5.34

A boycott. Of all the trials that The Wandering Inn had faced, Erin would have assumed that would be the least challenging. And she would be right, except that unlike every crisis she’d weathered so far, the boycott hadn’t ended after the first day. Unlike undead invasions, Goblin attacks, angry Rock Crabs or diarrhea, the boycott had dragged into the fifth day without signs of slowing.

And again, if anyone had asked Erin if she was afraid of boycotts she would have laughed in their face while getting them another order of risotto pasta. After all, her inn had weathered far worse scandals, hadn’t it? She was employing Goblins for goodness sake! She’d endured scandal and outright hostility before.

But Erin had underestimated the difference in cultures. When Drakes boycotted a business or location, they didn’t just avoid it like the plague. No, they turned up each day to complain.

“Actually, I think Humans do that too. Why call it a boycott if you still show up?”

Erin slumped at a table, groaning and holding her head. It was late evening in her inn and she had actors on stage, some Humans and Gnolls dining, adventurers sitting at their tables. And a large number of Drakes, sitting at tables and booing each time an actor spoke on stage.

“I’m afraid I do not understand your dilemma, Miss Solstice.”

Klbkch sat at a table across from Erin with Krshia on the other side. Both Antinium and Gnoll glanced up as a Drake hissed and booed Wesle as he tried to woo Jasi in her role of Juliet on stage. Klbkch nodded towards the Drake.

“If the Drake protest is undesirable, why not simply eject them from your inn?”

“Because if I do that, they stand outside my inn and throw rocks and dead fish at my windows. Or wait in Liscor and harass anyone who comes out of the magic door.”

“I see. That is a dilemma.”

“Right. I was sort of hoping you’d be able to help. You know, since you’re a [Guardsman] and all?”

Erin glanced sidelong at Klbkch. He hesitated, keeping one hand on his mug as he watched the stage. If you ignored the quiet booing, the play really wasn’t that bad. But that was if you could ignore the booing. The Antinium shook his head a fraction after a few seconds of thought.

“I am afraid that civil protest is a time-honored Drake tradition. True, I could caution and then arrest the Drakes here if they continued to interfere with your business in tangible ways, but Drakes have always honored the right to insult others in public forums.”

“What? That’s so—well, okay, we do that at home, but that’s not right!”

Krshia sniffed the air and grunted. She was enjoying a plate of fish flakes, dipping each in a fishy sauce filled with spices before chewing the food.

“It is a Drake thing, Miss Solstice, yes? Human too, from what you say. We Gnolls, we simply leave if something is undesirable. But Drakes must tell you over and over why it is not what they enjoy. Hrm.”

“What if I kicked them out? Could you arrest them for throwing stuff at my inn?”

Erin looked pleadingly at Klbkch. The Antinium opened his mandibles and made a clicking, sighing sound.

“It is again troublesome that you live outside of Liscor and do not, in fact, pay taxes, Miss Solstice.”

“Ah.”

“Quite. Watch Captain Zevara could order such a guard detail for a short period of time, but I believe she would be uninclined to support such a decision even if I endorsed it to her.”

“Because she hates me.”

Krshia covered a smile with one paw as Erin slumped in her seat.

“I do not think she hates you, Erin. But you do bring her much trouble. And the city is more concerned with dungeons and fish at the moment.”

“Fish?”

“Sometimes fish attack the walls. Big ones. Like Lurkersnatches.”

“The black octopus things?”

“Yes. They are quite difficult to deter. I would advise you to take caution, but your personal defenses are probably more than adequate to deter most monsters. I trust Bird had fulfilled his duties well up till now?”

“Bird? He’s great. Really great. I was worried when he came back with the bow, but he actually paid for it? With money he got from the…Queen?”

Erin stared at Klbkch. Again, the Antinium nodded. He shifted his gaze. Bird was eating at a table across from them with Mrsha. He was happily enjoying a plate full of eggs and batting a ball across the table with Mrsha with one of his arms. Erin shook her head as she watched the Antinium Worker and Gnoll play.

“I can’t believe it. She likes him? Your Queen?”

Erin remembered meeting her. The Queen of the Free Antinium was many things. Huge. Scary. Heartless. In none of these adjectives did Erin see any possibility of her liking anyone. Klbkch seemed just as confused.

“It is an unusual development. But my Queen expressed great pleasure after her interview of Bird and she did allocate him a large budget to purchase a bow.”

“Which he bought in my cousin’s shop. The highest-quality bow we had. It was quite surprising, yes?”

Krshia popped another fish flake into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. Erin shook her head in disbelief.

“The Queen likes Bird. That’s just so…at least he’s happy. He was talking all of today about the bow. And water birds. I uh, haven’t told him they don’t exist yet.”

“Ah. That may be best.”

“Hrm.”

The Gnoll and Antinium sat with Erin in silence and she sighed. The common room of her inn was warm, and the smell of good cooking filled the inn. Ishkr, Lyonette, and two new Gnolls she’d hired – Raelia and Fersh – were serving tables. Again, without the booing the inn would have been a wonderful place to enjoy. However…

“At least they pay to watch the play and eat food. The Drakes, I mean. I’m earning some money each day off of them, but compared to a full house, this isn’t good at all.”

She had probably less than fifty people in the inn, where she was certain her maximum capacity was probably six or seven times that. Krshia nodded as she eyed one of the Drakes sitting at a table close to them. He was booing, but not that loudly. He looked annoyed if his tail was anything to go by—it swept the ground in long, agitated motions.

“I am surprised to be honest, Erin. I would have expected them to throw things. Or fight. Perhaps they are not as angry as you think?”

“Naw. They’re mad. But I’ve got a handle on my aura now. As long as I concentrate, they won’t start fighting or throwing things. Booing is all they can do.”

Erin sighed and rubbed at her head. The effort of suppressing the irritated Drakes was a low-level strain at the back of her head. Krshia looked impressed.

“That is a powerful Skill, yes?”

“It’d be better if I could get them to stop booing entirely. It’s…well, I’m not saying I’m gonna give in to racist jerks and peer pressure, but this is really bad for my inn. I might ask the Players of Celum to stop performing Juliet and Romeo here and switch to a different play if I can’t find a way to make it more…acceptable for Liscor.”

“I am surprised you kept the show on after the first night.”

Erin glared at her hands.

“I didn’t want to take it off! There’s nothing wrong with Jasi playing Juliet and Wesle playing Romeo! If a Drake can’t marry a Human—that’s the entire point of the play! But business is bad. I don’t have a lot of customers and I need to think about the [Actors].”

That was the thing. Erin had grown used to hard times and less income, but she’d never had to worry about a staff. Much less the Players of Celum themselves. But now she was employing ten regular staff and she had a business contract with the Players of Celum. They had families to feed and without a steady flow of coin, they were getting upset. It also wasn’t fun to be booed on stage each night. She sighed and drummed her fingers on the table, counting the Humans in the room.

“The thing is, I was really counting on getting Liscor on board with the plays. Everyone in Celum has seen all of the shows the Players put on six or more times. Interest is dying out. Either they work here or they move to another Human city. So…the jerks win. Again, unless I can fix this.”

Klbkch nodded.

“Do you have any ideas as to how to solve this dilemma, Miss Erin?”

“I’m thinking a trial audience. Maybe change some lines? We’ll do a run through after this play ends. Shouldn’t be long; they’re rushing the lines.”

“Boo! This play is terrible! We don’t need Humans coming to our city, marrying our daughters!”

The angry Drake stood up, fighting off Erin’s Skill enough to raise his voice. Erin swiveled in her chair and frowned at him. He glared at her. Klbkch turned and raised his voice.

“You are making a scene, sir. I caution you to seat yourself and let the entertainment continue in peace or remove yourself from the inn.”

The Drake clenched a fist as he glared at Klbkch. He was clearly drunk and not happy.

“You can’t order me about, you damn Ant! You’re just as bad as those Humans! You…bugs and your secret Hive with entrances into the dungeon—”

“Aw, shut up! That’s Senior Guardsman Klbkch, you idiot. I came to shout at Humans, not get into politics!”

To Erin’s surprise, another Drake called out, waving his mug for a refill. The drunk Drake glared at him. He must have been newer to Liscor because he looked at Klbkch and Bird with clear dislike.

“Antinium. Can’t trust ‘em. I heard Liscor was full of bug lovers, but this? You can’t hide your secrets now! Everyone knows…you’ve got a Hive. Underground. Right next to the dungeon.”

“That is where the Hive has always been, yes.”

Klbkch calmly looked up at the Drake. The drunk waved a claw menacingly. Maybe he was so drunk that Erin’s Skill wasn’t working on him. Erin looked around and saw a Hobgoblin looking over. Rabbiteater made a questioning fist and she shook her head. Her Hobgoblin bouncers were effective, but whenever they started fights with Drakes, everyone tended to pile in. They’d tried to stop the Drakes throwing rocks outside once, but it had very nearly turned bloody when the Drakes drew daggers and clubs.

“The Antinium don’t belong in this city! Who’s with me?”

The Drake looked around for support, but didn’t get it. He glared at Klbkch.

“Senior Guardsman. Hah. What’re you going to do? Arrest me?”

The Antinium shook his head.

“Technically I am off-duty. Therefore I would respond to further provocation or physical assault in the time-honored tradition of bodily harm. However, I would caution you not to start an altercation.”

“Oh yeah?”

There was something universal about belligerent drunks. Klbkch nodded.

“Yes. A brawl would be unfortunate for you. Especially if my partner were to join in. As he often does.”

“Partner?”

The drunk Drake looked around blankly and then spun as a claw landed on his shoulder. He looked up into Relc’s grinning face. Senior Guardsman Relc loomed over the smaller Drake. One large forearm flexed.

“Are we having a bar fight? Awesome! Go on, throw the first punch. I’ll let you have one. No—two! That way Captain Z can’t say I started it. Too bad there’s only like forty people here. Come on, what are you waiting for?”

He grinned toothily down at the smaller Drake. The drunk, who had sobered remarkably quickly, looked at Relc and then at Klbkch. He sat back down silently. Relc drooped.

“Aw.”

“Don’t be an idiot, Dad.”

Relc turned as Erin saw another Drake approach. Wing Commander Embria glared at her father as her red tail twitched irritably. Relc looked guilty as he edged back. He’d been sitting at a far table with his daughter throughout the play. Erin had left them alone—Embria didn’t seem fond of either Klbkch or her. Now Embria frowned and poked Relc in the chest as he looked around as if seeking an exit.

“You’re a Senior Guardsman. You have a responsibility to keep the peace, not cause trouble. Is this really what you do on your days off? Pick fights in bars?”

“I don’t do it all the time—”

“If you were back in the army you’d be put on latrine duty for a month! Your job is to protect citizens, not waste time and money!”

“Yeah, well, I dug a lot of holes back in the army. Let me have my fun! Don’t you like the play?”

Embria glanced over her shoulder at the stage, where the actors were trying not to glare in their direction.

“It’s fine, I suppose. I can see why it’s unpopular, but I don’t mind.”

“Right, right. It’s fun! We’re having fun. Father and daughter. Let’s sit back down and have food. Calmly.”

“We were doing that until you tried to start a fight.”

“I was just protecting my buddy!”

Embria looked towards Klbkch. Her expression turned icy.

“Senior Guardsman Klbkch can take care of himself. Come on.”

She practically dragged Relc away as he gave Erin and Klbkch an imploring look to save him. Erin just waved. She turned back to Krshia. The Gnoll was licking her plate. She looked up unapologetically as Erin stared.

“I do not believe I have ever seen Relc so inconvenienced, yes? It is quite amusing.”

“His daughter is not fond of me. I am fairly confident of that.”

“Hey, you can hang out with me, Klbkch. I’m glad to see you. We don’t talk enough these days. And Krshia, you should come over more. Mrsha likes you.”

The Gnoll smiled as Klbkch inclined his head.

“It is nice, yes? She is getting bigger. She could stand to run more—she eats well here. But she is healthy. And it seems that Bird is a good companion for her.”

The Antinium had finished his plate and was now throwing the ball for Mrsha to catch. Again, it probably wasn’t appropriate in the middle of a play, but they had space and the [Actors] looked resigned. Erin nodded.

“Bird and Mrsha. I’ve got a lot of kids running about.”

She paused as her mouth caught up with her brain. Kids. She glanced at Bird. He was sort of like that, wasn’t he? She knew he wasn’t like Pawn or the others. He wasn’t slow, but he was…well, she understood why Klbkch had been worried about him when Bird had met the Queen. Not for the first time, Erin wondered if Bird being assigned to guard her inn had been so he could protect her, or if she could take care of him in some way. She glanced sideways at Klbkch.

“Are Pawn and the others doing okay?”

“They are performing to and occasionally above expectations.”

“That doesn’t tell me much. Let them visit the inn more often. They’re people, Klbkch. Isn’t that the entire point.”

“I…have received a request to allocate them weekly breaks. I will consider it.”

“Good. Now, I need to get up and be an [Innkeeper]. Check up on people. Give me a few minutes and we’ll brainstorm this play thing. You two want anything?”

“I could eat some red meat. These flakes are good, but unfilling, yes?”

“I would appreciate a refill of my mug.”

“On it! Ishkr, refill and uh, something red meaty for Krshia!”

Erin smiled as she flagged Ishkr. That was the nice thing about having employees. She didn’t have to do all the work.

 

—-

 

Ceria Springwalker heard Erin call Ishkr’s name and waved, but too late. The Gnoll was already turning. She sighed, raised her empty mug, and tilted it up. A drop of ale fell into her mouth. She looked around, but the other servers weren’t close to her table. With a sigh she resigned herself to another few minutes of crushing sobriety and leaned into the conversation at her table. She and the other adventurers were sitting together.

The Horns of Hammerad, the Halfseekers, and three members of Gemhammer including their leader, Earlia, were sharing two tables as the play went on in the background. Ceria had given up trying to watch the stage—she’d seen the play already and the booing got on her nerves.

“Okay, so we’re agreed. We’ll team with the Horns while Griffon Hunt works with the Silver Swords on the next expedition. Nothing long-term; just a day or two so we can figure out how good you are at dungeon diving. Sound like a plan?”

Jelaqua was speaking to the group as she leaned over a plate of fried sardines freshly caught out of the water. Behind her, Moore was chewing on a selection of much larger fish that had been put on skewers and stacked up on a platter for him. Seborn sat, quietly picking at his plate of risotto pasta. Across from them, the Horns exchanged glances. Ceria nodded to Jelaqua.

“Works for me. I appreciate it, Jelaqua, really. I know it’s asking a lot—”

“Eh, your team seems competent. And it’s always nice to have backup. We’ll probably do a lot of untrapping anyways unless we get lucky going in from the main entrance. Plus—you really need it. I can’t believe the Silver Swords are that bad at dungeon diving.”

“Neither can we.”

Yvlon sighed. Pisces looked up as he slurped a noodle up. He patted at his mouth with a napkin.

I can fully believe it.”

“So can I. I was there.”

Ksmvr nodded firmly. Jelaqua laughed as Ceria rolled her eyes and kicked Pisces gently under the table.

“Right. Well, it’ll be good to change things up, anyways. So long as Halrac and his team can beat some caution into Ylawes’ thick head, you’ll be okay going forwards. They are Gold-rank.”

“How’d they hit that rank without ever doing a dungeon? I can’t imagine it. They must have done purely monster contracts.”

Earlia shook her head as she drained her mug. She rubbed idly at her shoulder where her newly-healed shoulder was still tender. Ceria eyed the woman. Healing potions worked instantly, but the body still needed to recover a bit after injuries. Earlia and her team had been resting since their battle in the dungeon. They’d gravitated towards this table instantly, although they had hardly spoken with either the Halfseekers or the Horns before that. Jelaqua smiled through bloodless lips at Earlia. She didn’t seem to mind the company—she and Earlia were both social types, at odds with grumpy loners like Halrac.

“I’d offer your team the same, but I think that’d push it, Earlia. We can’t babysit other teams all the time—not that I think the Horns will weigh us down. But we are working with Griffon Hunt, and they’re damn good. No offense.”

“None taken! We’re a dungeon team ourselves—we don’t need to be carried. Plus, we’re chummy with The Pride of Kelia. Nice to work with a dedicated archery team. Once we’re back to full-strength we’ll challenge the dungeon again.”

“You’re going straight back down there? After you got ambushed?”

Ceria raised both her eyebrows in disbelief. Earlia snorted out some of her ale, laughed, and wiped her face. Pisces looked disgusted. Ksmvr was fascinated.

“Of course! Now we know the layout we’ll bring the right equipment. Those Rashg—Raskghar bastards got the drop on us, but they don’t have Skills. We can prepare. I’d love to take that asshole with the armor on. Or grab that invisible bow. Bet it’s enchanted with some powerful stuff. I’ll have to fight Nailren for it, though. Eh, he can get the bow if we get the armor.”

She grinned around fearlessly. Ceria felt a twinge of admiration in her chest, even as part of her thought that Earlia was beyond reckless. The leader of Gemhammer belched.

“Plus, we have an edge! That masked woman who ran in—dead gods, I can’t imagine how she’s survived down there. Some kind of crazy adventurer, probably. You hear about nutjobs like that. I’d love to meet her again, though. Hey, maybe she’s hungry. Let’s bring extra supplies if we see her.”

“Just watch out. You can never tell with some strangers.”

Jelaqua cautioned Earlia as she glanced around the inn. Ceria saw a few Humans get up and walk for the door to Celum, shaking their heads as the Drakes booing continued. Most of the Gnolls who’d come for the show had gone—it really was a shame. Erin looked stressed as she circulated the room. Earlia grimaced as she tilted her mug up and found it empty.

“I’ve gotta say, this inn was more fun a few days ago. Those Drakes do not like the play, huh? Big thing about a Drake marrying a Human?”

Jelaqua shrugged.

“Species stuff. It’s all about who can bump squishies with who.”

“I hear that! Hey! Anyone got a refill!”

Earlia raised her voice and shouted at one of the passing waiters. On stage Wesle winced and fumbled with his line. It was Erin herself who came over with a flagon and refilled Earlia’s mug. Ceria desperately raised hers and saw liquid relief pouring into it.

“Thanks, Erin.”

“No prob. Hey, how’s everyone doing? Enjoying your early dinner? Can I get you started on a second course?”

“Uh, not us, Erin. We’re going into the city in just a bit.”

Jelaqua looked guilty and coughed, although Ceria was sure that no Selphid had ever had to worry about sore throats. Erin looked shocked.

“What? But we’ve got food here! And we’re doing a uh, rethink of the plays in a bit. I’d love your opinion!”

“Yeah…about that. We’re meeting Halrac and the others for a real sit-down planning sort of thing. Figure out how to deal with more of those monster silos if we come across them. We fixed the Shield Spider nest, but we want to be ready. We’ve got the Watch Captain and that Olesm guy joining us. The city’s taking it seriously.”

“Olesm? But why don’t you have your meeting here?”

“Uh—the thing is—”

Jelaqua glanced at her teammates. It was Seborn who pushed back his mostly empty plate and spoke in his echoing voice.

The ambiance here is terrible, Erin. No one wants to eat here right now.

The adventurers winced as Erin’s face fell.

“I’m trying to fix it.”

We know. But we can’t think in here. We’ll be back tomorrow.

“Yeah, we’ll, uh, probably be at it all night. Ahem. I think that’s our cue. Moore, you’ve gotten enough fish in you?”

The half-Giant nodded as he wiped his fingers delicately on a handkerchief.

“It was quite delicious, Miss Erin. Our apologies. We’ll be back.”

“Yeah…okay.”

Erin looked despondent as the Halfseekers made their way out of the inn. She looked around and sighed.

“Okay, let’s do this. Hey Ceria, you going to go too?”

“We’re not busy.”

Ceria smiled at Erin and saw the [Innkeeper] brighten a little. She and the others turned as Erin strode towards the stage at the back of the room. Erin waved her hands and Wesle broke off with a vial of poison in his hands on stage. The young Human woman turned and raised her voice.

“Alright! You jerks win! Anyone who’s mad about the play come closer and pull up a seat! We’ll try to make it better if you all agree to stop coming here and causing trouble!”

She glared as the Drakes in the back cheered. Ceria glanced at Pisces, who had moved over to scavenge the food the Halfseekers had left.

“Looks like Erin’s giving in. You want to watch?”

“At the demise of art to satisfy the demands of the plebian masses? I should be so lucky.”

Pisces sneered. Ceria rolled her eyes and got up with Yvlon and Ksmvr. She walked forwards as Erin called the Players of Celum on stage. It wasn’t exactly what Ceria would have called an enjoyable activity, but she was participating for one important reason. Erin had told her drinks and food would be on the house for anyone who helped her brainstorm the play. From the way Earlia was drinking, she’d been told the same thing.

 

—-

 

“Alright, so why do you hate the play?”

“No Drakes marrying Human fleshbags!”

A cheer went up from the Drakes sitting in the front row. Erin glared and turned to the Players of Celum. Emme, the stage director and only half-Dwarf in the group didn’t rise to the bait.

“We know you don’t like the pairing. But besides that. Is there anything we can do? Can we change the dialogue, maybe?”

“Why doesn’t she marry a Drake instead? Give us a Drake Romeo and a Drake Juliet! We don’t want to see some Human kissing one of ours! Look at him! He’s not even that attractive as a Human!”

“Hey!”

Wesle looked hurt. The Drakes in front laughed. Emme sighed and raised her ink-covered quill.

“Please, please! We’re trying to make an effort to make this play better for everyone to enjoy, but attacking our [Actors] isn’t helping. Romeo and Juliet is about two species coming together. That’s the point of the play.”

“Well, maybe the play stinks. Did you think about that?”

Erin watched Emme’s bushy eyebrows twitch slightly. The half-Dwarf stared at the Drake heckler. Erin prayed she wouldn’t start a fight.

The brainstorming session or rather, negotiations to alter the play weren’t going well. Erin stared around at the [Actors]. The Humans from Celum were not happy after so many days of bad performances. They stood or sat behind Emme, arms folded, glaring daggers at the Drakes who were drunk on cheerful belligerence…or just drunk and belligerent.

“They don’t even seem as angry as they did a while ago. They’re just being annoying right now.”

Erin whispered to Jasi. The Drake grimaced as she cleaned some of the makeup off her scales.

“That’s because we’re humoring them, Erin. But I’ve heard about Drakes and stubbornness. They won’t budge unless we really do change the cast. I could step aside and have a Human play my role, but—”

“That’s not the point!”

“I know. But we do have to work this out. You might want to get some of your Goblins to be ready, though.”

“In case the Drakes start a fight? I’ve got that covered.”

“No, in case Emme tries to kill them.”

Jasi nodded towards the beet-red Emme. Erin eyed the short woman and nodded.

“I’ll let them know.”

She slid past Jasi and hurried down the common room. As she went, Erin saw something whiz at her head and ducked. She heard clicking claws and saw Mrsha scamper past. The Gnoll leapt and caught the ball with her mouth. Bird waved at Erin as she stared at him.

“Hello Miss Erin. We are playing catch.”

Erin looked back and ducked again as Mrsha threw the ball at Bird. The mostly empty common room was long and large thanks to her [Grand Theatre] Skill. It seemed that Mrsha had decided it was the prime place to play a game of catch in. Worse, Krshia, Iskhr, and the other Gnolls looked interested in playing too. Erin opened her mouth, remembered what Krshia had said about exercise, and closed it.

“Just don’t hit anyone, Bird. And clear off the tables! I don’t want Mrsha getting hurt!”

“I’ll do it.”

Lyonette breezed past Erin and grabbed a few empty tankards. Mrsha leapt onto a table. Erin eyed her, but Lyonette just touched Mrsha on the nose and complimented her on her catching Skills. It seemed like she wasn’t worried about Mrsha getting hurt. After all, the worst she could do was crash into something. In a world with monsters, Erin supposed that a few bumps and scrapes weren’t that bad. She had to admit, leaping onto tables and running about the common room looked fun. Maybe she’d join in.

After they fixed the play. Reminded of her task, Erin looked around and found her quarry. Headscratcher was sitting at a table with an empty plate, staring at the front of the room. He was alone—Erin had spotted Badarrow lounging next to one of the windows with Shorthilt and she assumed Rabbiteater was still in the outhouse. He’d eaten something that hadn’t agreed with him. And Numbtongue was probably in the basement, playing on the guitar in secret. She wandered over to Headscratcher.

“Hi Headscratcher, are you doing okay?”

She saw the Goblin’s head turn. Headscratcher’s green skin reflected the fireplace’s light dully. His pointed ears and slightly angular head made him clearly non-Human. But his body was close to Human. And his eyes. Erin paused as he stared into the glowing red eyes. They turned to her. They were full of tears.

 

—-

 

On a day like any other, Headscratcher wondered if his heart would break again. He wondered if he would die. It was a common thought for a Goblin to have. But it hurt more with each passing day, or so it seemed.

He had lost Grunter. Lost Bugear and Orangepoo and Leftstep and all the others. Sometimes it hurt too much to bear. Sometimes the hurt became fury. In moments like those, Headscratcher raged and it was all the other four Hobgoblins could do to keep him from going insane. In battle, Headscratcher was the first to charge in. He’d lost the discipline that Garen Redfang had beaten into him. His heart became fire and he raged. He was a [Warrior], but he felt like a monster at moments like those. That was fine. Better a monster than a weakling. He had lost enough friends.

It was harder being here. In this inn. Some days the quiet moments, the minutes where he sat with full belly at a table with nothing in the world to bother him—some days those were the worst. Because Headscratcher knew such days couldn’t last. Or if they could, it would be at the expense of others. He felt it. Somewhere his tribe, his friends, his people bled. While he was happy.

So he wept. Rage and grief were two sides of the same coin. Especially on today. It was like any other day. But he might lose two of his remaining companions. Or both. Or he might die himself.

But it was what had to be. What made it hard, what made everything worse was her. Erin Solstice.

“Headscratcher? What’s wrong?”

He’d thought he could slip away. But she had come over to him at the worst moment. It was his fault really. He’d been staring at the stage. All the Humans were arguing with the others over there now. But Headscratcher had been watching the play, watching the Human known as Wesle stride about, dressed in bright colors, shouting his lines as the lights focused on him. He had been jealous. Jealous of the Humans who could shine like that. In a way Headscratcher never could.

“Are you alright? Are you hurt?”

Erin peered at Headscratcher, worried. He realized he was leaking tears and brushed them away. Tears. Such a silly thing. Such a weak thing! Only Goblin children cried, and only the young ones. He was getting soft. Headscratcher rose and raised his hands. He concentrated, struggled with a word.

“Good. Is…good. I good.”

“Good? You were crying! What’s wrong? Did someone hurt you? Was it a fight? Did Badarrow hurt your feelings? Or is it something…bad?”

Erin advanced. Headscratcher backed away, shaking his head.

“No. No. I good. Good.”

He wished he could speak like Numbtongue. But his words were guttural and he struggled to make them come out. Erin hesitated. Headscratcher turned his head. She was here at a bad time. But it was too late. He heard footsteps and saw Rabbiteater come down the stairs with something in his arms. The Hobgoblin paused as he saw Headscratcher and Erin below. The Human’s head turned.

“Rabbiteater? Weren’t you outside?”

Oops. The secret was out. Headscratcher groaned and saw Badarrow and Shorthilt moving away from the window. At the same time, the trap door to the basement opened and Numbtongue poked his head out. He tsked when he saw Erin. Bewildered, the [Innkeeper] stared at the Goblins as they clustered around Rabbiteater.

“What the—hey, what’s that?”

She pointed at what Rabbiteater was carrying. The Goblin jumped and turned away. The five Hobs shuffled towards the door. She followed them.

“Headscratcher? What are you doing? Rabbiteater? What’s that? I need your help.”

“Later. We go. You wait. We come back soon.”

Numbtongue turned his head. He glared at Erin. She raised an eyebrow.

“Really? I don’t think so. Turn around and show me—”

Too late. Headscratcher reached the door. He opened it. The Hobs rushed outside. It was Badarrow and Rabbiteater who took the lead. They carried death, were perhaps minutes from it. But they didn’t hesitate. Headscratcher ran after them. Death on a day like any other day. It was the Human that made it harder. She made them want to live. And she chased them, that strange Human who made his heart hurt so.

“Wait!”

 

—-

 

Erin ran out of the inn after them. She was ready to be drenched, but found only wet, muddy grass and damp air outside. She looked up. The rain had stopped! Only for a moment, though. Erin spied the clouds already gathering over the brief open spot in the sky.

“Wow. It’s nearly a full moon. Full moons, rather. Pretty.”

Two moons hung in the sky, one pale blue, the other yellowish-green. Erin had hardly looked up at the sky of late. The moons glowed, almost completely full. Then a shadow passed over them. Rain fell, striking Erin in the eye and she remembered why she didn’t look up. Cursing, she looked around as the downpour resumed. Where—

There. The Goblins were standing in a circle. Erin stumbled towards, them, cursing, as the rain began to soak her. If this was some kind of prank, she’d—

But it wasn’t. She saw Rabbiteater fumbling with what he held in his arms. He handed something to Badarrow and then shifted the bundle. She saw him grab Headscratcher’s shoulder and the other Hob do the same. Shorthilt slapped Rabbiteater on the back. Badarrow struck his other shoulder. Erin blinked as Numbtongue extended a fist and Rabbiteater bumped it hard.

The Hobs were grinning. They pounded Rabbiteater’s shoulders, speaking words in Goblin that she couldn’t understand. But the meaning was clear. Rabbiteater smiled at them, showing his teeth. He looked at Erin as she approached. All the Goblins did. For a moment Rabbiteater faltered. His smile slipped and Erin saw fear in his eyes.

Fear? She looked at him.

“What’s going on?”

Then she saw what he held. A bundle of white cloth wrapped with golden rope. Only, that hadn’t been safe enough, so it had been wrapped in a blanket so that none of the cloth could touch Rabbiteater’s skin. The adventurers had been very clear about that. She recognized it at once.

“Is that the artifact from the dungeon?”

The Redfang Warriors looked at her. Erin stared. Yes, it was. The bundle of white cloth, one of the three artifacts that had been taken from the dungeon, lay in Rabbiteater’s arms. And as she looked at Badarrow she saw the bell in his. A terrible premonition stole over Erin. She pointed at the bundle.

“Wait. You don’t know what those do. Falene and Pisces said they couldn’t figure it out. It’s dangerous to use that. Or even touch it!”

Rabbiteater nodded. He backed away from Erin as she advanced. The other Hobgoblins stepped back. They looked at him. Shorthilt gave Rabbiteater a thumbs up. Headscratcher said something in his language. Rabbiteater grinned at them.

“Hold on—hold on—don’t! Don’t—”

Erin ran forwards, realizing what Rabbiteater was going to do. Green hands caught her. Headscratcher and Shorthilt dragged Erin back.

Rabbiteater! Don’t!

Too late. Rabbiteater walked down the hill, to the water’s edge. Rain fell as he slowly lifted the white cloth up. His hands shook as he pulled at the golden rope. It fell as Rabbiteater slowly lifted the bundle. He touched it and Erin gasped.

The white cloth unfolded in a single flap, turning into a cloak of pure white fabric. Erin and all the Goblins stared. Rabbiteater looked at the pure fabric and turned it in his hands. He turned and grinned, waving the cloak. Then he turned it. He undid the neck clasp and Erin shouted.

“Don’t put it on! I’ll pay for an [Enchanter]! Wait! Wait!

But it was too late. The Goblins couldn’t wait. They didn’t want to wait. Rabbiteater looked around, at the rain, the city of Liscor, and then back at Erin’s inn and Erin herself. He waved at her and gave her a big smile. Then he lifted the cloak. Rabbiteater looked around and took a deep breath. He unfurled the white cloth and in one movement, wrapped it around his shoulders.

The white fabric billowed as it swept around Rabbiteater. He froze as it touched his skin. The clasp snapped together around his neck and Erin froze. She saw Rabbiteater turn. The Redfang Warriors tensed. And then Rabbiteater cried out. He screamed and fell to the ground, writhing, clawing at his eyes.

Rabbiteater!

Erin felt Headscratcher’s hands leave her. The Hob ran forwards, crying out. He and the others were at Rabbiteater’s side as the Hob rolled about, shrieking in agony. Erin caught up to them as Headscratcher turned Rabbiteater over. He had a healing potion in his hands. He wrenched the cork out, lifted the bottle. Rabbiteater jerked and then sat up. He grabbed the bottle before it could be poured over his head and grinned.

“Got! Got! Scared! Ha!”

He sprang to his feet. Erin stopped, jaw agape. The other Redfang Warriors stared at Rabbiteater. He swirled the cloak and laughed. He touched his chest, his eyes, patted his skin, and grinned.

Just kidding! He waved his hands at the others, grinning. Headscratcher, Badarrow, Numbtongue, and Shorthilt stared at him. They laughed shakily. Then they began kicking the snot out of him.

Erin winced as the other four Redfang Warriors began kicking and punching Rabbiteater for his bad taste in jokes. They weren’t light blows either; Rabbiteater shouted as his fellows beat him. If the cloak was magical, it didn’t protect against bruises. In fact, it didn’t seem useful at all! The other incensed Goblins kicked Numbtongue until he rolled over.

Right into the water. Instantly, Erin saw the cloak change. The other Hobs leapt back, cursing, as the white fabric turned transparent. Rabbiteater didn’t’ notice at first. He got up, shielding his face and groin, uttering what sounded like pleas to stop. Then he noticed what had happened. He jumped and turned.

The cloak swirled around him. The pure white fabric had turned into—into water. Erin gaped as it swished gently. It looked as though part of a river was swirling around Rabbiteater! He turned and the water rippled as though it were fabric around him. Slowly, the Hob touched the cloak and his hands entered the water. He yanked them out and water droplets dripped from his claws. He looked up. The other Hobs stared.

“Safe?”

Numbtongue demanded instantly. Rabbiteater felt the cloak, took it off his neck, put it back on, felt his body, and nodded. Instantly, the other Hobs clustered around it. They exclaimed as they felt the cloak.

“What on earth is it? Is it water? It’s—oh wow!

Erin gasped as her hand sank into the cloak of water. She pushed her hand in, and it went in several inches, until it was nearly up to her elbow! Only then did her hand appear out of the other side and poke Rabbiteater’s side. He jumped.

“It’s all water! It’s a water cloak! A liquid cloak? That’s so cool! And maybe useless! Is it heavy? Can you move with it on?”

Rabbiteater shrugged. He leapt up—surprisingly high!—and then ran about. The cloak billowed behind him, not impeding his movement in any way. The Hobs murmured. Then Shorthilt reached for his side. He pulled out a sword. Instantly, Erin and Rabbiteater backed up.

“Hold on. What are you going to—”

Rabbiteater yelped as Shorthilt thrust the sword at his stomach. Reflexively, he blocked with the cloak. Shorthilt’s blade went through the cloak, slowing as the water rushed through it. The Hob grunted and slashed—the blade sprayed through the water. Slowly. It was hard for Shorthilt to move his sword, just as if it were underwater! He jabbed and Rabbiteater backed up, shouting what sounded like Goblin obscenities.

The water cloak didn’t block Shorthilt’s sword. It was literally just water, so the blade could go through. However, the thick liquid impeded the sword and when Shorthilt kicked, his foot splashed into the cloak, spraying water everywhere. Not that it mattered in the rain. Erin whistled.

“That’s so amazing! I mean, it didn’t’ stop the blade—Shorthilt, don’t stab Rabbiteater! There’s blood! Bl—”

The cloak changed color as Shorthilt’s blade produced a red rivulet from a cut on Rabbiteater’s arm. The Hob stopped cursing his friend and stared in alarm. Suddenly, the cloak was blood red and dark. Erin gulped as a curtain of blood swirled around Rabbiteater.

“Oh man. Wait a second. Is that…?”

Rabbiteater blinked. He dipped a finger into the red liquid swirling around him and pulled it out. Red dripped down his finger. He licked it, smacked his lips, and nodded.

“Blood.”

The other Goblins stared. They patted the cloak, exclaiming as they pulled out bloody hands. Erin backed away. The blood cloak swirled around Rabbiteater as he inspected it. The rain glanced off the blood. But when Rabbiteater cupped just a bit of water in his hand and poured it on the cloak, the blood-red color changed to translucent. Erin clapped her hands together.

“It’s a liquid cloak! I mean, the cloak is liquid! It changes depending on what you pour on it!”

The other Hobs had already come to the same conclusion. They grabbed Rabbiteater and, ignoring his protests, opened one of his cuts. It took more than a few drops, but once the blood had pooled, the cloak changed color again! Headscratcher poured water on the cloak, grunted as nothing happened, and then dipped the blood-red hem of the cloak in the water. Instantly, it changed back. The Hobs shouted in excitement and laughed as Rabbiteater lifted the watery cloak over his head. Erin smiled wildly until she realized one of the Hobs wasn’t laughing.

Badarrow whistled sharply, making every head turn towards him. He was standing twenty paces away from the others, at the edge of the water. He held the bell made of bronze and blue metal in his hands. He looked at the others and Erin saw the mirth drain from them. They looked at Badarrow and she realized what he was going to do.

“Hold on—hold on. You got lucky one time. But this is way too risky! Don’t ring the bell! Headscratcher, stop him!”

The other Hobs looked at Erin and shook their heads. She looked helplessly at Headscratcher. He stared at Badarrow. The Hob grimaced as he held the bell up. He looked at the others and nodded once. Then he rang the bell.

A hollow tone rang out from the bell. It was not the sound the bell should have made. It was a deep, vast sound and it hurt Erin to hear. Her eyes filled with tears and her head rang. She fell to her knees, crying out. She felt the world spin and threw up. The pain lasted as long as the bell’s chime did. When it finished Erin felt the world return to normal. She stood up. The other Redfang Warriors were on their knees. Rabbiteater had thrown up onto his cloak and it had changed into a horrible color. Erin stared around and then saw a motionless form.

Badarrow!

This time there was no act. Badarrow lay on the ground, one hand gripping the clapper of the bell. He was bleeding. His nose and ears both bled red as he writhed on the ground. His crimson eyes, when he opened them, were bleeding too.

“Healing potion! Now!”

Erin snapped at Headscratcher. The Hob yanked the cork out and poured liquid into Badarrow’s mouth before applying it to his bloody extremities. Badarrow jerked, and then sat up. The Hobs clustered around him, pressing him down as he tried to get up. Shorthilt reached for the bell, but Badarrow wouldn’t let go.

“Bad. Bad. Not ring!”

Numbtongue exhorted the others. He pointed at Badarrow’s hand and Erin saw how the Hob was holding it. He’d carefully rung the bell once, rather than hold it upright and let it ring multiple times. She shuddered, imagining what might have happened if he had.

At last, Badarrow was able to move. He sat up, shaking blood from his face. When he looked at Erin, it was grimly. He lifted the bell and the others immediately helped him clog the bell’s mouth with dirt and grass. Erin looked at the Redfang Warriors as they patted Badarrow, ignoring him slapping their hands away.

“You guys are insane. You know that?”

They looked at her and grinned sheepishly. Even Badarrow smiled. Rabbiteater swirled his vomit cloak around him, shaking it until Shorthilt kicked him and pointed to the water’s edge. The Redfang Goblins stood together after that, slapping each other’s shoulders. Smiling.

Insane. Completely crazy. Erin had to go up to the inn first to reassure Lyonette and the others who’d come out that nothing bad had happened. She turned back and saw the Goblins standing together in the rain. Now Headscratcher’s tears made sense. He’d known what they were going to do. And it made sense in a twisted way to Erin. You could totally test a cursed object.

“But still. Like that?”

She stared at the Redfang Warriors. They’d risked their lives just to check. Even though Falene and Pisces had been fairly certain two of the objects weren’t cursed, they hadn’t been sure. No adventurer would have dared to try on the cloak or ring the bell. But the Goblins had. It spoke to her about their priorities. She might have said that the Goblins valued their lives less.

But that wasn’t it. Headscratcher was gripping Badarrow’s shoulder so hard that Erin knew he was bruising the other Goblin. Badarrow was letting him do it. Headscratcher’s face shone with relief. He cared. They cared. It was just that they’d risked their lives. For each other. She remembered them fighting the Eater Goats, returning from the dungeon.

“You idiots. Come inside!”

Erin raised her voice. The Goblins turned. Obediently, they trudged up the hill, still gripping each other’s shoulders. Laughing. Like the best of friends. Like brothers. Perhaps they were. Erin didn’t know. She stared at Headscratcher as he stopped at the door. He looked at her, and then down.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. Just don’t risk your life. Idiot!”

“Sorry.”

The Redscar Warrior’s smiles faded. Erin wiped at her own eyes. Then she flung her arms around Headscratcher and hugged him.

He froze. Headscratcher looked down. He felt Erin’s warm arms on his skin. Wet rain falling from above. He felt her touch. A Human hugged a Goblin in the rain. And the Goblin wept again. Erin laughed when she saw Headscratcher wiping tears from his eyes.

“You big softie.”

The other Redfang warriors laughed. They punched Headscratcher’s shoulders, and then froze as Erin hugged them. Each one went as stiff as a board in surprise. It wasn’t just the intimacy of the hug. Erin wondered if a Human had ever touched them before. If anyone had in a way that wasn’t meant to harm. Probably not. So she did and then pointed.

“Come on. We’ll get dry inside.”

The Goblins followed Erin into the inn. They would have followed her anywhere. It wasn’t that she’d done anything in that moment. She hadn’t helped them identify the objects. She hadn’t changed destiny for them. They’d risked their lives, gambled, and gotten away lucky. All by themselves. Erin hadn’t helped with any of that.

But she had hugged them afterwards. She had cared. That was what mattered.

Erin led the way into the inn and stopped when she saw the commotion at the back of the room. Emme was on stage, being physically restrained by several of the stronger [Actors] from leaping on the jeering Drakes. The mood was ugly and Relc was excitedly looking around and making fists.

Erin stared at the set, as the Players of Celum shouted at the angry Drakes from Liscor and the Drakes hurled things at the Humans and one Drake on stage. She stared at Emme, the lone half-Dwarf. Her eyes widened.

“I’m such an idiot.

She strode forwards, waving her arms.

“Hey! I figured it out! Hey!”

The Redfang Goblins watched Erin turn, felt the room go quiet. It revolved around her as she smiled and made the arguing Humans and Drakes go still. Then she turned and beckoned.

“Come on! Take a seat and get a towel, you lot!”

The Goblins looked at each other. Then they sat and watched. It was warm and soon Erin had a mug in front of them. It was peaceful again. The Goblins watched, the cloak swirling around Rabbiteater’s shoulders and the bell held firmly in Badarrow’s hands as Erin strode up and down. It was a day like any other. And they weren’t dead. A good day, in short. They sat and watched.

A wonderful day.

 

—-

 

By the time Erin had everything in order, it was dark outside. The moons hung overhead, their glow hidden by the rainclouds. She stared up at the stage.

“Okay, how does it look? Audience?”

The Drakes and Humans stared up at the stage and muttered amongst themselves. Over half the Players of Celum were sitting rather than standing on stage. And there were a lot less Drakes on the floor. That was because a large number of them were on stage. As [Actors].

“The Capulets are now an all-Drake family. Which makes sense! Whereas the Montagues are Human. How does that look? Is everyone happy?”

Erin turned and smiled at the others. Seeing the Redfang Goblins together had made it obvious. It should have been obvious before. Of course the Drakes wouldn’t be happy to see only one Drake on stage! It was token representation at best. She folded her arms triumphantly as the Drakes in the crowd deliberated. Then one of them looked up.

“We still don’t like it.”

What?

The Drake who’d spoken shrugged. He was a burly Drake with orange scales, although he wasn’t quite as muscly as Relc.

“We still don’t like it. Why does a Human have to marry a Drake?”

“But that’s the point! It’s about love! Forbidden love! Romance! Are you telling me a Drake can’t marry a Human?”

The Drakes grumbled.

“Well…”

“It’s just that—”

“Look at her! She’s the same age as my daughter. I’d never let a stinking Human put his claws on my kin.”

“Damn Humans. Coming into our city, marrying our women.”

Erin stared at the Drakes who’d spoken. Her eyes passed over the complaining Drakes. Who were mainly male. She thought about Ilvriss. Who was again, male, unless she was very much mistaken. She thought about Embria and Zevara, both of whom hadn’t objected nearly as much. Slowly, Erin turned her head.

Change!

The actors on stage stared at her, confused. Erin pointed.

“The Montagues are now Drake! The Capulets are Human! Jasi, sorry. You’re not Juliet. Neither is Wesle.”

“I’m not?”

“No! Get me a male lead for Romeo. You don’t have to act. Anyone?”

“Ooh, me, me!

Relc scrambled on stage and practically shoved aside everyone. He stood and waved down at Embria, grinning like a kid. Erin sighed.

“Now, a female Juliet. Human. Anyone? Lyonette! Can you stand up there?”

Me? I’m not an [Actor]!”

“No one’s acting! Just stand up there, please? Across from Relc?”

Lyonette hesitantly climbed onto the stage. The audience of Drakes and Humans stared up. Krshia scarfed down a fried sausage at the back with Mrsha.

“Okay, now how about it? We have Romeo—”

Relc waved, grinning.

“—And Juliet.”

Lyonette hesitantly raised a hand. Erin stared at the Drakes. The male Drakes. They looked around.

“Well…if it’s like that, it doesn’t look so bad, does it?”

“He wants to marry a Human, why not? She’s pretty enough. In a fleshy way.”

“I like it. When is the play going to start?”

“Relc’s far too ugly to be up there. Let me play this Romeo fellow! And give him a proper Drake name! Romeoss, perhaps!”

“No, I’ll play him!”

The Drakes began arguing and Relc started kicking the ones trying to climb onto the stage off. Erin stared at them. She saw Embria cover her eyes and heard Jasi groan. The pieces fell into place. Erin grabbed a mug and hurled it at one of the Drakes.

“That’s sexist!

Across the inn, Klbkch turned to Krshia. The two had finished six plates of snacks together. The Antinium tilted his head.

“It appears the entire objection was not so much of species inclusion, but of sexual dynamics. Is that your understanding, Miss Krshia?”

The Gnoll shrugged and sniffed the air.

“Mm. It is tied together, yes? One cannot have Humans marching into Liscor and marrying young Drakes. However, it is far more acceptable for an older Drake to marry a Human. Silly thing. It reminds me much of how some Gnoll tribes squabble. Is that a fish pie I smell?”

“Is it? I would enjoy a piece.”

“I too. Ishkr!”

Krshia waved. Ishkr sighed and came over. Krshia and Klbkch watched Erin punch several Drakes as the furor slowly died down. Krshia’s paw stroked Mrsha’s head as the Gnoll curled up on her lap.

“I am relieved that Erin has reached a solution of sorts, regardless of the issue.”

“Hrr. Yes. I was wondering how long it would take her to realize the problem. Now perhaps it is time to bring up the second issue.”

“Second issue?”

“Yes! When will Gnolls have a place on stage? I have many pestering me to introduce them to Erin. Her little theatre must expand, yes?”

Krshia grinned at Klbkch. He nodded thoughtfully.

“I see your point. Indeed, that would probably solve the issue nicely. You should bring the issue up with Miss Erin.”

He and Krshia turned to look back at the stage. Erin was chasing Drakes off with a chair while the Players of Celum sat at their tables and stuffed themselves in irritation. Mrsha’s ears perked up at the crash of Erin hurling pottery at the Drakes running for the door.

“Perhaps tomorrow, hrm?”

“That would be wise.”

 

—-

 

Four hours later, The Wandering Inn was empty. The staff had gone home, the adventurers were asleep upstairs save for the Halfseekers who hadn’t yet returned, and the Players of Celum had left. They would return tomorrow to begin a round of auditions for anyone who wanted to act in Liscor. Erin had high hopes for that, although she was so annoyed at how everything had turned out that it had taken her the last forty minutes of tossing and turning before she could fall asleep.

But at last, she was slumbering. The inn was quiet. Bird sat up in his watchtower, humming a song. In the basement, Numbtongue played on the guitar. The rain fell on the rooftop, a dull roar. Background noise.

Liscor was asleep as well. Rain turned the stone battlements dark and made the footing slippery. The City Watch patrolled the walls, the unlucky Gnolls and Drakes on duty yawning, occasionally stopping to relight a lantern that had gone out. One of the Gnolls on duty paused by the corner of the eastern wall and sniffed the air. He glanced around, confused. Then he sniffed again and peered over the edge of the wall.

A pair of clawed hands dragged the Gnoll over the edge. His cries were lost in the rain. After a moment, a dark shape swung itself over the edge of the walls. It was wearing the Gnoll’s armor, but the pieces were too small. The shape continued along, imitating the guardsman’s walk until it met a tired Drake patrolling his section of the wall.

“That you, Mersh?”

The Drake frowned sleepily at the figure in front of him. His tired brain processed the wet, furry shape and concluded something was wrong. The [Guardsman] frowned and tried to figure out what was wrong. Something about the size. Was Mersh always that small? Then he saw the figure straighten. It had been hunched. Now it rose and two glowing eyes stared at him. The Drake saw a mouth open and large canine teeth bared at him.

Ala—

The Raskghar stepped forward and brought Mersh’ axe down on the Drake’s head. The guardsman crumpled without a sound. The Raskghar sniffed, glanced around, and growled quietly. More Raskghar swung over the walls. These ancient, primitive offshoots of the Gnoll species were huge, and they were armed with stone weapons and crude hide armor. They quickly discarded their weapons in favor of the guardsman’s steel.

Slowly, keeping to the shadows, they pretended to patrol across the walls. They moved fast. The Gnolls who caught their scent on the air were grabbed and subdued in an instant, their limp bodies being carefully lowered off the walls. The Drakes died even quicker to tooth and claw and blade.

The Raskghar did not linger overlong on the walls, however. They swarmed down the eastern ramparts and into the city. The streets were practically empty at night. The Raskghar stole along, loping through the shadows, their eyes gleaming. They paused to inspect the signs, the closed doors, and sniffed the air. They growled at each other, making complex gestures before splitting up into teams.

The first group of Raskghar headed down the main street, garbed in the armor of the City Watch. The Drakes and Gnolls out on the streets vanished one by one as the Raskghar advanced. More disappeared into apartments and came out with limp bodies or with blood on their muzzles. They might have cleared block after block in this fashion but for the patrol that came marching down the street.

Wing Commander Embria frowned as she saw the odd patrol of Gnolls marching towards her. She glanced at the other [Soldiers] following her.

“Captain Vash. Is this the source of your [Dangersense]?”

“And the smell, Wing Commander.”

The Gnoll [Captain] tugged at the brim of his metal helmet. He stared hard at the patrol coming their way. The Gnolls were very large. Embria raised her voice.

“You there! Guardsmen! Halt!”

The patrol stopped. Embria stared at them for one second and then turned her head.

“They’re not giving a countersignal. Raise the alarm!”

Instantly, one of the [Soldiers] raised a horn and blew it. The Raskghar snarled as they straightened. Embria swore.

“What are those?

Raskghar!

Vash howled in fury as the Raskghar loped towards them. Embria charged past him, her spear blurring as she stabbed repeatedly at the first Raskghar. The beast blocked the lightning-fast strikes with a buckler, snarling, as the other Raskghar spread out. Vash raised his head and howled, adding his voice to the horns already blowing through the air.

The Gnoll’s panicked call spread throughout the city. It woke Gnolls from their sleep with the urgency instilled in them from childhood. In her bed, Krshia’s dreams were shattered and she leapt out of it, grabbing for the shortbow she kept under her bed. In seconds she had the bow and her hunting knife and was listening to the howls. Her teeth bared as she listened. She raced out of her apartment naked, and howled into the rain. More howls answered her. Krshia turned her head and ran towards the howls.

She was halfway down the street when she heard the signal howl again. Only this time, something was off. Krshia sniffed the air and spun. She heard the howl, a perfect replica of a Gnoll’s voice, but it came from a hulking shape striding towards her. Krshia didn’t need to smell to know what it was.

A Raskghar. Krshia’s hackles went up and she drew her bow and loosed an arrow in one moment.

“[Rapid Shot]!”

She watched the arrow flash across the street towards the Raskghar. It raised a shield and caught the arrow. Krshia’s eyes widened. So quick! The Raskghar snarled and advanced. Krshia backpedaled, drawing another arrow and loosing it with long-honed reflexes. Again, the Raskghar predicted where the arrow was heading and stopped it before it could strike his left leg. It stared at her. Not it—Krshia smelled the Raskghar’s gender. She. A young she, in the prime of her life.

The Raskghar waited until Krshia grabbed for another arrow and then charged. It was quick! Krshia dropped the arrow and grabbed her knife. She slashed—the Raskghar leapt and caught her arm, bearing her to the ground.

On the street it was muscle and reflexive action. No time to think. Krshia tried to stab, but the Raskghar was too strong. So she tried to bite—only to find a hand at her throat. The Raskghar effortlessly overpowered her, choking Krshia. It was laughing as Krshia tried to kick it—until the whistle. Krshia, choking, felt the pressure on her ease and felt the Raskghar bound away. She lay there, gasping, and heard the voices.

“There’s another one! Surround it!”

“Watch the sides! [Attack Formation]!”

Krshia sat up. She saw Watch Captain Zevara and Olesm leading a squad of eight [Guardsmen] rushing to surround the Raskghar. It spun, trying to find an exit, but Olesm’s voice guided the [Guardsmen] into flanking positions. It spun, a metal shield and axe in hand. The weapons were small in the Raskghar’s paws.

“Are you alright?”

Olesm ran over to Krshia. She gasped and nodded. Zevara was leading the attack.

“Take it down!”

She attacked with two other Drakes while a Gnoll with a spear covered her side. The Raskghar moved quick. It batted away Zevara’s sword thrust with its shield and grabbed the Drake charging it on its right. Ignoring the cut it received on the arm, it threw the Drake into her friend, knocking the two to the ground. Then it turned and caught a strike from Zevara on its shield. Krshia watched, dazed, as the Raskghar and Drake exchanged blows.

“Ancestors, it’s good!”

Olesm exclaimed in dismay as the Raskghar took on Zevara and the Gnoll with the spear at once. Its eyes never left Zevara’s face and when she drew breath, it rushed her before the fire breath could emerge. The Raskghar turned and howled as an arrow sprouted from its shoulder. It looked over and saw Krshia and two Drakes aiming for it. It dove and Olesm cut at it. Again, the [Guardsmen] forced the Raskghar back, this time towards an alleyway. The Raskghar retreated to the narrow space and the [Guardsmen] hesitated. They could only attack two abreast now.

“Pull back. Hit it with arrows!”

Olesm snapped, but a claw brushed past him. Zevara rose, growling.

“I’ll bake it myself!”

“Wait.”

Krshia rasped at the Drake. She stared at the Raskghar. It was glancing from Zevara to the archers, eyes darting rapidly. Krshia stared at it. It was nothing like the stories she’d told Olesm! The Raskghar looked every bit like the primordial Gnoll monster it was, but it was far, far too intelligent. She pointed at it.

“Take it alive if you can, Watch Captain. It is one of many in the city!”

Zevara nodded. The Raskghar glanced at her and then bared its teeth in a menacing grin. It opened its mouth and to everyone’s shock, spoke.

“Many. Many.”

The growling voice froze Krshia for a second. She stared at the Raskghar.

“You can speak?”

Olesm gasped.

“It knows the common tongue? How?”

“Learned from you. Just now.”

The Raskghar grinned at Krshia. It—her eyes focused on Krshia. Then on the other Gnoll [Guardsman]. When the Raskghar spoke it was slowly. Thoughtfully.

“We know you. Enemy. Old enemy. Prey. Blood prey. We know. You make stone city. You come here. Prey. In our hunting lands.”

“We are not your prey, thing.”

Krshia raised her bow. The Raskghar looked at her and Krshia felt a fear worm its way into her. Instinctual, primal.

“It is the time of hunting.”

The droplets on Krshia’s body ceased. She glanced up. Overhead, the rain had stopped falling for the second time this day. The clouds parted for a moment. The skies opened. The Raskghar looked up and grinned. Krshia looked up and swore.

Moonlight fell down from above. The two nearly full moons shone down on Liscor. Krshia recalled the old legends. The Raskghar traded their ability to level for strength and savagery. Only when the moon shone did they regain their intelligence.

And what intelligence. The Raskghar grinned, her eyes glowing with too much knowledge. Her pupils dilated as the moonlight and rain felt into them. She turned.

“Don’t let it get away!”

Olesm shouted and the [Guardsmen] loosed at the same time as Zevara breathed fire. Too slow. The Raskghar leapt and bounded up the alleyway, jumping from wall to wall, her claws digging into the brickwork with incredible strength. She howled as two arrows found her, but kept moving. She raced over the rooftops. Zevara instantly turned.

“After her! There are more Raskghar in the city! I want them all found!”

She raced off. Olesm paused.

“Miss Krshia, you should stay inside!”

“No, no. Gnolls are gathering. We heard the alarm. We must go together. There is safety in numbers.”

Krshia rubbed her throat. She could still hear Gnolls calling each other together. Olesm shook his head.

“You’re making yourselves targets this way! The Raskghar are aiming for Gnolls! They’ve carried off dozens already! Come with me—we’ll find the others and call in reinforcements!”

He raised something to his lips and blew. A whistle. The piercing call made Krshia wince, but it was soon answered by more whistles. Olesm pointed.

“Come on!”

He and Krshia ran through the streets, keeping a wary eye out. Olesm panted as they went.

“Those are Raskghar? They’re nothing like the adventurers described! One of them took on an entire squad! It must be the effects of the full moon! The intelligence—”

“Yes. But it is not the right time! It is too soon!”

“What do you mean?”

Krshia glanced up. The moonlight was fading as more rainclouds began to unleash a second downpour. But it wasn’t the moonlight that mattered.

“It is not the full moon yet. Close. But this lunar cycle will see both moons wax and wane over the next six days.”

“Are you serious?”

Olesm paled. He looked around. The howling continued as more warnings and whistles blew, calling for reinforcements or alarm.

“We need to secure the city first. We’ll triple the watch! Ancestors, we’ll seal all the dungeon entrances if we have to! But we need to catch as many Raskghar as we can. The Gnolls—”

“How many have they slaughtered.”

The Drake turned.

“Drakes? Every one they found. But we haven’t found a single Gnoll body.”

“What? Where are they?”

“The Raskghar took them.”

“Why?”

The Drake and Gnoll stared at each other. They looked around. The streets were dark. Krshia bared her teeth. She didn’t know what the Raskghar were doing. But she sensed it, the ancient fear, a warning from the roots of her species. She raised her head and howled a warning to all that could hear.

Raskghar. Danger, kindred! Danger!

 

—-

 

Bird heard the howling first. He looked up from his watch tower and gazed towards Liscor. Howling at night? That was very strange. He had not heard howling at night except when the undead had attacked Liscor. And when Brunkr had died. He paused and stared around.

“The water is wet. Rain is falling. Someone is howling. That is a bad thing. I know this because my [Tactician] self tells me. But I see nothing.”

The Antinium peered into the water. Was it a fish? A bird? A moth-bird? He looked up at the skies. Nothing. But he knew there was something, so he kept staring. It was very hard to see in the darkness, with the rain, and all the water. All he could see was the droplets of water hitting the surface of the water. And a few shadows. Fish swam in the darkness, barely visible even to Bird’s enhanced vision. He paused. A few of the dark shadows in the water were very big. Bird drew an arrow and loosed it. He saw a shape jerk underwater, and then saw the water splash.

“Oh. That is not a fish.”

A furry head rose out of the waters and stared at Bird. He saw glowing eyes stare malevolently at him. Bird raised a hand.

“Are you a Gnoll? I am sorry! I thought you were a bad fish.”

He paused. The furry head looked like a Gnoll, but the creature wasn’t. It was bigger. More bestial. And there were a lot of shapes in the water, heading to Liscor and the inn. He saw another head break through the water.

“That is a Goblin.”

Bird saw more Goblins surface, and more Raskghar emerge from the water. He saw one point at him and growl and slowly drew another arrow.

“I think we are under attack.”

At first he wasn’t sure. Then one of the Raskghar clambered out of the water and Bird was sure. Most guests who came to Erin’s inn didn’t have big axes in hand. Most guests.

Alarm! Alarm! I am calling an alarm!”

Bird began shouting as he drew an arrow and loosed it. The Raskghar dodged the first arrow which made Bird surprised. The second arrow he loosed was a [Homing Shot] and curved as the Raskghar dodged. It fell, but more were coming. Bird shouted.

“Alarm! Alarm!”

He didn’t know if anyone could hear him. It was raining too hard. Bird stood in the watch tower as more Raskghar and Cave Goblins charged towards the inn. There were a lot of them. He was just glad he had his new bow. If he didn’t die, he resolved to tell the Queen that it was a very lovely bow. More Raskghar thrust their way into the inn as Bird shot arrow after arrow. He would have gone below, but more were trying to climb the slippery roof and get him. Bird hummed as he shot.

I am Bird, this is bad. If the monsters get Erin, I will be sad…oh, there are many. This is bad, bad, bad!

 

—-

 

Lyonette was sleeping soundly when she felt someone leap onto her. She gasped and sat up as Mrsha hurled herself onto Lyonette’s chest.

“Mrsha! I told you that hurts! I—”

The [Princess] was angry right up until she saw Mrsha’s face. The Gnoll was in a panic. Lyonette looked at her, alarmed.

“What’s wrong?”

She didn’t hear anything but the pounding rain. But Mrsha clearly did. The Gnoll looked around wildly, then sat back and howled. The sound echoed through the inn. Lyonette saw Apista buzz up in alarm.

“Mrsha, what—”

Then Lyonette heard the distant howling and horn calls coming from Liscor. At the same time, she heard a voice from above.

Alarm! Alarm!

That was Bird! Lyonette scrambled out of bed. She looked around.

“Mrsha, follow me! Apista!”

She thrust open her door, and then remembered her sword. It was propped next to the window. Lyonette grabbed it and unsheathed it. She stared at the blade as Mrsha howled again. She could hear banging from above and then a crash from below.

“Erin!?”

She ran out of her room just in time to see Ceria thrust her door open. The half-Elf had a breast band on. Another door crashed open and Ksmvr charged out fully armed.

“I heard Bird’s alarm! We are under attack!”

“Where—”

The first Raskghar came up the stairs like a battering ram made of fur. Ceria turned and her eyes went wide.

Raskghar!

“Leave it to m—”

Ksmvr lunged with his enchanted shortsword. The Raskghar’s eyes narrowed and it surged left. Ksmvr’s blade missed and it backhanded the Antinium. He spun backwards and Lyonette saw him crash into a wall. The Raskghar charged Ceria who leapt backwards too late. It pinned her to the wall and Lyonette saw its claws open.

The Raskghar opened its mouth, ready to bite as Ceria gasped, but it suddenly paused and sniffed. It brought its head closer and sniffed Ceria’s face and chest. It seemed confused. It lifted Ceria up and then howled. Lyonette’s sword entered the Raskghar’s side. It turned, eyes murderous, and slashed.

“[Flawless—]”

Lyonette’s sword came up and parried the blow. She felt the force almost tear the sword from her grip, but the claw was deflected. The Raskghar blinked at her, and then slashed again. This time it missed because Lyonette was backing up. The Raskghar bounded towards her on all fours and then turned. Mrsha howled as she rammed into it from the side, her small teeth biting.

“Mrsha, no! Run!”

The [Princess] screamed frantically at Mrsha. The Raskghar turned, teeth bared, but then it stared at Mrsha. At her white fur. It sniffed her like it had Ceria, and then reached for Mrsha. The Gnoll ran in alarm, and the Raskghar followed her, only to stop as an angry Ashfire Bee buzzed around it. It growled as Lyonette jabbed at it from the side, looking more irritated than anything else. It turned, claw extended, and Lyonette saw the razor tips aiming for her face—

“[Ice Wall]!”

A sheet of shimmering ice blocked the claw mid-strike. Lyonette saw the thick ice fracture as the claws struck. She saw Ceria getting to her feet and Ksmvr rising, clutching at the broken chitin and green blood leaking from his face.

Get back!

Ceria shot an [Ice Spike] at the Raskghar. It howled as the projectile pierced its side and raced backwards. Mrsha fled into Lyonette’s arms and the girl retreated back into her room, shouting for Apista. Ceria swore as she grabbed Ksmvr.

“Are you okay?”

“My injuries are superficial—”

“What’s going on?”

A door slammed open. Pisces looked around, annoyed and bleary. He stared uncomprehending at Ksmvr, Ceria, and the ice wall, and then his eyes widened.

“Springwalker—what—”

“We’re under attack! Raskghar!”

She screamed at him. Pisces’ jaw dropped. The door across from him opened. Yvlon strode out, fully armored. The woman didn’t bother with questions. She pointed.

“Downstairs!”

The Horns of Hammerad turned and ran for the stairs. They could hear fighting throughout the inn. They shot downstairs and nearly ran into the next group of Raskghar. The beasts snarled as they spotted the adventurers on the stairs. Pisces reached for his rapier, remembered he didn’t have it, and swore. He and Ceria shot flames and ice magic as Ksmvr and Yvlon surged down the stairs. The Raskghar retreated, and the adventurers leapt down to the ground floor to find a battle in full swing.

The Raskghar were already in the inn! They were battling the Redfang Warriors, who were already awake. Headscratcher and Rabbiteater were all fighting in front of the kitchen, fending off six Raskghar and a dozen Cave Goblins. The Horns could hear Erin shouting from inside the kitchen.

“Pisces, undead! Yvlon, Ksmvr, the flanks!”

Ceria pointed. The Horns split up. Ceria raised two walls of ice, covering her and Pisces’ sides as the [Necromancer] muttered a spell, reaching for the bag of holding he carried. The Raskghar turned as Yvlon and Ksmvr assailed them from the left. A Cave Goblin turned, screeching, and fell backwards with a spike of ice in its chest.

The Raskghar were quicker, though. One turned as Yvlon swung and raised a hide shield. It screamed as the blade sheared through both shield and arm. The enchanted sword severed the arm, but the Raskghar pulled back before Yvlon could run it through. Two more Raskghar flanked her as the Cave Goblins swarmed Ksmvr.

“Ceria!”

Erin’s voice echoed from the kitchen. Ceria heard a crash and saw a Raskghar jerk back, snarling, its pelt aflame as a potion bottle struck it. It turned and rolled, roaring, and Headscratcher and Rabbiteater charged forwards.

“Erin! Are you alright?”

“I am! Badarrow and Shorthilt are on the roof with Bird! Where’s Lyonette?”

“Safe!”

Ceria prayed that were so. The Raskghar and Goblins were occupied with her team and the Redfang Warriors for now. She raised a finger and pointed.

“[Ice Spike]!”

The projectile shot towards a Raskghar. But before it could hit, the huge not-Gnoll turned and leaned, avoiding the spell! Ceria gaped, and then saw Ksmvr go flying for the second time that night.

“Dead gods!”

It was impossible. There were only six Raskghar. Six! But somehow, they were fighting both the Horns of Hammerad and the two Hobs on equal footing. One of Pisces’ summoned undead bears cracked as a Raskghar pummeled it with blows. Another lashed out and caught Rabbiteater with a terrible blow across the face. The Hob stumbled and nearly fell—he was already bleeding from a gash across his stomach.

“I thought Gemhammer killed a dozen of these guys!”

Ceria aimed again, but the Raskghar she pointed at caught her next [Ice Spike] spell on its shield. The ice pierced the hide and its arm, but only a few inches. The thing snarled and charged Ceria.

“Watch out!”

Yvlon pivoted into the blow. She raised her shield and the Raskghar swung a stone club. The blow made the shield ring and Yvlon cursed.

“My arm—”

Her shield arm had bent from the impact. Her weakened arm twisted horribly and Yvlon lifted her sword, dropping her shield. Ceria threw up a wall of ice and the Raskghar smashed into that.

“Back! Back to the stairs!”

The Horns retreated. Ksmvr leapt into the air over one of the ice walls as Pisces’ second bear went down. Now the Raskghar were on the offensive. The little Cave Goblins streamed forwards. Ceria cursed as she raised another ice wall and the Raskghar began to tear it down. She saw the two Hobs fighting a trio of Raskghar by themselves. Rabbiteater was staggering, battered by a club one of the Raskghar was holding. He fell and Headscratcher threw himself in the way. Erin screamed.

“Headscratcher! Watch out!”

 

—-

 

Fury. Desperation. Fear. Headscratcher started to lose himself in the fighting. The Raskghar were strong! Stronger, quicker, smarter than before. He could barely take on the one attacking him with a stone axe. They were—stronger than he was.

Meanwhile, Rabbiteater was fighting two at once. The Hob was wearing his water cloak and was using it to shield himself from the not-Gnolls. The Raskghar howled in frustration as their blows sank into the watery cloak. But then one wrenched aside the protective garment and struck. Rabbiteater’s head reeled back as a club broke open the skin of his temple. Bleeding, dizzy, he looked up. The Raskghar raised the club.

Headscratcher turned. He saw the blow falling. He saw Rabbiteater bare his teeth defiantly.

Bugear. Headscratcher remembered the other Goblin’s death. Never again. He howled and leapt forwards. The club smashed him down in Rabbiteater’s place. Headscratcher felt the darkness take him. The pain smothered his consciousness. He was falling. Failing. His helpless fury writhed in him as Rabbiteater struggled up, fighting three at once. Erin was behind him, throwing pots, pans—she was out of potions. She was shouting for Rabbiteater to get back.

Headscratcher was fading. He tried to find the strength, but he didn’t have—have—

The three Raskghar were advancing on Rabbiteater, trying to attack him from the sides as he held the water cloak up. The Horns were engaged with the other Goblins and the other three Raskghar. The not-Gnolls grinned in delight. They pressed forwards, passed by the trap door leading to the basement—

And Numbtongue thrust the trap door up. He surged upwards in a roar, the wooden guitar in hand. The Raskghar nearest to him turned, surprise written over its face. The guitar went up and smashed into its face. It broke in a musical twang and the Raskghar howled in outrage. Numbtongue cursed and punched the Raskghar. His blow barely made the beast blink. He leapt back as the Raskghar swung at him and howled.

“Headscratcher!”

Headscratcher twitched. He was lying on the ground. His mind was scrambled. He was barely conscious. He flicked in and out of waking. He heard Numbtongue’s voice. The Goblin beat his chest in fury.

Redfang!

He swung at the Raskghar. The beast punched back. Numbtongue gasped as his ribs cracked. He swung the guitar, beat a rhythm onto the Raskghar’s raised arm. He howled at Headscratcher, demanding he rise.

“Redfang! Fight! A Goblin’s pride! A warrior’s right! Redfang! Redfang!

He stomped. His hand slapped the guitar’s broken base.

Goblin!

Rabbiteater swung the shortsword. The two Raskghar battered him. The Goblin shouted the same word.

Goblin!

The word vibrated through Headscratcher’s body. He tried to rise. The fury in his veins grew. Numbtongue received a clubbing blow on his arm and screamed. Never again. Headscratcher heard the word.

Redfang!

His mind flickered. It went out—and Headscratcher heard the voice from above.

 

[Warrior Level 20!]

[Conditions Met: Warrior → Berserker Class!]

[Skill – Fury Strength obtained!]

[Skill – Overpowering Blow obtained!]

 

Numbtongue fell back, the Raskghar grabbing his arms. It bit at his neck. He spat at it, biting back. The Raskghar bit for his throat. Hands dragged its neck back at the last moment.

Again. Never again. Never, never, nevernevernevernever—

A howl emerged. Not from the Raskghar, but from the Goblin who had risen to his feet. Headscratcher grabbed the Raskghar. It grunted in surprise as its feet left the ground. Headscratcher lifted it up.

Never again!

He screamed and the air shook with his fury and grief. Headscratcher seized the not-Gnoll monster and lifted it. It grunted in surprise as he lifted it over his head and threw the huge beast across the room. It crashed into a wall. The other not-Gnolls looked at Headscratcher. He turned, the veins in his neck and arms bulging. A crazed red light shone from his eyes. He raised his sword and charged them, screaming. There was no sanity in him, no thought of self-preservation. Only rage. Only fury and grief. So the world had named him. So he was.

A berserker.

Headscratcher’s sword swung down. One of the Raskghar raised a crude shield. Too weak! Headscratcher’s blow cleaved the shield. His sword cut through a crude hide shield and then bone and skin. Headscratcher whirled and grabbed a mace as it swung towards his head. He threw both weapon and attacker onto the ground and then kicked them across the floor.

The Raskghar snarled and caught Headscratcher’s sword arm, clawing at him as he kept the quivering blade from his throat. Headscratcher forced his sword down, ignoring the claws that pierced his side, the flesh the Raskghar bit from his arm. He battered the Raskghar with his other fist, hitting it again, and again, and again—he hacked down and the Raskghar screamed. Headscratcher raised his sword and slashed repeatedly, screaming fury.

The third Raskghar scrambled to his feet. He roared at Headscratcher, but before he could move, Rabbiteater charged. The Hob leapt on the back of the Raskghar and a veil of water descended over the beast’s head. The Raskghar howled and then choked as it inhaled a mouthful of water. It flailed, but the cloak was wrapped around its head and however much the Raskghar moved, it couldn’t unfasten the liquid cloth. The not-Gnoll jerked as its lungs filled with water and then fell back limply.

“We got one!”

The Horns shouted as a fourth Raskghar fell, wounded by Ksmvr’s sword and pierced with countless shards of ice. The remaining two Raskghar looked around, realized they’d lost, and howled. They pointed and the four Cave Goblins screamed desperately and attacked the Horns as the two Raskghar fled for the doors. The Horns cut the Cave Goblins down and pursued the Raskghar, but the not-Gnolls disappeared into the water.

“Everyone okay?”

Ceria leaned on an overturned table, gasping with exertion. She saw Yvlon panting, her shield arm bent. Ksmvr was sitting, bleeding from multiple wounds on his body. Pisces was unharmed, but he was covered in sweat. Erin rushed out of the kitchen at last.

“Numbtongue!”

The Hob croaked and waved a hand weakly as she opened a healing potion. He was clutching at his chest and Rabbiteater had decided to lie down with his hands on his stomach. Erin rushed to both and then saw a shape bending and hacking at a mutilated corpse.

“Headscratcher! Enough! It’s over!”

Headscratcher turned, his eyes wide and wild. He stared at Erin, his bloody sword raised. Then, slowly, the light of fury receded from his eyes. He blinked, stumbled, and only then noticed he was bleeding. Part of his arm was missing. Erin scrambled to pour healing potion on his wounds.

“Erin! Are you okay? Is it safe?”

Lyonette appeared at the head of the stairs, clutching Mrsha. She stared wide-eyed at the bodies. Erin turned.

“It’s okay! But what about Bird? Badarrow? Shorthilt?”

“They’re okay! The Raskghar all ran!”

Lyonette walked downstairs, Mrsha in her arms. She looked around.

“Oh no. Is everyone—?”

“We made it. Somehow. If the Horns and the Redfangs hadn’t run downstairs, I would have been dead.”

Erin helped Headscratcher sit at a table. The Goblin was pale, but he was awake. His head still spun, but now the battle had ended he felt…different. He looked at Rabbiteater and the other Goblin stared at him. Headscratcher stared at his hands.

The fury. The despair. It all made sense now. He stared around the inn, forever changed. Gone was Headscratcher the Redfang [Warrior]. In his place sat a Goblin [Berserker], full of rage and grief. Stronger. Different. The rage burned in Headscratcher. The helpless fury over losing his friends. But now it was strength. Strength. Headscratcher clenched his fist.

It had been that which saved him. That which saved Rabbiteater. His fury. The emotions he had despaired at. But not just that. He remembered the voice, the sound that had brought him to his feet. Headscratcher looked up.

Numbtongue was clutching at his ribs. The Hob looked tired, wounded, but he was still fussing over something on the ground. The broken guitar.

Numbtongue picked up the base of the guitar and inspected it critically.

“Oh. Your guitar.”

Erin stared at the pieces. Numbtongue offered it to her and Erin shook her head sadly.

“I’m sorry, Numbtongue. I think it’s broken. We can get a new one.”

The Hobgoblin paused. He looked at the guitar and held the broken handle in place. Two strings had been torn out and the others were slack, but he adjusted the strings and plucked. The guitar sang. Numbtongue played a riff. Erin stared. Headscratcher stared. The Redfang Goblins and the Horns of Hammerad stared. Numbtongue turned and looked around. He smiled.

“Music.”

And Headscratcher laughed. He sat back in the chair, feeling his healing injuries complain at last. But he didn’t care. The pain was nothing. He was alive. Erin was alive. The other Goblins were alive. It was the best of all days. So he sat and Rabbiteater lay down and Numbtongue played on.

One was a [Warrior] with a magic cloak. He had yet to become, yet to evolve. But he would. The other was a [Berserker]. The third was a [Bard].

A Goblin [Bard].

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

99 thoughts on “5.34

  1. In hindsight, I regret delaying writing the side story on Halloween. But I get so busy that side stories are very hard to write on top of my regular two chapters. It may be that next year I won’t do extra chapters at all. The side stories will just be a regular chapter each month instead of one on top of everything else.

    I say that because it was pretty difficult to write a side story and then turn around and write a regular one. I generally need 2-3 uninterrupted days of prep to get a chapter to flow just right and a side story might well make both it and the following chapters worse for lack of prep time. Hopefully that didn’t happen here.

    But I can’t help but suspect that the longer chapters of late–14,000 compared to an average of 10,000 which is already long–hints at a lack of focus. They say brevity is important and I think it’s a sign of a more complete understanding of the chapter. Without a clearer picture, I have to meander before getting to the important parts. Then again, TWI is all meander.

    Not that I’m saying this is bad. In fact, I hope the reveal and the twists are good! Headscratcher has leveled up. So has Numbtongue! We’re seeing new classes at last–and magical artifacts! Was it everything you hoped for? Let me know and thanks for reading!

    • Lots of anticipated goodness in this chapter (levels, artifacts, and wolfweres oh my). Loved the heavy metal-esque ending!
      Numbtounge definitly needs someone to enchant up a solid body electric guitar for him so he can rock out and crack heads without breaking his instrument all the time.

      With regard to looseness reading twi is little like getting the fanboy deluxe edition of a film with deleted scenes restored and so on without there having ever been an official studio release. Few in the current audience would complain since we’re superfans.
      That said if dropping to only 104 expected updates a month from 116 let’s you feel better about the attention you’re able to give to each chapter I’m all for it.

    • Your update consistency, length, and quality is superior to basically every other piece of online serial fiction. Sincerely love your work. 🙂

    • Length/brevity is much less important in serialized webfiction than in printed novels, really. I mean, I think someone said this before — how many comments have you ever got complaining that a chapter was *too long*?

      • I dunno, I loved the chapter but the transition from play>artifact testing>play>invasion in Liscor>TWI was a bit jarring.

        It’s not *bad*, and the unexpected twists in long chapters are one of the things pirateaba does very well. It feels amazing to read when a chapter starts and twists into something terrifying! 5.28 did that and it was terrific (and terrorific)

        Run on sentences are painful to read though, no matter the content, and plot needs break points too. Maybe I’m just jaded from 5.28 having a sort of similar structure not that long ago? Not that I didn’t like the chapter, I mean oh god that cliffhanger with the abductions…

  2. Leave a typo for Goblin [Bards], which are objectively the best kind of [Bard].

    (Goblin typo finders: Hans C., Randomdude, Twilgrimm, Xanthidine Felis, MrWiggles, AVR, ZombieNo53)

    • Erin paused as {he} stared into the glowing red eyes.

      {he} should be a {she}
      Erin paused as she stared into the glowing red eyes.

    • Not a joke, I am currently playing a hobgoblin bard in my DnD campaign right now. Hater’s gonna hate, but I have music to make! Who says goblins can’t make music!

    • “and brought Mersh’ axe down on the Drake’s head.”
      Mersh’s

      “He raised his sword and charged them, screaming.”
      “charged the Raskghar” would be clearer, I thought he’d run at the Redfang goblins.

  3. I had to stop reading to gather myself as Headscratcher turned into a Berzerker and Numbtongur showed up as a bard. I’m not sure how you do it, but you make a story filled with monsters feel so human. Always amazing.

  4. Finally some proper action! Having the Redfang warriors as security is really paying off a lot with a gold-rank dungeon nearby. However, it is clear that Erin is not paying much attention to securing her premises. After the moth attack, I would have thought she would get a heavy STEEL front door. (She already has some level of fortification to her walls)

    Its also so irritating that Erin *never* thinks of using her Aura in combat. She didn’t do so in the Moth fight either. Sure, the Raskghar might shake it off, but they would be _slowed_ down and in a battle those minute seconds are important.

    I feel that Erin was more of a badass when she was new to this world and her class. She could hold her own against a Goblin chieftain and an entire shield spider nest that even Silver rank adventurers feared. Now, she’s just a nice, peaceful [Innkeeper], which is OK, but not good for her long term survival. She’ll need to evolve into something like a [Magical Sanctuary] if she is going to continue to host her inn next to a dangerous dungeon. I doubt even adventurers would like to stay in an Inn which is going to be stormed all the time.

    • [Magical sanctuary] is such a good name for a skill and has some really cool connotations like dampening magic on enemies or even boosting the magic of allies. She already has the magical grounds thing so it wouldn’t even be a big leap for a lvl 40 skill and it fits with her already defensive/control skill set.

      • Yes, it kind of fits Erin’s vibe. I have no idea what the Author is making Erin into, but she has certainly been a sanctuary for people – folks who aren’t wanted or people who are despised/rejected by others. I always felt like giving her a hug :). This world has sufficient warriors and mages anyways.

    • I was thinking about Erin’s Aura too. It might be an area of effect rather than a concentrated skill. That would mean it would slow down both the hobs/Horns of Hammerad and the Raskghar at the same time. I’m not sure though.

        • I’m sure we can count on Typhenous to be on the winning side when it becomes necessary. He is an experienced sneaky bastard after all, and he probably has enough info to predict Wistram’s goals.

        • I don’t think he would actually betray Erin beyond selling information to winstram. It’s not all that different than the information selling that Pisces does. As long as Typhenous doesn’t actually try to help steal the door, something I’d be surprised to see, Halrac will probably get over it.

        • He hasn’t betrayed her, he’s an information broker, same as when he sent news about the possible presence of a Dragon near Liscor and the suspicion that Antinium knew about it to Lord Tyrion. Typhenous probably simply sent news to Winstram about Erin’s Magic Door first than everyone else, that information would have reached them sooner or later, and simply got money for being the first to sell it to them.
          I think Winstram Mages will get a nasty surprise when they try to take her door, Typhenous would not risk his friendship with his team and the others just to help Winstram get the door, it’s not profitable.

    • She could even get clever and do a “protect the inn aura, giving her side a boon and the attackers a penalty to shrug off.

      Heck she probably does so to an extent without having to consciously think about it. Fights always seem to turn around once the group is inside the inn.

  5. Love the chapter! Perfect mixture of fun slice-of-life shenanigans over the play drama, suspense with the artifacts, and action with the reverse weregnolls. I personally love the longer chapters precisely because they meander. The meandering is half of TWI’s charm in my opinion. Thanks for another great chapter!

    • It would not make sense for Calruz to smell like Ceria or vice versa, much less after months of being apart.
      I think it’s one more piece to the whole ‘Half-elf mystery’ that the story has been going on underneath the surface.

  6. I’m looking forward to Mrsha or Erin pouring a healing potion on the cloak. Though perhaps the cloak can’t recreate magical liquids…

  7. Loved the chapter. New classes, Werewolves, new depth to the not-gnolls, Liscor assaulted, battle in the inn, Lyon finally being in a fight, all great! That said…. something I’ve been feeling for a long time now and need to get off my chest, that I saw others noting as well…..

    It’s so dispiriting to watch Erin in a combat situation now. She has such potential in so many areas, and already the abilities to be so much more effective….. and she is just a bump on a log. She was far, far more badass in the first 2 volumes. She’s only a notch above a helpless damsel in distress now, always having to have other people pull her bacon out of the fire. She just stood there and watched as the adventurers fought and died for her in her inn volumes ago and didn’t change. Never became stronger, not after that or many catalysts since. She’s supposed to have great fighting instincts and a great tactical mind, and wants to protect those close to her above all else, so what gives? I get that the threats are a higher tier, but she doesn’t even try to get stronger!

    And then there’s the inn and her security. After all that’s happened, wouldn’t she think to invest in a good door/lock? Equip her Hob security? Astorogan would weep. Now there’s another conflict coming over her door and she is so ill prepared it makes me want to pull out my hair! Just…. needed to get that off my chest. :-p

  8. Raskghar “reverse werewolf”. It sounds funny when you say it loud but if you think about it a bit it becomes very very scary. Which I feel this chapter managed to communicate very well.

    Regular werewolfs become dangerous and strong beasts, they lose their intelligence, but strong dangerous and smart.

    It makes me really fear for the gnolls that were taken during the raid.

  9. I wonder if Bird would consider penguins, puffins, seagulls, ducks, etc. to be acceptable water birds. Particularly the ones like penguins that can’t actually fly.

    I love how the Drakes of Liscor have gotten so used to Klbkch that they’re actually angrier at Humans than Antinium. I mean, it’s not great that they’re so racist, but it’s still progress.

    “Therefore I would respond to further provocation or physical assault in the time-honored tradition of bodily harm”
    -Hilarious. I doubt the drunk guy even knows he was just threatened.

    There’s something really awesome (in a storytelling sense) about the Raskghar as the dark reflection of Gnolls coming out to hunt them. They’re super dangerous, and if it was just Gnolls here, this attack would have been a much bigger tragedy. But fortunately, there are also Drake [Guardsmen] in this city allied with the Gnolls. This is already pretty bad, even with the Drake help.

    Oh yeah. Mrsha is a Gnoll. Shit.

    That’s such a Bird way of calling an alarm!

    And now Lyonette is forced to put her training to use.

    The Hobs fighting the Raskghar is great in the contrast between the two species. Both species are bestial, powerful, monstrous, but the Hobs are really people, and the Raskghar really don’t seem to be.

    Numbtongue and Headscratcher’s new classes are awesome. I keep thinking that whenever they eventually rejoin the Flooded Waters tribe (because I have to believe they’ll join Rags and not Garen), they’re going to be a huge asset from all their leveling and magical artifacts.

  10. Ok, so the Goblins are forming their own heroic band, so far they got in their Band of Five:
    A [Berserker] leader, Headscratcher.
    A [Bard] interpreter and negotiator, Numbtongue.
    An [Archer], Badarrow.
    A [Scout] Rabbiteater.
    and A Swordsman [Warrior], Shorthilt.
    They just need a mage and they would be a better balanced team than most Silver-ranks, heck, they already are.

  11. There’s an electric guitar melee weapon in Left For Dead 2. It kills zombies in one hit, and plays a sound each time it’s swung. I hope Numbtongue finds something similar. Failing that, I hope he gains the ability to rock out so hard that enemies will headbang involuntarily. It’s like the superpower where you can force a target to sneeze consecutively, which disrupts their ability to think or do anything in general.

  12. I wonder why the Raskghar are coming out on this full moon? Weren’t there full moons prior to this one and if so, why didn’t they invade then?

  13. I agree with Ostracus on the defensive shutters on the windows. Though I would say that wood shutters with an arrow slit that locked down with opening/ removable windows would be easier/ cheaper to acquire. Along with being more affordable as each glass window to replace was 8gp each, if I remember correctly,
    As long as Erin is doing renovations: a roof and porch at the entrances would also reduce the amount of water from getting inside.

    • The walls and roof were coated with a varnish the Antinium used. It helped protect the wood against the weather, but it also added to the integrity of the building. The nails were copper, and the building was fairy approved. Erin now even had glass windows, complete with shutters to keep the cold out and add privacy. Her kitchen was redone, and now her possessions were organized thanks to Selys’ [Receptionist] skills.

      In chapter 2.11 I found the above. (complete with shutters)
      I doubt the chapter will be specific enough for further details.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s