When Ryoka finished her run, she found Erin and Olesm sitting around the chessboard, discussing chess. She, Val, and Hawk stopped to watch the two.
If running was their world, Erin and Olesm belonged to the silent, mystifying world of chess. It reminded Ryoka a bit of religion, only instead of an altar or text, Erin and Olesm used a chessboard.
But then, would playing chess be the equivalent of prayer? And what was blasphemy? Flipping the board? And why was Ryoka taking this analogy so far?
She coughed into one hand. Olesm and Erin didn’t even look up.
“See, that’s when I knew he was pushing with the left side and trying to set me up for a pin. Here. So I did this and…”
“Ah! That’s when he made the blunder!”
“Right. But even if he didn’t, I would have taken a pawn and taken an advantage for the endgame. Which is where it would have gone if he hadn’t opened himself up like that.”
Olesm was busy writing on pieces of parchment as Erin explained. At least she looked happy. Ryoka still wasn’t sure about the advisability of playing chess with someone unknown but—
Trust. She had to trust Erin. Not with everything, but at least with this.
Ryoka coughed again, louder. Then she gave up.
Erin looked up. She caught sight of Val and Hawk, and her eyes widened.
Olesm looked round and nearly dropped his quill.
“Is that Hawk? What are you doing here?”
Hawk smiled as he and Val stepped into the room. Ryoka was displeased to note that they weren’t even sweating.
“We had a morning run, and Hawk and I were thinking of staying here for a chat. Unless you’re busy with your…game?”
“What? The chess? Oh, no. We’ve got lots of tables.”
Erin hovered around the two Couriers as they chose a table on the other side of the room. She kept staring at Hawk, and Ryoka knew she wanted to pet him. Erin was complex in many ways, but her hand was twitching.
“Can I…get you two anything? Breakfast? An early lunch? Snacks?”
“Can I have a hamburger?”
Hawk looked wistfully at Erin. Val groaned.
“Anything but a hamburger. How about those potato strips?”
“French fries? Sure! One hamburger and fries coming up. You want ketchup? Everyone wants ketchup.”
Ryoka looked at Olesm as Erin bustled around. The Drake was still writing on the parchment. Chess…notation?
“Now would be a good time for you to use your head, idiot.”
Olesm looked up.
“Hm? I’m sorry, were you speaking to me, Ryoka?”
He went back to writing. Ryoka tried to clear her mind. She’d had her morning run, and that was helping dispel the effects of last night’s partying and drinking.
Now—concentrate. What was he doing? Writing things down. Obviously. Try to think a bit harder than pre-school level analysis. No, if Olesm was writing down Erin’s chess game—presumably against the other player—and given her comments about an equal game…
Erin was considered better than anyone else…
Ah. He was making a record of chess games. That was again, obvious. But Ryoka could see him making commentary notes on another sheet. And you only did that when…
“A newsletter. Or magazine.”
Olesm looked up again.
“Sorry. Just thinking aloud.”
“It’s quite fascinating, isn’t it? Erin is a brilliant player and her opponent—”
“I imagine you must level quite often, playing her.”
The Drake made a face Ryoka could only describe as ruefully awkward.
“Not that much. But you’re right. I did level up quite a bit, and quite quickly too!”
Great. So Erin was helping whoever was on the other side of the world. Ryoka eyed the parchment. Would reading chess strategy help other [Tacticians]? For that matter, why was chess so good for [Tacticians] anyways? It was a game. One that involved strategy, true, but not…
“Oh my god.”
“That’s an interesting phrase. Most humans just say ‘dead gods’.”
Ryoka didn’t answer. That was it. Think for five seconds and you could figure out one of the critical truths of this world. This system of leveling had not been created by someone from Ryoka and Erin’s world, from Earth.
If what Ryoka thought was true. She had to ask.
He looked at her, quill poised above the parchment.
“Are you familiar with most classes? I mean, I assume there are rare classes, but you know all of the ones people normally receive, don’t you?”
“To an extent. I do ask about classes so I can use them if I need to coordinate with the Watch, so you could say that. Why? Was there one you were interested in?”
“Are there any classes for people who play…games? Board games, I mean?”
Olesm frowned and tapped his chin with the quill, ignoring the spots it left on his scales.
“Board games…we don’t really have that many. There are checkers, of course, and I know there are games that [Tacticians] have invented like chess…but none other that I can think of. Kids mostly play games like tailpuck or beanbag throwing.”
“Any classes related to that? A…class that involves playing against others for fun?”
“[Gambler]? Um…I’ve heard of some people getting the [Layabout] class or [Idler] class depending on what people call it, but that’s something that usually only applies to the aristocracy, you know, fourth sons and all that. Otherwise I suppose the [Tactician] class is the only one that fits.”
“I thought so. Thanks.”
“No problem. Glad I could help?”
Ryoka left Olesm to his game, thinking hard. She was right. It explained everything.
Question. Why did [Tacticians] level up from playing chess? Perhaps a few levels could be explained by the idea of strategy, feints, and so on, but that kind of rapid growth? No. It made no sense, especially not for a class that should be gaining experience from commanding armies and making dangerous decisions.
Yes, normally if you were going to level it should be in some kind of board game playing class, only there wasn’t one. And that was why Olesm and the others were leveling, and also why Erin wasn’t.
Because there was no [Gamer] class. And whoever had designed the initial system hadn’t thought of—no, perhaps it was the culture which hadn’t yet adapted to the idea of someone who just played casual games without a tactical or gambling focus. Erin thought of the game as casual; not something that she should gain a [Tactician] class from. But Olesm and the others looked on it as something different.
Which meant that Erin and Ryoka by themselves didn’t constitute enough of a group to define a new class, if that were even possible. The idea of pre-defined classes made by the creator of this leveling system might not gel with culture defining classes—Ryoka decided to table that idea for now as unconfirmed.
But it all made sense. It was a loophole in the system.
And she had no way to exploit it, unless she decided she wanted to play chess. And even then, probably only Erin would gain the benefits if she stopped looking at it as a game.
But that wasn’t the truly frightening thing. What was truly frightening was the secondary thought that had sprung into Ryoka’s mind as she stared at the chessboard.
Was it an accident? Or…was it on purpose. Chess. It had just been invented in this world, and it was gaining popularity among [Tacticians]. Enough so that one person had sent an expensive chessboard across the world, paying probably thousands of gold coins for the board, delivery, and so on.
Because they loved chess? Or because they knew it would help them level up if they found a worthy opponent?
Did the person who invented chess know they’d found a way to peacefully, easily level up their class? Or was it coincidence?
And what the hell should Ryoka do about the chessboard?
She considered her options. They weren’t numerous, and most of them would lead to Erin pitching a fit, even if the board ‘disappeared’ by accident. And the dangers…
True, it would help one person. But considering them an enemy because they might be using this to their advantage wasn’t wise. For all they knew, they were benefiting Erin as much as themselves, and that was if Ryoka’s darkest fears were completely on a level.
At any rate, Erin’s skill made her noteworthy, and more importantly, valuable. Was it better to be valuable and noticed or hidden and secret? She’d already sent the letter, and it would invite more problems to stop now.
Let her play was Ryoka’s plan of action, but she resolved to talk with Erin as soon as possible. Right after—
“Hey, do you want some fries?”
Ryoka nearly jumped out of her skin. Erin stepped back to avoid Ryoka knocking the big platter of golden, crispy, french fries. Ryoka stared at them.
“That was fast.”
“Yeah, it’s this new skill I got! [Advanced Cooking]. It makes preparing everything so easy, and look!”
Erin held up the plate in front of Ryoka. Each fry had been cooked until the skins were golden-brown, and Ryoka could just imagine the crunch. And hear it, because she’d tried one.
“This is good.”
“I know, right? So much better than the ones I made the first time! Skills are awesome!”
There was no denying that. Awesome. And scary.
“Anyways, I made a ton since I want to eat while I play with Olesm. Too bad they’re so greasy, but I bet the pieces won’t even take the grease!”
Erin beamed as she pointed to the magic chessboard and the ghostly pieces. Yes, that was Erin. Give her a magical chessboard capable of playing anyone around the world and she thought it was nifty because she wouldn’t get food on the chess pieces.
…Actually, if Ryoka could do that with clothing she wouldn’t mind forking over as much gold as necessary. Erin carried the food over to Val and Hawk, much to their approval and called out over her shoulder.
“Oh yeah, I forgot! Ceria’s upstairs, Ryoka!”
Ryoka looked over, confused.
“She’s back already?”
They’d barely been gone for two hours, even with their discussion about dangerous places and monsters to avoid. Erin nodded.
“Yeah, she said she wanted to rest. But I’m sure she’s still awake. You could invite her for…french fry brunch! Or let her sleep if she’s napping.”
“I might do that.”
Ryoka left Erin behind as the innkeeper happily went back to the game with Olesm and the Couriers began eating. The taste of the french fry lingered in Ryoka’s mouth. It wasn’t quite a McDonald’s fry, but damn it, it was close. Skills were the scariest thing in the world if they could let Erin do that.
“And maybe they’ll change me, too.”
Absolute power corrupts absolutely. But what did…changes like classes and levels do to people? Empower? Or turn them into unstoppable bullies who picked on the weak?
Ryoka knew what it would do to people from her world. She’d seen the Stanford Prison experiment footage.
But people were different here. Some were better. Or maybe it was just that Ryoka noticed they were better. It might be that there were monsters, actual monsters to fight, or that people had to risk their lives. Those who went through trials might strip away some of the things that burdened people like Ryoka, might make themselves different.
Ryoka pushed open the door and stopped.
Or—perhaps they were altogether too alien for Ryoka to ever comprehend.
Ceria sat on the bed the Antinium had helped construct, in the light from the window, her features fair, her hair caught in the sun. Sometimes Ryoka forgot that half of her ancestry was immortal. Long dead, yes, but the flickers of her unearthly nature made Ceria so unique at times.
At others, she was just like any human. But Ryoka had never asked her about her parents. And—
She had the sense that it was something she shouldn’t ask for a long time, anyways. Not if what Ryoka thought was true. Cause and effect. Predictability.
The world was made of sad stories.
Such as these.
Ceria turned as she heard Ryoka step into the room. She wiped at her eyes, but didn’t pretend she hadn’t been crying.
“Ryoka. Sorry, I didn’t know you were back.”
“Where should I start?”
Ceria laughed. She held up her skeletal hand mockingly, and shook her head.
“No. It’s not that. It’s Yvlon. She’s awake.”
For a second Ryoka had to remember, and then she recalled the female adventurer captain who wore silver armor. She felt a pang of guilt, remembering Yvlon had been at the Adventurer’s Guild and she’d never seen her. But—
“Is she okay?”
“Her body is. They fixed most of the injuries she got, but she’s—scarred. But her mind…”
Ceria shook her head, despairingly.
“She just woke up. When she saw me, I thought—she blames herself.”
It said it all, really. Ryoka listened to the sound of the same tragic story replaying itself out behind Ceria’s words.
“I had to leave because she was getting agitated. But she knows almost no one’s left. And the insurance—”
“The gold for the families of the dead?”
“Yes. We can’t pay it. I mean, she’s the only captain left, and her squad perished entirely in the Ruins. There are about eight others who made it, and they’ve scattered to the winds. And all our equipment was seized by the Watch.”
“And how does she feel about what happened?”
Ceria raised her shoulders slightly, and let them drop.
“How do you think? She blames herself for everything, never mind that Skinner ambushed us. But she wouldn’t calm down, and we had to get people to stop her before she injured herself. I had to go.”
The news had affected the half-Elf, Ryoka could see. But as to making Ceria feel better—
Ryoka looked to the stairs, wondering if she could call Erin. If not for support, at least for advice. Ceria noticed her look and shook her head.
“I’m fine. I wouldn’t want to disturb…whatever she and Olesm are doing.”
“Not having sex, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
Ceria half-choked. Ryoka stared at her, eyebrows raised.
“About Olesm…it was—”
“Forget it. I didn’t come here to ask about that. And I don’t want to bother you. But if it’s a problem, I’d rather ask now before you melt Erin’s face off.”
“It’s freeze, actually. I’m not good at fire spells. And I wouldn’t do that.”
Ceria sighed and settled back on her bed, gesturing for Ryoka to take a seat. The girl rejoiced internally; she’d gotten the topic away from adventurers and death. Smooth conversationalist, Ryoka was not.
“Slime molds, I’d nearly forgotten about last night…look, I’m not sure what Olesm thinks. But if Erin’s interested in him—”
“Are you sure?”
“Fairly. It would be obvious, wouldn’t you imagine?”
“I would. But Olesm likes her.”
“Right. And you like Olesm.”
Ceria smiled, and Ryoka had to ask.
“Ryoka, I’m not saying anything. Just…it was good. And I like him for more reasons than just him saving my life, although that helps. We spent days down there with only each other to talk to. Whisper, really.”
“I’m not judging. But I wonder if others will.”
Ceria lost her slight smile, and Ryoka regretted saying that. But it was a good point.
“I wonder…we’ll see. I’m not even sure if there is a next time or anything. But…”
“Enough about him. He likes chess, and I’m sure he’s honest. He and Erin can stare at that board all day, but I’m not going to. What did you come here to ask about?”
“Magic. But if you don’t feel like it I can…”
“No, no. Now’s a good time as any.”
Ceria waved her hand and moved awkwardly to face Ryoka. She let her skeletal hand sit in her lap as she spoke. It was still hard to ignore, but Ryoka tried to meet Ceria’s eyes without turning it into a staring contest. It was awkward; she’d rarely had a long conversation at close-range. Or at any range, really.
“I suppose it was wrong of me to teach you a single spell and just leave you, but I was assuming you’d gain a level or two in the [Mage] class, and you’d be able to learn a few more spells from your level ups. But I guess that’s not going to happen, is it?”
“Not really. Is…that a problem? Can you not learn some spells or magic without a class?”
Ceria shook her head.
“No. It just makes things harder, that’s all. Leveling up is a great way to learn a new spell, and it’s so much faster than teaching yourself.”
She drummed the fingers of her good hand on her leggings.
“So, where shall we begin? If you want a formal education, I advise you to pull up a seat next to Pisces and wait for about a year. I can’t teach you what I learned in Wistram, but I can teach you some spells, if you want.”
“Anything you can do is fine by me. But I don’t know any of the basics of magic. How wands work, how spells work…”
“Wands amplify your magic. They have stored energy which may or may not restore itself over time. Depends on the quality of the wand—some contain spells that you can trigger once or multiple times.”
“Fine. Then how about artifacts?”
“Think wand, only usually with recharging mana and deeper reserves. Also, if you ever get one, never tell anyone you have it because some people will kill for it. Or offer you a king’s ransom.”
“Spells? I’d like to learn some.”
“Got a month?”
Ceria raised an eyebrow and Ryoka had to smile.
“You taught me [Light] in a day. Can’t you teach me another one?”
“If I know it. Or Pisces might help, but he’s finicky. Which one did you want to learn?”
Ryoka had a list. She’d thought it over, and if she could learn any, there were three she’d desperately love to know.
“How about [Detect Magic], [Fireball], and [Haste]?”
Ceria rolled her eyes.
“Everyone wants to know how to cast [Fireball]. Well, you’re out of luck. I can’t cast it, and neither can Pisces. I used a wand for that when I had to cast the spell. But I do know [Ice Spike]. Trouble is, you probably won’t be able to cast it without a wand.”
“Yes. It’s a matter of shaping the energy. Oh, I could cast the spell once, but the backlash would hurt. Maybe if I had a skill or more levels…plus, it’s Tier 3.”
“Which means it will take a long time to learn?”
“At your level, a year. No offense, but you’re a novice. [Detect Magic] is Tier 3 too, and [Haste]…no.”
“What’s wrong with that spell?”
“There are Tiers of magic. I explained this, didn’t I? Right, well, you could consider the spell you want to learn – [Haste] as a Tier 4 spell. No—wait, is it Tier 5? I don’t know, sorry.”
“Does that mean I can’t learn it?”
“No, you can learn it. Or rather, you have the potential to. It’s just…I can cast Tier 3 magic at best. Tier 4 – it’s possible, but I’d need a spellbook and weeks—maybe months to learn the spell at my level. Maybe I could learn it in a week if I had a tutor, but if I’m teaching myself…”
Ceria shook her head.
“It’s about time and effort. Put enough into a spell and you can master it. But there are limits. If I wanted to learn a spell like [Grand Fireball], it would take me years even if I knew how the spell was supposed to go. My magic isn’t at the level where I can understand it yet, and I’m not well-versed in fire magic anyways.”
“Right. So it’s not worth the effort?”
“It’s totally worth the effort, but I don’t have a spellbook. Why do you think I adventure for a living? It’s certainly not for my health.”
Ceria tapped her finger on knee, thinking.
“Pisces knows one Tier 4 spell, and that’s [Invisibility]. I remember him learning it – it nearly killed him and he studied every night for at least two hours for a month before he got it down. And he’s a genius. An arrogant, insufferable one, but he learned [Invisibility] when he was Level 18. He leveled twice from learning it.”
“So leveling for mages allows them to comprehend spells faster? Like [Grand Fireball]?”
“Well, assuming I gained ten levels overnight…yes. It would be far, far easier for me to learn. On the other hand, if I somehow…figured out how the spell works, I could learn it just as easily.”
Ryoka frowned. It sounded like magic was definitely not a linear thing. From what she remembered of learning [Light], it was almost closer to…reaching a mathematical revelation, solving a formula, or something of that nature. She let Ceria go on.
“Anyways, as a general guide, Tier 3 magic is good for fighting, so long as you’re not going after anything too deadly. [Ice Spike] for instance is Tier 3. There’s a derivative spell – [Ice Shard] that’s Tier 2. [Frozen Wind] is Tier 1, although I know Pisces can make the spell a lot stronger than it’s supposed to be.”
“And [Light]? Tier 1?”
“Well, I’d call it Tier 0 if I could, honestly. It’s one of the most basic magics people learn. Making light, making heat…[Spark] is another example.”
That made sense, and Ryoka was tempted to ask about [Spark], but—
“You can add magic to a spell? How?”
“Like this. Didn’t I show you?”
Ceria raised her hand and a familiar orb of bright yellow light appeared in her hand, a soft sun. She flicked the orb of golden light at Ryoka. The girl raised a hand reflexively and the light splashed around her hand, fading away as Ryoka’s eyes widened in amazement. She’d felt nothing when the light struck her flesh.
“You can throw it, but only a really good mage can control it at a distance. Same with size; you can add more mana to make the light bigger or give it a different shape, but these are just exercises. They help with your ability to control spells, but it’s just light in the end.”
“How about brightness? Can you make it as bright as the sun?”
“You can do the spell. You tell me.”
Ryoka concentrated. Ceria hadn’t even said [Light] to create the orb, but for some reason, Ryoka couldn’t do the same.
The orb drifted up out of her palm. It was just as bright as normal; no brighter. Ryoka frowned at it.
“How do I—?”
Wait, that was a stupid question. Who asked for the answer to everything? Ryoka closed her eyes, concentrating, and then the orb grew brighter behind her eyelids.
“Huh. That was…quick.”
It was tiring to add more energy to the spell. Ryoka focused though, and the orb grew brighter…brighter…
But not that bright. Ceria was shading her eyes, but it wasn’t as if she was in any danger of going blind. Ryoka sensed she might be able to increase the light of the sphere, but she didn’t want to risk anything.
She let the orb disappear. That was another trick she’d just figured out. It was like pushing or pulling, but maybe absorbing and releasing were better ways of thinking of how she could control the power within her.
Whichever it was, the sensation was in a part of Ryoka’s mind she hadn’t even realized existed. Was…magic just like tonsils or an appendix? Something long forgotten?
“That was impressive. It’s hard to imagine something that bright. I can’t do it, myself.”
“Mages can’t form spells based off of nothing. The images in our heads become spells. So I can make the light spell really bright, but not as bright as, say, the sun.”
She raised her hand and another orb of light appeared. It turned a bright white as well, but not as bright as Ryoka’s.
“Guess I don’t look at bright things that often, huh? And I’ve never seen the sun up close so I have no real idea what it looks like. The fact that it is so bright makes it hard to envision. What did you look at to see something so bright?”
Floodlights at parties. Police lights. Car headlights, and the sun, yes, because she was stupid when she was a kid.
“Fire, and stuff like that. Ah, you’re saying that I can learn a spell better if I understand what goes into it?”
“Well, I suppose you could say that. Most mages have specialties—something they understand. Myself, I understand the cold. Spent a few winters in the snow and ice, and I’ve always liked snowflakes. But I’ve studied icicles as well, and…well, it just means spells like [Ice Spike] make more sense to me.”
She nodded at the orb of light in her hands.
“You can probably figure out the rest yourself, but I’ll teach you how to manipulate the [Light] spell. But as for [Haste] and [Fireball], you’re on your own. If I hear of someone selling a spellbook with those ones in it, I’ll let you know, but if you’re buying an entire book for one spell…”
“It’s not worth it. Right.”
“Well, you could learn other spells within, but I was going to say it’s too expensive. Spellbooks with Tier 4 magic in them are way out of my price range, even back when I was with—with the Horns.”
That might be different soon. Ryoka wondered how much eight hundred gold would get her. Probably a Tier 1 spellbook, or Tier 2 at best. But magic…she was willing to spend as many sleepless nights as necessary for magic. But if she had a class, how fast would she learn it?
Ceria must have sensed Ryoka’s dilemma.
“I’m still not sure why you don’t like classes, but—well, I’ve said enough in the past. If you don’t want to do it that way, it’s fine. Magic requires study even with levels.”
Ryoka nodded, relieved. Another choice deferred. Not a good practice, but she could think it over all day and all week if she had to. The Wandering Inn was a good place to learn and stay.
Ceria pointed to Ryoka, and changed the orb of light in her hands into a square.
“If we’re going to practice, we might as well make it a complete lesson. Do the [Light] spell again. Now, clear your mind. Focus on the spell, and add as much power into it as possible. Let’s see how bright you can really make it.”
Ryoka did, and the two practiced until they heard the scream.
“Aaaah! My eyes!”
Erin dropped the plate she was holding to cover her eyes, but when she looked down, Ceria had caught the plate and fries with a spell.
With her skeletal hand.
Erin stared as the room blurred around the tears and Ryoka and Ceria got up. Ceria tried to apologize. She was blinking quite rapidly, as was Ryoka.
“We were—practicing magic. How’s the chess game going?”
She didn’t get any response. Erin just pointed with her own hand, and both Ryoka and Ceria looked.
Ceria blinked at her hand and then froze. Ryoka stared at the glowing tip of the bleached bones.
“I didn’t know you could move it.”
“I didn’t—I mean, I moved it before, but it was unconscious. Like this time.”
“It must be magic.”
Ryoka gave Erin a look, and she blushed.
“Okay, obvious. But I was wondering how it was staying together and y’know, not falling apart without skin and stuff.”
“That’s true. I didn’t even think of that.”
“And you nearly put an ice spike through my head last time with it, so…it must move when you’re using a spell!”
Ryoka eyed Erin and looked between the two, but Ceria was nodding.
“When I channel magic it must—well, I hadn’t tried because I thought it was dead but maybe…”
She frowned at her hand. Ryoka and Erin saw nothing, but then the fingers twitched. And moved.
Ceria slowly closed the fingers into a fist, staring as the blackened skin and bones moved seamlessly. For Erin, it was the creepiest sight she’d ever seen; skeletons in biology class were one thing, but Ceria’s hand moved so naturally it was scary.
Ceria breathed the words.
“Oh man, that’s amazing!”
Erin wanted to hug Ceria, but the floating fries were in the way, and she was afraid she’d break the mage’s concentration. Ryoka was smiling, too.
“That’s impressive. Does it hurt?”
Ceria shook her hand, but now she was smiling too.
“What’s really impressive is that I can cast magic with it more easily than with my other hand. I felt it when I caught that plate. It must be the bones.”
Erin didn’t get that, but Ryoka did, instantly.
“Half-Elf bones conduct magic more easily?”
“It’s…a secret. Don’t tell anyone, please.”
Ryoka immediately nodded, and Erin did likewise.
“Of course not. Totally. Um, thanks for getting the fries.”
Ceria blinked, and only then seemed to remember the floating fries and plate in the air. She looked at Ryoka and Erin.
“Help me grab them? I can make them hover, but fine control is beyond me.”
In less than a minute, both girls had helped Ceria put the few remaining fries back on the plate, and had eaten more than half. They all went back downstairs to relay the good news to Olesm.
He was ecstatic, but then he had to show Ceria something which he clearly thought was equally important. He waved tightly-written parchment full of chess notation at Ceria, who just blinked at them. She wasn’t as impressed by his rendition of Erin’s game with the mystery opponent, either.
“Erin played a good game of chess? That’s good.”
“It’s more than good, Ceria. It’s…phenomenal! Incredible! It was—I’m sure whoever’s on the other side had to have leveled! I’ve never seen such playing. And I’ve got it written down here!”
He brandished the inky parchment at Ceria. She blinked at it, bemused.
Ryoka was frowning at the board, Erin noticed. Did she want to play? But the running girl wasn’t interested in that.
“Are you two done playing for the moment?”
“I think so. I think whoever’s on the other side is busy, because they tapped the board twice with a pawn and then stopped. But I bet they’ll play me tomorrow. And they’re so good. Isn’t it great?”
“Wunderbar. But is the other player really that good?”
“They’re really, really good, Ryoka. The best I’ve met in—”
Erin hesitated, realizing she might be hurting Olesm’s feelings, but the Drake nodded.
“They’re the best I’ve seen, too. They must be a [Strategist]!”
“That’s a different type of [Tactician]?”
“No—it’s like a [Spearmaster]. They’re class changes that occur when you reach a certain level. You get specialized or…better skills.”
Erin beamed, and she wondered when the mystery player would play her again. He’d won one game. Normally Erin didn’t feel bad about losing but—
It was a glorious day. She had french fries that were easy to make, Ceria and Olesm in her inn, and Val and Hawk and Ryoka as well!
But then the Couriers decided to leave, which was fine, and Olesm decided he needed to get back to the city as well. That still left Ceria and Ryoka, and Erin was happy to have them both here.
“What should we do? We can talk, or play games—other than chess—or we can go to the city or—”
Ryoka was staring out a window. Erin followed her gaze and her heart sank just a little.
Frost Faeries were swarming around her inn, peering through the glass, making faces, and then—
No. It couldn’t be. But as Erin watched in silent horror, the door slowly opened inwards to let a Frost Faerie into the room.
The small, azure creature looked around the room and smiled as Ryoka froze and Erin became a waxwork of horror. Ceria backed away until she was nearly towards the stairs, but too late. The Frost Faeries flew in.
They blasted in with a gust of cold air that put out the fire in the fireplace and reintroduced winter to Erin in a painful, freezing way. Ryoka and Erin covered their faces as icy particles stung their skin, and then the faeries were everywhere.
“Look, look! Two humans and a filthy halfling!”
“An inn! A place to rest and eat!”
“I shall have grilled pig! No! A grilled horse!”
“Look how they stand there, dumb and slow!”
“‘Tis without iron! Without pain!”
Ceria shouted above the din of voices as Ryoka and Erin stared around. Faeries were everywhere, climbing walls, sitting on tables, upending plates—
“My kitchen! Hey! Stay out!”
Erin ran, waving her hands and shouting as faeries disappeared into the kitchen with shrieks of laughter and the sounds of breaking dishes. Ryoka was swatting at the nimble fey as they flew around her, tugging at her hair or pulling strands out. But as the air around her froze, even the runner had to give up.
But the worst afflicted was Ceria. As soon as Erin managed to chase the faeries back into the inn and they lost interest bothering Ryoka, the entire herd seemed to fixate on Ceria. And not in a good way.
They flew around her as Ceria curled up, shielding her head. Some of the fairies dropped shards of ice on her; others threw patches of snow.
Erin’s voice wasn’t quite thunder, but it was louder than even the din of the faeries. They paused, and she hesitated, realizing she had no idea what was going on or what to say.
But Ryoka did.
“Why are you in here? I though faeries never entered buildings!”
The tall Asian girl faced the Frost Faeries without a trace of fear as they hovered in the air around the inn. Erin stood behind Ryoka with a lot of fear, remembering the avalanche that had hit her last time they’d gotten mad.
“You are not welcome here. Begone from this place.”
The Frost Faeries jeered as Ryoka pointed towards the door. One of them raised two fingers—an insult?—as she floated in front of Ryoka’s face.
“Hah! We can enter this place! It has no filthy iron in the making of it, and we were told we would be welcome as guests! We have a standing invitation, fool!”
Ryoka turned her head to look at Erin. The other girl looked innocently at her feet and mentally kicked herself repeatedly. The other girl leaned over to whisper in Erin’s ear.
“Is that true?”
“I didn’t know! They were going to attack the Workers while they were building so I said—I didn’t know!”
“Faerie bargains. Never trust anything they do.”
“Don’t make them mad, Ryoka! They can cause avalanches…and they know King Arthur?”
One of the faeries had been hovering right next to the two as they whispered. She laughed shrilly.
“Hah! Is that all ye wee mortals think about? King Arthur? The stupid whanker didn’t even know of Caliburn when we spoke of it!”
“Caliburn? You mean the Sword in the Stone?”
Ryoka’s gaze riveted upon the faerie, and Erin felt like an idiot. But the faerie just flipped them both off and flipped away into the air.
“You ask questions of guests? Where is our welcome, our drink and food? We demand our due! Bring us thimbles of wine and golden cakes and marzipan tarts and custards and we may grant you a boon!”
“But first let us chase off this impertinent one who would dare share this roof!”
Ceria cried out as a faerie landed on her arm, freezing the flesh. Ryoka intercepted the next one, shielding the half-Elf with her body.
“Stop that. Now.”
One of the faeries eyed Ryoka malevolently.
“Ah, ye’d take the bitch’s side, would you, Human?”
Ryoka made no reply. Her eyes were narrowed, and one of her fists was clenched. Erin crouched next to Ceria, trying to think. Ceria whispered to her, eyes frantic.
“What do they want? Why are they here?”
“You can hear them?”
Erin was surprised. Everyone else treated the faeries – or Winter Sprites as they called them – like fuzzy blobs they couldn’t see. But Ceria could see something, clearly. The half-Elf nodded as she squinted her eyes.
“I can only hear these whispers, but I can see—something. They don’t like me. The winter sprites don’t like any half-Elves.”
“Don’t like you? We hate you, whore’s sons and daughters!”
One of the faeries dropped on Ceria’s head, and her hair froze stiff as the half-Elf screamed. She was too afraid of the Frost Faeries—Erin wondered what they’d done to her in the past.
Erin tried to swat the faerie away, but it just hissed at her, making her pull her hand back.
“If we give you something to eat, will you leave?”
Ryoka asked one of the faeries, and received only an insolent shrug in reply. She looked at Erin.
“Erin—make something for them.”
Ryoka hesitated, and put her hand to her head as faeries flew around her, making faces and rude comments.
“Something sugary. Milk and sugar. Just hurry!”
Erin dashed into the kitchen and grabbed the bag of sugar and the milk she had left. She grabbed a bowl, poured nearly as much sugar as milk into it, and brought it out.
The faeries were at a sort of standoff with Ryoka and Ceria. The half-Elf was crouched as Ryoka shielded her, but every now and then a faerie would dart forward and throw something at her.
Erin shoved the bowl of sugary milk on the table, slopping some over the edge in her hurry.
“There! Food! Take it and go!”
One of the faeries hovered lower to taste at the concoction. She eyed the granulated sugar at the bottom of the bowl, and then dipped one finger gingerly in the milk. Erin held her breath as the faerie tasted it gingerly. And then—
“What is this? ‘Tis only sugar and cow’s milk! Do you think to insult us?”
The faerie shouted in outrage, and the other faeries clustered around the bowl.
“Milk and sugar? Not enough!”
“Only good for a snack!”
“We demand more!”
In seconds, the bowl was empty. Erin stared at it as the last faerie greedily shoveled wet sugar into her mouth. But while the faeries had eaten, they didn’t seem appeased. One of them floated in front of Erin, sneering.
“I suppose it is enough for a start. But we want more! You are an innkeeper, you slow thing, you. Make us more food! Ten more bowls and we will consider it a boon!”
Erin didn’t have enough for one more bowl, let alone ten. She said so, and the faeries grew even more frenzied.
“Then what about entertainment? No? Then we shall have our own sport!”
They began dive-bombing Ceria, pulling at her hair and clothes. Erin tried to push faeries away, but they were just too fast! They flew around her, inches from her skin, laughing as she swatted at them to no effect.
“Stop it! Stop it!”
Ceria batted at them with her good hand, but the faeries just flew around her. Erin tried to grab at a faerie, but the thing avoided her nimbly, then threw ice in Erin’s face, making her cry out.
“Erin—get a frying pan. And anything iron you’ve got.”
Ryoka was lashing out as well, but slowly, watching as faeries avoided her hands. Erin nodded and ran towards the kitchen, but stopped when a faerie flew in her face.
“What? A frying pan? We are not foolish queens, and you are no witch, bratling!”
“But you don’t like cold iron.”
Ryoka said it calmly, and the faeries froze in the air. The chill in the room—already close to freezing—deepened as she said it.
“Is that a threat, human?”
“No—just a fact. Faeries can’t be trusted. Never go near a faerie mound, never thank a faerie, never eat their food or tell them of your child. They fear cold iron, though, and I don’t believe you can enter a place without invitation.”
It seemed like Ryoka was saying all of this for Erin’s benefit as much as to the faeries. They stared at the taller girl coldly, and Erin shivered. She edged into the kitchen, and reemerged to hear the arguing.
“We don’t steal children! We bring Winter, you cow, you! And we will accept your thanks without stealing a boon! What we offer is in good faith, and you would threaten us?”
A faerie closest to Erin caught sight of her, and shouted in a loud voice belying her size.
“Cold iron! She holds it, sisters! Beware!”
The faeries shrieked, a noise so discordant it made Erin want to drop the frying pan. But she held onto it, grimly, and raised her voice.
“That’s right. And if you don’t leave right now, I’ll—I’ll—”
Erin didn’t actually think she could hit one of the faeries, nimble as they were. Nor, really, did she want to. They were evil pests, but she wasn’t a mu—she didn’t want to hurt them.
One of the faeries floated across the room, staring hard at Erin. The cold that emanated from her small frame was enough to make Erin flinch away, and when she spoke, the faerie’s voice was serious and cold, for once.
“Do ye threaten us with cold iron when we have guest-right? Would you break the laws of hospitality, mortal?”
Erin hesitated and lowered the frying pan. There was a glint in the faerie’s eye that made her very uneasy. And the thought of saying ‘yes’ make huge, clanging alarm bells ring in her head. Not quite as loud as when her [Dangersense] had gone off with Skinner, but almost.
“No. Noooooo…but Ceria’s my guest too! You can’t be mean to her if you want to stay here!”
The faerie snorted and pointed at Ceria.
“Bah! The half-spawn is no guest of yours! She pays nothing, and offers nothing for the boon of hospice! We may do as we please!”
How did they know that? But too late. Now that Erin had promised she wasn’t going to do anything, the faeries resumed attacking Ceria mercilessly.
“Whore! Whore! Whore and slut and bastard!”
“Kill yourself you freak!”
Ceria hid in a corner, weeping, as they surrounded her. The faeries were merciless, and Erin and Ryoka couldn’t stop them.
“Why are they so mad?”
Erin shouted it at Ceria. The half-Elf shook her head.
“They do this. They always do this. Ever since I was a child—!”
She yelped and screamed as a faerie ripped out a chunk of hair. Ryoka growled, and the faerie flew backwards, laughing with her bloody trophy.
“A chunk of hair from the daughter of whores! Hah!”
“Stop calling her that.”
Ryoka snarled, and the faeries around her laughed. They stopped long enough for the one who’d ripped Ceria’s hair out to fly back.
“And what would you have us do, Human? Play nice with the daughter of sluts and cravens?”
“No. Just pick on someone your own size.”
The faerie eyed Ryoka incredulously. She flicked a glance at Ceria.
“The pathetic thing is far larger than we, short-sighted fool.”
“Exactly. I’m telling you to piss off and go bother someone else. A snail, perhaps, or maybe a hornet’s nest.”
It was like listening to children, in between the flashes of adult speech and terrifying seriousness. The other faeries ooohed and laughed as the faerie in front of Ryoka shrieked with high laughter.
“Oh, and you’d stop us how? Will you break the guest-right? We will do the same to you?”
She flew at Ceria, shouting loudly at the half-Elf, hands reaching for her.
“Whore! Whore! Filthy slut and spawn of bastards! Drown yourself you filthy half-breed, you wh—”
Erin didn’t see Ryoka move. Even as Erin had flailed around desperately, the other girl had been moving slower, slower. She’d been watching the faeries as they flew, and now she acted. Her hand came up and flashed at the faerie as it flew by Ryoka’s face. And caught her.
Ryoka’s punched the Frost Faerie out of the air. Erin heard a yelp of surprise, and then the faerie smacked into the floorboards, and tumbled, coming to a stop a few feet away at the foot of a table.
All sound in the inn—ended. The faeries stopped laughing. Ceria froze up, staring at the frost faerie that was now clearly visible even to the half-Elf. The faerie lay still for a second, and then slowly sat up.
She didn’t appear to be hurt. Her crystalline skin looked undamaged from the impact, and indeed, Ryoka was the one clutching at her knuckles and rubbing at the frost coating her skin. But the faerie’s eyes were hard and dark as she stared up at Ryoka.
Slowly, the Frost Faerie flew upwards until she was at eye-level with Ryoka. The runner stared at her without a trace of fear in her eyes, but perhaps only Erin saw Ryoka’s calf muscles clenching up as the faerie flew within an inch of her face.
“You will regret that, human.”
Ryoka stared back, unflinching. The Frost Faerie glared for another second, and then suddenly, alarmingly, she grinned. She opened her mouth and showed Ryoka some wickedly sharp teeth in her tiny mouth.
“Hah! This is going to be so much fun!”
And then she screamed, and the faeries swarmed, and Ryoka was shouting, running, smashing out the door and into the snow as nearly all the faeries in the inn followed her out into the winter, hounding her, laughing.
Leaving Erin and Ceria behind to clean up the mess.
It was supposed to be a fun day. Erin thought that as she picked up pieces of ice and swept snow into a corner as Ceria tried to light the fire. The half-Elf was shaken, and she needed a bit of healing potion for places where the faeries had cut or bit her or torn out hair, but she was alright.
“Ryoka really saved me. If she hadn’t gotten rid of them—normally they go away if I get inside somewhere, but here—”
One of the faeries had dropped down towards Ceria, and Erin had had her only good idea for the day.
“Quick, anything! Hurry!”
Ceria didn’t have any coins, but at Erin’s insistence, she’d handed Erin her bra. It was either that, or her underwear, and Erin had taken it as payment.
And…it had worked. The few faeries that had elected not to chase Erin had grumbled, but they’d agreed not to bother the half-Elf. Why Erin hadn’t thought of that earlier she didn’t know.
And then they’d hovered around, making faces and rude remarks as Erin cleaned up until Toren came back. He came back!
How? From where? And why were his eyes purple? Erin was so elated, everything else fell away until she realized Rags had joined the inn too, and messed up her game!
But it was okay. And then Klbkch had come by with all the Workers he’d promised, and Relc and Pawn too! And that should have been wonderful as well. Except…
“It’s not going to work.”
Erin said it after the Workers had played for an entire hour. She stared at them and shook her head. Something was wrong.
“What is the matter?”
“They’re not…it’s not the same. You’re forcing them to play, and that won’t do any good.”
Klbkch stared at her, uncomprehending. He’d brought twenty Workers to Erin’s inn, to eat some food, but mainly to play chess like he’d said. And she’d explained the game and set them up playing just like last time, but—
“Is something the matter? We must have these Workers learn this game, Erin. It is…very important to the Hive.”
“Yeah, but it’s not going to work. It’s not going to make them individuals, or whatever.”
Klbkch paused. Pawn was busy talking to the Workers, and Relc was slouching against a wall, bored, as the two conferred. Ceria had gone upstairs to sleep off the Frost Faerie attack. But Klbkch—
It was still odd, talking to him. It felt like talking to a ghost, or—almost a stranger. But he was the same.
But different. And it made Erin hurt inside a bit to know it.
“I know what you’re doing. You’re trying to make more Workers like Pawn, right? By playing chess?”
Even Erin could figure that out, given enough time. She shook her head.
“It’s not going to work.”
“May I ask how you know?”
“Remember the first time we played and I taught them?”
It seemed so, so long ago. But had it only been a month ago? Two? Erin wasn’t sure. But it felt like nearly a year.
“I recall. You played both Olesm and me, as I remember.”
“Yeah, and then I invited the Workers to play. But that was it. They weren’t forced. And later—I asked Pawn his name. That’s how he chose it.”
Klbkch was silent for a second, staring at Erin.
“You asked him his name? That was…dangerous. Most Workers become Aberration if that occurs.”
“Yeah. I know. But he managed to do—something. Because he played chess, I get that.”
“Because of you.”
“Not just me.”
Erin shook her head, but Klbkch was insistent.
“You have the quality. It is that which we seek.”
“Yeah—maybe. Probably not. But either way, you’re not going to get it by forcing the Workers to do anything. Ordering them around won’t make them individual because they’ve got to do it, see?”
Kblkch was silent for so long, Erin was worried, but then he nodded.
“I…believe I do. Odd. I believe…yes, I believe I do. It is a strange thing, for Antinium to comprehend. And it raises a problem which must be considered. But yes; I understand.”
He’d nodded, then, and ordered the Workers to stop playing. He was so bossy with them, but then Klbkch had told Erin they’d try again later, and that would have been fine. Fine, if it wasn’t for what happened afterwards.
Erin stood in front of Relc, trying not to tremble. Was this how Ryoka had felt? He loomed over her, and only now did she realize how big he really was. How strong he looked. How—
She saw Toren moving behind the Drake, although he didn’t have a weapon. Erin shook her head slightly, and shifted to protect Rags. No one could stop Relc with force, she was certain. But maybe she could talk him down. She had to.
He stared at her with hurt and rage, and then a Frost Faerie had flown up and landed on his head. He’d run shouting from the inn, and Erin had sagged against one table.
“I will make apologies for my partner, Erin Solstice, and to you, Rags. I believe he cares about me, and you. But he fought in the Goblin Wars and thinks of Goblins as enemies. I will speak to him, but it may be best for all if the Goblin does not come here for a while.”
She’d nodded, and the faerie had flown back in, looking smug and satisfied.
“There! ‘Tis the boon fulfilled for your meager offering, Human! The hotheaded oaf will not bother you again today!”
And so she’d left and Rags had left, wounded and full of pride, and Ceria had gone to sleep and the faeries had flown off and Klbkch and Pawn and the Workers had left until Erin was all alone.
Except Toren was back.
Erin sat in her inn, at a table, tired, cold. But no longer alone.
“It was supposed to be such a good day, you know?”
He stared at her. Good old Toren. Where had he gone? But he couldn’t answer her. He was just…just…
What was he? Erin stared at him. He was more than a thing, but he was so slow. Could he think? He was an undead servant, according to Pisces.
“A lot’s happened, you know. A lot of good. Some bad.”
She felt tired. Yesterday had been wonderful, beyond words. And the days before that equally good. She’d rebuilt the inn, and created success out of failure.
“But I guess I can’t do that every day.”
Erin put her head down. Ryoka was gone, and Erin wasn’t sure when she’d come back. Faeries were flying in and out of her inn whenever they pleased, Ceria could move her hand, Toren was back, the Antinium had a weird problem, Relc was being a jerk even if he sort of had a reason, and Rags was hurt and missing and her tribe might be killed if they came back.
Some good. Lots of bad. But Toren was back. On the whole, Erin would consider that even-steven with the universe’s karma.
If nothing else happened today, she’d consider herself fortunate.
Erin put her head down and went to slee—
She was a [Princess], and she was starving. For too long, the winter chill had cut her to the bone, and the wary shopkeepers and suspicious guards had made stealing far, far harder. And her magic was running out.
She had only a few charges of [Invisibility] left, but she was starving and so she used one now. It was the dead of night, and no one was around, anyways.
The stalls were left locked, but she had spells to take care of any locks, magical or otherwise. And besides, richness was her birthright; she deserved everything she took from the filthy mongrels and the disgusting serpents living here.
But tonight it seemed one fool had left their stall without closing it. Warm blankets sat to one side, next to rows of dried food and most tempting of all, a fresh ham sitting on a stool. The [Princess]’s mouth watered as she stole near.
“There you are.”
The voice came from out of the shadows as the [Princess] whirled in fright. A massive Gnoll—a huge creature of dark fur and muscle stood up and walked out into the moonlight. She had a deep woman’s voice, but all the [Princess] saw were her fangs, and teeth as she spoke.
“Hrr. Too long we have allowed you to go free. Between Gazi and the undead, we have not had time. But now you smell and you are without your magics hiding your scent, yes?”
She pointed in the general direction of the girl even as her eyes searched the empty street.
“Invisibility is not enough for our kind. And we have ways to catch you. Do not run—!”
Too late. The girl ran, but no sooner had her footfalls began to echo than the Gnoll was on her. She screamed, but that just made it easier for the shopkeeper to catch her up in one huge paw.
“I have you. Now, we shall soon see what you look like, yes? And then you shall answer to the Watch, for damages caused and mischief done, yes? Do not struggle. I will not hurt you.”
The invisibility spell, weak from the residual magic in the girl’s cloak and strained from the contact, broke. The ragged [Princess] swam into view, and the Gnoll smiled down at her.
“There you are.”
All the [Princess] saw were the teeth. Her mind was clouded with fear, and so she raised one finger.
She had rings on every finger, but the magic of each had long since faded from her journey from overuse. But one still shimmered with violet light. The Gnoll saw it glowing as the [Princess] called magic to it and spoke harshly.
Again, too late. Too late, and too slow. The girl raised the ring and screamed one word.
The fireball that burst forth from the ring was nearly twice the size of her head, but when it struck the stall behind the Gnoll and girl, it exploded into a burst of fire that blew the girl off her feet while the flames engulfed the Gnoll.
For a few minutes the girl couldn’t move. She only heard the roar of flames, and the panicked shouts as people from nearby houses poked their heads out and saw the fire. Slowly, aching, the [Princess] got up. She stared at the burning stall, full of precious goods and a lifetime of work. The fiery display began to crumble, and flying embers began to ignite the street again.
Something seized her from behind. The girl screamed and whirled, raising her ring, but a massive hand descended, capturing her hand in a grip that promised broken bone if she moved.
The [Princess] stared into a snarling face and burned fur. She screamed and screamed, but too late. Two sets of fangs opened, and claws drew blood.