Erin dreamt of swords flashing, of cannonballs exploding around her, and of blood. Rivers of blood.
Klbkch stood in front of Erin and asked if she were ready. She looked at him as he bled in her arms. His mandibles opened, and he rasped into her ear.
“I obey my Queen.”
She shook her head. Dream Erin pointed and showed Klbkch a massive chess piece sitting on a hill.
“The King. It’s about the King. The king is smart. He—”
She was no longer holding Klbkch. Instead, Erin sat and watched as a body fell to the ground and oil burned around her. A dead Goblin’s face stared at her, and she woke in a cold sweat to see Toren standing in one corner of her room.
It was better. Infinitely better than seeing the dead. Erin still threw her pillow at him. It struck him in the face—not hard, but loud enough to startle someone.
It came from outside the kitchen. Erin was immediately seized by panic. She looked around for her frying pan and then remembered.
She had guests.
Blearily, Erin kicked her bedding into one corner of the kitchen and walked out. It was still close to dawn, but surprisingly, someone was awake.
Ceria blinked several times at Erin and nodded her head. It seemed the Elf mage was an early riser, but even she was half-asleep.
She repeated the word. Erin swayed on her feet.
Conversation done, Erin stumbled back into the kitchen to make food. Toren stood by, handing her pan, spatulas, and various food items as she pointed and grunted. Breakfast was scrambled eggs, toasted bread, bacon from some animal, and sliced cheese.
It was unnatural how she could make a proper breakfast, but Erin wasn’t thinking about that at the moment. Her hands moved automatically as she thought about her dream.
It had meant something. And for some reason, even though Erin had been dreaming about death and battle, she’d been thinking about chess. She always thought about chess, even when she was asleep.
Still caught in the last fragments of her dream, Erin muttered the words.
“The king…the king is smart. He uses something. His head?”
Erin scratched at her own head, wondering where that line had come from. Well, obviously it was about chess. But had she heard it somewhere? She felt like it was important.
The bacon was finished and sizzling. Erin picked the fried strips of meat out of the pan, wincing at the spot of oil that landed on her arm.
“Ow. Ow. Ow!”
Too much oil. Erin had forgotten. It really got hot when you heated it up—
The smell of burning flesh. Erin paused and looked around. A dead Goblin Chieftain lay on the floor.
The slice of bacon slipped from her tongs. Nimbly, Toren dove and caught the bit of meat and delicately put it back on the plate. Erin blinked and came back to life.
She put a hand to her head and quickly finished frying and stacking the rest of the meat. She’d made a lot. Enough for a small army, which was what she assumed ten adventurers and a Minotaur qualified as.
But since they weren’t awake, after Erin finished with the eggs, she only made one plate for Ceria. She absentmindedly dumped bacon, eggs, and bread together, ignoring the aesthetics of eating for the substance of eating itself.
Why was she thinking of the Goblin Chieftain? Why had she had that dream? Sometimes, yes, Erin woke up sweating and crying in the middle of the night. But never had her dreams followed her out of her sleep like this.
It was a sign. A sign that Erin needed to find a better place to sleep, perhaps.
Her stomach rumbled. Another sign, indicating she was hungry. Erin stared down at the two plates that were as close to an American breakfast as she knew and smiled. Ceria probably would like this, especially with blue juice. Too late, Erin remembered she had an Elf in the other room.
Erin stared down at her meal of bacon and scrambled eggs. She couldn’t go out with this. Desperately, she scrambled around, looking for anything that remotely resembled produce. It was so hard to keep vegetables in the inn because she didn’t have a refrigerator!
She found a head of lettuce and some tomatoes. Feverishly, Erin fried more eggs and added it to some toasted bread. That would have to do. Hopefully, Ceria ate eggs. Were Elves vegetarian or vegan?
Ceria stared blearily at the table, trying not to fall asleep. She wasn’t a morning person. People expected half-Elves to rise with the dawn and frolic in the dewdrops and flowers or some such nonsense. But Ceria had lived too long among Humans and other species to like getting up early, and she didn’t frolic.
An enticing smell was coming from the kitchens along with much banging about. Ceria tried not to listen. She was concentrating on a spell.
“[Illumination]. No—perhaps I’m doing it wrong?”
She should have the spell mastered, but it was giving her trouble. [Illumination] was an advanced version of the [Light] spell Ryoka had learned, and technically, it was only Tier 2 magic. But in truth, its complexity was around Tier 3. Possibly even Tier 4 in scope. Normally, Ceria wouldn’t have bothered learning it, but the spell could illuminate over a hundred meters around the caster by shedding orbs of light. It was perfect for dungeons.
“And of course, it’s up to the Wistram mage to do it. Is it a hard spell? Yes! Then let the half-Elf do it! Don’t get any of the other mages. Ceria’s got it covered!”
Ceria growled and slapped the spellbook in front of her shut. She was hungry, and now that she smelled breakfast, she really couldn’t concentrate.
Right on time, someone exited the kitchen holding two big plates full of food. Ceria brightened—
And nearly blew the skeleton’s head off when she saw it. The undead creature paused and stared at Ceria’s wand as the mage caught herself. It had one arm cocked to throw the plate at her head.
“Toren! Stop that!”
Someone smacked the skeleton in the back of the head, making it stumble and nearly drop its burden. Ceria saw the strange [Innkeeper] glare at the skeleton and point at the table where she sat.
Quickly, Ceria lowered the glowing wand as Erin approached.
“Ooh, is that a wand?”
The half-Elf blinked at Erin. She paused and then smiled ruefully.
“Yes it is. Would you like to see?”
Erin peered excitedly at the long, slender piece of wood. It didn’t look carved like the ones she’d seen in certain movies. Rather, it looked like it had been plucked off a tree and stripped of all branches. The wood was a pale white tinged with the faintest hint of green. All in all, it was ordinary except for the pale, blue-white wisps of light flickering around the tip.
“That is so cool!”
Ceria was mildly taken aback by Erin’s enthusiasm. She held out the wand to Erin, much to the other girl’s surprise.
Erin hesitated, her hands itching to hold the wand. She glanced at Ceria.
“Is it really okay if I touch it?”
Ceria had to smile.
“It’s not that fragile. Go ahead. And it’s not that expensive. Sort of expensive, but the real thing is far, uh, ‘cooler’.”
Reverently, Erin ran her fingers along the wand. It didn’t feel that different, to Erin’s slight disappointment. The wood was smooth and polished, but it didn’t feel special. Her fingertips touched the wand’s tip.
Ceria snatched the wand back, and Erin stared at her hands. The fingers that had brushed the wand tip were white, and frost had coated the very tips. The Elf tossed the wand on the table and grabbed Erin’s hand.
“Are you alright?”
Behind Erin, Toren’s glowing eyes flashed menacingly. The skeleton took a step forwards and met an elbow to the ribcage from Erin. She glared at him until he retreated and then looked back at Ceria. The touch of the Elf’s skin on hers felt very light and ethereal, just like how the rest of the Elf looked. Gingerly, she pulled her hand away.
“I’m fine. Go away, Toren! Go get us something to drink.”
“I’m really sorry about that. I didn’t expect you to touch the wand tip. Have you never seen one before?”
Erin blew on her fingers and rubbed them frantically to warm them up. They were tingling horribly, but aside from the first bite of extreme cold, they seemed to be okay.
“No—sorry. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to touch them.”
“It was my fault. I forget how much non-mages don’t know.”
Ceria looked abashed. She held up the wand and tapped her finger close to the tip.
“All the magic of the wand is channeled through the tip. That’s why it glows or reacts depending on the spell stored. It’s also why you should never break a wand because it will trigger the spell.”
She picked up her wand and began tucking it up her sleeve. Erin saw there was an armband so that Ceria could holster the wand along her arm. She shuddered.
“Won’t that freeze your arm?”
“Oh, no. I can deactivate the magic. I only activated it because, well—your skeleton surprised me.”
Erin turned and glared at Toren, who’d reemerged from the kitchen with a jug in one hand and cups in the other.
“Sorry about that. He keeps doing that no matter how much I tell him not to.”
Silently, Ceria watched the skeleton place a cup before her and Erin and fill both up to the brim. Quite literally to the brim.
“Toren! How are we supposed to drink it like that? Don’t fill the cups all the way to the top, just almost!”
The skeleton looked abashed. Erin glared at it and then turned to Ceria. The half-Elf cautiously managed to take a drink of the sweet, pulpy liquid without spilling any. Her eyebrows lifted.
“This is good!”
“I know, right? It’s from this fruit I found around here. Anyways, here. Breakfast is served!”
So saying, Erin pushed a plate towards Ceria. The half-Elf looked down and found herself staring at scrambled eggs, toasted bread, and a spreadable cheese on the side—and for some reason, a big bowl of what looked entirely like lettuce and tomatoes. And no bacon.
She looked over and saw Erin had a plate full of eggs and bacon. Ceria’s stomach rumbled, and she wondered how she was going to correct this mistake.
“Well. This looks…lovely. Thank you for making breakfast so early, Miss Solstice. And I’m late in saying it, but good morning.”
“Oh. Thank you!”
Erin paused and then snapped her fingers.
“Oh. Wait! I know this one!”
Bemused, Ceria stared as the other girl scratched at her head. She muttered to herself and then looked at Ceria.
“Um…Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo? Is that right?”
The half-Elf froze, mouth open with one spoonful of eggs hovering just over her plate. Erin blinked innocently at her.
“What—what was that?”
“I was trying to say good morning in your language. Or maybe it’s just hello. Did I get it right…?”
The bit of egg slipped from Ceria’s spoon back onto her plate. Erin was getting more embarrassed by the staring, so she tried to explain.
“I once went to a Lord of the Rings chess tournament because I heard a national champion played there. People wouldn’t play me unless I could at least say ‘hello’.”
Ceria understood exactly none of what Erin had said. Her mind spinning, she put down her spoon quite calmly.
“Miss Erin, I’m not sure what you might be thinking but—I’m not an Elf.”
This time, it was Erin’s turn to stare.
“You’re not? Oh man. I just thought—”
Ceria touched the pointed tips of her ears that Erin was staring at.
“I’m not an Elf. I’m a half-Elf. And besides which, you wouldn’t see—an Elf anywhere.”
“Really? Why not?”
Erin was full of round-eyed curiosity. Mindful of her sleeping friends upstairs and because Erin seemed genuinely confused, Ceria did her best to keep her voice level and not shout.
“No one has seen an Elf for thousands of years. Tens of thousands. They all died long ago. That bit you spoke—was a joke, right?”
Ceria watched as Erin sat back in her chair, disappointment clearly written all over her face. The conversation stalled as both young women tried to wrestle with what had been heard.
For her part, the half-Elf had to believe that bit of nonsense-language was a joke. Because if it wasn’t…
Ceria felt—amazed at Erin’s ignorance, but the nature of their conversation was familiar. She’d had the same sort of odd explaining to do, but when—?
“Well, I’m, uh, really sorry about the mix up. I just thought you looked so amazing and, um—are half-Elves like Elves? Or—or is there anything I should know?”
Awkwardly, Erin pointed at Ceria’s plate.
“I didn’t know what you people—I mean, what you could eat. If you need something special, I can get it. Anyways, we’ve got salad. Um…there are some tomato-like things I bought from the market, carrots…lots of soup. And, uh, I’ve got bread and cheese if you want to eat that.”
Ceria raised both her eyebrows in amusement.
“I can eat meat, you know.”
Again, the Human girl paused and seemed to struggle with something. Then, silently, she switched her plate with Ceria’s. The [Mage] brightened as the aroma of fried meat drifted upwards.
“So you eat meat?”
Ceria nodded happily.
“I’m not sure what you’ve heard, but my people aren’t averse to eating meat. I quite enjoy pork, for instance, especially when it’s been properly cooked. Or when it’s not.”
Erin stared at Ceria, round-eyed.
“Really? That’s so weird.”
When the rest of the Horns of Hammerad finally woke up, it was because they smelled the food. Adventurers, being the sort of people who were used to waking in a moment’s notice to avoid dying, generally slept in if they could help it. But they were also big fans of eating, so when the smells of cooked food finally wafted upstairs, their stomachs dragged them out of bed.
Gerial stumbled down into the common room of the inn and brightened the instant he saw what Ceria was eating. He sat down at a table, wondering if he should call for a barmaid, when he saw the skeleton march out of the kitchen.
Ceria caught the vice-captain of the Horns of Hammerad as he went for his belt dagger.
“Easy. Don’t threaten it and it won’t attack.”
Gerial paused and nodded. He let his heartbeat slow from the sudden jolt he’d received and warily let the skeleton put a heaping plate of food in front of him. The skeleton set down a cup, pointed to a jug of blue liquid on Ceria’s table, and walked back into the kitchen. Sheepishly, Gerial met Ceria’s gaze.
“Good thing you caught me. I’d forgotten—”
“Don’t worry about it. I made the same mistake earlier.”
Gerial looked up and gave Erin a smile as she bustled towards him, silverware in hand. The skeletal waiter had forgotten it, and Erin also filled up Gerial’s glass with the strange blue liquid after giving him a choice between it and water.
“Thank you for the meal, ah, Miss…”
Ceria supplied the name.
“Oh, just call me Erin. Anyways, I’ve got more food, so just shout if you need some.”
“You’re most kind. And this looks delicious.”
Erin smiled and walked off, already chatting to Sostrom and the [Ranger], Marian, from the Horns of Hammerad. Gerial eyed his plate, delighted at the glistening oil on his fat strips of bacon and the mounds of eggs and pieces of bread buried next to them.
He took his first bite and grinned at Ceria.
She was already eating again.
“Isn’t it? Try the blue stuff.”
Cautiously, mindful of Ceria’s sense of humor, Gerial did. His eyes widened.
Ceria and the other Horns of Hammerad grinned at Gerial’s reaction. He’d already drained his cup by the time Erin came back around.
“Good service, food, and we’re not getting dirty looks every two seconds. We struck it lucky coming here.”
“Good thing we didn’t get into it with those Goblins.”
Ceria nodded as Gerial removed some grease from his chin with a handkerchief.
Gerial craned his neck and saw only the skeleton walking around offering drinks to adventurers reluctant to accept. Reassured, he continued speaking to Ceria. Neither adventurer noticed how often Toren kept passing by their table despite their full glasses.
“What an odd innkeeper.”
“She’s definitely strange. Goblins and a skeleton. But Pisces is probably to blame for the skeleton. Still—Goblins.”
“Did you see what one of them was armed with? A…a jar of something?”
Ceria smiled with dark humor.
“It set off my [Dangersense] when it pulled it out. Guess what was in it? Acid. I had a look in the kitchen. She’s got jars of Acid Flies—a local creature around here. Looks like she’s been harvesting them as a food source.”
Gerial paused as he munched down on his bread, appetite suddenly lost. Ceria shook her head at him.
“Oh, stop being squeamish. Drakes eat them, and so do the Antinium, I bet. Not that we’d see the ant-men here, but I can see how it would be useful.”
“But the bugs—”
Gerial eyed his plate uneasily, imagining how an insect might crawl into a cooked meal. Ceria glared at him.
“Do you think she’d leave any of them alive? They were all dead. Honestly, you Humans—”
She trailed off and shook her head.
“Well, I get it. Bugs aren’t my favorite thing to eat either.”
That comment nearly made Gerial choke on his drink. But Ceria continued, thinking aloud.
“I’m not sure if she’s just absentminded or if she doesn’t realize how dangerous arming Goblins is. That acid can melt skin in seconds. But besides that, it’s odd to see her living so far out from the city.”
“Not too far. It was barely an hour’s walk even with us getting lost.”
“True. But monsters don’t care about distance. And that skeleton doesn’t look that powerful.”
Gerial nodded. The skeleton didn’t set off any internal alarm bells when he thought of it as a potential foe. It was dangerous and no mistake—but it was no Lich or even a stronger variety of the undead.
“Maybe that’s all the protection she could afford.”
“In that case, she’s reckless or insane. Or—poor. Actually, She reminds me a bit of Ryoka.”
Gerial stared incredulously at Erin as she began haranguing Toren.
“In what way exactly?”
Ceria shrugged, unable to explain.
“They’re not too similar personality-wise, but…it’s just a hunch.”
“Well. So long as we’re here, monsters aren’t an issue. And this is a good inn.”
“Right. If we want to keep using it, we’d better spread the word to the others. If they come in and start something—”
“Got it. I’ll tell the others when I see them. You still working on the spell…?”
Ceria made a face.
“Working on it. It’s complex. Give me two days and I’ll have it done. We probably have enough time for that, right?”
“Probably. Calruz and the others will meet to discuss tonight, but we’ll need to interview other adventurers and see what’s been found. You’ve got at least four days by my count.”
Every adventurer looked up at the heavy clomping sound of massive footsteps coming down the stairs. Calruz blinked a few times and scowled at the skeleton as he entered the common room.
Erin was already setting the table next to Ceria and Gerial with a huge plate of food. Calruz grunted in appreciation and sat down.
This meal was mainly eggs and bread…and a bowl of lettuce and tomatoes for some reason. Gerial frowned as he saw there was absolutely no meat whatsoever on the plate as Ceria slapped her forehead gently.
“Hey, Mr. Bull Guy.”
Across the room, Gerial saw Sostrom choke on his drink as Erin addressed Calruz. The Minotaur frowned up at her as the Human girl smiled at him. Even sitting down, the Minotaur was nearly as tall as she was.
“I wasn’t sure if you ate meat. I’ve got some bacon. Made from pork—I think, so there’s no beef.”
“I can eat beef.”
Calruz grunted at Erin. She smiled in relief and waved at Toren. The skeleton approached with another huge plate of sizzling bacon. The Minotaur accepted it from Erin’s hand and grunted with satisfaction. Then he eyed her again.
“Also, Innkeeper. My name is Calruz, and I lead the Horns of Hammerad. Any title is fine, but—‘Bull Guy’—I would prefer you not call me that.”
Erin slapped a hand to her forehead.
“Oh no. Is it a racial thing? I’m sorry! I didn’t want to use your people’s word. What should I say instead?”
Calruz’s left eyelid twitched involuntarily. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Ceria and Gerial held their breaths.
“We’re not bulls. Or cattle.”
“What are you, then?”
This time, Calruz eyed Erin long and hard to see if she was joking. But she seemed completely earnest.
“Wow. I thought you were, but you look a lot different than the pictures.”
“What did you think I looked like, then?”
Erin waved her hands and gestured helplessly.
“Oh, I don’t know. Less—hairy. Sort of like a Human with a Minotaur’s head. And your horns are really cool.”
She pointed to Calruz’s long horns, and this time, Gerial thought the Minotaur would erupt. But he seemed mollified by Erin’s amazement.
“I don’t know what kind of Minotaurs you’ve heard of. But I accept your mistake.”
He began eating, considerably faster than Gerial and Ceria but with his utensils and without creating a mess. Erin paused, clearly thinking of something else. Reluctantly, Calruz looked up.
“Um. Do you like mazes?”
Erin learned a lot about Minotaurs on that day. They were pretty polite, good eaters, could actually eat beef if they wanted to—but they weren’t fans of lots of questions.
She watched the Horns of Hammerad leave the inn and troop towards the city and stared at what they’d left behind. Money, of course—they’d paid in advance and handsomely too, and that was only for the first night. And they were coming back for dinner, but it was the other thing that they’d left which was bothering her.
Dishes. Lots of dishes.
Erin stared at the stacks of dirty silverware and porcelain and pointed at Toren.
“You wash that.”
The skeleton nodded—almost glumly, Erin thought. It hauled the bucket of water up and poured it into a pot to heat up over the fire while Erin opened her pantries, dreading what she might find.
Two minutes later, Erin rushed out of the inn.
“I’m out of food!”
She paused, ran back inside to grab her money pouch, and then ran out again. Toren rushed out behind her.
“Stay there! Wash the dishes!”
He halted, clattering his jaw as Erin raced down the hill.
“Okay, make that ten sausages, and I need a bag of salt, too. Oh, and some cooking oil.”
Krshia nodded and shouted something in her growling language to another Gnoll across the street. Both shopkeepers disappeared and began pulling out the various foodstuffs Erin had requested.
It was easier to go to Krshia for everything she wanted, Erin had found. The other Gnoll could direct her to the right shopkeepers, and that way, Erin knew she was never being ripped off.
“Is there anything else, Erin Solstice?”
Erin looked around. Market Street was still half-destroyed, but the part that hadn’t been burnt down had already resumed business as usual. And indeed, a large part of the burnt street had already been replaced by the industrious Workers. Shopkeepers had already set up their stalls, and if you ignored the black soot on some buildings and the ground, it looked like everything was normal.
The only difference was the Guardsman walking down the street every few minutes and the unfriendly looks that were being directed at every Human who entered. Erin got her fair share of glares, but it seemed like the shopkeepers knew her face, so at least they didn’t mutter insults when she walked by. At least, none that she could hear at any rate.
“I don’t know. What would you recommend, Krshia?”
The Gnoll propped her hands on her hips and thought.
“Hm. These are adventurers staying at your inn, yes? Then buy ale or something to drink, yes?”
“Ale? Oh, right! Sure! Give me a, uh, barrel of that.”
Krshia smiled but shook her head.
“It should be a keg for now. Transporting a barrel is hard, yes? And my Runner—he is overworked. He will not be able to transport your goods until tomorrow, even without a barrel to drive, yes?”
Erin’s face fell. She’d gotten used to the unfriendly, silent Gnoll who drove a cart to her inn every time she needed a delivery. True, it wasn’t ‘running’, but Krshia told her Street Runners often used carts to carry heavy deliveries, unlike City Runners. Whatever that meant.
“Can’t you get it to me sooner? I’m out of food at the inn!”
Another shake and Erin had to step back to avoid the flying brown fur.
“My apologies. But it is a busy time, yes? So many customers, which is good. But not for you, yes? I can lend you a cart, but that is all.”
Disconsolately, Erin stared at the small mountain of goods she’d bought. Krshia had marked it and set it aside for the Runner to pick up. It was—well, it was a lot. She’d bought it thinking she wouldn’t have to carry it. But since she did, suddenly Erin regretted her spending.
Briefly, she wondered if she could get away with only taking a little bit. But the adventurers ate so much, and they were her first real guests. She didn’t want to disappoint them, but the sun was already high in the sky, and she needed to make lunch soon.
There was no helping it. Taking Toren into the city was more trouble than it was worth. If she wanted to get it back, she’d have to make several trips with a handcart between feeding her guests. Erin sighed.
But then she brightened. Moving through the crowd, she spotted a group of people who were out of place. At least, out of place for what she considered to be Liscor’s unusual crowd. She spotted a woman in silver armor, a huge guy with an axe, and several other Humans walking with a tall Minotaur she recognized.
Erin raised her hand and waved.
“Hey! Hey! Hammer captain!”
“Why are we doing this again?”
Gregor, Captain of the Silver-rank team of adventurers known as Kyrial’s Vanguard, complained as he finally reached the top of the small hill where The Wandering Inn stood. He was wearing his armor, of course, and his iconic battleaxe as well, but the big man had another burden.
A sack of onions and five freshly baked loaves of bread, to be precise. And a narked expression, but that didn’t weigh anything.
“We’re here because we want to use this inn for planning and the innkeeper needs food. And because helping out is the polite thing to do.”
Yvlon smiled at Gregor and winked silently at Erin as she carried along two hams.
“Exactly. And it’s not that heavy.”
Gerial had to wheeze that last comment. He’d been carrying a bag of flour by himself and was regretting it, especially with the weight of the rest of his armor.
Calruz grunted irritably. He dropped the bags of flour he’d carried pointedly into Toren’s arms as the skeleton emerged from the inn. The skeleton staggered under the weight as it carried them into the kitchen.
“This was not warrior’s work.”
“No, but it was necessary, and I appreciate it.”
Erin grinned at Calruz as she hauled a smaller bag into the kitchen. She poked her head out.
“Besides, if you didn’t help out, I wouldn’t be able to make lunch! This way, you can eat and complain at the same time, Mr. Grumpy!”
Ceria smiled and dropped the links of sausage on the table.
“Touché. She’s got you there, Calruz.”
Yvlon and the other adventuring captains dropped their burdens on tables and looked around the inn. Cervial whistled appreciatively.
“And you lot have this entire inn to yourself? We’ve barely standing room in our inn, and we’re sleeping three people to a room. Mind sharing?”
Gerial laughed as he massaged his shoulder.
“Talk with the innkeeper, but we’ve occupied most of the second floor.”
“And we’re not giving up our rooms!”
That came from Ceria. The half-Elf sighed as she sat back in a chair and accepted a glass of water from the skeleton. She’d gotten used to the undead creature, but the eyes of the other captains followed Toren as he walked back into the kitchen.
“You told us, but I didn’t believe—”
The Mage-Captain, Menes, was the least-surprised.
“It’s not that uncommon. Other nations use the undead, although I’ve never heard of one serving drinks. What do you think, Byres?”
Everyone turned to the one person who’d be most unhappy about the skeletons—but Yvlon Byres exhaled slowly. She tossed her hair behind her and smiled in thanks as Erin handed her a cup. Then Yvlon looked at the other captains as they too were given refreshments and a promise of lunch for their hard work.
“I think…I’d rather have somewhere to sit and plan than cause a fuss and have to squeeze into a corner of the inn. Let’s drop it.”
She eyed the skeleton, but everyone else agreed to that, thinking of their lovely accommodations. Gerial rubbed his hands together with a big smile as he saw the sausage links being ported into the kitchen. He looked around good-naturedly, and everyone else relaxed as the first blue fruit drinks came out with the water.
“Well, we’re here a bit sooner than I thought, but shall we begin planning?”
Time didn’t seem to be on Erin’s side. Well, it was passing by, but far too quickly for her liking.
It seemed like she’d just woken up, made breakfast, and bought some food before it was lunchtime. And then she’d made lunch, cleaned up, and suddenly it was dinnertime.
But that was the thing about catering to a crowd; it took a long time, and Erin had to keep making food in preparation for people eating food. So although the night came quickly, she was quite, quite conscious that she’d worked through the day to get to it.
Erin stopped to wipe a layer of sweat from her forehead and wince because she’d smeared tomato sauce all over her brow. Oh well, it wasn’t as if her face had been that pristine to begin with. And she was too busy to wash it away.
She glanced out at the clouded night sky and wondered if it were time to shut the window in the kitchen. She’d undone the shutters here to cool down the stiflingly hot kitchen, but it looked like rain, and the last thing she needed was a wet kitchen floor.
The nights were getting colder. Already, Erin had taken to closing all the windows by the evening, and tonight was especially chilly. Dark storm clouds had swallowed the sun hours ago and promised to drop their cargo sometime tonight.
“Winter is coming.”
Toren paused and cocked his head at her. He probably hadn’t heard what Erin had said. She waved her hand at him, and he exited the kitchen.
She was done with her plate of spaghetti. Well—plates. Erin lifted one in each hand carefully—she could do more, but it was heavy porcelain, and she didn’t feel that rushed—and walked out into the common room.
A wave of noise greeted her. Adventurers sat around her room, talking, laughing, arguing. It was such a bizarre sight in her inn that Erin had to pause. But she was on a mission and the food was heavy, so she made her way to the two tables that had been pushed together in the center of the room.
“What do you mean, wait?”
Calruz slammed one fist down on the table, making Erin nearly jump. He was shouting at a bunch of men and one woman—all adventurers, allegedly. They’d come into the inn around lunchtime with a few of their friends and had stayed around, talking.
Well, mainly arguing. Ceria and Gerial sat next to Calruz, wincing as the Minotaur expressed his discontent. Each of the other adventuring captains also had a vice-captain with them.
“We’re not ready to go in, Calruz. We need supplies. We thought we could get them here, but prices are high and supply is low. Besides that, we need to send some scouting teams in. And there are other adventurers to consider letting join—”
“We know what’s in there. And the Ruins are less than an hour’s journey from the city! We don’t need supplies or scouts!”
“We agreed to come Calruz, but that doesn’t mean we put ourselves under your command. We’re all equals here, and we go in properly or we don’t go in at all.”
That came from Menes, the only other mage at the table besides Ceria. He smiled and thanked Erin as she put his food in front of him. Then he returned his attention to Calruz.
“There are some Silver-rank adventurers in the city. Some good ones that I know. It wouldn’t hurt to have them with us, and as Cervial said, we need time. A day or two of delay won’t lose us any time. Myself, I’m more concerned about our formations. Ceria has said she can learn the [Illumination] spell in time, but even if we get that cast, how will we approach the actual exploration phase? I’m not too keen on splitting up our vanguard—”
Gregor shifted. He’d been busy chomping down on slices of ham, but he stopped to glare at Menes.
“You can’t be suggesting we keep our forces together. The time it would take—”
Erin stopped listening. She was busy, and the adventurers had been arguing all day. That was preferable to them having, say, a bar fight, but she was busy.
She spun past her inn, taking requests for food, filling empty mugs, and generally wishing she was less busy. The door opened, and Erin turned to smile at the newcomer and explain that skeletons and Goblins in general were friendly.
She didn’t have to. Pisces stood in the doorway, blinking in surprise at the crowded inn. He paused, looking around as if he thought he were in the wrong place. Erin waved at him.
“Sit over there!”
She pointed to a lonely table. Pisces hesitated, still eying the adventurers, but eventually went and sat down. He paused as he passed by the table where adventuring captains were sitting. They looked up, and Ceria spoke.
The [Necromancer] nodded to her. The two locked gazes like cat and dog. No…that wasn’t fair. They tensed up, and Erin had only seen that look of hostility and regret on Pisces’ face once when he thought she was selling him out to the Watch. On Ceria’s face? Pained regret and her own unspoken anger.
He nodded slowly, face pale.
They seemed unable to say more than that. So—almost accidentally, someone ran into Pisces, and he started.
“Hey, Pisces! Stop bothering my customers!”
Erin booted the mage in the back, much to the amusement of several of the adventurers. Pisces glared at her and glared harder when Toren came by to hand him a menu.
“I must protest! My creation is not meant for menial tasks. Moreover, I am an accredited [Mage] and deserve to be treated—”
Erin dropped a plate in front of Pisces and left. She was so busy! If this was what having an inn was like, she seriously needed another skeleton. Or two. Toren was practically dashing about, serving the wary adventurers with mechanical precision.
This was why an inn had a cook and bar-people. Come to that, a bartender would also have been helpful, as well as another keg of ale. Erin had long ago run out, and the adventurers had been disappointed to learn she didn’t have any more. She probably could have made a fortune on that alone.
The door opened. Erin turned, prepared a smile, and then smiled for real.
The blue Drake staggered into her inn, looking around wildly. He spotted her and rushed towards Erin, heedless of the other adventurers who’d gone temporarily silent at the sight of a Drake.
“Erin! I did it! I did it!”
“I finally solved it!”
The Drake crowed and danced about, waving the slip of parchment at Erin. She blinked at him, confused.
“It was the work of days—no, nearly a week! In the end, I had to lock myself away, but I did it! And I leveled! Twice!”
“Wait, twice? What?”
She had to get him to stand still to show her, which was no mean feat. Erin saw a very inky piece of paper and the notation for four chess moves. A solution to a chess puzzle. Her puzzle.
“Oh, you did it! Congratulations!”
She smiled at Olesm, and he gave her a toothy grin in reply. He looked delirious with delight, but his eyes were also slightly unfocused, hinting that he was delirious in more ways than one.
Drakes didn’t have whites in their eyes. Like the Gnolls, their eyes were a single color with a dark, snake-like pupil in the center. Olesm’s eyes were a marvelous shade of blue patterned wildly like raindrops falling.
They were also bloodshot and wild. Erin noticed Olesm seemed gaunt and thinner than she’d seen him last. He also had an unwashed smell and…was that dead skin on the side of his neck? No—dead scales. They were flaking off, and it looked like a terrible fungus infection the more Erin stared at it.
She was trying not to, really. But it was extremely distracting.
Olesm noticed where Erin was looking and blushed. He immediately covered the spot with one hand.
“Um—I’m so sorry. I haven’t bathed or cleaned myself in a while. I was just so happy to have solved it I rushed over. But I did it at last! It was the greatest challenge I’ve had, and the rewards were—rewarding!”
He smiled in a state approaching bliss. Erin had to smile with him as she led him to an empty table and waved at Toren for a drink.
“It took a week, huh?”
“Just a bit less than that, I believe.”
Gratefully, Olesm accepted the mug and then stared in horror at the creature that had served it to him. Meanwhile, Erin was trying to remember. She’d given him a chess problem? Oh! Oh yes, it was the one she’d sent to the mystery chess game enthusiast. Olesm had said he was going to make a copy.
And it had taken him a week? Erin was…impressed.
She was impressed. It had taken her nearly a week to solve the problem as well. Admittedly, she’d been going to class and only spent a few hours here and there trying to solve it. And she’d been in middle school. But still.
It made a difference that Olesm had never learned any of the basic strategies that Erin had built her knowledge of chess on. That was part of the reason she could still wipe the floor with him and anyone else, although Olesm was probably the best. And it explained why she hadn’t seen him. She’d actually forgotten about him—
Olesm was pulling at Erin’s hand. She snapped out of her thoughts and saw the Drake’s blue scales had turned pale.
“What is it?”
“There’s a sk-skeleton!”
He pointed, and his claw shook at Toren as the skeleton brought another plate of food out for Calruz. Erin stared blankly at Toren.
“Yeah. That’s Toren.”
“Toren? It has a—what’s a skeleton doing here? Did that [Necromancer] summon it?”
Erin realized that Olesm hadn’t seen Toren before. She tried to explain. Olesm tried to listen. It was quite noisy in the common room.
“What? And you accepted it? But the undead—they’re so—dangerous! Besides, one skeleton isn’t worth all the food you’ve been feeding Pisces!”
Erin’s eyes narrowed, and she tossed a glare over the room at Pisces. He was already trying to avoid Ceria’s gaze as the half-Elf occasionally stared at him, but he flinched away from Erin as well, although he couldn’t possibly have known what she and Olesm were talking about.
Olesm nodded. He tore into the food Toren brought for him, clearly famished.
“Their binding spells don’t last that long. Your average skeleton falls to pieces within a day or two of being animated, and even if the necromancer uses an indefinite binding, their spell fails the instant they take too much damage. And they’re surprisingly fragile!”
“Well, this one hasn’t fallen apart, and it’s been knocked to pieces once already.”
“Really? That’s not usual. Most come apart instantly if you do that. This one might be made to reassemble? Most mages don’t spend nearly that much mana on a lowly skeleton.”
“I think this one’s different. It’s smart enough to take orders and serve drinks for one thing.”
The Drake followed Toren’s circuit around the room and nodded slowly.
“True. And that’s odd too. It’s very intelligent—can it play chess, by any chance?”
Erin grinned at Olesm and laughed.
“Is that all you think about? You’re like me when I was a kid!”
The Drake blushed and ducked his head. Then he paused and looked around the room.
“I didn’t think you would be so busy—I was hoping to play a game, but I wouldn’t want to take you away from your work. Where is that small Goblin or the Worker called Pawn?”
Erin’s smile faded. She’d nearly forgotten the events of yesterday as well.
“I haven’t seen Rags and her crowd today. They must be doing Goblin-y things. But—the Workers probably won’t be coming for a while. There was an—incident with Pawn.”
Olesm looked alarmed.
Someone was calling Erin’s name. She glanced around, distracted, and made a face.
“Tell you later! Wait until everything slows down and then we can play a game of chess, okay?”
Reluctantly, Olesm nodded. He brightened as Erin brought him more food, though, and began attacking that. Erin walked over to the waving adventurer, and her endless quest for customer satisfaction continued.
Late. Later in the night. Erin was bone-tired, but she was still smiling and still, surprisingly, having fun. The adventurers weren’t jerks, and they liked her cooking. And they had money! It wasn’t bad to be working for once, and Erin wondered just how much money she’d make from tonight.
Not a bad haul. But she was tired. She paused, wiping at her forehead, and accepted a drink from Toren.
“Hey, good job. You’re not doing so bad.”
The skeleton paused and nodded at her. She blinked in bemusement as it bustled out of the kitchen.
“Skeletons. They think they’re as good as people.”
She laughed and walked back out. At last, the food requests had stopped coming in, and it was just filling glasses and doing the stacks of dirty dishes in the kitchen. Toren could do that. Erin would just fill up a bucket with water from the stream and boil it before she could sit down and play a game of chess with Olesm and maybe Pisces.
She had bucket in hand and was heading to the door when it opened. Two Workers immediately stepped inside. Erin raised a hand to greet them—
And half of the adventurers in the room drew their weapons.
“Whoa! Hey! Swords down!”
Erin shouted as the adventurers began pushing their chairs back and the Workers wavered. She put herself between the adventurers and the doorway.
“These are my guests! Guests!”
“The Black Tide!”
Some of the adventurers were shouting, but the adventuring captains were the first to get over their surprise. Gregor grabbed the shoulder of an adventurer that was rising and shoved him down in his seat.
This came from Cervial. He raised his voice and shouted at the adventurers.
“They’re part of Liscor! You hurt them, you make an enemy out of the city! They’re not here for a fight! These are the Worker-types.”
Erin ignored the shouting as the Captains began restoring order in the inn. She looked at the Workers, confused.
“Why are you here? I thought you couldn’t leave the city.”
Not without Pawn. But then Erin’s mind caught up with what she was saying.
“Yes, Innkeeper Solstice. But there is an issue—”
The Worker opened the doorway. Erin saw two other Workers helping another of their kind through the doorway. He was like them, exactly like them, but different.
He was okay. He was alive. Erin smiled as he stumbled into the inn. But then her smile froze.
The adventurers, who had been swearing and reacting to the presence of the Workers, took one look at Pawn and fell silent. Several sheathed weapons were unsheathed again. In the dead silence, someone swore loudly.
Pawn had to be helped by the two Workers into the inn. He swayed, unsteady. A trail of green blood followed him. Erin’s eyes were caught by the color. So green. So vibrant. A color she’d seen once on her hands before.
The Antinium named Pawn stared up at Erin. She stared back. Her thoughts had—stopped. She stared at him.
He was still Pawn. But he was missing one of his antennae, the one Ksmvr had severed. And he was missing arms as well. Three of them. And part of one leg.
The door closed, and the cold rain began to fall.