The sky was open. A warm sun shone down on the green grass below. The air smelled of spring. In the field just outside of Celum, the flowers and wild grass had been cropped short. A [Shepherd] must have taken his flock through the meadow not too recently. That also meant there were piles of poo in places. At least they were dried out.
Not everything was perfect. But it was good. Beautiful, even. Compared to the rains in Liscor, this was bliss. Compared to the dungeon, this was…Ceria looked around as she sat on the grass. A wooden ring was on her finger and the sun felt good as it shone down on her skin. She felt blissful, content. Full.
“I really like this ring. I feel like a tree.”
Pisces, sitting beside Ceria and fiddling with a pile of yellowed bones, looked up. The half-Elf ignored the bones as they danced about in midair. The [Necromancer] peered at Ceria’s Ring of Barkskin.
“Do you in fact feel yourself absorbing sunlight? Or is it just a pleasant sensation?”
“Hm. It feels warm. And I feel happier in the sun.”
“…Do you have an urge to dig yourself a hole and stand in it? Or imbibe water through your toes?”
“Shut up, Pisces. Don’t ruin this for me.”
The [Necromancer] huffed and went back to his bones. Ceria smiled. There was no real rancor in her tone, and Pisces seemed perfectly at ease to play with his bones. He was making another Bone Horror. The quiet click of bones didn’t disturb Ceria. She looked up and remembered the dungeon. The memory was still bitter, the horror real. But as the sunlight warmed her face, it seemed more distant.
“This is what I needed. Erin was right.”
“You mean, this is what we needed.”
Pisces looked up. Ceria blinked at him, and then nodded. She looked around and saw the others.
Bird. Jelaqua. Moore. Seborn. Lyonette. Octavia. And Mrsha. They sat or walked around the meadow, looking around. Half were barefoot. Mrsha didn’t wear shoes to begin with, but some had taken off their shoes. Just to feel the grass. After so long in the rain, after so many days in the dungeon, this was bliss.
Wonderful. Ceria smiled and stretched out in the grass. Something crawled on her arm. She flicked it at Pisces. He raised a finger and blasted it with fire. The stink and smoke made Pisces cough. He glared mildly at Ceria.
“That was quite unnecessary.”
“Remember the time we pranked you by dumping a bunch of bugs in your room?”
“In my fondest recollections. Are you incapable of enjoying yourself except at my expense?”
“It does make life more fun.”
Pisces sighed. Ceria laughed. She looked around. The meadow really was beautiful. Ceria didn’t love nature all the time, but this made her remember the forests of her home in Terandria. With fondness. She stared at the flowers blooming in the sun, some with white petals, others pink, blue…a green flower with curious arrow-shaped petals seemed to wave at her as the wind blew.
A butterfly flew through the air and landed on a dandelion. It perched there delicately. Then a loud buzzing sound made it take wing. It got three feet before Apista smacked into it. The butterfly flapped away as the Ashfire Bee buzzed in a wide circle. Apista possessively landed on the flower and began to feed on the nectar and pollen.
Ceria sat up a bit and stared at Apista. She glanced at Pisces. The tranquility of the moment was interrupted somewhat as Apista, buzzing loudly, flew up and landed on another flower nearby. The sound of her wings beating was loud. The bee cast about, then charged another group of butterflies. Both [Mages] watched Apista flying sentinel for a moment. Ceria glanced at Pisces.
“That’s one angry bug.”
“I think Ashfire Bees are rather competitive. Or perhaps it is simply this one that seems to want to monopolize the surrounding area.”
“Lyonette sure can choose them, huh? And is it just me or is Apista…bigger? Her stinger looks nastier than last time. Do you think they get bigger?”
“One would hope not.”
Both [Mages] ducked as Apista shot inches over their heads, chasing a much smaller bee. They watched Apista warily until she disappeared into a patch of flowers. Then they went back to sitting around. It was the most fun Ceria wanted to have at the moment. She heard an excited rustling sound and glanced up just in time to see a white shape flash past her.
“Mrsha, slow down! Watch out, Pisces!”
Pisces looked up and levitated his bones out of the way just in time. Mrsha leapt and nearly grabbed one with her teeth. He smirked as Mrsha narrowed her eyes at him. Then the Gnoll seemed to lose interest and dashed over to the green flower. She sniffed it, seemed to like the scent, and bounded over to another.
Mrsha was running about, smiling. She ran to each flower, smelling them, her tail wagging. Lyonette chased after her, laughing. It made Ceria glad to see. She looked around again.
Everyone was in good spirits. The Halfseekers were sitting together, basking in the sun. Bird was staring at the sky—he’d already shot six birds, and Octavia was plucking some flowers and muttering about cheap ingredients. Erin was in her inn, getting some food together. And Ksmvr and Yvlon—
“Hey, I think they’re coming back.”
Ceria pointed. Pisces looked up and nodded. Yvlon and Ksmvr were walking from Celum. It was easy to spot the two—aside from them being the only two people moving towards them, Yvlon’s vambraces and gauntlets shone in the light. The woman wore armor nowhere else, but she still caught the light. Ksmvr was a black and brown shape behind her. Both were carrying something.
“Got what you wanted?”
“We did. Anyone have any water?”
Ceria looked around. Pisces shook his head. Yvlon shrugged.
“I’ll get it from Erin’s inn. Let me just put this down, first.”
She was holding at least six odd sticks in her arms. Ceria stared at them. They looked like stirring paddles. Only, they were round and had a thinner handle. They were made completely out of wood, although the handles had been wrapped. She eyed the things as Yvlon tossed them down.
“What are those supposed to be?”
Yvlon shrugged. She massaged one shoulder with a gauntleted hand as Ksmvr laid down more curious objects next to the carved sticks.
“I have no idea. But Erin paid a lot to have them made quick. I think she called these…‘bats’.”
Ceria stared at the wooden bats. They looked nothing like their namesake.
“Okay. And the leather glove-things?”
They looked like gloves, but with an odd twist. There weren’t individual fingers on the glove—it was a large, ungainly thing that looked like a pocket. Ceria had no idea why you’d ever put something like that on your hand. Yvlon shrugged.
“She called them gloves.”
“Right. Of course she did. Did she say why she wanted them?”
“For that game she mentioned, I think. Is Erin in there?”
Yvlon nodded to the door standing about ten feet away. Ceria nodded. Yvlon walked over to the magic door and stared inside. The grass ran right up to the door’s edge, at which point wooden floorboards took over. Yvlon stepped from Celum’s meadow into the shade of The Wandering Inn. She blinked as the room grew darker and then stared around Erin’s grand common room.
“Erin? We’ve got your bats and gloves. Do you have any water?”
Erin poked her head out of the kitchen. She blinked as she saw Yvlon.
“Oh, hey Yvlon! Did you get my bats?”
Ksmvr poked his head through the doorway.
“Yes, Miss Erin. We have acquired your desired objects. Another successful mission for the Horns of Hammerad. Yvlon requests water as our reward. As do I. Comrade Pisces would like a glass of wine.”
“Sure! Wait—tell Pisces he can’t drink just yet! I’ll be out in one moment! I just have to put this dough in the oven…”
It took a few minutes for Erin to emerge from the kitchen. When she walked outside into the meadow she had a tray with a filled pitcher of water and cups. She raised her voice.
“Hey everyone! Gather around here! I’ve got something to show you! Also: water!”
She placed the tray on the ground. Everyone looked around and got up to come over. Pisces sniffed as Ceria offered him a cup of water. The half-Elf took a sip of the lukewarm water, grimaced, and then raised a hand before Yvlon could pour herself a cup.
She pointed at the pitcher and conjured a sphere of ice out of the air. She tossed it into the pitcher, making a splash. Yvlon eyed the giant ice cube floating in the water.
“That’s handy. Normally ice is a rare treat.”
“That’s what you get with an ice mage around. You want smaller ice cubes? I like to chew them.”
“Ooh. I’ll have some!”
Jelaqua Ivirith grinned as she walked over. She nodded appreciatively at Ceria as the half-Elf conjured ice cubes out of the air and flicked them into a cup. Seborn took a cup, filled it, drained it, and then sighed.
“Refreshing. No ice, thanks, Ceria. What’s this you have to show us, Erin?”
“Baseball! You got the bats and gloves? And I have baseballs! Hey Mrsha, are you having fun?”
Erin bent down as Mrsha raced over. The Gnoll smiled up at Erin as she grabbed a cup and then ran over to Ceria to get free ice. Lyonette jogged over, huffing, and stared at the baseball bats, gloves, and balls. She glanced at Erin.
“Is this the game you were talking about?”
“Yup! Baseball! The perfect game for today! I thought we could sit outside, play games, eat some food—I’ve got some buns rising in the oven for hot dogs, popcorn, and there’s sausages since hot dogs aren’t made in Liscor. That’s probably a good thing. Anyways, we can try baseball or just have fun!”
Erin beamed. The others looked at each other. Everything sounded good, especially just sitting in the sun. But…Ceria coughed.
“Erin, would you mind explaining what this baseball thing is?”
“Oh. Right. I forgot that uh…well, it’s a game!”
Pisces rolled his eyes.
Ceria smirked as Erin glared at both of them. She picked up a bat and one of the hide-wrapped balls she’d bought from Liscor.
“It’s a fun game! I told you, people where I come from play it all the time. Everyone loves it!”
She paused and bit her lip.
“Okay, some people like to play it. I mean, in my country it’s big, but in the world it’s not that huge a sport compared to…”
She scratched her head. Her audience stared at the young woman expectantly. Erin coughed.
“It has fans. And it’s easy to play. Okay, wait, let me explain from the start. Baseball…baseball…”
Erin was at a bit of a loss of how to describe baseball. It wasn’t that she didn’t know the rules and so forth, it was just that she’d never had to explain the game in its entirety. She scratched her head as everyone sipped from their cups.
“I’ve got it! Okay. Baseball is this game. Where you hit balls.”
Ksmvr raised his hand.
“No! Okay, sometimes. Not on purpose. No, you hit balls, and then run around this…this diamond. It’s not actually a diamond, it’s actually three, no, four bases. On the ground. You run from base to base while the other team—there are teams—tries to get the ball you hit and tag you out. And if you run all the way around and get back where you started, you score!”
Jelaqua glanced up at Moore. The half-Giant was scratching his head.
“And you win? Is that the point of the game?”
“Nope! You get a point! And if you’re tagged, you’re ‘out’. And if you get three outs, the other team gets to hit the ball. And we change sides like that like…nine times. Whoever has the highest score wins. Unless there’s a tie.”
“What happens then?”
“Then we play another round until one team has more points than the other. Both teams get a chance at bat—that means hitting the ball. And if one team gets more points by the end they win the game. If not, we play another inning. That’s both teams pitching—throwing the ball—and batting—hitting the ball.”
Ceria looked at Pisces. He raised both eyebrows and smiled sardonically. Ksmvr raised his other hand, not having lowered the first one.
“Miss Solstice, what happens if both teams fail to aquire more points?”
“Then we keep playing. Forever. Or until one team can’t play anymore.”
Erin stared at Ksmvr. He nodded.
“Defeat by attrition. Very appropriate.”
“Right. So that’s baseball. Any questions?”
The adventurers, Mrsha, Bird, and Lyonette looked each other. Then they all raised their hands. Ksmvr raised his third one. Erin sighed.
“Let me try again.”
A few explanations later, Ceria understood baseball. At least, she understood how the game was played. There was a logic to it—hitting a ball sounded like fun and the gloves made sense to her now. Still, she had declined to practice at first. The Halfseekers and Mrsha had volunteered to take the equipment and hit a few balls. Everyone else was sitting and watching as Erin coached from the sidelines.
“Okay! Aim for Moore’s glove, Seborn! Not at Jelaqua! Mrsha, you stay in the outfield! Grab the ball when it goes flying and throw it at Lyonette!”
“Alright! Throw that ball, Seborn!”
Jelaqua grinned as she swung the baseball bat energetically. Moore, crouching behind her with his hand open—he was holding a tablecloth for a glove since Erin hadn’t wanted to pay for a glove for his hands—eyed Jelaqua’s bat with some apprehension.
“Don’t let go of that bat, Jelaqua. And please don’t hit me in the head.”
“Relax! I’ve got this! Throw, Seborn!”
The Drowned Man did. Erin had shown him how to pitch, and the [Rogue] threw the ball surprisingly fast. Jelaqua swung. Her bat whiffed the air as the baseball bounced off of Moore’s palm. The half-Giant picked up the ball between two fingers and threw it clumsily back at Seborn.
Erin waved her arms. Jelaqua looked over.
“What? Am I out already?”
“No, you get two more chances!”
“Got it! Throw me another, Seborn!”
The Drowned Man did. Ceria watched the ball flash past Jelaqua. The Selphid blinked.
“Hey, not that fast!”
“Too bad. I’m trying to win here.”
Seborn smiled as Moore threw the ball back to him. Jelaqua growled and swung the bat around. Ceria watched as Seborn wound up and threw the third ball. This time Jelaqua had the timing down. She stepped forward and swung.
The crack of bat hitting ball made Mrsha look up. She’d been playing in the grass impatiently. Her eyes widened as she saw the baseball flying overhead. She raced after it as Jelaqua looked around.
“Did you see that?”
“Run for first base!”
The Selphid charged towards the ‘base’ Erin had set up, which was a pillow lying in the grass. Erin waved her arms frantically.
“The bat! Put the bat back!”
Jelaqua ran back. Mrsha was racing towards Lyonette with the ball in her mouth. The [Barmaid] waved her hands encouragingly, holding a glove up.
“Throw it, Mrsha!”
The Gnoll cub did. The ball went wide of Lyonette. The young woman raced after it with Mrsha as Jelaqua ran onto first base. She raised her arms in celebration.
“I did it!”
“Right! Second base!”
Jelaqua ran as Mrsha and Lyonette grabbed the ball and chased after her. She got all the way to third before they caught up. Then Erin had to explain how the rest of the game worked again. Jelaqua groaned.
“Wait, so I just stand here?”
“I mean, you can steal, but it’s dangerous. You don’t have to stand here. This is just to show everyone how the game is played. Let’s have someone else bat. Moore?”
“I’m afraid I couldn’t use one of those bats, Miss Erin.”
The half-Giant smiled apologetically. Erin grinned up at him.
“That’s okay! I got you a special bat! Here—”
She pointed at the oversized baseball bat which was more of a log. Moore blinked. He picked it up and Jelaqua whistled.
“That’s a stick! You could crack a few heads with that thing, Moore!”
“I’d prefer not to. But playing—hm. Yes. Thank you, Erin.”
Moore smiled gratefully at Erin. He took up position at bat as Jelaqua grabbed a glove and sat far behind him. Erin returned to her seat next to Ceria. The half-Elf was still sunbathing. Erin smiled at Ceria.
“What do you think?”
The half-Elf looked up. She had another pillow underneath her head and she’d been reluctantly looking up to see the action. Now she sat up and gave Erin a rueful smile.
“Honestly, Erin? It looks incredibly dull.”
“You think so?”
Erin didn’t seem too offended. She took a seat by Ceria as Moore swung his bat. Slowly. He missed Seborn’s first pitch. Ceria shrugged.
“It’s…well, I don’t want to be rude, but it’s about as fun as chess for me. Pisces likes chess, but I don’t know if he’ll enjoy this game. At least the Halfseekers are having fun.”
Jelaqua shouted happily at Moore. The half-Giant frowned at her. Their voices were audible to Ceria and Erin as they sat together.
“Stop yelling at me.”
“It’s part of the game, Moore! Hit the ball already!”
“I can’t see it. It’s hard to swing this bat fast enough, alright?”
“You get one more swing, Moore!”
“That doesn’t seem fair. You got to practice with Seborn.”
“Tough luck! There’s no mercy in baseball!”
“Stop arguing, both of you. We’ll give Moore more swings.”
Erin smiled as she watched the Halfseekers play. Mrsha was lying in the grass, waiting for another ball as Lyonette yawned at first base. Pisces, Yvlon, and Ksmvr had also been recruited to stand at second and third base and in the outfield. They looked around, clearly waiting for something to happen. Bird and Octavia watched from the sidelines.
“It is sort of boring, isn’t it?”
“You think so too?”
“Eh. I never liked baseball too much when I was back home. My dad used to take me to a few games, but he wasn’t the hugest fan either. He would watch the big games and that’s about it.”
“I see. So why are we playing it?”
Erin smiled as she stretched out her legs in the grass. She propped herself up with her arms and watched as Moore swung again.
“It’s boring. And exciting when someone hits the ball. Mostly, you sit and watch. In baseball games the audience sits for hours. You can talk to one another, eat…it’s not filled with action. I thought it was perfect for today. For everyone. And for Mrsha.”
She pointed at Mrsha. The Gnoll was rolling about on her back as Moore missed again. Jelaqua was heckling him. Ceria glanced at Mrsha.
“You were right about us needing some sunlight. I’d forgotten we could just…go to Celum. It’s amazing.”
“All thanks to your door. Without it I couldn’t have done so many things. It really was the best thing you brought out of Albez. Thank you for giving it to me, Ceria.”
The half-Elf waved that away.
“You helped us. You gave us coin, brought us together—and you saved me. Twice. With the door we gave you.”
Erin smiled and looked away.
“Yeah. But I didn’t do too much.”
“You came up with the plan. I heard from Pisces and Yvlon what was happening while I was below. Everyone was fighting the dungeon, but you were the one who got the Goblins to find the Raskghar. And you made the plan. You even got people like Zevara and Ilvriss on board. You saved me, Erin.”
The [Innkeeper] shook her head.
“It was everyone. I just gave them a chance. I…I’m not proud of what I did.”
Ceria frowned and sat up a bit more.
“Not proud? Why wouldn’t you be? Erin, you beat the Raskghar! There were thousands of them and they were killing—”
“I know. I know. It’s just…I guess I’m really good at killing people after all.”
Erin’s voice was quiet. She was still looking away from Ceria. The half-Elf paused. Then Erin looked back at her friend. The young woman sat on the grass, smiling. But there were tears in her eyes. They ran down Erin’s cheeks as she watched Mrsha run after a foul ball.
“I knew I could, Ceria. I knew that I could figure out a way to kill the Raskghar. With fire. With water. With monsters or traps. And I did. I’d do it again. But I don’t like it.”
“It had to be done. The Raskghar were evil. They were sacrificing Gnolls. If you hadn’t, Mrsha and I would be dead.”
There was no pity in Ceria’s heart or her voice. Erin nodded. She wiped at her eyes.
“That’s true. It’s all true. But I still did it. I went into their home and killed them. I made the plan. I knew what would happen.”
Ceria stared at Erin. She couldn’t feel whatever it was Erin felt. Ceria had been there. She had looked into Nokha’s eyes as the Raskghar devoured the Gnoll’s hearts. If the Raskghar had been in front of her again, Ceria would have killed them without a second thought.
“They were monsters.”
“They were. But they were people. I walked into their camp before we destroyed the entrance. They were monsters. But they had a home. They were evil, but I still helped kill them.”
“Not all of them. Some got away.”
Ceria didn’t know if she was trying to cheer Erin up. If she was, it wasn’t working. Erin shrugged. She was smiling and crying a bit as Moore swung again and missed.
“It doesn’t matter, Ceria. I know it had to be done. And if I had to, I’d do it again. A thousand times. I just feel bad about it. It’s…something I feel. I just feel bad. For the people who died. The Antinium Soldiers, the Watch…Ilvriss’ people. They died because I asked them to. And the Raskghar. We killed an entire group of people. They were bad people, but still people.”
“I guess so.”
Ceria sat back, troubled. She stared at her skeletal hand. A bug had decided to crawl between her fingers and she’d smashed it accidentally. There was no feeling in her bone hand, after all. Absentmindedly, Ceria scrubbed her hand on the grass.
“I’m sorry. I know you probably don’t feel bad at all. Not after what happened. With Calruz.”
“Yeah. I don’t. I just wish I could have talked him into releasing the Gnolls. I wish I could have stopped him. But I didn’t. That was my fault.”
The half-Elf shook her head. Erin reached out and grabbed her flesh hand.
“It wasn’t. You did all you could.”
“I didn’t save him. He’s going to be executed. Drake law. I should have killed him when I had the chance. But I couldn’t. He’s…insane, Erin. He wasn’t in his right mind. There were bits and pieces of him, but it was all wrong. That’s the hard part. He cared about Gerial and the others. If he hadn’t, if he’d just been mad, it would have been easy to—but he cared and then—I couldn’t stop it.”
Ceria’s voice cracked. She stared at Moore as the half-Giant began arguing with Jelaqua. Seborn walked over to confer. Erin’s hand squeezed Ceria’s.
“I heard a bit of what happened. I…”
She didn’t finish her sentence. Ceria stared ahead. The sun felt less bright as she whispered.
“It was bad down there, Erin. I told the others about it. But not all of it. I don’t think I can. I wish—I can still hear them screaming. I know there were too many Raskghar. I know. But I was the only adventurer down there. They died and I couldn’t stop them.”
Erin stared at Ceria’s face. The half-Elf shook her head, her hands trembling.
“Do you want to talk about it? I can listen.”
“No. I—maybe later. But not right now. I just want to sit.”
Ceria stared past Erin. After a while Erin took her hand away. The half-Elf wished she hadn’t. She felt tense. Guilty. Alone, despite Erin sitting next to her. Her failures pierced her over and over until—
The half-Elf looked up. Jelaqua had hit the ball. She pointed.
“There! Like that, see?”
Moore stared as Ksmvr and Yvlon looked up. The Antinium and woman watched the ball land and then remembered they had to run and pick it up. He turned and glared at Jelaqua.
“Like what? You’re just hitting the ball, Jelaqua. Let me keep trying.”
“Aw, come on!”
The half-Giant took a position at home base again. Ceria watched Seborn throw a ball and Moore miss. Suddenly, she was back in the present. She looked around. Erin was watching her. Ceria half-rose. Then she inhaled and smelled the earth. The grass. She looked up and saw the sun.
Her heart began to beat slowly again. Ceria looked at her hands, and then at Erin. The young woman smiled. Her eyes were mostly dry, but there was still moisture in them.
“It’s a beautiful day.”
Ceria looked up. The sky was blue. High, high above, a few clouds slowly moved across the vast sky. The half-Elf closed her eyes and inhaled the scent of growing life. The sun shone down as Moore finally hit a ball and Mrsha and Pisces both raced after it. Ceria remembered the dungeon, the scent of blood. Calruz’s eyes full of madness. The Raskghar devouring the heart over the lifeless Gnoll. She blinked and found her eyes were watering as well.
“It really is, isn’t it?”
The two sat together for a while. Just sat. The horrors of the past melted away from Ceria as she watched Seborn take a place at bat. He swung and connected with the first ball, ran around the bases until Ksmvr tagged him out, and then waited at first base as Lyonette took a turn swinging the bat. The game was boring. Some might have even called it dull. But in this moment, it was the game Ceria needed. So she stood up.
“Alright. I’ll give it a shot.”
Erin looked up.
“Why not? I could use a bit of exercise. And I can always lie down afterwards. Are you going to play too?”
Erin stood up. She smiled at Ceria and then cupped her hands.
“Hey guys! Want to play a real game? With teams?”
The others looked up. They looked at each other and shrugged. Jelaqua shouted back.
“Sure! Let’s play a bit. Then we can eat!”
The others nodded. They trooped over to home base as Erin walked forwards with Ceria. The game wasn’t amazing. It wasn’t fantastic or exciting. It was sort of fun. But that was what they needed. A game of baseball in the sun.
The first game was simple. It was between the Horns of Hammerad and the Halfseekers, with Bird, Lyonette, and Mrsha acting as extras for the outfield team. Octavia watched from the sidelines with a bowl of popcorn as Erin umpired the game.
“Alright! Game one! We’ll play till one side scores five points, okay? Jelaqua, you’re up for bat first! Pisces, throw the ball!”
“Don’t let her hit the ball, Pisces! That’s an order!”
Ceria shouted at Pisces from first base. The [Necromancer] sniffed and awkwardly raised the ball.
“Very well. Allow me to throw a truly unhittable pitch. Like so—”
He threw the ball as fast and hard as he could without warning. It was a good pitch. But Jelaqua was quicker. The Selphid grinned and swung her bat.
The bat cracked as it connected full-force with the ball. Pisces’ eyes widened and he ducked as the ball flashed by his head. Mrsha and Ksmvr raced after the ball as Jelaqua raised her bat and cheered. Erin shouted urgently.
“Don’t cheer yet, Jelaqua! Drop the bat! Okay, now run for first base! Ksmvr, grab the ball and throw it to Ceria!”
Ksmvr threw the ball. Ceria raised her glove, swore as she saw Jelaqua charging towards the pillow, and tried to grab the ball. She caught it, but only after Jelaqua had stepped on the pillow. Erin shouted.
“Safe! She’s safe, Ceria! You can’t tag her out!”
The half-Elf looked up. Jelaqua had both claws raised to fend Ceria off. Both looked slightly disappointed. Jelaqua coughed. Ceria scratched her head.
“That was it? She touched the pillow and that’s it?”
“Yup. She’s safe. Until the next ball is hit, she can stay there. Or steal a base.”
“Aha! I knew this game was fun!”
Jelaqua charged towards second base. Ceria swore and ran after her. Erin shouted at both of them to come back.
“Wait, wait! No stealing in the first game! And you can’t just run all the way home! I think.”
“Well—you’d be caught. If we had a full team. Which we don’t, so—no stealing.”
“Drat. So what do I do?”
Erin pointed back towards home base, where Seborn had the bat and was waiting patiently. Moore was catcher and sitting cross-legged rather than crouching since he was large enough to cover the entire base anyways.
“You just stand there. Seborn will swing and if he hits, you run for second or third, or even home, Jelaqua.”
The Selphid sighed. She scratched a loose scale on her cheek.
“So this is a waiting game?”
“Um. Yeah! But it’s not too long. Hold on. Seborn, let me get out of the way! Pisces, throw another ball when I say so! Try to not let Seborn hit it this time!”
Jelaqua and Ceria awkwardly stood together at first base while Erin had Seborn step up and take a few swings. The Selphid scratched the spines on the back of her head. Ceria coughed. Jelaqua scratched the spines on the back of her Drake body. After a moment she spoke out of the corner of her mouth.
“So. Do you think they’ll let me try out a Raskghar body?”
The half-Elf blinked. Jelaqua grinned sheepishly.
“I mean, I think we brought a few back. Trophies and to show other adventurers what they look like, you know? I don’t need a new one, but I’d like to be the first Selphid to try one out, you know? Bragging rights. And have you seen their muscles?”
“I uh, didn’t get too good a look at them. But that’s actually a good idea. Raskghar are really strong.”
“I know, right? And if I could get Erin to store a few bodies in her basement, you know, as insurance—is this getting creepy?”
“Just a little bit. But I get it. You don’t think the bodies will rot in her inn, right? What about bugs?”
“Well, Selphids have this paste I can get Octavia to make that—”
Crack. Both Ceria and Jelaqua looked up. A ball flew past them and Erin shouted.
Suddenly Seborn was charging towards them! Pisces and Ksmvr ran for the ball. Ceria and Jelaqua looked at each other. The Selphid looked around.
“Oh kidney stones, what am I supposed to do again?”
“Run to second base! Ceria, get ready to stop Seborn! Catch the ball!”
Ceria waved her arms in frustration as Jelaqua took off. Pisces blurred over to the ball with [Flash Step] and snatched it up. He looked around. But Seborn was already on first base. The Drowned Man eyed Ceria. And Jelaqua was rounding second base, headed towards third. Ceria pointed.
“I’ll stop Jelaqua! Pisces, get her!”
The Selphid was laughing as she ran. Pisces charged towards her. Jelaqua kept her eye on Pisces, but she didn’t see Ceria coming up from the side. The half-Elf tackled the Selphid, knocking her to the ground.
“Get her, Pisces!”
The [Necromancer] was twenty paces away. He threw the ball at Jelaqua as the Selphid turned and threw Ceria off. The Selphid dodged back as she saw the ball land at her feet, but then she grinned. She picked the ball up and threw it at Seborn.
“Get rid of it!”
Seborn turned, hurled the ball in the opposite direction, then charged to second base as Pisces and Ksmvr ran after the ball again. Ceria tried to slow Jelaqua as the Selphid tried to follow Seborn. Erin watched, jaw slightly open as Seborn rounded the bases. Jelaqua was nearly at third base with Ceria holding onto her waist when Pisces threw a ball and struck her shoulder.
Ceria let go and Jelaqua threw up her hands. Seborn tried to run back to second, but Ksmvr was there. He caught the ball and chased Seborn as the Drowned Man ran back to first base. There Seborn stopped. He looked at Erin and she found her voice.
“Okay! Um. Return back to home base!”
All five players returned to the plate. Seborn looked at Erin as Ceria gave Pisces and Ksmvr a thumbs-up.
“How’d we do?”
“Well…that was awful. You’re not supposed to tackle players, Ceria! And Pisces, you can’t hit people with the ball! And if you touch the ball you’re out! And Ksmvr—you did a good job. Only Ksmvr played according to the rules!”
Ksmvr straightened up and smiled. The other adventurers scratched their heads. Ceria shook her head exasperatedly.
“This game has a lot of rules. And it’s hard catching people while they’re running.”
“That’s why you stand on the bases. The runners can’t score if you block them, and then you just have to tag them out. You throw the ball between each other. Look, we’re doing good. I think we just need a few more players.”
“You think so? We’re a pretty good team by ourselves, right Seborn, Moore? Right?”
Jelaqua elbowed Seborn. The Drowned Man looked at her.
“Stop elbowing me.”
Erin smiled. She looked to the outfield. Yvlon, Lyonette, and Mrsha were bored in right field and were playing catch with another ball.
“Look, one more game. But let me just call a few people over first, okay?”
The adventurers shrugged. Ceria nodded.
“Sure. Who did you have in mind?”
The Redfang Hobs sat around in their cave. Around them sat Cave Goblins. The Hobs were busy at work and not busy at the same time. They were showing the Cave Goblins how to bandage wounds. Headscratcher winced as Badarrow sewed up a gash on his arm. The Hob flinched as the tip of the needle went through his flesh. Badarrow slapped his shoulder and glared at him.
It was a necessity. The Cave Goblins were wounded. Some were badly hurt. Those had been healed with the potions the Goblins had, but far more had injures that could heal with time. And the Goblins wouldn’t waste a potion on something like that.
With that said, the medical knowledge the Redfangs had was limited to stitching up bad cuts and making sure nothing got too dirty. That was still miles ahead of Cave Goblin medical advances, which hadn’t gotten much past ‘don’t poke an open wound’. So the Goblins watched as Badarrow demonstrated how to clean and stitch up a cut. He didn’t have to do it twice. The Goblins remembered and would teach their friends.
The mood in the cave was optimistic, despite the injured Goblins. Despite the dead. Because they had won their freedom. It was a battle no one cared about. It had not resulted in the freedom of Gnolls or a half-Elf. It was not a glorious battle, but many skirmishes. It had freed only Goblins. And who cared about them?
The Hobs. Each of them was wounded. The worst of their injuries had been healed, but they still had gashes. It was nothing compared to some of the pain they’d born, but it did hurt. Still, they would have been celebrating normally. Except, it was just that…
The door hadn’t opened. The magical door that connected Erin’s inn to the Goblin cave hadn’t activated since she’d set up the attack on the Raskghar camp. Of course, the Hobs knew she was alive. The Cave Goblins had reported everything. And naturally she was busy. Rabbiteater made that point so many times that the other Hobs threw things at him, forcing him to hide behind his water cloak.
Erin was probably very busy. It was just that she hadn’t talked to them today. It wasn’t as if they needed to see her. But there was a feeling in the back of the Goblin’s minds. It was a ridiculous thought. It ran something like this.
What if Erin had just used them to beat the Raskghar? And she didn’t need them anymore? Or maybe—maybe now that all the Goblins were here, she couldn’t help them anymore? Maybe they were a liability, with so many…monsters around. Or maybe she’d grown tired of them.
Ridiculous thoughts. Totally at odds with everything they knew of Erin. But the Hobs couldn’t shake the feeling. So they sat around moodily, bandaging their injuries. The Cave Goblins didn’t understand why the Hobs were upset. They were cheerfully sewing each other up when the door opened.
“Guys? Are you—”
The Hobs looked up as one as they heard a voice. Erin Solstice stood in the doorway and paused when she saw the Goblins. A detail yet to be mentioned was that there were a lot of Cave Goblins in the enclosed space. More than last time, even. And they were just the ones Erin could see. She looked around wide-eyed, and then focused on the Hobs who sprang to their feet.
“What happened? There are so many Goblins! And—oh my god! What happened?”
Erin had spotted a huge cut on Numbtongue’s chest. The Hob blinked as Erin threw up her hands in horror. She dashed back into her inn and the Hobs saw a little figure appear in the doorway.
Pebblesnatch had been happily sleeping until Erin woke her up. The little Goblin had been treated to a no-holds-barred breakfast and she’d been eating it all morning. She paused and all the Cave Goblins stared at her. She was holding a giant cookie. Pebblesnatch wavered as the Goblins’ eyes fixed on the treat which gave off a smell they’d never inhaled before. She looked from face to face, looked at her cookie, and closed the door.
A few seconds later it opened. Erin appeared with a potion box in her hands.
“What are you doing? Here—”
She moved past Pebblesnatch as the Cave Goblin backed away, clutching her cookie to her chest so hard that it began to crumble. Erin grabbed healing potions and thrust them at the Hobs.
“Where did you get those injuries? Oh no—did the Raskghar attack you? Here, use them! Any Goblin that needs it—”
Shorthilt blinked bemusedly at the healing potion that was thrust into his hands. He opened his mouth, but Erin was already handing healing potions out. The Goblins looked at each other. They hesitated. But then Headscratcher nodded. He uncorked a bottle and carefully splashed some on his arm. The stitches popped out of his healing flesh. The Cave Goblins did the same. Erin breathed a sigh of relief as she looked around.
It was a curious thing. The Cave Goblins stared. Some, a portion of them had seen Erin, tasted her cooking. The others only had rumors to go on. They had heard of a strange Human that didn’t hurt Goblins. They barely knew what a Human was, but they had heard she ordered the Hobs around. And she made good food. And now they saw her, they were shocked. Because she was so normal. Because she was giving healing potions to Goblins.
Because she cared. The Cave Goblins stared at Erin. They stared at Pebblesnatch, who was reluctantly giving out fingernail-sized portions of her cookie to other Goblins, and at Erin. She was talking with the Hobs and they were clustered around her. Smiling. As if they liked her. As if—
As if she was a friend. The Goblins listened as Erin spoke.
“—Had no idea. I’m so sorry I didn’t come by earlier, but I was so busy that I just crashed when everyone was safe. I have food—where did all the Goblins come from? From below? Ha ha. Very funny. I meant…well, okay, that makes sense. Do you have enough food? I can…well, I’ll need to see about buying more. We can deal with that later if you’re good for now. I was really coming to see if you wanted to uh, play a game. Of baseball.”
The Goblins looked up. The Redfangs looked at each other. Erin hastened to explain.
“It’s in Celum! In a field right next to the city. It…well, it might be a bit dangerous if someone panics, but Jelaqua said that you’re probably safe. And we owe you so much. So…if you want to bring some Goblins over, we could play a game. There’ll be food. I can’t let all of the Goblins through, but maybe a few and all of you? I’m sorry, but I can’t bring everyone through—”
The Goblins stared at the Hobs. They looked at each other as the Redfangs conferred, glancing around. Then they nodded. The Goblins saw Headscratcher smiling as Erin tried to explain the game to him. Not about the game. Just at her. And then the young woman smiled and the smile was everything. The Hobs turned. Numbtongue gestured.
They would take thirty with them. Pebblesnatch instantly sidled back into the inn. The Cave Goblins stared at her. At the cookie, mostly eaten. At Erin, the empty box of potions—and her smile. Then they charged towards the door, fighting tooth-and-nail to be the first ones through.
“I feel so bad.”
Erin confessed to Numbtongue as she closed the door on the disappointed Goblins. There were hundreds crammed into the cave. And they’d all tried to get into her inn. A large number had gone through—until the Hobs had restored order.
It hadn’t been pretty. More than one Goblin probably needed another potion for their blinding headache as the Hobs had banged heads together and thrown the rest back through the door. Now, a lucky thirty Cave Goblins including Pebblesnatch were celebrating in Erin’s inn. The rest were in the cave. Sulking.
“You’re sure they’ll be alright without you?”
“They’ll be fine. We don’t need to leave one of us behind.”
The Hob didn’t quite meet her eyes. He was holding a big mug of ale and he was eating a cookie. So were the other Goblins. The luxury of Erin’s inn and the sweet food was making some of them swoon. Erin eyed the Hob, but gave in. The Cave Goblins would probably be fine. And she owed the Hobs. She placed Celum’s mana stone on the door.
The Goblins nodded. Erin threw open the door. Sunlight made the Goblins gasp. They looked out into a beautiful grassy field. And beyond it were adventurers. The Cave Goblins shrank back in terror, but the Redfangs stood between them and the door and made beckoning noises. They led the Goblins through.
There were adventurers standing on the grass. They froze when they saw the Goblins, but relaxed quickly. The others didn’t. A group of Humans, some dressed in armor, others in bright clothing whirled when the door opened. When the Goblins came through, they panicked.
“Dead gods! Goblins! Hobs! Sound the alarm!”
“Run for it!”
The members of Celum’s Watch reached for their swords, then began to flee in a stampede at the sight of five Hobs. The brightly-dressed Humans paled, but didn’t run. One of them threw up a hand. He raised his voice and shouted in a surprisingly loud, commanding tone.
“Hold! I say hold, all of you! Turn, guardsmen, turn! These Goblins aren’t enemies!”
Wesle strode towards Erin. He nodded at the Hobgoblins as the Players of Celum stared at the Cave Goblins. They weren’t afraid! The Cave Goblins peered around Rabbiteater’s cloak as the guardsmen of Celum halted in their panicked flight. He bowed to Erin with a flourish.
“Erin, it’s a delight!”
“Wesle! What brings you out here?”
Erin beamed as she hugged the man. He wasn’t too much taller than her, and he wasn’t that imposing or huge a man. His lips were clean-shaven and he wore fairly fancy red tunic and breeches, but that was all. And yet, the Goblins thought he looked taller than the Humans around him. It was in the way he carried himself. And the way he moved and spoke. He seemed to draw the eye. Wesle stroked his upper lip as if he still had his fuzzy mustache.
“We got word you’d passed through the city. Caused a bit of a commotion. We thought—we hoped that it was safe to return to your inn. It’s been terribly quiet without you or your inn to perform in.”
Erin smacked her forehead.
“Of course! I forgot—we won! There was a huge battle, Wesle! The Raskghar were defeated! We saved the Gnolls! It was incredible! Liscor’s saved, the Goblins helped, and the Antinium no matter what Ilvriss says—”
“Huge battle? Raskghar? Sounds like a play!”
A short woman strode over. Emme gave the Goblins a glance and then focused on Erin.
“Is this something we could turn into a play, Miss Erin?”
“Well then! What are we waiting for? Hey, you lot! Gather over here! Forget the Goblins—they won’t bite. And if they do, bite back! We’ve got material for a new play!”
The Players of Celum approached cautiously. Erin turned and beamed at a Drake and a Human child.
“Jasi! Grev! It’s great to see you all! And you’re all here at the perfect time! We were having a break after all that’s happened.”
“Hullo, Miss Erin. You’ve got a lot of monster folk behind you. Are all them new security for your inn?”
Grev stared at the Cave Goblins, who stared back, never having seen a Human child before. Erin turned.
“What, the Goblins? No, I brought them for the game. Hey Jelaqua! Look, we’ve got two teams of players!”
The Selphid waved back. She was laughing so hard she could barely stand. It was the reactions of the Humans that amused her. One of Celum’s [Guardsmen] followed the Players of Celum, practically hiding behind Jasi.
“Game? What’s all this? Mister Wesle, these Goblins—”
“Security for Miss Erin’s inn. Don’t mind them, Fabial. The rest of you, take heed! These are Miss Erin’s employees. There’s to be no fighting here! Besides, there’s a team of Gold-rank adventurers.”
Jelaqua walked over, still chuckling. She grinned at Fabial, who looked alarmed as Moore approached.
“We’ve got this. These Goblins are under control. Hey, Headscratcher.”
She nodded at Badarrow, who ignored her. The Hobs stared around as Erin tried to explain why the Goblins were here to the Humans. Emme began to pester Jelaqua for details. Grev stared about and made eye contact with Mrsha. In the end Erin had to wave her hands and shout.
“Attention! Everyone! Shut up!”
They all quieted. The Players of Celum, adventurers, and Goblins all stared at Erin. She looked around and smiled.
“Let’s leave the plays and killing each other for later, huh? Today’s not a work day. We’re just going to relax here. Goblins, Humans, Selphids—”
“Selphid. Unless anyone wants to change my mind?”
“We can do everything later. But for now—does anyone want to play a game of baseball?”
The crowd paused. They looked at Erin and at each other. Then Numbtongue raised a hand.
The Celum [Guardsmen] stared at the Hob in horror.
“It can talk?”
Erin rolled her eyes.
“Baseball is a sport. A game where two teams compete. One team is on the attack, the other one defends. That’s the basics. Now, we never hurt anyone else. That’s against the rules. We’re competing to get more points. The way you do that is to hit a ball…”
Erin lectured the crowd of people in front of her. Cave Goblins, Hobs, and Humans stared at her. The Players of Celum and Goblins had joined the others in the meadow. The Watch from Celum had to go back to the city and try to explain…something. Erin had Seborn and Jelaqua demonstrate as she spoke.
“—And then, if Jelaqua hits it far enough, it’s a home run. Everyone runs around the bases and scores! It’s great! What do you think?”
The Players and Goblins stared at each other. They shrugged. Emme smiled.
“It looks as stupid as a play did to me the first time I saw one. So we grab these bats and start playing? Why not?”
“Awesome! Let’s play a game! We can make teams. Why don’t the Goblins play a game against the Players of Celum first? The rest of us can correct things, then we can divide and play with everyone!”
Obediently, the groups divided up. Erin grinned at Jelaqua as the Selphid began showing the Humans how to use the bat.
“I still think this is boring as watching tar dry.”
Octavia remarked from her seat in the grass. She’d finished three bowls of popcorn and was eating a fourth. Erin eyed her severely.
“You can go back to Celum. Or pay for that popcorn if you’re bored.”
“Bored? Hey, who’s bored? I love baseball! Go team! Hit those balls!”
Erin rolled her eyes. The Players of Celum seemed excited by the game. As they lined up, Jasi sidled over to Erin.
“It was a good thing Grev heard you were here. We’ve been cooped up this last week, what with your inn being too dangerous.”
“Haven’t you been performing?”
“Ah, well…we didn’t think it’d be right. Not with all the other inns smearing your name. You heard about that, right? We’ve been performing in the squares, but it’s not the same. Everyone’s been antsy, waiting for you to finish. This game is just what we need.”
“What everyone needs. Hey, it looks like the Goblins like the game too. See?”
Jasi stared as Erin pointed. Badarrow was throwing a ball at Numbtongue, who swung and connected solidly with it. The Cave Goblins ducked as the ball flew over their heads and then ran after it as Numbtongue shouted. They seemed nervous, rather than excited to play. But Erin hoped they’d warm up to the game. Jasi just shook her head.
“More Goblins. And you beat those horrible beasts in the dungeon with their help? You have to tell us the entire story, Erin.”
“Alright, but later. I just want to have fun today. Hey, Wesle looks great!”
The [Actor] was at bat. And the first ball that Jelaqua threw he hit. Not just hit—the impact sent the ball flying into the air. Mrsha raced after it. Erin whistled.
“That’s good form! Did he copy Jelaqua or something?”
Wesle was swinging the bat as if he’d played the game before. Jasi shook her head. She leaned forwards and whispered.
“He got a Skill! From his class! It’s called [Method Acting]. It means he actually becomes the person he’s playing! A little bit.”
“What? That’s incredible!”
The Drake smiled.
“It is. But it’s not that powerful. I think we checked it and he’s only as good as someone with, say, ten levels. So he can copy a [Butcher] and do a decent job even without training, but it still takes a lot of work to get any better. If he really copies someone for a while he can get even better.”
“Wow. Hey, that’s a real advantage! Do you have a Skill like that?”
“Not that Skill. But I do have a few new ones. I’ll tell you about it later. I’m going to play this game. You’d better watch out for Emme, though. She’s stronger than anyone else in the troupe!”
Sure enough, when it was Emme’s turn to practice she hit the ball farther than Wesle did, although it took her four tries to connect. Erin watched the Players bat and catch and field and whistled.
“They’re good! I mean, I guess it’s their acting thing. But—hey, these guys could play a game against my dad’s team! Back home he had a team in his neighborhood. They were about this good.”
“And the Goblins?”
Erin stared at the Goblins. They’d finished their practice, but it was a bit…lopsided. Badarrow had taken up pitching and he could throw a fast ball. And all the Hobs had hit the ball far. When they hit it. They seemed to strike out surprisingly often given how coordinated Erin knew them to be. Still, when they hit it the ball went far. That was the Hobs, though.
The Cave Goblins were barely larger than children and so when they hit the ball it barely went anywhere. But they seemed quite coordinated, and as they lined up in the outfield they seemed cheerful. The Goblins kept staring at the grass and flowers as if they’d never seen them before. Which they hadn’t.
“I think they’ll be okay. We can always change up the teams. Besides, if the Players win a game or two maybe some of them won’t be so nervous. Hey guys! Are you ready to play ball or what?”
The Humans cheered as they got up to bat. The Goblins looked to Erin and she waved her arms as she came over.
“I’ll umpire! You all start playing! Remember, hit the ball and run for the bases! You can steal—oh, just go for it! Who’s up first?”
Wesle strode up to bat. He choked up on the grip of the wooden baseball bat and took a stance that was surprisingly like the one Erin had copied from watching professional baseball players on television. The Players cheered and clapped as the Goblins looked at Badarrow.
The Hob looked at Erin. She smiled at him. Badarrow fingered the baseball and looked at Wesle. Shorthilt was catching. The Hob looked up as the wind blew, and then slowly wound up. His arm came up and he threw. The ball flew towards Shorthilt’s mitt. Wesle grinned, swung—
And the ball dropped. Wesle’s bat passed straight over it. The ball struck the ‘plate’ that was a pillow and Shorthilt snatched it up. He tossed the ball back at Badarrow. Wesle gaped. So did Erin. Everyone stared at her until she remembered and raised her arms.
“What was that throw?”
Jelaqua stared at Badarrow. The Hob was smirking as Wesle stared at him in astonishment. Erin’s mind raced.
“That was—that was a splitter! Or a forkball? It’s a legal throw, but—how’d you figure that out, Badarrow?”
The Hob just grinned at Erin. He threw the ball up again and pointed at Wesle. The [Actor] was clearly disoriented, but he gritted his teeth.
“I get two more tries, right Erin?”
“That’s right. Uh—keep playing!”
The Hob wound up and threw another pitch. Wesle waited. This time he swung as the ball dropped and clipped it. The ball flew up behind him.
“Foul ball! That’s a strike!”
There was a groan from the Players of Celum. They watched as Badarrow caught another ball and threw it. This time Wesle swung low and clipped the ball again, but it was a foul ball.
Wesle hurled the bat to the ground in frustration. Badarrow grinned. Erin had to call Wesle back.
“You get another swing if it’s a foul ball! Don’t give up!”
“What is with that Hob? How’s he throwing like that?”
Wesle pointed at Badarrow. The Hob was smirking and throwing more splitters at Shorthilt.
“Well, he is an [Archer]. I guess it comes naturally? Or…”
Erin’s eyes narrowed. She remembered the Hobs striking out against Badarrow.
“I think he was practicing that pitch! I told you there are multiple ways to throw the ball. Fastballs, curves, uh, sliders…you just need practice. And unfortunately, Badarrow’s pretty good. Hey Badarrow! Don’t throw splitters for game one! It’s not fair!”
Badarrow looked up. He grimaced at Erin, but nodded reluctantly. The next ball he threw was a curve. This time Wesle connected with it though. The man was so surprised that he barely got to first base before the Cave Goblins got the ball. The players cheered, and Jasi went up to bat.
“Fastballs! It’s just game one!”
The Hob pitcher was clearly put upon, but he obliged Erin by tossing a fastball…nice and slow. Jasi was so surprised she missed the first ball. Erin slapped her forehead, but Badarrow’s antics had amused the crowd. And more importantly, the Players of Celum were now competing to get a hit.
Jasi managed to bunt to first, but she got tagged out. Wesle ran to second, and then all the way to third as Emme smashed a ball straight past Badarrow. The next actor struck out, and it was Kilkran, the former [Blacksmith] who took up the bat next.
Badarrow threw a deceptively easy pitch. Kilkran smashed the ball out to left field. Wesle charged home and scored. The Players cheered as Emme ran for second. The Cave Goblins had a ball, but they fumbled it getting it to Numbtongue. Emme ran to third. And then Numbtongue threw.
The ball snapped into Rabbiteater’s glove as Emme was two-thirds of the way to his base. She turned to run, but the Hob sprinted at her. He tagged her out instantly.
“Alright! That’s three outs! Switch sides!”
The Players groaned and the ones who hadn’t had a chance to bat groaned as they put them down. But they seemed pleased. Quite a few slapped Wesle’s back and they took to the field with good nature. But Erin wasn’t fooled. Her eyes were on the Goblins as they meekly took up position at bat. She saw them glancing at each other and making covert signs she could half-understand.
“Hey Jelaqua. What do you think of the game?”
The Selphid was sitting with the adventurers, taking turns combing Mrsha’s fur. She looked up from the pampered Gnoll. Her mouth was full of popcorn. Dipped in fish sauce. Apparently it was better that way, according to her and Seborn at least. She shrugged.
“Looks fun. The Players can hit the ball. Unlike Moore.”
“Are you trying to hurt my feelings, Jelaqua?”
“I’m just saying…we should get that Wesle guy on our team. When can we play?”
“After five points. But the Goblins—well, just watch them, would you?”
The adventurers sat up a bit as Erin went back to the game. She looked hard at Headscratcher. The Hob smiled at her. Innocently. Erin looked at Rabbiteater, Shorthilt, Badarrow, and Numbtongue. She narrowed her eyes. They looked a bit too eager. And she had a funny thought.
“You guys take it easy, okay?”
The Hobs nodded obediently. Headscratcher squared up to bat as Wesle took the pitcher’s mound, which was in fact, more grass. The [Actor] was clearly keen to get his own back and he threw a ball into the mitt that Emme held twice. Both times it dropped. He met Headscratcher’s eyes as Erin shouted.
The first pitch came in hard and fast and dropped. Headscratcher swung and missed. Wide. The Players laughed as the Hob stared at the ball in Emme’s mitt. Wesle grinned and threw a second pitch. This one was a fastball and went right over Headscratcher’s bat. The Humans cheered. Erin just watched Emme throw the ball back. She saw Headscratcher glance at his fellow Hobs. They gave him a tiny nod. The Hob turned back as Wesle wound up for a throw.
The third pitch was a curve. Headscratcher watched it come. He drew back his bat, took a breath and roared as he swung. The sound shattered the air. Headscratcher’s red eyes blazed—and he connected.
It sounded like a car backfiring. Erin flinched as she saw the ball disappear. Wesle ducked and the Players of Celum flinched. The ball flew up, and up and—Erin’s jaw dropped. She saw the ball fly past Kilkran in the outfield, and land. The big man stared at the ball, a good eighty paces behind him as Headscratcher took off. The Hob charged around the bases as Kilkran belatedly ran after the ball. The Goblins cheered wildly and Headscratcher slowed as he realized there was no way the Humans would get the ball back to him. He sauntered back to home base to thunderous cheers.
“Okay. That was a home run.”
Erin stared at the Goblins. So did everyone else. The Redfang Warriors were grinning as they slapped Headscratcher on the back. And then Numbtongue took up the bat.
“Move back a bit!”
Wesle’s voice trembled a bit as he ordered the Players back. They obediently backed up. When he threw the ball, Numbtongue connected on the first hit. He didn’t hit it nearly as far as Headscratcher, but the Hob charged down first base so fast he actually managed to get to second before the bewildered actors managed to get the ball. And then Badarrow was up. He took one look at the first ball that came his way and let it pass.
The second one the Hob hit solidly. He got to first and Numbtongue got onto third. The Players blinked as a Cave Goblin came up next instead of Shorthilt or Rabbiteater. The little Goblin had trouble lifting the bat. But when Wesle threw the ball—
The Goblin didn’t even try to hit the ball. It just blocked and then ran towards first base, screaming wildly. Emme and Wesle ran to get the ball, but that meant Emme was out of place. And then Numbtongue scored. And the Cave Goblin ran so fast it got to second and Badarrow to third. And then Shorthilt came up to bat—
Erin stared as the ball went flying. She stared at the bases. Headscratcher was on third, a Cave Goblin on first. It wasn’t that it was a different inning. It was that the Goblins had played through all nine players on their team. There were two outs, but they’d scored seven times. The Players of Celum stared as Numbtongue swung. They ran for the ball and threw it desperately towards Emme. They got Headscratcher out. Barely.
“I uh—that’s game one!”
Erin called it there. The Goblins cheered and ran around the Hobs. The Players of Celum trooped back to home, panting. They stared at the Goblins.
“How’d they do that?”
Wesle gasped as he accepted some chilled ice water. He gulped from it, staring at the Hobs. They were grinning and eying the Humans. Erin sighed, but there was a smile on her face.
“I think…they planned that. Sorry. But I guess the Players aren’t as good as Goblins are naturally.”
“I see. That’s humbling. I think…we might be done for a little bit.”
The actor groaned as he massaged his shoulders. Erin nodded sympathetically.
“Sorry about that. It uh, looked hard but I didn’t want to call it. You take a break. We’ve got food.”
She pointed to the picnic in the audience. Wesle nodded gratefully. The Cave Goblins and Hobs occupied the field as the beaten Players left it. They were playing a game by themselves when Jelaqua stood up.
The Goblins looked at her. The Selphid grinned as she walked towards the pitch.
“Looks like you guys are pretty good. Hey guys, why don’t we take them on? Adventurers versus Goblins?”
“Uh, I don’t think that’s such a—”
Erin began nervously, but the other adventurers were already on their feet. The Horns and Halfseekers strode to the pitch, as did Mrsha and Lyonette. The Goblins looked at each other and grinned. They took up positions at bat. Jelaqua grinned at Erin as she walked past. Seborn was already practicing throwing a curve ball with Moore.
“Hey Erin, you were right. This game is fun. Especially when there’s good competition. Those Hobs can hit pretty hard. We might have to use our full strength.”
“Wait, this is just a fun game. Jelaqua—”
“Hey Pisces! You’re in the middle of the outfield! Use [Flash Step]! Ceria, first base! Can you freeze the ground? Is that against the rules? Ksmvr, outfield on the right? Lyonette and Mrsha can take third base and the left!”
The Selphid grinned as she pounded a fist into her glove. She strode over to second base. Erin eyed the Hobs. They were pointing at Lyonette and Mrsha, clearly telling Headscratcher to hit the ball their way. They huddled together like…well, like any team, really. Erin looked at the Players of Celum who were gulping down food.
“Go Horns and Halfseekers! Teach those Goblins a lesson!”
“Five silver on the Goblins!”
“Pass me those popcorn things! Stop hogging them, Emme!”
And suddenly? Suddenly it was a game.
It was wet as Bevussa walked out of Liscor’s gates. Or rather, climbed down the ladder on Liscor’s walls and began walking across the water bridge to The Wandering Inn. The water was still high and it was raining in droves. Of course the Garuda could have flown to the inn, but the water made her wings heavy and she didn’t know if she’d crash in the water. That would be embarrassing, so she elected to walk. She’d tried to get to the inn through the magic door, but it hadn’t opened no matter how long she’d waited.
She met someone else crossing the bridge towards the inn. Keldrass, leader of the Flamewardens slowed and waved a claw at Bevussa. He wasn’t wearing his armor. Like her, he was dressed casually now the crisis in the dungeon was over. Bevussa jogged up to him.
“Hey Keldrass, you’re going to the inn too?”
“That’s right. What are you going for?”
The Garuda hesitated. But she’d known Keldrass professionally, if not personally. She glanced around at the rainy landscape and coughed.
“I was actually hoping I could meet the Halfseekers and possibly Griffon Hunt there and negotiate about the artifacts. You know, who gets what?”
“That’s why I’m going.”
“Oh—uh, what’s do you—”
“We want the armor.”
Bevussa breathed a sigh of relief. She began walking to the inn, watching her footing as the water splashed over her talons.
“Oh, good. We’re after the invisible bow or the shortsword. Or that staff that blasts people with wind. Or…we’re open for a lot of the items, actually. But I want to make sure we have a good chance of claiming what we aim for, so I need to talk with them. They’ve probably got two of the best claims of the Gold-rank teams.”
“We all shed blood. Some of us more than others.”
“True. But you have to admit, they went in hard. Did you see Moore smashing Raskghar? Or Halrac? That one’s not far from Named Adventurer.”
“He’s still a ways away. You’ve met the one in Pallass, right?”
“Oh—him? Well, he’s certainly better than Halrac, but he struck me as uh, not atypical of Named Adventurers.”
“They’re all insane like him. The [Scout]’s not at that level yet.”
Bevussa let the word hang in the air. Keldrass nodded. The two walked towards the inn. After a few seconds, the Garuda chuckled. Keldrass looked at her.
“Nothing. But it’s almost like a reflex, coming here. We’ve done it so many times, and Erin’s inn is so useful. Plus, she’s got so much unique food. Some of its awful—but it’s always new. I can’t stand the inn we’re staying at.”
“The Tailless Thief? The innkeeper’s food is good.”
Keldrass looked mildly offended on behalf of Peslas. Bevussa shrugged.
“That’s true. They’re as good as Erin’s in terms of quality. But they’re all Drake dishes, and I can eat that in Pallass, and far better. Our inns are superior.”
“No arguments there. But the [Innkeeper]—what’s his name—had a new dish. Hamburgers. I thought that was original. Quick food, I think he called it.”
“Yeah, but, apparently the recipe came from Erin.”
Keldrass blinked in surprise. He glanced at the inn coming up ahead of them. Bevussa smiled.
“Do you doubt it?”
“No. But where did she get it from?”
“Search me. There’s something odd about her. Not that I’m complaining. I just—hello?”
Bevussa opened the door and called about inside. The inn was empty. But the first thing that struck the two adventurers was light. They stopped as bright sunlight shone into the inn. The magic door was open and a blue sky and grassy field could be seen through it. It was such an odd sight after the rain that they had to stop in surprise.
“What the—is the door open to Pallass?”
“It can’t be. That takes up too much mana. I thought. Hello?”
Bevussa walked over to the door. She heard cheering as she drew nearer. She blinked as she stared out into the field. Keldrass stood by her and stared around.
“Where is this?”
The two Gold-rank adventurers had been spotted by a group of Humans lounging on the grass. The Players of Celum waved at them. One of them, a young boy, jumped to his feet.
“You’re more guests for Miss Erin, ain’t ya?”
The adventurers nodded. Grev grinned.
“Hold on, I’ll get her! She’s umpiring the game. Miss Erin!”
The adventurers stared as he raced out of view. They looked at each other. Then they stepped through the door. They stared around. Then they heard a crack. Both ducked reflexively. Then they saw a ball flying through the air and heard a voice.
“Fly ball! Go, Jelaqua, go!”
They saw a familiar Selphid sprinting across the grass. She was moving fast, as if she was in danger. But the cheering that came from the crowd of Humans and Goblins, yes, Goblins was at odds with that idea. So was the grin on Jelaqua’s face. She rounded a pillow on the grass and dove as the Hobgoblin on another pillow reached out and caught a ball flying towards him. There was a cheer and the two saw Erin run forwards, waving her arms.
“Safe! That was safe!”
She turned as Grev grabbed her shirt. Erin turned and looked surprised to see Keldrass and Bevussa.
“Bevussa! Uh, Keldram? Oh man, did you walk here? Sorry, we’re closed! I can get you to Pallass if you need it, but I’m not selling any meals right now! We’re having a vacation!”
“Uh, no. That’s not why we’re here. We were hoping to find the Halfseekers. And Griffon Hunt if they’re here.”
“I haven’t seen Griffon Hunt. But the Halfseekers are playing a game!”
Erin indicated Jelaqua as the Selphid waved at Pisces and shouted at him as he took a position with a long wooden bat.
“We saw. What’s the game called?”
“Baseball! Hold on—Grev, you umpire. I’ll explain.”
It took Erin several minutes to explain the game to the bewildered adventurers. In that time Pisces bunted the ball Badarrow threw. He didn’t just run, he blinked across the field using [Flash Step]. The Goblins scrambled to keep up, but Pisces got to second without being caught.
“Pisces! That’s cheating!”
Erin turned to yell at the [Necromancer]. He yelled back in an aggrieved tone.
“Why? They can use Skills! Why can’t I use magic?”
She turned back and beamed at the adventurers.
“You wanna play?”
“Um—not at the moment.”
Keldrass coughed a bit of smoke. He looked at the Halfseekers.
“They’re busy. I’ll come back later.”
“I uh, I’ll do the same.”
“Suit yourself. Hey, can you let the others know the inn’s closed if they come calling? Thanks!”
Erin went back to the game. The two Gold-rank adventurers walked back to the door. They paused as they stepped back into Erin’s inn. On the other side of the door, the rain was falling through the open door that Bevussa had forgotten to close. The inn was dark and the skies were grey. Keldrass glanced back through the door.
“Sunlight. It’s been a long time since I saw that, or so it feels.”
Bevussa looked longingly back as well.
“It’s a nice day out there. Perfect weather for flying.”
They looked at each other. Keldrass coughed again. He shifted.
“I told my team I’d be back soon.”
“So did I. We were actually going to get both teams to join us for negotiations. We felt like Erin’s inn would favor them a bit.”
“Sensible. Well. We should get back.”
The two stared back into the field. The sun was warm on Bevussa’s feathers. And she remembered the drinks and food the Humans were eating. She wondered what it would be like to swing that bat. It would be nice to hit something that wasn’t a monster’s skull.
“We did promise to go back.”
Keldrass reminded her. Bevussa looked at him. The Garuda’s hesitated, then smiled.
“True. But we could always come back. It’s a beautiful day out there, isn’t it?”
The Drake paused. He looked back out the door. There were more people coming towards the inn. Adventurers looking to do some negotiating. Relc and Klbkch, the Antinium clutching the ropes, Ishkr and another Gnoll coming for their shift…the Drake looked back at the grass. Bevussa nudged him.
“Wanna decide who goes back to get the others?”
At first, the City Watch of Celum was bored. It was, after all, an uneventful day in Celum. There were no monster attacks, no important dignitaries or caravans or even criminal activity that needed dealing with. That was good because excitement was often dangerous in their line of work, but dull was dull. It was a relief to have a bit of excitement.
And to begin with, that was exactly what had happened. A bunch of Gold-rank adventurers transporting the magic door through the city? It was all too fun to speculate why and laugh at the unlucky Fabial’s misfortune. They’d even had a chance to spread the word to the Players of Celum and get a few autographs. And from their vantage point on the walls, the bored [Guardsmen] could see the entire troupe head out.
But then the Goblins had appeared. At first the men (there were very few women in Celum’s City Watch) hadn’t believed it. Then they’d seen their comrades racing towards them and had been ready to lock the gates. And then—well, they didn’t know what to think. They’d watched the distant game of baseball begin with much bemusement. Still, their nervousness had quickly become fascination with the game, which was fun to watch for men whose only job was to stand and watch things. But now—
“Hey, look. There are more people coming through that door.”
“I see ‘em. Stop nudging me. Looks like that bird’s back. And a bunch of others. Looks like Drakes…another damn Antinium. Gnolls?”
“Huh. Liscor must be filled with non-Humans. Crazy city if you ask me. I don’t see why anyone’d want to live there.”
“Right. Right. Say, there’s a lot of folk coming through. Another pack of Gnolls. More Drakes…Humans…wait a second.”
“Is that—is that Halrac the Grim?”
“It can’t be!”
“Look at him!”
“I can’t see. You’ve got [Keen Eyes]. Is it—”
“That’s him! And those Drakes—they must be other adventurers! Wait, I recognize some of the others! That’s Gemhammer! And all those other Drakes and Gnolls—”
The [Guardsmen] looked at each other.
“They can’t all be adventurers, right?”
“I heard Liscor had a ton of Gold-ranks.”
“Yeah, but—they wouldn’t be here, right? They have things to do.”
“Like Halrac the Grim.”
They stared at the distant people flooding through the doorway. A group of Antinium walked through. They wore paint on their carapaces. Celum’s Watch stared.
“There’s so many. Why’re they here? For the game?”
“Can’t be. But—there’s Antinium and Goblins. Do you think—should we raise the alarm?”
“Why? There’s got to be at least eight adventuring teams down there. Do you think they’d be sitting about if there was any danger?”
“Right. So what do we do? Do you think we should tell someone?”
“Tell them what?”
The men glanced at each other. They stared at the crowd filling the field. Then they turned and hollered at their comrades on gate duty.
“Hey, you lot! Come up and see this!”
The [Guardsmen] on duty looked up. They walked up the stairs. And as is the nature of Humans, some of the people on the streets crowded up onto the walls to see. Soon they were watching the crowd in the distance. Then the people of Celum were coming out the gates while the [Guardsman] had to stay on duty. Not because they knew what was going on, but because they thought something interesting was happening and they wanted in. That was people for you.
Erin stood in front of a crowd. She had a bat in her hands and she was nervous. Not because she didn’t know what to say—she’d done this explanation multiple times already. No, it was uh, the size of the crowd that intimidated her.
Gnolls from Celum. Ishkr had brought a bunch of his friends and Krshia and Erill had come with their own group. They were all keen for sun as well as a chance to be outdoors after hiding in the city for so long.
Drakes. Not only adventurers but interested civilians, Relc, Olesm, Selys, and Drassi. No Embria, Zevara, or Ilvriss—they were busy doing official things in the city. That was sort of a relief, actually, and there were plenty of Drakes besides.
Bevussa, Dawil, Falene. The adventurers who’d fought in the dungeon. Griffon Hunt, Gemhammer, the Pride of Kelia, the Silver Swords…
And Pawn and his Soldiers. And Klbkch. Apparently they hadn’t received orders to stop guarding Erin’s inn and Klbkch had come with Relc.
And the Humans from Celum. Erin looked at the crowd. She didn’t get nervous in front of crowds. But this? This was a lot of people. She cleared her throat and went on.
“Baseball. Right. Well, this is a game. Some call it the greatest game. I don’t. I like chess. But baseball is a sport. It’s a game that takes nine people. We’ve got a small demonstration ready, so I’ll run you all through it. You see, it starts with this. This is called a bat. You don’t hit people with it…”
Not everyone was here to play baseball. In fact, Erin bet that most of the people from Liscor were just here to experience the sun. She could understand. After so long in rainy Liscor, seeing the sun and being able to walk around in the grass was almost addictive. A good deal of her crowd elected not to play after hearing her explanation. But a surprising number did want to try.
“Hey, this looks like fun! I can hit things and not get in trouble for it! Sign me up!”
Relc was first to grab a bat and stomp onto home plate. Erin pointed randomly and assigned three Gnolls and five Drakes to the field.
“Just hit the ball, Relc.”
“I’m gonna do more than that. This Goblin guy? He’s not going to get a single ball past me.”
The Drake locked eyes with Badarrow who was still occupying the pitcher’s mound. The Hob sneered. Relc was so busy giving him the stink-eye that he didn’t even see the first splitter. It dropped underneath his bat. Relc roared in outrage.
“Hey! What was that! That was cheating! Foul ball or whatever!”
“Nope! Sorry, it was within the zone! Try again!”
Relc growled as he swung his bat back and forth. This time Badarrow threw a curve.
“Hit the ball, Relc!”
One of the Drakes heckled Relc from the grass where Erin had put out blankets and food. Relc lifted a finger and Erin saw Lyonette cover Mrsha’s eyes. Grev just grinned and raised the same finger. The Drake swung the bat wildly, and then hunkered down. He watched the ball fly at him, dip, and then hit it with a roar.
It was Erin who ducked when the bat hit the ball. She’d forgotten how scary it was to watch baseball up close! Badarrow turned and cursed as the ball went flying deep behind him. Erin stood up sheepishly as Relc crowed.
“Hah! See that?”
“Homerun! That’s definitely a—”
Erin shouted to the Gnolls and Drakes running after the ball. There was no way they’d get it. The ball flew as far as when Headscratcher had hit it. It was high, but far. She saw Ishkr running ahead. The Gnoll was moving fast! But he still wouldn’t make it. The ball had to be going at least four hundred feet—
“Move Ishkr! Run!”
Krshia stood up and shouted at Ishkr. Erin’s jaw dropped. The Gnoll had abandoned his two legs! He bounded along on all fours as the ball fell to earth. The Gnoll dove. Erin saw him roll. She looked for the ball, and then saw Ishkr on his feet, holding it aloft.
“He caught it! He actually caught it!”
Erin jumped up and down excitedly. She’d never seen anything like it! Ishkr ran wildly back to home base as Relc stepped on the pillow, crowing.
“Hah! Best hit ever! Take that you stupid Goblins!”
“Relc, you’re out!”
“What? No I’m not! Did you see how far it went?”
“But Ishkr got the ball!”
“He did? I always hated that guy! Damn, damn, damn—”
Relc stomped off. Erin saw Ishkr return, panting. She looked around. Now everyone was interested. Baseball was a slow sport, but seeing Relc hit a homer on his first try and then Ishkr run hundreds of feet to catch it—that was impressive.
“Hey, can we play a second game over here?”
One of the adventurers called out to Erin. She looked around. They were trying to set up a second game on the side. They did have enough space for it. Plenty of space in fact. And they had balls, enough bats…maybe not enough gloves, but there were always normal gloves. And hands.
“Sure! Why don’t we—okay! Let’s make some teams! We’re going to need another umpire!”
Olesm ‘tripped’ as Drassi rushed forwards. The Drake waved her hands about as she ran up to Erin.
“Oh, me, me! Please let me do it, Erin!”
“Do you know how the game works?”
“Totally! And I love to talk!”
“In that case, why don’t you be a commentator? And Olesm can be an umpire. Now, we need teams—”
Olesm got up and gave Drassi a dirty look. He pointed and Erin turned her head. A team of Gnolls was facing down the Goblins in one section. The Silver Swords had teamed up with Gemhammer against Griffon Hunt and The Wings of Pallass on another pitch. And on a third, the Antinium were lined up silently as the Players of Celum reconsidered their life choices. Erin hesitated. Then she grinned.
“It’s a wonderful day to be alive, isn’t it Olesm?”
“It would be if someone didn’t keep tripping me, Drassi.”
“I said sorry! But just look at this weather! You can’t get this in Liscor! And the grass! Isn’t it great?”
“I thought we were supposed to be talking about the game, Drassi.”
“This is commentary, commentary, Olesm! Alright, for our first game we have the Gnolls versus the Goblins. And—wow, those Hobs are hitting the ball hard!”
“But the Gnolls are catching the ball. Almost every time.”
“That’s true! Would you look at Krshia go! I didn’t know she was that fast, especially for an old—I mean, a Gnoll in her prime! Uh oh. I think she heard me.”
“Gnoll ears are quite sharp. But if I might add a point Drassi—”
“Go ahead, Olesm.”
“—Thank you. The Goblins are quite good. But I would call their team fairly unbalanced compared to the Gnoll team. The Hobs are extraordinarily strong, as befits their Silver-rank designation as threats at the very least—”
“Do you have a point here, Olesm? Just say the Hobs are good at hitting things.”
“—but the Cave Goblins are physically much weaker, leading to a weaker offense. And the Gnolls are experts at fielding the ball as I believe the term goes, due to their long practice of similar mechanics.”
“…So you’re saying the Gnolls play catch a lot so they can catch the ball and the Cave Goblins don’t hit hard.”
“Well, that’s a basic summary—”
“What I’m impressed with is the Goblin’s teamwork. I mean, the Gnolls play together really well. You can tell they’re giving each other signals by the way their ears twitch. But the Goblins? They don’t even talk to each other! They just signal somehow and bam! Cave Goblin steals a base! It’s like magic!”
“It’s not, in fact. The Goblin system of communication has long been both verbal and nonverbal. I spoke with Pisces at length about why they might have evolved this unique form of—”
“Fly ball to right field. Ishkr is going for first base. It looks like Shorthilt’s fumbled the catch, but he’ll stop Ishkr from going to second. Will he no, he’s staying put. Krshia Silverfang at bat.”
“—as I was saying, Pisces was referring to—”
“Maybe save it for later? I want to talk about Krshia. Now, look at her swing. She’s got good form—not as good as that handsome [Actor]. What’s his name? Wesle. But I think Krshia’s got more muscle than him and she can probably hit the ball. Gnolls love to play catch. Looks like Badarrow’s getting ready for a pitch. Too bad curveballs and sliders don’t work on Gnolls. Hey, don’t step on my foot Olesm! I’m trying to commentate here!”
“But I had a point!”
“It was longwinded! Go on, shoo! Go commentate somewhere else! Can I get another announcer with me? Selys, get up here? No? Okay then, I’ll do it myself! Get lost, Olesm!”
Erin heard the sound of fighting from behind her as Olesm and Drassi fought for the magically-enhanced speaking crystal. The Goblins and Gnolls were natural baseball players it turned out. One team because they could run faster than any Human and loved to catch, and the other because they were naturals at teamwork. On the other hand, in the pitch she was umpiring…
Ylawes’ bat connected with the ball that Halrac had thrown. The [Scout] wore a displeased expression as the [Knight] rounded the bases. Both his team and Gemhammer had hit every ball that Halrac had thrown and the outfield wasn’t good enough to keep up. After he had rounded the bases, Erin called the teams in.
It was Gemhammer and the Silver Swords at bat, and Griffon Hunt and the Wings of Pallass on defense. Halrac had been the pitcher. Erin looked around at the unhappy faces on one side and the smiling ones on the other.
“Okay, I think we have a problem here.”
“Yeah, the problem’s that Halrac can’t pitch!”
“Shut it, Revi.”
The Stitch-Girl glared at Halrac. He looked sourly at Erin.
“Um…she’s sort of right. Halrac, what’s wrong? You’re pitching fast, but the balls keep getting hit. Can’t you make them curve or something like Badarrow?”
The [Veteran Scout] looked unhappy at being compared to Badarrow.
“I don’t make my arrows curve. I hit the target.”
“Which is why they keep hitting the ball! All your balls go straight!”
“You want to pitch? Be my guest! I don’t want to play this game.”
Halrac snapped at Revi. She threw up her hands. Bevussa, who’d been watching all this with mild amusement, raised her talons.
“Hey Erin, we have a problem too.”
“What’s that, Bevussa?”
“We have to run for the ball. But why can’t we fly? We’re the Wings of Pallass, not the feet.”
Erin tilted her head.
“Yeah, but wouldn’t that be unfair? I mean, if you can fly…”
“We still need to get the ball. That’s not always easy. And we hate running. Come on, are there rules against it where you come from?”
“Well…we don’t have many flying people where we come from. It’s uh, mainly Humans.”
The Oldblood Drakes in Bevussa’s team rolled their eyes.
“Hey! It’s not in the rules because it doesn’t happen where I come from! Fine! Bevussa, your team can fly. Halrac, Revi—”
The other adventurers looked around as Typhenous raised his hand. The old [Mage] grinned and stroked his white beard as Erin stared at him.
“You? But uh—”
“I’m quite hale. And I think I can resolve this. Why not let me try?”
Halrac tossed the glove at Typhenous. Erin eyed the old man apprehensively. He looked as if he’d break an arm throwing the ball too hard. The other team certainly thought so. Earlia chuckled as she took up the bat, swinging it hard enough to cut the air. After all, her team was a bunch of former [Miners] and she swung a warhammer in battle. She shouted at Typhenous who was inspecting the hide-wrapped ball.
“Get ready to duck, old man!”
He looked up and smiled at her. Erin prayed Typhenous wouldn’t get hit. She waved as Bevussa and her team took to the air.
“Okay, play ball!”
Typhenous lifted the baseball. He didn’t hold it like a pitcher and Erin saw that he had no idea how to grip it properly. She was just about to shout at him when the ball levitated up in his palm. Erin paused. She saw Earlia’s eyes widen. Typhenous made the ball spin in the air and levitate around his palm. Then he looked at Earlia and grinned.
The ball drifted up and Typhenous pointed a finger. He spoke.
The air around him exploded. Erin felt the wind slam into her as the ball shot from Typhenous’ finger and struck Revi’s glove. The Stitch-Girl hurtled backwards with a shout. Earlia stared blankly at the space in front of her.
“Foul! That’s cheating!”
Erin waved her arms as Revi got up, cursing. Typhenous looked puzzled as Erin ran up to him. He leaned on his staff.
“Why would it be cheating, Miss Solstice? If a team can fly or use natural abilities and other players can use Skills, why can I not use a spell, at least to move the ball around?”
“Well—because—I mean, Skills aren’t—no one can hit that!”
“Hey! I can hit that! Give me a few swings and I’ll nail that thing!”
Earlia shouted as she swung the bat. Erin looked at her, and then at Revi. The Stitch-Girl was massaging her chest and cursing Typhenous loudly. Umpire Erin threw up her hands and gave up.
“Fine! But if your catcher can’t catch the ball, then the player can still run! That’s the new rule, got it?”
Typhenous nodded politely to Erin. She turned.
“I don’t think Revi can handle that ball. Maybe Halrac or Bevussa—”
“I’ve got this. Give me five minutes with some thread and cotton. Hey, [Alchemist]! Give me a hand here!”
Revi turned. Erin watched as she and Octavia went together to confer, and then disappeared into Erin’s inn. In that time Typhenous practiced shooting balls through the air. They didn’t curve or drop, but they moved so fast that Erin was sure he’d broken some kind of world record for pitching. She thought that the other adventurers would complain, but they seemed to enjoy the challenge.
When Revi came back, Erin took one look at her and didn’t see anything different. Until she saw Revi’s arms. The [Summoner]’s thin, brown arms had suddenly gone on a weight-training course with protein supplements in the course of five minutes. Revi’s arms were muscular. And bigger. The Stitch-Girl smirked as she took up the catcher’s mitt. She caught Earlia’s eye.
“What, you’ve never seen this trick? Stich-People are what we make ourselves. Hey Typhenous, throw me a ball!”
This time Revi caught the ball without being knocked over. Earlia swung and missed three times, as did her other teammate. Dawil got a hit—the impact sent the ball soaring high, right into Bevussa’s mitt. The Dwarf grumbled as he stopped running to first.
“Short legs, flying balls, running to each of the bases—this game wasn’t made for Dwarves! Hey half-Elf. I’ll catch, you throw. Got it?”
“Can you handle the ball, Dwarf?”
Falene brushed hair out of her face as she took the mound. Dawil grinned.
“Depends on whether you can make that ball fly faster. Come on, hit the glove! Unless you’ve not got more magic than Typhenous in you?”
The half-Elf smiled coolly at Dawil. She levitated the ball up, flicked her finger, and sent a burning fastball into Dawil’s mitt. A literally burning fastball. The heat from the impact and Dawil’s cursing as his glove and beard caught on fire made Erin flee.
“Foul! That’s illegal, Falene!”
“You damn pointy-eared pyromaniac! I’ll crap in your bag of holding!”
The Dwarf hurled the ball back at Falene. She sniffed, levitated the ball up, and looked pointedly past Dawil.
“Is this game commencing or not?”
She struck out Bevussa without a problem. And then Typhenous, who had problems telekinetically wielding the bat. And then Halrac came up to bat. He watched the first two balls whiz past him and then calmly struck the third.
The impact made the [Scout] wince, but the ball flew high overhead. It was a pop fly, but neither Ylawes nor Gemhammer were prepared for it. Halrac ran to first as Falene looked up—
Then the ball swerved in midair and flew over to tap Halrac in the back. Again Erin had to yell.
“Foul! Again! You can’t grab the ball with magic, Falene! No arguing! That’s one step too far!”
The half-Elf sighed as Halrac took first. Next was Revi. She got a hit—mainly from luck, and the ball went soaring. The Stitch-Girl still groused as she ran, though.
“Argh! I forgot how heavy these arms are! This is why I don’t wear muscle that often!”
Erin smiled. The game finally looked like it was going well! And the audience was loving it. Normal baseball could be fun, but watching Falene make the ball stop in midair and float back to her, and then argue with Erin whether that was legal or not? That was fun.
And it wasn’t just one team, either! Gnolls and Goblins and the two adventuring teams aside, there were other standouts as well. The Antinium Soldiers were slower than most and they had to use the special bat Erin had commissioned because of their odd hands, but they were as coordinated as the Goblins. And when they ran, the Players of Celum got out of the way. And they seemed to hit a surprising number of balls quite perfectly. And some of their catches were perfect. Almost…miraculous.
“Yes, I am praying for good fortune.”
Pawn admitted freely to Erin as he sat with a bowl of popcorn by his side. Yellow Splatters was signing to Purple Smile at bat. Erin stared at Pawn. The Worker paused.
“Is that illegal?”
“Um. Well, no. I think a lot of fans pray when their team’s playing. I just never thought it would work. I uh, I think it’s okay since you’re playing. And the Antinium are sort of at a disadvantage so yeah. But don’t you think it’s a bit…I dunno, not worth praying for?”
Pawn tilted his head.
“Why would I not pray? Is there some fault for doing so? It is not like prayer is a limited resource. Is it?”
“No…you know what? I think I’m in the wrong here. Keep on praying! Good luck!”
The first rounds of games ended with some predictable outcomes. The Gnolls beat the Goblins, due to superior fielding and the Hobs being the only ones who could hit far, although it was close. Griffon Hunt and the Wings of Pallass beat the Silver Swords and Gemhammer in the end. Both teams had [Mages] for pitchers, but the Wings could catch the balls that were hit. And the Players lost to the Antinium to no one’s surprise.
“Alright! Change it up! We’ll have new teams out there! Flamewardens get to play! Oh, and the Horns want a shot at things! Looks like people from Celum want to play—hey, is this going to be a grudge match between Liscor and Celum? And the third pitch can be…how about a kid’s game? Mrsha, Grev, get some teams together!”
The second round of games heated up fast. Literally. Erin wasn’t umpiring the kid’s game—that was Olesm’s job since Drassi had taken over announcing.
“—Mrsha up at bat. She’s so cute. You know, she was the one who helped save the Gnolls in the dungeon? Fact. And, by the way, she likes being scratched behind the ears. Only, don’t do it unless she asks because that’s very private for a Gnoll. You know, that reminds me of an encounter I had with this Gnoll guy back when I was a [Receptionist] working at the Adventurer’s Guild. Until I got fired that was—oh, look, Mrsha hit the ball and she’s running! Go Mrsha! She’s going to second base—”
Erin was umpiring the game between the adventuring teams. The Flamewardens were on one side with some Drakes and the Horns and Vuliel Drae were competing together, to their mutual displeasure. Meanwhile, the citizens from Liscor and Celum were trying to outdo each other in a heated match overseen by Halrac, who was a natural umpire. His keen eyes and sunny disposition meant that no one argued with him and he could call every pitch perfectly.
However, it was the shenanigans of both adventuring teams that had Erin ducking for cover, sometimes literally. She started with Keldrass’ team.
“You can’t set the balls on fire!”
“Why not? It’s just a bit of flame.”
“Yeah, but it could hit someone!”
“That’s what healing potions are for. Besides, that’s a walk, remember? This is just for…optical advantage.”
The flaming fastballs that Keldrass served up were one thing. But then Ceria got the bright idea of trying her own take on it. Her first frozen fastball shattered into a thousand pieces.
“No shrapnel! No ice balls!”
Ceria looked embarrassed.
She threw a regular ball and one of the Drakes hit it into the air. Ksmvr ran after it as Pisces used his [Flash Step] to blink after the ball. But he didn’t get to it first. Ksmvr leapt into the air, so high he looked like he was flying! He caught the ball and threw it down to Pisces who threw it to first base. Erin gaped until she remembered Ksmvr had the Ring of Jumping. Naturally the Flamewardens protested, but Erin overruled them.
“That’s legal! You get to set balls on fire, he can use his ring! And Pisces can [Flash Step]! No buts!”
It was when the Flamewardens had a pair of runners on first and second that Erin began coughing. She saw smoke drifting from two of the Oldblood Drakes and saw Ceria coughing. She waved her arms.
“Stop blowing smoke!”
“It’s part of our ancestry! Don’t be racist, Human!”
Besides that, the game really was fun. Neither team was a powerhouse, but they had their own tricks. It actually took Halrac stomping over to help Erin with one problem. He pointed at Pisces who was patiently waiting on second base.
“Foul. Illusion spell!”
The image of Pisces vanished and he appeared, sneaking over to third base. Erin actually ruled that as legal, and the Drakes began poking Pisces to make sure he was really there whenever he was on base.
Of course, it wasn’t all just fun. Yvlon accidentally retired one of the Drakes on the opposite team when she smacked a ball straight into the side of his head. He had to lie down and Bird of all people was roped into playing. He did well in that he stood patiently in his position in the outfield, until a fly ball flew towards him. Then he raised his bow and shot it. Bird caught both ball and arrow. Erin waved her arms.
“No using weapons!”
But she was enjoying herself. The second round of games ended with a victory for the Horns mainly due to Pisces’ ability to run faster than anyone else, a victory for Celum mainly thanks to the Gnolls, and Mrsha’s team’s victory. That was because of Grev, whose ability to get his team to steal bases won most of the points.
“You know, there’s a rule that if you hit the ball beyond a fence it’s a home run no matter what. And I think you can’t keep stealing bases forever, but I could be wrong on that.”
Erin addressed her teams of players. They stared at her blankly. Relc grinned.
“So? It’s more fun this way. Hey, let’s play another game! Liscor’s Watch vs Celum’s Watch!”
That was received well by the Gnolls and Drakes and poorly by Celum’s Watch. Klbkch, who’d opted not to play, cocked his head and spoke calmly.
“I believe that game would be indefinitely long, Relc?”
“What? Don’t you have faith in us, Klb old buddy?”
“I do. I lack confidence in the opposing team’s ability to ever strike us out.”
“No, no more sides! We’re all tired and I’m running out of sausage-dogs!”
Erin raised her voice to prevent a fight from breaking out. She took a deep breath.
“I think what we need…is a championship.”
That got everyone’s attention. Erin pointed at her first pitch, which was filled with trampled and dirty pillows.
“Here’s what I’m thinking. First, we expand the pitch. We make all the bases twice as far apart. Maybe even a bit more? Because the ball goes flying and you lot can run fast. Then, we make two teams. Not of one side or one adventuring team. Of the best. We take the best eighteen players and make two teams. Dream teams. And whichever side wins…gets a prize.”
“What’s the prize?”
Erin had no idea. She cast about, and then had it.
“Cake! And ice cream! I’ll make some right after we get back!”
Half of the players hadn’t ever had cake or ice cream or even knew what it was. But the other half did and that settled it. The next part was arguing over who would be in each team. Everyone wanted to join in. Jelaqua was quickly selected, as was Moore, although the poor half-Giant hadn’t hit a ball in a game yet. Jelaqua betrayed her earlier mockery of Moore by insisting he be on her team.
“You can be catcher, Moore! We need someone to catch Falene’s balls. She’s on my team, by the way.”
Yellow Splatters found a place on the opposite team, as did Relc. Pisces was nominated, as was Ksmvr for his jumping ability, and Bevussa was the only one of her team who got a spot. Halrac joined much to everyone’s surprise, as did Dawil despite his grumbling. Ylawes wasn’t picked, much to his unhappiness. Seborn and Ishkr found themselves on opposite sides and with a few more picks that Erin didn’t know by name, the teams were formed. However, there was one spot left and Erin filled it herself.
“Headscratcher gets a place!”
Some of the people from Celum loudly objected, but Erin overruled them.
“He can hit the ball as far as anyone else! He’s on the team! I say so!”
The Hob gave Erin a stunned look. She only smiled and waved at the Goblins who were sitting far from everyone else. The audience from Celum grumbled, but they fell silent as the teams took their places. It wasn’t Liscor vs Celum and it wasn’t adventurers vs Goblins. It was two teams, filled with all kinds of people working towards a common goal: cake. With extra frosting.
That wasn’t to say there weren’t sides. Erin could hear betting in the background and Olesm was conferring with Jelaqua on strategy, perhaps in exchange for some of the rewards if her team won. Erin also had to interrupt Octavia, who’d been making a killing selling ‘enhancements’ to each team.
“No potions! I want a clean game! Don’t make me shut you down! Is everyone ready?”
Both teams looked up. They nodded at Erin and she turned. The playing field was occupied by some of the audience who wanted to throw around a ball. Erin raised her voice.
“Alright, the final game is going to begin! Clear the field or you’ll get hit! All Mrshas must leave the field at once!”
Mrsha, who had been playing in the grass, looked up. She gazed around, realized she was the only Mrsha and gloomily left the field. She perked up when Lyonette offered her a cool drink. Erin was making a small fortune on food for her audience, although her regulars hadn’t paid. Yet.
“Okay! I will be your umpire! Drassi will commentate! Now, please welcome our two teams! At bat…uh…Team A!”
The audience cheered as nine players took the field. They were Halrac, Relc, Yellow Splatters, Bevussa, Falene, Dawil, Ishkr, a Gnoll and Wesle. The other team, Team B, took to the outfield.
Jelaqua, Seborn, Pisces, Ksmvr, Headscratcher, Moore, Keldrass, and two Drakes threw balls to each other and shouted good-natured insults at Team A. They grew still and the audience sat forwards as Erin looked around. The wind blew and the sky turned orange as Erin raised her hand.
It wasn’t a game you’d see on Earth. And perhaps that didn’t make it baseball. There were a lot of rule violations, arguing over the legality of hexing your opponents or creating snares out of bone—or just plain cheating. But Erin thought that was what made the game so great. It wasn’t baseball. It was magic baseball. And that meant there were only a few dull moments.
Each time Falene shot a fastball into Dawil’s waiting glove, the audience groaned. She made just hitting the ball a challenge! And she could make the ball wiggle around in the air like a snake, even vanish! The only person who could hit her reliably was Pisces. All he had to do was tap the ball and take off and he was practically impossible to catch. His [Flash Steps] were as useful on the offense as defense and only Relc could keep up with him.
But that was the thing. When the Gecko of Liscor hit the ball it flew far. And he could sprint around the bases so quick that the only way to get him out was to catch a fly ball. However, he was only one powerhouse on his team. Team B had Jelaqua and Headscratcher. Even Dawil and Yellow Splatters could not hit the ball nearly as far as those two.
Erin hadn’t predicted it, but the games quickly became a battle between excellent defense and offense. Team A had Bevussa’s wings, Ishkr’s catching ability and Halrac’s eyes. Not to mention Falene’s magic pitches. On the other side, Team B had Jelaqua, Pisces, Headscratcher, and Seborn.
At first he was the underrated player of Team B. But after the second time he stole a base, every eye was on him whenever he got onto a plate. It wasn’t easy. Even when you watched him, Seborn could slip away into the shadows. And catching him?
“It’s a hit from Jelaqua! Seborn is running, but—oh no, Dawil’s got the ball and is at home plate! Seborn’s running back, but now Ishkr’s covering third base!”
Drassi’s tone was excited as Seborn found himself cornered between the Dwarf and Gnoll. He ran back as Dawil threw the ball to Ishkr, turned back, found himself menaced by Dawil who had the ball, and wavered. The two closed in as Seborn stood on the baselines. The Drowned Man dodged back as Dawil ran at him with the ball, took two steps back, and then flipped over Dawil’s head. He sprinted down to home base as the crowd roared. Erin was on her feet.
“Safe! Safe! He never left the lines! That was amazing!”
The baseball game went back and forth. 0-3. 1-3. 7-8. 10-16. The final inning was 18-18 and everyone on their feet. Halrac’s team was first at bat. The [Scout] glared at Jelaqua as she tried to walk him. He eyed the ball as Jelaqua threw it to Moore a good six feet to his right. On the third pitch, Halrac threw the bat. It smacked the ball out of the air.
Every eye turned to Erin. She gaped for a second and then waved her arms.
“It’s good! Go, go!”
Halrac ran. He slid to first, and a sacrifice fly from Relc put his team on second base. Their next hitter, Ishkr, struck out. But the game entered the last round with their team in the lead. And fortune didn’t favor Team B at first.
Halrac caught Pisces sneaking bases. And Keldrass just couldn’t run fast enough to get to first base. Jelaqua swore as she hit her way onto second base. She waited there as the next batter took his position. Moore looked close to tears as Falene smiled and levitated the baseball up. He had yet to hit the ball and his team had two outs. He looked sadly at Jelaqua and she shook her head.
“Just hit the ball, Moore! Get on to first base and Headscratcher will do the rest!”
Jelaqua shouted at Moore. The half-Giant swung his bat as Falene smiled and waved. The crowd was cheering.
“Moore! Moore! Moore!”
“Skystrall! Falene! Skystrall!”
“Throw the ball, half-Elf!”
Dawil roared at Falene from behind the safety mask he was wearing, which was, in fact, a helmet. Falene nodded.
The first ball hit Dawil’s mitt so fast that Erin barely saw it. Any suggestion of Falene’s taking it easy on Moore vanished as Dawil threw the ball back. The second ball curved under Moore’s bat. The audience groaned. Moore shook his head. He looked around, visibly bracing himself for boos. Then he caught sight of the little white Gnoll sitting in Lyonette’s arms. She waved at him.
Maybe it was the power of Mrsha’s silent cheering that did it. Maybe it was Pawn whispering a prayer. Or maybe it was just Moore. But as the third ball came screaming down the plate, he swung—and connected.
Erin leapt to her feet. Falene’s eyes went wide. She turned as Dawil threw down his mitt. Moore stared and then began running. He moved slowly, but it didn’t matter. The ball flew through the air as if gravity had forgotten about it. Erin’s jaw dropped as it flew through the air. A hundred feet, two hundred, four hundred…six hundred? She couldn’t guess. But the ball was just a speck in the air. No one could catch it.
No one but Bevussa. The Garuda was in the air as the ball flew. She had the mitt in hand, but she abandoned it as the ball flew. She shot after the ball like blue lightning. The ball was falling. Bevussa dove towards the ground, talons outstretched.
“She’s gonna crash!”
Drassi screamed. The ball fell—and Bevussa snatched it out of the air. She raised the ball as everyone in the field shot to their feet. Erin cheered, and then saw Moore staring with a melancholy smile at Bevussa. He waved a hand and turned as the Garuda flew back. And then he saw Jelaqua charging at him.
“That was amazing!”
The Selphid tackled Moore in a hug. The audience flooded the field. The game was over, three outs, 19-18. And it had been Moore that hit the losing shot. But what a hit! The half-Giant found himself at the center of a crowd that was wise enough not to try and lift him on their backs. He smiled helplessly as they surged around him, laughing, talking, cheering Bevussa, the players, and the game.
“What a game.”
Erin stood in the field afterwards. The ground was muddy and broken feathers from one of her pillows were spread about. Wherever she looked she saw muddy, dirty people. But smiles. Erin looked around and grinned. She saw Mrsha riding on Moore’s shoulders, Bevussa drinking from a cup that never ran dry, and Headscratcher standing among the Goblins as they surrounded him, cheering their hero. Erin smiled and turned to Ceria. The half-Elf smiled at her.
“A nice day?”
“A nice day. And a good game.”
The two smiled at each other. Erin held out a hand and Ceria placed something in it. A baseball. Worn, dirty, the hide cover torn off in one spot. Erin stared at it.
“Baseball’s sort of fun, isn’t it?”
“Just a bit.”
Erin nodded. She tossed the ball up and down and then shrugged.
“I still like chess better. Hey, you wanna eat dinner?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”