“You know, I could quit. Right now. I could quit my job, walk into grandmother’s office and tell her to go eat her tail and walk out. Just like that. I could quit and do something else for the rest of my life.”
Selys Shivertail looked around the Adventurer’s Guild. She glanced sideways at her coworker. Maviss, a Drake with pink and red scales, paused as she applied a little scale moisturizer to the scales around her eyes. She had a little makeup kit with her, with everything from paints to touch up off-color scales, to moisturizing products and powders.
Sometimes Selys envied Humans, with their hair and innumerable ways to color lips and change eyelashes and other bodily features. Then again, Drakes could paint their scales. But Selys had given up the makeup game. Now, looking at her friend, she was tempted to get back into it. It was usually expensive. But…
“You could do that, Selys. But I think Guildmistress Tekshia would rip off your head. Or run you through with one of her spears first. I don’t think anyone’s ever quit to her face. Most just hand in a letter. She’s fired people before to their faces of course…think you’d survive because you’re her granddaughter?”
“No. She’s probably kick my tail out and refuse to let me quit. But I could. Not that I’m gonna.”
Selys slumped on the counter, playing out the conversation in her head. She winced as the path took a predictable turn. Her grandmother, the infamous Tekshia, was very hard to argue with because if she started losing, she resorted to violence. And it had to be said she was still stronger than Selys in her old age, which didn’t seem fair.
“I’m just saying, Maviss. I could quit.”
“But what would we do without you? You’re the only person who knows everything around here. Besides your grandmother of course. And if you think I’m going to work with her at the front desk—”
Maviss gestured around the Adventurer’s Guild. Selys looked around from her desk. It wasn’t too busy at the guild, hence their idle chatter. Sometimes there was a huge line at the receptionists’ desks, which were placed around a central beam in the middle of the room.
Other times it was peaceful, like now. The few adventurers in the back of the room, sitting at the tables and chatting were taking a break from their jobs. The rest were out, either doing nearby requests around Liscor or exploring the dungeon. But carefully. The huge drama of the Raskghar attacks, the dungeon exploration and so on was over. It was peaceful. And Selys was a bit bored.
“What would you even do with all your free time, Selys?”
“I don’t know. Go shopping. Party more often? Hang out with Erin and Mrsha?”
“Ooh. That little cutie? I haven’t seen her around.”
“Lyonette’s protective. But I could do that. Maybe visit Pallass? But I wouldn’t be working, you know? I wouldn’t have to deal with stinking adventurers or clean up blood or work late hours…”
“But you’ve done that all your life. You told me just last week you like bossing adventurers around and working here.”
“I said that?”
Maviss delicately applied some scented oil to her scales. Selys leaned back and nearly fell over; her stool had no back. She caught herself on the desk and sighed. It was true. She really didn’t mind her job usually. Her coworker shot her a glance.
“Why are you saying this now? Because of all the money you have?”
“What? Who told you how much money I have? I mean, er, well, it’s just that I could.”
Selys scratched at her neck. Her tail curled up before she caught herself. Maviss rolled her eyes and her tailed waved back and forth a tad irritably.
“Come on, Selys. Everyone knows you’re loaded after inheriting your…I mean, General…you own the Heartflame Breastplate.”
For a second both Drake’s faces fell. It was still hard to say it. Zel Shivertail, Selys’ uncle, was dead. And he’d left the armor he’d been wearing to her.
“…Okay, I do have more money. So yeah, I could quit.”
“I can’t say.”
“That much? I heard you paid for a night at the Tailless Thief with Warsh and the others last night.”
“Only because they didn’t have enough on them. And I had money, so…”
Selys rubbed her head as she remembered that night out. She regretted it, too. All she’d woken up with was a sense that she’d spent too much coin. But she couldn’t even tell how much she’d spent; the little trove of gold coins hadn’t noticeably decreased in any quantifiable sense of the word. Maviss gave her a sidelong glance.
“You know what I’d do?”
“Quit my job, like you said. Take a trip to the Walled Cities. Spend like a month or two in each one, going to big parties, seeing all the sights…”
“That sounds like work.”
“You’re just saying that because you’ve never travelled, Selys.”
“I’m a Liscorian, born and bred.”
“How would you know? You’ve never been past the Blood Fields! Selys, there’s a door to Pallass in The Wandering Inn! And you know the innkeeper yourself! You could at least take a vacation.”
“Well…that might be nice. Maybe I’ll talk to grandma about it. I could probably get her to agree if I bought her a present. Or offered to pay for her vacation.”
“Now there’s a good use of money. Bribing your grandma.”
Selys laughed. She shook her head. It really was something she had to think about sooner or later. At the very least she had to find a place for all that gold. Or just get a bag of holding…Selys noticed Maviss was busy writing something down now.
“What’re you working on?”
“Oh, just filling out the details of that request the uh, Horns of Hammerad accepted.”
“The Ashfire Bee one? Watch Captain Zevara put that up.”
“Mhm. And they decided to go for it today. Wonder what took them so long.”
“Ashfire Bees are no joke, Maviss.”
“True. Darn. I’ve filled out the form, but…what’s the Ashfire Bee threat ranking? I think I need to add whether this was a natural-based threat for Liscor or a migrating one. Little help?”
“Ashfire Bees are ranked as a Silver-rank threat. Check your monster encyclopedia. Lower left desk.”
Selys pointed. Maviss ducked down and came up with a worn book. She flipped through it quickly.
“So did the Horns go to take on the bees alone? That’s dangerous, Maviss.”
“Nah, the…Human, half-Elf, and Dwarf team went with them. The…Silver Swords. And the Halfseekers. They were going to watch, I think. But really? Three teams? Two Gold-rank teams for an Ashfire Bee nest. Couldn’t they just send one [Mage]? They’re a Silver-rank threat, right?”
She looked up. Selys shook her head as she borrowed some of Maviss’ moisturizer.
“That’s deceptive. We rank threats based on how dangerous monsters or animals are. Ashfire Bees are dangerous, but they don’t actually attack many people. One might sting you if you step on it or agitate the bee, but that’s not a threat. But hives? Hives are dangerous. You can prepare, and there are ways for a Silver-rank team to wipe them out—if they prepare right. But if you’re suddenly attacked by a thousand Ashfire Bees?”
She raised her brows. Maviss shuddered.
She dipped her quill in ink and scribbled quietly for a second. Selys leaned over.
“Make a note of the Hive’s size, will you? We’ll add this to the monthly report to the other guilds. If there are other Ashfire Bee nests in the area, they should be careful. Although they are good for flowers.”
Silence took over for a moment. Maviss finished her work, stamped the signed document and slipped it into a folder under the table. She leaned back in her chair, then looked over at Selys.
“So…how rich are you?”
“Mm. Not saying.”
“A hundred gold pieces? No, wait, four hundred? You didn’t sell the armor, but I saw Miss Ivirith wearing the armor. And Wall Lord Ilvriss.”
“Drop it, Maviss.”
“A thousand gold pieces, then. Two thousand? Four thousand?”
“Come on! I have to know! Six thousand. Eight? Ten—”
“If I had ten thousand gold pieces—”
“Aha! So it’s less. Okay, under ten thousand. Just wink if I’m getting close. Eight? Six? Four? Come on, Selys. Two? Selys? Selys…”
Outside of Liscor’s walls, a mile or two away from the city was a cave. It was a noisy cave, especially in the spring. Ashfire Bees flew in and out, bearing huge loads of pollen and nectar, food for their massive home, a hive in the back of the cave. The oversized bees were terrifying and fascinating.
On one hand they were generally peaceful. They made honey. On the other hand, they were the size of your hands and a single sting would be a world of hurt. And disturb their hive? There were hundreds of Ashfire Bees in the hive. Even someone in armor would die within seconds of incurring their wrath. Which was why the three groups of adventurers waiting outside weren’t sending a person into the cave.
“See, I can appreciate this. This is a solid use of necromancy. Baleros has no problems with undead. Well, less problems. Here we have a problem and instead of sending the Selphid, we send a Bone Horror.”
Jelaqua Ivirith commented to Moore and Yvlon as they stood well behind the giant two-headed bear Bone Horror slowly lumbering towards the cave. It was a monstrosity of bone, with a reinforced body and spiky protrusions that would allow it to gore anything it ran into or crushed. It was a monster worthy of a Silver-rank team, but it was on the side of the adventurers.
Pisces, standing next to Ceria and Falene, pointed, and the Bone Horror slowly entered the cave. The Ashfire Bees flying overhead buzzed down. A few landed on the Bone Horror, as if inspecting it. Then one tried to sting it.
“All going well so far. Can you see what it’s doing?”
Ceria watched as the Bone Horror entered the cave. Pisces nodded absently. Falene was wrinkling her nose as she watched the [Necromancer] at work. It was a surprise she’d come here with Pisces but she’d insisted.
“I have some sensory perception, yes, Ceria. I’m moving it forwards slowly. The bees are, ah, beginning to try and dissuade my creation. But of course their stingers cannot harm it.”
“Just aim for the hive. Ceria and I will handle any stragglers after your Bone Horror has demolished the hive. Or if it somehow fails before destroying it. I intend to use [Frostdart Swarm]. What about you, Ceria?”
“Eh. [Ice Wall], probably. I’ll just freeze the bees solid. Seems like it’d work best. I don’t have that many spells against crowds anyways.”
Falene sniffed. It was such an imitation of Pisces that both he and Ceria turned to look at her.
“You should expand your repertoire, Ceria. A [Mage] should have magics for every occasion, even if you have a forte.”
“I’d like to do that, but we need to buy spellbooks first. The one I have is higher-level than I’m capable of at the moment. I’m learning spells—but slowly. Besides, I was kicked out of Wistram before I learned the good spells.”
“True. Which is why I suggest you stop referring to yourselves as Wistram graduates.”
Pisces turned his head to glare at Falene.
“We were accredited by Cognita herself, Miss Skystrall. Which I’m sure you’ve heard about if you’ve finally inquired into our pasts.”
“Hey! Are you arguing or killing bees? We’re not standing out here for fun! Well, I am. But Moore’s not!”
A shout interrupted the start of another fight. The three [Mages] turned. Jelaqua was waving at them. Ksmvr, standing next to her, waved too.
“Hello, Captain Ceria, Comrade Pisces! Is our help needed?”
Ksmvr’s gestured took in the small crowd standing with them. Three teams had gathered at the Ashfire Bee cave. Jelaqua, Moore, Yvlon, Ksmvr, Ylawes, and Dawil were all waiting. Seborn hadn’t come, mainly because it was fairly overkill. The other adventurers were standing in the mud. Ceria waved back.
“Sorry! The bear’s headed in! Give us a sec!”
She got a wave in reply. Jelaqua turned back to keep talking with Yvlon. Dawil, Ylawes, and Moore were still chatting. Ksmvr was still waving with one arm, poised to spring into action. Ceria turned back to Falene.
“Look, we were given the right to call ourselves graduates, Falene. I admit we’re not high-level enough, but—are you angry about our past?”
She looked at Falene, a bit apprehensively. The half-Elf [Battlemage] paused.
“I am not. I was not at Wistram, so I cannot comment about any…incidents that may have occurred. But you two are still too inexperienced to be called full Wistram graduates. Which is a pity, because if you were, you could easily be a Gold-rank team by now. As it is, you lack the variety and power to reach Gold-rank. For now. But it could happen.”
It was perhaps the nicest thing she’d said in a long time. Ceria and Pisces both looked at her in surprise.
“Don’t take it to heart. I was merely remarking to Moore that it was a shame. You see, a proper [Mage] has spells for every occasion, so even a lower-level [Mage] who knows more spells could in theory beat a more powerful [Mage]. But in your case, both of you have such limited spell selections…”
She sighed, eyes flicking between the two. Ceria wondered if this was still a compliment or if it had slipped into an insult. Pisces sniffed.
“I have a sufficient variety of spells given my [Mage] level, Miss Skystrall. However, my [Necromancer] spells are fairly extensive for my level. My Bone Horrors for instance are a strong accomplishment even for my level. Or would you call the ability to maintain two Bone Horrors at once a Silver-rank adventurer’s level? It is beginning to tear into the hive, by the way. The bees are quite agitated.”
It was true. The droning from the cave was getting a lot louder. Falene paused. She eyed the cave.
“I suppose it is more than most Silver-rank teams could commit to an engagement. But hubris is dangerous. There are some Silver-rank teams who are quite capable of taking down Bone Horrors with ease. And they are not Gold-rank teams for the same reason you are not yet; they lack experience, or raw firepower, or…”
“I get it. Thanks, Falene.”
Ceria sighed. Falene shot her a glance and Ceria tried to give her a smile. She knew Falene cared, in her way. But it was hard to talk to her. She turned to Pisces. This conversation would be easier—if it had to happen—after they were done standing in the muck and having a nice drink at Erin’s inn. That was what Ceria and her team had been doing all the time of late. Drinking, eating, while the door slowly moved north to Invrisil. Did Ceria feel lazy for doing it? Yes. But she was enjoying herself. And besides, they were working. Even if this was just an easy—
Pisces’ voice made Ceria looked up. His eyes were suddenly locked on the cave. He licked his lips.
“Ah. Er—back up. Back—oh dear.”
“Pisces? Something wrong?”
The [Necromancer] didn’t respond at first. The buzzing inside the cave had reached a crescendo. Ceria exchanged a glance with Falene.
“The uh—the Bone Horror began demolishing the hive. But—oh no. The bees are covering the Bone Horror.”
“So what? They can’t hurt it, right?”
“That was my assumption. And I thought the flames they emitted weren’t hot enough to—but it is very hot and I think the bone is—the bone is cracking—”
Ceria heard a snap at the same time Pisces yelled. She jumped. The cracking had come from the cave! Pisces stumbled back.
“They broke it! I just lost my connection! They burnt my Bone Horror to pieces! And they’re coming! Raise a barrier!”
He pointed towards the cave. Ceria blinked. She raised her hand and looked at Falene.
“[Force Barrier]. It’s hardly an issue. They won’t be able to—”
The walls of bone and ice were rising out of the ground, sealing off the cave. They made it halfway up, Ceria’s ice spell racing up faster than Pisces’ bone magic when there was a thrumming sound. And then a few hundred bees blasted out of the cave.
A flaming, flying fireball of insects smashed into the growing bone wall, blowing it to pieces. Ceria saw her ice wall melt in a second. The bees shot towards the entrance and stopped, ramming into something at the entrance. Falene’s [Force Wall] bulged but held. Falene staggered. And suddenly her expression had grown intense. Her eyes widened and she raised her staff and planted it in the ground.
“Oh tree rot. My wall just—”
“Raise another! Now!”
Falene shouted at her. Behind her, the other adventurers looked around and saw the bugs swarming at the entrance. Ceria tried.
“Okay, it’s coming up! It should—grass shit! They just melted it!”
Her ice wall got hallway up before the heat melted straight through the wall. Ceria tried again, but her ice magic couldn’t even get close to the bees.
“Pisces? How’s that bone?”
“It’s cracking! They’re too hot! We underestimated them! Back up!”
He grabbed Falene, but the half-Elf shook him off. She had planted her staff in the ground.
“If I move, the [Force Barrier] will break. I’m—holding them—Ylawes, Dawil!”
The other adventurers raced up towards the cave. Ylawes stared at the bees, then at Ceria and Pisces.
“The Bone Horror—”
“They turned it to ash! They’re a lot hotter than I thought they were! We need to pull back!”
“You can’t outrun bees! Aw, hell! Moore! Cover me in vines! I’m going to get in there. You cover me while I knock as many down as I can. If I can get enough—”
“We’re with you.”
“Indeed. Allow us to be sacrificial decoys while the [Mages] retreat. Then we shall retreat, assuming we are alive.”
Yvlon lifted her sword. Ksmvr had already readied his Forceshield and shortsword. Ylawes looked at Jelaqua and held out a hand.
“I meant Ksmvr. Yv, put your helmet on. Shield your face. Borrow Ksmvr’s shield. Dawil?”
“Helmet on. Face covered. Just block the bees and our armor will hold. Got it?”
The [Warriors] nodded. They were squaring up, facing the cave. Jelaqua cursed as she lifted her flail.
“Moore! Thorns on all of us! Can you do a face covering? Ah, hells, hells—I’m just glad we have more bodies back at Erin’s inn! Falene, let us get close! Can you set up some spells? Ceria? Pisces? We could use a trap or spell!”
“I can’t do anything. I can only hold this barrier and it’s draining my mana too quickly to—”
Falene was gasping. Ceria looked around, trying to figure out what she could do.
“I can throw some ice magic but they’ll melt it! Hold on—”
“No time. I’ll hit them with a lightning spell as they come out, but I don’t know [Lightning Bolt]. Ceria, start running. I’ll pick up Falene and [Flash Step] after you. Ksmvr. Run! Moore as well!”
Pisces’ face was tense. Ksmvr looked around as he handed his shield to Yvlon.
“I believe it is time to run, friend Moore. We are useless and fragile. Friend Moore? Hello?”
“I can’t keep holding it—”
“Let it go in ten seconds! Get ready!”
Ylawes strode up towards the entrance. He’d raised his shield in front of his face. Dawil took his left side, Yvlon his right. Jelaqua was already waiting. The Selphid turned back to face the others.
“They’re going to come out in one mass. Cover your faces and maybe you won’t get stung too bad. But we have to be bait. Get in there, kill that queen. Got it?”
“I believe we might be in trouble.”
Ksmvr was tugging on Moore’s arm. Falene gasped.
Pisces grabbed Falene and lifted her up in both arms with a grunt. The willowy half-Elf yelped and her spell went out. The bees buzzed forwards as Ceria, already running backwards and shouting for the others to follow, fired an [Ice Spike] at the fireball. She watched it melt as the Ashfire Bees blasted forwards—
A quiet voice interrupted the shouting. As Ceria ran past Moore, the half-Giant tapped his staff on the ground. A wall of stone shot up, a huge rocky stalactite four times as thick as Ceria or Pisces’ spells. It shot up like lightning. Ceria, looking back over her shoulders, saw the bees flashing towards the cave’s entrance for only a second before a crash of sound and spray of rocks made the adventurers near the cave flinch back.
Ceria ducked as some rocks blasted out, but they were only fragments. She saw a few bees buzzing around the entrance, heard a dull buzzing from within and then there was silence. She stared at the cave. The entrance was completely closed off, by…stone. Actual stone, not a temporary magical conjuration. The other adventurers looked around. Moore exhaled slowly. His plain walking staff raised and he straightened his shoulders. He regarded his work, then looked around.
“I think most of them avoided that. But the cave’s sealed. I don’t believe Ashfire Bees can dig, and the spire is solid stone. Is everyone alright?”
The adventurers gaped at him. Falene, sweating heavily, kicked in Pisces’ arms. He dropped her. The half-Elf floated before she could land in the muck and righted herself. She walked over to Moore, reached out, and held out a hand. He bent down and offered her an arm. Falene leaned on it. She wiped some sweat from her elegant locks, and then looked at Ceria and Pisces. She pointed at Moore.
“That would be the difference between a Gold-rank [Mage] and you two.”
Ceria stared at Moore and couldn’t find any reason to disagree.
“Okay group, what did we do wrong?”
The adventurers trooping back to Liscor on foot looked over. Jelaqua clapped her hands, smiling with her pale lips. It sounded lighthearted, but it was a serious question. Ceria hesitated. Ksmvr raised his hands, two of them at once.
“If I may, Captain Ivirith, I would venture to say that our teams took this assignment too lightly. We underestimated both the heat and offensive force of the Ashfire Bees, who were able to destroy Comrade Pisces’ Bone Horror with ease.”
“Ridiculous. I solidified the bone. That bear weighed over two hundred pounds without flesh! Even if it had been burnt in a bonfire, it wouldn’t have expired half as quickly—”
Ksmvr went on, ignoring Pisces for once.
“Moreover, Miss Skystrall’s spell, while effective, was flawed in that she was unable to use additional spells, which she no doubt possessed. And the Ashfire Bees were unable to be contained by either Comrade Pisces or Captain Ceria’s magic alone.”
Ceria winced. That was true. She’d been about as useful as a shroom back there. Her [Ice Walls] spell, which were so powerful usually, had been as effective as a sneeze at stopping the Ashfire Bees when they were on fire. Jelaqua nodded at Ksmvr, grinning.
“Sounds about right. But don’t be too hard on Ceria or Pisces, eh, Ksmvr? Us warriors couldn’t do much more than act as meat shields. If I had brought a few high-grade alchemy potions, we could have done something. But we should have had another fallback. Good job Moore was testing out his new spell, huh?”
“Indeed. His actions saved us much death and casualty.”
“Yeah. Good job, big guy!”
Jelaqua slapped Moore on the back. Ylawes nodded. Dawil nudged Moore’s thigh. Ceria and Pisces also voiced their agreement. Moore blushed.
“I was only relieved it worked.”
“Was that a new spell?”
Yvlon glanced up at Moore. The half-Giant nodded.
“I acquired it after the battle with the Redfang tribe. I’d leveled up from the dungeon, but this was the first spell I earned. And it is…rewarding.”
A small smile spread across his broad face. Falene, walking by him, nodded as proudly as if she were a doting mother. Ceria glanced at Pisces. His eyebrows were raised. They began to whisper to each other as Liscor’s gates came into view.
“Tree rot, I thought we were in trouble, Pisces.”
“I as well. That was a…commendably powerful spell.”
“No kidding? That was strong! Sealing caves aside, imagine being hit by that? He could wipe out our entire group in one shot! That’s either Tier 3 or Tier 4. Well, a fireball’s Tier 3—”
“But that rock stays in place. Definitely Tier 4. It’s earth manipulation. Quite powerful. You know, I had heard other [Mages] had different areas of strength, but I’d forgotten how useful earth magic is with its permanence. It shapes the earth, whereas [Ice Magic] is quicker, but less malleable, less durable—”
“And it melts. Yeah. We suck.”
“Indeed. Hello, Captain Ceria, Comrade Pisces. I am reflecting on my worthlessness as well. I am very depressed.”
Ksmvr popped up between Ceria and Pisces. They jumped. Yvlon walked forwards to join them, shaking her head.
“We made a bad call, Ksmvr. Don’t beat yourself up over it.”
“My remonstrations are purely mental agony, Yvlon.”
“Don’t do that either. We’re lucky we had the Silver Swords and Halfseekers to bail us out.”
“And don’t you forget it! Aw, don’t worry though. Live and learn! We got out of this alive! So I’ll forget that none of us thought to make a backup plan either! Selphid’s tits, I’m not taking a contract on Ashfire Bees again!”
Jelaqua laughed behind them. Dawil nodded.
“Stroke of fortune we were all here. We’ve gotten complacent after the dungeon. But we learned our lesson, eh? Speaking of which, Jelaqua.”
“Hm? What’s that, Dawil?”
“You said Selphid’s tits. That a common Balerosian expression?”
“Eh, pretty much. Why?”
“Well, I was wondering. Do Selphids have—”
Ylawes coughed. He nudged Dawil hard, his face red.
“Dawil. That’s not polite conversation.”
“Hey, I don’t mind. And I could tell you the answer, but I could also show you. Anyone? Uh…anyone?”
The other adventurers laughed. Ceria shook off the moment of robes-soiling fear and filed the moment of trauma away for later reflection. She walked back into Liscor, listening to a convoluted description of Selphid anatomy until they got to the Adventurer’s Guild.
“Hey, Selys! We’re back!”
Jelaqua sang out as the pushed the door open. Selys was sitting at the desk, chatting with another Drake [Receptionist]. She looked up.
“Oh? You killed the Ashfire Bees, then?”
Jelaqua looked back at Ceria. The half-Elf sighed. She’d been the one to take the contract, so she had to explain.
“Sealed. Not destroyed. Uh, we’re giving credit to the Halfseekers. You see…”
She gave Selys a truncated explanation of what had happened, with Jelaqua throwing in little asides. Selys blinked, but she nodded at the end of Ceria’s story.
“Sounds like you handled it. And sealed works as well as destroyed. The nest will starve itself out. I’ll see about putting out a warning for no one to try and unseal the cave—not that I’d know why. Some paint will do that. Let me just write that down…and your reward. To the Halfseekers, I guess.”
“Aw, we don’t need—”
“You sealed it, it’s yours.”
Ceria indicated Jelaqua should take the gold and silver coins. The Selphid demurred for another second, but then scooped up the coins.
“I guess we won’t argue over it. I sign for completion, right Selys?”
“That’s right. Normally we can’t give you the money until we confirm the cave’s sealed, but a Gold-rank team is trusted. And…yes, that’s all. Thanks!”
“Ah, perks of the job. Well, shall we head back to the inn?”
Jelaqua grinned at the others. Ceria nodded. She looked around.
“Are the other teams in the dungeon?”
“The…Wings of Pallass are in. So are the Flamewardens. I haven’t seen Gemhammer and the Pride of Kelia is hunting some Shield Spiders.”
“Got it. Well, we’ll head back to the inn. Everyone else coming? First round’s on me.”
Still a bit shamefaced, Ceria waved at the others. Jelaqua laughed.
“You mean, on us! Why not? We should relieve Griffon Hunt. They’re dragging that door along. Selys, will you join us?”
She looked at the Drake. Selys sighed.
“I’d love to. But I’m still working. Tell Erin I might stop by tonight.”
“If we see her. She’s usually at Pallass. She likes it there. Says it’s exciting.”
Selys rolled her eyes. The Drake sitting next to her jabbed her with a claw.
“Told you. You should go with sometimes, Selys! With your…four thousand gold pieces?”
Ceria left the guild as the two [Receptionists] began bickering again. She walked towards the door to The Wandering Inn, talking with the other adventurers, arguing with Falene over which spells she had to learn, cheering up Pisces over his lost bones and destroyed Bone Horror, and checking the sun high in the sky and wondering if it was too early to drink. It felt like another day of peace after the travails of the past.
And like all things, it couldn’t last.
The Wandering Inn was not a busy place anymore. It had been. Somehow, the inn, which had been rebuilt and operated only for a handful of months, had gone through a golden age, a dark age, and a Goblin age, not to mention the good old…ages, when a skeleton had been waiting the tables and Erin’s signature drink of choice was blue and slightly poisonous.
Well, those days were gone. All of them. And the days of Erin’s full inn with audiences watching the Players of Celum on stage were gone. As were the Goblins. Now all that remained were adventurers and a handful of Drakes, Gnolls, and Humans from Liscor and Celum who trickled in and out, sometimes only to order a hamburger, pizza, cake, or another one of the unique foods Erin had pioneered.
The good days might come again. Already there were [Actors] on the stage at the end of the room. A group of Drakes and Gnolls were lined up and reading lines from Hamlet. Ceria didn’t give it a second look. She did focus on the young woman talking to a dark-skinned Stitch-Girl, though.
“Erin! I know you’re going to Pallass, but can I bother you for a second? I have this little problem and I could use some help!”
“I’m on vacation!”
Erin was trying to get to the magical door that Ceria and the other adventurers had just come through. She was having trouble because Octavia was clinging to her waist. The [Alchemist] was speaking quickly, and pointing at the adventurers.
“Look, I don’t want to bother you, but I talked with Krshia and uh, she’s busy so I was hoping you could get some of your adventurer friends to lend me a hand! There’s a tiny issue I have with my shop. Some—some guards would be great!”
She caught sight of the teams at the same time as Erin. Octavia brightened up and spoke even faster.
“And look, we have three, no, four famous teams right here! If I had them—no, just one adventurer standing guard in my shop, or—or helping me sort this business out, that would be great. Fantastic! And I’m sure we could work out a deal? For some free—I mean, a discount? A…sizable discount?”
“Hey Erin. We’re back. Bees aren’t a problem anymore.”
Ceria waved at Erin and took a seat at one of the tables, not even commenting on the Octavia situation. The other adventurers looked equally unfazed. Erin pried Octavia off her.
“No, Octavia. If you’re having trouble, deal with it yourself. I’m on vacation. Or ask one of the teams, but I don’t think they’re gonna say yes.”
“But—oh, Ceria! Jelaqua! Uh…my best [Knight] customer! Can I—”
“I’m afraid I must decline.”
Ceria, Jelaqua, and Ylawes instantly replied. They might not know Octavia, but one look was all they needed. Like Erin, Ceria had the feeling Octavia had some scheme in mind—or she’d gotten herself into trouble. She didn’t want to be part of either scenario. She was slightly surprised Erin wasn’t interested, but the girl had a slightly wary look on her face as she shooed Octavia back towards the door. She was tired of the drama too, Ceria supposed.
“Out! No, no buts. If it’s life or death, you can ask for help. But it’s not. Is it?”
Erin closed the door in Octavia’s face after pushing her out. The [Alchemist] didn’t want to go, but she didn’t have a choice. Erin was pushing with more than just her hands. The door closed, Erin turned back to the others and gave them a smile.
“So? How was it? Did you freeze them all up? Or did Pisces’ Bone Horror smash them? I asked you to bring back as many as you could, didn’t I? Wait—did he use zombies? In that case, no bees makes more sense.”
Ceria shook her head, smiling ruefully.
“We nearly got into a lot of trouble. Those damn bees…if it hadn’t been for Moore, we might have been cooked.”
Erin sat down and listened to the story with wide eyes. Falene sighed as she accepted a cup of cold water from Ishkr.
“I would have used lightning spells. That seems to be the most effective weapon against Ashfire Bees. We simply underestimated how resistant they were to ice magic as well as fire.”
“Well, it’s sealed off now. And that was our only job, so we might head into Celum and see what they have for work. Liscor’s a bit crowded.”
Ceria cracked her fingers and sighed. Erin looked from her to the other Horns.
“Oh. You’re going back to work?”
“We’re ready for it. And Celum won’t have difficult jobs unless something out of the ordinary happens, Erin.”
Yvlon smiled, rubbing at one of her arms. Erin saw Ylawes glancing at them and wondered if they were bothering Yvlon. She claimed she couldn’t feel pain, but—actually she hadn’t spoken about her arms of late, even to complain.
“What about you guys?”
Erin turned to the Silver Swords and the Halfseekers. Jelaqua shrugged.
“We just had breakfast, so I’m not in the mood for any food. Maybe a drink? What did we do yesterday? Just gambled, I guess. We could go for a walk, right, Moore? Where’s Seborn?”
Seborn spoke to Jelaqua’s left. She nearly jumped out of the table. So did Ceria—she hadn’t seen Seborn until he’d spoken.
“Dead gods, Seborn, don’t do that!”
“I’ve been drinking and watching the [Actors]. A walk or some dice would suit me, believe me.”
“I’ve got some Go boards and chess boards. The Antinium haven’t come by of late, so no one’s using them…I’d stay if anyone wanted to play.”
Erin smiled eagerly. Seborn looked up at her, and then at Jelaqua.
“If you want to lose to Erin, be my guest. But I think I’ll walk.”
“Beat you black and blue, did she? I’ll walk. Ylawes?”
“Falene might play you, Erin. But I’m no player of er, those sorts of games. I might talk with Griffon Hunt. They were telling me about fighting Griffins, which I’ve never done. Where are they at the moment? Through the doorway?”
Ylawes looked at the door. Erin nodded and went over to it to adjust the dial.
“Yup. They went through this morning and they’re still there. You wanna go through?”
“Alright. Octavia’s in Celum, and the door—”
Erin adjusted the dial with the mana stones and smiled.
“Here we go. This is so convenient. Why didn’t I…? Okay. Hey, Halrac! Are you—huh?”
Erin pulled the door open. But a curious thing happened: the door didn’t reveal Griffon Hunt and their surroundings. It stayed empty, which meant Erin was just staring at the wall of her inn. She closed the door and frowned at it.
“Weird. I haven’t been to Pallass today and no one else—hold on a sec.”
She opened the door and closed it a few more times, but all it revealed was the dark wood wall. Erin blinked.
“Huh? Uh…Moore? Ceria? Pisces? Falene? I might need a bit of help here.”
A doorway and over a hundred miles away, perhaps even further, a team of adventurers walked down one of the main roads between cities. It was heading north, and currently passing up a slight incline, a gradient of a very long and short hill. There were three of them. There should have been four. Four had come south, but now only three remained. Two were sitting on a wagon pulled by a pair of horses, the last was walking. Halrac was talking to Revi and Typhenous though, so he stayed close, eyes scanning the traffic coming down the hill and head turning in every direction as he talked.
“So the news is accurate?”
Typhenous, the old man sitting comfortably in the wagon on a cushion, looked mildly offended.
“You know me, Halrac. I have a network of sources which are very reliable. And I wouldn’t give Revi uncertain information.”
“Hm. It’s worth the coin, Revi?”
“I think so. Didn’t you hear what I just said? I just read the King of Destruction’s second proclamation before I heard about war being declared on Tiqr! That’s huge!”
Revi was sitting as well, and scowling down at Halrac. The Stitch-Woman pulled at the threads on her hand irritably. The hand came off and turned to cloth; Revi fished out a needle and began to resew it back onto her arm in a way more to her liking. Typhenous coughed as he watched the process with mild fascination.
“Explain it to me again, dear Revi. These er, nations historically had their issues with Tiqr. And yes, Tiqr was potentially an ally of the King of Destruction. But what’s stopping him from declaring war on all the nations involved?”
“Nerrhavia? Illivere? Savere? Are you serious, Typhenous? Those are all heavy hitters and even if Reim goes up against them, Nerrhavia might actually win, King of Destruction or not! Moreover, they’re allied, you see? If it was Nerrhavia vs Flos, they’d be watching their backs because the other nations might take them apart. But this way they could oppose Flos if he declared war. Which he can’t, because Tiqr’s not part of his domain.”
“I see, I see. And if they declared for him?”
Typhenous stroked his long beard rapidly as he thought out loud. Revi shrugged.
“What’s he going to do? He’ll be at war and the other nations could tear Tiqr apart before you could get an army there, even with movement Skills. It’s too far and any force would be taken out. Nerrhavia’s got chariots and a massive army; they can intercept anything Flos might do. Sure, there’s Takhatres, but word is he’s across the desert. So…”
Halrac sighed. He glanced up at a passing bird overhead and stepped sideways as a rider came down the road. The rains had fallen this morning and Halrac might have been splashed if he’d stayed in the same spot. The rider passed by and Halrac returned to his spot. He spoke up to Revi as she flexed her reattached hand.
“Chandrarian politics. Until it affects Izril, I don’t care. The King of Destruction never made it past Zeres, anyways.”
The [Summoner] poked her head over the side of the wagon to show Halrac one of her fingers, proving her hands were in good working condition.
“Don’t underestimate him! I keep telling you, if he’d gone solely against Izril rather than splitting his forces between Baleros and Izril—”
“Yes, yes, Revi. I quite agree. His [Mage], Amerys, was able to lock down a Walled City practically by herself. But continental pride just goes so far. Besides, isn’t your home nation at odds with Flos?”
Typhenous soothed Revi. She huffed back into her seat.
“I’m just saying, Chandrar deserves respect. At least we got that when Flos was rampaging all over. These days all I hear are sand jokes. Anyways, my home nation is part of the Empire of Sands now. I have no idea what’s happened back home and honestly? I’m not going to find out. At least not until—”
There was a door lying in the bed of the wagon. It had a gem embedded in the top and it had been lying without any complaint until now. Suddenly it opened and Revi jumped as another room appeared on the floor of the wagon.
“Aha! It worked! Hey, guys! Wanna snack?”
Griffon Hunt looked down at a smiling face. Erin Solstice waved up at them from the ground, an odd perspective that did weird things to the mind if you stared long enough. Halrac hopped onto the back of the wagon.
“We’re still moving, Erin.”
“I know…but you could take a break. Hey, is there a problem with the door on your end?”
“Nope. And I could use a snack, Halrac. Or trade out with one of the teams.”
Revi peered into the doorway. Halrac eyed Typhenous. The elderly [Mage] shrugged.
“We have been walking for a few hours. Or rather, you have. Let’s just pull us over to the side.”
Halrac let Revi move the wagon off the road. There weren’t many people, but the few that were present were stunned to see Typhenous stand up and suddenly disappear. Revi was next. Halrac climbed up into the wagon when he heard a voice from the other side.
“Hold on. Something’s—”
Suddenly, the door went blank. Halrac stared at the bed of the wagon. In her inn, Erin stared at the door.
“Huh? It’s out of juice. What happened? I thought you guys charged it up!”
She turned to Ceria and Pisces, who’d done the job to make up for their earlier failure. Pisces frowned and peered at the door.
“We did. If not all the way, then adequately for any number of trips. Maybe…”
“Don’t talk, act. Typhenous, let’s fill this up properly.”
Revi scowled and put her hand on the door. So did Typhenous. The [Mage]’s brows shot up.
“The door’s drained.”
“What? But it was only you two who—”
The door came back to life and an image of the road flickered into view again. Halrac was standing outside the door, scowling, his bow drawn, the arrow loose on the string. He glanced up sharply.
“No, the door just ran out of mana. Don’t worry, Halrac.”
The [Scout] nodded and grunted.
“Thought something had happened. Can I come through?”
“Yup. Uh, is the wagon okay?”
“It should be fine for a few minutes. We can keep the door open?”
“Yeah. Just come through in case that happens again.”
Halrac did. When he did, the door suddenly went dark. Erin made a disgusted sound. But Typhenous, who was peering at the door came to the same conclusion that Pisces did.
“Ah. I see. The door is simply too distant, Erin.”
“Precisely my thought. The door isn’t malfunctioning, Miss Solstice. It’s simply that we’ve finally reached a distance too great for casual travel.”
Typhenous straightened with a groan and massaged his back. Erin stared blankly at him and then her eyes widened.
Jelaqua came over and peered at the door as the image of the other side reappeared once more.
“We passed Celum a long while ago. So we must be…well, hells. If we’re two hundred miles away, doesn’t that mean each trip is like…one half of Invrisil?”
“Assuredly. Even if it’s only a third of the distance, that’s a considerable distance. And the mana drain must be exponentially increasing.”
Typhenous sighed as he rapped on the door with his staff. Pisces nodded. He sniffed.
“I suppose this will inhibit travel somewhat. We can recharge the door, but it is taxing.”
“Aw. I guess we’ll have to let only one team go through at a time. And only rotate you guys out once per day or something. That’s a pain.”
Erin peered at the door, looking miffed. She shook her head.
“I really need to see if this thing can be upgraded.”
“Unless you know an [Enchanter] on the level of Warmage Thresk…”
“Who? Anyways, let’s have a snack while you guys decide who’s going through. For like, a day, unless one of you lovely [Mages] wants to recharge the door? I’ll give you free drinks.”
Erin looked around hopefully, but she didn’t have any takers. Ceria felt tired even from the few spells she’d cast this morning after recharging the door once. The other [Mages] demurred as well. It was Halrac who stared at the door and the clear skies beyond and looked around slowly.
“Maybe it’s time to go.”
Erin blinked. She looked at Halrac. So did Revi and Typhenous. Revi raised her eyebrows.
“Go, go? I mean, if you want to, Halrac. But couldn’t we stay until Invrisil?”
“I heard one of our companions is working far west of there. We’re close enough; it would save us a lot of travel to split around now. And if we’re wasting mana—perhaps it’s time. We’ve saved a lot of effort in travelling this far. What do you think? Typhenous?”
“We have been sedentary. I dislike to say goodbye so abruptly, but you have a point. I wouldn’t be adverse to it.”
Typhenous stroked his beard. He looked at Revi and she nodded. Halrac turned to Erin. She looked at him, and then his teammates and laughed nervously.
“Aha. Ha. But you don’t mean that, right, Halrac? Right?”
“I do. I think it’s probably time. This is…as good an excuse as any.”
The [Scout] didn’t quite meet Erin’s eyes. But he was certain. Erin opened her mouth and closed it a few times.
“That may be our cue as well.”
The voice came from behind them. Erin turned. Ylawes was on his feet. The [Knight] looked towards the door.
“We’re far enough north. We could begin looking for work at the first village we come across. And today’s job reminded me. We have been staying here a long time.”
Falene got up too. Dawil glanced at the two of them, then sighed and downed his mug. He got up.
“I suppose you’re right for once, lad. It has been fun, but if we’re all leaving, better to do it together.”
“Wait, wait. You’re not serious. Are you?”
Erin looked from Ylawes to Halrac. The [Scout] still had trouble meeting her eyes, but Ylawes came over. The [Knight] held out a hand as he removed his gauntlet.
“We’re truly grateful for your hospitality, Miss Erin. But my team and I came south to check on my sister. Since she no longer needs my help and she won’t come to our estates…I think this might be a proper opportunity to say goodbye as well.”
“But…now? The door’s just on the fritz. Don’t mind it.”
Erin kicked the door. She looked around. This was too sudden. And yet, it had been coming. And the third Gold-rank Captain who stood up confirmed it. Jelaqua had an odd smile on her face. Regretful, embarrassed. But she came to stand with Ylawes and Halrac.
“I guess we’ll do the same. Moore, Seborn? Guess we’ve got to pack. Toss everything in your bag of holding and get ready to go.”
Moore looked up. He was patting Mrsha’s head. Seborn stood up. Erin turned around.
“Wait, wait, wait. This is so fast!”
“But we have been thinking about it. We are going to Invrisil for a reason, Miss Solstice. But I think our paths will take us away from the City of Adventurers, at least for now.”
Typhenous spoke gently. Erin looked at Jelaqua.
“But you guys are taking the door, right? You don’t have to go. I mean, you’re not going. You can come back whenever! So it’s just…”
The Selphid waved her hand gently as she shook her head.
“Nah. Think about it. We’d have to charge up your door to let all three of us go back and forth, and we need to have a team watching that door, right? You wouldn’t be able to go to Pallass if we did that, anyways. So…we’ll head out. You might see us once or twice before we get to Invrisil, but I think it’s good to say goodbye. With the others. For solidarity.”
She couldn’t quite meet Erin’s eyes either. The [Innkeeper] looked around again. The Horns were staring at the other teams in surprise. But it was mild. In her heart, Ceria couldn’t be that shocked by the sudden decision. The Halfseekers, Griffon Hunt, the Silver Swords…they were adventurers. Come to that, it was strange for Ceria to have stayed so long in Liscor. She didn’t stand up, though. She couldn’t do that to Erin.
The young woman was laughing a bit. But it faded away as she looked around.
“You’re serious. But why not go tomorrow?”
“Better today. We’ll get our things.”
“Oh. Okay. Um…but…”
Erin blinked as Halrac reached out. He changed the mana stone on the door and walked through to Liscor. She stared at the Silver Swords as they went through.
“Let’s get our stuff. We’re not gonna run off, but we have uh, stuff to pack. Lots of little shiny rolling things. Boys?”
Jelaqua headed up the stairs. Erin looked up as Moore got up. He gently put Mrsha on the floor and walked up the stairs. She faintly heard his voice and Jelaqua’s as Mrsha ran up after him.
“Does it have to be so soon, Jelaqua?”
“Hey. Do I look like I’m smiling? It’s just that if they’re going—you want to say goodbye later? It’s already hard…”
Someone opened a door and the voices vanished. Erin looked around. The Horns were sitting in place. Lyonette and Ishkr blinked at her. And Erin panicked.
“Hold on. Hold on, cake! Ishkr, do we have any cake? Anything?”
She ran into the kitchen. Lyonette followed her in as Erin tore it apart, looking for cake or the ingredients for it. But she didn’t have anything festive. She still couldn’t keep ice cream without it melting.
And—it felt like a moment before both teams were back. After all, they just had to pay and put everything they needed into a bag of holding. It took them minutes. The door opened and Griffon Hunt and the Silver Swords walked back in. Jelaqua, Moore, and Seborn were already sitting in the common room.
“Okay, there’s no cake or ice cream. But if you just hold on, I can make one. Give me an hour and I can whip something up! Or I can get Lasica and Rufelt to help me—”
Erin came back out of the kitchen and looked from face to face. It was Jelaqua who cut her off gently. The Selphid gripped Erin’s shoulder with a pale hand and smiled at her.
“It’s fine, Erin. You’ve done so much already. We don’t need a party. Honestly, I’d feel bad if you gave us one. We normally don’t stay so long in one place.”
“But this is so sudden! This is a snap decision! You shouldn’t make those! And you’re springing it on me without giving me a day to process it! Can’t you wait an hour? Can’t you—”
The [Innkeeper]’s voice faltered and broke. She looked around.
“Do you have to go so quick?”
The inn fell silent. The [Actors] on stage realized there was a real drama going on behind them and turned. The other patrons turned to stare. Perhaps this was why they’d come to begin with. To see a moment. But this was no [Immortal Moment]. And it was going far too fast.
“Just wait a day? Please? We can have a party.”
Erin implored Jelaqua. The Selphid did hesitate. And she did smile. But she shook her head.
“I think we’ve been doing that. Wait an hour and it becomes a day. Wait one day and it becomes a week. We got treasure from the dungeon, Erin. We did it. But we’re tired. I’m not going back in that dungeon. So…it’s time to go.”
She looked around. Ylawes nodded. Halrac finally looked up. He met Erin’s eye.
“It is. And it’s easier this way. Which is why we’re going. It’s time to say our goodbyes.”
It did feel too soon. It did feel abrupt. But as all three teams looked at each other, they knew it was time. Jelaqua had spoken the truth. You could put off going again and again. But you’d never feel like it was the right time to go.
“Well—well, you have to wait one second! I’m not letting you go empty-handed!”
Erin looked around defiantly. She ran into the kitchen and rushed out. She shoved a small canteen into Halrac’s hands.
“Here. Faerie Flower drink. And for you guys I’m making a lunch basket. At least for Moore! And—and Dawil can fill his water flask with that stupid lager and—”
Ceria stopped her. The young woman looked up as Ceria grabbed by the arm. Ceria wanted to tell Erin to stop overreacting. That it was just a goodbye. That they’d be back. But she couldn’t, because as she looked into Erin’s face, she saw the girl’s eyes were overflowing.
She was crying. And when the adventurers saw that, they felt…terrible. And they knew it was beyond time to go. Because she was an [Innkeeper]. And they were adventurers.
They could not stay forever.
There was no party. And it was a split decision. But there was a formality to it nonetheless. The teams went one at a time. The Silver Swords were first. Ylawes, wearing the silvery armor that still shone by virtue of polishing. Dawil stood next to him, taller than you’d think a Dwarf could be, a hand on his hammer. Was he blinking too fast? Falene was dry-eyed as she held her staff. But she bent her head and nodded to Erin.
“It was a pleasure.”
“You helped my sister and I in countless ways, Erin. I cannot thank you enough for your hospitality.”
The young woman sniffed and rubbed at her nose and eyes as she looked up at Ylawes.
“I thought you were a jerk! And I know you’re sort of a jerk, Falene. Dawil is cool.”
“Hah! Hear that?”
The Dwarf nudged his companion. Falene almost smiled as she looked down at Erin. And then Ylawes knelt. As a [Knight] might to a [Princess]. He held Erin’s hand for a second before he stood.
“We didn’t converse often, it’s true. And I think your…Hobgoblin friends affected how we interacted. I do wish we could have spoken longer, Miss Solstice. But it isn’t a farewell forever. The Silver Swords are always roaming. And if we ever pass by Invrisil or Liscor in the future…”
He drifted off. And his eyes went back to Erin as he stepped back. Falene was next. She looked down awkwardly at Erin and sniffed.
“It was a pleasure. At times. Your inn is quite fascinating, Miss Solstice. Even if we haven’t spoken—”
“I didn’t mean you were a jerk, jerk.”
Erin snuffled. Falene tapped her cheek and Erin’s running nose and tears dried for a second. The half-Elf looked at Erin, looking uncomfortable. Then she nodded to herself and adopted a lecturing, familiar tone. But a caring one.
“Be cautious of Wistram, Miss Solstice. I have no doubt they’ll be interested in that door of yours. As will others. I suggest you refuse all offers and invest in some form of security. And if you should need a proper [Enchanter], try Hedault in Invrisil when your door is active. Inform him that Falene of the Silver Swords recommends you and he might be more inclined to entertain your requests. As for the rest, I can only bid you good luck and farewell. I am sure we will meet again. For what is time to half-Elves?”
Erin snuffled. Falene yelped as an arm thrust her aside. Dawil took her place.
“You are terrible at goodbyes, Pointy. Which is my new name for you.”
He turned to Erin, who was laughing in between her tears. She looked at him.
“I met a Dwarf in Pallass! I was going to tell you all about him! His name is Pelt and—do you have to go? Can’t you talk sense into Ylawes and…everyone?”
The Dwarf smiled into his beard. He held Erin’s hand, patting it gently.
“I’d love to. But what do you do when they’re speaking it? As for Dwarves—I told you! We don’t all know each other. But I do know that one. Watch out for him, lass. He got kicked out of our people’s home for a big mistake. Not really his fault; he was only one of the smiths. There was this thing with the forge master, you see—but that’s his tale.”
He took a breath and shook his head.
“I’d stay if I could. You’re generous, the inn’s fun, and even if you don’t sell enough good alcohols, I like it here. We’ll be back. For what’s time to a Dwarf? A lot, that’s what! But I’ll be sure to make the boy and Pointy drop by.”
Erin gripped Dawil’s hand. He eyed the knife in the little sheathe at her side.
“Nice work. You keep yourself safe now, you hear?”
He stepped back. Next came the Halfseekers. Jelaqua, wearing leather armor instead of an enchanted artifact, her skin pale and dead. But her eyes alive. Seborn, half-man, half crustacean, but more than the sum of his parts, nimble as a cat. Moore, stooping, eyes already filled with his own tears. Gentle and mighty.
Jelaqua wasn’t crying. She was hiccupping, though.
“I said I wouldn’t cry. Seborn, you go first. I can’t.”
She turned away. And Erin realized the body she wore wasn’t crying. But someone inside it was. Seborn went first.
“I think we haven’t spoken much either.”
“But you’re cool. Like sea-Batman.”
The Drowned Man smiled. His crab hand opened and closed softly.
“I have no idea what that means. But I seldom do with you. You’ve been kind, Erin Solstice. That’s a rarity for Drowned Folk. If we meet again, if you meet one of my kin, I hope you’ll treat them just as well. Thank you. That’s all I can say.”
He stepped back. Moore was next. A big tear fell from his eyes.
“This is always so hard. No—this is uniquely hard. Miss Erin, your inn was the most comfortable place I’ve stayed in years. And Mrsha, Lyonette…if I could stay, I would. But I buried my friend here. And my companions are going. We have to start again. I’m afraid…but I will remember your kindness.”
He bend and Erin gave him a tight hug. Jelaqua was next. She was still hiccupping.
“This is…this is so embarrassing. Erin, I—you’re my favorite [Innkeeper]. I’d stay. I would. But I’ll get fat and Moore will get way too attached, more than he is already. And where would we be? I…this is hard. But we have to go. But we will come back. Promise.”
She gripped Erin’s arms. Then she hugged Erin. The Halfseekers joined the Silver Swords. And then only Griffon Hunt was left. They walked forwards. Halrac, his dour expression for once struggling to hide something. Revi, tugging on her strings, looking embarrassed and sad. And Typhenous, looking…melancholy. Happy and old, as if he remembered his age suddenly. Halrac spoke abruptly.
“It was worth the trip. If Ulrien were here, he would have said so. I wish you could have talked longer with him, Erin. But it was worth it. Thank you.”
He turned away. Erin tackled him from behind. She hugged him as the [Scout] froze. She only let go once she was done. He was blushing as she turned.
“I’ll miss you!”
“And we’ll miss you. Despite everything. Somehow, this was fun.”
Revi held out her hand. Erin took it. The Stitch-Woman surprised Erin by hugging her.
“Who ever knew that a strange skeleton would lead us here? You stay safe. You’re insane and crazy and I hope your inn does well. We’ll be back. And you just wait for us. We’ll be properly famous, then.”
She let go. Typhenous was last. He stroked his beard as he looked at Erin, at her inn.
“Ah, Miss Solstice. I don’t know what to make of you. I don’t know what to say of your inn. I owe you my apologies for my impositions. Thanks for all you’ve done. I still owe you a debt. And I will repay it someday. But for now, we must away. And so I can only leave you with this.”
He bent and gently hugged Erin. Then he stepped back.
And there they were. Nine adventurers. Three teams. They looked at Erin and she was overcome. So, to let her say something, and because they were left, all three teams said their farewells to the Horns of Hammerad.
Ceria, Pisces, Yvlon, and Ksmvr shook hands and exchanged hugs. Each of the adventurers had advice for them, each in their own way, stern and caring, abrupt and funny.
“Don’t be afraid to run away.”
“You’re not Gold-ranks yet. But you have potential. Keep practicing until you can properly call yourselves Wistram mages.”
“You did well.”
“Keep advancing. Your team has done well. Take it slowly.”
“Don’t let that your Captain turn into someone like Pointy.”
“Best of luck.”
“Luck, young Pisces. Miss Yvlon. Ksmvr. Ceria.”
“Hey, you’ll make it! Just watch out when Ksmvr goes places or he’ll scare people. That goes for Pisces too.”
Ylawes paused as he gripped Yvlon’s hand gently. He looked at her arms, and then into his sister’s eyes.
“You’ve found a good team, haven’t you, Yvlon?”
“Then I will see you later. Visit father and mother when you can. Your sister would like to see you. But if I see them first…I’ll tell them you’re well.”
He turned. And the door was waiting. The adventurers slowly walked towards it. Moore was slowest, Falene fastest. The half-Giant had to bend down.
He’d said goodbye with the others. But Mrsha didn’t want to let go. She clung to Moore’s leg, looking up at him pleadingly. The half-Giant looked so stricken, Lyonette had to help pry Mrsha off him. And then he had to say goodbye to her as the others gathered around the door. Moore bent down and his face was completely wet. But he lifted something with one hand, concealing it as he spoke.
“Keep practicing. You’re quite surprising, little one. You’ll be better than I ever could be. But remember, you aren’t just a [Mage]. You’re something more.”
He offered her a flower, as white as Mrsha’s fur, with a tiny pink center. The Gnoll clutched it in her paws, her eyes leaking tears. Moore stood. And the adventurers stood in front of the door. They turned.
“I—I—I don’t know what to say! Someone say something good! What can I say?”
Erin wept as she looked from face to face. She raised a fist and shook it weakly.
“You—you’re all jerks. Because you’re too nice! You came in here, made friends with me, saved my life. How dare you? How dare you do all that and just go without me being able to say how much I’ll miss you? Why can’t you stay?”
And at least, that was a question they could answer. Ylawes stroked his chin. Falene sniffed and sighed. Dawil grinned. Jelaqua laughed and hiccupped. Moore bowed his head, smiling though his tears. Seborn laughed softly. Halrac blinked. Revi snorted and Typhenous stroked his beard. They answered as one.
“Because we’re adventurers.”
Then they turned and left. Erin called out to them. She didn’t know what she said. She shouted their names, she shouted goodbyes. She shouted insults and jokes and knew she couldn’t have stopped them.
They walked out the door, the [Mages] going last to charge it with magic. Falene was last to go, which was really a mistake because she marched through without a final backwards glance, having said her goodbyes.
And then they were gone. Erin burst into tears again. Mrsha howled, and there was sadness. But that was how it always was with goodbyes. The best ones hurt the most.
Nine adventurers appeared in a small road leading north. They walked up, out of a door parked against a stationary wagon. The horses and a few passersby got the fright of their lives, but the adventurers moved in silence. A few stayed on the wagon. One took the reins and steered the horses to the road. The rest walked. In silence, for quite a few minutes. In the end, perhaps predictably, Revi broke the silence.
“That was emotionally exhausting.”
The other adventurers glanced at her. Then they burst out laughing. And the silence, the reverie was broken. They laughed as if they’d heard a fantastic joke. And then they walked or rode on, leaving the inn behind them. Revi grumbled to herself as she sat next to Typhenous.
“Erin is the most involved [Innkeeper] I’ve ever met! I bet’s that’s her class. [Emotional Innkeeper] or something.”
“Yeah, well. We’ll be back. Besides, who starts crying over a single inn?”
Jelaqua shook her head as she walked with Ylawes and Halrac. The other two captains looked at her. The Selphid grinned.
Three teams went north. The Halfseekers. The Silver Swords. Griffon Hunt. Neither Halrac nor Ylawes said it out loud, but it did feel like an ending. Even more than leaving Erin’s inn, this was the last time they might meet in months or years. Perhaps forever. But they didn’t say it. Jelaqua looked from captain to captain, then she put her hands behind her head.
“Damn. It really feels like we’re really not going to see each other for a long time when we walk around together like this, huh? Sort of ominous.”
Halrac chuckled. He couldn’t help it. Ylawes gave him a sideways glance, and then smiled. They walked in silence for a bit, and then Halrac pulled something out of his belt pouches. It was a bit of parchment, worn and folded. He began checking it with a quill as he walked. With the other hand he was investigating the contents of his bag of holding. Jelaqua eyed him.
“What’re you doing, Halrac? Making sure you didn’t leave anything behind? Because I’m sure Erin will flip if you come back so soon.”
The [Scout] gave Jelaqua a long look. She just grinned at him.
“I’m checking our income. We’re finally making money. I’m just doing a tally to make sure I know how much we have. I did a count a few days back, but I feel like I missed something.”
“Oh. We should do that too. Uh—hey, Seborn! How much money do we have?”
The Drowned Man walking with Moore and patting the Half-Giant on the arm gave an eloquent shrug. Jelaqua sighed.
“Moore’s gonna cry about Mrsha for days. You were right, though, Halrac. Imagine waiting a day? Erin would get us in some epic party or have this big thing before we left…you bastard.”
The [Scout]’s lips twitched again at that. What was wrong with him today? He might have taken a sip of Erin’s last gift to him, that was what it. He shook his head as he looked at the wagon.
“We’ll be back. A door in Invrisil means Erin’s inn will have access to both north and south.”
“Yeah, but not until she can upgrade the door itself or find a way to generate—how much did Moore say it was?—a shipload of mana.”
Ylawes chuckled this time. Jelaqua gave him a very pleased grin.
“So what’s happening with your groups? We’re on to new adventures. With the money we have, we need to rebuild our team. Maybe we’ll come back, but Pallass’ teams have that dungeon locked down. And frankly, it smelled like a huge trap to me.”
Halrac and Ylawes both nodded. The [Knight] frowned.
“I got that sense too while we were in the dungeon. Some of those traps were deadly. The horde monsters nearly took out Liscor. The Raskghar on the other hand were probably an unexpected threat from whomever built the dungeon. However, it was the inner city we never saw that perplexed me. I listened to that Minotaur, you know.”
Both Jelaqua and Halrac were surprised. The [Knight] nodded.
“Briefly. I visited his prison to question him. I wanted to see if he truly was the monster he seemed to be.”
Halrac’ grip tightened on his quill.
“He was uncomfortably sane at times. Sane, and then—I think he truly did go mad. Or the dungeon had some hold on him. But he described the inner city to me. The…things in there. The deceased guardian. I’m not ashamed to say it made me uneasy. I can’t fathom why that city exists.”
Halrac paused in doing calculations to nod.
“I agree with you, Ylawes. The Minotaur’s description of the inner city makes me uneasy.”
“Why’s that, Halrac?”
Jelaqua gave the [Scout] a curious glance. They were both old adventurers and Jelaqua was technically older than Ylawes and more experienced, but he had seen more dungeons and he was a [Scout]. The man paused before replying.
“Because a few hundred thousand Infested creatures—even if they’re as dangerous as Ghouls—isn’t a threat worthy of this place. Our team never met this…Facestealer, but the Flesh Worm boss called Skinner wasn’t worthy of this dungeon either. If Erin Solstice and some Antinium could do it in, even if it was her, it was too weak.”
Ylawes and Jelaqua nodded slowly. The Selphid snapped her fingers.
“True. Someone with the power to make a dungeon like that would have many boss-class monsters, not just three. And even those horde rooms felt basic.”
“So either there’s some big trap that we haven’t seen, or those three boss monsters and this Mother of Graves are truly dangerous enough for the entire dungeon…”
Ylawes rubbed at his chin. Halrac nodded.
“Or it wasn’t meant to be a dungeon, but a hiding place. Or…someone raided most of it before we ever got there.”
“How do you figure? We made out pretty rich, didn’t w—”
Jelaqua caught herself as she gestured at Halrac’s bag of holding. Ylawes sighed, but he just shook his head. Halrac nodded as Jelaqua developed a cough.
“We did. But consider this: the first treasure hauls out of Chalence pulled nearly four million gold coin’s worth of looted treasure in the first year. It turned the team that first cleared the dungeon into Named Adventurers. Six teams of the adventurers retired on the loot and eighteen became minor landed nobility from that alone.”
“But that was Chalence. A legendary dungeon.”
“So? This dungeon wasn’t as impressive, and perhaps it was a vengeance dungeon. But even so, there wasn’t nearly enough treasure. It’s very strange how little there was. And that inner city—it could be the lion’s share of treasure is in the center. In that hole Calruz found or it was never there to begin with. Either way, Jelaqua is right. It was dangerous. Let the other teams work on it carefully. I feel quitting was the best move.”
Silently, the other two captains nodded. They walked on. After a while, Halrac made a small noise. Jelaqua glanced up.
The [Scout] was checking his list. He glanced up and looked around.
“No, nothing. I think we’re fine. I didn’t realize we had so…”
He trailed off as he glanced at Ylawes. The [Knight] looked stoically ahead. Halrac stowed his list and walked on. Fifteen minutes later, he calmly turned his head and spoke to Jelaqua.
“Is Typhenous still looking at me?”
The Selphid’s head nearly turned, and then she caught herself. She swatted at an imaginary fly and looked right.
Ylawes glanced sideways at Halrac. The [Scout]’s face hadn’t changed. But the way he’d asked and said that…
“Is there an issue, Halrac?”
“Yes. The numbers don’t add up in my list. And I saw Typhenous glancing at me while I was doing my calculations.”
Both Jelaqua and Ylawes inhaled sharply, but they never broke their measured stride. Jelaqua cursed under her breath, keeping a smile on her face.
“Damn it all. If it’s not one thing…you want a hand?”
Ylawes looked sick, but before he could offer, Halrac shook his head.
“You’re misunderstanding the situation. Typhenous didn’t steal. The opposite, actually. I’m going to have a word with him.”
He turned and walked back towards the wagon. Jelaqua and Ylawes heard him call out. Typhenous got up and hopped off the wagon. They slowed until they were at a distance. Jelaqua whistled.
“Well, that’ a new one on me. What do you think happened?”
“I shouldn’t speculate.”
“Aw, spoilsport. Well, I’m gonna talk with my team. I heard you were going to go soonest, right? Don’t run off without letting us know!”
Ylawes nodded. Jelaqua jogged around the wagon to Seborn and Moore. The half-Giant had stopped crying, but he was still red-eyed. Jelaqua grabbed both, Seborn by the shoulders, Moore by the small of the back.
“Hey you two! Ready to be independent adventurers living on the road?”
“Yes. And no.”
“We’re still going to Invrisil, aren’t we?”
“Yup, Seborn. But we’re free after that. Unless you have an idea? You were hinting about that before.”
She glanced at the Drowned Man. Seborn was silent for a while.
“I do have things to do.”
“Secret. It’s personal. I’m not in trouble like Typhenous, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“But you don’t want to say.”
“Come on, tell me. We’ve been journeying together for ages. Why keep anything from us?”
Jelaqua prodded Seborn. The Drowned Man gave her a reproving look.
“And if I don’t want to tell you? What will you do?”
“Threaten you until you stab me and run off to become the most famous Goblin Chieftain this side of the continent?”
Seborn chuckled. Moore didn’t. He looked distressed.
“That’s truly not funny, Jelaqua.”
“I thought it was.”
“Exactly. And you know I’m not gonna let this drop, Seborn. Lies and secrets tore our group apart once. It’s not happening again.”
The smile Jelaqua gave Seborn was friendly, but she tightened her grip on his arm. He looked at her and hesitated. But he still shook his head. Jelaqua sighed.
“Fine. You want to play coy? Then it’s time to go back to the old ways. If a member of our team has secrets, we settle it. Moore? You know what to do.”
Dawil and Falene joined Ylawes as he walked on the other side of the wagon. That left just Revi driving, much to her displeasure. The Dwarf and half-Elf looked quizzically at their leader.
“Something up with Typhenous, lad?”
“Perhaps. But it’s their dispute. Let’s leave them to it.”
Falene nodded to the right.
“I note another dispute on our right.”
Ylawes looked over and nearly tripped. The Halfseekers were busy as well. Moore was holding Seborn by the ankles and shaking him vigorously. Seborn was swearing loudly, cursing as vulgarly as any [Sailor] as he wriggled, but the half-Giant wouldn’t let go. Jelaqua danced around him, laughing.
“Tell us, Seborn! Don’t make me get a feather! You know Erin would give one to me—she’d probably help out! And then you have to deal with Moore’s tears and me bothering you!”
The Silver Swords watched as Seborn swore at Jelaqua in reply. Ylawes shook his head.
“That is one unique team. Brave and honorable, though. In their own way.”
“Aye, it was a pleasure, wasn’t it? And poor Erin. The girl’s lost friends and now we walked out on her.”
“It was inevitable. And this was better than a long ceremony.”
Falene sniffed. Dawil eyed her.
“You still tetchy, Pointy?”
She reached over and slapped him on the back of his helmet. After a second Falene waved her stinging hand. Ylawes sighed.
“If it’s about the gold—”
“What else would I be angry about, Ylawes? I respect both teams. But the fact remains that they earned a small fortune and didn’t elect to share it with our team. Let your sister have her windfall, very well. But what of the other two teams? Is there no honor among adventurers?”
The half-Elf snapped at Ylawes. He blew out his cheeks tiredly.
“Falene, what would you have me do? March up to them and demand a share? That’s not honorable or fair. Or likely. We don’t even know how they got it.”
“The Goblins gave it to them.”
Falene and Ylawes looked down at Dawil. The two Gold-rank adventurers stared as he walked along. Dawil eventually noticed and glanced up.
“How do you know that, Dawil? None of the others would give me a straight answer.”
“That’s because you asked them. I asked him. Numbtongue.”
The [Axe Champion] sighed gustily. He looked up at Ylawes and shook his head.
“Have you not noticed what those Goblins are like, lad? After all this time? Yes, it worked. I bought him two drinks—which really was me giving Erin money since he doesn’t pay for anything in her inn—and apologized for Falene after that mana stone thing. Talked a bit with him about mana stones and how Dwarves use them, you know, for runes? I didn’t even have to press him. I asked and he told me. They knew where the Raskghar’s treasure was hidden. Turns out it was in a separate room from the rest that the Cave Goblins all knew about. So they brought it out.”
“Just like that. And they gave it to the other teams? Not ours? Why?”
“Apparently they thought it was fair. And they don’t like our team. Seems they were the Goblins in Esthelm we met.”
“The Goblins in—”
“Stop gawping. Or did you not recognize them? I recognized that archer. And you were suspicious.”
Ylawes had to admit that was true. He looked at the wagon and shook his head. Part of him wanted to sit down and—but it was far too late for that. He felt a pang in his chest.
“Still. I suppose that explains it. And Falene, if the Goblins gave it to them, that was their choice. So—”
“I’m not dropping it! You’re holding back because of your [Knight] class, but I demand a vote! Dawil! Are you with me or not?”
Falene growled at the Dwarf and Human. She stomped along, her ears twitching violently. It was the most worked up either had seen her. Ylawes blew out his cheeks exasperatedly. But Dawil took a level tone, which was surprising given how often he needled Falene. But his tone was serious.
“Falene. It’s fair. And before you turn on me, let me explain.”
He held up a hand as Falene whirled on him. Dawil waited until she was listening and then pointed at the teams. At Halrac and Typhenous, who’d rejoined Revi on the cart. At the Halfseekers, who’d given up on making Seborn talk.
“Yes, we fought as much as they did. Yes, we didn’t get any coin. But it is fair. It’s their reward for going in first. For being the ones who went in and died. All of them buried teammates here. Ulrien. Ceria’s team. Yvlon’s team. The other Silver-ranks. Even the Halfseekers buried their old companion, traitor though he was. You want a vote, Falene? I say drop it.”
The half-Elf turned to Dawil. He held her gaze and Ylawes, watching them, saw a flash between them. Dwarf and half-Elf. For all they got on each other’s nerves, they shared a bond. That hint of timelessness. That age that sometimes left him feeling like a boy, as when they’d first met. At last, Falene’s shoulders sagged. Dawil smiled. He patted Falene on the arm and looked at Ylawes.
“So. Liscor was a bit of a gauntlet at times. Fun at others. But what do you say, lad? Another adventure?”
Ylawes smiled. He looked at the blue sky ahead of them. And he remembered the death and chaos and…pain that had haunted Liscor. And something, a knot in his chest loosened. Underneath the clear sky and the sun he held out a hand. Dawil placed his palm over it.
“Another adventure. It would be my honor, friends.”
Both looked at Falene. The half-Elf hesitated, but then she nodded regally. She laid her delicate palm over the two of theirs.
“Very well. I suppose someone has to be the adult here.”
Dawil laughed, and Ylawes had to smile. Falene gave them an arch look, but then relented and smiled as well. Ylawes looked around.
“There’s a village that way. I think we’ll pass through it. Make our goodbyes then.”
And so they did. There was no long farewell as there had been with Erin. And no tears either. But all three teams exchanged handshakes, or a gentle hug between Moore and Falene, much to the half-Giant’s surprise.
“You were a stick in the mud. But a good one, and you were a sight during the Face-Eater Moth attack. It was fun adventuring with your team too. Good luck, you guys.”
Jelaqua squeezed Ylawes’ hand as she met his eyes and he looked into her dead ones. Ylawes wanted to tell Jelaqua she was the first Selphid he’d truly met, and that he had more respect for her people after meeting her. But one look told him she knew that.
“An honor, Miss Ivirith.”
She grinned at him and turned to shake Dawil’s hand. Then Ylawes took Halrac’s hand. The [Scout] didn’t smile. But he nodded, one adventurer to another.
“Best of luck, Ylawes. If we meet again, let’s share a drink.”
That was a proper adventuring goodbye. No fancy oaths. Just a promise to drink together if they survived. And it was enough. Coming from Halrac, it meant a lot.
“Don’t be a stranger!”
Jelaqua called out as the Silver Swords stopped in the village the road was leading them past. Falene waved at Moore.
Moore’s eyes were a bit misty. But there weren’t any tears as he waved goodbye to Falene. The other two teams went onwards. But the Silver Swords walked into the village. And the villagers stopped to stare.
Of course they stared. One team of adventurers as peculiar as the Halfseekers was a sight to see, much less three Gold-rank teams at once. And here was a [Knight], standing in their village! Was he on a quest? On some dire errand? Ylawes walked into the square and raised his voice.
“Good people of Ambault. I am Ylawes of the Silver Swords. My team will be passing through this area today. If anyone has a request, a need, seek us out now or on the road.”
They stirred at that. The Silver Swords. Back around Liscor, Ylawes’ team was only a name. But further north, it was a story. One of the villagers hurried forwards.
“Sir. Are you the Ylawes who liberated the town of Ryhm from those Trolls two years back?”
“That was us, sir. Have you a problem?”
Ylawes shook the man’s hand firmly. The villager sucked in his breath.
“Not me. But my cousin—she lives closer to the High Passes. South and west of here. Further along the mountain range than the entrance, so she thought she was safe. But after Lord Tyrion’s army passed through and those Goblins—there was trouble. Eater Goats. And then, following them, Gargoyles. Sir, she and her village haven’t enough gold to hire proper Silver-rank for the job, much less Gold. A bounty’s been out for the past two weeks, but no one’s taken it. If you could think about—”
The man blinked. Ylawes had replied with the speed of someone utterly set in his course—or someone not thinking at all. He stared up at Ylawes, but the [Knight]’s eyes were firm.
“If there are Gargoyles we’ll take care of them. The Adventurer’s Guild has a bounty on their heads. Your sister doesn’t need to worry about the price. Let me know where her village is and we’ll head there directly. We may need to purchase horses.”
“I—I could lend you some. Or sell you them if need be. You could bring them to my sister’s—she lives in Orefell. Thank you, Sir Ylawes!”
The man grasped his hand. Ylawes shook it a second time.
“What’s your name, sir?”
“Ambriel, sir. Bless you. You just showed up. And my sister’s village is in dire need. They lost eight folks already, and the Gargoyles have eaten half a flock—”
A crowd was gathering. People were listening in, not even hiding the fact. Neither Ylawes nor Ambriel kept their voice down either. The [Knight] asked a few questions and turned.
“We will be there as soon as we can. Falene? Horses. Mister Ambriel will lend us some, but we need saddles. Dawil?”
“Potions. Aye, lad. I’m on it. Hey, is there a [Herbalist] around here? A [Healer] or [Alchemist]? Damn, we should have stocked up more on Octavia’s stuff. But I have three potions, and…”
The two adventurers hurried off. Ylawes turned. The [Knight] looked at Ambriel. The man was still blinking at him. It was a familiar sight to Ylawes.
“And you don’t need a fee besides the bounty the Adventurer’s Guild set? You’ll go straight off?”
He looked at Ylawes, as if he couldn’t believe it. The [Knight] smiled. He shook his head, amused.
“Of course. Where else would we be?”
And there was something so pure, so childlike and honest about his expression that some of the villagers had to look away. Falene came back with the horses, and Dawil with some cheap potions a few minutes later. Ylawes mounted up and pointed.
The second parting was less dramatic. It came at a fork in the road. Halrac had seen the sign, so he asked Revi to stop the wagon. She hopped down and the [Scout] pointed.
“We’ll go too. This road takes us west of Invrisil, which is where we’re headed to begin with. We might see each other again. If we do…”
He held out a hand awkwardly. Jelaqua took it.
“A drink. Don’t be strangers, you lot. It was a pleasure to work with each other, truly.”
“It was a pleasure, Moore.”
“I haven’t apologized for hitting you when we first met, have I?”
The half-Giant shook Typhenous’ hand. Seborn nodded to Revi.
“Best of journeys.”
“And to you. Uh—we don’t really know each other.”
“But we are pals, aren’t we?”
Jelaqua laughed. Halrac smiled. Griffon Hunt watched as Seborn clambered up and began to drive the wagon away as Jelaqua and Moore walked together next to it. Then they turned and began heading west and north.
“Damn. Now I feel terrible saying that to Seborn. I liked him. I just…didn’t speak to him enough.”
Revi muttered at her hand. Typhenous smiled. He glanced twice at Halrac’s back before speaking softly to Revi.
“I’m sure he had nothing but goodwill, Revi. And ah, we’ve had enough goodbyes.”
“True. I’m exhausted.”
Revi yawned, and stretched. She lowered her arms and looked between Typhenous and Halrac. Neither man said anything. Revi scowled. Then she glanced over her shoulder, the way they’d come.
“Did you see the Silver Swords? Just walked into a village and asked if anyone needed help, like the old days. Didn’t ask about money—not that anyone in that village looked like they could pay. Think they’ll sort out those Gargoyles?”
“No doubt. Ylawes promised, and the Silver Swords don’t go back on their word.”
Halrac grunted. Revi eyed him.
“So how do they make ends meet? Taking a few lucrative jobs every now and then? They had good gear, but if they’re spending as much on potions as they make from killing monsters…”
“You’d be surprised how many old grandmothers will pull out a family heirloom, or remember an old dungeon or buried treasure when a handsome [Knight] rides in and cuts off a monster’s head without asking for a reward. It’s a viable tactic.”
“So why don’t we do it?”
“Because not all grandmothers have artifacts under their beds, Revi.”
The [Summoner] walked along in silence. Then she threw up her arms.
“Alright, spill it! What were you two talking about? And don’t lie or I’m summoning a Shield Spider and loosing it on both of you!”
She glared at Typhenous and Halrac. The old [Mage] looked down. Halrac turned his head. His glare was back in full force.
“Typhenous added gold to our bag of holding.”
“He added nearly seven thousand gold pieces.”
The [Scout] clenched one hand into a fist.
“He wouldn’t say. Typhenous?”
The old man looked up and met the [Scout]’s eyes. Typhenous shook his head slowly.
“Ah, Halrac. If you had to ask, you know. I have contacts. I have a past.”
“And you used those contacts and that past. If you did half the things I’m imagining, give me a reason I shouldn’t shoot you here and now.”
Revi paled. Halrac had a hand on his quiver. And she knew he could nock and loose and arrow faster than she or Typhenous could move. The [Mage] kept Halrac’s gaze.
“I told you. I did nothing to harm any of our team or our friends. And I will swear that on a truth spell.”
Halrac’s white-knuckled grip loosened only slightly.
“You will. And you will tell me everything you did, or I will kick you out of this team and more.”
“Of course. But I didn’t want to speak of it with Miss Falene eavesdropping. Wistram [Mages] have the habit. And some things aren’t…wise to speak of in the open.”
Both Halrac and Revi looked around. But there was no one to listen. Still, they understood the warning. Typhenous shook his head.
“You may not be pleased, Halrac. I will admit, at first my actions were simply…selfish. But later on I did try and use them to help Miss Solstice. And I did this for the team. All the gold I was given is in our bag of holding. As it should be.”
Halrac’s grip was still tight on his bow. But he eventually nodded.
“There’s no help for it. Telling the others would have been a mistake. But mark me—we will have a discussion. Ulrien told you—”
“I know. But that is who I am, Halrac. And I have a greater debt to the team than anyone else. I was the one who brought us low.”
Typhenous leaned on his staff. His voice, confident before, became weaker. Pleading. Revi looked at him with concern. Halrac turned forwards again. His voice was cold.
“You’re a team member. The mistakes the team made aren’t any one person’s fault. Ulrien and I both approved.”
“And I cast the spell.”
Typhenous’ voice rasped painfully. There was nothing more to say after that. Revi walked between the two, silent. After a long time, perhaps thirty minutes as they passed through the outer part of a forest, walked along a river and past…well, a few homes, not even a village of scattered, isolated folk, Halrac spoke.
“We’re going to square some of those debts. We settled…our obligations outside of our team. But we didn’t have enough for the others.”
Neither Typhenous nor Revi spoke. The [Summoner] scuffed along the ground.
“That’s why we’re going this way, huh? Fine. How much are we giving each?”
“Eighteen thousand gold pieces.”
“Eighteen thousand? But they didn’t spend—”
“Eighteen thousand. Six thousand per teammate. It squares us for what they lost. The hit to their reputations. It’s not a debt. Ulrien would have called it a point of integrity.”
“Damn. And we just earned this much. We earned it and—”
Revi couldn’t help it. A few tears of frustration welled up in her eyes. Typhenous patted her gently on the back. And he looked more pained then before. Furiously, Revi dashed the tears aside.
“Fine. But if they want to come back, we’ll—they’ll—fine. But this is it, you hear? Once this is over, we’re done. We’re going to make Griffon Hunt as good as it used to be.”
Halrac and Typhenous both nodded. Revi calmed down. She walked with them, her team. So few from when she’d joined a few years back. But they were a team. Joined by tragedy and error. Held together by guilt, and integrity.
“So we just go visit—who? Cassielle? Elm? Briganda?”
“Elm. He’s apparently hunting solo.”
“Fine. Fine. And then—”
Revi broke off. Someone had spotted them on the road. The narrower, winding trail they were following was passing near a cottage. And a woman and two children were hurrying out towards them. Halrac looked up.
“Excuse me! Sir—sir, are you a [Hunter], by chance?”
The woman called out anxiously. The children, a girl and a boy, hid behind her anxiously. And the woman was afraid too. You would be, of travellers on the road. Halrac stepped forwards and small family stopped, a ways away from him.
“I’m a [Scout], Miss. An adventurer. We’re Griffon Hunt. A Gold-rank team.”
The woman looked visibly relieved to hear that. One of the children, the boy, poked his head around her to stare at the adventurers. Revi waved and he disappeared. The little girl peeked out around the other side. She couldn’t be more than six.
“Can we help you?”
“I—I’m afraid we couldn’t afford it. I was hoping you were a [Hunter], sir. You see, my husband was struck by a Corusdeer. He’s healing, but his bones have yet to mend even with the potions. The [Healer] says he’ll be at least a week more in bed before he can walk, and we live off of hunting. Our winter stocks are nearly over and if we could just get a buck or some birds…”
She looked helplessly at Halrac. The [Scout] glanced back at Revi. She was avoiding looking at the children as she muttered.
She expected Typhenous to cut in, or Halrac, but the old man was subdued. And to her shock, Halrac nodded.
“We’re adventurers. Our fees aren’t cheap, Miss. If you want hunting, it will be expensive.”
The woman sagged. She opened her mouth and Revi nearly popped her jaw, about to curse Halrac out. She thought he was the one who—but Halrac was quicker. He drew an arrow from the quiver and looked up. Before either Revi or the woman could blink, he notched the arrow and shot nearly straight up.
The children dove behind their mother. She looked up. And screamed as a hawk fell out of the skies, an arrow buried in its breast. Halrac calmly watched as it fell. The bird didn’t strike the ground, though. It stopped close to the ground. Revi looked over and saw Typhenous had pointed his staff at it. Halrac walked over. He grabbed the bird as it levitated up and walked over to the woman. He yanked the arrow out and showed it to her.
“These are expensive. Steel. I buy only the best. So here’s my price. Four copper coins per arrow if one breaks or fractures. I’ll hunt for two hours. Deal?”
The woman looked down at him. She looked at the hawk. Her eyes welled up with tears.
“Oh, thank you—”
Halrac backed up as she tried to thank him. He gave the two kids a piercing glance as the mother wept and Revi saw the flicker of embarrassment, swiftly hidden. She covered a smile herself. When Halrac had brusquely walked off back towards the forest they’d passed, Revi walked after him.
Typhenous had stayed to check on the house and the injured husband and because his legs were hurting. Halrac walked along, quietly, eyes scanning the distance for anything larger than a squirrel. And when he saw it, he drew an arrow back and loosed it. Revi hummed until he turned to glare at her.
Halrac glared, but Revi just smiled. He turned his back on her and aimed and shot.
“What’d you hit?”
“Digger Badger. Good eating, but they smell.”
“I don’t suppose you told that woman you have [Reinforced Arrows], did you?”
The [Scout]’s shoulders tensed as if he might snap at Revi. But he just walked towards the indeed smelly badger and retrieved his arrow, checking it for cracks.
“Hunter and trapper families live hand-to-mouth. It’s hard after winter. The husband must have been desperate if he was hunting Corusdeer. They’re dangerous. If he pushes it or if the family has another accident—you need coin and food.”
“He might be young. She’s not old. Besides, high-levels are hard to get.”
“I’m not arguing. And I’m not telling you we should hurry up, see? But you seem to know a lot about this. Were your parents…?”
Halrac paused. He slung the badger up and Revi saw him feed it into his bag of holding, head-first.
“No. But I knew enough families who were like that. I grew up close to here.”
Revi had never really asked about Halrac’s past before. She knew some of the basics, like his time as a [Soldier]. But Halrac hadn’t talked much and their group had been professional, for all they were a good team. He nodded slowly.
“Ever heard of a village called Riverfarm?”
“Nope. That’s your home?”
Halrac shook his head.
“I’m from the village next to it. Windrest. But Riverfarm’s the only one people even remotely hear about. There used to be a Troll living around those parts. Anyways, that’s near enough to Invrisil. Near enough to where Elm’s working too. We might stop by.”
“Home and old friends. Sounds like fun.”
“I know it’s not paying work—”
“I’m not complaining. And believe me, I will when I’ve had enough. Let’s square it with Elm, like you said. But what’s after that, Halrac?”
The [Scout] paused. He looked around, arrow drawn. But he didn’t immediately set out for new quarry. He spoke softly.
“We already have something. I didn’t discuss it with Jelaqua. But she was there. And so were a lot of others. I don’t know about them, but what that Antinium said. Klbkch the Slayer. Do you remember?”
Revi had to think for only a second. Then her eyes widened.
“Christmas party. I thought it was only something that Drake was making up. Or Erin.”
“She doesn’t lie. And have you noticed? Odd things happen around her. Many, many…Typhenous told me he’s noticed something. Which is why I didn’t put an arrow in his belly. One of the reasons. So she’s probably wrong. Wyverns roost in the High Passes. Even fire-breathing variants. But have you ever known a Wyvern to abandon its prey?”
“No, I have not. And Erin’s not exactly fast at running. One of those or a Griffon would get her after twenty feet.”
“So…but could it be true?”
Revi looked at Halrac. The [Scout] closed his eyes. Then he opened them and whirled. The rabbit was quick, but the arrow quicker. He walked after it.
“First we settle things up north. Then we investigate rumors of…Dragons. Carefully.”
Revi nodded. She followed Halrac as he retrieved his arrow. And her blood was humming. Debts and guilt. Clues and mysteries. But she felt better now, on the road. It was time to settle the past. And as she heard Halrac walking softly through the forest, she saw his gaze and felt the same feeling.
Griffon Hunt was going back to work.
“[Flame Spray]! [Lightning Orb]! [Steel Arrows]! [Sticky Webs]! [Jet Spray]—”
The spells crackled from Falene’s staff, as fast as she could chant. The flames and orb of lightning burst across one Gargoyle’s face, forcing the huge creature made of living rock rear back as the spells struck its sensitive eyes. Arrows bounced off another Gargoyle’s face, and webs held another. Falene’s jet of water came just in time; they blasted a group of stone shards one of the Gargoyles hurled at Dawil’s back. The Dwarf roared.
“Don’t bother with the Tier 2 spells, Pointy! Hit them with something big or get lost!”
He swung his hammer and intercepted a Gargoyle’s claw as it swung at his body. The creature screamed as Dawil’s swing crushed the shell of the Gargoyle’s body and orange-red blood spurted out. The Gargoyle recoiled, but another was coming at Dawil, spitting more shards. The Dwarf covered his face with one hand and felt the impacts strike his steel armor.
“Gah! Elder’s balls, that hurts!”
There were six Gargoyles, two aiming at him, one on Ylawes, and three heading towards Falene. The half-Elf was backing up and she had a barrier deployed, but the Gargoyles were huge, as tall as small trees and as big as—Dawil was too busy hammering the Gargoyle’s knees to make a comparison. It was strong, but his armor was thick and he was even stronger. The trouble was, the Gargoyle was huge and even if he broke its legs, it could still spit stones.
“Falene! They’re charging you!”
The Dwarf roared. Falene raised her staff and a [Lightning Bolt] struck one Gargoyle in the chest, and then the other. But the third rammed into her barrier and the half-Elf rolled back as the [Force Wall] spell exploded. Dawil swore.
The [Knight] was dueling his Gargoyle, swearing as he tried to shield his horse. He was dismounted—the first Gargoyle had knocked him from the saddle. They’d been far closer to Orefell than the adventurers had expected. They’d been ambushed by the damn things on the road. Even so, they could win if Falene—
The Gargoyle was charging her. Dawil swore. Heedless of the Gargoyle trying to batter him with his claws, he turned. His hand went to his side, to a little axe on his belt. He yanked it out. The Gargoyle’s back was open. Dawil lifted the small hatchet, felt it balance perfectly, and roared.
The axe flew. Falene, raising her staff dizzily, saw the Gargoyle scream and buckle. The axe spun through the skin on its back, through part of its spine, and stopped—halfway out of its chest. It toppled over as Dawil turned, roaring, and bashed another Gargoyle in the knee.
The [Knight] was finally pushing back his Gargoyle. He let the horse behind him run and slashed at the Gargoyle’s arm, drawing blood with his enchanted sword. He struck his shield as the Gargoyle punched with all of its might and its fist rebounded off his gleaming shield.
“Silver Swords advance! [Challenge of the Knight]!”
Four of the Gargoyles focused on him. Dawil hammered on his until a trio of [Lightning Bolts] hit his Gargoyle in the same spot, one after another. The third blew the Gargoyle’s head off. He looked back. Falene was angry. And the Gargoyles, already bleeding and realizing that Ylawes had barely taken more than a few blows, began to flee.
Dawil roared and Falene brought down two more, one with webs on the wings, the other with more lightning bolts. Dawil and Ylawes finished off the grounded one; the other two leapt away. They couldn’t really fly; they were far too heavy. But they could glide and their wings gave them jumping power.
“Damn. I never thought they’d be hunting the roads. That was close.”
Panting, the Dwarf struck the third Gargoyle on the head, making sure its brains were well and truly mushed. Then he stumbled back to the Gargoyle he’d killed with the axe. Heedless of the gore, he bent down and retrieved the axe, taking care not to touch the edge, even with his metal-plated fingers.
“Falene, are you alright?”
“Fine, Ylawes. My spell took the blow; it was just the blowback that struck me. My head’s ringing, but I’m well.”
“We’ll have to track them down. I’m sorry I missed the ambush.”
Dawil straightened, wiping the axe on the grass.
“Not your fault, lad. They looked like stones to me too. Cunning bastards. At least we don’t have to look for them.”
He walked back to the other two. Falene cleared her throat.
“Dawil. Thank you for saving me with the axe.”
“No problem, Pointy.”
Her eye twitched, but she let it slide. Dawil was feeling a bit frantic himself after that engagement, so he took a steadying breath. As he surveyed the three downed Gargoyles, Falene indicated his axe. She knew he had it of course, but this was one of the first times he’d used it in combat.
“You never used that Skill. Not once in all the time we were fighting in the dungeon or battling the moths.”
She looked pointedly at the downed Gargoyle. Dawil shrugged.
“It’s my final resort, Pointy. I would have lost it in the dungeon or against so many moths. If they’d truly cornered us, maybe. But only then. Besides, I can’t lose this axe. It was a gift. And there’s no replacement for it.”
“It looks…impressive. May I see it?”
“You’ll cut your fingers off. Believe me.”
“Is it enchanted, Dawil?”
Ylawes had come back with one of the horses rein’s in his hand. Dawil shook his head. He showed them the axe, letting them note the delicate metalwork with pride, but he didn’t let them touch it. He meant what he said about the edge.
“Just metal, Ylawes. Falene. Just metal. But forged by a master.”
“By who? Someone like that Dwarf, Pelt? The one Erin mentioned to you?”
“Hah. He’s not fit to polish the hammers of the smith that made this. And I’m not losing this, no matter what. I just wish I didn’t have this damn [Axe Champion] class. Why couldn’t it have been a hammer throwing competition?”
He sighed and indicated the warhammer that was his weapon of choice. Ylawes nodded.
“I always thought it was odd. Still, you saved Falene with that. Thank you.”
“Just lucky I was here. Dead gods, but that’s twice now we’ve come close to death today. Ashfire Bees and Gargoyles. We can’t underestimate our enemies so much.”
Falene and Ylawes nodded. The half-Elf eyed one of the dead Gargoyles with distaste.
“True. However, it proves a point again. The Horns could not have taken on the Gargoyles if ambushed. Perhaps if they prepared…but six is a considerable threat.”
Dawil nodded. He imagined a new Gold-rank team might well have lost some people—or been wiped out depending on their composition. He grunted as he imagined how the Horns would have fared.
“They’re young. The Horns. But they can grow into their abilities. That Pisces brat is already fairly good. And if your sister gets some powerful Skills, Ylawes…remember what it was like, being on the cusp of Gold-rank?”
“Is that why you were talking with Ceria and Pisces, Falene? You think they can make the transition?”
The half-Elf sighed.
“If they were properly Wistram trained—”
It was actually Ylawes who sighed.
“Oh, dead gods, Falene. Don’t go on about it again. Yes, they’re not fully-certified. So what? What did they do that was so heinous? Pisces is a [Necromancer], but he’s not nearly as…foul as the two I’ve met.”
Falene shook her head.
“I never asked. I can be discrete, Ylawes. I just thought it was a shame. If they had completed their training, they would already be Gold-rank. If they both left in their third-year, they must have been very gifted. But I don’t know why. My…contacts in Wistram refused to say unless I did them some favors, including naming exactly where Pisces was at this moment.”
Ylawes and Dawil looked up. They were busy cutting off the heads of the Gargoyles to turn in. Dawil grunted.
“So what do you know?”
“Ceria Springwalker. Pisces, no last name given. Both students expelled in their third year. At the same time several of the senior [Mages] in Wistram challenged the higher levels of the academy and…failed. As for the reason Pisces and Ceria left, I understand there was an incident that involved the deaths of more [Mages] and students, but not what.”
Falene pursed her lips. Ylawes frowned, but neither he nor Dawil could think of anything more to ask. Eventually, Falene pointed at Dawil’s axe.
“Where did you get that? You told me you won your class in a drunken competition, but you neglected to mention the significance of the axe.”
Dawil paused in stuffing the last Gargoyle head into his bag of holding. He looked from Ylawes to Falene. And a small smile passed his lips. He straightened as Ylawes led the skittish horses back to him. The [Knight] indicated the clear trail the Gargoyles had left. Dawil mounted up and spoke conversationally.
“Didn’t I tell you this story once? Ah, well, it’ll make a nice walking tale while we track down the rest of these Gargoyles. Let’s go. I’ll lead. Pointy, you stay back in case we get ambushed. Those damn things love to spit rock shards. Now, you remember me speaking of home? Well, there was this competition, see. Dwarves love competitions. Only, this one was special because of the prize. This axe. I don’t know how it got involved, but someone mentioned that this hatchet had been specially forged as a prize and every Dwarf in the entire damn city wanted to win it.”
The other two adventurers gently kicked their horses into motion. They followed Dawil as he lead them after the Gargoyles. There would be another fight soon. But the Dwarf spoke conversationally, calming their nerves, keeping them steady. Falene peered at Dawil.
“Your entire city? Isn’t that almost the entire population of Dwarves in Terandria?”
“Aye. We have one settlement, although we’re spread out. But yes, you could say at least half the Dwarven race was competing.”
“And you won it.”
“You see this axe? Want me to shove it up your nose for a better look?”
“You won that competition.”
“It’s a grand story! Let me finish it before you ask! And yes, I thought I had no chance as well. Which is why me and some of my mates joined the competition sloshed as it were. I’d drunk…eh, well, I don’t know how much. But somehow I kept winning. Even too unsteady to walk a straight line, I hit every target straight on. Even when I was up against Dwarves with [Unerring Throw] and we were doing trick shots and curved throws, it was like my arm was magic. I hit targets blindfolded. I hit them when I couldn’t even see them! There was this target that was over a hundred feet away, and I was sure I couldn’t even throw an axe that far. But—and you’ll never believe this…”
Dawil kept one eye on his companion’s faces, the other ahead of him, watching for odd boulders. Soon there would be Gargoyles, and then they’d have to bring them to the village. If they were lucky they’d get something out of it. If not? Well, they’d get some money for the heads and they could check in at every village and town they passed towards the next Adventurer’s Guild. There was always someone in need of help. And wasn’t it worth helping folk if you could? A simple logic for a simple Dwarf. And a simpler half-Elf and Human.
Dawil smiled and the Silver Swords rode off. On another adventure.
“And like that, we’re alone.”
Jelaqua looked back wistfully the way they’d come. Moments ago they’d been walking with Griffon Hunt and the Silver Swords, or so it had seemed. This morning she’d woken up in Erin’s inn. In Liscor. And now they were so far north and they wouldn’t go back to The Wandering Inn. At least, not for a while. And even when they did open the door, it would just be to say goodbye.
“We could visit tonight. To say hello.”
Seborn had been ready for Moore’s suggestion and he shot it down at once. The half-Giant looked hurt. Jelaqua sighed, but sympathetically.
“We said goodbye so we could make a clean break, Moore. Either we stopped and did some weird stuff where two of us had to guard the door at night while the other one stayed at the inn—or we say goodbye now. You can’t go back, even if Mrsha misses you. I miss her. And Erin. And those nice beds!”
“Erin cooked food enough for me. Proper food. And she gave me a proper bed, even though she had to bully that [Carpenter] in Celum to do it.”
Moore looked wistfully at the wagon. Jelaqua sighed.
“She’s spoiled us. The next [Innkeeper] we meet is going to be unpleasant. Sideways looks, questions about rotting…”
“Sleeping in the stables. Tip offs to the local watch…”
The Halfseekers sighed. They looked at the door in silence. Jelaqua shook her head.
“We know good sorts in Invrisil. And there’s that great [Innkeeper] up north. You know? Hey, I wonder if we can introduce Erin to her someday. You know? She’s over Level 40 and Erin’s…what?”
“At least Level 30.”
“What? No. You think so?”
“She has a preservation Skill, Jelaqua. And the mana in her inn can fuel the magic door. That’s more mana than I have. She has to be Level 30. At least.”
“Well then, we met a good person to watch, boys. And we will see her again. Soon she’ll have a door to Invrisil and if she ever manages to improve it…sky’s the limit. But for today, I’m afraid we’re sleeping on the ground or in a barn unless we find a nice town with a friendly [Innkeeper].”
“I hate the spring. Too many bugs like my skin.”
“They like seafood, Seborn. Stop complaining. Moore’s way bigger than you are.”
“I don’t like the bugs either. You don’t feel the bites, Jelaqua.”
The two gave Jelaqua a reproachful look. She scowled at them.
“Hey! You think I have it easy? Try fighting of ticks, worms, and everything else that thinks I’m food! Little bastards think they can get this body? It’s claimed!”
She slapped her chest. The Halfseekers followed the wagon in silence for a bit, Seborn driving it down the road lit by a sinking sun. At last, Moore spoke up.
“Sometimes I don’t know why we don’t retire. Or I do, at any rate. I could live for…years off of what we earned. If I took a few minor jobs now and then. Jelaqua, Seborn, you might even retire.”
“Yeah, but I don’t want to. And this is enough for us to live modestly, Moore, but it won’t pay for more than a few artifacts. I don’t want to quit. Not now. Not when we’ve finally settled things with Garen.”
“Exactly. And I have things to do.”
“Which would be…?”
The [Rogue] didn’t reply. Jelaqua sighed.
“Well, if you promise you won’t split right away, we can upgrade our gear and maybe see about finding some new teammates. There must be someone willing to work with us. Even if they’re only Silver-rank. We can carry them until they’re higher-level. Unless you’re serious about retiring, Moore?”
She glanced up anxiously at the half-Giant. He shook his head immediately.
“I’d be willing to do that. I’m not retiring right away. I just hate…”
He waved his hand, indicating bugs in general. Jelaqua nodded.
“We’ll see if they have some [Healers] with bug repelling incense or potions or something in the next village. Looks like there’s one up ahead. See it?”
The other two nodded. They quickened their pace to beat the night. Jelaqua sighed. She did want to keep going. But sometimes it did seem like the road ahead was long.
“We spent a long time chasing Garen’s shadow. A long time, lads. What will we do now? Find work? Gain money?”
“Rebuild. You said it yourself.”
Seborn looked over. Jelaqua blinked at him. The Drowned Man gestured at her and Moore.
“We’ll find more teammates. Start from there. The Halfseekers were never at full strength. If we get three more teammates, or even two, we can take on proper requests. I won’t leave. Take me to First Landing and I can settle some things with my old crew. A matter of honor among…[Pirates].”
Jelaqua whistled. Moore blinked. Seborn rarely brought up his past.
“You have a death match or something? Because if you do, all you had to do was—”
“I don’t owe them. They owe me. And I’m going to let them know I want to collect.”
“How much are we talking here?”
“Wait and see. Happy?”
Jelaqua grinned to herself. Now there was a surprise from one of her teammates she could learn to like. The wagon trundled forwards, and the town came into view. It was one of those nothing-settlements, at least in Jelaqua’s eye. The road north even passed directly through the village; it had probably grown up as a way station over the years. There were people in the streets, and Jelaqua sighed as she noticed some heads turning in the distance.
“Alright, see any [Healer] signs? Inns?”
“No. And no.”
“Aw, come on. This is a village! It has to have…”
“See those burnt buildings?”
“…Ah. Well, that looks like trouble. Damn. [Bandits]? The Bloodfeast Raiders hit another place?”
“If they had, this village would be ash. Accident, [Bandits], it doesn’t matter. We’re not sleeping here. And they’re giving us the look.”
The Halfseekers fell silent. Seborn didn’t need to elaborate. Some of the villagers had spotted Moore at a distance and then Seborn and Jelaqua. She was hard to identify, but a Drowned Man and a half-Giant sent some of the villagers scuttling into their houses. Jelaqua raised her voice and shouted ahead before anyone could grab a weapon. Or form a mob.
“Hoi! We’re the Halfseekers! Gold-rank adventurers, passing through! Don’t mind us!”
That gave the villagers pause. They didn’t exactly come rushing out to welcome the trio, but they didn’t run either as the wagon trundled into the village outskirts. They knew the Halfseekers, just like people knew the Silver Swords. They stared. Gawked. Pointed. Whispered.
It wasn’t pleasant. Jelaqua saw Moore hunching his shoulders in a way he never had in Erin’s inn. She’d almost forgotten that, or the look on Seborn’s face.
“Steady, boys. Let’s just keep going. With luck, we can get to a town before night. If not—that camp’s looking better than ever.”
“Agreed. Moore can make us a shelter.”
The half-Giant nodded silently. The Halfseekers quickened their pace. They saw Humans watching them. Fear and disgust and—some children rushed around a house.
“Look! I said I saw them! I said it was a Giant and a—”
The boy excitedly leading them on froze when he saw the Halfseekers looking at him. The children fell silent, but then they began talking amongst themselves, pointing without trying to hide the fact. Jelaqua hoped one of them wouldn’t come up and ask a question. Or…do something else.
Contrary to popular belief, and in her experience, children weren’t innocent. They could be just as unpleasant as their parents, because they learned quickly by example. She turned her head, feeling sour. Maybe visiting Erin’s inn wouldn’t be so bad. But they’d said goodbye. Maybe retiring wasn’t such a stupid idea. Jelaqua had always thought she’d go back to Baleros if she retired, if the Wasting didn’t claim her. But now she imagined staying in Liscor. If—
The village had become a crowd. A gathering of faces. In their way, the Halfseekers were more popular than the Silver Swords could ever be. Jelaqua wasn’t worried—so long as the crowd didn’t turn into a mob. It could happen. Sometimes it only took a word. But then she saw something. A break in the uniform faces of a single species.
There they were. Perched by a tree, the older one sitting up in the branches, his tail curled around his seat. The other was standing by the tree, her fur ruffled, a farm worker’s trousers on her lower half, but her upper body free of clothing but for a breast band. Furry. Jelaqua nudged Seborn.
“Look. Two kids.”
A Gnoll and a Drake. There was nothing odd about that. Nothing odd, except that they were children, living in a Human town over a hundred miles north of Liscor. They stood together, of the village but apart, not with the other children though they were of age. Just a Gnoll and a Drake, perhaps thirteen and eleven. Seborn saw, and nudged Moore. The half-Giant was less covert, but all three Halfseekers slowed their pace and stared at the two watchers.
“Fellow travellers? It’s rare, but [Merchants] do go north sometimes. Through the Blood Fields in the spring, though…”
“No way. Look at them. See how they’re dressed? They’re not travellers. Some Human must have adopted them.”
Yes. That was it. Jelaqua wasn’t much of a reader, much less a [Reader], but she could read the two like a book.
Look. See how they stand alone. How the Drake has a discolored patch of scales. A bruise from fighting? And look at the other children who stop to gawk at the Gold-rank team and point. Humans. Think on it.
“War orphans, perhaps.”
“Maybe. From one of the annual wars? Or one of those skirmishes? Maybe orphans from the Second Antinium War? The Drakes did send some forces north.”
“Could be any of those things. Maybe slavers? They’re outlawed in many Drake cities, but they still come through.”
Moore shook his head. He looked at the children, sadly.
“There’s a story there.”
“There’s always a story. Keep walking, Moore.”
He did. But he, Jelaqua, and Seborn all felt it. A sense of…
Kinship. And they felt the eyes of the two on them. The two children stood together, outcasts. Even if they were loved. They were different. By fang and scale, by fur and tail. It wasn’t something the three Halfseekers needed to speak aloud. It was, after all, a common story. You could see it everywhere you went, no matter how old you grew, no matter which continent you visited. There were always those who were different.
That was their difference. Griffon Hunt, who left quietly were adventurers to their core. They traded in favors and gold and they had their pride, but they weren’t like the Silver Swords. That group rushed from danger to danger, fighting for causes, without pay, without pause. They were champions, an old sort of adventurer the world still needed. But the Halfseekers? They were different.
“Hey, Moore. You know [Earthen Spire] now, right? Did you learn any other spells? Any fancy ones?”
“A few. But I’ll use a small spell if you don’t mind.”
“Fair enough. What about you, Seborn?”
“I can juggle. Good enough?”
“Maybe not. Village is nervous. Bared blades or even sheathed ones might spook them. Let Moore do his thing.”
The half-Giant nodded. He stopped walking for a second, and then, gently, tapped the ground. He spoke no spell. But suddenly, where his staff had touched the dirt path, a flower bloomed.
There was a gasp from the villagers. Drawing back for a second. But the flower was simply beautiful. It was light blue, vibrant. It was also magical, transitory. It bloomed upwards for a second, and then began to wilt almost at once. But as Moore began to walk again, another flower bloomed, and another. A trail followed his staff and the people watched as the half-Giant continued onwards.
So did the children. It was just a tiny bit of magic. Just a spark. But it was enough. It put a name to them. It gave their words credence.
Halfseekers. And as Jelaqua, Seborn, and Moore passed by the tree, passed by the two children whose stories they didn’t know, they moved. Jelaqua was first. She thrust her hand high in the air, making a fist. Seborn did the same. Moore lifted his hand into the air while his other held the staff.
They did not stop. They did not pause to fight or ask what story the two children had. They had no time, and perhaps, no power.
They were just adventurers.
But the little Drake and Gnoll stared at them as they passed. And they looked up, at a half-Giant whose staff left a trail of swiftly blooming and wilting flowers in his wake. A grinning Selphid, who twirled her flail. At a Drowned Man, who walked with shadows even under the setting sun. And they saw the three adventurers looking back at them.
The other townsfolk stared, perplexed by the three Gold-rank adventurers’ raised hands. It was almost a silly sight. But that was because it was not for them. But the children saw. They saw the three pairs of eyes looking back at them. And their hearts lifted. Without having to say it, they understood what the Halfseekers wanted to say.
We see you. We know your story. We see you.
At the edge of the village Jelaqua stopped. She bellowed up at Seborn, riding the wagon, at Moore, his staff training flowers. The villagers jumped. The sound cut through the air and almost silent gathering. It was loud, as loud as Jelaqua could shout. She raised her flail over her head and screamed.
“Who are we? What’s our name? What’s our purpose?”
Moore and Seborn both shouted the word. It was a small sound in the skies. But they shouted it a second time. Jelaqua shouted it with them. And then they kept walking. And Jelaqua knew two pairs of eyes were fixed on their backs, even as they walked into the night.
“That’s why I keep going.”
Neither Moore nor Seborn replied. But they were both smiling slightly. And Jelaqua did remember. Liscor was wonderful. But it wasn’t where the Halfseeker’s true purpose lay.
It was in villages like this. Towns. Cities. Anywhere you wanted. That was where they were.
Outcasts. That fact wouldn’t change, no matter what you did. You could try, you could fight it, you could earn respect or be chased away. But it wouldn’t change who you were and who they were. And a child, a lonely soul could do little but exist with that knowledge in their chests.
But there they were. Adventurers. Names you heard stories about. Jelaqua Ivirith. Seborn Sailwinds. Moore of Raithland.
Heroes. Not to the many, but the few. To the two children who watched them pass through their town without a word. To the half-Elf living far from home, the Drowned Girl living in a port city, the Scorchling listening to stories around the hearth. They could not fight their battles. But they could exist, and shout their names across the world.
Jelaqua leapt up onto the side of the wagon. She clung to it and pointed ahead, never once looking back. Moore, walking next to her, raised his staff and Jelaqua raised her fist again. She laughed as she looked north, past a setting sun.
“Onwards. To another adventure. We’ll get to Invrisil and…damn, I forgot to grab all my bodies out of Erin’s inn. I guess when we reach Invrisil, we can pop in one last time. Eh, it feels weird after that goodbye, though.”
“Can you take the bodies with us?”
The Selphid shrugged.
“Bag of holding works. But they’ll rot in time. I’ll see about paying for accommodation. Or maybe she’ll let me keep them there? I can put them in a corner or something. Maybe put a few barrels in the way so no one gets spooked? They’re not going to reanimate and that’s a lot of bodies.”
“Planning on selling them? Because I know a few crews who deal in fresh corpses.”
Jelaqua laughed harder as Moore looked askance at Seborn.
“No. But on the other hand—I know a [Captain] too. Plus, can you imagine how much a Raskghar corpse would sell for in Baleros? It doesn’t play in Liscor, but up north, why not? You don’t mind if I switch out my Human body and keep the Raskghar one for like, big fights, do you?”
“Honestly, Jelaqua. Please don’t joke about that. You know what the laws are like. Besides, I’m sure Miss Solstice would let you keep the bodies.”
“You think so? Ah, of course. She’s too nice like that. But I’ll take them. Get some storage worked out. Invrisil does have a spot I can use. Otherwise, Pisces will probably salvage them for parts.”
They looked ahead. At last, Moore sighed.
“It will be hard saying goodbye. When we reach the City of Adventurers, that is.”
Jelaqua reached out and patted his shoulder.
“Someday, we’ll visit again.”
Seborn nodded. And the three kept moving. The night didn’t seem so harsh, suddenly. The road didn’t feel as painful. They walked on as Moore hummed a tune and Jelaqua began to sing. The road called and the adventurers strayed further from hearth and home. They’d left their homes long ago and now they lived where profit and glory called. Onwards, and away.
So the Halfseekers left. Seeing where the winds took them.
And in the Wandering Inn, Erin wiped her tears away.
“I’ll see them again. And when I do—my inn will be twice as awesome. Or I’ll come to them. But I will see them again.”
She vowed to the quiet room. At her table, Ceria looked up. She looked at her team. Yvlon was still staring at the door where her brother had gone. Ksmvr was eating bread. Pisces was mournfully sketching a new Bone Horror.
“When we meet them again, we’ll be Gold-rank.”
That was all she said. Her team nodded. Ceria got up. She walked over to the door to Celum and opened it.
“Ceria, buddy, a little word about—”
The half-Elf closed the door for a second. She looked at the others.
“Coming? I want to go to Celum’s Adventuring Guild.”
Her team stood up. They stepped into Celum, Pisces sniffing as he stared at a burned patch of wood near the entrance to Octavia’s shop. Yvlon fended the [Alchemist] off. It just wasn’t the time for her. Not at the moment.
The four walked down the street. People stared at Ksmvr. Some panicked. Ceria wondered if they’d get to the Adventurer’s Guild. Her stomach twisted as she remembered the last time she’d been there, with the first Horns of Hammerad. With Calruz. But she kept walking.
It was time to be an adventurer again.
They didn’t make it to the Adventurer’s Guild. Or rather, they made it, but something happened first. The Horns heard a shout and saw someone jogging down the street.
“Ceria! Is that Ceria? And Yvlon!”
A young woman raced down the street. She looked like an adventurer, or maybe one in training. A [Guardswoman] perhaps? But young. She was about Ryoka’s age. Maybe a year or two younger? She looked good. Fit. Her clothing was loose and almost ill-fitting, but it only added to her look. Because her body was toned. Muscular, but thin. A body to make Ryoka jealous. Even Yvlon looked mildly impressed.
“Ceria! Long time no see!”
The girl caught up to them. Ceria blinked.
“Excuse me. Do I know you?”
She thought she’d remember, but she knew a lot of adventurers in Celum and elsewhere. The girl gave her a delighted grin.
“It’s me! Don’t you remember? We talked the last time we were in Celum!”
“Who? Have we met?”
A laugh was her reply. The girl spread her arms.
“Come on—you remember me, don’t you? Ryoka and I hung out all the time! Well, when she wasn’t busy. I’m a City Runner! Fals, Ryoka and I were friends! Where is she, by the way? I heard she was up north, but—”
The half-Elf’s jaw dropped. Ceria stared at the girl. She tried to fit her mental image in her head. But it was impossible. The other girl had been pretty, but she had been…stockier. Sturdier. With arms and muscles that could lift a cow. A [Farmer]-girl turned City Runner.
Garia grinned in delight. Yvlon looked astonished. Garia spread her arms, gesturing at her body with delight.
“Garia Strongheart! I’ve changed a bit, huh? I uh, lost some weight. And I have a new class. I’m a [Martial Artist].”
Ceria opened her mouth. She stared at Garia. And then looked around. It was the old Celum. And she had come from the old inn, the old Octavia’s shop. But here it was. Just as the old faces were leaving. Something different.