3.32

The half-Elf walked off into the darkness, leaving Wistram behind. After a moment, Pisces stepped off the ship as well. He looked back towards the ocean where Wistram could no longer be seen, but where he knew it lay. Then he turned and was gone too.

 

The story ended. Ceria looked up from the depths of her mug and saw two watery eyes staring back at her. She blinked and leaned back a bit. There was a bit of snot mixed with the tears.

“Um, Erin? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine! I’m fine, it’s just—”

Erin reached for a handkerchief and wiped at her eyes. She had another one for her nose. Three, actually.

“And you never went back? Ever? You never heard from any of your friends, or—or sent a letter?”

“Never.”

Ceria shook her head, feeling the small gap in her heart aching a bit. But it was only a small rift, a faded scar that time had patched over. It had been a long time since she’d dared think about the past, but it had helped to tell someone at last.

“And so that Golem—Cognita is still in Wistram? And your friend Beatrice is all alone, and Montressa too? That’s so…sad.

Erin blew her nose again and Ceria smiled crookedly. It wasn’t really a smile.

“That’s life. I wouldn’t be surprised if Montressa is a fully-fledged mage by now and far more experienced than both me and Pisces combined. But I don’t know. I never heard from them.”

“But it’s not fair! You weren’t the one who killed Calvaron! And neither was Pisces! I mean, it was his fault, but he couldn’t have known about the trap spell! And it sounds like the other mages treated him horribly!”

“He did practice necromancy.”

“Yeah, but still—he only became a jerk after everyone started being a jerk to him, right? I understand so much more about him now!”

“I—wouldn’t take all of what I said to heart, Erin. Pisces did change thanks to how people treated him later on, but he was always a necromancer. He always kept secrets. Even from me.”

“I get it. But it’s still so tragic. It hurts just to hear it.”

Erin put down the soggy handkerchief and Ceria drank down the last dregs in her mug. Around them, a few late-night drinkers were being shepherded out of the inn by Maran, but Erin and Ceria were safe at their table in the corner. After all, Erin practically ran the inn even when Miss Agnes was around and Ceria didn’t have anywhere to be.

Of course, many miles away a lonely cart was rumbling down the road where three other adventurers were probably trying to sleep, but Ceria didn’t have to join them. Not tonight.

It had been Pisces’ idea. Fed up by sleeping on the wagon each night, despite the hand-delivered food and copious amounts of blankets and pillows, the mage had demanded one member of the group be allowed to sleep in the Frenzied Hare each night.

Ksmvr hadn’t cared, but Ceria and Yvlon weren’t entirely immune to the allure of the idea themselves. So the three of them had drawn straws to see who would go back the first night.

It had been Ceria who’d won the straw pick. She’d come back and been feasted by Erin while she watched a new play—something about a girl with a thick accent learning to speak correctly—being put on.

But that wasn’t the important part of the night. The important part had come when Erin sat with Ceria and they had talked about the incredible mage they’d met. Ceria had asked Erin how she knew him, or rather how Ryoka knew him, and somehow that conversation had led back to the past.

To the past, and a story Ceria had never told anyone. How she and Pisces had first met, how they had become friends—

And how they had lost that and left Wistram. Now, in the quietest hour of the day, just past midnight, Ceria listened to Erin snuffling.

“It’s history now.  If I could go back I’d do everything differently. But time travel is one of the things even the greatest of mages can’t do. My master, Illphres, died in the academy. I left because all that I respected and aspired towards died with her.”

“You didn’t want to stay? Even though…”

“Maybe.”

Ceria stared into the embers of the fire.

“Yes. I did. I regretted saying what I did to the Council. But—I still left because of what she said before she challenged Cognita.”

“What?”

The half-Elf shrugged, uncomfortably.

“It was just a comment. If she had been an adventurer, perhaps she would have known the danger she was walking into. That’s…one of the reasons I decided to become an adventurer. Illphres was far more powerful than most mages, far more powerful than I can dream of right now. But she died because she wasn’t used to fighting, not like adventurers are. We fight dirty and learn to run away. She and the other mages were proud. Too proud. I see that now.”

“But they sounded amazing.”

A sigh escaped Ceria’s lips.

“They were. I wish you could have met them.”

“But it sounds like Pisces was incredible too, wasn’t he? Before people knew he was a [Necromancer]—they really liked him, didn’t they?”

“Yes. They did.”

“I can’t really imagine that.”

Something like a laugh escaped Ceria’s lips. She turned to Erin, smiling in the dim light.

“It is hard to see, isn’t it? But just imagine Pisces without the sneer. Without any rude comments or—or his dirty robes. He is a genius at magic and Cognita herself acknowledged his skill. If we hadn’t fought those pirates at sea, if he had never been found out, he might be a powerful mage rising higher in Wistram right now.”

“Wow.”

More silence. Ceria saw the light in the room dim further, until Erin was just a dark silhouette in front of her. She could have cast a spell to light up the room, but this suited their conversation. After a while, she spoke out loud, confessing one last thing to Erin.

“That day, I think Cognita was speaking to Pisces, not me. He was the one who truly deserved to graduate from Wistram like that. I—I’m just a dropout. A failure. But I used the name of Wistram because it meant I could get work and it opened doors for me.”

“You’re not.”

Ceria shook her head.

“I am. A true acreddited Wistram mage is a rare thing, with far more experience and a deeper understanding of magic. What that old mage said—you saw him trash us in moments. Regardless of whether the quality of mages has declined since Archmage Zelkyr, we’re still far below that standard. I am.”

Something touched Ceria’s hand. She jerked, but it was Erin’s hand. The girl squeezed Ceria’s hand gently. Her good hand.

“I don’t think you’re a failure. You went into Albez, didn’t you? And you came out.”

“Huh. I guess we did.”

Ceria smiled as the last light disappeared. She couldn’t see Erin’s face, but she knew the other girl was smiling too.

 

—-

 

The next day, Erin treated Ceria to a huge breakfast. Not the usual kind either—she’d made spiced porridge seasoned with a bit of fruit to go with mulled wine. It was hot, filling, and it made Pisces stop complaining when they brought it to the cart to be eaten on the road.

Erin sat next to Ceria as they ate from bowls on the bouncing wagon. Pisces and Yvlon looked cold but awake and Ksmvr seemed happy to wolf down the gluten-rich food with no side effects.

“I appreciate the effects of this magical charm. I wonder if it may be duplicated?”

“Probably. It’s such a low-grade enchantment even Springwalker could do it.”

Pisces remarked testily and got a kick and a glare for it. He rubbed his leg as he continued.

“It is possible, but why would you need a second artifact, Ksmvr? My understanding is that you are exiled from your Hive. Unless you have plans to join one of the Antinium Hives in the south?”

Ksmvr went very still as Ceria glared at Pisces. He shrugged insolently. At last, the Antinium spoke quietly.

“It is true that I have been removed from my position due to my incompetence. But I would never join another Hive. My true place—and my Queen—is in Liscor. I hope to return some day, bringing gifts such as this charm to prove my worth. But until I can prove myself useful, I will adventure with you. If I may.”

Ceria nodded.

“Of course, Ksmvr. You’re a valuable member of The Horns of Hammerad.”

“And far better company than Pisces.”

“Hah. While Ksmvr’s presence may be more appealing, may I remind you that my abilities are unique within this group? No one can provide the unique skills and insights that I have at my—”

“Shut up, Pisces.”

“Yeah, shut up, Pisces! You were nicer back when you were in Wistram.”

“What?”

Pisces blinked. He stared at Erin as she frowned at him. Ceria sighed. She didn’t quite meet Pisces’ eyes.

“I told her about our time in Wistram last night.”

“Oh.”

Ksvmr’s head swiveled from Pisces to Ceria as the young man blinked at Ceria and then went red. The Antinium opened his mandibles but Yvlon nudged him.

“Why did you nudge me, Comrade Yv—”

She sighed, pulled him over and whispered into Ksmvr’s earhole while Pisces cleared his throat a few times.

“Ah, Ceria told you about our shared history?”

“She did. She said you were a really nice guy, once. What happened?”

Pisces’ eyes flashed.

“Well, if she told you the truth, you would know that it was because of the unfounded prejudice and intolerance—”

“Because other people were jerks to you. I get it. But you still became sort of a jerk yourself, you know.”

Pisces had nothing to say to that. He just looked at Ceria, angrily, as if she’d given away a precious secret. She stared silently at him, meeting his eyes, until he remembered and looked down. Remembering the past made it harder to sit across from Pisces so easily for Ceria, though she’d made her peace with it all.

Erin glanced between the two, seeing the tension. She raised her voice.

“Um. I do have a few questions. I didn’t ask last night Ceria, but…you know, I think you made some of your story up.”

Ceria frowned at Erin.

“I did not.”

“I dunno…Pisces, you were there. Did Ceria’s master—Illphres—did she really destroy six ships all by herself? And did you and Ceria really fight two Trolls during the entrance exams?”

Pisces’ eyes flicked to Ceria. The half-Elf colored and looked over the wagon’s side.

“I…may have exaggerated some details.”

“Clearly. However, Miss…Erin, I would impress on you one thing. If, that is, Ceria told you how it ended?”

Pisces grew serious. He looked at Ceria as if to ask her what she’d told him. She raised her hand and a fiery creature drew a simple message in the air, in the code only they could read.

Everything.

“—Mages aside. Pirates aside. The Sea Serpent—assuming Springwalker told you there was only one? Yes, that might be exaggerated. But there is no description that can truly convey the power of Wistram’s true rulers. The Golems. Cognita was, and remains, the most powerful being I have ever encountered in the world.”

The wagon grew silent as everyone thought of that. Erin looked back down the frozen road.

“Even that crazy old man with the iPhone?”

“Well, we saw very little of his power. But…yes. The quality of his magic is meaningless against the Golems of Archmage Zelkyr. They were built for war. Mages may cast spells of incredible destruction, but few are suited to combat.”

He met Ceria’s gaze and then looked away again. After another second, Erin piped up.

“You took the bones of the [Archmage], didn’t you? You put them in Toren.”

Yvlon’s head snapped up. Ceria winced, and Pisces drew in his breath sharply.

“I did.”

“Does that mean he was powerful as an [Archmage]?”

“Hardly. And I didn’t use many bones. I only used four.”

Four?

Ceria stared at Pisces. He nodded fractionally.

“Four. I carved the spell into the bones, to restore the form I gave Toren no matter how badly he might be broken. They are…what makes him unique. But they consume too much mana for him to survive without a source.”

“I get it.”

Erin sighed. She sat back down in the cart and pulled a blanket over herself. She stared at the grey sky as no one said anything for several minutes.

“You sounded really cool, you know.”

“Excuse me?”

“You. Ceria told me about how you used to duel people, and cast magic. You sounded cool.”

Pisces opened his mouth. He closed it, swallowed, opened it again, and closed it once more. He closed his eyes. Then he spoke quietly.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

The cart rumbled onwards, taking the Horns of Hammerad down the road. Occasionally they passed by wagons and called out greetings or asked about dangers on the road. But the adventurers just sat in silence, mainly, along with Termin who was used to just having the company of his own head.

It was a cold day, but they were warm enough. And so Ceria and Pisces sat on opposite sides of the wagon and remembered.

 

—-

 

When the sun hit midday, the cart stopped to let the horses rest for a while.

“Even with a Skill they need a break, if only to eat.”

Termin explained as Erin happily patted one of the horses, Erma, on the head and she chewed her oats. Fox was busy trying to eat the food Erin had brought—warm bread and a spicy dip as a snack with cold meat and cheese for toppings.

“Shoo! You damn horse.”

Pisces waved it away as Ksmvr sliced cheese, cutting with little regard for the sharp blade of his dagger. Fox wandered away and Erin happily accepted a sandwich from Ceria before nearly dropping it.

“It’s hot!

“Really? Sorry. I tried to tone down the heating spell, but it’s hard when one hand’s…”

Ceria waved her skeletal hand. Erin shook her head as she juggled the hot sandwich.

“No, it’s just that I wasn’t expecting it. Magic is really useful, isn’t it?”

“Best thing on a road.”

Yvlon smiled as she accepted a second sandwich from Ceria. She peered at Ceria’s hands as the half-Elf warmed another sandwich for Termin, trying not to scorch the bread.

“I thought you were a specialist at ice-magic, Ceria. Is it hard to cast flame spells?”

“I used to be quite good at earth and fire magic. It’s my master who taught me a bunch of ice spells.”

Ceria shrugged as she tossed Termin a sandwich. He bowed slightly to her and she grinned and waved a hand in reply.

“I have a few Skills that improve my ice magic, but it’s not like I can’t cast any spell I learn, Yvlon.”

“I see. Magic’s a mystery to me, so I wondered.”

“You never tried to learn?”

Ceria sat with Yvlon on the wagon, the only non-snowy surface as Ceria and Termin clambered on top as well. Yvlon shook her head.

“Not my thing. I had a tutor of course—most rich families have tutors who teach their kids all sorts of skills and find what they might be good at. I couldn’t figure out how to cast [Light] and neither could my older brother or my sisters. Swinging a sword works well enough for me.”

“But it’s magic. If I could learn it, I’d be so thrilled!”

Erin sighed as she chewed her warm food. There was something special about eating in the cold and on the road, she decided. It gave her food…character. Then she remembered something else and slapped her head.

“I forgot! I was going to give you all some of my Corusdeer horn soup! My blue soup!”

The others eyed Erin.

“Your what?”

“Hang on! I’ll show you!”

Erin opened the door lying on the back of the wagon and crawled through it into Octavia’s shop. One of the [Alchemist’s] customers had a very nasty scare when he saw Erin crawling into the shop—from his perspective, it looked like Erin was crawling out of the sky, down through the doorway. But in a few seconds she had some of the soup she’d kept in a glass jar and was showing it triumphantly to the others.

Ceria and Yvlon stared hard at the soup adhering to the walls of the glass. It certainly looked blue, but that wasn’t a good thing. Blueberries were edible, and so was blue cheese, but there was something about blue soup that made it look particularly nasty.

The wagon driver shook his head the instant Erin uncorked the bottle and offered the soup around. All the ingredients had become a gelatinous mess from sitting in the bottle for so long, and the fact that it was still steaming didn’t make it any more appealing.

“I’m not eating that.”

“Aw, come on!”

Erin tried to get him to take a bite, then Yvlon. At last Ceria tried it, but only after Erin had taken a few bites and not immediately thrown up.

“It’s…dead gods, it’s not bad, Erin, but it doesn’t taste that great either.”

Ceria mumbled around the mouthful before she swallowed. The soup was hot going down, and that too felt wrong. But after a few moments, the half-Elf blinked and gasped.

“It’s hot!

“See?”

Erin beamed around as the others stared at Ceria. The half-Elf’s cheeks had flushed and she was starting to sweat.

“It’s way too hot. Erin, is that soup magical? I have cold protection spells on—I feel like I’m in an oven!”

“Oops. Sorry.”

Ceria shook her head as she examined the soup with renewed interest.

“You made magical soup? I can’t believe it.”

“It’s great! And I think I can make an actual dish next time, not just soup. But this stuff is going to be a huge hit—you can drink it and you won’t feel the cold even if you’re naked!”

“Tested it out, have you?”

Yvlon sighed but took a few bites. Termin did too, and in a few moments everyone was walking around and shedding clothes, standing in the snow and remarking at the way it melted on their bare skin.

“You’ll make a fortune off it—assuming you can sell a lot before the winter ends. Is it expensive?”

“Not too much. But I’ve got other soups and stuff as well! Funny—I always have to make it into a soup first. After that I can figure out how to combine stuff, but soup is easiest to experiment with.”

Erin offered Pisces the last bit of the blue soup. He declined, letting Ksmvr consume the rest of the enchanted food.

“Enchanted cooking is a rarity even in Wistram. I suspect your products will do very well, especially given the difficulty in reproducing a recipe such as this from taste alone.”

The innkeeper smiled wickedly.

“Yeah. No one’s stealing this recipe.”

“I feel like I could lie about in the snow all day. But I suppose I’ll settle for a nice breeze while riding. Time to be off!”

Termin clambered aboard the driver’s seat and called to the others. Erin, Ceria, and Yvlon got on top, but Pisces declined.

“I will walk.”

Everyone stared. Yvlon, Ceria, and Ksmvr had all walked to stretch out, but up till this moment Pisces had refused to expend one bit of energy more than necessary. Termin just shrugged and shook the reins lightly.

“Your choice. Just don’t fall behind, necromancer.”

Erin laughed. Erma and Fox began pulling the wagon, faster than a walk but so slowly that Pisces would be able to catch up quickly.

But the mage didn’t immediately walk after the wagon. Instead, he stayed where he was. Sitting on the wagon back, Ceria frowned. She was about to call back at him when Pisces took one step.

Snow whirled. It flew up into the air in a gust, following the mage. He blurred forwards—too fast to really be called movement at all—and appeared right next to the back of the wagon.

Erin gasped.

“[Flash Step]! That’s the spell, right?”

“It is.”

Ceria watched as Pisces stood still next to the wagon, letting it continue onwards for about five seconds. Then he took a step and appeared next to it in a moment. He looked up, and his eyes met Ceria’s. Both mages looked away.

From her seat, Yvlon frowned at Pisces before looking at Ceria.

“I saw Pisces using that spell in the ruins and in the battle with that old mage. I didn’t know there was a spell like it until now. It looks incredibly useful. Do you know it?”

Ceria shook her head.

“It was one of his specialties. It’s a good spell for movement, but very hard to use. One bad step and you can break your foot or your toes.”

“Ah.”

Pisces continued to follow the wagon. At first Erin kept staring at him, gasping a bit as he blinked forwards with each step, but quite soon she grew tired of the spectacle. Ceria didn’t, though. She knew what Pisces was doing.

He was training.

With each step, Pisces kept pace with the wagon. It was slow, monotonous, and, Ceria knew, had to be mentally draining. But the fact that Pisces could keep performing the spell over and over was a sign of the skill she’d told Erin about.

What was amazing was the accuracy. At first it was off—Pisces would teleport too far ahead and spook the horses, or end up a few feet behind the wagon—but as time went on he eventually started appearing right at the back of the wagon, each and every time.

That was unusual, and Ceria knew both Yvlon and Ksmvr could tell how impressive that feat was. The wagon didn’t move at a uniform pace and the road wasn’t always straight. Pisces had to calculate how far to step at a distance in order to land precisely where he wanted to go.

After a while, Pisces added to the exercise. He drew his rapier from its sheathe and walked slowly forwards with it on the balls of his feet. Each time he stepped now, it was into a thrust, as if he were stabbing an opponent in the heart.

Now Pisces would step forwards into a slow lunge, fully extending his back leg while all the weight rested on the front. He kept his arm still as he held the rapier extended as far as he could go. Pisces slowly stepped out of the lunge, blurred forwards and moved into it again.

Slowly. Ceria could see his arms shaking the fourth time he did it, and he began to sweat despite not having had any of Erin’s soup.

After thirty minutes Pisces had to stop. He could barely raise his arms, despite alternating them while lifting the rapier. He collapsed onto the back of the wagon, panting as he pulled a blanket over to wipe his forehead.

“Wow. That looked really hard.”

Erin offered Pisces a pillow and he sank his head onto it, exhausted. He nodded, too tired for sarcasm.

“I am out of shape. It has been a long, long time since I last…”

“Not bad. You have excellent form.”

Yvlon handed Pisces a water flask. She looked at him with a touch of respect. He nodded wordlessly as he drank deeply from it.

“It is a shame the Antinium cannot learn magic. I believe I would benefit greatly from mastering such a spell.”

Ksmvr remarked as he stared at Pisces’ rapier. Ceria shook her head and saw Yvlon and Termin both doing it as well. For all she liked Ksmvr as a person, the thought of thousands of Antinium using [Flash Step]—or a basic spell like [Stone Dart]—was a nightmare.

Pisces shook his head as he handed the water flask back to Yvlon.

“Your species has a distinct absence of any kind of magical affinity, Ksmvr.”

The Antinium nodded calmly.

“Yes. This has been well observed and is a deliberate factor of our creation. Moreover, since the Antinium do not level greatly, magic has not been seen as a viable field to explore for our species.”

“Good. The last thing Wistram needs is Antinium mages running around.”

“I don’t know. I suppose seeing a few Antinium sitting in Rievan’s class would be quite amusing, don’t you?”

Pisces glanced sideways at Ceria. She couldn’t help but grin.

 

—-

 

After a few hours Termin called out to the half-dozing adventurers and Erin sitting in the back of the wagon.

“There’s the city. I heard it was abandoned and then retaken. Should we go around, do you think?”

“What city? Oh—”

Erin gasped as she stood up on the wagon. Ceria reached to steady her, but then stopped as well. Yvlon sighed softly as she spotted the distant buildings. Familiar, and yet alien now.

“Esthelm.”

It was more of a whisper. Erin peered at the walls, clearly damaged from a distance, and the way many buildings were only partly standing.

“Whoa. It looks messed up.”

“Well? Go around or go to it?”

“I heard my brother had helped retake the city. I’d like to ask about him, if we can.”

Yvlon turned to the others. Ceria nodded.

“To the city then, Mister Termin. We can probably rest there for the night.”

“So long as they don’t look too hungry. The last thing I need is a bunch of starving folk trying to eat Erma and Fox…”

Termin grumbled as he drove them onwards. The closer they got, the more Erin could see the damage that had been done to Esthelm. The damage, and just as notably, the repairs.

“Looks like they’ve patched up the wall pretty well. And it’s manned.”

Ceria noted the Humans standing on the battlements with bows. Their wagon had already been spotted and she could tell people were eying her back as well. Esthelm was vigilant after two Goblin attacks it seemed.

“Not only that. Look—they’re reinforcing it.”

Yvlon pointed down the wall, where work was clearly being done to expand the fortifications and add onto them. Pisces sighed as he stared at the burnt and ruined buildings.

“I suppose we won’t be resting in luxury here. It might be best to camp outside of the city if all the buildings are in such a state of disarray.”

“We’ll see when we get in. But at least we can eat at Erin’s inn.”

“True! And we can stay there if Termin finds a place to put his horses for the night.”

“Oh no.”

The wagon driver crossed his arms firmly.

“I won’t sleep anywhere away from Erma and Fox. They get agitated if I’m not close by and I won’t risk them being stolen. One of you’s got to stay here at least.”

“I volunteer.”

“Good for you, Ksmvr.”

“Thanks, Ksm!”

“You are a valuable member of the team. Exceptionally useful, I must say.”

Ksmvr nodded modestly as the others thanked him warmly.

“I volunteered for the position because I believed I was most suitable for the job. Guard detail is a position of merit, but I will understand if anyone wishes to trade places with me.”

Soon, the wagon was in hailing distance of the walls. Termin shouted up at the people shouting at him and after much shouting and arm waving, the gates were opened and the wagon rolled in.

Yvlon spoke to the others before they got out of the cart. She’d tugged a cloak around her head, covering up her bright hair and covering her face.

“When we talk to people, let’s just mention we’re adventurers passing through on guard duty. If we can avoid using my name—or our group’s name—I’d appreciate it.”

“Why? Is it because of your brother? Ylawes?”

Ceria frowned at Yvlon. The young woman nodded, looking unhappy.

“I’d prefer not to meet him at the moment if we can. He could be troublesome.”

“Define troublesome, if you please. Dangerous?”

Yvlon shook her head, frowning at Pisces.

“No. He’s not a threat—so long as he doesn’t meet Ksmvr for the first time alone I guess. But he’s…”

Erin nodded.

“I understand. Lips sealed, right everyone?”

They looked at her. She sighed, exasperated.

“Don’t you get it? This Ylawes guy. He might be a nice guy and all, but he’s still her older brother.”

“So?”

“So he’s going to be an older brother.

“Oh.”

Ceria and Pisces nodded in understanding, despite Ceria not having any siblings to speak of. Ksmvr just tilted his head.

“I do not understand. Pisces, please explain—”

 

—-

 

“So this is Esthelm.”

Erin stared around at the ruined buildings, at the people in dirty clothes, helping to lift timber, board up buildings, repair, dismantle, clear rubble and make weapons. There were men and women and children helping to fletch arrows amid the confusion, and more still coming in with game they’d hunted.

“It’s a mess.”

Yvlon kept her voice low as she glanced with sympathy at the citizens. Many looked hungry, but none looked as if they were starving. If they had, Erin would have given them what she could, or gone to Celum for food, but the people here were…strange.

They were ragged yes, hungry, yes, and dirty. But they weren’t beaten. They worked together with purpose, helping to rebuild their city as the wagon trundled into the center of the city.

A man bustled up to the wagon with a few armed citizens following them. Ceria was worried how they’d react when they saw Ksmvr, but the man in charge—some former [Soldier] by the look of him, wearing thick leather armor—didn’t blink more than once.

“Adventurers? Are you escorting the wagon?”

“That’s right. Is the city…safe?”

Termin asked nervously. The men were inspecting the wagon, staring at the single door on the back of the wagon and the blankets and pillows in some confusion. The man in charge nodded.

“That’s right. We fought off the last Goblin army that attacked this place and we’re not going to let a third one get past our walls again. We’re surviving, but we need supplies. We’ve asked for help from the other cities, but Celum, Wales, Remendia…they’re all claiming the roads are unsafe to send supplies down. So until we can get help we’re on our own.”

“Oh. Is it bad?”

The soldier turned his attention to Erin. She was staring at some children hauling nails in a bucket to some carpenters. He shook his head.

“Not bad, Miss. But I’m afraid that we might have to confiscate your wagon’s cargo if you’ve got anything we can use. We’re in dire need of food, blankets—”

“There’s nothing in here, Umbral!”

One of the men shouted to the man in charge. He frowned and looked at the empty back of the wagon.

“You don’t have any food or supplies? Where’s your cargo?”

“It’s her.”

Ceria pointed to Erin and the young woman waved.

“We’re escorting her to Liscor. She’s an innkeeper, so she doesn’t have much coin. It’s a favor—”

“But we do have food! I can get some—and you can have all the blankets and pillows! I’ll get more as well!”

Out of the corner of her eye, Ceria saw Erin pointing at the door and hoped that Umbral didn’t understand what Erin was saying. Fortunately, the man just looked confused. He tried to stop Erin when she started handing pillows and blankets down.

“We wouldn’t want to take your only supplies, Miss. We’re not robbers—we’ll pay a fair price—”

“Take it, please!”

“A place to sleep would be payment enough, sir.”

Ceria interrupted Erin and she saw Yvlon pull Erin back and whisper to her. The blankets and pillows disappeared fast, and Umbral directed them to some of the sturdier buildings in the city.

“Don’t worry about your horses, or your wagon. I’ll see to it that no one tries to make off with either. You can rest assured—we’re past thievery and attacking each other here.”

He waved them on. Ceria sat back with a sigh as Erin drooped into the wagon seat beside her.

“I can’t give them clothing and food and stuff? But they need it!”

“If they knew we had a door that could open a portal back to Celum, they’d take it, Erin. I’m sorry, but we’re not going to be able to use it tonight. It’s too risky.”

“I almost want to give it to them.”

“That would be an unforgivable waste.”

Pisces glared at Erin, outraged at the very idea. She sighed, but nodded in agreement.

“Too bad. I guess I’ll stay with you. Maybe we can help fix stuff? I can clean—I’ve got a Skill. Or maybe I can cook? I guess we can’t go sightseeing. Everything’s in ruins!”

“It wasn’t once. There used to be quite a lot of buildings here.”

Ceria looked around at the ruined facades, wondering if she could see where the Adventurer’s Guild had stood. Yvlon was silent too. The last time they’d been here was an age ago, when they had all met to debate going into Liscor’s dungeon. Back then Calruz and Gerial had been alive and…

In the end, the Horns of Hammerad found themselves staying in a former inn now housing citizens alongside visitors. They had to sleep three to a room and Pisces found himself sharing a space with Termin and Ksmvr, much to his distaste. Termin opted to sleep in the stables, though, and Ksmvr agreed to go with him.

For the rest of the night Erin helped the innkeeper—an overworked, balding man who had a big scar on his right shoulder that was still healing—manage the inn. He nearly cried when he realized she could cook better than he could and happily surrendered his kitchen to her.

There wasn’t much Erin could make with what few supplies were available to the city, but she made some potatoes and deer meat into a filling stew for everyone and found herself serving a vast number of people. When word got out she could cook, more food came in with requests that she make it for this group of people, or feed this family.

In the end, Erin only got to rest with the others when it was long since dark. She sat on a table, wishing there was a place to take a bath or shower in the city and knowing there was not.

“I can’t thank you for your help. Your stew went down excellent and you fried that meat to perfection.”

Umbral complimented Erin. She raised a thumb up and smiled weakly.

“Happy to help. How have you all managed to survive like this?”

He looked tired, but determined.

“It hasn’t been easy. We had a lot of help, mainly from our city’s savior. Ylawes Byres and his Silver Swords.”

“Really?”

Erin saw Ylvon sit up a bit. The woman cleared her throat carefully.

“Will you tell us what happened?”

Umbral was only too happy to, and once the other citizens realized he was retelling the story they had to add their own accounts of what had happened, arguing with each other over the details.

The story was simple. After the Goblin attack, Esthelm had fallen into chaos. People had killed each other over scraps in the city and bands of thugs had fought with each other. The undead began rising since they hadn’t been buried and a second Goblin army had come to use them in some twisted scheme.

And then, Ylawes had come in, a literal knight in shining armor. He’d rallied the hearts of the people in the city and helped them fight back both undead and Goblins. With his help—and a timely rescue by a group of adventurers led by the other two members of his Gold-rank group, the Silver Swords, they’d fought the Goblin army off and begun rebuilding the city.

“Wow! Your brother is a hero!”

Erin whispered that to Yvlon as the citizens led them to a monument in the center of the city. It wasn’t a statue—that was coming, according to Umbral, but there was a plaque celebrating Ylawes and his party.

Yvlon stared at the plaque silently. She seemed…distant, to Erin. Not unhappy, but not aglow over her brother’s success either.

“He’s always been a hero. I admire him greatly, Erin. Although I wish he’d not risk his life like this.”

“I guess I understand that. But he did save everyone. And—hey, what’s that?”

There was a second monument next to the one for Ylawes. This one was a grave of all things. Erin didn’t know how she felt about someone being buried right in the center of the city, but she was struck as she stared at the plain tombstone.

“Flowers?”

The grave was blooming with flowers despite the hard soil. Erin stared at it, wondering who it was for. There was no inscription.

“Yes. It’s the strangest thing.”

Umbral explained when Erin and the others returned to the inn and asked about it.

“It marks, well, a young woman. A…hero, I suppose. She fought and died fighting the Goblins. And she was…Human. I think. That’s what Ylawes said, and so we buried her as such. Her and the Goblins who fought for her.”

“Goblins?”

“They fought against their kind. And the undead. Don’t ask me why. But if it hadn’t been for them killing that damned skeleton with the purple eyes, I don’t know what would have happened.”

Umbral didn’t notice the way all the adventurers and Erin went quiet at this. He shook his head after Yvlon asked him whether Ylawes was still in the city.

“He went north, after leaving a group of those adventurers to help guard the city. Lazy pigs they are, too, not helping at all unless there’s a monster about. Not like Sir Ylawes.”

“Did he say why he went?”

“He was looking for his sister. Some adventurer—Yvlon Byres. Apparently he heard she was wounded and came south looking for her.”

Erin bit her lip, but Yvlon just thanked Umbral and changed the topic.

“Do you think we’ll get to Liscor tomorrow?”

Erin asked Termin before they all went to sleep. The wagon driver nodded, yawning and grinning at her.

“We’ll get there before nightfall, don’t you worry. I plan on having myself a good rest before heading back north. Maybe I can supply these folks with food and supplies? I reckon I could make a good profit. I don’t suppose you have room for me and my horses in your inn, do you?”

Erin smiled widely at Termin. She gave him a quick hug, making the old man blush.

“Of course I’ve got room! You’re welcome to stay as long as you want! I can’t wait to get back.”

As everyone retired to their rooms, Erin wondered if she should ask Yvlon about her brother. But Yvlon wasn’t in the mood for talk, and so Ceria eyed the bed, trying to figure out if she and Ceria and Yvlon could all squeeze in or if someone was getting the floor.

As they all squeezed in together, Erin whispered to Ceria.

“Ceria?”

“What is it, Erin?”

“Are the people here going to be okay?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Ylawes is gone. What if the Goblins come back?”

“They’ll fight.”

That came from Yvlon. Her voice was calm, distant, bordering on the verge of sleep.

“They survived two battles with Goblins. Every citizen in the city will have levelled from that. People will have gained classes, levelled up, learned to fight…if a city doesn’t fall, it gets stronger from each disaster.”

“Oh. That’s good.”

After a while Ceria spoke to Erin.

“Do you think Lyonette survived without you?”

Erin shifted uncomfortably—sleeping with someone else in the bed was not normal for her, but the other two women were used to company when necessary. She started to shrug and stopped before she shouldered Ceria in the face.

“She might. I just hope all the walls are standing when I get there. Oh well. Once I’m back, everything’s going to be a-okay!”

With that in mind, Erin went to sleep. The next day, the Horns of Hammerad set out for Liscor. They arrived just before evening as the sun was beginning to set.

 

—-

 

When Lyonette woke up, she knew today was going to be a busy day. That was because all of her days were busy now. But she didn’t groan or stay asleep. She just got up, smiled as she pulled the blanket over Mrsha and the Gnoll curled up into a ball, and got to work.

Now that the Wandering Inn was busy, Lyonette found that being an innkeeper, or standing in for one, was a ton of work. Rather, she’d realized how hard just keeping an inn afloat was before now, but now she worked from dawn to dusk without pause just to keep everything running.

The first thing Lyonette did was haul water from the stream. She did it before the sun had risen in the sky, swearing as she hauled the heavy buckets up the slippery, snowy hill into the inn. And then she went down and did it again.

Her new guests drank a lot of water. And while Lyonette could melt snow, it was faster to haul buckets up to get a good supply going. Then she had to rekindle the fire before she could start cooking and that took time too.

And then of course there was actual cooking. Lyonette sweated over food for the morning, but eventually made a big pot of pasta and sausage to go along with the assorted eggs, ham, and fried potatoes and boiled greens for breakfast.

It was a lot of food, but she now had many guests. And as Mrsha thumped down the stairs Lyonette saw the first of her guests come down now.

“Good morning, Mister Shivertail!”

“I told you to call me Zel. Mister and Shivertail aren’t my name at all.”

Zel Shivertail smiled at Lyonette. He sniffed the air and his tail twitched appreciatively. Mrsha’s was thumping the floorboards.

“Is breakfast ready? Don’t hurry on my account.”

“No, it’s ready! We’ve got pasta, fried potatoes, ham, eggs—Mrsha! Stay out of the kitchen!”

The Drake laughed.

“I’ll have some pasta for breakfast, why not? But first I need to use the restroom. Excuse me.”

“Oh—sure!”

Lyonette half-turned as she grabbed Mrsha to stop the Gnoll from running into the kitchen. Mrsha looked disappointed as Lyonette sat her at a table and got plates, utensils, and cups for both her and Zel.

“You sit, understand? You can eat with Zel—after you wash your paws!”

The young woman put no plate out for herself. She knew her other guests would be coming down the stairs soon, now that the smell of food was in the air. She just hoped she’d made enough!

Zel walked back into the inn with a gust of fresh air. Lyonette realized she’d forgotten to refill a bucket with water to wash with, and hurried to do that. She no longer questioned Erin anymore—

Lyonette corrected herself. She no longer questioned Erin just for being someone not born of royalty, but she had to wonder if the other girl had ever anticipated actually having guests in her inn.

Erin had a wonderfully large inn, magnificently crafted with glass windows no less, but it was missing some essential parts.

For instance, more than one outhouse. If there were more than four people living in the inn, having at least two seemed essential to Lyon, but Erin had never mentioned it. Plus, the outhouses were hardly big enough for some of her guests!

Poor Moore the half-Giant had had to find his own place to do his business for the first day, until Lyonette had talked to Pawn. The second outhouse was no bigger, but the third, temporary one was and Moore was quite happy with it.

There were nine private rooms in the inn, a very large number, but just enough for all the adventurers plus Zel, Lyon and Mrsha to sleep in if Mrsha and Lyon shared the same bed. Now that Lyon’s inn was full of guests, she found that once one person woke up, they’d all be up within the hour.

“Good morning!”

Lyonette called out as the first sleepy person tromped downstairs, lured by the food Zel and Mrsha were happily devouring together. Jelaqua Ivirith smiled slowly at Lyonette, and the girl smiled back, despite the slight chill she got when she saw that the Selphid’s host body had a bloodless open gash on her cheek.

“Good morning, Lyonette. Please don’t mind the injury. I know it’s distracting, but I didn’t have time to fix it last night.”

“Oh—it’s no problem! Would you like to have something to eat? We’ve got pasta, eggs, bacon, bread, potatoes, ham—”

“All that? I’ll have a portion of ham, then. With potatoes on the side. And can I get some of that honeyed milk? And some more honey on the side?”

“Right away!”

Lyonette bustled into the kitchen, calling out greetings as more adventurers descended. Some, like Seborn, and Ulrien greeted her quietly, but others were grumpier in the morning. Revi, and Typhenous looked upset to be awake; Halrac just looked grumpy.

“Good morning, Miss Lyon.”

Moore was always polite. Lyon smiled up at him and told him what was on the menu.

“Anything you can have the most of, Miss Lyon. I try not to be picky.”

That was one of the reasons why she needed so much food. Moore being half-Giant meant he ate three times as much as any of her other diners, hence her extensive preparations. But he never complained no matter what he ate; indeed, he was always polite, always seemingly grateful for the care Lyonette took to make sure he was fully fed.

Another thing Lyonette had noticed was each one of her guest’s personalities, their likes and dislikes, but also how they functioned as a group.

Griffon Hunt reminded her of the groups of elite soldiers she’d seen relaxing off duty in the palace or on the streets. Halrac and Ulrien were professionals, Halrac grumpy, Ulrien quiet and serious. Revi and Typhenous were typical mages in a sense, somewhat arrogant and condescending, not to mention picky when it came to relaxing, but equally competent at their job.

They argued a lot. Revi usually had a different opinion than Halrac, and the other two members had their own opinions. But Griffon Hunt settled their arguments by collective vote and for all their dysfunction, they were one solid team when it came to fighting.

The Halfseekers on the other hand were more like friends, and far more accepting of each other’s opinions. They had to be, Lyonette supposed. They were all outcasts in some way.

Thank you for the food, Miss Lyon.

Seborn nodded to her as she brought over his plate of eggs and bacon, and two pitchers of water. He drank as much as Moore ate, to keep his aquatic parts hydrated.

“No problem. Would you like more honey?”

“Please!”

Revi and Jelaqua raised their hands and then stared at each other. Jelaqua smiled and Revi looked away.

Honey was a very popular treat among all of Lyon’s guests. With Lyon too as well; sweet things were a luxury and she loved a bit of honey with bread, or in her milk, or with almost anything, really. But Jelaqua liked honey more than anyone but Mrsha and Revi. She claimed Selphids loved the stuff on Baleros.

Revi just had a sweet tooth. Lyonette came over to their table with a small gravy boat full of honey and smiled at the four adventurers.

“Everyone doing okay?”

“We’re quite happy, thank you.”

Ulrien gave her a rare smile which made Lyonette beam. Halrac just grunted and Typhenous blinked and scowled at his plate. Lyonette hesitated, and then asked a question that had kept her up last night.

“I hate to ask, but…is it Griffin Hunt or Griffon Hunt?”

“Huh?”

They looked at her. Lyon blushed a bit.

“It’s just—I’ve heard your name several times, but I kept wondering if it was spelled, uh Griffin or…”

It was Halrac who answered, with an even rarer smile. His was ironic.

“You have a good ear. We’re Griffon Hunt. Not Griffin as in the beast. We’re named after a breed of dog used for hunting, which is what we specialize in.”

“Really? I didn’t know that.”

Revi leaned over the table, staring at Halrac.

“But you and Ulrien used to hunt actual Griffins.”

“Yeah. But we’re named after the dog?”

“Why in the name of silk would you do that? No one I know thinks you’re named Griffon Hunt!”

“It’s a play on words. I didn’t come up with it.”

All eyes turned to Ulrien. He raised his hands.

“Not me. It was another member of our group.”

“Who?”

“She’s dead. It doesn’t matter.”

Halrac scowled, and that was it for the conversation for the day, Lyonette knew. She let the adventurers talk and troop out of the inn while she went over to the Halfseekers with a jug of milk.

“Anyone want more milk? Or honey with that? How about seconds?”

“I think we’re good, thank you Lyon.”

Jelaqua smiled again, and Lyon beamed. It made her happy that the adventurers actually smiled while staying here. She knew she had never smiled during breakfast when she was young, only complained about the food.

But both groups of adventurers were happy here. Halrac especially—he and the team of Griffon Hunt were pleased not to be spending so much coin—she’d heard him talking about how they were getting better service for a fraction of the cost ‘that damned Drake’ had charged. And the Halfseekers were happy to find an inn where they weren’t treated with suspicion or fear.

But a good inn was in the end just a place where they could be safe and sleep. Within twenty minutes of sitting down, all the adventurers were ready to go. They trooped out the doors, headed for the city or the dungeon and Lyonette cleaned up. Mrsha carried some plates too—mainly to lick them when she thought Lyon wasn’t looking—and Zel carried his dishes and Mrsha’s to the kitchen, despite Lyonette objecting.

“I’ll be heading into the city too. Would you like me to drop off a list of anything you need bought?”

“Thank you, but I think I’m good for today!”

He nodded and went out into the cold. Lyonette shivered a bit, and then got back to cleaning.

Washing dishes and getting the kitchen ready was another exhausting task. At least she only had to make food for Mrsha and herself for lunch. Sometimes she had to feed everyone then as well, which was very tiring.

Lyon had a moment to spare around midday, which made her pause and sigh in relief. Normally she’d be sorting the things she’d had bought from the city—the Gnoll Runner usually carried it up on a sled about now.

Since that fateful day when Mrsha had fallen into the dungeon—the day Lyonette thought of as a near disaster and the rest of the city thought of as a momentous occasion where a new route into the dungeon had been found—she’d been sort of unbanned from entering the city.

It was tricky. Lyonette was fairly certain that if she went through the gates, no one would stop her. The Drake [Guardsmen] certainly wouldn’t, although she wasn’t sure if the Gnolls would. Zel Shivertail’s influence had granted her some kind of pardon, but Lyon didn’t want to test it unless totally necessary, so she just sent shopping lists into the city with coin when she needed food or supplies.

Now she bought directly from Krshia, and the Gnoll came over sometimes to talk with and teach Mrsha. She rarely said much to Lyon, but she had taken a greater interest in the young Gnoll, although she’d said that she didn’t have time to teach the young Gnoll much. And as Lyonette had learned, none of the other Gnolls were willing to get near Mrsha, much less teach her.

After a little while spent resting and then more time outside, playing  catch with Mrsha and letting her run about after a small ball like a dog—although this one threw the ball back—Lyonette went back inside to fix a small problem she had.

It was that she had too much food. Ironic, that. Lyon bought in bulk now, in order to feed her guests. She had the funds for it—the adventurers and Zel paid a lot to stay here and none of them were tight with their coin. But there was a finite amount of room in the kitchen pantries to accommodate all the things Lyon bought, and she wondered if there was other space in the inn.

Zel found Lyon as she was opening a room she barely knew existed. He peeked over her shoulder as she stared into a supply closet.

“What’s that?”

She whirled, jumping in surprise.

“You scared me!”

“Sorry.”

He smiled at her without exposing his teeth. Zel sat down tiredly as Lyonette peered inside the closet.

“I think this is some kind of…well, it’s too small to be a proper storage place. I wonder why it’s here. Oh, are you done with your tasks in the city?”

“For today. But there’s going to be a lot more, if all the [Message] spells I’ve been receiving are any clue. I’ve had to talk with Zevarra, the local heads of all the Guilds…it’s a mess.”

Zel sighed. Lyonette wanted to go get him some tea or something stronger, but she’d spotted a small crack along the floorboards. She peered at it suspiciously.

“Is this…because of the Antinium? The new ones, I mean?”

Lyonette didn’t know much about the new Antinium that had sent Liscor into a frenzy, but she knew the one with the blue chitin had helped save Mrsha. That made Lyon trust her at least, but she had also heard the stories of the Antinium Wars and was uneasy about this sudden development. As was, it seemed, the continent.

“Yes. All the cities want to know what’s going on. They’re arguing, and it’s getting very political with Ilvriss around. But I’m also meeting to discuss the issue with the Goblin Lord and this dungeon.”

“Are you part of this city? I mean, do you live here or…?”

“No, but I feel responsible. And I try to help where I can, so I do. It’s a pain, though. Drakes can’t do anything without arguing over it endlessly, and like I said, when it gets political…”

“A lot of Human kingdoms are like that too. Or so I’ve heard.”

“Hah! At least there they don’t declare war on each other when council member insults the Captain of the Watch’s tail. Or do they?”

“It can get pretty bad.”

Lyonette grinned ruefully as she shifted things aside. Yes, the hairline crack was there, and on purpose. She had a feeling she knew what it was and tried to pull things out of the way.

There was a sack of flour and other miscellaneous objects piled up on top of it. Zel came over and helped Lyonette shift everything out of the small space. She smiled at him.

“Thank you. Now, what’s this…?”

There was a trapdoor in the small closet. No, not a closet, but an entrance. Lyonette pulled at the ring and after a moment the trapdoor came up.

“What’s this? A basement?”

Zel and Lyon stared down the dark steps leading down into, yes, a basement of all things! Lyon was amazed—she took a few hesistant steps down and then had to cast the [Light] spell. It was one of the few she’d been taught as a child and it illuminated the very big, very empty basement.

“I had no idea this was here!”

“You didn’t?”

The Drake general walked down the steps, staring at the empty stone room. He pointed.

“Look, there’s places to store grain, shelves…this place is huge! Why hasn’t it been used?”

“I didn’t know about it! And Erin—I don’t know if she did either.”

“Erin? That’s the innkeeper who owns this place, isn’t it? Why didn’t she know about the basement?”

“I don’t think she knew. Or if she did, she might have forgot.”

“I can’t say I’m too impressed with this innkeeper of yours.”

Zel frowned as he stared around the basement. He looked sideways at Lyonette.

“She seems not to care about leaving you—and Mrsha—alone for so long, and with no coin or help, no less!”

“She does care! She’s just—distracted. And she gets into trouble, sometimes. I think she just found something—or got into a problem—and couldn’t come back. I mean, she cares a lot even if she does weird things…”

Lyonette tried to defend Erin, although she realized her arguments were less than compelling. Zel frowned, unhappy.

“I’d like to have a word with her when she gets back. She is coming back, isn’t she?”

“That’s what Selys said. Um, would you mind if I asked you to help carry some stuff down here?”

“I would be happy to help. And you can tell me more about this strange Human.”

In the end, Lyonette told Zel about Erin while they carried a good amount of foodstuffs and supplies down into the basement. He snorted when he heard about her antics with the sleigh, Toren, and all of the other incredible and insane things Erin had done.

“I’ve fought alongside people like that. Distracted geniuses, prodigies without common sense…they tend to win some battles spectacularly and get torn apart in skirmishes they should easily win. I try not to have them in positions of command if I can. They’re not reliable in a pinch.”

“Well…she did save me. And though I was horrible to her, she never gave up on me.”

“That’s a redeeming trait, not an excuse.”

Lyon didn’t have an answer to that. In the end, they closed the basement trap door and only opened it when they realized Mrsha was trapped down in there.

“I told you not to play around!”

Lyon scolded Mrsha as the Gnoll raced back upstairs. Mrsha flattened her ears, but then glanced towards the door and sniffed at the air. Lyon put her hands on her hips.

“Hungry? I guess I should start making dinner, then! Everyone’s going to be coming back and probably starving after fighting monsters in the dungeon for so long.”

“Stressed out, too. It’s a hard job they have. This dungeon is filled with traps and rooms that keep changing. Even if they can bypass some of that and get into a new area, the way down is treacherous and there’s no easy escape. They need to take things carefully and meanwhile a bunch of inexperienced adventurers are going in and getting themselves killed or finding trouble.”

Zel explained the issue to Mrsha and Lyonette as she brought him a mug of ale. He drank at it as Mrsha kept sniffing the air. Lyon was about to ask what was wrong when Mrsha suddenly sat up on her chair and howled.

It was sudden and made Lyon drop the mug. Zel was on his feet in a second. He stared out the window carefully, back against the wall.

“Mrsha, what is it, what’s wrong?”

Lyonette bent to Mrsha, but the Gnoll was suddenly filled with excitement. She hopped on the table and howled again, louder.

“It’s no monster. She’s not afraid.”

Zel relaxed as he observed Mrsha. Lyonette covered her ears—indoors the howling was insanely loud! Then he heard a distant howl from the city.

“Is that…Krshia?”

The other Gnoll had taught Mrsha how to howl, in some sort of Gnoll method of communicating. Lyonette didn’t know if it was the other Gnoll’s voice, but the instant Mrsha heard it she stopped howling.

“What was all that about?”

Lyon had no idea. She bent over the shards of the mug, picking them up gingerly, when she heard voices from outside.

“Oh? Are they back already?”

She started towards the door. But it was flung open before she could reach it. Mrsha leapt off the table and barrelled through it. Lyon heard a shout, a female voice, and then—laughter.

Her heart stopped and then began to beat faster in her chest. Lyon heard a female voice, a young woman’s voice, laughing, and Mrsha’s excited noises.

“Mrsha! Calm down. It’s good to see you! Please get off. Please?”

Lyonette saw a shape in the door. She walked forwards slowly, and then saw a young woman standing in the light. Erin Solstice beamed as she walked into her inn, holding Mrsha in her arms. She blinked when she saw Lyonette, and blinked twice at Zel, but then smiled at Lyon.

“I’m back! Hey Lyon, did you miss me?”

The girl, the [Princess] and [Barmaid] and single living employee of the Wandering Inn, stared at Erin in silence for a moment. Then her eyes filled with tears and she flung herself at Erin and hugged her fiercely. And as Erin yelped in surprise and the adventurers and wagon driver accompanying her exclaimed, and the Drake general inside laid eyes on the owner of the inn for the first time, word began to spread.

 

—-

 

At first it came with the howling outside the city. Few Drakes heard it, but the Gnolls raised their heads. And they heard the howl coming from Krshia, and knew.

One of the Gnolls on duty mentioned it to Relc, who flipped a table and upset the card game he was losing badly at.

“Erin’s back! Hey! Call the game off! Erin’s back! Where’s Klb?”

It spread to the Watch Captain, who sighed, put her head in her claws, and groaned.

“This is all I need.”

It was already in the marketplace. Selys jumped up and down excitedly as Krshia smiled.

“She’s back!”

Across the street, a young Drake nearly knocked over an entire display he was helping his uncle with.

“Erin’s back!? I have so much to show her!”

Lism grumbled as he watched his nephew sprint off.

“It’s just one more damn Human. Who cares?”

The Antinium cared. Pawn, Belgrade, Bird, Anand, and Garry all heard the news as one of the Workers delivered it. They unanimously elected Pawn, the only free member of their group, to go above and see her at once.

“And bring back food. Please?”

“I will. And I will be sure to petition Klbkch that we all might go visit her!”

Of course, Klbkch already knew Erin was back. He’d known the instant she passed into the floodplains around Liscor. He sighed as he stood in his small room and looked up towards the ceiling.

She was back.

“I take it this is good news?”

Xrn studied Klbkch as they sat across from one another. He nodded at her.

“Yes. Very good news. A Human girl—the innkeeper I had told you about—has returned to the city. I am afraid we must put off your discussion so that I might greet her.”

“You astonish me.”

The other Antinium’s voice was frankly shocked.

“You would put aside a conversation between us—the reason the Hives have sent their delegation here in the first place—for a single Human girl?”

“Oh yes. Because she is important.”

“Really?”

“Yes. And her presence here means…well, I believe things are going to become interesting once again.”

Xrn looked at him askance.

“You mean they aren’t already?”

“Not yet.”

“You have visitors from four Hives, a Drake [General]—Zel Shivertail no less—in the city, a Lord of the Wall and a new dungeon plus two Gold-rank teams and Humans streaming into the city while a Goblin Lord roams the countryside. And this Human is what you think will make things interesting?

“Yes.”

Klbkch smiled. He looked up towards the surface, and wondered, for the first time in a long while, what would happen next.

“She’s back. Erin Solstice is finally back.”

 


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53 thoughts on “3.32

  1. They say separation makes the heart grow fonder. Not sure I buy that all the time, but I think it fits here.

    I had a hard time getting back into Erin’s head at first, and then it clicked. And I enjoyed writing this chapter, especially Lyon’s perspective. But we can’t have fluffy Gnolls and her serving food forever. It’s time to get this plot moving again.

    Big stuff happening. The poll looks to be in Pisces’ favor this month, but will it change to Santa or Mrsha? Only time will tell. Thanks for reading! Hope you all had a great Thanksgiving, and look forwards to this Christmas! Not because of my story or anything. Because of, y’know, presents.

    • Awesome chapter, it was so… comfy?

      I laughed so hard at “Erin” forgetting about the basement, well done!

      Also, Zel feels so much like the impersonation of some commenters when he complained about Erin, I was cracking hard on that one too.

      Some authors anwser questions in the comment section, but your way of doing it in the story itself is WAAAY better lol. Like I remember asking about the size of the honey and bees jars and getting an answer in the story a bit later, which I greatly appreciated. And since not everibody reads the comments, it’s truly a great way to do things.

    • Not a typo, but a bit of a nitpick:

      “Even with a Skill they need a break, if only to crap and eat.”

      Horses don’t need to stop to take a dump. They’ll literally shit themselves while running if they need to (and they often do).

    • “Zel explained the issue to Mrsha and Lyonette as she brought him a mug of ale. He drank at it as Mrsha kept sniffing the air. Lyon was about to ask what was wrong when Mrsha suddenly sat up on her chair and howled.

      It was sudden and made Lyon drop the mug.”

      Lyonette brings the mug, Zel drinks from it, then Lyon has it again? A bit confusing.

    • Ceria sat with Yvlon on the wagon, the only non-snowy surface as Ceria and Termin clambered on top as well.

      It should be:
      Ceria sat with Yvlon on the wagon, the only non-snowy surface as Erin and Termin clambered on top as well.

    • “But Yvlon wasn’t in the mood for talk, and so Ceria eyed the bed, trying to figure out if she and Ceria and Yvlon could all squeeze in or if someone was getting the floor.” – I think the first use of Ceria should be Erin in this. Otherwise the point of view doesn’t make sense.

      “But I’m also meeting to discuss the issue with the Goblin Lord and this dungeon.”
      – I think he’s meeting to discuss the issue OF the goblin lord, not with the goblin lord.

      • “they don’t declare war on each other when council member insults the Captain of the Watch’s tail”

        when council member –> when a council member

    • “A true acreddited Wistram mage is a rare thing,”
      [acreddited] -> [accredited]

      “He looked at Ceria as if to ask her what she’d told [him].”
      [him] -> [her]? Since he seems to be wondering how much Ceria had told Erin.

      “Some, [like Seborn, and Ulrien] greeted her quietly, but others were grumpier in the morning. Revi[,] and Typhenous looked upset to be awake; Halrac just looked grumpy.”
      The second comma seems to be a stray.
      [like Seborn, and Ulrien] -> [like Seborn and Ulrien,]

      “After a little while spent resting and then more time outside, [playing catch] with Mrsha and letting her run about”
      Extra space.

  2. This chapter is why I enjoy reading this series so much. Honestly the last part where everyone was excited about Erin being back just made me smile and laugh. Maybe we will see a change in Pisces now too since Erin knows more of his background.

  3. Klbkch smiled.

    Ant smile? You should describe it. I picture a soft click of the mandibles accompanied by a rippling spread of the antennas.

    Excellent read as always.

  4. Somehow, I felt that Erin will not fare very well if she only met with the bad people or she was alone most of the time or thrown inside an antinium hive or a place such as hell. And I somehow I still felt that whatever consequence she did, she deserved it.
    I mean if the adventurers had not stop Erin from revealing the door, the guards would obviously have taken it and obviously in that sense, she deserved what’s coming for her.

    • That’s kind of Erin whole personality though, Zel picks it up instantly in this chapter. No forethought, no critical insight. She’d see herself swindled or killed if it weren’t for her friends tidying up after her. Only realises things in hindsight and doesn’t change for next time.

      She’s a good person, but perhaps not a good person to work with or rely on.

      Does make me wonder if that’s why she doesn’t level Tactician. She acts very differently when she does actually have to think about things…

  5. “Yes. And her presence here means…well, I believe things are going to become interesting once again.”

    Watch out, fellow Antinium! The primary protagonist has the city covered under her plot-aggro zone!

  6. Pisces is more sympathetic than Ceria. Pisces was a good friend at Wistram, and Ceria was the one who abandoned him with everyone else out of simple prejudice against necromancy. Pisces’ later horrible accidents causing loss of life don’t change that. The flash step wagon following gives me the feeling there is some sort of redemption story arc for Pisces coming, but Ceria is the one who needs it.

    I also think Pisces would be well justified in abandoning this pack of adventurers. They took away the dungeon artifact he retrieved without giving him anything in return, won’t share valuable magical knowledge, considered murdering him, mistreat and disrespect him constantly. Pisces is an admitted genius, which gives him options. What is his motive for sticking with “the gang” that are not his friends and treat him like a pariah? He should depart, clean himself up, reaffirm his self-respect, and start over somewhere they don’t know he’s a necromancer.

    • I think he’s better of with the crew that knows and accepts that he’s a necromancer than leaving and hiding who he is. Leaving now when things are finally looking up for him would be pretty stupid in my opinion…

  7. “Once I’m back, everything’s going to be A-Okay!”

    That made me really grin.
    It takes a special kind of person to dare the universe.

    Really liked basement-sama finally showing up.
    That’s been floating around the comments section for ages.

    Everyone’s reaction to Erin being back was great.
    Guard captain wilting, Klbkch enlivening, Gnolls howling, was the bestest.

  8. got a question that may have been asked.
    these preservation spells used on food are huge, food rots by bacteria/mold mainly but also by oxidation. Is this a freeze time spell that stops this? does it just halt the process of decay? if so why don’t people just live in bubbles or rooms with this since it would essentially stop the aging process and is relatively cheap
    ryoka I guess would know about how aging is essentially long term oxidation effects on the body.

    • I think there’s a lot left to be found out about how magic works. Like storage,, a “simple” thing like an anti-food poisoning amulet that lets Antium eat gluten does so many insane things!

  9. I am still not certain the florist is properly dead.
    She is a horror.
    The monster clawing its way out of its grave a month later is exactly the sort of thing you expect in a horror movie or creepypasta.

  10. Thank god Erin is finally back in Liscor. I really wanted to tell Zel to shut up but whatever. I love the side stories but dear gawd have I missed Erin and her story. I’m so ready for this. I have been waiting months for this moment.

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