It was going to be an important day. Ivolethe felt it, just like she felt the rays of the sun warm her frozen body slightly. She could sense…there were no words for what she sensed. The English language had no words for it, because Humans had only five senses, and perhaps a few others that were more instinctual and sometimes slightly magical.
A proper comparative would be that Ivolethe tasted the sense of foreboding and premonition on the air and felt déjà vu creeping over her while she simultaneously smelled, heard, and thought of all these sensations as well. It was the feeling of destiny, of fate.
Contrary to what Ryoka Griffin feared, Frost Faeries could not in fact tell the future. They could, however, predict the future, but that was a skill most beings had. Humans could do it. Less well than the fae, but they could do it.
It was easy. Show a Human an apple and most would agree that it would fall when dropped. Some might suspect the apple would explode, defy gravity, or commit to some other miraculous feat, but insanity lurks within all species. By and large, Humans could predict the future in simple ways like this.
They could see the apple and know it would fall. However, Ivolethe and her kind were different. The fae could see the apple and know what would happen if it was caught, what would happen if it landed, and what would happen if an arrow shot it out of the air during an archery competition.
They could predict what would happen after the apple fell, but they couldn’t see the whole of the apple’s fate. Just more of it than most. Where mortals saw only the road in front of them, faeries could see the crossroads.
It didn’t mean they knew everything. But Ivolethe could see strands of destiny weaving and changing each other. She could sense…peculiarities and moments in time that mattered.
And today, a lot of these threads were coming together. So many, and the ones that were already moving were pulling the rest. Because of course, destiny was connected. How could it not be?
So today would be momentous for many people in this small part of the world. It would be special. Ivolethe didn’t question the coincidence that pulled together so many events at once; she sometimes thought that reality liked such things. Special things should be special.
It could have been the work of a god as well, of course. Immortal beings were all about important days and destiny. But in this world, such an occurrence would be impossible. Ivolethe knew this. The gods were dead. And they had better stay that way.
The Frost Faerie sighed as the sun rose a bit. She could hear a Gnoll child flopping around her room, waking up to the smell of food as she ran over a young woman’s face. Ryoka Griffin groaned and Ivolethe smiled and flew away from Ryoka’s windowsill.
Today was going to be important. She flew into the Wandering Inn’s kitchen and stole a huge sausage link and some garlic. Even faeries liked something to eat while watching.
Ryoka knew it was going to be a bad day when she woke up. She opened her eyes and knew something was wrong.
There was nothing supernatural about this premonition. Ryoka had lived through too many days like this not to remember.
It was the feeling of things going wrong. It was the sensation in her mind of the sun going out. On days like this, Ryoka couldn’t help but feel angry and unhappy.
It had been a while since she felt like this. Back home, on earth, Ryoka could go for months without days like this. Other times it was a never-ending week of bad days. And oddly, it always felt like the world seemed to agree with Ryoka’s mood.
There was a large, brown beetle with a speckled exoskeleton crawling on her toothbrush. Ryoka stared at it for a long time as it crawled over the fine bristles and investigated the insides of her runner’s backpack. It was a fitting start to her morning.
She flicked the beetle off her brush and then tossed it out of the window. Then the Asian girl determinedly spread the foul toothpaste—a blend of sage, salt, pepper and other herbs Octavia mixed up and sold in small jars—and brushed her teeth with her toothbrush.
She took extra-long to brush her teeth just to show the damn beetle what was what. Then Ryoka remembered she hadn’t had breakfast.
She made her way downstairs, trying not to scowl that openly. But her mood had followed her. It lived in her mind. It was a blackness creeping in her thoughts.
“Good morning, Ryoka! Would you like some pancakes? They’re hot and we have honey!”
A smiling Lyonette greeted Ryoka. The tall girl grunted at her. The little devil sitting on her shoulder made her shake her head. Just to be contrary.
“No pancakes. I’ll have the cinnamon muffins Erin made a few days ago.”
“Oh? Sure! I’ll heat them up. It’ll be a moment. And you want—”
That was the thing about Erin’s inn. Ryoka could order a steak Erin had seared to perfection five days ago and have it fresh and hot in moments. The hot, warm muffins with a side of honey and milk made the clouds around Ryoka lift for a bit. Then Lyonette came back and showed her Apista.
Ryoka recoiled in her chair as she came face to face with two black, fragmented eyes and a massive, furry insect’s head. She backed up and realized it was only massive for a bee. Apista the bee was a bee twice the size of Ryoka’s hand, clinging quietly to Lyonette’s arm and fanning its wings.
“Isn’t she amazing? I have a lesser bond with her, and she listens to everything I say!”
Lyonette beamed as if a bug crawling on her shirt was something to be proud of. Ryoka took one look at the bee and decided to ask Octavia about what kind of poisons she sold. Preferably powders. A nice can of Raid would be acceptable too.
“Okay. Good. Please get it away from me.”
Lyonette did, looking somewhat hurt. However, the sight of the giant bee crawling over her arm was frightening enough at a distance, let alone up close. Ryoka eyed the bee’s stinger.
“It looks like a queen bee. Are you trying to start a hive or something?”
“No—it’s just a pet. I really didn’t want to keep it at first but…it grew on me, you know?”
“I see. Can you take it somewhere else while I eat? I don’t usually share my meals with insects.”
After Apista was gone, Ryoka looked around and found Mrsha was busy harassing Zel Shivertail before he left the inn. He was always in the city doing something. The Gnoll was trying to pin down his tail and having no luck. Zel could lift Mrsha’s entire body up with his muscular tail. For some reason, seeing Mrsha enjoying herself with someone else annoyed Ryoka.
“She’d just annoy you if she was here. Think, idiot.”
Ryoka smacked herself in the head. That was the thing. She could tell when her mood was bad and she did try to account for it. Well, she tried in this world.
But while Ryoka could tell what was coming, she could never realize when the snap was coming, when the bile rose up and came out of her mouth. When Lyonette gave her a muffin sans bee, Ryoka glanced around to look where it had gone. Apista was calmly eating from a bowl on a table, watched warily by some of the regular customers and hungrily by Bird.
That was another thing. Bird was now a permanent fixture in Erin’s inn. He didn’t say much and sat on the roof where the third floor and new wing were slowly being constructed. But there were also several Drakes and Gnolls who had decided Erin’s inn was a good place to have breakfast.
Right now Ryoka didn’t want any company. She unsubtly glared at a Drake who was sitting across from her table, eying the Ashfire Bee queen warily. And meanwhile, Erin had just edged out of the kitchen carrying a pot that was shaking of its own volition. Ryoka stared at it. Lyonette coughed.
“Um, Ryoka? Are you okay?”
“Awesome. Great. What the hell’s in the pot?”
There was something disturbing about Erin. It was that when you got to know her, the innkeeper of the Wandering Inn never did normal things. In any other person, Ryoka might have assumed the small pot with the shaking lid was…something explainable. With Erin, Ryoka immediately suspected the worse.
“It’s a, uh, slime.”
“A slime. Remember when Erin was talking about healing slimes?”
As it turned out, Ryoka was one of the few people Erin hadn’t told about her idea to make a slime out of a healing potion. Lyonette told Ryoka how she’d cajoled Typhenous and Octavia into helping her create one.
“And they did it? They went along with that insane idiot’s—just like that?”
“It’s not hard, apparently. It’s just a mana stone and a bit of existing slime. Apparently they can create themselves. Erin made one out of water to see if it would work first.”
Erin came over, beaming and holding the small pot. She opened her mouth.
“Hey Ryoka, guess what—”
“A slime. Why the hell did you do it, Erin?”
The other girl looked put out. She stared at Lyonette, who mimed an apology and scooted away to help Drassi wait the tables. Erin put the pot down on the table and took off the lid. Ryoka had a glimpse of a mostly transparent blob slowly rising from the pot, questing around with part of itself. She slammed the lid down.
“Are you insane? Why do you think creating a monster is a good idea?”
“It’ll be cool! Lyonette has a pet, so I thought I could get one. Besides, did you hear about my idea to make healing slimes? We could feed it water and mana and get infinite healing potions!”
Ryoka ground her teeth together.
“Erin, no. This is exactly like the Rags situation. And Toren! Haven’t you learned anything from the past?”
At that, Erin’s smile vanished.
“What do you mean? This isn’t—Rags was cool.”
“She started her own tribe and started ambushing travelers on the road, Erin. She nearly killed me the first time I met her.”
“Yeah, but—she’s innocent, Ryoka. And she’s smart. She’s not like Toren at all.”
Ryoka let that go for the moment. She scowled at Erin. This conversation had been a long time coming. Why did it have to be today it happened?
“Toren? We should have talked about him a while ago, Erin. He was a monster and he didn’t listen to Pisces’ spells or your orders. That much is true, but you were also the problem. You never realized he could think, that he had free will, did you? I warned you. Didn’t I tell you about Frankenstein?”
Erin’s smile was long gone at this point. She sat down.
“Yeah. But I didn’t think he could think. He’s undead! He was undead.”
“And that’s a slime. A living thing. How long before it gets upset you’re keeping it in a pot—”
“I was going to build a larger place to keep it!”
“—Keeping it prisoner and trying to harvest it, and decides to kill someone? And what was that about healing potions? You want to do what, lick its body now and then? Scoop out its insides whenever you have a cut? Doesn’t that sound a bit like cruelty?”
Ryoka stared at Erin. The other girl wasn’t prepared for this, but she was now on the defensive. And getting angry.
“Typhenous said that slimes don’t feel pain! Or think, really. Why are you so grumpy today?”
“I’m grumpy because this seems like another mistake that’s going to cause trouble for everyone, that’s why! Typhenous is a [Mage] and an adventurer, Erin. He’d blast a hole in a Goblin’s head as soon as look at one.”
“Yeah, but—he’s still right when he’s right, right?”
The Runner girl didn’t dignify that with a response. Erin scowled at her. She suddenly seized the pot.
“Look, it’s just a slime. It’s not dangerous, it’s small! See?”
She brought it up right to Ryoka’s face so Ryoka could see inside and tilted it to her. Ryoka saw what looked like plain old tap water swirling around in the pot for a moment. Then the fluid inside grew decidedly non-Newtonian and leapt onto her face.
Ryoka screamed. It was like being splashed by water, but without the splash. Suddenly, she was choking as water clung to her face and shoulders, trying to cover her head.
“Mmfh! Getr off!”
“Oh no! Ryoka!”
Erin tried to grab the water, but her hands passed right through the slime. Ryoka felt herself choking—drowning. She staggered back and shook her head. The slime lost whatever grip it had and splattered onto the floor. It formed into a blob and was immediately scooped up into Erin’s pot.
“Are you okay, Ryoka?”
Everyone was staring at her. Ryoka swayed. She put one hand up to her mouth as Mrsha ran over, looking distressed.
“I think I swallowed some of it.”
Ryoka felt something squiggling down her throat. She was immediately sick.
Six minutes later Ryoka sat at the same table. The vomit was gone, the slime was in the kitchen with a very heavy rock weighing down the lid, and Erin was sitting across from her. Both girls were angry at this point. Ryoka because she’d nearly been drowned and Erin because of what Ryoka had said to her afterwards.
“You’ve got to get rid of it.”
“You mean, kill it.”
“That’s the general implication, yes.”
Erin hesitated. She looked around—Zel had left, the Gold-rank adventurers were gone, the Horns of Hammerad were in Celum looking to see if there was any work to be had there, and only the objectionable Drake Ryoka had seen this morning was still around. Finding no inspiration, Erin could only shrug.
“I don’t kill things if I can. Duh. Killing’s bad, m’kay?”
She paused and grinned expectantly. Ryoka’s face remained stony. Erin waited, and then grinned again.
“Hey Ryoka, did you get the reference? See, that was a reference to South Park—”
“I got it. If killing’s so bad, why are you feeding and housing a bunch of Gold-rank adventurers? They kill things all the time.”
“Well, those are monsters—”
“Like the fucking slime.”
“That’s different. They kill really bad monsters that are threatening people. Not slimes that accidentally got on someone’s face.”
“Oh? Bad monsters? You mean like Goblins. Like the Goblin Lord’s army, and Rags’ tribe, come to think of it. I suppose they’ll kill all those Goblins and things will be great, won’t they?”
The other girl stared at Ryoka.
“No. No one’s killing Goblins. I put a sign up.”
“The one buried by snow? Good job.”
“Hey Lyonette? Lyonette, get a shovel and—”
“Shut up, Erin. What good is a sign going to do? For that matter, mind telling all the victims of the Goblin Lord’s army that they shouldn’t kill Goblins? I’m sure that’ll go down wonderfully.”
What was she doing? Ryoka remembered the last fight she’d had with Erin. It hadn’t gone well. But there was a feeling in the air now. Erin glared at Ryoka.
“The sign stays.”
“Why? So we can all get killed when some actually dangerous Goblins come around?”
“I’m sure that when the evil Goblins are marching around and being…uh, evil, no one’s going to worry about my sign. It stays because I don’t believe all Goblins are evil.”
“Right. Some of them are ‘just’ bandits. Name one Goblin—”
“—One Goblin who hasn’t tried to hurt or kill you at some point.”
“There was this big Hobgoblin that Rags brought one time.”
“Right after the Goblin Lord’s army tried to kill me and—”
Ryoka broke off, saw Mrsha sitting on a table and playing with a wooden spinning top.
“—And did other things which I’m sure I remember. What’s your excuse there?”
Erin stared at Mrsha and shook her head.
“None. They’re bad and if they die that’s…that’s how it has to be. But Rags was different.”
The innkeeper poked at the spotless table, speaking quietly and then meeting Ryoka’s eyes.
“Rags was small. She only wanted to survive. She did bad things, but she wasn’t a monster. She deserved a chance. Just a chance.”
“Sounds like she took that chance to do more ‘bad things’.”
“Maybe. But she’s gone. You didn’t see how Relc treated her, Ryoka! He kicked her and tried to hurt her!”
“For good reason, it sounds like.”
“Oh come on. All Goblins are bad? That’s racism—”
“No, that’s practicality in a world where making a mistake gets you killed, Erin.”
“This is about the slime, isn’t it?”
“Yes! It nearly got me! What happens if it crawls out of its pot and finds you asleep? Or Mrsha?”
The Gnoll cub’s ears pricked up. Erin looked at Mrsha, horrorstruck, and then at Ryoka. She wavered, and then got up. She came back with the bumping pot and took off the lid. The slime slowly oozed over the sides. It would have been fascinating, magical to watch if it didn’t make Ryoka so wary.
Erin stared at the clear blob, slightly tainted by a bit of the vomit it had absorbed from Ryoka. Apparently slimes weren’t picky about what they picked up. Ryoka stared at it with deep distrust.
She pushed the slime out of the pot. It seemed reluctant to go this time. It swirled around on the table. Now Ryoka could see a single part of it that wasn’t fluid. It was a bobbing stone, a shimmering little blue gem hovering around the slime’s center.
“They don’t feel pain. And they’re really stupid. But I still feel bad.”
She reached into the slime. It immediately began flowing up her arm. Erin ignored that and quickly plucked the gem out of the slime. It tried to resist, clinging to the stone, but Erin was too quick and strong. The instant the gem left the slime’s body completely it collapsed. Water sloshed over the table, drenching Ryoka and Erin’s lower halves.
“What the hell?”
Ryoka stared at the remains of the slime as Lyonette rushed out of the kitchen with a towel. Erin showed her the shining gem. It still had bits of water stuck to it.
“Slime core. It’s this crystal, see? A mana crystal that’s got…slime stuff all over it. It can’t do much this small, though. It needs to be at least the size of an apple before it’ll move around. But the slime stuff is still part of the slime. They’re like a microbe-thing, I think. A fungus, maybe.”
“Amoebas that reproduce and join together when exposed to mana?”
Erin put the stone on the table and didn’t quite meet Ryoka’s eyes. She spoke to Ryoka’s right ear instead.
“I’ll make a very small healing slime. I’ll keep it safe, and if it seems violent or dangerous in any way I’ll destroy it.”
Ryoka sat back. She was hungry again. But she didn’t feel like having breakfast twice.
“Well, well. Aren’t we hypocritical. Killing stuff’s bad, m’kay? Except when you want to experiment. Then it’s fine to make life and destroy it.”
Erin’s head snapped up. She and Ryoka locked gazes and Lyonette desperately tried to get in the way with her body while mopping up the mess.
A howl punctured the silence. It came from a Gnoll’s voice and from outside. Ryoka and Erin leapt to their feet. They ran outside and Ryoka saw Mrsha. She was running and a leathery, brown-green creature was attacking her.
It was a bird, a scaled beast. A pterodactyl in almost all respects. It was twice Mrsha’s size and it was swooping at Mrsha as the Gnoll child howled and tried to run for the inn. But the bird wouldn’t let it. The dino-bird—the Razorbeak grasped at Mrsha’s fur and flapped its wings as Mrsha struggled and bit and clawed at it. It was trying to lift Mrsha and carry her away!
Images of giant eagles hunting goats and dropping them from huge heights filled Ryoka’s mind. She snarled and ran at the bird. The Razorbeak flew away from Mrsha and Ryoka crouched over the Gnoll protectively. She raised her hand.
“Ivolethe? Where the hell are you?”
The Frost Faerie was usually about. But not today. Ryoka concentrated, spoke a word.
She threw an orb of searing bright red light at the bird, which squawked and dove away. The light was harmless, but it made the Razorbeak hesitate. Unfortunately, the bird seemed to sense the magic was just light and dove at Ryoka instead. It clawed at Ryoka as she swore and tried to fend it off while reaching for her belt knife.
Someone shouted. Ryoka ducked. She heard a whirring noise, and a thunk. The Razorbeak attacking her suddenly went limp and fell on Ryoka. She shoved it away and staggered back with Mrsha. Ryoka had a dagger in her hands, but there was no need to use it.
The Razorbeak was dead. A kitchen knife stuck out of the bird’s chest. Sharp as a razor, it had gone through the bird’s body, ending it in moments.
“Are you okay?”
Erin was standing in the doorway, a frying pan and another knife in her hands. Ryoka stared at her as Mrsha clung to her chest, sobbing. Slowly, she brought Mrsha inside and when the Gnoll was being hugged by Lyonette and Drassi, she looked at Erin.
All the fear went one way. All the fury too. Ryoka didn’t thank Erin for saving her or Mrsha. She looked at Erin and flicked the mana stone on the table. Then she nodded to the Razorbeak’s corpse lying just outside.
“For someone who doesn’t like killing, you’re awfully good at it.”
Erin’s face went white. Ryoka waited.
“Ryoka, Erin, please.”
Lyonette had heard it all of course. Ryoka turned her head and Erin punched her stomach. Ryoka swore and hit Erin in the shoulder before dodging back from Erin’s next swing.
Erin kicked her. Ryoka threw the magical chessboard at Erin and missed. She punched Erin twice before the other girl tackled her and they rolled around on the ground, hitting each other. The fight ended when Mrsha leapt into the fray, biting indiscriminately and Lyonette hit both girls with a bucket of water and then the bucket.
A bad mood. The Queen of the Antinium felt like that didn’t describe her current feeling. A bad mood was just a chemical imbalance, a result of emotion and circumstance. In lesser creatures it might become an issue if not corrected, but the Antinium were perhaps the most biologically advanced creatures in the world. They could suppress mere bodily imperfections.
But only if they wanted to. The Queen did not want to in this moment. She was furious. Beyond furious. She was betrayed.
Klbkch had told her. Her faithful Revalantor had learned from Xrn—he had told her—
The Grand Queen was not attempting to create more Queens.
That news had broken the Queen of the Free Antinium. It had shattered all her ideals, all the faith she’d put in the Antinium on Izril. They were no longer trying to create more Queens? Why? How could they? Did they think six Queens were all they needed? Had they given up hope? Why?
Was it that they wanted to be the sole rulers of the Antinium?
No. The reasons didn’t matter. The outcome was the same. The Queen shifted. In her private chambers, she did something she rarely did. She moved.
The Soldiers who guarded her shifted as their Queen slowly rose. She had huge, massive legs and she used them to swivel her gargantuan body around and then fall onto her side. Slowly, awkwardly, the Queen pushed herself across the ground, lifting her body with effort. But she did move, and because she was huge, even a grudging step carried her far.
There was a way out of her quarters. It carried her down a tunnel where no other Antinium ever went, even Klbkch. He probably had bad memories of such places, but it was there the Queen dragged herself. Her voice echoed through the dirt hallway, filled with rage and anger she could barely remember feeling. She hadn’t felt like this in years.
“Traitors. Cowards. Fools!”
She whispered to herself, dragging her immense body past primitive rooms she had built. They were all airtight, one of the few places in the Hive that were sealed by proper doors. They had to be; mixing the enzymes, chemicals, and other reagents necessary for the Antinium to change and grow required facilities beyond what most [Alchemists] made use of.
She stopped in front of one of the rooms and rested a palp from one of her feelers on the entrance. The Queen of the Free Antinium knew what was within without having to look.
Corpses. Half-rotted bodies of malformed Antinium, mixtures, formed concoctions of enzymes, chemical triggers made from combinations of magic and alchemy, designed to trigger sequences in bodies as they grew. And sacs, embryos. Gelatinous containers like those that Workers and Soldiers emerged from, but far different.
Experiments. Forbidden of course and practically doomed to failure because the Queen of the Free Antinium lacked the resources the other Queens kept to themselves. Without them, she could not create specialized Antinium. But she had tried, oh yes. She had rediscovered the Rite of Anastasis through her experimentations, saved her beloved Klbkch’s life with it. And Ksmvr had been created here.
Still, it was the countless failures that paused the Queen’s body as she recalled the years of death that had gone on here. That did not stop her from turning to the carefully arranged collection of bottles and objects on the far wall, however.
“My work. It must be done. We cannot let the Antinium die here. Six queens? We should be legion. We should have names. I thought—they are failures, all of them. We should never have become so small.”
The Queen reached for a bottle of saltpeter. She hesitated, turned to an extract used in creating new Antinium. She would need eggs. The Queens of the Antinium produced eggs as a matter of course; it was one of the reasons why they grew so large, so they could sustain the populations of their hives. There were Birthers too—Antinium designed for one purpose. But the Queen of the Free Antinium used only her eggs for these experiments. It was…just.
She had no idea where she could begin. How could you create a Queen out of the base material? What were the formulas her predecessors had used? The Queen of the Free Antinium wished she could remember anything of it, but she had never once been privy to the process. Not before it was too late.
She had not been made for this. Once upon a time she had been young, a new Queen, barely more than a child created to venture to a new world. Over three hundred Queens had been sent, the majority of the living Antinium, to flee. To build and reproduce and prepare for their enemy’s return. They had left a rearguard to fight for years, decades if need be. But the sleeping god would one day overrun Rhir, and so the Antinium had left. To win, retreat. To survive, flee.
But never to hide. The Antinium had sent warrior-queens, geniuses who fused and melded Antinium shapes into new forms. They had sent their Centenium, the ageless champions of old.
And they had all died. The Queen of the Free Antinium tasted despair on her mandibles. They had drowned at sea, died battling krakens and monsters from the depths. The Antinium had underestimated the sea. And what was left was unworthy.
Eight fools who were not qualified, not trained. A handful of uncertain Queens trying to rebuild the majesty they had been born of. And of that number, six remained.
“Six, and it seems only I recall what our purpose is.”
The Queen’s body shuddered. Traitors, all. How could they? If only she could speak with them. But she was an outcast, wasn’t she? What irony. At least it would help her now. She selected the gel that was the beginning of life for Antinium eggs and smeared it gently into a stone basin.
“It was said that we sacrificed a million lives for the first Centenium. I will sacrifice my Hive and my body if I must. But we shall have Queens again. We shall have champions. Klbkchhezeim—you shall not keep faith in vain.”
The Queen sighed. She was too tired. Too old, too weary of keeping her Hive intact. Too alone. That was why she sat in her rooms, eating, managing her Hive, leaving the rest of the world to Klbkch, who had ever been more qualified than her to lead their people.
But now she felt like she was waking up. She could not trust the Grand Queen, or the other Queens. They had lost the way. Perhaps some remembered. Perhaps Xrn was wrong. But until then—the Queen’s feelers shook. But it had started. She reached for another reagent, selecting carefully, hesitating, memorizing her attempts for the inevitable next time.
She began to create.
It really was her fault. Ryoka knew that. But there was truth in what she’d told Erin. She knew that too.
She wasn’t good at friends. Perhaps that was why it was easier for Ryoka to apologize to Erin after they’d both cooled down and ask for forgiveness. Sincerely. Because Ryoka was terrified of losing a friend, one of the few she had.
Not that an apology could heal things over so quickly. It was only the start. However, Lyonette had a hand in the next bit of reconciliation. Because both girls were filthy from the slime and fighting, she suggested they take a bath in one of Liscor’s public bathhouses.
It was a first for Ryoka to experience that. Normally she paid a lot of money for water to be hauled up to a bathtub or showered with water, again in bucket form.
But Drakes were a bit more civilized than Humans, or smarter. Liscor had a set of very high-quality bathhouses that reminded Ryoka of the Romans. They even had private bathing spots you could rent for a small fee.
It was an excellent service and Ryoka purchased that for the two girls today. The water in the pool they’d rented was hot and wonderful after the cold winter air. Ryoka exhaled slowly as she got into it—completely nude.
Unlike a Japanese onsen which she was familiar with, the Drake bathhouses didn’t require people to wash themselves before getting in. That sounded awful and disgusting to both Ryoka and Erin until the purification spells had been pointed out to them. Gnolls loved to bathe and they couldn’t exactly take off their fur before entering.
“I think its weird how Gnolls and Drakes bathe alone. Isn’t that a problem?”
Erin spoke shortly as she tested the hot water with a toe. She was more embarrassed about being naked than Ryoka, despite the baths being gender-specific. She shrugged as Ryoka heard the sounds of Drakes chattering away outside of their bath. Erin cocked her head, and sniffed the scented waters before continuing.
“Gnolls are touchy-feely and Drakes aren’t always like that. It makes sense to give them their own room, and Selys says she went to the bathhouse with Krshia the other day, so it’s not like there’s a big rule against it.”
The two girls fell silent. Ryoka submerged herself deeper, feeling the heat and enjoying it. The little monster in her brain was gone. Shame and guilt didn’t get rid of it, but a splash of healing potion and Mrsha’s betrayed glance had banished the specters in Ryoka’s head at once. She was left tired, remorseful.
“How’s the water?”
Erin asked as if she didn’t know. Ryoka hesitated, closed her mouth on the smart-ass response.
The other girl entered the water slowly, yelping a bit at the heat. She submerged herself quicker after getting both legs in. For a while, the two drifted, and said more in looks and silence than they did in words. Ryoka was sure Erin could see the emotions in her eyes. One thing Erin could do was read people when she put her mind to it. Ryoka wondered if that was a chess skill.
“Did you—did you ever go to things like anger management class?”
It wasn’t the start of the conversation, but it was the important bit. Ryoka sighed as she and Erin sat together on the underwater ledge.
“Of course. My dad insisted after the second time I got arrested.”
“And? Did it…?”
“Nope. Didn’t help. I got therapy, pills, the whole nine yards. I hated and resisted all of it. Especially because the therapist was working on my dad’s orders, not to help me. And the pills…”
“Oh, they did. They turned me into someone else. I refused to ever take them again.”
“Bet your dad didn’t like that. Did he try to make you take them?”
“Yeah. It stopped when I started sneaking them into his drinks. Ever seen a bunch of rich assholes—sorry, I mean, businesspeople—go totally insane from drinking a bottle of wine spiked with Xanax? Sight to see.”
“I get it. And I know you’re right about dangers and stuff. It’s just that when you said all that—”
“I was wrong.”
“No, you were right. Rags is a problem. I don’t know where she is. That big Hobgoblin looked sort of scary and Toren—”
“Look, I probably wouldn’t have given him a chance. Despite him turning out…the way he did, he still got treated better than he would have if someone like Pisces was ordering him around.”
“I wish I could go back and fix things.”
Erin hugged her knees. Ryoka sighed.
“Hell, maybe you can. Toren’s like a horror story. And you know how those go—”
“Monster comes back. I know. I’ve been asking Wesle, Klbkch, and Relc whenever they come in. No unusual skeleton sightings. If I hear of one…”
“If you hear of one, you tell Halrac or Jelaqua or Pisces. You don’t do anything.”
There was a peculiar feeling in the air. It was a sound as much as feeling. It was the sound of people trying to say sorry without saying sorry. Of course, in the end someone gives up and says it out loud. Ryoka did it twice, Erin once.
After a while, someone opened the curtains to their bath. Ryoka and Erin looked up. The convivial atmosphere they’d created blew out. Not instantly—at first they thought it was just a bather who’d gotten the wrong private tub.
“Sorry, we’ve reserved this one.”
Erin smiled and waved at a red-scaled Drake, an older female with a scar down one arm. The Drake returned the smile and closed the curtain behind her.
“I know. You are Erin Solstice and Ryoka Griffin, aren’t you? Please, let me introduce myself. I am Welsca Crimsonscale. In service to Wall Lord Ilvriss.”
Ryoka sat up at once at the name. Erin frowned.
“Wall Lord—you mean that jerk I threw a pan at? Is he okay?”
Welsca smiled at Erin and then at Ryoka, looking friendly.
“He is. And you may be happy to know that Wall Lord Ilvriss has decided to forgive any transgressions made against him. You may consider yourselves fortunate for that.”
Erin and Ryoka exchanged a glance. Ryoka folded her arms over her breasts. Drakes didn’t have breasts, at least, nothing that floated. Welsca slid into the water, further amplifying the unpleasantness of the moment. No one had invited her in.
“I believe Lord Ilvriss would consider it a personal favor—as well as an act of trust—if he were to have a chance to speak with you, Miss Griffin. I’m sure you’re aware that there is a need for conversation, and if you feel uncomfortable speaking with him, I would be happy to relay—”
“You’re in our pool. Get out.”
Welsca cut off. Erin and Ryoka were glaring at her. She swished her tail gently in the water and sighed.
“Miss Solstice, Miss Griffin, I don’t think you understand. This is a serious matter. Assaulting a Wall Lord and withholding information—”
Erin splashed her. The dignified Drake lady blinked as water ran down her face. Erin stuck her tongue out.
“Bleh! Get out of our bath! No one’s allowed to mess with private baths, not even a Wall Lord!”
“Ladies, please. I am one of Lord Ilvriss’s most trusted aides. I—”
Ryoka’s tone could have frozen over their tub. Welsca hesitated. Erin made a fist, cracked her knuckles, yelped, and winced.
The red-scaled Drake could read the mood. She could also probably predict the near future, at least in this situation. But she was stuck. She had her orders. She smiled weakly at the two girl’s hostile faces.
“Perhaps if we all soaked for a moment…?”
The main bathing hall in the women’s section of the bathhouse was slick from steam and bathers walking around. Thus, the walkways were made of rough stone for traction. Nevertheless, children both Drake and Gnoll loved to slide around on the rest of the bathing areas. It wasn’t exactly polite, and they often got in trouble when they slid into someone else’s pool, but it did happen.
It was rarer for adults to do that. Then again, there was a notable incident in which Relc and Klbkch had been banned for that exact practice. Legends were still told about that day, which had required healing potions for at least six people. But on the women’s side things were generally peaceful, chatter being the main focus.
That pleasant ambiance was shattered by a raised voice coming from one of the private bathing areas. There was a shout, splashing of water, and then a crack.
Heads turned. The Gnolls and Drake ladies saw a female Drake with red scales slide headfirst across the slick marble floors. She looked battered.
A young woman darker of skin than most inhabitants of Izril and totally naked, came out from behind a curtain. Another young girl followed her, electing to use the curtain as a towel. Ryoka Griffin stomped towards Welsca. The other Drake got up. She tried to back away and slipped on a wet tile. Ryoka kicked her and watched her splash into a pool filled with Gnolls.
She laughed at Welsca as the Drake flailed around in the pool. Ryoka made fists and waited at the pool’s edge. She felt a lot better. Hitting someone who deserved it was a very pleasant experience in contrast, Ryoka decided. She stared down at Welsca, ignoring the stares around her.
“Hah! What are you going to do now?”
Ryoka sat in Liscor’s guardhouse, both hands bound by cord. She stared at the table in front of her and looked around. A Drake [Guardsman] with a club was eying her, and the room was filled with other criminals. Petty thieves, brawlers, and an angry Gnoll covered in egg yolk who was screaming at another Gnoll. Ryoka sighed.
It turned out that kicking someone out of your private hot tub wasn’t a crime, but kicking them into someone else’s tub was. Moreover, since Ryoka had been doing the kicking, it was she who was in handcuffs until someone could interview her and get the full story out under truth spell.
She looked around. Liscor’s barracks were fairly large. This being the reception area, Ryoka couldn’t see much, but the Drakes seemed very keen on military organization. Drakes and Gnolls off-duty did loiter around of course, but there was a sense of purpose that struck Ryoka as very different from the relaxed Human [Guardsmen] who generally ambled about the city.
That was because Drakes trusted their militias to handle monsters and criminals alike. Adventurers were necessary, but the first and last line of defense for any city was their police force, which doubled as their army and in this case, judicial system.
“Miss Ryoka Griffin?”
One of the Drakes on duty came over at last. He had faintly purple scales and some ill-fitting armor. He also had a sheaf of notes that Ryoka hoped weren’t all complaints from the other bathers.
“That’s me. Look, I’m sorry about the fight, but that Drake did enter our bathing spot—”
“Please. We’ll get to that in a moment.”
Ryoka fell silent. At least he didn’t look openly hostile and wasn’t telling her to shut up because she was a filthy Human. Still, she didn’t like the fact that she’d hit an aide of a Lord of the Wall. She didn’t regret doing it broadly speaking, but in situations like this, that fact was a lot more pressing.
“So, this incident between you and Miss Crimsonscale…I see there was another Human involved. One Erin Solstice. Yes…we have a few notes from the Watch Captain, Senior Guardsmen Klbkch, Senior Guardsmen Relc, several complaints…she has quite a file.”
That didn’t sound good. Ryoka braced herself, ready to pay a fine if it meant no one got in trouble. She heard a shout.
“Hey, what’s going on here?”
Someone came stomping over to their table. The Drake with purple scales looked up, looking faintly alarmed. Ryoka twisted and saw a Drake with dark green scales and—Ryoka stared—huge arms striding forward. He was big for a Drake, big for a Gnoll—he looked like he was all muscle and he had scars on his arms and legs.
He was also carrying a spear, but he tossed it to one corner of the room carelessly. He approached the table, narrowing his eyes for a moment at Ryoka.
“What’s with the Human? I heard there was an incident with her and Erin. Someone punched one of us?”
He looked at the [Guardsman]. Ryoka was sure that talking about a case in front of the guilty party wasn’t exactly good form, and the [Guardsman] seemed reluctant to speak. He nodded at Ryoka.
“I’ve got this. Uh, don’t worry Senior Guardsman Relc.”
The other Drake’s non-existent eyebrows rose. He opened his mouth and then shrugged, looking unconcerned.
“Okay, but hurry it up! I want Erin back in her inn soon—she promised me I’d get roasted eels tonight, and I want them fresh!”
He knew Erin? Wait a second, Relc…Ryoka remembered him vaguely. They’d met, but only as acquaintances. And he’d clearly forgotten her face. Ryoka knew for a fact that the eels in question had already been cooked and were waiting to be eaten at the inn, but she was grateful for him prompting the other [Guardsman].
The Drake with purple scales cleared his throat as Relc wandered a few feet away and intruded in a conversation between two Gnolls. He looked harried and kept glancing at Relc. Then he sighed and leaned towards Ryoka.
“Miss Griffin, I’m going to make this very simple. Tell us what we need to and this can be over quickly.”
“Okay, I didn’t start it. Welsca did. I can swear on a truth spell—”
“Not that. Lord Ilvriss wants to know only one thing. Where is [Captain] Periss? How did she die?”
He sat back. Ryoka stared at him and felt a cold chill on her back. He was one of Ilvriss’ people too? She remembered the Drake in the inn at breakfast. Another one?
Was Ilvriss watching her? Listening in on her conversations, hoping she’d leak something? She stared at the Drake. He nodded slightly, as if confirming her worst fears.
“Lord Ilvriss is not accustomed to waiting. You may have the immunity of your Guild, but he will seek you out no matter where you go. Speak now, and this need not get worse.”
“Go to hell.”
The fake [Guardsman] sighed. He flicked through the notes on his clipboard.
“Miss Ryoka, your friend Erin Solstice has a file on her that would attract the attention of any Drake [Leader] in any city. Why Watch Captain Zevara seems content to let her unauthorized inn stand…suspected ties with the Antinium, disorderly conduct, endangerment and death of a Watch member on duty. She may be safe here, but if word of her actions reaches the de facto governing body of Liscor, their army, for instance…a few words in the ears of another Lord or Lady of the Wall might prompt them to take action, and the Assassin’s Guild in Izril is quite, quite competent.”
Ryoka stared at the Drake.
“Touch Erin and I’ll make sure Zel Shivertail learns about it. He kicked your precious Wall Lord’s tail once, and he’ll do it again. He stays at Erin’s inn, or isn’t that on file?”
The fake officer of the Watch’s eyes flashed. He learned across the table and seized Ryoka’s arm in one unfriendly claw, digging into her skin.
“Listen here, you Human flesh bag. Tell me what I want, or—”
Ryoka kicked him. She’d been waiting for him to get close and gave him her best kick right to his groin. He doubled over and let go. She backed out her chair, kicked him again, and then hit him with both her hands tied up.
The other [Guardsmen] had seen what was going on. The one called Relc leapt over a table and ran at Ryoka. She whirled, ready to kick him too. She lashed out—and he slid around her kick like water.
“Criminal! Take this! [Relc Headbutt]!”
He slammed his head into Ryoka’s. She sat down. And then slid out of her chair. Relc kicked the chair away and dragged her up.
“Assaulting a [Guardsman]? Here? You’re really stupid, Miss Human. Even if you are a friend of Erin’s, you’re not getting away with that. Hey buddy, you okay?”
The Drake that Ryoka had kicked was getting up in her swirling vision. He shook his head and knocked away Relc’s offered hand. He growled at Ryoka, murder in his eyes. He took one step forwards and then Relc let Ryoka go.
One hand shot out, barring the purple Drake’s path. The Drake stopped, looking confused. Ryoka felt confused. And ready to sit down. But Relc’s eyes were narrowed.
“Wait a second. Who are you? You’re not one of the new guys. I know them all and none of them have purple scales.”
The purple Drake took a step back. Relc turned away from Ryoka and she decided to lie down again. The imposter took a desperate swing at Relc. The big Drake leaned back from the blow and then returned it.
He hit the fake guardsmen a lot harder than he’d hit Ryoka. The Drake back-flipped over the table and Ryoka heard a thud as he landed.
“Hah! Take that! That proves you’re not one of our guys—no one picks a fight with me! Don’t you know who I am? I’m Relc! Relc!”
Ryoka managed to sit up and saw Relc posing, one foot on the fallen Drake’s chest. He looked inordinately proud of himself, and then frowned as he saw she was up.
“Hey. You. Miss Human.”
He’d already forgotten her name. Ryoka forgave him that; at the moment she couldn’t remember what the color orange was. Relc helped her up, removing her bindings as she sat on a chair and tried to tell whether the banging was in her mind, or whether her brain was bouncing around.
“Who was that guy? He has a set of our armor and everything.”
“Wall Lord…Ilvriss. His person. Like the bathhouse.”
Relc slapped his forehead and nodded at the other [Guardsmen] who’d gathered around. They grunted and immediately picked up the fallen Drake and shoved him into a corner. That they didn’t toss him out of the barracks or throw him in a cell was probably due to his master’s fame.
While Ryoka put her head down, she heard Relc speaking with the others. Then his loud voice called out as an angry female Drake demanded to know why one of her people was unconscious on the floor.
“Hey, Captain Z! Turns out this Human and Erin didn’t start anything. It’s that Wall Lord guy’s cronies stirring up trouble again. I’m going to let the Human go, okay? And I’m taking my lunch break! Be back in an hour!”
Relc helped Ryoka up and practically pushed her out the door. Ryoka heard a frustrated roar coming from behind her.
“Damn it, Relc! Get back here!”
Of course, if you focused too much on Ryoka, you neglected other interesting things. A bit of garlic fell from the sky and landed on Brunkr’s fur as he showed Lyonette how to hold her sword. He brushed it off absent-mindedly.
“Good. Hold it here, see? Yes. And swing. Quickly—a cut should be fast. Yes, like so.”
He was teaching her. And Lyonette was learning. They practiced outside in the cleared snow as Mrsha sat and watched. Inside, Apista was tethered to a table with a leash Erin had made while Iskhr cleaned up.
It was an all-Gnoll parade, in short, except for Lyonette. And perhaps that would have been awkward or fatal for her a week or two ago. But things had changed.
Ryoka had changed a lot. All sins were forgiven, and a debt had been written for her actions. More than that, and perhaps more importantly, Brunkr had changed. He was no longer the self-confident Gnoll [Warrior], but a recovering one, grateful for his still-healing arm and quietly guilty. He and Ryoka would have understood each other, in that.
Still, only Erin would have thought it was a good idea to have him near Mrsha, the person who’d bit him and infected his hand, and Lyonette, the girl he’d tried to kill. But as Ryoka had noticed, Erin did have an eye for these things now and then. When Brunkr had first arrived, he and Mrsha had sniffed each other for a bit solemnly, but said nothing. Lyonette and Brunkr on the other hand were different.
She was guilty as he was, in a different way. She had apologized to him first, and then him to her. It had ticked both to realize that Lyonette hadn’t remembered Brunkr specifically trying to kill her, and a friendship had started once Brunkr realized that Lyonette was the one responsible for his honey salve.
That was the boring bit. The special bit for any watching fae nibbling at garlic came at a moment when Brunkr mentioned his aspirations.
Lyonette put down her sword and massaged her aching arms. She wanted the [Warrior] class too, and felt she might get it by the end of the day. Brunkr nodded, looking embarrassed.
“It is a very Human class. There are some Drakes with similar classes, but no Gnoll has the class, yes? Similar classes, but I found a book when I was young. My tribe had bought it from a [Trader] and my aunt let me read it…there were pictures of Human [Knights] in shining armor. I admired them and wished to be like them. So I trained with sword and shield. However, I am only a [Warrior].”
“Well, that’s because you need a [Lord] to make you one, or some other nobility.”
“Hrr. Yes, that is what I have been told. I came north to help my aunt and also to see whether that would be possible. I think…it may not be. Entering in service to a Human [Lord] requires much trust and perhaps standing I do not have. It matters not. I am still useful to my Tribe and my efforts have made me a strong warrior nevertheless.”
Brunkr shrugged his broad shoulders, hiding his disappointment behind casual words. Lyonette nodded, hesitating. Her eyes lingered on the Gnoll’s back as he stood up to exchange a few words with Ishkr. They were around the same age, although Brunkr was older. He wasn’t much older than Lyonette, really.
Yes, a faerie could see what would happen next. Perhaps a Human could too. Destiny wove together and Lyonette raised her hand. She whispered quietly.
“I, Lyonette du Marquin do solemnly…”
Mrsha had been playing in the snow, quite close to the inn, but poking her head under the snow and rolling around in delight. Suddenly, she raised it and stared at Lyonette, ears flicking with each word Lyonette spoke.
The two Gnolls had finished speaking at the door to the inn. Ishkr was going back into the inn, collecting dishes to be washed and Brunkr was sniffing at the entrance to the inn, his stomach audibly rumbling. But as Lyonette whispered both froze up.
Ishkr slipped and dropped his entire tray of empty dishes. They crashed to the ground inside the inn, scaring Erin half to death as she cooked up some food for dinner.
Brunkr’s eyes opened wide. He half-turned, and then pretended to scratch at one ear. Lyonette finished speaking. Her voice had been inaudible to anyone standing next to her, carried away just as swiftly by the wind. Now she stared at Brunkr’s back and cleared her throat. Trying to sound casual, she raised her voice.
“Brunkr, can you show me how to parry again? I think I’m doing it wrong.”
He started, and then turned. His smile was about as fake as Lyonette’s. Mrsha was still staring.
“Of course. I will show you. Lyonette.”
He trudged across the snow to Lyonette as Erin rushed out of her kitchen, demanding to know if there was another one of Ilvriss’ spies. Ishkr reassured her nothing was wrong, Brunkr showed Lyonette how to hold her blade correctly, and Mrsha kept staring.
Above them a Frost Faerie cackled with glee and waited for Relc to drag Ryoka up the slope and into the inn. Destiny. Coincidence. Or perhaps just an act of kindness from a girl who happened to be a [Princess]. Who knew?
One thing was sure, though. Despite having lived in Liscor for over a month now, Lyonette still hadn’t learned how sensitive Gnoll ears could be.
“And then I hit him! Pow! Hey Hawk, I didn’t know you knew Ryoka too! What, do all Runners know each other?”
“We’ve met before. I’m surprised you don’t remember Miss Ryoka, Relc. She once ran through the High Passes on a delivery.”
“Get out, really? I thought I remembered her, but you know Humans. They all look alike, am I right? Ah. Ahem.”
Relc was laughing in the common room. Somehow he’d dragged Ryoka up from the city—Erin was a bit fuzzy on the details, but apparently there had been a quick fight. He’d encountered Hawk the Rabbit-tribe Beastkin on the way and the Courier had stopped by for a drink with Ryoka.
Olesm was due later that evening, and Erin was busy. Ishkr was cleaning up plate fragments—he said he’d tripped, which was uncharacteristically clumsy of the Gnoll, and Lyonette and Brunkr were training outside with Mrsha.
On the whole of things, Erin could claim to be happy. Sure, the morning’s incident with Ryoka had been bad, but they’d made up and she was glad to see Brunkr was really getting along with Lyonette now. And best of all, she’d made another amazing invention!
It was the slime. Erin peered at it as she stared at the tiny hand-sized thing in the center of a saucepan. This slime was bright blue, with shades of yellow running through it. It was a healing potion slime.
“Drop it into a healing potion, wait, and hey presto! I knew it was possible!”
Erin crowed to herself softly as she spooned a bit of the slime up. She’d tested it on a cut and it had healed perfectly. Now she added a bit of water to the slime and saw it absorbed the liquid and grow, replacing the bit she’d taken with water.
“Hmm. Looks like you get diluted if I add just water. But if I feed you all the ingredients of your potion, you’ll probably just get bigger and more potion-y, right?”
She smiled at the slime. It didn’t respond. Erin moved the spoon towards it again. In line with Ryoka’s wishes, she’d kept the slime very small just in case it attacked someone. Her spoon penetrated the slime’s side and it suddenly scooted away from the spoon.
“Huh? Hey! Get back here, I need part of you!”
Erin chased the slime around the saucepan with her spoon. She eventually cornered the slime against one side with another spoon and prepared to take part of it. But Erin hesitated when she noticed something. Or rather, something the slime was doing.
It was shaking. The blob of colored liquid pressed itself against the wall of the saucepan. When Erin moved her spoon towards it, it trembled harder. When she took it away, the slice shook less.
But it did shake. It was like jelly. Only, jelly couldn’t squeeze itself so finely against the metal walls of its cage and quiver. Jelly couldn’t be afraid.
“Oh no. Hey little guy. I’m not going to take all of you. I want to take—just a bit, see? You’ll get it back. I’ll feed you!”
Erin reached out with one hand, putting the spoon down. The slime reacted violently to her fingers, flowing away and around them. It quivered as Erin reached out towards it. The healing slime shook like a leaf.
“What? I’m not scary. It’s just my hand, see?”
The girl reached out and the slime froze. It was such a—a universal reaction that Erin froze too. And she understood something, in that moment as the slime slowly backed away from her fingertips.
“Slimes can think. Oh. Oh no.”
There was no other way to see it. Erin knew fear. She could see it in the blob that ran from her touch. She could see it. The slime had no face to show her, no body parts, no voice. But it could not be anything but afraid.
And then Erin realized that it was the same slime, the same core that she’d taken out of the water slime this morning. She wondered if it remembered. And then she looked at the slime as it tried to hide from her and knew it did.
“Oh no no no…but Typhenous said they don’t feel pain!”
He said that. Erin recalled him saying that. But—but if a slime couldn’t feel pain, couldn’t it still feel loss? What would it be like if someone scooped out part of your body, even if it didn’t hurt? Erin reached out and the slime would have screamed if it had a voice. She felt sure of that.
And in the end, Ryoka was right. It was Toren all over again. Only this time, Erin could see it. She looked at the slime and wondered what it would be like, to live all your life in a cage and have someone feed you and consume you for…for however long you lived.
“I can’t do that. Can I?”
Erin whispered as her inn began to fill up. The Gold-rank adventurers and her regular guests were returning. She heard Olesm’s eager voice, asking about her.
It took Erin only a moment to decide. She grabbed the saucepan, splashed water in it, tossed a handful of garlic in, some oil—the slime bulged, growing distorted, losing the properties of its healing potion. It was now filling the saucepan.
Erin went over to the window and unlatched it. A cold wind blew in, making her shiver. The slime didn’t shiver. It only shook when Erin reached for it.
That was Octavia’s voice. She was coming closer, and now Erin could hear Typhenous.
“Wonderful news, Miss Solstice! I have the lodestones I ordered. Have you finished your experiments with the slime from this morning?”
There was no time. Erin hesitated, and then poured it out of the window. The slime dropped into the snow and she saw it vanish into the deep drift outside her window.
Typhenous and Octavia walked into the kitchen, looking excited. Octavia glanced around.
“Where’s that slime? Did the healing potion work like you thought?”
Erin gave Octavia a blank look. Then her eyes widened.
“Oh yeah! The slime! It didn’t work guys. Sorry.”
The [Mage] and [Alchemist] looked crestfallen. Erin nodded slowly.
“Yeah, it was sucky. The slime grew from the healing potion, you know? But when I tried using a bit of it…no go.”
“Perhaps it’s the magical effect that dissipates. It cannot be part of living creature…of course. I should have predicted that.”
Typhenous groaned, shaking his head. Octavia nodded and looked around.
“Maybe we can try again. Hey Erin, where’s the slime?”
“The slime? It’s right here of c—”
Erin went over to a pot and opened the lid. The [Mage] and [Alchemist] saw her freeze and look up slowly. She gave them a weak smile that fooled neither of them, and in doing so, fooled both of them.
“Oops. Where’d it go?”
Typhenous and Octavia stared askance at Erin. She put on her best bemused look and shrugged her shoulders. And she made sure that everyone heard the story later that night. Healing slimes were impossible to make, as it turned out. Of course.
Only an idiot would try to make one.
Nearly there. Nearly time. A bit of sausage fell into Typhenous’ beard. He didn’t notice. He was speaking to the other adventurers sitting around him, looking frustrated.
“At least I have my delivery of lodestones. That will allow us to produce something of worth tonight.”
“You can make the door? Really?”
Erin looked excited. Typhenous smiled and nodded.
“It will be a simple matter to attune the stones. I’ve already done one.”
He flicked his fingers at a red stone carved with a glowing symbol. Its twin sat next to it.
“The real challenge will be delivering each stone to its destination and affixing it in a proper place. Merely getting the stone to its intended destination will take some time…I suspect you may have to hire a City Runner to send it, although finding a suitable location will also be important. I would suggest hiring Miss Ryoka in that regard.”
Erin glanced over at Ryoka. The Runner girl had recovered enough and was now drinking with Relc and Hawk. She frowned.
“But where should the stones go, in that case? You said it’s hard to have a lot of destinations—”
“Exponentially difficult. Too much interference. However, that should not be a great issue if you limit your door to three or four set anchors.”
“Okay, assuming we leave an emergency stone with you guys…and I want Celum, obviously…where should the other ones go?”
The old [Mage] coughed delicately.
“Might I suggest a door to Invrisil first? I should quite like to return there at my leisure, and I am sure many would pay well for such a service.”
Octavia nodded, looking eager.
“Not to mention how lucrative it would be for me—I mean, for everyone to sell their goods in Invrisil. They haven’t seen my matches yet, and I don’t want to miss out on sales before everyone copies my recipe!”
Someone had heard them. The adventurers looked over and saw Relc waving a half-full mug at him. He scowled at the Humans. Revi scowled at him.
“Something wrong with Invrisil? It’s one of the biggest cities on the continent, you know!”
“Not as big as a Walled City! Why’s Erin got to put her fancy magic door to one of your cities first, huh? She’s already got Celum—give our cities a chance!”
Olesm, sitting at a table and playing chess with Pawn, raised his voice. He called out to Erin, waving a sheaf of papers.
“I know several [Tacticians] in Pallass—why not put your door in the Walled City? Drakes would love a chance to bypass the Blood Fields, the Walled Cities are far better than any Human city—not that I mean to offend anyone.”
Revi sat up at her table and scowled at Olesm.
“Invrisil’s obviously the better choice. You Drakes might think your home is all that, but—”
“Hah! Drakes rule, Humans…Humans drool!”
Relc was clearly drunk. However, his comment elicited a roar of approval from every Drake in the room. Olesm gave a thumbs-up to Relc, and the Drake returned the gesture. It was very Human and very, very odd since Drake claws were a lot scarier than Human thumbs.
Before Erin knew it, an argument had erupted in her inn over which city was better. Helplessly, she turned to ask for Ryoka’s opinion and found herself face-to-face with Zel Shivertail.
“I couldn’t help hearing what the argument was about, Miss Erin.”
The [General] leaned over her table, speaking quietly as Relc threw a mug and brained Typhenous. The mage threw a mug back and soon a fight had broken out—in the form of arm wrestling. Somehow it was now about which species was strong and Ulrien was already squaring up against Relc, to the cheers of their audience.
“Oh? You want me to put my door in Pallass, right Zel?”
Erin felt awkward speaking with Zel, mainly because she thought he still disapproved of her. But Zel just nodded. He didn’t smile, rather, he frowned and looked a bit concerned.
“I wouldn’t ask normally—I can live without going home and prefer it that way. But I’ve been speaking with a friend—a fellow [General], actually, and I’ve fallen out of touch these last few days. I’d love a chance for some news, and there’s a bit of a situation among the Drakes…could I sway your opinion a bit?”
The door to Celum burst open. Erin saw Garia rush into the room, waving her arms, as Relc beat Ulrien to a roar of amazement from the crowd.
“Hah! Take…take that! I win!”
The Drake shakily stood back and crowed before Ulrien shook his hand, taking the wind out of Relc’s victory. She caught a bit of what Garia was telling Ryoka excitedly.
“I’m a [Martial Artist]! Can you believe it? I got this Skill—[Basic Footwork].”
Relc had spotted Garia. He eyed the large girl and shouted at her.
“Ooh! Nice muscles! Hey, Human girl! Want to arm wrestle? I bet you can beat Miss Ryoka here, and probably Hawk, too!”
It was all chaos. It always was with Relc. But seeing him here made Erin smile. She looked at Zel and made a spur-of-the-moment decision. It wasn’t hard, and it didn’t matter much, right? There were lodestones to go around.
Ivolethe watched as destiny changed.
“Sure! Why not? I think Ryoka doesn’t want to go down there, but Hawk’s a Courier, right? Maybe I can get a discount if I promise to feed him or something!”
Zel coughed delicately.
“A discount for a Courier is still quite a lot of money. I’m prepared to pay whatever price he asks if he’ll do the delivery?”
“What? You will? In that case, I’ll totally do it! Hey Hawk! Stop arm-wrestling and come over here!”
The Rabbit-man walked over, massaging an arm.
“Those Human girls are strong. This is why [Farmers] make such great [Warriors]…what can I do for you, Erin? And—General Shivertail?”
He hadn’t spotted Zel up until now. But when introductions were over, Hawk nodded amiably.
“I can do that. Why not? General Shivertail’s a hero in Liscor, and if I don’t have to run all the way back…yes, I’m quite willing to do that. I can set out tonight and have the delivery done by the end of tomorrow.”
“Hey, a job’s a job, and if it means opening up a door to Pallass that everyone can use from now on…you do know how important this could be, right? You could earn a fortune. Plus, do you know how many hot Drake ladies there are in the Walled Cites? I uh—forget you heard that last bit.”
The Horns of Hammerad were not part of the arm-wrestling competition. They sat in a corner of the inn, arguing over some pieces of paper. Ceria was snapping at Pisces.
“I know you wanted a Gold-rank contract on some lucrative monster, Pisces. It’s not happening! We haven’t gotten certified yet—the decision will take a while, and we need practice.”
“So we lower ourselves to the most common bidder in the meantime? That hardly seems like a productive use of my talents.”
“Shut it. I think we should hunt the wolves. It’s good training and we’ll earn—”
“…Yeah. But it’ll be a contract, and we need to practice fighting something. I’m not suggesting we try a Rock Crab first thing, or go into the dungeon. Are you?”
“I made no such intimations. However, I simply think that wolves are below our…”
Yvlon Byres sat at the table next to Ksmvr and watched her teammates argue. She was depressed, a mood which had nothing to do with the day’s events and all to do with her situation in life.
She was—had been—a [Warrior]. A Level 22 [Warrior]; very respectable and a worthy Silver-rank adventurer in her own right. Her team, the Silver Spears, had been relatively well known in the local area and respected as a competent force. But her fortunes had changed. Yvlon had lost everything, gained everything, and she was now…different.
She’s lost her friends, her team, and part of her body. She’s gained a new team, and magical items that would make her a Gold-rank adventurer. And something else. A new class.
“Yvlon? What do you think?”
The woman started. She looked at the others and smiled guiltily.
“How about Esthelm?”
They stared at her. Yvlon shrugged.
“It’s close by, although we might need horses for quicker travel. But I doubt they’ve got too many adventurers and they’re sure to need help.”
“A few contracts around that city? Potentially lucrative. I concur with your thinking, in broad terms, Miss Byres.”
Pisces rubbed at his chin, looking intrigued and Ceria pounced on the idea. Ksmvr sat, nodding occasionally and Yvlon sank back into her seat.
Everyone was getting stronger. Ceria was about to learn her new spell, Pisces was…better, and Ksmvr claimed that he thought his fourth arm was growing again. It was all going well. Except…
Yvlon closed her eyes. She had leveled up. Gained a new class. Only it wasn’t the one she’d always dreamed of. Instead—
She was Yvlon Byres. A Level 26 [Wounded Warrior].
No one knew. Yvlon hadn’t had the courage to tell anyone, yet. How could she? It hurt too much. She was never going to be a [Knight]. She had no idea what she would become. Her brother—she’d never be his equal now. And she was never going home. Never.
The Rabbit-man named Hawk left the inn an hour after the Horns of Hammerad finished deciding to take a few contracts in Esthelm for the time being. Yvlon had seen him, blurring through the snow at lightning speed. She envied his abilities.
Now she and the others were eating some fried eel, and trying to explain to Ksmvr what an eel was. They were laughing, and Yvlon felt that she had to tell them about her class. Now. Perhaps they could help? Even if not, they deserved to know. She opened her mouth, and someone burst through the door. A Human adventurer panted and shouted for everyone’s attention.
“A Named Adventurer just entered the city! You won’t believe who it is!”
Everyone turned. Moore dropped the massive mug he was using and Jelaqua cursed out loud. Halrac sat up, looking at his teammates with grim resignation.
“Regrika Blackpaw, the hero of the Gnoll tribes! She’s formed a two-person team with a Gold-rank adventurer and she’s here! In Liscor!”
The adventurer shouted the name and every Gnoll in the inn started howling. Mrsha sat up, looking confused, but Ikshr, Brunkr, and the other Gnolls in the inn immediately surged for the door, running towards the city. Caught up by the moment, everyone else did too.
Regrika Blackpaw was a giant of a Gnoll, her fur black as coal, her body armored in splendid golden plate mail. She was a [Champion], a hero who’d sprung out of the earth a few years back and slain incredible monsters single-handedly. She was accompanied by a slight young [Drake], a [Mage] who radiated magical power and who had pale white scales. Both female adventurers were being greeted by a fanfare by all the Gnolls in the city despite the late hour.
This is how it ends. Ivolethe narrowed her eyes at Regrika and swooped down lower. Not to interfere, but watch. Regrika was speaking to Krshia Silverfang, and she’d just caught sight of the Gold-rank adventurers who’d come through the gates. She was striding towards them, paw raised in greeting when the last thread snapped into place.
Someone burst through the crowd, shouting. People were knocked aside and Hawk nearly ran over the Named Adventurer. People screamed and backed away, because the Rabbit [Courier] had a body in his arms.
A limp Drake with blood on his armor and the insignia of a Drake emblem on his shoulder guard bled crimson onto the frozen paving stones. He bled, but only a few drops. He had died a while back. Hawk shouted as people stepped back, calling up at the [Guardsmen] on the wall.
“Sound the alarm! This is a request from a Courier! Get me the Council and Watch Captain Zevara!”
The members of the Watch did not hesitate. A horn began to blow from the wall, a piercing wail that woke up the city. Hawk turned—he was panting and his fur was damp with sweat. Ivolethe had seen him run south, and then run back. She could grudgingly admit that he had run fast on the way back.
Zel Shivertail pushed his way through the crowd, staring at the insignia on the fallen Drake. Hawk turned to him, and the [General] stared down at the dead soldier.
“Where did you find him?”
“Not thirty miles down the road south of here. He was barely alive; my healing potions bought him only a few moments.”
Zel bowed his head over the Drake.
“What did he say?”
“The Goblin Lord. He crushed both armies sent against him. Crushed them—Garusa Weatherfur is dead, and Thrissiam Blackwing ordered both armies to buy time for word to be sent to the other cities! There’s something wrong with the Goblin Lord. He’s a powerful [Necromancer] as well as a leader!”
Hawk’s voice provoked gasps and screams in the crowd. Zel swore.
“To the Council. They need to hear of it at once! Go! I’ll follow!”
Hawk nodded. The Rabbit Beastkin ran through the streets, legs blurring, out of sight in a moment. Zel charged down the street after Hawk.
[Guardsmen] followed him, some shouting for people to keep calm and wait for word, others running to find Wall Lord Ilvriss and everyone of note. A Gnoll stopped and bowed before Regrika.
“Lady Blackpaw, we would deeply appreciate your—”
“Of course. Lead on. This is no time for dawdling, no?”
The Gnoll Named Adventurer strode after the [Guardsman]. After a moment’s deliberation, Ulrien and Jelaqua both followed, and they were quickly escorted in her wake. The shocked voices of the people echoed above and Ivolethe sighed.
Here it ended. She flew down and alighted on Ryoka’s shoulder. The young woman was holding Mrsha as Erin stood next to her. Everyone was afraid. They reeked of it. They could only see one future. Ivolethe could see many. They were right to be afraid, but they didn’t know all of it.
Nor could she tell them. Ryoka glanced at Ivolethe.
“Do you know anything about this, Ivolethe?”
“If I did, I would not tell ye.”
Ivolethe looked calmly at Ryoka, and saw the girl’s eyes roll impatiently.
“If we die—”
“Ye die. I cannot interfere.”
Ivolethe sighed. She felt old. Old and tired. In that moment, the wind blew. She felt the world change and realized one thing. Faeries could see the future. They could predict it. But they couldn’t see everything.
Time moved. She felt the call, heard the echo in her very soul. She felt the winter shiver, and then—
Ryoka saw Ivolethe sigh. The Frost Faerie looked worn down, tired. And then something happened. Her form, her crystalized icy form slowly blurred. Just for a second, Ryoka thought she smelled damp earth, saw greenery and felt sunlight. For a moment. Then Ivolethe was back to normal.
Almost. Something ran down Ivolethe’s face. It gathered, running down her suddenly slick skin, beading, reaching her leg. It fell, a piece of crystal, a frozen bit of ice, onto the ground and shattered. Ivolethe looked around.
Ryoka stared. The Frost Faerie glanced at Ryoka, irritated.
Ivolethe froze. She looked at herself, and touched at her wet skin. She blinked at Ryoka, surprised, upset, and then—resigned.
“Huh. So I am.”
“What does it—does that mean—”
The Frost Faerie shrugged. She looked at Ryoka, and then at Erin, and finally Mrsha, smiling slightly.
“Winter is ending. And so I suppose we run out of time. Let us make the most of it, Ryoka Griffin.”
With that, she flew up, spiraling through the streets of Liscor as word spread of the Goblin Lord’s army and fear once again rode on the breeze. Fear of the future.
One last thing. The news that struck Liscor and then the rest of the Drake cities like a bomb was almost instantaneous, thanks to the [Message] spells sent out by Zel Shivertail and Ilvriss. However, the Human cities would only hear the news in the morning, mainly thanks to every [Mage] in the Mage’s Guild being monopolized by Drakes.
Only a few individuals got word of what had happened at the same times as the Drakes. People who paid for private information, and paid quite well. Which was why Typhenous’ [Message] spell was immediately relayed to Lord Tyrion Veltras and to Lady Magnolia Reinhart’s presence within moments of casting it.
Magnolia Reinhart sat in a moving carriage and opened the [Message] scroll she’d just been handed by Ressa. The artifact recorded any [Messages] her people deemed important enough to send her directly. And this one was important, oh, yes. Important and very unwelcome indeed.
She stared down at the [Message] as Ressa read it over her shoulder. Her [Maid] uttered several words that made the driver of the carriage swerve erratically, but Magnolia said nothing. What was there to say? She looked out the window at the dark landscape, at the snow, at the night creeping in and said nothing at all.
Instead, she sighed. And fate, like the fading winter, like the wind and indeed, the Goblin Lord himself, took no notice at all.