The inn was dark when the traveller first arrived. No—not traveller. She was, in fact, a Gnoll cub. She had white fur. Her name was Mrsha.
This was her home. But she had been away from home. Just for a little bit. And she had come back just now. But, for however short her absence had been—a lot could happen while you were away.
The Gnoll knew it before she pushed the door open to the inn. She paused, cautiously standing on two legs to push at the handle. She sniffed the air. And then, slowly, she swung the door open.
The first thing that greeted Mrsha was an empty inn. It was day, but the inn was unnaturally still. Too quiet. The Gnoll cub dropped to all fours and hesitated.
Where were the guests? The staff? It was…she sniffed the air again.
No dream. But she could see nothing but shadows in the inn. Then, as she padded inside and the door swung closed through no help of her own, she saw the red.
Red. Drops of crimson on the floors. Overturned tables. Broken chairs. Mrsha stared at the destruction. Then, slowly, she looked forwards and saw her.
There was a body lying amid the worst of the destruction. Something had hit a table hard enough to split it. And lying there, was a familiar person. In the center of the red.
Something terrible had happened. Mrsha froze. Then she slowly moved forwards. She saw Erin Solstice, lying in the splinters of wood. Surrounded by liquid.
A lot could happen while you were away. Mrsha stopped. Erin was breathing. But faintly. The Gnoll, eyes wide, looking left to right, still sniffing the air, stepped closer. Erin didn’t move. Her eyes were closed. Mrsha halted a few feet from her. She glanced around again and then patted the floor with one paw.
It made a faint sound. But she could not speak. Erin didn’t move. Mrsha looked around again. But the shadows were all she saw. She looked at Erin. Her fur was rising. Mrsha hesitated. Then she moved forwards. Her paws trailed in the red. She looked down. And then slowly, eyes wide. She reached out, for Erin’s face—
Erin came to life and screamed wildly while her hands flew up. Mrsha leapt away and Erin lunged. Her arms encircled the Gnoll and caught Mrsha as she fled for the door. Laughing, Erin scooped her up. Mrsha glared up at Erin and began licking the red liquid on Erin’s face. The [Innkeeper] started giggling.
“Gotcha! Well, how scary was it, Mrsha? Hey! Hey, that tickles!”
The lights came on. Embers flared in the fireplace, and the inn’s patrons emerged from their hiding spots, from behind the curtains of the [Grand Theatre] at the other end of the common room, the kitchen, the staircase—Lyonette walked out of the kitchen and put her hands on her hips.
Erin set Mrsha down. Reproachfully, the Gnoll stared up at her. Then she held up her paws and curled up a few fingers. Erin’s face fell.
“What? Six outta ten! But I was such a good actor!”
Laughter. Some of the guests who’d come out of hiding were chuckling. Rufelt, the Gnoll [Bartender] of Tails and Scales, shook his head as he stood up.
“I believe she smelled all of us, Erin. If you want to fool a Gnoll for your—house of horrors—you’ll have to block our noses.”
“And ears and eyes. She could also tell you were breathing, Erin. And that it was sauce on you, not blood.”
“Well—I know that! But even for a bit, isn’t the illusion good?”
“Better actual illusion magic or actual blood. I’m afraid it won’t work. Gnolls can smell as fast as you can see. You’ll never get them this way.”
Erin threw up her hands as Ishkr walked over with a wet towel. She wiped herself off, grumbling and letting Mrsha lick more tomato sauce off her face.
“Well, that’s a bust. Back to the drawing board! At least we got Hawk.”
“That wasn’t funny! I was about to raise the alarm! And if you were a second slower I would have! Watch Captain Zevara would have burnt me to ash for a false alarm!”
The Rabbit Beastkin complained as he clambered out from behind an overturned table. Mrsha watched as Erin pointed a finger and the artfully broken table and chairs reassembled.
“Don’t worry, Hawk. Captain Zevara hates me anyways.”
“I wonder why. Can I have a carrot cake now?”
“Sure! Carrot cake for everyone!”
Only Hawk and Mrsha cheered. The rest of Erin’s guests who’d taken part in her haunted house idea as participants or unwilling test subjects looked dubious. A Drake regular with half a tail—it had been severed and was now a stump only a few feet long—raised his claw.
“Does it taste like carrots?”
“That’s the best part! It only tastes sort of like carrots. It’s mostly like sugar!”
The Drake brightened up.
“Alright then! On the house?”
“Absolutely! It’s one cake, Lyonette.”
Erin waved at Ishkr. He looked at Lyonette first. Erin met Lyonette’s eyes pleadingly and held Mrsha up to add the silent appeal. The [Princess] sighed.
Everyone cheered that. Mrsha righted the table with Hawk’s help. Or rather, she sat on the table while the Rabbit Courier lifted it with one hand and clung to the edge, defying gravity and giggling silently. He had to smile.
The Wandering Inn was alive and well. Erin laughed as Ishkr came out of the kitchen with a carrot cake. Rufelt sniffed at the cake, noting the tiny carrots Erin had drawn on top.
“Hm. Looks sort of like the other ones.”
“Yeah, except when I cut it—tada! Orange! And you can see bits of carrots.”
“Ooh! Me first! Me first!”
Relc hurried into line, pushing people out of the way. He lifted Ceria up and dropped her to one side. The half-Elf protested of course, as did the two Gnolls and the half-tailed Drake veteran, but Relc simply pushed and they slid. He stopped as Mrsha cannonballed into one shin and a furry hand stopped him on the chest.
“Oh no you don’t. I asked, and I’m getting my cake after that heart attack.”
“Hey Hawk! Let me just get by you. I’ll finish my cake so fast you won’t even notice—”
The two jostled for position as Erin, rolling her eyes, sliced up the cake. Hawk was actually strong enough to push Relc, and they were so quick that it looked like a blur as they spun, pivoted, and ‘gently’ rammed each other out of the way.
“Thin slices because it’s for everyone. It’s extra healthy. Less sugar—although it tastes great! And carrot, which is good for the eyes and stuff. I didn’t even frost it all.”
“But that’s the best part!”
Relc complained. He and Hawk reached for the plate. Erin narrowed her eyes.
“Yeah! Get out of the way, you two!”
“Shut it whoever said that! I’m a Senior Guardsman and the first guest of this inn! I deserve first slice! Plus, that one’s the biggest.”
Erin made a face. She’d made the first slice biggest by accident by almost twice as much as the others. Hawk smiled.
“I’m not fighting with Relc, Miss Solstice. I’m just protesting a bully—”
“I’m just overeager for cake! It’s an addiction!”
Mrsha waved her paws between the two as they shoved around her. Erin sighed. Then she had a wicked idea. She turned and lifted the plate and cake like a discus.
“You want it?”
Lyonette raised her voice warning, but it was too late. Relc and Hawk turned as Erin’s arm shot out.
“Go get it!”
Patrons ducked or swore as Erin threw the plate down the length of the [Grand Theatre]. It had far to go—the expanded common room could hold hundreds of people very comfortably and Erin had thrown the plate and cake far enough to hit the [Actors] on stage at the back of the room.
But it never made it that far. Hawk and Relc jumped out of line and the plate sailed ten feet before Hawk zipped past Relc and caught the plate. He swore—he’d been just a step behind.
“Hey! The big slice is mine!”
“Eat my tail, Relc!”
Hawk laughed and he came to a stop, already chewing down a bite on a fork. Relc glared at him.
“I’m a Courier. Even the Gecko of Liscor can’t beat these legs.”
Relc opened his mouth, looked around, and made a strangled sound.
“Jerk! Hey! I’m at the front! Excuse me! Excuse me.”
Erin rolled her eyes, but she doled out the portions of cake to all of her guests. There were only about forty people in her inn at the moment. Put another way, there were forty people in the inn, and she was lucky not all wanted cake. Mrsha scarfed hers before Rufelt had even tasted his, and she peered over the table at his plate, licking crumbs out of her fur.
“Hm. This does taste different! I quite like it.”
Rufelt smiled as he tasted the carrot cake. Erin smiled.
“Whaddya think? Hawk? Good or not?”
The Courier smiled. He gave Erin a thumbs-up as he savored his last bite.
“I like it! How much for one?”
“Um, eight silver. Frosting runs you an extra four, but I can do any decoration you like.”
Rufelt’s brows shot up.
“Half a gold piece for a cake? Pricey.”
“Well—it’s unique to my inn for now. And it costs four to six silver for the ingredients alone depending on how much some of the stuff is. Two silver’s fair! Plus, Lyonette would kill me if I charged five.”
“Oh, absolutely not five. Seven or six would be fairer.”
The [Bartender] remarked thoughtfully. Hawk shook his head.
“I don’t care if it’s nine so long as it’s not an entire gold piece. And I’ll pay for frosting. How about…oh, can I make it a name?”
“Ooh. Got someone in mind?”
“Absolutely. I want to have something made of carrots that a date can like. Can you write Asheli? That’s ‘ash’ plus ‘e’, ‘l’, ‘i‘…”
Erin nodded. Ishkr was scribbling down the order on a quill with ink near the kitchen.
“It’s all on the order log! I’ll have it by tomorrow morning. You want hearts?”
Hawk was unembarrassed. He fished around in his jerkin pockets and came up with a glint of gold. Mrsha looked at it, deeply impressed.
“Can you change this?”
“Just one second! And would you like something else to drink? To eat?”
Moved by the speed of glitter, Lyonette was there and giving Hawk his change. He paused, thoughtfully.
“You know, Erin mentioned she’d made carrot bread. And carrot noodles…”
“Oh, the special orders? We can serve you a sample! Ishkr, bring out the two special dishes and some bowls! Free to everyone who wants to try it!”
Another cheer. Erin might have been surprised by Lyonette’s sudden generosity, but the glint in the [Princess]’s eyes was all avarice. Rufelt leaned on the table as Mrsha grabbed her plate.
“No licking! You can have some of the pasta or bread, but not too much!”
Erin scolded the Gnoll cub. Mrsha sighed. Rufelt laughed. He leaned over the table as Ishkr trotted into the kitchen to boil said pasta and heat up the bread. You couldn’t have carrot bread without it being warm and having butter, after all! He nodded at the patrons.
“Nice touch your assistant has there. Miss Lyonette knows how to work a crowd. Serve them food and have them buy drinks! Then again, Hawk alone will more than make up for the free food. He’ll pay anything to fix his carrot addiction. I’m a bit worried about him, to be honest.”
“Yeah. I mean, isn’t it a stereotype that rabbits like carrots? They don’t actually love it. It’s like—not good to feed them that all the time, right?”
“I uh, don’t know about stereotypes unless you’re intimately familiar with the Rabbit Beastkin tribe. Or…raising rabbits? I think it just tastes really good to Hawk. Like meat to Gnolls. Or fruits and Garuda. How do you make carrot noodles, by the way? Puree them and make a dough with some egg?”
Rufelt looked amused. Erin smiled with delight.
“Exactly! How did you know?”
“You don’t marry a [Chef] without picking up some tricks. By the way, she’ll be stealing that carrot cake as soon as I tell her about it.”
Erin good-naturedly wagged a finger. Rufelt grinned, exposing all his teeth as Lyonette came out with a steaming slice of buttered bread for Hawk, not Relc. The Rabbit-man perked up as he saw it was indeed carrot-based. Rufelt grinned totally unapologetically.
“Fair’s fair. Hawk’s a customer at Tails and Scales. We have to cater to his tastes! I can’t believe Lasica didn’t think of it—but then, she’s done all kinds of carrot-based dishes for him before.”
“Fancy stuff? Anything I can copy?”
“If you liked honey roasted carrots, or braising them in a stew—she could tell you all the ones she’s done for him. Between you and me, I think Hawk actually lays off the carrots if he likes someone. It’s just that he wants to meet someone who’ll eat some carrots among the Drakes he dates, so this is how he weeds them out.”
Erin watched as Lyonette showed Hawk a tidy bundle of the carrot noodles she’d made and the Courier obligingly pulled out more coins. Erin smiled. It was another ordinary day. In fact, this might be a small record for how peaceful it had been of late. Aside from excitement worldwide, Erin hadn’t done anything crazy since Esthelm.
And even that had been fairly uncrazy by her standards. This haunted house idea was the biggest thing so far. Erin didn’t know why she’d thought of it—it wasn’t near October! But she’d missed it last year and it was a fun concept.
“So, where’s Lasica?”
Rufelt looked up and shrugged.
“Shopping for tonight. I’m free.”
“You’re not joined at the hip?”
“Hardly! You have to give a lovely lady like Lasica time to herself. That’s how the relationship works, Erin.”
“Ooh. Gotcha. Advice from an expert! I’m not in on the dating scene right yet.”
“No? A nice young Human girl like you doesn’t have Gnolls and Drakes coming by?”
Erin coughed, turning red at Rufelt’s smile. He was better at teasing than she was! He and Lasica often visited the inn, despite the issue of teleporting from Pallass.
“Well, I mean, there was this thing with this Drake—and uh, Goblins. Word got around. But I’m not super into dating even when I was home. I had a boyfriend once—”
Thump. Mrsha had fallen off the table. Rufelt raised his eyebrows, not seeing Lyonette, Relc, Ceria, Drassi, even Ishkr all turn and look at Erin. She waved it off, blushing.
“Just for a bit. It’s hard. Dating, you know? I like chess more. Um—so about the haunted house! Thoughts?”
Rufelt obligingly changed the subject, ignoring the blatant curiosity from everyone else. He frowned.
“I think it needs work, honestly. You can’t fool a Gnoll with illusions or with poor tricks. Even if you got say, cow’s blood, we can smell the difference.”
“Darn your noses!”
Erin raised a fist and shook it comically. Mrsha climbed up and sat smugly next to the two adults. Rufelt grinned.
“On the other hand, it’s a fun idea. A house where you get scared on purpose? Children might enjoy it. It beats Liscor’s actual terrors. But why are you so insistent on trying to make one?”
“Well—Temile wanted to know if I had any more plays and stuff. And I don’t. Plus, I’ve run out of new foods! At least, any really new stuff. This is easier!”
Erin spread her arms, shrugging. Rufelt raised both brows.
“And you’re not making magical foods? Lasica said she could help you with that.”
“That’s a lotta work! Ingredients are expensive, you can burn a hole right through your cauldron and it might, you know, do something. And I’ve been trying to keep it calm lately. Haunted houses? That’s silly fun! Just what I need!”
Erin waved her hands vaguely. Rufelt nodded.
“But what made you think of it now? It’s such a strange idea.”
He was giving Erin a searching look, one she was familiar with. The young woman looked blank.
“I dunno. Sometimes you just have weird thoughts. Like—do you ever wonder if Selphids get itchy?”
The Gnoll [Bartender] had to process that question. He opened his mouth.
“I—well, no. But I suppose that explains that.”
“Yeah. Hey, let me talk to Temile. Be one sec!”
Erin waited a beat, and then turned across the inn. On stage, the Players of Celum—at least, the second-stringers who were making up the troupe still working from Celum were rehearsing for their daily plays. Erin got up and walked over to them. As she did, she navigated down the long room. And everyone she met along the way she knew.
“Hi there, Fleaears! What’s up, Menolit? Like the noodles? Awesome! Numbtongue! Want some bread? No? Okay!”
A Gnoll, the Drake [Veteran] with the missing tail, and the Hobgoblin all looked up from their respective tables. Fleaears, who did not currently have fleas, grinned at Erin.
Menolit nodded to Erin, smiling. He had a scar that had blasted all the scales clear around his neck and a pock mark under one eye along with his missing tail. For all that, he wasn’t too old—he was most certainly retired, though. At least from the army. Erin grinned at him.
“Like the pasta?”
“I might bring some back for the family. Can I get an order for tonight? Regular pasta works, actually. Just put some of those spicy meatballs in and some of the good sauce. Cheese? My kids love it.”
“Alfredo and spicy meatballs! On the order!”
Ishkr came by and obligingly noted down the details. It was a new system at the inn. Lyonette was making changes and Erin loved this one. Instead of having her in the kitchen all the time, there was a running ‘meal order’ system whereby patrons could request a dish for this night, tomorrow, or other dates and Erin would know what to cook. It worked since she was still the inn’s only [Cook]—for now. She passed by Menolit and came to a Hobgoblin who’d declined to eat cake or the other carrot-based foods.
“Hey Numbtongue, how’s it going?”
The Hobgoblin was absently reading a book. He looked up and Erin was impressed by how far he’d gotten already. She knew Numbtongue could read of course, but that fluently? Then again, maybe it was the other Goblin who he could call upon now.
Changes to the inn. Now there was a [Goblin Soulbard] in the inn along with a [Princess], both of whom had powers they could use only a few times a day. It meant that for a minute, Numbtongue could be Pyrite. He often shared meals with the other Hobgoblin—or used him when mining in the mountains. Or sometimes, Pyrite just appeared, to sit for a minute, or enjoy a drink.
It was sad and kind and Erin had no idea what to make of it entirely. On the other hand, she knew exactly how to feel about Lyonette and that was jealously.
Lyonette came out of the kitchen with a nearly-perfectly done veggie burger, courtesy of Erin’s recipe, but the product of Lyonette’s Skill. It wasn’t perfect—Erin had seen Lasica, a real [Chef] making food in an instant and of higher quality than should have been strictly possible with her Skills.
Still, Erin would have wagered this was as good as any regular cook’s best efforts from Earth! It wasn’t perfect, again, but it was the best attempt Lyonette could conceivably do, which meant she had made a darn good burger!
Out of veggies. The Gnolls sniffed the air once and shook their heads. The Drakes looked equally disgusted, but Hawk looked delighted.
“This is great! I’m coming back to this inn more often! It’s hard to find a place besides Tails and Scales that serves convenient non-meat food.”
“It’s hard living among carnivores, you mean. Drakes and Gnolls. You should live among half-Elves. They’re more your style.”
Ceria spoke up from her table. That was somewhat ironic, and Hawk gave her a knowing look.
“Miss Ceria, I’ve seen you eat all-meat dishes three nights in a row.”
The half-Elf blushed.
“Yeah, well—I’m not a typical half-Elf. Meat’s good alright?”
“Yeah! Let’s have real hamburgers! For free?”
Relc pounded the table. Lyonette just folded her arms. Laughing, Erin turned back to Numbtongue and found he was engrossed in his book. She went on.
“Temile! Bad news! The haunted house idea might not work on Gnolls!”
The [Actor] looked up from the rehearsal and cursed. He was now actually a [Producer], if a low-level one. But he had taken charge of the Players of Celum and was whipping his new cast of Drakes, Gnolls and Humans into shape. Erin shrugged helplessly.
“Sorry. Unless you or the Players who went north get the [Writers] to make more plays, you might be outta luck. Because I’m all outta plays. I’ve used up all the ones I actually knew from home. I mean, you could try The Lorax or something, but I don’t think it works.”
Temile looked up excitedly. Erin waved a hand.
“No, no. It’s a children’s story. It’s not a good play.”
The [Actors] not practicing had gathered around Erin. She was a bit embarrassed by the way they treated her—she was almost like a boss and an acting legend to them, as the person who’d helped them discover the world of theatre to begin with. She cleared her throat, embarrassed.
“Any word from Wesle, Jasi, and the rest?”
Temile sighed enviously.
“Just bits and pieces. I’ve heard they’re going north. They’re actually around Invrisil by now! They’ve been performing in each city—sold out shows once word got out. They’d stay a few days, then go by carriage to the next city! Apparently they’re making more money than they can spend! And some of it’s come back!”
He nodded around significantly to the other [Actors] and then pointed to the rest of the crew.
“See our staff? We’ve got [Builders] and [Carpenters] working with us now, thanks to the money we’re getting from working and the northern team. I’ve got apartments leased so we’re all in one place, and I’m even looking at making some sort of deal in Celum or Liscor for the same for our new [Actors]. Honestly, we could even afford to buy a place to perform and store our things if you weren’t hosting us. I might need to tell Wesle to stop sending coin!”
“Don’t do that! Take it and use it!”
One of the other Human [Actors], a woman, urged Temile. She looked at Erin.
“Miss Solstice, we can’t fall behind! Emme says their [Writers] are doing bits and pieces, but nothing as good as what we have yet. Can’t you give us anything new? Our regular crowd has seen everything so far and since we can’t all go through the door to Pallass…”
They were all looking at her. Erin winced; Shakespeare and the classics of the acting world were a high bar to force [Writers] to match. She sighed.
“I dunno, guys. I’m serious—I can’t remember any full plays. I have a Skill and I’m empty.”
“What about the story you mentioned?”
“What, The Lorax? It—doesn’t translate well.”
“Give it a try!”
Now even the Drakes and Gnolls practicing their lines were gathering. Erin held up her hands, trying not to succumb to peer pressure. And failing.
“No—come on. It’s just a kid’s story. You see, there’s this, uh, magical protector of the forests, and this guy who begins selling these uh, special, magical trees that provide a unique substance—”
The crowd listened attentively. Erin realized that the story of Dr. Seuss’ classics were actually very plausible in this world. She gave them an abbreviated version of the story, ending with the message of environmental awareness.
“And then there were no more trees, see? And so it’s terrible. And that’s the ending.”
She looked around, gauging the reaction of the crowd. Erin had thought that a message of conservation wouldn’t exactly fly in the pre-industrial world she now lived in. Surprisingly though, some of the Gnolls were nodding solemnly. They got it. Temile and the Drakes on the other hand…
One of the Drakes raised a claw, frowning.
“So why doesn’t he find another forest?”
“It’s unique, obviously. That’s the point.”
“So? Replant the damn things! Or get a [Druid] to regrow it all. Even a [Farmer] could do it, although it would take a few years. Easy. Oh! I get it! It’s a lesson about not being prepared. Duh.”
“It’s certainly not as dramatic as love betrayed, death, and the downfall of the mighty due to hubris and the follies of men.”
“And Drakes and Gnolls.”
Someone else put that in helpfully. Erin had to smile. She shook her head.
“Sorry. I tried the haunted house thing, but Gnolls smell too well. I suppose we could use illusions?”
Temile had helped set up the fake scenes with Erin. He stepped back and called into the crowd.
A Drake pushed himself forwards. Erin blinked; he bowed slightly to her as Temile introduced him.
“This is our special effects person, Erin. Jexam, tell Miss Erin about your abilities.”
The Drake shook Erin’s hand, beaming.
“A pleasure, Miss Solstice! I am indeed the uh, special effects of the plays. [Hedge Mage]. Self-taught. I do all the illusions for the Players of Celum—this group, at least. I know our main troupe was seeking out a real [Illusionist]. I’m afraid though that my abilities aren’t enough to handle your idea of this haunted house.”
“Don’t be modest! I’ve seen you doing effects and they’re great! I love the snow magic! It even feels cold!”
The Drake blushed with pride at Erin’s compliment.
“It’s an honor to hear you say that, but it’s just low-grade magic. Not even Tier 1. [Cooling Breeze]. Just a little cantrip I worked up. It’s wonderful on hot days. I used to get paid just to cool rooms down. The problem with illusions on the other hand is that I have to work for a long time to make them work well. And animating them? Making them real? Very tricky and I’m not high-enough level yet. Nor am I an [Illusionist], Miss Erin.”
He looked apologetic. Erin shook her head.
“Aw, that’s okay. Gnolls could probably smell that they’re fake. I think we really need to rethink how we’ll do a haunted house or put it on the shelf, Temile. I mean, we could do the creepy little girls, but can you make an entire haunted house out of little creepy girls?”
Erin nodded sadly. Temile looked around. The Players of Celum had their own area behind the stage that was more or less permanently filled with props, and some dedicated tables they could eat and drink at—discounted or free after performances! He gestured to Erin.
“What if we think over the idea? Hey, you lot, get a space cleared for Miss Solstice. We have some water—where’s the pitcher?”
“I’ll just get it! Excuse me! Water please!”
Laughing, Erin waved towards the front of the inn. That was the thing about being an [Innkeeper] with a staff! And it was Lyonette herself who came over to offer everyone a refill.
“Trouble with your newest idea, Erin?”
She sounded vaguely relieved. Erin sighed.
“Yeah. I really thought it’d be a small thing, but—fun, you know? But if we can’t make it good for all species, what’s the point?”
Lyonette nodded as she put the pitcher down. Temile and some of the ‘veterans’, who’d been acting for a few months were gathered around the table, thinking it over.
“Could we erase the smells in the room?”
“Maybe. But that’s a higher-level spell than I know as well, Temile.”
Jexam sighed. Temile slapped his thigh in vexation. Erin frowned.
“We could definitely do monsters, or costumes—although that’s hard work. But if you can’t surprise a Gnoll because he can smell you, what can you do?”
Lyonette studied Erin’s face and then smiled slightly.
“You know who’d be perfect for your plan, Erin? You-know-who.”
“Volde—oh. Hey, that’s not funny!”
Erin looked up sharply. Lyonette gave her a twisted smile, but she could at least joke about Toren these days. Erin shook her head in reply to Temile’s querying look. Then she sat up.
“I think we’ll draw the line at asking Pisces to do stuff with actual skeletons. But what about illusions? He is good at them.”
“Really? I wouldn’t be surprised given how he boasts, but I’ve only seen him—no, wait, he did them for the first plays, didn’t he?”
Lyonette frowned, intrigued. Erin nodded.
“Yeah! And I’ve seen him do great stuff as well! The first time I met him he disguised himself as this terrifying monster! That’s actually how he lived before he came here. He’d frighten people out of their money! He could do the voice, smell—and a horrifying image!”
“Do you think he’d teach Jexam, or at least work on a few spells?”
Temile was interested. Erin bit her lip, thinking. It would be a lot of work to rope Pisces into doing a haunted house, but Erin still wanted to give it a shot. She had a vision of a warehouse, or a house in say, Liscor, that people could go into and experience cheap, non-life-threatening scares!
“Maybe. If I bribe him, sure. And he likes the plays. I bet he’d love to scare people. I haven’t seen him. Lyonette, do you know where he is?”
The [Princess] looked up as she refilled the last cup.
“No. I had to have Drassi bring him up breakfast because he was in his room all day. He might be there still.”
“He missed breakfast? That’s unusual. Hold on, Temile. I’ll get back to you.”
So saying, Erin got up and wandered down the length of her inn. There was only one Horn of Hammerad today, and Ceria was finishing her lunch.
“Hey Ceria, where’s your team?”
The half-Elf looked up from her sausages. She chewed, swallowed, and nodded towards the door.
“Yvlon and Ksmvr are in Liscor. I’m just about to join them, actually. We’re all going to visit the Bloodfields. Scouting.”
Erin slapped her forehead.
“Oh. Right! Bevussa stopped by this morning. She wanted one of the mana stones. You’re going to teleport there, right? It’s not too far?”
Ceria shook her head.
“Only about as far as to Celum. Even less, I think. We’re going to the edge of the Bloodfields—nowhere closer with it active. But it’ll save us from having to camp out and march all the way there while we find a route. We’ll all be back once Bevussa sets up a door.”
“Handy having her do that, huh?”
The [Cryomancer] grinned.
“I heard Tekshia made Bevussa do it. She didn’t want to pay Hawk to run out that far.”
“I wouldn’t even have charged her that much! Your Guildmistress is a spendthrift! Classic Drake!”
Hawk called out from his table. Ceria chuckled.
“I’m going with the other teams to see how it looks. Oh—but Pisces won’t be coming with us.”
“What? Why? And do you know where he is?”
“He made a very good point that he annoys the other teams. Almost as much as Yvlon and I do with the Celum ones—”
She grimaced. Erin looked at her sympathetically; she’d heard about the Horn’s troubles in Celum.
“They’re still mad at you?”
“Well, they agreed to join the Bloodfields expedition, so they’re willing to be civil. Plus, it pays well and we’re all adventurers. But Pisces might aggravate them even more than Yvlon and me. Plus, Pisces is actually studying hard. I…don’t want to interrupt him, as the team leader, you know?”
Erin looked blank. Ceria nodded.
“Oh yeah. And I mean studying. He was always good at focusing—more than me. I have to sit in a bathtub with Ksmvr boiling my skin off to concentrate, but Pisces studies on his own. These last few days—remember when he woke us up screaming? Ever since then he’s been in his room. He barely comes out to eat.”
“I noticed that. Huh. What’s he working on?”
The half-Elf finished the last of her meal and wiped at her mouth with the back of her hand.
“Undead? No, but seriously, Erin. He’s studying a new spell, I think. He keeps muttering about ‘puzzles’ and the complexity of it. I think he’s trying to take down another Tier 4 spell. It’s worth letting him work to do that. Me—I’m just trying to improve my spell power. Grimalkin says I’m making progress—I’m not burning myself anymore.”
She sighed. Her daily boil-baths were another facet of the new inn lifecycle. Erin patted her on the back sympathetically.
“Hang in there. And hey—cheer up. Grimalkin might not come tonight!”
“He comes every night, Erin.”
“Well, to help you!”
The [Sinew Magus] was surprisingly dedicated to his agreement with Erin. He’d come every day this week to drop Ceria in boiling water and shout encouragements at her for an hour or two. The half-Elf shuddered.
“I know he’s coming tonight. Frankly, the Bloodfields will be the fun part of the day. Look, I’ve gotta meet Yvlon and Ksmvr. It’s nearly time to head out. We’ll come back through this way. Hey, did Moore and Seborn already leave?”
“Nope. They went to Pallass, actually.”
“Pallass? But the door—”
Ceria twisted and Erin smiled.
“Moore charged it! He can do it for Seborn and him, but it tires him out. Seborn’s refusing to walk to Invrisil while Jelaqua’s, you know, seeing Maughin?”
She waggled her eyebrows. Ceria stared at them and then at Erin’s face. The young woman stopped.
“Well, it’s just as far as the door to Invrisil. What about their wagon?”
“Apparently they’re in a little fortress of vines with a bunch of food. I dunno. Seborn’s mad at Jelaqua, it’s this thing—I’m never going to get the door to Invrisil!”
Erin sighed. She needed it too, so she could find Ryoka! But that was a big thing, and this week had been pleasantly full of small things. But Ryoka—Erin wanted to find her. She had to come back. Even if she brought danger. Ceria shrugged in reply to the drama of the Halfseekers. She pushed herself up.
“Well, hopefully they sort it out. See you, Erin.”
“Oh! Wait! Can I get Pisces to help me with this haunted house thing? Or will it take too long?”
Erin pleaded with Ceria. The half-Elf bit her lip.
“I don’t know. Pisces would probably say yes—why not? He’s got time and it’s his choice. But you’ll have to knock a lot. And he might be snappish. Come to that, did he eat lunch?”
“I’ll bribe him with food. Hey, can I get some sausages and some of that pasta?”
Erin called towards the kitchen. For once no one appeared with the food. Her staff weren’t all slaves, so Erin marched in and got it herself. She’d filled a big bowl and stuck a fork in the meal, then went with Ceria. They were about to climb the stairs to Pisces’ room when Drassi caught them.
The Drake was working alongside Ishkr today. The [Barmaid] and incorrigible [Gossip] waved at Erin and Ceria and the two stopped to look at her.
“Hey, I just heard you’re looking for Pisces? He’s out.”
“What? I thought he was in his room, studying.”
Drassi grinned toothily at Erin.
“He was. But Selys got him. This morning, when you were pranking everyone. Didn’t you notice?”
“No…what did Selys want with Pisces?”
“I think she was going shopping for magical items. You know, since she’s rich? She told Pisces she wanted his opinion. So they left. They’re not back yet.”
The [Gossip] looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] looked at her. There was something to be said for having Drassi on staff. If Ishkr was the dependable employee that every establishment needed, because it needed someone who brought no drama in, had few demanding quirks and whose only goal was to do his job, get paid, and go home, Drassi was the employee who knew everything and everyone. Erin sighed.
“Well, great. Selys has Pisces. We’ll have to wait. If you see him on the way to the Adventurer’s Guild, tell him I wanted to see him, Ceria?”
The half-Elf adventurer headed for the door. Erin, shaking her head, went to put the food away. As she did, a thought struck her. Selys. And Pisces. Going shopping?
“That almost sounds like a date.”
Ceria paused. She looked back at Erin.
“With Pisces? No way.”
Erin laughed uncertainly.
“Yeah! I mean, Selys? I don’t see it. She’s got standards! And Pisces—”
Both paused. Then they grew thoughtful. Drassi looked between the two and broke in.
“Going shopping together? That sounds like a date to me. Hey Erin, what’s this about your boyfriend?”
The sword swung at her neck. She could trace the arc. Not with her eyes alone—it was too fast to visually process and come up with a thought-out plan of response. Her body moved by instinct, by training.
That was what it meant to be a [Warrior]. So she was already raising her two-handed sword, knocking the blade aside. It meant she had also seen the stab coming from the side. She pivoted, letting it slash across her armor. Her sword darted in, chopping quickly at her opponent’s unguarded side.
Normally that would be enough. But what got her each time was her opponent. He had three arms. And the enchanted buckler caught her attack and neutralized it. All the force she’d put into the blow stopped on the glowing force field of energy in the air. Yvlon Byres saw ripples as she retreated. Too slow. Ksmvr swung the dagger and his practice sword. She saw him use a Skill—
Yvlon raised her sword and Ksmvr’s sword slashed across her guard with a crack of wood meeting wood that made some of the other sparring partners glance up from their sessions. Yvlon winced and called out.
“Pause! Ksmvr, that’s good enough for today.”
Obediently, the Antinium [Skirmisher] lowered his weapons. He’d been zipping around their dueling area, using his newfound [Quick Movement] Skill to pressure her. Yvlon lowered her blade, wiping sweat from her forehead as she removed her helmet. Ksmvr hopped over to the place where they’d stored their actual weapons and came back with a bottle of water.
True to the Antinium’s practical nature, he had already drunk a few mouthfuls. Yvlon accepted the bottle, smiling.
“You are welcome, Yvlon.”
The two were training in the Adventurer’s Guild’s practice yard. It was fairly full even in the morning; it was one of the few areas in the city where people were able to practice their skill at arms. And in a world where [Warriors] went toe-to-toe with monsters and magic-users, they had to practice. Now, Yvlon and Ksmvr stopped for a small break. If people were waiting they’d have given up the sparring circle, but they had time. A pair of Gnolls were exchanging artful cuts with axe vs sword to their left and no one was using the place to their right.
“You predicted my [Quick Slash], Yvlon. I am most impressed. May I ask how you anticipated it?”
Yvlon smiled at Ksmvr. She gestured with her sword to his. He had kept his Forceshield Buckler since it wasn’t dangerous in the sparring match, but he’d substituted his regular enchanted shortsword and Flamecoat Dagger for wooden ones to keep the spar fair. Just like how she’d put away her Sword of Weight and taken a bastard sword instead.
“I knew it was coming, Ksmvr. You should have gotten my back or forced me into a position where I can’t block it. I’m always ready for it.”
“Ah. But if you were not you, Yvlon, surely I would catch you by surprise?”
The two were discussing tactics. It was their custom to spar every day and they were a regular sight at the Adventurer’s Guild. Yvlon shrugged, feeling at her arms.
She was wearing armor. Enchanted steel—a bit mismatched in decoration because it had all been bought piece-meal, and a bit ill-fitting compared to her brother’s custom plate, but still high-quality. It was more expensive than anyone but a Gold-rank adventurer could field, really. But her arms—
Yvlon never took off the armor that covered her arms, from the wrist all the way to her shoulders. Never in public, and usually, not even when she was alone. Ksmvr noticed the motion and Yvlon stopped herself. She cleared her throat.
“I don’t think you should count on that, Ksmvr. People can generally expect you’ve got a Skill like that. Most [Warriors] learn one of the primary activation Skills. [Quick Slash], [Power Strike], [Counter Blow]—they’re all Skills that turn into better ones as you gain levels.”
“Oh. So my deception is already a predetermined variable.”
Yvlon paused. Sometimes Ksmvr sounded like Pisces, only without the sneer. Her lips moved and she nodded.
“Yes. You should instead circle and use it to capitalize on an opening rather than make it a surprise attack.”
The Antinium nodded. He was a skilled fighter, but unlike Yvlon, he’d only been alive for a few years. He was almost four years old. That shocked Yvlon when she thought about it, but the Antinium were adults when they were ‘born’. Even so, fighting with a four-year-old would have given her pause. But Ksmvr had nowhere else to go. The Antinium gestured with one of his three arms to Yvlon.
“May I ask what your Skill is, Yvlon? I know you have mentioned it, but I have never seen you use it in any battle.”
“What? Oh. That’s because mine isn’t good against monsters. I have [Crescent Cut]. Want to see it?”
“Okay then. I’ll cut at you hard and fast. You block it, alright?”
The Antinium nodded. Yvlon lifted her sword with a smile. She saw him raise his bucker, watching her sword. She lifted her blade over her head and then swung it as fast as she could.
She slashed diagonally at his chest and he moved flawlessly to block it. Yvlon used her Skill.
Her blade curved in its trajectory. It swept down, like the arc of a waning moon. Ksmvr tried to adjust his shield, but the Skill slid Yvlon’s blade down, fast, fast. Without losing momentum, it curved along the arc, sweeping below his guard. It would have hit him hard if Yvlon hadn’t pulled the blow. As it was, the thwok was audible throughout the practice courts.
“You alright, Ksmvr? Did I crack your shell?”
Yvlon looked concerned as she glanced at Ksmvr. The Antinium wore no armor; he had forgone it since armor was hard to fit on his body anyways and he was a [Skirmisher], built for speed. Ksmvr felt at his side and shook his head.
“I am undamaged superficially. A splendid Skill, Yvlon. It does not slow the blade. If anything, it speeds up.”
Yvlon leaned on her sword, smiling crookedly.
“Exactly. It’s a neat trick you can use on someone expecting a [Quick Slash]. But it’s mostly good against opponents who’re trying to block, Ksmvr. Not monsters. I wish I had your Skill—or [Power Strike], honestly.”
“I don’t know about that. I’ve seen you take down a score of [Bandits] and I never complained once when you saved my life.”
Yvlon Byres turned. Her fair hair moved in the breeze. She stopped at the familiar voice. She saw a woman holding a staff, wearing chitin armor made of a Shield Spider, watching from the spectator’s side of the practice courts. Yvlon stopped uncertainly.
The man standing next to the [Mage] raised his hand. He was older than Yvlon and the [Mage]. A grizzled veteran with pepper in his hair. Crossbow Stan smiled hesitantly as Ksmvr turned.
Yvlon hesitated. The two Silver-rank captains were watching her and Ksmvr. She looked at Ksmvr. But then she put a smile on her face and walked towards them.
“Hello. You two made it here alright?”
She spoke politely to the two Silver-rank adventurers. Alais nodded. She’d been the one who’d called out. She knew Yvlon. Yvlon knew her. Once, they had been fellow adventurer team leaders. Friends, if not especially close.
Now? Well, at least they could speak civilly. Alais nodded, watching Ksmvr as he went over to put the practice weapons away. She looked at Yvlon and the [Wounded Warrior] saw her throat move before she spoke.
“Not bad. We caught the end of the session. You train like that every day? Your skill hasn’t left you.”
“Thanks. We were just finishing our spar. We’re not late, are we?”
“No, no. Our teams just got in from the—inn. We’re all gathered. Is Ceria not coming?”
“She should be here soon.”
Yvlon answered distractedly. Stan gestured.
“Good job that. Your teammate—”
“That is me. Hello, Crossbow Stan, Captain Alais. We have met. Are we fighting or socializing, Yvlon?”
The woman winced as she took her sword from Ksmvr. She saw Alais and Stan’s expressions flicker, but that was what was lovable and tricky about Ksmvr. He lacked subtlety. Actually, she liked that about him.
“No, Ksmvr. We’re teammates, remember? All working together on the Bloodfields request? Cutting a permanent trade route towards Pallass?”
“Yes, Yvlon. I am aware. However, I perceived that last time we were similarly engaged in discourse before turning to violence. I simply wished to know if that was an option in the future.”
Yvlon chorused with Alais and Stan. She turned to Ksmvr.
“No more fighting. That was—”
She paused. Alais looked to one side. Stan filled in for her.
“A bad scene. Lots of thoughtless words.”
“On whose side?”
Yvlon nudged Ksmvr. He looked at her, but obediently fell silent. She turned back to Alais and Stan and tried to smile. It felt about as good as Alais’.
“We’re professionals. And we’re working together, so be nice, Ksmvr. Stan? Where’s your team?”
Relieved, Stan led the other three adventurers into the Guild. Alais looked warily as a group of Drakes passed her to fill the adventuring yard.
“It’s my first time in Liscor. It’s so—”
“Different from a Human city?”
Alais bit her lip. Stan looked a bit reproving, but Yvlon hadn’t meant it as an insult! They were all Silver-ranks, having adventured for years, but not all of them had ever been down as far as Liscor. Yvlon hadn’t until recently; she’d felt that it wasn’t her area. Stan on the other hand had been doing this job for decades.
“Liscor’s alright. Good city; the Watch keeps order. You don’t have to watch your back at night most places. Can’t say I don’t like those walls either.”
He nodded towards Liscor’s four tall walls that marked the edge of the city. Yvlon exchanged a look with Ksmvr.
“They’re nice, but I’d prefer them twice as tall and thick, honestly.”
“Really? They’re already better than most Human cities. But I guess with all the monsters and undead—”
Alais stopped delicately, glancing at Yvlon. The other woman compressed her mouth and Stan glared at Alais. It was with some relief that they entered into the main room of the Adventurer’s Guild.
“And here we are.”
Yvlon saw the room was packed! More than nine teams filled the usually quiet Guild, most of them Human. She recognized the two teams Alais and Stan made for.
They were both Silver-rank teams. Thunder’s Solace and the Boltspitters. Good, solid teams, like the Horns of Hammerad had been.
Like the Silver Spears, too. Yvlon suppressed the thought, but she couldn’t help but tense. Neither could the two teams of adventurers. They looked up at Yvlon and Ksmvr and their postures stiffened.
But they’d been through this. Yvlon forced a smile as she walked over to the teams. She didn’t sit, though.
“I see all the Boltspitters are here except for Lailli. And Thunder’s Solace. Hello, Caddin.”
He didn’t even meet her gaze. Yvlon still remembered hitting him again and again in the Adventurer’s Guild. She turned to Alais. The rest of Thunder’s Solace only glanced up at Yvlon.
A bad scene.
“Well, I think we’ll go look for Ceria. Meeting’s about to start. We’ll talk after. Alais?”
Unconvincing smiles. Yvlon backed away. But she’d played nice and—and that was important. She knew the other teams had seen her. Many of them were groups she recognized. Some were whispering.
Yvlon Byres. Captain of the Silver Spears. One of the leaders of the group that got wiped out in Liscor’s dungeon. It felt like forever ago, but her reputation still haunted her. She walked towards the main doors, looking for Ceria. Ksmvr stared at the Boltspitters and Thunder’s Solace. The adventurers stared at him too, but for different reasons. He edged closer and they all leaned back, staring at the Antinium.
Ksmvr glanced over his shoulder at Yvlon, paused and whispered.
“Ksmvr, stop that!”
He hurried after her and found Yvlon outside. She was leaning against the side of the Guild, massaging her arms again. The Antinium saw her look up with a grimace.
“Don’t provoke them, Ksmvr. We made up. We can at least be civil.”
“I am sorry, Yvlon.”
Ksmvr lowered his head. Yvlon instantly smiled, and then felt at her arm again. It didn’t hurt. It should, but—she felt liquid. And as she sniffed at the edges of her armor she grimaced. Foul. She shook her head.
“I’m not angry, Ksmvr. It’s funny. They don’t actually mind you as much. I think they actually respect you for taking out all those [Bandits].”
“I understand the joke. The hated Antinium is given higher esteem than the fellow Human adventurers. I will register my amusement if laughter is indicated. But I do not believe their complaint is valid, Yvlon.”
“Yeah, well—I nearly broke Caddin’s jaw. That’s enough reason to hold a grudge again. Look, just be polite when we go back in. There’ll be other teams—Ceria and I can handle them. Just as well Pisces isn’t with us. We can’t take all of them in a brawl.”
Ksmvr tilted his head as if counting and nodded at last. He stared as Yvlon cursed.
“Your arms are not well, Yvlon?”
She looked up. He was staring at her arms. Few people knew the extent of Yvlon’s injuries except for her friends. She had been injured a while back. At Albez. A fire elemental had melted her old armor. And the metal had burnt right into her arms. Lodged there.
Metal mixed with bone. It had made her arms weak, so fragile they could break if she hit something too hard. Yvlon had thought it was the end of her career—until Pisces had helped her reinforce the bone. Now her arms looked—well, she didn’t feel the alterations he’d made and they were as solid as ever. She didn’t even feel pain if she didn’t want to. She could literally [Ignore Pain]. But another complication had emerged a week back. She shook her head.
“It’s not bad. Just a bit infected. I’ve had worse.”
Pus and blood. That was what she’d see if she opened the gauntlets. Ksmvr stared at her arms and Yvlon looked away. The Antinium’s voice was serious.
“It is not good, Comrade Yvlon. Infections are very bad for a [Warrior]. A healing potion will make it worse. That is how potions work.”
“I know. I know, Ksmvr. I just can’t take a bad injury, that’s all. And if I used a potion, it might clear up.”
Or grow ten times worse in the flash of an eye. Ksmvr was pointedly quiet. Yvlon cleared her throat, looking away. He was the only one who knew about the infection, and that was because he had walked in on her dressing the wounds. She and Ksmvr were—friends. More than he was with anyone but Pisces. But only he called her ‘Yvlon’ and not Comrade Pisces, or Captain Ceria.
“If I need to, I can use a healing potion. It’ll make this worse, but the rest of my body will still heal, Ksmvr. Look. I’ll talk to Ceria about it, okay?”
“Does it hurt? If it hurts—”
“It doesn’t hurt. It’s strong.”
Yvlon made a fist with her right hand and pounded it into her left palm as hard as she could, feeling the shock run through the metal gauntlets. Inside her armor, her arm didn’t flex or break as it would have before. That was thanks to Pisces. He’d used his necromancy to reinforce her bone with artificial pieces. What he couldn’t do was fix her flesh and tissue, hence the infection as the metal and skin rubbed at each other.
If only he could fix the underlying bone issue. He’d told her he was working on it. But it was beyond complicated, even for a [Necromancer], apparently. A lot of Yvlon’s bone was just—gone. And the metal wasn’t exactly solid steel; it had all the strength of a…a…really thin bit of metal. A lock pick. But even they were stronger than…
Yvlon Byres stopped. She stopped thinking about her arms. She stopped worrying about them because that was an endless cycle. She stood straighter, sighed, and smiled at Ksmvr. It was her life now. And once, she had had another team. But this was hers. She turned as she saw a familiar half-Elf striding towards them. Ceria’s robes were shimmering and the half-Elf’s pointed ears were twitching with nerves.
“Yvlon! Ksmvr! Am I late? Something wrong?”
She stopped, panting slightly from her jog. Yvlon shook her head as Ksmvr opened her mandibles.
“It’s nothing. Ceria, everyone’s here. Stan and Alais are there. And some others. Let’s go in!”
She wanted to go inside with no further fuss and just do her job, which was be an adventurer. But Ksmvr lacked subtlety. He raised one hand.
“Hello. We are not late. Good to see you again, Captain Ceria. Before we engage in our mission briefing, I would like to interject a pressing fact about Yvlon’s health, Captain Ceria.”
“Huh? What? Did you break your arm again, Yvlon?”
Ceria looked alarmed as she adjusted her robes. Her eyes went to Yvlon’s arms—the woman stopped feeling at them and smiled weakly.
“I need to talk to you later. About my arms. They’re okay for fighting. Just—complicated with healing potions.”
The [Ice Mage]’s eyes flickered. She could guess what Yvlon meant by that. Still—she looked at Yvlon and the [Wounded Warrior] tried to convey that it was not a problem. Ceria nodded slowly.
“We’ll talk. Today’s supposed to only be reconnaissance. We’re not getting anywhere near the Bloodfields. Come on. I don’t want to be late.”
Together now, they pushed into the Guild. Pisces was still absent, but Yvlon felt better with Ceria by her side. She had been in the crypt too.
The three Horns of Hammerad paused as the adventurers gathered together looked at them again. They were mostly Human, mostly from up north. Ceria and Yvlon had talked to Stan and Alais about getting in on the Bloodfields contract, and word had spread. Yvlon looked from team to team.
All of them were Silver-rank. She knew some teams personally, others only by reputation or in passing. The Boltspitters. Thunder’s Solace. The all-male team of Ensoldier Shields, predictably armed with their classic shield-and-mace combination. The Whistling Bows—looking decidedly mismatched with their new recruits filling the gaps. Ceria took a breath.
“Well then. Let’s say hi. Ksmvr, be nice! Don’t say anything—follow our lead, okay?”
“Yes, Captain Ceria.”
The half-Elf put a smile on her face. She strode forwards.
“Walt! Is that you?”
“Ceria? I heard we’d be seeing you. Is this your new team?”
The Captain of Ensoldier Shields got up, and more team leaders drifted over. Yvlon saw Ceria shaking Walt’s hand. Yvlon turned and a slight woman with a rash of scales along one cheek looked up at her. She was Human, but for that one sign of cross-speciesism. She didn’t smile, but that wasn’t her way.
“Yvlon. Good to see you.”
“Please don’t. It’s ‘Captain Kam’.”
“My mistake. Who’s this?”
Yvlon smiled, and Captain Kam’s lips tried to move a bit. She turned and stared at Ksmvr. He was staring back. Yvlon prayed he wouldn’t mention Kam’s sign of distant Drake ancestry. She was…touchy about it. Yvlon was amazed she’d come to Liscor at all.
“This is Ksmvr, one of my teammates. He’s a—unique member of the Antinium. Ksmvr, this is Captain Kam, leader of the Whistling Bows. She’s a [Bow Rider]. Ksmvr’s our [Skirmisher], Kam.”
“Hello, I am Ksmvr.”
The two shook hands. Yvlon turned and saw more adventurers she recognized lined up to say hi. One of them, a former [Raider] with two scars along his cheeks—self-inflicted, she knew, for appearance’s sake—reached out and slapped her on the shoulder.
“Dead gods, is that an actual Antinium? I heard Liscor had ‘em. Hey! Yvlon! It’s us! Do you remember the Reddogs? We might actually buy some war dogs if we get paid enough from the Bloodfields! There’s this [Beast Trainer] in Liscor and he’s got a wonderful animal—”
“Drakes, Antinium, and Gnolls. Dead gods, this is weird. We went through that door and the inn. Yvlon, Ceria.”
“—Travelled sixty miles to get here. Just because we heard this was good work. And, well, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about! Not disappointed yet! We should have come here earlier, but we were hunting this damn Ogre for…”
“…lost six on my team. To damn Ghouls. There were twenty of them and they just leapt at us. It was just five weeks ago. I still remember it. If we’d just had caught them. Terrica was on duty and I just couldn’t work with her any more after that—”
It was a familiar scene, chaos as everyone talked and caught up on the news. And it made Yvlon feel good. This was what she’d hoped for in Celum’s guild before it had gone so wrong. If the other teams wanted to talk to her and Ceria about the loss of all the other teams—well, word had either spread about the previous incident or they were holding back.
In fact, they treated Yvlon as if she was still a team captain. Yvlon was listening sympathetically to Captain Kam’s tale of her own team’s losses. Maybe that was it. Some of these teams understood. She looked around, seeing familiar faces, new ones.
Silver-rank teams. Yvlon had been among their number, jostling for the position of ‘top team’ with the others. Now? It might be arrogance, but she felt like the Horns were above them in raw ability and magical items. Above, but below Gold-rank. Yvlon knew her brother’s team, the Silver Swords, still had that extra edge.
The gold would change that. Once they got it changed in Invrisil with the contacts the Halfseekers and Griffon Hunt knew, the Horns could gear up even further. All this was just keeping themselves busy. Some of the other adventurers were admiring her armor. Walt came up and tapped on Yvlon’s breastplate with one knuckle.
“Fancy gear, Byres! Better than our stuff. You’re not doing bad, are you?”
She glanced up. The [Armored Warrior] wasn’t trying to be mean; Walk just lacked all tact. And a way with women, hence his team. She forced a smile.
“Not bad right now, Walt. But you’ve got a new shield.”
He looked proud, gesturing at his shield.
“It freezes whatever hits it. Cost us a fair bit, but its solid! Your armor do anything fancy? I saw this Drake wearing high-grade magical armor! Dead gods, but I’d trade Kelvin and his useless ass for it and all my gear!”
Yvlon laughed politely as the luckless Kelvin enjoyed the punches and jeers from the Ensoldier Shields.
“That’s got to be Keldrass you saw, Walt. Captain of the Flamewardens. He got it from this dungeon. The Raskghar, actually. You heard about them? And it’s worth a lot more than that!”
“The Raskghar? I heard about them. You fought those things, Yvlon. A new monster type? No—wait, some sentient species? Tell us about it! And this dungeon.”
The other adventurers crowded around Yvlon. She was looking for a seat to explain and hoping no one was smelling her armor when a voice burst through the hubbub among the mostly-Humans team.
“Hah. Look at that. The backup to the backup’s finally arrived. Dead gods, but what a crowd.”
Everyone fell silent. The drawling voice had come from another team who’d entered to find the overcrowded tables. It was a Drake, and he and four members of his team were looking around dismissively.
Those were fighting words. Walt instantly reddened. Yvlon recognized the Drake and bit her lip.
“Hey! You have a problem with us being here, asshole? We were invited to come here.”
“And you’re in our seats and causing a fuss. Who got into a fight with the Scaled Guard this morning? Kicking around local Bronze-rank teams and claiming all the seats?”
The Drake had bright orange scales and he was looking unhappy at all the Human guests. Yvlon saw Walt hesitate. But another team captain spoke up.
“The best teams have arrived, whoever you are. We’ve having a reunion, so if you’ve got a problem—take it up with the [Receptionists]!”
She gestured to the desk. Yvlon saw the Gnoll behind the counter duck. It wasn’t Selys on duty today. She bit her lip. This wasn’t good. All the teams present, from Alais’ to Stan’s to the rest were used to being fairly big fish in their local guilds. But the Drake who was talking just sneered at them. He put his hand on his side and exposed a shimmering sheathed blade. The other adventurers fell silent as his team laughed.
“Best teams? Let me introduce myself. I’m Gold-rank. Lifwail Blades. We’ve been here a month. You lot? You just swaggered in like you own the place. Funny. I haven’t seen your faces around. Or in the dungeon. Something holding you all back? Horns of Hammerad excepted, obviously.”
He nodded casually at Yvlon, Ceria, ignoring Ksmvr. And the other teams…fell silent. Gold-rank. Yvlon knew how they felt. Gold-ranks were rare around Celum and the area. But this was an exception. The Drake went on, casually putting one scaly foot on a chair.
“We’re Pallass’ team. What did I hear you say? You were contracted? For what? The Bloodfields job?”
He laughed. So did his team. The Human adventurers hesitated. Walt blustered, face red.
“Yeah? What about it? You taking it too?”
“Us? We’re too busy killing monsters in the dungeon to shepherd a bunch of [Bricklayers] making a road around the Bloodfields. You all want the safe stuff? Go ahead. But whichever one of you hazed our Drake team this morning, we’re onto you. You Humans all look alike, but you can apologize properly or we’ll get one later.”
The Drake glared around the room. Yvlon saw Ceria slap her forehead. Walt. He was an idiot about rank. Had he really started something within a few hours of getting to Liscor’s guild? Without even checking to see what the score was?
“Is that a threat?”
Oh, and he also couldn’t shut up. Walt blustered as he pushed his way forwards. He looked at the other Silver-rank teams. There were a lot more than Lifwail Blades’ team. The Drake raised a brow.
“What’s that, third-stringer? You picking a fight? Or are you trying to start something with all your Human friends here? You do realize this is our city, right?”
He gestured at the Drakes in the room. Yvlon noticed the non-Human adventurers were sitting far from his team. She wanted to slap her own face. What had the teams here done already? She counted two more Gold-ranks in the room. Walt’s face was red.
“Respect’s respect. We didn’t start anything. Some assholes want to poke fun at us, we slap them a bit.”
“Really? Well, some Humans come into a Drake city and think they can hit a few Drakes and maybe we decide to do the same.”
The Drake leaned forwards. He had muscle, even if he wasn’t as burly as Walt. And he was Gold-rank. Yvlon looked for Ceria. The half-Elf was opening her mouth, clearly wondering if she could defuse or if it was better to get back, when a loud, dry voice interrupted the rising tension.
“Adventurer Bessr. If anyone’s slapping anyone in this Guild, it’s me.”
An old, short Drake walked down the stairs. She had a little wooden cane, greyish scales, and a very irked expression. Everyone turned and Yvlon exhaled in relief as she spotted a familiar, irritable face, following the nervous Gnoll [Receptionist]. Guildmistress Tekshia glared at the Drake, Bessr, and Walt.
“No one’s fighting here. You want to settle it? Take it outside and no one breaks any bones! Do it later and stop pissing around like little hatchlings. Stop starting Lizardshit, Bessr.”
Bessr immediately backed down. That was the difference between Celum and Liscor’s Guild, too. In a similar scene—Yvlon flushed—Celum’s Guildmaster, a former Silver-rank, hadn’t even appeared when the altercation between her team and the adventurers there had erupted. Here though—she saw Alais and Stan were still tense.
But Tekshia was Tekshia. Bessr raised his claws.
“Outside, Guildmistress. Got it. We just wanted to send a message.”
“Received. And you, Human, no one pulls rank in my Guild. And no one starts a fight, got it? You start another fistfight, and we’ll pour you onto the road.”
“And what if—”
Walt got no further. Tekshia Shivertail didn’t argue. She just threw the cane like a javelin. It flashed across the room so fast that Bessr was still leaping back when it hit Walt in the chest. His armor didn’t bend around the point of impact; rather, the impact turned into pure momentum and sent him flying backwards.
[Launching Strike]. Or something like that. Yvlon watched Walt crash and lie on his back, winded and stunned on multiple levels. Tekshia walked forwards.
“Anyone else want to waste my time?”
“Ow. What was—”
Someone kicked Walt. Tekshia looked around. No one spoke. The Guildmistress walked forwards and fixed Bessr with a look. He winced as his team decided to take a seat out of the line of fire.
“Lifwail Blades, eh? Well, Bessr, I haven’t ever seen you in the Bloodfields. If it’s so easy compared to the dungeon, mind strolling through it for an hour or two? That’s how Gold-rank teams in my day proved they were worthy of the name.”
Flushing, the Drake retreated. Tekshia nodded. Then she whirled around and snapped at the Human adventurers.
“You lot! Listen up! I’m Tekshia, Guildmistress of the Adventurer’s Guild. You’re in my Guild, so stop making a damn mess! You’re here to take on the Bloodfields contract. Well, we must be truly desperate, but you all qualify for the job.”
She accepted her cane as the Gnoll brought it back to her. She rapped the floorboards, scowling. No one spoke. Yvlon admired the old Drake. This was a proper Guildmistress.
“This isn’t a game. Liscor needs experienced adventurers to protect our workers and scout ahead, hence you all getting the offer. But if any of you are Bronze-rank incompetents masquerading as Silver, get out. The Bloodfields are nothing to joke about. Your job is to stay away from the Bloodfields, but even that can be dangerous. And any idiot who thinks they’re tough enough to wander too close and get their team killed and everyone they’re guarding? Step on up if you’re that tough and I’ll save us all the headache.”
She glared at Walt. He decided to remain sitting. Tekshia looked around.
“Alright. Today you get to listen to a wonderful explanation of why the Bloodfields are so important and help us scout which way we’re going. East or west! Then, when all of you have put your heads together to come up with this difficult answer, we’ll begin actually preparing a road. You all report here each morning or you don’t get paid. Bevussa? Get these rookies out of my guild!”
A Garuda who’d been sitting at a table stood up with her team.
“Yes, Guildmistress Tekshia! Issa, get the [Scouts] and [Master Builder] Reikhle. You all, with me!”
She gestured, and strode towards the door. The Silver-rank adventurers paused a moment before they realized Bevussa was moving. Then they scrambled to grab their things and rush after her. Yvlon knew where they were going and made her way to the back door. She saw Bessr waving at her and paused.
The Captain of Lifwail Blades was still flushed from his dressing down from Tekshia. But he growled at her as Ceria and Ksmvr paused with him.
“Heard some of the teams who gave yours shit for the crypt were here. They give you any trouble?”
Yvlon stared at him. She managed a startled response.
“No—uh—no. It’s fine.”
“Good. Don’t let teams who haven’t taken a beating do that. I heard yours went down holding the line. Not a lot of teams do that, disaster or not. Stay safe; Bevussa knows what she’s doing with the Bloodfields. Gold and glory, Horns.”
It was an old phrase, but maybe not among Drakes. Yvlon was so startled she clapped an arm across her armor reflexively.
“Silver and steel.”
She left with Ceria and Ksmvr. The half-Elf gave her a wide-eyed look. Respect? From a Gold-rank team? It filled Yvlon’s chest.
Then they were outside, making a beeline for The Wandering Inn. The other teams were following Bevussa’s at a fast march. They were disconcerted by Liscor; not only by Tekshia, but by the fact that Liscor’s pedestrians would shove them aside rather than give way to adventurers.
“Move it, you inbred Humans! I see you in that armor! Move it! Don’t you know how to walk?”
“Dead gods. That was the Guildmistress? They’re so—military around here!”
Alais panted, too wide-eyed to be awkward as Ceria and Yvlon fell into place next to them. Yvlon had to grin.
“Welcome to Liscor.”
“Hey Bevussa! Ceria, Yvlon, Ksmvr! My favorite team!”
Another surprise greeted the Human adventurers at the inn. They’d all come through, but the sight of Erin Solstice, a bunch of [Actors] trying to put on zombie makeup, and a carrot cake stumped them. Bevussa turned as they poured into the room via the door.
“Alright! Everyone move forwards! To that side! We’re going back through the door! Erin, I set up the door. It’s the purple stone now. Where is—”
“Lyonette already added it to the dial. We even have labels now! See?”
The adventurers all turned and saw the purple stone marked ‘Bloodfields’ on it. Bevussa nodded.
“Don’t let anyone wander around near there or go through, Erin. Oh—and I’m supposed to tell you your service fee’s coming.”
“Awesome! Hey everyone! I’m Erin Solstice! This is my inn and you’re using my door! It’s free of charge and we’ve got a connection to Esthelm! You can go to Pallass, but you have to apply. And this is my favorite team in all of Liscor! The Horns!”
Erin waved at Ceria, Yvlon, and Ksmvr. Yvlon flushed and Bevussa raised an eyebrow.
“All of Liscor? What about us or the Halfseekers?”
“Uh—hey Bevussa, want some cake? It’s carrot! Hey, you adventurers! Any of you ever had cake?”
Some of the teams looked very interested; they’d probably not even stopped when coming through to the guild. Bevussa shook her head briskly.
“No time, Erin. We’ll come back later. Everyone through? Okay—someone turn that dial to the purple stone. Yes, just turn it. Then open the door—go on through, but don’t go anywhere!”
She began barking orders. Erin waved the adventurers off.
“Alright, but when you get back, I’ve got cake ready! Ooh, and potions and my special Scale Soup! Lyonette, we’re doing a product demonstration when they get back! Have you got a nail? My knife is too sharp…”
Yvlon followed Bevussa out into another world. South of Liscor, the bowl-shaped valley opened up and the higher elevation sloped downwards, away from the High Passes, the mountain range that separated Izril. A flatland emerged, full of grass and open space, perfect for pastures and forests.
Or that was how it should have been. In truth, the flat area was a perfect battleground that Humans and Drakes had traditionally fought in in ages past. By mutual consent, armies had fought in this space, and so much blood had been shed that over time the ecology of the grass had mutated, turning red. Crimson. And a new biome had emerged, one that craved blood. A deadly, alien landscape.
The Bloodfields. Yvlon looked around, her skin crawling under her armor. She stared around at the green…lush…grass..
They weren’t at the Bloodfields. The adventuring teams spread out on the grass, looking around, many muttering about their encounter with Erin.
“I was told she’s insane—”
“Heard about the incident with that gang?”
“Knows the Horns? Maybe—”
“Alright! Attention! Eyes forwards teams!”
Bevussa’s shout made every head turn. She flew out of the door and held her position in the air, wings beating as her team flew out and landed behind her. A few other Drakes and Gnolls were present; Yvlon recognized them as [Scouts] and the [Builder]. Bevussa’s voice directed her attention back up.
The Gold-rank Captain was in full authority-mode. She shouted down at the Silver-rank teams.
“My name is Bevussa Slenderscale, Captain of the Wings of Pallass! You are now standing at the edge of the Bloodfields, where you’ll be working! I don’t have the specifics of your job; it will change day to day. You’ll be responsible for removing monster nests, guarding workers as they clear a road, and scouting! However, my job is simple! To educate you about the dangers of the Bloodfields!”
She pointed one wing, turning in midair. The adventurers turned with her and saw…
Red. Dark red soil and grass in the distance, crimson. Like a stain, spreading across the normal grass and trees. But where the Bloodfields began, still miles distant, the world changed.
It was alien. Distant, tall and strange plants grew out of the soil. Brambles, huge and twining, emerged. Bright, glowing plants emerged, and the Bloodfields grew denser further in. Almost like a jungle—but in pockets. Some areas looked strangely bare; the growths of plants were dense in some places, not at all in others. But what stood out was simply the color.
Blood red. And yet, it was still distant. So far away in fact that Yvlon estimated there were at least two miles, maybe even three of ordinary grass between them and the Bloodfields. Bevussa pointed grimly.
“You may know of the Bloodfields or you may not. Either way, this is what you must know. The Bloodfields are an exceptionally dangerous area south of Liscor. The plants, animals, and monsters are all a lot more dangerous than most areas of the world. Everything there wants your blood. Even the animals and other creatures living there want to drain you dry.”
She looked back at the Silver-ranks. Yvlon glanced around and saw some doing likewise. She’d heard of the Bloodfields of course, but they weren’t being paid to go through it, just around it. However, older adventures like Stan were seriously listening to Bevussa, and Yvlon looked back up. The Garuda’s voice snapped at the teams below.
“My only lesson I’m being paid to teach you is this: do not go near the Bloodfields. Not in the summer, and even in the winter some of the things living there will kill you. The Bloodfields are a Gold-rank threat—meaning that Gold-rank teams can and have died there, not that it’s safe for them. The only time the Bloodfields are safe is when an army comes through and literally burns everything away. And when they’re gone, the Bloodfields are back within the month. Now. I know you’re probably not convinced, so we’re going to have a demonstration. Everyone look ahead. See those huge plants?”
She pointed. Yvlon had to squint to see and the adventurers shaded their eyes. They were so far distant from even the nearest discoloration in the soil from green grass to red, and the nearest objects breaking up the flatlands were even more distant still. Because everything was flat, as opposed to Liscor’s rolling valleys, Yvlon could see what Bevussa was pointing out.
“Those things? What the hell is that?”
Kam muttered as she peered ahead. She was looking at a cluster of fat…plants? They looked like pillows. Or fat cushions, some as large as…Yvlon squinted. Houses? Only, it was one entire plant.
It was an odd, disconcerting sight. Some of the adventurers muttered.
“I can barely see it! What is that, a boulder?”
“No. It’s a plant.”
“Why the hell are we so far back?”
“For your safety.”
That came from one of the Drakes. One of the Silver-rank teams, actually, a rarity in the north. She looked very nervous. And Yvlon realized all of the non-Humans were regarding the distant red edge of the Bloodfields warily.
She stared at the pillow-plant in the distance. It gave her an uneasy feeling. Ceria moved over and whispered to Yvlon and Ksmvr.
“My [Dangersense] is going off just looking at that thing.”
“I believe it is highly dangerous, Captain Ceria. I am familiar with the Bloodfields.”
“What is it, Ksmvr?”
“I have only studied it, never seen it, but most likely—”
Bevussa shouted and everyone looked up. She pointed.
“Can anyone hit that target from here? If not, I’ll fly closer and shoot it.”
The adventurers looked at her, surprised. From here? If it was thousand feet, it would still be a huge ask. Alais looked around, shifting as she lifted her staff.
“I could try a [Lightning Bolt]? It’s awfully long, though, and my control—”
“What, and fry us? I’ve seen your aim. Let me try. [Long-Range Shot]!”
Captain Kam stepped up. The [Bow Rider] wasn’t mounted; she’d been complaining about having to find a stables since Erin’s inn didn’t have one, a huge problem. She lifted her shortbow, drew it back, and loosed. Her arrow sped through the air as the adventurers watched. High, going further, further…
It fell short by about, oh, nine thousand and five hundred feet. Good for a shortbow! But the adventurers all laughed. Kam lowered her bow, flushing.
“It really is far. I wondered if it were an optical illusion.”
“Let us try, then. [Seeker Shot]!”
“[Arrow of Light]!”
Even Ceria joined in. Spells and arrows flew from the Silver-rank teams, but all were far, far too short. Even Ceria’s best, enhanced spell didn’t even come close to the distance. Yvlon looked around and saw some of the Gold-rank adventurers of Bevussa’s team shaking their heads. She looked mildly annoyed.
“If none of you has a mile-long Skill—”
“Who has one of those?”
One of the adventurers looked incredulous. Bevussa stared at him. Gold-ranks, that’s who. Captain Kam looked around and frowned.
“It’s fine. I’ll get closer and—”
“Hold your ground!”
The order came from Bevussa, a screech of fury. Kam stopped, flushing, and Bevussa swooped down, glaring.
“No one gets closer! I don’t care how fast you are or what dodging skills you have—even if it looks clear, you will not approach the Bloodfields, regardless of how the ground looks! You will keep your distance? Is that clear?”
“But we’re two miles away! This is ridiculous! We don’t need to be this far. Do we?”
One of the adventurer captains looked annoyed at this display of caution. Zassil, the Oldblood Drake on Bevussa’s team, snapped at him.
“That’s why we’re demonstrating this, Human!”
Bevussa ignored them. She swooped down towards where Yvlon was standing. The adventurers moved back as he stopped before Stan. He hadn’t tried loosing a bolt. He blinked at her as his team stared. Bevussa nodded at his side, her brilliant plumage blowing in the faint breeze.
“Crossbows, right? Mind if I borrow one?”
Stan started. He reached for the two crossbows at his side—Yvlon knew he had four more in his bag of holding. He could fire six bolts in a blink, hence his nickname.
“Of course, Captain Bevussa. Here.”
He offered her both crossbows. Bevussa took one and jumped up into the air. She looked down at the others.
“See that plant? Furthest from the right? Watch it.”
So saying, she flew towards it. The Garuda was fast, a speeding bullet in the air. Yvlon had only seen Bevussa’s max speed once during the baseball game and now she understood why the Gold-rank Captain was one of Pallass’ best. Bevussa closed the distance as fast as any bird, even with her armor, gear, and the crossbow’s weight. They saw her flying higher as she reached the edge of the crimson grass.
“She’s got to be at least three hundred feet up. What’s she worried about?”
Ceria glanced at Yvlon. The armored woman bit her lip. There were stories, but she didn’t know the specifics. Everyone was watching now, as Bevussa paused in the air. She was aiming, Yvlon guessed. But she was so tiny they couldn’t see when she fired.
They didn’t see the bolt strike the distant pillow-plant either. But what they did see was it pop. One second it was a bulb in the distance, the next—
“Dead gods! It exploded!”
It was so hard to see, but—Yvlon stared. A mass of red and black had erupted as the bulb burst. It flew into the air—like powder? No—it wasn’t spores. She saw it land, and then—movement. Bevussa was flying back quickly, but the Silver-rank adventures were transfixed.
The pillow-bulb had unleashed…something. But the adventurers took a few minutes to figure out what they’d seen. Then they realized what the squirming, moving mass was on the ground and several swore or blanched.
Bugs. So many that they’d filled the plant to bursting. They rained down, writhing, released from the crossbow bolt hitting their bulb. Now they were spreading out in a huge mass, visible even from here.
How many? Yvlon shuddered. She tried to imagine being covered in them. You’d inhale them. And if they bit or tried to get in your armor, your mouth—
Everyone was silent when Bevussa dropped down in front of Stan and handed him the crossbow back. She looked around, flew up again, and pointed with one wing towards the exploded bulb.
“Even if you fly, you will not get closer to the Bloodfields. That’s one reason why, and the least of your threats. Let me say it again: my one job is to explain to you how dangerous the Bloodfields is today. You’re all adventurers, but you need to understand.”
She gestured at the other pillow-structures. Now they seemed full of danger to Yvlon. Each one was a nest of insects? How did that even work? Yvlon felt a crawling sensation on her arms and shuddered. Bevussa was continuing her lecture.
“You walk by one of those living beds and it pops and those things will eat you alive faster than you can scream. That’s one of the Bloodfields’ fauna. Ever seen a Watchertree? They stand high up and ‘see’ anything that moves on the soil for a hundred, sometimes hundreds of feet around them. You can spot them by the bare ground around—that’s because their root system is killing anything in their area! And if you step on the ground, a root comes up and spears you! It can even go through unenchanted armor if the hit’s right!”
The Silver-ranks shifted. That sounded like a nightmare come to life! But Bevussa pointed out a nearly invisible, tall, tall plant in the distance. And it was indeed devoid of vegetation around it.
“There are monsters too. Blood slimes, vampiric spiders—there are animals, but all are adapted to live there and most are dangerous. Even the rabbits. That’s why you will all stay clear of the Bloodfields by at least two miles from the nearest visible edge, understand?”
“Captain Bevussa, is that safe? Would some monsters…pursue us out of the area?”
Kam raised her hand, looking worried. None of the adventurers were protesting Bevussa’s injunction now. If anything, Yvlon agreed. Were they too close? Bevussa shook her head.
“Most of the Bloodfields’ threats are stationary. The bugs, for instance, don’t pursue you that far. And the Watchertrees? Totally safe if you stay away. That’s why the radius is important. Frankly, you need to be worried about creatures living around the Bloodfields; there are monsters in the area. But we want to make sure you don’t wander close. Got it?”
Everyone nodded. Bevussa flew lower. Now her team took wing. The Wings of Pallass joined Bevussa and she pointed.
“I’m with you all just for today. I won’t be around to bail you out; I might be in the dungeon or unavailable. So we’ll be flying above, watching you. These are some [Scouts] from Liscor. [Pathfinders]—and [Master Builder] Reikhle is from Pallass. He’ll be helping determine which way we’ll be setting a path. Your job is to escort the [Scouts]; each team pair off with a scout and coordinate your path. They know where to go!”
Suddenly, it was work. And credit where credit was due; the Silver-rank teams might have been nervous from the threat of the Bloodfields, and new to Liscor, but they were still adventurers. Each captain began calling orders and Yvlon found Ceria and Ksmvr. They made their way to a Drake [Scout].
“Excuse me? I’m Ceria, Captain of the Horns of Hammerad.”
“Hissle. Don’t laugh. I’m a [Pathfinder]. Is this your team?”
“There’s only three of us today; our fourth members’ occupied. Is that a problem? Should we double up?”
The Drake paused.
“Hm. Maybe. Let’s see what Captain Bevussa has to say. How fast is your team?”
“We can jog. Yvlon, you can keep up, right?”
“I can. Can you?”
Yvlon looked pointedly at Ceria. The half-Elf was the least in shape. She turned red.
“I’ve been running! Grimalkin’s been forcing me to do all kinds of lifts with those stupid weights—”
“Hey! That team! Yes, you! Thunder’s Solace? With the Horns of Hammerad! There! Partner up with Scout Hissle!”
Bevussa’s voice shouted from overhead. Yvlon winced, but Captain Alais and her team didn’t protest. Awkwardly, she made room for the other team and Hissle looked around.
“My name’s Hissle. Don’t laugh. I’m the [Pathfinder] tasked with the eastern side—we’ll be taking that route. It’s some climbing, but we’ll move as fast as you’re comfortable. Let’s confer before we get moving. Who has detection Skills? I’ll share point if there’s someone with similar Skills to mine. And who are the team captains? I know Captain Springwalker. And the other is…?”
“Alais. This is Thunder’s Solace. We have a [Tracker]. Ceria?”
Alais stepped forwards and Hissle shook her hand. Ceria shook her head.
“All we’ve got is Ksmvr. He’s fast, though. [Skirmisher]. And he can jump. Should we put him on the front?”
Hissle brightened up.
“I’d appreciate that. Extra security is nice. Uh—oh, one of the new Antinium? Are you painted?”
He looked at Ksmvr. The former Prognugator shook his head.
“I am a disgrace.”
The [Pathfinder] looked at Ceria. She shook her head. He paused.
“Right then! Let’s get marching. We’ll sort out an order of movement and commands; for now, listen to me when I shout! If any of you see something suspicious, shout it out and everyone groups up, understand? If one of the Wings of Pallass shouts? Pay attention!”
The team took off. The [Scouts] moved on with the faster teams first—Yvlon’s group began a fast march after them. The Wings of Pallass watched from above. Their only job besides being backup was to teach the adventurers how to keep from getting too close to the Bloodfields by accident, and they did that rigorously.
And then it was just a job. Yvlon had done escort requests before, and while Hissle set a fast pace, he assured the adventurers this wouldn’t be their job the entire time.
“You’ll have to escort people clearing roads, even laying stones, perhaps. The Council hasn’t decided yet, but they want a good, fairly safe road. So you’ll get a slow pace. You just need to be on watch! You never know what’ll come up in the foothills or on the road. Mostly, I think it won’t be bad, but it’s the rare examples that calls for adventurers.”
“The Council’s spending a lot on this trade road.”
Ceria remarked as she, Yvlon, and Alais kept pace near the head of the group. Alais glanced at her; the Human woman was lost, but Yvlon and Ceria had gotten to know Liscor’s politics. And indeed, Hissle was more comfortable around them. He nodded as they climbed a rocky slope.
“Careful. Watch your step. Hold on—I need to map this. Our current area maps are good, but we want to be certain and to check there are no nests or hazards the [Map Makers] missed. Too bad an expert [Cartographer] didn’t come through here, but the Bloodfields aren’t exactly prime terrain. [Merchants] just go through the center in the winter, so…yeah, the Council’s got gold! Apparently the Antinium and the Walled Cities are donating a lot.”
He looked sideways at Ksmvr as he said that. The [Skirmisher] nodded helpfully.
“The Hive is rich.”
“Well, my approximate understanding of our gold supply was—”
Ceria nudged Ksmvr. After a moment, Hissle went on, pointing ahead.
“Looks like the east has a viable path. Rocky in places, but there’s some good flat land. West is too grassy. I don’t like the odds of the Bloodfields or something spreading. Rocks? That damn stuff doesn’t like rocks by and large. We can cut a path going away from the Bloodfields just in case, then angle it once we’re well clear and shoot for Pallass. We might be on the winning path, folks.”
“It’s nearly four hundred miles from Liscor to Pallass. It’ll take years to do a route, surely?”
Yvlon was panting, sweating in her armor and the warm air. Hissle laughed.
“For a proper road, maybe. With stones and everything? Sure! But clearing a road and making sure two large wagons can roll unimpeded all the way? We can do that a lot faster. The Antinium have [Diggers] and our own teams can move dirt! [Merchants] will use this road if we do just that and ensure all the major hazards are out of the way.”
“Brave of them.”
Alais panted. Her team was wearing wood and chitin armor due to her imprecise control of lightning, but it was still heavy. Hissle called a halt to avoid them getting too winded.
“We’ll slow the pace. You need to be able to fight, after all. And is it brave, Captain Alais? I’ve seen [Merchant] caravan guards. They’re good! And they might even hire teams like yours to guard them.”
“Fair point. But looking at this, Hissle—it’s going to be a lot of work.”
They’d summited the rocky hill. Hissle nodded. Yvlon stared down and imagined someone having to shape the hillside to create a natural ramp a wagon could climb without extreme effort.
“It’ll be work. But paid work. And Pallass will help from their end too. In truth, we just need to get past the Bloodfields by about, oh, ten miles? Then we’ll hit Drake roads and we’re done! And Liscor will be connected to the south again.”
That did make it seem easier. And the tone in Hissle’s voice—Yvlon looked at him.
“You seem passionate about it, Hissle.”
“I volunteered to scout. Liscor wants the trade route, and so do I. I’m a native—grew up here. Served in the army, but not for long. I’ve been to Drake cities, though. The city needs it a lot more than Pallass does. Otherwise we can only trade by land when its late fall or winter. That’s why we’re called a border city, you know.”
He paused, staring across the landscape. In the distance, the Bloodfields were visible, a red stain on the land. All the teams were moving around it, searching for that path, east and west. Hissle stared darkly at the Bloodfields. Yvlon almost imagined she could see the red grass advancing, slowly, second by second, year by year.
“It didn’t use to be like this. There was a time when the Bloodfields were smaller. And they were less…active. But it’s growing. We should stop it for good, someday. But fire only makes it pause for a while.”
He shook his head.
“Come on. Let’s keep moving. I want to go a good distance before we report back. Shame we can’t use that teleportation door, but apparently it’s got a hefty mana limit. Just as well; I need to earn a living too!”
On they went. Yvlon began chatting on the march; it helped with the work. And she found herself talking with Thunder’s Solace and Alais. You couldn’t help it. She didn’t make up with Caddin, but she was eventually comfortable enough to laugh at a joke around him, and he could talk to her without having to look away.
It was something. And Yvlon was used to disputes between teams. The incident in the Guild hadn’t even been bad; it could get nasty. Soon, she and Alais were telling Ksmvr about the ‘good old days’, and their rivalry between teams.
“That bull, Calruz, he was always a pain to deal with. You know Walt? He and Calruz nearly had both their teams throw down over a dispute one time. Stupid idiots. Stan, now Stan’s great to work with. He’s led a team for longer than all of us put together.”
“Why is he not a high-level adventurer, then, Captain Alais?”
The [Aeromancer] looked uncomfortable.
“Safety, maybe? Stan’s got two kids, Ksmvr. He doesn’t take huge risks; he takes jobs that don’t end in him being dead. Being an adventurer’s a career for him; he earns a good amount, more than most jobs, and he can take more breaks. It’s smart for him. I hear he’s got a lot saved up.”
“Ah. May I infer by your omission then, that Crossbow Stan is not married?”
“…Yeah. His wife left him.”
“I see. Why?”
“Ksmvr, why don’t we move ahead? I’ll explain to you why that’s a touchy subject and why you’re never allowed to ask Stan that.”
Yvlon smiled at Alais. Relieved she let Ksmvr and Yvlon move ahead. Ksmvr turned and Yvlon tried to explain heartbreak, infidelity, and the changing nature of affection to an Antinium who she was fairly certain had never been interested in the opposite sex. If there even one was besides his Queen. Wait—Ksmvr was male, right? She had seen him ‘nude’ and there wasn’t anything to actually see. He just wore clothing—
The Antinium was marching with Yvlon when she grew silent. He looked at her questioningly. Yvlon kept looking back at Ceria, laughing with Alais, and Thunder’s Solace. He looked at her arms, but she hadn’t been feeling at them.
“Is something wrong, Yvlon?”
Yvlon Byres hesitated. She bit her lip, looked at Ksmvr, and then spoke softly.
“Her name was Maise. But with an accent on the ‘e’. Maisé.”
“Who is Maisé?”
“My former teammate. Back when I was Captain of the Silver Spears.”
“Oh. I see.”
Yvlon shook her head. Her old friend’s face appeared in her mind. But the details were faded. It was harder to remember the exact curl in her hair, the way she stood. The sound of her voice. She went on. She’d never talked to Ksmvr about Maisé. But she had to now.
“She used a spear. We used to joke that she was the real leader of the Silver Spears since she was the only one on the team who actually used the weapon regularly.”
That was all he said. But he was listening. Yvlon looked at the Antinium.
“Did I ever tell you about the others?”
“No, Yvlon. You did not.”
She bit her lip and looked down. Veronika, Maisé, Dalia, and Samite. There had only been five of them, but they’d all been good. At least, Yvlon had thought so.
“Let me talk to you about them. For a bit. We were a team. Just last year. I wanted us to be like my brother’s team, the Silver Swords. We weren’t—we were good. That’s what I always thought. And if we kept training, if we got that one big windfall, we’d be Gold-rank. There were five of us. You see, back when I first wanted to become an adventurer—I knew Maisé growing up. She lived on Byres lands. We were always…”
She never forgot them. And she had never told anyone of how they died. She knew how Ceria had left her team. Fleeing, as Gerial bought her a moment of time. As her teammates fell around her. Calruz—disappearing, screaming as Skinner plucked his arm from his body. But Yvlon had been there too.
It haunted her dreams. Her failure. But now? Yvlon looked at Ksmvr. He listened to her every word. Trusted her. She looked back at Ceria, her friend, huffing as she ran along. Even Pisces. She wished he’d been here to bond with the other teams. But he was improving. She’d have a word with him, try to introduce him. She hoped Kam and the others would accept a [Necromancer].
She…had her team now. That was what mattered. But Yvlon still felt like she was back in the crypts sometimes. Watching her friends disappearing as they ran, fighting the undead, trying to reach for the surface.
I heard yours went down holding the line. If only that were entirely true. Was it cowardice, or practicality? Why was she the only one who’d made it? She was rich now. She had magical armor, a strong team…
But she hated it. Yvlon shook her head, realizing she’d fallen silent. She forced a smile at Ksmvr. He needed her, almost as much as she needed him.
“Hey, looks like we’re being called back. Let’s go join the others. And remember—no talking about Stan’s wife.”
“I will attempt to do so. May I talk about his children?”
It would get better. It had to. Without that, what did she have left? Yvlon laughed, and she joined her group. Her team. The infection would get better. It had to. She couldn’t let them down. Not again.
The adventurers had all finished their scouting by evening. It had been a solid…eight hours of work? From morning to evening! Yvlon was tired, but pleasantly so. There hadn’t been much trouble; six of the teams had run into monsters and her team had encountered a deer. Ksmvr had shot it, his reasoning being that they had a bag of holding. It was fresh meat and it had been a welcome meal for lunch, if wild. Yvlon wondered if Erin could make something of it.
“Alright. The [Scouts] will confer and help pick the route. By tomorrow, we’ll be sending more scouts and beginning preparations to build an actual road! We’re not dallying around; Olesm, [Master Builder] Reikhle, and our other experts will be working all night on this one! But you all earned your pay! Good work!”
Bevussa called out and the Silver-rank teams cheered. Yvlon saw gold being passed out; even if was going to be split, it was a welcome sight. Ceria accepted hers and grinned, flashing some at Yvlon. Strange, how it was so good to see. They were rich. As soon as they got to Invrisil—
“Let’s get a drink, huh, guys? And some cake at Erin’s inn!”
The half-Elf called out to her team. But Alais stopped her as the teams began filing back towards the inn.
“Hey, Ceria. The team captains are going to have a drink in Liscor. Not your inn—somewhere private. Most of our teams will stay at the inn, but—you want to come? You and Yvlon?”
Ceria blinked. She looked at Yvlon. The armored woman stared at Alais. The [Aeromancer] was biting her lip and pointing. Stan, Kam, Walt—all of the team captains and some of the older adventurers were waiting in a small group by the door. Ceria hesitated.
“I uh—with all of you? What about?”
“Just—talking about the past. Recent events. Stan and I want to—all of us. If it’s alright. Your friend—Ksmvr?—can come. But we’d like to talk. The old crew.”
Yvlon looked at Alais’ flushed face. It couldn’t be easy to say that. Yvlon saw Ceria looking at her, her brows raised in silent inquiry. Yvlon hesitated, and then smiled. She reached out and touched Alais shoulder.
“I’d like that. Thank you.”
Alais looked up and smiled. Yvlon followed her with Ceria and Ksmvr to the other group. She looked at Walt, Kam, Stan—and all the others. And they nodded to her. She felt a strange sense of nostalgia. She felt welcomed again. She smiled.
“A drink? I know a good bar if we’re spending a lot of coin. If not, I know a few dives. Let’s hit the town; Erin’s got poor alcohol. Everything else is great, though. We’ll have a chat and then see a play and eat some cake.”
They laughed and agreed. Yvlon led the way through the magic door, smiling a bit. The adventurers left, closing the door, and leaving the grass, the wilderness in silence.
Up ahead, the Bloodfields rustled. The watching plants swayed in the breeze. The dark earth was silent. Few things moved. It was…almost inviting.
A dead bird lay on the ground, in a bare patch of land. It was freshly dead, an inviting meal. Some creatures might ignore the danger for a free snack like that. And indeed, one red russet fox, believing its fur coat was a good fit for the red grass, crept closer to the bird. It looked around, but the Bloodfields were silent.
There was no grass where the bird lay. And if the fox had been cautious—it missed the hole in the center of the body. It was food. So it darted ahead, rushing towards the bird, prepared to grab it and dart back into cover. It passed under the watchful aegis of a tall, thin plant. With a strange bulb near the top. The fox pattered forwards. It snatched the bird in its jaws.
A tendril stabbed out of the ground, spearing the foolish fox through the abdomen. It jerked—stopped moving. It’s blood ran onto the soil as the tendril lowered back into the ground. The dead fox’s corpse remained, to feed the soil and attract other unwary scavengers. The Watchertree absorbed the blood, its wide root system feasting.
Silence again. And death. All that lived here was made of the Bloodfields, or dangerous enough to resist the death here. The adventurers had gone. Food had gone. But food would be back. Few things dared to live around the Bloodfields. But what did live was dangerous. And the Bloodfields were just as deadly. Food would return.
The Bloodfields waited.