Night deepened and turned to day. The dungeon that had rung with the sounds of battle grew silent. The adventurers, Antinium, and people of Liscor returned to their city through the magic doors, breaking the exits behind them. They returned with the captive Gnolls, with a Minotaur in shackles, and a half-Elf. In triumph. In victory.
And so the Raskghar fled. Broken, they retreated towards their other camps, unable to do anything but run. They had been beaten, destroyed. And so badly that they could not even dream of vengeance. They ran, seeking out their brethren, a shred of hope. But what they found in the darkness was more despair.
The camps were filled with flickering torchlight and screams. Howls of Raskghar as they fought and died. And screams. Cave Goblins swarmed their masters, armed with crude weapons. But they outnumbered the Raskghar. And they had lost their fear of their masters. And they had leaders.
Five Hobgoblins fought, leading the Cave Goblins. They charged the Raskghar. A monster who raged stronger than even the largest Raskghar. A keen-eyed archer whose arrows struck the Raskghar from hundreds of feet away. A Hobgoblin whose sword seemed to shine as he cut down his enemies. The Goblin who sang. And a Hobgoblin who wore a crimson cloak, a hero.
And the Raskghar fled once more. They howled then, in grief and desperation. But no one answered. So they ran and ran, broken, not understanding how all this had come to pass.
All of that passed below as the weary folk returned to Liscor. They knew nothing of what followed. Why should they? The Raskghar were beaten. The uprising of the Goblins was a thing of monsters. Unimportant for now. For now they would rest. The [Innkeeper] slept in her kitchen. A [Princess] hugged a Gnoll tightly and the Gnoll cub hugged her back as fiercely as she could as they fell asleep in a warm bed. An Ashfire Bee crawled onto their heads and lay there, content that all was well in the world.
A weary Watch Captain fell asleep on top of a report on her desk, the ink splotching her face. A Wall Lord drank a cup of milk rather than alcohol and toasted the fallen with his people. A half-Giant laid down in the three beds pushed together and got a night of rest for the first time in days. The [Strategist] of Liscor sat and feverishly wrote, trying to recall all that he had witnessed. A Minotaur looked up in his prison cell, his flesh burnt, his body bleeding. He closed his eyes and bowed his head.
Countless members of Liscor’s Watch stumbled back into their homes, some grieving, all exhausted, but relieved. The adventurers slept, dreaming of treasure and levels. The city rested. Below, the Antinium returned to their Hive and got on with business as usual.
But in the twilight before dawn, one person moved through Liscor’s rainy streets. She snuck from house to house, never staying in one place long. But she moved with the utmost certainty. For her, the pre-dawn morning was the perfect time. The only time, before Liscor roused and heard the news. She crept up to one house in the street, silent as a whisper. A family of Gnolls slept there. They awoke suddenly as they heard a sound at the door.
A female Gnoll mother jerked upright, awakened by an unfamiliar scent at her door. She had slept lightly, for fear of the Raskghar despite the Watch’s assurances. She looked for her partner—but he was on night duty on the walls! She checked for her children. They were still asleep in her room, in the small home the family shared. She hesitated, then heard the knocking on the door. It was polite. Loud. Insistent.
Dread seized the mother. She rose, ignoring her state of undress and crept into the kitchen. She emerged with a wickedly sharp knife. She crept towards the door. Whoever it was stood right outside. There was another knock. The Gnoll held her breath. Then she threw open the door—
“Hello Miss Rykhai! Sorry about the early hour! Mind if I come in?”
Drassi beamed at Rykhai. The Gnoll froze, knife in hand. The Drake went cross-eyed as she stared at it.
“Uh—is this a bad time?”
Rykhai stared at Drassi in disbelief. She lowered the knife, her paws shaking.
“I nearly gutted you! I thought you were a Raskghar! Fool, don’t you know that the curfew is in effect? Come in, don’t stand in the streets!”
She ushered Drassi in and then slammed the door and locked it. Drassi looked around. It was very early, but the Drake was decidedly unapologetic. She rubbed her claws together, beaming, as Rykhai turned to glare at her.
“I know. I’m so sorry, Miss Rykhai. I know your children must be asleep. And your husband, Tessil, he’s probably on duty, right? It must be so hard to have someone working the night shift, what with the dungeon and all. Well, I have good news for you!”
“News that excuses me being woken up and frightened out of my fur, yes?”
The Gnoll folded her arms severely. She liked Drassi, and she was one of Drassi’s chat-friends as the Drake liked to call her circle of acquaintances. But this was crossing a line. Drassi grinned.
“Yes, actually! I have good news! Your husband won’t have to work overtime on the night shifts anymore. Because—are you ready for this? You might need a seat! The Raskghar were defeated! The Watch and the adventurers and the Antinium attacked them in their lair and rescued the Gnolls! All of them!”
For a second Rykhai thought she was still dreaming. She backed up from Drassi and sat on the family’s worn couch.
The Drake beamed. Rykhai’s three Gnoll children woke up muzzily. Like their mother, their first instinct was unease. But as soon as they smelled Drassi they were bouncing around the living room. And when they heard Drassi’s news they immediately howled in relief.
The noise woke up their neighbors. There was a pounding on one of the walls and from above as Gnolls woke up unhappily, but Rykhai rushed to her windows and poked her head outside.
“Get down here! The Raskghar are dead!”
She heard several yelps and banging sounds from the other houses nearby as more people began waking up. The Gnoll turned back to Drassi.
“They are dead? Yes?”
“Most of them. The rest ran. It was a huge battle! Thousands of Raskghar dead! I heard it all first-hand! I wasn’t there in person, but I was around to help when they came back through. I saw them bringing magical artifacts back, and the prisoners! Say, do you have any tea?”
Rykhai blinked. But then she nodded.
“I can put a pot on.”
Drassi smiled gratefully, her tail wagging.
“Thank you so much. I’ve been to three places before this. I don’t want to be a bother, but my throat is dry. Let me give you a few details before everyone gets here.”
She followed Rykhai into the kitchen as the young Gnoll cubs swarmed around her, asking questions which Drassi was only too happy to answer. The Drake hadn’t slept for over thirty hours, but that didn’t matter. Her smile only kept widening as more Gnolls swarmed around Rykhai’s locked door and then flooded into her home, demanding answers. Were the Raskghar all dead? How had it happened? Were the prisoners well?
To a [Gossip], there was nothing juicier, nothing more delicious than knowing something this big before everyone else. Drassi grinned as more Gnolls living on the street threw their shutters open. Soon Rykhai’s living room was packed and Drassi had a huge audience. Everyone waited for Drassi to give them the details. After all, they’d never known Drassi to lie and she was one of the few people who knew what had happened.
Yes, the Council would probably make an announcement with [Criers] and [Street Runners] later today. But their report would be lacking in details, whereas Drassi had all the juicy ones. She basked as she began to retell the entire series of events she’d gotten out of the adventurers and Erin to her audience.
And when she was done here, she’d visit the next street, and the next…there were a lot of hours before morning, and even then, she’d still be able to talk about what had happened to everyone she knew. Which was everyone.
In this moment Drassi was a [Queen] surrounded by her adoring subjects. She beamed at the Gnolls who stared at her, dying to know what she knew. Drassi felt excellent. After all, she was performing a public service.
And she was doing Erin a favor. After all, a [Gossip] could sway the mood of the public if she was good, and Drassi was an expert. She owed Erin that much. So the Drake [Barmaid] winked and accepted a cup of hot tea sweetened with Ashfire Bee honey and settled back in her chair. She cleared her throat theatrically, and then began.
“I’ll tell you everything as it happened. I heard it all from people who were there. It was adventurers who saved Liscor. But not just them. It was the Watch, the Antinium, Wall Lord Ilvriss, and even the army. But they couldn’t have done it without help from the Goblins. Yes. I’m serious! It was Goblins who helped save the day. And Erin’s magic door. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. It started like this. And remember, this is all true. I heard it from Ceria and Erill and the others. They saw everything. When they first woke up in the Raskghar camp…”
Mrsha had a bad dream. She dreamed that she was lying on the altar. Sticky blood was on her back and someone was holding her down. And Nokha was there. She was alive. She had a rock in her hands. It was stained with blood. And she was coming closer.
The white Gnoll tried to move. But she couldn’t. Nokha grinned at her. She drew closer. And then she reached into her chest. Her flesh moved and she pulled out a head. Vakk’s. He stared blankly at Mrsha. Nokha bent over the bloodstained altar. Her breath was rancid. She stared into Mrsha’s eyes and whispered.
“We are whole, Mrsha.”
And then Mrsha woke. She thrashed about wildly and felt something strange. A softness under her. Warmth all around her. And—
Light. And Mrsha looked around and realized she wasn’t in the dungeon. She was above, in her room in Erin’s inn. And Lyonette was hugging her. Mrsha’s heart still beat rapidly, though. She looked around, remembering Nokha’s words.
She shuddered, and then flinched as something moved in the inn. She crouched until she realized the thing was Apista. The Ashfire Bee flew up from the windowsill where it had been basking and buzzed gently around Mrsha’s head. The Gnoll cub looked at it and then realized Lyonette was holding her. She wiggled free and hopped to the ground.
The movement woke Lyonette of course. The young woman turned over, stirred, and then sat up. She blinked at her empty arms and then nearly shot out of bed.
She spotted Mrsha staring up at her. The Gnoll backed up a step at the look on Lyonette’s face. The [Princess] had an anguished look that turned to relief. She bent and swept Mrsha up into a tight embrace. Mrsha squeaked.
Lyonette didn’t care. She hugged Mrsha so tightly that the nightmare vanished. The Gnoll felt warm. And she hugged back, fiercely.
For a while they just stood like that. After a while, Apista landed on Lyonette’s head. The [Princess] started, and then laughed. She sat down on her bed with Mrsha in her arms.
“I’m so glad you’re here. I dreamed—”
She broke off, as adults did when they didn’t want to tell the truth. Mrsha silently squeezed Lyonette. She was here. She was above. She inhaled Lyonette’s scent and looked out the window. It was light!
A faint light. A grey light. Rain pattered on the window, a gloomy sky bringing down more water. But it was still light. The dungeon had been small. But the sky—
“I’m never going to let you out of my sight again. I promise.”
Lyonette shifted her grip on Mrsha. The Gnoll shifted, a tad uncomfortable until Lyonette supported her with one arm. She didn’t know if she liked that promise, but in that moment she didn’t care. She looked around and saw Apista hovering, her antennae waving. There was something different about her. Mrsha squinted, and then patted Lyonette’s arm and pointed. The [Princess] looked up and her eyes widened.
“That’s right! I leveled up! And I got a Skill—or rather—Apista?”
She held out her other hand and the Ashfire Bee landed on her hand. It looked much like normal—that was, until it turned and Mrsha saw its stinger. Normally, the Ashfire Bee’s stinger was a little barb sticking out of its backside, barely noticeable. But now Apista’s stinger was bigger. It looked brighter too, a more crimson tint to it. And it felt…hot. Heat was radiating from the tip of the stinger. Mrsha’s eyes went round as Apista fanned her wings, oblivious to the two pairs of eyes on her.
“[Crimson Stinger]. I got the Skill—I didn’t know pets changed with [Beast Tamers]! I heard that some [Falconers] could have huge hawks, but—”
Lyonette raised Apista up so the bee could walk up her arm and onto her shoulder. Mrsha stared too. Both she and Lyonette stared at Apista’s enhanced stinger. Lyonette reached out to touch it and thought better.
“We all leveled up, probably. That’s one good thing that came of all this. I…I was so worried. I would have gone after you if I could, but all I could do was wait. It was Erin who rescued you, really.”
Mrsha nodded. Lyonette had said all this yesterday. She remembered Lyonette facing Nokha. She looked up and licked Lyonette’s face. The young woman squeezed Mrsha again, and then heard a sound. It was a rumbling from Mrsha’s stomach.
“Oh. You must be hungry!”
She was. But Mrsha hesitated until she remembered that she was in Erin’s inn. Then she nodded rapidly. Lyonette smiled.
She let Mrsha jump to the ground. Mrsha ran to the door, and then paused. She raced past Lyonette who was looking for her clothes.
Mrsha had leveled up too. And gained a Skill of her own. But that was a special secret. Mrsha reached under her pillow and pulled something out. Pisces’ wand. Her wand. She held it very tightly as Lyonette got dressed. She wouldn’t go anywhere without it. Ever.
“What’s that? Oh—well, I’m sure Pisces won’t mind. Come on.”
Lyonette picked up Mrsha. Rather than let her race downstairs, the [Princess] carried her down in her arms. Apista flew with her. At first, Mrsha felt like a stranger in a strange place. But then she smelled something wonderful coming from below. And when she and Lyonette reached the bottom of the stairs, she saw a familiar face.
Erin Solstice was sitting at a table. She looked up with a smile.
She stood up. Behind her, she’d set a table with a huge number of hot dishes. She must have heard the two getting up, because there were steaming eggs, hot bacon, pancakes, warm buns, butter, milk with honey, sausages—and that was only the food from Erin’s home. There were spicy Yelets, a fish congee, fruit juice, a salad with dressing sprinkled over it, a melon sliced into pieces…
Mrsha’s eyes went round at the sight of it all. Lyonette put her on the table. She and Erin looked at each other for a moment. And then Erin smiled at Mrsha.
“It’s so great to have you back. We were all worried—I made you a special breakfast.”
Mrsha climbed hesitantly into her seat. After being in the cell for so long she could barely believe what lay before her eyes. Her nose hurt a bit from all the smells. She had eaten food yesterday—but she’d been so hungry and so much had happened she couldn’t remember what it was. This was her first real meal. And it was overwhelming.
Mrsha looked up at Lyonette. The [Princess] smiled and nodded.
“You have the first bite, Mrsha. The [Healer] said you can’t eat too much or your stomach will do bad things. But you can have a bit of anything you want, okay Mrsha? And you can have little snacks throughout the day. Take whatever you want.”
Slowly, almost thinking it was a dream, Mrsha reached out. There was a plate of poached eggs, wobbly, the edges crisped, and the yolks still gooey on the inside. Mrsha reached for one, picked it up, and then remembered she should have used a fork. She looked up guiltily, but neither young woman chastised her.
The food was hot. And it smelled so good. Mrsha just held the poached egg a second. She could see and smell the pepper and salt that had been sprinkled over it, smell the grease from fried bacon that had helped cook the egg. She could even smell the fact that it was a goose egg, not a chicken’s egg. Her stomach rumbled. But Mrsha was afraid. She held the egg until Lyonette and Erin were giving each other worried looks. Then, slowly, Mrsha bit.
The egg was…an egg. But glorious. The taste hit Mrsha’s tongue. It was nostalgic and new. It tasted nothing like the dead monster parts in the dungeon. And then it hit Mrsha. She was here. She was safe. She took another bite into the poached egg and began crying.
Erin bent down and hugged the Gnoll. Mrsha kept crying, but she started chewing. And now she was ravenous. She filled her plate, snatching food. Lyonette had to divide everything she grabbed into portions that wouldn’t tax Mrsha’s stomach. But she promised, promised the anxious Gnoll.
“Everything will be right here for later. Just eat this much, okay, honey?”
Mrsha did. Lyonette and Erin sat at the table and ate. They didn’t speak. They just looked at each other.
It was the first meal Erin had had with Lyonette in days. The first meal that Lyonette had really had, too. The [Princess] realized she was starving and after a moment, so did Erin. They ate ravenously, until the spread of food was quite reduced. And then they looked at Mrsha. She sat at the table, running her paws over the grain of the wood, looking around. She looked…different.
The dungeon had changed her. Erin closed her eyes. Of course it had. She had seen the cages and the Raskghar’s camp before the adventurers had burned it and retreated back through her inn. She had seen Mrsha’s cage. Normally the Gnoll would be running about. But today she just sat at the table, looking around as if she’d never seen Erin’s inn before.
Heartbreaking. And yet she was here. Erin felt a bit teary-eyed herself, but she didn’t give into it. Not just yet. She looked at Lyonette and saw the younger girl wiping her eyes.
“I guess I cook really well, huh?”
Lyonette laughed. Mrsha looked up, and then her lips moved upwards awkwardly. She kicked her legs at the table. But she didn’t move.
“Do you want to play, Mrsha?”
The Gnoll looked at Lyonette. Then she seemed to remember that yes, she did do that. She stood up hesitantly, and looked around. She glanced about Erin’s common room and sniffed the air. Then she held her paws up. She made a shape. A ball.
“Oh. Your ball. It’s…”
Erin stood up. So did Lyonette. They looked about, but Mrsha’s ball had vanished. With all that had gone on, Erin hadn’t thought to keep track of the ball. And wherever it was, it was gone. Mrsha’s ears drooped as she saw the consternation on the two’s faces.
“We’ll find it. I’m sure it just rolled somewhere. Why don’t we—why don’t we all clean up? I can hear someone moving about upstairs. The adventurers will be coming down.”
It was a lame suggestion, but it worked. The Gnoll and [Barmaid] automatically began cleaning up. Mrsha kept pausing, but Lyonette moved automatically. And sure enough, the Horns came down minutes later, as one group. Erin turned and blinked.
Ceria stood at the bottom of the stairs, looking just as dumbfounded as Mrsha. She gazed around and then she saw Mrsha. The Gnoll child had frozen. She and Ceria’s gazes met. The half-Elf straightened.
Erin stared at her friend. Pisces, Yvlon, and Ksmvr stopped on the stairs behind Ceria. For a moment Erin felt that strangeness, and saw it reflected on Ceria’s face. Then she heard a cough.
“Could you, ah, move, Springwalker? Before we all perish of starvation?”
Ceria blinked. She looked back and automatically scowled. Then caught herself. Yvlon glanced at Pisces. But not in annoyance. The [Necromancer] sniffed, but his eyes—the tension in the room vanished.
“Shut up, Pisces. I’m going.”
The half-Elf walked down the stairs. Ksmvr nodded.
“I believe I am able to function for at least four more days before expiring. In case anyone was concerned about my food consumption.”
“No, Ksmvr. Eat up.”
Yvlon smiled. She nodded to Erin and looked at Mrsha. She bent and held out a hand. The Gnoll looked at Yvlon and took it. Yvlon gently shook Mrsha’s paw.
“I’m glad to see you.”
Mrsha nodded. Then she looked up and saw Pisces. Ksmvr. Ceria again. They smiled at her. Mrsha stared up at them and her mouth moved. It might have been a happy expression.
Erin found a smile of her own. She swept into the kitchen and came out with plates of food. Like her breakfast, she served the Horns everything she had. Ceria’s eyes widened. She grabbed a roll, smelled it as her teammates watched, and then bit.
“Dead gods. Dead gods. I forgot—”
The half-Elf chewed so fast she nearly choked as she tried to swallow. She grabbed a sausage and stuffed it into her face. Yvlon’s face was amused, appalled, and happy at the same time.
“Can you at least pretend to use silverware, Ceria?”
“Sorry. This is—this is so good. Tree roots, is this what it tasted like before?”
“Need a drink?”
Ceria sat up. She stared at the bar. Erin filled her a mug. The half-Elf washed down her food and sat at the table. Mrsha watched her. The Gnoll didn’t bounce or beg for snacks. And as the Horns ate in the same silence, Erin saw Mrsha’s eyes fix on Ceria’s face. The half-Elf pretended not to notice.
So much had changed. And Erin didn’t know exactly what. In the confused aftermath of the battle, so much had happened that she’d only gotten the barest of accounts from Ceria. And she didn’t want to press the half-Elf or Mrsha. Far from it. But she knew just by looking that more had gone on than words could say. And Mrsha just sat there.
Lyonette and Erin exchanged a look over Mrsha’s head. Erin looked around. Her glass windows reflected a rainy day in Liscor, as usual. The rain poured down. Erin cleared her throat and Mrsha looked around quickly. The [Innkeeper] smiled at her and pointed.
“It’s not too nice out. But why don’t you take Mrsha into Liscor, Lyonette? I think what she needs is…a special present.”
Lyonette looked uncertain. But Erin nodded. She stared around the inn and then nodded to her magic door.
“We should go out. And Mrsha definitely deserves something. Maybe a new ball? We’ll all go together, how about that?”
The little Gnoll looked up. Her tail began to wag a bit. Lyonette hesitated, then nodded.
“I’ll get cloaks for all of us. One second!”
“I’ll put out more food. Save some for the Halfseekers, okay?”
Erin hurried into the kitchen. When she came out, the Horns were talking at last. Ceria sat, looking from face to face.
“So…what did I miss?”
Pisces smirked. Yvlon laughed and ran her hands through her hair. Ksmvr opened his mandibles.
“To the best of my knowledge, Captain Ceria—”
“We’re all heroes. After all, we participated in the largest dungeon raid in Liscor’s history. We obtained a bounty on the captured prisoners. And there are the magical artifacts yet to be divided up. Our team made substantial gains while you were captive. I suspect we may be able to claim a fair margin of the spoils.”
Pisces sat back in his chair, lacing his fingers together. Ceria’s lips quirked.
“Ah, right. We’re fighting over all the treasures the Raskghar had? Figures. How’s that going to work? Hell, how’d you get everyone into the dungeon? That was…a lot.”
“Miss Erin, of course.”
Ceria glanced over.
“I should have known.”
Erin shook her head as she came over. She put another plate on the table.
“I just came up with the plan. Everyone helped. Antinium, adventurers, the Watch…and Goblins. I think the Council of Liscor’s putting out the word right now.”
Ceria looked surprised.
“They didn’t know—oh wait, it was night. Wow. That’s a cause for celebration if ever I heard one.”
Yvlon nodded. She buttered a piece of toast. She glanced sideways at Ceria.
“There’ll probably be another parade.”
Erin carefully found another table and put the food down there. She glanced back at Ceria.
“Going to join in?”
The half-Elf wavered. She looked around her table and then seemed to remember she was part of her team. The Captain. She shook her head after a second.
“Nah. We’re…I’m not up for it. If you all want to do it, that’s fine. I just want to know what they’ll do about—”
Ceria hesitated. She glanced at Mrsha, and then sighed.
The inn quieted. Mrsha looked up as Lyonette tied the cloak to her neck. Yvlon put down her fork. Pisces doodled with the grease on his plate. Ksmvr kept eating bread as he looked around, and then paused uncertainly.
Erin didn’t know what to think. She’d seen Calruz. But the beaten, burned Minotaur wasn’t at all the one she’d remembered teaching her how to fight. And she hadn’t seen the monster that had led the Raskghar. Only the aftermath. Ceria shook her head. She passed a hand across her eyes.
“He’s not well. I don’t know if it was something in the dungeon or the Raskghar or the water, but I think it wasn’t entirely his fault. Still. That doesn’t excuse any of it. I just—”
Ceria’s voice trailed off. She looked at her mismatched hands. At last, Pisces cleared his throat.
“I believe that means, no parade, Miss Solstice.”
That elicited a grin from Erin.
“Right. Thanks, Pisces. Well, we’re going into the city. If you need anything.”
“I think we’ll stay here. And…talk.”
Yvlon looked at Ceria. The half-Elf glanced up and nodded.
“Yeah. There’s a lot I need to tell you.”
They left it at that. Erin went over to Mrsha and Lyonette. The Gnoll was visibly apprehensive as she looked at the magic door. But that was the point. Erin went over and set the door to Liscor as if nothing was wrong.
“Ready? We’ll all go together. Come on.”
The door opened into a rainy street. Erin stepped forwards first and turned. Mrsha hesitated at the door’s edge. She looked up. Lyonette smiled reassuringly down at her. Mrsha wavered, and then put a paw on the rainy street. She flinched as she felt the wetness, then walked forwards. She looked up as the rain spattered her face.
“You’re so brave.”
Erin bent and gave Mrsha a wet cuddle. Then she stood. She nodded at Lyonette and they began to walk through Liscor.
Everything was the same. Everything was not. Erin and Lyonette kept looking at Mrsha every few seconds. And the Gnoll stared at everything. She didn’t run about. She was…looking. The three passed by Drakes and Gnolls on the street. And they were different too.
Liscor had been hushed after the Raskghar attacks. People had barely gone about, except to work and perform necessary business. They had been quiet, nervous and angry. But now the word had gone out. The Gnolls and Drakes stood about in the streets, talking. Some glanced about nervously, until they caught themselves and realized there was nothing to fear. They stared at Erin and Lyonette as they passed. And at Mrsha. The Gnolls paused in what they were doing and looked at the little Gnoll. She stared back. The Gnolls exchanged glances. Lyonette and Erin watched them warily. They heard whispers as Mrsha padded past.
And then, from one Gnoll, a word.
Erin and Lyonette whirled. The Gnoll looked at them and then at Mrsha. Lyonette’s face went white. She opened her mouth furiously, but the Gnoll’s expression wasn’t hostile or afraid. He inclined his head at Mrsha. The Gnoll cub stared at him. Then he bowed his head. The Gnoll turned and walked past. A Drake blinked at the two and scratched his head. So did Erin. Lyonette stared with a mixture of anger and confusion at the Gnoll’s back.
“What was that about?”
Erin looked thoughtfully at Mrsha’s face. The Gnoll stared after the other Gnoll. Her expression was neither happy nor sad. But it was slightly content. Erin stared at the Gnoll’s back and nodded.
“I think…we should get moving before we’re all totally drenched. Where’s the toy store? Left?”
“Straight and then left.”
In time they reached the special store that Erin and Lyonette had found a while back. It was a Gnoll-run store and it was aimed at children, but mainly Gnoll children. That was because it was a ball shop. It sold balls.
Small catching balls. Large ones made of leather. Discs for catching. If there was anything Gnolls shared with dogs, it was their love of games that allowed them to run about. Mrsha’s ball had come from here. Now the three pushed inside. A Gnoll at the counter looked up and blinked when he saw Mrsha. Then he bowed at his counter.
“Greetings. What can I do for you?”
“Hi. We’re looking for a ball for Mrsha. We just wanted to look around. Is it okay if she touches things? We can pay for anything.”
The Gnoll inclined his head as Mrsha stared up at him.
“Of course. Take your time. We owe a debt to the Mrsha child. Doom of the Raskghar. Find whatever you might wish, child.”
Lyonette blinked and bit her lip. But Mrsha’s tail began to wag as she looked around the shop. Lined up on the shelves were a child’s fantasy. At least, any child who loved to play catch. There were balls of every size and shape and consistency. Little ones that could be hidden, large ones you could kick about, even metal ones with shiny surfaces. Mrsha looked at the adults again, and then wandered down the aisles. She soon lost herself between the shelves.
“I had no idea there was an entire shop for this stuff.”
Erin whispered to Lyonette. The young woman nodded.
“Krshia told me about it. Apparently Gnolls don’t have many toys when they move about in their tribes. Games of catch are very important. And balls are…well, they’re fun.”
“Yeah. I just never heard of personal, custom throwing balls. I mean, we had dogs at home, but—”
The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] raised one eyebrow and Erin turned red.
“Sorry! I didn’t mean—”
He shook his head and smiled.
“Dogs are dogs, yes? They are simple. But a Gnoll finds more joy than a dog can. They fetch. We throw. But one as young as the Mrsha child would find enjoyment in both, I think. Do you have any preference? I find that children are usually unable to choose from my selection.”
Erin stared down the rows of colorful balls. She was at a loss too. This was no supermarket selection with a bunch of generic, identical toys. Each object in the shop was hand-made and high quality. She hesitated, trying to imagine what Mrsha would like. If they found her old ball—
“What about a big bouncy ball? Do you have anything made of rub—of plas—something that bounces?”
“Hmm. I have a few. Let me bring them out.”
The Gnoll slipped out from behind his counter. He came back with a selection of balls, mostly leather, some wrapped in hide, and placed them on the counter. Erin bounced a few, but they were hardly as bouncy as a basketball.
“Got anything with more bounce? Like, one I could throw on the ground and bounce off the ceiling?”
The Gnoll frowned.
“You have high standards. Yes, I’ve seen such balls before. Magic ones, enchanted by [Mages]. Very prized among Gnoll children.”
“Uh—well, are they that rare?”
The Gnoll nodded, with the air of someone who had specialized in the nuance of ball manufacture all his life.
“I regret that I do not have any such objects in stock. Magic is costly. I regret that I do not have any specialty goods—you would have to place an order, yes? But this is a good one for catching and throwing. And these are good for chewing.”
He held up a ball wrapped in animal hide, and a set of smaller balls that smelled a bit like animal to Erin. She prodded the leather-wrapped ball and then the chewable ones.
“Hey, these are squishy!”
“Yes. Not good for throwing. But very young children chew on these.”
“What if they eat them by mistake?”
The older Gnoll smiled. He was probably the oldest Gnoll Erin had met, older than Erill and Krshia. His fur was grey, with black splotches.
“It is no danger. They are edible, and not harmful. And it is a lesson for children if they are swallowed. Because the toy is then gone. Unless it passes out of them in the same piece, which is not always pleasant, yes?”
Erin laughed. The Gnoll took the chewing toys away.
“But I think young Mrsha is too old for such things. I have other balls. Such as this one, which is very frictionless. And tough. Note the covering.”
The ball he showed Erin had a delicate wyvern-hide skin, which Mrsha sniffed with great interest. She touched the smooth surface.
“Ooh. Fancy. And you can see the scales!”
“Laminated. It is very tough, though. Not malleable. While these are cheaper.”
The Gnoll flicked the throwing ball. Erin studied it. She could see tiny stitches holding the hide wrap in place. And when she felt it the ball had some give, but only a little. It was definitely familiar. She frowned at the Gnoll, struck by a thought.
“Hey. This looks a lot like a…what’s this made of?”
“That is a trade secret. But I suppose for this one—I could tell you. It is cork, yes? Hard, but malleable. Not cheap around Liscor, but good for throwing.”
Erin’s brows shot together. She eyed the ball and looked around. Mrsha was still wavering, caught by a huge, hollow ball and a small one that glittered, enchanted by a minor spell of some kind. Erin looked at the ball and tossed it up and down.
“Hmm. Hmm. Hey Mrsha, get the ball you want. I’ll take five—no, give me eight of these. Not the expensive ones, but good, quality ones.”
The Gnoll beamed, happy to make a sale. Lyonette eyed Erin.
“Are those all for Mrsha? And can we afford all of them?”
Erin dug around in her money pouch for a few gold coins. She shrugged.
“I earned a lot of money from the plays. And I get some of the bounty money for the Gnolls. And I can even put in a claim for some of the magical items!”
“Really? How does that even work? I know there was Ilvriss’ bounty, but who gets to say who gets what?”
“I have no idea. Hey, can I get these in a bag? Lyonette, I just had a great idea. You stay here and get Mrsha whatever she wants. Or two of what she wants. Here.”
She dug three gold coins out and handed them to Lyonette. The Gnoll [Shopkeeper]’s tail wagged in delight as Lyonette stared at the gold coins.
“Come back to the inn when you’re ready! I’ll be in Celum if you need me!”
Erin raced out of the shop. By the time she got back to the Wandering Inn, the Halfseekers were awake. They were eating ravenously and in good spirits without reserve. Jelaqua was thumping Moore on the back as Erin came in.
“Eat up! Don’t be shy, you great big oaf. Erin doesn’t care if you eat all her eggs! And you need your strength after you nearly got gutted by those damn Raskghar. Anyone want the sausages? Then take the platter, Moore! I told you—oh, hey Erin.”
“Jelaqua! Moore! Seborn!”
Erin beamed. The Horns of Hammerad and Halfseekers both turned. They stared as she emptied the hide-wrapped balls onto the table. Jelaqua pointed.
“What’s that? Toys for Mrsha?”
“Nope! Toys for me! Oh, and eat everything you want, Moore. Hey, I’m going into Celum now. Can one of you change the door back to Liscor and check for me in like…thirty minutes?”
The Horns nodded. Ceria was sitting with the others. She looked relaxed, but tired. Erin strode over to the door and blinked as Yvlon stood up. The woman scratched at her arms. She was wearing her gauntlets and vambraces for some reason, despite not having bothered to put on her breastplate or any other part of her armor.
“I’ll go with you. I could use some sunlight.”
“Sure, thanks! I could use a pair of hands. Remember, let Mrsha and Lyonette through! I’ll be back soon! Oh, hey Octavia.”
The [Alchemist] looked up as Erin and Yvlon came through. She waved.
“Hey, everyone’s alive over there, right? I didn’t get to ask—”
“They’re all good!”
The Stitch-Girl sighed in relief. Erin spent a few seconds with Octavia, and then walked out of the shop. Yvlon nodded to the [Alchemist] and walked with Erin down the street.
It was different in Celum. Sunlight shone down from above, disconcerting after the pouring rain Erin had just been walking through. She felt her hair and clothes begin to dry. After a second, she turned and looked at Yvlon.
“So how’s Ceria doing?”
Yvlon looked up at the bright sky. People were passing by in the street. Humans, giving Yvlon an odd look now and then. People who had no idea of what had happened. Erin felt like a stranger with Humans all around her. After a moment, Yvlon shrugged.
“I don’t know. I think she’s okay. She told us what happened.”
The woman let out a long breath.
“I…I’m surprised she can recall it. Calruz, the Raskghar—there was something truly awful down there, Erin. The ritual, Calruz—I don’t know how Ceria will handle it. I’m surprised she let him live after all that happened. And Mrsha…”
“She was there for all of it. She looked okay to me, but I’d stick with her. Those Raskghar were monsters.”
Erin nodded seriously.
“Well, Lyonette is with her. And I’ll find tons of fun stuff for her to do. I just had an idea in that vein, which is why we’re out here. Hey, you know Celum, right? Can you help me find a shop?”
“Really? Well, why am I surprised? What are you looking for?”
“A [Carpenter]. Know any good ones?”
“Hm. Well, the Runner’s Guild would know the best ones in the city. Why not make a stop there?”
They turned left down a street. Yvlon and Erin walked along in silence. Erin glanced at Yvlon. She hadn’t spoken too often with the woman, but they knew each other.
“How bad was it? I can ask Ceria, but—”
The woman looked away. Her face was shadowed when she spoke.
“Bad enough that I had to leave. It was that or ask Ceria why she didn’t kill Calruz. She let him live. But the things he did, the horrors he let the Raskghar commit—that was not the Calruz I knew. And there was something else. Ceria saw the heart of the dungeon. And what lurks in there—you don’t need to hear about it.”
“Maybe I do. But not today.”
“Not today. I’m just grateful that she’s back. And so is Mrsha. Thank you for doing this.”
“Hey, it was just—”
“No. It was more than that.”
The woman met Erin’s eyes. Erin hesitated, then nodded silently. That was all they said for a while. They visited the Runner’s Guild, got directions from the [Receptionist], and were walking down the street when Erin thought of something else to ask.
“So…about the treasure. Loot. Whatever. How’s that going to work?”
Yvlon blinked. Then she smiled.
“Right. I nearly forgot! Ilvriss did offer a huge bounty on the Gnolls. What was it, a thousand gold pieces per prisoner saved? And didn’t he double that? Plus, we recovered a bunch of artifacts from the Raskghar who were carrying them. At least twenty, I think. I didn’t see all of them, but everyone wants one.”
“I bet. So how’s it going to work?”
“I think it’s a lottery. Part of what Ilvriss and Liscor’s Council will do is assign merit based on who contributed what. The Gold-rank teams get most credit for all the fighting they did, obviously. But the [Soldiers], the Watch, Ilvriss himself, everyone gets credit. So do you. A lot of it, I should imagine.”
“Mhm. I guess.”
“So we’ll all be eligible for some share. But what Ilvriss is going to do is pay the whole sum for all the prisoners rescued into a pool. And the artifacts go into the pool as well. Then we make bids on what we want. You can just ask for gold—or try and claim an artifact. If multiple groups claim the same thing, I think there’s a random lottery. Or you might get it if you did the most and you don’t want anything else. It’s complicated. Dungeon raids usually end up with a lot of fighting over who gets what anyways.”
“Wow. So could I get a magic sword if I wanted it?”
Yvlon grinned ruefully.
“You could try. But I’ll bet all the Gold-ranks will get the artifacts. I’ll be pleased just to get some gold for our team. We could use it. And the levels we gained already were treasure enough. We—oh, here we are.”
She stopped. Erin stared at the carpenter’s shop and then pushed her way in. The shop was run by a master and his apprentices. Erin edged past the apprentice who came to ask her what she wanted and strode up to the [Carpenter]. She smiled at him as he looked up with a scowl.
“Hey, I’m Erin. Erin Solstice. You’re a [Carpenter], right? Can I ask how fast you can carpenter?”
He looked irritated. The man had gnarled hands and grey hair. He glared at his apprentice and Erin, but she was undeterred.
“I have an order I’d like to make. Something custom.”
“I’m busy. If you have an order—”
Erin slapped a gold coin on the table the man was working at. He blinked at the gold piece. He opened his mouth and Erin dumped a handful on the table. Yvlon’s eyebrows shot up. The [Carpenter] wavered. He glanced at Erin and tried to adopt a much more helpful attitude.
“Uh, how can I help, you, Miss?”
“I want you to carve something. It has to be solid. One block of wood. And it can’t break. It’s not hard to make, but it needs to be good. It’ll look like this—hey, can I borrow that piece of charcoal? Thanks.”
Erin snatched the [Carpenter]’s drawing stick up and began to sketch on his piece of parchment. He blinked at her and then frowned at what she was drawing. He began nodding as she described what she wanted.
“That’s all? And you don’t want anything done with it? A wrap? Hah, that’s simple. Well, if it’s not engraving…I can get you a rough outline within the hour, no problem. Smoothing the surface takes a bit of work, but that’s an easy design. You’re lucky you came to me! My competitors can’t do quick work, whereas my Skills are far superior.”
He puffed out his chest a bit. Erin raised one eyebrow.
“Really? Well, can you give me a list of your competitors? I’m gonna get them to make some too. Unless you can make me…six within two hours? I need an oversized version too. Oh, and one with a custom grip. I’ll pay extra to get it done quick and good.”
The [Carpenter]’s jaw dropped. He stared at Yvlon, who gave him a curious, embarrassed, amused look. He looked at Erin. She smiled at him.
“Did I mention that I know Gold-rank adventurers? Say, do you happen to sell arrow shafts? Because one of my best clients is a guy called Halrac…”
A few minutes later Erin walked out of the [Carpenter]’s shop, whistling. She looked at Yvlon.
“Okay, we’ll go to one other [Carpenter] shop. The guy had a lot of apprentices so I think he can fulfill the order. Plus, he looked like he was going to work really hard.”
Yvlon looked back into the shop, which was a flurry of activity.
“I can imagine. Especially with what you paid him! What was that thing for, anyways?”
Erin raised her eyebrows mysteriously.
“You’ll see. Now I need to visit a tanner. Or a leatherworker.”
“We can ask about them at the next carpenter’s shop if you want. They tend to know other people in related businesses. But can I ask why?”
A wide smile was Yvlon’s only answer.
“Don’t worry, you’ll see what I’ve got ready in about two hours. Less, if I get everything ready. Hey, do you know where I can buy sausages? And I need more flour to make dough. Uh…how strong are your arms? I might need you to carry stuff.”
Yvlon flexed her arms as Erin eyed them with sudden concern. The [Warrior] smiled. Her arms looked bigger for some reason. Had she been working out?
“Don’t worry about me. But please tell me you’re not going to do something crazy. I can’t handle anything crazy.”
“Don’t worry! This is fun and good stuff. Besides—if I did do something crazy, could you even stop me?”
“Right. You probably could. Well, this isn’t that crazy. Come on!”
When Erin got back to the inn she found Mrsha and Lyonette had returned. Only, they didn’t have any new balls. And neither of them were smiling. Mrsha sat by herself, rolling something back and forth.
Her ball. Her worn, scratched little ball. Erin paused, looking questioningly at Lyonette. She and Yvlon were empty-handed, but Erin had spent a good deal of coin and she hoped to have things to carry soon enough.
“Did Mrsha not want anything?”
Lyonette was sitting at a table, watching Mrsha with concern in her eyes. She shook her head. Apista was in her lap and Lyonette was running her finger down the bee’s back.
“She started crying after you left and she had to decide on a new ball. She wanted her old one. I think it was too soon to bring her into the city, Erin.”
A bit of reproach entered Lyonette’s tone. Erin’s heart sank. She looked at Mrsha. The Gnoll was sniffing her ball, holding it. Not really playing. Erin nodded slowly.
“Yeah. That was my mistake. Uh—is everyone doing good?”
She looked around. The Halfseekers and Horns were still in her inn. Both had stuffed themselves. They weren’t saying too much. Ceria sat at a table with Pisces and Ksmvr. She had emptied two mugs. She wasn’t exactly looking happy either. She kept looking at Mrsha.
The optimistic mood of the morning had somehow gone wrong. Lyonette glanced at the adventurers and shrugged. Erin saw Seborn talking with Moore and Jelaqua. She wandered over and heard his slightly echoey voice.
“—It’s negotiations at this point. We could try for that armor, Jelaqua. But we owe Selys Shivertail a cut of whatever we get.”
“I know, I know. But if we get the armor we can compensate her. And we do have a strong claim. Hell, maybe we could persuade Ilvriss or the Flamewardens to help us out if I agree to cancel my contract with Selys. But having a magical artifact like that we could own—oh, hey Erin.”
Jelaqua looked up. Moore sat up with a groan. He had a hand over his stomach where he’d been cut last night. The wound had healed, but the half-Giant still seemed tender. Or he’d stuffed himself. The mountain of dishes suggested that might be the case.
“Hey guys. I wanted to say thanks again for all you did. Really.”
Jelaqua raised one eyebrow.
“For what? Saving our hides? You gave us a victory. We had no way to beat the Raskghar. And you—”
Mrsha started and looked up from her ball. Jelaqua broke off guiltily.
“Sorry. What I meant was that we owe you, Erin.”
“Thanks. But you were fighting. I…well, I know you’re probably busy doing adventurer stuff, but I was hoping I could ask for a small favor.”
The Halfseekers looked at each other. Jelaqua shrugged.
“We’re only discussing business. It’s not like we can do anything now—it’ll be a week at least before we get to the actual dividing of loot, I bet. Gotta make sure we all get what we want.”
“Awesome. Then can I ask for you to help me deliver something? I need a few strong hands. Not you, Moore. I know you’re recovering—”
The half-Giant sat up. He smiled tiredly at Erin.
“I’m fine, Miss Erin. And if it’s lifting you need, I think I’m your half-Giant.”
He tried to rise, but Jelaqua and Seborn held him down.
“Relax, Moore. We have this.”
“No, no. Sit. Please. Let me get you a drink. You saved Mrsha. I owe you so much—Lyonette! Can we get the big mug for Moore? Fill it with something nice! Wine or ale? Something stronger?”
The half-Giant wavered, then collapsed back into his seat. Fatigue, that was it. He just looked tired.
“I suppose I could do with an ale. From Celum? Do you have any local brands?”
“I’ll check. Now, I just need four people, probably. I could do it with two, but—”
“Seborn and I are good. Who are the other two? Yvlon and Ksmvr?”
“I was thinking of making Pisces do it—”
Erin turned and grinned at Pisces. The [Necromancer] had helped himself to a drink of his own. He sat next to Ceria.
“I will conjure you a skeleton to do the work if you desire, Erin. But you won’t get me to move for love or money. Threats of violence may suffice.”
Erin rolled her eyes.
“I don’t need skeletons, thanks. They’ll cause a panic. But just give me one second and I’ll get everything in place. It’s for Mrsha, see.”
Both Mrsha and Lyonette looked up. Lyonette frowned.
“Erin. Mrsha needs some time by herself. I don’t think an outing is right. Not at all.”
She stared hard at Erin and the young woman felt a bit of pressure on her shoulders. She blinked. Lyonette’s gaze felt heavy. And then Erin realized. She was using her aura! She met Lyonette’s gaze. Neither young woman raised their tone for fear of scaring Mrsha, but Erin silently pushed back until the pressure had left her shoulders. Jelaqua and Seborn looked from Lyonette to Erin in silence.
“It’ll be fine, Lyonette. It’s just a little outing.”
“No. Not another one! She just needs to stay here!”
Lyonette raised her voice. Mrsha looked up again. Erin sighed. She walked forwards, giving Mrsha a reassuring look. She turned away and whispered to Lyonette.
“I know. Lyonette, I know you’re worried about Mrsha. But believe me. I know what I’m doing. She doesn’t have to go anywhere right now. Neither do you. Just wait.”
She met Lyonette’s eyes, trying to be reassuring. The [Princess] glared—then saw Erin was serious. She looked at Mrsha and sighed.
“Okay. But nothing crazy, okay?”
“Why does everyone think I can only do crazy? This is just…okay, it’s a bit weird. But just a bit! Ksmvr, Yvlon, can I get you to lift?”
“I am quite proficient at lifting.”
Ksmvr stood up at once. Yvlon nodded.
“Just show us what you need, Erin.”
“Okay. We’ll be back in a few minutes! Don’t worry! It’ll be worth it!”
Ceria, Pisces, Lyonette, and Mrsha watched as the four adventurers plus Erin walked over to her door. Erin didn’t change the mana stone. She opened the door and walked through. The people in the inn heard Erin speaking to Octavia, and then the [Alchemist] raise her voice.
“What? But Erin! I thought we were partners! This is really—did someone make you an offer? Hold on! Don’t touch it! We can deal! We can make—”
The door closed. The people in the inn looked at each other. Lyonette went over and gave Mrsha another hug. The Gnoll looked up at her. Lyonette tried to give her a reassuring smile.
“I’m sure it’s just Erin being Erin. She said she wasn’t doing anything crazy.”
She didn’t sound too convinced. But for some reason that uncertainty made Mrsha feel better. She stared out the rainy window and bounced her ball. All was the same. All was different. She wished she could play, but she was a bit—tired. A bit empty.
So was Ceria. The half-Elf sat at her table. She knew Pisces was watching her, which was why he’d volunteered to stay. That and he loathed physical exertion. She looked into her mug. She’d told her teammates everything. Nearly everything. But she couldn’t tell them what it had been like. The pain, Calruz’s madness. It felt like a nightmare she hadn’t woken up from. She was free of the dungeon now. The Raskghar were dead or fled. But it felt—
It felt like she’d brought the dungeon with her. And Ceria was unhappy. So she and Mrsha sat, a bit lost, as the rain poured down. Part of them was still in that camp. Part of them still thought this was a dream. It was unreal, too wonderful, too much after their torment. It was a figment of their imagination, an illusion.
“Erin, please! Please! How long have we known each other? Months? It feels like years! You can’t just throw me under the wagon like this! I have relatives! I’m an up-and-coming [Alchemist]! I can’t handle rejection!”
Octavia clung to Erin’s waist, despite Erin’s best efforts to get her to let go. The young woman waved her arms as Yvlon, Ksmvr, Jelaqua, and Seborn lifted the magic door in Octavia’s shop up. It wasn’t heavy for the four of them so much as cumbersome. They began to angle it out the door.
“Erin! You’re breaking my heart here! What will it take? Gold? Potions? Be reasonable! This is business!”
“Octavia, let go! I told you I’m not stealing your door!”
“What am I seeing then? Don’t lie to me, Erin! We’ve invested too much in this relationship to lie to each other!”
“What relationship? Octavia, let go! It’s just temporary! I said it’s just for today, okay?”
“Oh. Well, in that case, why didn’t you say so?”
The Stitch-Girl let go. Erin stumbled back as Seborn held the door open for the door to go through. Erin turned and glared.
“I did say so!”
The [Alchemist] had the grace to blush. She fiddled with her braids and tugged at the stitches at her neck.
“Sorry, I didn’t hear that. I panicked a bit. Your magic door gets me a lot of business, you know.”
“Well, it’ll keep giving you business! Now can I go?”
Octavia was standing in front of the door. She started.
“What? Sure, sure. But you are coming back, right? With the door? Promise?”
“Yes. Please move.”
The Stitch-Girl did. Erin hurried out of her shop. The adventurers were waiting for her. Jelaqua raised an amused eyebrow.
“Well, that’s one obstacle down. Where are we taking it?”
“Out of the city! North!”
“Gotcha. One, two, three, up—”
The adventurers easily lifted the door. They began walking down the street. Erin followed them. After a few paces she turned.
“Why are you following me, Octavia?”
The [Alchemist] shrugged.
“No reason. I just…want to see where the door’s going. Is that a crime?”
Erin glared at Octavia.
“Just don’t get in the way!”
“Who, me? I would never. I’m on your side, Erin! Always have been. From the day we met I thought that we would be the best of friends. Say, where’s this door going? I could sell you some stamina potions if it’s a long haul. Not that it’s going to be that long, right? Because the door is coming back—”
Erin sighed and tried to block out Octavia’s voice. She looked ahead. Celum was busy and it was coming to midmorning. The people on the streets turned in surprise when they saw the four adventurers walking down the street with a door held between them. There were shouts of surprise. And a few screams.
Of the four adventurers, Yvlon was probably the most normal. But the other three were Jelaqua, a Selphid, Seborn, one of the rare Drowned Men, and Ksmvr, who was an Antinium. He’d been in Celum and other Human cities before, but there were plenty of people who were still shocked to see him.
“Wait—there’s two of them! One of them’s half-Antinium!”
The people backed away in horror. Jelaqua, holding her end of the door with Seborn, began laughing so hard she nearly dropped it. Seborn growled. The adventurers made their way down the street until they ran into an obstacle.
“Excuse me! Excuse me, what is this?”
A Human [Guardsman] strode up to the group, looking afraid and indignant. He pointed a shaking finger at Ksmvr. He hadn’t heard of the Horns of Hammerad or fear was overriding common sense.
“Antinium are not allowed in the city! And you can’t bring a door down the street! You’re holding up traffic!”
There were indeed several wagons waiting for the adventurers. Jelaqua raised one eyebrow.
“Sorry, but this thing’s too bulky for the side of the street, Mister Guardsman. And Ksmvr’s a friend of ours.”
The Human purpled with fury.
“A friend? He’s an Ant! They don’t have friends! Move this thing out of the way! Who are you? Some kind of upstart Drake? This is a Human city! Who are you? An adventurer? I’ll report you to the guild! And what’s wrong with him? Is he sick? If he is, he’s a danger to everyone on this street!”
He pointed at Seborn. The Drowned Man had had enough. He let go of his side of the door and glared at the [Guardsman].
“I’m a Drowned Man. My name is Seborn. I’m a Gold-rank adventurer. And this is Jelaqua, also Gold-rank. She’s a Selphid.”
The [Guardsman] gulped. He looked at Jelaqua, who gave him a toothy grin.
“Rookie mistake. It’s the skin. Want me to open up my chest? Oh, wait. There’s kids watching.”
The officer of the Watch looked around. He realized that everyone was waiting for him to make a move. He looked at the wagons waiting impatiently behind the Gold-ranks, at the adventurers, and made a judgment call.
“Terribly sorry, sir. I don’t know what came over me. You lot! Back up! Gold-ranks coming through on business! Give them some room! Do you need a wagon by any chance?”
Seborn grabbed the door and stomped forwards. The watchman stepped back, face beet red. Erin smothered a grin as she walked with the others. Jelaqua couldn’t stop laughing as they proceeded down the street. She grew more somber as they left the poor [Guardsman] behind.
“That happens a lot, actually. More often in Human lands than Drake ones, if you’ll believe that.”
“Really? Are Drakes less racist than Humans?”
Erin looked curiously at Jelaqua. The Selphid shook her head ruefully.
“Nah. It’s just that in the Drake cities, all the Watch knows your face so there’s no ‘incidents’. Helps a bit, but it raises other problems. Alright, through the gates?”
They’d come to the northern gates. Octavia looked at Erin and she nodded.
“Through the gates!”
The [Guardsmen] on duty were wiser than their colleague. They stood aside and just watched as the adventurers left the city. Erin took the lead, then. She pointed and the procession brought the door north of the city. It was about a ten minute walk.
There was nothing too special about the place the adventurers set the door down. Yvlon glanced about. The area just north of Celum was grassy, and there was a stand of trees to the left. But it was just a wild meadow Erin had chosen, really. Nothing too special about it at all. It was nice and open, a ways away from the road, but she couldn’t see why they were here.
“You sure this is what you want, Erin? There’s not even a wall to lean this thing up against!”
Jelaqua looked dubiously at Erin. The young woman smiled.
“No, it’s perfect. Plus, the door doesn’t need a wall. We can make one. All we need is a door frame and a bit of wood for the backboard…darn, I should have gotten that first.”
“Hey it’s no big deal. We can get it. Gold-ranks, remember? Seborn, let’s go requisition some nails and hammers and wood.”
“You do it. I’m sick of idiots around here asking if I’m sick. I hate landlocked idiots who’ve never seen the ocean.”
Jelaqua laughed. She and Ksmvr went back to Celum and came back with what they needed. Erin hammered a few boards together and Yvlon helped her pound the door frame into the ground.
“Why are you doing this?”
Octavia was more curious than upset at this point. She held the doorframe and backing up as Erin and Ksmvr wrestled the door into place. Seborn and Jelaqua were arguing about whether Drowned People or Selphids got more flak from the local law enforcement. Erin just grinned.
“You’ll see. Alright, I think we’re in place! Opening the door…now!”
She swung the door open. The wooden backing disappeared and the inn appeared. Mrsha and Lyonette turned from playing catch and shaded their eyes.
“What on earth—Erin, where are you?”
“Outside Celum! This is the plan! Hey Ceria, Pisces, you come through too!”
Lyonette stared through the door. The sunlight was hitting her eyes and she was still upset at Erin. She just saw grass. In the distance a wagon rolled down the road heading north out of Celum. She didn’t see how Mrsha and Ceria looked up.
Erin spread her arms wide. She turned about. Lyonette stared at her, uncomprehendingly. Then she looked at Mrsha. The Gnoll was staring through the door. At the grass. At the clear blue sky. The wind blew. And then Lyonette realized.
It was bright in Celum. The sun’s light flooded through the door, bright, golden light. Lyonette looked around. The inn was dark. A fire burned in the fireplace and Erin had lanterns and candles when needed, but the rain was still falling outside. And it was cloudy. Even with the windows unshuttered, the inn was still drab. Colorless. Like the inside of a prison cell.
Like the dungeon. But in Celum, there was grass. It was spring. A few bugs leapt through the door, confused by the sudden change in light and temperature. Lyonette saw a bird flying through the sky.
She turned and jumped. Bird was standing behind her.
“Bird! When did you come down?”
“Just now. I sensed birds. I have a Skill for it. May I go through, Miss Erin? Please?”
“Yeah! Come through! You and everyone else! Come on! I’ll bring some food through and we can play a game!”
Erin beckoned. Ceria stood up. So did Pisces. They looked at each other. Ceria blinked a few times.
“It’s so…bright. I’d forgotten what it was like.”
Pisces studied the open door. He nodded at Erin.
“I suppose a moment in the sun would be a pleasant change. Springwalker, what are you waiting for? Didn’t you say you wanted to sit in the sun with the Ring of Barkskin on at least once?”
“I did say that. Didn’t I? But Ksmvr has the ring.”
“I would be extremely willing to lend it to you, Captain Ceria. I have imbibed enough nutrients and I believe additional mass would not be unduly limiting to your combat prowess.”
“Thanks, Ksmvr. I—yeah, sure.”
The half-Elf stepped hesitantly towards the door. Erin smiled encouragingly at Mrsha.
“If you want to come through, we can have a picnic, Mrsha. We said we should do another one, remember? And I have a wonderful new game to play.”
Mrsha stared into the grassy field. She took a hesitant step forwards and stopped. She looked back at Lyonette. The young woman looked at her. Mrsha wavered. She was afraid. But then she looked back. At the light.
Apista buzzed past Mrsha, startling the young Gnoll. The Ashfire Bee flew into the field and hovered over a flower. Erin laughed. And that laughter struck something in Mrsha’s heart. She took another step.
“What’s the game?”
Jelaqua stood in the sun, smiling. Moore, who’d been napping at his table, looked up. The half-Giant smiled.
“A nap in the sun would be nice.”
He stepped past Mrsha. Ceria and Pisces followed him. Erin laughed again. She moved aside to let Moore go past.
“Oh, the best of games. The greatest game! For someone like Mrsha, at least. I thought of it when I saw the balls in the shop. They looked exactly like something from my home. So I made a few purchases. We’ll have a light lunch and then everything should be ready! I paid for speed.”
Lyonette stepped forwards. Mrsha was on the edge of the door. The Gnoll stared at the grass inches away from her paws. She looked up at the sky. A cool wind blew and ruffled Mrsha’s fur. She closed her eyes. She smelled…growing grass. Insects. Pollen. Soil. Birds. A rabbit nest hidden under the turf twenty feet to the left. Erin. Jelaqua. Yvlon. Metal. Sweat. A swirl of strange ingredients from Octavia. And that last scent of all, which reached into her. The scent that had no part of the dungeon in it. The smell of life, of growing.
She took a step forwards. Her paw sank into the grass. Mrsha looked at it. She touched the soil. She felt the blades of grass beneath her. She looked up at Lyonette. The young woman smiled. She wiped her eyes and looked at Erin. The young woman nodded to her. Lyonette bowed her head slightly.
“And what’s this game, Erin?”
“Oh, it’s a simple one. You have a few balls, a few sticks to hit things with, a glove to catch with…and you play it in the open. In the sun. It’s called baseball. I thought we could play. If you want. What do you say, Mrsha?”
Erin crouched. She held out her hand. Mrsha wavered. She stared back at the inn. It was familiar. But it was also dark. And ahead of her—she stared up. The sky was bright. Mrsha looked at Erin. She was afraid. Afraid this was all a dream.
“It’s okay, Mrsha.”
The young woman looked at Mrsha. The Gnoll looked at her, and closed her eyes. Then, slowly, she stepped forwards.
Yvlon was wrong about one thing. The parade wasn’t in two days. It was happening right now. In Liscor, the Watch and Embria’s Soldiers and a detachment of Antinium marched down the street. They followed a stream of adventurers, who waved as the crowd roared and cheered them. Liscor celebrated as the rain fell. Relieved Drakes and Gnolls took to the streets. And at the end of the parade, Wall Lord Ilvriss gave a speech after Watch Captain Zevara had given an account of all that had passed.
The Drake did not beat about the bush. He stood on a podium, several [Mages] and a scrying orb recording his every move. The world was watching. Already, the news of Liscor’s triumph over the Raskghar was spreading. It was, all things considered, small news. After all, it was just a group of monsters, nothing more.
To most of the world, Ilvriss’ speech was dismissed, forgettable. They had already gotten used to the novelty of the scrying orbs and after dozens of people had tried to emulate Flos’ attention-grabbing stunts, there were far fewer avid viewers than Ilvriss might have desired.
But that didn’t matter. The Wall Lord spoke for Liscor, who hung on his every word. He looked at the Gnolls, who stood together. Some grieved for those sacrificed or dead. Likewise, the Drakes had lost their own. But still they stood. The Wall Lord’s voice shook with raw emotion as he shouted.
“This was a triumph! Liscor has reclaimed its own! The dungeon and the Raskghar were no match for the might of adventurers, the resilience of the Drake and Gnollish spirit!”
The roar from the crowd deafened the falling rain for a second. Ilvriss raised one fist.
“The dungeon cannot defeat Liscor! Nor can any other foe! They assailed the walls! They took your family, your friends! And still the walls stand! Liscor will never fall to invaders! And the brave souls who battled in Liscor’s name are heroes, each one! Drakes! Gnolls! Humans! Selphid and Garuda, half-Giant and Drowned Man! Dwarf!”
He paused and muttered an oath.
No one besides Zevara heard that last bit. They were cheering, throwing things at the adventurers and Watch. Since flowers were hard to obtain, it was a rain of brightly-colored fish scales that fell, much to the dissatisfaction of all but the Antinium. But still, it was a triumph. Ilvriss’s speech was transmitted by the [Mages] to other spots across the continent and the world.
The leaders of the Drake cities watched. Around the world, those with an interest in Liscor or had nothing better to do listened to Ilvriss speaking in the rain. They assessed, listened, and judged. It was politics. And the adventurers shifted impatiently, wondering when the speech would end and they could get out of the rain. They had their fill of glory, now they wanted a hot meal.
Embria’s [Soldiers] stood proud, for once the heroes cheered by their home. The Watch was more relaxed, relieved that the crisis was over. The Antinium stared at the cheering faces and felt strange.
So it went. Glory and politics and rain. Liscor celebrated. But in an inn just a short way away from the city, a young woman and a white Gnoll stepped through a magical doorway and into Celum. They stepped out of the dark inn, out of Liscor and the ever-present rain and into the fields outside of Celum. And Mrsha looked around.
The sun shone down from a blue sky overhead. The grass was soft and the flowers blooming. The wind blew Mrsha’s fur as she looked up and saw the sun. It shone bright, a fierce, warm, comforting, brilliant, soft, wondrous, terrible light. The Gnoll breathed in. She looked around and saw smiling faces. She looked back at the inn. It was home. But here?
The meadow was empty. In the distance lay Celum, but it was far off. Here there were no walls in sight. There was no darkness. The air was fresh. Mrsha looked around. And at long last she smiled. It finally hit her.
She was free.