She was dying. Lyonette du Marquin registered this fact with bitter acceptance. She lay in the snow and knew it.
She’d stopped moving. Lyonette knew she should keep moving, keep walking, but she was too tired. The biting, painful cold had stopped a while ago, and now she was feeling almost warm.
But she was still dying. It was hard to open her eyes, and Lyon knew when she closed them next, she would never open them. So. Death. The knowledge was bitter, but at least it would stop the pain.
What would be far worse, or so the girl felt, was that her death would be ignoble and untold. She would die like a dog, and that was worst of all.
They had done this. The mongrels and lizard folk. Lyonette clung to life for a few more seconds just so she could hate for a while longer.
Curse them. If she had one last wish, she would have sent fire and death to that city of monsters, Liscor. They had killed her. Her, a scion of the Marquin house, one of the Hundred Families of Terandria, Sixth Princess in line to the Eternal Throne of Calanfer.
And they hadn’t even the courage to kill her outright. Instead, she had been exiled, sent to wander through the snow until she collapsed. If she’d had her rings or cloak or any of her heirlooms—
But of course, they were out of power. Drained completely from overuse; their bindings broken. And the wretched creatures had taken the few that still had power.
Lyon snarled weakly. Taken. What was hers by right had been stolen. She had been betrayed. That was the only reason she’d met this end. All these peasants, refusing to recognize her superior nature. If she had only reached Magnolia Reinhart. Then—
The world was cold. Lyonette lay still on the ground. She looked up into the cold, grey sky and breathed out. Her eyes closed and—
Erin charged over the top of the hill and skidded down the side. She ran straight towards Lyon, but didn’t see the girl. Lyonette saw Erin approaching first with incredulity, then hope, and then alarm when she realized the girl wasn’t stopping.
“Where is she? Where is she? I can’t—whoa!”
Lyonette felt a foot slam into her stomach and then Erin landed on top of her. The young girl gasped as Erin flailed about frantically.
“What was that? What—oh.”
Death was preferable to life at the moment. Lyon curled up into a ball of pain and then felt something touching her. She jerked and flailed at it feebly, but then—warmth.
“Here. Hold still. Oh man, you’re so cold. Let me wrap this—”
A thick woolen blanket wrapped itself around Lyon as if by magic, the girl felt part of the chill on her lessening. And then she looked up and saw Erin.
The girl smiled down at Lyon with genuine kindness, warmth, and a bit of guilt.
Lyon blinked at her. Another human? Another girl? Her cold-addled brain struggled to work, and her mouth wasn’t helping.
“I’m Erin Solstice. And you’re freezing. I have an inn nearby; can you stand?”
Instinctively, Lyon tried to move her legs, but they’d been stuck in one place for too long. Erin leaned forwards and Lyon got a good look at her face.
She was nothing special to look at. Part of Lyon thought that as it judged the other girl’s rough clothing, her unmannered appearance, speech, and conduct. But the other, larger part of Lyon looked at Erin and saw something shining.
Erin held out a hand and smiled. And she was like the sun. She melted the cold gripping Lyon.
“Come with me if you want to live. I’ve got crepes!”
The other girl’s hand reached out and took Erin’s. Lyon couldn’t help it. Erin lifted her to her feet easily. Lyon tried to move, and gasped in pain. Her legs were numb and painful at the same time.
“Here. Lean on me.”
Erin bent down and got under Lyon, helping the girl. Half-dragging, half-supporting the girl, she made her way back through the snow.
Lyon didn’t know what was happening. She didn’t really hear Erin as the other girl panted and tried to introduce herself and then gave up. She just knew she was being saved, and like a ship-wrecked survivor, she clung to hope.
The inn stood on the hilltop in the distance, promising shelter, warmth, and food. Lyon’s knees buckled at the sight, and Erin caught her.
“Come on. We’re nearly there!”
Lyon needed no encouragement. She fought for more strength as the two girls began to ascend the gentle slope. Suddenly, she began to believe she might actually live. The knowledge was sweet joy.
She took five more steps towards the inn, and began wondering how much coin Erin had, and whether the girl had a horse Lyon could take.
“My name is Lyonette.”
That was how the girl introduced herself after Erin had stoked the fire, gathered as many blankets as possible, and made some hot soup. Lyonette sat in front of the fire, shivering, cold, and now, suddenly, imperious.
Lyon nodded regally at Erin, and gestured to her inn.
“We—I thank you for your assistance in my time of dire need. You will be handsomely rewarded when I am restored to my proper station, I promise you.”
Erin blinked. It was hard to take anything the girl said seriously. She looked like a multi-colored marshmallow with a tiny human head sticking out of it, so many blankets had Erin wrapped around her. Plus, her nose was drippy.
“Oh, it was no problem. I was happy to help. When I heard you were out in the cold, I couldn’t just let you die.”
The girl looked around the inn and sniffed. Erin wondered if she had any tissues, when Lyonette looked back at her.
“I will stay at your inn for a while longer, perhaps a day or two. Then I will require assistance travelling north.”
Well, that seemed reason—hold on. Erin’s mind backtracked and focused on Lyon’s words. Somehow, she felt like the girl had missed a step. Or ten.
“What? Uh, no. No…I’m not sure what I said—I don’t think I said anything like that—but I’m not helping you travel. In fact, I was going to give you a job working here.”
Now it was Lyon’s turn to pause and think. She stared at Erin in shock, and then fury.
“You would have me work here, like a peasant? I am grateful for your help, make no mistake, but I require help.”
Erin chose her words carefully.
“I think I am helping you. A lot, actually. And I’m willing to offer you a job working here. It wouldn’t be hard—well, it might be hard at first, but you’ll get used to it. And I’ll give you room and board, and even some money. I can’t pay much but—”
Lyonette stood up, shedding her blankets. She stared hard at Erin.
“I intend to go north as soon as possible. I will not stay another minute in this—this hellhole of abominations and freaks!”
Erin twitched at the word ‘abomination’. But she still kept her calm.
“If you want to do that, I won’t stop you. But I’m not going to help you.”
Lyon raised her chin and her eyes flashed.
“I order you to assist me!”
The girl stared darkly at Erin for a few moments, and then, alarmingly, suddenly switched to placid calm. She sniffed, and looked back towards the fire.
“Very well. I will rest here instead.”
Erin didn’t need to be suspicious; she already was. But she modulated her tone to calm, friendliness.
“Okay, great! In that case I’ll wake you up at breakfast. You can rest today, but tomorrow I’ll show you the ropes. In a few days—”
“I am not going to work. I said I would rest.”
“Yeah…but if you’re going to stay here, you’ve got to work.”
“Am I not your guest? And I am—weak. Why would you force me to work?”
Lyonette looked hurt and reproachful. Erin’s friendly smile didn’t waver.
“Well, you are a thief, aren’t you?”
Lyonette’s face went blank for a second and her eyes flicked to Erin and then away. Erin had a sneaking suspicion the shivering girl was trying to think up a lie.
“I know it’s you. You blew up…well, you destroyed my friend’s shop and robbed a lot of good people. But I didn’t want you to die out there, so I’m offering you a job.”
“I don’t want it. I will head north as soon as I am well.”
Erin took a deep breath. Her heart was pounding. She hated this kind of thing.
“Well, in that case, you won’t be staying here, then. Sorry.”
Lyon stared at Erin incredulously. Her eyes flicked towards the snowy landscape outside, and she wavered. Then a sly look flashed over her face for a second. The girl lightened her tone, looking at the door innocently.
“I suppose I shall simply have to set out myself, then. In the cold and snow. I fear my death will be on your conscience, but then, you wouldn’t let me go out without provisions, would you?”
Lyon’s obvious attempts to manipulate Erin angered her more than anything else the girl had done so far. Erin folded her arms.
“A coat, and five days’ worth of food.”
Lyon stared at Erin, caught off-guard.
“That’s all I’m giving you. A coat, maybe some pants and boots, and food. You’ll need a bag to hold it, so I’ll give you that and point you to the main road.”
“But I will freeze long before I get to a city. You wouldn’t want that on your conscience, would you?”
“Not really, but I won’t give you any more help.”
Erin stared hard at Lyon. This was as bad as she’d feared. But she had to make herself clear.
“I’m giving you one chance, Lyonette. One. That’s all. Either work for me at this inn, or try to get to another city, but if you go, I won’t save you even if you die a foot outside my inn.”
Erin leaned forwards and Lyon leaned back. Erin’s gaze didn’t waver as she glared at Lyon.
“You only get one chance.”
The girl stepped back, rattled, and then moved away from the roaring fire. She looked at Erin and her expressions firmed.
The girl hesitated.
“—Of the aristocracy in Terandria. A minor House—the Clavalettes. I am distantly related to the royal family, and I will be treated with respect!”
“Really? Good for you. You’re still a thief. Take my offer, or you’ll be gone after dinner.”
Lyonette stared at Erin, her pleasant mask gone as well. Her brow and nose wrinkled and she hissed at Erin.
Erin’s face went blank. She knew that peon was an insult, but she wasn’t exactly sure what the word meant.
“Well? Will you work here or not?”
“I will—under duress! I graciously accept your offer.”
Erin felt that last sentence should have been reworded, but she took it.
“Okay. Fine. Good. Now, I’ll let you stay here, but you can’t steal anything. And I’ll make sure of that, because I’m not alone.”
Lyon suddenly looked doubly wary, but she didn’t have time to move. Erin turned and called.
“Ceria? Do you want to introduce yourself?”
Ceria had been upstairs—the half-Elf had not enjoyed going searching for Erin, especially since the two had missed each other and she’d been outside longer than Erin by a good stretch. She descended the stairs and Lyon reacted by backing away.
“A half-breed? Here?”
She looked aghast. Erin frowned at her reaction and Ceria scowled.
“Oh great. She must be from one of the Human-only countries. Wonderful. That explains a lot.”
“What’s wrong? This is Ceria. She’s a half-Elf.”
“She’s a freak! An untrustworthy spy and troublemaker! I insist she leave at once!”
Lyonette stared with hostility at Ceria, who didn’t look that welcoming either. Erin opened her mouth, but Ceria put her good hand on Erin’s arm.
“I would watch your mouth, young Human. I’m a friendly half-Elf, but my kind isn’t always nice to people who offend us. I know you’ve heard the stories.”
Lyonette sneered at Ceria, but with a trace of fear.
“Children’s tales to frighten the simpleminded.”
“Oh, really? Well, not all stories are fake.”
Ceria slowly raised her other hand, and Lyon froze. Ceria had learned to manipulate her dead hand quite well, and the girl standing in front of her turned deathly white as Ceria brought it in front of the girl. Ceria raised her skeletal hand in front of Lyon’s face and flexed it slowly. The girl’s eyes fixed on the bleached bones in horror. Ceria leaned forwards, and Lyon shrank back.
“If you don’t want to find out which stories are true, I’d watch your mouth around here. And I’d tread carefully and obey every order as well.”
Lyonette backed away, nearly stepped in the fire, and screamed. Erin watched as she backed towards the corner of the room, turned, saw Toren standing there, and screamed again.
It wasn’t the first time Lyon had seen the skeleton. Erin had seen him come in earlier—from where? And introduced him, but each time Lyon saw him she screamed. Loudly.
It was almost funny, except that Lyonette had even less fondness for Erin’s skeleton, if that were possible.
“You consort with the dead? What kind of twisted monster are you? I defy your magic, [Necromancer]!”
“I’m not the necromancer. I just own Toren.”
Lyon stared at Erin, and then at Toren. She backed away from everyone, and only accepted some food from Erin at dinner. The rest of the time she spent in a far corner, glaring at everyone as she tore into her meal.
Erin and Ceria were discussing the problem with the Gnolls—and Ceria was adamant that there would be one—when Lyonette stood up. She left her clean plate and neatly arranged silverware on the table and stared at Erin, ignoring Ceria completely.
“I will rest now. I assume you have a bed prepared for me?”
“What? Yeah. Second room on the left. Do you want—?”
Lyon was up the stairs and out of earshot in an instant. Erin sighed exasperatedly, and Ceria shook her head.
“Regretting your choices? I don’t think she’s going to get any better, Erin.”
Ceria stared at Erin. The human girl looked down.
“Well, it’s possible.”
“And I might grow wings and dance naked in a grove, but that’s unlikely too. Look, it’s going to be a lot of work. Are you sure this is the decision you want to make?”
“I think so. I have to give her a shot, at least.”
Erin wasn’t sure. Not at all. But she had to try.
She had to try.
The next day, Erin decided that yesterday had been a bad start. Yes, Lyonette had been rude, uncooperative, sneaky…the point was that tomorrow or rather, today, was a new day. Lyon could be different. She and Erin might really hit it off.
Buoyed up by what even she considered false optimism, Erin ascended the stairs and knocked on the girl’s door. Ceria had already left for the city; she always woke early for some reason. But Lyon had yet to rise, and it was already late morning.
“Lyon? Hello? Are you awake?”
There was no response. Erin frowned and knocked harder. No sound came from inside. Erin put her ear to the door and heard the snoring.
The girl didn’t budge when Erin raised her voice, but she did when Erin shook her violently. That was after gentle and insistent shaking; the girl could sleep!
After a few minutes of irritated blinking at Erin, Lyonette scowled at her boss.
“Go away. I am resting.”
“It’s time for work. You’re working here now, remember?”
Lyon glanced at the window.
“It is far too early. I will get up in a few hours, perhaps.”
Erin stared as the girl lay back in bed and closed her eyes. Lyon quite deliberately rolled over to face the wall, away from Erin.
For two seconds Erin thought, and then she smiled apologetically.
“You know what? I’m so sorry. I had no idea it was so early, and—let me just apologize. I’ll let you sleep.”
Erin leaned forwards, speaking softly.
“But before that, can I just say one thing?”
“‘f you must.”
The innkeeper brought her lips next to Lyon’s ears and took a deep breath.
Erin screamed the words in Lyonette’s ear and the girl scrambled out of bed and away from her in an instant. It wasn’t quite as loud as when Erin had performed her one-woman one-iPod concert—she didn’t want to wake someone in the city—but it was still loud enough to deafen.
It was certainly an alarm clock to wake the dead or perhaps kill the living, because Lyon looked like she was about to have a heart attack.
“You twisted, evil—!”
“Lyon, when I ask you to get up, I mean it. You can’t sit around and do what you want, not if you want to actually stay here.”
Erin spoke over the girl’s insults, glad for her [Loud Voice] skill. Lyon stared at Erin and her face went red.
“What did you just call me? Lyon? That is not my name!”
She didn’t even seem to have registered the rest of what Erin had said. Lyon pointed a trembling finger at Erin in outrage.
“I am Lyonette. You will address me by my full name or not at all!”
Erin thought as she folded her arms and glared at Lyon. That was fair, or at least it would be if a friend had asked it—or a stranger—or anyone, really. It was just the tone of voice and the outrage that made Erin not want to grant Lyon’s request.
“I’m sorry you don’t like it, but it’s a nickname. I’ll try to call you Lyonette if you want, but you can’t overreact, and you will listen to me. Got it?”
Lyonette glared at Erin. It was a good glare; full of hauteur and unrighteous anger and some genuine imperious force behind it. But Erin had been stared at by dead Goblins, an Antinium Queen, and angry Drakes capable of ripping her head off. She was the better starer.
The two locked gazes for three full minutes before Lyon flounced out of bed and down the stairs without a word.
“Where is breakfast?”
“We’ll have some after I teach you how to cook. In fact, you will be cooking your breakfast.”
“It’s quite easy. We’ll make eggs. It’s hard to ruin eggs.”
“I will eat now. You may teach me later.”
Erin propped her hands on her hips. This new day approach was fading fast.
“You know what? It’s your choice. Either you learn to make food, or you can skip breakfast.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
It was amazing Lyon could deliver the line with a straight face. Erin had to fight not to giggle, but Lyon’s personality helped.
“It’s what I’d do to a spoiled child, and it’s what I’ll do to you.”
“You can’t treat me this way!”
Lyon snarled at Erin, actually snarled. Erin wasn’t impressed. Gnolls could snarl.
“I’ll treat you any way I want. I’m paying you. Well, I’m going to pay you. If you work.”
“You dare. I am—”
Again, the girl hesitated, but recovered quickly.
“—Distant relative to Magnolia Reinhart, and I will not be addressed in that way! You will treat me with respect, or—”
Erin gave up. She pushed Lyon into the kitchen, or at least, tried to. She wasn’t expecting the whirlwind of claws and teeth the girl became when Erin laid hands on her. That was the start of Erin’s no good, very bad, very annoying day.
Lyon. Or rather, as she insisted on being called, Lyonette. She was a nightmare. Erin thought she was good with people—at least, she didn’t have many problems in school even if she wasn’t the popular girl, and she’d always been good with kids. Even the really annoying young boys.
But Lyon. Lyon was a class of brat unto herself. Erin had only begun to realize that yesterday, but today cemented that fact in stone. Lyon was a disaster.
She couldn’t cook, wouldn’t clean, and treated everything and everyone with disdain. She hated and feared Ceria, she refused to stay anywhere near Toren, and she disliked Pisces—which was fair—but not for any of his many flaws, but just the way he dressed.
After an hour Erin had had enough. She’d had enough questions of ‘why should I?’ or ‘what’s the point if it’s going to be dirty tomorrow?’, or worse, ‘do you know who I am?’
Erin dropped the dustrag she’d been trying to get Lyon to accept and looked around. She saw Toren in a corner, right where she’d ordered him to stay. Another fun feature of Lyonette was that she wouldn’t go anywhere if Toren wasn’t in a corner, and Erin had had to argue her into living with that.
The skeleton looked impatient, which was odd. Erin thought she was imagining it, but Toren was developing several human-like qualities. He kept shifting from foot to foot and glancing around, very unlike his normal, stoic, terrifying silence. She hoped he wasn’t about to start asking questions.
“Toren. You teach her…everything.”
The skeleton turned his head and stared at Erin. So did Lyon. It was hard to say who had more horror in their expressions.
Lyonette was the first—and only—one to speak. She glared at Erin as she pointed with a trembling finger to Toren.
“Unacceptable. I will not—”
“You will. I’m going to the city. Toren, don’t kill her or do anything stupid. Just teach her how to clean the inn, okay?”
Toren nodded. Reluctantly, Erin thought. Well, she couldn’t blame him, but at least she could trust him to do his job.
The skeleton didn’t look happy, but at least he was smiling. Erin ignored the fact that this was because he was a skeleton and always grinning, and left the inn. She knew she could leave Lyon to Toren; he never had anything to do.
Toren was busy. He knew this, and he only wished Erin knew this. Moreover, he did not want to teach Lyonette anything, unless it was how to bleed.
But orders were orders, and if he finished this, Erin might give him a nice order that would allow him to kill things. So he picked up the dustrag, and offered it to Lyon. Cleaning was easy, anyways.
The girl refused to take the dustrag. She backed up, screaming, and tried to flee. Eventually, Toren cornered her and the girl huddled in a corner, shrieking and cursing at him until she calmed down.
Once fear had been replaced with contempt and hatred, Lyon tried to push past Toren. She didn’t have much luck because she was afraid to make contact with him, and he kept shoving the dustrag in her face. He was getting impatient, which was new for him, but Lyon wasn’t like a wall.
You could clean a wall, or climb it, or bash it down with time. But the point was a wall was something you could work on. Effort put in was effort gained. But Lyon refused to do what Toren wanted no matter how much time he put in, and that was…
Lyon ordered Toren with commanding tones, pointing. The skeleton made no move. He thrust the dustrag in her face and she recoiled.
“Get that away from me. I will not be treated like this. I am r—I am nobility! You will obey me!”
Toren wasn’t completing his task. But it wasn’t his fault! It was Lyon’s. The flames in the skeleton’s eyes burned hotter as she tried to give him more orders. Only Erin gave him orders.
“Thing, I order you to—”
Toren dropped the dustrag and punched the girl in the stomach. Lyonette doubled over and retched. Toren watched with interest as her breakfast came up and wondered if he should hit her again.
Lyonette stumbled away from Toren and her voice rose to a shriek. She started screaming at the skeleton.
“How dare you. I will—”
Toren walked over and punched her in the same spot. Lyon choked again and fell down. She curled into a ball and started whimpering.
Well, she was moving, but she hadn’t picked up the dustrag. Toren pointed to it. Lyon just moaned. So he kicked her.
She screamed, and he kicked her again and pointed. She saw the dustrag, and looked up at the skeleton. He raised his fist again and she scrambled to pick up the dust rag.
It was a bad sign when someone used her full name. True, people in this world liked different kinds of formality, but it was also about the tone of voice. Erin heard the warning signs in the voice, but since she knew and liked Krshia, she turned anyways.
“Krshia. Um, hi.”
“You have taken the thief into your home.”
Gnolls didn’t beat about the bush. Erin paused, and then nodded slowly.
“That is unwise. She will steal from you.”
“I know, but she was dying in the cold.”
“Yes. That was her punishment.”
“Death? She’s just a kid, Krshia. It’s not right. Look, I know she caused a lot of trouble, but—”
“You know nothing¸ Erin Solstice. She has done more harm to my tribe than any other. She is my enemy, Erin. Harbor her and you will break the bonds between us.”
Erin stared at Krshia. The Gnoll’s voice was hard and loud, and she’d chosen the middle of the street to confront Erin. That would normally have attracted a crowd, but the Drakes and Gnolls around her had taken one look at Krshia and decided to skip the show.
Her ears were as flat as her voice. Erin hesitated. She knew dogs. She liked dogs. She’d even had a dog that ate too many chess pieces and had to go through surgery as a kid. She liked dogs so much she knew it was a bad idea to pet one when their ears were flat. And Krshia—
“I’m giving her a chance. I’m sorry, Krshia, but I have to.”
“You have made your choice. Goodbye, Erin. We shall see what comes of it.”
Krshia turned abruptly and began to stride away. Erin paused, and then ran after her.
“Krshia, wait! Let me explain. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but—”
She reached out and grabbed at Krshia, but someone caught her hand.
“Aunt. Is this Human bothering you?”
Someone imposed himself between Krshia and Erin. A giant paw firmly grabbed Erin’s hand and she looked up, up into the face of a very tall Gnoll. He was tall, muscular, and, Erin couldn’t help noticing this bit: armed. A longsword hung at one side, and a large shield was strapped to his back. The Gnoll stared down at Erin, without a trace of friendliness in his smile.
“You are Erin Solstice, yes? I would not touch my aunt so lightly, yes?”
“Brunkr. Let her go. She is not an enemy.”
Krshia turned and stared at the Gnoll who had called her aunt. He let go, and Erin stepped back and felt at her wrist. It didn’t feel broken.
“Who—are you? I’ve never seen you before.”
“I am a warrior of the Silverfang Tribe. I have come here with my brethren, yes? We have come to guard, and assist our honored sister of the clan leader, yes? But instead of terrible enemies, all I see are thieves and backstabbing Humans.”
Brunkr gave Erin a wide grin, and stared hard at her. She did her best not to be intimidated, and held her ground.
“I’m not a backstabbing Human. I just wanted to help, that’s all.”
“Help? Help would be bashing in the thief’s head with a rock. I have heard of her deeds; if you harbor her, you are an enemy.”
“Brunkr. Leave her. Erin has made her choice. I will not stop her, but I will not deal with her either.”
Krshia spoke flatly to her nephew and walked away. He hesitated, but turned to follow her. But he gave Erin one last smile.
“I am here to fulfill my aunt’s wishes, and safeguard my people here. And that includes protecting our honor. Walk softly, Erin Solstice.”
Then he was gone. He strode through the crowd, generating a personal bubble of ‘do not touch me’ almost as large as Krshia’s. Erin watched him go.
“That. Is not good.”
She turned. She had been intending to shop at Krshia’s and ask for a bit of forgiveness and explain, but it looked like she was without her Gnoll friend. And without any Gnoll shops either, because she saw several Gnolls on the street giving her the stink-eye.
Erin sighed. She’d have to go to each shop to buy her goods, and only Drake ones at that. And carry all of it back herself. Wonderful. A short shopping spree had suddenly got longer, and probably more costly.
She just hoped this was the only bad thing that would happen today. After all, it wasn’t as if her day could get any worse, could it?
Erin knew full well it could, and that was even before she got back to the inn and Lyon started shrieking at her.
“He hit me!”
Erin paused and stared at Toren as the skeleton stood behind Lyonette. The girl was red in the face as she alternatively raged at Erin and demonstrated with her filthy hands.
“And he made me clean up filth!”
“Well, that is your job. But he hit you? Hard?”
“He tried to kill me! I demand you destroy him at once!”
Erin stared at Lyon. She didn’t see any bruises on her face, but…
“If Toren hit you, that’s bad. But I don’t see any injuries. Where did he hit you?”
Lyon hesitated, and then pointed to her chest and stomach. Erin frowned.
“Can I see? I mean, I believe you…but I uh, want to see how bad it is.”
The other girl stared at Erin in horror and backed away.
“You want me to bare myself to you?”
The look on Lyon’s face suggested that Erin was a repeat sexual offender asking her to step into a back alley. Erin scowled at her, patience thin.
“Well, if you can’t prove he hit you—”
“My word as a noble should be good enough!”
“Not for me. And why was Toren so mad at you, anyways? Were you doing something you weren’t supposed to?”
Again, Lyon hesitated, and Erin smelled a rat.
“Look, he shouldn’t have hit you if that’s what he did. But I asked him to teach you, and I told you to listen to him. You agreed to do that when you said you would work here.”
“I never agreed to—”
“I am your boss. You’re my employee. You work for me, and do what I ask you to do, got it?”
“Boss? Employee? Why not just call me a servant and have done with it? I will not be ordered around.”
Lyon sneered at Erin and pointed to Toren.
“He struck me. Only the most craven and despicable masters would do that, even among the lower classes! I want him destroyed. Now.”
“No. You cleaned this room, pretty decently, so good job. Now, please do the upstairs. I think you can do it by yourself, so Toren doesn’t need to go with you. I’ll check on you in half an hour, but no one’s getting dismantled.”
Lyon’s eyes narrowed.
“You’re not going to do anything? I told you, he hit—”
“I will make sure he doesn’t do it again. Now, please go clean the upstairs, will you?”
Erin didn’t know that many swear words from this world yet, but she could have sworn she heard a really nasty one from Lyonette. The girl stomped towards the stairs, pausing to shoot daggers at Erin and Toren every few seconds.
When she was gone, Erin exhaled slowly. This was a lot of work, and the stress from her encounter with Krshia and now this was making her usual optimism take a dive into cranky town. She looked at Toren, curious. The skeleton looked completely normal, but Erin had to ask.
“Did you hit her?”
Toren nodded. Erin sighed.
The skeleton seemed to think, and then shook his head definitely. Erin scowled.
“That’s what I thought. But don’t hit her again, okay? Just…get her to work without hitting.”
Toren nodded, and Erin sighed. She couldn’t blame her skeleton, not really. He was sort of stupid, and even she’d thought about hitting Lyon. Well, he wouldn’t do it again, and she needed him to teach the girl.
After five minutes with Lyonette, Erin already had a headache.
That night, Erin made a wonderful meal of spaghetti and meatballs. It was as good as any restaurant food, and she was really happy to have her [Advanced Cooking] skill. She ate two plates with Ceria, and the half-Elf talked with Erin for a long time about different foods she’d eaten over the course of her sixty-odd years of life, which included everything from raw insects to elegant cooking at fine restaurants in cities Erin had never heard of before.
Lyon arrived late for dinner, complained about the cold food, refused to wait to heat the food near the fire, made disparaging comments about Erin’s cooking, and sulked off after eating half a plate.
She wanted more in an hour, and Erin refused. She wasn’t feeling generous, and a night of hunger would teach the girl a lesson or make Erin feel better.
It was impossible for Erin and Ceria to stay up late chatting, so they went to bed early. That night, Lyon woke both with a scream as Toren caught her trying to filch food. It was a bad night, and even though Erin got to sleep again, she still had to wake up early. Because the next day, Lyonette was gone with all of Erin’s gold not hidden under the floorboards.
“Where was Toren when she took the money?”
“I don’t know. Out? Getting water? He does chores around the inn when I’m not giving him orders.”
Erin glanced at Toren. The skeleton looked abashed, but also angry. He had a sword in his hands, which was premature, but matched Erin’s general state of mind.
“Can we find her?”
Ceria rubbed sleep from her eyes and yawned as she stood in the ransacked kitchen. She’d been the first up besides Toren, and she’d raised the alarm.
The half-Elf concentrated, and an orb floated upwards. It looked like a [Light] spell, but this one had a small arrow in the center. It was pointing northwest, and slightly downwards.
“Looks like she’s running for the north road. She can’t have gotten far; she took a lot and she’s not exactly a [Runner].”
“How do you know where she is? Can you find people just like that?”
“Hardly. I thought this would happen, so I planted a tracking spell on her.”
Ceria smiled at Erin and shrugged.
“A trick we learned at Wistram. Helped when we snuck around the libraries at night.”
“Well, let’s get her.”
Erin stood up, genuinely angry. She should have expected this as well, but she liked to believe in the best of people. But she was starting to understand that ‘people’ didn’t really include Lyonette.
“Come on. Toren, you run ahead. Catch her, but don’t hurt her, okay? Then I’m going into the city and you’re going to teach her to haul water and do a bunch of hard work, got it?”
Toren seemed to sigh, but he was out the door in a flash. Erin stomped out as well, Ceria following right on her heels.
“Erin, you know I want to say it.”
“You told me. But—”
“Another chance? How many does she get?”
“A lot. If it means not letting her die…”
“Fine. But I’m keeping the spell on her.”
Erin looked wistfully at Ceria.
“Any chance you can magic her into behaving?”
“If I could do that, I’d have fixed Pisces a long time ago.”
They found Lyon only a few miles away, struggling to get through the snow. Much shouting was had, but Erin didn’t feel better. In fact, she felt awful. She left Lyon with Toren in the inn and went into the city. She almost told Toren he could hit her, but refrained.
That would be cruelty, and Erin wasn’t cruel. No matter how hard she wanted to be. Besides, Toren was a good match for Lyon. He was unwavering, inflexible, and he never got bored. If he didn’t hit her, the only thing Lyon was in danger of was overwork.
Toren was bored. He didn’t like teaching Lyon, and he really, really wanted to hit her. But he couldn’t.
The skeleton. stared at Lyon. She stared back at him, with a smirk on her face.
“You can’t hit me. I heard your mistress say it.”
Toren nodded grudgingly. He pointed towards a bucket on the floor, but Lyon made no move.
“No. You can’t order me around anymore, monster, and there’s nothing you can do to me.”
What fools these Humans be. Toren nearly sighed, but instead he raised his index finger and poked Lyon hard in the side. She squealed.
Toren ignored that. He also ignored her flailing arms and he effortlessly knocked her hands away. He stepped next to Lyon and did the same thing.
He poked her.
“I will not be coerced! Torment me all you want, thing, but I wi—ah!—stop!”
Toren ignored Lyon. If she wouldn’t do what he wanted, he would make her. He wasn’t allowed to hit her, but poking had never been mentioned. So he poked her hard in the side.
Again. And again. And again. And again. And again.
After the one hundred and fifty-eighth time, Lyon stopped screaming and trying to hit Toren and gave up and did what he wanted. It wasn’t as satisfying as hitting, but it got the point across, especially because when normal poking failed, Toren got a knife and started poking with that.
Lyonette complained of course, about the poking. But Erin just glared at Lyon until the girl shrank back and so Toren was spared any more orders. And he’d decided making Lyon work could be fun after all.
It was after another day of difficult shopping in Liscor when Ceria invited Erin to visit the only other adventurer who’d survived Skinner. Well, the only one who was still in Liscor, that was. Erin accepted, out of curiosity as much as anything else.
That was how she found herself in a small room in the back of the Adventurer’s Guild, a place reserved for wounded adventurers. It had only one occupant: Yvlon Byres.
The young woman was everything Erin had ever dreamed of when she’d occasionally wondered if she could be a knight like one of her chess pieces, or someone like Indiana Jones or even a superhero.
Yvlon was tall, golden-haired, fair of skin…she actually sort of resembled Lyon, although Lyon’s hair was red and Yvlon had about a head of height on her and muscle and…
Maybe it was just their same posture, that of perfect ruler-straight perfection, and elegant manners. For all Lyon was horrible, she still ate and spoke like someone trained to it, and so did Yvlon.
And unlike Lyon, Yvlon’s manners matched her good nature. She shook Erin’s hand after Ceria introduced her, smiling.
“Yvlon Byres. An honor to meet you again, Miss Erin.”
Erin smiled back, and shook the callused hand, trying to stare Yvlon in the eyes.
She was…pretty. In fact, Erin would have ventured to say she was gorgeous before she’d come to Liscor. Her skin was mostly perfect, and she had great teeth, a shapely nose, and even nice ears. Erin wished she had Yvlon’s ears.
The only flaw was the skin which had been…ripped…away from the left half of Yvlon’s face. Not all of it; and in truth it wasn’t as if she’d lost her nose or anything like that. It was just—noticeable, that was all. The shiny scar tissue was still red and it was clearly different from her smooth skin.
Yvlon smiled bitterly at Erin and the girl tried to look anywhere else.
“I’m sorry. I—”
“It’s noticeable. Don’t worry about it. This is my penance. I failed the people I led, and I’ve been justly punished for that.”
“Don’t say that, Yvlon.”
Ceria scowled at the other woman as she took a seat next to the adventurer. Yvlon was still confined to bed, although the young woman seemed restless. Erin noted the suit of armor neatly packed on a dresser and took a seat as well.
“You and I both know that Skinner wasn’t your fault. How could we have known the door sealing him was unlocked already? Besides, Cervial, Gerald, and Lir were all there and they were all Silver-rank Captains. If they didn’t sense anything amiss, you wouldn’t have either.”
Yvlon shook her head. Her hand was tight on her bed sheets.
“It’s not about excuses, Ceria. I took responsibility for all of the lives of those adventurers when I took command, and worse, I failed to even keep my promise to honor their deaths. I have not a coin to give their dead families and loved ones, aside from my armor and sword. And I cannot sell those; they don’t belong to me.”
“No one expected a complete wipe down there, Yvlon. I’m sure the others will—”
Ceria paused, clearly not willing to lie.
“Well, all of us knew the risks. And Skinner’s dead, so they’re avenged. Just rest, Yvlon.”
The Human sagged in her bed, and Erin saw tears in her eyes. And this was the person Ryoka had disliked so much? Why?
“I wish I could be out and about. But my face—I didn’t want to use a healing potion. I need to bear this.”
“You’re just like Gerial and Calruz. So stubborn—”
Ceria sighed in exasperation, and bowed her head.
“You should use a potion. And then get on your feet. Look Yvlon—and Erin too for that matter—I’ve been thinking. Skinner was…a nightmare I’ve never seen before in my life. And losing all my friends and comrades—it’s crushed me. But I can’t give up now. I won’t. If their deaths mean anything, it’s that I should keep on living. And I can’t rely on Erin forever. So…”
She took a deep breath, and looked Yvlon in the eye.
“I’m going to go back to adventuring.”
Both Yvlon and Erin looked at Ceria, shocked; the half-Elf only shrugged.
“I know. But it’s all I know how to do. I could do small magics for money, but even I’d be ancient by the time I earned enough to buy any new spell books. And…I want to become stronger. I need to become stronger.”
Erin was still surprised, not least by the suddenness of Ceria’s decision, but Yvlon only hesitated a moment longer before clasping the half-Elf’s hand.
“Best of luck. I will get better and perhaps—my sword arm is rusty, and weak, but I’d be honored to journey with you if you’d have me. I must repay my debt somehow.”
“We’ll talk more about it when you’re better. I promise.”
Ceria smiled, and Yvlon clenched her hand tightly.
“Don’t go off alone, Ceria. I’ve seen too many adventurers fall after losing their party.”
“I won’t do anything stupid. I’m still recovering, and I don’t have a party. I’ll wait. Just keep focusing on getting better, alright?”
They talked for a while longer, about less important things. Erin had to tell a few stories to Yvlon of what had happened since she’d last been here and Ceria had to back her up before Yvlon would believe all the crazy things that had happened to Erin. She was especially interested in Ryoka, but all too soon a few hours had passed and Erin and Ceria had to leave.
Yvlon nearly tried to get out of bed before the two girls stopped her.
“I can walk, you know.”
“We know, but guard your strength. If you haven’t used a healing potion, your muscles will still be recovering.”
With resigned grace, Yvlon sank back into her bed. Erin noticed the bottle of glowing liquid by her bed stand and wondered if the former Silver-rank Captain wasn’t just a little bit pigheaded like Ryoka. But Yvlon nodded to Erin with far more courtesy than Ryoka had ever shown.
“A pleasure, Erin Solstice.”
It was, although somehow, Erin doubted she’d been as important as Ceria’s revelation. The two left quietly, and as they walked out of the guild Erin turned to Ceria.
“Adventuring? Really? Now?”
“Yes, yes, and yes, Erin. I know it’s risky, but…”
“It’s all I know.”
Erin chewed her lip, but couldn’t think of anything to say to that.
“Well, you can stay at my inn either way. My door is always open for you. And you don’t have to jump into it right away. You can stay as long as you want.”
“I know. It’s just—”
“Don’t worry. I’m not trying to talk you out of it; I’ll back you up! You do what you do best, and I’ll be ready with a hot meal and a bath. Well, Toren will have to carry the water for the bath. And I’ll need to buy a bathtub.”
Ceria smiled, touched. She patted Erin on the shoulder.
They both smiled. Then their smiles faded when they remembered who was currently living in their inn.
“At least she’s gathering mushrooms. I don’t see how anyone can mess that—well, poisonous ones—and she could not get any or squash them…huh…”
Ceria sighed, but then she smiled wickedly.
“Look on the bright side. Maybe she’ll fall into a Shield Spider pit and Toren will fail to save her.”
Erin turned and mock-glared at her friend.
“You should be. Honestly. I mean, if they scratched her a bit I wouldn’t mind, but…”
They laughed, and parted ways. Ceria wanted to talk to Pisces and Erin wanted to hunt for more sugar before she got back to her inn. Neither one noticed the furred shapes moving through the crowds towards the gates in a slow, but steady pattern.
Lyon and Toren were gathering mushrooms that Erin wanted to experiment with when the ground caved in near the girl’s foot. She screamed and jumped back as the Shield Spider nest was revealed.
Toren looked down with interest at the sleepy spiders as they began to move and look for their prey. He looked at Lyon. She was paralyzed with fear.
Casually, Toren put one hand on the girl’s back and pushed her lightly into the pit.
She screamed, and flailed, and the Shield Spiders scurried over to her. Toren enjoyed the sight for as long as possible, until one of the Spiders tried to bite her.
Too bad Erin had told him not to let Lyon come to any harm. Toren almost sighed, although he would have needed lungs to do it.
He scared the Shield Spiders off with his gaze of [Terror] and then turned it on the girl. She screamed and peed a bit, but when she realized that Toren could turn the effect on and off, she ran to each spot. Toren jogged after Lyon happily, enjoying the screams. He mentally marked the spider nest for later, and wondered what he’d kill today.
Later that day, Erin stood by a window, not looking directly outside but counting the shadows. She heard Lyonette stomp downstairs and sighed.
The girl had gotten back with a basket brimming full of mushrooms both poisonous and fair, and then locked herself in her room. Toren had gone out, and Erin was…busy.
She didn’t want to hear Lyon complain in any case. The girl was never happy, never satisfied, and now was not the time for it in any case. Erin sniffed the air and sighed. No. She looked around. Ceria…Pisces…they were both in the city still. And Toren was out hunting. No, not the time.
“He tried to kill me!”
“Hello, Lyonette. What did Toren do this time?”
Erin nearly added ‘allegedly’ to that sentence. Lyon could never prove when the skeleton had done anything, and she refused to show an inch more skin than necessary.
“He pushed me into a pit full of horrible spiders!”
Erin eyed Lyon dubiously. She didn’t appear to be injured, only scratched and dirty, and Erin was certain that Toren wouldn’t be able to fend off an entire pit of Shield Spiders in any case.
“Can you prove that?”
“I told you—”
“And I told you I want to see evidence. Besides, why would Toren do that? I specifically told him ‘no killing’. If he’s bothering you, I’ll follow you next time and see. But if you’re lying—look I need to take a break. We’ll talk about this later, okay?”
Erin turned. She really had to get Lyon upstairs, but warn the girl? She’d panic.
Lyonette emitted a strangled scream as Erin tried to walk towards the front door. She flew at Erin, hands raised into claws. Erin turned around—
And punched the girl in the face.
It was a good punch, and it had not a bit of suppressed annoyance in it. Lyon stumbled backwards, and sat down. She felt at her cheek. It was going to turn purple soon; Erin hadn’t hit her as hard as she could, but…fairly hard.
“You hit me.”
“You attacked me.”
Erin felt like she was back in elementary school, arguing with a kid over a fight he’d started. What boys never learned was that while pulling hair and hitting might work, Erin had a chess board which was hard, edged, and quite dangerous if wielded with force.
“You hit me.”
Lyonette appeared to be in shock. Erin didn’t know what to say.
“Don’t try to hit me. I’ve got [Dangersense] for one thing, and it’s going off—look, go upstairs and calm down and we’ll—”
“You hit me!”
Lyon got to her feet and screamed at Erin, face red. Her hands clenched into fists, but she wisely didn’t try to leap at Erin again.
“Monster! You violent thug! Criminal! Rogue! You filthy, horrible, wretched—”
Erin slapped her.
This time Lyon didn’t even make proper words. She just turned red, reached for Erin, and hesitated when she saw the look in the young woman’s eyes. She made an inarticulate noise and then she threw herself on the ground and began to sob.
Erin blinked. She’d been ready for an attack, or another fit, but Lyon just curled up into a ball of misery and began to wail. Erin had never really heard wailing done as well or as loudly as Lyon, but in this at least, the girl had some skill.
For a second, Erin’s heart wavered. But then she looked outside and remembered. She looked at Lyon, shook her head, and turned towards the door.
Erin left the girl to cry in the inn and walked outside, head bowed.
It was a cold, snowy day outside. Even without the Frost Faeries, snow liked to fall, and not just in small doses. Erin stood outside and shivered. She closed the door to her inn, and sighed. Then she spoke into the air.
“I wish I’d never done it, to be honest.”
No one answered back. Erin took another step outside, and kicked at the snow, sending it flurrying into the air.
“I thought I could help her, maybe even make her a better person—before I met her. But I guess she’s just as bad as everyone thought. Worse, actually.”
Erin thought about this, and nodded.
“Honestly, she’s horrible. The worst person I’ve ever met…not that I meet many horrible people. I guess there are some eviler people in the world. Well, there are lots actually. But no one’s as petty as she is.”
She spread her arms out, helplessly.
“Ceria was right. Krshia was right. Everyone was right, even Pisces. She tried to steal from me. She’s not a nice person. She’d probably rob me blind if she could, and she wouldn’t be sorry.”
Erin bowed her head.
“And if I keep feeding her and trying to teach her, well, I’m not even sure it’d work. It might be impossible—it probably is. It’s not easy for me, and I’m stressed out and annoyed every day. This is the worst, and I regret ever hearing her name.”
Silence. Erin stared at the lengthening shadows around her inn. She felt the word on her tongue, and felt the air grow still around her.
The snow fell, and then stopped in the air. Erin stared around the open world, a gray world above, and an untouched land scape of white oblivion below. She stood on her inn, and felt the world pause for a moment.
She didn’t have to say it. She could still swallow the words, give up, walk away. For one moment, Erin stood on the abyss, waiting. The world held its breath and Erin savored the feeling of infinity. But then she spoke.
It was the word upon which all things changed. Erin stared towards the sky, and spoke louder, speaking to the world and those listening.
“But. But if I don’t do anything, she’ll die. And maybe she deserves it. I don’t know. I can’t judge people. I don’t have the right. But I do know this: if she goes out, even if I give her money and supplies and Toren to guard her, she will die. She can’t make it alone. She can’t do…anything.”
Erin spread her hands out, a lone plaintiff in front of her silent jury.
“Why do people have to die? Why? Even if they do bad things—she’s just a kid. She might be horrible, but is that worthy of death? I don’t know. But I do know that if I don’t do anything, she will die. And that means her death will be because of me.”
The snow fell, and no one spoke. Erin took a deep breath.
“Another chance. It’s not about her. It’s not about one person. It’s not about doing the smart thing. It’s not even about doing the sensible thing. It’s about doing the right thing.”
She looked around. She looked into the shadows, and spoke to them.
“I can’t let people die. Not if I can help it. Not if there’s still a chance. She was a thief, but that was all. She didn’t kill people. And she needs help.”
Erin pointed back to her inn.
“I was alone, once. I was also useless. Maybe not as much as her but…someone saved me, once. They gave their life for me, and other people helped me survive. I wouldn’t be here without them. I won’t give up on her. Not yet. Not here. So—”
Erin broke off. She closed her eyes, and then spoke.
“So, if you want to get her, you’re going to have to go through me. Understand?”
For a second, all was still silence. And then it happened.
The shadows around the inn moved.
Gnolls stepped out of the shadows, tall, lithe figures shaking snow out of their fur. Covered as they’d been, they’d looked like part of the landscape. But now they appeared, and leading them was a Gnoll Erin recognized.
Brunkr stepped forwards. His chest muscles rippled under his fur as he stared down at Erin.
“She has harmed our Clan and deserves death. If you stand in our way, you will be our enemy.”
Erin sniffed. Wet dog. It was a familiar smell. She stared up at Brunkr.
“She is staying in my inn. She works for me. You are not allowed in.”
He bared his teeth at her. Erin didn’t step back.
“And you would stop me?”
Brunkr laughed. He looked around. At least twenty Gnolls were standing on the hill, all of them muscled, all bigger than Erin.
“And what will you do, outnumbered and weak as you are, Human girl?”
Erin stared at Brunkr, and shook her head.
“Nothing much. I guess I’ll just tell you something. Something very important that you should know.”
“Oh? And what is that?”
“My name is Erin Solstice. This is my inn. And. You. Are. Trespassing.”
Erin clenched her fist, thumb over knuckles just like Calruz had taught her. She punched Brunkr in the stomach as hard as she could. He blinked down at her and smirked.
He was still smirking when Erin’s leg came up.
She kicked him in the groin and the Gnoll’s eyes rolled up in his head. He clutched at his groin and toppled over. Erin looked around at the other Gnolls.
“Well? What are you waiting for? Bring it!”
The Gnolls looked at each other. They stared at their fallen comrade, at Erin, and then at the inn. They howled, and charged.