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A note from Cadagan

Almost done with chapter dump, as per the instructions of our dear lord, Royal Road Algorithm, praise be.

For all that night where you left your previous entry you wept and struggled and shiver through the horrible emptiness that lay before you. What was life worth, when nothing you did meant anything? When some higher power, faulty and hardly worth the taxes to keep them afloat, can reach down and crush your dreams in an instant. Justice, a convenient but unnecessary perk. Mercy, a flaw. Evenhandedness; idiocy. The immovable Communal Council, kept afloat on the permanent raft of their history during the war, now a despotic oligarchy, and you the shit on their boot.

You staggered out from the wagon, clothes unchanged, face unshaven, head unwaxed. You rested on your step, unsure of the point of it all. Nothing mattered.

“Good morning, boss!” Madeline, bowl in hand, practically tumbled towards you, thrust the food into your lap, and posed, hands on hips, beaming down a disgustingly sunny smile. “I fixed the wheel on the twin’s wagon, back-left. Was bothering them on the way here, but you didn’t know that. Now you do! But it’s fixed now, so it doesn’t matter. That’s a nice buttery pudding I made to cheer everyone up, since we’re criminals now! By the way, when are you going to replace the lense on my goggles? I can’t use my welding contract without them, or I’ll go blind! That’s a new spoon I made last night by the way. Do you like it?” White teeth glowed in the morning light, eyes bloodshot and wide.

“Madeline…” Even in your stupor, her energy came off like a ticking bomb. “Are you alright?”

“Of course! We’re criminals now, but who cares? We’ll make do. Always have. Even though I was going to get married in five to ten years, and who’d marry a criminal? But no, no, it’s fine! And my education? I was planning to go back to school, master more Moketta tech, but whatever, you know? Just glad you’re okay, and you managed to save the barrels of now-worthless piss we’ve been lugging around. That’s all that matters. Fuck the rest of us, right?”

A few blinks failed to resolve the strange sight before you. Hands held before her, gripped so hard her fingers were approaching purple, Madeline stared venom filled spears of optimism and can-do-attitude at you. Behind her, Pritchard and the twins glanced over from the meal table, each as shocked as the next.

“Thanks for the pudding,” you muttered.

“Mhm!” She curtsied, spun and skipped back to the back of the equipment wagon, on one side of which lay a dismantled lamp, and on the other a cutting board with cleaver and vegetables. Intrigued, having never seen in any human anger make someone happier, you watched in awe as she, still smiling, gripped the cleaver, planted her legs, and chopped vegetables with more muscle recruitment than a logger could manage. You idly ate some pudding as you watched. It was good pudding.

“Oskar.”

Raufa’s looming shadow overcame you.

“Twenty’s ballless crotch, Raufa. Please just leave me to my spite-filled pudding.” You fed yourself another spoonful, licked your lips clean. “I’ll have to upset Madeline more often. This is very good.”

“Stefan wants to see you.”

“Mmph.” Any miniscule relaxation the fury induced desert had given you fell away. Though, you ought to have suspected something was afoot – Pritchard had yet to dump his many grievances on you today. “You told him?”

“He heard,” Raufa said, arms folded. “Go talk.”

“Yeah, yeah...” You heaved yourself upwards, scoffed down the last of the pudding and set the bowl on the step. Retrieving your hat from within your wagon – depression is no reason to have an incomplete outfit – and headed towards the bone-bastard’s wooden coffin.

The little stone balcony cut into the beginnings of a cave system made the perfect little spot for Stefan to park his creepy little self underneath a shaded outcropping, so that despite the sunny early morning you nevertheless felt the stone walls of a crypt settling in over you. Combined with the misery of your ruined life and the berating you’d gotten from that bundle of sunshine fury, your morning was turning out quite disagreeable. Except for the pudding. Your mood turned sour, which you found suitable, and for that reason you reinforced the feeling by crashing your fist onto the entryway harder than required, and didn’t bother awaiting a reply.

No foulness hung in the air. Devoid of alchemical reactions or flammable reptile excretions, the unneeded equipment had been neatly put away onto the shelves, the tables cleaned, every corner well lit by hanging lanterns. Almost inviting and cozy, save for the corpse hidden within.

“Oskar.” Stefan, having been standing in the middle of the room reading lowered the book, marked his place, and set it aside. That bland mask raised to meet you. “Quite a late waking for you. Wallowing in your miserable failure?”

“No, Stefan,” you lied, finding a spot to safely lean on, no chairs being apparent. “Incidentally I hope your second death is soon and worse.”

“Not much chance of that.” He folded his arms.

Morose and contemplative in your defeat, you idly slid a glance over his posture. Being dead and without nerves, any position was as comfortable as any other for him. The man had probably been comfortable standing for the entire night, reading, and not noticed. One of the many reasons such a form would be advantageous.

“I suppose you want to talk about what happened,” you said.

“What happened doesn’t matter. And you can drop that sullen tone, Oskar, because I mean it. What happened does not matter.”

“Maybe not to you, you walking calcium deposit, but I had a business! I had a life! Now it’s all ruined!” Your short lived outburst fled, leaving your chest empty and hollow. “I don’t even understand what happened.”

“They figure out what the Draconic Extract is good for, that’s all.” Stefan said, almost conversationally, giving one of those stiff, lifeless gestures meant to increase his seeming humanity while utterly dismantling its possibility. “A decade or so early, for certain, but not all that much bothersome.”

“Oh, stop clacking your rotten teeth at me, Stefan, and listen!” You walked square up to him, glared deep into that ivory mask even through a harshly pointed finger into the mix. “Maybe your century-long plan isn’t so off-put by this, but that business was everything to me! It’s been my dream since…” You collected yourself. “Since we met and now it’s gone.”

“I thought you wanted to be a Lich, Oskar?” Stefan asked.“Wield my powers, live forever, join me in undeath and overthrow the arbitrary games of our Grandfather? Help me bring an end to our enslavement, and free humans, Moketta, Enkili, Twenty, and even Dragons alike from this pathetic sport?”

If there was one thing you despise more than anything, it was being on the receiving end of a practiced speech. It was insulting to be spoken to that way, like you were some mark to be sold something so pathetic as ideals or moral purpose!

“I don’t give the sun’s golden ass about any of that, you moron!” you screamed right back at him. “I wanted to become a Lich so that once I establish my empire – my Commercial Empire – It could never be taken from me, by anyone! Don’t you get it? I don’t want to stop the game, you thick-skulled skull-head. I want to change it to run on my terms, and win! I want to make my wife proud! I want to establish a concrete, iron rule of free enterprise, where anything and everything is a commodity, and the only taxes are the ones that add to the height of my gold pile! Haven’t I driven into your fucking dome yet, Stefan! I don’t give a shit about any of your nihilistic, anarchistic bullshit! I want to win this goddamn game myself, and show everyone on this planet and the others not to fuck with me again!”

Finishing with your face less than an inch from his mask, your breath heaved with rage and indignation, humiliation at long-buried traumas ripped forth, this new wound in your heart laid bare before you, fresh and bleeding in a place you swore never to leave vulnerable again. Weak from your own outburst, you steadied yourself on your desk, feeling only worse for having spoken your mind and deflated yourself from your burden of inward misery.

Stefan, having withstood your verbal attack, stared down at your withered self silently for a few moments before, in that stilted way, his hands raised to cover his eyes.

“You are so, so fucking stupid.”

“What?” Too tired to muster any more anger, your cheeks flushed with indignation.

“Oskar, this isn’t the end of whatever squalid little dream you’ve cooked up for yourself, it’s the beginning. I…” The hands lowered to his hips and he took that brief, glaze-eyed moment that you understood would be on anyone else a deep, steadying breath. “You’re not stupid, I shouldn’t have said that. I apologize. I am merely baffle by your… Idealism. Oskar, you seriously think that just because Draconic Essence is outlawed means in any way that your ‘Commercial Empire’ is in any way jeopardized? We’re just getting started.”

“It’s Dragon Piss,” you muttered weakly. “And what are you talking about?”

“It was always going to be criminalized eventually Oskar. We talked about this.”

“And I disagreed.”

“Only because you didn’t actually listen to my reasoning.”

“Because it disagreed with what I wanted to hear,” you countered.

“Well, it’s here now and it’s real, so listen again. The entire reason I agreed to work with you, taught you how to gather the- Fine - the Dragon Piss, is so I could use it for what it’s really worth. Unadulterated Power.”

“I do remember that much, but you never told me what the hell that means or how it works.”

“And I’m still not going to.”

“Then what do you want from me?”

“I’m trying to finally convince you to drop this absurd concept of commercialism over everything.” Unexpectedly tender, that boney hand gripped my shoulder, a touch I tensed at. “You can make her proud, Oskar, but not with this obscene material obsession. Raise your mind to the higher problems! Our plan is not over, my goals are still yours. The business was just a stepping-stone, we can still do this. There are still places where Dragon Piss can sell, which is all that matters. Why, with all the clamor no doubt rushing through Myrian society about your escape and the discovery, there’ll be a high demand from the curious and morally unburdened.”

“What…” You shot him a squinted-eye glare. “What are you talking about?”

“Without going into the details of how exactly one might extract the power hidden in Dragon Piss – or what it’s used for – I am confident that, even knowing it’s possible, none but I possess the knowledge of how to properly harness it. We are still safe to sell it.”

“But… to who? What sort of baseless worm would buy from us?”

“Most of the same people, just through different channels.” Stefan turned, digging into a shelf and retrieving an old diary, smothered in wrinkles and creases. “I’ve gathered a list of potential clients for this new step of the plan- with the utmost caution and patience you understand.” He flipped through a handful of pages, displaying them to me. Lists of names, with locations, comments about their disposition. “Buyers who would be interested, and more importantly, Contractors who are willing to give any amount of Power for the right price. This was always the plan, Oskar, and it’s time for you to step forward and take your proper place in it. We – you and I, Oskar – can throw off the yoke of this arbitrary game between slaves and surfs. We will do it, ourselves!”

You frowned, took the book from him, flipped through. At least thirty pages, ten or more names on each, dotted around Myria. Druids and Lightbearers, a thinker or two, a handful of private communes, underground merchant-lords you’d never even heard of before. You were beginning to see, to understand the truth beneath Stefan’s words, and he must have seen that spark, for he rushed to fan it to life within you.

“The Enkili consider the game holy, and will never relent. The Twenty are lifeless Automatons, heeding only the words of their father planet. The Dragon’s planet is gone, destroyed by our combined might, and without it they are little but animals. The Moketta? We might yet convince that hive, but not without proof. We, Oskar, we humans will begin the usurpation. To claim the right to define our own lives, forge our own destinies, take power from the hands of that freakish globe we call a grandfather!”

“Yes…” Your breath came light, your heart fluttered in your chest. “Yes, freedom. And the key… The Key is Dragon Piss.”

“…Yes, but it is merely a tool. With the funds we will raise – far more than before – we can begin acquiring unbound contracts, funded further by my own implementation of what I alone can harvest from the Draconic Essence. Think of it, Oskar. Have you ever wielded Power with so few limitations you can summon it at will? Before we operated in the light, but now, free of the Council of Commune’s chains, we can accumulate untold wealth, and with that, untold power. Power enough to stand on our own! We need only continue on our new path for a year or two more – collect the Urine, sell it, and begin a slow accumulation of Contracts unto ourselves.”

“I see now,” you said, nodding. “It doesn’t matter what the Dragon Piss does, this is just a new opportunity. Freedom, ultimate freedom!”

“Yes, Oskar, Yes!” The voice boomed through the mask, vibrant and lively from that ivory skull.

“We have… so many more clients now!”

A gasping pause.

“We… yes?”

Your mind raced with the possibilities, the genius, the gorgeous, golden opportunity!

“I understand now, I see the path you see!” you declared, your mind aflame with the vision of the future. “Life can go on! Stefan, thank you! I had lost my way, I thought it was all pointless, but no – you’re right! This changes nothing, and my work has been worthwhile! It has purpose, because of that one immovable pebble of solid ground that rests within every heart. Free Enterprise!”

“I don’t-“

“It’s so obvious, Stefan! I can’t believe I didn’t see – the Council blinded me, this ‘law and order’ they hold so close, worthless! Much like hope, free enterprise exists even in the darkest corners of the world and will never die so long as there is such a thing as money and greed! The truth, the golden, glorious truth is… Criminal enterprise IS free enterprise!”

You gripped Stefan’s shoulders. “We can do it, Stefan! The mystery of the Council’s furor at our product will only fuel demand, not diminish it! With a product as famous as ours, who cares what the rules say? They’ll be desperate for a taste of my piss, and I am all so happy to shower them with it! And – of course! Free to buy unrestricted contracts, we can protect our product from any who might dare try encroaching on our profit margins. Oh, thank you Stefan!” Overtaken with hope renewed you kissed the porcelain mask right on its cold lifeless lips. “Thank you!”

“What the fuck are you talking about? That’s not what I said at all!”

“It’s okay, Stefan, I understand. We’re on our way, my boy. We’re on our way!”

You turned and burst from the wagon, strode into the middle of the camp, planted your feet, gripped your hips and bellowed: “Piss Merchants! Assemble!”

From all about the area your loyal associates came, each giving you an anticipatory, bewildered glare. Oh, the anticipation you felt at sharing the good news.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” you began, one step above them, Stefan watching from your peripheral within the cabin, though unseen to the others. “Comrades, friends. All is well. Yes, we are criminals, yes we likely have warrants for our deaths, yes our prospects of legal schooling, marriage, home ownership and a stable future are gone, but hope is not! I have spoken with Stefan. As you may recall, it was he and I who initially began this venture, and with a minor pep talk he has shown me the way to the new future of the Dragon Piss Merchants. We shall be… Black Market Smugglers!”

The resounding declaration echoed through the trees and about the rocks of your camp, the silence it left behind an awkward and unseemly affair. You looked about, saw their askance faces, gritted your teeth. It seemed they needed convincing.

“Oskar,” Pritchard said, his slim frame stepping forward. “I don’t… want to be a smuggler.”

“Of course you do, you just don’t know it yet.”

“No, Oskar, I really don’t.”

“Yeah,” Henrique said. “We’re trying to get enough to start a business of our own someday. We can’t do that if we’re wanted criminals. You need to sort this out for us, Oskar.”

“Nonsense. Raufa’s in, and she’s sensible.” You gestured to your young companion. “Isn’t that right?”

Raufa tilted an eyebrow. An event as rare as an eclipse. Surprising, considering that she had no choice in the matter, but it sufficed.

“See? Now with all three of us leading the charge, what is there to worry about?”

“Death?” May supplied. “Losing everything we wanted in life?”

“Seriously Oskar,” Madeline said, all pretense gone, her voice low and devoid of all furious glee. “It’s over, and you’re having a breakdown. And that’s fine, but we’re not going with you.” She glanced about her fellow defectors. “We’re leaving.”

So it seemed this was a problem not to be solved with mere inspirational words. Well, you thought, there is one language everyone speaks, an inspiration none can resist.

“Quadruple pay.”

A lightning bolt of change in the air. Turning away ceased, slouches straightened, frowns disappeared. As you thought, all problems can be solved with simple financial negotiation.

“But how? Simple. The opportunities before us, though hard to see, are bountiful! ” You flourished the book you still held. “Stefan had foreseen this, collected a hundred potential buyers – all who are known to be amenable to off-the-books sales. The uproar around our product – the mystery, the curiosity, the masses groping for answers – What is this if not another form of demand? We are the only suppliers for a product now clamored for. They will all beg to be first in line, and we can set the prices to anything we want! Madeline,” you said, pointing. “You wanted to go to school? In a year, at the pay we’ll be getting, build your own! Pritchard – What did you say this haul would be worth again?”

“Ah, uh, About s… Seven thousand?”

“Triple it. Quadruple it! Whatever-the-five-one-is it! Imagine being able to do math with sorts of numbers. Doesn’t it excite you? May, Henrique, who needs a business of their own when I’ll be paying you a fortune for nothing but hauling barrels? And Henrique – you think Cantrips are fun? How’s about enough Oranges to negotiate for an illegal contract without an activation clause?”

“That does sound pretty sweet, actually,” Henrique said. Like every moron, a big enough stick always gets their attention. You half expected May to strike her brother, chide you for offering to place unrestricted weaponry in her brothers hands, but her own countenance was rife with conflict.

“Raufa-“

She blinked.“I’m good.”

“She knew this was the plan already,” Stefan muttered from his shadows.

“What? How?”

“She talks to me more than you do,” he said. “You hadn’t noticed?”

“You- Okay, well, whatever, great.” A fierce jealousy bubbled in your gut. Talking! Raufa and Stefan had always been under your thumb - individually - giving you the power in both relationships. They were meant to stay separate and utterly dependent to you. They’d been talking! Confiding? Conspiring? This felt like a plot.

You turned back to the group, setting that worry aside, for now. “I’d say mull it over, but, c’mon, seriously. Where are you going to get a better offer? It’ll be even easier than before! I’ll just flip through this handy little book here, choose a client, and sell this load off before it gets too ‘splody. It’s practically business as usual!”

You began flipping searching for the name with the closest location associated with it. It had already been two days since refining, which meant this batch had about three before it went sour. A true cataclysmic scenario – not that these brand new clients needed to know that.

“Just, hold on a second Oskar,” May said as you buried your nose in Stefan’s notes. “I mean, say we even agree – we’re a caravan. We have five wagons. How the hell are we supposed to stay under the radar?”

“We negotiate a contract for it.”

You all turned, you in utter disbelief at the sight. Fully gloved, masked and robed, all but pushing you out the way. there stood for the first time in some many years in the entryway to his wagon, Stefan in full daylight. He stepped up beside you, snatched the book from you rather rudely, flipped to a certain page, indicated a name to you.

Alexandria Oncario Oblissa, Truefort Thinker

“Aside from almost everything he said, Oskar is right,” Stefan said, his missing nose held oh-so-high. “This is an opportunity, and not one stumbled upon accidentally. We – Oskar, Raufa and I – have been working towards this for years. Whether Oskar knew it or not. We will visit a Thinker and purchase a contract for camouflage. Mental camouflage.”

“Who what now?” Henrique asked. “That sounds made up.”

“No, just forgotten,” Stefan said. “A remnant of a past once wrought with both danger and opportunity, which soon may repeat itself, for our benefit. Understand this. Before you stands a future of true, wieldable power, of the sort none have known since the early days of the war when we mortal species engaged in true combat, before even the Culling of the Dragons. A new phase of this solar contest is upon us - the Fourth, and final Round. Leave today, and you give up your one chance to be on the front lines of this new campaign.”

“And throw away a lot of money,” you put in. Stefan shot you a stone-face glare.

“I do like money,” Henrique said. “And cantrips.”

“My boy,” Stefan said with a broad, benevolent gesture. “Before years end you’ll be flinging five fireballs a minute without a care in the world.”

“No,” May said. “No, no, no. No-one is giving Henrique fireballs. We’ll take the money though.”

“May-“

“I said no,” May snapped. “We’ll take the money. Lots of it.”

“Me too,” Madeline said.

“Oh,” you said. “Uh, really? That’s all it took?”

A very put-out huff escaped the girls lips. “Well, so many men all but buy their wifes now-a-days. You know, dirtbags like yourself, Oskar. I say, about time a girl like me bought a tasty husband or two of my own. Give me enough for that, a couple schools, and sure, I’m your girl.”

Well, hell, fair enough, you thought.

“Pritchard?”

The wisp of a man had watched the conversation silently, one hand tight about his chest, supporting the other which in turn held his thoughtful, tilted head. He acknowledged his name with a mere shift of the eyes. A calculating glance, as though the threads of the future lay themselves bare between the two of you, visible only to him, yielding to his unknowable thoughts. Those cold eyes bore into you, and in the moments that passed you felt a deep anxiety building, a paranoia at whatever eldritch designs were unfolding in those watchful eyes of his.

“I’ve…” The word came out as a whisper. “I’ve always wanted…. To fly.”

“Sure,” you said. “We can do that, I’m sure. Druid do air, right?”

“Yes, Oskar,” Stefan said. “Druids ‘do’ air.”

“Well then, I think it’s settled. Let’s break camp, head to Oblissa, and begin this new chapter. Yes?” You looked about you. A nod or two, mostly shrugs or complete indifference declared the assent. You felt the electricity in the air.

“Dragon Piss Merchants… Let’s get our hands dirty.”

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Cadagan

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