Zel Shivertail was dead.
Four words rocked the world in the first days of spring. Like wildfire, the news spread across Izril and then to every continent in the world at the speed of magic. Zel Shivertail had fallen. The Tidebreaker had been slain. The legendary Drake hero of both Antinium Wars had been killed in battle—and by a Goblin Lord, no less.
The world was vast. There were countless nations, hundreds of minor [Kings], any number of [Generals], self-proclaimed heroes and adventurers, figures of renown whose names were known only locally, in one country or a handful of cities. But there were also Named Adventurers, and world leaders, famous [Lords] and [Ladies] and Archmages whose names were known even in lands where they had never set foot. Zel Shivertail was known to the world. And his absence left a hole in the imagination.
He was dead. A Goblin Lord had slain him. In Izril, in the north, the Humans who heard the news were stunned. Not only had the mighty hero of the Drakes fallen, but the power of Magnolia Reinhart, one of the leaders of the realm had been shattered as well. Her army fled the field in disarray, striking a political blow whose effects would ripple from that event for months.
Yet, if the Humans were stunned, it was the Drakes, the people who had grown up associating Zel’s name with history who were truly devastated by the news. When his death was first announced there were riots across southern Izril, pandemonium in the streets. The next day there was only silence. And tears.
The Gnoll tribes were similarly affected by Shivertail’s death. However, instead of making their reactions public the majority of the tribes withdrew from sight. Massed Gnoll howls dominated the plains, and they too mourned. Zel Shivertail had been a friend to their kind, if not their hero.
The Human cities were relatively calm as they weren’t caught up in the loss of a national hero, but fear was the undercurrent that ran across the continent. A legend had fallen. The veil of safety had been torn, and now Humans, Drakes, and Gnolls alike feared what the Goblin Lord might do next.
That was Izril. Across the world the reactions of other species were muted. They did not know the Tidebreaker except as a name. However, those who understood strategy or had a grasp of world events felt the significance of his departure. That a Goblin Lord, a single Goblin Lord, however mighty, had felled a Drake [General] of that level was cause for alarm. To be that young and that mighty meant he might well be another Velan the Kind, or worse, a Curulac.
The leaders of other nations faced the very real possibility that a Goblin King might arise once more in their lifetimes, and the small Goblin conflict in Izril became a much more serious topic of conversation. Plans were hatched. Diplomacy begun. But such were the machinations of only a few.
After all, it was only politics. The rest of the world did not wait overlong after hearing of the fallen Drake [General]. A moment of shock, a pang of regret or fear, and the world kept moving. Zel Shivertail’s death was news, but to the common man…or Lizardman…or Drowned Woman…or Selphid, Zel Shivertail’s passing was just news, a change in the wind.
But return to his home continent and the reaction was far different. Zel had been known. He had been loved. And he would be missed.
Across Izril, there was mourning.
Erin Solstice woke up at dawn because she was used to it. She stared at the ceiling of her kitchen and then turned over. There was no point to getting up. No one would be awake. Or if they were, they wouldn’t be hungry. Erin lay in the tangle of sheets that was her bed in the kitchen of her inn and just lay there for a while, not quite awake but unable to return to sleep.
In the end she got up. Erin wandered around her kitchen. She opened a drawer, pulled out a toothbrush, towel, and some of the simple toothpaste they used in this world. She brushed her teeth, gargled, realized there was nowhere to spit, and walked outside.
It was cold and wet and the mud and grass squished between her bare feet. Erin paused, stared at her feet, and then walked to one side into a pile of snow. It was dirty and mostly melted. Erin walked back in, scraping her feet against the welcoming mat she’d put there for this very occasion.
She washed her feet more thoroughly with some water from a bucket when she got back to the kitchen. Erin wandered back into the common room of her inn and sat at a table. Her stomach rumbled, but she ignored it.
After a few minutes she heard a faint shuffling sound from upstairs. She looked up and on cue a young woman holding a white ball of fur descended the stairs. Lyonette looked like a ghost. Erin immediately got up and went over to her. She hugged Lyonette silently. The two stood like that for a minute and then Lyonette went over to a table. She put the ball of fur on top of it.
The small Gnoll didn’t move. She lay on the table, looking like a white ball of fluff. A large one. She’d grown a bit since she first came to the inn, as children did. But she was still so small. So young.
Erin patted the Gnoll cub on the head. Mrsha twitched, but made no other sound. There had to be a limit to how much despair, how much sadness someone could feel. Erin knew Mrsha had loved Zel.
And now he was gone. Unconsciously, Erin looked around. It felt like yesterday that the Drake [General] would be sitting at a table, eating pancakes, talking with Lyonette, teasing Mrsha and offering him some of her food.
And he was gone. Just like that. Dead, having fought the Goblin Lord hundreds of miles from here. It didn’t seem real.
It had been three days since the battle at Invrisil. Three days since Olesm had burst into the inn in tears and Erin had heard the Gnolls howling, heard the horns blaring from the walls of Liscor and Selys’ scream.
Three days. It still felt like she was dreaming. Erin busied herself by taking some food out of her pantry for Lyonette and Mrsha. Oatmeal, seasoned with honey. Mrsha refused to eat. Lyonette tried to feed her, but gave up when the Gnoll refused to move. She only ate half her bowl herself before pushing it away.
“I’ll give the rest to Mrsha when she’s hungry.”
Erin realized she hadn’t eaten either. She ate a bowl of porridge mechanically as more guests came down the stairs.
Ceria waved tentatively at Erin, her face bleak. Erin waved back. The porridge was hot, filling, and some part of her craved the sweetness and warm food. But the rest of her felt sick from eating.
People walked down the stairs. A half-Elf. Ceria. A young man in white robes who was uncharacteristically silent. Pisces. A black-brown ant man with three arms. Ksmvr. A woman in silver armor. Yvlon.
The Horns of Hammerad. They accepted bowls of porridge as Lyonette got up to serve them and ate quietly. They left quietly, too. They were keeping busy with requests. Small hunts, extermination of small monster nests. Erin understood. It was keeping active that matters. Dwelling on things hurt more.
“Is that porridge I smell?”
Someone else came down the stairs after the Horns of Hammerad had left. Jelaqua Ivirith, pale-skinned, her body dead, slightly ravaged by combat and the damage she had taken, walked downstairs. The stitching around her forehead looked slightly…loose. The flesh appeared pallid. Rotting. She only smelled a bit and covered the scent with a strong lavender smell. Erin didn’t mention it.
“There’s porridge. Are Moore and Seborn…?”
“Coming. We’ll be in the dungeon today. Probably be back around noon, though. Don’t want to push too far and we haven’t seen Griffon Hunt for a while so…”
“Got it. I’ll make lunch.”
The Selphid smiled quietly, looking tired. Sure enough, Erin heard Moore’s heavy tread and turned her head to see Seborn, the Drowned Man, slipping downstairs. He was quiet as a shadow and his crustacean half—and his claw-hand—didn’t impede his progress at all. She served him porridge as well as a small bucket of water to keep him hydrated. Then she got out a huge bowl for Moore.
“Thank you, Miss Solstice. You’re too kind.”
Moore always said the same thing. Erin smiled up at him, for a second before her features flickered back to empty blankness. The half-Giant was huge as he sat around the table with his two teammates. He looked at Mrsha with concern as the Gnoll lay on her table. The half-Giant’s face twisted with tender concern. Then he noticed the large bee that flew across the room and landed on the Gnoll’s head.
Apista, the Ashfire Bee waggled her antennae as she walked over Mrsha’s head. It was her habit to rest on top of the Gnoll and she did so now, oblivious to the Gnoll’s grief. Erin eyed the bee, but forbade comment. Lyonette put out some honey in a small saucer and the bee crawled towards it.
This was the morning in The Wandering Inn, Erin’s home and place of business. It was subdued, quiet, and Erin had experienced the same morning for three days now. She finished her breakfast by taking a tray and heaping it with five large bowls. Not quite as large as the mixing bowl she’d used for Moore’s breakfast, but certainly oversized portions.
She filled each with porridge, added five tankards of weak ale, realized that was too much to carry, and let Lyonette take the drinks. Erin walked over to a hatch by the kitchen and opened it with one hand. She called down into the darkness, sensing rather than seeing the figures below.
“Breakfast’s here. Porridge. You want to come up?”
In the shadows, a Goblin shook his head. Erin nodded and passed the tray down. Green hands rose to take it. Sitting at their table, the three adventurers eyed Headscratcher as he took the tray carefully from Erin and walked back down the stairs. Lyonette handed the drinks to Shorthilt and the Goblins disappeared into the basement.
Goblins. Hobgoblins, to be exact. Erin was grateful they hadn’t come up. The Redfang Warriors had been tactful these last few days, barely going above when there were people around. They understood the mood in the inn, crazy as that might seem.
Crazy? Erin frowned as she sat back at a table. No. They were Goblins, but they were people too. They could understand grief. And they were smarter than they seemed.
“I’m going to the city, Lyonette. I’ll be back with food for lunch.”
Erin walked silently to the door, finding her boots and putting them on. It was muddy outside and slippery. She walked out of her inn, tromping through slush and staring up at grey skies overhead. Winter had passed. Spring had yet to begin. The world was dark and grey and miserable. It was perfect weather for a day like today.
The walk to Liscor was short and uneventful. Erin didn’t think of much, but she amended her opinion of the Goblins as she entered the city. Even if they weren’t socially aware, they’d have to be idiots not to sense the mood in the city.
Black banners flew on the battlements as Erin walked through the western gates. She saw they were all at half-mast. The [Guardspeople] at the gates and on the walls made no sound as she entered. She thought the Drake [Guardswoman] at the gates was crying.
The streets weren’t silent as Erin entered. They never were. But there was a quiet nonetheless. No one laughed or shouted here. Erin walked past houses, seeing flashes of blue on each door.
Erin hadn’t known this, but Zel Shivertail’s crest or family symbol was a sprig of blue flowers, curled like a tail. As she walked through Liscor she saw blue flowers everywhere. There was so much demand that some [Traders] and [Shopkeepers] were ordering alchemical dyes to color other flowers. They were selling them for silver pieces on the street.
She had her own bouquet on her door. It was carefully arranged by Lyonette with Mrsha’s help, a splash of color in the muddy landscape and melting snow. It felt small and worthless to Erin. Everything did.
There was not silence in Liscor. But the sounds were worse than silence. Drakes, normally stoic and reserved, wept openly in the streets. Erin saw them standing in groups, talking quietly, touching each other, heads bowed. Some just stared blankly ahead. Others looked at her and then turned away.
Gnolls also walked the streets, in fewer numbers, but they were just as subdued. No tails wagged and they went about their business quietly. They had not lost an icon of their people, but they also grieved. Erin saw more than half of the shops that were normally open at this time were shut, their windows shuttered.
Three days, and Liscor had yet to recover. Erin could remember the days after Skinner and the undead had attacked the city. They had not been like this. During that time the city had been noisy. Full of grief and lamentation yes, but noisy. She remembered the people moving about, some weeping for the fallen, others trying to repair, rebuild. It was not like that this time.
The Goblin Lord had not killed a single citizen of Liscor. He had not damaged their city. But he had killed their hope. He had ripped away part of Liscor, part of the soul of the Drakes. Perhaps if Zel had fallen on Drake lands it would have been different. But no, he had died in the north, at the head of a Human army. And that mattered.
There were very, very few Humans on the streets. Erin walked quickly, head bowed. She was trying to get across the city without incident. She failed. She was walking down a large street when something hit her on the side. She jerked, turned, and ducked as a second clump of mud and snow flashed by her face.
“Goblin lover! Traitor!”
A Drake with light purple scales raised his fist and shouted at her. Erin raised her hands as he threw another clump, but his aim was bad. He missed and a splatter of mud hit her on the cheek.
“How dare you! You Humans are what caused all this! You and your damn cowardly kind! If it hadn’t been for you—”
He choked on the words. He was young, perhaps a year or two younger than Erin. She backed away from him as he advanced.
He was angry. And she was a target. Worse, Erin had Goblins in her inn. That was a known fact. Erin saw other Drakes turning their heads. Many gave her looks akin to the one the mud-throwing Drake had given her. Thankfully, none of them joined in the shouting, but neither did they stop the Drake.
“Your kind should be kicked out of the city! We should burn that damn inn to the ground with the Goblins inside! You race-traitor, you pathetic, damned—”
He was coming. Erin’s pulse accelerated and she braced herself. The Drake didn’t look like a [Warrior], but he was angry and Drakes had sharp claws. She didn’t want to hit him. If she did, the street might turn on her. But if she didn’t—she turned, ready to run.
“Come back here!”
The angry young Drake was quick. He ran at Erin, claws clenched into fists. Erin turned, realizing she wouldn’t get away. She braced herself, ready to take a hit first before she hit him back. The Drake was nearly on her when a hand yanked him off-balance. He stumbled, and Erin turned.
A Drake with light green scales and a huge, muscular body caught the purple-scaled Drake. He grinned at him, showing off his pointed teeth. He had a [Guardsman]’s armor on—a mixture of steel and leather, and carried a spear in one hand. He grinned at the smaller, younger Drake.
“Hi, I’m Relc.”
The Drake blinked at him. Erin blinked too. Relc waited a heartbeat, and then head-butted the other Drake. It was so fast that Erin didn’t have time to blink twice. The other Drake wobbled, and then fell over.
Relc raised both his hands over his head like he was a wrestling champion and then looked around. The street was staring at him. He waved at a group of Drakes.
“All taken care of! No need to worry! Senior Guardsman Relc is on the job! Hey, Erin, help me move this guy over here so a wagon doesn’t roll him over, huh?”
He lifted the Drake and with Erin’s help, dragged him to one side of the street. Erin stared at the Drake as Relc casually laid him down next to a building and then at Relc.
“Um. Aren’t you going to bring him somewhere?”
“What? Nah, here’s good enough. He’ll wake up in a bit with a sore head. It’s not worth bringing him to the barracks.”
Relc straightened, casually dusting his claws off. He grinned at Erin.
“Good thing I was here, right? Lots of Drakes are angry at you. But we can’t attack Humans randomly! That’s against the law. I think.”
He grinned cheerfully at her. It was such an alien expression that Erin didn’t know how to react to it. She stared at Relc and then at the Drake.
“Um. Thanks. I hope you don’t get in trouble for hitting him, though.”
“What? Nah, nah. I won’t get in trouble. Probably. I was doing my job. Defending the innocent and all that. Hey, what’s with the long face? How’s the inn going? You still have all those Goblins there, right?”
Relc shook his head. He looked around, more animated than anyone Erin had seen all day. He fidgeted, shifting his weight from one leg to another, and then scratched at his stomach. He eyed Erin furtively, with a surreptitious look he probably thought she didn’t notice.
“You doing good in that inn? Lots of inn-like things happening?”
Erin stared blankly at him. Relc nodded. He bounced on the heels of his feet, looked around, and lowered his voice.
“Uh, got any plans for lunch? I’m kinda hungry and I thought I might drop by if you have something good to eat.”
He misinterpreted Erin’s blank stare.
“It’s just that, y’know, there’s a lot of restaurants closed right now and all the guys in the taverns tell me to shut up when I’m eating. And your place has good food, so…”
“You want to have lunch at my inn.”
Erin said it like it was a question. Relc stared at her.
“Well yeah, that’s what you do, right? Food? Inns? Have you stopped serving food? I’ve got money, I can pay—and I won’t cause trouble with the Goblins. Promise!”
The Goblins. Erin stirred. This wasn’t the first time her keeping Goblins in the inn had caused trouble. She hadn’t dared enter the city on the first day. A small crowd of Drakes had chased her away. She’d asked Bird to watch out for trouble for that reason. He’d had to chase away four Drakes already at night. She looked at Relc, remembering.
“You just want food?”
“And you’re not going to cause trouble? Really?”
She scrutinized his face. Relc stared at her, perplexed.
“Hey, I don’t cause that much trouble! There are plenty of taverns I’m still allowed to drink at!”
Erin wasn’t convinced. She remembered how Relc had attacked Rags before. And that had been Rags, and that had been before Zel Shivertail had been killed by a Goblin. Her throat closed for a moment and Erin had to pause. Relc waited, uncomprehending, almost insultingly energetic. At last he frowned, sensing Erin’s hesitation.
“Why can’t I come over? Don’t you trust me? Hey—are you still mad at me? I thought I got a pass after Christmas! I got a present from Santa, didn’t I?”
Christmas. Erin nearly laughed at the memory. She controlled the impulse and glared at Relc.
“You did. But as I recall, you hate Goblins. And I have Goblins at my inn.”
Relc stared at Erin. She waited, and then gave up.
“So you’re not planning on attacking them?”
“Why would I do that?”
Erin bit her lip. Relc’s wide-eyed look of confusion was annoying her. She began to feel angry rather than numb. She snapped at the Drake.
“Because you did it last time! You hate Goblins!”
“And you kicked me out. I want lunch. I’m not going to cause trouble now. Duh.”
The Drake spoke as if it were obvious. Erin folded her arms. He sighed.
“Really? Fine. I won’t cause trouble, I promise.”
The Drake grumbled. He fidgeted, spun the spear in his hand and nearly hit Erin on the head, twitched his tail back and forth, and then answered while avoiding Erin’s eyes.
“I miss the inn, okay? And I’m hungry. I can handle some damn G—I won’t cause trouble again. Okay?”
Erin stared at him. Relc looked away and the scales around his cheeks turned slightly red.
“You really miss the inn?”
“‘Course I do! It’s got pasta and blue fruit drinks and fun stuff! It was fun to—look, I don’t have to go. It’s just that—it’s the Goblins, right? I can handle them. Really.”
“But I thought you’d be angry at them. You know, with Zel—”
Erin broke off. Relc’s tail drooped and for a second he lost his energy.
“General Shivertail? Yeah. You’re not wrong. I mean, the entire city’s depressed. I bet the other cities are all like this. Those Goblins…but that’s the thing, right? Those Goblins aren’t your Goblins.”
Relc scratched the spines on his head, trying to explain.
“Well, I mean, they’re not the Goblins who killed General Shivertail, right? Those are probably the only Goblins that I’m sure didn’t do it. So…they’re innocent. Sort of. You keep saying not all Goblins are alike, right? I know those Goblins didn’t do anything. So I can handle being around them.”
It was possibly the most logical thing Relc had ever said. Erin gaped at him. Relc looked uncomfortable.
“Nothing. I just thought you’d be angrier. At the Goblin Lord. But that’s—”
“Oh, the Goblin Lord? We’ll kill him. Don’t you worry about that. He killed General Shivertail so we’ll hunt his entire army down and cut his head off, put it on a pike and mount it over the General’s grave.”
Relc grinned, showing all his teeth at Erin. He didn’t loom, and he didn’t make any provocative gestures, but in a moment his eyes changed. He went from friendly Relc to someone who had killed and was imagining killing. Erin felt a slight chill, but she kept her face straight.
“You think the Drakes will really do that?”
“We’re already forming another army to deal with him. You think we’ll trust the Humans to do it? No—he’s dead. Him and his entire army.”
Relc’s gaze darkened. Then he caught himself and grinned at Erin again, trying to sound light.
“But like I said, your Goblins are uh, okay. I won’t pick a fight with them if they don’t bother me. Just get me a seat facing the wall maybe. So…what do you say?”
His tail wagged hopefully. Erin paused. She still felt like a ghost, a specter without feeling. But the sight of Relc made her feel grounded in a way she hadn’t felt like in days. He looked alive. Alive, and not gripped by despair. She couldn’t help but ask him about it.
“You’re really more energetic than everyone else, aren’t you? I thought you’d be angry or sad about Zel—I mean, General Shivertail.”
Again, Relc paused, and again, Erin saw his tail stiffen. But whatever sorrow possessed him had a fleeting presence. Relc smiled crookedly and yes, sadly, as he played with the long spear in his hands.
“Of course I’m upset about General Shivertail. He’s a war hero, a legend. He was, I mean. But he died in combat, y’know? It happens. I drank myself silly three days ago, and then the day after and today…well, I feel better. I know everyone else is still upset, but there’s not much I can do for the General. He’s gone.”
The Drake shrugged his broad shoulders, glancing around to see if anyone else had heard. He edged a bit closer to Erin as he continued in a low voice.
“Besides, he was a warrior, a [Soldier]. That’s how most of us go out. We don’t die in bed. And even if your buddy dies, even if you lose a friend, a brother, a [General]…life goes on. You know? You can’t mourn forever. You march on and someday the pain goes away. Well, mostly.”
Relc paused and coughed, looking embarrassed. The ghost named Erin stared at the Drake, and she felt her body warm. She blinked. And then she smiled.
“Huh. That was sort of smart. Okay, let’s have lunch. My treat.”
Relc did a double-take as he scratched his tail. Erin smiled at him, feeling her facial muscles strain slightly with the motion. But the smile stayed, and it felt—oh, it felt good to smile.
“I’m sure. Come on—I’ll treat you to a meal on the house. And I’ve got alcohol now. You want Firebreath Whiskey? I’ve got an entire keg of the stuff and it’s nasty.”
“Oho! Things do change for the better! And it’s on the house you said? Is that because I saved you from that Drake? You can kick him if you like. No? Where are we going?”
Relc followed Erin down the street. She walked with a spring in her step. Just a small one, but it was there. Erin felt like she was waking up and for once, Relc’s chatter helped. He followed her, tail wagging like a dog, pestering her with questions as his stomach rumbled loudly.
“Does that mean one plate, or two? Can I get a free refill? How about an extra helping?”
“You can have a few plates for free. And I’ll refill your drink if you don’t break anything.”
She smiled. And that smile illuminated the street. Perhaps it didn’t stop the tears of a Drake child. Perhaps it made some of the passersby angry that she could be happy while they were not. But perhaps it did help in some way. It certainly helped her. She talked with Relc as they walked down the street, two living people in a city full of ghosts.
“Really. Do you like pork belly? I’m told Gnolls like it so I was going to pick up some from a [Butcher] Krshia knows for dinner.”
“Pork? Give me a belly, tail, liver, whatever! I’ll eat it raw! Wait. Don’t give me a tail or liver. And I’ll eat it cooked.”
“Okay. But I might need you to carry it.”
“I can carry a pig!”
“Awesome. And how do you feel about milkshakes?”
“Say what now?”
The inn was quiet, like a wake, like a funeral. It was silent like the grave. It was a place of quietus, the silence of a passing soul hovering over it, casting a shadow on every action. Lyonette sat at the table, next to Mrsha, staring blankly ahead. She could hear the Gnoll’s belly rumbling, but Mrsha had refused all offers of food and Lyonette had given up trying after a while.
There was no one in the inn. Well, the Goblins were there, but they were staying in the basement. The adventurers had left and neither Drassi nor Ishkr were coming in. Erin had given them time off. It wasn’t like there was any business, anyways.
General Shivertail was gone. Zel was dead. Lyonette felt like someone had torn out her guts. She couldn’t believe it. She sat, remembering every time she’d talked to him, every time he’d made her laugh or she’d smiled or—the inn was like a crypt, like a mausoleum, like a sigh, a last goodbye—
The door slammed open. Lyonette jumped and the ball of fur and Ashfire Bee both jolted. Insect, Gnoll, and [Princess] looked up in alarm as Erin Solstice barged into the inn, arguing with a huge Drake carrying a huge package of meat wrapped in wax paper.
“I said, get rid of the spear! It’s dangerous and you always poke people with it!”
“I can’t go anywhere without it, Erin! I’m a [Guardsman]! A Senior Guardsman! And I get lonely without a spear. It’s my security spear! I need it to sleep!”
Relc protested as Erin took the meat from him. He clutched his spear possessively as he edged towards a table and saw Lyonette, Mrsha, and Apista.
“Oh hey! You’re that thief-girl! And there’s the weird Gnoll kid, and—is that a bee?”
He stared goggle-eyed at Apista, who fanned her wings warningly at him. Lyonette just stared. Mrsha did too. Then they saw Erin approaching. The [Innkeeper] smiled at them, looking strangely upbeat.
“Hey Lyonette, get some plates out! I’m making lunch and I could use some more water. Oh, and Mrsha honey, if you haven’t had anything to eat, get ready because I’m making pork belly! It’s going to be delicious, so you wait right there, okay?”
She gently touched Mrsha on the nose. The Gnoll stared at her. Lyonette did too. She rose, feeling her legs protest the sudden motion and hesitation before going over to Erin.
“Um, Erin. What’s going on?”
Erin beamed at her. She was already moving into the kitchen before Lyonette could ask another question. Erin spread the choice cuts of pork over the counter and whipped into action. Oil? Spices? She thought she’d make a pork belly sandwich. That sounded very lunch-like, and she had a lovely spread of condiments. Even some mayonnaise! Mrsha would love that, although it was a royal pain to make the stuff.
There was no sound in the inn except for Relc calling for a drink and Lyonette hurrying to get him one. Erin began to hum to fill the silence. Yes, that was what her inn needed now. Noise.
Relc was right. Strangely, he was. There was a time for sadness, and a time for not-sadness. Erin knew she’d continue being sad, so she made an effort to be happy, if only for a moment. There was always time to be sad, but happy? She was good at making people happy.
Noise. Erin clattered around with pots and pans, lighting fires, shouting at Lyonette that they might need more pepper, and felt the inn stir a bit. She began heating up the oven. Apparently, you needed to prepare pork belly ahead of time with spices and stuff. Erin had never made it before, but her [Advanced Cooking] Skill had warned her of the time requirement. Thankfully, there were Gnoll [Butchers] who sold pre-prepared pork belly. The spices looked good and Erin scraped them off before shoving the meat into the oven for some cooking.
“I’m hungry! How long until I get food?”
Erin shouted at Relc from the kitchen. She heard an anguished cry.
“Maybe more! It’s not even past morning yet! Hold on—I’ll get you some snacks!”
Erin finished setting up her kitchen and came out with some bread and soft brie cheese for him. It was a very nice and aromatic cheese from some place called Vaunt. Apparently, they made really high-quality cheeses and Erin had been lucky enough to get some when she’d been in Celum.
“Ooh! Cheese! Is this free too?”
“Yep! But if Mrsha asks you have to share!”
Erin winked at the Gnoll and saw Mrsha stir a bit. Relc eyed the Gnoll child and protectively encircled the bread and cheese with a claw. It was the worst thing he could have done. Mrsha got up, padded over, leapt onto his table and stared at the food. Relc looked at her, grumbled in his throat, and passed her a heel of bread. She began to eat.
There were ways to cure a broken heart, or make it stop bleeding. One of them was food. Food, and other people. Erin had learned this lesson long ago, and she put it into place now. Lyonette arrived with two buckets of water and hesitated before going over to Erin as she prepared lunch. The young woman had a saucepan full of sugar, cream, and milk on one of the stovetops and was grumbling about a lack of ice.
“Oh, Lyonette. Good timing! I need some ice. Can you get it? It’s about the only thing that doesn’t last in this inn. I might need to buy a freezing rune after all.”
“I can do that. But Erin—are you sure it’s time for such a big lunch? I mean, it’s so much and…”
Lyonette eyed the production on the counter. Erin paused, turned and saw the [Barmaid]’s face. Lyonette looked blank and lost, much like Erin had been. The young woman thought for only the merest fraction of a second before winking and nodding her head to the common room.
“I know it’s soon Lyonette, but…we’re cheering Mrsha up. She needs to eat, you know?”
Lyonette’s gaze refocused. She blinked, and like Erin, woke up. She nodded at Erin and slapped herself lightly on the cheeks.
“Of course. She hasn’t eaten all day and she barely touched supper. You’re making that ice creamed thing again? I’ll get some ice.”
“If you see the Halfseekers, tell them we’re having food in an hour! And if you see that grumpy Drake, tell him he’s invited too!”
Lyonette paused at the door as Erin shouted after her. Relc was busy fighting over the last slice of bread with Mrsha. Erin poked her head out of the kitchen.
“I am not a grumpy Drake.”
That was the first thing Ilvriss said upon entering Erin’s inn. The Lord of the Wall glanced around Erin’s inn with his customary sneer, but he didn’t insult her immediately on walking inn. Erin thought that was as close as a ‘hello, good morning’ as she’d get.
“Okay, you’re not grumpy. But you are stuck-up. Do you want a pork belly sandwich with mayonnaise or without?”
The Drake turned up his nose-holes at the sandwich Erin presented him, but she could see the way his eyes followed the glistening sandwich packed with pork belly, fresh veggies, and slathered generously with mayonnaise. He put on a long-suffering sigh as Erin served him the sandwich and only picked it up when her back was turned.
It was gone by the time Erin came back. She looked innocently at the empty plate with a few crumbs.
The Drake tried not to meet her eyes as he drummed his claws on the table. He instead frowned at Relc as the Drake lay in a mini food coma at his table. He’d eaten four huge sandwiches.
“I see your clientele is as unkempt as ever.”
“What, Relc? He’s a friend. And he cheered me up so don’t be mean. You’re like his boss or something, right?”
Relc sat up slightly at the same time as Ilvriss’ brows wrinkled. The Wall Lord answered for both of them.
“I would not have a soldier like that in my army. I am a Lord of the Wall of Salazsar. That [Guardsman] is a former [Soldier] of Liscor. I have no authority over him except in the most dire of situations. Thankfully.”
“Yeah, and I don’t take orders from—hold on, I think the fourth sandwich is coming up—”
Relc covered his mouth with a claw. Ilvriss looked away in disgust and Erin laughed.
“I told you not to scarf them down! Anyways, Ilvriss—”
“Ilvriss. I was so down and Relc cheered me up. After Zel—”
She broke off. Sitting at her table, eating a smaller sandwich, Mrsha’s ears suddenly flattened and the Gnoll dropped her food. Lyonette, who’d taken over the churning of ice cream, came out and Ilvriss looked at his claws. The Wall Lord didn’t weep, and his eyes didn’t glisten. They were hard as they stared at the table. But Erin saw the feeling buried beneath the gaze.
“Yes. Shivertail was…a fine [General]. I regret letting him leave the city. If he’d only taken a few Drake soldiers instead of that Human army he might have—he will be avenged, I promise you that.”
The Lord of the Wall turned his gaze towards Lyonette and Mrsha. The Gnoll stared at him. She looked at her food and pushed the plate away, but before she could curl up again Lyonette was there. She stroked Mrsha’s head comfortingly and whispered to her.
“I know, I know, Mrsha. It’s alright. It’s going to be alright. You heard the Wall Lord, didn’t you? Keep eating. You need to eat! Who’s a lovely thing? You are! Do you want Erin’s uh, special new food? I’m sure it’s sweet!”
“Very sweet! It’s liquid ice cream!”
Relc shot up from his table. Erin made up for her slip by disappearing into the kitchen and coming out with some lumpy milkshakes in cups. Mrsha looked up, sorrows forgotten by the promise of something new.
Erin teased Ilvriss. The Wall Lord sniffed. He took one gulp of the milkshake, put it down, and pushed it aside.
“There is a such a thing as too much sweet, you know.”
“Not in my book!”
Relc was downing his milkshake with record speed. He got halfway through his cup and clutched at his head.
“Gaah! The pain!”
Erin laughed at his brain freeze and then frowned at Ilvriss. She handed Relc the milkshake instead.
“You don’t like sweet stuff, huh? You liked the milk with honey.”
The Drake gave her an arch look as Mrsha lapped at the milkshake and her tail began to wag again. She had to fight with Apista to have the drink—the Ashfire Bee was buzzing excitedly around the milkshakes and Lyonette had to shoo her away.
“I am a connoisseur of food. I appreciate sweet food in moderation, Human. This has all the subtlety of a bag of sugar mixed with milk, which I highly suspect it is. Serve me another half a sandwich and a quality drink. Goat’s milk will do, I suppose.”
Erin grumbled into the kitchen and grumbled out just in time for the door to open. The Halfseekers walked in, looking dispirited and tired. Jelaqua had an arrow sticking out of her shoulder, but they all brightened as they saw and perhaps sensed the change in the inn.
“Hey, is that food I smell? Let me at it!”
Jelaqua waved and grinned at Erin. Erin stared at the arrow. The Selphid noticed and grimaced.
“What, this? Arrow trap, don’t mind me. It’s barbed so I don’t want to get it out yet. Poisoned too, probably. Seborn missed it.”
“I did apologize. I told you something was off about the corridor.”
The Drowned Man looked apologetic. Jelaqua rolled her eyes as she sat at a table and peered at the milkshake Relc was holding.
“Yeah, that’s why I went first instead of you two. ‘Always send a Selphid first’, remember? This body’s nearly done for anyways. Hey, what’s that stuff the Drake’s drinking?”
“It’s sugar. Sweet sugary cold stuff.”
Relc dreamily grinned at Jelaqua. Ilvriss snorted. The Selphid glanced at him and then raised a hand.
“One of those for me! Seborn, Moore?”
“I’ll try it.”
“None for me. But I will have whatever’s for lunch.”
The half-Giant and Drowned Man sat at the same table, and Erin was soon bustling around, asking how the dungeon trip had gone. Ilvriss sat, looking grumpy, chewing on his sandwich, but as Erin had observed, deliberately being here rather than elsewhere.
“Thisissogreat. I’llhavethiseveryday. Ilovethisstuff.”
Relc was vibrating in his seat after his second milkshake and Erin decided he’d had enough. Unlike Ilvriss, Relc couldn’t get enough of the drink, and only her finite amount of milkshake stopped him from racing into the kitchen and running off with the entire batch.
“I bet you could sell this on the streets and you’d earn a bit. It’s good—although it probably is the wrong season for it. I’d love this in the summer.”
Jelaqua commented as she sipped at her milkshake. Relc nodded rapidly and repeatedly.
“Why don’t you sell this stuff more often? It’s great! Beyond great! I’ll buy it all the time! I’ll buy it every day! Why isn’t this on the menu everywhere?”
Erin made a face at Relc as she handed Lyonette a handkerchief. The [Barmaid] cleaned Mrsha’s face as the Gnoll scarfed at her food, appetite restored.
“Because it’s expensive, Relc. I’d have to charge a lot for it—and the price of sugar keeps going up!”
“Right, right. Because it’s got to be shipped here and it’s winter. Sugar comes from Baleros and all that. Damn.”
Whatever sugar high Relc was on slowly subsided as the Drake stopped shaking. He had an amazingly quick metabolism. Ilvriss just snorted. When Erin looked at him he dismissively pushed his plate back.
“That drink is disgusting. It might sell well among Humans with no palate and a few Drakes with similar deficiencies—”
“—But it is no drink for the people. You would do well to avoid selling it, except to children and the easily-satisfied. However, I will give you credit for your other creations. That condiment you used on the sandwich. What is it?”
“Is that a Human creation of some kind?”
“Sort of…I think only I make it. Why? Does it make my inferior Human cooking good?”
Erin smiled at Ilvriss. He stared haughtily at her.
“It is acceptable. I will collect the recipe from you before I leave the city. I’m sure my personal [Chef] will be able to adapt it more suitably into his cooking.”
“Sure, sure…but it’s a trade secret on how to make it! No one else knows. I think. So I could charge you!”
She’d meant to tease the Drake, but the Wall Lord didn’t blink twice.
“Only naturally. And if you would keep your mouth shut about the creation of this mayonnaise, I would offer an additional fee. It would be a suitable surprise for me to entertain my guests with when I return to Salazsar. I will have one of my aides discuss the matter with you.”
The [Innkeeper] faltered. Jelaqua sat up and whistled.
“Ooh, [Lord] money. Nice!”
“It is customary to secure new inventions and developments ahead of time. You Humans might not grasp the idea of secrecy, but even small creations are a political tool to be employed at will. The difference between a successful banquet and an unsuccessful one can be worth a war’s gains in the realm of politics.”
Ilvriss informed the room at large with his haughty tone. Erin blinked at him and stared down at the pot of mayonnaise in her hands.
“Whoa. Mayonnaise diplomacy. I’ve seen everything.”
Lyonette giggled and Mrsha smiled as Erin lifted the mayonnaise high overhead theatrically. Jelaqua snorted, Seborn ate quietly, and Moore smiled. Ilvriss just scowled while Relc laughed and asked for a fifth sandwich.
This was The Wandering Inn. It wasn’t perfect. Some of its guests were missing, but in that moment it was whole again. The shadow of Zel’s passing lingered, but for a brief second there was sunlight peeking out behind the clouds. And then someone opened the door.
Not the door to the rest of the world, to the floodplains of Liscor. No, it was the door on the far wall, the magical door. Erin turned her head, wondering if Octavia was hungry or if a guest had come in from Celum. However, instead of seeing the [Alchemist]’s shop she instead was blinded by a sudden flash of bright sunlight. Loud horns and drums suddenly echoed in the confines of the inn, and she saw a tall figure standing in the doorway. Half-blinded, Erin shielded her eyes and then exclaimed as she recognized the door opener.
The Courier stood in the daylight, his vest stained with sweat. He looked windblown, covered in dirt, but he seemed alive, burning on a runner’s high. The Rabbit Beastkin’s fur was dark and he was still breathing heavily. There were tears in his eyes. He stood in the daylight, on a stone ground, and the sky was blue and bright behind him.
He was somewhere else. Somewhere hundreds of miles away, yet he was connected with the inn through the magic of the door. Erin stared as she heard the distant drums beating and horns blowing. It sounded like there was some kind of celebration or—Hawk stared at her through the doorway.
“It worked. Dead gods.”
His voice was rusty and he coughed as he spoke. Breaking out of her reverie, Erin went to the door. She spoke through it, peering through the other side. She could see houses behind Hawk. He was in a city. No—if he had opened the door that meant—
“Hawk, is this…a Walled City?”
The Courier blinked at Erin. He nodded slowly.
“That’s right. I arrived in Pallass this morning. I didn’t know—I hadn’t heard about the General until then. After that…I found this spot and set up the door like you said. It took a while to figure out how to activate the stone that Pisces gave me. But it worked.”
Someone whispered the words behind Erin. She stared at Hawk, not quite sure she was hearing him right.
“So this is a Walled City? I mean—”
Just like that. Erin stared through the door. It had opened, and suddenly—it was another city. Hawk nodded. He looked tired, but he still seemed surprised as Erin.
“I can barely believe it. I knew that was what you wanted, but—Erin, I ran for the last four days to get here. It wasn’t my fastest run, but I’m a Courier. And now I’m staring at you—that’s one major magical artifact you’ve got here.”
“Wow. I mean—yeah. I knew that, but—a Walled City? Pallass, you said?”
“Pallass! So your door works as you claimed, Human. This is excellent. Extraordinary, even.”
Ilvriss strode towards the door, inspecting it, staring at the place where Erin’s inn stopped and the other city began. Erin stared at the sky. It was the same sky, the same time as far as she could tell, but the sky was bright and blue here. There was no threat of rain around Pallass. It was stunning to see.
“Mind if I come through? I could use a place to sit and rest.”
Hawk gestured to the door. He would have stepped through if Ilvriss and Erin weren’t crowding through. Erin moved aside and them remembered and hopped back in place.
“Hold on! The inn doesn’t have enough mana or whatever to let the door transport more than one person at a time! I think that’s what Pisces said. If you come through, we have to wait twenty four hours.”
“Really? Damn. I suppose there had to be a catch.”
Hawk sighed. Erin hesitated and raised a finger.
“Well, you can come through. I just meant that if you want to go back you have to wait—”
“Oh. In that case—”
“I will be using this door first. I commissioned this new portal, after all.”
Before either Erin or Hawk could react, Ilvriss strode through the door. He walked into the streets of Pallass and looked around.
Erin shouted after him. She raised a fist and shook it at Ilvriss.
“You can’t do that! You jerk! What if Hawk wanted to come back?”
The Wall Lord turned back to look at Erin. Hawk stared at the Human, askance.
“Um, Miss Erin—”
“I hardly need your permission to use the door I paid access for, Human.”
“That was a deal to let you go through, not monopolize the door!”
“Erin, did you just—”
“I required a route back to my home city of Salazsar. The conditions I specified were quite generous. You gave me access to this magical door of yours and I would not only pay you for the use of it, but hire the Courier to install your doorway in Pallass. Which, I might add, is still a long distance away from Salazsar itself.”
“Yeah, I get that, but Hawk could have had a break! Now we have to wait for the door to recharge! And what are you going to do without your aides?”
“About that. Miss Erin, Wall Lord Ilvriss, have you noticed—”
“I will survive on my own for a day. And I am not used to being addressed like a fool. Understand me, Human. You may have satisfied some of my requirements with my inn, but the needs of a Lord of the Wall take far more precedence than—”
Both Erin and Ilvriss turned. Hawk stared at both of them and cleared his throat.
“I appreciate the two of you are arguing, but have either of you noticed where you are?”
Erin looked at Ilvriss, confused. He looked back at her and then at Hawk, looking irritated at the delay. Then he paused. He stared at Erin. Erin stared at her feet.
Her feet. They were on stone. Not wooden floorboards. Erin stared down at the smooth, paved stone at her feet. She was standing on a massive block of stone—rather like sidewalk, actually, but smooth-cut. It was cream-colored, only slightly grey and dirty from the passage of many feet and years. Nice stone, in other words.
Definitely not part of her inn. Slowly, Erin looked around. She saw blue skies, tall stone buildings and other, newer buildings of wood. She heard the pounding of drums, trumpets sounding some kind of marching music. And then she turned and looked back at the doorway.
The empty, plain doorway that was set into a stone wall. There was a wood door there, with a gem set in the center of the door, the same mana stone that Pisces had attuned to the door back in Liscor. And in theory, the doorway should be showing Erin’s inn, ready to let someone step through to the other side.
In theory. That theory fell apart if the door was out of mana, however. It only had enough to carry one person across from Liscor to Pallass. Or…perhaps Pisces had been wrong and it was two. And perhaps, just perhaps, Erin had stepped through the doorway to harangue Ilvriss.
Erin stared at the blank doorway. She stared at Ilvriss. The Lord of the Wall had a very, very curious expression on his face as he stared at the blank stone wall and at Erin. She thought he was trying with all his might not to laugh in her face. She looked past Ilvriss and up at Hawk. The tall rabbit man stared at her and at the blank doorway with chagrin written all over his face.
“That recharges, right? Tell me that recharges.”
“It does! It does! I just takes a, uh, day.”
Erin hastily reassured him. Hawk nodded slowly. He looked at Erin and at Ilvriss, and squared his shoulders. Then he coughed.
“Right. Well. Miss Solstice, Wall Lord, welcome to Pallass, north-most of the Walled Cities.”
He gestured helplessly around the city made of stone. Erin scuffed at the ground. There wasn’t much to see here—Hawk had set the door in an alley. But she heard the drums, heard the horns, and in the distance, the sounds of many voices cheering. She stared at the blank doorway leading back to her home, chewed her lip, and then shrugged.
“Aw, what the heck. I like new places. You said this place is called Pallass? I always wanted to see a Walled City. Let’s go exploring!”
She walked out of the alley. Hawk choked as he stared at Erin, and then back at her door. Ilvriss stared at Erin’s back in shock for a second and then stomped after her.
“Hold on! I go first! Are you completely unaware of protocol? And why did you follow me through—”
“Shut up, shut up! It was an accident, okay?”
Hawk heard the two arguing as they walked out into Pallass. He stared longingly at the door and poked the wall through the doorway as if hoping it would restore power to the magical artifact. Then he shook his head and hurried after the Drake and Human.
“No one pays me enough for this job.”
And then Erin was there, in a Walled City. Just like that. It was sudden, unexpected, but it was real. It had happened. And there was no going back. The world was slightly different for what had passed. She could be shocked about it, but only for so long. This was how things were. It had happened.
Just like that.