Ryoka Griffin was in sight of Liscor when she saw the smoke and found the bodies.
She came across the Gnolls so suddenly she barely stopped in time. A few Goblins picking past the Shield Spiders already trying to drag the corpses into a pit-nest leapt away, screeching in alarm. Ryoka looked around for another ambush—but they just hefted their spears and armor and horsemeat and fled.
Horsemeat? Ryoka’s stomach lurched, and she nearly vomited as she gagged. She saw the remnants of the horses. And the Gnolls.
The Shield Spiders had been at them at least a day. Ryoka turned away, then saw the smoke.
“No. Did she do this? Did—”
Gazi the Omniscient? She was nowhere to be seen. The terrifying Named-rank adventurer that Ryoka had seen pursuing the Gnolls…
There was no way to prove what had happened. Not now. The Gnolls were stripped of armor and weapons. Ryoka remembered the grinning warrior with the silver fang on his fur. Rometh. She looked for him—
Nothing. There was just a horror of fur and blood and—insects. Spiders, competing with the Acid Flies that made the innards of the corpses glow. The flies and spiders ignored each other. The Shield Spiders would not try to eat the deadly flies. Both offended her to her core. Ryoka stomped a tiny spider scuttling towards a furred hand matted in blood.
“Get away from them. Get—”
She saw the milling cascade of limbs turn on her and ran as she heard the chittering. She would have gone back—but then she saw the smoke.
It rose ever higher from Liscor in the distance. She could not see the city well from the hill and valley where she had found the Gnolls. But she knew where it was.
“No. Nonono. It wasn’t her, was it?”
There was no way. But then—what about the Horns? Ryoka turned back to the bodies. But she couldn’t kill the spiders. If she came back, she might try to get someone to bury them. But…
Ryoka began to run faster. She didn’t know that someone had observed her coming through the Floodplains. A silent woman with a claymore stood miles away and watched as Ryoka ran. Ran—seeking her friends.
But she was too late. The day Ryoka arrived was the day after Skinner died. She arrived as the funeral pyres were still burning the undead to ash. She saw the churned earth around Liscor and a ways away—a battered building that drew her eye. Torn and damaged. But standing.
[Innkeeper Level 18!]
[Skill – Immunity: Alcohol obtained!]
[Skill – Quick Recovery obtained!]
Erin didn’t know that she’d slept. She raised her head and realized she was sitting down. Dawn had come, but she had only drifted off for a second.
The sky was still mostly dark. But light still illuminated the grasslands. Dancing shadows. Twisting flames.
The Antinium were burning the dead. All of them. They had created a huge pyre of bodies and set it alight. The terrible, suffocating smoke fanned away from the inn, but Erin’s eyes still burned. Or perhaps it was just her grief.
The bodies of the Workers were gone. Sometime when she hadn’t been watching, the Soldiers had taken them away. Erin had asked one of the surviving Workers—Bird—where they had gone. He told her she didn’t want to know.
Now, Bird sat on the ground outside of the first bonfire, so vast and hot that it was baking the ground, splitting the earth and threatening to set the cold grass on fire. The heat and light reflected off his armor. Green blood had dried from terrible bites that had torn into his chest and arms.
But the Worker just sat there, staring up at the twisting column of smoke. It rose like some mournful creature, great and terrible and beautiful. But for the stench. Into that dark sky turning brighter with each second. Bird saw the beauty of it.
Erin did too—but it hurt too much for her to take in his simple, childish wonder. Even now, the other Workers that had lived looked up at the sky as if it could make up for that dark, horrific night. As if there were something still to believe in.
What would happen to them? What came next?
She was afraid to ask more. Even of Klbkch. He had barely left her side all night. Now, he stood on the hill, staring down at a large shape several hundred meters away.
Erin got up and walked to his side. He turned his head slightly, but continued looking down. Erin stared at the red, elongated form of the creature that had lived in dead flesh and led an army of the dead. It was still surrounded by the Goblins that had felled it. Many had paid with their lives. But many more were claiming victory, looting the undead and milling around. They had even torn the ruined pieces of armor away and were trying to beat the scraps into tools and armor for themselves.
Something was different about Skinner’s body this morning. He seemed…diminished. Erin stared down as the Goblins milled around him, and then she realized what was going on.
“Are they…eating it?”
Her stomach roiled. But Klbkch was unmoved, and so too were the Goblins. They tore into the red body of Skinner, tearing him apart, drinking the fluids and—
She couldn’t watch. Erin went back to her inn and threw up in the outhouse. It was still standing, at least. It needed repairs. Everything needed repairs.
She sat on the toilet Pawn and the other Antinium had built and rested her head in her hands. She was so tired, still. She would have given everything to sleep. But sleep was a luxury, and she owed a debt of pain.
First things first. Her…level. Yes, she’d leveled up three times. Was that a lot? Probably. And she had new skills.
They were an [Innkeeper]’s skills. And they were worthless. Trash.
Yes. Erin glanced at the wood walls of the outhouse. Less than crap. That was how she felt about her levels and skills at the moment.
It felt wrong to level when her friends had died. It felt wrong to be stronger in exchange for killing things. But there was nothing Erin could do about it. She felt like vomiting or punching a hole in the wall of the outhouse. She nearly did, but stopped herself.
Erin walked back out and stood next to Klbkch. After a while, she had the courage to ask him what she couldn’t last night.
He looked at her, and Erin wondered if he was going to lie. But after a second, he spoke again.
She listened to the numbers. When they were just numbers, it didn’t seem so bad. But when she stared at the bodies, it was too terrible to be counted.
Twenty-seven Goblins lay in the grass. Too many. Even in Skinner’s last moments, he had killed with terrible ease.
Of the thirty-two Workers that had chosen to save her, four remained. Bird, Garry, Belgrade, and Anand. They lay in her inn or sat propped up, wounds covered by some kind of sticky red substance. The Antinium had little in the way of medicine, but they were tough. They would heal.
Less than a hundred people had died around Erin’s inn. Too many, but in the city, it had been worse, or so Klbkch told her.
“Over two hundred guardsmen and nearly a thousand civilians perished before the Hive was mobilized. Had they broken the Watch Captain’s lines, the number would be tenfold despite our sortie. She acted very bravely.”
She hadn’t even known there were that many guardsmen in the city. But they’d had healing potions and armor and—it was just a number.
“How many Antinium? Your people…?”
“Three hundred sixty-five Soldiers and a hundred and forty-seven Workers. Nearly half again as many are wounded, but the losses were quite minimal.”
She couldn’t imagine that many. The number, yes. But so many…if she thought of each one being a member of her chess club, it was too many. One was too many to call minimal.
Yet Klbkch seemed to think it was some kind of grand victory.
“A war would be tenfold higher at the very least. A hundredfold. It was a small price to pay and would have been smaller still had my predecessor not erred. Had we fought alongside the Watch, we would have pushed the undead back without taking nearly so many losses. Had they held the gates, less than a hundred might have died.”
“Why didn’t you, then? I mean—he. Ksmvr. Ksmvr…didn’t fight?”
A pause. Klbkch clicked his mandibles softly. He made her want to hug him with all her strength, and he was simultaneously frightening. She had seen him cutting down undead after undead, and now she understood his nickname.
Slayer. This morning, he talked as if he had merely had a long night. He had—something of Gazi in him. And his voice was cold as it referred to his replacement.
“Ksmvr believed the Queen had to be protected above all else. He withdrew all Soldiers into the Hive while she finished the Rite of Anastases.”
“Why did he do that? What Rite?”
“The process to revive me. It was a delicate matter that occupied the Queen’s full attention. Without her guidance, Ksmvr did what he deemed best. He chose wrongly.”
Klbkch nodded calmly. He went on, listing the things he had to do on one hand.
“There is much that must be done. Reparations must be made to the city. The Antinium did not honor their promise. We must rebuild, put up barriers outside the Ruins.”
“And you’re going to do it? You’re the new Prognugator? Or does Ksmvr still have that job?”
“He does not.”
Klbkch shook his head as he watched a Soldier dragging a body towards the burning heap.
“Ksmvr was a fool. He nearly cost the Hive the city, our position here and status across the continent, and…other assets. I will deal with him soon enough.”
For a while, Erin and the Antinium watched the dead burn. She swayed on her feet. Klbkch watched in silence.
“Yes. Many things.”
“How did you come back?”
“It is called the Rite of Anastases. It is a…process which the Queen of the Antinium may undertake. It allows the dead to be reborn into a new body. A secret of the Antinium.”
Erin thought about that for a second.
“Okay. I understand. I think. Then…does that mean you can revive the others who died?”
“Others? Ah. You mean the individuals who were once Workers. No.”
“In truth, only a Prognugator would be considered…worthy of the effort and time required for such an act. Moreover, it is not something done lightly. There are consequences. I have lost ten levels in every class. A considerable setback, although my new body reduces the impact on my abilities quite significantly. And the time it took—my Queen labored for nearly two weeks without rest to restore my being.”
“That’s a lot of work.”
“There were other material costs as well. The Hive would not be able to support such an action more than once or twice. The others—”
“I get it.”
It nearly didn’t hurt. Nearly. But it was just another cut in a heart bleeding from a thousand places.
“They died well. I would not have expected mere—they rose above what they were. For that, I honor them.”
For once, Klbkch didn’t seem to know how to reply. Erin looked at him. He was as he had been, but different.
“What’s with the new body? Upgrades?”
“The Prognugator role was never meant for specialized action. Moreover, it was thought that the Worker form would allow a Prognugator to blend in to reduce the dangers of assassination during times of war. This new form will greatly improve my abilities.”
“Two arms are better than four?”
“Yes. I am swifter, more mobile, and possess several changes to my anatomy not incorporated into other Antinium. The older design of four arms was inefficient. This new body will serve me better.”
“Harder, better, faster, stronger, huh?”
“That is broadly correct, yes.”
Klbkch was watching her. Erin knew, even if he didn’t have pupils to follow her. He hadn’t really let her leave his sight since that night. She was so tired.
“Thanks for saving me. Really.”
“It was nothing.”
“It was something.”
She looked at him. Just the same as always. And then she looked at her inn. She looked at the broken wood, at the marks of violence, and at the place where a Worker named Knight had died. She looked at the dead and the Soldiers. She remembered a half-Elf, a Minotaur, a Drake obsessed with chess, and a bunch of smiling faces.
Klbkch saw Erin fold up and fall backwards. He tried to catch her, but she thumped back into the soft grass.
“Miss Solstice. Are you alright?”
Erin smiled emptily as Klbkch hovered over her. She raised one hand and let it fall.
“I’m just going to lie down for a while.”
She lay in the trampled grass as the Goblins feasted, listening to the dead burn.
Selys sat in the Adventurer’s Guild, listening to Zevara argue with the guildmaster. Her grandmother. Not argue, really. Tekshia wanted to give out rewards to the people who had killed monsters. Zevara wanted her Watch to be included in that number, to hand out bonuses to them.
Tekshia told Zevara to take it up with the Council because the Adventurer’s Guild didn’t have enough funding. Zevara insisted she wanted that on top of a bonus from the Council to all the [Guards] who’d risked their lives.
This was background noise to Selys. She stared dreamily at her bandaged wrist and felt the healing cuts on her legs and torso burning and itching.
Even after a day, Liscor was silent. The streets were still busy, and the people still spoke. But it was a different place. Death and destruction had taken their toll, and people still mourned.
But they had survived. They had all come out stronger for their ordeals. Selys was now a [Warrior] and had gained several levels in her [Hunter] class. It was a wonderful thing, especially since she hadn’t leveled in a month.
But she was still tired. Then the reasonable debate turned into a full-blown argument. Selys turned her head as Zevara brought something else up, and this time, Tekshia refused to even hear her out.
“I want those Humans responsible for unleashing the undead held accountable!”
The Captain of the Watch was exhausted, bloody, and had saved Liscor. Selys knew her if not in person, then by reputation. She was a good leader, and she had saved countless lives during the battle with the undead. Her voice was raw, and she coughed every few words now.
Ancestor-touched. Dragon’s child.
Selys thought the words, but didn’t say them out loud. Zevara had breathed fire to hold the undead back. She was a hero. But she was wrong in this.
“All the adventurers who went in are dead. Only a handful remain, and they’re in no condition to repay anyone for anything. They’ve suffered enough. Leave them alone.”
The Guildmistress of the Adventurer’s Guild in Liscor, an elderly Drake with dusky purple scales, shot back when Zevara stopped to breathe. The Drake Captain coughed a few times and glared at the old Drake, but she was unmoved. She might have bullied someone else.
But the old Drake had fought as well and saved just as many lives. She leaned on her staff this morning, looking tired. She’d finished three cups of tea Selys had brewed, and she barred Zevara’s way with her spear.
“They have nothing. Nothing will be gained from blaming them, either. The Council was glad enough when they volunteered to explore the ruins. This is on their tails as much as ours.”
“The Council wants to hold someone responsible. And if it won’t be the adventurers, it will be this Guild. You choose which one.”
Selys winced, but her grandmother just sighed.
“Stubborn child. If you really wish to push this—Selys!”
Selys jumped and tried to shuffle some papers around. Her grandmother raised her voice.
“Take Zevara to the leader of the adventurers she wants to blame so badly. Let her make her case there.”
That clearly wasn’t what Zevara had been expecting. The taller Drake hesitated when Selys poked her head around the corner.
“Um. Hi. Follow me, Watch Captain.”
She led Zevara up the stairs and into a part of the Guild reserved for injured adventurers or those in need of a place to sleep for a night. It was a section of the second floor, only large enough to house three separate adventurers at a time. And one room was occupied.
Selys pushed open the door carefully. Zevara’s breath caught as the door swung open to reveal the lone occupant.
A Human sat in a white bed, staring emptily out one window. It was a bright day with clear skies in Liscor. A bit chilly given it was winter, but winter had not yet arrived, and Yvlon Byres took no notice of the temperature.
She paid no attention to anything at all, really.
Half of the skin on her face had been torn away. Her long blonde hair was ragged; her fair skin cut and marred. She stared empty-eyed through the window, sitting and looking at nothing.
Her armor had been torn to shreds when they’d cut her out of it. Even now, Selys could remember the Human woman screaming. But now she was silent. It was little better.
Yvlon didn’t move. She didn’t blink. Zevara called out a few times, but Yvlon was still. The Watch Captain hesitated.
“If you’re going to try and shake her, you might as well give up. She doesn’t respond.”
Zevara turned towards the elderly drake as Selys rearranged the pillow around Yvlon, trying not to touch the female Human. She avoided the empty stare as well as Zevara, and her grandmother whispered.
“She has no coin or anything else. Everything she owned was lost in the Ruins. Her comrades, her pride, her health—what more would you take from her, good Captain?”
Zevara glared down at the older Drake, lips tight, tail thrashing.
“Someone must pay.”
“Someone must. But I don’t believe she or any of the adventurers has enough coin to cover the costs.”
Zevara looked back at Yvlon. The adventurer sat quietly in bed, back straight, hands folded. Face scarred.
The Watch Captain shook her head. She had a million things to do. Relc was patrolling for any undead while the rest of the guardsmen rebuilt. She had to go through the roster of wounded and dead, focus on rebuilding the city, address the Antinium issue for the Council.
She turned her heel. It was pointless to waste her time here arguing with a Drake three times as old as she was. Zevara strode away and turned her head only once.
Yvlon stared into the blue sky, a few feet away and a thousand miles gone. Zevara stared into her empty eyes and left.
Toren sat on the roof of the inn, staring at nothing and everything at the same time. Below him, Erin pounded away with a hammer, covering up broken windows with boards. She’d banned him from helping the second time he’d put a hole in a wall.
He hadn’t meant to. But on the other hand, he’d meant to. Some part of Toren knew that was the only way to earn a reprieve. And he wanted one. For the first time, he wanted to stop and think.
The skeleton sat on the roof, staring out at the empty plains. From here, he could see Liscor in the distance. The city seemed whole, and it was rebuilding quickly, according to Erin. But much like the area around the inn, marks of the battle still remained.
The battle. Toren still remembered Skinner, still remembered the countless enemies and only the pure joy of battle coupled with the need to keep Erin safe. It had been glorious, liberating.
And all too short.
It was a curious thing. He had leveled, and in doing so, he had become more. More…himself. He could think, act, feel on a level he had not previously.
That was what he was. It was…eight levels? Yes, a huge leap. But he had earned each one. The part of Toren that thought and remembered wondered if it was because he had wounded the large flesh-stealing creature so badly. That and the countless number of his brethren he had slain had done it.
He wondered how many levels the small Goblin had gained. How many levels her tribe had gained. It was meaningless, and yet it was not. Why should he care what level a Goblin was? Unless she was a threat, it was meaningless.
But some part of Toren wondered. And it was that part which had awakened after the battle as he had gained those levels. He had begun to think, and that was a mystery in itself. A welcome one to be sure, but vexing nonetheless.
Now, he could ask why he obeyed. Now, he could think of Erin as a person, not just as a master. Now, he could wonder…
The red gemstone turned in his skeletal hands. Toren could sense the magic contained within. He had taken it from the creature of skin, plucked it away. It had powerful magic. It had fear; he understood that much. But how might he use it? Should he use it? Should he give it to Erin?
No. Yes. Perhaps. It was not so simple anymore. Toren studied the gemstone. It was red, darker red than crimson. The red of dried blood and death. He had taken it from Skinner; he didn’t know where its twin had gone. But one was all he needed.
Needed…for what exactly? Toren wasn’t sure, but he was beginning to understand. Something was calling to him. He didn’t know what yet, but he would in time. If he had more levels, he would understand more. And when he did, perhaps he would think more. Perhaps he would question more. And then when he had levelled enough—
“Hey, Toren! Get your bony butt down here and help me lift this thing!”
A voice from below. His master’s. Or was it mistresses’? He had had a master, once. The mage called Pisces. But he was no longer a master. Was Erin a master? Or a mistress? Or was she neither? Another question.
He had so many. But not enough time to consider them, and Erin was beginning to yell again.
Toren got up without sighing. Skeletons didn’t sigh. But he looked at the red crimson eye in his hand. She would not want it. She would take it away. Therefore, he had thought about what to do.
Carefully, very carefully, he opened his mouth and placed the gem inside. It was quite simple. A bit of sticky tar used for repairing the inn’s roof and it could be stored in the hollow of his skull, where brains were normally kept. That way no one would see it.
It was the [Tactician] part of him that suggested it, and the rest of him agreed. Toren made sure the gemstone was firmly tucked away and stuck in place before he leapt from the rooftop. He was stronger now, that was clear. Strong enough to help Erin wrestle the planks of wood into place and hold them there while she hammered nails haphazardly into the wood.
Stronger, yes, and more aware. But what would that lead to? What would he become?
For the first time, Toren asked these questions. And for the first time, he was curious to find out the answer.
A bit of crimson light flashed in the blue flames of his eyes. Only for a second.
The morning lengthened on, and many important things happened. Just like yesterday and the day before that. They were important things, surely, for each person who experienced them thought of themselves as important.
In his hiding place in the plains, Pisces dragged away another body he had managed to save from the purging flames. It was an effort to bring them so far, but worth it. He propped the Ghoul’s headless body against a wall and studied the piece of the dead Crypt Lord that occupied most of the dirt cave. He smiled gleefully, as a child about to unwrap a present might. But he wavered a moment before he tried to copy the design wholesale.
There was love of death and…he stared at the Crypt Lord’s face and remembered how the undead had poured in.
“It should be more beautiful than that. It must be. I have to prove to her why I am different. Why I am—better.”
That was all he said. Then he continued his studies.
Somehow, after that terrible night of death and carnage, the world was still turning on. Liscor even had visitors coming through the gates. The Watch was busy checking for remaining undead and helping clear the rubble, but the presence on the walls of Liscor was strong.
It meant it was easier to steal and cause trouble if you were a thief. Most of Liscor’s underworld criminals were inactive, though, perhaps counting how close they too had come to being slaughtered.
Yet a young woman, a Human girl, a thief—crouched in an alleyway, scarfing down baked treats she’d stolen from a bakery window. She was figuring out what she needed next. She wouldn’t have cared if the undead had killed all the filthy lizards and furry half-breeds in the city. She was starving, alone, and desperate.
Her head only rose when a vehicle rolled past the mouth of the alley. The girl crept forwards—and her eyes went wide. She stared at the pinkest carriage she had ever seen in her life, which Drakes and Gnolls glanced up at.
Some recognized it, yet vaguely, for it had never come to Liscor before. But the girl—she dropped one of her half-eaten rolls and ran, shouting.
“Magnolia! Magnolia Reinhart! It’s me!”
She ran, waving her hands, as the carriage navigated the streets and pedestrians. The driver turned his head back—and the young woman with dyed blonde hair already revealing fiery red roots threw back a hood, lifting a hand. She expected to be recognized.
A window rolled down, and for a second, she caught a glimpse of the woman inside.
Lady Magnolia Reinhart was speaking to the air, through a [Communication] spell so powerful that the girl couldn’t see who she was talking to. She glanced out, and the young woman saw her gaze pass absently over her face. Magnolia stared behind her—then calmly rolled the window back up.
The carriage accelerated. The thief ran after it, screaming now, but it just rolled away until she lost it in the streets. She only gave up when one of the Gnoll [Guardswomen] asked if something was wrong. Then she fled, cursing Magnolia’s name.
Ressa looked back through the one-way glass window enchanted to be proof against arrows and magic and casual observers. She had seen the young woman and recognized her.
“She made it all the way here. That’s actually commendable. Was that—kind?”
Her voice was careful, and the normally taciturn [Maid] looked up as Magnolia Reinhart lifted a finger. The [Lady] glanced up, and she spoke to a sulking figure in the air.
“One moment, Teriarch. Ressa—I am speaking to an old man with difficulties in splitting his attention. Really, do you think this is appropriate?”
The [Maid] just folded her arms and glanced pointedly behind her where the young woman had been.
“Old man? You go too far, child. First, you give me orders to find people as if I were your personal [Diviner]. Then you lecture me on—”
Magnolia muted the spell with a finger. She looked back as well, though the ‘thief’ had long vanished. Her face was…inhospitable in this moment.
Tight. She looked so pained that Ressa almost forgave her uncharitableness. The [Lady] took another deep breath.
“That girl. What of her, Ressa? Yes, I saw her. Yes, she made it far. Commendable in some respects.”
“She might die out here. She didn’t look like she was doing well. Theofore claims she’s mostly stealing.”
Magnolia made a disgusted sound as she tapped her lips.
“Has she considered working? One imagines she could.”
“No…nor does she seem keen on speaking with any Drakes or Gnolls. But her gold’s run out.”
“She has quite a lot on her. If I took her in, then what? She would be the most insufferable headache imaginable. To me, personally, to you…”
Ressa grimaced, and Magnolia went on. Teriarch had huffily closed the spell when he realized he was muted. Typical.
The carriage was slowing, and she wasn’t looking behind her. Only ahead at the two-story building they’d come to. The sign was simple, ubiquitous…and Magnolia saw the driver leap out and open the door for her. But she hesitated as Ressa got out. Her eyes fixed on that sign, and she paused a second.
When she did leave the carriage, Magnolia nodded to the man standing in his prim suit, attracting stares from the Drakes and Gnolls.
“Thank you, Reynold. I—I may take a while.”
“Very good, Lady Reinhart. I shall take the carriage around back.”
He stepped back, and Magnolia looked into the guild as a [Receptionist] poked her head over the counter and saw two more [Maids] appear and hold the doors open. Selys’ jaw dropped, but Magnolia just stared inside, then turned.
“Ressa. I have so much to do. And so little time for someone who does nothing with everything. I would rather…”
Her gaze flitted towards the staircase as Guildmistress Tekshia herself stomped over, facing Magnolia and Ressa warily. Magnolia’s lips moved.
“…I would rather take all my time for those who try for everything. Should I have meddled?”
She looked lost, a moment, and Ressa stared at her mistress in silence.
“You let them try.”
That was all Magnolia said. Then she turned and smiled with a faraway look at Tekshia, and Selys, eyes wide, heard the [Lady]’s voice.
“Lady Reinhart. Is that how I should address you?”
The woman laughed. That laugh was fake, polite—and her eyes were still elsewhere. Above. She looked up those stairs, and Tekshia’s glance at her became knowing.
“Oh. Are you here for your guest? If you want to take her…”
“No. No, Guildmistress. I am not here. In fact, I should be grateful if you let me tarry a moment…then I will depart. Without interfering in your city or falling afoul of your Council. I know that I am not—well liked here.”
“Some wouldn’t mind your presence. I—personally think you’re a dangerous distraction. But fine. You have a right to see her. You two are related, aren’t you?”
Magnolia began to walk for the stairs, ignoring everyone else. A few of the adventurers seemed to realize she was important, but Magnolia really had come like a ghost. She only halted when Tekshia put her spear out to block her. Ressa had a hand on the spear’s haft—and the two, Drake and Human, stared at each other.
“Is something wrong, Guildmistress? I hope you do not wish to bring up—the past at this moment.”
“Not at all.”
The Drake held Magnolia’s gaze. Then she held out a claw.
“—I just thought that if you were here, you could settle this young woman’s accommodations. Especially if you aren’t taking her. Liscor is rebuilding, and the Adventurer’s Guild doesn’t take charity.”
Magnolia’s eyes flickered. For a moment, they looked—upset. Then she exhaled. She looked about the city, where Drakes and Gnolls were rebuilding. She nodded to Ressa, and the [Maid], expressionless, dipped a hand into a bag of holding and produced a note. Magnolia nodded to her, and the [Maid] scribbled on it before producing a wax seal and her sapphire-silver Runner’s seal.
“Will—this do? For lodging?”
Tekshia regarded the note and snatched it from Ressa’s hand.
“I think the Watch Captain will appreciate it. It will keep her from jailing the survivors. Selys, send a Runner for the Merchant’s Guild and make a list of the homes that got wrecked. And the families that lost members of the Watch. That idiot, Lism, might know about children.”
“It’s Guildmaster. This way, Reinhart. You won’t take her?”
One old, yellow eye, still sharp as an edge of topaz, swung to regard Magnolia. The [Lady] blinked.
It was almost as if she hadn’t been paying attention, despite the sum that was making Selys’ eyes pop and hold onto the little card like it was an artifact. She looked at Tekshia—and smiled. This time, the smile seemed as if someone had stabbed her.
“No. I let my family make their own choices, for better or worse. I do not interfere. Would you think less of me for that?”
The [Guildmistress] looked Magnolia in the eyes, then at her granddaughter.
“I don’t bother with holding tails. I let the young make their own mistakes. It worked with me.”
“How else would they rise?”
The Human woman agreed absently. She followed Tekshia up the stairs to the few guest rooms the Adventurer’s Guild in Liscor had. But she stopped at the door as Tekshia opened it. She whispered, then.
“—If only I could catch them as they fell.”
Then she walked into that room and sat down. A blank-faced young woman with blonde hair stared past her. She didn’t react as Magnolia Reinhart sat on a stool that Ressa found, arranging her skirts. Magnolia reached out as Tekshia glanced at them—then closed the door.
“Yvlon? My dear—it’s me. Can you hear me?”
There was no response. Just a blank, blue stare as lost as the sun amidst the clouds. Magnolia glanced at the skin torn from her face.
“Ressa, can you…? An ointment or something?”
“She may want the scar.”
Magnolia’s eyes flashed—then she moderated her tone.
“A scar will haunt her—perhaps she will want it. But one cannot be undone. Something, Ressa.”
The [Maid] fussed around at her belt, then produced a poultice, not a healing potion, and dabbed it carefully across the wound. Yvlon shivered—but it was an automatic reaction. There was no one behind those blue eyes. Her hand was limp. Magnolia sat there, speaking, but there…there was no reaction.
“Will she recover, Ressa? She looks as Ulva did after Petra died.”
“I can’t say. She’s tough. Her entire family is.”
Done, Ressa closed the lid on the jar and stood. Yvlon kept staring out the window as Magnolia squeezed her hand tighter. She sat, hearing the Adventurer’s Guild move around her, the banging in the distance of [Carpenters], and occasionally, watching as Yvlon Byres blinked.
“I am sorry, Yvlon. I am so…I hoped you would come out of there covered in glory. I did not know. I cannot be everywhere. I should be, but I am one woman. Even now, you will not see me for some time. I am going north. Leaving all of you to your fates.”
She waited, perhaps hoping that blank face would turn to her and show something angry. Blue eyes…not green like emeralds, but Magnolia Reinhart spoke softly.
“You did all you could. You…were so brave. I am sure you were. If I could have—I always hope you succeed. You did not need me. That was what I thought. I am an unkind [Lady] of House Reinhart because I always expect it of you and all the others. I truly did think I would see you at a party in your honor. Now, I wish I could stay. But…”
She looked north. Yvlon sat there, her blonde hair untidy. Someone had helped cut her out of the remains of her silver armor. She looked perfectly fine for the nightmare she had escaped—save for the scar of flesh ripped from her features. Ressa’s ointment covered it, orange and smelling faintly acrid.
The white sheets, the calm, little guest room looked too perfect for the scar. The city, likewise, almost pleasant until you saw how people mourned in the streets in knots and how the smell of dead flesh and the acrid burning of the corpses lingered in the air.
The sunlight fell across Magnolia’s own dirtier blonde hair. She did not look like a young woman in her prime, an adventurer filled with dreams of fame and success like Yvlon had but a day ago. Her gaze seemed to be, like the city, no longer as pure.
Scarred. As if the wound on Yvlon’s face were long healed and a figment captured in Magnolia’s stare. All of that followed her head as it looked north. As if tracing a line of responsibility for her to follow. Her voice was low as she spoke, enunciating each word into the small room such that it felt like they left a trail. Echoing.
“…There are those who did not seek this. Something is happening, Yvlon. I need to seek it out. This time—I can’t be too late.”
She gazed back at Yvlon, and her hand squeezed tight on the yong woman’s.
“You have lost your team. Your friends. This moment must seem unbearable.”
Even now, Yvlon’s face never changed. But she flinched, and Magnolia Reinhart stood there, her own eyes glittering. Cold, green diamonds. Not merciless—pained, but harsh.
“You have lost more than you can dream. Yet, and yet, Yvlon Byres—mourn. Weep. Sit there as long as you must. But Izril will demand you to one day rise again and stand. You must. You will.”
Her gaze sought something in Yvlon’s expression—with such a painful—selfishness. As if she hoped that the young woman’s gaze would sharpen within a day of all of this. But nothing changed, and after six minutes, Magnolia slowly let go of Yvlon’s hand. She rose, painfully, trying to linger—but she did rise.
“I wish I could stay.”
Then she turned, hesitated by the doorframe—and spoke quietly to her [Maid]. Magnolia Reinhart looked back once, her eyes lighting on Yvlon’s face a mix of emotions she could not express in mere words. Then she was gone, her carriage rolling north. She could not undo time for Yvlon. So she spent only a moment here.
And still—the city kept breathing. It kept moving as Yvlon Byres blankly stared out the window, seeing nothing at all. People.
Relc patrolled the city; Ksmvr knelt trembling before his wroth Queen. Garia ran her deliveries, wondering all the while where her friend had gone. And more. More people carried out their lives and shaped the world in ways small and large.
But one girl ran through the grass, tired, exhausted. She had run for two days, running back through the grass, north along seldom-used roads from the Blood Fields. She had left in anger and despair. But as morning came over Liscor—
It took her two hours to get to the city through the Floodplains. When she arrived, Ryoka stopped and stared a while. She wandered into the city and smelled burnt flesh, walked past destroyed homes, and heard those mourning the dead. She came to the Adventurer’s Guild in a daze, never seeing the pink carriage already pulling out the northern gates.
She asked about her friends. She asked about Ceria and Calruz and Gerial and Sostrom. She listened and felt the world drop away.
The Drake receptionist took her to a small room with a small bed. She opened the door, and Ryoka sat next to Yvlon for a while. The other girl’s eyes were blank, and she scratched at the scarred flesh on her face. Healing potions could close a lot of wounds. But sometimes…
After a while, Ryoka stood up. Yvlon paid no notice. The girl walked out of the guild and out of the city. She walked towards the ruins and saw the entrance had been blockaded. Twenty giant ant-men stood in front of a wall of dirt, barring entry.
She watched them until it was too much to bear. Ryoka left the ruins and walked through the long grass outside of Liscor. She walked until she was lost among the grass, walking and walking without a purpose.
Ryoka never noticed the Goblin that rose out of the grass, following her. She never noticed the large rock that moved towards her slowly. She walked on, staring at the sky.
She did not cry. She did not rage. She was empty. Emptiness became her.
Guilt and sadness was the air she breathed. Death walked next to her and whispered in her ear. Ryoka walked and scarcely thought.
When it was all too much, Ryoka stopped. The Goblin drew a sharp knife from his side, and the moving stone crept up on both Goblin and Humans, unnoticed.
Ryoka took a deep breath. She stood in the plains and screamed. The moving boulder jerked. The Goblin froze.
Large, leathery birds rose out of the grass in panic. They flew away as the Goblin leapt back, clapping his hands to his ears, and the Rock Crab scuttled back in alarm. The sound pierced the air, travelled miles, and made travellers on the road look up at the sky.
Ryoka screamed until she could bear it no more. She punched at the ground wildly, tore at her own hair. She screamed and screamed until her body was unable to scream any more.
Then Ryoka stopped.
Her throat was raw, and she coughed and tasted blood. Ryoka had to sip from one of the healing potions she’d bought before she could breathe without agony.
She walked on, despairing. Ryoka tripped over a rock and fell face-first onto the ground. She lay there a while. Empty.
After a while, her stomach growled. Ryoka ignored it.
She lay on the ground, cursing it. She cursed the blue sky and the citizens of Liscor and the adventurers. She cursed the undead, the monster that had killed her friends. She cursed the dead gods, the ones she had known, the world she now lived in, and the one she had come from. She cursed all things and especially herself.
This is who she was. This is who she had been. Ryoka was filled with that same self-loathing she had gone to the Bloodfields with. But she had come back all this way, survived Persua and it all so she could…
Apologize. Apologize to whom? They were gone. Yvlon was the only survivor, and she hadn’t moved a muscle as Ryoka talked to her. Ryoka’s tears trickled into the grass. She should never have gone.
She should have come back sooner. Ryoka lay there for what must have been an hour as the Goblin with the knife stared at her. She was utterly defenseless.
The knife-Goblin looked at Ryoka, then at the distant Goblins celebrating their victory over Skinner. It stared at the little Chieftain, Rags, and then at that broken inn on a hill. All these things the Goblin weighed. Did they matter at all?
It looked at the tears falling from the young woman. And the Goblin—put away its knife. He walked away, and Ryoka lay there. Weeping into the grass.
After a while, her stomach growled again. This time, Ryoka listened and sat up.
She scrubbed at her face with handfuls of grass and looked around. Evening. She was starving and lost. But when she looked towards Liscor, she saw a building on a hill. When Ryoka drew closer, she saw it was an inn.
Like the city, it had been touched by death and battle. The inn was cracked in places, broken in others. The ground was churned in places; the soil upturned and grass trampled. An outhouse around back had been smashed in one part.
Everything had been hastily patched back up. Ryoka eyed the boards nailed clumsily together. They spoke of life, and she was starving.
She looked up at the sign above the inn.
The Wandering Inn. Like the rest of the building, the words were scratched in places, and green blood had dried on part of the sign.
Yet still the inn stood. It drew Ryoka, although she couldn’t say why. Here was a place to rest. A place to eat, perhaps. Or just a place to wait until the pain went away.
It would do.
Ryoka put her hand on the door and hesitated. She stared at the half-ruined building. Then she turned away.
If her friends had been inside, laughing and celebrating their near escape or even wounded, in need of help, Ryoka would have pushed that door in and come in shyly, begging forgiveness. But they were gone. She had been told this was where they were staying. What was there inside?
Nothing for her. Ryoka stepped back. Her heart still hurt too much for words, much less mundane company. Ryoka turned, ignoring her stomach. She was empty.
She walked down the slope, not knowing where she was going. Perhaps north. Perhaps nowhere. She just had to run. Run, and run.
Because there was nothing left to stop for anymore.
Ryoka took out her iPhone and turned it on. She began to walk and then to jog. She made it ten steps before a sound distracted her.
Her phone began to ring. Ryoka stared at it. Slowly, she hit the glowing green button and raised her phone to her ear.
End of Volume 1
It has been seven years, I think. Seven years since I began writing Volume 1 of The Wandering Inn, at the beginning of all of this.
If it was six or eight, don’t correct me. Seven sounds better. I will be publishing Volume 1, rewritten, on my birthday. With it, I am finally happy enough to let this be printed, and while I have kept the bones of the old story, I have added and tweaked and rewritten some chapters because I am a far better author than I was.
All the old chapters will be kept up for people to read if they wish, but this is better. Better because I did not erase what made the old good, but added onto it, I feel.
I have many people to thank. All my readers for making The Wandering Inn more popular than I could have hoped for. Diana Gill for editing it. My assistant and agent for helping organize all this. And my beta-reading crew and the typo-killing squad, who went through hundreds of thousands of words to make this the best experience possible.
I do not share much about myself, because I am not much of a public person. I am at my best when I am writing, and while sometimes I’d love to be a public author, I think ‘pirateaba’ is my best side. Writers are not necessarily good at speaking, and fame is like a rabid squirrel. You may want to chase it, until it bites you. And then it never lets go and you’re infected.
…The point I am making is this. I have written The Wandering Inn for seven years. It is the most I have devoted to anything in my life except perhaps school—and this is one project. After seven years, I am a far better writer than when I began, and I am glad to come back and give new readers the experience the story deserves.
It is not perfect, and I am learning. But the web serial continues. We are on Volume 9 and there is a ways to go. I hope I can make it. My birthday is tomorrow. When you read this, I will be old. My time is short and I fear I may not make it to the end.
I’m turning 30 tomorrow. I was 23 when I began. That’s my pirateaba fact after seven years, and yes, this is an attack on anyone older than me. The Wandering Inn has been an amazing amount of change for me, writing it and learning. Everything that comes after and because of this story is amazing. Thanks for reading, or re-reading, and I hope you continue to enjoy the story.