The hour was late. Across the continent of Izril, it was nighttime. Of course, in Baleros it was morning and Kenjiro was awake and negotiating the cost of paper with Xalandrass the Naga. In Chandrar, it was just past midday and Trey was ‘sparring’ with Gazi, which mainly meant her kicking him about until he couldn’t move.
But things were happening everywhere. Meetings of note were occurring. In Magnolia Reinhart’s personal estate, the famous [Lady] was ordering her two War Golems to blast a hole in a walled hedge maze. And while the ensuing battle between Ressa, Zel, and an enraged [Druid] gardener might have been amusing to witness (if not experience), other important conversations were happening. Cakes were being thrown.
And that was the thing. Despite its subpar nature as a weapon of war, cakes had the unparalleled value of both comedic effect and surprise on their side. They could start a fight or in this case, halt one. Fragments of the large cake Erin had made dripped off of Ylawes’ armor and onto the ground, a capital waste of sugar. But it had stopped him from charging at the Redfang Goblins.
This was the scene. Ylawes stood in the open doorway of Erin’s inn, sword drawn and shield raised. He’d been struck by a flying cake—mainly because it hadn’t registered as a threat until too late. Even though he was frosted, he was still eying the Redfang Warriors warily. And they had recognized him.
All five of the Redfang Warriors were on their feet, holding their weapons. Badarrow was aiming an arrow at Ylawes’ chest, but they weren’t attacking. Rather, they were frozen.
Around the room, the other adventurers were also on their feet. The Halfseekers were eying the Goblins and the Horns of Hammerad were eying the new adventurers. Yvlon’s face was pale. Ceria was blinking as she stared at the other half-Elf standing behind Ylawes. Pisces was fighting with Mrsha and Ksmvr over a slice of cake. Everyone else was waiting for everyone else to make the first move.
Lyonette stared as Erin sat back down at her table. The [Innkeeper] looked around, seemingly satisfied with her handiwork.
“See, this is why you always bake three cakes. Ishkr, go get me another.”
That broke the silence. Ishkr blinked as half the eyes shifted to him, and then one of the new adventurers began to laugh. The Dwarf, standing by Ylawes’ side, started chuckling and then guffawing loudly.
He did it well. Erin had never heard a proper guffaw, but the Dwarf was so boisterous, so unashamedly loud and amused that it broke the tension. By his side, the half-Elf lowered her staff with a sigh and Ilvriss sat up. The Wall Lord eyed the new adventurers and looked at Erin.
“Is your inn always like this, Human?”
She began to laugh as well. The room relaxed. Jelaqua began to laugh, Moore covered his mouth with one hand, and Seborn sat down. Only Ylawes, the Goblins, and Yvlon remained tense. The [Knight] in caked armor stared suspiciously at the Goblins and then at Yvlon. He called out sharply.
“Yvlon! What are Goblins doing here? Get behind me—”
It was clear that Yvlon and Ylawes were related, and not just from their names. Ylawes’ hair was a darker blonde, but they both had fair features and a certain angular and European cast to their faces. Mainly though, it was the way they dressed. Both wore silvery armor—although Yvlon’s was more mismatched due to it being a collection of enchanted armor—and their eyes were both light blue.
Yvlon looked at her older brother helplessly, stunned by his sudden appearance. Ylawes was more focused on the Goblins, though. He held his sword and shield grimly, ready for a fight.
“Why are Goblins—”
“They’re guests, Ylawes. Can’t you tell?”
The half-Elf standing behind him interrupted Ylawes by tapping him on the shoulder with her staff. He turned his head, disbelieving.
“Impossible. Goblins in an inn? That has to be—”
“Why else would they be here? Besides, there’s a sign.”
Erin stopped laughing and sat up as the half-Elf informed Ylawes coolly. The [Knight] hesitated.
The half-Elf woman sighed loudly. She nodded to the open door, which was letting in cold night air. Erin was tempted to ask them to shut the door, but she didn’t want to interrupt.
“It says ‘No Killing Goblins’ on the sign outside, Ylawes. Didn’t you read it? You were warned.”
The [Knight] turned in astonishment. The Dwarf by his side snorted and Ylawes looked down.
“Just like a Human not to notice what’s at his feet! Well, what now, lad? Are you going to break some skulls and break the rules or sheathe that sword before it gets rusty?”
Ylawes hesitated, looking around the room. It was tense—the Redfang Goblins were all clearly ready for a fight, and the other adventurers were tense. Maybe they weren’t on the Goblins’ side, but the sight of Moore peering at you with his massive staff held in one hand…he was such a considerate, gentle soul, but he could also push a thumb through your face if he chose.
After a second, Ylawes sheathed his sword. Erin smiled broadly and stood up.
“You read the sign! No one reads the sign! For that you get a free drink! On the house!”
The new adventures looked at her. The Dwarf tugged at his thick beard and spoke with a deep, booming voice.
“Free drinks? Hah! Maybe coming all this way was worth it after all! I’ll have five mugs to start with and whatever you’re eating. That thing you hit Ylawes with will do to start with.”
He stumped across the inn and took a seat at the nearest table. Erin blinked at him.
“Wait, I said free drink. You have to pay for the others…”
“This inn serves Goblins?”
The [Knight] addressed Erin, still peering at the Goblins. They’d sat themselves back down the instant he sheathed his sword. Badarrow and Rabbiteater made expressive gestures at the armed warrior from their seats. Erin only smiled.
“That’s right. Welcome to the Wandering Inn! You get a free drink on the house for reading the sign—one free drink.”
“I heard you!”
The Dwarf shouted back. He was waving at Ishkr. Ylawes opened his mouth, probably to ask the obvious questions Erin normally got, but he broke off as he looked at his feet. Something white and furry was circling his armored boots. Mrsha had snuck forwards and was greedily stuffing the remains of the cake into her mouth. Lyonette cried out.
“Mrsha, no! That’s disgusting! Stop that!”
The Gnoll looked up completely unashamed, frosting covering her face. She bolted as Lyonette came towards her with a mop and the [Princess] chased after the Gnoll. Ylawes followed them for a few seconds, blinking, and then looked at Erin again.
“Your inn serves Goblins?”
“Yup! And you are…?”
She stared at him expectantly. Ylawes worked his jaw for a few seconds, and then recovered and bowed slightly.
“Pardon me, Miss. Ylawes Byres at your service. I lead the Silver Swords, an adventuring group dedicated to fighting monsters. I am a [Knight], and as such, offer you my sword and shield if you should ever be in need.”
His eyes flicked to the Redfang Goblins as he spoke. Erin smiled at him.
“Hi. I’m Erin. I don’t think I’ll need your sword and shield, but I guess I’ll ask if I’m in trouble. I’m an [Innkeeper]. Sorry about throwing the cake at you.”
Again, Ylawes found himself at a loss for words, so Erin relented a bit and dropped a bit of her oblivious act. She briskly nodded to the Redfang Warriors.
“I serve Goblins at my inn, Mister Ylawes. They don’t cause trouble and I don’t let people stab them with swords. If you don’t like that you can leave—although it seems like you know Yvlon. Are you two related?”
“I’m her brother. I’ve been searching for her for weeks—you truly let Goblins come in and out all the time?”
He really seemed to be having a hard time getting over the entire idea of Goblins, or at least, Goblins as guests. Erin frowned at Ylawes, but the half-Elf by his side came forwards next.
“Please excuse my companion, Miss Erin. We will abide by your rules so long as we remain at the inn. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Falene Skystrall. At your service.”
Erin blinked at the half-Elf and took her in for the first time. She had light red hair, unearthly features like Ceria, but where the two half-Elves differed was age and bearing. Ceria was down-to-earth when you got to know her. Whereas this half-Elf was clearly older and conducted herself with the grace and dignity that Erin ascribed to typical stories about Elves. As Falene introduced herself she bowed elegantly and made a complicated gesture with her left hand. Erin bowed back awkwardly, feeling clumsy compared to the other half-Elf.
“Uh—uh, hi! Welcome to my inn.”
“Thank you. Allow me to apologize for Ylawes’ actions. We do not often meet Goblins that aren’t openly hostile…although it seems like this month is the exception to that rule. I am also surprised to meet another of my kin. Greetings, sister.”
She looked towards Ceria as she said that. The other half-Elf was staring at her. Falene made another gesture with her hands and bowed again to Ceria.
Ceria nodded and didn’t bow or make any gestures with her hands.
“Uh, I’m Ceria Springwalker. Pleased to meet you…sister.”
Falene’s eyebrows rose slightly. She looked at Ylawes and nudged the [Knight] again with her staff.
“I believe that concludes our introductions. Ylawes, you might want to ask for a towel and some water to wipe yourself off…then you can speak with your sister. As for myself, I believe I’ll enjoy my drink.”
“It’ll take more than that to clean all that cake off.”
Erin felt a bit bad for Ylawes, splattered as he was with drying frosting. Falene eyed Ylawes and nodded.
“True. Well, this should get most of it off.”
She raised her staff and tapped Ylawes on the breastplate. There was a loud knocking sound and then the frosting and cake stuck to his armor, face and hair immediately dried and fell to the ground. Erin whistled, and Falene nodded in satisfaction. She followed the Dwarf to the table as Ishkr hurried back with a few drinks.
Ylawes looked around, at a loss for a few seconds. Then he grimaced.
“This is not how I envisioned finding my sister.”
He stomped after his two teammates and sat at the table. Erin looked around. Mrsha was running about wildly on a sugar high, Ksmvr was eying the remains of the cake on the ground, Pisces was licking his fingers, and Ceria was staring at Falene with a frown. The Halfseekers were pointing at the Silver Swords and clearly about to wander over and introduce themselves, Ishkr and Drassi were busy getting more food from the kitchens, and Ilvriss was looking around, discontented that no one was paying attention to him.
Erin sighed. Another day at the inn. She smiled, and grabbed Mrsha as the Gnoll ran past. She handed the wriggling Gnoll to Lyonette and shooed Apista away from the faerie flowers. She took three flower bulbs and squeezed them lightly, flicking the nectar into a mug. And then she got to work.
Getting to know people.
Ylawes Byres had come here to meet Yvlon Byres. He sat with his sister, talking quietly in a corner once he’d been served a deflated soufflé. Erin had to apologize for that.
“I guess my food preservation skill doesn’t save them from gravity. And I just made them today! Oh well. I’ve got pizza and lots of other food if you want it.”
“I’m grateful for the food, Miss Erin. We’ve been travelling for days now, and our last proper meal was as we were passing through Remendia. There was scarce food to be had in Esthelm as it was.”
Ylawes assured Erin as he poked at the sad soufflé with a fork. At another table, the Dwarf spoke up loudly.
“Not to mention you had to give half our dinner away! If we hadn’t arrived at Liscor tonight, I’d have eaten you, lad.”
Erin grinned, and Ylawes twisted in his seat to glare at the Dwarf.
“You’re barely a decade older than me, Dawil.”
“So? I’m a Dwarf. You’re a Human brat. I can call you lad if I want.”
The half-Elf sitting at the table raised her elegant brows and looked reprovingly at both of her companions.
“Which you only do when you’re trying to be aggravating. Let Ylawes talk with his sister, Dwarf. Or have you forgotten I’m older than both of you combined?”
“I hadn’t forgotten, grandmother.”
The Dwarf grinned to himself for all of five seconds until Falene tapped him on the head with her staff. He roared in outrage as the dark brown hair on his head began to smolder and doused the flames with his free drink. Falene stood up to walk over to Ceria as Dawil hurled his mug at her back. It flew towards her head then froze and gently floated onto another table. The Dwarf returned to his table, muttering about half-Elves who couldn’t take jokes.
The Silver Swords, the new adventuring group were spread around the room now and Erin dearly wanted to listen to the conversations all three adventures started. She was extremely interested in them all, not least because they were an almost stereotypical group of adventurers. A half-Elf, a Dwarf, and a Human? If a Hobbit walked through the door, Erin would have to get some autographs.
And it was the Dwarf that Erin was most interested in. He was focused more on food than conversation, and loudly calling for more drinks to go with the shepherd’s pie he’d been served. Erin was working out just how to approach him when Ksmvr did the job for her.
The Antinium had been instructed on some of the niceties of social conversation by the Horns of Hammerad. He demonstrated his learning in the subject now by grabbing his tankard and a half-eaten Ashfire Bee, standing up, walking over to where the Dwarf was seated, and sitting down across from him. The Dwarf looked up at the Antinium and stopped chewing.
Ksmvr stared at the Dwarf intently. He raised one of his hands and waved it.
“Hello. I am Ksmvr.”
The Dwarf stared back at him. After a second he grunted and nodded.
“I’m Dawil. Of the Ironbreaker family.”
He took a long drink from his mug and eyed Ksmvr. After a second, Dawil spoke again.
“You’re one of them Ants, aren’t you? I thought you lot were all murderous killing machines without a thought between ye.”
“I am not. Although I appreciate the comparison.”
Ksmvr nodded happily. Dawil snorted and choked on his drink. He cast one eye around the room, taking in the half-Giant, Selphid, Drowned Man, Gnoll cub…when he returned to Ksmvr he shrugged, apparently resigned to the fact that an Antinium was talking to him.
“What’s that you’re eating? Some kind of bug?”
“It is an Ashfire Bee. Very tasty, especially with honey and butter. Would you like to try a bite?”
The Antinium nodded and lifted his plate so Dawil could see the bee. The Dwarf paused again, but the sight of the half-eaten bee didn’t seem to put him off his food either.
“I don’t eat bugs. Anyways. Isn’t eating one of them bugs like eating your own kind?”
Ksmvr paused as he broke off a bee leg. He thought about this as he crunched it down.
“No. Is eating a cow or a rat cannibalism for Humans or Dwarves?”
“It’s disgusting is what it is. I don’t eat rats.”
“No bugs, no rats…this is very sad. I see you are a Dwarf. Do all Dwarves not eat good food?”
“Not unless we’re starving to death we don’t! I’d rather eat my beard than chew on insects like some half-Elf living in the forest.”
He shot that at Falene. The half-Elf raised her eyebrows.
“I don’t eat bugs, Dawil. That’s a stereotype about half-Elves. Hardly any of us resort to that.”
All of the Horns of Hammerad immediately looked at Ceria. The half-Elf [Cryomancer] coughed and looked the other way. Dawil laughed loudly and then broke off as something buzzed his way. He swatted at it and Apista flew away from his mug. The Dwarf stared at the insect with a mixture of horror and incredulity and then stared at Ksmvr. He pointed at Apista.
“Isn’t that a bee as well? Why is that thing flying around?”
“It is a pet of Lyonette. She works here. It is called Apista and I think, very tasty. But she is off limits for consumption.”
Ksmvr stared as Apista flew away from their table with his mandibles slightly parted in longing. Apista was noticeably larger than the Ashfire Bee that Ksmvr was eating. Dawil stared at Ksmvr.
“A pet? By my beard…and you’re eating one of its kind right in front of it?”
Ksmvr stared at Apista. He slowly raised the bee to his mouth and crunched off another part.
“Yes. That is what I am doing.”
Over her time with Apista in the inn, Erin had noticed that while the Ashfire Bee would hover around sweet drinks and food when they weren’t being attended, it would never go within arm’s length of Ksmvr or any of the Antinium. Now the bee flew after Mrsha. The Gnoll was being carried upstairs by Lyonette, visibly upset and cranky after eating so much cake. Dawil watched the bee go with some relief and turned back to Ksmvr.
“This is one hell of an inn. I’ve been to magical taverns in First Landing and Invrisil and they’re boring compared to this inn. This [Innkeeper] girl—she just lets Goblins and Ants eat here and doesn’t worry about being killed in her sleep?”
“Oh no. Miss Erin is very good at killing things. And she employs one of my kind. His name is Bird and he lives on the roof. By the way, I have never met a Dwarf. Are you happy, being a Dwarf? Is there a special racial advantage to being a Dwarf or are you relatively useless like Humans?”
Erin had to come over at that. She took a seat at the table and smiled at Dawil. He eyed her, probably wondering about Ksmvr’s endorsement of her killing prowess. Erin smiled at Dawil, hesitated, and blurted out the first thing on her mind.
The Dwarf blinked. Ksmvr tilted his head. Erin blushed.
“I mean—sorry, but I’ve never met a Dwarf either! And I didn’t expect you to be so, so…”
Tall. For a Dwarf, that was. Dawil grunted and sat up straight. He was a few inches over five feet in height, which was short for a Human, but far taller than Erin would have expected of a Dwarf. And he seemed amused by Erin’s interest.
“Hah! Not met many Dwarves, have you, girl? Oh wait. You said. Well, I’m a pure Dwarf, don’t you worry on that account! Pure as any Dwarf living, which I’ll grant isn’t what it used to be.”
He rumbled to himself as he took a huge spoonful of ground beef and potatoes and shoved it into his mouth. He chewed, swallowed, and then went on.
“Y’see, I’ve got a bit of Human blood in me. My great, great, great grandma, she was Human, and so was my great, great, great, great, great, great…uh, grampa. ‘Course, my Dwarf side’s too strong to let a bit of Human dilute my true ancestry, but over the years it mixes with our blood. Almost every Dwarf is a bit taller because of that. Not like how we used to be—short and yay-high!”
He gestured, indicating a height around four feet high. Erin nodded.
“That’s cool. Mixed heritage, I get that. I’m one hundred percent Human. My name’s Erin, by the way.”
“Right I heard. Got ears, don’t I? And I already told the Antinium bugger my name. I’m not wearing it out.”
The Dwarf took another huge bite. He wasn’t rude—well, he was—but Erin wasn’t offended by it. He had a rather likable, straightforward personality in fact. Erin grinned at him.
“So you’re an adventurer in the Silver Swords?”
Dawil eyed her as he reached for his mug.
“Do you state the obvious all the time, lass? ‘Course I am! Hey, you don’t have anything stronger here, do you? I feel like I’m drinking water!”
“I have actual water if you want it—”
“Okay then, how does Firebreath Whiskey sound? It’s the only strong stuff I have in stock right now. But it tastes like someone poured habaneros into a sock and mixed it with mouthwash.”
“Ah! A proper drink!”
Dawil brightened. He drained his mug in one go which impressed both Ksmvr and Erin and waved a hand at Ishkr.
“Firebreath Whiskey over here! Give me a full mug and another plate of the potatoes and meat!”
“One for me as well.”
Erin turned as Ksmvr tried to imitate Dawil and nearly drowned from his own mug. Ilvriss was sitting upright, looking annoyed at the lack of company and morose again. Erin intercepted Ishkr before he could deliver the Drake a drink.
“What’s the meaning of this?”
Ilvriss growled at Erin. She put her hands on her hips.
“No Firebreath Whiskey for you, Mister. You came here drunk and you had an entire mug of the stuff earlier. I’m cutting you off.”
The Lord of the Wall narrowed his eyes.
“You can’t cut me off. I am a Lord of the Wall!”
“Too bad. You can have this drink instead if you want. It’s a specialty of the inn. Faerie Flower ale. Here, try it. It makes you feel better. Or worse.”
Erin presented Ilvriss with the special mug she’d made. The Drake took one look at the drink and turned his head away.
“Ridiculous. I won’t settle for an inferior Human drink. If you refuse to serve me, I’m leaving. I have better places to be anyways—”
He moved to rise unsteadily. Erin barred his way and shoved the drink into his face.
“Try it. Come on. You tried the cake.”
“That was different. Wait, is this like the cake?”
Ilvriss eyed the mug again. The Faerie Flower ale was indistinguishable from regular ale…pretty much because it was. The only addition was three drops of the special faerie flower nectar Erin had added. She smiled encouragingly.
“You won’t know unless you try it.”
The Drake hesitated. He took the mug, grumbled about substandard alcohol, and took a gulp. His expression soured, and he was about to shove it back at Erin when his eyes widened. Erin took a few steps back as Ilvriss slowly sat back down.
“And now we wait.”
She muttered to herself as she walked back to Dawil’s table. Erin hadn’t forgotten Ilvriss’ grief when talking about Periss. She only hoped the drink could do for him what it had for Halrac the first time the [Scout] had tried it.
Erin had to pause and close her eyes for a second. The [Scout] hadn’t shown his face in the inn since the night Ulrien had been cremated. But she could only take a moment of her time to think of him. At the table, Dawil was arguing with Ksmvr.
“What? Battle tactics? Strategic maneuvers? What do you think our group is? We’re adventurers! We charge in and sort things out afterwards. I hit things with my hammer, Ylawes hits things with his sword, and Falene twiddles her fingers and shoots sparks at monsters while she hides behinds our backs. It’s a sound strategy!”
“It sounds like the exact opposite of strategy.”
“Which is why it works! Now, what are you—Silver-rank? Dead gods, I didn’t think there were Antinium adventurers. Well, never mind. What you do is, when you see a monster you run at it. Screaming.”
“Yeah. A good old war cry. Then you hit it. Use a Skill if it’s big, and if it’s really big go for the kneecaps. That always works.”
“What if it is a giant slime? Giant slimes do not have kneecaps. I point this out not as an attempt to be confrontational, but merely to question—”
“Slimes? What are you doing fighting slimes? That’s when you get a [Mage] to handle the job!”
“But you said—”
“I know what I said! Remind me!”
“Well, if they had them, it would be a viable strategy!”
It was like watching a comedy duo in action, even better than when Pisces and Ksmvr did it. Erin hated to break up the fun, but she had to. She cleared her throat as she slid back into her seat. Dawil and Ksmvr looked at her expectantly.
“Sorry, but I had a thought. You’re the first Dwarf I’ve ever met, Dawil. I mean, I’ve seen half-Dwarves, but you’re the only full Dwarf I’ve ever seen.”
“Not surprising. My kind live mainly on Terandria and we don’t like travel. Too much water and boats get us seasick.”
The Dwarf shuddered as he reached for a second plate of steaming shepherd’s pie. He had an incredible appetite, but then, he was very muscular and stocky. Erin smiled.
“Well, yeah. But I was thinking…I have this coin you see. It’s well, sort of a mystery and no one can tell me what metal it’s made of. I was wondering…”
The Dwarf paused as she fished out the special coin she’d received. He eyed it, and then glared at Erin.
“What, do you think I know about metals just because I’m a Dwarf?”
He looked mildly outraged. Erin waved her hands frantically.
“Oh, no! No, it’s just—well, yes, actually. Sorry. I just thought that since you’re a Dwarf and uh…if you don’t know, that’s fine. But no one else I’ve talked to has a clue, so…”
The Dwarf grumbled into his beard, but then stuck out a hand.
“Alright, give it here then. Not like I’m a [Forgemaster], but I reckon I know a bit more than any Human or Drake [Blacksmith]…”
“Ooh. I probably should have asked one of them to look at it. Right. Oops.”
Dawil snorted as Erin handed him the coin. It flashed in the firelight as he held it up, not quite silver but pale, reflective. Ksmvr stared at it and the Dwarf grunted, his expression of annoyance growing more intrigued.
“Hold on, that’s not an alloy of silver…it’s got no silver in it in fact. And it’s no alloy. Wait a second…hey, innkeeper! Where’d you get this?”
Erin shrugged self-consciously as Dawil stared at her.
“Um…one of my guests gave it to me as payment. I mean, it was sort of a gift, not proper payment. Why? Is it worth a lot?”
The Dwarf grunted.
“Depends on how you look at it. It’s either priceless or worthless. You see, this metal’s not silver, gold, or any of your common metals like that. It’s pure mithril, or close enough.”
Erin’s raised voice made every head in the room shoot up. Quick as a flash, Jelaqua was at their table.
“Hey, did someone say mithril and Dwarf in the same sentence? I could really use a new flail and armor—”
“Back off, Selphid! No one’s forging you lot anything! I just said this thing’s mithril—no need to get worked up about it! Yes, this is mithril. So what?”
Dawil cleared his throat, realizing he had an audience. Seborn, Jelaqua, and an interested Ishkr were hovering around the table. He handed the coin back to Erin and she held it as if it were magic. Which it might be. The Dwarf was less impressed, though.
“What are you waiting for? The coin to start floating in midair? It’s mithril, I told you! It’s just a metal.”
“But it’s—I mean, its mithril!”
Images of mithril chainmail and magical artifacts were spinning around Erin’s head. Dawil shook his own head sadly.
“Pah. It’s just a bit. You couldn’t make anything out of it—not that I’d want to try. That’s why I said it’s worthless or priceless. Sure, it’s rare to find a coin made purely out of the stuff—I can’t think of how old it must be—but who’s going to want something like that? It’s got no real value except as a collector’s item.”
He was too casual about the coin. Erin held it, trying to feel something out of the metal. All she felt was a bit of stickiness from where some drink had landed on it.
“Still, I mean—shouldn’t it glow or something?”
“It might. Buff it up a bit and it could look better. The coin’s covered in dust and the outer layer’s bonded with enough crap over the centuries. Scrape at it and it might look better.”
Dawil conceded grudgingly. He looked at Jelaqua.
“What’re you looking at, Selphid?”
“You wouldn’t happen to be a [Blacksmith] as well as a warrior, by any chance?”
She looked at him hopefully. Dawil guffawed in her face.
“Me? Do I look like I enjoy sweating in front of a forge fire? Count me out!”
“It’s just that I really would like better gear. I have this flail you see—by the way, I’m Jelaqua Ivirith, leader of the Halfseekers—”
“Oh, I’ve heard of you. Dawil of the Ironbreaker Clan.”
“—right, pleased, and I’d really love some better gear. Seborn’s got enchanted daggers, but no one makes enchanted flails. And I’ve heard that you can get Dwarf-made weapons for cheap. I was told mithril might be a good buy…”
The Dwarf shook his head as Erin sat at the table, polishing her coin with a tankard of water. It didn’t seem to work. She scrubbed hard but concluded she might actually need to scrape at it with a knife or something. That wouldn’t hurt the mithril, right? Or the faint engravings? It was supposed to be hard stuff. Erin went to look for a butter knife. Meanwhile, Dawil was beginning to argue with Jelaqua about weapons.
“Mithril? It’s things like this that make me regret ever leaving home! Every two-bit adventurer comes up to me asking for a magical blade—do I look like I carry a forge around on my back? And aren’t you lot an experienced Gold-rank team? What are you asking me about weapons for? We’re a new Gold-rank team.”
“Sorry. But it’s just that we don’t meet many Dwarves, and you hear rumors. So mithril weapons…?”
“Eh. Steel’s just as good.”
“What? Aw, come on!”
The other adventurers looked at Erin. She was heartbroken, as if Dawil had just punched her in the stomach. She looked so downcast that the Dwarf had to explain.
“It’s just like you beardless lot to think one metal’s best! Mithril? Hah! If you want lightweight armor, sure, use a mithril alloy. But making plate armor out of the stuff? Do you know what that would cost? Plus, mithril’s not all it’s worked up to be. Sure, it’s stronger than steel, but it’s too malleable—you need to cut it with a stronger alloy. Then of course it’s better than regular steel, but for the cost—and forget about putting it in a weapon!”
“Well, if it’s the cost—”
Jelaqua began but Dawil talked over her.
“Not just cost! Unless you’ve got the sharpest blade in existence, you’ll have no weight behind your blows! Mithril’s not worth its weight in gold! Now, a composite metal made by a master is more preferable.”
“Okay, but what kind—”
“Oh, you’ll hear the words ‘adamantium’ and ‘orichalcum’ and ‘star metal’ and so on thrown around a lot, but that’s all rock crap. Real [Blacksmiths] who aren’t trying to take your money will tell you that pure metals are useless on their own. What you want to be asking is what level of refinement they’ve achieved and then asking what kind of alloys they’ll be making with said rare metals. Eh…how much they have on hand is also a good idea. It’s rare stuff and you don’t want to be waiting months for a shipment to arrive.”
Erin saw Jelaqua open her mouth, but the Selphid couldn’t get a word in edge-wise. The Dwarf kept going, as unstoppable as an avalanche. She realized that she might have opened a door she couldn’t close and resigned herself to listening as Dawil went on.
“If they tell you they can work in an adamantium alloy into your armor, well, they’re either lying or Level 50, because let me tell you, I can count the number of times I’ve seen anything with adamantium in it, and I grew up seeing the Old Elders about, and they can forge anything in the world. Not that you’d know it to look at them. Hah, real Dwarven smithing today is all about quality and efficiency. Take Dwarven steel for example. Good stuff will do you just as well as a fancy artifact, and let me tell you, if you want to order well, all you need to do is—”
Sitting and listening to Dawil, Ksmvr nodded repeatedly as the Dwarf kept talking. He was so focused that he didn’t notice Erin, Jelaqua, Seborn and Ishkr edging away from the Dwarf. Neither did Dawil. The Dwarf kept talking as he drank and ate, loudly proclaiming the virtues of metal for all to hear and managing to slip in several insults about Human and Drake craftsmanship while he was at it.
“It looks like Dawil’s started one of his rants about blacksmithing. It will be hours before he stops. For a Dwarf that hates blacksmithing, he enjoys lecturing others about it too much.”
At another table Falene Skystrall lightly observed her companion as she sipped from a cup of wine and cut into one of Erin’s pre-cooked steaks. She had been pleasantly surprised to find out how many different dishes were on the menu, and more surprised at how fast it had appeared. Now she ate with excellent manners, sitting in her chair across from Ceria. And Pisces.
The [Necromancer] had invited himself to the table after washing his hands of cake and neither half-Elf had chased him away. Ceria didn’t have the heart for it and Falene didn’t seem to mind. In truth, Ceria was slightly grateful for Pisces’ presence. She felt awkward in the company of another half-Elf after so long.
Especially since Falene had given her a very traditional, very old-fashioned greeting. She was clearly a traditionalist and she had to be at least eighty years old! True, she looked barely older than her late twenties, but Ceria knew there was a big shift in perspectives depending on the age of a half-Elf. They were half-Human after all, and like Humans, they changed far more rapidly than their distant ancestors had.
“I hope Dawil doesn’t talk your companion’s ears off.”
“He doesn’t have ears, so he’ll be fine. I think Ksmvr’s the only person who’d actually enjoy a lecture like that.”
Ceria grimaced. Falene raised two eyebrows at her, the model of composure. Ceria bit the inside of her lip. Yup, definitely a traditionalist. Falene was the kind of half-Elf who tried to act like she thought true Elves had. That was to say, almost graceful, always elegant, and the voice of logic and reason within any group. You’d never catch her squatting in the bushes after eating something that didn’t agree with her system.
And she was also a [Mage]. A good one—Ceria could tell that just from sitting next to her. Falene had an air of control and power about her that Ceria hadn’t sensed in anyone since Wistram. Well, Typhenous and Moore were powerful too, but there was something about her magical presence that was familiar…
“I am surprised to meet a fellow half-Elf so far from Terandria, sister. Especially in the company of one of the Antinium. That is unheard of. It must have been quite a set of coincidences that landed you in each other’s company.”
Ceria blinked as Falene addressed her. She waited for a beat, and then shrugged.
What was she supposed to say to that? Half-Elves went places. So did Humans. Falene smiled.
“I don’t mean to judge. But it is strange—my party has travelled very, very far in search of Ylawes’ sister. We came all the way to Celum to look for her, then took a detour in Esthelm before heading north again…who would have thought all we had to do was go further south to find her?”
“You could have spared yourself the trip. There’s a magical door that leads straight from Celum to Liscor. You can walk between the cities whenever you want now.”
The other half-Elf’s eyebrows shot up and she cast a glance at the door.
“So that’s what I was sensing from that door. Incredible. I had no idea a magical artifact that powerful had been found. And it’s sitting in an inn? Is this [Innkeeper] that high-level? I didn’t get the impression…”
She was being chatty with Ceria, as if they were friends. Just because they were of the same species. That bothered Ceria…mainly because it was a very typical half-Elven thing to do. Forget Drakes—half-Elves were notoriously insular. And if you were of the same species, you naturally stuck up for one another.
But then—they had to. Ceria sighed. She was just being irritable on purpose. After the news about Calruz and—well, it was hard to meet someone who was like you in many respects but more accomplished. She cleared her throat, trying to adopt a more civil tone.
“No, Erin’s not that high-level, although she’s pretty high. Uh…the door’s there because we gave it to her. My team found it in the Ruins of Albez.”
“Albez—you’re the famous Horns of Hammerad we’ve heard about?”
Ceria and Pisces both coughed and looked away as Falene exclaimed. Pisces looked pleased and Ceria felt pleased and embarrassed.
“That’s us. We got lucky, honestly. We’re a Silver-rank team—hoping to be Gold-rank soon. That door was one of the treasures we obtained you see, and we owe Erin a lot, so it was her take of the treasure…”
Falene listened with interest to Ceria’s account of the events that had led them in salvaging the door from Albez. Adventurers swapped stories as a matter of course, and Ceria was humble enough not to embellish. Especially because she had heard of the Silver Swords in passing, and they were an actually famous group. Most Gold-rank groups made a name for themselves, although Ceria usually only knew the names. Now she tried to recall any of the Silver Swords’ exploits and failed.
“I am quite impressed! And from what I can see, your group is rather unusual. Two out of four of your group are [Mages]…it’s usually the case where there’s only a lone [Mage] unless the adventuring team is quite large. I sometimes wish I had another magic user to help guard my companions.”
The half-Elf sighed and glanced at Ylawes, who was deep in conversation with Yvlon, and Dawil. Ceria glanced at Yvlon—the young woman seemed tense and not quite at ease. Falene noticed her glance.
“Don’t worry. Ylawes is merely concerned about his sister. When he heard her adventuring group had been destroyed in Liscor’s dungeon he insisted we head south right away. It’s taken us weeks to journey from Invrisil.”
“That’s some commitment. I guess that’s family for you. But Yvlon seemed determined not to meet him. Do you know why that is?”
“I think Ylawes is intent on escorting Yvlon back to their home.”
Pisces looked up from his cup and glanced at Ylawes before raising his eyebrows at Ceria. She made a face at him—yes, she didn’t want that, but they were family! Falene looked between the two.
“I’m sure he won’t force her. Or if he does, Dawil and I can talk him out of it. Ylawes is stubborn as a boar, but he can be persuaded. Given time.”
Ceria nodded at Falene in appreciation.
“Seems like you’re a good team. That’s surprising. I’d never expect one of us to be travelling with a Dwarf. Given how much they don’t like us—”
“Bad blood. It’s not as if our animosity is recent. I was more surprised that a Human wanted to journey with me after Terandria. But Ylawes is an excellent leader, and not prejudiced against us in the least. A delightful change from home, wouldn’t you say?”
Falene glanced at Ceria and the half-Elf nodded reluctantly.
“Speaking of home…Pisces is from Terandria as well.”
“Oh, I apologize. I didn’t meant to assume. It’s just that it’s rare to meet Humans who don’t have at least a bit of mistrust of half-Elves. Especially if they’ve grown up in some of the kingdoms…allow me to introduce myself again. I’m a generalist [Mage], although I’ve recently achieved the [Battlemage] specialization in my class.”
Both of Pisces’ brows shot up and Ceria sat up a bit in her chair.
“This is impressive. You have quite the magical flair about you, Miss Falene. May I inquire as to where you studied?”
The half-Elf laughed.
“Why, Wistram of course! I graduated from the academy three decades ago. A lifetime by Human standards. But I remember it fondly, and I count myself privileged to have studied there. So many [Mages] are powerful, but lack the discipline Wistram provides. That half-Giant for instance. Moore? Such a lovely person, but his aura is unrefined. You two on the other hand…”
Falene broke off, glancing from Ceria and Pisces.
“Yes, you two have more focus to your mana flow. Are you students of Wistram, perhaps? Taking a sabbatical? That was all the fashion when I was learning.”
She couldn’t have known how her words would make Pisces and Ceria tense up. The two [Mages] exchanged a glance, and Ceria saw Pisces’ knuckles grow white on his mug. What should she say? There were so many things she could say that were lies and untruths—but would they hurt less than the truth?
She didn’t get a chance to decide. Pisces was the one who spoke. The [Necromancer] smiled, a slight glint in his eyes as he nodded at Falene.
“We are both from Wistram, indeed, Miss Falene. However, you mistake our natures. We are graduates, the two of us.”
Ceria held her breath as Falene blinked. She looked at Pisces and then at Ceria, and then she smiled.
“Hm. Are you? In that case, it seems like the standards have lowered quite a bit since when I last attended.”
Calmly, and quite oblivious to the reaction her words had caused, Falene gently levitated her cup of wine up to her lips and took a sip.
“You should have sent word to me immediately when you were injured. I would have come sooner, but there was a situation with a city—Esthelm. And we stopped to help villages along the way…you should have told me. I would have sent gold, hired a carriage to take you north—”
Ylawes and Yvlon sat at a table in the corner of the inn, removed from the discussions happening elsewhere. The Goblins sat forgotten at their table, watching Ceria and Pisces bristle with interest, their ears perking up as Dawil’s voice droned on. Ylawes ignored them. His only concern was for his little sister.
As for his little sister, she was not happy. Yvlon stared hard at her brother, trying not to envy the shining silver armor that had given his group their name, the family crest etched proudly on his armor and shield that identified him as a [Knight].
He was everything she aspired to be. Everything she dreamed of. But he was not who she wanted, not now. And yet here he was. He’d ridden here hundreds of miles to save his younger sister, to champion the weak and innocent. Like he always did. But she was neither weak nor innocent and Yvlon tried to tell her brother that in no uncertain terms.
“I didn’t tell you because it was my mistake, my weakness that got my team killed, Ylawes. And afterwards, I was adventuring with another team. We had our successes. We found treasure in Albez—”
“And you were injured for it. Your arms, Yvlon! Silver and steel, I’m glad mother didn’t hear of it! All the family knew was that you’d taken some injury that couldn’t be healed by a potion.”
Yvlon closed her eyes, remembering the burning heat that had raced up her arms, the pain, the melting and then—
“Yeah. But I got this injury protecting my team. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
“And I’m proud of you for that. But see reason Yv! We have to get you north. There’s bound to be a [Healer] who can help mend your arms.”
“There isn’t. The metal’s in my bones, Ylawes.”
“Even so. A [Mage], perhaps? Money’s no expense. I have a small fortune and I’m sure father and mother know many people we could reach out to. We’ll have to wait a while for the Goblin Lord’s army to pass by, but we can send word at once and begin asking—”
“I’m not going, Ylawes.”
Ylawes broke off, staring at his sister in disbelief. Yvlon shook her head.
“I’m not going back home. Not yet. I have too much to do here. I’m in a team!”
It took her brother a second to find his voice, and when he did, it was angrily.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Yvlon! You can’t fight with those injuries! With your arms the way they are, any prolonged battle will risk you breaking them again. Or worse! One good blow will—”
“I know that! But so what? I’m not going to be flailing around trading blows with my enemies, Ylawes! I have a sword with the weight enchantment applied to it—a better sword than the one you have! I can fight, even if my arms are weaker than they were. If they break, I’ll heal them—Pisces can repair the bones!”
Yvlon pointed towards Pisces, neglecting to mention the [Necromancer]’s class. It didn’t matter. Ylawes had changed tactics. His voice was soothing now as he stroked at the stubble on his chin.
“Of course you’re right to be proud. A magical sword at your age? Father will be so happy when he hears. But be reasonable Yvlon! You should at least have a rest, or visit our estate. A month of rest and we can go adventuring together. I’m sure your companions won’t mind—why not ask them to come with you? There’s sure to be enough requests around our home to—”
“I said no.”
Yvlon snapped the word loudly, making heads turn in the mostly empty inn. She tried to calm herself.
“Ylawes, I appreciate that you were concerned. But—couldn’t you have asked if I was well before coming all this way to help me? I’m a grown woman, and you don’t need to worry about me. Honestly, I’m as fine as anyone is in this profession.”
The [Knight] looked troubled as he looked at his younger sister.
“Are you, Yvlon? I had to plot a huge course around the Goblin Lord’s army on the way south, Yvlon. And before that—I clashed with one of his raiding armies. They’d already sacked a city and they were coming back to slaughter all of its inhabitants and turn them into undead. This Goblin Lord’s a true threat, Yvlon. I’d heard the Goblins were dangerous, but using the undead? There was one skeleton I met in Esthelm that—”
He broke off, shaking his head. Ylawes turned back to Yvlon.
“I can only hope the army being assembled to the north will be enough to destroy the Goblin Lord and his army completely. I would have ridden myself in answer to Lord Tyrion’s call, but father sent enough forces from our household that will do. I hope. But that just proves my point. You’re in more danger around Liscor—there are Antinium here! Have you any idea what—”
He hadn’t realized Ksmvr was in her party. Yvlon closed her eyes, and then part of what Ylawes had said struck her like lightning. She sat up, cutting her brother off.
“Wait a second, we sent aid to Lord Tyrion? But Lady Magnolia was levying all the city-states around Invrisil!”
“You hadn’t heard? Lady Reinhart sent out a levy, true, but Lord Tyrion did the same. We sent reinforcements to him—as many [Soldiers] and [Guards] as father thought we could afford.”
Yvlon stared at her brother in horror.
“What? Not to Lady Magnolia? Ylawes, House Byres has always supported the Reinharts! Aunt Magnolia is a close friend of mother’s!”
It wasn’t so much what Ylawes said as the way he said it. His gaze shifted and he didn’t exactly meet Yvlon’s eyes as he spoke. She sat, heart pounding as he replied softly.
“Recent events have called her authority into question. There were several assassinations—of [Ladies] tied to Magnolia no less! Father was worried that…well, it doesn’t matter. Lord Tyrion’s levy on the city-states came at the same time as Lady Magnolia’s. So we answered his call while a smaller group was sent to Lady Reinhart. She will have an army, but it will be Lord Tyrion’s that sweeps the Goblins away. Or so father thinks.”
“What? But that would mean you’re supporting Lord Tyrion. While Aunt Magnolia…”
“It’s just strategy, Yvlon. Lady Magnolia did not request for any [Lord] or any [Generals] to lead the army she’s assembling, and she’s no leader herself. Without a high-level commander, her army doesn’t stand a chance. She could hold Invrisil I suppose, but Lord Tyrion is one of our best war leaders. Moreover, he has his own personal army and is creating a vastly superior force to Lady Reinharts’.”
That was true. Lord Tyrion was a famous [Lord]. And yet, he was at odds with Magnolia Reinhart, and she was one of the most powerful figures on Izril! If she wanted an army, she could raise one. Yvlon stared at Ylawes.
“But Magnolia is clearly trying to challenge the Goblin Lord. Otherwise, why would she assemble an army?”
“I don’t know. For defense, perhaps. All of the forces she requested are assembling just west of Invrisil by all accounts. I suspect that the officers of each unit will withdraw around Invrisil to protect it if the Goblin Lord tries to take the city. They’ll protect the citizens.”
“And if Aunt Magnolia orders them to attack the Goblin Lord?”
Ylawes still didn’t meet Yvlon’s eyes. He traced on the table with a gauntleted finger.
“I…suspect they will politely refuse her request.”
She stared at him, open-mouthed. Ylawes looked away.
“It’s not a lack of faith in her, Yvlon. It’s just…strategy. Magnolia Reinhart will have to be reasonable and see sense. She can’t ask the impossible. No one can.”
He said that, but Yvlon knew otherwise. The Reinharts—Magnolia in particular—were not known for being ‘reasonable’ about anything. They got their way. And if they didn’t, what did that say about the political situation in Izril? About the influence of the Reinharts, of Lady Magnolia?
It was all too big. Too far. Yvlon shook her head, putting distant conflicts with other nobles and the Goblin Lord out of her head. She looked at Ylawes.
“Be that as it may, I’m still not going north, brother. I’m staying here. I have a friend that might be in trouble and I won’t abandon my party.”
She folded her arms. Ylawes glared at her and blew out his cheeks slowly.
“I could drag you back—”
“No you couldn’t.”
“By all rights I should write to father and have him order you—”
“He can’t order me. This is a matter of honor, Ylawes. I belong with my group. I swore to fight with them. And besides—there’s a teammate of ours who might be alive. From the dungeon.”
That threw Ylawes. Honor was important to him. It was to all of the Byres family. Yvlon explained about Calruz and saw his stubborn expression change. Ylawes wavered, rubbed at his eyes, and then came to a decision.
“You really won’t come back, will you? I was so sure…”
“No. I won’t.”
Yvlon felt triumphant as she looked at her brother. He was wavering, but he seemed to accept her decision at last. He looked at her with a rueful expression—and then dropped a house on her.
“In that case you won’t be alone. I’m staying too.”
He smiled at Yvlon, a [Knight] in shining armor. She stared at her brother, a famous Gold-rank adventurer, a hero, in horror.
“No. You really don’t have to.”
“Yvlon, I can’t just leave you—if mother heard, I’d be disowned within the hour. I have to stay and protect you!”
“I’d actually prefer it if you go.”
“Stop calling me that. And I swear, if you think your team is going to babysit mine—”
Ah, family love. Across the inn, Erin polished her super-special and probably magical mithril coin with a cloth, watching Yvlon and Ylawes talk. They were clearly engaged in a serious debate. It was so nice to have a brother. Or so she assumed. She wondered what it was like.
And what the heck they were talking about.
Around midnight, Yvlon and Ylawes stopped arguing and rejoined the table. By this point, everyone who was awake was sitting around a table. Ceria and Pisces, Falene and Dawil, Jelaqua—Ishkr, Drassi and Lyonette had all been relieved and Erin was filling a few cups, but all was quiet.
Moore and Seborn had already gone to sleep, and Ksmvr had gone up to speak with Bird. About what was anyone’s guess, but the air in the inn was generally convivial.
Generally. Sort of. Ceria and Pisces sat across the table from Falene, and Yvlon and Ylawes glared at each other like true siblings. Erin happily looked around and noticed Ilvriss slumped at his table, his mug cradled in one hand.
Decisions were being made. Ylawes didn’t beat about the bush as he walked over to his two companions.
“We’re staying, at least for now. We’re challenging the dungeon in Liscor. Apparently there might be an adventurer stuck down there and Yvlon won’t leave until he’s found.”
“I won’t leave anyways.”
Yvlon growled under her breath. Falene looked interested and Dawil pulled himself upright. The Dwarf’s breath was practically toxic with alcohol fumes, but then, Jelaqua usually drank that much as well.
“What’s this about an adventurer? Someone got themselves lost in the dungeon?”
Ylawes related the possibility of Calruz being alive as Ceria shot Yvlon a silent glance over the table. The armored woman gave Ceria a helpless shrug of her shoulders.
The silence that followed Ylawes’ explanation was long. Erin looked around and recalled a similar scene the time Pisces had broken the news.
Okay, so there was a possibility, however faint, that Calruz could be alive. However, and this was a huge however, if he was alive he could be anywhere in a huge dungeon the size of a city. The odds were that he was dead, and the dungeon had killed everyone but the two Gold-rank teams who’d gone into it. And they had to be very cautious as well. Erin remembered days when Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers would come back looking beat on, talking about monster ambushes and traps.
“So this Silver-rank team that might be Gold-rank is planning on finding their missing buddy all on their own, are they? You’re right Ylawes; that sounds exactly like the idiocy you’d get us tangled up in!”
Dawil groaned aloud and slapped his forehead. Ylawes glared at him and Ceria cleared her throat for everyone’s attention.
“You don’t have to help. We can’t pay—not anything worth the risk—and there’s no reward in it. This is our companion. We’ll find him. If he’s alive, he’ll stay that way after so long. If not…we’re working on it.”
They’d been taking requests to earn money for potions and so on, gathering experience. Pisces nodded as he played with his mug and Yvlon’s face was set. The Silver Swords looked at each other as Jelaqua glanced at the ground. Erin knew the Selphid hadn’t volunteered her team.
She couldn’t fault Jelaqua on that. That was the sane decision. Which made the Silver Swords’ one all the stranger. Ylawes looked at Falene, who raised her hand palm up, and then at Dawil, who muttered but nodded. He turned back to Ceria.
“We don’t need payment or a reward, Miss Ceria. The cause itself is enough. Any friend of Yvlon’s is a friend of ours. And if there is truly an adventurer in danger in Liscor’s dungeon, we will do everything we can to help. We, the Silver Swords, champion causes wherever they may be found, regardless of reward or risk!”
He said the words simply, as if they were a fact. He stood proudly as he said them, and his armor glinted in the faint firelight. Everyone else stared at him with open mouths. Slowly, Ceria leaned over and whispered to Pisces very softly.
“Is he…real? Or just completely insane?”
“Addled from one too many hits to the head is more likely. Or perhaps he suffers from some kind of martyrdom complex. No doubt a sad affliction of the [Knight] class.”
He didn’t bother to lower his voice. Ylawes glared at Pisces.
“Helping others in need is simply common sense, sir. If you saw a traveler on the road who was in trouble, would you help them?”
“Would this be a man or a woman? Human? Drake? How rich are their clothes? Is there any danger nearby? How far am I from civilization? What kind of road is it?”
Ylawes stared at Pisces. The [Necromancer] smirked at him and Ylawes looked away, disgusted. Erin clapped her hands, breaking the silence.
“Good! You’re staying. And you’re helping Yvlon! Yay. Now, are you staying here? I have rooms.”
The Silver Swords looked at each other. Ylawes looked uncomfortable as he bowed slightly to Erin.
“My apologies, Miss Erin. But I don’t feel at ease sleeping under the same roof as…Goblins. I would like to use your door to find lodgings in Celum.”
“Or you could go all the way back home.”
“That’s okay. I think the Goblins don’t like you anyways. Sorry, but that’s how it is.”
“Ah—yes. I’m…glad that we can all feel comfortable.”
Ylawes stumbled over his words and turned back to the others as a whole.
“I must apologize for my conduct earlier. I was not aware of the…peculiarities of this inn. However, as Yvlon’s older brother I thank you most sincerely for aiding her. She is of House Byres, and a credit to her family. I hope that you will all continue to aid her in the future.”
Yvlon covered her face with her hands, blushing. Ceria and Pisces exchanged a glance. Jelaqua raised a mug.
“I’ll drink to whatever that was! House Byres, huh? I knew Yvlon came from a rich family, but I didn’t know she was nobility! Fancy that.”
“We’re not a famous House, actually, Jelaqua. Far from it. We’re minor and we don’t get political. Until now.”
Yvlon glared at Ylawes as she spoke. He nodded.
“House Byres has always supported itself with a healthy business in silver. We have a mine…and several of our family are [Merchants]. Some, like Yvlon and myself follow the family tradition of taking up arms to defend the common people.”
“Wow! You’re like a real [Knight] family, huh?”
Erin looked approvingly at Yvlon. She scowled.
“In decline. Ylawes and my other siblings help provide for the family, but we’re not rich, Erin.”
“In the past our family used to be richer. Alas, there’s less call for quality silver now, which is one of our main exports. In the past of course, we were a household name, but the disappearance of the Vampires has reduced our estates too—”
“Did you say Vampires?”
Erin was at Ylawes’ side so fast she could have teleported. The [Knight] blinked at her.
“Um, yes. Vampires. Indeed. They used to be a scourge on Izril and had several large infestations that were wiped out over the centuries. Our family, House Byres, was famous for rooting them out. And our silver was a key component of their destruction. It used to be said that if you wanted to survive a Vampire attack, you would wear a necklace of Byres silver.”
Pisces muttered under his breath. Ylawes scowled at him. For once, Yvlon seemed to appreciate the [Mage]’s remarks. She shook her head as Erin looked disappointed.
“Vampires are gone, Erin. Or if they’re around, there’s not thousands of them like there were. My family’s well-enough off, even if some of us are more protective than they should be.”
She glared at Ylawes, and Falene smiled. She looked at Erin, one hand resting on her staff.
“That is House Byres for you, Miss Erin. They are rather infamous locally. Honorable, prolific, and stubborn as mules. I believe that’s what’s said behind their back.”
Erin laughed as both Yvlon and Ylawes turned to glare at Falene. She smiled and looked around.
“Well, I guess I have more regulars in the inn, even if you’re not staying here. That’s cool. I’ll show you guys how to get through Celum and back—it’s really easy, but I have to make sure you don’t trip over any of Octavia’s stuff when you go through the first time. She’s an [Alchemist].”
She showed the Silver Swords how to get to Celum as the others went to their beds. It was late—so late that Octavia was asleep, which was lucky. A midnight sales pitch was the last thing Erin wanted. She went to sleep happy, but exhausted, in a silent inn.
[Magical Innkeeper Level 33!]
And then Erin sat up and remembered Ilvriss was still there.
“Darn it, I forgot I spiked his drink!”
She looked around her dark kitchen, wondering if she should wake the Drake up from whatever memory he was seeing. But then she decided it wasn’t worth the effort and went back to sleep.
“A brother coming to rescue her, huh? That’s nice. But I wonder what’s up with Lady Magnolia? And the Goblins? It sounds…not good.”
Erin’s eyes slowly closed. She went to sleep, dreaming of Goblins and silver and flying spaghetti monsters. Because it was a dream after all.
And in the inn, slumped over at his table, Ilvriss spoke one word.
He knew he was dreaming. Ilvriss could tell by the little clues. The windowless room, the way there was no real smell, no sense of beginning or end to this place, and the tiny Corusdeer leaping about the table in front of him. He stared at them for a few seconds before looking up.
There she was. Even if it was a dream, it was the only one he’d ever want to have. Periss, his second-in-command, his secret lover, stood across from him. She was standing over the table, which was in fact, a map.
It was the most realistic map in the world. A little world, the map of Izril surrounded by the ocean, had been replicated in minute detail down to the very trees on the table. Animals too. Ilvriss could see herds of tiny Corusdeer bounding across the melting snowy landscape, and a miniature Hollowstone Deceiver, a Rock Crab, snagged one and tore it apart in a bloody mess as he watched.
The map was in fact a replica of one of the magical map rooms in the Walled City of Salazsar. It was depicting the Goblin Lord’s forces as he moved steadily northwards towards Invrisil. It seemed remarkably accurate for a dream map.
Ilvriss didn’t care. He only had eyes for Periss. But she was studying the map intently, not looking up at him. She brushed a claw over the light blue scales near the spines on her head, a gesture so familiar that Ilvriss could have wept.
“I heard you Wall Lord, there’s no need to shout.”
Periss looked up with a slight frown. Ilvriss would have run over to her, but he couldn’t move. He was fixed in place on the other side of the map. He stared at her. She was so real! In this place, she was the only thing aside from the map that had any presence. And the dream had copied her down to the last detail. The faint odor of her body, the smell of her armor and the polish applied to it, the sounds her claws made as they faintly rasped against the map.
So real. It was pain, seeing her. Ilvriss would have strained to move, but in this dream, he couldn’t. He couldn’t try. It was a dream rule, and he was powerless. So he spread his arms.
“Periss. Come to me.”
The Drake woman didn’t look up from the map. She was tracing the path of the Goblin Lord, frowning. Ilvriss raised his voice.
“Periss! Come away from the map! I want to touch you. I want to hold you. It’s been so long—”
“It will have to be longer, Wall Lord. We have business here, or have you forgotten the Goblin Lord?”
“Damn the Goblin Lord. I don’t care about him or the Humans.”
Ilvriss spoke urgently. Periss looked up for a moment and smiled—his heart leapt in his chest.
“Neither do I. But they are potential threats. Just look here.”
She traced a claw along the Goblin Lord’s route. Ilvriss saw black smoke rising from a collection of burnt houses, fresh.
“He’s been destroying villages, one small town…but avoiding all of the cities, even the ones he could take. He’s conserving his forces, trying to move fast. Why? To avoid a Drake army coming from the rear? Or something else?”
“And here. He’s going to hit Invrisil unless he turns. The Humans are assembling a force to stop him, but will it be enough? Magnolia Reinhart’s not known for her prowess in battle. Whereas Tyrion is assembling a force here, but it won’t be in time to save Invrisil. If the Goblin Lord attacks.”
It was agony seeing Periss standing over the map. Ilvriss tried to move again and failed. She went on, focused, gnawing at a lip as she did when she was thinking hard.
“It could all be open-and-shut if the Goblin Lord is defeated. But what if he’s not? I know there’s a small force coming to defend Liscor and another army coming north. If they’re needed, if the Goblin Lord isn’t stopped by the Humans, we’ll want to be ready.”
“Who cares? Let it all burn. Just come to me and I’ll leave it behind.”
Ilvriss would have damned his home to ash and fire just to reach out for her in that moment. Periss looked up and glared at him.
“Don’t say what you don’t mean. Look, it’s all predictable, unless the Reinhart woman has a trick up her sleeve. Her army might be able to fend off the Goblin Lord, but never destroy his army. Not without a leader. The key is what General Shivertail knows. Why did he disappear? Unless…no, he wouldn’t do that. Would he?”
It didn’t matter. None of it did. Periss was here, but she was ignoring him. Ilvriss collapsed onto the floor. He begged out loud, he who had never begged before.
“Please, Periss! Touch me. Come here. Speak to me!”
He shouted the last words, cursing the dream he was in, this nightmare, this cruel torture. There was only silence in reply. He wept, clutching the map table, feeling the ocean and land crumbling under his claws. And then he heard a voice.
Periss walked around the table. Disbelieving, Ilvriss looked up. She knelt, and then slapped him.
He gaped. Periss was no weakling. She was a trained warrior and her blow made his head ring. She hit him on the other cheek and Ilvriss reeled.
“Get ahold of yourself!”
She shouted at him. Ilvriss raised his hands to the real, stinging pain in his cheeks. Periss glared at him.
“I’m dead for less than a month and this is what you’re reduced to? You’re not the Drake I chose to follow, the leader I fell in love with! You drink and abandon your duties? Because of me?”
“Stop saying my name like that.”
She glared at him and Ilvriss recalled that she didn’t like him saying her name, even in private. It was always [Lieutenant], then [Captain], and so on as she rose in rank. She disapproved of flirting before the battle was over, too. It was business while they were in the middle of a battle.
Suddenly, Ilvriss was conscious of how drunk he was, of how dirty his clothes were—clothes, not armor. He’d stopped putting it on. While Periss was in her armor, in the prime of her life, ready for action. He felt ashamed and looked away.
“Ancestors, look at me. Look at how I’ve fallen apart. No wonder you look at me like that. I am worthless.”
He sunk downwards in misery. Of course she hated him. This was what he’d become. Instead of avenging her he’d chased Ryoka this far, failed to stop Az’kerash’s minions from taking two lives, and then given up. The Necromancer. The grief had hit him too hard.
Now he had lost it all. Ilvriss couldn’t look at Periss. He heard her sigh in exasperation, and then felt a touch. He froze as she clumsily drew him towards her. Periss had never been one to hug, and so her embrace was crude, and uncomfortable as he pressed against her armor.
But it was real. Oh, so real.
“I know it was hard after I died. But you can’t keep doing this.”
“I know. I know you did.”
“I fought Periss. I tried, but—you are gone! Gone and I am alone.”
“I know. And I’m so sorry.”
She was here. In that moment, Ilvriss forgot decorum. He forgot his station and his appearance and began crying as if he were a hatchling. And Periss held him as she had never done, but as she would have if he had cried. Ilvriss clung to her, feeling her heartbeat. And he begged the world for this moment to continue, even in his grief. Another second. Another moment.
“You can’t waste away. You have a future and more importantly, a duty.”
The Lord of the Wall wept into her arms, clutching at her, feeling the realness of her body.
“I know! I know, but I can’t let you go. I can’t continue—”
“Of course you can. And you will.”
Periss gripped him on the arms, hard, looking into his eyes. Ilvriss grasped at her.
“I can’t just forget you and move on. I cannot, Periss. I—”
He couldn’t finish. The weight of moving without her, of waking from this dream and knowing she was gone was too heavy. Periss looked at Ilvriss and sighed, as if he was an idiot. He’d heard that sigh before, too. He’d used to hate it.
“You don’t have to forget me. I’d be insulted if you did. But you have to stand up. Your people need you. I need you.”
I need you. What choice did he have? Ilvriss stood, though the effort cost him more than words could say. He looked into Periss’ eyes, holding her. And in his heart he knew the dream was ending.
But not yet. Please, a moment longer. He had something he had to say. Ilvriss drew Periss closer and kissed her. She wasn’t good at that either. Neither was he, but it was genuine, real. And then he confessed his sins, the weight of his heart.
“I wanted to say sorry. To ask for forgiveness.”
She looked at him and laughed in his face.
“What forgiveness? For sending me after a lone Human girl? That was a sound decision. Although sending all those elites after me wasn’t. You should have kept the rest back so you could defeat Shivertail.”
Ilvriss blinked at her, surprised. But then he laughed too.
“You know what I mean!”
“Maybe I do, but the strategy was sound. And that’s what matters. You couldn’t have known. Now you need to move forwards. You know what the enemy looks like, where he is roughly. You know, and you can protect your people.”
Periss held Ilvriss, pointing towards the map. He looked and saw the undead rising around the Goblin Lord’s army. For the first time, hot fury flickered in his heart, drowning out the sorrow.
Then it faded. Ilvriss looked at Periss and held her tightly. She wasn’t fading or disappearing, but he sensed his time with her was ending.
“Don’t go. I have so much I want to do. So much I want to say.”
She raised one brow at him.
“As fun as it might be, I don’t think this is the right place for a tumble together. Maybe some other time.”
He laughed against his will.
“Will I ever see you again?”
She looked at him tenderly, and one of her claws intertwined with his.
“Maybe. If you have more of that strange drink Erin Solstice gave you, perhaps. But I’ll always be here.”
She pointed to the war map, the living continent of Izril, their home.
“Because that’s what you need to focus on. Not just the southern half. All of it, Ilvriss. And this inn in particular. There’s more for you to see, more to do. I can’t do anything anymore. But you can.”
Ilvriss closed his eyes. The weight of his duties fell upon his shoulders, but this time he could bear it. He had to. He spoke to her, feeling her claws in his.
“I swear I will. I will protect our home. I will find the Necromancer and make him pay. And if the Goblin Lord threatens, I will protect our people. I won’t slip back again Periss. I swear it.”
He felt a kiss. When he opened his eyes, she was gone. But the memory remained. And as Ilvriss turned he opened his eyes—
And woke up. Ilvriss jerked upright at his table, and the nearly-empty mug of Faerie Flower ale tipped over. He grabbed for it and looked around.
It was pitch black in the inn. The fire was ash, and everyone had gone to sleep. Ilvriss stared at the mug, and then clenched his hand. He could still feel her, still hear her voice.
Had it been just a dream? The Human girl, Erin had said—was it magic? A drug? Something more?
It didn’t matter. Ilvriss looked around the room. He was so tired. And then he looked into the mug. There were just dregs left.
Oh well. It would have to do. Ilvriss closed his eyes, and then sat up. He raised his mug and spoke into the silence. His voice echoed in the empty inn, coming back to him.
“To war. War, ever changing, always taking…to war. It’s the Drake way. And I—”
He drank and let the mug fall onto the table. The dream didn’t come back, but he hadn’t really expected it to. Ilvriss looked around, blinked, and then toppled off his seat. He slept on the floor, tears trickling from his eyes. His heart was bitter, sore, and broken. But it was there, and it beat on, reminding him he was alive. Ilvriss slept and whispered her name as the map and colors and the promise of battle whirled in his dreams.