Erin Solstice woke up. She stared up at the wooden ceiling overhead and had a flash of panic. Things felt different. She twisted—and saw a pillow next to her. And then a drop.
She was lying in a bed. Her bed. And then Erin remembered. She was in her room, the first room by the stairs on the second floor of the inn. This was where she slept now.
Her bed in the kitchen was gone. And as Erin got up, she stretched and stared at the brightening landscape through a glass window. She still rose with the dawn, some days. Even though she didn’t have to. Old habits died hard.
And then Erin remembered last night and her lips compressed. She stared at Liscor, just a ten minute walk from her inn. And the [Innkeeper] made a fist and shook it at the inn.
“Olesm. You jerk.”
And that was all. Erin sighed. She closed her eyes and folded her arms. In her pajamas—thin cotton, breezy, and with a tail slit that Erin really didn’t need, the young woman thought. She shook her head.
“Nope. I’m still mad.”
Selys had been in tears yesterday after Olesm had shown up at Lism’s rally and essentially thrown a huge stone in Krshia’s campaign. Erin got why he’d done it—the Drake’s argument had been the talk of the inn. You can’t trust the Antinium. Build the city yourself. And if it were anyone other than Lism saying it, Erin might have understood.
But she was still mad. So Erin left her room. She paused in the hallway. Someone was already up. A green Hobgoblin paused, holding one of the simple toothbrushes Erin had given him. Guiltily he swallowed.
“Morning, Numbtongue. Are you eating toothpaste again? I told you, rinse, and spit!”
Erin gently glared at the taller Hobgoblin. The [Bard] hid the small tin of toothpaste behind his back.
“It tastes good.”
“Right, but I’m sure it’s bad for your stomach! It’s got chemicals and—”
Erin trailed off. She distinctly recalled seeing Numbtongue eat a rock once when he was bored. And he ate bugs. And leaves. She raised a finger.
“You know, Mrsha could see. And that’s a bad example.”
Numbtongue stared at her. Erin stared back.
“…Anyways, good morning.”
They headed downstairs together. Erin glanced at Numbtongue. He wasn’t wearing his leather armor. Or any armor today. That was a good sign; the Redfang warrior usually dressed as if he were about to go into combat even when he was lounging around. But today he only had a tank top on, leggings—he looked casual. He still carried the guitar on his back, which Erin supposed was some form of security; Numbtongue seemed to regard it as both club and musical instrument. But as he sat at a table, shifting his guitar out of the way, he looked casual.
It was what Erin wanted to see. But she wished—she closed her eyes. Oh, how she wished there were five Hobgoblins sitting there, not one. Six; a little Goblin among them, scowling like always. An army.
But that was how Erin felt every day. That was her regret. Her failure. And she had lived with that in her heart for enough time not to dwell on it. It was part of her. Sadness became memory. And she had bigger fish to fry. If she stopped, who would feed Numbtongue?
…Probably himself. He knew where the food was. But Erin went and got a fish anyways. She had a fresh one, preserved from the rainy season thanks to her [Field of Preservation] Skill. It was a hearty meal for breakfast, but Numbtongue ate like a Hobgoblin still. And he had virtually no fat! Then again, his idea of a relaxing day was mining for eight hours after picking a hundred blue fruits after breakfast to warm up. So Erin laid the fish on the counter and eyed it.
“Bones out! Watch the fingers—”
She flipped the fish over, eying it. The innards had been removed already; Erin knew enough about fish to understand that even preserved, a bunch of half-digested insects or whatever fish ate wasn’t pleasant to have sitting around. The fish was, essentially, hollow, and the head stared blankly up at her. Erin shrugged.
So saying, she reached behind her, for the special kitchen knife she carried on her belt at all times. This one was carried in a custom-fitted leather sheathe, and the knife itself was—
Sharp. Erin could barely see the edge, even up close. And while it bore no inscription or fancy decoration, the plain steel shone, more beautiful than any of the other knives in her kitchen. And it was oh, so very deadly. Erin handled this knife with respect, more than the knife that had once cut open her palm. She sliced off the head along the gills, and absently checked herself before tossing it in the waste bin.
“Acid Fly stuff. Where is…? Ah.”
Erin spotted a row of huge glass jars, along one wall. They were probably intended for pickling or something, but these large vessels were perfect. She tossed the fish head in one; it already had more meat scraps. And when Ishkr set it up, it would be prime Acid Fly bait.
Back to the fish. Next, Erin cut along the belly, separating the fish in two. She did it along the fish’ ribcage. But the sharpness of her knife—Erin barely ran her blade along the fish before it separated in two. She eyed the knife’s edge and didn’t check it with her finger; she’d been told that was a good way to lose it.
“Wow. I cut through all the bones. Okay…in that case…”
She had to get another knife to actually separate the bones out of the fish. A few precise cuts and they came out. Erin tossed the scraps in the jar, then cut the fish with her first knife. Five cuts on both sides; a portion of ten. Erin smiled. She wiped her knife carefully with a cloth, grabbed a pan, and got to work.
A few minutes later, Erin walked out of the kitchen with breakfast. Numbtongue looked up and surreptitiously hid the tin of toothpaste under the table. Erin pretended not to notice him swallowing; she lifted the plate.
“Fish! Half of one. Salted, seasoned—and I’ve got some mayo and that Gnoll sauce on the side. I know you love it. And here’s breakfast for me.”
She indicated a half dozen boiled eggs and a single serving of the fish. Erin set her plate down and handed three eggs to Numbtongue along with his five-portion fish. He brightened and grabbed a fork.
“Right? Let me know if you want more.”
Erin sighed as she sat down. She regarded her plate and her stomach rumbled. Erin smiled as she grabbed a cup she’d brought out. It was filled with blue juice. Erin sipped it, sighed.
And then she got mad again. The joys of cooking had only distracted her from yesterday for so long. Erin made a fist.
“Olesm. And Lism! What’s wrong with Krshia’s plan, huh? Do they not trust Klbkch that much? I can see the Queen—she’s a jerk. But Klbkch? Really?”
Numbtongue eyed Erin as he stuffed the first portion of fish into his mouth. He shrugged, classically Goblin. Erin went on, chewing on her fish.
“And he put it in the newsletter! And basically stole Krshia’s plan! They can’t get away with it. No way. You hear me, Numbtongue?”
“I’m going to do something. I’m gonna blow Olesm’s socks off.”
The Hobgoblin looked up as he ate one of the hard boiled eggs.
Erin stared at Numbtongue. He was eating the egg without bothering to peel it. She hesitated.
“Don’t ask me hard questions.”
The two went back to breakfast. Erin glared at her food. She didn’t have a plan, actually. But something had to be done! Olesm’s betrayal was—okay, she felt bad about badmouthing Lism. Family was family. But still!
“Grr. Wow. These hard boiled goose eggs are good. Why have I eaten only chicken eggs all my life? Grr.”
Numbtongue nodded amiably. Erin growled into her plate. Selys and Krshia had both tried to come up with a solution, but Selys had been too upset and Krshia too furious to think rationally. Their team—Elirr, Raekea, the other Gnolls that Krshia had been hoping to put on the Council—had disbanded in low spirits yesterday. And Zevara hadn’t shown up.
“They gave her a good deal. So she’s not all on Selys’ side. Gotta think of something. But the Walled Cities are funding Lism. That Olesm. That’s smart. Jerk move, but smart.”
Numbtongue licked his plate. Erin tapped her hand on the table.
“You know what? We’re not done. Selys was planning on having Zevara wear the Heartflame Breastplate. Fat chance of that now. But there’s something…and it’s not like the Gnolls don’t have good candidates. People like Krshia. And Raekea, that [Armorer]. I didn’t know there were Gnoll [Blacksmiths], did you, Numbtongue?”
“Yes. They probably have fire-resistance Skills.”
The [Bard] strummed gently on his guitar, quietly to avoid waking the guests. Erin looked up at him.
“That’s a thing?”
“Mhm. Very nice Skills. Hard to get. Goblins like to have them. Especially in Garen’s tribe.”
“So we can lay traps with exploding fire or spells and not worry about it. A Goblin stands on a trap with lots of wood. And oil. Angry Gargoyles attack him. Or adventurers. The Goblin sets off the trap and gets away. No one else.”
Numbtongue’s teeth flashed. Erin blinked, and then laughed despite herself. He was telling jokes! Sometimes she forgot how good Numbtongue was with words. And not just for a Goblin; she supposed that was why he was a [Bard].
“Right. Well, I know I can do some things. But I want to make a huge impact, you know? I was fine with Krshia being on the Council, but now it’s personal. I have to help. I can get a lot of attention. But is that enough?”
“Exactly. Thank you, Numbtongue. You’re always honest.”
“Got any more fish?”
“In the kitchen.”
Erin thought as the Goblin got up. She was restless, drumming her fingers on the table. It was unusual for her. Usually she was as placid as Numbtongue in the morning. But today? It felt like someone had poked her head from the inside. Now Erin was lighting up. She was mad.
The young woman looked up as the Hobgoblin poked his head out of the kitchen. She focused on what he was holding. Numbtongue grinned hopefully.
“How’d you find—no cake! I thought I hid that!”
Erin glared. Numbtongue sighed. He patted his stomach.
“And Mrsha’s coming downstairs in a minute. If you have it, she’ll want some. No cake.”
The Hobgoblin sighed. He put the cake back and came out with the rest of the fish on his plate. Erin went back to staring at her plate. Absently, she felt for the knife on her belt.
“Olesm. I could stab him. With my knife.”
Numbtongue looked at Erin. She raised her hands.
“Hey! I’m just brainstorming. No ideas are off the table. I’m just really mad at him. I know his heart’s in the right place. I wouldn’t stab him too hard. Lism, now…I suppose he’d spin that too.”
The Hobgoblin nodded. He watched with interest as Erin’s eyes unfocused. Numbtongue knew Erin. Or rather, he was understanding more about the strange Human who called him family. And unlike many of her guests and friends, the Hobgoblin was well aware of what Erin could do. Rather like a certain Wall Lord, actually. He waited, eating with interest. Learning. And Erin’s eyes lit up after three minutes of silence.
“Hold on. Selys. Heartflame Breastplate. Stabbing people with the kitchen knife…cake. Yeah. I can work with this.”
Numbtongue paused. He stared at Erin and tried to connect the pieces.
“What are you going to do?”
Erin smiled as she got up. She walked back into the kitchen. The [Bard] stared at her back. He scratched his head, put down his guitar, and began doodling on the top of the table with a sharp claw.
“Cake. Plus knives and Heartflame Breastplate. And Selys. Stabbing people?”
He was working on it when Lyonette and Mrsha came downstairs. The [Princess] called a greeting to the Hobgoblin.
“Good morning, Numbtongue!”
He looked up. A white shape raced downstairs. A nose appeared and then two big eyes. Numbtongue waved as two paws appeared. Mrsha signed to Numbtongue, smiling.
Good morning. (Paw tracing a smile, two folded paws sideways, then rising to a forty five degree angle.)
The Hobgoblin smiled. He smiled at a Human and a Gnoll, and they smiled back. Miraculous. Mrsha sniffed Numbtongue’s plate. He picked off a piece of fish and offered it to her. She snatched it.
“Mrsha! Numbtongue! You eat off plates!”
Guiltily, both Gnoll and Hobgoblin hunched their shoulders. Lyonette put her hands on her hips, shaking her head. Then she glanced at the kitchen.
“Is Erin cooking?”
“Nope. Making plans.”
“That’s…good. About the elections in Liscor, right? Did she say what she’s doing, Numbtongue?”
“Maybe something involving stabbing.”
The Hobgoblin frowned, still trying to work it out. Lyonette paused.
Mrsha finished her piece of fish and scampered into the kitchen on all four paws. Lyonette and Numbtongue heard an exclamation, a delighted laugh, and not a second later, Mrsha was coming out proudly bearing a plate, cups, and silverware on two legs. She trundled over to their table and held them up. Numbtongue and Lyonette took the plate and set them on a table. The [Princess] smiled.
“Very good, Mrsha. Good morning, Erin!”
“Hey Lyonette! Today’s going to be a big day! How much cake and ice cream do we have? Oh—here’s some eggs and bacon. Numbtongue ate the rest of the fish.”
The Hobgoblin offered Lyonette a last piece of fish, but the [Princess] shook her head. Mrsha’s ears perked up at the words ‘cake’ and ‘ice cream’. The [Princess] sighed as she took the skillet Erin had come out of the kitchen with and doled out breakfast for both her and the Gnoll cub.
“We’ve got two cakes, unless Numbtongue or Mrsha’s eaten one when I haven’t been looking. And enough ice cream ingredients for eight guests. Or two Relcs. Why?”
“Well, we’re going to need about triple of both. You know how to make both, right? Can I ask you to whip up some more?”
“Better. Ishkr’s coming in just a few minutes. He can help make the ice cream. Unless—when do you need it? Because it melts, remember, Erin? And I’ll have to get him to buy some ice. Which is expensive. Even more than sugar.”
“Make Ceria do it. She’s free ice! And uh, maybe store it in the basement? Her magic stuff disappears after half an hour and I don’t know when we’ll need it. But we definitely need a bunch.”
“For a party?”
Lyonette sighed. Erin’s eyes were sparkling. As were Numbtongue and Mrsha’s, mainly at the prospect of that much sugar. The [Innkeeper] smiled.
“I have a plan to help with that election.”
“Oh, so you are going to interfere. Please tell me we’re going to sell all that food?”
“Most of it. Yeah, get ready for a lot of sales! And—we’re going to need more of all our food, Lyonette. Pizza, hamburgers—”
“Food from your world?”
“…Yes. Although lots of food in general is good. We’re going to have a party.”
The three diners at the table looked up. Lyonette glanced at Erin.
The young woman paused. Erin’s eyes looked up, flickering from position to position. Seeing something in the distance.
“I think so, yeah. I’ve got this plan. It’s got a lot of moving parts. And it’s not quite together. But I’ve got something.”
Lyonette exchanged a glance with Numbtongue and nodded.
“Tell me what you need. Food—I can do food. I’ll send Drassi to shop for ingredients. It’ll take her a while; Krshia’s stall is closed, obviously.”
“Do that. And get someone to tell the Players of Celum that I want them to come in early. They’ll be performing Juliet and Romeo or Hamlet. Or Frozen. Not Much Ado About Nothing. Tell them to bring their best.”
“I’ll do that, then.”
Erin paced around, nodding absently. She glanced up with a frown.
“Thanks. Say, is Octavia bothering you? She wanted to talk to the Horns right when they got arrested, but I haven’t spoken to her since…”
“She hasn’t said anything to me. She’s been quiet, really. It’s almost a relief. Anything else?”
“Mm. One last thing. Send Drassi with a message for…Selys. Yeah. Just Selys. I’ll work out the rest as I go.”
“Go where? I’ll come.”
Numbtongue sat up. Erin smiled.
“Sorry, Numbtongue. You can’t. And it’s a solo mission for now, anyways. Tell Ceria and Pisces I need them to stay in the inn.”
Lyonette watched Erin writing down her message on the parchment. Numbtongue stood up and went to read it. His brow furrowed further. He watched Erin fold it up, hand it to Lyonette, and then head to the magic door.
He was trying to understand. But as he watched Erin change the mana stones on the door, his brow suddenly cleared. He snapped his fingers.
“I’ll be back!”
Erin turned and smiled at the room. Mrsha sat up, sniffing suddenly. And the inn was flooded with daylight. She shaded her eyes as the morning sky shone into the room for a moment—and then Erin was gone. Slowly, Lyonette looked at the closed door. And she got it too. She looked out a window, where the sun had yet to clear the mountains.
Numbtongue squatted by the door. He smiled, pleased. He’d figured some of it out. As for the rest? He went back to his guitar and strummed it softly, playing a quick, upbeat riff. He was looking forwards to when Erin got back. It was never boring around her. At her table, Lyonette watched Mrsha scarf her breakfast. The [Princess] sat back in her chair and cracked her fingers.
“Well, I guess it’s time to make some money. Numbtongue? Mind getting us some more blue fruits? Mrsha? Can you feed Apista?”
The Gnoll looked up and found the Ashfire Bee eating from the Faerie Flowers. She nodded and went to get her watering cup. Lyonette smiled.
“It’s time to make some money.”
Belatedly, she remembered something else. This was the day that Belgrade was supposed to come to the inn and begin construction! She sucked in her cheeks, but Erin was gone. And—Lyonette supposed it didn’t matter. She glanced up. You could almost feel it in the air. An excitement. A premonition.
The feeling was enough to drag even the slothful Pisces and Ceria out of their beds and down the stairs and Lyonette looked up. The quiet inn was coming alive. Because its owner was on the move. And The Wandering Inn got ready. For anything. Because if you knew Erin Solstice, anything was the least of what you should be ready for.
And in Liscor, both Olesm Swifttail and Selys Shivertail learned what was going on at almost the same time. When Drassi hurried out of the inn, bursting with Lyonette’s message, the [Strategist] and [Receptionist] both heard her excited message. Selys because she was the intended target. Olesm after a young Gnoll repeated it word-for-word to him.
He glanced across the busy street in the morning hours at Selys and Drassi and got a scorching glare in return. The [Strategist] ducked his head and sighed. He fished in his money pouch and handed the Gnoll a few silver coins.
“Good work. Keep listening and following them about. Did you get a look at the paper?”
The Gnoll kid wagged his tail excitedly and shook his head.
“No, Strategist Olesm. But Miss Selys said—‘Oh? The armor? I can do that. But what’s she want?’”
He looked up at Olesm. The Drake made a face. He stared back at Selys and Drassi. They were camped on the other side of the street. Selys was having breakfast with Krshia and her cohort of mainly Gnolls and a few Drakes. On the other side, Lism and his band of Liscorites were eating breakfast, noisily laughing.
It was a standoff. Both sides had appeared down Market Street practically at dawn, ready to campaign. And it was a campaign now. A war in the streets. Olesm had no illusions. With his help, his uncle had thrown a few good hits into Krshia’s unprepared defenses, but the Gnoll [Shopkeeper] wasn’t about to back down. But it was an even fight. No—even weighted in Lism’s favor. He’d taken Krshia’s campaign and turned it on its head. Free money, more jobs, less Antinium. Olesm wished he could be proud about it, but he felt dirty. And yet—
“Nephew! How goes it?”
A jovial voice interrupted Olesm. The Gnoll informant waved a paw and disappeared in the direction of Selys and Drassi. Olesm turned.
“Uncle. Not bad, I guess. But I’m a bit worried. You’re ready with my notes?”
Lism patted the bundle of cards that Olesm had worked up, smiling from earhole to earhole.
“Don’t worry, I’ll send that arrogant Silverfang packing. She hasn’t got a leg to stand on and she knows it.”
“Don’t be overconfident. One of my informants said that she talked with Klbkch yesterday. The Antinium might have upped their offer.”
“So? It’s still Antinium money. Don’t worry, I’ll hammer her on that. And the Council has voted! The election’s going through! They haven’t said how or when—but they’ve agreed for, oh, what’s the phrase? ‘A referendum on the current Council which will be taken under advisory for the next appointment of members.’ That’s good, isn’t it?”
“….Could be. It sounds like they’re saying they might not count the votes. Or at least, they’re giving themselves a way out.”
Olesm frowned, working over the language in his mind. Lism bared his teeth, his tail wagging excitedly.
“They do that and they’ll have a riot on their hands. From both Gnolls and Drakes! I’m getting behind this election idea, Olesm. Honest Drakes on the Council, not snooty Merchant’s Guild heads! Watchmen, making decisions about their city! Senior Guardsman Jeiss will get the votes in.”
He looked delighted. Olesm was less so. The younger Drake shook his head.
“Just remember, Uncle. My worry is the Antinium. I’m not supporting you if you keep attacking Humans or Gnolls for that matter. I’m trying to protect Liscor.”
Lism’s expression softened. He laid a hand on Olesm’s shoulder.
“Ah, my boy. For you I’ll change anything you need. And we’ll safeguard Liscor. Together. Don’t look so worried! The city’s with us. Once we gave them an option that was as good as Silverfang’s, the support poured in. Even if the Antinium offer a bit more—and we’re getting in letters of support from all the cities, and even donations—we can persuade folks to do the right thing.”
Olesm hoped Lism was right. But even so, he cast an agonized glance at Selys again. She was ignoring him after she’d tried to punch his lights out yesterday. His tail drooped. Then he sighed.
“I think we can win this. My biggest worry right now though, is Erin.”
Lism’s face soured at once.
“Ah. The Human [Innkeeper]. What about her? She can’t vote.”
“No. But she can help Krshia’s campaign out a lot. I don’t know what she’s doing, but it looks like she’s getting Selys to use her Heartflame Breastplate for something. I thought they’d have Watch Captain Zevara wearing it—but she’s staying neutral it seems.”
“So? If they put a Drake in the armor, it’s the armor that matters, not the Drake. And if they put a Gnoll in it—they’re no Zel Shivertail. A bit of flash won’t change any minds.”
Olesm nodded. That was true. But still, he worried.
“I know. But Erin has a plan of some kind. That’s what Drassi said.”
Lism threw up his hands.
“And so what? You’re the [Strategist], my boy. What can this girl do?”
Olesm looked at his uncle with one eye and shook his head slowly.
“She’s Erin, uncle. Erin. I can’t predict what she’ll do. If there’s anyone who could—win the election by making fish fall out of the sky, it’s her.”
“You have too much faith in that Human girl. Just because she can play chess a bit better than you…fine! Watch for her by all means. But let’s not forget the facts. We have a better campaign than she does. How can she change the facts?”
The older Drake blustered. Olesm made no reply. He just watched Selys. And she was looking down the street, in the direction of The Wandering Inn. Selys looked up from a hamburger from one of the street stalls and met Olesm’s eyes at last. She bared her teeth and made a rude gesture as Krshia stood up. Lism stalked forwards and the two began shouting at each other almost at once.
But that wasn’t what their seconds were waiting for. Olesm was poised, antsy, nervous. Selys looked calmer, but every two seconds she was glancing eastwards, towards the inn. Both of them were waiting for their friend to make another move. And part of Olesm, no, all of him wanted to see it. Because it was Erin. And he felt as small and far from her as he ever had. He couldn’t touch her on the chess board, or in courage, daring. Kindness. But perhaps here?
He waited, and then ducked as Selys threw her half-eaten burger at his head. And they both waited. But the watchers Olesm had posted on the door to Erin’s inn from the city didn’t warn him that Erin was coming. The inn was quiet. And Olesm wondered why that was so. He wondered what Erin was waiting for. Then he wondered where Erin was. And by that time, it was far too late.
And here was the truth. The little grain of it, tucked behind the expectation of all her friends. Krshia, the Horns, Lyonette, Numbtongue. Olesm. It was a simple fact. And it was that Erin didn’t know what she was doing.
She had no grand plan. She had…pieces. And they went together, in a halting, logical, twisting flow in her head. And from that Erin thought she could do something that would help Krshia, make Lism really mad. And do more, do good things. But it was just an inkling. A suspicion that if things went well, it could work.
She was no [Strategist]. She had no grand plans. Because Erin knew in her heart of heart that she couldn’t really be a [General]. She wasn’t that kind of person, who could manipulate events and people like fine machinery. But by the same token, Erin did have something. And it was this: she knew people. And that was all.
She had friends. From that simple truth Erin Solstice could bring a city down. And that was today. She stepped through the magic door and into the city.
Pallass. The morning had advanced enough to let a smattering of people onto the streets. Gnolls, Drakes. And yes, the Dullahans from Baleros and the Garuda of Chandrar. They were few and far between, but still more of a minority than Humans or any other species. Erin spotted an avian head in the crowd and saw a green and white feathered Garuda man with a shopping basket under one arm as she looked around the street. He looked like he was doing some morning shopping. And he was so normal, yawning, scratching under one wing. Erin smiled. People were people.
A pointed voice to her left made her look over. A Drake [Guardsman] with a familiar irked expression stared at her. Erin blinked at him.
“Are you on the list for today’s arrivals? Do you have a list?”
The aggrieved [Guardsman] stared at her. Erin slapped her forehead.
“I knew I forgot something. No list. But it’s cool, right? No one asked to come through. And I’ll just be walking about. I’ll be back before you know it. I do own this door. Hey, aren’t you the jerk that stopped me last time?”
The Drake glowered. He had his trusty spear and he was eying Erin as if he would have loved to give her a good tap with it.
“Watch Captain Venim informed you that anyone passing through the door needs to be authorized coming from Liscor to Pallass.”
Erin rolled her eyes.
“And I’m authorized. You let me in just two days ago. Kel, right? Where’s your friend?”
Guardsman Kel glowered.
“It was deemed safe to allow one [Guardsman] to watch the door. Despite the two unauthorized entries yesterday.”
“Who? Olesm and Pisces? Aw. You gave them a hard time too, didn’t you? That’s why they couldn’t come back until the next day, isn’t it?”
Kel folded his arms with a sneer.
“I just did my job, Miss. And I have to inform you that you are also entering without proper authorization.”
“Right. So? What are you going to do about it, exactly?”
Erin looked blankly at Kel. The [Guardsman] hesitated. Erin leaned forwards, smiling as she put her hand on the closed door.
“If you want, I can go bother Watch Captain Venim again. I know where he is. Or I can talk to whoever’s on duty. Again. Wanna do that? Because that makes it like the eighth time you and I have done this. And I can do it eight more times. Just say the word. They’ve got free tea, you know.”
“That’s tea reserved for members of the Watch!”
“Too bad! It’s really good! Nice talking to you, Kel. I’ve got to be on my way. I’ll be back, though, don’t worry! Save my spot!”
“You’re here illegally!”
The Drake bellowed at Erin’s back. She waved at him. That was Kel for you. Hot-tempered, couldn’t relax. But she’d gotten to know him a bit. The proof was in the fact that Kel let her go rather than trying to poke her in the guts with his spear. She was wearing him down.
Erin walked ahead, breathing in the fresh air. At this height, it felt cooler, crisper. Or maybe it was because the smells of a muddy Liscor didn’t have any bearing here. Pallass’ air was fresh; even better, it had no smog like the cities in Erin’s world. She caught the whiff of fresh bread, a perfume from a passing Dullahan lady, flowers being offered by a Gnoll [Florist]. And then, a sharper smell. Oil, cleaning materials. Not entirely unpleasant. Erin turned her head and heard a familiar voice.
“You. You want sharp knives. Everyone wants sharp knives.”
A Dullahan stood behind his counter, addressing a Gnoll man. The Gnoll pointed at himself uncertainly.
The Dullahan didn’t nod. But his head, resting on the little pillow in the basket on his counter opened his mouth while his armored body lowered his pointing finger.
“Yes, you. You need sharp knives. I have the sharpest knives. Come and see.”
“I uh—I have good knives. Thanks.”
The Gnoll glanced at Erin as she wandered over. The Dullahan glanced at her and then addressed the Gnoll.
“But are they sharp?”
“Pretty sharp. I’m fairly certain…thank you. But I have to be going, yes? Er—”
The Gnoll backed away. The Dullahan sighed. He picked up his head and adjusted it in the basket with his body. Erin leaned on the counter, beaming.
“Hello, Lorent. How’s business?”
“It could be better. Did you hear that Gnoll? He’s got good knives. And is he certain? Or is he so used to a dull blade that he’s taken it for granted?”
The Dullahan [Sharpener] pursed his lips. He tilted his head to look at Erin and the kitchen knife strapped to her side.
“How’s your knife? Any nicks? Blemishes? Dulling?”
“Nope! I cut a fish in half with it just this morning. It’s wicked. Thanks for getting it all ready for me. No complaints!”
Erin patted the kitchen knife at her side. It was the same knife that Maughin had given her after the competition with Pelt. Loren’s perpetual frown seemed to ease as he nodded at it.
“That was a good knife. Excellently made. It can hold a keener edge than half my stock, easily. I’m glad you respect the metal. But I could also do the same for the rest of your knives. Just bring them in and I’ll give you a discount. Or order some from Maughin.”
Erin smiled, relaxed as she leaned on the counter.
“I will, I will. But they are sharp. I tested them. And your knives are dangerously edged! I don’t want to lose a finger; my hands aren’t armored. Have you ever thought about selling gloves to your non-Dullahan customers?”
Lorent’s brows rose.
“I have not. You mean, like a chainmail glove? I could look into it. Although some of my knives could cut through even steel links fairly easily…”
“Maybe that’s a selling point. Anyways, I’m on business. Lorent, you wouldn’t happen to know if Maughin’s in his forge today, would you?”
The Dullahan paused. He scratched his head with his fingers absently.
“Hmm. He should be working there. You have an order for him?”
“Not exactly. But I do have something fun in mind. Hey, thanks. I’ll see you there. Keep an eye on this street, okay? I’m going to do something fun later.”
Erin winked at Lorent and pointed back towards her door. He nodded.
“I’ll be here. If you spot anyone in need of sharp knives…”
The young woman paused. And a light bulb went off in her brain. Her plan suddenly expanded. She smiled conspiratorially at Lorent.
“I may. Do you have to sharpen knives in your shop?”
“I can sharpen a knife anywhere if I bring my tools. Why?”
“Hm. I may have a lot of business for you soon. Keep an open mind, will you?”
“My mind is completely open to business.”
Lorent watched Erin go. She waved at him, grinning. And she saw a faint smile on the reserved Dullahan’s lips. He liked her, or so Erin thought. She thought he was cool, even if he really did speak only about knives. And her meeting with him had given her another idea.
By now, Erin was used to Pallass. At least, the general layout. She knew where the regularly spaced out elevators were on each floor and at least a few good spots. She hopped into an elevator with a Gnoll attendant and three other Gnolls. The Gnoll raised his brows, surprised to see a Human.
Erin answered with a smile. The Gnoll nodded and pulled a lever. The elevator shot up fast, but Erin and the Gnolls were ready for it. She hopped out on the ninth floor as the elevator came to a stop. And ahead of her was the floor reserved for the [Alchemists] and [Blacksmiths], two of the industries that the city was known for.
The young Human woman marched down the floor by the guardrails. On her right, the forges appeared, clanging infernos of heat and steel. Erin could see sparks flying, Drakes, Dullahans, a few Gnolls, no Garuda, hard at work. Hammering despite the early hour. Few noticed her, but she kept her eyes open. And by the largest of the forges she spotted a familiar Dullahan laboring in the back.
Erin waved to one of the Drakes in the front. She had to call twice before the apprentice looked up. She trotted over after sticking a bar of metal into the forge to heat. Erin waved at her, maintaining a respectful distance from the forge; the [Smiths] had drawn a line in paint on the ground beyond which safety was not guaranteed.
“Sorry! Can I ask if Maughin’s in this morning? And Pelt?”
The Drake recognized Erin at once. Her eyes went to the knife at her belt, and she stepped forwards to shout.
“You’re that Human, right? The one who goes to Master Maughin’s tavern? And who got Mister Pelt to forge a knife?”
“Tails and Scales! That’s right! Where’s Maughin?”
“In the forge. Mister Pelt’s not here today. He’s probably got a hangover. I wouldn’t wait for him.”
The Drake grimaced. She pointed at an empty forge down the ways. Erin grimaced. Well, Pelt wasn’t her first choice. He was probably a bit of a disaster in fact.
“Maughin’s fine. Can I ask you to call him over? If he’s not super-busy. Tell him it’s me!”
The Drake nodded. She trotted into the forge and Erin waited patiently. She saw Maughin’s huge form turn and soon he was trotting towards her. She looked up at him. Not since Moore had she seen anyone so huge, and Maughin wore his light metal armor over his entire body! He was already covered in sweat, but she saw that he had a water canteen in the basket he carried his head in. And he was drinking from a straw.
“Miss Erin. It is good to see you.”
Maughin smiled slightly as Erin waved at him and stepped over the warning line to meet him. He bent slightly, and his face was largely neutral. If you didn’t know Dullahans, his reserve might have even come off as passively hostile. But Erin knew Dullahans now and the fact that he was smiling when he met her and that he used her first name meant he felt close enough to be informal.
Erin stopped and gave him a slight bow; Rufelt had told her it was customary for Dullahans to honor [Smiths] whom they held in high regard, even among friends. And Maughin’s pleased expression told Erin he noticed. He inclined his head back and formalities done, they stepped further away from the forge so they wouldn’t have to shout.
“It is a surprise to see you here this early. May I ask if you’re intending to visit Rufelt and Lasica? Their tavern isn’t open at this hour, but I saw them going for a walk together as I was setting up.”
Maughin pointed down two floors. He had good eyes; Erin squinted at the distant shapes below.
“No…although I might want to talk to them. I was actually here to see you!”
“On business? My forge is occupied, but I can certainly talk about an order.”
Erin shook her head.
“Not quite. Tell me, do you have a lot of work today? Could you clear your schedule, Maughin?”
The Dullahan gave her a large frown.
“If it was an emergency, or the project demanded my attention, yes. Why?”
Perfect. Erin spread her arms, smiling broadly.
“I was hoping you’d come with me! I know it’s sudden, but it would really help me out. Can you abandon your forge—leave the work to your other smiths and apprentices? If you can, I’d love for you to come to Liscor with me.”
Erin had the benefit of seeing Maughin blink at her twice. The Dullahan who towered over her head actually picked up his head and rubbed at his ears with his hands. He put his head on his shoulder and leaned down, cupping a hand to one ear.
“Excuse me? Did you say, go to Liscor, Miss Erin? Why would I do that?”
The young woman beamed and spread her arms out.
“Well, why not? Have you ever sold any uh, armor to Liscor? How’s the market for swords and stuff in Pallass?”
“There’s always a market. Not always the best one, but we export around the continent. To the rest of the world, even.”
The Dullahan frowned, rubbing his chin. Erin nodded.
“Right. You sell to [Merchants] and [Traders]. But what about selling directly to, I dunno, Celum? Isn’t it better to have multiple markets? To be competitive and stuff? You could check out the quality of their gear. And there’s this Gnoll [Armorer] in Liscor I’d like to you to meet.”
Maughin looked around, frowning as if he suspected Erin of pulling some kind of prank.
“You mean, right now.”
The [Armorer] stared down at Erin. She stared up, smiling hopefully. At last, Maughin shook his head.
“It’s an interesting offer, Miss Erin. But this is really too sudden. I have work. Perhaps I might have time in a week. Or a few days, but today? My apprentices need supervision, we’re working on a set of armor for a [Knight], and I have four glaive heads to manufacture by the end of the week—”
He shook his head, frowning. Erin nodded, as yet undeterred. Time to get serious. She casually glanced over her shoulder, looking apologetically at Maughin.
“Too bad. There’s this election happening in Liscor right now and it’s a big deal. I know Pallass is going to go through its elections, so I thought you could give my friends some tips. Oh, and one of my friends owns the Heartflame Breastplate and I was thinking you could maybe take a look at it. You know, Selys was wondering if she uncovered all of the functions. It sets itself on fire, very cool. And I made some cake I’d love for you to try…”
Maughin’s face had changed markedly during part of Erin’s little speech. He waved an urgent hand and bent even lower.
“Excuse me. Did you say the Heartflame Breastplate?”
Erin saw his Drake apprentice watching them from the forge out of the corner of her eye. She smiled innocently up at Maughin.
“What? Oh, yeah. And cake. But if you’re busy, I can totally understand.”
“Yes. I mean to say—no. I knew the Heartflame Breastplate was in Liscor. But you say your friend owns it? And I might be able to inspect it?”
Maughin cleared his throat a few times, looking uncharacteristically flustered.
“The Heartflame Breastplate? We are speaking about the same armor? This is not some—other breastplate?”
The young woman saw two of Maughin’s journeymen smiths, both Dullahans, glancing at their master from the forge. And another smith was eying her from a distance. She waved to the [Farrier], Bealt at a distance. Then she took a deep breath and looked back at Maughin.
“No, sorry. I said the Heartflame Breastplate. The legendary artifact!”
Erin shouted it across the forges. The rhythmic, background beating of hammers hitting metal faltered. Erin heard an oath two forges over as someone hit himself on the hand. Another [Smith] poked his head out of the forge to stare. Erin looked up at Maughin.
“Zel Shivertail used to stay at my inn. He was a good guy. Drake. And his niece is Selys Shivertail. She’s my best friend. Wanna see her armor? She won’t mind. It’s not like she wears it.”
She shrugged nonchalantly. Maughin turned his head on his shoulders a hundred and eighty degrees. Erin eyed that queasily, and saw him making a gesture behind his back. Whatever it meant, both of his journeymen Dullahan smiths took off their heads to nod very vigorously. And half a dozen [Smiths] were also drifting out of their forges. Maughin turned his head back and gave Erin a very casual look. He coughed once.
“Well. I…I would be delighted. I don’t think I need to work on all my pieces right at this moment. Why not?”
“Great! Then let’s take a stroll to Liscor! It’s on the eighth floor. Hey Bealt!”
“Miss Solstice! Did I just hear you say the Heartflame Breastplate?”
“Yeah! We’re going to look at it! Hey, I’ll catch you later, okay?”
Erin waved at the Gnoll. He opened his mouth. Apologetically, Erin cut him off.
“And—sorry! One [Blacksmith] is probably enough! You know about what they say about cooks and broth! It’s probably the same with smiths and armor!”
“What? But I—”
Bealt tried to climb over his anvil and nearly burned himself. Maughin looked at Erin as she waved apologetically at the other smiths. He eyed a Drake trying to get to them while taking off his apron.
“Ah, we should go. I’d hate to keep your friend waiting.”
“Sure, sure! Where’s the nearest elevator?”
The Dullahan pointed.
“The personal elevators are somewhat cramped. We may take the stairs. Follow me.”
He set off. Erin waved at the other smiths who were shouting questions, and hurried off. She was trying not to laugh. Maughin strode towards the nearest grand staircase until he realized his stride was leaving Erin behind. Then he hurried back to her.
“My apologies, Miss Erin. But you’re sure? This isn’t an issue? I would be allowed to inspect the breastplate at my leisure? No, a glance would suffice. But if I could test it with a hammer—”
“Sure! Sure! Selys isn’t using it. Grab a hammer!”
Erin waited as Maughin practically raced back. The Dullahan was huffing when he returned. He looked at her.
“And you know the owner of the Heartflame Breastplate?”
“Yup. She’s a [Receptionist]. We’re old friends. Well, not old, but she inherited it. Man. I was so sad when I heard Zel died.”
“A tragedy. Pallass was in mourning for weeks.”
Maughin nodded carefully. He led the way down the stairs. Even with Pallass’ many citizens, he stood out. As big as Moore. But apparently they could get even bigger. Erin imagined what one of the War Walkers—which were apparently super-huge Dullahans—would look like. She shook her head as she went down the stairs.
“Apologies. I don’t move around much from level to level. Aside from the larger elevators, I find it difficult.”
Maughin apologized as he navigated down the steps far slower than he’d walked. Erin didn’t mind; from the expressions of the pedestrians hurrying to get clear below Maughin, they weren’t keen on him tripping and falling either.
“No problem. Hey, I appreciate you taking the time. How’s business been? I haven’t really stopped to chat since that knife-making competition with Pelt and Bealt. I saw you in Tails and Scales of course, the other day.”
“Two days ago.”
Maughin nodded. His head wobbled and he put a hand up and secured it—Erin got the impression he was locking it into place.
“Yes, business has been fine. Ordinary. I haven’t completed any large projects. Pelt drinks too much as usual.”
“Is he—more depressed than normal? The knife he made is really awesome, but I feel bad about making him upset. I tried to talk to him twice, but every time I come up here he runs off.”
Maughin frowned. He gripped the edge of the large divider between the left and right sides of the stairs for support.
“No. I wouldn’t say that. He’s always drunk himself to oblivion. If anything, he’s working harder than usual. But I would say that he has strong feelings about your knife. And his past. I would not inquire. It would be impolite. And perhaps we caused some offence by finishing his knife. Still, I judge it acceptable; steel that fine cannot simply be wasted.”
Erin nodded. She wished Dawil were still here so she could introduce him to Pelt. Too bad, it was one of those things you took for granted. Then again, it wasn’t like they would know each other. Or get along. She sighed, hopped down the last eight steps, and waited for Maughin to catch up. As she waited, she heard another familiar voice.
“Up those steps! Are you [Mages] or limp-tailed [Scribes]? Pump those legs! This is the last stretch! That’s it!”
Erin peered down the steps. On cue, she saw a huge, muscular figure swarming up the stairs as pedestrians got out of the way. It was a Drake, dressed in robes, but with the body of a professional bodybuilder. And following him was a group of Drakes and one Gnoll, all gasping for air. The Drake summited the steps on the eighth floor and immediately turned to harangue his apprentices.
“You want to learn magic? You pay the price! If you can’t do three laps each morning, how can I expect you to cast a [Fireball] spell? Get those knees up! Faster! That’s right, that’s right…alright, you can rest.”
He waved a disgusted claw at his apprentices as they simply collapsed on the eighth floor. The Gnoll pulled out a water bottle and splashed it over her fur. A Drake pulled out a stamina potion. The [Mage] slapped it out of his hands in a moment.
“You fool! I told you time and again, potions are a shortcut! You want to build a body that’s strong? You don’t rely on potions! They’ll stunt your growth!”
He smashed the bottle on the ground and stomped on the glass shards, ignoring the questionable logic of that decision. The Drake moaned. The [Mage] opened his mouth for further shouting, and Erin waved her hands desperately.
“Ooh! Ooh! Hey! You’re Grimalkin, right? Remember me?”
Grimalkin turned. The muscular [Mage]’s eyes widened and he pointed a claw.
“I do! Your name is…”
Erin stepped to one side to let Maughin move past her. Grimalkin bounded over, leaving his poor apprentices to hug the ground and sweat.
“Erin Solstice? Ah yes! The Human with guts! An honor! We didn’t get a chance to speak last time.”
He held out a hand. Erin shook it and her hand was immediately crushed by a huge hand. She beamed up at him. Well, wasn’t this a lucky surprise?
“It’s great to see you. Hey—this is a question out of the blue, but—do you want to visit Liscor?”
Behind Erin, Maughin turned his head. Erin turned to smile at him.
“Yeah! The more the merrier! I don’t know what there is for Grimalkin to see, but I’d love to have him. What about it? We’re going right now. Got any spare time?”
The [Mage] blinked, and then folded his arms. His biceps, triceps, and other ceps rippled with the motion. Grimalkin looked up at the sky, tapping one foot.
“Liscor. Liscor…why not? I just finished my morning run with these slugs and they need a moment. And I’d love to meet the Gecko of Liscor. You wouldn’t happen to know him, would you?”
“Relc? Of course! He’s one of my oldest clients! I can totally introduce you to him! Come on! We’ll go together! Grimalkin, this is Maughin. Do you two know each other?”
The Drake craned his thick neck up. Maughin blinked down at him. The Drake gnawed one lip.
“Hm. Yes I do. Not personally. Pleased. Grimalkin, [Mage].”
“Ah. A pleasure. Maughin. [Blacksmith].”
The two shook hands, blinking at each other. Erin grinned.
“Alright! And if we see Rufus and Lasica—no, wait, the door will probably shut down. I hope the Horns can charge it. Alright, with me!”
She waved the two onwards. Grimalkin paused to bark back at his apprentices.
“You get a reprieve! When we get back, we’ll keep studying!”
Erin saw one of the Drakes lying on the ground raise her head and give Erin a desperate look of gratitude. The [Innkeeper] waved a hand. Then she marched ahead, leading Maughin and Grimalkin behind her. The Dullahan was turning his head from both Erin to Grimalkin now. But Erin was talking to Grimalkin.
“We just met once. But are you really a muscle-mage? Or a [Mage] that uses the magic of…muscles?”
Grimalkin laughed. He had an energetic pace that matched Maughin’s longer legs; Erin was the one who had to jog to keep up.
“Muscle magic? I suppose that’s one word for it! I’m an expert on physical enhancement. It’s an underdeveloped school of magic. But it essentially allows me to enhance a body’s capacity.”
“Right, like casting strength enchantments on me or something?”
“Exactly. Although that’s a common spell. Still, it’s rare enough to see a [Mage] specializing in that. Why bother with enchanting someone to swing a sword harder when you can throw a [Fireball]? Hah. Well, I also believe a conditioned body is a key to a [Mage]’s success, both academically and in battle. Hence my rigorous training regimen.”
“I can see that. You’ve uh, got muscles everywhere. Even your tail is thick.”
Erin looked at Grimalkin’s tail. He laughed.
“Exactly! You know, most species consider our tails a hindrance in battle. But tails provide support, a means of catching your opponents off-guard—but listen to me talk on. Humans don’t have tails. I’m always amazed at your sense of balance without.”
“It does get hard. Speaking of which Maughin, Grimalkin, I hear the Assembly of Crafts is going to have elections soon. That’s what Rufelt and Lasica always tell me about when I visit their bar. How’s that going?”
Maughin, who’d been opening his mouth for a word edgewise for a while now, paused. He and Grimalkin looked at each other, and then both spoke at once.
Grimalkin cleared his throat.
“No, no. Go ahead, uh, Master Maughin.”
“Ah. Thank you. Well, as I understand it Miss Solstice, the elections are fierce. It’s between the Protectorate party and the Unitail group this year. They are the two major parties attempting to gain a majority. Last year, the Protectorate managed to form a ruling party coalition with one of the smaller groups—the Zeresian group.”
Grimalkin nodded vigorously. Erin raised her eyebrows.
The two paused and Maughin extended a palm. Grimalkin leapt in.
“They favor strong ties with Zeres, who have historically been Pallass’ closest allies. A breakoff from the Protectorate party which favors Pallassian independence. Whereas the Unitail group which I suppose Master Maughin and the craftspeople favor is in support of free trade and open borders between all cities. The Protectorate puts tariffs on the other Walled City’s goods, which in turns leads them to tax our alchemical goods and steel. Myself, I consider it all too political. The Assembly is always fighting for power.”
“You’re not in favor of open borders?”
Maughin rumbled from behind Grimalkin, looking disapproving. The [Mage] turned his head back.
“Oh, largely, I suppose. It’s just that I don’t see why we need to tie voting for open borders to this huge discussion about parties and whatnot. I’m tired of it all. Then again, I grew up here. It doesn’t matter to me who’s in charge so long as I can practice my craft in peace. Pallass doesn’t have as strong a mage community as, say Fissival, Miss Erin. We tend to stay out of the politics. Ironic, I know, but we’re not Wistram.”
He addressed Erin. She nodded. Maughin continued to look disapproving so she turned to him.
“You’re going to vote, Maughin? Are you a full citizen?”
He nodded stiffly.
“I have lived in Pallass for over six years, which is the requisite minimum to be considered a full citizen and accorded voting rights. That in itself is a recent development; the minimum duration required to be considered a citizen was lowered from ten years to six in an election three years back.”
Grimalkin snapped his clawed fingers absently.
“Ah, I remember that. I voted to lower the age restriction.”
Maughin looked mollified. Grimalkin nodded briskly.
“Six years, eight years—if you’ve lived in a city for at least two years, why not call yourself a citizen? You pay taxes either way.”
“I wouldn’t go far as two years. But if you’ll vote for lowering the age requirement, what about open borders and more protection for other cities? The Protectorate—”
Grimalkin made a disgusted sound and raised a claw.
“Agh! They don’t have my vote. Satisfied? I wasn’t a fan of how they handled the Liscor crisis. Not at all. I admit, I liked their stance when Salazsar was throwing its weight around and inflating the prices of gemstones five years back, but this is too far.”
“Exactly what Rufelt and Lasica have been saying.”
Maughin nodded contentedly. Grimalkin nodded and muttered out of the corner of his mouth to Erin.
“Dullahans never give up an argument. Word of advice, Miss Solstice. How did you come to know Maughin anyways?”
“He knew Rufelt and Lasica, who’re my friends. And I got this knife from a smithing competition.”
The muscle [Mage] blinked as Erin showed him the knife. He bent down while walking to inspect it.
“I do remember that! And you! That’s the second time—wonderful display. Form and physique on show for all to see. That Dwarf was especially good, but Maughin has a classic [Blacksmith]’s build.”
He and Erin both turned to look at the Dullahan. Maughin stopped.
The Drake nodded. He walked around the Dullahan, speaking rapidly and gesturing at his arms and legs.
“Good physique. A bit upper-body intensive, but I can respect that out of a [Blacksmith]. Still, you could do some leg exercises. You’re aware that Dullahans grow to fit your armor, I’m sure, but that strength is often underused. May I ask if you do any kind of curling exercises?”
Grimalkin sighed. He adjusted his robes, and for a moment the fabric strained against his chest, revealing a row of rippling abdominal muscles. Erin oohed and Maughin looked impressed—then embarrassed. He averted his gaze.
“Abdominal muscles. It’s the—the foundation of every movement. Even trained warriors neglect their stomachs and backs. I’ve discovered that it’s criminally underused, however. I’m trying to raise awareness, but it’s hard to convince a [Warrior] that he needs to do sit-ups to improve his swing. I realize it’s not obvious at first glance, but the body is connected, you understand?”
The Drake patted his stomach disconsolately. Erin nodded rapidly.
“No, I totally get it! You’re talking about the core, right?”
Grimalkin turned his head and snapped his fingers.
“The core? Excellent name! Where did you come up with that?”
“Well, where I come from, people know about it—”
“They do? Tell me more! Wait, where do you come from?”
Erin’s tongue tangled in her mouth. She hesitated.
“W-well, I—the core’s just the core, right? And you do all kinds of stretches. Sorry, I’m not an expert, but I do know about dynamic stretching vs static.”
“Well, you do this instead of…”
Erin began showing Grimalkin some stretches in the street, doing arm swings, rotating her body—Grimalkin walked around her nodding.
“I see. I see. That’s—well, I’ve found the same thing. Stationary stretching tires the muscles or so it feels, while this—but most [Soldiers] won’t do either before a battle. And I keep telling Pallass’ [Strategists], if an army took ten minutes to warm up before charging into the fray—”
Maughin took his head off and rubbed at his eyes. When the Dullahan put his head back on his shoulders, he cleared his throat gently. Erin and Grimalkin looked up. The Dullahan massaged his temple gently.
“I apologize for interrupting. But I must confess, Miss Erin. I am not certain why I’m here. Is this…why are we here?”
He gestured to Erin and Grimalkin. The young woman realized she was doing stretches in the middle of the street. She blushed; Grimalkin just looked around blankly as if nothing was out of the ordinary. She shrugged.
“Sorry, Maughin. We should get going if we want to get to Liscor.”
“I understand. But you’ve invited me and Magus Grimalkin. Why?”
“…Because I saw him?”
Erin gave Maughin a wide-eyed stare. He searched her face for anything, but clearly didn’t find it.
“So you invited him to go to Liscor? And me, because I was available?”
“Yep. That’s all there is to it. I was gonna get Rufelt and Lasica if you were busy. But this is great too. Grimalkin’s part of the plan.”
“I am? What plan?”
The [Mage] looked suspiciously at Erin as he tried out one of her stretches. Erin shrugged.
“Just something cool. Don’t worry. It’ll be fun! I promise. And you’ll get to see the armor, Maughin. And Relc.”
The two males looked unconvinced. Erin blew out her cheeks. This was why you didn’t tell people they were part of a plan. She threw her hands up.
“It’s just something that will help me out! Besides, do you have a reason not to follow me?”
Grimalkin and Maughin exchanged a glance. After a second Erin turned and walked down the street. They followed her. Grimalkin muttered out of the other corner of his mouth to Maughin.
“You do know her, right? Are we walking into some kind of ambush? I’m fine with it; I can handle myself. You?”
“I’ve met her a handful of times. I’m told she’s an [Innkeeper] of some sort. But I must confess, I have never actually witnessed her inn or at work—”
“I’m on holiday! Geeze!”
Erin stopped in front of her magical door. She glared back at Maughin and Grimalkin. The Dullahan looked abashed; Grimalkin didn’t. He put his hands on his hips, eying the door as Erin strolled up to Kel the [Guardsman]. The Drake was giving her much the same look as the two men.
“Hey Kel! Two to go through. There’s no fee, right?”
“What? Are you insane? You can’t just bring—that’s Maughin! Our top smith! And that’s Magus Grimalkin! He’s our combat [Mage]!”
Kel spluttered as he pointed at the Dullahan and Grimalkin. Maughin looked pleased and Grimalkin held out a hand to shake.
“Top smith? Well done.”
“It is a small exaggeration. The Dwarf, Pelt, puts out better quality goods than I can. But I suppose it’s a matter of reliability—”
“Nonsense. That’s an achievement for anyone, let alone someone working Pallass’ forges. I won’t ask your level, but you’re not, what, forty? You must have been a genius. Baleros-born?”
“Yes. I received some accolades, but I thought I wouldn’t grow competing with smiths from my home. So I journeyed to Pallass. I had assumed I’d run up against countless masters.”
“Well, since old Lassilt died of a stroke, I suppose the field is clearer. The other Walled Cities poached two smiths, damn them. And Pelt’s been here a while, but I suppose your work’s really kept us at the top.”
“It is an honor to hear you say so—”
Kel stared at the two. Erin ignored the conversation behind her. She leaned on the door.
“Yeah, I know it’s Maughin and Grimalkin. So what? They can go through and there’s no fee. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes, but—you have no list and they’re—”
The Drake spluttered. Erin rolled right over him, speaking louder for the benefit of anyone passing by. Maughin and Grimalkin were certainly attracting looks on the street.
“Then what’s the problem? They’re free to go through. So am I. Move it! Shoo! Shoo!”
“I can! Grimalkin, can you give me a hand? Squash this guy’s head like a grape or something?”
Grimalkin strolled over. He ignored Erin who was pushing at Kel and investigated the door.
“I’ve seen this door before. Never gone through of course. So this is the artifact that everyone’s so eager to use, is it? Let’s see.”
He opened the door. Instantly, Erin’s inn appeared on the other side. Erin brightened up. Lyonette had kept it set it to Pallass! She waved at Maughin. The Dullahan was staring.
“See? It’s my door! Hey! Is Lyonette there? I’ve got guests!”
“Who is it? Erin?”
The young woman heard voices from the other side. Then Mrsha appeared. The white Gnoll galloped into view, blinked up at Maughin, and then fled. The Dullahan stared at her.
“Incredible. It truly is a magic door. I hadn’t seen it before.”
“Fascinating. This is clearly a portal spell. And it can transmit, what, hundreds of miles? I can’t imagine how powerful the enchantment on the door must be. It has to be worth at least ten thousand—no, possible a hundred thousand—of course, these spells were more common during certain eras of magical kingdoms. And we do have teleportation spells. But this is so convenient. And there’s no charge?”
Grimalkin rubbed his claws together. Kel tried to protest, but Erin hip-bumped him to one side and motioned Maughin up.
“Yeah! Come on through! Promise it’s not a trap. Hey Mrsha! Watch out! Maughin’s coming through.”
The Dullahan hesitated. He peered through the doorway, but, encouraged by Erin’s smile and very interested despite himself, stepped through the doorway. He blinked as his foot hit the floor of Erin’s inn. He turned around, blinking, then peered into the room.
“Incredible. Are we really—”
He turned to look at Erin and the door went dead. Kel swore. Erin just groaned.
“Aw. He was too big! Normally we can get three people through. Don’t worry! I heard Ceria on the other side. She can charge the door!”
Grimalkin looked surprised. He raised is brows.
“It ran out of mana? No wonder. But that’s a simple enough fix.”
So saying, he put a claw on the door and took a breath. Erin blinked at him.
“You can recharge it?”
“I am a [Mage]. Hm. This door drains mana like no one’s business. But no matter. Concentration! Huah!”
His shout made Kel, Erin, and the onlookers jump. The image of Erin’s inn immediately reappeared in the doorway, like a television turning on. Erin saw Maughin peering at the door anxiously a few steps back. Pisces blinked into the door and both he and Ceria recoiled.
“Wow! What was that?”
“Hi Ceria! Morning! Grimalkin just fixed the door. Thanks! How’d you do it so fast?”
Erin turned to Grimalkin. Pisces stared as Grimalkin flexed one arm and his entire body rippled. The Drake replied casually.
“A [Mage] can store mana in his body. I just released some. May I enter?”
Erin elbowed Kel in the side.
“Please! Me next!”
Grimalkin stepped delicately through the doorway, and then Erin. She turned and saw Kel glaring at her from Pallass.
“Sorry Kel! They’ll be back later! Watch the door for me, alright?”
“Watch Captain Venim will hear about this, you—you—”
Erin shut the door on his face. She turned and beamed at Grimalkin. He was looking around her inn. So was Maughin. The Dullahan blinked up at the ceiling that even he could stand naturally under, and then the large room.
“This is quite spacious. Impressively so. No inn in Pallass has this much space.”
“It’s clearly the result of dimensional magic. Or a Skill. See how the room just repeats itself minus the windows after this point? Fascinating. And useful. So we’re in Liscor?”
Grimalkin strode over to a window. He looked out, exclaimed, and peered around excitedly. Maughin looked up.
“What is it?”
“Come and see! The entire landscape is changed! We’re right in the middle of the High Passes!”
The Dullahan’s jaw dropped. He strode over, avoiding a chair, and pulled off his head to see. Erin heard a faint sound; she turned and saw Ceria staring open-mouthed at the Dullahan.
“It’s—Erin, is that a War Walker?”
“Naw, just Maughin. He’s big, but not War Walker big. Hey Pisces.”
The [Necromancer] didn’t immediately respond. He was staring at Maughin and Grimalkin both. Then he looked at Erin.
“That Drake is a powerful [Mage].”
“Yup. He’s a [Sinew Magus] or something. His name is Grimalkin.”
“Grimalkin. You mean, the Grimalkin? The insane fool who thinks magic is tied to the body?”
“That would be me.”
Grimalkin’s claw fell on Pisces’ shoulder. The [Necromancer] paled. He turned. Grimalkin looked disapprovingly down at him.
“And you would be…a [Necromancer]. No, don’t bother answering. I can tell. Your aura screams death magic. And the half-Elf’s a [Cryomancer]. Poor form, both of you. You at least have some arm and leg muscle, boy, but you’re both completely unfit.”
Ceria gaped up at Grimalkin. The Drake shook his head.
“What’s your backup when you run out of magic, miss? An enchanted dagger? Running away and hoping the rest of your team takes care of the fighting? I don’t want to be rude, but is that how you lost your hand? Have you ever considered learning how to use a sword as well as fighting? [Spellswords] get a bad rap, but in my experience, they live longer when things go south. Now, I can respect a [Fencer]’s build, but that rapier won’t go through anything like a Wyvern’s hide—”
Erin backed away as Ceria and Pisces tried to object—and then run away—and Grimalkin grabbed both their shoulders. She edged over to Maughin. He was staring out of a window, entranced. He turned his head to her.
“We have travelled hundreds of miles in a moment. This is truly powerful magic, Miss Solstice.”
“I know. Isn’t it great? I never thought I could do this myself. And this is my inn, Maughin! I told you I had one.”
Erin waved a hand around. Maughin turned his head to look. Erin saw a flash of white—Mrsha disappeared around the back of a table.
“Aw. Mrsha. It’s just Maughin. He’s a Dullahan. Don’t worry, he can put his head back. Come here.”
Erin went to find Mrsha. The Gnoll cub shrank as Erin pulled her out of the table. Maughin bowed his head slightly, then put it on his shoulders.
“Good evening, little one.”
He held out a finger to shake. Mrsha timidly shook it, then sniffed Maughin’s finger. She looked relieved and the Dullahan smiled. Then he looked alarmed and shielded his head.
“Miss Erin. There is a gigantic bug over there. Hold the child safe. I will squash it.”
“No! That’s Apista!”
Erin yelped. Maughin stared at her. Mrsha rushed over to protect the Ashfire Bee and Apista landed on her head. The Dullahan stared at Mrsha. At Apista. At Erin as she tried to explain. He had to sit on the floor.
“Okay! Everyone stop!”
Erin waved her hands. Grimalkin, Maughin, Mrsha, Apista, Pisces, and Ceria looked up. Erin turned around. She took a deep breath.
“Maughin, Grimalkin, this is my inn. And this is Mrsha—wave, Mrsha—and Apista. She’s the pet of one of my employees. That’s Pisces and Ceria—they’re Silver-rank adventurers. Everyone, this is Maughin and Grimalkin. Maughin’s a [Blacksmith], the best in Pallass! And Grimalkin’s a Muscle Mage. They’re here to visit.”
“Pleased to meet you all.”
Maughin took off his head to bow, looking a bit shell-shocked. Grimalkin bowed slightly. He eyed Mrsha, who eyed him as if she wasn’t sure he was actually a Drake. Erin smiled.
“Okay? Everyone cool?”
Pisces and Ceria nodded. Both edged a bit away from Grimalkin. Mrsha came over, with Apista in her paws. Grimalkin peered down at the Ashfire bee.
“I’m seen odd familiars. Even someone trying to raise Creler as a pet. But I have to admit—I’m somewhat thrown. Hello there. Mrsha?”
He gingerly offered Mrsha a claw. Apista showed her stinger; Grimalkin withdrew the claw. Erin looked around, beaming. Maughin was shaking his head.
“This is quite an experience. I was just at my forge. Now—I am fine. Thank you, Miss Erin. I have been discourteous.”
He rose and approached Pisces and Ceria. They shook his hands, staring up at him.
“Uh, likewise. Master Maughin, is it?”
Ceria stammered. Pisces nodded. He shook Maughin’s hand.
“I am a humble servant of magic, Master Maughin. The day’s greetings with you. Please forgive our lax manners.”
Maughin blinked. He inclined his head.
“No offense taken. I am pleased to meet you. Magus Pisces?”
The [Necromancer] smiled effusively.
“You honor me. I am but a student compared to Magus Grimalkin, but my Captain and I—Captain Ceria Springwalker of the Horns of Hammerad—may one day hope to seek your services. I hope you keep us in mind in that eventuality.”
“Ah. Of course.”
Maughin’s face immediately clouded over. Ceria looked at Pisces, shook herself, and then elbowed him in the side.
“Ignore my companion. I’m pleased to meet you. You’re from Pallass? And their…top [Blacksmith]?”
Both she and Pisces shot Erin a sideways glance. The [Innkeeper] ignored it. She smiled at Grimalkin and Maughin. They both blinked at her. This was clearly not how they’d expected to start their days. And yet—Erin smiled.
“We’re just going for a walk in the city, Ceria. You know? Maybe to see Krshia and her lot?”
Pisces snapped his fingers, looking amused. Ceria’s eyes widened. She nodded silently. Grimalkin cleared his throat.
“I suppose this is part of the plan you mentioned?”
Maughin warily looked from Erin to Grimalkin. The young woman opened her mouth. And then Numbtongue walked into the inn, with a huge basket of blue fruits cradled in one arm. He paused, staring at Maughin. The Dullahan turned. His face turned pale.
Grimalkin roared. He didn’t cast a spell, he just leapt forwards, one fist raised. Numbtongue recoiled and Erin shouted.
“No! He’s a friend!”
The Drake stopped. Numbtongue windmilled wildly, spilling blue fruits and catching the door’s edge for balance. Maughin stared at him, and then at Erin.
“I heard Goblins frequented your inn. But this?”
He pointed at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin stared at Grimalkin. The [Mage] eyed him from head to toe. He opened his mouth, hesitated, and then patted Numbtongue on one shoulder.
He turned to Erin. She grinned weakly.
“It’s Numbtongue. He’s a Goblin, yeah. But he’s my uh, employee? And friend. He stays here. He’s actually a [Bard].”
She pointed at Numbtongue. He edged past Grimalkin with the blue fruits’ basket in one arm. He paused and lifted his guitar, waved it once, and then put the basket on the nearest table. Erin coughed.
“So yeah. That’s Numbtongue.”
“Goblins working at an inn. Well, it’s your funeral, Miss Erin.”
Grimalkin shook his head, bemused. He looked over at Maughin. The Dullahan seemed petrified by the sight of Numbtongue. The [Bard], eying Maughin’s armor and huge form, was staying clear as well.
“He’s nice! Don’t worry, Numbtongue. Maughin’s a [Blacksmith]. He’s great! Really! And he can take his head off.”
Erin tried to soothe Numbtongue. Grimalkin folded his arms, looking from Numbtongue to Maughin. The Dullahan hesitated. He looked back at the magic door. Mrsha trotted over to it, clicked the dial, opened the door, and checked it. Celum and Octavia’s shop briefly appeared. Mrsha clicked the dial, again, and the stand of blue fruit trees appeared. The Dullahan groaned and sat back down again.
“This is all too much.”
“It’s fine. It really is. Numbtongue, say hi! Don’t shake your head at me! Maughin’s great! Grimalkin’s the one who could pull your head off. He’s a Muscle Mage.”
“I think that term isn’t quite appropriate—”
“We’re back. What did we—oh.”
Erin’s head turned. Maughin’s head turned. Grimalkin made a fist, caught himself, and stared. Ceria groaned slightly. Pisces grinned from ear to ear.
Yvlon and Ksmvr halted in the doorway as Liscor appeared behind them. The Human woman and Antinium stared at Maughin, then at Grimalkin. Erin glanced at Maughin too. The Dullahan had stopped breathing. She gingerly waved a hand.
“Hi Ksmvr. Yvlon.”
Yvlon looked at her. She stared at Maughin.
“Uh. Hi Erin. We were having our morning training. Who’re our guests?”
“This is Maughin. He’s a Dullahan. And this is Grimalkin. Uh, Maughin, Grimalkin, meet Yvlon and Ksmvr. They’re part of the Horns of Hammerad. Yvlon’s a [Warrior] and Ksmvr is—”
Maughin breathed the word. And for him, it was a note of horror. Horror, incredulity—both were written across his face. Ksmvr tilted his head, then approached cheerfully. He stuck out his right hand.
“An Antinium, in point of fact. And I am no longer affiliated with my Hive. Good morning. I am Ksmvr, adventurer for hire.”
The Dullahan recoiled. He looked at Erin with an expression of shock. She stared back innocently. Grimalkin broke the silence by stepping forwards. He peered at Ksmvr with narrowed eyelids. The Antinium turned towards him with an open hand. Grimalkin ignored it.
“Hm. Not bad. Not bad. I’ve seen corpses and fought a few, but even the Workers have a very efficient build. Of course; insect’s bodies are very efficient. No wasted fat. And four arms? Hm. I’ve often wondered if it’s inefficient.”
“I have wondered the same thing. But I am very sturdy. You may attempt to push me over if you wish. May I shake your hand?”
Grimalkin eyed Ksmvr. He shook his head abruptly.
“No. I fought in both the First and Second Antinium Wars. And I forgot Liscor had a Hive. Well, this day does get more and more interesting, doesn’t it, Maughin?”
He looked back at the Dullahan. Maughin stared palely at Ksmvr as the [Skirmisher] cheerfully turned to him. He looked at Erin. Then he gingerly reached out and shook the hand. Mainly to get Ksmvr to go away. But the Antinium just kept standing there after he was done. Maughin passed a hand over his pale face.
“I…am not certain why I’m here.”
Erin bit her lip. She looked from Grimalkin to Maughin, to Mrsha, who was happily sniffing Yvlon’s boots, to Pisces who had stuffed part of his robe into his mouth to cover his laughter, to Numbtongue, who was eating a blue fruit and eying Grimalkin. Ceria met Erin’s eyes. The two looked at each other and burst out laughing. It was Yvlon who sighed. And Ksmvr who brightly spread his arms.
“Welcome to The Wandering Inn. My name is Ksmvr.”
Liscor’s streets were full of shouting. You could hear Lism’s voice eight streets down. Krshia’s growling shouts nine streets. But in this case at least, volume didn’t matter. The debate about the elections were hot on everyone’s tongues as they stood around and debated, or worked and chattered.
A Gnoll [Tailor] poked herself in the thumb as she debated with her assistants, both of whom were Drakes. A [Butcher] talked with his clients as he prepared a cut of meat.
“The Council’s voted. We’re having elections. A democracy. Like Pallass. Who would have thought?”
“I think it’s overdue. But who will you vote for?”
“Well, seeing as there’s two choices right now, I’ll have to vote for Raekea. She’s in my district.”
“Voting for your species? Come on now.”
“What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with a Gnoll on the Council?”
“Nothing. If you’re not selling Liscor to do it. Can we trust the Antinium?”
“I saw you going to Senior Guardsman Klbkch just the other day.”
“That’s different. This is about security. And if we can make some jobs and guard our walls—Strategist Olesm is with Lism.”
“Lism’s a racist old bag of wind.”
“I think he makes sense myself.”
“When I was young, the Antinium weren’t here. And we got on fine ourselves.”
“It’s not just about the Antinium. If you’re not voting for a Gnoll, that’s racist.”
Debate. Arguments. But it was hard, harder now to argue for Krshia. Because the Antinium Wars were on the mind. And, fair play, Lism had his objectionable qualities. But then again, Krshia was fielding only Gnoll candidates and Lism had now pushed forwards three Gnolls for his Council seats, all in Gnoll-heavy districts. How about that?
Market Street was abuzz with crowds listening to the debates. Selys was wincing as Lism hammered Krshia. He was pointing at the Gnoll, and waving an arm to the crowd.
“It’s a simple question! Let’s have the Free Queen or Klbkch answer it, why don’t we? Have the Antinium ever plotted to harm Liscor or its citizens in the last year? Does the Grand Queen intend to pursue war with Liscor? How many Soldiers does the Hive have? Any of these questions—any of them answered under truth spell! How about it, Silverfang? Can’t we at least ask our ‘allies’ if they’ve ever plotted to stab us in the back?”
“You and I know that the Free Antinium are not the same as the other Hives. And has Liscor not plotted to attack the Free Antinium if it comes to battle? Tell me we do not have spells and measures in place for that very day?”
Krshia’s voice was weary and furious. Lism made a scoffing sound, amplified by his voice charm.
“Safeguards, not plans of attack, Silverfang. And, might I add, who needs to prepare for an attack amongst allies? Hm? How much are the Antinium offering now?”
“Thirty percent of the construction. Better than the Walled Cities would do. And they’ll pay six thousand gold pieces per year—”
“All of which is useless when we’re lying with our throats slit in the streets. Or maybe it’s just those of us who don’t fall into line and wag our tails, is that it, Krshia? Tell me, did the Antinium buy your loyalty? And how much was it?”
The crowd howled with glee and outrage. Krshia snarled. Lism raised his claws, smiling unctuously at the crowd.
“It’s just a question, people! But for our peace of mind, will you swear it on a truth spell? Oh wait—I forgot. That’s not something we should be doing.”
“Tell me, do you really believe in your plan for the city? Or did you steal it from me and let your nephew, Olesm, take charge because you just couldn’t stand the idea of a Gnoll on the Council that badly, Lism?”
Krshia’s retort and Lism’s reply were lost by another set of jeering from the crowd. This time against Krshia. Selys, standing behind Krshia’s platform, winced. She looked around and met Elirr’s eyes.
“She’s getting slaughtered up there!”
The Gnoll [Beast Trainer] growled, visibly upset.
“She is. Where is Klbkch? Can he not answer any of these questions?”
“Do we want him to?”
Selys grabbed at her neck spines in frustration. She hated to admit it, but Lism had a point. A really good one that he was using to hammer Krshia with. They had to change the topic somehow! Lism, or rather, Olesm daring Klbkch to swear on truth spell that he didn’t have plans to attack Liscor was inspired. It was really bothering people, Selys included.
Of course the Antinium probably had plans to attack Liscor. But they were allies. Right? Everyone had a backup plan. But…why had Klbkch refused to take Olesm’s bait, then? Couldn’t he say something? Selys shook her head. Her claws trembled on her notes.
“I can’t do this. I’m no [Strategist]—I can’t figure out anything good to say back! That stupid, eel-faced Lism is going to win! And all because—where’s Erin?”
“We haven’t seen her.”
“She promised she’d do something.”
Elirr nodded gently.
“But what? She cannot perform miracles, no?”
“I know. But it’s Erin. If anyone can do something, it’s her.”
Despairingly, Selys turned her head. She knew it was unfair to pin so much on Erin. This wasn’t even her city. Not really. But she was Selys’ friend. Surely she could so something, right?
But what? The crowd erupted into more cheers and Selys looked up to see Lism raising his arms and Krshia grimacing. It said it all. The elections weren’t even happening yet—the Council had tentatively put them a week from today. And already it felt like it was over. Selys thought about confronting Olesm, asking him what it would take for Lism to back down—disavowing the Antinium maybe. But could they hijack Lism’s platform in return?
And then, Selys felt it. It was like a ripple through the crowd. She couldn’t hear it—Lism’s voice was drowning out sound. But she felt it. A sudden lapse in attention. A turning, shifting, as people, with that animalistic instinct, realized something was going on behind them. And Selys turned. She whirled and knew.
Here she came. Three streets over, and strolling. Just walking along, chattering to the exceedingly buff Drake on her right. The giant, armored…Human? On her left. Maughin and Grimalkin. Erin was pointing at the street, speaking louder than normal because of the distant shouting.
“And this is a street. You like streets, don’t you? I’ll grant you, it’s not as nice as Pallass’ smooth stone walkways, but it’s a good street.”
“Rugged. Rounded cobblestones. They’ve been worn smooth, but some are going to come loose and leave potholes. Definitely not ideal. You could roll an ankle more easily. But it’s firm enough.”
Grimalkin glanced at the street dismissively. He didn’t really care, but it seemed like the Magus of Muscles had an opinion about everything. Erin smiled. On her left, the Dullahan lowered his head and peered at her and Grimalkin, looking aggrieved.
“Why are we talking about streets?”
“Don’t worry about it, Maughin. You wanna talk about clouds instead? Or Liscor’s election?”
“I’m still trying to figure out what happened.”
The Dullahan [Blacksmith]’s voice was plaintive. He twisted his head from side to side, looking at the Gnolls and Drakes staring at him. And oh, they were staring. Maughin put his head back on his shoulders and looked down at Erin and Grimalkin.
“One second I was at my forge. The next—I’m here. And I met an Antinium. An actual…it makes sense when I think about it, but it’s so abrupt.”
“You have to adapt. I’ve had this kind of experience—only in battle, not walking down the street. The suddenness of change. One second you’re marching with your friends, the next, someone’s cast an [Earthquake] spell and you’re clinging for dear life while a rock splits open your friend’s skull. Adaptability. I try to teach that too to my apprentices.”
Grimalkin nodded to himself. He eyed the streets full of people. Some of the Gnolls were sniffing as they passed. Erin smiled. Could they smell Pallass? She checked behind her and noticed the small crowd staring at their backs. She patted Maughin on the lower back.
“It’s alright. Sorry for dragging you through like that and surprising you with Numbtongue and Ksmvr. I forgot how weird they are to most people. They’re here every day.”
“Goblins and Antinium. I can’t fathom it. Actually, the Goblin I can understand. I did hear about the Goblin’s Lament Company. It was formed—and then declared invalid—before I ever came to Izril. But Antinium?”
“Ksmvr’s just like anyone else. Okay, he’s sort of different, but you shook his hand. He’s nice. They’re not all enemies, right Grimalkin?”
The [Sinew Magus] shook his head.
“I’m withholding judgment.”
“Well, as long as you don’t punch anyone’s head off. And what’s wrong with walking down the street in Liscor? They have elections. Pallass has elections. Ours are going on right now, actually.”
Maughin nodded. He’d heard Lism shouting and some of the arguments on display. He adjusted his head, raising it to peek over a crowd of bodies ahead of him. A Drake saw that and fainted. Maughin put his head on his shoulders, looking embarrassed.
“It’s still surreal. One second we were in Pallass. The next? Here. This is grand magic. Beyond me. The idea that a door like this always existed in Pallass…why has no one used it?”
Erin smiled to herself. She led the two down the next street, hearing the shouting growing louder. As did the press of bodies. But Maughin and Grimalkin generated the bubble of space big, imposing fellows got.
“Probably because Liscor’s a nowhere border city, right? You could have always come through, right? You just didn’t.”
“I never had a reason to.”
Grimalkin and Maughin exchanged a thoughtful glance. Erin’s smile widened and she threw an arm around both. Well, Grimalkin’s lower chest and Maughin’s armored buttock.
“And now you’re here! It’s great! And here we are! Market Street, or Arguing Street, really. The two candidates for Liscor’s election are shouting down here. I think this is where we’ll find Selys and that Gnoll I want you to meet, Maughin. And maybe Relc if there’s a lot of fighting.”
She pointed through a wall of bodies. Maughin frowned.
“Will we make it through? I see two people on platforms, but there must be several hundred—”
“Don’t worry! Just follow me!”
Erin waved at Maughin. He reluctantly stepped after her. The back of the crowd, who had been watching Lism and Krshia argue, noticed the sudden shadow. They turned back. They could easily miss Erin, maybe even Grimalkin. But Maughin was head-and-shoulders taller than the tallest Gnoll. Erin heard a few screams and some shouts.
“What is that?”
“A Human? A half-Giant?”
“A Dullahan? Here?”
“Hey! It’s that Human! You know what that means—”
Erin ignored all of it, especially that last comment. She waved her hands, shouting cheerfully. And she channeled her best Robin Williams.
“Make way! Make way! We’re just having a walk! Excuse me! Don’t mind us!”
Maughin waved a hand, gently edging forwards. And as more Drakes and Gnolls turned their heads, hearing Erin shouting, they stared.
“Grimalkin, this way! Watch the muscles, ladies! He’s got a ten-pack. Muscle Mage, don’t you know? Excuse me! Some room for Maughin! He’s a [Blacksmith]! [Armorer]! It’s close! Don’t stare!”
For some reason, people weren’t listening to Erin’s pleas for anonymity. On the other hand, they were making good progress. The crowd parted, and the electric attention on Lism and Krshia began to fade. Accordingly, more people began to notice and turn. Erin and her two friends were halfway towards the two debaters on their platforms when they noticed. Lism turned his head, breaking off as he felt the eyes on him turning elsewhere.
“And as I was saying the—the Antinium can’t be—what is that?”
His voice, and the pointing claw pushed all the attention onto Maughin. The [Smith] flushed. Uncomfortably, he adjusted his head. Lism stared. And then the young woman’s voice rose. Erin’s [Loud Voice] Skill made her words echo across the crowd and adjoining streets.
“Hey! Rude! What’s with the pointing? Excuse me, yes, excuse me, we’re just passing through! Keep moving! You can get back to debating after we’re gone!”
Krshia breathed the words. And there she appeared. Laughing, waving her hands, creating a path in people as easily as a [Hydromancer] shifting the waters of a lake.
“Make way for Maughin, fabulous he! Dullahan [Blacksmith], best in Pallass! He’s got a dozen apprentices! And Grimalkin, the famous muscle mage! Don’t worry, we’re just having a stroll! Nobody stare!”
She danced forwards.
“Don’t mind us. Haven’t you seen a Dullahan before? And a really muscly [Mage]?”
Erin laughed. Lism turned his head to stare behind him. And Olesm, standing in the street behind his uncle’s platform went pale. He signaled desperately, but Lism’s mouth was faster. He turned.
“Clearly some ploy, by Krshia and that Human, folks. Don’t mind him. What am I saying? Give him some room. Dullahans from Pallass? Ah yes. Well, the Dullahans. Traditional allies of the Drakes. Well, of course, we’re pleased to have you in our city, sir!”
He smiled and waved at Maughin. The Dullahan, already uncomfortable, raised his head and turned it to stare at Lism. The Drake turned pale. The [Armorer] shook his head, perplexed.
“Traditional allies? I’m sorry…sir. But our species have not historically been allies. We were great enemies during the time of Dragons.”
He frowned deeply. A murmur ran through the crowd at that. Erin sighed, but her eyes sparkled. And on her platform, Krshia bared her teeth. She called over at Lism, who’d gone red with embarrassment.
“Historical enemies, you say? But Dullahans are a welcome part of Pallass now. It makes you think—”
To everyone’s surprise, it was Erin who interrupted Krshia. She frowned up at the Gnoll and made a zipping motion with her mouth. Krshia stared at her. But Erin was pushing forwards again.
“Excuse me. Is Selys here? I’m looking for Selys! My friend?”
“Here! I’m here Erin!”
A claw rose over the cloud and Selys eagerly pushed through the crowd. Lism spluttered from his platform, but Olesm had gotten to him and anxiously shushed his uncle to silence. Erin beamed at Selys as the crowd stopped, witness to her meeting with Selys. She gestured at Grimalkin and Maughin.
“Selys! Great to see you. I wanted to introduce you to two of my friends from Pallass. Remember how I told you about them? Grimalkin, this is Selys. She’s uh, Zel’s niece. My best friend and a [Receptionist] at the Adventurer’s Guild. Selys, this is Grimalkin. And Master Maughin!”
She pointed up. Bemused, Selys offered a hand. Maughin shook it, looking dazedly around at the staring faces. Selys stared at his giant hand. And then Grimalkin seized her claws and gave them a bone-crushing shake.
“Miss Shivertail, I met your uncle a handful of times. But there was a [General] I could respect. He understood something about the physical form. He would have made a wonderful [Mage] but I’m afraid he never took to it. Still, I’ve never met someone with manual dexterity like that. And his claws! Those were on par with a national treasure alone!”
“Oh. Oh? You knew Uncle Zel?”
“I did indeed. A truly impressive leader. May I ask if you take after him?”
“Selys Shivertail? The owner of the Heartflame Breastplate?”
He bent down again, eyes wide. Selys looked up at him.
“Well—yes, I have it. But—”
“He just wants to see it, Selys. Nothing big. I promised he could look. That’s fine, right?”
“Of course. I mean, the City Watch has it in the vaults when no one’s wearing it. I leased it to Keldrass, but he doesn’t keep it when he’s not in the dungeon. Uh—”
“We may be historical enemies with Dullahans, but cooperation between all species is essential! And Pallass’ citizens coming to Liscor proves that ties between our cities is more important than ever! Remember, this is about the Antinium people!”
Lism bellowed over their heads. Erin shook her fist at him.
“Shut up! This is a private meeting! Stop eavesdropping, jerk!”
Selys couldn’t bear it any further. She grabbed Erin as Lism spluttered. She could feel Olesm’s eyes on her, but she had no idea what was happening either. She whispered at Erin as the young woman obligingly bent an ear to listen.
“What are you doing? Drassi didn’t tell me what the plan was! What should Krshia say? Are we having the Dullahan speak? What is it?”
Erin looked blankly at Selys. Then she frowned.
“Plan? What you think I brought Maughin and Grimalkin, about the elections? That’s not why I brought them. Maughin wants to see your Heartflame Breastplate. Grimalkin wants to meet Relc. Oh! And we need to meet Raekea. Where is she?”
“Not on this street. She’s speaking in Dragondance Plaza, that way. But Erin—”
“Not on this street? Aw, man. Well, we’ll go see her. Can we see the armor? You can bring it by the inn. Please? Maughin will flip if he sees it. Not literally I hope.”
Erin glanced over her shoulder, her eyes twinkling. That stopped Selys from shaking her friend. She stood back, watching as Erin turned to address Grimalkin and Maughin. She was ready for Erin to make a speech, to somehow flip this on Lism. But all Erin did was shrug.
“Sorry! Wrong street! Raekea’s not here. Selys is going to get the armor, Maughin. Let’s go visit Raekea, shall we? Hey, Selys, do you know where Relc is?”
Erin nodded. She cheerfully shouted, addressing Selys, Maughin and Grimalkin, and the crowd as a whole.
“We’ll stop by the Watch House, then. Follow me!”
And with that, Erin turned and began walking back down the street. It was so abrupt that everyone stared. Maughin turned, his face one permanent frown, Grimalkin walked after Erin, grinning and clearly enjoyed himself—Krshia stared at Erin’s back.
“You’re leaving? But Erin—”
The young woman turned back. She blinked back at Krshia. The Gnoll waved her arms wildly, much like Mrsha using sign language. Erin shrugged. And her expression was blank.
“Sorry. I’m just showing my friends around. You can get back to shouting, you guys! Maughin, Grimalkin, this way! Let’s go find Raekea! And Relc! Make way!”
And she left. Maughin trailed after Erin, turning his head to look around. And the wide-eyed crowd returned his gaze. They watched as Erin, the legendary crazy Human of Liscor left. Accompanied by a giant Dullahan [Blacksmith] and a…[Mage] who would have given Relc’s muscles a run for their money.
“Well. Well—that’s just—clearly a sign of—good to see support from Pallass.”
Lism’s voice trailed off weakly. A few heads turned to look at him. The Drake [Shopkeeper] cleared his throat.
“So. As I was saying…Krshia Silverfang, your refusal to look at the facts is just disgraceful! Even traitorous! I—hold on, where are you going?”
Lism’s head turned. The crowd was moving. Like a flock of fish—or sheep—or really interested dogs following a bone, they were suddenly trailing after Erin.
“Hold on! We’re not done debating!”
Lism called after the crowd. Krshia uncertainly looked at Erin’s back. But the crowd barely glanced back. Someone shouted up at Lism.
“I know, but I really want to know what she’s going to do with those two. We’ll be back!”
“Hold on! This is for the future of Liscor!”
The Drake howled, but the crowd didn’t listen. And that was the point. Suddenly, the street was nearly empty. Behind Lism, Olesm uttered a curse. And Selys felt a delighted smile cross her mouth. She looked up at Krshia. The Gnoll climbed down the platform. Elirr looked at both of them. Selys glanced at Olesm who was tearing at his neck spines. Then she leaned forwards.
“I’ll get my armor. Elirr, you help me bring it to the inn. Krshia, better get there too.”
The Gnoll grinned. And as Selys turned her head, she could still hear Erin in the distance.
“Nothing to see here! Move along! Really. Hey, why’s everyone following us?”
Raekea the [Armorer] looked up from her platform and stared. She had been shouting, arguing against one of Lism’s candidates for City Council. And frankly, she had been miserable doing it. She was no [Orator], [Diplomat], or anything close to a speaker. Metal didn’t argue back, and Raekea generally didn’t have a crowd watching her sweat. So it was a relief to be interrupted.
But what an interruption. The young woman smiled up at her. And the Dullahan was only a bit shorter than Raekea on her speaking platform. Erin Solstice bowed, a delighted smile on her face.
“Maughin, may I present Raekea, the best [Armorer] in Liscor? This is Maughin, Raekea. He’s a blacksmith too. An [Armorer] to be precise. Just like you. The best in all of Pallass.”
“Miss Raekea? I am Maughin. I am gratified to meet your acquaintance at last.”
A huge hand rose. Raekea grasped it with her own tough paw.
“P-pleased. Master Maughin?”
“Among smiths, we are equals, are we not?”
The Dullahan inclined his head. Raekea nearly inhaled her tongue. Maughin? The same Dullahan who stamped his insignia on the finest Pallassian arms? In front of her? She looked at Erin. The young woman beamed.
“I wanted to introduce you to Maughin. So he can see what he’s up against in Liscor’s forges. And maybe you could talk to him about selling your stuff to Celum and Humans. You know?”
“I—I’d be honored. But my forge is humble. And I’m sure I haven’t the levels to compare to Master Maughin. Not by half. I can’t…this is very sudden, yes?”
Raekea felt faint. Lightheaded at the sudden, strange turn of events. She saw a look of sympathy cross Maughin’s face. He turned to Erin.
“We are imposing.”
“Nonsense! Okay, we are. But I think you two should chat! Can’t we all take a break from this election thing and have some fun just talking about how hard it is to hit stuff with hammers? I’m down for that.”
Erin protested, ignoring the huge crowd watching her every move. And Raekea saw it. That sparkle in Erin’s eyes. Slowly, she nodded, slipping down from her platform. She bowed again to Maughin.
“I would be delighted. And of course. The election can wait.”
“So there is an election in Liscor. It parallels our own. May I ask who’s running against each other?”
“Oh, that’s a bunch of Drakes. Lism, that shouty guy who thought you were traditional allies? He wants to build Liscor without using the Antinium’s help. Raekea’s with Krshia. They want Gnolls on the Council.”
Maughin nodded slowly. He’d absorbed some of the nuance of the politics. His brows drew together as he glanced around. And he wasn’t exactly shouting, but the crowd wasn’t exactly talking over him either.
“Ah. Gnolls have not been traditionally part of Liscor’s Council?”
“It is an issue that has come into light in Pallass as well. Dullahans occupy two seats out of hundreds. Despite the fact that we are a growing minority. Garuda have no seats. I hope the Gnolls of Liscor can claim some seats on the Council. Not that I understand the details of your election.”
Raekea cleared her throat, trying not to glance at her opponent, Alonna Swiftwing, the poised Mage’s Guildmistress glaring at her from her podium.
“I would be pleased.”
“Great! And now we can go back to the inn. Come on, Raekea. I bet Selys has the armor by now.”
Erin cheerfully waved at her group. As if there was nothing out of the ordinary. Raekea blinked. Maughin looked resigned. The Gnoll woman saw another Drake folding his arms next to Erin. And he was…built. Raekea was married to a [Blacksmith], but she looked twice at this Drake’s body.
“Who is this?”
Erin slapped her forehead.
“Sorry. Raekea, meet Grimalkin. He’s a Muscle Mage from Pallass.”
“I keep telling you. That is not an appropriate term for my magic.”
The Drake unfolded one arm and gave Raekea’s paw a squeeze like a vice. The Gnoll shook her paw and stared at Grimalkin. Erin raised her hands.
“How am I supposed to know what you do? Muscle Mage. [Sinew Magus]. What does it mean? You store magic in your muscles. And?”
The question threw Grimalkin. He closed his eyes, began to look annoyed—and then caught himself. He cracked one eye open and glanced at Erin.
“Aha. You’re quite deceptive, Miss Erin.”
She grinned at him.
“And your brain is as muscly as your…legs. But I’m serious. Care to show us?”
The Drake thought it over.
“Well, since you’ve set the stage…I could always use new apprentices. And publicity. Why not? But let’s get one thing straight, Miss Solstice. I’m not the ‘Muscle Mage of Pallass’.”
“Oh really? What are you?”
Grimalkin threw his arms wide. He roared, surprising Maughin, Raekea, and the citizens of Liscor clustered around.
“Pallass’ greatest [Mage]! Grimalkin, the Fist Mage! Laugh! And they do laugh in Wistram. But I have dueled Archmages. And my magic is second to none! Look. They say Archmage Amerys can fly across the oceans. But can she do this?”
The Drake knelt. And then he sprang up. He leapt over Erin and Raekea’s heads. Up, into the sky. As if gravity had no hold on him. Erin’s jaw dropped as Grimalkin nimbly landed. On a rooftop fifty feet distant. The Drake turned. And Grimalkin’s voice roared over the plaza.
“True [Mages] are more than walking tanks of mana! True [Mages] can fight! If you run out of spells, stand and fight with your companions! Trust your body, not just your mind! Cowards hide behind their comrades! If you’re a [Mage]—fight! And this will be your reward!”
He leapt down like a falling anvil. The crowd scattered, but Grimalkin landed as lightly as a cat. Erin whistled. Grimalkin strode forwards, looking around.
“What can I lift? That wagon? No. It’ll break. A few Gnolls? Bah. No help for it. [Stone Shaping].”
He bent, and pulled part of the plaza up. A cubed block of stone with two grooves near the top rose out of the ground. Grimalkin waved a hand at the awed murmurs.
“That isn’t the magic. People of Liscor! This is what a body can do. Observe! This is without a single spell cast!”
So saying, he gripped the chunk of stone by the two handholds and with a grunt, hefted it up to chest-level. This time Erin gulped. If that stone was solid all the way though, it had to weigh hundreds of pounds. Grimalkin’s voice shook only slightly.
“Conditioning. Weight. Balance—and now—lift!”
He shifted his grip, and then the block rotated. The roar from the crowd was awed as the block swung overhead in a motion like a weightlifter doing a clean and press. The boulder rose into the air as Grimalkin roared. Erin watched as he lifted up over his head. The Drake roared, and his arms and voice shook.
“With muscle alone! And now, with magic!”
His arms shook. He closed his eyes and Erin feared that any moment the block would drop on him. Then Grimalkin’s eyes opened and he bellowed.
The shaking arms stopped. Grimalkin stood straight, holding the block of stone over his head with both arms. Then he tossed it up. Planted one claw under the center of the block. And the block landed. Erin heard, felt a thump of impact. And Grimalkin stood holding it with one arm over his head. The audience gasped. Grimalkin grinned around them. Then casually, he lowered his arm. And he hurled the boulder straight up.
Erin’s shout was one of a thousand voices crying out in panic. The boulder flew up, ten, twenty feet. And it started coming down, gently at first, but then with all the weight of a meteor falling to earth. Grimalkin stood where he was as the crowd, suddenly aware of the falling stone, ran for it, screaming. He pointed up as the boulder hurled down towards the ground in front of him.
“[Water Colossus’s Grasp]!”
A roaring tide of water rushed around Erin’s legs, drenching them in a second. She yelped, as the water swirled up into a gigantic hand, impossibly fast. It caught the stone cube as it fell, and the heavy weight sank into the watery arm. Grimalkin pointed, and the stone crunched down on the ground where he’d pulled it out of the earth. Liscor’s citizens turned to stare. Grimalkin leapt up nimbly and spread his arms. Then he flexed.
Every muscle on Grimalkin’s body stood out as the Drake struck a pose like one of the Grecian statues from Erin’s world. He held the pose as, with lungs of steel, he bellowed at the crowd.
“Strength! Adaptability! A [Mage] with a body like a [Soldier] has no weaknesses! Behold! I practice a magic like no other! Spellcraft and stamina! Muscle and magic! Fight on the front and cast spells with the authority of a true mage!”
He raised his arms and struck a herculean pose.
“Hm! And what do you say? Any takers?”
Grimalkin gazed around at his audience expectantly. The Drakes and Gnolls stared up at him. And then they burst into wild applause. Grimalkin sighed, then turned and waved at the crowd. He dismounted from the boulder, shaking hands and asking questions. Erin, dumbstruck, had to wait for nearly five minutes until Grimalkin won clear. To her surprise, the [Mage] was shaking his head when he approached them.
“No takers. Lots of applause, but there always is when I do this for the first time. A shame, really. But maybe I’ve set the seeds. It is an uphill battle. There’s your demonstration, Miss Erin. Shall we go?”
“Wh—but I—what was amazing!”
Erin burst out, waving her arms over her head. She pointed at the boulder and the rooftop Grimalkin had jumped too, almost too excited for words.
“How? That’s incredible! Pisces can [Flash Step], but that was like Superman! Over a building in a single bound!”
“Well, it’s only two-stories high. And [Flash Step] is a poor spell compared to physical enhancement spells. One is a set spell. The other one scales off of the body’s own prowess. I dare say only I could jump that far with a basic spell, but the principle applies to all [Mages] if they’d just get out there and do some pushups.”
Grimalkin modestly shook his head. He casually kicked the stone cube and it melted back into the earth. He noticed Erin, Maughin, and Raekea’s stare and shrugged, looking slightly pleased.
“I did say I was a [Mage], didn’t I? Then again, you wouldn’t be the first to assume my spell repertoire is limited. Hardly. I just believe in not wasting magic. Shall we go back to the inn?”
He began walking. Erin trailed after him. Grimalkin massaged his arms, looking a bit pained as he went. He nodded back at Erin as she followed him, mouth still ready to catch flies.
“Whew. I didn’t expect to do my traditional demonstration today. It takes a toll, even with experience. Was that what you wanted, Miss Erin? Part of the plan?”
“Better. You earned your cake!”
“Mm. I’m glad. And quite interested to see what you’ll do next. Say. You! You there!”
Grimalkin paused. He pointed at someone in the crowd. The Drake stopped, chewing on a stick of dried meat.
“Yes, you. You have the makings of a real [Mage]. Give me ten years—no, half that, and I’ll turn you into a spellcaster as fine as any Wistram graduate. What do you say?”
Grimalkin eyed the other Drake’s body appreciatively. The Drake in question blushed.
“Me? I never thought about being a [Mage]. What do you think, Erin? I don’t like the robes, but I’m not bad myself, huh?”
Relc lifted one arm. Grimalkin nodded. Erin laughed.
“Relc! Grimalkin, this is the Gecko of Liscor himself!”
“Aw, Erin—you know I hate that name!”
The [Sergeant] looked disgruntled. Grimalkin’s eyes went up and down Relc.
“This is the Gecko? I thought he’d be far scrawnier. No wonder you made it through so many battles. Put it here. Grimalkin. [Sinew Magus]—and the Muscle Mage of Pallass, apparently. You my friend, are an inspiration.”
“How can you not be? Here’s a [Sergeant] mixed with a [Spearmaster] who, not with overpowering Skills or weapons, did in enemy after enemy with nothing but his muscles and speed!”
He gestured to Relc, who had turned bright red under his green scales. Grimalkin slapped Relc on the shoulder and roared the word Erin knew was coming.
“Testicles! If Pallass’ army had half the testicles you do, we wouldn’t have lost half the wars with the other Walled Cities! Can I get you to give a small demonstration of your abilities to my apprentices, sir? They could use the motivation.”
He looked expectantly at Relc. The [Guardsman] swallowed his bite of meat. He looked at Erin. She grinned at him. Relc leaned over.
“I really like this guy. Hey, I heard you were doing something weird. Looks like it. Who’s the War Walker?”
He nodded at Maughin. The Dullahan looked affronted and pleased. Erin laughed as she introduced him.
“Maughin, this is Relc! Don’t mind him. We’re all going to the inn, Relc. Want to come along? I’ve got lots of cake and ice cream.”
The Drake looked delighted. His tail wagged as he fell into step with Maughin and Raekea. Erin turned to the crowd.
“Sorry for disrupting you, folks! We’ll be on our way! Back to The Wandering Inn! Feel free to listen to that Drake lady! She’s a [Mage] too! Grimalkin’s going to relax, though. Hey, we’ve got blue fruit juice too! Stop by if you want some! Cheap!”
Grimalkin snorted, amused. Relc raised his brows and even Maughin had caught on by this point. He glanced down at Erin and shook his head. But he followed Erin, lowering his head to speak with Raekea, who was in the middle of the processing stage still. Grimalkin strolled ahead, speaking to Erin and Relc.
“It is demoralizing sometimes, seeing how few people will step up to try my kind of magic. I feel like more of a [Performer] than [Mage] with that little act.”
“Hey, I’d pay money for it. Relc, by the way. Ooh! You’ve got a good handshake.”
The two Drakes grinned at each other. Erin pushed in between them, glancing up at Relc and Grimalkin.
“Why do you do it, then?”
“It draws a crowd. And it’s proof of my abilities. Can you name another [Mage] who could lift a boulder over his or her head? It’s fewer than you think. Telekinesis is twice as hard as lifting it is. And that’s hard enough. Ergh. I only wish there was an easier way of doing that bit. That boulder’s not even that large—barely wider than I am. And it’s hundreds of pounds. But can you convey that to the skeptics?”
Grimalkin grimaced. Relc nodded appreciatively. Erin hesitated.
“Well, why not use weights? Or is that not cool enough?”
Relc and Grimalkin looked back at her. Erin nodded.
“Yeah. Weights on a bar. Like—bench pressing. You know?”
They did not. Grimalkin raised his brows and Relc looked excited.
“Oh boy. This is some new crazy thing you’ve come up, right?”
“What, weights? You totally have them. Right? Weights? On a bar? Weight rooms?”
Erin laughed, looking from face to face. Then she stopped, because both Drakes were looking blank. She inhaled.
“You don’t know. Oh wow. Well, what about this? Instead of lifting a rock or something, you get this metal bar. And you put two weights on each side, see? So they’re like—they’ll be round, so the weight’s perfectly distributed. And that way, you can lift it and work out. And if you want to add more, you just add more weight. Or take it off.”
“Weights on a bar. Of course! And did you say bench pressing?”
“Yup. You lie on your back and hold the bar and push it up. You can do like, I dunno, three hundred pounds of weight?”
“I bet I could do four hundred. Hey, do you have one of those bars, Erin? That sounds like a lot of fun.”
“Nope. And if you two exercise-dudes don’t know them, they might not exist er…here. But you know what? They’re really easy to make. It’s just metal. Iron for the weights, probably. Or lead. And I happen to know two [Smiths] who have time on their hands.”
Erin, Relc, and Grimalkin turned. Maughin and Raekea broke off from their conversation to look up. The Dullahan frowned at Erin.
“What? Forging? I could work in Master Raekea’s forge. Or my own. But it seems inconvenient. And unless I’m wrong, isn’t this crowd part of your plan? A forge is hardly a space for an audience.”
Raekea put in, looking at Erin. The young woman just smiled. And her eyes lit up even further.
“I can fix that. With a little bit of help. Relc, Grimalkin, would you mind visiting Pallass for a second? I need you to help lift something.”
The two Drakes exchanged a glance. Relc grinned and flexed one arm. Grimalkin laughed.
“I suppose I’ve got more time. What did you have in mind?”
“You can’t do this! Do you hear me? You can’t do this! Put it down!”
“Watch me! And watch your heads! Coming through! Whoo! This is like a roller coaster ride or something! Hey Relc, lift your end higher!”
Heads in Pallass turned. On the grand stairway, the people of Pallass looked up and saw a door coming at them. It was a magic door, true, held up by two extremely burly Drakes. But it was still a door. And open door. And in that doorway stood a Human, in a room, an inn in fact, staring out of the doorway.
You had to look twice after a scene like that. Especially because Erin Solstice wasn’t alone. A crowd of other onlookers were staring out of the door, with as much fascination as Pallass’ citizens were staring into it. Relc called out as he hefted his end of the door higher over his head.
“Excuse me! City Watch coming through! Excuse me! Hey. Is that a Garuda? I thought that Bevussa chick was the only one in Pallass.”
“The Garuda population has been increasing over the last few years. There are a few hundred. Not many, but they’ve overtaken the Human population in the city.”
“No kidding? Wow.”
“You can’t do this! Put that down now! This is an order!”
“Onwards! Ignore Kel, guys. He’s just grumpy.”
Erin laughed as the doorway tilted to look back at Guardsman Kel, who was pursuing Grimalkin and Relc. She saw the furious Drake grabbing for the door, and then a clawed hand blocking him. Relc’s voice came through the door as Erin watched.
“Hey buddy, relax. Erin’s got authority to bring this door wherever. Trust me. I’m a Senior Guardsman. I outrank you or something.”
“You’re a Liscorian [Guardsman]!”
“Yeah. But I’m a Senior Liscorian Guardsman. Hey Erin! Where to?”
They’d reached the ninth floor. Erin pointed, the captain of her mobile door-ship.
“There! Straight to the forges! Make sure we get a good position so everyone can see!”
She stepped back so the crowd behind her could see. Gnolls and Drakes, all attracted from Liscor, crowded around the door. They gasped as the rows of forges and [Smiths] at work all came into view.
“The forges of Pallass. Dead gods.”
“Is that really what they look like? That city—this is Pallass?”
Erin looked around proudly. The Drakes and Gnolls fighting for a view were awed. She wondered how many of them had seen Pallass. And if they had—how long ago had it been? She nodded.
“That’s right! This is Pallass! And those forges belong to the best [Smiths]. And one of them is right there. Maughin! We’re here!”
Erin waved excitedly to someone in the door. The view tilted, and someone else came into view. The crowd pushed back and Erin waved excitedly.
“Maughin! It’s me! And I brought the door.”
A huge Dullahan appeared in front of the door. The crowd oohed as Maughin, sweaty, his armor slightly sooty, stepped into view. And next to him was a smaller Gnoll, covered in an apron, holding a hammer. Raekea the [Armorer] stared back through the door at a sea of faces. She looked to one side as Relc, dusting his claws, stepped into view. He grinned at Erin.
“Made it! And there’s an entire crowd of people following us!”
“Oh really? I wonder why.”
Erin innocently blinked at Relc. She heard a rugged laugh from Grimalkin. The [Mage] had good-naturedly agreed to her request and helped her send Raekea and Maughin through first. Now he cracked his neck and glanced through the door.
“Quite a crowd.”
“Only a hundred people or so. Lyonette won’t let more in just yet. They’re all looking through the windows outside. Hey! Selys is here too.”
Erin reached into the crowd and pulled out her friend. Selys waved at Maughin and Raekea. The Gnoll looked around. She ran a paw through her fur.
“I can’t believe I’m here. I just walked through the door and—”
She glanced up at Maughin. The Dullahan laid a hand on her shoulder gravely.
“You do get used to it.”
Raekea looked awed in the face of Maughin’s forge, the rows of roaring furnaces. She gestured around Maughin’s forge, stepping back as the crowd in Liscor jostled for view. Erin saw some people from Pallass peeking into frame and shouts from Kel, warning them to keep back from the forge. Raekea ignored them both. She was gesturing at Maughin’s personal studio.
“My forge has half of your capacity at best. I’d heard that Pallass manufactured a good portion of Izril’s steel. But to see it in action—”
“I’m sure Liscor is well-served by your work as well, Master Raekea.”
The Dullahan [Armorer] smiled warmly at Raekea. A blush appeared on the Gnoll’s cheeks and she shook her head. She looked around and both Erin and Selys saw her catch her breath. Selys stared through the door silently as well. Erin nudged her.
“Well, what do you think? I told you Pallass is awesome! But you never wanted to go.”
“It is amazing, Erin. It’s—”
Selys struggled for words. She had watched the door pass near the edge of the eighth floor, stared down into the heart of Pallass. And she had seen the smooth streets, the beautiful sky, the magical lifts in the distance. She couldn’t put it into words.
And there it was again. A moment of—hesitation from Liscor’s side of the door. Just like what was written on Raekea’s face. Selys spotted it because she herself felt it in her chest. A sinking sensation. If she had to give it a name, she’d call it a sense of inferiority. She’d known, of course, that Pallass was impressive. But it was one thing to see it in person.
A Walled City. A treasure of the Drakes. Real, in front of your eyes. And you looked at that and you compared it to the city you knew all your life. The city you thought was so grand and wonderful. And you found it was—
The silence among Liscor’s crowd reflected Selys’ feelings. Erin seemed to notice, because she nudged Selys, smiling gently. She stepped towards the door and peered at something Maughin was lifting up, checking with one practiced eye. And like that, the smiths of Pallass turned to her, and the [Innkeeper] of Liscor spoke and two cities danced on her words.
“Hey! Are those weights done? Amazing! How long did that take you? It looks exactly like what I said! Hey, Grimalkin, get over here!”
She pointed at the bar that Maughin was experimentally sliding an iron weight onto. The round ten pound weight was exactly like the ones from Erin’s world, albeit smoother, without any markings on it. The Dullahan turned back to Erin, shrugging.
“It was an easy thing to forge. You asked for a circle with a hole in the center and a long rod. The only trick is enough steel to forge-weld together. And my apprentices and I can do that in no time.”
“I wouldn’t even have enough crucible steel to make a bar this long.”
Raekea eyed the long weight bar in Maughin’s hand, solid and long. The Dullahan ducked his head slightly, and Erin noticed his eyes on Raekea.
“Ah. This is the product of Pallass’ forges. We do have the advantage of massive furnaces. The heat and capacity, especially with enchanted forges is unparalleled. I could give you a tour later if you would like. It would be my pleasure.”
“I would love to see them. It is an honor, Master Maughin, truly.”
“The pleasure is mine, Raekea. If I may use your name?”
The Dullahan glanced sideways at the Gnoll. Erin bit her lip. Uh oh. She leaned through the doorway. When Raekea turned to look at one of the smaller forges, she whispered up at him.
“Psst. Maughin. Raekea’s married.”
Maughin’s face fell. Erin patted him on the leg.
“Sorry. I should have said that earlier. Grimalkin! How’s the bar?”
“Let me see. I’ve got these two weights on. And if the bar’s, what, fifty pounds? This is sixty, seventy. And how do I do it?”
“Use a bench! Lie on your back, feet on the ground, press up—”
Erin watched as Grimalkin found a pair of stools and dragged them over. He pressed his back flat against the first stool and put his butt on the second. Lying flat in the air, he took the weight bar as Relc handed it to him. Grimalkin lowered it to his chest, pressed up experimentally, and grunted.
“Well, let’s get more weights and put them on!”
Relc energetically loaded one side of Grimalkin’s bar with four more of the round weights. Erin winced.
“Don’t do it like that! It’s unbalanced! And it’s slipping off, look!”
“Oops. How do you stop that?”
“You need a cap. Something to stop them from sliding too far in one direction. Shouldn’t be hard.”
That came from Bealt. The [Farrier] watched with fascination as Grimalkin tried to do a bench press with five times as much weight on one end. He shook his head.
“Let me go to my forge and knock one out. It’ll just be a tight little ring—”
“I can do it! My forge is hot and I’ve got some iron!”
One of the other [Smiths] called out. The Drake set a bar stock into forge fire. Half the [Smiths] on the ninth floor were gathered around the door and Grimalkin, and more were drifting over each second. Erin laughed in delight as Bealt grabbed a horseshoe stock from his forge and began folding a second cap into place.
“Awesome! You know, it also has a stand. Two little holders that hold the bar. That way, if it’s too heavy, you can have someone lift it into place and hold it.”
“I get it. And we challenge ourselves. This—this will definitely exercise my chest muscles. But I wonder, can I lift it other ways? Swordsmen swing weighted lead-filled blades around. Maybe I could do the same?”
Grimalkin swung the weights bar carelessly with one hand. Erin reflexively ducked with half the [Smiths] nearby. She shouted through the doorway.
“Don’t do that! Just do a uh, deadlift! Or a squat? Here’s I’ll show you! Take those weights off!”
She hopped through the door. Instantly, it went dark. A roar of protest went up from both Liscor and Pallass’ side. Grimalkin strode over to the door and laid a claw on it.
He barked and the door flickered to life. The [Mage] grimaced and flexed one wrist.
“Mana-hungry, isn’t it?”
“I’m trying to fix that. Anyways. Here. Give me that. Wow. This is heavy.”
“It’s only fifty pounds. Weak. Weak!”
Relc stopped when Erin turned to glare at him. He and Grimalkin watched as Erin demonstrated a squat as best she knew how. Then a lunge, deadlift, and shoulder press. None of this was actually stuff Erin had done herself; until she’d gotten [Lesser Strength] she doubted she would have been able to lift the weight bar nearly as smoothly as she was doing now. But the exercises impressed her audience no end. Maughin stopped dejectedly showing Raekea around his furnace to watch.
“That’s an interesting routine. So these weights and this bar. It’s for people trying to exercise?”
“Yup. Build muscle and all that. I don’t know how popular it is—lots of people did it back at home. I never saw the point.”
“Never saw the point? This has to be far more efficient than most of the exercises we do. Sparring and practicing strikes is good for muscle, but this? This is perfect.”
Grimalkin looked like he was in love. He tried a squat, and then a lunge. Erin noticed his form was already perfect. Relc’s when he tried it was abysmal. The Drake laughed and swung the weight bar casually like a spear.
“This is so great. Hey! Can you guys make like a fifty-pound weight. Eight of them? I bet you I can lift four hundred pounds. And I bet Klb can’t.”
“Let me try. Think this will sell?”
One of the Drake [Blacksmiths] looked interested. So did the rest of Pallass’ smiths. They could smell business. Relc nodded.
“I’ll use it. Hey, how much does one of these cost?”
“A lot. We used good steel for the bar. Maybe we can get away with iron, but that much raw metal is going to cost, especially if we don’t want it to break.”
Maughin frowned, looking at his fellows. They nodded, and one of them got out a bit of parchment to scribble on. Relc sighed.
“And unless it has a purpose—what’s the point?”
“Well, there are barbells too. Smaller weights for the hands? You have stuff like that?”
Erin looked at the Drakes and Gnolls. They shook their heads, frowning. Bealt tapped one foot on the ground.
“I see the point that it builds muscle. But what’s the use for, say, a [Smith]? You’ll get all you need from swinging a hammer. Not much use for us, unless you do it for fun. Which I’ll grant you, it does look like a bit. Competitions and whatnot. But outside of that?”
He looked at Erin. She shrugged helplessly. Grimalkin made a disgusted sound.
“You don’t see the point? I do. And I guarantee you, when I recommend this to the Assembly of Crafts and Pallass’ [Generals], we will have at least a hundred orders of these for you within the week!”
Astonished, the crowd looked his way. Grimalkin looked around, drawing himself up. His robes strained to keep up with his frame.
“You don’t see the point? Dead gods! This is perfect for [Soldiers] and adventurers! Smaller weights, like these barbell things that Miss Solstice mentioned. Large ones. Benches like this to exercise—it’s the perfect way to train without sparring or hurting yourself. Someone can use one of these casually in the Adventurer’s Guild and work out a specific set of muscles! You want more arm muscle? You lift it like this. You want chest muscle? You do those bench presses. Erin! Is there a weight for your abdomen? Because I will pay you gold for a set of instructions on this.”
He turned to Erin. The [Smiths] excitedly murmured and several began drafting variants of the weight bar on their sheaves of parchment. Relc grunted as he piled every available weight onto the bar and lifted it up.
“Yeah. Where has this been all my life? Lift! Hah! Lift!”
He began doing shoulder-presses. Erin watched, laughing.
“Don’t hurt yourself! Seriously. You can hurt yourself bad doing that the wrong way, Grimalkin.”
“Better than [Soldiers] training with each other and putting out each other’s eyes or breaking bones.”
Grimalkin watched approvingly as Relc effortlessly completed a set and then handed it to Bealt. The Gnoll staggered and nearly fell under the weight. Erin grinned. This was not part of the plan. Right until it had been. But she was already improvising. And speaking of which—a flicker from the kitchen made her turn and look back at her inn. Lyonette waved at Erin and Erin nodded. The [Princess] came forwards with a tray. Erin took it, and beaming, turned to the [Smiths].
They looked up from their deliberations. Erin walked back into the inn, lifted the tray, and the bowl of white stuff that was already melting from the heat of the distant forges. She looked around.
“You look really sweaty. All of you. Want a towel? Some water? How about some ice cream?”
Relc could have teleported to the door he was that fast. The smiths looked blank. Maughin walked over, mopping sweat from his brow.
“Refreshment would be welcome. But what is that? Ice? Cream?”
“Ice cream. It’s a delicacy up north, I guess. I dunno. I just make it. Hey Lyonette! Can we get eleven—no, thirty two bowls? And more vanilla ice cream! Vanilla’s special the first time you have it. Nevermore after that.”
She lifted up the bowl and took the first bowl she was handed. Relc reached for it through the door—Erin slapped his claw down.
“Here, Maughin. Try it!”
The Dullahan reached through the door. Erin wasn’t sure if that was taxing the door, but he took the bowl without it fizzling out and dipped his spoon into the cold bowl. His eyes widened as he lifted it up and sniffed it.
“I do know this. The pudding-gelatin that comes from Terandria. Lasica was attempting to obtain some for the bar, but she couldn’t. And you have it. Here?”
He looked at Erin. She smiled innocently.
“I happen to know how to make it. And if Tails and Scales wants some, I’m happy to give them the recipe.”
At the name of Pallass’ famous bar, more smiths abandoned the weight bar and came over. As did some other Drakes and Gnolls in the crowd who’d been watching. Erin passed bowls of ice cream through the door and watched them disappear in moments. Bealt, his fur matted with sweat, took one bite of ice cream and his eyes went round.
“Sweet! Oh, this is delicious! What is it?”
“Milk. Cream. And sugar. And stuff! It’s frozen, so watch out you don’t get brain freeze if you eat it fast. Grimalkin, a bowl?”
The [Mage] took one and eyed the ice cream dubiously. He bit into it and his expression changed to one of disgust.
“Is this pure sugar?”
“I can’t. It’s not for me. I had enough sugar trying nali-sticks from Baleros, thanks.”
The Muscle [Mage] shuddered and shook his head. Relc licked his lips; his bowl of ice cream was already licked clean.
“Grimalkin, pal, if you don’t want it, I’ll take it off your claws.”
“I miss nali-sticks.”
Maughin quietly ate from his bowl. He closed his eyes, savoring the taste. Behind him, the [Smiths] were exclaiming over the ice cream and their apprentices, lured by the free food, started forming a line. Erin poked her head through the door and saw a crowd standing to the left. Someone called out.
“What’re you eating, Bealt?”
“Something delicious! Iced cream!”
The Gnoll shouted back, waving his empty bowl. He handed it back to Erin, his tail wagging hopefully.
“Are there seconds by any chance? I’ll pay for more.”
Erin looked back through the door. Lyonette was being mobbed as she tried to get more ice cream to Erin. Liscor’s residents knew ice cream as well.
“I’ll try and get you some. But I think it’s too hot here; we’re melting my stock! Hey Relc, Grimalkin! Can you drag the door back to the eighth floor?”
Maughin looked disappointed. So did the rests of the [Smiths]. They crowded around the door, waving diagrams and asking questions. Erin laughed and raised her hands.
“I don’t want to disrupt the smiths, so why don’t we drag it back to its spot? And anyone who wants to follow us…hey Maughin, have you ever tried cake?”
Maughin frowned as Relc and Grimalkin bent for the door. They decided to pull instead of carry it. The Dullahan looked down at Erin and realized she was moving backwards. The door was slowly disappearing. Maughin walked after it, bowl in hand. He stared at Erin as she stood in the retreating doorway, blinking at her.
“I’ve had cakes before. But is yours somehow different?”
“Yup! I’ve got a secret recipe. Well, I have baking soda. So my cakes are very fluffy. And sugary! Sorry, Grimalkin. And frosted. Vanilla again—I can’t find chocolate. But I made a great lime frosting the other day.”
“Frosting? Er…this ice cream is very good. Very, very good. Sweet. But it is freezing my teeth.”
Maughin trotted after Erin. And behind him Bealt perked up his ears and promptly abandoned his forge. Erin watched a dozen other [Smiths] follow suit. Raekea was still investigating the forges. Erin hoped she’d find her way back. She turned to Ishkr, who’d popped up with more ice cream in a bowl.
“I can get you a drink. This is an inn. On the move! Blue fruit juice? Milk? Just water?”
“Blue fruit juice, please!”
“Drag the door first, Relc.”
“Blue fruit juice? Ah—a glass of water would be most welcome—”
Maughin nearly tripped on the first of the stairs. He called down after Erin as the door descended. She waved at him brightly.
“I’ll see you back in the usual spot! Oh, bring the bowls too! And come on through when you do. I want you to try pizza!”
“Pizza? What’s that?”
Maughin called out desperately, slowly trying to follow Erin down the stairs. The [Innkeeper] waved. The Dullahan took another step and then realized a crowd was rushing down the stairs in front of him. Pallass’ citizens followed, reaching for the bowls of ice cream Erin passed through the door, asking questions much like Maughin. The Dullahan watched as Erin’s magical door retreated, and the flood of Pallassians followed. He blinked at the dregs of ice cream in his bowl. And then he looked at the door.
“Was this all part of the plan?”
His only reply was Erin’s laughter. The Dullahan turned and looked back at his forge. At Raekea, the weight bar and Grimalkin doing a clean and press. He sighed and shook his head and despite the day, the promise of more sugar and business and the wonders of Erin’s inn, he sagged. The Dullahan kicked at a pebble on the ground disconsolately.
“They’re always married.”