“I think we’re done here.”
“Really? But I thought—”
“Is that my tower? It is not as tall as I requested, Pawn.”
“You wanted a tower that was structurally unfeasible, Bird.”
“This is as high as we deemed it necessary. You can shoot birds in it, and Erin—”
“I see a third floor, and I also see my inn’s bigger on the side. Right. And I have two new outhouses.”
“Yes. Are you unhappy with any of the work?”
“No, not unhappy. It’s just…my only question is…why’d you put the tower on one end of the inn?”
Erin stared up at the watchtower from her position in the snow outside. It was wet and cold, but warmer than yesterday. The sun was out and she had an unparalleled view of her new inn. And she was grateful, she really was.
Her inn was now big. Bigger, that was. It had been big. Now it was grand. It had a ground floor a third again as large, two new rooms on the second floor and an entire new third floor! And a tower. And while she was very grateful to the Antinium for all their tireless hard work, she had to question the tower.
It looked like a proper watch tower, sure enough. It had an open roof with enough space for someone to pace about on top. It would allow a bird-obsessed hunter to both keep a lookout and hunt birds in his spare time. It even had gutters which were angled so that if it rained, the water wouldn’t run down the stairs into the rest of the inn.
It was great. And Erin was sure that height aside, Bird loved it. It was just that the watch tower wasn’t placed symmetrically in the center of the inn. Rather, it was on the ‘back’, against the far wall from the front door. It made the inn look lopsided. That was Erin’s impression, though.
Pawn and Bird regarded the watch tower and looked at each other. They clearly couldn’t see the problem.
“Is there an issue with the placement of the tower, Erin? I thought it was quite appropriate.”
Erin smiled at Pawn’s worried face. She hadn’t seen enough of him lately, and she didn’t want to distress him, especially since it wasn’t that big a deal. It was just that every symmetrical instinct Erin had was crying out against this travesty.
“No, I mean, if it works, it works, right? And you put it over Bird’s room. I get that. But I just assumed it would be in the center, for uh, visibility, you know?”
Pawn nodded thoughtfully.
“A worthy idea. However, I elected to place the tower on that side in case you wanted another tower built in the future.”
“Yes. Perhaps one that is enchanted to throw lightning or hurl spells like the walls of Drake cities. Or if you wished to construct a fourth floor. Or mount a ballista on top. I am not aware of the methods with which to construct one, but the Antinium have our own plans for catapults we could share.”
The Antinium Worker realized he’d lost Erin. He looked over at Bird. The other Antinium clutched his new bow to his chest and nodded a few times.
“I could kill many birds with one. That is a good idea, Pawn.”
Erin coughed a few times.
“Yeah. A good idea. Well…good work! I think that’s all my questions answered. Anyone—anyone want something to drink? It’s on me. That means it’s free, you two.”
Pawn and Bird exchanged a glance. Pawn looked back at Erin. Bird kept staring.
“We would be delighted to have a drink, Erin. But I am afraid I must return to my Hive soon. Hm. Perhaps you could sell me a keg? Sharing a drink with my unit is a good idea.”
Erin beamed. Pawn glanced back at Bird. He was still staring at Pawn.
“Bird, have I done something to offend you?”
“I wish to hunt birds. Are you trying to prevent me from sitting in my tower now, Pawn?”
“No, Bird. You are free to sit in your new tower.”
“You say that, but social obligations force me to drink with you. You explained this to me last week. This is a trap. I do not wish to drink but my status as ‘friend’ with you and Miss Erin prohibits me from refusing.”
Erin started to laugh and covered it. Pawn opened his mandibles and sighed.
“Bird, that is not…do I need to explain this to you again?”
“I’ll leave you two to it! Pawn, come inside when you want to. Bird, you can sit in your tower if you want? I’ll tell Lyonette to send up a drink for you!”
The two Antinium watched Erin walk into her refurbished inn. Bird waved as Erin shut the door and then turned to Pawn.
“That was a considerate statement. Why could you not have made a similar statement to begin with?”
“I didn’t say anything about you having to drink with me, Bird.”
“You said ‘we’. We implies multiple people, which in turn implies me. You said it despite my use of a meaningful stare you should have correctly interpreted. This is very hurtful, Pawn. I wish to sit in my tower and you have disregarded my feelings.”
Pawn glared at Bird.
“Look here, Bird. This is a stupid and pointless argument we are having. Each second we have it is a second I don’t spend drinking with Erin and you spend outside, rather than in your tower! Do I have to explain how free will and social dynamics work again?”
Erin’s new inn smelled like sawdust, fresh wood, and varnish. She could have done without the last bit, but at least it wasn’t tacky to the touch. The Antinium used a very quick-drying form of resin that was one of the reasons why they’d cornered the construction market in Liscor.
Lyonette turned to Erin and smiled. She had food out and was serving drinks to the Workers and Soldiers who’d just finished their work. They were pretty much the only customers in the inn right now; breakfast had passed and it was before the lunch rush.
It was a good morning. Erin took another deep breath, and then looked around for Mrsha. She was nowhere on the bottom floor of the inn. Erin had a sense Mrsha was probably scampering about upstairs, probably with Apista clinging to her head.
“Hey Lyonette, that new bee of yours really likes Mrsha, doesn’t she? She’s always crawling on top of Mrsha’s head. Is that uh, safe?”
“Apista? I think so! I have a connection with her and she never feels violent when she’s around Mrsha. I don’t think she’d sting anyone anyways, Erin. I’m more worried Mrsha will squish her, to be honest.”
“Right. Right. Pawn’s coming in for a drink in a bit and he might want to buy a keg. Bird’s probably going to sit in his new tower. Could you bring him a mug of something when you get a chance?”
“Sure! Pawn’s buying a whole keg? Really?”
“He’ll probably bring it back to his Hive. Hey, have you seen Ryoka? I didn’t see her at breakfast this morning.”
Lyonette frowned as she offered a Soldier a mug. The Antinium cautiously took it, staring at the Human girl. He had yellow splatters of paint all across his chest.
“Oh. She said she wasn’t hungry so she grabbed a roll and left. I haven’t seen her since.”
“Figures. She’s been grumpy and weird again, lately. I don’t know why.”
Erin crossed her arms and frowned. She hadn’t gotten a chance to talk with Ryoka, but she distinctly remembered Ryoka’s odd looks last night. Was she really planning on scouting the Goblin Lord’s army like everyone was saying? And why had Ivolethe chased her away? Erin hoped that Ryoka wasn’t doing stupid stuff again.
Struck by a thought, Erin turned back to Lyonette.
“You’re feeling okay, right Lyon? If you’re tired, let me know and I can take over. I gave Ishkr and Drassi time off because yesterday was so busy. If you need a break…”
“I’m good! Serving the Antinium is easy since they don’t cause trouble, and no one else is coming in yet. If you give me a hand at lunch, I think we’ll be set!”
Lyonette smiled at Erin and Erin gave her a thumbs up in reply. She settled down at a table after pouring a drink for Pawn and herself. She had a nice variety of alcohol now thanks to her thirsty guests, but she still wished she could have some cool fruit juice from time to time. Maybe she could squeeze it herself? But it was so expensive…
Erin frowned as she sipped from her mug. She glanced up as the door opened and waved.
It wasn’t Pawn. Krshia entered the room, pausing to wipe her wet and snowy feet on the doormat. The Gnoll sniffed, and then spotted Erin.
“Erin. It is good to see you today, yes? I do not wish to bother you so early, but—have you seen Brunkr today?”
“I’m not bothered! Come and have a seat! Pawn’s going to join me for a drink. You want one?”
“Thank you, but no. I am looking for my nephew. You have not seen him yet?”
Krshia came over to the table. Erin frowned.
“I haven’t seen Brunkr since the party last night. Why?”
“He did not return home last night. I assumed he found somewhere else to sleep or found company—he has done so before. But no one I have spoken to remembers seeing him at another inn, or anywhere else in the city afterwards.”
Erin frowned as she sipped from her mug. She sat up a bit straighter in her chair.
“That is weird. I remember that Brunkr was pretty drunk last night. I don’t think he would have kept drinking. Maybe he fell asleep in a tavern or something?”
Krshia bared her teeth, although it wasn’t a smile.
“That was my first guess. But I have not spotted him or smelled him—and I assume he would be awake by now unless he truly drank too much. If he is not here, I will ask a few of the young ones to go hunting for him in the city. Thank you, Erin.”
“No problem. And tell Brunkr that I’ll talk to him about joining the Horns of Hammerad later, okay? They’re out right now. I think they’re in Celum—something about getting a new gauntlet for Yvlon’s arm? Anyways. Good luck finding him!”
Krshia nodded. She stepped out of the inn at the same time Pawn and Bird walked in. Erin thought no more of it, and she waved Pawn over. Bird went upstairs, and Lyonette followed him with a mug.
Pawn sat with Erin and introduced her to Yellow Splatters, one of the Antinium Soldiers who was apparently important. More so than the others, for some reason. Pawn refused to elaborate and told Erin it was a secret for now. Obviously, Yellow Splatters didn’t say anything.
They talked, and then the Antinium left in a single mass. After paying, of course. They always paid. A ‘tab’ was a foreign concept to them. Erin sat and daydreamed about catapults. After a while, Mrsha slunk into the room with Apista on her head. The bee flew off to bask next to the fire, which was a relief to Erin since Mrsha had curled up on her lap. Lyonette came down and began bringing dishes to the kitchen for Ishkr to wash later.
Lunch arrived too quickly, with a rush of visitors, some from Liscor, but most from Celum. Octavia came in too, hungry because she’d forgotten to eat since yesterday. She told Erin her sales of matches were through the roof, and showed her some more of the penicillin-type mold she’d grown. Erin made her wash her hands before eating.
Krshia came back as Erin and Lyonette were serving guests today’s special—grilled cheese sandwiches. Some had ham inside for extra niceness.
“Krshia! Hey, have you found him yet? Brunkr?”
“No, Erin. We have not. And now others are looking. I had thought he might have…it is nothing. I am sorry to bother you when you are busy, no.”
The Gnoll looked around the inn and shook her head. Erin frowned and signaled to Lyonette to take over for a moment.
“Do you want me to go look for him? I have time. We’re not that busy.”
“No, I—think we will be fine. It is just odd. We have not picked up a fresh scent of Brunkr. His trail vanishes. I hoped to get a fresher smell of him here. But it is faint here, too.”
Erin nodded. She felt a flash of—she ignored it.
“Well, okay. Let me know when you find him, alright?”
Krshia nodded. She left without a word. Erin got back to work. She felt a bit uneasy, now. But it was just a feeling. She told herself that as she served lunch, and then began to tidy up. Because she no longer felt like relaxing, she went into the kitchen and washed some dishes.
The door opened a third time as the sun was beginning to set in the sky. Erin knew Lyonette was upstairs and Mrsha was napping with her. Hands covered in sudsy water, she poked her head out of the kitchen. Krshia was standing in the doorway.
“Hey. Did you find—”
The words caught in Erin’s throat. Across the room, Krshia looked at her. Just looked. The Gnoll’s fur was wet with melted snow and sweat. Her chest rose and fell quickly, as if she’d just been running. And her eyes. Her eyes were too bright.
There was nothing supernatural about what Erin understood in that moment. It had nothing to do with magic or fate, and everything to do with the look on Krshia’s face.
Erin knew. But she pretended she didn’t. She told herself she didn’t.
“Did—did you find him? Brunkr?”
She smiled, forcing her lips to move as she walked out of the kitchen. A bit of soapy water dripped onto the floor. Krshia stared at the droplets on the floorboards, and then at Erin. Her voice was very distant.
“He is dead.”
Erin was still smiling in that moment. She didn’t register what Krshia had said. She didn’t want to. Her heart began to beat faster.
The Gnoll looked at Erin. She had tears in her eyes.
“He is dead. My nephew, Brunkr. He is dead.”
There was a hole in the world. Erin fell through. She walked out from behind the counter as Krshia went on.
“They found him in the dungeon. In—at the bottom of the crevasse. His body and eight others. A team of Silver-rank Gnolls and—all dead. They were torn apart by some kind of monster, it seems.”
Erin felt the ground break under her. The day shattered. There was a hole in the world and Erin felt herself falling. Krshia collapsed into a chair and Erin sat on the floor. She didn’t believe it. She couldn’t believe it.
“Where is he now?”
There was a hole in the world. A dark, deep pit. Brunkr was lying there. They brought him out of the dungeon with magic and ropes. When she saw his body, Erin believed. She ran back to the inn to tell Lyonette to bring Mrsha away, far away. But it was too late. Mrsha smelled him. And she knew.
The city was filled with howling. The sun shone and melted the snow. Erin sat in the kitchen of her inn and wept.
And then Ryoka found Ishkr standing outside the inn. He was there for his evening shift. He hadn’t heard until the the howling began. He was crying in the melting snow when she asked him what was wrong. He turned to her, and she saw it in his eyes. And she knew too.
“I’m going to kill her.”
Ryoka choked on the words. She ran, gasping in the cold air, tripped, fell. The snow was wet. Melting. Ryoka pushed herself up. She stood in the middle of Liscor’s rolling hills and valleys. In the middle of nowhere.
The snow had melted into ice in places. Part of the crust had cut Ryoka’s hands and arms as she fell. The blood and water mixed and dripped into the white snow, staining it. Ryoka looked down at her hands.
“I should have done it last night. I’ll kill her. I’ll—”
She choked on the words. There were tears in her eyes. Ryoka took a shaking breath, and then choked again. She coughed and bent over in the snow. Her lungs were burning. Her heart hurt.
And it was filled with rage. Ryoka felt at her belt. She grabbed a large bag of flour and the igniter.
“I’ll blow her up. I—I can do it. I’ll lure her into a trap or—or—”
“And do what? Die? You cannot harm her. You know that.”
Someone floated down beside Ryoka. Ivolethe stared at her Human friend, melancholy in her eyes. Ryoka turned to Ivolethe and half shouted, half screamed at her. The sound caught in her throat and she doubled over. She retched, and nothing came up. She hadn’t eaten since last night, really.
“I can’t let her get away. She killed—she—she did it to hurt me! I know she did!”
“Perhaps. But you know she did it because she could. Because you could not stop her. That is the truth.”
The Frost Faerie landed on Ryoka’s shoulder. She stared at Ryoka, not unsympathetically. Her words drove needles into the young woman’s skin. Ryoka grabbed her head with her hands.
“I know! I know. I can’t do a thing. I can only—”
She bit her lip, hard enough to break the skin. She could only tell someone like Zel or Ilvriss that Az’kerash’s servants were here. Then she would die. The [Word of Death] spell was on her, and if that failed, Venitra was sure to kill her.
But she had to do it. She had to do something. Brunkr was dead. Because of her. Because she had failed to do anything. Because she had been afraid.
Ryoka had hated before. She had hated her father, her teachers, the fake people at school and the entire world. She thought she knew hate. Only now, in this moment did she realize that she had never really hated anything before.
Venitra. Ryoka clenched her jaw so tightly her teeth ground together and nearly cracked. She hated only one person as much as Venitra. And that was the Goblin Lord.
Hate. She stood in the snow. Winter was ending. Ryoka looked to Ivolethe, resting on her shoulder.
“I don’t know what to do. Ivolethe. Tell me. What should I do?”
Ivolethe looked back into Ryoka’s eyes. She was melting. Her body was crystal and liquid, ice and fading perfection. When she spoke, she pointed up towards the open, blue sky.
“Remember this, Ryoka Griffin: when you run, the wind knows. The wind is a thing. A thing that thinks, like trees do, or rocks. The earth is not alive, but neither is it dead. Remember that. Step as if you mean to walk into the sky. That is how faeries fly.”
Ryoka stared at her. Ivolethe flew off her shoulder as Ryoka lashed out. She circled Ryoka’s head, speaking calmly.
“What? Do you expect me to grieve with you? I did not know this Brunkr. I mourn, but he was not my friend. Do you wish me to tell you it will be alright? I will not lie. And I will not dictate your fate. I will not. I cannot.”
Her words were like ice. Painful, piercing, but also clear and true. Ryoka’s shoulder slumped.
“I know. But I can’t—”
She hesitated, afraid to give voice to her feelings. Ryoka stood in the snow as it melted onto her boots and heard a shout.
“Hey! You! Yeah, you, Runner Girl! I remember you!”
She and Ivolethe turned. Running towards them through the snow was a green blur. Ryoka recognized Relc and raised a hand as he skidded to a stop, spraying snow towards her. He grinned at Ryoka, showing her two rows of pointed teeth.
“I just remembered! You’re that Runner, aren’t you? The one I nearly caught way back when! ”
Ryoka stared at him. Relc laughed.
“Don’t you remember? You were running down the north road and I was on patrol. I ran after you and I nearly had you, but then you got away! We should have a rematch! All those bastards at the barracks were saying I was slow! Me!”
It felt wrong for Relc to be here, laughing and upbeat. Ryoka could barely remember the incident he was describing. What was it? When she’d—yes, right after Pisces had healed her legs. She’d run back towards Celum and she remembered an angry Drake in armor chasing her.
“You were that [Guardsman]?”
“Sure was! I can’t believe it’s you! Small world, huh?”
Ryoka nodded. Then she stared at Relc.
Sorrow and helplessness became anger. Ryoka stared at Relc.
“Who cares how fast you are?”
The Drake looked insulted.
“I do. I want to race you again, to prove I’m faster. Not here—there are no witnesses. Back at Liscor. We’ll clear some snow or maybe run around the city. Then I’ll prove I’m the fastest!”
“Who cares? You lost! It doesn’t matter!”
Ryoka turned away, trying to resist the urge to punch Relc and get arrested or have her nose broken. The Drake danced around her, looking indignant.
“I didn’t lose! I mean, it wasn’t a fair race! I was in armor and I had my spear! Do you know how heavy chainmail is?”
“Not very. You can still run with it on.”
Relc opened his mouth and his tail twitched guiltily.
“Well, yeah. Right. But it’s still heavy if you’re trying to sprint in it! And I had too much to eat that day. You had a head start by the time I started chasing you—and uh, I had to get up to speed! If I’d have felt like it, I would have totally caught you in the next minute. But I’m a responsible guardsman so I had to get back to my patrol.”
“I’m telling the truth! Race me again and—”
“Oh shut up!”
Ryoka turned and shouted at Relc. He blinked. Ryoka raised her voice, too angry to care about the tears in her eyes.
“Don’t you have any decency for god’s sake? Someone just died, or haven’t you heard? I don’t want to race you, so piss off and leave me alone!”
She was breathing heavily. She turned and wiped at her face with a sleeve. When Relc spoke next, it was more quietly.
“I know. I didn’t know you knew the guy, though.”
“I didn’t. Not really. Not at all. But—”
She wanted to say it was her fault. And she knew she couldn’t. Relc shrugged his massive shoulders. He sounded genuinely contrite.
“Sorry about that. I uh, thought it wouldn’t bother you since you’re Human and he was—it sucks. I get that. But I wasn’t friends with the guy. And I’ve seen buddies die before. Too many. If I got bogged down every time it happened I wouldn’t be able to do my job.”
“What, you mean your job is coming out here and harassing me?”
Ryoka turned and glared. Relc smiled and pulled something out of his belt pouch.
“Not really. That was just for fun. See, I am here to talk to you about that Brunkr guy.”
“Oh…Klb has a hunch, and all the Gnolls are really upset about it. So Captain Z ordered us to look into it.”
Relc tossed a clear crystal—it looked like quartz—up and down in his palm. He spoke as he glanced back towards the city and then at Ryoka. The air of reckless energy around him was gone. He was still animated, but now he was serious. When she saw that, Ryoka calmed down a little.
“Here’s the thing about the Brunkr guy. We found him in the dungeon, at the bottom of that rift. You heard? Right. They died right at the bottom, right near the ropes. When Klb heard that, he got a bit suspicious. I mean, that Brunkr guy was a good [Warrior] by all accounts. So we decided to do some investigating.”
Ryoka’s heart began to beat faster.
“I dunno. It’s a hunch.”
“It could be it was all an accident and some damn monsters killed the Gnolls. Or it might not be. Might’ve been a fight that ended badly and got covered up. Maybe Brunkr went down on a dare. Or maybe the other adventurers dragged him with them. Maybe it was just him and the Gnolls being stupid. But Erin swears he wouldn’t have gone down there and Klb and I believe her. So we’re doing an investigation.”
“And you came to find me.”
“That’s right. It’s nothing personal, but you were at that party last night, right? I was there—didn’t see you talking to Brunkr, but Klb says we have to cover all angles. So I have this.”
He showed the bit of quartz to Ryoka. She stared at it. It was a truth stone. She looked at Relc, dread in her stomach.
“What…do you want me to say?”
The [Guardsman]’s eyes focused on her. He was still smiling, but his eyes were serious and his posture—it was just a little tense.
“Tell me you didn’t do it.”
Ryoka stared at the gem in Relc’s hands. The Drake looked down at her. There was no accusation in his eyes. But he was waiting. Ryoka opened her mouth and spoke. Slowly.
“I didn’t do it.”
The gem flashed. Ryoka stared at it. Part of her expected it to show her lie. But it glowed bright blue. A false color. A liar’s color.
“Well, that settles that! I told Klb it was pointless, but he insisted. He even tested Erin. And the Mrsha kid! Isn’t he crazy?”
Relc tucked the stone into his belt pouch, laughing. Ryoka stared at him. Laughter was the last thing from her mind, but then she realized something terrible.
“He’s testing everyone from the party?”
The Drake nodded.
“Yep! Got them to come back to the inn and everything. I think it’s easier there—lots of booze so they can drink until they drop, y’know?”
They were testing everyone. Ryoka’s pulse raced. She turned back to the inn.
“I have to get back there.”
“What? Wait? What’s the rush? Oh! This is a race! Alright! Let’s do this!”
Relc shouted with glee and raced after Ryoka through the snow.
Erin sat in her inn, numb, quiet. She heard people talking, heard tears, listened to Mrsha howling and Krshia and Lyonette trying to comfort her. She could hear Krshia’s voice breaking. Erin listened to tears.
She did not cry. She couldn’t. A part of her was curled up in mourning, but it was only a part. The rest felt…numb. Some part of Erin was still awake in her grief. It whispered to her. It spoke.
I have been here before.
She had felt this very feeling. Erin could remember it, when Klbkch died. When the Horns of Hammerad were pronounced dead. When she killed the Goblin Chieftain. She had been here before. Only this time it was different.
This time part of her called out for vengeance. Brunkr’s death had come as a shock to all the Gnolls, to Erin, to Lyonette, to everyone at the party. It seemingly had no reason, and Erin had no idea why it had happened. But she did know one thing.
It was no accident.
Her head turned as the door slammed open. Relc surged into the room, beaming, and deflated as he saw the mood. He coughed, and held the door open. Half a minute later Ryoka stumbled through the door, breathing heavily.
All eyes turned to her and Relc as they walked into the room. Ryoka sat down heavily at a table, looking around. Relc edged over to where Klbkch was interviewing a group of three Gnolls. He nudged the Antinium. When Klbkch turned around Relc whispered loudly.
Erin had no idea what that was about. Neither did she care. She only had eyes for Klbkch. The Antinium turned back to the Gnolls without a word and asked them a question. Each replied. The stone in Klbkch’s hands glowed white each time they responded. He moved on.
They were all there, all the people who’d been here last night. Klbkch, the blue Antinium named Xrn who’d eaten so much, the Horns of Hammerad, Griffon Hunt, the Halfseekers, Zel and the Wall Lord…and the Gnolls.
They were eating. Quietly, some while crying. Others just drank, but Lyonette, Drassi, and Ishkr were serving food from Erin’s kitchen, hot and fresh as the moment it had been cooked.
It felt wrong to Erin. But the Gnolls were grieving as they ate. They had to—it was evening and many hadn’t had lunch or breakfast before they found out. And they were a different people. They ate and mourned Brunkr in their own way.
“Miss Blackpaw, it is your turn now.”
Erin’s head turned. She saw Ryoka look up at her table. Klbkch calmly walked over to the huge Gnoll. Like the others, Regrika was eating. She pushed back her plate and turned to face Klbkch.
“I am ready.”
Was it just convenience or another reason that had made Klbkch ask everyone to return to the inn? Erin watched as Klbkch consulted a bit of parchment he was holding.
“Regrika Blackpaw, you were seen talking to Brunkr last night, before leaving the party. You did not have a long conversation and it was within sight of others guests. I have one question for you. Did you meet, speak with, or interact in any other way with Brunkr Silverfang after leaving the party?”
The room was silent. It had grown silent each time Klbkch asked a question. Erin saw Ulrien shift casually in his seat. It was just a thought. Of course it wasn’t Regrika Blackpaw who’d murdered Brunkr, if that was what had happened. But she could see the thoughts running through the Gold-rank adventurer’s minds. It wasn’t, but if it was…
The Named Adventurer with black fur did not look concerned by Klbkch’s question. She smiled as he held the crystal in front of her. Her smile was as innocent as could be. It was a child’s smile.
“I did not meet with Brunkr, no. I regret to say that I did not see him after the party, and missed his presence at the end of it. I am afraid that is all I know, Senior Guardsman.”
Everyone stared at the truth gem. It flashed white. Klbkch nodded. Ryoka stared at the gem. Her face was pale. Erin kept staring at Regrika’s face.
Klbkch consulted the gem and nodded.
“Thank you, Miss Blackpaw. I will interview Ikriss Southwing next. Mister Southwing, last night you were seen…”
Prompted by some instinct, Erin got up and walked over to where Ryoka was sitting. The other young woman was sweaty and looked—disturbed. She caught Relc as he was passing.
“Hey, why is the other gem flashing white?”
Relc made a face.
“Eh. Truth gems. They’re enchanted by different mages. Some flash white when the answer’s true, others blue, green…it’s a pain in the tail. I once had a gem where it would flash red if you were telling the truth and brown if you were lying. Who does that?”
Ryoka didn’t reply. She sat back in her chair, staring at Regrika’s back. Erin frowned.
“Ryoka? Are you okay?”
The other girl started and looked at Erin. Ikriss was done being interviewed, and Klbkch was consulting his list. She shook her head.
“I—can’t stay here. I shouldn’t have come back. Stupid. I should have known—”
She got up abruptly. Erin caught at her arm.
“Ryoka. I want to talk. Can you speak with me upstairs?”
She felt like there was a hole in her chest, but the dread certainty in her gut was moving her. Someone killed Brunkr. She wanted Ryoka’s help, but the Asian girl shook her head.
“I really can’t. I’m sorry, Erin.”
“Ryoka, I need—”
“I said no!”
Ryoka snapped. Heads turned. Erin let go of Ryoka’s arms. She had never been angrier with her friend than at this moment.
She saw Ryoka turn guiltily to her, but she still left. Erin watched the door swing shut. Klbkch looked up from his notes.
“I believe that is everyone. It seems there is no indication that Brunkr’s death was a result, however indirectly, of the actions of anyone within this building.”
A gentle sigh ran through the room, and Mrsha howled again upstairs. Erin stared at Klbkch as he went to consult with Relc. From their postures, she knew they were wrapping things up. They’d already talked to friends of the other deceased adventurers and found nothing. It was an accident, or something else. Not murder.
She disagreed. She felt it. Erin wandered over to the table where Regrika and Ikriss were sitting. They’d both finished their plates. She tried to smile at them.
“Did you like your food?”
They both smiled at her. Regrika spoke softly, sympathy in her large brown eyes.
“I did. Thank you, Erin.”
Erin tried to smile again. It failed. She walked off. And the certainty in her heart grew.
Ryoka stood in the snow outside the inn. She hadn’t run far. Just far enough away from the city and inn that no one could really see her. She waited. She knew what was coming.
There was no crunch of snow to alert her. No sound. Only Ivolethe’s cold hand on Ryoka’s cheek. She turned, and saw Ijvani standing behind her.
The skeleton’s bones were black. Her blue eyes danced with flame. She held a staff in her hand that looked like it had been carved from a huge length of bone. Its tip was set with a golden gem. Ryoka swung at her.
Ijvani caught the blow. She let go and Ryoka’s leg struck an invisible barrier. Ryoka bent, grasping at her leg and made an incoherent sound.
“Fractured. Curious. You move quite adeptly for a Runner.”
A second voice issued from the skeleton’s mouth. It was not Ijvani’s hollow tones, but the quiet, deliberate words she had heard before. Az’kerash spoke as Ijvani lifted a finger and pointed, and Ryoka felt the sharp pain in her foot subside.
“You bastard. Go fuck yourself.”
She didn’t thank him as she stood. Ryoka glared at Ijvani. The skeleton shifted in silent outrage. She heard Az’kerash sigh.
“Just as well that I did not bring Venitra. You are careless, Ryoka Griffin. My servants are devoted.”
“I am well aware of their traits. As to the death of the Gnoll—that was Venitra’s error. She has suffered my ire for her actions.”
Ryoka waited. Ijvani stared at her.
Her voice was trembling. Ryoka strode towards the skeleton and met the invisible barrier in the snow. She strained against it, shouting at Az’kerash.
“That’s it? You kill someone and—that’s all you have to say?”
There was no limit to the coldness in Az’kerash’s tone. Ijvani stared at Ryoka, her jaw moving as he replied softly.
“Do you expect me to apologize for his death? No. I am irate at my servant for revealing herself in this way and potentially compromising my disguise for her. That is all. I care not at all for the lives of your friends. I am here simply to warn you against foolish impulses.”
Ryoka ground her teeth together.
“You mean so that I don’t tell anyone else. Why shouldn’t I? If you’re going to kill my friends—”
The skeleton’s eyes flashed.
“I will kill them all if I am betrayed, girl. Do not mistake me. This is not a threat, but a promise.”
The fear that swept over Ryoka was sudden and chilling. She fell silent. Az’kerash went on.
“You have no power here. Know that Venitra will not take any more actions without my consent. If she does, she will prove herself to be a failure. That will stay her, you have my word.”
Did Ijvani shiver on hearing that? Ryoka stared at the skeleton, and then looked away.
“So I just have to wait while you decide my fate?”
Contempt. No, not that. Indifference. That was all Az’kerash’s voice held. Ryoka wanted to punch at Ijvani, and knew how futile it would be. She felt worthless. Helpless.
A flash of blue shot by her face. The flames in Ijvani’s eyes brightened for a second—and then went out. The skeleton tumbled backwards, frost suddenly covering her entire body.
“What is happening? Ijvani?”
“I am under attack, master!”
Something blasted Ryoka off her feet. She tumbled down the slope of the hill she was standing on, and then felt another force lift her up. She struggled in the air and saw the black skeleton pointing at her. Lightning was crackling from her fingertips, across her entire body. Ryoka went limp.
“It was not Ryoka Griffin. Hold your spell.”
Az’kerash’s voice snapped as Ijvani’s head turned around, surveying the landscape. She paused as Ivolethe floated in front of her face. The faerie was raising one finger and glaring. Az’kerash’s voice paused, and then grew thoughtful.
“What is that, Ijvani? I cannot see it, but I know something is there from your reactions.”
“A…Winter Sprite, my lord. It seems to be protective of Ryoka Griffin.”
“A Winter Sprite? Are you sure, Ijvani?”
“Yes, master. I see it in front of me.”
“How intriguing. I have never heard of a Winter Sprite befriending anyone before. Is it hostile, Ijvani?”
“I cannot tell, master. It is a blur to me.”
“I cannot see it. Put Ryoka Griffin down. Gently. Avoid antagonizing it, Ijvani. These Winter Sprites are considerably powerful in terms of magic, but they do not use force unless threatened. They are a form of elemental. Intelligent in some senses, but harmless.”
The look on Ivolethe’s face made Ryoka want to laugh hysterically as she was lowered to the ground. The Frost Faerie hesitated, looking at Ryoka, and then floated over to her shoulder. She sat there, glaring, as Ijvani turned back to Ryoka.
“That is all I wished to speak with you about. Ijvani, return to the inn.”
The skeleton turned away. Ryoka clenched her fists, longing to shout, to say…something. But what could she say? There was no insult horrible enough, no word to describe him. She looked at Ijvani’s back and thought she understood a bit of evil. It was in Az’kerash’s voice. It was his sheer, awful contempt for everything he saw.
Ijvani walked through the snow, putting the illusion spells back on her body. Az’kerash spoke one last time through her mouth.
“Watch her, Ijvani. Don’t let her out of your sight. And find out more about her. That is an order.”
Ryoka sat in the snow, burying her face in her hands. She was lost. She didn’t know what to do. And she couldn’t ask for help from anyone. Because she understood now.
He was listening to everything she said. She was being watched. And there was no escaping. If Ryoka said anything, did anything, if she even hinted, she was sure Az’kerash would notice. Or his servant, Ijvani would.
She was stuck. Ryoka spoke to the air. It was the only thing she could speak to, the only thing that wouldn’t draw attention to her.
“What should I do?”
She was just speaking to herself. That was what the spell saw. But Ryoka had one friend. One friend the Necromancer’s magic couldn’t see. And the Frost Faerie was no mere elemental. She hovered in front of Ryoka and her frozen eyes blazed.
Ryoka stared at her. She felt a core of her resonate with Ivolethe’s words. There was no help for it, was there? She had to fight. If not…if not, her fate was in Az’kerash’s hands. And she could not trust him for anything like mercy.
“How could I defeat those two? I mean, it’s impossible. That bitch Venitra’s made of pure bone and she walked through an explosion unscathed. As for Ijvani—how could I hope to kill them myself?”
Ryoka lay back in the snow, pretending to stare up at the sky. Ivolethe floated overhead, looking grave.
“By yourself? Ye could not do a thing. You know this. But you are not alone.”
“If I asked the others? That’s suicide. They couldn’t help if I managed to get word to them. Could they?”
She could imagine Zel putting up a fight, but Erin? What about the Gold-rank adventurers? Ivolethe considered this.
“If it came to a battle, perhaps they might win. Perhaps not. The lord of death watches his servants. He would cheat, as surely as you breathe, Ryoka Griffin. The leader of armies could fight well I think, but there are too many who would die.”
“It would be a bloodbath.”
“Just so. But perhaps there is another way.”
Ryoka stared at her. She was desperate.
“What can I do? Tell me, please.”
She stared at the sky as the Frost Faerie flew next to her. Ivolethe whispered in Ryoka’s ear.
“There is one who fears neither death nor magic. He who rules above all others. A tyrant of flame.”
Teriarch. Ryoka inhaled the word before it could come out. Yes! Why hadn’t she thought of that? In the next moment she was deflated. Yes, there was someone she could ask. But he was—Ryoka shook her head in despair.
“It’s half a day’s run from Celum. And dangerous. I’d never make it—”
She’d be caught the instant she tried to run. Ivolethe nodded, understanding what Ryoka was saying without her saying it.
“Yes. Yes, they would hunt ye. But if you ran—if you had a distraction, then perhaps.”
“How? No. I could run for it. But there’s a cost, though, right?”
Ivolethe smiled sadly. Her form glistened. Another bit of her melted away and dropped, frozen and cold, into the snow next to Ryoka.
“There is always a cost. I bent the rules for you yesterday. I would bend them again. I can play…tricks on others. Tricks, Ryoka. It is not exactly interference. Bothering that fool with the spear was one trick. But I know many more. The servants of that lord of death may know their spells, but I have magic beyond what they know.”
“Maybe. Maybe I could just run away. But—what then? Would I have a chance? Or would I be killing myself either way?”
“Do you truly wish to know?”
The Frost Faerie’s gaze was ancient. Ryoka nodded. Ivolethe closed her eyes, and then nodded. She flew up and Ryoka sat up in the snow. She watched as Ivolethe looked.
She looked backwards, then forwards, and then through Ryoka. Ivolethe’s gaze traced objects that were not there. Her eyes were distant, aloof, immortal.
Ryoka averted her gaze. Of all the things she had seen her friend do, this unnerved her the most. In that moment, she felt the difference between the two. Because Ivolethe was immortal, for all she behaved like a creature of this earth. And the undying look at the world as it truly is, as it will be, and as it was.
At last, Ivolethe shook her head. She alighted on Ryoka’s palm and looked up at her. There was infinite compassion in her gaze, infinite sorrow.
“You would save those who can be saved.”
Ryoka inhaled. Ivolethe held up a hand.
“Aye, but the cost. The cost is great, Ryoka. For when I look down that road, I see death, Ryoka Griffin. I see your death. It is unavoidable.”
There was a churning pit in Ryoka’s stomach, a clump of fear. It had been there since she’d looked back in the alleyway and seen Venitra’s face. Now the fear subsided. Ryoka felt calm. She stood up, holding Ivolethe, and looked north.
She could save them all. She could do it. Ryoka took a step towards the inn, towards the door that led to Celum. She took another step, and then realized something was wrong.
She wasn’t moving. Ryoka looked down. Her feet were planted in the snow. She tried to raise her left foot. It didn’t twitch. Ryoka stared. She couldn’t make her legs move.
She was too afraid.
Erin stood in her kitchen, in front of a freshly washed cutting board. Her inn was empty. There was only Lyonette, Mrsha, and one or two others in the inn. Everyone else had left.
Mrsha was crying. She would cry, and then howl. It was a painful noise. Her throat was already raw, but nothing could make the Gnoll child stop. Lyonette was crying too. Erin could hear her sobbing. Their room was right over the kitchen’s upstairs.
Erin wasn’t crying. She stared at the cutting board. Then she looked along the kitchen counter. It was covered in food. Or rather, ingredients.
Choice cuts of meat, ham on the bone, wizened vegetables, the last of the winter’s harvests, flour, salt, and rarer ingredients still. Ground up Corusdeer horn, the skin of some kind of salamander or newt, a goopy mess that was something’s eyeball—ingredients from Octavia. They were all neatly arranged, but Erin hadn’t begun cooking. She stared at the ingredients, and then turned as someone coughed and knocked quietly on the doorjamb of the kitchen.
“What do you want, Pisces? I’m not serving food.”
“Perish the thought.”
The [Necromancer] delicately stepped into the kitchen, surveying the counter full of food. He paused and looked at Erin before clearing his throat.
“I ah, only wished to extend my apologies, Erin.”
“Yes. I realize it may be…tactless coming from me, but I feel that offering my sympathies is only appropriate—”
Pisces caught Erin’s eye and broke off. He paused for a moment, sniffed, wrinkled his nose, and then spoke. Differently, this time.
“I am sorry. That’s all I wanted to say. I know I am not the person you would wish to turn to, but Ceria is about to leave for the city. Liscor, that is. I believe she and the others intend to drink and leave you in peace. However, I could ask her to stay, or find Miss Selys—”
“No. No, Pisces, that’s kind of you, but no.”
Erin shook her head. She relaxed a bit, and turned to Pisces. He looked uncharacteristically somber. But his words sounded as genuine as they had ever been. She was glad to hear it. Pisces stared at her kitchen.
“Are you cooking something?”
“Yeah. I’m thinking about it.”
“That may be a good way to, ah, relieve stress.”
“It’s not for that.”
“Oh? If it is tomorrow’s meal or tonight’s you are worried about, I am sure that closing your inn would not be—”
“It’s not that, Pisces. Thanks for asking. It’s…it’s actually about Regrika and Ikriss.”
Pisces’ gaze sharpened slightly.
“What do you mean by that?”
Erin heard a choked noise from above. She looked up and saw Pisces closing his eyes for a second. Erin ignored Lyonette’s voice as she spoke.
“She didn’t like my cooking.”
“Regrika. And that Ikriss guy. They say they like it, but they hated it. I can tell.”
Erin gestured to one of the plates lying on the counter. Pisces stared at the grilled cheese sandwich.
“Those are not typically Gnoll foods, I admit—”
“No. They didn’t like last night’s meals either. They ate a lot, but they didn’t like a thing. Not the steak, not the casserole—nothing. Not even the drinks.”
The [Necromancer] frowned and stroked at his chin as he eyed Erin.
“That is a curious certainty, Erin. How do you know?”
She looked at him. Pisces flinched and avoided meeting her eyes. Erin looked back at her empty kitchen counter.
“I’m an [Innkeeper].”
There was something burning in her mind, something hot behind her eyes. She hadn’t meant to turn it on Pisces. After a second he cleared his throat.
“So this attempt at cooking is…?”
“I wonder what they do like eating. That’s all.”
Erin stared at the counter. There was a feeling she had, like when she was about to solve a chess problem, or she felt like she had come up with a great move in a game of chess. It was as if she stood on the edge of certainty. She had that feeling now. There were pieces. Just pieces, but…
She looked at Pisces.
“Pisces. Is it possible to deceive a truth detection spell? Is it possible to lie when someone’s using one of those stones on you?”
He froze. Pisces stared at Erin, and she felt him searching her face. He hesitated, gnawed on one lip, raised a finger, and then lowered it. Then he nodded and leaned forwards to speak softly.
“Practically? No. I could not do it. Nor could Ceria, Typhenous…a Named Adventurer would probably lack the ability to do so. But in theory? Yes. The current Archmages of Wistram could most likely affect such a spell. And such stones are not…flawless. There are ways to deceive simpler versions of the spell, which is why more expensive and accurate versions of truth-telling artifacts exist.”
“Thanks. That helps.”
Pisces nodded, but didn’t pull back. He lowered his voice further.
“I do not wish to tell you what to do. However. Perhaps, Erin, it might be better to…grieve. And let whatever you are thinking of go.”
He was not prepared for the hand that grabbed the front of his robes. Pisces yelped and then stared at Erin. His face was inches away from hers. Erin stared at him.
“If you know anything, Pisces, tell me.”
He jerked back, brushing down his clean robes. He shook his head. Erin glared, but he kept shaking his head. When he looked her in the eye, it was with open honesty.
“It is just a feeling. Less than that. I cannot sense anything about them. Anything at all. Rather, it is my instincts that prompt me, not magic. Just my intuition.”
“What does it tell you?”
Pisces hesitated. He turned his head and stared back at the common room. It was empty of course. But he still lowered his voice.
“They frighten me, Erin. They frighten me terribly. And I do not understand why.”
There was no confusing which ‘they’ he meant. Erin nodded.
“They bother me too.”
Pisces stared at her. He opened his mouth as if to say something, and then turned away. He walked towards the kitchen’s exit and then turned back.
Then he was gone. Erin stood in the kitchen, and heard a howl from upstairs. She closed her eyes. And thought.
Erin didn’t know much. She wasn’t smart. She couldn’t figure out why Brunkr had died, or what the motives were, or figure anything else about where he’d been found or his injuries.
His injuries. Erin’s hand tightened on her counter. She relaxed. Slowly.
No, she couldn’t figure any of that out. But she had one certainty, and one alone. Brunkr had been murdered. He’d told her that he wouldn’t enter the dungeon. He’d promised her he wouldn’t risk his life, not carelessly. He’d promised her that.
And she knew Brunkr. She knew people. So she knew he had been murdered. As for who had done it—Erin knew people. It was just a hunch.
She stared at the counter. She had no proof. None at all. She heard Mrsha howl again and Lyonette try to stop her. But the girl broke down and began to sob rhythmically. It went on and on. Erin stared at the ingredients.
Food for Regrika Blackpaw. Which one was it? What would she use? If she were making food for that one person. For Regrika. For her. What would she make.
Erin’s hand moved unconsciously. She stared at what she grabbed, and then put it on the board in front of her. The world was slowing. Everything was crystalizing around Erin, becoming a single moment. A terrible moment. Lyonette was crying, Mrsha was howling and then pausing for breath, and then howling again.
Time slowed. The intervals between Lyonette’s sobs and Mrsha’s howling grew longer. Erin’s hands moved. She grabbed a hammer. She grabbed a knife. She pushed ingredients around, poured, assembled. Baked. It was all one moment, one slowly unwinding scene of horror.
And then it was over. All the pieces fell into place. Erin looked down at what Regrika Blackpaw would eat. She stared at the dish she’d created. And she knew.
The world was ringing. Or humming. It felt like everything was vibrating. Ryoka’s heart was beating too fast to keep still. She walked up towards Erin’s inn, holding something in her hands.
A bit of parchment. An inkpot. And a quill. She’d bought them from the market. She cautiously pushed open the door to the inn.
“Hello? Erin? Anyone?”
There was no one inside. Not Lyonette, or Mrsha. Erin was gone too. Ryoka took a shuddering breath. That was…fine.
It was dark as she ascended the stairs. A bit of blue lit the way. Ivolethe flew slowly next to Ryoka as the girl walked into the room she shared with Lyonette and Mrsha. Ryoka slowly sat on the floor. She put the bit of parchment on the floor and pulled out the quill and inkpot. She opened the inkpot and picked up the quill.
Then she stared at the parchment lying on the ground. Ryoka’s heart beat wildly. She hesitated. She didn’t know what to write.
But she knew she had to write it.
She stared at the blank piece of parchment for a long time. Then she dipped her quill in the ink and wrote. Just a few lines. There were no good words she could think of, but Ryoka had no time to come up with some. She was running out of time. So she wrote and it was done.
Next, Ryoka folded the parchment and tucked it into her belt pouch. Then she took her belt pouches off and put it in her room. She took the bag of holding off her belt and put it next to the pouches. She shifted her Runner’s pack to hide both items and stood up.
“That’s it. That’s all she wrote. I can go now.”
Slowly, she walked out of the room and down the stairs. Ryoka felt like she was in a trance. Everything seemed vast around her, and she felt as though she were looking down at herself. The door to Celum was right in front of her.
Ryoka stopped in front of it. She looked to one side. Ivolethe hovered there, a piece of infinity. Melting away. The Frost Faerie was smiling. Gently. It was the first time Ryoka had seen her look this way. She almost seemed…proud.
“I guess this is it, Ivolethe.”
The faerie nodded once. Ryoka gulped.
“Do you think I’m a coward for being afraid?”
The tiny immortal shook her head.
“No. I would never scorn you for that.”
“Thank you. And tell them—tell Erin and Mrsha and Lyonette—tell them—”
Words failed her. Ryoka turned away. Ivolethe nodded.
“I will see your end.”
Ryoka opened the door. She took a breath. Then she stepped through.
And began to run.
Dusk had ended. Night was upon the world when Az’kerash contacted his two servants.
Venitra stood in her disguise as Regrika Blackpaw, Ijvani as Ikriss, just outside the city limits. They stood next to the wall and spoke to the air.
“I have discovered that Ryoka Griffin is a known City Runner who has completed deliveries to the High Passes, and to Lady Magnolia Reinhart. Of note, she has recently travelled to Invrisil via magical carriage. It was sent by the Reinhart family.”
Indeed? That is intriguing. Reinhart knows of me, I am sure. But why would she concern herself with a City Runner? Venitra. What have you discovered?
Venitra’s words were quick and eager. She rushed to speak, afraid to disappoint her master any further.
“She is the caretaker for the Gnoll child, and she has links to the adventurers in the inn, master. Not the Gold-rank ones. The group with the half-Elf, the [Necromancer], the Antinium and the woman with damaged arms—they are known as the Horns of Hammerad.”
Ah, yes. I recall. The young [Necromancer]. What of the [Innkeeper]? Erin Solstice?
The two undead shifted and looked at each other. Venitra was the first to speak.
“She has a magical chessboard, master. And she is known as the best player of the game. She appeared months ago out of nowhere and began running the inn. The old one was destroyed. She obtained the magical door thanks to her connections with the Horns of Hammerad as well. She…she is rumored to be the one who defeated a powerful Flesh Worm known as Skinner. The Antinium are said to consider her a friend, and she can create magical dishes which act as temporary enchantments for those who consume them. It is said that she had a skeleton as a servant before, and she is capable of making wondrous music. She can apparently shoot blood from her crotch and—”
What was that?
“She can shoot blood from—it is what we heard, master.”
There was a long silence as both Venitra and Ijvani waited. Az’kerash’s mental voice sounded peculiar when he replied.
Do you mean…no. I see rumor has mixed with fact, Venitra. Try to differentiate the two. How peculiar, though. Erin Solstice and Ryoka Griffin. Both are odd in their own way. Very odd. Where is Ryoka Griffin now, Ijvani?
The skeleton mage immediately responded.
“In Celum, master. The other city. She is sitting in a tavern, drinking.”
Good. I have made my decision. Venitra, your careless actions have endangered the disguise that you have built up over the years. Your reputation as a Named Adventurer is at risk and I do not trust you to remain in Liscor without incident any longer.
Venitra hung her head. Ijvani gave her a grin only a skeleton could give in triumph. Both snapped to attention as Az’kerash continued.
However, Ryoka Griffin is an unstable variable I dislike having. She is not trustworthy I feel, even if restrained by spells. Thus, my order to you is simple. Bring me back her head.
The two undead looked up. Venitra slowly smiled.
“Just her head, master?”
That is all I require. It must be undamaged, Venitra. Completely. The rest of her body may be disposed of, but I require the head frozen or kept in stasis. Take action tonight, and make sure you are not observed. Do not kill anyone or reveal yourselves to anyone besides Ryoka. Make sure her remains are disposed of outside the city—I will teleport Oom to you and have him reveal himself as the murderer of both Ryoka and the Gnoll. Is all that understood?
Go, then. If there are any complications, contact me at once.
The connection broke. The two undead looked at each other. Venitra was smiling broadly. Ijvani nodded her head.
“The magical door is in the inn. Let us go to Celum. I will draw Ryoka Griffin out with a spell. Then you will have your chance, Venitra.”
“Leave part of her for me.”
“I will not promise that.”
Ijvani shook her head in annoyance. Venitra strode off through the snow, eagerly heading away from the city. The skeleton followed. They walked towards the Wandering Inn. Both of the undead were smiling.
The door to Erin’s inn swung open and Regrika stepped through. She was surprised to be greeted by a shout.
“Hey, come in! Regrika? It’s great that you’re here!”
The Named Adventurer blinked as Erin bustled over. The [Innkeeper] had a mug in one hand and she smiled at Regrika and Ikriss.
“Greetings, Erin. You were looking for me?”
“Oh yeah! I wanted to show you something. I had Ishkr go into the city to look for you—guess he must have missed you!”
Regrika glanced around the inn. It was quiet and empty. There were too many memories of Brunkr here for most people to want to return, but there were some customers.
Halrac glanced up as Ikriss closed the door behind the two adventurers. He grunted. Regrika looked at him and the rest of his team, Griffon Hunt. They were sitting in a corner of the room, clearly deep into their cups. The tables around them were deserted. Some were overturned.
It looked as though there had been a fight.
“Sorry. People are a bit touchy right now.”
Erin lowered her voice as she ushered the two adventurers to a table. Regrika coughed.
“I am sorry Erin, but I am afraid we did not come here for a meal. We have business in Celum, actually.”
She indicated Erin’s magical door. Erin made a disappointed face.
“Come on, sit. Please? I made a new dish, all for you!”
Regrika and Ikriss exchanged a glance. The Drake coughed.
“As delightful as that sounds, Miss Solstice, we are rather busy. We’d like to enter Celum, unless you charge a transportation fee…?”
He got no further because someone called out behind him. The two adventurers turned and saw Jelaqua Ivirith, holding a mug and laughing over her plates with Seborn and Moore.
“Celum, huh? Sounds like fun! Those Humans know how to party. But have a drink with us, first!”
The Selphid drained her cup and grinned at the Named Adventurers. Regrika hesitated. Erin pulled out the chair.
“Just a taste? I promise you, you’ll love what I came up with! Here—sit over right here so you don’t have to deal with the two grumpy Drakes.”
“I heard that, you bumbling Human.”
Wall Lord Ilvriss sat up at his table. He glared at Erin. Zel sighed and put one claw on his shoulder. Regrika sat, clearly reluctant, and Ikriss joined him. Two mugs appeared on their table and Erin rushed into the kitchen. She came back out with two plates of what looked to the Gnoll like steak.
“Hmm. That is a steak, yes? I believe I had one two days ago, Miss Solstice.”
Erin beamed at her.
“Yes! But it’s not just any steak. This one’s seasoned specially. Try it, come on! Please?”
The Gnoll and Drake looked at each other. Ikriss coughed as he prodded his steak with a fork and knife. It looked rather hard. Regrika sighed.
“Miss Erin, I appreciate the hospitality. I truly do. But please, you need not force yourself. We understand the recent death of Brunkr has affected you all. It has hurt us too. He seemed like a fine [Warrior]. That is to say—[Knight]. My apologies. I would not like to intrude.”
Silence fell over the inn as the adventurers drank. Zel closed his eyes and Ilvriss scowled into his mug. Erin looked down at the ground.
“Yeah. That was—sorry.”
She wiped at her eyes. Regrika smiled sympathetically and reached a paw out to touch Erin’s hand. The [Innkeeper] moved back a bit and shook her head briskly.
“I don’t want to be down. And I don’t want to be pushy, but I just thought I’d be hospitable, you know? That’s what I do. I’m an [Innkeeper]. So this steak—”
She edged it close to Regrika. The Gnoll hesitated. Erin looked at her pleadingly.
“Just let me know how it tastes. I worked really hard on it.”
There was no way around it. Regrika sighed and cut into the steak. It took a bit of work to slice a section away, and it crunched as she popped it into her mouth. The Gnoll chewed obligingly. And then her eyes widened. Across the table, Ikriss was making the same expression.
Erin looked intently at their faces. Regrika’s response was to cut off another bit of steak and chew it. She gulped and looked at Erin, deeply surprised.
“It’s…excellent. Very tasty. How did you…?”
Beneath the table, Ikriss kicked her. Regrika coughed.
“You’ve outdone yourself again, Miss Solstice. I am quite happy with this dish. Did you…spice it differently, somehow?”
“Something like that. Go ahead! I’m glad you enjoy it!”
The young woman beamed as both adventures began to scarf down the steaks. When they were done, there were only crumbs. Regrika leaned back and eyed her plate. Then she looked at Ikriss. The Drake was raising both his eyebrows at Regrika.
“A truly fine meal. The best I’ve had in…forever, I believe. Erin, I would love to know how you made it.”
Erin looked over the moon. Regrika nodded.
“I would pay much for the recipe. And I will certainly come back tonight.”
Ikriss curled his tail up in delight.
“Yes. Tonight as for as long as we are staying. What is it made of? I haven’t tasted…taste…”
Both adventurers leaned over the table towards Erin. She hesitated.
“Well, it’s a bit of a secret. But I guess I could tell you.”
“Yes, please do.”
“You really want to hear?”
“I would pay much for it, yes.”
“Okay, then. Listen close.”
Both adventurers leaned in. Erin whispered.
“By bone, do you mean meat off the bone—”
“No, I mean, it’s bone. You ate bones of dead animals. There was no meat in that. Not one bit.”
Both Gnoll and Drake looked at Erin. She took a step back and pointed at their plates. Her smile was still on her face, but it had changed.
“You want to know what that was? It was bones, dried and ground up into dust. And other bones soaked in pig’s blood from Octavia’s shop and mixed with mana potions. I baked it together using marrow as glue. Then I dyed it with more blood. It looks only a little bit like a steak. No one else would ever eat it. No one except you two.”
Regrika stared at Erin. The hairs on her body began to rise. Erin continued. She had a very big smile on her face.
“And I put poison in it. Bad poison. The kind that can kill Shield Spiders. I got it from Octavia. I put in a lot. Funny. It didn’t seem to matter if I did. I knew you’d like it.”
“I don’t understand. Is this some kind of joke…?”
Ikriss tried to laugh. Erin turned to him. Her smile had become wide. Her eyes were bright.
“No. I didn’t expect you to actually eat my food. But you did. You ate it and didn’t notice a thing. You thought it was steak because it was red and shaped like it. That’s not normal.”
“And another thing. You didn’t like any of my other dishes. I could tell. You didn’t like drinking beer, and you didn’t like the cake. Not one bit. And you lied about that. I guess that’s normal. Everyone’s got different tastes and all, but then I got to thinking. Hey Regrika, you’re a really weird Gnoll, you know that?”
“Really? I think I’m quite normal, yes?”
Regrika bared her teeth. Erin did the same.
“No. I mean, you smell like a Gnoll and you act like one. And all the Gnolls love you, but guess what I noticed? It was a little thing. You never really mentioned Mrsha. Not once.”
Ikriss glanced swiftly at his companion. Regrika hesitated and then appeared indifferent.
“Mrsha? Oh. The little Gnoll cub. She was very cute. What about her?”
“You think she’s normal, don’t you?”
The Named Adventurer paused.
“No. But I did not mention her because it would have been rude. A Gnoll cub being raised by a Human is strange. However—”
“You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?”
Erin stared at Regrika. Ikriss’ eyes widened. He hissed at Regrika.
“The white fur!”
Erin stepped back from the table. Her eyes were on Regrika. The Gnoll stared back, no longer smiling.
“White fur. That’s bad…luck? I don’t know. But I know that every Gnoll knows what it means, even if they won’t tell me. Every Gnoll. Ishkr was born in Liscor and he still knows about white fur. But you, you didn’t bat an eyelash. You asked whose kid Mrsha was.”
Silence. Regrika shifted in her seat. She looked around and suddenly saw a different room. The Gold-rank adventurers from Griffon Hunt were standing up at their table, adjusting their belts, nodding at each other and spreading out. On the opposite side of the room, the Halfseekers were already in position. Jelaqua lifted her two-handed flail, not trying to hide it.
“You don’t like normal food. You lied about killing Brunkr. And you don’t know about white Gnolls like Mrsha, which every Gnoll knows about.”
Erin’s voice was hard and loud. She was walking backwards, back behind a table where two Drakes were getting to their feet. Zel and Ilvriss walked forwards. A sword was in the Wall Lord’s hands. Zel’s claws were open.
“I see. We were discovered.”
Regrika’s voice was very calm. She remained sitting at the table as the Gold-rank adventurers spread around the room and the two Drakes stopped in front of their table. She smiled at Zel Shivertail, and then looked at Erin.
“One question. How did you know I lied about Brunkr? I passed the truth detection spell the Antinium gave me.”
Erin looked at her and shook her head.
“Isn’t it obvious? It wasn’t about the truth crystal. Everyone was looking at that, but I could tell without it. You gave it all away here.”
She tapped her mouth. Regrika blinked.
“It was your smile. You smiled like Mrsha does when she’s been naughty. Kids are bad liars. And so are you.”
Erin looked at Regrika. She reached for something lying on a table and came up with a knife and a frying pan. Halrac growled at her.
“Don’t be a fool! Get out of here!”
Erin didn’t move.
“I want to know who killed Brunkr.”
Ilvriss spat. His eyes were on Regrika and his grip was steady on his sword.
“I don’t care about the Gnoll. But justice is justice and I won’t have the law broken by a Named Adventurer. You, Gnoll! Tell me. Why have you been asking about Ryoka Griffin all day? What’s your connection with her?”
Zel shifted. He stared at Regrika and then Ilvriss. He was wary, his stance low.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?”
Silence. The two adventurers looked at each other. Regrika stared at Ikriss. Ikriss nodded. Losing her temper, Revi shouted as she raised a glowing talisman.
“Well? Answer us!”
Regrika exploded backwards in her chair. She rolled out of it and onto her feet as the table shot towards Moore and Seborn. The half-Giant was knocked off his feet by the impact and Seborn dove out of the way.
“Damn it! Attack!”
Ilvriss and Zel charged forwards at once, towards Regrika. Ulrien and Jelaqua leapt forwards at the same moment as the other adventurers leapt backwards. Halrac looked around and shouted.
“Watch out! The Drake—”
Zel turned. Ikriss had vanished in the moment when Regrika moved. Now he reappeared in front of Zel and Ilvriss. Halrac loosed a shot. Zel swiped.
The arrow struck Ikriss in the back of the neck. The claws tore open his face. But the Drake still moved. He placed a hand on Zel’s stomach and one of Ilvriss’ arms and spoke.
They vanished in a pop of air. Jelaqua swore and she and Ulrien rushed at Regrika. The Gnoll had her massive sword and shield in one hand. She raised it and blocked Jelaqua’s first swing. Ulrien slashed at her from behind with his greatsword. The blow skated off her armored back as Regrika twisted to one side.
“Typhenous, cover us! Revi! Summons! Erin, get clear! Jelaqua—”
Regrika turned. Ulrien swore and attacked.
His sword changed trajectory mid-cut. It swerved as Regrika lifted her shield to block and shot down, to her unguarded legs. Ulrien swung with all his might, and his blade bit into the Gnoll’s furred leg. And stopped.
The greatsword shuddered to a halt, buried two inches deep into the Gnoll’s leg. Ulrien stared at his blade as the force of his cut travelled back up into his hands. He tried to step back and wrench his sword free from the impact.
A sword rose. Regrika brought it down. Ulrien raised his bare arm to protect himself. The sword connected with his arm and there was a flash of light. Something—an amulet exploded on Ulrien’s chest. He stumbled back, his arm still intact.
The second sword stroke took off his head. Ulrien’s body stood for a moment, and then the big man’s corpse collapsed forwards. Jelaqua howled as she lashed Regrika from all sides. The Gnoll stood under the barrage, and then turned and struck. Jelaqua choked as the sword stabbed through her stomach and then leapt back.
Halrac stared, the bow and arrow he’d drawn frozen in his hands. Typhenous roared and threw bolts of magic that blasted into the Gnoll—
And did nothing. She stood in the center of the room, raising her arms, laughing. Regrika turned to Erin as the [Innkeeper] stood frozen in the middle of her inn. The Gnoll’s blade ran with blood. She pointed around the room, at the other adventurers. She ended with Erin.
“You are all dead.”