She slept on the way back. Somehow, Erin found she was extremely tired after her meeting with Magnolia, and despite it being only dusk she slept like a baby.
She woke up as Reynold slowed the coach next to her inn. Erin blinked, looked around wildly, and realized she was home.
Home. It was an odd thing to say, and even odder that the sight of Toren’s skeletal frame standing in front of her inn was reassuring, but there it was.
Erin was home.
It was the work of a few minutes for Erin to extricate herself from the carriage. Not because she was that slow; Reynold insisted on helping her pack up the huge meal Lady Magnolia had sent with her. It was far too much for Erin to eat, but she suspected Lyonette might enjoy the rich food.
“Thanks so much for driving me out here, Reynold.”
“It was my pleasure Miss Solstice.”
“Erin. Um, will you come in for something to eat? Or I could make you up a bed. It’s getting late.”
The [Butler] smiled.
“I fear I must decline. I will return to Lady Magnolia’s side shortly, but I thank you for the offer.”
“Oh, it’s no—if you ever have time, come by and I’ll treat you to a meal on the house, okay?”
“It would be my pleasure.”
Erin watched as the man climbed back in the carriage and the horses began to gallop. She looked over at Toren as the skeleton walked down the hill. He stared at her. She stared back.
He nodded. Erin looked at him for a few more seconds.
“Is Lyonette here?”
He nodded, and pointed up towards the inn. On cue the doors flew open and Erin heard a strident voice.
“Is he gone? Come back! I insist—!”
The girl dashed down the slope and stopped, waving her arms and shouting at the coach. She turned to Erin, furious.
“How dare he? The nerve—did you inform Magnolia Reinhart of my distress? When will she send for me? You may pass any correspondence from her directly to me.”
She looked at Erin expectantly. Erin blinked.
“Um. She knows you’re here.”
“And that’s it. I don’t think she’s sending anyone else. Hey Toren, help me carry all this food to the inn. You can have this basket. And this bundle. And I’ll take this…there’s some good food in here so don’t drop it.”
Erin trooped up to her inn and went inside, ignoring Lyonette’s outraged monologue. The noble girl calmed down only slightly when she saw the feast Erin had brought back.
“Hmf. Well at least the woman was decent enough to provide me with a decent meal as recompense. I will await her reply while I make do.”
Erin suspected Lyonette would be waiting for a long time, but she wisely didn’t mention that.
“If you set the table we can eat, Lyonette.”
The girl stared at Erin. Erin stared back. Lyonette’s petulant self-righteousness was a far cry from Ressa’s stare and Lady Magnolia’s sheer presence. In a few seconds the girl flounced into the kitchen.
She was just finishing setting the table—badly—and Toren had emerged with a jug of cold milk when the door slammed open.
Relc bellowed the words and Lyonette screamed and dropped the forks and ran for the stairs. Erin laughed.
“Relc! And Klbkch! And Selys?”
The [Receptionist] walked in as Klbkch held the door open and smiled at Erin.
“Hi Erin. I hope I’m not bothering you, but I saw that coach come in and everyone was headed this way, so…”
Klbkch shut the door and nodded to Erin.
“I hope we are not interrupting you today, Miss Solstice?”
“No, that’s great, come in!”
Erin waved the three into her inn happily. She hated being alone, which was to say, trapped with either Lyon or Toren. Relc chortled with delight when he saw the spread of food Toren had placed on one of the tables.
“Where did all this come from?”
“Oh, that? It’s um…a gift. I can’t eat it with just Lyon, so everyone grab a plate and have some. Lyonette—more plates! And forks. And spoons and knives. And cups!”
The girl looked up with disgust, but Toren shepherded her back into the kitchen. Relc stared after the girl and scratched his head, looking briefly put out, but Klbkch spoke to Erin as Selys happily investigated the food.
“I regret that Pawn is not able to visit. He is occupied within the Hive.”
“And I couldn’t find Olesm. I think he’s busy at the Runner’s Guild for some reason. I saw him taking a huge stack of parchment there earlier.”
Selys eyed the food Erin had spread on the table. Magnolia, for all her objectionable traits, was certainly generous when it came to food. Since Erin had fallen asleep before she’d touched the spread, she had two different roasted pheasants, over ten cuts of meat, cheeses, two bottles of wine, fruits that were only slightly wilted, bread, some kind of spicy dip, a sweet dip, olives, and even a crab—
“Is this really all a gift from this Reinhart lady? Did she like you that much, Erin?”
“I think she was just being…generous. She’s really rich, I think.”
“Wow. You know, I knew she was important after Ceria told me about her messenger, but I didn’t know she was that important.”
“You’ve never heard of her?”
Erin was curious. Selys scratched at one cheek and twitched her tail in embarrassment.
“Well, it’s just—she’s a Human, you know, Erin? I guess I just don’t pay attention to famous Humans that much. I might have heard her name once or twice…maybe she was important historically? How old is she? Anyways, I could name a few important adventurers and teams, but not more than that.”
“So no one knows of Lady Magnolia Reinhart?”
“Reinhart? She was the one who sent that carriage?”
Relc looked up from the food as Toren and Lyonette reappeared. Klbkch looked at Erin as well.
“Yeah. She wanted to talk. So you know her, Relc?”
“The Deadly Flower? Yeah, I’ve heard of her.”
“Oh! From the Antinium Wars! That’s her?”
Selys gasped in sudden realization.
“But she’s a hero! And she helped beat the Antinium both times. I had no idea!”
She glanced over at Klbkch and froze.
Klbkch nodded as he delicately consumed a slice of beef.
“I have never met Magnolia Reinhart in person, but I am well aware of her accomplishments. I am curious as to why she wished to speak with you, Erin.”
He looked at Erin, and she realized he probably knew why. Relc scratched his spines and shrugged.
“Who cares? I mean, you can tell us, but free food is free food, right? Can I have all of this?”
Relc began heaping a plate with as much food as possible, much to Lyon’s outrage. She glared daggers at the Drake which Relc happily ignored. Lyonette tried to load her own plate while keeping as far away from any non-Human as possible. That was fairly impossible, but she gravitated more towards Selys than Klbkch or Relc, staying the furthest away from the Antinium.
“This is so tasty!”
Selys smiled at Erin as the two took their plates to a table. Relc wavered, but Klbkch tapped him on the shoulder and they took a table a few feet away. Erin had noticed the lack of invitation from Selys, as well as the way the Drake had kicked her when she opened her mouth to invite the other two to join her.
“Why don’t you want to eat with Relc?”
She whispered that to Selys when she was sure the other Drake was investigating one of the kegs Erin had put on the bar’s counter in the back. Selys made a face.
“He was flirting with me on the way here, Erin. I just don’t want to give him the wrong idea so soon afterwards.”
Erin had discussed the more…intimate…relations of each species with Selys before, but she’d never really asked about the Drake’s love life. But from the look on Selys’s face, Relc wasn’t included in any of her aspirations.
“Don’t you like him? I do.”
“As a friend, I guess. I mean, I don’t know him like you do. But I’d never date him, Erin!”
“Why? I mean, he’s not that bad, is he?”
Selys looked over at Relc as the Drake happily poured himself a drink of ale and grimaced.
“Well no, but—he’s really muscly, and he’s arrogant and selfish too. I know he’s a really important Senior Guardsman and he’s really high-level, but I’d hate to be the Drake who had to put up with him in a relationship. Anyways, I prefer guys who look…better, you know?”
Erin frowned at Relc.
“Really? He looks fine to me.”
“That’s because you’re a Human.”
Selys sighed. She swished her tail back and forth on the floorboards.
“Look, it’s not just that. He’s older than me, you know? I mean, I’m almost the same age as his d—”
She broke off as Relc walked over. His tail was wagging as he held up a mug.
“This is alcohol, right? You’re finally serving alcohol?”
He nearly had tears in his eyes. Erin nodded and grinned.
“I bought some—I even made this really weird special drink, but it’s uh, sort of in testing. It does weird things when people drink it.”
“Really? I’ll try some so long as I’m not throwing up afterwards.”
Selys looked intrigued. Relc nodded.
“I’ll try it even if I do throw up. Alcohol!”
He went back to his table as Erin turned back to Selys.
“Anyways, meeting with Magnolia was huge. She said so many things—”
“So tell me everything!”
Erin took a deep breath, and then looked towards the door. A second later, Halrac opened it. The [Scout] grunted when he saw the food on the table before his eyes flicked to Erin.
“Are you open?”
Relc looked over and froze, but Klbkch seemed perfectly at ease. Selys had frozen in her seat, but Erin only smiled wider.
“Come on in, Halrac! Get a plate and have something to eat—it’s a buffet tonight!”
The older man eyed the spread without comment. He seemed puzzled by it, possibly because he could identify the rich food as out of place in the inn, but he loaded up his plate and took a table away from the others.
Erin resolved to talk to Halrac later, after she’d finished eating. He was so silent, except when he was bugging her about having more of that faerie flower drink. But she bet she could get him to open up if she talked enough. She turned and saw Selys gaping at her.
“What? Do I have something on my face?”
“Erin! That’s Halrac! Halrac as in, Halrac from Griffon Hunt! The Gold-rank [Scout]!”
Erin knew that. She couldn’t remember if Halrac had told her or she’d heard it somewhere else, but Selys seemed blown away by that fact.
“What is he doing here!? I thought he was staying at Peslas’ inn!”
“Really? Well, he comes in every night. I guess he likes my inn better.”
Erin felt a bit smug at that, but Selys shook her head.
“But he’s famous, Erin! How’d you even meet him? I mean, maybe he’s not as famous as Magnolia Reinhart—”
“Who you didn’t know.”
“—Shut up. I know adventurers because it’s my job, okay? Halrac’s a veteran. He’s killed Griffons by himself and he’s probably the closest to becoming a Named Adventurer in Liscor right now.”
“Well, he’s a good customer. Silent. Doesn’t throw things. And he tips well.”
“Really? Well, I think he keeps coming back because of this drink I made. You know those flowers I told you about? A few days ago I—”
Erin broke off again. Selys looked at her.
“More guests? How can you tell?”
“I don’t know. I just…sense it.”
Sure enough, only a few seconds after Erin had turned, the door opened.
Erin half-rose from her chair, beaming as the small Goblin entered, pushing back her hood. But the young woman stopped when she saw Rags wasn’t alone.
Rags had a friend. Or an underling? How else could Erin explain the second Goblin that walked through the door. He was likewise hooded, and Erin only caught a glimpse of green skin as he tugged the cloth over his face and looked around. But that wasn’t the thing that stopped her.
Relc shot out of his chair and reached for his spear. Klbkch caught his arm, but Lyonette screamed and Selys choked on her mouthful of food. Erin looked at the tall Goblin.
He didn’t look like the Goblin Chieftain at all. What had Relc said? A Hob? As in Hobgoblin? But he looked so…so…Human.
That was to say, he looked humanoid. He was about as Human as a Drake and Erin detected fangs in the smile he gave her.
The Hobgoblin made her uneasy. But then Erin noticed Rags was staring at her. Expectantly. And Erin realized Rags was waiting to see what she would do.
Yet, Erin had a definite sense that this mysterious Hobgoblin wasn’t like Rags. He was dangerous, and everyone in the room felt it. Especially the warriors.
Across the room, Relc and Klbkch were silently staring at the Hobgoblin. The air had frozen around Relc and one of his hands was clenched into a fist. Halrac had paused as soon as the second Goblin had entered, and one of his hands was at his belt. Even Toren was staring hard at the second Goblin.
The air was full of tension. Erin felt her [Dangersense] tingling in the back of her head, but she ignored it and made herself smile. What had Lady Magnolia said about Goblins? No—she’d said it about Erin. A girl who treated Goblins like people. Because Goblins were people. Remember that.
“Rags, come in! I’ve got tons of food, and you’re always welcome here. You and any Goblins. And I see you’ve got a friend. That’s great. Well, he’s a guest and isn’t going to be attacked, okay?”
Erin didn’t look at the others, but she raised her voice and sensed the mood change. Klbkch nodded silently, and Halrac slowly relaxed in his seat and turned back to his drink. Only Relc stood staring, until Klbkch tapped him gently on the shoulder and pushed him back towards his seat.
Erin approached the two Goblins cautiously. Rags looked…different. It felt like ages since she’d last been in the inn, and something had changed in her demeanor.
She looked taller. Physically—she seemed to have grown an inch or two, but also in the way she carried herself. She stared up at Erin without a trace of fear, but only a sense of curiosity and something else in her crimson eyes.
“I’ve got food. Um, and we can play chess later. Where’s your tribe?”
Stare. Erin looked up at the other Goblin. He grinned at her, exposing sharp teeth.
“Who’s your friend?”
The Hobgoblin opened his mouth and Rags kicked him. He frowned down at her and she glared up at him. Erin scratched her head.
“Is everything okay?”
Rags shrugged. She walked over to the table filled with food and grabbed a plate. The tall Goblin followed her. Erin watched them begin to pile food on their plates as they muttered to each other in their incomprehensible language and went back to Selys.
“Erin. Who’s that other Goblin?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, why is he here?”
Erin spread her hands out as Selys kicked her.
“Ow! I don’t know! What’s the problem?”
Selys lowered her voice and hissed at Erin.
“The problem is that he’s a Hobgoblin! They’re not like normal Goblins. They’re dangerous! Even a normal Silver-rank adventurer wouldn’t be a match for one!”
“Well…he’s with Rags! That means he could be okay!”
“That’s not your only problem, Erin. After that Goblin raiding party—this isn’t good.”
“This is my inn. What’s the problem?”
Erin looked over and saw Relc. It wasn’t like she’d forgotten the last time Relc and Rags had met, but now that she looked over, she could see Relc’s expression. Selys looked grim.
“He’s not going to stay calm, Erin. He’s going to start a fight.”
“He won’t do that.”
Selys gave Erin one of the flattest looks the girl had ever received. If the Drake had eyebrows, both of them would have been raised. Erin hesitated.
Rags and the mysterious other Goblin chose a table on the other end of the inn, away from Relc and the other guests. Erin was relieved for that, and hoped she could maintain the peace throughout the night. After all, the Goblins weren’t doing anything, and Relc wasn’t that crazy, was he?
Her optimism lasted for ten minutes. Then, as Relc was going back for more food he paused in front of the table and sniffed the air theatrically.
“Does something stink in here, or is it just me?”
Erin’s heart sank. She watched Relc turn towards the Goblins, heart pounding. Relc opened his mouth and Erin spoke.
“Stop it, Relc.”
He turned to look at her. Relc’s eyes were smoldering, and he seemed even bigger than normal. Erin’s heart was pounding. She did not want to be here. She didn’t want this to be happening. But she had to say it.
“They’re not doing anything. Leave them alone.”
“Me? I didn’t say it was the Goblins who stank—”
Klbkch spoke up from his table. His voice was low, but Relc hunched his shoulders. The Drake made no further comment but stomped back to his table.
Both Goblins had looked up when Relc spoke, but they returned to their meal as if nothing had happened. The taller one was looking between Erin and Relc with interest, but neither seemed upset.
If that was all, Erin would have considered herself lucky. But no sooner had Relc put his plate down then he raised his mug high into the air.
“Hey Klb, let’s toast our friends. You know, the ones who died defending that village from monsters, you remember?”
He raised his mug and spoke loudly to the room.
“To Byssa, Invrss, and Olivis, who died protecting us from a real threat. Those bastard Goblins.”
The inn was silent as Relc noisily drank the entire mug down. He tossed the glass casually onto the table and looked at Rags. She stared back.
Erin was on her feet. Her knees were shaking, but she made herself stand. She walked in front of Relc and met his eyes.
“Why are you doing this?”
Relc met her eyes and Erin felt a shock. There was something dark in the large Drake’s gaze.
“Because I can’t stand the fact that you let them in here. Because you’re letting them eat while my friends are rotting in the ground.”
“They’re not the Goblins who killed your friends. Rags is di—”
“It doesn’t matter. They’re all the same!”
Relc picked up the mug and hurled it past Erin. She flinched and Selys screamed as the glass shattered.
Across the room Toren moved. He’d been standing still, but now he grabbed at his sword, purple eyes blazing.
“Toren! Stand still!”
He froze in place. Relc sneered at the skeleton.
“Good decision. Your little pet monster won’t stop me. And neither will you.”
He moved towards Erin.
Halrac half-rose from his table. Relc pointed at him.
“Stay out of this, Human.”
He looked back at Erin as Halrac hesitated. He was armed, but Erin didn’t want a fight. She shook her head at him as Relc stared at the two Goblins.
“I’ve seen those things kill countless good people. They’re heartless murderers that don’t deserve a chance.”
Erin crossed her arms. She felt like a small bug in front of Relc. His rage seemed to be coming off him like heat. He loomed over Erin, but she refused to take a step back.
She saw the small bodies, held the severed heads of the dead Goblins in her hands. She saw the child looking up at her with hate in her eyes. Never again.
“You will not hurt them. Not here, and not anywhere. Do you understand me? They are under my protection. If you hurt them, you will be my enemy.”
Erin’s chest was tight. The air felt hot, but now she felt like her entire being was being poured into those words. She stared at Relc and felt something alive around her. She pushed, and he narrowed his eyes.
“You’ll regret it, Human.”
“Maybe I will. But until then, I’ll do what I think is right.”
The air was hot. Erin met Relc’s gaze for a long time, an eternity. At last, he looked away.
“Okay, you know what? I’m fine.”
Relc raised his hands. He sat back down. He grabbed a piece of meat and turned back to his plate as if nothing had happened.
The sudden lack of hostility nearly made Erin stumble. She stared at Relc’s back and then got angry. Just like that?
She couldn’t let it go. Not like this. Erin’s pulse was thundering, but she felt oddly calm, as if she was standing on the brink.
“No. Get out.”
Relc paused as he reached for another piece of meat.
“You heard me. Get out. You’re not welcome here right now.”
“I’m not going to pester your little Goblin friends.”
“It doesn’t matter. You said—you made yourself clear.”
Erin bit her tongue as she stumbled over her words. They sounded stupid in her ears, but her chest was still tight.
“You were nice to me. But if you can’t tolerate my guests, then you’re not welcome in my inn. Go away, and maybe I’ll let you come back later. But not now. Not tonight.”
Relc’s eyes narrowed.
“You sure you want to do that? I’m a guardsman of the city. You can’t just—”
Another voice interrupted him. Klbkch spoke. His voice was dry and calm as ever, but there was an edge to it.
“Do not use your position as a guardsman here. Erin Solstice has spoken. She is within her rights. I will testify to that if need be.”
Relc’s head turned. His tail was very still as he looked at his friend.
“Stay out of this, Klb.”
“The [Innkeeper]’s word is law here, guardsman. Don’t push it.”
Now Halrac spoke up. From his chair he stared at Relc. His hands weren’t quite at his belt, but Erin could see a dagger at his side. Relc stared at him.
“You think a dagger will scare me? I could take both you and Klb together. Want to see?”
“No one’s fighting anyone.”
Erin raised her voice. She felt the pressure on her intensify as Relc shifted his gaze her way. But she was also pushing back, and she felt the air around her growing solid. It was like she was pushing down on the entire inn.
“Didn’t you hear me, Relc? Leave.”
He stood up fast. Erin didn’t move, but both Klbkch and Halrac did. They walked forwards but Relc stepped towards Erin.
“Do you think I’m scared of you?”
Erin’s eyes were locked on Relc’s. She felt her pulse racing, felt every floorboard and chair in her inn. She pushed harder and Relc gritted his teeth.
“This is my inn, Relc. Get out or face the consequences.”
“You’re just another stupid Human. You don’t understand anything, do you? ”
“I understand right and wrong. You can’t kill people, Relc.”
He roared it in her face. Erin felt spittle strike her cheeks. She felt Halrac shift, but she refused to move. Relc drew in another breath and then Erin heard a quavering voice.
“Erin’s right, Relc.”
The Drake turned, incredulous, as Selys stood up. The younger Drake looked a lot smaller and she was shaking with her nerves, but she found the courage to look him in the eye as she spoke.
“Erin’s right. You’ve got to leave. This isn’t right. I’ve seen Rags and she’s never—”
Relc whirled and Selys flinched. He stared around the room. All his furious eyes met were cold stares, and two pairs of crimson eyes. Rags stared at Relc with silent hatred, and the other Goblin…smiled.
The Drake guardsman turned back to Erin. But now both Halrac and Klbkch were blocking Relc’s way, and the Hobgoblin was still sitting at the table with Rags. Smiling. Just smiling.
Relc’s eye twitched. He took a deep breath, and then turned. Slowly, he walked towards the door. Relc opened it, and turned. His eyes—Erin felt her heart breaking when she saw the look in his eyes.
“I hope your damn tails fall off. All of you!”
He slammed the door so hard that Erin felt the thump from where she was standing. She wavered, unsure, and then heard the angry roar as Relc stomped back towards the city.
All the strength went out of her legs. Erin sat down, and found that Selys had put a chair underneath her bottom just in time. The other Drake grinned at Erin weakly.
“That was exciting, wasn’t it?”
Erin looked back. Selys’s smile faded. After a moment, Erin put her head on the table. She didn’t cry, but she was terribly, terribly sad.
It was quite a while before anyone began eating again. Halrac and Klbkch returned to their seats silently without more than a word, and only Selys tried to fill the awful gap in the room with words.
Erin had to go upstairs to find Lyonette. The girl was hiding in her room, under her bed. She only came down when Erin reassured her that Relc was gone, and then she grabbed a plate of food and barricaded herself in her room.
It also took Erin a while to remember she’d told Toren to stand still. The skeleton was frozen in place until she told him he could go, and then he seized a bucket and walked out of the inn. Erin almost wondered if he was mad—but Toren didn’t have emotions, did he?
At their table, the two Goblins chattered quietly. Neither seemed disturbed; Rags actually looked cheerful, and her companion kept shooting glances at Erin.
And Erin herself? She felt awful.
“He was nice to me. He was the first person I ever met. The first one that didn’t try to kill me, I mean.”
Selys patted Erin on the back sympathetically. The two stared at their meals, neither one hungry anymore.
“That was amazing how you faced him down, though. No one picks a fight with Relc in the city when he’s mad. Even Watch Captain Zevara is careful. Relc once beat up over forty people in a fight, did you know?”
“And that Skill! It was a Skill, wasn’t it? When you were staring at Relc, everything suddenly grew really heavy. It was like the air was trying to crush me.”
“It just sort of came out. I don’t know how I did it.”
“Well, he’s gone.”
“Yeah. But he might not ever come back.”
Selys had nothing to say to that. After a while, Erin stood up and went over to Klbkch and Halrac and thanked them for helping. Klbkch nodded and told Erin he’d speak with Relc, although she wasn’t sure that was such a good idea. Halrac just nodded.
“You’re an odd person. Brave.”
It was a compliment, Erin supposed.
It was quiet dinner, but at least it was a somewhat pleasant one. Erin chatted with Selys and Klbkch, and occasionally approached the table with the two Goblins. They just stared at her when she came over the first time, and Rags had just shrugged when Erin apologized for Relc.
Something was up with them. They kept watching Erin, but apparently they were too busy chattering in their own language, so Erin left them be.
After a few hours, Selys left. She had to go to work tomorrow, and Klbkch left too, to escort her back. Halrac lingered for an hour longer before he left, muttering about dig sites and mages.
Rags and her mysterious Hobgoblin friend left as well. Erin sensed his eyes on her as they left, but she wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or bad thing.
And then Erin was alone. She sat in her inn, listening to Lyonette moving around overhead and wondering where Toren had gone. Her heart still hurt.
What should she do? Goblins. She felt bad at kicking Relc out but—no, she had meant every word. But Magnolia’s words still echoed in Erin’s mind.
She was weak. All those grand things the woman had talked about—Erin really was incapable of doing anything without help. She couldn’t even face Relc without everyone’s help.
So. Then. What could she do?
That was her only option, wasn’t it? Erin sighed. Stronger. She had to do something. She had to make something. Somehow. Some way.
“Well, I have one idea.”
Tomorrow she could—
Someone knocked on the door. Erin frowned. A late night visitor? She wondered if she could say they were closed. She stumbled over to the door and unbolted it. Erin yanked the door open and then froze. And then she smiled, her face lighting up with joy and relief.
I am angry.
I think I’ve always been angry. Ever since I found myself disappointed by the people I looked up to. Ever since the day I stopped believing in heroes.
It’s a long story. And I guess a lot of it was my fault. Once upon a time, there was an angry girl lashing out. Rebelling.
We all go through that phase. But I never quite got over that sense of fury when I learned the world wasn’t fair. That, somehow, while I’d been handed a great life, there was still so much injustice.
At times I forget. I run and run to forget, and I ended up running into another world where I thought I could be happy.
But now it’s back. The same old fury, a snarling beast in my stomach, pounding rage seething in my heart.
The kind of emotion that would lead me to murder. And there are people in this world that are worth killing. No—not people.
Monsters. Just monsters.
The snow crunches under my feet. I walk forwards, a small Gnoll cub awkwardly padding alongside me. My stomach is empty, and I feel lightheaded.
At the end of my rope. Far past it, in truth. My two stumps on my right hand ache. I’m exhausted, hungry, injured.
And so angry.
Even now, the rage threatens to consume me. I—
I’ve never been this angry before.
I’ve felt anger before. Hot and seething. And I’ve felt fury, deep and coiling, building like a pressure cooker, ready to explode outwards with a good spark. And I’ve felt all-consuming rage, burning a hole through my mind, eradicating common sense. But this—this is different. This feeling frightens even me.
This is black fury, terrible madness that grips me. And with it, I hear the little voice I thought I’d buried. It whispers to me.
Kill everything. Kill everyone. Stab them. Gouge their eyes out. Rip them to shreds.
Let the damn world burn.
I can’t stop looking at my hand. The place where my fingers should be. And memory. I can remember Urksh and the Stone Spears tribe.
All because of me.
Goblins. I woke up screaming two nights in a row, hand burning, infected. I scared Mrsha. Even now, the Gnoll cub is following me, but a ways away. She fears me and maybe, hates me for what I did.
The price paid for her life, and mine come to that.
I look down at her, and the Gnoll looks up at me. Her fur is so white now, the color of fresh snow. She’s almost invisible if she stops, and her brown eyes are the only real color on her body aside from her claws and nose. She is…silent.
She’s always been silent. But now Mrsha walks like a ghost. She has lost her tribe. Her family, her friends…
All because of me.
Even now I see the faerie hovering overhead. I hear Urksh, hear his voice over the sounds of his tribe dying around him.
“We offer everything.”
Did any of them survive? Any of them? Or did the entire damn army die as well? What was the price?
Mrsha stumbles, tripping over something in the snow. I stop, and she slowly gets to her feet.
She’s tired. And hungry. Neither of us have eaten.
“It’s only a little farther. Can you walk?”
She nods. I nod back. There’s nothing more to say. If I carried her I would fall within a mile.
How many times have I said that? How many times did I see it when I woke and remembered? Mrsha just looks up at me silently, her young eyes judging. But she can’t tell me how she feels.
It doesn’t matter. I know. I know what it’s like, to lose faith in someone you admired. I failed Mrsha. I brought her stories and then death. I gave her a small dream and then took everything she had.
I…this is all my fault*.
*Of course it isn’t. I know it isn’t. I’m not responsible for all of it. I didn’t force armies to fight or make the Goblins kill. But it is my fault. Mine alone.
Too late to go back. Too late to offer something else. She is all that remains, and I must take care of her. So I turn and look across the snowy plains.
Something flits down into my line of sight. A body made of crystal and ice. Immortality frozen into the shape of a small faerie. She looks at me.
“Yon city is but an hour’s journey away. Do not stop now.”
It almost makes me laugh. The faeries are worried about us. About me. I look at her.
“What was the price? What was paid, and what was lost?”
She looks at me in silence. It’s the same question I’ve asked every time one of them comes near. Silently, the faerie flies back up with the others.
They’ve been avoiding me. Can’t they answer?
“What did we pay? Was it really that steep a price!?”
I shout up at them. Mrsha hunkers in the snow and covers her ears with her paws. The faeries look at me, silent judges.
“Do not ask, mortal. What is done is done. Only regrets can come of knowing what might have been.”
I snap. I don’t remember seizing the rock in the snow and hurling it up at the faeries. I scream at them, my voice raw and furious.
“Fuck you! Give me a goddamn straight answer for once you bitches! Tell me! Damn you all, you traitorous conniving demons! What was the price!? Tell me or—”
Something. I see a shivering ball of fur cowering on the ground beside me as I hurl snow and scream at the retreating faeries. I halt, stop.
Mrsha is cowering in the snow, away from me. She’s shaking so hard that it looks like she’s vibrating.
All at once, the anger goes out of me.
I step towards her. She flinches away. I stop.
I sit in the snow, flames gone. Embers remain, but they smolder on. Yet guilt and sadness are in me now, too strong to ignore.
I’ve really made a mess of things this time, haven’t I? I thought a few potions and some alchemist’s tricks would change things. But I—
I was arrogant. And now that arrogance has cost lives. If I had levels, maybe I would have gotten to Mrsha sooner, or maybe I would have been able to fight. Maybe—
But now it’s too late. Far too late.
Ever since that night, the voice of the system or whatever it was has stopped speaking to me. Usually, every night really, I’d hear some kind of notification in my head and cancel it. [Barefoot Runner Level 1!], or [Disciple Level 3!] after the fight I had with Calruz. Yet now that I’m waiting for it, I hear nothing.
Nothing at all.
I guess it just gave up on me. Or that was part of the price I paid? I don’t know. I only know that I got away from certain death and paid for that miracle with two fingers. And I know that Mrsha survived, at the cost of her entire tribe.
Maybe they were fated to die, and this allowed one to live instead of others. Or maybe the faeries altered destiny so the tribe died instead of just Mrsha. I guess I’ll never know.
But I remember the Goblin Lord. I remember his eyes, and his damn army.
I clench my fists as Mrsha slowly stops shaking and looks up at me. I force myself to smile unconvincingly at her. But inside, the madness rears up again.
I will never forgive them. They will die. I swear it.
I am no killer. That’s what Erin told me. But those monsters deserve to die. And I will kill them, even if it means I can never go back to who I used to be.
For now, I look at Mrsha and try to make my voice soft. Reassure her. I wish I knew how. She’s just a kid. She needs an expert to help her with the trauma and loss. But I’ve been marching her relentlessly.
“I’m sorry for shouting, Mrsha. We’re nearly there. Once we get to the city, we can eat and sleep, okay? We’ll be safe there.”
I point and Mrsha squints. Liscor is visible across the rolling plains of snow in the distance. She looks uncertain.
“We’ll be safe, I promise.”
What a lie. And how could I promise that to a kid who’s just seen her family cut down around her? But Mrsha nods, trusting me and so we walk on as knives of guilt cut my stomach to ribbons.
On and on, in numb silence.
It feels like a second before I’m staring at a wooden door. I look around and blink. It’s night time. Mrsha leans against my leg, too tired to do anything else. The faeries are gone. I look around, but their glow is nowhere to be seen.
Good. I guess. My head is full of fog. I raise my left hand, my good hand, and knock.
For a minute I think no one’s coming. But there’s light in the windows. Please let her be there. Then I hear the scraping of bolts in the lock and the door opens.
Light and warmth spill out into the cold night. I blink.
A familiar face fills the doorway. It’s strange, but she hasn’t changed a bit.
She beams at me. I can barely lift my head. I’m back.
All the strength goes out of my legs. I collapse forwards, onto Erin.
She yelps and catches me just in time.
“Ryoka? What’s wrong?”
“Are you hurt? Are you tired? Hold on, let me—who’s this?”
I try to pick myself up as Erin fumbles for the door. It’s almost comedic so I smile, but then I see Mrsha peeking anxiously at Erin from the snow.
Erin’s face is a picture of confusion as I turn and beckon. The Gnoll hesitates, but she steps into the warm inn and sniffs the air.
“Oh! She’s so cute!”
Erin bends down and Mrsha leaps back out the door like a wild animal. I sigh.
“It’s okay. Erin—this is Erin Solstice, Mrsha. She’s a friend.”
A friend. I hold the door open. Mrsha hesitates, but she pads in again. This time Erin maintains a respectful distance.
“Where did she come from, Ryoka?”
How can I explain? I just sigh.
“It’s a long story. Her name is Mrsha. She’s just a kid. I brought her here because there’s nowhere else for her to go.”
Mrsha pads a bit into the room, her nails clicking on the floorboards. She’s on all fours—it seems Gnolls alternate between two and four legs and she’s still used to four legs for movement. She sniffs and stares at the dim embers in the fireplace, but she stays next to me.
Erin looks at Mrsha, eyes widening as she realizes what I mean.
“Oh no. Did you—was she lost? Or…abandoned?”
“Neither. Her tribe’s gone, Erin.”
It’s all I can say right now. Even that hurts. Erin’s eyes widen, but it takes her only a few seconds to get it. She’s lived in this world as long as I have. Possibly longer. She knows what I mean.
“I’m so sorry. Hey sweetie, are you alright?”
Erin bends down with a big smile for Mrsha. But Mrsha just edges away. She hides behind a table, staring at Erin. I can’t blame her for being afraid.
“Mrsha. It’s alright. Erin’s not dangerous. She’s nice. She’ll help look after you.”
Better than I can. Mrsha peeks up at Erin from around the table and I realize how thin she’s gotten. She barely ate after that first night, and without food—
Erin lets Mrsha sniff at her hand, but Mrsha’s still shy. She looks up at Erin with wide eyes, and I realize that she’s probably only the second Human that Mrsha’s ever met.
Too bad. If she’d met Erin first—
I close my eyes. It all hurts.
I lean on one of Erin’s tables, exhausted. My hand splays out and Erin looks down and gasps.
I grimace. It’s still hard for me to look at the stumps. I wrapped them in some bandages, but—
“It doesn’t matter. I’ll tell you later.”
“Tell me later? Ryoka, what hap—”
“Feed her first. She hasn’t had any food today.”
I point to Mrsha. My stomach is empty, and I’m about to pass out from hunger. Mrsha must be worse off. Her ears perk up when I say ‘food.’
Erin’s still hesitating. She’s looking at my hand, and that makes me…irritated. I know it’s bad. Haven’t I stared at it every second of every day? But that’s not important.
My friend jerks and Mrsha jumps back. Erin looks around wildly.
“Food? We’ve got food. There’s some leftover meat—uh—where did Toren put it?”
She raises her voice to shout for the damn skeleton.
I have to raise my voice in a half-shout that scares both Erin and Mrsha. Both look at me.
“Don’t call Toren. You’ll scare her.”
I can’t believe I have to explain it to her. My temper—it flares and goes out. Not Erin’s fault. Erin blinks at me, and then looks at Mrsha.
My teeth grit together as Erin rushes into the kitchen and goes looking for the food. Why am I angry? I mean, why am I angry at her? It’s not Erin’s fault if she’s thoughtless—
Control yourself. I can’t trust my emotions at the moment. I take a few deep breaths as the chill leaves me and exhaustion fills my limbs. It’s okay. Everything’s okay now.
It’s really not, but I tell myself that until Erin returns. She’s got some food wrapped in cloth and she’s dusting off snow. It turns out she’s got meat—part of a roasted fowl and some sliced meat, cold bread, and cheese.
She must have put it in the snow to keep it preserved. Doesn’t she know that will attract scavengers and monsters? If she thought for one damn second—
Erin adds more wood to the fire as she unwraps the food.
“Sorry—you can put it near the fire to warm up. And uh, I don’t think Toren’s in the inn. He must have gone outside.”
The meat is cold and hard from being kept outside. I barely taste it, but gulp it down. Mrsha’s eating just as fast. Erin watches us gobble the food up and goes to get more.
I say it after a few more minutes of frantic eating. Mrsha looks at me.
“Don’t eat too much or you’ll get sick.”
Heavy food on an empty stomach. Already I feel a tiny bit nauseous, but I’m alive. Alive.
Erin hovers around me and Mrsha, a pitcher of warm milk in her hands. I know she wants to ask questions, and I don’t want to say anything. All I want to do is sleep. Sleep and not have to deal with this. But I’ve got to deal with this.
“Why didn’t you eat? I mean, didn’t you have any more food?”
No, we starved ourselves for the fun of it. I bite my lip. Calm.
“We ran out of food a day ago.”
It was either stop to forage or press on. I wasn’t sure whether I could find anything—or whether I’d be able to get out of danger if I met a monster—so we just kept moving.
Mrsha shudders. She reaches for a glass of milk and gulps it greedily. I stare at her and feel another pang. That’s one more thing I have to answer for.
Erin sees me looking. I don’t know what she sees on my face. I don’t want to know. Looking at her expression is bad enough.
“Ryoka, what happened?”
At last, Erin puts the jug on the table and sits next to me, staring. Mrsha hesitates, but the Gnoll just edges away from Erin a bit as she chews at some scraps on her plate. I sigh.
“It’s a long story.”
“Tell me. Please? All I know is that you were going on a long delivery, but the Frost Faeries chased you away. Did they do this?”
They might have. But—they’re malicious, deceitful, antagonistic—and yet, I know they like children. No, they would never have organized this, even if they could.
And Erin’s staring at me. Just staring. I want to tell her, but I don’t. I want to bury the memories forever, and another part of me wants to confess my failure.
I hesitate. Mrsha’s still sitting here. But she’s not going to let me put her to bed so easily. And it needs to be said. So I look at Erin.
No one else has to know. I may never tell the entirety of what passed again. But Erin knows me. I know Erin. We haven’t known each other for long, but I trust her. More than almost anyone in this damn world. She helped save Ceria with me. She…
Slowly, I begin to speak. I tell Erin everything that passed since I ran out her inn being chased by the faeries. Some of it is unimportant. The long days of being tormented by them – meaningless now. They’re almost pleasant memories to what came next.
And I can’t describe what passed in the Gnoll’s camp. I just tell Erin I entertained the faeries with stories and leave it at that. What I felt then is too precious to break down into a mere words.
Then comes the battle between the two armies. And the Necromancer. Erin listens, asking questions I don’t answer, wondering, speculating. But this is all a prelude.
When I speak of the night that Mrsha lost everything, the Gnoll child flattens herself to the ground and covers her eyes with her paws, shaking. Tears trickle down her face. Erin looks at her but I keep going.
It must be said. And it’s so easy, too.
“I struck a bargain with the faeries. They helped save Mrsha and me, but the Stone Spears tribe—all of them—we left them behind to the Goblins. The army was in retreat and I ran with the faeries. They froze everything in our way. I don’t know what happened to the others.”
The memories almost wipe the living world from me. I see ghosts, blood, and death. But the world swims back into vision when I hear Erin crying.
She’s crying. My eyes are dry. Erin’s shoulder shake as she stares at me. It hurts. Her sympathy hurts. I look away.
Erin wipes tears from her eyes. She goes to pet Mrsha, but the Gnoll jerks away. She scampers under a table and curls up into a ball.
Heartbreak. My eyes are dry, and my soul is bleeding. I look at Erin.
“We came back. The faeries are still around. Mrsha has nowhere to go. Can you take care of her at your inn?”
“Of—of course. Absolutely. No problem.”
Erin looks around for something to blow her nose on. In the end she runs into the kitchen and comes out with a dirty rag. I eye her as she wipes the snot from her face.
“I’m so, so sorry.”
“You’ve said that. It happened.”
Nothing can change that. I sit at the table and stare at my fingers. So much, and yet so little. Not enough of a price, and yet—
They’re gone. Forever. No potion will bring them back. Not even Magnolia’s healer friend can restore missing body parts, just restore damaged ones.
Gone forever. A small price to pay.
“The Goblin Lord is still out there.”
I clench my hand, ignoring the pain. I sense Erin grow still as she sits next to me. I look at her.
“You need to be careful. His army was many days south of here, but he could come north. If he does—”
“If he does we’ll see. But for now you’re safe. I’ll lock the doors and Toren should be back. I’ll tell him to guard the inn.”
Erin fidgets in her seat. I look at her. Why is she so easy to read? Doesn’t she have any…
“What is it, Erin?”
“Um. Rags is in the area. With another Goblin.”
Silence. In my heart. I feel my fingers throbbing.
“Keep her away. If I see a Goblin right now I will kill it.”
I meet Erin’s eyes. Mine feel like they’re burning. She looks startled, but not afraid. Have I ever seen Erin afraid? But then her expression clouds and I see…disappointment.
It makes me angry. How can she judge me, when she’s heard what happened? How can she let Goblins into this inn?
I need her. I try to stuff the insanity welling up in my chest further down, but it keeps bubbling up. Pockets of madness.
“What happened here?”
I ask to distract myself. I don’t know that I really care. Erin hesitates. Now she looks worried.
“Oh, nothing much. Nothing…too important.”
“Well…okay, some stuff happened.”
Hesitate. Fidget. She looks at Mrsha, and then at her hands. I stare at her. At last, Erin gives in and begins to chatter nervously.
“Oh I met some Gold-rank adventurer’s after I took this girl into my inn. She’s sort of annoying but they were going to let her die in the cold if I didn’t help. So that led to a fight and then I found out the faerie flowers were useful and I kicked Relc out after he got mad at Rags’ Goblin friend and ImaybewenttoseeLadyMagnoliatoday and—”
It’s like someone’s sent a jolt of electricity down my spine. My eyes fly open, and my heart begins to beat again. Anger stirs in my chest, a dark, twisting thing.
“What did you just say?”
“I met Lady Magnolia. Look, she sent a carriage to my inn, Ryoka, and I thought—”
“You just got in, didn’t you? Just like that, without a second damn thought?”
Erin spreads her hands out helplessly. As if to say ‘what should I have done’? It makes me even angrier. My voice rises, and Mrsha, half-dozing, looks up.
“What did you tell her?”
Erin scratches her head. She can’t even remember.
“Nothing much…? But she knows I’m from our world. I mean, another world. And uh, she’s got other people.”
“Other people from our world?”
Damn her. My heart is beating faster. Erin nods.
“Yeah, she’s got a bunch of girls and guys. They’re younger than us, but they want to become adventurers. But uh, Magnolia doesn’t want them to leave. She’s afraid they’ll tell the secrets of our world.”
“And she knows those secrets? She knows everything?”
Erin can’t meet my eye.
“…Yeah. She knows about guns and stuff.”
I hit the table with my good hand. Erin looks worried. She reaches out to me, but I knock her hand away.
“I didn’t tell her anything important, Ryoka! She just wanted to know if I could be trusted. She tried to use a Skill on me, but it didn’t work—”
“You shouldn’t have been near her in the first place!”
I jab at Erin with one finger. She looks indignant.
“Why not? You met her!”
“Before I knew how dangerous she was. But you—you should have thought before you spoke to her! Did you even hesitate? Or did you see a shiny coach and just decide to get in?”
“Ryoka, that’s not what happened. Listen.”
Erin frowns, but I’m done listening. The beast is in my chest, and the fury is consuming my mind. Too late.
“No. You listen. You going to meet Magnolia is exactly what she wanted. She knows you’re from another world now, you idiot! She had no way of telling, but you gave it away—probably the instant she suggested she knew! And now she knows I know you, she’ll use you to get to me!”
“She wouldn’t do—”
Erin hesitates. Even she can’t finish that sentence. I glare at her. Something’s in my chest. It has control of my tongue.
“You don’t think. You just dance to her strings like a damn puppet, you moron.”
The other girl’s brows snap together.
“Don’t say it like that. I didn’t do anything wrong! I think Magnolia’s on our side.”
“On our side?”
Something in me snaps. All of the hatred, the anger, the frustration and fear and loss—it spews out of me, like poison.
“You fucking idiot. Don’t you ever think? No. you don’t. You just go ahead and do whatever’s in your empty head without a second’s regard for the consequences. Because of you, one of the most dangerous people in the world knows your secret and she’ll never give up. This is all your fault, you airheaded brat.”
I can’t stop the torrent. I don’t even want to. Erin stares at me first in shock and hurt, and then outrage.
“I’m not an idiot! Ryoka, just listen—”
“No! You shut up and listen!”
“So I can hear more of the lies Magnolia’s put in your head? But you believe what she’s told you without any doubt. Just how stupid are you!?”
I’m going too far. I know it, but I can’t stop. Erin’s face freezes.
“Don’t call me stupid.”
“Why not? You’re the dumbest person I’ve ever met.”
“Ryoka. I’m warning you—”
“Oh? And what will you do?”
“Just don’t call me names! Listen to me for a second!”
“No. Fuck you. You’re an incompetent buffoon.”
I poke Erin in the chest, hard. Too far. Stop. Erin grabs my hand.
“Don’t touch m—”
I throw her. Erin slams into the table and I realize I’ve gone too far. She gets up fast. I raise my hands.
I want to fight. I want to hit something. But the rest of me wants to stop. A voice is screaming inside my head, the same voice that shouted when I fought Calruz.
But it’s too loud. Everything hurts. My heart is in pieces. I just want to hit something, and get hit back. Maybe then—
Erin swings at me. Slow. Clumsy. I step back and punch her. With my bad hand. My stumps collide with her chest and I grab at my hand in agony.
While I’m bent over, Erin clenches her fist. She punches at my chest. I see the blow coming a mile away. I raise my arms to block—
The impact was so heavy it made Ryoka’s entire world disappear for a second. The impact sent her flying backwards. Ryoka flipped over the table and hit the floor. She lay there, silent and breathless for a few seconds, before she gasped and rolled to one side.
Erin stood, shaking as she stared at Ryoka. [Minotaur Punch]. She hadn’t meant to use it. She hesitated. Should she go and help—
Something sharp stabbed into Erin’s ankle. She screamed in pain as it began to gnaw at her flesh, like needles jabbing into her skin.
Erin shouted and waved her arms in a panic as she tried to shake off the thing that was biting her. She managed to fling it off and then saw Mrsha fly through the air. The Gnoll child crashed into a table and fell to the ground, whimpering in pain.
“Oh no, I’m so sorry—”
Ignoring her bleeding ankle, Erin rushed over. Mrsha blinked as she got to all fours, and then her eyes focused on Erin. She snapped and Erin nearly lost a finger. Mrsha leapt at Erin, and the girl yelled in pain as Mrsha tried to claw at her face.
The Gnoll paused. She looked over as Ryoka got to her feet. The other girl was clutching at her chest, wincing, but she was unharmed. She pointed at Erin.
“Get off of her.”
The Gnoll hesitated. Then she leapt off of Erin, her needle claws digging into Erin’s flesh one last time. She ran to Ryoka and circled the girl anxiously.
Slowly, Erin stood up and looked at Ryoka. The other girl met her eyes. The anger that had been smoldering in her gaze was suddenly gone, extinguished by the brief fight. She looked down at Mrsha, and then back at Erin.
Neither girl seemed to know what to say. Erin stood and stared at Ryoka, still feeling the pain in her chest from where the girl had poked her. Her ears were still red, and she was angry—
Until she looked at Ryoka’s fingers. And Ryoka’s fury was gone too. She sagged, and suddenly seemed a hundred years old.
“I’m sorry, Erin.”
“No. I’m sorry too.”
Awkwardly, Erin walked over and helped Ryoka sit down. The Asian girl winced as she sat and touched her chest.
“What was that?”
“Uh, [Minotaur Punch]. It’s…a skill. I shouldn’t have used it. I’m sorry.”
“Strong. If I hadn’t blocked it would have cracked my ribs. Nearly did anyways.”
Ryoka took a few deep breaths, wincing. She nodded at Mrsha as the Gnoll circled her legs.
“I’m sorry Mrsha bit you.”
“No—it was my—”
“It was my fault. I shouldn’t have said any of that.”
Ryoka stared blankly at the table. Erin didn’t know what to say. At last, Ryoka looked up.
“Strong. I guess that’s what levels give you, isn’t it? Power.”
Erin didn’t know what Ryoka meant, but the girl nodded. She stared at the table again, and her hands.
“If I had levels, I could have saved them. Maybe.”
From an army? Erin opened her mouth and then closed it again. Ryoka’s eyes glistened as she looked at Mrsha. The Gnoll was just staring up at her. Slowly, the girl bent and patted the Gnoll on the head. She curled up around Ryoka’s feet. Shivering.
Silence fell as the two sat with each other. Mrsha’s rapid breathing slowed as she curled around Ryoka, and as time passed by, her body relaxed. Her breath came more slowly, and then crawled. Mrsha slept.
Ryoka stared down at Mrsha’s slumbering body. She looked at Erin, and saw the other girl was barely hurt. But Ryoka could feel her lungs still working for air, and felt the pain from that one punch in her chest. She smiled bitterly.
“I guess I’m weak, huh?”
So weak. Even Erin was stronger. Ryoka stared at her hands. They shook. The bloody bandages around her stumps were coming loose. Erin watched as Ryoka raised them.
“I’m so weak. I couldn’t save anyone. I just watched them die, Erin.”
Erin knew what Ryoka meant. The girl looked at Erin. She was shaking all over now. Ryoka was coming apart at the seams. Her eyes were full of liquid. Tears.
“I really did—”
“I know, Ryoka. I know.”
Ryoka grabbed at Erin’s arm. Her grip was strong, but she was shaking.
“I couldn’t do a thing, Erin. Not one thing. They’re all dead because of me.”
“It’s not your fault, Ryoka. It’s not.”
“It is. I caused this.”
“I couldn’t do anything.”
Erin hugged Ryoka. She felt the girl freeze up, and then Ryoka broke down. She began to sob, slowly, and then into Erin’s shirt. Erin held Ryoka as the tears came at last, the dam breaking, the unshed sorrows spilling out in the safety of Erin’s inn at last.
In the silence of the night, Erin held Ryoka as the girl cried into her arms. Tears rolled down the other girl’s face. She grabbed Erin, clutching at her shirt as if she were hanging on for her life.
“I couldn’t do anything, Erin. I couldn’t—”
“I know. Shh. I know.”
From the staircase, another girl stared down at the two girls sitting in the common room. She spoke not a word. Out in the snowy landscape, a skeleton prowled, hunting, killing. He did it to feel alive.
And on the floor of the inn, a small Gnoll slept. She didn’t hear the agony in Ryoka’s voice or even notice the tears that fell onto her snow-white fur. She slept, not caring if she lived or died when she woke.
Ryoka felt the world spinning around her. Nothing was right. But there was someone hugging her, her one anchor in a world full of pain. She cried into Erin’s arms, letting all of the pain out, sobbing and wishing the past few days had never happened. Wishing she had the power to change the past. Wishing she were stronger. Remembering the dead.
Outside, the snow began to fall again. More and more, until it seemed the world would be covered in it. On Izril, Terandria, and even Baleros and Chandrar. The snow fell as Ryoka wept.