Erin sat on an expensive cushion in an expensive coach, staring at a [Butler] driving the vehicle pulled by magical (and probably expensive) ghost horses and tried not to get anything dirty. Her ears were still ringing.
“I demand to be taken along!”
Lyon had screamed and thrown things and even tried to hit the impassive [Butler] for the better part of an hour. The poor man had stood immobile and unyielding in the face of it all. In fact, Reynold the [Butler] had repeated only one thing:
“The invitation is extended to Miss Solstice alone. I apologize for the inconvenience.”
In the end, Erin had to forcibly restrain Lyon via use of Toren. She’d told him to close the inn until she was gone, to look after Lyon, and then she’d run into Liscor and told Selys what was happening.
One confused conversation and a sign on the inn’s door later, Erin was in the coach, wondering if she’d made a horrible mistake. The landscape blurred past her, ground and trees and even people disappearing in a blink of an eye.
It was very much like being in a car, except that even cars rumbled and moved left and right and were generally unpleasant to be in for longer than forty minutes.
But this carriage was smooth. Erin didn’t even feel like she was really moving. It felt unreal, and she was used to taking airplanes and cars around.
But the [Butler] seemed to be completely at home as he steered the carriage…somehow. There was a wall with an open window that Erin could speak to him through, but most of her view was blocked.
Erin guessed that normally this carriage would have been full of rich people, probably sipping fine wine and talking about important things. She felt out of place inside of it, but at least there was wine and food available.
Quite a lot of it, in fact. A bottle of wine sat in a bucket of ice while small crackers, cheeses, and even some fruits Erin hadn’t seen in the markets were carefully arranged for her consumption. Erin was still too afraid to touch anything, even though she was getting tempted by the spread.
“I do apologize for the sparse accommodations.”
Reynold looked back apologetically at one point and delivered that shocking statement as if he really was sorry. Erin just blinked back at him in astonishment.
“What? No! It’s great! I mean, this is so much—and your carriage is so fast.”
“Your words are too kind. Please partake of the refreshments. If there is anything I can do, do not hesitate to ask.”
Erin nodded, and Reynold returned his focus back to the road. He was a very silent guy, or maybe it was just the fact that he was a [Butler]. It had taken her a few tries to even get him to tell her his name.
She nibbled nervously at a cracker smeared with cheese and ate nothing more. It was a long, long drive. Reynold had told her the trip would take at least four hours, and after fifteen minutes she was already antsy and bored. So Erin did what she did best:
“So uh, you’re a [Butler]. What do you do?”
“I serve the Reinhart house, Miss.”
“Oh, right, right. Like uh, cleaning things and welcoming guests?”
“…That is largely correct, Miss.”
“But sort of incorrect? Do you always travel around like this? How do the ghost horses work? What if you get attacked? Do you want some of this cheese? There’s lots.”
Two hours in she got him talking.
“In truth, Miss—”
“…Erin. Well, in truth I’d say that most folk wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a normal vintage and a well-aged reserve. You see, it really comes down to the situations in which a bottle is enjoyed in.”
“Oh, really? I mean, I can’t really tell the difference—not that I’ve had much. But how can you tell? Do you have a really good sense of taste or something?”
Reynold chuckled softly.
“I? Hardly. While it is true the [Butler] class has several qualities and Skills that overlap with [Gourmet] and other such critical classes, the true test of experience lies in how much wine you drink and the pace at which you drink.”
“Ooh. I think I get it.”
“Quite. A proper tasting should involve first sampling the wine’s bouquet—that is to say, aroma—before slowly imbibing the drink. Simply tossing it down will ruin the subtle flavors of each sip, and they are quite exquisite.”
“So you’ve had a lot of expensive wines? Because you serve a lot of them, right?”
“Indeed. It is one of my functions to ensure that I do not serve an inferior glass. Also, it is a custom dating back to the time when poison was used liberally in drinks. Not that I fear being poisoned. And should I just mention it—pairing the right food to go with a glass of wine is often an art form in itself. Do try some of the Perisgraé Cheese with the wine, will you?”
“This is really good! You should have some!”
“It would hardly be—”
“I’m putting some through the window! Here!”
“Ah. Thank you.”
“Mm. This cheese doesn’t taste like anything I’ve had before. What’s it from?”
“A goat subspecies that eats rocks, I believe.”
Erin coughed and eyed the cheese. It didn’t taste like rocks.
“Indeed. A number of excellent foods come from rare magical species. Alas, such products are inevitably in short supply, but Lady Reinhart has the means to secure even the rarest of delicacies. Some of her most prized wines were made from plants and fruits no longer present in this world.”
Erin enjoyed talking with Reynold, and she got the impression that he was surprised that he was enjoying talking to her. They chattered on about small things for an hour or two; he told her that Lady Magnolia was quite rich and had many servants with lots of levels in strange classes, but he was apparently not allowed to say more.
Still, it was good to make a friend, and Erin enjoyed his tips on how to best savor the snacks in front of her. She thought she might buy a few cheap bottles of wine when she got back to the inn. Or maybe she could make some herself? She had a Skill for that, didn’t she?
But once their conversation had lapsed into silence, Erin found herself worrying. There were butterflies in her stomach. Massive, flesh-eating ones that were probably a real thing in some part of this world.
Everything had happened so suddenly. One minute she’d been in her inn, the next she was going farther and faster than she’d ever gone in this world. Reynold assured her everything would be alright, but Erin was still worried.
Lady Magnolia. Ryoka had told Erin briefly about her, but from what she’d said, Lady Magnolia was just some rich woman who liked expensive things. She’d apparently gotten interested in Ryoka and started hiring people to follow her, but that didn’t exactly explain the magical carriage and butler appearing out of nowhere. How had she found out Erin was from another world? Had Ryoka told her? That didn’t seem likely. And she’d found other people from Erin’s world?
How? Where had they been? Erin stopped eating as she wondered. What would they be like? Who were they? Did they know anything about why all this had happened?
When the coach finally began to slow and then stopped and Reynold opened the door, he found Erin in a state of near-panic. The sight of his distinguished mustache helped calm her down. Maybe it was just his suit. It was so cool.
“We’ve arrived, Miss Solstice. Allow me to escort you out.”
Caught up in her thoughts, Erin had completely neglected to look out the windows in the last half of her trip. If she had, she would have witnessed the famed city of adventurers, Invrisil, and probably be shocked and amazed. But as soon as Erin’s foot touched the paved pathway and she looked around and found herself on Lady Magnolia Reinhart’s estate—
That was all Erin said. She stared around, slowly taking in the fact that she was standing in a courtyard…leading up to a huge wall with holes in it…which turned out to be a house…a big house…with architecture…
She had expected a mansion. She hadn’t expected…this.
Ryoka had visited Lady Magnolia’s home in Celum, but to compare that modest space to the true home of Lady Magnolia Reinhart was to compare a one-room apartment to Versailles.
Erin had seen pictures of mansions owned by celebrities and millionaires, so she wasn’t exactly blown away by the size of the Lady Magnolia’s home. It was big, yes, but still believable. What left her speechless was the Architecture.
It had to be Architecture, because it was the kind of thing that couldn’t go uncapitalized. The best way Erin could think of it was that there were no flat spaces. Houses in her world tended to have flat surfaces as walls, and indeed, most skyscrapers were just giant rectangles with the occasional artistic design.
But this was a building made back in the time when people took years or even decades to build structures. It had art in every inch of the building. Erin stared up at the sculptures carved into the walls, and the decorative reliefs made of metal and stone. Words like crenellation, fenestration, and porte cochère leapt into her head, although that last word was just because Erin had taken French class at one point. And failed.
But still, even that would have been comparable to some of the better antiquities in Erin’s world. What set Magnolia’s home apart was the magic. There was a lot of it.
It was in the air. Literally in the air. Erin stared up at a cloud, a cloud moving just twenty feet off of the ground in what looked like the massive garden. It was a dark storm cloud, and it was raining into the lush vegetation. Another cloud enshrouded a section of Lady Magnolia’s mansion, engulfing the topmost windows. Erin longed to reach out and touch it, but—
A fish swam across the front of the mansion. Erin blinked, but she hadn’t gone insane. Not yet. A silvery fish swam across one glass window as if it were underwater and then leapt into the next window, so lifelike that Erin had to convince herself that part of the estate wasn’t underwater.
“Ah. The intruder defenses are activated.”
Reynold murmured that quietly as he stood beside Erin, perfectly at attention. She blinked and looked at him, but he stared ahead as if he’d said nothing.
“What does that mean? The fishes?”
They weren’t alone. A wolf prowled across the front of the building, and a bird flew across the roof.
“Quite. But do note the guard Golems to your left.”
Erin turned her head and gasped. Both Rags and Toren would have immediately recognized the towering behemoths clad in steel armor, although these Golems were made of silvery metal rather than black. They were also, disconcertingly, gilded with pink metal. It did not make them cute or less threatening. And both Goblin and Skeleton probably would have run away immediately given that instead of one enchanted suit of armor, there were four.
They walked with mechanical precision, patrolling the large courtyard and grounds in front of Lady Magnolia’s gated estate. Erin’s eyes bugged out as she saw the Golems; when she looked up, they nearly popped out of her head.
“Oh my god! It’s a Pegasus! A Pegasus!”
Reynold tried to pry Erin off of his arm as she grabbed him.
“Please calm yourself, Miss Solstice. It is a spell. A summoned guardian. It is not real.”
“Can I fly it!?”
The [Butler] coughed and Erin caught a hold of herself.
“Right, probably not. Sorry. How is all this possible? I mean, Ryoka said—but—how? Is Magnolia really that rich?”
Reynold lifted one eyebrow.
“Lady Magnolia? She is the heir to the Reinhart family and one of the richest individuals on the continent.”
Erin stared at him. For the first time, she began to wonder just exactly what Ryoka had done and said to get Lady Magnolia’s attention.
Erin turned as Reynold snapped back to even more perfect attention. She saw a tall woman dressed in a somber black dress, as official-looking and impressive as Reynold’s own attire. She was flanked by two other women, dressed like English maids or…Japanese cosplayers.
There were frills. And even bows. And a certain white and black color coordination that struck the eye. But the two maids were clearly following their leader, who turned out to be a maid herself.
“Miss Solstice? My name is Ressa. I am the [Head Maid] in service to Lady Magnolia. I will take you to her, if you would follow me?”
Erin gaped. Then she rallied and gaped harder.
“Um. Wow. Okay. Uh.”
She looked around. Reynold was standing straight and staring ahead. Erin hesitated, and then nodded.
“Thanks for taking me out here.”
“Think nothing of it, Miss Solstice. I trust that you will enjoy your stay.”
He answered her politely and without meeting her eyes. Erin felt a pang, but then Ressa was by her side.
“If you will follow me? Lady Magnolia Reinhart awaits your company.”
There was nothing to do but follow. In fact, not one person hesitated as Ressa led the way into the mansions. The double doors swung out as if they were automatic when they were in fact, magical. She strode along so quickly that Erin had to move fast to keep up.
But again, who would argue with Ressa? Erin might not have known it, but just one look at Ressa was a glimpse into her personality and function in the Reinhart household.
Ressa looked almost inhumanly good. It was a feature of her class, although Erin couldn’t have known that. All Erin did know was that Ressa looked how she wanted to look when she was full of bad self-esteem and dreamed of being taller and a supermodel. She was beautiful, but also stern and imposing. Exactly like the head matron or schoolmistress out of some old children’s book.
Or a queen.
And there was certainly something queen-like about the way Ressa strode through the halls and the servants bobbed their heads to her—or maybe Erin—and began to work twice as hard.
Erin noticed that with part of her mind, but the rest of her was trying to take in the mansion that Ressa seemed determined not to show her. Paintings, statues, and what looked like magical artifacts blended together with long corridors and rooms filled with wonderful furniture and objects that disappeared as Erin moved past.
It was all too much to take in. Erin could barely focus on one thing at a time; her eyes would catch on something and then transition to something else, so the only thing she remembered was wealth and beauty and grandeur.
And that was sort of annoying. Erin frowned. She looked at Ressa’s back as she passed what looked like a gallery of magical items in glass cases. She opened her mouth, hesitated, and then spoke up.
“Excuse me. Could we slow down for a second?”
The air froze. The servants trailing Erin and Ressa flinched. The tall woman looked over at Erin.
“What was that?”
“Oh, sorry. I just wanted to look at some of this stuff. It’s really incredible. Unless Lady Magnolia is waiting for me?”
Erin blinked innocently up at Ressa. The [Head Maid] hesitated.
“Lady Magnolia is extremely busy at the moment. You may wait for her in a dressing room.”
She was disarmed by the smile the younger woman gave her.
“Oh. If she’s busy I wouldn’t want to disturb her. Can I just look at these displays instead of waiting in a room? It’s really amazing.”
Reynold seemed to be trying to swallow his tongue, and the maids were staring between Erin and Ressa and slowly trying to edge away. Ressa blinked, but then her brows snapped together.
Erin felt the slightest tingling in her gut, and a vague sense of unease passed through her—for just an instant. She blinked, and it was gone like a moment of indigestion. She looked at Ressa and wondered if she was going to let Erin look. She was staring at Erin’s face pretty hard. Thinking? Erin wouldn’t want to get anyone in trouble.
After a few seconds, Erin realized that this was intimidation, not pondering thought. Erin stared back, not smiling anymore. Was the other woman trying to scare her? She was tall, but that wasn’t scary.
Again, the briefest moment of unease passed through Erin as Ressa’s glare seemed to intensify. But Erin just stared back. She’d looked at Skinner; this wasn’t very scary.
And now Ressa seemed confused. Erin looked around as she scratched her back awkwardly. Reynold and the other two maids looked pale. Was something happening? Was Ressa using a Skill? Why wasn’t it working on Erin?
Maybe it was some kind of intimidation skill. Erin frowned. Should she get upset? But maybe Ressa just wanted to do her job well. It couldn’t be easy, leading people around all the time.
“Um. Is that too much of a bother?”
Ressa blinked. The tingling in Erin’s stomach faded, and she heard people start breathing again. The head of Lady Magnolia’s staff stared at Erin and slowly nodded her head.
“The drawing room may wait a while longer. What do you want to know?”
“I don’t know. It just looks interesting. Is everything magical?”
“What does that thing do?”
“…This sword was used by the young Lady Magnolia during her first battle at the pass in Liscor during the First Antinium War. She successfully defended herself and injured four Soldiers when they broke through the ring of guards to attack her. You will note the enchantments for sharpness and frost etched onto the blade.”
As it happened, Ressa lectured like a teacher as well, with excellent oratory skills and clearly a lot of passion when it came to her mistress. Erin nodded approvingly as she studied the shortsword in one of the many cases on display down a long hallway with windows looking out on the courtyard.
“Yeah. It’s shiny.”
Ressa glanced at Erin as the girl held her hands just over the lid of the glass case. It wasn’t locked, but Erin had the definite impression this was a ‘no touch’ sort of deal. She could actually feel the air growing colder around the pedestal.
“And what’s that? Is that a powerful ring?”
Erin moved over to the next object on display. Ressa nodded stiffly as maids and servants stared at the two and furtively scurried around behind their backs.
“…A ring of teleportation. Or should I say, [Lesser Teleport]. It is fixed to an anchor, but no mages have been able to discern where the ring leads to. Putting it on might be deadly, hence the reason it is kept here.”
“But it’s not guarded or anything. Isn’t it dangerous if someone teleports to this ring?”
Ressa shook her head. It had taken a few minutes for her to start talking, but Erin had finally gotten her to explain what each object was and did outside of a one sentence reply. Either she was nicer than she looked, or she’d just given up trying to scare Erin.
“Each object here is protected by the enchantments of the mansion. Only a truly powerful mage would be able to penetrate the wards here.”
“But what if they did break through? And what if they, I dunno, brought an army?”
“That would be amusing to see.”
There was a glint in Ressa’s eyes. Erin blinked, and then nodded slowly.
“Right. So all of these things here are really valuable, right?”
“To a…certain extent. They are hardly the most prized artifacts in the Reinhart’s possessions, but they are important curios.”
“Like this other ring? What does it do?”
“It conjures a Hellhound to protect and defend the wearer for four hours. It can only be used once a month unless recharged with magic sooner, and the summoning time takes one minute.”
Erin eyed the ring. It looked like someone had melted and then twisted together metal and some kind of red stone to form the band that sat on a dark purple pillow.
“That sounds really useful. But why not give this to a servant? It could be useful when they’re out doing things. I mean, I was sort of worried we’d be attacked on the way here.”
Ressa sniffed dismissively.
“The [Butler] assigned to escort you has a number of magical items at his disposal and adequate Skills to ward off most attacks.”
“The [Butler]—you mean Reynold?”
Ressa paused. She looked at Erin oddly.
“…Yes. I do apologize if he acted with undue familiarity towards you.”
“What? Oh no, no!”
Erin waved her hands frantically at Ressa and nearly knocked over another pedestal that held a key in a display case. Ressa silently moved Erin away from the displays.
“I had a great ride. He was really nice! I just talked to him and he told me about wine and stuff.”
“Wine? Ah. One of Reynold’s duties is overseeing the wine collection.”
“Yeah. He talked about that. I made him, really. So if he’s in trouble—”
“Please, pay no mind to my comment. I am…glad you found his company so refreshing.”
Ressa glanced out the window as she spoke, and then looked at Erin. She nodded slightly.
“I believe Lady Magnolia will be finished with her business shortly. If you would accompany me?”
Erin awkwardly trailed after Ressa. This time the [Head Maid] didn’t walk nearly so fast, so Erin could stare around the mansion.
“This place really is the greatest. I haven’t seen anything like it.”
Ressa seemed surprised, but Erin nodded.
“Yeah! There’s magic and maids and butlers and all kinds of amazing things. Like that painting of the mountain. I’ve never been in any place as fancy as this.”
“I would have assumed you had seen similar sights. You come from a world far more…advanced than ours, do you not?”
Erin paused in surprise. But that was right, if Lady Magnolia knew Erin was from another world and had people here, they would have talked to Ressa and the others.
“…Yeah, but I mean, it’s nothing special.”
“You fly through the air like the greatest of [Archmages] I am told. And you build buildings into the sky.”
“What, skyscrapers? They’re nothing special. Not like this.”
Erin was no world traveler, but she had visited other countries, often to play in chess tournaments. And she had visited fancy hotels (and not so fancy ones), but they were products of steel and glass. As magnificent as they got, they were still creations of a company that was probably less than a hundred years old.
And no hotel Erin had ever stayed at had a Van Gogh behind the receptionist’s desk or a statue carved by Rodin in their lobby. Lady Magnolia’s home had more works of art than Erin could count; it was like she’d turned a museum into her home.
And the magic. The magic was far beyond anything Erin had ever seen. There was something real to the statues of armor and the summoned guard Pegasus that no CGI or animation could replicate.
“I think your world is a lot more fantastic than mine. We have some things that are more advanced, but that’s only technology. We don’t have magic.”
Erin said it truthfully, but Ressa stopped walking for a second and looked at her in surprise.
For what? Erin opened her mouth, but the maid began walking again.
“We are entering the guest suite of the mansion. If you will inform me of your preferences, I will have food and drink prepared for you immediately. I do not expect Lady Reinhart will be occupied for more than—”
The loud voice was a shout of surprise and jubilation, totally at odds with the quiet dignity of the mansion. Erin jumped and Ressa turned as a door flung itself open.
A young man stood in the doorway. Erin was treated to a…normal face. When you got down to it, it was a normal face. The young man was not a Drake, nor a brooding veteran like Halrac. He didn’t have a face full of hair like Krshia, and his eyes were brown, as was his hair. He didn’t have exposed bone or glowing eyes and he wasn’t armed.
He was a normal Human. It was a relief. And he looked just like someone from Erin’s world. That’s what made her stare and gape.
He was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. Completely normal, again. But that was so abnormal for this world that it was a shock. His t-shirt was black and had the green Android robot staring creepily at Erin. He had a watch—no, a Fitbit on his wrist, and a smile on his face.
Ressa did not. She blocked the young man’s path as he flung the door open and walked towards Erin.
“Mister Joseph, I must ask you to remain in your room. Lady Magnolia wishes to speak with Miss Solstice bef—”
“You’re actually here! Come on in!”
The young man—Joseph—ignored Ressa and tugged on Erin’s arm and suddenly she was in another room. She blinked, and looked around, confused, and then she was surrounded by people.
A young woman sitting with knees drawn to her chest stared at Erin from her chair. She had black skin—which again, was normal where Erin was from, but was the first person Erin had met who looked like that in this world. Now that Erin had grown used to brown fur and scales of different colors, it was another shock.
But another young woman was in front of Erin—more of a teenager, actually. She had a casual shirt, loose pants, and a cotton jacket on, and two rings. And she had painted nails, dark purple flaking slightly at the tips.
Erin stared at her. The other girl had a pair of sunglasses perched on her forehead. She was just like any normal girl from Erin’s world. Any normal girl.
It was almost too much for Erin to handle. She stared at the other girl and exclaimed.
“Oh my god!”
“Oh my god!”
A second’s hesitation, and then they threw their arms around each other. More people crowded around, ignoring Ressa as she spoke loudly behind them, and suddenly Erin was back home.
For a few seconds, Erin could stare around and only see people from her world. For a few seconds. And then the opulence of the room they were in hit her, and she realized she was standing in a sitting room that even the Queen of England might have envied. Maybe. Erin had never been in the Buckingham Palace, so she had no way of comparing the two. But this room was up there in terms of poshness.
Gold-backed chairs. Rich sofas and rugs that were probably real fur rather than machined fibers. A table made of crystal, and another one of those platters heaped with exotic foods and drinks.
Oh, and a huge glass window that looked out onto a massive garden where the storm cloud was still making its rounds. Erin stared around, but then the young people were around her, talking, demanding her attention.
And they were young. Erin was 20 years old, but they all seemed younger than her. Maybe it was just her perspective, but none of them could have been older than sixteen. But apparently they were close to her age or a few years younger.
The young man who’d dragged her into the room was the first to make himself coherent over the outpouring of voices. He shouted everyone else down, and Erin finally managed to count how many people were in the room.
Seven—no, eight. The girl in the chair hadn’t gotten up, but she was still staring in Erin’s direction. Ressa had left.
The young man smiled at Erin again, revealing straight teeth, probably the result of braces, another oddity. He introduced himself at last, along with the others.
“I’m Joseph, this is Rose. And this is Galina, Troy…”
Erin looked around, forgetting names, shaking hands, waving, and nodding at the people he introduced. They were nearly equally split between genders, and with Erin there were exactly five boys and five girls in the room.
“I’m Erin. Erin Solstice. How did you all get here?”
Erin stared around the room, still slightly in shock. The hubbub started again, but this time the young woman who’d hugged Erin—Rose—explained.
“I was travelling to visit France, and these guys were a group of international students visiting the United States. We were all in the Chicago airport when we were taken.”
“You mean, abducted.”
Another boy said that. He had Asian features—although Erin wouldn’t have been able to guess where he was from. She blinked at him, and Rose looked irritated.
“It wasn’t an abduction! It was a spell, a spell!”
“How do you know?”
“That’s what happened to the Americans, remember? I told you, they said there was a spell. That has to be it!”
“But why didn’t we all end up in the same place? Was it just a mistake?”
“It has to be a spell. What else could it be?”
Erin blinked as Rose began arguing with the other guy. Joseph jumped back in, cutting the two off.
“We arrived in the world just last week! It was crazy—one second we were waiting for our flight, and the next, we were here! We—the seven of us—appeared in this city in the middle of nowhere. Everyone was screaming, and Rose ended up in a forest!”
“What? One week?”
Erin stared at him. Joseph was wearing a huge grin, and he seemed to be practically vibrating with excitement.
“Yeah. All these soldiers ran up the instant we appeared and arrested us. We had no idea what was about to happen and they brought in a mage to look at us when Lady Magnolia arrived! She got us out of prison and took us here. Can you believe this place?”
“Wait, hold on. How did she find—no, wait, what’s happening back home? Does anyone know we’re missing? I’m missing?”
Erin grabbed Joseph. He looked startled and shook his head.
“No—we haven’t heard anything about missing people. Why. When did you get here?”
She didn’t even know. Erin let go of Joseph and shook her head. Ever since she’d landed in this world, each day had felt like a week. Or a year.
“I—don’t know. Three months? Four? It feels like two years.”
Everyone looked startled, again, except for the girl sitting in her chair. She was rocking back and forth and staring at Erin without participating in any of the noise. Her eyes were sunken and she didn’t seem to blink.
“Three months, are you serious?”
Joseph stepped back and ran a hand through his hair. Rose stared at Erin.
“Do you have an iPhone? Were you part of the call?”
“The call? Wh—oh!”
Erin remembered the call Ryoka had told her about, the one with people from all over the world. She shook her head.
“I don’t have anything from my—our world. But I know a girl who does. She was part of the call?”
Again, the exclamation and uproar nearly deafened Erin. The guys were talking excitedly, and the girls were asking Erin where the other girl was, what her name was, when she was getting here, and so on.
Erin raised her hands.
“I don’t know! She’s out on a delivery. She’s a Runner and I haven’t seen her for a week.”
“A Runner? What’s that?”
Erin blinked at Joseph. It seemed so obvious, but he really hadn’t been here. She tried to explain.
“It’s like a post office worker here. She delivers messages, packages—usually she runs from city to city, avoiding monsters and bandits.”
“What? That’s so weird. Why would anyone want to do that?”
Erin stared at Joseph. She shook her head slightly.
“It’s what she had to do to survive. I mean, I became an [Innkeeper]—”
“You’re an [Innkeeper]? Why?”
“…Because that’s the only way I could survive. I didn’t know there were other people and Lady Magnolia wasn’t there, and I found this inn and got the class, so—”
Erin could only shrug. She looked at Joseph and the others helplessly.
“You’ve only been here for a week?”
“Maybe longer. But not much more than that.”
Rose interrupted. She pointed at the girl sitting in the chair.
“Not Imani. She was with another group of people in the airport. She ended up somewhere else.”
Erin looked at the girl again, and this time the young woman seemed to retreat further into herself as everyone stared at her. She clutched her knees to her chest with two arms.
“Um. Is she okay?”
For a second Joseph’s face lost its good cheer. He lowered his voice, although he was clearly audible in the room.
“Imani ran into monsters when she and the others appeared. She was the only one who got away, and she was in this small village until Lady Magnolia found her.”
“Monsters? What kind of monsters?”
Imani shuddered. She looked up at Erin.
She whispered the word as she rocked back and forth on her chair. The room went silent. It was the awkward silence of people not knowing what to say. Erin moved over, until she was close to Imani. She hesitated, and then pulled up a chair next to the girl and sat next to her.
“I’m sorry. I ran into a Dragon the first night I was here.”
“A Dragon? Reall—”
Rose, or perhaps it was someone else, kicked Joseph. But Imani looked at Erin. She seemed to understand.
“How’d you get away?”
“I ran. And then I ran into a group of Goblins.”
Erin had to smile bitterly at the memory. She could still taste the fear and feel the burning on her arm and leg as she ran, screaming and crying through the night. Imani looked at Erin and then uncovered her legs a bit.
“I hid. On the rocks. They can’t climb rocks.”
Erin put a hand on Imani’s shoulder. The other girl gripped her so tightly Erin could see Imani’s hand go white.
“They all died.”
It was a whisper meant only for Erin. And then Imani began to cry. Erin held her, as the other young men and women—the other boys and girls, really—stood around in awkward silence, not knowing what to do or say. But Erin did. She hugged Imani to her chest, and the other girl broke down in her arms.
It was something only they could share. Something only Erin and Imani could understand. So Erin held the girl and talked quietly, until she was sleeping and the others were sitting together.
They were no less talkative, but they were more subdued. Still, Erin saw the energy blazing in the eyes of all of the boys and most of the girls. And she began to understand a tiny bit of what was happening the more they talked.
“They might not be dead.”
One of the guys looked at the sleeping Imani and lowered his voice even further.
“They might not be dead. I mean, Imani says she saw them die, but what if they just…woke up? If this is a game, then…”
Erin couldn’t believe her ears. She stared at him, but it was Rose who spoke up, sharply.
“This world isn’t a game.”
“How do you know? If this is some virtual reality—”
Joseph looked at Erin.
“It’s insane, this world, you know? Levels? Classes? I saw one of the maids use a Skill, and it blew my mind! She was cleaning up a spill, and then she just moved the mop and—it was all gone! In one go!”
Erin nodded slowly. She’d explained about her inn and Ryoka in briefest terms, but it was hard to communicate all that had happened to her to these people. They had no frame of reference to understand it.
“Drakes? You mean Dragons?”
“No—I mean they’re like walking lizards, only they don’t like being called that. And there are Gnolls—”
“Ah! I know Gnolls. Do you have to fight them off? Do you have any combat skills or spells?”
“No. I mean, I learned how to defend myself, but I’m no warrior.”
“What about magical items?”
“Like a sword or a ring. Something enchanted!”
“I have a chessboard.”
“Yeah, it’s—well, it’s magical. Nevermind. It’s a long story. But what are you all going to do now that you’re here?”
Erin wanted to know what Lady Magnolia intended to do with everyone. But not one of the people in the room knew.
“We’ve been stuck in Lady Magnolia’s mansion for the last few days. Ever since she found us. We can go out in the garden or wander around, but she doesn’t want us leaving this place. She says it’s too dangerous.”
Erin nodded, although she noticed the dissatisfied look on Joseph’s face.
“It is dangerous. I’m glad Lady Magnolia found you all.”
“Yeah, but look out there!”
Joseph pointed to the window in frustration. He waved his hand and nearly spilled the goblet of wine he’d filled to the brim. Erin eyed it.
All of the international students and Rose were eating some of the food that had been laid out. It was all rich stuff, and delicious, but they were also drinking. A lot. Some of the students from other countries – like the guy from China and the one from Poland – were drinking at a slower pace, but the rest were enjoying alcohol liberally, especially the ones from America. Joseph kept offering Erin a cup, but she was sticking to a mild fruit juice.
Now Joseph took a gulp of wine and pointed out the window. In the distance, Erin could see countless buildings, spreading out across the horizon.
“Look at that! Even the sky is bigger here. And there are monsters and magical artifacts! I want to get out there and start leveling.”
“Leveling? In what class?”
Joseph shrugged as he grabbed a sausage off a plate. Rose gave him a disgusted look; she was using the silverware, which was actual silver.
“I don’t know. I’m thinking of learning to use a sword and becoming an adventurer. Or spells.”
“An adventurer? But that’s such a dangerous job!”
Joseph gave Erin an odd look. He shrugged.
“Yeah, maybe at first. But if I get to a high enough level and have potions, it won’t matter, right? I was thinking that we could form an adventuring team! I mean, there are eight of us—nine, including you Erin—but we don’t all have to go out. Some of us could take levels in supporting classes.”
“But why would you want to do that? Lady Magnolia wants to keep you here, doesn’t she?”
Another guy shrugged. He was from…Spain? No, that was Joseph.
“She says that she’s considering it. We’re hoping she’ll give us some magical weapons and armor—you know, to give us a head start. And maybe teach us some magic. I mean, what else should we do? Nothing?”
Erin shook her head.
“That’s really not a good idea. It’s dangerous out there. I mean, you could get killed.”
She wanted to add that they would get killed, but she couldn’t say it. Everyone—except for the sleeping Imani and Rose—didn’t seem to get the danger. Two of the guys seemed almost ecstatic as they began arguing over the best class to take.
“So what about this Ryoka? Why isn’t she here? I know Lady Magnolia was looking for someone else besides you. Is she that far away?”
Erin’s heart sank as Rose asked her the question she’d been dreading. Erin had been wondering that very thing herself.
“I don’t know. She was going south, to meet some kind of important person and do a big delivery. She was going to earn eight hundred gold coins for it, but I haven’t seen her.”
This time Joseph did spill some wine on the carpet. He looked guilty as Erin scrambled for water, but waved her away.
“Don’t worry about it. We’ve spilled stuff before and the maids clean it up. But eight hundred gold pieces? How’d she get that?”
Erin hesitated and sat down.
“I don’t really know. She uh, mentioned a client, but she ran off before I could get all the details. She was being chased. By Frost Faeries.”
“Faeries? No way!”
Nothing would do then, except that Erin tell the entire story of her meeting the faeries as they brought winter. Joseph shook his head, grinning again, when Erin had finished.
“Faeries. Wow. Bring a bottle and a net for extra lives, huh?”
“No—it’s cold iron. They’re dangerous, right?”
“I’m just worried Ryoka is okay. I tried asking the faeries to forgive her, but they all left a while back and I haven’t seen one.”
“I’m sure she’s fine. Don’t worry about it. If she’s got levels in this uh, [Runner] class and potions, she should be able to outrun anything and heal up, right?”
Erin shook her head.
“Ryoka doesn’t have levels. Or classes.”
Erin could only shrug. She couldn’t really explain it, not to these people. She went on, growing more silent as the others began talking and arguing more and more.
It sounded like they had gone over these topics many times before, because Erin sensed each group had their own opinion. Rose wanted to make contact with other people from their world, along with two of the other girls, but Joseph and the guys wanted to try fighting monsters. With magical items, of course. The other girls just wanted to explore the city and the world as if they were tourists.
Rose glared at Joseph as he argued with her. Both of their movements were growing exaggerated, and they were getting louder the more they drunk. Joseph grabbed something from one of the tables, and Erin saw with a shock that he had a tablet in his hands. Apparently, this group had been holding their carry-on luggage, so they had quite a number of objects from their world with them.
“You’ve got a phone, and I’ve got a tablet right here. All we need to do is level up in the [Mage] class—or earn enough gold to hire someone to cast the right spell! Lady Magnolia could help with that, and once we get strong enough, we can probably travel there ourselves.”
Another guy—Leon from Poland—nodded. He pointed to the expensive furnishings of this room for emphasis as he spoke.
“It’s all about getting the right start. It’s almost like a cheat to have Lady Magnolia helping us—if we get magical artifacts right off, we can fight tougher monsters without being worried about getting hurt. We gain gold, level up, and do that until we’re high level!”
“And then what?”
Leon looked at Erin as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“We’re going to find a way to go back home. Through a magical portal or something. Or a spell. There has to be one.”
“If we got here, there has to be a way back.”
Everyone nodded. There had to be. Erin stared down at her hands and thought of Pisces and Ceria. She was sixty years old and she hadn’t hit Level 30.
Oblivious to Erin’s thoughts, Joseph grinned.
“There’s so much I want to see. Like Goblins. I hear they’re pretty nasty. I wonder how dangerous they are? Erin, could we take on a tribe with some swords and potions?”
Erin looked at Joseph and tried to imagine him facing down fifty screaming Goblins as they charged and screamed. She shook her head.
“Goblins aren’t all evil. Some of them are friendly. Or can be.”
“Oh, you mean they’re not all dangerous? Do some have peaceful villages or something?”
She gave up. How could Erin explain Rags to the people here? She hadn’t even talked about how the Goblins had killed Klbkch, or the day when she’d woken up and seen Relc holding the severed Goblin heads. She hadn’t talked about fighting the Goblin Chieftain or Skinner, or anything else.
She just listened, growing more silent as she sipped at her drink as the talk wore on. They were going to explore, leave the mansion soon. Erin was supposed to be the last member of their group since Ryoka couldn’t be found. Lady Magnolia had promised them weapons, gold, even lessons on magic. They were going to find a place to stay in the city, enroll in the adventurer’s guild—at least the guys were—and they’d all find good classes. One girl asked if they could stay at Erin’s inn for a while. Erin imagined them meeting Toren or dealing with a Rock Crab and couldn’t reply.
It was as if someone had let a fly or a mosquito loose inside of Erin’s head. She thought she heard buzzing, faint, but inescapable. It grew louder as the conversation progressed, until it was trying to burst out of her head. The voices around her became fragments, and more slurred the more the others drank. They were so excited from Erin’s arrival that they ate and drank quickly, talking in bursts over each other.
“We need to find a place to stay. An inn, like Erin’s, or we could stay here. But what we really need is potions—”
“I want to learn magic. Did you see that Pegasus outside, and those suits of armor? We could be [Summoners]—!”
“I played Dark Souls. Not the same thing obviously, but if we keep an escape route open we should be—”
“—Tactics. Someone has to be a tank. We can get defensive equipment—”
“—Tame a monster—”
“—Wonder when we’ll go back home—”
“—Learn to cast magic—”
“—Hang out here. It’s like a hotel, isn’t it? Way better than back home—”
“—As soon as we can get Ressa to leave us alone, I want to see if they’ve got any artifacts in the armory we can use.”
Erin’s head snapped up. She looked at Joseph.
“What about Ressa? She seems nice.”
He made an expression of displeasure, one that was mirrored across the other’s faces.
“She’s a pain in the ass. Lady Magnolia gave us the freedom to go wherever we want, but Ressa keeps insisting we stay together in this part of the mansion.”
“Really? She didn’t seem that way to me.”
But Rose was nodding.
“She and Magnolia—well, they’re not bad—”
“Right, but Magnolia’s generous. It’s just that she’s awkward, you know?”
Erin had no idea, and Rose struggled to explain.
“Really awkward. It’s like she’s a countess out of Downton Abbey or something, you know?”
“Oh come on, she’s not that bad. She’s pretty outgoing!”
“Yeah, but watching everyone bow to her is kind of cringy, isn’t it? And she keeps laughing when we explain elections and democracy to her—”
“At least we’ve got proper toilets and they wash their hands here. I was really afraid they’d all be eating with crap on their hands or filthy and depressing like Game of Thrones.”
“I know, right? And the servants don’t seem to have any kind of education. You know they don’t have schools here? It’s as if—”
The girl that had been speaking broke off quickly. Erin turned in her seat, and saw the door at one end of the room was open. Ressa was standing there, quietly emanating…dissatisfaction.
Perhaps it was the look of the room. Food was scattered across the sofas, on plates or on the carpets. More drinks had been spilled, and half of the people within were lounging around or fiddling with the electronics they’d brought. Erin had been shocked to learn all of them were still able to use their devices thanks to near-daily [Repair] spells.
The [Head Maid] looked at Erin in the silence.
“Miss Solstice? Lady Magnolia will receive you at your convenience.”
Erin stood up.
“Looks like I’m going to meet her. Um, nice meeting you guys.”
She walked towards the door. Joseph stood up awkwardly as if to follow Erin.
“I’d—we’d like to go with Erin. To talk to Magnolia.”
The expression on Ressa’s face froze as she held the door open for Erin. She did not look quite at Joseph.
“Lady Magnolia will speak to you at a later date. For now she wishes to speak to Erin alone.”
“Yeah, but she’s one of us. Why does she have to be alone?”
“That is what Lady Magnolia wishes.”
Erin stepped past Ressa. She heard Joseph raised his voice.
Ressa closed the door. And then she took a key from her pocket and locked the door from the outside. Erin wondered if that was overkill, but two seconds later she heard the door handle rattle slightly.
The maid turned and nodded to Erin again.
“My apologies. If you will follow me?”
Erin walked with the tall maid in the corridors in silence for a few minutes. It was hard to reestablish the conversation after all that. Erin cleared her throat silently, and then spoke up.
“Um, we were in there a long time. Was Lady Magnolia busy?”
Ressa shook her head as she walked Erin back through the corridors, and then up a long flight of stairs.
“Lady Magnolia felt it best that you mingle with the others for a while, given you had already met. She is now free from any business at the present time.”
More silence. Ressa was walking faster than normal again. Erin thought, and spoke to the maid’s back.
“I’m uh, sorry about the mess they made. I’m an [Innkeeper], so I know how it gets. I’ve got [Advanced Cleaning]. Maybe I could help…?”
“The [Maids] have the prerequisite skills. Do not worry.”
Ressa hesitated, and then looked at Erin.
“Thank you for offering, however. It is not often that we entertain such visitors.”
“Really? I thought she would have tons of guests.”
“She does, but they rarely stay for more than a few hours at a time.”
Joseph and the others had mentioned the servants weren’t too helpful with directing them or finding mages to cast [Repair]. Erin wondered how much of that was intentional.
“Do you uh, not like them? The people from my world, I mean? They don’t think you do.”
Silence from Ressa. She slowed as she passed by an open doorway. Erin caught a glimpse of a massive library filled with tomes being slowly dusted before she passed the entrance.
“We serve Lady Magnolia. We clean and cook, but we do far more than simply maintain her estate. We are there to help her.”
Not anyone else. Erin swallowed what she’d been about to say next.
“Here we are.”
Ressa stopped by a pair of double doors. She rested one hand on the golden knob and looked at Erin.
“I trust you will extend the same courtesies to Lady Reinhart as you have shown me. She is close to royalty as this land has to offer.”
Erin nodded seriously. She hesitated as Ressa pressed down on the handle.
“Um. Is there anything I should say? No one really told me why she wanted me here. What should I do?”
It was the mystery that not even the people from her world knew the answer to. Ressa paused, and looked at Erin.
“Be honest. Be truthful. Lady Reinhart has only your best interests in mind, and she has devoted quite a lot of money and time to gathering your companions here.”
“Thank you for the help.”
“You are welcome.”
Ressa smiled, just for a moment, and then the door opened. Slowly, Erin walked into the vast room and stopped.
It was pink. That was to say, someone had decided the theme for the room was elegant luxury, and the predominant color should be light pink. It wasn’t displeasing to the eye, but Erin felt that there was just too much of that color and not enough of anything else.
It was also a smaller room than Erin had expected; she’s almost believed she was entering an audience hall, but Ressa had led her to an intimate sitting room, the kind of place where you could chat and converse and gossip, but elegantly.
A large couch sat in the center of the room, across from its twin. A small table sat in the center, holding a tea pot, cups, and some light snacks.
And a woman was sitting at the couch. She wasn’t normal. Oh, she was no radiant beauty like Ressa, but neither was she ugly. She was quite attractive, but she wasn’t a young woman either. She was in her forties, a larger woman than Ressa, if shorter, and she was dressed in a shimmering gown of green that looked either magical or magically made. Her lips were lifted in a slight smile as she studied Erin, and Ressa stepped quietly behind her as another maid slowly closed the door behind the girl.
She was not normal. It wasn’t that she looked different, but that she held herself differently. From tip to toe, she was graceful, refined, and serene. When she moved or spoke or even laughed, it was still with a base of what could only be called class.
And she was looking at Erin. Her eyes were the only parts of her that weren’t veiled in politeness. They were like searchlights, sweeping Erin from top to toe, looking through her, at what she was, what she had done, what she would do. They were unsettling and mysterious and that, more than anything, made Erin stop where she stood.
Lady Magnolia was sitting, but Erin’s heartbeat grew faster as she stared down at this woman who owned so much. Erin thought of the Queen of the Antinium, sitting on her throne in the dark caverns. She swallowed once, and took a deep breath.
This was her. Ryoka’s pursuer, the one who’d pieced together the truth of Erin’s nature. A woman with wealth and power, a [Lady], and a living legend in her own right. The head of the Reinhart family, the heroine of the First Antinium War, and the woman who loved ice cream and blue fruit juice.
She smiled at Erin, and raised a cup of tea as she gestured to the couch in front of her.
“Good evening, Miss Solstice. Do take a seat. We have much to talk about.”