the Archmage opened it.

“Grand Magus Eldavin.”

He had a resigned tone to his voice. Eldavin beamed at him.

“Archmage Viltach. I apologize for calling on you at this early hour.”

“It’s just past midnight.”

The man blinked at him.

“And well into the next day! I’m terribly sorry in any case, but could I trouble you for a few more ingredients? I have yet to source mine as you know—I should have brought my stores, but they’re quite inaccessible, and I was hoping for some more magicore. A pinch of high-grade ruby dust, let’s see…a Unicorn horn? No? Well, I can take some mithril and silver. Oh, and aside from the standard stuff, I could really use a Kraken’s eye and about…eight…parts of Crystalline creatures. Bugs, even. I am not exceedingly picky.”

Viltach just stared at him. Eldavin smiled. He wasn’t being unreasonable, he knew. He’d gotten the Hydra parts from Nailihuaile, several powerful tree reagents from Feor—

The trick was to spread around the requests. Each [High Mage] or [Grand Mage] had gotten an Eldavin knocking on their door with a polite request for just a bit of what he knew they had. It was a time-honored tradition of course; leeching from your peers.

Which was why Eldavin was also ready for Viltach to try to close the door on him.

“I’m so sorry, Grand Magus, but it’s a tough time of year and after all the ingredients I already loaned you three times, I’m a bit pinched myself.”

“Completely understandable!”

Eldavin cheerfully grabbed the doorknob and the two wrestled. He spoke rapidly as Viltach tried to retreat into his quarters.

The thing about borrowing was that eventually you had to return the favor. Eldavin had no intention of giving Viltach a quarter of the gold the ingredients were worth, and nor did he wish to trade in any way. Which was why the Dragon happily spoke before the Archmage could shut the door fully.

“I notice you use a suspension-style construction for your wands, Archmage Viltach. Magic gemstones in charged magicore? Very nice sealing spells too. Quite lovely.”

For a Bronze-rank adventurer. Yet Viltach hesitated long enough to eye Eldavin suspiciously.

“Thank you, Grand Magus, but nevertheless, I’m sure you can appreciate how much Magicore it takes. Which I can’t spare just yet—maybe in a month. My wands are considered effective though, thank you for noticing.”

“Cheap, certainly.”

Viltach’s face went slack. Eldavin pressed on, a big smile on his face.

“Have you considered—purely speculating here, your research may have excluded this, or you just don’t care to make them—multi-gem core wands?”

The Archmage’s eyes flickered. He smiled, and didn’t shut the door—but neither did he rush Eldavin into his apartments.

“Grand Magus, of course I’ve thought about it. But it’s quite impossible to do simply.”

The half-Elf’s brows politely rose.

“I think an Archmage of your level could certainly manage it. Don’t let yourself down so easily, Archmage Viltach.”

Another moment of hesitation as Viltach tried to work out if that was…

“I’ve never seen it done outside of an extremely high-level joining spell. Multiple elements, Grand Magus Eldavin? Assuming you’re implying it would be in suspended magicore—how would two cores even co-exist, or if I managed that, allow for a [Mage] to draw on two elements at once rather than a mess of fighting elements?”

There it was. Eldavin pounced, as the cat to the proverbial mouse, or Wyvern to terrified Corusdeer.

“Conflicting elements—that is a problem. However—if we look to nature—slimes manage it, don’t they? The high-level ones, at least. You know, the good old Shockflame Slimes? That sort of thing?”

Viltach blinked. His grip loosened and the door opened wider.

“Slimes? Of course…you’re suggesting their inner mechanisms, some kind of spell—no. Just their inner core must have some kind of inherent conflict-resolver that—”

“Fascinating things, aren’t they? Wonderful to study.

At this point Eldavin’s brows were dancing around on his head like a pair of drunk worms. However, even that wasn’t enough to let himself in.

“Thank you for the tip, Grand Magus. I will look into this. Hopefully it will bear fruit.”

The Archmage bowed quite politely to Eldavin. He waited. The half-Elf smiled.

“Well, I will confess, it was in lieu of this thought that I sought you out, Archmage Viltach. I know it might be presumptuous—but I happen to have a Shockflame Slime just er, sitting in my room. You know how they breed. I was hoping we could perhaps swap a few amiable goods?”

“A Shockflame Slime. You have one in your rooms? As one…does?”

Viltach’s voice had gone flat. Eldavin waved a hand around, contriving to hint at a bit of annoyance.

“They just pop up, you know how it is. I’d be happy to lend it to you indefinitely. I ah, captured it a long while ago. Quite fortuitously…although it would have been a stroke of luck to get a three-elemental slime. Yet those are even rarer. Hard to find ones able to take the strain. This was quite a catch though, and reluctant as I am to part with it…”

Viltach’s eyes widened. He began nodding and opened the door wide. Eldavin beamed.

Of course, he’d just created the Shockflame Slime himself. Viltach was all too willing to believe that Eldavin was trading it from his personal menagerie, though, and if a bit of work got him what he wanted…? Eldavin was soon bustling out of Viltach’s rooms with more of his precious ingredients, and Viltach was staring at the flaming slime which occasionally shot fairly powerful jolts of electricity rolling around in a containment field in his laboratory. He glanced up as he saw the half-Elf close the door.

 

—-

 

They knew that he was hiding something. The [Mages] weren’t stupid, or if they were, they weren’t stupid in that way.

Some thought Eldavin was half-mad and forgot more magic than the Archmages of old knew now. Others wondered if he was some ancient [Mage] who had stayed out of the limelight until now, which was fairly accurate, he had to admit.

In the end though, the results were the same. The [Depth Mage] of the Drowned Fleets welcomed Eldavin into her quarters.

Or rather, all of her did. Her daughters, which were parts of her which had regrown, a kind of birth for the half-starfish woman, all bowed their heads as one.

It was a gesture calculated to unnerve, especially with their identical faces, not to mention when they spoke, greeting him.

Eldavin didn’t bat an eye. He greeted the [Grand Magus], kissing each cheek like they were [Sailors] meeting ship to ship.

“Depth Mage Doroumata, you are a gracious host! Seas take you! Your lovely daughter-apprentices as well. Have you been eating well? I know landfolk food doesn’t sit that well myself. Nothing like a good Invisible Eel in Kelmark sauce, eh? Are the fisheries still working down there or did they all get out again? And who could tell either way?”

He laughed at the bad joke as Doroumata gave him a look of pure surprise. Her daughters were even less subtle, and they began to exhibit different kinds of shock. One’s mouth dropped slightly open like her mother’s, another shifted her skirts, yet another tried to mask…

Ah, so they aren’t sharing a neural link, just the same body-progenitor. Good to know.

Eldavin was Eldavin was Teriarch. He didn’t know everything, far from it. Yet what he did know he used, and soon the [Depth Mage] was treating him like he was the foreign [Mage Captain] of a fellow Drowned Vessel in the deeps, not some foolish landfolk with a bit of magic in him.

Which was eminently the correct thing to do, of course. Eldavin accepted a bowl of some of the larger, dried eggs, not exactly caviar, but a nice snacking food and popped them into his mouth.

“Lovely, lovely.”

“I do apologize. Rations are harder to procure above. I have contented myself with landfolk food, but one who knows the deep water’s bounty…have you crewed with my people before?”

“Now and then, Depth Magus, now and then. Although Depth Magus is such a mouthful—wouldn’t it be more accurate to call you the Shadeward of…I want to say Nombernaught, if I’m guessing cities?”

She jumped and Eldavin hid a smirk behind the bowl.

“You—know the city?”

“As I say. I’ve been around. Of course, the crews I worked with are probably long, long since dead or disbanded, so I wouldn’t be surprised if my name is forgotten.”

He let her chew that over and had no doubt she’d spend a lot of fruitless time trying to figure out how he knew about one of the Drowned People’s secret cities, cloaked by her kind in the depths. Best of luck too! He hadn’t been Eldavin, but a Drowned Folk [Mage] when he’d needed to go below.

She looked at him for a long moment. Like Viltach, he knew he didn’t fool her by playing his cards so close to his chest. Yet that was fine. [Mages] always wanted things. Information, magic…

“How may my daughters and I help you, Grand Magus? I have been told you’ve set a Creler nest—Krakens devour them—in the waters with your trades. What have my people to offer such a knowledgeable [Mage]?”

Eldavin nodded. She was a sensible one. No doubt the Drowned Fleets had picked wisely in choosing her; he wondered who was better, Doroumata or Viltach. You did not become the Shadeward of an entire city unless you could hide them from the vast monsters of the sea—and fight one off if they still came at you.

“In truth, Shadeward Doroumata, I know why you’re here. Before you speak—I am Wistram, and Wistram must keep its secrets. However. I would hate for the Drowned Peoples, who have been allies of the landfolk in times when they are most needed, to take umbrage against the land.”

Her eyes flickered rapidly. One of her daughters glanced around before the others nudged her fiercely behind their long, flowing clothing made of dark magic-infused cloth.

“I do not know if this is excessive flattery, Grand Magus Eldavin. Drowned Fleets are seldom friendly with landfolk or Storm Ships.”

Eldavin’s brisk slap of the knee made them all start, as such sounds did. The underwater crews hated sharp, loud noises, as they attracted fish. He did it anyways, and gave Doroumata a stern look.

Not our friends? Do you refer to the present era, Shadeward? If so, I grant you that. But do not tell me the Drowned Folk forget faster than the landfolk when we stood together? I remember. I was—”

I was there. The half-Elf smoothly went on.

“—raised on stories of the times when land and sea put aside differences! The last time was the Creler Wars, when your people rose from the depths to repel the things devouring all from Rhir! When magic died and your people drowned in the darkness, did our peoples not stand together until the dawn of magic broke again? When tyrants held the sky, did the sea not revolt along with the land, and follow the Treants of Noi into battle?”

Her eyes were wide. Eldavin held her gaze, and realized his hand was shaking. He knew what came next would change things.

So what? He always changed things. Eldavin gestured, pretending to re-cast the powerful magics against eavesdropping he’d already put on the room.

“Lady Doroumata, do you know what has called all of Wistram’s power here? The children?”

She looked at him. Her daughters stirred.

“I know they matter.”

Do you know why?

Another moment of hesitation.

“…No. Only that landfolk have found such, where the Drowned Folk do not. Except for…corpses…”

Eldavin felt a moment of understanding, then pity and sorrow. They appeared in the sea. Even if whatever force was directing them towards civilization—fifteen feet outside a city on land was different than fifteen feet outside an undersea city.

Someone will be held to account. He shook his head.

“Of course not. Yet surely you understand they are appearing…everywhere? Land, sea, perhaps even air, if they are unlucky? These poor, poor children from another world.”

Her eyes went wide behind her veil. He sensed the truth spells probing him from several distant sides.

“That—is—a bold thing to say, Grand Magus.”

“Ah, well, most [Mages] of Wistram know about it. Zealously do they guard their Earthers though—that’s the term for them. I daresay even if you tried spiriting them away, that vessel you probably have parked outside the radius of the academy won’t get far with all of Wistram raining spells down on you. Even if it were a fleet.”

Another safe bet. He knew they wouldn’t leave their Shadeward stranded. The woman sat back, rattled. Yet you didn’t survive that far underwater if you panicked.

“Then what would you suggest, Grand Magus?”

He took his time now, playing up the theatrics, staring at the ceiling, munching the quite nice eggs—they were fertile of course, so you ate the little eel-things live. If some people thought that was barbaric, well, he’d seen how sausages were made. Animals excreted from those things!

“We-ell, if you know where to look, I daresay you’d find the children who stand out, even if they are Human. Wistram also delivers them via boat, which I hate to intimate in any way…I am just speculating, Doroumata.”

She nodded, smiling, enraptured by the half-Elf as he waggled a finger. Not least because the half-Elf had given her the target of her quest.

If Grimalkin of Pallass had not already known from the Drake communications he had hacked into, Eldavin would have told them too. Why did he do it?

A few reasons. One was practical; they were favors to him. The second?

“I mean it, Doroumata. Let the sea rule as it will, but let us also not forget the ties that bind us in the direst hour.”

Eldavin rose. As he did, Doroumata grasped his hands with hers. She dug her nails into his skin, but lightly.

“For you, Grand Magus, we would call you sea-friend even if we forgot all you had done lifetimes ago.”

She met his gaze with her impossibly dark one, that sucked up the light itself. He nodded, bowing slightly, no artifice in taking this compliment.

This was what he had set out here to do. One of the first changes Wistram must make. It was a fool’s errand to enrich only the Academy of Mages.

“I would stay a day or two and wait for someone to insult you.”

He suggested mildly. She nodded. Again, she and her daughters bowed, the daughters making a sign of respect, a touch of the lips and a finger pointed. Words of praise unspoken, for the crews who sailed the depths.

 

—-

 

Then he started asking for favors. Eldavin didn’t need this if everything went well, but they were lots of fun and she’d be able to replenish her stocks. He rubbed his hands together as she produced the things that could help him—underwater ingredients—and added the addendum.

“I was also hoping to take a few Depth Charges if you had any, Doroumata? Handy little things and I’m pressed for time…”

The daughters looked at each other, askance that Eldavin knew to ask for them, let alone wanted one! Yet the Shadeward only hesitated a moment before snapping her fingers.

“Bring one.”

Oho.

Eldavin was careful with the perfectly round sphere of liquid that was nevertheless firm as a rock in his hands. The daughter carefully backed up—not that it would have saved her if he activated it—and he noticed the permanent ward spell around Doroumata grow a bit stronger.

“You…know how to use those?”

Eldavin frowned absently as he inspected the one he’d been handed.

“Of course, of course. One thing…come now, Doroumata, I thought we were friendly! This is only one ton. Pray, might I acquire a stronger one?”

This time Doroumata’s daughters did stir. That was—they looked at their mother. She had decided to give the best one she had to Eldavin, but the [Depth Mage] recovered.

“—Naturally, Grand Magus. However—Wistram. One does not simply walk around with objects of too much danger, do they?”

She lifted a delicate hand. Eldavin nodded slowly. Why was it so reassuring for him to give her a nod, as if he was a [Captain] and she the [Deckhand] just allowed abovedecks?

Naturally. My mistake.”

In that way, Eldavin was fooled, despite his great knowledge. Doroumata saw him off, then turned to plot and communicate with her vessel the import he had brought.

 

—-

 

It was all very well, going around, acquiring his hoar—his necessary items. Eldavin tucked the Depth Charge away securely as he marched down the hallway.

The truth was though, that these factions he was aiding were more for the…the general concept than anything. A rising water drowned all peoples and all that, as the saying went. Similarly, he wanted to help the Drowned Folk as much as give hints to [Mages].

He had a faction, though. It was to that faction his thoughts now turned. For if Eldavin gave hints to his enemies or would-be allies, or simply other people of magic…what would he give to those on his side?

The answer was: all he could. All that was safe. Eldavin had already recalled the incidents of old, the arrogance, and the foolishness of magic unchecked.

He would not make his old mistakes again. He would give what he deemed best, which meant limiting the power of any one side, yet enriching this place, his faction, against what might come if the worst came to the worst.

Which was…a war between worlds. Eldavin was no fool. He’d gone through the laptop, watched the movies, and known where fiction ended and reality begun. Unlike many, he could visualize a gun. Also, contemplate the power to destroy entire cities and poison the earth.

He met with the first of the pupils from his faction as she waited outside the door to his apartments, dancing like a first-year pupil. Valeterisa, Archmage of Izril, nodded to Eldavin and he nodded back, suppressing a sigh.

She was a headache. However, he only smiled.

“Archmage Valeterisa. I hope I have not kept you waiting long? You are, er, forty minutes early to our appointment.”

“I am capable of thought anywhere, Eldavin. I hoped to talk before we resumed our discussion of….”

“Yes—quite. Let’s er, begin.”

 

—-

 

The problem with Valeterisa was her greatest strength. That was what Eldavin had first thought of her:

She was the kind of [Mage] that the Wistram of old was. Driven. Magic is her goal and she will pursue it. For better or worse, she knows politics and influence is a means to an end, yet magic is her love.

That was…good. Because she was intelligent and held magic to be a truth, which was what [Mages] were.

Bad, because it went right up against Eldavin’s ‘don’t give a Bronze-rank adventurer a Tier 8 spell and expect things to work out’ policy. He was sure Valeterisa would manage to break through if he gave her too much of any one magical theory.

Thus, he engaged in a delicate dance of trust and giving her just enough to improve during these ‘collaborative discussions’, which was really him answering questions for her under the guise of ‘magic that had been lost after Zelkyr disappeared’. It was difficult because he had to pretend he did not know the answers, or fuddle around—and she was smart enough to keep testing him to see if he was faking it.

He had to do it, though. Valeterisa was a bit too driven and Eldavin was uncomfortably reminded of [Mages] he had known many times.

Give her the keys, or even a lockpick and she’d throw open the doors to greater magic and drag them all screaming into the aether. Some bastard like that had once ended magic for centuries and Teriarch was not living through that again.

Worse—he politely adjusted the textbook so he avoided looking at her low-cut dress. Valeterisa’s eyes flickered and he doubted she’d try that again. Much like a scientist of Earth, she attempted every method to persuade him to be more forthcoming. She was as direct as Eldavin with that. Bribes, sexual attraction, offers of land, and so on.

I could do this for years, dripping knowledge towards her. My promise to Ryoka matters more, though. The dual full moons are coming up…I have too much to do and not enough time!

Eldavin was worried, but he decided there was no help for it. He cleared his throat as Valeterisa and he hunted for a passage explaining the nuances of spell crafting in the illusion school to include auditory and olfactory senses that he knew was in there in the pile of books (five down, second stack), and spoke.

“Archmage Valeterisa. I was wondering if we might come to an…understanding. In truth, there is a little bit of magical theory that Wistram has lost that I think might be entirely useful. However, it is the culmination of my studies, and I would like to discuss its sharing, even with an Archmage of the faction we both occupy, you understand.”

Her eyes widened. Eldavin sighed, yet he was resolute. This was no time for half-measures anymore.

It was time to throw a Volcano Slime into a forest of Treants, to use an old, and now fairly regrettable saying. Compared to what was coming up—this wasn’t even the big gamble.

“As I have repeatedly stated, I will fully compensate any magical knowledge you can share to the best of my abilities, Eldavin. Note to self: sexual appeal effective? Yes/no? Further testing required.”

She said that last part out loud, and then blinked at him. Eldavin blinked back.

“Assign ‘no’ to that hypothesis, please. I am simply in need of assistance.”

Ah. What do you require, then?”

Valeterisa waited. Unlike Viltach or Doroumata, Teriarch could just say what he wanted. Refreshingly simple. Valeterisa lived like the very same logical circuits that made up the Earther’s computers and technology.

As he spoke, Eldavin got up and walked to the large, very impressive windows and balcony of his new apartments. They overlooked the sea and beyond, the ocean past the bubble of calm. He placed two hands behind his back as Valeterisa watched, keenly interested.

“I believe you have your own information sources in Wistram, Valeterisa. So perhaps you know that a certain High Mage Merzun attempted to acquire some Earthers from an inn in Liscor.”

Valeterisa’s eyes flickered as Eldavin glanced over his shoulder. It was uncanny, really. She used a variation of the same memory spells he employed. It was just smart magic—neatly filing information, splitting her mind. He had heard she ran into the same trap that had killed many [Mages] of course. Ryoka had saved her life. Perhaps it was strange how these connections came about, but Teriarch—Eldavin—had long since learned to see how these patterns naturally came about.

“I recall. A minor incident. The Mage Montressa du Valeross was summarily expelled, Mage Bezale cautioned by her faction; Ullsinoi declined to caution Mage Palt. High Mage Merzun failed to acquire Earthers, citing extraordinary circumstances and dangers of Xrn, Pallass. Ullsinoi lodged formal complaint against Revivalist faction. Issue under debate.”

“Succinctly put. I was only made aware of this incident a few days ago myself. I…consider it emblematic of the problems facing Wistram.”

“Clarify?”

Eldavin nodded.

“Morally fraught, but also politically inexpedient. Moreover, this…squabbling between factions is not conducive to unity or a greater understanding of Earth for all.”

“I would support that statement generally.”

Valeterisa nodded, although the half-Elf wondered if she was bothered by the moral issues. Well, allies did not need to see eye-to-eye, merely respect each other’s positions. He went on, smoothly.

“I have no…strong…attachment to these particular Earthers, but I do consider myself something of a patron to a certain Earther who has made my acquaintance. A Ryoka Griffin. You know her.”

“Courier, involved in—yes. I know her.”

Valeterisa blinked, her eye sharpening, not doing a memory-recall, but actively remembering. She stared keenly at Eldavin.

“You are her patron? Of course. These connections—did you teach her the strange wind magic? Are you aware of the peculiar nature of her acquaintance, a Fierre? Added to that, I would love to compare notes on her physiology—”

“Archmage Valeterisa. Miss Ryoka Griffin is under my protection. Which means I would rather she go about her life unimpeded.”

The stern reprimand made Valeterisa blink, and sit back.

“I see. Is this a warning?”

“Not at all.”

The half-Elf lied smoothly. He turned back to the window.

“Rather, it is an appeal for help. I would prefer our Terras faction to stand rather apart from these acquisitive factions. We do not need to hold Earthers, against their will no less, like political prisoners. Or slaves. However, it seems Archmage Nailihuaile, among others, does not respect the other faction’s boundaries. I sense, as do you, an inevitable conflict that may range beyond the merely political.”

Valeterisa tapped her fingers on the table, and then nodded. She waited now, as Eldavin glanced back at her. Even with her, he still had to dance a bit.

“Which brings me to my point. I cannot be everywhere. As we are both leaders of the Terras faction, and you the technical leader, I hesitate to give you orders. I would consider it a personal favor, however, if you were to take up the mantle if such a situation arose.”

“Interesting. You mean intervention in Izrilian affairs against other factions. What is my incentive for clashing with other Archmages and factions?”

Eldavin lifted a finger.

“Some factions are quite reasonable. Ullsinoi, for instance. I spoke with Magus Gaxiela or whatever they call themselves. Only the factions that do not respect our desires.”

“Izril is quite far from Wistram. I do not see the merit in leaving Wistram. As of yet, our faction has no official members outside the academy, so are you suggesting I leave Wistram?”

“If need be. To that end—my offer. I assure you, the pieces will come together nicely. Tell me, Valeterisa. What do you consider to be the greatest impediment of [Mages] throughout history?”

To her credit, Valeterisa took the question like a student. She pondered it for a good minute, which Eldavin quite approved of, and then responded.

“To simplify the answer: time. [Mages] may level and acquire knowledge indefinitely, yet time impedes even the species with greatest longevity.”

Eldavin nodded.

“A common answer.”

“You object to my reasoning?”

“Not at all. I quite agree. Which is why I am offering a culmination of my knowledge—”

Time delay spells? You know how to create time delay spells? [Time Slow]? No—a miniature universe with a time delay? I could spend all my time efficiently in one of those, even at a .96 time distortion!”

Valeterisa shot out of her chair like an excited girl. Eldavin waved a hand quickly. This. This was why you didn’t give her anything more radical.

“No, no, Archmage. I don’t have anything nearly as potent as that. Merely a piece of the puzzle. Distance, Archmage.”

“Distance?”

She looked disappointed, but rallied quickly. Eldavin stroked his beard.

“Indeed. Distance and time are conflated. Even the children of Earth know this. Recall their statements about relativity? Speed is time is…well, moving past the speed of sound itself is inherently unhealthy.”

She was nodding. The Grand Magus went on.

“Covering distance, especially Wistram to Izril, takes altogether too much time. I myself spent far too long on a fast ship. Whereas, in history, Archmages as recent as Zelkyr did not have to endure such travails. I had considered a faster route—but Wistram was not receptive to the spell queries. They had forgotten. So what I am suggesting—offering, really—is not new, but rather, old. I recall the spells quite well…”

Valeterisa zoomed ahead of Teriarch. Her eyes flickered, the pupils darting around, and she gasped before he did.

You remember long-distance teleport circles?

“Indeed.”

Wistram had teleportation spells. There was still business in mass-teleporting objects across the world. People were considered too dangerous for Fissival’s old magical grids, or Wistram.

“The Academy can teleport individuals. This is not new, Grand Magus.”

After a moment, Valeterisa looked disappointed. Eldavin countered.

“Archmages, at great cost. I believe it takes at least sixty linked [Mages] to provide the magical power and complexity required for the spell. Ridiculous! There is a coordinate-based teleport system far more effective than the one in place here. The very reason the teleportation is so complex in and out of Wistram and every idiot except the Demons of Rhir copy it is because it was designed to go through magical protections. You can use a [Greater Teleport] spell almost as simply as [Lesser Teleport], albeit with higher mana costs and complexity and casting time, but linearly, not exponentially per pound…”

The Dragon stopped ranting, realizing he might have said too much. The Death of Magic knew how to cast teleportation spells. Hence her training actual [Teleportation Mages]. He’d studied some of the battles in recent history.

Valeterisa’s eyes were shining.

“You are willing to share this?”

Eldavin considered the question from all angles. He nodded of course; he had made his mind up already.

“Why don’t we go over my personal teleportation circle? I use it to ah, navigate the High Passes. I was entirely tickled in an unpleasant way to learn Wistram had forgotten.”

There were multiple reasons for him choosing to give this powerful magical technology to Valeterisa. Firstly? It was his faction and they needed to prove Terras had something no other faction had.

Secondly, wasting time on trips was stupid. [Mages] should at least move about. Also, if he wanted Valeterisa to represent him on Izril, there was no better way to aid her in that regard. If an Archmage could teleport to Izril to slap down an uppity [High Mage] whenever she wanted, the other factions would walk more carefully.

Finally, and this was a smaller consideration—it was the door in Liscor. Eldavin had heard the Centrists might be making a grab for it, despite Ullsinoi trying to keep it on lock. If there was a teleportation spell in circulation, the danger to The Wandering Inn was considerably lessened.

That was the kind of layers that went into a Dragon’s plans. Eldavin smugly smiled as Valeterisa goggled at his sample spell circle. This would change things. Yet he was more comfortable with this than finishing Valeterisa’s research. She had been aiming for a powerful bit of spell theory. More dangerous than teleportation spells in the long run.

“It isn’t comparable to true [Greater Teleport] of course. These are just spell circles, not the spell that can let you hop between continents. However, you could hit an effective range of, oh, two hundred miles alone. Easier to hop around if you prepare ahead of time.”

She was nodding rapidly. He’d induced several flaws and inaccuracies in the complex circle to make it harder to use its full potential and waste mana. No doubt that would eventually be corrected. He regarded it as teaching the generations. Plus, it was hilarious to see [Mages] casting a spell that literally fed mana into the void, or siphoned some off to make a small, smelly gas cloud by ‘accident’. You had to enjoy your work.

Eldavin patted the Archmage on the shoulder and wandered off. Next!

 

—-

 

One thing Teriarch and Eldavin didn’t do was make any of this personal. That was why he didn’t rise to Naili’s provocation as they discussed the inn-incident over breakfast the next day.

“I just don’t know what came over High Mage Merzun, Grand Magus. She must not have gotten the information about the Earthers and Ullsinoi. Besides which, they aren’t your faction. No one was removed that did not want to go. A young man is coming to Wistram, but everyone seems satisfied, so what is the issue?”

She smiled in a wide, toothy grin. Calculated to unsettle or annoy.

Eldavin did not rise to the bait. Oh, he would admit he had a small temper at times. Yet in this particular case, he was calm because Naili needling him was rather like a little girl poking at a Giant and expecting to get a rise out of him. He had seen far greater Nagas. So he smiled quite genially, which unsettled her.

“And yet, Archmage Nailihuaile, High Mage Merzun is interfering in another faction’s affairs. The Ullsinoi are lodging a formal complaint.”

“I am so sorry, as I said. We will debate it in the Council and ensure this does not happen again.”

Since my faction is so powerful and the Ullsinoi are not and considered troublemakers, we won’t get more than a slap on the wrist verbally. The Star Lamia’s grin was a bit too self-effacing at this point, so Eldavin sipped from his cup of tea.

His great regret in his association with Magnolia Reinhart was how she had profaned the ways of tea and begun drinking straight sugar. He enjoyed a refined cup himself, and had quietly disintegrated the bowl of sugar cubes one time he’d had tea with Mage Telim and some others.

“Well, I will admit that we must do things as the current Wistram dictates. Or I’m sure Ullsinoi would have pressed their case more…directly. Which would be amusing for all. [Siege Fireballs] in the hallways.”

She hesitated, reminded that this current system was not how the good old days had done it. Before she could counter, Eldavin went on.

“Which is why Terras has lodged a formal complaint alongside Ullsinoi. I believe some stern reprimands are in order for High Mage Merzun’s lack of understanding of the situation. Archmage Valeterisa is calling for the Council to strip her of her rank and demote her back to a basic magus. I believe the measure will pass, and I hope I can persuade you to support the vote, as you seem clearly as passionate about proper conduct as I.”

He twinkled as the Star Lamia spluttered and coughed on her breakfast of one of the more acceptable rodents of Baleros.

“I knew you’d see it my way. Ah—but I’m late for my class! Let us discuss this later! Oh, and Ullsinoi may receive three Earthers from the Revivalists as a measure of recompense. A pleasure to talk to you, Archmage!”

A [Speed] spell on the feet and he was gone. Now, that might have been a bit petty, but it was not as self-interested as any other [Mage] of Wistram might be. If Teriarch, Eldavin, had really wanted to gain power here? Oh, he would be sharing spells left and right, stealing valuable [Mages].

…No. The Dragon’s age and wisdom were enough for him to represent Terras, yet enrich magic as a whole. He still felt spritely as he walked down the corridors, ignoring Naili calling after him.

Eldavin really did feel good. Why was that? He slowed, frowning, and caught sight of himself in a mirror.

A tall half-Elf. A perfect simulacrum. He felt light on his feet, he had a prodigious appetite and…he put a hand to his head for a moment.

His memory was good too. Oh.

“Of course.”

Eldavin murmured. He hadn’t had any difficulty in…recollecting things. Nor bodily aches and pains at all. Because, of course, his simulacrum was perfect, far younger in body than Feor, for all he looked older.

He had ‘left’ many of the unneeded memories in his true body, the superfluous recollections of being a Dragon. Like Valeterisa, he could access them, but the much smaller brain and capacity of the half-Elf’s body meant it had been economical to not include them.

Fine physical conditioning, mental alacrity, and the ability to eat one’s fill without depleting an entire herd of animals. Why didn’t he always stay like this? Eldavin gave himself a miffed look.

Oh, yes. Because he was about as strong as a Halfling compared to a half-Giant due to his inferior body and having to transmit his magical power at a fraction of its true power. Eldavin sighed.

“Also because if I die, I could actually die.”

A passing [Mage] gave him an odd look. Eldavin nodded at him vaguely.

Yes, the dangers of the simulacrum spell were that even if your copy died, the shock of death could kill the spellcaster. Only the messiest of deaths, really. Magical backlash and so on. It was possible, though…he sighed.

Speaking of which, the hour approached. And at the same time…a giant woman walked down the halls of Wistram. [Mages] seeing her slowed or stepped to one side, although she would do the same for them.

Cognita slowed as she saw Eldavin. He looked up towards her face and nodded.

“Cognita.”

“Grand Magus Eldavin. Can I help you?”

[Mages] watching her might have noticed that the normally impassive Truestone Golem’s face was a touch…Eldavin smiled, meeting her eyes, speaking casually. No one else did that, not to the last servant of Zelkyr, the keeper of the test.

“Not particularly. How are you today, Cognita?”

She blinked at him.

“I am a Truestone Golem.”

“Indeed, indeed. Yet that statement is a poor nothing. One has bad days and good regardless of whom one is. I have inquired and it seems you take no actual breaks. Tell me, do you enjoy the ceremony of taking tea? I could invite you to one of High Mage Telim’s little gatherings. It is a convivial gossip session.”

The [Mages] boggling at Eldavin looked at Cognita. A frown appeared on her face.

“I do not socialize, Grand Magus Eldavin.

“Not with that attitude, I see. Very well, if you insist, I won’t press the matter. You know where to find me if you change your mind.”

Cognita stared at Eldavin. A tremor ran through her body. It was apparent to all who listened that Eldavin’s tone was not mocking or comedic…yet it was rather reminiscent of an adult, an older adult, speaking to a far younger person. Grandfatherly.

The Golem did not appreciate that. Eldavin began to walk past her, and then turned, as if recalling something.

“Oh, have you heard about the Sentient-class Golem that was claimed to have been invented in Illivere?”

She visibly wavered this time. Eldavin went on.

“I’ve heard that the Magus-Crafter is quite adept. He might be able to reproduce the phenomenon. Do you recall the competitors of your master, Zelkyr? Wouldn’t you say Femithain of Illivere might echo the [Golem Artificers] right about oh, Zelkyr’s fourth decade?”

“I do not speculate about world affairs—Eldavin. Goodbye.”

She turned. The half-Elf sighed as the Truestone Golem walked through the ranks of [Mages]. Haughty and aloof. As bad a child as Ryoka Griffin.

He’d actually tried to engage her in conversation. Yet with how all of Wistram treated her, no wonder she’d shrugged him off.

It did not occur to Eldavin that Cognita’s refusal might have had to do with more than her status in Wistram, and her attitude towards him in particular. The Dragon pursed his lips, watching her go. It would be so much easier if he could just talk with her, but she was impossible to talk to privately! Too many ears around…politics.

Well. He turned and walked on his way, sighing. He’d made four attempts so far. Eldavin headed to a personal tutoring session with a small group of the students he’d picked up. That young man with the false name—both of them. Calac Crusand and Trey Atwood. Well, the entire group of students was rather extraordinary. Far more promising first-years than the other students years ahead.

Eldavin ran them through the basics, then took aside the young man with the [Warrior] class to show him how to channel spells through the blade. He eyed the upgraded Lifesand Golem and shook his head. One Golem at a time.

After that, he went back to his quarters to prepare. One more day till the double full moons…his carefully-bargained for ingredients went into glowing spell circles, bubbling mixtures, and, in one case, his mouth.

High Mage Telim had excellent snacks.

 

—-

 

It was only full moons. Two of them, a rare astrological event, yet so what? The moons were only bodies of matter that reflected light. They were not special; it was superstition that governed full moons having any auspicious events.

Or else why would it matter that the moons were full at night? They were ‘full’ in the daytime too. You just couldn’t see them.

The naysayers and fools who thought like this had no appreciation for the fact that time and place did matter. The funny thing was that they were right.

When a moon was full, it was always full even if you couldn’t see it.

It was just a matter of perspective.

Still, Dramaw didn’t think of the celestial event, or bother with such childish things. He was sharpening his teeth as he reclined in one of the hiding places his gang had bought.

Dramaw, known for his biting ability. His name and abilities had actually come about after an accident which hadn’t been lucky; someone punching out a number of teeth in a bloody brawl that had left five people dead.

However, the Gnoll [Underworld Mercenary] had been resourceful and turned the bad stroke of luck into an advantage, replacing his teeth with custom, steel teeth. Serrated edges, even poison if need be. When he bit you—you felt it.

He cursed as he nicked a finger in the dim, half-rotten hole of a hiding place. This was not where he’d prefer to be, but this damned Drake city had few amenities. Their criminal underworld had all the depth of a glass of water. Which of course meant that Dramaw and his gang could run amok without the Watch to stop them, and then bail when it got too hot.

However, the prospects of meager earnings were not enticing to the Gnoll. He growled; he was in a bad mood. They’d come all the way up this far north—further still, actually—then had come back this way, barely making any money and wasting time.

His gang was small, but deadly. Dangerous Gnolls, each one capable of walking into a city and turning it on its head. Only Pallass and the best cities had the law enforcement to tangle with them. Recently though—they’d suffered setbacks.

One of their members had died. She had been good, too. The fact that she’d bit it in a no-name, border city like Liscor infuriated Dramaw. Not least because it was all the fat coin down the drain. He snarled, throwing his whetstone at a bug running for a crack in the wall.

That made the following incident all the more curious to Dramaw. One of the two Gnolls who’d come with him spoke via a speaking stone on Dramaw’s table.

“Boss? Boss.”

What?

The Gnoll snarled back. The younger Gnoll, Shank, since he had no good name yet, was breathy. Something had scared him and Dramaw tensed reflexively. Was it the Watch? Bounty hunters?

“Boss. I just saw Bearclaw.”

“What?”

Dramaw sat up. Shank spoke, urgently.

“I was in the tavern and she walked in and signaled me. Bearclaw!”

“You’re mad. There’s no way it was her. Some Senior Guardsman did her in.”

I swear, Boss! You know Bearclaw! You can’t just look like her!”

That was true. Dramaw hesitated. Bearclaw? She had to know they were here; this was one of the cities they’d fallen back to. If she’d survived, if the Watch had been wrong—of course she was here!

“Where is she now?”

“Don’t know. Should I try to find her? I just saw her from across the bar—”

“Yes, damn it! Find her!”

Dramaw sat up. He was going to tear strips off Bearclaw, but her returning was something! If she hadn’t gotten that White Gnoll though…well, it might have been too hot in Liscor after the Senior Guardsman.

He was debating how to respond to her and assert discipline; she’d fight back if he provoked her, but he needed to punish her. Dramaw was getting up when someone knocked on the door, using his gang’s code-sign.

“Dramaw? You there?”

The Gnoll’s head turned.

Bearclaw?

He got up from his desk, slowly. Warily too; he wasn’t an idiot. If this was some Watch trap…the Gnoll walked towards the door.

The gang in this city had poor safe houses, but they weren’t complete idiots. He opened the spyhole, tilting the metal cover, and stared through the plain glass hole. He saw…the Gnoll’s eyes widened.

Bearclaw stood in the dark alleyway, amid the shadows and trash. It was her! There was no mistaking that burly form! He spoke, loud enough to be heard through that door.

“Bearclaw, you bitch! Why didn’t you send word you were alive?”

“Had to keep moving. They were on my tail. Mind letting me in already, Dramaw?”

He nodded, and began to work at the locks. Then—the Gnoll hesitated. He glanced through the peephole again.

It was Bearclaw, wasn’t it? She looked like her. She was standing back, to get into full frame of the spyhole for him. Yet the Gnoll felt a little prickling of unease.

“One second, Bearclaw. Just let me check something. What was the last thing I said to you?”

The big Gnoll paused. She spoke after a moment.

“—‘don’t screw this one up. But get us that bounty and I’ll let you take half of our people and start your own group. Under me.’”

Dramaw relaxed, slightly. That was true. He began to open the door. It budged open a crack and then a chance breeze blew down the alleyway.

The scent of the street, the city, refuse, piss, and Bearclaw blew into the little room. Dramaw sneezed—then coughed. And coughed again. His paw froze on the door.

“Bearclaw? What’s up? You don’t…smell…”

The scent of blood and death filled his nose. Not that he hadn’t smelled that before many times with Bearclaw. Yet this smelled like old death. Underneath it—

‘Bearclaw’ tried the door’s handle and it didn’t move. The door had re-shut. She pulled on the door, gently, then harder.

“Dramaw? What’s wrong?”

There was no answer at first. Then a slight sound as the other Gnoll adjusted the cover of the spyhole again. His voice was muffled from within the safe house.

“…What have you done with Bearclaw?”

The female Gnoll laughed, derisively, and slapped her chest.

“Don’t mess me about, Dramaw! It’s me!”

There was no response. The leader of the gang looked down from behind the now too-thin door. His paws were shaking.

“You’re not the Watch. What in the name of Rhir’s hells are you?”

Bearclaw stepped back. For a second, he thought she’d curse him out and hit the door. Then—the figure began to chuckle. Dramaw stared as, suddenly, Bearclaw—vanished.

Something, someone far taller and bigger than even the Gnoll woman adjusted herself. The cloak she wore, the ragged clothing, shifted as the breeze blew again. Dramaw’s eyes widened as he saw and realized—

That wasn’t a cloak. That was Bearclaw’s…

That was Bearclaw.

He leapt back, scrambling for his speaking stone. Outside, someone began to try the handle, pulling, hard. Yet the enchanted door had enough strength to resist whatever it was.

“Come now, let me in. I didn’t think you were a coward.

Shank, Beilfang, report!

Dramaw was scrambling for his speaking stone. He watched the door, grabbing for his weapons. He heard a muffled sound—then one voice.

“Boss? What is it? Did you find Bearclaw?”

“No! That’s not Bearclaw! Beilfang! I don’t care if you’re shitting or in bed, respond!

There was no response. Dramaw’s fur began to stand up taller. He stared at the door, now rattling as something hit it.

“Boss?”

Shank was worried. Dramaw spoke, rapidly.

“Shanks, that’s not Bearclaw. I don’t know what got her, but get out of the city. She’s right outside the safe room. She wants me—she might have gotten Beilfang.”

The other Gnoll swore. Dramaw shouted.

“Shanks? Get out of the city! Don’t go to any of the safe houses! She knows all of them! Go to where we last were on our way here! Move!”

“Got it!”

The Gnoll was already running, cursing, when the speaking stone’s sounds died. Dramaw crept back to the door. There…he saw her again.

She was standing in the alleyway. Her, and two more. Giants—he rubbed at one eye. They looked like Gnolls. Until you stared at them closely and realized what they were wearing. Until you smelled them.

“What the hell do you want?”

Two moved off, into the street. After Shank. The last—Bearclaw—turned back to him. She grinned, and Dramaw recoiled slowly.

“It’s so hard to find people no one misses. Bad little Gnolls are easiest because no one knows they’re there. Don’t you want to know what happened to your friend?”

Dramaw backed up as Nokha pressed herself against the door, a huge eye peering in at him.

“Get—get—I don’t know what you are, but I’ll find you and you’ll regret this.”

With shaking paws, he slid the cover of the spyhole shut. He heard laughter from outside. The door began to move again, as something huge struck it. It wouldn’t last forever.

Yet Dramaw didn’t wait. He turned, and ran across the room for his belongings, and the secondary bolt-hole. No safe house had just one entrance. He was leaving. Damn this region! He was heading south, away from the Bloodfields and whatever cursed thing had gotten Bearclaw. If Shanks lived—

The secret passage led outside, through another building. It had to be magically unsealed. The door shook behind him. Dramaw undid the magic—and hurtled through the second exit as he heard the door begin to crack behind him.

It only occurred to him then, as the door flew open and he crashed into a huge, furry chest, smelling of the same foul odor as ‘Bearclaw’, that he had made a mistake.

Whatever wore her skin had known everything Bearclaw did. Which meant it also knew about the bolt hole—

The Gnoll screamed once as the Raskghar grabbed him. Then, the predator of Gnolls undid the door and let Nokha in. She shut the door, and grinned. The two full moons shone, giving her kind intelligence and strength beyond compare.

At this point though, it didn’t matter. They didn’t need the full moons anymore.

“Finish up. Hurry up. We have to move south faster.”

She told the Raskghar. She had heard about the Meeting of Tribes. It sounded like exactly the sort of thing she wanted to visit. After all—her kin were going there too. Normally Raskghar wouldn’t be welcome, of course. Yet—Nokha checked the cloak she wore and smiled.

It was just a matter of perspective.

 

—-

 

On the day when two moons shone bright over the world, Lady Rie Valerund cried out. Her skin burned.

Faint, nigh-invisible marks along her arms flared to life. Burning with an agony unmatched.

Then—abruptly—stopped. Yet the pain was replaced by compulsion. Magical and mental.

Come hither.

She knew what was calling her. Lady Rie fought it, gasping, retreating to her home to lie in waking agony. At any other time she would have heeded the call with alacrity.

The Circle of Thorns was broken, though. Which was why she had refused the other, far less onerous summons sent through private means. She had thought the Thorns of Death were dead or disbanded!

At least one lived, she now knew. Or perhaps someone was calling her to a trap to reveal her position? Either way, Lady Rie screamed into a pillow, the marks twisting, calling her, pain vanishing and reigniting over the first hour.

She did not know what to do. If she understood the summoning correctly, it would not end until she went—or she died. Her two loyal subordinates, uncomprehending, thought she was just sick. Lady Rie felt the desire to get up and find a horse, to hurry without rest growing stronger with each minute. The magical markings she had accepted to rise to her position even pointed the way.

Lady Rie was one of a handful that felt the inexorable call. Others did, and the weakest-willed or those hoping to find some purpose obeyed first.

Others did not. When she felt the sting of magic, far weaker given she had never been ranked as highly, Lady Ieka Imarris stabbed her arm with a dagger, killing the malign hex. She begged her aunt for aid and soon was grimly preparing a countermeasure.

In this case, extenuating circumstances changed fate. Before Valeterisa could even reply to begin undoing the hex, Ieka felt the pain subside. Shocked, she gazed at her arm and saw the magic fading, erasing itself.

She did not understand why—until she recalled the words of Melidore.

“Your guilt shall not touch you unless you continue; that is my favor.”

Shaken, relieved, she found herself freed. A luck that did not extend to the others.

More than one individual resisted the call, however. Beckoned by the same power—and she was quite amused by this—a certain [Witch] pulled out a bit of cloth, stitched to look like an arm. Belavierr eyed the twisting runes burning into the skin and actually chuckled for a moment.

Someone else laughed, richly amused by the entire thing, Lady Rie’s suffering notwithstanding. No—amused because of it.

Laken Godart poked the tomato in front of him. Well, tomato sliced and added to a salad. He didn’t touch his plate. It wasn’t a good cut either. A wedge of tomato. Boiled pasta, which was about all you could say for it. Some pumpernickel bread which was quite good, with butter. A few pastries in the pantry—

However, the meal was decidedly lacking. The [Emperor] had tossed it together with about as much enthusiasm as someone shoveling manure. Nevertheless, a number of dishes had been emptied.

The [Emperor] had a guest. The guest laughed, and chuckled, pausing from devouring the food as a starving man, to look up.

“You see? Thus do traitors earn their due. Fools ensure loyalty by fear and pain.”

“Or by trickery and deceit. Not to put too fine a point on it.”

Laken folded his arms. His…guest…had arrived uninvited. He paused, looking irked at the rejoinder. Then smiled.

“The desperate do what they must. This is old magic, Laken.”

“That would be ‘your Majesty’, to you. Peon.”

Instead of rising ire, his comment only elicited a laugh. The other man rose and swept a bow. Laken never opened his eyes obviously, yet he sensed the motion.

He shifted uneasily. He hadn’t been able to do that last time. This time, his guest, Tamaroth, was visible even to his [Emperor]’s senses.

“I don’t suppose that you’ll drop dead of poison?”

“Did you put it in the food?”

No, just an unseemly amount of salt. If he’d had Wiskeria’s poisons to hand, Laken wondered if he would have been able to add it. He sat there, arms folded.

“Will you be leaving soon?”

“Don’t be so hostile, Laken Godart. We are allies. I have come here, at great effort, to help you.”

The man was in a better mood, not as rushed as he had been every other time. Laken raised one brow.

“By emptying my larder?”

“Indulge me my hunger. Now—ah, now—do you know how it is to starve so long you forget what it ever was to be full? Yet time is never unlimited.”

“How terrible. The door is over there.”

Laken indicated it with a nod. Tamaroth chuckled and wiped at his beard.

“Do you really want me to leave, Laken? Lady Rie Valerund screams in agony. She will not resist long, though she has a strong will. Does she leave, you will never see her again. At least, not the woman you knew. What will return, if she does return, will be a weapon forged in blood. You would do well to slaughter her where she stood rather than stand in her presence a minute longer than you must. Tell me—do you want that?”

Laken’s skin crawled. His guest knew. He knew many things. Too much. Yet his advice had proven prophetic before. So Laken listened, unwillingly, but listened.

“Your agenda is not mine…Tam.”

Tam?

The other man echoed the word, incredulous for once. Laken shrugged.

“Call it a pet name.”

He waited for the fury. But again, the man was amused.

“Ah. You do not like me, which I accept. Listen, though; as my strength grows, I remember more of what I am. Before, I gave you only tricks and hints. Now I tell you of what you must know. Close your ears and suffer. Or would you really like to weather the storm unprepared?”

Laken shifted.

“Fine. They’re coming for me, this…group of nobles. I will take your advice under consideration. What about Lady Rie?”

A smile he sensed across the table. The other man began to gulp more food down.

“Yes. Think of it, Laken. They would take her, twist her mind and body and soul as such people do, and turn her into something for them. A method to make perfect servants. I can tell how much distaste you have for that idea. You care for Lady Rie, for all she betrayed your trust. If you saved her, what loyalty might you garner? What secret weapon against your foe?”

“There seems to be a difference between how we regard people, Tam.”

A shrug. Laken started as he realized the table was empty. The side salad gone from the bowl.

“I am so hungry. Do you want to save her or not?”

Laken hesitated. He knew all the stories. Yet that was the kind of deal it always was. Do you want to save her? He sensed Rie writhing in her bed, knew Tamaroth was telling him the truth.

“Tell me. I’ll decide.”

“Of course. All you must do is fight what they intend to do to her. Consider yourself so lucky, Laken. But for me you would not know what was happening or how to prevent it.”

“I say my thanks daily. How, Tam? I don’t have a Skill to fight what you’re describing.”

Another smile. The man sat back, appetite whetted, or at least, understanding there was no food left in the house in Riverfarm.

“Then you must acquire one.”

Laken’s brows would have risen higher, but at that point they would have been in his hair.

“So simple as that?”

“If you know how, yes. This is what you must do. Rise from your seat, hasten to the market. Bring me back something to eat. Then—”

Laughter as Laken scowled.

“—then, summon your man Prost, make excuses. Bring a dagger and potion, for both of you will shed blood. Go to her, Laken Godart. Offer her to swear herself to your service by the means I will tell you. She may refuse.”

“You don’t know?”

Another chuckle.

“Don’t we all have free will?”

“You tell me.”

The guest ignored the question. He went on, voice speculative now, dancing with interest. Excitement, even.

“If she accedes, follow my instructions as to what to do next. Then let her obey the call. If not…or if you choose otherwise…”

“If not what?”

Tamaroth sat there, leaning on the table.

Summon your [Witches]. And when the cord of her life stretches tight against the oaths she has made, there is a chance she will live. Shattered though it might be. It is your choice.”

He laughed, spreading his hands.

“I would rather you gain a servant you can trust. I would rather she lives. I can admire someone who rises after making a terrible mistake. I am not heartless, see? Do you want to know more, or should I go?”

He sat there, indulgently, as Laken Godart glared across the table. After a long moment, the [Emperor] got up. Tamaroth’s expression shifted; Laken could not sense it in enough detail yet, but his voice was alarmed.

“Where are you going?”

The [Emperor] walked over to the door. He opened it, turned, and looked back. Savoring the other’s discomfort. Then he sighed.

“To get a sandwich and a drink.”

Raucous, relieved laughter followed him as he closed the door behind him. Of course, what Tam didn’t know was that Laken Godart was getting both for himself. He came back though.

And listened.

 

—-

 

The schemes and plots of little villains. Foes, both mortal and immortal.

He had known them all. He still had them, despite how many ages had passed. Grave foes. He knew some of them not as enemies that deserved no pity or reason, but simply those who had set themselves against all. Indeed, he might find common ground with some, if they knew he lived.

Others…others deserved naught but fire and damnation. However, most of these he had watched die, sometimes by his own efforts.

His reasoning in his original body came back to him. How many times must I fight? How much must be sacrificed?

A young woman’s reply, the most unique of all the replies he had received to the question asked:

Do what you want. Help—even if it’s half-assed. Half-effort.

He chuckled at that, even now. Perhaps this was a mistake. The day had arrived, though, and he was committed to his course.

He had prepared in sleepless nights. He had studied, him, practiced, worked harder than he had in millennia. All for one moment.

A Dragon’s plans were more than a single moment, though. Eldavin stood, taking a few breaths to calm his beating heart. What he was about to do next was audacious. He well understood the implications. But what was he, Teriarch, if not one for such grand moments?

He had studied for this moment. Bound magic tingled in his fingertips, ready to be activated. Another breath; Eldavin heard voices from beyond. He would have to act quickly. The world would change from what he was about to do, he had no doubt. If he failed?

Do not fail. The half-Elf smiled, baring his teeth like a Dragon. It had been a long time since he faced failure.

 

—-

 

Incidentally, the Dragon’s position and preparations would have unnerved any of his foes, known or unknown to Teriarch himself, had they known of them.

Indeed, the one foe that Eldavin was unaware of was unnerved. He kept craning his neck and turning, breaking off the lesson.

“Er—is something wrong?”

Aaron Vanwell stared at Emerrhain. However, he was rewarded with a glare.

“It…may be. What is that salamander doing? This makes no sense. Why…?”

He was uncertain. Which surprised Aaron. The restless guest who had appeared in his rooms was clearly nervous about something, although what, Aaron could not tell.

 

—-

 

It was time. Eldavin had taken forty three breaths and he was beginning to suffer from hyperventilation. He steadied his nerves, exhaled, and put his hands on the doors.

“Time.”

He threw open the double doors and strode into the room. Magic moved around him, countless pre-prepared spells. Eldavin raised his hands.

The room beyond had only a few people in it. A Golem turned, saw Eldavin. The Grand Magus lifted his hands.

“You there. Shoo, shoo. No, I don’t want a drink. Out of the room. There you go.”

He carefully flapped his hands at the ceramic serving Golem with the tray of drinks. The Golem obeyed, and trotted out of the room.

The other [Mages] turned, blinking.

“Grand Magus Eldavin?”

The half-Elf turned, seeing the spells, the scrying orbs around the room, currently reflecting…he beamed at the other [Mages].

“Good evening, fellow [Mages]. I hate to disturb you, but I am taking charge here. No need to object…get out.”

To the perplexity of the [Mages], and Emerrhain, the half-Elf kicked them out. Then he sealed the door with a spell as they turned and tried to open it, shouting. Eldavin took a breath. Then he began to speak. It took a while for people to realize what he was doing.

Well…until it became obvious to all.

 

—-

 

“—and I just don’t see the point of this new style of dress. Lace? Why lace? If you’re just tuning in, this is Fashion Talks, with Sir Relz and me, Drassi. And I have to just add—I don’t think one of us is qualified to be here.”

“Don’t put yourself down so, Miss Drassi.”

The Drake with the monocle blinked as Drassi eyed him.

“I meant you, Sir Relz.”

Me? I’m up to date on all the latest fashion trends!”

“For rich weirdos wearing monocles. Have you ever been to a popular tavern or bar?”

“I’ve been to the best in—”

Popular, not expensive! You’re the kind of Drake who wears this ridiculous lace stuff. I want another co-host, who understands what it’s like to have a budget of silver, not gold! Lace is stupid, you heard it here first!”

There were surprisingly a lot of viewers on this segment, Fashion Talks, despite many not caring for the dissertation of Terandrian lace-fashion. Drassi had a following. Yet as the Drake and Sir Relz were about to start arguing, the high point of all the segments involving them, the image flickered.

Abruptly—the scrying mirror behind the two Drakes, which allowed them to live-comment on events began flickering. An alert began ringing.

“Hold up—we’re getting a live notification of a Drama-alarm! Wait, we didn’t get anything from Wistram—this must be breaking. Hello? What are we seeing?”

Scrying devices around the world began turning on despite themselves, much to the alarm of many. Not all, but Wistram-manufactured devices especially. Bemused viewers, but keen on seeing something as good as the Arbiter Queen, or even the Joseph soccer games, tuned in excitedly.

What they saw was a half-Elf, blinking down at Drassi and Sir Relz as the Drakes stared up at him. Eldavin.

Magnolia Reinhart at this point nearly died of choking on a scone. Ryoka Griffin would similarly nearly face-plant when she jogged into the Runner’s Guild and saw him.

That was small stuff, though, background. The King of Destruction frowned at the unknown half-Elf. So did Drassi. Then her eyes widened.

“Hold on. Do I know you?”

“Miss Drassi. Whomever you are. Good evening. I apologize for interrupting your broadcast. However, I have decided the moment is opportune.”

The half-Elf calmly addressed the two Drakes, then waved a hand over Sir Relz choking. His image replaced the broadcast studio.

“I am Grand Magus Eldavin of Wistram. You do not know me. However, I have taken it upon myself to pioneer a new event in this…television.”

He spoke fluently, each word precisely enunciated, his features changing to slight distaste at the last word. Viewers wavered, unsure if this was on the same level as Mage Rievan and his magic lessons, which had not been popular. Before they could make up their minds, Eldavin lifted a hand.

“I intend to recount a moment in time, a story if you will. A true one, however, and thus as close to history as it can be, via the biases we all share. With deference to entertainment however, I do not intend to simply monologue. Thus—”

He flicked a finger and activated the first spell. The room vanished. Eldavin stood in a void of darkness. The little illusion changed; he vanished, but for his outstretched hand.

The viewpoint zoomed in as Magnolia was saved from choking by Ressa. Spluttering, she sat up and saw Eldavin’s hand extended. Then, the Grand Magus appeared on his hand.

The smaller Eldavin held a book in one hand, and a few ancillary magical effects added to his appearance. Viewers blinked, leaned in. Now that was interesting.

Eldavin smiled to himself. He had been studying a long time. What had he been studying, he, a Dragon? Well—movies. Television shows from the experts.

Earth. Now, with all the aplomb and magical effects of a multi-million dollar visual effect studio, and the natural stage presence of someone with his ego, he turned. The book levitated from his fingers and flickered, pages of text and pictures opening, fluttering outwards and around him.

“I am Eldavin. Grand Magus and one of the last true spellcasters in this world. Only the Archmages exceed my knowledge. I dare to say that I am among the oldest of the mortal races in this world; even among my kind, I am one of the last of my age.”

His eyes were sorrowful for a second. He looked at the King of Destruction, at Perric of Medain, and he could see them, staring out of their scrying orbs in this room. They believed him, too. Because this was truth.

“I have lived long enough to remember what is now legend. I returned to Wistram to teach what I know—but that is not why I stand before you now. Rather, I have realized that there is much that has been forgotten. Magic and history. So today, I will recount to you a tale that has been butchered and altered by many. A true story.”

He closed his eyes. The pages fluttered around him, born by an invisible wind. Eldavin reached out and plucked one. He held it out, as if to the viewers. It was magical, a beautiful illusion.

It put Ullsinoi to shame. They clustered around the scrying orb, some noting the angry or confused Archmages, the crowd trying to break into the scrying room to no avail.

“He should be one of us. He makes us look bad.”

“Shh. This is art.

Movie magic. Eldavin gently lifted the page. There—stood a man. No, two men. Two…male people. They stood together, smiling, not in any particular grounded moment, but just sharing a chat, as if someone had seen them from afar, at a party or event.

Few recognized the first. Or even the second. Those who did found their breath catching. Eldavin spoke, simply.

“Much has been made of both these great [Mages] since their passing. Both have changed our world by their actions. One now lives in infamy. The other is considered a hero to his people. Their legacies…the stories we tell…I intend to tell you of the truth of it all. So then, this is the history of the man known as Perril Chandler. Archmage Chandler.”

Still, many did not understand. Yet Pisces turned as Ceria nearly dropped the orb.

“Wh—he can’t be serious.”

“Archmage Chandler.”

A man appeared in the mirror, a goatee, Terandrian clothing, a rapier at his side, bowing to a man on a throne, clasping hands with a [Knight], dancing with a beautiful woman—then a Drake, marching along with three giant, statuesque women. Literal statues. Standing on the walls of Pallass, speaking with a number of Drakes and Gnolls. Waving at crowds of thousands.

“The second is a Drake who affects magic to this day. Zelkyr Amerwing of Fissival, later known as Archmage Zelkyr.”

The penny dropped. The King of Destruction’s eyes widened. Slowly, Toren, staring at the orb, heard a crash.

A man with pale white skin and black eyes, white pupils, hair as white as snow, stared at the orb. A reflection of the woman he had just been dancing with—no, the living man—stared at her master, and then the orb. Bea, Ijvani, Venitra, Kerash, and the others—frozen.

Az’kerash looked at Eldavin, uncomprehending.

“The Archmage of Death and the Archmage of Golems, they were known. Archmage Chandler and Archmage Zelkyr, although the world knows of the former by a different name. Az’kerash, the Necromancer of Terandria. As this day marks the time, nigh on a century and a half passed, when both were named as Archmages of Wistram, I feel it is only right to tell their stories fairly. For what you do not know was that they were friends. You do not know how each truly came to be known as legends, both good and ill. The tragedy and glory of both. This is what you shall all learn.”

“Wh—what—”

The Necromancer’s voice was strangled. He reached out as if to stop what was playing on the orb. Yet there was nothing for him to do.

The pictures on the paper grew, the moving shapes growing larger. Eldavin walked into the memory. The moving image.

A movie of the past. He had quite enjoyed making it.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: This is Part 1 of two. The theme is ‘Paradigm Shift’, but it ain’t over.

I wrote this full story, 41,000 words, in one go. It’s split up because that’s too much for any one chapter. So if you’re reading along, bear in mind that the second half completes the side story you voted on.

Anways…if you’re a Patreon, you can just click the next chapter now and see what comes next. Only Public readers for a few days will have to wait. So find out what happens next time on Eldavin’s new broadcasting segment!

 

Mrsha Emotes by Plushie!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Bobo_Boppins

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

 

Imani Cooking, Visma, and Mrsha Pie by Saladan!

 

Waisrabbit, Fetohep, and Corusdeer by Auspicious Octopi!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/auspiciousoctopi/

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

 

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

8.15

(Iron Prince by Bryce O’Conner and Luke Chmilenko has just been released as an audiobook! Also by Podium; consider giving it a try if you’re out of chapters of The Wandering Inn!)

 

When he first arrived here, he thought it was a glorious adventure.

Of course, he’d been confused, scared, intimidated by a world apart. Yet—didn’t everyone dream of falling into a story? If not a book, then a movie, a video game? Like many people, he had thought, ‘if it were me, I’d not make that mistake’, or ‘I’d have done this’.

I would love to have that chance. I should love to be a hero. Because, surely, I can do it better.

In truth, his perspective was that of most of the people who had come here. He had been disabused of the notion.

Not right away. Still, Joseph remembered his rude awakening. Unlike Imani, it had been when he finally got his ‘chance’. After being an involuntary house guest of Magnolia Reinhart, they had been able to become adventurers. He had been armed with enchanted gear, escorted even, to fight monsters.

It was as Joseph tried to hack apart a giant centipede, seeing the flailing legs wriggle horribly even on the bisected parts, blood covering his legs and boots, hearing the sounds his sword made as it lodged in its squirming insides, trying to saw it in half, that the dream ended. Combat was hacking apart people with sharp weapons, not glorious, flashing swords and the thrill of battle.

Magic was studying.

People died. Sometimes in moments, horribly.

And they wondered why he started drinking. Disillusionment had sunk over most of the Earthers that Magnolia Reinhart had relinquished to Ryoka Griffin. They had been useless, worthless, not even strictly worth the effort of holding onto and feeding.

This had been a truth until he met Erin Solstice and seen that it wasn’t this world that was too difficult, too gritty and real, it was just him.

Despair twice. However, somehow, time and a bit of kindness, a bit of willingness to help and see potential had seen Joseph kicking a football around on the grass. Thus, his mundane ability to play his favorite sport turned magical. That was Erin Solstice’s magic.

Now she was dead. If there was a moral to the story, Joseph Ortega didn’t see it. Take away that last bit and it was a hopeful, wonderful story. He woke up, head pounding, sweating and entangled in his sheets, dreaming the centipedes were after him and he’d lost his sword. He sat up, as sunlight streamed through the window. It cast a diagonal line across his torso, warming him. The light wood floorboards and walls, light blue curtains next to the expensive glass windows and wooden shutters were nothing like his home on Earth.

It was exceedingly comfy, of course. The mattress wasn’t spring, but it was stuffed. Joseph had a carpet he’d actually been given, with a wave-pattern around the edges and a stylized Human kicking a football in the center.

Actually hand-woven, a gift. His table and the dresser both held souvenirs, a few cardboard autograph pads, an empty bottle…and the hangover cure potion Joseph went for first. He sat, staring at a map of the known world he’d tacked to one wall, and an advert.

‘Think you can kick a ball? Try out for Liscor’s Soccer Team today! The Flood Crabs are holding tryouts!’

He had carefully crossed out ‘soccer’ and replaced it with ‘football’. Even now, the poster made him smile.

Flood Crabs. A combination of ‘Floodplains’ and ‘Rock Crabs’, once he’d explained some of the naming conventions of sports teams. Of course, it had been a lot of wrangling and half the Drakes wanted to be called ‘Liscor’s Dragons’, which neither the Gnolls nor Joseph had been keen on.

Flood Crabs had personality. It wasn’t generic and it stuck in the mind. Joseph was proud of the poster, he really was. He looked at it.

Hand-illustrated. Someone wrote all those big, block letters, actually painted it, illustrated everything…and they had to copy the design a hundred times.

A printer could copy that easily with ink and power. Yet Liscor’s Council had paid for illustrated posters, and gifted one to Joseph.

It meant something more than a printed poster. Joseph sat there, staring at it, blinking sleepily as the morning light crept upwards. He ruffled his hair, blinking at a mirror—another gift—and seeing a half-naked young man with warm black hair, the beginnings of a mustache and beard since he hadn’t shaved, and a slightly-pained expression as the hangover medicine took away his headache.

Joseph Ortega, from Spain, from Earth. Perhaps the only person from his country in the world; certainly, the only one he’d met.

“Well, Leon gets to find out.”

The young man rubbed at his head, recalling the incident of yesterday. Another close call. Literally paralyzed and held hostage by a [High Mage]. Helpless as a bug before real danger. He shuddered and glanced at the empty bottle.

He kept trying, and he kept failing to quit. Once more, Joseph supposed it was the arrogance of inexperience. He’d assumed (if he’d ever thought of it), that he’d be able to quit an addiction. He knew, intellectually, how hard it was and how people struggled with alcoholism, smoking. Yet it was one thing to recall and another to experience.

Worse still, since he could take Octavia’s sobering potions or hangover cures and not have to pay much for his habit. His head thumped back onto the pillow and Joseph indulged in some good self-hatred for breakfast.

He did not actually rise for breakfast for a while. Because today, Joseph was dreading the harder parts in life, and he knew it was stupid. He had been given a second chance. Found that he was a celebrity for playing football, and not even close to well. His casual knowledge was treated like gospel.

Joseph had made it. Yet he still felt crummy, and felt bad for that. So he lay on his back, until a superior fighter opened the door and strode into the room.

A superlative warrior, a far better survivalist in this world. Also, arguably now the best [Mage] in the inn. Mrsha the Archmage strutted into Joseph’s room, sniffing. She stopped when she saw Joseph.

“Mrsha? What are you doing here?”

He sat up, blinking at her. She looked around, walking on two legs instead of four. Mrsha stared about…then found what she wanted.

Aha! She grabbed something by the door. Joseph saw her pick up the classic white-and-black ball. Harder to make in this world; the [Leatherworker] had had a fit when he understood it had to be white and black, both leathers being hard to dye or acquire naturally.

She picked it up, and waved at Joseph. He waved back. Mrsha pointed at the ball, which everyone called a ‘soccer ball’ much to his annoyance.

“Uh. You want the ball? Go ahead.”

He blinked at it as she nodded, made a ‘thank you’ gesture with one paw, and tottered out of the room with it. Joseph heard a shout from down the hallway. As he fully woke up, he heard a familiar, excited voice.

Mrsha’s got the ball! Mrsha, Mrshamrshamrsha—pass it here! Is Joseph awake? That’s his personal ball, right? Are we allowed to use it?”

Ekirra. Joseph listened and wished, just for a moment, he could live up to the little Gnoll’s idolization of him. He hid in his room as he heard the little Gnoll racing around downstairs. At last though, he stood up and faced the quiet inn, without Erin. Another day.

It was sort of a downer day for Joseph. Something else Earthers could identify with. Anyone, really.

 

—-

 

Niers Astoragon hated children. He also realized he hated soccer, at least in principle.

In general, perhaps. It was something about little children, who were so careless and might step on a six-inch tall person, or throw something in a fit of anger, and a ball larger than he was that was kicked at high velocities that made Niers Astoragon the Fraerling uncomfortable.

He couldn’t have said why. Yet as he started his first day in The Wandering Inn as a proper sort of guest—or fugitive—his one ally in the inn seemed excited enough to kick the bouncy ball around. Niers watched Mrsha and the other, brown Gnoll child kicking it around in the common room of the inn.

He had thoughts. With a tiny bit of chalk, broken off from an actual piece of chalk, the Titan scribbled some notes down.

“Let’s see. Miss Erin Solstice is…frozen. I’m separated from home. I am being hunted. Everyone knows I am in Izril. My one ally is a little Gnoll. A white Gnoll, and I wish to Djinni that I knew exactly what that meant. She’s mute, but she can cast magic—Tiers 1-2. I have limited artifacts, and, oh yes. A magical portal door, in theory.”

There were not a lot of assets to work with, but after some thought, he made some addendums.

“All the resources of an inn, really. Which are considerable for a Fraerling, as well as indirect access to multiple master artisans, not to mention magical assistance from both [Mages] and [Shamans]. In theory. Not so bad. In fact…if I weren’t up against the Great Companies and their agents, I’d call this excellent.”

He turned to his attentive student as, below him, the little Gnoll called Ekirra launched a shot that bounced off a wall and Mrsha ran after it. Niers was sitting on one of the beams high above the common room, which afforded him an unparalleled spying and hiding place.

His student waved its—her—antennae at him. Niers eyed the huge, insectile face and slowly wrote down another point.

“Issue of transportation/maneuverability? Solved: Ashfire Bee. Name: Apista. Somewhat tame, upgraded stinger, dubious intelligence.”

A feeler poked Niers in the back and he swore. He batted at Apista.

“Stop that!”

Apparently it belonged to a…[Princess]? Niers shook his head. Mrsha had explained, but there were limits even to the Titan’s credulity. Yet he clearly saw the marks of a [Beast Tamer]’s Skills on the bee. He nodded to her.

“Let’s get breakfast.”

He stood up, having assuaged his curiosity as far as watching the inn’s guests and staff this morning. He’d marked a few interesting things; the Hobgoblins, the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings, and so on.

“Where are the two damned Gentlemen Callers?”

Apista didn’t answer, of course. She waited, lowering herself down as Niers climbed onto her back. The Ashfire Bee was a foot long. Niers was six inches. He could actually ride her around, and she was strong enough to fly with him on her.

She took off, and Niers reflected it was a novel solution to the Fraerling’s issues of travel. Two issues?

One, Apista was hot. Not in a good way either; the bee’s natural temperatures were way above what any insect should survive. Magical creatures. Niers needed a saddle. Especially because of point two—

The buzzing wings generated a hefty backdraft, so Niers clung to her fuzzy body as bits of pollen made his legs sticky. He cursed as she flew down from the beams.

“You stupid bee! I told you to watch out! Watch out. Don’t fly like normal! I’m—”

Apista did a barrel roll. Niers bit off a shout as he clung to her. To Imani, walking out of the kitchen with some food for the table, she just saw Apista doing a cute little twist and turn as she flew towards the Garden of Sanctuary.

You stupid bee!

Niers bellow-whispered as they flew into the Garden of Sanctuary. Apista was much hurt. This was not a nurturing relationship! The little man that Mrsha seemed to admire didn’t have much respect for her. Still, she obediently ferried him to his secret home in the jungle biome. Niers landed on one of the trees, walked over to the hollowed-out home Mrsha had helped him make, and promptly threw up.

“I…have never had a flight that bad in ten years.”

He told Apista. It was true; all the birds Niers rode around for fast-travel in Baleros did not spin or corkscrew, or for the joy of it, fly all the way up to the dome, stop flying, and dive-bomb towards the grass and level off just a second before impact.

Apista flew like a drunk albatross. She looked hurt, so Niers eventually relented.

“Here, bug…do bees even eat this? I know wasps do. Damn bastards.”

The bee could get behind that sentiment. She delicately edged over and had some of the honey and bread Mrsha had smuggled out for Niers. It was good, especially since Niers had his pick of succulents.

Salami, six varieties of cheese, pizza, lasagna, eight different fish dishes, ice cream—although that had melted—nineteen flavors of drink…

Most of the hollowed-out space in the tree was just food, and cotton stolen from a pillow that Niers had used as bedding and pillows. He didn’t need more and this was heavenly after the High Passes.

Also, he had a lot of food because he was a Fraerling and Mrsha could steal crumbs and feed him for a week. She’d gone a bit overboard, but then, Niers had gone overboard in feasting after he’d woken up to find his fortunes had finally changed for the better.

His arm still hurt, but he was taking it easy and it was still braced. A few more days and maybe a bit more healing potion would see it right. Niers sighed and sat down. He saw two little Gnolls race into the [Garden of Sanctuary] after a second. A pair of Fortress Beavers watched as the ball shot around the garden, bouncing off the grassy hill, rolling into the mushroom biome…Apista nibbled as Niers murmured.

“Fortress Beavers, Ashfire Bee, a magical garden. Some place, huh?”

Apista wiggled her antennae at him. Which reminded Niers. He grunted as he got up and rummaged around the makeshift home.

“You’re the strangest animal here by far, though.”

She looked hurt—right up until he pulled out the tiny spliff he’d cut from the larger one. He handed one to her and the two began to smoke.

A bee that stole and hoarded dreamleaf. Niers puffed away as Apista lit both with a few flaps of her wings and some ignition from her body. He eyed the bee as she inhaled the fumes.

“Tolerable.”

He had to admit it. Niers began planning his next move, a lot more comfortable than he should have been.

 

—-

 

The sound of children playing was odd in The Wandering Inn. Was it…too soon?

Perhaps. Joseph didn’t air the thought, yet he let it ride as Ekirra and Mrsha played. Visma had joined them too.

It might have been Imani shared the sentiment, because she’d exiled them to the Garden. The lower garden of course; they’d never climb up the hill.

“Morning, Joseph.”

She greeted him with a smile. He tried to answer her. Imani clearly made an effort to smile. Why shouldn’t he try?

“Hey, Imani. Uh—how are things?”

It was about as bad a question as you could get. How are things? Yet Imani took it in stride, briskly handing him a plate with delicious smells wafting from it.

“Good. I’ve got work in fifteen minutes. Your food’s hot.”

“Thanks—”

“That’s not for you. That’s for Kevin. Take it to him, would you? He never showed for dinner so I think he’s passed out in his shop in Esthelm.”

“Oh.”

Joseph lamely re-covered the plate. Imani smiled again and he reflected she’d stepped up to her responsibilities.

Perhaps it was teaching [Cooks]. Perhaps that was who Imani had been before trauma and Crelers. The inn had given her back her life and confidence.

Plus, a boyfriend. Palt nodded at Joseph, eyes knowing. Joseph felt it odd that he was used to seeing a giant Centaur trotting about and giving Imani a peck on the cheek.

“Hello, Imani, verdant bloom of the jungles.”

“You told me all of Baleros’ most vivid flowers are poisonous, Palt.”

“Er, so I did. Late night, Joseph? Need a pick-me-up?”

The [Illusionist] and [Smoker] could definitely tell. Joseph grinned lamely.

“I have a potion, thanks.”

“Cigar?”

Imani swatted it down. Joseph hadn’t been sure he’d have taken it.

“I told you, it’s unhealthy, Palt.”

“And I told you, that’s what [Healers] and potions are for.”

The Centaur was unmoved. Also, Joseph knew everyone save for Galina had tried or used Palt’s cigars from time to time.

“At least not when you’re eating. It ruins the taste! I have to go.”

“Who’s looking after Mrsha?”

Joseph hesitated, pointing to the three playing kids in the open door. Imani glanced at him quizzically.

“Ishkr.”

“Oh, right.”

That was that. Imani left, briskly, not unfriendly at all, with Palt in tow. Joseph looked at the food, headed for the door.

“Going somewhere, sir?”

A surly Gnoll greeted him. She was shorter as Gnolls went, and had the barest attempt at a smile on her face.

“Er—Liska? I’d like to go to Esthelm.”

“Right away, sir. Will you be returning soon? I will check for you in ten minutes, then. Have a lovely day.

She said it in the tone that indicated her older brother had been lecturing her about proper service. She was in charge of the door, though, and Imani and Palt were already in Liscor. Joseph trotted through, thinking.

Imani had made it and seemed to have no regrets. Erin and Ryoka were the examples to look up to. In the same way…

Kevin was indeed asleep at his desk. He sat up as Joseph opened the door to the back room of Solar Cycles.

Your Majesty, I’m aw—oh. Hey, Joseph.”

Joseph would have laughed—but that was the eighth time Kevin had done that. Joseph offered the covered plate and Kevin’s eyes widened.

“Is it breakfast already? Dude, thank you. I must have dozed off and…”

He lamely indicated his desk. Lamely, but not to Joseph. The sheets of orders tacked to the walls, the schedule Kevin had drawn up, not to mention the fact that he was keeping inventory, working on new blueprints for the bicycles, and essentially starting a business by himself with international clients was…amazing. Joseph handed Kevin the tray and saw how hungry the young man was.

“No problem, Kevin. How’s business?”

“We’re getting more [Smiths] to work on the mundane bikes. This is so good. Imani’s like, a saint. Sorry, I haven’t eaten all day! I mean, yesterday.”

“No problem.”

Joseph rubbed at his head, repeating himself. He was definitely out of sorts today. Perhaps it was the comparisons.

It was a bad idea to compare yourself against people. Especially in this inn, but in general. Even after Erin had…well, it was comparisons that haunted Joseph, he realized.

“I can take your other plates and stuff.”

“Dude. Appreciated. I can get them though…I just have work and a meeting in like—uh—what’s the time?”

“It’s not a problem. Do your thing.”

Joseph grabbed a stack of six plates and cutlery. Kevin gave him a grateful look.

“You’re awesome, man.”

No, you are. Joseph saw Kevin gobbling his food. He had a meeting with Pelt in a few minutes, and he’d be negotiating with a [Merchant] later today.

Kevin’s strengths were his ability to get along with people, his knowledge of how to run a shop, write a ledger, and frankly, knowing how a bicycle worked. The fact that he could get along with Pelt, the Dwarf [Smith] who was cantankerous as any old man Joseph had met, was amazing.

A bit of Erin in him. By the same token, Imani’s skills were managing a kitchen’s supplies, cooking of course, teaching, and having sex with horse-guys.

Joseph thought about that last part. He slapped the side of his head in an unfriendly way. That hurt. Seriously though, how did…?

As he trotted back through the doorway, Liska wrinkled her nose at him.

“Better put those to be washed. I guess I have to do it. Don’t eat anything off them until they’re scrubbed, though. One of them has mold on it.”

“Oh. Thank you, Liska. Er—thanks for getting the door, too.”

He only remembered to thank her this time. She growled.

“You’re welcome.”

Yet she looked a bit mollified. Joseph wanted to remember to do things as mundane as thank people for making breakfast and so on.

…But he was not a Kevin. Not an Imani, either.

He was not a Leon or Troy, he was pretty sure. That was a low bar, though. However, Joseph could look at himself and find less amiability than Kevin. A bit more xenophobia, like seeing Palt and Imani together and wondering…did they have sex? More envy, oh yes. Less control with things like drinking.

Less of being the good, or decent person he’d thought he always was.

 

—-

 

Imani had put out food for Joseph. A very fine…Joseph’s face fell.

It hadn’t occurred to him as Kevin ate to note breakfast. The [Engineer] had made it vanish instantly, anyways.

Breakfast was pincho, pincho de tortilla, a potato omelette from Spain. Nostalgic, and Joseph realized he must have mentioned it to Imani. Thus, the [Chef] had taken the time to make it for him.

He ate it, savoring each nostalgic bite and felt worse. Comparisons haunted Joseph. For instance, as mentioned, it wasn’t just Imani or Kevin that made you feel bad about yourself.

Feeling proud of being able to bench a hundred and eighty pounds? Stare at the weight room list, or just watch Bezale work out in the mornings.

Think you were good at chess? Play Bird or half of the Antinium. Bird had somehow evolved to the point where he had once beaten Joseph while never looking at the chessboard. He’d learned it from Erin, of course.

Think you know misery? Mrsha, Ryoka, and half the inn could tell you about real trauma.

Of course, all this was a futile effort to begin with. Everyone had their strengths and weaknesses. Each person was able to do something the others were not, and etcetera, etcetera, value yourself. Joseph knew that.

It was just…Joseph finished his breakfast, excitement turning to glumness again. He could wait no longer, though. The sun was rising, the morning begun…he stood, stretched, and saw the little Gnoll race into the common room. Ekirra had smelled he was here, of course.

“Hello, Mister Coach Joseph! Are we going to practice?”

Joseph tried to smile. He fooled Ekirra as Visma and Mrsha watched. The little Gnoll boy, like Mrsha, disdained clothes. Yet he had on the jersey of Liscor’s Flood Crabs and his number, 3, hand-stitched to the back. He looked excited, as a member of the Little Crabs team should be.

The young man sighed, and nodded. He and Ekirra got to work. The [Kicker], Joseph Ortega, headed outside to start his day.

 

—-

 

Joseph was a Level 11 [Kicker]. Here were some facts for you: he had [Lesser Dexterity], [Lesser Endurance], [Power Kick], [Accelerated Sprint]…

And his latest Skill was green.

It was nothing special as green Skills went. At least, Joseph didn’t think so.

[Pinpoint Distance Kick]. As the fabled new Skills went…it was not an [Immortal Moment]. However, it stood out to Joseph because it was new.

Thus, no one had ever needed or gained a Skill like this before. A Skill for a game, not battle.

Football. Which made sense when you thought about it. [Pinpoint Distance Shot] was probably some [Archer] Skill that combined range and accuracy, very necessary. Who needed to kick a rubber ball that far, though?

A good player, that was who. Joseph was proud of that. He greeted both teams. Forty six players stared at him.

Twenty three per team. Adults and children, made up of Gnolls, Drakes, and three Humans not including him.

Yes, only eleven players on each team could take to the field at one time. However, substitutions were important and the standard from Joseph’s world meant he’d suggested a limit of twenty three.

Because he’d said it, it was now law. The [Kicker] saw children and adults staring at him, all wearing the jerseys, all ready to start practicing.

It was eerie. Joseph had been a dedicated part of his football team. Yet if he thought high school and middle school dedication was one thing—these players were even more driven.

They were never late. He had to tell them to go back if they were sick or worn out. They’d play even if they really injured themselves and they trained without complaint. Because they were leveling. Because—this was a career.

Football had come to Liscor. They were practicing on the vast, flattened land that Hexel had smoothed for them, kept clear of monsters by the Watch. Liscor’s Council had even paid Viceria to regrow all the grass for a proper turf instead of waiting.

“Good to see you all. You know the drill! Let’s warm up!”

Joseph was not an expert. He had cobbled together team’s training menu from memory. Thus, each day, the Flood Crabs and Little Crabs warmed up the same way.

Jog, first. They ran around Liscor, even the kids doing a lap. The adults were encouraged to run in their own time. Not just run, though; they did all the exercises that an athlete had to perform, which had elicited sniggers the first few weeks.

Not now. Now? [Guards] waved down at the players, shouting encouragement. Some civilians did the same, and kids copied the pro-team, looking envious or hoping Joseph would see talent there.

Ekirra ran with the younger players, having learned to walk on two legs just so he could jog along. Forwards, backwards—and that was the start.

After the lap, they did side shuffles. Skipping, kicks, high knees, hops…exercises designed to build flexibility and muscle. Joseph made everyone stretch, and only after nearly thirty minutes of warming up did they even get to the practice.

“Okay, Flood Crabs—relays! Little Crabs, let’s start with passing.”

There was only one Joseph and since Kevin and Rose were now busy, he alternated the physical training with technical. The adults knew the score and set up; they ran from one line to another, turning around and racing back the way they’d came.

Suicides were another word for the exercise, although the first time he’d used that term, Joseph had caused a small incident, so he called it ‘relays’ instead. Meanwhile, the Little Crabs were practicing passing. They’d long since graduated from just kicking the balls back and forth. These days, they had to dribble and pass between each other, faster and faster, over longer distances.

Joseph watched approvingly as the Little Crabs practiced. They were good. Better than he’d been at their age? Well…not in control.

Ekirra kicked a bit too hard and a Drake ran off after the ball. However, he’d had only a month or two to play! His ears flattened and he shouted.

“Sorry, Coach!”

“It’s fine. Don’t worry, that’s why we’re practicing.”

That was what Joseph thought was ‘too serious’. Ekirra looked afraid he’d be kicked off the team for one mistake! Joseph knew there were tough coaches; he’d had one for middle school. He didn’t want to be that.

He watched with half an eye, then turned to the Flood Crabs.

“Ush! You’re going faster.”

A Gnoll about Joseph’s age stopped and grinned. He was sprinting the relays and Joseph knew he couldn’t match that.

“Thanks, Joseph. Got [Quick Movement] last night.”

“You don’t say? That’s great. We’ll see how this changes you on offense.”

Ush was a second striker, but given his new Skill, Joseph might have to try him in a winger or the main striker position. Skills changed how football was played in so many ways.

In more ways than one. Joseph let the Flood Crabs build their muscles; Skills changed things, but they could multiply hard work rather than just replace it. He watched the Little Crabs go from passes to trying to score on the goalkeeper gamely blocking their shots.

Something was apparent, though. The Little Crabs were behind the Flood Crab team because they were children and the adults could practice longer and picked up advanced techniques, despite the motivation and enthusiasm of kids. Coordination was lacking; that was fine. They’d play against kids their age.

However, Ekirra kept messing up. Eight times, he missed a pass, and a Gnoll or Drake or the only Human girl would go running after the ball he kicked too hard.

“Ekirra, take a break. What’s wrong? Are you trying to kick less hard?”

Joseph flagged him down after the last cycle, where Ekirra’s kick had actually missed the goal and gone off nearly a hundred paces—too far right.

“Sorry, Coach. My aim’s bad. I wanted to practice with Mrsha, but I can’t hit the goal. Please don’t kick me off the team.”

Ekirra’s ears were flat and he looked like he’d cry if Joseph did. The young man squatted down, patting Ekirra’s shoulder reassuringly.

“I wouldn’t do that. You’re fast, you work hard…you pass really well!”

Besides, Ekirra had helped start football in this world. Joseph wouldn’t cut him no matter what, and if that was favoritism, so be it. He looked at Ekirra. The kid didn’t take the game lightly…

“Has something changed?”

“It’s…my Skill.”

Joseph blinked. Ekirra glanced up with one huge, brown eye and kicked the ground.

“You got a Skill?”

“Yep. I’m Level 5 now. And I got [Lesser Strength]. But I can’t—”

Joseph stared as Ekirra babbled nervously. He looked at the ball Ekirra had blasted past the goal. Then he started laughing. Ekirra looked terrified until Joseph ruffled the fur on the top of his head.

“That’s not a problem. Say it earlier! You just need more practice. Come on, we’ll have you get your aim back in. Flood Crabs! Let’s do our practice! Little Crabs—relays! Metas, you and Ekirra will do some passing practice!”

 

—-

 

How fast they improved. Joseph felt better as Ekirra brightened up and he was soon working with the adults.

Now they were good. No basic passes with them; Joseph was teaching them tricks. Proper headers, how to evade someone trying to steal the ball while dribbling…was it too soon for two month players?

The answer was no. Joseph had the ball stolen from him twice when he ran demonstrations despite his best attempts.

“Skills!”

Ush grinned at him; Joseph had lost the ball despite trying to show off the evasive trick where the ball seemed to stick to your feet as you rotated around someone.

“Just do that in the game.”

Joseph grinned, and the players nodded. They had a lot of respect, even the ones who were older than Joseph by nearly a decade. He’d been worried, but again, Erin Solstice had laid down the path for this.

“Looking good! How about a game?”

Two hours in, the teams looked up excitedly. They were tired, but stamina potions put them right back in the mood for a game. Joseph selected teams, trying to balance them, putting substitutes against regular players, mixing up the standards.

Testing out new Skills, too. Ekirra wasn’t the only player who got new Skills regularly. Ush was a main striker for the first game, then a winger. Ekirra got to take main striker and scored six times in the first game.

“I’ll goalie.”

Joseph took over for the poor Drake boy who had to try to block the overpowered kicks. Not only that; the football curved as one Drake booted it towards Joseph. He dove—caught it.

“Not bad! What is that?”

“[Homing Kick], Coach!”

“That’s great. Let’s see you do that after a pass in, though. Don’t just run at me; surprise me! Even if it curves, I can get it. Who’s got [Flash Kick]? Let’s set up a combo!”

That was fun. Yes, it did feel a bit…overpowered. Especially when Joseph had to block an Ekirra-kick that hurt. It was like someone ten years older smashing the ball at him!

It made the game more fun, though. Joseph glanced up as a roar came from the other pitch.

Coach! How are we supposed to stop that?

Ush bellowed, pointing angrily up. Joseph saw the Human goalkeeper, a brawny guy called Elmoin, angrily punch the wooden goalpost. It looked like four goals from Team A on Team B…all due to a single player.

“Lemiss! Over here! Both teams, take a break! Drink some water—and get a snack! Menua, take over as goalie for me? Little Crabs, don’t kick the ball into her face! I’m looking at you, Ekirra!

The others did just that. And the main striker, the MVP of the Flood Crabs…flew down to talk with Joseph.

Lemiss was an Oldblood Drake. She was one of two fliers on the team, and had just enabled her team to score four times in a row, kicking the ball in from the air.

“It’s not that she scores, Coach. But how are we supposed to stop her when someone passes to her in the air?”

Ush complained. Joseph saw the problem. Honestly…aerial passes were not a problem that occurred on Earth. Yet he’d brought football to this world, and now the fliers wanted to play.

How did you stop a pass to the air? Lemiss had cheerfully shot the ball down to her teammates, effectively letting them cross the field without a chance of interruption.

“It’s bad enough when half the team are fliers. They just pass from air to air and we have to make sure they never get it or bet on our fliers intercepting. But with Lemiss and Rells…and no one else with us…”

Joseph’s arms were folded and he was nodding. Both Oldblood Drakes had been on Team A, a miscalculation on his part.

The rest of the Flood Crabs drifted over, with water and snacks in their claws, paws, or hands. All provided courtesy of Liscor’s [Shopkeepers] of course. They wanted to support their team. They wanted to win. This was something for Liscor to be proud of. Best soccer team in Izril. And they were playing other cities too! Joseph felt a pang…but concentrated on the issue.

“We took Pallass in the first game.”

Everyone nodded proudly at that. Broadcast across the world! Over three hundred thousand gold pieces’ worth of bets, or so Joseph had been told. A lot of money made because Liscor had hosted the game, and merchandise sold? Not to mention being the stars of their team. All of it was great.

It hadn’t been easy, though. Joseph pointed out the obvious he’d gotten from his post-mortems.

“We won that game because Pallass had far worse technique than ours. They had great Skills and team players—no cohesion. Their aerial game let them score, but if we kept the ball on the ground, we ran circles around them. The tradeoff with an aerial team is they have to take off and commit to the air. They mess up, they expose themselves.”

Literally. It was 17-6; a slaughter. Ush and the others nodded, smiling, but Lemiss raised a claw.

“Coach…what if they get better, though? Rells and I can actually pass across the field if we do it right. With Pallass in the air…they could strike on the goal without ever touching the ground.”

That was true. Joseph hesitated.

What’s the solution here? Get your players Rings of Jumping? Have them do some kind of trick where two of them throw a third up to intercept?

All those ideas sounded impractical. Unbalanced towards a flying opponent. In the end, Joseph exhaled.

“I think I know what it has to be. This is uh, a Human game mostly. So fliers weren’t ever something we really considered. We…banned flying spells and magic, of course.”

The other players nodded. Casual pickup games could use magic, but any real game was only Skills, no artifacts or enchantments. Joseph went on, uncertain, but feeling his way through.

“For a flying opponent…it’s totally unbalanced if they can score with impunity.”

Lemiss and Rells looked worried. Did they think they were going to be cut? Joseph hurried on.

“So I think the way it should be is this: limits on passes. Only one aerial pass is allowed; not consecutive passes from air-to-air players. Also—we’re implementing a rule from another sport. No aerial player can be passed to or shoot ahead of a ground player. It’s not much, but it means they can’t just skim around and use that to their advantage.”

“What about shooting on the goal? Rells just hovered next to the goal and kicked it in.”

“…Then we’ll have a minimum distance on flying players.”

That seemed fair. Joseph saw Rells and Lemiss nodding in relief. He clapped his hands.

“Let’s try it out! Give me Lemiss and Rells on one team again, and pass to them! Really try to drive an edge over a ground-based team. Go!”

 

—-

 

It worked. Of course, they had to tweak things, but the new rules radically limited the edge flight could give a player. It was also still risky to shoot to a flying player; if you prevented them from ‘juggling’ the ball in the air, they had to instantly pass it down to another player like a ping pong ball, which meant interceptions were far easier.

Ultimately, it added to the sport, not detracted. Joseph was smiling as he and the Flood Crabs analyzed the game.

“I think these rules work! We’ll practice under them, but remember—those aren’t the rules for the games. We need to see if the other teams agree to adopt them.”

“What? Why do we have to do that? Coach?”

Lemiss stared at Joseph. He hesitated.

“They might not agree.”

“But you’re Joseph. You introduced the game! Just tell them the new rules—I bet there are those spies watching and passing them on as we speak!”

So saying, Ush gestured with one paw towards a hill in the distance. Joseph looked and saw someone duck down. He stood there, and felt it again.

Joseph the Soccer Player. Thanks, Erin. Yet still. Joseph. He wasn’t the person who’d written the rules on the game. He was the game. The young man looked around.

“…Well, I guess those are the rules.”

His team cheered him. The [Kicker] felt his back itching. Presently, to get rid of it, because he’d been watching the game he loved, he made a suggestion.

“Why don’t we play a game? I’ll join Team A, though. I want to try my new Skill.”

They cheered that. Joseph grinned, and his team began wrangling to play with their coach or against, depending on their personalities.

That was his first, real, mistake of the day.

 

—-

 

Joseph tried his [Pinpoint Distance Kick] and watched Elmoin’s eyes go wide. He heard the epithet even across the football pitch.

A longer pitch, incidentally. Nearly twice as long. That was due to Skills; players like Ush meant it was justified. As well as a goal one point five times larger. Harder to defend? Oh yes.

Still, the Human [Blocker], who had actually been a [Shield Warrior] before changing careers and coming to Liscor, had the time to activate a Skill.

[Static Shield]!

A light, azure force field blocked the upper-right corner and the hammer shot Joseph had launched from across the entire field at commendable velocity—bounced. At the same time, the [Static Shield] broke.

With a surprisingly crisp shattering sound. Elmoin’s Skill—the reason Joseph had taken him as a goalkeeper—created a shield that stayed in the air wherever he wanted. His was about as tough as thick glass, though; it could block a strike or a few arrows, but it wasn’t as strong as higher-level Skills.

Great for football. Joseph groaned as Elmoin booted the ball to another player.

Cheap shot, Coach!

Lemiss laughed as she flew out on defense. Joseph grinned. He ran across the field. No [Quick Movement], but [Accelerated Sprint] was good—even if he was tired. Still, he had [Lesser Dexterity], [Lesser Endurance]. If he had Ekirra’s Skills?

He found himself coming up against Rells, on the ground. The Drake had dodged two players. Joseph slid in, snagged the ball. He began dribbling it forwards, looking for a pass. He wasn’t going to grandstand like the first game where he’d been the ace. H—

“Sorry, Coach!”

Ush stole the ball in a blur. Joseph cursed, but aborted the pithy words when he saw Ekirra and the Little Crabs watching the adults, learning. The little Gnoll’s ears were perked and he stared at his hero.

“Nice job! Get back here!”

Ush laughed. So did the other players vying for the ball; Lemiss got it in a diving kick that caught the Gnoll by surprise.

They loved the game. They took it seriously, they liked to level and they knew this might be a career for life. Ekirra’s parents had high hopes in him, which was why they’d enrolled him. Ekirra, leveling up at his age? They were beyond proud and encouraging.

“Coach!”

Lemiss passed. Joseph spun, caught the ball, headed towards Elmoin for a rematch.

He never made it. A second player, Maun, a female Gnoll, snagged the ball. Joseph lashed out—

“[Flash Kick]!”

At least knock it out of bounds, despite the kick. Or someone else would get it! Maun—

“[Evasive Maneuver]! Whoa! Scary, Coach!”

Dodged. And took the ball with her! It jumped Joseph’s foot. He sprinted after her, snagged it back. He was running in the clear now, as other players blocked Team B. He saw Ush coming from the side, but Joseph adjusted his body. They were going to vie for the ball and he was nearly ready to score.

He had [Power Kick] waiting. Joseph took the ball around him. He juked, feinting left—

Ush stole the ball again. He zoomed past Joseph, looking delighted. The young man slowed. Then he felt it.

I am outmatched.

It was a realization. Not a question or suspicion. He’d gotten the ball thanks to being passed to, but even as he ran back to position, he saw it.

Felt it. Joseph lost the ball six more times. He shot twice on goal. Both times blocked.

It was like the one time a college player had decided to bully the high school team. He’d walked onto the pitch and stolen every ball, scored with every shot. Faster, stronger—

More than that, better at the game. Talented enough to win a scholarship. It was that last which Joseph felt now.

Ush was one of twenty three players in Liscor, male and female, chosen for the team. Joseph had picked him during the try-outs for his ability to snag the ball like that. When he’d been teaching them, Joseph had run rings around an amateur. Now?

It was like trying to dodge a hurricane which snagged the ball each time. Trying to steal the ball back? Like trying to kick a spider dancing on a silken thread in the wind. The ball disappeared left, or right, and Ush grinned at Joseph as the young man slowed again.

“Stop taking it easy on us, Coach! Or we’ll get big heads!”

“Aha. I—”

They were moving too fast for Joseph to finish. Which was good because he didn’t have anything to say. That was what hurt most, by the by.

They thought he was better and holding back. The Flood Crabs looked at Joseph, teasing, admiring, after the game ended. Team A won despite Joseph, and they laughed.

Look at that. Taking it easy on us to show us it’s a team effort. Joseph could almost hear their thoughts as Lemiss joked with Ush. He smiled, unable, afraid to tell them the truth. He stood there, Joseph the Soccer Player.

“I think that’s it for today. Good hustle, team. I—oh?”

Some of the audience who’d come out to watch had flooded the field at this. Joseph saw an excited young woman, Human, thrust out something towards him.

“Excuse me—I’m a huge fan. Can I get an autograph?”

“Hey! You can’t just bother the coach! No civilians on the field!”

Ush looked outraged. Joseph saw the young woman’s face fall. He took the quill.

“It’s fine this time.”

“Sorry, Coach. We should really get security. You’re too popular. We are going to crush Invrisil in the next game!”

A player grinned at Joseph as the lucky autographee was escorted away with the other civilians begging autographs or wanting to talk. Joseph stood there. Trying to smile.

And they wonder why I drink. Damn me. Why do I have to be so jealous? So petty?

“I’ll see you all tomorrow. Hope you all level.”

He turned to the team. Ush grinned.

“I just did yesterday. But here’s hoping. Level 17 [Kicker]!”

The Gnoll of Joseph’s age offered a paw to high-five. Joseph…felt his petty evil welling in his heart. So he betrayed them before lunch time. He was sorry.

Yet he was a Joseph. Not a Kevin. Let alone an Erin.

 

—-

 

“Of such rank and injust betrayal of all I held dear, my heart could only twist and break and grieve for the goodness now wronged before mine eyes.”

            –Mrsha the Grieving, in regards to the time Numbtongue ate her lemon tart.

 

Little Ekirra loved soccer. Soccer was fun. Soccer was life.

He got to level because of soccer. No one had higher levels than he did! Mrsha said she did, but she lied all the time about stuff.

His parents were really happy about it too. They’d bought him his jersey, and Coach Joseph was great. He was bouncing his personal soccer ball with his team as they chattered on the way through the south gate—then Ekirra’s eyes went wide.

“I forgot my belt pouch!”

He’d left it in the inn when he went to practice with Mrsha before practice with the team! He’d been so nervous that Coach Joseph would be mad. He looked around.

“I can take your ball, Ekirra.”

One of the Gnolls who lived on his street offered. He handed it to her.

“Thanks! And my jersey? Don’t get it dirty!”

Sweat didn’t count, or dirt from the pitch. That was good mess. His teammate, Cheka, sniffed at him. She knew that! Ekirra scampered on all fours back the way he’d come—then remembered and began to jog on two legs.

“Where are you going little fellow? Practice has ended, right? We don’t want you getting hurt before your game with Esthelm in two days!”

One of the big [Guards] at the gate stopped Ekirra. He pointed.

“I forgot my belt pouch at the inn.”

The [Guardsman] glanced at his companions.

“Ah. Hm. Why don’t you use the door instead? Safer that way. We patrol, but there’s always the Razorbeaks who’ll go after kids—and the Shield Spiders.”

“No chance of a Razorbeak with Bird the [Hunter] watching the skies.”

One of the Drakes snorted. The Gnoll shrugged.

“You want to explain to Captain Z? I’ll take you to the magic door. Ekirra, isn’t it?”

The little Gnoll nodded gravely. Guards were always right, or so his parents told him. It would take longer, but then they asked for his autograph.

“If you score in the game, we’ll all buy you a treat! Best of luck!”

They were nice. Ekirra took the big Gnoll’s paw and they hurried to the magic door. By the time they got there…Mrsha was gone. So was Visma.

“Miss Visma has gone back to Liscor. I don’t know…where Mrsha is.”

Ishkr frowned around. He was responsible since Miss Erin was hurt. Up to a point; he let Mrsha ‘play’ with Ulvama and kept regular tabs on her as Lyonette had asked, but Mrsha could evade everyone but Erin when she wanted to. Ekirra nodded gravely. Ishkr sighed.

“I will go look for her. Here are your belongings.”

He handed Ekirra the belt pouch. Ekirra thanked him as the [Guardsman], satisfied, stepped back through the door.

“Good luck in your games!”

“Thank you!”

Ekirra waved. He was going to go back—but now he needed to pee.

Three minutes later (it was poo), Ekirra opened the door of the outhouse and padded out. He sneezed a few times; it was always stinky. Then he headed back for the door to Liscor. He would have gone straight home, too.

But for Joseph. Ekirra smelled him first, naturally. He was about to ask Joseph if there was anything he should practice and how good he’d done! His tail wagged as he pursued Joseph towards the magic door, now placed in the portal room just off the side of the long hallway with the secret spying holes Mrsha had showed him.

Coach J—

Joseph didn’t hear him. Ekirra stopped as he realized Joseph had changed clothing. He’d washed himself, and changed out of the jersey of the Liscor Flood Crabs, which made sense.

So why was he wearing another jersey? Yellow and black, like Apista?

Ekirra came to a halt. Joseph headed through the open door, into a sunlit city that smelled like a thousand things. Broad streets, amazing architecture. Ekirra recognized it at a moment’s glance.

Pallass. The little Gnoll stared at Joseph. It could not be. It wasn’t—he saw Liska move to close the door. Without a moment’s thought, Ekirra ran after Joseph. He leapt through the closing checkpoint gate, opened for Joseph, and heard the shout from the [Guards]. Then he was in the street, following Joseph, running from the angry Watch. It couldn’t be.

It couldn’t be, but he had to know. Not the most heinous thing. Not Coach Joseph. He couldn’t be…coaching another team?

He ran a total of five steps before a claw caught him, of course.

 

—-

 

The great betrayer walked through the streets of Pallass. Joseph, the sellout! The traitor! The—

“…Coach of Liscor’s team. I don’t think we need to introduce him.”

“Of course not. Good to meet you, er—Mister Joseph. Sir.”

They called him sir. The Drake [Strategist] had even asked for his autograph. But then, she was not Chaldion, far younger.

“It’s a pleasure to be here.”

Joseph mumbled. He felt bad. Mrsha had given the Pallassian jersey a dirty look before she went through to Invrisil. Wait—was she allowed to do that? Liska hadn’t cared.

Thoughts of Mrshas vanished as Joseph was introduced to two more players, and three financial backers, all of whom had been part of the group convincing him to teach Pallass’ team.

“We’re delighted you accepted our invitation to educate our team, Mister Ortega. What can we expect from you today?”

A Gnoll adjusted a monocle, much like Sir Relz. Joseph wondered if he was staring at his levels, but thanks to Erin and Ryoka, he was covered from appraisal and scrying. He seemed impressed with Joseph’s reputation at any rate.

“I don’t have a set plan, er, sir. I need to see where they’re at before I can improve them. Also, there are some new rules I need to bring to Pallass’ attention.”

That seemed to impress the cohort. They nodded; the [Strategist] consulted her notes.

“Ah yes, the aerial rule amendment.”

“You know about that?”

Joseph eyed her. She had the grace to look embarrassed.

“We intend to win the upcoming championship, Coach Joseph. Pallass won’t make the same mistakes again.”

“Especially not with Joseph the Soccer Player giving Pallass’ team his expert advice!”

Another Drake chimed in, and Joseph winced. For multiple reasons.

“Just remember, I’m also advising Liscor and Invrisil’s teams.”

The other faces fell. The Gnoll audibly whispered to a companion.

“We didn’t manage to get an exclusive deal?”

Joseph sighed. If you were going to sell out, you might as well do it so multiple groups had an advantage. Also—it was a lot of money.

A lot of money.

As in…a lot of money. As in…Joseph probably exceeded Solar Cycle’s income at this moment. As in…he just wasn’t as principled as Kevin or Erin, he guessed.

He was so swept up in all of the hustle and bustle as they took him to meet Pallass’ team; handpicked twenty three, some former adventurers, with dedicated family apartments, a huge salary, personal trainers, weights room, everything Liscor could dream of, yet they’d still gotten their asses kicked, that Joseph didn’t have time to really take in Pallass. He only looked around from the people asking him for autographs, a ‘game plan’ for Pallass’ unique strategy, his take on the upcoming Liscor-Invrisil match, when he heard the commotion behind him.

“Let me go! Let me go! I’m a Little Crab! Joseph is my coach! Not your stupid city’s!”

Joseph’s heart sank through his shoes. He turned and there was Ekirra. The little Gnoll stopped, stared at Joseph’s jersey, and looked like he was about to cry.

“J-Joseph?”

The sheer look of betrayal hurt more than it should. Joseph opened his mouth—then noticed the wall of muscle holding Ekirra.

“This little Gnoll slipped in past you. Joseph, isn’t it? We clearly need to update the security system, although I’m pleased the ward spells didn’t blast him to pieces. So there is that.”

Grimalkin of Pallass held Ekirra by one huge claw. The [Sinew Magus], the most built Drake that Joseph had ever seen, looked down at Joseph, face impassive. Joseph looked at Ekirra. The little brown Gnoll stared at him. He looked at the bemused backers of the team, the [Strategist], two of the players, and bellowed one word.

Traitor!

 

—-

 

Joseph sat in the office Pallass had given him, even if he was splitting his time between three teams now.

Ekirra hit him. Joseph didn’t move. Ekirra punched his leg. Joseph let him. Ekirra opened his mouth—and someone stopped him from biting.

“Listen, Ekirra, is it? There’s nothing wrong with this young man teaching multiple teams. He is not a player.”

A Drake with wings tried to explain to Ekirra. He let go of the Gnoll as Ekirra twisted to bite; the football player backed off as Ekirra spat, looking at Joseph.

“He can’t teach you! He’s Liscor’s coach. It’s not right!”

“Listen. Let’s try to be mature about this…”

Good luck with Ekirra. Joseph rubbed at his aching leg as Ekirra spat, keeping the other players from grabbing him with the power of expectoration. Besides which, ‘be mature about this’? If Joseph heard a coach from his favorite team was teaching a rival on the side…

He understood how Liscor would feel, that was the point. Loyalty. It was just…

…A lot of money. Joseph didn’t have a bigger reason than that. However, ten thousand gold pieces for a month? And that was from Invrisil.

“I’m sorry, Ekirra. I’m not taking sides. Nor am I coaching during the games. It’s just—a career. A really good deal.”

“I thought you liked us.”

Ekirra stared up at Joseph. His eyes were round. Then hurt. Then—he sat down and began to howl and cry.

Joseph would have preferred being stabbed. That was how it felt. Imagine if his heroes had just sold out like that in front of him?

“We should get this little Gnoll back home. The secret’s out, but that won’t compromise much more than the shock value…”

The Drake [Strategist] was trying to speak over the howls. She gestured and a Pallassian Guard reached for Ekirra.

Joseph stopped the Drake. He bent down and picked Ekirra up. The Gnoll instantly went back to punching, but Joseph turned him around.

“I’m sorry, Ekirra. I am. I do like your team and I like Liscor. I hope you win and become a great f—soccer player. I am teaching your team as best I can—but Pallass offered me a lot of money.”

“B-but…don’t you like us?”

The Gnoll was snotting on Joseph’s jersey. The young man didn’t mind. He let Ekirra sniff.

“I do. Er—but it was a lot of money.”

“Like…a thousand gold coins?”

The [Strategist] snorted. Joseph just nodded.

“Something like that.”

Ekirra calmed down a bit. He knew money mattered. He still looked hurt. Joseph looked at him. If this was home? He wondered if he had to worry about being jumped in a back alley. That…might actually be an issue.

He sat there, as Ekirra sniffed and blew his nose on the yellow jersey made with silk. Joseph looked at the waiting team, the [Strategist].

“It’s the game, Ekirra. I can’t be on the Liscorian team. I’m not that good.”

Several incredulous snorts. Ekirra looked up at Joseph and the young man’s heart twisted as he admitted it. Then—he made his peace with that fact.

“I’m not that good. I do love soccer, though. Which is actually called football. Do you like the game?”

Ekirra nodded, wiping his eyes. Joseph smiled. Suddenly, he knew what he had to do. Back home…on Earth, you could really like your teams. Enough to brawl or kill people during games. Those were the fans.

Perhaps, if there was something else to change, it wasn’t just the rules. Joseph set Ekirra down and knelt.

“Well then, if you want, why don’t you help me train Pallass? Then you can see I’m not helping them more or less than Liscor.”

Ekirra hesitated. He sat there, looking up at Joseph. The young man offered him a hand. The little Gnoll slowly took it. Joseph looked up. He felt an Erin-feeling in his chest. Was this how she got to feel? Certain?

“Is this young Gnoll going to be accompanying us? I would hate for this to interfere with Pallass’ first training session, Coach Ortega.”

The [Strategist] looked skeptical. Joseph met her eyes.

“This little Gnoll played the first game of football in Izril with me. He might be able to teach your players a thing or two. He won’t slow us down. I’m ready to teach the team. Just one thing though—I have a condition.”

She glanced at the other players as the team stood there. Joseph smiled.

 

—-

 

—just a sterling amount of silver, aha, pardon the pun. Now, I can assure you, Sir Relz, that the quality of the silver won’t appreciably depreciate—another little pun—for at least the next f—

The droning voice of the [Merchant] over Wistram News Network was fascinating. If you liked economic talk.

Some people did, which was why they’d allocated the hour to business talk with Sir Relz and his co-host.

Usually Noass, but since Noass was sick…Drassi got the job. She was slumped, her chin resting on her claw.

Clearly falling asleep. She kept jerking and trying to look interested, but her eyes were literally drooping, and Sir Relz had given up nudging her. The Drake with the monocle was leaning forwards as if to make up for her lack of enthusiasm.

This was the news. Or rather, the 24/7 broadcast from Pallass. The most fascinating thing looked like it might be Drassi literally starting to snore on air.

…Right up until the Drake [Reporter] glanced up, blinked, and leaned over as someone whispered to her. She broke into the [Metals Merchant]’s diatribe with a bright, overly-loud voice.

Excuse me! I’m so sorry, but we have a breaking news report!”

Someone began playing a horn in the background, a jaunty tune as the words flashed around the magical ticker tape running across the bottom of the broadcast. Sir Relz blinked, and Drassi began speaking rapidly as someone held up the cue cards.

“This one’s a Pallassian exclusive. If you’re just tuning in…”

The viewer count began going up, as people were notified of the breaking news via their scrying devices. There were categories of news alert.

This was the lowest-level, which meant dramatic news, not wars or cataclysm, which were reserved for the highest-level alert. Even so…it was the news.

Ishkr stopped looking for Mrsha as the scrying mirror lit up. Ulvama, chewing on food, sat up, excitedly.

“…It looks like we’re in for sports news! I’ve just been given word that an upset is coming to the world of soccer!”

“Ah, yes.”

Sir Relz interjected, clearly trying to be part of the moment. He adjusted his monocle as he spoke rapidly.

“We’ve broadcast six games around the world, and there’s talk of bringing teams together to play a world-wide championship. Er—what’s the news, Miss Drassi?”

“Well—no, this can’t be right. Do we have a live-feed? Show me! According to this—”

The image shifted. The viewpoint became a [Mage]-on-the-ground. The city of Pallass and the steps stretched below the viewers, and there, in front of them, was a young man.

And a little brown Gnoll. Ishkr spat out his drink of water. So did a number of Liscorians including Lism.

Joseph?

Drassi was just as shocked as everyone else. She stared, then began reading the news.

“It says, Joseph the Soccer Player, whom we all know is…coaching Pallass’ team as well as Invrisil’s? He’s been contracted to coach both teams and—that dirty rat!

She shot up, shrieking as the copper penny dropped. Sir Relz looked most amused.

“Come now, Reporter Drassi. Let’s be professional—”

“Professional? Professional my tail! He sold out! He’s supposed to be Liscor’s coach!”

“There’s no rule saying one cannot teach multiple teams—”

What about loyalty? That double-dealing—this just in: I’m going to kick Joseph’s butt! Excuse me! I’m going to cover this one in person.”

Drassi tossed her papers and stormed out of the studio. Sir Relz took over. Yet there wasn’t as much commentating to do, because the image soon became just the feed from Pallass, not the news room.

 

—-

 

Joseph exhaled. He looked at the clear blue sky, and the people watching. Twenty three Drakes, Gnolls, Garuda, and Dullahans stood behind him.

A soccer team. Football, really. But who cared? Coaching…Ekirra looked up at him. Joseph adjusted his jersey. He spoke to the [Mage]-reporter, knowing he was on air.

“Yes, I’m teaching Pallass’ team and Invrisil’s. I’m sorry if that upsets Liscor’s team, or people who think of me as Liscor’s, but the truth is that it’s not quite fair to have me teaching one team. It might be I won’t matter, but for now I’m teaching all three teams to the best of my ability. No favoritism. Also, I’ll be donating a q—half of the money Pallass is paying me to Liscor’s team.”

“And what is it you’re going to do here? What do you have to say to threats made on your person by er, Reporter Drassi, and comments about loyalty to city or home?”

The [Mage] pressed Joseph. People saw the young man raise his hands, looking around, alarmed.

“Drassi? Tell her—tell her—”

He looked completely stumped for a second. The little brown Gnoll stared up at Joseph solemnly. At last, the young man barked a short, rueful laugh. He swept his hair back and looked up.

“Sorry. I just…like football. That’s all.”

“Football? Er—what about s—”

“Let’s go!”

Joseph turned and raised an arm. The soccer players broke into a surprised trot as an angry Drake pushed through the crowd behind Joseph. He called to the [Mage].

“We’re going to do a training routine—live! If anyone wants to watch, they’re free to copy it too!”

“What? Give me that—Joseph! Get back here! This is Drassi on the streets of Pallass! How many bones do you break if you get kicked down the staircase? We’ll find out now!”

Drassi snatched the scrying mirror from the surprised [Mage]. She ran after Joseph as Ekirra ran with him, the team following.

…The [Reporter] failed to catch up. She’d sprinted this far, and she found herself panting as Joseph ran down the steps. Ahead of him, the Watch was clearing the way. He held a football under one arm.

“Joseph! Joseph, do you mean it about donating the money?”

“I do! Don’t hit me, Drassi!”

She lowered the scrying orb she was using like a club.

“We don’t have anything but boring economics for this hour. Are you suggesting we broadcast your entire workout?”

“If anyone wants to learn how we do it, why not? At least the warm-ups! Unless Pallass has any objections?”

He glanced at the [Strategist] hurrying to keep up. She shook her head. Drassi turned.

“Hear that, Sir Relz? Someone get me a stamina potion. What’s our first step, Joseph?”

Roadwork. Building muscles!

They were storming down the stairs. Twenty three players, in an unscripted, but now live, very public event. A group of Drakes sitting at an outdoor café and watching the television glanced over as the team ran past them, then did a comical double-take as they realized they could see themselves.

“Why is running so important, Joseph?”

“Are you serious, Drassi?”

“No, I’m feeding you questions! Explain!”

The Drake snapped, shoving a speaking stone in front of Joseph. He laughed, and so did Ekirra, keeping pace.

“Well, you might run for ninety minutes straight during a game of football! Which is what it’s called by the way! Soccer is—a—a—colloquial term! We’ll be doing sprints, building up muscle every day, along with passing drills!”

“Even if they have Skills?”

“Especially if they have Skills! Skills don’t replace hard work or technique! Frankly, we might audition more players to see if some have the talent to make the roster! I didn’t choose the team!”

The players looked worried. They accelerated as Drassi and Joseph hit the second floor.

Behind them came Pallass. The [Sinew Magus], who had abandoned the excitement, glanced up from doing one-armed pushups on top of one of the railings that was creaking under his weight on the sixth floor. The narrow space and balancing act was part of his outdoor regimen.

“…Huh.”

Grimalkin stared at, to his eyes, two thousand citizens and growing jogging after Joseph and the soccer team. His students had increased exponentially, but his mass-exercise proposals and projects had never garnered even a tenth of this kind of excitement. He pushed himself up. They were running. The [Sinew Magus] started jogging.

 

—-

 

Joseph ran out of the gates of Pallass, grinning. The air felt fresh and warm. He felt alive.

The City of Invention’s vast, central eastern gate was wide open, letting a flood of people out past him. The team ran with thousands of citizens—those not already exhausted—around them.

“Pick up the pace! If Ekirra can beat you, anyone can outrun you on the pitch!”

Joseph called. Ekirra was running on all fours, but the little Gnoll could match an adult in a run or even sprint for a while. He was smiling. And the smile was infectious.

Drassi was panting, but chugging stamina potions and running with him. Aspiring players or just casual fans and people watching the news saw Joseph lift the ball.

“Let’s see how you can dribble. If you’re good—don’t lose speed!

He tossed the ball down and watched the Pallassian team copy him with some hesitation. They did slow down! Ekirra began dribbling almost as fast as they were. Joseph shook his head.

“Passing? Come on—”

He kicked the ball and Drassi, panting, kicked it back with commendable accuracy. By this point, someone else was managing the ‘camera’.

“You could have tried out for the team.”

“Pass! I hate running!”

Drassi gasped. The viewer-count was shooting up. After all—it was a topical piece.

The walls of the City of Invention swept up to the jogging players’ right, three hundred feet of enchanted walls. Impressive; the viewpoint swept around the green, safe landscape. After all, this land was Pallass’, and there were few places safer unless war threatened. Joseph was still smiling when he saw the second group emerge and break off from the untidy mass of people running behind him.

Unlike the flagging citizens—they began to speed up. They were running in—formation?

Joseph, Drassi, Ekirra, and the soccer team slowed uncertainly. Was this the Watch, interrupting the impromptu gathering?

Femithain, paused over lunch with Nsiia, saw rows of Drake [Soldiers] running in full armor behind a Drake they recognized.

Grimalkin of Pallass jogged next to Joseph.

“Grimalkin! What are you doing?”

Exercising! Pallass’ training regiments could use the additional leg strengthening! This is excellent joint-training! If any squad falls behind the soccer players, they will go on water rations tonight! And if any of you fall behind that little Gnoll, you can quit the army! Testicles!

He bellowed back at the [Soldiers]. They flinched. Joseph and Drassi’s faces were a picture of surprise and bemusement. Suddenly, they were running as thousands of [Soldiers] accelerated, desperately following the [Sinew Magus].

“—That’s Grimalkin of Pallass, taking Pallass’ trainees on an exercise run! If you’re just tuning in, I’m Drassi and this is Joseph, and we’re doing a sample training for soccer, excuse me, football teams! I ask my viewers—dead gods, my legs hurt—how do you exercise? Feel free to send in [Messages] or even demonstrate! Now, passing…”

It was just a silly thing. Joseph and the soccer team did slow much sooner than Grimalkin of Pallass, who wanted two laps of the City of Invention. They began practicing.

A day in the sun. A game of soccer. A simple question. How do you train?

It sparked, as these things do, a flood.

 

—-

 

Joseph the Soccer Player ran on the scrying orb, keeping up a running dialogue with Drassi. The sun was already making the players sweat.

Yet just the scene of Pallass’ Engineers, the name of the soccer team, kicking a ball as they ran next to the paved road, past and sometimes on the artfully-cultivated grass and bright flowers that lead to the City of Inventions invited a moment.

The summer heat, the smell of fresh grass, a flight of swallows. Drassi laughing as Ekirra headed a football, leaping around, misery forgotten.

Fun. Casual fun, not anything grand or glorious. Just the lads…and lasses…playing a game they clearly loved.

It could put a smile on your face. It was inspiring too; because, look.

“He’s from Earth! See? It’s one of us! He’s teaching at one of the Walled Cities?”

Agog, the Earthers of Wistram were crowding the scrying orb, looking at one of the most successful Earthers in the world. Who had climbed up to his position of fame by hard work and effort. Joseph—the Singer of Terandria, and perhaps Rémi Canada, although that was a stretch.

Of course, someone had to take it too far. Grimalkin’s death-run with the [Soldiers] of Pallass and Drassi’s comments sparked, as it did—competition. The sight of so many Drakes running in formation, espousing the rigorous training of Pallass prompted pushback.

“It looks like Liscor has some stiff competition in the next game, eh, Sir Relz?”

Noass was still sick, but he’d climbed into the broadcast booth to cover for Drassi. Sir Relz, who’d edged as far to the side as possible, politely nodded.

“Indeed, Noass. Also, a wonderful display of martial training from Grimalkin of Pallass. I believe that’s 1st Army’s elite regiments in training…oh?”

He raised a claw, the signal for viewers to understand someone was giving him new information. Sir Relz consulted a bit of paper held up behind the ‘camera’.

“I think someone has taken our [Reporter] on the ground a bit literally. Are we cuttin—”

Another image appeared in place of the training football team. Sir Relz and Noass recoiled as an army appeared.

An army on the go. The King of Destruction’s forces, with Maresar and Venith, were suddenly front and center.

Running. Practically sprinting, really. With his Skills active no less, so they were eating up ground. Venith, in his plate armor, the King of Destruction, likewise wearing armor sans a helmet, were marching across Chandrar’s arid landscapes.

“I heard someone thinks Drakes field the most fit army in the world!”

The King of Destruction was laughing as he ran, despite the heat and dust caking his armor. Sir Relz hesitated.

“Are we live? Can he—”

Yes I can. Sir Relz, isn’t it?

Flos shouted back. The Drake flinched.

“King of Destruction—er, your Majesty Reimarch, is this your way of challenging Pallass’ training?”

“You could say that. We just mopped up a Nerrhavian force and we’re running to catch another one! Damned chariots—I notice you didn’t cover that in your morning broadcast! True, it was a little battle, but I thought I’d prove how a real army moves!”

The King of Destruction somehow managed to shout while running. Behind him, a stream of [Soldiers] raced onwards. In fact—Noass blinked as he wiped at his nose with a handkerchief.

“Is your entire army…running?”

Exactly!

The cavalry had dismounted and were running next to their horses. The infantry were running in formation, and the only group not running were supply wagons at the back.

And Maresar. She was letting her horse canter next to her husband and [King], rolling her eyes.

“We’re headed for the Simel Gulf! Assuming Nerrhavia has the cloth to face us there! That’s about forty miles—I expect to be fighting by late noon! Let’s see Pallass’ army do that!”

Flos bellowed. Sir Relz looked at Noass.

“Er—your Majesty. Is revealing the position of your army, uh, wise?”

Venith clearly shared the opinion based on the scowl on his face. Trey Atwood and Calac Crusland stared at the scrying orb, and traded glances. With resignation, Trey anticipated Flos’ reply before it was even given.

“If there was a choice between being the center of attention or being strategic, I know which one I’d pick! Now—pick up the pace!”

Somehow, Reim’s army found the strength to cheer and speed up. Flos Reimarch actually slowed to run between the ranks of his [Soldiers], clapping shoulders, laughing, thrusting his arm up and motivating his soldiers further.

Of course, the image didn’t stay on him. If you thought the ego of the King of Destruction was unmatched—you’d never met royalty. Or gone for a walk outside, really.

“I uh, think we’re getting more live feeds from forces claiming that Pallass’ training exercise is lacking. Is this—”

Manus!

Sir Relz went temporarily deaf as the City of War appeared in the background. A force six times larger than Grimalkin’s training group was on the run. A touch faster than Grimalkin’s group, and of course, wearing full armor, carrying their weapons as they ran.

At this point, Noass had a surreptition. He voiced it at the same time as Cara rolled her eyes and started laughing.

“It might be, Sir Relz, that a lot of er, groups, would like to demonstrate their superior conditioning.”

It was a prophetic comment. Soon, the broadcasting studio in Pallass was swamped with incoming transmissions. It seemed like every army and militia wanted to prove they could run faster, and the two Drakes had to remind their viewers that the point was soccer—football, not just showing off!

Obligingly, Flos Reimarch somehow found a football and kicked it into his army. More amazingly, his soldiers managed to field the ball on the run, and it was exceptionally amusing watching an entire group of pikes go sprawling as someone tripped up over it and created a pile.

Thus, he kept the spotlight shifting back to him as well as Joseph and Pallass’ team. Mainly because he was the King of Destruction as well.

However, dozens, and then over a hundred submissions were vying for attention, such that the viewpoint kept shifting, showcasing different armies. Manus got three minutes; Zeres two. Oteslia and Fissival didn’t even get to show up. They were replaced by the Maelstrom’s Howling Centaur divisions, led by the Bannermare, galloping across the ground to show the two-footers how you were supposed to move.

“They’re just showing off. This is going to go on all bloody day.”

Cara O’Sullivan, the [Popstar] of Terandria, didn’t seem too put out by the suggestion. She put up her feet and watched her personal scrying orb as the caravan of the band travelled down the road.

“Not tempted to join in, Cara?”

Rae teased her. The [Popstar] rolled her eyes.

“I’m not running a mile a minute to get my five seconds of fame. You have to stand out, stand out, Rae. No one needs to listen to the Singer of Terandria right now. However! This looks like a lot of fecking fun to watch. Anyone got some popcorn or snacks?”

The comment turned out to be slightly wrong. Mainly because Cara’s voice did appear on the broadcast. Just not live.

 

—-

 

“Come on. Just do it.”

Elena was arguing with the [Diviner] in charge of maintaining Wistram News Network. He frowned at her, yet Aaron was backing Elena up with a few Earthers. Trey lingered in the back with some of his [Mage]-friends. Calac was still locked on the scrying orb, hoping to see his parents again every time they flickered on screen.

“I don’t know. This is a news broadcast—”

“It totally fits. Just start playing it when you next cut to another group! Please? We know what we’re talking about. You’ll get more viewers!”

“Besides, you don’t need to hear those two Drakes talking. I know you can loop the sound into the feed. Do we have to ask an Archmage? You know Naili will okay it.”

Aaron added. The [Diviner] gave up.

“Oh—fine. But if they don’t like it, I won’t take the blame!”

He snatched the song crystal. As the image flickered again, Noass and Sir Relz were keeping up their rapid commentary.

“It looks like we’re at uh, House Ulta next. It seems Lady Pryde has taken Magus Grimalkin’s claims as a personal insult. Is that her in the yellow ‘track suit’ leading her personal forces? This is a new style of dress, by the w—what is that sound?

The two Drakes’ voices were suddenly drowned out by a bomping drum and bass beat. A piano joined in a second later. Then—a voice.

Elena was grinning. In Terandria and her wagon, Cara sat up and nearly choked on her snacks as she heard her voice, recorded via song crystal, playing.

Music on air. For the first time, a recording rather than a live performance. Overlaid by the visuals of House Ulta jogging, almost synced perfectly to their feet striking the ground.

“Is this music? Inspirational? Is someone doing a performance? Oh—”

Sir Relz finally got the missive sent via [Message] and read it.

“It sounds like we’re playing music as a kind of, er, overlay to the scenery. This is, according to my notes, ‘Good To Be Alive’ by The [Popstar] of Terandria, original credit to…a skillet? As in, a cooking…?”

Cara picked herself up from the floor of the wagon, cursing. Abebi blinked at the recorded song playing. It was like a compilation video now. She smiled—then turned to the others. Thien had the same thought and raised his eyebrows.

“Do we get royalties from that?”

“Not invented yet. I’ll get on it.”

“Damn.”

 

—-

 

It was a fun song, fun competition. There he was too. Joseph.

The young man was, by now, oblivious to the television incident he was part of. He was doing another lap of Pallass, kicking the ball between him and a player, chatting about the minutiae of soccer with Drassi and the new rules on airborne players.

“Of course, that’s only for ground versus aerial players. An all-aerial team can do what they want. We’re also revising our formations.”

“Why’s that?”

“Oh—because it’s too easy to travel the entire football pitch, even with defense. Kicking Skills make it too easy. As players level up, we’ll have to entirely alter how we think about defense and offense. We might even have to put a limit on how high players can fly or pass.”

“Really? Is that too limiting for the game?”

Drassi looked concerned. Joseph shrugged.

“We need to experiment to keep the game from being too lopsided, that’s all I meant, Drassi. For instance—I could pass across the entire pitch quite easily. Hey up there!

He bellowed up at the walls. Some of the distant [Soldiers] on Pallass’ walls waved energetically, hoping to be caught by the scrying mirror before their commanders reprimanded them. Joseph pointed up at a Garuda [Lieutenant].

“Is it okay if I ask one of you to help me demonstrate something?”

He might not have been audible, but the Pallassian [Strategist] assigned to the team rapidly spoke into a speaking stone. Normally, no one touched the walls, but this was sports. Thus, city-pride and propaganda.

“That’s fine. What were you planning, Coach?”

“This. Going up! Pass it back!

Joseph kicked the football up a foot—then launched it up. There was a shout as the ball, propelled by his Skill, flew towards the wall. The Garuda [Lieutenant] recoiled, but saw the ball shooting up the three hundred feet towards him.

Faced with the sudden pass, the Garuda had two options. Catch it or let it sail past him and endure mockery, albeit limited, or kick it back. If he missed, he would be ridiculed. On the other hand…if he kicked it?

He went for the kick. By luck or skill, he succeeded, and a black-and-white meteor dropped towards Joseph. The other players on Pallass’ team raced towards it and launched it ahead.

Joseph grinned at Drassi.

“You see? If I can kick the ball that high, who’s going to block that, even with a jump Skill? Height limits. We’ll be practicing combinations with those rules.”

“I see.”

Drassi craned her neck up towards Pallass’ walls, looking deeply impressed at Joseph’s new Skill.

At this point, none of the Earthers watching him could bear it any longer. The music! The game of soccer—at least as they thought of it—and Joseph himself were the most Earth-like thing they’d seen since coming here.

He’s from Earth! He’s from Earth! We have to talk to him! How’d he introduce Pallass? It looks so—safe!

Emily was almost crying. Richard was thumping Edward on the shoulder with excitement, and the other young man was doing the same to him. The Earthers of the Blighted Kingdom on Rhir stared longingly at the smile on Joseph’s face.

Completely free from the war weariness, the sight of combat and the fear of death that was visible on theirs. All of them had instantly broken off from the briefing to stare at Joseph.

Red, Chole, Cynthia, Katie, Stacy, Vincent, Keith…all of the original Earthers were clustered around the orb, almost in tears to see one of them somewhere other than hell.

Of course, they had seen Joseph before. Yet he was as much a hero and inspiration to them as the [Heroes] were to…Rhir’s populace. They longed to be there, not here.

The other watchers were less sanguine about Joseph. Lord Hayvon Operland was already glancing at some of his people, a frown written across his face. Similarly, Nereshal bore an expression that failed to conceal how disturbing this was to him.

Tom the [Clown], giggling to himself and standing apart from everyone else, was of two minds about Joseph. Well, everything. Aha. He stifled another maniacal laugh as he wondered if Joseph was as happy as he looked or whether those Drakes had him. Nowhere was safe!

Other Tom was whispering in his head. You just know he’s in a gilded cage at best. They’ll make him happy, pump him for information. Playing soccer. As if that changes anything? What’s Rhir going to do, hm? Grab him? Kill him? Nereshal looks like he’s about to crap himself. Bring him to Rhir to fight the Demons? That would be hilarious. Soccer balls vs the Death of Magic! Ha—

However, a voice interrupted his rambling thoughts. A snort, almost incredulous.

“Is that…soccer? Someone’s playing soccer instead of casting magic and stuff? That’s insane.”

The Earthers—the original Earthers—turned. Tom’s head spun around. Nereshal, Hayvon, and the other [Soldiers] of Rhir looked at the incredulous group craning to see the orb.

The other Earthers. The new Earthers. Over a hundred and ten so far, and more trickling in.

The Blighted King’s harvest. Tom’s teeth ground together as he saw the young man staring at Joseph, more bemused than inspired or hopeful.

So naïve. So excited, some of them. The smart ones looked worried. Not worried enough! He suppressed the laughter bubbling up inside of him.

“Sir Richard, Lady Emily and company, while I understand this moment is important, perhaps we could educate your companions as planned?”

Hayvon spoke gravely. Richard stepped away from the orb with clear reluctance.

“That’s right. Listen—”

His voice trailed off as he looked at the hundred plus Earthers. Some were clutching weapons, others holding spellbooks, artifacts they had been granted from the Blighted King’s treasury. They were dressed in rich clothing, or their original clothes from Earth.

They looked horribly, painfully, stupidly excited to Tom. Stupid idiots, some vibrating with the desire to be adventurers, [Mages]. Half had even bought the line about being chosen heroes, sent to fight evil!

“Where’s that? Can we go there? Look—there are Dragon-people!

An excited whisper ran through the group, as Richard tried to speak. He lifted his gauntleted hands.

“Listen. This is Izril, not Rhir. I’m afraid the reality is we’re up against Demons. I wanted to talk to you all about what it’s like to actually fight. This isn’t a game—”

They weren’t listening. Tom bit his finger, hard enough to break his skin. He giggled as Emily glanced at him, and then at the Earthers.

“She sees it too! Look! They’re like us, but twice as stupid!”

He giggled to no one in particular. Keith glanced at him and edged away. But it was true! All true!

These Earthers were valuable! The Blighted King showered them with gifts and unlike last time, he wasn’t going to dismiss their worth since he knew they leveled three times, ten times as fast as anyone from this world!

They were the same, though. One of the Earthers was snickering at Richard’s cowboy hat and his armor. They were muttering, unable to even keep silent as Richard talked.

At complete contrast with Rhir’s [Soldiers] and people, of whom even Nereshal and Hayvon were listening to Richard respectfully.

No wonder they thought you were children and worthless! Look at them! Don’t they look pathetic! How do you seem to them? A fat man in a clown costume? Cowboy Richard? Emily, the [Water Mage]? Hah! They don’t know. When they do—what will their faces look like?

“So this is where everyone from the Spirited Generation is going? This is so—cool.

Tom’s manic smile twitched. Cool. Amazing. Fun. They looked at him, even, like he was a novelty. He’d been compared to the Joker, or other superhero villains or characters at least five dozen times this week alone.

This week, when the Blighted King finally announced the new wave of Earthers that would valiantly join the Blighted Kingdom in defying the Demons. He watched Richard’s doomed attempt.

“Listen, everyone. This is not a game. You don’t come back from the dead.”

“Are you sure? What if we just go back?”

“Have you heard of any of us coming back? Anyone? Ron, Reyanne? Any of our friends?”

Emily interrupted, a tinge of annoyance coming back into her voice. The new Earthers murmured; a girl tossed her dyed hair.

“No—”

Yet they knew about the missing kids. The Spirited Generation? Hilarious! Tom bit harder, tasting blood. Earth knew! They didn’t know what was happening, but they knew! Fascinating.

Stupid. Look—Richard was trying to get them to take it seriously. Hayvon was demonstrating as they locked swords. That just meant half the guys and some of the girls wanted to ‘give it a try’. Tom was growling, now.

“Tom. Chill. What’s wrong with you?”

Chole looked worried. The [Nurse] edged over. Tom giggled at her and she hesitated, but she was braver than most. Willing to talk to the madman. By contrast, Cynthia cowered if Tom so much as looked at her, which meant he stared.

“Look at them Chole! Look! We survived the Death of Magic blowing us to bits! All those brave heroes being sent back—and look at them! It’s just a game. It’s just a damned game to them.

His voice was hysterical, he knew. Some of the others looked at him. The smart ones looked disturbed. The others just thought he was acting. Acting!

“I know. They’re like us. We have to teach them. Maybe—kill a monster?”

That might do it. Tom giggled and shook his head, though. His head rotated and Chole flinched as it strained his neck tendons with cracks.

“I have a better idea.”

The [Clown] edged over as Richard, exasperated, tried to raise his voice.

“Listen! This isn’t fun and games!”

“Come on, man. Who put you in charge? Tell us about levels! Are we going to grind for experience or—”

The arguers, who apparently knew more about how this kind of game worked and were ready to ‘game the system’, find out the ‘best classes’, and so on, stopped. As did the susurration of voices. Because the [Clown] had done a handspring forwards, and his posse of similarly-attired followers, painted faces, colorful clothing, too-wide smiles, had set up a cheer.

At least he knew how to command attention. Tom posed on top of a table, turning his head around. His smile? Almost genuine.

Ladies and gentlemen! It looks like my dear friend Richard is trying to tell, not show you the gravitas of this world! Also, the wonder! I, Tom, the [Clown], will demonstrate. You’ve heard about Skills and magic. You’ve seen artifacts and feasted on the Blighted King’s hospitality. Now see what you get from fighting and slaughtering possibly innocent people and animals! Behold! [My Other Self]!”

His shadow moved. Then—a second Tom stepped out of the first Tom. The [Clown] spread his arms and turned at the gasps and then applause.

Amazement! Surprise! Excitement! Like a carnival crowd, the Earthers stared, gathering closer as the separate Tom appeared. They spoke at the same time, eerily disquieting.

The new Earthers were unwary. Richard was worried, but Hayvon held him back. He was looking at Tom. So was Nereshal, who was stroking his chin and nodding, almost resigned. The [Chronomancer]’s features were of a young man sometimes, when he cared to be. His eyes were always old. Tom met his gaze and smiled wider. Both Toms turned, spreading their arms wide.

“Glorious Skills! This isn’t all! I can do whatever is in my class! See?”

He produced a knife. Then a carrot. Both Toms began to juggle the objects around at each other. Tom looked.

Oh yes, look at the smart ones! That girl, there, who flinches. That young man, who might be only fifteen. Just a boy, but he’s smarter than that oaf with his stupid friends. That pallid idiot who thinks playing games on a computer will let him become the hero he wants to be! Now—

Both Toms met the other’s gaze. They stopped juggling. A carrot bounced off a face.

“Ow!”

Laughter at the gag. Tom dreamily stared into his eyes, and then around at the Earthers.

“All you could want. All the potential in the world. And with great power comes…oh, you know. Death.”

The knife flicked up in his hand. He turned, and with all the casualness in the world, slashed at the other’s face. His knife went through cheek—bounced off teeth. The skin parted, unveiling what looked at first like sticky red cloth beneath. The other Tom—

—was faster. He put the knife in the first Tom’s eye. Lodged it deep, twisted

The first Tom vanished. The real Tom spat blood out of his mouth and grinned. Blood ran down his face, out of his mouth and his cheek.

The laughter, the applause—the voices—suddenly went silent. Only his troupe began to laugh at the joke.

“Wh—wh—”

“Oh my god. He just—”

The Earthers stared in horror at the sudden display of violence. The other Tom had vanished as soon as he was murdered. Someone began to laugh—incredulously.

“Thank you, thank you. No need to applaud. But I don’t think the point has sunk in yet. Can I get a volunteer to help me out? No? Well then, you, sir.”

Tom pointed at the nearest young man, a football player—American football—and leapt.

Tom!

Richard shouted, but it was too late. Tom’s hand flashed. The crowd scattered back and the horrified eyes saw him plunge the knife into the bigger young man’s stomach, his legs.

At first, the pain didn’t even register. The football player knocked Tom aside. Then he saw his guts hanging out of his stomach. The bloody cuts on his legs. He began to shout in horror. Then—scream.

First him, then those around him. Yet Tom hadn’t stopped moving. He turned, and threw the knife into a girl’s thigh. She went down, shrieking.

Tom!

“Sir Thomas! Stop!”

Hayvon roared. He and his people strode into the crowd, but the stunned Earthers began fleeing. Too late, too late—Tom was pulling more weapons out of his invisible bag of tricks. He threw knives, lifted a wand and blasted a group with fire.

Flames ignited clothing. The [Clown] leapt, doing a spring, slicing, attacking the Earthers at random. Emily blasted him with a jet of water, but only knocked several Earthers flat as he dodged.

Richard tackled Tom in the end. It didn’t matter. He laughed as Richard slammed a fist into his face.

He’d done his job. Screams of pain, crying—the tiled floor ran with blood.

“Why so angry, Richard, old chap? Nothing a healing potion won’t fix.”

He grinned around his gash of a mouth and bleeding nose. Richard stared at him, fist raised for another punch. He looked around.

Nereshal stood there, watching reality sink in. He looked at Tom and nodded once. Almost in gratitude. The [Clown] laughed and laughed. He bellowed up at the ceiling.

Ladies and Gentlemen of Earth! Welcome to hell!

 

—-

 

Of course, the good vibes of the day were only ruined on Rhir. Elsewhere, Joseph’s soccer lessons and the other groups showing off continued to be the trivial excitement for the day.

Empress Nsiia, formerly of Tiqr, and Magus-Crafter Femithain of Illivere, for instance, quite enjoyed just watching the scrying orb.

Typically, Femithain was working as he did, signing documents with one eye on the scrying orb. Nsiia leaned on the table, watching.

What else was there to do? She couldn’t just gallivant off. She was a prisoner, however nicely accommodated. Similarly, she had no desire to watch the new Golems that Femithain was working on be produced one scrape of a chisel or swing of a hammer at a time.

Femithain was now the [Golem Artificer] of Illivere, as Domehead had proven. The grand champion of the arena was still smashing heads in, and proving the possibility of creating more Sentient-class Golems at last.

Nsiia wished Domehead were assigned to guard duty here. She was bored, so this scrying orb was the only entertainment. She spent far too much time watching it, often for news of the King of Destruction.

It gave her both heart and annoyance to see him front-and-center. She wished he would win his wars, while knowing Reim was under attack from too many sides. Yet Tiqr lay beneath the conqueror’s boot while he wasted time!

“Femithain, do you want to play this game of football-soccer?”

She rolled over on the table, stretching like a cat. The little cat, with an ash-blonde pattern of fur of little rings, rolled over, copying her.

Yinah, whose lower half had been supplanted by Golem prosthetics. For all that, she didn’t seem to mind.

The Magus-Crafter raised his eyebrows as he retrieved some papers from the bored former-[Empress].

“It has some popularity in the federation, Nsiia. However, I personally am not inclined to try. I did draw up a Golem capable of defending one of the goals or kicking the ball for amusement, though.”

“Bookworm.”

She accused him. Femithain just raised his brows higher.

“Is this a revelation, Nsiia?”

The woman sighed and stared at the ceiling. In some ways, Femithain was an ideal captor. He rose to little bait, and for all he was polite, and they had a friendship, he also kept strong boundaries.

Seducing him had failed. He watched her carefully. If she had thought she could suborn him, or gain her freedom, Nsiia would have done whatever it took. Yet he cleverly rotated the Human staff in and out, and used Golems to guard her.

For all she was idle, too…Nsiia stared up blankly at the ceiling.

“Hm? What, Femithain?”

“I said, would you like to play soccer? I am sure a game could be arranged. Perhaps even one that avails you of the scrying orb.”

“No. I…”

The [Empress], for all her casual demeanor, folded her arms and stared up at the ceiling on the veranda. Chandrar’s hot, dry air was familiar, reassuring. She would have loved to run and play this silly game any time had she been in Tiqr, put aside the duties of the crown to play with her subjects.

Yet Tiqr is gone. My subjects are [Slaves] or fight for their land against my foes even now as I recline, growing fat and indolent. They despair and I wake knowing I failed them, as I do every day.

She lay there, depression overtaking her. She still stayed in contact with them, despite being [Animalfriend Exile], no longer [Empress of Beasts]. Her trusted [Wild General], Vasraf, still led a resistance from the steppes, raiding the enemy armies holding Tiqr, freeing her subjects from slavery and bondage.

She communicated with him via the birds she had tamed around Femithain’s mansion. Perhaps the Magus-Crafter didn’t know, or couldn’t figure out how to stop her from using her animal contacts. Perhaps this was the small kindness he allowed her.

If so, it was no kindness but a cruelty disguised as one. For all it let Nsiia do was send empty words of comfort to Vasraf. Hear of her people’s suffering.

‘They despair, your Majesty. I do not, yet time and their dire hours take its toll. Have you hope to offer us?’

The last missive which had reached her after one of the brave birds had flown day and night to reach her had been as an arrow into her chest. Nsiia clutched at her heart.

They fight. Can I offer them nothing?

No Golems of war. She was not the [Golem Maker] she had tried to become. Moreover, Femithain had discovered her projects and confiscated them. She was free to train her class…under supervision.

Domehead…no, no. Even if she could suborn it, him, the Golem was a single one, however intelligent, and would never make it to Vasraf. So, Nsiia lay there.

Until she had a thought.

I can offer my subjects nothing but myself. If they take any heart, let it be all I can give.

So she rose and looked at Femithain.

“I may try to get on the scrying orb after all.”

The Magus-Crafter blinked, having forgotten the conversation already. Nsiia sprang to her feet.

“If you wish it, I will send word for a [Mage] to broadcast you. In fact, perhaps Armsmaster Dellic would care to put together a small group to demonstrate Illivere’s…physical acumen.”

Femithain hesitated over that, since this was not a title to which the Illivere Federation could really lay a claim. Nevertheless, Nsiia was grateful. She began to stretch. At least let them see her! If it helped at all—

Yinah took over Nsiia’s job. She rolled over Femithain’s desk, meowing, until he began to pet her with his free hand. Nsiia went to get her moment on air.

 

—-

 

That would be harder than it looked. As many groups were finding out.

Politics, fortune, fame, and, naturally, entertainmentvalue, were what allowed one to get on Wistram News Network. Yes, some generous contributors could get featured by being ‘randomly chosen’ out of the now thousand-plus submission count coming into the broadcast studio, from [Mercenaries] to full-fledged armies.

However, unless you had that advantage, or that of fame, only entertainment value or luck would get you a coveted slot, and your five minutes of fame.

Or five seconds. It was all so…political. For instance, The Glorious Kingdom of Medain…was not featured on the broadcast despite King Perric graciously taking time out of his conflict with Khelt-Jecrass to organize a showing of his Golden Ranks.

By contrast, Ailendamus got nearly thirty seconds of showing off their armies jogging towards another battle with the Dawn Concordat because it was topical and war. Not because they were more interesting than any of the other dozens of sweaty people in armor doing the same.

That was just it. At some point, the novelty wore off. Yes, they were running in formation and that was interesting. Yet watching that got old after about eleven minutes.

So Rabbiteater couldn’t fathom why the Order of Seasons wanted to copy that. Then again—being on the scrying orb was an allure of its own.

“Come on, Ser Solstice! Let’s show off our Order! We’ve put in a request to Wistram—how am I supposed to use this thing again?”

The Summer’s Champion accidentally kicked a ball straight into the Spring’s Warden’s chest plate. She let it drop and fielded the ball back, with a considerable amount more dexterity than he.

“You pass the ball, Ser Greysten. Like so.”

“Are you two seriously considering this?”

Knight-Commander Calirn looked pained. The Winter Knight had declined to armor up, but the two heads of their Season were determined to get on television and showcase their order.

Egos, [Knights], [Knights]…Rabbiteater didn’t see the point. Oh, it was vaguely fun, he had to admit, but he’d been on television a few times. He hadn’t told them that, though.

The Goblin was game to join the two hundred [Knights] of Spring and Summer who were going to do the passing exercise as they ran around their keep, too. So he set off, passing the ball to Ser Markus, as the Order waved upwards.

The new way Wistram could showcase so many groups was [Scrying] spells. It was ingenious, really. You sent coordinates to them and they [Scried] your location. Some places were warded against such spells, of course, but the Order of Seasons had dropped their wards just to get on the news.

By contrast, Chaldion of Pallass had told Wistram flatly to use their [Mages] and scrying gear. Pallass would not drop their wards for a second.

Thus, [Knights] waved at the sky, hoping to be seen, while they passed the soccer balls back and forth with a good degree of accuracy as they jogged along. They were warriors after all.

Rabbiteater saw the Summer’s Champion excitedly checking the scrying mirror he carried as more [Knights] watched from the keep’s walls. The [Knights] did a lap of the keep…then two…

“We’re not showing up.”

Ser Greysten slowed, the huge [Summer Knight] looking perplexedly at the Spring’s Warden. She shrugged.

“Wistram hasn’t selected our group for viewing.”

“What, are we supposed to keep running and waving until they do? We are the Order of Seasons!

Greysten was a bit petulant. The [Knights] slowed, some looking a bit hurt. Surely their famous Order would garner attention?

…Compared to the King of Destruction, the Walled Cities, other nations, and every other Knight Order who’d had the same idea in the world? Rabbiteater took a sip of water through his visor with a straw. He saw the latest showcase in between going back to Joseph and the soccer team were actually [Knights]. Only—they were a bit smarter than the Order of Seasons in how they’d gotten attention.

Wistram was still playing the [Popstar]’s music during the showcase, which really added to the visuals, it had to be said. In the spirit of such compilation videos, the best and most inspiring antics were being chosen.

To the fast, energetic chords of an electric guitar and of course, the drums and vocals, two [Knights] appeared on the scrying orb.

In bed. Not the same bed, mind you, but it was enough to throw an audience expecting another running Courier or group of exercising soldiery.

Even so, two very toned, muscular men sat up at the same time, almost overplaying yawns and stretching. Then an alarm bell rang.

“What in the name of Troll dung am I looking a—”

Greysten’s outraged voice was shushed by the Spring’s Warden, who could appreciate the view. Similarly, a number of outraged Drakes and Dullahans—mostly male—began sending in complaints to Wistram. By contrast, Redscar pushed aside a few Goblins to stare with more attention.

Rabbiteater saw the two [Knights] shoot out of their beds as if launched. They looked outside, decided they were needed in armor now, and blasted out of their dormitory-style bedrooms in naught but briefs.

That didn’t last long, though. Whoever had the scrying mirror backed up down the stairs ahead of them as they pushed and jostled, running down the stairs. One of the two [Knights], blonde, with a trimmed beard and an impish grin, had a bag of holding and was chucking pieces of armor at the other. His fellow, with orange hair that suggested some aristocratic blood tinged with a bit of purple at the roots, slapped on pieces of armor.

They were running down the stairs now, and the first [Knight] tossed the bag of holding at a pair of [Squires]. To Rabbiteater’s entertainment and amazement, they were donning their armor as they ran.

By the time they were running through the keep they were based at, their [Squires] and the [Knights] had half their armor on.

“Arming Skills.”

Ser Markus whispered to Rabbiteater. The cheerful song was about four minutes long, which was as long as it took for both [Knights] to be out of bed, running out of their keep in full armor. It was an impressive display of preparation, showmanship, comedy, and something to look at.

That was entertainment. Ser Greysten was much unimpressed.

“The Chevaliers d’Omerra. Showoffs.”

“Don’t be petty.”

The Spring’s Warden teased him. Yet it was also proof that the bar was rising for good submissions. Kicking a few footballs around and running in straight lines was not enough.

Proof positive, the next view was a familiar man who had taken the world’s attention a few times. Lord Bel, the Lord of the Dance wasn’t running. He was gliding across the floor. Someone did throw a soccer ball at him, and he kicked it up, keeping it on a leg as he turned, flicked it back with a smile at another [Dancing Warrior], who caught it between shoulder and head, then, with a display of muscular coordination, flicked it onto the other shoulder.

 

—-

 

“Is that even legal?”

Drassi turned to Joseph. The soccer coach hesitated, but Grimalkin boomed behind them. They’d stopped to stare at the unfolding event.

Who cares? What excellent control of musculature! That group of muscles there! Finely developed! And did you see how coordinated they were, to disguise their movement by sliding their feet across the ground? It’s a dancing technique, but the control required—

“Moonwalking. Or something.”

Joseph murmured. The Lord of the Dance cut away to another display, this time as the other species of the world stopped Humans from hogging the spotlight.

A headless Dullahan kicked a ball, which was headed by a second one in armor. A third Dullahan, most mobile of the group, leapt up and kicked the ball into the goal, wearing cloth armor to allow such acrobatics.

The goalkeeper had missed, but he went into the goal to pick out the ‘ball’. Which…was a head. The first Dullahan had launched herself at the goal, and looked smug as could be. Unphased by the kicks! All the other Dullahans applauded gravely, rather than jump around and shout.

“This is amazing.”

Joseph could barely tear himself away from the game, but he realized he was still supposed to be teaching the soccer team. How was he supposed to live up to that?

“—I think we have to try something big.”

Drassi waved her camera-[Mage] into position as Joseph turned to Pallass’ team, who clearly felt the same way. He gestured.

“Let’s set up a game. Only—we’re going to work on a goal-breaker.”

“A what, coach?”

The team gathered around as Joseph stood around a map to sketch out some tactics. He was unaware of the television viewpoint shifting to him. He addressed the [Strategist] from Pallass as little Ekirra excitedly held up his football, panting.

“A way to score on a good goalkeeper. Liscor’s has a great shield Skill and if you give him time to let it recharge, he can block most shots you can field. We need to work on better combos for scoring. Now—I’ve seen Pallass score in the last game. You let one person kick on the goal.”

“…Isn’t that how you do it?”

“Not at all. A good technique is to pass and score. The keeper can’t keep up, you see. So let’s say you—”

“Rea, Coach!”

“Yes, you’re coming at the goal, Rea, on the ground…you’d feint, pass left to Virr, here, and he passes again to someone here. See? Three directions and the keeper might fall for any one of them. Besides which, player three in the corner here has the best, most direct angle in. That’s how you score.”

“Of course. Of course!”

The [Strategist] was making rapid notes. Joseph smiled. The game was more complex than just kicking the ball!

“Plus, now we have an aerial component. So I’ll be playing and we’ll be setting up scoring opportunities. Obviously, the defending team should try to stop us. We’ll improvise some strategies. Let’s fill the field!”

Ekirra raced out with the attacking team. Bemused, the Pallass team let him wave his arms as a kind of mascot. Joseph grinned as he took aim.

“No Skills this time! Rea!”

He shot the ball to her. She went for a run on the goal. True to Joseph’s comments, if you could set it up right, multiple passes to make the goalkeeper uncertain was a nightmare to defend against.

“It’s rare you get that much time, though. Normally it’s a few players at best coming at the goal. This is an ideal situation. However—let’s try with Skills!”

Joseph was shouting. Sir Relz and Noass were commentating, timing out the game until the next person slated for viewing—a group of Garuda who wanted to pass the ball an entire mile between themselves without letting it strike the ground.

“Not a bad showing, Noass, although we are getting some incredible displays of physical prowess.”

“Indeed, Sir Relz, but let’s not forget, this is Coach Joseph on his first day. It might be too much to expect him to fully grasp Pallass’ unique capabilities.”

Noass sniffed, mostly due to his cold, and helpfully set up the moment for what would come next. The two Drakes were looking benignly, condescendingly amused as they sipped some restorative tea. Joseph shouted.

Aerial combo one! Rea!”

 

This time he launched the football from the center of the field. Without a Skill, but straight at the Garuda. It was a risky move, and two fliers tried to dodge.

“Miss Drassi, can you commentate on the dangers of aerial passes?”

On the field, Drassi nodded as Rea lost the ball, failing to pass it properly and the team reset for another try.

“Yes, Sir Relz! Aside from interception, you have to instantly pass. Which is a pain in the tail, or so it seems. The real danger though are the fliers. Broken ankles.”

“Broken ankles, really?”

“Oh yes. Garuda and fliers at that angle and speed? I’m told you can easily break something. However, Coach Joseph is doing his best—oh! Before you cut to something else, it looks like they’re trying a Skill version of this!”

Sure enough, Joseph had lined up. This time—Rea dove as he shouted.

“[Pinpoint Distance Kick]!”

The ball shot across the field. The Garuda dropped, just under the established height of thirty feet for an aerial pass, and screamed. Joseph hadn’t ordered her to, but she’d clearly seen how fast the ball was coming up and realized her leg might not survive the impact.

Unless she used a Skill.

“[Axe Kick]!”

Joseph’s eyes widened as the Garuda dropped and her clawed foot hit the ball. The impact was like a thunderclap in the air.

He was amazed the ball didn’t explode from the pressure, but Pallass used enchanted equipment, of course. The ball ricocheted down to earth like a comet.

Missing the two players set for the pass. Rea didn’t have fine control with her Skill, so it hit the turf in front of the goal like a meteor. Dirt fountained up about ten feet in front of the goal as the ball began to bounce up. The goalkeeper was ready, but no one else was there. Cursing, Rea dove—

A little brown head came up and head-butted the ball midair. By luck, by accident, the little Gnoll racing around in excitement had been close to the impact.

Ekirra’s head smacked the ball and Joseph heard a ping in his head at the same time as the ball bounced. Straight into the Dullahan goal-keeper.

The Dullahan had set himself, arm raised. He had a blocking Skill, and Ekirra shouldn’t have generated that much force. In truth, the little Gnoll might have knocked himself silly given the dangers of such an impact. Yet something…happened.

The goalkeeper’s eyes widened a moment before the ball struck him in the chest. Grimalkin, idly watching from the side—blinked. The [Sinew Magus] saw the Dullahan, steel armor dented, fly past his head. He whirled, pointed.

[Featherfall]!

He caught the Dullahan before the goal and keeper hit the ground. The impact had been more than just the ball; it had blown the entire goal back!

Ekirra lay on the ground, head spinning dizzily. Rea, the other players, Joseph—Sir Relz and Noass’ mouths were wide open.

“What—what h—”

Drassi picked herself up, looking astounded and at a loss for words for once. Grimalkin was already bending over the Dullahan, making sure he wasn’t injured badly. As everyone came running over—Joseph to check on Ekirra—he stood up, nodding.

“Dented armor. Maybe cracked ribs at most. Not a problem. The child?”

He didn’t look as concerned for Ekirra. Sure enough, the Gnoll boy was dizzy, but grinning stupidly.

“What in the name of scales was that?

One of the players demanded, wide-eyed. Grimalkin boomed the answer at the same time as Sir Relz bellowed it.

Combination Skill! They just pulled off a Combination Skill live on—

Every head turned to Joseph. The [Kicker] stared around. Yet it was true. It had gone off in his head, as if he was about to fall asleep, but while he was fully awake.

 

[Combination Skill – Meteor Guardbreaker Shot obtained!]

 

Drassi threw up her claws. Pallass team began shouting. Joseph looked at Ekirra, then around, as clearly confused as everyone else.

This was maximum entertainment.

 

—-

 

“If you’re just tuning in, a Combination Skill has just been discovered, live! On Wistram News Network! Noass, can you explain to the viewers what this rare phenomenon is?”

“Of course, Sir Relz. It’s a technique that only occurs when multiple Skills activate at once. It can then be redeployed by any of the participants, but it is a highly situational, highly powerful phenomenon.”

The two excited Drakes’ voices were echoing through Wistram, who were as excited as the rest of the audience. It turned out little Ekirra had used a head-butt Skill, one of the three total he possessed.

The rest was history.

No, wait. The rest was maximum viewership and television! In the Wistram News room, every [Seer], [Diviner], and so on were sorting through submissions, talking rapidly to people who wanted a piece of this moment.

Not only them. [High Mages] and higher-ranking members of Wistram were ‘helping’, so it was no surprise to see Viltach shilling for Human submissions, and arguing with Nailihuaile.

“Give another [Knight] Order a chance! I have the Order of Seasons—”

“Boring! I want to see something amazing! Those—put those on after the soccer team!”

The Star Lamia was excitedly waving her arms. She pointed and the obliging orb and broadcast, on a five minute delay, shifted to another viewpoint.

Pomle. A group of [Martial Artists] were spread out over about four hundred feet of ground in a rough circle. They were leaping, kicking, or punching a ball that was ricocheting around. Orjin, Strongest of Pomle, hit the ball so fast that the [Scaled Fist] missed her punch. It hit one of the oasis’ trees, bounced off the tree, and cracked it in half. Viltach spluttered of course, but the [Knights] were clearly outmatched by that kind of entertainment.

Of course, the live broadcast was still on Ekirra, who was smiling, still a bit cross-eyed.

“I learned how to head-butt before I played football! Guardsman Relc tried to teach me Relc Headbutt, but I only got—”

The broadcast was filled with excited [Mages], interesting sights—far overshadowing the poorer submissions.

Which were, to their respective disappointments, the Order of Seasons and Nsiia, both of whom couldn’t match the excitement of the best submissions.

Into this moment strode Eldavin. The lesser [Mages] parted like a swarm in front of the half-Elf. He looked around.

“What are you all doing?

The [Mages] looked at the upset Dragon. They hesitated.

“Grand Magus? Is something the matter?”

“I should say so! I am seeing this display of ability from every corner of the world! Yet where are the [Mages]? Where is Wistram’s pride?”

The half-Elf stared about. A few jaws dropped.

“You mean—but we’re not [Warriors], Grand Magus. And this has been a decidedly, er, physical event.”

One of the [Mages] blustered, and then recalled he was talking to Eldavin, who looked like a Grimalkin of half-Elves. He was fixed with a stare by Eldavin that was practically a [Frostbite] spell of its own.

“Young mage. Tell me something. Is there anything that can be done that Dr—[Mages] cannot do better?”

The arrogance of…[Mages]. The group of spellcasters looked at each other. Eldavin sniffed.

“That’s what I thought. Put us ‘on air’ in fifteen minutes. Anyone wishing to join me is free to participate. Students, teachers—I think outside the academy will do.”

He pointed at the Archmages.

 

—-

 

Rabbiteater sat on the grass, sipping from his water flask with the handy straw. The other [Knights] of the Order of Seasons sat around glumly.

No featuring for them. Greysten was complaining to the Fall’s Sentinel, who was personally talking to [Mages] in Wistram.

“No luck, I’m afraid. Look—Wistram is next.”

“That’s sheer favoritism—”

The Summer’s Champion hesitated. For there, on screen, was Grand Magus Eldavin and nearly a hundred [Mages], students and older, demonstrating the art of grandstanding.

“Now, how does the expression go? Ah, yes. Pass the ball.

Eldavin gestured. Then, with a good show of it, the white-haired half-Elf with the beard who looked like he was pushing two hundred casually kicked the [Fireball] left. The [High Mage] turned dead white, but she fielded the ball, and kicked it ahead.

The [Mages] were running too, incidentally. On…Rabbiteater blinked.

The surface of the ocean, around the Academy of [Mages]. One of the [Mages] passed the ball up towards someone else running on a [Light Bridge] spell. Eldavin harrumphed. He caught the eye of the ‘camera’ and closed one eye, smiling rather arrogantly.

“Just a bit of magical finesse. Even [Mages] must indulge in such things. Keep running, students! [Tidal Wave]!

He pointed to some lagging students and an obliging wave swallowed them. Ahead of Eldavin, the [Mages] were vying for the ‘ball’, throwing it around with telekinesis, laughing—and showing off of course.

“I believe that would be the spectacle to beat.”

The Fall’s Champion remarked drily. Greysten threw his hands up in exasperation.

“[Mages]!”

 

—-

 

“This is too bloody amazing. Someone get me a [Teleportation] spell.”

Daly looked around as the [Mages] came onto the scrying orb. Ironically, the United Nations company and the Earthers there weren’t as excited as other groups across the world.

Mainly because Luan was missing. Even Daly was trying to force the mood a bit. He looked about, and then dropped it. Paige was looking at the orb, grimly tuning a crossbow.

Luan was gone. Probably…dead. There was no body, but the [Bounty Hunters] had been arrested once it had been clear they’d hit him with a [Fireball] at sea.

The scrying spells had failed to pick Luan up. Given that he didn’t have anti-scrying gear…it meant he was likely dead. No Luan to scry.

Daly knew that, but he’d led three water expeditions to where Luan had been. No good. He sat there, staring at the television without smiling much.

Another reminder of mortality in Baleros. Yet Joseph’s appearance had still had an effect. Ironically, not among the more sports-loving members of the United Nations; Daly, Dawson, and the others were somber.

So was Geneva Scala. Yet she was determined as she slowly packed up the best copies of each surgical tool and instrument. Also, the jar donated by the Hundredfriends Courier, her notes and samples of other poultices, healing methods or experimentation…

“Geneva. Geneva, please, let’s talk about this!”

She spoke. Or rather, her mouth moved. It was not Geneva who spoke, of course, just the other person inhabiting her mouth.

“I’ve made up my mind, Idis. The Yellow Rivers plague is being managed.”

It was far from over, but the cure was out there. Geneva was busy packing. It was the first step, although she had to go to Daly and Paige right after this. Perhaps they’d be upset.

Idis certainly was.

Right, right! But you promised! What about my people?

Geneva hesitated. The Selphids who had come to Talenqual had beseeched her to help with the sickness afflicting their kind. The wasting of their species.

“…I’m aware and I will do everything I can, Idis. However…”

She closed her eyes. Her medical self weighed the ethics of her choice. An entire species versus one person?

“…The Wasting disease has not killed Selphids over this many generations. It may be callous, but there is a patient who needs my direct supervision now. They have already failed to revive her and they might well kill her before I arrive. More than that?”

She stared at her personal scrying orb, which she seldom watched for recreation. Yet…Geneva looked at Pallass, Joseph bouncing the ball with Ekirra.

It looked safe. Safer than Baleros, the continent plagued by so many bloody battles. Perhaps it was petty, wrong of her. Yet for once, she had done as Okasha always wanted. She was putting herself, or rather, her company ahead of her class.

“I will return. The United Nations Company might not go. Yet…we might be able to journey to Izril relatively quickly.”

It’s too dangerous, Geneva. It will take weeks! Look, please talk to Calectus! You can’t just decide this!

“I’ve made up my mind, Idis. I am asking you not to stand in my way. The Bodies of Fellden can join us, of course.”

Geneva’s hands were steady as she packed up her equipment. The truth was she wasn’t sure this was the right move. What had forced her to choose was a number of decisions.

The first was Luan. It was one too many lives lost. Geneva could—would—save lives here, as many as she could. Yet the other Earthers didn’t deserve this.

“A bounty. They killed him over a bounty.”

Geneva…

The second reason was Erin Solstice. Geneva could not help Erin beyond formulating strategies without being there. Not to mention a Potion of Regeneration might save countless lives if she figured out how it worked!

The third reason was contradictory with her medical teachings. Yes, one person, even from Earth, did not outweigh the needs of a species afflicted by this Wasting disease. If Geneva measured by the QALY quotient—quality-adjusted life years—her decision was clear. Like a triage or other measurements a medical professional had to make in choosing who to help, Selphids as a people required assistance perhaps only Geneva could give.

…It would have been easy to rely on that. Except for Idis. Except for Okasha. Except for Calectus and the Bodies of Fellden, the Selphid mercenary company, however well-meaning they were.

If one tenet of Geneva’s practice was to ‘do no harm’, and to save as much life as possible, another was not to endanger her patients. She felt now, stronger than ever, that Baleros, and this Selphid company which had come here for her interfered with that second clause.

It had taken a lot of time, making Idis her friend. Establishing the rapport she should have truly built with Okasha. Now was the moment, though. Geneva breathed out. There were actually few valuables the United Nations Company could not grab and run with. Their lease? They’d lose it anyways. Gold? Possessions?

She stopped as she put it all into her bag of holding. Not her choice. Geneva Scala’s heart was beating fast, yet she felt the Selphid slow it reflexively. The [Doctor] spoke, as persuasively as she could.

“Idis. I am asking you to help me. I know what your orders are, and your company. Please. Assist me.”

The Selphid hesitated. Geneva Scala stood there, unable to move her body. For a moment, a long moment, she feared that she had failed, even after all her hard work getting Idis as an ally.

Then her hand moved up and grabbed the doorknob.

I—Geneva—

Idis didn’t say anything. Yet she did not stop Geneva from twisting the handle. The [Doctor] actually smiled, knowing Idis sensed it.

“Thank you, Idis.”

She had to tell Daly and Paige, and then move now. The United Nations company was not the Bodies of Fellden’s target, anyways. That was why—

 

—-

 

“Huh. You know, there’re not many Drowned Folks here. I suppose it’s hard to play this game on the water. Always feels a bit land-biased to me, though, don’t you think, Erek?”

“Ook.”

The orangutan looked at Seve-Alrelious, the Hundredfriends Courier. It was the second time that Seve had been here in as many months and he knew he was attracting attention. His tattoos stood out across his body, and he smiled, but declined to chat. He was waiting for his passenger.

She had prevailed on him, and of course the Hundredfriends Courier had answered the call. He understood there was some trouble, but Geneva Scala did not have to explain. She had to ask and he would answer. That was the debt he owed the Last Light of Baleros for saving so many selflessly.

To wait, he checked the scrying orb, watching, while keeping an eye on the harbor docks. Geneva had told him it might be another hour or two, so he was game to wait. The trick was not to draw attention to her plans; he pretended he was waiting for a delivery, not intimating who the cargo was.

Seve waited, watching the splendid little diversion on the scrying orb with Erek, the glowing orangutan bound to him by magical tattoos.

He waited.

And waited.

…After three hours, Seve sensed something was wrong. He threw caution to the winds and made his way to the United Nations Company, then Geneva Scala’s clinic.

Of course, by then he was too late.

 

—-

 

Geneva Scala, Last Light of Baleros and [Doctor], opened the door. A tall Dullahan, still bearing the body’s death-wounds, blocked it.

“Calectus. What a surprise. Are you injured? How can I help—”

Geneva stepped backwards. She was not a good actress. Nor, as it turned out, would that have helped. The Selphid looked down at her, smelling of the faintly formaldehyde-analogous preservatives Selphids used.

Calectus, [Honor Guard] of the Selphids looked down at Geneva in silence. His features were dead and though he mimicked his host-species’ naturally less-emotive states, he was plainly disapproving.

Reproachful, even. He adjusted the loose Dullahan’s head attached to the body and spoke.

“Geneva. I had hoped that the actions of my people earned us more trust than this.”

The [Doctor] fell silent. He knew. Calectus was not alone, either. A group of four Selphids stood behind him. However, she still made the best attempt possible.

“What, I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about. I—”

“Izril is too far. Too dangerous. Did you not promise me you would help me save my people?”

The [Honor Guard] stood there, stiffly. He was disapproving. The other Selphids—less so. Geneva hesitated.

The truth was impossible to hide. So she stood, straighter, and faced him directly.

“Calectus. I intend to fulfill that promise. However, a patient needs my care in Izril.”

“One Human? You cannot risk your body, your life when we need your abilities here!”

A Selphid she did not know the name of scoffed. The [Doctor] met his gaze.

“It is not your right to tell me who I must treat. I am aware of the suffering of Selphids. However—”

She hesitated, but it was time to say it. She looked at Calectus again, then slowly touched her back, indicating the wound that had left her paralyzed. Then her chest.

“…This is not an equal relationship, or an unbiased one. Calectus. Okasha was proof of that.”

His eyes flickered. Some of the other Selphids exchanged glances. The [Honor Guard] inclined his head slowly.

“Nevertheless, Doctor Scala. My people die and suffer. Will you not reconsider? The Bodies of Fellden and I have orders regarding you. Orders which I must carry out. However—I would like to cooperate.”

Geneva hesitated.

“Do I have a choice?”

“Let us provide escort to your company. Perhaps act in your stead. If you wished the rest of your company to journey to Izril…”

“Calectus, that is not within the scope of our mission.”

“It could be.”

The Selphids were not united. Calectus’ head swung around to address a Selphid behind him, looking irritated at the lack of unity in front of Geneva. The [Doctor] peered at him, trying to gauge his reactions.

“If I promised to return? If you went with me…?”

Calectus frowned. Again, the Selphid in robes, one of the [Mages], answered for him.

“The Minds will not allow this. Need we ask for instructions, Calectus?”

The voice was warning. The [Honor Guard] shook his head after another second. He met Geneva’s eyes, looking torn.

“I am sorry, Geneva. Hollow words though they are.”

She exhaled, slightly. Lifted her hands; they were sweaty.

“…Then I will abide, Calectus. I will remain here. Perhaps if the United Nations company were given escort instead of me—that would be amenable.”

He began to nod. The other Selphids hissed. Calectus held up a hand and stepped back.

“A moment, please, Geneva.”

They began arguing, one of them deploying a [Silence] spell. Geneva saw Calectus began to speak—then gesture more emphatically. The angry [Mage] retorted—Calectus lifted two fingers. Then lowered one.

The other Selphids went quiet. Geneva’s skin prickled as she felt, as she had on the battlefield, the propensity for violence or…

“Calectus. I will stay and treat the Selphids. Do no harm. Any of you.”

He looked up and nodded. Geneva looked at the other Selphids.

If only it could have ended at that. However…the [Mage]’s eyes narrowed. They put a hand to their temple, and their eyes widened, then became triumphant.

“That is no longer a possibility. Calectus. The Hundredfriends Courier is docked at the harbor. She plans to escape with him! Do you think our company can or should clash with a Sea Courier of his reputation?”

Oh no. Seve! Geneva saw Calectus’ face change. He gave the other Selphid the same look—then his face was anguished.

Then resigned. He straightened and sighed.

“It seems you are correct, Magus.”

“Calectus, don’t—”

Geneva looked around. The window? She began to edge over. And her feet abruptly stopped. She tried to make them move. Yet…the [Honor Guard] was looking at her now. He spoke solemnly.

“Doctor Scala, I respect your desires. However, the Minds of Selphids gave me clear instructions. Idis.”

Geneva’s body had already stopped moving of course. Now, it straightened, with a [Soldier], a [Warrior]’s precision. Even saluted the other Selphid. Geneva heard a whisper from within her.

I’m sorry. I warned you!

They had known from the start. Geneva was helpless. The Selphid [Mage]’s eyes were triumphant. Yet—even as Geneva struggled against her own body and knew she would never win, she wondered how they had known she was leaving to begin with!

The answer became apparent as Calectus looked around and glanced over his shoulder, his head rotating a hundred and eighty degrees.

“It seems we must engage our contingencies. Make the company ready. Doctor Scala is mostly prepared, which aids us. Grab any additional tools. Prepare to move out.”

“Yes, commander.”

Selphids moved into the clinic, smoothly grabbing additional supplies. Geneva tried to move her mouth.

“This is a mistake. How did you even…?”

She saw Calectus gesture. One of the Selphid [Mages] walked over to a wall. He rubbed at the blank plaster—and a glowing rune appeared.

A listening spell. They’d bugged her clinic! And Idis had known—that was why she’d been arguing out loud—

I’m sorry.

Geneva stood there, at military attention as Calectus looked at her.

“Doctor Scala, your level has risen high enough. I must insist you accompany us.”

It wasn’t even hard. Idis moved Geneva’s body so there was no struggling. No fight to give. She just sat in the coach after leaving the clinic, lying to her staff’s faces. Only when she was given her tongue back did Geneva look at the Selphids.

“Do you think you can force me to help you?”

The Selphids looked at her. Calectus looked slightly ashamed, yet he was still direct. He spoke, quietly.

“Frankly—yes. I’m afraid your moral convictions are clear, Doctor Geneva. We are desperate. We cannot risk you dying on Izril. We…I am sworn to defend my people. Thus, my class. Even if I must cast aside honor to do so.”

He exhaled, though it was an unnecessary gesture. Geneva saw him turning, and felt her pivoting to walk with him.

“Don’t do this, Calectus. Please.”

The Selphid [Honor Guard] looked at her. Then he gestured.

“Your company will be untouched. They will not be able to follow us. We are taking you to one of our bases. The Minds await. Move out.”

That day, the Last Light of Baleros—

Vanished. Straight out from under the noses of all the observers, Niers’ students, and her company.

 

—-

 

It was football. Or soccer if you were weird. Really, it depended on perspective. The point was…was it coincidence, or was it football that caused this kind of day?

This…Empress Nsiia had gone through the worst days of her life. Yet the problem was, it was never a single day.

It repeated. So, she shed a few tears. Armsmaster Dellic and some of Illivere’s fittest warriors hovered, uncertain of why she was crying.

Surely not vanity? It was not that.

She just wanted them to know she was alive. Yet she couldn’t get onto the stupid news. Nsiia sniffed. She would cut off a finger to give them something…some of the cheer pervading the news.

In fact, the news, which often gave no truth to tragedy. When it was happy, the ‘world’ was happy. When some arbitrary people decided everyone should grieve, that was what you saw.

How quickly they had stopped saying Tiqr’s name. How fickle the world was. Nsiia saw it as some vast, ever-changing thing. Not like an animal at all, but some hive which could be capable of great good, or wrath, but forgot faster than anything.

Not like elephants. Not like Thef. A glorious and petty thing.

So how did you get its attention? Nsiia wiped her tears away just outside of Femithain’s mansion, in the streets. She looked at the [Mage] and realized, ironically, the sight of the Empress of Beasts bawling her eyes out might have gotten her the attention.

It might have, indeed. Nsiia came to a sudden realization. Her eyes widened. She crouched and before Dellic could react, started running. The [Mage], who had been yawning, snapped his head up as Nsiia put into action her plan.

 

—-

 

Her conclusion was the exact opposite of Rabbiteater’s. The frustrated Order of Seasons hadn’t figured out how to top the displays on television. Aura blades and so on couldn’t match the magic now sprinkled into these viewings.

Rabbiteater had been giving it a good think himself, game to help these nice people. However…he had to admit he wasn’t that smart.

He didn’t have some unique way to blend Skill and talent such that Wistram would have no choice but to showcase the Order of Seasons. Perhaps a smarter person would have. Like Chieftain Rags. Or…Erin.

Rabbiteater missed her. He thought about it, as he sat in the grass. Then he had his idea. He trotted over to the Fall’s Sentinel and made a request.

“What, Ser Solstice?”

The older [Knight] looked surprised, but he was perfectly content to put Rabbiteater’s slightly-audacious plan into action. The Spring’s Warden and Summer’s Champion glanced up, slightly hopeful. Rabbiteater smiled.

Where the Empress of Beasts had found a clever solution born out of her understanding of, well, people, the Goblin had taken a different tack.

He just cheated.

 

—-

 

The event was winding down. Joseph was tired, and Ekirra was falling asleep on his feet after working out so hard twice. But the little Gnoll was smiling.

“Do you know his parents, Coach Joseph? Pallass might want to make them an offer of citizenship…we could always use strong players for a junior team.”

The Drake [Strategist] was looking at Ekirra appraisingly. Joseph had no idea how to respond to that. He was almost snoozing himself as he waited to go back to the inn. Drassi had returned to the booth, ejecting Noass.

“It’s been a great day of submissions. I think we’ll be playing more all night that were recorded, but we have a few more live ones to get to…”

Joseph’s head nodded as he and Ekirra sat down, sweaty, exhausted, despite the stamina potions. He drifted off for a second.

 

[Conditions Met: Kicker → Football Player Class!]

[Football Player Level 14!]

[Skill – Fast Feet obtained!]

[Skill – Second Wind obtained!]

 

Not so vast. But new. Joseph smiled as he opened his eyes. He’d suspected that would have happened. He began to get up with Ekirra in his arms as the door opened. Yet he’d done so too soon.

The second notification hit him loud as, louder than the first. And—odd.

 

[Coach Dr—ob—!

[Coachm—obtai—!

[Radiant Coachdr—]

[Coach Class Obtained!]

[Coach Level 16!]

 

Joseph walked into the wall. Yet it wasn’t done. The voice in his head kept shouting, as if it was as amazed as he was.

 

[Conditions Met: Coach → Famed Coach Class!]

[Conditions Met: Famed Coach → World-Renowned Coach Class!]

[Skill – Eyes of Talent obtained!]

[Skill – Unveil Potential (Magical) obtained!]

[Skill – Legendary Reputation obtained!]

[Skill…

 

Joseph felt Ekirra wake up. He saw the little Gnoll yawn. Wide-eyed, Joseph looked about.

“Oh my god. I broke it.

He practically ran into The Wandering Inn, holding up Ekirra, wanting to stare at the news. It had to be that! How many people had seen Joseph? How many people had treated his advice as a lesson? It was the class. Teacher to the world. He held Ekirra up as both stared at the scrying mirror. Ekirra’s eyes widened as it flicked to another viewpoint. Joseph blinked. He forgot about his new class for a second.

Two seconds later, he tossed Ekirra out of the common room.

 

—-

 

Empress Nsiia of Tiqr, or at least, what they called her on the news, did a juggling trick with a soccer ball. Then she kicked it.

It bounced off Armsmaster Dellic’s face. Nsiia laughed as he jerked in surprise. No one else was really fielding the ball, either. So she just ran.

The [Scrying Mage] tracked her with his eyes as she ran. Incidentally, Nsiia knew she was live.

General Vasraf was summoned from his tent by a shout. He stared at the scrying orb, and his eyes nearly popped out of their sockets.

Salii, letting the [Martial Artists] continue their training exercise despite the cameras not being on them, looked up at the shout. The citizens who had fled Tiqr were staring at one of three scrying devices that all of Pomle had. Some were staring. Others…laughing. Or cheering.

Why? Salii glanced at her orb. She blinked, checked her spectacles.

“Oh. How clever.”

Scandalous!

Sir Relz lost his monocle. Drassi was blinking, half-using her notes as a shield. She turned to the Drake.

“Uh—who decided to show this?”

“Not me! It’s indecent! There are children watching it!”

“Wow. So someone in Wistram is a pervert.”

Drassi smiled. Then amended her statement.

“I suppose it’s topical. Er—this is almost definitely Empress Nsiia, formerly of Tiqr, the Empress of Beasts. Is this how she normally exercises, or do you think it’s special?”

“Why are you asking me?

Sir Relz snapped. Drassi gave him a look.

“Well, I wouldn’t know.”

She gave another glance at the scrying orb, which was getting a lot of angry [Message] spells. Eldavin strode into the scrying room.

“What is wrong with you people?”

But it was too late. Someone had indeed decided it was exceptionally topical to feature Empress Nsiia running around the walls of the city. She wasn’t doing anything special or running particularly fast. A few Golems were chasing after her, with blankets, as Magus-Crafter Femithain realized what she was doing.

Yet she had gotten herself on television. The only way she knew how.

Nsiia was not topless. Because that implied there was other clothing on her. She was running, laughing, waving an arm at the [Mage] keeping her in view as Armsmaster Dellic and some of the soldiers followed. They seemed uncertain of what to do. Nsiia had begun removing clothing and, well, gotten a lot more attention from the [Mages] screening the submissions.

General Vasraf stared at the Empress of Beasts evading a chasing Golem trying to insert a modesty-blanket into the scene. Sir Relz and Drassi were arguing—Sir Relz actually to keep it up.

“Er—well—she’s clearly making a statement, so if we’re showing her—”

“What if it was a naked male Drake! Gah! You’re disgusting! Noass, get in here! I’m leaving!”

Drassi frowned as someone approached her with a [Message]. Chaos in the studio.

Vasraf saw Nsiia’s head turn. She looked at the viewer. Across the world, people got a good view of…everything, as she stopped and faced the viewers.

Was it sheer vanity, madness, the King of Destruction’s desire for attention that had prompted it? Certainly, it had an effect on a number of people.

Including the Siren of Savere, whose eyes narrowed dangerously. Reminded of her nemesis. Queen Yisame delicately averted her eyes, but both glared.

That did not look like a miserable prisoner under Femithain’s aegis, did it?

It was not for either one that Nsiia did this. Not for attention. She looked into the scrying mirror, and the world’s second nudist on television’s smile wavered.

The [Wild General] felt like…she was staring at him. The warriors who had been looking at their leader looked at her eyes. Everyone else didn’t notice her expression at first.

“Get me a recording.”

Ieka whispered to a [Maid].

Saliss of Lights just rolled his eyes.

“Amateur.”

Then he saw Nsiia lift an arm. Her tanned skin glistened in the fading sunlight. Surely some [Poets] were already composing verses about curves and glistening and whatnot, as they did.

They were welcome to it. Nsiia had stopped smiling. She lifted her hand up and clenched it into a fist. For this moment, she had abandoned modesty, as if she needed it. She looked into the orb, at Vasraf, at her citizens who might see her wherever they had gone.

People of Tiqr!

Nsiia shouted, as loudly as her lungs could fill with air. The [Mage], Dellic, and the others stopped. Even the Golems hesitated. The woman went on.

“I am no longer your [Empress]. I have failed you time and again! Even now, some of you labor in chains, stolen from your homes. The herds have fled, our mighty friends lie dead. I am a prisoner in a cage made of kindness.”

Femithain looked at the scrying orb, hearing the voice shouting, then a delayed copy coming from the orb. Nsiia’s eyes shimmered with tears.

“Yet this I swear: while I live, while our people still fight for our home, Tiqr has not died! While my heart beats, I will find you wherever you have gone. So—live.”

“Shut it off!”

One of the [Mages] turned to adjust the spell. This wasn’t casual nudity, which Wistram could condone. This was—

Eldavin calmly kicked the [Mage] behind the knees. Down they went. Eldavin looked around.

“Let her speak. This is news.”

He looked at the [Empress]. She was still speaking, knowing her time was running out. Eldavin gave her the moment. Brave girls. He saw her, like so many, point at him. At…

Vasraf! Don’t you dare die until we meet again. I command you.”

She spread her arms, unashamed, and shouted. Crying, thrusting an arm back up in the air.

“Tiqr falls! And Tiqr stands! Never forget! And give them no quarter! Tiqr stands! Tiqr—

The image went blank. Then, turned to the two stunned Drakes in the studio. They said something—Vasraf didn’t hear them.

He was laughing. Tears running down his face as he laughed at his silly [Empress]. So too were the people in the tent. In Pomle, wherever they were.

Empress of Beasts. She wiped the tears from her eyes. Nsiia knew that when she slept, they would give it back to her. It was not a burden she craved. Yet for them, she would bear it again. She accepted a blanket from the Golem staring down at her. She saw Femithain walking out of the gates.

“You have quite made a mess of things, Empress Nsiia.”

That was all he remarked when he looked at her. Nsiia wiped at her face, and smiled.

“Would you expect to easily cage the Empress of Beasts, Magus-Crafter?”

He gave her a rueful look.

“I suppose I was quite arrogant.”

 

—-

 

“Okay, I feel like I have to issue an apology here since no one else will. I didn’t authorize that. Someone did.”

The image had stayed on Drassi and Sir Relz in the booth. Although the other Drake seemed too embarrassed to come on set for the moment. So Drassi had command. She was sorting through [Messages] printed in-studio as she spoke.

“I think this message puts it best—‘While I am aware some viewers may find this sight full of attraction, I must complain on behalf of my subjects about the indecent nudity expressed on Wistram News Network. Younger audiences may have been inappropriately subjected to the indecency of monarchs displaying less than appropriate grandeur’…wait a sec. That didn’t go where I thought it would.”

Drassi frowned, checking the sender.

“Er—that’s by the Ruler of Khelt, Fetohep, of whom we can all agree with. Less than appropriate grandeur. Right. I see this one wants more naked people on air. Well, ‘Oney Eminith’, I don’t agree. [Merchant] in Izril, incidentally. That’s right, I’m calling you out!

Drassi slapped down another [Message]. She glowered, putting peril into the flood of [Messages] coming this way. Drassi checked another one, frowned, blinked—and then glanced up.

“Wha—no way. That’s not—”

She stared at the [Message] in silence until Sir Relz hurried onto the set.

“Something inappropriate, Miss Drassi? I am assured Wistram will not be broadcasting any more nudity, and we will in fact warn and perhaps set up a channel for indecent—”

“Shut up, Relz. I…hey. Get me in touch with Wistram. There’s something you need to show. Here—here’s coordinates I guess. Just do it. Why? Because I’m your [Reporter].”

Drassi looked rattled for a second. Then she went back to speaking.

“I think this day has given us all some things to think about.”

“Indeed. Quite.”

Sir Relz colored as she stared at him.

“Not what I meant, Sir Relz. The football practice?”

“Er, quite.”

“Not to mention the wonderful displays of amazing talent around the world. In fact, we may be showing them later. I don’t know, my time’s up and I’m going to relax on my time off. However…someone’s sent in a rather unique training montage.”

“More so than all of what we’ve seen? Drassi?”

Sir Relz adjusted his monocle. Drassi nodded slowly. She stared ahead, waiting. And her tone was suddenly distant.

“Yes indeed…ah, here they are.”

At last, so they were. The Order of Seasons appeared in the scrying mirror. Waving, kicking the ball around.

“This is the Order of Seasons, no doubt. Around their keep, running, passing the ball—I see nothing extraordinary, Drassi. They are a renowned Knight Order, but what is the extraordinary event that prompted you to select them, may I ask?”

Sir Relz looked skeptical. He turned to Drassi. She was searching the [Knights] running about as the aerial [Scrying] spell moved.

There he was. Rabbiteater saw himself, delayed on stream, waving up at the sky, turning to look at the orb, as the Summer’s Champion beamed and slapped him on the shoulder. The Spring’s Warden saluted, and the Fall’s Champion looked quite delighted for their moment in the waning sun.

“Oh, it’s more symbolic, Sir Relz. You see, I’m being told that someone’s issued a…challenge? A commendation? ‘From Liscor to Terandria, here I am.’ You were there, weren’t you? I don’t think you played soccer. Definitely baseball the first time it came here.”

Drassi was speaking quietly, looking into the scrying orb. Sir Relz glanced at her.

“You mean, the first game of baseball? Wasn’t that around—”

“The Wandering Inn. Yes. Celum, if you want to be more accurate, but he was there. So was I. This…viewer…is calling in from Terandria. They made it all the way there, or so I gather. A guest of the inn. A personal friend.”

Joseph’s head rose as Ekirra banged on the door he’d propped a chair against, demanding to see. He looked around. Ishkr turned, blinking, confused.

“Who could that be? There’s no way…”

“Who is our mystery caller? That [Knight], there, in the unadorned armor? I don’t see a crest.”

“It’s…a Ser Solstice. Although he gave me a different name. He—the name’s secret. But he—he likes eating rabbits. There’s your hint.”

Drassi was breathing heavily. Her eyes were sparkling with tears. Sir Relz looked at her uncomprehendingly, not sure what had set this off in his co-host.

Ishkr dropped his cleaning dust rag. Joseph looked around. He didn’t see—

He ran to get Numbtongue. He never made it to the door; Bird smacked straight into him, bowled him over, and ran, all four arms waving, into the [Garden of Sanctuary].

The Hobgoblin ran out just in time to see ‘Ser Solstice’ raise an arm. Numbtongue’s eyes were wide.

It could not be. Yet—he remembered Erin receiving the ransom notice. There he was.

His armor hid his face. But look: the crimson cloak swung around his shoulders. He still carried Headscratcher’s axe. Numbtongue reached for the mirror.

Drassi was hiccupping. She managed to stifle it. Because there was another layer to this.

“Ser Solstice writes—‘I am playing this fun game. Challenging the [Innkeeper] and inn when I get back. Very nice [Knights] here.’”

“Ser Solstice. The name is familiar. The [Innkeeper] has to mean…”

Sir Relz looked at Drassi.

Rabbiteater saw the Drake’s anguished face at last. He slowed his waving and smile behind his helmet. Because, of course, she had realized something.

He didn’t know. In this world, the guests of The Wandering Inn had gone far and wide. His last ‘message’ from Erin had convinced Rabbiteater she was fine. He didn’t know.

Today, the news reached the second-last person to hear it. Drassi’s tears were trickling down her cheeks.

“I’m—so glad you’re okay, Ser Solstice. I thought you died. There’s something you should know, though.”

Magnolia Reinhart said nothing. She sat, watching in silence, genial mood lost again. The third-last and fourth-last people, Magnolia and Ressa, listened to the news as Drassi broke it.

Tried to break it.

“The thing is…Ancestors, I don’t know how to say it. I thought everyone knew. Erin—she helped bring baseball here. She’s—was—the [Innkeeper] of Liscor. Famous in Liscor. Pallass too, if you don’t know. I’m sorry. It’s just. She’s…”

Rabbiteater stared blankly at the orb. The Spring’s Warden, Summer’s Champion, Fall’s Sentinel, and Knight-Commander Calirn had all halted.

They knew from cadence and tone, just Drassi’s face. It was not something Rabbiteater could imagine, though. He stared, confused. Until it hit him.

It was not Drassi who delivered the news at last. She couldn’t get the words out. Sir Relz, almost callously, spoke, finally snapping his fingers.

“Erin Solstice. Yes, I recall her. The proprietress of The Wandering Inn. She is…dead. Isn’t she? Killed during a raid by the city of Hectval in…oh.”

Drassi looked at him. Sir Relz scrambled to clarify.

“A terrible tragedy. Hectval—to inform our viewers, the city of Hectval launched a raid that—I understand measures were taken to preserve her life and Liscor and Hectval are in a state of war—but the [Innkeeper] known as Erin Solstice passed away roughly…”

He went on. Rabbiteater didn’t hear it. He had dropped the scrying orb.

“Ser Solstice?”

The Spring’s Warden said something. Greysten turned to Rabbiteater, mirth forgotten. Ser Calirn reached out. Too slowly.

Rabbiteater felt the world sinking around him. He realized it was not the world—he was.

He fell backwards, darkness closing in. He had never passed out, not in battle, not when he was wounded, bleeding. For the first time in his life, he let oblivion take him.

Rather than face the truth.

 

—-

 

It was the last note of Drassi’s broadcast. She left, unable to continue recording and Sir Relz took over to apologize.

It was a sad moment to interrupt all the entertainment of the day. Too much reality, interjected into television.

That was the distinction between life and media. Uplifting, depressing, pure melancholy, slice-of-life—each to their own moment.

Silly and grand. Action-packed and trivial.

“So. Another one of us is gone.”

Rémi Canada slowly exhaled. He slowly crossed her name off the list. He had worked so hard to uncover it. Yet like so many…they were gone when he looked for them. Like the group he had parted ways from at A’ctelios Salash.

A cruel world. A realistic one. He slowly turned back to what he was working on. He would pray for Erin Solstice later, if he could find the words and belief.

Today? He turned to the head of the broadcasting studio. Not—Wistram’s, but the elegant Stitchwoman, Silk-caste, of Nerrhavia’s Wonders, the Chandrarian-broadcast studio.

“Bad news, Journalist Canada?”

She attempted to look properly contrite for his loss, but Rémi just shook his head.

“No one I knew personally, Emir Elanna. Is everything prepared?”

The woman flicked her fingers slightly as she replied, a refined gesture with multiple layers of meaning.

“To a modicum of satisfaction. Such a barbaric game. Yet you assure us that Wistram will find it of note. I can well assume the spectacle will attract such event. Such that Nerrhavia’s splendors will acquire their deserved place in the spotlight.”

That was a ‘yes’, which Rémi interpreted after a moment. He nodded, and the Emir gestured elegantly.

“Let us begin the spectacle.”

She intoned, and into the air, the [Journalist] looked.

Of course, he knew Wistram was making an event of football. The Canadian [Journalist] was also aware people who met with Wistram’s agents tended to disappear, probably to Wistram. He had watched the [Popstar]’s performance, after all.

Well and so, Rémi had mixed feelings on how to influence global events, if at all. This? This was more in giving Nerrhavia and by extent, Chandrar, a bit of fair ground in the war for attention.

For Earthers, a hint that not everything came from Wistram.

…And mainly because it was a lot of fun.

Grand viewers of Chandrar and the world over! I am Emir Elanna of Nerrhavia’s Fallen! It is my delight to introduce you to another new ‘sport’, that has not been showcased before on live broadcast!

At least this woman had the right stage presence for the job. As her broadcast came to life, Wistram News Network itself began to lose viewers as Nerrhavia’s Fallen literally bought attention.

Also because it was new. Trey Atwood nearly choked to death as the competing broadcast came to life. The Earthers of Wistram looked up, confused at what sport they’d had left to introduce? Basketball? Hockey? They saw Rémi Canada of course, and Elena was out of her chair, pointing. The [Mages] in a furor.

Him and that Joseph! Why are they at large? How could High Mage Merzun have lost against Montressa in Liscor?

Naili hissed at Beatrice. Eldavin, listening in past their shoddy spells, frowned. He hadn’t excluded Liscor from Wistram’s greed. He’d forgotten there were more.

A reckoning would have to come. He drummed his fingers on the table, then glanced at the scrying mirror set against the banquet hall’s wall.

“Am I to take it from your reaction that this is another aspect of Earth?”

Archmage Valeterisa eyed Elena with interest. The [Beautician] was spluttering.

“Yes! No! It’s—sort of, but we can’t play it!”

“That madman. That genius!”

Aaron stood up and applauded Rémi as the young man explained.

“This is a game dearly, dearly beloved in my homeland, Emir Elanna, and I can only thank the munificence of Queen Yisame that she has graciously recreated it for me here. To anyone who recognizes this—the game is known as the famous, nay, renowned sport of…”

Trey’s jaw dropped.

“What is it, Troy?”

Goelv asked, the Gazer’s eyes curious. The [Sand Mage] breathed the answer as his fellow students stared at him uncomprehendingly.

Quidditch.

The carpets rose into the air, and two actual broomsticks. Nervous Stitch-People holding bats, the enchanted balls, and of course, the golden object of possession all hovered higher. An enchanted sphere zipped about as Rémi explained.

“You see, this is a [Mage]’s game. I am surprised Wistram didn’t know about it.”

He raised an eyebrow. The Emir, clearly enjoying the ribbing at Wistram, laughed politely.

“Yet, as I understand it, players may hit these dangerous objects at each other? Even knock each other from the vehicles? Which is why all are warded with falling enchantments, of course. Such a violent game. Barbaric, even.”

“Ah, Emir Elanna, you know [Mages]…unconventional. However, I thought it would be lovely to showcase. Perhaps Wistram lacks the artifacts to field their own team?”

We have to play! How did none of you think of it?

Aaron bellowed as he left the table. George pointed at him.

“How come you didn’t?”

A barbaric game? They were laughing, clamoring to play! The first game of the fictional game from Earth that had never been realized in actuality took place as the [Mages] susurrated. Hardly barbaric! Trey shook his head. It was amazing! He realized he’d given away his cover, though, and was scrambling to explain to his friends—

…Right before the first fatality. A novice [Carpet Rider] lost control of her carpet.

She was of the String People, yes. Yes, she had enchantments. However, hitting the ground at nearly a hundred miles per hour meant none of that mattered.

The audience, Rémi, and the Emir all went quiet. Eldavin snorted quietly at his table.

“Fools.”

The Quarass did likewise, as she watched the same broadcast. The reason no one played that game was that flying was incredibly dangerous.

 

—-

 

There was a benefit to the death, however. Not to the grieving fiancé, the family, or the broadcast, which had to be terminated and all the hard work ended by the fatality.

However, there was a benefit. Just not for the living.

The bewildered ghost arose where she had died. Correspondingly, as the reality of her death set in, she was not lost to shadows, consumed. In fact, she was welcomed by the lines of ghosts, practically dragged before a council of royalty led by Khelt’s dead.

“Tell us what is happening in the world, child.”

The First of Khelt spoke, staring down at the little [Carpet Rider]’s ghost. For how else would the dead know what was happening in the world?

There were very few ways, Erin had learned. Séances, summoning rituals to bind dead to the living, were out of fashion because of course the ghosts had been fleeing the…things…all this time.

Now, it would be impossible in Izril, or virtually. Plus, the living had to make the effort in most of the ways. For the dead to call on the living?

Only a few methods remained, and the easiest—via Khelt, wasn’t working.

“Fetohep has left Khelt!”

One of the rulers cried aloud, frustration clear on his face.

“To give it life and expand the borders. We understand the reasoning, if not condone it. Yet the timing is ill indeed. Perhaps our enemy commands luck itself. Fate.”

“Take heart. Now—explain to us once again. What is ‘soccer’? We understand Wistram’s broadcast.”

The half-Giant ruler bent down and boomed to the quavering [Carpet Rider], staring at the dynasties of Chandrar’s greatest rulers and heroes.

“So as before, now again. Mass-communication spells link this world. In my era, it was naught to be surprised at.”

An Archmage sneered, as some of the rulers looked mightily impressed at the phenomenon. A [Sage] prodded her in the back.

“Your era was marked by the end of magic for nearly three hundred years, due to the experiments your academy conducted.”

“That was an accident!”

Accident? Countless millions died screaming from what you unleashed! Magic ended.

“It came back!”

Ghosts argued and bickered, silenced only when the greatest among them restored order. It was a sight to see, the conclave of the dead. If Erin could have watched, she would have.

However, Califor dragged her away from the ruckus to the eight.

Eight. An auspicious number, but Califor made nine, and Erin made ten. So…less auspicious. They didn’t care.

Eight [Witches] sat or stood in a former throne room of old. They looked at Erin.

[Witches]. Each one far greater than Califor had been in life. The greatest of their eras.

First [Witches]. Later—[Sages], [Heroes], [Monks], [Mages], and all the others who were vying to teach Erin Solstice. However, Califor had convinced the Rulers of Khelt to let [Witches] be first. How she’d managed that, Erin had no idea. Perhaps the First of Khelt simply agreed that their classes shared common ground.

“Ah. The living soul walks among us.”

One of the [Witches]’ souls was so old she had forgotten what she looked like. She was more wisp than person, and kept coming back into focus. When Erin did look at her, she saw a grand woman, reclining with fur instead of robes, legs crossed, a smile like mischief itself on her lips, and a feather in her witch’s hat.

All style, in short. Another [Witch] had eyes like a storm front itself was contained in them. Yet another was tall as two floors of Erin’s inn. Her skin looked like bark.

Legends. They sat, waiting, as the [Innkeeper] halted in front of them. Faced with the greatest of witch-kind that had ever died on Chandrar, Erin Solstice stopped.

Then she walked over to the nearest [Witch] and held out a hand.

“Erin Solstice. Nice to meet you. Wanna hamburger?”

She offered the [Witch] of trees a hamburger of memory, Imani-style since all the ghosts liked that. The [Witch] stared at her. Califor made a strangled sound in her throat.

After a second, fingers like twigs took the burger. Erin went around the circle, smiling and talking.

“Hi, I’m Erin. Have a hamburger. Hi, I’m Erin. Hamburger? Erin—burger? Um—spaghetti?”

She conjured the memory of a good spaghetti with alfredo sauce. Califor reached out and smacked it out of Erin’s hand. The plate hit the ground, shattered, and vanished.

One of the remaining [Witches] looked disappointed. Another, who sat in the center, did not. She raised one eyebrow and spoke.

“We did not come here to gorge ourselves on memory and regret, girl.”

Erin looked at her. Even the [Innkeeper]’s cheerful bravado wilted for a second.

An eye stared back. A vast eye, joined by smaller ones, opening and closing, shrouded by a single, vermillion witch’s hat. Each iris a different color.

That was all Erin could make out. There were…limbs…yes, but the [Witch] beneath the hat was shrouded by darkness. It wrapped around her, yet Erin saw the flash of sharp teeth as the mouth spoke.

“You are everything Witch Califor says. More and less. The courage to face down what we will not name. The arrogance to make nothing of your talents, to be satisfied with mediocrity.”

Erin Solstice stared at the [Witch]. The things Erin had learned were these:

Gods were petty, ghosts were chaotic, and [Witches] were rude.

“…But you’re dead. It’s just a burger. Don’t you want—?”

She was about to say that the [Witches] might never get a second chance to remember food or the joys of the living, but the [Witch] snapped back a reply.

“We are dead, with the infinity of the afterlife before us. Yet somehow, you still manage to waste time.”

Erin hesitated. Califor took her place, and the nine [Witches] looked at her.

“You must learn something, Erin Solstice. We believe your nature matches ours. Will you at least listen to what we have to teach you?”

The [Innkeeper] bit her lip. She fidgeted in front of the [Witches], glanced around.

“Me? But I don’t really fit in. Are you sure there are no legendary [Innkeepers] or, like, amazing [Bartenders] I can learn from? Really, that’s more fitting than…”

She trailed off in front of the stares of the [Witches].

A fish dances on the line less desperately than you. What fear you, Erin Solstice? You have died. What is there left to fear?

Another [Witch] commented, her voice bubbling, hat concealing half-aquatic features. Erin looked around.

“I’m just not um—[Witch] material! I like your hats! It’s just—”

“As stubborn as teaching Dragons manners. You said as much, Califor. I wonder why.”

Yet one more [Witch]. She crackled, sitting opposite the [Witch] of trees. She wasn’t exactly fire. More like the memory of it. Thus—charcoal skin. Ash, as if she were flaking apart as Erin looked at her. This ash-witch leaned forwards. She had one eye; the other was a socket.

“What do you fear? Not the power of it, I think. Yet something holds you back.”

In front of the nine stares, Erin Solstice hesitated. Why did she resist? She was dead. The world was in danger. She had always wanted the power to help her friends. Dreamed of it. Longed for it in those dark days. Why…?

The answer slipped out of her.

“What if I’m not special, though? What if I can’t live up to those expectations? I don’t think I’m capable of changing things. If you give me all this knowledge and put me in that place where everyone counts on me—what if I fail and they all suffer and die because of me?”

It was her great fear. A true answer, perhaps one of the truest she had ever given. Erin hung her head as she stood before the dead women.

Ah.

The Drowned Witch sat back. The others looked at each other. Two hats nodded. Then, almost as one, the coven began to laugh at her.

Bubbling chuckles, laughter like crackling wood. A hearty, booming laugh from the oldest among them. They laughed at Erin.

“Hey. I was being heartfelt there. This is hurting my feelings.”

The [Innkeeper] protested. Yet, the [Witches] just guffawed in her face. The one made of wood spoke. Her tones were hollow, like that of Giants.

SO SAYS THE CHILD WHO STOLE FROM THE ___S THEMSELVES. WHO STOLE THE BLADE OF KINGS!

A leafy bough lowered, holding a hat made of leaves. The [Witch] looked Erin in the eye, not unkindly. That was just it. None of them were incapable of kindness. They might refuse to offer it, but it was in them.

Great kindness. Terrible wrath. And a desire…two vast eyes fixed Erin with a knowing look.

IF AN ARMY STOOD BETWEEN YOU AND A SINGLE FRIEND, WOULD YOU LET IT BAR YOUR WAY?

The reply came out of Erin.

“No. But I wouldn’t fight them. I’d—”

Another [Witch] interrupted. The Gazer blinked at Erin.

“If a wrong exists, will you not right it, if it is within your power? Do you let injustice walk before you?”

“That’s not—no, but—”

I see foolhardy bravery. Burning passion. Cunning—so deeply hidden it fools even herself! All she lacks is the courage to admit what she is! I see all that is a [Witch].

The others nodded. Erin felt like they were running over all her protests and objections, which of course was exactly what they were doing. She spread her hands.

“—What if I fail, though?”

Califor stood up. The [Witch] adjusted her hat, and looked Erin straight in the eye.

“To be a [Witch] is to try. You need not even bother to try. Do you think we would leave it to chance? You can struggle or protest or run. We will make you a [Witch]. Yet we will ask. Will you give it your all?”

The [Innkeeper] met her first teachers of the dead. She looked from gaze to gaze, ancient beings, terrifying power.

Women, people who had once been like her. None of them had forgotten it. That was the difference between them and Belavierr. Between them and the six…gods.

They waited. Erin sighed. Not in denial…just letting go of something. Excuses, probably. They drifted away in the land of the dead. It did not change her in any visible way, or who she was.

Perhaps, though…slowly, Erin relaxed her shoulders and straightened her back. She nodded.

“I guess I can try.”

The [Witches] smiled. As one, they nodded their pointed hats. Erin slowly sat as her lessons in the land of the dead began. She had already received her first one.

 

—-

 

A game of football. That night, Joseph relaxed in his bed, feeling more secure than he ever had before. Oh—Liscor’s people weren’t happy. Several had come to shout at Joseph, including Lism.

However, it could have been worse. What truly mattered though, was his class.

[Coach].

He was no great football player, for all he was the first to get the class. Joseph could accept that. However, he would try to become the world’s best football coach. He’d fight for that, especially with the head start he had.

A day in the sun and shine with consequence all around.

 

Geneva Scala was missing, and her disappearance threw Talenqual into chaos, not least her allies.

Empress Nsiia had regained the attention of her enemies. Tiqr fell, Tiqr stood.

The Grand Magus, Eldavin, prepared to shake Wistram’s foolish ways apart.

Mrsha had gone to Invrisil with a friend.

Rabbiteater, Ser Solstice, awoke to learn the world had ended.

Erin Solstice studied in the lands of the dead.

 

More, of course. Yet for now, the last thing to happen of any note was the little broadcast that most had missed.

The tearful words of a Drake to the Goblin who had not known. It played the world over of course, but aside from making some people sad, it had no impact, no connection with most who saw it.

Those that had known had already known. Except for those who had known wrong.

Even the skeleton had known. Even the Goblins and Antinium. Even Healing Slime, and the blind [Emperor] and little rats in a Minotaur’s enchanted cell.

The last person in this world to learn the truth watched and listened to the broadcast, chuckling, making comments. Then choked, sprayed the noodles out of the bowl he was eating after his shift.

The stall owner objected, but the person didn’t react. He sat there, holding the bowl until it cracked—then tossed down money and left the stall, shakily.

He walked the unfamiliar streets of a different city, attracting indifferent looks as he walked to his temporary apartments.

Senior Guardsman Relc stopped to lean against a building. He was fumbling at his belt pouch. He—his clawed hand was shaking. He yanked something out.

How could it be? How? Had they forgotten? Had they—

The letter was neat, printed from the Mage’s Guild, and now he looked at it, too sparse in details. They detailed the war, which he’d been worried about. But in each one, now, he saw the truth the Drake had carefully written around.

His daughter’s neat handwriting, just above her signature on the latest letter, stood out to Relc Grasstongue.

 

Everything is fine over here.

 

Relc slowly slumped down the wall. All lies eventually bore out, even the best-intentioned of them. He sat there, processing what had happened long before he had known, that everyone else had gone through before him.

It changed nothing for Relc. He sat there for a long time. In a city far from the inn where he should have been.

What came after that was a different story, for another day.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Notes: This is not the side story chapter with the theme of ‘Paradigm Shift’. I was surprised it won, but I will write it! Maybe next chapter?

However, this—is me writing what I want to write, and need to write. This is not ‘Uplifting’, or ‘Slice-of-Life’, but it has elements of a lot of the side stories put into one whole, unlike Paradigm Shift, which gets its own chapter. As you might infer from the downer parts.

Some things like Geneva’s section were pieces I didn’t know how to incorporate and left hanging too long, perhaps. They could have been chapters of their own, but I put them in here.

Writing choices. At any rate, I’m back. I hope you enjoy this first chapter, and the amazing art of Enuryn’s that has just been done! The Wandering Inn’s menu, in high-res detail! All the things you can’t eat at the moment!

Thanks for reading for now, and look forwards to more stories. Let me know which one you’d like, in addition to the one you’ve voted on, of course! I’ll let you know when you get that one. For now, I’m away!

 

 

The Wandering Inn Menu by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!

 

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

8.14 N

Rebecca Brewer, the editor who worked on 8.11 E, has done a Q&A on the Discord server! Read the transcript here.

Also, she has done an interview with The Fantasy Inn! Click here to read it!

 (The author is on break until March 30th for Patrons! April 3rd for Public readers.)

 

 

“If you’ve heard this one before, stop me. A team of [Mages] from Wistram—or just a [Mage], I suppose—is sent to take care of former students. Renegades. And bring back Earthers. It is a sacred trust. They come, bearing magic against treachery.”

“High Mage—”

“I said, ‘if you’ve heard this one before’—stop me. Mage Montressa. Mage Bezale? Mage Palt? Anyone? No?”

The air was hot. The scene? Half-familiar. Like the speaker, it had all the elements of what had happened before. But it was never quite the same, was it?

Wistram Academy sent [Mages] to a small city in Izril. To claim assets they regarded as valuable. The [Mages] stormed in, making a huge fuss, throwing their weight around. Until they were stopped by a plucky [Innkeeper] with a lot of allies.

Until they were stopped by…

The [Garden of Sanctuary] was silent. No one stirred from the frozen bier at the hilltop. A fraction of the number of guests remained in the inn.

Until the spells came crashing down from the nearby city? The Watch advanced on the overconfident [Mages]?

Nothing and no one stirred from Liscor. Few people visited anymore. Even if they had looked from the walls, the [Guards] saw nothing. A normal inn by evening. The illusion magic was simple, a copy of ten minutes ago.

The air. Was hot. Burned ozone stank from discharged lightning spells. The floorboards were ablaze in two places. An invisible fist had knocked everything aside and pressed the Minotauress into the far wall, where she struggled, unable to reach her spell scrolls.

Palt was on his knees, caught by a hail of magical arrows when he’d vanished. Montressa lay on the ground as the [High Mage] hovered there. Pressed down by a crushing force just verging on agony.

Ten levels up—everyone else downed. Three of the Brothers lay in magical shackles. They’d never had a chance. The [Mage] had come with smiles, scouted them out—waited until Montressa and Bezale appeared—then activated a dozen prepared spells in the first moment of combat.

[High Mage]. She was, like a good percentage of the Revivalist faction, a Dullahan. Her head floated around her body in a geosynchronous orbit, as both head and body levitated off the floor.

No Antinium, no Xrn. The [High Mage] had sealed the doors and windows already, and if the Antinium were even aware of a battle taking place in the silenced, illusory image of the inn…

Something moved. The [High Mage] swiveled. The Hobgoblin leapt, sword flashing.

“[Force Orb].”

The [Mage] calmly fired a near-invisible orb from one palm. Numbtongue flung himself left, dodging it. She twisted a finger.

“[Spell: Blink Trajectory].”

The [Force Orb] spell vanished, and reappeared in front of the Hobgoblin. It caught him in the chest and hurled him across the inn. He hadn’t even gotten close to the layered barrier spells around her, a match for Montressa’s best defenses.

“Tell it to stop, [Mage] Montressa. I don’t have to kill anyone here.”

High Mage Merzun! Please, stop! What have we done?

The Dullahan woman looked down at Montressa. Pity and wrath were equally lacking in her. She looked—annoyed.

“Mage Montressa, as I informed you, you are expelled from Wistram for betraying your faction. Per Archmage Nailihuaile’s request, three Archmages and the Council have expelled you. You are no longer a member of Wistram Academy. As for you, [Mages] Bezale, Palt, your factions have not disowned you. Stay quiet. Now. One, two, three…hm. Three are missing. I’ve heard the [Innkeeper] is dead. Where are Miss Rose and Miss Galina?”

She addressed the paralyzed group of young men frozen in their seats. Imani was slowly moving towards Palt, eyes wide with horror.

The air was boiling. Mrsha hid behind a table, staring at the [High Mage], looking at the open door just ahead of her. She was too afraid to move. Shaking.

Once again. Arrogant [Mages]. The Revivalist faction. Mrsha stared at Numbtongue as he slowly got up, the leather armor on his chest smoking slightly. She wanted to say something. Stop.

The [High Mage] rotated in the air. All was silent.

Bird lay on the floor, motionless. Arms and legs locked up from the [Paralysis] spell, like Ulvama. Only Numbtongue had thrown it off, along with the [Mages].

“Don’t make this more difficult, Goblin. Where are the other two? I cannot believe you betrayed our faction like this, Montressa. That [Necromancer]? Let alone so many Earthers. Archmage Nailihuaile is extremely hurt. Tell me, now. I wish to be gone within ten more minutes with my charges.”

The air grew hotter. The little Gnoll covered her ears as Montressa made a pained sound. She looked to the Garden, the basement. But she was afraid the [High Mage] knew where she was. She quivered with indecision as the [Mage] looked around, eyes narrowed.

It was today.

 

—-

 

Then.

The enduring fact every species learned in time was this: your strength, your great armies, your fantastical magics, heroes and rulers perished in time.

All turned to dust. Or, at the height of your supremacy, you looked up and saw the Giant laughing down at you.

Every civilization learned this. Every species, every culture and people. Oh, but how soon they forgot.

‘We build from the ashes of lesser peoples, but we shall not be so weak, not make the same mistakes’. That was what they proclaimed ere they fell.

Fraerlings had never forgotten. Their villages, their homes in Baleros were hidden from the world. Seldom did they settle among the tallfolk. Yes, they protected their homes with magic, with great warriors. But most of all, with secrecy. They kept to themselves because any other way was death in time, a village burning because of overconfidence.

They knew they were weak, so they seldom left their homes, built for them. Even after he had left his, seeking adventure, friendship among the giants, he had sworn never to forget.

…He had. And the Great Company he had built? The powerful armies of the tallfolk, his companions, his influence that could move the world itself?

It was going to fall to pieces, because the giant who had built it, most famous of his kind, the Titan of Baleros—was missing.

“Damn. Let me—go—let me go!

The giant, scaled bird with an elongated ‘beak mouth’ rather than a beak, webbed wings, a cross between lizard and bird in truth, did not let go. It did flap its wings in agitation.

The Razorbeak had no idea how its prey was making such a large sound. A superlatively large voice for such a tiny thing. The Fraerling was only a foot high, a snack for the road or for its young.

It was struggling hard, although the Razorbeak had almost assumed it was dead. Charred, beaten by battle, Niers Astoragon had passed out. Which might have saved his life. The Razorbeak opened its maw, debating biting the morsel’s head off to silence the wriggling and sound.

The tiny [Strategist] wanted the Razorbeak to try. He had woken with a start, and looked around in his prison of scaly claws to realize he’d lost track of Esthelm, the battleground with the traitorous Gold-rank team, the Floodplains and Liscor itself.

Below him now stretched increasingly vertical ground. He knew where he was.

“The damned High Passes. You bastard bird! Let me go! I’ll kill you! I’ll turn you into Foliana’s snacks—right after that team of Gold-rank amateurs! Let go!

He struggled, bellowing. Again, the Razorbeak twitched with annoyance. He just needed it to open its claws—just once!

His sword was smashed against his side, and he had not the wiggle-room to even cut to any side. At least, he prayed it was the sword he felt. If not—he was bare-handed against a bird that out-weighed him by a factor of at least a dozen, in height as well as mass.

This would not be a problem for some of the Tallguard, the bravest Fraerlings assigned to defending their villages against monsters and people. Some could slay bears by themselves, or giant crocodiles if they had to.

However, Niers was just a [Strategist]. For all his mighty Skills, for all he was considered one of the greatest strategic minds living, he was still a Fraerling.

And he still made mistakes. The Titan cursed, and then gave up, conserving his strength. He was bruised to his bones, burnt by the spells those damn adventurers had cooked him with. One had kicked him and Niers feared fractured bones. If he had his bag of holding! Or the Signim! Or…

“Lost! Over a million gold pieces worth of gear, lost! Idiot! Fool! You were so blind you never saw the trap coming! Peclir! Peclir, you worthless rat!

Niers howled, not to the bird this time, but himself. And the traitorous [Chamberlain], who was the only person who could have led him to this fate. No one but Peclir and a handful of people Niers trusted with his life had known what he was doing.

Of them, Peclir was the only choice. Niers had trusted him with his life right up till this moment, mind you. But—

The Titan tried to shift. The claws gripped him tighter. He gasped—trying not to pass out—the Razorbeak was trying to squish him as it flew towards its nest. He fought to keep conscious. Wait. If he didn’t, he’d be torn to pieces.

No bag of holding, no gear, no allies. The Titan sagged.

Foliana will know I didn’t make it when I don’t check in. Can Peclir imitate me? Will he go after her? She won’t drop her guard. How much damage could he do? She’ll send help.

But the treacherous, calm voice in his mind replied to his frantic thoughts. His [Strategist] self, which was analyzing even as he alternated between fury and shock.

If she can.

The Razorbeak flew onwards, entering more dangerous territory. It was not that far from its nest, but it had flown downwards to hunt prey without the danger of being hunted itself. It was diving when a rival Razorbeak flew upwards, sensing the bite to eat. Niers heard the angry call, the challenge—

He braced, knowing what was coming as the claws opened. The Razorbeak fought to defend itself. Niers grabbed for a talon, and saw something drop.

No! Cats take it!

He flailed for his enchanted sword as it fell next to him. It was the talon or his sword. Niers grabbed the sword. He fell out of the skies as the Razorbeaks quarreled above him.

Straight down into the High Passes.

 

—-

 

Master Merxel, the [Spymaster], drank the third Draught of Serenity with a shaking hand. No Calm Tonics for him.

A day had passed since he’d seen the Titan of Baleros. A day, and it felt like ten years. He reviewed his findings.

No, he did not know where Niers Astoragon or the agent of the Forgotten Wing Company, the Drake, Remane, were.

He did know the Cherinion Swords were down to two members, and the corpses of four people and a Drake, likely Remane’s, were lying outside of the city of Esthelm.

Correction—Merxel made a little note in his dossier. Now denuded of possessions and clothing, in the care of an [Embalmer], Miss Souyn, of Invrisil. Likewise for the other Cherinion Swords, despite the living member’s objections. Or rather, the objections they had tried to lodge at the Adventurer’s Guild of Invrisil before being apprehended by the Watch, per Master Merxel’s personal request.

Also in his care? A tiny, tiny bag of holding that had gone unnoticed by Esthelm’s militia when they first noticed the fighting, until he had sent agents to sweep for it.

Merxel had done nothing as stupid as try to open the Titan’s personal bag of holding, even if he could have accessed it with tweezers. But he had noted his possession of it, and was still waiting on the final check.

…That was, for the body of Niers Astoragon, the Titan of Baleros. He had hopes—if there was any to be had—that he would not find it. The two Cherinion Swords had claimed he’d been snatched by a Razorbeak and that had been corroborated by truth spell. Perhaps the Fraerling had lived. Or perhaps his body was torn to pieces and scattered far outside the search radius of two dozen of his people.

If the latter was true, Master Merxel feared for his life. He was a [Spymaster], a former [Spy], and he had contacts, experience, money, and levels. None of that would save him from Three-Color Stalker’s wrath.

At least it was [Strategist] Perorn Fleethoof on the other end of the communication spells for now. Merxel checked his notes—they were sloppy, inconclusive, and nothing of the quality he’d normally adhere to.

He sent them anyways. The reply came in moments.

Find him.

Merxel read. He sat back. His stomach twisted, more from fear than the Draughts of Serenity. He had too much of a tolerance. Also, he was too afraid.

The Titan of Baleros has gone missing on your watch, Merxel. You handed him over to a hit-squad, and if he dies, you die.

The [Spymaster] got up to relieve his bladder. When he came back, he saw his [Assistant Secretary] nervously poke a head into the room.

“Master Merxel?”

“I’m busy.”

She nodded palely. She knew, too. The woman licked her lips.

“Yes, Master Merxel. But you have waiting [Message] spells on priority settings. From your day-night clients?”

Those were the ones on Merxel’s carefully curated list who could get him out of bed or his attention at any point in the day or night. He bit his lip.

“I’ll take a look. Anything from the Forgotten Wing Company comes right to me. How many…?”

“Forty three on the priority list and more coming in. Two hundred, besides.”

Merxel sat down hard in his plush chair, in the expensive room filled with the acquisitions of good business. The [Spymaster], one of the best in the information-network game in Invrisil and this region of Izril, began sorting through the requests in order of priority. Number one?

The Iron Vanguard. Second? Maelstrom’s Howling. Third? The Eyes of Baleros.

“Dead Ancestor’s eggs.”

The Human whispered, invoking a particularly pithy oath of the Drakes, whom he’d lived for many years around.

They all knew. High [Strategists], their version of Merxel, or just administrators were all demanding for him to confirm one little fact, and offering buckets of gold for it.

Is the Titan of Baleros dead? Barring that, was he missing? Was he in Izril?

They knew. Merxel’s mind raced. In short order, he had the entire game pieced together. Treachery, betrayal—and what came next. He reached for the fourth Draught of Serenity with shaking fingers. Merxel checked himself. He knocked the bottle aside.

He grabbed some wine, and began to pour a cup.

 

—-

 

Niers Astoragon put together the same picture as Merxel, around the same time.

He picked himself up after falling about three hundred feet straight down. The Titan dusted himself off, checked for more injuries.

None, save for the ones he’d already had.

One of the few advantages of being small was that you didn’t fear the pain of falling. Oh, it could hurt, like if, say, you tossed a hamster over a cliff’s edge. Even so, the hamster had a much better chance of surviving that fall than something a hundred times its weight.

At least his enchanted leather armor was on him. The [Impact Guard] enchantments had done their work. He also had his sword.

“Damned birds. I should have them all hunted down. Traitorous [Chamberlains]…any cracks? Well, there’s something.”

Niers inspected his shortsword. No faults. He had no other major artifacts besides his rings and the leather armor, but this was better than a stick. Far better.

My shortsword is enchanted with Piercing, Durability, and a lower-grade split between Magebane and Severance. My armor has Impact Guard on fast recharge, Spellward, Anti-Hex, and Camouflage. I have Boots of the Grasshopper on, too.

I have an Anti-Identification ring, a Ring of Minotaur’s Strength, an Amulet of Magical Protection, a Ring of Greater Sight, a Ring of Lodestone Communication which is useless on Izril, and…

He glumly checked his hand as he ran towards the nearest cover, a rock with an overhang so the two Razorbeaks wouldn’t go after him. Niers crouched underneath, panting, looking at the burnt line of flesh around one finger.

My Ring of Death’s Protection is gone. Unclear which blow it protected me from. Maybe the [Lightning Bolt]. Maybe that gigantic asshole kicking me.

His mind’s voice was calming. It was at odds with the louder thoughts racing through Niers’ head.

Watch the skies! That damn bird has a mouth of teeth.

PECLIR! I’LL MURDER YOU.

How far in the High Passes did that thing drop me?

No bag of holding—I have to warn Foliana!

The smaller thoughts scattered and he ducked back in the tiny hollow of space as a shadow passed by. Yet, the inner thoughts never stopped their recitation.

could wish I’d thought to bring my Ring of [Fireballs], or Band of the Vortex at least. I just had to take the most inoffensive, ‘safe’ gear. Well, I do get itchy when they’re on my fingers. I nearly blew my face off picking my nose once.

The inner thoughts were due to [Mind of the Strategist], a separate ‘layer’ of consciousness that could function even as Niers at large was suffering from some outside effect.

It was an improvement on what Niers taught his students; having a head for battle. It came in useful. As Niers was poking his head out from under the rock, checking to make sure if the Razorbeak was coming back, he could analyze Peclir’s treachery rather than dwell on it later, or not take it into account.

By now, this is what will have happened: Peclir will have vanished. Any attempts on Foliana, Perorn’s, or anyone else’s life will have been made. My absence/death will be made known to his employers.

Niers scuttled out from under the rock, keeping his sword raised. He could not stay here. First-principles of survival were kicking in. He had been gone from his village for a long time. Decades. However, you never forgot basic training, or adventurer training.

“Height, secure spot, monster check. Ground’s not porous…don’t think I’m on a nest. Damn—”

He finally saw the landscape around him. He’d fallen on bad terrain. A rocky incline, full of loose gravel or rocks the size of a Human’s foot to small boulders, leading up the side of one of the High Passes’ mountains.

It would have been a hard climb with the danger of avalanches for a Human. For Niers? He could hop across the rocks, but it was hardly flat ground. If they shifted he’d be squished. He looked downhill—to the sides—

“Flat ground, there. Move!”

He ran, panting, clutching at his side as pain flared. Might be cracked ribs? He was going for a solid foundation of rock, eyes on the skies. The birds were one of the greatest predators of Fraerlings. Any one of them could dive, but he couldn’t stay under the rock or wait for nightfall. This was the High Passes and he knew how many enemies there were for normal-sized people. And the rule was that Fraerlings had a hundred foes for every one that Humans had.

Even now, his mind was plotting the events of the now on a grander scale. Peclir. When Peclir left…

 

—-

 

Here was what had happened. Peclir Im had vanished, before Merxel had told the Forgotten Wing Company what had occurred. They had searched—they had not found him. Or if they had, they weren’t sharing.

Second? They wanted the Titan found now. The issue was that if he didn’t want to be found, or didn’t remove his Ring of Anti-Identification, no one could find him. Niers had all the protections a high-level individual possessed against easy location, and they were working against Merxel now.

Against his enemies, too, though. Because Merxel received the first speaking stone not long after he sat, staring at the [Messages].

He was conflicted on whether he should tell the other companies Niers Astoragon was missing. The call cleared it up.

“Merxel speaking. To whom am I—?”

“Tulm the Mithril.”

The voice was calm, cold, and Merxel stopped gulping wine.

“…How can I help you, [Strategist]?”

“By listening.”

Tulm the Mithril, the Dullahan who wore the expensive mithril armor, the greatest [Strategist] of the Iron Vanguard and one of the Titan’s best former students…was a terrifying individual. As frightening as the Titan himself, but more so because Merxel was not under his employ. The [Spymaster] made no sound as Tulm spoke, with the calm, inflectionless voice that Dullahans liked.

“I am aware that the Titan of Baleros is missing. I would appreciate your factual confirmation that he was present in Invrisil and is now gone. However. I am certain these facts are true, because Peclir Im issued a wide-scale [Message] followed by his disappearance. Baleros knows the Titan is gone. I am also certain the Forgotten Wing Company has urgently tasked you with finding him.”

Because he was professional, Merxel said nothing, in this moment when some would be pressured into some redundant statement. Tulm went on.

“I will match their payment. Do nothing.”

“Strategist, my relationship with the Great Company—”

“—is contingent on them being a Great Company. Moreover, they will understand that another Great Company is prevailing on you. You may benefit more from inaction than action. To that end: check the public bounties.”

Tulm hung up as abruptly as the stone had been delivered. Merxel lowered it, wiped sweat off his brow, and then demanded to see the latest public bounties.

Pisces Jealnet had been only one of the many bounties posted, sometimes worldwide for individuals. Not just ones wanted by the law. Anyone could post a bounty. Whether individual jurisdictions or nations honored it was a matter for them. Some wouldn’t even display them, or let any lawful brokers mention them. But there was always a list.

At the top of it was Niers Astoragon. A brief physical description was attached, as if anyone needed to identify the only famous Fraerling in the world, his probable locations last seen—High Passes, Liscor, Esthelm, Invrisil—and the bounty.

Niers Astoragon, delivered unto representatives of the Iron Vanguard, alive, 800,000 gold pieces.

“No bounty dead?”

Merxel was shaken. Then he looked down.

The next-highest bounty was for him dead. 415,000 gold pieces—roughly. That was because anyone could ‘add’ to a dead-on-delivery bounty, while the Iron Vanguard had just outbid some of the other factions wanting Niers alive. And there were about two dozen offering bounties of lesser size for him alive.

Including the Forgotten Wing Company. Merxel sat down. Tulm’s injunction rang in his head—right before another speaking stone from Maelstrom’s Howling reached him.

Do nothing and we’ll pay you. How much was his loyalty worth? No—now, the [Spymaster] wondered if he’d even manage to protect Niers if the Titan landed on his doorstep. That was a lot of gold.

 

—-

 

Niers ran into the first Fraerling-sized enemy as he ran across the rocks. It was probably fifty feet to the safe ground. At a Fraerling’s size? It was a lot of ground to cover, especially uneven.

The first monster spotted him and unfortunately, it wasn’t one of the docile predators who only picked on smaller creatures. It leapt, mouth agape, spiked legs slashing the air, wings opening!

Like a miniature Creler! Only, not so deadly, not so tough. Not by far. One could still bite chunks out of your face. Niers slowed, lifted his sword.

“Come on!”

Fraerlings had invented sword styles that larger races sometimes copied. Unlike other sword forms, theirs were completely different, and the great [Sword Saint] of his era, Balthen Bladewing, had studied from Fraerling masters.

Because Fraerlings fought with the assumption they might be surrounded, swallowed whole, or at the least, have to use their swords on foes far larger them themselves. Niers executed a perfect Midway Limb Cut, slashing, pirouetting, lunging. His foe didn’t expect the sharpness of his blade, nor the style of a humanoid fighter and lost its right foreleg. It skidded down, trailing ichor; his lunge put his shortsword through its chest.

It kept jerking, of course. Insects didn’t die right away, so Niers cut upwards. He bisected the biting jaws of the oversized grasshopper, and it went still.

It was a big sucker. Not as tall as Niers’ foot-long size, but aggressive. The Titan studied it, checking for parasites that might squirm out of its body—standing clear warily in case unborn young charged out at him.

He was used to all manner of horrific events, but the grasshopper was just a grasshopper. It lay, dead, and he sighed.

Then he turned. Because where there was one…there were more. The Titan resumed his fast jog, panting. He was already out of breath. Disgusting.

“I’m getting old.”

He listened to his [Strategist]-mind to take his focus off the pain in his lungs, his body.

Priority question for when you get back. Best to sort it out now if possible. Was Peclir an agent of one of the Four Great Companies? Tulm? I could see that. However…instinct says no.

Clarify?

He leapt over two rocks, bounding nearly two feet from ledge to ledge. Fraerlings were strong. Even without his Boots of the Grasshopper, ironic given his dead foe and the second bounding his way—Niers hoped it would just eat its dead comrade, but he was watching it—they could leap higher, and were far, far stronger than their size suggested.

But frail. He swore, lifting his sword.

Impale the Beast! He let the Grasshopper charge onto his sword, twisting left to avoid being bowled over by the carcass. Two more in the nearby area. Watch the cracks in the rocks. Back to thinking.

Peclir’s treachery is too bold, the assassination attempt too audacious. Yet by the same token, it speaks to me of accelerated plans, a sudden checkmate rather than a deliberate, organized strike. That Gold-rank team was sloppily put together; the agent one of convenience rather than a professional killer.

Ergo, Peclir had orders to take me or Foliana out if he could, no doubt, but the message mattered just as much as moving me out of the way. Appearances. He tried for a public-death, not poison, and he had more than a few chances unless he was afraid of Foliana’s [Rogue]-counter Skills. A possibility, but this smacks of grandstanding.

Rhir’s hells take it!

Something crawled out of the rocks after the fourth grasshopper went down. A huge centipede, drawn by the blood and motion. Niers took one look at it and kept running as it went for the twitching bugs. It was way longer than he was, and just as thick. He could easily cut its head off, but where there was one…

Sure enough, more began moving from under the rocks. Dozens of dark red-black bodies, thousands of legs, click-clicking as they scuttled upwards, after Niers and the insects.

“I hate the High Passes!”

Then again, bugs were everywhere for Fraerlings. Niers couldn’t remember a summer when he hadn’t punched a ladybug in the face. But those were tame insects in the cities. Here—oh, dead gods. He leapt and landed four feet distant. He’d do that and take the chances of landing in a crevasse.

The other Great Companies don’t need to shout they’re dangerous. Tulm? If he thought it was wise to kill me even if it destabilized Baleros and put his company into war with mine—he’d do it with a whisper and tell people after. Same for Maelstrom’s Howling.

If the Bannermare had known, she wouldn’t have been able to look me in the eye. Would Gwelin keep that from her daughter? Would she think killing me was a good idea given that we’re allied against Iron Vanguard aggression?

Nearly there. Niers panted along. He saw the rock face was on a ledge. He could see where he was, at least. He heard a distant scream and stared up. Yet the shriek was a Wyvern’s…miles distant perhaps, echoing far away.

Niers feared no Wyverns. Mainly because they never bothered with him. Sparrows? Woodpeckers, and so on?

Mortal enemies.

No. Same for the Eyes of Baleros. Unless something’s changed in any of the three Great Companies…

It might have. Other worlds. However, instinct still says this is too much. I might expect Tulm to reach out to me in an alliance if he got ahold of the other world scenario occurring. He’s no fool.

Speculation. I’m assigning an 18% chance at best that it’s one of the Four Great Companies, only if some change of leadership has occurred or they’re trying to take advantage of the other world phenomena.

Let’s just say 22% chance it’s a foreign power. Wistram, another nation—however, I’m only one part of the Four Great Companies. Unless Tulm’s dead…no, no.

4% chance it’s one of the Four Great Companies, hah! 2% that anyone outside Baleros wanted me dead and went about it in this manner, this style.

He reached the solid rock, reassuringly safe compared to the countless rocks with dens for insects behind him. Panting, Niers rested for a moment, bent over, but not willing to sit. He might have to stay moving. He strode to the edge of the ‘cliff’ and crested the rise.

It’s 94%. 100%. I’m sure of it. Another company wants to rise to the top. Peclir’s their agent. Foliana! Perorn! Dead gods, this is going to get messy. I have to—

He looked over the edge of the little rocky bluff, all of three feet high and saw, in the distance, the Bloodfields. A stain of red. The Floodplains beyond. Niers yearned to reach that area—not that far, but the invisible city, hidden by the terrain.

And yet. Yet—he counted the miles. He saw how tiny the Floodplains were, how high he was. The Titan’s racing thoughts slowed. He saw a valley twice as long as the Floodplains stretching between him and the next rise in terrain, sandwiched between two mountains. And past that, more space yet, until he could even dream of descending towards the valley where mortal peoples made their homes.

Niers Astoragon slowly sat down on the ledge.

“…I hate birds so much.”

 

—-

 

The first night, Niers Astoragon laid out his plan for returning to civilization. It was simple.

“One or the other.”

He looked at his sword—and then the Ring of Anti-Identification on his hand. Either he took his chances with a rescue team reaching him instead of opposition, or he fought his way back.

It would be a fight, too. He had made a small camp about fifty feet down the safe rocky zone in this rockslide valley. That’s as far as he’d gotten before he realized he had to make camp.

Fifty feet. Not great, even for Fraerlings on the march, but he was wounded, exhausted, and he’d had to get food.

Food, shelter, the basics for any survivalist were of varying difficulties compared to Tallfolk’s needs. For instance, Niers had spoken with [Explorers] who had to struggle to find enough to eat in areas like the Dyed Lands, when they lost their camp or suffered a disaster.

Niers? He’d looked around and in a stroke of luck, found a leafy plant that he thought might be hiding a tuber or something.

It had not. But the roots were still edible; part of the plant, even, but Niers had seen the thistle-like needles coating it and decided not to bother. On the way back, he’d spotted two large beetles.

Dinner. He gagged on it, of course. Fraerlings were not savages like some half-Elves or Garuda. They did not like eating bugs.

But he could find food where Tallfolk struggled quite easily. Fire had been the hard part. As in, Niers hadn’t gotten one. Normally, he kept all the supplies he might need in a bag of holding, but he only had plant matter, no wood around.

So…insect flesh and roots. Niers nearly threw up on his third bite of juice and…but he chewed it down. Fraerlings survived on stuff like this.

“I will survive.”

I will survive.

If he found a berry bush, an actual vegetable, even a single potato or the equivalent, he’d be set for days. Variety in his diet would be a problem, but never the amount.

The harder part had been shelter. Tallfolk, again, needed it too, but this time the problems were reversed. They had fewer predators. In the land of the small, everything was an enemy and small insects were ready to kill you despite a size-differential. And those were the small ones.

Niers improvised. Rather than try to clear out a bug den or something else, or trust to the uncertainty of a dug hole in rock, he…cheated.

“Come on…come on…you’re not some half-baked artifact, you’re close to relic-class! Just slice a bit wider and…aha!”

At last, he managed to cut the wedges of rock out and create a big enough hollow to comfortably sleep in. Especially with some dirt, and a simple [Light] spell that even Niers could cast unaided.

…Lovely. Dirt, hard stone, and the slab of stone Niers rolled to cover his entrance, leaving just enough room to provide an airflow. The insect-root meal sat about as well as the stone cutting into his back, even as he worked with his enchanted sword, cutting the stone to make it better.

Exhausted, Niers lay on his back.

Back home, I’d not have to lift a thing. Killing rat nests was the most of it, and I could hire the Fraerlings my company employed to do it.

I’ve gotten soft. How long since Foliana and I went on a real adventure? Not since the old days. Even if we try now, someone’s holding our hands.

Damn. If I had a bath, I’d cry. I will not cry over hot water and soap! Dead gods, I can feel the insect meat wiggling. Was it full of parasites? I’d see that, surely. You hear about Humans being stupid enough to eat Creler eggs, though…what a way to go.

When I get back, no, the moment I can, I need to covertly send a [Message] to my company for extraction. Something…public, yet with coded locations. Tulm and the others will be aiming for me. I cannot give away my location. Too dangerous. I have a better shot even fighting Gargoyles butt-naked than I do against a team who knows where I am.

It’ll be easier when I get to a city. I can hide among the people there. Like those stories my grandmother told me, about the Fraerlings living in homes, helping out.

…Idiots fixing shoes without pay. Who does that? But it’ll be…easier to snag a [Message] scroll in anywhere…[Mage]’s Guilds…

He began to drift off. Niers remembered that he had actually dreamed of something like that, only with a [King] or [Queen] and him being the dashing Fraerling who saved the day by killing the [Assassin] with a cunning trap, revealing himself to become the sacred advisor of the kingdom.

A hero. Didn’t all boys dream of that, regardless of species? It had actually happened a few times. But he had found…he had realized that dream.

Titan of Baleros. Yet he got bored, tired, because they thought he was so large and scary—

 

—-

 

The Titan woke up from his weary slumber when the first impact struck the roof of his cave. He sat up, heart pounding in horror as he realized his mistake.

“Selphid’s tits! No! Rain!

A storm swept the High Passes. Fat drops of rain began pounding the valley. Niers pushed in his small cave as he knew. Water was already streaming in; he wrestled the boulder aside.

He was going to be drowned!

The Titan hadn’t accounted for this. He’d dug down, not sideways. Even then—he stumbled.

A watery punch laid him flat. What was it? A raindrop. They were hitting the ground hard, and the small Fraerling had gotten one on the face.

His armor began reflecting the raindrops as he got up, as if they were blows. Niers looked around.

“Dead gods!”

The water was flooding down the stone valley already, drowning the more foolish bugs who hadn’t accounted for this. He saw it like a distant crest of water, gathering momentum with incredible speed.

It probably wouldn’t even get more than two feet deep in most places. But a foot was more than enough to drown in! Niers looked at the water coming his way. He looked at the wave—then looked over the side of the rocky ledge.

“I’ve got no choice! If it’s this or…I need to go. And so I need…”

He looked around. It wasn’t hard to find what he needed. Detritus was being washed down the valley. He ran, snagged a stiff leaf, or bit of bark, he couldn’t even tell. Then—he leapt towards the side and began sliding down the mountain, gripping the edge of the leaf like a sled.

Fraerlings had discovered surfboarding, skateboarding, sledding, and all manner of transport. Niers coasted down the slick rocks and soil, laughing like a maniac. He’d done this as a boy! And this time, his enchanted armor took the shocks of impact. This was fun! This was—

He saw the first pothole filled with water, swerved, and dodged. He was still laughing the first ten minutes. Twenty, he was still having fun.

Forty minutes of downhill sledding and correcting his course later, he was losing the fun. Niers had to run with the sled over his head as an umbrella now, paddled with his sword across a tiny lake, then leap and slide down the muddy hill, all while searching for a second place to rest out of the rain.

He found it, before he reached the growing river far below where water was collecting. Niers swung into a cave with a proper overhang, and breathed out. He looked around it warily, holding the [Light] spell up as he maneuvered the bit of bark to form a crude door.

If there’s anything in here, I’m wet, tired, and peckish! Get lost!

He drew his enchanted shortsword, and the glow of magic lit up the small hollow. He looked around and saw…

A terrified little bunny, squeezed into the back of its den. Niers eyed the ratty fur, the two eyes staring at him, as the mountain-hare regarded the unwelcome intruder that had stumbled into its cunningly-disguised abode. It was even smart enough to have stockpiled some vegetable detritus, in varying stages of decomposition.

The rabbit’s fur was tattered since it wasn’t a prize-pet animal, but it was a luxuriant brown—with just a hint of purple. And it was panting; Niers could feel the warmth of its breath.

Bigger than he was.

He licked his lips.

“There’s no fire, but maybe I can figure out [Spark] with your fur. I always meant to learn more magic. Here, bunny, bunny. Hold still—”

He tiptoed forwards with his sword held behind his back. Aiming for a mercy cut. The rabbit looked terrified. It squeezed into the corner just as Niers realized he might be able to ride the damn thing around. He was no [Beast Tamer], but—

He wavered a second too long. The rabbit realized it was trapped. Its eyes went wide. Niers braced. His sword came up to kill it before it bit in self-defense or smashed him flat. He whirled the blade up in Impale the Beast and—

The Waisrabbit blinked out of existence. Niers Astoragon stared at the place it had been. He hesitated, then looked at the fur, droppings, and food of its den.

Half an hour later, he bit into some starchy vegetable around the rabbit-fur fire he’d managed to get going after figuring out the [Spark] spell at last. He put his feet up, adjusted the ‘door’ to let the smoke out into the still-pouring night, and sighed.

“Better than nothing.”

Somewhere further inside its den, in a place only accessible via [Teleport], a gloomy bunny wondered when it would get its home back.

 

—-

 

Foliana sat in her rooms as Perorn delivered the report.

“Two days. Master Merxel suddenly went quiet. I think we have to consider he might be working against us, or bought off. I’m looking for trustworthy agents, but a lot of our contacts are silent. And the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings claim their best agents and numbers are both depleted or occupied…Foliana?”

The giant Squirrel-woman was sitting in the replica of the huge trees where her people, Squirrel Beastkin, made their homes. She was visible, a rarity since she was normally out of sight, playfully pranking people.

Perhaps because one of the two pillars of her company was missing, she had not been invisible for two days now. She did not turn around as she nibbled on something.

“Foliana—Commander—we could use some guidance. I’m trying to move all the agents we can trust, but I can’t send reinforcements in any numbers. Aside from trying to get them there in time, the Iron Vanguard’s fleets…”

“Keep trying.”

Foliana looked around at last. Her fur, turning greyer with each year, stood in contrast to her vivid eyes. The Centaur woman shuffled her hooves, unable to conceal her agitation.

“…Nothing else? Commander, I’m going to go as far as to ask Niers’ students to try to find him. This is a disaster. We can’t pretend Niers’ replacement [Strategists] are him. Even a body-double—”

“Keep trying. I’m not a [Strategist]. Mm. You find him or he’s dead.”

Foliana sat there. Perorn stopped pacing. The [Rogue] sat on the branch. She looked around.

The one thing missing from her home was this: it was never so empty, so quiet in Squirrel Beastkin homes. They lived with other species too, the few, rare species of Baleros protecting and helping each other. Both she and Niers had come a long way from their secret homes. One reason they had been friends.

“There used to be more.”

Foliana turned back around, shuffling her feet. Perorn hesitated.

“Excuse me?”

“There used to be many more. That’s what everyone forgets. Even him, sometimes. There were many. Then there were two. Now there might be one.”

Silently, the Centaur opened her mouth and closed it. Foliana stared ahead, at the illusory magical sky.

“If he’s alive, find him.”

At last, Perorn saw what Foliana was eating. It was a small, perfectly cut and roasted bit of meat. Pork. From the kind of pig, though, that was fed a magical diet all its life, carefully raised by a [Livestock Breeder] or [Rancher], and then prepared by the finest [Chefs].

Extravagant, decadent, even. A waste of money despite the delicious meat, yet completely justifiable if a single pig could feed a single Fraerling for a year, even with snacks and the spicy cheese or fruits he enjoyed with a little drink on cold nights.

Niers’ favorite food. Foliana nibbled at it, despite not loving meat. Using her Skill to look through the eyes of the person who loved it most. Or trying to.

She was too far away. She closed her vivid eyes as Perorn shut the door and trotted away.

 

—-

 

The Waisrabbit evicted Niers the next morning, after the rain had stopped for about two hours. The Titan was snoring—then he was falling again.

“What th—”

He bounced off a rock, tumbled down what was to him a steep cliff face, and landed on his back. He stared up at the sky.

The Fraerling got up with a curse.

Teleport me?”

Another charm he hadn’t taken was his anti-teleportation gear, like his direct-attack magical artifacts. Obviously, because he had to be teleported here via wine bottle. Even Niers Astoragon could afford to wear only 6 rings with his gear and sword before magical interference reached its limit.

Hah! Six rings? Gold-rank adventurers can barely wear three. I’ve got superior Fraerling gear on me, hand-crafted by the best masters living!

…Not relics, though. There are so few compared to the tallfolk. I could buy relic-class artifacts for someone Foliana’s size. Not me, though. Only one species gets so small.

He began his next day in the High Passes, annoyed at the wakeup. Worse, he couldn’t tell where that damned Waisrabbit’s den was. At least he’d gotten a decent meal, a hot fire, and sleep out of it.

If anything, Niers was impressed. He’d had no idea Waisrabbits could teleport other things besides themselves.

Defensive measure for a creature like that. Extremely sensible. Nothing short of that kind of animal could survive the High Passes anyways. I wish I could harvest its fur and use it, though. I can barely cast [Sparks] and my magical knowledge is limited outside of knowing what spells and certain magical techniques do.

I never wanted to be a [Mage].

Nor had he leveled up as one last night, despite theoretically qualifying for a Level 1 [Mage] or [Sorcerer] class. He would not.

Niers was a [Strategist]. Just a [Strategist]. A [Grandmaster Strategist], true, but he didn’t gain other classes. Honestly, he didn’t know if he could.

I will not gain [Survivor] or [Climber] or any other class here. I don’t need to waste my potential. As for Skills…

Niers thought about it. He had a lot of Skills. However, many were only useful if he had something to command. There were a number he could repurpose or harkened back to his adventuring days.

Yet—he shook his head. He could use a few big ones here, but to little point for simply traversing the terrain. Besides which, the ambush, his lapse in judgment, had shown him how complacent he was.

I’ll climb out of here with my armor, my sword, and my bare hands. I need to shape up.

He gritted his teeth and began to march once more. No Skills, no classes, no help.

…That resolve lasted for about three hours. Then one of Niers’ passive Skills went off in his head.

 

—-

 

[Battlefield – Foe Sensor]. [Veteran’s Stealthguard].

Both Skills weren’t active-abilities that he had to call upon. Hence, Niers used them despite his resolve. He froze as they went off.

He was climbing now, passing through the wet mud left over by the storm of last night. The runoff was still there, a treacherous little river that could suck you down.

Niers jumped over it. Boots of the Grasshopper. Essential for Fraerlings. Standard gear among the Tallguard—well, Boots of Jumping for them. His were far superior and could carry him up to eight feet on max-jump, although that was a bad idea unless he really needed to go that high. Birds loved to dive and grab you.

He froze, having leapfrogged his way up the valley. His boots, just short of relic-class, hadn’t even needed to recharge yet. Niers hunkered down next to a dandelion in full seed-mode. He eyed the puffball of seeds balefully and sneezed twice. Meanwhile, he was investigating his sensor.

The [Grandmaster Strategist] had a range far exceeding lesser [Tacticians] and [Strategists]. Basic Skills took on new potential at his level. He realized the ‘enemy’ wasn’t even within a mile of his position. More like four miles.

“What set it off, though? I haven’t designated any foes—unless something’s after me? Let’s see. Damn. No help for it. [Battlefield: Hawk’s Surveillance]!

In his head, the area around him expanded and took color, life, and nuance. Like the Skills of other experts, he mapped out the entire landscape around him. A [Strategist] had to know his battleground, after all.

Valley, yup, makes sense. Odd flora to the left on that ridge—avoid. Damn. Are those Eater Goats grazing two thousand feet north of me? Avoid, avoid, avoid! Now, where’s this enemy contact? It can’t be a monster if [Stealthguard] activated.

Niers had only a single ‘snapshot’ of the terrain for six minutes, not constant monitoring, although that was still far better than the lowest-level iteration of the Skill, which gave you a single picture. Hah. Some low-level [Scouts] couldn’t even ‘see’, just sense the rough location of foes or traps. He mentally zoomed across the area his Skill had mapped, giving himself a route up the valley away from obvious threats.

Eater Goats. Nasty. He sensed two Gargoyles waiting for prey behind him…and most disturbingly, a group of monsters he couldn’t identify. The High Passes had all kinds of unique threats.

Some kind of fleshy…those aren’t slimes, and their hide doesn’t look tough. Arms without torso or…but no fingers. I can’t see clearer. If they survived the High Passes, they’re not as weak as they seem. Definitely avoid.

They seemed like half a humanoid body, all pinkish, raw-looking flesh, long arms, a rough ‘head’, in a group of seven. Nothing to do with him; they were far off. Just a reminder this was not his territory. He’d be more at home with knowing what fauna and flora he could eat or avoid in a jungle.

At last, he picked up on the enemy. Niers’ eyes narrowed. He spotted no less than six emplacements on cliff faces, clusters of ‘rock’ that his perspective revealed to be hidden camps.

“Drown me in a wine bottle. Those are defensive emplacements. I can’t…see…”

Even his Skill didn’t give him a clear view of what or who was manning the posts, but he thought he saw a ballista poking out of one. There was no help for it. Niers straightened and adjusted his course up the valley. He had spotted them; there was no way any of the six positions had a chance of seeing a Fraerling.

Have I just stumbled across a high-level [Bandit] camp? Or—no. Is this the lair of the Bloodfeast Raiders? Wouldn’t that be the discovery of the year!

He climbed, not jumping anymore but slogging on foot up the slope, secure in the belief his height would make him hard to spot. But wary, even so.

Just who or what was up there? He had his answer after two more hours and a tangle with two overly-large bugs. It wasn’t that they tried to kill him, but he discovered they were actually dung beetles. When he realized they were ready to roll the pile of crap onto him to force the possible-threat away, he objected to their aggression. With his sword.

 

—-

 

The Goblin [Sniper] was not Badarrow. Rather, it was a Cave Goblin acolyte named Sharpstick, so named because he used sharp…sticks… as arrows. Goblin nicknames were utilitarian, unless a [Shaman] was doling them out.

He had been trained by Badarrow, though. The Cave Goblin could place a shot on a leaf a thousand feet away from the correct altitude, which was why he was here. He had substituted the old, weak bow, with a new weapon. The Cave Goblin had been dubious, but everything was changing and his class was [Sniper], not ‘bow-person’, right?

Sharpstick, possibly to be known as ‘Theuir’ if he accepted the new nickname of the Flooded Waters tribe’s [Shaman], was conflicted about many things. His weapon, his new name which sounded a bit funny compared to ‘Sharpstick’, and his body.

Everything was changing. The Cave Goblin was now five foot six, and felt stretched. He was turning into a Hobgoblin, one of the first Cave Goblins to make the leap. It was also why he’d been assigned to command of this sentry station, the outpost cleverly hidden in the cliff.

[Miner] Goblins had dug it out, and then disguised it so there was barely any visibility. Sharpstick had also covered all glints of metal, and made the other four Goblins under his command do likewise. They were all smaller, normal Goblins, armed with bows, a horn, and even a Wand of [Sand Spray], for a fast retreat. They could be running back to Goblinhome via their escape route in moments if need be, and were protected from Wyverns dropping on their heads by the rock above them.

However, the main protection was Sharpstick’s new weapon. One of the Thunderbow heavy-crossbows, mounted and trained downwards, ready to ruin something’s day. He was trained with it, and could take down a Gargoyle with it, or a lesser Wyvern.

Gold-rank adventurers, too. Although they’d been safe from conflicts with them by and large so far. Sharpstick was nevertheless vigilant. Watchful. His keen eyes scanned the horizon every few minutes, as the Goblins made sign-language chatter, never speaking.

It was the first of six such watch points, preventing intruders from reaching Goblinhome. Yet for all of Sharpstick’s vigilance, he never noticed the little Fraerling watching him from afar.

Niers untwisted the Ring of Greater Sight and sat down. He was well past the thousand-foot range of Sharpstick. He’d climbed until he had a vantage point of the nearest emplacement.

“Goblins. Nagas help me; it’s a Goblin war camp!”

He understood now why his sensor Skill had gone off. Goblins were not something Niers had been looking for—but he had learned they could be.

“Is that a ballista? No. Crossbow. Huge one, though. Ammunition’s…iron tipped. Could probably down a Level 20 [Heavy Infantry] fighter in a single hit. Single-shot kill on Level 30 if it’s a vital area and their armor isn’t enchanted.”

Niers turned his head, spying on another emplacement. Good vantage points, too. If he hadn’t used his Skills, he’d have had trouble spotting them. You could decimate a squadron with a small force unless they could throw a [Fireball] or similar spell in the small gaps.

Counter-strategy? [Invisibility] spell on a [Mage], single [Delayed Fireball] or similar spell. Doesn’t seem like they’re using magical sensors. Even if they are, make it an [Invisibility] spell or [Camouflage] on a [Rogue] with a wand instead.

Rush the posts. They might get checked in, but storm your forces up the pass in your window. Need a mobile infantry force with a [Roughland Commander] or some equivalent. Looks like mountain, siege fighting. Heavy infantry, strong ranged archers, [Mages] with barrier spell focus.

Give him four thousand of the Forgotten Wing Company’s forces and he could sweep the emplacements and the fortress beyond, despite the strong defensive work of the [Chieftain]. However, Niers was impressed. One of his students would have had a hard time cracking this fort.

This is a smart Goblin Chieftain. Could this be one of the survivors of the battle with the Goblin Lord during the siege of Liscor? It has to be. They rallied, regrouped, and leveled up. That Goblin’s skin tone is grey. One of those Goblins from the siege, but maturing into a Hob. Functional crossbow, albeit built of bone and sinew…extremely impressive.

Reminds me of Velan.

Niers bit his lip. He had lived through one Goblin King. He stared, narrow-eyed at the Goblin’s fortress in the mountains beyond, hidden by the pass but illuminated by his Skills.

He was disinclined to let another Goblin King, or Goblin Lord live. He had met Velan.

Niers had even liked him. Because of that, because betrayal smarted twice over when it was someone he trusted, he would not trust Goblin promises again. However. He didn’t have an army with him. If he did…?

The Titan slithered down the slope, making away from this Goblin’s home.

 

—-

 

The leadership of the Forgotten Wing Company was astonished when the Goblin Lord of the growing tribe met them with a formal, sit-down dinner.

“Is this not how it is done?”

His name was Velan. He looked tough, and Merloc signaled to Niers that he was unsure if he could take Velan alone. Or, he signed, with the bodyguards.

If their [Juggernaut] had reservations, the [Strategist] had them. Velan looked like a Drathian expert to Niers. Or [Martial Artist]. Skills that improved natural strength, speed, and such didn’t result in his physical conditioning.

The Goblin Lord was a surprise in more ways than simple etiquette. He was well-read, well-spoken, and well-mannered. Mild-mannered, even. He soothed two incidents along with Niers on the first day. Moreover, he had the answer for their problems.

“Blistering sores? Pops with blood? Yes. I know. My tribe—Goblin’s Lament—had them two weeks ago.”

Niers blinked as he, Merloc, Foliana, and Ginsa sat around. The leaders of the Forgotten Wing Company leaned forwards, eying the Goblins around Velan.

“How bad is it in your tribe?”

“Gone.”

The Goblin Lord watched the unsubtle expression on Merloc’s face. The others were more practiced. No less eager, however. The Bloodpop fever was sweeping Baleros and half of his company was infected.

That was what had driven Niers to make contact with the now-infamous tribe which had smashed multiple companies sent against it. A ‘peaceful’ Goblin tribe if you left them alone.

“You cured it? Countless [Healers] haven’t found a remedy so far!”

The Goblin Lord silenced the sniggering Goblin [Warriors] behind him. He nodded.

“Yes. I have.”

“How?”

Velan shrugged, looking almost amused by how upset Ginsa was.

“Luck? I am better?”

“And you didn’t share it?”

Again, Velan shrugged.

“No one asks Goblins for help.”

Then he looked at Niers. After a moment, the Goblin Lord remarked thoughtfully.

“If you ask, perhaps we can trade. [Strategist]. Will you ask and talk with this Goblin?”

Unlike many, he hadn’t missed who was in charge, leading in secret. Niers looked at Velan. Despite himself, he smiled. They spoke, despite the others’ reservations, in private, and he even shared a drink with the Goblin Lord. That was the first time they met.

Niers had liked Velan from the moment the Goblin asked if they used salad forks, within the first minute of welcoming them to his tribe.

 

—-

 

The Titan marched away from the Goblin camp and the decent defensive emplacements. He remembered Velan as he marched.

In time, Niers had forged an alliance of defense with the Goblins. It was not an exaggeration to say that both had risen due to their friendship.

If Niers had not sponsored the Goblins, they would never have been listed as an official Balerosian company, able to negotiate and hold land rather than be considered monsters.

By the same token, the Forgotten Wing Company had grown because time and again Velan had honored his oaths, providing medicine, cooperating on joint goals.

Before the end, Niers had even been attempting to form a Hobgoblin unit of fighters and train his forces with Velan’s. He had thought Velan was special, the chance to uncover the secrets of many aspects about Goblins. A worthy ally. Even a friend.

Then—Velan had slaughtered an entire city, declared himself Goblin King, killed the ambassadors of goodwill and his allies, and made war without end. Niers had seen him on the battlefield. A raving monster whose savagery deserved all of what was said about Goblins. His forces butchered civilians and surrendered [Soldiers].

“What happened to you, Velan? What madness, what curse, lies upon your species?”

Never again would Niers trust Goblins like that. He slid down a hill, making good speed. Vegetation was growing in this area, and while Eater Goats might rip up the roots, a lot more plant life clearly survived to reproduce.

Niers had great hopes of finding food and better shelter for the night.

He looked back just once. That Goblin sniper position was good. Niers shook his head and kept marching.

…He looked back a few more times after that. Good, but not perfect. The Goblins were clustered up too much behind the giant crossbow. The outpost had clearly been excavated from the stone rather than made naturally. If so, the creators should have created an ‘L’-shaped tunnel, only reversed vertically. That meant they could hunker down if someone tried to blow their position to pieces. You’d need an exceptionally-good [Homing Fireball] specialist or a direct attack, then, and there were ways to protect against even that.

Even against magical attacks with limited magical resources of your own. They hadn’t created any rock-fall or other traps for enemies climbing on them, for instance. No anti-[Rogue] mechanisms, and you could do a lot with string and a bell. Perhaps this Goblin had never gone up against [Rogues] of that magnitude.

Niers had. He had seen every way imaginable of taking and holding ground, which was why he taught students. He’d give that emplacement a…C+ if it was his special class. Totally functional, great against mundane armies. He’d hold one of his best students to higher standards, though.

For a Goblin likely without any formal training? Pure talent. Wasted if not honed. Niers kept thinking of that. The talent to make a crossbow out of bones and sinew! Some kind of [Engineer]-[Strategist]? Or did the Chieftain just employ that kind of talent? He wondered…

Niers was growing hungry. Lunch. He eyed the shoots of some kind of plant—a brighter yellow-green. Hopefully not indicative of poison. The narrow valley was a nice place in the relatively barren High Passes.

Had the Goblins maintained this? No, too far from their camps. I wonder why the Eater Goats don’t consume all this? Probably too poisonous even for them. Oh well.

The Titan stopped at the edge of the first grouping of plants. He hesitated as he reached for a leaf, using his gloves, obviously.

“…Something…”

One of his Skills was going off again. This time, urgently.

Not [Dangersense]. Niers didn’t have that basic Skill; it was too easy to trick. But his [Stealthguard], sovereign against ambushes and even magical camouflage, was going off.

Niers hadn’t calibrated his [Foe Sensor] against anything but his usual foes from Baleros and Goblins.

He did so now, on a hunch. Avians? No. Goblins? A mess of contacts behind him. Traditional monsters? No contacts. Crelers? Nothing, thank goodness.

Insec—

The entire area lit up in Niers’ head. He froze. The Fraerling mouthed a curse.

Slowly, very, very slowly, he tugged at the root of the leaf. Gently, gently…he recoiled as the root-vegetable came up. Covered in bugs.

They had infested this ground! They were eating all the plants and making their lairs here! Some were babies, the size of his hand. They got bigger, though. They squirmed as Niers leapt backwards—

But didn’t pursue. He breathed out, slowly, as this particular nest, one of tens of thousands, spilled out, looking for what had disturbed it. They resembled thick, squat, beetles, with terribly sharp-looking pincers. Odd patterns on their back.

Magical? He was certain they could fly, but they reminded him most of one of Baleros’ most dangerous predators.

Army ants. The kind that could swarm and eat you in seconds. Burn them with [Flame Wall] spells or the like.

Niers had none. However, he was making tracks the way he’d come. He was fortunate that he hadn’t set them off. Doubly-fortunate that his Skills could detect the threat. [Dangersense] would only help you probably as you stepped foot into this area. He knew exactly how many of those little things there were, and he was running as fast and quietly as he—

Baaaah.

The Fraerling heard the sound from the side. He closed his eyes.

“Please, no. Go away you stupid, stupid—

An Eater Goat wandered over the edge of the valley, its roving eyes searching for food. It spotted the valley of greens and brightened up. It baahed, and the group of goats Niers had spotted with his Skill all converged.

There were probably two hundred Eater Goats, a large herd that could kill even smaller packs of Gargoyles. They’d eat rocks if they got hungry enough, or each other, and they had amazing repopulation abilities.

They were dead. Niers backed up, looking for a way out of this death-trap as one of the Eater Goats raced downwards to be the first to eat and ripped up the rooty vegetables. It chewed down bugs and plant alike without a care in the world.

Then—the bugs exploded out of the ground. Niers looked over his shoulder.

Nagas!

The beetles were flying. They covered the air, the startled Eater Goats, and descended, biting, consuming their prey. Niers ran for it, but the beetles were on the attack and they were devouring everything they could sense in their radius.

Everything.

 

—-

 

Sharpstick saw the Swarmbeetle nest erupt. He had no idea what adventurers called them. Goblins had given the name, again, out of utility.

Bad-bad bugs and Eater Goats. Many-bite death. Eating death.

He commented to the others, allowing himself the luxury as the buzz of wings and Eater Goat’s braying shouts filled the air. The other Goblins nodded, wincing as they saw the Eater Goat group disappear.

They went down fighting, of course. Eater Goats bit, chewing bugs furiously, fearless to the point of suicide. They never had a chance. The bugs just ate them, live, until the corpses lay, food and sustenance for a new generation. Everything nearby was also a target. The baby Armored Crawlers died—the Goblins did not.

The nearest two outposts blocked the beetles from entering with reinforced blankets just for that purpose. A few might trickle in, but they were snacks. Although…those Swarmbeetles had a nasty bite. Magic ran in them thanks to those plants, and so they could actually carve up your leather armor or bite you down to the bone if you let them. Tough, too. Sharpstick shook his head.

That was all he thought about the minor incident. After all—it was just the goats who died. And there were lots of goats.

 

—-

 

You damn goats! You stupid, empty-headed idiots! Venaz has more tact than you!

Niers bellowed as he ran. Behind him, the beetles were on the offensive. They went after the Eater Goats first, but they circled, going after anything nearby.

Him. Birds. Other rodents or animals. Niers flung himself forwards as he heard the buzz behind him. He needed—

There. The opening was small, even for a Fraerling. Niers didn’t care. He slashed with his sword, widening the narrow passageway. Then he put his back in the cave’s entrance and began to fight.

The first beetle didn’t even see him. He slashed and cut it in half. Tough shell and pincers meant nothing to his enchanted artifact. He cut the next beetle the same way.

Then they flooded him.

 

—-

 

Crawling bodies, half his size or larger. Blank eyes. Squirming legs, everywhere. Even in death they twitched.

Jaws, biting at him. The buzz, the click of them. Small ones pushing past the bodies as the adults ate their fallen.

They were on his armor, the tiniest ones, biting—he knocked them clear with his hand. But he never stopped stabbing, slashing.

Economical movements—the entrance of the cave was filled with dead bodies as they pressed in. He was shouting, cutting, stomping, his armor saving all but his face from bites. But thousands of bites made even the magic weaken. The snap of their closing mandibles bruised.

Hours of fighting. And they kept coming. They couldn’t get into the rocky cave, or he’d be dead. He held the opening, slaughtering them as they ran onto his sword, pushing forwards. He was squeezed by the dead into the back of the stone crevasse. Only their hard carapaces formed a second wall.

Blood. Death! A war only Fraerlings would ever know.

Come on, you vermin!

Niers smashed a bug against a wall, smearing it, careless of the gore on him. His voice was hoarse. His arm felt numb, but he refused to stop slashing. He switched hands, though his left arm was just as tired.

He refused to die! Not to these bugs! Not to—a face appeared in the bleeding mass of bugs. It bit—Niers stabbed it through the mouth. He yanked his sword back before it could be lost; another bug tried to get at him.

The Fraerling [Strategist] didn’t know it—but at some point he was laughing again.

 

—-

 

The onslaught of bugs lessened at some innumerable mark in the attack. They backed up, dispersed, fled back to their lairs.

Niers didn’t know why. But he took the moment. He shoved past dead, stinking corpses, heard the telltale sound—and grinned.

“Birds.”

They had noticed the swarm and now played a new part in the circle of consumption. Birds darted around, too fast and too high for the bugs to swarm, hundreds of them. Niers poked his head out of the cave as they moved closer and the bugs began to burrow, hiding from them, their bellies full.

He could stay—or run. Niers eyed the birds swooping around. Not all of them were big enough to eat him, being specialized for the beetles, but there were a lot of potential killers. He thought about it, grunting.

“Stinking cave, more bugs when they leave—or get torn to pieces. Great. Well, I survived the bugs without. So I suppose I’ve earned this…”

He poked his head out the cave entrance, mouthed something. The birds cocked their heads—then opened their eyes wide. They voided their bowels, shrieked in terror, and fled.

Niers marched out of the cave, and left the damned valley of bugs behind. Just a little Skill. He hurried off, though; the fear-effect wouldn’t last long. He needed to wash the stink of bug off him. He wanted a fire, food—

But he was victorious. The High Passes would not best him.

That was the second day. By the eleventh, Niers had nearly passed the sprawling territory under the auspices of the Goblins and he felt like he had a clear shot at the slopes heading down to the Floodplains.

 

—-

 

Eleven days, six Skills. That was how many times he’d used a Skill to help him navigate the terrain. Niers didn’t count the accident with the Goblins.

Six was high…but it wasn’t like one per day. He was doing it. Surviving. He hadn’t lost his Tallguard training.

Some encounters had been close. But he’d trusted to his armor, running, putting his back to stone, to survive. His sword had done the rest of the work. Even larger predators like rodents or birds gave up after he cut them a few times.

By now, Niers had improvised and restored some of his missing gear. A ‘cloak’ of fur and strands of grass and plant matter kept him warm at night and added to his camouflage. He had a walking-stick to help him find his footing, and a primitive bandolier to which he’d attached a few carrying items. Some dried meat, his quiver of arrows, and bow.

A bow and arrows. It wasn’t hard. Yes, you needed a proper piece of wood, but a primitive bow could be a decent little stick carved with his shortsword and strung with some dried sinew from a stupid marsupial that had tried to jump him in his sleep.

It wasn’t good. It had all the range and force of a launched toothpick, especially because his arrows were about as sharp, despite him using the shortsword to carve stone arrowheads.

However, it was a bow and arrow. And a sufficiently-fast toothpick could put out an eye, easy. Niers wished it could have been a crossbow. He knew, roughly, how to make one. He was no perfect [Archer], so his old crossbow was ideal.

One enchanted bolt could solve most of his problems, even Gargoyles. However, this back-to-basics approach was toughening him up. Six Skills, only his sword, improvisation…his armor, rings, and boots…but no potions!

When I return, I need to give this experience to my students. I’ve made them do it before, variations of this, but the sheer challenge is something that would benefit those like Wil, Umina. Venaz probably doesn’t need this, but he’d thrive.

I wonder, is this how the first Fraerlings did it when settling a new village? Fight their way countless miles, find somewhere defensible, and just…start civilization anew? Is this my adventure? What I was really here for?

That was what had driven him to Izril. To obsessing over the young woman. Intellectually, Niers had picked over his mistakes time and time again. He’d even let the other-worlds discovery fall behind, the Last Light of Baleros, because he’d been convinced that his opponent held all the answers and he wanted it from her.

Romance. Love. His weak spots. It was more than that, though. It was the feeling of meeting someone who was better than you. He’d risen to the top of the world, him, a little Fraerling. Sometimes he felt as if he’d done it all and gone too far. That there would never be a challenge as great as those he had summited.

He remembered Queravia. Niers stopped as he spotted the third adventurer team far below him. Still hunting Wyverns? He recalled the bounty. He leaned on his walking staff, eying them. It had occurred to him he might steal a [Message] scroll before, but they had been too far away, moving too fast. This group was nearly vertically below, moving across a natural path, talking. He couldn’t hear.

Adventurers. He hesitated. Knowing his luck, they’d mistake him for a monster and kill him or something. He had seen…something…wandering the High Passes. It had looked like a Goblin, a small one, wandering about. Niers had stared at it, wondering what kind of Goblin would be so stupid to do that at night. Then a Gargoyle had gone for it.

He shuddered. It had gone lower after disposing of the Gargoyle. Proof there were nastier things that he didn’t want to challenge in the High Passes. But this? He smiled, eying the adventurers. Then sighed.

Luck? They told stories of his luck, now. He just had to roll the dice to show them, flip a coin. He had once upended a barrel of a hundred dice and they had all been ‘three’. Luck.

“I curse you.”

She smiled, playfully, as the command tent burned. Dead bodies everywhere. Niers coughed. He didn’t know how many people he’d killed himself.

“Command! To me!”

He shouted. Queravia didn’t bother. The Stitch-Woman lay there, one foot gone, taken from the midriff down by the shower of arrows.

The battle was still raging. His company and the other joint forces versus the King of Destruction’s armies. Niers walked towards her. A small man.

But they would call him the Titan after this. Titan—how many of her command had he slaughtered? The desperate attack had killed both his command, his bodyguards, and hers.

“What did you say?”

The [Gambler of Fates], the great [Strategist] of the King of Destruction coughed. If she had cloth, she could have replaced her body parts. She did not. And the fire would kill her. But her eyes were unwavering.

“I curse you. Just so you know. You—you told me you weren’t a gambler. Liar.”

“I don’t believe in luck. I don’t like it. This was a calculated risk.”

“They call me mad. You charged my command. You really thought you’d win?”

He shrugged, moving past a burning carpet. Eyes searching for a trap, a trick.

“I was an adventurer. Queravia of the King’s Seven. You know how this has to end.”

“Can’t I surrender?”

The Fraerling almost laughed.

“In fifteen minutes, I’d be the one surrendering. We both know that. I’m…sorry.”

He lifted his sword. The battlefield was Queravia’s. If she wasn’t removed, her Skills would let her army triumph. Without her—

“If I said I was pregnant, would you stop?”

She smiled as he looked at her.

“I’m joking. Go on, [Strategist]. We both know it wouldn’t stop me. Or you. I curse you with the [Gambler]’s curse. Nothing special. You don’t play a gambler’s games, Niers Astoragon. So win without luck. My [King] will follow after, you know.”

“If he does, I will stop him.”

The Titan looked at her. He lifted his sword. Queravia—

The shadow was his only warning. Niers broke out of his trance, pivoted.

“Damn—”

He sliced through one talon, but the Razorbeak grabbed him again. It shrieked triumphantly and the adventurers looked up. Niers cursed. Was it the same damn bird? His memory played on, the [Strategist] self.

I never knew if she was telling the truth. If she was—

The Fraerling twisted. Leverage! A Skill? No—he’d get out of this again! He swore it was the same damn bird, but he’d cut one talon. He wiggled as it called out in pain. He just needed to get his sword and he’d slice out, this time. An arrow? He fumbled.

Gambler’s curse. Just a simple thing. I throw the dice and win or lose without chance. Same with coins. A ‘curse’.

No luck on the battlefield? I gamble all the time. Just not like she did it. I never met a [Strategist] like her. When I return, I need to change. My students…

He found an arrow, snapped the shaft, jabbed the sharpened rock into a scale, digging. Where was his sword? There! He grabbed the hilt, began to slash around the claw. The Razorbeak screamed.

Taking risks. I never took a greater one as when I faced her. But I was too cowardly to face the King of Destruction on Chandrar. I should have taken the entire Forgotten Wing Company and fought him. I stopped taking chances.

The claws opened. Niers clung to one, blood pattering his armor. He tried to slash at the other leg, the bird’s undercarriage. Not the leg holding him.

“Got you, you pestilential bird! Payback! That’s right, bring your head down for me!”

Reinvent myself. Luck. I faced luck and gained a Skill, my title. I should have forced the Iron Vanguard back, formed a navy. Involved myself—I’m trapped on Baleros. When I—

The beak opened. Snapped. The sword slashed through part of the Razorbeak’s jaw, lodged in a tooth.

—I—

The [Strategist]’s thoughts ended. The tearing pain, agony, followed the sensation of loss. He stared down. He’d twisted as the beak came for him. But he couldn’t dodge fully.

“My leg. My—leg!

The jaws closed. His armor held off the rending teeth for a second, perhaps two. The gigantic bird worried at his leg, grinding the magic away. He felt the agony and then a void. Niers looked down.

His right leg was severed at the knee. The Titan—blinked.

He saw red gore, so familiar. A jutting end of broken bone, torn away, trailing blood and viscera. So familiar.

Yet this was his body. Thoughts fragmented. Tiny droplets of blood fell from the air as the huge jaws swallowed the tiny bite above him. He heard the sound, the gurgling rasp of digestion. The stump of his leg.

—get back?

My leg! YOU BASTARD BIRD!

He slashed. But now the Razorbeak bit again and he was in the jaws. Niers thrashed as the teeth hammered his armor.

I’LL KILL YOU. MY LEG!

His voice echoed in the air. He screamed, slashing. But the jaws were clamping down and he couldn’t—

The arrow hit the wing and the Razorbeak screamed, dropped him. Niers fell out of the air, disoriented, limp. He heard shouts.

It can’t be—that’s him! Get him! Get—

The adventurers. As the Razorbeak fled, screaming, wounded, they stampeded towards his location. One of them stared down in horror.

“He’s missing a leg! Get a potion of healing—”

“Wh—how—”

The [Strategist] was staring down. His leg! His entire life, he had never taken a wound as—they reattached his arm when it was half-severed by the trap. His—

Liquid splashed him, clearing blood. He saw the bloody stump cover itself with flesh. He looked up.

A team of adventurers stared down at him. The [Strategist]’s mouth moved.

“I knew I heard a voice! It’s him. The Titan.”

“Wh—”

We have grown complacent.

A hand grabbed his sword-arm. He fought, but he was just—he had forgotten. No Skills? No handicaps? How soon everyone forgot.

He was just a Fraerling.

 

—-

 

Niers Astoragon lay in a bird-cage. No, he sat with his back to the bars. Cheap bronze. He might have bent them, but they watched him like a hawk.

And they had his sword. Not his armor; they’d left him with some dignity, but the Gold-rank team, Heron’s Mark, was one of a number of Gold-rank teams in the High Passes.

“Looking for you, uh—Titan. Lord Astoragon. It’s paid work. We didn’t expect to find you. We’ve been searching the last week and a half.”

“All by yourself?”

Niers hadn’t spoken for the first two hours. He was in shock. His leg was gone. Taken by a damned bird. It hadn’t even died. Then, captured by a Gold-rank team.

“Not just us. Multiple teams with movement or reconnaissance specialties are looking for you, Lord Astoragon. There are bounties on you. Our employers, well—I can’t speak for the others, but we intend to deliver you alive.”

“To which Great Company?”

“I shouldn’t say—”

The Titan slowly looked at the young, eager Human man. The adventurer hesitated as the Fraerling looked at him.

“Which. Company?”

“The Iron Vanguard.”

That came from the [Ranger] who’d shot the Razorbeak. Niers nodded. In the silence that followed, their [Wizard] spoke.

“We should tell the other teams we found him, Nomen.”

“I—don’t think so, Chana. Not until we get clear of the High Passes. The other teams—might want to split the reward. Or take it from us.”

The team of four Gold-ranks, the [Warrior], a [Wizard], a [Ranger], and their [Thief], a silent Gnoll, looked at each other. A classic group.

“I know, Nomen. I mean, they might…wonder why we’re leaving. We’re engaged for the entire month. Maybe we should tell some of them in case some teams insist.”

The [Wizard] looked at Niers, and then around. Heron’s Mark looked nervous.

And well you should be. The other Gold-rank teams will kill for a bounty on my head.

Niers’ thoughts were dark. He had begun thinking of escape plans twice. Each time, he stared at his leg.

No mobility. He could rely on a peg-leg, crutches, magical prosthesis, even fix it. But right now? Impaired.

My leg.

“Who can we trust? The other teams might be watching for one of us leaving the High Passes. In which case, we might have to fight them off us. Which team?”

They debated. At last, a name circulated.

“Wings of Pallass. They’ve got an impeccable credibility rating. Not like the others. I met Miss Bevussa in Liscor. Can you send a [Message], Chana? Tell them we need to talk now. If the others are listening in, say—say we found Crelers?”

“On it.”

As the [Wizard] began to communicate, Niers saw the adventurers staring at him. Like a curio, a legend literally fallen to earth. Smaller than they thought. Oh, he’d heard all the jokes.

He knew he wasn’t impressive now, not with his armor torn by the bird’s teeth, stump of a leg—he shifted his head to look at their leader.

“So you’re taking me to the Iron Vanguard?”

“That’s right. In Invrisil. Rest assured, Lord Astoragon, this isn’t personal.”

“Hah.”

The Gold-rank looked nervous.

Just a brat. Has he ever lost a team member? These look like rookies, not a proper battle-tested Gold-rank team.

Niers spoke, shortly.

“Let me make you a counter-offer. Deliver me to my destination, which will be the same amount of work as the Iron Vanguard, and I’ll double your fee. You know I can.”

The adventurers went silent. Even the [Wizard] looked up. Nomen opened and closed his mouth.

“I—”

“Nomen, it could be a ruse. Remember, he killed over half the Cherinion Swords! Don’t be greedy!”

The [Thief] whispered. Niers snorted.

“They attacked me. You think I need to lie? Let me put it to you this way: the Iron Vanguard wants me. My company wants me. And ‘this isn’t personal’? Boy, I’ve heard that from countless adventurers. I know it’s Creler crap, same as you. It’s personal to me. Now, I’ll be generous if I’m helped.”

“We—we have a contract, Lord Astoragon. No offense, but…”

The adventurer licked his lips. Niers stared at him.

He probably thinks the Iron Vanguard will more than double my offer to get me. He might be right. Greedy, stupid…

He looked up as he heard a distant call. The [Wizard] lowered her fingers and spoke.

“They’re coming. All three of them.”

“Three? I thought it was a team of four, like us.”

The [Ranger] raised her eyebrows. Half-Elf. Cliché on cliché. Her hair was dark brown, her skin tanned. Niers stared at her.

I could prevail on my debts with half-Elves, maybe. Depends on her origins. If she’s as stupid as the rest of her team…maybe not. Can I convince the [Thief] to betray the others? Again—

He just sat there as the second team appeared. This one looked—interesting. Two Oldblood Drakes, and a Garuda. They had been flying along the High Passes, but they weren’t idiots.

Rather than let Wyverns drop on them and any number of monsters attack, they’d been using [Camouflage] spells while scouting for him. Niers might have even missed them, unlike Heron’s Mark.

“Nomen, isn’t it? Where’s the Creler nest? If it’s small, we can take it on together. Or do we need to contact all the teams?”

“Bevussa—Bevussa, listen. It’s not that. We—we actually found—”

He gestured to Niers in the cage. The Titan looked up and saw the beak open in shock. Bevussa recoiled. He saw her companions look around, then stare at Heron’s Mark.

“Is…why are you telling me, Nomen?”

Bevussa slowly looked at the Gold-rank Captain, coming to the same conclusion as he spoke.

“We want to get the bounty on Lord Astoragon and get out of the High Passes without the other teams interfering. We’re considering splitting part of the bounty if you help us out.”

The Garuda’s eyes widened. She looked at Niers. He stared back. And abruptly, he felt sick. From Titan, meeting his grand opponent, commander of one of the finest mercenary companies in the world, to a…a Fraerling in a cage.

“Good evening, Miss Adventurer. Good to meet young Gold-ranks these days.”

The old Fraerling smiled at the children. Like a grandfather, a professor lecturing young, new, promising students. The generation to replace his waning star. Bevussa carefully bowed.

“Titan of Baleros, Lord Astoragon, it’s an honor to meet you. Are we…delivering him to his people, Nomen?”

The adventurer hesitated. Niers sat back, smiling genially around.

Inside…he thought he heard the quiet snapping, like bones, of his patience, his temper, bursting its carefully constructed cage.

Suddenly, no, it was a culmination, a realization born of many days and nights like this, testing his patience, wearing at his carefully controlled temper, his true temper, not the flights of annoyance or irritability he had, came upon the Titan of Baleros, Niers Astoragon. And it was this: his journey, his ‘adventure’ in the High Passes was no longer fun.

No longer fun. It had not been. Nearly dying, the ambush, had not been, nor fighting for his life against insects, eating bugs, surviving mudslides, hiking for days and nights like a younger man. However, it had been by another token. He had felt younger, and in arrogance, tried to do it without using his Skills. Without taking the threat seriously.

His leg was gone. Niers stared at it. His pleasant smile widened.

Bevussa felt a prickle on her feathers. She was trying to talk to Nomen, but she could not look away.

Not from him. The living legend. The Titan.

He looked far, far too calm for someone who had just lost a limb.

She felt like her [Dangersense] was going off. Yet it was intuition.

“Excuse me.”

The Titan interrupted the muffled conversation. The adventurers turned to him. The Fraerling smiled about.

“I’d just like to make a request.”

“Er—of course, sir? Lord Astoragon? You are our—guest. Do you need food?”

Nomen stuttered, at odds with Niers being a functional prisoner and his awe. Bevussa just waited. Niers nodded.

“Yes, yes indeed. I appreciate you wanting to stay alive and keep the money. However, I, personally, have come to a decision. I will not be ferried back and handed over to the Iron Vanguard and have to negotiate or trick my way to freedom. I’m tired. I want a Potion of Regrowth, or a magic leg, and I will not sit in this cage.”

The adventurer captain licked his lips.

“I’m afraid, Lord—”

Niers’ smile widened. Nomen fell silent. The [Strategist] kept speaking.

“I can appreciate ambition. So, here is my offer. Let me out and I will pay you double the current bounty to take me to my destination. I will commend you and make you famous for rescuing the Titan. However, there will be no double-dealings. Both your teams can be rich, and I will help you fend off any problems that may occur.”

The two Gold-rank teams looked at each other. Bevussa stirred at last.

“Nomen? Sounds like a good offer.”

She raised her brows, trying to hint to him…the younger man hesitated. He had gold in his eyes.

“Let’s discuss it. Lord Astoragon, just a s—”

“No.”

Again, the Titan interrupted. He looked past Nomen, at Bevussa.

“I am not giving you an offer, young man. I am giving you a choice. Listen to me. I am asking you…nicely…to indulge me. I have had a bad day. Let me out. Now. Or you will regret it.”

Wrong move. Bevussa saw the female [Wizard]’s eyes flick to the [Thief]. He shook his head behind Niers’ back. Nomen saw, and his features firmed.

The implied threat made the wavering Gold-ranks uncertain. As well as Niers clearly looking at Bevussa as the more reasonable team. Now they were eying the Wings of Pallass like potential enemies, for all they’d summoned them.

Gold in the eyes, gold on the brain. Enough gold to drown in. To retire on forever. Bevussa felt it too.

“Nomen…why don’t we take the offer?”

“Hold on, now. The Titan is our prisoner, Bevussa. I think it’s a matter of—trust. He already took care of one Gold-rank team. It’s not safe to just…let him out.”

“Are you an idiot? How did you get past Bronze-rank?”

Nomen’s ears turned red. Bevussa bit her tongue as Issa’s eyes widened and she covered her mouth. The two Oldblood Drakes coughed.

At the same time, Bevussa was astonished. Because this was not a smart, strategic move. Niers nearly had Heron’s Mark agreeing, but his tongue was stabbing him in the…only foot he had.

“I think I’ve made up my decision. Chana—can you cast [Detect Magic]? We’re taking Lord Astoragon’s gear off him. Rings. He can keep the armor, but we don’t want to take chances.”

Niers just snorted.

“Really. How are you going to get them off? Break my fingers with a pair of tweezers? You are as stupid as I thought.”

“Nomen! Think about this.”

The [Warrior]’s eyes flashed angrily at Bevussa. He looked at the Titan.

“If you take them off, we won’t have to insist, Niers. You’re in the cage. We’ll take you to the Iron Vanguard or whomever bids highest.”

“No, you won’t.”

Bevussa’s [Dangersense] began going off now. She’d known they were in danger before. Now? She saw the Titan of Baleros slowly push himself up. He balanced, one hand holding the bars of his cage. One-legged, he looked around. His snort? Contemptuous.

“Look at you. I gave you a chance. You—fly away.”

He pointed at Bevussa. Her head swiveled as the warning bell began to ring louder.

“Nomen…”

“Stop talking like that. You can’t do a thing. If you want to keep negotiating, some respect…”

Nomen’s voice wobbled. The Titan looked at him.

“Can’t do a thing? I’m the Titan of Baleros. You little piece of Creler-bait, I’m sick of this. I don’t negotiate with Gold-rank adventurers.”

His voice was growing louder. Bevussa took a few steps back.

“Issa—Kin—get ready.”

“Don’t move.”

The half-Elf [Ranger] swung up her bow. Heron’s Mark tensed. Bevussa lifted her wing-hands.

“We’re not fighting you! Lord Astoragon—”

He wasn’t listening. The Titan clung to the bars of the cage. His eyes were flashing, his voice growing furious.

“Do you think I need to negotiate to get out of this cage? Me? I was a Named Adventurer when you were dreaming about holding swords! I’ve killed better adventurers than you with my bare hands. You think you can hold me?

“He’s lost his mind.”

Kin muttered. Bevussa looked around, but the arrow tracking her chest was demanding her attention. If she had to dodge—

I’ve met Dragons and bested Djinni! I’ve broken the Labyrinth of Souls and seen the words of the architects! I have beheld Elves and broken armies by the greatest [Kings] and [Warlords] of my era!”

He was bellowing. Was he trying to bring monsters down on them?

Nomen had the same thought.

“Shut him up!”

He hissed at Chana. Niers saw the [Wizard] raise her staff. The [Silence] spell didn’t even touch him. One of his rings glowed.

“You idiots.”

“Gah! I’ll do it!”

The Gnoll interrupted. He reached for the cage door. Nomen was looking around.

“This is a bluff. You can’t do anything! Stop shouting and cooperate or—”

He never got further. His torso exploded.

Niers Astoragon flung up a hand as a ribbon of red splashed the cage. Bevussa flinched—then dove. The arrow flashed past her.

Nomen!

A scream. The [Thief] jerked his paw back. Staring at Niers. The Titan started laughing.

Up!

Bevussa howled. She shot into the air with her team. The [Ranger] took aim, but Chana grabbed her arm.

“It wasn’t them! We’re under attack!”

“From—”

The Gnoll threw himself at his teammates. They hit the ground hard, but it saved their life. The second oversized bolt struck the dirt. Niers gripped the bars of his cage and began to bend the cheap metal.

“What—what—”

Nomen was alive. Somehow, the bolt hadn’t blasted his entire body apart. Durability Skills. His teammates were quick. They dropped a potion on him and he began crying out, coughing.

Above!

The half-Elf spotted the attackers at the same time as the Wings of Pallass. Bevussa’s eyes went round. She saw the Goblins at the same time as one launched a huge crossbow bolt from the Thunderbow he was carrying.

 

—-

 

Hit [Mage]!

Sharpstick bellowed as the Goblin war band opened fire. Goblins carrying crossbows and bows began to loose from their positions. They were firing at range on both teams.

 

—-

 

Evasive! [Unit: Speed Wing]!

The Garuda and two Oldbloods whirled away. The adventurers on the ground weren’t so lucky. Chana threw up a barrier only for three Thunderbow bolts to overload the spell. A bolt caught her in the leg and she screamed, falling down.

“Get to cover!”

Get the Titan! What are you doing?

Nomen shouted at his team and Niers. The little Fraerling was still laughing. Nomen wanted to grab at him, but the Goblins had them pinned and more were flanking.

“More are coming! It’s a damned tribe!”

The [Ranger] loosed an arrow as Chana screamed, dragging the bolt out of her leg and taking a huge chunk of flesh. The Gnoll slapped a potion on the wound.

How? Bevussa whirled through the air, seeing even more clearly than the [Ranger]. Goblins were marching down the High Passes, at least sixty so far—and more in the distance! Coming out of camouflaged bases.

But why were they attacking? She looked down.

The Titan of Baleros twisted open the bars of his cage. He had to hop across the ground.

Crutch, he needed a crutch. He ignored the projectiles showering down around him. His armor could take one hit. Niers still laughed, with maniacal humor as fury filled him.

He was the same small Fraerling. Only, with one difference.

He was using his Skills.

 

—-

 

“Sharpstick attacking adventurers?”

Rags heard the scrambled report and lurched out of her gloom. She shot to her feet. Half of Goblinhome was already making ready for war.

But she had not ordered it! She ran through the fortress in time to find Redscar. The Goblin snarled at her as his Redfangs mounted up. Across from him, the [Wyvern Riders] led by Snapjaw were doing the same.

“Chieftain! Coming with?”

No! Stop! Why is Sharpstick attacking?”

The Goblins froze as the [Chieftain] barked. They looked at her.

Chieftain’s orders!

“Not my orders.”

Rags saw Redscar’s eyes widen. But how—?

She felt a pit open in her stomach.

 

—-

 

[False Orders]. Niers Astoragon found a snapped crossbow bolt and shrugged. Crutch obtained.

We have to get out of here, Nomen!

The Gold-ranks were seeing more Goblins flanking them from the cliffs. They were opening up—but two Gold-rank teams were fighting back. A [Fireball] blasted the cliff and Goblins took shelter.

“[Volley of Arrows]!”

The half-Elf tossed up eighteen arrows and shot them up, arcing them down on Goblin positions. The [Thief] hurled a bag to the ground and smoke enveloped their position.

The Titan! Grab him!

Nomen was crawling towards Niers, heedless of the fighting. The Titan narrowed his eyes. He could sense everything through the smoke. [Foe Sensor]. He casually hobbled left as the [Warrior]’s gauntleted hands swept the ground.

“You bastard! Where are you? What have you done?

Nomen coughed in the smoke. He heard a cold voice from his left.

“Me? One Skill. Here’s another, you stupid little brat.”

The [Warrior] lunged. He missed. Niers had hopped away with his remaining Boot of the Grasshopper. Yet Nomen had his sword and Niers wanted his sword. The Wings of Pallass, high above, were shouting down.

Nomen! Get your team out of here!

Chana howled up at them.

We can’t! Get rid of those giant crossbows!

No, get out of here! You have monsters incoming!

The first wave of screaming Eater Goats crashed down on the team a second later.

 

—-

 

“Dead gods.”

Bevussa saw a second enemy appear as a horde of Eater Goats ran, screaming, at the Gold-rank team. Not just them; the Goblins had seen the Eater Goats surging down the rocky mountainside and adjusted their fire. It was now a three-way battle.

“The Titan just called the Eater Goats down on all of us!”

She screamed at Kin. The Oldblood Drake’s mouth opened.

How?

Bevussa didn’t know, but there was no other explanation. About three hundred Eater Goats were attacking—even the Goblins, who were wearing their red war paint! They were bewildered, but the goats were frothing at the mouth. Furious—

Rage Skill. He just aggravated the entire herd somehow. A [Strategist]’s Skills!

Bevussa cursed. The Gold-rank Garuda banked sharply, avoiding the arrows now coming up more sporadically towards her, eyes trying to pierce the smoke cloud a dozen Eater Goats had charged into. She saw a flare of electricity; Heron’s Mark was putting up a fight.

More Gold-rank teams would see the fighting. Whether they arrived? It depended on whether they realized this wasn’t just a monster attack.

“Send word that Heron’s Mark is under attack!”

“Are we going in?”

“No! We’re grabbing the Titan and fleeing!”

Bevussa snapped to Kin. She was staring down. Grab the Titan. He was everything in this scenario and everyone knew it.

In that way, even Bevussa was still blinded by his bounty. The Titan had told her to run. She thought she was safe, flying high above the fighting. She had still underestimated her opponent.

She was on his [Foe Sensor] too. The Titan of Baleros had lost his temper.

Bevussa felt the air change. She looked up. The clouds were black. She saw the first bolt of lightning lance down as the clouds opened up.

“Ancestors—”

 

—-

 

The High Passes were hit by a storm as Niers hid in a crevasse, watching the Gold-rank team fighting for their lives against the Eater Goats.

[Unit: Incendiary Provocation]. That was a [Strategist] Skill that could incite an ally or enemy into losing all sense of reason. The Eater Goats were on a rampage. Yet now, rain, driving down in greater sleets than even his first day of being in the High Passes, was mixed with bolts of lightning, showering down around all forces.

He wasn’t controlling them. The Wings of Pallass dove, frantically, to avoid being cooked alive by the lightning even so, wings heavy with water. The Goblins shouted, losing sight of each other in the melee.

All of it was his Skills. You thought I couldn’t do anything? Niers changed the weather with one of his great Skills.

[Battlefield: Skies of Chaos, Winds of War]. Far more dangerous than [Horrendous Weather]. Some [Strategists] could provoke rain. The Earl of Rains could call thunderstorms.

Niers could call fire from the skies depending on the climate. He waited, eyes narrowed. In this chaos…he leaned on his crutch, the only calm mind present.

 

—-

 

“We have to run! Nomen! He’s tearing down the High Passes around us!”

It felt like it. Yet they had to drag Nomen out of the fighting. The [Warrior]’s chest plate was dented in; he felt like the healing potion, potions, hadn’t fully worked.

“We have to find him! It’s enough money for—”

“It’s no use if we’re all dead!

Eater Goats were still attacking them. Heron’s Mark was climbing, desperately. Rain water was threatening to turn the lower areas into rivers. Lightning kept crashing down, sending rocks flying! And there were Goblins, Eater Goats, and now more monsters, sensing the bloodbath.

A Gargoyle landed, snatching up Eater Goats and flying back up to tear them to bits. Nomen threw up his shield, shouting, as a spray of the deadly rock-projectiles flashed from another’s mouth.

Damn it! Find us a cave or the Wings! Let’s go!

His team sprinted from the cover as their [Ranger] took point. She loosed an arrow, hit a Goblin [Archer]. The monster fell with a scream as Goblins switched to melee weapons against the goats and Gargoyles.

More were coming. Were those Carn Wolves flooding down the valley in the distance? Nomen cursed, but his teammate was shouting.

Here! Here! There’s a cave!

She screamed, pointing towards a place they could hole up. She had leapt, pulling herself up a ledge. It was too steep for Eater Goats to simply climb; they had to jump.

So did the adventurers. The [Thief] boosted Chana, then leapt, nimbly swinging himself up the ledge. Nomen was last. He bashed an Eater Goat down with his shield, then tossed the shield up to his friends. He leapt, grabbed the ledge, began to drag himself up, arms burning. His heavy armor was working against him, and his team was already sprinting to the cave, fortifying it.

“Nomen! Hurry up!”

“Almost—”

The [Warrior]’s shoulders had cleared the ledge and he was heaving himself up when he saw the Fraerling. The Titan, leaning on the snapped crossbow bolt like a crutch, regarded him.

“All of this? I won’t say it was all your fault. Just remember this if you survive: you are an idiot.

“You—”

The Titan tensed. He leapt—and stabbed Nomen in the eye with tip of the crossbow bolt. He and the adventurer went over the ledge. Nomen screamed. He hit the ground. Not even hard enough to knock the wind from him, but his eye! He was bellowing, flailing, searching for the Titan, not to capture, but to kill when the Eater Goat trotted over to his head.

Niers hobbled towards the adventurer’s side as the Eater Goat ate. He grunted.

“Bag of holding. Damn—”

He had to undo the knot and upend it; if he reached inside, he might implode or alternatively explode in the bag of holding’s unique containment field. He kicked aside rations, cursing at the oversized potions, far too large for him to take.

“Where—where—there!

His sword. He grabbed it. Then looked up.

The Eater Goat had noticed the morsel. It opened a bloody mouth, showing him rows of gory teeth. Not content with an entire dead adventurer, it wanted one more bite. The other Eater Goats were also trotting over, some going for the cave the rest of the Gold-ranks were in.

Niers looked at the Eater Goat. As dumb as the adventurer. He didn’t have time for this.

Another Skill activated. He should have used them all from the start. Playing games, pretending like this was ‘reinventing himself’. He snarled and the Eater Goat…backed up.

The lunatic animal, known for its tenacity and willingness to eat and fight even Crelers, slowly trotted back, abandoning its kill. The others’ heads turned towards Niers, spotting him despite his size. Yet far from swarming him, they baahed uncertainly. With a touch of fear. Then—terror.

They turned and ran. Niers walked past them. A Gargoyle feasting on dead goats looked around. It spotted Niers, made a booming shriek sound, closer to a bird, and grabbed its prey and fled. The giant stone monster wasn’t the only one.

Skills. To enrage, to change the weather—and he had countless more he could not use because they only worked on people he commanded. To make them tough, to enhance a charge or defense…

The few he could use were the Skills of a [Grandmaster Strategist]. Level 65. Higher than the King of Destruction.

[Fear Me, Your Mortality]. Even Eater Goats realized their fragile existence and fled, rather than confront the terror-effect of the tiny Fraerling. Armies could break before the Skill and the right advance.

Goblins? Tougher stuff. Those caught in the radius of the aura just kept fighting. The adventurers too. Monsters didn’t master their emotions. People could, and whether that was stupidity or courage was up for debate.

Niers began to hop upwards as rainwater and lightning and water covered the lower valley. He wished he could have dragged the bag of holding with him, but even that would slow him too much.

He watched the results of his escape attempt coldly. If he had any sympathy, it was for the Garuda and her team. Even the Goblins he’d used to win his freedom.

Yet that was strategy. Sometimes, they were just pieces on the board.

 

—-

 

Bevussa and her team could not fly in the rain. Perhaps they might have risked it with waterproofing spells, but the lightning would kill them dead. They fought on the ground, battling Goblins, monsters, trying to make for safety.

They took down a Gargoyle, eight Eater Goats, and were preparing for a charge on the Goblins. But this was not their element. They were fliers, meant for hit-and-run attacks! Heron’s Mark? Bevussa didn’t know.

Where are we going?

“Past the Goblins! Back to cover! Anywhere we can hide! Break their lines! Kin, stay behind Issa and m—”

Shapes marched down the hill. Huge ones. Bevussa whirled. Her shortsword came up. She tensed…then swore.

Ogres!

The two Drakes stared at her in dismay. The first Ogre looked like a damned [Knight]. Crude iron riveted together made the monster appear even more imposing. Worse—they came down in a squad, and two with shields were covering three holding those damned oversized crossbows. Bevussa looked around.

“Fall back—”

She heard a howl. Carn Wolves bounded down the slopes, flanking them on the other side. Bevussa realized they were dead. She and the two Oldblood Drakes stood back-to-back as crimson eyes flashed in the pouring rain, green skin illuminated by the lightning strikes.

The Goblins didn’t open fire, though. Slowly, one of them, holding a pair of enchanted swords, pointed down at the Gold-rank adventurers. He shouted something.

A boom of thunder hid his words. Bevussa shouted.

What?

Another shout. Bevussa hesitated. The lightning—

The Goblin seemed to realize he wasn’t being heard. He tried again, bellowing, but the thunder drowned him out.

The other Goblins stared at Redscar as he folded his arms, glowering. He refused to try a fourth time and look like a bigger idiot.

It was the smaller Goblin riding with him that swung down. The Goblins lifted their bows and Bevussa tensed. Yet the little Goblin, ignoring rain and thunder, pointed down at them. She drew her own sword—held it out, horizontally—and dropped it.

Bevussa saw the blade fall. She hesitated. She stared at the Goblins. A flicker of thought ran through her head.

Numbtongue and the inn.

“Wings of Pallass?”

“Captain?”

“Drop your blades.”

Bevussa tossed her shortsword down. Kin and Issa hesitated, and then copied her. They put up their arms as Rags nodded. She swung her head left and right.

“Grab the adventurers. Get back to Goblinhome. No more deaths!”

She snapped at the wounded Sharpstick. The Goblin lowered his head. Rags searched the dark High Passes, but she had no idea what had caused this—this mess. Goblins dead, monsters still fighting…she cursed as she saw more magic light in the distance.

“More Gold-ranks. They see us. Fight or go?”

Redscar grumbled. Rags sighed.

“Go. Go!

She turned and the Goblins pulled back. With three prisoners.

 

—-

 

Niers kept climbing. He knew the other Gold-ranks were out there. Somehow, Heron’s Mark had survived. It looked like three Gold-rank teams down there, and even the Goblins were loath to bring it to a straight battle.

The bad weather was already clearing. The battle was ‘done’. Eater Goats had eaten or fled his Skill, and the Gargoyles had beaten a retreat as [Mages] began blasting them away.

Heron’s Mark crowded around Nomen’s body. He heard their raised voices. Niers was hopping up the mountain. He had somewhere to be. He listened.

…Titan…forget this…!

Was that an actual oath of vengeance upon him? Niers narrowed his eyes at the screaming [Ranger] shaking her tiny fist at the sky. She looked as small as he seemed to them at this height.

He was not in a good mood. The Titan pointed back down at the [Ranger].

“You hold a grudge? You hold a grudge? [Highlight Target].”

The half-Elf began to glow. All the other adventurers recoiled. The Goblins, monsters—everything turned and saw the Skill-marked [Ranger]. A second battle began as a colony of giant centipedes—actually giant, three feet wide and a lot longer—poured out of a cave.

The Titan kept climbing.

 

—-

 

Three days later, the Titan finally sat down. It felt like the first time he’d sat down in three days. His guest looked uncomprehendingly at him as the Titan motioned her into the chamber.

A home, really. Not the kind he was used to, but a home nonetheless.

“I know you don’t really understand me. I know you were just—living your life. A hardworking mother. You find food, you eat it. That’s how it happens. Well, you chose the wrong meal. It took me a while to find you. However, I’m the Titan. You really can’t tell how dangerous I am, can you?”

An uncertain squawk of sound was his answer. Silence.

Blood in the air. Niers sat down, cleaning his blade. He spoke, conversationally.

“I am not a nice man. I do whatever it takes to win if I have to. Not often. However, this isn’t about victory. You took my leg. See?”

He gestured to the stump below his right knee. He’d whittled a crutch out, but he’d had to leapfrog with his good Boot of the Grasshopper. If he hadn’t known exactly where he was going, it would have taken him months. But the avian nest, no matter how high…he’d had a lot of energy for this.

Broken eggs. Dead little birds. The Razorbeak was making a sound. Did it feel grief? The nest of ferocious little monsters had fought him.

The Titan hadn’t cared. He gestured at the Razorbeak, who still bore her wounds—a missing foot, cuts along her belly and mouth. She had yet to use a potion. He gently nudged the six carved pieces of wood he’d had to drag up the mountain to this spot.

“You don’t understand. I have so many enemies—had—and you’re the one who takes an actual limb. Well, that’s appropriate. Hubris from me. And what do you feel, now?”

The Razorbeak screamed. Niers hadn’t expected a dialogue. The bird hobbled into her destroyed nest, shrieking, mouth opened wide. She would kill him, even if he sliced her open.

…Of course, that was what he was waiting for. The Titan pointed. No bravado, no hand-to-hand.

“[Battlefield: Deploy Traps].”

It was a Skill for an entire battlefield. He had never thought to use it like this. Yet it worked.

The six primitive spike traps were nothing fancy. Just bent wood, a tip of sharpened stone, ready to snap and hit a target. The Razorbeak charged into them.

Crack. Niers got up. He stayed out of range of the flapping wings, the thrashing claw and mouth. He cut—carefully working his way around the strike zone. The Razorbeak lunged at the end—he finally beheaded her.

“There.”

Niers Astoragon exhaled. He sat back down. Stared at his missing leg.

He didn’t feel better. You didn’t, after exacting vengeance. But he’d wanted this.

For more reasons than simple bloodshed. Niers walked over to the thing’s stomach. If he was very, very lucky…he’d poked around in the piles of crap. He disemboweled the Razorbeak, wrinkling his nose as he went through the digestive tract. But there—

“Damn it. Aha.”

He sighed and fished out his enchanted boot. There was no way he could use it with a stump of a leg of course, but it was worth a lot of money.

Not enough to justify the entire journey up here. However, he had a second reason. Niers removed one of the wooden traps, coughed.

“This place is going to be swarming with insects in an hour. Better work fast.”

He did. About three wooden traps were dismantled, and he harvested what he needed from the adult Razorbeak. He carried the bloody mess away, tying it to a carry-bag around his waist. It slowed him down, but he was very, very strong even without his Ring of Minotaur’s Strength.

He didn’t need to go far, for that matter. Niers sat in his base camp, chasing away tiny bugs attracted to the blood as he worked. He took his time on this one; he hurried, but he refused to be rushed.

 

—-

 

Two more days later, Niers Astoragon was ready. Two test-runs had resulted in success. Moreover, he knew it would work. He was just uncertain if he’d managed to copy the designs properly.

“Well, it’s not like I’ll die.”

Grunting, Niers executed phase-two of his plan. First? Vengeance and his boot. Second?

The miniature glider was just pieces of sinew, the Razorbeak’s wings, and bits of wood. He was afraid it would snap in the air, or he wouldn’t control it properly. He was ready to try controlling the weather, although he could only make it nasty.

The wind was strong high up in the High Passes. It blew him eight hundred feet into a cliff the first time. Thereafter, Niers kept low, flying just a few feet over the terrain.

Down, across the High Passes. It took him six more days of flying, carrying the glider, and resting to reach the Floodplains.

This time, however, Niers used his Skills. He encountered trouble only once.

 

—-

 

Niers was sitting around a fire in the tiny cave at night on the fifth day. He was nearly at the Floodplains and thinking about what to do next.

Liscor was his destination. He knew he was unkempt, a mess. He was tired. The fire had gone out. Not the one in front of him, but the one in his heart, the childish enjoyment of this…game, this little adventure he could boast about.

What sat in the cave now was the [Strategist] of Baleros, who had chased away monsters and cleared his path with his Skills. He glanced up as he heard the crunch outside his cave.

Something big. He readied the bow he’d remade for hunting. Dinner had been a cave mouse; the animals were getting less dangerous and actual commonplace creatures were more common the further down he went.

[Archers: Triplicate Volley], had brought down the mouse. Another irony. A Skill for an entire battalion let him shoot three arrows. He cautiously drew back on the bow, ready to activate his terror-Skill if need be. His [Foe Sensor] began flickering through possible targets…

“Hello? It’s me. Bevussa.”

Niers started. He saw the bird-like leg, the feathers, as someone appeared outside his cave. He thought all the adventurers were dead. He remembered her, of course, but her ghost had not troubled him. He didn’t remember the people he killed. Not anymore.

“Adventurer Bevussa?”

He recalled her name. The Garuda stooped. It was her, alright. She had lost her armor, and she looked…forlorn.

“I am very sorry. I would like to m-make amends. Hello?”

She stood outside his cave. Niers eyed her from his position too far for anyone to grab him, half-blocked by a stone. He grunted, lowered his bow, and drew his sword.

“Hello?”

“Get lost. Learn better elocution if you want to trick someone.”

Niers snapped at whatever was standing outside. The Garuda stepped back. She regarded him, blinking.

Naked. The voice was right. The appearance? Probably spot on. Niers met the thing’s gaze.

“I’m not in the mood for this.”

‘Bevussa’ rocked on her feet. She opened her mouth—far too wide—the beak stretching unnaturally. Then seemed to reconsider.

She backed away from Niers, tottered down the slope the way she’d come. He heard her voice in the distance, speaking nonsense.

“Goodbye. I am Bevussa. Hello. Hello…”

Niers didn’t untense for a long time. Damn. Higher-level monsters. That was bad, too. It was almost complete if it could do voices.

However, even if Foliana was here, he’d have not gone after it. Niers edged to the opening of his cave. He hesitated.

If you’re after it, be my guest. Otherwise—piss off. I told you, I’m not in the mood for this.

He snapped. His eyes locked on something in the distance, along the cliffs. Too far for him to see with his eyes. But his Skill…

Silence. The babble of the monster below was fading away. Nothing else moved in the dark world beyond of the High Passes.

Niers waited, sword drawn. Something…regarded him. Somethings. They seemed to reach a conclusion. Well, why not?

He saw the flicker and dove. The first ‘arrow’—or maybe it was thrown?—hit the mouth of his cave. Three more followed.

Spitting out dust, Niers raised his head. Smart. They thought he couldn’t do much more than call a monster down on them or change the weather. He barked.

“[Superior Counter Fire].”

Five projectiles arced back the way they’d come. Niers heard the distant thuds of impact. He poked his head out of the cave.

A body crashed down the cliff. Niers sensed the other four shapes milling about—moved back. He grunted, pulled back into the cave. He kept one eye open as he rested, but nothing else disturbed him that night.

When he went to find the body the next day, it was gone. Niers looked up towards the higher reaches of the mountaintops, but he let it go.

He reached the Floodplains on the seventh day. Three weeks since he had entered the High Passes, Niers reached the inn on the hill outside the city of Liscor.

 

—-

 

He’d had to walk the Floodplains. Niers had gotten rid of the grisly glider after reaching the grasslands, hills and valleys which were relatively safe.

It wasn’t as if he could have flown to Liscor with the terrain-following strategy. Go too high and he was at risk of being blown far, far away. Besides, he took the time to think.

He’d debated going for his bag of holding, but the Cherinion Swords had it if they had half a brain. Now he was finally close to civilization, Niers had to be careful.

The Shield Spider nests were his big danger in the grassy terrain. Niers kept his [Foe Sensor] online, though, and only had to kill three on his entire hike, avoiding nests with ease.

The issue was that now, he was in more danger than the High Passes in a sense. The High Passes…he should have used his Skills.

He stared at the stump of a leg. He’d tried making a peg-leg, but he wasn’t able to properly get it to grip his stump. For now, he used the crutch and his jumping boots to move about.

If he had both legs, he’d have been able to steal a [Message] scroll far more easily. One mistake was all it would take. Someone stepped on him, slammed a door, and he’d be paste or break every bone in his body.

Or if they see me, the Iron Vanguard and everyone who wants me, even third parties, will flood the area with adventurers. And then I’m captured and I could have just let those Gold-ranks take me back a week and a half ago.

Niers had to find a trustworthy ally, or get a [Message] scroll to his company. He felt like the two goals were intertwined with the first, the only reason he had come here.

His opponent. No—

“Erin Solstice.”

No point denying who he thought it was. Far too long of hiding the truth from himself. Far, far too long…

The inn was so close, now. Niers walked towards it, climbing the hill, staring at it for the last day. He actually camped a hundred feet away from it, in a hollow in the dirt.

He was a mess. Dirty, disheveled, his enchanted armor torn in two places, the remnants of dirt and blood and…Niers was not the dashing Titan he’d dreamed of being, making an appearance.

Niers just wanted to meet her. He just wanted…wanted, so desperately for it to be true. For Erin Solstice to be the genius who had bested him, who was a better chess player. For…a peer.

Part of him felt, knew, that it was like Lord Belchaus all over again. He’d done this stupid dance all his life, his sure-footed guidance on the battlefield turning into a stumbling joke when it came to anything else.

He was born for the battlefield. This? Niers didn’t sleep that night, really. He woke, tried to clean his armor and clothing with a bit of grass. He gave up, wishing for rain. He nearly called it out of the skies, but a fine welcome that would be, with hail or lightning pouring down. Besides, any [Weather Mage] would notice the Skill.

So the Titan just…walked up the hill. It took him nearly an hour, as he searched the inn for anything. He saw a tower with a figure in it, smoke rising from one of the three chimneys. Not much light or sound coming from the inn.

Not many guests. But some began hurrying from the City of Liscor as Niers watched. A Drake, a few Gnolls…and he heard voices from the door of the inn.

Magical door, of course.

His heart was beating so fast. The Titan limped up the slope around back. He hopped, then, impatient, covering far more ground. Hop, hop—towards one of the windows. Niers investigated them. There were always…yes! One was open a crack. He heard voices, but hopped up to the window, levered it a bit open, and slipped inside.

The Wandering Inn.

The Fraerling’s pulse raced. The old [Strategist] halted, hand on a pane of glass, panting. He had arrived. He…

…Looked around the empty common room. The clean tables, but so vacant. A massive room, long and wide, but longer than the inn should be physically. A…Skill. An empty platform on the far end.

A dark kitchen. Stairs leading up, doors leading elsewhere. Carefully cut floorboards, a bit worn in, but wonderfully-made, secure, glass windows. One of the two fireplaces in this large room was lit, but only glowing embers remained, warming the vast chamber not at all.

Boxes with bright little flowers in them, red, violets, native to the Floodplains.

No people.

Niers Astoragon sat down. The inn was empty. Was this…all a trick? Had something happened? He bowed his head.

In the darkness, light pierced the gloom of the inn. Niers’ head snapped up. He saw a…door open across from him.

A door that had not been there a moment ago. Bright, beautiful daylight shone from within. A meadow of grass and beautiful flowers, even glowing Sage’s Grass beyond. A pond, a hill shrouded in mist…

The Titan of Baleros stared as someone appeared in the doorway. He saw…a somber Centaur push open the door. A [Mage], wearing a colorful kilt. He turned, clattering around quietly with his hooves, and offered someone a hand.

A dark-skinned Human woman with an apron stepped through. She took his hand and held it tightly. They moved back. Someone else stepped through.

An…Niers’ eyes widened. He almost recoiled from the image he had only seen in illustrations, by magic, from afar. An ant-like head, a beetle’s armored body, complete with a thick shell on the back.

Antinium. A Worker-type. His four arms were clasped, two in an odd gesture, fingers interlaced. The other two held a censer, the scent of cinnamon coming from it. His head was bowed.

Behind him, another Antinium, but far larger, upright, compared to the hunched Worker. Bits of yellow covering his armored carapace. A Soldier. He turned.

“…Will it fit?”

“I think so.”

“Must we do it in the common room? What if we—we hurt her?”

Someone called out anxiously. A Drake hurried through, her green scales and dress the most normal thing here. A civilian, addressing the others anxiously, tail curled up.

Muffled voices. A Human [Mage] came next, shaking her head. Her hair was a bright orange, the sign of royalty. She turned back.

“The Garden’s got all kind of protective spells on the hilltop. We don’t want anything interfering with the potion. Let’s—we can push together some tables.”

Her voice wobbled. Niers Astoragon saw more people coming through, out of the garden. His eyes widened.

He saw a Goblin [Shaman], magical paint drawn on her skin, ushering a little white Gnoll clutching at the Drake in the dress, looking uncertain and worried.

A Hobgoblin, crimson eyes burning, a…guitar?…slung on his back, sword at his side, walking in after an older Dwarf, whose gnarled hands were clenched.

A blue-scaled Drake that Niers recognized, taking a position next to the Antinium.

More and more. Many species, all of whom stood in silence, waiting for something to be borne onto the four long tables they had connected. Niers saw a group of Drakes march forwards, one of the last to appear.

Out of the doorway, not this…garden. There were eight; four of them garbed head-to-toe in powerful, enchanted armor, without gap or weakness. They stared at the Goblins and Antinium, hands on their weapons.

The Drake they escorted held a little bottle in his claws, and he wore official clothing. Niers recognized the insignia of Salazsar’s crest on the rich clothing.

“Is the…Human ready?”

He asked the crowd. Niers saw many look at each other. At last, a Gnoll wearing a server’s uniform pointed.

“They are bringing her, sir.”

Her. Every head turned. Niers watched, bewildered.

Yet now, a dread had come upon him. Instinct, the instinct of someone who had seen…scenes similar to this, intuited from the mood, the way they talked, understanding the moment, the circumstances that had led to this silent inn.

He knew, but he waited.

The last of them joined the silent gathering, forming two lines towards the table. Young man, young woman, both Human. A…Human…girl with hood drawn over her head, skin palest of all here, almost as pale as the Selphid standing next to the Drowned Man and half-Giant.

The Selphid held the arm of a massive Dullahan, who had taken off his head and held it in the crook of his arm. His armor was brilliant, a silvery-white, beautifully forged. His face was somber.

Yet…longing. All of theirs were. The half-Giant stooped, leaning on his staff, looking ragged. A Drowned Man and another Selphid wearing a Gnoll’s body stood next to him.

So many. They would not have noticed the Fraerling, crouching behind the window planter, even if they had looked around. Their eyes were locked on what was coming.

Niers Astoragon had been looking amongst them for her. The person he had come to meet. The object of his obsessions.

The [Innkeeper]. Erin Solstice. He would have spotted her in a moment, yet she was not here. When she did arrive, he realized everything.

That he had come too late. A month too late. That his foolish wait and silly games had cost more than just him.

The Titan had arrived just in time to see them attempt to revive Erin Solstice.

The last procession marched in with her on the frozen bier. They did not hold her; rather, they ‘carried’ the frozen body between them, hovering in the air. Each of the four [Mages] was ready to move, to catch her, however. They were so delicate, so careful. So…

Bezale was first, the Minotauress’ decorated horns flashing as she bent to step through. Her robes at odds with her well-built form, fitting of a [Warrior].

The Centaur was next. He had gone to join the bearers. He trotted in, bereft of his usual cigar or any other treat, though the smell hung around him. His skin glistening with sweat, not from the strain of magic, but stress.

Third? A balding man, older than the other two [Mages], holding a grey wand. His hair tinged a more ordinary orange. The [Enchanter], Hedault, had his eyes locked on the object he followed.

The bier. Cold frost rising from the person lying on it. Someone had folded her arms around the five broken shafts in her chest. Her clothing was frozen, her lips still parted in a smile.

Niers looked at Erin Solstice as the last bearer closed the door behind him. The huge Drake, almost disturbingly muscled, held a wand carefully in his claws. Magus Grimalkin’s face was not exactly blank. Just—concentrating.

They were all watching. The Drakes from Salazsar stirred. The one with the bottle looked at Erin Solstice and the object he held, uncertainly.

A little undead beaver clambered up onto another window, eyes rising just high enough to peek into the inn. It missed Niers, but the two little figures observed the ritual. The…

“I hold the Potion of Regeneration, brought by Wall Lord Ilvriss of House Gemscale of Salazsar. By his great effort, he has obtained this relic and instructed me to use it in the revival of one Erin Solstice. If it is possible.”

Potion of Regeneration. Niers started. He stared at the bottle. He realized…

“She has been poisoned. Will that affect the—healing? I have a Skill that could help. But it does not work. Not on Erin.”

The Antinium with the clasped hands, Pawn, spoke, haltingly. The Drakes turned to him. The Rubirel Guard stared at their Antinium foe. The Drake hesitated.

“Answer the question.”

Grimalkin spoke, briefly. The Drake representative nodded at him.

“A Potion of Regeneration should not be halted by poison. We have made inquiries from the family it was purchased from, and it is a Kemel-type potion, rated about Orichalcum-quality…by the standards of that era.”

“Alchemist Kemel? To my knowledge he would have a potion surpassing mundane potions. I would like confirmation. Miss Octavia?”

Some of the others knew the name. The [Enchanter] turned to the [Alchemist] Stitch-Girl, her dreadlocks half-unbraided, staring with wide eyes at the potion. And Erin. She spoke, her voice uncertain.

“I—I think so. Alchemist Kemel used his Potions of Regeneration—I mean, made them—during the Creler Wars, to save lives before the mass-antidote to their poison was developed. So…it should work for Hectval’s poison.”

Hectval? Yet Niers wasn’t…thinking. He, like them all, was an observer.

“Very well. In that case, I would like to make the attempt. How…shall I perform it?”

“I can pour the potion.”

Palt offered. The Drake refused.

“I must not relinquish this potion to anyone, [Mage]. I am a [Safeguard Representative]; it shall not be stolen or suborned from my possession. Rest assured, I can apply a dosage.”

“Not all of it?”

The answer came from the blue-scaled Drake. Strategist Olesm.

“No. It might not work.”

The air grew thicker still. At last, Grimalkin, the [Sinew Magus], spoke in a deep, authoritative voice.

“We will create an opening to test this potion, Representative Melis. The wounds are centered around Miss Solstice’s chest. Thus, I, Enchanter Hedault, and Mage Montressa will carefully warm the afflicted region to normal. Then, you will apply the potion. Only a few drops. Three. If they do not start to affect her, we will freeze Erin Solstice once more. Is that all acceptable?”

No one responded. The Antinium group bowed their heads. One began to whisper a prayer. The little Gnoll clung to the claws of the Drake in the dress and the [Shaman]. She was trembling.

Mrsha was not the only one. Everyone watched as the three most skillful [Mages] crowded around. They murmured—the others watched. Helpless, intent, trying to see the flow of magic…praying…

Niers Astoragon just sat there.

I came too late. I could have come months ago, when I knew. I could have stopped this. I…

What have I been doing?

His head bowed. He stared at his stump of a leg, then the potion. It was terrible, but he wanted it. Yet—he waited. They all did, as the three [Mages] cast warming spells, carefully, carefully adjusting the temperature, warming just one region of the young woman. Quickly, but not too fast to harm, or so they hoped.

The crowd watched as the Drake stepped forwards and opened the bottle. He had to murmur the release spell. The gilded bottle unsealed with a magical lock that Niers recognized. A true relic of another era. When the bottle opened—he smelled a rich, almost velvet fragrance in the air.

He felt a bleeding gum, torn by weeks without proper care, eating raw or ragged food…begin to close. The air came alive with potential, with healing.

The air itself hummed as the Drake, with exquisite care, tipped the flask. Three drops emerged.

The air flashed. Half the room had to look away or were blinded by the glowing drops of magic. The [Strategist] with the eye patch didn’t even blink.

Three drops landed on the bloody wound. The frozen flesh. So much magic, so much healing…

 

 

It failed.

Of course it did. The [Necromancer] had known. Yet for those present, for Niers, the wait was too long. Each second of the minute they counted down an hour, a year.

Two minutes they waited. Then—the [Enchanter] looked up. He stared at Grimalkin, yet even the [Sinew Magus] had let the minute stretch into two. Hedault spoke.

“Two minutes and three seconds have elapsed. Magus Grimalkin. Magus Grimalkin.

Slowly, the Drake looked up. He blinked—then moved. He looked at the three drops dribbling down the frozen flesh, onto the table. His head bowed.

“The potion does not work on Erin Solstice without further measures. Magus Montressa. Prepare your freezing spells with me. On three. One…two…”

Niers watched frost recover the young woman’s chest. He heard the sobbing begin. Not from all. Some just stood there, shocked, hope rekindled—lost. The inn seemed twice as dark. Twice as desolate.

“We—must bring her back.”

“It didn’t work? But you said. You said…”

A choked voice from one of them. One of the Workers had sunk to his knees. Pawn, praying. Another person whirled. The Dwarf stomped out of the inn, without looking back.

Another person made an incoherent sound, Moore blundered for the door. Jelaqua reached for him. Others were weeping. An Antinium with a bow sat down and curled up, rocking back and forth.

“Waah. Waaah. Waaah…”

Crying, though he could not shed tears. The Goblin with the guitar followed the frozen young woman. Many did.

“Mrsha. Mrsha—”

Selys’ eyes were overflowing. She hugged the Gnoll. Mrsha was just staring at the table. They had said. They had…

The guests scattered. The undead beaver turned to dust. Many fled the inn, those not seeing to Erin, as if the hell of Rhir itself had manifested in this place. Broken, lost…

Something else. Something greater. The Drake representative spoke with Chaldion of Pallass, Grimalkin when he returned. He shook hands, talked with Selys, Ishkr, exchanging contact information, turned to the guards, and left the inn, head bowed.

Hope was lost again.

Yet. Somewhere else, here and not here, the [Innkeeper] woke up. And the small [Strategist], who had put his head in his hands, saw something glittering on the floor.

Three drops of precious liquid, drying in the air.

The attempt to save Erin Solstice had ended, with absolutely no gain or consequence whatsoever. Just pain, and nothing…

In the silent inn, a tiny man leapt to the floor, he ran, using the crutch, hopping, his ragged armor and cloak flapping behind him. Running for the glittering spot, seeping into the floorboard.

“No, no—!

He flung himself down. There was only a bit of liquid left. Yet Niers—he fumbled for his sword.

“Please work. It has to—”

He drew the shortsword, slashed across the base of his healed flesh. The cut hurt, yet in the next second he was splashing the Potion of Regeneration on the wound. For a second, he only felt bloody pain. His sword was so sharp he barely felt it. Then—

Agony. Niers cried out, convulsing. He fell back as flesh began to grow from the stump. Bone! His body recreating itself, shedding hair, skin particles, dirt—he was laughing, sobbing.

 

—-

 

Mrsha was crying. She had hid rather than see Erin put back. She was sobbing into her paws, curled up in the inn. She only looked up, briefly, when she heard the faint sound.

Something was crouched over the place where Erin had been. The potion. She saw a filthy, grey-furred-thing, smaller than some of the rats, over there. She looked at it. Mrsha was too sad to kill the rat. She buried her head in her fur.

Niers Astoragon stared at his leg. He put it down, against a floorboard, and almost screamed. His skin hurt! No—wait. It was the sensation.

He had the nerves of a newborn. Like a broken arm in a cast, each touch was electric, nerves hypersensitive after so long. Yet the pain, the sensation was so good he felt tears in his eyes.

His leg was back! Not—the same. His armor was gone, obviously. As well—his toenails were long. Curled up! And he had hair longer than that on his scalp coming from his leg!

The Potion of Regeneration. He’d trim it later. Right now—Niers ran, diving for the basement, as the first people came back. He fled down into the darkness, next to a sack of something and lay there. Panting.

“I was too late.”

That was all he said. Then his head lolled back. He let despair, bittersweet relief, exhaustion, overtake him.

“I’m sorry.”

He slept.

 

—-

 

The next day, Niers Astoragon woke up to the sound and sensation of himself retching. He climbed out of his hiding spot on all fours and began throwing up. He dragged himself through his puke, lay there, and then curled up.

His body was burning. What—what–? Aftereffects of the Potion of Regeneration?

No. This feels like—

“Poison! Dead gods damn it—

Niers spotted the paste he’d run through too late. It had gotten on his bare foot, maybe parts of his clothing. He tried to crawl away—then began throwing up again.

After finding the Children of the Grain Sack in her inn’s basement, Erin Solstice had begun laying down poison against insects and other pests like any sensible person did. She used the most economical ingredients; Octavia had been happy to mash up some of the seed cores from blue fruit with some other toxins.

It was a contact-poison. Rock Crabs had no way of dealing with poison, hence their extreme aversion to the stuff that would build up in their systems.

Bugs, likewise, died fast if they nibbled the little paste placed in corners of the basement and some areas. By contrast, Humans or larger species wouldn’t get more than food-poisoning if they didn’t wash their hands.

Rats, and mammals like Niers, could survive by expelling the poison. The Fraerling survived.

Barely. He remembered climbing into a sack of something, eating—expelling from every orifice, realizing he had to have water. Fortunately, he’d improvised crude water flasks long ago and drained them, praying it was enough.

He wasn’t sure how long he lay, shivering, burning, covered in sweat, as his body tried to detoxify itself. It could have been a day or longer. All he knew was that when he woke up, caked in filth and barley—he was in a sack of barley—something was sniffing around him. A large something.

 

—-

 

Mrsha stared at the bit of poison next to the carefully sealed sack. One did not get into the other, obviously, but something had been here. Not a rat, or she thought she would have found the corpse.

Yet, had it gone into the sack? She eyed it, wondering if it was a Shield Spider or something icky. She definitely smelled some poo-yuck in the air. And if there was a dead something in the sack, possibly with Octavia’s poison in it, Imani would want to throw it out.

Mrsha concentrated on this, rather than the sadness of everything. Two days had passed since the…failure. Selys, Ulvama, and the others had kept Mrsha from wallowing. Ulvama the most effectively, it had to be said. Sensing Mrsha’s grief and knowing she didn’t need to be ‘happily cheered up’ all the time like the other fools, she had promptly smacked Mrsha on the head and let the Gnoll fight her.

Enough for Ulvama to need a potion afterwards. Mrsha had started crying and apologized. Well, two days since that.

Hunting rats was all she could do. Mrsha stared at the grain sack. Slowly, she noted the undone drawstrings.

Yup, yup. Imani would definitely want Mrsha to get rid of this. Plus, get rid of the entire barley sack. She always made sure her food ingredients weren’t contaminated. Mrsha opened the sack.

Little, brown seeds stared up at her. Pearl barley, a lot of it that some stupid rodent had decided to foul up! Mrsha glowered. This was good food! Now it all had to go since the rat had pooed in it and dragged the poison with it without having the decency to die somewhere else.

She smacked the top of the barley, hoping it would scare the creature out. Mrsha had less ethics about the slaughter of rats. They were not, as Numbtongue had pointed out, analogous to Goblins. They were rats. They got into things and they deserved to die.

Not suffer. No, not suffer. That was cruelty. But Mrsha would put the rat out of its misery or just toss it out of the inn. Nalthaliarstrelous had taught her that. Sometimes even [Druids] had to curb bad populations like the Shield Spiders. Kindness, though. Only do what was necessary.

Mrsha the Merciful Rat Slayer waited, and saw some of the grain shift.

Aha, you are in there. She sighed. Well—Mrsha’s paw darted into the barley and she grabbed, fishing around. No? No—there! Got you, you stupid—

 

—-

 

Niers ran his shortsword through the paw. He snarled and the paw jerked back. A wailing sound came from above him and whatever the hell it was ran off, making a distressed sound.

Bloody, cursing, he lay there, then extracted himself from the barley sack.

“Damned dogs! What the hell—the hell—”

Snarling, savage, half-dead from poison, the Fraerling hopped up the stairs. Like a feral thing, he stumbled across the inn, sword still bloody, ready to kill anything in his way. Kitchen…he needed water. He needed—

Drops of blood led away from him. Niers reached the kitchen, found some of the water, some food in a cupboard and lived. Only later did he realize he’d stabbed a child.

 

—-

 

Mrsha ran on two legs, sobbing, holding her paw out. Ulvama sighed and rolled over when she saw Mrsha burst into her room. It was early morning.

“Go away, crying little baby-Mrsha.”

She muttered. But the Gnoll’s voice was plaintive. She couldn’t speak, yet—Ulvama smelled blood and looked up sharply.

“Hurt paw? Get potion of healing, stupid!”

She snapped. Mrsha pointed. She’d tried! But the hole in her paw hadn’t closed! The mouse had bit through her paw somehow, and it wasn’t healing!

The [Shaman] sat up. She stared as Mrsha pleadingly held out the bottle, one of many emergency potions stashed around the inn. She dropped some liquid in and saw the same damn thing as the frozen Human.

“Huh. This poison?”

Mrsha shook her head. She didn’t think so. Ulvama sniffed. Neither did she. She scratched her head as Mrsha whined. That got on her nerves, so Ulvama found her staff, and bonked Mrsha on the head.

“Stop snivel. Pain goes away!”

Mrsha started crying more. She wanted niceness! Not—

She lowered her good paw from her bonked head. And stared at her bloody paw. The pain was gone! Ulvama snorted.

“Now—come with. Hurry! Hold paw so don’t bleed on floors. Gets lots of ants that way.”

She ushered Mrsha towards her work station. Octavia’s shop, rather. Ulvama saw the Gnoll obediently holding her paw tightly, but not feeling the pain. The [Shaman] investigated.

“Hmm. Strange. Super-rat? Super-magic rat with enchanted teeth? Why go through paw? What did it look like?”

Mrsha didn’t know! She danced on her feet, begging Ulvama to fix it and then ask questions! Even if it didn’t hurt now, she didn’t like holes in her paws!

To the [Shaman]’s puzzlement, it was like treating an…injury caused by an enchanted weapon. That was her analogy; a higher-grade magical wound that potions couldn’t just heal up.

“Not Evercut. You lucky. Bad poke, though. Can’t fix fast. Here. Hold still…”

She mixed up a blood-stopping poultice, then expertly-bound Mrsha’s paw. Crestfallen, the Gnoll stared at Ulvama. The [Shaman] pointed.

“Don’t walk on paw. You rest. Stay away from bad rat. Where?”

Mrsha showed her, toddling on two feet. But of course, the rat was gone and Mrsha’s blood was too strong for her to get a solid lock on the rat. Ulvama hmmed, frowning.

“Super-rats. Not Creler or little Gnoll loses entire limb. I put down little pest-traps. Okay? You rest paw.”

Mrsha nodded. She went and got Rose to cuddle her and play movies while exclaiming over her poor paw. But now it was personal. It was…war!

 

—-

 

Niers Astoragon nearly walked into the first rune-trap. He backed off from it and swore.

“Do they have killer-rodents here or something? Dead fucking gods!”

He’d nearly died twice this morning. First that child…he felt guilty about it, but he’d acted on instinct, thinking it was a dog, reminded of the Razorbeak. The second time, he’d nearly died getting food.

Something was off with the cupboards in the kitchen. He hadn’t noticed the grain sack, but the cupboard door had shut while he was grabbing some weird triangle of food. The next thing Niers had known, he’d been squashed against half a dozen dishes, nearly compressed into nothing!

“Holding effect. Those damn—”

Shakily, Niers had extricated himself. It didn’t kill you unless there was no space. Rather, the ‘enhanced’ compartments just reverted back to normal when a living thing fully entered it. Hands were fine; he’d used a fork to grab another morsel of food. The grain sack hadn’t killed him because it was exactly as large as it needed to be, so when the effect ‘wore off’, nothing happened.

On the other hand, the cupboard had smashed all the food in it to pieces, pottery and a mush of food. Imani lost about twenty dishes, much to her displeasure.

We’ve got mice!

She informed Palt, snapping as she cleaned up the mess. The Centaur sighed.

“I know. Mrsha got bit by one, apparently.”

“Well? Can’t you get rid of them?”

“What? I’m not a [Rodent Bard]. I can lay down a few spells…”

“That would be helpful, Palt, my beautiful, gallant Centaur.”

She batted her eyes a few times at him, and then gave him a pointed look. The Centaur backed up.

“Er…why don’t I do just that?”

 

—-

 

Niers was being hunted. It was like a game of…cat and mouse…in a labyrinth full of traps. Physical ones, that damned poison on the ground, and magical runes cunningly disguised.

All meant for rats, true, but they were nasty. The Centaur had laid down simple ones, like repulsion, ones that ensnared you with a bit of webbing, and so on.

The Goblin [Shaman] did not believe in non-lethal rodent spells. Niers had tossed a little pebble onto one and watched a miniature [Flame Strike] spell billow into the air, or the equivalent for him.

A few days had passed since his poisoning. He was recovering from that and his sojourn abroad, still.

The worst had come to pass. He had seen Erin Solstice. Now…he just wanted to go home. He had no idea if she could be cured, but if she could, it would only be with the Forgotten Wing Company’s resources.

Yet getting home was a bigger challenge if Erin Solstice wasn’t here for him to make contact with. He was trying to get ahold of one of the Minotauress’ [Message] scrolls to send a message back to Baleros.

Without revealing himself. Niers had considered it and disregarded the action immediately. He had been willing to trust Erin Solstice. Perhaps there were trustworthy individuals in the inn.

However, he knew Wistram when he saw it. And he trusted all three [Mages] as far as he could throw them. Moreover, even if they were all on a level, they’d be slaughtered by the [Bounty Hunters] and adventurers coming after his bounty. Assuming Niers was waiting here for extraction, this inn might see sieges like six Gold-rank teams joining to claim him.

Far more than the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings could survive. Niers had gotten a lay of the inn, by now, the occupants, such as they were. They were all fairly easy to avoid, with two exceptions.

The traps laid down—and that damned child.

She had a better nose than the other Gnolls in the inn by far. Niers had found soap and water and cleaned himself, and thus most of the Gnolls would never notice his small scent.

Yet Mrsha had a younger Gnoll’s nose, and she held a grudge. On her still-healing paw, she was tracking Niers every second she had free.

Evil mice! She hadn’t seen Niers, except with his cloak on. Twice, she’d spotted him and he’d managed to escape, mainly by finding a small space, then tossing some ground hot pepper spice into her face and running.

Niers had no desire to kill children. But that little Gnoll was persistent! Worse, she’d begun carrying around something in addition to her wand: a hammer. She wasn’t going to risk the ‘rat’ biting her again.

 

—-

 

The ‘game’ of Fraerling-and-Gnoll ended in a surprise draw. Mrsha was tracking the mouse again, after her shopping trip with Ulvama in the city that had been so boring. She had her little hammer she’d ‘borrowed’ from Kevin’s room ready. Ready for the smack!

She was sure she was hot on the heels of the evil mouse. Mrsha crept forwards. Sniffing…sniffing…then she scented something sharp in the air. Iron…

Blood. She halted. She was heading down the second-floor hallway. She saw a yawning adult pass by. Mrsha waved at Bezale as she and Montressa went out, working on that blood bank thing.

“Er—hello.”

The Minotauress muttered, eying Mrsha and the hammer. But she made no comment. Non-Minotaur children were strange. She strode after Montressa. Mrsha sniffed around.

Yes, just ahead…she hesitated as she came to a closed door. This was Bezale’s room? She hesitated, looked over her shoulder. Well—the Minotauress wouldn’t mind. Mrsha was on a mission from Mrsha! She pushed open the door and found her quarry.

At first, Mrsha thought she’d gotten it wrong. She looked into the room, but felt like the trail ‘ended’ at the door. It was only when she was leaving when she found…him.

A tiny little man lay against a wall, bleeding. He had a cloak of fur and stuff that might look like a rat at first glance. Ragged armor, a sheathed sword at his side. He had what had been a salt-and-pepper beard and trimmed hair, now gone wild after days in the wilderness.

Indeed, he looked closer to a true savage than any Plains Gnoll. Desperate, surviving without any help or friends. But that was not the shocking thing.

The shocking thing was the blood. His left arm was twisted up, bone peeking through flesh. And one leg looked bad too. Mrsha stared.

Niers had gotten into Bezale’s room. But he’d been too slow. The Minotauress had, in opening the door, caught him. Slammed him right into the wall with the careless force of…a tall person.

Rgh. Not—not—Minotaurs!

Niers didn’t know if he was saying it. He was trying to move. He sensed the Gnoll staring down at him. He wanted to draw his sword. He wasn’t thinking. Just—kill or be killed! He slashed with his good arm. Blacked out—like this? Not even a Razorbeak? A door? A d—

 

—-

 

Niers woke up with a gasp. He felt something soft, smothering, retreat quickly. He felt a cool liquid, a familiar sensation.

Healing potion. He grabbed for his sword by reflex. The little paw retreated. Niers looked around.

“Wh—”

Mrsha stared down at Niers gravely. The little Fraerling was in her and Lyonette’s room, lying on the cloth and healing supplies she’d grabbed. She was trying to gently dab his bloody body with some healing potion daubed onto a bit of cotton. Niers regained consciousness, looked at her.

The little Gnoll retreated a step, but her eyes were locked on the tiny man. Fascinated. He stared at his leg—it hadn’t been broken or dislocated, but the skin had been torn. Healing. His arm—

Mrsha slowly tipped more of the half-empty potion bottle down. Liquid pooled and she pressed the bloody cotton ball into it. She reached out to touch his arm.

Stop!

His voice was ragged with pain. Mrsha jerked back. Niers grabbed at his arm. He modulated his tone. The sudden shock of being…rescued faded. He spoke, gritting his teeth.

“Not like that. My arm’s broken. It needs to be set. You’ll heal it wrong.”

She nodded wide-eyed. Mrsha hesitated, scampered for the door. Ulvama!

“Stop. Don’t—don’t tell anyone. I just need—”

Niers was feeling at the bone. He’d set countless bones for healing in his time. He gritted his teeth.

“You see—the bone? I just need to push it in. Here. Just—”

He saw Mrsha come back over. Niers, gasping, looked around.

“That—that. Put that right here. I need a solid surface.”

She slowly edged the potion bottle over. He put his arm against it. Just—apply—

He blacked out for a second with the pain. His bones moved and Mrsha flinched. The tiny little man made a sound, but he was moving his broken arm into place.

“I need a drop of potion. A tiny bit. One bit at a time.”

He panted at her. Mrsha looked around, and then desperately ran downstairs. She came back up with a spoon and put some potion into it. Niers splashed his arm as he set the bone. It looked right—felt right—

He was sweating when it was done. His arm? He could flex his hand. But the potion wasn’t highest-grade.

“I need a sling. Cloth. A stick.”

The girl ran to get him what he asked for. She watched as he made a sling for himself, bracing his arm so it wouldn’t move. He cut it with his sword—her eyes focused on that—and slung it around his neck.

That done, Niers Astoragon sat back. Sweating with pain. His face was pale, but he was alive. Dead gods. He’d nearly died when that clod-footed Minotaur had slammed the door into him when remembering she’d forgotten her damned bag of holding!

Fraerlings died in stupid ways like that. Run over, stepped on—

“I hate doors. I hate doors so damn much.”

He panted. A big, furry head of white fur nodded gravely. Mrsha too had suffered the slings and arrows of someone opening a door on your face. Niers looked up at her.

For the first time, Fraerling and Gnoll met each other’s eyes. All the animosity of hunter and hunted turned into…puzzlement. Niers looked at the girl, who had rescued the not-mouse the instant she had seen him. Mrsha, for her part, was astounded.

They had tiny people infesting the inn! Imani was going to be so mad about this.

“I’m…thank you.”

He panted at her. She nodded again. Mrsha saw his face contort in confusion. Reminded, she felt at her belt for her handy-dandy—

Aha! She pulled out the quill, a bit of parchment, and wrote.

“You’re very welcome, sir. I am sorry you got hurt. My name is Mrsha, it is very nice to meet you.”

Niers read it aloud. A polite little greeting from Mrsha, courtesy of Lyonette’s tutelage. He blinked at her.

White fur. Gnoll. Already interesting. Can’t speak? He nodded, slowly.

“Thank you. Mrsha? My name…is Niers Astoragon. Do you—know who I am?”

Eyes went wide. A mouth opened so wide, Niers could have hopped in. Mrsha began to write. This time she had only one word.

Titan?

“Yes.”

Eyes as round as could be. The Gnoll stared down at Niers. She had seen him on the scrying orb! But he looked bigger then! Niers coughed.

His mind was moving fast and slow. Sluggish from pain and healing. He nodded.

“That’s right. I’m…far from home. I got into trouble. Dangerous people are after me, understand? Please—don’t tell anyone I’m here. Understand? Not one person.”

He looked at her, trying to convince her of the seriousness of this.

“Many, many dangerous people would do anything to reach me. For everyone’s safety. You understand?”

She nodded, slowly. Mrsha the Super Secretive stared at the Titan of Baleros, whose name was almost as cool as hers. A living legend. The Fraerling smiled.

“Just give me a second to rest—I’ve had a bad week.”

Then his head lolled back. He passed out. Mrsha looked around. She slowly picked him up and looked around. Wh-what was she supposed to do?

Mrsha the Adventurer was one thing, but this was big. Did she tell someone? But he just said not to! She hesitated. He couldn’t stay here. What if Ulvama sat on him with her giant green butt? Then the Titan of Baleros would be dead and it would be all Mrsha’s fault!

There was only one conclusion. She scampered into the [Garden of Sanctuary] and flagged Apista down. The bee was buzzing across the top of the dome.

This is no time for games, Apista! We’re in serious poo! Maximum poo! Look!

Mrsha tried to convey this as best as she could. The bee buzzed around Niers, who was cradled in Mrsha’s paws. Tinier than even Apista! Mrsha ran over to the Fortress Beavers. They grunted as she explained.

No one step on him. I’m going to put him here, okay?

She carefully brought the bit of cloth, some of the potions in case he wanted them, and an entire quiche and a flask of water into a little section where few people went. The jungle-biome, where not even Numbtongue would go. He was here, of course, but hadn’t noticed Mrsha. He just…sat there.

Mrsha squirreled Niers into a little holding spot as Apista saluted her with one antennae. She’d keep this strange little person safe! Mrsha scampered back, mind racing.

The Titan! In her inn! Had he come to beat up someone? Didn’t he have an army? She had to tell someone! But Lyonette, the only person Mrsha would super-trust, wasn’t here. And Erin…

Tell Ulvama? But Niers said not to. He was the Titan. Mrsha wasn’t sure, so she ran about, grabbing things he might need, anything she could think of. Also, she begged Joseph to take her back into Liscor so she could look up news about the Titan! Who was in her inn!

“I don’t know what’s gotten into her, sorry.”

Joseph told the [Scribe] at the Mage’s Guild as Mrsha held out the request. The Drake chuckled indulgently.

“Not to worry. I bet she’s heard. Fan of the Titan, are you? Let me just pull up all the latest news. Have you heard, sir?”

“Heard what?”

Joseph was fascinated to learn the same thing as Mrsha about the Titan and Peclir Im. He paid for printed copies.

 

—-

 

The [Scribe] massaged his writing hand after accepting payment for the brief work. He turned as his superior bustled over as Mrsha and Joseph began to leave.

“Did someone investigate the Titan of Baleros? We’re supposed to make a note.”

“Just that little girl over there.”

“Oh.”

The [Mage] hesitated. He eyed Mrsha, then shook his head, sighing.

“That’s for search requests on the bounty. Not…children. Never mind. But make a note of anyone else, understand?”

“Got it.”

 

—-

 

Mrsha had gotten back and was spreading out the Mage’s Guild news about the Titan. Missing! Bounty! Eight hundred thousand gold pieces alive?

Mrsha the Bounty Hunter…shook her head. She sat there, quivering with excitement. She barely noticed the nice Dullahan [Mage] come in, ask about Montressa, Bezale, walk about the inn. She was scampering over for lunch when Montressa and Bezale walked back in.

“Ah, Mage Montressa. Mage Bezale.”

The two froze as the Dullahan stood up. Mrsha hesitated, waving her papers at Ulvama, who didn’t care. The [Shaman]’s eyes narrowed. Montressa went for her bag of holding. The Shock Orb, her staff.

“High Mage Merzun!”

“Correct.”

The Dullahan pointed, and a flash blew both [Mages] off their feet. Ulvama leapt—and the [Paralysis] spell hit her in the chest. More pre-prepared spells began firing off as Mrsha fled under the table.

 

—-

 

It was today. The air was hot. Mrsha cowered under the table. The Dullahan glanced at her as Mrsha crept forwards.

“I don’t want more casualties. Little girl, put that down. It won’t do you any good, anyways.”

Mrsha froze. One of Numbtongue’s paranoia-crossbows was in her paws, having come out of a trick floorboard. She put it down. Merzun glanced around, her head still rotating—

Fire struck her shield. Ulvama pulled herself upright. The [Shaman] snarled, creating another ball of fire. She lobbed it and it burst across the barriers, blazing bright, liquid fire—

“I am being indulgent. Must I cripple someone to make my point? [Force Bolts – Volley].”

A stream of those intangible bolts shot towards Ulvama. Mrsha cried out soundlessly. The [Shaman]—weathered the storm.

Her magical paint flared bright and then turned grey, flaking off her body. A dozen spells struck her harmlessly. She spat, and hurled the tankard. It bounced off the shield, and Merzun reflexively recoiled as liquid evaporated on her shields. Ulvama was already leaping.

A wall of vines rose around the Dullahan! She blasted it with fire, impatiently, but Ulvama was gone when she looked around.

“[Detect Magic]. [Bound Spell – Paralysis Bolt].”

The [High Mage] glanced around. Ulvama crouched behind a table until the eyes fixed on her. The [Camouflaged] Goblin…grinned…as the gaze swept past her.

“How?”

Ulvama shot out from cover again as Numbtongue got to his feet with a roar. She sprayed black liquid into the air, reaching for her staff. Merzun’s line of sight was blocked. She missed the bolt as Numbtongue dodged. The Goblin swung his sword—

It sheared through one barrier, and then was repulsed. Before he could swing again, or Ulvama use a stronger spell, Merzun shouted.

“Enough! [Spell Swarm]!

She put her hands together. Mrsha saw half a dozen spells, Tier 1 and Tier 2, hit Numbtongue in the chest. He went over backwards and she screamed.

Ulvama was next. The Hobgoblin shielded herself, but the spells wore out her magical protections. Both Goblins lay on the ground, charred flesh smoking as Merzun looked around.

“Enough. Where are the other two?”

She floated over to Montressa. The [Mage] croaked.

“Gone. Leave them alone, Merzun! Liscor won’t stand for this. The Antinium—”

“Hear nothing. If you are counting on that Centenium, I will not be here. You’re telling the truth. Where are they?”

She was interrogating Montressa. Kevin, Joseph, Imani, they were going to be stolen! Mrsha left out Troy and Leon. Bird was still lying, unable to shake [Paralysis] by himself. Someone had to do something! Someone…this big, stupid, Dullahan Wistram-[Mage] wasn’t allowed to do this! It wasn’t right!

 

—-

 

He agreed. The Fraerling was still weak. He hadn’t been out long. His arm still ached in the sling. But the frantic bee had woken him. He limped out of the [Garden of Sanctuary], towards the little Gnoll.

Girl. Girl, listen.

The [High Mage] hadn’t noticed them. A damn [High Mage]? No wonder she’d walked all over this inn. None of them could match a ten-level difference with that kind of magical output.

And yet…Niers just stared at the Dullahan. His eyes narrowed.

“Mrsha.”

She jerked. She was quivering on the ground. Niers whispered into her ear, so that Merzun couldn’t notice him even if her head spotted her on its orbit.

“That Dullahan is going to abduct the others unless we do something. She’s imprisoned this inn; no one can get in even if they notice. Listen. I need you to help me. I can stop her.”

Mrsha’s eyes were round. She was terrified. Was that Hobgoblin her guardian? Niers remembered the reports, but not a female Goblin. He pointed.

“That crossbow. I can’t lift it. But you can. I just need you to shoot her.

Mrsha looked horrified. Niers clarified.

“In the leg. Arm. You don’t have to kill her.”

He’d meant kill her. But he’d forgotten his audience. The little Gnoll hesitantly stared at the crossbow. Niers reassured her.

“You don’t even need to hit her. Just…close by. Got it? Trust me. It will save everyone.”

She shook her head, gesturing to the magical barriers layered around Merzun. Niers nodded.

“I know she has shields. Listen. Trust me. I’m the Titan.

Mrsha the Archer looked at Niers. She looked at Merzun, at Montressa, gasping answers, Numbtongue, still trying to get up. She took a breath.

“Little girl. I would not do that.”

Merzun spoke. Montressa jerked. Even pressed against the floor, she could see Mrsha, sideways to her, aiming the crossbow with shaking paws at Merzun. The Dullahan woman didn’t look concerned.

Her armor was a flashy gemstone-inlaid-into-ceramic armor that could probably stop a weak crossbow bolt. However, the real protections were the layers of shields.

“Put that down. Children should not be wielding crossbows. Where is her guardian? I should take her with the others. Mage Montressa?”

Merzun almost sounded concerned. Montressa whispered.

“Leave her alone.”

“Then stop obstructing me. Why do the Gnolls have Miss Rose? Little girl—I am warning you. You do not want to make me angry, do you?”

Mrsha was sighting down the crossbow.

“Don’t. Run and get help. The garden! Get outside and—”

Bezale barked, and then cut off. Merzun saw the open door to the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Her fingers twitched and her wand-arm raised.

“Child, I am going to bind you. Put the crossbow down and come over here. You won’t be hurt. Understand? Come over here. Now? Don’t—”

The little Gnoll hesitated. She glanced down, then her features firmed. She aimed and pulled the trigger.

The crossbow fired. The bolt loosed. Merzun’s brows crossed, but she didn’t bother to dodge.

Niers Astoragon used his greatest Skill. He pointed, and activated it. The Skill he had ‘earned’ from killing the [Gambler of Fates]. His last capstone.

A Skill to break any foe to pieces. Even the King of Destruction.

[Battlefield: Even Ground – No Magic, No Luck, No Skills, Only Strategy].

Across the ground, High Mage Merzun’s magic abruptly turned off. She began to drop. Her eyes went wide.

The crossbow bolt punched into her foot, through ceramic. She hit the ground, her head smacking into the floorboards. Niers smiled as the magic suppressing half the people in the inn winked out.

“[Flame Bolt]!”

Montressa shouted. She pointed, but nothing happened. No Magic.

“[Piercing Shot].”

Bird raised his arrow, but hesitated as he sensed no Skill activating. No Skills.

No luck, either. For five minutes, you were just what you were. Only strategy. Even Tulm feared that Skill. Bird still drew back on the bow; he needed no Skills to hit his mark.

“Stop! Stop!

Palt shouted. He was getting to his feet. He knocked Bird’s aim loose. Mage Merzun? She was screaming in pain.

My foot! How—how—

Mrsha had fled into the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She peeked out, wide-eyed as the bleeding Dullahan woman flailed. Bezale grabbed her and checked her body into the ground.

It was over. Niers peeked out behind Mrsha’s ear. He’d just hit the people in the inn, not the inn itself. He’d had a hunch they might kill the [High Mage] if freed. Sure enough, he’d been wise to extend the radius.

On second thought, it was bad for a [High Mage] of Wistram to drop dead in this inn. He carefully whispered to Mrsha.

“Now, listen…”

 

—-

 

“A Tier 6 Spell? [Magic Null]?”

Mrsha the Glorious Magus nodded a few times. Montressa and Bezale’s mouths opened and closed a few times.

“There is no way she can cast that.”

“There was a book…”

Ishkr shut his mouth fast as everyone looked at him. Niers wiped sweat from his brow. He nudged the bee, crowding the beam where he was hiding.

Get lost!

The giant Ashfire Bee stared at him, hurt, and trotted a ways away. That wasn’t the point, anyways. Niers listened.

High Mage Merzun was captive. She had anti-magic cuffs on her, the same restraints brought to capture Pisces, ironically. Montressa, Bezale, Palt, and the others were debating what to do with her.

“If we hand her over to Zevara, Wistram will bail her out.”

“Not Zevara. She won’t budge.”

“Then it is war. Let me go. I don’t know how that child learned such magic, but she is coming with me. Those Earthers too. Wistram knows where I am. It is well you did not slay me. Do not make your situation worse.”

Mage Merzun was amazing. She had the gall to act as if she still held all the cards, even now. Worse…she was sort of right.

Sort of. Wistram was a big force. On the other hand? Ulvama whirled her staff and smacked Merzun on the head.

The [High Mage] made a pained sound. Ulvama smiled.

“Let’s beat her up. Then decide.”

She looked at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin was murderous.

“No, she’s right. She’s a [High Mage]. She might be able to blast her way out of prison unless Hexel’s upgraded it. Only a [Grand Magus] and the Archmages stand above her.”

Palt was the voice of reason. He looked around, not exactly calm, but seeing more clearly. He looked at Merzun, shook his head, and turned to the others.

“We have to let her go.”

Let her go? She’ll just come back again! Let’s give her to Chaldion in Pallass!”

Joseph snapped back. Palt shook his head.

“No, and no. I suggest we tell Chaldion—and Magus Grimalkin what happened. And Xrn.”

“Xrn will eat you.”

Bird whispered to Mage Merzun. Her restrained body and head both tried to roll away from the baleful [Hunter]. Palt shook his head.

“If Mage Merzun wants to stick around for all three to object to her—and Watch Captain Zevara—she can. This is a matter for Liscor’s Council. We do not want to be caught up in it.”

“But they know we’re here.”

Kevin looked at Merzun. She was eying him like…Troy and Leon and Imani too. Palt nodded slowly.

“Yes. We’ll have to prepare for that. Merzun dying here is not wise, though. She’s part of the Revivalists. Archmage Nailihuaile won’t react…well. She can be vindictive. Montressa, Bezale, back me up. Mons?”

The [Aegiscaster] wasn’t responding. She just sat.

“I’m exiled? I—”

“One of you is speaking sense. Let me go. As for Mage Montressa, it wasn’t my fault. Stop that! You disgusting creature!

Ulvama had blown her nose and was wiping the tissue on Merzun’s armor. The Hobgoblin [Shaman] somehow knew exactly how to offend Dullahans the worst.

The others argued. Niers knew the Centaur was correct—at least for now. Wistram would not give up. Those Earthers? Earthers? His mind was racing. Wistram was ahead of him. They had been for months.

Those Earthers were now on a shortlist, unless other factions in Wistram would protect them. Merzun was only the start.

Mind you—if this was his company and Merzun had tried it on his territory, she might not have been in this situation. Yet The Wandering Inn was not prepared to fight Wistram like a Great Company.

It did have Niers Astoragon. Mrsha glanced up at him and he waved for her to pretend he wasn’t there.

“I’ll talk to Ullsinoi. We need…the Revivalists would have gotten all of them. That’s an inter-academy conflict you’ve begun, High Mage.”

Palt was glancing at Merzun. She stared at him stonily.

“The [Innkeeper] is dead, Magus Palt. Similarly, there is no time for dissident factions.”

“I would say the dissident faction is the one clearly grabbing power here, High Mage.”

He replied, putting a cigar in his mouth.

“Enough. If she’s not being beaten up, I want her gone.”

The harsh voice came from Numbtongue. Niers blinked. The Hobgoblin pointed his sword at Merzun. She eyed him, wisely keeping her mouth shut.

“Mage. You come back—you die. Next time, you die. Anyone who tries, [Mage], Archmage, anyone. Understand?”

“I…understand. I will pass your message on to my faction.”

He glared. The others looked at each other.

“Well, let’s roll her into Invrisil I guess. Tell Grimalkin to come over first?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

As Bezale bent to grab Merzun’s body, she spoke up.

“Wait. I meant what I said.”

The others looked at her. The [High Mage] glowered around, then her eyes focused on the Earthers.

“You don’t have to stay here. Come to Wistram. We can protect you. Or have you not seen how dangerous the world is? We have many, many of you there. You can live in safety and luxury. I cannot force you, but surely you must agree.”

The Earthers looked at her. Kevin’s eyebrows were in his hair. Joseph just turned away.

“I need a drink. This is a good excuse, right?”

Imani glared from behind Palt. Even Troy held up two emphatic fingers. No one looked twice at Merzun, even the Brothers were clearly thinking that this was not an honest woman and trying to figure out how to stop someone before they entered the hallway. The truth spells…the inn had to be reopened.

“Alright, rolling time. Miss Ulvama, please stop that.”

Ulvama was now drawing graffiti on Merzun’s back with some extremely hard-to-remove paint. Ishkr had already run to get Grimalkin, Bird to find Xrn.

“I’ll go.”

A quiet voice spoke up as Merzun was hoisted up. Heads turned.

Leon stood there. He didn’t look at the others.

“Leon, are you nuts?”

“No, I’m not. I hate it here. Everyone else has something, I don’t. So I’ll go. This inn—you know what? Fuck this inn, you too, Kevin. I’m out.”

Leon looked around, shaking with nerves and anger. The others looked at him. Even Troy, who had his purpose. Numbtongue stared at Leon, and jerked his foot up.

“Okay. Two go. Get lost.”

He walked past Leon as the young man lay on the ground, clutching at his groin.

So, and so. Niers couldn’t speak to the wisdom of the decision. Nor was the [Strategist] able to make a decision based on his knowledge.

After all the commotion had ended, he rode the Ashfire Bee into the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She buzzed around, and a little Gnoll met them by the hilltop. Niers dismounted, and Mrsha carried him up.

“Ah.”

He stopped in front of the frozen bier. Niers stared down at Erin Solstice. He stood there, for a long moment. Mrsha’s head bowed, yet she darted glances at the Titan.

Realer than life. Smaller than his legend. The Fraerling [Strategist] stood there, head bowed. At last, at last—he looked at Mrsha.

No tears in his eyes. Just…tired. He looked at the young Gnoll, and then breathed out.

“If I can, I promise you, I’ll do something. Everything’s fallen apart. Can I ask you to help me put it back together?”

Mrsha looked down. The Fraerling man held out a hand. Slowly, ever so slowly, she reached out. Niers touched the first living being, the first person he hadn’t tried to kill or who had tried to kill him in a month, and gently shook her paw.

Far from home. Bereft of gear, but with all his Skills and experience. Ally? One white Gnoll. One Ashfire Bee. Advantages? No one knew where he was. Disadvantages? Everyone knew where he was.

The Titan smiled. He did like a challenge.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Back when I first offered Niers in the first Volume 8 poll, I made a mistake. I offered Niers, but I later realized that it was a dark, depressing chapter for the start of Volume 8, especially since it wasn’t all this. This is 2, maybe 3 chapters and plotlines compressed.

Did it work? Did you enjoy it? Did you see the hints?

Well, I hope so. This is my last chapter before my break, but I will be back on the 30th! So…yes.

Also, Rebecca Brewer will be doing a Q&A on Sunday, at 6 PM EST, in the #publishing channel on Discord! Be there! Her interview is also up; if you didn’t see the link at the top of the chapter!

Thanks for reading. I must rest. I must rest, because this has been a tiring month! But I hope you enjoyed the chapters and editing and so on, and I’ll see you after only a week’s break! I…could use a longer one. Bye for now!

 

 

Grimalkin and Niers vs Bugs by ArtsyNada!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/illudanajohns/

Ko-fi: https://ko-fi.com/illudanajohns

Commission info: https://i.imgur.com/OmNDuK8.jpg

 

Chestburster Niers, Fetohep Guidance, How Erin Really Died (Lies), and more by LeChatDemon!

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

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

 

Flower Niers by Miguel, Commissioned by LinnetMelody!

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

Twitter: https://twitter.com/cmarguel

 


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8.13 F

On Sunday, 6 PM EST, Rebecca Brewer, the editor who worked on 8.11 E will be doing a Q&A in the #publishing channel on the Discord server! Join here if you want to watch or participate! Also, she has done an interview with The Fantasy Inn! Click here to read it!

 

That she could not investigate the Potion of Regeneration didn’t surprise Octavia Cotton. The Drake representative had kept it in his possession after the failed revival attempt and he and the other Drakes from Salazsar would gut anyone who so much as looked at it cross-eyed.

Which was only appropriate. If it was just her entrails, the Stitch-Girl would hand them over willingly to even look at a drop of the stuff.

She couldn’t. Fair was fair; she doubted even Master Saliss could easily replicate it even if he had the entire sample within a year. Within a decade? She was sure Saliss of Lights could do it. It would be the discovery of the decade if he did, too.

For now, she was busy enough not to even try to get a hold of a drop or two. Octavia did not remain in the inn or Stitchworks, which was temporarily closed. It was too sad. And she had work. Lots of it.

Paid work! Leveling work! She sweat over vials, little pellets of powder she was mixing up—ready to dive behind the steel counters if she knocked anything over. Saliss’ laboratory held only Octavia. The apprentice had a master-class [Alchemist]’s personal working environs at her fingertips!

And she was making potions and formulating reagents which she compiled into powders, tonics, salves, and more. Working off meticulous notes. Some of the creations were beyond her, but Saliss had gone over the ones she could make.

It was Octavia Cotton who was helping replenish Saliss’ lost armaments. She was making Blast Potions by the dozen, and it was not a fun experience. Yes, she was learning. Yes, she was being paid by Saliss and using his equipment.

One potion could blow her brains across the wall if she dropped it wrong. Saliss had given her protective artifacts and Octavia, as a Stitch Person, could replace arms melted off by acid—that had happened already, just a drop had begun eating her entire hand away!—but she was still as cautious as could be.

Oh, and one more thing. Octavia walked over to the logbook of [Messages] and read the latest entry.

 

Octavia, do the thing with the potions for the person for the money. Thanks,

            –Saliss.

 

She stared at the [Message] and cursed her master. Then, she went back and read his correspondence where he’d accepted an offer to produce eighteen Battle Veteran Draughts…she abandoned work on his Blast Potions to fill the order.

What a good apprentice she was. Leveling, that was the ticket. And making her own notes based off Saliss’. He knew she was going to do it and she was helping! Give and take, that was the [Alchemist]-way. Give, take, and explode things. Hopefully not yourself.

“[Purity Check]. Bad, good, bad—who’s selling this rot to Master Saliss? Aha! 98% purity? That’s…good. I think.”

Octavia made a note, frowning. She had a Skill Saliss lacked. Not a great one, but she was doing a test of ingredients before she got to work. Some of the ingredients weren’t pure and she’d have to refine or filter them. Skills and levels.

 

—-

 

At the same time as Octavia was becoming a recluse who hadn’t seen daylight for the last six days straight, someone else was getting all the daylight.

Also, the stares. The female Hobgoblin breasted boobily as she titillatingly perked her way down the street.

…That was to say, she walked down the street of Liscor, ignoring the looks some people were giving her. Some people.

Mrsha had never really bothered to notice it before, but Ulvama made it obvious. Nor did she seem bothered. If anything, she was trying to elicit that reaction.

It was almost comforting to the Hobgoblin [Shaman]. Her reason being that in this city of Drakes and Gnolls and Humans, the familiar stares were preferable to someone pointing at the Goblin and reaching for a weapon.

Not that it wasn’t scandalous.

Goblin! Just look at the way she dresses! Savages.

Mrsha’s ears perked up. She glared at the Drake. Selys just rubbed at her head.

The fact that a Goblin could walk around Liscor was the product of many concessions. Once, they had died at the gates. Later, it had been fights, riots, over one Hobgoblin walking through.

Today? Well, the Watch was shadowing them and Ulvama was causing a second disturbance for other reasons, but she was getting away with it.

The interesting thing to Mrsha—not interesting, egregious, to use a Lyonette-word—was that Ulvama might have less clothing than many on the street, and her magical paints, and she was, apparently, highly attractive, but all of that wasn’t different from how Plains Gnolls dressed all the time.

Savages was a word Mrsha used to hear the Stone Spears Gnolls being called behind their backs when they traded with Drakes. She didn’t like it then, and she didn’t like it now.

However, the Ulvama-method of provoking attraction and dislike of her body almost took away from the Goblin element. She was cunning. Like…a cunning thing. Mrsha had no analogy here.

The point was that Ulvama, after two weeks of being in the inn, had snapped. She wanted to see the city! She wanted, at least, to get new things. She had explained this to Mrsha in an Ulvama-way, by poking her.

“I give you list. You buy me things.”

Mrsha had refused. Ulvama had promptly picked her up by her feet and dangled her there. Mrsha had punched her in the stomach. Then they’d played ‘serious tag’, wherein Ulvama eventually locked Mrsha down with a vine-trap spell and sat on her with her stupid butt until Mrsha decided to get Selys for help.

Surprisingly, the Drake had decided to give it a shot. So here they were.

“Timbor’s inn is open. Maybe we should, ah, go there?”

Ulvama didn’t respond as Selys gave her the side-eye. She was staring around. Then she hurried off. Mrsha and Selys saw her peering at a display full of bracelets. The Drake watched her carefully, no doubt fearing the Goblin would steal something and run off. The Goblin made Selys pay for what she wanted. She was happy enough to obey the law if she had Selys-money behind her.

She was beginning to really like all the things this inn was giving her for free. Ulvama dragged the other two along as she began searching for what she really wanted: dyes, paint powders, and so on. She’d already pilfered Octavia’s shop of everything she could use, and the Stitch Girl was going to be really steamed when she discovered the thefts.

Mrsha made Selys carry her after the third shop Ulvama visited. The Drake groaned as she held Mrsha, who was getting heavier. Mrsha wanted to be back at the inn. There were more interesting things than stupid shopping. She had evil rats to catch! Her inn had an infestation. Or mice.

 

—-

 

The point was, people were getting on with their lives. Returning to their professions. Timbor Parthian, formerly of Celum, had been told that his city was rebuilding with all the gold that had been sent in. A windfall, hope, charity to dig deeper foundations and replant after the destruction the Bloodfeast Raiders had caused.

He would not be returning. It was thoughtfully that the [Innkeeper] polished a tabletop, although the Drake [Waiter] had done a fine job already, as he watched his customers come in.

Thoughtfully, like every day since he’d begun to rebuild with Erin Solstice’s help. He thought of her and his throat constricted as he swallowed. He had gone to war for her, a damn foolish thing in the heat of the moment.

Yet he’d survived. And now…he looked around. The [Mayor] of Celum had personally invited him to return, offering money to rebuild Timbor’s inn.

A tempting thing. But The Drunken Swordsman was gone, and rebuilding in the same spot would just bring back memories of the death, the grief…The Drunken Gnoll was the new inn in Liscor.

Timbor saw potential here. He was in the new quarter going up, yes. His inn still had sharp corners, yes. All the Humans were new to their jobs, Liscor had seen monsters attacks, yes, yes, yes.

Even so, look! All his guests were Human. They came here for his extremely-affordable breakfasts. Those were loyal customers for the next decade if he made his inn a place they could come to, rain or shine.

Humans were new in Liscor, but they were already proving their worth. Drakes and Gnolls didn’t take to them with all the welcome in the world of course; Timbor had heard of two fights just yesterday between work crews. ‘Humans stealing jobs’ was the new refrain.

Still, he thought Liscor was the place to be. The Players of Liscor had bought a theatre and Timbor had, with some quick insight, persuaded them to buy the building across the street from his inn. Masterstroke, really. Drakes and Gnolls were coming to his inn after each play and he had a discount for anyone who had one of the little play pamphlets.

Timbor would not return to Celum. Liscor was the future. He had an eye for commerce. Esthelm’s metals were coming through Liscor. Pallass had a connection here. There were plays, and now?

His eyes moved to the first non-Human customer to move into the inn. Oh yes. Timbor saw the Gnoll park the wooden skateboard and look around, almost challengingly, as two of his friends stopped.

“Welcome! Can I get you something on-the-go? One of our fast food bags? Or will it be drinks and a meal?”

The Gnolls and one Drake looked at Timbor’s welcoming smile. The [Innkeeper] had seen more and more skateboards, even a bicycle, one of the cheap ones, in Liscor’s streets. Did Celum have that?

“We’ll get three fast-food bags.”

“Of course. That’ll be…”

Timbor went for the pantry with Runes of Preservation he’d had enchanted just last week. Unlike the kitchen, this was separate, right next to the little drawer with money you could change coins with. He took the silver, returned some coppers, and handed over three little bags of food.

It was a variation on the foods Erin had made. Smart business! Well, he hadn’t come up with the idea but implemented it. A cheap bag, some paper wrap, and you could have burger, fries, a bit of ketchup or the mayonnaise or something else, and with a preservation spell, have food in people’s hands in moments.

Erin Solstice was not the only person who could do quick food. Timbor’s breakfasts-on-the-go were increasingly popular and other [Innkeepers] were copying him. But they had a harder time beating his prices, his food, and him being first than they did stealing from Erin. Timbor was competitive.

Speaking of which, as he personally took the money, he poked his head into the kitchen. The breakfast crowd who were eating in the inn rather than taking the to-go meals were a happy lot.

“Miss Imani, we just sold three more of your fast-food bags.”

“Well, you can have the second [Cook] make more. I’m off for a class in twenty minutes! I can do all the breakfast orders—is Palt here yet?”

A voice snapped back. Imani did not like the fast-food system, or the impression she was running it, despite adding some quality to the items. Timbor glanced around.

“Not yet. I’ll let you know when he comes in.”

Humming, he moved around his inn. Yes, Liscor was making him feel young again. Adventurous. Starting a new business, working with a challenge—he was leveling once more!

He didn’t even bat more than an eyelid when Ulvama, Selys, and Mrsha came into the inn for lunch. Although he did stare for a bit.

 

—-

 

Another Hobgoblin had no one staring at his chest. Unless it was bare, covered in glistening sweat, rippling with muscle and…

But that was not now. Also, he would have ignored the stares regardless since he was used to them by now.

Numbtongue sat in the Garden of Sanctuary. He ate, he slept, but he still had yet to move. He still waited.

The inn was returning to some kind of life. Mrsha and Ulvama had formed an unlikely bond, or at least, a truce of convenience.

The Earthers had their jobs. Even Troy and Leon were staying out of trouble. Troy kept going to Pallass; Leon stayed in his rooms, hogging the laptop or went into Liscor. One seemed happier than the other, but there you were. Rose had gone south; other friends of the inn like Pelt had thrown themselves back into work. Many were gone, on missions relating to the frozen [Innkeeper] like Lyonette. Others prepared for war.

Antinium clad in armor were drilling in the Floodplains. The sight of several thousand of them swinging weapons or marching in formation was a sight to unnerve the enemies of Liscor, as was the growing army of the Watch, now with a mandate to take battle to enemies outside of the walls of Liscor as well as police inwards.

Montressa and Bezale popped their heads into the inn regularly, but sometimes they stayed in Invrisil or even Pallass; they were prone to leading groups through the magical door, still facilitating the links between cities. Palt and Imani had work in the city, when they weren’t being disgustingly cute together—at least, according to Mrsha, who handed them ‘yuck’ notes now and then.

Somehow, The Wandering Inn still made money thanks to those portal-fees. And the guests. Hexel still stayed in the inn, although he was talking of finding other accommodations in the city while leaving his three Lizardfolk apprentices to stay at the inn. Imani still kept enough food for Ishkr and the limited staff to serve anyone who was around.

The inn was empty, but not dead. And all the guests were accounted for.

…Weren’t they? You could lose track. Mrsha, Ulvama, Numbtongue, Apista if you counted her, Kevin, Imani, Palt, Joseph, Rose, and so on, Montressa and Bezale, Hexel…Bird had reclaimed his pillows and blankets and had not gone on his one-Antinium war, and that was a relief… He’d sold his arrows to Liscor’s new army, ironically making a profit.

That was surely everyone. Everyone who wasn’t abroad like the Horns, Ryoka, Lyonette, and so on, right? Wait, Octavia! Pallass, though. So that was fine. Grimalkin hadn’t appeared for a while, but one assumed he was flexing elsewhere.

The problem was that no one was counting. There was no Lyonette. No Erin. For if there had been, someone might have noticed that one of the newest guests was…absent. If she appeared, it was not at a time that even Ulvama or keen-eared Mrsha would notice.

Perhaps the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings, still holding sentry, counted her. But a gentleman did not inquire into a lady’s affairs, even late at night. Everyone had forgotten about her, in the tragedy and events since the Summer Solstice.

The young woman who had come with Ryoka and Salamani, and unlike the two Runners, stayed behind. The somewhat mysterious Opener from Reizmelt, far in the north. A girl who might be sixteen years old, always wearing dark, covering clothing, with that tight-lipped smile, red eyes and pale skin.

The Vampire.

Fierre. She’d been having adventures too.

 

—–

 

The day after Fierre was mugged; she woke up to discover she’d grown an inch.

It was my fault, really.

After investigating places to set up her Opener business and realizing how much competition there was in Invrisil, she’d been walking late at night when she noticed the man following her.

Like a moth to the lantern, the young woman had done all the wrong things. Look over her shoulder anxiously, change directions, hurry down a street—and found herself herded towards a quiet alleyway.

The Vampire girl had known that the latest hours of the nights in the unfriendliest parts of the city were not when a seemingly sixteen-year-old young woman should be wandering around alone with no perceivable artifacts—or even with.

No one should really do that. And having lived in the reasonably-large city of Reizmelt for years, Fierre had known exactly what she was inviting. In fact, she had wanted that.

Vampire. I am a Vampire! Predator of the night! A true Vampire. Come on, a bit closer…

The [Thug] or whomever he had been, [Kidnapper], or something just as bad or worse, had been grinning. A man who’d covered his features with a hood and strips of cloth. Sensible if Fierre got away.

“Don’t fight back or it’ll go worse for you.”

He’d warned Fierre as she stood halfway down the alley. She’d backed up and he’d moved forwards, head on a swivel for a chance patrol of the Watch.

Just a bit closer. This isn’t going to go the way you want.

The Vampire girl had grinned then, her eyes flashing red, her mouth opening in a predator’s fanged bite. But subtly so the man didn’t know how the tables were turning.

It…hadn’t gone the way it was supposed to. In Fierre’s head, it was a classic reversal of fortunes. The Human monster finding he was trying to victimize the real threat. A single scream in the night of Invrisil, a corpse, or bewildered man left unconscious the next day. She hadn’t really planned that one out.

But instead of grabbing his arm and swinging him into the brick wall, Fierre had seen the man draw back before he lunged.

“…[Dangersense]? Shit—

He’d turned to run. She’d gone after him, cursing. In her newfound arrogance she’d sort of forgotten that the criminal element got warning Skills like everyone else and a smart [Mugger] might well have something like that for situations just like this.

She’d leapt on his back and borne him down, even so. She was fast! But he was fast too, and had ripped a knife out of his sleeve. He’d slashed—she’d tried to hit him but the knife was so quick she’d realized she had to hit him with all her strength even if she got slashed. Unless he got her heart or throat or face—

She’d drawn back a fist and fallen over. Limp, Fierre had lain on the ground as the man threw her off him. She heard the voice behind her as the [Mage] shed his [Camouflage] spell. He’d crept up on them as they fought.

“[Paralysis Touch]. She nearly got you.”

The [Mugger] spat. He lurched to his feet and kicked Fierre in the chest. He turned to his accomplice.

“Bitch. One of the fuckin’ Sisters you think…? She nearly tore my arm off!”

The other [Spell Ambusher] looked up and down the street.

“Didn’t see a shadow. Grab or stab?”

“Grab. Let’s get her. She down?”

“Yep. I’ll cast [Sleep].”

They busied themselves as Fierre’s head fell back, grabbing arms and legs. They were halfway out of the alley when the [Mage] saw the clawed hand shoot up and grab his neck. Fierre squeezed.

The [Mugger] dropped her legs with a shout of horror as she took the other man’s throat. This time he didn’t even stop but whirled on his heels. Fierre took him with a single leap. She tossed him back into the alley and ran over to kick him in the chest until he stopped moving. Then she’d slid down a wall, panting, until she realized she could not stay here with two corpses. She’d drunk their blood and fled, panting and cursing her idiocy.

Only two things had saved Fierre that night. The first was the [Mage] failing to reapply the [Paralysis Touch] and trusting to [Sleep] instead. She’d not been completely immobilized by the first spell, but they could have killed her. She’d gathered her strength as the spell quickly wore off to kill him.

The second thing that saved her was the fact that they hadn’t been high-level. If they had? Fierre had shuddered all the way back to her rooms in The Wandering Inn.

Idiot! You nearly got killed! If they got you—if that [Mage] had been ten levels higher—

At the same time, a plaintive thought had rung through her head all night, until she finally got to sleep.

But aren’t I supposed to be strong?

 

—-

 

A few more things. Fierre was an inch taller. She stared at herself in the mirror and checked again, but she looked taller. Even…older.

“Why?”

The answer was obvious. The blood. She’d drunk both criminals’ blood, and then slashed their necks with the dagger to hide the evidence. It had been foul, but she’d been hungry, hence the stunt to begin with.

What had happened, though, was not Fierre becoming a Level 2 [Mugger] or [Mage]. Rather, she’d tasted the blood, gulped it down, but hated it. Foul, disgusting!

She hadn’t heard the level-ups. Fierre, a Level 7 [Assassin], learned something that moment about her species and about how they leveled up.

You could refuse to absorb levels. Something about the two men had been repugnant, so Fierre had only taken their blood.

This was the result.

“Blood or levels.”

Fierre eyed herself. She had always been scrawny, short, and sick. Now, she was an inch taller, and healthier by far—if still pale. All because she’d killed two men, and before that, fed on numerous [Assassins] after the battle in Invrisil’s streets.

Vampire. Fierre bared her teeth at herself in the blank mirror. There was no actual Fierre staring back, but she knew she was an inch taller because she used a classic Vampire trick for when they wanted to measure their heights. The blank mirror showed her room—and the book Fierre had put on her head, hovering in the air. Not her clothing or her features.

Such vas the mysterious nature of ze Vampire. Ze bloodlines of old, ze great power of ze night. Fierre felt like her mother, Colfa val Drakle-Lischelle, was narrating in her head. She recalled all of Bamer’s stories of true Vampires, their fabled strength, ability to heal from anything but stakes or silver or the greatest magic, Lords and Ladies of the Night! Shape changers, spellcasters…invisible to mirrors, afraid of sunlight and garlic, but immortal otherwise.

Vampire. She—recalled how close she’d come to a bad end last night and deflated.

Some Vampire. Did Ryoka’s panacea not do everything? Am I just a bad Vampire? Is it my waning bloodline, the silver in my family for generations?

Do I just suck?

The answer was probably ‘yes’ on both accounts. Fierre felt like how Ryoka often described herself. All hot air, little substance. And she’d been so sure she was better than Ryoka at fighting because she was a Vampire.

It defined Fierre. Pride in her species, fear of being found out. Resignation about her eventual death, too early. She had worked part-time jobs, drinking animal blood, quietly a bit miserable as she watched other people level and dream of greatness because of that.

Then—one day—she had met the newest person to come to their strange little inn. A City Runner from far-off Celum.

Ryoka had run into her life and turned it upside down. Her Opener job, her twenty six years of life as a Vampire, knowing her fate—overturned in a few months. Now, Fierre was in Invrisil, she had been cured of the silver toxins in her blood that had haunted her all her life, and she was a Vampire who could drain levels from other people.

I am everything Bamer’s stories say I should be. I can level—or steal it from other people. I’m stronger, faster, tougher than I ever was before. I beat down magical Golems with my bare fists! I met the Archmage of Izril! I’m…

Still low-level. I’m below Level 10. Idiot. You got overconfident. What happens if someone finds the corpses? What if they were in a gang that investigates? If they have magical bloodhound classes? Idiot.

She bonked her head against the mirror a few times. Fierre and Ryoka were more similar than either knew. Fierre also spoke to herself; it came with being an Opener, and her job of categorizing secrets and information. She was normally deliberate, cautious, keeping opinions to herself.

Her newfound power had gone to her head. Now, Fierre calmed herself down. She had to be careful! She flitted downstairs before daylight could sear her skin and fished around in the kitchen.

Imani wasn’t there. Fierre had a…‘blood sense’ that allowed her to tell when beating hearts and blood were about. She could also use the Garden of Sanctuary, but she was fast enough that no one noticed as she collected a few items and went upstairs.

She had no need of food. Food had been last night and Fierre had found she could go a day or two on regular ‘meals’ before she needed blood. Instead, she found a bucket of broken ice and put several ice chunks in a towel. Then she put the bundle on her head.

Fierre’s body was always cold, but she could sit in the snow and be happy.

Let’s see. Confirm, collate, categorize. The tenets of the Opener. What do I now know about my nature? Well, I can absorb levels. I need actual, people-blood to feed. Animals don’t cut it anymore.

I’m a Level 7 [Assassin] with a number of useful Skills. I should have used [Bloodform Blades] on those muggers! I shouldn’t have been so careless. I need more levels, more experience with fighting if I’m going to do it.

Am I going to do it? I need blood. Mugging people—how long till the Watch wonders who’s killing people and leaving bloodless bodies? That’s stupid. Mother and father and Bamer would all tell me I’m putting all of us in danger.

But I need levels. I need blood. I’m thirsty.

It was so sweet. Tastier than any blood she’d ever had, even the ‘foul’ blood of those two last night. Animal blood was just…food. This was life, energy! She knew she’d grown because of the blood. Her body had been malnourished her entire life. Would she be taller, even stronger, actually beautiful like her mother, if she drank enough blood?

Fierre was twenty-six. Now she looked…seventeen. The urge to change was upon her. To drink. But—careful.

Level 7 [Assassin]. If you exclude the Vampire element, a Level 16 [Thug] should probably be able to take a Level 7 [Assassin] in anything like a fair fight. Idiot. [Lesser Dexterity], [Reject Toxins], [Bloodform Blades], and [Concealing Presence] are all weak! And if you don’t even use one, how are you supposed to beat anyone? That’s two combat Skills, one stealth Skill, and one other.

I should be a Level 60 [Assassin] or something, shouldn’t I? I can’t even remember how many people I…I was so hungry.

Twenty levels—at least twenty!—became three. And that was the first person. It could have been a 10:1 ratio. Or even less! Twenty to one, for all I know.

It makes sense, because if I have both levels and my nature, I’ll be unstoppable.

Fierre exhaled. Analysis complete. She now knew a great secret about Vampires. Put the clues together and it was obvious.

House Byres had killed them. They had won the war against Vampires by poisoning every well and river with silver. They had lost the battle by winning the war. Vampires had lost the ability to steal levels because of the silver in them.

Only Ryoka had saved Fierre, with some great magic from Eldavin the Grand Magus. Fierre owed her friend a huge debt. But she was in no position to repay it, even as a bodyguard. She was weak, but she knew how to be stronger.

Issue? Getting blood isn’t that easy. Especially since you’re stealing levels and I just bet a Level 30 [Ranger] would object if he lost his levels. Do they lose their Skills? Do I actually steal levels, or just the power?

There was no one to experiment on, but Fierre appended a delicate ‘unlikely’ in her head to those questions. The Opener thought on, sorting her head.

I need to choose what levels I get.

There was no question she would gain more levels, even if it meant theft. Leveling was a rush. The sensation of getting stronger, realizing she could do backflips with ease and walk on the edge of rooftops with even more grace than she’d possessed before thanks to [Lesser Dexterity] was amazing.

And she’d always been a Vampire, able to leap onto a rooftop, throw Ryoka about, punch holes in wood, and heal from being impaled with hundreds of needles. Fierre had always wanted to be, well, superhuman. She was already inhuman.

[Assassin] is a great class. What other classes would be ideal? [Mage], definitely. Um. [Archer]? I don’t know how to use a bow. How would that help?

Fierre’s character was such that as another day rose, and Mrsha rolled down the hallway until she slid down the stairs one at a time on her back, Fierre found herself consulting her notes on classes and making a list of good classes to ‘acquire’ levels from. And she had lots of secret notes.

[Rogue] can consolidate into [Assassin]. I could almost assume that I could ‘merge’ levels. Or if not, one class will consolidate the other in time. And [Rogues]—there are a lot of them in gangs.

[Thug]’s not the same. Be careful—I need a Ring of Appraisal. I need one for my job, anyways.

[Mage] is great because magic consolidates with everything. [Spell Ambusher] from [Thug], for instance—that’s probably who jumped me last night. [Spellblade] for [Assassin]?

“Hm. Records of one of the greatest criminal’s class being ‘The Killer X’, for the scar he or she left. Confirmed dead, bounty claimed…class was [Arch Bladefiend]. That sounds like some kind of [Slaughterer]—[Mage] consolidation if ever I heard one.”

[Mage], then, and [Assassin]. [Warrior]? I mean…sure. [Merchant]? Nah. No artisan classes…right? I could become a master-potter and do what? Make the most amazing bowls to keep blood in? Although, there was that [Potter] who…where’s my notes on him? Oh yeah, could create pots that extended your life so long as they didn’t break?

Every class gets better the higher you go. I need to choose a path.

And that path was probably being stronger. Fierre had enjoyed the raid on Valeterisa’s mansion, for all the danger. She felt a rush from fighting, cutting loose.

…Shame she was so bad at it.

 

—-

 

The problem was, Fierre was an Opener by profession. She’d done other things, like helping mix super-toxic plants for [Alchemists] because Vampires had different weaknesses than regular people, laborer jobs; she could actually butcher an animal as well as most apprentice [Butchers], even without Skills.

She could also raise sheep, farm, and…none of this was a background in the art of war. Fierre didn’t even know how to swing a sword. Oh, she’d gotten a few lessons when she worked part-time as a [Guard], but she was realizing more and more how ill-prepared she’d been.

Even that [Thug] with the knife had nearly tagged her with her inhuman, Vampire reflexes. And he’d been Level 14 or something! As much as Fierre hated to admit it—even Ryoka was better at fighting with her fists.

Fierre’s strategy was grab something, tear an arm off, or punch so hard she could shatter every bone in someone’s body. She had once beaten Ryoka by grabbing her and throwing her into a wall hard enough to knock her out.

Which was great. Vampire strength and all. But that meant that if you ran into someone with your level of strength and speed, you were still going to lose.

Fierre knew this because she wasn’t an only child. Or an only-Vampire. And she had grown up tussling with her brother, Rivel, and testing herself against her father, Himilt, her mother, Colfa, Bamer, and all the other Vampires she’d ever met.

She was distinctly average. Before her curing, Rivel could beat her in a fight, or it was close enough not to matter. And Himilt had been faster, stronger, than any of his family when he cared to be.

Now, Fierre wished she’d stayed to talk to her father, who was descended from the lineage of Vampires, had married Colfa, a Human woman.

She checked at the Mage’s Guild in Liscor that morning and got a [Message] from them. And Ryoka. Fierre itched to read Ryoka’s first, but she tipped the [Scribe] and opened her family’s first.

You always tipped the [Scribes]. They had rough jobs. Fierre would know; she’d worked as one as well, copying down dictations or letters to be sent, often verbatim from impatient clients with improper understandings of grammar who got mad at you when you corrected them. The Gnoll had smiled at her with that understanding; Fierre got it.

Anyways, her family’s message was short. They didn’t want to waste money, and they had to talk in code. Fierre read slowly—it was from Himilt himself.

 

Fierre, we’ve talked it over. We might dig new wells. If the old’s gone bad, dig new ones. All’s not lost. But how’s the grass around Liscor?

 

“Huh.”

She exhaled. That was strange, until she thought about it. The Lischelle-Drakle family had been in uproar after Byres’ treachery had been uncovered. In the heat of the moment they’d known they had to leave because of the poison in them, in the ground.

But that was their family’s home. It had been for a long time. It was tempting to stay, to dig fresh wells and watch them. Fierre scribbled a note to write back, muttering.

Liscor’s great; open land, but spring rains are troublesome…tons of space. Rock Crabs are dangerous, but a good hill costs nothing, except building everything, of course. Think about it, love…

She turned to Ryoka’s note with considerably more interest. However, she was dissatisfied to see how short it was.

“Fierre, I’m still not able to return to Liscor. Horns of Hammerad…attacking the Village of the Dead? Are they insane? Trying to…mud in my veins, what is she getting herself into now? Can’t she stay out of trouble for five minutes?”

Fierre tore up the note in fury and stormed off.

 

—-

 

She was out of her loop, not having her contacts or regular sources of information. She was starting over in Invrisil, and still setting up.

Fierre quickly confirmed the obvious, which she’d already know about if she was in Reizmelt. Yep, adventurers were heading north. A lot of teams, surprising, given how crazy the Horns of Hammerad’s raid was.

Fierre drummed her fingers on the table, irritated. She had no idea what Ryoka was planning, but knowing her friend, it was going to involve Ryoka baiting the entire army of the undead by…running around the village naked while shooting Wands of [Fireball] into the sky and somehow blowing off an ear.

I’d really like to see that first bit. The Vampire hesitated as she heard her own thought. But it wasn’t something she was going to deny.

Ryoka was…Fierre squirmed as she thought about it.

A mystery, a friend, and more. Come to that, Ryoka was still a mystery. Where did she come from? Why did she seem to know things? What was the Erin-connection? The [Innkeeper]’s death had put a hold on all of Fierre’s attempts to uncover the secrets, but this was why she’d come with Ryoka to begin with.

She…liked…Ryoka. It was a strange realization for Fierre. But she really liked Ryoka. She smacked her lips absently. And it wasn’t just for her blood! But that was one of the things.

She liked Ryoka? Then that meant…they had a word for that kind of person in the south, didn’t they? Turnscale.

It bounced off Fierre. She was a Vampire. Superior to all species. She just hadn’t really realized it. Maybe it was just Ryoka?

Then again, Fierre had been tempted by others in the inn. Erin herself. Lyonette…even the female [Shaman]. Although Fierre didn’t want to risk any of that. Or be a [Shaman].

But that’s definitely a pattern. She hesitated.

Forget that! You’re not getting anyone’s blood without them knowing. What are you going to do about Ryoka?

Well, nothing. What could she do? She had few contacts, no teams she could demand to help Ryoka that weren’t going—Fierre gritted her teeth.

Ryoka was drama running, though. If she survived this incident—and she would—the next one would need Fierre. Belavierr had been Fierre’s first introduction to Ryoka-level problems. So it was time to get a head start on her Opening business. To that end, Fierre made a few social calls.

 

—-

 

“Hello, I’m Fierre. An Opener. I’ve started my business in Invrisil. Here’s the address. I’m happy to offer Runners discounts for the first month. And I’ve worked with and know the Wind Runner and the Mage Runner. Excuse me, Mage Rider.

It was not quite a lie to imply Salamani had used her services. Also, Fierre’s practiced introduction and tight-lipped, but friendly smile and the money she slipped to the [Bartender] was the eleventh visit so far.

Not to just any [Bartender]. She was a [Broker] in her own right. The fact Fierre knew to talk to her, and the truth-verified statement, made the woman grunt.

“New in Invrisil? Reizmelt, right?”

It was her showing off a bit. Fierre blinked, and realized word about her had gotten around. Also, that I’m important enough to have word spread about me.

She was just a bit pleased about it. The [Bartender] gave her a nod.

“I can spread word to the Runners who come to me. Can’t say any’ll jump ship right away.”

“There will be openings.”

There always were. Openers changed jobs fast, sometimes with the law or angry people whose letters they’d opened on their tails. Sometimes their change of job was due to opening a letter a tad bit too roughly—and you needed to peel what was left of them off the floor.

“Anything I should know?”

The bartender pretended to polish a glass as they spoke in the crowded bar, one of the popular dens for the right sort.

“Only that this ain’t Reizmelt. Got a bodyguard?”

“I’ve got a door. Brought it with me, even.”

Fierre joked. She got a grin, but the woman leaned over. Like many, she looked a bit protective of the ‘young’ girl Opener. Another advantage and Fierre used them all.

“Look, kid. A door’s good. Enchanted? Great. But you need a bodyguard. The gangs can play rough. Even if you stay on their good side, all it takes is one.”

I can handle myself. Fierre caught those words. Don’t show your hand!

“I’ll do that. Thanks. Also, I’m obviously in the information broker business too. Willing to trade secrets. I’ll bring you a bottle of Reizmelt’s best and see what you’re willing to share?”

“Hah! You are experienced. So young? Did they all die of old age in Reizmelt?”

Another look, almost pitying or sad. But gone in a flash. You couldn’t show that kind of weakness. Fierre pretended not to notice the woman’s look as she grinned.

“Nope, too slow.”

The laugh Fierre got was one of the better interactions that day. Everyone watched everyone, so being confident, even suave, and showing you knew what you were doing was great to establish credibility.

She took a hint from the [Bartender] as well. So her final port of call was just…advertisement and showmanship. Showvampireship.

The seven-foot Iron Golem was locking the door into place as people watched. It wasn’t as beautiful as some of the Golems the [Merchant] had been offering, or as tough. But it had been delivered, Fierre had paid a lot for it—and if you were going to have a bodyguard, it might as well be a Golem.

Look out, Invrisil, this Opener’s got a Golem! Fierre hoped the crowd, including some Runners checking out the new Opener, thought that she was a one-trick Opener. That she was relying on this Iron Golem for protection. That meant they’d go for it rather than her, underestimating her if the worst came to it.

Of course, the trick was never to let it get that far. But Fierre’s stunt meant that someone rapped on the door less than an hour after it had gone up. She let the first City Runner walk in. He was, predictably, a Mouse.

Openers had their own lingo. Not charitable; you had Mice, Morons, Knights, and Needles. That referred to the style of Runner you were going to get.

Mice were like rats. They had low credibility-scores, or they were just below-average to average Runners. They didn’t tend to get good letters to open and steal secrets from and they’d turn if anyone so much as sneezed at them.

Morons were gullible, or hotheads. Ryoka would have fit into that category—or Knights, who never divulged secrets at all and rarely used Openers.

Needles were Couriers or good City Runners. They might run afoul of someone trying to use a City Runner in a scheme, or Courier, but it could backfire because a strong Courier might deliver something despite all odds. That was definitely Ryoka in all the Opener’s books, now. A Needle-Knight.

Mice, though…she handled it easily. Low-discount, nothing worth opening in the letter he thought held something truly valuable like saffron. She smelled the spice packet someone was trying to send without paying a tax before even opening the letter, and the Runner went away, disappointed. He might well pocket the spices one [Chef] was sending to a [Cook] in another city.

Two more Runners came, to get a picture of her. They didn’t like how young she was, but she rattled them by addressing them by name before they introduced themselves. That was just Fierre having a list of all Runners and matching them to the portraits she’d paid for.

Elementary. It would take time to consolidate a new base of power and Fierre worked for four hours, mainly setting up and taking those calls. She would work here for 4-6 hours each day, and everyone who was smart would know when they’d be able to knock. Her Iron Golem would keep her place of business safe; [Thieves] knew Openers guarded their wealth of knowledge and would retaliate, and the Golem was another deterrent.

Fierre had no time to waste, though. So her second call that day happened after dusk. And this time the person came to meet her.

“Reizmelt. Drakle?”

Lischelle-Drakle.

“Oh, that’s right. The marriage. I’ve never been north myself.”

The other Vampire settled back into a seat in her Opener’s office. It was the best place for a meeting like this. He eyed the Golem warily, but with a confidence that Fierre didn’t miss.

Well, he was an [Assassin]. Ex-Guild; that was public knowledge by now. It had saved his life. He’d split from them during the famous Wind Runner’s delivery.

He was older, lean, with scars despite his Vampire nature. Magical damage. His eyes were red, but a brighter red than hers, and his hair was, ironically enough, dyed silver at the edges. Darker red to black near the roots. Now here was a Vampire who had style.

They were both Vampires. And he had agreed to meet with Fierre in a moment when she’d reached out to him with one of the classic signs.

Vampires existed across Izril. Some in entire villages or towns, others in families. They knew how to find each other. One of the most obvious ways was to invite them to dinner.

Fancy some liver? I have a good sausage I’ve been dying to share with some cheese.

Obvious stuff like that. You mentioned a blood-related dish and they knew who you were. It wasn’t like many people looked for Vampires. Then again…

The Vampire assassin lowered his cup. He was an [Assassin] in name—not practice. Fierre had bought a Ring of Appraisal that morning and he was blank. But she was smart enough to know that his ‘anti-appraisal’ ring was actually the truth. He nodded at her, relaxing as she gestured the Golem to wait outside.

“Nice drink. Stiff. Smokey. What’s this, a scotch?”

“Reizmelt, yep.”

He took another sip. His fangs, his entire posture, was business-like, not flirtatious. Relaxed more than anything. Fierre was glad. Some Vampires you met just thought you were interested in meeting your own kind. Well, a lot of marriages happened because of that.

But this fellow understood.

“Vaulont is my name here. Vaulont the Ash—I turn all my victims to ash.”

“Ah, smart.”

He nodded, with a dry smile.

“A perk of the job. Anyways. I can’t promise I’ll hold to blood-ties here. I’m not accepting offers on one of us—but I can’t watch your back. You understand?”

“Of course!”

Who’d demand another Vampire to cover for them just because we’re the same species? Has someone done that? Fierre was insulted by the suggestion. Vaulont relaxed a hair further.

“I didn’t go after Ryoka—the Wind Runner as well. I backed out. Glad she survived. I wasn’t going to cross blades with the Faces. I’m amazed she made it.”

“I know. I’d have never asked otherwise. I wanted to thank you for that.”

“We owe her.”

The assassin shrugged again. Fierre nodded.

They knew. If not all of it, enough. He spat.

“Silver in the water. If anyone puts out a hit on House Byres, especially that [Knight]—I’m taking it for coppers. I’ve lived every day of my life with scars I got from rashes as a child. My entire family died early. Silver.”

“I know. Do you have plans? My family’s debating moving.”

He shrugged, moodily.

“Aside from eating charcoal like it’s a snack? I have no roots.”

“Oh.”

“Forget about it. Listen. While we’re talking about them, watch out for a Delanay d’Artien. He’s an Emergency Runner and he’s one of the old families. Dresses like a giant target. Red leather, crossbow—but he’s smart.”

“Understood, thank you. Anyone else?”

“Huh. Reinhart was what I’d say. Don’t mess with her business. Her servants are no joke. But they leave the Gangs alone if they don’t cause trouble. But she’s gone south. Her [Gardener] though—that one’s killed more Faces than you’d expect. Idiots don’t see a high-level [Druid], just an angry [Gardener].”

“Also got it.”

They were swapping the Vampire’s essential info. There were multiple reasons Fierre had invited Vaulont, though. After a moment, he slid her a bit of parchment.

“There are three of us in Invrisil. Two natural-born. Wife and husband run this [Butcher]’s. Export elsewhere.”

“Ah, wonderful.”

Fierre lied. She would never drink animal blood unless she had to again. She’d had to dig out some of the ‘safe’ blood from her packs just to host Vaulont. He was sipping the blood greedily.

“This is good stuff. Fresh. I have to use days-old stuff on the job, until a kill. And they’re not always private with time to harvest. So, how can I help you?”

“Actually…that was what I wanted to talk to you about. I’m far from home, and I, uh…I’m curious.”

The assassin’s eyes sharpened. Fierre lied to him as she went for her first source of…blood.

“You want a share of what I get?”

“I’m just curious—”

“Let me stop you there. If I get any, it’s what I drink. No offense, but I’m not bleeding them like animals. I don’t know how, and there’s no time. If you’re curious…don’t cause trouble. Not here, and not for us.”

She was astonished to find Vaulont the Vampire-Assassin was straight-laced as they came. It was probably why he’d spared Ryoka, for that matter.

Some Vampires, especially the young ones, tended to experiment when they got a chance. They drank Human blood, or other people’s, hoping against hope it would help them. Now Fierre knew it would not, but she and Rivel had gone through that phase, paying for blood, figuring out ways to obtain it.

It didn’t taste better unless you were cured, and the adults looked on the act with mingled understanding and deep wariness. Vaulont fixed Fierre with a look.

“You may have left Reizmelt to be freer of your family’s influence, but even three Vampires in Invrisil are too many to put at risk. Understand?”

“Look, I was just asking. I’d never do anything myself.”

Fierre flushed at the upbraiding. Vaulont relaxed slightly and took another shot. It was hard to get Vampires drunk and Fierre had consigned the entire bottle of scotch to this meeting.

“Fine. Neither of us are children. I understand. It won’t taste good.”

To you. Fierre was beginning to dislike his parental attitude. She spread her hands.

“That’s why I came to you. I thought if anyone…”

“I know. I get asked that all the time. I can’t. I could get you a cup, maybe…if you really want one taste, let me know. Otherwise, I don’t want you playing at drinking.”

The young woman was regretting bringing it up. And she realized something else.

Vaulont’s victims might be [Merchants], non-combat classes. I can’t vet them and he’ll be suspicious if I keep wanting more, even if I play it off as a fetish. Damn.

“Maybe once. Although if it’s not different…I want to know. Sorry. What’s ‘playing at drinking’?”

The assassin toyed with the shot glass as he grimaced.

“Sneaking into a house or after a night with someone—a bit of sleep dust, a healing potion, and a bite. What, you’ve never heard of it?”

The Opener’s mouth opened. She had two thoughts at the same time, right on top of one another. The first was an image of her creeping into a target’s home, and picking who she wanted. It would be easy. That’s surely how Vampires did it.

It would be convenient, if I was careful and covered my tracks…

I can’t do that!

The second thought was louder. She heard it, and it came from being a Lischelle-Drakle. From her family. That sounded—wrong.

Vaulont saw it on her face. And at last, he grinned, baring his teeth.

“Good. You’d be surprised at how many bastards I’ve met who do that for fun. Sport. Let’s…talk about something better. You were there. Can you tell me about Reizmelt? I’m out of steady work and everyone’s trying to kill me.”

“I—sure. Well, if you want to visit, my father’s always welcoming…”

 

—-

 

Strangely, Fierre had a realization from that meeting. And that was that she was not a monster. The idea of creeping into people’s houses, draining them—

She didn’t want to be that kind of Vampire. She could rationalize killing the two criminals, albeit in aggravated self-defense, and the [Assassins]. But she did not want to go further than that.

But how was she going to get blood? She was already starting to crave it after only a day.

Being a moral Vampire sucks. And not in a good way.

After meeting Vaulont, who was surprisingly responsible, for a Vampire, despite being a hired killer, Fierre walked back to Liscor feeling as if she’d accomplished a lot and a little. She had her practice up, some idiot street kids had drawn genitals on her Iron Golem while it had guarded her front door, and she was hungry and a bit tipsy after half a bottle of good scotch.

 

—-

 

She sniffed the air, sensing the blood of those around her. Her level of desire waxed and waned depending on her hunger. It had grown overbearing after a week or two of being cured and only Ryoka’s level-less blood. Somehow, Ryoka’s blood wasn’t even nourishing if she didn’t have levels at all.

Why didn’t she have levels? Who was Ryoka? Fierre wanted to run after the Courier. But Ryoka could fly, and Fierre was slower.

For now. She wondered if she could turn into a bat.

A whiff of something tempting made Fierre turn her head. Normally, most people she just ‘wanted’, but some people stood out.

Erin had been one, perhaps because of her levels or because Fierre…liked women. She’d been tempted by Ceria, Maviola…yep, levels, half-Elf, [Lady], and Lyonette, strangely.

It also seemed that…attraction had to do with how much Fierre wanted blood, because she wanted Ryoka’s, even though it had as much nourishment as Fluffles the Sixth’s. She wondered what high-level personage she had scented.

As she walked through the streets of Invrisil, she passed a circle of onlookers and aggressive shouting. She passed a [Fistfighter] plying his trade.

Fierre stopped, walked back, and turned to see Alber knock down the fifth man in the group of [Tavern Toughs]. She heard the energetic ding of someone striking the bell, and shouts as people had to give up bets to the [Bookie].

“Alber!”

The young man was chugging a healing and stamina potion as he looked around for challengers. Unlike Reizmelt, his hat was filled with coins.

Not gold, but silver and copper. He’d been making a killing today. He spotted Fierre as she waved at him. The Vampire, mouth agape, watched him check his gloves then face off against a man who had to be three hundred pounds, and not all of it fat.

“He’s going to be slaughtered. Bastard has fists as fast as an arrow, but there’s no way—”

Fierre remembered Alber. He was a blast from Reizmelt! And she’d seen him go down time and time again, usually to adventurers, or people like Mad Madain, or the sheer weight-class imbalance.

He always went down swinging, though. She expected it now; even with potions, he was covered in sweat and had gone six fights at least. His opponent read to Fierre’s [Appraisal] spell as a [Tavern Diver]. An advancement on [Tavern Tough]. The kind of man who could be a [Bouncer] or the worst sort of guest.

Let’s see.

Level 27 [Tavern Diver]. Shit. [Heroic Tolerance: Alcohol]. [Body: Iron Fists]. [Greater Inebriated Strength]. [Inebriated Toughness]. [Devastating Uppercut]. Oh no, Alber’s in for it. Weird, rare Skills wasted on a useless class.

The man squared off against the [Fistfighter]. He was already a bit soused, which ironically made Alber in even more trouble. He grinned as he exposed an amazingly hairy chest. Fierre covered her nose; she could smell his armpits in her mouth.

She saw Alber lift his fists as someone rung the bell. There was a [Bet Taker], someone to collect money, drag people away. Helpers, but they’d leave Alber face-down on the impromptu ring if he lost. She watched, anxiously, as the instant the bell rang, the [Tavern Diver] opened with his [Devastating Uppercut] Skill.

He exploded out with the punch, fast, using his reach and full body’s weight behind the blow. Fierre saw, with her ring, Alber’s class and level appear in her vision.

Level 28 [Boxer].

He swayed out of range of the uppercut and countered the man so fast everyone but Fierre barely saw it. The Vampire gasped as the man stumbled. He was huge, though, and Alber weighed maybe half his weight? He turned with a roar—

[Lightning Jab]! [Flurry of Blows]! [Full-Weight Counter]! Fierre read the Skills a moment before they came out. Alber struck the man with his left, dancing back, then ducked a swing and unloaded on the man’s belly. He used the final Skill as another big swing came at him. He lunged in and put all of his weight behind a fist to the man’s stomach.

Not his chin. The drink and whatever the man had been eating came up as people groaned or cheered. Fierre watched as the [Tavern Diver] shoved away hands and came up again. He was tough!

But Alber took him apart in the little ring. He ducked, weaving, blocking some punches, letting the other fighter tire himself out. What was it called?

Rope-a-dope? Fierre had laughed the first time she’d heard the expression. But she knew what he was doing. Jabs with his left, footwork, even the way he held his gloves was changed from the [Fist Fighter]’s self-taught style. It had changed because of Ryoka.

Moreover, Fierre watched with open mouth as Alber’s seventh opponent went down and no one stepped up to challenge him. She reached for her notes and wrote something down slowly.

[Fist Fighter] and possibly unarmed Skills are available to use in each fight, not time-limited. Or extremely-fast time activation.

Alber had used the same Skills in bout after bout.

“No one else? No one at all?”

The [Bet Taker] was shouting, trying to drum up another easy win. Yet Alber had overplayed his hand for the day; no one else wanted to try it after the [Tavern Diver] had gone down. Men emptied a day’s pay into hats, looking sullen or admiring by turns at Alber. He’d need to find a new spot to ply his trade tomorrow.

The [Boxer] looked around. He nodded at Fierre and began to collect his share of the winnings as she waited to talk to him.

“I’ll take him on! What’s the fee, one silver? I’ll bet on myself too!”

Heads turned. The [Bet Taker] brightened up. And because he was a [Bet Taker], not a [Bookie], he misjudged his mark.

The City Runner who strode into the ring made Fierre’s head swivel around. Another familiar face!

Garia Strongheart wasn’t dressed as provocatively as Ulvama, but if you looked, you could see abdominal muscles. And she was a [Farmer].

Alber’s head snapped up. Fierre began to find silver coins. She walked over to the [Bet Taker] as people encouraged Alber to take it easy on Garia!

“Don’t fight him, girl! He’ll knock you down! He’s merciless to women and men both!”

“I want to try!”

Garia grinned. She looked around for gloves, but Alber was the only one who had any. She eyed him.

“Are you okay if I hit you? I’ve got a good punch! No kicking?”

“You can try for a larger fee. But a fair fight’s only punches.”

He shrugged. Fierre recalled that against weaker opponents, Alber didn’t even bother to restrict kicks.

“Only punches, then.”

Fierre placed her bet. Alber didn’t notice; he was sipping a stamina potion, not even going for the healing potion though he’d taken two decent swings.

He was making a mistake. Garia was probably a good amount under Alber’s weight…but looks were deceiving.

She was a [Farmer]’s daughter. A [Pirate]’s daughter.

Also?

A [Martial Artist]. Alber let his guard down at the start. And it only took one punch.

Fierre saw the [Boxer] put up the cross-arm block as the bell rang. Garia leapt forwards, and it was a good step-in. She saw Alber’s eyes widen, but he had his arms making a cross, a strong punch-blocker. She raised her fist—

Whumph. Fierre winced. She’d sparred with Garia at the Strongheart farm during a visit. Garia was as strong as Fierre. And she’d just used a Skill.

[Launching Strike]. Alber absorbed the punch. She thought he’d used [Arms: Impact Shield], which could have made his arms as strong as a steel shield for a second. He’d also pivoted to take the punch full-on.

So his arms didn’t break or even bruise. None of that stopped the other effect of the Skill.

Alber went flying. Garia’s [Enhanced Strength], her [Martial Artist]’s Skill—and Alber’s back step during the punch culminated in him going flying. He lost his block, flailed his arms once as Fierre saw him fly out of the ring—

And with a crash, he sailed through the glass frontage of a store eight paces behind the boxing ring. The expensive glass rained down around him as he went back-first through it.

Garia, who had been smiling, lost the smile. Fierre stared as the horrified [Shopkeeper], who’d been watching the fight, stared at Alber. The young man was trying to brush glass, which was cutting his skin, off him.

In the silence, Fierre slowly grabbed the [Bet Taker]’s arm so he couldn’t run off with her money.

 

—-

 

The money she’d won from the bet went into the glass window. Glass was expensive, so Alber’s taking for the day, the bet money, and Garia and Fierre all chipped in.

It went to winning thanks from both. Garia was shamefaced—and so was Alber, for underestimating his opponent.

“I’m so sorry. I heard there was a [Fist Fighter] and I’d never used that Skill.”

“It’s fine.”

It probably wasn’t. That was a lot of money to be out for Alber who lived day-to-day, but the young man was taciturn all the time Fierre had known him.

For instance, he’d barely grunted as acknowledgement when he’d seen Fierre, for all it was a shock to both.

“Heard about Ryoka. Good she’s okay. Nice to see you.”

They’d had a drink afterwards, in the closest pub. Ironically, the [Tavern Diver] and his mates had wanted to haul Alber off, figuring that if you couldn’t beat him, the [Boxer] was their best friend, and possible second in a bar fight.

Garia Strongheart got to him first.

“I’m really sorry about that. You know Ryoka too? Small world! Why don’t you come to my farm? Come on, my father loves to meet people who fight with their fists. Come over for dinner! They love it when I visit and it’s through the magical door.”

“I’m fine.”

“I insist.

And she’d practically dragged him with her. Ryoka had once told Fierre that Garia was shy, but kind. Fierre didn’t see it. The young woman seemed forthright enough to her.

She invited Fierre too, but the Vampire girl declined. Mainly because she had no desire to drink a second time with the [Pirate] and [Green Mage], and also because she needed to sort her thoughts out. Alber wasn’t that great a conversationalist, anyways.

What made Fierre really decline was uh—uh—she hurried back to The Wandering Inn and her room and shut the door.

Gaah! Why do I want to drink his blood so badly? And hers?

Both Garia and Alber were driving her Vampire-sense crazy. And with that desire had come a realization. Fierre…would not mind drinking Alber’s blood. Or doing other things.

Which led her to a grave, nay, terrible realization.

Oh no. It’s not just Ryoka. Or women. I’m attracted to anything with a pulse!

That was an exaggeration, of course. Fierre would rather have sucked the blood of a Shield Spider than the [Tavern Diver]’s. But Alber? Alber and Garia were both uh, possessed of strong blood flow. You could see it under their muscles. Lovely veins…she’d love to taste them, even when they were covered in sweat or a bit of grime. Especially then?

Aaah! Stop it!

Vampires liked that kind of thing, like Selphids. Fierre was realizing all kinds of things about herself.

However, the biggest revelation was yet to come. Because she’d come back early after the encounter, Fierre found herself having dinner in The Wandering Inn.

They still had food there. Guests got breakfast; they could get dinner. It had been an abandoned place recently, but this night, Fierre smelled cooking and found Imani serving people around the tables.

Numbtongue was there. So was Selys, who had accompanied Mrsha and Ulvama all day. Mrsha was gobbling something called a pilau rice dish, without even the decency to have bloody meat in it. It still smelled good to Fierre.

She surprised them all.

“Fierre? I haven’t seen you in—a week!”

Guiltily, the guests and staff realized that Fierre had been neglected, but she waved it away and told them about Garia.

“She did go through to Invrisil. And you’re working there?”

“Mhm. Is this free to eat for anyone here? I can find something else.”

“No, stay! You’re a guest, of course! Mrsha, stop gobbling.”

The Gnoll had no Lyonette to halt her, and Ulvama was eating just as fast with her claws. Amused, Fierre sat down. She had no satiety needs from this food, but good cooking she still liked. Rice was unusual in Izril, so she savored the bites.

There were a lot of guests for one of the first communal-dinners in The Wandering Inn since…well, Numbtongue had been coaxed out of the garden. Palt was helping serve food with Imani, Ishkr was doing likewise, Drassi had finished her shift at Wistram News Network.

Here were Joseph, Troydel, Leon, Kevin…Fierre’s eyes narrowed slightly as she realized Rose and Galina were now gone. Octavia, bloodshot, smelling of burnt cloth, was muttering about Battle Draughts.

There were even the three Lizardfolk, who merrily tried to tease Mrsha by stealing her food. Hexel was out, but even Montressa and Bezale were there.

Fierre indulged in the community of it all. Everyone was catching up. And that’s when it happened.

“So, Invrisil’s scheduled the first soccer game against a smaller city tomorrow—and baseball vs Liscor in four days.”

“I wonder if Wistram News Network will cover it? It might not be as big, sorry, Joseph.”

The Earther shrugged as Drassi leaned over. Ulvama snorted at the sports as she casually grabbed Mrsha’s little pudding off her plate. The Gnoll stared at the empty plate, and then head-butted Ulvama in the side. Undeterred, the [Shaman] ate it, as Mrsha tried to drag at her arm. I am bigger! I eat your food if I want!

Fierre watched Kevin yawning over his plate as Troy whispered to him.

Wings, Kevin. Did you help her with the glider? Can you at least look over this?”

“Troy, my dude. If this is something stupid—Rose isn’t here, but I’ll ask Bezale to hit you.”

The Minotauress looked up and Troy, exasperated, shuffled something into his belt pouch. Montressa ignored that as she leaned over Mrsha sulking in Selys’ arms as the Drake promised another pudding.

“If you’re doing the baseball game, Joseph, would you mind putting in a word with Liscor’s Council? Bezale and I could…promote some dresses, for the cheering squad or uniforms for the players. Maybe even free of charge.”

“You what?”

Joseph looked blank. Montressa smiled.

“We’re introducing a secondary, linked-shop from Invrisil. The latest designs—in Liscor!”

“You mean, a chain store.”

“I like that.”

Bezale looked at Joseph. Fierre’s eyes narrowed again. She knew what Montressa and Bezale were doing. Smart work—Fierre wished she could be so charismatic and connected as to be the first people to ‘link’ all three cities and bring the best businesses over to each.

“If you can get me a meeting with the Council, the best [Seamstress] in Invrisil might be able to do you a discount, or even some free advertisement. Perhaps in return for some negotiation with the shops? Let’s talk.”

Montressa was smiling at Joseph. He was wary—he just taught people how to play football, but he was willing to pass on the request. Thus, business was concluded at the same time as Ulvama went to steal the next pudding Ishkr was bringing out for Mrsha. The little Gnoll furiously waved a wand and Ulvama fell flat onto her face as a bit of grass sprouted from the floorboards.

That was when it happened. Montressa shot Bezale a knowing look.

“There’s more we want to bring—from Wistram. New ideas. Like what Geneva was saying to help with Erin. We can set up a clinic if we have support. Find a [Healer]? I don’t know how these…blood transfusions work, but if you can explain…”

Fierre looked up.

 

—-

 

Geneva Scala was still advising the others about Erin. The failed Potion of Regeneration, the incident to no one’s gain, had led to her sending more instructions. One of which was that if they were going to attempt a proper procedure, a proper blood bank and blood transfusions could possibly save Erin’s life if the poison still prevented healing potions.

Blood transfusions? Blood banks? First off, what was this? Second off—why did they know about it?

Fierre lingered at the table, listening with all her might as Joseph, Leon, Troy, and Kevin explained the idea to the other skeptical people. She didn’t know why Montressa and Bezale had some familiarity with it, except that it was connected to Wistram. She didn’t know why these Humans knew.

Or why Geneva Scala, the Last Light of Baleros knew and was affiliated. But she listened. And she saw it in one glorious moment.

“I’d like to fund that. If it can help Erin—and do all of that, especially save lives when someone’s poisoned, why haven’t we done that?”

Selys was speaking when Fierre sidled over to Montressa and Bezale, who’d seen another opportunity. The Vampire girl raised a hand.

“I’d uh—like to help too. It sounds like a good idea.”

The small group talking about logistics turned to look at Fierre. She shone with the pure innocence of someone who wanted to bring life-saving technology to Liscor.

“Oh. Er—Fierre, right? We can certainly use help. You’re an Opener?”

Montressa gave Fierre a look. Fierre smiled and the Secret Broker of Wistram and Letter Opener of Reizmelt traded competitive looks. Not to be outdone by a snob from the Academy of Mages who thought she knew how things worked, Fierre was already handing Selys a little list.

“There are still some cheap areas of land being offered for sale by Liscor’s Council. Although I think that if you talked to them, they might give you some for free. Oh, and here’s a list of Liscor’s top [Healers]. And Invrisil’s.”

Montressa and Bezale looked at the smug Vampire. The [Spellscribe] uncrossed her arms as she realized she’d been out-written. Selys looked at Fierre and grinned.

“That’s much appreciated!”

“I’m also willing to put some gold into this project if it helps. Even set things up.”

Really?

The two [Mages] were clearly wondering if Fierre was virtue-flexing on them at this point. The Vampire hesitated at Selys’ raised brows.

Slow down. Don’t be too eager! Give them a reason. A reason…

“—it’s because of Ryoka. She’s always getting wounded and a ‘blood bank’, or those bags you were talking about could save her. Not to mention, I heard about the Horns of Hammerad and the Crelers. This could actually revolutionize adventuring if it was made easy! No fear of poison—or less, at any rate!”

“Ah, of course.”

Fierre saw Bezale’s eyes light up again. No doubt the Minotauress had just cottoned on to the same thing Fierre had. Octavia, ironically, was still in the dark, but it took a [Warrior] to see the obvious.

If blood transfusions were cheaper than healing potions, or even if they could prevent poison from being as deadly if you coated your blades in it, warfare itself would change. This isn’t some [Healer] thing. This could be as big as the Occillium mold.

After so many big inventions coming from Liscor, it was the kind of thing that people were learning to pick up. Like an [Entrepreneur], the best [Merchants], and indeed, [Innkeepers], [Gossips], and savvy [Lords] and [Ladies], the people of Liscor were developing the sense for what was valuable and new.

Not only that—it was experience. They’d done this before. It was just strange to do without Erin. Almost wrong. But it was to save her, so Fierre watched the process the [Innkeeper] had laid down move into action more smoothly. The wheels Erin had moved were now greased.

She was so clever! Look at that!

Selys had a perfect ‘in’ with Liscor’s Council, by way of Zevara, Olesm, and Krshia, Elirr, and Raekea. She prevailed on Elirr to call the Council to a short session—they met every day anyways—which also tied into the Mrsha connection.

Not only that, Liscor’s Council was fast-moving, decisive, and had money to spend, especially on something that would save lives in the upcoming Hectval conflict. They had an [Architect], free land to hand out, and so the only thing really missing was the expertise.

There’s no plastic. How the heck are we supposed to make a tube? Out of leather?”

“That’s probably got a lot of germs. Glass?”

“Wait, let’s just ask Geneva. She says she’s invented one.”

Fierre’s ears perked up as she listened to unguarded snippets from Joseph and Kevin. Another thing she picked up on was what whatever ‘secret’ was out there—almost everyone seemed to know what it was except her. She ground her teeth together, but it was more important to get this thing moving. Montressa went into Liscor and Bezale took Invrisil to find [Healers] willing to give this a shot.

Herself, Fierre listened to the explanation they got from Geneva about blood types, proper hygiene, and her own methods of making blood transfusions—with metal or glass.

“Pelt can make a needle in ten minutes. I’ll just bet he could do this. I’m off to Esthelm!”

How quickly they moved! Fierre was amazed. They had a master [Smith] who was willing to move things like this up in his schedule, a medical expert…

“We’re going to need to try a blood transfusion and collect a lot of blood. Runes of Preservation, definitely, for the blood bank.”

“I can calculate the cost. Are you planning on hiring Master Hedault?”

“Kevin can probably convince him to do the work fast.”

Convince Master Hedault, the notoriously schedule-oriented, best [Enchanter] in Invrisil to prioritize your work. How easily you say that!

It was relationships. The [Innkeeper]’s strength. Openers had to act the same way, so Fierre respected all of this. And every step of the way, of course, she was there.

Need someone to scout out all the sites where this clinic could take place? No problem.

[Healer] needs to be talked into it? Fierre had all the explanations ready.

A pair of hands to help carry all the pieces of equipment around and set up a trial run? Fierre had hands.

She spent her entire morning and evening making this happen. It wouldn’t be a one-day process, but Kevin had two gleaming needles made of steel by lunch. The tubing was harder, but he claimed that Pelt was working on a flexible metal tube, chained segments of metal together, for the sheer challenge of it.

The Vampire was excited. And yes, she put eighty gold pieces of her own money into the contribution pile.

The simple fact of it was Earth’s practice of storing and using blood was unheard of in this world. It was like a dream come true for a Vampire that needed blood from people.

The first people to invent the medical practices of bleeding and then blood transfusions in Earth were definitely Vampires. The person who invented leeching was just weird.

 

—-

 

Anyways, the upshot of it was that while they had a lot more to do in establishing procedures, getting everything lined up, the blood bank for Liscor was well underway, and a few adventurers and [Guards] had even volunteered to see what it was like.

The main thing Geneva Scala claimed was necessary were [Cleansing] spells for the needles, which allowed them to be re-used so long as the needles didn’t come into contact with significant disease or poison.

Her real concern was matching blood-types, as well as making sure no one gave blood that had any kind of ‘sexually transmitted infections’. Fierre had nearly pulled out her canines when she’d been told you could transfer disease that way!

Vampires didn’t fear disease, though—if they were silver-free. It was a concern for the blood-team. Selys was managing it with Montressa. Neither Joseph nor Kevin nor Leon nor Troy were really interested in being the [Blood Healers] of the new era. But they gamely helped and Fierre found herself in the middle of temptation.

“Don’t touch that! No fur, no little kids!”

Troy tried to shoo Mrsha away as she stared at vials full of blood. She slapped his hand down—she didn’t take orders from Troys—and stared at Octavia as the [Alchemist] mixed two blood samples.

“Looks like the [Doctor]’s right. Lizardfolk blood doesn’t match anything but Hexel’s.”

“Aw.”

One of the [Architect]’s assistants looked disappointed; the test of mixing blood was creating the tell-tale ‘sticking’ that Geneva claimed as a sign of improper type matchups.

Coagulation. Fierre licked her lips as Octavia handed more samples off to be washed.

“I’ve got it.”

“Oh, thanks. I need more test tubes. Okay, Miss Geneva sent over a bunch of these ‘blood types’, but since it’s only four Lizardfolk, I have no idea where you all fall. Let’s do Drakes next.”

Fierre hurried off with the bloody vials. The sight of the…delicious…blood made Leon turn pale. It was amusing to the Vampire to realize that while many could take wounds freely, the act of drawing blood made some faint.

For instance, Hexel had swooned after giving blood and seeing his—probably from his past trauma—and Elirr had had to catch him in his arms.

Fierre cleaned the vials by drinking them down, then adding water and gulping the watery blood. Sure, it tasted worse, but she had discovered something as people gave blood.

Everyone from Lism to Selys to Kevin had given blood to be tested. At first, Fierre had been wary, but she’d tried some blood from Numbtongue when the Hobgoblin had been tested against Ulvama to see if they were compatible.

To her disappointment, Fierre had gotten no levels or even the indication that she could ‘acquire’ levels from his blood. It really was taking directly that seemed to work.

On the other hand, it’s sustenance! This is so tasty. Yum, yum, yum—

Food supply had been acquired, if not the keys to classes and power. Fierre wished she could take a bigger role in the testing. What Octavia had to do with Geneva’s blood typing process, Fierre could do with taste!

She knew blood types were different. Of course, she was more aware of animal blood, but there was a ‘taste’ to each one. For instance, what the [Doctor] had learned and Fierre was observing was that blood transfusion wouldn’t be as easy as poking yourself with a needle and squirting some blood to ‘top yourself off’ after losing a pint.

“Some species aren’t blood-type compatible. Lizardfolk are…lizards, so there’s no transfer across their species. Even some kinds of Naga can’t trade with regular Lizardfolk, apparently. But it says here that uh, ‘mammals’ have more compatibility. But in each species, there are some who can’t trade.”

“That’s wild. Hey, Kevin, Joseph. How many blood types did we know of um—back home?”

Fierre’s eyes narrowed as Troy stared at the list. Kevin counted.

“…Six? There are rare ones, you know. Like, wasn’t there that blood that only 300 people in the world had? Blood type Bombay?”

Fierre saw Joseph nudge him. Kevin hurried on.

“I mean—our home. Until now. How many are there uh, that Geneva’s found?

The Vampire girl tilted her head slightly.

What in the name of garlic sauce was he talking about? The world? But this is new. Yet they act like this is normal in their home. They’re not from Drath…

The pieces were there. But the conclusion was too massive for her to encapsulate, yet. And there wasn’t any precedent—or even fiction—to give her the clues.

“Uh—uh—looks like sixty four so far.”

Sixty four?

“Wait, it says here…”

Everyone crowded around as Troy read out the complicated explanations that Geneva had written. Fierre translated into her own notes and rephrased for everyone.

“There are only about twenty ‘main’ blood types. The problem is that with so many species, there are some non-transferable ones. If you’re lucky, you have the basic ones like um, A, B, AB, and so on.”

“AB’s common? Dude.”

Kevin looked at the list glumly. He was AB+, which was wonderfully unique. Fierre pointed.

“It’s going to take a dedicated [Healer] to figure it out. See all the links? This blood—O—can transfer across most of the ‘main’ types. But anyone with a rarer type can’t.”

Geneva had tried to make a graph, but the problem was there were so many crisscrossing lines and odd connections, like O-blood being transferable with a lot of blood types, but not FS—a Drake type—yet AB being compatible with F so long as it was negative—that gave most of the crowd a headache.

“It’s less useful than we thought.”

Montressa groaned out loud, seeing the complications. Someone would need to be tested to know their blood type, and if an emergency happened, they’d need all the blood types in reserve in case someone had a rare one.

“But still useful. I wonder if this ‘blood typing’ would be useful for a [Blood Mage] of some kind? There aren’t many in Wistram, but…”

The two [Mages] exchanged a significant look. Fierre raised her brows. Neither [Mage] had been surprised by this revelation, yet Fierre had been blindsided.

Wistram knows about this blood typing thing, even though Vampires and Openers don’t. Joseph, Kevin, Erin, Ryoka, Troy, Leon, Rose, Galina, and Imani all come from the same place, even though Ryoka and Imani look far different. Somehow, blood transfusions are known across the world and yet I’ve never heard of them.

There were only a handful of blood types that they knew of. All of which are only for Humans…

Even her blood didn’t match the basic Human eight. Fierre had been nervous, but Octavia had just put it down to Fierre being an as-yet undiscovered blood type.

The Vampire girl stared at her notes. Her eyes crossed. She held up the comments about ‘world’, ‘Earth’, ‘home’, and squinted at them. She bit her lip, reflecting on Ryoka.

“Hey, who’s got the laptop? I want to use it to see if we have any data on this. Or just a spreadsheet. Leon?”

“Come on, Kevin…”

“Don’t hog it. This is important.”

Fierre’s head rose. She saw Kevin arguing with Leon. She followed them up the stairs, with her [Concealing Presence] Skill.

She stared at the laptop. Mrsha padded past the hallway, sniffing and searching for evil, clever mice. Fierre saw Kevin look around, and then hurry to the Earth-rooms to try and create a more acceptable diagram of the blood types.

The Vampire girl’s mouth was agape the entire time. Some conclusions were incredible. But the Earthers?

They weren’t exactly covert.

 

—-

 

Fierre sat in her rooms, gulping down blood and nervously scribbling like a mad-Vampire. It was easy to purloin the blood. The blood bank was all she wanted.

Oh, it was from Earth, yes. Another world.

They were from another world. What kind of world? No clue! But it was obvious after seeing the laptop.

The glowing screen, eavesdropping—the blood types—oh, so obvious. How could she have missed it? Ryoka! Ryoka was as obvious as the burning sun when you looked at her! She was so different, but she had no knowledge of other continents—not in any details she ever expressed.

“But where? Could it be some kind of hidden paradise? But they said ‘world’. And all these games…”

Fierre had a short list of possibilities. Firstly? They came from a hidden dimension, one of those fabled pocket-cities or ancient gateways to some kind of magical reality. Second? Completely different world…somehow.

A place where Vampires had existed and Ryoka had known about them. Where only Humans were.

Third? This was some kind of code and they were messing with her.

Fourth? The future! Or the past. No, wait, that was silly.

F-fifth? The alternate-timelines theory. Which tied into option number two and four, really.

However, what it meant was mind-blowing. Astounding. Fierre put her head in her hands. This was the discovery of a lifetime. The secret worth an incalculable amount of money!

Wistram knew. Of course they did! It all added up! Montressa, Bezale, Palt—and why they kept hanging around the Earthers, their name for themselves. Who else knew?

To the Opener and Information Broker, this was a time-sensitive secret. Worth more as less people knew about it, like all secrets, obviously, but this one would invariably become public. It would be impossible to keep this quiet forever.

At this moment in time, to the right people, other brokers, influential people who wanted to be told of stuff like this, it was worth tens of thousands of gold pieces, if not all from the same place.

I can sell this to at least thirty sources myself and then sell it to the other brokers for…

Fierre hesitated.

But that would put Ryoka in more danger.

A conscience was a terrible thing for a Vampire or Information Broker. Fierre sat back in her chair, exasperated.

Ryoka kept my secret. Is this like Vampirism? Do I owe it to her not to say anything until it’s too late? I’m sitting on a goldmine here!

She cured me. How much is that worth?

“She didn’t tell me herself, though!”

Grumpily, Fierre sat up. She thought they were friends! When Ryoka got back, Fierre was going to—she was going to—

Well. She was going to do something. Fierre sighed. She burped and reached for another vial of blood. Then she flexed a hand and looked out the window.

The sun was setting.

 

—-

 

As daylight turned to dusk, a creature of the night awoke to her nocturnal powers. She leapt into the air, doing a somersault, landing on her feet, then raced across the ground like a pale shadow, a blur, but silent as a whisper. She picked up a stone embedded in the earth as wide around as her chest, over a hundred pounds, and threw it twenty feet.

Even stronger! Faster than before! She could feel her body reacting to the blood! The Vampire girl laughed as she ran, looking for a fight! An opponent who could even dream of challenging her!

“Ooh. So strong.”

Bird watched Fierre from his tower. She had run away from Liscor and the inn, but there was always Bird.

The problem was, there was always someone around. Invrisil? Forget about it! Try lurking from the rooftops and you’d be sharing elbow room with two [Rogues], a [Thief], and an [Assassin]. Liscor? The Watch patrolled dark shadows in the night and poked spears into them!

Sewers stank. Even the Floodplains weren’t private, although only Bird saw Fierre running about, punching the air, testing her newfound power.

…Which was a good thing. Because Fierre saw the telltale heartbeat in the huge boulder ahead of her. As a cunning eye poked under the edge of the rock and it lifted up, she bared her fangs in anticipation, and her hands turned to claws as her eyes shone crimson.

 

—-

 

Ten minutes later, Fierre was limping back to the inn, head hanging low. The Rock Crab had fled, not because of the fear of the predator of the night, but because Bird had shot two seed cores at it, the ‘anti-crab’ arrows he’d made by tying the fragile blue fruit cores to an arrow.

I’m supposed to be strong!

The Vampire cried inwardly. She was! She was as strong as—as—

Garia. Stronger than any Human could dream of normally being—or close to the Human limit of someone many times her weight! Fast, as fast as a Human athlete! And combined, she had strength and speed and a healing factor all beyond humanity, whose most outstanding members could only hope to equal or surpass her in one aspect.

…None of that meant superior to a giant crab with claws as big as she was, who carried around huge boulders weighing over a ton as a shell.

Fierre had tried to punch through the shell. She had learned Vampire strength, if not directed properly, could not break stone that easily. Also, trying to ‘box’ with a Rock Crab was a bad idea.

Goblins and brave adventurers went under the shell with weapons and tore the Rock Crab apart, or hit it from afar through gaps. Fierre had, with all the intelligence of a new-born Vampire, punched its shell and tried to tear a claw off until it nearly severed her leg.

She did not know how to fight. Fierre went to thank Bird. The Antinium called down at her from the tower as Palt trotted out of the inn with a wand—he’d heard Bird’s alarm.

“Hello! You are welcome, Miss Fierre! You are very strong and very weak at fighting! Do not run around when I am sleeping or you will be food for crabs. Good night!”

…Fierre accepted a hot cup of goat’s milk and hid in the corner of her room for the rest of the night.

 

—-

 

The worst part was that she grew another half-inch, again overnight. Her body ingested the blood it was missing, and was making the comeback of a lifetime, turning her into the older Fierre she had wanted to be.

None of that helped her complete combat-ineptness. The next day, Fierre listened as Bird happily ate a ‘bird pie’ for breakfast.

As in…boiled eggs and chicken baked into a pie crust. Imani looked appalled as she served it to him, but Bird had asked for it as a reward for his heroism.

“I thought I could just run about and try out a new Skill. I didn’t know Rock Crabs were so…deadly. Thank you, again, Bird.”

That was Fierre’s lame excuse. She was glad he didn’t mention seeing her toss boulders about.

“Miss Fierre is very bad at fighting. As bad as Mrsha, but worse.”

Ishkr coughed and Palt hesitated.

“…Maybe that’s enough of retelling, Bird.”

“Okay. Thank you for the bird-bird pie. I am very happy. If you would like to be endangered again, Miss Fierre, I will save you so I can have another pie.”

“I’ll think about it.”

Was she worse than Mrsha? No way! Absolutely not! Fierre stared at Mrsha as the Gnoll girl decided to prove her mettle. She stood up on two paws, and began to punch at Ulvama’s face, just close enough to make the Hobgoblin flinch.

Ulvama picked Mrsha up, and tossed her over her shoulder.

Ishkr dove for Mrsha.

Mrsha hit the ground, rolled onto all fours, charged back the way she’d come and performed a flying head-butt into Ulvama’s right side.

The Hobgoblin [Shaman] fell out of her chair, swearing and clutching at her side. As Numbtongue had taught her, Mrsha performed a flying elbow—onto Ulvama’s belly. The Hobgoblin made an urgh sound. Mrsha took one look at her face and decided she maybe had gone too far.

Ulvama grabbed at her, shrieking with fury. Mrsha ran for the [Garden of Sanctuary], dodging between chairs, evading a spell that missed her tail by inches. Ulvama sped up, and blocked the door, eyes flashing with fury.

Mrsha threw dirt in her face. [Dirt Spray]! She slipped between Ulvama’s legs, still waving her wand.

The [Shaman] went after her. She ran into the beaver gang.

Fierre put her head in her hands.

She was worse than Mrsha at fighting.

 

—-

 

Strength without technique was still strength. Fierre got over her despair after she realized that for all her cunning and ‘fighting ability’, the Vampire could still throw her opponents through a wall where Mrsha could barely throw a ball.

However, it still stung to be humbled twice in so many days. Yet, look at Mrsha. Fierre conducted a background check like she had a client who wanted a full analysis on Mrsha. The client being her, in this case.

Plains Gnoll, probably went hunting or at least knew how to skin animals, even shoot a bow or at least what to do in dangerous situations with her tribe. Survived the Goblin Lord’s attack. Trained by Numbtongue, Redfang Hobgoblin [Warrior]. Trained (perhaps against the will of caretakers), by Relc Grasstongue, Senior Guardsman and [Spearmaster]. Mentored by [Druid], Nal…something. Survivor of Raskghar and multiple inn attacks.

Fierre? She looked at her notes on herself.

Took boxing lessons from Ryoka once. Punched magical Golems at the Archmage of Izril’s mansion. Fought with brother. Worked part-time as a [Watchwoman] (no actual combat), and at a [Butcher]’s. Vampire.

There was a discrepancy here that anyone could see. And this was with a child.

Something had to be done. Fierre worked on the issue while she went back to her job. Two more Runners, swapping secrets with an Information Broker who clearly thought she was some incompetent from the rural countryside…

She snapped at the overconfident man trying to look big and intimidating and scare her into giving up her wealth of knowledge.

“No, listen. One of us knows how to summon the Unmarked Coach. One of us has sixteen contact listings with major Gangs. You want that kind of knowledge? Come back with a thousand gold pieces per piece of information and then we’ll talk. Or give me something I want, not lists of data I can pay five silver for.”

She kicked the broker out. Fierre might not know how to throw a punch, but she was a pretty important Opener. Yeah…yeah…she stared glumly at her Iron Golem and spoke to it.

“I’m not that bad at fighting.”

It looked at her blankly. Even her Golem didn’t seem to believe her.

 

—-

 

In the end, Fierre closed up early. She couldn’t sit still, anyways. Her body was vibrating with energy thanks to the blood she’d ingested. A shame she couldn’t use it.

Also, a double-shame that she was Fierre the Opener, not Fierre the Adventurer because she couldn’t ask for a [Weapon Master] to train her or something without them wondering how she had [Greater Strength], [Enhanced Speed], and so on.

However, it occurred to Fierre that there was one person whom she could prevail on, who might not take her abilities amiss. Who had an actual, working knowledge of how to fight with Fierre’s best weapons—her fists and feet.

It was…

 

—-

 

…Not Ryoka. Fierre rapped on the bedroom door and a tousle-haired City Runner opened it.

“Fierre?”

Garia was still at her parent’s home. Alber was not. Fierre had heard from Wailant that the [Boxer] had fled the next morning after a single night there which involved eight boxing bouts against father and daughter.

Still, the Strongheart family was hospitable. Overly-so, perhaps. Fierre had eaten a second-breakfast despite only wanting to meet Garia.

“How can I help you?”

Garia yawned over her breakfast, but she grew excited as Fierre confessed her problems.

“You want to learn how to defend yourself? I can help! Mom, I’m borrowing the barn.”

Viceria Strongheart raised two resigned brows.

“Just don’t break anything. And don’t wake your father! He hurt his back brawling with that poor young man. If you see him, you owe him some food. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me like you dragged him here just to beat him silly—all without paying him.”

The [Martial Artist]-[Runner] looked a bit embarrassed. It was not the first time Garia Strongheart had seconded someone to help her train. Actually—Wailant kept abducting Numbtongue on his lonesome as well.

“I can definitely help you. I’m a [Martial Artist]—and I’ve been talking with some people in Pomle and Master Grimalkin. I know you’re fast and strong from when we sparred. I can definitely help! I’m free all day. Do you know where Alber’s staying? I should apologize.”

Fierre didn’t, but it wasn’t hard to look up and she promised to tell Garia when she swung by tomorrow. They headed to the barn, chatting.

“So you’re running deliveries around Invrisil?”

Garia jogged along, looking energetic in the daylight. Fierre was glad they’d chosen an indoor spot; even with hood over her head and clothing, she felt like she was already burning in the light.

“Yep! The Guildmistress of Celum actually recommended I go. I was super nervous, but she told me I’m at that level now! Me! Can you believe it?”

The Vampire thought about Garia punching Alber into the window yesterday and could believe it. If anything remained of the Garia that Ryoka knew, it was still a bit of an inferiority complex.

However, Garia’s nerves disappeared in her impromptu sparring ring. And it was Garia that Fierre realized she needed to meet.

“It’s not [Enhanced Strength] anymore. It’s [Greater Strength]. Even Dad was impressed. I’m getting all of the other basics, too. [Lesser Dexterity], [Enhanced Endurance]…you have the same, right?”

“Something similar. I got really lucky.”

“Me too. But Pomle’s people keep telling me that I need to change the way I fight. They like me practicing basic moves, but it’s all different at our level. I wish I could go there and learn from them, but at least I have [Messages] now!”

“Different how?”

The [Martial Artist] in training beckoned, an eager grin on her face.

“Come on and I’ll show you.”

This time Fierre took her opponent seriously. In the confines of the barn, the cows, two magical, some horses, and a pig watched as the two circled. Fierre crouched—then leapt to one side, almost on all fours like Mrsha! She blurred left as Garia yelped in surprise.

“You’re even faster—

Fierre shot a punch at Garia’s side. Not as hard as she could. She was t—

Garia grabbed her, and threw her. Fierre once again experienced the joys of flight. The Stronghearts had a big barn. Garia winced as Fierre crashed into one of the beams and dropped, nearly thirty feet distant.

Sorry! You’re okay, right?

“I’m…fine.”

Her ego was bruised more than her body. Fierre charged back in—she punched twice, and Garia blocked both before sending her flying again.

“How are you doing that?”

Frustrated, Fierre threw up her hands. Garia pointed.

“Footwork. Listen, it’s all in what the [Martial Artists] taught me. Once you get to a certain point…”

…Everything changed. Fierre ended up sitting on some hay as Garia explained. All of her preconceived notions of combat were somehow right and totally wrong.

“When you have [Greater Strength], or even [Enhanced Strength], normal swords and stuff might actually hold you back. Sure, if you’re fast enough, keep doing the same thing. But—have you ever seen those massive swords some people use? The kind that look silly?”

“Greatswords? Zweihanders?”

Swords could get absurdly large or heavy. Even battleaxes, which surely weren’t practical, were the tools of high-level [Warriors].

“It’s because no one can normally swing them around quick enough to be practical. But if you can swing a ten-foot battleaxe and clear everything around you—why not, right? According to the experts I talk to, the problem is when normal people think they can copy that. Plus, the reason why weapons get larger is because sometimes you’re fighting giant monsters.”

“Right, right. But I can’t beat anything.

Garia shook her head.

“That’s because you don’t move right.”

“I’m fast!”

Fierre was stung. The [Martial Artist] looked at her.

“But I’m just as fast, or nearly. And you run around. Here. Try to jump me from the side again. I’ll show you how I can keep up.”

Fierre did. She spun left—and saw Garia execute a simple turn. Three steps, and she had pivoted to face Fierre.

“Oh.”

Garia smiled as the Vampire finally got it.

“What the [Martial Artists] say is that you have to fight differently to use all your strength or speed. Like throwing you—that’s actually a bad idea.”

“How come?”

“I might be able to throw you fifty feet. You won’t get more hurt, though, and I’ve wasted time. If I throw you, I should throw you straight down so all my strength transfers. Stuff like that. Also though—even if you’re fast as lightning, footwork matters.”

This was the kind of thing Fierre needed to be taught. Ironically, the Vampire’s natural abilities were on par with a [Martial Artist]’s way of thinking. She wanted to spar more, but Garia had her practicing pivots and how to punch or kick.

“I had to start the same way. You’re welcome to come over as much as you want, though! I’d love to have someone to practice with at my level.”

It was not the great revelation Fierre wanted, but she accepted she had to learn everything about combat. She did feel like she had unleashed some of the nervous energy in her body, too, so after three hours of Garia-lessons, she promised to make this a regular thing and went back to the inn.

She still felt like all the blood she’d drunk had done more for her than just improve her body. Fierre had, by ‘cleaning up’ the blood-type experiments and taking some of the blood donations, drunk probably a gallon of people-blood yesterday.

And she could still go for more. Did she look at Garia’s sweaty neck and feel the urge to taste sweet ichor? Yes, but Fierre was always thirsty. Was she ashamed of that? No.

She had been thirsty her entire life. Now, she could finally drink. Fierre pushed open the door to The Wandering Inn after a twenty-minute delay, and saw the [Urban Tracker] and squad of Invrisil’s Watch waiting for her.

 

—-

 

“Two murders in Invrisil?”

Montressa looked unsettled—Bezale did not.

“There must be countless crimes per day. Why are we under investigation for the death of two common criminals on the street?”

“Just a hunch, [Mages]. Nothing personal. I track via scent. It’s muddled—but there’s a good chance the attacker came through here. I wish I’d gotten to the scene earlier, so I’m following all leads. May I speak to you one at a time? And then you, Miss…”

“Fierre.”

The Vampire girl’s teeth tried not to chatter. The Dog Beastkin gave her a nod.

He was a rare sight outside of Baleros. Beastkin, not Gnoll. Ishkr was eying him, and one could not help but see the more canine features, from the floppier ears to the different shape of the head and body. The [Urban Tracker], Jeck, was shorter than most Gnolls, slimmer, but he was an experienced member of the Watch they called in for murders.

It was odd they were working so hard on this murder, especially for two common criminals. Then again—Fierre had made another huge mistake in thinking no one would notice.

What do I do? What do I do? What do I do? I have to run. I can’t run, they’ll know! I don’t have any lying Skills or artifacts! Oh, dead gods. What do I do?

The Watch patrol accompanying Jeck was politely waiting in the common room while he interviewed Montressa, Bezale, and then Fierre, one at a time. They were the only people who’d been through to Invrisil. He’d done Kevin by the time Fierre arrived.

“Waste of time.”

Bezale grumbled as Montressa exited the room. It was ten minutes for her, and the Minotauress. Fierre was paralyzed.

If she ran, they’d know. She knew the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings were keeping watch, but they weren’t going to stop a Watch investigation.

She’d have to fight. If Jeck found out—they’d search her and know. She’d lie. Lie! And if she had to fight, she’d count on the Brothers to fight the watch patrol. There were only six. How strong was Jeck, though? He looked high-level.

She couldn’t read his level with her Ring of Appraisal, so he had to be strong. She wasn’t ready!

Fierre didn’t want…

“Miss Fierre? This won’t take but a moment.”

The Dog Beastkin smiled at her as the Vampire girl sat down across from him.

“Don’t be nervous.”

He was reading Fierre, eyes sharp, flicking to her face, her body—Fierre tried to act normal.

“I’m sorry. I just don’t interact with the Watch much.”

“Really? I would have thought an Opener at least knew Reizmelt’s Watch. We make use of your people’s services when we have to.”

She jumped.

“I—an Opener? I don’t know what—”

The [Tracker] sighed.

“Miss Lischelle. May I call you Fierre?”

She nodded dumbly. He knew her name, her identity—Jeck went on.

“If you’re worried about your profession, I’m just here investigating the two murders. Your class is not going to get you arrested.”

He eyed her as Fierre tried to relax and smile. She did a better job of it now; her heart was thundering, but she didn’t perspire. She knew how to lie. She had lied in plenty of encounters with the Watch and Gangs, in high-stakes scenarios.

Stakes, oh, slap me with sunshine. Why did I have to think about stakes?

She’d lied, but never about being a Vampire. And her guilt in this case was clear. He was going to use a truth spell and that would be that. She couldn’t stop that.

Was she going to have to fight? He had to have enchanted weapons. She couldn’t beat Garia.

“Just a few questions, Miss Fierre. We only need to cross you off our list of investigations.”

“Really? About the two dead men?”

“Exactly. If I can get you to swear on a truth stone you’ve never heard of them, no knowledge of what happened, and so on, I’ll be gone. Shall we begin?”

“I—of course. But this is the second time I’ve had to talk to an officer, you know. Don’t your records show that I’ve already been asked? The night it happened, actually.”

Jeck blinked. He rifled through his report.

“Really? By whom?”

“A Guardswoman. On the way back to the inn. I must have been close by the place…I think it was those two. Two men?”

What are you doing? You idiot! Idiot!

What else was she supposed to say? Lie—before he used the truth stone! She watched the Dog Beastkin check through his papers.

“I see. That’s…not recorded. Mixups happen. You’re sure you were investigated about this particular crime, Miss Fierre? Truly?”

He looked up. Fierre met his eyes with all the desperate genuine innocence she did not have. Jeck’s eyes felt like they were boring into her soul and uncovering her guilt. Did he have Skills? [Detect Guilt]? Why hadn’t she prepared?

Fool. This was how it all ended. So…stupid…

Her eyes burned with unshed tears. Fierre kept her mask up. She tried to keep her gaze from wavering.

They locked gazes for ten seconds. Then twenty. Too late, Fierre realized she had made another rookie mistake.

Keeping his gaze without blinking! One of the easiest signs of a liar! Blinking too much or not at all, idiot! Only Nagas and Dullahans do that!

This was it. She—she’d say she was an [Assassin]. He could verify that. She’d take her anti-appraisal ring off, claim…it would be a mess. However, she feared Jeck would ask too much and then she’d have to kill him and run, run far and fast as she could unless all of her kind was exposed…

Would Vaulont kill him for me?

All these things passed in Fierre’s mind at once. Her eyes burned. She couldn’t look away from Jeck. He sniffed the air. Fierre clenched her hands so hard her nails cut her flesh.

Why can’t you just believe me?

Her eyes…hurt…Fierre saw Jeck’s eyes widen. And then—

 

—-

 

The door slammed open. The [Senior Guardswoman] on the patrol looked up, hand shifting to her sword. Jeck had warned her, confidentially, that this might actually lead to an arrest.

“Investigator?”

She used Jeck’s title. The Dog Beastkin stomped out of the room, and the Watch patrol readied themselves for…

“I’m terribly sorry, Miss Fierre. We’ll be on our way. Squad, with me.”

The [Tracker] grumpily marched them towards the door as the [Server], Ishkr, went ahead of them. The [Senior Guardswoman] leaned in.

“Did you find your suspect, sir?”

“No. And I want a word with the Watch Captain or whoever’s in charge of coordinating these things! It was a waste of time.”

“Sir?”

He growled at her, vexed.

“You idiots. Double-check where our other teams go! Someone already asked her.”

Oh. The [Guards] relaxed, looking annoyed or embarrassed or rolling their eyes. Jeck shook his head, and they erased Fierre and the inn from the possible suspects.

There was no chance Jeck had made a mistake. Of course he’d been using a truth spell in his interrogations. It was unthinkable that an expert [Urban Tracker] and [Watchman] like him would ever slip up. If he suspected Fierre or the [Mages] could break a truth spell, he’d have suspicions even with a pass.

Fierre was undoubtedly in the clear.

 

—-

 

Fierre had to use the outhouse, urgently, after the encounter. As she sat on the toilet, she had a few thoughts.

I need to watch out for people who can resist mind-effects like Ryoka.

And—

I have my mother’s eyes.

The power of Vampires had manifested. Not just her body’s superior attributes. Forget that. Her heritage had awakened. Fierre had gained the power that Colfa possessed weakly. Yet her daughter had all the strength denied to the silver-poisoned Vampires of the Lischelle-Drakle clan.

Eyes of Charm.

 

—-

 

Jeck let the patrol go after they returned to Invrisil. He filed a report and a complaint that would no doubt be ignored, and huffed out of the Watch House.

He met someone afterwards, just for a moment. It wasn’t an inconspicuous meeting. You couldn’t hide in a crimson leather overcoat, or with the flashy hat and manner of Delanay d’Artien.

“Well?”

The Emergency Runner was frowning. Jeck shrugged. The [Tracker] sniffed the air, coughing at all the scents.

“No good. Someone interviewed her first. Under truth spell and everything.”

Delanay’s face fell.

“You’re sure?”

“Am I a professional or what?”

Jeck snapped. The young woman had explained it all and he’d tested her with a truth stone. No signs of a liar there. He’d thought so, but it had been just the Opener class. He rubbed at his furred forehead as Delanay sighed.

“Okay, it was just a hunch. Damn. Sorry for wasting your time. I guess she’s off the list.”

“Favor for a favor. Don’t mention it.”

Delanay frowned. So Ylawes was twice-wrong. Well…it had just been a hunch. He thanked Jeck and offered to treat him to lunch. Fierre. Not a Vampire.

He’d been almost convinced he’d find something this time. But he never had. Oh well.

 

—-

 

Eyes of Charm. Not even magical wards could fully block it. You had to have strong willpower, according to the legends.

Of course, no one tried to use it to do more than win an uneven trade with a [Merchant] or convince someone they hadn’t seen you drink red liquid. Colfa was the strongest user of the Vampire power in generations and she couldn’t even overpower Ryoka.

Well, Ryoka might be a special case. Yet Fierre had just overpowered a Level 30+ [Tracker], she was sure of it.

With silver out of my veins, my bloodline powers are here! The powers of a real Vampire!

It was hereditary, bloodline powers. At least, if you were born naturally from a Vampire couple. You inherited mother and father’s powers. If you were ‘sired’ like Colfa had been by Himilt, it was up to chance, hence her mother gaining the Eyes of Charm, rather than the other powers of Vampire clans.

According to the stories, each Vampire was different, like each person was.  The powers they inherited or gained were stronger in some, weaker in others. But living memory didn’t provide specifics, only basic knowledge.

Bamer, for instance, liked high places and had no fear of falling. He was lighter than the others, because the primary strength of his clan had been flight in ages past.

At least Fierre knew her other strength. If everything checked out, she had inherited two powers. She stared at the blank mirror, wishing she could see her eyes and see if the ruby reds had changed when she activated the charming, hypnotic gaze.

Charm from her mother. From her father—the power of the Drakle Clan.

Her father took to the power of transformation. Not becoming other animals, but the ability to become…mist. Fog.

In legends, Vampires could fit through cracks in walls, ambush foes, becoming intangible, nigh-invisible. In the modern era?

Himilt could generate a bit of mist on overcast days when it already appeared. He could appear out of the fog like a ghost at best. Since she had been born naturally, she would have that too.

Fierre concentrated. Her head throbbed, already from the effort of activating her eyes a few times. Yet she felt it. The incredible energy of so much blood, the suppressed adolescence, the freedom of the pain of silver!

She was becoming who she was meant to be. A Vampire! Predator of civilization! Apex species! She was—

Her body strained. Fierre cried out with frustration. She—

Developed a nosebleed.

 

—-

 

Glumly, Fierre sat on her bed, exhausted after eleven more attempts. Nothing worked. She could apparently burst blood vessels in her nose at will, though. If she tried hard enough.

The irony of a Vampire bleeding was not lost on her. Exhausted, she flopped onto her back. She was so tired. She relaxed every muscle in her body, wistfully turned to mist, and sank around her bed.

Fierre appeared under her bed before she seeped through the floorboards. She shot up, rolled out from under the bed, and threw her arms up in the air!

I did it!

Relaxation, that was it! She had to push with her eyes, imposing her will, her desire! But mist? Calmness, letting herself drift apart. No wonder her father was so good at it! Nothing ruffled his feathers!

The Vampire girl danced in her room in The Wandering Inn, laughing, tears in her eyes.

Tears of joy. Her dreams were coming true. Like every child who had ever been born to their species, Fierre had dreamed that she would be the one.

That her cough would go, her sickness end, and her people be delivered from whatever was killing them. That she would live longer than sixty years.

That she would be a Vampire. Ryoka had delivered it to her. Her dreams were coming true. Fierre shout-whispered so no one would hear.

“I’m going to be the greatest Vampire of all time!”

So quietly even a Gnoll would not hear if the door was open. And the door was closed, the windows shuttered and blocked. Fierre was no fool. She danced past her mirror, invisible, and saw her room, no trace of her clothing or body which she had always, secretly, longed to see.

The grass.

The open door…

Fierre slowed.

It was true that she had barred all doors, locked them, and given no entry by which her secret might escape. She had just forgotten that it was this inn, where a single key opened all locks.

Or in this case, a door led to all rooms.

The trouble with friends was that sometimes they liked to pop in, unannounced. They liked to surprise you, which was a terribly inconvenient thing if you were an introvert.

Or a Vampire.

Also, little Gnolls, like the white-furred one staring at Fierre, and who had seen the mist-trick, tended not to have a sense of privacy.

Mind you, Apista could have flown through Mrsha’s mouth and back out of it at this moment. The bee nearly tried with Garia and Alber, who were delivering a Strongheart pie that Viceria had given Garia to share with her fight-friends.

Mrsha, Garia, Alber—Numbtongue was too far away on the hilltop to see or hear—but Ulvama was not. The Hobgoblin [Shaman] had her legs in the pond and was eating a frittata with her bare claws.

All of them had seen. Her transformation, heard her now very inadvisable shout-whisper. Fierre stared back at the stunned group.

They were all paralyzed with the shock of seeing mist turn into Fierre. Hearing…well, they didn’t even know what a Vampire was. They were stunned, nonetheless.

Except for Ulvama. The Goblin [Shaman] gave Fierre one look and snorted.

“Oh. Bloodbiters are back.”

She kept stuffing herself with frittata.

 

—-

 

Terror of discovery was a modern Vampire’s fear. Burned alive, staked through the chest, left to scream and die in the sunlight, hunted with silver—drowned in baths of garlic—

“You thought we’d do that to you?

Garia was horrified. After some thought, Fierre had to admit it was a bit silly.

“Not you, but—people. [Knights] used to hunt us! There were wars!”

“We’re your friends, though. And I didn’t even know what a Vampire was, until I saw you! If I’m fine with Goblins—friends with them, even—do you think I’d try to kill you?”

The [Martial Artist] pointed out. Fierre hesitated.

Like Ryoka, no one was reaching for a stake. If anything, while Garia and Alber were unsettled and surprised by the revelation, Ulvama hadn’t even blinked.

Mrsha on the other hand? She looked up at Fierre with shining eyes.

Would a little child be horrified by a super-strong, fast predator who had fangs and could turn into mist? Or would a little Gnoll, especially one with white fur who knew what it was like to be different, think that was the coolest thing ever? Except for the burning in the sun thing.

Fierre was still hyperventilating. But her secret was held by four now, five if you counted Ryoka. And no one would tell. Not even little Mrsha, who understood the danger, perhaps better than Alber.

He was just looking at her. More intently than the [Fist Fighter]-turned-[Boxer] had ever really done. He had seen Fierre as someone he didn’t need to think twice about.

Now? Garia slapped her knees and Fierre jumped. The [Martial Artist] grinned.

“I knew it. I just knew Ryoka didn’t have normal friends! Er—sorry.”

She looked at Fierre. The Vampire laughed, despite herself. She looked at Alber.

“No one’s going to tell? Please? Not even other people.”

Garia, Alber, and Mrsha all shook their heads. Apista rotated horizontally in the air. They looked serious. Fierre felt something stir in her chest. Alber she hadn’t been certain about, but…

“How much?”

Ulvama rubbed two clawed fingers together as she put aside the tin. Mrsha darted over and pushed her into the lake.

Beavers.

Fierre looked at Alber. He just studied her, and then smiled.

“So that’s why you stayed at Madain’s inn.”

“Yep. Secrets. Everyone has some.”

Ryoka, Fierre—Garia in a way had her parents. Mrsha nodded. She had tons. She began to write some down to share.

“What about you? Are you a…related to a [Lord]? A [Magician]? Something?”

He gave it some thought. Alber sat cross-legged in the grass in the [Garden of Sanctuary] for a moment. At last, he opened his eyes and looked at Fierre.

“…I can fit six boiled eggs into my mouth at once.”

Fierre stared at him, and then began to giggle. Garia laughed and so did Alber, after a moment. Mrsha rolled around on the ground, until Ulvama picked her up and began dunking her head-first in the lake while holding her legs.

The secret spread. Fierre would be more cautious in the future. Probably. But she was learning, about herself, how to fight, how to be a newer Fierre.

Ryoka’s secret she kept. Nor would she make more mistakes. She would not hunt people in the streets, that was for sure, even murderers and criminals. She had a choice of how she wanted to embrace her heritage.

She was Ryoka’s best friend. A Vampire of honor. Fierre built around that. She would