It was night when he arrived in Celum. Mainly because the traveller had been moving all night. He wasn’t tired, although he had beaten the sun’s rays to the gates of Celum. He’d gotten his sleep on the wagon, riding here, in pleasant company with a very amiable [Wagon Driver] with two fine horses. And he was a night person anyways.
If anything, the hard part was waiting for Celum’s gates to open. The Human cities of the north didn’t all have walls; some, like Invrisil, were without, which had advantages and disadvantages. This far south and in proximity to Drake lands though, the cities of the north tended to copy the Drake standard of boxing in their cities behind a sturdy wall. Not that this one was enchanted or even that high; the traveller, eying it, thought he could have slipped into the city and past the sleepy [Watchmen] patrolling if he’d needed to.
It would have been easy. But it would have also been rude, so he politely waited for the gates to open in a small queue. Politeness was important. As was a proper appearance. So the Human man checked his travelling coat, made sure his boots were scraped clean, and that there wasn’t any hay on his hat. He was dusty, a bit travel-stained, but he looked very well-kept despite it all. Maybe it was the way he held himself, or perhaps it was his hat.
It was a fine hat the man wore. Comfortable, not stiff, and not necessarily that expensive either; you could find a richer hat on any [Merchant] or well to-do citizen you wanted. But this hat was beloved. It was custom-stitched, kept safe from any harm—it was a hat to define a man. The traveller held it to his head as a weary [Guard] opened the gate.
“One atta time. Don’t bother giving me your details. I just gotta check your faces.”
The [Guardsman] grumbled as he let people in through the gates. He had a small list of illustrations of wanted faces, and he waved in the people one after another, not bothering to do a search of possessions or asking the incoming traveller’s purpose as he might if something was afoot. The traveller waited in line, patient as you please. And in fact, when he spotted a laboring woman, clearly pregnant at the back of the line with her husband, he immediately stepped out.
“Excuse me, sir and ma’am? Might I give you my place?”
The man carefully waved at the married couple. The man, clearly weary and escorting his wife—from a nearby village perhaps—gave the traveller a suspicious look. So did the wife. But the traveller tipped his hat and the smile he gave them was genuine. The couple hesitated, then stepped forwards. The people in line grumbled for a moment, but they stopped as the traveller walked out of line.
Puzzled by this common decency, the husband stopped the man. The traveller in his worn clothing just smiled and tipped his hat at the pregnant woman.
“My pleasure, sir. Your lady should be off her feet as soon as possible. A bit of common decency. Think nothing of it.”
“I appreciate it.”
The woman smiled. And that was that. The man with the nice hat stepped to the back of the line. Never mind that it would take a few more minutes; what was time to doing the right thing. Behaving the right way was its own reward.
And sometimes fate liked to reward a bit of decency too. That happened now. The man, standing at the back and watching the married couple go through the gates, spotted someone slipping into the queue ahead of him. Quite roughly too; a slim woman and a man elbowed into line. Or rather, the woman did; the dark figure beside her didn’t get a second glance. She pushed back the married couple.
The husband angrily opened her mouth, but one look from the woman made him shut up. She had an edge to her expression, and her clothes were close-cut. Revealing, even. The man with the hat didn’t look, but the husband did once—before his wife stepped on his foot. The elbowing woman stepped forwards to the tired [Guardsman] without another word and the traveller with the hat identified her. And her companion.
She was a [Nightstalker]. The [Guardsman] didn’t recognize her, nor did the people in line. But anyone with the knowing would see it. The thin blades concealed along the sleeves of her arms, the way she held herself, tightly poised—and her beauty.
Her clothes made the [Guardsman] wake up and leer a bit, but her expression made him pass her through the gate quick. Because the woman was attractive, oh my yes. She could and probably still did receive propositions when she walked down the street. That was a remnant of the first class she’d had. [Nightwalker]. But the class she had now was different from that origin. Oh, so very different.
The traveller didn’t speak as the woman passed through the gate, followed by her escort. The [Guardsman] didn’t even check the man. Or notice him. But the traveller did. And when he got to the gate, he saw the pair still walking down the street.
“You’re clear. Go on.”
The [Guard] gave the traveller’s face a quick look and checked the illustration of wanted faces. The man tipped his hat politely.
“Thank you, sir. And a good morning too.”
“Yeah? Get lost.”
The reply was abrupt, rude, and accompanied by a glare. Nevertheless, the traveller just nodded politely. He was polite, even if the man wasn’t. Which was lucky for the [Guardsman].
So came the traveller. And he had no name, at least, none that anyone in Celum needed to know. If anyone had to identify him here, it would be through his class.
[Enforcer]. And a high-level one at that. And he strolled through Celum’s gates, past the weary, irritable [Guardsman] without getting a second glance. Because what kind of idiot got their face on a wanted poster? Real criminals, the kind that ran in cities far larger than Celum would walk in and out, as innocent as you pleased.
But the [Enforcer] was a criminal. He thought of himself as a professional instead of a lawbreaker, but he’d admit to the latter readily enough. What differentiated him from the common breed of scum though was how he behaved. He and his associates had standards. They were known, in certain circles. Perhaps not in Celum, but then again, the Brotherhood of Serendipitous Meetings had branches in unexpected places. Even here. Or rather, they’d had people in the area.
The [Nightstalker] and her companion were ahead of the [Enforcer], but he’d tagged them the moment he’d seen them. And they hadn’t seen him, so he took the time and identified her. He already suspected who she was, but the instant he saw her turn her head and saw a scar across one cheek, marring her beauty, he was sure. You only got that ragged cut of a scar from a fight. And an improperly used healing potion. And a woman of her beauty would normally find a way to remove it with tonic or spell, but one group prized their war scars.
The Sisters of Chell. That also explained the man next to her. As mentioned, the [Nightstalker] had an escort. She was dangerous enough herself, but he was apparently extra muscle. The [Enforcer] squinted, casually appraising the man who neither the visitors to Celum nor the [Guardsman] had seen. A man dressed from head to toe in ragged, wrapped bandages, dark, stained in a few places. Ah yes. [Blackguard].
The [Enforcer] noticed this because he was looking, because he had a ring, and because they were in the same line of business. Most people probably didn’t even see the [Blackguard], hence him not being called out to by the [Hawkers] lined up around the city gates. But even if he was invisible until he attracted attention, people sensed his presence. And they didn’t block the blank-faced man’s path, any more than they did the [Nightstalker]’s.
They were dangerous. But they were all in the same line of business, so the [Enforcer], after a quick calculation, stepped forwards. He caught the two unawares; the woman was speaking to the [Blackguard] without turning her head as she flipped off a [Hawker]. She whirled as the [Enforcer] strolled up beside her. The [Blackguard] had already seen him and just warily stepped between the two. But the [Enforcer] just tipped his hat genially to the two and smiled at the [Nightstalker].
“Good day to you, Miss. I hate to be a bother, but I’d be much obliged if we could speak for a moment? In the most sincere and respectful of ways, of course.”
She eyed him. Then the [Nightstalker] turned her head and spat. The [Hawker], who’d been approaching the much nicer-looking [Enforcer], recoiled in disgust as the spit hit him on the front. He backed away, cursing the woman. She ignored him and looked at the [Enforcer]. With a jerk of the head she started walking down the street. The Brother of Serendipitous Meetings followed.
The [Enforcer] and [Nightstalker] did all the speaking as they walked. The [Blackguard] was a silent shadow, unheard but never forgotten by either. The two didn’t beat around the bush, for all of the [Enforcer]’s niceties. Nor did they ask names. They were both professionals, albeit with different styles. The Sister of Chell sneered at the Brother’s hat and dapper clothing.
“One of the Brotherhood? You’re alone.”
“It’s convenient for me. I spotted you two coming in with the morning. Thought I should give my regards.”
“Lucky for us. Why’re you here?”
The [Nightstalker]’s face said the opposite was true. The [Enforcer] smoothed his jacket.
“Fact-finding, Miss. Just the facts. I see you’re about the same task?”
“No, we’re here for the lovely Celum weather and eating a bucketful of dust to this useless city so far south.”
The woman snapped back. The Brother tipped his hat again.
“Apologies, but it helps to be certain.”
The Sister thought about spitting again, but there was no point. She and her organization knew the Brothers and they were insufferably like this. She opted to glare instead.
“I’m finishing our investigation today. You want to get out of our way? I don’t need you interfering with our business.”
She gestured to the [Blackguard] with her head. The Brother just smiled politely.
“And here I was hoping we could work together.”
“Hah. We got in here first. And there’s two of us. We don’t trust you, and you probably don’t trust us—if you’re even here to investigate and not intercept us.”
The woman’s glare spoke of paranoia and deep suspicion. The [Enforcer] sighed. It was good he’d approached her without her noticing him tailing him. It might have been…complicated otherwise.
“I can assure you, Miss, our meeting was purely serend—”
“Don’t you fucking say it.”
The [Enforcer] stopped. The [Nightstalker] rounded on him and glared. Her hand inched towards one of the flat blades on her wrists.
“Leave off Celum for a day. Then you can poke around. Otherwise, bring back more of your brothers. We’re going this alone.”
The [Enforcer] sighed. Negotiations weren’t going well. He tugged on his hat a bit, vexed, but his voice was still polite.
“I’d hate to bother my associates. And I’d hate to be so rude as to say leaving you to do your investigating might mean we lose any evidence my associates are looking for. But the fact remains that we find it ve-ry suspicious about what went down and all.”
“Join the club! We don’t trust your word, and you sure as hell don’t trust ours. But you’re alone. You don’t even have the numbers to settle things with the Plague Mage if he’s responsible.”
The [Enforcer] sighed.
“I’m not sure if our middleman’s still in the area—if he’s not, one of my peers’ll find him to ask some questions. Not harsh of course; just pressing. Unless the answers are that distressing. But I’m here to find out what went down, and I can’t delay my investigation. If I meet our middleman, I’ll have a word. As for our interests—can’t we agree to work together, or at least, alone in amiability? That’s preferable to me.”
“Eat shit. And get out of the city.”
The [Nightstalker] glared. She nodded to the [Blackguard] and the man reached for something concealed by his clothing. The air grew tense as the two stopped in the street. The [Enforcer] considered his options. He looked from the [Nightstalker], whose crossed arms meant she was ready to draw, and then at the [Blackguard] hovering over his shoulder, already holding his weapon.
The [Nightstalker] smiled arrogantly. She knew they had him dead to rights. Still, the [Enforcer] refused to budge. He sighed, and then slowly, deliberately, he reached up. And he took his hat off.
The two hadn’t expected that. The Sister of Chell’s eyes widened and the [Blackguard] moved. His hand flashed—and he froze as the [Enforcer], hatless, turned and gave him a look. The Sister of Chell didn’t see the expression on the [Enforcer]’s face, but she saw her companion halt mid-strike. The Brother of Serendipitous Meetings slowly flicked at something on his cap, then placed it back on his head. The air, which had gone from tense to intense, relaxed just a hair. The Sister of Chell exhaled.
“Don’t you dare threaten—”
“Just a bit of dust, Miss.”
The [Enforcer] gave her a polite smile. But what was said and had been done spoke volumes. Rattled, the [Nightstalker] looked at the [Blackguard]. And the tiny shake of the head and his wide eyes told her she’d misjudged the level and nature of the [Enforcer]. Slowly, she let go of the hidden blades she carried and thought fast. At last, grudgingly, she jerked her head.
“Fine. We go together. That way we can watch you. Don’t get in our way. We work together until we find something. Deal?”
“A most amiable decision. Thank you for your consideration, Miss.”
The [Enforcer] tipped his hat. The [Nightstalker] just made a disgusted sound and walked off. He followed her, and the [Blackguard] trailed the two. An accord had been reached, and as difficult as the negotiations had been, they now had an agreement. So the air eased between the two, at least for the moment.
When you had a deal, you trusted the other party, especially when those present represented larger organizations. If one or the other were to break the accord, there might be ramifications that went far beyond them. So neither was inclined to do so. There was security in having more to fear from your own side than the other’s. It was what made the…lesser known side of cities run so smoothly.
Not that Celum was used to the trio that strolled down the street. The [Enforcer] and [Nightstalker] looked around the city, taking in the scenes, the sights—Celum probably held ten thousand people at most. It was small, quaint in the [Enforcer]’s lexicon of words. The [Nightstalker] would have used a different word to describe it.
“I must confess, I’m not at a firm place to start, Miss. Do you have a preference? I might grab a drink and scope out the scene first.”
The [Nightstalker] snorted.
“They sent you here without intel?”
“Mm. More like I would’ve met some of the chaps if they’d been about. Unfortunately…”
“Hah. Well, we have information. And I know where I’m starting. This way. We’re headed to an [Alchemist]’s shop.”
The [Nightstalker] moved down the street, clearly following a map in her head. The [Enforcer] nodded and followed. They made good time; dawn was still breaking. And they came to the little store down a side street quick enough. The [Enforcer] peered at the frontage and the boarded-up front. He could see into the store through the glass door, but the twice-repaired front already told him an interesting story.
“Stitchworks? Fancy seeing one of the String Folk around here. She any good?”
“Don’t know. Don’t care. Take a look at that, though.”
The Sister of Chell nodded to a small sign attached to the front of the store. The Brother read it, frowning.
Potions half-off! No longer selling ‘matches’; please inquire at Alchemist Quelm’s.
“So that’s the game, is it?”
“Part of it. Come on. That’s who we’re finding next.”
“And this store?”
“Where both teams went in.”
The [Enforcer] paused and gave the shop a sharp glance. He could tell someone was inside; there was a light on. But the shop’s sign said ‘Closed’. For good reasons no doubt. But…
“Really? The ah, target was in there?”
“You mean the fucking door? Yes. Don’t ask me why. But it’s there. The access point is, anyways. The real thing’s still in Liscor.”
“Fascinating. So this other [Alchemist]. Quelm…”
“It’s a lead.”
The [Nightstalker] and the [Enforcer] both nodded. This was worth looking into. It might be coincidence, but the sign and the damaged frontage spoke to their area of expertise. And they had been sent to run down all leads, so the [Nightstalker] lead the way down another street. She did have a map; the [Enforcer] saw her checking it covertly. He politely coughed.
“You wouldn’t happen to know what this Quelm business is? Just in the interest of sharing information.”
The woman looked sour, but in the end she nodded.
“Low-level racketeering. We’re not sure who’s leading them on the street front, but it’s a new gang. Brand new. Their backer’s Quelm. [Alchemist]. Level 20 to Level 25. Moderately successful. With his help they’ve created a monopoly on this new item. Matches.”
“Some new, alchemist invention.”
“Wants to sell it all from his store does he? Understandable. So this Quelm’s got muscle to keep the other [Alchemists] in line. And the gang’s being funded through…?”
The [Nightstalker] grinned. The Brother only grimaced. It was understandable, typical even, but the Brotherhood didn’t deal in that area. The Sisters of Chell on the other hand…
“Ah. What about the City Watch? Do they know?”
The Sister shrugged, clearly impatient as she picked up the pace.
“They know. But their new Watch Captain doesn’t want to risk blood and he’s being bribed with potions. Apparently, the last one took off to be an…[Actor]? That answer all your damn questions?”
The [Enforcer] nodded absently. It did indeed. He might not know if this Quelm was connected to the incident he was investigating, but he understood this new gang and racketeering business. A gang had worked its way into Celum’s city. Not just a gang, but a Gang, the kind of criminal element that went beyond some local [Toughs] or [Thieves]. The beginning of proper organized crime, the kind both he and the [Nightstalker] were familiar with.
This was always how it started. To the [Enforcer], the [Nightstalker], and probably the silent [Blackguard], it was as obvious as the sun what was going down. It was like…if they were [Woodcutters], they were seeing a cut along a tree’s base. They could tell you exactly how the tree would fall if things went a certain way.
On the other hand, they could spot complications, oddities like maybe a strong wind that could randomize how the tree fell. But they had seen this a hundred times; they knew the broad strokes.
New Captain of the City Watch. A potential source of gold—these matches, whatever they were. Add in some displaced villagers, a few experienced underworld folk, or just a local [Bandit] group dying off and the stragglers entering a city and you had the beginnings of a gang.
The Sister of Chell broke the silence after two more blocks of walking.
“Why all the questions? You know the score. Are you looking to move back down here? If you are, you’re not dealing with me. I’m warning you, we want this city.”
She looked back, a bit agitated. She eyed the [Enforcer], and was clearly relieved when he shook his head.
“We’re not looking to expand south at the moment. They’re yours to conversate with you when you want the pleasure.”
A grin crossed the [Nightstalker]’s face. She shrugged indolently and looked around Celum’s streets with contempt.
“We’ll wait until they actually earn more than a few gold pieces. Anyways. We’re here. Look.”
She pointed. The [Enforcer] saw they’d reached another [Alchemist] shop, clearly doing better than Stitchworks. Glass windows showed a variety of products, from low-level potions to a Tripvine bag. It wasn’t good by any of the standards of the three visitors, but the small bundle of matches put pride of place in the glass window caught the [Enforcer]’s eye.
“Interesting. I’d not mind a look at these things. Mind if we take a look? After you.”
He held the door open for the pair. The [Nightstalker] snorted, but walked in. A beaming [Shop Assistant] greeted them; the store already had a few guests this early. The young man gestured around the shop.
“Good morning! Welcome to Quelm’s Bazaar of Alchemies! Are you here for matches?”
“As a matter of fact, sir, I’d be delighted to buy some to test them out myself. May I ask what they are and what they do?”
The [Enforcer] tipped his hat to the [Assistant] and the young man’s face lit up. He quickly trotted behind the counter and got a matchbox and match. The [Nightstalker] watched with impatience as the [Shop Assistant] made his pitch.
“It’s the newest thing. Alchemist Quelm’s latest invention—matches! They came out in the city earlier, but Mister Quelm—excuse me, Alchemist Quelm—was working on them ahead of everyone else and his designs were stolen. These are the best in the city, the only ones sold in the city these days, in fact! No one’ll buy the inferior designs, so we have all of them!”
The [Nightstalker] smirked. Even sardonic, her smile could turn a man’s head. The [Enforcer] was unaffected; he’d met women with her type of Skills before, but the [Shop Assistant] had clearly never run into a woman like the Sister of Chell. He hesitated, and his eyes fixed on her still beautiful face, and then cleavage for a moment. She glared at him and he turned red. The [Enforcer]’s cough brought the young man back to his senses.
“I—uh, well, these are the matches! And they’re wonderful. Ever seen what they do?”
“That’s why we’re here.”
“Well…observe! You don’t need magic or tinder or anything else! You just strike the match against this box here, or even a rough surface and—fire!”
The [Enforcer] blinked as the match head flared into flame. The Sister of Chell recoiled and the [Blackguard] twitched. The [Assistant] noticed none of this as he held up the match, admiring the flame.
“You see? As simple as that! It’s all alchemy, no—”
The Sister spoke flatly. The [Enforcer] reached into his jacket pocket and felt at a little orb he kept there.
“No magic. Mind if I try one, sir? Or need I buy this box?”
“Oh, no! You can try one for free. And a box’ll only be six silvers! For twenty matches? Very cheap!”
“Expensive is what it is! I used to be able to pay two silver for a box of twenty four, and then four for the same amount at Stitchworks! Why’s the price gone up?”
Another shopper complained as she browsed the shelves of boxes. Some were painted different colors and varying sizes of matches were on display. The [Shop Assistant] cleared his throat self-importantly.
“It’s about quality, Miss.”
“Expensive is what it is! I like these things, but they’re not better than a flint at these prices!”
“But it’s convenient, Miss—”
The [Enforcer] listened with half an ear to the discussion. He lit the match on the box the way he’d seen the young man do it. He lifted the match and watched the flame burn. The [Enforcer] wore gloves as a habit so he didn’t bother tossing the match as it burned down. He noted how hot the flame was and handed the box to the Sister before nodding in approval.
“This is very nice. Very posh. Beats magic for me and I love the feeling of it. I could see some of my associates being very interested. This will be a bit of gold—if another [Alchemist] doesn’t figure it out.”
The [Nightstalker] lit one match, dropped it before it could burn her, and then another. She ignored the [Shop Assistant]’s protests and eyed the second before tossing it on the floor. The young man hurriedly stomped it out. The [Nightstalker] flicked the box back at him and nodded.
“Not going to happen in Celum. But I like it too. No magic, just a stick. Easy to start fires with secretly. Give me five.”
“And me ten I suppose.”
The delighted young [Shop Assistant] brightened as the pair bought fifteen boxes all together. The other shoppers gaped at the gold being forked over so casually; the [Enforcer] and [Nightstalker] didn’t blink. Nor did the money in the store’s till vanish after it was handed over. Neither of them were [Thieves].
After that, the trio walked outside the shop and thought. The Sister lit a match, watched it burn with a smile, and nodded.
“I can see why it’s created a gang.”
“Me too. The problem is, where might we find said gang?”
“Around back? They’re new. They’ve gotta hang around their boss. Or we wait for one of the [Alchemists] to pay up. Bet you they get money every day too. Amateurs.”
The [Nightstalker] rolled her eyes. The [Enforcer] silently agreed. And as luck would have it, they found the very group they were looking for. Not behind Quelm’s shop, but a street over. The group was, as befitted their nature, idling with intent in an alleyway.
They were clearly ready for something; both the [Enforcer] and [Nightstalker] could sense it. A group of sixteen rough men and women glanced up sharply as the trio strolled into the alleyway. They didn’t notice the [Blackguard]. The Brother tipped his hat to them cheerfully.
“Hello sirs and madams. Might I trouble you all for a bit of time? The pair of us have a few questions as it were.”
One of the biggest men, a [Thug], clearly, strolled out of the group. He had muscle, but a beer belly to go along with it. And he was drunk. The [Enforcer] smelled it on the man’s breath. He resisted the urge to wrinkle his nose and politely tipped his hat.
“G’day, sir. I’m just here by serendipity. And this here’s an acquaintance of mind. One of Chell’s girls. You know Chell?”
The words were innocuous. But they were carefully phrased. In Invrisil or any other city to the north, they would have attracted any group’s attention and respect, regardless of whether they were common street trash or…in the same line of business.
Unfortunately, Celum was just that far removed. Not a light flickered in the heavyset [Thug]’s face or the rest of the group’s faces, but a shrewish [Thief] skulking around the back of the group looked up suddenly in alarm. He opened his mouth, but the [Thug] just scowled.
“Never heard of her. Piss off.”
The [Enforcer] signed. The [Nightstalker] frowned dangerously. The [Thief] who’d recognized their signals on the other hand pushed forwards nervously.
“Betram, listen. Those two are—”
“Shut up, Yapper. You. Clear off. We’re busy.”
The [Thug] pointed at the [Enforcer]’s chest. He eyed the [Nightstalker] and grinned.
“You’re free to stay, though. In fact, why don’t you leave this idiot and stay with us for a while, Miss?”
“Not interested, you ugly piece of crap. We’re not here to play games. Listen to your friend or we’ll get impatient.”
The Sister of Chell glared at the [Thug]. His face went red as some of his group laughed. His hand moved faster than the [Thief] trying to pull him back and whisper. He reached for the [Nightstalker] with an open slap. And his hand was knocked aside by the [Enforcer]’s.
“Excuse me, sir.”
The Brother politely blocked the [Thug]’s path, moving the hand out of the way. Lucky for the man too; the [Blackguard] would have stopped it far less kindly. But the action only enraged the [Thug]. He knocked back the [Thief].
“Betram, don’t! They’re—”
“Shut up, Yapper! You want to die, you bastard?”
He shoved the [Enforcer]. The man was braced, so the blow didn’t knock him back like the [Thug] had intended, but it did make him stumble. And that made his cap slip slightly, revealing some brown hair. The man caught the hat before it slid off his head. And when he looked up, the [Thug] hesitated as he raised a fist.
The Sister of Chell and [Blackguard] saw the [Enforcer] slowly adjusting his hat. The [Nightstalker] looked at her companion and made a rapid call. She tsked, shook her head at her bodyguard, and stepped past the [Enforcer].
“I’ll handle this. Move back.”
The [Enforcer] thought about this and did so. He adjusted his clothes as the [Nightstalker] eyed the taller [Thug] up and down. By now, the crew in the alley had realized the man and woman weren’t normal. They were checking their weapons, and the [Thug] was hesitating, clearly fighting with his ego over pushing things farther with the [Enforcer] while his subconscious was trying to hold him back. It was too late either way. The [Nightstalker] eyed him, and then with a flash, drew one of the blades in her hand.
A stiletto. The edge was needle-sharp, and the hand holding it moved so fast that only the [Enforcer] and the [Blackguard] saw its path. Everyone saw where it ended, though. The [Thug] stared down in horror at the blade piercing his—even the [Enforcer] winced. Then the pain came, and the man’s eyes bulged and he opened his mouth. But the [Blackguard], who’d slipped behind him, grabbed him.
The others in the alley jumped back in horror as he seemed to materialize, and slapped a gloved hand over the [Thug]’s mouth. The [Nightstalker] just grinned. She lifted up the bloody stiletto as the [Thug]’s eyes bulged. Then she pointed at the [Blackguard].
“Hold him tight.”
The [Thug] tried to move, but the black bodyguard held him tight. The [Nightstalker] stabbed him twice more in the groin. The man screamed, but the hand covering his mouth let no sound out. Blood and urine ran to the floor as a stain spread in his clothing. He dropped as his mind mercifully rendered him unconscious. The [Blackguard] let go, wrinkling his nose, and walked behind the [Nightstalker].
The rest of the low-level criminals in the alley stared in horror at the big man. They were [Thugs] and [Thieves] and even [Bandits] and [Raiders] from the countryside, used to violence. But not as casual as that. Or as brutal. The man lying on the ground would probably live, but his genitals were mutilated. The [Nightstalker] wasn’t done, though. She kicked the man between the legs and he doubled into a ball, even unconscious. The [Enforcer] just sighed. It wasn’t how he would have done it. But it had certainly gotten everyone’s attention.
The [Nightstalker] raised the bloody stiletto and looked around. The alleyway was silent. Now everyone was staring at her, aware without words of what she was, if not who. She looked at the trembling [Thief], Yapper.
“I’m not here to play games. I’m from the north. You heard about a job that went bad right before the damn battle at Liscor? One where my people all died? Well, I’m the one sent to find out what happened and why. The Sisters of Chell want answers. And we’ll have them.”
“The Sisters of Chell?”
One of the men standing behind his friend started, finally recognizing the name. He paled as the [Nightstalker] aimed her dagger at him.
“Shut up. Anyone else says something I don’t want to hear, and they’ll lose whatever swings between their legs. Or find something else sticking out there instead.”
She pointed at one of the female [Bandits] in the back of the crowd. The woman turned as white as the men. The [Nightstalker] eyed the group in disgust and turned to the [Thief] who’d recognized her and the [Enforcer] from the start.
“Start talking. I want to know three things. One. Who’s in charge of your gang?”
“Uh—I—milady—it’s Alchemist Quelm, Miss. He’s in charge.”
Yapper froze as the [Nightstalker] advanced. He shook as the stiletto poked his throat. The woman hissed at him.
“Not your backer, you idiot! Who runs the street? Who’s your boss?”
“It was—it was—”
Yapper looked over the woman’s shoulder at the comatose man. The [Nightstalker] looked over her shoulder and laughed incredulously.
“Him? So you’re actually taking orders from an [Alchemist]? You’re a shit gang. Fine. Question two. What do you know about the heist with the door in Stitchworks?”
Yapper’s eyes widened.
“That thing? Nothing. I swear! We heard some big players were coming south. And I knew a guy who said some of the Brothers from Remendia were coming, but I didn’t hear anything about it.”
“Really. Any of you know what went down? Anyone?”
The Sister swept her blade across the alley. The men and women shook their heads rapidly.
“Fine. How big’s your gang?”
“Really? So you’re just starting. What’s your angle? Protection money and helping that shit [Alchemist] steal all the business? That’s all you layabouts do?”
“Not much longer. Mister Quelm has plans. We’re going to pay a visit to the other [Alchemists] later.”
“And do what, exactly?”
The Sister of Chell listened impatiently as Yapper stammered. She shook her head.
“Fine. But what about the door?”
“He didn’t say nothing about that, Miss. Just said to leave it be. There’s a crazy [Innkeeper] on the other side. She’s got Gold-ranks staying at her inn. Mister Quelm says it’s too much work to deal with at the moment. He just wants that Octavia gone.”
The [Enforcer] frowned. That was surprisingly restrained, even for a low-level gang. But if it was being run by an [Alchemist], the man probably still thought he could control his crime. Just muscle out his competition. Sooner or later someone would take over who was a serious leader. Maybe even Betram, if he hadn’t just lost his leadership role and manhood. But it seemed like this really was just a coincidental thing to their real investigation.
The Sister of Chell clearly agreed. She wiped her dagger on Yapper’s front as the [Thief] stood, paralyzed, and sheathed it in disgust.
“Fine. We’re done here. If I find out you lied, I’m coming back and cutting all of your balls off. We don’t need anything from you lot. Stay out of our way. ”
She turned and walked out of the alleyway. The [Blackguard] followed, and the pale-faced group stared as the [Enforcer] tipped his hat. He looked apologetically, but without any hint of sympathy at the silent Betram lying on the ground.
“I apologize for the rudeness that was done with. Sorry about the disturbance and shame on your friends, gentlemen, ladies. Good morning to you all.”
And then he followed the Sister of Chell out of the alley. The gang stared at his back, and watched as the three disappeared into the street.
“So we’re back to square one, it seems.”
The Brother strolled up to the [Nightstalker]. She glared at him and nodded, annoyed by the entire ordeal.
“Useless cowards, that lot. They’re only a starting gang. Not even big enough to scare the Watch.”
“It all starts somewhere. Give them a few months or a year and there could be a hundred. Forty’s big.”
“Probably some [Bandits] got wiped and the stragglers came here. Who cares? They don’t know anything. What’s next?”
She’d clearly been expecting the Quelm angle to yield fruit. But the [Enforcer] was used to coincidences that turned out to be nothing like this, so he just shrugged.
“There’s the door. Odds were always that something on the other side got our teams. And it being inconveniently a Drake city, my associates didn’t get any valuable information. I was thinking of travelling to Liscor and seeing what the scene was there.”
“And waste a day of travel?”
“You could always go through the door.”
The [Enforcer] raised his brows. The Sister of Chell spat.
“I don’t plan on walking through the same door that got an entire hand of my sisters dead.”
“Not exactly high on my list of activities to do either, I’m afraid. Well, why don’t we take a small break and figure out if anyone else knows something about this door? Who comes through to Celum?”
“Fine. You’re taking lead? That’s not our specialty.”
The [Nightstalker] jerked a head at the [Blackguard]. The [Enforcer] smiled.
“Just so and so. Then, while we happily gather information on this place for our mutual associates, might I offer to buy you a breakfast, Miss? It’d be my pleasure after seeing you resolve our spot of bother while I was so rudely still. Same goes for your friend.”
The [Nightstalker] rolled her eyes.
“Why not? I want to see just what happens later today. Could be this Quelm knows more than he’s letting on.”
“My thoughts exactly. Then, let’s head back down to Stitchworks. I saw an outdoor restaurant down the street. If we’ve good eyes, we can spot anything that needs spotting.”
The Sister agreed with a tight, annoyed nod. Back they went. It was admittedly tedious to have to go back and forth like this, but the [Enforcer] knew it was necessary. You didn’t rush about; the Sisters of Chell knew that too, because the only overt action their agent had taken was with the [Thugs] in the alleyway. They would never go to the City Watch and standards were standards. You took this slowly, carefully.
Patience. Prudence. And something else that started with ‘P’. The [Enforcer] found the restaurant he’d spotted, really just a fancy bakery with some outdoor tables. He sat down and the server or maybe apprentice baker found them in a moment.
“Hello! Are you looking for some breakfast?”
“Yes, we are Miss. Good morning to you, and might I ask what your fine establishment serves?”
“I dunno about fine, sir.”
The young woman blushed as the [Enforcer] gave her a charming smile and a tip of the hat. She had a lucky feeling he’d be one to tip her just for bringing food out to him. And she’d be right.
“Well, if you want we’ve got a menu. Printed. Or I can tell you our best.”
“I can read it from here. And I think some of your spinach tarts would be a treat, Miss. May I have that and some refreshments?”
The [Enforcer] read the menu inside the front of the bakery from his seat, making the young [Baker] blink. But she nodded readily and went to get the meal. All three of Celum’s visitors did appreciate the hot food when it came out, despite their varying temperaments and goals. As the two from the Sisters of Chell dug into their food, the Brother of Serendipitous Greetings struck up the young [Baker] in conversation.
“I hear that there’s a miraculous door to Liscor, Miss. Magic, or so I hear. There wouldn’t be any truth to that rumor, would there?”
The young woman brightened with the chance to gossip and nodded.
“Oh? You’re new to the city and you heard about the door, have you? It’s true! The door goes all the way to Liscor! And you can go through for not even a bronze coin! I went there myself—it goes to an inn of all places! It’s nice and the Players of Celum used to put on shows there every night—but most of the good ones like Wesle left.”
She sighed deeply and went on.
“But the door’s always there. Usually you just have to wait while that [Alchemist] bothers you inside the shop. Lately though, it’s hard to go through; my brother waited all day to go, but apparently people was going from Pallass to Liscor. Isn’t that amazing? Pallass is all the way south…”
She waved a hand vaguely, clearly not understanding the distance involved. The three at the table did understand the distance though, and the [Nightstalker] sat up in her chair. The [Enforcer], whose back was already straight, felt a skip in his chest. That was a powerful door. And one his organization would love to get their hands on. But that wasn’t why he was here.
The [Enforcer] was indeed on a mission. He’d come all this way south, at considerable distance and inconvenience for one reason. His investigation in Celum was, as he’d told the Sister of Chell, a fact-finding mission. Just like hers. A few months back, a few of their Brothers in the region had been contracted for a very expensive, very sudden mission.
That wasn’t unusual in this line of work, but the buyers had paid for top quality. And so the best in the area had been sent. And the best in the area had died. That too happened in this line of work, but it was never something to be brushed off lightly. When people in the [Enforcer]’s group died, their deaths were investigated. And if need be, avenged.
The duo sitting across from him were clearly here for the same reason, to find out what had happened. If they weren’t actually responsible for the deaths themselves. The [Enforcer] ruled nothing out and neither did the Brotherhood, which was why he was here.
The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings wanted to know what happened to their group just as badly as the Sisters of Chell, but they had a second motive that the other underworld groups had no notion of. A highly, highly lucrative offer from the Tallman of Baleros himself. And intriguing—the [Enforcer] wasn’t high enough to know all the details, but he kept his ear to doors in a figurative sense.
Intriguing indeed, and the money was considerable. You didn’t turn that down lightly. But you didn’t rush into deals like that either. Hence why his job was doubly important. So the [Enforcer] was content to wait to see what became of the poor [Alchemist] sitting in the store who owned the door. If it turned out she was only a bystander in this whole affair, he’d regretfully continue on his way to Liscor to find the truth. He had no intention of using that door until he was very sure of it, even if everyone in Celum had used it.
The [Enforcer] sat back, took a bite of his spinach tart, chewed, and swallowed. Then he smiled at the young [Baker].
“I’m amazed. This is a delicious tart. And that door’s not anything to sneeze at lightly either.”
“Oh, you’re too kind. Miss Ginla made those, but I helped with the crusts!”
The young woman blushed with pride. The [Enforcer] complimented her, ignoring the impatient look he was getting from the Sister of Chell. It was always good to be polite. Then he sat back, adjusting his hat and preparing for a long wait.
“I’d like to buy a few more from your counter if it’s all fresh. Throughout the day, like. If you’ll stay open? Ah, by the way, what’s this about Pallass, Miss?”
The young [Baker] beamed and hastened to explain. The [Nightstalker] sat lower at her table, scarfing her food and resigning herself to a long day. She glared, and the [Blackguard], sensing that this might be the start of a long day, decided it was time to eat. He ignored the tarts on the table, although he’d inspected them for poisons or other tricks like glass shards already. He unscrewed a flask from his side and raised it. The [Nightstalker] punched him in the side and lifted one of the cups of water the young woman had placed on the table.
The [Blackguard] silently poured her a drink from his flask and she sipped it. She turned her head and her enhanced eyes to watch the shop, where she could see an [Alchemist] moving about, slowly, furtively, her eyes on the shop front. Stitchworks was still closed, but the [Nightstalker] could see a door, propped up against the far wall. Her eyes narrowed and she settled back, watching. Waiting.
And on the other side of the door? An inn sprang to life as dawn faded and the sun rose. A hundred miles away, Liscor, a city of Drakes, got about its day, and The Wandering Inn filled with guests from Liscor and farther south still. They all used the magic door in the inn. But the first person to use it had already used it before the dawn. He had left the inn, using the door to travel up into the mountains. Now he walked through the caves, playing a song. His name was Numbtongue.
And he was a Goblin.
Numbtongue started his day as he always had for the last few weeks. Alone. At least, when he felt like it. He walked in the caves of the High Passes, although barely at the foot of those towering peaks. Nevertheless, there were plenty of caves and passageways even in the foothills to explore. So the Goblin walked through one dark cave now. And as he walked, he played his guitar.
Music flowed through the dark passageways, through the rocky ceilings, across moss and stone. A song, plucked from the strings of the battered but functional guitar that the Hobgoblin carried. His claws strummed the guitar, playing with absent grace. And the song was simple. It halted and flowed as Numbtongue made it up on the spot. But it had components.
Melody and harmony. The fundamentals of music as Numbtongue understood them, although he had not known the words until recently. But they had meaning. Because a song needed both. Melody was the base. Harmony was different. Erin had explained the difference to Numbtongue, but she hadn’t taken music class in years and so the distinction was somewhat hard for the Hob to articulate.
But he thought he understood. You could have both in a song. And while melody was easier, a harmony could be achieved just by singing. That was all you had to do.
The reason why he was thinking of the distinction this morning was because he was trying to use two Skills at once. Numbtongue was a [Bard], and he had multiple Skills that involved music. Not many since he had been a [Warrior] before becoming a [Bard], but the Skills he did have were powerful. At least, to him.
The first was [Peaceful Melody]. That was easy. The base of the song was that. As Numbtongue walked the cave floor, his wrapped feet avoiding the sharp stones, he sensed the shapes moving around him in the darkness. He didn’t have to look down to spot them, and they moved aside to allow his passage. Small, scuttling shapes, the denizens of this cave.
Rockmites. Dozens, possibly over a hundred of them. Not dangerous if Numbtongue didn’t agitate them, but possibly a deadly threat if he made a mistake. And they were territorial, protective of intruders even if they were largely peaceful. Numbtongue had found that out in a number of painful encounters that had made the swarm increasingly hostile towards him. But now they moved aside and gave the Hobgoblin no trouble.
Because of the music. It soothed them, calming the insects and granting Numbtongue passage. That was the base of his song. But Numbtongue was trying something more today. Something harder.
The harmony of the song he played was halting. Difficult to come up with. Numbtongue muttered to himself, and decided to trying singing,
“Goblin wakes and Goblin eats. And Goblin mines and Goblin sleeps. This is a Goblin’s day. Isn’t that…neat?”
It was a poor song. And when Numbtongue hesitated, the Rockmites stirred restlessly. The Goblin gave up on singing and instead strummed, creating a soothing melody from his guitar. And when he gave up on forcing the music, when it came naturally, the harmony appeared.
The Goblin’s crimson eyes saw the pitch-black cavern light up. The light that filled the cave was a gentle glow, summoned by the strumming of Numbtongue’s guitar. It wasn’t normal light either, or even a [Light] spell. It was a faint, gentle glow, to match the song.
The light wasn’t one color either. The ambiance changed from note to note, blooms of brilliance softly lighting the cave. All in sequence too, all connected. As if the notes Numbtongue was playing were coming to life in shades of color. A beautiful sight, not harsh, soft and subtle against the stone walls. And the Rockmites, far from hating this unfamiliar brightness, instead seemed to dance, scuttling up and down the walls, waves of motion enjoying the light, the music.
Light and peace. Two Skills at once. Numbtongue smiled. He kept the guitar singing, trusting to it to light his way and pacify the Rockmites. And it did. The Hobgoblin walked through the last section of the cave, and on his back was a pack filled with a jar of glowing magicore. A few rare gems. And his latest prize, secured from another cave system connecting to this one. Numbtongue had been mining since before dawn, and while his latest acquisition hadn’t actually come from hitting any veins but theft, the Goblin felt good.
Rockmites scuttled after Numbtongue, but stopped when he reached the entrance of the caves. They had probably been lured by the music he was playing, but also possibly because they were attracted to the magical minerals in his pack. Especially the nugget of gold that Numbtongue had just stolen from one of their nests.
The Hobgoblin had known that Rockmites enjoyed all sorts of minerals and gravitated to magic as many monsters did, but he’d had no idea that they liked gold. But one look at the gold-plated Rockmites who’d been feasting on this nugget and what looked like a depleted vein of the stuff told the Hobgoblin that the mineral gave them some kind of benefit.
Or maybe it just tasted good. Either way, he’d raided the nest for the last bit of gold. Unfortunately, that had enraged the generally peaceful bugs, and he’d had to play the guitar to get out in one piece.
Even at the entrance of the cave, the bugs didn’t want to leave him alone. They scuttled into the light and then back into the shade, waving their little feet as they seemed to waver after going after the Hob. Experimentally, Numbtongue stopped playing as he stood warily by a wooden door. It was propped up next to the cave’s entrance and it had a glowing mana stone embedded in the frame. The Rockmite swarm flickered as the music stopped and they scuttled forwards in a mass. Then retreated as the rising sun struck them.
The Hob laughed as he saw a group of the golden-shelled Rockmites retreating with the regular, brown ones into the cave. He waved as the bugs fled from the sunlight, deciding they couldn’t follow the Hobgoblin after it. He strummed a victorious tune.
“Goblin got gold! Goblin goes home! Goblin…this is a bad song.”
He sighed and put his guitar down. He wasn’t sure he liked singing. Erin kept encouraging him to sing, especially songs from her world, but he preferred just playing his guitar and letting her sing. He liked her voice. His, he could take or leave. Usually leave. It was the guitar that made him smile.
The Hob thought about that. Then he picked up the guitar and played a short chord. Only, this time it wasn’t with the intention of peace and light. Sparks crackled down the strings of his guitar, shooting across his claws. And the guitar took on a bass, echoing crackle. The Rockmites, already retreating, fled the static sound. And Numbtongue felt a potentiality gather in the air.
He whispered, and his guitar howled like one of the electric guitars that Erin had told him about. Only, his was electric. The jolts of lightning that ran from his guitar were only a herald of what he could summon. Numbtongue looked up at the clear skies and the morning.
He could call it down by playing music. Just by playing. If he played long and hard enough, he could direct a bolt of lightning down to earth where he pleased. It was a power on par with any spell. A miraculous, useful ability that would have made him beyond valuable in his tribe.
But it didn’t work always when Numbtongue wanted. For instance, though he was playing now, he didn’t feel the lightning forming in the air. He knew the air was more crackly, but only a bit. It felt…dull.
“Needs more clouds.”
The Hobgoblin sighed. That was the trick. If the air was already crackling with lightning or it was a storm, he could pull down lightning in a minute or less of playing. Otherwise he had to play for minutes, maybe even half an hour to call down even one measly bolt. It was inconvenient, but Numbtongue supposed it made sense. Erin had tried to explain why that was, but her explanations, her little ‘school lessons’ seldom made sense.
“Lightning is actually electricity. And electricity is a…charge of particles. Which are tiny things no one can see. And when the particles get really excited, they make electricity. It’s because tiny particles are like magnets and electricity goes from positive to negative. Or something like that. That’s how lightning works, Numbtongue! It goes from a really charged place like clouds to the ground. I think.”
The Hobgoblin paused, shook his head, and tried to figure out what that meant again. Erin meant well, but she clearly didn’t understand the lessons she was trying to impart. Some things were very interesting, like her lessons about how diseases worked. Numbtongue had readily believed there were extremely tiny bugs that could make you sick. But he lost interest quickly when Erin didn’t know what she was talking about.
She tried. That was the thing. She made Numbtongue sit down every week with Mrsha and learn something new. Sometimes it was interesting, like facts from her world. History. Numbtongue particularly liked the stories of Humans killing each other over a few thousand years without anyone else to kill. Other times they were just weird, like chess theory. Both Numbtongue and Mrsha slept through those, much to Erin’s indignation.
But she was…kind. And nice. It was just that today—Numbtongue sighed. He put down his guitar, and the charge in the air dissipated as he turned to the door. Glumly, Numbtongue opened it. He stared at the black rock face behind it and sighed again.
He waited for the portal to the inn to open. And waited. And waited some more. After ten minutes of waiting, Numbtongue sat down. After twenty, he stopped strumming tunes on his guitar and looked in his pack. He admired the gold nugget, a smooth lump worn away by the Rockmite’s snacking over years. It was heavy; it would make a good throwing stone if need be. Or a distraction. Numbtongue wondered if Erin would like it. If she ever remembered to open the door.
After thirty minutes, Numbtongue was about to walk down the mountain to the inn, never mind that it would take two hours. He was just getting up when the rock behind the door was replaced by a room filled with noise and people. Numbtongue jumped as two dozen conversations blasted out across the quiet rock face. He turned and saw Erin standing in the common room of her inn, looking incredibly upset.
“Numbtongue! I’m so sorry! I forgot you were mining, and everyone in Pallass is using the door non-stop! Come in, quick!”
She waved at Numbtongue. The Hob got to his feet, picked up his pack and guitar, and strode through the doorway. Erin slammed the door shut, and ushered him to one side. The Hob looked around at the crowd of people behind her. Half of them recoiled or frowned or reacted in some way; the rest just stared at Numbtongue. None of them ran, though. They were Drakes and Gnolls, some of which Numbtongue recognized. He looked over his shoulder at Erin as she fiddled with the dial on the door.
“Just a sec…the wood’s a bit sticky. I need to check Celum…anyone here?”
Erin threw the door open and Octavia’s shop appeared for a moment. The girl stared around the empty shop and Numbtongue smelled a bunch of strange, unpleasant odors. He saw a rack of colorful, glowing potions that made him long to snatch an armful, and then a Stitch-Girl, sitting behind her counter. Octavia looked up sharply as Erin opened the door.
“Hey Octavia! Just checking for guests. Anyone?”
The [Alchemist] hesitated. Numbtongue eyed her face. She looked sleep-deprived. And less chatty than usual. She looked at Erin and the crowd behind her and bit her lip.
“No, Erin. I…no. It’s fine.”
“Alright! Thanks! Let anyone know we’re checking in thirty minute intervals! Appreciate it!”
Whatever the [Alchemist] was about to say was cut off. Erin slammed the door, cheerfully adjusted the dial, and threw it open. Another city appeared as Numbtongue stared. Pallass, and a crowd of people standing in a street suddenly appeared in the doorway. The Drakes, Gnolls, Dullahans, and Garuda standing there were all crowding forwards. But they recoiled as they saw Numbtongue.
“Aw, shut up! It’s just Numbtongue! Door’s back! You lot chatter on! Remember, no one goes through or it goes dead!”
Erin shook a good-natured fist at the crowd. There was grumbling from Pallass’ side as Numbtongue stepped behind the door, out of view. Erin had moved it from the wall to a more central spot, so the people on both side could chat and see what was going on with the inn.
“I can’t believe this. One door and its limited to what, friends of the inn? That’s nepotism!”
“No, that’s favoritism. Nepotism’s for family.”
“Right. My mistake. Even so—hey! Move! Is that play still on?”
The people on Liscor’s side shuffled to one side. A few sitting closer leaned next to the door and whispered to some people standing right next to the door on Pallass’ side. A Drake nodded to a Garuda sitting on the other side.
“Sorry. Our [Innkeeper] had to let that Hobgoblin in. And check for guests from Celum. Where were we?”
The Pallassian Garuda smiled, keeping her voice low as the crowd, some of whom were now sitting on tall chairs, craned over her head, watching a play in the background. She whispered back to the Drake.
“I think we were talking about family. Do you have any relatives around here?”
“Well, I have an Aunt who lives in Lassil. Have you ever been there?”
“Lassil? No way! I was there just last—”
“Quiet in front! I’m watching the play!”
The Garuda turned her head and glared.
“Some of us are talking! You shut up!”
“Why can’t we go through? Just get a [Mage] already!”
“Shut up! I’m watching the play! And I’m on the list for tomorrow!”
“What? I have to wait three weeks—”
The crowds on both sides began arguing with each other while the aggrieved play-watcher demanded silence again and again. Numbtongue, watching from the side, was amazed neither group started jumping through the door to hit each other. Erin, watching with him, shook her head.
“Nuts, huh, Numbtongue? Everyone loves the other city suddenly. Sorry about forgetting to check on you; I’m really busy today!”
She waved around the crowded inn. Numbtongue nodded silently. He had been here yesterday and witnessed Erin introducing Liscor to Pallass and vice versa. Today it seemed no less busy—and it was just past dawn! Erin glanced up at him and frowned.
“When did you go through the door anyways? Lyonette said she saw you off right when she woke up, but I got up an hour before dawn! How long have you been mining?”
The Hob shrugged.
“A while? I found something. Want to see?”
He shifted his pack, ready to show Erin. He had been looking forwards to her reaction and the delighted smile on her face made him smile unconsciously. Erin looked at the pack.
“Really? More magicore? I know you have a few mana stones from…Pyrite’s stuff. But what else did you get? No, wait…sorry. I’ve got to take this.”
She grimaced. Someone was shouting her name from the door. Numbtongue lowered his pack and watched as she fought through the crowd.
“Alright, who is it? I told you, no one’s allowed through no matter how much they’re paying unless—oh! Hey, I remember you! Grimalkin! I need a door charge!”
Erin turned and bellowed across the room. Amid the roar of protests from the door crowd on both sides, a muscly Drake turned his head and grimaced. Grimalkin was sitting in the inn with Relc, doing some workouts with some barbells and other weights Erin had helped him come up with. He sighed, but came over to the door as Relc took the barbells from him.
“I told you, I’m not your walking battery, Miss Erin.”
“Yeah, but—please? I helped with the weights. Maughin made a bunch, right Maughin?”
Erin waved at a Dullahan who was sitting with a Selphid in a corner of her inn. The Dullahan jumped and looked up. He raised his head and looked around blankly.
“What? Am I needed?”
“Nah, it’s just Erin being Erin. Sit back down.”
Jelaqua laughed next to him. The Halfseekers were in the inn, having been derailed from their journey towards Invrisil for two days now. Moore got up and cautiously made his way towards the door with Grimalkin. The [Sinew Magus] was arguing with Erin as he leaned on it.
“It’s not that easy. We don’t regain all of our mana in a single night’s rest, Miss Solstice. And yes, I generate mine efficiently thanks to my muscles and I have a larger mana supply than most, but this is taxing. I appreciate Mage Moore’s help and the other [Mages] have pulled their weight, but you need a better system in place for this.”
“I know. But…one more person? Please? I helped you with the barbells! And I think I remember this weird bar with curves in it you could make!”
The Drake sighed. But he put his hand on the door.
“One charge, then. Moore? I appreciate the help. No more than that, though, Erin. We have to send ourselves back, remember? Who’s come through?”
“Him! Hey! No one else comes through! Kel, keep them back!”
Erin shouted into the doorway. Numbtongue watched her waving her hands as he silently came downstairs. He’d taken his pack off and now he had the nugget stuffed into one of his belt pouches.
He had only a few pieces of equipment, although he carried an adventurer’s compartmentalized belt. Two healing potions, a stamina potion, a Tripvine bag, a few carrying compartments…Numbtongue irritably shifted the belt to adjust for the weight of the gold nugget. He missed who came through, but Erin bounded over with a smile on her face and found the Hobgoblin.
“Sorry! Busy as usual. Say, Numbtongue, have you had breakfast?”
“No. Got any food?”
The Hobgoblin saw lots of people eating a late breakfast. He smacked his lips as Erin nodded rapidly.
“I’ve got some food—sorry, you missed breakfast! But I’ve got bits and pieces you can nobble on. Just one sec!”
The Hobgoblin stared at Erin. She entered the kitchen, bypassing the lines of her staff moving in and out and came back with…two slices of pizza, one of her experimental crispy chicken wings, a bowl of eggs covered in ketchup, an entire carrot, and a fluffy bread roll filled with raisins. Numbtongue stared at the food, which Erin had all heaped in the bowl.
“Sorry, it’s a mess in there. Lyonette’s cooking and Ishkr’s helping, but we really need a dedicated [Cook] at this rate! I’ll pop in there after I greet—”
Numbtongue selected a slice of pizza and began eating. He liked all the food Erin had given him and began chomping it all down. He was hungry enough to eat it all too. Erin shrugged.
“Nobble? Nibble and nosh. You know? Eating?”
She mimed what Numbtongue was doing. The Hob frowned, chewing with his cheeks full.
“Is it a word?”
“Well, it is now!“
Erin beamed at Numbtongue, purely unaware that the word ‘nobble’ was in fact, taken and was the sort of thing the [Enforcer] in Liscor might use in parlance with his job. Numbtongue just stared at her. Then he dug in his belt pouch.
“This is what I found. See?”
He offered the nugget to her. Erin’s eyes went wide.
“Ooh! Is that gold? Can I see?”
Numbtongue nodded, smiling. This at last was what he wanted. As he ate, he handed it to Erin. She marveled at the weight, examining the curiously smooth nugget.
“It’s so polished! Did you do that? No, wait, did you find it lying about somewhere? Is…is that really how gold’s mined? It’s heavier than I thought it’d be. And it’s not as shiny!”
She accusatorially held it up to the light. The sparkle and her repeated use of the word ‘gold’ attracted some heads. A passing Drake blinked at the sparkle and wandered over. He missed Numbtongue at first; his eyes were on the nugget Erin held.
“Where’d you get that? Are you handing out gold? Is that what the theme of today is? Ancestors, it is gold. Where’d you—dead gods!”
He spotted Numbtongue at last and recoiled in shock. The Hobgoblin paused, in the middle of chowing down on the carrot. He hadn’t been doing anything, but the Drake still backed away before catching himself. He warily stared at Erin, who’d lowered the nugget with a frown.
“I er, oh. That’s the Goblin. Uh—and that’s gold. Can I see it?”
“No. Numbtongue dug it up. Or…found it. Numbtongue, where’d you get it?”
“I found it—”
“Hey, is that gold?”
Another Drake spotted the nugget. A crowd immediately turned from the door to Pallass and stared at Erin. And at Numbtongue. She looked at him.
“Where? Oh, and no one touch! This is Numbtongue’s!”
She handed the nugget back to him. All eyes were on the sparkling bit of metal. Numbtongue opened his mouth to tell Erin and then noticed the stares. He looked around at all the faces. Half were staring at him, the other half at the nugget and at him. All had the same expressions. Wariness, caution, avarice…he dropped the half-eaten carrot in the bowl.
“Erin. Want the gold?”
“Uh…sure? I mean, maybe later. It’s uh, a bit—”
Erin waved her hands as she looked up at him. Numbtongue nodded. The crowd sighed as he put the gold away in his belt where it sagged heavily. The Hobgoblin kept eating, but the Drakes and Gnolls didn’t exactly disperse. They just stared at him. So he crammed the rest of the food into his mouth and tapped Erin on the shoulder.
“Oh? Back to mine?”
“Where exactly? Er, I mean, this Goblin has a mine? Somewhere in the mountains?”
One of the Drakes leaned forwards interestedly. Erin glared at him and he drew back, but his eyes flicked to the magic door. Numbtongue just sighed.
He pointed to Erin’s actual door to the inn. She nodded and followed him as he walked to the doorway. There were people coming in, making the short trek from Liscor to the inn. Like the others, they focused on him. Numbtongue stared around the busy inn. Liscor’s citizens and a few of Pallass’ filled it. There were Celum’s [Actors] on stage—it was full to the brim. And it wasn’t even midmorning. He shook his head and turned to Erin.
“I’m going. Be back later.”
The young woman looked up at him. Her expression, which had been annoyed as she shooed back the crowd and excited earlier, became concerned. She grabbed Numbtongue as he went for the door.
He turned back. Erin hesitated and pointed up at the stairs, where a few Workers were trooping up with wood and nails.
“You…wanna have dinner tonight? The third floor’ll be fixed by then. I figure we can turn one of the rooms into a dining room for a day. Lyonette’s already talking about having private rooms. We can go up there and eat. You, me, Lyonette, and Mrsha?”
“Sure. Sounds good.”
Numbtongue nodded. Erin smiled and patted his arm. But she wavered as Numbtongue put a hand on the door.
“Numbtongue? Exactly where are you going?”
He paused, his back to her.
“You mean, around the inn? Or the Floodplains? Or…you know we had a talk.”
Numbtongue didn’t look at Erin. He could sense her sidling to his left, watching his face.
“You’re just going out. You’re not going to go there, are you?”
“I know you want to. But look, I’m trying to get Zevara to agree. But until then, it is dangerous. I can’t let you get hurt. You know that, right, Numbtongue?”
“I know. I’m just going out.”
Erin was clearly unconvinced by Numbtongue’s lie. But she forced a smile onto her face.
“Dinner tonight. With the family. Alright! See you then!”
She patted Numbtongue’s arm and he stepped out the door. He walked past a pair of Gnolls through the door, making them freeze, and out of the inn. A few stragglers coming up the hill pointed at him in shock. Numbtongue looked around and felt thoroughly miserable. Slowly, he descended the hill and walked towards Liscor.
Her inn was full. And it held Gnolls and Drakes, Dullahans, Garuda, even a Selphid and half-Giant. But the one Goblin was going. He couldn’t stand it in there, and he didn’t like to think of another day with the inn full of…people.
He was glad for Erin, he really was. But he felt out of place in her inn, when everyone was filling it and she was at the center of it all. Especially when half of them recoiled from the sight of him. It wasn’t just tiring, it made him annoyed. He knew it was natural; his heart skipped a beat whenever he saw an adventurer he didn’t recognize. But he didn’t like it. Nor did he like being stared at all the time.
So he left. He walked down the hill from The Wandering Inn and towards the city in the distance. No one stopped him. And as he neared Liscor, no one blew horns or raised the alarm. And that was…wonderful. A miracle. He could walk in the inn, even go near the city without being hunted. Like a monster. It had been his dream, since being a child.
When he was young, he used to dream of entering a city and walking around, seeing what Humans did when they weren’t hunting his kind. Greydath used to tell him stories of marvelous cities, of sights few Goblins had ever witnessed. And so Numbtongue had dreamed of it.
Ironically, it had been Garen Redfang who had taken that chance; he could pass as Human, while Numbtongue had been far too fat when he’d become a Hob. So Garen had been first, and had learned so much more than Numbtongue ever could. Funny, when you thought of it, they were both of the same generation, children during Velan’s war.
But Numbtongue had always felt older than Garen, if only by a few years and experience. Perhaps it was how they Numbtongue blinked and missed a step. He slid down a hill, catching himself before pitching into a muddy sludge at the bottom. The valleys were still filled with water. Numbtongue cursed, dug his feet into the side of the hill and climbed before taking a bath in the mud. He stomped over the next hillock, pounding his forehead with the heel of his clawed hand.
Pyrite. It was Pyrite who had spoken to Greydath and dreamed of being in Human cities, not Numbtongue. He, Numbtongue, had grown up in a Human city in his youth. In the sewers, before the Humans had eradicated all Goblins living there.
They had both dreamed of walking a city’s streets in peace, though. Both dreamed of a day when they could see the cities that they could never approach in person. Human cities, full of wonders and lights. An enticing, deadly dream. And now it was true. Only, in reality, it was a Drake city that Numbtongue could walk near without dying. And while they didn’t shoot him with arrows, their stares sometimes felt like them.
And for this privilege, Numbtongue knew, the price had been tens of thousands of Goblin lives. Over a hundred thousand. It had been his brothers and his Chieftain. A Goblin Lord and his people. All dead to win one Goblin the right to be stared at in peace. Numbtongue bowed his head as he walked. And he remembered a time when five Goblins had stayed at Erin’s inn. He liked to think he was happy, now. But he wanted to believe he had been even happier back then.
The memories. Sometimes they hurt. Pyrite’s or his. The Goldstone Chieftain’s memories didn’t hit Numbtongue as frequently as before, but they were always there, waiting to be tapped into. And sometimes Numbtongue felt so similar to Pyrite…the [Bard] shook his head. Pyrite’s memories weren’t the worst. He remembered his four friends. And he thought of Headscratcher. Of Shorthilt. And he touched the steel sword at his side.
First had gone thirteen. Then six had remained. Then five. And then…was it three? Or one? Numbtongue didn’t know. But here he was alone. He remembered the fallen. Here, at Liscor, on the battlefield. Then against the Eater Goats. And then at Esthelm—his brow wrinkled in confusion for a moment.
Hold on. He remembered Headscratcher and Shorthilt vividly. And Bugear, who’d fallen fighting the Eater Goats, when they’d met Erin. And before that had fallen…
Grunter. Bugear. Orangepoo…what were the other names? Rocksoup? Yes. Rocksoup, Leftstep, Bitefly, Patchhelm, Justrust.
Numbtongue breathed out, reassured. But for a moment, a terrible moment, he’d forgotten the nicknames of his comrades. If he’d forgotten—what would happen? How could he forget? Numbtongue bit his lip, remembering the names, hitting himself with them.
“Patchhelm. Justrust. Bugear. Grunter. Rocksoup…”
Each one hurt. Memory hurt. And because it hurt, because he couldn’t forget, because he was alone, Numbtongue walked. He walked across the muddy floodplains, past valleys of sludge, past green grass and flowers blooming. Away from the inn. Towards the walls looming ever higher.
Towards Liscor. Towards the gates. And then his walk turned into a jog. And then a run.
The gates of Liscor stood open. The City Watch on duty were active, guarding all four cardinal entrances to the city. There was less traffic, at least from foreign travellers at this time of year, but the [Guards] checked everyone exiting and entering with more zeal and attention than Celum’s sleepy City Watch.
With more efficiency too; outside of caravans led in by [Merchants] or travellers whose belongings amounted to more than a single pack or who had a bag of holding, the [Guardsmen] let through everyone else with barely more than a cursory question or two in the case of foreigners.
Faces were checked against descriptions of criminals by the [Guards] manning the gates without the need for a scrum, and those with Skills singled out individuals to be questioned. It allowed for smooth travel, and while it kept the [Guards] on the northern gates hopping, the other three gates were quieter.
The southern and eastern gates usually saw traffic from a few villages or from the south, but with the Bloodfields active, only the locals would come through, which made it a cushy job. The western gate was even more infamous; the road going north led to the northern gate, which meant that very few people at all ever used it.
Normally it was a nice place to be, but recent events had made it the least-popular spot for [Guards] to be posted, even more so than north gate duty. Which was why Tkrn, Gnoll [Guardsman] and one of the four [Guards] posted on the ground, resented being put here for the fourth day in a row. He had to check all of the people going to The Wandering Inn and back to make sure they were locals, and worse, he couldn’t relax on the job with regular inspections and tests of the security at the gates.
Speaking of which…the Gnoll looked up as two of his fellow Gnolls on duty waved through more people heading to the inn. He sniffed the air, frowned, and then swore as he saw a green shape charging towards the gates.
“Aw! It’s him again!”
He bellowed at his fellow [Guardsmen]. They looked up and the Drake [Guardsman] with them spotted the distant figure at the same time Tkrn did. He must have taken a different route because he was closing on the gates fast this time. The Drake bellowed up at the battlements.
“Hey! Close the gates! Close the—”
The huge, metal doors of Liscor, pure metal to contain water during the spring season, slammed downwards as Tkrn blocked the path of two alarmed Drake ladies. On the walls, he heard shouts—not exactly of alarm, and then a voice as one of the Drakes shouted down at the figure who’d stopped, a couple dozen feet away from Liscor’s gates.
“Hey! You! We told you, you can’t come in!”
Tkrn listened to the Drake shouting angrily, a peeved not in his voice. The Gnoll growled and shook his head as he turned to the female Gnoll [Guardswoman] explaining to the frightened old Drakes what was going on.
“This is the third day in a row he’s done this. Doesn’t he get tired?”
She growled at him, vexed.
“Maybe it’s fun for him. Here. Escort these two to the Southern Gate, will you? And warn them the Goblin’s here again. He might try going to the other gates like last time.”
“I did it last time. Your turn.”
Tkrn sighed, but he gestured to the two elderly Drakes. One of them quavered as she stared wide-eyed as the gates and craned her neck at the shouting from above.
“What is it? An attack? Are we fighting Shield Spiders this time? Moths?”
“No, ma’am. It’s just a Goblin. The Goblin.”
“Oh. That Goblin?”
Tkrn sighed as he led the two away. And outside, Numbtongue stared up at the walls of Liscor. The gates were closed; they’d shut them faster this time. He hadn’t been able to even get close. A Drake poked his head over the battlements and shouted down at him.
“You can’t come in. Understand?”
Numbtongue folded his arms. He knew the answer, and the Drake sighed.
“We told you yesterday. And the day before that! No Goblins are allowed in Liscor. The Council voted on it! You’re a public threat.”
“I won’t hurt anyone. You can stab me if I try.”
“That’s not how it works. We can’t let in a security risk. And we have orders.”
“I’m not a threat.”
Numbtongue repeated himself slowly. He could see the Drake, a male with a helmet, looking exasperatedly to one side. Some other members of the City Watch were on the ramparts above the gates. The Drake nodded tiredly at Numbtongue.
“Sure, I believe you. But we’re [Guardsmen].”
“[Guardswoman] over here.”
“I’m a [Watchman].”
The Drake sighed.
“Right. All that. And we have orders. You can’t come in. It’s not our decision—it’s the law. Got it? Will you please go away? You know we’re not opening the gates. Please don’t make us close the others.”
He looked helplessly at Numbtongue. The Goblin reached into his belt pouch and pulled out a folded bit of parchment. He unfurled it and waved it at the Drake.
The Drake hesitated.
“I can’t see it from here.”
“Come down and read it. It says I can come in.”
“I know what it says. You showed it to me yesterday. The answer’s still no.”
Numbtongue ground his teeth. he stared up at the tiny head dozens of feet above him. He pointed furiously at the parchment, as if the Drake could read one of the names signed on it.
“Your Watch Captain. She signed this. It gives me…permission. To enter this place. Understand? It says I am an adventurer.”
“I know. But I can’t read it.”
“So open the gates. You Watch Captain—”
“I’m sorry, but Watch Captain Zevara gave the orders. You can’t enter.”
The Drake tiredly cut Numbtongue off. The [Bard] ground his teeth. He looked around.
“I’ll get Erin Solstice. She’ll make you open the gates.”
The [Guardsman] hesitated. He glanced towards the inn and shook his head, a touch warily.
“…She can’t make us open the gates. And she agrees with the Watch Captain. The magic door’s off-limits too. And if you do enter, we’re allowed to arrest you. So don’t try.”
Numbtongue knew that. And the [Guardsman] clearly knew that was the case as well, which was why Numbtongue hadn’t tried the door. He’d had…conversations with Erin about this. He folded his arms.
“I want to go in.”
“Sorry, Mister uh…Hobgoblin.”
“Right. Sorry. But you’ll be in danger if you enter the city.”
“I don’t care.”
The Drake sighed. He looked at someone on the battlements and then looked down and shook his head.
“Well, believe it or not, I do. It’s my job if you get in, and that Human [Innkeeper] will probably gut me. If Captain Zevara doesn’t turn my face to ash first. You’re not getting in. And you can try the other gates, but they’ll just close too. And if you keep standing out here…”
“You’ll shoot me?”
“No. But we are authorized to call Erin Solstice.”
Numbtongue glared. The [Guard] gave him a tired look. The Hobgoblin paused. He looked back at the inn, and clenched his fists.
“Goblins died for this city.”
The pause that this statement provoked was longest yet. The [Guard] on the walls hesitated. But at last, he shook his head.
“Right. I’m sorry.”
Numbtongue stared up at the Drake. He stared at the closed gates. He heard the whispering from above and looked up bitterly.
The Drake on the walls frowned. Numbtongue gestured up at the city.
“We all died. But that doesn’t bother you. It’s a good thing. Less Goblins. Too bad one survived.”
He turned and stomped back the way he’d come. Numbtongue heard no reply from above, but after about fifty paces, he heard the gates slowly begin to rise. The Hobgoblin was tempted for a moment to run back and run for the entrance, but he knew they’d close them before he even got there. And staying in front of the gates wouldn’t work either. They’d get Erin. And she wouldn’t help. At least in this.
The Goblin walked back towards the inn, head bowed, feet padding through the dirt and growing grass. He was banned. From Liscor. After his first passage into the city he’d tried going back again, but the City Watch had forced him back through the door after bare minutes. And, to Numbtongue’s shock and hurt, Erin had agreed with Watch Captain Zevara’s reasoning.
Numbtongue was in danger in the city. More than one member of Liscor had vowed to kill the Goblin if he entered again, people who’d lost relatives or loved ones during the Second Antinium War or to Goblins in general. More than that, though, it was the fact that Numbtongue’s arrival brought the city to a standstill, caused arguments, even fights.
Zevara had refused to let him back in and Erin had backed her, if only because the City Watch had orders to halt Numbtongue in any way short of killing him from entering their city, via door or by gates. If he went through the magic door again, Zevara had warned Erin, it would be removed from the city.
Numbtongue would have taken that risk if he didn’t know that it would inconvenience Erin. And he would have entered the city, danger or not. Even if he was attacked. It was his right. It was what Headscratcher, Shorthilt, Grunter, Justrust, and all the others had died for. They had died for Liscor. He had to enter it.
It was like a compulsion. No—a sickness. Numbtongue felt it. Ever since Erin had told him he was…family, his life had been overturned. When he was in the inn, with her, having breakfast, he was deliriously happy. When he realized his four friends, no twelve friends, would never share that moment, he was crushed more than any blow could ever do to him. And when he stared at Liscor in the distance and knew he couldn’t enter it, even though he had a piece of paper signed that said he was a person—that he needed it—
Up and down. Happy and sad. It was the cycle to Numbtongue’s day. He mined, practiced with his sword, upholding Redfang tradition and trying to combine Pyrite’s memories with his, grew stronger. He enjoyed being around Erin, Lyonette, Mrsha. Even Apista. He learned from her, ate, and lived every Goblins…it was beyond a dream. But he couldn’t be part of the rest, of anything else. So he went off by himself and remembered. And when it got to be too much, he came here. To a city he wasn’t allowed to enter.
That was how it went. What could Numbtongue do besides all of that. He couldn’t wander far from Liscor. Adventurers, travellers, anyone who wasn’t immediately part of Liscor or in sight of the inn might kill him. The mountains were equally dangerous; Numbtongue was wary of going higher than the caves he’d entered and Pyrite’s memories told him to take it slow.
The inn was…nice. But it was still too small these days. Numbtongue was restless there. Lyonette, Mrsha, Erin, they all had things to do. They couldn’t be with Numbtongue, who had every day free, all the time. So that often left him…
Alone. But that was only part of the time. Then he was with Erin, with so much love he felt like his heart was bursting. And then to loneliness again. Staring at a city that wouldn’t even let him through the gates. If he could only be in there, or—or if Shorthilt were here. Rabbiteater, Badarrow. Numbtongue.
“They’re alive. They weren’t there. They are alive. Somewhere.”
Numbtongue clutched at his head as he stopped. He looked back at the city. At Liscor. It was his dream. It was Pyrite’s dream. The city taunted him. He had walked its streets once. But once was never enough. Numbtongue stared at Liscor and then at the inn. And for the first time, it felt like the inn was a cage. One made of kindness and good intentions. But a cage nonetheless.
Happy and sad. Together and alone. Numbtongue was sick of it. He wanted to enter Liscor, even if it meant being hurt, even if it meant dying. He wanted people to see him, and not stare when they visited their inn. He wanted to meet the people who tried to avoid him, pretend he didn’t exist. He wanted to be there. Or he wanted to leave and give up on that dream. The worst thing was being caught in the middle of it. Of Erin giving him everything he wanted and Liscor holding it out of reach. Again and again.
It felt like a…pattern. A cycle. Numbtongue wished it would stop. Because otherwise, soon, either the cycle would break. Or he would. Slowly, he walked back to the inn. This was his life now.
A lonely Goblin walked across the Floodplains, back to the inn he called home. And he realized he was miserable. In Celum, a trio of Humans who were accustomed to a different world than most of the world knew finished off a quiche and waited for something to happen. An [Alchemist] sat in her shop and counted her coins. Pure misery awaited all and each in their own way. The quiche was off.
And yet it was all backdrop. These were the lives of the inconsequential. The small. They did not move the world, even in large ways. They were in the wrong place, the wrong time. But in The Wandering Inn, part of the world shook and moved and changed. In the inn and on the streets of Pallass, crowds were gathered as the morning progressed.
They were back. In fact, the inn was even more crowded than yesterday. Erin had opened Pallass and Liscor to each other. Now, the two cities couldn’t get enough of each other. And already, the ripples Erin had splashed were turning into waves.
Rufelt and Lasica were standing in the inn, with a trio of Gnoll [Senators] from the Assembly of Crafts. Even Errif Jealwind, a member of the Protectorate group. But he was a Gnoll, and he looked very uncomfortable in the group of Gnolls from Liscor, Krshia, Raekea, Elirr, the Pallassian Gnolls, and Lasica. He might have been a [Senator], but in the Gnoll hierarchy…
Across the inn, Jelaqua was practically glued to a certain Dullahan. And the implications of that had every Dullahan who’d seen them today spinning their heads on their shoulders. Moore and Seborn, stranded in the inn with their Captain suddenly on vacation, were a mix of happy and irritated. Mostly irritated after watching the two hold hands or talk to each other while ignoring everyone else.
The Players of Celum were performing their second play of the day. Temile, the [Stage Manager], was giving the new cast and crew the workout of their lives and the new [Actor] Drakes and Gnolls and Humans were performing until their throats needed healing potions. But no one complained; this was their moment and they all felt it. Eight of Pallass’ citizens were already on the roster to come through this week and learn from the cast up close, rather than having to watch through the crowded door. And what might that lead to?
Some things were predictable, like Grimalkin and Relc, happily devising workouts with Erin’s new weights. Wing Commander Embria had joined them this morning, and Erin was tickled to see that she and Grimalkin were getting along like a house on fire. Possibly because Embria seemed to hold Grimalkin in some esteem, or because she was enamored by the weights as they pertained to her soldiers as he was. The [Innkeeper] was about to circulate past them as she helped load some freshly baked pizzas onto plates with Drassi.
“Say what you will about pizza and how bad it is for you, but it’s fast food!”
Erin nodded to the crowd percolating the inn. Drassi only smiled. She was having a great time, listening to the debates around the elections.
“It’s easy to serve! I’ll get the plates out, Erin. You have someone looking for you!”
She pointed. Erin sighed. Someone was always looking for her.
“Do I care? Who is it this time—”
She broke off. The person waving at her and making his careful way across the floor was someone on her list of people to care about. Erin beamed as a tall, elderly Gnoll approached.
“Xif! Hey! Thanks for coming!”
The Gnoll [Alchemist] paused in front of Erin and bowed slightly to her. He smiled around at her, and then vaguely waved; Krshia and her group had spotted him and were coming over.
“A pleasure, Miss Erin. This is a sight!”
“Isn’t it? Sorry I didn’t get to talk to you right away!”
“No, no. I’m grateful enough that you let me into that door. I didn’t realize it was a matter of privilege—ah, Lasica. Rufelt. I came to see what all the fuss was about.”
The [Bartender] and [Chef] couple came over, smiling widely. Erin stepped back as the two introduced Krshia and the Liscorian Gnolls to Xif. She was tickled to see the Gnolls begin to sniff at Xif and recoil slightly. He nodded apologetically.
“I’m the proprietor of Cunning Crafts. I apologize about the smell. I can’t seem to shake it; it’s a byproduct of being an [Alchemist] and having fur. I’ve thought about shaving, but that’s no pretty sight. City Gnoll, Xif. [Alchemist]. A pleasure to meet you all.”
He shook Krshia’s paw like he might a Drake instead. Looking very surprised, Krshia put a smile on her face and shook Xif’s paw.
“Ah. A pleasure. I was told I might make your acquaintance, Honored Xif.”
“Just Xif, please. I must confess, I’m not one for politics. But…I heard there was a great deal of interesting things to see here, and I had met Miss Solstice. So I’m delighted to come. Truly.”
Xif’s eyes flickered to the three [Senators], who were looking around the inn with interest and wariness. Then he smiled at Erin, who entered the almost all-Gnoll conversation as naturally as could be.
“Xif’s really cool, Krshia. He’s the best [Alchemist] in Pallass, right?”
She looked at Lasica and the Drake nodded. Xif on the other hand frowned. He scratched his head, looking embarrassed.
“I’d never say that. Second-best? I’ll claim that, thank you. But best? No, no. I can’t say that at all. Granted, I might be the most diverse [Alchemist] for recipes, but in terms of specialization, there’s someone far, far better than I in the city.”
“Adventurers don’t count, Xif. And you sell your potions. If anyone deserves a voice to represent Pallass’ [Alchemists]—and Gnolls—it’s you. Come and chat with us. We’re discussing the elections.”
Lasica nodded firmly, and Rufelt grinned, motioning Xif over to the part of the bar where they’d been talking.
“I suppose so.”
Xif sighed, clearly reluctant. He looked at Erin and she came to his rescue.
“Maybe in a bit, Lasica. But what if I showed Xif around for a moment or two? There’s a lot of cool things! Like the play!”
“If you have to. But bring him back soon, alright?”
Lasica frowned, clearly impatient. The party moved away and Xif looked gratefully at Erin.
“I appreciate that. I’m not one for inter-Gnoll politics. I really did just want to see what all this was about.”
“It’s totally cool. You can just listen and I’ll pull you out if you want to. But first let me show you all the cool things! We have pizza, ice cream—I think we’re making a batch—the play, and you have to meet Mrsha!”
“Ah. The white Gnoll. Rufelt did tell me about that. I would like to meet her. I feel as though we may have done the Doombring—the white-furred a great disservice. Again, I’m not one of the Plains Gnolls, but I would like to meet her very much.”
Erin frowned as she looked around for Mrsha.
“That’s what Elirr said. She’s not cursed, you know. It’s just…white fur. She’s been nothing but good to the inn. Nothing bad—well—it wasn’t her fault.”
“So you say, Miss Erin. So you say. But tradition runs deep. I’d like to meet her, if only to assuage my own—what is that?”
Xif grabbed Erin suddenly. An anomaly had appeared out of the crowd of milling species. A single figure, surrounded by a circle of space and silence. Erin spotted Numbtongue at the same time the Goblin spotted her. He looked upset. Xif on the other hand was terrified.
He recoiled from Numbtongue, his paws instinctively going to a potion hanging from his wide belt. Erin grabbed his arm just in case, but the Gnoll caught himself.
“The—I heard there was one. But a Goblin?”
He stared at Numbtongue. The Hob’s crimson eyes narrowed. And his upset look grew even more pronounced. He narrowed his eyes and turned abruptly. Erin, distressed, looked at Numbtongue. He hadn’t looked so happy when he’d left twenty minutes ago. Now—
“Numbtongue! What’s wrong? Did you go for a walk?”
“Nothing’s wrong. I’m going back outside. To practice with my sword.”
The Hobgoblin turned. Erin reached for him, but he was already striding back towards the door. She shouted at him.
“Aw, Numbtongue, hey! What if—”
Too many people. Or the Hobgoblin just didn’t want to listen. He pushed out the door and Erin let her hand fall.
“Damn. What’s wrong with…”
She had an inkling, but before she could go after Numbtongue, there was Xif to reassure. The Gnoll looked pale under his stained fur, and Erin found him a seat. The [Alchemist] gratefully accepted a cup of water that she found for him.
“I apologize. I heard from Lasica—but I didn’t realize he just…I apologize.”
“You can say it to him when he comes back, okay? And don’t freak out when you turn around or I’ll be actually mad this time.”
Erin stared at Xif, and then someone behind him. The [Alchemist] froze, and slowly turned his head. He didn’t quite squeak when he saw Pawn and the pair of Workers behind him, but he did twitch a bit.
“Erin. I am sorry to interrupt, but I just arrived. I see construction is already underway.”
“Hi Pawn. Good morning! Yeah, Belgrade’s already at work. They’re nearly done the third floor—Lyonette wants them to do more work on the foundations or something. She wants to expand the inn!”
Erin smiled weakly. Only now did she feel like she was too busy. She had to go after Numbtongue! But Pawn was looking around for Lyonette and Erin had to flag down the [Princess]. And explain to Xif who Pawn was. Because that was important. First impression were important. So was Numbtongue.
“This is Pawn, Xif. He’s a Worker, but he’s really nice. Really.”
The [Alchemist] shook Pawn’s hand, which was good for most first impressions. Lyonette paused, tying back her sweat-soaked hair and blinked as Pawn appeared. She had to meet Xif too. And then Erin had to remember the Worker standing next to Pawn.
Pawn quietly corrected Erin. She slapped her forehead.
“Dud. Of course. I uh, well, I’m just scatterbrained. Hello, Archer B19!”
The Worker bowed to Erin.
“This one—I—I mean, I—am very gratified to meet you. Miss Erin. I have wished to convey my thanks. You gave me a bowl of soup. And you taught me how to play chess once. Before I became Individual. I have never forgotten it.”
You couldn’t ignore something like that. Erin paused and reached out to hug Archer B19. Xif looked on, amazed. And Pawn? He edged around to Lyonette and timidly but insistently stood by her side. She smiled at him.
“Good morning, Pawn. Are you supervising the construction?”
“That is Belgrade’s job. I am here to assist. And let the Workers and Soldiers relax. But perhaps it would be wise to supervise the construction? We are only restoring the third floor, but there is a good vantage of our groundwork for your future plans. Perhaps we should take a look? Together?”
He looked at Erin. So did Lyonette. Erin looked up and didn’t think twice. She nodded.
“Go for it. We can hold down the fort, Lyonette. Take a break.”
“Yup. Go for it! I’ll—handle anything that comes up.”
It was dangerous to say, but the way Pawn brightened was worth it. Lyonette smiled and reached out. She held his hand and they walked upstairs to ‘supervise’ the ‘construction’. Which probably meant exactly that, but with hand holding. Archer B19 trundled after them, after saying goodbye to Erin. The [Innkeeper] sighed, and then turned to Xif, who looked dumbstruck.
“Crazy kids, huh? Wanna nobble on something?”
Xif stared at Erin blankly.
She laughed and looked around for some food. She had to be a good host to the Gnoll and keep him from the politics until he wanted to—and then only for a bit. And she had to make sure the staff had food and could do their jobs while Lyonette was on break. And where was Mrsha?
So much to do. And yet, Numbtongue’s expression remained in Erin’s mind. She had to talk to him. But—could he wait? Just for an hour? Or two? Or four? Then she could listen to whatever was on his mind. And she would. But she was so busy right now. Erin chewed her lip, and then forgot about Numbtongue when she saw Mrsha trying to peek inside Maughin’s neck cavity. And by the time she remembered the Hobgoblin and went to look for him, it was already too late.
This was what happened. Outside the inn, another force was moving across the Floodplains. The Antinium. Not the construction team working on Erin’s inn, but a second force. A larger one.
Painted Soldiers. They stormed across the Floodplains, invading Shield Spider nests, wiping them out with brutal efficiency. And their actions went completely unnoticed by the crowd in Erin’s inn. By all of Liscor, actually.
It was ironic. Not two days ago, the Painted Soldiers had been the talk of the town. People had been gathered on the walls to watch them. And yesterday and today they’d been doing their jobs, just like yesterday. It wasn’t as if spider-killing season ended just after a single day, after all. But apparently, no one but the Painted Soldiers cared anymore. The City Watch was leaving the duty to them and the 4th Company was busy raising support for Lism in the city or strategically lifting with Grimalkin.
No one cared about the Painted Soldiers anymore, when all eyes had been on them yesterday. But that was okay. They cared about themselves. And they had a job to do.
Kill the spiders. They ran, a wall of black carapace mixed with paint. And a wall fell into the nests, pounding the eggs and spiders flat, moving over the hills and avoiding the valleys filled with muck. The Painted Soldiers were in tip-top form, but they pushed beyond even their regular limits.
Because of him. Yellow Splatters, the giant, their [Sergeant]. He had returned. He was leading them. He had a voice. And like their duty, the excitement and reaction his presence provoked among the Painted Soldiers didn’t fade after a single day either. So they ran, arms and legs pumping, racing to do their job. They were…happy.
One particular fist of Painted Soldiers was running up a hill about a mile away from The Wandering Inn. They had disposed of a particularly large nest of Shield Spiders. They were not led by Yellow Splatters; he was actually six miles away. But he was on the same field. They had heard him give the order. That was enough. Now the five Painted Soldiers ran forwards, hunting for another nest.
The Soldier in the lead rushed up the hill and began to cross the top. The mud splashed around his feet as he ran, splattering across the blue-white paint delicately patterning his body. Falling Snow, he was named. And as he ran, he spotted a deep valley ahead of him. The thick mud, a remnant of the rains, still covered the bottom, quite deeply. That was fine, and it meant no Shield Spiders were making their nests in all that. Falling Snow turned to find another hill. And the Soldier behind him, Zebras, bumped into him.
It was a simple mistake. They were too excited. All five going too fast. The Soldier tripped. He lost his footing. And he struggled to regain it, but the hill was steep. The mud slipping. As Zebras grabbed for him with three of his striped arms, Falling Snow overbalanced. And he fell into the mud.
It covered him at once. Thick, clinging, heavy mud. More solid than liquid, but deep enough, watery enough to ensnare the Painted Soldier like a…bug. In the mud. Falling Snow struggled, arms and legs grasping at something, anything, as Zebras and the three other Painted Soldiers skidded to a stop on the hill. But he couldn’t move. The mud dragged him down.
Suddenly, the excitement was gone from the air. Zebras stared down at the mud pit. At the flailing Soldier. He made to step forwards, and slipped. The other three Soldiers dragged him back. The valley’s slopes were steep. The footing treacherous. One wrong move and Zebras would tumble into the pit.
And that deep—Falling Snow was struggling. He’d managed to right himself, but he was sinking deeper. And he was too far away from the pit’s edges to pull himself up. The mud was closing over his head. His mandibles snapped. They covered with mud. He couldn’t breathe.
The four Painted Soldiers stood helplessly on the edge. They thought. They looked at the ground. Zebras reached for the others and they tried to make a chain. Two of the Soldiers went down, and the two tried to hold them. The mud footing slipped and all four nearly cascaded down. They were too heavy. It would never work. Zebras began digging at the ground, but there was no time. They couldn’t excavate Falling Snow in the time it would take to change the geography of the valley.
By now, the distress of the five Painted Antinium was being broadcast across every level of communication they possessed. Other Painted Soldiers noticed the still group of four on the hill. They turned, and like a ripple, all the attention of the Painted Soldiers fixed on the spot. On the scene.
Six miles away, Yellow Splatters looked up from killing a Shield Spider. He saw the four. Saw the other Painted Soldiers converging on the spot at a dead run. He ran too. But too late.
In the valley of mud, Falling Snow was drowning. Mud was closing around his head, and his four arms and legs were caught. The Soldier flailed, but he understood nothing of swimming. And he was too heavy. The mud too deep and too thick. He couldn’t breathe.
His flailing was growing slower. Zebras and the Soldiers on the hill were digging. But it was no use. Slowly, one by one, the Painted Soldiers stopped. The looked down, at their comrade. And Falling Snow felt his conscious dwindling. His struggling grew weak. Sporadic. He stopped moving at last.
The voice that shouted was five miles distant. Yellow Splatters was running, racing. But he was too slow. Too far. The Painted Soldiers on the hill looked down. And the Soldier in the mud looked up, as the mud covered his eyes. He gazed at the blue sky. At his fellow Soldiers, watching him. And he knew he would die. Falling Snow looked up and waited for heaven.
And a green angel dove from above. Numbtongue hit the mud and it dragged him down. But the Hobgoblin reached. And he found the still Soldier in the darkness.
He was heavy. Too heavy. Numbtongue heaved, but Falling Snow was part of the mud trap. And Numbtongue felt himself sinking. Above him the Painted Soldiers milled. The Hobgoblin gritted his teeth. He reached for his belt and pulled something loose. Numbtongue fumbled with the drawstrings and then pulled.
An explosion of vines engulfed him as the Tripvine Bag in his hands exploded. The impact, confined, blasted the vines into Numbtongue, making him inhale the mud. The vines twined around him, around Falling Snow and shot upwards. Growing, expanding. Reaching the Painted Soldiers around the pit. The Antinium stared at the vines. Then they grabbed them and heaved.
Two dozen Soldiers grabbed the muddy tangle of vines. Three dozen. They backed up and pulled. The vines had completely entangled the pit and the Hobgoblin and Soldier in it. The mud clung to the tangle, weighing it down. It had to be hundreds, no, thousands of pounds of weight. The Soldiers grabbed the vines and heaved. And the muddy tangle began to tear itself free of the pit.
Vines exploded with the weight and Soldiers stumbled back before surging forwards to grab at more vines. One had four vines in each arm and more Soldiers rushed forwards by the second, grabbing at vines, pulling, pulling—
The mud surged upwards, caught in the vines. It began to cascade over the edges of the hill. Then the huge tangle of vines. Mud slopped down as the Soldiers yanked the tangle up onto the hill. Then they tore at the sides, ripping mud and magical vines free. The Tripvines fell to the ground, and an arm emerged. Green. The Soldiers excavated it.
Numbtongue’s head came out of the tangle. The Hobgoblin vomited mud. Then he dragged at another figure. An Antinium, mud dripping from his body. The Soldiers grabbed at the mud, sloughing it off. Frantically, they uncovered Falling Snow’s mandibles, found a his mouth blocked with mud. Numbtongue pushed his way forwards with a flask of water.
The mud washed away as Numbtongue scraped at the opening. The Soldier’s mandibles and inner mouth cleared of debris. He lay on the ground, his body still. The Painted Soldiers stood around him and Numbtongue sat back, waiting. Listening. The Soldier’s chest was still. And then the silent audience heard it.
A faint whistling sound. Breath, intaken. Falling Snow inhaled. And then he sat up. He looked around, and his muddy body jerked. The Painted Soldiers surrounded him, wiping at his mud-covered eyes, antennae. And Numbtongue lay down on the ground and breathed.
He was alive. Alive. If anyone had looked, if anyone had cared, they would have seen every Painted Soldier on the Floodplains converging on the spot. Gathering around Fallen Snow, who was still just breathing, surrounded by the other Soldiers.
As the furthest-flung Soldiers arrived they began digging at the valley, removing the deadly mud trap, giving the mud a place to flow out. Others joined the huddle, a quiet mass. But not one without emotion. Numbtongue saw it. He felt it, lying on his back with mud in his ears and hair. And he was relieved. He had made it in time.
That was all he thought for a while. Then a shadow blocked the light. Numbtongue looked up and saw a strange Antinium in the air above him. He was taller than the other Soldiers. Bigger. His body had a…familiar pattern though. And when he looked down at Numbtongue, he spoke.
The Hobgoblin was so surprised he only stared for a second. The Soldier’s mandibles moved again. And it was words, distinctly words that came out of his mouth.
“Thank you. Falling Snow will live. You saved him.”
Slowly, the Hobgoblin sat up. He stared up at the strange Painted Soldier who was speaking to him. He was so familiar. But the voice? Numbtongue couldn’t place it. So he stared at the markings on the Soldier’s body. That was easy. Numbtongue had his own war paint. He understood the way the Painted Soldiers marked themselves. Each one different. But this Soldier had a pattern Numbtongue had seen before. But that couldn’t be. He was—
The Hobgoblin stared up at Yellow Splatters. The [Sergeant] looked down at the Goblin. And both of them stared at each other.
Yellow Splatters spoke as slowly as Numbtongue. He stared down at Numbtongue. And the Hobgoblin saw that this was Yellow Splatters. The body was different, but the way he held himself, the markings—they were familiar. And yet—
“I did not know any Goblins survived the battle.”
“You were dead.”
“I came back.”
Numbtongue’s eyes widened. He looked Yellow Splatters up and down, slowly. The [Sergeant] raised one of his four arms, touched his body.
“I was brought back. It was my Queen’s will. That, and the will of the other Soldiers. The Rite of Anastases gave me life. It is an Antinium secret.”
The crimson eyes widened. The Antinium head nodded once.
“Yes. My resurrection was revealed to the city of Liscor days ago. But I did not see you.”
“I’m not allowed in the city.”
A pause. Two antennae waved for a second. Goblin eyes blinked.
“That is why.”
The two looked at each other. Numbtongue stared down at the mud and broken vines he sat in. Then up at Yellow Splatters. He remembered a broken body. A column of Soldiers, charging. A spell that tore their ranks apart. And Yellow Splatters looked down at Numbtongue. What he remembered the Hobgoblin didn’t know. At last, he bent and extended two of his hands on his right side.
“It’s good to see you, Numbtongue.”
The Hobgoblin stared up at Yellow Splatters. Slowly, ever so slowly, he reached up. And when the cool, insect’s hands touched his, he flinched. But the touch was real. Strong. Numbtongue felt himself being pulled up. Numbtongue rose and looked at Yellow Splatters. He searched for words.
The Goblin and the Antinium Soldier stood on the hill, looking down across the Floodplains. The valley of mud was being torn down, and the thick, wet sludge was slowly spilling across the ground. The Painted Soldiers were getting back to work. But Yellow Splatters didn’t join them. He stood with Numbtongue.
The Hobgoblin saw the [Sergeant] watching Falling Snow. The Soldier was sitting on the ground, still muddy. Recovering. Numbtongue couldn’t be certain how well the Soldier was. So he asked.
“He will live. His mind does not seem affected. He was waiting for death, not out of air entirely. He will live. Thanks to you.”
The Hobgoblin nodded once. And that was all he said. Yellow Splatters turned his head to look at the Hob. He caught Numbtongue eying him. The two exchanged a long glance, eying each other from head to toe unabashedly. At last, the [Bard] grunted.
“You can speak?”
The [Sergeant] nodded shortly.
“I can. I was reborn, my body remade by the Free Queen. I have a voice, that I might lead my fellow Soldiers.”
Yellow Splatters waited for a question, like the ones Erin had showered him with, or Pawn or Belgrade. But all Numbtongue did after that was grunt.
The Painted Soldier looked over. Numbtongue shrugged a Goblin’s shrug.
“Good. Right? Feels good.”
“Yes. It…feels good.”
Yellow Splatters breathed in and out. He spoke the word again.
He turned his head. And Numbtongue smiled.
That was all he said. He smiled, and turned his head. The wind blew across the Floodplains, drying the mud on the Hobgoblin’s body, ruffling his hair. Yellow Splatters watched the Goblin pick some mud out of his ears. He spoke abruptly.
“You were there. With the five—with the Goblins.”
The [Bard] paused. His expression clouded for a moment. Then he looked up at Yellow Splatters and it cleared. Not becoming happier. But easing, opening. He looked at Yellow Splatters and nodded.
“We were there.”
The Painted Soldier paused. Then it was his turn to nod. He opened his mandibles and a hundred things to say flashed across his mind.
He broke off. He glanced at Numbtongue.
Silence. Yellow Splatters, for the first time in his life, found himself at a loss for the words he had been given. Because they were all inadequate. But the [Bard], quietly, and with simple words, said the words Yellow Splatters struggled to find.
“Being the last one is hard.”
The [Sergeant] paused. He opened his mandibles and his four hands clenched and unclenched. His antennae waved, searching. And then he looked at Numbtongue. And his explanations, his lies, his need to tell fell apart. Because there was nothing to say. The Goblin had been there. He understood.
“Yes. It is. Very hard.”
The two stood together. Just looking at each other. A dead Antinium and a lonely Goblin. And they remembered. Numbtongue remembered a Soldier who spoke with no words. Yellow Splatters a Goblin much like the one he saw. But one of five. And the two saw what had changed, and what had not. And they remembered something else.
Numbtongue looked across the valley. At the Painted Soldiers, fighting, struggling against Shield Spiders, watching the valleys filled with mud carefully, excavating them in key spots to let the drainage begin. And he looked at Yellow Splatters. And suddenly, he felt thirsty. And dirty. And tired. So he pointed back, across the Floodplains at a small building he called home.
“Want…want to get a drink? The inn has drinks. And food.”
He had never said those words before. But they felt natural. Perfect for the moment. Yellow Splatters froze for a heartbeat. He looked at Numbtongue. And he read the Goblin. He understood him without having to speak. More than just words—he read Numbtongue’s face, his body language, almost tense, expectant.
And Numbtongue looked at Yellow Splatters and the Hob saw Soldier’s antennae flicker for a moment, his mandibles open, and his posture stiffen—and then relax. And the looseness of the way he lifted his mandibles, the opening and shutting of his hands—all of it was different, but familiar. The Soldier nodded at last.
“I would be grateful to do so. But I am tasked with a duty. I must clear the Shield Spiders another hour yet. I cannot abandon my post. Or my Soldiers.”
He looked at Numbtongue. And Yellow Splatters felt regret. The Hobgoblin nodded as if it were the most natural thing in the world. He eyed the Painted Soldiers, the destroyed Shield Spider nests, and then he turned to Yellow Splatters.
And the Soldier hesitated, and then smiled. He saw the green clawed hand extend. And this time the Antinium took the Goblin’s hand. The monster looked at the monster. And for once, neither found they needed to explain. They were dissimilar, from the color their bodies to their class and their species and their purpose. One stood alone. The other had been made to be different.
And yet, the two had something. A connection. They had been there. They had seen the same battlefield. They had lost. They understood each other. They…understood each other.
It made the world feel like a different place.