Erin remembered staring down the barrel of a Dragon’s nose. It wasn’t the most glamorous or exciting way of putting it, but that was what had happened.
She’d stepped around the corner, into what she’d thought had been her bathroom, and then there had been a Dragon, larger than life, larger than a house.
Erin could only vaguely recall the screaming and panicked rush filled with fire and a roar that sounded almost like a voice before she was out of the cave, running for her life. But she could still remember the moment she’d stared into the Dragon’s swirling blue and violet eyes.
Her heart had stopped. The world had gone silent, and Erin had felt the same sensation that always overtook her when she used the [Immortal Moment] skill now. She had been overwhelmed by his presence.
She felt the same thing now. Lady Magnolia Reinhart was just sitting there. And she was just a woman, not particularly tall or big. But she had a presence.
And then the woman spoke, and the moment passed. But Erin still remembered it.
“Do come sit, Miss Solstice. Or—may I call you Erin? Formal titles are so tiresome, and I gather your people speak somewhat more casually than mine, is that right?”
Your people. Erin blinked as she awkwardly took a seat opposite Lady Magnolia on the couch. She practically sank into it, it was so soft. And comfortable. And cool!
The air was filled with the faint scent of lavender, and the room was cool and pleasant, the perfect temperature to be in. Erin had a terrible desire to just lie down on the sofa and relax, but she couldn’t do that. She scrambled to answer Lady Magnolia’s question instead.
“Um, yes. I mean, we do. Sorry! I can try—”
“Think nothing of it. I find it delightfully quaint. But where are my manners? Do forgive me. I am Magnolia Reinhart. Delighted to make your acquaintance.”
“I’m Erin. Erin Solstice.”
Magnolia held out a hand and Erin took it. She had the oddest impulse to kiss it as if she were a knight, but perhaps that was because of how elegantly the other woman moved. She had no wasted movements, no hesitation. She was the picture of grace, and good cheer for that matter. Lady Magnolia had a slight smile on her lips and a face naturally given over to laughter and energy.
“I have been terribly anxious to meet you, I must say.”
To Erin’s surprise, Lady Magnolia had a firm handshake. The older woman withdrew her hand and picked up her tea cup and saucer.
“I have tea, if you will share it. Unless you prefer something stronger? A fruit drink, perhaps? I’m afraid I have no coffee and nor do I know of any substance like it as of yet, but do let me know if you desire anything else.”
“What? No. I’m fine. Tea is fine, I mean. Thank you.”
Erin watched as Ressa deftly lifted the steaming pot and filled both cups with a gold-green liquid. It smelled like citrus and tasted like—
Lady Magnolia chuckled at the look on Erin’s face.
“Do excuse me. This is a favorite tea of mine. I find it does wonders for the inattentive mind. But where was I? Ah yes, allow me to welcome you into my household. I apologize for the delay; I was meeting with some rather important people and then of course you had met the young men and women from your world. I would have been remiss to draw you away from that gathering, but now that you are here, would you like to play a game of chess?”
The question came at the crest of a tidal wave of words and hit Erin in the face. She stared at Magnolia for a few seconds.
Lady Magnolia clapped her hands in delight. Erin watched as Ressa took something off a shelf—a chess board and pieces, already set up as if it had been prepared ahead of time.
Everything was moving a bit too fast. Erin hesitated as she held the tea cup between her fingers.
Lady Magnolia twinkled at Erin. Almost literally. In the course of a few seconds she’d gone from being a mysterious, almost scary person in Erin’s head to the down-to-earth genteel noble in front of her.
“Well—I just wanted to say thank you for bringing me here. And sending the coach and uh, helping the other people.”
“From your world.”
Lady Magnolia chuckled again at the expression on Erin’s face.
“Don’t look so alarmed, my dear. Please, relax. I assure you, I only wanted to speak with you, hence the rather rude and abrupt way I brought you here. Do accept my apologies.”
“What? Oh, no, it wasn’t rude—”
Erin tried to wave one hand and hold the tea cup and saucer while Ressa put the chess board on the table between the two. Lady Magnolia smiled again.
“I’m told you play chess quite well, and I must confess, I had hoped you would indulge me in a game.”
“How did you know—?”
“Oh, a [Lady] has ways. Do pay it no mind. I would simply love to play a game with you while we chatted. I believe you’ve met a very striking Runner named Ryoka Griffin? I would so love for you to talk to me about her as we play.”
And so they did. Erin blinked at first, but when Magnolia asked her whether she wanted to be white or black and they began playing the game, her chess instincts kicked in and she began to play, chatting as she did.
“So you knew Ryoka a long time before I did?”
“Oh, I had seen her delivering a number of curios to my house.”
Lady Magnolia replied casually as she moved her pieces out. She had learned to play somewhere, because her opening was a good match against Erin’s.
Ressa stood to one side of the table, silently listening to the conversation, hands folded in front of her. She was like a statue, and Erin thought it was sort of odd to have the head maid here on serving duty, but maybe that was just how it worked?
She was feeling a lot more relaxed than she had been, even more than when she had been with the other people from her world. Lady Magnolia’s open face and natural charm just…invited Erin to talk.
And so she did, about Ryoka, about her job as an innkeeper, and the people she had met and the monsters she’d had to kill. Lady Magnolia was an excellent audience, and they were halfway through the game when the conversation changed.
“The undead and Goblin tribes? My, you are adventurous. I had the impression you were quite self-sufficient, but I had no idea you were quite so extraordinary.”
Erin blushed at the compliment. Lady Magnolia smiled, and she picked up something on the table. A monocle, but a very strange one. This one had a rim made of black rock—obsidian? And it looked like tiny runes had been carved into the sides that made the glass move with odd colors.
Lady Magnolia blinked at Erin through the monocle for a few seconds, and then put it down lightly with a shrug.
“A simple keepsake. It helps with bad eyesight. I confess, my vision is not what it used to be. Age, you know? Pray, ignore it.”
The game continued. Erin frowned. Lady Magnolia was quite good. Erin had taken several of her pieces, but the other woman was doing just as well.
“You’re a great player. I’ve only met a few people as good as you.”
“You are too kind.”
Lady Magnolia beamed as she delicately moved a pawn to block one of Erin’s bishops. She looked at Ressa.
“Young Erin really does have a way with words, doesn’t she Ressa? I fear I am going to blush.”
Ressa bowed her head slightly. Magnolia turned back to Erin, smiling again.
“In truth, I fear I don’t play nearly as much as I should. But I did learn the game when I was sixteen, and I’ve played regularly with at least one good opponent since then. Still, I am glad that I can keep up with someone of your caliber.”
Erin nodded distractedly. Whatever Lady Magnolia said, she was some kind of expert. She was pressing Erin hard, and the game required her concentration, which made her happy.
But she did notice something happen. Perhaps it was because she’d gotten to know Ressa earlier, but when Lady Magnolia spoke about playing chess, the other woman had…shifted slightly. It was just a slight movement of her feet, and in anyone else Erin would have dismissed it as being tired or sore. But Ressa had been like a statue throughout the game and the conversation, and somehow it struck Erin as odd.
It was because she was playing chess that Erin noticed it. It was the odd sense she sometimes got, of being aware of the board and the room as a whole at the same time. In two seconds Erin had nearly forgotten what she’d noticed.
Lady Magnolia cleared her throat.
“Ah, but this is hardly the time to talk about my past, is it? I am glad you are here, Erin. I was afraid you might turn down my invitation if you were anything like Ryoka.”
“Yeah, she is like that, isn’t she?”
Erin smiled, and Lady Magnolia laughed again.
“Well, we were all like that, weren’t we?”
“I don’t think I was.”
“Ah, but you are so open it’s quite refreshing. I trust the carriage ride was pleasant? I only ask because I was afraid you might have lacked for company. A single [Butler] for a driver is rather sparse company, isn’t it?”
Erin blinked. She looked up from her game at Lady Magnolia.
“The butler? You mean Reynold? No, he was great. I really liked him.”
And again, there it was. This time it wasn’t Ressa who shifted, but Lady Magnolia’s hand paused for just one fraction of a moment as she lifted the tea cup to her lips.
“Ah yes, Reynold. It is good that you know his name. You know, your friends never bothered to ask any of the names of the servants that attend them. Or is friends too strong a word?”
Lady Magnolia’s eyes flicked up to Erin’s face searchingly. Erin wasn’t sure how to respond. She wasn’t friends with Joseph and Rose—they weren’t people she disliked, but friends? No.
But what was the polite way to say that? Erin didn’t know, and fortunately Magnolia didn’t seem to require an answer. The woman laughed as she delicately advanced a pawn two spaces to threaten one of Erin’s knights.
“Do excuse me; I am rude today, aren’t I? Of course not everyone from one world would know each other, let alone be friends. On the other hand, I would be delighted to say that I am now your friend.”
Friend? That sounded right. Erin’s stomach stirred slightly, but not in hunger. She frowned. Something was nagging at her. Oh yeah. That was important.
“Um. Lady Magnolia—”
“Magnolia, please, Erin. We’re all friends here, aren’t we?”
“Oh, right, sorry—um, well, you know that I’m from another world, don’t you?”
“I do indeed.”
Erin stared at Lady Magnolia as her hand hovered over a chess piece. She felt that was far too calm a response. Lady Magnolia noticed Erin’s expression and waved a hand.
“Please. I know how extraordinary this is, but I have had quite a while to process this fact. And what kind of [Lady] would I be if I were not collected and calm at all times? I know you are from another world. I know the other charming young men and women downstairs are from another world. That is why I have gathered you all here.”
She moved a piece forwards and took one of Erin’s knights. Erin frowned. She’d played a great counter to Lady Magnolia’s move, but suddenly she’d just lost two pieces in a cunning fork that had completely blindsided her. That was normal—but Erin couldn’t believe Lady Magnolia had seen through her so quickly.
Amazing. She tried to focus on the conversation as she continued playing, focusing harder on her pieces.
“Uh—well—then why are we all here?”
Lady Magnolia studied Erin for a second, and then deftly moved a bishop out of harm’s way. Not immediate harm’s way, but out of a trap that would have come two moves later.
“Well, I hope you will stay here. Now that you have seen my small estate, I hoped I would be able to convince you and perhaps even Ryoka to accept my hospitality for as long as you stay in this world. You will say yes, won’t you?”
Something was seriously wrong. Not about the conversation, but on the chess board. Erin could sense it. Lady Magnolia was no great player. She was good, but nowhere near as good as someone who’d memorized opening and strategies like Erin. Her opening game had shown that, and even now she made small mistakes no seasoned player would make simply by virtue of experience.
And yet, she kept hitting Erin in exactly the worst places, or started pulling her pieces out of the way when Erin tried to attack or set traps. It was almost as if she could read Erin’s mind.
Maybe she could. Erin glanced up. Lady Magnolia was smiling at her.
“Um, sorry. What did you say?”
The other woman blinked. So did Ressa. Erin grinned sheepishly.
“I’m so sorry. It’s just that when I get into chess, I sort of—sorry!”
“Not at all, not at all. Do excuse me. I should be focusing on the game as well.”
Lady Magnolia moved a piece forwards, blocking Erin’s advance that would have threatened her Rook. Erin frowned. Maybe—
She moved a pawn forwards. It was a ranging attempt, meant to pressure Magnolia’s pieces back so Erin could get a shot at her King.
Lady Magnolia castled. Erin saw the move, and felt the pieces fall into place. She looked up, and saw Lady Magnolia’s smiling again. She had such a nice smile.
“I was just wondering if you would stay here. If you would, I would greatly appreciate—”
“—Excuse me. You’re reading my mind, aren’t you? I mean, you’re doing something to me, right?”
The room froze. Lady Magnolia paused, mouth open mid-word, and Erin felt Ressa’s eyes boring into her. But she stared at the [Lady] opposite her calmly.
Nobles and maids. Neither one had obvious expressions, but now Erin had learned what to look for. Magnolia’s eyes flickered to Erin’s face, and then she sighed.
“Am I really that transparent?”
She half-turned in her seat and frowned at her maid.
“Ressa, why didn’t you tell me I was being that obvious?”
“You appeared to be quite subtle, milady.”
“I thought so too. Ah, well.”
It was as if someone had flipped a switch. Lady Magnolia sighed and put down her tea cup. Erin blinked at her.
“And here I thought I would get away with everything quite easily. Oh well. I suppose you’ve found me out. What will you do now?”
She looked at Erin expectantly. Erin blinked at her, hesitated.
“Um. Uh. I guess I’ll ask you not to do it when we’re playing chess?”
Lady Magnolia paused as she stretched her hands out. She eyed Erin. Ressa was doing the same.
“When we’re playing chess?”
“Yeah. Well actually, I don’t mind it so much, but it would have been good to know. I was actually just curious if you were doing it.”
Ressa and Magnolia exchanged a look. Lady Magnolia sat back in her couch.
“Ah. I see.”
She paused. Erin stared at her. The silence grew uncomfortable, and then Lady Magnolia smiled.
“I most sincerely apologize. I wished to see you playing your best, and so I broke the rules most shamefully. Allow me to concede and tender you my deepest regrets. If you wish, we could restart and play another game fairly…”
Erin shook her head.
“No. Actually, I’d like to play another game just like we are right now.”
A second blink. This time Lady Magnolia’s eyes met Erin’s, and the girl felt a slight jolt.
“Intriguing. Why, pray?”
The young woman shrugged awkwardly.
“I think it would be sort of fun. But you are reading my mind?”
“…Yes. It’s nothing as advanced as knowing what you’re thinking; I possess a skill called [Sense Intention] and I am quite adept at using it. I can sense which pieces you are focusing on, which allowed me to play as well as I did.”
“That’s so cool.”
Erin grinned. She looked at the board and began moving pieces back to their starting positions.
“Can you do it again? While we’re playing, I mean. I want to see if I can beat someone who can tell what I’m trying to do.”
For two seconds, Lady Magnolia stared at Erin with genuine surprise written all over her face. And then she gave Erin a real smile. It made all of her other smiles seem fake and plastic by comparison, because it was truly, wonderfully filled with delight and mirth.
“I should be delighted. You are quite the unusual young lady, you know.”
“Really? I guess. Hmm. I guess I’ll start as white again.”
The game restarted. Erin put her pieces back in place, and wondered how to beat someone who could sense what she wanted to do. She noticed Ressa staring hard at her, and Lady Magnolia was looking at her completely differently now. With less confidence, and a lot more intently, as if she was trying to read Erin.
But Erin had learned to play chess with a poker face. She adopted her best one now, trying not to give away anything more than what Magnolia would sense. Erin began to play, in silence this time, and remembered the past.
Once upon a time, she’d loved chess. Then, later, she’d grown to hate it. She’d hated the memorization, the constant games, the agonizing over win/loss ratios, and the way chess had consumed her entire life, leaving time for little else.
She had grown distant from the game, and eventually stopped playing altogether, despite many people urging her not to waste her talents and quit. But Erin had grown sick of that small board, and she had been happier being normal.
And yet, and yet…Erin had passed through the years, and slowly she’d realized that chess had changed her. Even a casual game was different for her, because she was not an amateur, but she was still not a professional. No one in her school or even her district could challenge her, and yet the top of that strange world was still far away from her.
Too, Erin had slowly realized how much chess meant to her. Without it, she had nothing that set her apart from other people, and that was good and bad. She was tired of chess, yes, but she was meaningless without it.
And so, slowly, Erin had grown to love the game again. She’d played for fun, and then rediscovered the feeling she’d had when she first learned to play. She had begun to reenter the world of chess, and then she’d travelled into another world.
If there was a god of Chess, or perhaps, a goddess, they were a cruel, calculating god that bestowed their gifts like curses upon the people who lived to play. If there was a god.
A metaphorical god, that was. Not the actual gods and goddesses that claimed the game, but the living spirit of chess itself. Erin thought of it in that way. The God of Chess was silent and often cruel, living through cold stone and static rules that broke people across the unchanging boards. But she had touched god in her games, and when she had come to this world, he, she, it—had blessed her.
Immortal games. Opponents to teach and learn from and who loved the game as much as she did. Erin was no longer the same player she was. She might be clumsy, and stupid, and whatever else, but there was one thing Erin was good at. One thing in which she stood at the very peak of in either world. And that was—
Erin moved her knight forwards and completed the trap. Magnolia’s king stared up at her, forlornly cornered by several pieces just waiting for him to make a move so they could dash his brains out.
Lady Magnolia breathed the words as she gently tipped her king over. She looked up at Erin, and her eyes were full of light.
“I have seldom lost a game of chess when using [Sense Intentions], Erin Solstice. And even without it, I consider myself an adept player. But Skills matter very little against someone of your level of skill, or so it would seem.”
“It was a good game.”
That was all Erin could really say. She smiled and cracked her fingers before she realized that would be rude and blushed. Lady Magnolia chuckled.
“It was. Surprising as well; I had no idea it would be that obvious that I was reading you.”
“Well, I just have a sense with these things, I guess.”
“Indeed. I wonder, can you sense anything else?”
Anything else? After scratching her head a bit, Erin shook it.
“Not really. I’m really only good at chess because I play it so much.”
“That is readily apparent. Indeed…”
Lady Magnolia tapped her lips with one fingernail and sighed.
“I have a friend who I would dearly love to introduce you to. I suspect you might triumph if the two of you were to play a game of chess, and I would love to see the expression on his face if you do. You are certainly one of the best players in this world, I can see that for myself.”
Again, Erin felt herself turn red. Best player? In the world? That would be a complete and horrible lie in her world, but here? She wasn’t sure if she should feel happy or sad that was the case.
“A child who grew up studying a game which is…new to this world. How intriguing. But I would imagine there are least…five people who would be able to best you. Don’t you think the number is five, Ressa?”
“I would not know, milady.”
Magnolia smiled fondly at her maid. Erin was happy to see that; it seemed like she was friends with her servants. But what she’d said caught Erin’s attention. The chess maniac in her raised its head.
“Really? You know other people who like chess? Can you tell me their names?”
Maybe one of them was the person who’d sent her the chess board. It could happen. Magnolia studied Erin, and then smiled again. She seemed to like the secretive smile.
“They aren’t necessarily chess players, but they have the ah, skills and temperaments to be the best in any such game. But as to their names—I would hate to ruin the surprise. Let us just say they include an old fool, the world’s smallest strategist, a reclusive mage, a miserable king and a dashing and quite charming lord. One genius on each continent—except for Chandrar, that is. I don’t imagine the young [Emperor] or the King of Destruction’s Left Hand would be quite good enough to defeat you.”
That made no sense to Erin, except the King of Destruction, and she had no idea who his left hand might be. Assuming it wasn’t literal and he had a giant left hand that played chess. She’d heard of crazier things.
“Well, I just like chess. It’s not a big deal, but I’d love to meet them.”
“Nonsense. Anyone who can claim to be one of the greatest experts in any field is worthy of note and admiration.”
Lady Magnolia leaned forwards and refilled Erin’s tea cup herself, against Ressa’s mild protests.
“That is simply another reason why I must insist you stay at my home. I would be delighted if you would act as a chess teacher, or if you simply consented to play games against some of my guests.”
“That is why I requested you visit me. Why else did you think you were here? For the pleasure of your company of course, but I believe it would only be right to offer you the same hospitality I have given to the others.”
Erin’s mouth fell open.
“Is it so surprising? I believe you would quite enjoy your stay. We could put you up in a guest room, perhaps, until more permanent accommodations could be found. What do you say? Won’t you accept?”
For some reason, the offer sounded extremely generous to Erin. Of course it was, but she couldn’t take it, right?
Erin shook her head slightly.
“No, but I—I have an inn.”
Lady Magnolia’s smile didn’t waver. She lifted the tea cup to her lips and drank a bit.
“Ah, but isn’t it terribly dangerous? Wouldn’t it be easier to relax in comfort rather than risk your life working such a difficult job?”
“I like it. I mean, it’s hard, yeah, but—”
Erin wanted to accept Magnolia’s generous offer. Part of her did. But another part was thinking of everyone she would have to leave behind. Ceria, Selys, Krshia who was in trouble, Toren, Pisces, Rags, even Lyonette. What would that girl do without her? And then there was Ryoka—
But Magnolia was speaking more quickly now, and Erin found herself hanging on every word.
“Far better if you stay here with the others. They will become excellent adventurers, and you will all be safe here. Don’t you agree?”
Erin wavered. But only for a second. Why was she even arguing about this? Lady Magnolia had been so generous to her and everyone from her world. Why wouldn’t she accept? She would be comfortable here, happy—
But it would make her friends upset. Erin knew that, and it hurt, but her desire to say ‘yes’ was far, far stronger.
So she wavered. Only for a second. But that second was an eternity upon which Erin stood, gazing out at two forks in the road of her life. She held her own destiny in her hands, and weighed each choice, remembering the past.
A second became a moment. A moment became a day, then a year. The year became eternal. And in that immortal moment, Erin realized something was wrong.
She was not in control. Because as her mind weighed the choice, every part of her pointed towards her inn. Yet…something was telling her to say yes.
Something was wrong. Erin felt it. It was a sense in the back of her head, the same thing she’d felt all throughout the conversation. Only, Erin hadn’t known it was even there, so insidious and quiet had it been. Yet now it was out in the open, exposed by her own Skill and relentless time.
One second passed. Lady Magnolia was staring at Erin intently, and so was Ressa.
The air smelled of lavender. Erin shook. Her mouth opened to say yes. She bit her tongue.
Blood filled Erin’s mouth, and pain shot through her mind, breaking her out of whatever was holding her. Lady Magnolia blinked, and Erin kicked the table over, sending both drinks and chess pieces flying.
Lady Magnolia stared at the flying objects in shock. A tea pot full of hot liquid flew towards her head. She did not raise her arms to block or try to move out of the way. She simply stared at the flying pot with a look of mild surprise on her face.
A hand shot out and grabbed the pot. A body interposed itself, and the hot liquid splashed against her back. Ressa flung the pot away and reached for Erin. The girl saw the hand reaching for her throat, as quick as lightning—
Ressa stopped. She stepped back, and the chess board cracked against one wall, the delicate wood breaking with the force of the impact. Chess pieces rained across the carpet and Lady Magnolia sighed.
“Teriarch did say this would happen sooner or later. But did it have to happen when I put my favorite tea pot out?”
Erin stared at Ressa. Her [Dangersense] was clanging loudly in her head. The [Head Maid] was staring at Erin, but there was nothing maid-like about the look in her eyes. She looked like she was ready to kill.
“Ressa. Your lovely rear end is in my face. Move aside please, and have someone clean up this mess.”
Ressa paused. She turned and Lady Magnolia patted her.
“It’s quite alright. Erin isn’t going to try and kill me, or so I believe. Is that right?”
Ressa hesitated, and then moved swiftly to one side. She withdrew a bell from her pocket and rang it. In four seconds, the door opened and maids rushed in. They stopped when they saw the mess, but Ressa began snapping orders and they sprang into action.
“Do follow me. I think we had better let them get to work, and I would hate to get in their way.”
Lady Magnolia nodded to the doors. Erin stood up and followed the older woman as Ressa stood uncomfortably close behind her.
“Ressa! Stop that!”
Two minutes later, they were in another sitting room, a larger one that lacked the intimacy—and the pink—of the first. Lady Magnolia sighed as she sat. She looked at Ressa.
“I hope you weren’t burned too badly by the tea.”
“It was lukewarm.”
“And your dress? Feel free to change it.”
Ressa glanced at Erin before replying.
“I am quite comfortable, milady.”
Lady Magnolia sighed, but she turned to Erin. This time she did not smile, but just looked at Erin. Just looked.
And then everything came full circle. Because her gaze was like a spotlight, and it fixed Erin in place. It was the same look she’d given Erin when the girl had first come in; a searching stare that tried to strip everything that Erin was away and see her inner self.
Erin stared back. She wasn’t good at staring, but she’d gotten a lot better. And now that she knew what was happening, anger was fueling her stare just as much as anything else. Her stomach tried to roil, but even this was still better than the pure terror Skinner had brought.
It was like staring into a jet engine, or the sun. Erin felt like she was literally about to be blown away—her body was shaking just trying to keep still. But she kept staring.
And then it was over. Lady Magnolia blinked, and Erin could look away. She looked around and saw Ressa was standing far away from the two of them, looking at a wall. The maid looked back at the two of them, and Lady Magnolia sighed.
“I cannot underestimate anyone these days, it seems. First Ryoka, and now you. I thought she was rather unique, but perhaps it was she who was merely uncommon.”
Erin didn’t understand that. She stared at Lady Magnolia and wondered what to say.
“What do you want?”
Lady Magnolia frowned at Erin.
Erin frowned back. Lady Magnolia shook her head.
“After all that insightfulness, force of will, and commendable chess playing ability, that is hardly a question worthy of you, Erin Solstice.”
A small pit of anger had been bubbling in Erin’s stomach since she’d realized what had been happening to her. It grew a bit larger.
“I’m sorry that I’m not smart enough to ask the right questions.”
Lady Magnolia reached out and tapped Erin’s nose. The girl blinked in outrage and the woman continued.
“I am complimenting you, Miss Solstice. You have quite magnificently foiled two schemes of mine, which so rarely happens that I am in shock. And yet you appear quite naïve in other matters, which is why I will be extraordinarily blunt.”
“Thanks. What was all—?”
“I was attempting to persuade you to join the group of rather sorry individuals I have managed to save from being torn apart or beaten to death so that I might protect you. I confess I was also testing your ability in chess in the hopes you could be useful, but my main goal was to simply sequester you away from the world where you would no longer be able to cause any harm.”
Lady Magnolia delivered the statement in a brisk, matter-of-fact tone of voice that lacked any smiles or charm. She stared at Erin. Erin stared back.
“Because I believed you were not like Ryoka Griffin. Now, I believe it might be Ryoka Griffin who I must measure against you.”
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Good. I would hate for you to be as perspicacious in all things as you are at evading my Skills.”
Erin didn’t know what perspicacious meant either, but she bit her tongue and listened. Lady Magnolia paused.
“Tea please, Ressa. Raspberry, I think. Cooled.”
Ressa nodded, and Lady Magnolia turned back to Erin.
“When I first met Ryoka Griffin, I believed one thing. I believed I had either met the most capable and amazing young woman I had ever encountered, or that I had met someone who possessed knowledge she could not possibly acquire in this world. Possibly both.”
Lady Magnolia flicked her fingers, and Erin saw she was holding the monocle again. She peered at Erin through it again, frowning as she continued.
“I believed she was unique, but I soon learned that she was not. I soon realized she was one of many, and that led me to find the others like her and question them.”
“With torture? Did you find the others so you could—”
“No, and no. I found them because they were in danger. Two groups were dead, slain by monsters before I was even aware of the need for action. I found poor Imani nearly too late, but we saved her at least. The others, including young Rose, were far easier to locate and retrieve. And I asked them about their world, using [Charm] to persuade them to reveal more than they otherwise would, yes, but it was hardly difficult. Drink and a lovely woman or lovely young man listening attentively does wonders.”
Erin could believe that. She was trying to follow what was happening, and that was hard because she was still reeling from what had happened.
First, Lady Magnolia was nice. Then it turned out she was using a Skill on Erin, hence the table flip. But she didn’t want Ressa to smash Erin’s brains out, which the [Head Maid] could possibly maybe do. So Erin was safe. For now. And now it turned out Lady Magnolia wanted to find everyone from Erin’s world because she’d met Ryoka. Because…?
“Why? Why are you doing this?”
Lady Magnolia rolled her eyes, but Erin cut her off.
“I’m just a girl. From another world, right, but why are you so interested in us? Is it because we know things you don’t?”
“You come from another world. Of course you know many things we do not. I wished to ascertain what exactly that was, and when I realized what a vast difference in technology we possess, I immediately decided that you, Ryoka, and anyone else from your world must not be allowed to talk freely.”
“I wish you would stop asking me that question. You are quite intelligent enough to know why.”
“Among other things, yes. But merely the existence of another world would drive many Kings and fools into a frenzy and might begin a war that I am sure, absolutely sure that my world would lose. The nations of your world possess weapons far too deadly for all but the greatest magics to overcome, and the cost regardless would be far too great.”
Lady Magnolia looked up as Ressa let a maid approach with a pot of tea. She accepted a cup and Erin refused hers.
“If I intended to poison or drug—well, perhaps raspberry is not for everyone. I delight in sweet things. I digress however; even putting aside the knowledge that your world exists, any one weapon from your world would be deadly if knowledge of how to make them spread. Fortunately, not one of the children I found knew the exact details of how to make these weapons, and so my beliefs changed again.”
A hand tightened on the stem of the teacup, and Erin realized Lady Magnolia’s voice was trembling slightly.
“The technologies they so thoughtlessly spoke of would bring this world to ruin, but fortunately none of them know how to make any of what they claim is possible.”
Ressa nodded at this, one of the few movements Erin had ever seen her make. Magnolia continued.
“The few experts I know of and one…worldly confidant of mine assure me that even if this knowledge has spread, which I am sure it has, it will take years and quite a lot of groundwork to reproduce on a larger scale. And I shall search this world for traces of such preparation and quash it wherever it may be found.”
That sounded good. And it was good, wasn’t it? Erin wasn’t sure what to think.
“And so, now I find myself back where I started. I believe Ryoka Griffin is an extraordinary young woman, if only because she knows when to keep her mouth shut.”
Lady Magnolia stared at Erin as she sipped from her cup again. Erin folded her arms.
“What are you going to do?”
“Throw this tea cup at you if you continue asking such questions.”
“Fine. What are you going to do about Joseph and Rose and Imani and the others?”
“I intend to indulge their requests. You know they have petitioned me—repeatedly—about becoming adventurers? All of the young men seem quite excited by the prospect, as young men often are. The young ladies would like to travel into the cities with pockets full of gold and shop, or so I gather.”
“They did tell me that. Joseph says you were going to help them. Give them magical weapons and armor.”
“Yes, and they are quite excited about the prospect. I have a mind to send them out with a few guides and let them enlist as Bronze-rank adventurers, with perhaps a gift of coins and a few choice items. What do you think of that?”
She didn’t even have to think. Erin replied instantly.
“They’d all die in a heartbeat.”
Ressa nodded. Magnolia smiled briefly.
“It would be amusing, or perhaps, sad, to see. I don’t believe any of them have actually killed anything in their life, or even helped butcher an animal. That might have informed their opinions. Only young Imani seems sensible and she is distraught with grief.”
Erin glared at Lady Magnolia. So. That was the plan.
“Are you going to kill me too?”
“Kill you? Haven’t you been listening to what I have been saying?”
“But you said—”
“I said I would send them out to become adventurers. But I will not let them die. I believe a few non-life-threatening injuries and a healthy dose of terror would be good for them.”
“On the contrary, it’s quite generous considering that I do not owe them anything and I will be saving their lives in the long run.”
“You’re treating them like pawns or—or people to be manipulated. That’s wrong.”
Lady Magnolia sighed in irritation.
“I will stop treating them as pawns when they stop treating my world as a game to be enjoyed. As it is, that drunk group of young travelers below us are thoughtless, careless individuals who insult my servants, cause messes, throw up in the upholstery, and do not realize the gravity of the situation. I believe half of them are convinced this is a fictional reality, a dream perhaps, or some kind of living game.”
Erin bit her lip. She couldn’t deny that. Lady Magnolia paused, and went on.
“Not all are so foolish. Rose for example seems to understand the need to meet with others from your world, which is why I watch her in case she is called again on that…phone. And Imani is quite sensibly afraid of going out; I believe I will give her a bedroom away from the others now that you have opened her up.”
All of that still sounded suspicious to Erin. She stared at Lady Magnolia and raised a hand as if she were in school. Magnolia eyed it.
“Can I ask a question? Why I am I here?”
“You are here because I assumed you were like the others. I intended to confine you, perhaps after teaching you a few lessons about this world and the dangers therein.”
“I suppose you will have to go back to your inn. That is, unless you wish to accept my offer of hospitality. It still stands, and I would allow you to travel if you so wished.”
Lady Magnolia paused. She looked behind Erin.
A hand smacked Erin lightly on the back of the head. Erin yelped and turned, but Ressa stared blankly ahead, face expressionless. Lady Magnolia tapped her tea cup with one nail to get Erin’s attention.
“Consider my position, Erin Solstice. I have found visitors, or perhaps, refugees from another world. They know of terrible weapons, but have not the knowledge to create them. And yet, even the knowledge that such things can be created is enough to cause destruction in the long run. And these children—yes, children—are by and large helpless. They are walking magnets for chaos, and I dislike chaos.”
Erin sat in her seat and thought about that.
“Yeah. Guns would be bad.”
A hand smacked her on the back of the head again. Erin turned around, and Lady Magnolia smiled.
“I believe the young woman will hit you if you do that again, Ressa. And she has both [Bar Fighting] and [Minotaur Punch] as skills. I would be careful.”
“How do you know that?”
Lady Magnolia lifted the monocle in her lap.
“A little device made for me by a friend. It allows me to read [Skills] and [Levels] unless they are concealed. I would love to know what [Immortal Moment] and [Wondrous Fare] do, by the way. But to your point—yes, many of the technologies the others have described sound incredibly dangerous. I do not wish for any of them to become public knowledge.”
Erin rubbed her head as she nodded.
“That’s what Ryoka’s afraid of. She doesn’t want anyone to find out what we know.”
“And that is why I wish to speak with her. But, quite ironically, she is the one person who rightfully distrusts anyone like me.”
“Isn’t that smart?”
“Oh, of course.”
Lady Magnolia waved a hand. She drained her cup and placed it on a table.
“It is an excellent assumption to make. But in this case, I believe Miss Ryoka and I—and even you, Erin—are all on the same side.”
“And what side is—”
Erin looked at Ressa. The other woman’s hands hadn’t moved, but her lips twitched. Erin scowled.
“What side is that? It’s a smart question!”
Ressa shrugged impassively. Lady Magnolia rubbed at her eyes.
“I suppose it is? Erin, we are all on the side that wishes for peace, prosperity, and a lack of monsters or wars. I think that is a fair statement for me to make.”
“Right. I’m on that side.”
Erin nodded reluctantly. Lady Magnolia nodded as well.
“Most people are, but the problems emerge when selfish individuals place their own desires above that cause. Hence the infighting and petty bickering which grips both Drakes and Humans on this continent, and to a lesser extent, the Gnolls.”
“We waste time and resources killing each other while the true enemy grows stronger. Ah, if only the [Lords] and [Ladies] of this continent could see what I see. But of course, some do and others only pretend to. Vision is not hereditary, I’m afraid. And it is opinion which matters more.”
“So you’re afraid these nobles will cause trouble if they know what we—I—people from my world know?”
“Anyone would cause trouble with such knowledge, Erin. Anyone. But some would be more dangerous than others, I admit.”
Erin frowned. She needed a notepad, or something to write on to figure everything out. But she did her best.
“Let me get this straight. You found Ryoka, and realized she was from another world.”
“Possibly from another world. I had other suspicions at first.”
“Okay, but you found her and found other people. And when you realized that we all know bad things—”
Lady Magnolia winced at Erin’s choice of words. Erin glared.
“—You decided to keep us all here so we don’t cause any trouble. But you’re letting me go?”
“Because you are not as thoughtless as the others, and moreover, because I believe you will do more good where you are than under lock and key.”
“The same, although if she would consent to helping me, it would make my life so much easier.”
“So you can make guns?”
Lady Magnolia said that flatly. She stared Erin straight in the eye.
“I will never create these weapons. Not unless someone else has already spread them to the point where they have become commonplace.”
“A thousand reasons, not least of which is that it would destroy this world. Ryoka knows this, which is why she has sensibly avoided me for fear I would use such weapons.”
Erin nodded. That was what Ryoka had said, more or less, so she supposed she could believe Lady Magnolia.
“And where is Ryoka?”
The other woman paused. She looked at Erin, and then shook her head.
“If she has not told you, I will honor her discretion as a Runner. I do worry that she is well of course; but we must make gambles, and I rather like the idea of rolling the dice, especially if my die is Ryoka Griffin.”
“You’re gambling with her life?”
Lady Magnolia looked insulted that Erin looked upset.
“Of course. Every person of note and power on the continent is a gambler who plays for the highest of stakes, Erin Solstice. Except for the Antinium Grand Queen. I’m afraid she only takes safe bets with acceptable risks. But until I am sure I play against her and her alone, I must resign myself to uncertainty. And to minimize that risk, I find it is important to get to know people.”
“If you like. Now, let me offer you a few reassurances. I will not harm the others from your world…unduly. Nor will I share their dangerous secrets, unless of course there is something actually valuable from your world that might be used in this one. I would quite like to taste a pizza and hamburger, you know. Perhaps you could leave the recipe with my [Chef] before you go?”
“Also, I am not interested in harming or impeding you or Ryoka in any way. I simply desire your cooperation and perhaps your help. Actually, I desire Ryoka for all these things, but I shall include you as well.”
“To do what exactly? Making the world a better place?”
“If you could do that, I would be most grateful. No—in helping to defeat the one enemy that truly threatens this continent. The Antinium.”
Erin’s brain halted when she heard that. She cleared her throat, wishing she’d taken another cup of tea, and then spoke.
“The Antinium…aren’t your enemies.”
Lady Magnolia raised a finger.
“A few Antinium you are acquainted with may not be my enemy. But the rest are. Indeed, if their Queen ordered it, I would not place high odds that they would not cut you apart.”
“Pawn and Klbkch wouldn’t do that.”
Lady Magnolia raised an incredulous eyebrow.
“Wouldn’t they? How much do you know of the Antinium? How much do you know of Klbkch the Slayer’s past?”
Klbkch the Slayer? Erin had never heard of that title. She opened her mouth, but the other woman waved her to silence.
“I am Lady Magnolia Reinhart. I have no enemies upon this continent, or so it is said. And yet I consider the Antinium Queens my greatest nemeses. Consider that for one moment, and please, think before you reply.”
Erin opened her mouth, hesitated, glared at Ressa, and then thought. Magnolia watched her, not without a bit of sympathy.
“The Antinium do battle much in the way your world fights, or so I gather.”
Erin blinked. Lady Magnolia smiled and clarified her statement.
“What I mean is, they fight under the assumption all soldiers are equal. They raise their warriors to be excellent, but no individual is better than another in their doctrine. That is because the Antinium do not level. But other armies fight differently.”
Lady Magnolia lifted her cup, accepted a refill from Ressa and drank a bit before continuing. Erin saw Ressa glance at her mistress, and something flickered across the maid’s face. It almost looked like…worry?
“In this world, an individual can change the course of a battle. A single hero can win a war. And that is because we level. Armies protect their highest-level warriors, or risk them in order to deal damage to opposing forces. But a hundred Level 15 [Soldiers] would not be worth the life of a single Level 30 [Vanguard]. So we sacrifice the many for the good of the few, that they might grow stronger. That is the difference between our worlds.”
Erin tried to imagine it. It wasn’t actually that hard. It was like…superheroes. They could fight entire armies by themselves, and that was sort of like a high-level warrior, right? Lady Magnolia nodded.
“Now consider this. What would happen if your world’s technology fell into Antinium hands? Or rather, feelers?”
Erin tried to imagine that. Her heart sank.
“Weapons of war. Tanks, these flying planes of yours, and of course, ‘bombs’. Terrible weapons that require no levels to use. And worse still, a gun. A weapon with exceptional range that can fire faster than a repeating crossbow if made correctly. Such weapons would allow even children to kill the greatest of warriors. All races would take that technology and kill with it, but the Antinium would benefit most greatly. That is why this technology must not be realized in this world.”
Again, Erin raised her hand. She lowered it when she saw Magnolia staring at it.
“Um, but why wouldn’t you just use a gun or something and not share the way the weapons are made?”
“Aside from the obvious point that any weapon can be used against its owner, I have found that nothing stays secret for long. The instant a weapon is used, it is copied a thousand times over. Have you not witnessed this yourself?”
Erin thought of her hamburgers and had nothing to say. Lady Magnolia sighed again.
“If these ‘guns’ were to become widespread, two groups would benefit most from their usage. In less than a decade, the House of Minos would fall to its ancient enemy and the Antinium would sweep across the continent.”
“Were things otherwise, and were I more foolish, I might even consider manufacturing these devices myself, regardless of the risk, to deal with the Antinium. With them, I could create an army capable of killing Dragons; a force that would humble even Flos on the field of battle. But I am a bit wiser than that. By the time I defeated the Antinium—and that is still not wholly predictable—the entire world would be armed thusly, and we would burn nations to the ground and slaughter entire species before the bloodletting was done. No.”
Erin was quiet for a while after that. She didn’t know what to think of Lady Magnolia. The woman herself sipped her tea quietly as she watched Erin. At last, Erin looked up.
“I still don’t think they’re your enemies. The Antinium, I mean.”
“You do not know their history. You have not seen what they do.”
“Kill people? But Humans do that.”
“And we are a wretched species. But the Antinium are sadly better at killing than we are, and their Queens attempted to wipe this continent free of every living species once before. Consider this, Erin. Even in war, [Lords] and [Generals] often spare civilians. It is a point of honor, and practicality. Not even [Soldiers] relish that level of violence, and so the few who slaughter are condemned by every nation.”
She raised a finger.
“But the Antinium have fought thusly from the beginning. They leave no survivors. And what is worse, they make no permanent peace. I believe they have simply been waiting since the last Antinium War, building their strength for the final war in which they will win and slaughter us all.”
Erin couldn’t believe it. Klbkch, do that? But—she’d seen him killing Goblins that one time. And yet Pawn—
“It is not the individuals I speak of, but their Queens. They are heartless and care nothing for other species. If you will not believe it of the Antinium you know, believe that.”
Erin could. She remembered the Queen, and the cold way she had spoken about Klbkch, her subject.
“So that’s it? You’re fighting a war and you want help from us?”
“…If you want to put it that way, yes. Rather, I simply hope you will not make things worse. I don’t expect much help from you.”
Erin opened her mouth. Lady Magnolia stared at her. Erin closed her mouth.
“Erin Solstice. A young woman who treats Goblins like people and teaches the Antinium how to become individuals. That alone makes you extraordinary, but it will not win a war.”
Lady Magnolia drummed her fingers on her leg.
“I should like nothing more than for the Antinium to all become individual. That would mean they are people, and people can be manipulated, flattered, bribed, intimidated, or threatened. A swarm simply devours everything in its way. But it will not happen, because while the Queen in Liscor is a visionary, the other Queens and the Grand Queen lacks her ideals. No, it will not change what is to come.”
“And that is?”
“War. And not just any war. A world war, as your people have spoken of.”
Lady Magnolia said it calmly. She looked out one of the windows, at the setting sun.
“Perhaps it will not begin on this continent, but it will come soon. Already the idea of it hangs in the air, whispering in every ear.”
Erin felt a chill.
“How do you know?”
“From whispers. The Isles of Minos have closed. Perhaps due to the actions of a traveler from another world? Their ports are barred to any ships but their own, and every spy I have planted in their kingdom has gone quiet. A Goblin Lord has emerged in the south, and if a King should rampage again, we may all fall to the youngest species before the Antinium.”
Lady Magnolia started ticking off points on her fingers.
“Az’Kerash builds an army of the dead, and I only pray we may stop him. I would send heroes to slay him before he unleashes his madness, but they are in short supply. Between him and the Antinium, we face two major enemies, although one is far more dangerous than the other. An individual versus a swarm, you see? And then there are simply dangerous fools among the Drakes and Humans who would start bonfires over matchsticks anyways. Flos goes to conquer, and perhaps he is the least dangerous of all. He at least desires to create a kingdom rather than break everything apart. And all of this happens because of your people, Erin Solstice.”
The room felt darker, and not just because the sun was setting. Erin tried to swallow around a dry mouth.
“We were at peace before you arrived, Erin Solstice. A factitious, torn peace full of petty battles and squabbles, yes, but peace nevertheless. The world was slowly healing, but all too soon the truce forged of paper will burst open like scabs and war will once more ravage the people and land.”
Lady Magnolia paused. The shroud around her lifted, and she looked over.
“Mm. That was quite good, wasn’t it, Ressa? I shall have to remember that to Teriarch next time we speak. Write that down, would you?”
Magnolia turned back to Erin.
“I don’t mean to sound completely hopeless. There are threats, true, but I hope that my preparations will guard against some of them. This continent is strong, and I have done my best to ensure the north is stronger than it was. But that is the truth of it. War is coming. And you few travelers are caught in it.”
Erin tried to breathe and had trouble doing so. It seemed so huge when Magnolia said it like that.
“What should we do, then? I mean, is there anything—?”
“Nothing. You can help those you meet in your inn, and perhaps that will change things. But unless you know of a technology that saves lives…? There are a number of curious things the other young men and women talk about, but they are frustratingly vague on details. I will pursue that line of questioning, however.”
Erin shook her head.
“I still don’t think it’s right, keeping them here.”
“And what would you do? Let them loose?”
Magnolia frowned at Erin. Erin shrugged.
“Maybe not, but they’re not as stupid as you’re treating them.”
“Fools seldom are. But they are thoughtless, which is worse. What could they do that would not cause more harm?”
“I don’t know. But give them a chance.”
Magnolia paused as she sipped at her cup.
“A chance? As what, adventurers?”
“Maybe. But just give them a chance to do something rather than lock them up and let them be useless.”
Erin tried to explain.
“I have this annoying—this girl in my inn. She’s really, really troublesome, but if I left her alone she would die.”
“Ah. Lyonette de Marquin. Dreadful girl. I’m not sure she is the example you should use.”
“You know who she is? I mean, she said she knows you—”
“I’m sure she does.”
Lady Magnolia made a face as if the tea had suddenly gone bad. Erin looked around and saw Ressa making a similar look of disgust, which disappeared as soon as she noticed Erin looking.
“She says she’s really important and that you’d take her in. But the [Butler]—sorry, Reynold—wouldn’t let her come with me.”
Magnolia sighed as she swirled her tea around with a silver spoon.
“She certainly is…important, but I fear she overstates her value. She wrote me several strident letters demanding that I offer her the hospitality of my house. I do not wish to do so.”
“But she nearly died by herself! She was getting exiled and she would have frozen to death if I hadn’t found her!”
Erin’s heart grew silent in her chest for a moment. She looked at Lady Magnolia.
“Just because someone is really…really annoying or useless doesn’t mean they deserve to die.”
“Neither does it mean that I should waste time and resources saving them.”
“But that means you’re killing them if you don’t help. That’s wrong.”
A sigh. Erin gritted her teeth as Magnolia looked at her.
“What if they are a danger? What if killing them would save thousands of lives? Would that not be the most morally correct choice?”
Now Erin was getting angrier. Magnolia was—well, she wasn’t a bad person. Maybe. But she was getting on Erin’s nerves.
“You don’t get to decide that. God—gods know everything, so I guess if they existed, they’d be able to say if that was right or wrong. But the gods are dead. Everyone tells me that. So no one gets to decide if things are moral. You can kill however many people you want, but you can’t say it was the right thing to do.”
“Fine then. I chose to let Lyonette die. I do not regret it, any more than I regret confining the others from your world. I cannot release them into the wild because they would die, and neither will I risk them spreading dangerous information as they so casually do. But they are quite a drain on resources.”
“So? You offered to take them in.”
“To save their lives. But I may soon lock them in a house and toss bags of grain inside rather than keep them here. They are not worthy of this house, or the people who must put up with them. They eat, argue, talk about games and laugh at monsters as if they were harmless, and talk to my servants about freedom as if they were slaves.”
“They do? I mean, really?”
Lady Magnolia scowled.
“One of them does, at any rate. She doesn’t seem to understand the difference between employing a family of their free will and forcing them to work.”
“I’m sorry if they’ve offended you. But—”
“I will give them a chance, which may be more than they deserve. Enough. It is growing late, and I wish to impress one thing upon you, Erin Solstice.”
“Numbers. Or perhaps—worth.”
Lady Magnolia put down her cup and looked at Erin directly.
“The smallest of the Antinium Hives – the one based in Liscor – holds at least three thousand Antinium at any given time. More, as of late. At least two thousand Workers and a thousand Soldiers are ready to go to war at any moment; my estimate puts their numbers at a thousand more in their Hive. And that is the least of the six Hives, if there are only six. The others are larger by an immeasurable factor.”
The numbers staggered Erin. Three—no, four thousand Antinium? Why didn’t they help when Skinner attacked? But Lady Magnolia wasn’t done. She pointed at Erin.
“You are worth two Antinium Soldiers in a battle. Ryoka—with items, perhaps she could defeat a dozen. Two dozen. But I very much doubt it.”
She shook her head.
“As dangerous as you are, as unique as you are, you are only one Human. But I require an army. I seek heroes. I have children, bright and full of weapons that would shake the earth—none of which I can use now or without having them used against me in time. You and Ryoka Griffin are extraordinary in your own ways, but you are still young. And small.”
Magnolia looked towards the window.
“I will hope that you rise to the challenges you will face. If there is a way I may aid you that will encourage growth or help myself, I will do so. But I am playing a game against titans, and I am only a small Human.”
Erin didn’t know what to say to that. Magnolia looked large and small at the same time—a giant in her own right, full of more force than anyone else Erin had met—but still so small compared to the things she talked about.
“If you are able to, I hope you will persuade Miss Ryoka to visit me. I am in need of whatever aid she can give; whatever she can remember. These new defensive potions and alchemist creations she has made cheaper will save countless lives in the long run. But convincing enough farmers to grow spicy peppers will be difficult. Bottles are equally expensive, but if it can be manufactured into a spray as young Rose claims…”
Magnolia sighed, and looked at Erin.
“Which brings me to you. You, Erin Solstice, the girl of many odd talents. You have skills, and a brain hidden behind all that fluff, but you maintain a small inn and do little with what you have. Is that all you will ever do? What is it you wish to do in this world, Miss Erin Solstice? Do you want to go home to your world? Or perhaps, do you want to stay here? This world is full of wonders, but I am sure yours is filled with just as many.”
Her eyes bored into Erin’s, unblinking, and Lady Magnolia’s voice seemed like the only thing in the world. Erin couldn’t look away as the questions hit her again and again.
“Will you protect this world? Save it? Do you simply want to live in peace? Or perhaps you would like to destroy it? Do you even care?”
Erin opened her mouth, but Lady Magnolia silenced her.
“I don’t believe you have an answer that would not prompt me to throw something at you.”
“Really? This tea pot is quite heavy and quite expensive. I would hate to waste it.”
“I want to protect the people around me. That’s all. I have friends. I don’t want them to die. I want to help them, and some day find a way home. And live in peace. That’s all.”
Lady Magnolia stared at Erin for a while.
“Hmph. Well, at least you don’t have small dreams. Well then, Erin Solstice, delightful and infuriating as this conversation has been, I believe only one thing remains for me to do with you.”
Erin tensed. Ressa had moved behind Magnolia, but she was fast.
“And what’s that?”
Lady Magnolia smiled.
“Send you home.”
It was a small group that gathered outside the coach. Reynold held the door open as Erin climbed in, and the girl realized that Joseph and Rose and the others were watching her from a window. And trying to shout to her, by the looks of it.
She’d wanted to say something to them, but Lady Magnolia had vetoed that suggestion. She claimed she had no desire to listen to another hundred complaints and besides, Erin had nothing to say to the others that they would not learn soon enough.
Erin had silently agreed with that, but she still glared at Lady Magnolia as she got into the carriage. She was fairly sure she didn’t like the [Lady], but at least in public Lady Magnolia was all smiles and rainbows.
“I trust Reynold will see you safely to your inn. I also took the liberty of sending a meal with you, as I shamefully neglected to play the good host. Do take care.”
The door began to close, but a slim hand interposed itself before it could shut. Erin wondered what would happen if she slammed the door, but then Magnolia opened it. She lowered her voice so that only Erin could hear.
“Oh, and by the way, Erin. Though I laud your desire to protect those around you, I believe you will soon find that answer means changing the entire world. So the question remains: what will you do? Will you try to save this world we live in, or wait for others to do it for you?”
Erin stared at Magnolia. The other woman was smiling.
“If I punch you, would Ressa kill me?”
Magnolia’s smile widened.
“Quite likely. Do agonize about your future on the ride home. Goodbye.”
The door closed. Reynold waited until Magnolia was clear, and then snapped the reins. The carriage began to move swiftly away, and Erin sat back in her seat.
“I think I really hate her.”
Lady Magnolia. She was like a hurricane trapped inside of a bottle inside of a tornado inside of a washing machine. She was all go, and even thinking about what she’d just learned made Erin want to vomit up thoughts.
And she was so confident she was right. She’d seen right through Erin. Or maybe—
Erin turned and glared out the window as Lady Magnolia’s mansion disappeared in the distance. She had a small thought in her head.
Maybe…she was actually a good person. A rich [Lady] trying to save the world by herself.
Probably not. She was still a jerk. But the things she’d said—
Outside, the world began to blur as Erin sped away from Lady Magnolia’s house, and back home. Thoughts whirled around in Erin’s head, not least of which was that Magnolia had put enough food in the carriage to feed both her and Reynold for a week. But that wasn’t as important as what she’d learned.
So many things. War? The Antinium? Were they really the biggest threat? Could Magnolia be trusted?
Erin wanted so desperately to talk to Ryoka about it all. But without anyone to talk to—besides Reynold, and he really couldn’t help with this—Erin found herself drifting off. Her mind began looping, and only a few thoughts repeated themselves.
What had Magnolia said? Choose. Erin thought she had an answer, but war? She couldn’t even imagine—
What should she do?
Save the world.
Ask for help.
Live in peace.
Fight for freedom.
Go back home.
Save the world.
Protect her friends.
Save the world.
Save the world.
Save the world.