“…Lady Reinhart? Lady Reinhart, are you sleeping?”
Magnolia woke up with a start. She looked around blearily for a fraction of a second before her natural instincts took over. She sat up and smiled genteelly while the room swam back into focus.
Theofore the Assassin blinked at her as he stood at attention. The sight of a dark figure dressed in the ominous clothing of assassins and spies didn’t alarm Magnolia—that was a common enough sight.
But it took her a moment to remember that she wasn’t in her Celum property. The nice, rustic, intimate setting of that place had been replaced by the altogether more austere and rich setting of her winter home.
Ah. Of course. Magnolia sighed. She couldn’t feel it inside of course, thanks to a hundred spells, but winter had truly arrived. It was such a shame. Snow was all very well, but it made travel so tiresome.
She smiled at Theofore as he stood awkwardly to attention. His clothes were still drying, and although she’d offered refreshments and a towel, he’d refused both. It must come from being an [Assassin], she reflected. They had a certain aversion towards letting their guards down or eating any food not prepared by their own two hands.
“I’m sorry, I must have dozed off. It is past my bedtime after all. Do forgive me.”
He inclined his head without comment. It was very late, but she had standing orders for him to report to her the moment he arrived.
Hence his presence, and why it was imperative that Magnolia not yawn. That was un-Lady-like, and because it was, Magnolia fought down the impulse and smiled again.
“Now, where were we? I recall everything up to the point where Gazi vanished. My memory after that is…fuzzy.”
It had been an odd dream. Magnolia could barely remember what it was about. Theofore coughed.
“Yes, well, after Gazi the Omniscient departed, I had to move away from the group to maintain my concealment. It seems at least one of the Antinium heard her comment about an [Assassin], and I barely managed to remain hidden.”
He shuddered, and Magnolia felt the slightest hint of compassion for him. It could not be easy to hide from a half-Gazer, especially not the infamous Gazi. In fact, it was downright impossible, which was probably why Theofore had drawn the short straw and been sent to follow Ryoka. The Guild of Assassins – the Silent Brethren, the Unseen Guild, the Daughters and Sons of Silence – might be nominally unafraid to die, but they were at their core very practical.
Theofore coughed and continued. Magnolia hoped the man wasn’t coming down with a cold, or at least, that she didn’t catch it. The common cold was quite tiresome to cure, even for someone with access to the best magics.
“I followed Ryoka Griffin and the other girl – Erin Solstice – into the city. They talked with the Captain of the Watch for some time and the leader of the Gnolls as well before returning to the inn. The skeleton and Goblin followed them, while the others remained in the city.”
“Hm. Quite an interesting girl, this Erin Solstice, isn’t she?”
“She wounded Gazi.”
That statement made even Magnolia’s skin tingle with a thrill. An innkeeper, who’d wounded one of the King of Destruction’s most fearsome warriors? What was the world coming to?
Beside her, one of her maids shifted. She was new, or perhaps just tired, but the act immediately earned her a look from the head maid Ressa, who stood by Magnolia’s side.
Magnolia ignored that. No doubt punishment would be severe and swift once the maids were alone. Ressa ran a tight ship, so to speak, and the winter staff had grown relaxed in Magnolia’s absence. She’d talk to Ressa about relaxing later, although that was an exercise in futility.
So much to do, so little time. Magnolia gestured for Theofore to continue. He cleared his throat, coughing again. The stubborn man was sick.
“What of Ceria Springwalker and this Drake [Tactician]?”
“It seems the adventurers that survived the Ruins are now being held responsible for the undead invasion. I heard talk of fines before I left. The [Tactician] seems to be exempt from any possible punishment, however. Regardless, all the adventurers are recovering in the Adventurer’s Guild in the city.”
“Odd, to see that lot protecting them. I thought the Adventurer’s Guild in Drake cities was practically powerless. Perhaps their guildmaster has more of a spine than the others.”
Lady Magnolia sighed and drummed her fingers on her chair.
“Poor Yvlon. I wonder how the girl is holding up? Is she still comatose?”
“She seemed to be coming round, but she and the others are—changed.”
Lady Magnolia accepted that explanation without asking for more details.
“And the Antinium? What about those curious Workers with names you mentioned?”
“Sequestered within their Hive, or so it seems. Only the ones known as Ksmvr and Klbkch—”
Theofore stumbled as he tried to pronounce the name.
“—Are allowed aboveground.”
“Mm. That warrants further investigation. But the Gnolls?”
“I saw one of them running south after they returned to the city. More than that I cannot say.”
“Very well. Now, to Ryoka and this young woman. They returned to the inn. You followed them, of course?”
“…To an extent.”
Lady Magnolia did not frown. But her brow did crease slightly at she tapped her finger on her chair.
Theofore shifted. Nervously? But of course, [Assassins] didn’t get nervous. Not even in front of one of the most powerful Humans on the continent.
“I was unsure whether the skeleton possessed any detection capabilities, and besides, there were…complications. The winter sprites had followed the two girls to the inn, and they could sense my concealment.”
“Those…creatures chased me off. They harried me for nearly ten miles and forced me to return. If I had stayed, my cover would certainly have been broken.”
Lady Magnolia had to smile at that.
“Ah, yes. The winter sprites. Or—Ressa, what do the children call them?”
“Frost Fairies, milady.”
“How curious. They normally don’t fix on any one person for too long. I suppose you must have attracted their interest, Theofore. How unlucky for you.”
His expression indicated total agreement.
“They hindered my progress back. I landed in two pitfalls, was nearly buried by a small avalanche…”
“That might explain why my maids informed me Ryoka Griffin was spotted running north nearly a day before you arrived. Well, it cannot be helped.”
Magnolia sighed. The conversation between the two girls had been important, she was sure. But it was hardly more important than all of the other revelations she’d heard today.
“Well, what did you hear? Start from the beginning. What happened first before you had to leave?”
Theofore hesitated again.
“I cannot be sure of what happened as I was attempting to escape the sprites. But I believe—they had a fight.”
It was more of a guttural shout than any coherent word. The chair flew through the air, threatening splintery death to its target.
Which was not Erin, fortunately. Ryoka hurled the chair and it crashed into a wall and broke two legs.
“Damn, damn, damn!”
Ryoka hurled another chair across the room and kicked another one over a table. It hurt. A lot. But she had to vent her frustrations somehow, and Erin didn’t feel like offering her a pillow.
The innkeeper girl watched the runner girl breaking her furniture and wondered if she should say something. Probably not. Broken things were practically normal in her inn, by now.
Anyways, Erin didn’t want to interrupt Ryoka at all at this point, which was why she was watching from the other side of the room. The other girl was tall, athletic, and had a focused glare she could turn on you in a second.
She was sort of scary.
Not that Erin was scared of Ryoka. Of course not. They were both from the same world – practically neighbors! Ryoka was from Ohio and Erin was from Michigan. Ohio. Good old Ohio. The state of…of…
Well, it was a good state. Not quite as good as Michigan of course, but a good state. It had lots of…cities. And people, Erin was sure.
And Ryoka was a pretty good person, too. She was one of those barefoot runners Erin had heard so much about. Which was weird. But cool! And she seemed smart. And she was brave. And that was pretty much all Erin knew about her.
New fact: Ryoka had a bad temper. A really bad one.
“I will rip that ****ing @%#!’s tail off and shove it up her —-ing ████!”
It wasn’t that Erin couldn’t hear the swear words, it was just that she chose to censor them in her mind. She wasn’t too big on cursing, but she had understood Ryoka’s frustration.
“It’s not like there was much left down there anyways. So what? Zevara confiscates everything in the ruins? Big deal, what’s the problem?”
Ryoka stopped breaking things long enough to pause and turn to Erin. Maybe she’d forgotten she was in Erin’s inn, because she turned slightly red. But she was still angry.
“Even without the treasure, all the adventurer’s gear would probably have been worth over a thousand gold. Two thousand, maybe.”
Erin blinked at her. Ryoka nodded and sat down in a chair, scowling.
“Magic wands, potions, high-class armor…it’s their property, not the city’s. With it, Ceria and the adventurers who survived would be able to send money to the families of the ones who died, heal themselves. Taking that—it’s theft.”
“But the city was attacked.”
Erin didn’t feel comfortable defending Zevara, but she understood why it had happened. She tried to explain to Ryoka.
“I saw Liscor after the attack. The streets were ripped up, houses damaged…a lot of people died. The money to repair that has to come from somewhere. And I guess they do blame the adventurers.”
Ryoka glared at Erin, and she hastily raised her hands.
“I don’t. But what can you do?”
“Nothing. Not one thing. It’s just—”
Ryoka made a fist and exhaled hard. Erin felt this was a first step. At least she hadn’t gone back to throwing things.
Carefully, Erin approached and took a seat next to Ryoka. Calm, that was the key.
“How about we have some food and talk?”
Ryoka scrubbed at her face and nodded. She was tired. Exhausted, really. But food sounded great right now, and it was time to really sit down and talk. Really talk.
Erin turned in her seat and shouted. The skeleton walked downstairs, dustrag in hand. Ryoka started in her seat. Even now, she hadn’t gotten used to the—the unreality of Toren.
On the other hand, Erin talked to the skeleton as if having one was completely normal.
“Go get some food. We’re nearly out of blue juice and I need more eggs. Go find some.”
She thought for a second.
“And fish. We could use—oh, right.”
Erin glanced at one of the shuttered windows. Normally, the windows were open to let in clear air, blue skies, and green landscapes. Now though, if she looked outside…
Toren walked over to the door and opened it. A white pasture untouched by details like color appeared, as falling snowflakes completed the scene.
It was winter. And apparently, unlike on Earth, winter decided to arrive in moments, rather than over the course of months.
Ryoka and Erin both stared at the landscape outside. Toren casually stepped out into the falling snow and promptly disappeared against the white backdrop.
“Even after walking through the snow, I can’t believe it’s really winter.”
Ryoka had to shrug as she followed Erin into the kitchen. She watched as the other girl began rummaging through shelves and untidy packs of food left lying around on the floor.
“That’s how this world works.”
“Yeah, but it’s still weird. I mean, if this is how winter arrives, how does it go? Does all the snow just fly into the sky?”
Ryoka had no answer for that. Erin frowned as she stared at her pantry.
“I’m running out of food. Again. But I’ve got pasta! There’s always pasta. And sausages. Oh! And here’s an onion.”
It was Erin’s emergency fall-back recipe, which was probably why she always had ingredients for it. She really didn’t know that many recipes, which was probably due to her only having [Basic Cooking] as a skill.
“Pasta is fine. Just make a lot of it.”
It took a while for the pot to boil, and longer for Erin to toss in the necessary ingredients and make several plates of it. By that time, she and Ryoka were sitting at the table, talking.
“No way. You’re serious.”
“I got a call and when I answered it, a screen appeared in the air. It was…a magical chatroom of some kind.”
“Whoa. Like magic Skype?”
“…Sort of. But from that I can guess there’s at least a hundred people from our world here. Possibly many more.”
Erin sat back in her chair, mind close to literally being blown.
“I mean, yeah. Yeah, I don’t have my smartphone and I bet a lot of people don’t either. But—hundreds? Seriously?”
Ryoka paused and chewed down her mouthful of buttered noodles before responding. She was on her second plate. So was Erin.
“It’s what makes sense. I can’t prove it, but sixteen people with working iPhones seems to suggest that’s the case. How many people are like you, without one, or don’t know how to recharge theirs.”
Erin stared past Ryoka with a dazed look as the other girl went back to her food. Ryoka forked a dripping sausage slice and chewed it down, ignoring the oil. Or rather, savoring it.
She ate with surprisingly good manners. Back straight, fork never overfull…Erin felt incredibly rude shoveling down her food, until she realized that Ryoka was still eating fast despite her table posture.
“We’re not alone. We’re not alone!”
Ryoka looked up. Erin was smiling happily. She was glad that Erin was glad, but she couldn’t share the sentiments.
“But we don’t have any way of getting in contact with them. Not unless that BlackMage person uses the spell again, and that’s risky if it gets hacked.”
“That’s true. That’s bad!”
Erin frowned and so did Ryoka, for different reasons. Was it really a ‘we’? She barely knew Erin, but the other girl seemed to accept the idea without a second pause.
“Anyways, one of the biggest mistakes we could make is if we kept secrets from each other or—or failed to plan things out. We can’t just rush around without thinking things through.”
“Going forwards, I mean.”
Ryoka tried to explain as she ladled more noodles onto her plate.
“Now that we know we’re both from the same world, well, we should cooperate.”
“Of course. I mean, that’s obvious. Why wouldn’t we?”
Erin looked confused. Ryoka debated for an instant going into backstabbing, potential dictators, selling out the secrets of their world…and realized Erin wasn’t that type of person. She really had few evil bones in her body, if any.
“Well, there are a lot of dangers.”
Ryoka said it lamely, as if Erin hadn’t just smashed her way through several undead to rescue Ceria. And poked Gazi in the eye.
“But we can work together! You’re a cool person with running skills and all that kind of stuff and I—”
“I’ve got an inn! And a skeleton. And acid jars.”
“Yeah. Well, this winter makes everything harder.”
Ryoka frowned. The snow was not the kind of thing a barefoot runner wanted to see. She’d had to borrow a pair of boots from Krshia just to get here. How was she going to run around in this damn weather? She’d probably have to buy a pair of shoes.
She looked up and saw Erin was staring at her.
“So…what? We’re going to make a plan? Is that why you wanted to talk?”
“Partially. Like I said, we don’t want to make any mistakes. In a situation like this—it’s a survival situation. We need to work together. Pool information, share knowledge.”
Erin stared at Ryoka round-eyed.
“I literally don’t know anything about this place. I mean, I know stuff about Liscor and the things around here, but nothing else.”
“I know some things.”
Ryoka pushed aside her plate. She was close to full and the food wasn’t going anywhere.
“If you’re not too tired, let’s talk.”
Erin clapped her hands together excitedly.
“Oh! Better idea. We can talk and play at the same time.”
“Do you play chess?”
Erin was already excitedly getting a board and pieces from one of the tables. Ryoka stared at it incredulously.
“They have chess in this world?”
“Yup! It’s just been invented, apparently. Isn’t that great?”
Ryoka wasn’t sure about ‘great’, but it might be a marker to indicate what stage this world’s technological level was at. Then again, they were surprisingly advanced in some places – with refrigeration due to spells – while relying on medieval technology in other areas.
“You like to play chess?”
“I love chess. It’s fun!”
That was surprising, but Erin was that kind of girl. Ryoka didn’t mind chess either, although all of the people she played against were terrible. She could play a few games with Erin, though. She just had to remember to take it easy on her.
They began playing. Ryoka half-focused on the board while Erin chattered away.
“So, did they say anything about our world?”
“Those people you talked to. I wish Pisces were here so I could see it again. But he’s sleeping or yelling about his jaw. Did they say what’s happening in America? Are people aware we’re gone? What’s the news?”
“I uh, didn’t ask. And they didn’t say.”
Ryoka frowned at the board. It looked like Erin could play, although she wasn’t sure how seriously Erin was taking the game. She kept moving her pieces as soon as Ryoka made her move.
“Hm. Oh, right. Apparently, the election’s over.”
“Really? Who won? Hillary?”
Ryoka said the world flatly. Erin’s jaw dropped as she took one of Ryoka’s knights. She frowned, and Ryoka did the same.
“What? He won? But he said—I mean, did you remember the election?”
“How could I not?”
It was the last thing Ryoka really remembered. She’d been walking past their TV when she saw the news about the latest Trump rally and something he’d said. It had put her in such a foul mood she went for a run—
And ended up in this world. Just another reason to hate the man. Or president. Ryoka really didn’t like thinking in those terms.
Erin made a face. It was good that she wasn’t a Trump fan. That would have…
…Have meant what? Ryoka wasn’t a Democrat – she hated both Republicans and Democrats for quite a lot of their policies. But even if Erin was some kind of conservative tea party member, so what? They were in this world. It didn’t matter.
And yet, it sort of did.
“But he’s the one who said grab women by the—”
“Well. Wow. Isn’t that weird?”
Ryoka nodded. She frowned down at the board again. She’d lost focus. Given Erin too many pieces by mistake. She moved a pawn and Erin pushed her queen forwards seven spaces.
Erin smiled at Ryoka, and then looked alarmed.
“Oops. Sorry, sorry. It’s just that I love to play chess and you’re not half bad so I went full-throttle right away.”
Ryoka stared at the board. She’d…lost? And not just lost. She’d gotten crushed in a few moves. She looked up at Erin and a thought made her ask her next question.
“Did you ever win a chess tournament?”
Erin blushed and waved her hand as she reset her side of the board without looking at it.
“A few. I mean, as a kid. They weren’t that big, although I did get invited to a few big ones. I never won, but I came close in Havana.”
Ryoka had a poker face. It was more like her default face, but it meant that she didn’t have an animated expression like Erin. Still, if there was a time for her jaw to drop, it would be now.
“You were invited to…Cuba? For a chess tournament?”
“When I was a kid. I was really into chess back then. Now…I mean, I was just getting back into it when I appeared here.”
Erin shrugged modestly, as if being invited to an international tournament as a kid was no big deal. And maybe it wasn’t, for her.
“Another game? I’ll play um…less strongly, I promise.”
Ryoka shook her head.
“No, I’d like to see your skills myself.”
They reset the board and started again. This time Ryoka concentrated as hard as she could as they talked.
“So. Trump’s president. That’s what I heard, but it didn’t sound like anyone knew anything about disappearances. One person had arrived here only a day ago, and she didn’t know anything about it?”
“Just a day ago? But that means this is still happening? IF that’s the case, someone is bound to notice sooner or later, right?”
That could be the case. Ryoka frowned over a pawn as she thought.
“Maybe. But thousands of people go missing each year, and this thing seems to be targeting more countries than just America. There was someone from England, Australia, Japan…”
“Oh, I love Japan. I went there once. Japanese stuff is so cool! You know, I thought you were Japanese when I first met you.”
Erin excitedly stared at Ryoka while the other girl tried not to lose all her pawns.
“I’m half-Japanese. My dad’s American. But I don’t know much about the culture or the language.”
Ryoka could speak a bit of Japanese, but she didn’t have much interest in the language. She’d never felt the burning desire to go there and rediscover herself, except as a way to get away from her parents, perhaps.
“That’s so cool.”
Erin smiled as she and Ryoka played on. But then she frowned again.
“Still. Trump. How’d he get elected? I wasn’t going to vote for him. I mean, I didn’t get a chance, but…”
She peered cautiously at Ryoka, as if she was afraid Ryoka was going to snap at her. Ryoka shifted in her seat.
“I um, voted for Gary Johnson. I mailed my vote in early.”
Erin tried to remember who that was. Ryoka wondered if it had mattered. But then, Ohio was one of the swing states. How close had the election gotten?
It was silly, but Ryoka wanted to explain that she was making a vote of conscience against the established parties and for an independent party. If the Libertarians had managed to obtain a 5% vote they would have gotten federal funding, which might have been the first step towards breaking the two-party system if they could field a better candidate—
Or at least, it would have given another party a little more of a voice and why the hell was she worried about politics? Here? Ryoka focused on the board again. She was bleeding chess pieces at a prodigious rate.
“I voted for Bernie during the primaries, but uh, I would have voted for Hillary on election day. I think. Not Trump. Maybe for Jill Stein.”
Erin sighed as she took another of Ryoka’s bishops. She stared at the ceiling as Ryoka wondered if the game were even salvageable at this point.
“Is he building the wall? What’s happening in America right now?”
Ryoka sighed as she tipped over her king. Part of her wanted to say ‘who cares?’ but it was a small part. Erin was worried, and more invested in the news about others being here than Ryoka had been. That was probably the mark of a decent human being.
Erin smiled brightly at Ryoka.
“You’re pretty good, you know. Better than Rags, even, and she’s gotten good!”
Ryoka glanced to the side. Sometime after Erin had made the pasta, the Goblin had wandered back in from outside. Rags had gone with them to the inn, and then left to find her tribe. She’d returned, covered in snow and clearly unhappy at the weather change.
She now sat in a corner, gobbling down food and poking at her stomach and wincing now and then. She had a mess of black metal and splintered wood on the table.
“She plays chess. The Goblin.”
Erin nodded enthusiastically.
“I taught her! And a bunch of the Workers—the Antinium. I taught Toren too, but he doesn’t play well.”
Ryoka stared at Erin.
“The skeleton plays chess. Of course.”
“Another game? I can take it down a notch.”
“Sure. But don’t hold back.”
Ryoka sat back, and resigned herself to a lesson in humility.
Rags sat in her corner of the inn, pondering over the broken mess that had once been Cervial’s crossbow. She ignored Ryoka and Erin as they played—and then eventually went back to talking after Ryoka lost her eighth game. Rags listened, but only with one ear.
She had little interest in the transitory lives of the people who came to this inn. Only the innkeeper (and possibly the death mage) interested her. She noticed Ryoka glancing at her from time to time. Rags ignored that, which turned out to be a mistake.
After the…incident she sat in a corner, tensely watching Ryoka and contemplating vengeance as she and Erin argued.
“Don’t hit her! She’s just a kid!”
“She stole my potion! Her and that damn tribe of hers nearly sliced me to ribbons the last time I was here!”
Erin held up placating hands. She pointed to the orange potion now reclaimed in Ryoka’s hands.
“But now you’ve got it back, and everything is okay. Okay?”
Ryoka glared, but stopped threatening bodily harm towards Rags. She glared at the Goblin, and Rags touched her sword.
“She’s dangerous. You shouldn’t have given her that sword, much less that acid.”
“But it’s not like she goes around killing people!”
“You heard what the Watch Captain said. The Goblins are attacking caravans, robbing people blind. Zevara will do something about them, or Relc and that Klb—Klbk—that Antinium guardsman.”
“Well…I’ll talk to Rags. But she’s welcome here as long as she doesn’t cause trouble. There’s no hurting Goblins while I’m around.”
“You’ll regret it.”
“Maybe. But no hitting!”
After that there was a lot of huffy silence, which Rags completely ignored. She plotted vengeance for a while, thought about what Erin might do, and gave up and left soon after Toren came back.
The skeleton stumbled into the inn around an hour after he’d left, just as the mood in the room was warming back up. He cooled it back down with all the snow he’d brought in, but fortunately Erin had made the fire in the fireplace nice and hot.
Erin looked up as the skeleton tromped over to them with a wicker basket he’d brought with him.
“Oh, Toren! What’d you get?”
The skeleton shook his head at Erin. She frowned at him as Ryoka eyed the melting snow stuck between the gaps in his bones.
“Where’s the blue fruit? And my eggs?”
Toren upended the basket and two wizened fruits and a frozen egg fell out. Erin stared at them incredulously.
The skeleton nodded. Erin looked back at Ryoka and smiled weakly.
“Um. Well, I can still buy food from Krshia.”
“But it’s all the more reason why I should go. You need to make money, and so do I. And there’s things I need to do up north. People to talk to.”
She put her hand down and touched at her belt pouch. The letter and ring were still within, and Ryoka was conscious of them, even if the desire to deliver them no longer burned in her brain.
Erin made a face.
“I wish you didn’t have to. Ceria’s going to get better soon. When she does, what will she do? I mean, I could let her stay at the inn. I’ve got plenty of room, but…”
She waved her hands. Ryoka shrugged.
“I don’t know. She’ll have to decide. But I can’t just sit around after all of this.”
Erin sighed despondently.
“You’ll come back though, right?”
“I will. Often.”
“Okay. That’s okay, I guess.”
Erin fiddled with one of the small blue fruits and pointed at Toren.
“Go put this stuff in the kitchen. And then…and then, go get rid of the snow outside. Clear the area.”
Toren nodded. He walked towards the kitchen and then trooped back outside. Ryoka watched him go.
“He doesn’t have a shovel.”
“He can use his hands. I’ll buy a shovel later.”
Erin put Toren out of her mind as she looked back at Ryoka. She was going to go. That…Erin didn’t like that. But if she had to do it, Erin guessed she could live with it.
Ryoka cleared her throat.
“Where were we? Talking about geography? Right. I was going to tell you about this world’s history…”
She paused as Erin raised a hand.
“What’s the point of knowing all this? I mean, it helps, but…”
“We can’t seem like we’re not from here. Moreover, we need to know the basics of this world just in case.”
“In case of what?”
“In case we need to know.”
Ryoka frowned at Erin. The other girl had a cavalier attitude towards Ryoka’s impromptu history lesson. How was she not interested in this world? But then, Erin seemed extremely grounded in the present.
At least she seemed willing to learn. Ryoka thought.
“Okay, you were saying this world’s history is different.”
“Yes. At some point in the past, this world had gods.”
“Oh, right! Pisces was saying something like that. They died, didn’t they?”
Ryoka had heard the same from Ceria. She nodded.
“They died, and so did a few other races. Elves, for one.”
Erin’s face fell.
“You mean I’m never going to see Legolas?”
Ryoka felt a tinge of regret just saying that. Not for the fact that she’d never see a bunch of Orlando Bloom lookalikes – although that certainly wasn’t a plus.
“How about Dwarves? Are there Dwarves? Hobbits? Orcs?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think there are hobbits or orcs, but I do know some Dwarves still live in the world. The book I read didn’t say. The point is that the gods are dead in this world. Literally dead.”
“How can you kill a god? I mean, they’re not like our God. Or our…gods. I mean, the Christian one.”
Ryoka wasn’t Christian, although she’d read the Bible. Under duress, it had to be said, but she was distinctly, deliberately atheist. She tried to choose her words to avoid possibly offending Erin.
“It seemed that gods were a bit more active and…real in this world. Anyways, there was a war—no one’s sure about what—and they died. Long ago. That’s really the biggest point in history you need to know about.”
“What about this? I mean, this continent.”
Erin waved a hand around airily.
“I know a bit. There are five continents in this world.”
“Huh. That’s sort of like our world.”
“No. It’s not. We have seven continents.”
“Well, Antarctica doesn’t really count, right? And North and South America are also sort of the same continent, don’t you think?”
“I mean, they’re both called America. And they’re connected, so doesn’t that make them one continent?”
There was so much to address, Ryoka decided to let it slide.
“Well, perhaps this world mirrors ours. There are five populated continents, but there was a sixth one in the past.”
“Was? As in past tense?”
“Yep. A massive archipelago filled with whirlpools and deadly storms is all that remains of that continent. The other five are intact, but they’re massive. We’re in the most…peaceful one, I guess you could say.”
“By comparison. Each continent has its share of wars, but this one isn’t engaged in any huge conflicts. Just constant warfare down south with a war every few years between the human cities in the north and the Drakes and Gnolls in the south.”
“By comparison. Look.”
Ryoka didn’t have any paper or pencils, so she made do with chess pieces. She set up a rough map, marking the place she and Erin were on with a pawn piece.
“This continent is known as—well, it’s got multiple names. So do most of the other continents, actually.”
“Yes. This one, for instance was colonized by Drakes and Gnolls. They each gave it their own name, and so did the Humans who settled here. The Drakes call it Is—Issy—”
Ryoka tried to pronounce the name and gave up.
“There are multiple names. But this one is the third-largest, and as I said, it’s relatively peaceful and economically strong.”
Her finger moved up and she pointed north to a saltshaker.
“There’s one continent here. Terandria. It’s the continent of humans, and it’s pretty much a medieval version of Europe from what I can tell. Lots of kingdoms fighting each other. Royalty, knights…”
Erin sat up in her chair. Ryoka sighed.
“It’s fairly stable despite all the wars. The humans don’t go anywhere else. We just kill each other.”
She smiled crookedly, and then moved southwest, to a corner of the map.
“Here’s another continent. I don’t know much about it, because it’s so far away. It’s probably the equivalent of America, only the natives never got ousted by colonists. Gazi’s people come from there.”
“Huh. What’s it like?”
“Humid. Hot. A jungle environment. That’s all I know. It’s not as…civilized as the other continents.”
Ryoka hated herself for her choice of words. Civilized? She went on, berating herself.
“Two more continents. One up here—”
She pointed to the northeast corner of the map.
“And one all the way down here. The northern one is odd. It’s some kind of dead continent where half of it seems to be eaten away by some kind of blight.”
“Like a sickness?”
“Something like that, only it’s more magical and it’s lasted for thousands of years. This continent is constantly at war. An alliance of nations is fighting against…something out there. Demons, maybe.”
“I don’t know. The books don’t say, and the distance is so extreme that not many people know about it. That Pisces might know more.”
“That’s where a group of Americans are from. They’re in a nation ruled by someone known as the Blighted King. His nation is at the forefront of the conflict. Apparently, their adventurers and soldiers are some of the best the world’s seen.”
Ryoka waited for something else, but Erin was just taking it all in. She pointed at the napkin she’d used for that continent.
“But they’re deadlocked. The war goes on, and they never get any richer or break the stalemate.”
“Okay, so there’s this place, a human nation with knights, a jungle…place, and a horrible continent at war. What’s the last continent?”
“Vaguely like any other, I suppose. But the main feature of this one is a massive desert that occupies a lot of the area. That’s where Gazi returned to, I think.”
“But you said this one—”
Erin pointed at the jungle continent, looking confused. Ryoka shook her head.
“That’s where her people come from. Gazers. But she serves the King of Destruction, and he lives here.”
She pointed back at the last continent, sitting in the southeast corner of the map.
“It’s the largest continent, and at one point he ruled all of it. The King of Destruction.”
“You said that earlier. I don’t know who that is. Is he someone important?”
“Putting geography aside, there are a number of powerful nations and species here. There’s no one superpower, or even a few here. Distance and the size of this planet are what stops any one group from becoming too powerful.”
“Right, right. You said this world is bigger than ours, right?”
“Possibly as much as three times bigger. It’s so large, apparently the sun is supposed to revolve around the earth.”
“That’s so weird.”
“But it must be magic.”
Ryoka scowled. Magic didn’t explain everything. Or at least, she hoped it didn’t. She stabbed the table with her finger, harder than she’d intended.
“Anyways. The King of Destruction once conquered his continent, and was intruding on three others when his kingdom collapsed. He…gave up, I think.”
Ryoka shrugged. All the books she’d read—and there hadn’t been many references to him anyways—had painted him as some kind of Alexander the Great, only without the sickness and death halfway through.
“No one knows why he stopped. But he was close to being king of more than half the world.”
“The King of Destructions. Flos.”
The words seemed to shiver in the air. Or maybe that was just Ryoka’s imagination. Ever since she’d said he was awake, the mood of the people around her had shifted. Zevara had asked her curtly whether it was true, and when Ryoka had said yes…
Perhaps this was what it was like before the first World War, or in the calm before the storm. You can feel it in the air. The world beginning to shift.
Erin wrinkled her nose.
“Flos? Like dental floss? That’s not a very scary name.”
Ryoka stared at her. Erin was…singularly unique. She didn’t even seem fazed by these revelations. They’d sent Ryoka’s head spinning when she’d first read of them. Even now, Ryoka was trying to imagine it. A world three times as big as theirs…
Erin sat back in her chair and stared at the ceiling.
“The sun revolves around the earth. Five continents. Destroyed sixth one. The gods are dead and so are the elves. Gazi works for a super-scary King of Destruction, and there’s some sick guy fighting an army of monsters.”
She nodded once.
Ryoka blinked. That wasn’t the reaction she’d expected.
“You’re very calm.”
“It’s what it is, right? But if this Floss guy is so bad, isn’t anyone going to stop him?”
“A lot of people will try. And they’re more prepared than the first time. But I couldn’t say. There are a number of powers in the world, and probably a lot more I don’t know about. Aside from nations, there are a number of islands with power. Wistram Academy – that’s an isle of magic users. The Isles of Minos where Calruz came from…”
Both Ryoka and Erin paused. Erin stared down at her table. Ryoka went on as if nothing had happened.
“On this continent, the major powers would be the alliance of Drake nations in the south, the Five Families up north, the Antinium and…possibly Liscor.”
“Liscor’s that important?”
“Possibly. But even though the human cities have big armies, they’re not the real power here. The Drakes down south have more land and a far better position.”
“Yeah, the Walled Cities. What are they?”
“Super-cities. Think Chicago, only surrounded by walls.”
Ryoka shook her head.
“You know the wall Trump wanted to build? 30 feet high, right? That’s around the size of a castle wall back in our world. The normal ones, anyways. The Walled Cities have three hundred-foot-high walls.”
“That’s tall. The cities are practically impossible to take by siege. The only reason the Drakes haven’t swept north and destroyed all the human cities is because they like to fight each other. And Liscor and the High Passes are the only ways north. And of course, there’s the Antinium.”
“What about them?”
Ryoka hesitated. Erin was friends with several of the ant-people.
“They arrived recently, but they conquered a good part of the south before being defeated. Now they live in…a stalemate with the other nations. They’re a serious threat. The presence of a Hive in Liscor makes the city far stronger than it was, and it’s one of six hives on the continent.”
“Yeah. And all of this…”
Ryoka indicated her map. Saltshaker, napkin, chess pieces. It was hard to visualize, but this was a world. A new one, all unknown to her and Erin.
“All of this is being unsettled by all the people coming from our world. Everything that was—well, not peaceful—everything’s about to change. Maybe some of us had something to do with Flos reawakening. Maybe not. But it’s possible that war will come here, to Liscor. And even if it doesn’t, people from our world are scattered around the globe. Even finding each other would be nearly impossible without a nation’s resources.”
“So what should we do? I mean, what should the two of us do?”
Ryoka looked up. Erin was watching her. She felt the pressure of what she’d just say crashing down on her shoulders. She stared down at the ‘map’.
“I don’t know.”
The admission came hard. Ryoka had learned a lot, but even now, even after meeting Erin, she had no idea what to do next. They were alone, in a world where giants and legends still walked around. How would they go back? Did they even want to go back?
Where would they even start?
Erin stared at Ryoka, and then nodded her head. Her eyes took on a determined look, and she stood up. Ryoka looked up at her, as Erin paced back and forth. Then she looked at Ryoka seriously.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m going to add something to my menu.”
“A new food. Maybe some kind of American food. Mac & Cheese? That’s really good stuff. I think I should add more foods to my menu so I can get more customers. More customers means more money, and I could use some firewood. And I need to fix up my inn. And I could really use a fridge. Although I can probably store some food out in the snow! But then the Goblins might eat it.”
Erin thought to herself. She tapped at her chin as Ryoka stared at her. Erin snapped her fingers and smiled at Ryoka.
“You know what I really need? I really need advertisements. No one ever comes here. I need advertisements and a road. What do you think, Ryoka?”
Ryoka stared at the map, and then at Erin.