Erin sat with Rags and stared at the mage in her inn. Scattered around the trio was a mess of empty dishes, remnants of a large breakfast.
Ryoka sat in a small room in the Adventurer’s Guild in Esthelm and waited as the half-Elven mage got ready in front of her.
They were separated by many miles in distance, but the two young women had both asked the same question. One had woken up and bribed her mage with food and invited a Goblin to learn. The other had run through the night and arrived tired and sweaty to knock on the [Mage]’s door and ask to be taught.
The mages were different as well. One was a partly Human woman who appeared only slightly older than Ryoka, but whose appearance hinted at something timeless, and whose beauty attracted the eye. But these were only hints, and her beauty was as much due to her heritage as her physical appearance. Yet for all that, she was a rare sight in any nation: a half-Elven mage named Ceria. She answered the door chewing on some dry jerky.
The other mage was Pisces. His gray and dirty robes were as always stained by grass, weather, and the dark places where he roamed. He still had spilled egg on one sleeve of his robes. He was graceful enough too, in his way. He walked well, but he hid any of his good qualities behind the hunched, filthy hermit crab he sometimes resembled.
Different mages, different seekers, and different locations. But the questions asked and answered were mostly the same. Because the nature of the questions revolved around magic, and both mages had studied together, once.
At last, Pisces finished the bit of toasted bread and cheese. He flicked the last crumbs onto the floor. Erin glared, but he was as always unimpressed by her ire. He sighed and then looked at Erin and the Goblin sitting next to her.
“If we are to do this, must we include the Goblin?”
Erin’s glare transitioned into a scowl.
“Her name is Rags.”
Pisces raised his eyebrows.
“That is the name you gave her, certainly. Her Goblin name may be unpronounceable to you and I, but I suspect she objects to your pet name as much as I do.”
Rags stared at Pisces. He avoided her gaze—mostly because he’d lost the last three staring contests in a row. Erin glowered, folding her arms.
“It’s better than calling her ‘Goblin’. Besides, she doesn’t mind it. Right, Rags?”
Erin glanced sideways quickly. Rags didn’t exactly avoid her gaze as she stared pointedly at Pisces.
“Ahem. Names aside, why is she here? You asked me to teach you magic.”
“Right, and I thought she’d like to learn too.”
Rags nodded. Pisces sighed and rubbed at his face.
“It is just—may I state my objections now? Magic is not a game or a ‘trick’. I took your request seriously in no small way because I believed you had a genuine desire to learn. Well, the Goblin might wish for the same, but this is no trivial matter. Will you promise to take this seriously?”
“As serious as pie.”
Erin smiled as Pisces glared at her. Then she yelped as Rags jabbed Erin in the side with one cracked fingernail. The girl glared at the small Goblin. The Goblin glared back.
“Fine, fine. I am taking this seriously, Pisces. And I do want to know. So teach me? Please?”
“—Of course I could teach you, Ryoka. And I’d be happy to help—but I have to ask, what brought this on?”
Ceria bustled around the small room she’d rented in the Adventurer’s Guild, hunting for her wand among her strewn-about possessions. She was messy. She chewed on the strip of dried meat as she hunted, kicking over boots, finding a book under her bed covers—
“How long have you been staying here?”
“Uh, two days? Gerial’s room is disgusting, you know. He folds his sheets and lines his boots up. Polishes them too. Calruz is almost as bad. You want to stay? The Guild doesn’t like non-adventurers, but we can ask.”
Ceria finally found her wand under her bed. She glanced up at Ryoka.
“You ran through the night to get here? And dodged an…[Assassin]? I really can’t believe that one, but you described a classic [Assassin] perfectly.”
Ryoka perched on the rickety chair and watched as Ceria’s light hazelnut hair caught the sunlight. For all she’d hung out with Ceria before, the half-Elf truly was different in the unearthly feeling she gave off. Ryoka tried not to stare too openly most of the time, but Ceria was too distracted lifting up her mattress and checking under her pillow for her spellbook now to notice Ryoka’s scrutiny.
The barefoot girl tried not to yawn as she thought of a response. At least she wasn’t still sweaty. The Adventurer’s Guild might not have showers, but they did have washbasins and a handy well.
“It’s just something that really interests me. And defending myself is part of it, but I just want to learn about magic. It was not…widely practiced where I come from.”
Ceria’s brows rose, but she let that comment slide, much to Ryoka’s relief. She swished the wand around in the air with a satisfying sound and smiled at Ryoka.
“Fair enough. Just please don’t be disappointed if you don’t start casting [Fireballs] left and right, okay? Most Humans I’ve tried to teach, well, they’re quite impatient. And it’s not as if having a half-Elf teacher makes learning magic any easier.”
“Perish the thought.”
Ceria had offered Ryoka the only chair, and she had to sit on her bed. She placed her wand on the side table next to Ryoka, and the Runner dragged her chair over so they were facing each other.
“Very well, how should I start? I suppose it would be important to learn how much you know of magic.”
Ryoka spread her hands out wordlessly. Ceria shook her head and smiled.
“That simplifies things. Well then, I guess I’ll tell you what magic is.”
Pisces stood up from his chair. Once he’d actually agreed to teach Erin, his demeanor changed. He cleared the floor around him and began pacing back and forth. He spoke like one of Erin’s old high school teachers—the fussy, pedantic ones.
“Magic is an art. It is something only the most gifted and dedicated may aspire to. Those who have true mastery of spellcraft create works of beauty and wonder with each incantation.”
Ceria shrugged and touched the tip of her wand gently. It gave off a few violet sparks which faded as they drifted to the floor.
“I don’t know what magic is, exactly. It is a mystery, but I can tell you it is in the air we breathe, in each step we take and the beating of our hearts. Animals can grow to massive sizes with magic, and magical environments can be wondrous—like fields of wheat that can sprout from seeds overnight in Noelictus, for instance. It’s an amazing thing, but it is dangerous. Terribly so, and people have long overestimated their control of it.”
Pisces pointed at Erin and Rags. He met their gazes seriously.
“Never underestimate magic. Never take it lightly. Even in practice, even when you believe you have mastered a spell to its utmost. Unlike wielding a hammer or a sewing needle, magic is quite capable of slaying an incautious practitioner outright.”
Ceria sighed. Her eyes unfocused for a moment, and she stared through Ryoka.
“Once, everyone used to know magic—or so my grandfather told me. It was as simple as breathing even for children, and all half-Elves learned Tier 2 magic before they’d reached their teenage years. But in Human cities and other nations, students study under older mages or travel to schools like Wistram Academy.”
Ryoka frowned. Wistram…she’d heard that name before.
“They run the Mage’s Guilds, right?”
Ceria scowled for a moment, which was odd because she was a graduate from there. But she covered it with a shrug and sigh.
“All over the world. Not that they send their [Mages] to run every single one, but yes. They help run the [Message] spells, and they’re one of the real teachers of magic. Don’t let the class fool you. A [Mage] can be an adept with lots of training or someone who’s making it up as they go along. Those accredited by Wistram Academy or similar institutions of magic are pretty rare and usually better than the self-taught ones.”
Pisces smiled smugly to let both members of his audience know he was rarest of them all. He waved his hand dismissively as he went on.
“[Mages] in general? Pah. Anyone can obtain the class or variations thereof, but they often stagnate and seldom reach Level 20. Indeed, the lack of centralized education between nations has given rise to lesser variations upon the basic [Mage] class. [Hedge Wizards], [Witch Doctors], the dubiously qualified [Spellswords], [Druids]…well I suppose [Druids] are an exception to the rule, and of course let us reserve most of our disdain for the so-called [Sorcerer]…”
At some point, Pisces realized he was losing his audience and stopped. Erin was furiously writing down class names while Rags cleared one ear with her pinkie finger. He paused reluctantly.
“Well, even those types of spell casters are unique. Chosen. They are still capable of casting spells, which is more than can be said for a majority of Humanity or most species.”
Ceria sighed and shook her head sadly.
“Not all Humans have the potential to become [Mages]. It’s a matter of talent as well as your body’s innate magical potential.”
Ryoka’s ears metaphorically perked up at that last statement. She frowned at Ceria.
“‘Not all Humans?’ Does that mean that other races have greater or lesser potential to become mages? How about your kind?”
Pisces looked disgruntled at Erin’s question. He folded his arms and scowled.
“I assume you mean half-Elves. Yes, their affinity towards spellcasting is far greater than our own. However, a speciesist advantage does not translate into individual ability. Nor does that mean the greatest mages are always nonhuman. In fact, some of the most famous Archmages of this era are Human. Like, er, Verdan Blackwood. Or Archmage Viltach. Great…esteemed [Mages] I have personally met.”
He coughed into the sleeve of his robes, as if this were not the brag he was trying to make it out to be.
“—Any species can learn magic. But not all members have the potential. From Minotaurs to Dullahans to Centaurs, [Mages] exist. Except Gnolls, of course, but they have their [Shamans].”
“Wait, not Gnolls? Why?”
Pisces gave Erin a blank stare.
“One supposes it is their tribal magic. I have never met a Gnoll at Wistram or a [Mage] of their people in general. They have [Shamans]—another kind of magic-user. But no [Mages] in Wistram. I heard a rumor once—nevermind. Minotaurs can be [Mages]. Anyone can be a [Mage]. But Gnolls. Even Goblins. Is this clear enough for you?”
Erin tried to imagine Minotaurs but just came up with those ancient Greek pictures of bull-headed monsters with Human bodies. She had a hard time imagining one of those things muttering spells or reading a book.
Pisces scowled, and Erin stopped grinning.
“Okay, sure. Not all Humans are mages. Some of us are Muggles. Got it?”
“Uh—how about Goblins?”
“I have never heard of any Goblin whose abilities matched that of a proper mage. Their innate capabilities are likely too low to support the strain of spellcasting. Their race as a whole can barely snuff out a candle, let alone magically.”
Both Rags and Erin sat upright in indignation. Erin opened her mouth, but Rags stuck her finger up first.
Since it wasn’t her middle finger but rather her index, both Pisces and Erin stared at it curiously. Rags muttered a few words in her own language and then glared at her fingertip.
Nothing happened. Erin exchanged a glance with Pisces, and then a spark of light made her blink. She looked at Rags’ finger and gasped. A tiny flame danced on her fingertip. Erin stared at it and then at Rags.
“You can do magic?”
Pisces shook his head. He blew, and the flame on Rags’ finger went out. She narrowed her eyes, but he wasn’t impressed by her magic or her stare.
“Tribal magic. Feh. Just as I said—Gnolls and Goblins have access to another, lesser…different kind of magic.”
“Wait a second.”
Erin was extremely confused.
“Isn’t that magic? Why’d you call it tribal magic?”
Pisces rubbed at his temple.
“I should really ban questions. Well, to summarize a complex issue, the magic your little friend used is not true magic. Or at least, not the magic practiced by [Mages]. It is an amalgamation of mana drawn from her tribe, such as it is.”
Erin stared blankly at Pisces.
He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Allow me to explain another way. Magic surrounds us. It is in everything, but an individual’s capacity for magic varies. And the same goes for our surroundings. Thus, in a highly magically charged environment, spells are naturally easy to cast. In a null zone, a [Mage] must rely solely on his or her own internal magical energy to cast spells.”
“Right. I got that.”
Pisces nodded. He pointed at Rags, who leaned out of the way of his finger.
“Goblins, on the other hand, practice a different form of magic. They draw their mana not only from the environment, but from each other. Thus a single Goblin may use the mana of the entire tribe it is affiliated with to cast spells.”
Erin snapped her fingers, and Rags jumped. The Goblin stared suspiciously at Erin’s hand and immediately tried to duplicate the gesture.
“Oh, I get it. You’re crowd-sourcing magic.”
Pisces blinked at Erin and then decided to ignore her strange comments and Rags’ attempts to learn to snap her own fingers.
“Yes, well, it is a crude thing. But I suppose it is powerful enough in its own way as it allows even Goblin tribes one or two spellcasters of their own. These, ah, ‘shamans’ draw power from the collective. The larger their group is, the more power they wield. Thus, while the Goblins in the area most likely cannot collectively create more than a few sparks, a larger tribe of a thousand souls would create a decently powerful [Shaman]. But it is inefficient.”
Pisces shook his head.
“A thousand people and only one caster? A ridiculous waste.”
“Hey, if it works…”
“It isn’t proper magic, that’s all. True, these [Shamans] may copy many magic spells, but they are born out of a collective will and lack structure and form. True, they can do things that modern magic cannot easily replicate. I have heard some [Shamans] can heal or move vast groups of people over water, but magic—”
“You can walk on water!? And heal? What am I talking to you about, then? Rags, teach me your ways!”
Erin swung around instantly. Pisces scowled at her as the Goblin smirked at him.
“A neophyte in tribal magic and a tiny tribe can hardly do the greatest feats of magic, Erin. Miss Solstice. Nor can one heal in any kind of magic easily.”
“Oh yeah? What about [Healers]?”
Erin thought she made a good point—until she realized Pisces was smirking at her.
“Ah, well. [Healers] are now simply general practitioners of restorative arts, some of whom are able to cast spells. Most use Skills. Many rely on potions or even simple bandages rather than magic. The definition of the class has changed, and accordingly, so have the skills and spells learnt. It was quite a fascinating phenomenon, actually. I studied it in a course back in Wistram—”
Pisces shook his head.
“But I haven’t time to get into the variation in classes over centuries. Where was I? Oh, of course. Magic. Let us not forget what we are here to learn. Very well, I assume you understand a bit of what magic is. Now to test you.”
Pisces raised his hands and suddenly advanced on Rags and Erin. Their chairs scooted back, and he stopped, looking peeved.
“It is not a dangerous process. I simply wish to ascertain whether or not either of you can become mages. I will test you in the traditional style. Do not move, and I will saturate the area around you with raw mana and allow you to demonstrate your magical ability—or lack thereof.”
Ryoka eyed Ceria.
“Will it hurt?”
The half-Elf looked up as she fiddled with her wand.
“Oh, of course not. It’s just a test, that’s all. This is how I was taught as a child. I know Humans do it differently, but it should work for you.”
She raised her wand, and the tip of it glowed silvery-white. Ceria smiled to soothe Ryoka’s apprehension.
“Just watch. I’m going to draw a symbol in the air. I want you to look at it and tell me what you see. Don’t worry; there’s no time limit. And if your eyes start to hurt, you can look away.”
Slowly, Ceria began to move her wand through the air, leaving a glowing afterimage that hovered and shimmered in Ryoka’s vision. Ceria’s wand moved and flicked, tracing a pattern that looked like a bunch of squiggles and straight lines put together randomly.
But—it wasn’t just a two dimensional pattern. Ryoka blinked and rubbed at her eyes. Somehow, Ceria’s wand had begun tracing the image in three dimensions. And then the image shifted again, and the rune—or was it a word?—in the air took on more dimensions than could be captured by a camera.
Ryoka thought she heard the magical word being drawn in the air. Or she felt it. And when Ceria put down her wand, the glowing white symbol burned Ryoka’s vision.
“Just relax. Look at it only as long as you’re comfortable. If you can’t understand it, that’s fine.”
Ceria’s voice came from behind the cloud of shimmering lines. Ryoka opened her eyes and forced herself to focus on the lines.
It was so hard to understand.
“I don’t get it.”
Erin complained to Pisces as she held her hands out. The mage grunted. He was holding his hands out as well, palms towards Erin and Rags. Sweat beaded on his forehead, but nothing seemed to be happening.
“I—am infusing the air around you with my mana. It will allow you to cast spells if you have the potential.”
“But how? You never said.”
A vein stood out on Pisces’ sweaty brow. He grunted.
“Just think of something.”
“Anything! Whatever you wish! Fire, water, a shiny new pot. Will the magic to obey your command!”
“Relax. Don’t stare at it so hard. Let it be.”
Ryoka tried to obey. She really did. But the magical word was like an unsolved problem burning in her mind. She wanted to stare at it, to figure out what it meant, and the harder she stared, the more confused her brain became.
It was like a math problem. A hard one, way harder than the AP Calculus class Ryoka had taken back in high school.
Yes—exactly like a math problem. Ryoka blinked. Suddenly, part of the symbol made sense. There were…facets to it that resembled a mathematical equation. Things to be balanced. You couldn’t take magic and use it without repercussions. Cost and exchange.
The Law of Conservation of Energy. Only energy could be destroyed with magic. Yet it was from magic that the cost was taken, and so the law remained more or less intact. But magic was not based in science. What was destroyed could be more or less than what was gained. Magic was. But it obeyed certain rules, like osmosis. It flowed. And it flowed around the world.
Ryoka put her head in her hands and tried to stop thinking, but the word was burning her from the inside out. She was on the cusp of it, and it spoke to her. It was a word. But was there even a name for it in her limited language?
Ceria folded her hands on her lap and smiled slightly as she watched Ryoka.
Pisces hissed, and his face scrunched up with concentration. He was already reddening, but neither Goblin nor Human was doing anything.
Erin focused. She really did. She tried thinking of a flame like the one Rags had conjured, but she just ended up thinking of lighters and matches. She tried muttering words.
“Expelliarmus. Alohamora. Wingardium Leviosa. Wingardium leviosa.”
“What are you muttering?”
It wasn’t working. Erin couldn’t feel anything except a mild ache in her arms from holding them up for so long. She gritted her teeth. She could do this. She closed her eyes and pushed—
A flame burst upwards and evaporated into a cloud of smoke. Erin gasped and grinned in relief and triumph—
Rags blinked at her finger and then pointed again. Pisces yelped as a flare of fire burst from her fingertip and twisted towards him. It evaporated into smoke before it reached his robes and set him off into a coughing fit. Erin blinked.
“Oh. More tribal magic?”
The [Mage] shook his head and coughed, waving away the smoke. He didn’t seem angry. Instead, he stared at Rags for a few seconds before replying very slowly.
“That was no tribal magic. That was the very beginning of the [Firefly] spell.”
Encouraged, Erin stretched her fingers out and tried as hard as she could to do the same thing. But Pisces wasn’t staring at her. His attention was fixed on the proud Goblin. He put one hand on his chin and started muttering to himself.
“Goblins cannot learn magic in the traditional sense. It is impossible. Surely if they had the potential it would have been discovered, analyzed in centuries hence. The potential ramifications—or is it simple freak divergence? Ancestry?”
He whirled and pointed at Rags, who leaned back.
“You. Goblin child. Was your mother non-Goblin? Or…your father?”
She shook her head.
“What would that matter?”
Erin snapped at Pisces. He jumped, and she glared at his hands. He put them back over hers and talked while he focused again.
“It would explain things. The offspring of Goblins are always Goblins regardless of the partner, male or female. But sometimes Goblins may inherit traits from their…parents. The, ah, victim might play a part in explaining unusual talents. But if this young Goblin—Rags has no immediate non-Goblin ancestors, it would mean—”
“She can be a mage. I get it.”
Erin scowled at her hands. She willed them to catch fire.
“Don’t stop. It’s my turn now. The test isn’t over yet, right? I can still continue?”
Pisces hesitated. Something in his face softened as he looked at Erin.
“…By all means. Keep on trying.”
She ignored the look in his eyes and the way Rags looked at him. Erin stared at her hands. She would cast magic. She could. She would cast magic. She would—
Ryoka tried not to scream as she stared at the word and the magic stared back. It was inescapable, even when she closed her eyes. The word was the beginning, and the word was magic, and magic was with her, and the magic was made into reality—
It seared Ryoka’s mind like wildfire. The knowledge burned through her assumptions and all she’d been taught all her life, breaking down walls in her head she’d never known were there. The agony of it was unbearable.
Ceria was shaking her, trying to get Ryoka to move. She was telling Ryoka this shouldn’t be happening, trying to erase the magic word. But it was ingrained in Ryoka’s soul. It was a bit of truth, and it was something to cling to even as the rest of the world fell to pieces.
Ryoka opened her eyes. The magic surged through her, a feeling unlike any other. It wasn’t being more alive. Life was life, but magic—it was opening another door and stepping into a different world.
Suddenly, the pain was gone. Ryoka sat up and brushed Ceria’s hands off her.
“I’m okay. I am. I saw it.”
Ceria peered anxiously into Ryoka’s face. The running girl had bitten her lips so hard she’d drawn blood, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“I saw it.”
Ryoka repeated and stared at the fading shape in the air. She didn’t need to see it, though. She could remember. She would always remember.
The knowledge was in her eyes, in the way Ryoka moved, in everything she was. Ceria looked at Ryoka, and whatever she saw reassured her. She smiled, relieved.
“Well? Did you see what I wrote? Can you tell me what it says?”
Ryoka took a deep breath. It had no real name. None that the English language was capable of expressing, even with a thousand words. But there was still a way to say it.
She opened her mouth.
In the stillness of the early morning, light shimmered through the window. All was still, and then the light of the sun was joined by something else.
A soft light came up through Ryoka’s chest. It came down her arms and up through her palms, which began to glow. A bauble of shimmering colors drifted up from between Ryoka’s palms, hovering in front of her face as she stared.
It was the most magical thing Ryoka had ever seen. It was hers. A glowing, sharply defined orb of what she could only call light made manifest. It was brighter than a light bulb because it was pure light, and yet it was not blinding either. If she stared hard enough, she could see straight through the other side.
And it wasn’t white light either. Even as Ryoka stared at it, delicate shades of purple coalesced and then slowly transitioned into a deep blue and then brightened to green and then yellow. The light was living, and it shifted even as she held it.
It…it looked sort of like a three dimensional loading wheel on a Mac computer if Ryoka was honest. Even as she thought that, the colors changed and began to rotate in an annoyingly-familiar way.
Ceria blinked down at Ryoka’s light ball in surprise. She placed one hand on her hip and poked at the orb with the other. Her finger passed straight through the orb, making the light shimmer around her pale skin.
“I’ve never seen colors like that before. They’re so…bright.”
She picked up her wand and tapped it on her palm. Instantly—far quicker than Ryoka’s own spell had taken—another shimmering orb of light rose from Ceria’s palm. But her light was different. When she held the orb next to Ryoka’s, the colors changed and deepened in ways Ryoka’s did not.
They were the same colors as the ones flashing through Ryoka’s orb of light, but somehow they were more real. The blue that illuminated the small room wasn’t more vivid or in any way brighter, but it felt deeper, subtler, to Ryoka’s eyes. It was a more complete understanding of what ‘blue’ was, and it made her digital colors pale by comparison.
As Ryoka stared, the lights in her orb began to shift, matching those of Ceria’s. She stared at the orb and then concentrated.
The ball of light shifted from white light suddenly and then shifted to a dark ultraviolet that made Ceria jump in surprise. Black light. Ryoka blinked. Suddenly, the orb was a rainbow spectrum of colors, a dancing discoball of shifting colors—
All at once, the magic ran out. The light vanished, and Ryoka sat back in her chair. She felt light-headed all of a sudden, as if the blood had suddenly rushed to her head. Weakly, she tried to sit back up, but Ceria pushed her down gently.
“Hold on, hold on, Ryoka! That was incredible! I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone do that with a basic [Light] spell before—let alone figure out how to change a spell so quickly! You just used up all the mana in your body. You’ll be tired until you recover. Here—sit there, and I’ll get you something to eat and drink. That helps.”
Ceria dashed out of the room. Ryoka stared at her hands.
The last bead of sweat dropped from Pisces’ chin. He gasped and raised his hands.
“I’m almost drained. I’m sorry. I can’t keep going.”
Erin still stared at her fingertips. If she could just force something to happen. It would only take a second, she knew. One second of realization and she’d be able to figure it out again. She tried and tried but—
Pisces raised the glass of water Rags brought him and tossed it down, heedless of hygiene. He hesitated and then gently patted Erin on the shoulder.
“There’s no more magic left in the air. It’s all dissipated, Erin.”
Erin stared at her hands. They were still the same hands, but they were somehow smaller, less important. They were good hands, callused from working but unscarred. But they were just hands. Normal.
Pisces cleared his throat. He avoided Erin’s gaze.
“I’m, ah, sorry, Miss Solstice.”
“No, it’s okay. I knew magic wasn’t for everyone. And Rags could do it, right?”
Erin smiled at Rags. The Goblin looked up. Somehow, she had found the time to grab some sausage and cheese from Erin’s kitchen. She guiltily hid both behind her back.
“Eat up. I bet you’re hungry. And you—”
Pisces blinked, but Erin was already out of her seat. She bustled out of the kitchen with blue juice and food in hand and spread it out before him.
“Here. Lunch and dinner’s on the house.”
“You are—most kind. Thank you.”
He began tearing into the food as if he were famished. And he probably was. Erin looked out the window and saw the sun was now beginning to set rather than rise in the sky. It had taken that long?
Pisces gulped and slurped down his food while Rags did the same. They both seemed starved—probably from the magic. Erin stared blankly at them and then sat down.
“So, what next?”
The Human stopped and eyed Erin warily. Rags kept on shoveling.
“What, ah, do you mean—”
“I mean about her. Not me.”
Erin pointed at Rags. The Goblin looked up.
“She can cast magic, right? Not just her tribal magic, but your kind of magic. She can learn. Will you teach her?”
Pisces’ face went blank. He stared at Rags.
“You were going to teach me a few spells, weren’t you? Well, I can’t cast magic, but Rags can. Will you teach her something?”
Pisces opened his mouth to object, closed it, chewed, and swallowed. His eyes flicked towards the Goblin, towards Erin, and up into the air as he thought rapidly.
“I’ve—well I’ve never considered having an apprentice. You do know I specialize in necromancy, don’t you? But on the other hand—I am quite proficient in general areas of magic. And of course anyone with a basic grasp of the fundamentals could learn. But a Goblin for a student…?”
“Tell you what. If you come in every other day and teach her for lessons, I’ll feed you for free. Deal?”
It took a few minutes of haggling, but eventually Pisces agreed. Rags had no money to pay him, but he was happy enough to accept free food. And it wasn’t as if Erin ever saw money from him anyways.
She left the inn and Pisces beginning to explain the history of magic and the fundamental theories of Magecraft to a bewildered Goblin and walked briskly down the small hill. Her destination was Liscor.
After a few minutes, Erin noticed something following her. She was walking fast enough that the skeleton had to jog to keep up. Erin stopped, and it ran up a few feet behind her and waited patiently. She scowled.
“It’s you. Go away, you.”
The still-unnamed skeleton hesitated. Then it clattered its jaw. Erin glared. She couldn’t understand it, and its understanding of her seemed to be limited.
“I’m going to visit some friends. Don’t follow me into the city. Wait around the inn while I’m gone. Do something useful. I’ll be back before nightfall.”
Erin pointed and then waved her hands at it as if she were chasing chickens. The skeleton reluctantly turned around and marched back towards the inn.
Erin sighed. Then she continued walking.
She didn’t have any particular destination in mind, she just didn’t want to be in her inn at the moment. So Erin decided to explore parts of the city she’d never been in before. That wasn’t hard. Most of the city was unexplored. She really only knew the shopping district, part of the residential area where Selys lived, and the main street up to the Adventurer’s Guild.
It was high time to explore the rest of the city. Erin decided to walk down to the Adventurer’s Guild and work her way out from there. She got about twelve steps before a furry hand yanked her out of the crowd.
“Ah, Erin Solstice. I have been waiting for you to return, yes?”
Without knowing quite what was happening, Erin felt herself being speedily towed along by a large, female Gnoll.
“You are not busy? We will have drinks in my home.”
“What? Oh, sure. I’m not busy.”
“Good! My house is only a few minutes away. Follow me.”
Krshia let go of Erin, and the Human walked rather than let herself be pulled along. She didn’t hear the quiet sigh of relief from the other Gnolls who’d been watching the gates for her arrival.
Krshia set a large, glistening bowl of chopped meat in front of Erin. It contrasted nicely with the cup of rootish tea in the girl’s hands.
Erin eyed the meat dish, but she’d grown used to Gnolls enough to realize she wasn’t being deliberately insulted.
With a sigh, Erin gingerly picked up a strip of meat. It looked…raw to say the least. But if Gnolls could eat it, she probably could. Krshia wouldn’t knowingly serve her poison was Erin’s feeling.
Still, all of the articles she’d ever read about E. coli and raw meat came back to Erin as she popped the bit of meat into her mouth and chewed.
“Hm? Hm~. Mm!”
It was actually quite good. Erin was surprised. She’d expected the meat to taste like bacon, but it was a fuller, richer experience. Nice and fatty without the actual fat. Immediately, she picked up another cube of meat and chewed it down. She also resolved never to ask what kind of meat it was.
“Ah, you like the scurry-food? Silkap. You can make it into cubes, or a spread, or many forms. It is quite good.”
Krshia sat with a sigh on the chair opposite Erin. It was a nice chair too, wonderfully padded if a little worn and far too big for Erin.
The apartments of a Gnoll were different from that of a Drake like Selys. Open space was clearly important in both homes—or maybe it was just the architecture, but Krshia’s home had far more rugs, padded furniture, and pillows in general. It was also in a state of slightly less-than-stellar cleaning.
Really, it wasn’t bad. But Erin had a definite sense that the standards of cleanliness differed between Drakes and Gnolls. Then again, Krshia’s actual shop was clean of any stray hair, dirt, or stains, so maybe it was just the difference between work and home.
“How are you doing, Krshia?”
Erin delicately sipped at her tea and stuffed her face. Krshia tossed down the meat in her bowl and chewed quickly.
“Mm. I am well, thank you for asking. And I am relieved to speak with you at last. Many people and many things have gotten in the way of our speaking, yes? But it is important we should speak. So I have decided.”
Erin blinked. Somehow, Krshia seemed a bit more intense than usual. She sighed. Another thing to be worried about.
“Sure. What’s up?”
Krshia blinked her great, brown eyes at Erin. She peered at the small Human and frowned.
“You seem dispirited. Is something wrong?”
“Oh, it’s nothing.”
“Mm. This is another polite Human lie, yes?”
“Yeah, but really, it’s nothing.”
Krshia stared at Erin. It was odd. She really had no whites in her eyes. It was just pupil and then brown cornea. It should have been disturbing, but Erin had grown used to it.
She sighed. Krshia waited patiently as Erin picked at another piece of meat and then put it back in her bowl.
“I found out I’m not a mage, that’s all. I can’t cast magic, and I won’t ever be able to.”
She sighed again. Krshia took a long drink of her scalding tea.
“Ah. And who is doing the telling of this?”
“He wasn’t mean about it. He did a test—it looks like I’m just one of the Humans who can’t cast magic, that’s all. It’s not his fault or anything.”
Krshia shook her head. Bits of hair drifted onto her carpet.
“That is not what I meant. He tells you that you are no mage. It is not for him to decide, yes?”
“But there was a test. I can’t cast magic, Krshia.”
The female Gnoll shrugged.
“If you were born a Gnoll, this would not be an issue, yes? Human magic is different from ours. We give magic to those who are chosen. A [Shaman] for each tribe is chosen, and they wield the magic of all. We choose who can cast magic, not a single person.”
“Oh, tribal magic. Yeah, Pisces told me about it. But I wasn’t born a Gnoll.”
Krshia raised one eyebrow.
“Yes, and so you are told you can never become a mage because one tells you so. It is regrettable, yes?”
Erin didn’t have anything to say to that. She stared down into her tea.
Krshia clicked her tongue.
“Enough sadness. This is not why I have called you here. Leave magic for [Mages], Erin. It is not as important as they think. People are important. The tribe is important—if you had one. Without it? I see your friends, like Selys, and even your strange guests like the Antinium and…Goblins as being your tribe. Friendships and ties are important.”
She reached out and tapped Erin gently on the chest. It was still a heavy tap, but it made Erin feel better.
“Okay, sure. What did you want to talk to me about so much, Krshia?”
The Gnoll paused and seemed to choose her words.
“I have been thinking much since I watched you play your game of chess. Against the Antinium named Pawn. Many things you said I heard and wondered at.”
Erin looked blank.
“Like what? You mean the chess? Don’t worry, no one gets that.”
For a second, she could have sworn Krshia was eying her to see if Erin was laughing. But then the Gnoll briskly shook her head again.
“No. It is what you said. You come from another world. I heard you speak of it and wondered at the miracle.”
Erin’s face was completely blank. Then her eyes widened.
“I said that?”
Krshia nodded gravely. Her eyes were fixated on Erin’s face.
The Human didn’t seem to know how to react. A brief moment of chagrin was replaced by some head scratching. After a few seconds, Erin looked up and shrugged.
“Oh, um, yeah. I’m from another world. Sorry I didn’t tell you earlier.”
Krshia stared. Possibly it was the blasé way Erin said it, without regard to the way it made the Gnoll’s heart skip and jump. Oblivious, Erin continued.
“I come from a place called Michigan. It’s pretty nice there. Lots of big lakes, wonderful weather—except when it snows or rains really hard, of course. I lived in a nice house, with my folks—”
She paused. For a second, Erin stared down into her cup and then continued as if nothing had happened.
“Um, one day, I found myself here. I just turned a corner and blam.”
“I found myself staring at this big lizard. With wings. A Dragon.”
“Yeah. It breathed fire at me, and I ran. Then there were some Goblins…and then I found the inn. After that, it was all survival until I met Klbkch and Relc and then—you know the rest.”
Again, there was something off-putting about the way Erin said everything so easily. Krshia had to shake her head several times and take a few more gulps of tea to steady her nerves.
“You survived much.”
Erin shrugged. It didn’t feel like a lot. It felt like a lifetime, actually, but through it all, she’d just kept moving, kept trying to survive. And really, what had she done? Repaired a few doors, swept some dust out, leveled up as an [Innkeeper] a bit…and gotten a friend killed.
Not much at all.
“I ask this in confidence. I promise by my tribe and by the open sky and earth that I would never betray your trust or secrets given. But I must ask, and my kin must know. This land you come from—it is not like this one, yes?”
Erin paused and blinked at Krshia. It sounded like a serious oath, but what did Krshia say about her kin?
“You mean you’re going to tell…other Gnolls?”
Krshia hesitated and then placed her tea cup down as she nodded.
“Mm. Yes. If I must, I think it is better to share a secret that is important. And these Gnolls shall tell others if need be. But they shall keep it a secret within our tribe, our people. Your secret shall not be spoken to any not of Gnollkind. That is what I meant. I swear upon Silverfang and the upcoming Meeting of Tribes—we shall not betray your trust. And it will be all Gnolls, all the Gnolls of the Great Plains who hold that secret and support you, if need be.”
A promise by an entire species to keep silent. Erin would have laughed, but she felt that might actually result in violence. Krshia looked serious, and Erin thought the Gnoll was serious.
And—what did Erin have to lose? Besides her life? So she shrugged.
“My world? It’s not like this one. Not at all. It’s so different I can’t even explain how strange it is to be here.”
“Mm. How so? Eat, drink. But tell me. I am very curious.”
How did you describe a world without magic and levels to someone who didn’t even exist in your world? For that matter, how would you describe a world a thousand years more advanced? Erin scratched at her head and did her best.
“Well—we’ve got a lot more technology. And less magic. No magic, actually. And we don’t have Levels or Classes or Skills, but we do have a lot more Humans. Actually, we have only Humans. There aren’t any Gnolls or Drakes or any monsters where I come from. And—are you okay, Krshia?”
The Gnoll’s eyes were bugging out in her head. It was such an alarming change from the Gnoll’s usually half-lidded stare that Erin was worried.
“Take no mind of me. G-go on.”
Krshia drained her cup and dragged over a large and dented tea pot. She refilled her cup with furry hands that shook and offered Erin a refill. The Human politely waved the tea away.
“You say this is a world full of Humans? That is strange, yes? Are there no other creatures?”
Erin nodded and hastily amended her sentence.
“Oh tons of creatures. Lots of animals. Dogs, cats, penguins, cows…but just no people like—like you. People who think and speak is what I mean.”
Krshia’s head was throbbing. The Gnoll would have loved nothing better than to sit in a corner and bang her head against a wall just imagining what Erin was saying. Better yet, she would have loved to overturn the table and call Erin a tail-biting liar. But [Spot Deception] was a [Merchant] and a [Shopkeeper]’s skill, and if it wasn’t as good as [Detect Guilt] or [Sense Intentions], it was still more than a match for a large falsehood. What Erin was saying was true.
“These Humans. You Humans.”
Krshia stumbled over her tongue and tried to speak casually.
“How many of them are there? How many nations? Is it a small world?”
“Sorta? It feels small sometimes. I know overpopulation is an issue.”
Erin rolled her eyes upwards as she thought.
“Um, is it six or seven? Seven? I think we’re supposed to have eight sometime soon.”
“Eight what? Eight countries?”
“No, eight billion Humans.”
Krshia looked blank.
“I do not know this word. Erin, what is a ‘billion’? It is a counting number, yes?”
“Yeah. Do you know, um, million?”
The Gnoll’s brows scrunched together.
“It is a word I heard with Goblins. A million is a large number. Larger than mountains. A thousand thousands, yes?”
“…Yes? I think so. Wait…let me do the math.”
Erin tried to imagine how many zeros were in a million.
“Yeah. That’s about right.”
“Mm. Then is a billion two millions?”
Erin laughed at Krshia’s confusion. She didn’t notice the Gnoll’s hand trembling on her cup.
“A billion is a thousand millions. So that’d be a thousand thousand thousands. What a tongue twister. It’d be…a hundred thousand ten thousand times. Does that make sense?”
Erin looked at Krshia. The Gnoll was sitting very still in her chair.
Gnolls didn’t have any visible skin, just fur. But her ears were standing straight up on her head. Between the slats in her chair, Erin could see the Gnoll’s tail was fully erect as well.
Without a word, and without a single hint of warning, the Gnoll suddenly tipped forwards in her chair in a dead faint. Erin yelped and dove just in time as Krshia crashed into her table, shattering porcelain and upending the kettle of tea.
“Krshia, what’s wrong?”
Erin bent over the unconscious Gnoll and, with great effort, tilted her upright. The shards of broken pottery hadn’t even cut the Gnoll through her fur, but Krshia was still unconscious. Only the—well, the blacks of Krshia’s eyes were showing.
“Are you okay? What happened? Speak to me, Krshia.”
But no matter how hard Erin shook the Gnoll, she didn’t come round. Desperately, Erin propped Krshia up against her chair and wavered between going for help and waiting for Krshia to wake up. It didn’t seem like she’d been hurt.
Erin sat among the spilled meat and cooling tea. Her heart still hurt, but mercifully, she had something to panic about. She put her head in her hands.
“Why does this keep happening to me?”
Why had Krshia wanted to talk to her, anyways? It probably wasn’t best to tell her about her world—at least the parts about hyenas being hunted—or all the other bad parts, really. She’d been so interested. And Erin had remembered—
She cut her brain off as it thought of home. No. Focus. Krshia was important. If she didn’t wake up in ten minutes, Erin would go get someone. Another Gnoll, probably. She’d been seeing more of them around than normal.
But why had Krshia fainted? If that was what had happened.
Erin shook her head. She had no idea. But—
“Was it something I said?”