And then…it was Christmas.
Erin was up before dawn again, rubbing at her eyes. She hauled water, helped Lyonette finish cleaning the room—and got food ready.
That was what it was. Food. Erin mechanically created and seasoned a fatty soup with sausage, mushroom, vegetable extract, flour, garlic, a hard-boiled egg…all added to a rye flour and water base that had been mixed several days ago.
Sour soup. It tasted better than described. That was course one. But Erin had far more to do. She fried little dumplings with meat in the center – a Drake favorite food – toasted kebabs in the Gnollish fashion, and finished with some good old Human decadency.
Hamburgers, pizza, popcorn…anything Erin could think of she made. Because she knew she was going to need it all.
Her adventurer guests came and went, eating breakfast, and then lunch. Erin kept cooking, getting ready for the real meal. From time to time she pulled a piece of paper out of her pocket and stared at it.
On a delivery. Emergency—a village needs supplies and food. Will try to be back in time for Christmas. Ryoka.
She’d received it from the Mage’s Guild. Erin stared at the paper each time, and then carefully folded it away. Each time the door opened she looked up hopefully. But it was never Ryoka. And eventually, Erin stopped looking for her. She had a job to do.
They began coming in at noon. First Relc, rubbing his hands and exclaiming with delight as he saw two presents with his name on it. Then Selys and Krshia and to Erin’s delight, a tired Brunkr. His arm was bandaged and cleaned and he managed to smile at her.
At some point, the door to Celum opened and Octavia fell through. She slept on the floor. After a while Jasi, Wesle, and the [Actors] came through, along with Maran and Safry. Miss Agnes was not there, but Grev darted in as well and stepped on Octavia’s head, waking her up.
After that, Pawn, Bird, Belgrade, and even Garry appeared. Erin had to come out of the kitchen to meet Garry and hug him. Anand was still in Esthelm, but the Antinium Workers had brought some more Workers and Soldiers with them. They sat in a corner while Garry offered his services to Erin. She accepted with relief and they went back into the kitchen.
The Horns of Hammerad hadn’t ever really left, but Pisces came in with Ksmvr with last-minute gifts. They joined Ceria and Yvlon, who were sitting and drinking with the Halfseekers.
Griffon Hunt came to the inn around the same time as Klbkch did. The Antinium was not with the adventurers; he snuck in, looking guiltier than Erin had ever seen him. The reason for that was obvious; an irate Xrn followed him into the inn later. She would have dragged Klbkch away, but Erin presented her with a deep-fried bee and she stayed.
Who else? Erin was beginning to lose track. She was surprised when Hawk appeared, looking wide-eyed at her multitude of guests, but she had sent him an invitation too, hadn’t she? And then came other people, Selys’s Drake friends, some Gnolls that Krshia knew, more people from Celum…
One person came last, as the party was underway. Zel Shivertail stood at Liscor’s gates, shivering a bit as the wind froze his scales. It was cold, far colder than yesterday. He would love to be inside and drinking some of the ‘eggnog’ that Erin had made. But he was outside, listening to someone he really didn’t care for.
“If you’re so worried, come and join the party yourself.”
He snapped at Ilvriss as the Lord of the Wall stood, warm and comfortable in his heavy fur coat and enchanted clothing. The other Drake stared at Zel Shivertail with a look of incredulity.
“I would rather eat my tail than sit in the same room with one of the Ants. You seem to be able to tolerate them—and all those Humans. I am simply telling you what to look out for.”
“I know what to look for. Anything. We don’t know why Xrn and the other Antinium are here. Your precious city leaders and councils have oh so many suspicions and fears, but you know nothing.”
Zel growled at Ilvriss. The Lord of the Wall was unmoved. He glanced towards the inn with a sour expression.
“Just listen and don’t drink yourself under the table, Shivertail. We have a duty. You and I might have come north looking for that Human Runner, but this is far bigger than either of us.”
“Don’t I know it. I’ll keep an earhole open, don’t you worry.”
The [General] turned away from Ilvriss. He began stomping towards the inn, moving quickly to keep out of the cold.
Quickly for Zel meant that he reached the inn in three minutes. He was still half-frozen by the time he did, but opening the door and feeling the warm rush of air on his scales and smelling all the delicious scents in the air made everything worth it.
Someone called his name. Zel looked around and smiled as he saw his favorite niece. The one who didn’t treat him like a living legend. Selys was sitting at a table with Mrsha, the Gnoll named Krshia, Olesm, and—Zel’s smile faltered a bit—Pawn.
The Drake only hesitated for a second. He came over and smiled as everyone welcomed him. He didn’t sit next to Pawn, but he didn’t sit far away from the Antinium either. Pawn he could tolerate.
“Uncle, I think that blue Antinium’s here. So is Klbkch. Don’t make a scene.”
Selys warned Zel, which was probably wise. The [General] stiffened, but Selys deposited Mrsha in his lap. The Gnoll stared soulfully up into Zel’s eyes and a crisis was averted.
Running about the inn, Erin felt like all was crisis. She lifted a pan up and yelped as the hot handle scorched her hands. She would have dropped the pan filled with fried ground beef and onions, but someone caught it by the base.
“Are you alright, Miss Erin?”
Garry held the hot pan without a care in the world. Erin blew on her hands as he put the meat back on the stove.
“Great, Garry! Your carapace is awesome, you know that?”
“It is a very helpful aid when I handle hot or cold objects. Or cut myself.”
Garry nodded. He lifted a basket of Erin’s new, ultra-fluffy bread up and carried it out into the common room. Erin followed him with a pot of butter and another one of honey.
Noise. And people calling her name. Erin smiled as people eating and laughing and playing games turned and waved at her. She put the food down in the center of the room and saw Mrsha leap off of Zel’s lap and make a beeline towards the food.
Someone who made a beeline towards Erin was Revi. The Stitch-girl [Mage] put her hands on her hips.
“Erin, please tell Octavia to stop trying to sell me things! Just because we’re both the same species doesn’t mean I’ll buy her insane potions.”
“I’ll have a word with her. Would you like some bread?”
Erin dealt with Revi as someone else came up to take a few warm buns and slather them with honey and butter.
“Miss Solstice, are you sure you have enough food for me? I am quite fine eating whatever—”
“I’m fine! Eat! Eat!”
The girl turned and smiled up at Moore. He smiled back and ducked his head. As the half-Giant walked back to his table where a bunch of the adventurers had gathered, he passed by two arguing Antinium. One, a slim Antinium with blue carapace, unique among her kind, was not happy with the other.
“You have run off to this inn and avoided speaking with me for the fifth time, Klbkch. What attracts you so?”
Klbkch the Slayer, one of the legendary Centenium, Revelantor of the Free Antinium of Liscor and acting Prognugator, hunched his shoulders as Xrn glared at him.
“It is Christmas. This is an important tradition that I must undertake to spread goodwill—”
“You spend all your time eating and talking with that Human. Does your Queen know you’re doing this?”
He did not reply. Xrn made an exasperated hissing-click that needed no translation.
“Once I am done eating this bee, you and I are going back to the Hive. We must talk, Klbkch.”
“But I have to obtain my presents.”
“That is no—what kind of presents? And is that honey I see over there?”
Xrn grew distracted as she saw the fluffy bread, sitting appetizingly on one table. She knew the Antinium could not process gluten well, but she could still desire to taste the food.
“Honored Prognugator Xrn.”
A voice interrupted Xrn as Klbkch was sinking down in his seat. Both Antinium looked up. Ksmvr cringed as he bowed, but he still offered her the small trinket in his third hand.
“What is this? And who are you?”
“I was the Prognugator for the Hive until my…failures. However, I see your gaze upon the bread. I would like to give you this small token, that you might eat it.”
He offered Xrn the trinket he’d taken from the dead Goblin that resisted food poisoning. Xrn stared at the amulet, and then at Ksmvr. She closed his hand over the trinket.
“Fascinating. Thank you, Ksmvr. I have seen the spell and will copy it. Your help is appreciated.”
Ksmvr was stunned. He bowed and retreated, staring once at Klbkch. Xrn muttered to herself and tapped her chest, replicating the spell she had just seen.
“I had no idea such a spell existed. I did not look or think of it until now, but this is extraordinary. I should like to taste that bread.”
Beside her, Klbkch sat up.
“Will you cast that spell on me?”
“No. You do not deserve it. Why did you exile that poor Antinium, Klbkch? And why does he look like a copy of your former self? He walks like you. What has your Queen been up to?”
“It is a long story. If I tell you, will you cast the spell on me as well?”
As the two Antinium sat together, Ksmvr passed by Erin on his way back to the Horns of Hammerad. He saw her desperately calling for Lyonette to help her; she was balancing at least eleven dishes together on her way back to the kitchen.
Ksmvr was preempted from helping by Typhenous. The mage lifted the mess of plates up and walked into the kitchen. Erin sighed with relief.
“Thank you so much!”
“Sorry, Erin! I was running to get more water!”
Lyonette came over, puffing from her run outside with the buckets. Erin saw several basins full of snow lined up by the fire, melting into water.
“It’s fine, Lyonette. Go back to serving if you’ve got time—I think Garry’s got the pizzas all ready. Now—who was calling my name?”
She went over and found Jasi wringing her hands. Grev was sitting at the table, glaring at Wesle as the former [Guardsman] hunched over in his seat. Erin didn’t see Relc at first; he was trying to hide under the table.
She felt the cold air and saw a hole and the broken glass. Jasi explained.
“They were playing a knife flipping game, but Wesle lost his grip and—I’m so sorry, Erin!”
“No problem. It’s no problem—I’ll just uh, board that up—”
Erin ran off. Relc came out under the table.
“Oops. How mad was she?”
It was Krshia who saw Erin run back with a hammer and nails and a piece of wood. The Gnoll stood up to offer Erin a paw, but Brunkr, sitting beside her, suddenly hissed and grabbed his Aunt with his good hand.
“Aunt! That’s Zel Shivertail sitting there! I knew I’d seen his face before! That’s him! The Tidebreaker!”
“Of course he is. He stays at Erin’s inn, yes?”
Krshia shook her head as Brunkr goggled at her.
“If you’d been out at any time, you would have learned this. Go talk to him if you are so desperate.”
Across the room, Halrac’s keen ears heard Erin yelp. He saw her blowing on a finger she’d accidentally hammered and lowered his mug.
“Why’s she got a hammer?”
Ulrien, sitting next to him followed Halrac’s gaze. The [Scout] grunted irritably.
“Someone broke a window.”
“That’s why glass is risky.”
Halrac’s longtime comrade shook his head. Ulrien gazed at Erin as she took her tools away and stared at the rough patch on the window. The big man nodded to the [Innkeeper].
“Your friend seems tired.”
“She’s not my friend. And she’s fine. She’s smiling.”
Halrac glared at Ulrien, but the leader of Griffon Hunt pushed his mug back and shook his head.
“How can you be a [Veteran Scout] with over 30 levels in your class and still not see the obvious, Halrac? Look at her. She’s smiling, but she’s exhausted.”
The [Scout] looked, and this time he saw Ulrien was right. Erin was smiling, but she nearly tripped over her own bucket bringing it back into the kitchen. She had rings around her eyes.
“She needs to hire someone else. Running an inn’s no job for just her and a [Barmaid].”
That came from Hawk. He was sitting with Halrac and Ulrien, having made their acquaintance earlier today. He’d actually met them a few times while running deliveries, hence their easy camaraderie.
All three males watched as Erin ran over to help Garry and Lyonette put a positively gargantuan platter of barbequed ribs on the table. Erin rushed into the kitchen and came out with the fried potato strips she called ‘fries’.
“A hard worker. You were right when you said we should stay here, Halrac.”
Ulrien raised his mug and took a drink. He tilted it up for the dregs. Hawk nodded, looking hungrily at the fries. Some were made of sweet potatoes, and reminded him of carrots.
“This inn is hopping. And the food is excellent! I’d heard that Erin came up with new food every other day, but this is just impressive. You wouldn’t happen to know if anyone’s planning on moving out, would you? I’d love to rent a room…”
“Oh Erin! Erin!”
Halrac gritted his teeth as a familiar voice called out Erin’s name for the seventh time that night. Erin came over a bit slower than usual, because Revi was the one waving her hand.
“We need a refill! We’ve been waiting for five minutes already!”
Erin ran off. Halrac glared at Revi, sitting at the table behind him.
“Stop pestering her. Can’t you see she’s busy?”
Revi gave Halrac the condescending look he hated so much.
“She’s an innkeeper, Halrac. This is her job. If she’s too busy to serve drinks, she should hire someone else to help!”
“That’s what I said!”
Hawk leaned around Halrac to speak to Revi.
“Did you know there used to be a skeleton that helped around the inn? It was the talk of the city! I wonder what happened to it…”
Pisces could have told Hawk, or any of the Horns of Hammerad. But they were all busy watching Belgrade and Pawn take on the entire room at the tables where the game of Go was being played.
The two Antinium played anyone and everyone who sat at their tables. They moved their hands quickly, placing white and black stones, easily defeating most players. Pisces and Pawn were engaged in a heated speed-battle where each player had only a second to place a stone, while Belgrade dueled Olesm in a slower, more thoughtful match.
“Erin! Hey, Erin!”
Ceria waved at Erin and the girl skidded to a halt as she carried drinks over to Griffon Hunt. In the background Revi groaned loudly.
“What is it, Ceria? Emergency? Need something?”
Erin tried to wipe sweat off of her forehead as she turned towards Ceria. The half-Elf shook her head. She raised a half-devoured rib and pointed to it.
“Good meat! I love the sauce!”
Erin stared at Ceria for a second. She opened her mouth, and then turned and hurried off.
“Erin! Erin! Hey, Erin! I dropped my fork and can’t find it! I need another!”
“When are we opening presents?”
“Do you have more vegetables? Too much meat gives me gas.”
“I’m sorry, but I need another bucket of water. Too much heat. Do you have any on hand?”
Erin measured the minutes by the requests she got. She ran back and forth, smiling trying to avoid adding to the mess on the floors, and serving drinks and food in between. She wasn’t aware of the time until Revi spoke up as Erin was serving her another drink.
“Is there any entertainment for the night? Or are we supposed to watch the Ants play that board game and chat and eat?”
The [Innkeeper] paused as Halrac and Ulrien both glared at Revi and she steadfastly ignored them.
“Entertainment? Um, like what? More alcohol?”
“No! Don’t you have someone who plays the lute, or tells stories?”
Revi stared around the room, eying the group of [Actors] hopefully. Erin wondered if they’d be able to perform, but her heart sank as she realized half of them were so drunk they could barely sit straight.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Why not sing?”
A laughing Drake who’d heard their conversation called that out. Erin turned towards him—he was one of Selys’ friends and had scales which were pink. He might have claimed they were red, but they were more pink than red in Erin’s eyes.
“Aren’t you the Human who sang that one time? I heard the music on Hessal Street, halfway across the city!”
“That’s right! You could sing, Erin!”
Selys stood up and called it out. Heads turned, and after the guests at the inn pieced together what was going on, more raised their voices in approval.
“I loved that song about defeating the Huns! Nice war song! Who are they?”
Ceria, sitting at a table and trying to talk herself out of eating another rib, sat up and nudged Yvlon. The woman stared as Erin was bombarded by calls to sing.
“Songs, huh? I remember Erin singing.”
Yvlon stared at Ceria. Their eyes found a table in the center of the room. Both remembered Erin singing. In a room full of adventurers, as she held an injured Pawn, singing into the night.
The half-Elf held her breath as Erin made her way into the center of the room. Erin was blushing, looking harried by all the pressure on her. But she obligingly grabbed a wooden spoon and used it as a fake microphone.
“Attention! Attention, everyone! I guess it’s song time! I’m going to sing you a few Christmas songs from home—I hope you like them!”
Revi muttered and got a jab from Belgrade in the side as the Antinium went back to sit at their table.
Standing in the center of the room, Erin wiped sweat off of her face and tried to think of a good song to sing. She felt so tired. But this was Christmas, and she had guests to entertain!
“This one’s a song I hear—heard all the time back at home. Jingle bells!”
She took a breath, and people cheered. Erin closed her eyes—
The sounds around her faded. Part of it was people growing quiet, listening to her sing. But another part was different. It might have been magic, it might have been her Skill. But the guests in her inn suddenly heard a ringing bell, a beating drum, and then Erin’s voice, singing a song from childhood. From home.
“Dashing through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh, o’er the fields we go, laughing all the way…”
Home. It was something she’d avoided thinking of. But here, in this moment, in this place, Erin couldn’t escape. So she gave voice to that feeling her chest, the memories.
Maybe that was why the next song she sung wasn’t a Christmas carol. Erin sang a song from the band Journey. The classic. The story in the song that she’d danced to so many times as a kid. The song played in the 3rd Season of Scrubs.
Don’t Stop Believing. The crowd in her inn cheered wildly when Erin was done. Some of them were rubbing their ears and staring around the inn for the drums and electric guitars that had been playing—others just sat, listening with mouths open to a type of music that had not existed in their world until now.
Erin smiled as people cheered her on, demanding another song. She immediately launched into the classic she’d sung for Lyonette and Mrsha, Silent Night. She sang with her eyelids shut. She wasn’t standing in her inn anymore. She was somewhere else.
Where would she be if she were at home? She’d be…she’d be in her living room, eating with her mom and dad. She’d probably be laughing and eying the presents under the tree. Knowing her father, he’d have bought her some chess guide or a new board—her mom would get Erin some tasteful clothing that Erin had hinted she wanted. And Erin would be looking forwards to seeing her parent’s reactions for the presents she’d bought.
Or—Erin’s voice faltered. Would she be in college? She would have been in college after her one year break. Erin would probably have come home for the holidays, but—
She looked around, and realized the song had ended. People were waiting for the next song. Erin smiled. She felt something building in her heart. She searched for a song, and couldn’t think of anything off the top of her head.
“Um—what should I sing next? Another Christmas song? Okay. Then I’ll sing…”
It came to her without thinking.
“How about Home For the Holidays? Anyone heard that song? Well—”
Erin smiled faintly as people cheered and clapped. She took a deep breath and began. There was no accompaniment for this song. It wasn’t an immortal moment. Erin felt her hearting beating slowly as she began to sing, mechanically reciting the song she’d heard so many times.
“Oh there’s no place like home for the holidays—”
Only when she was halfway through did Erin’s mind catch up with what she was singing. She paused, and people looked up. She coughed, and felt something in her stop. The people who’d been swaying to the music paused and looked at her. She tapped her throat, cleared it.
“Sorry. Something was in my throat. Let me try again.”
She opened her mouth, and tried again.
“Oh there’s no place like home for the—”
Again she broke off. This time, the noise in the inn died. Erin lowered the wooden spoon in her hands.
Something was wrong. Her eyes were stinging, and the world was getting fuzzy. Erin tried again. She took a deep breath.
“There’s no place like…”
Silence. Every eye was on Erin. The people in her inn had stopped. They stared at the girl standing in the center of the room. Erin’s cheeks were flushed, her eyes bright. The last word she’d meant to sing died unspoken.
She dropped the spoon. It landed on the floor with a clatter. Erin looked around. Her eyes were bright and overfull. The word echoed in her mind, in her heart.
She wasn’t home. She was far from home. And though she’d tried to forget, Erin couldn’t. She remembered her parents, her home. Her friends. They weren’t here. This wasn’t her world.
Standing in the center of the room, Erin blinked and then lost the smile that she’d kept on her face for so long. Her mouth turned down.
She couldn’t stop it, no matter how hard she tried. The world blurred. Erin’s shoulder’s shook. Slowly tears rolled down her cheeks and fell onto the floor of the inn.
Erin covered her mouth with her hands. She pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes, but the tears wouldn’t stop.
Home. She missed home! She wanted to see her mom and dad again. She wanted to go to her room. She wanted it so badly that Erin couldn’t do anything but cry.
No one could speak. Erin looked around, tears falling, unable to speak. Wide-eyed faces stared up at her, people soundlessly gazing at her.
She made the smallest noise, and then turned. Erin ran for the door to her inn and flung it open. She disappeared into the snowy night. The inn’s door slammed shut behind her.
For a second no one spoke. All of Erin’s guests stared at the closed door. Then Mrsha began to howl, and everyone began shouting at once.
The first few minutes were all chaos. Mrsha ran for the door, only to be caught by Lyonette. Ceria stood up and wanted to go after Erin, but Yvlon pulled her back. The Human woman tried to tell Ceria to let Erin grieve by herself at the same time Grev burst into tears and Klbkch flipped his table and stood up.
Some people went for the doors, but others got in the way or had other opinions. The noise was so intense that it became impossible to think or make sense of any individual voice.
In the end, Relc leapt onto a table and bellowed at the top of his lungs.
“Alright. Everyone shut up!”
He had a voice used to shouting in the middle of battles and over noisy crowds. Everyone grew quieter as they stared at Relc. The Drake looked around the room, and then hopped off the table.
He kicked at a fallen cup. Relc stared at the door and sighed heavily.
“Someone should go after her. It’s cold out there. And there’s Rock Crabs and Shield Spiders hiding in the snow.”
Klbkch, Halrac, Pawn, Olesm, Krshia, Selys, Ceria—there were fewer people who remained sitting. But it was Pisces who appeared at the door in an instant with his [Flash Step] spell. The mage looked around the room.
“I shall go. Discreetly. I know [Invisibility]—I shall make sure she doesn’t freeze and keep any monsters away until she returns.”
No one had anything to say, so Pisces opened the door and disappeared into the night. The others sat down and began talking amongst themselves anxiously in low voices.
Halrac snarled at Revi. The Stitch-girl raised her hands, looking upset.
“Don’t glare at me! It wasn’t my fault! Why did she start crying like that?”
“Because she’s homesick, you idiot! And she’s worked too hard putting this party on!”
“Well, how is that my fault?”
Revi’s raised voice attracted a few dark looks, but people were more concerned with Erin. Selys stroked Mrsha’s head as the Gnoll clung to Lyonette and buried her face in the girl’s shirt.
“I had no idea Erin was feeling so down. She didn’t say anything to me, and we’re best friends!”
“I say it’s all the work she’s been doing. Halrac is right—she needs a rest. And a friend. We should see if she wants to talk when she gets back.”
Ceria put her head in her hands as she sat at a table with Yvlon, Ksmvr, and the Halfseekers. She felt her own eyes stinging and brushed angrily at them.
“We should have been helping out and keeping her company instead of drinking and doing nothing! We should take tomorrow off and—just be there with her.”
Yvlon and Ksmvr agreed to the idea and Ceria saw other people nodding in agreement around the room. But it was Relc of all people who stared at the ceiling and shook his head.
“Naw, that’s stupid.”
Ceria turned and glared at him. The Drake sighed. He looked older as he sat in a chair and leaned back.
“You know what we should do? We should leave her alone. If anyone stays here, she’ll just look after them. That’s what she does. Look after people. She’s a weird Human like that.”
The half-Elf opened her mouth to retort angrily, and then closed it. At his table, Ulrien nodded.
“That’s true. If we’re here, she has a job. We’re her customers, not just her friends. I say tomorrow, we all go into the city and give her the space she needs. We eat, and sleep there if we can manage it.”
Revi protested. He looked hard at her.
“It’s what’s right, Revi. We won’t have a problem occupying ourselves for one day. And in the meantime, anyone who wants to talk with Erin can. But I think the Drake’s right. Giving Erin time alone is what she needs.”
“My name’s Relc, asshole.”
The other guests of Erin’s inn were in agreement. Selys was still very upset, though. She paced back and forth in front of her table.
“I just—I don’t know what to tell Erin! She wants to go home? Where’s she from? Terandria? Baleros? Chandrar? She’s never talked about it once!”
She looked at Krshia.
“Where’s Erin from? Has she told you?”
The Gnoll shifted, and looked around the room. Brunkr, who’d put his head down, raised it warily. Krshia nodded at the door.
“I have some knowledge of her home, but it is not for me to say, no. I am sorry, Selys. But Erin is a girl of many secrets. Her home is one of them, and few know of it.”
“Some know. Or have guessed.”
Ceria folded her arms frowning at the door as well. She was talking about Pisces, whom she was sure knew more than her.
“How hard is it to find out? Erin’s got to have said something to someone. Why’s going back so hard? Does she not have enough coin to pay her way home? Is she an outcast? What?”
Wesle’s face was filled with honest confusion. He looked around.
“I mean, she’s never spoken to me about it. But where’s her home?”
No one knew. And those that did weren’t saying. Yvlon sat with some of the others, frowning as they talked it over.
“She didn’t know about Terandrian nations. And she’s not from Chandrar.”
“Are you certain?”
Olesm nodded. He was toying with a chess piece, tail twitching with emotion.
“Yeah. She didn’t know about the King of Destruction.”
Yvlon shook her head.
“What, him waking up? That’s big news, but—”
“No, she didn’t know about the King of Destruction at all.”
“You’re kidding. Then is she from Baleros?”
“Hardly. Remember Gazi? She told me she’d never met a Gazer before in her life! She thought Gazi was a full Gazer, not a half-Gazer!”
Jelaqua walked over, suddenly alert. She stared at the others.
“Wait, Gazi? You mean, Gazi the Omniscient? That monster? How does a girl like Erin know her?”
“She poked Gazi’s eye out.”
Amid the second uproar, Halrac ground his teeth. He grabbed the wooden spoon Erin had dropped and snapped it with a twist of his hands. The sound of breaking wood echoed through the room like a gunshot. Everyone stared at the [Scout]. Halrac’s face was red and he looked angrier than anyone but Ulrien had ever seen him.
“None of this is helpful. So Erin doesn’t seem like she’s from one of the four main continents. So where did she come from?”
“The same place as Ryoka Griffin.”
Ceria spoke quietly, tracing a pattern in the spilled ale on one of the tables and freezing the liquid with the tip of her skeletal finger. Everyone fell silent at this. Those who didn’t know Ryoka asked who she was and got varied responses.
Someone else reacted strongly to Ryoka’s name. Zel’s head turned ever so slightly. But he said not a word as he leaned against the kitchen doorframe. Only Mrsha saw his entire body tense and the claws on his feet dig into the floorboards.
“Hold on, if Erin’s from the same place as that Runner chick, she can’t be nearby. There’s no one who looks like her in Izril, I’m certain.”
Relc scratched the spines on his head as he frowned. Yvlon nodded.
“She’s an islander. From far across the seas, I thought. Is Erin from there?”
“No, she can’t be! She never mentioned getting on a ship to me when we met.”
All eyes were on Relc. Standing against the far wall, Klbkch stared at his partner as Relc tried to puzzle out Erin’s origins out loud.
“You see, Klb and I, we were the first people who met her. In this inn. Well, not this inn, but the old one. We saw smoke coming out of the chimney one day while we were on patrol. We came to investigate whether bandits or fugitives were hiding out here, and found…her. Just living here.”
“You didn’t ask how she came here?”
Ceria stared incredulously at Relc. He raised his claws.
“It wasn’t our business! She said it might have been a teleportation spell, but she wasn’t actually sure how she ended up around Liscor. Besides, none of the [Mages] detected any magic that night when we asked them, so I thought she was mistaken. That’s as far as we looked into it.”
“That’s all you did?”
“We were busy! She wasn’t a wanted criminal anywhere—and believe me, the Captain had us check. She was just some strange Human who came here out of nowhere. Funny thing, though…”
The Drake paused and scratched at his chin.
“She can’t have come from the south. It’s way too dangerous for someone who’s not a Runner or warrior to travel alone, and Erin didn’t have any potions or weapons on her. And if she’d come down the northern road someone would have mentioned her, right? I remember traffic was good that day, but no one talked about a girl like her when we asked if they’d seen her.”
“So…I don’t get how she got here. Liscor’s surrounded by mountains. Really big mountains. There’s no way she could climb the High Passes, not with no levels…wait, she did say she was from some place. Hold on. What was it called?”
Everyone waited. Relc scratched his head.
“What was the place called? Michi…Missia…hm. Nope. I don’t recall.”
Expectant breaths were released. The listeners shook their heads as Relc shrugged helplessly.
Typhenous frowned. Relc nodded absently.
“Yeah. She only had like four levels in [Innkeeper]. But nothing else. That’s what she said.”
“You’re telling me. Wait, now I remember…Erin said she ran away from something. Oh yeah, she said she ran away from a Dragon when she got here. I remember thinking how crazy she was!”
The room stirred. Jasi exchanged a wide-eyed glance with the other Humans from Celum. Olesm and the other Drakes looked just as incredulous as Relc.
“There’s no way.”
“Right, I mean, that’s what Klb and I thought. She must have run from a Wyvern, right? Only, her arm was burned. A fire breathing Wyvern, I guess.”
“I find it hard to believe that girl would confuse a Wyvern with a Dragon.”
Seborn nodded to the door. Relc shrugged.
“Come on, it can’t have been a Dragon. She probably just thought it was because she’d never seen a Wyvern before.”
“If it was a Wyvern, why didn’t it run her down?”
Halrac stared at a scar on his arm. Ulrien nodded as everyone turned towards their table.
“Wyverns are fast hunters. They don’t give up on their prey. Even if she was running at night, it would have swooped down on her. Unless she had tree cover, and the area around Liscor has virtually no trees.”
“Except the ones that go ‘boom’. Yeah. Okay. But—nah, it was probably a huge salamander. That breathes fire. It’s not a Dragon, right Klbkch?”
Relc turned towards Klbkch. The Antinium was silent for a moment as every eye fell on him. Then he nodded.
“The odds of a Dragon living near Liscor are remote. It is highly unlikely it was a Dragon that Erin saw.”
“Right, there was no Dragon.”
“That is a reasonable assumption, yes.”
The Drake [Guardsman] nodded. He turned back to the others.
“The only reason I’m mentioning it, see, is because Erin said she was running away from that. So she might have come from…Esthelm? Only she didn’t know that city…damn. If it was a Dragon, it could have teleported her, since Dragons can do all kinds of things like that, right? But if it wasn’t a Dragon…did she say she was ever on a ship…? Let me think.”
The others kept conferring. But sitting at his table with Jasi, Grev wiped at his face and then stared at Klbkch. He looked back at the others, and then raised his hand.
No one heard him. Grev hesitated, and then called out.
All the adults turned to look at him. Some, like Halrac, were annoyed. Grev quailed, but he said his bit determinedly as he pointed to Klbkch.
“He never said there were no Dragons. That Ant man.”
“What? Grev, don’t interrupt—”
“No, wait. What did you say?”
Zel raised his claw and came away from the kitchen’s entrance. He stared at Grev. The boy gulped, but went on, stammering as everyone looked at him.
“He—it’s a trick, see? In the city. You learn to listen for it. If someone don’t say something’s true or not true, they’re not lying, see? But they’re still not saying if it’s true or not. That K—Kb—that guy said it weren’t likely Dragons were around Liscor. But he never said they wasn’t.”
The room grew very, very quiet. All heads turned to Klbkch. He sat next to Xrn, the overturned table at his feet. The blue Antinium was staring at Klbkch. But the Antinium said nothing.
“Hah! There are no Dragons. Tell him, Klbkch!”
Relc laughed nervously as he stared at his partner. Klbkch said nothing.
Krshia cleared her throat with a rumble.
“Why do you say nothing, Klbkch? Is it as the Human child says? We have Skills, yes. Skills to detect lying among those in this room. Say there are no Dragons and we shall know. Unless you are a deceiver of the highest level.”
Still, Klbkch said nothing. Relc lost his nervous grin. Ceria felt her heart begin to beat faster.
“Klb? Hey, buddy…”
There was no way for Klbkch to get out of it. Even Pawn and the other Antinium were staring at him. At last, Klbkch nodded and looked around the room coldly.
“Regrettable. I will say nothing on this matter.”
That was all. But his words were confirmation enough.
Typhenous knocked his chair back. Halrac’s hand had gone white on his mug. Ulrien was staring. The Halfseekers seemed paralyzed. Ceria felt like her heart was about to beat out of her chest.
And those who weren’t adventurers were stunned. Selys gaped at Klbkch. She whispered a word.
Zel felt his heart beating faster than he could ever remember. He stared at Klbkch. A Dragon. Could it be? He saw Relc’s mouth hanging open and Olesm, scales white as a sheet. The Ancestors, the First Parents. How long had it been since a Dragon had been seen on Izril—no, anywhere in the world?
Chance sightings. Stolen cattle, or strange burn marks. That was the rumor. But a real Dragon sighting? A Dragon? Here?
He couldn’t believe it. No one could. But the Antinium who knew the truth had confirmed it by not denying it. Or had he? Was it just a trick that played on the faintest possibility? Zel’s eyes narrowed as he stared at Klbkch.
The Antinium was unmoved. He stared around the room, at the eyes on him and the countless unanswered questions on everyone’s tongue. And it was clear he meant to answer none of them.
“Regardless of what you may believe, it is not in the best interests of my Hive for me to reveal any information confirming or denying your suspicions. I bear many of you no ill will, but I do not see you as comrades either. Erin Solstice I consider my friend, but her friends are not mine. You are all dust.”
His expressionless face was turned towards the place where Revi stood. Or perhaps it was Zel he was staring at.
The [General] moved forwards slowly. The people in the center of the room backed away as he walked to face Klbkch. Zel was standing straight, and there was the same hostility in his gaze as when he’d first laid eyes on Klbkch.
“If there is a Dragon on the continent, I think we should know about it.”
“Oh? I was not aware I answered to you.”
Klbkch slowly stood up from his chair. He seemed—angry. That was what Relc noticed. It wasn’t a word he’d ever had to use to describe his friend. But he saw it in the way Klbkch stood, and the way his hands hovered close to his swords.
“Hey, Klb, buddy. Hold on, you’re talking to a real hero here. General Shivertail—excuse my friend. Klbkch, come on. I served with General Zel during the war. He’s practically a pal…”
“He is not my friend. He killed two of the beings I called friend. Two of my comrades fell at his claws, never to rise again.”
Klbkch stared at Zel. The Drake felt the electric bond of hatred surging between them. He nodded, uncurling his fists into claws at his side.
“I fought against you in the war, Klbkch the Slayer. And as far as I’m concerned, the war never ended. Not with the Antinium. Your kind don’t know peace. So if you’re plotting something with a Dragon—”
“What my kind does is our affair, Zel Shivertail. It may be there is no Dragon and that I am simply tricking you. As I recall, you fell quite easily for such tricks during the war.”
That was it. Zel felt a spark ignite something in his breast. He took a step—
And a shadow fell over him. Zel turned his head and saw Moore, head in the rafters, standing on his right. Jelaqua was on his left, and the tingling on the scales of Zel’s neck told him the [Rogue], Seborn, was right behind him.
“Hey, not that I don’t like a fight, but if there is one I’d prefer the civilians and kids to be out of the room first, okay?”
Jelaqua smiled at everyone as she put a hand on her belt. She didn’t have her two-handed flail with her, but she had a dagger at her side.
Someone else stepped between Zel and Klbkch. Halrac and Ulrien stood in front of Typhenous and Revi. The two mages looked nervous, but Revi had something in her hands and Typhenous was staring fixedly at Klbkch.
“Halrac and I fought in the Antinium wars.”
Ulrien stared placidly at Klbkch, speaking calmly, but in such a way that it was clear he was ready to do violence. His face was unreadable, but emotion flickered in his tone, out of sight. He glanced at Zel as well.
“I fought against Antinium. But I also fought against Drakes every time their armies came up through Liscor. As far as I’m concerned, you two are welcome to tear each other apart—elsewhere.”
Zel didn’t move. He knew the Gold-rank adventurers had numbers and the drop on him if he moved. But he also knew he didn’t care. And from the way Klbkch was staring at him, the Antinium didn’t care either.
The room was frozen. Selys, staring at the two, bent down to whisper to Lyonette. The girl jerked as Selys touched her and pointed.
“Go over there. If Uncle Zel gets angry, you want to be behind him as far as you can go. If he loses his temper, no one in this room will be able to stop him.”
She whispered a bit too loudly. The Gold-rank adventurers in the room shifted uncomfortably. A Drake [General], a famous one like Zel Shivertail was at least the equivalent of a Named Adventurer.
It was Xrn of all people who spoke in answer to Selys. The blue Antinium stood up casually, ignoring the way people shifted their attention towards them. She stared at Zel and then at Selys.
“You may not know me, young Drake. But I am Xrn, the Small Queen. Of all those who fought in the Antinium Wars, I was the one who never fell. I am strongest in this room, and so it is I who say: enough.”
She turned to Klbkch.
“Klbkchhezeim. Klbkch the Slayer. You will honor the peace. Or I will halt you myself. As for you, Zel Shivertail…”
She turned to Zel as Klbkch abruptly sat down and folded his arms. Zel stared at Xrn with as much enmity as Klbkch, but the Antinium appeared not to feel his contained fury.
“You are quite different from what I expected. Was it luck or fate that kept us from ever meeting each other on the battlefield during two wars? In any case, I am surprised by you. There is not much of General Sserys in the way you act. He was far more cautious, for all his daring.”
Zel recoiled as if he was struck. The silent room drew in a breath as one. Looking worried, the Gold-rank adventurers stepped away from Zel. There was death in his eyes as he spoke.
“Watch your tongue. Sserys was my mentor. My friend. I haven’t forgotten that you killed him.”
“No. You would not. But did you know, Zel Shivertail? I was there when he died. I spoke to him in the minutes before his death.”
Not a word. Not a breath was drawn. Every eye was on these two. Zel stared at Xrn, and knew that if she spoke the wrong word it would be her head he held next, or his smoking body that lay on the ground. He didn’t care about the consequences. One wrong word.
And it would be war.
“What did you say to him?”
“Many things. Things that I will not utter here. But know that I did not kill him, Zel Shivertail.”
The Drake spat. Xrn shook her head.
“There are others in this room who know I am speaking the truth. I did not kill Sserys. Now. Would you like to know who did?”
Zel’s heart stopped. He stared at Xrn.
“It was no soldier. No common warrior of the Hives. Of course, you knew that. A single thrust to the heart.”
The Small Queen stared around the room. Her eyes returned to Zel, and her mandibles opened.
“Three Prognugators, three of the original Prognugators survived the war. You named us. Each one. Klbkch the Slayer. I, Xrn. The Small Queen. And the last…”
“Wrymvr. The Deathless.”
Xrn nodded slightly.
“Just so. Ask him what became of Sserys if you are so inclined.”
Something was burning hot in Zel’s chest. He took a step and the room tensed. But he staggered towards the door. Zel pushed it open and disappeared into the snowstorm. He didn’t feel the cold. He didn’t feel anything, but the beating of his heart. He heard the word in his mind, like a pulse thumping in his chest.
Wrymvr the Deathless.
When he was gone, Xrn turned to the speechless room. She smiled, opening her mandibles as the swirling lights in her eyes lightened and turned bright orange.
“Well, I have done one of the things I have come here to do. Klbkch, we shall speak now. Or perhaps after your presents are opened. Erin Solstice returns.”
All heads turned towards the door. After a few seconds, it was pushed open. Erin walked into the inn, no longer crying. She smiled cheerfully at everyone.
“I’m so sorry guys. I don’t know what happened. I can’t apologize enough, but—”
She paused and stared at the overturned table, at the people gathered together, the tense adventurers, and the stunned looks on most of her guests.
“Uh. What happened?”
After that came presents. It seemed like almost a letdown after all that had passed, but no one had told Erin what had happened and she was determined to salvage the party.
“Here you are, Klbkch! It’s from me!”
The Antinium took the present gingerly, ignoring the stares coming his way. He unwrapped the gift and found…
It was black, with splashes of red along the ends. Klbkch stared at the scarf as Erin smiled nervously.
“I had it specially knit. Jasi knows a good [Seamstress], and, well, I thought it would look good on you! I know the Antinium don’t have possessions, but I thought you could wear it now and then…”
Klbkch looked at Erin. Without a word he wound it around his neck. The scarf’s red ends dangled around his shoulders.
“I appreciate it deeply, Erin.”
“Ooh, is that for me? What did I—food!”
Relc goggled at his present. Erin laughed as he lifted out the huge jar of what were to him, strange round, golden-brown circles.
“They’re cookies! Honey cookies, extra sugary, Relc! Ever since Octavia helped me make baking powder, I’ve been dying to make some!”
“Are they—are they all…?”
“All for you! Go on! Try one!”
Relc did. He bit into the chewy, thick cookie and teared up. He hugged Erin tightly, making her yelp as he scarfed down another cookie.
“They’re so good! So good! So sweet!”
Everyone had presents, and everyone opened them, with the exception of the absent Zel and Xrn, whom Erin hadn’t included on the list. They opened presents, at first awkwardly, but soon getting over the excitement of the last few minutes for a more normal, fun experience.
“A new robe?”
Pisces stared incredulously at Ceria. He held up the pristine white robes, made of strong, soft cotton. She smiled wryly at him.
“Don’t go crying on my shoulder. Erin insisted I get something for you—hold on Ksmvr. Is this for me?”
“I have obtained the present for you, yes, Captain Springwalker.”
Ceria frowned as she opened the present.
She gasped and Pisces’ eyes nearly fell out his head as he stared at the lump of gold. Ceria gaped at the gold nugget and then at Ksmvr. He nodded in satisfaction.
“I was advised to get jewelry for you by Erin Solstice. Gold is a component of jewelry, hence this gift is appropriate. Do you like it?”
Other presents weren’t as dramatic. Lyonette was explaining to Halrac that the jar of honey and sausage was a gift from Mrsha—the Gnoll had picked out the sausage herself. Brunkr blinked down at the bottle of wine Wesle had given him and the [Actor] introduced himself awkwardly as he clutched the blanket Jasi had bought for him around his shoulders.
Relc had bought a wickedly sharp curved dagger that [Assassins] used for Klbkch. The Antinium had bought him a signed receipt from every tavern owner in the city, promising Relc ten free drinks.
“You guys are so sweet!”
Jelaqua laughed as she accepted her gifts from Seborn and Moore. Respectively they were a powdering kit to make her body look more alive, and an extra-powerful liquid soap bought from Octavia.
When Erin asked what the soap was for, Jelaqua winked at her.
“Helps with cleaning all the parts that get really messy. You know how it is.”
The girl shuddered. But then she laughed, and gave Jelaqua a hug, much to the Selphid’s delight.
It was Christmas. In time, people began looking towards their beds. The adventurers trooped upstairs, and the others bid Erin goodnight.
“They’ll all be heading out tomorrow. But if you want to talk—”
Selys gripped Erin’s hands gently with her claws. Erin didn’t quite meet her eyes as she smiled.
“I’ll be fine, Selys. I’m sorry about—well, merry Christmas.”
“Yeah. Have a good one. This was really fun, Erin.”
The others passed by Erin, nodding to her, shaking her hand, hugging her—Klbkch paused as Xrn stood by his side.
“I apologize for causing a commotion in your absence, Erin.”
“Oh? Uh, well, you’re forgiven.”
Erin blinked as he bowed his head and left. She stared as Klbkch walked out into the snow with Xrn.
The two Antinium moved in silence, and then Xrn looked at Klbkch.
“Do you understand what I did in there, Klbkch?”
“I understand, but I do not know why.”
Klbkch stared at Xrn. The Small Queen sighed.
“Had we talked, you would know. But understand this, Klbkch. I did not come here to simply evaluate your Hive’s latest works. There is more at stake here.”
“Then it seems we must talk after all. I feared what you might say. Now I do not know what you have come here to tell me.”
“Well then. Let us find out.”
They walked off towards their Hive.
Back at the inn, Halrac, Revi, Typhenous, and Ulrien stood together in the hallway as Erin bade the last of her guests goodnight, speaking quietly.
“We’ll leave tomorrow, then. Halrac, are you sure this is what you want to do?”
The [Scout] stood with arms folded. He stared down towards the staircase. He could still hear Erin saying goodbye to Octavia.
“There’s something about her. Just ask your contacts and I’ll ask mine. That’s all I want.”
“Who is that girl?”
Revi stared at her teammates. No one answered. Ulrien yawned, and looked to his room.
“We may find an answer tomorrow. Until then…merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you all.”
Halrac and Revi went to their rooms. Typhenous bade them goodnight. He paused at the doorway, and turned to make sure the corridor was empty. Then he smiled and put a finger to his head. He whispered as he entered his room.
“[Message] spell to Lord Tyrion Veltras. Please record the following message and deliver at once. Yes…I will pay for immediate priority delivery.”
He spoke a short message as he closed the door to his room. No one heard. Or rather, Typhenous thought that no one heard.
Pisces shook his head as he cancelled the [Invisibility] spell and walked silently down the stairs towards the basement. Mages. It was the same in Wistram—despite knowing such powerful magics, even the best mages were so careless. How hard would it have been to put up a [Muffle] spell, or a [Contained Sound] ward? He could just put his ear to the door and listen!
“What the hell were you doing up there?”
Ceria hissed at Pisces as she and the other Horns of Hammerad stood at the door to the basement. Pisces flicked his fingers and the specialized magic only she could read flickered before her eyes.
Tell you later. Much is afoot.
She stared at him, and then yanked the trapdoor open. Yvlon and Ksmvr went down below.
“Erin? We’re going to sleep. Goodnight.”
Erin turned and smiled at the Horns of Hammerad. Ceria nodded to her, searching the Human girl’s face. But Erin seemed cheerful, if tired.
The half-Elf and Pisces went down below. Erin turned and saw Lyonette and Mrsha standing on the stairwell.
“Do you need anything else, Erin?”
“No, I think we can clean up tomorrow. You two have a good night. Merry Christmas!”
Mrsha made a small, indistinct, sleepy noise and Lyonette smiled.
“Merry Christmas, Erin.”
And then she went upstairs. Erin stood in the center of her messy room, smiling faintly. She noticed coins on the tables and frowned. Apparently, people still paid her for the party.
She went around from table to table, collecting coins. As she did, Erin mechanically piled up dishes. When she got to the overturned table, she stopped.
Slowly, Erin looked around the dark room. The only light now came from the fireplace. Erin went over to it and stared at the embers. They glowed in the darkness, but dimly. They were fading, without any fuel left to consume.
She looked around again. No one. Erin was sure everyone was asleep by now. So she sat by the fire and stared into the remains.
“I really screwed up, didn’t I?”
Erin said it softly, not wanting to wake anyone. How could she have done that? Broken down in front of everyone? On Christmas?
Her hands trembled. Now that she was alone, really alone, Erin felt her eyes stinging again. She’d ruined Christmas. Even if people were happy now, she’d made them all sad. Because she was sad.
But she was sad! Erin stared at the blurry orange light and wiped at her eyes. Her shoulders began to shake.
Standing at the top of the stairs, Lyonette made not a noise. She stared down into the dark room, at the figure sitting by the fire. She heard the muffled sounds, almost indistinct in the quiet inn. And then Erin’s voice.
She was crying again. When no one could see. Lyonette leaned against the bannister as she heard Erin’s voice.
“I want to go home!”
Erin wept uncontrollably as she sat alone by the dying fire. Hidden in the shadows, Lyonette stared down at Erin. She reached a hand out, and then turned away.
There were tears in Lyonette’s eyes as she went into her and Mrsha’s room, closing the door softly behind her. She stared out her window up at the clear night sky. She cried too. Not for herself, but for Erin. For a girl that wanted to go home.
Her voice was a whisper. Lyonette stared up at the dark sky. There was no one to hear her, but she spoke anyway. She spoke to the world and the stars.
“I, Lyonette du Marquin, swear on my name. I swear by my blood. Someday I will…”
In her inn, Erin curled up on the floor. She kept crying, letting loose all the emotions she’d kept bottled up for so long. She lay on the ground as the day she’d called Christmas ended. The longest night began as Erin slept on the floor of her inn, eyes red, curled up by a dead fire.
The shortest day of the year began as Erin Solstice slept. Her friends stayed in the city, left her to her grief. Erin was alone.