She was a Queen, and he was not. In theory, that meant that he would obey her every whim. But theory is a poor substitute for reality, and the Antinium had long ago learned that a single entity could not be trusted to make the best choice every time.
So the position of Prognugator had been established, and much work had gone into their being. Each Prognugator was able to assist their Queen by handling the lesser affairs of the Hive, and even caution her if they believed she was in error.
Such incidents were rare, but they spoke to a system that worked. And yet, this particular Antinium was neither Prognugator nor another Queen, and still he had authority of his own.
Klbkch, newly reincarnated Revalantor of the Free Antinium, was technically above the rank of Prognugator. He could ignore even his Queen’s instructions, such was the nature of his duties.
Still, there was a difference between willful disobedience for a higher purpose and rebellion. Klbkch still obeyed his Queen’s orders in normal affairs, and she could question his actions much as he could hers.
Such as now.
“Glass windows? Why, Klbkchhezeim?”
Klbkch lowered his head as he knelt before his Queen.
“I deemed it a necessary expense, milady. The Hive can easily afford the cost, after all.”
“‘Can’ does not mean ‘should’. Moreover, you were rebuilding an inn that the human destroyed herself. Why waste the Hive’s resources on such a trivial thing?”
“We have more than enough funds to spare.”
This was true, but what of it? The Queen knew their Hive had enough gold to buy windows for much of Liscor. They provided valuable services with their Workers, although they took care not to take away too many jobs from the local citizenry.
In fact, they regularly under-produced when providing services. The Antinium’s Workers could construct and deconstruct buildings overnight if they so chose. They were efficient, tireless, and didn’t need to bother with measuring tools or work from a blueprint.
It would be a simple matter to take over much of Liscor’s industry, but that would invariably lead to economic disaster. And the Hive was meant to work together with other species, not drive them apart.
So while the Free Antinium occupied a vital slice of the economy, they still left plenty of work and opportunity for business with other species. They bought many goods—food, crafted items, and clothing, despite having little need for any of it. The Hive could produce all of the Antinium’s needs, but no one had to know that.
None of that justified needless waste. The Queen stared hard at Klbkch.
“Explain. Is this a gift to be offered this human child, or a bribe of sorts?”
“A gift, my Queen. Goodwill offered so that she might assist us with our tasks.”
“Hmf. I see.”
Klbkch spread his hands. He had only two, which bothered the Queen still. But it was something he had requested, and the efficiency of his new form would become evident in time.
“We need Erin Solstice far more than she needs us. And I believe her help should not be coerced. Small gifts and assistance rendered may benefit us in the long run.”
“The fact that it is her, a single human who has achieved the dream of the Antinium bothers me deeply, Klbkchhezeim. Why her? Why now? Why, after so long does it appear to be so simple?”
Klbkch tried to calm the agitation he sensed in his Queen. He spoke calmly and clearly.
“Perhaps because we have been foolish and adopted the wrong approach. We had no idea how to go about accomplishing this impossibility. And perhaps—because Erin Solstice is no ordinary human.”
The Queen did, and in more ways than just what Klbkch said. She knew he was keeping a secret from her regarding the human known as Erin Solstice. She did not care. Klbkch was loyal and if she did not trust him implicitly, he would not have lived past the day. He just irritated her sometimes. But then, they’d been a pair, the two of them, for longer than she could remember. It was just their way.
“The new one, Ksmvr. He struggles to take up your mantle.”
“Is that surprising? He is new. Give him time.”
“I would have killed him for his failure before.”
“He did not know. I have rectified his thinking. And a Prognugator is needed in the Hive.”
The Queen shifted. There was much she didn’t like about the current situation. That was odd, considering that they had finally achieved part of the Antinium’s dream.
“What else goes on in the world above?”
Klbkch nodded. He paused, thinking. A Worker would never pause, and neither would a Soldier. But neither truly thought. Thought was something the Queen had learned to value above all else. She waited, patiently.
“The Listeners to the south also report a group of Gnoll warriors heading towards the city. They are led by a high-level warrior, and all belong to the Silverfang Tribe.”
“Interesting. The same tribe as before? Gazi the Omniscient slew the last group of warriors. What merits such great need that they would risk a second party?”
“Erin Solstice, perhaps. Or maybe a confluence of events.”
“Hrm. See to it they do not disturb the plan.”
“The Listeners report a Courier has come delivering a package from the north. He is already in the city, asking after the Drake named Olesm.”
“At least this does not involve Erin Solstice.”
Klbkch paused again, and then, for the first time in years, the Queen heard humor in his voice.
“Not quite, milady. He asks after the best chess player in the city. He believes that is Olesm, but…”
The Queen shifted in her spot in the cavern, moving her bloated body. Her voice rose, and the Soldiers standing guard at the entrance to her room stirred.
“Why does the world turn upon one small human? What makes her unique!?”
The wrath of his ruler did not fase Klbkch, and his voice cut through her ire as he raised it.
“Perhaps because another world turns upon her as well. And she is not alone. Ryoka Griffin, Erin Solstice…they are pieces. I believe they are connected with the other anomalies found by the Hives.”
That stopped his Queen. She paused, and took in the silent messages he sent her across the telepathic link.
“It must be discussed. Find out more. I will speak with the others. In the meantime, others come from three Hives. They will wish to see the Abber—the Individuals. Ensure all five come to no harm.”
“With your permission, I will send them to the inn—under guard—with other Workers to continue learning to play chess.”
“Do so. Do what you must, Klbkch. I will keep the affairs of the Hive in order, regardless of what must be done above.”
“Thank you, my Queen.”
She sighed. She’d lost her closest confidant, her second feeler and her blade and shield. Her duties weighed on her more heavily.
But. But this was a time of change. A time of glorious revelation and success. She could feel it in her core. Just a little longer, and perhaps…
“They will be here soon. Do what can be done with this innkeeper until then.”
There was nothing left to be said. The Queen raised a languid feeler and paused. A final thought made her speak.
“…Are you quite sure she has no more of those acid flies?”
“What a pity.”
Once upon a time, there was an old city. A millennia ago, it stood tall and proud, a kingdom rich in both magic and wealth. But like all things, it eventually faded. The people’s hearts grew small, or perhaps the rulers grew arrogant and cruel. Eventually, the city fell to corruption from within.
They sealed their doors, and built terrible weapons. The survivors created traps to protect their wealth and loosed monsters in the walls of their homes. They sealed away the most powerful of their relics, daring any to claim them from this place of death.
Or something. Erin wasn’t too sure on the exact details, but the ancient ruins were apparently a big find, and everyone was excited and terrified.
Excited, because you might find the one ring of power in the ruins. Terrified, because Sauron himself might be down there, ready to poke your eye out.
Either way, the story made no sense.
“How the heck do you forget about an entire city?”
Olesm shrugged helplessly as he considered his next move. Erin waited to see whether he thought losing the bishop or the knight was a better idea. True, traditional thought on the matter said that bishops were more valuable over time, but the knight could threaten her king. Until she took it out with a little trap with a knight and her queen, that was.
“It surprised the Captain as much as everyone else. I mean, it was a fluke discovery. We were looking for something that might identify the species of monster Skinner was, and then we found a nearly complete map and some ruined texts in a book.”
Ceria watched as Olesm carefully saved his bishop from certain doom. Erin snatched away his knight and began advancing on Olesm’s king as they talked.
It had been a long time since either Olesm or Erin had played chess. So both had taken the time to play a few games after all they’d established that a second Skinner was not about to rip their faces off.
Really, Olesm could have waited until tomorrow. But since sleep was pretty much out after Ceria’s nightmare, they’d stayed up, fortified by hot food and games of chess. Well, Olesm and Erin played chess. Ceria just watched.
“You’d think someone would at least remember, right?”
“I don’t know. It was a long time ago, and I suppose if the ruins were never found people would just forget. It could have been thousands of years old. Some of the ruins people find date back to the time when Elves still roamed the earth.”
“Yes. Zevara says—well, she’s worried whether this is a magic dungeon or just an old one. Skinner sort of points to it being magical, which would be trouble.”
“Um. Aren’t all dungeons magical?”
“No…at least, a lot of dungeons have magical things in them it’s true, but a magical dungeon has some kind of source of mana. It—well, Ceria, can you explain?”
The half-Elf nodded. She went to fold her hands behind her heads and stopped.
“Magical dungeons are special because they essentially don’t run out of monsters. And they’re a completely different magnitude of dangerous than a non-magical dungeon.”
Erin captured one of Olesm’s pawns and he groaned.
“The mana in the dungeons attracts nastier monsters. Plus, it might make them stronger. Add that to the fact that whatever’s producing the mana is usually incredibly deadly, and some dungeons never get fully cleared. The nearby cities and nations just post guards and hire adventurers to keep the monster populations on the higher levels in check and pray nothing really bad comes out.”
“Sounds awful. And there’ll be more things like that Skinner?”
“The tombs were more like a non-magical dungeon, despite the undead. So, no. The rest of the dungeons might be far worse.”
“Is there any good news?”
Olesm shook his head, but only because Erin was about to checkmate him.
“Maybe. It could be good for business. When adventurers hear there’s a huge dungeon here, they’re going to flood into the city.”
“I thought they did. Then they ran away.”
“Those were Bronze and Silver-rank adventurers. But a confirmed magical dungeon this old? It’s going to pull in Named Adventurers and Gold-rank adventurers, possibly even from other continents.”
“Whoa. Sounds good. And bad.”
“Mhm. Am I in checkmate?”
“In two moves you are.”
Olesm sighed and tipped over his king. He looked at the board sadly and shook his head.
“I thought the few levels I gained would make a difference, but that’s not the case.”
“You’re getting better.”
Erin reassured the Drake. She glanced out one of her lovely glass windows and frowned at the sky. It was getting light outside.
“Hm. Odd. I thought I’d get a few more visitors by now.”
“Visitors? Do you mean the Antinium? Or the Goblins?”
“No, I meant visitors. Guests. People I don’t know who want to buy lots of food and give me money.”
Erin sighed. She glanced out the window. The city was visible in the distance, but she didn’t see any people heading her way.
“You see, I was selling those hamburgers all yesterday and I was sure everyone would come rushing here tomorrow to buy more. But maybe they’re all not hungry? Or still sleeping?”
Olesm fidgeted as he reset the board.
“Oh. About that…”
Someone pushed open the door. Erin turned around, beaming.
“Hello, welcome! Come in and—oh. It’s you.”
Pisces kicked snow in from outside as he stumbled into the warm room. He looked around distractedly, and then lurched over to Erin.
“Ah. There you are. Your inn moved. Why did it move?”
Erin scowled at him and wondered if this was sign of how her day would be. Pisces was not her favorite guest. In fact, she’d prefer to have almost anyone in her inn but him.
But she paused and reconsidered as Pisces approached. He seemed thinner than normal, and his robes were even dirtier than normal. When had she last seen him? A day ago?
No—not since they’d come out of the Ruins with Ceria. Normally Pisces appeared at her inn every other day at the minimum. Where had he been?
The mage’s messy hair was a sparrow’s nest, and his eyes were bloodshot. But he was grinning manically as he approached. He held something clasped between both hands, and Erin eyed it warily.
“Pisces. Why are you here?”
“I’ve just made a tremendous—no, exceptional achievement in the field of necromancy. I have formulated a new branch of magic, by myself.”
He glanced around and only now seemed to notice Ceria and Olesm.
“Ah. Springwalker. Drake. Greetings.”
Ceria raised one eye at Pisces. She didn’t seem surprised by his disheveled state.
“Pisces. What madness have you cooked up this time?”
Erin wasn’t sure she wanted to know. But Pisces was clearly eager to show her. He opened his hands.
He lifted one hand to show Erin what was on his palm. Erin blinked down at something small and—crawly?
She flipped his hand up and the spider landed on Pisces’ face. He screamed.
“Get it off!”
The small spider scuttled off his face and onto the ground. It sped towards Olesm and the Drake yelped and toppled out of his chair. But the spider ignored him. It sped up a table leg and crawled underneath the bottom of the table to reach the top. There it paused, silently facing Olesm.
“Spider! Squash it!”
Ceria caught Erin as she raised the chessboard to smush the horrible thing. The half-Elf held her back as Pisces got back up off the ground.
“Don’t hurt it! It’s my creation!”
Pisces was breathing hard. He shakily pointed at the spider as it stayed stock still, facing him.
“It’s dead. Undead, to be precise.”
Erin stared. As instinctive fear left her, she realized what Pisces was saying.
“No. You made an undead spider?”
Pisces gestured at the small spider as if it were something to be proud of.
“I may be the first [Necromancer] in years to master the animation of a species without bone. I even learned a new Skill. And leveled!”
For a few seconds, Erin debated hitting him, or the spider. Then she gave up and just accepted this as horrible reality.
She looked at the spider. It was quite small, now that she wasn’t staring at it close-up. That didn’t make it better.
It looked like the spiders you heard about in Australia or the Amazon, the ones which could kill in a single bite. It had a black body, but red crimson chitin plating its legs.
That was right. This spider looked like it had armor on its body, not just carapace. Erin shuddered. It stared up at her without moving, just like any other undead. But it was a spider. That made everything far worse.
“Okay. You’ve officially made the most horrible thing in existence. Undead spiders. Good for you. Now take it out of my inn.”
Pisces blinked at her. He gestured again at his spider.
“But it’s my latest creation. It’s a marvel. It—”
“Take. It. Out. Or I’ll squash it.”
Pieces stared at Erin. Then he scowled and pointed. Instantly, the undead spider leapt off the table and scuttled out the open door. Erin closed the door behind it and shuddered.
“Can’t I have anyone normal visit my inn for once?”
Pisces found an overturned chair, considered it, and took one that was already upright instead. Erin glared as she righted the overturned chair.
“Well, I believe my efforts have been noticed. I would like a meal, if you please. I’m quite famished.”
It was a strange thing. Both Erin and Ceria eyed Pisces at the same time, and both could tell the other was thinking of smacking him on the back of the head. That made them smile.
Olesm looked like he would have enjoyed throwing a few chess pieces at the mage as he gathered them up. But he held himself back. Instead, he sat at the table and reset the board as he spoke.
“I don’t see why a spider is that impressive. True, it’s a unique form of Necromancy, but is it more impressive than an army of zombies?”
Pisces sniffed. He splayed his hands on the table and looked pointedly at the kitchen. Erin ignored the look.
“It’s more of a revelation that Necromancy can be applied to more unusual corpse types than anything else at the moment. Animated spiders would only be useful for ambushes or reconnaissance in the military context. Bone and flesh is easier to use, but it’s the improvement I wished to bring to your attention.”
He nodded at Erin.
“As you might recall, you questioned me about the possibility of using non-humanoid remains to create undead. I took up your challenge, and thus the fruits of my labor were made manifest.”
Erin vaguely remembered needling Pisces about that. She regretted ever bringing the topic up.
“Great. Now you can make undead spiders. Keep them away, and we don’t have a problem. But that’s not something I really care about. I’m more interested in one skeleton. Toren.”
Pisces looked at Erin with a slight frown, and then around the inn.
“What about my creation? Is something…wrong with him?”
Erin tried to explain as briefly as possible what had happened. Pisces rolled his eyes when she told him about her order to go away, but he seemed attentive to the problem, at least.
“He’s gone. I can’t find him anywhere. You wouldn’t happen to be able to find him, would you?”
The mage paused, and closed his eyes.
“Odd. I should be able to tell where he is, but I cannot.”
Ceria took a seat opposite Pisces.
“I thought [Necromancers] could tell where all their creations are, regardless if they bound them to someone else.”
“Normally that’s true. But I’m—not sensing his aura anywhere nearby.”
Erin stared worriedly at Pisces.
“He’s not dead, is he?”
He sniffed at her. Erin raised a clenched fist threateningly, and Pisces spoke faster.
“What I mean, is that he’s still animated, but I can’t sense his location. I would know if Toren had been uncreated, but I can’t locate him. It’s almost as if…something is interfering with his aura.”
“Magical spike? A concentration of mana?”
Pisces nodded at Ceria.
“Something like that. I could try to get closer, but that would involve a lot of work.”
“Well? What’s stopping you?”
Erin propped her hands on her hips and stared at Pisces. He blinked at her.
“Why would I do that? The skeleton will return sooner or later, regardless of your orders. It is in his nature. Besides, I’m quite hungry. As I said. Would you bring me a menu, or your dish of the day?”
“Of course! Because all I want to do is make food for a mage who brings spiders into my inn and never pays me!”
Erin raised her voice and grabbed at her hair. Pisces was impossible. Ceria punched him in the shoulder and Pisces gave her a hurt look as he rubbed at his shoulder.
“If your skeleton isn’t back by tomorrow I’ll take a look. But I need food to cast magic, and I’ve been sequestered by myself for the last few days. A few hours won’t make any difference. And I am a valued customer. Unless you were expecting other patrons?”
“I thought I’d have hundreds of customers by now! Or at least ten!”
Erin stomped around her inn, wondering what she could get away with serving Pisces that would take the least amount of effort. She pointed furiously out the window at the city.
“I made over four hundred hamburgers yesterday, and not one person’s coming here for another! Why’s that?”
“Hamburger? Interesting. I will try one.”
Olesm coughed into a scaled hand as Erin made a strangled sound.
“I can explain that, Erin.”
She looked at him. The Drake looked apologetic.
“I saw a lot of shopkeepers and vendors on the streets as I was coming here. Only a few were open that early, but all of them were selling those hamburgers.”
They’d taken her recipe? Well, it wasn’t her recipe, but it still felt like theft.
Erin stared at Olesm, hurt. That wasn’t fair. Actually, it was. Erin didn’t own the hamburger recipe and it was really easy to make, but it still felt wrong. Ryoka had warned her. Erin just hadn’t expected the copying to happen overnight.
“But I’ve got more than just hamburgers! I’ve got other food I’m totally ready to make.”
“Really? I’ll sample all of it for you and give you my considered opinion.”
“I’m sorry, Erin. But that’s how it works. You have a really good idea, and the others decided to copy you. They’ve got your recipe down quite well. The only thing they haven’t managed to figure out is how to make the red and white stuff.”
Mayonnaise and ketchup. At least Erin still had that, although the two condiments were such a pain to make it didn’t make her feel any better. She slumped into a chair and sighed.
“Great. So much for a full house tonight.”
“Sorry about that, Erin. If it helps, I think you’ll still have Relc and Klbkch tonight. And probably some of the Antinium too.”
Ceria patted Erin on the back. Erin nodded. It was good that she had a customer base, but her hopes had been dashed. She’d really thought she had something special.
“…Alright. I guess I can make a stupid cheeseburger or something.”
Pisces raised a finger.
“This ‘hamburger’ interests me more, actually. I prefer meat.”
“It’s the same thing!”
Erin had slapped together a fast cheeseburger and served it to an appreciative Pisces when she started to feel a bit better. She sat down with Olesm and Ceria, listening to the mage’s appreciative noises and thought today might not be that bad.
True, it was a disappointment about the customers, but—
Someone knocked on the door to her inn. Erin’s eyes widened and she stopped beating Olesm in chess to smile at the Drake.
“Aha! See? First customer of the day.”
He blinked at her as Erin raised her voice.
The door opened. But instead of the Drake or Gnoll that Erin expected, a human stepped into her inn. He shook some snow off his shoes and stepped into the room.
“Good day. I’m looking for a Drake named Olesm. He wouldn’t happen to be in here, would he?”
Olesm looked up from his game of chess as the young man who’d entered spotted him. In a few steps he was at Erin and Olesm’s table.
Erin blinked up at the guy, so surprised that she nearly didn’t wonder how he’d moved so fast. He was a human? A human guy?
Yes, he was a normal human being. He had tanned skin, black hair, and a slightly crooked nose. He was dressed in traveling attire, and he looked like he was in great shape.
Olesm stood up.
“I’m Olesm. Um, are you some kind of messenger?”
“I’m a Courier from the First Landing. I’ve got a delivery for the best chess player in the city of Liscor. Would that be you?”
The Drake’s eyes went wide, and he looked from the Courier to Erin.
“A Courier? That’s—I mean, yes, I am the best chess player in Liscor, but Erin here is far better than I am. What’s this about?”
“I’ve got a package. It’s got no listed recipient, but the instructions I was given were to deliver this to whoever recognizes this drawing.”
The Courier fished in his pocket, and pulled something out. Everyone in the room stared at a worn, faded, piece of parchment. Erin recognized it instantly as he unfolded it.
The ink had run in places from water stains, and someone had spilled something orange on a corner of the parchment, but on one side she saw a simple chess puzzle, with her listed solution on the back.
On the other side, a complex little chess game she’d once struggled with had been solved in four moves. Olesm took the piece of paper from the Courier and inspected the scribbled lines next to the puzzle with shaking claws.
“It’s…correct. Correct! I struggled for over a week on this one. Someone else figured it out?”
“Ah, so you are the creator of this…thing?”
The Courier lifted a thick, wrapped bundle out of the rucksack on his back. Olesm blinked at him and shook his head swiftly.
“Me? No, I barely solved it. Erin’s the one who made the puzzle.”
He pointed at Erin and she blinked and turned red as the Courier turned to her. He was taller than her by a good few inches, and he scrutinized her hard.
“My apologies. You’re the creator of the puzzle? My name is Valceif. Val. I was told to deliver this to you.”
“Me? Oh, I’m Erin. Erin Solstice. I uh, did make that, but I didn’t expect anything in return. Just…a letter, not anything else. What’s this about?”
“I really couldn’t say, Miss Erin. I’m simply a Courier. Someone put a generous request up for priority delivery to whoever sent this piece of paper. I’m supposed to give it to you, if you did make it.”
“I did. But…what is it?”
Val glanced down at something in his left hand.
“Hm. You’re not lying, so that makes you my recipient.”
He offered her the package, but Erin was still metaphorically ten feet behind the conversation. She blinked at his hand.
“How do you know I wasn’t lying? Is that a Skill?”
Val shook his head. The Courier opened his palm, and showed Erin a clear bit of quartz hanging from a leather cord. The clear stone was glowing yellow.
“Just a gem with a [Detect Truth] spell enchanted on it. Standard-issue for Couriers.”
“A Courier? That’s like a super-important Runner, right?”
He smiled, briefly.
“Some might say so. We’re just more competent than City Runners, that’s all. We do long-distance deliveries that are too important to entrust to anyone else. Someone paid a lot of gold to get this to you, Erin. I’d be pleased if you took it off my hands.”
She reached out for the package, and then hesitated.
“What should I do? I don’t have any Seals on me! You need one, right?”
He shook his head.
“It’s fine. Couriers use a different system than City Runners and Street Runners.”
He held up the wrapped package, and for the first time Erin noticed something odd about it. The object had been wrapped in layers of some kind of brown canvas fabric, but a black ribbon bound the object together. And in the center of the ribbon, a strange runic stone was embedded.
It glowed with black light. Ceria whistled and Pisces looked up from his meal to stare at the strange object. Val tapped it gently.
“This is a Courier’s Seal. It will record this location, your faces and identities, and the time I completed my request. Any mage will be able to ensure I delivered my package to the right recipient this way.”
“Oh. So—so it’s going to take a picture of me?”
“Something like that. Just place your hand on the seal, and it will do the rest. Don’t worry; it won’t hurt you.”
That didn’t sound reassuring, but Val was insistent, and Erin was intensely curious. Gingerly, she put her palm on the stone.
The black light glowing from the stone turned immediately white. Erin snatched her hand back, but the stone didn’t do anything else. It just fell off the ribbon, and Val caught it as the package began to unravel slightly.
“My delivery has been completed. Thank you.”
“Um, you’re welcome. I mean, thanks!”
Erin took the wrapped object and looked at it, at a total loss. It wasn’t that heavy—it felt rectangular and hard under her hands. She looked at Ceria desperately.
“What should I do. What is this?”
The half-Elf shrugged. She stared intently at the package. Even the Courier seemed interested. He coughed into his hand.
“You’re free to dispose of the package, but it’s nothing dangerous. The mage at my Guild would have detected that. It’s a delivery to you.”
“Well then…should I open it?”
Olesm nodded eagerly. He stared at the piece of parchment in his claws and then at the package.
“It must be from whoever sent that puzzle in the first place! Open it, Erin!”
“If it’s not too much trouble, I’d like to see what it is as well. I’ve come a long way and the curiosity is eating away at me.”
Erin blinked at Val, and then nodded.
“Of course. Sure! First Landing…that’s far, right?”
Pisces snorted and Ceria laughed. Val looked amused.
“Well, um, have a seat if you want. This is an inn. Right, it’s an inn and I’m the innkeeper. I can get you food and I have a bed if you’re tired. Just as soon as I…”
Erin carried the package over to a table next to the one Pisces was at. The mage stood up, and he and Ceria walked over as Olesm and Val stared at the unassuming package.
Erin held her breath as she undid the black ribbon and pulled away the brown fabric. What could it be? She barely remembered sending the chess puzzle out, but someone had spent lots of money to send her something back? What could it be?
The last of the fabric fell away to reveal what was within. Everyone crowded closer to look, and then stared. Olesm’s face fell, and Erin felt disappointed.
It was…a chessboard. Just a chess board. It was made of gloriously smooth wood, and there was a deep richness to the set that made Erin think that she was holding something worth thousands of dollars in her world, but it was just a chess board.
It didn’t even have any pieces with it.
For a second, everyone stared at the chess board, and then Pisces snorted and went back to his hamburger. Erin stared down at the carved piece of wood, disappointed and even more confused than before.
“What’s this? It’s just a chess board. Why would anyone send me that?”
Ceria poked the board and shrugged.
“It looks nice. That’s quite a nice grain of wood there. A solid piece of Afzelia if I’m not mistaken.”
Erin had no idea what that was, but it sounded expensive. Even so, the chess board mystified her.
“What good is a chess board without pieces, huh?”
That was sort of the point. You didn’t need a chess board—the pieces were what mattered. You could play on the ground with lines drawn in the dirt if you had the pieces. But what good was a board?
Olesm scratched the spines on his head.
“Maybe it’s a gift to whoever made such a good puzzle?”
That made sense, but Erin wasn’t sure.
“It was just a puzzle. It wasn’t that hard. I know a lot more that are even worse.”
Olesm’s tail sagged.
“What? Really? But I worked so hard on it!”
Erin bit her tongue and tried to take back her words.
“I don’t mean it’s easy. No—you did a great job, Olesm! It’s just that I don’t get why anyone would spend this much money sending something just for a chess puzzle.”
“Some rich folks are like that. It could just be a gift of appreciation.”
Val nodded at the chess board, and Erin jumped to remember he was still there. He frowned at the board.
“It doesn’t explain why the sender was in such a hurry to get it here, but I suppose some people are simply impatient. But there was no request for a reply, just a confirmation of delivery.”
Was that curious? Erin thought so. What was the point of sending a chess puzzle if you didn’t send another, even harder one back? That was how it was supposed to go, and she was really looking forward to a dialogue. Back in her world, she’d done that with several people online…
The Courier shrugged, and rolled his shoulders, cracking his neck gently.
“Well, it’s a mystery. But I’m glad I was able to find you. I searched the entire city for the better part of an hour before I was told Olesm might be in this inn. And then the inn turned out to be in a different spot than I was told.”
“Oops. Um, yeah. We…moved a few days ago.”
“It only took me a few minutes to find the correct one. Don’t worry about it; the signs were helpful.”
Val smiled, and Erin smiled back. He had an openness to him that she liked.
“Well, I guess I’ll use this later. It’ll be good if we play more games of chess. For now…”
The wrappings Erin tossed in the kitchen. She could reuse some of it, and the brown fabric looked tough. She put the board on a table in one corner of the room and forgot about it the instant she turned around. Erin looked at Val and realized she had an opportunity here.
“Um, Val? I’m really grateful you came all the way here. And I’m actually an [Innkeeper], and this is my inn. So…would you like something to eat before you go?”
The Courier had been stretching, possibly about to run out the door. But at Erin’s words he paused, and grinned. He looked around the inn and nodded.
“I’d love that. Do you have anything you recommend?”
Erin smiled slyly, and Olesm and Ceria had to grin.
“How about a hamburger?”
Pisces raised one hand and called out.
“I shall have another!”
Ryoka ran through the night and into the next day without stopping. It was willpower and desperation that kept her moving. Only that and one of Octavia’s stamina potions.
Every time Ryoka took a gulp of the terrible, blue liquid she wished she could rip out her tongue. But a second later energy would flood through her veins like a bursting dam. She ran ahead, legs forgetting the aches they kept reminding her body of, sprinting down the frozen road by herself.
But no matter how fast she ran, she knew she would never catch Val. He was so fast. Beyond fast. He’d surpassed the human limit. Her limit.
A horse would have been hard-pressed to keep up with him. No—he was probably neck and neck with a galloping horse. Maybe faster.
God. Ryoka closed her eyes for the briefest moment as she ran on. She’d always thought she could take on the challenges of this world by herself, without magic or classes. With some clever tactics and Octavia’s alchemy, Ryoka had thought she might qualify as a Courier. But Val had shattered that illusion.
He could run twice as fast as she could. That wasn’t just cheating. It was reinventing what it meant to be human. If people could beat horses without machines…
Maybe it was time to rethink her ideals. If that was what Ryoka could attain, maybe…
Ryoka’s melancholic thoughts were interrupted by a flash of light far off to her left. She paused, slowed, and changed directions in a heartbeat. Something was lying in the snow, around a mile away.
It was small at first, but as Ryoka approached she realized the object was actually huge. She stopped as the snowy ground grew muddy underfoot.
It was a…massive suit of armor. It lay spread-eagled on the ground, in an area of ground that was no longer covered in snow. The snow had melted, and something had turned the wet grass into a muddy landscape.
Ryoka slowed as she made her way across the broken earth and churned and muddy ground. What had happened here? A battle of some kind. But this armor…
As she stepped next to it, Ryoka realized that this armor wasn’t normal at all. It was plate armor to begin with; black metal hammered together to create an imposing behemoth. And behemoth was the right word for this armor. It was massive.
Even Calruz—even he would have found the armor a loose fit. But that wasn’t what attracted Ryoka’s attention. No, it was another aspect of the armor that bothered her.
It was battered. There was no other word for it. It looked like someone had bashed every single square inch of the armor with hammers. The black metal was dented in places—in others, Ryoka found holes where something small had punched through the metal.
Crossbow bolts? Ryoka doubted it, but that was the only thing she could think of. Either that or a huge longbow had done this damage. She’d seen only one broken crossbow in her entire time in this world, but something had punched through the armor.
But that brought another question to Ryoka’s mind. She squatted down next to the damaged piece of plate. It had no helmet, so she could peer inside without a problem. And what she saw was an absence of any blood or flesh.
There was no blood on the armor. Anywhere. That was the oddest thing. With all this damage, there surely should have been some blood or a corpse nearby, but the armor was simply empty.
Ryoka looked around. Someone had fought there. There should be some bodies. But there weren’t. She saw something else sticking out of the ground and headed towards it.
A massive, broken sword was embedded in the ground twenty meters away. Ryoka stared at it and noticed how something had cracked the blade in two different places.
“What the hell…?”
Just by following the muddy ground, Ryoka could see a terrific battle had been waged in this area. The swath of muddy ground was nearly two miles across, and reached all the way back to the foot of a mountain in the distance.
Ryoka followed them to an odd opening in the rock. It looked like the opening to a cave, but very small. It was just large enough that the massive armor might have fit through, but it was too thin to let anything wider through.
The human girl peered into the darkness of the cave, but couldn’t see anything. She went back to the armor, and regarded it.
She was no metallurgist, but Ryoka guessed that was the case. It rang as she knocked on the armor with her knuckles. Iron would have been more of a thunk.
Who had the resources to make something so expensive? Ryoka was almost tempted to try and see if she could salvage the armor, but it was so wrecked she didn’t know if it was worth it.
It was probably worth it either way. Ryoka mentally marked the location as something to come back to. After a moment of hesitation, she buried the armor in the snow so it would be less visible from the road.
But who had fought here? Who was the wearer of the armor, and who had destroyed it? There were no clues.
Just another mystery to solve. Ryoka groaned as she stood back up. More tracks led into the crack in the mountainside. Something had gone in there, but Ryoka wasn’t about to follow.
For one thing, she was exhausted. For another, she had an aversion to entering dark caves where something with a crossbow might or might not be lurking. And for a third reason, she had a Courier to catch.
She was only a few hours away from Liscor. Ryoka made her way back to the road and set off. Her body hurt. She wanted another sip of the stamina potion, but Octavia had warned her it could only stave off exhaustion for so long.
Ryoka ran through the brightening morning, thinking only of the end. She could have food, a place to sit, and hot water when she got to Erin’s inn.
But when she arrived at the place where The Wandering Inn should have been, Ryoka only saw an empty hilltop. She stared up at the empty spot and looked around. No. She was definitely in the right place. But…
“…Where the hell did it go?”
The inn’s glass windows were full of warmth and light when Ryoka finally found it. For a few minutes she just leaned against the wall of the inn, too exhausted to do anything else. Then the tantalizing smell and heat from inside called to her, and she pushed the door open.
The room was beautifully warm, and the instant Ryoka entered, she saw a familiar face. Ceria sat at one table, smiling and laughing with Olesm. Pisces sat across from them, munching on a familiar food. Erin sat at a table and laughed with Val—
Ryoka stopped in her tracks as Erin got to her feet. The Courier inclined his head at her and said something apologetically. She waved it away as she walked towards the kitchen.
“Another hamburger? Coming right up!”
Ryoka stared at Val as he leaned back in his chair and sighed happily. He had several empty plates on the table, and he looked like he’d been in the inn for quite a while.
He looked towards the open door, and saw Ryoka. Instantly, Val smiled.
“Ryoka? What a surprise! I didn’t expect to see you here! Did you just get in?”
Everyone in the room looked up at the sound of her name. Erin halted in her tracks, and beamed.
Ceria got to her feet, and so did Olesm. Ryoka walked slowly forwards as her friends approached.
Erin went to hug Ryoka or do something friendly, but then she halted a few feet away from the running girl. Olesm sneezed, Erin coughed, and Ceria leaned away from Ryoka. She couldn’t blame them.
“Sorry. I just got here. Ran all night.”
Ryoka knew she was drenched in sweat, melted snow, and not a bit of mud. But Erin waved at her face and smiled anyways.
“Wow, that’s fast! Here, take a seat and I’ll get you some food. And a towel. Do you want a drink? I’ve got this alcoholic drink I bought from Krshia…”
Ryoka sat at the table opposite Val and stared at him. Erin hesitated.
“By the way Ryoka, this is another Runner. A Courier, actually. His name is—”
“Val. We’ve met.”
“You have? That’s so weird!”
Val nodded. He didn’t seem bothered by Ryoka’s pong.
“We just met in a city north of here. Ryoka actually helped me find my way here. But I didn’t think we’d meet in this inn. You’ll never believe this, Ryoka, but it turns out my destination was here all along. I was delivering it to this innkeeper, Miss Erin.”
“Yeah, it was a chessboard!”
Erin excitedly pointed to the chessboard in the corner of the room.
“I guess it was because I sent this puzzle to someone. And they gave me a chessboard. Well—it’s not that amazing, but it’s cool that we all know each other!”
Ryoka’s face was completely blank. Erin blinked at her, but Val leaned over to her.
“I think Ryoka would do better with some food and drink in her. Water, not alcohol.”
“Oh, right! You must be starving! Coming right up!”
She was so tired Ryoka didn’t even question the hamburger. But she did nearly tear up, especially when she bit into it.
A proper hamburger. Not crap fast food. She ate two before she even realized what was happening and drank six glasses of water. Slowly—the food she’d take, but she had no intention of vomiting in this new inn.
“…And then they gave me windows, see?”
Erin was finishing explaining how her inn had moved from its previous location. It was a disjointed explanation, but Ryoka got the gist. Exploding inns? She had no idea what to make of that.
“Well, I am glad to have discovered this inn. I’ve never tasted food like this. I’d love to take the recipe back up north. I’m sure the innkeepers up there would love to learn it.”
Val sighed as he rested his hands over his full stomach. Erin smiled crookedly.
“It can’t hurt to tell you, I guess.”
There was something behind her words, but Ryoka’s head felt like static. She was full, and dog-tired, but she had another thought as she looked at Pisces and Ceria, arguing over something in the corner.
“I’ve got a problem.”
Everyone looked at her, and Ryoka realized she shouldn’t have blurted it out. But it was too late now. Ryoka’s exhausted mind couldn’t handle subtleties, only the thing that had bugged her all the way here.
“Can you tell if someone’s cast a mind-altering spell on me?”
She addressed that comment to Pisces and Ceria. The two mages blinked and exchanged a glance, and then came over to sit at their table.
“Mind magic? What, did someone hit you with something, Ryoka?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. Can you test me?”
It was just something the faeries had said. But the only people Ryoka even remotely trusted were the two in front of her. Ceria and Pisces exchanged another look and nodded. They were oddly in synch at times.
“There’s an easy way to tell, although it’s odd. Normally, a spell that messes with the head will remain concealed until the victim is aware of it. And naturally the magic prevents them from realizing something’s off. But if you think there’s a spell on you, this should work.”
Ceria explained as she raised her hand. Her fingertips were glowing green. Across from her, Pisces closed his eyes as his fingertips glowed blue.
Pisces and Ceria cast the spell at the same time and glared at each other. The room suddenly lit up.
Ryoka and Erin gasped as Val suddenly exploded in colors like a Christmas tree. Magical auras swirled around him, concentrating on spots about his person. His pockets, places at his belt—
“Tree rot. You were right, Ryoka!”
Ceria pointed at Ryoka. She looked around, and noticed a shining coming from her as well. It was hard to see, but there was something…swirling around her head? Something bright, like a halo of smog. Erin stared at it.
“Hey! Your belt is glowing too!”
It was true. Some of the potions on Ryoka’s belt were glowing faintly, but one of them—the orange-pink potion Teriarch had given her was shining with light. Val whistled.
“There’s some magic here.”
Pisces and Ceria had their own aura of glowing colors as well. In fact, only Erin and Olesm were without their aura of colors. The inn was full of magical auras shining from different locations. Val, Ryoka, Ceria, the chessboard, Pisces…
“Well, there’s something strong affecting you, that’s certain.”
Both mages canceled their spell and the inn faded back into the normal range of colors. Everything suddenly seemed drab and ordinary. Ceria stared at Ryoka’s head, and shook her head.
“You’re enchanted. And with something so powerful that I don’t know that I can do anything about it. Sorry, Ryoka.”
“I know I can’t do anything about that.”
Pisces sat back in his chair, wide-eyed. He took Val’s drink and drained it.
“That’s Tier…6 magic? Tier 7? Who did you anger so to make them use that on you?”
“I have an idea. Damn.”
Ryoka sighed, frustrated but vindicated. She was right. And maybe the faeries were…nah. It couldn’t be. But how could they tell?
Val frowned at Ryoka, and then fished in his pockets.
“You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you? Hold on; here. Take this.”
He took something out of his pocket and showed it to Ryoka and the room.
“I’ve got a powerful charm I use to ward against that kind of magic. It’s worth several thousand gold pieces, so it should remove anything that’s affecting you.”
“Oh! I know those!”
Erin peered excitedly at the charm dangling from Val’s hand. Ryoka recognized the object as well. It was a dreamcatcher, a circle in which someone had woven threads together in a symmetrical shape, like a spider’s web.
The only difference here was that this dreamcatcher was a far smaller version of the ones Ryoka and Erin had seen – barely longer than a thumb. And the frame was made of metal, not wood. But the threads were beautiful, each one a shimmering line of color that made a tantalizing pattern in the center of the charm.
“Here. Just put it against your head and it will dispel any magic on you.”
Val handed the dreamcatcher to Ryoka, and she looked at it dubiously.
“Are you sure?”
“It’s not a one-use item, and if you’re enchanted, you’ll need something powerful to remove it. Consider it a favor from one Runner to another.”
“Huh. Uh, thanks.”
As soon as she accepted it, the small charm began buzz. Val nodded.
“You’re under the effects of something.”
Ryoka lifted it up, and suddenly the buzzing became a low whine. Val frowned.
“It shouldn’t be making that sound. Wait a—”
Too late. Ryoka pressed the charm against her head. She felt the metal warm, and then it cooled. Ryoka lowered the charm, and stared at it, bemused.
“I don’t know if anything hap—”
Something clicked in her head. It was like Ryoka suddenly going through déjà vu, only a thousand times stronger. She blinked. Memory, forgotten memory rushed into her head. Along with a word.
One word, echoing in her head.
The whine coming from the dreamcatcher suddenly turned into a shriek. Olesm clapped his hands over his ears and Pisces and Ceria ducked.
The dreamcatcher exploded, throwing Ryoka backwards. Val moved like a whirlwind, and Erin gasped as fiery fragments disappeared inches from her face.
Ryoka was catapulted over the top of a table, knocking Pisces’s empty plate off. She crashed hard to the ground as porcelain shattered under her, and felt something wrench in her shoulder.
“Ryoka! Are you okay?”
Erin crouched next to Ryoka, peering anxiously at her friend’s face. Ryoka was alright, albeit bruised and dazed. But she didn’t respond right away. Her eyes were flickering. The dreamcatcher had worked.
She remembered. She remembered everything.