Erin stood in front of the cupboard and sighed. Loudly.
Erin paused and thought about that word.
“Males. They eat and eat and eat. And then I have to clean up the dishes. Typical.”
True, she was an [Innkeeper]. Or at least, she kept an inn relatively clean. But that didn’t make her feel better.
“Pantry? Pantry is empty. Food? Food is gone. And money—”
She glanced at the pile of coins on the kitchen counter. Gold, silver, copper and…where had the gold come from?
Klbkch. He’d put two down for his meal and Relc’s, one each time he’d come. Was that normal pricing? She guessed that if he was giving it to her, it was.
Erin dunked a plate in a bucket of water, the lye soap in her other hand. She used the dustrag to wipe at the plate, but then realized she needed a second bucket to clean everything off.
She decided she’d soap-wash the dishes, then she had to get another bucket from the stream…but her reward was the lovely coins. And less food. Assuming she had more money coming in than she spent, this was ideal—but she needed to spend it. That seemed to be the critical missing link in the way this business was working so far.
“Money is shiny. But, uh, inedible. And it’s good to have money, but starvation is an issue.”
Erin stared at the empty pantry. She had a tiny scraping of butter left, a mostly empty jar of flour…starvation was a major issue.
“Aren’t there some more blue fruits around here? Here? No…here? Yep. Nice and wrinkled. Lovely.”
She could always get more blue fruits, of course. But there was a limit on how many those trees had left. And there was also a limit to how many Erin was willing to keep hauling back.
“And I’m out of ingredients.”
The flour was almost gone. The butter was all but gone. The salt—okay, there was some salt left and some sugar too. But they were running low in their jars, and with the lovely preservation-spell-thing gone, they’d probably turn rotten sometime soon.
“So I’m in trouble.”
“So it would appear.”
The second, droll voice was right in her ear. Erin was sure her heart stopped for a good few seconds. She turned around and looked at Pisces.
“If I had a knife in my hand, I’d stab you.”
He smirked at her. It seemed to be his default mode of face. He stood up from where he had been crouching, invisible or concealed, in the corner of the kitchen.
“Ah, but what good innkeeper would deprive herself of such a magnificent guest?”
Erin reached for a knife. Pisces lifted his hands instantly.
“Please, please, good Mistress, let’s not be hasty!”
He took a few rapid steps back. Erin glared at him, but only let her hand rest on the counter. Pisces looked dusty. And dirty. And sweaty.
“Where did you come from? I didn’t hear you come in through the door.”
The sneer was cut with genuine nervousness, but Pisces gestured upstairs smugly.
“I was, in fact, upstairs the entire time. Under a bed. It was the simplest solution given the intelligence of those two brutish guardsmen.”
Erin blinked. He had dust-bunnies all over his hair and robes, which, granted, didn’t actually make him that much dirtier. She glanced towards the common room and nodded.
“Good job, I guess. But they’re still going to find you. You’re a criminal, and you’ve got nowhere to hide.”
He raised a hand before Erin could say anything.
“Please, hear me out. Rest assured, I bear you no ill will for reporting my actions to the guard. I fully appreciate the severity of my crimes, however—”
“You want something. What? To stay here? No. Nope. No way in hell.”
Pisces lifted his hands and put on what she supposed was his best smile. It made him no less desperate, but he spoke quickly and eloquently. A scholar? Erin supposed a [Mage] was probably scholarly.
“I assure you I would be a quite convivial guest. And I wouldn’t ask for much. In fact, you may be interested to know I am proficient in multiple schools of spellcasting. While necromancy is a—passion of mine, I have extensively studied the elementalist, illusory, and enchanting schools of magic. My level is over twenty in the general [Mage] class. Even amongst my fellow students, you would be hard-pressed to find a spellcaster as widely capable as I am. I can aid in a number of functions that would improve your inn. And I have money.”
Erin raised two eyebrows. One just wasn’t enough.
“And you’re telling me all this…why?”
He licked his lips.
“In point of fact, I was wondering if I might persuade you to shelter and provide me with my basic necessities while in this moment of dire need. I can provide you with adequate recompense, I assure you—”
Erin snorted rudely.
“Right, for how long? Days? Weeks? Months? And I get to feed you, make sure no one finds you, and clean up after you? Again: no. I’m barely getting enough food for myself as it is.”
“Would you turn away an innocent—”
Erin’s finger nearly jabbed him in the chest as he stepped back. The young woman raised her voice as Pisces retreated out of the kitchen.
“Innocent? You? You’re nothing more than a thug with a magic wand. Remember how we met? You tried to scare me into giving you food. And now you want protection because you’re getting your just desserts? No. No, when I see Relc again, you’d better be long gone from here. And if you don’t leave now, I’ll kick you out myself.”
Erin finished her tirade and folded her arms under her breasts. But while Pisces had turned white as a sheet, he didn’t look ashamed or afraid so much as…
He whispered a spell. Erin felt the air grow colder around her and suddenly saw shadows twisting around Pisces’ hands. The darkness was gathering around him like a cloak. It was the same spell as before, or close enough.
Pisces took a step towards her.
“I am a man in desperate straits. You would do well not to underestimate what I am capable of.”
Erin’s heart was racing. She took two steps back, and he followed.
“Antagonizing one of my power is unwise. If you have any sense, you will accede to my request. Or know the consequences.”
Her mouth was dry, but she knew it was just an illusion. So Erin forced herself to reply with more bravado than she felt.
“So, what? If I don’t decide to help you, will you hurt me? Bash my brains in? Or will you just rip my clothes off and try to rape me?”
He looked shocked.
“Of course I wouldn’t do that. I’m no barbarian—”
Erin’s hand moved in a flash. Pisces looked down and gulped. A knife was poking into his stomach.
Her heart was racing. She could taste bile in her mouth. But her hand was very, very still. She wasn’t sure of much in her life right now. Magic and monsters made her head spin. Yet some things were the same. And she had no intention of being the victim here, especially where no one could hear her scream.
Her knife had a gratifying effect on her mage guest. He licked his lips and raised his hands, turning a shade paler than normal.
“Now, now. Let’s not be hasty, good Mistress. I was merely saying—”
“Move and I will stab you.”
It was no threat. It was a promise. And, to his credit, Pisces was intelligent enough to take it seriously.
“—Allow me to apologize. But if I might say a few words—”
Erin advanced. Pisces had to step backwards or be knifed in slow motion. She forced him back into the common room and towards the door.
“Please, please reconsider.”
His face was so desperate Erin paused a second.
“Why should I? Give me one good reason, Pisces.”
Pisces stopped at the door. Erin jabbed at him with the knife, but he refused to move back any further. He raised his hands higher and spoke with increasing speed and panic.
“If I am caught, they will take me to the city. And there I will be judged and killed. This is a certainty, Mistress Erin.”
Erin eyed him uncertainly. Pisces was licking his lips, and he looked genuinely afraid. But she couldn’t quite trust him after his threats. Posturing aside—there was the way he was looking at her, too. He didn’t really trust her, did he? Oh, no. And she didn’t trust him. But the part about being executed? Erin frowned hard.
“Relc never said—”
“He didn’t want to tell you the truth! But he and I both know what happens to [Necromancers]. We—any mage possessing even a single level in the class—are all killed on sight in this part of the world! There’s no mercy for my kind here. The legacy of the Necromancer of Terandria, Az’kerash, lingers. Especially here, where his armies once sieged Liscor.”
“Well—well too bad.”
Erin’s mouth was on autopilot. Pisces tried to step around her back into the kitchen, but she blocked him, forcing him to the door.
“Even if you’re in danger, I’m in danger if I hide you. I’m not doing that. Run away. Just run away now.”
“They will have patrols out around the city. They will scour the grasslands for me. Please, if you were to hide me, I would be sure to survive.”
Erin pointed towards the door with one hand. He wavered, but made one last entreaty.
“Please, I beg of you. Just one night. Just give me sanctuary, and I swear I will be gone upon the morrow. It is my death without your aid. Would you kill me? I ask you as a fellow Human. Please.”
The knife in her hands wavered. Pisces seized the moment. He stepped forwards, hands outstretched beseechingly.
“Please, spare my life. If you have any pity in your soul—”
Pounding footsteps. Both Humans turned and looked at the door. Pisces turned white, and Erin heard a roaring, familiar voice.
It was quick. One second, Erin was pointing her finger at the door and glaring at Pisces. The next, something kicked the door open, blew past her, and Pisces was gone. Two figures crashed into a table and chairs. Erin’s mouth dropped open.
“There you are!”
The larger shape uttered a triumphant laugh as he swung Pisces around and slammed him into the floorboards. It was Relc. He came through the door and took Pisces down in a tackling charge faster than anyone Erin had ever seen. Pisces didn’t even make a sound until he hit the ground—and then it was the sound of someone losing all the air in his body and perhaps having his lungs and ribs compressed.
Klbkch appeared at her side. Erin jumped, but the ant man placed a steadying…hand on her shoulder.
“Please forgive my rudeness. Are you well? We doubled back and lingered, knowing the criminal may have only pretended to flee the area. Are you hurt or in need of assistance?”
Erin stared at him.
“Are you—what’s—I’m good. Good.”
“That is well. Then, please stand clear. We will be going about our business, and I would not wish you hurt.”
That said, Klbkch gently guided Erin to one side. To her astonishment, the fight between Relc and Pisces wasn’t over. The two were rolling around, knocking over tables and chairs as the Drake attempted to smash the Human into anything he could while the Human tried to avoid that fate.
Relc roared from the ground.
“Klb! Get over here and help! This guy’s slipperier than he looks!”
Klb nodded to Erin and dashed into the fight. She watched in stupefaction as the two tried to hold Pisces down. Oddly, it wasn’t that easy. Despite the size advantage and muscle advantage, Pisces was still managing to fend off both. Erin wondered how, until she saw he had something in his hands.
The wand. It was jetting electricity, as if it were an electric wire. Electricity, flames, which Relc jerked back from. He swung a fist, and Pisces vanished again. This time, he slammed so hard into a table Erin winced as he tried to get up.
Pisces scrambled to his feet and leapt for the door, but Klbkch caught him by the foot and attempted to tie his hands together with a piece of string, which turned out to be his boot’s shoelaces. Pisces shouted…something, and the leather burst into flames. Relc leapt on him and then blinked.
“[Barrier of Air]!”
Pisces waved his wand, and the Drake smashed into a shimmering whirlwind of air, bounced off, and landed on the ground. He ducked under the shimmering…spell? Erin was transfixed, but then Klbkch took Pisces down with a leg-sweep. He didn’t reach for his swords—he dodged a shard of stone that pierced the air next to his head, pinned Pisces’ hand—and then made a clicking sound of exasperation as Relc knocked both him and Pisces over in a low charge.
Pisces got back up, slashed the air with his wand, and both Klbkch and Relc ducked a glowing blade, throwing themselves flat as Pisces backpedaled.
It was a fast and dirty fight that had one or all three of the fighters rolling on the ground at all times. But Erin had only half an eye for that. The other eye was watching all of the furniture in her inn get smashed as they fought.
“Stop moving! Hey!”
“Desist your actions or—”
Pisces’ fingers sparked. A small explosion of lightning blasted Klbkch into a wall as Relc ducked. Erin ducked too. From behind her table, she could see Klbkch twitching and making a distressed buzzing sound. Then the Antinium drew his swords. Relc roared.
The dull thud of something hitting something echoed throughout the inn. But it was punctuated by another crackle of electricity and Relc shouting in pain.
Erin turned away from the brawl and ran into the kitchen. She emerged with the pot just in time to see Relc blasted off his feet, this time by what looked like an explosion of air.
Pisces backed away from the Drake, panting heavily. His face was bruised and he was bleeding from the nose and mouth, but his fingers still crackled with energy. He turned to run, but stopped.
Klbkch was on his feet. The ant man was standing in front of the door, swords drawn. He held two, one in each hand, while his other two held small daggers. Erin saw Pisces gulp. She agreed. Klbkch looked like a wall of blades. The two [Guardsmen] had gone after Pisces unarmed while he had his wand. Now that Klbkch had drawn his blades, Erin felt like the odds were completely reversed.
“I—I seek no quarrel with you. I am a graduate of Wistram Academy and a practicing mage. You detain me at your peril.”
Pisces pointed a trembling finger at Klbkch. It sparked with green energy that crackled around his fingertip, but it was suddenly a lot less impressive compared to Klbkch’s armory.
“Regardless of your affiliation to any academy, you are still under arrest. Please surrender now or I will be forced to employ lethal force.”
“Is useless. Surrender.”
Erin jumped. She saw Relc getting to his feet. The Drake’s eyes were narrowed, and in his hands was a spear. It wasn’t long, but it did look extremely sharp. And the way he held it, Erin instinctively knew he was ready to use it to kill.
Pisces took one look at the spear and immediately raised his hands.
“I—I give up.”
Relc spat. His leather chest armor was singed in multiple places, but the scales underneath only looked soot-blackened, not damaged. However—Erin could tell how furious he was. The Drake’s claws tightened on the spear.
“Not likely. I’m gutting you like a fish right here.”
Erin stared at Relc in horror. But there was no joking in his eyes. He was practically quivering with rage, but the arms that held his spear were completely still and tensed.
“Gutting? Hey, that’s—”
“Don’t be hasty!”
Pisces backed away from Relc, talking fast.
“I assure you, my life is worth far more than you would ever get for me dead. This can all be solved amicably. I will fully cooperate—”
Relc stepped forwards, and Pisces pressed his two fingers together. A strong breeze flew through the inn, and a flickering barrier of wind appeared in front of Relc.
“I will cease all magic and go with you quietly if you assure my life. I meant no harm to you or your companion. But we are at an impasse until you do.”
Relc’s eyes narrowed.
“By that? You think a piddly little [Barrier of Air] spell is going to stop me?”
The big Drake’s body tensed. He crouched slightly and then dashed into the wind wall. Relc’s massive body smashed into the semi-transparent barrier of wind. He sunk into the barrier, and then the winds pushed back.
Even from this distance, Erin felt the tremendous force in the spell and saw chairs and tables being blown away. For a moment, she thought Relc would go flying. But his claws dug into the ground, and the wind howled—
The whirling winds blew apart with a small clap of air that sent the nearest chairs flying. Pisces staggered back, face grey with shock. Erin stared.
Relc, on the other hand, just twirled his spear in his hand. He spat contemptuously on the floor.
“That’s what I think of your spells. I’m a former soldier of the 4th Wing of the Liscorian Army. I’ve killed more [Mages] than you have levels. Now, are you going to die quiet or will I have to pay for painting the walls red with your blood?”
Pisces stepped back, tripped over a fallen chair, and fell on his back. He raised his hands and cried out in a shrill voice.
“I can be ransomed. Quite highly! My school will pay ten—thirty gold coins in whichever denomination you like for my return.”
Relc raised the spear.
“Still don’t care. I don’t need money if I can get rid of a stinking fleshbag like you.”
Erin raised her voice in horror.
“What? No! No killing! Do you hear me?”
But no one was listening. Klbkch was closing in, swords and daggers at the ready. Relc raised his spear higher.
“Last words, [Mage]?”
She couldn’t believe what was happening. The friendly Relc was lowering his spear, a dozen paces away from the backpedaling Pisces. But he could close that gap in less than a second. His eyes—
He was going to kill Pisces. And Klbkch wasn’t going to stop him. Erin’s head swung to the Antinium, and Klbkch stood by the door, impassive. She couldn’t read his face, and in that second, he looked like a true insect. Pisces was white with fear. Erin was in denial until she saw the Drake’s eyes. Even then…she saw Pisces hit a table. He looked at Relc and grew calm for a second.
That bitter, blank look returned to his face. He bared his teeth and lifted the wand like a dagger. It glowed, but with no real hope. Just like his eyes. But he drew himself up, a pale, thin young man, and shouted, eyes bulging, his voice hoarse and—Erin’s head swung to him as he raised his voice.
“I have only ever done what I loved. Slay me as well, you thoughtless fools. Just like all of my kind. One day—one of us will follow Az’kerash.”
Erin’s skin crawled. Klbkch looked up sharply, but Relc just grinned with all his teeth. His tongue flickered around them, like blood.
“Nice last words. But remember—your Necromancer died here. Miles from this very spot. The Tidebreaker was his end.”
Pisces’ look of defiance flickered. He lifted his wand.
The Drake lowered his spear and ducked, sweeping low as Pisces took one step forwards, a word, a name on his lips.
Erin slammed the pot on the table top as hard as she could. Relc, Klbkch, and Pisces paused as one to stare at her. Relc froze in his killing charge as Erin pointed one shaking finger at them.
“No fighting. Not here. And no killing!”
Relc blinked. He lowered his spear a fraction. Erin pointed to it.
“Stop that! Put the weapons away and get out.”
“I don’t care! You don’t kill people just because they practice stupid magic! And you don’t kill people just because you don’t like them! And you don’t kill people because killing people is wrong!”
Relc pointed down at Pisces angrily. He didn’t lower his spear, but Pisces had stopped mid-cast of whatever spell he had in mind.
“He’s a criminal.”
“No, he’s an idiot. But he didn’t do anything wrong enough to die for. All he did was try to scare me.”
“He hit me with lightning!”
The Drake gestured at the burns on his chest. Erin pointed to Pisces’ bleeding nose and bruised cheek.
“You punched his brains out! That’s not enough to kill him over!”
The Drake lowered his spear. He turned to Klbkch in disbelief, then back to Erin.
“I can’t believe this. Are you defending him? Because he’s Human? Or do you not want the blood in here? In that case, I’ll take him out back and—”
Erin shouted at Relc. She waved the pot around dangerously.
“Are you stupid? I don’t want anyone killing anyone! You can’t do it! I forbid it! It’s wrong! It’s illegal.”
“In point of fact, my comrade’s actions are not—”
Erin whirled and pointed at Klbkch. The Antinium actually backed up a step as she glared between the two [Guards].
“I don’t care! No killing, do you hear me?”
Relc hissed angrily.
“Then I’ll arrest him, and he’ll be executed tomorrow. Happy?”
Pisces turned pale again. Erin’s mouth replied before her brain caught up.
“I withdraw my testimony.”
Erin lifted her hands.
“I withdraw it. All of it. I was never attacked yesterday. This mage-guy never visited the inn, and I never saw him until today. So there’s no reason for you to arrest him.”
“You can’t do that!”
Relc turned and looked at Klbkch.
The ant man nodded reluctantly.
“She is correct. Without her testimony, we cannot submit a report regarding his attempted thefts.”
Relc faltered. He looked uncertainly at Pisces and then remembered.
“But he’s still a [Necromancer]! That’s a crime no matter what he does! And he attacked us!”
Erin crossed her arms.
“Prove. It. Can you? Is there a way to check his, uh, class?”
Relc gritted his teeth.
“…No. Not without an artifact. Klb, you got an [Appraisal] scroll?”
“Then go. Now.”
Relc gaped at Erin. It was surprisingly frightening. Erin could look right down his throat. He had a lot of teeth.
“Are you serious? One word to our Watch Captain and she’ll send a patrol back to capture this idiot! And if we don’t arrest him, you have a [Necromancer] running around! You want us to let him go knowing his class?”
Erin glared at him. Relc lowered his spear, grabbed at the spines on his head, and hissed.
“I could still arrest him for attacking me. Yeah. I’ll just do that. Who cares about testimony or whatever?”
He took a threatening step towards Pisces, and Erin’s mouth once again beat anything else.
“You do that—and I’ll tell all the people who vouched for you that Senior Guardsman Relc arrested someone after a fight he started. You have no proof, no testimony, and I’m pretty sure if you arrest him, that’s illegal. There are laws, and you have to follow them. If this isn’t the first time you’ve done something like this, you could get a permanent citation on your record.”
Erin was just making things up now. She had no idea what kind of legal system Relc had to work under, but she was taking a guess based on their limited conversations. And it worked. Relc hesitated.
“No, I can’t.”
“Yes, you can. You have no cause whatsoever to arrest Pisces.”
The Drake’s arms were bunched up. He turned, furiously, and called in backup.
“Klb—help me out here!”
Erin’s heart sank as Klbkch sheathed his daggers. But only so he could pull out something from his belt. A handbook. How had he fit it on his belt?
Wherever he’d gotten it from, the Antinium read carefully.
“I believe Senior Guardsman Relc does have just cause, Miss Erin Solstice. It is true that his personal sworn testimony would be called into question if you were to speak against him. [Detect Truth] spells would settle that matter, but Relc’s history of inappropriate conduct on-and-off-duty does not help his case.”
The Antinium raised one finger.
“However. As Senior Guardsman Klbkch, I will vouch for my partner to take this Human into custody for unlawful practices which include extortion, theft, and intimidation, which we have every right to suspect, with or without your testimony.”
He closed the book, and Relc waited, clearly unsure if that meant he had won. Erin’s heart sank. She looked at Klbkch and then at Pisces. And then around her inn. How could she save him? For once, she didn’t want the [Guardsmen] to be…
Here? Erin’s eyes lit up, and she stopped Klbkch, who was stepping towards Pisces to effect the arrest, with a shaking finger. Literally—she shook it in his face as the surprised Antinium halted.
“Oh no. Absolutely not. You’re all wrong, Klbkch.”
“I do not believe I am.”
Erin’s shaking intensified, from nerves as much as faux-fury.
“Oh yeah? Oh yeah? Well, this is outside your jurisdiction! You said it yourself—you don’t patrol my inn! Therefore, it is my inn, and I deny your city’s authority here!”
Klbkch’s mandibles opened and stayed there. Relc swung his head to Pisces and Erin.
“Wait—what did she just say? Jurisdic—we don’t do that, do we, Klb? Buddy?”
Erin froze, but Klbkch clacked his mandibles after a second. He stared at Erin for a long moment, then at Pisces, then slowly sheathed his swords. He met the [Innkeeper]’s desperate gaze—then nodded.
“…I believe I am incorrect. Relc, the Watch has no authority here. This is an independent inn, and the [Innkeeper] is allowed to deny our authority here.”
“What? Then let’s arrest her too!”
Relc protested, and Erin’s heart sank, but Klbkch stared at Erin for a long moment and then backed up.
“That would be inadvisable, Relc. We are off-duty, and Miss Solstice has stated her case. Executing a [Mage] of Wistram might also affect the Academy’s relationship with our city. Which the Council and Watch Captain would not be happy about.”
Relc spluttered. He looked from Pisces to Klbkch to Erin, and his scales grew darker. Was he…blushing with fury? Relc lowered his spear, made an inarticulate noise of rage, then pointed at Pisces.
“You take one step in the city and I’ll—I’ll—you take one step in there and I’ll do something about it. If I so much as see you on my patrol—”
Pisces was panting, looking at Erin with disbelief. He lowered his wand, slowly, and spoke.
“I assure you, you will never see—”
Relc’s eye twitched.
Pisces wisely shut up. The Drake looked at Erin, then whirled around. He stomped towards the door.
Relc kicked the door as he left. Erin winced as she heard the wood crack. Then he was gone.
Klbkch walked past Erin and nodded to her politely.
“Do not mind him. You are within your rights to enforce law within this establishment as you choose. I apologize for the mess on both our behalves.”
He left. Erin stood around the room, looking at the broken chairs, overturned tables, and general wooden carnage. Behind her, Pisces got to his feet. He was still shaking and sweatily pale.
“I don’t know how I can thank you, good M—Miss Erin. Please, accept my humblest—”
Erin tapped him on the head with the pot. Hard.
Pisces stared at her in disbelief. Erin raised the pot higher.
He stumbled out. Erin kept staring at the mess in the room. It had to be said. Definitely.