This is what Pisces saw. He stood in the snowy street, facing down one of the Drake Lords of the Wall and his personal retinue. By his side stood Zel Shivertail, one of the most famous [Generals] in the world. To Pisces’ right and left, two Gold-rank teams, the Halfseekers and Griffon Hunt were facing them.
Perhaps it was only he who was slightly incredulous that this scene could take place. Pisces had grown up reading tales of heroes fighting in armies, facing down Dragons and slaying monsters. But he had never believed he’d see a scene similar to that.
And oh, for what a petty reason they’d gathered! Pisces glanced at the tall young woman, the Runner who had attracted Wall Lord Ilvirss’ wrath. Ryoka Griffin. She was hardly important in the grand scheme of things. What reason, what right did she have to change the world in this way?
But perhaps it was her. Pisces turned his head and stared at a girl who truly did defy explanation. Erin Solstice. There was something she had that made her unique. Perhaps not something she had. Somewhere. Perhaps it was the where of her origins that did the trick.
Pisces didn’t know. He understood everything else in the world, but Erin he didn’t. That irked the young man, because he prided himself on his knowledge. It was a type of magic in itself, knowing things, knowing secrets.
That was why among all the tense and glaring warriors present, some gripping their weapons with steady grips or wearing expression of bravado, Pisces was the one truly calm head. Or so he believed. He was busy glancing around, noting each of the groups gathered here. Krshia Silverfang and a good deal of Gnolls had gathered in this spot around Ryoka. Now, why would they do th—
Someone poked him. Pisces jumped. He turned and saw two pale yellow eyes glaring at him. Ceria hissed at Pisces in a low voice that only he and the other Horns of Hammerad could hear.
“Don’t get distracted! Stay ready!”
She was tense, and Pisces could see particles of frost and snow swirling around her skeletal hand. Ceria clearly thought they might have to fight. Pisces disagreed.
“Calm yourself, Springwalker. I don’t believe it will come to violence.”
“Don’t believe—she hit him with a pan!”
Pisces could only shrug in reply. The problem with Ceria was that she never educated herself, and there was never time to explain things properly in situations like these. She went around acting the same way, not taking into account local laws and customs. If she had, then she might be more relaxed.
Calmly, Pisces turned and watched the Watch Captain, Zevara, start shouting at Erin while Zel Shivertail forcibly restrained Wall Lord Ilvriss. It looked bad, but it wasn’t going to erupt into violence unless something went truly wrong. And Pisces knew that because he actually read Drake law. He was probably one of the foremost non-Drake experts in the world on the subject.
The Wall Lord was in the wrong in every way here, and he knew it. If he turned things into a conflict, it would be the Watch Captain’s duty to stop him. The adventurers Erin had brought were simply a reminder of that fact.
And while Erin had definitely attacked him, Pisces also knew how Zevara would react. Which is why he smiled triumphantly as the altercation in the street came to a swift close. Zel Shivertail forcibly dragged Ilvriss back until his retainers could calm him down, the Gnolls left the street after escorting Ryoka to Erin. And the innkeeper?
“A fine? Aw, come on…”
“You struck him, Human! Don’t argue! Four gold coins. Give them to Relc—give them to Klbkch and don’t argue or I’ll double your fine!”
Zevara was practically breathing fire; wisps of smoke were leaking from the corners of her mouth. Erin grumbled, but the Watch Captain didn’t wait for a response. She stomped away and then the [Guardsmen] left too.
The [Necromancer] nodded to himself in satisfaction. A predictable result. Really, it was just about knowing how people would react based on a certain set of variables. The Watch Captain was predictable…at least, where it came to Erin. She knew that Erin had the Antinium on her side, and so she was disinclined to start another incident.
Still, four gold coins was vindictive. A single gold coin would have been harsh for starting a brawl. The Watch Captain must have been extremely angry, which spoke to the aberrancy of this situation.
Soon, Erin was hurrying back to the inn with Ryoka. Mrsha was in the Runner’s arms, and the three adventuring groups broke up. Revi was still grumbling.
“We have things to do. How much do we have to do for this [Innkeeper]? Honestly, that obnoxious Drake innkeeper might have been rude and charged a lot, but at least he didn’t bother us.”
“I didn’t hear you complaining at Christmas.”
“That was fun. This is work, and we’re doing it for free.”
“Revi, don’t start.”
“I didn’t join this group to do work for free, Ulrien! If we’re going to keep helping Erin, we should at least be paid for…”
Pisces listened with half an ear as Revi, the Stitch-girl [Summoner] argued with the rest of her party. Her response was predictable too. But he had better things to do in this crucial moment where everyone’s guard was down. Pisces stared hard across the street. He could still see Ilvriss arguing—screaming, really—at Zel. They were too far away of course, but happily they were both standing across from each other, so Pisces could see their mouths moving. And that was important to Pisces for one particular reason:
He could read lips.
It would hardly be a great surprise to anyone who knew Pisces that he had that talent. Not a Skill in fact; Pisces had mastered the art of lip reading to avoid wasting a Skill on such a mundane ability. And it had been oh so useful in Wistram, especially when his ability to eavesdrop with his undead creations had been discovered.
Everyone always thought that he, the [Necromancer], had only one particular skill. But Pisces was a [Mage] as well. He had specialized his class in one field of magic—and then gone back to study every other field as well. Pisces sneered at the idea that a truly great mage had to be limited to one class. A true [Mage], or so he felt, specialized in as many classes as possible.
Yes, a great [Mage] was a [Pyromancer], a [Seer], an [Alchemist], a [Sword Mage], a [Warlock], a [Druid]—although Pisces was leery about getting tattooed. And any true mage, any true purveyor of knowledge and secrets had to have other skills as well.
Secrets were worth much even outside of Wistram. And a secret shared between a Wall Lord and a [General]? Oh, so very precious. Pisces’ eyes narrowed as he deciphered part of the Drakes’ conversation.
“I’ll take care of it. You cool your…”
“Ask her! So help me Shivertail, if you…if I have to go to war…”
“I know. I know.”
The two broke away from each other. One of the Drakes accompanying Ilvriss handed something small to Zel and he nodded at the Wall Lord. Pisces casually glanced away as Ilvriss began storming down the street, the other Drakes following him. Only Zel hung back. He slowly began to walk in the direction of the Wandering Inn.
Curious. Pisces stroked his chin as the adventurers began heading back to the inn as well. What did ‘I’ll take care of it’ mean? Clearly, Ryoka was important to the two Drakes, but the Wall Lord was particularly interested in her, it seemed. He’d threatened her with steel, against Watch Captain Zevara’s explicit orders. He would never normally do that, Wall Lord or not.
Pisces was aware of Drake politics, and a Watch Captain was second to none in her own city when it came to matters of law and order. She could only ever be overruled in military matters by a soldier of equivalent or equal rank to a [Colonel], and certainly not by a foreign lord.
“Ryoka’s back. Do you think she got the magical items appraised?”
Pisces focused back on reality as he heard Ceria speaking anxiously. Ah, yes. The magical artifacts. Pisces cleared his throat. He didn’t know whether Ryoka had them either, but his observations could only improve the general understanding of his group.
“I surmise that if she had the items, they are stored in the bag of holding at her belt. Given the limited opportunity she had to visit Invrisil, I would imagine it is unlikely she would have returned without some knowledge of the magical artifacts.”
“I know that.”
Ceria nodded, but she seemed relieved to have been reassured.
“She said she appraised them. But she also said she might have to sell some. I wonder…”
“Captain Ceria, I am unsure of the protocol regarding adventuring in groups. Should I express my dissatisfaction with Ryoka or general avarice at this point?”
Pisces’ lips quirked and he turned his head to avoid smiling at Ksmvr. The Antinium was far too amusing to belong in his Hive, which was probably why he’d been kicked out. Ceria paused and Pisces saw a peculiar expression on the face of the woman who was walking as far away from Pisces as politely possible.
Yvlon coughed and scratched absently at her bare forearms. At first glance, they looked like they were covered with some metallic liquid. Then it became clear that the metal was fused into her arms, melded with both flesh and bone. Yvlon’s affliction intrigued Pisces every time he looked at her. He had no little amount of sympathy for her either; she had received those injuries defending all of them from a fire construct. It was a shame he couldn’t use his skill with bones to fix her, but there wasn’t enough of her bone left unscathed for him to work with.
Perhaps if she’d let him experiment with adding someone else’s bone to hers. But Yvlon would never hear of it, so Pisces hadn’t bothered to suggest. She hated necromancy, and thus barely tolerated him.
“Ksmvr, you don’t have to do anything. Magical items are important it’s true, but in my experience, the best adventurers don’t fixate on them. I’ve seen too many teams torn apart fighting over the loot from an expedition to count.”
The Antinium with three arms absorbed this information slowly, nodding his head.
“I see. I will commit this information to memory. However, I assume we will wish to speak with Ryoka Griffin in the near future?”
“If we can. Looks like everyone wants a piece of her.”
Ceria groaned. And that was certainly true. When Pisces got to the inn, the first thing he heard was Erin’s voice.
“Okay everyone, form a line! Anyone who wants to speak with Ryoka can wait in line. Uh, send just one person if you’re a group. Krshia wants to talk first, and then Klbkch—hey Klbkch, your mean Captain says I have to give you money. And Zel said he wants to talk too. And then—oh, Ksmvr?”
Ksmvr strode into place right behind Zel and Klbkch. He flinched as the Revalantor of the Free Antinium stared at him, but Klbkch said nothing. Zel looked unhappy to be surrounded by Antinium, but his desire to speak to Ryoka clearly outweighed his emotions. He stood stiffly with both arms folded. Klbkch looked equally unhappy to have the Drake [General] behind him. Pisces nearly burst out laughing when he saw Klbkch and Zel fidgeting. How could no one see the humor in that situation?
But he refrained from laughing and just nodded towards Ksmvr as the Antinium waved to Pisces and the other Horns of Hammerad from his place at the back of the line.
“Commendable, I must say.”
Pisces said that appreciatively as he took a comfortable seat at one of the tables. He waved at Lyonette for a drink and something hot to eat while he waited. Pisces smiled to himself until he noticed Ceria and Yvlon glaring at him.
What? What? Oh, did they think he was being sarcastic? Pisces rolled his eyes. He had merely been expressing his gratitude that Ksmvr would stand in line for them, despite his stated issues with Klbkch. Why were people so fixated on believing the worst of him?
In any case, the break gave Ceria and Yvlon time as well, and they spent that time worrying about what Ryoka had discovered in Invrisil. Pisces spent his time far more frugally. He devoted a pleasurable few seconds ordering what was on tap from Lyonette and receiving a small bowl of fried potato strips he quite liked. And all the time he watched Ryoka talking with the people in line.
He couldn’t see Krshia speaking with Ryoka, but he got a good view of Ryoka’s lips as Klbkch approached. Pisces paused, watching the young woman’s lips carefully as he bit into a french fry.
“I told Magnolia.”
Pisces’ eyes narrowed as he watched Klbkch nod, reply, and walk swiftly out of the inn. He couldn’t read the Antinium’s lips—since he didn’t have any, only mandibles. But this was curious too. What had Ryoka told Magnolia and why would it involve Klbkch the Slayer of all people?
After Klbkch came Zel Shivertail. Now Pisces was really interested. He tried to focus on Ryoka’s lips, but the Drake was blocking the way. Pisces hissed under his breath and reached into his robes. Time to try another tack.
Something crawled out of a hidden pocket Pisces had sewn into his new robes and onto his hand. He didn’t react, but carefully lowered it to the underside of the table. Pisces felt it crawl off and casually reached for another fry, not looking down at the ground. He didn’t have to; he could sense what was happening.
Quickly, a small spider began to scuttle down the table leg, onto the floor, and towards where Ryoka was seated across the inn. It was a Shield Spider, or rather, a Shield Spiderling. A baby spider, newly hatched.
And it was dead. In fact, it was undead. Pisces had found the spider a long time ago and figured out a way to reanimate it using his magic. It was an extraordinary achievement in the field of [Necromancy] for him—he hadn’t thought he could animate non-mammalian species until now. No one had appreciated that of course, but that was all to the better now. Because Pisces could see and hear what his creation did.
The undead Shield Spider scuttled quickly across the floorboards. Pisces tried to shield it from anyone’s view, keeping it in the shadows, running along the wall. Fortunately, all the adventurers were busy having a late lunch. Pisces had been worried Halrac, the keen-eyed [Scout] might see, but the man was too busy arguing with Revi. Thank goodness for loudmouthed [Mages]. Pisces detested them the most.
Nearly there…Pisces sat up in anticipation as his Shield Spider moved two tables away from Ryoka and Zel. He could hear them talking, faintly.
“…I am simply asking how…benefactor?…won’t give up…”
That was Zel’s voice. The spider scuttled closer. Pisces could see through its multiple eyes Ryoka and Zel’s feet. He heard Ryoka reply after a pause.
“I can’t tell you.”
“May I ask w—”
Something suddenly smacked the spider sideways, sending its view tumbling around in chaos. Pisces nearly leapt out of his chair. He looked over and saw a white ball of fur, crouched in the exact place where his spider was.
Mrsha! Pisces saw her tail wagging. He nearly stood up before he caught himself. Instead, he sent quick signals to his undead creation. The spider fled towards a table, but Mrsha leapt after it.
Drat the child! Pisces watched in horror as Mrsha chased after the fleeing undead spider. He desperately tried to get the young Gnoll’s attention, but Mrsha was oblivious as she cornered the Shield Spider’s corpse. With all the inquisitiveness, thoughtfulness, and brutality of an innocent child, she smashed the tiny spider into the ground and then sniffed at the remains.
The spider was gone. Pisces couldn’t control it, or hear anything else. He slumped in his chair, wanting to bury his face in his hands. All that work. No one knew how hard it was to animate a spider compared to a Human corpse, let alone put listening and vision spells on it! But she hadn’t known. Yet he’d been so close to hearing something worthwhile!
“Too bad about that.”
Pisces glanced up. Ceria was staring at him across the table. He frowned.
The half-Elf nodded her head very slowly. She stole one of Pisces’ fries and licked at the salt on top before chewing it thoughtfully. She kept her voice very low as she spoke directly to Pisces.
“Next time, you should enchant it with something to make it faster, more durable, or smell bad. Otherwise Mrsha will just destroy it. She likes small moving things, unluckily for you.”
He stiffened and opened his mouth to deny the truth or to lie, but Ceria just looked at him. She pointed to where Ksmvr was patiently waiting at the head of the line. Zel was standing up, looking dissatisfied.
Pisces stared at Ceria, and then got to his feet. He reflected that while he saw much more than most, he had to be careful himself. Because other people were watching him. He wondered whether Ceria thought she was on his side, or if she was warning him. It didn’t matter. Pisces had no side.
He was, and always had been alone. Friendships were fleeting, and alliances were simply the prelude to betrayal. Pisces knew he should expect less than nothing from his new party, this reckless endeavor known as the Horns of Hammerad.
And yet, he did like them, even Yvlon. Imagine that.
Ryoka sat in Erin’s inn, a drink of hot, lemon-flavored sugar water in front of her and a bowl of salty fries by her right hand. It was easier to eat fries with her right hand while she used her left hand to lift the cup. Her two missing fingers on her right hand made Ryoka’s grip feel uneasy and lopsided whenever she lifted something remotely heavy.
That wasn’t what she should be focusing on. There was so much to do, so much to think about! Now that Ryoka was back in Liscor, it seemed like everything was happening at once.
First Krshia, then Ilvriss. Now Klbkch. Ryoka watched as the Antinium strode out of the door. She couldn’t say much to him in the inn, not with everyone around. But he got the message. Magnolia knew of his intentions. What would Klbkch do now? Ryoka would have loved to talk it over with him, but now came another problem.
Zel Shivertail sat down across from Ryoka and gave her a brief smile.
“We meet again, Miss Runner. My apologies, it’s Miss Griffin, isn’t it?”
“Ryoka is fine.”
Ryoka stared at him warily. She barely recognized the huge Drake. But she remembered his voice. She remembered the second-to-last last time she’d seen him, in a dark and misty forest and soldiers fought and died around them. He’d been lost, until Ilvriss had arrived and everything had gone to hell.
She’d seen him two other times as well. Both times Zel had been leading a charge. First, on Ilvriss’ camp as Ryoka had run away in the chaos. The second time, against the Goblin Lord as the Stone Spears tribe and Ryoka had been fighting for their lives.
The young woman’s throat constricted as she remembered the thousands of Goblins killing the Gnolls, overrunning Zel’s army. She glanced away from Zel, towards Mrsha. The Gnoll was happily following something on the floor.
Zel followed Ryoka’s gaze.
“I remembered you and that Gnoll cub. Funny—I could have sworn she had brown fur before, but then I only got a short look at you while I was trying to kill that damn Goblin Lord.”
Ryoka paused. She looked at Zel. He’d been courteous to her before, more so than Ilvriss. But she didn’t know the first thing about him. But at least on this subject, being honest might help.
“She did have brown fur. It turned white after the battle.”
After she lost her tribe. Zel looked at Mrsha and shook his head. He looked melancholy. Was there affection in his eyes as he stared at Mrsha? Why?
“So some of the rumors about white fur among Gnolls is true. I had no idea their fur could change color, though. Mrsha certainly gets into enough trouble without needing bad luck.”
“Uh yeah. I heard you helped save her once. Thank you.”
It felt odd. Ryoka was caught between the impulse to profusely thank Zel and the incongruity of it. She wasn’t Mrsha’s parents. But she was her guardian, the only one the Gnoll had left. She should have been there.
More guilt. Zel shook his head casually.
“Anyone would have done the same. But perhaps you can return the favor? I’m sorry about earlier, but you might have guessed that Ilvriss came to Liscor looking for you.”
Ryoka’s heart began to beat a bit faster. She kept her tone casual as she watched Erin buzz about the room, serving food, talking with people. How had her inn gotten so busy? The last time Ryoka had been here, it was practically deserted except for a few visitors. But now she had two Gold-rank adventurer teams staying here? And Zel?
“I did notice. Mind telling me what he wants?”
“He wants to know what happened to his lieutenant. Periss. She ran after you in the battle in the forest and never returned. Ilvriss thinks you had something to do with her going missing.”
Cold spikes of fear ran through Ryoka’s stomach. Here was something else she hadn’t had time to think about. The same argument ran through her head. Az’kerash, the legendary Necromancer was ranked about equal to Teriarch on Ryoka’s list of people she didn’t want to piss off. And if she told people where he was hiding…
Zel spread his claws out on the table.
“Let me tell you what I saw, back when we first met, Ryoka. I met you during a battlefield. Well, I saw you earlier after you’d sent Ilvriss’ camp into chaos. I still have to thank you for that. Without that advantage my side might have lost the battle.”
“Was it an important battle?”
Ryoka stared at Zel. The [General] shrugged, looking slightly bitter.
“Important for some. It was a squabble between one of the Walled Cities and a coalition of city-states. If I’d have lost, there would have been trouble, the cities might have had to become vassals or pay tribute or some other nonsense…but nothing tremendously terrible would have occurred.”
“And that’s why you’re with Ilvriss now? Because you’re all buddies after the war?”
Zel bared his pointed teeth in a grin.
“I hate his scales. But he wanted to know what happened to his lieutenant and I thought it was curious too. Because—and I’ve gone off track—I saw you during the battle. Aside from the fact that you managed to either defeat Periss and a dozen elite [Soldiers] or lose them—which some Couriers would have trouble doing—there was the battle with the Goblin Lord.”
The [General] stared at Ryoka.
“I’m sorry about that Gnoll tribe. I did all I could to save them, but that Goblin Lord—did you know he was in the area?”
Ryoka’s hand clenched on the edge of the table.
“I had no idea.”
“I thought so. But you saved Mrsha.”
“One of them. Just one.”
“More than I could with an army. The rest of the tribe went down fighting. Every last one of them.”
Zel sighed. Ryoka felt as if she’d dropped through the floor. She reached for the hot drink Erin had given her and took a sip. It felt like she was drinking death.
All of them. An entire tribe. That was Ivolethe’s price.
Ivolethe. Ryoka turned her head. The faerie had vanished after the Gnolls had grabbed her. She might not have wanted to interfere, or known Ryoka wouldn’t be in trouble. Where was she…?
There. She was riding on Mrsha’s head, laughing as the white Gnoll cub snuck up on something on the floor. Ryoka felt worried until she remembered that Erin’s inn was built with copper nails. Ivolethe was free to enter and exit here without danger.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
Ryoka started. She glanced at Zel and saw him looking at Mrsha. He shook his head.
“I don’t want to burden you. It’s just that I saw you using that potion—or was it an artifact—after the battle. You ran faster than I’ve ever seen anyone go. And then during the battle—I saw you freeze your way through part of the Goblin Lord’s army to get away. You were running like a Courier then, too.”
The Frost Faeries. Ryoka opened her mouth and then closed it. Zel eyed her calmly.
“Please understand, I’m not accusing you of anything. I am simply asking how you did all that. Do you have some kind of benefactor who supplies you with magical items? Did you have to defend yourself? Is that how Periss died? Ilvriss won’t give up until he knows the truth behind her disappearance.”
Hesitation. Ryoka looked down at her hands. Her two missing fingers. She took a deep breath.
“I can’t tell you.”
“May I ask why not?”
How could she answer that? What was the safest way? Ryoka grabbed a fry and bit into it. Zel did the same as he waited patiently.
“It’s…complicated. If I told you, you might be in danger.”
Zel looked amused by the notion.
“Miss Ryoka, I’ve been in danger since the first Antinium War. You might not know who I am—”
“Zel Shivertail. The Tidebreaker. I know.”
He shrugged, looking embarrassed by the title. Zel reached for a handful of fries, chewing them down as he spoke.
“I’m not the best [General]. My reputation’s overinflated by stories, but I am a seasoned warrior. I’ve had [Assassins] and angry idiots after my head for over a decade. I think the Assassin’s Guild has given up trying to claim the price on my head. Even if an army were after me—or Ilvriss—”
“You’d still be in danger. I know who you are. And I’m still telling you that.”
Ryoka stared at Zel. He stopped chewing and looked at her.
Zel’s tail flicked in interest. Behind him, Ryoka saw Ivolethe flying about, dragging something through the air as Mrsha chased and leapt after it. Both Frost Faerie and Gnoll were loving the game of tag.
“So it’s dangerous to us, hm? What about you? If you need protection—”
“Telling you would make things worse, believe me. I—look, I can’t tell you much. At all. But I call tell you this. I didn’t kill Periss. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t lure her into a trap on purpose or tell someone to kill her—she followed me and she died. I’m sorry it happened, but it was an accident on all sides.”
“In the forest. There was some kind of enchantment there that made me lose my way.”
Zel looked thoughtfully at Ryoka. She bit her lip.
“Don’t ask me anymore. And don’t go looking, please. For your sake. Just let it go.”
“I can let some things go. But my, uh, friend won’t. Ilvriss…that idiot won’t admit it, but I think he and Periss were a couple.”
Ryoka’s heart hurt as it sank.
Zel nodded. He drummed his claws on the table, which made them cut into the wood until he noticed it and stopped.
“Damn. Sorry. Yes, well, it would be a scandal for a Wall Lord and a lowly officer in his army to be together, but I think that’s why he’s so obsessed. He loved her.”
“I’m sorry. But I still can’t tell you anything.”
Ryoka whispered the words. Zel looked at her. He stared at Ryoka in a way that made her think he was looking into her hidden heart. Then it was done and he nodded.
“I guess that’s all you can tell me for now. I’ll tell Ilvriss what you said, although I can’t promise he’ll stop coming after you. I can stop him, but perhaps…well, we’ll leave it at that for today. I know you’re busy, Ryoka. It was a pleasure to meet you again, regardless.”
He stood up, and pulled something out from a pocket. Ryoka blinked as she saw a dangling piece of metal shaped to look like a slow spiral. There was a large gem in the center, and evenly spaced smaller gems—diamonds perhaps—set along the curving bit of metal. Like a progression. Each one of the gems was glowing a different shade of green—some bright green, one a very pale green, almost yellow. But the biggest gem shone bright and green.
Zel inspected the gems critically for a second and then shook his head.
“Hm. You were telling the truth about all of that. Ilvriss might not be happy, but at least he won’t try to cut my tail off.”
“Oh, this is a truth detector. It’s a bit fancier than the truth gems—it records a number of statements so I don’t have to keep looking at it. It’s not very useful, considering you can do the same with a single gem, but Ilvriss insisted.”
He put her through a lie detector test! Ryoka gaped at the [General]. He smiled wryly.
“Sorry, but I had to be certain.”
He pocketed the artifact and walked towards the entrance of the inn, smiling and speaking to Lyonette briefly while Ryoka sat in shock.
Truth gems. Ryoka closed her eyes briefly. This was why lying and keeping secrets was so much harder in this world! She really needed to buy something that would negate the effects of such spells. Was there such a thing?
“Hey Ryoka, are you okay? What did Zel want?”
The young woman opened her eyes. Erin hovered next to the table, looking concerned. She had a pair of full mugs in her hand and Ryoka eyed the alcohol with no little degree of temptation.
“What did he want? Uh—well, he was asking about a time when I met him, Erin.”
“You met Zel before? Really?”
“Yep. On my run. I met him and Ilvriss. It’s uh, complicated.”
Erin looked impressed. She glanced towards the door, but Zel had already left. Still, she leaned down and whispered conspiratorially to Ryoka.
“He’s a pretty big deal among the Drakes. He’s some kind of war hero, and he’s really scary, in a grandfather-type way, you know?”
Ryoka couldn’t exactly see that. Then again, she’d met Zel when he was slicing people apart with his claws. Erin nodded.
“He’s cool, though. I uh, think he doesn’t like me as much, but he’s really nice to Lyonette and Mrsha!”
“Oh. Right. He stays here.”
So she’d be seeing him around. Ryoka’s heart sank. Erin eyed her friend, and put the mugs on the table.
“Is everything okay? Are you in a big trouble with that Ilvriss guy? Because if you are, I can talk to Zel—”
“No, I can sort it out. I think.”
Ryoka didn’t want to get Erin involved. She knew a bit about the Necromancer—Ryoka had told her in a moment of idiocy. But she couldn’t get Erin involved any more. Ryoka wasn’t sure how dangerous telling people about Az’kerash was, yet. So she wouldn’t tell Erin.
There was a pang in Ryoka’s chest as she thought that. Wasn’t the key problem in every stupid B-grade film keeping secrets? Only, there were some secrets that needed to be kept.
Even from friends? Ryoka cleared her throat and looked at Erin. Her friend. But how long had it been since they’d had a chance to talk? So much had happened…
“Hey Erin, I know we haven’t gotten a chance to talk. I just wanted to say thanks…”
Erin waved a hand at her, looking awkward.
“Aw, don’t mention it. I heard an angry Drake was chasing you around the city with a sword, so I called in a few favors. We should talk—”
Ryoka wanted to say more, but someone—an angry Stitch-girl waving a mug—called Erin’s name and she had to rush off. Ryoka sank back into her seat. This wasn’t how she’d envisioned coming back. All she wanted to do was talk to Erin for a bit, but now here came…
It was still hard for Ryoka to tell the Antinium apart, but Ksmvr’s lack of a fourth arm helped in identifying him.
“Good evening Miss Ryoka Griffin. I am here to politely inquire about the magical items my party loaned you for the purposes of identification. I am not seeking this knowledge in an avaricious way; merely in order to assist and participate in my adventuring group’s success.”
Ryoka stared at him. She put her head in her hands. Ksmvr stared at her and then at her french fries.
“Are you eating that?”
“Silver and steel.”
“I lack an appropriate expression for this moment. Comrade Pisces, assist me with determining one.”
“I think, wow is probably all you need, Ksmvr.”
Jelaqua Ivirith spoke drily as she peered over the shoulder of Ceria. The other Horns of Hammerad were frozen as they stared at the pile of weapons, armor, and other magical artifacts Ryoka had taken from her bag of holding and piled on the table. The other Gold-rank adventurers in the room were watching from a respectable distance, pretending to eat. But they couldn’t take their eyes off the sparkling treasure any more than Erin could.
“Look at it all. There’s a pair of vambraces, swords—”
“A magical robe, a wand—no, two wands, and a spellbook—”
Ceria was gingerly touching the artifacts as if they might explode. She held up a spellbook, the color bright yellow and inscribed the dark outline of some kind of bird in flight. Pisces picked up one of the rings and stared at a second sword with a frown.
“That wasn’t one of the items we recovered. Was it in the bag of holding?”
“Was all of this in the bag of holding?”
Ceria turned to Ryoka, wide-eyed. The Runner girl stood with her hands in her pockets, smiling awkwardly at the other’s dumbfounded expressions. Mrsha reached for the dagger and Lyonette grabbed her. Ivolethe did the same until Erin lured her away with a bowl full of raw meat and honey.
“There’s no way. Look at all these items! There’s equipment for me, Pisces, Yvlon—there’s equipment for everyone!”
Yvlon picked up the buckler and stared at the faint scar, the seam of metal almost invisibly merged together. She tapped the buckler and nearly dropped it when a transparent, shimmering field extended from the sides of the buckler, creating a second shield that overlapped the first, creating a magical barrier in the air.
“I note these swords are not reacting despite their apparent enchantments. May I hold both, or will I burst into flame and die in excruciating agony?”
Ksmvr stared at Ryoka. His words created a momentary hush before Ryoka recovered her tongue.
“It’s fine, Ksmvr.”
“Ah, the enchantments do not conflict?”
She shook her head.
“Some of it is lower-grade stuff, but it’s all compatible or so I’m told. That’s the real benefit here. An expert [Enchanter] did the matching up so you should be able to equip any combination of items without the enchantments clashing.”
Ceria breathed the words out. Her hands were shaking. Erin could understand her emotions.
“I thought you could only use one or two artifacts or else they’d combine and explode!”
“Only if the enchantments are poorly woven. But if an expert in the field were to select quality pieces, an adventurer may wear a large variety of enchanted items.”
Typhenous remarked as he studied the ring Pisces had picked up with unconcealed envy. Ulrien nodded.
“That’s a service a lot of Gold-rank adventurers and Named Adventurers pay for. Your group is exceptionally lucky.”
“But how? I’m sure this all wasn’t in the bag of holding—”
Ceria turned to Ryoka, looking bewildered. Ryoka took a deep breath. This was the part she’d been worried about.
“I had to sell one of the items from the bag. It was valuable. Really valuable. The [Enchanter] I talked to agreed to exchange all of this for the item. He also says he owes you a favor you can call in at any time.”
Everyone went silent at the news. Yvlon glanced at Ceria and Ksmvr scratched at one antennae. At last, Seborn broke the silence. He and Moore were staring at one of the rings Pisces was holding with a frown.
“It must have been some item.”
Pisces’ eyes narrowed. He glanced at the array of magical items Hedault had found for Ryoka.
“The fact that you refuse to tell us is indication alone of its worth. Why not reveal its nature…unless you think you made a poor deal? Or perhaps one better than the quality of arms represented here?”
Ryoka frowned, feeling defensive and feeling that she shouldn’t feel defensive. She turned towards Pisces as Ceria and Yvlon stared at her.
“I don’t want to tell you because if I did, you might have gotten into a fight about it. It was an item two of you could use, and only one of you could have.”
Ceria and Pisces traded glances, while Ksmvr and Yvlon stared at each other. The Horns of Hammerad looked at Ryoka. Pisces’ tone was accusing.
“So one of us could have used it to great effect—”
“But only one of you. And it would have caused a huge fight, believe me.”
“So you sold it without consulting us.”
Ceria snapped at Pisces, who’d folded his arms disapprovingly.
“We agreed to let Ryoka decide what to do. If she says it was better to sell the artifact—”
“Again, without consulting us. She might have let us know what it was, first.”
“But then we’d fight, wouldn’t we?”
Yvlon frowned at Pisces. She stared at the items, thinking aloud.
“No matter what it was…I bet it would have caused issues, even if we decided whose it would be. How fair would it have been to split the loot afterwards? What if someone wanted to take it and abandon the team? I’ve seen groups torn apart over that before.”
Ceria nodded slowly, and Ksmvr stared at Ceria before nodding energetically as well. Pisces blew out his cheeks, looking annoyed, but someone else voiced their agreement.
“I’ve seen the same thing as well. It happens all the time and it can lead to bloodshed when people fight over the best artifact.”
Jelaqua crossed her arms as she sat at a table with Ulrien and Halrac. Both Gold-rank adventurers nodded as the Selphid spoke directly to Pisces.
“I think you’d better thank your Runner friend here, Horns of Hammerad. She might have spared you an ugly argument.”
Revi, Typhenous, Moore, and Seborn all murmured in agreement. Pisces looked around for support and found none. He sighed dramatically.
“Very well. I suppose I must withdraw my issue. But let us at least find out what we paid for.”
Ryoka smiled, feeling relieved and grateful towards the other adventurers.
“It’s worth it, believe me. Hedault—the guy who did all the appraising and buying—found some quality stuff for you.”
She began to list out the items from memory, handing each one around as the Horns of Hammerad clustered around the table. They were practically shaking with excitement, and the other adventurers drew close, taking the item after the others were done with it and looking it over and talking softly. Erin and Lyonette got a chance to investigate the artifacts too, although Mrsha was banned from touching, much to the Gnoll’s quiet grievance.
“The biggest items are the sword with the weight enchantment, the Flamespread Dagger, the Forceshield Buckler, the [Barkskin] ring, the Ring of Jumping…and the ring that shoots the attack spell. There are a few potions and the bag of glowing stones and monster lure…”
Ryoka showed the Horns of Hammerad the ball with the angry face. Mrsha leapt up onto the table to touch it. It began shrieking and scared Mrsha so badly she fled into the kitchen, crying, until Lyonette went to cuddle her and pour a bit of healing potion into her sensitive ears.
“Ow. Okay, so that’s the stuff we recovered. What’s the rest of this?”
Ceria rubbed at her own ears. Ryoka smiled.
“Nothing too good according to Hedault, which means decent protective enchantments on all the gear. Yvlon—you’ve already got the chest plate, right. I have the vambraces and greaves for you…a helmet as well, and there’s gauntlets somewhere…”
“How strong are the enchantments?”
Erin remarked with interest as she peered at the plain steel gauntlets Yvlon was trying on. The woman winced as she struck part of the metal in her skin with the edge. Jelaqua struck the chest plate with the head of her flail experimentally and nodded in approval.
“This is good stuff. I’ve seen enchantments like these before. They cushion blows, not just make the metal stronger. Give me a good cuirass and I could kill a score of zombies by myself.”
“You could kill a group of Ghouls with that sword if you’re quick enough.”
Ulrien remarked as he tested the sword by tapping Moore’s staff as the half-Giant blocked. Moore grunted softly.
“A strong enchantment. Very nice.”
“You bet. And I’ve got a robe for Pisces. It only has a small protective charm, but I’m told it resists stains. And it’s white.”
“Thank the leaves for that.”
Pisces sniffed as Ceria tossed the robe at him. He was studying the two wands. There were also three rings sitting on the table next to them.
“Am I to understand these are both for us? What of the rings?”
Ryoka nodded, smiling.
“Two wands, both made of…damn, I forget. Some kind of redwood tree? Hedault said it didn’t really matter. The centers are filled with Waisrabbit bone in one, and Gazereye—the stone, not the actual eye of a Gazer—in the other.”
“Low-quality materials, but acceptable. I shall use the bone wand, Ceria, if you agree.”
“Fine by me.”
“Aw. Rabbit bone and stone? Is that really wand material?”
Erin peered dubiously at the wands. It was Pisces who answered with a second, self-important sniff.
“Both materials are decently rare and certainly useful as catalysts, Erin. Gazereye is a decently powerful hallucinogenic stone whose powers are magical and Waisrabbits have several unique abilities.”
“They can teleport. And cast a form of offensive magic. They’re quite hard to catch. These wands would be costly, if not exactly hard to acquire. What of the rings, Ryoka?”
“Okay, there’s three of them…uh, I think this one has the [Lightweight] enchantment. I thought it would be good for Ksmvr and Yvlon—you won’t be slowed down by the armor.”
“These two…Ksmvr, this ring lets you breathe underwater.”
“Very valuable. I shall take it.”
Ryoka sensed Ulrien and Halrac’s eyes on her. They knew that she knew the Antinium’s weak point. She cleared her throat and went on.
“And for you Ceria, I have this ring that has a catalyst built into it. It’s supposed to help amplify your ice spells. See, the outside is enchanted to insulate the inner part, because inside of it is—”
“Everfreeze Ice. I see.”
Pisces inspected the ring. Ryoka blinked.
“You can tell?”
“Oh yes. Springwalker could draw from the cold of the ice in situations where the temperature does not suit her spellcasting. It is a good choice. But where is my ring?”
“I have a spellbook. One filled with a few decent Tier 3 spells and some unusual Tier 2 and Tier 1 spells.”
Ryoka offered it to Pisces. He took it without comment and began flipping through it with desultory interest.
“And for me?”
Ksmvr stared at Ryoka. She smiled awkwardly.
“I didn’t know if any of the armor I got would fit you, Ksmvr. So instead I had Hedault find another sword. It’s enchanted to be a bit sharper and sturdier, but not much more. I’m told it’s good enough for a Gold-rank adventurer, though. I have a cloak designed to protect from mundane arrows as well, but that’s all I could find that would fit you. I got you a bow that can shoot twice as far and some enchanted arrows, but no armor. Sorry.”
The Antinium paused, and then nodded.
“That is quite enough. My thanks for the consideration you have shown.”
Ryoka paused. She had her hand over the bag of holding the Horns had given her. Now she reached into it and began to pull out potions, a scroll, a length of enchanted rope…
“This is extra stuff, but it’s the kind of adventuring gear that Gold-rank adventurers use. I’ve got strong healing potions, mana potions…enough to get you all set up.”
The Horns of Hammerad clustered around, appraising the items. Pisces looked quite impressed by the quality of the healing potions and tried to pocket one before Ceria caught him.
Revi edged over to her teammates. She whispered to them as the others kept talking.
“Hey Ulrien, Halrac, appraise how much those extra items were worth for me.”
The two experienced adventurers frowned. Ulrien started counting on his fingers.
“A full set of matching enchanted plate armor is…ten thousand gold pieces at least.”
“I don’t have a matching set of armor. Even if all the enchantments aren’t of the same quality, the fact that they don’t conflict is what matters. That’s why I use other enchantments and don’t wear plate at all. As for the wands, what do you think, Halrac?”
“At least a thousand gold pieces each. That [Necromancer] is underselling them. They’re not cheap, hundred gold-piece wands with an expendable spell. As for the sword…if it’s good enough for Gold-rank, it’s worth a few thousand gold.”
“Oh come on. I’ve seen weapons for a few hundred—”
“Not if it’s good, Revi. Quality matters and these ones have no mana bleed. That doubles their prices alone. Add in a spellbook for a thousand…robes are probably a few hundred…expensive cloak if it can resist arrow strikes…the bow…rings…”
“Don’t forget those potions and the other items. Some look useful.”
“Say twenty five thousand for the lot?”
“Twenty five thousand?
“I’m guessing. It could be half again as much. Or half that if you have a haggling Skill. The fact that all the enchantments don’t spill over is incredibly useful. It means the Horns can upgrade their pieces without fear or swap them out. That’s worth a large amount. As for the rest…”
“Makes you wonder what the item they sold was. It must have been expensive.”
Ulrien frowned thoughtfully.
“The real question is how big the debt the [Enchanter] owes them is. Is it a small favor or…?”
They turned their attention back to Ceria as she spoke to the others, gesturing to Ksmvr.
“We have a decent spread of equipment—and more gold than we gave Ryoka. We can outfit Ksmvr with anything else he might need.”
Ceria pointed to the pile on the table as she turned to the others. She was shaking and grinning at the same time. She hesitated, opened her mouth, turned to the rest of her group.
“Should we…start dividing stuff up? Does anyone have a preference?”
“The robes, armor and so on are easily divided. However, the most powerful items—the dagger, sword, buckler, and three rings are not. I shall express my desire for the [Barkskin] ring and the ring that projects the spell immediately.”
Pisces picked up both rings, looking at the others. Ceria frowned.
“You can’t have two rings, Pisces.”
“Because I want that ring.”
“Shouldn’t a warrior have it?”
“Yeah, but it’s [Barkskin]. Do you know how useful that is?”
“I do. That is why I want it.”
“Hold on, let’s not fight. We should decide who gets the easiest items to assign first.”
Yvlon interrupted the squabble between the two [Mages] as she picked up the sword. She swung it carefully as everyone backed up to let her do it. Yvlon looked at the sword, and then wistfully at the buckler.
“As much as I’d like a magical shield, having a sword like this has been a dream of mine. Ksmvr, would you let me take this one?”
“Yes, Comrade Yvlon. And I believe you should have this as well given that you are more proficient with it than I.”
To everyone’s surprise, Ksmvr handed the buckler to Yvlon. She tried to push it back, looking shocked.
“I can’t have both!”
“It is only logical. You are specialized in the sword and shield style of fighting, Comrade Yvlon. I am used to any number of weapon combinations. It would be most effective to concentrate strength in one member of the party.”
“But I—no, it wouldn’t be fair.”
“But it is I who insist. As a member of the party, I wish to make the most advantageous decision for the group possible.”
Everyone stared at Ksmvr. He shrugged. Yvlon looked moved to tears as she took the buckler.
“Call me Yvlon, Ksmvr. I’m sure I’ve told you that. And if you’re sure, I’ll gladly accept. But I won’t forget this.”
Ksmvr smiled, raising his mandibles and parting them slightly as Yvlon put the buckler on one arm and held the sword with the other. Fully armored once again and holding the two enchanted items, she looked like she was ready for another battle. Ryoka had to smile. Ksmvr’s generosity did unpleasantly happy things to her heart, and she saw Jelaqua nudge her two companions and grin as well. Halrac looked approving, and Ulrien and Typhenous were nodding in tandem.
Ashamed by Ksmvr’s display, Ceria and Pisces stopped fighting over the rings and looked at each other.
“Ksmvr’s right. You take the ring with the spell attack, Pisces.”
“And you take the [Barkskin] ring, Ceria.”
To the surprise of all again, Ceria handed both the [Barkskin] ring and the Ring of Jumping to Ksmvr. He stared down at them.
“But if I accept these items, what will you have, Captain Ceria?”
“Call me Ceria too, Ksmvr. And I have the spellbook. I think it’s fair if I don’t take an item, right Pisces?”
She looked at the [Necromancer]. He looked startled, and then shook his head.
“One item would be appropriate, Ceria.”
“Not if Ksmvr needs it. Ryoka had the right idea with the cloak, but Ksmvr can’t wear armor like most of us. He needs protection. As for the ring…I’m not a frog, and I hate heights. I don’t think you want to leap around, Pisces, Yvlon—”
Ryoka bit her lip as Ksmvr accepted the ring. She really, really would have liked it for herself. But she didn’t want to say it out loud and spoil the mood.
Newly equipped, the Horns of Hammerad looked at each other. Pisces was smiling, and Yvlon looked like a girl with a bunch of toys. Sharp, deadly toys.
“What do we do now, oh Captain? I want to run out and challenge a Mothbear right now.”
Ceria nodded, flipping the wand over in her hands and catching it. With a pang, Ryoka realized she alone would have only two new items from all of this, the wand and ring. But Ceria seemed happy enough. She thought, and then indicated the wand in her hands.
“Practice first. We have to know how to fight with all this—this equipment! Then we’ll think about what we could do with our new gear. I’ll bet there are all sorts of new tactics we could employ…”
“You might also want to see if the Guild will recertify you as Gold-rank adventurers.”
Everyone looked at Ulrien. The big man pointed at Yvlon’s sword.
“Your gear alone could make you a Gold-rank, Miss Yvlon. And given the experience of the others and your ability, I’d say getting the Guild to confirm your rank might be easy. If not, one or two requests would certainly put you there.”
Ceria and Yvlon breathed the words. Ryoka held her breath. Just like that. The Horns of Hammerad had approached the next tier of adventuring in a single moment. The moment lasted right up until Typhenous coughed.
“On the note of artifacts, I hate to make the request now, but before you are too accustomed to your items, I would like to ask if you had considered selling the ring young Pisces holds.”
The Horns of Hammerad stared at Typhenous. Ulrien nudged the older mage, looking disapproving, but Typhenous wouldn’t be dissuaded.
“I will pay more than the ring’s worth, enough for another magical item of similar or equal value. Such a ring could be quite useful to me.”
“Hey, if you’re bidding, what about me? I’ll pay more than Typhenous. Just show me what it can do.”
Revi crowded over to Pisces. Erin waved her hands frantically.
Seborn stared at the table.
“If we’re bidding, I’d like to ask if you’d consider selling the dagger. No one claimed that.”
“Oh, right! No one here uses daggers. I mean, have a backup, but I don’t need one. And Ksmvr—”
Ceria wavered. She looked at Ksmvr, who shrugged.
“I could use the weapon, but if it will assist the group as a whole…”
“How much would you pay for the dagger?”
Pisces’ eyes gleamed. Seborn began to count on his fingers. Typhenous and Revi were arguing and Ulrien was arguing with the both of them. Ceria raised her hands and shouted.
“Please, not right now! We won’t sell anything until we discuss…”
She looked helplessly at the others. Ulrien nodded.
“Ease off them, Typhenous, Revi. They’ve just gotten their first big haul. You remember how overwhelming that moment is.”
“Ah, I do. To be young again.”
Typhenous sighed, looking only slightly disappointed. Then he clicked his fingers together and created a shower of sparks in every color that delighted Mrsha.
“This calls for a celebration, doesn’t it?”
Jelaqua sprang onto a table with a mug. Mrsha leapt up beside her and the Selphid laughed and raised a mug towards Ceria and the others.
“To the Horns of Hammerad, on getting their first true haul from a dungeon! Erin, roll out some more kegs! It’s time to celebrate this properly!”
Everyone in the room cheered. Ceria laughed and Erin had to smile as Lyonette ran over to the bar’s counter to count how many kegs they actually had and if she’d have to buy more from Krshia.
Ryoka stared around as Yvlon and Ceria hugged each other and Jelaqua laughed and quaffed until Moore lifted her off the table. At once, the mood in the inn had turned festive. The Runner heard Halrac as the [Scout] turned to Revi.
“You’re not going to complain about another party, are you?”
“What do you take me for? I’m all for having fun. Hey Erin, just leave the keg out here why don’t you?”
“Hey, that’s the best idea you’ve ever had, Revi!”
Erin disappeared into the kitchen and then came out and helped Ulrien lift a barrel onto a table. Moore picked up another one and put it on a second table, and then Ryoka had a mug in her hands. Ceria hugged her.
“You did it. We have to thank you—and talk about paying you later!”
“Oh, that’s really not—”
Ryoka didn’t get a chance to finish. Suddenly Ceria was yelling for everyone to toast her. And of course, a toast meant a long drink. And Ryoka was tired from the road, and then Ivolethe decided to make off with a mug meant for Moore…
That was how the party went. Ryoka found herself playing with the bag of glowing stones, rolling them as Mrsha ran excitedly after the glowing treasures. Somehow, the people in the city had heard about the party—perhaps it was a Skill, or maybe there was a class, [Partycrasher]—and she saw familiar and unfamiliar faces mixing and laughing.
Then the door to Celum opened. Ryoka’s jaw dropped as a familiar head poked through. Octavia blinked as the wave of sound and light hit her.
“What the fuck?”
No one had told her about the door. Ryoka’s jaw stayed open as Octavia opened the door wider, exposing her shop, and then walked through, straight from Celum to Liscor in a moment. She raised her voice, called out.
“Hey Erin, I have another question about—is that Ryoka?”
She caught sight of Ryoka and nearly ran straight over Lyonette. The [Princess] turned [Barmaid] had a tray of drinks and slopped some onto Octavia’s front.
“Sorry, sorry! Uh, want a drink?”
“Don’t mind if I do!”
Octavia promptly forgot about what she wanted Erin for, took the mug, and laughed as she came over to Ryoka.
“Ryoka! You didn’t tell me you were in Liscor!”
“How did you—”
“Oh, the door? Wonderful thing. I still think I should be charging a fee, what with Erin putting it in my shop. You didn’t know? Well, it’s not like you ran all the way to Liscor from Celum, is it? Hah! Runner joke there. Don’t scowl. Uh…so anyways, there’s this door. Let me tell you all about it!”
It was a garbled explanation, but Ryoka got the gist. After Octavia had wandered away to find a second drink—she’d downed the first one with incredible speed—Ryoka went looking for Erin. She had a magical door? Ryoka’s mind felt stretched by the possibilities it represented.
“Hey Erin. About this door—”
“Oh, right! The door! Yeah, didn’t I tell you about it? It’s amazing—”
“If you did, I don’t remember!”
“I said if you did—”
“Sorry, let me—Lyonette! I have the noodles ready! Where’d you put the beef?”
Turning her head, Ryoka saw Lyonette scream back across the room.
“Upper left pantry!”
Erin went to the upper left pantry, and Ryoka saw to her horror that a plate of raw beef, still bloody and raw, was sitting there. She grabbed Erin’s arm when the girl went to grab it.
“You’re not going to cook that!”
“Yeah, why not?”
The girl stared at Ryoka blankly as Ryoka gabbled for words.
“It’s raw! It’s been sitting out there for…who knows how long! Haven’t you frozen it or—or—”
“Oh! I get it!”
Erin slapped her forehead, grinning hugely.
“I have a new Skill!”
“I just got it and—hang on, I’m coming!”
Erin turned and shouted at Ceria, who was waving and shouting something about a french fry disaster and Ksmvr. She made a face.
“Sorry! Explain in a bit.”
But it turned out that little bit was a while, and when Erin came back, she had to hurry and get the rest of the food she’d been cooking ready for the hungry partyers.
“So Erin, we should talk—”
“Totally! Totally! Hand me that bowl of butter, will you?”
Ryoka did. Erin grabbed it and put a generous dollop into her pasta, making it sinfully buttery. Ryoka had to raise her voice to make herself heard above the general din.
She’d followed Erin into the kitchen, but Ryoka had to keep stepping aside to let Lyonette and Erin rush about with dishes. Ryoka fed bits of marinated beef to Mrsha as she tried to keep up a conversation with Erin.
“So what’s been happening?”
“Oh…you know, stuff. Nothing much.”
That was a total non-answer and a lie, but really, what was Erin supposed to say? The [Innkeeper] was in her element, which was to say, doing everything at once for everyone. Ryoka saw Erin find a bowl for her beef, which was excellent, it had to be said, bring a pot of pasta out for people as Lyonette cleared a table, rush back into the kitchen to find plates, forks, knives, spoons…she was so busy and yet she turned Ryoka down when the girl offered to help.
“You have fun! You just got back, so…relax!”
Ryoka tried to, but she couldn’t help but feel guilty. Because she’d intended to talk with Erin, and she didn’t seem to have the opportunity to. She kept telling herself she’d do it later, when everything was quieter.
In her defense, it had been a long time since Ryoka had last been to the Wandering Inn.
How does news of a party spread? It could only be magical, or so Erin felt. It was some divine providence, some kind of fate that snagged people up and told the little part of their brains that lived for trying to limbo underneath a sword while drinking shots of Thunderhammer—it was close enough to what Erin had explained, so she let it go—that there was fun to be had.
Maybe that was how a group of Humans from Celum ended up mixing with the Gnolls and Drakes from Liscor. Then again, most were adventurers, and perhaps it was one of the Gold-rank adventurers who’d spread the word. They’d come to celebrate the Horns of Hammerad ostensibly; really, adventurers would use any excuse to eat and get drunk.
But they weren’t the only ones. In the middle of the party, as Erin was debating having a seat and seeing Ryoka had time to have a shouted conversation…maybe outside, she heard someone shout.
Suddenly, the door to Celum was open and Garia and Fals came through. They made a beeline for Ryoka, who looked startled and pleased to see them. Erin smiled, but the smile slipped a bit and she had to hang onto it.
She was so busy. Erin hadn’t been planning a party tonight and she had to scramble to use all the food in her stores. But it was a party for Ryoka and the Horns of Hammerad, so she worked hard and tried to make everyone happy, mainly by stuffing their faces and serving them drinks until they threw up, which was another problem. Erin kept busy into the night, serving tables, cooking more food. She was making money, and that was good too, right?
She was tired, dragging again, when it was over, sometime past midnight. Erin stared around the room, ready to crash despite the dirty tables, when she realized Ryoka didn’t have anywhere to sleep.
“What if she sleeps upstairs with Mrsha and me? There’s plenty of room.”
Lyonette suggested to the two as Erin wrung her hands and Ryoka offered to sleep in the basement. Erin nodded, relieved. Ryoka paused, looking and feeling guilty.
“Ah, well, it’s too late to chat. We have to catch up sometime, right?”
Erin smiled, tired, sleepy, a tiny bit upset. She glanced around the dirty inn, filled with things to do and lied to Ryoka.
“Oh, it’s no problem. We’ll talk tomorrow, right?”
Ryoka hesitated and then turned away, practically dead on her feet. Erin stared at a table, and knew if she didn’t clean up now, she’d have to do it while making breakfast. She lurched over to a table, wandering to sleep. Ryoka watched her friend, full of unsaid words and things she wanted to say or ask, but was too afraid to.
Two young women, two friends, stood in the dark inn by the flickering fire, feeling more like strangers because they hadn’t talked yet. Because they had their own lives, which was natural. But they still felt the distance.
And then as Ryoka got ready to sleep in a room where a small Gnoll cub was lying on the floor in the moonlight, her sides rising and falling, Lyonette drew Ryoka aside. She told her about Christmas. And Ryoka remembered the sight of Erin bending over a table, collecting dishes in the darkness, and knew what she had to do.