4.11

Ryoka woke up when she stopped breathing. It wasn’t that she’d stopped trying of course; it was just that trying to inhale through a layer of fur was a nearly impossible feat.

“Grfph!”

Mrsha had been happily sleeping in her new spot on Ryoka’s head. She went flying as Ryoka sat up, but landed in her actual bed. She woke up, looked around, and glared at Ryoka reproachfully.

Ryoka glared back. She coughed, spat out a bit of white fur, and looked around.

That was not fun. Mrsha, you’re not a cat. Don’t act like one.”

The Gnoll sat up and yawned. She scratched at her head with a paw, and then padded over to Ryoka. She began to rub her head against Ryoka’s face.

That was like a cat. But a cat didn’t hug you. Ryoka felt her irritation slipping away. She hesitated, then hugged Mrsha back.

“Okay. Okay, I guess I can forgive you. Why don’t we have breakfast now that I’m up?”

The Gnoll nodded eagerly. She scampered towards the stairs and Ryoka wondered what she was going to do with Mrsha. What could she do? The Gnoll was homeless. This was a good home for her, but—

She wasn’t a cat. She was a person, a child. Yet she couldn’t speak. And Ryoka had no idea how old Mrsha really was. Urksh had talked to her like she was a kid, but she could be anywhere from just a baby to a pre-teen by that standard.

Ryoka dressed herself and blinked at the dark sky. She walked downstairs, hearing Mrsha running about. Her mind was filled with somber thoughts.

If she was in her tribe, Mrsha might have grown up fine. She could be a [Hunter], a [Cook]—her disability wouldn’t hinder anything else. But if she grew up here, what would she do when she was older? Get a job at Erin’s inn?

Would they be around that long? Would Erin and Ryoka grow up here? Really? And if they didn’t, what would happen to Mrsha, to Lyonette, when they left?

These were dark thoughts for a morning. Ryoka decided she wanted to face them on a full stomach. Hopefully Erin was awake. Maybe Ryoka could sneak by her and steal some food? The Asian girl blinked as she entered the common room of the inn.

“Huh.”

“Morning Ryoka! Want some honey bread and sausage?”

Erin grinned as she turned with frying pan and spatula in hand. She finished ladling hot, sizzling sausage onto Zel Shivertail’s plate as Mrsha sat herself down next to him. The Gnoll cub waved to Ryoka and bounced up and down in her seat.

“Erin. You’re already up?”

“Yup! I’ve been awake for like an hour. Or two? Lyonette’s got your bread. Hey Mrsha, leave some honey for Ryoka, okay?”

The Gnoll nodded eagerly as Lyonette emerged from the kitchen with some bread, steaming, freshly cut. Ryoka’s stomach began to rumble the instant she smelled it.

“Good morning, Ryoka.”

Zel greeted Ryoka as if there was nothing odd about sitting with Mrsha. He smiled as Mrsha reached for a mug in Lyonette’s hand. The [Princess] frowned at Mrsha.

“Don’t grab or I’ll drop everything, Mrsha.”

Obediently, Mrsha sat and waited for Lyonette to put the mug on the table. Lyon turned and smiled at Ryoka.

“Hi Ryoka. Is bread and sausage good?”

“Uh…sure.”

Still blinking sleep from her eyes, Ryoka sat at the table across from Zel. She watched as Mrsha began to slurp greedily at the warm honeyed milk. In moments, she had her own plate of bread, sausage, and a mug of hot milk. Zel passed a bowl of honey across the table and Ryoka slathered it over her bread.

“Hell of a breakfast.”

“I’m growing soft with age. I can’t stay here too long or I’ll get spoiled by the food.”

Zel sighed happily as he patted his stomach. He eyed Ryoka, and the young woman tensed slightly. But Zel just nodded to the honey.

“Mind passing it back? I think Mrsha wants more.”

That was breakfast. Zel didn’t speak much, and Mrsha was happy enough to provide enough entertainment at the table. She unabashedly tried to steal food from both Ryoka and Zel’s plates when she was done with her food. Not because she was hungry; Ryoka was sure she could get more if she wanted. It seemed to be a game.

Zel casually blocked Mrsha’s paws, smiling fondly as she tried to sneak around his plate and grab his food. Ryoka deliberately lifted her plate up as Mrsha tried the same on her; the Gnoll leapt onto her chair and tried to climb Ryoka’s head.

“Mrsha!”

Lyonette rescued Ryoka as Ryoka tried to keep from dropping her plate. She pulled Mrsha off and made the Gnoll apologize to Ryoka. Then more people came downstairs, attracted by the noise and food. And then a door opened and the Horns of Hammerad came up out of the basement.

“Ah, is Mrsha causing trouble again?”

Ceria smiled at the Gnoll. Pisces blinked and rubbed at his face as he slumped over to a table. He didn’t seem to wake up until Lyonette passed him a mug and put food in front of his face.

“Don’t try stealing from me today, child.”

Revi stared at Mrsha as the Gnoll abandoned her table in search of new targets. She tugged at a loose thread around her neck as Mrsha ignored her. Jelaqua laughed as she tempted Mrsha over with a sausage held in pallid fingers. Mrsha leapt, but Jelaqua’s hand blurred and she was chomping down the sausage and catching Mrsha by the time the Gnoll landed.

“Please don’t encourage her, Jelaqua.”

Ryoka stared as the room filled with adventurers. She blinked down at her empty mug and raised it as Lyonette passed by with a pitcher.

“Oops. Here you are, Ryoka.”

Ryoka sipped at the sweet honey milk and then turned her head as a door opened. Not to the front of the inn. Rather, a door set in the side of the wall opened and closed. Ryoka stared as Octavia, looking more disheveled than Pisces, stumbled in.

“Food? Food…”

She stumbled over to a table and put her head down. She was red-eyed and had shadows from lack of sleep. She ate her bread like a starving thing, scarfing it down and snarling at Mrsha when the Gnoll got close.

This was how breakfast in Erin’s inn went. Ryoka sat, sipping her drink with Zel as she watched Pisces tease Mrsha, levitating a chunk of honey-coated bread just over the Gnoll’s head as she leapt and tried to catch it.

Ryoka saw how bustling Erin’s inn was. She felt almost out of place in this new atmosphere, but she could see how it attracted people. There was good food to eat—bread not a minute out of the oven and hot sausage was a treat, even for someone who used to eat in fancy hotels and restaurants when her family travelled.

Ryoka watched as Lyonette rushed about the room, refilling drinks, taking requests, and because she knew to look for it, she watched Erin. The [Innkeeper] didn’t stop moving. She was in the kitchen, cooking, chatting with Halrac at a table, breaking up a fight between Octavia and Pisces over the last piece of bread—and she’d been up for two hours already.

“Erin, I would love to talk about those magical dishes you made for those adventurers a day ago.”

Jelaqua was speaking with Erin as the girl brought over a second loaf of bread to the table for Moore. Ryoka took a breath and stood up. Time to make her move.

“Excuse me?”

The adventurer and Erin looked over as Ryoka made her way over to them. Erin smiled, and Ryoka nodded politely at Jelaqua. She had a hard time not staring at the Selphid’s incredibly pale face, and a harder time not ogling the gigantic man sitting on the ground and still bending over the table, or the half-crustacean fellow.

“What’s up, Ryoka?”

“Sorry—Jelaqua, is it? I’m going to have to ask that you talk to Erin later. She’s got a prior appointment today.”

“Oh?”

Jelaqua’s eyebrows rose. She glanced at Erin, whose face had gone totally blank. Ryoka was just glad she didn’t need Erin to pretend anything. The girl was awful at lying.

“I do? Uh, I don’t remember Ryoka—”

“We’re going out. Just you and me.”

“What? We are?”

Every head in the room turned. Ryoka felt herself go a bit red. She still hated being at the center of attention. But she was getting used to it.

“That’s right. You need a break. And we’ve got catching up to do. So you can finish serving breakfast—”

“I can do it!”

Lyonette waved a hand eagerly. She winked unsubtly at Ryoka. Erin hesitated.

“But I should do lunch. And there’s this thing I do with adventurers, Ryoka—”

“Nope. It can wait. You go have fun!”

Jelaqua laughed. She reached out and slapped Erin on the back. The girl staggered a few steps until Ryoka caught her. Seborn kicked Jelaqua. The Selphid looked abashed.

“Oops. Sorry.”

“No problem. But I’ve got an inn, Ryoka. I can’t just—”

“No arguments. We’re going to go to Celum. Lyonette’s got the shop.”

“Hold on!”

Ceria called out, frowning. She looked at Ryoka.

“We wanted to talk with you, Ryoka. We still need to pay you for going all the way to Invrisil and getting all the artifacts appraised—”

“Tomorrow.”

Ryoka tried to drag Erin towards the door Octavia had stepped through. Someone else called out.

“Hold up! What about lunch?”

Revi crossed her arms. Ryoka stared at her.

“Get it somewhere else. Or I’m sure Lyonette could make something.”

“You’re just going to walk off with our [Innkeeper]? What if we need her?”

“Too bad. She needs a break.”

“Ryoka, really, I appreciate it, but—”

“Nope.”

There was an art to being a jerk. Ryoka shut Erin down and turned her. She began to push her towards the magical door. She met Zel’s eyes as the [General] stared at her in amusement and looked away. She aimed her next comment at the entire room.

“Erin needs a break and I want to catch up with her. But I can’t do that when every two seconds someone wants a piece of her, or needs her to solve some incredible problem.”

The adventurers in the room glanced at each other. Halrac nodded to Ulrien and the big adventurer spoke for his group.

“No objections. Go ahead, Miss Erin. You do deserve a break.”

“I—well—okay—but are you sure, Lyonette?”

“Go ahead!”

Mrsha ran after Erin and Ryoka, but that was fine. Ryoka had nearly gotten the weakly protesting Erin to the door.

“Maybe I can just help tidy up—”

“Nope. Now, let’s get out of here before—”

The door burst open. Ryoka heard a shout.

“Erin! Erin!

Olesm ran into the room, trailing snow and looking about excitedly. He spotted Erin and made a beeline to her. Ryoka tried to bar the Drake as he danced excitedly around her and Erin.

“Erin, you’ll never guess what!”

“What?”

“I just got the most incredible communication from one of the Walled Cities. I just learned—and you’ll never believe this—”

Nope!

Ryoka threw her arms up and blocked Olesm as the Drake tried to show a letter to Erin. Olesm halted and stared at her, confused.

“Oh. Miss Ryoka. You’re back. Well, listen to this—”

“No.”

The [Tactician] looked surprised.

“No?”

“No. I’m sorry Olesm, but whatever you have to say, you’ll have to say it to Erin later. Tonight, maybe.”

“What? But I can’t wait that long—”

“Too bad. Erin’s busy. She’s taking a break today.”

Olesm stared at Ryoka, completely dumbfounded. He raised the scrap of parchment in his claws helplessly and gestured towards it.

“But it’s the most incredible news—”

“Is someone going to die if Erin doesn’t hear it?”

Ryoka crossed her arms. Olesm hesitated. His energetically waving tail slowed.

“…No.”

Ryoka nodded.

“In that case, will this incredible thing still be there tomorrow?”

“Yes.”

“Then it can wait. Erin, come on.”

“Sorry, Olesm.”

“Aw, but—”

Ryoka opened the door as Olesm danced in place, looking upset. He called out as Ryoka stared into Octavia’s shop, eying the place where Erin’s inn vanished and Octavia’s shop began. That was real magic.

“You first, Erin.”

“Okay.”

“But it would just take five minutes! Ten! Please?”

“No.”

“It’s about chess!”

“Don’t care.”

Erin’s head turned as Ryoka tried to push her through the door.

“Well, if it’s about chess—

“No. You’re taking a break.”

Ryoka got her friend through the doorway. The people in Erin’s inn heard her arguing with the other girl for a moment, and then the door closed. Olesm stood dejectedly in the center of the inn, looking heartbroken.

A few seconds later, the door opened. Every head turned as Pawn walked into the inn, brushing snow off of his head. He was followed a second later by another Antinium holding a bow and a dead bird. Well, ‘bird’ was stretching the term generously. This one looked like a smaller version of a pterodactyl.

Pawn glanced around the room as Bird brushed snow off of his shoulders. He opened his mandibles and addressed Lyonette.

“Is Erin here?”

Bird raised his catch.

“I have birds. They are not rotten.”

Everyone stared at them. Ceria paused mid-chew and swallowed what was in her mouth. She looked at Yvlon, who smiled crookedly.

“Ryoka does have a point.”

 

—-

 

“Aw, come on Ryoka. I want to know what Olesm has to say!”

“And you can. Later. For now—come on Mrsha. Don’t wander off!”

Ryoka strode down the street, shepherding Mrsha and Erin both. They were like cats. Mrsha hadn’t been part of Ryoka’s plan, but she’d snuck through the door into Celum behind the girls and Ryoka didn’t want to spend time trying to make her go back.

She had to talk with Erin. She had to. She’d put it off for too long. And she needed privacy to do that. So Ryoka took Erin to the one place where she was sure no one would bother them.

The Runner’s Guild in Celum.

Heads turned as Ryoka pushed open the door. She grinned as she walked into the room.

“Hey there. I’m back. Anyone miss me?”

For a second, Ryoka thought the [Receptionist] at the counter might have had a heart attack on seeing Ryoka’s face. Every eye immediately scanned Ryoka, searching no doubt for a small blue faerie. But Ryoka hadn’t spotted Ivolethe today. Instead, the Runners and [Receptionists] only saw Erin and Mrsha, sniffing the air curiously.

“Miss Ryoka, ah, how can we help you today?”

One of the female [Receptionists] hurried across the room towards Ryoka. She looked apprehensive, but Ryoka only smiled.

“I’d like to use one of the private meetings rooms if they’re available. Can you give me a key?”

“A private—oh.”

The [Receptionist] blinked at Erin. The other girl smiled at her.

“Hi, I’m Erin. How are you?”

Ryoka coughed.

“She’s my client.”

“Oh. Oh. In that case, let me just—”

The [Receptionist] hurried back to the counter and had a conversation with her co-worker. Erin edged over to Ryoka as Mrsha stared at the Runners and they stared back.

“Ryoka, what are we doing?”

“Finding somewhere quiet to talk.”

The Runner’s Guild was hardly a quiet place. However, it did have one feature that made it ideal for people who needed privacy, and that was the rule about Runner’s confidentiality.

Whether it was a letter, a parcel, a giant flaming sword with the owner’s name on it or anything in between, a Runner was supposed to keep the name of their clients and the nature of their delivery secret, even from people like [Guardsmen]. Unless they were testifying in relation to a crime, that was.

It was an unspoken code of conduct that wasn’t as highly enforced among Street Runners, but City Runners and especially Couriers traded on their trustworthiness. Your reputation for keeping secrets was part of your identity as a Runner. A Runner who blabbed might find themselves out of work or with a knife in their backs.

And to facilitate that need for secrecy, each Guild had one or two or many rooms that could be used by clients wanting to talk to Runners about personal deliveries. Such deals were often quite lucrative, and usually only occurred between Runners who’d worked with the same person for a number of years. They met in these rooms, which were shielded against eavesdropping and of course, completely private for the two to meet in safety.

This was what Ryoka wanted now. She waited until the woman at the desk came back with something in her hand. A key.

“Miss Ryoka, your room is the first up the stairs. I hope you and your client have a pleasant negotiation.”

She stared at Erin, and the girl smiled at her. Ryoka smiled.

“Thanks. I notice you got all that snow cleared up. I guess I’m forgiven since you haven’t kicked me out yet, right? Or is Persua banned for life?”

A muscle twitched in the [Receptionist]’s face.

“I believe the [Guildmaster] will want to speak with you later. But please, take this key.”

She handed the key to Ryoka and turned away. Ryoka felt a bit guilty, but she still hadn’t quite forgiven the Guild for letting Persua act like…Persua. Erin nudged Ryoka.

“What snow?”

“Oh—I’ll explain in a bit. We’re just going up the stairs to somewhere we can talk.”

They made it halfway across the room when someone called out.

“Is that you, Ryoka?”

Ryoka groaned. But she turned and smiled as Garia Strongheart came over, smiling cautiously.

“Hey Garia.”

“Hey Ryoka! I didn’t think I’d see you here today. We only got to talk a bit last night…hi Erin. Who’s this?”

She looked down at Mrsha. The Gnoll stared up at the bigger girl, circling her warily. Ryoka hesitated. That part of her that had recently appeared, the part that said she should be nice to Garia, was struggling with her blunt, rude self, which was to say, the rest of her.

“Sorry Garia, I’d love to chat, but I’ve really got to talk with Erin about something important. But uh…this is Mrsha.”

“Oh. Hello!”

Garia smiled at the Gnoll and reached down to scratch her ears like a dog. Mrsha recoiled and Garia paused. She looked a bit hurt on both counts, so Ryoka put a hand on her shoulder and smiled apologetically.

“If you’re still in the city after this, I’ll find you, okay?”

“Oh, it’s no problem. I wasn’t going to do a run today—I sort of sprained my ankle and I’m taking it easy. I had a healing potion, but it was low-quality…but I don’t want to get in the way of your conversation.”

Garia was so apologetic that it made Ryoka feel guilty. She ushered Erin up the stairs and into the first room she came to.

The room used for private meetings was filled with a nice table, padded chairs, and not much else. It had a window looking out into the city, but since they weren’t glass windows, the shutters were closed. Ryoka wondered what the rooms in the Runner’s Guild in Invrisil would have looked like.

“Okay, now we’re here.”

Erin blinked around the room as Mrsha leapt onto a chair and then onto a table. She took a seat while Ryoka hesitated and then took the one opposite her. It didn’t feel as comfortable as Ryoka had hoped—the room was meant for business deals, not chats.

“Sorry about all that. But I think we can talk here without anyone bothering us. No one’s allowed to disturb a private meeting unless there’s a real emergency.”

“Oh. So that’s why we’re here. We could have just talked at my inn. Come here, Mrsha.”

Erin let the Gnoll jump into her lap and cuddled her as she looked at Ryoka. The Runner coughed.

They were here. Ryoka had planned this out last night before she’d slept with Lyonette. It was a chance to talk to Erin, finally, with no one to interrupt.

Only now she was here, Ryoka realized she had no idea how to start. They were going to talk.

…How?

She couldn’t think of how to start the conversation. Ryoka froze up. She felt as tongue-tied as she used to be. Erin was her friend. But she hadn’t talked to her in…forever. How could she begin?

Erin wasn’t helping. The girl was glancing around the room and whispering to Mrsha as the Gnoll wriggled happily in her arms. Ryoka felt the awkwardness quotient in the room rise until Erin broke the silence.

“Why did you say I needed a break, anyways?”

Ryoka stared at Mrsha as the Gnoll tried to carve into the wooden table with her claws. What was she supposed to say? No. She had to be honest.

“Lyonette told me about your Christmas party.”

Erin paused. She looked down at her hands.

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

Silence. It was the thing Ryoka dreaded the most. She looked at Erin, but she had no idea what the other girl was thinking. How could anyone read minds? Was she angry at Lyonette? Or Ryoka? Did she not want to talk about it?

Conversation was a quagmire, a bog of uncertainty. And Ryoka sank like a stone.

“I uh, well, it must have been rough.”

Mrsha looked up as she sat in Erin’s lap. Erin wasn’t smiling. She stared at the shuttered window.

“Yeah. It was really embarrassing, to tell the truth.”

Ryoka cleared her throat.

“Well, you must have been really stressed out.”

“I was.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“That’s nice of you to say. But y’know, it kinda was, right?”

“Well…”

Ryoka coughed and fidgeted. She cast about, tried another line.

“You have so much to do every day. I saw breakfast. That’s an undertaking.”

Erin nodded.

“Yeah. I don’t know how I could keep up without Lyonette’s help. She works really hard. I bet that was a surprise when you met her again, right?”

“I barely recognized her, to be honest.”

It was like meeting a completely different person. Ryoka could barely remember the previous Lyonette, when she’d met her again. The old one had been haughty, arrogant, and rude. This new Lyonette had callused hands, was always busy, and cared for Mrsha like a sister. Or a mother.

“What happened?”

“I left her alone. She was the only one in the inn and…”

Erin stared at the table. Then she looked at Ryoka, guiltily.

“I think she was starving. I mean, literally starving to death while I was gone. No one went to visit her except Olesm, and he only did it when he was checking if I’d come back. She must have…run out of food for a while. She didn’t say, but I think that’s what happened.”

“Jeez.”

Ryoka stared at the table blankly for a second. She didn’t know what she was supposed to say.

“That’s rough.”

Wholly inadequate words, delivered too late. Erin nodded. She stared at Ryoka, and Ryoka stared back until things got too awkward and they both looked away. Someone’s stomach rumbled. To Ryoka’s surprise, it wasn’t Mrsha’s.

“Sorry, that was me.”

Erin patted Mrsha as the Gnoll turned to inspect her belly. She looked at Ryoka with a guilty grin.

“I know we’re talking and stuff, but do you mind if we got something to eat? I actually uh, didn’t have breakfast yet. I had some sausage and a bit of bread, but I was going to eat after everyone else…”

“Oh. Damn. Sorry—I’ll check.”

Flustered, Ryoka got up. She exited the door as Erin tried to stop Mrsha from ducking her head under her shirt. The [Receptionist] at the desk blinked as Ryoka strode over to her.

“Can I help you, Miss Ryoka?”

“Yes you can. Get us, uh—something to eat. We need snacks.”

“Snacks?”

Ryoka nodded distractedly.

“A cheese platter or something.”

“Ryoka?”

Someone called her name and came over. She turned and saw Fals grinning at her.

“Fancy meeting you here! Garia said you were in a meeting with Erin. Everything okay?”

“Fals. Good to see you.”

Ryoka clasped his hand and then looked at the receptionist.

“Can we get something to eat?”

The woman hesitated, looking torn. It was customary for Runners to make these kinds of demands. Well, not customary, but if a Runner—or more likely, Courier—were meeting with an important client, refreshments were a natural part of the negotiations. Only Ryoka thought that the [Receptionist] had clued into the fact that Erin and Mrsha weren’t exactly VIP guests.

“Eat?”

Fals blinked at Ryoka, and then caught on. He winked at her while the [Receptionist] was looking away from him. Then he looked very concerned and raised his voice slightly.

“Oh, you mean for Miss Solstice? A very important guest. You’re entertaining her here? I’m sure the Guild could get some of those jam buns down the street as well. After all, Erin does talk with Gold-rank adventurers on a daily basis.”

“Not to mention a Drake [General].”

Ryoka saw the [Receptionist]’s eyes go round as she and Fals nodded at each other seriously. He had an excellent deadpan face.

 

—-

 

Erin was teaching Mrsha how to do trust falls off of a chair and the Gnoll was doing absolutely no trusting or falling when Ryoka opened the door. Both looked up as Ryoka smiled hesitantly at them.

“Okay, there will be snacks sent up shortly. We’ll also get drinks—I said you’d like fruit juice so they’ll see what they have. Uh, I think we might get some buns, a cheese platter—what?”

Her friend was giving her an amused look.

“That’s a lot of food! I could have just eaten an apple, you know.”

“Uh, sorry.”

Ryoka flushed a bit.

“I just wanted to get everything we might want right away. There will be uh, pillows delivered as well.”

Erin burst out laughing and Ryoka felt herself go crimson. But before embarrassment could poke  her with hot needles, Erin was nodding appreciatively.

“I totally support your decision, Ryoka. One hundred and twelve percent. I did the exact same thing too.”

Ryoka blinked.

“You did?”

The innkeeper girl smiled as she recalled.

“Back home—I’d get a bag of chips, one of those big ones from the store, a full water bottle, and a couple of blankets and then get my laptop to watch TV all night…or play chess.”

She waggled her eyebrows at Erin, which made Mrsha immediately place a paw over them. Ryoka grinned as she sat down again. There was no hesitation now as she spoke, confiding a secret to Erin and the distracted Mrsha.

“When I was a kid, I’d buy food and then try to hide somewhere in the house so my dad couldn’t make me go to formal events. One time I hid in a closet and no one could see me when they opened the door. I spent two days in there, sneaking out to use the bathroom at night.”

Erin laughed in delight. Ryoka grinned, although internally she winced at the memory. Her little game had ended when the police had shown up to take her parents’ statement. They’d thought she’d either run away (again) or been kidnapped.

The idiot she’d been in the past helped the Ryoka of today, though. Erin was laughing at the memory, and right on cue, the door opened and Mrsha sat up, wagging her tail as a [Receptionist] carefully edged into the room with food.

It was a cheese platter after all. Ryoka blinked down at it, surprised that people in this world had cheese platters. And more food came—and pillows! Erin and Ryoka put the food on the table and Mrsha began scarfing some of it down. But all too soon the Gnoll cub was pacing around the room, too full for snacks.

“Uh oh. I think Mrsha wants to go somewhere where there’s more stuff.”

Erin looked concerned as Mrsha stood up and clumsily tried the door handle. The Gnoll looked pleadingly at Ryoka, who frowned at this second unexpected conundrum.

“Maybe she can go downstairs? There’s more space down there and I think she could hang out with Garia and Fals. They’d love to spoil her, I’m sure.”

Erin nodded hesitantly.

“Are you sure it’ll be safe?”

Ryoka had to think about this, and because it involved Mrsha, she double-checked her own thoughts.

“Persua’s gone, and her little gang revolved around her. More importantly, both Fals and Garia are there. They’re responsible and I think Garia would put someone’s head through a wall before she let anyone hurt Mrsha. I’ll go with her and ask if it’s okay.”

A few minutes later Mrsha happily bounced downstairs with Garia and Fals laughing and promising to buy her some dried jerky. Ryoka took a seat in the room and found a pillow on her chair. Erin was already sitting on hers.

“Double padding. See?”

Ryoka smiled. The tension was gone now, and she felt like she could talk. She sighed as she closed the door.

What should she say? This time Ryoka knew the answer. Whatever came to mind. Whatever she needed to say. Because she was beginning to remember it now. This was how it went. She had a friend. And what could you tell a friend, a true friend, a good friend?

Anything.

“I worry about her you know.”

“Who? Mrsha?”

Ryoka nodded. Erin had a piece of cheese on a jam bun and she was nibbling at it. Ryoka picked up a bit of goat’s cheese and stared at it. She popped it into her mouth and swallowed before speaking.

“She’s my responsibility. Her tribe sacrificed themselves so she and I could get away. I…just don’t know how to look after her. I’m not a mother, and I can’t stay with her all the time.”

“I don’t think you have to. Lyonette’s here and I am happy to have Mrsha in my inn.”

“I know. And I’m grateful. But it’s not fair to Mrsha. She deserves someone to look after her.”

“And it has to be you?”

“Well yeah—”

Ryoka paused, thrown by the question. Erin was staring at her.

“She’s my responsibility.”

“But that doesn’t mean you can’t get help, right? I talked to Krshia, and she’s teaching Mrsha some days. And Selys helps babysit her on her days off…I think Mrsha’s really happy here. If you spend a lot of time with her when you’re here, what’s the problem? She knows you’re a Runner. Just be nice to her and hug her a lot whenever she’s around.”

For a while Ryoka stared at Erin. She opened her mouth, closed it. And then she laughed.

“Damn. No wonder people come to you for advice.”

The other girl blushed a bit.

“I dunno about all that. I’m just saying things how I see it. Mrsha’s part of the inn, now. I can’t imagine not waking up and having her try to eat everything in sight.”

They laughed at that. They laughed, and a bit more of the invisible wall they’d built up broke away soundlessly. It was only a wall if you thought it was a wall. And this was the feeling Ryoka had craved.

This was the feeling Erin had craved. The innkeeper sat across from Ryoka, staring at her friend. She’d almost forgotten what it was like to speak with Ryoka. The other girl was tall, Asian—the most unique Human in this world, aside from maybe Revi or Octavia. No one looked like her.

And Erin could talk to her about things only Ryoka could understand.

Ryoka had discovered the joys of a brie-like cheese, close in texture, but slightly greenish and with a sharper tang to the flavor than she was used to. She offered some to Erin, and Erin declined. She had a lovely striped cheese that went very nicely with a bit of dried plum on the platter.

“So what really happened while I was gone? How’d you get back? Was everything really okay?”

For a second Erin’s mind went blank as Ryoka asked the question. She thought of everything that had transpired since she’d left Celum. She took a deep breath, put down her food, and looked at Ryoka, happiness gone.

“I killed Toren.”

Ryoka froze. She looked at Erin.

“You met him? Did he try to attack you?”

The other girl shook her head.

“No. I never saw him after he ditched me. But I heard—oh, Ryoka. I heard a lot of terrible things.”

She told Ryoka about Toren. How he’d attacked people on the road, ambushed travelers, and how she’d told Pisces to cut her mana supply. Ryoka clenched her fist, crumbling a cracker to dust in her hand as she listened.

“I’m sorry about that.”

“You warned me. I should have listened.”

There were no words for the guilt Erin felt. Ryoka nodded, looking upset.

“I did. But I didn’t think he’d suddenly start killing—I wonder if something Pisces did went wrong? Or maybe it’s because he could level…anyways, that’s really…are you sure he’s dead?”

“What?”

“Rule of monsters, Erin. In every scary movie, in every video game…the monster’s not dead until you see the body. And sometimes, not even then.”

Ryoka stared at her friend. Erin had frozen in her seat.

“You think Toren’s alive? But I cut his mana supply…”

“Maybe he had a mana potion? Or…is there a way to generate mana on your own? Could he have found another master or something? This is reality, not a movie, Erin. But we are in a fantasy world.”

“I know. I get it. I’ll—I’ll keep an ear open. If anyone talks about a skeleton, I’ll know.”

Erin sat with her hands woven together, staring down at the table. Ryoka stared at her and coughed.

“Sorry. I didn’t want to—look, it’s just a thought.”

“I know. And I did more than just kill Toren, I mean, that was like the last thing that happened. Actually, a lot of things happened while you were gone! What happened to you? I heard Magnolia spirited you away when you went to Ocre to visit Ceria and the others. What did she want?”

Ryoka shrugged.

“The usual. Threats, interrogation, intrigue—”

“Aw. Did she try and charm you as well?”

“That was the first thing she did! God—I could have kicked her ass, but not with Ressa there. Oh!”

Ryoka snapped her fingers. The sound was a crack—in the small room it was like a gunshot. Erin jumped.

“That’s loud!

“Sorry. But you don’t know! Guess what I found out on the way to Magnolia’s mansion? Ressa’s not just a [Maid]. She’s a [Ninja].”

“What? You’re joking.”

“I’m sure of it. I saw her toss a throwing star at a bunch of Goblins that ambushed the carriage. And after that, when Magnolia was attacked by the assassins, she was fighting them like—”

What? An assassin attack?”

“Oh, yeah. That.”

Ryoka waved a hand airily, concealing a grin. Near-death experience and horrifying trauma was fun to joke about after the fact.

“That happened right in the middle of our chat. Didn’t you have an assassination attempt when you visited her?”

“No I didn’t! Spill! What happened? Is Magnolia okay?”

“Well, I think she’ll have to do some remodeling, but her shrubbery was only partially consumed by the fire—”

Ryoka ducked as Erin threw a bit of cheese at her. She laughed, and then stopped laughing when she told Erin about the people who’d died. Erin listened, almost in tears when she heard about the servants who’d been killed as the assassins went after Magnolia, agog when she heard about Magnolia’s death-ray ring…and then she told Ryoka about returning to Esthelm, about talking with Pawn about Christianity…

Sometime after they’d been talking, the bit of cheese was eaten by Mrsha, who slunk into the room to grab as much food as she could carry and escape. Ryoka and Erin were sitting together by this point, laughing and talking to each other freely.

“It was just for a few weeks, but it feels like months, doesn’t it?”

Erin nodded, sipping from her cup as Ryoka filled hers from a pitcher filled with ice cubes.

“I did so much! I helped run Agnes’ inn, I made a bunch of weird food at Octavia’s shop, I helped start an acting troupe and got a magical door—”

“Hold up. What was that? Acting? You’re joking with me.”

“Nope! We should stop by the Frenzied Hare before we go back to Liscor. I can introduce you to Wesle and Jasi—they’re putting on a performance of Othello this week, I think!”

Ryoka stared at Erin. She stared at her cup. She slowly filled her mouth with liquid and looked at Erin. The girl raised her hands.

“Don’t you dare spit it on me! No!”

When Ryoka had swallowed and Erin had explained, the conversation halted and stopped on Erin’s private indignation with Miss Agnes, whom she’d had less and less contact with since returning to Liscor.

“Can you believe her? I mean, she didn’t want to help Jasi at all! It was like she didn’t even care!”

Ryoka could only shrug. She wanted to ask, ‘what did you expect?’, but then she looked at Erin and realized the other girl had expected more of Agnes.

“Honestly, I’m not surprised, Erin. Agnes is, well, an ordinary woman. She might be nice to her friends and people who help her out, but she’s not going to stick her neck out for other people.”

“I thought she was a good person.”

Erin sighed as she fiddled with a cracker. Ryoka’s mouth twisted.

“She’s just a person. Not bad, not good. She might help a bit if she has the means, but she’s not like you, Erin. She’s not…worth thinking about.”

“But she was so nice and welcoming. How could a woman like that just not care? Jasi was so tired—and hurt! She was practically missing all the scales on her hands! Are people just like that?”

Ryoka’s head bowed.

“Maybe. Maybe they’re all like that.”

Erin stared at her. Ryoka ran her hands along the edge of her chair as she spoke.

“That’s how I used to think. I’d look at news stories of people letting dictators get away with crimes, or turning a blind eye to crimes or not doing anything when there’s a problem. Or if they did, it was something small. Something I thought was worthless, like one of those food drives where you donate bits of food and ship it off to another country. Ordinary people did just enough to make themselves feel good and let other people do the actual work.”

“Sometimes that’s all you can do.”

Erin’s voice was soft. She looked at the table.

“Sometimes you can only do a bit, Ryoka.”

Ryoka nodded.

“Yeah. I realized that when I tried to do the right thing. It’s really hard. Really, really hard. Half the time it seems like there’s no answer, no good way to fix what’s broken. The other half, it feels like if everyone would just work together we’d solve the problem. But we never do.”

Erin stared at a wall. When she spoke, it was quietly, thoughtfully.

“I don’t think it’s fair to ask random people to fix problems. I think we’ve got to work together, so if there’s something I need to do, I’ll ask people I can trust. My friends.”

“But if you do that, what about the world?”

She shrugged. Erin pointed to the closed window.

“I don’t know about the world. I can’t imagine trying to solve world hunger, or—or cure cancer. And there’s no internet here. No way to talk to people. But I can help people around me. That’s what I did at Esthelm.”

“You did do that.”

Ryoka still couldn’t believe Erin had managed that. She’d saved a city. Or maybe…helped them save themselves. Erin nodded.

“I think you’re sort of right, Ryoka. In our world it’s really hard to do stuff. There’s laws and jerks and so many problems. And we’re not rich or powerful or famous. Maybe in our world we can’t do anything. But here, I know the second-most important guy in Liscor’s Hive, and I know a Drake [General], a bunch of Gold-rank adventurers, and I played chess with Magnolia. I can do something, I think. I can help people. It’s just that I’m so busy…”

“Yeah. That’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you about.”

Ryoka sat up in her chair. Erin was trying to juggle crackers and failing. She looked at Ryoka.

“I just don’t know what to do. I love all my new customers and I’m making money hand over fist with all the Gold-rank adventurers. It’s just I don’t have time, and Lyonette’s overworked as it is…”

“So hire someone.”

Erin blinked at Ryoka. Ryoka stared at her.

“I mean, maybe you don’t want to, but I think you have to at this point, Erin. You could have someone do a trial and maybe it’ll be tough sorting things out, but if you can get an actual staff—”

“No, I think you’re right. I just forgot I could do that. Hire someone. Okay. Yeah, that’s a good idea!”

Ryoka stared. She stared so hard her eyes felt like they were going to fall out. Erin shifted uneasily.

“What?”

“You forgot you could hire people?”

“I’m new to this innkeeper thing, okay? I kept thinking ‘this is my inn, so I’ve got to do everything’. I only hired Lyonette because I thought she’d die in the cold by herself. But I guess I never thought about getting a new [Barmaid] or [Cook].”

“So you’re going to do it?”

Erin nodded, smiling.

“Yeah. I can do it. I’ll do it tomorrow, or maybe later today. Actually, I’ll look into it after we finish talking.”

“What?”

“I’ll go hire someone. You’re right. Selys always said I should. I’ll go have a word with Safry and Maran tomorrow. They’re both [Barmaids]. They should know some good people I could interview, right?”

Ryoka hesitated. Erin’s turnaround from thought to action was so fast she was having a hard time keeping up.

“I mean, we could think this through some more. Have you thought about hiring a Drake or Gnoll? It might help if they know more about local customs. How much will you pay them?”

Erin shrugged.

“I don’t know. I’ll figure it all out as I go. That’s how I roll.”

Ryoka stared, but since she’d done that and Erin seemed immune to it, she switched topics.

“Okay, about Pawn.”

“What about him?”

Erin looked confused. Ryoka replayed parts of their catching up she’d done.

“You said you were telling him about the bible, right?”

“Yeah…well, he was asking. And he was really confused, so I…”

Erin hesitated. She vaguely recalled Ryoka’s admonitions not to bring up religion.

“Was that a bad thing?”

There was a right way to respond and a wrong way. Ryoka had done the wrong way, once. She remembered shouting at Erin, calling her an idiot and then getting punched halfway into oblivion. She bit her lip.

“I think…it might have been a mistake. But it’s what Pawn needed. I’ll have a talk with him. But this god thing…”

“I know. Gods are a bad thing. The crusades and the inquisition, right?”

“Something similar. But if Klbkch is okay with Pawn…well, I’ve just got a lot to do around here.”

“So do I! I think I need to talk to Klbkch too, Ryoka.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I was thinking of expanding my inn, actually.”

“What, just like that?”

“Well obviously I need to see how much it will cost. But my rooms are all sold out and I think Ceria and the others are getting tired of sleeping in the basement. If I could get the Antinium to build me a third floor or maybe a second wing…”

“You’ll definitely need more staff if that’s the case.”

“And a [Cook]! I’m telling you Ryoka, if I didn’t have to keep making food all day that would free me up so much. Forget a [Barmaid], a [Cook] is what I really need. But it’s so hard finding people with [Advanced Cooking]—apparently people with that Skill are sort of rare. I don’t want to pay too much for someone, you know?”

Ryoka nodded thoughtfully. She had a sudden thought.

“You said you leveled up, right? You got that magical ambient energy and a skill that kept everything fresh, right?”

“Right!”

Erin nodded happily. Her becoming a [Magical Innkeeper] had been one of the highlights of her recent past. Ryoka smiled as her thought became an idea, and an excellent one.

“If that’s the case, maybe you don’t need a [Cook] after all.”

“What do you mean?”

Erin was curious. Ryoka smiled.

“You have a Skill that keeps food fresh, right? If that’s the case, why not prepare everything a few days ahead of time rather than worrying about it?”

She was opening her mouth to object when Erin realized what Ryoka was saying. Her eyes widened.

“You mean—”

Ryoka nodded, grinning widely in anticipation.

“I mean cook everything. Take a day and just make food for twelve hours straight. You can store it wherever you like and serve it whenever you need to! For that matter, don’t worry about mealtimes. Just make breakfast, lunch, and dinner all together. Because if the food doesn’t lose its freshness…”

“I can just reheat it! I could have a month’s worth of food ready and all Lyonette has to do is warm it up and serve it!”

Erin leapt to her feet. She threw her hands up and danced about, laughing excitedly.

“Ryoka, you’re a genius!

“I’d like to think so. Speaking of which, when we get back I want to test that magical door of yours. It’s…frankly, it’s mind blowing.”

“Isn’t it incredible?”

“Yeah, but it could be more incredible, Erin.”

“What do you mean?”

Thoughtfully, Ryoka glanced at the window, which was again, less than scenic since the shutters were closed.

“There has to be a way to utilize all that mana your inn is producing.”

“I thought it would be good mostly for my door, actually.”

“Yeah, but—I bet the door doesn’t take up a third of your inn’s supply of mana. If that’s even how it works! I want to see how many people you could actually transport before it runs out of power and—I wonder how far you could send people with it? Could you send someone to say…Invrisil?”

Erin froze mid-tango. She gaped at Ryoka.

“Invrisil? Ryoka, you really think I could make my inn connect all the way over there?”

“It would help me out a lot, if you did.”

Ryoka’s mind was racing with possibilities. She frowned, thinking aloud.

“But that’s not all. I know there’s rune magic. Couldn’t you use the inn’s mana for some kind of spell?”

“Like what?”

“Like—well, you’ve already got the equivalent of a preservation rune on your whole inn…”

“Better.”

Erin smiled happily. Ryoka blinked.

“Oh? How so?”

“I could have gotten some runes on my pantry. I talked to this [Mage] who said he could put some on my pantry for…I think it was like forty gold coins? But it would only have been a shelf or two, and it wouldn’t be total preservation. He said it was more like it would slow down the rate at which food went bad. So I couldn’t just leave raw meat in there because it would still go bad pretty fast.”

“Huh. I guess [Field of Preservation] really is an incredible skill.”

“Right? What do you think I’d get at Level 40? Or Level 60?”

“I don’t know. A totally automated kitchen? Plates and dishes that automatically serve and wash themselves?”

“That would be so cool. Do you think—”

Anyways, Erin. I was saying that you could have other runes. Like ones that heat up your inn, or cool it down. Or…or what about a rune that…distills water from the air? Is that possible?”

“Ooh. Useful! Let me write this down.”

Erin searched around for a bit of parchment as Ryoka kept talking.

“There’s so much I have to do there. I told you about Laken—”

“An actual [Emperor]! And he’s from our world! I want to meet him. And Durene!”

“I’m sure you’ll love him. But he’s so far away that even with Magnolia’s coach, it’s a day’s journey. But if you could get to Invrisil just by walking through a door—”

“The Runner’s Guild will get really mad if I start doing deliveries that way.”

“Maybe it can just be a personal connection? If people knew your door could do that, you might be in danger.”

Ryoka was thinking over the issue, looking for potential risks. Erin nodded, serious.

“I want to make my inn better. If I can link my inn to other cities, I’m totally down for it. And I like the idea of expanding the inn. And hiring more help. Especially hiring more help. I wonder if I could hire Garry? Or…”

She broke off, lapsing into thought. Ryoka stared at her friend. They’d covered a lot of topics, almost everything Ryoka had done and seen. She’d told Erin about the wand she’d sold to Hedault to equip the Horns of Hammerad. But there was one thing she hadn’t mentioned.

“Erin, there’s something I need to talk to you about. Magnolia and her assassins are one thing, but I ran into…something…as I was coming back from Laken’s village.”

“What?”

Ryoka hesitated.

“I don’t know. But it was…dark. No, that’s not the word. Look, let me explain. It started when I was running through a blizzard. Ivolethe was guiding me since she can see through the snow, but she suddenly started getting lost. We ended up in a forest, and I had to build a fire since she and I couldn’t find our way out. It was like we were trapped there. And then it started getting really dark…”

Erin’s eyes widened as Ryoka told the story of the three visitors who sat around the campfire. Ryoka finished, telling Erin about hurling her fingers into the fire. She flexed her right hand as she did. She thought she could still feel the fingers. She could remember them burning.

“You’ll probably think I’m crazy. But it was all true Erin, I swear. And Ivolethe knows something. She just won’t tell me who—or what—they were.”

She waited for Erin to laugh at her, or at least be a bit skeptical. That would be natural. But Ryoka’s blood froze as Erin pulled something out of her pocket and told her what had happened to her on the Winter Solstice.

“Do you know what this, is Ryoka? It’s a coin, but it doesn’t look like it’s silver.”

Ryoka stared down at the bright, off-silver color and the faded inscriptions on the shiny metal. She felt it carefully and then put it down on the table.

“I have no idea. But you say some travelers gave it to you?”

Erin nodded.

“In exchange for the food. Not the gifts.”

The gifts. An umbrella that contained the sun. A rope to hang yourself with and pretend to be dead. A horn—

Ryoka’s skin erupted into goose bumps. She’d heard a horn while she sat around the fire. She stared at the coin and felt very, very cold.

“Who do you think they were? Do you think they were connected to the people you met?”

Carefully, using the tips of her fingers, Ryoka pushed the coin back across the table towards Erin.

“I don’t know. I don’t like it. Tamaroth. I’ve never heard that name before in my life. But I’ll ask about it. I’ll ask Klbkch—”

“Why him?”

“He might know something. Look, until I can find out more, don’t show that coin to anyone you don’t trust, Erin. There’s someone else I can talk to besides Klbkch who might know.”

“Who? Teriarch?”

“Ye—how’d you know?”

“I met him.”

Erin blinked as Ryoka lurched up from her seat.

“You met—

“Didn’t I say? Yeah! We met him on the road. He was looking for you, Ryoka. He wanted to know if there were other games besides Cookie Clicker.”

Ryoka stared at Erin. She tugged at her ears when Erin described meeting Teriarch—appearing as his Human [Mage] form no less—and how Erin had taught him to play Angry Birds.

“Hold on, I need a break. Would you hand me a knife? I need to slice off my ears, because clearly I’m hearing things.”

“Don’t be dramatic, Ryoka! I really did meet Teriarch—he’s weird, like you said, but sort of nice! How did he duplicate your iPhone? Do you think he can do it for me if I ask?”

Ryoka put her head in her hands.

“Please stop talking. My head hurts.”

Her head really did hurt. Teriarch, out in the open? Playing crappy games? What did it mean? Was there a meaning? What could she do about it? Bash her head in with a rock? Forget? After a while, she looked up. Erin was gazing at her, grinning.

“Isn’t it weird?”

“What, specifically?”

“We keep running into the same people. You knew Octavia before I met her, and I met Teriarch…everything’s connected.”

“It’s a small continent. Just about the size of Eurasia.”

“Well, I think it’s awesome. And I also think…yeah, I think I know what to do.”

Erin smiled. Things felt clearer to her, as if a fog had lifted. Here was Ryoka, her friend. Maybe her best friend? Her friend from another world. And it felt like Erin had been waiting for a long time to talk to her. Not about anything specific—it was just that she needed to talk to someone.

“Build my inn, hire people, and sell food to adventurers. That’s my plan for now. What about you, Ryoka?”

The girl shrugged.

“I’m staying here for now. I’ve been away too long, and there’s so much I need to do. Ivolethe is going to teach me…something. Faerie magic, maybe. Or a way to run faster. I’ll go shopping—see if I can pick up some magical items and get Octavia to brew me some potions, but my goal is to become a Courier. If I can make it all the way to First Landing with my two feet, maybe I can see about getting a ship to go to Wistram.”

“That’s big.”

“Why aim low?”

“True.”

Erin played with a bit of cheese on the platter.

“Do you think we should go there? To Wistram?”

Ryoka stared out of the window. She got tired of staring at the shutters and opened them. A cold wind blew in, and Ryoka stared out across the city of Celum, at the rooftops full of snow.

“I don’t know. But I know that I need more…power. No, that’s not the right word. More strength, more speed, more…something. I need to protect myself, and other people. Getting rich and learning to run faster is a way to do that.”

“I’d just like to earn more money. If I can make my inn better, well, then I think I can help other people. I could buy things for Mrsha, help out Ceria and the others…”

“Money makes the world go round.”

It was funny, but money was important. So important. Money could buy them safety, get them to Wistram, or maybe just protect them. Magical artifacts, [Barmaids], toys for a Gnoll cub. Was there anything money couldn’t buy?

It was clichéd, but perhaps the answer was a friend. Ryoka reached for a pitcher, embarrassed at the very thought and found it was empty. Erin looked into her cup and found it was gone too. She shrugged to herself and then looked at Ryoka.

“Tell me about Invrisil. Did they have any cool fashions over there? Did you see anything interesting, or were you talking with that [Emperor] guy too much to notice?”

“Oh, I got an eyeful. Invrisil’s huge, Erin. It’s a real city. You’d either love it or hate it.”

“I think I’d love it…if they have cool stuff there.”

“They have ice cream.”

“No way!”

“Yes…way. They’re serving tiny spoonfuls out in silver bowls as if it were Häagen-Dazs. If you started selling ice cream over there, you’d be rich in no time.”

“Ice cream’s that popular? Well duh, it is, obviously. I should make some more. But do they have plays?”

“Not that I saw. You think you want to send the actors all the way to Invrisil?”

“Why not? They could start Hollywood over there!”

“More like the Globe Theatre.”

“The what?”

Shakespeare, Erin. Don’t tell me your actors only know how to perform Othello.”

“Hey! The first thing I taught them was Romeo and Juliet!”

“Aw. Romeo and Juliet? Really?”

“Actually, this play was Juliet and Romeo. I also got them to do Pygmalion, and Hamlet…and Frozen…but I’m running out of plays to teach them.”

Ryoka laughed.

“I’d sell my left kidney to see them do Chicago. Or at least, one or two songs from it.”

“Well, why not? You could teach them how to do the acting.”

“No. I couldn’t!”

“Why not?”

Ryoka was trying to imagine a bunch of female Drakes, Gnolls, and Humans doing the Cell Block Tango scene from Chicago. Her imagination was having trouble processing the idea.

“No. That would be—”

She broke off. Erin was nodding and smiling expectantly.

“Yeah…?”

Ryoka hesitated. And then she grinned. When she was around Erin, it felt like she could really do anything. Nothing was too crazy with her.

“Let me see if I can remember the lyrics. No promises.”

“I want to see if they’ll perform in Liscor. It would be cool to have them perform in my inn. Or maybe somewhere more public? And I could sell my new magical foods as well!”

“Yeah, we need to have a talk about that stuff, Erin. I know it’s incredible that you can make magical food, but…Defense Soup, Erin? Really?”

“Hey! It’s hard to name this stuff. I thought about Thickskin Soup, but that sounds really nasty. Relc was calling it Scale Soup…”

Ryoka was laughing. Erin was waving her hands. At some point, they stopped talking about anything important. They cracked jokes, came up with ridiculous names to call their soup—they laughed and for a few moments, they weren’t trapped in another world. They were just friends, hanging out together.

And then, at some point, Erin had to go to the bathroom, and Ryoka realized Mrsha was back in the room and trying to get their attention. Erin sighed.

“I guess we should do something today.”

“I suppose so.”

Ryoka made a face as she lifted Mrsha up. She recoiled from the Gnoll’s breath.

“How much did they feed you, Mrsha?”

The Gnoll child lolled about in Ryoka’s arms, stuffed to the point of unconsciousness. Erin sighed as she looked about the room.

“I wish we could do this again.”

“Why not? We can come back here again. Next week, or sooner. Whenever you like. We’ve got plenty of time.”

Ryoka grinned at Erin, and saw the girl’s face light up in reply. She lifted Mrsha up with a grunt and walked towards the door. Beyond it lay the rest of the world. But somehow it wasn’t as daunting to face it. This moment had restored something Ryoka needed. Something Erin needed.

And both of them knew it. Erin spoke up as Ryoka opened the door.

“Hey Ryoka?”

“Yeah?”

The young woman turned at the door. Erin smiled at her.

“I’m glad you’re back.”

Ryoka turned away. She opened the door and Erin got up. The two stood at the doorway. Ryoka grinned.

“Let’s shake things up.”

 

—-

 

Her name was Ivolethe. She was a Frost Faerie, at least to the people of this world. But that was a poor name for her true nature. But at the very least it hinted to her origin. She was no Human. She was not mortal.

And now she hovered in the snow, in the cold air, outside of a window. She could sense warmth from within, hear voices and laughter. Perhaps she might have entered, but there was cold iron in the walls of the building. And she was not invited.

Ivolethe hovered by the window, peering in through a crack. There were two girls sitting in the room. Erin Solstice and Ryoka Griffin. Ivolethe stared at Ryoka. Her friend. That a faerie could be friends with a Human was incredible. But Ryoka was still Human, still mortal. And there were ways in which she and Ivolethe could never truly understand each other. Yet they were friends, just as Ryoka was friends with Erin.

Ivolethe stared into the room as the two girls laughed and spoke. There was friendship there, still small, perhaps tenuous at times, but blooming and growing brighter in the cold. Ivolethe put her hand on the window’s ledge and took it away as the wood began to frost over. She looked into the bright room, and turned away.

Friendship. Ivolethe had it too. And it meant more to the Frost Faerie than Ryoka could know of for now. So Ivolethe flew. She flew high, high into the sky, and then south at speeds Ryoka could only dream of.

She flew south, coming to rest high in the air. Ivolethe looked down, and saw blood in the snow. She saw dead things.

And undead things. Two beings woven of magic and the grave stood in the snow, surrounded by children. Goblins. Armed children, a score of them, at least a hundred. Hobgoblins and Goblin warriors, fierce fighters in black armor.

They were all dead. The Goblins’ blood stained the snow. The two dead creatures stood among them, untouched. It had been a brief skirmish, and completely one-sided.

Ivolethe watched as a larger force of undead, thousands, no, larger, approached. A detachment rode forth, proud warriors surrounding a Goblin that reeked to her of the same death the two undead had.

Here was a threat. One that Ivolethe might have dreamed of wiping out with an avalanche, or some other wrath of nature. Yet that would have been meddling on a scale that would surely cause repercussion. And…punishment.

So Ivolethe did not interfere. But she watched a bit of destiny play out as the undead duo stood among the deceased Goblins.

 

—-

 

Venitra and Ijvani stood among the remnants of the dead Goblins that had ambushed them. She recognized them as belonging to the Goblin Lord’s army, but she felt no qualms in butchering them. They, like all things not created of her master, were lesser things.

Still, she didn’t attack the next group that surrounded her. Huge Hobgoblins and snarling Goblin elite warriors, Goblin [Shamans] and [Mages] who watched her with more fear than their warrior counterparts. So long as she was not attacked, Venitra would not harm the Goblins. Doing so would run counter to her master’s plans.

“They attacked us when we requested to speak with you. Next time ensure they are not so foolish.”

She was speaking to a Goblin who stood in front of her and Ijvani. He was pale and his eyes…there was something wrong with them. To Venitra, the eyes were reassuring, comforting, even. They reminded her of her master, Az’kerash. It might be presumptuous of the Goblin to emulate her master so and perhaps under other circumstances Venitra would have plucked the eyes out herself. But as it stood, Venitra considered the Goblin Lord an…ally of sorts.

He did not respond to her comment. None of the Goblins surrounding him could look at their leader, or at Venitra. Both were monsters, of a kind.

We are headed towards Liscor.

Ijvani’s voice was closer to a hiss, and there was an unsettling echo to her words. The Goblin Lord looked at her. He did not speak, but one hand rose and pointed.

Venitra and Ijvani turned. Ijvani stared at Venitra, and the woman made of bone didn’t meet her companion’s eyes.

I told you we were going the wrong way.

“We’ll adjust our course.”

Venitra turned back to the Goblin Lord. His eyes were fixed on her. She nodded at him.

“We shall leave you to your work. Oh. I should mention this—there are two Drake armies closing in on your position.”

The Goblin Lord nodded. Venitra had seen the armies as she and Ijvani had moved past them, undetected. She studied his face.

“Each one is about ten thousand strong.”

He grinned. And turned away. Venitra paused, and then turned. She and Ijvani began walking through the snow. To Liscor. To find the accursed Human named Ryoka Griffin.

I told you we were going the wrong way.

“Silence, Ijvani.”

The next day the two suppression armies sent to crush the Goblin Lord’s army met his in the hills a hundred miles to the southeast of Liscor.

 


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47 thoughts on “4.11

  1. This conversating took a while. Like…a long while. But on the other hand…stuff’s happening.

    Slowly but surely. I’m planning out chapter, trying to cram information into places where it doesn’t fit. Maybe I should just give in and start releasing 3 chapters a week to make things go faster? But then I’d die…

    I’m planning out that Geneva chapter, but it’s gonna be interesting seeing if I can pull off what I intend. Meanwhile, I think we might get one more Erin/Ryoka chapters and then start heading into other character’s heads. Let me know if you’d like Laken, Pawn, Rags…oh, the things that will happen!

    Hope you liked the dialogue-heavy chapter. This is the last of the reminiscing chapters, I think. From here on out we’re going to start kicking over sandcastles and building inns. Does that make sense? Ah well. Thanks for reading!

    • I feel that if we do 1 more Eric/Ryoka chapter and then go into other characters heads the result will be a slowdown of the story. Maybe the focus is getting too split up which is causing you to want to write more?

      • Pacing is tricky, but I suspect the serial form encourages too fast a pace. At least for my tastes.

        I would love for the story to give characters some time settle a bit.

    • Great chapter, glad that ryoka and Erin have reconnected and now have ideas going forward. The next pov would be nice if it’s laken or rags as it’s been awhile

      • This chap was great, I thought! pirateabe, this whole genre really lacks authors who do characters well. You do. It makes your work so refreshing to read. For me, anyway.

        Since you asked: Laken, Laken, please more Laken.

    • I liked the conversation. Establishing things in Liscor is so important./ There are a lot of threads there that need to be done properly and since it’s a serial you should take the time to do it. I would consider interspersing two chapters of Erin/Ryoka with one of someone else. I’m just hoping Teriarch shows up again 😛

    • Two of your chapters are pretty much the equivalent of 6-10 chapters in regular books…

      I mean, you pretty much write a 100,000 words book a month by now. Just saying, two chapters is already a lot, not that I’m complaining…

    • “Do you know what this, is Ryoka?”
      That comma should be after “is”.

      There’s a few logic errors about that private runner’s guild room. It’s supposed to be absolutely private, but there’s a window? Which Ryoka can open and let in cool air? And Ivolethe can hear sounds coming out of?
      Those are all handwaveable by saying “it’s magic and Ivolethe trumps that sort of magic”, but I thought I’d point it out in case they weren’t informed decisions. ^_^

      I’m having difficulty believing that Mrsha is managing to get back into the room twice though. It would be out of character for Ryoka to give Mrsha the key, and the room is supposed to be secure.

    • Pickings are slim this time around… these aren’t even real typos! What gives?

      Erin blinked around the room as Mrsha leapt onto a chair and then onto a table.
      Nitpick: “a” table implies one out of many but there’s only one in the room.

      The other girl was tall, Asian—the most unique Human in this world, aside from maybe Revi or Octavia.
      Interesting… are String People seen as a branch of Humans in this world? Or maybe this line was purely about appearance than literal species. But hey, it’s fun to speculate.

      Near-death experience and horrifying trauma was fun to joke about after the fact.
      I believe “experience” should be plural and “was” should be “were”.

  2. I’m actually looking forward to a Rags chapter. Hope to see more development with Pawn being an acolyte, try and expand on that a bit. Maybe he gains powers of dead God’s. I dunno, keep up the good work.

    • Yeah, I was actually surprised to see Ryoka and Erin so casually agree that gods are (categorically) a bad thing. I mean, goshdang — Christianity has been at least implicated in helping people with medicine and education, ending slavery and promoting democracy as it has in causing wars. Ryoka’s a bit of a polymath, so I figured she’d know something about that. (Buddhism, too? I know less about that one’s overall historical effects, but would love to learn.)

      • Exactly my thoughts. But it reflects the modern dismissive stance regarding religion, which is similar to the stance on monarchy: all kings were abusive, decadent despots, like all polititians are stupid, corrupt and superfluous, like all priests are useless potential perverts, like all teachers are lazy and incompetent, and just as overpaid as the bureaucrats. Capitalism is evil and we would be better off in caves eating raw plants. Or fighting for our lives Mad Max style. Or living in small ommunities.
        Anything but the status quo. Which is still better than the Old status quo, which must be denounced with all force, to hinder it’s comeback. But worse than a potential New status quo, which will never come but can be imagined and dreamed about endlessly.

        These are all coping strategies for a complicated world. Not everyone has to look at history objectively, normally there’s just not enough time to think about anything else but the own ego. 😉 And work. Let’s not forget that almost everybody has to work, and many have children. The boring historians can play truth in their secluded refugiums alone.

        I’m just a bit down, otherwise I would stop this rant from going public…

      • Ryoka is a “scientist” at heart so it’s pretty normal that she’s more of an atheist as more scientists prefer to explain how the world works without having to resort to mysticism… People like that, we tend to see religion as a bad thing cause we thik it misleads people thus, we tend to see the bad sides and ignore the good ones since it fits our ideology. Such an attitude would be reflected even in a world where gods exist(ed?).

        As for Erin, she seems to be more on the fence (she did expain chistianity to Pawn after all), but I think she doesn’t really care either way andd can see it both ways. However, she’s a social chameleon and she thrusts Ryoka (who just explained to her that gods where dangerous and enemies of the antinium).

        • This makes a large degree of sense to me. Thank you for the analysis.

          I think part of what is going is that I’ve come to expect Ryoka to be more knowledgeable about things than I am. Cuz she usually is — by a factor of about 3! It’s not surprising that there are things she doesn’t know, but I’m just surprised to see her reveal a lacuna in her knowledge of history, when someone who knows as little about all that as me doesn’t share said lacuna.

          • In the end it’s a matter of perception…

            After all, you could argue that the hospitaliers are very well upstaged by the burning of witches (talented herbalists who could have made medecine progress just as much) or that the positive effect of the church on roman slavery doesn’t quite matter as much as said church’s consent for the enslavement of africans, etc.

            So in the end I don’t think Ryoka is ignorant, just that she has her own valid personal narrative about religion…

      • Regardless of one’s stance on religions, large paradigm shifts are almost universally agreed to be messy. Messy in ways which often get people killed. And introducing new religions into an area is going to be a large paradigm shift. New gods = paradigm shift = large bloody wars. Wars are bad, therefore introducing gods is bad.

        So unless you’re an evangelist, and attribute some specific compulsory good to spreading your religion as widely as possible, there’s very little sense in introducing a new religion to this new world. There’s just no reliable benefit to be had for non-evangelists, and some truly awful possibilities.

        • This comment is pretty fascinating. It does make intuitive sense to me. I wonder if you know of any article I read that discusses the issue in more detail? It sounds like something historians would be writing about, and something I’d like to learn.

          In particular, because Erin’s world is ALREADY so wartorn — about to be facing threats from the Goblin Lord, the Necromancer and Flos — I’m wondering if a paradigm shift which on the whe reduced rather than created conflict would be possible in that special context. Also, I’m curious how well your point holds for paradigm shifts where the content of the new paradigm itself carries an emphasis on making peace. E.g., social justice in the 60’s in the U.S., Ghandi’s efforts in India or the fall of apartheid in South Africa. It seems to me that those paradigm changes (big ones) led to reduced violence rather than increased violence. So I’m thinking that it doesn’t work the same for every shift, and the actual content of the new paradigm matters.

  3. Since we don’t know where the gods come from and which role they play why not make Pawn a prophet.
    Would be interesting how he gets his rank up and the implications that might follow

    • I don’t Pawn is going to have any dealings with gods.

      Based on his whole “We will make a place of our own” talk, he’ll found a religion that lacks a god as its core, like Buddhism. Perhaps some sort of Antium soul gestalt thing, like “The Hive in the Sky!” or some other cheesey pseudo afterlife.

      The Antium already have a system to reincarnate their dead, so perhaps Pawn’s religion could expand upon that and make it an automatic process for all Antium that is powered by their faith.

      • Antinium reincarnation seems like it would be against what Pawn is preaching about: An escape from violence and pain- rest and fulfillment for the souls of the dead. As he is now I think he’d be horrified if his fellows kept being brought back to fight and die over and over again, even if it would benefit the hive.

  4. In regards to Erin’s intention of doing some good, I would like to bring up a quote from Unsong: “A single good man is equivalent to a multitude of good men. Because he can convince others, set up incentives, build institutions, drag the rest of the world kicking and screaming.”
    The best way to influence the world is through other people. Gandhi, MLK, Nelson Mandela and many others didn’t change the world through their own actions as much as how these actions inspired and lead other people.
    I feel like Flos is a prime example of this, since much of his power stems from the devotion and courage he inspires in his subjects.
    And Erin is similar, except without the skills of a [King] to back her up. She leveraged two teams of gold rank adventurers, the antinium as well as many other people and managed to contribute to the survival of a city.
    I feel that if she was more aware of her influence and willing to use it, she could archive quite a lot.

    • I don’t think she in the same mode as Flos or (I hope) Lakan. I think she is a Thomas Edison type. A person who by their work make the world better. Edison is probably not the best person but I hope I got it across.

  5. Good chapter. There’s just a bit too much repetition in choice of phrases for my taste: blanking out / going blank and stomach rumbling – both are blunt and unelegant wordings in my opinion and are repeated three times each! And either I e.g. am exceptionally well fed, while remaining slim, but my stomach does not rumble just by looking at food or skipping a meal. I have to be really starved for this sensation to happen…

    How about some alternatives once in a while: loosing concentration, being distracted or forgetting, and: being hungry, feeling a hole in the stomach or similar expressions?
    Just my personal opinion of course…

  6. I had a thought about a previous chapter. Erin was unable to interest anyone in word puzzles. I think she should keep trying. Reason why: to find out if the standard language is actually english. Because if it isn’t, either the illusion is powerful enough to distort what she writes, or someone is going to look at her homemade crossword puzle and say that the letters don’t match.

  7. I don’t think the local residents would understand Chicago. They seem like the type of people who would just hang the women rather than imprison them. Any imprisonment would just be a short stay until the hangman’s noose, executioner’s axe, or exile.

  8. I really hope you will take the Broadway thing all the way. I would love to see them do Rent/Aida/A Light in the Piazza or hell A Chorus LIne. Hot damn they could do WICKED!!!!!!

    • I’m not saying they should adapt Wicked to be the Wistram Days story of Ceria and Pisces, except that’s exactly what I’m saying.

  9. I dont know if this was mentioned before, but i miss stabby the clown. are we ever gonna see his wonderful insanity of poking things with pointy things ever again?

  10. does hi-level [Runner] have skills to run on the water?or lava? so maybe they can challenge nature like crossing the ocean while storming, or taking shortcut through volcanic region, or running on the air so there can be [Wind-runner] job. Just asking thought.

    thank you.

    • Probably? I imagine that would take a least couple class-ups and fairly high levels, though. Well, maybe not running on water, which I could imagine as a level thirty-forty skill for [Runners].

  11. I know that in this Chapter Ryoka and Erin talked more or less about everything that happened, but can we assume that Ryoka told Erin about Valceif Godfrey death or not?

  12. …Does anyone else really want the Invisril portal door to go to Hedault’s place? I really want someone around who can give Pisces an intellectual beatdown.

  13. I’m glad they finally caught each other up. Lonely Erin and Torn Ryoka were heartwrenching to read. While the darker parts were occasionally balanced by Glorious Flos and Rising Laken, I think this mending of friendship roads will allow some even more wonderful things to happen.

  14. On a reread, it occurs to me that Erin is (or should be) very much a genuine VIP for Celum’s Runner Guild. After all, she’s still got the portal door- with that, she could easily decimate their business. I hope after Ryoka went back up, Fals told the Receptionists just how important it really is to them to keep Erin happy.

    Also, a thought occurred to me- I wonder if Lyonette’s [Lesser Stamina] Skill (different from Erin’s [Lesser Endurance]) is to some degree helping her stay more energetic? I know she’s not doing quite as much as Erin is, but it does seem like she’s functioning perfectly well on insufficient sleep.

    And while I’m thinking about Lyonette, I’m really starting to feel that she should be promoted to Assistant Innkeeper. She’s doing a lot of the day-to-day organizing already (counting how much supplies they have/need) and I suspect she’ll end up doing a lot more with the new employees. Erin’s a fantastic ideas person and a great face for the business, but she really needs a manager.

    I wonder whether Krshia might help Erin find a Gnoll [Barmaid] from her tribe? It seems in-character for her, since it’s a good opportunity to keep an eye on and protect their investment while at the same time helping her tribe integrate with civilization. Although honestly, I’m just cracking up at the idea of Brunkr serving as a [Barmaid].

    I’ve also been rereading some old chapters, and I noticed that Teriarch once mentioned that a slow and steady intake of small amounts of mana could adjust a body to magic. And it occurred to me that that sounds very much like a description of what living in the [Magical Grounds] area would be like. So naturally, I find myself wondering whether Erin might now be able to cast magic. Either by that method, or by “tribal” magic that draws from her inn’s mana? Not that it would be as big of a deal now, but being able to cast spells would be a nice treat for Erin.

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