The sun was rising on another peaceful day in Liscor. The birds were singing, the flowers growing. Although, it had to be said, the native population of Ashfire Bees that normally pollinated the entire Floodplains area was trapped in a cavern and thus the reproduction rate of Liscor’s ambient flora might well half itself in the near future with the loss of a keystone species.
And the only reason the birds were alive was because a certain Antinium Worker wasn’t perched in his tower, happily sniping down anything with wings. In that sense, the peaceful day actually lacked the pleasant birdsong followed by the thwap of a bowstring and a terrible squawk for it to be completely regular.
But it was peaceful. And if things were different, well, they were the same in some areas. A single Ashfire Bee greeted the day as she buzzed from flower to flower inside The Wandering Inn, pollinating and getting happily high off the nectar. And there was a Worker on the roof of the inn. He had a hammer, a tin filled with nails, and a purpose.
He was laying down a roof on the rebuilt third floor of the inn. The frame had been created, the floor laid, but the roof had yet to be finished. So this Worker had been assigned to his duties at dawn by Belgrade; he had clambered onto the roof with a large supply of roof tiles, copper nails, and begun hammering them into place.
The Worker had no safety belt, or gloves. Or anyone to spot him. And he was three stories up, balancing on the thin frames while he used all four hands to laboriously bring tiles over from the roofed section of the inn, balance them on a crossbeam, hammer them into place, and not tumble to his death if he so much as took a step backwards.
All things considered, this was one of the safer jobs he could have been asked to do in service of his Hive and the Worker was content. He was no Individual, or even Autonomous, the new class below Individual. He hammered in his last roof tile, carefully overlapping it with the last one so water would flow down unimpeded when it rained, with no chance to leak into the building below. He was working hard, and precisely. Water could not be allowed inside the inn. That was a bad thing. And that was all the Worker thought about.
Aside from the fact that he needed new tiles. The Worker looked up and saw them, in a large basket balanced a dozen feet to the left. He would have to get up, transport more over, and begin hammering again. It was inconvenient and slow, but the Worker was alone and a job was a job. So he got up, balancing carefully so as not to tip over the edge of the roof and die—
And a roof tile soared out of the basket, through the air and landed right on top of the next spot in front of the Worker. He stared at it, and then looked around. The roof tile had flown! And it was right in the next spot where he needed to put the roof tile. Just like that. The Worker stared at the tile. He stared at the basket.
Normal [Builders], or rather, non-Antinium, would have stopped to ask questions. They would have looked for a [Mage], maybe stopped working to check if they had company. At the very least, they would have made a verbal comment. But this Worker wasn’t about to panic or ask questions. He was a [Roofer]. He saw a tile? He hammered nails into it.
The Worker did that. His hand positioned a nail, and his other hand swung while his last two hands steadied himself on the roof and the tile in place. One, two, three—the nail went in. The Worker hammered four more nails in and looked up in time to see another tile flying into place, right above the tile he’d just affixed to the roof. He stared at it. Then he raised his hammer.
More nails, each hammered quickly into place. And this time, the Worker looked up and saw the next tile flying towards him. He edged out of the way and it moved into place. Without missing a beat, he grabbed more nails in his lower-left hand and got to work. Now this was easy!
One tile. Two. Three…they flew into place, just waiting for the nails! The Worker had a rhythm going. Then he saw the tiles flying and the nails with it! It slapped itself into place and the nails drove themselves in. The Worker stared. The next five tiles affixed themselves to the roof as he watched. Whatever magic or…whatever was doing it was far more efficient than the Worker, and as precise as he could ever be. The tiles flew, landed and then, after the tenth one—
Stopped. The Worker stared at his basket. There were still more tiles, and more nails in his tin. But the tiles had stopped moving. The Worker hopefully made his way over to the basket, and picked one up. He tossed it up gently into the air. It obeyed the laws of gravity and he caught it before it landed.
The Worker stared at the tile. His antennae drooped slightly, and he slowly got back to work the slow, mundane way. And below him, Erin, Lyonette, and Mrsha stared up at the roof and looked at each other. Erin breathed out as she lowered her hand. Mrsha’s eyes were shining and Lyonette was biting her lip. Erin grinned.
“That’s so cool.”
In the very early morning, in her quiet inn, Erin shouted the word and pointed. Ceria, nursing a hangover, winced. But she watched along with the others as the broken chair, a mess of splinters and wood pieces, quickly rebuilt itself. The wood fused as the half-Elf stared and in less than ten seconds, a completely intact chair sat across from her. The half-Elf whistled softly.
“Now that’s a powerful Skill.”
“It’s amazing! Did you see that? Seborn, hey, Seborn—did you see—”
Erin grinned and looked around. Her inn was quiet and sparsely populated, but only by comparison with the last few days. It did in fact have nearly thirty people in it; the Players of Celum, setting up on stage, the Horns of Hammerad—except for Pisces, who was still asleep—Lyonette, Mrsha, Drassi, Ishkr, three [Barmaids], two [Servers], Apista, Relc, and…the Halfseekers.
Two of them, at least. Seborn and Moore were sitting at a table. The Drowned Man looked up and nodded briefly. He didn’t look happy, but then, he never did. He was largely expressionless by nature and he regarded the chair with less amazement than the others.
“I saw. Useful Skill.”
“Aw, come on. It’s amazing! Isn’t it?”
The Drowned Man dutifully replied. He sipped from his mug of water and didn’t exactly scowl. Erin pouted, and then looked around.
“What about you, Relc? It’s cool, right?”
“Cool? It’s great! Hey, can I try to break another chair?”
The [Guardsman] excitedly grabbed a chair and Mrsha nodded vigorously. He was here early on a day off, and he’d gotten to witness Erin testing out her new Skill. Erin nodded and he grabbed a second chair.
“Alright! Stand back little Mrsha! Fix—this!”
He smashed the chair into the floorboards, and Ceria winced. The wood splinters flew everywhere and the half-Elf raised a hand to block her face. Mrsha, who’d obediently scooted back behind a table, ducked. But a large arm and hand gently protected her from the flying debris. Moore gave Relc a reproachful look as he savored his porridge. The Drake was too excited to notice.
“Alright, fix that, Erin!”
“You got it!”
Erin pointed and the broken chair and floorboards reassembled themselves in moments. Relc crowed as he raised his fists.
“That is so cool! Not even magic can do that!”
“Magic can totally do that. I mean, I could do some of that if I knew [Repair]. And there’s [Reconstruct]. I bet most veteran [Mages] from Wistram could do that.”
Ceria grumbled. Relc ignored her as he turned to Erin, eyes shining.
“What level was that Skill, Erin? Level 30? Are you Level 30 already? It’s gotta be a high-level Skill, right?”
Erin blushed and waved a hand as everyone looked at her.
“Aw, well, you know…it’s really good, isn’t it?”
“It’s fantastic. That’s a proper [Innkeeper] Skill right there. Hey, can I try something bigger? Like a table?”
“Go ahead! I wanna see what I can do! Heck, maybe I’ll rebuild the entire roof!”
The young woman nodded eagerly.
“Hold on, let’s not go overboard.”
Lyonette cautioned the two, but it was too late. Relc raced over to an unoccupied table, and with considerable experience, leapt and gave it a flying elbow. The [Princess] sighed as the table cracked and Mrsha and Erin cheered.
“Awesome! [Partial Reconstruction]! Do another, Relc!”
“Yeah, can I?”
“Go for it!”
The background crash and reassembly got boring after the third break for everyone but Erin and Relc and Mrsha. Lyonette sighed and went to fill drinks. Ceria sipped from a glass of milk and ate a plateful of spaghetti and meatballs. Yvlon, sitting across from her, wrinkled her nose.
“Ceria, don’t you think there’s better things to eat in the morning?”
The half-Elf considered this as she chewed and swallowed.
“Nope. What’s the point of having an inn where I can have any dish I want, fresh, and not having something like this?”
Yvlon opened her mouth to reply, then turned her head and stared left at Ksmvr. He looked up from his plate. He was eating porridge, with acid flies sprinkled into it. Yvlon stared at her teammates, sighed, and shook her head.
“Why is it that I suddenly wish Pisces were here? I must be coming down with something.”
She pushed back her empty bowl just in time for Relc to hurtle past her and body slam a chair. He looked up.
Erin pointed at the chair mended its broken back. Relc grabbed two more chairs and jumped on a table. He smashed one on the ground.
“Yea—oh wait, hold on. I think it’s stopped working.”
Erin said that too late. The crash this time made the Players of Celum look up from across the long room. They stared at Relc as he slowly got up from his pile of splinters where he’d done a flying body slam. Erin stared at the splinters of the table and three chairs on the floor. She pointed hopefully.
“Uh, [Partial Reconstruction]?”
Nothing happened. And in truth, Erin had felt that too. She’d run out of her Skill. Relc hesitated as he got up, brushing bits of wood off his scales.
Mrsha paused in trying to break a chair leg and innocently hid it behind her back. Lyonette covered her face and groaned. Moore picked a large wooden splinter out of his bowl of porridge. Seborn stared at the chairs, and then went back to his drink. At his table, Ksmvr raised two hands.
“Excuse me, may I have more acid flies in my bowl?”
It was the beginning of another day at The Wandering Inn. The fact that no one even looked surprised was a sign of how far the madness had spread.
Ten minutes later, a shamefaced Erin, Mrsha, and Relc had swept the wreckage of the furniture into a corner of the inn. Lyonette propped her hands on her hips.
“What have we learned?”
Erin raised a hand.
“So I can do about three tables, uh, ten roof tiles, and five chairs in one go. After that, my Skill stops working.”
“Yup. Pretty awesome. And I can break a table with my stomach.”
Relc scratched his neck, grinning. Mrsha nodded until Lyonette stared at her. The [Princess] sighed. Erin grinned sheepishly.
“Aw, come on, Lyonette. At least we know my Skill has limits! And hey! I’ll fix the table and chairs when my Skill comes back to life!”
Lyonette gave her a reproving glance and gentle head-nod to Mrsha. Don’t encourage her! But she relented with a slight smile in the end.
“It’ll save a lot of money if we just save the broken parts and let you rebuild them later. Not to mention broken windows, mugs—can it do stains too?”
“Maybe? Let’s check after this. But I bet not. It’s reconstruction, not uh, stain-removal.”
“Good to know we still have a job, right?”
Drassi commented as she swept by with a broom, getting the last splinters. Erin laughed. Relc nodded, looking satisfied. Then he glanced at Erin.
“Hey, are you going to open the door to Pallass yet? Grimalkin said he had all those weights you mentioned, and I want to try them out.”
“In a bit. I want a peaceful morning. Which is why the door stays closed! Until around late morning?”
Erin looked at Lyonette for confirmation. The [Princess] nodded.
“We need to replenish our food stocks. Which means you’re cooking, Erin. Mrsha and I will go to the park in Liscor. And the Players of Celum want practice. More importantly, we can’t handle so many people all at once. So the door to Liscor stays closed. No crowds unless they come here on foot. And they’re not allowed into Pallass either—not until the sun’s three quarters of the way up!”
She pointed at Temile on stage with his [Actors] and then at the window. Erin nodded and sighed. She wanted to open the door right now, but Lyonette had a point. Two full days of the door being open to Pallass had made a small fortune for The Wandering Inn, but also a lot of work. Relc looked disappointed, but the day-staff including Ishkr and Drassi looked relieved at Lyonette’s pronouncement.
“You’re the boss, Lyonette. For now.”
Erin tried to look threatening. Mrsha just raced around her. The Gnoll was excited, and signaled as much with her paws.
Pat chest, smile, running motion with closed paws. Then—one arm crossed, two paws folded against head to show napping. Lyonette and Erin interpreted this.
“You like being busy, but…it’s tiring?”
Mrsha nodded happily and made a thumbs-up. Erin laughed with delight.
“I understood that too! I agree, Mrsha. It’s hectic, what with the election in Liscor and Pallass and stuff. But The Wandering Inn’s never been more crowded! Which means we’re making money, right Lyonette?”
The [Princess] had to smile at that.
“We are. And I think we can actually afford some big changes. As well as buying Mrsha some new toys. And maybe some clothes?”
The Gnoll looked excited at the former, annoyed at the latter. Erin regarded Mrsha.
“She is naked, right?”
“Gnolls don’t really care, especially in the wild, but I think Mrsha should learn to wear something. So I’ll buy her some clothes today before we get back. If that’s okay? It shouldn’t be more than a few gold coins at most.”
Lyonette looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] nodded. Mrsha signed from below that she wasn’t interested in clothes, but the two adults ignored her. Erin ruffled her hair.
“Come on, Mrsha. Clothes are nice! You used to steal bras, remember? And t-shirts. And shoes. Don’t worry, you can get your clothes shopping done and then help out here, okay? We’re doing really well with the inn. But you know what? It can be even better.”
Mrsha and Lyonette both looked up at that. The [Princess] raised one brow and Erin explained with a smile.
“Opening Pallass was just the first step. Now we’re really going to improve things.”
She rubbed her hands together.
“I’ve got plans. Oh yeah. Heh. Heheheheheheh.”
Her chuckle just made Mrsha laugh silently and point at Erin’s face. Lyonette covered a smile and Erin stopped, affronted. Then she sighed.
“I can’t do a scary laugh. You know who’s great at scary laughing? Ryoka—oh. Sorry, Mrsha.”
The Gnoll cub’s face immediately fell. So did Erin’s. Lyonette gave her a reproachful look, and the [Innkeeper] guiltily knelt. She hugged Mrsha and lifted her upright with a small grunt.
“You’re getting heavier. Hey, sorry, Mrsha. But I’m sure Ryoka’s fine. Wherever she is. We’ll find her. Soon, Mrsha. When the Halfseekers get to Invrisil I’ll look into it, I promise. But for today? We’re going to help our friends here. Okay? Just watch a master.”
She smiled, and Mrsha looked up. Her tail began to wag and Lyonette looked at Erin suspiciously.
“I’d prefer to just make more money, Erin. If your next plan has anything like drama in it…”
“No, not like that! I’m just leveraging…assets! When we open the doors, let me know when Grimalkin comes in, okay? Or Xif. Or Rufelt and Lasica or—anyone important, okay?”
Erin’s eyes twinkled. Lyonette sighed, but smiled. Erin Solstice had a plan. And of such things was The Wandering Inn’s reputation built. So the three split up, preparing for another day full of Erin-related shenanigans. And in the inn, sitting at his table, Seborn looked up, drained half his mug of water, and cursed.
“Come on, Seborn. Don’t be so angry.”
The half-Giant carefully smiled at his friend. Seborn just glared ahead as Drassi came by with a pitcher of water.
“She’s late. And this is the third day.”
Seborn glanced up at Moore. The half-Giant shrugged helplessly.
“It’s not like she doesn’t have a reason.”
“I know. But she said—”
“It’s love, Seborn.”
“It’s infatuation. She’s so busy getting wrapped up with that Dullahan that she’s forgotten about us—”
Moore’s brows drew together.
“Why are you mad? You should be happy for our friend. And it’s not like we’re sitting in squalor here. I like this inn. Don’t you?”
“We’ve been here for months, Moore. We need to get to work. Or what are we? We’re adventurers and our Captain’s missing.”
“But if she likes him—”
The half-Giant’s voice was gentle, sympathetic as was his nature. Seborn on the other hand was clearly impatient as he shook his head.
“You and I both know she can’t have that relationship forever. He’s a [Blacksmith] in Pallass. She’s going to be working in the north. At least until we reach Invrisil. And besides which, we’re on missions for weeks away. All she’s doing is having a fling and if she really does like him—I told you. If you two want to have sex so badly, let’s find a port city. There are brothels that cater to any species.”
It was the most the Drowned Man had said in one go for a long time, and even then, only among his group. Moore blinked, but then looked slightly affronted.
“You know she actually likes him, Seborn. How long did she say it was since she last met anyone?”
“Six years. And that was a Selphid in a port-city bar. I know. I was there and she wouldn’t shut up for three months. So what?”
The Drowned Man crossed his arms. Moore hesitated. Seborn had been in the Halfseekers with Jelaqua from the start. And even though the half-Giant had journeyed with them for years, he forgot how long the two had been in a team.
“Well, isn’t it good, then? We should be supporting her.”
“And let her get her heart broken?”
“Maughin won’t break her heart. He’s the most open-minded Dullahan I’ve met. Haven’t you?”
“Even if he is, so what? They can’t be together.”
Moore gave him a deep look over his bowl. Seborn grumbled under his breath.
“It’s a distraction. We should be working.”
“We earned a lot of money. Doesn’t Jelaqua deserve happiness? This is the first non-Selphid who’s ever really been serious about her. You know how rare that is. Especially for someone from Baleros! He’s from her home, Seborn. This is special.”
“It’s asinine. Every time she gets back here she talks about sex, holding hands in public, or how nice he is. They’re lovebirds. He’s forging her plate armor. It’s disgusting.”
“I think it’s beautiful. I…I wish I had that.”
Moore looked dreamy, but the longing tone in his voice rang clear to his friend. Seborn grunted. It was a mark of his friendship with Moore that he bit his tongue on the first six replies. After a moment, he just looked at Moore again.
“I keep telling you to visit a brothel. They have Selphids. Or sturdy women. Or Skills. They know what they’re about. You’re not going to hurt anyone.”
“I know. You’ve said. But I mean, how many people like me are…”
Moore’s normally open face closed up. The Drowned Man sighed.
“They’re used to all sorts of customers. Me. Jelaqua. Even half-Giants. No one’s going to make fun of you. And it’ll stop you moping. Come to think of it, it would’ve stopped Jelaqua from being obsessed with this Dullahan. Just do what you need to do and stop focusing on it.”
“It’s not like that. I want to find someone I can like. Or love. I don’t want to pay for that, Seborn.”
The half-Giant [Green Mage] looked reproachfully at his friend. Seborn rolled his eyes.
“You wouldn’t say that if you’d actually done it. This is why we need new teammates. You, Jelaqua, Halassia—you were all romantics.”
The mention of their old friend made Moore blink. But then he smiled. Sadly, yes, but without the tension there had used to be. He looked at Seborn. They could talk about the past now. The half-Giant shrugged, a bit defensively.
“So what if we are? Isn’t that why the Halfseekers were founded? We’re chasing a dream, Seborn. Let Jelaqua have her time with Maughin. He’s giving her gifts. They’re walking together. Talking. Maybe they’ll have to split when we go to Invrisil. Or maybe they’ll meet each other. Erin does have her door. And—who knows?”
The half-Giant looked towards the closed door, his eyes gentle. Seborn shook his head. Moore was romantic. Seborn was not. But it seemed to him—he looked up at Moore and thought his friend was hiding his true feelings well. Underneath his support of Jelaqua, there was more than a little envy. Jealousy, even. Seborn leaned across the table and poked Moore.
“I know you don’t like the idea. But you’re what, thirty one? I’m not having you sulk on the road if Jelaqua comes back smiling. Why do you keep waiting for someone to fall in love with you? There was that girl in Wales. That woman in Invrisil. That [Mage] from Wistram—just end it already. What’s the matter with buying—”
He stopped, because Moore looked truly hurt. The half-Giant shuffled and turned away from Seborn, looking embarrassed and hurt.
“It matters to me, Seborn.”
And that was that. The Drowned Man exhaled slowly and shook his head. He thought of Jelaqua last night, clinging to Maughin like a girl with her first love—which was what this was in some ways. And Moore, too afraid to smile at the women he fell in love with, to take a plunge. The Drowned Man sighed. The Halfseekers. Gold-rank adventurers and veterans in combat, and rookie [Sailors] on the seas of romance. He stood up after a second.
“Come on. Let’s walk with that damn wagon for today. The donkeys are still hitched to it, but it’s only a matter of time before a [Thief] or monster sniffs around them.”
Moore considered this and he relaxed slightly.
“Okay. Maybe we can find a stable for them. And come back tonight? I do want to have dinner with Mrsha.”
Seborn nodded without comment. The half-Giant doted on the Gnoll child. The Drowned Man walked towards the door, looking for Erin so they could warn her they were about to drain the mana from it. He sighed.
“At least we don’t have to listen to Jelaqua or wait for her to come back. I don’t need to hear Jelaqua talking about having sex or sitting on that Dullahan’s lap if they come back.”
Moore chuckled a bit.
“I’ll admit, she is graphic. Uh—Seborn?”
“Is what she does—is that entirely—normal?”
The half-Giant blushed fiercely. Seborn looked up at him and wished he were miles away. On a boat. Fighting giant squid at sea was easier than this.
“No. Don’t listen to what she talks about. And don’t try it. Ever. Jelaqua’s a Selphid. Bodies are disposable. And this is probably tame for her. You don’t want to know what two Selphids do for fun.”
Moore nodded, his face and ears bright red. He and Seborn headed for the door and the Drowned Man sighed. It was longsuffering and for some reason, when Yvlon, sitting at her table, heard it, she felt a strange sense of kinship. Seborn adjusted the door, put his hand on it, and then heard Moore’s voice as the half-Giant leaned down and whispered.
“…So what do they do?”
Four hundred miles south of the inn, Jelaqua Ivirith was humming as she tried to make breakfast. The large room and kitchen she was working in looked strangely oversized for her, and indeed, the building was one of the more expensive buildings on the ninth floor. But then, the owner needed the space and for the best or second-best [Blacksmith] in Pallass, so it had been customized for him.
The apartment was decorated in the Dullahan’s style, with the typical mix of refined station; showing your rank without being ostentatious about it. And since Maughin was of very high rank in the Dullahan community, and a [Blacksmith] himself—they were prized in Dullahan culture—he could flaunt like no one’s business.
He had two tapestries from Baleros on the walls, one showing the Iron Vanguard in a pitched sea battle, the other of some magnificent view from Baleros. It made Jelaqua ache for home. There was a marble plinth with a carved statuette of Xol of Ingrilt, appropriate given Maughin’s own size, far larger than the average Dullahan but shorter than a typical War Walker, a custom-forged battleaxe, a shelf full of books, made twice as large for him to read, a gloriously artistic platform showcasing the Dullahan’s pottery collection—the apartment was rich.
Jelaqua, looking into the pantries, saw that each one was enchanted with a preservation spell. She whisked together some eggs, poured them into a pan over a stove which had a magical fire spell that Erin would have loved to have, and added some bacon. Her taste buds, still fresh in this particular corpse, watered at the thought of the omelette. But that was only half of what Jelaqua was working on. She was also making a sandwich.
Just a sandwich. The Selphid was well aware of her cooking Skills, but some of the omelette was going to go into there, between some very fine fresh bread, some cheese—uh, what else did you put into sandwiches? She panicked a bit as she tried to remember. Adventurers usually went to sustenance over taste, and Jelaqua often had a body incapable of tasting anything. For a second she thought about going to Erin’s inn for help, but she caught herself.
“No, no. I’ve got this. You put…meat into sandwiches. Meat. Does he have bananas? Bananas are tasty. And hey—if he doesn’t like it—”
She hesitated. Jelaqua looked around Maughin’s apartment and stared at her hands. She was wearing a Drake’s body. And she was…well, she wasn’t not about to go and deliver a lunch to Maughin, who was working at the forge. And maybe stick around with him. And when he finished early, they’d, oh, go to Erin’s inn maybe. Or he’d show her more of Pallass.
“This is a thing, right? This is happening?”
Jelaqua pinched herself. She felt nothing, which meant she wasn’t dreaming. The Selphid looked around, and then craned her neck to see the ruffled bed sheets. She remembered last night and blushed orange.
“This is really happening?”
The Selphid touched her warm cheeks. She was so giddy she didn’t realize the eggs were burning. Then she yelped and began scraping the pan.
A few minutes later, Jelaqua nervously ate her eggs, staring at the vases. She was muttering to herself.
“Vases. He’s got good taste in them. I like pottery. I can like pottery. And we have lots in common. Tons! He’s from Baleros, I’m from Baleros—and we’re both into weapons…he really likes my personality. Aha.”
She laughed and blushed again. Happily, her tail wagging in her Drake’s body, the Selphid went back to preparing a lunch for Maughin. In the distance, she could hear the distant ringing of hammers through an open window. The forges weren’t far from Maughin’s home for convenience, and as the Selphid sighed and leaned on the window, she imagined it was Maughin’s hammer she was hearing.
She was not wrong. In his forge, Maughin was bending steel with his hammer, working faster and harder than his apprentices or fellow [Smiths] had seen him in a long time. To say he was motivated didn’t capture the smile on the Dullahan’s lips, or the way his head hummed as his body worked independent of it. Two of his Dullahan apprentices traded looks as they worked under his supervision.
Of course, it was a scandal in the Dullahan community. A Selphid and a Dullahan? It was only because this was Pallass and not Baleros that this could happen. Normally, a higher-ranking Dullahan would be called in to address the situation with Maughin, and this would all be settled. Or if not, there would be trouble.
But in Pallass, who would call Maughin out? The Dullahan community was small enough as it was, and there were Dullahans who’d had relationships with Gnolls and Drakes and that had been an issue in years past. So no one brought it up. Besides, Jelaqua was a Gold-rank adventurer. That counted for something.
It was still disgusting. Bealt, the [Farrier], two Drake [Smiths], and Pelt all glowered when Jelaqua appeared, practically skipping over to Maughin with a lunch ready and made for him. And the other smiths, glowering in their forges, watched as Maughin stopped work to flirt with the Selphid. Disgusting! Completely inappropriate for this hour.
Even married [Smiths] seldom got a fresh lunch hand-delivered. Let alone had a dreamy-eyed girl—or boy in the case of female [Smiths]—watching and keeping his head company at work.
And that was only the first few hours of the day. The repulsive flirting would go on, but that wasn’t really the point of the day. It was just worth mentioning that not until nine hours later would Jelaqua even recall her teammates. And when she guiltily returned to the inn, she would thank the stars that she had decided to come to the city of Liscor and stayed at The Wandering Inn. Because it had delivered her happiness. Short-lived or long, she was holding onto it.
And then there was Numbtongue. He got up late for once. Late enough that Lyonette had come back with Mrsha from her morning trip. The Hobgoblin walked downstairs, and to his surprise found the inn had yet to be filled with more than a smattering of guests. He found out why when he poked his head into the kitchen and found Erin hard at work.
“We’re preparing for a rush! Tons of stuff to sell! And I’m going to totally work some magic! In a metaphorical sense. Hey, are the Horns still here?”
Numbtongue checked. He saw Ceria, and Pisces, both of whom looked hung over. Yvlon and Ksmvr were gone. That meant they were between jobs at Liscor or Celum’s guilds and the two [Warriors] were working out while the [Mages] studied magic or, as Numbtongue saw it, lazed about. He nodded.
Erin grinned what Numbtongue now thought of as her calculating grin. She was tossing a pizza, but she stopped long enough to pull some food out for him.
“What do you want for breakfast, Numbtongue? A steak? Uh—what’s this? Ooh! Is that pickled fish? Um, spaghetti and meatballs?”
Numbtongue’s mouth watered. Part of him wanted to say ‘everything’, but he thought about it and pointed.
“You like fish, huh?”
The [Bard] nodded. He let Erin serve him some wet slices of fish into a bowl. She wrinkled her nose at the breakfast, but Numbtongue happily began eating with his fingers until Erin slapped at them.
“Get a fork! And eat at a table! Drassi can get you a drink. She’s on bar duty.”
The Hobgoblin nodded and wandered out into the common room. He got a drink himself at the bar, sat down, and began to eat. After a second, he stared at his bowl.
“Yesterday I leveled up.”
He stared at his claws and remembered the events of last night. They hit him again. The [Goblin Soulbard] stared at his claws. He reached for a forearm and made to pinch himself, then closed his hand. Lyonette, lugging in groceries with Mrsha opened the door just in time to see Numbtongue make a fist and wallop himself as hard as he could in the face.
“Numbtongue! What are you doing?”
Mrsha abandoned her bag to dash over. She stared at Numbtongue as he picked himself off the floor. Numbtongue rubbed at his bruised cheek and shrugged.
“Just making sure. Hi, Lyonette. Morning, Mrsha.”
She waved at him. The Hobgoblin nodded and sat back down. Lyonette stared at him, opened her mouth, and then pointed.
“Okay, let’s bring the food to the kitchen! Come on, Mrsha!”
As they went, Numbtongue stared at his claws again. They clenched into fists as he closed his eyes.
[Soulbard]. That was a purpose in itself. But more than that. More, oh so much more. It was—it wasn’t justice. It wasn’t enough for all the dead. But for one Goblin? He thought about his new Skill.
[A Minute, Reborn]. It was a Skill with serious limitations. But the utility! The use! Numbtongue knew he should be running tests to see how many times he could use it per day. Or figure out how best to use it. In the mines, perhaps? Could Pyrite locate more gemstones with his Skills? Could he use Skills?
But in this moment, there was only one thought Numbtongue had. He stared down at the bowl of half-eaten fish as Mrsha reappeared out of the kitchen and padded over to him. It was cold fish, and without any other preparation. But it was good. It was tasty. And right now, all that was in Numbtongue’s heart was this. He closed his eyes.
Mrsha, who had been padding over to check on Numbtongue and maybe filch some of his breakfast, saw the Hobgoblin change. No one else noticed, but Mrsha had known Numbtongue for a while. And she had keen eyes, a sensitive nose. She saw his posture change, his head snap up and look around. From body language, to the look in his eyes—even his voice was suddenly, strangely, different. The Gnoll froze in alarm as the Hobgoblin looked up, looked at his bowl, and grunted.
And then he began to eat. With one clawed hand he picked out a piece of fish and ate it, bones and all. Mrsha heard him casually grinding the bones down, chomping through them without any problem. He grunted in satisfaction as, with his other hand, he fished a pouch by his side. Curiously, not so much afraid as wary, Mrsha crept closer. She had seen Numbtongue do this yesterday. And he had explained it. Even told Erin what, who this was. He’d called the strange Goblin—
Pyrite. And as Mrsha slunk up to the table, one of the Hobgoblin’s eyes swung down towards her. She froze. She’d been using her [Natural Concealment] Skill, which normally fooled even Numbtongue until she was closer! But this Hob saw her at once. He blinked at her, then smiled. With one hand he kept eating. And with the other, he pulled something out of his pouch and placed it on the table.
“Hm. Good fish. Not enough time to go mining. Go later.”
That was all he said. Mrsha, emboldened, leapt onto a chair and stared at the Hob. He nodded at her.
She nodded cautiously and pointed at him. Pyrite nodded amiably. As he ate another piece of fish, he gestured at something on the table. Mrsha stared at the lump he’d placed there. She stared, and then recognized the slightly transparent rock.
The Hobgoblin nodded. Mrsha did too. It was a lump of quartz, the kind that you could find all over the Floodplains, or near the High Passes. Not too valuable; Mrsha liked the look of the stone with the lattice caught in it that gave it the dark brown look, but she knew it wasn’t worth much. To a low-level jeweler, maybe. But not to [Mages], who valued pure quartz for its magical-holding properties as a weak enchantment material.
The Stone Spears tribe wouldn’t mine this unless they had nothing better. That was Mrsha’s expert opinion as a Gnoll of her tribe. But Pyrite, about twenty seconds into his minute, had other plans. The Hobgoblin put another piece of fish into his mouth and, grunting, with it full, reached for the quartz. He didn’t use a tool, or do anything special; his claws just dug into the rock and began slicing pieces off it as if it were soft butter!
Mrsha’s eyes widened in amazement. Pieces of rock flew and dust drifted down as the Hobgoblin’s claws blurred against the quartz, breaking it down, molding it, then, smoothing the stone, carving it until it was one smooth sphere. In less than thirty seconds, he’d created a sphere. A perfect little marble, showcasing the quartz, transparent brown and grey, a beautiful bauble. Pyrite winked as Mrsha’s eyes went round. He swallowed his mouthful and spoke.
“Good food. Tell Numbtongue thanks. Here.”
He dipped the marble in the cup, and withdrew the gleaming orb of stone. Then, casually, he rolled it towards Mrsha. The Gnoll clasped her paws around the beautiful marble and lifted it up, admiring it. She heard a sigh and looked up. And when she did, Numbtongue was sitting in his chair, blinking at Mrsha, a piece of fish in his claw.
The Gnoll and Hobgoblin looked at each other in silence. Mrsha stared at Numbtongue as he blinked and then burped fishily. Hesitantly, she offered the marble to him. The Hobgoblin hesitated and took it. He stared at the smooth surface and at the crumbs of quartz on the table. He whistled.
“[Rock Polishing]. And [Miner’s Claws].”
He offered it back to Mrsha. The Gnoll took the bauble hesitantly. Numbtongue smiled, and it was bitter, and sad, and happy at the same time.
“He liked the fish.”
Mrsha nodded. The two sat together like that until Lyonette came out of her kitchen, dusting her hands. She eyed the rock dust on the table with a frown as she came over.
“Are you making a mess, Numbtongue? Or is it Mrsha? You know, someone has to clean—what is that?”
She blinked as Mrsha rolled the quartz marble on the floor. The [Princess] stared at the shiny little plaything and Numbtongue and Mrsha exchanged a glance. Both looked at Lyonette and shrugged. Numbtongue pointed at the quartz dust on the table.
“Not me. Pyrite did it.”
And the Hobgoblin’s smile was wide. Because Pyrite was dead. But at least—yes, at least, Numbtongue could still treat him to a meal. And he’d liked meeting Mrsha too.
A budding relationship. A Goblin with a class. And an [Innkeeper] with a new Skill. Erin rubbed her hands together gleefully, ignorant of some of it, but aware of more than she let on. Relc was happily chatting to her as her staff readied the inn for the influx from Pallass. It was already filling with people from Liscor. Not Krshia, Elirr, Raekea, or any of the Gnolls on the campaign trail, but Selys was here and practically aglow with triumph.
“Your inn’s really making an impact, Erin. Those Pallassian [Senators] are giving Krshia their backing—and not Lism! He still has Pallass’ support, but there are actual Gnolls coming to talk on Krshia’s behalf, and they’re brilliant at speaking! Of course, they have the class. And Krshia can just point to you when Lism tries to rant about Humans and foreigners being bad for Liscor. You did it!”
“Hey, I just got people together. They did the rest. Thank Rufelt and Lasica—they’ll be here to lend some support tonight. And this is good for Pallass’ election too!”
Erin replied modestly, but she felt a surge of pride seeing Selys’ face. Not to mention the people of Liscor who’d come here to talk with people from Pallass, or just see what her inn was doing next. She looked around for Lyonette. And today she was going to make it even better for her other friends!
“Hey Lyonette! Let’s open the door to Pallass already!”
Lyonette looked up. She had been playing a game of rolling a little marble on the ground with Mrsha. The shiny stone caught Erin’s eye and she frowned—where had Mrsha gotten that?—but Lyonette nodded and Erin focused on the door. Time to go to work. She swung it open and a roar of noise enveloped her.
“Hey! Can I get a pizza with cheese in the crusts? And extra salami on top? No one’s copied that yet!”
“Where’s the play? Stop pushing! Is there a new one on? Hey, will those [Actors] come to Pallass?”
“Make way, people! [Senator] coming through!”
“I’m on the list to go to Liscor! Hey! Let me through! I’m on today’s list! I have proof and everything!”
A chorus of voices, angry, happy, expectant, rushed over Selys and Erin. The Drake recoiled. Erin beamed. She saw [Guardsman] Kel holding a crowd back with two other members of Pallass’ Watch as those on the short list to come through trooped through the doorway.
There was even a [Mage] to recharge the door. Two, in fact. Grimalkin strode through the door, bypassing a [Senator] and Xif. Erin waved at him as he entered.
“Grimalkin! Hey! Great to see you! Good morning! Can I get you anything to eat? To drink?”
The [Sinew Magus] nodded formally at Erin and gazed around the inn. His eyes focused on Relc like a laser beam. The Drake [Guardsman] was already getting up.
“Yo, Grimalkin! Are the weights done?”
Grimalkin grinned with genuine pleasure as he reached out. He and Relc clasped forearms and Selys and Erin, standing back, saw their muscles tense as they exchanged the kind of greeting only two exceptionally muscular people could. Relc laughed and Grimalkin nodded.
“I got the last weights done yesterday. Barbells, weight bar—even the new one Miss Erin mentioned to me.”
“Ooh! The squiggle bar?”
Erin’s eyes widened. Grimalkin nodded and reached for a bag of holding. He produced a shorter bar than the customary bench press bar that Erin was familiar with. But she recognized the EZ-bar from the customary, unique bend in the frame that meant you were holding it at an angle as you lifted. Relc chortled as he examined it.
“That’s weird. I like it! Hey, how many weights do you have?”
“Plenty. Any number of pounds—and I ordered fifty-pound weights made of lead. The [Smiths] should be finishing them any time now—actually, I see them now. Apprentice Ferkr! Don’t lollygag over there!”
Grimalkin turned and roared into the doorway to Pallass. He strode back into the crowd and emerged half-carrying a smaller Gnoll. Erin blinked. It was a female Gnoll! She was a bit shorter than Grimalkin, but she seemed a lot smaller because she was nowhere near as muscly. With that said, she probably had twice as much muscle definition as Erin. It was just that even Relc looked less huge next to Grimalkin.
“Sorry about that. Ferkr, the weights?”
Grimalkin deposited the Gnoll on the ground. Ferkr jumped. Nervously, the Gnoll held up a bag of holding. Grimalkin took it, pulled out some huge rounded weights with one hand and tossed them at Relc. The [Guardsman], not to be outdone, caught them and slotted them onto the bar until it was two hundred pounds heavier. Then he began lifting it up and down.
“Oh yeah! This feels different! Hey Erin, these things are great! Tons of fun!”
He tried lifting the bar one-handed, but that was too much even for Relc. Swearing, Relc caught the bar and Erin and Selys decided to step back. Ferkr just stared around at the inn, and then jumped as Grimalkin addressed her.
“Ferkr, are the other apprentices training?”
“Uh, yes Magus Grimalkin! They’re doing six laps, as you ordered.”
Grimalkin grunted in disgust.
“And doing it slow, no doubt. Well, I’ll put them on the weights soon enough. Sergeant Relc! Don’t twist your arms like that! You could injure yourself. That’s two hundred and some pounds you’re swinging around; proper posture is key!”
He turned to Relc, who was trying to swing the entire weights bar like a bat. Relc paused and Erin, eying the weights and Relc, decided to step in.
“Why don’t you two do your weights stuff over there, Grimalkin? And hey! Who’s this? One of your apprentices?”
She looked at Ferkr. The female Gnoll jumped and bowed.
“That’s right, Miss Human. I’m—uh—”
Grimalkin grabbed the EZ-bar from Relc and held it out to Ferkr.
“This is Ferkr, Miss Erin. One of my apprentices. The only Gnoll apprentice I’ve ever had, in fact. She’s attempting to become a [Mage]. Which I commend! But she’s far too nervous. Ferkr, take this. Careful—it’s two hundred pounds.”
He waited until the female Gnoll had a grip on it before letting go. Erin winced, expecting Ferkr to stumble or drop the bar under the weight, but to her amazement, the Gnoll only grunted and the bar dipped a fraction before she held it at a resting position. Grimalkin nodded and Erin stared.
“Wait, that’s way too heavy for her!”
“A hundred pounds too heavy, perhaps. Although with magic she could manage a hundred and fifty. How does it feel, Ferkr?”
The Gnoll’s voice was strained, but she was keeping the bar up. Grimalkin nodded. He pulled off fifty pounds off each end.
“Give it a try now. Try—three lifts.”
Slowly, exhaling hard, the younger Gnoll did just that. Erin and Selys’ jaw dropped as they saw her furry forearms strain and then lift. Once, twice—she was struggling on the third one. Grimalkin barked.
“Push, Ferkr! I want those arms to come up! Yes, yes—”
The third curl came with a growl from Ferkr as her arms shook. Grimalkin plucked the bar off her and slapped her on the back. She staggered and nearly fell over.
“Excellent! That’s what I want to see! And you can feel the muscles working, can’t you, Ferkr? That’s what Miss Solstice calls a maximum repetition. A few of those push your limit, while working at lower weights is safer and builds the muscle you want. I imagine these bars can support enough weight to test anyone but Sergeant Relc and I.”
“Yeah. That bar’s harder than the straight one.”
Relc grinned as he pointed at the EZ-bar. Erin just gaped at Grimalkin. Then she looked at Ferkr.
“You’re strong! Wow, are all your apprentices like that? Hi, I’m Erin, by the way.”
She held out a hand and Ferkr timidly shook it. Grimalkin just snorted.
“Gnolls are stronger than Humans. No—there’s less gender imbalance for their species when it comes to musculature. Historically, female Gnolls led hunting packs. And Ferkr is my apprentice—of course she’s stronger than normal! As I said, my first Gnoll [Mage] apprentice. I have expectations of her, but she has to grow some testicles! Perhaps meeting you will help in that regard, Miss Erin.”
He looked sternly at Ferkr and the Gnoll blushed under her fur. Erin smiled sympathetically at the Gnoll girl, but Selys, who’d been listening in to the conversation while waiting for the last of the Gnolls to come in, blinked.
“Wait a second. I thought Gnolls couldn’t be [Mages]. Isn’t that what they say at Wistram?”
“Yeah. Hold on, that’s what I heard too.”
Relc eyed Ferkr, looking confused. Ferkr looked up and her mouth opened, but Grimalkin spoke first.
“Hah! I don’t know how that narrative spread, but it’s completely false. Unfortunately, it’s so widespread that Gnolls don’t become [Mages]! Can you imagine? There are countless precedents in history of Gnoll [Mages]—true, their race tends towards [Shamanism], but that’s just proof they can handle magic! Somehow some idiot started the rumor at Wistram and now Gnolls don’t believe they can become [Mages]—so many don’t! It’s one of those popular narratives that impedes an entire race’s magical potential. Disgraceful!”
He barked the word right over Ferkr’s ear and she winced. So did Erin—Grimalkin delivered everything at a shout or roar. She looked over her shoulder at Temile on stage and the [Stage Manager] waved his arms at her in a ‘go away, please’ kind of signal.
“Uh, yeah. About that—why don’t we take this outside? Grimalkin, I love that you’re here and I want to talk with you. But there’s other people coming through. Ooh—Selys! Your guests are all here!”
“I see that. Talk to you later, Erin!”
Selys slipped away and trotted towards the Gnolls ready to help Krshia. Grimalkin looked around and then at Ferkr and Relc. Some of the guests at the nearby tables glared at the muscle [Mage] as they held their hands over their ears. Grimalkin returned the glares with an impervious glance, but he did nod.
“Hm. This is crowded. Let’s take this outside. Sergeant Relc, Ferkr, I want to do some tests so I can see what the right posture is for all of this. I have a bench in my bag of holding and Miss Solstice can show us some grips.”
“Awesome. And hey—good luck Miss Ferkr! I hope you can get that [Mage] class!”
Relc rubbed his claws together as he started for the doors. Grimalkin raised his eyebrows.
“Hope? What do you mean? She’s already a [Mage]. Level 6.”
Relc stopped in his tracks. He stared at Grimalkin, and then at Ferkr. The Gnoll was smiling.
“What? No. Really?”
“That’s right. A Level 6 [Mage]. I told you it was just a myth. She’s got a long way to go to pass my classes, but she works harder than half my Drake and Dullahan slackers. I have every hope that she’ll head to this Meeting of the Tribes the Gnolls are having and put an end to this nonsense. I could use more Gnoll apprentices. They have a foundation of muscle, and exercise in the plains that many Drakes lack.”
Grimalkin nodded. He strode past Relc, holding the weights bar. The [Guardsman] gaped at Ferkr. She just smiled and followed her master out the door. So went the Muscle Mage of Pallass. And Erin, waving in Xif and Rufelt and Lasica, who’d come early, narrowed her eyes and tried to chuckle evilly. She failed.
The inn was crowded. People were coming in, including the best [Alchemist] in the city, Xif. Rufelt and Lasica, a power couple, even Watch Captain Venim was hanging around the door on Pallass’ side, keeping order. It was as busy as yesterday! But Erin was content to let the chaos be chaos. She had a purpose and so she headed right back to Grimalkin, who was outdoors. Only one thing stopped her.
Octavia. Erin found the [Alchemist] sitting at a table in the corner, nursing a drink and staring around at the filled inn with wide eyes. Erin stopped at her table, guiltily. She’d forgotten Octavia was here. The [Alchemist] hadn’t come down for breakfast; it had only been a day since Erin had marshaled Grimalkin, Relc, and the others to help her after Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters had beaten down the [Thugs] extorting her. She’d put Octavia up in one of her rooms, but in all the fuss, she’d forgotten the Stitch-Girl existed.
Until now. Erin made her way to Octavia and smiled.
“Hey Octavia—how’s it going? Sorry I didn’t check in on you this morning. You uh, got breakfast?”
The [Alchemist] jumped. She looked up at Erin and smiled as she pushed a dreadlock back. Her dark skin was still pale, and she was…subdued. Normal Octavia was a chatterbox and a sales magnet. This Octavia was just quiet.
“No problem, Erin. I appreciate you putting me up. Really. Your inn’s…full. It’s open to Pallass? That’s amazing!”
“Yup! We’re selling a lot! And there are tons of people! Hey! We could get some of them to check out your shop later! But don’t go around making deals right now!”
Erin laughed. Octavia didn’t. She shook her head.
“I won’t. I learned my lesson already. Don’t worry about me, Erin.”
The [Innkeeper]’s face fell. That really wasn’t normal Octavia at all. She hesitated, and then scanned the room for someone. She spotted Xif, watching a play. Good, he was here and interested in the [Actors]. She’d have had to get him otherwise.
“Hey, don’t worry about it. Look, I feel awful about what happened. We’ll get your shop up and running and see about guarding it or something—just give me a little bit! You sit back and have something to eat and drink! On the house! There’s a play on—I’ll be back soon, okay?”
Octavia just nodded quietly. Erin frowned, worried, and pushed Octavia up her to-help list. But right now she had only one target in mind. And she found him outside, pumping iron and steel.
The Drake was watching Relc lift the weights bar, having him adjust his hands and comment on how hard it was. To the side, Ferkr was doing curl-ups with the barbells Grimalkin had ordered. Erin saw she was doing it from various postures. She stopped, impressed. Grimalkin looked exactly like a gym instructor, albeit even huger than they were. And while Relc had poor posture—he just seemed to enjoy the fun of weight lifting—Grimalkin and Ferkr both had perfect form.
“Ah, Miss Solstice. You’re here. Good. Can you tell me what the proper technique is for these weights? I think we have the standard down, but any unique positions or lifts would be appreciated. I was interested to see those squats and lunges you showed me. Anything you could add would be appreciated; I’m making a routine. I want to be able to use these weights to train every muscle group possible. Arms, legs, and the core you mentioned.”
Grimalkin turned immediately to Erin, as serious as could be. Erin blinked, but she nodded.
“Sure! I don’t know everything…or much, because I didn’t really work out, but I remember some things. Uh, a lunge—can I use the bar without weights? Thanks. A lunge looks like this, I think. And I saw a dude put a weight on his chest and do sit-ups with it once—”
The muscle [Mage] snapped his claws.
“Of course! Keep going, keep going.”
He watched as Erin clumsily showed him all the lifts she knew, and then took the bar, added some weights, and executed flawless versions of her clumsy demonstrations before letting Relc and Ferkr try.
The [Sinew Magus] seemed to know what muscles each workout affected almost instinctively. Erin supposed that was appropriate given his class, but she was very impressed nonetheless. After nearly half an hour of running through exercises, Erin wiped off sweat from her brow and grinned at Grimalkin.
“Hey! That was a workout! And I was just showing you how to do stuff! This’ll be a great for your classes, huh?”
“My classes, and Pallass’ army if I have my way.”
Grimalkin gave Erin an authoritative nod, which bothered her a tiny bit. She coughed.
“Well, yeah. But you don’t have to do that with the entire army, right? I mean, you’re just going to propose it—”
Ferkr looked up, blinking in surprise as she did a deadlift with Relc watching. Grimalkin’s brows shot up as well.
“Propose it? Miss Erin, I don’t think you understand. I just have to come up with a proper regimen, and put in the proper paperwork. Then the [Soldiers] will be working out with these weights.”
“Wait—but isn’t that for like, [Generals] to decide? Or [Strategists]?”
“Perhaps in other cities. But I’ve established myself as the expert in the field of fitness and training. If a Pallassian [General] wants to argue with me, I’ll happily slap sense into their skull. I know my business and I do have a formal rank.”
Grimalkin folded his arms. Erin gaped at him, but Relc chortled.
“What’s the surprise, Erin? Grimalkin’s Pallass’ best [Mage]! Right? I bet he’s fought in the army—they’ve definitely tried to conscript him. If he’s not on bad terms with the army, they’ll give him a rank. Otherwise he has to take orders from every two-copper [Lieutenant]. That’s how Drakes do these things.”
The [Sinew Magus] nodded. Erin gulped. Introducing weights to an entire Walled City’s army? Okay, that wasn’t part of the plan, but…she grinned weakly at Grimalkin.
“Well, that’s just great. I uh, I’m glad I could help out!”
“Of course. And I’m delighted for the aid you’ve given me, Miss Erin. Truly. I’ll repay you for all this information—no, for revolutionizing fitness in Pallass!—as soon as I can ascertain how much this is all worth. I will repay my dues. But I’ve taken three days out of my schedule and I think it’s time to get down to the business of trialing these weights on my students. Ferkr, pack up. We’re heading back to Pallass. Sergeant Relc, thank you for your help.”
“Aw, you’re packing up already? And it’s Relc, not Sergeant. I quit the army. Can I keep a barbell at least?”
Relc whined as Ferkr obediently began packing the weights into her bag of holding. Grimalkin smiled.
“I’m afraid not. But I’ll invite you to the first weights…room? Weights arena? Ah, what did you call it, Miss Erin? Gymnasium. I’ll certainly invite you over. And to give a demonstration of real strength to my apprentices!”
He shook Relc’s hand briskly and tossed one of the heavier weights into his own bag of holding. Erin stared at him in horror.
“You’re going back? Already?”
“That’s right. We’ve gotten the exercises down—unless you’ve recalled some more? I must leave a message at the [Mage]’s Guild. Miss Solstice, if you have any more details on the weights or new techniques, send me a [Message] and I will pay for sending and receiving!”
Grimalkin turned eagerly back to Erin. She hesitated.
“No…but hold on! The day’s just getting started! Why don’t you come in? Have a drink? I have fresh pizza, milkshakes—the play’s on! Your apprentice should really see it!”
Ferkr perked up her ears at all the new and exciting words, but Grimalkin just grimaced.
“I suppose I could look around. What did you say you made? A milk…?”
Erin smiled in relief and rushed back into the inn. She grabbed a milkshake that Ishkr was bringing around on trays and rushed it over to Grimalkin.
“And they’re doing Pygmalion on stage! Look! They’re singing and—”
A furious crowd shushed her. Erin lowered her voice and meekly stepped to the back of the room. Grimalkin sniffed the milkshake, and tasted it with a forked tongue.
“Sugar and milk. Cold. I can see this being used to build fat if I was emaciated. But otherwise? Don’t drink it Ferkr.”
He shook his head and Ferkr drooped as she sniffed hers. Relc looked delighted.
“Ooh, if you don’t want it, I’ll take it!”
Grimalkin silently passed his drink to Relc and the [Sergeant] took a gulp and savored his. Erin hesitated as well. Grimalkin was staring at the play, listening to the Drake actress, being lectured by a furious Dr. Higgins played by a Gnoll, try to imitate a British accent. That alone was hilarious on a number of levels, but Grimalkin just nodded once.
“I see. I see.”
“Numbtongue’s also going to perform later. And uh, there’s Liscor as well! The Antinium are building the inn—I can get you pizza, drinks—look, Rufelt’s helping with the bar! Come on, take a seat!”
Erin was looking at the door to Pallass. She needed to turn it to Celum for a tiny bit and she was dreading the fight, but getting Grimalkin relaxed came first. But the [Sinew Magus] just kept looking around and then—he shook his head.
“Mhm. Fascinating. Plays. Food. Unhealthy food. Hobgoblin. I can see dismantling organized crime in Celum. That was entertaining. As for the rest—do you have any more weights to show me?”
He turned brusquely to Erin. The [Innkeeper] wavered, caught off-guard. She looked around her inn.
“Excellent. Then I’m done here. Goodbye.”
Grimalkin strode towards the door, beckoning Ferkr, who was entranced by the display. Erin ran after him, panicked. This wasn’t part of the plan!
“Wait! Wait, wait—you can’t leave! Stay and relax a bit!”
Grimalkin paused, sighed, and turned back to Erin. He wasn’t unfriendly—just as straightforward as ever. He didn’t mince words as he gestured at the door to Pallass.
“It was quite fun to visit your inn these last few days, Miss Erin. I won’t deny that. But I have work to do. You’ve given me the chance to redefine how [Soldiers] and [Warriors] across the Walled Cities—perhaps even the world—will train. I’d prefer to get to that.”
“Argh—okay, but—stay for just half an hour! No, ten minutes! Your apprentice deserves a break, doesn’t she?”
Erin pleaded with Grimalkin. The Drake hesitated and looked at Erin, and then at Ferkr, who looked pleadingly at him and sighed.
“I suppose ten minutes wouldn’t be undue. Ferkr, by all means, enjoy yourself. And we can take one of those…pizzas back with us. A single slice wouldn’t hurt. But that grease!”
He shuddered. Erin breathed out in relief.
“Great. I’ll just—uh, I just remembered I had to do something. In the door. Don’t go anywhere!”
She rushed past Grimalkin. He frowned after her as Erin ran to the door to Pallas and to the watching crowd’s outrage, slammed it and turned it to Celum. She opened the door and shouted.
“Lyonette! Check in ten minutes! I need to go to the Runner’s Guild! Oh, please be there, please be there—”
She rushed out and a moment later, the door opened and a roar of fury from Pallass echoed in the inn. The [Actors] on stage dutifully recreated the scene and all was placid. Grimalkin watched the play with Relc commentating next to him. It wasn’t that he wasn’t interested in the performance—it was just that he had better things to do. Ferkr meanwhile was grabbing as much food and eating it as possible, savoring Erin’s free food.
Ten minutes later, Lyonette checked the door to Celum, prompting another brief intermission and a panting Erin was back. Grimalkin glanced up as Erin and a second Human entered the inn. No—two Humans. A young man and a young woman. The young man was clearly a Runner, and the young woman…Grimalkin’s head turned back.
“Nice muscle definition. Hm. That’s…”
He was half-interested in that, half in the play, and mostly on leaving. Grimalkin was looking for his apprentice, who seemed to have wandered off in hopes of prolonging her stay, when an exclamation from the trio drew his eyes back. The young woman who’d come in with Erin had caught sight of Numbtongue, who was wandering past, eating pizza.
“Hobgoblin! [Quick Kick]!”
She reflexively recoiled, and then lashed out with a kick. Grimalkin saw Numbtongue whirl, try to dodge—but the kick was too fast. It caught him on the chest, and knocked him backwards. There was power in that blow! Numbtongue flew backwards, hit a table where a pair of Gnolls were sitting, rolled over it, and landed in a crouch. The inn erupted into shouts as the Goblin made two fists and crouched, but Erin, waving her hands desperately, put herself between the Human and Hobgoblin.
“No! Garia! It’s Numbtongue! Didn’t you know I had Goblins at—have you never seen—does no one read my signs?”
Chaos. But quickly dispersed. Erin, panting, quickly explained and Grimalkin saw the young woman called Garia, blushing, introduce herself to the annoyed Hobgoblin along with the other Runner. The [Sinew Mage] watched as Erin slowly placated Numbtongue, and then made a beeline over to him with the Runners.
“Hey Grimalkin! Sorry about the fuss—”
“I wasn’t part of it. It was a splendid kick, though. Excellent form. But I really should be going, Miss Solstice.”
The Drake replied calmly. He saw the young woman behind Erin blush. Out of politeness and curiosity, Grimalkin turned to her and the Runner. He held out a claw.
“How do you do. Grimalkin, [Sinew Magus]. You have an impressive display of muscles, young lady. Compressed, though. Clearly the work of a Skill. Also the bearing of…someone who’s lost weight. Your balance is slightly off, but that’s a [Martial Artist]’s kick if ever I saw one. Nice to see some have become Runners at last. It’s a compatible profession.”
The young woman blinked at him.
“I—thank you! I’m Garia. Garia Strongheart. Are you a [Martial Artist] by any chance?”
She grasped Grimalkin’s claw and shook it. He grunted. [Enhanced Strength]? She was strong! What a treasure! At her age, she had the potential to be a real [Mage]. He was about to say so when Erin slid into the conversation.
“Grimalkin’s not a [Martial Artist], Garia. But he’s a [Sinew Magus]! He does magic—with his muscles! Or something like that. Hey! Do you know martial arts, Grimalkin? Oh—this is Fals, by the way. He’s a Runner too. They’re both from Celum.”
She indicated the young man. He grinned weakly up at Grimalkin, staring at a bicep.
“A pleasure, Mister Grimalkin? I run with Fals. You’re from Pallass? The Pallass?”
He looked dumbstruck as he stared around the inn. Grimalkin nodded.
“I’ve dabbled in martial arts. Not my forte. But I’ve travelled the world. Visited [Knights] training in Terandria, bald-headed Humans with fists like iron, Drathians, Chandrar’s population in Pomle—you should see Selphid [Martial Artists], absolutely deadly. I didn’t know there were any in Izril.”
“I wasn’t taught by one. At least—I don’t think Ryoka was very high level. But I’m dying to learn more techniques and Ryoka’s in the far north! I’ve been leveling up like crazy—I want to see how strong I can be!”
The young woman flexed a thin arm and Grimalkin narrowed his eyes. She’d definitely changed her body structure recently. He could almost extrapolate how she’d looked before now. But it was Garia’s words that lit a fire in his heart. He spoke carefully, trying not to shout.
“Young woman. You would be wasting your talents if you were just a [Martial Artist]. No—I will admit, they’re a fearsome class. But I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you to become a [Mage]. Like me! You clearly have a powerful foundation. [Enhanced Strength], am I right? And I assume—[Weight Control]?”
Fals and Erin blinked, but Garia’s eyes widened. She hesitated and almost reflexively covered her stomach.
“How did you know?”
“It’s obvious to me. But please—hear me out. I’d be delighted to talk about [Martial Artist] techniques with you, but you must join one of my classes and see my curriculum. I’ve studied strength, and there’s more to a powerful swing than just the muscle in your arm. If you’ll allow me, I’d like you to listen. [Martial Artist] or [Mage], you owe it to yourself to rebuild your body.”
Grimalkin held his breath. Normally here was where most people started edging away, but he had a good feeling about Garia. And the way the young woman’s eyes lit up was everything he wanted to see. Garia looked at Fals and Erin before nodding.
“I do. Tell me everything, please! About martial arts and…”
The [Sinew Magus] exhaled. It was moments like these he lived for. He smiled and tried to come up with the most concise summary of his life’s work possible. And Erin Solstice had given him the terminology as well.
“Ah! Well, let me tell you, it’s all about the…core. Yes, the core. And I’ve made it my life’s work to develop a regimen that creates a strong body in as short as time possible. Now, you may stop excreting during the first few weeks of training, and I have had it compared to torture, but the results are so immediate that the elite regiments of Pallass’ soldiers come to me for a basic fitness regimen…”
Grimalkin and Garia stood in a corner of Erin’s inn, discussing everything muscle-related with such avidness that Erin couldn’t keep up. But that didn’t matter. Her job was done.
The two were so engrossed that they didn’t notice as Erin and Fals drew back. Erin was smiling, but Fals, for some reason, was not. He shook his head as he looked back at Grimalkin and Garia, and a worried frown creased his brow.
“She’s changed, Erin. I don’t know if I know Garia anymore. Remember the old Garia? She was timid. Very kind, but—now she’s ten times as bold. And our best Runner! Frankly, I’m worried she’ll surpass me soon, if she hasn’t already. It’s amazing how much this place has changed too.”
Fals smiled tiredly at Erin. She grinned at him.
“I know! I couldn’t believe it was Garia at first! Hey—thanks for coming to the inn. I appreciate it.”
Fals chortled. He gestured around the room, his brows raised.
“And miss all this? This is incredible! I was meaning to pay a visit, but I’ve been busy. Not that it’s exciting around here since the Goblin Lord business. Dead gods, Erin! The Players of Celum, people from Pallass? Can you tell me what’s happened?”
Erin beamed and led Fals off into a wonderland of fast food, acting, and talking about all that had changed. But she kept an eye on Grimalkin and Garia. They took nearly half an hour to speak, and Garia looked like she was taking notes. Erin had Fals happily conversing with a Drake when she spotted the two breaking up. Quickly, Erin slid back towards Grimalkin.
“I’ll be waiting for your visit. Martial arts, magic—contact me!”
The Drake called out to Garia. She was nodding eagerly as she went over to Fals, clearly delighted. Erin rubbed her hands together, but stopped when Grimalkin turned to her. The Drake was shaking his head.
“Amazing. That might be one of my finest pupils yet. A [Farmer] background and a [Martial Artist] class? Although she has compunctions about gaining too much muscle—well, I suppose that’s a Runner’s concern. Ah, Miss Solstice. What a fantastic meeting!”
The [Sinew Magus] was clearly delighted. Erin beamed as well.
“Wasn’t it? Aren’t you glad you stayed? Say, while you’re here, why don’t you wait a bit longer? You could show Garia some moves, maybe! I know she’d love that. And you know, I have two friends who are [Mages]. Can you do that display of magic again, maybe? What about in Celum? Maybe you could show Pisces and Ceria a trick or two?”
For a second she thought the Drake hadn’t heard her. Grimalkin was still staring at Garia, his brows raised. He smiled, clearly impressed—and then did a double-take and stared back at Erin. His eyes narrowed as he registered their conversation.
“Show them—wait a second.”
He looked at Garia. He stared at the door, now open to Pallass, and then at Erin. The [Innkeeper] hesitated as Grimalkin’s brows snapped together. She didn’t like the way his expression changed. Slowly, the [Sinew Magus] pointed at Garia.
“You did that on purpose. Do it again.”
Erin’s grinned, and a butterfly appeared in her confident stomach. Grimalkin folded his arms.
“Not forty minutes ago, I was prepared to leave. Then you convinced me to stay, and ran to get that Runner. Coincidentally, she ran into a Hobgoblin and kicked him. I suppose that was chance, but you led her straight to me. You know she wanted to learn about martial arts. Or was it magic? You set that up.”
“No…what makes you say that?”
The inn was already hot, but Erin began to sweat. Grimalkin eyed her.
“What was it you just asked? You wanted me to show magic to—ah! That adventuring team. The one that wanted me to teach them [Lion’s Strength]. And I was about to acquiesce!”
“No, hold on, that was all coincidence! I mean, it was sort of me knowing what Garia was like, but—”
Erin began to panic. She didn’t know why—it was all aboveboard! It was just people meeting people! But having the trick exposed felt risky. Grimalkin’s narrowed eyes confirmed that.
“I noticed the same thing with Maughin and my visit to Liscor. Coincidences turn into beneficial meetings for you. Pallass intercedes in Liscor’s election. I just happen to draw a crowd with a demonstration that helps your inn. This was calculated, wasn’t it?”
“No….okay, maybe. But hey! I—look, Grimalkin, I’m not saying you have to help Ceria and Pisces. But it’d be nice if you did? Maybe?”
Erin’s heart sank in her chest. Grimalkin was just staring at her. And there was a keen analysis running there that not many people gave Erin. She gave him her most wide-eyed look. And it didn’t work. He shook his head slowly.
“Incredible. And I didn’t notice it—or I paid it little mind until now. That’s not a Skill…or is it? You remind me of a [Senator], only highly effective at low-level dealings. Or one of the people who like to play shadow games, only on a smaller scale. Archmage Feor. Terandrian monarchs. I haven’t met Magnolia Reinhart, but she’s an apt comparison on Izril.”
That stung. Erin sucked in her breath.
“Um, thank you?”
“It’s not a compliment. I suppose it’s obvious in hindsight. Rufelt and Lasica do the same thing. But they’re experts at making money and being liked by all. And their manipulation is up-front. Honest. I see. Well, I congratulate you on the trick. Do it again.”
Grimalkin stared at Erin. She hesitated.
He shook his head slowly.
“Unless I’m wrong, the entire purpose of me arriving here was to teach Miss Strongheart martial arts. Or was she bait? Let’s say that she was. Were you hoping to persuade me to teach your two [Mage] friends magic?”
Erin looked to one side, flushing a bit. Her plan had been a bit more nebulous than that. But…Grimalkin frowned, then nodded.
“Very well. I’ll do it.”
Relieved, smiling, Erin looked up. Only to see Grimalkin extend a claw and flex it slightly.
“So do it again. Show me something I want.”
The young woman frowned. Grimalkin eclipsed her frown with his own.
“I’m not in the habit of lending my abilities or expertise out for free, Miss Solstice. I realize that’s what friends do, but I consider you an acquaintance. So. You showed me a potential student. And you’ve delivered me a bunch of fascinating, unique training methods. Weights. What else do you have to offer me?”
“Hey! I gave you that all out of good will! I was being helpful!”
Erin spluttered red in the face. Grimalkin nodded.
“I’m quite aware. And it helped you a bit. I’m not accusing you of lying to me, Miss Solstice. If anything, I owe you a great deal. But let’s just say I’m open to the possibility that you’re holding something back that I might like. So. Do it again.”
He pointed at Garia. Erin wavered. She held up a finger. Opened her mouth to protest—and Grimalkin stared at her. The two locked gazes, unblinking.
Erin buckled first. She hesitated, and then scuffed at the floorboards, scowling. She’d meant to use this as a prod anyways. But subtly.
“Okay. Okay, there was this one thing…I saw this guy using like this rubber—er, elastic band. Like…two cords like this, see? And he stretches it across his chest, or pulls while rotating like this—”
She began describing a resistance band to Grimalkin. The [Sinew Magus]’ eyes widened.
“Fascinating. Using elasticity as…you know, I saw String-People doing something like that when I looked into how they built themselves. Of course! And that’s far more portable than—”
He caught himself and narrowed his eyes again.
“And you just recalled that. Just now.”
Erin grinned sheepishly at Grimalkin and shrugged. He eyed her, and then smiled.
“A pleasure doing business with you, Miss Solstice. A training session it is! One. For those two [Mages]? I’ll gladly teach Miss Strongheart some techniques free of charge. She cannot be allowed to go to waste.”
He gestured at the Horns and Garia with one claw. Erin spluttered.
“One? But Ceria said she’d have to learn from you for at least a week to learn a Tier 4 or Tier 5 spell—”
“Who said anything about spells? I’ll check on their fitness, their aptitude, recommend how they should progress—it’s actually quite effective. I am an expert [Mage], after all. If those two have any holes, I will fix them. [Necromancer] or [Cryomancer]. Of course, teaching them spells will require more time, and if they have any significant flaws, I’ll need to remedy them.”
“But you said one training session—”
“Well, until you come up with another splendid idea for me to work on. I’ll take them in advance. Resistance bands, indeed. Any more training techniques? Other weights?”
Grimalkin peered down at Erin. She could only splutter in reply. After a second he nodded.
“Well then, one session it is. More to come, on condition of course. And if you have any more requests, feel free to seek me out with appropriate payment. I take ideas, artifacts, chance encounters, or whatever else you can manufacture.”
He waited. Erin stared at him, and then, flustered, looked around.
“L-Lyonette? Get me the Faerie Flowers and a mug of ale!”
The [Princess] came over as Erin rushed over to the windowsill. Xif, watching the end of Pygmalion, looked up with interest as the two fussed over a mug and came back to Grimalkin. He watched, arms folded, never taking his eyes off Erin. She offered him the mug, grinning weakly.
“Uh, want a Faerie Flower drink?”
“What’s it do?”
The Drake eyed the mug. Erin bit her lip and looked at Lyonette. The [Princess] had caught wind of what had gone down and was looking amused. Erin weakly shrugged.
“If you have a horrible trauma, it might help? It’s uh, one-of-a-kind, I think. Sorta.”
Grimalkin considered the mug.
“No thanks. My traumas aren’t that significant. Anything else?”
“Nothing I can think of.”
Erin locked gazes with Grimalkin. After a second, the Drake nodded. He smiled at her.
“Well, then, one session it is. I’ll do my best of course. I’d love to jog your memory.”
He nodded at Lyonette and strode through the crowd, avoiding touching everyone with ease. Erin bit her lip and Lyonette laughed.
“Someone actually figured out you were manipulating them behind the scenes, Erin?”
The [Innkeeper] shrugged ruefully. She wasn’t so much upset at being found out as embarrassed. Grimalkin had treated her like some kind of calculating manipulator! Which she wasn’t. Okay, sort of, but—
“He’s smart. Damn. And he wants me to give him more ideas and stuff—or introduce him to people or he won’t train Ceria and Pisces! I really wasn’t going to manipulate him into helping them—”
“I wasn’t! I was just, you know, going to make them all get along? He was interested in Yvlon’s arms and I thought—gah! Never mind! Now he wants me to pay him!”
Erin waved her arms, still red in the face. Lyonette stopped smirking long enough to look interested.
“Do you have anything to bribe him with.”
Erin covered her face with one hand, thinking.
“I dunno, treadmills I guess? Gravity weight training? I saw that in an anime. Uh…I really didn’t have much else. No, parkour-ish stuff. Yoga? Oh! Yoga! Maybe. If I remember any of my yoga class. Now I have to think! Why was he the one who saw through me?”
She stared at Grimalkin’s back, and then, to her surprise, saw the Drake’s form waver and vanish. Ishkr, carrying a tray past him, nearly dropped it in alarm. And a voice spoke right next to Erin and Lyonette.
“I work out my brain as well as everything else, Miss Erin. What’s this about treadmills? I’m familiar with gravity training, by the way. Parkour and yoga. Are they martial arts forms? No? Fascinating.”
The two young women spun around. Grimalkin was standing behind them, arms folded. He nodded as Erin pointed at the place where his illusion had been and at him, jaw working furiously. He raised both brows.
“Have you never met anyone properly high-level before, Miss Solstice? You shouldn’t underestimate Pallass. Or didn’t you notice that we have as many talents as you?”
He nodded past her. Erin, spun again and saw Xif was peering at the bed of Faerie Flowers. He was sniffing the air and eying the small yellow blossoms in their bed. She could hear him muttering out loud in a break as the [Actors] on stage changed plays.
“Hmm, hm. Fascinating. Blue fruits? Shield Spider materials. And this flower…”
Erin cursed. Or was this an opportunity. She looked back and Grimalkin nodded to her. His smile wasn’t smug, but it was superior.
“You’re among equals, Miss Solstice. Well, at the very least. I’ll be on with that lesson now. Please be as specific as you can when you tell me about these treadmills and so on. Tread. Mills. Huh. Actually, I think I understood that one without need for help. Well, I’ll wait for your actual explanation. As I said, I’m happy to spend time training these adventurers. A pleasure to be manipulated by you.”
He nodded at Erin and walked past her. Erin opened her mouth, then for once, closed it. She turned bright red and said not a word for a whole minute. Lyonette stared at Grimalkin in awe. He winked at her as he strolled over to the Horns of Hammerad.
Xif the [Alchemist] still smelled of nose-searingly strong chemicals and ingredients when Erin found him looking over her box of Faerie Flowers. The bright, small yellow flowers were much like short dandelions, although the flower petals were much more exotic. And Erin had quite a number of boxes of them! With Mrsha’s help and daily watering, the few flowers she’d had now filled eight planter boxes.
Honestly, Erin hadn’t made use of them for a long time—the Faerie Flower drink was powerful, but she’d been worried after seeing its effect on Halrac and Ilvriss. And her [Wondrous Fare] Skill wasn’t something Erin had really needed or wanted to focus on. Magical dishes were cool, but with all the turns and twists in her life, they weren’t something she could devote time for.
And yet, someone was focusing very hard on her flowers, and it wasn’t Apista for once. The Ashfire Bee was lazily clinging to a ceiling, but Xif was peering very hard at each flower, sniffing hard and even going so far as to try and taste the nectar—that was when Erin caught him.
“Xif! Hi! Don’t lick the nectar or eat the flowers. They do uh, weird things to your head. Hey! Can I introduce you to a friend? Octavia? She’s a bit down—did you hear about the Celum stuff yesterday?”
Erin smiled desperately as the [Alchemist] paused, with one claw extended towards his tongue. Xif blinked at her, and his usually befuddled, look focused as he blinked two brown eyes at her.
“Octavia? Hm. Oh yes, the young [Alchemist]. I was there for that. But ah—perhaps in a moment. I’m truly more interested in these flowers, Miss Solstice. I caught you making—was that a drink?”
“Oh, that? The Faerie Flower drink! Good for making you think about what ails you! I’m working on the tagline. Uh, yeah, I’m thinking about selling it, but it’s sort of strong! The flowers are strong too, really. Actually, they have a few uses! But I wouldn’t want you to get hurt or something.”
Erin shuddered as she recalled trying the nectar and having her Alice in Wonderland freak-out. Xif raised his brows.
“Really? Multiple uses? Well, I’d love to experience each one. Unless it makes your fur fall out? Hah! But that’d be an improvement in my case, wouldn’t it?”
He grinned and Erin smiled despite herself. Still, she couldn’t help but feel slightly possessive over the flowers. They had been a reward, of sorts, for her Frost Faerie banquet. That had been real magic. Her magic.
Of course, Lyonette had urged Erin to sell the flowers to Xif if he wanted them. The [Princess] had gold coins for eyes these days. Erin sighed.
“They don’t make your fur fall out. They do do weird things to you, like uh, make you see things or go to sleep—then again—the Faerie Flower drink might be my thing. I have a Skill.”
She frowned at the flowers. That was a good point. Had she ever let anyone else try making the Faerie Flower drink? Erin had [Wondrous Fare]. What would happen if Lyonette copied her? Would it be like Octavia? Now she had questions. So did Xif. His eyes lit up as Erin described the flowers.
“Really? Multiple effects without combining with a magical base or other ingredients? You just added that into the alcohol—these flowers are fairly powerfully magical then! I thought so! Amazing! What species are they? Where did you get them from? I’ve never seen the like! Has Miss Octavia tried using them?”
“No, I—they’re from far away. Gifts! They were a gift. And I haven’t let Octavia try to use them.”
Guiltily, Erin realized that was something the [Alchemist] could have used. But—these were special flowers. Not even of this world. Xif frowned.
“I see. They’re special. Hmm. But with what you’ve said—Miss Solstice, I must buy them from you. New, highly magical ingredients? I’d shave off all my fur and walk around naked like Saliss before I turned up an opportunity like this! Come to it, he’d put on clothes for a month for these! How much for one planter box?”
He eagerly pointed to one of the boxes of flowers. Erin hesitated, and saw Lyonette’s head whip around. The [Princess] hurried over.
“If you want a box, we have plenty! We could sell maybe—”
Erin brought Lyonette up short. The [Princess] opened her mouth, but Erin overrode her and Xif. She smiled at the Gnoll [Alchemist], but firmly shook her head.
“I’m sorry, Xif, but these aren’t for sale. They were a very important gift and—well, I’m not selling them.”
Lyonette stared at Erin, horrified. Xif looked appalled too.
“Miss Solstice, these could be a wonderful boon to [Alchemists] everywhere. A powerful antidote, a life-saving reagent in a potion—they could be the Eir Gel of alchemical discoveries!”
“Exactly! And we don’t use many now the Ashfire Bees are gone. Let alone your drinks…Erin, can I speak with you for one second?”
Lyonette tugged on Erin’s arm, frowning hard. But Erin was unmoved. She thought of Grimalkin and his announcement that Pallass’ army would be using weights. That was one thing. But this? She hesitated. Life-changing medicine? But some selfish part of her, childish, made her shake her head again.
“No. I’m sorry, but no. Lyonette, that’s final.”
She put her foot down. It was hers. Her magic, however small. Xif looked crestfallen. Lyonette looked like she was going to have a heart attack. Erin relented a touch.
“What if I sold you the petals and nectar and stuff? I’d be okay with that.”
Xif frowned and scratched the hair on his chin, but the Gnoll shook his head. He bent down and eyed a flower sprouting from a bulb and then shook his head.
“As tempting as it would be—I think I would rather have the flower, Miss Solstice. An entire flower, rather. You see, it’s not just about the ingredients. Call it the [Alchemist] in me, but these are too…how long have you grown these flowers?”
“A few months. Since winter.”
“I see. And these have germinated like this?”
Xif indicated the short flowers. Erin nodded proudly.
“That’s right! We replanted them as they kept growing. I only had a handful, but they multiplied and Mrsha looked after them with Lyonette…why?”
The Gnoll mumbled to himself. He peered at each flower, and then nodded slowly.
“They’re all the same.”
“I mean, they don’t have any characteristics of full-grown plants. No reproductive elements.”
He looked up at Lyonette and Erin’s blank faces.
“Haven’t you seen dandelions turn into the white fuzzy seedpods? Or witnessed grass growing seeds? These are to grass and dandelions. Short, unmatured. That they can still reproduce is no surprise; many plants can do that. But they’re not fully developed. And if it’s been months, there may be another trigger.”
So saying, he straightened and tapped the planter box in front of him. Xif looked seriously at Erin.
“I don’t believe they’re fully grown, Miss Solstice. In fact, I’d stake my best potions on that. I’d like to ship these to a friend in Oteslia. Their [Gardeners] are the best in the world. If anyone could ascertain the exact nature of this plant, it would be them. Your price?”
Erin’s jaw dropped. Not fully grown? She looked at the flowers, but—come to think of it, Xif was right. Erin did know what he was talking about. The Faerie Flowers could just be flowers but they were just stalks with blooms on the end. They had no flowers. No seeds.
Xif was right. And yet, Erin still hesitated.
“Maybe. But I want to keep my flowers, thanks.”
She didn’t know why it mattered so much to her. In fact, she was beginning to regret her stubbornness, except for the idea in her head. She could try growing the flowers herself. And when she found out if they evolved or something, sell them to Xif. Octavia could corner the market! She’d give some to Octavia to make up for ignoring her.
Xif frowned, as if reading Erin’s thoughts. He sighed, looking at the flowers, and then looked sternly at Erin.
“I understand your desire to keep what’s yours, Miss Solstice. Drakes are very much like that. But you realize, these flowers are invaluable as a new discovery to me. And if they are as valuable as I think, I’m afraid I’ll have to make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
Erin felt a chill down her spine. She took a step back from Xif as Lyonette stiffened. Erin’s hand instantly went for her belt.
“You’re threatening me?”
She couldn’t believe it! And neither could Xif! He looked horrified as she placed a hand on the kitchen knife Pelt had made.
“What? Threatening you? I’m no [Thug] of an [Alchemist]! I just said I’d use a Skill.”
“Oh, a Skill!”
Lyonette looked relieved. Erin just looked blank. Xif tutted.
“Dear me, the expressions you Humans come up with. I put my tail in my mouth all the time, though. Better just to do it now. Miss Solstice, I invoke [The Avid Collector]. Name your price for a single flower.”
Erin blinked. He was pointing at a flower. She wasn’t going to—
“Twenty—two hundred and twenty gold pieces for a flower.”
The words popped out of her mouth before Erin realized she was speaking. Lyonette’s eyes popped. Xif just smiled.
He reached out and offered Erin a paw. She shook it, realized what she was doing, and pulled her hand back.
Xif smiled happily and ruefully at Erin. And as surely as she knew her inn, Erin realized that one of the flowers in the box belonged to him. And two hundred and twenty gold pieces belonged to her. Lyonette looked like she was going to swallow her tongue as Xif pulled out his bag of holding and began setting gold coins on a table. He had them in stacks of ten. Erin just stared at Xif for a moment.
“You can’t—that wasn’t—that’s not fair!”
But it was at the same time. She had felt the deal go through as she shook his paw. Erin looked around, Xif was smiling apologetically at her. But she wanted—
The Watch Captain winced as he stood on Pallass’ side of the door. Erin stomped through the door and confronted him, ignoring the upset crowd who wanted to watch the play. The Drake wearily looked at Erin.
“Yes Miss Solstice?”
“Xif just used a Skill on me! He made me sell one of my flowers to him!”
The Watch Captain’s eyes sharpened as Erin relayed the transaction to him. But when she came to him using his Skill, his eyes brightened.
“He bought a flower for how much?”
A large number of heads turned and Erin hesitated.
“Well—that’s not important! But he made me sell the flowers and I can’t take it back! You have to force him to stop it!”
She felt embarrassed saying it, really. It was way more gold than the flowers were worth! And yet, she was outraged because she’d been forced to make the deal. But Venim only chewed his lip for one second before shaking his head.
“It’s legal. You can’t name a price you won’t sell for. He just forced a sale. Pallassian law accepts that, Miss Solstice.”
Venim looked delighted to be able to say that. Erin stared at his face. Behind her, Kel the [Guardsman] grinned triumphantly. Venim’s lips were twitching too. Erin glared around.
“How is that fair? What if he wanted me to sell a precious heirloom or something?”
“The fact is, he did not, Miss Solstice. He forced you into a deal you were willing to take. It’s not always pleasant, but Skill-based sales are acknowledged as a legal tool across the world. If it was unethical, you could appeal it—like how I hear [Slave Traders] can force someone to sell themselves into slavery. But I doubt it’ll win given your supply of plants.”
He looked pointedly back into Erin’s inn. She looked back glumly and saw Xif was going from flower to flower, followed by Lyonette, who had helpfully dug out a spoon and cup to transport the precious bloom in. The Gnoll hummed happily as he picked his small flower out of the box and carefully replanted it in a mug.
“I don’t like it.”
“You don’t have to, Miss Solstice. But I’m afraid you must abide by it. Unless you have a better Skill.”
Venim smiled politely and triumphantly at Erin. She stared at him.
“Maybe I do.”
Without another word, she hurried back into her inn and found a Drake in the crowd. Selys had heard the commotion of course, and when Erin explained what had happened, the newly-made [Heiress] gladly accompanied her over to Xif. Erin smiled sweetly at the [Alchemist], who coughed politely.
“I’m sorry about that, Miss Solstice. But it is one flower. And I meant what I said; it could save lives. At the very least, it could make a profit. And I’m nothing if not eager for that. In either case, you stand to gain greatly.”
Erin smiled sweetly at Xif.
“I know. And I know you’re being nice, but I don’t like being made to do anything. So…hey Xif! This is my friend Selys.”
The Drake shook Xif’s hand. She peered at Xif and the flower he had chosen that Lyonette was carefully excavating. It did have roots, small ones, but it was a plant.
“[The Avid Collector], huh? That’s a Skill that probably lets you complete your inventory as an [Alchemist]. Neat trick. I can do that too. [Everything Has A Price]. Hey Xif, how much for Erin’s plant?”
The nearby Drakes and Gnolls oohed. They were of course, listening in. Erin was entertainment, even if it was in this case, unwilling. Xif blinked and raised his brows. He stared at Selys. And then smiled.
“Mm. Two thousand gold pieces, yes?”
The Drake’s jaw dropped. So did Erin’s. Xif chortled at their expressions. He patted Selys gently on the shoulder with a toothy smile.
“If I only have one chance to take a flower like this, I’m hardly likely to sell it for less than what I bought it for, yes? Nice try, Miss Selys. But I’m good at appraising goods. And I deal with rich [Merchant] on occasion. Still, you have a wonderfully useful Skill, young lady. Much better than mine.”
Selys flushed, and Erin looked at Xif and realized she’d lost. He smiled apologetically at her and she began to get angry. Then she looked at the pile of gold coins and just felt defeated.
“Lasica! Xif is bullying me!”
Erin slumped on the counter next to the [Chef]. Lasica paused in drinking from a bubbling concoction her husband had just served her from behind the bar. She eyed Xif, looked at Erin, and smiled.
“I heard. He forced you to sell those pretty flowers, didn’t he?”
“I mean…yes? And it’s a lot of gold! But he made me do it! And Grimalkin—”
Erin turned red as she remembered that exchange. Lasica raised one brow and Erin couldn’t help it.
“He saw through my clever ploy! Grimalkin, I mean.”
“What, by figuring out you were luring him here along with everyone else? Please, Erin. Rufelt, Xif, and I—even love-struck Maughin probably figured it out. Not that anyone’s complaining.”
“Wait, you knew I set all this up?”
Lasica laughed at the look on Erin’s face. She reached over and tapped Erin on the nose.
“Not at first. But it was obvious soon enough. Like Rufelt said—you’re a special type of [Innkeeper]. But did you really think we couldn’t tell we were being led to go along with your flow? What’s your Skill you’re using? [Crowd Control]? Something on top of that? Your inn just lights up with energy when you want it to.”
Erin bit her lip and flushed a bit. Lasica and Rufelt knew too? The Drake laughed again, but gently.
“I guess I was using some Skills unconsciously. But—I wasn’t trying to trick you all. It’s just that I knew if you came here, and Krshia and people from Liscor met you—it wasn’t a big plan! Sort of. I just wanted my friends to be happy.”
She mumbled into the counter. Lasica laughed and patted Erin affectionately on the head.
“I know. And I think Grimalkin knows. And he must like you—he doesn’t listen to anyone he doesn’t like. Much less teach students besides his own? Erin! That’s a huge honor! Grimalkin’s students are among the best the Walled Cities have to offer!”
Erin perked up a bit. Grimalkin had disappeared outside with the Horns a bit ago. Lasica nodded seriously.
“Oh yes. They might get teased because the ‘Muscle Mage’ of Pallass was their teacher, but not to their face. A graduate of Grimalkin’s is considered a rank above your average Wistram graduate. Not least because he teaches his students how to fight. They could be promoted the equivalent of [Captain] in most Drake armies just by having his graduation certificate.”
“Wow. Well—look, I’m sorry, okay? I’m not trying to be sneaky about it. And you’re all friends to me! You and Rufelt were really nice, Lasica. Really.”
Now Erin wanted Lasica to be sure Erin wasn’t a jerk. She looked seriously at the Drake.
“You two were really nice to help me out. And after you let me come to your bar all those times! I have to repay you. Let’s go to the kitchen when you have a moment. I want to teach you all my recipes. Because we’re friends. Not just because you’re helping me, okay?”
The [Chef] waved an idle claw.
“Oh, that’s fine, Erin. Don’t worry about it. I already know all of them.”
Nonplussed, Erin stared at Lasica. The [Chef] twirled a claw in her drink and licked it.
“I saw all your food as it was coming out. It’s not very complex to create, any of it. And there are similar foods from across the world. You have some interesting ones, I’ll grant you! But it’s nothing on magical cooking or dishes made with monster parts, like Wyvern meat or slimes.”
She gestured to Ishkr, passing with ketchup and mayonnaise and a lot of fries. Erin spluttered.
“But—what—even the mayonnaise?”
Lasica gave her a reproving look.
“I am a [Chef]. Eggs, vinegar, salt, and oil, processed for a long time? I’d add some lemon maybe, or even a bit of mustard. But that’s my taste.”
Erin stared at Lasica. Then she slowly covered her face with her hands.
“I give up! I’m outmatched!”
Lasica chortled again. She patted Erin on the back.
“Don’t worry about it. We came here because we liked you and want to help a young [Innkeeper] succeed. Let Rufelt make you a drink. Do you need help in the kitchen? Rufelt, come over and help poor Erin out. And maybe you can teach her some of your drinks. You really need better alcohol, Erin.”
Grinning, she waved her husband over and he did make her a drink that took most of the embarrassment out of Erin’s chest. Most, but not all. As husband and wife surrounded Erin and Xif came over to apologize again, she felt it in the air. A small message from Pallass’ finest to her.
Gently, teasingly, and yes, kindly, they were telling her that she might have been getting arrogant. When she realized that, Erin put down her head on the bar and turned so red that Mrsha put an ice cube on her ear to watch it melt.
One last encounter found Erin in her inn. She’d lost most of her motivation to rush around playing chance encounter matchmaker. In fact, she was sitting at a table, playing chess with herself—the magical chessboard was silent today, her opponent must be busy from their usual semi-daily games—when Watch Captain Venim found her. He was leading another, elderly Drake, and he cleared his throat meaningfully.
“Miss Solstice. May we have a word?”
The Watch Captain frowned. Erin looked up briefly as she rearranged her pieces.
“I’m not doing whatever you want. It’s ‘take-Erin-down-a-peg day’ today. I know what’s up. I’m just gonna play chess here. Don’t bother me. I’m sulking.”
She went back to her chess game. Venim looked askance and nervously checked the old Drake at his side. The Drake had very grey scales, with only a hint of yellow in them.
“Miss Solstice, my guest—”
“Shush, young Drake. If the girl wants to sulk, let her sulk. Get me a snack, would you? Some of those ‘cookies’ look good. And some rum! Rufelt knows what I like.”
The old Drake hobbled past Venim and pulled a chair out opposite Erin. He sat down without being invited. Affronted, Erin looked up. The Drake peered at the chessboard and poked a piece.
“Hm. White or black?”
The response came out of Erin before she caught herself. She frowned as the old Drake began putting the rest of the white pieces in order.
“Hold on, I’m not in the mood to play, Mister…?”
The old Drake inspected the pieces, then, without hesitation, moved his knight to F3. Erin glared, annoyed, but her chess instincts took over. She moved a pawn to D5 without hesitation.
“Hm. Good. Most of Pallass’s young [Strategists] ponder for minutes over their next moves. At least this time I won’t be bored.”
Chaldion smiled. He was missing some teeth, but they were very white. With one claw he picked up a pawn and moved it to C4. Erin blinked. She stared at the board and then slowly moved her pawn to E6. The old Drake considered it, nodded, and moved his pawn to D4, taking her pawn there. Erin blinked.
Réti Opening to Queen’s Gambit Declined. They were fancy names, but it was really just a short back and forth. But there was a confidence in the Drake’s placement that made part of her sit up.
Venim was back with a handful of cookies and a large glass of rum mixed with blue fruit juice. Chaldion accepted both happily.
“What’s this, what’s this? Some new drink Rufelt’s made?”
“I told him your regular sir. If you don’t like it—”
“That’s for me to decide! Hands off! And if Rufelt made it, I’ll like it. Don’t bother me. I’m playing. And keep those pesky [Tacticians] and [Strategist] brats out of my spines for a bit!”
Chaldion grumpily shooed Venim away. Erin looked up as Venim hesitated, then saluted and beat a hasty retreat. Then she looked at Chaldion. Really looked at him.
The old Drake was nearly completely grey, as old as anyone Erin had ever met in this world. As old as Tekshia, but like her, he looked like steel, tough inside. Unlike her, he had an eye patch over his right eye and several scars on his face. He grinned at her when she looked up.
“Finally looking at me, young woman? Your move.”
He pointed and Erin realized he’d moved a piece. This time she considered it. Pawn to D5. He’d taken her pawn. She thought, and moved her pawn from D2 to D4 up. Chaldion nodded patiently and moved his piece.
“Who’re you? I thought Watch Captain Venim was important.”
“Watch Captains are. But age is a rank of its own. And Pallass has multiple Watch Captains. At least one per floor. Anyways, I outrank them. Wonderful like, that. I’d love to meet that young [Strategist], but apparently he’s not welcome in this inn, is that it? Well, I’m just here for food and a game.”
Chaldion chuckled. Erin frowned as she took one of his pieces. He was playing…well. She narrowed her eyes.
“So who’re you? I’m Erin. An [Innkeeper]. This is my inn.”
Chaldion took a tip from his glass and brightened.
“Sweet! Just the thing for brain food. Wonderful sweets you have here. Who am I? Chaldion. A humble old Drake too stubborn to retire.”
He grinned mockingly at Erin. She just raised a brow.
“Ah, you’re no fun. My history’s boring. I’m just a [Veteran Strategist] from Pallass, here to play a game of chess. Are you playing or not?”
He tapped the board. Nettled, Erin began to move and realized he’d set a trap four moves ahead. She moved out of the way and took another piece. He laughed.
“And one assumes you’re the person that Olesm Swifttail has been sourcing for those excellent chess games, aren’t you?”
Erin folded her arms. The game was going quickly in the opening, but they were slowing down as the complexity ramped up. She already had a feel for Chaldion. He was good. Not as good as her mystery chess opponent maybe, but second-best. Better than anyone else Erin had played.
Suddenly, Erin realized this was the fourth of the trials sent to humble her. Probably. Maybe. But in chess? She gritted her teeth. Not in chess. This was her game. She began playing her best. Chaldion frowned and drank deeper from his glass.
“You are good.”
In silence, the two traded blows, moving their pieces, aiming at each other’s weak spots. To Erin, it felt like a tipping point around twenty minutes into this game. And move twenty. Both she and Chaldion had slowed down a lot.
If Erin was a lower-level chess player, or playing another sort of game, like teaching Mrsha or against a weaker opponent, she could see a much longer game taking place. But against her mystery chess opponent—no, against anyone who knew the game—a chess game took only a certain number of moves before a winner was obvious.
You could play it out, but most games between professionals ended with an agreed draw—or one side conceding. She didn’t know if Chaldion would insist on playing to the end, but she felt the tipping point coming. And she had the upper hand.
He knew it too. The [Strategist] paused as he eyed the board and Erin’s advantage in pieces and position. Then he reached up and one claw grasped his teal eye patch. Erin stared as Chaldion flipped it up and she saw that there was another eye there. But it wasn’t like a regular eye. The old Drake had lost his and replaced it with a sapphire—
A bright, blue light flashed from the carved eyeball. Erin recoiled, but Chaldion flipped the eye patch down. He took a nibble from a cookie and nodded.
“[Truesight]. You’re not using a trick. This is just skill, isn’t it?”
“Wh—yeah. Hey! You thought I was cheating?”
Erin was outraged. Chaldion just smiled.
“I wanted to see if you were using magic or a Skill. Neither, it seems. Well, time to get serious. Shall we?”
And suddenly his eyes sharpened. Erin didn’t know why, but the next move Chaldion made was quick and decisive. She saw him take a pawn, far away from his threatened bishop and hesitated. What was…?
The next six moves were disastrous. Erin took a bishop, a pawn—and lost her queen. It was a split attack she hadn’t seen coming that opened her up. And it was so graceful that when she realized her position, it was too late. Chaldion took the queen and regarded the board.
“Mine, I believe. Unless you want to play it out?”
“No. I lost. How’d you—that was perfect.”
Erin stared at the board. It was beyond perfect. Computers could play perfect games, but Chaldion had tricked her into that loss. She looked up and saw him smiling. The Drake slowly tapped his chessboard.
“[Path to Victory]. It’s simpler with easy games. You wouldn’t happen to be able to show me this ‘Go’ game, or ‘Shogi’, would you?”
Erin stared. And then shot out from her seat.
“I used a Skill to win. It’s a strategic decision. What? Haven’t you had someone use a Skill on you while playing?”
He offered her a gap-toothed grin. Erin inhaled in outrage—and then she stared at the board. Ruefully, she sat back down.
“Really? Maybe young Swifttail doesn’t have any to use. He does come here, doesn’t he? Well, I play games like I fight wars. Everything goes. Too bad you don’t have a few Skills to use on me; that’d make for a fun match.”
Chaldion grinned. Erin sniffed.
“Yeah. All I can do is poison your cookies.”
He choked, and then began to laugh. Erin pulled the chessboard out of the spray, and then found herself laughing too. She looked at Chaldion and then at her board. She’d lost. And he’d done it so elegantly too, Skill or not. He’d handed her a defeat, right in her inn, face-to-face. For once, she had underestimated him and not the other way around.
No one had done that in this world until that moment. She smiled, and the genuine joy in it was reflected in the Drake’s eyes. He chortled as Erin looked around and shouted.
“Ishkr? Get me that Shogi set!”
And as Ishkr came over and Erin and Chaldion began discussing Shogi rules, Rufelt and Lasica watched from their bar. Rufelt eyed Venim and a few Drakes and a Gnoll who’d come through and were staring intently at the board.
“Chaldion himself? That’s something you don’t see every day. He doesn’t even visit Tails and Scales that often. Erin really is special, isn’t she, love?”
“She’s not bad.”
The two of them looked over. Lyonette was sitting at the bar as Mrsha sipped from a goat’s milk drink on her lap. The [Princess] looked at them, a bit wide-eyed.
“You’re treating her like, well, another person. Erin.”
Rufelt chuckled and Lasica rolled her eyes. She sipped from her drink and munched on a few bar nuts they’d brought from their establishment.
“Of course. We’re a Walled City. Did you think she was completely unique? She’s special, I’ll grant you, but we have at least a few dozen people as strange as her. I think it’s a good experience, to be honest. She’s a bright young girl, but she’s been ‘special’ for too long. That’s what I think. Rufelt?”
The [Barkeep] nodded. He looked at Erin and with the expertise of someone who could tell what drink someone needed, and if they needed words, silence, or to be knocked into oblivion by alcohol, nodded.
“I think she needs to be a girl without the weight of the world on her shoulders for a little bit. So let’s let Chaldion kick her around for a bit.”
“You think she can’t beat him more than he beats her? Chaldion may be ruthless and crafty, but as a fellow female, I have to say Erin will surprise him. Or don’t you agree, my dear?”
Lasica raised her brows. Rufelt grinned.
“Well, if we’re taking bets on it—”
He looked down the bar. And Relc, Maughin and Jelaqua, a disgruntled Seborn, Bevussa, Selys, and all the other friends and guests dug in their money pouches. After all, it was entertainment.
That was Erin’s tale. But while she was being humbled and being normal, a second story, or rather, an anecdote played just outside her inn. But because it was Grimalkin, it was upgraded into a full narrative of his own. The Drake stretched his arms out as the Horns of Hammerad faced him.
“You’re really going to teach us magic?”
“That’s what I said. Should I repeat myself?”
Grimalkin sighed. He looked at the Horns. Ceria and Pisces exchanged a glance.
“Miss Solstice offered me her assistance. So I’ll correct any bad habits Wistram’s drummed into you. If you have flaws in your combat style, I will fix them, and teach you a few spells. If Miss Solstice comes through on her end. For now, I want to see what your capabilities are.”
Pisces sneered back at Grimalkin. He’d gone back to contempt after their first encounter. The [Necromancer] flicked a hand and bones began to flow out of his bag of holding, arranging themselves into a Bone Horror.
“While I appreciate your superior magical abilities for now, Magus Grimalkin, what makes you think we’re not capable of teaching ourselves? Ceria and I have both made considerable progress in our personal studies.”
Ceria flushed. Pisces had, with his ever-improving Bone Golems and late nights recreating them into deadlier forms. She…usually drank and relaxed with a bit of spellbook reading after a mission from the Adventurer’s Guild. Grimalkin didn’t look impressed as he eyed the Bone Golem, however. It was turning into the classic double-headed war bear. He pointed at it and spoke.
“If that’s supposed to impress me, it’s failing. I’ve seen [Necromancers] and you’re far from Az’kerash, Pisces. That may work for Silver-rank threats, but any decent [Mage] will just say ‘[Dispel Magic]’.”
The Bone Horror, which had been building upwards, fell to pieces. Pisces and Ceria gaped at the bones lying on the ground. Yvlon and Ksmvr looked up. The [Wounded Warrior] bit her lip, trying not to laugh.
“That was—I was in the middle of animating that! You wouldn’t be able to do that if I finished the spell!”
Pisces spluttered, face red. Grimalkin raised his brows.
“Which is why I cast it before you finished. Your animation time is slow. Do you really think an opponent would give you that space in battle? Or was that meant to be intimidating? I told you two. Show me your magic.”
He gestured at Ceria and Pisces. The two looked at each other. Yvlon and Ksmvr watched as the two put their heads together. Yvlon casually unsheathed her sword.
“Are we fighting too?”
“If you like. This is just appraisal. But I might as well study your teamwork. Use the sword, by all means.”
“It’s got a fairly powerful enchantment of [Weight] on it.”
Yvlon warned Grimalkin. Ksmvr had armed himself with his shortsword and Forceshield. Grimalkin nodded, absently watching Pisces pulling the bones back into his bag of holding. Ceria had drawn her wand and was swishing it back and forth with her skeletal hand.
“A sword’s only good if it touches me. Which it won’t.”
Yvlon sucked in her breath. Grimalkin fixed her with one eye.
“I’m no adventurer. But I am Pallass’ greatest [Mage]. I’ll defend that title to anyone who challenges me—I don’t see the rest of the [Mages] lining up to try. Miss Byres, right? Swing as hard as you want. I’ll praise your gonads at least.”
There was no response to that. Yvlon just pulled out her helmet and fastened it to her armor grimly. Pisces and Ceria were also gearing up. The [Necromancer] flexed one hand as Ceria lined up.
“Standard formation, guys. I’ll do my thing—Ksmvr, flank while Yvlon attacks. But give Pisces enough time to summon his Bone Horror and we’ll all go in.”
The other two nodded. Grimalkin sighed. He looked at Pisces.
“You’re not summoning your undead ahead of time?”
“If this were an ambush, I would have plenty of faith in the speed of my animation.”
Pisces sniffed. Grimalkin just studied the sky. He eventually looked back down when Ceria coughed.
“What? Begin when you’re ready.”
With that, he kept looking up. Ceria looked at Yvlon and Pisces. He glowered and Yvlon nodded. Ceria nodded back and then raised her wand and shouted.
A thick wall of ice shot upwards, blocking him from the Horns. It was wide, and tall—Ceria gritted her teeth as the wall came up, thickening, growing from one foot to two feet. Pisces instantly pointed and bones flowed out of his bag.
“Those who have died, heed my call, rise twice to bring to my enemies—”
It was a chant, hastening the speed at which the bones assembled into the Bone Horror, three times as fast as before. Grimalkin stared as Yvlon set herself and Ksmvr readied his shield. Ceria grinned. The wall was three feet thick now, solid ice! She’d practice with that spell. She called out to Grimalkin.
“See? Buying time. It’s our basic strategy. Not bad, right? It can at least contain most enemies. In fact, we killed a bunch of Crelers, baby ones, using this—”
She was ready for him to try to jump over the wall, or go around. If he did, Ceria would freeze him in midair or create another wall and stymie him. That was the trick Pisces had come up with. When he made the first move, the Horns would scatter, use mobility against him as Yvlon took him on. He was strong, but ice spells were perfect in group fights.
But Grimalkin didn’t dash or jump or even take a step. He just regarded Ceria’s wall as it grew thicker and thicker. Then he sighed, lifted one arm, and made a fist.
A terrible foreboding crossed Ceria’s mind. And her [Dangersense] went off. As well as a certain memory. She watched as Grimalkin took a single stride forwards and raised a fist. Time slowed, and Ceria saw the fist plunge towards her. Exactly like—she looked left and saw Pisces’ eyes go round. Grimalkin reached out—
And he punched straight through the four-foot thick wall. The thick ice exploded outwards and Grimalkin’s fist knocked Yvlon off her feet down the hill. With the same motion he flicked his wrist and swatted Ceria off her feet. The explosion of ice made Ksmvr shield himself from the larger chunks with his Forceshield. He lowered, it, ready to attack—and then looked around and realized he was the last person on his feet.
Ksmvr looked to one side at Pisces. The [Necromancer] was doubled over. A piece of ice half the size of his torso had hit him in the groin. The Antinium looked up as Grimalkin withdrew his fist and looked down at him through the gaping hole in the ice wall.
The [Sinew Magus] walked through the hole in the wall and looked down at Ksmvr as Yvlon, swearing, and shouting, finally crashed down at the bottom on the hill and Ceria, unconscious, rolled on top of her. Grimalkin looked down at Ksmvr. The Antinium stared up at him and regarded his shortsword.
Ksmvr considered his options and then slowly raised his free hand.
“Um. Is this war?”