Erin sat in her inn, covering her face. But when she took her hands away, the flowers were still there.
Flowers, instead of gold. It was…well, the thing was…
She should have seen it coming. Erin realized that in the obvious clarity of hindsight. Why would a bunch of tiny faeries be carrying around a pile of gold, and even if they did have gold, why would they give it to her when they could trick her?
Because that was what faeries did! Erin had read the stories. True—she was more of a Peter Pan fan than Brothers Grimm, but she vaguely recalled something about faerie gold now that she thought of it.
“I need to remember everything.”
Everything she’d ever read about monsters and myths, from Harry Potter to that one book from the Spiderwick Chronicles she’d read while teaching chess to kids. Erin wished her memory were perfect, but [Perfect Recall] was apparently only perfect when it came to artsy things.
Song lyrics, lines from Romeo and Juliet—even movie quotes popped into Erin’s mind with ease if she concentrated. But books? Apparently, they didn’t count.
But none of that should have mattered, because Erin should have known better. It was just—she’d had that dream which had been almost true, and she’d been caught up in the past. She’d done something magical, so it was fine that she’d gotten caught up in the moment, right, right?
Erin looked at the pile of golden flowers.
This was unacceptable. This was horrible. This was a pile of her own coin and a day of frantic effort down the drain. All she’d gotten were…four levels. Which was great. But it wasn’t money, and Erin didn’t even know what those two skills she’d gotten did.
What were they again? Erin frowned and massaged her head. She was still waking up. Um. It was [Inn’s Aura] and…
It was…[Wondrous Fare], right?
[Magical Cooking]? No, that wasn’t right. Clearly it was the other one. But what did it mean?
“[Wondrous Fare]. Like food? Or bus fare?”
Erin imagined getting into a bus and giving the bus driver a handful of the magical gold coins the faeries had tricked her into accepting. Yeah. That would be nice.
Faint clicking of bone on floorboard made her turn around. Toren had entered the inn, looking around warily. He was probably wondering if she was hurt. Erin sighed.
“It’s fine, Toren. I uh, I just realized I got scammed, that’s all.’”
Toren looked at the pile of flowers and back at Erin. She picked up one and sniffed at it and then sneezed.
“Achoo! Great. They even smell funny.”
They smelled like some kind of spice, rather than a floral scent. Erin scowled at the flower.
“I thought they were starting to like me! But this is what I get? Those—those—”
She trailed off. Toren looked at Erin quizzically, but the girl was thinking.
“Oh. Right. Turn bad things into good things. And they gave me something—even if it wasn’t what I thought. Faerie gifts. Okay, okay…”
Erin frowned at the flower. She sniffed at it again. It didn’t smell bad. And the faeries had given it to her. Maybe it was a trick. No—it was a trick. But were they completely useless or…?
“Maybe they’re edible?”
It was a long shot, but Erin gingerly tasted the flower. She was fairly certain that while jerks the faeries might be, they wouldn’t give her poison.
To Erin’s surprise, the flower was wet. No—it had a bit of nectar gathered where the petals met. It was tasteless, but it fizzed on Erin’s tongue.
Immediately she spat onto her palm and looked for somewhere to put the flower as she scrubbed at her mouth. Toren approached, holding his hand out. Gratefully, Erin turned to give the flower to him—
And began to shrink.
“What? Oh no! No, no—what’s happening?”
Toren stared down at her as Erin began shrinking towards the floor. The chairs, the tables—everything got taller around her. Erin stared around, too panicked to move.
The room grew around her until suddenly she was staring up at a ceiling as high as the clouds in the sky. Toren was—a giant tall as a skyscraper, and the nearest chair leg was like the trunk of a massive tree. Erin stared around in horror.
“Oh no. It’s the drink from Alice in Wonderland!”
It was magic! The flowers! That was wonderful and totally horrible at the same time. Erin began to panic.
“I don’t have the other one to make me big! W-what do I do?”
Maybe another flower would help. But suddenly, the table was a thousand of Erin’s feet up. She stared around, at her skeleton, the table, and herself.
Erin panicked harder.
Toren hadn’t been having a good day. He hadn’t been having a bad day either, but today had been decidedly subpar. Ceria had brought him out of the inn when the curious blobs of blue light had appeared, and when he’d tried to warn Erin about the flowers, he’d been silenced and sent away.
The half-Elf had gone to the city, but Toren wasn’t allowed there either. So she’d told him to wait outside till morning.
Fortunately, Toren had not been ordered to follow Ceria’s instructions, just to follow her. And since he couldn’t follow her any further or return to the inn, he’d walked back until it was in sight and then waited until morning.
That had been unpleasant. It wasn’t that Toren got bored, but he didn’t like doing nothing.
He hated it. It was a feeling in his…chest. In the very core of his being. Toren felt something, and that was resentment.
He had been created to…to serve. That was his purpose, wasn’t it? Or was it something else?
To grow. To become stronger. Toren had already realized he was more than his common brethren. They could not restore themselves, and they had no levels. He was unique.
And he was Erin’s best helper. She trusted him. She—
She had sent him away even when he’d tried to help. Stopped him from doing his job. Toren wasn’t sure how he’d felt about that.
The skeleton had wanted nothing in the first days. Those had been good days, when there was only her words and him carrying out her words. The tasks had been hard—so hard!—but he had thought and worked and sometimes she had said ‘good job, Toren’.
But now he was thinking more, and the thinking was making Toren feel…complicated. It made his head ache; only he had no head that could ache or even a brain, so the feelings just built up inside of him until Toren wished he could smash his skull apart.
And now, Erin was doing something Toren couldn’t understand. Again.
The skeleton stared at his mistress as she toppled off her chair and began flailing around on the ground wildly. She shouted up at him.
Obediently, the skeleton reached down for her, but Erin screamed and flinched away.
“Ah! Don’t! You’ll squash me with your fingers!”
Again, her words didn’t make sense. They weren’t right. Toren hesitated, but he couldn’t disobey her. And yet in his being, for the first time Toren questioned Erin’s words. They were orders, and they were the core of his being.
But they weren’t good orders. And it bothered the skeleton.
Erin was still thrashing around on the ground, kicking her legs and staring at a chair leg as she shouted and screamed. She turned and looked at Toren desperately.
“Go get help! Get someone! Ceria or Pisces! I need someone with magic!”
That at least was doable. Toren started for the door.
There had to be something he was missing. Toren glanced back at Erin as he shut the door. But she looked completely normal, if panicked, as she squirmed around on the ground like an insect. Maybe it had to do with the flowers?
It was a fault of his that he couldn’t understand. That must be it. Toren needed more levels. Yesterday had already proved his weakness.
The Drake named Relc had threatened his mistress and she hadn’t called on him. She’d motioned for him to stand down. Because…
Because she didn’t think he could defeat Relc. And Toren didn’t think so either. If the Drake had attacked, he would have failed.
Toren was so lost in thought he nearly walked past the half-Elf as she ascended the hill, staring at the inn from which Erin’s muffled voice was still audible.
Ceria paused as Toren stopped in front of her, and pointed at the inn.
“What’s all the shouting about? Is Erin okay?”
Toren shrugged, and pointed to the inn. Ceria hesitated, but then she hurried towards the door. Toren watched her go. She knew magic, and she was Ceria. Well, that was that.
Job done, Toren kept walking outside. Normally he would have immediately gone back to Erin, to obey her next instructions but now he didn’t feel like it.
Bad orders. Weak Toren. Unacceptable.
He’d had good orders before. Gathering the mushrooms yesterday had been fine. And he’d killed the Shield Spider in a good fight, crushing the thing again and again and battering it with a rock. And Erin had even been proud of him for bringing the venom!
But the rest had not been good. And Toren had been too weak to destroy the enchanted armor. He’d battered at it for over an hour, dodging attacks, reforming himself until he was dangerously low on mana, but he hadn’t done a thing.
Yet the Goblin had slain the armor. Her tribe had destroyed the enchanted being with flying pieces of clay and the exploding bark. She had something Toren didn’t. She would be more worthy of serving Erin and carrying out her stupid orders.
Toren paused. Stupid? They weren’t stupid orders. They were just…
He had to level up. He thought more, he became more with each level. But he had to protect Erin.
And yet—protecting Erin could only happen if he was strong enough. And Toren wasn’t strong enough. Therefore, he should level up to protect Erin.
That made sense. Toren thought hard. Erin would probably be screaming and talking with Ceria for a while. She wouldn’t need him for an hour, perhaps. And so what could Toren do in that span of time?
The skeleton looked towards the north. The dungeon entrance and the Goblin’s lair were too far away even if he ran. But there were several Shield Spider nests that way, and hungry bears. And those snow creatures.
Toren began to walk away from the inn. Level. Grow. And then come back, so he could listen to more orders from Erin.
He hoped they wouldn’t be stupid ones.
Justice in Liscor was harsh and swift. Selys had always known it, and even taken comfort from that fact as a child. No one was above the law, and their Watch was stronger than other cities, except for maybe the Walled Cities. Certainly better than Human cities. Criminals could expect a quick end, or at least a hefty fine they’d pay for any misdeeds.
But the same knowledge wasn’t quite as self-evident as an adult. Selys knew the Watch was strong enough to fight off bandits and monsters and even a small army, but Liscor still stood between the south and north, a gateway between species. They couldn’t act without repercussions from either side, and that meant the same justice she’d admired as a child was sometimes more of a compromise.
Perhaps the best example of that was being played out here. Selys stood in a crowd of mainly Drakes standing at the city gates. She was dressed in warm clothing, because it was a cold day and starting to snow again. Even so, it was cold for the Drake, but it had to be even colder for the Human girl.
Selys stared at a blonde-haired girl with very pale skin. She might be beautiful, or she might be ugly; Selys really had no clue. She wasn’t good with human features, anyways.
Even so, the Drake thought the girl was probably some kind of nobility. She was wearing what had once been expensive clothes, and Selys had heard of the many magical artifacts the Watch had taken off her.
Now though, the girl’s hair was tangled and dirty, and her skin was red from the cold and equally unclean. The tears and wretched expression on the girl’s face didn’t help either.
No one seemed bothered by the girl’s distress, though. Tkrn’s own face was blank and impassive as he herded the girl out the gates. Selys knew that was a bad sign. Gnolls didn’t get angry the same way Drakes did. When they got silent, that meant they were really angry.
“A silent Gnoll is death’s bell toll.”
Selys murmured the words and got a few glances from the people around her. But it was true—the other Gnolls that had gathered to watch the Human thief be exiled from the city all had that blank, expressionless look on their faces.
They were furious, Selys knew. They’d wanted to tear apart the girl, but the Watch had intervened before the mob could do so. Now that the Human was being exiled, the Gnolls were even angrier than before.
It was all politics. The Watch hadn’t been able to get out where the thief was from, and they didn’t really care, not with all the Gnolls in the city outraged over the complete destruction of Krshia Silverfang’s shop.
And yet, killing an important Human was also out of the question. No one in Liscor wanted a war if it turned out the girl was from one of the Five Families or some lord’s daughter. So…why not just exile her? It meant they could deny involvement if she died, and it got her out of the city.
The only problem was that the Gnolls wanted her dead, not just gone. And so compromises had been made. The girl had no winter clothing, only the rags she’d had on, and she only had enough food for a day.
It was cruel, but that was Liscorian justice. Far worse would have been a group of Gnolls rioting in the streets. If the Watch had to intervene, there would have been even more bloodshed by the time it was over. After all, the Watch was mostly Drakes—if it became an issue of Drakes versus Gnolls it would be the same terrible conflict that played out across the southern part of the continent.
So the Human was exiled instead, with little chances of survival, and quickly too. No one in the crowd of watching Drakes and Gnolls had any sympathy for the thief, and the other Humans in the city had wisely stayed away from the gathering.
Only Selys had a twinge in her chest as Tkrn forced the crying girl out into the snow. She felt…bad. Mostly for Krshia, but Selys couldn’t watch the sniveling, whimpering girl herded out the city gates without a twinge of guilt. Maybe it was because she’d known Erin for so long. If it had been Erin sent to freeze or be eaten by monsters—
But Erin would never have done something so horrible. Selys glanced across the crowd at an open space. Krshia sat alone, among her own kind yes, but alone in her own small area of space. She watched the girl quietly, and Selys’ heart did hurt then.
Krshia had lost her stall, lost her goods. She had coin in her home still, but it was a crippling blow to the shopkeeper. And the Watch hadn’t repaid her. They didn’t have the coin, the city wouldn’t cover the costs, and the girl’s artifacts were almost all junk, devoid of their magic.
The Gnoll didn’t deserve this. The thief deserved punishment. But—
Selys’ eyes went back to the girl as she stopped, staring out at the snow-covered plains. The girl turned to Tkrn, clearly arguing, but the Gnoll just pushed her forwards. The girl fell into the snow and wailed a thin, piteous sound.
—This wasn’t right. Selys knew the girl would be dead in less than an hour, even if she stuck to the main road and didn’t walk into a Shield Spider nest.
But who would help her? Selys was a citizen of Liscor, and she couldn’t assist a criminal. And whoever the girl’s folks were, even if Selys had a way to get Hawk to deliver the letter, they would never arrive in time.
She knew one person who would help. One person who would help the girl, regardless of how many people disapproved. But Selys had no way of talking to Erin. Not right now.
It was more politics. Everyone knew Selys was Erin’s friend, and so everyone, or at least a lot of them, were watching her. It was why Selys had come here to watch the girl be sent away. She had to support her kind. If people thought she favored Humans over Drakes and Gnolls…
Some of the people in the crowd felt as Selys did, the Drake knew. But they were the minority. People liked Krshia’s shop, and the thefts had hit the city even as they were rebuilding and mourning their dead. Most of the Drakes had bored expressions, or ones of contempt for the girl.
Worse still were the ones who looked like they were enjoying the girl’s misery. Selys noticed Lism in the crowd, grinning and laughing with some of his friends. The old dull-scale even had a small bag of nuts he was snacking on. He was disgusting. Selys tried not to glare as her tail thrashed on the ground with anger. This sight wasn’t fun. It was sad. It was wrong. It was—
“Quite amusing. I wonder—will that guardsmen kick her into the snow?”
Selys looked over. Pisces stood in the middle of the crowd of Drakes, eating food and watching with apparent amusement. Now there was a Human who no one would ever accuse of being speciesist.
He was eating one of the hamburgers that had become the latest fad in Liscor. This one was a triple-patty sandwich smeared with rich mustard. It was meant for Gnolls, but the mage devoured it greedily, ignoring the juice that ran onto his robes.
Selys wanted to ignore him, or at the very least, not look at him, but Pisces had seen her. He unapologetically pushed his way through the crowd until he was standing next to her.
“Miss Selys. I am pleased to see you here.”
Selys glared at Pisces. The [Necromancer] returned her look blandly as he licked his fingers noisily.
“Why are you here? This isn’t your affair.”
“No? Well, I may not be a citizen it is true, but I was in need of entertainment.”
“And you think this is entertaining?”
“Vastly. The incompetence of your Watch only matches the amusement of watching fools reap their just dues.”
Pisces nodded at the girl and chuckled. Even the other Drakes around him gave him looks of disgust and moved away, leaving Selys and Pisces together in an opening in the crowd.
“Incompetent? The Watch might not have found her, but she had magical artifacts that hid her—”
“Oh, I’m sure. What I was referring to was not that, but the speed with which they have expedited her sham of a trial and condemned her to death.”
Pisces nodded at the Captain of the Watch, Zevara, as she stood with Klbkch, Relc, and the other Senior Guardsmen. The Drake was watching with a scowl as Tkrn moved the girl further from the gates.
“Drake and Gnolls do not care about Humans—your people have in arrogance and panic forgotten to ask the most pressing questions.”
“Oh, the most basic of questions. Why is this girl here? Who are her people? She is clearly the runaway of some noble house or lineage—why not keep her for ransom or at least contact other cities by mage spell?”
That was what Selys had been thinking, but she would never have admitted it to the condescending mage.
“We want her out of the city. The Gnolls want her dead, and this is the best compromise. Besides, Liscor doesn’t deal with Humans.”
“How memory fades. I recall just a few decades ago this place was a hub of trade between cultures. But ever since that unpleasantness during the Necromancer’s attack…ah, well, at least everyone is happy. Except for you, I note.”
Pisces peered at Selys and she leaned away from him, frowning. But he was right. And in lieu of anyone else to talk to, Selys reluctantly confessed her opinion. She lowered her voice, although she and Pisces had plenty of space.
“I’m all for punishment. But this—”
Selys waved at the girl, who was trying to fight her way past Tkrn into the city. She was desperate, but the Gnoll was unmoving. He kept shoving her back into the snow.
“—This is murder.”
“It isn’t murder if it’s a Human. I believe one of your friendly fellow citizens told me that.”
Selys had a pretty good idea of who. Lism had not been quiet after the attacks, and worse, no one was telling him to shut up. She sniffed and twitched her tail in irritation.
“Not everyone hates Humans. And she’s just a child.”
Selys squinted at the girl as she gave up and just knelt in the snow, sobbing.
“She’s quite young. That’s good. If she dies it will be less trouble to reanimate her.”
Selys turned her head to gape at Pisces in horror. But that was right—he was a [Necromancer]. The mage looked offended and spread his arms wide.
“What? I’m on your side here. The girl gets punished, everyone’s happy, and I get a free body.”
The Drake edged away from him.
“You’re a monster.”
“I practice my craft without harm. I don’t disturb your graves.”
“Because you’d be killed in a second if you did. I’m surprised the Watch let you in the city! You have a criminal record. You were a thief—you went to villages and scared folks into giving you food and coin!”
“I repaid my debts.”
“Only because Relc made you.”
“I paid three times what I took. In the eyes of the law, my debt is settled.”
That was sadly true. As an apolitical city of commerce, Liscor’s laws meant that someone who had committed a lesser crime could pay off their fine and wipe their slate clean. It didn’t apply for murderers and so on obviously, and the fines were harsh, but it was a testament to that law that even a [Necromancer] with a personality like Pisces could walk through the gates.
“It appears our little show is at an end in either way.”
Pisces pointed, and Selys saw the girl had given up. She was slowly trying to make her way north, through the snow. She kept stumbling and falling onto the frozen ice, though, and she was still crying.
“She’s going to die.”
“Yes. Quite soon, I believe. Incidentally, I wanted to talk to you about entering the Adventurer’s Guild in the city. Do you have a moment?”
Pisces turned from the struggling girl to look at Selys. The crowd was beginning to disperse, but the Gnolls and many Drakes were still watching the girl slowly disappear into the distance.
“What? You? Entering the guild? You have to be joking.”
Selys stared at Pisces incredulously, but he only smiled enigmatically.
“I have my reasons. Being short of coin for one thing, but combat—and the opportunity to acquire fresh corpses is another.”
“Well, good luck. But I’m off duty. Go bother the receptionist at the desk and good luck, because we don’t have to admit you.”
“I know. That is why I’ve come to you.”
“If you think I’ll help you because you know Erin—”
She broke off, and hesitated. Her head turned, and she stared at the Human girl. She’d fallen in the snow again, and this time she hadn’t gotten up.
“Yes, I know Erin. And I provide important services to her, such as the skeleton who assists her in her work. I am an asset, a valuable one you will make full use of if you know—”
Selys raised one clawed finger. She stared hard at Pisces. Now that she looked at him, the mage appeared different to her. He was still the same arrogant jerk he’d always been—he still looked like he was sneering at everyone and everything—but he looked different.
Ceria had helped him buy new robes, but they weren’t good ones. They were thick wool, and already slightly stained. They hung loosely on his frame, and Selys thought Pisces had lost weight. He had always been thin, but now his cheekbones stood out more. And come to think of it, every time Selys had been at the inn recently Pisces had been there. Erin usually only gave him one meal a day, even if it was a big one…
Selys looked back at the girl and made up her mind. She nodded to the girl who’d managed to get to her feet and lowered her voice even further.
“Help her, and I’ll figure something out.”
Pisces frowned at the girl, but didn’t react in any other way. His voice was equally quiet, and he put an annoyed look on his face and brushed at his hair as if offended.
“Help her? Why should I? And how, pray tell?”
“Tell Erin. She can help. If she decides to, I mean.”
“She most eminently will. Very well. Curious. I suppose I could deliver a message. And if I will, you will approve my request?”
“Consider yourself a Bronze-rank adventurer. But you can’t go now. Everyone’s watching and they’ll know I spoke to you!”
Pisces smirked at Selys.
“Please. I am a mage, am I not? I will go back into the city, hounding you about my request, and then cast the spell as soon as you slam the door to the Adventurer’s Guild in my face.”
Selys blinked at Pisces.
“You’ve got that planned out?”
“Any neophyte from Wistram is well versed in the subtleties of politics and subterfuge. If you would raise your voice and call me several names? I could suggest a few.”
Selys nodded. She was no [Actor], but insulting Pisces was easy. She looked back one last time at the girl, now a speck in the distance, cresting a hill. She was a thief, but she was not evil. And maybe she didn’t deserve to die. Selys had given her a chance. A slight one, but a chance.
She hoped that she wouldn’t regret her choice. Or Erin hers.
It was done. Krshia watched as the thief left the city and felt not a thing. The other Gnolls around her muttered as the girl finally disappeared from the hilltop, but none went to follow her. The Watch’s presence here was as much to exile the girl as to make sure she died from the winter’s cold, rather than at a Gnoll’s hand.
It was a sensible decision, and Krshia applauded them for it. She bore Zevara no ill will, although the Drake clearly did not feel the same way. The Watch Captain kept staring at Krshia, possibly looking for signs of anger. But Krshia felt none.
She was hollow. And the girl thief’s fate mattered little to Krshia in any case. She knew the rest of the Gnolls in the city did not feel the same way; Tkrn had offered to cut her down even though it would mean his job, but Krshia had forbidden any action.
The thief was punished, and her few magical items taken away. She would die in the frozen wilderness, or she might live if she met a caravan or traveler on the road. But so what?
The damage was already done.
Slowly, the Gnoll looked down at the small thing in her hands. All else was ash; and this was the only hint of what had been.
Her heart felt like that ash. It was blackened by grief and beat too faintly in her chest. She had lost everything. The Gnolls in the city from her tribe had lost everything. It was all gone.
One of those Gnolls, a tall [Butcher] named Dreshhi growled low as the thief finally disappeared from sight. He had been one of those who wanted to kill the girl—and then chop her into bits and eat her. He was still furious, both at the Human child and at the city itself.
“Hr. And this is what passes for justice here? She has taken much, yes? Much from all of us, but you especially. And the city merely exiles her and does not repay you. If you had been a Drake—”
Krshia sighed. Best to cut him off. Dreshhi was a good person, but his words were too loud, and she knew many of the young ones in the crowd around her shared his opinion.
“It matters not. What we have lost would not have been replaced in any case. The girl will die either way.”
Krshia did not want another debate, especially where there were ears which might listen. She cut Dreshhi off again; an offence, but acceptable given her loss.
“The bonds we have built here are more important than vengeance, yes? The goodwill we have won is all we have left.”
“Goodwill will not sway hearts or minds among the others, Krshia.”
That was true, and Krshia felt the weight of it pressing down on her. She sighed.
“Yes. We will have to discuss this. But for now, let us go, yes?”
The Gnolls hesitated, but Krshia had rank, or more accurately, worth. Worth was what governed Gnolls; seniority or power were lesser concerns for them. And until yesterday, Krshia had been most worthy of them by far.
Worth. She still had some of it, still had the debts of old to call upon and the goodwill fostered within this city. But old worth grew stale quickly, like meat. Now that Krshia had lost her shop, what worth could she have?
She could rebuild. Krshia had the coin, but she didn’t have the time. Even if her shop got up and running again, all that she had worked for was already lost.
Dreshhi knew it as well. The Gnoll spoke to Krshia as the Gnolls loped back through the city streets in a pack.
“We must hurry. The tribes already begin to move. If we have nothing to bring to the gathering, our voices will be lost.”
Another truth. But Krshia saw no good answer to the problem before them. They had had something worthy of bringing, something that would have made their clan great. All the clans brought things to share for all Gnollkind, and thus grew in worth and made their voices louder. But the Silverfang Tribe’s hopes had burned with Krshia’s stall.
“We have nothing.”
“We can try again. We have the coin—”
“Not for this. Not for more than one or two trifles. No, it is Erin we must rely on, I think.”
Dreshhi fell silent. That was not a comforting thought, but it was all Krshia could think to give. Erin Solstice. Upon her shoulders, all of Krshia’s hopes now lay.
At first, helping Erin had been such a small thing. An act of charity and aid to a Human who was worthy of both. But now—now she was all Krshia had left. All else was ash.
Krshia stared down at the thing in her paws. A fragment; that was all she’d salvaged. She crumpled the fragment of the spell book and let it fall to the ground.
Who would have known? And even if there had been a fire, non-magical flames would not have damaged the rare collection of books hidden in the back of her stall. Twenty three books; the sum of the efforts of the Silverfang Tribe over these long years.
All gone in an instant. Krshia still remembered the fireball, still remembered throwing herself out of the way just in time. Would that she had leapt towards the burning orb, intercepted the blast.
But how could she have known the spell was that powerful? It had been so secret, the books. They were safe there, with a Gnoll to quietly watch the market each night. Safer than Krshia’s home, which had been broken into twice by petty thieves.
A small mistake, but one that had cost everything. Krshia closed her eyes. She was still most worthy, and thus, on her back fell all the responsibility for the Gnolls she had led to this city. It was heavy, and she was tired.
“I must talk to Erin, perhaps tomorrow. For now, I will go and rest.”
The other Gnolls were instantly solicitous. They offered to walk Krshia back, but she refused. She moved through the streets slowly, nodding as Drakes offered her condolences, slowly ascending the steps to her small home.
Inside, Krshia slowly sank into one of the sturdy chairs she had bought with the first coins she had earned in this city, years ago. It felt like another life. And she had worked so hard, succeeding against all odds—!
This gathering would have been the one to make her Tribe famous. It would have improved all Gnolls, given them the power to cast magic spells. Their young would have prospered. But now—?
What would she tell her sister, the Chieftain? How would she face the others after her bold words and all that they had given her to undertake this grand quest?
Gnolls did not weep. At least, they didn’t weep pointlessly. Krshia had shed all of her tears already; now she only had sadness, pooling in her breast. Sadness, and only the faintest breath of hope.
She needed Erin. The girl had to have something from her world Krshia could use. Something worthy. Something that could make the Gnolls…
The Gnoll leaned back in her chair, and closed her eyes. The trouble was, she knew Erin. The girl was good-hearted, brave, and kind. But that she had something in her head worth a fortune? Krshia tried to imagine another world of metal ‘cars’ and the things Erin spoke of. But how different could it be if the girl was just like other humans? Did she know of a different kind of sword—a new forging process, perhaps?
Somehow, Krshia just couldn’t imagine that.
“I see. And the girl will die soon?”
“To the best of my knowledge, yes, my Queen. She has no allies within the city, and the outside temperatures will freeze her without adequate protection.”
Ksmvr stood in front of his Queen and wracked his brains, trying to find something, anything, to add to his report. It was just a simply an answer to the question put to him, but he knew it wasn’t right.
His Queen, the Queen of the Free Antinium within Liscor, sat before him, a massive creature hidden in the darkness of the massive cavern underneath Liscor. She was his Queen, his ruler and sole reason for living. And he knew he wasn’t good enough to serve her.
Ksmvr was the Prognugator of the Antinium, but he was new. He was inexperienced, and worse, attempting to fill a position that had once been occupied by Klbkch. The older, newly instated Revalantor was famous among the Antinium, if that word could be applied to any one being in the Hives.
Above him, Ksmvr’s Queen sighed, and shifted ponderously. He had no idea if that was a good thing or a bad one. His Queen was too large to move, but did her movement signify impatience, or simply a desire to stretch her limbs?
“I see. And the Gnolls? Will they attack?”
“I believe not, my Queen. They will be satisfied with the Human’s death, and Krshia Silverfang has ordered no reprisals to be made.”
Another simple answer. But Ksmvr was sure Klbkch could have answered better. With more details perhaps, or some insight? But it would not do to bother his Queen or offer unsolicited opinions.
Again, the Queen shifted. One large feeler waved towards the surface.
“This thief has cost them much.”
“Yes. They have lost the magical tomes stored in Krshia Silverfang’s shop, although I believe her reserves of coin are still hidden in her home.”
“Even so, a grievous loss. Perhaps unwelcome.”
Unwelcome? Ksmvr had no idea the Gnolls in the city were of interest to his Queen, but then, she played a far deeper game than he could imagine. If only Klbkch could advise him—! But Ksmvr was in disgrace with both his Queen and the other Antinium.
At last, his Queen shook her massive head.
“It may be this loss matters. Or not. Local Gnoll politics do not interest me. We will hear when these tribes gather to discuss later. To more important matters. The Workers.”
Ksmvr tried to stand up straighter. He was already standing at attention, but he knew this was the most important reason why he had been summoned.
“Yes, my Queen. We have begun testing the Workers as was suggested by the Individual known as Pawn. He and Bird—”
Ksmvr stumbled slightly over the names. They weren’t Antinium names, and what was worse, they had been chosen by the Workers themselves! It was as if they considered themselves to be the equals of Queens. And yet, these Individuals were desired by his Queen, for reasons Ksmvr did not understand.
“—They brought the Workers who had visited the inn together and attempted to recreate the conditions for reaching individuality.”
“By playing chess?”
“Yes. By playing chess. But questions were asked of the Workers as they played.”
“I…do not know, milady. Klbkch and I were positioned outside the room until called for.”
It had been a point Ksmvr had argued hotly against, but he had been overruled by Klbkch. His Queen paused, but did not ask him why.
“Then the results?”
She already knew, so why ask? But Ksmvr obediently reported.
“Of the twenty five workers, four became Individual, choosing names and asserting their independence and loyalty to the Hive. The others…all became Aberration.”
Ksmvr still remembered slicing Workers apart. It didn’t bother him, but even here, Klbkch had surpassed him. The other Antinium had danced a deadly trail of death through the rampant former Workers, while Ksmvr had stuck to the established protocols.
“One in eight? That is very acceptable. Why was that process not continued with the others?”
“I—believe it was due to the effect of meeting the Human known as Erin Solstice, my Queen. After the four Individuals were separated and the other Aberrations destroyed, Klbkch made the assessment that this process was a success. He gathered more Workers and some Soldiers and attempted to repeat the process.”
“The rate of those who did not encounter Erin Solstice was—one in one hundred and sixty three. No Soldiers became Individual, but few became Aberration either.”
They had been especially hard to put down. Ksmvr still had a cracked bit of exoskeleton on one leg and his side where he had been struck.
The sound that came from his Queen was a deep sigh, but one tinged by an emotion Ksmvr could not identify. He waited, tense, alert for the next question.
“So it seems Klbkchhezeim was correct. Erin Solstice is needed, for now, at least. But of the five Individuals you have observed. Their loyalty?”
“Of the five, the first, Pawn, is the most independent. He also assumes a position of command among them, but remains receptive to orders from Klbkch. The others do likewise, and none have acted in any unusual manner.”
Aside from the fact that they were taking on responsibilities and roles no other Antinium had ever taken on before. Ksmvr did not mention the way in which Pawn spoke to him, or the painful games of chess they had played.
Ksmvr bowed his head. It took him a second to realized he’d been dismissed.
The Queen of the Antinium watched and felt Ksmvr go, and sighed when she was sure he was gone from earshot.
That was the only word for it. Ksmvr was simply not Klbkch, and that was as regrettable as it was inevitable. Perhaps the new Prognugator would rise to the station, or perhaps he would not. In the meantime it was simply another annoyance on top of the Queen’s plate of annoyances.
But the Individuals could be replicated. They could be made anew, even if the cost was prohibitively high at the moment. And even that could be surpassed, if necessary. Erin Solstice was important, but not vital.
That was good. It meant that the Antinium could continue the experiment. It meant that they were not reliant on uncontrollable variables like Humans or other species. It meant…
It meant the time of change was upon them again.
Such a thought sparked excitement even in the languid Queen’s body. Again. Soon, perhaps, the Antinium might change again. And then the other Queens would know she had been right.
It might seem odd for rivalry and argument to form among the Antinium, but it had been discovered long ago that without such, the Antinium would stagnate. The Queen had endured the ridicule and scorn of her fellow Queens for long years, but now she would be proven right. The Great Queen would know of her success soon.
Maybe then she would allow the Queen the other types long denied to her Hive, and provide her with both plans and resources that they might be grown. Or perhaps it was time she created one herself. With the resources and bodies she would be given once her work had been deemed a success, the Queen would be able to improve her hive a thousandfold.
“And maybe then…”
The Queen sighed, relaxing back onto the soft bed that had been made to hold her vast weight. Until that day, she must continue to labor. More than once, the Queen had thought of creating yet another Prognugator, or even another Queen, but that had been outlawed both by the Great Queen and the pact made with Liscor. And yet, she was in sore need of another assistant.
Perhaps one of the Individuals might serve? It was part of the reason they were necessary, after all. Pawn had levels in [Tactician] – perhaps not as high as the Queen’s, but then again, perhaps so. The new Antinium leveled up far quicker than Klbkch or the Queen.
And she needed help. She left the above world to Ksmvr and Klbkch, despite her misgivings, so she could better lead her Hive below. The above world was not the Queen’s concern at the moment. She could not turn her attention to lesser matters. For if she were distracted by the concerns of the surface, who would lead her army against the threat from below?
The Antinium had long known of the dungeon underneath Liscor. The Ruins had been only a small part; in their tunneling, the Antinium had uncovered nearly all of the vast ruins. But entering them? Another matter entirely. It was all they could do some days to hold the line.
The Queen settled back against one stone wall and reached out to the rest of her Hive, assessing, commanding. Today’s casualty report: fifty two Workers and eighty six Soldiers slain. Five tunnels breached; fortifications in (242, -42, -4951) were in desperate need of repairs.
She thought as she went over the Workers slowly clearing bodies and hauling the rest to be turned into the easily storable and highly nutritious paste she loathed so much. The surface was inconvenient, but also necessary.
Gold-rank adventurers would soon be entering the city. Was it time to reveal the extent of the ruins? That process was underway, but could be sped up or halted with the Antinium’s help or lack thereof.
Soon. The Queen sat and pondered her hive and the dungeon beneath. It mattered little if it was Antinium or other species who fought their way to the center of the dungeon. But the Antinium must have the artifacts that lurked inside the true treasure rooms. It must be retrieved, but if the guardians were to be freed in the process—
Skinner was the least of their worries. The Antinium had killed nineteen Flesh Worms in the tunnels so far, even if none of them had built up so much flesh as he had, or the gems of [Terror]. No, the real threat was deeper, darker.
The Queen sat on her throne and turned her attention back to her long war in the depths. They had sworn to protect Liscor, that they might grow. The Antinium would do so, and then they would reap their harvest and the world would change with them.
Ceria Springwalker hated the image everyone had of half-Elves. Everyone—mostly Humans, but all species really—had this image of half-Elves as these eternally happy beings who loved to frolic in flowers and hug trees.
Ceria didn’t like flowers, and the only time she hugged trees were to climb up them to escape from bears. She was a city girl, not some crazed nature freak.
Even so, she had to admit there was a grain of truth to the myths. She had an affinity with plants that few other species did. So it made sense Erin would ask her for help planting flowers. It just wasn’t fun for Ceria.
“Here. Space them out a bit more so they can absorb more nutrition.”
Ceria directed Erin as the two young women labored over the pots on the table. They were filled with soil, and Ceria had already made sure they had a good spot in the sun. More than that, she didn’t really know. She might be good with flowers, but she had no idea what to do with these ones.
The flowers that had caused Erin to think she was a tiny person for the better part of an hour were golden and soft to the touch. They were also a trick; Ceria had been expecting gold, but she fully realized that had been stupid of her. And of Erin, but the half-Elf didn’t want to make the Human feel worse than she was already.
Not that Erin looked too upset. The girl was actually humming as she chattered to Ceria about the possible uses of the odd flowers. She was calling them Alice Flowers, for a reason Ceria couldn’t understand. But Ceria did agree the flowers were probably as valuable as gold.
They were…magical. And not; Ceria could sense the same odd feeling from these flowers that she got from the Frost Faeries. It was a tingling in the back of her mind, a stirring in her soul.
Were they valuable or not? Certainly, an [Alchemist] might pay a lot for them if they weren’t common somewhere else, but Ceria just didn’t know. It still seemed a bit pitiful, given that it was payment for all of Erin’s hard work.
And yet, Erin had leveled up four times from that one night! Ceria couldn’t believe it. And her skills! [Wondrous Fare] and [Inn’s Aura]? Ceria knew that some [Chefs] earned [Magical Cooking], but she’d never heard of Erin’s skill.
That settled it. Erin Solstice was no ordinary human, any more than Ryoka was. Ceria glanced over at the other girl. Ryoka was as tight-mouthed as a clam, and twice as tough to crack open, but Erin was far more easygoing and open. She was smiling as she gently patted the flowers into the soil.
“Erin. You um, don’t seem like you’re too normal.”
The girl paused, and frowned at Ceria.
“Thanks? Or wait, is that an insult?”
Ceria laughed and stood up from her pot, dusting off her hands.
“Hardly. You’re unlike any Human I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a few. You and Ryoka are completely unique though; where do the two of you hail from?”
The half-Elf moved to sit at a table as Erin frowned at her pot. The girl replied absently.
“Oh, I come from another world. Ryoka does too.”
Ceria kept walking and then tripped over the chair she’d been going to sit on. She crashed to the ground face-first, breaking her fall with both hands.
Erin dropped the flower she was holding, but Ceria was on her feet in an instant. The half-Elf gaped at Erin.
“You what? Wait, you and Ryoka?”
The girl looked panicked.
“Didn’t I say? I thought I told you! Wait—I told Krshia and Klbkch but—I thought Ryoka told you!”
She clapped a hand to her head.
“Oh no. Ryoka’s going to be so mad at me!”
Ceria sat in a chair and let her head spin for a while. Erin hovered around her anxiously.
“I mean, it isn’t that big a deal, right? There’s no way back—not that I know of, and Ryoka and I don’t know anything special. I think. I mean, technology is really different where I come from, but I can’t build anything like Ryoka’s iPhone.”
“I can’t believe it. I just—”
The half-Elf broke off, shaking her head. The trouble was, she could believe it. It would be far easier to call Erin crazy, but it made sense, especially with everything Ceria had observed about Ryoka.
No wonder the other girl was so cagey. And here was Erin, as oblivious of the dangers as an owl on a summer’s day. Ceria sighed. Someone had to protect the girl. It should probably be her.
“I guess we’ve got more to talk about.”
“I guess. But we’ve got a lot to talk about anyways, right? Like these flowers—and those new skills I’ve got!”
“The skills. Right.”
At this point, the skills were one of the last things on Ceria’s mind, but the half-Elf reluctantly focused on Erin.
“Obviously the [Wondrous Fare] skill has to do with you making food for the faeries. I’m not sure about [Inn’s Aura], but it might just make your inn more attractive or something.”
“Ooh, that could be helpful. But what about [Wondrous Fare]? Does that mean I can make food only for faeries or that it’s somehow…magical?”
“Why don’t you try to make something and see what the skill does?”
Erin nodded a few times and disappeared into the kitchen. Ceria sighed, and Erin poked her head back out.
“Wait one second. I’ll make you some crepes, and then we can talk okay? Magical crepes.”
Ceria nodded weakly. She had no idea what a crepe was, but she prayed it would take Erin some time. Her head still hurt.
And then the door opened and Ceria’s headache doubled. Pisces walked in. She knew it was him because she couldn’t see anything, yet she heard the footsteps.
“Pisces. Don’t tell me you’ve gotten in trouble with the Watch again?”
“Hardly. I’m just here to avoid unwanted attention.”
Pisces reappeared in an instant, and Ceria sighed. This was not a good time for him to show up…which was why she should have expected him.
Somehow he could always pop up at the worst possible moment. She was only glad he hadn’t heard Erin’s accidental admission. Ceria would be the first to admit Pisces wasn’t evil so much as annoying, but he had a habit of causing trouble. If he learned about where Erin was from—
“What interesting flowers. Are they magical?”
Trust Pisces to focus on the magic in the room first. Ceria sighed.
“Take your hands away from those. If you steal one, Erin will hurt you. They’re a gift from the Winter Sprites.”
Pisces immediately snatched his hand away and backed up.
“Those things? I thought even Miss Erin would know to leave them well alone.”
“Well, she didn’t, and they paid her in flowers.”
“Ah. Well, perhaps I will just have something to eat. Is that food I smell?”
Ceria closed her eyes as Pisces strode into the kitchen. She heard a shout, and the mage hurried back out.
“Go away! I’m cooking! And Ceria, these crepes don’t feel magical!”
“Perhaps I should try one to be s—”
Pisces ducked as a ladle flew out of the kitchen. He sniffed loudly.
“That was dangerous. I am a customer.”
“Must you hold that against me? Well, soon enough I will have sufficient funds to pay for my meals. I have enrolled in the Adventurer’s Guild.”
That made Ceria sit up in her seat. Pisces, an adventurer? It was almost as much of a surprise as Erin’s admission. She eyed him. He must have been very hungry to be so desperate.
“You can’t be serious. You’ll die on your first mission.”
He sneered at her.
“If you can do it, Springwalker, I see no reason why I can’t do the same. Of course, with my undead I will be able to accomplish much even by myself. Unless you’d care to join my party…?”
“Fat chance. And stop stealing food or Erin will hurt you. And if she doesn’t do it, I will.”
Pisces was pointing a finger into the kitchen, and Ceria knew he was using a minor levitation spell. He scowled, and Erin yelped as the crepe he’d been levitating dropped back down.
He raised his hands as the girl stormed out.
“Oh—should I mention this?—there appears to be a girl freezing to death in the snow a few miles north of here. I thought you might be interested.”
Erin stared at him as Pisces explained. Ceria narrowed her eyes at her…acquaintance. Friend was far too strong a word.
“How do you know that? And why are you telling Erin? I’d have thought you’d want the girl to die.”
“I would, but Selys insisted I tell Erin. She believes Erin will rescue the girl.”
“Well—of course! She’s out there with no coat? How could they do that?”
Erin stared at Pisces and then rushed into the kitchen. Ceria heard scraping, and then Erin stormed out of the kitchen with a plate of crepes in hand. She shoved it on the table and turned to Ceria.
“I’ve got to go! I’ll be back in a little bit Ceria.”
“What? Erin, listen. That girl is a thief. She was exiled from Liscor for a reason. You can’t just—”
Erin stared at Ceria. There was something disconcerting about the young woman’s gaze. She was normally so amiable, but now her stare was serious and unwavering.
“No one deserves to die in the cold. No one.”
“Toren! Where is he? Nevermind—”
She ran back into the kitchen and reemerged with a coat. Then Erin dashed out the door.
Pisces watched her go and shook his head.
“Too kind by far, that girl. For a child from another world, she is rather careless.”
Ceria stared at Pisces. He smirked at her, and then frowned when he realized she wasn’t taken aback.
“Ah. You know.”
“How do you know?”
“A certain conversation on that device of Ryoka Griffin’s. It was troublesome to copy the [Message] spell as I recreated it, but…”
Pisces shrugged. Ceria remembered him bragging about that bit of magic as they’d exited the ruins. She narrowed her eyes.
“And now you’ve just sent that girl off to rescue a dangerous thief.”
“Not dangerous so much as annoying at this point, I believe. Her magical items are gone.”
Ceria stood up, sighing. She walked over to Pisces and smacked him with her skeletal hand. He yelped as she glared at him.
“Come with me. Once we go and make sure Erin doesn’t get mobbed by those damn Gnolls and Drakes, we’ll talk. About you being an adventurer as much as anything else. I’m reforming the Horns of Hammerad.”
Both his eyebrows shot up. He looked at her skeletal hand, and then blinked twice when he realized it had been the one to strike him.
“Well. That is a new development. But you have no wand. And unlike me, you don’t have any Skills in that area.”
Ceria smiled grimly, and raised her skeletal hand.
“Oh, I can do magic. And Yvlon is—well, she’s got scars but she’s still got both arms. And so do I.”
She concentrated, and an [Ice Spike] formed in the air, hovering above her skeletal hand, ready to launch. Pisces’ mouth fell open slightly, and then he regained his composure. He smiled at Ceria, for once genuine, reminding her of the young man she’d studied with back in Wistram.
“Ah. How intriguing.”
Someone knocked on a door. Someone else opened it. It was an ordinary scene, except that it was Val knocking on Magnolia’s door, and it was a maid who came to open the expensive double doors and lead him inside the vast mansion that was her home within the city of adventurers, Invrisil.
But Val was used to the routine, and so he charmed the maid as she put him in a large waiting room and went to summon the lady of the manor. Magnolia was unique in that way; normally a senior maid or butler would handle Val, but he knew Lady Magnolia talked to all Runners, not just Couriers when accepting their deliveries.
And this one was special. Val had been puzzling over it the entire way north and he was wondering what Lady Magnolia would make of it.
He didn’t have long to wonder. Lady Magnolia, the deadly flower blooming in the north and scion of the Reinhart house swept into the room, charming Val before he could charm her.
“My word, is it Valceif? I haven’t seen you in—why it must be two months at least! Please, sit, sit.”
Val did so, watching as Magnolia sat herself in the rich little room, and her maids joined her. Well, only one maid today. Ressa, the head maid inclined her head at Val and he nodded back respectfully. It had taken a lot of work to get on the prickly maid’s good side, but then, he’d tried to conduct himself as respectfully as possible in Lady Magnolia’s house.
For good reason. No one made an enemy of the Reinharts and didn’t pay for it in some way. For one thing, Magnolia was a far better friend than enemy.
And Val liked her. So he smiled as he reached for his belt and brought out a folded letter and proffered it to her.
“I have a delivery for you, as you might imagine, Lady Magnolia.”
“Really? A delivery? I hadn’t expected one—at least, not from you.”
“Well, it’s a favor for a friend. I’m told you know Ryoka Griffin—this letter is from her to you.”
The name didn’t even make Lady Magnolia blink, but Ressa’s reaction was more dramatic. The normally unflappable maid stirred slightly, and then Magnolia smiled.
“Now that is interesting. Pray, when did you last see Ryoka?”
Val shouldn’t have been surprised Magnolia knew Ryoka; he knew the local Runner’s Guilds loved to fulfill her requests and each Runner took turns doing the lucrative deliveries, but he was surprised at Ressa’s reaction. He smiled back, trying to be as open and honest as possible.
“A day ago. She was in an inn just outside of Liscor. She left in a big hurry, but she gave me this before she went.”
He offered her the letter, and Magnolia took it. Her eyes sparked with interest as she took the letter from him. It was a simple thing, yet Magnolia scrutinized it and Val felt she took something away even from that.
“A letter from Ryoka Griffin. Well, well. Now what could it be…? Ah. It’s unsealed.”
Lady Magnolia took out a small piece of parchment and unfolded it. She looked at it, blinked, and then laughed.
Ressa stood stock still behind her lady, but Val knew that she had read the parchment as well. Her face was stony, but Magnolia was laughing in delight. Val had to smile too. He knew what the little bit of parchment said by heart, now.
We should talk soon.
That was it. No secret ink, no hidden message. Magnolia’s laughing turned to chuckles before she regained her decorum. She tapped the parchment gently with one fingernail.
“You’ve read this, I take it?”
Val ducked his head apologetically.
“It was my price for delivering it. I do apologize, but—”
“Oh nonsense! How clever of Miss Ryoka. A Courier must have his payment, mustn’t he? But I fear she hasn’t given you much to work off of.”
“Well, your reaction is quite interesting.”
Lady Magnolia twinkled merrily at Val, and he wondered how much this information was worth. The game of politics featured her as no small player, and any good courier knew to sell the latest tidbit as soon as possible before it grew stale.
Then again, secrets should be kept unless you wanted a dagger in your throat, and he had no desire to harm Ryoka. But she’d known what would happen when she gave him the letter because he’d asked, and so he was doubly interested in what Lady Magnolia would do next.
“Well, what should my response be? I suppose I could hire you—although Ryoka has gone further south, hasn’t she?”
No one knew how Magnolia learned her secrets, so Val didn’t even blink at her knowledge.
“Yes she has. But I’m afraid tracking her down would be something of a chore, even for a Courier. I could recommend you a good one who knows the area, though—”
“Perish the thought. It’s a needless expense. No, Ryoka will come north sooner rather than later. But I’m afraid she might be disappointed. Because my answer is sadly nothing.”
Lady Magnolia handed the letter to Ressa, and the maid made it disappear into her skirt. Val blinked.
“Nothing? Well, Ryoka did say you might have an unusual reaction.”
“I believe I would have—a week ago. But she was a bit too slow for once. Shall I show you what I mean? It may be interesting if you meet her again.”
“I would be delighted, but I fear it is unlikely I’d meet Ryoka again.”
“Nevertheless, I would be delighted to show you, if only to indulge myself. And I find it never pays to be certain of anything in this world. If you would be so good as to join me?”
Lady Magnolia stood up, and ushered Val towards the door. She led him through her mansion, filled with bowing servants and priceless artifacts to a large room. There she paused, and opened the door ever so slightly.
Val, realizing he should be quiet, leaned forwards. He found himself staring into a room expensively decorated as with every place in the mansion, but in this case, filled with sofas and fancy things to sit on. He thought one of the couches was called a ‘chaise longue’, but Val had seldom been this far inside a noble’s home.
But of course, that wasn’t the main feature of the room. The people were. Congregated around a resplendent table filled with every sort of drink and food were several people. They weren’t more than children, really. Oh, some were young adults, but they held themselves without the confidence Val and Magnolia had.
They looked…ordinary. Their faces were like any Val had seen on his travels, and they acted like normal people. But their clothes—they were brightly colored, and embossed with artwork Val had never seen before in his life! And then his heart skipped a beat as he saw one of them held a strange object in his hands.
It was flat, and looked vaguely like a mirror. But instead of reflecting things, it shone with a bright, unnatural light that had to be some kind of magic. And it was emitting sound, and some of the others were clustered around it. And what was that another one had? Some kind of…?
One turned his head, and Val moved his head away from the door, although he was probably far enough away that no one had noticed the small crack in the door in any case. Magnolia stealthily shut the door, and turned to Val.
“Well? Your thoughts, brave Courier?”
Her eyes were dancing. Val had to smile back. Lady Magnolia played games with fates and lives, it was true. That was what anyone with power did in the north, and their subtle wars could ruin lives. But Magnolia did her scheming in the open as much as in the shadows, with laughter and a willingness to share her fortune with others. He couldn’t help but like her for it.
“I believe I have seen something like the device held in that boy’s hands.”
“Yes. Fascinating, isn’t it? I regret to say that it puts Ryoka’s plans in a bit of a bind, however.”
“That is tricky. She’s a good Runner, you know.”
Magnolia led Val back to the room, where a tea set and snacks had already been set out by Ressa. She smiled at him.
“I would like to explain more, but I fear that would place you in jeopardy. Feel free to mention all the details to anyone who pays you well, though.”
He ducked his head, blushing slightly.
“If you wish me to omit anything—”
“Nonsense! You must have your payment, and I would be remiss if I let those busybodies up north miss a chance to gossip, worry, and scheme.”
Lady Magnolia laughed lightly again, and Val had to laugh with her. He leaned forwards and asked the question that was on his mind.
“So what does this mean, Lady Magnolia? Is it good for you, or bad for Ryoka? You said this was an interesting week?”
She beamed at him.
“Let us simply say that it has been a red letter day for all of us. Although the letter you’ve given me is not red. Oh dear. I suppose the analogy works in any case, though. Now, will you take tea or something stronger before you tell me of what has happened with dear Ryoka?”
Later that evening, in Liscor, two teams of Gold-rank adventurers entered the city to the excitement of no one but Selys, who was at the desk in the Adventurer’s Guild at the time. A Named Adventurer began his slow journey north from the Walled Cities, and another sailed across the seas.
And Erin hired her first employee. That turned out to be a mistake.