After a few days, Erin concluded that she had three types of customers. The first type were the Antinium, namely Pawn and the Workers. He brought them every day or every other day as soon as the sun touched the tops of the mountains in the southwest.
The sun rose and fell in the same direction as back home, which was either a coincidence or something interesting. Erin felt stupid for not noticing earlier, but then, she didn’t carry around a compass, did she? At least it was still east to west.
The Workers arrived like clockwork each evening, many bringing chess sets of paper or stone. Apparently, Workers did earn some kind of pay, and they spent their money exclusively on chess and food.
Erin felt bad about that, especially given the price she charged for Acid Flies. But Pawn told her that before this, the Workers didn’t claim any of their weekly stipends. The ones who worked in the city were allocated some money, but it had never occurred to any of them to spend it, so in that sense, Erin was helping them become consumers.
Besides, they ate like pigs. Starving pigs with a taste for crunchy flies.
Despite their obsession with her food, the Antinium were polite, quiet except when they were eating, and played chess. In other words, Erin would have been glad to have them over every night.
The second kind of guest she got were the Goblins. They were like the Workers but smellier, dirtier, and they paid her with coins covered in blood, dirt, and occasionally—
Erin had instituted a policy in her inn. Goblins had to jump in the stream or at least wash themselves before they were allowed in. Not that many visited. In truth, it was just Rags and her posse.
And it was a posse. Or a group. Or gang. Erin was sure she was the leader of whatever they were, but while Rags was in command, it was also clear that she wasn’t in charge of her tribe, if there was still a tribe.
Occasionally, the small Goblin would come in alone, but often, she had two bigger Goblins following her. They were almost always injured—not seriously, but with small wounds that suggested scuffles and fighting. Erin wondered if the reason she didn’t see more Goblins was because they were recovering from injuries.
She wondered how many had died. Erin had slept with her windows and shutters locked and waited to see if more Goblins would—come back.
None did, and the small group that had fought for Erin had lurked around until Erin offered them food. She didn’t know how many were left of the ones who had killed Klbkch. She didn’t know if any were left, but she waited. Selys and Krshia had offered to put her up in Liscor, but Erin was staying.
It felt like it was the only thing she could do. So her Goblin guests became that tiny group.
Nevertheless, Rags paid for her followers’ meals and her own and ate in silence. Occasionally, she played a game of chess, but Erin got the distinct impression the small Goblin was watching her.
That was fine, but Erin had grown…warier over the last few days. She always checked to make sure she knew how many Goblins were around her inn, and even when Rags was alone in her inn, Erin never left any knives or other weapons out in the open. She also made the Goblins leave whatever they were carrying outside the inn.
Still, if the Goblins were an issue that occasionally made the Workers pause and Erin count the knives in her kitchen, they were still decent customers. They paid money, which was more than Erin could say for the last type of guest: annoying necromancer.
“Do you know how much money you owe me for all these meals?”
Pisces looked up, mouth bulging with soup. He swallowed, grabbed a piece of bread, and munched it down before replying.
“I am, as always, reliant upon your good graces and tolerant nature, good Mistress Solstice. Rest assured, I will pay off my debts in due time as soon as I acquire the necessary funds.”
Erin planted her hands on her hips. The inn was empty except for Rags sitting in one corner, slurping down another bowl of soup.
“You keep saying that, but do you actually have any money on you?”
Pisces raised his eyebrows.
“What is money but a concept? If you are referring to the notion of money, I am indeed wealthy in—”
“Coins. Do you have them?”
The [Necromancer] hesitated and lifted one delicate finger.
“Not as such, no.”
He shrugged as Erin glared and went back to his soup. It was amazing how Pisces could manage to scarf down her food and still grimace at the same time.
“I know you study magic all day, but would it kill you to get a job? Then you could pay for food instead of mooching it off me. And you could pay for someone to wash your robe, too!”
Pisces glanced down at his travel and food-stained robes. They were probably white, but constant use and little washing had rendered them colorfully gray and splotched.
“I fail to see your point.”
“Your clothes. Are filthy.”
“Do they emit any kind of unsavory smell?”
“Then once again, magic has eliminated another tiresome chore. As to your point about employment, I remind you that I am banned from entering Liscor due to my magical inclinations.”
“And because you stole food and money from people by pretending to be a monster.”
Pisces rolled his eyes as if admitting one grudging good point.
“That too, I suppose. Regardless, it behooves me to stay away from the Watch. Even this far from the city, I must occasionally evade their tiresome patrols.”
“Well, you won’t have to do that much longer.”
Erin sighed and tossed her cleaning rag on the table next to Pisces. He eyed it and then her with sudden paranoia, and his eyes darted to a window.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, they’re not going to patrol around the inn any longer. After—after Klbkch—anyways, the stupid Captain said she’s not going patrol this area. And Relc doesn’t hang out here now, so I guess you don’t have to worry about the Watch.”
Pisces repeated Erin’s words slowly. He relaxed and almost appeared cheerful—until he began to frown.
“They aren’t patrolling this region any longer?”
“That’s what I said.”
He scratched at his chin and glanced out the window. It was still morning, but Erin had closed most of the shutters. It was an unexpectedly chilly day today, and she didn’t feel like building a fire.
“That would be…problematic.”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
Pisces leaned back in his chair and fiddled with the spoon he was using. He stared at the ceiling, a sign Erin knew meant she was about to hear another lecture. Resigned, she picked up the bar rag and turned to clean another table.
Rags was sitting two tables over. Erin blinked as the Goblin quickly looked away. She hadn’t even heard the small Goblin move. Was she…listening in on Erin’s conversation with Pisces?
“The local fauna and flora of the area around Liscor are not the most deadly, considering the extreme variance of some death zones around the world, but there are several notable monster types that do pose a serious threat, even to me.”
Erin glanced over at Pisces.
“Even a great and glorious mage like you?”
“Let us just say that several of the species around here deter adventurers from pursuing their trade. Not that Drakes and Gnolls tend towards adventuring as much in any case. But without the Watch to keep local populations down, it will become hazardous quite quickly. I would suggest you hire some form of protection before this occurs.”
“What, like a bodyguard? I don’t have the money for that.”
Pisces shook his head.
“I was referring to thugs with weapons aptly known as ‘bouncers’ or the more mundane [Mercenary] classes, but you do raise a good point. I doubt many would be willing to travel this far to offer protection—and even if they did, their prices would be quite exorbitant.”
“That’s what I just said.”
“Yes, well, regardless, some form of personal defense would be highly advisable.”
“I can fight. I’ve got, uh, [Bar Fighting] as a Skill, you know. I can totally crack someone over the head with a chair.”
Pisces raised his eyebrows and applauded silently. Erin glared at him.
“Most, ah, impressive. However, I doubt your prowess with a wooden chair would deter anything but the average Goblin. Most creatures are a tad studier than that, I fear.”
This time, both Rags and Erin glared at Pisces. He ignored Erin, but he seemed less sanguine about Rags, who had moved over to the table next to his. Gingerly, as if expecting her to bite, Pisces flapped one hand at Rags, who shied away from him.
“Let me put it another way, Mistress Solstice. In words you may find easier to understand. Monsters, strong. You, weak. Regardless of your level, you have only the [Innkeeper] class, which has few Skills meant for fighting or survival.”
Pisces took another bite of bread and then reached for a cup as Erin fumed.
“I’m not completely helpless, you know.”
“I never said that you were. But fighting is far different from self-defense.”
He was right. In fact, Pisces was often right, but the problem was that he was so aggravating in being right that Erin didn’t like to admit it. She changed the subject to something she’d been waiting to bring up with him.
“By the way, I learned a new Skill after the—the game.”
Pisces paused with his tankard to his lips.
“It’s called [Immortal Moment]. I have no idea what it does.”
He frowned and took a deep drink, grimacing at the water in his cup.
“I have not ever heard of such a Skill in any of the directories I have read during my time as a student. Nor have I heard of such a Skill at any point in my life. Have you found out what it does?”
Pisces shrugged again.
“It sounds like quite a useless Skill, to be honest.”
“That’s what I thought, too. But do you know if it has anything to do with chess? That’s probably where I learned it from.”
He thought about this as he drank.
“It is possible, although Skills that focus on one task are generally easier to understand from their name. It is more likely that this is some kind of ability you gained during the course of the game. But as to what that might be or how such a Skill could be used—”
He turned up one hand and finished his drink. Then he scowled and plonked the empty cup back on the table.
“Do you not have any ale? Or at least if you must serve drinks, would you do the courtesy of bringing out the Amentus beverage?”
Erin raised her eyebrows. Pisces pointedly glanced at his empty cup, and she more pointedly made no move to fill it.
“People who pay their tabs get blue juice. And as for alcohol—I’m underage, you idiot. I’m only 20.”
Pisces stared at her incredulously as Erin glared at him over the counter.
“Underage of what, precisely?”
“The drinking age of cou—”
“…Nevermind. Okay, yeah, I could buy alcohol, but it’s expensive.”
“And customary for an inn.”
Erin thought for a second. She vaguely recalled something.
“I do have [Alcohol Brewing] as a Skill. I guess I could…make alcohol?”
Once again, Pisces’ tone was laced with sarcasm.
“Ah. I see having a Skill replaces the need for hops, barrels, the fermentation process, yeast, and of course the grain needed for such a beverage. Do show me how you make ‘alcohol,’ and let me know when you’ve decided on what type of ‘alcohol’ you would like to create. I would especially love to know if it’s a rum, beer, whiskey, mead, or if it is in fact a consumable alcohol at all.”
Erin glared at him. The odd thing was that she understood exactly what Pisces meant. The Skill in her head was telling her all kinds of crazy things, like how long she’d have to ferment the wort she’d get after adding boiling water to grain, and all the supplies she’d need. And guess what? It turned out making alcohol was a pain in the ass.
She just wished Pisces weren’t competing for that honor. Erin folded her arms as she reconsidered.
“I can make wine too. Wine is easier.”
He shook his head.
“I trust your expert opinion, of course. But may I recommend testing your drink out on the Goblins or perhaps the Antinium before serving it with your meals?”
This time, Rags poked Pisces hard in the side. He yelped, swiped at her, and nearly fell out of his chair. He glared at Rags.
“Mistress Solstice, please keep your guest away from me. Elsewise, I may be forced to use magic to remedy the problem myself.”
He waggled his fingers, and they emitted a few bright green sparks. Rags instantly scooted away from Pisces in alarm. Erin folded her arms and glared at him.
“You’ll do no such thing if you want to eat here again. Stop bullying the Goblin, and stop insulting them while you’re at it. Besides, she’d probably beat you in a fight.”
“I doubt that.”
Pisces muttered darkly, but he subsided back into his chair and began shoveling more soup into his mouth. Rags deliberately looked away from both Humans and pretended to be engrossed in picking at dried scabs on her side. Erin sighed. Touchy mages and inquisitive Goblins. She missed the Antinium already.
“I get that the Workers and Goblins travel in groups and run away from monsters, but how do you survive out here by yourself?”
He shrugged sulkily.
“Any decent [Mage] has a number of spells to avoid detection. [Invisibility] is one of my fortes, for instance.”
“Oh. Right. I forgot you could do that. You know a lot of spells, huh?”
“I am quite adept in a number of magical fields. But yes, [Invisibility] is a 4th Tier spell I have acquired after much practice and study. It is useful in almost every situation.”
“Like for what? Spying on people? Hey—you haven’t ever come in here while you’re invisible, have you? Because if you have…”
Erin made a fist. Pisces raised both hands and made a face.
“Perish the thought. I do have standards to adhere to, and besides which, you are aware that most [Mages] use the [Farsight] and [Scrying] spells to gaze with impunity on anyone they like, are you not?”
Erin looked at him in horror. Pisces smirked a bit.
“Is it so surprising? Most upper-class dwellings and bath houses have spells to prevent such unwanted attention. But fear not—there are no Human [Mages] in the area besides myself, and I suspect any Drake [Mages], if any competent individuals in Liscor, would prefer their own species to gaze upon.”
“That is the creepiest thought I’ve ever heard of. All of you mages are perverts, I swear.”
He looked indignant at that.
“Magic is a sacred art, Miss Solstice. If a few use it to untoward ends, that is a small consequence that cannot be avoided. But to all others who pursue magic, the benefits are enormous. For instance, I do not have to worry about monster attacks even should the Watch give up patrols in this area entirely.”
“So you’re Mister Powerful, huh?”
“You saw my effectiveness against the Acid Flies, did you not?”
That made Erin pause.
“Oh. Yeah. You were pretty cool then. Um, thanks again.”
Pisces waved a hand at her and fixed his attention back on his soup quickly. Erin thought his cheeks were slightly pink. She smiled and had another thought.
“Why don’t you teach me magic, then? I’ll get rid of your tab if you do.”
The [Mage] looked up from his soup and stared at Erin.
“Teach you. Magic? Good Mistress—”
“Erin, then. You do realize that magic is not as simple as waving a wand about and chanting words, don’t you? Becoming a [Mage] such as myself requires years—sometimes decades of intensive study.”
Erin didn’t actually know that, but it made sense. But now that the idea had hit her, she was suddenly caught up by it. Magic. It seemed so strange and incomprehensible and yet—
“But, uh, can’t you teach me a bit of magic? I’d love to learn. I think mages are cool. I was a big fan of Harry Potter growing up, although Draco was sort of cute too—”
Pisces glanced at Rags and got a blank look in return.
“Never mind. Forget that. But will you teach me something? It doesn’t even have to be a lot. I just want to learn about magic.”
Rags looked up and stopped picking at her scabs. Erin sensed the Goblin scooting closer from chair to chair as Pisces considered her offer.
“And you would forget my tab?”
“I’ll forget your tab and I’ll start buying alcohol.”
That seemed to swing the scales. Pisces nodded. He sat back ponderously in his chair and intoned in his important-sounding voice.
“Very well then. Let us begin with the Mage’s Test. Observe.”
Pisces raised a finger, which began to glow with blue-white light. He began to trace something in the air. Where his finger moved, the light from it seemed to leave an ethereal residue. Erin squinted at it, fascinated.
“This is the basic test for determining aptitude. I am drawing—”
The gentle glow of blue magic was half-complete in the air when something interrupted Pisces’ lecture. A flash of light bloomed right in front of his nose. Pisces yelped, overbalanced in his chair, and crashed to the ground.
Erin backed up. Pisces flailed around on the ground as Rags dove out of her chair and underneath a table.
“What was that? Get it off!”
Something was hovering in the air in front of Pisces. He batted at it frantically and then paused as he saw what it was. Slowly, he sat up, and Erin saw something floating around his head. It looked…like a firefly? A firefly made of red and gold—no, more like a spectrum of those colors flickering together and winking out in front of the [Mage]’s face. It was beautiful and mysterious.
“What is that?”
Pisces stood up. He slowly reached out, and the firefly became motes of light that danced around his hand. He stared at them.
“It’s a messaging spell, but I haven’t seen one like that since—”
He broke off, frowning. The pinpoints of light began to coalesce into strange, flickering shapes. Erin squinted at them, but they didn’t look like letters. Or…were they words? She couldn’t describe it—no, she couldn’t even understand it.
Each fleck of light twisted and became hovering runes or symbols, but they also made Erin think they were words. But could you make a single letter or shape into an entire concept? And they…they hurt to look at. Erin’s eyes ached trying to take the strange, magical shapes in.
It was as if they didn’t exist in normal, three-dimensional space. And the more Erin looked at them, the more she developed a painful headache and stinging behind her eyes. She had to glance away.
Rags was desperately trying to stare at the magical message, but she seemed to be in as much pain as Erin, clutching at her head and prying her eyes open with her dirty fingers.
Only Pisces seemed to be able to look at the shapes without any pain. He frowned and stood up. For a moment, his face was thunderous as he stared at the flickering spell, and Erin was disconcerted by the raw anger in his expression. Then it became melancholic almost as fast. He reached out as if to quash the little spell, then let it rest upon his fingertips. He murmured half to himself, then blinked and glanced at Erin.
“Why would—no. Wait. I must read this. I, ah, will be going now. Thank you for the meal.”
Erin shaded her eyes and watched as the dusty robes and sandaled feet made their way to her door. They paused, and she heard Pisces’ voice again.
“—Regardless of your feelings, you should still hire some sort of protection. The more aggressive types of monsters and wildlife will soon return to this area.”
Erin looked up and blinked as one of the shapes pulsed a message she couldn’t understand into her brain. She covered her eyes. When she dared remove her hand, Pisces was gone.
Bodyguards. Hired help. Bouncers. Security. People with pointy sticks. They ranged from people who were good in a brawl to retired or active adventurers willing to take easier jobs in exchange for pay.
They were expensive, but it beat being stabbed repeatedly or eaten by a monster. That was Pisces’ opinion. Erin heard pretty much the same thing when she saw Selys next.
The two young women were walking through the marketplace in Liscor, shopping. Erin was accompanying Selys, having placed her orders with Krshia already.
It was very strange. In some ways, Selys was just like any girl around Erin’s age. The female Drake looked at the latest fashions, checked out jewelry, bought food and supplies for the week, and chattered happily with the shopkeepers like any young woman living on her own.
If Erin closed her eyes, she could imagine she was back in her world. But when she looked at Selys, it was hard to ignore the scales. And the tail. And the conversation.
“Look Erin, I know you want to stay in your inn, but it’s not safe. At least hire one of the low-level adventurers. They’re not that strong, but I could get you a good deal. Maybe we could call it a perpetual extermination request. Then the Guild would pay some of the costs.”
Erin shook her head as they walked down the street.
“I don’t see why I need protection, Selys. I haven’t seen any monsters lately, not even the Rock Crabs. The only things I see are those weird dino-birds in the sky and Rags and the Goblins.”
“Those are bad enough. But you haven’t seen the really bad monsters because the Watch keeps them away! Look Erin, I don’t want to hear you’ve been eaten or munched up into little bits one day.”
“Thanks. But the Watch is here for our protection. If they’re not guarding you—”
Selys broke off, frowning. She and Erin stopped their progress down the street. There was a crowd ahead of them, mainly Drakes with a few Gnolls mixed in.
“What’s that all about?”
Someone was shouting. No, someones were shouting. Erin stood up on her tiptoes but couldn’t see past the bodies in front of her. Then all of a sudden the crowd opened up, and several Drakes thrust their way through.
“Out of the way!”
Erin jumped aside and stared as a group of four armed Drakes pushed their way out of the crowd. These weren’t guardsmen, but they definitely weren’t civilians either.
Selys whispered it to Erin as she drew her against one side of the street. Indeed, all of the pedestrians were giving the Drake adventurers a wide berth.
The Drakes shouted angrily back into the crowd behind them and stormed down the street. Erin watched them go. Then out of the crowd came a familiar figure.
Relc pushed aside the crowd and emerged from the press of bodies, tail lashing angrily. He turned, reached back into the scrum, and pulled out a smaller, dazed-looking Drake guardsman.
He shouted at the backs of the Drake adventurers, but they ignored him. Fuming, Relc went to chase after them, but the other [Guardsman] grabbed him. Relc and the Drake began arguing furiously.
Selys looked from Relc to the adventurers anxiously.
“They must have gotten into a fight with the Watch. There will be trouble over this.”
Erin looked at Relc uncertainly. His tail was furiously lashing the ground as he argued with the other guardsman.
“Is he going to arrest them?”
“I hope not. Adventurers and the Watch don’t get along. If he does, there will be trouble. Well, there’s already going to be trouble at the Guild, but an arrest would really make things worse.”
Selys watched anxiously as Relc seemed to get angrier and angrier, despite the other guardsman clearly trying to calm him down. He tore himself away and began marching down the street after the adventurers, who had already disappeared from view. Coincidentally, his path took him right in front of Selys and Erin.
The Drake froze up when he saw Erin. She hesitated, not certain what she should say, if anything. Before she could make up her mind, Relc whirled around and marched in the opposite direction, dragging the hapless Guardsman along in his wake. He didn’t look back once.
Selys breathed out softly.
“Well, that was lucky. It’s a good thing he decided not to do anything. I’d hate to see a fight break out in the market, especially since we’re not done shopping. Good thing seeing you calmed him down, right, Erin? Erin…?”
She looked over at Erin’s face. The Human was wiping at her eyes. Selys’ eyes widened, and her tail began to twitch.
“Oh. Um. Sorry. I didn’t mean—let’s—let’s go.”
Gently, she took Erin by the arm and led her away. The crowd stared at the Human curiously, but lost interest now that the adventurers and Relc were both gone. Only a few Gnolls stared after Erin’s back but quickly looked away when a certain Gnoll shopkeeper stepped out of her shop and glared at them.
“Here. Have a cup of this.”
Selys handed Erin a steaming cup of something bittersweet. Erin sipped at it gratefully and tasted what she imagined was a root-vegetable. Well, it wasn’t bad, and it was warm.
“Sorry about that.”
“…It’s fine. I just—I guess Relc wasn’t expecting to see me. He looked angry.”
Selys bustled around her small home, fetching another cup of root-tea for herself as she made Erin at home. The room she’d brought Erin into reminded Erin of a normal apartment, except it was quite open and spacious. The chair she was sitting on was also sized differently so that the legs were higher off the ground than normal.
At last, the female Drake took a seat next to Erin.
“I guess it was another incident with the adventurers. I didn’t recognize them from the Guild, so they must be from further south. And the ones we’ve been getting lately, well, they don’t like to obey the laws as much, so we’ve been getting a lot of complaints at the Adventurer’s Guild.”
Erin had almost forgotten Selys was a receptionist at the Guild.
“They were all Drakes. Aren’t there Gnoll adventurers too?”
“Oh, a few. But that was probably an all-Drake team. Gnolls—well, Gnolls don’t like working with other species as much. And not as many become adventurers, so we haven’t been getting as many.”
“What about Humans? Aren’t any of them adventurers?”
“Lots. Most, in fact. But this group is from down south. Past the Bloodfields. They must have risked the journey—it’s not too dangerous if you go wide around it—in hopes of finding worth in the north. Rare, but it happens. But they’re from the south.”
Erin frowned at Selys. Selys frowned back.
“They’re from down south, so they’re all Drakes or Gnolls.”
“Right, right. Because all Drakes live in the south…?”
“…Erin. Do you not know the local geography?”
Erin fidgeted in her seat. Selys sighed, but smiled.
“You really need to pay more attention. Wait here for a second.”
She put down her cup and bustled about her home, rummaging around in drawers. Erin sipped at her tea until Selys came back with a piece of paper.
“Do you know anything about this continent?”
“I know we’re on a continent. How’s that?”
Selys jabbed Erin playfully with one claw. Erin yelped and nearly knocked over her tea.
“Sorry, sorry! I forgot how soft you Humans are! Sorry!”
Embarrassed, Selys picked up a quill and unscrewed an inkpot.
“Here, let me show you. The name of the continent we’re living on is Issrysil, according to my people—but no one says that. Everyone calls it Izril. It looks…like this.”
Selys drew on the piece of paper and outlined a body of land that looked vaguely like a triangle up top, but narrowed near the center and became vaguely shoe-shaped near the bottom. It was fairly ovoid in total, though, or maybe that was just the result of Selys’ drawing skills.
“Okay, this is roughly where all you Humans live. See? The entire northern part of the continent except where the mountains start. From here…to…here.”
Erin peered at the giant squiggly oval Selys drew around the northern section of the continent. Then she added small triangles for mountains two-thirds up the map, a long line of them stretching across the continent, nearly cutting the top third off from the bottom.
“And here’s Liscor. See, we’re the only way through the High Passes. Technically, there’s a route through the mountain range over here…but it’s infested with monsters. And of course the coastal routes to the east and west.”
Selys drew arrows through two sections of the mountain range and circled the small dot where Liscor was. That was roughly in the center of the map, where the continent was narrowest. Erin wasn’t good at geography—or topography—or whatever maps were, but it looked like Liscor was in a valley of some sorts.
“See, that’s why Liscor is so important. Without us, any goods have to go by land or sea all the way around the continent or brave the High Passes. And that’s not a good idea.”
“These High Passes aren’t safe?”
“Not even for high-level adventurers. Nasty creatures live around there—they make the local monsters look harmless by comparison.”
“Oh. But if all the Humans live in the north, what about the south? Are they all…Gnolls and Drakes?”
“And Antinium, but only in the Hivelands. Right along the northwestern coast below the High Passes, see? There are other species, but there are only three—four, I guess—in Izril.”
Selys shook her head as she began marking the bottom half of the map. She pointed out a small area in the lower half of Izril along the mountains and coastal range. A corner of the south.
“Here are the five known Antinium colonies outside of Liscor. Past this point is their territory. The Hivelands.”
“New. No one goes there, so we don’t know what it’s like, but I’ve heard it’s barren, and obviously, no armies or anyone else cross the border or get near the Antinium. It’s a death sentence.”
Why? Erin was about to point out Liscor had tons of Antinium…then she thought of the Soldiers and the Queen. And hadn’t Relc said Liscor was different? Klbkch….she swallowed a lump in her throat and changed the subject.
“Bad news. Got it. Didn’t I hear Liscor’s got an army? Relc…Relc said that. Is there lots of war?”
Selys rolled her eyes.
“There’s always some fight between the Drake cities. Or with a Gnoll tribe. We’re not Baleros, but—right. You don’t know Liscor has an army. They don’t come home often. They’re mercenaries, technically. Always being hired by one of the cities or alliances that pop up. And there are a lot of them.”
Selys began to furiously mark the lower half of the map with cities and circles.
“Okay, it gets a bit complex, but the big groups are the Walled Cities over here, the Gnoll Tribes of the plains, and the independent ports and cities in this area. Most of the inhabitants are Drakes, it’s true, but there are other species. For instance, nearly a third of the population down there are Gnolls. We have a few hundred Humans here and there…sometimes String-People or even Centaurs, Selphids, or other folk, but they’re just individuals rather than a community. Mostly in the Walled Cities.”
Some of the races Selys mentioned made no sense to Erin. What was a String Person? Or a Selphid? Or…
“What about Beastkin? I keep hearing that they live around here, but I’ve never seen one. Unless they look exactly like Gnolls. Where do they live?”
“Not really anywhere. I guess you might find more of them among the Gnoll Tribes—but they don’t belong there either. They come from another continent further to the west, Baleros, but they’re peaceful and easy to work with. We’ve got one total in all of Liscor. Hawk the Hare, our Courier.”
There was so much to ask about that Erin had to drop that fascinating line of questioning. She focused on species, first.
“Uh, are there other kinds of people like you? What about Lizardfolk?”
“No lizards. We wouldn’t tolerate their kind in cities anyways.”
Erin stared at the map. Selys finished marking it and smiled at Erin.
“Well, does that make sense?”
“Yeah, I think so. You explained it all well, but the map is making my eyes hurt.”
“Hey! What’s wrong with my map?”
Selys glanced down at the confusing jumble of squiggly lines and dots on the piece of paper.
Erin tried to keep a straight face, but couldn’t hold it in. She laughed, and after a moment, Selys laughed with her. That was a bit of happiness.
When they were done, Selys pointed to one of the dots near Liscor.
“Most of the new adventurers are coming from Pallass but it’s taking a while given how far they’re coming. I bet we’ll get a lot more and probably even some Human ones, but not for a few more days at least. Anyways, the reason all the adventurers are here is because of those new ruins. Didn’t you hear about them? Apparently, it’s some kind of underground complex—a huge one! They uncovered it a few days ago. Some [Shepherd] was walking with a herd and saw an opening in the hillside. It might be a dungeon.”
Erin remembered hearing about ruins, but it seemed like a distant memory.
“Oh yeah. That’s a big deal, isn’t it?”
Selys nodded seriously.
“It’s huge. We’re getting a huge amount of merchants, adventurers, and business because of it. But of course that means more trouble when they get into fights with the Antinium or break the law. I hear the Watch is working overtime, and now that Klbkch is—”
She cut herself off and tried to backpedal.
“Um, what I mean is that without—without enough guardsmen—”
“I get it.”
Erin patted Selys on the shoulder.
“So, there’s going to be a lot of adventurers? I might finally get some business in my inn.”
“Only if you can protect it. Like I was saying, Erin—”
“I need protection. Got it.”
“It’s so weird. I guess I just got used to the inn and the local area, y’know? I haven’t seen any monsters, so I just can’t get worried.”
“Well, you are in a place that used to have quite a few villages.”
Selys conceded as she marked a few X’s around Liscor.
“They all got abandoned or destroyed over time, especially after the Necromancer.”
The Drake looked incredulous.
“Who? No, not that Human. The Necromancer. From Terandria? The end of Silvaria? Az’kerash? Come on, Erin. Practically every Human north of us knows about him. He was from a while back and—well, we lost a lot of the area around Liscor. He destroyed entire Terandrian nations, but here, at Liscor, he met his end. The Antinium and Zel Shivertail brought him down, and that’s how the Free Hive was allowed into the city.”
She looked so proud about that, possibly because this Zel guy had Selys’ last name. The Drake went on, and her smile faded.
“A lot of people died in his undead attacks and the Second Antinium War, hence all the abandoned places. The place you’re in is pretty safe. But if you go a few miles in any direction, you can find a lot of strange stuff.”
Erin was intrigued. She studied the second map Selys was drawing.
“Really? I guess I’ve never…huh. You know, I’ve never really gone exploring. I mean, aside from finding the inn and a few other spots, I didn’t really go anywhere else. I started repairing the inn and…yeah, I didn’t ever really go any further.”
Selys shook her head.
“Good thing you didn’t. Some of those places are pretty dangerous. I mean, not now, obviously, since it’s not the right season and the Watch was keeping them clear, but I’ve heard stories.”
“Oh, you know the adventurers. They always talk about treasure and finding magical artifacts in caves and so on. But the ones around here are always poor, so I wouldn’t pay attention if I were you. Most slither on back to the city before they get much further than your inn, anyways. They’re all low-level, which is why none of them have dared enter the ruins yet. They’re waiting for the stronger adventurers to clear the way before they flood in.”
“So what you’re saying is that there’s a lot of unexplored land out there?”
“If you stray from the roads, I guess. But who’d risk exploring out there?”
Selys paused, realized what she’d said, and stared suspiciously at her friend. Erin kept a perfectly straight face.
“No! It’s too dangerous! Don’t be stupid!”
“I just want to see what’s around the inn. I won’t go far. And I’ll run away if I see anything.”
“No. I won’t let you go alone.”
“Oh come on. I’ll be careful. I’ll only walk a few miles in every direction, okay? But I really don’t know what’s around the inn. I just want to explore a little.”
“I’ll be fine, I promise, Selys. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Knock. Knock. Erin rapped her knuckles against the table.
“You’re going to get yourself hurt! Or killed!”
“There’s nothing out there that can hur—catch me.”
“We were just talking about you needing someone to protect you! Without Relc and Klbkch—Erin, remember the Goblins? And there are far worse things out there! Believe me, I work with adventurers. I know.”
“Nothing’s going to bother going after a lone Human in an inn in the middle of nowhere, I’m sure.”
“Why do you keep on doing that?”