A light rain pattered down on the roof of The Wandering Inn. Rain, after so many weeks of snow. It was a pleasant sound, and reminded Erin of her world. After all, rain was rain. Some things were the same.
More than a few things, actually. Erin was in another world. A world full of monsters and magic, terrors and wonders. And yet, somehow Erin still found herself filling out forms. It was reassuring and slightly depressing to know that bureaucracy didn’t change across species.
And paying fines. That seemed weirdly familiar too. Not that Erin caused trouble when she’d been back in her world. Okay, maybe she’d gotten a few lectures about setting up lemonade stands inside a school cafeteria, but this?
Twenty six gold coins. In truth, Erin paid only eighteen gold coins as both Watch Captains had added in four gold coins from their pockets, but that was still a lot. The coins disappeared into a pouch at Watch Captain Venim’s side as he stood up.
“Paperwork’s done. I have the coins and I’ll slip this into the approved files tonight. We should see progress tomorrow morning. Watch Captain Zevara, I’ll leave things to you over here. Miss Solstice, I’d expect to receive a [Message] spell by way of Liscor within the week—two or three days from now if I’m a judge.”
Watch Captain Venim headed for the door and Erin got up. She replaced the mana stone attuned to Pallass and the Drake paused before stepping through.
“Thank you again for doing this, Miss Solstice. I apologize for the inconvenience and the fees.”
“Eh. I caused you a lot of trouble so there’s no hard feelings. It’s got to be hard running a Walled City, right?”
She smiled wearily. It was late—going to Pallass and her adventures there felt like a lifetime ago. Venim nodded with a rueful expression on his face.
“You have no idea. And your inn isn’t even the worst of the problems I have to deal with if you’ll believe that. At least it seems well-defended. I can tell the Assembly of Crafts that having a Gold-rank team present most of the time will deter anyone taking the door, including our own forces.”
“Don’t forget the five Hobs in my basement.”
Erin grinned. Venim’s smile slipped and vanished. He stopped, one hand on the door handle.
“Scale rot, I forgot. The Goblins.”
He covered his face with his claws. Erin’s smile disappeared as Venim walked back to confer with Zevara. The sense of relief in the inn trembled under the weight of this new complication.
“There is no precedent for having monsters within Pallass, authorized or not. There are strict laws about allowing monsters to enter the city or keeping non-sentient ones as tamed animals, though. We could argue that the Goblins won’t enter the city, but they pose a risk the council might not ignore…I’m not keen on the idea either.”
Venim glanced at Erin and Zevara as he spoke. Erin hesitated, and it was Zevara who answered with a grimace.
“Don’t bother trying to talk her out of it, Venim. I’ve had the same arguments and she won’t budge. This is technically an autonomous holding within Liscor’s radius of authority, but we’re not pushing the issue and I doubt Pallass will get any further.”
“But this is highly—you’re telling me she has Goblins in the inn before and you haven’t considered—can’t they just be—”
Zevara kept shaking her head and eying Erin. Erin eyed her right back, her arms crossed.
“Those Goblins are innocent. They don’t cause trouble, and they have yet to hurt anyone. They saved me from goats.”
Venim stared at her.
Zevara nodded. The Watch Captain from Pallass blanched a bit.
“Ancestors, the things you lot have to deal with over here—those are the same ones that bite even when you behead them, right? Well be that as it may Miss Solstice…”
“No, Captain Venim.”
He glared at Erin, vexed. She glared back, ready to fight on this issue. The air around Erin heated up and Venim edged back in his chair. He looked at Zevara and she gave him a complicated shake of the head and impatient gesture with her chin. This time the Watch Captain’s sigh was loud and unhappy.
“Fine. Stop using your aura Miss Solstice. I’ll try to gloss over that fact with the Assembly of Crafts. The Gold-rank team here does help. If I can claim them as security—I don’t suppose you pay them to guard your inn? Even a copper coin or two would help justify it as…”
He gestured helplessly at the paperwork. Erin shook her head.
“Nope, sorry. But I do have an Antinium Worker with a bow on the roof of my inn. That’s good security, isn’t it?”
Venim covered his face with his claws. Zevara patted him on the back.
“Antinium. Oh, that’s just what I need to convince them. Well, I’ll do my best. I’m leaving before you tell me you breed Shield Spiders as well.”
Erin watched the Watch Captain go through the doorway. It was dark in Pallass too, although there was no rain in the Walled City. She saw Venim talk to a few figures down the alleyway, nod at her, and close the door. She plucked the mana stone from the door as soon as it was closed.
There was silence in the inn. Erin turned and saw Watch Captain Zevara stretching out her arms and rubbing at the spines on her neck. She looked tired.
“Think it’ll work?”
The Watch Captain looked up. Zevara shrugged, looking tired but slightly hopeful.
“It should. Pallass’ Assembly of Crafts may be arrogant, but they’re not fools if they’re in charge of a Walled City. I think. Those Goblins throw a bit of a problem into the mix, though. If you’d just…”
She trailed off, shaking her head in resignation. Erin looked around her inn. Yes, her Goblins. The reason why her inn was deserted rather than filled with bodies. And it would have had some business even this late at night if Erin had been open. Her inn had been—had begun to be—known as a place with good cooking, interesting events, friendly service, and magic dishes. It had been popular.
But she’d opened her doors to Goblins and so she was a monster. Maybe it was because of the Goblin Lord. Or because they were Hobs. Probably it was both. Either way, her Goblins had driven away business.
Her Goblins. As if she owned them. And Venim thought they might be a security risk? Erin shook her head. The Redfang Warriors stayed out of sight, living in the basement, rarely using the outhouse—being as unobtrusive as possible. They were trying. Even now they were below, and Erin wondered how long they’d been cooped up in the basement.
She looked towards the trap door leading to the basement. It was dark in her inn with the fire burning low. Still, Erin could spot the trap door shift a tiny bit downwards as she stared. Her eyes narrowed and her lips quirked upwards.
Zevara hadn’t noticed. The Watch Captain was staring at her empty mug. When Erin turned to her she stood up.
“Thank you for the drinks. Here—”
She fished around in her money bag but Erin waved it away.
“You already spent four gold coins. That’s a lot. Drinks are on the house.”
Awkwardly, the female Drake nodded at Erin. She stood in the inn and Erin fidgeted. It was funny, well, sort of. Erin and Zevara had only ever really met when Erin was in trouble, and their encounters had generally been one or both sides shouting at the other.
“Lots of rain today.”
Erin coughed and commented weakly. Zevara blinked and seemed to take in the rain for the first time. She scowled, her expression sharpening unexpectedly.
“Rain? Damn, I hadn’t noticed. Did it start after I arrived here?”
“Yeah. Oops, you don’t have an umbrella, do you?”
“A what? Oh, you mean a parasol? Why would I need one of those? I’m hardly a [Lady] or pampered noble—I have an oiled cloak or I would if I’d thought ahead. I’ll run for it. It’s just water.”
Zevara grimaced. She cocked her head, listening to the sound of the rain drumming on the inn’s roof.
“It always sneaks up so quickly. Between the dungeon and the Goblin Lord we haven’t been preparing at all. I’ll have to rouse the Watch and check the walls…couldn’t this have waited another week?”
She groused. Erin didn’t really understand.
“What’s the problem? It’s just rain?”
Zevara turned, clearly annoyed, and paused as she considered Erin.
“You’ve never been here during the spring, have you, Solstice?”
Bemused, Erin watched as Zevara groaned and covered her forehead.
“No one told you what happens during the rainy season? Ever? Ancestors, well, at least you’re in the right place. If you were living in one of the valleys it would be a disaster. And your inn is Antinium-built. They know what needs to be done.”
She nodded at the walls of the inn. Erin stared at the walls. Had the Antinium done something to them? What happened when it rained?
“Look, I need to be up with the dawn and I can’t explain it now. Ask Klbkch or Relc or anyone from Liscor what the rains mean. And keep your Goblins in the basement. They haven’t caused trouble so far which means I haven’t had to do more than warn people not to go to your inn and cause trouble. So long as they’re hidden people should tolerate them.”
The Watch Captain strode to the door, adjusting her armor and peering out at the rain and cursing. Erin, who had been still wondering about this mysterious rain phenomenon, frowned suddenly.
“What do you mean, keep them out of sight?”
“Exactly what I said, Human. Out of sight, in the basement. That’s sensible of you. No one wants to see Goblins right now. Not after General Shivertail. The last thing I need is a mob attacking your inn to get rid of the monsters.”
Monsters. Erin frowned at Zevara. It was late, she knew, and she was grumpy. But she looked over her shoulder at the trap door to her basement and knew she couldn’t let that go.
“They’re not monsters. They’re people who think. That’s the point.”
The Watch Captain stopped, her back towards Erin. Her posture said she didn’t want to have this conversation, but she replied anyways.
“If you say so. Just keep them out of sight. If not—”
“What? You’ll be leading the mob?”
Zevara turned, her eyes flashing. She stared hard at Erin. Did a bit of smoke escape her mouth? It was quickly lost in the rain.
“No. But I won’t be able to protect you.”
She turned and strode out of the inn, disappearing into the rain before Erin could reply. Disgruntled, Erin mumbled into the sudden silence.
“You never did.”
Annoyed, Erin cleared the table of mugs and scrubbed at a beer stain. Keep her Goblins below? The nerve of Zevara! Never mind that her words made sense. But they only made sense if you thought of Goblins as monsters or animals. People shouldn’t be confined! They shouldn’t be—
Erin passed by her basement and paused. They shouldn’t be locked up. But then, was she the problem to begin with?
Slowly, she set down the mugs in the kitchen and walked back to the trap door. It was shut, but that didn’t fool Erin. She lifted the handle up and peered into the basement.
It was dark below. Nearly pitch-black. Erin knew there was a lantern down there—four, actually, but the Goblins appeared to be asleep. She heard a few loud snores. Erin rolled her eyes.
“I know you heard all that. You were listening, weren’t you?”
The snores paused and then went on, a tad unconvincingly. Erin sighed.
“I know you’re awake. Look, I think Zevara’s right and wrong. It is dangerous, but I didn’t say you should stay below. I just thought—hey, you are awake, aren’t you?”
She stopped uncertainly. The snoring stopped and a head appeared out of the darkness, alarmingly close. Headscratcher had been standing on the ladder this entire time! Erin yelped in surprise and instinctively slapped him on the face with an open palm.
“Gah! Wait, sorry!”
Headscratcher yelped and tumbled backwards. Erin heard Goblins exclaiming in alarm, the sound of a thud and annoyed Goblins voices. She winced and peered into the darkness below.
“Oops. You surprised me. I’m really sorry about that. It was an accident, I swear!”
In the darkness, five pairs of crimson eyes stared up at her. Erin shivered just a bit.
“Sorry. Look, I know I told you to stay in the basement but—come up tomorrow, okay? This is where I wanted you to sleep. It’s not a prison.”
She paused, that thought striking her as important. The Redfang Goblins stared up at Erin, their faces unreadable in the darkness. Erin crouched on the top of the ladder, wondering if she should go down. In the end she spoke into the darkness as the rain fell overhead.
“You’re not prisoners. I mean that. If you want to leave, to find Rags or do something else…you can go. I’ll give you food if you need it. But I think it might be safer here. And if it is—if you think you want to stay despite the risk, I will shelter you. I promise. And tomorrow…tomorrow we’ll see about getting you rooms on the third floor.”
The Hobs started slightly in surprise. Erin nodded. Keep them below? That was such a wrong concept to her.
“I should have done this from the start. It was fine to keep Pisces in the basement, but you? I have tons of rooms. And if you’re going to stay here, it’s going to be as guests, not as hidden monsters. I’m not ashamed that you’re here and you shouldn’t be either.”
Five sets of crimson eyes. One blinked. Erin saw a Hob move his head, do something in the darkness. Wipe his eyes? The rest just looked at her. The [Innkeeper]’s voice was low as she spoke to the Hobs, her back framed by the dim firelight.
“There’s nothing wrong with being a Goblin. I told you that didn’t I? You’re people. Not monsters. Humans can be monsters and Goblins can too. But we’re not all monsters. We’re people. And people don’t live underground or in caves.”
“Unless they’re Hobbits. Um. Talk to you tomorrow!”
She waved at the Goblins. Two waved back. Erin shut the door and turned away, feeling embarrassed. She had the distinct impression the Goblins had begun talking amongst themselves the instant she closed the trapdoor.
She hoped they weren’t laughing at her. But she had said what she believed. That was important. Erin stumbled back to her bed, tired, knowing she’d have to get up soon. She pulled some blankets over her body, punched a pillow, and tossed and turned as the rain fell.
“Let’s see. Pallass jerks…Jelaqua…Calruz and the Horns of Hammerad…Goblins…and no money. That’s enough for one plate. Maybe two. Now how do I make everything fit together?”
Erin thrashed about for a while, her mind racing, running into obstacles, backtracking. So many problems. There were always problems, but there were always solutions too. She thought about money and her friends and the Goblins until something clicked. Erin sat up suddenly and snapped her fingers.
“Hmm. That might work!”
Then she immediately fell backwards, pulled the blankets over her head and went to sleep in relief.
Rain fell across Liscor and the grasslands. Rain, a shimmering, endless downpour of droplets, hitting the ground millions of times each second. It was a hypnotic sight if you weren’t out in the middle of it, a beautiful display of nature to be seen by all.
Bird sat in his watch tower and felt a spray of wet, cold droplets smack him in the face. He wiped at the wetness but then the wind shifted and blew a squall of rain right over him. He hunched his shoulders as the rain blew diagonally, pattering off the roof of his watch tower and his body.
It was wet. He was cold. But Bird was still happy. True, it was raining, and true he had been rained on for the last four hours. But he wasn’t dead. It was important to keep things in perspective. Bird felt lucky and privileged to be here, and he tried to be grateful. He wasn’t dead, he was allowed to hunt birds and sit up in his own personal watch tower—he even had his own private quarters!
Bird had the room closest to the staircase leading up to the watch tower. It was a nice room. And it was his. He used to have a bed, but he’d never slept on it so Miss Erin had taken it away.
Antinium couldn’t sleep on beds. The round shells on their backs made it too difficult since they would rock back and forth or just lie uncomfortably. Perhaps Revalantor Klbkch could do it with his altered, slimmer form, but Bird had given up after five minutes of lying on the bed and wondering what was supposed to happen.
When it became apparent that Bird couldn’t sleep on his bed like most other species Erin had come up with a solution. She’d created a stack of blankets and pillows that formed what she called a ‘cubbyhole’ similar to the alcoves Bird used to sleep in in the Worker’s barracks.
However, this sleeping space was so soft and luxurious that Bird was afraid to sleep in it and spent most nights with his back against a wall. It still got a good deal of use; Mrsha had been captivated by the idea of pillow forts and often curled up inside Bird’s bed for naps.
And Bird didn’t need to sleep much. He liked being up at nights. It was his duty of course—he’d chased off a few Drakes yesterday by shooting arrows at their feet when they approached the inn just past midnight. But Bird didn’t mind the late hours. Owls came out at night, and if he waited long enough it would be dawn and birds would be singing and flying about. Perfect targets for an alert Antinium [Hunter].
Of course, it was raining so there would be no birds. The Antinium Worker thought about this and still felt happy. Birds might not fly in the rain because it was wet, but only if they had feathers. What if there were other types of birds he had yet to hunt? His mind raced with the possibilities as the rain pelted him from all angles. Bird was oblivious to it as he thought.
Were there fish birds? Birds that could fly in the rain? Maybe birds above the clouds? Bird looked up and felt happy. The world was a wonderful place! When you didn’t know what it contained, everything was new and fresh. And Bird was completely ignorant. Thus, he sat in his small watch tower as water sprayed him and the rain pounded down. He ignored it all, his crude hand-made bow in hand. It wouldn’t do to get the lovely bow Erin had given him wet, after all. He sang a tiny tune as he searched the pouring landscape.
“I am Bird. I am wet. It is raining. I am wet. Drip, drip, I am Bird…”
The Antinium turned as someone shouted his name. He looked down the stairs and saw a young Human woman shielding her face as the rain pelted her from above.
“Oh, hello Miss Lyonette.”
The [Barmaid] shouted something at Bird, looking upset. He was alert instantly, wondering if a monster or other danger had come through the door. Erin had told him to watch for threats outside the inn, but Bird was aware that having a magic portal door was a security risk. He did take his job seriously. But that didn’t seem to be the problem here!
He could only hear a few words over the pounding of the rain. But Lyonette was waving so Bird followed her down the slippery steps into the inn. It was very wet. He observed the floorboards were quite wet and the wet had gone into several rooms and down much of the third floor. Hm. He turned to Lyonette as she wiped her face with a towel.
“What is the problem, Miss Lyonette? It is quite wet outside. And in here.”
“Yes, Bird. It is! That’s a problem. And do you know why it’s so wet?”
Lyonette glared at Bird. The Worker tilted his head. A problem. He had never been good at solving problems. He had liked chess well enough, but he had never taken to it as a [Tactician] like Anand and Belgrade had. Erin had called his games the ‘weirdest games she’d ever played’ though, which Bird had taken as a compliment.
“It is wet because it is raining, Miss Lyonette.”
“Yes. It is. But why is it wet inside, Bird?”
Bird looked around. Wet, wet…why was it wet inside? Because there was a hole? No, the inn was sturdy and waterproof. So why was there wet on the third floor? He noticed the water moving slightly and looked behind him. Water was running down the steps leading up to the tower. His tower. Bird’s mandibles opened wide as he realized the issue.
“I forgot to close the door.”
“You forgot to close the door.”
Rainwater had spilled into the inn from Bird’s watch tower above. The Antinium stared at the flooded third floor with interest. Mrsha galloped through the giant puddle, splattering water everywhere. Above her, Apista flew away from the water droplets in alarm. Lyonette sighed.
“Okay, I guess I was waking up in an hour anyways. Let’s get to work.”
“I am deeply sorry. I will assist you with cleaning and return to guarding above.”
Bird lowered his mandibles, ashamed. Lyonette shook her head, looking only slightly put out.
“It’s fine, Bird, really. Just don’t forget again. And you don’t have to go above. I’m sure Erin would want you inside and out of the rain.”
Bird protested mildly as Lyonette ordered Mrsha to grab more towels.
“But I must guard. And I have permission to hunt. I am waiting for fish-birds to come out.”
“Fish birds? Bird, there are no fish birds.”
Lyonette paused, staring into the Worker’s downcast face. She hesitated.
“Um, well, I’m not certain. Why not? I’m sure there are birds that go out in the rain. Actually, I lied. There are most definitely fish birds, Bird.”
The Worker nodded happily, faith restored in the world.
“I knew it.”
Life was good for Bird. He was especially happy Revalantor Klbkch had ordered him not to kill the Hobs just yet. Bird had kept an eye on them every night under strict orders from his Hive and he wasn’t sure he could kill them, even if he ambushed them. It was good to be peaceful. No one should die.
Except birds, of course.
Erin woke up to the sound of rain. She woke up slightly later than usual, which meant dawn was just breaking as she got up and blearily stumbled around the kitchen.
“Ghrmph. Rain, raining all the time. Gonna be a pain going to Liscor. Where’s breakfast? Right, right…gotta find Lyonette. Lyonette?”
She walked out into the common room but Lyonette was uncharacteristically not already awake. Erin hesitated, not wanting to wake her up and then she heard the sounds from above. They were faint, but as Erin ascended to the second floor and stared past the rooms reserved for the Horns of Hammerad and the Halfseekers she heard the noises coming from the second stairwell heading to the third floor.
Erin tiptoed up and saw a strange sight. It was Lyonette kneeling on the ground, mopping up water with a towel as Bird did the same. Mrsha and Apista were frolicking around, getting water everywhere as they played catch. They were making the mess worse, but Lyonette wasn’t scolding Mrsha. Instead, she and Bird were singing!
“It’s raining, it’s raining, water’s on the floor, Mrsha at the door, it’s raining, it’s raining—”
“Drip, drip, drip.”
Lyonette was singing a silly made-up song as Mrsha rolled past her, her fur dripping. Bird, wiping the floor with a towel, softly sang as well. He was just singing ‘drip’, but it melded together with Lyonette’s singing in a wonderful way.
Erin stood watching Lyonette and Bird singing the silly song as Mrsha rolled about, a smile on her face. Only when the Worker and [Barmaid] had cleaned up most of the water did she cough.
Lyonette spun around looking embarrassed. Erin smiled at her and at Mrsha as the Gnoll galloped up to her. She caught Mrsha before she could shake herself.
“Ah! No shaking, Mrsha. You get a nice warm towel instead. Lyonette, thanks for doing that. How’d the rain get in? Bird’s door?”
“It was my fault. I am entirely to blame. I will accept all punishments necessary or my termination.”
Bird stood to attention. Erin frowned at him.
“You’re not getting fired, Bird. It was a mistake! I’d never fire you for that.”
Bird visibly relaxed.
“Oh. Does that mean I can do it again?”
Lyonette and Erin spoke at once. Bird nodded agreeably and stared at Apista as the Ashfire Bee hid behind Mrsha. Erin beckoned Lyonette over.
“Sorry I didn’t start getting breakfast ready, Erin. It was just—”
“No, you’re cool. It was better you did this, actually. I’m going to move the Redfang Goblins up here today.”
“The Goblins? But—well, okay. If you think so.”
Lyonette looked dubious but she nodded anyways. She had changed so much! The fact that she was willing to let the Goblins stay under the same roof as her was more than most Humans were willing to do. Erin intended to change that. She shifted, aware her second piece of news for the day wasn’t going to be taken with the same level of grace.
“I uh, had Watch Captain Zevara and that Drake guy from Pallass over last night, Lyonette. Looks like we might get to open the portal to Pallass after all. There’s a lot of political stuff going on, but I think I managed to get it sorted. So there won’t be Drake [Soldiers] from Liscor marching in to take the door away.”
“That was going to happen? I mean, I’d believe it but—good job.”
The runaway [Princess] looked relieved. Erin chewed her lip.
“Tiny problem, though…I had to pay to register the inn and the price was eighteen gold coins.”
Lyonette looked horrified. Erin nodded.
“I took them out of the safe. It’s uh…well, I took a look at what we had left. What do you think? How long do we have?”
Erin was hoping that Lyonette had put some of the inn’s coin somewhere else or had more on her. The young woman’s face said it all. Lyonette counted in her head, doing the same math that Erin had agonized over last night. When she was done she shook her head gloomily.
“Enough coin for a week. Not much more even if we cut back on buying food and supplies…”
“I’ll get us more.”
Erin rested a hand on Lyonette’s shoulder and smiled reassuringly. The [Barmaid] looked uncertain, but Erin grinned at her.
“Money’s not a problem, Lyonette. I have a few tricks up my sleeves. And more in my pockets. And one under my pillow.”
“Yeah! Okay, I have two good ideas. Three if I use my backup plan. I think they’ll all work. I just need to go into the city and uh, make a few deals. If I help serve breakfast, can you manage…?”
“Leave it to me. I’ll get the Goblins settled. Drassi and Ishkr aren’t coming today and I think the Horns of Hammerad are going out on a long trip today. So are the Halfseekers, so it’ll just be Bird, Mrsha, and the Goblins to feed for lunch. Do what you need to do Erin.”
Erin smiled in relief.
“You’re the best. Alright, breakfast is waffles! Hey Mrsha, don’t run down the stairs! Oh well.”
She grinned as the white Gnoll raced down to the common room. Then she paused and both she and Lyonette turned. The sound of rainfall, muted but always present had intensified suddenly.
They stared towards the stairs leading up. Bird paused as the rain pelted him, about to climb back up to the tower. He stared at the water already trickling down the stairs.
He closed the door swiftly. Erin shook her head.
“That’s a design flaw. But I guess we can put a towel rack there and get Bird to clean up every time he goes in and out. Speaking of which…”
She looked out one of her glass windows at the rain. It was coming down hard, obscuring the landscape. Already it had washed the last of the snow away so all Erin saw was green grass and brown mud, both dark as the rain drummed on her windows. She turned to Lyonette, looking rueful.
“I don’t suppose you know where I could get an umbrella?”
Lyonette looked blank.
Umbrellas. Umbrellas were an invention that did not exist in the medieval era, or at least, not in this one. True, it was good to keep rain off one’s face, but with an umbrella? They required a lot of careful stitching, long flexible joints that required delicate wood or metalworking, and were in general a tool for the nobility to use. A [Lady] might have a parasol or rather, have a servant follow her around with one, but everyone else just used cloaks. After all, they were warm, didn’t need to be carried in either hand and didn’t break.
Erin ran with an oiled cloak over her head towards Liscor, screaming as rainwater trickled onto her clothing and mud splashed around her boots.
“I hate cloaks! I hate cloaks! I hate cloaks!”
Not that an umbrella would have helped much either. The rain was coming down fiercely and the guards on the walls looked miserable to Erin. The one at the western gate was at least sheltered from the rain. She waved Erin though and the young woman dashed into the streets of Liscor.
And slipped. The wet cobblestones were slippery and Erin had been running to get to Liscor in time. Erin fell, got tangled up in her cloak, and after a brief moment where she just sat in the middle of the wet street with water pouring over her head, got up and marched through the streets, grumbling about ceilings.
“How hard would it be to put a ceiling over a city? It’s got walls, just put a dome over it! Okay, you can’t see if that happens—how about a glass dome? That’s a lot of glass. A magic dome? I bet Pallass has a fancy magic dome. What about a subway? Now that’s useful technology!”
The streets were mostly empty despite the usual morning press. No one wanted to be out in the rain. The Drakes looked gloomy and ill-tempered, if not quite so depressed as the days before. The Gnolls looked perfectly miserable. Erin splashed down the streets, appreciating that Liscor at least had sewers to carry away the runoff as she marched further into Liscor. It was a wet, miserable day.
But only if you let it be. Erin was determined to make today work. She’d left the inn with Lyonette already showing the Redfang Warriors their new rooms. Now Erin headed towards one spot in the city devoid of rain.
The Antinium Hive. The passage down into the Hive was exposed to the surface, but there was some kind of water flow system in place such that as Erin descended into the darkness, the water coming down from above was sucked into the earth. A few steps out of the rain and the Hive’s walls were wonderfully dry underfoot. Erin let herself drip for a while as she stared around the entrance.
It wasn’t hard to enter the Hive of the Free Antinium. Just go down a few steps into the darkness and you were in a tunnel. Now, Erin had never actually gone into the Hive by herself, but she had gotten permission from Klbkch to enter a week ago for the story time with the Antinium. So she could enter. Right?
There didn’t seem to be any guards, just a long tunnel sloping downwards. It was large enough for eight Erins to walk abreast and made Erin feel small as she marched into the Hive.
“Just gonna see a few friends. Nothing wrong about that, right? No one mind me, just a Human coming in out of the rain. Just gonna—”
Erin got five steps when her [Dangersense] went off like a siren in her head. She froze as the empty tunnel suddenly filled. Sixteen Soldiers stepped out of hidden alcoves, fists raised, bodies tense and lowered, ready to charge. The young woman froze, eyes wide, staring at the Soldiers on every side.
“Uh oh. Um. Hi?”
The Soldiers said nothing. These weren’t the Painted Soldiers that Pawn led but regular Soldiers. On guard duty. Erin was afraid to breathe, seeing the Soldiers clenching their fists, imagining what would happen if one of them punched her. She squeaked, trying to both speak fast and not do anything as provocative as breathing.
“I’m uh, Erin! Erin Solstice! I have permission from your boss to be here! Klbkch? He said it was alright! Okay, he said I could enter this one time and so I thought I could do it again. I didn’t mean to intrude. I’ll totally leave if you’re all uh, busy.”
The Soldiers made no move. One of them, the one in front of Erin hesitated just a fraction. He stepped closer to her and she shrank as she stared up at him. He had very long mandibles, perfect for tearing flesh. Not that she thought of the Antinium like that! They were people too, just like Goblins!
And people killed people quite often. The Soldier studied Erin, fists still raised. She tried to smile up at him.
“No, this is a bad time? Okay then, I don’t want to bother you. I can see when I’m getting in the way, so I’ll just…”
She was about to edge away when the Soldier suddenly nodded and turned away abruptly. He didn’t signal, but the other Soldiers instantly lowered their fists and stepped back towards their alcoves. Erin stared at the Soldier as he walked away from her, no longer paying any attention to her whatsoever.
She had the distinct impression he’d just recognized her as Erin Solstice, not some random Human who’d wandered down here by accident. She wondered what would have happened if he’d decided she was someone else and resolved never to enter the Hive without Pawn, Klbkch, or another Antinium with her.
But now she was in the Hive, it was too late to go back. Or at least so Erin told herself as she walked down the wide tunnel into the darkness. She’d been here once, after all! She’d just find one of the Workers she knew, have a quick word, and be off. She could have sent Bird of course, but she was worried he might miscommunicate. He was a silly Worker sometimes. And how hard could it be? It wasn’t like—
Whatever ironic thought Erin was about to have was cut off as she entered into the Hive’s main corridors. The tunnel around Erin turned abruptly and there they were. Antinium. Hundreds of them, marching down a huge tunnel, turning into side passages that sloped upwards or downwards, huge currents of Workers and Soldiers moving in every direction.
The Antinium had no railing to divide the flow of traffic, but the brown-black shapes moved smoothly and without pause, following an invisible line such that the Antinium were able to all move through the massive corridor at once, not having to pause or wait in line at all. They moved in complete silence, so that the only sound in the massive room was the shuffling of feet.
It was hypnotic, terrifying, and completely alien. Erin stared for one entire second and then sneezed. It was unintentional. The noise cut through the room like a gun shot.
The Antinium stopped as one. Every head in the vast corridor turned to Erin immediately. She froze and then raised a hand. The Antinium stared at her in complete silence. The [Innkeeper] gulped and then put on her best smile.
The Workers and Soldiers stared at her. Erin waved weakly. Her voice quavered a bit.
“Uh, sorry to intrude. I’m just uh—I uh—do any of you know where um, Pawn is? Anand? Belgrade? Klbkch?”
The Antinium stared at her. Erin hesitated. Then as one they turned and pointed. Erin stared at the tunnel they’d indicated and saw the nearest Workers to her make way.
“Oh? Am I supposed to—”
They stared at her. Erin gingerly edged forwards and walked through the gap the Workers had created. The Antinium watched her go, silent, staring at the Human in their tunnels. Vibrant, colorful, alive. They heard her voice as she navigated down the tunnels, echoing back at them.
“Sorry, sorry. Oops—this way, right? Thank you. Okay, I’m going—wow, it’s dark in here. Sorry, I know you’re probably in a hurry, right? I don’t want to get in the way, you can keep walking or doing whatever you—oh boy, Klbkch is going to be so mad at me.”
“So uh, hi.”
Erin stood in front of Anand and Belgrade. They’d met her in one of the tunnels, well, practically run her over in point of fact. They’d swiftly escorted her into a side room, mainly to end the Hive-wide traffic jam. Now they sat around a small table with a chess board on top of it.
This was Anand and Belgrade’s personal strategy room. It had some maps of the Hive, a real chess board and one of Erin’s improvised Go boards, and some pieces of parchment and a quill and ink. Erin stared around the small room, seeing the spot where Belgrade had hurriedly rolled up all the maps of the Hive and stuffed them away. Military secrets, she supposed. She glanced at the Workers again. They hadn’t responded to her greeting.
“It’s not like I meant to cause a holdup. I kept telling the other Antinium to keep going without me. And I uh, thought I could just sort of wander about and find one of you guys. You know, casually?”
She peered hopefully at them. Belgrade and Anand shared a look. Belgrade was the first to speak.
“You are lucky you were not killed within seconds of entering the Hive.”
Erin stared at Belgrade.
“But I wasn’t. I thought I had permission.”
The Worker nodded slowly.
“Yes. But your exact description was not passed to the Soldiers on duty. It is extremely fortunate they either recognized you from previous encounters or believed your self-identification.”
“Ah. Well, that’s good. I uh—killed?”
Belgrade nodded. Erin gulped.
“Okay, well, I’m not doing that again. I thought—did you guys know I was looking for you?”
Anand shook his head.
“We were investigating the disturbance. When you entered the Hive all flows of traffic halted, which immediately warranted our attention. I have never seen the Hive simply—stop like that before.”
Erin winced. She fiddled with a bishop on the chess board. Anand stared at her for another beat and then seemed to become more alert.
“This incident was surprising to say the least, but minor. Miss Erin, I believe your intrusion has resulted in the best results possible especially given all the outcomes. The Hive was not unduly affected by your presence, and I must believe it is warranted by some need. How can Belgrade and I help you? Or is it Pawn or Revalantor Klbkch you seek?”
He waited expectantly. By his side Belgrade folded his hands—all four of them. Erin looked relieved and pondered how best to start.
“Alright, okay. To begin with…did you know it’s raining?”
The two Workers exchanged a glance. Anand shook his head.
“We did not, Miss Erin.”
“Oh. Well, it is. Just thought you should know. You see, Zevara—you know, the angry Drake Watch Captain lady? She said it’s the beginning of the rainy season in Liscor and I thought—”
Erin got no further because at her words Belgrade suddenly tensed up. His mandibles opened and he shuddered.
“Rainy season? It has begun already? Oh no. Oh no.”
Belgrade’s arms folded around himself. He began to rock back and forth in his seat. Two of his arms gripped the table and he started repeating the words anxiously.
“Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no—”
Erin looked at him, alarmed. Anand put a hand on Belgrade’s shoulders and the Worker stopped rocking, although he kept repeating the same words. Anand looked apologetic as he clicked his mandibles together gently.
“You will have to forgive Belgrade, Miss Erin. He does not do well during this time of the year. He nearly drowned two years ago.”
“Oh. I’m so sorry Belgrade. That’s terrib—wait, how can you drown underground?”
“The water, the rushing water. The walls breaking, the water—”
Belgrade shivered. Anand raised one hand as the other three patted his friend on the shoulder. He pointed to the dirt walls of the Hive around them.
“This season is problematic for the Antinium, Miss Erin. We do our best to ensure the integrity of the Hive, but accidents happen. Water can burst through the tunnels and it is particularly dangerous to us when it does, given our inability to swim. Belgrade only survived by holding his breath until the water could be drained from the tunnel he was trapped in.”
“That makes sense. But all that water comes from above? It’s just rain. There’s not that much water. Unless the rivers overflow?”
Erin stared blankly at the two Workers. They exchanged a look.
“I believe your knowledge of what occurs during this part of the year is…incomplete, Miss Erin. I would elaborate, but I fear that I do not know what occurs aboveground during this period of time. The Antinium do not go above the surface in the first two months of spring.”
Belgrade whispered the words. Erin stared at him, leaned back in her table, and shook her head.
“Okay, I think I’ll have to ask Klbkch about this. Or Selys. I’m going to see her next.”
“That would be wise. They no doubt have a more coherent explanation than we. But did you need to see us specifically, Miss Erin? Revalantor Klbkch will doubtless be busy with his duties.”
Erin paused. Why was she down here again?
“Oh, right. I have a proposition for you two. Look, my inn’s in a tight place but I have this idea, see—”
She explained briefly to Anand and Belgrade. Both Workers nodded, intrigued by her idea. Belgrade stopped rocking long enough to give his opinion.
“We can do this for a few more days. At least before the water rises. Tonight we will come.”
Erin smiled, relieved. She got up and the two Workers did likewise.
“I’d love to play a few games, but I have to see Selys next. You said Klbkch is busy, right? Well, I’ll ask Selys about this rain thing.”
“Good. We shall escort you to the surface to reduce delays.”
Anand and Belgrade got up. The Workers flanked Erin as she exited the tunnels. Anand shook his head.
“I do apologize that we could not inform you of the events surrounding the rainfall, Miss Erin. But most Antinium understand little of the world around us. Belgrade and I are privy to some of the Hive’s knowledge, but…”
Erin smiled at him as they walked. This time the Workers and Soldiers kept moving, although she sensed them peeking at her.
“No problem Anand. I totally get it. Your experience is different than mine. But Liscor changes a lot this month, huh?”
The Worker nodded.
“Indeed. Travel is almost virtually eliminated, the city stockpiles what resources it has, the price of food goes up, the price of wood rises—and of course the Antinium earn a small income as we help construct some of the maritime industry’s fishing craft. We could sell you a boat quite cheaply, I think.”
“Really? Cool! I always wanted a—wait, what did you say?”
Water. It was such a simple thing. A necessity to survive, and yet, for some, the idea of water was terrifying. The Antinium could not swim. It was one of their critical weaknesses and as such, the Hive of the Free Antinium was filled with activity as the rain fell on the ground above.
Klbkch, Revalantor of the Free Antinium, strode through the tunnels of his Hive, teams of Workers following him by the hundred. He walked through each tunnel, Workers breaking off to check each part of the walls, tapping and listening to make sure that there were no faults or other weaknesses a thousand tonnes of water might exploit. Any cracks were sealed, any suspect tunnels sealed off. There were many, many drainage tunnels within the Hive designed to carry off water should it flood the Hive, but if it came to that Antinium would die.
And Klbkch found himself caring more about the loss of a Worker or Soldiers’ lives than he had in the past. Perhaps it was because some of them were Individual and thus a precious resource that could not be so easily reacquired. Or perhaps it was the shorter Worker following behind him, anxiously watching as Klbkch directed flows of Workers.
“That tunnel is faulty. Seal it off completely. Fill it with dirt and pack it—I will return later to inspect the area. Forty Workers will go to inspect the dungeon entrances with the others. We must not allow those areas to flood.”
Workers moved as ordered. Pawn moved to one side as they marched past him. He stared at Klbkch as the Revalantor looked around the tunnel.
“Revalantor, how can my Painted Antinium assist with this process?”
Klbkch paused. He had to think of the Painted Antinium and Pawn, as a separate force within the Hive. One that needed orders, could not simply be ordered to wait indefinitely. He nodded to Pawn after a moment’s delay.
“Take the Soldiers not wounded or on combat rotation and assist with filling in the tunnels I have specified. If you finish with that task, report to Anand or Belgrade. They will take over the inspection of the Hive while I return to my duties in Liscor.”
The Revalantor clicked his mandibles impatiently. He had no watch, but his internal clock was flawless.
“I have Watch duty in fifteen minutes. Anand and Belgrade have my permission to act with all the authority required to reinforce the Hive. If they have doubts I will return tonight to inspect the Hive once more.”
“I will tell them that, Revalantor.”
Klbkch nodded and strode through the tunnels, towards the surface. It was a relief to have Anand and Belgrade in the Hive. He hadn’t realized it, but having the two [Tacticians] present meant he could delegate much of the responsibility that usually fell to him or his Queen. And she had kept to her quarters recently, working on some private project, leaving the Hive entirely to him. It felt harder, some years. He hadn’t expected the rain to come so soon, but he should have predicted it…
Was he getting old? Was this the degradation that came with age that Xrn had told him about? Dementia did not affect the Antinium, but perhaps Klbkch, who had lived and been reborn countless times was an exception. Maybe he was getting old, because sometimes he felt tired…
Klbkch sighed as he strode out of the Hive and marched down the streets. He moved quickly as the rain pelted him, nodding to Drakes and Gnolls on the streets. Within five minutes he was at the Watch barracks and putting on his [Guardsman]’s armor. He was ready for duty within two minutes and marching out the door after having signed the roster sheets in the next minute.
Yes, he was getting old. But there was hope. Klbkch clung to that thought. There was hope. He just had to hang on a little bit longer. And then the world would change. The Grand Queen would change it, or Xrn, or perhaps…
Klbkch’s eyes caught a young woman he recognized hurrying down the street. She’d just come out of a tunnel in the ground. He stared. Had Erin been in the Hive? No, surely she had just been…he watched her go, his mind blanking for a second. His mandibles opened unconsciously as he stood in the rain, going about his duties as a member of Liscor’s City Watch. They were surprisingly similar to his duties as Revelator. Klbkch whispered the word into the rain.
“What was that, Klbkch?”
Watch Captain Zevara turned. The Antinium [Guardsman] shook his head as she stomped down the street, the City Watch spread out along the walls.
“Nothing, Captain! My apologies.”
“Don’t be! You’re the only damn guardsman I have who turns up on time, even in the wet!”
Zevara shouted back at Klbkch. She strode down the road leading around the walls of Liscor, shouting at the [Guardsmen] she passed.
“Check for cracks, fractures, or anything out of place! I want all four walls checked by the end of today! Inside, outside—hurry up and I’ll buy you all a round at Furry Wing’s tonight!”
The wet Gnolls and Drakes in uniform cheered as Zevara passed. The Furry Wing tavern was a popular one for the City Watch because it served drinks in huge mugs. Zevara grinned but then added a snap to her voice.
“But don’t miss a spot! I’ll be going over parts of the wall myself, and if I find any spots you’ve missed you’ll all be drinking water tonight!”
She heard a good-natured shout from her guards and nodded to Klbkch. The Senior Guardsman took a section of wall in front of him and Zevara turned away. She knew he could be trusted to check every inch of Liscor’s walls. The Antinium understood the dangers of the rainy season more than most. It was amazing they’d wanted to put a Hive here, knowing what happened…but they were vigilant, and that was everything.
The other Drakes and Gnolls were too complacent. Zevara strode down the walls, repeating her message. She had to push them. They thought that just because Liscor’s walls were enchanted, they would hold. Zevara knew that enchantments could fray and develop weaknesses, just like stone. So she checked and double-checked the walls for any fracture, any weak spots where water might slip through.
A cheerful voice interrupted Zevara as she went on a circuit of the walls from the outside. Zevara rolled her eyes and turned.
“What is it, Relc?”
The huge Drake [Guardsman] grinned, ignoring the rain which made the other guards cover their bodies more securely with their cloaks. He grinned and pointed to his section of the wall.
“I found a broken part of the wall! Look!”
He indicated a micro fracture at the base of the wall. Zevara eyed it and nodded.
“Good work, Relc. We’ll have a [Mason] take a look at it.”
She turned away, wishing she were indoors with a good stiff drink in her claws. She’d settle for a drink in Erin Solstice’s inn. She had some good ales and her food was excellent, even if weird things happened far too often over there. But before Zevara could continue her patrol she heard Relc call out again.
“Hey Captain, I found another one!”
Reluctantly she turned back and looked. There was another tiny fracture at head height. Zevara sighed.
“…Good work, Relc.”
Relc grinned at her, tail wagging like a dog’s. He cupped a claw to one earhole.
“What’s that, Captain? I think I must have missed that. Lots of rain!”
“I said, good work, Relc.”
Zevara gritted her teeth. Relc pretended not to hear.
“What? Sorry, I must have gotten water in my earhole! One more time?”
The Watch Captain eyed Relc murderously, hating every inch of the wide grin on his face. She turned around and her tail slapped Relc across the face.
“Good work, Relc. Now get back to checking the damn wall!”
Water. It changed many things about Liscor, but one thing at least was the same. The Adventurer’s Guild was busy as always as adventurers stood in lines, arguing, picking fights, talking about the dungeon and grumbling about the rain. From her desk, Selys Shivertail grinned balefully at the adventurers who’d never been to Liscor before. They thought this was bad? Just wait until they were here a week. Then they’d realize what a spring in Liscor meant. Rain was only the start of what would come next.
There was a reason why armies didn’t bother sieging Liscor. In the winter they froze their tails off. In the summer and fall, well, they had a good window but that also meant Drake armies could march north and break the siege whenever they pleased. And in the spring—
She was already worrying about the dungeon. What if it flooded? What would happen in the spring? Would the adventurers not be able to access it? She didn’t know if she could handle a bunch of angry cooped-up adventurers for two months.
Then again, she didn’t know if she could handle them now. Selys sighed, relieved to have a break for a moment. She eyed the dripping young woman in front of her and silently passed one of the towels behind the desk to her.
Erin wiped her face off but didn’t bother with the rest of her body. She’d have to go out in the rain soon enough and she’d given up on her stupid cloak that kept tangling around her feet. Selys eyed her.
“Had fun outside?”
“Oh, tons! It’s raining, you know? Really hard!”
Selys gave Erin a look. It simultaneously invited more obvious information and promised an equal or greater amount of ridicule. She gestured out the window of the Adventurer’s Guild where it was pouring.
“No, really? I hadn’t noticed.”
“Hey, I was in the Antinium Hive and that was big news!”
Erin made a face at Selys. The Drake sighed.
“The Ants—I mean, the Antinium live underground, Erin. I can look out a window. Sorry, I don’t mean to snap, but I’ve been busy telling adventurers all day why going outside is a bad idea. Sure, you think you’re hunting Shield Spiders or slimes or something, but that’s when a Hollowstone Deceiver sneaks up on you. They’re silent in the rain and they hunt aggressively during this season. You should watch out too.”
“What, Rock Crabs? Jeeze! I’d better keep an eye out. I don’t have any more seed cores so I guess I’ll have to find another way to scare them off! Thanks for the warning.”
Erin toweled her hair and handed it back. She stared at Selys as the Drake held the towel with one claw and looked around for a place to put it.
“So look, Selys, about what I was saying—”
Selys sighed. Why was she friends with Erin again? Oh, right. She had a good heart. But she could be incredibly, incredibly strange sometimes. And what she’d asked Selys to do? That was madness.
“I heard you. I think you’re insane, but I can do the paperwork. It will never work, mind you. My grandmother—”
Erin stared pleadingly at the Drake. Selys raised her claws.
“Okay, I will. It’s not going to work, but I will.”
“Thanks! I know you’re busy—you should come to the inn more often! It’s been ages since we last hung out!”
The young woman beamed at Selys. The Drake nodded.
“I’d like that. I’d like to see Mrsha and chat—but you know how it is. Adventurers keep coming to Liscor and we’re understaffed and in the rain…”
She flicked her tail at the adventurers milling about the Guild. Erin nodded sympathetically.
“Yeah, I hear you. I wish they’d come to my inn, but I guess that’s not going to happen with the—”
She mimed saying the word ‘Goblins’ silently. Selys nodded. She’d already had to tell a number of adventurers that the Hobs in Erin’s inn weren’t threats and that they would receive no bounties on their heads.
“If you think it’s bad now, just wait a week. I’m afraid you’ll get no business from Liscor until the rains stop. Well, maybe some people will come but I really wouldn’t count on it. I hope you have coin saved.”
Selys sighed at Erin’s chagrin.
“Well, at least you have the door to Celum. I envy you, actually. I’d love to be able to pop over to Celum anytime I wanted. I feel like a prisoner during the spring, you know?”
“No…say Selys, what does happen during the spring?”
The Drake paused, leaning on her desk. She stared at Erin, searching the young woman’s face for any signs of humor.
“Erin, tell me you’re joking. You’ve never, ever heard of what happens to Liscor in the spring?”
“No one’s mentioned it to you. Not once?”
“Not that I can recall.”
“We’re famous for this! Every year—oh, you haven’t been here that long. Huh. It feels like longer.”
Selys shook her head, amazed at how time seemed to fly and simultaneously drag out. She felt like she’d known Erin for years, but it had only been half a year at most. She sighed. Erin looked around curiously. It was still pouring.
“Anand and Belgrade told me there’s a lot of water and…drowning? Or is that just underground? They said you could explain. If it’s a long story I can come back later—I have to be in Celum now so—”
“I can give you the short version.”
Selys smiled as she took a seat on her high stool behind her counter. She liked Erin, she really did, but she was going to enjoy Erin’s reaction more. The [Innkeeper] looked curiously at her.
“Okay, what’s the short version?”
“In Liscor, it starts raining hard each year after winter. For about two months it’s non-stop rainfall, and the city’s practically closed off during that time. When the summer begins it all dries out, but…think of it like this, Erin. We’re caught between the High Passes on either side. There’s an entrance to the north, and an entrance to the south, but Liscor is one big bowl. The only high elevation are the hills which Liscor and your inn and a few villages sit on top of. And it rains a lot. What do you think happens?”
The Drake waited. Erin looked blank.
“Bowl, rain, lots of mountains and valleys. Wait, you don’t mean—”
Her eyes widened. Selys grinned. She leaned over the counter and raised her voice so the adventurers behind Erin could here.
“That’s right. It floods.”
Erin stared. She gave Selys the blankest, most surprised look that the Drake had ever seen. Then she looked out the window at the pouring rain. She stared at Selys, at the rain, and then grinned.
“Hey, good one Selys! I nearly bought that for a second!”
The Drake stared at her. Erin stared back, her smile faltering. Selys sighed and slowly covered her face. Erin’s eyes widened.
“Wait, you’re serious?”