“I don’t like it. It’s staring at me.”
“Then don’t look at it. It’s not going to creep up on you.”
“I can’t help it. It’s like a loose scale, you know?”
“Okay, then a rough patch of fur or something. You know what I mean!”
“My fur is always combed, thank you.”
“Go to Rhir. Look, I swear it’s watching me. Don’t you feel the same way? It’s always there and I feel like it’s growing.”
“It’s your imagination. Just get back to work.”
“You’re telling me you don’t get nervous when you stare at it?”
“I don’t. That’s why I’m not bothered.”
“…Your fur’s standing up.”
The Gnoll [Worker] glanced up and patted the hairs on his neck. The Drake [Laborer] crowed. He pointed at the red splotch in the distance as the two took a break from clearing the earth. The green grasses, fed by spring rains, were growing tall and wild.
In places, flowers, grass, and other plants were waist-high. There were only a few actual trees; even this far out from Liscor, opportunistic [Lumberjacks] would take down the comparatively rare wood and haul it back to the city. And the High Passes were not forested in large, anyways. The rocky terrain of the higher hills supported only shrub-like plants or smaller.
And yet, the valley here leading out of the High Passes and into southern Izril seemed idyllic. For grazing, at least! But no [Shepherd] would raise their animals around here. They preferred the Floodplains, for all of the dangers of Rock Crabs and Shield Spiders. Because beyond the lush grasses lay a crimson stain. It occupied the valley, cutting off an easy route south.
The Bloodfields. They waited in the distance. The two workers unconsciously turned. The Gnoll sniffed the air warily. They were too far and the wind was blowing the wrong way. But even so. The foreign terrain that began where the red grasses began was…uncanny. To Erin Solstice, it looked like a vision of Mars.
Not Mars, Mars, the actual planet which was mostly dust and hot stuff. Erin had seen all kinds of actual data about Mars from her world. But the Bloodfields looked like what people had imagined Mars might be if it was inhabited by alien life.
Red grass occupied the Bloodfields. It seemed—shiny. The light caught the blades, which were razor sharp. Even the grass thirsted for blood. But the grass was hardly the worst of it. Large, bulbous plants dominated the landscape. In places, strange, spore-like protrusions and huge thorny vines, dense clusters of plants seemed to be almost like a jungle. But the sudden dense spots were like oases amid the crimson. The rest of the Bloodfields were apparently spacious.
Deceptively so. Tall, pale trees, some sixty feet tall, others even higher, dominated vast, circular dead zones. Watchertrees. And the bulbous sacs were filled with insects. What few creatures made the Bloodfields their home were also changed. Erin had seen a rabbit. With teeth! And the rabbit had looked more like a predator.
“See! I told you! You don’t like it either!”
The Drake crowed, catching Erin’s attention. The Gnoll grumbled and turned away, refusing to answer. He caught sight of Erin watching him and paused. She waved.
“Uh oh. It’s her.”
The Drake saw Erin too. He stared at Erin. She waved again and lifted the object in her hands.
“I’m just watching. Wanna cookie?”
The Drake and Gnoll stared at the cookie Erin was munching on. Well, she had a little basket. The Gnoll sniffed again and seemed to like what they saw. The Drake licked his lips.
“Sure! I mean, you’re working really hard.”
Erin gestured around vaguely at the immediate area. About three miles south of the Bloodfields, Drakes and Gnolls were building a road. A legit road. It was flat, and everything. True, it wasn’t asphalt, but they were tearing up the sod, pounding the road to somewhat smooth levels, even rolling objects over the surface.
They were creating a wide path, able to hold two wagons abreast comfortably, out of the wilderness. And they were building it around the Bloodfields, bridging the impassible expanse in the spring and summer. To bring Liscor into contact with the other cities.
They were doing it fast, too. It had been only a few days and the road stretched as far as Erin could see in one direction as she leaned out of the magical doorway. A nice, straight road, heading south. Towards Pallass. She waved the basket at the Gnoll and Drake.
“I’ll have one.”
The Drake came to a sudden decision. He trotted over and grabbed two. Erin had only offered one, but that was fine. The Gnoll came over too. He took a cookie and bowed slightly.
“Thank you. Er—”
“Erin. Erin Solstice.”
“Of course. We’ve uh, heard of you. Thank you for the—”
“Cookie. Don’t worry, this is just a vanilla one. It’s made of sugar. Flour, butter, eggs—mostly sugar. And vanilla.”
The Gnoll brightened. He took a cautious bite and smiled even further. Erin smiled too as the Drake scarfed one.
“Hey! This is really good! Can I have another?”
“No. But your friend can take another.”
The Gnoll did. He dipped his head again. He cast a longing glance past Erin into her inn. It was a fairly good day, and some guests were inside, watching the Players of Celum. It was also cooler, and Drassi was passing by with some cooled beers on a platter. Erin would have invited the Gnoll to step inside, but a loud voice came from behind the two workers.
“Hey! Break time’s over! Get back to work, you two!”
“Aw. Damn. [Taskmaster] Eigusha is on our tails again.”
The Drake groaned as he turned. The Gnoll made a face too. He hesitated and looked at Erin.
“We’d better get going. Thank you. It’s uh, good to meet you, Miss Erin.”
The [Innkeeper] smiled as they left. She could hear the Drake and Gnoll as they trotted back to the working team, scarfing their second cookie.
“That was her? She’s shorter than I thought she’d be. And a lot less insane.”
“We saw her going through her inn. I told you she wasn’t crazy.”
“Yeah, but you hear things. Remember the skeleton in her inn?”
“No. I thought it was a Hobgoblin.”
“No, that’s different. She had like, five. I thought she was mating with them, but it didn’t smell like that—”
Erin lost her smile. She stared narrow-eyed at the Gnoll’s back. Then the world began to move. Alarmed, Erin jumped—until she realized someone was picking up the doorframe that connected her inn to this position. She peered out the door and saw two grunting Drakes hauling the door. They jumped when they saw her.
“Hey! Where are you taking me?”
“Moving the door, Miss. Master Builder Reikhle’s orders. Don’t mind us.”
“Oh. Okay, then. Wanna cookie?”
“Miss Human! Please stop feeding my workers!”
An aggrieved voice shouted at Erin. She turned, and stepped out of the doorway. She looked around, feeling the warm air on her neck. There was a breeze, but the sun was out in force. The grasslands south of Liscor felt hot. And hotter when you saw the teams, the Drakes sweating, the Gnolls with damp fur. They were not a happy lot, but they worked hard, in shifts. And the one motivating them to work harder was striding towards her.
“Oh. Hey. Master Builder. I was just—”
The Gnoll strode up to Erin. He pointed at her door.
“We’re moving your door up. To follow the road. There’s no point in keeping it the same spot. And I need more workers, so I’m sending Eigusha through to Liscor. No problems, yes? Good? Good! Stop bothering my workers, please. What’s that?”
He pointed at Erin’s basket. She lifted it.
The Gnoll sniffed the basket, took three cookies, and chewed one. He frowned.
“Sweet! I’ll share this with my quartermasters. Fine, you can give them out if they’re free. But don’t get in the way. Eigusha! The door!”
He waved and another Gnoll, female, trotted towards the door. The Drakes paused and she hopped up. The Drakes were carrying the door, so the floor of the inn appeared at torso level. Eigusha jumped and landed on the inn. She blinked around unsteadily, suddenly in an inn. It was an odd experience the first hundred times you did it. Then she turned. The door closed as she briskly adjusted it to Liscor.
“Ooh. I hope Drassi gets it back to here.”
Erin frowned. The Gnoll shrugged.
“Eigusha will be back in less than twenty minutes. And this door’s handy. We don’t have to set up camp, we can request supplies and personnel in moments—you’re not charging us for it, right?”
“Nope. I’m getting money from the city. Well, I don’t have to pay as many taxes.”
“Ah, excellent. In that case, I’ll keep using it how I please.”
The Gnoll [Builder] nodded to himself. Erin eyed him.
Master Builder Reikhle was…interesting. The Gnoll had no time for anything that wasted time. He’d been hired through Pallass to do a job, and this was it. Anyone—adventurer or worker—who was shirking got the back of his paw. In a literal sense. The Gnoll wasn’t afraid to knock heads, but he wasn’t violent.
And it was true that a Drake and Gnoll work team needed it sometimes. Erin had seen two fights as she’d watched that day. The workers got on each other’s nerves, both working and on break. And it fell to Eigusha, the [Taskmistress], or Reikhle, or the other supervisors to deal with the arguments.
Snarling Gnolls and hissing Drakes weren’t the adventurer’s jobs to break up, especially because the Humans were often the target of ire of both races combined. Speaking of which…Erin followed Reikhle as he strode back towards the door.
“Where’re you putting the door?”
“Just up towards the front of the road. We’re not going to walk all the way up when we can move the door, surely?”
“Oh. Makes sense. But aren’t we closer to…the Bloodfields?”
Erin gestured at the red grass in the distance. Reikhle glanced over. Like the other Gnoll, he sniffed the air, but dismissively.
“We’re three miles out. And I have the road moving away from the Bloodfields. See?”
He pointed impatiently, striding so fast that Erin had to jog to keep up. The road was being built along wooden stakes hammered into the ground. Reikhle himself had measured it with some device from Pallass, and now the road was straight as an arrow. [Laborers] were moving ahead of the team pounding the road flat, pouring dirt, raising it above the surrounding dirt. And another team was digging…Erin frowned.
“Is that a ditch? Why’re you digging that?”
“To have enough dirt to elevate the road! And for drainage, obviously!”
Reikhle snorted. Erin peered at the road.
“Oh. But it’s made of dirt. Won’t it wash away with rain?”
The Gnoll gave her a side-eye.
“Not my roads. This one will eventually degrade, but [Weather-resistant Structure] is my Skill and this road will last thrice as long as a normal one! We could have made it out of stone of course, but your city wants the road done fast. And dirt is a lot faster. We’ll probably be rebuilding it in the years to come, but I’ll have a temporary road built in less than a month. If you slugs would get to work and stop sitting on your tails!”
He bellowed past Erin. A group of Drakes and Gnolls cursed at Reikhle as Erin winced. The Gnoll strode past her.
“Don’t bother my workers or get in the way!”
He left Erin. She walked to the side; the road was indeed moving at a rapid pace. Almost as fast as she could walk! Part of it was Skills, but the rest was just organization. Reikhle had teams such that everyone was always working. Erin sidled up to her door as the two Drakes put it down.
She offered her basket. The two sweaty Drakes took it with gratitude. One was a female Drake. She leaned against the door as Erin stared at her arms. This Drake had muscles. And breasts. Fun fact: Drakes were mammals. Erin hadn’t really known that. The Drake eyed Erin too.
“Thanks, Miss Innkeeper. Don’t mind Reikhle. He’s always like that.”
“Oh? You’re from Pallass, then.”
The Drake nodded, flashing Erin a grin. Erin smiled back as the other Drake scarfed another cookie, more interested in her basket than anything else. The female Drake smiled crookedly.
“That’s right. We’re part of his team. I’m a [Hauler]. Decent-leveled, though. See these?”
She hefted one arm. Erin nodded appreciatively.
“What Skills do [Haulers] get?”
“Ones that let us work harder.”
The other Drake grumbled. The female [Hauler] nodded.
“But also carry more than we should. It’s like having a miniature bag of holding for dirt. See?”
She nodded at the team dumping dirt on the ground. Indeed, they seemed to be carrying far more than they should, and the team pounding the dirt flat didn’t need to stop for quite a while. Erin whistled.
“Nice. So—Reikhle’s a good boss?”
She’d seen him striding about, and after a few days of having him walk through her inn to work, she was curious. Hence the basket of goodwill—Erin twitched it out of the reach of the male Drake. He’d had four cookies. The female Drake grinned and took another one.
“Reikhle? He’s decent. Hey, these are really good! You have any water?”
“Oh—when the door’s open—”
Erin gestured at the door. The Drake nodded, wiping sweat from her brow. She nodded at Reikhle.
“I know he’s tough. But he’s a [Builder], not some prancing [Architect] or [Engineer]. You need someone to make one of those complex elevators or some artful piece of marble, get someone else. Reikhle gets the job done cheap and quick. Without magic, too! Which is good. [Mage]-built roads always have something wrong with ‘em.”
“Huh. Well, I’m just interested. You’re all working hard, so I thought I’d share some…say, are the adventurer teams here?”
Erin looked around. The Drake shrugged. She waved a claw.
“There are a few on watch over there.”
Her companion grumbled. He eyed the two teams of Silver-rank adventurers standing around, chatting, a few keeping watch in every direction. His ire might have also been due to the fact that the teams were Human. Entirely so. Erin inspected both teams. But she didn’t see the ones she was looking for.
“Where’re the others?”
“Scouting ahead. Scouting the area. You know, to keep the immediate area clear of monsters. Watch for gaps. We’re going into the hills to get around the Bloodfields. And dead gods, that’s going to be a pain.”
The Drake nodded knowingly towards the incline ahead of them. The grass disappeared and rocky terrain began. Erin imagined the builders would have to break the stone, find a way to build the road up. She nodded.
“Ooh. Yeah, that’s tough. Condolences.”
“We’ve done it before. But it’s no picnic. You looking for a team?”
“The Horns of Hammerad. They’re friends. They stay at the inn. I was just wondering where they were.”
“They’re probably on patrol. They’ll be back, but don’t hold your breath. They could be a few hours; they’re all on foot, save for one team. Say—can I have another one of those cookies?”
The Bloodfields waited. A bit closer from where the road was being built. But not too much. The furthest edge of corruption was still two miles safely away. And there it stayed, no matter where her team went. That was intentional. The [Scout], Hissle, and Ceria’s team had strict instructions not to get any closer to the Bloodfields. And the half-Elf couldn’t argue with that.
She panted as they hiked up a steep incline. Little stones cascaded down around her, dislodged by Yvlon who was climbing after the Drake, Hissle. Their [Scout] moved efficiently, sure-footed even on the rocky terrain. Yvlon was less graceful; she was wearing full plate armor, and despite the good fit and light, enchanted metal, it was still armor. She was sweating in the heat.
Ceria wasn’t. She’d taken to cooling herself down with ice magic. But she was tired. She stumbled on a rough patch of footing heading up the slope. She tipped backwards, began to flail—and a hand caught her.
Yvlon turned. Ceria regained the balance and kept climbing. She was wheezing when they got to the top of the crest. Hissle was surveying the area. He turned as Ceria’s loud panting broke his concentration. The Drake eyed the [Cryomancer] and the other three adventurers. Pisces was sitting at the top of the hill on a rock; he’d used [Flash Step] to get up and was reviewing his book. Yvlon wiped her brow, looking only slightly fatigued. Ksmvr waved at Hissle. The Drake hesitated.
“Alright, we’ll take a five minute break!”
Ceria collapsed onto a rock next to Pisces. He eyed her as she panted. He opened his mouth. Ceria pointed at him.
“If you—say anything—I’ll stab you.”
The [Necromancer] went back to looking at his book. Ceria wanted to die. She was dripping sweat. A cool object pressed against her cheek and she started.
Yvlon offered Ceria the flask. The half-Elf gratefully took it and drank. The water was cool—thanks to the ice cubes she’d added to it not half an hour ago. She handed it back after a few sips—she knew better than to gulp it down—and Yvlon drank gratefully.
“Ah. It’s nice having an [Ice Mage] around.”
Ksmvr nodded, also drinking. Pisces glanced up at Ceria as said [Ice Mage] bent over.
“Indeed. Are you all right, illustrious captain?”
“Shut it, Pisces. I don’t…want to hear it from you. [Flash Step] is illegal!”
“I could teach it to you. If you were so inclined. But it does require work. And if used incorrectly, you could break a leg on these rocks.”
Pisces raised a brow. Ceria groaned. She’d seen Pisces using his spell to carefully ascend.
“I don’t want to work! Why are we working? Someone tell me that! We’re rich from the dungeon! Why are we working?”
“I thought you said you wanted to keep our team busy. I was only too happy to rest.”
The [Necromancer] raised one brow. Yvlon smiled.
“This was your idea, Ceria.”
“Shut up, Yvlon.”
Ksmvr opened his mandibles, peering around. They had a good view from the rocky bluff they’d climbed. And the hills looking down onto the valley gave them a view. Green, and the basin that was Liscor to the north. And south? The Bloodfields. But also, the rise in land. Hills, rocky, unable to support even the crimson death zone. It was through this area that the Horns, led by Hissle, were traversing. Finding a route for the new road.
“Captain Ceria, I believe we will not be going uphill for the moment. There is a valley ahead. I believe we will be scouting it next.”
The half-Elf didn’t look elated at the news.
“If we go down, we have to go up again, Ksmvr.”
“That is true, Captain Ceria. Is my motivating speech a failure? How about this: our time is finite, so we only have three hours left by my calculation until our assigned work period ends. We will only be marching for two more hours, upon which time we will begin our return trip. How is that? Captain Ceria? …Captain Ceria?”
The half-Elf was trying to lie down in the dirt. Yvlon rolled her eyes. But she looked a bit tired herself.
“Ceria, get up. We’ve only been hiking for two hours.”
“You’re out of shape. Grimalkin is right. You got soft at Erin’s inn. You’ve done worse.”
“When I had to! But this was a mistake! We should quit!”
Ceria groaned. They’d been working on their job with Liscor for the last week, now. Enough time for all of them to get used to the routine. And hate it. Every day was the same. Stand around on guard duty or help build the road, or patrol. And the patrolling, the scouting, was the worst.
The worst part…was the constant hiking. Not the tedium. Ceria could handle tedium; she and her team were able to amuse themselves teaching Ksmvr new things, arguing with Pisces taking on all comers, or just gossiping. But the hiking was tough. On her especially, but it was just hard.
Scouting meant, well, moving, stopping, and moving some more. Hissle would survey for potential threats or problems that would impede the road—like a deep valley—and order them to check it out, or keep moving across the uneven terrain. They’d gone up very steep, rocky inclines, following Hissle, their dedicated [Scout].
The Drake was sympathetic—to a point. But he came back and pointedly nodded.
“We have to check out the valley. Reikhle won’t build through it, but there might be threats. Everyone up! Be watchful for monsters.”
Ceria hauled herself to her feet with a groan. She descended, stumbling after Pisces as the [Necromancer] zipped down the first incline with a smooth [Flash Step].
“Hissle, why can’t we use horses?”
The Drake sighed.
“Two reasons, Miss Ceria. First, horses attract monsters. So do we, but animals are tasty to monsters. But we could use them—if we had animals used to this terrain. But without, there’s no way a horse can navigate some of the spots we need to move. Like that gravel a while back.”
He nodded at the rocky landscape.
“I wish I had a Skill that gave my mount [Sure Footing] or something. But without it, even a pony would break an ankle in this terrain. I’m sorry, but aside from that other team—”
“The Whistling Bows. Kam’s team.”
“They’ve all got that Skill. Or their leader does.”
The half-Elf cursed. She’d seen Kam’s team riding in the distance, happily chatting to each other. Yvlon shrugged.
“I’m not a fan of hiking either, Ceria. But it’s good exercise and it keeps us out of the inn. Where you’d be drinking and eating by midday.”
“I’m allowed to do that! Where does it say that’s illegal? I can live how I please! I just wish we had horses.”
Ceria snapped. Yvlon shook her head. Ksmvr raised one of his three hands helpfully.
“There are a breed of huge goat in the Terandrian kingdom of Kilav that are suited to mountainous travel. They are domesticated for riding and considered extremely dangerous siege specialists due to their ability to traverse mountains and nearly vertical ground with ease.”
Everyone, Hissle, Pisces, Ceria, and Yvlon, turned to look at the Antinium. Pisces nodded; Ceria just frowned.
“How do you know that, Ksmvr?”
“It is part of my education. I studied Kilavian warfare, among others.”
“You know about mountain goats in Kilav and not how to tip [Waitresses]?”
Ceria shook her head. They passed by Pisces. He was sitting on a rock. Even Hissle eyed Pisces askance as the [Necromancer] used his Skill to zip down the slope to another seat. He wasn’t lording it over them, but—Ceria glared daggers. Pisces coughed, hiding a smile.
“That is actually not Ksmvr’s failing, Ceria. Drakes do not prefer to tip, as a species. The fees for those working in such industries are calculated as part of their wages and thus the menu item costs. In that sense, Ksmvr was educated properly.”
“Well, why am I tipping, then?”
Ceria frowned. Then she cursed as she felt a familiar irritation on her feet, where her sandals were rubbing against one heel. She stopped.
“I told you sandals were a poor idea to go hiking.”
Yvlon looked disapproving. Ceria had torn her toes open twice and gotten blisters. Now she applied some healing potion, ignoring Yvlon’s disapproving look at the waste. Ceria grumbled.
“I don’t care if it’s a mountain goat or an Eater Goat! I’d ride anything—I’m getting blisters on my feet! Isn’t there a better option?”
“None. So keep moving. We have to cover this ground, Captain Ceria. And you are contracted with the city.”
Hissle urged Ceria onwards. The half-Elf groaned and picked up the pace. She was indeed used to this, for all she ran her mouth.
By now, the adventurer’s teams were actively betting and lobbying for duty watching the building teams, rather than going scouting. Ceria agreed; casting [Icy Floor] to help some workers transport a block of stone, or so on was preferable to this. Only teams like Kam’s who had horses weren’t complaining.
It wasn’t a bad job. They were being paid well for guards! And they weren’t in much danger; the few monsters they’d happened across had been easily dispatched. And the dangerous ones the Silver-rank adventurers had teamed up on, like the Face-Eater Moth nest a few days back. No, it just wasn’t fun. And Ceria had forgotten how hard some jobs adventurers took were.
For instance, lunch. Again, it was worse for Ceria. Ksmvr happily chowed down on the food provided for the adventurers and workers alike. It was free as part of their job, so Ceria shouldn’t have complained. But she did. Vocally.
“What’s this? This is just—rations!”
She eyed the salted fish, bit of crumbling cheese, and hard bread they were given. It was filling, but hardly good, even washed down with cold water. Yvlon sighed.
“Ceria, enough. You’ve been complaining over every little thing. You’ve gotten spoiled by Erin. This is no worse than I had in any number of jobs. But Erin serves that greasy stuff. Filling, but this is better if we’re going to fight. And the city’s providing it to us for free.”
The reprimand turned Ceria’s cheeks pink. Embarrassed, the half-Elf waved the bit of fish around.
“But I like Erin’s food. This is—”
She stopped as she realized everyone was looking at her. Even Pisces was staring at her meaningfully. Ceria turned red. She chewed in silence. Okay, it was decent food. Just—
“I admit, Erin’s food is somewhat more flavorful.”
Pisces acceded after a minute of silent chewing. He gulped down some water and silently traded his bread for Ksmvr’s fish. The Antinium had a thing about gluten. Pisces chewed on his fish and then continued.
“Erin could provide us with lunches. One wonders why the city didn’t ask her to cater for our teams.”
“Knowing the inn? I’ll bet Lyonette charged too much and Erin didn’t want to make that much food in advance. Which is a shame. She needs to hire a cook.”
Yvlon cast a knowing glance towards the magical door sitting—currently inactive—in the distance. They could actually see the road from their vantage point. Ceria nodded, still embarrassed. She peered down at the workers, and then pointed.
“Hey. Isn’t that Erin?”
The other Horns and Hissle looked. The Drake shaded his eyes. He had a Skill, and nodded after a moment.
“That’s her. She’s got a basket. Looks like…what are those things?”
Ceria didn’t have to guess. She sat up longingly.
“She’d handing them out to—the Ensoldier Shields! Damn! Walt and his team! Just because they’re all wearing armor they get to sit around—”
The Horns were watching from their spot. They were just above the lip of the valley, and any further down they’d miss seeing Erin. Hissle looked about, ready to order them to stop hanging about, but then he glanced back.
Erin was shouting furiously. From the distance, no one could hear her, but the [Scout]’s enhanced vision saw her furiously pointing at one of the adventurers. Ceria shaded her eyes.
“What? What happened?”
“Looks like something’s made your friend mad. Oh—I think I saw. One of them slapped her on the behind.”
The Drake said it passively, but the half-Elf swore and Yvlon twitched.
“Those disgusting idiots! I’m going to kick Walt’s teeth in!”
“It wasn’t on the tail. Oh—wait. I guess that’s bad, isn’t it?”
“Like the tail.”
Pisces informed Hissle. The Drake frowned. Ksmvr nodded.
“I understand this is another form of establishing dominance between sexes. A bad one.”
He looked at Yvlon and the [Wounded Warrior] nodded. Hissle stared back down.
“Well—your friend’s not having it.”
Erin had thrown the basket down and was advancing on one of the laughing adventurers. The all-male team of the Ensoldier Shields were arguing with the other team—Hauntgheist, whose female members were also looking very upset. Then—
“Ooh! She punched him! Did I see that?”
Hissle watched. He looked at the sprawled figure.
“Nice hit. That had to be a Skill, right? Alright, back to work!”
“What? But I want to see—”
“No excuses! We have three more hours! We need to check out this valley now! Keep marching!”
Palt the Centaur was cooking when the door slammed back open and Erin Solstice stormed back into the inn. He heard her voice first, shouting.
“Those jerks! Hey! Hey! Let go of me! I’m gonna kick him in the nuts! I’m gonna boil nuts and throw it on his face! I said let go—”
“Sorry, Miss Erin. But they are working. Master Reikhle wants you off the work site.”
“He slapped my butt!”
“It wasn’t your ears or t—oh, wait. Well, it’s all better if you stay away from them.”
The voice was male. The female one’s was far more sympathetic, but whomever was pushing Erin back into the inn had orders. There was a commotion coming from the magical doorway. Palt longed to investigate, but he couldn’t even send a spell out. He was concentrating.
“And…we add the saffron-mix. Note how I have the crushed saffron threads with a few uncrushed ones? We add that to the water—the caramelized onions are already mixed with the rice. And now it’s cooking! You see? Simple, easy—this is flavor. Just enough salt, saffron, some onion and we’ll have a dish. Now, we need some sides…”
The Centaur [Illusionist] was in the kitchen. He addressed a white Gnoll cub perched on the counter next to him. She stared into the bubbling pot as the Centaur checked the flame. He blew, and flames shot from his mouth, adding to the blaze.
“Just a bit more heat. That’s a good boil! Now—reduce!”
He waved his fingers and the flames abruptly reduced. The Centaur moved quickly, going to another tray. He addressed his audience as he spoke. Lyonette was sitting next to Palt, on a stool, taking rapid notes.
“Now, the rice is excellent even on its own, but it needs more to make it good. You can make a good chicken mix, or vegetables, or a sauce—but this is my favorite. We have some squash, some sweet potatoes here, and some Yellats. I add the Yellats for the spicy taste, but if you just want the sweet and savory, you can omit. See, we’ve chopped the vegetables and added the herbal oil. Remember to use spices! Now, we have a nice cover of the oil on the tray—we’re going to bake this in the oven.”
He trotted over to the stone stove. Lyonette raised a hand.
“What spices, Palt?”
“I use thyme and sage and some pepper and salt.”
Mrsha wagged her tail, watching the Centaur add fire to the stove with a flick of his fingers then insert the tray.
“It doesn’t take long to bake. Now, I’m going to use some magic to expedite the process, but that’s because I’ve been doing this a long time. Non-spellcasters can just wait fifteen minutes. You have to get an even cooking, so just throwing flames won’t work.”
The Centaur was warming the inside of the stove. It was complex—if you didn’t know how to create a magical field inside the stove—but he had a magical formula he could use whenever he wanted to cook like this. Erin was still kicking up a fuss as the Centaur lectured about proper heat.
Soon, the veggies were baked. Swiftly, the Centaur returned to the rice pot he’d been checking. The saffron rice was nearly done! The water had evaporated, but it wasn’t dry.
“Perfect. Now, stir in the vegetables at this stage. We’re losing the rest of the moisture, so be sure it’s at this point! Now, we take off the heat and cover this with a towel!”
Both Lyonette and Mrsha stared as the Centaur did just that. He winked at them, navigating the kitchen, which wasn’t made for a Centaur, with surprising grace.
“Exactly! To steam, you see? It makes the baked vegetables softer. Now, we’ll add the baked vegetables we didn’t add for difference in consistency. Put some other dried vegetables on top—see? Some nice leaves, dried to add some crunch—and there we go! It’s not exactly [Chef]-cuisine, but its fast and my favorite go-to.”
Mrsha and Lyonette stared down at the finished dish of saffron rice mixed with vegetables. Mrsha sniffed at the rich scent and Lyonette blinked.
“That looks—really good!”
The Gnoll cub looked doubtful. There was no meat in the dish! Palt waved a finger.
“Save your skepticism, little Mrsha! This is excellent cooking! Your Gnoll tribes love this food, believe me. Of course, you’d add lots of meat like some chicken—I’ll give you the recipe I use for Isceil and Beza’s share, Lyonette—but this is vegetarian. No meat! Centaurs don’t like as much meat in our diets.”
“It smells really good. Go on, Mrsha. Try some!”
The Gnoll cub didn’t need a second prompting, for all her doubt about the lack of the good stuff. As Palt put some into a bowl, she blew on a spoonful and popped it into her mouth. She chewed doubtfully, but then her eyes went round. Flavor! Such as she’d never had! Mrsha began scarfing the food.
“Don’t gobble, Mrsha!”
Lyonette looked amused and embarrassed. Palt laughed.
“She’s tasting the saffron. Now, remember, it’s quite expensive, so just use a tiny bit. And don’t waste any!”
Lyonette nodded, eying the rich, red-gold threads that Palt had given to Erin as a present. She tasted the rice and gasped.
“It’s so—good! The flavor is amazing!”
“You think so?”
Palt sighed in relief as he preened a bit. Lyonette nodded.
“Erin doesn’t cook like this. She uses spices—when she remembers to—but her foods like the pizza don’t have much.”
“Ah, yes. Well, it’s good in its own way. But this is cuisine. You could give it to a [Gourmet] and they wouldn’t throw it back in your face. Most of them. And the pizza would be a hit at Wistram. Actually—”
This must have been the thing Aaron kept trying to make! Unsuccessfully. Palt wondered if the other Earthers had rediscovered it. But he was low on the need-to-know poll and the Earthers were a huge secret. He smiled as he eyed the pizza Lyonette had prepared.
And he’d memorized the recipe! It was just a little secret, but he’d send it back to the Ullsinoi faction tonight. Even recipes were being restricted in Wistram! The Academy’s factions were fighting over everything from Earth and the big ones had a monopoly, hence the Earther-hunt.
“What do you think? The rice might be hard to come by, but you can use saffron in any number of ways.”
“It’s excellent. Thank you, Mister Palt.”
Lyonette smiled at the Centaur. Mrsha did too, a bit warily, but pointed at her bowl. Lyonette scolded Mrsha that she was ruining her appetite. But Palt was only too happy to offer her more.
“It’s nothing. And I have my own stock of rice—I can give you a bag! I imagine you’ll have to import—no, wait. Ask if Pallass imports it from Oteslia. If the Walled Cities aren’t fighting or having a tiff, I’m sure Oteslia grows it.”
“Is it expensive?”
Palt waved the question away.
“It’s like wheat, Miss Lyonette. It’s just that it grows best in Baleros. We grow it in the water, you see. Lizardfolk love it. Rice is to Baleros what bread is to Terandria and Izril.”
“I see. It’s certainly different. Thank you for showing us how to make it. And cook with spices. As I said, Erin’s got her own style of food, but it’s…well, simple.”
The American-based fast foods Erin liked to whip up were popular, but this reminded Lyonette of food from home. It took a bit more effort, even for what Palt called a simple dish. But the Centaur had only been too happy to do some cooking.
“Now, shall we see what’s gotten Miss Solstice so upset?”
“I suppose so.”
The [Princess] sighed. Palt trotted out of the kitchen with a plate in hand. Erin was still fuming, talking to Drassi, one of the female Gnoll [Waitresses] she’d hired, and two female [Actors]. Everyone male was out of range.
“And he was acting like he did nothing wrong! Hey Lyonette! And—Palt? Hey! Guess what happened when I was giving out cookies?”
Erin was surprised to see Palt, but only a bit. He’d been here every day, trying to ingratiate himself into the inn. The Centaur winced when he heard about the butt-slap incident. He wondered if the adventurer who’d made the unfortunate life decision had lost any teeth.
“It’s a compliment, they say. Like touching your tail. Eugh! Old Drakes doing that are the worst.”
Drassi was complaining. Erin folded her arms.
“Anyone does it in my inn, they get kicked out! And hit with hammers! Got it?”
She glared around. Lyonette just sighed. The [Innkeeper] was on the warpath.
“Erin, did you find the Horns? I thought you were going to check on them.”
“Oh. No, they were on patrol. But then that jerk Walt and his team—”
“Was it their fault? I mean, I wasn’t there, but maybe they got the wrong impression?”
That came from the side. Erin looked askance as she stared at a Drake.
He looked uncomfortable at the stares, but he went on, determined to make his point.
“If they thought you were flirting—”
“Did you smile?”
“Of course I—smiling is not flirting! I can smile at you without wanting to flirt! And butt-slaps aren’t part of that! Hey! Who thinks a smile means I’m automatically interested in you? Huh?”
No one was willing to look at Erin. The lunch crowd—one half of it—coughed and went to their drinks. Relc, sitting at his table, nudged Klbkch.
“Idiots. You know they’re into you if their tail touches yours. Right, my guy? Right, Klb?”
“Stop elbowing me. I am not your ‘guy’ either.”
Erin was still fuming as she sat down. Mrsha hopped into her lap and gave her a hug. She smiled, but then she scowled at the door. Palt approached with the steaming plate and a few Gnolls looked up.
“Why don’t we all calm down? Miss Erin, I’m sure the adventurer has learned his ways if I know you. Rather than dwell, try this!”
“Ooh! What’s this? Rice? And it’s yellow! Like uh—stir fry!”
Palt’s face fell only a tiny bit. But then he brightened.
“You’re familiar with it?”
“Of course! Yeah! It’s like uh, Chin—”
Erin paused and bit her tongue on what she’d been about to say.
“—rice! Did you make it, Palt?”
“I showed Miss Lyonette a bit of how to use the saffron. Would you like a taste?”
Modestly, the Centaur offered Erin the plate. She took the spoon and gingerly tasted it.
“Is it good?”
“Whoa. It’s good!”
Her comments and the word saffron made more guests look up. One of them coughed.
“Is there more?”
“Saffron rice with vegetables! Any takers? It’ll be—two silver a plate?”
“That’s a lot! Your prices are sky-high!”
One of the regulars complained. Lyonette scowled.
“It’s new! I’ll drop the price later! But this is made with saffron. You know, the stuff that comes from Chandrar and is worth gold for just a tiny bit?”
More interest. Palt watched as Lyonette hurried into the kitchen. Erin was still exclaiming over the food as Mrsha tried to sneak bites off her spoon.
“It’s so—flavorful! Hey, I wonder if Lasica knows how to make this? You told me you cooked, but not like this, Palt!”
The Centaur sat at the table, moving a chair out of the way. He was pleased by her reaction.
“I do dabble. I’m fond of using spices and no one else in my team can cook. Well, Isceil prefers to roast meat and Beza can make…Minotaur cuisine. But I do most of the work.”
The [Innkeeper] eyed Palt.
“Oh yeah? You know spices well? Because you’re a stoner?”
The Centaur sighed.
“I really wish you’d stop calling me that, Miss Solstice. There’s nothing wrong with what I do. I’ve explained it. It’s a personal choice. The fact that you’ve never tried anything is what’s odd.”
“No, it’s normal!”
Erin scowled. Palt sighed. He really could have used a good cigar, but Erin had banned it in her inn, talking about second-hand smoke. But she really didn’t like the idea of drugs. Palt didn’t either. Drugs? He wasn’t passing out powders or the kind of stuff that made your hair fall out! It was just dreamleaf! Dead gods, [Healers] used it as medicine!
But he was here to charm Erin, not to fight. So the Centaur patiently nodded to her meal.
“I can assure you, there’s nothing harmful, Miss Solstice. And my offer stands to try some of what I have to offer. But if you don’t want to try it—are you happy with the dish?”
“Yeah! It tastes great! And rice—I haven’t had rice in ages!”
The Centaur crooked his fingers, conjuring a [False Sound] spell around them. Well, it was more than just a spell—it was a fake conversation, far more advanced than your average [Hush] spell. He’d had to copy Erin’s voice and mannerisms, but anyone listening in would hear a conversation about trite nonsense instead. Far less obvious than Montressa’s methods. Palt was an [Illusionist].
And he was here against Montressa’s wishes. The Centaur glanced around, but Montressa wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Obviously; she was still banned from Erin’s inn. But he recognized a friend sitting in one corner.
Ulinde was speaking with Moore and Seborn. The two Halfseekers were sharing a drink and speaking to the Selphid. She was wearing a different body—a nice, female Drake’s. Palt was sure she’d gotten it from the Halfseekers; he remembered how hard the Selphid had been looking for a replacement body up till now. He flicked a finger under the table and Ulinde glanced up in the middle of laughing at something Seborn had said. She only flicked a finger before turning back to the two Halfseekers. Palt saw a flicker, invisible, but readable if you saw magic.
He nodded and turned his attention to Erin. Palt was taking a risk, speaking to her. Not in a physical sense; he was pretty sure she wouldn’t try to kill him. No, he was jeopardizing his relationship with his team. With Montressa, especially.
She had not been happy to learn that Ulinde and Palt had visited the inn without telling her. There had been an argument, nearly a fight. But the Centaur deemed it worth the risk to keep doing so. Erin was valuable. Montressa, she was fixated on Pisces and the Horns of Hammerad. But Palt had his eyes on the prize.
Erin Solstice was letting Mrsha lick a grain of rice off her face when she looked up and saw Palt chewing on something. She paused. The Centaur was chewing on a toffee, and yes, there was bit of dreamleaf in it. But Erin didn’t know that. He coughed.
“So, Miss Solstice. Not to bother you, but I was wondering if you’d thought about my proposal—”
Erin put down the spoon and Mrsha picked it up. She frowned at Palt.
“The one where I go with you to Wistram? Or give up my door? Nah. Nope. No way.”
Palt looked at her.
“You won’t consider it, just a bit? There are people from your world in the academy, Miss Solstice. You’d be safe!”
“And a prisoner, right?”
“Not—exactly. The Academy wants your protection, and there are powerful forces at work—”
“Like Wistram? So you want us to be the most powerful? Or just to keep your secrets.”
The Centaur bit his tongue. Erin went on, staring at him.
“I’ve seen what your team did to my friends. I don’t trust Wistram. And besides, this is my inn. I’m not leaving, right Mrsha?”
The Gnoll looked up as she finished Erin’s plate. She frowned and waved a spoon at Palt, nodding. The Centaur forced a smile.
“Nevertheless, Miss Erin, we have been sent to rescue anyone from Earth. This world is dangerous.”
“Yeah, and so’s Wistram. I’m not going.”
“Fair. But if you’d consider—”
Palt broke off. He hurriedly twisted his fingers as Lyonette approached the table. His spell unwound and the [Princess] approached Erin.
“Erin, can I borrow you a second? Sorry, Palt.”
“Not at all.”
The Centaur sat back. He kept Mrsha company as Erin got up and spoke with Lyonette. He was listening, of course. Mrsha licked the plate as Lyonette drew Erin aside.
“So—we’re ready to start work on the inn, Erin. Can we start with the back wall today?”
“What? But we’re having lunch! Can’t you finish work on the rest of the inn, first? Like the basement and stuff? Or—or make the other buildings you wanted first?”
Erin was arguing with Lyonette. Palt relaxed; it was a familiar quarrel he’d heard before. Lyonette looked frustrated.
“The Antinium have expanded the hill. It’s three times as large! Belgrade wants to lay foundations, but he needs to get at the inn. Which means tearing down parts of it for a tiny bit. Erin, it would really be easier if we remodeled the inn first and then worked on the periphery. Belgrade estimates that he can have the Antinium do most of the work I want in three days. Or less! Erin, we went over this before! It’s one wall! It won’t be down for more than a few hours—Belgrade can make a temporary cover as well!”
Erin squirmed. She hesitated, looking at the walls of her inn.
“I know you want to change the inn, Lyonette, but—maybe wait for a little while? The inn’s solid. And I sort of want it in one piece for the thing with Montressa, you know?”
The [Princess] sighed.
“It’s not going to explode, Erin. The Antinium built this inn, but they can make it better.”
“I know that! I wasn’t thinking of—look, just a little break so I can make sure the Horns are safe.”
“But you put me in charge of the inn. Erin, I know what I’m doing. Why can’t I change the wall? It’s my call, isn’t it?”
The young woman squirmed. Lyonette was frowning. From his seat, carefully looking the other way, Palt thought Erin was being more than a bit stubborn.
“I know that! And you’re in charge! Totally! But—I want the inn to be secure, y’know? In case…”
She glanced back at Palt. The Centaur pretended to be scratching at his side. Because of Montressa and his team. Curse her! It was making his job so much harder! Lyonette scowled, but nodded reluctantly.
“Fine. How long?”
“I’m not going to ask Belgrade to stall forever! He says the Antinium can put grass on the hill, do some more prep work. And work on the basement, I suppose. But how long until they can work with the inn itself?”
“A few—one week?”
Erin looked pleadingly at Lyonette. The [Princess] wasn’t happy, but she glanced back at Palt as Mrsha waved her paw. She was offering a bit of saffron to Apista who floated over. Palt leaned back as the Ashfire Bee buzzed past him. Lyonette blew out her cheeks and threw up her arms.
“Fine. But after that—”
“I promise. Let me just speak to Palt. I think I can convince him—”
The Centaur sat up as Erin came back. Of course, he knew what he wanted as well. So he began with honesty. He wasn’t here to trick Erin. Tricks were always found out. He wanted to convince her, and he’d adopted another tack.
“Miss Solstice, about our discussion—if you’re truly set on not leaving your inn, I’ll reluctantly accept that. However, I have to warn you, Miss Solstice, that my team might not be as—as understanding as I am.”
“Is that a threat?”
Erin frowned at Palt. So did Mrsha, and she held out Apista, stinger poised. The Centaur edged back from the Gnoll, waving around her attack-bee.
“Not at all! Not at all! Rather, it’s a warning. I can’t control Montressa or my teammates. I’m low on the hierarchy. I have a say, but Montressa outranks me in a number of senses. She has orders to bring you to Wistram.”
“And get Pisces. You said you’d try and sway her.”
Erin looked hard at Palt. The Centaur nodded.
“And I am! I will! But listen. Ulinde isn’t as determined as Montressa. Neither am I. But Isceil, Beza? And Montressa herself? They shouldn’t be underestimated. I am not trying to threaten you in any way! But I want you to understand that we are full [Mages].”
“Which means what?”
Palt chose his words carefully.
“It would be better if I could stop Montressa rather than have her try to—force—anything. Because my teammates are dangerous. Isceil underestimated Pisces. And Beza was likewise overconfident. But frankly, aside from being ambushed, we won our encounters somewhat handily. If we’d put barrier spells up, none of us would have been hurt. Even your duel at the inn might have gone further south until Grimalkin arrived. Well, that Drake with the anti-magic spear was dangerous too by all accounts.”
The [Innkeeper]’s eyes narrowed.
“This all sounds like a threat, Palt. If I don’t do what you want, it might come to a fight.”
“Call it my attempt to educate you before it comes to that. I’m being honest, Miss Solstice. I’ll swear on a truth spell that Montressa might start something even with my best efforts. I’m not the scary one, Miss Solstice. I’m an expert at utility spells. I don’t throw [Fireballs]. But I can hold my own with any Silver-rank [Mage] in the world in a spell fight. And my friends are far, far better at battle than I am.”
Erin nodded slowly. She eyed Palt, and he imagined she was trying to tell if he was being truthful. He hoped she had some Skill or method because he was. He’d tried to talk to Montressa and it was like slamming his head into a wall. Repeatedly.
“If it comes to a fight—which I am trying to prevent!—I need to warn you that a second fight won’t be safe. Even here, Miss Solstice. How strong is your inn with [Reinforced Structure]? Can it withstand siege spells? Because Isceil can do more damage than a [Siege Fireball]. Beza has six enchantments she can use at once. And Montressa—you saw her take a hit from Liscor’s wall spells. That orb artifact can cast [Chain Lightning] on command.”
“It’s still just magic. Bop any of them on the head when they don’t have a magic barrier up and they’re done, right? And it’s not going to come to that. Right?”
Erin looked at Palt. He hesitated.
“For you, Miss Solstice? I’d normally say Liscor is enough of a deterrent. But Montressa and that [Necromancer], Pisces—I told you what passed between them, didn’t I?”
“Pisces and Ceria did too.”
Palt nodded cautiously.
“Well, I will say it again. Montressa’s hatred runs deeper than a grudge. She fears the undead. To this day. And Pisces is more than a murderer in her eyes. I’ve tried talking to her. But…”
“Would she break Liscor’s laws? Zevara will throw her in jail forever if she does.”
Palt twiddled his thumbs, hesitating. Erin narrowed her eyes.
“Wistram Academy has an…equation it teaches the [Mages] that it allows to represent it. In short, it’s something like—if the risk to the academy is worth the cost and the reward, a [Mage] should pursue the opportunity. The risk of offending a single Drake city is acceptable to recover someone from your world, Miss Solstice. As is your magic door and potentially being able to replicate it. The Horns? That’s Montressa’s call, but if she came back with you and the magic door, Wistram would most likely consider it more than worth the cost.”
Palt pointed at Erin. She blinked down at her chest.
“Me? But then—”
She looked at Palt. Then she sighed.
“Okay. Just tell me.”
“You’re giving me threats about how bad Montressa is—”
Erin slammed her fist on the table. Mrsha did the same, glaring fiercely. Palt recoiled as Apista buzzed his face. Erin patted Mrsha on the back.
“—a warning, then! But you think you can stop it or you wouldn’t tell me. What do you want? What’s your angle?”
Palt took a breath. Erin was cannier than he’d like. In some areas. He nodded, growing serious.
“Very well. My proposal is this: I can call Montressa off. Both you and the Horns, if I do it right. Certainly, I can ensure that retrieving you isn’t necessary. But to do that, I’d need to leverage my faction, draw on support within the Academy.”
Erin frowned. Palt nodded.
“We’re all from different parts of the academy. Mine is small, but we have some influence. Montressa’s from a major faction. One of the biggest. The Revivalists. However, my group, the Ullsinoi faction, is quite flexible. If the Elusive Lot—”
“Oh, our leaders. I don’t know who they are, but they’re the best [Illusionists] and spellcasters in their field in Wistram. If they fight for it, we could probably force the Revivalists to call off the bounty on your friend. Even ensure that your name is…lost. Or that you’re left alone.”
Palt was fairly sure they could do it. But it would be an ugly struggle. Erin thought about it.
“What do I have to do?”
“Give us information. Be an—ally. To the Ullsinoi faction.”
“What kind of information?”
“Anything you can think of. From your world.”
Mrsha looked up. Erin narrowed her eyes. She stood up.
“Miss Solstice! It’s the only thing I can think of! I swear, on a truth spell, there’s no other way to get Montressa to back down. I can’t convince her with words!”
Erin rounded on Palt as he got to his hooves.
“The only way? Maybe for you. All I had to do is be your faction’s ally? You say that, but I bet [Illusionists] are all tricky. And jerks. Probably fun jerks, but jerks who walk around invisibly and pull pranks and stuff. Am I right? Why should I trust your faction? What’s Ullsinoi mean, anyways?”
Palt bit his tongue.
“My faction is somewhat notorious, but it’s not evil, Miss Solstice. All you have to do is answer questions.”
“Answer questions. Like how to make guns?”
The Centaur was silent. That was a big one. But the Ullsinoi faction wanted more. Like how to create electricity, harness lightning. Fly into space.
The Centaur sighed tiredly.
“Let’s be frank here, Miss Erin. I came here to find something to help my faction. I’m loyal to them, and I think we’re not bad. Wistram is taking people from Earth. For their protection, but also for gain, yes! And you’re a piece on the board, to make a chess reference. I’m offering you all I can, but I can’t help you for nothing. My faction will fight for you if I tell them to. But they have to have something. It’s all I’ve got. Will you at least consider it?”
He waited. Erin Solstice wavered. She looked up, thinking hard. At last, she smiled at Palt. The Centaur’s heart leapt. Erin opened her mouth.
Then she turned and walked away.
Palt the Centaur turned and stomped off towards the door. He was angry. Erin Solstice watched him go, feeling satisfied. And nervous. She felt like he’d been telling her the truth. But tell his faction, tell Wistram about guns and stuff from Earth? Ryoka had warned her about just that! No, she was tired of bringing new things into this world. Erin sighed. They’d just have to find another way to convince Montressa. She turned—
And Lyonette caught her arm.
“Erin, come with me for a moment.”
“Huh? What’s the matter, Lyonette—”
The [Princess] turned and dragged Erin into the kitchen. She was surprisingly strong! She nodded at Mrsha.
“Guard the entrance, Mrsha.”
The Gnoll cub nodded. Lyonette pulled Erin into the back of the kitchen and lowered her voice. Even Gnolls would have trouble hearing them above the background noise. The [Princess] glared at Erin.
Erin stared at Lyonette. The [Worldly Princess] snapped.
“Tell Palt yes, Erin! I caught the last of what he said. He offered you a deal, didn’t he?”
“Yeah. He wanted to know about—about stuff from home. I had to join with his faction or else Montressa might do something. I told him no—”
“Don’t be an idiot! Tell him ‘yes’! Mrsha, don’t let Palt leave!”
The Gnoll threw Apista. The Ashfire Bee buzzed after the Centaur and there was a shout. Erin looked at Lyonette.
“What are you talking about? Lyonette, we talked about this!”
The Princess had been privy to Palt’s careful negotiations with Erin over the last few days. The Centaur had been circumspect, trying to buy Erin’s goodwill. The [Princess] had been the one who had told Erin to wait for Palt’s pitch.
And Erin had! She’d discussed it with Mrsha, Numbtongue, and Bird, the rest of her family, as well. And the Hobgoblin had vouchsafed that it was unwise to trust any Wistram [Mages] given their reputation. Not in so many words, but Erin had agreed. Bird hadn’t had much of an opinion, but Lyonette had insisted Erin hear Palt out.
“I listened, Lyonette. But he wants secrets about our world! Like about guns and missiles and stuff! No way. Remember what Ryoka told me?”
The [Princess] ground her teeth.
“Did he say he wants that exactly, Erin? Or does he just want your help? Tell me what he said. He was using a spell, so all I heard was you two talking about bananas.”
Frowning, Erin repeated the gist of her conversation with Palt. Outside the kitchen, the Centaur was ducking Apista who was guarding the magical door. Lyonette exhaled when she heard Palt’s offer.
“Erin! Tell him yes! Ask him to help!”
“What? But I can’t do that! I’ll have to tell him—”
“You don’t know what you’re telling him yet! Guns are just one thing! And if it comes to it—tell him!”
The [Innkeeper] was aghast. Lyonette leaned in and whispered fiercely to her.
“Someone else will! How many people from your world did Palt say Wistram has?”
“At—at least a dozen? I dunno. But Lyonette! Guns are—”
“It’s information, Erin! If you don’t tell him, one of the others will! Listen to me. Palt gave you an offer! It was fair, and you shot him down without even considering it! That’s not how you negotiate! Go back out there, tell him you want to discuss the matter, and get his help to call Montressa off Pisces and you!”
“But I’d have to help his faction! And they could be jerks!”
Lyonette’s red hair tossed as she shook her head.
“You don’t get it, Erin. You’re already in trouble. You have a team of [Mages] who can destroy your inn if you’re not careful! And you have one of them who’s willing to deal with them. You need an ally in Wistram and Palt is the best one! Or do you trust any of the others?”
“No—but why do I have to deal with Wistram? Why shouldn’t I tell them to go away?”
Erin snapped back. She didn’t like Lyonette’s tone. The [Princess] looked at her as if she was an idiot. She pulled at her hair.
“Because that’s not how it works, Erin! Do you think you can just ignore or—or fight something as big as Wistram? Do you think, really think you can be the lone, independent force that never negotiates, and gets her own way? Don’t answer! That’s exactly what you think!”
“Yes, you do! You’re stubborn! You’re more stubborn than anyone, even Pisces! Even Zevara, and Embria! You think you can offend Wistram and take no sides but your own and you’ll win! But guess what, Erin? Wistram will just do to you what they did to Pisces! Listen to me. You need allies! I know what I’m talking about! I was a [Princess] of Calanfer, and my kingdom does not stand alone! We make allies! Even bad ones! That’s how Calanfer has survived for thousands of years! You need to do the same.”
Erin blinked in the face of Lyonette’s tirade. Where was this coming from? She felt uneasy.
“But the inn’s always been fine on its own.”
“No it hasn’t. It’s always had the Watch, or the Gnolls, or someone on its side, Erin. This is the first major power dealing with you besides Pallass, and you had Wall Lord Ilvriss and Zel Shivertail to protect you. Palt is offering you the same. Don’t turn him down.”
The young woman folded her arms. Erin wanted to object.
“But if I tell him—”
“Negotiate, Erin! Don’t tell him how to make guns. You don’t even know how! But think. They have people from your world. One of them—maybe all of them are going to help the other factions. You need this one, so give them something! Dead gods, you’ve been making food and bringing in plays—yes, give them plays! But don’t you dare just insult Palt and walk away.”
The [Princess] practically shoved Erin back out of the kitchen. The [Innkeeper] tried to protest, but part of her realized Lyonette was right. The other part didn’t agree, but—Erin saw Palt trotting through the inn, followed by Apista.
“Miss Erin! Call your bee off, please!”
The [Illusionist] shouted as guests dove out of the way. Lyonette clapped her hands.
The bee obediently flew towards her and landed on her arm. The [Princess] gave Palt a smile.
“Sorry about that, Palt. Apista must have found you interesting. Erin?”
She nudged Erin. The [Innkeeper] bit her lip. She looked at Lyonette. But—Erin hesitated. Was she being stubborn? No! Okay, maybe. She didn’t like the idea of selling anything to Palt’s faction.
But what are you going to do? If Montressa goes nuts? Palt just said they can blow up your inn, even from the outside. And if they fight, your friends have to fight too. If any get hurt when you could stop it, it’s on you, right?
A little voice in Erin’s head, one of the rare ones, whispered. The [Innkeeper] frowned. She folded her arms as Palt looked at her.
“It’s my way or the highway. I shouldn’t be bullied!”
“That’s idiotic. That’s not how the world works, Erin. You want to do that, be my guest. But if you put Mrsha in danger, I’ll have Apista sting you!”
Lyonette snapped. Erin flushed. Reluctantly, she walked over.
“Hey, Palt. A word?”
“Certainly, Miss Solstice.”
The Centaur snapped his fingers. A hush enveloped the two. Erin hesitated and looked at Lyonette. But there was no help for it. She looked up at Palt. The Centaur was expectant. Even hopeful.
For a moment Erin hesitated. Did she trust Palt? No. Not entirely. But then again, he’d been nothing but a good guest. He’d helped cook, answered her questions—and he seemed reasonable. He was part of Montressa’s team, and he’d helped beat up Pisces. And he was sneaky, like when he’d come to her inn invisibly. And he did drugs.
But—Erin had never done weed. And she’d always thought she wouldn’t. Even if people said it wasn’t addictive and stuff! But it was a drug. And drugs were bad, right?
But you said the same thing about alcohol and it was pretty nice. And you serve that. And your faerie flower drink.
Erin bit her lip. She didn’t like the thoughtful voice in her head. Because it usually meant she was wrong. She hesitated. Sighed. It was only negotiations. Lyonette was right about that, at least.
“Palt. I changed my mind. Can you—talk to your faction? I can’t give you guns. I don’t even know how to make them. But I—I could work with the Ullsinoi faction if you can promise you can call Montressa off.”
Palt’s eyes went wide. He smiled.
Erin nodded. The Centaur looked up. His eyes flickered and she wondered if he’d lied. But then he looked at her.
“I’ll talk with my superiors at once. And I will pull all the levers I have, Miss Solstice. You have my word. And I’ll ensure that whatever my faction wants isn’t too arduous. The best deal is one that puts both sides ahead, Erin. Give me a day—no, two at most. You won’t regret this! I’ll lay out what my faction wants and you can accept or refuse it. But thank you for trusting me.”
He seemed so earnest. Erin blinked as he reached out and took her hands. She felt less bad about her decision and glanced at Lyonette as she nodded to Palt. The [Princess] was smiling in relief.
The Centaur trotted towards the door, and Erin saw Ulinde excuse herself. She frowned, but then looked over as Lyonette joined her. Mrsha walked over on two legs and grabbed both young women’s hands. Erin looked down at her, and then at Lyonette.
“Negotiation, huh? Numbtongue thought it was a bad idea.“
“With respect to him, and you, neither of you are used to politics. And Numbtongue is a Goblin. He’s right to be skeptical. But this was good.”
“You really got mad at me.”
The [Princess] tossed her head, looking only a bit embarrassed.
“Well, you are infuriatingly stubborn, Erin.”
“I am not!”
Erin frowned. Mrsha and Lyonette both stared at her. So did Apista, on top of Lyonette’s head. Erin looked around.
“I’m not. Am I?”
Palt did a little dance with his hooves outside the inn. He hadn’t taken the magical door to Liscor. He wanted to walk. He pumped one fist in the air. He’d done it! What had changed Erin’s mind? Her [Barmaid]? Palt could kiss Lyonette! Or Erin.
The Centaur turned as Ulinde hurried out the doorway. The Selphid saw him and strode over. She was limber in her new body, and it was pleasantly fresh. The half-rotted old man had been hard to deal with. The Centaur nodded to her.
“Had a good chat with the Halfseekers?”
“Oh yeah! Two of them! Miss Jelaqua is still in Pallass, but Seborn and Moore have let me talk to them a lot! I think they’ve forgiven me! A bit, at least.”
The Selphid looked as excited as Palt. And why not? Her heroes were in the inn. The Halfseekers. Palt didn’t get the Selphid’s excitement, but he was grateful for it. They began walking down the hill.
It was indeed expanded, the grass meeting a huge amount of freshly dumped dirt. The Antinium had expanded the base of the hill three times over, creating a gentle slope the two walked down. Palt saw more milling at the base of the hill and shifted uneasily, but then Ulinde nudged him.
“So? What did you want to talk about.”
Palt collected himself. Time to get to work. If he wanted to land a deal with Erin—and he did, because his position and the Ullsinoi faction stood to benefit—he needed to work fast. Contacting his faction would be important since the Elusive Lot needed to debate, but Ulinde was more important. Palt turned his torso to her.
“Well, I wanted to ask you something, Ulinde. Are you—enjoying the company of the Halfseekers? The Wandering Inn is rather excellent, isn’t it?”
“It really is! And I love it there. Moore and Seborn are great. And that Miss Erin is nice—I mean, she still glares daggers, but she had amazing food, which I can taste with my new body! And the actors—”
“It’s a wonderful spot.”
Palt agreed. It would have been amazing if the inn were in Wistram. The plays alone—his pulse quickened. Yes, that was valuable and the Ullsinoi faction would see the value in that! He made a mental note to bring that up as something Miss Solstice could definitively offer. He turned to Ulinde.
“It would be a shame if we had to take Miss Erin, wouldn’t it? Or go after Pisces? Montressa, Beza, and Isceil—they’re on stakeout, watching the adventurers, aren’t they?”
“Yeah. And Montressa wants us to join her. I—I’m not doing it.”
Palt saw Ulinde look up. The Selphid glared at him.
“I’m not kidnapping Erin. Pisces is one thing—and I don’t want to go after him! But I’m not doing anything with Miss Solstice! If I do, the Halfseekers will never forgive me! And they have! Seborn and Moore have, and I’m not losing their trust again! I’m warning you, I’m not helping with Erin! And I’ll tell Montressa that!”
The Selphid pulled out her wand. Palt nodded carefully—Ulinde was a dangerous duelist, as good as Isceil—but then he smiled in relief.
“I had the exact same thought, actually. Which is what I wanted to bring up, Ulinde.”
Her eyes widened in relief.
“I did. I think we see the same thing. Erin Solstice may be an Earther, but she’s better here. And it’s not worth the risk or cost of going after her. Or Pisces, frankly.”
“That’s right! Her inn’s valuable! Seborn and Moore told me what Miss Erin did! She’s got great guests, she’s saved Liscor, and her inn’s full of valuable people. The most attractive, amazing—”
Palt murmured, then caught himself. He looked at Ulinde.
“Are we talking about Miss Solstice?”
“No! I mean Moore and Seborn! They’re so—cool! And Moore is handsome, don’t you think so? I like his body. And Seborn? He’s funny, when you realize he’s not always moody!”
Ulinde shivered with delight. Palt eyed her.
“You enjoy his company? He seems grumpy to me.”
“That’s part of his charm! He’s Seborn, the [Rogue]! I heard all these stories—my friends will be so jealous when they hear I’m talking with him! I wish I wasn’t with Montressa’s team. If only I could apologize to Miss Jelaqua—I’m so afraid she’ll be mad again—”
The Selphid sighed. Slowly, eying her, Palt took out a cigar and put it in his mouth. It seemed Ulinde and he were on more similar pages than he’d thought. Thoughtfully, he lit up and blew a ring of smoke. Then he handed one to her. The Selphid happily accepted.
“So. I have a…proposal, Ulinde. I know your faction of Selphids is tied to the Revivalists. But could you persuade them to ally with mine? Montressa’s clearly in the wrong and she’ll land Wistram in trouble if we go down the path she wants.”
Ulinde was no fool, starry-eyed or not. She glanced up at Palt and frowned, puffing on the cigar.
“I…could make some [Messages]. But what does my faction get?”
“Aside from helping the Halfseekers? Well, let’s discuss it.”
“The hardest thing will be convincing Montressa. Even if her faction calls her back, she’s mad about Pisces. Like—Beza mad.”
“If she’s ordered away, what can she do? Let’s talk to her tomorrow. But do I have your ear?”
The Selphid hesitated. She looked up at Palt and the Centaur waited. Then the [Spellslinger] nodded slowly.
“Sure. Let’s chat. And it’s an earhole, thanks.”
Montressa was dreaming. She knew she was dreaming, but only in the vaguest way. In the dream, she was in the moment. And it was always the same.
She was a girl, young, new to Wistram, in her second-year. Her robes flapped around her ankles and she stumbled as she ran. The halls of Wistram, illuminated by torches and magical lights at all times of day were shadowed. Dark. Magic and fire were both failing.
The air was full of screams. The sounds of magical explosions. Frantic voices. Montressa ran, stumbling, hearing shouts behind her. She was running. Calvaron had told her to run! Run, and find help!
The banquet hall had been chaos. [Mages] and students fought in the vast space. Golems too. But the enemy had come at them by surprise.
It had just been a normal dinner. Montressa had been sitting with Calvaron, waiting for Beatrice. Then they had come.
Undead. But not Ghouls or zombies. Or even Draug. No—wraiths and specters, dark shadows floating through the air. Fast—deadly. One had run through a Council-mage in the first moments. The others had set upon the diners. A horde of the undead!
They had been stalemated. Amerys herself had thrown lightning, blasting the undead. But there were so many. The younger [Mages] had fled as the older ones fought, trying to keep the undead back. Calvaron had been galloping, covering Montressa’s escape. Three of the half-real undead had been on his tail.
And more were coming. Montressa ran, shouting. She could hear distant voices, shouting echoes of what she was screaming.
“Undead attack! Get the Archmages!”
“High-level Undead! Clear the halls! Put up barriers! Get the Golems!”
Montressa skidded down one of the halls leading to the banquet room. She knew this spot—a three-way intersection, a common meeting point in the Academy.
Right now, it was a warzone. Two Golems were battling the undead. They struck at the floating ghost-things. The silhouettes of the undead weren’t just Human—they were in every species. One, half bone, gripping a two-handed greatsword, swung down, passing through the Golem’s fist. It slashed, cutting the Golem’s arm off. Undeterred, the construct swung its other hand, but the undead ignored its blow.
From the side, a fifth-year student blasted the wraith with a jet of light. The undead shrieked and dove at the student. Montressa saw the blade flash down. A severed torso fell. She screamed and ran, darting back down another corridor as the wraiths turned.
Montressa sobbed as she ran. She glanced over her shoulder, but the specters were distracted, fighting the Golems perhaps. The [Mage] girl slowed, clutching at her side. She looked around. She was heading towards some of the student’s rooms. She ran forwards. She had to warn them! They had to find an Archmage or someone!
The hallways were dim. Montressa realized she was running in near-darkness. She conjured a [Light] spell, but the glowing orb barely lit anything up. It was as if something was eating the light itself.
Panting, Montressa stopped by the first of the student’s doors. She knew some of them; they were fellow second-years, like hers. She saw some doors were ajar. That wasn’t normal. Montressa halted. She called out, uncertainly.
There was no reply. Had everyone already run? Montressa looked around. She might have moved on, but one door stood out to her. She knew who lived here. Chaise, a girl Montressa was friends with. She stepped towards it. There was a…noise…coming from beyond it, a faint panting sound.
“Chaise? Are you there? We have to run! There’s an undead attack!”
Montressa stepped towards the door. She felt a chill running down her body. She looked around, but the long hallway was empty. One hand found the doorknob.
Don’t turn it. That was what all of Montressa said. That was what her true self, watching the dream, said. But Montressa, the student, the girl, had to know. She always had to know. So she opened the door. And she saw Chaise.
The girl was lying on the floor. Montressa saw her torso and legs first. Then—she froze.
One of the undead had come this way. A ghostly, dark figure made of blackness. And it had found Chaise. The shadow was kneeling over her, stooped low. Chaise wasn’t moving.
Montressa was shaking. But her friend might be alive. She drew her wand. The tip sparked weakly, the light sucked up by the darkness that seemed to be drawing in everything. She saw the specter pause.
Montressa du Valeross raised her wand. She tried to shout.
“Get away from her!”
The specter turned. And Montressa saw its face. It was a Human face, the only solid thing in the ghostly, shadowed figure. But the Human face wasn’t right. It was deathly pale. And contorted in a huge grin. Eyes wide. Bloody teeth grinning at Montressa.
The girl halted. She stared at Chaise—her friend’s face—on the specter’s body. Then she saw the blood dripping from the teeth. She looked down.
It had eaten her face. The specter—Chaise—grinned at her, eyes wide. Montressa screamed. She screamed and screamed, backing away. The specter rose, floating. Chaise laughed. It was her voice.
The undead laughed and came at her. Montressa screamed as she threw up [Barrier of Air], the spell Pisces had taught her. The specter passed through the wall of whirling air and reached for her. And Montressa’s scream was real, in the dream, and in life.
Laughing and laughing, and Chaise screamed at her as the undead reached for Montressa—
The [Aegiscaster] woke up. She clutched at sweaty bed sheets, a second scream on her lips. Her throat was raw. She looked around, stared about the lit room, at the hovering [Light] spell by her bed. Even at night, her room was illuminated. For a second the young woman, years older, just sat there. Then she covered her face and started crying.
No one had heard her screams. Her rooms were warded. Montressa knew to cast the spell each night in case she dreamed of the past. She was too afraid to sleep again. So she just sat there, too afraid to cast a [Sleep] spell.
The dream was always the same. Chaise’ face. The last time she had seen Calvaron alive. Death, flying through Wistram’s halls. Death, regret, horror. That was all Montressa remembered.
She didn’t dream of the next part, where Cognita had reached out and torn the undead apart, her body bright crystal that glowed golden. She didn’t recall the [Mages] fighting off the undead, and the comparatively few casualties the Academy had taken. If it had been a city without so many high-level [Mages] and the Golems, the undead might have slaughtered hundreds of thousands. As it was, they had killed few.
But Chaise and Calvaron were part of that number. And in a way, Montressa was part of that casualty too. Even now, the [Aegiscaster] could close her eyes and remember.
A girl, rocking in a corner for months afterwards, [Light] spells illuminating every corner of her room. Ostracized in class for her friendship, no matter how much she denied playing any part in—
She opened her eyes. And her fear subsided. Never gone away. Never that. But now she had the object of her fear in front of her.
Pisces. The one who had unleashed death. Who had walked away after being exiled, with nothing more done! Because Cognita had demanded it. Because no one had brought him to justice.
Slowly, the sun rose. Montressa slowly untensed as the light illuminated her room. The rays dried her tears. She rose and dressed herself. When she greeted her fellow [Mages] the next day, she showed nothing of her night. Of the girl who had seen nightmares come to life.
But she never forgot. She could never forget. She greeted Isceil and Beza, ignoring Calvaron—no—Palt’s look as she told them what they’d all be doing today.
“We’re following them. All of us.”
Work was work. The days were much like the previous. Sometimes you could forget, think they were all the same. But time didn’t stop. And sometimes, you dreamed of what had been. What you’d taken for granted.
Infected again. Yvlon took the news silently as the [Healer] checked her arms the next day. The Gnoll [Healer] made a faint growling sound as she unwrapped the poultice she’d put around Yvlon’s arms. The [Wounded Warrior] looked at the weeping, red skin. She felt nothing as the Gnoll sniffed and made a face.
“It’s not better.”
“I’m sure my poultice worked, yes? But your skin—the first infection, it is getting better. But this spot—”
The Gnoll pointed. Yvlon nodded. The metal and skin didn’t mix. It irritated the skin, a foreign body. The [Healers] in other cities had suggested that in time her skin might accept the metal. Or not. Either way, at the moment it was a danger.
“Thank you. Can I use a healing potion?”
The Gnoll [Healer] hemmed and growled, but nodded. She held up a cautionary finger.
“If—if you are in danger, the potion should heal your skin and the worst injury first, yes? The body will use the potion best. But it will also give strength to the infection. Perhaps it will heal itself. But it may grow worse. My advice is you should not adventure—”
“Will I get better if I wait?”
The [Healer] couldn’t answer that. So Yvlon stood. She fished in her belt pouch.
“I appreciate all you’ve done.”
The Gnoll woman refused the tip. She frowned as she packed her tools away.
“Come back in two days, no? Or sooner if it looks worse. Clean it, try not to bother it—I will send a [Message] asking for a better poultice from my tribe.”
Yvlon smiled. She put the armor over her bandaged and resalved arms. She felt nothing. The Gnoll [Healer] watched her go. Yvlon stepped into Liscor’s streets, out of the small clinic. She sighed. And then she went to find her team.
Some things never changed. Ceria groaned when Master Reikhle put them on scout duty again. Yvlon wasn’t surprised. The Gnoll didn’t like Pisces or Ksmvr around. What was surprising was that Walt’s team was on scout duty too.
“But we’re wearing armor!”
“Shut up, Walt! Your team was full of the idiots who decided to bother Erin!”
Ceria snapped. Walt and his team scowled.
“It was one slap! It’s not like it doesn’t happen in the north!”
“Erin’s not a [Barmaid]! And that’s not the point!”
“Silence! Get to your [Scouts] and get to work! This isn’t a nursery!”
Master Builder Reikhle bellowed and the adventurers all shut up. With ill-grace, the Ensoldier Shields trooped off, and the Horns did likewise. Yvlon marched alongside Ceria, listening to the half-Elf grumble. She agreed in broad with everything that made Ceria so mad. But she had to admit, seeing the man who’d slapped Erin complaining about having his nose broken and his eye blacked made her wonder how far Erin had gone in return.
“There’s such a thing as too much retaliation, Ceria.”
“For Walt and his idiots?”
The half-Elf looked at Yvlon. The [Wounded Warrior] met her gaze.
“What if Erin had broken his arm?”
“If you say that’s fair, you might be over exaggerating. Then again, I’d probably do that. At least deck whoever it was. But if she broke both his legs?”
“Okay, that’s going overboard. A bit. But Walt just doesn’t get it.”
There wasn’t much more to say after that. And Ceria was already huffing after the first thirty minutes. She really needed to build up her endurance. She was getting better, though; she didn’t need a stamina potion already. But she was still complaining.
“I think we should take less shifts. I mean, I’m practicing being boiled and trying to learn new spells. We could all use more practice time.”
“That is not what you said last time, Captain Ceria. I believe your quote was—”
“Don’t quote me, Ksmvr! I’m unreliable!”
The half-Elf waved her hands. The Antinium nodded, assimilating this information. Ceria sighed.
“It’s just—work. I thought we’d level a tiny bit, but we’re not exactly fighting, are we? We can find better work. When the Halfseekers finally get to Invrisil…”
It was a common refrain. But Yvlon doubted Seborn and Moore were in any hurry. She’d seen them recounting stories to Ulinde this morning. The young Selphid was hanging on every word. The two Gold-rank adventurers weren’t in a hurry to get back to the road. Nor was Jelaqua.
But it would happen. Someday. And sooner than you thought, even if it was later than you wanted. Yvlon rubbed one arm, adjusting her vambraces unconsciously. When they got to Invrisil, the Halfseekers would help the Horns cash in the bounty they’d taken from Liscor’s dungeon.
It made sense to do it in Invrisil versus Pallass—the Gold-rank adventurers knew someone who’d give them the best deal and you wanted that with all the various objects the adventurers needed to turn into pure gold. Griffon Hunt had taken their share to their broker already no doubt, but the Horns needed to build up a network.
And when they got the money? It would be a lot, even split four ways and three ways per team. It was a lot of gold. Yvlon had been thinking more and more about how to spend hers. She could upgrade her armor, buy artifacts—put the money to work, even. The Merchant’s Guild would help with that, as would Yvlon’s family. In fact, her parents could use some, if only for all they’d done to Yvlon. And the families of her old team, the Silver Swords…
But perhaps she could use it for something else as well. Yvlon bit her lip as she scrambled up a hill, taking Ksmvr’s hand as the Antinium bounded up, using his Ring of Jumping.
I could use my share to set myself up. Even divided, it’s enough money to make me as rich as any [Merchant]. It’s a better head start than Ysara had—
Abruptly, Yvlon looked at her teammates. Ceria was panting as Ksmvr stopped next to Pisces. The armored woman looked around and broke the silence.
“Have I ever told you about my sister?”
“You have a sister?”
“You have spoken of her at length in our drinking chats, yes.”
Pisces and Ceria turned to Ksmvr. The [Skirmisher] returned the look blankly.
“This is not a common occurrence with you two?”
Yvlon smiled slightly. But she lost it as she grew thoughtful. Hissle waved them on and the Horns followed, listening to Yvlon.
“She’s the eldest in the family. The Byres family is only five people. My parents, Ylawes, me, and my older sister. Her name is Ysara.”
“Of course it is. Why are all your family members named with ‘Y’, Yvlon?”
Ceria rolled her eyes. The [Wounded Warrior] looked reproving.
“My mother isn’t. But she did marry into the family. Honestly, it’s just tradition. We used to have a complicated reason involving honoring our Terandrian roots, but no one in the family cares about that. Not even Ylawes and my father, and they uphold a lot of the traditions like well seeding, attending the birth of the first animal each spring, eating silver—”
“You have the weirdest traditions. Go on about your sister.”
Yvlon nodded. Pisces strode next to them rather than [Flash Step] ahead.
“Nothing much to say, really. She was the eldest. Not like Ylawes. She’s very—relaxed compared to the rest of the family. But growing up, all three of us were taught the sword. And Ysara was gifted, and I mean gifted with a sword. You’ve seen Ylawes fight, right? Well, he was never good at it and he’s better than me.”
Ceria raised her brows, but Pisces nodded thoughtfully. He touched the rapier at his side.
“I could believe that. His footwork and swordsmanship is average. He is adept more at using his Skills and fighting in actual combat than he is at the pure art of it.”
Yvlon frowned at Pisces. The implication being that Pisces was better? The [Necromancer] shrugged and Yvlon took it at face value. Pisces didn’t lie when it came to his abilities in fencing.
“Yes, well, Ysara is good. She might be better than you, Pisces. She’s beaten [Fencers] before. When they’ve used Skills. But she’s not a [Knight]. She doesn’t even have a [Warrior] class. She used to, but—well, she upholds the other tradition of the Byres family. If we’re not [Knights], we become [Merchants].”
“[Merchants]? No, wait, you told me about that once.”
Ceria looked at Yvlon. Ksmvr cocked his head.
“This is not new information to me, but I am rapt with attention.”
“Thank you, Ksmvr. Yes, she’s a [Merchant]. A good one. And I say [Merchant], but it’s actually [Armored Merchant]. She works in the north, which is why I haven’t mentioned her in a while.”
“And why did you bring her up?”
Yvlon shrugged self-consciously, avoiding Pisces’ gaze.
“Just thinking. I wanted to be a [Knight]. But that was mainly because I wanted to be like the female heroines in my books. I wonder how I’d do as a [Merchant].”
A thoughtful silence fell as the Horns marched on. After a moment, Ceria shook her head.
“I can’t see it. You? Selling, what? Silver goods?”
“My sister does sell arms. Well, armor, mainly. But I wouldn’t have to do that. It’s just a thought. You can’t imagine me being charming?”
“Yvlon, you’d be charming right up until a client insulted you. Then you’d push his face in. You have a temper as bad as—as Seborn’s!”
“Hm. You’re probably right.”
Yvlon ducked her head, brushing a blonde strand of hair out of her face. She glanced up and sighed as she felt sweat sliding down her back. If she had to put on her helmet in this heat—
“You know, I don’t think I can stand another day of marching in this heat. It’s summer. I’m calling it.”
The Horns nodded. Ceria grimaced.
“Want some snow?”
“How about cold air?”
The half-Elf nodded and pointed her wand. Yvlon sighed as the cold breeze chilled her. Almost too much. She shivered and Ceria lowered her wand.
“I can cool us down, but I can’t do anything about travelling. Dead gods, should we stop working as much?”
“We did sign up, Ceria. We can’t just back out after one week. Two would be a show of good face.”
“If you wish, Captain Ceria, I shall carry you.”
Ksmvr offered. Ceria looked like she might take him up on the offer. But Yvlon had a thought. She glanced around. But—to Rhir with it. She understood why Ysara had become a [Merchant] instead of the [Knight] like her father, Yitton, and Ylawes had wanted her to be. She understood what Ysara had meant when they’d talked. The Yvlon of now wished she’d been able to talk to her sister, because she understood Ysara now. You had to do your own thing. And Yvlon was getting good at thinking like—
Casually, the armored woman walked a bit ahead, next to Pisces.
“All this marching about. It’s not exactly snow, but nearly as bad. It reminds me of that time we were in the snow and we’d just fought those Crelers, remember?”
“Oh? I remember us at Albez, having to drag our loot back. The Crelers were different. We fought a juvenile one, right? Which was huge. And Pisces used the bears, but I don’t remember the trek back. To the cave was hard. But on the way back, didn’t we—”
Ceria’s rambling voice cut off. She looked up at Yvlon sharply. So did Ksmvr. He tilted his head. Yvlon raised her brows.
They stared at Pisces. The [Necromancer] was muttering as he read from his notes.
“The spell is complete, but how do you enhance the effect like he claimed? It makes no sense! Is it just pure mana or is there a way of adding more death magic to the [Deathbo—”
He looked up and blinked at the others.
“We were talking about the Mossbear cave, Pisces. Remember? And how we got back to Esthelm?”
The [Necromancer] looked confused for a moment. Then his eyebrows shot up. He hesitated.
“…That would be frowned upon, surely.”
The Horns looked at each other. Yvlon raised one eyebrow.
“Says the [Necromancer] with a two-thousand coin bounty on his head.”
Pisces wore a very curious expression. Tentatively, he paused. Hissle looked back, confused. The [Necromancer] regarded his team.
“Even if I had a—solution, what would the other teams say? I assumed we were trying to ingratiate ourselves with the other teams.”
Ceria nodded, and her voice was reasonable.
“Yeah, but my feet hurt.”
“It is utilization of your abilities, Comrade Pisces.”
“And you’re our teammate. So stop holding out on us.”
Yvlon nudged Pisces. He blinked at her. It was something old Yvlon would have never said. But—if you looked at old Yvlon, and the one now, they were so different. She smiled a bit. After a moment, Pisces smiled too.
“I’m afraid I only have two. But that gives me an idea.”
The team working on the road was laboring and cursing another day. And it was another day. Thunder Solace and the Boltspitters had both drawn the lucky straw today and were at rest. Alais and Stan were even sitting, letting their team maintain their watch. But they stood warily when they heard the commotion.
For an adventurer in his middle years, Stan could move fast. And he had a crossbow in his hands, ready to fire. Crossbow Stan and Alais saw Caddin and a bunch of adventurers and workers pointing at something in the distance.
“What? What’s the delay?”
Growling, Master Builder Reikhle came storming over. For an answer, one of the Drakes just pointed. The Gnoll growled. Then his eyes went wide as he shaded them.
“What is that?”
In the distance, something was racing over the hills. Not the various adventurer teams scouting around, and not Kam’s mounted team. No—this was something else. Alais bit off an oath.
“What are they doing now?”
She pointed and Stan stared as well. At first he didn’t know what he was looking at. Then his eyes widened.
It was…a chariot. Or a sled. No, it had wheels, so it was technically a chariot. But it was more like a sled. The wide-bottomed chariot was made of some pale yellow wood and had a decent lip to prevent anyone tumbling out. But it was mainly a box on wheels.
Wheels made of ice. That was the first ridiculous thing. Alais spotted the icy wheels from a distance. That had to be Ceria’s doing. No—one was pale ivory. Bone! It was made of bone!
Then you realized—the entire chariot was made of bone. And ice! But that wasn’t the main thing that had the workers and adventurers in uproar.
Two undead horses pulled the chariot. They were clearly undead; they were made of bone. Alais’ jaw dropped. The undead horses pulled the chariot up a steep hill. They were heading back this way! Of course, it was time for the Horn’s break.
“Are they using that thing to travel? What the hell are they thinking?”
“It beats walking!”
Some of the adventurers nodded. They were all footsore from yesterday. Even so—Alais saw the chariot climbing. The undead horses struggled their way up a hill. It was not a smooth ascent. The chariot, as a vehicle of travel, was not designed to go up rocky terrain. Nor were the wheels; the ice was chipping apart! But it was being repaired as fast as it broke.
And the horses were relentless, despite their burden. It was more like the horses dragging a block of wood up an uneven slope. Normal horses probably would have thrown off such a burden, but undead horses didn’t complain or even falter. They ascended the crest. Alais saw the steep incline. The riders didn’t because one horse went over the lip, then the other. Alais saw a half-Elf shouting, waving her arm. Then the chariot went down—
The idea of a rollercoaster hadn’t been invented yet. And if anyone saw the Horns and Hissle going down the hill, screaming as they smashed into rocks and bounced off parts of the hillside, no one would think of a rollercoaster either. But soon the Horns were riding across a flat. Now, Alais could hear them arguing as they drove towards the staring workers.
“I said brake!”
“How? The horses can’t do it! Whoa! We’re tilting!”
“The wheel’s broken on the left!”
“Cast [Ice Wheel] on the left side, Ceria!”
“That’s not a spell! Give me a second—”
Pisces pointed and bone appeared, bridging a crack in one of the wheels. Ceria protested.
“Hey! Ice is better!”
“Bone is lighter.”
“Well—ice is heavier. And thicker!”
“Can’t you combine the spells? Make a bone-ice wheel?”
They stared at her. Yvlon raised her hands. The chariot clattered towards the adventurers. Ceria was trying to keep her balance as the chariot threw its passengers around. It was hardly a smooth ride.
“Ow. Ow. This is not comf—”
As the chariot came down, it tilted sideways, throwing Ceria against one wall. She bit her tongue. Yvlon, who was wisely keeping her mouth shut, shrugged.
“It’s not comfortable, but we’re not walking.”
“What in the name of fur is this?”
Reikhle strode up to the Horns, staring. He glared at the undead horses as the workers murmured. Ceria appeared over the side and waved at him.
“It’s our means of transport, Master Reikhle. It can get us around. Don’t worry, we won’t make Hissle run; he can ride with us!”
The Gnoll stared. His eyes shifted to the Drake and Hissle waved one claw weakly.
“Master Builder Reikhle, it is faster than our march.”
“You’re using the undead, Ceria?”
Alais stared at the half-Elf. Ceria stared back at the [Aeromancer].
“That’s right, Alais. Don’t be jealous.”
“Our horses don’t break their legs. Or if they do, Pisces can fix them.”
Yvlon looked around. Alais hesitated. There was a point there. She stared at Pisces and cleared her throat. Stan spoke.
“Were the horses—how’d you get the bones?”
The [Necromancer] raised his eyebrows.
“I bought them, of course. I have any number of bones. The issue is actually storing them in my bag of holding. But to your point—finding horse bones is not difficult given any population of horses in a city. Rather, buying them is difficult. [Hostlers] are surprisingly difficult to persuade when it comes to a beloved creature.”
“Anyways, this is our mode of travel. We’ll walk if we have to, but this is easier. If bumpier. Hey, Ksmvr! Go grab us some pillows while we have lunch at Erin’s inn.”
“I shall attempt to persuade Bird to impart some of his Fortress of Fluff.”
The Antinium hopped down from the chariot with the others. Reikhle eyed the undead. But after a moment, he just nodded.
“Do your work! You’re covering a mounted team’s share, then. If you can’t keep up—everyone, back to work! You’re not being paid to stare!”
“Undead. I can’t believe it.”
Caddin shook his head as the others returned to their posts. He stared at Pisces as the Horns took a lunch from the magical door and began to eat, chattering about how to reinforce their chariot. But some of the other adventurers were less hostile.
“I’d ride that instead of walk.”
Stan looked at Alais, murmuring to his team. Some of them looked horrified, especially at the bone chariot, but more than a few were inspecting blisters. And on their wagon, the Horns were grinning. It was—different. True. But it was them. And Pisces was smiling, slightly.
“Not a bad idea, Yvlon.”
“Thank you. I’m ashamed you didn’t think of it. Looks like we know who the better [Necromancer] is.”
The [Wounded Warrior] replied, straight-faced. Pisces choked on his mouthful and Ceria laughed so hard she had hiccups. Ksmvr opened his mandibles in a smile. The Horns turned to the fifth member of the chariot. Hissle eyed the specially-made lunch they’d received from Erin. He lifted a hamburger and eyed the brownies on the floor of the chariot.
Hissle looked at the Horns of Hammerad, and his voice was resigned.
“You’re going to insist we travel by chariot from now on, aren’t you?”
Ceria raised her eyebrows at him. The Drake nodded, sighing. Then the [Scout] looked around surreptitiously and lowered his voice.
“Good. I was getting tired of marching everywhere.”
Laughter. Walt’s team was far from the road and they couldn’t ride back for lunch. But they’d seen the chariot, and they were muttering about it.
“Undead horses? Dead gods, is there anything [Necromancers] won’t animate?”
“Better horses than people. That shifty-eyed bugger must have come up with it. What’s his name? Pisces? Disgusting. At least they’re not zombies. Little better, though. How does his team trust that [Necromancer]?”
The Ensoldier Shields nodded. The all-male, all-[Warrior] team was not in a good mood. They were still annoyed by their encounter with Erin, which had earned them a ban from her inn! And derision and scorn from their fellow adventurers.
“Yeah, well, Ceria’s always been insane. And Byres is cracked in the head ever since losing her team.”
Sourly, Walt, the [Shield Captain] leading the team, poured water onto his face. They’d been marching hard and since they were all wearing heavy armor and weapons, they were tired. But Walt wasn’t about to pay for stamina potions for everyone!
“Those bastards are eating snacks while they’re driving around, Walt.”
One of Walt’s teammates, Tommie, groused. Walt swore in reply.
“Troll balls, I saw it, Tommie! What do you want me to do? Let those idiots ride around. We have a job! Hey! Hey, Gnoll lady! Are we taking a rest yet?”
Ahead of them, the [Pathfinder] assigned to their team looked back with an annoyed look on her face. She reluctantly held up a paw.
None of the Humans were in a good mood. Even so, Walt cuffed the [Maceman] who’d said that, and the man swore at him. But pissing off the Gnoll in charge of their group wasn’t smart. Walt was in a filthy temper.
“Shut it! We’re going to get this done, and get back! Five minutes!”
The Ensoldier Shields took their break, groaning and cursing. Walt reluctantly got on his feet and ordered the rest of his team forwards after the Gnoll after what felt like one minute. They weren’t always this bad-tempered. Erin Solstice breaking Belt’s nose and blacking his eye over a single incident was what had them angry. If she slapped back, that was one thing, but that was too much!
But the debate over the incident between the adventurers and Walt’s team was background noise to Walt. He’d say something to Ceria when they got back. Or Stan. Stan, now he was good at being friendly. Walt was tired as he marched on, but they were on the lowlands now, bordering the Bloodfields. That was something. As their grousing turned to silent marching, Tommie pointed to the left.
“Lookit that. The Bloodfields. There’s a brown splotch. See it?”
Walt turned. The omnipresent Bloodfields that had stolen the easy route through the valley was usually out of mind, if not out of sight. But it was true. There was an irregularity, in the already-irregular Bloodfields. Walt had noticed how the terrain changed from dense to desolate, but it was always red, with some other colors. But this—he paused.
“Hey! Gnoll lady! Uh—Teriska?”
She trotted back, frowning at him. Walt pointed out the spot.
The [Pathfinder] looked. It was indeed a large brown patch of land amid the red. The ground looked dead there. She shrugged.
“Looks like dead earth to me, yes? Perhaps even the Bloodfields could not survive.”
“Or someone did the sensible thing and salted the earth.”
Tommie grunted. The Gnoll nodded.
“I noticed it, and we will make a report, yes? But we must scout around it.”
“Sure. Lead on.”
Walt grunted. They were as close as they were allowed to the Bloodfields—two miles away from the closest edge. Far out of range of anything. Even so, Walt did not like their proximity to the Bloodfields. He stared at the brown spot, then something else caught his attention
A patch of huge, spore-like mushrooms. But big suckers. If he could see them from this far away, they had to be huge, twice as tall as he was. Walt stared at them, considered pointing them out to this team, but then decided against and kept marching. You didn’t want to stare too hard at the Bloodfields.
They kept walking. And in time, they got back to debating about the undead chariot. Not that they wanted one! It was too bad you couldn’t use horses everywhere. But undead horses? Well…
None of the adventurers nor the [Pathfinder] Gnoll noticed the change in the air at first. Then, the Gnoll looked up. She called a halt and pointed.
Something was blowing towards them. The Ensoldier Shields were downwind of the Bloodfields, and they saw a faint—mist?—on the wind. No, not a mist.
A faint red…haze in the air. It blew over the adventurers before they could do anything. Reflexively, Walt covered his mouth and didn’t inhale, and the others did the same. The Gnoll sneezed as she lowered her paw.
“Everyone okay? What was that?”
The [Pathfinder] announced. Some of the red was in her fur. Walt saw a bit on his armor and flicked it off uneasily.
“Damn pollen? Is it acidic? Poisonous?”
“Doesn’t feel like it. Damn, damn—anyone feeling sick? What didn’t that bird-lady warn us about—”
“Pollen’s not part of the Bloodfields. They do not flower. Nevertheless, we should report this. I am calling us back.”
The Gnoll [Pathfinder] looked visibly uneasy. She pointed back towards the distant road. The Ensoldier Shields brightened. Now that was more like it! In high spirits, they turned and began marching back towards the road.
But something curious happened. After a few seconds of marching, Walt frowned.
“Hey! Stop, stop! We’re going the wrong way!”
The adventurers paused. They looked ahead and realized Walt was right. The Gnoll was taking them across the Bloodfields. Embarrassed, the Gnoll shook her head.
“My apologies. To the left!”
They resumed, going left, around the Bloodfields rather than through the outskirts. But after a few more minutes of walking, Tommie frowned.
“Funny—it feels like we’re—”
They were veering into the Bloodfields again. Walt looked at Teriska. The [Pathfinder] was shaking her head.
“We’re going the wrong way. I—walk left! Follow me!”
She took them directly opposite the Bloodfields. The Ensoldier Shields hurried after her, now alert. They were no fools. But after a few minutes Walt swore.
They were walking straight into the Bloodfields. It was no more than a thousand feet distant. The adventurers looked around.
“No. Something’s wrong. Stay put.”
Walt hurried over the to the Gnoll woman. She was smelling at the pollen on her fur. He nodded at it.
“You don’t think…?”
“A trap. We have to get back to the road. I will send a [Message] spell.”
Teriska’s face was pale behind her fur. She reached for a scroll at her belt. Walt nodded.
“Hold tight everyone! We’re under some kind of illusion effect! Hold—”
He turned. And his face went pale. The Ensoldier Shields were walking forwards, their faces blank. Straight towards the Bloodfields. Walt bellowed.
“Halt! Company halt!”
The former [Soldiers] and [Warriors] jerked. They looked up and stared at Walt. A few took steps towards him—then began to swerve. Walt bellowed.
“No one move! Sit! Damn it, sit!”
His team wavered, but then they did. Walt turned to Teriska.
“We need someone to drag us out of here! And [Healers]!”
She nodded. The [Message] was away. Walt nodded at her—
“Captain! Stop! Stop!”
He jerked. He was—walking towards the Bloodfields. So was Teriska! Walt tackled her. Then he looked around. His team was fifty feet distance, bellowing at them.
Walt bellowed at them and grabbed the ground, as if it could hold him. Teriska’s face was pale. The Gnoll looked at Walt. He snapped at her.
“We’re under its effects. Do you have an antidote? A Skill?”
“Then we wait. The other teams will bail us out. We wait and—Tommie! Belt! Stop!”
The [Shield Captain] looked up. Two of the Ensoldier Shields were moving. They got up and wandered forwards, faces blank, ignoring their friends grabbing for them. They walked into the Bloodfields. Into the sea of red.
They saw, of course. Before Teriska’s [Message] spell had even arrived, the adventurers had noticed the odd behavior of Walt’s team. Stan ran forwards, bellowing.
“You’re off-course! Come back! Get back here!”
But the Ensoldier Shields were too far away. As the [Message] reached Reikhle, the other adventurers raced forwards. The Horns of Hammerad scrambled towards their chariot. But they were miles distant! And the tiny specks of the adventurers were advancing towards the red.
Two of them trod on the crimson grass as Ceria watched. The half-Elf went pale. By her side, Master Reikhle uttered a soft curse.
He had a magical spyglass to his eyes. Tommie and Belt were walking forwards. They jerked as whatever effect the pollen had on them left. And they turned. They saw Walt and their teammates waving at them, screaming frantically. The two [Warriors] looked around, realized where they were, and panicked.
Tommie tried to charge out of the Bloodfields, but the pollen turned him. It carried him towards the distant spore sacs. Belt grabbed after him, swearing.
“Tommie! No! Tommie—”
Too late. The first man ran over the razor-sharp grass. He tripped over a long root in the ground.
And the Bloodfields came alive.
The root ripped up and snagged the man in armor. It pulled him off his feet and began to drag him, screaming, towards the Bloodfields, hundreds of feet distant. Belt froze. He ran after Tommie, grabbing after him. He seized the man’s arms and pulled. But the root was too strong. Tommie and Belt both began pulling across the ground. Tommie let go with one hand and tried slashing at the root with his belt knife. But it was like steel.
“Don’t let go! Don’t let go!”
“I won’t! Cut it off you! Get your armor off!”
“It’s crushing my legs! Help me—”
Tommie was on his front as Belt tried to slow him. The red grass was cutting his face, into the gaps in his armor. He was bleeding. But then he entered a barren spot in the ground. The grass vanished. Tommie froze. He twisted his head.
The man looked up and saw the Watchertree. Forty feet high, it towered. A silent, pale sentinel. The area around it, two hundred feet, was clear. Belt froze. He let go of Tommie, reaching for his shield.
The first root stabbed up. It went through Belt’s armor, spearing his left leg, shattering bone and metal. He screamed. The root pinned him, drawing blood. Tommie shouted.
Then another root burst upwards. It went through the ensnaring vine, severing it. Tommie struggled, trying to get the severed part off him. He was halfway free—
A root went through his shoulder. Barbs tore flesh. The man stared at the bloody anchor in his shoulder. He began to scream. Belt was screaming, pulling at the root. But it was holding him, pulling him into the ground. Tommie looked up. And the Watchertree waited. They were bleeding. Tommie fumbled for a potion.
“Got to—heal up, Belt—cut it out—”
He drank. His flesh began to heal. But the root tore his wounds open. And then another root, a spear of plant, went through Tommie’s right leg. He stared up at the Watchertree. Then down at his bleeding body. He looked at the healing potion in his hand.
They were trapped. Walt saw his two companions lying on the ground, being—being bled by the plant. He swore as Teriska held him down with his teammates.
“We’re all infected! Don’t, Captain!”
“Let me go! Tommie! Belt! Hold on! Hear me?”
Walt was bellowing. But it was too late. The men were bleeding profusely. And the nearest team was—
Walt looked up. He heard a voice. He turned his head and stared.
One team was advancing across the grasslands. Faster than the adventurers on foot. Even the ones on horseback. They were heading towards Walt’s team with ropes, intending to drag them back. But the second team, riding a chariot, was headed straight for the Bloodfields.
The ice-chariot shot forwards as Ceria pointed. She was hanging on, her wand drawn. In front of her, Pisces was gritting his teeth, directing the bone horses. Yvlon and Ksmvr hung on in the back. They ignored Stan as he rode alongside them.
“Turn back! Turn back, damn it! You can’t get them! It’s a trap!”
Ceria ordered the [Necromancer]. Pisces nodded. The undead horses picked up speed. A thousand feet out, Stan turned his horse, swearing. He raced towards the Ensoldier Shields. And the Horns of Hammerad went on.
“I can’t believe it. Are they idiots?”
From their hidden vantage point, the Wistram [Mages] stared down at the ice chariot. They’d been camping in the foothills, observing the Horns all day. It was Montressa’s obsession and Palt and Ulinde weren’t the only objectors to being forced to monitor the Horns. Even Beza and Isceil were chafing, and that left Palt hopeful.
But he hadn’t expected this. The ice chariot surged forwards, crossing into the red. Isceil looked delighted and incredulous.
“They’re actually going into the Bloodfields. Are they crazy? Those two adventurers are as good as dead! That entire team is!”
Montressa looked just as surprised. She’d been horrified and filled with loathing when she saw the undead horses. But this?
Beza half-rose. The Minotauress stared down at the tableau. The adventurers were in the aegis of the Watchertree. It would let them live, use potions, until they were out of blood to nourish it. It was a cruel death. Beza turned to Montressa.
“What do we do, Montressa?”
The [Aegiscaster] hesitated. She half-rose. The brass orb rotating around her staff hummed. She hesitated. Turned back to her team. Palt held his breath, watching the four adventurers in the chariot. His promise to Erin. His eyes flicked up.
There was no time to think. The Bloodfields surrounded them as the ice-chariot raced forwards. Yvlon felt the danger immediately. She bellowed.
“Ceria! The roots!”
The same trap roots that had gotten Tommie lay in their path. Ceria saw them and screamed.
The Horns flung themselves to the side. The chariot turned, the undead horses carrying them onto the left set of wheels, missing the trapped root. Pisces turned the horses, swearing.
“What do we do?”
“Take us to the Watchertree! We need to get to them!”
Ceria pointed. But the red plains were coming alive. Yvlon saw movement to the left. And the huge insect beds.
“Steer clear of them! Pisces! Those are trapped!”
The [Necromancer] urged the horses onwards and Yvlon braced as the chariot bounced across the uneven ground. She stared ahead. The two men were prone.
“It’s—bleeding them. But they’re alive!”
“Tommie’s got a potion. So does the other one. But the tree keeps stabbing them!”
Ceria called out. The chariot slowed, at the edge of the barren dead zone. Pisces hesitated.
“If we run in there we’ll be hit!”
“Captain Ceria! Movement to our rear! Monsters!”
Ceria turned. Her eyes widened. Yvlon was staring at Tommie. The two men had seen the Horns.
“Get back! Get back! We’re trapped! The root’s as strong as steel!”
Tommie was screaming at them. He was hacking at the root in his leg and shoulder, sobbing with pain. Belt wasn’t moving. Pisces pointed at the Watchertree.
“That is the heart of the plant. Let me try to strike it! [Shatterbolt].”
He flicked his wrist, and the magical dart shot towards the tree. But Pisces missed. Only by a few inches, but it turned into a large gap as the magical bolt flashed past the tree. The [Necromancer] cursed. Then he pointed his finger.
Yvlon jerked as a magical bolt of energy flashed from Pisces’ finger. This time it struck the tree, but nothing happened. She looked at him.
“I don’t know! It’s too strong! Ceria!”
The two adventurers turned. Ceria was staring at something behind them. She jerked as Pisces grabbed her.
“Ceria! Hit the tree!”
The [Cryomancer] turned. She rose, aimed her wand.
The first shard of ice was dead-on. It hit the Watchertree along the bulbous top. But the ice broke harmlessly, not even leaving a mark. Ceria stared.
“Cast something stronger! [Fireball]!”
Pisces was shouting at her. Ceria nodded and raised her wand. This time the [Fireball] exploded on the Watchertree’s base. The flames flared, and Ceria heard the roar. She peeked up and—
“Oh dead gods.”
The Watchertree was unscathed! No—it was smoldering. A bit had been torn out, but—Ceria raised her wand to cast again.
“Ceria! We’ve got company!”
She whirled. The half-Elf’s eyes went round.
“Oh, tree rot. What is that?”
Dozens of huge, red…blobs were rolling towards them. Dark red, covered in what looked like crude armor! Ksmvr loosed an arrow and watched it sink into the exterior.
“Blood Slimes. Captain Ceria, this is a Silver-rank threat!”
“They’re big! And they’ve got—armor!”
Ceria aimed an [Ice Spike] at one. She watched it shatter on the armor.
“[Ice Wall]! Pisces, fire!”
He shot flames at one of the Blood Slimes. With the other, he pointed.
The magical energy hit a slime, slowing it’s roll towards their chariot. Ceria stared.
“Tommie! Forget the slimes! Get Tommie!”
“My spells aren’t strong enough! The slimes—”
Yvlon looked towards the slimes and then Ceria. Pisces was conjuring a Bone Horror. He gritted his teeth.
“I’ll send my Bone Horror. It may survive an encounter. I could try something larger, but that tree—”
The Watchertree was stabbing its roots up randomly, trying to attack what had hit it. Yvlon stared at it, and then at the slimes. She looked at her sword.
“I’ll get the tree. Keep the slimes off us! Ksmvr, we’re going in.”
Yvlon ignored Ceria. The half-Elf turned, cursing and reinforcing her ice walls. The huge slimes were slamming themselves against them. Pisces’ Warbear charged forwards as the [Necromancer] shot another [Deathbolt]. He was panting already.
The Antinium [Skirmisher] hesitated. Yvlon grabbed his shoulder.
“Don’t argue! Ceria, freeze the ground and keep me covered! Now!”
“What? What are you—”
The two [Warriors] leapt from the chariot. They landed on the red grass. Ksmvr ran past Tommie and Belt. Onto the dead zone. Into the reach of the Watchertree.
Ceria screamed. The Antinium was running fast, like a blur towards the Watchertree. But then—he leapt! The Antinium jumped. Ksmvr’s Ring of Jumping carried him into the air. Twenty feet! And below him, the earth exploded.
A piercing tendril shot towards where the Antinium had been, trying to skewer him. It shot up and up—just missed his feet. The [Skirmisher] swung, turning in midair, but he missed with his Flamecoat Dagger as the tendril began to withdraw into the ground. Too slow, though. Yvlon charged after Ksmvr. Towards the withdrawing root.
She swung her Sword of Weight. Unlike Tommie’s or Ceria’s spells, the enchanted blade had all of Yvlon’s strength behind it. Plus another thirty pounds of the enchantment. It cut into the thick, pale red tendril and cleaved through. Yvlon staggered as the root severed, the end flexing wildly. Ksmvr landed. Yvlon pointed.
“Go! Cover me, Ceria!”
She ran straight at the Watchertree. Ceria turned as Pisces leapt from the chariot.
With rapier in hand he [Flash Stepped] into the red slimes, thrusting at a mana core floating in the bodies. His Warbear tore another slime apart. Ceria whirled. She pointed.
The ground grew a thick layer of ice which cracked as more stabbing tendrils tried to break through. Yvlon ran, slipping and cursing, charging towards the distant Watchertree.
At the same time, Ksmvr landed. Tommie was struggling with the roots. He looked up as the Antinium landed left to him.
“Potion! Belt needs a potion!”
“I have one. Recovery—”
Ksmvr splashed the potion on the man’s torso. Ksmvr began sawing at the tendrils, then leapt back as more tried to hit him. He landed, paused, and jumped again. The Watchertree was stabbing at Ksmvr, trying to strike Yvlon. But she was nearing the base of the tall spire.
Ceria tried to block another root. But she was panting. Too slow. One arced out of the ground, stabbing at Yvlon. It tore across her armor. The enchanted metal took the impact. But it dented. And—Yvlon twisted as the root deflected. It shot past her face, striking across her helmet, gashing her face. Her blood spattered the ground, watering the red soil.
But she kept going. She shouted as she reached the base of the Watchertree. It stood, immobile. A malicious sentinel.
Yvlon lifted her enchanted sword. She gripped it with two hands and swung. The first blow cut halfway into the trunk! Ceria saw the entire tree shiver. The tendrils stabbing into Tommie and Belt convulsed and both men screamed. The Watchertree tried to hit Yvlon, but she was inside its range and the walls of ice were blocking the stabbing roots.
Yvlon wrenched her sword loose and swung again. The second cut enlarged the first. The Watchertree shook. The [Wounded Warrior] tore her blade loose with a shout.
The third strike cut through. The Watchertree fell. It began to tilt and Yvlon ran back. The ground tore around Yvlon. The roots—tendrils—were spasming, flailing wildly! Ksmvr dragged Tommie out of his roots as Ceria scrambled after Belt. A flailing root hit her in the chest and knocked her flat. It was Belt who got up.
Pisces was falling back. The Blood Slimes had dissolved the skin on his hand and the Warbear was missing a head! Yvlon charged back across the ground. The adventurers piled into the chariot.
“Let’s go, let’s go—it’s getting worse!”
Ceria screamed at Pisces. The Blood Slimes were rolling back, but all the plants around them, even ones hundreds of feet distant were shaking. Trembling! The [Necromancer] pulled Belt up.
Yvlon lifted Tommie with a grunt. They piled into the chariot. The undead horses carried them forwards and Ceria thought they’d made it. Then she looked ahead.
The [Necromancer] glanced up. He’d been scrubbing at the caustic liquid on his arm that was trying to eat him alive. He looked up and his eyes widened. He turned—too late.
The chariot strayed close to the house-sized…plants. The huge, plump, rotten walls of plant that Bevussa had pointed out in their first introduction. Ceria saw the thing quiver as it sensed the chariot. She opened her mouth as Yvlon swore.
The first huge insect bed burst. Yvlon and Ksmvr looked up as the packed plant disgorged its contents. It had been hollow, and insects—tens of thousands—rained down. The adventurers looked up. Then the other three beds nearby exploded. The sky, the ground—all became insects.
“Hell on Rhir.”
Tommie whispered as he looked up. A swarm of hundreds of thousands buzzed down from overhead. The adventurers screamed. Ceria conjured [Ice Armor], but the bugs were already landing. She felt some tearing at her skin.
Yvlon inhaled a cloud of bugs. She gagged. Pisces—Ksmvr—Tommie—Belt—they were engulfed as the flying swarm began to descend. Huge bugs, as large as their hands, larger, were trying to eat them.
Biting. Sharp fangs, spiked legs that tore at the flesh. Ceria screamed. She could hear Ksmvr shouting, biting back.
“I am not food! You are food! Yvlon, there are too many to eat!”
“Pisces! Get us out of here!”
The [Necromancer] tried. He was blasting fire in every direction, hitting Ceria, the other adventurers. But the insects were slowing even the chariot. And Ceria had no idea which way was forwards. She screamed. The bugs were eating her. This wasn’t how it ended. This wasn’t—
Amplified by their observation spells, the Wistram [Mages] could see and hear the other teams battling the waves of insects. It engulfed the chariot, a wave of writhing blackness. Palt felt sick. He could see Pisces and Ceria fighting the insects with fire, but even a [Fireball] wouldn’t have made a dent in the sea of bugs.
And the insects were attacking everything. Even the other plants—and the adventurers at the edge of the Bloodfields themselves! The ones who’d gone to save Walt were in mortal danger too as the insects flew at them.
Alais was shooting lighting through the air in wild bursts, but there were just too many bugs. Crossbow Stan and the other adventurers were helpless. Like Walt’s team, they could only swing their weapons, retreating.
“If we wait, the insects might do our job for us.”
Isceil’s voice was too calm. The Drake looked at Montressa, waiting for her reply. The [Aegiscaster] was biting her lip. Beza snorted.
“Those adventurers are innocent!”
Palt began. He saw the young woman’s face snap up. Montressa stared at Palt. Then she cursed. She stood up.
“Traitors take it! Everyone with me! [Mass Featherfall]!”
She launched herself off the edge of the cliff. The other [Mages] leapt after her. They floated downwards. Montressa ran forwards towards a bluff.
“There! Link! Isceil, take the focus! Hit the bugs!”
“First we hunt them, now we have to save them?”
The Drake complained, but he bounded past Montressa. He lifted his wand and Ulinde pointed hers at Palt. The Centaur nodded. He concentrated—
And joined the others. The Centaur felt his magic shift, combining with Ulinde’s. Beza grabbed Montressa’s arm. Then Montressa’s staff touched Ulinde’s wand.
Four. Isceil was the lead. The Drake inhaled as the four linked. His eyes flashed. He inhaled and all five [Mages] united their will. They drew on the mana in the air, in their beings. And the air charged.
Below, Alais looked up. Screaming, smashing insects, Ceria saw a beacon, like the sun. Isceil rode the magic. He opened his mouth and drew in a breath. The magic flowed through his lungs, igniting, changing. Palt felt it course through him, glorious. Isceil bellowed.
Then he exhaled. And magic, raw mana, took form. It shot from his mouth, a cloud, a blast shooting thousands of feet in seconds. Freezing wind and lighting, propelled by a blast of air that was actually visible. Three elements.
It hit the cloud of insects with a sound like an avalanche. The huge, black-red swarm exploded as ice froze them, lighting bolts struck them apart, and the wind sent the rest flying. The Wistram [Mages] staggered with the backlash of the magic. Isceil fell backwards, his throat torn, grabbing for a healing potion. Montressa was first on her feet. She pointed.
“[Chain Lightning]! Everyone, [Valmira’s Comets]!”
Palt raised his hand. He joined his magic to hers, drinking a mana potion. And comets of light, some the size of horses, shot forwards. Magic, glorious and bright, tore the sky.
For a moment, she though it was over. Yvlon was engulfed. She was fighting, trying to breathe as she inhaled insects. Then—she heard the explosion. Felt the wind, blowing bugs off her. She inhaled, and it was glorious. The adventurers emerged, coughing. And Yvlon saw the insect swarm regrouping overhead. But then the magical comets flew down from the hills. Yvlon looked up and breathed.
“Silver and steel.”
The rain of magical comets tore apart the rest of the swarm, vaporizing anything hit directly, sending burning carcasses raining down from just the heat. The adventurers in the chariot ducked as insects, alive and burning came down. The chariot drove onwards, free of the swarm.
Stragglers attacked them, but the bleeding adventurers were healing, using potions. Pisces swore and shot his own flames overhead; Yvlon swatted a few coming for her head. Ceria conjured a layer of ice, and Ksmvr just bit a few bugs and spat them out.
“They taste bad.”
The two members of Ensoldier Shields and Pisces were worst off. They swatted and cursed as bugs showered them, but the chariot was soon racing clear. The insect swarm, decimated by the comets and breath attack, fell backwards, uncertain. And then all the adventurers were racing away from the Bloodfields. Yvlon coughed. There were bugs in her throat, moving!
She leaned over the edge of the wagon and threw up. Pisces, Ceria, Tommie, Belt—all did the same. Ksmvr didn’t, but he methodically crushed every bug clinging to the chariot. Yvlon wiped her mouth, wretched, spat out something—and then just lay back.
She was covered in insect gore. In blood. Her face was gouged deep. The healing potion was closing the wound—and she was coughing on bile. Ceria and Pisces looked little better. Tommie and Belt? Even with the potions they looked half-dead.
Yvlon started laughing. The Horns looked at her, and the two Ensoldier Shields. Then they started laughing too.
They were alive.
The adventurers met the ice chariot, along with Master Reikhle and [Healers]. The Horns and the two Ensoldier Shields were helped down as potions were thrust forwards. Everyone was exclaiming, asking what had happened—shouting about pollen—when the Wistram team approached.
They walked down out of the foothills. Ceria looked up from Alais and Kam hugging her and saw them. Ksmvr pulled a huge beetle’s mandibles out of her back.
They’d saved them. The Wistram [Mages] were panting. Montressa du Valeross stared at Ceria. Then she focused on the skeletal horses.
Of all the things in the moment, that was the least consequential to Ceria. But Montressa’s face went white. She stepped backwards—and ran up against Palt. The Centaur put a steadying hand on her shoulder.
“[Calm]. Montressa, it’s alright.”
The [Mage] visibly calmed. But she stared at the undead horses. Then at Pisces. The [Necromancer] was being clapped on the back by Walt and supported by Stan.
“You—you saved us. You took care of the insects.”
Alais was the first to say something. She looked at the Wistram [Mages]. Isceil coughed.
The Drake looked up at Ceria. He glared, spat a bit of blood.
“We’re not monsters. We saw the other adventurers were in trouble and decided to give our aid. No need to thank us.”
Palt eyed Isceil. Ulinde hesitated. The adventurers and workers were silent as they stared at the Wistram team. Montressa hesitated. She looked at Ceria and then at Pisces.
“We did it because we owe Liscor. Not you.”
She turned away. Ceria opened and closed her mouth a few times.
“Thank you. You saved us.”
Montressa didn’t reply. It was Yvlon who spat out a pincer and growled.
“Funny that you’re all the way out here, though. Why were you here, then? Watching us?”
“Yvlon—they just saved us.”
Ceria stumbled as she walked over to her friend. The [Wounded Warrior] glared. Abruptly, she tore loose of Caddin and the other two adventurers supporting her. She began walking forwards. Her sword was still drawn. It rested across her shoulder blades, gleaming across the silvery metal armor the [Wounded Warrior] wore.
The woman ignored her. The Wistram [Mages] tensed as she approached. Beza made a fist, but Palt put his arm out.
“We’re not fighting. We saved you.”
Yvlon kept walking. Straight at Montressa. The [Aegiscaster] hesitated. She raised her staff and the glowing brass orb hovering next to her pulsed.
Ceria’s voice was one in a dozen. But Yvlon didn’t stop. She never blinked. Her grip slowly tightened on the hilt. The [Mages] wavered where they stood. Then Montressa leapt aside. Isceil stumbled back. She walked past them. Her head turned and she stared straight into Beza’s eyes. The Minotauress opened her mouth, and nothing came it out.
“Thanks for the assistance. Stay away from my team.”
Yvlon strode towards the door to The Wandering Inn. Ceria’s jaw dropped. The other adventurers stared after Yvlon. After a moment, Walt exhaled hard.
“Damn. Byres does not fuck around.”
Later, Erin shouted when she saw the Horns. She rushed forwards.
“What happened? Are you all alright?”
The Horns had to debrief Reikhle, and get Walt’s account and the [Pathfinder]’s. They told Erin—then Olesm and Zevara—then the Council. The Bloodfields encounter was not small fries. Master Reikhle himself sent through a missive to Pallass.
“The pollen and those pulling roots—those are new. The Bloodfields are…evolving.”
Olesm paled as he checked reports for anything like the pollen that Walt’s team had been hit by, or the grabbing-roots that had got Tommie. Zevara nodded.
“The Bloodfields are always dangerous. But this is another step. I don’t know if I can recommend we proceed with the road. Councilmembers…”
Lism paced back and forth, tail thrashing angrily.
“Damn the Bloodfields. An army could clear it. A hundred [Mages] throwing long-range fire spells? We should get Pallass’ army to do it! We only fight there to avoid having another Bloodfields somewhere else!”
“Better not to fight at all! If the Humans would stop sending their armies and return our land—”
Ceria was so tired, she didn’t hear the other Drakes and Gnolls arguing. After a moment, Zevara stood up.
“Enough! There’s only one decision we need to make. Continue the project or not?”
“We need a road.”
Lism’s statement got nods from even Krshia. The Gnolls looked around, finding Olesm.
“What do we do, Strategist Olesm? If the road’s in danger of that pollen or the plants reaching out—”
“We alter course even further east. If need be, we’ll build a wall alongside the Bloodfields to keep the plants from endangering travellers. But it can be done. From now on, no team is allowed within four miles of the Bloodfields. I’ll notify Pallass, confer. Master Reikhle, do you think it can be done?”
The Gnoll was longer in replying. But he did nod.
“I can make the road out of range of even pollen. It can be done, yes? But it takes brave teams such as today to guard us.”
He nodded at the Horns. Ceria grinned. Pisces cracked one eye open, blinking. Lism hesitated, but it was Krshia who nodded.
“Indeed. This is a heroic act, yes? Worthy of commendation, or at least a bonus? Hrm?”
“Well, it was pretty good. And those Wistram [Mages] helped. Damn. I suppose they earned their keep. But even so, they weren’t authorized—”
The Council began arguing over the ramifications of the Bloodfields, the politics—the Horns didn’t listen. Erin tugged them away, offering them food, baths, and beds. Wearily, Ceria collapsed onto a table, leaning up on Pisces.
“Hells. That was something.”
“Montressa and her team saved us! Can you imagine—”
“They were watching us.”
Yvlon tried to raise her head. Now other adventurers were coming over. The Council was embroiled in a huge debate, with a crowd of their own on one side of the room. But the exhausted adventurers were on another. Walt came over.
“Ceria. Yvlon, Pisces, Ksmvr. You all alright? You’re looking worn.”
“I need—five baths.”
Pisces muttered. Ceria nodded.
“I’ll drink to that. Hell. I still have some of that red stuff on me.”
Walt was drinking with one hand. But he came over. He hesitated, then clapped Pisces on the shoulder.
“You lot do the bathing thing. But after that—we’ll buy you all drinks! Even the bug-fellow, if he drinks. You saved my guys.”
He pointed. The Ensoldier Shields were shaken, but in one piece, clapping their two teammates on the shoulder. They looked up. Half raised their cups. Ceria blinked. Then she looked at Pisces. He looked up at Walt, but the man was staring at him.
“Hell of a thing. Taking down that tree-thing? That was Gold-rank, right there.”
Stan nodded. Ceria blinked around. She had a thought, and smiled.
“Hey, didn’t Tekshia say that Gold-rank teams would take a stroll through the Bloodfields to prove they were worthy of their rank? Anyone fancy copying us?”
“Forget that. Even a chariot’s too slow.”
Yvlon muttered. She was feeling at her arms.
“But you did it! And—dead gods! I take back what I said, Ceria. Come on. Let’s get to the bathhouses! Liscor has some, right? Then drinks are on my team too!”
Alais grabbed Ceria. The half-Elf blinked, but then Kam was on her other side. The other adventurers helped lift the weary Horns up. Bemused, confused, but happy, the Horns of Hammerad looked at each other. Ceria looked at Pisces. He was staring. Then smiling.
He met her eyes. She laughed. And the world felt better.
Montressa du Valeross listened to the laughter. Her team was standing outside the inn. They hadn’t received much thanks. Isceil was growling insults under his breath. Beza’s arms were folded. Palt was arguing with her.
“You see, Montressa? You saved his life. All their lives.”
“I didn’t do it for him. Or her.”
The [Aegiscaster] glared at Palt. The Centaur exhaled slowly.
“Montressa—you have to give it up. You saw them. They went into the Bloodfields! To save two adventurers! I know what he did. We all did. We all had friends in that accident! I did! But you need to forgive—”
Montressa saw a grinning face. Blood, dripping from the teeth. She shot upright, her face white and pale.
“Forgive him? After what he did? Why is he allowed to be happy? Calvaron, Chaise—they’re still dead.”
Palt looked around. Beza hesitated, but nodded. Isceil bared his teeth.
“He don’t get a free pass for being a hero today.”
“I’m warning you, Montressa. You may not have a choice.”
“I didn’t come this far to run away, Palt. This isn’t over. The Horns got lucky because they were helping other adventurers. But we’re settling this.”
White-faced, Montressa stalked away. Palt threw up his hands. He looked at Ulinde.
“It’s over. She’ll get the order tomorrow.”
The Selphid nodded uncertainly. After a moment, Palt entered the inn, and she followed. Montressa stormed back to the city, haunted.
The Bloodfields were silent. The insects had retreated, gathering in the insect beds, leaving countless of their dead behind. The area where the Watchertree had fallen was being engulfed. The damage done to a small part of the Bloodfields had already begun healing. But—it had been a loss. The Bloodfields had ensnared its prey, and the prey had fought back. Only a bit of blood had been taken, and the damage—
Magic had torn the earth and sky. Magic, a power beyond even most of the Bloodfield’s most dangerous threats. Who, adventurer, insect, plant, could stand in front of that? Perhaps nothing.
And yet. On the barren ground, at the foot of the Watchertree’s stump, the place where Yvlon’s blood had fallen on the ground sucked up the red greedily. And the battle, the carnage, the magic and death was a conjuring. A sacrifice.
The Bloodfields shivered. Went silent, all of a sudden. A wind blew as the sun fell. The red grass swayed, no longer waiting.
And something woke up.