In the hour after she woke up, Erin learned much of screaming. More specifically, of being screamed at. It wasn’t a pleasant experience at the best of times, even if you liked the person who was screaming at you.
And Erin did not like Miss Agnes. Not anymore. For that matter, she didn’t much like Maran or Safry, and she deeply regretted hiring them. Unfortunately, regrets meant little at this point.
“—thieving monster! You stole my best workers, my business—I shouldn’t be surprised if I found you stole money from me as well! When I, out of the goodness of my heart, let you work in my inn, I never expected—”
“Shut up, Miss Agnes.”
“How dare you!”
The angry [Innkeeper] and owner of the Frenzied Hare shrieked as Erin glared at her. She was spitting as she yelled, and Erin had had enough. It had been two minutes since she had stormed into Erin’s inn and begun yelling—her and two other older Humans, one a man in his late forties, the other a woman who was as old as Miss Agnes, but had aged far better.
Erin glanced at them as Agnes drew breath for another tirade. She waved away Lyonette and Ishkr who were hovering about and walked out of spit-range as Miss Agnes began to shout.
“Don’t you dare turn away from me, you—you brazen hussy! You ingrate! I should be calling the Watch on you! I said to come back! Do you hear me!? Do you—”
She really needed better insults. Erin had heard Ryoka say a lot worse than ‘brazen hussy’ when she stubbed her toe. She walked into the kitchen as Miss Agnes shouted. The older [Innkeeper] stormed after Erin—
And backed away fast as Erin walked out of the kitchen with a knife and a frying pan. The other man and woman stood up as Erin calmly stared at Miss Agnes, who’d gone white. In the refreshing silence, someone coughed.
“Need a hand, Erin?”
“No, I’m fine, Ceria. Sorry about the noise everyone. Ishkr, Lyonette, just keep serving food. I’ll handle this.”
She waved at the Horns of Hammerad and addressed the room. The Gold-rank adventurers who’d been trying to enjoy their breakfast in peace, as well as Erin’s staff got back to work. Most of them kept staring, though. Pisces was already taking bets from Jelaqua and Typhenous on whether it would come to a fight.
“It’s never boring here. Never. I could eat and watch this all day if I wasn’t worried my body’s stomach would explode.”
Erin ignored the Selphid’s comment as she slowly pursued Miss Agnes back to the table. The man who’d come in with her, a guy with a bushy red beard and his fair share of wrinkles, coughed delicately.
“Miss Agnes, I believe you’ve upset, ah, Miss Solstice is it? Why don’t we start again. Miss Solstice, please, there’s no need for violence.”
“There’s no need for shouting, either. How about a deal? You shout and I’ll poke. Now, what’s this about?”
Erin deliberately put the knife and pan on the table as she sat back down. The other two stared at her as Agnes edged her chair back towards them. The woman’s face was dead white. All bark and no bite, Erin guessed.
It was the other woman who coughed delicately.
“My first name is Erin.”
“Miss Erin, then. I fear we’ve gotten off to a bad start.”
The woman gave her a charming smile. She had a few streaks of grey running through her long brown hair, but she was still in good shape. She had a very nice smile, and a friendly air that made Erin want to relax around her. However, because that put Erin in mind of Lady Magnolia’s sweet words, the effect of the Skill was severely diluted. Erin crossed her arms.
“Who are you and what do you want?”
The smile faltered. The woman exchanged a glance with the man. He stood up and offered Erin a callused hand.
“Timbor Parithad, at your service, Miss Erin. My apologies for Agnes. I am the owner of the Drunken Swordsman, one of the finest inns in Celum.”
The Drunken Swordsman? Erin vaguely recalled hearing about the inn, but she’d never been inside. Erin shook Timbor’s hand. The woman sitting next to him smiled again, without the Skill.
“Ulia Ovena. I’m an [Innkeeper] as well. I run Blazehound, an inn just off of the main street. We cater to adventurers—we’re more like a bar than an inn, to be honest.”
“Hi. I’m Erin. What are you doing in my inn?”
The [Innkeepers] exchanged a glance. Timbor coughed, and looked at Agnes, but the woman stared at him as if, after shouting and threatening Erin, her role was at an end. He turned and smiled at Erin.
“Miss Erin, I’m afraid we’re here about the unpleasant business revolving around Miss Agnes’ inn and yours. We heard that another [Innkeeper] had been helping to manage the Frenzied Hare of course, and then there was that commotion around the magic door the Horns of Hammerad brought to the city…well, we knew there was an inn here, but we hadn’t introduced ourselves properly before, well, as we understand it, there were a few disputes between Miss Agnes’ inn and yours. We’re here to discuss the matter, as it were.”
Erin raised her eyebrows. The longwinded speech had done little to make her feel happier about the other [Innkeepers] being here. She hadn’t had breakfast yet. Timbor’s smile wavered. Ulia took over without missing a beat. She had a pleasant voice, too. Charming voice, nice looks, great smile…was all that from her Skills?
“Miss Agnes has told us a few things, Miss Erin. She believes you brought some business to her inn and then took it away. These ah, [Actors] that have put on those marvelous plays in Celum—”
“Fascinating stuff. Had to see one myself. Hamlet. What a stunning performance. I had no idea that Watch Captain could perform like that.”
Timor coughed as Ulia glared at him. The female innkeeper continued.
“Yes, well, Miss Agnes seems to think that you stole her business, since the group mostly eats at your inn and they perform elsewhere now. And then of course, there’s the matter of Safry and Maran. You ah, stole them from Miss Agnes—”
“I hired them. They wanted to work in my inn.”
“Yes…but then you fired them. Not three days after they’d begun working. We’ve spoken with both young women and they’re quite upset.”
Erin shrugged. Her face was stony.
“They were terrible workers.”
“How dare you.”
Miss Agnes glared at Erin, rage overcoming fear for a moment. She pointed a trembling finger at Erin.
“They were my best workers! My only workers! And you took them and then threw them away! For a Gnoll and a Drake? How dare you? How dare—”
Timor dragged Miss Agnes down into her seat as she tried to stand up. He smiled weakly at Erin.
“We’re here on their behalf, Miss Erin. We, that is to say, the innkeepers of Celum, feel there’s been a bit of a miscarriage of justice, and we’d like to sort all this out without getting the law involved.”
So that’s what it was. Erin stared from face to face.
“The innkeepers? You mean, you’re representing all the innkeepers in Celum? What, are you some sort of Guild? The Innkeeper’s Guild?”
Ulia smiled as Timor snorted.
“Not a Guild, Miss Erin. An association.”
Erin stared. She could do a blank stare incredibly well, and, what most people didn’t know, she could do it even when she knew what was going on. Sometimes she did it just to annoy Ryoka or Pisces. In this case, Erin knew what Ulia meant, but she bought time as the woman explained it to her in order to think.
An association was different from a Guild. Formal Guilds like the Runner’s Guild, Merchant’s Guild, Adventurer’s Guild, and so on had wide-ranging networks that spread across continents. There was an Adventurer’s Guild in most cities, and if the ones in Izril were distinct from how Terandrian Guilds did their business, they were all based around the same idea.
However, associations were just that. No one was going to join the Innkeeper’s Guild because that sounded stupid and [Innkeepers] and [Barmaids] had better things to do. A Guild was a lot of work to maintain and there was no point to having one. But in a city, all the [Innkeepers] would still know of each other and support each other if they had a good relationship. It was like how Krshia had a network of [Shopkeepers] and [Merchants] in Liscor she could direct business to and get help from.
An association could be a very powerful thing. Or a pain in the ass. The not-quite-smiling [Innkeepers] sitting in front of her were clearly hinting that they could be one or the other, and yet they still failed to intimidate Erin.
A few weeks ago, Erin had dealt with annoying Frost Faeries who could bury her inn in ice if she annoyed them. As far as she was concerned, the association of Celum’s [Innkeepers] weren’t half as annoying as a single faerie.
“So that’s where the matter rests, Miss Erin. If the [Barmaids] weren’t to your satisfaction, well, it’s still unfair to Miss Agnes to take her help, and to them. They’re jobless now, and of course they can’t go back to the Frenzied Hare. But I’ve had a chat with some of the others and Timor’s agreed to put them in his inn and trade Miss Agnes a few of his workers. So that’s settled. However, this issue of taking workers and business…”
They were threatening her. Before she’d had her poached eggs and cheese sauce on toasted bread. Erin had worked hard on that breakfast—yesterday. Lyonette had warmed it up and it was lovely and hot. It was getting cold. Erin’s eyes narrowed.
“I gave Miss Agnes that business. I helped the [Actors]. They’re not her clients. Her inn’s too small to do a proper play in, anyways. And Maran and Safry were lazy, cowardly, and huge jerks. They wanted to join my inn, and that was because I was willing to pay more than Miss Agnes.”
“You can’t just—”
Agnes shut up as Ulia gave her a warning glance. Ulia smiled apologetically at Erin and spread her hands on the table.
“Miss Erin—may I call you Erin?”
“Ah. Miss Erin, then. We’ve been [Innkeepers] for many years. As many years as you’ve been alive, I’ll wager. And while we in Celum understand competition is healthy, there’s a lot to be said for working together. If everyone was fighting over patrons and stealing each other’s best workers, well, things could get nasty. That’s why our, ah, association works together. What would you call a system where everyone was at each other’s throats, fighting for customers? Anarchy?”
“How about a free market?”
Ryoka was passing by the table. She waved at Erin and pointed to the poached egg on her plate.
“Good stuff. I’m going out with Ivolethe. You got things here? Want me to get Klbkch?”
“No, I’m fine.”
Erin’s stomach growled loudly as the [Innkeepers] stared at Ryoka. Their eyes found the floating Frost Faerie as she carried another wobbly poached egg through the air. Erin had no idea what that must have looked like. She took a breath and the three innkeepers looked back at her.
“I’m not paying Miss Agnes anything for anything. And I’m not saying sorry. And I’m not paying Maran and Safry either.”
“Miss Erin—let’s be reasonable here. A dispute with the innkeepers of Celum is not—what would happen if we started fighting? Would you like us to take your guests? What about your workers?”
Ulia was trying to negotiate. She’d hinted quite unsubtly that a few gold pieces could smooth everything over. Erin wasn’t having it. She had an upset feeling in her stomach now, and not just from the lack of food.
Erin turned in her seat. The Gold-rank adventurers were filing out of the inn, but she had a few Drakes and Gnolls who’d braved the chill to be here in the morning. Some guests from Celum, too. Erin waved at them.
“Go ahead. Steal my clientele. If you’ve all got magic doors leading to Liscor, go on and have them go through. But Drakes and Gnolls don’t like most Human places. They only go into Celum to look for better prices. I don’t think they want to stay at a Human inn. And try hiring my workers, too. Drassi and Ishkr. I’m sure they’d love walking a hundred miles to Celum every day rather than work at my inn.”
She glared at the [Innkeepers]. They glared back, all pretenses of joviality forgotten. Timor coughed deeply and growled.
“Listen here, you brat. We’re experienced innkeepers who know a lot more about this business than some upstart. I suggest you make things right now, rather than see what happens if you decide to make this a real issue. I’m a Level 24 [Innkeeper], Ulia’s a Level 27 [Innkeeper] and—”
“I’m a Level 30 [Magical Innkeeper].”
Timor choked on his words. Erin stared at him, and at Ulia’s suddenly pale face. She stood up and grabbed the knife.
“You want to threaten me? In my own inn?”
For a second Erin thought about using her [Inn’s Aura] skill to scare them, but then she spotted someone walking in the front door. She waved him over and then pointed to Pisces as he went back for a sixth egg.
“That’s Pisces. He’s a [Necromancer] and one of my guests. He lives in my basement. You want to cause trouble? He’ll pull all the bones out of your body through your nose. You want to hire someone to make trouble? Come meet my security. Bird?”
The Humans turned and Ulia screamed. Agnes and Timor turned pale as Bird, holding a freshly-shot bird stared down at him. The Antinium lifted a hand slowly.
“Hello. I am Bird. I shoot birds.”
Agnes, Ulia, and Timor all stared in horror at Bird, Pisces, and then at Erin. Erin folded her arms and nearly cut herself with the knife.
They went. Erin sighed as the door leading to Celum slammed shut and waved at Lyonette.
“Eggs! Food! Some for Bird, too!”
Lyonette rushed over, looking apologetic.
“I’m so sorry, Erin. Pisces just took the last of them…”
She pointed to the necromancer, who took one look at Erin’s expression and decided to finish his meal outside at speed. Erin flipped over the table she was sitting at.
She spun as the door to Celum opened and threw the knife she was holding. The blade thunked into the wall as Octavia froze in the act of opening it. Erin blinked. She’d thought it was Agnes, coming for one last word. Octavia took one look at the knife lodged in the wall of Erin’s inn, and then closed the door without another word.
After a while, Erin had some cheese sauce on bread while Bird ate the bird he’d shot. Raw. That was how she started her Monday morning.
She assumed it was a Monday. It would have felt so wrong if it were a Thursday.
Some days Lyonette felt very bad for Erin. It was easier to feel bad, now. In the days since Erin had fired Safry and Maran she’d become a lot more accommodating to hearing suggestions from Lyonette, and had accordingly started treating her like a partner in running the inn, rather than, well, another Toren.
Erin’s job wasn’t easy. Lyonette knew that. Only Erin could make the wonderful meals that kept her guests coming back, and even if she did store the food for days in advance, she still had to cook for a few hours each day to keep ahead of her customer’s large appetites. Especially Moore’s.
Added to that, Erin had to deal with all the big issues, like Miss Agnes and the other [Innkeepers] coming down and trying to extort money or an apology from her. Lyonette had hovered about while the entire tense discussion had taken place, feeling guilty about the whole thing. But Erin had told her it wasn’t her fault and Lyonette had quite liked the part where she kicked them out of her inn.
“Still, it might be trouble down the road so watch yourself if you go into Celum. Uh, I don’t know if they’ll do anything. They might just spread nasty rumors, but you don’t know.”
Lyonette nodded as Erin warned her afterwards, glumly eating her cheesy toast. She left Lyonette to clean up while she tried to persuade Bird to let her cook the goshawk he’d shot—or at least pluck it first.
There weren’t many dishes left to take to the kitchen. Ishkr was extremely good at clearing tables, and he was already happily washing the prodigious stack of plates, bowls, silverware, and cups. Lyonette left him to the idle work since the Gnoll liked it so much and decided to play with Mrsha in the meantime.
Erin had decided that the task of raising Mrsha was just as, if not more important than keeping the inn running. Thus, Lyonette had free reign to do what was needed to keep the Gnoll cub occupied. Sometimes that meant running about after her, playing catch, or just finding her.
She hadn’t left the inn. Lyonette was watchful of that, but Mrsha wasn’t in the common room either. She could be upstairs or in the basement, bugging Ceria or Pisces as they studied their respective spell books.
Lyonette guessed upstairs. Mrsha had been worn out from yesterday’s trip to Garia’s home with Ryoka and she might be taking a nap now. Ryoka hadn’t said much about the experience, but for some reason Mrsha had been leaping around and trying to do handstands the entire time she’d been back.
Maybe she could ask Ryoka about it? Was that being nosy? Lyonette still didn’t know how to talk to the surly Runner girl. Ryoka wasn’t in the inn to ask, anyways. She had gone off to practice ‘jumping around like an idiot and staring at the wind’, which Lyonette took to mean…exactly that.
Now Lyonette ascended the wood staircase, calling out for Mrsha.
“Mrsha? Are you there?”
She heard a faint sound, a clacking noise, that of something connecting with a wooden surface. It was coming from her room. Frowning, Lyonette pushed the door to the room she shared with Ryoka and Mrsha and saw the Gnoll.
“What are you doing there?”
The small Gnoll cub spun guiltily as Lyonette entered the room. Lyonette saw a chessboard sitting in the center of the room, and then blinked as she saw ghostly chess pieces arranging themselves on the board. Mrsha turned as a line of pawns flew into place. She grinned happily and, to Lyonette’s horror, scattered them across the room with a swipe of the paw.
“Mrsha! Stop that!”
The white-furred Gnoll blinked innocently up at Lyonette, and then turned eagerly to the board. Lyonette saw the fallen pawns soaring back across the room and falling back into place on the board. It was an eerie sight, but she knew that across the world, somewhere, someone else had picked up the pieces. Mrsha watched a pawn settle into place and poked it.
Instantly, the pawn scooted back. The Gnoll poked it away, and grinned happily as the pawn slid back, with more force this time. She pushed at it again—this time the pawn stayed stubbornly in place. Mrsha heaved and the pawn—and board—went flying.
The Gnoll was randomly shifting pieces around the board or knocking them to the floor and watching them as they soared back up and returned to their original position. She had no idea that this was because someone else had to pick them up, and probably thought it was magic, or some amazing game designed just for her.
However, Lyonette understood the issue and rushed to stop Mrsha from upsetting the board—and the board’s mysterious owner—any further. By the force of which the pieces were being slammed back on the chessboard, Lyonette guessed the other side was getting increasingly angry.
She winced as the last chess pieces were slammed into place. Mrsha squirmed, trying to get to the board to overturn it once more. Lyonette grabbed her, put the upset Gnoll in time-out, and picked up the chess board. She rushed downstairs to tell Erin about it. On the way, Mrsha tripped her. The Gnoll thought it was incredibly amusing to watch the pieces and board right themselves.
Lyonette did not. Mrsha got a spanking, and then she took the board—carefully—down to Erin.
“Oh no. Oh my god. I—I forgot.”
Erin stared in horror at the chess board that Lyonette had brought down from her room. A howling Mrsha ran about the inn as Lyonette chased after her. Erin ignored Mrsha as she tried to appeal to her for sympathy. All of her attention was on the ghostly pieces arranged on the board in front of her.
The pieces were frozen in the middle of a game. Just as they had been when she’d left them. Erin stared at a knight which was threatening her king. She…vaguely remembered that move, the last one her mysterious opponent had made. It had been on the day she’d left with Toren on the sledge. She’d been dreaming of what to do to counter it—probably move her king rather than lose her bishop—when she’d been abducted to Celum.
Now, far later, the board was rearranged exactly as Erin had left it, despite it having been messed up countless times by Mrsha. Her unknown opponent had remembered and restored it each time. They had been waiting. For her.
“How could I?”
There was no way to explain the pain in Erin’s chest. She was a chess player, a maniac who loved the game. She knew her opponent was as well. She—or he—had been waiting for Erin to make the next move. All this time.
It was like leaving someone hanging when you were playing a game of online chess, only a thousand times worse. Erin respected her opponent on the other side of the board. But she’d forgotten about them.
They hadn’t forgotten about her, though. Once Lyonette had finally caught Mrsha and made the Gnoll take a nap, she explained to Erin about finding the board and playing a few games with the mysterious owner herself.
“It was…six games, I think. I did it every now and then, when I didn’t have anything to do. I leveled up, but whoever was on the other side got bored of playing with me, I think. After the last game they reset the board to this. I tried playing—so did Olesm. But once the other player realized we weren’t you, they reset the board to this. Every time.”
“I don’t believe it. They were waiting.”
Erin’s hand trembled as she stared at a piece. She pushed it to one side and it snapped back into place. Lyonette winced, as did Erin. The feeling of the invisible opponent was made clear by the motions of the chess pieces. They were beyond irate. Incensed was probably a better word for their feelings at the moment.
“I put it in my room so no one would take the board or mess with it. I’m so sorry I forgot to tell you!”
“No, I understand. I should have remembered. It’s just—I forgot. I can’t believe I forgot. I have so much to do and I—”
Erin stared at the board. She looked at the pieces and whispered.
“Would you—would you like to play?”
Lyonette timidly floated the suggestion, but Erin didn’t know. She felt—guilty. As guilty as she’d ever been of anything. She wanted to apologize, to beg for forgiveness for abandoning the game she loved. But there was no way to do that.
There was only the game. Erin stared at the board. So long. She’d played Go with the others, but this was different. This was chess. The thing she lived and breathed. So what if a computer could beat the world’s best players? So what if there were video games?
This was eternal. Erin’s hand wavered as she took the king piece. She lifted the ethereal chess piece up and slowly placed it in front of the knight. And waited.
Silence. Erin knew her opponent had seen the move. It was a legal one. One of the only legal moves Erin could make, in fact. But did they think it was her?
A minute passed. Then two. Erin grabbed Mrsha as the Gnoll snuck towards the table. The Gnoll blinked up at her.
“Touch the board and you will regret it.”
Erin smiled pleasantly at the Gnoll, without a trace of the anger she’d directed towards Agnes and the others. She loved Mrsha, and Mrsha knew that. The Gnoll cub looked into Erin’s smiling face, turned, and ran yelping up into her room.
The knight on the board moved. Erin’s head snapped back around and she saw the knight slowly shift positions. It moved up, down, and stole one of her pawns.
A good, safe move. But it felt grudging. The other player didn’t think it was her. Erin half-smiled.
She pushed up a bishop and simultaneously threatened a rook and the other player’s queen. Thanks to the knight’s absence it had been possible. That was a trap that Erin had set, oh, about a month ago.
It floored the other player. They probably had seen it coming, but they’d been too upset over Mrsha. Understandably so, but there was no mercy in chess.
This time, the next move came within a minute. Erin saw the queen move to threaten one of her pieces. She still took the rook. Double attacks were there to punish. Then she hunted down the knight, stole the queen, and ended the game in six minutes.
She hadn’t forgotten. Erin cracked her fingers and winced at the pain. The other player hadn’t moved the pieces since Erin had checkmated the king. She thought they might be in shock.
So Erin reached out, turned the board around so she had the black side and reset it. She left the white side as it was. A challenge.
The board reset itself. Pieces flew into place. Then a knight leapt over the pawns heads. Erin smiled and pushed forwards a pawn.
She turned. Pawn the Antinium was staring at her. He was hovering right over her shoulder. She nearly fell out of her chair.
“Pawn? What are you doing here?”
“I have been here for the last five minutes. As have my Soldiers.”
She turned and saw a group of painted Antinium lined up patiently while Lyonette served them fried fish and honeyed milk. Erin hadn’t heard them come in. She blinked at Pawn and then saw a piece on the board move. She quickly turned back to it.
“Sorry Pawn! I’m uh, playing a game. How are you?”
“I am well. My Soldiers and I are taking a break from combat duty in the Hive. We have slain many monsters and I am showing the new ones around.”
“Really? Cool! Uh…combat duty?”
Erin was distracted. She was pondering her move. Pawn nodded.
“I see you are occupied. You are playing an interesting game already, I note. Belgrade and Anand would both love to see this. As would Olesm, I suspect.”
“Isn’t it good? This is the Tennison Gambit right here. See how they’re gambling their pawn? It comes from the Réti Opening—you know, starting with the knight. Belgrade and Olesm can’t really get their heads around hypermodern strategy yet, although Anand is good at using the wings to dominate, which is why he usually beats Belgrade. I wonder what would happen if I used a reverse Budapest Gambit here? Nah…is that stupid? Hm…”
“I believe this game may take a while. Or the subsequent games will. Lyonette, would you mind if I left my Soldiers here to visit the city?”
Pawn left. Erin was vaguely aware of that, and of a Soldier with yellow spatters of paint on his body sitting and staring at her. At some point Olesm rushed into the inn, screaming.
“I’ve got to write this down for my newsletter! Quick! Anand, let’s set up a board here! And Belgrade—oh. Sorry. Are your wounds fine?”
Erin looked over.
“Hey! You two are hurt! How did that happen?”
Anand and Belgrade paused. Both were covered in some kind of orangeish slime that was covering several cuts. Belgrade clicked his mandible together.
“We were wounded in defense of the Hive. Our worst injuries were healed, however.”
“Lyonette! Get a potion! And Anand, pull a chair up if you want to see. Look at this.”
Erin waved the chess players over and they crowded around. She kept playing as she explained her position.
She lost that game. It was a brutal match where her opponent tried to strip all her pieces away and Erin did the same. It ended fast, and when it was over, Erin slowly rearranged her board.
There was a silence in her mind. A quietus, that overwhelmed the sounds of Olesm chattering and the Soldiers covertly feeding Mrsha scraps of fish when Lyonette wasn’t looking. The last two games had been…a test, Erin felt. She’d caught the other player off-guard and won the first time, and the second they’d played aggressively, at their best. Erin had matched them, though she’d lost.
Now they knew. They knew it was Erin. And as Erin was white, she set the pace.
She picked up a pawn and stared at it. Silence. In the mind, and in her heart. Erin looked at the board. She loved the game. Whatever else changed, she still loved the game. She looked at the pawn. The room full of people, the watchers, all had disappeared. There was only silence. An empty stage. Then, for the first time in what felt like years, Erin began to play.
A simple song. A dance on a chess board only a few feet long. It started out as a quick shuffling of the feet. Pawn to D4. Clearing the throat. Pawn to D5.
Anyone could do the dance. Erin moved Knight to F3, and after a moment of hesitation in which the music skipped around aimlessly, the other side moved. Knight to F6.
Now the tune was picking up. Was there a violin in the orchestra? A cello? A piano began to play.
Bishop to F4. Now Erin could see the dance floor. She began a slow dance, tracing her steps slowly across the floor. The London System. That was the name of today’s jig. But what would her opponent do next?
Hesitation. Erin looked across an empty floor and saw someone move. The Pawn moved to E6. Now they were in unknown territory.
The game shifted. Erin pushed a Pawn forwards. The music rose. Now there was an orchestra. She began a waltz across the floor.
And then? There was music. There was a dance. Her partner came at her across the chess board, flicking pieces towards her, grasping at the center. Erin danced back, sending her knights up, fortifying her position. Across the dance floor, her opponent spun and leapt to the same tune. Both sides mimicked the other. Knights and Pawns, building, edging together for superiority.
But no blood spilled, no pieces taken, not yet. Erin and her opponent met on the grand marble floor of the hall as the flutes and bows strained the air with building crescendos of sound. Not yet. Twenty moves in, and the board was still developing.
A Bishop came out. Erin tapped her foot and sent hers up. Mimicry. Mocking. Taunting. Waiting.
Then the black Pawn advanced and took hers. The first blow was struck. Erin reached out and tapped her opponent lightly. The music enveloped them both.
It wasn’t like a dance. It was like a dance. It was just chess. What could you say about a game that was so static, so unchanging over the centuries? Nothing. Everything.
Erin walked through a different world. She played the game and lost. A second loss. She reset the board in a moment and played again. This time she won. And then won again. And again. And again and—she lost the sixth game after that.
Time lost meaning. There was just the game. Erin had lived for twenty years. Of those twenty years, she had spent a lot of time breathing, sleeping, eating…but there was only one thing she had ever practiced. She’d spent more time playing chess than she had learning how to drive, how to cook, how to sing or dance or do anything else. This is what she knew.
This is what she had lived for. And her opponent was the same.
“You were lonely, weren’t you?”
Erin whispered the words as she played. Win. Lose. Lose and then win again. She remembered. It was lonely, playing alone. It was hard to be by yourself. There was no one who could understand what you were doing when you played with other students over lunch. You had to search for people like you, but it was so hard to find someone who could see what you saw. The higher you went, the lonelier it got.
Erin had seen the clouds as a child and turned away. She’d come back as a teenager, climbed again because there was something beautiful she saw way up high. Now she touched the clouds and broke through. She danced on top of the world and showed the other player there was still sky above. Here we are. How far can we go? The game is endless. Come, dance with me.
Play with me.
She said only a few words through the games. A few words, from one lover of the game to the other. It was a simple message.
The reply was short, and simple.
I know. You are forgiven.
That was all. Erin stopped playing when her right hand began to hurt. She blinked, looked around, and realized all the lights in the room had gone out.
So, apparently, had the sun. It was close to midnight. No one was in the common room of the inn—or awake. Erin blinked around and realized she’d been playing all day.
There was a groove in her flesh from where she’d pressed against the table’s edge and her jaw hurt from resting so long on her propped up hand. Erin stretched and nearly fell over when she got up.
“That probably wasn’t a productive use of time.”
It wasn’t an [Immortal Moment] that had consumed all this time. It wasn’t a spell or anything else supernatural either. It was just obsession. Erin wandered into the kitchen, scarfed down half a pot’s worth of Gnollish tortellini, huge, meat-stuffed, and oh so juicy, and then passed out on the floor.
A good day. If you didn’t count the screaming.
[Magical Innkeeper Level 31!]
Was it because she picked a fight with the other innkeepers? Defended her home? Maybe it was because Erin had been doing good business lately. Accumulating experience points or however it went. Erin woke up blearily, wished she had a Skill that made it so she didn’t have to sleep, and got on with the day.
“Are you going to play more chess today, Erin? Because if you are, we could use some more prepared food first. Not that I want to bother you, but uh…”
“No chess. Too much chess makes brain go poof.”
Erin rested her head on the table, feeling as though someone tiny had just kicked her brain a few times. That was the thing people didn’t understand. Chess was exhausting. Not physically, but mentally. Erin was surprised she’d kept up the same level of concentration for so long.
It was probably because she hadn’t played for a while. She could put her brain into overdrive for a day, push her limits because of that. Because of the passion. However, the next day was killing her. Erin dragged herself into the kitchen and did some easy cooking to pass the time.
Then she had a feeling in her stomach. It wasn’t indigestion. Erin frowned and poked at her midriff, and then realized what the feeling was. She poked her head out into the common room.
“I am here. Do you want me to shoot something?”
Bird stood to attention. He’d been coming by every day, as per Klbkch’s orders for him. Erin asked if he knew whether the Hive could build her inn. Bird had no idea, so he wandered off to find Pawn.
He came back at midday with Pawn, a group of the painted Soldiers, and a score of Workers. Apparently the situation in the Hive was resolving itself. Erin conferred with Pawn about what she wanted and he had his Workers begin construction, warning Erin it would take several days to finish the work.
“We must remove parts of the roof and construct parts of the inn before lifting them up. We shall assemble scaffolding today and lay down a foundation. Tomorrow we shall knock that wall down and begin expansion.”
He pointed at the west wall of Erin’s inn. She frowned.
“Aw. I like that wall. Can you do the east side instead?”
Pawn stared at her. She laughed.
“Ah. I see.”
Bird stared at the Workers hauling lumber up to the hill and then approached Pawn.
“Pawn, I would like my tower to be high. So I can shoot birds.”
“Yes, Bird. I will make it high.”
Bird nodded a few times and lifted up his makeshift bow and arrows. Erin stared down at them and then glanced at Pawn.
“Do Antinium use bows, Pawn? Bird’s the first Antinium I’ve ever seen who uses one. But Ryoka says the Antinium used to use arrows in the first Antinium War.”
“Ah. Well, I do not know about the other Hives. Tersk tells me the Armored Antinium use crossbows, but our Hive does have a supply of bows and arrows. In limited quantities. There is little use for them underground, but Workers may use them in battle.”
“Oh. And they’re all like this?”
The bow Bird carried wasn’t bad per se, but it certainly was no masterwork. He’d made it from a single piece of wood, and used hemp for the string. The arrows were sharpened wood tips, without arrowheads. They were feathered, though. Some of them had incredible feathers. Bird was not a discriminating fletcher.
“This is a typical bow, yes. We are aware that it is not of high quality manufacture, but the Antinium usually only use bows against aerial foes. Hm. Perhaps I should see if Workers will work with my Soldiers. A few with bows could be…”
Pawn lapsed into thought as Bird tried to convince him to make his tower extra high. Erin had a thought from looking at Bird’s bow and found Ryoka. She was heading out to go stare at the wind with Ivolethe.
“We’re using chalk. Colored powder. The theory is that it’ll help me see the wind.”
Ryoka explained to Erin while Ivolethe quietly froze Pisces’ mug to the table. When the [Necromancer] went to pick it up, his hand stuck to the glass. Erin nodded as Pisces shouted in pain.
“Okay, but what about bows?”
“Bird’s got a bow, but it’s a crappy one. It looks bad, anyways. Can you think of a better bow for him?”
Ryoka listened to Erin’s description of the bow and looked out the window to see Bird shooting arrows and arguing with Pawn over how high the tower needed to be given his range. She nodded.
“That’s a self bow. That means it’s one piece of wood. Easy to make, but you’re right that there are better kinds out there, and that’s not counting enchantments.”
“If you were going to recommend a bow…”
Ryoka pondered the question for a while.
“Recurves, composites, reflex…why not a recurve? It’s smaller than a longbow and it’s got a punch. I’ve seen Gnolls using them—they’re good hunters. Why not ask Krshia if she has one?”
“I think I’ll do just that.”
Erin smiled at Ryoka and went to pull some gold coins out from her savings. On the way she met Lyonette.
“Erin, look, look! It’s moving!”
She had a bowl in her hands. And in the bowl—practically hanging off the sides of the bowl was a bee. Erin knew Lyonette had the bee. She had seen many bees, most of them dead. She just wasn’t prepared for this bee in her face.
“Gah! Why is it so big?”
This bee was twice the size of a regular Ashfire bee, and those were already the size of a fat hand. Lyonette beamed.
“I think it’s because I was feeding it all that jelly! Isn’t it amazing? Look, you can see it’s moving about a bit!”
The bee was indeed moving. The pupae had developed into distinct features, and now it was twitching a bit. Erin stared at the bee and edged away. Why was Lyonette not bothered by it? Oh, right. She killed bees and stole their honey every week.
“Is it—shriveling up?”
“I think so. It’s starting to grow little hairs, look!”
Mrsha was excitedly sniffing at the bee. Erin backed away towards the kitchen, hands raised. Drassi was trying to hide behind Ryoka and Ryoka was trying to prevent Ivolethe from attacking the bee.
“It looks great Lyonette, really. But why don’t you put it in your room before Ivolethe attacks? Let me know if the bee starts to move. Actually, let me know the instant it moves, okay? In fact…I’ll go down to the city right now and buy a leash.”
Lyonette blinked at Erin. Erin nodded.
“Yes. A leash. Because you’re going to leash your bee, right?”
“I—don’t know. I hadn’t thought about it. I was just raising it—Apista, I mean. I don’t know if I can control her.”
Erin stared at Ryoka. The other girl shrugged. Erin turned back to Lyonette with a smile.
“Let’s find that out soon, okay? Great! Uh…keep it—her—away from the Antinium too.”
Both Pawn and Bird had noticed the bee Lyonette was holding and were staring at it. They looked innocently away as Lyonette glanced over.
That done with, Erin grabbed gold coins and silver ones and rushed into Liscor. She found Krshia selling salt by the sack in her shop. The Gnoll looked happier than she had in ages.
“Erin. It is good you are here, yes? After your last visit Brunkr seems better. Hrr. Much better, yes. Will you visit him? He has been asking about you.”
“Sure! I’ll visit him tonight. Listen, Krshia, do you have a, uh, leash? And collar? I’ve got a bee that’s about to hatch and I do not want it flying around before I know if it’s an angry bee or a nice one.”
Krshia blinked at Erin, but she nodded when she heard about Apista.
“There are dog leashes which can be adjusted. And collars. One of my cousins in the city, he breeds dogs. I think he will have some that can be used.”
“Gnolls have dogs as pets?”
Erin paused. She’d seen some dogs in Celum, but not in Liscor. Krshia shrugged.
“It is not too common. Some Gnoll tribes breed dogs to be eaten or as pets, but pets are difficult to raise in a city, yes? But some Drakes like pets. Gnolls have an easy time training dogs anyways. We are pack leaders to them.”
She grinned toothily. Erin looked at Krshia and thought that if Gnolls ever made it to earth, Cesar Millan would probably be out of a job.
“Cool. Great. Also—bows. Do you have, uh, recurving bows?”
“Recurving? You mean…recurve?”
“Yeah. All the curves. Or…composite? Reflex? I’m asking for a friend.”
The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] nodded.
“I shoot a recurve bow myself. I know a very good [Bowyer], and I will introduce him to you, yes? He is part of my tribe so he will give you a discount. What bow did you want? Enchanted ones are very expensive.”
“Uh…I want something that’s good to shoot birds with. I have money.”
Erin looked pleadingly at Krshia. The Gnoll sighed and smiled, and made time to go with Erin to the said bowyer and select a fine recurve bow made of yew. It cost a metaphorical arm and a leg, too.
“Twenty six gold coins?”
The bowyer nodded, looking proud of his work. Erin stared at the bow dubiously. Krshia coughed and motioned Erin aside so she could talk to her.
“It is worth hundreds, yes? Yew is good wood. Some say the best. And the bows are hard to make. This is a price at its base—without counting labor, only parts. A bow for this price, it would be four hundred gold coins if shipped far north, or to a place where there are no good bow makers. Enchanted bows may be worth more, but this is finest work.”
“Wait, then why am I paying—”
“A favor. For Ryoka’s friend, yes? The debt is honored. And Erin Solstice and Ryoka Griffin are both of the same tribe.”
The [Bowyer] nodded at Krshia, smiling widely. She winced as Erin stared at her.
“What did Ryoka do?”
“She did my tribe a favor. One beyond worth. Friendship was the price. And this—is an act of friendship. So we will charge you for only the cost of the wood and transportation. As friends.”
Erin thought about this. She dug in her money pouch and pulled out gold coins.
“Deal. And I’ll tell everyone that this is the best shop for bows, okay?”
Krshia and the [Bowyer] smiled as Erin put the coins on the table. Erin reached for some silver to account for the last gold coin and pulled out the odd coin she’d received. She stared at it. So did Krshia.
“What is that coin, Erin Solstice?”
“This? Oh it’s…I don’t really know. I got it from one of my customers. Do you know how much it’s worth, Krshia? Or how what it is?”
“Hmm. Hm. I have not seen a coin such as this.”
Krshia took the coin from Erin with careful paws and held it up to the light. She sniffed at it, wrinkled her nose, and sniffed again.
“It is ancient. I can tell you that. It smells of the earth, as if it were buried long. But the material…hm. Brathiak, lend me a knife, yes? Good steel, I think.”
But when Krshia went to obtain a sliver of the coin, the knife she was using failed to scratch the surface. She applied a lot of strength and nearly sliced her own paw. In the end she handed the coin back to Erin, shaking her head.
“Strong metal. I do not know what it is made of Erin. But it must come from an ancient kingdom, yes? It may be worth much to a collector, but I could not tell you the value. Perhaps a Dwarf could, if you met one.”
“Okay. I’ll hang on to it.”
Erin slipped the coin back into her pouch and paid for the bow. She carried it out of the bowyer’s shop with profuse thanks, and began walking back to her inn.
There was something odd about Gnolls. Most of them didn’t say much to Erin in passing—they just sniffed and nodded, which was their way. They could smell if Erin had had her period, if she’d had indigestion while pooping, and they could probably smell what she’d eaten for breakfast and when she’d eaten it. They were also, thankfully, unconcerned with the Human body.
Some male Drakes tended to whistle and make comments at female Drakes as they passed. Humans did the same thing, which Erin didn’t like, but Gnolls just sniffed or growled at each other so it didn’t bother her. Except for today. Today, as Gnolls saw Erin going down the street she could have been the hottest thing walking.
For both genders. Gnolls kept coming up to Erin and asking about the bow.
“Hrr. Yew, yes? Would you mind if I felt it?”
“Good construction. Do you shoot?”
“We should hunt together sometime. A bow like that deserves use.”
The lesson for the day was that Gnolls were weird about bows. Mrsha sat up and stared when she brought the bow into her inn. Bird stared when she brought it to him. She thought he would have burst into tears if he could.
“This bow is for me?”
“Yes! I got it from a friend of Krshia’s for almost nothing! I’ll uh, give it to you as advance payment for guarding my inn, okay?”
Bird was shaking his head as he felt the bow with trembling hands.
“It is too much. Too beautiful. I cannot take it.”
“Yes, you can.”
Erin made him lift the bow and try it out. The first arrow that Bird shot went halfway through the wall of her inn. Erin made him try the bow outside after that.
Halrac had come back with his group early from the dungeon. He was rubbing healing potion over a cut on his arm. He nodded at the bow and Erin saw him lift his bow up to see.
“I use a reflex bow made from spriggan wood. Highly flexible and enchanted for longer range and accuracy. It’s the best bow for close quarters and sneaking around, but you got your friend a good bow. It must have cost a small fortune.”
Bird turned to Erin, stricken. She waved her hands.
“No, no. It was a favor. That’s how I got it so cheap.”
“Some favor. Gnolls love bows.”
Halrac grunted. Erin nodded.
“Yeah…I owe Ryoka for that one. But that’s what [Innkeepers] do, right? We trade in favors and good will and stuff. Speaking of which…can you do me a favor right now?”
The [Scout] eyed Erin.
“Can you teach Bird how to shoot the bow properly? I mean, I don’t want to insult Bird, but you’re a master [Scout], right? Maybe you can show him a few tricks? Skills? How to make an arrow?”
Halrac glanced at Bird. Erin knew he didn’t like the Antinium that much, but Bird’s obsession with bows and shooting things seemed to win the grumpy man over. He nodded.
“I can do that. Come on, you. Let’s find something to shoot at.”
He strode out of the inn. Bird alternatively bowed to Erin and ran to follow. Lyonette stared at them and then looked at Erin.
“That was really nice.”
“Yeah. Well…I’m uh, going to get you something too. A sword. Or a mace. Hammer. What kind of weapon would you like if you used one? Do you use one?”
“A sword? Me?”
“Didn’t you say you wanted more classes? I’ll get you a sword and you can practice fighting, okay?”
Erin poked at her upset stomach while Lyonette gaped at her.
“But I—I’ve never held a sword before! Ever! I wouldn’t know where to begin! Erin, I’d need a teacher—”
“I’ve got one in mind. Maybe. I’ll let you know. Sorry, I’ve got to talk to Octavia.”
Erin opened the door to Celum and saw Octavia selling a bunch of matches over the counter. Erin stared at the crude match boxes and saw Octavia accepting silver coins for them. She felt…that was a rip off. The [Alchemist] was grinning when she turned to Erin.
“Can you believe it, Erin? I’m getting rich! All thanks to your little Gnoll cub! I’ve been selling shipments of matches to the [Merchants]—people want what I’ve got! It’s only a matter of time before other [Alchemists] start copying my design—hah, obviously—but I’ve leveled up three times from developing the matches!”
She grinned in delight at Erin. Erin nodded, smiling, and poked at her stomach again. The feeling hadn’t gone away since this morning.
“Great. Do you want another job? Aside from perfecting the penicillin, by the way. I’ll need some of that too if you’ve got more.”
“The mold? Leveled up from that too. Sure!”
Octavia laughed as she brought out some of the mold poultice she’d mixed up for Erin a few days ago. Erin carefully took the jar of paste and passed Octavia a few coins.
“It’s not completely effective, you know.”
“I know. I’m trying to isolate the exact stuff Ryoka was mentioning. I’ll work on it. Now, what’s the other thing you wanted to talk about?”
“Healing slimes. And I want pepper potions, more healing potions, and whatever other alchemist weapons you’ve got. Or any you can get.”
“Well of course, I can get you some pepper potions—brewed up a batch just the other day. And I’ve got a tripvine bag—I could see if anyone else is selling a burn blast mixture, although that’ll cost—wait, back up. What was the first thing you said?”
Octavia frowned as her brain caught up to her mouth. Erin was busy pulling potions off the shelf. She dumped them in front of Octavia.
“Healing. Slimes. Can you make a slime? Can you make one made out of healing potions? Can you make one for me?”
Octavia stared at Erin.
“I have no idea. But a healing slime sounds…very profitable. Or it could run me out of business. Why don’t you talk to one of your [Mage] friends about that and uh, tell me if it works?”
“Will do! How’s fifteen gold coins for the lot sound?”
The Stitch-Girl saw all the potions and items Erin was trying to walk out with. She rushed out from behind her counter to stop Erin.
“That’s worth way more than fifteen gold coins! Even with my usual markup! You can’t just take them, Erin!”
“Well, that’s all the room I’ve got in my budget. Look, I need this stuff, Octavia.”
“Yes, I understand that by you trying to take them. But—”
“Who told you how to make match sticks?”
Erin stared at Octavia. The [Alchemist] opened her mouth, and then closed it.
“Just this once. One debt paid, how about that? And I’ll give you more ideas in the future.”
“I really need these, Octavia. Please?”
Octavia looked like she might have an aneurysm as she stared at the potions piled up in Erin’s arms. She looked around for inspiration, and stared at the boxes of matches on display in her shop. She gnawed at her lip and nodded.
“Just once. Then we’re square, got it?”
“Charge me as much as you want another time. Thanks!”
Erin left the shop and carefully lined up all the potions in one of her pantries in the kitchen. Lyonette stared at the bottles and bags in awe.
“How did you pay for all of that? Is there any money left over?”
She looked almost afraid to ask. Erin nodded.
“I got it for cheap. Again. I’m cashing in favors here.”
Lyonette looked curiously at Erin. The [Innkeeper] hesitated and poked at her stomach. Same feeling.
“Call it a hunch. Look, I’ve got to go into Liscor for one more thing. Can you tell Ceria, Typhenous, Revi, Pisces, Moore…you know, all the mages that I want their help? The key word is ‘slimes’. Also, ‘healing’. Maybe ‘acid’, too.”
“Slimes? Healing? Acid? Okay, but I think they’re busy…”
“Tell them I’m calling in my favors if I have them! I also want to talk with Pisces about the undead! Tell him he’s not in trouble so he doesn’t run!”
Erin called out and left the inn at a trot. She had one more destination that day.
“Thank you for doing this, Erin.”
Brunkr sat in Krshia’s apartment as Erin applied the poultice that Octavia had given her. She spread it gently on his infected arm, trying not to make the Gnoll wince.
“How’s it feel? Better?”
Brunkr gingerly flexed his arm as he stared at the red gash in his arm. It had stopped leaking pus. The first few molds that Octavia had managed to isolate hadn’t done much for him, but this one was effective—or the honey and regular cleaning were doing their job. Erin had checked on Brunkr all week, and he was looking better each day.
Now the gash was actually healing. Brunkr was also well enough to be hungry, and he’d eaten half a cow already, or so Krshia told Erin. He seemed fit again as well.
“Have you been working out?”
“I have been running. It does not bother my arm, and I am restless, now that I feel better.”
Brunkr grinned at Erin. He let her wrap his arm carefully with the bandage she’d prepared and then offered her something to eat. Since Erin had forgotten to have lunch, she had some of the sliced raw meat the Gnolls loved so much. Someday she was going to get sick from it, but it tasted really good.
“I’m glad. If you keep healing like this, Ryoka thinks you might be able to use a healing potion soon.”
“I would not risk it after last time.”
Brunkr flexed his arm and grimaced at the memory. He nodded to the wound as he spoke to Erin, smiling at her. He had become very welcoming and hospitable as of late.
“A wound like this—if I take care with it, I may still use my other arm, yes? Why not let it heal with time and train in the meanwhile? I feel able to practice with a sword—this is my shield arm.”
“Oh, right. You’re a [Warrior], aren’t you?”
“I aspire to be a [Knight], in truth. But the class requires something I do not have. Until them, I am simply a [Warrior]. One of the best in my tribe.”
He said that without modesty, but without bragging as well. Erin remembered Brunkr fighting when he’d attacked Toren and she had to agree that he was pretty good. He’d taken a lot of her punches without falling down.
“If you want to practice, I have an offer for you. Would you be willing to uh, go by my inn and train Lyonette? I want to let her learn to be a [Warrior], if she’s willing.”
Brunkr froze. He stared at Erin.
“Me? Train Lyonette?”
“Yeah. And maybe Bird too. If he wants to learn how to fight with a sword, that is. I don’t want to learn—I use a frying pan and a knife. But some tips would be good. Maybe you can make up with Mrsha too. She feels bad about what she did.”
Brunkr stood up and paced about slowly while Erin snacked on more of the meat. What did the Gnolls call it again? Ssarish? No, that was the Drake version. She’d forgotten.
“Teach—I can teach. But why? I would not mind, but…it is an odd request coming from you. My Aunt tells me today you bought an expensive bow for your guard.”
“And I stocked up on potions. I’m going to buy a burn blast potion too, if anyone’s selling.”
The Gnoll sat, staring at Erin.
“A powerful item. Silver-rank adventurers use that, as do Gold-ranked ones. Why would you need such a thing?”
Erin hesitated. She poked at her stomach and Brunkr noticed.
“Are you feeling sick? I cut the meat for the Rashgr myself. It should not be—”
“No, I’m not feeling sick from the food. It’s something else.”
Erin shook her head. She’d been feeling the sensation all morning. She looked at Brunkr and decided to confide in him.
“Actually, Brunkr, I’ve been feeling worried all day. I felt a bit worried yesterday, actually, but then I played chess and…but I felt it today as well.”
“Uneasy. As if…something’s coming. I know Pawn has his Soldiers and there’s Gold-rank adventurers in my inn, but they’re not there all the time. And the dungeon is dangerous—Relc is always talking about it. So…I’m just taking precautions. I’m going to talk to Pisces about one more thing he can do, and try to cross-breed slimes.”
Brunkr stared at Erin. She knew she wasn’t making too much sense, but she just felt strongly that she should be doing something. Her head turned.
The Gnoll saw Erin looking around the room, and then look towards one of Krshia’s walls. There was nothing there, but Brunkr knew that Erin was pointed northeast from the position of the setting sun in the sky.
“There’s something…coming. Something bad, I think. I just feel uneasy.”
“Hrr. If you say so, I will agree. But what? Could it be the Goblin Lord? The monsters from the dungeon? Something else?”
Erin shrugged. But she looked uneasy. Brunkr had seldom seen Erin looking nervous, but now she did.
“I don’t know. But I just feel like I should be ready. Like we should all be ready.”
She reached out and pushed the half-full jar of poultice towards Brunkr.
“If you want to help, come tomorrow. Or tonight. And tell me where to buy a sword. I don’t have that much money left after the bow and potions, but Ryoka can lend me some money. I’ll talk to the Horns of Hammerad—see if they’re ready too.”
“Ready for what? A war?”
Erin hesitated. The young woman looked around, and Brunkr saw her eyes fix on that same spot to the northeast.
“Bad things, Brunkr. Just…bad things.”
“We have arrived.”
Venitra, first-born of Az’kerash’s creations and loyal servant to her master, paused as she stared at the distant walls of the city. They weren’t as tall as she had expected, but then, she had seen the Walled Cities up close and few structures could match the memory of their colossal fortifications.
In any case, the city was not important. She drew the travelling cloak tighter around her undead form. The white bone from which her entire body was made—an armored body that any Dullahan would envy, but far stronger, woven with spells crafted by her loving master himself—was concealed from any eyes at a distance. She had to stay hidden.
She was not here for war. Not yet. She had to find someone. The Runner. For that, she would traverse the world. It had been an arduous journey getting here, but at last they had arrived. Venitra, and—
Venitra turned her head to regard her companion. Ijvani usually travelled in a cloak of woven shadows, a production of magic that protected her from sight as well as attack. However, she too had exchanged her usual garb for a simple traveler’s cloak. It was just as well no one was around, however. A single look into either undead woman’s hoods would reveal a nightmare.
Two kinds of nightmares, in fact. Where Venitra’s hood would have revealed a sculpted face of bone, something similar to a Golem but far more unsettling, Ijvani’s cloak concealed a different secret. An unsettling one. A thought—inspiration from the Necromancer’s mind given form.
Two burning golden eyes stared at Venitra. They were placed in the hollow, grinning skull of a skeleton. That was what Ijvani was. A skeleton mage. No ordinary mage, though. Her magic was on par with any Gold-rank adventurer. Yet even that did not set her apart. It was her body.
Bone, yes. Reanimated, yes. But her bones were not the pristine white of Venitra’s form, or the yellow of bones left to rot. Instead, Ijvani’s bones shone. They shone black.
Black iron. Ijvani was not as heavy as Venitra, but she weighed far more than she should. Her entire body was a kind of armor, and carved into the metal were glowing runes, symbols of destruction. She and Venitra were made for battle, made to kill, each in their own way. They would find the Courier, find the Runner, find who she had told and slay them all.
“It is time, Ijvani.”
The skeleton mage nodded. Venitra strode towards the city of Liscor, preparing herself. To find their quarry, they would have to search. Hide themselves. The Drakes and Gnolls could be tricked. This would be the first city they searched through, for any trace of the Runner’s passing. After that, would they go north? Only time would tell. Would their master grow weary of waiting and contact them? Venitra longed to hear his voice. Perhaps—
Ijvani’s voice stopped Venitra. The bone-white woman looked back at her companion, annoyed.
“What is it? We are wasting time.”
The black skeleton was consulting a bloody map they’d found on the corpse of someone they’d horrifically slaughtered on the road here. She was peering at the city and at the mountains. She turned and stared south.
“Remember that mountain we climbed over?”
“Yes. What of it?”
“I think…we shouldn’t have done that. According to this map, we’re not at Liscor.”
Venitra stared at Ijvani. The skeleton nodded.
“This…is Esthelm. Liscor is that way.”
She pointed. Venitra stared. She stared at Ijvani, the map, and then towards Liscor. She sighed. Ijvani looked at her.
“You really should have brought Kerash. He knows this continent far better than I do.”
“I brought you because you and Oom are our best trackers.”
Venitra’s face contorted into a scowl as she looked accusingly at Ijvani. The skeleton mage nodded.
“At tracking. But I need a quarry to locate them by magic. Oom needs a scent. We have neither. I’m not good at reading maps on the other hand, or signs. You’re supposed to be our master’s most competent creation. Why can’t you ever find where we’re going?”
Venitra shook her head.
“Shut up. We’re leaving.”
She started walking towards Liscor, her heavy tread cracking the earth. She’d gone ten feet when Ijvani called out after her.
“I lied. Liscor is that way.”
She pointed in the other direction. Venitra stopped, stared at Ijvani. Her tone was thick with malice.
“If you were not our master’s creation, I would destroy you right now.”
“You can try. I am the greatest skeleton to ever walk the earth. So my master designed me.”
She couldn’t argue with that. Venitra stomped towards Liscor. When she found that accursed Runner, she was going to rip her toes off one by one. To start with.