“Okay. I’m going to Pallass.”
Erin said it for the sixth time that morning. Lyonette looked at her. The young woman was feeding Mrsha eggs as the Gnoll grabbed for the fork, trying to feed herself thank-you-very-much. It was morning in Erin’s inn, and Erin Solstice had decided. She was going to Pallass. Today was the day.
“Are you sure?”
The determination filling Erin’s chest wavered. The young woman hesitated. She paused, fork full of egg, and hesitated.
“Yeah. I mean, I said I would. Why? Do you think I shouldn’t?”
Lyonette gave her a long look.
“No. I was just asking.”
Erin exhaled slowly. She looked around the table. Four people sat there, including herself. Erin, Lyonette, Mrsha, and Numbtongue. The Goblin was examining his palm, poking the red, newly-healed skin.
“How’s the hand, Numbtongue?”
The Hobgoblin looked up. He moved to shrug, then reconsidered.
“Fine. Thank you.”
The act of verbally replying was clearly new to him. But he’d done it rather than give a taciturn shrug as he might have before. Erin gave Numbtongue an encouraging smile, and then looked at his right hand. This morning Numbtongue had come down with a nasty sting in his palm, courtesy of Apista. Apparently he’d grabbed her and she’d stung him.
“Good, good. Well. You’re going into the mountains and you’ve got your mana stone…”
This time Numbtongue did reply nonverbally, with a roll of the eyes. He plucked the mana stone from his pocket and showed Erin for the eighth time that morning. She knew she deserved that, but she did worry. Numbtongue had been building his strength since emerging from the basement, and he’d announced his intention to go mining in the mountains. It had something to do with the memories of the dead Goblin in his head. He wanted to find gemstones or something up there and Erin couldn’t forbid him. Well, she wanted to, but he’d insisted.
“Great. Awesome. Just remember…”
“Use the magic door. It will be set to my mana stone. Adventurers in the inn I can call for help. Bring potions. Be very careful.”
Numbtongue sighed and ticked off Erin’s points on his fingers, effectively shutting her up. While he was doing it, Mrsha leaned over and forked a good portion of his eggs up with her fork. The Hobgoblin’s head snapped up and Mrsha froze. She stared at him and he stared at her, eggy fork in hand. Then Mrsha stuffed it into her face.
“Mrsha, you are incorrigible.”
Erin smiled at the white Gnoll. Happily, Mrsha wagged her tail and raised her hands. She drew a smile on her face to match the one already there, and then did a curious thing. She made two fists of her paws and placed one on the top of the other in quick succession.
“Now, what does that mean?”
Lyonette frowned. So did Erin. Mrsha had recently begun creating her own sign language, an activity that had warmed Erin’s heart to no end. She’d encouraged the Gnoll child and tried to learn every word Mrsha came up with. And she thought she knew them all. But this?
“Mrsha, what’s that word mea—”
Erin began to ask, but to her astonishment, the little Gnoll wasn’t looking at her, but Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin was scowling at her. He clearly knew what the word meant. He replied back with an expressive glare. Erin and Lyonette stared at him, and then Lyonette cleared her throat.
“Numbtongue? What did Mrsha just say?”
The Hobgoblin blinked. He stared at them and then shrugged.
“Goblin sign. Sort of. It means…I’m better than you. Ha ha. Ha.”
He looked at Mrsha. The Gnoll gave Numbtongue a big grin. Erin’s jaw dropped in astonishment. Mrsha had used a Goblin sign? But then she saw Numbtongue’s lips twitch. And Mrsha had just stolen food from him, hadn’t she? She’d grown so much more at ease around the Hobgoblin of late. After the battle. What a mixed blessing that was.
Filled with confusing thoughts, Erin ignored Lyonette exclaiming over the new words and getting Mrsha to teach it to her directly. Her thoughts drifted. Today she was going to Pallass. Yes. Because…well, because she had no other reason. Anyone could have talked Erin out of it. A hole in the roofs, a runaway Rock Crab, Octavia’s shop lighting on fire…if Erin had a reason she wouldn’t go. But there was no reason, and no one to stop her. Her inn was empty.
Oh, not completely empty. The Horns and Halfseekers would be downstairs in a bit, and some other adventuring teams, most notably the Silver Swords and Griffon Hunt would be along shortly. They were bringing the magic door north and the Silver Swords were talking about finding a new adventure every day. But besides them and a few other teams, no one came to Erin’s inn. Especially not her friends.
She hadn’t gone back to Liscor after her dramatic day with Numbtongue. Erin hadn’t really felt up to it, and none of her old regulars were coming in. Selys, Olesm, Ilvriss…even the Antinium were staying away. Well, the Antinium were probably busy doing Antinium things. But the others?
Erin had stopped blocking them from coming to her inn. But she still didn’t know if she wanted to see them. Some of them, like Selys, Erin was only too glad to see. Krshia was part of that list, but Olesm? Relc?
Relc. Erin closed her eyes. She’d heard about him defending Embria and killing Garen Redfang. Him aside—she didn’t know what to say to Olesm if she saw him on the street. She’d seen him before, in the city, but she hadn’t spoken a word to him. And she didn’t know if, when she saw his face, if she saw Zevara now, what she’d…
So, Pallass. It felt like a year since Erin had last entered the city and then she’d only had what, an hour or so of being led around? Ilvriss had suggested she see the Walled Cities, and so Erin had decided she would. By herself to begin with. Lyonette was managing the inn, Mrsha was a bit too excitable for Erin’s tastes in a foreign city and…
She looked at Numbtongue. The Goblin was still flexing his hand that had been stung as he deftly snatched some bacon from Mrsha’s plate with the other. The Gnoll looked up, eyes wide as the Goblin casually bit the hot bacon and gave her a challenging look. That was clearly payback for the eggs. The two stared at each other and then both began to fight over the last of Mrsha’s bacon.
It brought a smile to Erin’s face to see. Yes, she’d go alone. And if she could, she’d take the others to Pallass. Although her door still had that problem where it couldn’t take more than two or three people through before needing to be recharged. But maybe Erin would stay in Pallass someday. Or visit the other Walled Cities. But to do that, Erin had to visit Pallass. The city that had given Liscor little aid, that hadn’t done anything. While Goblins had died…
Lyonette didn’t notice Erin turning away from the table and walking back. She was busy calling out to Apista, who was obliviously feeding on the faerie flowers. Erin stared at the open windows, at Liscor in the distance.
“Time to go away for a bit.”
That was all she said. And that was the only reason, really. Erin bade farewell to the others. Lyonette had charge of the inn, Mrsha was waving to Moore with a greasy paw as he came downstairs, and Numbtongue was stretching, preparing for his journey into the mountains. Erin stopped at the magic door and adjusted the little dial on it. The mana stones moved, until the yellow stone for Pallass was fixed and shining on the door.
“Well. Here I go. Lyonette—”
“Just come back if you need anything. I’ll be in and out. And I’ll check on the Players of Celum for you. It’s all sorted, Erin.”
The young woman smiled at her. Erin nodded. She looked at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin rolled his eyes and held up the mana stone again, but he nodded to her.
“See you tonight.”
Mrsha waved, a universal sign. Erin turned. She saw the adventurers looking up at her. Familiar faces. She saw dead Goblins sitting around a table with Numbtongue. Even now, two weeks afterwards. It wasn’t something that went away. And Erin feared, she hoped, it never would. But it still hurt. Too much.
Ceria was opening her mouth and hesitating. But Erin didn’t want to be here. So she made up her mind. She opened her mouth and spoke brightly.
“I’m going to Pallass for a bit! Maybe to look around. I’ll see you all later!”
And then she opened the door and stepped into Pallass, the City of Inventions.
The sun shone down on Pallass. It was always sunny when Erin had visited Pallass. Perhaps it was the location of the door. But the walls, tall as they were, only obstructed part of Erin’s view. And while Liscor was likewise encircled by high mountains that blocked the sun, Pallass felt more open. Erin stared up at the blue and cloudy sky as she walked through the door.
Into another city. Onto smooth slabs of stone. Even into different air; it felt fresher, more open than Erin’s inn air. The sun touched Erin’s skin. She heard background noise envelop her. Hundreds of voices. She stared around the street and saw Drakes and Gnolls and even a few Humans on the street! Erin’s spirits lifted. She took two steps—
And a Drake with a spear stepped forwards and pointed it at her gut. Erin froze. The Drake was wearing a steel breastplate and leather armor underneath. On his arms was a bright yellow shield, but Erin didn’t get a chance to investigate further. She backed up as the Drake [Guardsman] with the spear aimed it at her stomach. He glared at her, body tense as another Drake appeared behind Erin with a sword.
“Human! Don’t move a muscle! Your arrival was not cleared with Pallass.”
“What? Cleared? I just walked through here!”
Erin’s hands shot up. The Drake glared at her and then looked at his companion.
“Some kind of mistake with that teleporting door?”
“Maybe. Hell of a mistake, though. Think we should frisk and send to lockup or check with the inn?”
Erin heard the Drake behind her growl. She saw several Drakes on the street turn to stare at her. The Drake with the spear hesitated.
“Let’s call it in. First we make a report and then—hey, I said hands up!”
Erin had lowered her hands. She glared at the Drake, eyed the very pointy spear, and then slapped it. Or tried to. The spear barely budged as Erin tried to knock it away from her stomach.
“Stop pointing that at me. What have I done wrong? I’m allowed to go to Pallass! Anyone is! That’s the point of a magic door!”
“You weren’t cleared. We have a list of allowed visitors per day, and you aren’t on it.”
Erin’s face went blank. Then she remembered. Hadn’t Zevara said…? She sighed.
‘No one uses that stupid thing. I never did. Look, I own the magic door. That means I can go through, okay?”
She pointed at the door behind her. The two Drakes eyed her dubiously.
“Anyone could say that.”
“Anyone? Hello? I’m the [Innkeeper]! Don’t you recognize me? Erin? Erin Solstice? Okay, what about this? I had Hawk the Courier put it back just three days ago.”
“So? Everyone knows that.”
Erin stared at the [Guardsman] with the spear. She exhaled slowly, and then decided to inhale before the tip of the spear tickled her stomach.
“Well—well, okay. But I am who I say I am! Anyone can tell you! In Liscor, I mean. You can open that door and ask—well, okay, it’s dead because someone else is using it, but in a bit it’ll probably be—if you want proof, get…Watch Captain Venim! He knows me.”
The two Drakes hesitated. But Erin had remembered the one name of someone she knew in Pallass. Watch Captain Venim. They exchanged a glance, and the one breathing down Erin’s neck muttered.
“I mean, we’re calling this in, right? Couldn’t hurt.”
“Right. I’ll uh—get a Street Runner?”
“Think it’s worth the paperwork?”
Apparently the spear-wielding Drake didn’t think it was. He hesitated, gave Erin another look—she was giving him a dirty glare—and then lowered his spear and legged it down the street at a brisk pace. Erin turned to face the other [Guardsman]. He had either sheathed his sword or hadn’t drawn it to begin with.
“I don’t have to keep raising my hands, do I?”
He had yellow scales, which went well with the patch on his armor. He was wearing all leather and shrugged.
“I don’t think so. But stay where you are.”
Erin turned to look at the Drakes, some of whom were pointing at her. This wasn’t how she had envisioned returning to Pallass, but, she had to admit, it was consistent with last time. She folded her arms, grumpily.
“And if I don’t?”
“I’ll be forced to draw this sword and stab you.”
Erin eyed the sword in its sheathe. She decided to stay put. She stood there with the Drake as the passerby generally lost interest. All that was except for a couple of Drakes, young, in their teens, who came up.
“Guardsman, who’s the Human? Did she come through from Liscor?”
The Drake [Guardsman] looked embarrassed.
“Watch business. Move along.”
“Aw. But she is from Liscor, right? Are people coming through.”
“Just me for now.”
Erin turned to the Drakes. They blinked at her, looking her up and down as if she was an oddity. But Erin had seen other humans on the street. Wearing armor, sure, but…the [Guardsman] with the sword sighed.
“Oh, alright. Spoilsport. Who’re you, Miss Human?”
Erin called after them. One of the Drakes turned. She was tall and had had red and black scales running in stripes down her body.
“I’m Frasi! This is Oza! Don’t get arrested, Miss Erin! Welcome to Pallass!”
“Thanks! I’ll try! And I’ve been here before!”
Erin waved at their backs. The Drake [Guardsman] made a grumbling sound.
“Please keep quiet.”
“Is that an order?”
She heard him sigh. But no more Drakes approached as now Erin and the Drake were just standing awkwardly by the door. Erin looked about.
The street was wide and flat. Unnaturally so to Erin who was used to Liscor’s cobblestones and dirt roads. But Pallass’ floors were smooth, made of huge squares of stone, like those Erin would see in modern cities. The stone was a light beige, and houses and other buildings lined the open street.
A few things set Pallass apart from Liscor. The first were the walls. They stretched up above the roofs of the houses, four walls in each direction. They were huge and filled part of the sky, a solid mass of stone. Solid, but not plain. Because Erin could see, far off in the distance, another ‘floor’ of buildings built into the side of Pallass. That was what she remembered.
Pallass was a Walled City, but it more closely resembled an pyramid of sorts. It had long, flat floors that stretched around the walls. The top floors were narrowest, still wide enough to hold a massive amount of room, but the floors grew in size before reaching the bottom. Connecting each floor, which all held vast populations of shops, homes, and so on were the stairs. Pallass had four grand stairways that ran from the bottom of the city to the top. But what was also unique were—
Erin pointed. The Drake, who’d been leaning against the door she’d come in, started. He stared suspiciously at Erin and pointed. She was following a small shape with her finger. He squinted at it.
“What? The lifting platforms? Oh.”
Erin stared at the elevator as it carried a group of Drakes and Gnolls upwards. It stopped at a floor above her and she watched as the people inside got out. Yes, elevators. Pallass had them, at least, a strange magical version of them. She could see the pulleys moving as the elevator descended. Apparently Pallass fueled their elevators not with steam or some other device, but with mana stones. It was for that reason and others that it was given its nickname.
The City of Invention.
“More like the City of Jerks. Hey, is your Watch Captain Venim here yet? I’ve got places to be.”
Erin turned and glared at the Drake. He glared back, clearly not impressed by her.
“Watch Captain Venim is a busy Drake. And he’s one of the Watch Captains who serves Pallass. If he’s not available, then you’ll have to…”
“There he is! Over here!”
Erin cut him off and waved at a familiar Drake making his way through the crowd. Watch Captain Venim wasn’t taller than the other Drakes and his scales were a fairly common grass green, but he wore bright yellow armor that stood out, and he had the businesslike stride that carried him through the crowd. The spear-Drake was following him.
The Drake snapped to attention and saluted Venim, as if he hadn’t been slouching against the door for the last ten minutes. Erin glared triumphantly at the Drake with the spear. She waved at Venim, who was eying her as if uncertain why she was here.
“Hey! It’s Watch Captain Venim, right? It’s me! Erin Solstice? You remember me, right? Can you tell these jerks I can come here?”
Rather than reply immediately to her, Venim turned to the two Drakes.
“At ease, [Guardsmen]. This Human is the proprietor of the inn in question. Give us a moment to talk and I’ll sort this out.”
“Yes, Watch Captain.”
Erin was slightly disappointed he didn’t immediately reprimand the Drakes. Both saluted and stood back a few paces. She looked at Venim, half-relieved, half-annoyed still.
“Sorry about this. I totally forgot about the daily lists thing.”
Venim coughed. He looked much as Erin remembered—straight-backed, rather formal. Sort of like a male Zevara, in other words. She didn’t know him too well, but in her mind he was one of the ‘good’ Drakes from Pallass. Although she really only knew one other person—that jerk Gnoll [Senator].
“It was an unfortunate mistake, Miss Solstice. We neglected to ask for the daily lists from Liscor after the door was reinstated. In truth, we’d mostly overlooked it what with travel being nonexistent between Liscor and Pallass…”
“Because of the Goblin Lord’s army. And the door being stolen. Yeah.”
Venim studied his feet. Erin remembered that the fact that Pallass hadn’t sent a massive army through the door was a sore point with Liscor.
“So. I don’t have a list, but it’s my door and I thought I’d come through. I can go now, right?”
“Not just yet. Miss Solstice—”
“—Miss Erin, why did you come through to Pallass? Is this a business trip? A social visit or…?”
“Um. I thought I’d look around. I don’t think I’ll stay overnight. I’ll just wander about, head on back through before it gets dark. Maybe see the sights. It’s a big city, right?”
Venim stared at Erin. She nodded.
She heard a strangled noise from the spear-Drake, who she’d already classified as ‘angry and uptight’ in her head. He glared at her.
“You can’t just wander through that door! It’s a gateway between Liscor and Pallass, not—”
Venim raised a hand and the Drake fell silent. Erin stared at Kel challengingly.
“It’s my door. I can go through when I want. And I can send through anyone I want. That’s the deal.”
“If they’re approved. You are supposed to clear a list with Watch Captain Zevara—”
“Next time I’ll write my name on that list, happy? And I might bring over my [Barmaid]. And her uh, adopted Gnoll kid. Is that a problem?”
Venim stared at Erin. She stared back. She could tell he clearly wanted to snap at her, but he didn’t. Instead, he took a deep breath.
“We’ll send a [Message] to Liscor and work out an approved list of names. For now, let’s consider this an unfortunate misunderstanding. You’re free to go, Miss Solstice.”
Erin smiled at Venim. He tried to smile back, but clearly his face wasn’t in it. Erin took two steps to the side as all three Drakes watched her, and then spun casually back to face Venim.
“Oh, and I might be coming through with a Goblin someday. Got a problem with that?”
The Watch Captain was turning to face the two Drakes, both of whom looked uneasy, as if they feared a reprimand. His head snapped back around so fast Erin heard something crick.
“What did you just say?”
Erin stared innocently at Venim. Inside her heart was pounding. So much for slipping that by him.
“Uh. A Goblin. He’s a friend and an employee at my inn. And I think he’d like to see Pallass, so…”
Venim’s voice was flat, and suddenly, without patience. Erin nodded slowly.
“That’s right. A Hobgoblin, to be exact. His name’s—”
“You mean, a monster.”
Erin’s breath caught. She looked at Venim.
“No. I mean a Goblin. He’s allowed n Liscor.”
The chorus came from three Drakes and a passing Gnoll woman. She looked around as all three Drakes stared at her. Venim covered his eyes.
“Excuse me! Didn’t meant to pry, yes?”
The Gnoll hurried down the street. Venim raised a hand as if to stop her, and then whirled on Erin.
“A Goblin is not allowed in a Drake city, Miss Solstice!”
She folded her arms.
“Why not? He’s an adventurer, and he has a pass from Wall Lord Ilvriss, the Guildmistress of the Adventurer’s Guild, several Gold-rank team leaders and Pisces—”
Venim stepped forwards, cutting the rest of Erin’s words off. He pointed at the door, meeting Erin’s eyes with a contained glare.
“I’m not sure what Watch Captain Zevara is thinking. But let me make this clear, Miss Solstice. If a Goblin enters the city, we will kill it. That is standing Pallassian law. Is that understood? As for entering and leaving, please fill out the correct paperwork from now on. We will begin asking for the daily lists in the morning.”
Erin froze. Venim glared at her. She said nothing. She knew he was expecting something. After the silence dragged on too long, Venim stepped back. He still looked angry, but she caught a brief feeling of awkwardness from him. She wasn’t sure if that was her Skill, or just her learning to read Drakes. It was the slight curl in the end of his tail.
“I am pleased that Liscor stays standing. I understand you had a great deal to do with that and for that Pallass’ City Watch offers you our thanks. But the law is the law, Miss Solstice. It must be incorruptible. Please, understand me. Your…Goblin worker is free to work in your inn, but it must never step foot into Pallass. I trust you understand that. And I do apologize for the inconvenience.”
So saying, he held out his claw for her to shake. Erin stared at Venim. Then she stared at his extended claw. Hand. Erin reached out slowly, and then instead of shaking his hand, poked a finger at Venim’s snout. He recoiled.
“Oh yeah? Well, I’ve got two words for you, buddy. ‘No way.’”
The two Drakes standing beside Venim stirred as Erin treated them all to a glare. She pointed at the door.
“This isn’t over. I’ll be back. And if you ever hurt Numbtongue—that’s the name of the ‘monster’ by the way—I will kick your scaly butt. Have a nice day.”
She turned and began to stomp down the street. Venim was staring at her back. She heard an exclamation from the spear Drake, Kel.
“You can’t just threaten—”
Erin pushed past him, ignoring his spear. He uttered a hiss, but she was walking fast down the street. Kel, Venim, and the third Drake whose name no one had mentioned—it was Nevvim—stood, staring at Erin’s back as she stalked away from them.
“Watch Captain Venim? That was clearly a threat. Do you want us to go after her and arrest her?”
Nevvim spoke quietly. Watch Captain Venim stared at Erin’s back. She was staring at a passing Dullahan. He felt a moment of heat, the famed Drakeish temper rising within him and struggled to contain it.
For a second Watch Captain Venim hesitated. And the chances of him having a good day teetered on the brink of chaos. After a moment, the Drake slowly shook his head.
“Leave her. Pallass owes that Human some kind of debt, and Liscor too. She’s not likely to cause trouble and if she persists in this Goblin thing—I’ll send a [Message] to Watch Captain Zevara asking about it.”
He shook his head and turned away, banishing Erin from his immediate list of concerns. He was allowed to, and his chances of a good day skyrocketed from there. If he had arrested Erin, things might have turned out far more eventful for him. But that was a story for another timeline. Erin Solstice walked away from the [Guards], and into Pallass.
“Lousy, no good stupid jerks—”
She stomped for about a minute, and then her feet began to hurt. Erin stopped in the street, turned to look back, and realized she was in Pallass again. Drakes and Gnolls walked past her, moving around her and giving her odd looks.
Noise. And sight. Erin was overwhelmed by both for a moment. It felt like she was standing in any big city, watching pedestrians go past her. Some were city-dwellers, going to work, others clearly tourists from the way they pointed and stopped to stare at things. Gnolls, Drakes, a few Garuda, and then a passing Human.
She was wearing armor. Erin stared at her as she passed. Strange. She’d thought few Humans lived south of Liscor. Well, a Walled City had to have some Humans, surely? This woman was wearing armor. So maybe she was an adventurer? It comforted Erin to think she wasn’t the only Human in the city. Then she heard a shout.
“Street Runner, coming through! Watch your tails!”
Erin turned her head. She saw a Drake with bright white-pink scales running down the left side of the street, near to Erin. She was young, probably fifteen if she’d been Human. She had a full satchel pressed against her chest and she was running at near full-tilt. Erin saw people stepping casually aside and then realized she was in the way.
Erin leapt back as the Street Runner dashed past her. The Drake twisted to avoid Erin and keep her satchel from striking her.
“Sorry, Miss! Street Runner on delivery!”
She was already a dozen feet away. Erin stared at her back and then looked around. She’d seen Street Runners in Liscor before, but never been close to being run over by one. She wondered where the Runner was going. Then she wondered where she was going. She hadn’t come here with a plan.
Someone interrupted Erin’s musings. A loud, flat voice called out to her.
“You, Human. You need knives.”
Erin turned. A man was standing in front of a small shop. It was more of a stall built into a building, like Krshia’s stall, but permanent. He was one of the [Shopkeepers] selling his wares on the street. Only, he was Human.
And wearing armor. Erin blinked as she saw the man was wearing a full-body set of iron armor. She assumed it was iron; it wasn’t bright enough to match her image of steel. But it had been polished quite finely. She wondered why he was wearing it though—wasn’t it hot? Still, she had to admit he was impressive. The man gestured to Erin. She looked around, and then took a few steps closer.
“Me? Did you say I need a knife?”
Erin wasn’t in the mood to shop, but the novelty of meeting another Human was enough to bring her over. The man nodded. He had a very dour, expressionless face. And his voice was just as flat.
“You’re looking for a sharp knife. Everyone needs knives.”
The strange, armored man said this as if it were indisputable fact. Erin opened her mouth, thought, and had to agree that he had a point.
“I could use a knife for my kitchen, maybe. Er—are you selling them?”
The man nodded slowly.
“That’s right. I sell knives. Sharpest, finest, crafted by Maughin himself. You could skin a wyvern with the blades. You looking for a cooking knife? Something that can cut through tough materials? A skinning knife? All-purpose?”
“Uh, actually, I’ve got a really sharp knife. Believe me, it can cut through…hands…really well. But I suppose I could browse…what’s it like living here? As a fellow Human, I mean?”
Erin edged closer to the shop. The man gave her a very odd look.
“I wouldn’t know about that.”
“Oh. You’re new here too? I just came to Pallass. Hi. Erin Solstice.”
The man stared at Erin. He held out his hand. It was gauntleted and unpleasant to shake, but Erin had resolved to make that her fourth question going into this conversation. He eyed Erin.
“Lorent. I’m lived here all my life. A Pallassian native.”
“But you said—er. Never mind. So, uh knives. You sell just knives?”
Lorent nodded and then shrugged. He performed the nod somewhat awkwardly, while the shrug was natural.
“That’s correct. I’m a [Sharpener]. I take knives and give them an edge that will last. Beyond what the metal is shaped for. You buy my knives, you get a lifetime guarantee—bring them here and I’ll give them their edge again.”
“Hey, I get that! And that is a good deal!”
Something like a smile appeared on Lorent’s face.
“Ah. You understand. Not everyone does. But you see these knives? Watch.”
He showed Erin a few of the knives on his shop counter. All looked wickedly sharp, and they had a little logo emblazoned on the hilt. A knife and grindstone.
“Custom-made. And watch.”
Lorent picked up a knife, and pointed to something else on the table. A block of wood. It was anything but square; it looked like someone had cut a bunch of pieces off with a razor. It was sitting next to a basket with a pillow in it. Erin blinked at the basket, wondering if it was to hold the knives, and then jumped as Lorent took a swing at the block of wood.
It wasn’t the swing that bothered Erin. It was the fact that Lorent’s precise cut had gone through the block of wood with a single motion. It sheared off a plate of wood a centimeter thick, which landed on the table. Erin stared at it and reached for it—
“Careful. You’ll cut your fingers. The edge is sharp.”
Lorent stopped her. Then he showed her the knife, not letting her take it, but allowing her to inspect the edge. Erin did, and saw that no imperfection on the edge.
“You see? Quality steel plus my Skills do this. And I can sell you a set or a custom-made knife. The price is high, but you’ll get years of flawless cuts if you treat it right.”
Erin was tempted, but she had a billion questions.
“I get its super sharp, but why do I need a knife that sharp? I’ll take my own arm off! And why knives? Surely you could do that to an adventurer’s sword, right?”
The [Sharpener] frowned mildly.
“I do that on the side. But knives are an art. Sharper is safer, if you respect the blade. Ever had your fingers slip while cutting something like a tomato? Or a fish?”
Erin shuddered. Lorent nodded.
“A sharp knife doesn’t slip. Mine don’t—ever. So, about the knives. Want to see what I’ve got?”
“Uh…I didn’t really, but you’re actually starting to sell me on this. Tell you what, do you have a good kitchen knife? Let me see it and we can talk coin—I could actually afford a good knife now that I think of it…”
Lorent nodded. The man eyed Erin’s hands and raised a finger.
“One second. I have just the knife. I just need to get it from the back.”
“Don’t worry, take, your t—”
Erin was smiling and waving a hand when Lorent reached up. He put both hands on the side of his head. Then he pulled his head off his shoulders, placed it in the basket on the counter, and his body promptly turned and walked into the back of his shop.
The young woman froze. Her eyes bulged as they stared at Lorent’s retreating torso. Then they fixed on his head. He was talking calmly, looking up at Erin from the basket.
“It’s also about contouring the handle to the grip. A good knife should fit the hand. So I’ll see if the ones I have fit yours. They might not—you’re a Human, not a Gnoll or Drake and your bone structure’s different. But I know a [Carpenter] who can sand down the grips if need be at no extra charge to you—ah, here we are. I actually had two, now that I recall. Take a look.”
His body walked back out, carrying a pair of knives in its hands. Erin stared at the headless body as it placed the knives on the counter, picked the head back up, and placed it back on the shoulders. Loren twisted his neck back and forth and rolled his armored shoulders as if nothing had happened. He gestured to the knives.
“Don’t worry. These aren’t sharpened yet. I like to let my customers handle their knives first, see how they handle.”
Erin stared at the knives. She did her best, inspecting them and practicing cutting as Lorent made a few remarks. But she couldn’t. She just couldn’t. She tried to ask Lorent twice, and then gave up. The sight of him pulling his head off like Erin would take off a hat had thrown her. She looked at Lorent helplessly.
“I—I think they’re great knives. But uh, I left my coin purse in my other pocket. I’ll uh—over there!”
She turned and fled. Lorent sighed as the Human girl escaped into the crowd. But he comforted himself as he reclaimed his knives and left his head to watch the counter while his body walked back into the shop.
“She’ll be back. They all come back. Everyone needs knives.”
You could bet gold on that. Civilizations rose and fell, but everyone needed knives. Even damn [Mages].
Erin made it two streets away from Lorent before her heart stopped pounding. Part of her wanted to go back, apologize, and ask the obvious, but she had to calm down first. Clearly Lorent wasn’t Human.
“Duh. Not Human. Humans can’t do that. I’m pretty sure.”
Even so, Erin had to feel at her neck. She’d cringed to see Lorent’s neck do that! And in a basket? How did his body see? No, wait—what was he?
Part of Erin was even ashamed for having that reaction to begin with. But she couldn’t help it. Lorent had been a new level of weird, even for Erin. Because—okay, look. Most people were normal, despite their appearances, right? After you got past the looks, they were just…people. Erin had gotten to know the citizens of Liscor and in a lot of respects, they behaved exactly like Humans, with only a few quirks. She was fine with them.
Drakes she could handle. Gnolls were totally fine. Humans? She saw them all the time! Every time she looked in a mirror. Dwarves, half-Elves? Standard. Half-Giants? Erin didn’t know about the others, but Moore was too easy to like. Drowned Men? A bit out there. Garuda were a intimidating for a bit, but only because Bevussa had been so vibrant and new.
Selphids…well, Jelaqua had thrown Erin for a few times, but Erin had gotten to know Jelaqua, no matter which dead face she was wearing. Jelaqua’s true, hidden form still made Erin squeamish, but day-to-day, Jelaqua was just a person, albeit a different one every time you turned around. But that armor-dude had been the first overtly magical being Erin had met.
“He pulled off his head! Like that! And there was this glowing…thing inside! Is he a magical suit of armor? Or…did the Headless Horseman come here a few thousand years ago and get really busy?”
Erin kept walking, just so people wouldn’t stare at her mumbling to herself. Only, now she was giving every passing armored Human the fish-eye. And she began to realize that all the people she’d thought were Human were in fact the same people as Lorent.
“So there are Garuda and…Lorent-people in the city. Did anyone ever tell me that? No? Well, they should!”
Still, Erin had to admit that both species were minorities. Drakes and Gnolls were predominant by far, and from what Erin could tell, there were four or five Drakes to every Gnoll. Pallass was still a Drake city. Erin shook her head.
“I’ll double back and ask later. But right now I just have to…”
She saw an opening in the crowd. An opening in the buildings, in fact. And that opening was in fact the end of this floor. Erin saw a guardrail, a few benches, and as she approached…
Erin stared down over the guardrail and down into the heart of Pallass. Three hundred feet or more down, straight to the ground. The floor below her stretched out a bit before ending, and then the floor after that stretched a bit further…and right at the bottom of the city was a large building, that looked almost like the tip of a fountain pen. Erin guessed it was some big important building. But her eyes were drawn to the tiny specks below her, people walking about, wagons entering the ground floor—
She had heard that Pallass held over a million souls in its walls. And looking at the distant far wall—where people were walking on the same floor as Erin—she could believe it. This city was massive! It was Liscor times ten, no, even larger. She couldn’t imagine any army ever taking this place. The Humans would have been lost here, and forget riding a horse around. There was nowhere to ride!
That was why Erin hadn’t seen any animals on the upper floors. They probably couldn’t get beyond the ground floor. Which meant those elevators and Street Runners and the steps were the only way to transport stuff.
“It must be a nightmare to haul stones to build stuff or do…anything.”
Erin muttered to herself. But then she saw something else. A large elevator, cut against one wall, rising slowly. And on it were a pair of…Erin squinted.
“Horses? And wagons?”
The massive elevator rose and came to a stop above Erin’s floor. She couldn’t see, but she saw the elevator slowly descend with a lot of boxes on it a minute later. She slapped her forehead.
“Cargo elevators. Of course. You clever Drake jerks. But it still means not a lot of horses on the second floor. And how do they uh, get rid of pee and stuff like that?”
No helpful diagram of Pallass’ plumbing system appeared this time, so Erin left it as an unsolved mystery. But now her interest was rekindled. She stared down at a floor below her. Part of it was shadowed from above.
“Do they live in the shadow all day? How would you live like that?”
And no sooner had Erin wondered than she found out. She looked about, spotted an elevator, and hurried towards it. It was filling up with Drakes as Erin approached. She paused uncertainly, but a Drake tossed her head.
Erin wasn’t sure if you had to pay to ride or something. She didn’t remember that on her tour. What she wouldn’t give to ask more questions this time! Who had her tour guide been? Nell…Nelliam? Could she ask if—
Erin jumped. The Drake who’d invited her in was staring at her. She was a Drake in her mid-twenties, and looked busy and not-at-all happy to be talking to the ignorant Human. The other Drakes grumbled as they stared past Erin.
“Uh, floor? Sorry, I don’t know.”
One of the Drakes laughed. The female Drake, who had a very normal green scaly pattern but vibrant, almost pinkish neck spines, sighed.
“What floor do you want to go to?”
“Er…the one right below us?”
The Drakes chorused as one. Erin blushed, but the Drake was busy closing the little door. Then she pulled a hand-lever by her head and the elevator went down.
Erin’s exclamation at the rapid descent was followed by a sudden increase in gravity that made her stumble. The elevator was slowing! The Drake had pulled another lever and the elevator was coming to a halt. They were on the floor right below. Erin pulled herself upright and then realized the Drake was opening the door.
She looked pointedly at Erin. The young woman realized this was her stop.
“Oh, thanks! Uh, sorry about—”
The instant she walked out, the elevator door clicked shut and it dropped. Really fast. Erin stared over the second guardrail and distinctly heard a voice travelling up at her from below.
“Humans. Who goes one floor d—”
And then it was gone. Erin winced. So. Embarrassing yourself in another city? Check. But to be fair…she walked away before completing the thought.
“Okay, so there are people who run the elevators. And they go fast. A lot faster than at home. I wonder if they ever go crash? Ooh, maybe I’ll use the stairs next time. But that’s also so cool. If they have elevators, do they have escalators? Could they make…?”
Erin realized she was walking along the second floor, technically underneath the first one, but she could still see just fine. It was only a bit darker, that was all. She looked around and saw dozens of metal posts, upon which were fixed glowing glass orbs. And inside…
“Oh! [Light] spells!”
Or something very similar. The mage lights glowed, giving off a bright, natural light so close to sunlight it had fooled Erin for a second. It was actually eerie to see; she’d expected the lights to be harsh and artificial. But that wasn’t how magic worked here, was it?
Erin stared up at the lights and then down the street. People were working here, just like above. Only, it felt like this was more of a residential district. She saw a lot of what looked like apartments reaching all the way up to the point at which the ceiling, or seventh floor began. She wondered what it was like to live in Pallass.
“Probably the same as anywhere.”
Erin shook her head. She walked down the street, head swiveling to see anything interesting. Maybe she could find the…Greeter’s Guild? And ask about Nelliam? Someone could give her directions, probably. And he could answer some questions. And when Erin was tired of looking around she’d…
She’d…she’d…do what? Walk down another street? Buy a knife? Erin stopped. She looked around at a gaggle of Gnolls racing past her. They were young, and playing with something on the ground. A ball made of leather. Kicking it back and forth, trying to grab it. Like kids playing soccer, or if you wanted to be mean, dogs chasing a ball. They were laughing. And maybe it was that that made Erin realize.
She was lost. This was another city. And Erin was still lost. She looked at the Gnolls and wondered if the Goblins would have played a game like that. She stared at the houses, at Pallass, grand and wonderful and wondered how many soldiers it held.
“Why didn’t you help? Why didn’t you do anything? Why did they close the gates? Why did I ask them to fight? For this?”
No monster had ever set foot in Pallass. No Goblin. Erin remembered Watch Captain Venim’s face harden. She’d thought he was one of the good ones. And he probably was, for a Drake.
Suddenly, Erin wanted to throw up. She wanted to leave, to go back to her door. But it felt far away. And Erin felt lost. She stood in the street and heard a little voice.
“There. See? Mom? I told you! I saw her in the orb! She was at Liscor!”
Erin turned. She saw a little Drake boy, pointing at her. His scales were bright red, and he was gaping at her and pointing a claw at her chest. His mother, an older Drake with less-vibrant scales that had a more purplish hue, was tugging him down the street. She had a laden basket in one arm.
“Keep moving, darling. Don’t point. It’s rude. And it’s probably not the same Human.”
“But I saw her—”
“Yes, yes. You and your friends, watching those scrying orbs all day. You could be practicing, you know! Or earning money as a Street Courier. Hurry up, I need to get to the [Butcher] by midmorning.”
“But mom she was there! At Liscor! With the—”
The Drake whined. Erin slowly filled in his words as he was tugged out of sight.
“With the Goblins.”
She looked around. At a city not touched by monster attacks or fear or war. Who had no Humans in it, at least none that Erin had seen. Who knew nothing of what Goblins were. And she felt so, so…that it hurt.
It had been a mistake coming here. Erin felt lost in a sea of faces, and they had never seemed so alien to her as now. She was lost, alone. And she wanted to go home.
But home hurt too. Erin felt her eyes sting. She had run away from home. She couldn’t bear it. Even though Numbtongue had lost more. She couldn’t stay. So she’d run. But here was worse. She wanted Numbtongue to be here. To have Mrsha and Lyonette by her side. Without them it was just Erin again. Without her inn. As lost and terrified as she’d been on her first day here.
Tears sprang to Erin’s eyes. She tried to stop them—until she realized she was doing it. Then she let them flow. Erin began to snuffle and wipe at her eyes.
Part of her still told her to be embarrassed. But Erin didn’t care. It didn’t matter if people saw. Why was it wrong to cry in public? Because the Gnolls and Drakes were staring at her? Some were pointing. Only, now she realized.
They knew her. They had seen her. Some had to have recognized her. The girl who led the Goblins. Did they care? Did it matter? Pallass had done nothing. Liscor had done nothing. Erin still couldn’t forgive them. Not Zevara or Olesm or Selys or Krshia. She hated them all. Even if it wasn’t their fault. Hated them because there was nowhere for Goblins to run, but they’d died for a city they couldn’t even enter. Erin hated them and wished they would all burn in—
Erin looked up. She wiped at her blurry eyes and saw a figure standing in front of her. He had dark, near-black fur. He was tall, as Gnolls were.
A Gnoll looked down at Erin. A man, or rather, a fully-grown Gnoll. Middle-aged, in fact, starting to develop streaks of grey in the blackness of his fur. He looked down at Erin and smiled, baring his teeth.
“Hey, young Miss Human. You’re looking down. Is something wrong?”
“No. Nothing. Sorry.”
Everything. Erin wiped at her eyes. Her nose was starting to run. The Gnoll looked at her.
“You look like you could use a rest. Why don’t you come with me? My place isn’t far from here. I’ll treat you to a drink. Or a snack?”
“No, I’m fine—”
Erin didn’t want to go with the Gnoll. But he bent and offered her a paw. His smile was reassuring.
“Nonsense. It would be my honor, yes? And the snack is on me. Come, I insist. I have candy.”
Erin left. And after a bit, so did Numbtongue. He didn’t use the magic door. He just walked out of Erin’s inn. On his back was a small pack, a rolled up bundle of wood secured with straps. The straps were tight, but positioned so the bundle could be ditched immediately if need be.
At his side, Numbtongue carried a sword. Plain, made of steel. It wasn’t as shiny as the swords of the adventurers in the inn, and it wasn’t magical at all. In fact, it had taken several bad blows that had partially damaged the edge despite the previous owner’s attempts to care for it.
But it was a sacred blade. Numbtongue would have traded it for nothing at all. And in the same way, the guitar he owned was just as important.
The neck had snapped. The base had been damaged. But thanks to a [Repair] spell and some patching with wood, it could still be played. Numbtongue had restrung it himself. Tuned it. But he left the guitar on a table. After all, it would just be a door away.
“We will check the door regularly, but leave it attuned to your…stone.”
Ishkr, the Gnoll, spoke to Numbtongue before leaving. He addressed the Goblin awkwardly, blinking into his red eyes. But he did speak to Numbtongue. The Goblin hesitated.
That was all he said. And Ishkr did not smile. But he did not curse Numbtongue. He nodded, and Numbtongue wondered how many Goblins had been accorded that little privilege. He wished the others could have seen that. Perhaps they had, but he wished they could see it again.
Rabbiteater and Badarrow were alive. They had to be. But where they were was a mystery. Gone, perhaps. Fled into the mountains after Chieftain Rags. Numbtongue knew they were probably long gone; they wouldn’t have stayed with Human and Drake armies below. It was not for that reason he climbed.
It was just to fulfill a dead Goblin’s will. That was all. Numbtongue stepped out of the inn and into the mud and grass.
The Floodplains were still mostly mud. The rains had killed the grass, and while some was trying to reclaim the hills and valleys, there was still mud. Unevaporated rainwater. And accordingly, bugs.
Midges, to begin with. But a mosquito buzzed past Numbtongue as he walked down the hill, carless of the mud that got on his feet and the foot wraps he wore. Down the hill. Up the next. And by that time he could smell the humidity and aftereffects of the rain. That smell that almost conveyed the image of grime. Not fresh rainwater here. Not good to drink.
Numbtongue had taken nothing but a mana stone, the bundle of wood, his sword, and two healing potions at his belt. He’d even left the pickaxe along with his guitar in the inn. What was the point of taking extra weight, after all?
No point. And Numbtongue was aware of the merits of magical-door based travel. With that in mind he set a fast pace, as fast as Garen Redfang would have pushed him on the march. Down the hill, heedless if he slipped. Up, digging his toes into the muck. A green thing buzzed past Numbtongue’s face. He nearly swatted at it until he saw the glowing abdomen. He paused, eyed the acid fly, and without knowing what it was, decided not to hit it.
It wasn’t interested in Numbtongue anyways. It was circling with the other bugs, looking for dead fish trapped in the valleys. Or the bodies of the undead.
The undead Goblins were mostly gone. They’d been eradicated by days of adventurers killing them and burning their bodies. But some had fallen in the valleys, or lay submerged, buried. Waiting. Or just decomposing as the magics animating them failed. It was to these things, dead fish, dead flesh, that the bugs and these acid flies congregated.
“Not a fun place to live.”
That was all Numbtongue decided. A place that rained for one month and was muddy and nasty for the rest of spring wasn’t his idea of a good spot. The High Passes were at least honest about the misery you got. He kept moving, aiming for the nearest mountain. That was to say, the base of the towering mountain that disappeared into a cloud above him.
Miles away. But Numbtongue kept moving. Up a hill. Down a hill. Underhill? No. The Goblin’s pace was a mix between a jog and a run. By the end of the third mile he was sweating hard and swearing as he nearly fell down a hill. Numbtongue picked himself up, spotted a giant rock, swore again, and saw it begin to scuttle his way.
The Rock Crab was sated. It had eaten well during the rains, and had even had a good meal afterwards from all the wandering dead things. True, they hadn’t sat quite well with it, but food was food. And because the Rock Crab knew the value of food, it wasn’t about to waste a potential meal.
Its many legs pierced the mud, giving it a firm purchase going down the hill as it scuttled towards the green thing it had spotted. Two huge pincers prepared to lash out from beneath the rock and tear the green thing to bits. The Rock Crab passed over the slope, paused—
And saw nothing. The green thing was gone. There was just mud, some growing flowers and grass, and a long bit of wood. And a glowing purple light. But the Rock Crab’s eyes didn’t function like Human or Goblin eyes, so it regarded the purple thing as a mere irritant. Certainly not food.
Frustrated, the Rock Crab cast about for a while, and then crawled off. It would search the muddy valleys for food instead. The place where the green thing had been was quiet for a good few minutes after Rock Crab had left. Then the door opened, and Numbtongue climbed out.
It was awkward, walking through the door in the inn and having to haul himself up out of the door which was lying on the ground. But it was a small price to pay. Numbtongue plucked the mana stone from the door, dismantled it, and kept moving.
The adventurers had been surprised to see Numbtongue jumping through. One of them, the half-Elf that Numbtongue couldn’t stand—Falene Skystrall—had asked if he wanted her to chase off the Rock Crab. If the other one, the one with the skeletal hand, Ceria, had asked it, Numbtongue might have said yes. But he remembered Ylawes from Esthelm. The Silver Swords weren’t bad, but they reminded Numbtongue of the adventurers who’d sometimes come to battle with the Redfangs.
Righteous. That was the word for them. And it summed them up so well. Well, maybe not the Dwarf. But Falene and Ylawes? Yes.
Keep moving. Numbtongue ran up the hill, looked for the Rock Crab, and kept moving. He was sick of hills by the time he got to the point where they stopped. Then it was actual grass, a slope going up at a steep, steep incline…
Here was what Numbtongue did. He climbed. First up the grass, on two legs and on all fours if he needed better purchase. Higher, to a point where grass became broken stones, large boulders. Easier to climb; they reminded Numbtongue of the High Passes.
Higher. Ever higher. Vegetation became sparser Numbtongue went. And he climbed as fast as he’d run, trying to get at least a few hundred feet higher. He had a suspicion that anything below two hundred feet would probably have been checked by Liscor’s residents over the years.
About two hours in, Numbtongue was exhausted. He’d been going full-speed and his hands were cut a bit, he had dried mud all over his legs and he wanted some water. So he reached for his pack, and unrolled the bundle of wood.
It was in fact, wood slats. Not the prettiest of things, held together by little bits of rope as they were. But unrolled it formed a kind of…of bedroll? If you laid it down, sure. But it would be the most uncomfortable bedroll in the history of beds if you lay on it. But if you placed it just so against a bit of rock, and put a doorknob in the little hole you’d been carrying in your belt pouch? And if you slapped a mana stone on the door and opened it?
You got nothing. Damn. Numbtongue waited. After thirty seconds, the inn appeared. Ishkr jumped as he saw Numbtongue appear. The Goblin walked through the door.
Drassi waved at him. She was helping in the inn, serving the adventurers. Numbtongue saw they hadn’t really moved much since he’d last seen them. From the looks of it some were gambling while they took turns lugging their door north.
Ceria looked up sharply as Numbtongue entered the inn. The Goblin shook his head and grimaced.
“I’ll get you some water. Stamina potion?”
“Water. And I need…”
Numbtongue gestured at his muddy clothes. Ishkr nodded.
“We have some buckets in the kitchen. I’ll refill them from Liscor’s wells later, so use them as much as you need, yes?”
“And Erin had better invest in a well. Because getting to that stream of hers is a nightmare with all this muck! I’ll talk to Lyonette about it.”
Within minutes, Numbtongue had washed the mud off of himself outside and gotten a long drink of water. Then he took a ten minute break next to the fire. He watched Dawil lose an arm-wrestling competition to the old Human [Mage], Typhenous, and vaguely approved of the blatant magical cheating. Then he got back to work. He missed Apista flying out the door and the chaos that ensued.
Slower now. Numbtongue stopped his mad dash up the base of the mountain and took a more leisurely pace. Still a decently fast hike, but he was looking around now. Checking the mountain, the distant rocks, the odd tree growing on a flat bit of land, the flowers, and the bird that flew past him. It was peaceful up here. Quiet.
It was what Numbtongue needed. He had just his thoughts to deal with. And Pyrite’s. It had led him up here, where Numbtongue wouldn’t have ventured. After all, why bother climbing a mountain? To look for food? Sure, if you were desperate, but the valleys held enough. No, you only climbed if you had a reason. And that was to mine. It wasn’t Numbtongue’s idea. It was Pyrite’s.
Numbtongue was trying to consolidate the memories in his head, understand them rather than lug them around. It was like…the difference between knowing that fire was hot and feeling the heat of a flame on your skin. Numbtongue could think and pull out the information he needed, but it was a conscious effort. He would rather know, and the part of Pyrite was insistent that mining was important. It was strange how Numbtongue knew how important it was to Pyrite.
He had never met the Hobgoblin. But he could imagine him climbing beside him, peering at the mountain and rocks around them, grunting and pointing them out. It was eerie. It felt like more than just Numbtongue’s imagination. Was this what Chieftains could do? See the past Goblins, talk to them? But the Pyrite in Numbtongue’s head didn’t turn or make conversation.
He was still dead.
But he was showing Numbtongue what to do. How to navigate the terrain without wasting energy. What to look for. Numbtongue followed the instincts in his mind. He climbed, and now he was thinking. Remembering what was, to Pyrite, knowledge bordering on subconscious. But all fresh to Numbtongue. And what Pyrite was telling him now was all about caves.
Caves. Pyrite had been an expert on caves and rocks, and he’d found that not all caves were made equal. There were six basic cave types, or so he understood.
The first were meltwater caves. That was Pyrite’s name for them. They were distinctive, and the type Numbtongue knew of best. Stalactites hanging from the ceiling, large, cavernous networks. The Dropclaw Bat cave adjacent to the dungeon had been one such. But what Numbtongue hadn’t known was that each cave was made up of a certain type of rock, usually limestone.
These caves existed because groundwater and rain would eat away at the stone, dissolving it bit by bit over centuries and millennia. Hence the caves were usually one type of stone predominantly, and had the stalagmites, columns of stone, and other distinctive features. It was usually the den of animals, bugs, and opportunistic monsters.
Two other caves were due to water as well: stream caves and sea caves. Pyrite only differentiated the two because sea caves were a product of waves and the oceans carving out stone, and stream caves could come from anywhere. Ice that melted and froze over centuries, redirected streams slowly eating away a tunnel, and so on. Like meltwater caves, all three were natural and largely unhelpful unless you were looking for something to eat. Sea caves sometimes got interesting as [Pirates] would stash loot there, but there was nothing intrinsically special about such places.
On the other hand, the last three caves were interesting indeed. The first of which were tube caves. They were long, winding, smooth caves that were the product of some incredible force pushing its way out of the mountain. They were winding, and unless they’d collapsed, tended to go down a long, long ways. Useful, in short, if you wanted to hunt about. But Numbtongue knew that the High Passes were too old for tube caves to be common; instead, he’d most likely find fracture caves.
The fifth type of cave that Pyrite knew of were fracture caves. Products of earthquakes, seismic events, or something else that made weak stone crack and collapse, giving rise to natural pockets or places under the earth. They were helpful as much as tube caves were; you never knew what you’d get or how the cave would turn out. If you were on the hunt for gemstones, you’d look for tube caves or fracture caves to find as much variety as possible; meltwater caves were usually of one type of stone, not what you wanted.
And yet, all these caves were natural. And thus, the odds of finding anything in them was still remote. That was why the sixth type of cave was Numbtongue’s best bet. And he spotted one after two hours of climbing.
At first, he thought it was a fracture cave. A product of chance. And perhaps that was how it had started. But as soon as Numbtongue gotten ten feet inside, he realized it was the sixth type of cave: monster caves.
If caves were by and large products of nature, that was because few things could make a dent in earth and stone without considerable efforts. Even the best of Human and Drake mines took ages to expand. And they weren’t caves, obviously. They had supports, structure, annoying Humans with pickaxes every few feet in…
But monster caves? They could be large and winding. And it wasn’t hard to see why. Give a creature the ability to eat, dissolve, or otherwise break stone and a few decades, and you’d get a cave. They were the sixth type of cave, and honestly, probably the most common. And if you were lucky, they were exactly what you wanted when hunting for rare stones. Because there was a trick to monster caves that few people, even adventurers, had realized.
The trick was that monsters dug towards mana. Some ate it, while others simply couldn’t ignore the allure of gemstones, or felt the tingling in the air and gravitated towards such spots. They didn’t always unearth whatever that source of mana was, but the odds were heightened that if you poked around in such places, you’d have a better chance of finding gemstones. Especially magic ones.
Was it useful information? Numbtongue paused as he stared at the knee-high tracks and distinctive nibbled look of the rock walls. He looked up—there was a lot of space not bearing the nibbling marks. The monsters must have collapsed the rock by accident. An adventurer might pick up on this information, but the hint about mana? Why would they bother?
After all, if you were an adventurer you killed monsters for loot. Caves weren’t a good source of loot; most monsters didn’t have pockets or covet gold like people did. And if you were [Miners], you tended not to want to run into monsters. On the other hand…
“Gemhammer. Are they miners too? Do they mine?”
Numbtongue remembered Erin telling him that Gemhammer was a former group of miners who’d learned to fight after a particularly nasty monster infestation had invaded their work space. So they probably weren’t familiar with the monster cave theory either. Perhaps it was only Pyrite. Perhaps…he had been unique.
That gave Numbtongue some comfort as he unrolled the door and set it up against the cave wall. Here was knowledge only a Goblin had time to learn. Only a Goblin needed to learn. Because they couldn’t settle a place and exploit it like people. Here was how Goblins mined.
Numbtongue opened the door, retrieved his pickaxe, and his guitar just in case he needed to throw a lightning bolt—he doubted it could be used inside a cave, but you never knew—and a lantern. Then he stepped back into the cave and walked forwards, pickaxe in hand.
A Goblin entered the caves, pausing, staring up at the ceiling. The first thing you checked for was faults, signs you wouldn’t have the cave collapse on you. The next thing Numbtongue checked for was gas, anything in the air that was dangerous. He did that by inhaling rapidly a few times and deciding he didn’t feel faint.
The third thing Numbtongue checked for was what he knew was there. Monsters. He found traces of them after a minute of walking into the cave. The tunnel expanded and shrank, turning into one nesting cavern—buried by rocks, another tunnel, at one point so low that Numbtongue had to duck, and then more exposed space.
Pyrite’s memories told Numbtongue what he was probably going to find before he found the first cracked, dried up shell. Only a few species were so careless in tunneling that they let the stone above them collapse and slowly excavated the entire damn place. And that was the small, roly-poly insect with lots of legs and a curving shell that scuttled past Numbtongue. He stopped.
The little things filled the next bend in the tunnels. They were all over the walls, scurrying from place to place, industriously widening their domain. Their little jaws were incredibly strong, but the real trick to them was the dissolving acid they squirted. Not enough to be used in combat, but just enough to weaken the stone so they could tear chunks of it away.
They ate stone, or at least, Pyrite thought they did. But stone is a poor diet, so Rockmites also gave lichen a place to live. It was that which constituted their diets. Lichen, rocks, small insects that came to feast on the lichen…Rockmites had it simple and good. They could hollow out huge nests where they lived in quiet peace, creating an ecosystem to live in without disturbing anyone.
Oh, and if you disturbed them, they’d swarm all over you and tear you apart. Numbtongue recalled that pressing bit of information a moment before he stepped into the cave. He froze. But Pyrite was calm. Or he would be, if he were here.
This was all you had to do. Numbtongue slowly walked forwards, watching each step he took. The Rockmites sensed him instantly; they didn’t really pause in their tasks for the most part, but the ones closest to the ground let go and fell off. Then they scurried towards the Goblin.
Step. Step. Numbtongue kept his balance, guitar raised, pickaxe held at his side. He stopped when the little shapes crawling around him grew too many to avoid stepping on. Then he waited.
The Rockmites were investigating this intruder warily. The scuttled around him. Thousands of eyeless little bugs, clicking on the stone floor. Numbtongue wondered what they tasted like. Pyrite answered for him.
Not good, unless you boiled them with a lot of salt. And even then, not worth the effort. They could take chunks out of you fast. If they attacked, run and don’t stop.
But they wouldn’t attack. Numbtongue had to believe that. He held very still, waiting, until the first Rockmite scuttled up his leg. It didn’t take long. Numbtongue felt the prickly, painful legs crawling up him, and before the first bite could take a chunk out of his flesh he opened his mouth.
It wasn’t a word, but a sound. Numbtongue made the clicking sound as loud as could be and felt the Rockmite let go at once. The others around him fled back a few feet. Numbtongue waited. They scuttled around him, and then approached.
Again, the Rockmites fled. And now they had the hang of it. Scuttle forwards, and Numbtongue would click loudly. After four attempts, the Rockmites decided that this strange thing was neither food nor danger. So they left him alone and scuttled back towards the walls. Numbtongue exhaled slowly.
That’s all you had to do. Just click as loudly as you could and they’d realize you weren’t food and leave you alone. If one bit you? Shake it off. But don’t step on them, take no sudden moves…Rockmites weren’t predators. They didn’t want to kill you, just live. If you left them alone, they’d leave you alone.
Humans never understood that. But Pyrite had and he’d walked through countless Rockmite caves, sometimes passing by the bones of creatures who’d come with malice aforethought. And now Numbtongue walked past them.
The Rockmites had settled one big nest, but their tunnels were ever-expanding to accommodate their nests and lichen production. Numbtongue passed from the nest down the first tunnel he found, clicking now and then to scare away the Rockmites. And now he was sure of it.
There was magic here.
You could feel it. A vibration at the back of your mind and head, a constant tingling, as faint as could be. You couldn’t really sense it in Erin’s inn—there was always something going on, for one thing. And that magic door sucked the mana right out of the air. But here? There was something magical giving off a faint emanation and Numbtongue, moving ever so slowly, couldn’t help but sense it.
“Natural leyline? Lost artifacts? Magic monster? Gemstones?”
There were all kinds of things that produced magic. And where magic was, the stones picked it up. Over time, over the course of many years. The right stones, the right combination of magic. Pyrite didn’t know, but he had at least observed cause and effect. And it was a second Goblin trick that Numbtongue employed now.
He reached into his pocket and pulled something out. The mana stone. He’d left the door at the entrance to the cave, but Numbtongue wasn’t about to leave the stone to be snatched by some greedy crow. Or worse, have an adventurer or Mrsha try and follow him. And the mana stone had another use here too.
The darkness of the cave was very absolute. And as Numbtongue turned off the lantern, even his eyes couldn’t piece it. But then he lifted the mana stone up and a different, softer light filled the room.
The mana stone was purple, a deep, calm, plum glow. It filled the cave around Numbtongue, glinting off Rockmites silently gnawing away, off the stone ceiling, a faint light. But Numbtongue felt like it was bright enough to see everything. In the darkness, even the little light was a beacon. So Numbtongue held it up and held still.
Wait. For minutes, as your heartbeat faded, as the Rockmites dug in the distance, as noise stopped. Wait. Wait and focus—not on the mana stone, but past it. Sensing the darkness. Sensing the level of light. And then take a step. And another.
Hold the mana stone up at eye-level. But always look ahead. Watch your step for Rockmites, walk. Down this way? Or that? It doesn’t matter. You’ll go everywhere in the end. Wait, and step carefully. Watch the glow.
That was all you did. Hold up the mana stone and follow the glow. Where the light of the mana stone grew brighter, or where you saw flashes amid the cave walls, you stopped. You might find a bit of ore, gemstones, or something magical.
Wait. Wait and walk. Contrary to what someone might think—if the thoughts of Goblins mining ever crossed their mind at all—Goblins weren’t active miners. They didn’t hammer at stone, trying to expose veins and tear out huge sections of earth with grit and sweat. They waited. They moved in places only monsters went. Searching for the light.
Numbtongue did the same now. He walked slowly, carefully, inspecting this cave. Perhaps the first of many today. There were no guarantees, after all. The magic he felt in the air might be in his mind after all, or so faint he’d never find it.
In time he would gain a prospecting Skill. But this was how Pyrite had done it starting out. Not looking for gold or gemstones, which often required digging and guesswork. But walking through the dens of monsters. So Numbtongue walked deeper into the Rockmite tunnels, following the glow, and the footsteps of the Goblin he had never met.
Waiting. Walking. Slowly. Learning how to live without fighting.
The first thing the strange, black-furred Gnoll did when Erin stopped crying was offer her something. A white, fibrous stick, one of several in a small packet.
Erin stared at it. She sniffed, wiped her nose on her sleeve, and stared at the Gnoll. Then she looked around.
“If you’re going to kidnap me or drug me, you want to lure me into a back alley first. Or a van. Or wagon, I guess.”
The Gnoll looked shocked. He stared at Erin, and then burst out laughing. Some of the Gnolls on the street turned as he laughed, nearly dropping the little white sticks on the ground.
“And why would I do that?”
“I dunno. Isn’t there an expression about not taking candy from strangers around here?”
“I thought Humans never looked gift horses in the mouth.”
The Gnoll grinned, his teeth flashing. He pointed at the little sticks.
“These aren’t poison, Miss Human. And I’d be a poor [Kidnapper] or whatever the correct class is to try and take you in Pallass, much less on the street surrounded by Gnolls. We can hear a scream even behind closed doors and track a scent for miles.”
That was true. Erin looked around. This area did have a lot of Gnolls in it compared to the seventh floor. The Gnoll saw her indecision.
“We can also smell drugs and poison. Well, most. Ah, but perhaps you don’t know nali-sticks? These aren’t poison. And I’d prove it by offering it to anyone who asked.”
He didn’t raise his voice, but he didn’t have to. At his words, the group of Gnoll youths broke off from their game of kickball and raced over. The older Gnoll fended them off, grasping the small package to his chest.
“Back off! One! I’ll share one with you all. Here. Split it—”
Before he’d finished, the little nali-stick was torn apart and shared among the four Gnolls. Erin saw them chewing and closing their eyes with looks of bliss. That convinced her.
“If this is a drug—”
The Gnoll assured her. Erin was about to say she’d try a drug in her current mood—at least, one of the fun ones that didn’t take your nose off—but she was content with that. She accepted the nali-stick, eyed it, and then bit the top third of it off and chewed.
Instantly Erin’s eyes grew wide.
The Gnoll chuckled at Erin’s reaction. The other Gnoll youths were begging for another, and with a sigh, he plucked another from his pack. Instead of giving it to them, he raised it and threw it across the street. The Gnolls yelped and dove for it. Erin thought they wouldn’t mind a bit of dirt.
Neither would she. The nali-stick was as concentrated with sugar as anything she’d eaten from home. It was sinful. Delightful. She ate the rest of her stick, licking her fingers, and noticed the Gnoll was watching her.
Here would be the point where a suspicious person might wonder if he was trying to approach her with some kind of ulterior motive. If not strictly kidnapping, then something else. But Erin didn’t get that sense from this Gnoll. He had a terrible, terrible way of approaching anyone from Earth, but he couldn’t know that.
“Thank you. I’m Erin Solstice.”
The Gnoll transferred the remaining nali-sticks to his other paw and shook her hand gently.
“Rufelt. City Gnoll.”
It was an odd way of introducing himself. Erin knew there was a difference of course; Mrsha was a Plains Gnoll and she didn’t let anyone forget it. But it seemed to matter here. Rufelt grinned sheepishly.
“Ah. Apologies. That’s a habit from meeting other Gnolls. It helps avoid confusion, you see. Do you know the difference between a City Gnoll and a Plains Gnoll?”
“One lives in tribes, the other lives in cities?”
Rufelt nodded. He tucked the nali-sticks into his belt pouch as he spoke.
“Correct. But the difference is more…hm, let’s say, serious, than that, shall we? By saying I am a City Gnoll, I avoid confusion. Which can happen if a Plains Gnoll assumes I’m one of them.”
He grinned wider, but, Erin thought, with a slight edge.
“Well, to hear them say it, a City Gnoll is a domesticated fool without tribe or loyalty. But I would say that being a City Gnoll means I don’t roll over and bow to tribe loyalty. I am free, not borne into a family of hundreds or thousands who all have connections to me.”
“…There’s a lot to unpack there.”
“Indeed. But that is a difference I would not trouble you with at the moment. In truth, I hoped to speak with you, Erin Solstice. I know your name—”
Erin was suddenly weary and much less happy with meeting Rufelt. He tilted his head.
“Mm. Yes. But not just from there. I heard you were in Pallass, or rather, word spread someone came through the door. So I wished to find out who. And I am pleased I met you, yes? And I think my wife will also be. She is coming and not pleased I found you first.”
He pointed. Erin turned, expecting to see…but what she saw was a female Drake, her scales bright purple, striding down the street. She was around the same age as Rufelt. And, Erin realized, she was the first middle-aged Drake that she’d met. She knew younger Drakes like Embria and Selys, and older ones like Tekshia, but Zevara was around two decades younger than this Drake.
“Ah. There you are, Rufelt. And this is the Human? Erin Solstice? Lasica Feltail. You’ve met my husband.”
“I told you a Gnoll could find a Human faster than any number of Street Runners you paid.”
Lasica turned and gave Rufelt a look that Erin read in two ways. Exasperated, annoyed at his gentle needling. And below it, affection. A complex look that didn’t stop her from turning to slap his shins with her tail.
“Bragging becomes a Drake, not a Gnoll. Anyways, Miss Erin? I will call you Erin, if you don’t mind.”
She held out a hand and Erin found herself shaking it before she knew what she was doing.
“Uh, no. But um, why did you both want to see me?”
Lasica exchanged a glance with Rufelt.
“You mean, why did we want to meet the first person from Liscor since the siege ended?”
“Or why we wanted to meet someone willing to pay Pallass’ fee for entry?”
“Or the fact that it was the Crazy Human Innkeeper from Liscor herself who entered?”
“Wait—hold on. Fee? And wait—do they really call me that?”
Erin looked from Lasica to Rufelt. The Drake tapped her foot, staring at Erin with raised brows.
“Hm. Are you being serious? Yes, they called you that. Do you think you can lead an army of Goblins without earning a name? Let alone the stories I’ve heard of your little inn. Rivers of blood, skeletons as guests, serving Crelers for breakfast—”
“I think she means the fee, dear.”
Rufelt muttered to Lasica. The Drake glanced at him and then turned back to Erin.
“Ah. They didn’t make you pay to enter Pallass?”
“Hmf. Well, I suppose a hero of Liscor deserves free entry. But that doesn’t change the fact that we want a word with you about that—”
The Drake woman’s impatient tone was quelled by Rufelt, who put a paw on her shoulder. He murmured as she glanced at him.
“Lasica. I think this is not the time for confrontation. Miss Erin was distraught when I met her.”
For a beat the Drake locked eyes with her husband and Erin saw something invisible pass between them. A thought, perhaps. Then the Drake turned back to Erin.
“Not the time, then. But for later. In truth, we wanted to welcome you to Pallass. From what I heard, Venim and the Assembly gave you a poor welcome last time—and this time as well from the sounds of it.”
“I had a [Greeter] show me around. But about this fee—”
Erin protested weakly. Lasica rode over her, like the tide over a sandcastle at the beach.
“A [Greeter]? Then you’ve barely seen the sights. Come back with us, and we’ll work on you—first your mood, from what I see that’s Rufelt’s job. And then—”
“I didn’t know there was a fee to enter Pallass at all. No one told me. How much was I supposed to pay?”
Lasica paused. Rufelt raised his eyebrows.
“No one told you about the fee?”
Erin was wondering if it was something else she’d missed with Watch Captain Venim, or if he had waived it for her. Rufelt scratched at his neck.
“Intriguing. Tell me, Erin. Does five gold coins to use the door to Liscor ring a bell?”
Lasica folded her arms. Erin’s eyes widened.
“Five gold coins? That’s robbery! No one told me about that—and wait, five coins? Do I get paid some of that? I never set a price on the door. But I should. Shouldn’t I? But I’m sure no one pays to go to Pallass, or if they do, Zevara never said!”
Lasica’s eyes narrowed. She glanced at Rufelt. He was blinking and running a hand down his furry chin, staring at Erin.
“Rufelt, do you think this is another gambit by…?”
“The Protectorate? I do indeed, my dear. And one that Liscor might not even be aware of. Worth a mention, do you think?”
Lasica nodded as if she were declaring war. She swung around to face Erin, who was blinking at the two of them. It had been a long time since she heard people half-finish each other’s sentences. Her parents used to do that all the—
“Well, I had intended something else, but I’ll change my schedule. Come on, we’d better muster the troops. The Protectorate’s not getting away this time. Erin, if you’ll come with me, we can do some good.”
She turned, gesturing at Erin. The young woman nearly fell into step behind Lasica before she knew what she was doing. The older Drake was imperious. She looked at Rufelt, who was walking next to her, looking cheerful and relaxed.
“Wait, but I—sorry, we’ve just met. And I appreciate the uh, stick, but I have things to do.”
She didn’t, really, but the sudden turn of events was startling. Lasica turned and gave Erin a long stare, condensed into a moment.
“And you were planning on doing what, exactly?”
“Um. Wandering about and crying some more?”
Lasica gave Rufelt another look, this time a glare. Erin practically read the ‘you didn’t say that’, and his apologetic look of ‘you didn’t give me a chance, my dear’. Lasica turned back to Erin.
“All the more reason to come with us.”
“We’ll show you the city as we walk.”
Rufelt took Erin’s left and Lasica the right. They urged her on, and Erin found herself somehow walking without them touching her. Lasica was on her right, talking briskly, Rufelt on the left, adding little asides.
“You see, we were looking for you, but this news about the door changes things. I don’t want to intrude, but it really is important. I know you might think it’s just Pallassian politics—”
“And minor ones at that.”
“—But it does matter. You know—actually, you might not—that Pallass is a democracy? Well, we have yearly elections and we’re a week away from ours. And so any edge is needed.”
“We didn’t come to you expecting to hear there was no fee on Liscor’s side. And in truth, we’re pleased to simply meet you, Erin. May I call you that? But Lasica’s on the warpath, and I’d like to support her on this.”
Erin’s head swiveled back from Lasica to Rufelt, blinking as they made their way towards the elevator. She settled on Rufelt.
“I thought you were a City Gnoll who answered to no leader.”
He turned and gave her a toothy grin.
“Ah, you’ve not ever been in a relationship then. One where you give and take.”
Erin was wondering what he got from Lasica. She looked at the Drake, at Rufelt, and blurted out something boiling on the tip of her tongue. She couldn’t help it.
“I’ve never met a Gnoll and Drake couple before.”
The said Drake and Gnoll stopped in front of the elevator. Lasica pulled a cord absently and a bell rang. Then she turned to look at Rufelt. He met her gaze, and then both turned back to Erin.
“Well, now you have. Have you ridden the floor lifts before, Erin?”
“You don’t get nervous about heights, do you? There’s no fear of the cables breaking—and if they do, there’s a feather fall enchantment. We use the stairs anyways because the lifts do terrible things for the stomach, but we’re in a hurry and I don’t fancy going two floors up on foot.”
“Oh, I’m fine. But where are we going?”
“To visit the blacksmithing section.”
Rufelt smiled at Erin as the elevator came back up. The Drake with the pink neck spines sighed when she saw Erin. Lasica stepped into the elevator.
The Drake looked at Erin.
“Which floor, Human?”
Her voice was audibly impatient. Lasica’s head turned slowly. She narrowed her eyes at the elevator attendant and her tail lashed a bit.
“She is with us. Nine.”
The attendant looked at Lasica and Erin saw her quail a bit.
“My apologies. Going up to the ninth floor…”
Erin felt the elevator shoot up, and braced herself. The other occupants were steady on their feet. Rufelt smiled again at Erin and gestured to their rapid ascent.
“Fascinating things, aren’t they? So recent as well! Imagine if we could build a spire, or something straight up like the [Architects] are suggesting? True, it would go over the walls, but could anyone hit such a building if we placed it in the center of the city? And we could use the floor lifts to make a journey from the top to bottom a matter of minutes!”
“It’s a splendid idea. But who’s going to pay for that much stone and enchantments?”
Lasica folded her arms. Rufelt shook his head, but not exactly to disagree.
“It need not be a work of years. It may take decades—”
“Why bother, then? You know it will be fought over for ages by each new assembly. If you do something, do it fast.”
“You just said there’s no money—”
“I asked where the money would come from, not that there wasn’t any to be had.”
“Of course, Lassi.”
Rufelt smiled at Erin. So did Lasica, after a second. The elevator stopped and Lasica marched out.
“A difference of opinion. We often argue about politics.”
“That was a fight?”
Erin stared between Drake and Gnoll. Lasica shook her head.
“Not a very good one. This way. This is the smithing floor, by the way. Ninth. If you ever come looking for someone to forge to anything, this is your stop. But that’s not really your line of work, or ours, is it? The finished products are on seventh along with a lot of shops—”
Erin stepped forwards out of the elevator with Rufelt by her side. Her eyes widened as she felt herself on the top floor of Pallass, besides the battlements. She looked around.
The ninth floor was the smallest. At least, in horizontal space. It was a narrow band running around each wall compared to, say, the second floor, but that narrow band was still large enough to support a very large space. So large, in fact, that the first thing Erin saw outside the elevator was a row of outdoor forges. And she could hear a rhythmic clanging of metal on metal coming from one.
“Behold! The smiths of Pallass!”
Rufelt had to shout to make himself heard as Erin followed Lasica towards the third forge. The [Blacksmiths] of Pallass had been given their own quarter near the top of the city and their work spaces had been placed right next to each other. They were sprawling complexes, with anvils, multiple forge fires depending on how big each forging studio was, and rightly so.
Erin could feel the heat of one of the furnaces from here, and she saw a sweating Drake pounding on an orange-white piece of steel. A blade? It was cooling fast despite the heat and she saw him shove it in a furnace filled with coals—and fire—and begin working a pair of bellows.
Someone bellowed. Erin jumped, but she was well clear of the voice. A Drake passed her by, carrying what was indeed a very hot piece of steel. She noticed Rufelt crossing to her other side as he did.
“This is incredible. Look at all those furnaces.”
Erin hadn’t ever seen a [Blacksmith] at work, let alone the dozens within view. Rufelt shuddered.
“Incredible? Yes. But dangerous as well. There’s a reason most of the [Blacksmiths], [Armorers], and apprentices and so on you see are species other than Gnoll.”
He gestured at his fur. Erin eyed him and thought of how fast you could burn yourself when your entire body was covered by hair.
“Yeah I get that. But uh, why are we up here?”
She was still caught up in the flow. Lasica was walking ahead of them, peering at the forges as if looking for someone. She slowed down a bit to explain.
“It’s about the Protectorate.”
“Start from the beginning, dear.”
“Of course. Actually—can you explain it, Rufelt? I don’t know how I would to someone who’s not a Drake.”
“Hm. Yes, allow me. Erin, I believe my wife spoke to you of Pallass’ democracy, right? Are you familiar with the term?”
“Oh, a little bit. Yeah.”
“Good. That saves me much explaining. Well, we elect our ruling body, the Assembly of Crafts, by district. There are hundreds who fill the assembly, but they are not all individuals, yes? You see, there are factions. There are always factions. We elect Senators, but each tend to belong to a party. An affiliation of ideas.”
“Different parties. Different groups. Totally with you.”
Rufelt raised his brows as if to say, ‘really’? But one look at Erin’s face convinced him. Lasica broke in.
“Indeed. Well, of the major groups, there is one that concerns us. The Protectorate has been growing lately. Excuse me—they call themselves the Protectors of the Walls, and take a hard stance on immigration, trade, and so forth. They’ve been popular because their tariffs favor local businesses, but they go too far, at least in some of our opinions.”
She turned and gave a passing Drake a glare, as if to suggest that he was one of the complacent ones. Rufelt chuckled as the accused Drake gave Lasica an odd look and hurried past. She went on calmly.
“We don’t like them, Rufelt and I. But happily, their party took a large blow to their influence after Liscor. Too many people saw them as tail-dragging cowards who could have done more to aid the city. Instead, we cut ties and the entire world saw how few soldiers we sent while every other Walled City and lesser city-state was marching armies north.”
“Wow. So Liscor’s siege had more of an effect on Pallass than I thought.”
Erin looked at the married couple and saw Lasica smile. Rufelt grinned again.
“Not just Liscor. A certain [Innkeeper] had as much to do with the Protectorate’s misfortune as well. Had Liscor fallen, the Protectorate might have claimed it was all sensible precautions they took. Instead, they look like fools and will lose ground in the yearly elections. Or so I think. And this soon-to-be scandal will only fuel that flame, don’t you think, Lasica?”
“Oh, definitely. As if we needed another reason to like you.”
“Wait, you like me? You barely even know me!”
“Well, give it time. We just have to pop in to visit—hey! Is this Maughin’s forge for the day!”
Lasica shouted as she came to a large and very busy forge. Erin saw a Gnoll—covered in a protective apron and patches of missing fur—look up as he worked a grindstone and sent sparks flying on a blade. He shouted an affirmative. Lasica bellowed at him.
“I’m looking for Maughin? Is he available?”
Rather than shout, he pointed. The Drake turned and walked around the forge. Erin followed, and Rufelt stayed behind the two.
“Don’t get too close! They’re running about with steel in there and sparks go flying! You stay back too, Rufelt!”
Erin saw Lasica approach the main section of the forge. And there she saw two people working on anvils, both with their own dedicated forge. One was a Drake, younger, and the second was another of those not-Human people in armor. She—it was a she beneath the soot, Erin thought—was brushing at some very hot metal while a huge man in armor, twice her size, was shouting orders at her.
“Faster! Remove the scaling in one stroke or you’re wasting heat! You don’t need a skill, just move your hands!”
His voice was clearly audible over the sound of the other forges. The female…armor girl nodded and brushed faster. She apparently did it right, because he pointed and she was on the piece of metal, hitting one spot, and, from what Erin could see, making it longer, stretching it out.
The word made the armored man look up. He scowled at first, but when he saw Lasica waving at him, his face changed. Not exactly to happiness, but at least the scowl dissipated a little. He shouted at one of the other armored folk waiting in the wings and got a nod. The other apprentice or worker took over supervising as Maughin strode towards them.
He was another person in armor, like Lorent. But this fellow, Maughin was huge. A proper giant! Not as tall as Moore, but certainly nearly as broad-shouldered. His armor was metal, finely engraved, but, Erin had to notice, light plates of steel rather than the heavier armor Lorent had worn. Even so, he was very sweaty and red in the face. As he walked over, he reached up and—Erin was ready for it, but she still gasped—took off his head and carried it in one arm.
“Lasica. Rufelt. And who is this?”
Maughin’s voice came from his head as he held it out, away from his body. Erin didn’t know if it was an insult or to keep him cool—until she realized he was holding it down, at head-height. Lasica nodded to him.
“Maughin, meet the Human from Liscor. Erin Solstice. Do you recognize the name?”
The huge man paused. He wiped a bit of sweat from his forehead, carefully patting his head with a bit of cloth. Erin didn’t know whether to stare at the head or the body.
“The name strikes a bell. From Liscor?”
“The very same. And guess where she just came from? The doorway that costs five gold coins. Which, as it turns out, was free for her and apparently anyone coming through from Liscor. What do you think about that?”
The armored giant thought for a second. Then he turned his head to spit.
“Politics. Why are you bringing this onto my forge floor?”
Erin kept staring at him. Maughin eyed her and Lasica. The Drake was cool, and addressed his head calmly.
“We only want you to bring it up with the other [Smiths]. Say, by sundown? You can just send an apprentice over. But you know this is bad for trade.”
“I do. On the other hand, trade flows north regardless of a single door.”
“But through the Blood Fields? You must admit you have few clients as far north as Liscor, and none in Human lands. And here’s a door, only we’ve apparently been deincentivized to use it. Did I mention that no one on Liscor’s side knew of the charge? At least, not the [Innkeeper] herself.”
Maughin’s head turned towards Erin. She froze up. The giant’s head frowned at her.
“Is this true?”
“I—I—how do you do that with your head?”
The man blinked. Lasica stared. And Rufelt, who’d been hanging back, barked with laughter.
“Maughin, you might be the first Dullahan she’s met! Don’t frown so!”
The armored man—no, the Dullahan stared at Erin. Then, slowly, he placed his head back on his shoulders. He spoke slowly.
“Apologies. I did not realize that there were Humans who didn’t recognize Dullahans on sight. Was this…offensive to you?”
Erin noted the small frown and the nudge Lasica quickly gave her. She waved her hands.
“No! Not at all! But I’ve never seen—I mean, I’ve seen people without heads, but they’re normally dead when that happens. I had no idea there were people like…uh. Hi! I’m Erin Solstice.”
She held out a hand. Maughin took it and gave her the lightest of squeezes. Lasica smiled, looking amused.
“Maughin is a Dullahan. From Baleros.”
Erin finally remembered where she’d heard the word Dullahan before. But she’d never seen a Dullahan or quite understood what a Dullahan was until now. Rufelt and Lasica gave her the condensed version.
“So you can remove heads and limbs? And you wear armor, but you can decorate it? That’s so…so…”
Erin pondered for words. Hermit crab-like? Robot-ish? She settled for a safe bet.
“…cool! I bet there’s all kinds of stuff you can do! Like—do your work and put your head down and read a book! Wait, you can’t flip pages that way. Or…or go swimming with your head above water! But you can’t see that way…”
“Dullahans can sense the area around their bodies. But it is not so convenient. Nevertheless, I am pleased you speak so highly of our abilities. Not all Humans do.”
Maughin was a slow, deliberate speaker. And like Lorent, his face didn’t change as visibly as another species’ might. Erin got the sense that he was quite formal outside of the forge. Lasica jumped into the conversation, then.
“As I was saying, you had no idea of the fee levied on visitors from Pallass, did you, Erin?”
“What? Oh, no. Not at all. And I wouldn’t charge a thing! I only agreed not to ship Runner’s goods through the door. You know, so they wouldn’t go out of work? And merchant’s goods. But visitors are welcome!”
Maughin pondered this. He looked at Lasica.
“So this is a Protectorate bill?”
“Or at least, something the Assembly did under wartime powers that they didn’t inform us about. All perfectly legal, but not exactly fair. This is hardly a measure to save lives, is it?”
Maughin looked displeased, but he didn’t spit again. He looked at Lasica and sighed.
“Are you going to bring other guilds into this?”
“At least the [Alchemists] and some of the other businesses. We do good work inside the city, but these tariffs are hurting us all, Maughin. If this needs to be our sticking point to get more support, so be it. What do you say?”
The Dullahan chewed this over. At last, he grudgingly nodded. But he turned to Erin as he did.
“You have my support on condition. [Innkeeper] Solstice. Will you swear that Liscor had no knowledge of these fines?”
He bent down to look at Erin. She gulped but met his eyes.
“Absolutely. I didn’t know, and Watch Captain Zevara didn’t either. Or she would tell me.”
Erin thought she would, at any rate. She hoped Zevara would. Maughin nodded.
“Then I will speak to the others and reach an accord. Although I’m uneasy about opening a door fully to another city, even so.”
“It’s not a full connection, Maughin. That door can barely handle a few travelers per day. After the [Mages] moved the soldiers back from Liscor they were half-dead, and the Assembly requisitioned everyone in the city. Come on, you know this is a good deal. Even if they only let people through, you could get orders from Liscor. The City Watch at least will want to bulk up after the siege.”
The Dullahan was nodding reluctantly.
“True. That might open up business. But I was more concerned about—”
Every head turned as a shout came from the forge beside Maughin’s. Erin heard a low, bass voice and an accent that was half-familiar. Then she saw a short, bearded fellow stumble out of his forge, holding a breastplate. The metal didn’t gleam; it was black with soot or something else, and bits of it flaked off as the Dwarf hurled the breastplate on the ground. But from the pure sound Erin heard as it struck the stone and the way it only flexed a bit at the impact, she was sure it was a sturdy breastplate.
Maughin looked over disapprovingly at the Dwarf. The other [Smith], who was shouting back into the forge, looked over. He blinked at the Dullahan.
“Maughin. Taking a break off? Good for you. I’m done as well.”
Erin glanced at the sky. It was barely past morning! Maughin seemed to share the same opinion. He stared at the breastplate lying on the ground.
“You finished your suit of armor?”
The Dwarf, Pelt, shrugged.
“Breastplate. Good enough for me. I’m done for the day. Armor looks good. So we’re done. One of the apprentices can do the engraving and inlays.”
“And if they err?”
There could be no greater sin, clearly. But Pelt shrugged.
“It’s adornment. It doesn’t matter. The steel is sturdy. And I don’t feel like making more. Who’s the Human?”
He pointed a finger at Erin. She smiled and Lasica began to explain. Pelt cut her off with a rude sound.
“I don’t care. Vote whomever you want into your damn seats. So long as the walls don’t come crashing down, leave me out of it.”
Affronted, the Drake glared at him. Rufelt looked resigned. Pelt stomped past them, as a Drake hurried out to collect the breastplate from the ground. Erin stared at the Dwarf’s back as Maughin shook his head and turned, quite deliberately, to talk to Lasica with his back to the Dwarf.
“Who was that?”
Rufelt sighed and shrugged.
“Pelt. A brilliant [Smith], but a lousy worker. An odd combination in someone with high levels. But Maughin probably wishes Pelt would drink himself senseless all the time or sober up and take him on as an apprentice.”
“He’s that good?”
Erin blinked at the Dwarf, who was shouting for an elevator as he rang the bell. He looked unsteady. As if he was already drunk or, alternatively, hadn’t bothered to stop while forging. The Gnoll frowned.
“Good enough that he can work for a fraction of the time as our good Dullahan and still be competitive. There’s a saying of the two of them. You’ll always go to Maughin for good, high-quality work. But you hope Pelt has a good day and if he does, you buy from him.”
Erin glanced back at Maughin. From what she could see, his forge was the largest and his apprentices were working very hard alongside the journeymen. Meanwhile, in Pelt’s forge, a single Drake was cleaning up and working on the breastplate.
“It doesn’t seem quite fair.”
“Levels dictate much. And despite Maughin’s skill, he cannot yet match Pelt. But in a few years? Perhaps.”
“I had no idea there were…Dullahans in Pallass. Or Izril, to be honest. Are they common, just not in Liscor?”
The Gnoll frowned, but it was Maughin who approached and answered for him.
“There are few Dullahans on the continent, but we have a community in Pallass. After all, it is a city that offers [Smiths] a chance to work. We supply the southern half of the continent with much of the armor and weapons from these forges. If you so desire, Erin Solstice, I will take a commission from you. I shall remember your name.”
That had a ritualistic sound to it. Erin smiled and bowed to Maughin slightly.
“And I will uh, remember yours. Maughin, right?”
He nodded. Erin waved goodbye as the Dullahan walked back to his forge, already calling for an apprentice. Lasica shook her head.
“Well, that was simple, but I could have done without Pelt. You’re lucky he didn’t spot you, Rufelt. He’s still sore at you for cutting him off.”
“Then all is well, Lasica. Where to next. Let’s not drag about our guest more than we have to.”
Erin was actually enjoying this a bit. Meeting Maughin had been fun. And she had a sense—even if she was hazy on the particulars—that she was doing something that was going to bug Pallass’ Assembly of Crafts. So she was all in. Lasica smiled.
“Hm. Well, we don’t need to go far. We’ll visit Xif, the [Alchemist] so he can send word along through his guild. And…stop by Melinni’s storehouses?”
“If you can bear it.”
The Drake lashed her tail.
“To tweak the Protectorate’s noses? Yes.”
“A noble sacrifice. Lead on, then.”
To Erin, Rufelt pointed across the ninth floor to the other side.
“We’re headed to the [Alchemist]’s section next. The other side, you see the colored smoke coming from that roof? That’s our destination. It is a bit of a walk—the [Engineers] haven’t developed a floor lift that goes sideways, yet.”
“Or at least, one that doesn’t take up too much space.”
The two marched across the floor, Erin walking between them. By this point her curiosity was fully stoked.
“Okay, I get that Maughin’s a good [Smith], but what’s the plan here? Get people angry at the Assembly and then what?”
“That’s all we need to do. It just needs to be the right people. Butchers, bakers—well, a [Chef]—and potion-makers. And a [Smith]. Throw in a few more high-leveled shopkeepers and artisans and we can cause a fuss. By sundown, the Assembly will have to issue an explanation for why we’re cutting trade with Liscor, and they might throw the Protectorate entirely under the wagon.”
Rufelt smiled happily to himself. Lasica nodded. They passed by a huge stairway, one of the four leading straight down all nine floors. Erin saw a crowd coming up the steps, some looking winded from the climb. She was passing along the walkways around the stairs when she heard another voice.
“Excuse me! Street Runner, coming through!”
This time she looked and saw the Gnoll hurtling past her in time. He leapt—not towards the busy stairs, the right side of which was going up, the left travelling down—but towards the ramp separating the two. Erin watched as the Gnoll charged down the incline, and wished, for a second, that she had a piece of cardboard so she could sled down.
She saw the Gnoll pass by a Drake girl kicking her feet while sitting on one of the guardrails, perilously teetering on the abyss. She looked up, and to Erin’s horror, stood up on the guardrail and pointed at the Street Runner.
She leapt. Erin jerked, but then she saw the young Drake’s wings unfold. The Gnoll racing down the steps grunted as the Oldblood Drake girl dived past him, laughing merrily. The Street Runner didn’t look too pleased; Erin saw him turn abruptly and the girl Drake turn clumsily, crying out.
Rufelt and Lasica laughed at the young woman’s reaction. The Drake reassured Erin there was no danger.
“And if there was, it’s her parent’s fault for not getting her flying lessons. We’ve got enough Garuda and they’re natural-born fliers. Don’t worry. Some of the scaly brats love to race Street Runners. More often than not they lose; many of them don’t exercise their wings enough.”
“I’ve never seen—okay, I’ve seen one other person—but Drakes with wings are new to me. I know a Drake who breathes stuff, though. Mostly smoke.”
“Oldblood Drakes are rare. Liscor doesn’t have…? Well, I suppose it’s a smaller city, isn’t it? What kind of breath is it? Just smoke? Acid? Frost? Lightning?”
“Ah, generic. Well, that’s still rare enough. And speaking of rare…I have no proper segue. Here we are.”
She was leading them to the house with the chimney belching smoke. Rufelt coughed as they approached, then sneezed repeatedly.
“Another place I’d stay back from. This is why I hate the ninth. Lasica, mind if I…?”
Lasica nodded. Erin, who’d already caught a strange whiff in this section of the ninth floor, realized they were along a street filled with houses or studios that had the same weird scent emanating from them. A few had blown-out windows. One looked recently vacated. And burned.
The house in front of them looked normal, except for the smoke. Lasica waited and Erin blinked as the door opened and revealed a Gnoll with shaggy tan fur—stained every color imaginable and singed in two places.
He smelled like eight things at once, none particularly good and all nose-searingly strong. Rufelt refused to even go near him and left Erin and Lasica, whose noses weren’t nearly so good, to talk to the [Alchemist].
“I can barely smell at all these days. A byproduct of my work. So you are the [Innkeeper] one hears so much about? I am Xif, [Alchemist] of…”
He glanced over his shoulder quickly at the sign over his shop.
“…the Cunning Crafts. No, Cunning Crafts is my shop. My apologies, yes? Oh, and I am a City Gnoll, if anyone asks.”
“I’m very pleased to meet you.”
“And I you! Very kind of Lasica to bring you to meet me. Why, I saw the events at Liscor—a terrible thing, what those Humans were about to do. But you stopped them! Only, I doubt that’s the only reason you’re here?”
He was nothing like Octavia, from his pleasant, if befuddled demeanor, and the way he gave Erin the impression he was thinking of five things at once, like some chess players she’d met. Always thinking ahead and around her. He nodded when Erin pointed out the difference.
“Why, some [Alchemists] create potions in number to make money. But I, like others in Pallass, live only to create that which no one has ever seen. Or to rediscover and recreate lost recipes of old. It means I do not earn as much as some—”
Lasica rolled her eyes and twitched her tail irritably.
“—But he’s the best [Alchemist] in the city. At least, when he’s not endangering the rest of it with his experiments. There’s a reason why we put the [Alchemists] on the top floors.”
“To deal with the smoke and other stuff floating up?”
Erin pointed at the chimneys. Lasica shook her head.
“No. To make it easier to throw [Alchemists] off the walls if they cause trouble.”
“Sadly, true. I’ve lost many a good friend who incurred the wrath of the city.”
Xil’s ears lowered. Erin stared in horror at him. That couldn’t be true. Could it? But his face—
She saw Lasica’s grin and Xil’s smile, then. Erin stared at them in astonishment as the old Gnoll and Drake woman chuckled.
“You’re teasing me?”
She heard a laugh from Rufelt, who’d also listened to the joke. Xif leaned over, chuckling. He didn’t smell that bad, actually. Once your nose shut down, that was.
“Drake humor. It always involves someone suffering, yes? Pleased to meet you, Miss Solstice. It was a brave thing you did. I hope to see at least one Gnoll pass through from Liscor if Lasica has her way. Which she will, of course. Naturally I’ll agitate my fellows. They’d love nothing better than to harvest acid flies around Liscor, but none of them have thought of it yet I’ll wager. They’ll cause a stink, quite literally if you want it, Lasica.”
“A metaphorical one does for us. Good day, Xif. Stop by this evening if you’re free. We miss you at the bar. But do remember—”
“To wash. Ah, yes.”
The Gnoll bid them farewell. Lasica nodded, smiling a bit at the door and Erin thought she liked the old Gnoll more than Maughin. But the next moment she was all business.
“Onwards, then. We’ll stop at that damn—the scaly tease who—we’ll stop by the fourth floor, and then I can let you relax at our place.”
“And what exactly is that place?”
“You’ll see once we get there. But I think you should know already.”
Lasica walked on. And Erin couldn’t help but follow. She stared at the Drake as Rufelt followed them, sneezing and complaining about [Alchemists]. Erin was getting a funny feeling. The oddest sense of déjà vu. Only, it was coming from Lasica’s back as she led them to an elevator.
Down five floors at a dizzying pace. This floor was filled with less people than Erin expected, and more large, warehouse-like buildings and workers hauling goods. In fact, warehouses were the right word for it. For, at the next stop Lasica rapped on a small building connected to a very large warehouse. The sign read ‘Melinni’s Meats’. Well, that was straightforward enough.
“Rufelt! How wonderful it is to see you! And you. Lasica.”
The Drake had nearly perfect white scales, spotted only by a few pink dots along her tail. She and Lasica greeted each other like old enemies, and Rufelt hugged Melinni as she was introduced to Erin and given the rundown. The Drake [Butcher] clucked her tongue after she’d heard the story.
“The Protectorate’s afraid we’ll visit Liscor?”
“Maybe they just wanted to make it seem like only Liscorians would want to visit Pallass and not the other way around. Or devalue the door. Or do any number of things. The point is, we’re causing a fuss. Can you get the other [Butchers] in on this?”
“For you, Lasica? No. For Rufelt’s sake? I suppose so.”
Melinni sighed, and Lasica glared, but Erin had been watching the two Drake’s tails and she suspected half of their animosity was staged. Melinni did insist on showing Erin her ‘shop’ before they left, though, and it turned out her butcher’s shop was more of a storehouse for all the meat you could ever want.
“That’s…a lot of meat.”
Erin stared inside the disturbingly room-temperature storehouse at the racks of fresh meat, sausages, cuts of animals, fowl, fair, and still bloody. Melinni dealt in all kinds of meat. From Wyvern to rabbit. The Drake spread her arms wide, showing Erin the glowing preservation runes on the floor.
“More meat preserved here than you could eat in ten years, Human. But still, it is only a fraction of Pallass’ stockpiles. Come and see if you would like—but mind the floor runes!”
She led them down the main section, where buyers could point out what they wanted. But access beyond there was strictly forbidden; only the workers could pick out the meat and cut it.
“Slippers only if you walk past this point. Each section is double-warded, but we must take care not to scratch the protective runes.”
Melinni was the richest [Butcher] Erin had or possibly would ever meet. She could separate every bit of fat from a bit of meat with ease, but she’d found her real fortune in preserving meat long enough for it to be used. Her store house was one of the biggest on the fourth floor—Erin was slowly realizing that everyone Lasica and Rufelt knew were the big cheeses of their floor. She had to tell the Drake about the runes she’d accidentally damaged in her inn. The Drake was beside herself with the pain of Erin’s recollection.
“Oh, darling. You should have stayed away from that! But, rotten as it was? I’m surprised it was still going. Don’t beat yourself up too hard. Any good [Enchanter] would have spelled the wood against that sort of thing, but do they bother?”
Rufelt and Lasica chorused with Melinni. Erin looked from face to face.
“You have problems with [Enchanters] too? I was trying to get some work done, but I hear they’re hard to hire.”
“Oh, the worst. Good [Enchanters] are hard to come by. I speak of the ones who work without asking for more coin, or slacking off on the job or arguing about design. Pallass has some and I hate them all to some degree. I tend to work with generalist [Mages], but their knowledge is often not so specialized…”
“The bar has several enchantments, but upgrading is very difficult. I’ve been waiting for a good Wistram [Mage] to stop by for months now. There’s a fault in the seal of one of our preservation runes, or so I think.”
Bar. Erin stared at the Gnoll and Lasica elbowed him, but it was too late and Melinni didn’t care. The Drake led them out, talking animatedly with him about the magical equivalent of home fixes.
“The trick is to apply a tiny bit of silver powder combined with crushed mana stones—any will do—and a tiny bit of glue. If the rune is working, it sometimes connects the…the gap? I’m no [Enchanter], but we’ve done that for two faulty runes and it’s worked both times. I still store the daily cuts there, though. One can never be sure…”
“You have a bar?”
Lasica looked put out as they bade farewell to Melinni, or rather, her husband did.
“That was a secret. Rufelt has a bar. I own the kitchen. We’re a partnership. Or did you think two random strangers had sought you out.”
“Well…I’ve had weirder encounters.”
“I somehow don’t doubt that. But we are in the same business as you, Erin. And we always check out the competition. We’re headed to our bar now. We’d be delighted if you joined us. We didn’t mean to drag you about.”
“I didn’t mind. But are you sure? Don’t you have a business to run?”
Lasica waved that away.
“We make our money at night. And we have preservation runes of our own. We’ll stop by there. And we have to treat you, not just for the news about the door—”
She stopped as they neared the steps leading up to the fifth, which was their floor. A loud, chanting voice had risen above the general noise of the crowd. Erin saw the Drakes and Gnolls on the stairs look over their shoulders and clear a path on the left side. Then she saw a huge, muscular Drake wearing tight-fitting clothing charge up the stairs. He was followed by six Drakes and a Gnoll.
“One, two, three, four! Move those legs, you slugs!”
The Drake turned and roared at the seven following him as he jogged in place at the top of the stairs. He turned, and began running their way, exhorting the exhausted Drakes to keep moving. The Gnoll ran after him as the Drake’s voice echoed past them.
“You call yourself proper apprentices? I’ve had bowel movements faster than you! Pump those legs! Do you want to be [Mages] or not!?”
Erin stared at the Drake. His clothes looked almost like something she’d see in a gym on earth, albeit missing logos or the flashier artificial fabrics. And he looked nothing like any [Mage] she’d ever seen. Moore was strong, and Pisces was, despite appearances, rather fit, but this Drake had muscles.
He had—there were bunches of muscles standing out that—put it this way, if Erin was testing a group of bodybuilders for drugs, she’d skip the line and start with this Drake instead.
He looked like a weight lifter from her world, but he’d stopped before his muscles got comically huge. Not that there was much funny about a Drake who looked like he breathed protein shakes and bench pressed in his sleep.
Really, there was something unnatural about him. The biggest and burliest Drake that Erin had met was Relc, but this Drake’s body showed that he was someone who deliberately worked out on a regular basis, totally different from a soldier’s muscles. He had abs. And he was a [Mage].
“Rufelt? Lasica? Who is that?”
The Drake sighed.
“And here I thought we’d get her back to the bar without showing her one of the crazies. Erin, meet one of the people that makes Pallass famous. Here’s Gremalkin, the famed master of…I don’t know, what does he call it again, Rufelt?”
“Physical magic. His personal school.”
“Yes, that. And those dying Drakes and that poor Gnoll girl are his latest batch of apprentices.”
Erin stared at the Drakes trying to keep up. Half had simply collapsed after getting to the fourth floor, and Gremalkin was jogging around them, bellowing insults.
“You lot are a disgrace! You call that exercise? I call it a warm up! If you can’t do two laps up and down the stairs by the end of the month, you can forget ever mastering magic! Stop whining about your lungs! Breathe in, suck it up, and run! You think just because you can throw fireballs that you deserve a break? On your feet!”
There was some commonality between Gremalkin and Erin’s middle school gym teacher that was eerie. She walked towards him as Lasica and Rufelt both urged her to the stairs leading up. The Drake [Mage] was pausing to bellow again when Erin raised a hand.
“Uh, excuse me—”
“No stamina potions! And no giving them a claw up! They get up and run or they can resign right now, Miss—”
The Drake shouted, and then glanced at Erin. He stopped, dead in his tracks and looked her up and down.
“Are you from Liscor? No, wait—are you that Human from Liscor? The [Innkeeper]?”
Erin saw heads turn. Grimalkin wasn’t quiet. She saw Lasica sigh.
“That’s right, Grimalkin. This is Erin Solstice. From Liscor. And please, don’t make a scene—”
Too late. Grimalkin looked Erin up and down and strode over to her. She got the whiff of sweat, and then stared up at a bulging pectoral. She looked up as Grimalkin eyed her.
“So. You’re the Human who led that Goblin army against the Goblin Lord, are you? Charged into battle with nothing but a flag and dared, dared the Goblin Lord to a fight?”
Part of Erin quailed at remembering. But Grimalkin was so loud he was even drowning out her sorrow.
“It wasn’t just me. It was the Goblins. They sacrificed their lives so—”
“But you led them. You were there. And you’re, what, an [Innkeeper]? Any combat classes? Any at all? Magical artifacts?”
“No. No, none. I got some after, I mean, I’m a Level 2 [Warrior] if that counts, but—”
Grimalkin bellowed the word over Erin’s head. She jumped. Everybody on earshot, from elderly Drake ladies on the stairs to a Street Runner passing by, turned to stare. The muscular [Mage] turned and shouted back at his apprentices, who were still trying to stand back up.
“Do you hear that? She charged an army of monsters herself! Testicles! You lot can barely get up a flight of stairs!”
The muscle-bound Drake glared at the male Drakes, all of whom were sweating and gulping for breath.
“While this Human—”
He slapped Erin on the shoulder so hard she nearly fell down.
“—has more balls than all of you lot put together! And more of whatever you two have—”
He pointed at the panting female Drake and Gnoll.
“—in her testicles! I’m assured Humans have testicles of some kind.”
He turned back to Erin for a moment as if asking for confirmation. Erin staggered upright.
“I don’t have…testicles.”
Grimalkin digested this for a moment and then turned his head.
“Gonads, then! The point is if an [Innkeeper] can fight with only her brawn and wits against a Goblin Lord and his army, no true [Mage] should be anything less!”
He pointed at the female Gnoll, who was definitely the odd one out.
“You there. You want to become a [Mage]? Prove it! And the rest of you, if this Human can fight a hundred thousand Goblins—”
“It really wasn’t like that—”
“—then you can all do five laps! On me! Miss Human, it was an honor.”
He turned and gasping, his six Drakes and Gnoll apprentices lurched into motion behind him. Grimalkin seemed so pumped up by meeting Erin that he left the others in the dust in a moment. The unfortunate Street Runner who was doing a delivery in the area found the [Mage] running neck-and-neck with him, as if challenging him to a race.
Erin watched Grimalkin disappear behind a building with her mouth open. She only looked around when she heard a wheezing sound. Rufelt was doubled over laughing.
“Don’t be rude, Rufelt.”
But even Lasica was smiling. She took Erin by the shoulder and led her up the stairs. Erin could still hear Grimalkin’s voice echoing back towards them, but it faded as they climbed to the fifth floor. And there, just off the main stairwell was a large bar. No, a tavern. Erin stared up at the sign.
“Tails and Scales, the best bar in all of Pallass!”
Rufelt pushed the door open. Lasica followed him.
“And the best tavern thanks to me. Ignore Rufelt. He’s only good for serving drinks. Have a seat, and…”
And before she knew it, Erin had a cold drink in one hand, Lasica was in the kitchen cooking something up, and Rufelt was leaning across from her, whipping up a second drink from the many, many kegs and containers scattered across his bar. Erin had about six types of alcohol. He had over a hundred liquids to mix from, and more substances besides.
“Anything you want, ask for it and I’ll mix it up. My [Bartender] senses tell me you don’t get drunk, so I’ll take that as a challenge.”
He winked at her. Erin stared at him, and then at Lasica as she came out of the kitchen with a bowl of…Erin stared.
“Pork bits on sweet maple-glazed breaded chicken. Disgustingly unhealthy, but that’s what makes a smile appear on Rufelt’s face. If you have a dish, order it up. I can make anything you want, or close enough. Fancy some wyvern meat? It’s very good fried thin and crispy.”
Lasica was busy slapping Rufelt’s paws away from the toothpicks holding the little steaming bites together. Erin looked from face to face.
“I—I’m so grateful. But I don’t want to impose.”
Both husband and wife chorused. Rufelt snagged one of the chicken bites and swung himself back to his cup. He poured something that looked to Erin like an ale into the see-through glass, and then a deep blue liquid which pooled at the bottom. Rufelt swirled the glass and the blue tornadoed up, somehow staying separate from the rest of the alcohol. He presented it to Erin, and the glass was ice-cold as she touched it.
“A drink and food. For you. You are, after all, a guest.”
“But I’m an [Innkeeper]! I mean, I serve food and drinks all the time. It’s…”
Erin closed her mouth. It felt weird to be someone else’s guest. Rufelt’s eyes twinkled.
“Ah, but that’s Liscor, yes? Here you’re just Erin Solstice, a poor Human girl dragged about by a strange [Bartender] and his [Chef] of a wife.”
Lasica tapped him gently on the brow.
“Besides, even an [Innkeeper] needs a break. And as a rookie to the business, we thought we’d help out.”
Erin looked from smiling face to face. And then, suddenly, she understood. All day she’d been following a crazy Gnoll and Drake about, listening to them convince people to go along with their plan. It seemed like everyone knew Lasica and Rufelt, even if they didn’t say it. And here they were, in their apparently famous bar, tavern, whatever. Offering Erin a drink and food on the house.
That wasn’t the crazy part. The crazy part was…it was exactly like something Erin would have done. Find someone crying on the street, and offer them something to eat. And with that thought Erin looked up and met Lasica’s eyes. She saw the Drake smile, watching her, and Rufelt’s open grin. Erin stared down at the spinning drink in her hand. She didn’t even know she’d picked it up. She took a sip, and the blue tasted like ice and sugar mixed with the strong rum.
And part of the spinning, part of that drink shot down Erin’s throat, making her cough and burn. But as it did, the blue liquid lit up. And something in Erin’s chest began to rise. She took another sip, and felt a smile spread across her face.
“That was a happy drink, wasn’t it?”
Lasica leaned across the bar to look at her husband. He raised an eyebrow.
“And that’s [Comfort Food], isn’t it? Go on, take a bite.”
Erin did. And while her taste buds raved and ranted, she felt warmth spread through her like a hug. She looked up, and the Drake and Gnoll couple were smiling at her.
“You’re no ordinary [Bartender] and [Chef], are you?”
“Some call us magical. But I prefer amazing.”
Lasica winked. And Rufelt poured a drink for himself that foamed up straight out of his mug but never overflowed over the sides, a perfect cylinder of foam. He grinned, and Lasica swept around Erin.
“We’ll have the help in later, but right now you’re all ours. Take a seat. Tell us what’s wrong. And have a snack. This one’s a unique little something I came up with from Baleros. The Gnolls love it. I call them mud bites.”
Erin saw the little ball of peanut butter mixed with chocolate and ate one before she could help it. Then Lasica produced some walnuts—because not everything had to be cooked, Rufelt—and they were sitting with Erin. She looked at them, and wondered if this was how her guests felt. She could only hope so.
The Gnoll leaned over a counter, mug ready to be polished with a cloth because [Bartenders] just had to do something with their hands, and the Drake smiled asking Erin about dishes she knew and came up with. Erin looked around the bar and felt it welcoming her in.
She closed her eyes and smiled. And then opened one suddenly as something the two had said struck her.