6.10

There was darkness. There was stone. And there was a pickaxe. Lit by a plum glow, the dusty steel head rose. The pair of hands gripping it lifted it up, and back. For a moment it rested on a shoulder. Then it swung forwards, an arc gathering speed and weight.

Momentum. The tip of the pickaxe struck the wall. The stone cracked. The sound sent little bugs scurrying. Rockmites. But the green arms paid no attention. The head stayed where it was.

Up the pickaxe swung again. A precise tool, for all its weight. A careless swing could be useless, a waste of energy. But the one who held the pickaxe aimed carefully at the wall.

Ahead and down. There was nothing special about the bend of wall where the miner stood. But he had been breaking into the stone for an hour now. Rocky fragments lay all around him, and he’d cleared the ground around his feet twice. Ahead and down. The glowing purple light of the mana stone, plum in color, told him that. He lifted the pickaxe again and swung it. He was sweating in the darkness. But he felt good. He was working. Working. A novel concept.

“When I was small, I learned to speak by stealing it. I stole words, hiding in the sewers of a town. Far, far north of here. Goblins can live in sewers. We can live everywhere.”

Numbtongue’s voice echoed slightly in his ears. No one replied to him. The Goblin didn’t pause as he swung again, digging out the wall.

“Humans lived above my head. Fighting, arguing, laughing…living. I watched them, sometimes. There was a place right outside the Mage’s Guild. Outside of other guilds too—I would listen there. But it was the Mage’s Guild where I learned all the big words. Sometimes they would argue, or gossip about secrets where they thought no one could hear.”

Again, the pickaxe swung. The stone glowed; was it brighter? Numbtongue thought it was, but if it had, the glow had changed without him noticing. Slowly, like memory changed in the head with time, sneaking up quietly.

“I learned to speak because I thought it would make the Humans listen. That if only they knew I could talk, they would stop hunting us. They knew we were in the sewers. Just not how many. One day they swept the sewers with every adventurer they could muster. [Guards] and [Mercenaries] too. Even [Militia]. Trying to kill us for good.”

Who was he talking to? Himself? That was a waste of breath. Like tears. No proper Goblin would waste air like that. But Numbtongue was a [Bard]. And though there was no one to hear him, he imagined he was telling Erin. As if she were sitting on the ground, trying to pet one of the Rockmites, listening. Just listening.

“I spoke to them, then. Then I shouted. Pleaded and begged. It only made them come after me. I survived. There’s nothing else to say. That was how I met Garen Redfang. He rode down out of the hills. Before he had made the High Passes his permanent base his tribe roamed, until we were too strong to hide and the Gold-rank teams were following us. He saved me and those that fled. That’s how I became a warrior.”

Maybe he was practicing. Trying to tell the Erin in his head before the real thing. Because Numbtongue was still afraid of talking.

“So I don’t talk even though I can. Because Goblins are dumb. We do not talk. I didn’t need to with the others. Now I speak—but it’s still hard. Because I fear…I’m afraid no one will listen.”

Numbtongue turned his head. In his mind, the imaginary Erin smiled at him. But he saw only darkness. The Hobgoblin stood in the cave, feeling sweat sting his eyes. He wiped at his forehead. Shook his head.

“Goblin. Better not talk. Better talk like Goblin. Stupid talking to self.”

The [Bard] grunted to himself. That sounded better, somehow. More like a proper Goblin. But was he behaving like that because that was how the world expected him to be? If Headscratcher were here—

Numbtongue closed his eyes. If he were here, he would have poked Numbtongue in the side and grimaced. And that silent gesture would have been enough. It would have said to Numbtongue—no. Don’t do that. You can speak differently. Better. So do it. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.

“This is why I am a [Bard]. A Goblin of words and music.”

The guitar lay on the ground, out of range of the rocky fragments as they fell to the ground. Numbtongue said nothing more after that. He was saving his words. To talk to Erin. To talk to her tonight, maybe. If she had time. Maybe while she and he had a drink at her bar. At night, when no one else was around. His words were for her. He didn’t feel like sharing them with the others, adventurers, even Lyonette.

That was all Numbtongue wanted. A quiet chat at night around a table. A few minutes, an hour to speak with Erin. If he had that, he could be happy. And he could tell her too, if she invited him. His past, his fears…

And that he thought chess was really boring. And she would laugh, or be angry, and that would be—

Chink.

The sound as the tip of the pickaxe rang was different from all the other times Numbtongue had swung. It was louder. Higher-pitched. He’d hit something different. Instantly, the Goblin stepped back. He stared among the broken pieces of rock and dust. What had he…?

Translucent, white—no, grey. Oozing from the stone, a pale ashy glow. Numbtongue sprang back in alarm. Then he caught himself. It wasn’t a monster. And it wasn’t dangerous. He realized what it was as the memories in his head identified the liquid.

Mana sludge. The liquid slowly ran out of the gap in the wall his pickaxe had made. A slow, dripping substance as thick as paste. But It was semi-translucent, and had an odd, inner sparkling quality. As if little motes of light were caught in the liquid.

Numbtongue stared at it, entranced. But if he’d been Pyrite, the older Hobgoblin would have just sighed and shook his head. Mana sludge. Not good. No one touch. Or drink.

“Raw mana. In stone. Bad stone?”

Numbtongue muttered to himself, figuring out how Pyrite would have phrased it. Mana sludge was the Hobgoblin’s word for it. He was well aware the stuff was magical, but to him it was about as appealing as dirt; hardly worth the effort of collecting. A failed mining expedition, in short.

But Numbtongue wasn’t so certain. He studied the raw mana sludge as it dripped to the ground. Some of the Rockmites scurried closer, and then backed away, probably sensing the magic the stuff held. So did Numbtongue. He reached out and felt the slightest tingle in his fingertips as his fingers were bare millimeters away from the surface of the glowing stuff. He tried to recall all that Pyrite knew of it.

“Let’s see. Can’t eat. Will make Goblins horribly sick—goes straight through system. Comes out as…ergh. Touching not too bad, but depending on the color can be dangerous. This is…fine. Tastes like—did he eat everything he ever found?”

The Hobgoblin shook his head. He prodded the mana sludge and found it was neither warm nor cold. Eerily so in fact; it felt strange on his fingers too. Absolutely none of the mana sludge would stick to his fingers. He could feel it, and it almost felt like incredibly smooth stone on his fingers. But unlike water or other liquids, it stuck to nothing but itself. Numbtongue thought Mrsha would love to play with it.

He summed up Pyrite’s notes in his head. Mana sludge. Inedible. Could come in other colors, but generally this color. Useless to Goblins—children would play with it, but mana sludge was hardly better than actual mud, and given the dangers of eating it compared to mud, Pyrite kept it away from them. He’d found no other uses for it. But he did know of its potential.

Yes, potential. That was why Pyrite left it alone. Give the mana sludge years or decades and it would slowly condense, crystalizing. Into mana stones.

“Ah. Name makes sense now.”

Numbtongue nodded. He stared at the vein. He must have tapped into the top of whatever amount of mana sludge there was, because it had already stopped leaking from the hole. And there was clearly more. He frowned.

Yes, if he came back here in a few years, the mana stone would harden, crystalizing into a vessel imbued with magic. The air would take care of that. But given that there was no other mana source about, it would probably turn into a vein of lightly magical quartz-like mana stone. Plentiful, but hardly potent in terms of mana.

Numbtongue didn’t have years to wait and Pyrite regarded the quartz varieties of mana stones as cheap anyways, so leaving it there didn’t appeal to him. What should he do with it, then?

“Scoop some up. Take it to the [Mages].”

Yes, that was the right choice. Because while Pyrite hadn’t seen much use for the mana sludge before now, he hadn’t ever thought of using it. Mining had been his hobby, and a fairly useless one in his mind until right before his passing. What would he have thought of the stuff now? How might he have used it?

Absently, Numbtongue felt about in his belt pouch. He pulled something out. The light in the caves changed, growing brighter. The purple glow of the mana stone was a consistent light, but it was dim compared to the bright glow of the bright, blue, almost viridian stone Numbtongue held in his hands. He stared at it.

“That’s not a mana stone. This is a mana stone. No. That not mana stone. This is mana stone.”

He smiled as he thought of Pyrite’s reaction to the mana stones used on Erin’s door. He would have called them ‘cheap’. The Hobgoblin only kept the most brilliant of mana stones in his collection, and this one, the brilliant blue stone, had been the one Numbtongue had taken from his mouth. The Hobgoblin studied it.

Pyrite had even known how to cut gems. This one had six facets; it was no perfectly symmetrical stone, but a lopsided gem, that nevertheless sparkled, cut cleanly on all sides and polished. Pyrite had enjoyed cutting stones; he’d even done art, or made dice out of rubies. A tiny emerald marble for a childhood friend that eventually became part of her necklace. She had died. Numbtongue could remember her smile.

The Hobgoblin dropped the glowing blue stone and pressed his hands against his forehead.

“Stop.”

He could remember the young Goblin’s nickname. He tried to push it away, but the memories flooded into his head. Too many, too fast to repress. Stickhair. She always had sticks in her hair. She was a [Scavenger]. She’d been part of Tremborag’s tribe, one of those sent to scavenge or steal as opposed to raid.

Back when he’d been young, Pyrite had been press-ganged into serving as both [Warrior] and [Scavenger]. Later, he’d become a permanent scavenger when they’d found he had a nose for finding pretty gems. The Goblin hadn’t seen the value in the gems that Tremborag loved so much and his lieutenants adorned themselves with, but he’d squirreled one away and carved it into a gem for Stickhair. And she had smiled and he’d been struck with that.

They’d had sex on a day in the middle of fall. She’d jumped on him, and he, young, and passionate, had wanted the same thing. They were still both growing, and both became Hobs around the same time.

The emerald marble was given a small hole for a necklace she wore, and each time Pyrite brought her a new stone, she would smile and sometimes that led to warm nights. Other times she or he would find someone else. They were young. But Pyrite remembered the smell of her teeth, plucking a twig from her—

Stop!

Numbtongue shouted. The cave rang with sound and the memories stopped as he pounded his head against the wall. His head burst with pain and Numbtongue staggered back. But it stopped the memories.

Panting, the Goblin sat down. He stared blankly ahead of him, still remembering another Goblin’s life. His hands shook uncontrollably as he felt at his head.

“Too much. You gave me too much.”

He whispered at Pyrite. He wasn’t angry at him. But that rush of vivid experiences had been too real. The [Bard] sat there, panting, until the soft glow of the two gems and the mana sludge calmed him. He stared at the glowing liquid, felt around on the ground, and picked up the now slightly dusty blue mana stone. Numbtongue stared at it. Then he popped it into his mouth and chewed.

“Ow.”

After a few seconds, Numbtongue spat the mana stone back out. His teeth hurt. The mana stone was way tougher than your average rock. How had Pyrite ever eaten the damn things?

The memories were his gift. The experiences with Stickhair, knowledge of the earth, even information about what everything tasted like and how badly it would mess up your poos—all of it was Pyrite’s gift to Numbtongue. But it was the knowledge of gemstones that the Hobgoblin Chieftain had considered too important to be lost.

What Pyrite had known before his death was this: you could use magic without being a [Mage]. With gemstones. He had consolidated his [Mining Chieftain] class into a [Magestone Chieftain] one. He hadn’t found out the potential of the class, but he had entrusted Numbtongue with the knowledge.

But Numbtongue feared he wasn’t the Goblin that Pyrite was. He didn’t think as deeply. He had not lived as long. And he had no idea how to use the powers of the gemstones, even if he could figure out a way to crunch this one with his teeth.

How would a [Bard] use magical gemstones? How would anyone?

Numbtongue sighed. He wiped the saliva-covered blue gemstone on his clothes, spat out the dirt in his mouth, and had a thought. Maybe…he was doing this wrong.

“Pyrite ate gemstones. But Pyrite was a big eater. I don’t eat rocks. Anymore. So…what do I do?”

Numbtongue’s eyes went to the guitar lying on the ground. A Rockmite was investigating it. The Hobgoblin stood up and the insect fled. He picked up the guitar and ran his claws down the strings.

A guitar. An instrument made by Gnolls, but very similar to the ones in Erin’s world. In fact, he recalled Erin comparing his guitar to one she was familiar with.

“Except, instead of an electric guitar, yours is actually electric, Numbtongue! Uh, don’t play it close to me. I don’t like static electricity.”

He smiled a bit and played a simple chord, plucking the strings with his long fingers. His nails were untrimmed, but Numbtongue had carefully bit them shorter on his playing hand because it made a better sound. Unlike Drakes, Goblins had something closer to Human fingers. Numbtongue had no idea how a Drake would manage a string instrument with their claws and very reptilian nails. He was impressed Gnolls could play, but then, their paws were actually quite dexterous.

“Hmm. Song. Song…”

Numbtongue stared blankly ahead as he searched for a proper tune. Then he had it. His random strumming became intentional. He began to play a quick, snappy tune. And the sound that came from his guitar changed.

[Electric Chords]. No [Lightning Melody] because Numbtongue didn’t want to call down lightning in the cave, even if he could. But the sound the guitar gave out crackled, and the chords changed to something almost approaching the crackling of thunder.

The silent cave filled with sound as Numbtongue began to play faster. It was a self-taught riff; everything he played was self-taught, actually. He’d learned a number of songs from Erin’s home, but he’d had to come up with the melodies based on her vague humming. Numbtongue played low on the chords, an echoing beat.

He was trying to call on the power of the stone resting on top of the guitar. Numbtongue could see the gemstone glowing, a bright viridian. But was it glowing brighter? Was he calling on the magic?

Time to really play. The Hobgoblin’s fingers danced faster. And a different kind of light began to fill the cave.

Flashes of bright lightning. Sparks of electricity shot from the chords as Numbtongue played them, lighting up the cave in flashes of light. The simple strings flashed with blue lightning, lighting up the guitar. The Rockmites in the area scurried away in alarm.

Numbtongue grinned wildly. The cave rolled with sound for a minute. Then five. His playing reached a fever’s pitch. He began the most complex solo he, knew, and the sound roared. And the gem—

Did nothing. Numbtongue stopped, looking at the blue gemstone with a miffed expression. He prodded it hopefully.

Nothing. Okay. Well, that was a new piece of information. Music was not the answer. At least, music from his guitar wasn’t doing anything to the stone. Numbtongue sighed, and looked around.

“Maybe just ask the [Mages] what the mana stones do. Why didn’t I do that earlier? Oh. I don’t like Pisces. Or Falene.”

Too much sniffing and rolling of the eyes. And that superior tone. Numbtongue grumbled to himself. He actually liked Revi, though. Moore scared him. Ceria was…attractive. Anyone who knew what bugs tasted like was attractive to Goblins. But Numbtongue, er, liked her dirty blonde hair, it not being a color among Goblin hair. As for Typhenous—

Gah!

Numbtongue’s foot suddenly encounter a jolt and went numb. He leapt backwards, swearing, and stared at what his foot had just touched. What was—

The mana sludge? The mana sludge had shocked him! The Hobgoblin stared at it. The little puddle of liquid had just given him a jolt of electricity! Why? And—was it…yellower?

Yes! It was! In fact, it was now a very light yellow, and Numbtongue could swear the little lights caught in the liquid were now moving faster. Almost as if…he squinted, keeping his face back from the liquid. Almost as if there were tiny jolts of lightning running through the stuff now.

Slowly, curiously, Numbtongue reached out. He hesitated, but he’d already touched it once. So, carefully he brought his finger closer, closer—

About two inches away from the mana sludge, Numbtongue saw a blue bolt of electricity arc out of the stuff and hit his finger. He jerked his hand back, swearing. It was electrified! He’d just gotten another jolt!

Shocking stuff. Numbtongue sat back, rubbing his ironically numb finger and foot and thinking. Well, he’d just turned the mana sludge into another variant Pyrite was familiar with. If the mana sludge was different colors, it had different effects. For instance, the Hobgoblin had once found a red variant of the stuff that had been so hot he could set fires with it. He’d had a wonderful time using it as an impromptu fire starter until an unfortunate incident with a forest…

“Electricity. Guitar. [Electric Chords]. Mana sludge.”

Numbtongue stared at the stuff. He stared at his guitar, and the chords which no longer sparked with lightning. Then he stared at the mana sludge. He grinned. He was going to need a jar. And…gloves.

 

—-

 

The tavern was called Tails and Scales. Or maybe it was a pub. Erin wasn’t one for socializing in either, so she had no idea what the difference was. Nor did she like beer, a fact that had vaguely offended some of her friends. And her father. But Erin liked the drink in front of her. It was some kind of rum mixed with a sweet, chilled liquid that was separate from the rum. Every time Erin took a gulp, it ran down her throat, burning and sweet.

A bit of food went in her stomach as well. Bits of chicken, breaded and glazed, sprinkled with bits of crunchy pork. Each bite was delectable and Erin felt it warming her up. But the food didn’t settle in her stomach or weigh her down; it anything, she felt more awake with each bite.

It was probably thanks to a Skill. And the drink was doing something to Erin’s mood as well. Each gulp made her feel better. She looked across the bar at a Gnoll with black fur streaked a bit with grey. He was a [Bartender]. Rufelt. And sitting next to Erin was Lasica, a [Chef]. The two were a married couple. They’d dragged Erin about the city before revealing they owned a very popular establishment. In the same business as Erin.

And they’d called her a rookie. Erin was half-fixed on that, half-frowning over something she’d realized, and a third half was listening to a commotion outside. Someone was shouting—several someones, actually.

“Wait, rookie?

Erin looked at Rufelt. The Gnoll grinned at her, baring his teeth in a Gnoll’s smile.

“Oops. Lasica my dear, you might have offended Erin.”

“There’s nothing offensive about speaking the truth. Give me the bright pink stuff with that Balerosian white you did up last night.”

The Drake woman looked unconcerned as she pointed across the bar. Rufelt fetched a proper wineglass out, filled it with a white wine, and then added a shot of a vibrant pink liquid from a glass container. Erin blinked. The glass container had a spigot, also made of glass. And it was one of a row of similar vessels, all containing different liquids. All probably alcoholic. Some were glowing. One was resting on the top of the container, and it had been flipped upside down.

“Here you are. A Jungleblood Sunrise. I wish you’d remember the names.”

Lasica shrugged. She snagged the glass as it spun down the slick counter past Erin. The white wine (which was in fact slightly yellow and green, in defiance of proper sense) and pink liquid were spinning together. The Drake rolled her eyes as she drank half and sighed, visibly relaxing.

“Ancestors, that’s nice. But you know I don’t remember any of the silly names you and your bartending friends come up with. Can I get another? Iced?”

Erin opened her mouth to protest. Several things, in fact, but Rufelt was faster. He snagged another wineglass from behind him as he spun, filled the glass with pink stuff in the same motion, and then pulled open a drawer behind the bar. Erin blinked. Ice cubes, or rather, ice chunks since they weren’t nearly as tidy in form as cubes, appeared in the wine glass. The white wine poured on top and the glass spun past Erin again.

Literally spinning. She watched as the pink liquid swirled up and the wine downwards, forming a vortex around the ice. The glass came to rest perfectly in front of Lasica, contents still spinning in a miniature vortex. She did not look impressed.

“What is it with you and spinning your drinks, recently?”

The Gnoll sighed.

“It looks like a lot of fun. And it is! And it’s not my ‘bartending friends’, love of my life. It’s all [Bartenders]. I didn’t invent the name; a Balerosian [Bartender] came up with Jungleblood Sunrise herself. A pity, because I would have called it something less confusing.”

“Mm. Why do they call it that? This is hardly the color of blood.”

Lasica pointed to the pink and greenish-yellow liquid.

“Uh, excuse me—”

Erin broke off, because she wanted to know the answer. Rufelt shrugged.

“Apparently it’s not referring to blood, but a type of flower. You see, it weeps it’s…what would you call the stuff in flowers? Nectar? No, the wet stuff. Anyways, it weeps it in the morning, so when the sun rises, it catches the light and looks quite similar to that. Pink on yellow and green.”

“Fascinating. Also, completely pointless.”

Lasica drained her first glass and started on the second. Erin stared between her and Rufelt as he sighed. She waved a hand and both looked at her. Rufelt grinned sheepishly.

“Excuse me, Erin. We sometimes get lost in ourselves. We’re not used to company before the bar opens.”

“Oh, no problem. Uh—a few questions. First, rookie? Second, I’m not used to people being nice to me and feeding me. That’s my job. Third, we call putting alcohol in ice ‘on the rocks’ where I come from. Do you do that? And fourth—is that stuff floating upside down? Is—is it antigravity alcohol? I’m fine with any of these questions being answered, by the way.”

Both Rufelt and Lasica looked at the upside-down liquid Erin was pointing to. They paused as they considered Erin’s questions. Rufelt eyed his wife. She eyed him back, and her tail wagged a bit, although her lips only moved up slightly. Rufelt stroked his chin thoughtfully.

“On the rocks? Hm. I like that. I think I’ll use that from now on. It has a…good sound to it, yes? And that is one of my magical liquids. I’m not sure about er, anti-gravity, but it floats! It’ll go straight up and it’s a devil to mix with drinks unless you can do it right. Want a taste?”

Can I? Wait, how do I drink it?”

“Let’s find out, shall we?”

Lasica rolled her eyes as Rufelt snagged another tumbler. She leaned over to Erin, smiling a bit. She still had quite a presence, and Erin wondered if all middle-aged Drakes were like that. Tekshia was certainly intimidating, although she was even more no-nonsense and somewhat abrasive, too.

“We didn’t intend to drag you around, Erin. I apologize again for that, but we had good cause. We did want to meet you—that was always part of the plan. As for taking care of you, well, why not?”

“But that’s my job.”

Erin protested weakly. Rufelt was mixing two liquids in the tumbler before he approached the upside-down stuff. He paused there and took a breath. Lasica watched him with Erin.

“So? We see someone in distress, we usually invite them in for a drink. Especially if it looks like they’re having a bad day. Like you. I could practically sense that you needed some of my pick-me-up food. Have another bite, by the way. It’s [Comfort Food], designed to help. But save your appetite; I’ll make you a splendid lunch. Rufelt, you’d better not spill that! What was it, eight gold per fluid ounce?”

Eight—

Erin stared at the liquid in horror. But Rufelt only glared mildly back at his wife.

“Thank you for reminding me. Just give me one second. And here—”

His hand blurred. Erin saw the tumbler go up, and the half-filled liquid turn upside down. But before gravity could take effect, the spigot opened and a splash, just a splash of the upside-down liquid (bronze, semi-transparent, and quite quick), came flying upwards. It mixed with the other liquid and Rufelt twisted the tumbler right-side up.

“Mixing.”

He had a strange metal rod about the size of a thermometer in his paw. He stirred the drink vigorously, and then placed it on the bar and slid it towards Erin. She stared at the liquid—the drink was close to black.

“It’s basic, strong, and a bit sour. You don’t have to finish it, but mixing sugary stuff with the Dwarfrain isn’t something I want to do. But if you’re going to take a sip, make it quick.”

Rufelt advised Erin. She stared at him, and then realized the liquid in the cup was rising up!

“It’s floating!”

“Well, what did you expect?”

“But how do I…”

Erin didn’t bother to wait for a reply. She lifted the cup, and the rising liquid floated up towards her lips. She sipped the stuff, made a face because it was strong and bitter, like one of those stupid lagers that Bevussa liked, and then gagged.

“Itsh!”

“Keep swallowing. Don’t let it win! It’ll give up after a second.”

Lasica laughed as Erin’s throat tried to force the liquid down and it kept coming back up. At first Erin was horribly reminded of throwing up, but then it was actually sort of fun—until the liquid lost whatever was keeping it floating and it went straight down her throat. She began coughing as Lasica patted her on the back.

“Fun, isn’t it? Rufelt has a collection of these silly drinks. He’s not just a [Bartender], after all. He’s got an advanced version of the class.”

“Agh! It burns! What do you mean, advanced version? What class is it?”

“That would be telling, I’m afraid.”

Rufelt snagged the tumbler and took drink of the liquid threatening to float past Erin’s head. She let him have it; one sip was enough.

“Telling classes is a bit too personal for people we’ve just met. Even an [Innkeeper] in the same line of work. But I’ll tell you for nothing that both he and I have…rare versions of our class. The kind you only get past Level 30. And so do you, I imagine. Rookie.”

Lasica offered Erin a sip of her drink. Erin took it, coughed again, and sighed.

“That’s good. I’m not a rookie! Am I?”

“You might have a lot of levels, Miss Human. But you seem like one to us. And it’s not about levels. Here. I know you can probably drink anything I serve all day and all night—my [Bartender]’s senses are telling me you’re probably immune to my alcohol—but have this.”

Erin blinked at the next cup that appeared in front of her. She sniffed it, tasted it experimentally and found…it was water. She began drinking it down as Lasica offered her another peanut butter and chocolate ball.

“Snack?”

“That’s chocolate. Where’d you get that? No one I talked to knew anything about it.”

The Drake blinked in surprise. Rufelt blinked as he cleaned the finished cups.

“You know about chocolate? Well, color me impressed. This came right from Baleros. A new thing—well, relatively. We’ve had cocoa for ages, but some [Chef] over there started experimenting, and, well, I got some with my latest shipment. We’ve a deal that sends goods straight from a [Merchant] in Baleros to the city. One of the things you need to acquire. Rookie.”

Erin blinked at Lasica. She opened her mouth, and the Drake popped a piece of her breaded chicken in there. Erin blinked, at first with mild outrage, but then she realized Lasica was treating her like a kid. Rather than make her mad, it was almost pleasant. There was something affectionate in Lasica’s teasing tone. And she was twice Erin’s age. Then Erin thought about what she’d said.

“Wait, a trade route from Baleros? That has to be…”

“Thousands of miles? Difficult to get someone to regularly ship from the ports all the way to Pallass? Expensive? If your answer was all of the above, that’s only half of the problems. Whenever the Drowned Men start raiding ships, or there’s a war, we get cut off.”

“Which is why we have a huge store of everything Lasica and I need in a part of Melinni’s private warehouse. The one we didn’t show you and not many people know about. That’s something else you need. I’d say a warehouse or some kind of area with runes of preservation first, right Lasica? Connections second.”

“Oh, agreed. Here’s what most [Innkeepers] we know agree on, Erin. The ones who’re actually smart, anyways. First you need to lock down a healthy supply of food. Not just enough for next week, but for months. Enough rare ingredients to weather any storm. Of course, you’ll expand your inventory slowly—”

Rufelt held up a cautioning paw.

“—don’t rush your rare ingredients. We did that once and sold for far too little. Focus on, say, a basement with runes of preservation and basics, like milk, grain, meat—enough for six months based purely off that. It is vital in case the supply of food plummets.”

“How?”

Erin couldn’t imagine that happening in a city like Pallass, with huge storehouses full of preserved food. Lasica grimaced.

“Easier than you think. Melinni’s got runes of preservation, but they don’t stop insects. In fact, fresh meat makes it worse. You can still contaminate food—it just stays preserved, which means entire batches of meat we thought were good can be off if, say, the cattle were all sick. And in times of plague, or general famine…”

“Pallass can feed itself, but with a million mouths, it still has to ration. And it does not open its gates to other cities. It couldn’t if it wanted to. There are simply too many mouths out there. I wish we had more storehouses, but Melinni and Pallass’ [Quartermasters] are working off of centuries of investment. So food first. At the very least, you won’t be short of meat or so on during the winter. Oh, and stock up on firewood. I hear that’s an issue around Liscor.”

Rufelt sighed. Erin looked between him and Lasica. The shouting from outside was still going on. Someone was shouting for the Watch.

“Um. I have a basement full of corpses, so I don’t know about the basement thing. But I have a [Field of Preservation] around my inn—”

What?

Lasica shot up in her chair. She stared at Erin and then at her husband. Rufelt’s jaw dropped open. The next moment he was glancing at the door. He leaned forwards and Erin leaned back a bit at the expression his face.

“A word of advice, Erin? Don’t mention that again. There are people who would target you for that Skill alone.”

“Field of—that is such a cheap Skill—”

Lasica groaned and covered her face with her claws. She looked at Rufelt.

“Imagine how much gold we could have saved with that! And how many accidental—the number of times we’ve had a rune scratched and not noticed it, I can’t count!”

Rufelt nodded. He looked at Erin seriously.

“I appreciate the trust, but I don’t think that was trust so much as naiveté, Miss Erin. Be warned; we could have been the wrong couple to tell that to.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”

Erin blushed. Rufelt was scolding her, albeit gently. The Gnoll nodded, still half-frowning.

“No other mention of Skills, either. I’d hate for a wagging tail or tongue to reveal something truly important.”

“Basement full of corpses?”

Lasica had caught onto the first bit Erin had said. She stared at Erin. The [Innkeeper] gulped.

“I’m not a serial killer! I uh, just have a Selphid guest—”

“—and she wants to store bodies in your inn. That’s fairly ingenious. Melinni actually had a similar offer, but she wasn’t about to have dead bodies lying next to her merchandise. But in an inn? If you were in Baleros, I’d first ask how much you wanted to be the Selphid-only inn. But if you were fine with that, you could make a fortune just renting your place out to dead bodies. But that’s a specialized type of [Innkeeper] I don’t think you want to get into.”

The Drake [Chef] shook her head. Erin hesitated.

“Wait, so what kind of [Innkeeper] do you think I should be? Because I’m…er…well, I can’t say, but I’m something.”

Rufelt eyed Erin.

“Hm. A class consolidation? That means you’re at least Level 20. No—don’t correct me.”

Lasica nodded. There was a slight flush to her cheek scales, whether from excitement or the drink, Erin couldn’t tell.

“This is all above-board advice, Erin. We like you, but we’ve known you for about an hour. So let’s continue down the list, shall we, Rufelt? First storage. You should invest in some runes of preservation. They’re worth three or four times the gold you spend, even if it’s a pain to get an [Enchanter]. And if some Ancestors-damned, lucky [Innkeeper] gets an entire field of—

She put her head down on the bar. Rufelt patted his wife on the arm and took over.

“You might have levels, Miss Solstice, but an inn, tavern, or any establishment like ours thrives on more than that. You need to be original. From what I understand, your magic door is a first step there, but you should cultivate some signature dishes. Lasica and I boast the widest variety of dishes in Pallass, mainly because of our Balerosian ingredients. Plus, alcohol and dinner being prepared by experts in the field is a tough combination to beat.”

“Even if a certain [Innkeeper] can give his clientele a night worthy of any [Lord] in a Terandrian mansion for a fraction of the price.”

Lasica grumbled under her breath. She sat upright, sighing.

“But I mean what I said about finding a connection. Ours was a chance meeting, but we sprang on the opportunity to have a highly-leveled friend in Baleros. And it’s paid off for us—and him. Cultivate friends. Your clientele is a good place to start, but there are always people looking out to make strong friends, and an [Innkeeper] as famous as you might start getting some offers. Be careful of whom you trust.”

“But don’t turn down a good opportunity. We could have been affiliated with one of the largest Gnoll tribes in the continent if we hadn’t let that opportunity slip us by.”

Rufelt sighed. Erin’s head swiveled from him to his wife. She felt like she needed to write this all down!

“What’s next, Rufelt?”

“Security? Guests. Hrm…ah, investing money.”

“Right! Security. You want—”

There he is, officer! Walking around, just like that! Arrest him! It shouldn’t be allowed! There are children on the streets! I don’t care if he’s—

A loud voice from outside cut the Drake off. She frowned at the door then shook her head.

“Ah. I think I know who that is.”

“Who?”

Erin peered at the door. There were glass windows, and she could see a crowd gathered outside. The loud voice had come from right outside the door, and Erin saw several of Pallass’ [Guardsmen] escorting someone past them. Guardsmen for a reason, as it turned out. Erin saw a figure in the center of them, being pushed forwards. Two of the [Guardsmen] were holding a blanket up, but it slipped and she caught a glimpse of…

“Aw.”

“Dead gods!”

“Hey.”

Erin and Rufelt recoiled, the girl in shock, the Gnoll in disgust. Lasica just raised her brows.

The Drake being arrested was very naked. He had dusky yellow scales, and he was slim. Erin could hear him protesting loudly to the [Guardsmen].

“I just misplaced my clothes! It was an accident! I would have put them on. Eventually.”

The [Sergeant], or whomever was leading the group glared at his ward, making sure only to meet his eyes.

“Yeah, yeah. How many times is this? Come on, you’re spending another night in the cells. Move it along people! Nothing to see here.”

There was a burst of laughter from outside and the [Sergeant] flushed. A female voice—a Gnoll, in fact, shouted loudly.

“There’s everything to see! This is absurd! Disgraceful…”

Erin stared as the nudist Drake was finally taken out of view. She turned to Lasica. She looked amused and resigned. Rufelt was just shaking his head.

“Who was that? Or what was that? No, wait. My question is: is that normal?”

“Only if he’s about.”

Rufelt grumbled to himself. Lasica nodded. With a mix of shame and twisted civic pride, she pointed at the door.

“Erin, that was our resident Named Adventurer who just got arrested. Saliss of Lights. I’d explain, but…okay, security. You want at least a few good [Bouncers], [Guards], or whatever. I heard a rumor you’ve got Hobgoblins working at your inn?”

“I—I did. I only have one now. But hold on, that was—”

Okay. Well, you want someone. Even if you have Skills, you want someone. That goes for staffing as well. Finding a good support [Barmaid] or [Barkeep], or someone to take up the slack really helps. I suppose it’s less pressing for you since you are an [Innkeeper]—”

“A Named Adventurer? And he’s a stripper?”

“That would imply he normally has clothes. Right. I don’t know if you know this, Erin, but [Innkeeper] is a generalist class in a sense. You see, it’s not like a [Bartender]. Rufelt has some overlap with your job, but his area of influence and tasks are more specialized. So he’ll make far better alcohol than you, but he doesn’t have a skill that affects the entire tavern. Or gives him a stupid field.”

“But I can make some fantastic drinks. And some of them have effects. Like the one I gave you at the start. I can cheer someone up, make a drink that gives energy or knocks someone out, and I can even handle liquids that normal bartenders can’t. For instance, a Level 20 [Bartender] couldn’t even mix that floating drink I gave you.”

Erin stared at both husband and wife. She looked at the door, pointed at it, and gave up. The Drake and Gnoll stared at her, friendly, helpful for no other reason than…they were good people. And utterly determined not to answer any questions about the naked Named Adventurer. Erin sighed.

“Okay. Fine. What about guests? And uh, do you have a piece of paper?”

 

—-

 

“…and a dedicated clientele is important. You can be open to all, like we are, but you’d better be the best. From what you’ve said, it sounds like you want adventurers as your main revenue base, is that right?”

“I…I mean, it’d be nice.”

An hour later, Erin’s head hurt, but she had two full pages of cramped and slightly blotched notes from all Rufelt and Lasica had told her. They were full of tips, and Erin had realized she was full of questions.

“I didn’t know there was so much to know. I mean, about being an [Innkeeper]. I just got my class from cleaning a room. In an inn, obviously, but still. I had no idea how much I’ve missed.”

Rufelt laughed lightly.

“There’s nothing you need to know about being an [Innkeeper], Erin. That’s why you’ve done so well. But there’s experience, tips from others. And somehow, we doubted the [Innkeepers] in Liscor or Celum had been helping you out.”

Lasica nodded, absently reading over Erin’s shoulder.

“Adventurers travel about, which is a problem, but your door solves some of that. But you do need better security. And your golem idea is novel, I’ll grant you, but it is a pricey investment. And if you break one, that’s a lot of gold gone in a moment. Just look into some [Guards].”

“Got it. Maybe the Antinium?”

Lasica and Rufelt shuddered. Erin looked up.

“They’re nice! Really!”

“I find that very hard to believe. But then, I lived through the Antinium Wars. I do hear the Hive around Liscor is different from the rest. But let’s just say I won’t test that theory.”

“I’m going to bring Pawn through to Pallass someday. With Numbtongue. And Mrsha too, I guess. Uh—okay, that’s written down.”

Lasica squinted at the parchment.

“If you say so. Your handwriting is atrocious.”

“Hey, I’m drunk!”

“No you’re not.”

“…You’re right. Okay, what about the innkeepers? Why wouldn’t they help me?”

Lasica and Rufelt exchanged a look.

“Ooh. She doesn’t know, Lasica. In that case, we should probably introduce her later.”

“To the good [Innkeepers] in Pallass, at least. For another day.”

Erin waved a hand in front of their faces. She didn’t mind the husband-wife talk they did, or the fact that Lasica’s tail twined around Rufelt when they stood together, but—okay, it was obnoxious sometimes.

“Know what?

“Innkeepers talk amongst each other. That includes tavern owners and people who manage hostels, and so on, by the way. It depends on where you are and who you know, but I could, say, get in touch with someone in Celum if I had an issue that extended there.”

Lasica explained matter-of-factly to Erin. Rufelt nodded.

“It’s all informal—nothing like the Merchant’s Guild or Mage’s Guild or so on—but it does exist. In some cities, [Innkeepers] work together. Like in Celum.”

“Liscor’s not like that. But they do share something. And we know this because both groups don’t like you very much. Celum especially.”

Lasica sighed. Erin blinked at them. She remembered Miss Agnes mentioning there was a group of [Innkeepers] in Celum, but it had slipped her mind. Rufelt nodded sympathetically.

“They might cause you trouble, but you shouldn’t worry too much, yes? You have a magic door and they don’t. Just bear it in mind.”

“Great. Something else to write down. Thank you, by the way.”

Erin grumbled to herself. Lasica laughed lightly. She looked at Erin, and then at the window.

“Hm. We’re into early evening. Almost time to open up. And I need another drink.”

“Water for you. You need to cook Erin one proper meal and one more drink would make you too tipsy for your best. Besides, we have a business to run tonight.”

Sternly, Rufelt handed Lasica a glass of water. She sighed, but sipped from it. Erin looked at the two.

“No, seriously. This is so helpful. Thanks for being so nice. And I—I didn’t do anything to deserve it.”

“Besides save a city? Besides building your inn from practically nothing? Don’t be silly, girl.”

Lasica walked past Erin. She had a wet cloth in hand and she was polishing something in the center of the room. Tails and Scales was very bar-focused, but it had a number of tables. And, Erin had overlooked this, one of the tables in the center of the room was quite strange. It had no chairs around it and the top was flat and black. And it was a solid block, not a table at all, in fact. Erin stared as Lasica checked something, opening a door in the side of the black…whatever it was.

“But—still. Thank you. No one’s been so nice to me before. I should—I mean, I can’t pay you, but I’ll return the favor—”

Erin stammered. She caught Rufelt looking at her oddly. Lasica just shook her head and turned to filling the door with something. Wait. Coal? But Erin was looking at Rufelt’s odd expression.

“What?”

“Erin Solstice. We don’t want money. And you may consider this a favor, but we would rather you didn’t. We did this because we wanted to meet you. Even without that, if I had seen you crying on the street, I would have done just this. Do I need a reason to make you a drink?”

The Gnoll looked at Erin. The young woman hesitated.

“No. Of course not. It’s just…it’s been so long since I met someone who just wanted to…help me.”

Rufelt’s eyes widened a bit. He looked up and Erin knew he was meeting his wife’s eyes.

“Has it really been that long?”

“No. Yes. I’ve met great people. Who helped me out a lot. The Horns, the Halfseekers…but they’re guests. The last time someone just…helped me when I was in pain was—maybe it was Klbkch and Relc?”

A soft intake of breath from behind Erin.

“The Slayer and the Gecko of Liscor?”

Erin laughed at that. She felt incredibly sad and welcomed at the same time.

“No. Just Relc and Klbkch! Klbkch was—he gave me a healing potion for my hand. And Relc? He’s a jerk, and a good guy sometimes. And I think he’s better. He killed the closest thing Numbtongue had to a father and Klbkch is really mean to Pawn. But they helped me without asking for anything. So did Krshia, but that was back then. Since then I help people. I have friends.”

“But you’re the one who supports them most of the time, isn’t that so?”

“I guess.”

Erin looked down at the bar’s countertop. It was very smooth. Very beautiful wood. She heard a footstep, and then felt a light touch on her shoulder. Lasica looked down at her.

“That’s what an [Innkeeper] is. They give shelter to their guests. The best ones do more. I’ve never wanted the job. A [Cook] only has to do one thing. A [Barkeep]’s job ends with their shift. I think you need a break, Erin.”

“I do. I know.”

Erin stared down at her inky, messy notes. A paw reached out and gently tugged them away from her. Rufelt put them behind him.

“Well, Erin. Consider this an invitation. Whenever you wish, for whatever reason, you may leave your inn and come here. Don’t worry about debts or payment. When you need someone to look after you, come here. You’ll always be welcome in Tails and Scales.”

“What he said.”

Erin looked up at a smiling Drake face. She saw Rufelt leave the bar. And her eyes overflowed. But they weren’t bad tears. She was just a bit overwhelmed. Just a bit tired. So Erin cried at the bar as Rufelt panicked a bit and Lasica found her a warm towel to wipe her face on. Then there was another comforting drink.

And the tavern opened. By the time the first Drake [Barkeep], one of Rufelt’s apprentices, came in, Erin’s tears were dried. Two [Servers], a Gnoll and Drake joined the mix. All of them introduced themselves to Erin.

“This is my apprentice, Usshi.”

Rufelt introduced the [Barkeep], who gave Erin a smile that made you want to smile back. And the two [Barmaids]. People were already waiting at the door when the Gnoll [Server]—a class for someone who was just starting out their career in that area—opened the door.

“Erin Solstice. We meet again.”

The young woman blinked at Maughin and several of his fellow [Smiths] and apprentices. She stood up to greet him, then Xif, and to Lasica’s displeasure, Melinni. They’d all come to talk more about the Pallass issue, but after a quick discussion where Lasica leaned in, they didn’t invite Erin. They filled the tables, talking to Lasica as more Drakes, Gnolls, Dullahans, and even a Garuda couple came in.

Some were [Mages]. Others [Scribes], [Weavers], [Potters], and others that Lasica and Rufelt knew by name. There was even a [Hauler] who’d reached such a high level that he’d become a [Cargomaster]. The Garuda pair were [Aerial Dancers]. Erin met them all. Rufelt served drinks, some plain shots, others glowing, magical, wine and spirits and occasionally, juice.

He did it quickly, with a flourish, sometimes suggesting a change in the order that was always accepted. He knew his customers. And he was flawless—except for his fondness for spinning the drinks about. He only stopped that when Maughin complained about the third in a row.

And then Lasica started cooking some appetizers, or an early dinner. She didn’t go into the kitchen. Rather, the kitchen came to her. A [Line Cook] came in to learn from her, and Erin saw why.

“A hibachi grill!”

“A hot plate table. Hands off.”

Lasica corrected Erin. She had been throwing coal into the furnace at the bottom of the table, and now she lit it. Erin stared as she tossed some oil on the table, and then some thin strips of meat. Almost at once they began to cook and she flipped them onto a plate.

“It’s—but—how? That’s from where I am! How did you—”

Rufelt grinned at Erin’s face.

“If there was ever a way to burn their food, Drakes would surely find it. Just be glad Lasica’s not cooking flambé. And order what you want! She can cook you up a wonderful bowl of these noodles, with some meat and fried vegetables…”

“C-can I have an egg?”

Lasica laughed. Erin had her egg. She had a lot of food, actually. Her stomach seemed to have forgotten its usual dimensions as she ate Lasica’s hot, delicious food greedily. And she found herself sitting next to Maughin, then Xif, and then others, talking to them. Not as an [Innkeeper] did to the guests, but as someone with all the time on their hands to pester Maughin about what was under his armor, or ask Xif about magical food, a topic he was only too happy to work with her on.

Erin laughed as Rufelt showed off at his bar, serving a flaming drink to a brave Gnoll, and then a crowd favorite—an alcohol that turned the entire glass invisible too. They let him make six drinks and then searched for them. Erin found one and it turned her tongue green as a bonus surprise.

And then the Dullahan walked in. Not one of Maughin’s [Smith] friends. Her armor was ceramic, painted white and green, and very beautiful. And she held a cello.

“Ah. Our [Cellist]. I almost forgot we’d asked her to come in tonight.”

Maughin leaned over the bar. Erin stared as the Dullahan musician set up. There was a little stand for her head with a pillow, a stool, and she was ready. She sat at a corner of the tavern, almost like an afterthought.

Until she began to play. And Erin realized she had a Skill. There were other instruments playing with the Dullahan. But she was alone, and the song that filled the tavern was slow and beautiful.

It changed the atmosphere of the room. From energetic, the room grew thoughtful. And then Lasica abandoned her grill. She let the [Line Cook] take over, and Rufelt stepped out from behind his bar. They moved to a clear spot in the room and began to dance.

They weren’t the only ones. The Garuda got up, and so did some other couples. Erin looked around. She saw the Dullahan [Cellist] play on as the tables and chairs were pushed back. The Drakes and Gnolls danced slowly, not with skill for most part, but just lost in each other. The music invited that kind of slow, quiet moment. Those who didn’t dance just sat back, drinks in hand, or ate quietly, savoring the music.

On her stand, the Dullahan’s eyes were closed. Her body played on. Erin envied the quiet, serene look on her face. And she envied the way Lasica and Rufelt smiled at each other as they occupied the center of their home.

“Doesn’t it make you jealous? As Gnoll and Drake couples go, theirs is one of the most famous in Pallass. Everyone knows of Tails and Scales. Normally you have to be invited to come in by a regular.”

Erin looked around. Usshi, the young [Barkeep], was serving drinks. She looked at Erin.

“A drink?”

“Oh—what should I get? Uh…”

Erin didn’t want to ask for something that would require Rufelt. Usshi waved a claw.

“Ask me for anything. Rufelt has a Skill that passes on some of his talents to me. [Bartender’s Gift] or something. I only hope I won’t need it. And you don’t need to pay anyways. How about something cold? Have you seen this?”

The Drake pulled a tumbler out and filled with some rum and juice it before Erin could protest. And then she went over to a counter in the back of the bar. Erin stared as she placed the tumbler of alcohol on it. Erin saw the sides of the tumbler frost over—the [Barkeep] took it off and quickly handed it to Erin.

“Ice-cold. And just wait—”

She pointed. To Erin’s astonishment, the alcohol hadn’t turned entirely to ice. Rather, it had become a slushy. Usshi handed Erin a spoon and wooden straw. And Erin nearly cried again because it was from home. And she stayed in the tavern, drinking, eating, talking. And for one evening, Erin forgot she was an [Innkeeper].

 

—-

 

Numbtongue eventually got the electrified mana sludge into an empty bottle with a big cork with the help of some gloves, a small spade to shovel the liquid into the jar, and a lot of patience. And some shocks. But he didn’t mind the effort. He was pleased with himself. So pleased, that on the way to the inn and back he didn’t notice the change in the cave. But on his final trip out, he sensed it.

The Rockmites were agitated. They were scurrying up and down the walls. And when Numbtongue passed through their main nest for the third time they turned towards him.

The Hobgoblin froze. Too late, he realized that his performance with the guitar, not to mention the electricity, maybe even the mining, had upset the insects. They had ignored him earlier, but now they were registering him as a threat. They scuttled off the walls and onto the ground.

Run. Or fight. If he could call down lightning here, he could probably fry them all if he didn’t collapse the cave or hit himself. But as Numbtongue was reaching for the guitar and sword he carried, he hesitated. The Rockmites were agitated. But this was their home. Was he going to kill them? He had intruded here.

He looked down at the jar of liquid magic stone he’d wrapped up as the Rockmites advanced on him. It was his. The Rockmites had no need for it. He’d made this. In a way—he’d mined it out of rock, with Pyrite’s memories and the help of Erin’s door and the Rockmites—but even so, Numbtongue had stolen this from no one.

It was one of the first things Numbtongue had ever made without stealing. Besides that, and music. Was he going to taint it by killing?

“No.”

The word made the Rockmites hesitated. They were advancing in a rolling wave, preparing to surround the Hobgoblin, engulf him in one movement. They held back as he set his burdens down and lifted his guitar. But the chords did not flash with electricity. Numbtongue played slowly. The music was quiet, gentle, not like the hard thunder of earlier.

Because he was no thief. Not a killer. Not even scaring. Not here. Not today.

The song that filled the cave was a soft tune at first. Soft, gentle plucking on the strings. So soothing that even the Rockmites sensed something was different. They held back, waiting, confused. And then Numbtongue began to sing.

 

“It was a flash of white waving

We followed her together

Laughing as if we knew

My brothers came to rest in the mud.”

 

The tune was slow to come out just right, the words painful. And he played to insects who knew nothing of him. But it didn’t matter. They held still. And Numbtongue sang, as he could only do when he was alone. To them, to himself.

 

“Blood has long spilled

Now and then, again

I’m tired, so I’m asking

When will we stop?”

 

They approached him, and drew away. The Hobgoblin bent, and they scuttled back. He tried to make them understand. He was a [Bard]. If he couldn’t play to all species, both monsters, and people, what point was there?

 

“I came here not to harm you

Or for you to hurt me, listen;

A Goblin asks for peace. Will you agree?”

 

They did not respond. How could they? Maybe they didn’t even understand. But as Numbtongue kept playing, he walked forwards. He sang, and the Rockmites backed up.

The lyrics didn’t match the tune on the guitar. The pacing was off. Numbtongue improvised the forth verse. And the fifth. But it didn’t matter. He knew this song by heart.

It was the same song as he’d sung in the inn. It wasn’t about the words. It was the message.

Peace. At least for the moment.

The Rockmites probably barely thought, and they might not even hear Numbtongue’s words as such. But they listened, an audience as he sang a universal song. And they let him go.

If you were cynical, you could have said they were just confused by the music, wary of Numbtongue with guitar in hands. But if you believed, as Numbtongue did, maybe the music had meant something.

“Could use more work. Needs better words.”

He grunted to himself as he approached the door. The purple mana stone went on the door. He opened the door, scowled at the stone, and leaned against the cave’s entrance. He closed his eyes.

“Tomorrow I’ll go higher.”

And he played his song again.

 

—-

 

Late in the evening, Erin Solstice walked back through her door into her inn. Her home.

“I’m not drunk! I just drank a lot of alcohol! But it’s okay since it’s me!”

Erin protested as the surly Drake [Guard] shut the door in her face. She glared at the wooden door.

“Jerk.”

She stuck out her tongue, and felt happy about being so silly. She looked back at the door. She’d gone to Pallass looking for…something. And instead, the city had jumped out at her. Surprised her. Made her actually like it this time around. She sighed.

“Okay Pallass, you win round one. But next time? I’m gonna rock your socks! …Do Drakes or Gnolls wear socks?”

Erin was caught up in that thought for a second. She wasn’t drunk, in point of fact. But she was happy. And excited to the point of being silly. No, she’d remembered she could be silly and she was rejoicing in that fact. She was almost debating opening the door to heckle the Drake some more, then she remembered to set it to purple.

As soon as she did, the door opened. Erin jumped as Numbtongue strode through. He blinked as he nearly ran into her. She smiled up at him.

“Oh. Numbtongue. How was your day?”

The Hobgoblin was dirty, sweaty, and looked tired. But he looked at peace. He hesitated, then gave Erin a half-smile.

“Good. You?”

Erin hesitated. Then she grinned.

“I had a great day. But what happened to you?”

The Hobgoblin hesitated. He looked around the inn. There was some kind of commotion; everyone was gathered around Apista, and Lyonette was talking with Pisces, Ceria, and Falene for some reason. He shook his head.

“Later. Maybe tonight we can…talk?”

The hopeful look in his eye didn’t pass Erin by. She nodded.

“Tonight. Over a drink? I learned a few recipes, although I have no idea how to make mine fly.”

The Hobgoblin gave Erin an odd look. She laughed. Then she turned.

“Lyonette! Hey guys, what’s up? Anything happen while I was away?”

For some reason that got her the oddest look. But Erin was too excited to wonder why. She waved her arms, trying to get their attention.

“You’ll never believe what a day I had! Okay, first, I went through into Pallass and guess what? I met this couple that—”

Erin paused. She stared at the gathered adventurers. They were all blinking at her. Erin’s gaze travelled across them. She stopped on Pisces. He blinked as she pointed at him.

“You could use some abs. You too, Ceria. Typhenous is old so he’s fine, and Moore’s cool since he can lift cows, but the rest of you need to work out.”

Erin turned. Her finger wavered as it went to the other [Mages] in the room. She wasn’t drunk. Definitely not. She definitely hadn’t gotten drunk because she was immune to alcohol, right? Unless she’d turned it off just to see what it was like. That…sounded like something she would do.

The others stared at Erin. Revi opened her mouth, but Moore spoke up.

“Lift a cow? How strong does she think I am? I could use a spell maybe, but with my arms? I’d strain my back!”

“Take it as a compliment, Moore.”

Jelaqua slapped Moore on the shoulder. She laughed, and Erin looked at Lyonette.

“So, did I miss anything?”

 

—-

 

As Erin listened with open mouth to Lyonette’s story about Apista, Numbtongue presented his mana sludge to Typhenous. The old [Mage]’s eyes popped as he stared at the jar Numbtongue carefully held away from his body in gloved hands.

“You found that in the mountains? Why, it’s—magicore! Revi, come and see!”

The other adventurers looked up, scenting something interesting or profitable. Revi walked over, frowning alternatively at Typhenous, the jar, and Numbtongue.

“What? What did you say he found? It looks like yellow goo, Typhenous. Mixed with dirt. Is it valuable?”

The old [Mage]’s voice shook a bit.

“I should imagine? To the right buyers, certainly. How much did you say you found, er, Numbtongue?”

The Hobgoblin met Typhenous’ eyes steadily.

“I didn’t.”

The old [Mage] paused. Then he coughed.

“Of course, of course. I was just curious. You see…it’s just, this sample? It’s raw magicore. That’s the layfolk term for it. It’s more like…unrefined raw mana, in physical form.”

“Incorrect.”

Pisces and Falene both spoke up at once. They glared at each other. Pisces held up a finger, Ceria elbowed him and interrupted Falene as well.

“It’s not raw mana so much as mana-infused rock. Close enough, I know. Shut up, Pisces. Numbtongue, Wistram prizes the stuff. If you apply the right magics to it, you can turn it into a mana stone of unrivaled quality.”

Numbtongue blinked at the magicore. You could? No, that made sense. But it wasn’t something useful to Goblins. Typhenous was staring at it.

“If you were to place a monetary value upon it…there is a difference in quality, but if there were a…a vein of it in the mountains, it might be worth…might I inspect it, ah, Numbtongue?”

The Hobgoblin studied Typhenous for a second. Then he shrugged.

“Here.”

He offered it in one gloved hand to Typhenous. The [Mage] grasped for it greedily, and then let out an exclamation of shock.

“Ah!”

The jar tumbled from his hands as the [Mage] snatched his hands back. Numbtongue grabbed it on the way down. He chortled to himself as Typhenous shook out his hands.

“You ass. Typhenous, are you okay? That was hilarious.”

Revi alternated between a glare of concern and an amused expression. Typhenous gave Numbtongue a reproachful look. Ceria blinked at the magicore.

“Huh. I didn’t see that. Looks like it’s picked up some kind of focus. Electric, by the looks of it.”

Pieces sniffed. He opened his mouth and Falene jumped in. The half-Elf gave Numbtongue a superior look and adopted a lecturing tone to the group.

“Not nearly as valuable, then. Raw magicore is free-form, transmutable. This now has an elemental quality; thus its potential is shaped.”

She tapped one finger against the glass jar, and Numbtongue noted with irritation that she didn’t let it shock her somehow.

“Of course, any full [Mage] of Wistram would know that. Now, I would take this and—”

Falene went to pluck the glass jar out of Numbtongue’s grip. It didn’t budge. The half-Elf stopped. Numbtongue gave her a grin with all his teeth,

“Mine. Not yours.”

“I was merely making a point. If you’ll let me—”

The jar didn’t budge. Falene let out a slow breath. Ceria looked amused as she glanced at Numbtongue. Then she eyed Falene, and jabbed her in the side.

The older half-Elf made a sound and jumped. She glared at Ceria. The [Ice Mage] had an innocent look on her face.

“Sorry, Falene. My hand slipped. But that is Numbtongue’s jar. And he can do what he wants with it. We can’t take it away from a fellow adventurer, can we?”

She gave Typhenous a pointed look. The [Mage] coughed.

“No, no, I just wished to see…may I ask if that was the only sample found though? Please?”

He gave Numbtongue an imploring look. The [Bard] hesitated, then relented.

“No. Probably more. I just hit upper part of vein. Opened hole—there’s more. Raw. This is…different. Made it electric.”

He saw the way the adventurer’s eyes changed at that. Falene glanced over her shoulder at Dawil, as if to signal him. The Dwarf raised a finger.

“I don’t mine! Up yours, pointy ears!”

Typhenous licked his lips.

“…How much more? And Numbtongue, I might be forward in this, but if we could strike a deal for however much more you could find…”

The Goblin bit his lip. He didn’t like thinking about money. It wasn’t something Goblins prized. Erin noticed and broke off from her conversation to ask what all the fuss was about. When she stared at the magicore and gingerly touched it, she yelped.

“Gah!”

“Erin, we said it was electric!”

Ceria looked amused as Erin waved her hand. The [Innkeeper] shrugged, still happily drunk. Or drunk and happy, which was even better.

“I just wanted to find out! Hey, is it toxic or something? What happens if Numbtongue takes it out of the jar?”

The half-Elf scratched her head.

“Toxic? Only if you drink it. Or if it’s giving off fumes. But in the glass jar it should be fine. It’s not really a liquid, Erin.”

Pisces nodded. He looked down self-importantly at Mrsha and Ksmvr, the only audience he could find.

“Magicore is technically valuable, but I would put it far below gold, above silver in terms of rarity. Certainly not as rare as most gemstones of decent quality, but if Numbtongue could wheel away, say, a barrel of the stuff he might earn several hundred gold coins for it. At least. If the quality were high, which from the translucency I deduce it is not, he might earn more. You see, magicore is easily appraised at a glance. The translucency, or rather, the lack of any detail marks it as highly unfocused, and it is that lack of focus, the raw potential that [Mages] interested in creating mana stones crave…”

Mrsha blinked up at him. Ksmvr was scribbling notes. He raised a hand.

“Question, Comrade Pisces. What is the use of mana stones outside of Miss Erin’s door? I am aware of their effects as mana reservoirs for [Mages], but have they any other effects?”

“Ah, Ksmvr, I’m glad you asked.”

Pisces smiled self-importantly. He gestured at Erin’s door.

“You see, those stones on Erin’s door are quite poor-quality. Which is good; they need not be more than simple ah, anchors by which to guide the teleportation spell. But mana stones in general have any number of effects. They can hold an enchantment, allowing a [Mage] to weave his or her spells through the stone to aid in concentration, power mechanisms or fuel artifacts needing magic, or, and this is the most common effect in war, be used as a single-cast spell.”

“Ah, much like an [Alchemist]’s potions.”

Ksmvr nodded. Pisces nodded, and Mrsha nodded as well just to be included.

“Indeed. But mana stones are rarer, and depending on the size and quality of the gem, they can contain very powerful spells. I made a habit of studying a few, ah, in hopes of incorporating them with my undead creations, but sadly only a master [Gem Mage] would be able to use a mana stone without shattering the crystal itself.”

That caught Numbtongue’s attention. He wandered over to Pisces as Typhenous shocked himself again and Erin mused about light bulbs and batteries out loud. The [Necromancer] glanced up at Numbtongue and hesitated.

“Ah. Numbtongue.”

“Pisces.”

The Hobgoblin and [Necromancer] stared at each other for a second. Then Numbtongue reached into his belt pouch.

“You know mana stones? Can you look at this?”

“Well, I am only moderately studied in the subject. But I suppose I could look at—”

Pisces inhaled as he saw the glittering blue mana stone in Numbtongue’s palm. Half the adventurers turned their heads again. Typhenous craned his head, but it was Falene who exclaimed.

“Let me see that!”

This time Numbtongue didn’t protest. He held out the stone and Falene hesitated a second before holding her hand out. Numbtongue’s eyes narrowed, but he dropped the mana stone into her palm. The half-Elf hesitated.

“Thank you.”

She stared down at the mana stone and held it up to the light. Pisces, scowling, tried to see, but the half-Elf accidentally moved to get a better view and cut him off. Then she stared sharply at Numbtongue.

“Where did you get this?”

“From a friend.”

Numbtongue met her eyes without blinking. Falene frowned.

“Do you have any more?”

He gave her a Goblin shrug. Falene pursed her lips.

“If you do, I will buy them from you.”

“Let me see! Is that a pure mana stone? Without defect?”

“As Numbtongue addressed the question to me, I should see first. Miss Skystrall? I believe—Miss Skystrall?”

Falene held the stone out of reach of the other two [Mages] who squabbled over it. Ceria covered her eyes and Revi pulled Typhenous back, hissing at him.

“Stop embarrassing yourself!”

But Falene’s attention was all on Numbtongue. When he reluctantly showed her another of Pyrite’s remaining stones, she very nearly gasped. She made him an instant offer, a number that made Erin’s jaw drop. Numbtongue just shook his head.

“Mine. I don’t want to sell.”

“But these are no use to you. Numbtongue, is it? Listen to me. If you desire gemstones, I can provide them. But these are worth far more than simple jewels. These are high-grade mana stones. You have no idea what focus they have—or what use they might be. In the possession of a [Mage], they could be quite valuable. But they’re of no use to a non-[Mage] let alone—”

She closed her mouth abruptly. Numbtongue, who could fill in missing words, gritted his teeth. The inn fell silent. Erin glared.

A tankard banged at a table in the corner of the room. Falene and Numbtongue turned, and Dawil, sitting with Ylawes, Halrac, and Seborn, all of whom hadn’t deigned to get up, pointed at his companion. The Dwarf’s voice was a rumble.

“Falene, you’re a half-wit.”

The half-Elf’s cheeks turned red. She waited, eyes flashing at Dawil, but he only took a long drink from his tankard. Then he looked at Numbtongue.

“That’s all I wanted to add. Sorry about her. She’s slow. Carry on.”

Numbtongue grinned. He looked at Falene.

“Mine.”

He held out a hand. After a second she dropped them into his palm. Typhenous cleared his throat.

I would like to make an offer, Miss Skystrall’s nonwithstanding—”

“Hey. What about us?”

Ceria raised her voice. She looked at Pisces.

“We could use those, right?”

“If one was so inclined…and we have ample funds…”

Pisces’ voice trailed off as he recalled where his team had gotten the funds from. Revi rolled her eyes. She looked at Numbtongue.

“You could just smash it.”

Everyone stared at her. Revi raised her hands.

“What? You could. I don’t know a lot about mana stones or advanced magical theory. [Summoner], remember? But I know some things and I know that you can trigger a mana stone by smashing it. Looks like that one has a focus. So…keep it, and smash it if a monster attacks. Who knows? You might get lucky.”

“That is the most idiotic—”

Falene ducked as Dawil threw an empty mug at her. She pointed and it zoomed back towards his face. Ylawes batted it down with a reproachful look. Falene pursed her lips, but fell silent. Pisces coughed.

“As Miss Skystrall said—”

“Oh god, not more [Mage] talk. Please say it in simple words, Pisces. Or I’ll hit you.”

Yvlon looked up from her table where she was dicing with Jelaqua and Moore. The [Necromancer] sighed.

“Fine. Rock goes smash, something happens. But no one can tell what. That stone could simply dissipate. Or explode. Or…”

He waved his hands and glared at Yvlon. Mrsha waved her paws as well, looking excited at the idea. Erin eyed the stone and edged back from it a bit. Numbtongue frowned. He knew all of this, okay, parts. He wanted to know how to use mana stones without being a [Mage]. He looked at Revi again.

“Okay. I can break the stone and get…something random. What about breaking it with my teeth?”

Revi stared at him.

“You mean…eating it? That sounds like the dumbest idea I could think of. I guess it would do something since all that mana would go into your body. But who would do that?”

Numbtongue stared at the stone. Pisces cleared his throat.

“None of these hypotheticals are strictly safe. Numbtongue, if I may offer a solution? If money is not your objective and I have no reason to believe it is—why not offer the stone to Octavia? She could brew a potion out of it. At least, I know some [Alchemists] use mana stones. She might charge you coin, or one of the other stones, but if she could reliably harness the stone’s power, then you would have a brew you could at least throw or ingest, again assuming you could discover the effects. But happily, [Alchemists] have many ways of discovering a stone’s effects.”

Numbtongue brightened at that idea. That did sound good. Falene looked disgusted, however.

“Octavia? You would bring [Alchemists] into this? Please spare me such notions. There are two decent [Mages] among us and four untrained fools—”

“Gee, thanks.”

Ceria rolled her eyes. Revi copied Dawil. Typhenous stroked his beard.

“As much as it pleases me to have your respect, Miss Falene—”

The half-Elf cut him short with a look.

“I was referring to myself and Moore.”

“Oh. How unfortunate.”

A painful silence fell as everyone glared at Falene or deliberately didn’t look at her. Ksmvr walked over to Yvlon and tugged on her arm gently. He didn’t bother lowering his voice.

“Miss Skystrall seems quite agitated. Yvlon, please explain her state of mind.”

“Well, you see, Ksmvr, some people are just sour—”

Jelaqua began, but Falene whirled. The Selphid raised her hands as Falene’s eyes flashed with more than just indignation. Her voice snapped across the inn.

“If I am upset, it’s in wasting over a month of time and effort to rush to Ylawes’ sister’s aid, with little thanks and no reward. However, that would be enough save for the fact that the other teams here have clearly benefitted while we received nothing more than some gold.”

“We all participated in the lottery, Falene—”

Ceria broke off as Falene pointed a finger at her without looking.

“Do not lie to me, sister. I may not be able to see inside a bag of holding, but I can hardly miss Ksmvr and Pisces sitting in their rooms, rolling in piles of gold and gems.”

The inn fell silent. Numbtongue’s head turned, with all the others to Pisces and Ksmvr. The [Necromancer] had turned bright red. Halrac closed his eyes, his sole contribution so far to the night. Yvlon banged her head on the table. Ksmvr opened his mandibles.

“Ah. We must have left the door ajar, Comrade Pisces.”

“Falene. You know we didn’t come here for treasure. If the other teams found…something, it was their discovery.”

Ylawes spoke up quietly. He didn’t quite look at any of the other adventurers, though. Dawil sighed. Falene stared at her team captain, lips white.

“If I wish for some, small benefit, what of it? Numbtongue has no use for those mana stones. None at all. While I—”

Crack.

Falene blinked. She whirled, and stopped. Numbtongue stared at her defiantly. The cracked blue mana stone emitted a burst of viridian light as he crunched it between his teeth. He closed his mouth, but the burst of magical light lit up his head from the inside.

“What did you do?”

The half-Elf [Battlemage] stared at Numbtongue in horror. But he was distracted. His mouth first felt slightly numb, and then he felt saliva gathering, as if the rock was actually tasty and hadn’t just cut open his mouth. But it wasn’t saliva or blood. Numbtongue’s cheeks bulged and his eyes widened with alarm.

“Numbtongue?”

Erin stared at the [Bard] in horror. Numbtongue tried to say something, or spit what was in his mouth out. A bit of viridian spurted out of his mouth. Falene recoiled.

The liquid never touched the ground. Halfway down it turned to gas, a thick, clinging substance that hovered in the air. Falene gaped at it with everyone else. Mrsha took a step forwards, and Pisces pointed.

“No one touch it or inhale it! [Wind Blast]!

The bit of magical smoke was funneled towards the door. Typhenous and Lyonette dove out of the way. Pisces cursed.

“Someone get the door!”

Half the adventurers moved, but Jelaqua leapt first. She didn’t need to breathe, so she hurled the door open. Pisces pointed and the wind blew the smoke out. Then he turned to Numbtongue.

The Goblin’s cheeks were bulging. There was more liquid filling it! Pisces’ eyes grew round.

“Someone get—”

Numbtongue knew there wasn’t time. He was about to have the liquid whatever-it-was spurt out his nose, or he’d swallow it. Neither option appealed to him, so he looked around and grabbed something. A jar. Numbtongue tore off the lid and spat.

The Goblin made a bleh sound as the blue-green liquid poured from his mouth into the jar. Part of it turned to gas on the way down, but most of it landed squarely in the container he was holding. He coughed it out, corked the lid, then stared at the jar.

“Do you see how dangerous it is? Who knows what effect that gas would have had on your lungs—or on us all? There is no telling the effect. As for your reckless—”

Falene.

Ylawes interrupted the half-Elf as she began to shout at Numbtongue. It wasn’t just the gas Numbtongue was still exhaling. It was the jar. The jar full of electrified magicore. And now, blue liquid. Numbtongue saw the two liquids mixing. And both were glowing brighter. And the liquid was turning to gas inside the jar and expanding and the cork was starting to tremble…

He smashed the cork back in. But now the entire jar was shaking. Numbtongue exhaled more viridian in horror.

The adventurers took cover. Moore pulled Mrsha behind him. Falene, standing closest to Numbtongue, backed away in horror.

“Falene? What’s about to happen?”

Ylawes had his shield up. The half-Elf looked at him.

“I don’t—”

Falene?

The jar was shaking. Numbtongue felt the glass expanding. His arms shook as the electricity suddenly became twice as strong. He looked at Falene. She shouted.

I don’t know! Toss it away, toss it—”

 

—-

 

Two Drakes climbed the hill towards The Wandering Inn. One was male, the other female. Selys was leading Olesm, urging him to climb faster.

“Come on. I’m sure she has time for you. The adventurers are at her inn all the time. You can at least apologize, and if she clocks you, well, wouldn’t that make you feel better?”

“She doesn’t want to see me, Selys.”

“Yeah. Probably not. But how long are you going to avoid her?”

The [Strategist] shook his head. He stared up at the inn on top of the hill.

“I shouldn’t visit her now. The door wasn’t working. She’s cut Liscor off, Selys.”

“She’s not mad anymore, Olesm. I think. She was never angry, just sad. Look, let’s just go up there and if—”

The door opened. Olesm and Selys saw something blew blast out followed by a gust of wind. They blinked up at the inn and heard a shout. Then nothing.

“Uh…”

Someone appeared at the door. Numbtongue. He raced outside, a glass jar in hand. He threw it as far as he could—straight towards them. Both Drakes saw a tiny, glowing jar filled with yellow, blue and green, hurtling towards them.

They ducked.

The jar landed in the mud in front of them with a wet thump. Both Drakes breathed a sigh of relief. They stared at the jar. Then they noticed how it was shaking. They looked up at the inn in alarm. A half-Elf appeared in the doorway. Her eyes went round as she saw them.

Run, you idiots!

The two Drakes stared at the bottle. Then they turned and ran. Three seconds later, the jar exploded as the pent up liquid turned to gas and mixed with the magicore.

Selys heard something hiss and then bang of sound behind her. She half-turned and a glass shard flew past her face. She stopped and stared as Olesm tripped and tumbled in the mud.

The glass jar had burst, but not with the force of, say, an explosion. It was just that the blue gas laced with crackling volts of electricity was expanding too fast for the jar to contain it. Now it expanded into a huge cloud, twenty feet in diameter. It hovered in the air, like some kind of strange earth-bound viridian cloud. Selys could see miniature bolts of lightning earthing on the ground below the cloud.

Selys stared at the cloud. Olesm picked himself up from the mud. They looked at the cloud, and then at the inn. Selys forced saliva into her dry mouth.

“I think that was an accident, Olesm. Honest. But…just in case, let’s go back tomorrow.”

 

—-

 

Lastly this happened. Ceria was busy listening to Falene shout at Numbtongue when she felt a poke in the side. She yelped, and immediately realized why all of her friends hated when she did that to them. She turned to glare—but softened it when she realized who was doing the poking.

“Captain Ceria, may I ask what tomorrow brings?”

Ksmvr stood politely at attention, armed with his short sword, dagger, and other gear. He even had his cloak on and the bow strapped to his back. Ceria had to smile; he was always ready. She turned and saw Pisces and Yvlon looking at her. The [Wounded Warrior] raised an eyebrow.

“I was wondering that myself, Captain. We’ve been sitting in the inn a long time. Time to get back to work?”

“We have a lot of money. But I suppose we have to wait to get it exchanged at a big city.”

Ceria mused to herself. She looked at Pisces and the [Necromancer] shrugged.

“We do have an Ashfire Bee contract. But I would not be remiss for more work. However, if our lot calls for sitting and eating to excess, I would not object.”

He said that, but the look in his eyes were a challenge. Ceria smiled.

“I suppose you’re right. We could go to Celum tomorrow. Take a few local requests on.”

The Horns brightened. Ksmvr stood straighter, his mandibles opening and raising with delight. He hurried over to the table where he had been sitting and grabbed his pack. Ceria laughed.

“Ksmvr, we’re not going yet!”

“No, but I must be prepared. I am already prepared, but I wish to make sure. At last. I have been sitting here in readiness for the last nine days. I am pleased that my rations are not yet completely spoiled.”

He was pawing through his things. Ceria blinked.

“Your rations? Wait. Did you buy rations? Ksmvr, that was a waste of money—”

He looked affronted and shook his head.

“Captain, that would be a waste of funds. Of course I did not buy any. I kept the rations from our last expedition.”

“…What last expedition? You mean, to the dungeon? Ksmvr, that was weeks ago. Unless you mean when you were going to rescue me—”

“No, I refer to the moments when we last ventured with Griffon Hunt.”

Yvlon frowned.

“How long ago was that? Ksmvr, let me see—”

She bent to reach for Ksmvr’s pack. The Antinium obligingly opened it to show her, and Yvlon’s face changed halfway down. Ceria had never seen someone turn green that fast. Yvlon staggered back, slapping the flap shut.

Silver and steel!

“Oh gods, what now? Has the Antinium kept a Creler as a pet?”

Revi threw up her hands. Ceria shook her head. She hesitated and looked at Ksmvr. The Antinium stared innocently at her.

“Ksmvr. Hand me the pack.”

He did so. Ceria hesitated. She could smell…something. But the sturdy leather concealed whatever was in quite well. It had done for a long time, apparently. She stared at the pack. Slowly, she opened it.

Pisces and Yvlon recoiled. Ksmvr had little in the way of olfactory senses, so he just peered at his rations.

“Ah, they are nicely decomposing. Perfect for renewal if they grow fungi. On the other hand, they can be an appropriate lure—”

 

—-

 

“One more try. It was an accident. She doesn’t hate me. She doesn’t hate me—”

Olesm approached the inn. Selys was using him as a shield. He stared at the closed door, saw it open. He hesitated.

“Erin?”

A bag flew out the door. It clocked Olesm on the chest, spilling its contents all over him. Selys took one look at it and fled.

Inside the inn, Ksmvr stared at his rations and then at Olesm turning over to throw up as he scrambled to get it off him. He turned to Ceria. She was giving him a look that told him he had made some mistake. The Antinium wilted.

“Ah. I take it this was another mistake on my part? Comrade Pisces—”

And Erin watched all of it happening. She looked at Numbtongue, who was ignoring Falene as he plucked at his guitar. At the other adventurers, debating over what the smoke had been and how useful a weapon it might be. At Apista, riding Mrsha’s head, at Lyonette, poring over some plans for the inn. And Erin did something that made it all that much better.

She laughed.

 

[Miner Level 6!]

[Skill – Grinder Teeth obtained!]

 

[Bard Level 29!]

[Song – Lightcaller Harmony obtained!]

[Song – Peaceful Melody obtained!]

 


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52 thoughts on “6.10

  1. So, I tried keeping to my vow about the 10,000 words. And I uh, sort of succeeded? It’s not twice as long, just 1.5 times as long. So my next vow is to write…6,600 words?

    Ahem. Really, I regard this as two chapters in a sense. Numbtongue’s and Erin’s. You did vote on Numbtongue, and his adventure is a story in its own. And Erin’s return to Pallass was the intended chapter. It just so happened that I combined both arcs into one, and so here we are. Two chapters projected, two chapters down. Yeah, let’s go with that.

    Really, I don’t know how well I did parts of the chapter. I felt…not on top of my game, but hopefully I still managed something good. We went from sadness, to a moment of grace, to…all kinds of different scenes in this chapter, and I can only trust that some notes went well. And we are seeing Numbtongue’s growth. First he develops strong teeth, next he knows more songs…

    Wait for Level 30. It’s gonna be big. But for now, I think we’re either moving on to a new story, or sticking around for our favorite adventurers who aren’t anyone else. Stay tuned!

    …Whew. I could really use a magical drink. Or just a regular one. Oh wait. Here’s some water. Yay.

    • I just caught up and finally got to becoming a patreon (sorry, couldn’t stop reading before)
      I also wanted to thank you.
      This story is amazing!

      And I don’t mind, if you can’t keep your vows about the word count, at least, as long as you’re not burning out.

    • Uh oh…You’re vowing method is backwards!…you’re supposed to vow 15,000 words now and only go over by 6,600 words. Math is weird sometimes..but what can you do 🙂
      Jokes aside…Please keep up amazing work!

    • Very nice, but: “The glass jar had burst, but not with the force of, say, an explosion. It was just that the blue gas laced with crackling volts of electricity was expanding too fast for the jar to contain it.”

      That is literally the definition of an explosion. Or was that just a witticism that passed over my head?

      “I am NOT intolerant! I just… y’know…”

      “Categorically, intensely, dislike everyone different from you in any way?”

      “YES, exactly!”

  2. Leave a typo for the best drink of all! Water! A [Doctor] made me write this.

    (Drinking readers: CiaranCu, The_Outrider, CarpDM, VTech1855, Aoxz, Tarhish, James Walsh)

    • If the price plummets woudln’t you want the storage capability to take advantage of the price drop?

      I think it works as written.

    • “The word made the Rockmites hesitated” hesitated -> hesitate
      “He began the most complex solo he, knew, and the sound ” redundant comma?

    • “You see, it weeps it’s…what would you call the stuff in flowers? ”
      it weeps its

      “not with skill for most part”
      not with skill for the most part

      “Olesm and Selys saw something blew blast out followed by a gust of wind.”
      something blue

      “It had done for a long time, apparently.”
      It had done so

    • These aren’t really typos, but here goes:
      First, the opening paragraph mentions Numbtongue resting his pickaxe on his shoulder during his backswing. I can’t even imagine a more awkward technique. The only time I’ve ever rested a pickaxe on my shoulder is while carrying it someplace.
      Second, there are a couple utterances of “oh, god.” While it wasn’t entirely clear who was speaking, I didn’t think that was an expression used in this world.

    • “it anything, she felt more awake with each bite”
      it -> if

      “it weeps it’s…what would you call the stuff in flowers”
      Less grammatically confusing if reworded to “it weeps this… what would you call”

    • “Lastly this happened. Ceria was busy listening to Falene shout at Numbtongue when she felt a poke in the side. She yelped, and immediately realized why all of her friends hated when she did that to them.”

      Lastly this happened is a little jarring, and can take you out of the story. Removing it would preserve the flow of the chapter, I think.

  3. Good chapter. I wish Erin had stood up for herself more to the woman condescending to her so hard (deliberately calling her “Rookie” multiple times when she knew Erin didn’t like it is an intentional slight), but I think it is in character for her to just let that roll over her.

    • Yea it kind of feels like they were telling her to do a bunch of stuff she was already doing and she never said anything about it. She never mentioned she already has signature dishes and a unique atmosphere or the fact that she routinely does things no other innkeeper does or even that drinks wise she has a drink that the gnollish bartender has never even heard of. Not to mention she’s the best chess player in the world and could get people to come just for that. I don’t know they didn’t come off as nice and helpful so much as condescending to me and Erin just to nice and naive a person to say anything.

      • I got very much the same feeling. I had to keep reminding myself that they’d probably been at this for decades, and Erin’s only been working for six months or so. By that measure, she absolutely is a rookie.

        Of course, she’s also a prodigy, given how fast she learns and levels, and a veteran, given how much she’s been through. It’s all a matter of perspective, really.

        The thing that calmed me down some was when it became clear that the two of them knew very little about Erin– her [Field of Preservation] is common knowledge in Liscor, after all. If they don’t even know about that, it’s clear they have no idea how advanced Erin actually is. Which opens a lovely opportunity for Erin to dramatically prove them wrong.

        And of course, at the end of the day… they were kind to Erin, and they did give her a place to rest, and they did make her feel better. I can forgive quite a lot of underestimating for that.

      • On the other hand, though… Haven’t we heard Erin talk in the past about how she’d really like to prepare suchandsuch a thing, only to never get around to setting up suchandsuch a thing until she either really needs suchandsuch a thing or just stumbles into an opportunity? She’s done a great job improvising, making use of her otherworldly knowledge, and taking advantage of some splendid luck, but she… Really doesn’t have the greatest grasp of the fundamentals beyond “make your customers happy”. And while that might be the most important thing, a bit of planning can go a long way.

        She probably really did appreciate the lessons she was given here, because she really hasn’t had the opportunity to ask how things “should” be done before, or what she “should” worry about – like how she was unfamiliar with how “normal” inns get their water, or just how inaccessible her inn gets during the rainy season. Someone who was born in that world would probably have a vague idea as to what to do, and someone who had seriously wanted to enter the trade would have picked up the basics, but she pretty much just took over an empty building and tricked the world into thinking she knew what she was doing; she knows what works for her, but she doesn’t know how things work for a “normal” business. Even if she doesn’t need some of what she’s told, at least it ensures that she’s on the same page as everyone else when things like this come up in the future.

        And, you know… Even something simple like “You should store x amount of food for your inn in case of famine or war” is a pretty important reminder to someone who didn’t grow up with such things – especially when one considers how disaster-prone Liscor is. Even if it’s basic, it’s nice to have a nice little checklist of essentials to consult for your own small business, even if she already has several people watching her back.

        Besides, there’s a difference between taking advantage of serendipity, and being reliant on it. She’s made some great connections so far, but how many of them did she actually seek out on her own? More importantly, would she really know how to find a good wholesaler for her supplies, be they common or rare, if she weren’t able to speak to Krishia first?

        She’s done well on her own, and she could rightfully have said as much to them – but by not letting pride get in the way of a lesson, she probably learned some useful tips here.

        • I have to agree with Jane here. Erin’s only been an innkeeper for 6-8 months. She arrived sometime late summer/early fall and its now early spring/mid spring.

          She’s a prodigy, she’s a genius, and her levels are going up fast, but she’s not yet experienced. To someone with 20+ years of experience and who is also high level , Erin is definitely a rookie. Especially as the ‘Tails and Scales’ is probably a better establishment then ‘The Wandering Inn’ at this point. The Wandering Inn is one of the top two Inns in Liscor, a city that is a smaller frontier town. T&S is one of the top establishments in Pallas, which is one the continents top metropolises.

          The story has done a good job of showing that XP, levels, and Skills aren’t everything. Experience, planning, and constant training count just as much. Erin has the first 3 but is still missing the last three.

          The Wandering Inn reminds me of a highly successful start up in a lot of ways. It has had explosive growth but it’s foundation is still shaky. Erin has had a tendency to make nearly business wrecking moves on a near constant basis. The barmaid fiasco as an example. She’s also managed to alienate a lot of her colleagues around her. For a small business this is understandable and can be recovered from. However, as the business gets larger, missteps have a much greater effect.

          With Lyonettes planned upgrades of the Inn, mistakes are going to be harder to recover from and cause a lot more losses that can’t be easily replaced.

          Broadly speaking, what Erin needs to do is to create a business plan. She needs to create her budget, know who her suppliers are, know what she needs in an employee, think about what resources she might need in the future, (Does she need a bartender?) write down what “The Wandering Inn’s” strengths are, and what it’s weaknesses are. Ask herself what she can do to maximize the Inn’s strengths and minimize it’s weaknesses. (Strength: has a lot of mana available, magical items, and very diverse clientele. Weakness: Has a very volatile environment, a very diverse clientele, and the habit of being attacked on a weekly basis). Ask herself what happens when the dungeon is cleared and Liscor is no longer teaming with adventurers. Think about what sort of Inn “The Wandering Inn” will be in 20 years, in 40 years, in 60 years. Create a frigging MENU.

          I will admit, Erin is not good at long term thinking, (Probably because she doesn’t quite emotionally accept the world is “Real” yet.) but if she can go through the basics, she’ll have a good foundation for the next time something goes wrong because she will have thought about it in advance.

          I admit, I am a business person and one of the things that makes me want to keep reading the story is Erin’s journey to build a successful fantasy business. How she deals with Market forces, and product differentiation, and employment issues. So I’m really glad the story is touching on this again and that Erin has more experienced people to talk to so she can learn and grow.

          (Thinking of Strengths and Weaknesses. Erin is using her Door to high effect. She’s not leveraging her Faerie Flowers and Wondrous Fare nearly as well. This chapter showed magical alcohol. I’m wondering if she can do something similar with the Wondrous Fare. It doesn’t have to have combat useful effects, but food that glows or floats or just tastes amazingly good would be a draw.

          Weaknesses: The volatile environment is both a draw as something interesting is always happening but also a weakness as the Inn is normally right on the edge of disaster. If Erin can develop a solid core business it’ll give her a buffer to pay Drassi and Ishkar and the rest of the employees when some of her more aggressive business plans detonate in her face.)

  4. Didn’t the silver swords get any of the gold off the the redfang five? I remember Ywlas going to Tekshiea with Revie about it

    • Nope. They didn’t like them and the other adventures didn’t want to share…also as they had stated artifacts and valuable magical equipment or items can be worth more then twice it’s value in terms of gold.

      Also love that numbtounge gets his adventurer rights respected. While mining Sounds like an odd class to go with bard… It is the value of holds as our goblin does something that doesn’t feel like stealing or killing to make a profit.

      Sometimes it is the value of what is held by the meaning of the class instead of its tactical value.

    • No they didn’t because the Goblins didn’t like Falene and Ylawes. Falene is stuck up and Speciest, and Ylawes just bugs them for being the stereotypical “righteous monster slaying knight”.

    • Level 40 is the barrier for “named adventurer” right? Halrac is kind of on the verge of being named “Halrac the Grim”… Will Erin just be known as that “Crazy Human Innkeeper?” It was already capitalised in the last chapter… here’s hoping!

    • Someone was complaining about the memory transfer being a cop out for his death, but I see it more as a reasonable (and cool) fantasy world version of the impact people leave after they’re gone.

  5. Musical talents…. Magic crystals/gems/stones…. A city within the dungeon….Is Numbtongue turning into Jareth from Labyrinth?

  6. You know, it occurs to me that this chapter pretty much completely reversed my previous headcanon on [Innkeeper] classes/Levels/Skills. I always thought that [Innkeepers] and other similar public-service classes would naturally want their Skills and Level to be publicly known as a form of advertisement.

    I mean, sure, people who fight for a living like adventurers and soldiers want to maintain the advantage of surprise as much as possible when it comes to their Skills, so they’ll keep them secret. That’s only natural. And politicians and merchants, who compete in their own ways, will also want to keep as much advantage as possible.

    But there’s also a kind of advantage in making sure people know that you have certain Skills. If Magnolia Reinhart let it be known that she had, say, a Skill that makes everyone who lives in her lands less likely to suffer any form of illness, then wouldn’t people naturally prefer to live under Magnolia’s rule? There’s a definite advantage to be had by making one’s Skills known.

    And [Innkeepers] are especially subject to this kind of thing. By nature, a large part of their business relies on people actively choosing to visit their inn over any other. It’s only natural that someone looking for a meal will prefer to go to an inn that they know has [Advanced Cooking], and an [Innkeeper] who’s known to have a [Restful Slumber] Skill will likely sound very good to a traveler looking for a place to sleep. And at the end of the day, if you know one [Innkeeper] is Level 40 and the other is only Level 20 (or never talks about what level they are), it’s obvious which one you’ll want to go with.

    So it’s weird to me that these Pallass innkeepers are so secretive about their Levels and Skills and class variant, and it’s weird that they consider this the normal “way things are done”. I suppose Pallass must have some fairly cutthroat competition that would take advantage of any information at all… in a way that would do so much damage it outweighs the advertisement value of having their skills known.

    Or maybe it’s just cultural? Drakes are possessive– they keep things to themselves. I suppose it’s not so strange that they would keep information on their classes secret, even when it hurts them to do so. Now I want Erin to get a second opinion on this kind of thing from a Human [Innkeeper]…

    • Part of it is probably a Pallass thing; as a Walled City, it’s both where the best of the (Drake) best go, and space is at a premium, and Pallass is a place where artisans have great influence; all of these invite conflict in and of themselves, and here they’re all brewed together. If there’s a city where this kind of thing could be an issue, it’d be a place like there.

      But… I also have a suspicion that their particular response might have been more Erin-centric. It’s one thing to find out that someone has an “ordinary” good skill, like Advanced Cooking, and quite another when she just spills out that she has a rare and powerful skill that she might be kidnapped for to someone she just met; she pretty much told them that she has no common sense, no? And if they can’t expect her to know what’s safe to tell and what isn’t, and they don’t want to be put in charge of something that should be a secret, it’s easier to tell her to just tell them nothing. At least until she works out this kind of thing for herself.

      I mean, I think it’s been hinted at a few times in the past that if someone gets a really good skill that they shouldn’t go around shouting it about until they’ve gotten used to it (kind of like getting your affairs in order before you mention you’ve won the lottery), but people have otherwise seemed pretty upfront about the more “ordinary” skills they have in most every other city we’ve seen (bar perhaps the one Ryoka’s in right now). And in Liscor, they even throw pseudo-birthday-parties when someone hits certain level milestones, if I recall correctly. The details might be considered a bit personal, perhaps, but not as sensitive as they seemed to suggest here – and since Erin isn’t moving to Pallass anytime soon, I don’t think they’d ask her to adhere to Pallass’s customs quite so strictly regardless.

      It seems most likely to me that they just don’t want to be put in the position of having to choose between hiding something they really shouldn’t have known in the first place, and between the connections they mentioned asking them if they know anything interesting about Erin.

      • I thought it was more to do that they were strangers and they had just met.

        There was a great combination in that they start talking about levels and Erin hears the commotion outside with the nudest drake. I thought it was a nice comparison in what she was doing was basically starting to strip down to people she had never met before.

        My understanding is that classes and levels might work similarly. You might throw a birthday party for a friend at work but it’s rude to ask a woman her age.

        Brunker might have thrown a party when he became a [Knight] but he probably didn’t tell most of the guests his exact level.

        People might know Peslas’s general levels, and Erin’s general levels but not exactly what skills they have. On the other hand, Syles knew Peslas’s levels so it could eventually become common knowledge.

        Or it could be that Levels start becoming secret when you become higher level. Think of how much effort celebrities take to keep their private life private as compared to regular people.

  7. I loved this chapter! I became a Patreon supporter finally so I could read this chapter. I would love to see more inn progression and Erin leveling/growing her business and brand in a different way than she has been.

  8. I wonder if Earthers get better skills too? Or maybe just skills that are more likely to do the “impossible”? Erin apparently has a lot of crazy skills. If Field of Preservation is highly rated, the magic field, and size enhancer have to be even more highly rated.

  9. I feel like that Magicore will be important later on in the story for the Healing Slime. Maybe with it Healing Slime would change and becomes something similar to Oom or obtaining the ability to heal others without losing it’s own body mass.

  10. Yay, I caught up. This was a wild ride. I am just so happy that there are so many relaxed moments in this story, definitely jumped up there in terms of favourite stories out there.

  11. I’d love to know what’s happening with Laken and the gobelins. I think Pebelsnatch and Ulvama are in this group. Will they try to use the mana stone to go to the Wandering Inn. Will it work ? I wonder how it will evolve and if Laken will try to incorporate the gobelins into his villagers

  12. Can someone kindly clarify exactly what the big deal is about [Field of Preservation]? Those two at T&S acted like [FoP] is an OP skill and is very rare. Granted it is a Skill, but still can be replicated by use of runes and other, for gold and all.

    And them mentioning to Erin to keep it a secret so other people don’t target her because of the skill. How would that even help other people? unless they take over the Inn, which i dont see happening.

    thanks in advance.

    • 1. it covers an large area
      2. It does not fail, so you don’t come in one morning to spoiled food
      3. You don’t need enchantments, this is the big one it saves a lot of gold. Think about grocery stores they have ~3% profit margin. If they one store suddenly no longer need to pay for electricity, they who’d instantly be able to undercut there competicion.
      4. No maintenance The skill does not require her to get her hand on an enchanter to fix the runes, and she does not have to constantly make sure they are all ok and that none of them are ebout to run out on her.

      An simple organization that who’d be interested is the military, If they can get the skill to work on the move by having an moving inn in the baggage train they who’d have no spoiling food. Then there is the fact that other military would not want to risk their enemies geting there hand on it. Then there is the fact that someone with strong skills have an higher chance of getting to high levels (in theory). If you are the best in something you have to always keep an eye possible competition and make sure you are better than them or that they can’t get better than you.
      In chapter 6.11 you get to know what levels are considered great among smiths (and to an degree combat classes). Smiths that cities/countries might have smaller conflights over, because of the great items they can make. Then consider what level Erin is on, she is closing in on becoming an strategic resource depending on what skills she have/get. The preservation field skill is an skill that depending on how an city can exploit it can be of enormous value. A way an city can exploit it is simple. Can you add an granary/food storage on to her Inn? If you can do that you now have an posible large food storage and the higher level she is the bigger the field (in most cases) again military target for any enemy of her city.

  13. At first [Preservation] in itself is quiete a strong ability – not only is some form of preservation nessary for the development of larger cities, the form used in the novel also allows to preprepare food & co.

    To your question: Runes of preservation in there used form are quiete expensive and also fragile. Erin broke hers while cleaning, T&S and even the Warehouse have similar stories. Losing them, can also mean losing your stored wares. For a small bussieness (example: the old inn Erin found) it can even mean running out of business, if there is no new supply.

    In short: [Field of Preservation] gives a huge economical benefit in competition.

    To make the point clear – one extrem example: If Erin decided to “cheat the system” she could probably move her Inn to Pallas, reopen it as a warehouse and push a whole floor out of business.

    To targeting Erin: 1. option: Force her to be the [Innkeeper] of another Inn while keeping profits. 2. option: kill her to keep her out of business

    That got longer then expected 😀

  14. I still don’t get this goblin memory thing Numbtongue got just to become an experienced miner.

    It raises another question for me, since from Laken’s arc, we know that people engineers can get their knowledge to built a trebuchet out of nowhere just by leveling. It means that with enough levels, people can gain extra information they don’t generally know.

    And since that the knowledge passed on to Numbtongue is something Pyrite know through leveling in his class, so that Numbtongue can skip that process. Thinking through this way, it can be kinda unfair too.
    it’s like you can suddenly become a scientist out of nowhere by leveling and then pass on that knowledge to someone and then become a bard or a miner on the way too.

    • My take on it is a little different.
      First the passing of memory is a goblin thing. Ancestral memory or something like that which is like a race trait. It’s like a window to the past, but to see in it, you have to be strong (chieftain, lord) and the strongest of the past shine brighter and their memories are clear and you get to see them. But the actual memories have nothing to do with classes. Probably the kings saw the truth of their origin, the very beginning of their race and their whole history, so that’s why they waged war on the world.
      But what Pyrite did was direct, concentrated and personal at the moment of their death. Of course it has some extra knowledge from his class, but also his personal experiences, thoughts, skills, normal knowledge like simple facts, secrets, lessons and so on. Numbtongue is still not an expert miner because while he has all that in his head, he doesn’t automatically know it, it’s like reading a book or searching the web, just doing it in the moment in his head. It surely helps though, yet by itself doesn’t give him levels and Skills. But yeah, if he dies and there is another half dead goblin in that trance space, Numbtongue could in theory give him everything Pyrite left him plus his songs, his musical skills, warrior training, a human worth dying for and a human worth living for and the taste of so many delicious foods and all sorts of compressed memories. And then that other goblin can go and become a mage on top of that on his own.
      About the knowledge of classes from leveling, it still needs some direction. While it gives you something you didn’t know before, it’s not unlimited or out of nowhere, you need to have at least some basis to step on and then it’s more like feeling and guiding instead of hard core data base on the subject, which in turn makes it difficult to teach to others. There are still trials and mistakes. Then there are Skills that just make happen whatever you want or need to happen or “magically” skip vital steps that others can’t to get the same results (even with the same class). That’s why people apprentice or train for years more to teach themselves than to being taught (get the feel of it). If it was just understanding it yourself learning how and why it is, it would be easy to gain a class and levels. This is exactly what Laken is doing. The engineers could figure how to build a trebuchet because they had something initially to go on off. I doubt they are the only human [Engineers], but the others couldn’t build one because they know nothing about it, no idea, not a clue.
      Then with leveling comes new knowledge from the same direction that pushed you to level up, or you leveled up because of a new knowledge or experience and the level got you more full understanding of it. That’s why mages level up if they learn new spells, but they can also immediately learn new spells when they level up. But Ceria won’t learn nature or fire magic and Pisces won’t get ice or buffs.
      Also I don’t think the system is idle and stale. You can’t just level up and suddenly know how the sun works or why lightning strikes from the skies or which mold gives penicillin. If absolutely no one figured it out or made it or thought of it, the level in the class won’t give it to you because it doesn’t have it. But when you figure it out, it gets integrated and someone in the future maybe can get that info or recipe, blueprint or feeling how it works or how to make it for “free” from a simple single level up. All the Classes, Skills, Curses, Conditions, Spells have been unique achievements, rewards, hard work, miraculous will or imagination or invention of somebody in the past and the system filed it in itself to give it to others under similar circumstances, but with lower requirements and even sometimes seemingly at random. For example maybe countless millenniums in the past, someone went from one side of a continent to the other, maybe used magic, maybe was the first to do it, maybe was the fastest by a margin, whatever it was, it was marked down and then the system gave him a unique Skill to be able to do what he did again and he was the first with it, used it and the system gathered how much he used it, how difficult it was, how many times per day for how long, and right now practically every courier needs to have something like that. Or fighting forms long forgotten of the strongest warrior, or someone with such instincts that could avoid every danger and so on and so on. Some more specific, rare, unusual and powerful have been lost to time or these not used these days so much get awarded on higher levels, but they existed before and maybe in thousands years everybody would get it at level 20 instead of 30. My point is that no matter how much you level, your class alone won’t tell or give you something that has never been put into the system, but with every bit of information, talent, skill, imagination, etc, it grows and with people around from more advanced scientific world and different culture, soon classes like [Idol], [Actor], [Clown], [Technomage] won’t be just in single numbers and someone who never met an otherworlder could get [Reporter] or [Gamer] and a whole set of new Skills because that knowledge is already in.
      Well, this was long, i hope i level up from all that 😀

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