In another world, in another time, it might have looked like this: Ceria Springwalker looked up and grinned as she lounged around a table with eleven others. Such a large number, in fact, that all eleven of them wouldn’t have been there. Some would have been in the town, spending their pay, or maybe they’d just have quit, high on the success of killing an Adult Creler.
In that other world, it would have still been a miraculous victory, where none of the Horns died. Some other adventurers had died, but the Horns—
No. Ceria Springwalker looked up with a grin as she finished a mug of warm beef broth. She was elbow-to-elbow with a Human man, Gerial, so close she could feel his body heat. He was complaining about the chill, but in that tone of voice that told Ceria he didn’t really mind. Across from them, Hunt would be comparing scars with Marian, while Sostrom exclaimed over his new class.
It would be noisy, raucous even. And the half-Elf would have eventually expected a certain grumpy Minotaur to tell everyone to behave like ‘proper warriors’. But again, his good mood would betray him.
In another world, that would be so. Where the original Horns of Hammerad had never died. But in this one, the room was quiet.
Not silent. There was sound in this warm, quiet room. The sounds of people breathing, shifting, a scratching noise as Pisces turned a page in his book. And quiet slurping.
Ceria’s cup of beef broth was really quite good. Drakes and Gnolls both enjoyed the beverage. It was flavored differently from, say, beef boiled in water. Which was how the half-Elf assumed beef broth was made.
She wasn’t a [Cook]. But she was happy to eat, albeit alone. She was sitting next to Pisces, but not cheek-by-jowl. They sat at a comfortable distance, where both could stretch out.
Nor around a raucous table, either. Their seats weren’t tavern chairs, but padded, and their room was private. Across from Ceria, the half-Elf could see Yvlon bent over a piece of metal. It was, or had been, a bit of armor. Ceria thought it might be a pauldron, but again, she wasn’t an [Armorer] either.
Neither was Yvlon. But the woman was patiently bent over it, cleaning the bit of shaped metal of blood and grime with a cloth and some soap and water. She was also repairing the damage to the armor, her fingers pushing at the metal to repair a divot in it. The pauldron wasn’t exactly thin or weak, but the [Armsmistress]’s fingers moved the steel slowly and surely to true.
It wasn’t necessary work. But it was busy work, and it clearly gave Yvlon some satisfaction to do the job. She may not have been a [Blacksmith], but she was Yvlon Byres, and she knew how to maintain and repair gear. She’d declined a book.
Beside her, Ksmvr was slowly and patiently doing the same thing—but to a blade. He wasn’t bothering with repair, though. The Antinium [Skirmisher] was instead polishing the blade, clearing it of debris, blood, and then sharpening it. He had a small whetstone and file and, for a reason that had puzzled the [Hostess] who’d brought it to him, a very fine bit of sandpaper.
However, Ceria had seen Gerial and Calruz at work long enough to know what the Antinium was doing. First, Ksmvr took the file and used it to grind down the blade, exposing a continuous edge if the blade was damaged or chipped.
When he had something to work with, the Antinium switched to the whetstone. A little bit of oil on top let him smoothly move the blade back and forth, polishing it and cleaning it. Lastly, came the sandpaper. The Antinium was even more precise still, letting it sharpen the blade with delicate pressure. Not too sharp; the edge might break too easily in combat. Sharp enough. Then, the Antinium would delicately clean the sword of debris from the entire process until it shone.
It was a rhythmic process, as involved as Yvlon slowly polishing each bit of gear. Hypnotizing in its monotony. Yet, Ksmvr seemed to enjoy it. Ceria sipped from her cup and savored her warm drink as she looked at Pisces again.
The [Necromancer] was reading a book. There wasn’t much more to it than that, other than that Pisces lingered on each page, turning them slowly. The occasional soft rustle of paper was all that filled the room.
And that was it. Ceria Springwalker took another gulp from her drink. She was just sitting and drinking. Her posture was loose and relaxed, and the broth was warm and good to savor. Every minute or so, she’d take a little sip. Yvlon worked, cleaning her armor, and Ksmvr set down a dagger and picked up a hatchet.
Quiet, not silent. But the comfortable quiet, where no one needed to talk. It could go on forever, if you let it. Time seemed not to exist in this place. Or if it did, it was passing at a rate no one could measure. The world stopped. So they sat in the slow, sleepy present. Until someone spoke and brought forth the future.
Ceria didn’t need to. Nor did her team. They could have done this until the end of time. But there was always someone who was first to move, who couldn’t handle the quiet. And this time it was her.
Erin Solstice looked up as she fidgeted on her seat. She couldn’t bear it any longer, so she spoke, interrupting the four adventurers.
“I’m so glad you’re alive. Are you all better? It’s only been one day and—what?”
She paused as Ceria smiled and put down her cup. Pisces put down his book and Yvlon and Ksmvr’s heads rose. They looked up at Erin. She had been sitting and trying to play a game of chess with herself. But now, the Horns of Hammerad focused on her. Erin felt like an outsider, for all they were her friends. But then—they were a team. A…family.
The Horns were all chuckling, or smiling. Erin looked around, and Ceria answered her question.
“We’re just happy to be alive, Erin.”
“I know. But you’re so…calm.”
Erin eyed Ceria. The half-Elf bore no signs of fighting since yesterday. No blood, no scars—her one nod to any injury was a bandage over her left arm. Pisces had one on his left leg, under his robes, and the flesh along one arm was newly-healed. Yvlon and Ksmvr on the other hand—
Yvlon’s arms shone. And they were their own thing. But the woman had multiple bandages on her torso and legs. Ksmvr was covered in bandaged spots. Much had been healed, but apparently Creler poison delayed instant recovery in certain areas. Both warriors claimed it didn’t hurt much.
And they were all still recovering, even if the damage wasn’t all apparent. Ceria tapped her head as she shook her head at Erin.
“I’m not calm, Erin. I’m stupid.”
Everyone looked at her. The half-Elf’s face went slack for a moment as she registered the hilarity on Pisces’ face and Erin’s.
“Today. I’m stupid today.”
Pisces let out a guffaw. Erin laughed too, and so did Yvlon and Ksmvr. Ceria scowled, but Pisces nodded after a moment. He looked at Erin over his book.
“Ceria is right, Erin. We can’t cast magic or concentrate too hard…concentrate…facilitate concentration…”
He paused. Ceria grinned at his expression.
“Our minds are overworked. We’re both stupid. We can’t cast magic, either.”
“Every time I try, I keep thinking about animating bones. Which I can’t do. Palt says we’re suffering from the linked magic we did. Combining disciplines means we’re having trouble uncombining. Did I make sense?”
“Sort of. Are you going to be okay?”
“We can’t cast spells for a few days and we’ll be bleh for a while. But we’re fine. We got off lucky, really. If we kept pushing it, our brains would have melted out our ears.”
Ceria and Pisces nodded seriously. Erin’s tentative smile faded. She looked around. So did the Horns. They could go back to the silence, but it had been nearly two hours. A quiet opening to the morning. And time was moving on. Ceria looked up as someone knocked on the door to their private room.
“Can I get you anything else, sirs, madams?”
A female Gnoll with combed, neat hair, and a charming smile, almost as good as Erin’s untrained charisma, opened the door a bit. Ceria looked around.
“This beef stuff is really good. Warms me up. Anyone want anything else?”
Yvlon waved a hand. Ksmvr nodded.
“So am I. I will disgorge to make more room if I eat more, Captain Ceria.”
Pisces just shook his head. Erin peered at Ceria’s drink. But then she shook her head as well.
“We’re fine, thank you! Breakfast was awesome.”
“Our pleasure, Miss Solstice. If you need anything—”
The Gnoll [Hostess] left. It was funny, seeing her waiting tables, because she didn’t look like Drassi or the [Waiters] or [Barmaids] or [Servers] in Erin’s inn. But that was because this wasn’t Erin’s inn. Rather, this tavern was known for its staff who were entertainers, relentlessly good at cooking, games, casual conversation—and could do menial tasks like pouring drinks and waiting tables too. Today, they were just serving food, and the Horns of Hammerad were their guests.
They were in a private room at Wishdrinks. The famous tavern really was the best in the city. Erin had to admit their food had that thing her critics liked to call ‘spices’ and ‘delicacy’, and their staff was friendly. Their rooms were plush, comfortable, with private dining areas and a public area—even a dancing floor! And their tavern wasn’t blown to bits and being cleared of Creler corpses.
One day had passed. Or rather, a sleepless night. Erin was still unsteady and yawning, even after a cup of bracing tea that really ought to have been coffee. But the [Host] had added a bit of stamina potion and Erin had perked right up.
Last night. Erin remembered it in flashes. Getting the adventurers immediate medical attention, trying to understand what had happened. She’d feared the worst when Relc had spotted the adult Creler still alive.
But it had been dead. And what followed was understanding how it had died. More than that, clearing the dead Crelers, finishing off the living ones hiding in the inn and the Bloodfields, scouring the area for their eggs. And then finding the fallen.
It was still going on. But Erin wasn’t part of that work. Nor were the Horns. They had slept after the battle, almost from evening till midmorning of the next day. They’d eaten here, courtesy of Wishdrink’s owner. The tavern was open to the adventurers who’d killed an adult Creler.
So, here they were. Relaxing. Or, maybe, waiting. Erin had expected wild celebration, but that wasn’t what the Horns had wanted. This wasn’t Albez. And they hadn’t won a great victory. It had been hard-fought. A miracle. But one still written in blood.
After a while, Erin looked up. She hesitated, but it had been about thirty minutes.
“Do you…want to go?”
The Horns looked up. Erin clarified.
“To the Adventurer’s Guild. To make your reports and stuff. You don’t have to! But there’s just a few things…”
She waited as Ceria traded a quick look with her team. Pisces really was slow because it was Yvlon who blinked at Erin for a second and then nodded with a smile. The [Necromancer] was fairly guileless as he put down his book.
“I suppose so. Even reading is tiresome.”
He got up. Ksmvr and Yvlon began packing their gear away. It probably wasn’t normal to do maintenance at the tables, and they’d left a small mess, but the staff who saw them off didn’t even bat an eyelash.
“Thank you for your patronage! It was a pleasure. We have your company reserved for tonight, so do stop by. And if you have any other needs in the interim…”
“Thank you. Um—”
The [Host] smiled at Erin as she fumbled at her belt.
“No tips needed, Miss Solstice. This is a courtesy to the Horns of Hammerad! Hell’s Wardens.”
He bowed slightly at the adventurers. They blinked at the title. Yvlon looked embarrassed. But then they left the inn.
“We’re coming back for dinner?”
“Oh. Yeah. Didn’t you know? One of the workers who survived is the cousin of the owner. She’s really cool! Miss Aplesia.”
The Horns left the tavern. They walked down the streets of Liscor, slowly. Yvlon’s bare metal arms gleamed in the light. Erin couldn’t help but stare. Her skin was metal, but living metal. It melted into the flesh at the shoulder, and it was…beautiful.
Beautiful, a bit unsettling, and magical, all at the same time. Just for that, Yvlon would have attracted looks. But Ceria also did her part. As the half-Elf walked down the street, a few snowflakes appeared out of the air and began to fall around her. Erin and Pisces moved out of the way.
“Ceria, it’s cold.”
“Oh. Sorry. Am I doing it again?”
The half-Elf’s eyes crossed for a second and the snowflakes immediately melted in the air. It was a warm day for spring, and the sudden chill that had appeared around her vanished. Vaguely, Ceria looked around.
“Sorry, I have to keep working at it. My head hurts. I’m stupid.”
“You don’t say?”
The half-Elf elbowed Pisces. The [Necromancer] staggered. And Ksmvr smiled and Yvlon and Erin laughed. They walked down the street.
And they were being watched. Gnolls and Drakes turned as the Horns passed them by. They didn’t cheer and they didn’t applaud or greet the Horns. They just pointed them out, from afar.
“That’s them. One of the teams.”
Erin quite clearly heard a Drake pointing at Yvlon’s back and talking with a friend. Not accusatorily. More like pointing at a story.
Hell’s Wardens. Crelerbane. They had killed an adult Creler. Erin had seen it, for just a second. A huge, armored shape, collapsed onto the ground. It had given her shivers. And she had had seen the other Crelers, twitching limbs, broken black shell and chitin around orange, viscous liquid.
Monsters. But the kind even regular monsters feared and hated. And the Horns had killed it. They had killed thousands of Crelers, held them off for the others to escape. They had made a stand and lived. Them, and nearly a hundred other adventurers.
Less than a dozen who’d stayed and fought had survived. And of that number, none hadn’t been wounded. The Silver-rank teams had stopped the Crelers with blood and steel and magic.
Them, and Montressa. She was alive too. Erin hadn’t seen her today. But she’d seen Palt, Numbtongue, Lyonette—Relc—and she’d been part of the cleanup, in her own way.
As the Horns walked down the street, Yvlon began asking about it.
“The Adult Creler. Is it still out there?”
“No. And don’t worry—the Watch was out all last night and today, cleaning up the Crelers.”
“Cleaning them up? Are there any alive?”
Ceria blinked up at Erin. She nodded.
“A few. They were hiding, but Zevara said the Watch is getting every single corpse. And the adult. Nothing gets left behind. Grimalkin’s overseeing the disposal. They’re burning the corpse, blasting it into parts so it’ll actually incinerate, throwing the acid jars on it—”
“Another live one! In the corpses over there! One—no, two!”
Tkrn’s fur bristled as he whirled. But the [Scout] who’d found the living Creler was already backing up. And two [Captains] from 4th Company were already advancing with their squads.
“Sergeant Gna! Have your [Soldiers] take down the Crelers properly.”
Embria bellowed as she strode across the destroyed grasslands. Tkrn looked up and saw the [Soldiers] advancing on the pile of Crelers. They did uproot the Crelers, jabbing with long spears and baiting the monsters into coming out. The Crelers tried to burrow under the Drakes and Gnoll’s feet, but the movement was seen. The squad divided, hit the Crelers as they unburrowed with spells and magic and impaled what remained.
“Two more for the heap!”
One of the Drakes announced as he slung the Creler over his spear and deposited it in one of the piles of corpses. Tkrn’s stomach roiled as he did the same. The Watch was disposing of the Crelers.
“Junior Guardswoman Jerci, drop that Creler! You do not hold them with your paws, even with gloves on!”
A voice bellowed and Tkrn saw a nearby Gnoll drop the Creler she was grabbing guiltily. Embria stormed over. The Wing Commander was overseeing the cleanup and a night of work hadn’t done wonders for her temper. She pointed.
“Use the long-handled tongs! If you want one of the Crelers to bite your arm off, by all means, grab it! That’s also a great way to get an egg growing in your arm! And you do not want to see what happens when a Creler decides to make your body it’s nest until it’s nice and big!”
Jerci blanched. She grabbed the tongs and lifted the Creler up. Another fell into the pile of tangled limbs and oozing innards. Tkrn bent to grab another one himself and paused.
Crelers littered the battlefield. Parts, dead ones—the torn ground and all the limbs meant there was no end to the clutter. The Watch was out in force with 4th Company, cleaning them up. But what was dangerous were the Crelers hiding among the dead. And even the dead—some were still twitching.
Embria saw Tkrn raise his spear. The Gnoll aimed at a larval Creler. It’s belly had been torn out, and the glowing gel part of it torn away, but it was still moving.
“Just making sure it’s dead, Wing Commander.”
She nodded as Tkrn stabbed the corpse a few times. The Creler twitched, but it was just the dying motion of the limbs. Shuddering, Tkrn lifted it up with the tongs. And paused.
“Wing Commander? I have a…”
Embria turned. The Drake paused as she saw what Tkrn had uncovered.
An arm. Orange-scaled, at least, part of it. The Creler had been tearing it apart. Tkrn blanched and Jerci dropped the Creler she was holding. Embria nodded at it.
“Bring it to the others after you dispose of the corpse, Guardsman. Carefully. Make sure it’s inspected first. For eggs.”
Tkrn nodded. It was just one part among many. Dead adventurers of all species had died here. And parts of them kept being found. He took the arm, feeling sick, and brought it over to the other…collection.
The piles of dead Crelers were one thing. But the remains of the deceased occupied another spot. It would be wrong to say the Watch and [Soldiers] just shoved the corpses and parts they found together. But they did have to match them. What remained.
Armor and weapons and so on were placed neatly on the ground, and adventurers were lying in the shade under a tarp as a [Healer] tried to…reconstruct them. Identify them if nothing else remained. And made sure none of the bodies were infected. They would all have to be burned in the end.
This was the task that came after the fighting. It had to be done. The Crelers could not be allowed to remain as corpses. Tkrn approached with the arm and the [Healer] looked up. He wiped at his brow.
“Place it—over there.”
Tkrn did so. He saw the Drake pale as he studied the orange scales, and then move it next to a little mound with a cloth covering it. Tkrn tried not to inhale. He was already using a little nose cover with herbs, but it wasn’t enough.
“We need more wood! Someone get more from the door! Two wagonloads!”
Embria’s voice rang out again. Tkrn saw someone trot through the magic door and soon emerge, pushing a handcart. The door was set up—not connecting to the ruined inn, but directly in the center of the city. Wood was pushed towards one of the burning piles of Crelers. They were being incinerated, but even that was hard.
“They’re having a lot of trouble with the adult’s body. It doesn’t want to burn.”
The Drake [Healer] nodded towards a huge shape in the distance. Tkrn looked. The adult Creler’s body was still immersed in the bonfire that had been burning since last night. It was a huge inferno, but the corpse didn’t seem much smaller since it had begun. Tkrn stared at the twisted, broken form.
“I heard Crelers were nearly fireproof. That is tough armor. Has no one thought of making it into armor, like Shield Spiders?”
The Watch had some Shield Spider chitin armor. It wasn’t as good as pure steel most of the time, but it was light and could take some blows. But the [Healer] just shook his head.
“People have tried. They find eggs buried in the armor. Or they get mysteriously sick. Rhir sets down guidelines and everyone agrees: nothing remains.”
Tkrn nodded. He trudged back to his spot on the battlefield. As he did, he passed by the crimson-scaled Wing Commander.
Embria paused, turning her head tiredly, listening to [Scouts] calling out living Crelers, the Watch and laborers collecting and burying the dead. She was tired, but she was used to working for over a day without rest. More than anything, she was frustrated. There had been a battle and she had missed it. All she could do was bury the dead and finish off the stragglers. That too, was familiar.
Even so, her helplessness bothered her. Especially when she saw the huge, muscular Drake stomping back towards the work. Embria rode forwards and met him. Her warhorse snorted, avoiding the dead Crelers; it was the only animal even willing to enter the area.
“Magus Grimalkin. Do you need assistance…?”
The Drake replied shortly. Grimalkin was covered in dirt, and his expression was even more annoyed than Embria’s. He paused, stretching, and shook his head.
“The Creler nest is dealt with. I incinerated every inch of it and my detection spells tell me I’ve gotten all the eggs. There may be more caches, but I can’t sweep any further.”
Embria nodded respectfully. She looked over Grimalkin’s shoulder, towards the red.
The Bloodfields sat in the distance. The brown stain where the Crelers had been was already being reclaimed. And the Watch and 4th Company didn’t venture near it, for all that was the origin of the Crelers.
“High Command’s policy is to sweep the area for all Creler eggs, Magus Grimalkin. I don’t suppose it’s possible to…?”
The huge Drake looked up at Embria and she paused, embarrassed. He outranked her, even if he was of Pallass’ military. But he was also Grimalkin, the Fist Mage. The Drake shook his head tiredly.
“No. It’s impossible, even if I had the time to walk through the Bloodfields and fight every damn thing in it. I saw the flora and fauna attacking Creler bodies; they won’t suffer them. I’d like to think the Bloodfields can handle larvae-form Crelers, but Liscor will have to keep an eye on the Bloodfields. Pallass as well, of course.”
Embria nodded. Grimalkin went on, staring at the adult Creler burning in the distance.
“I’ll begin vaporizing parts of the adult soon. It looks mostly immolated, save for the shell. But it must be destroyed down to the last piece.”
“I regret that 4th Company’s [Mages] can’t even break the armor, Magus Grimalkin. We have a group ready to go with warhammers if you think the fire’s done its job…”
Again, the younger Drake was embarrassed. Grimalkin just shrugged.
“Let me hit it with spells first. The spell resistance should be weakened by the Creler’s death and the fire. Ancestors, I forgot to grab that juvenile’s corpse I saw back there. A Watchertree downed it, but…”
The Drake grimaced. Embria dismounted and stood with Grimalkin for a moment. He spoke, absently.
“In my report, I will state this, Wing Commander: I believe the Bloodfields can defeat any number of larval-stage Crelers, and a number of juvenile-stage Crelers as well. But adults and Crelers in number can and did infest a portion of the Bloodfields. If they had not been caught, or the adult had escaped, this situation would have become drastically worse.”
“My thoughts as well, Magus Grimalkin. May I ask, though—why was it imperative to slay the adult Creler at once? My company has only ever battled nests with juvenile Crelers or smaller. But High Command’s doctrine is to pursue adults even to the point of risking a company’s defeat…”
It was a question she should have asked her superiors, if they were in the field. But Embria was far from the main army. Grimalkin answered her, rubbing at a scratch on his scales. He’d walked into the Bloodfields alone to destroy the Creler nest.
“The risk of leaving Crelers alone is always that they’ll multiply, Wing Commander. But adults are far, far more dangerous than smaller Crelers. It is perfectly acceptable to let young Crelers stay where they are while proper steps are taken to eradicate them. Adults—no. Adults will retreat if they think there’s real danger. They think. So they have to be hunted down, or they just hide for a century or a decade and then there are ten.”
“If this one had escaped…”
“It would have fled. Into the High Passes, although something might have killed it, Ancestors willing. But most likely, into some other remote area, and it would quickly rebuild all the nest’s numbers. It has happened before. All of this—is what I would consider acceptable casualties. The adventurers saved more than themselves and Liscor.”
Grimalkin met Embria’s eyes and the female Drake nodded. Grimalkin stared at the burning adult as the flames began to die down. He rubbed at one arm unconsciously.
“Adults are cunning. This one never thought it was in danger or it would have fled. And Crelers always attack when they have the upper hand. These Crelers were trying to grow—and fast. There was no brown spot reported last year, and we must have missed it during the battle with the Humans this year. Or perhaps the Crelers infested the area only a month or two ago?”
“Then all their numbers…”
“Crelers evolve faster with more to consume. We might have had two adults within as many years. More, if they ate the entire expanse of Bloodfields.”
Embria shivered. Grimalkin went on, quietly.
“Oteslia fought off six one time. Six adults. I heard Manus’ report on the battle claiming that if two Elder Crelers had attacked the city, it might have fallen.”
“Elders? How many classifications of Creler are there, Magus Grimalkin? The army doesn’t—we find nests every other year, but that’s all.”
Grimalkin folded his arms and glanced at her.
“There are two classifications above adult. Elder. Ancient. Elder takes at least a century. Adult takes at least a decade and a half. The world has done a good job of destroying most of them, Wing Commander. More than Goblins, Crelers have to die. There hasn’t been an elder spotted in over a thousand years. Be grateful of that.”
“And Ancient? Is the difference just size or…?”
“No. Elder Crelers are apparently capable of far more than adults. I have never fought one, but they are allegedly capable of wiping out armies alone. And ancient? There have only been five Ancient Crelers back when they first emerged from Rhir, before it was recolonized. It’s all in the history books.”
The magus sounded reproving. Embria flushed and tried to recall her readings, but she honestly couldn’t. It might mean those battles were outside of modern history, or not fought on Izril. Grimalkin went on after a second.
“One of them killed two Dragons. In an era where they were still seen. But a Dragon brought down one in turn, so I suppose that proves nothing save for a baseline of strength.”
He left Embria with that. The Wing Commander stared after his back as Grimalkin walked towards the adult. The [Sinew Magus] paused as he stared up at the dead shell and the vacant sockets of the adult. He looked at it without sympathy or remorse. But he did nod once, as he uncrossed his arms.
“Not bad. I should attend the celebrations after this.”
The Horns of Hammerad entered the Adventurer’s Guild of Liscor and paused. Yvlon had expected it after seeing Erin’s expression, but Pisces and Ceria were caught unawares by the crowd waiting for them.
Adventurers, Gold-ranks from the dungeon, Silver-ranks of Liscor’s own, Bronze, and friends, familiar faces like Octavia, were gathered in the guild. They turned as the Horns walked in.
The celebration was already underway. Eight other adventurers were at the center of it all. Walt and three of his friends, Alais and two others. And a Gnoll.
The survivors. All eleven of them were gathered in the guild now. Eleven. The other teams had just…Ceria looked up and saw a single member of the Boltspitters who’d made it to the door. Part of another team. A few stragglers.
But those who hadn’t run—eleven remained. The workers from the road crew, some of the adventurers who had retreated—Liscor’s Council—they were all there. Alais was holding a piece of cake.
“What’s all this?”
Ceria blinked around at the gathering. Erin smiled as she pushed Pisces into the guild. A loud, irritable voice rang out as the Horns paused in the entryway.
“You know, I’ve heard of idiots walking through the Bloodfields before, but never in my life have I heard of a Silver-rank team stupid enough to challenge an Adult Creler.”
Tekshia Shivertail walked forwards, leaning on her cane that was occasionally a spear. She glared as the people around her fell silent. The Horns stared uncertainly at the Guildmistress and Pisces stepped behind Yvlon. Tekshia glared at him, and then looked at the Horns.
“Well, come on. You’re late.”
“Late for what?”
Ceria walked forwards with Yvlon, Ksmvr, and Pisces. Tekshia waited until they stopped in front of her. She looked up at them. And her tone was waspish. She prodded Ceria in the stomach with her cane, but gently.
“You really are cooked in the head, aren’t you? Mages. Figures. Just stand there and smile.”
The half-Elf opened her mouth, and Yvlon nudged her. Tekshia looked around, meeting all of the Horns’ eyes.
“I don’t tolerate fools in my guild. Much less idiots who can’t take a hint and keep trying to stab things above their rank. Any Silver-rank team that takes on an Adult Creler is brain-dead. And also dead. Since you’re not, I suppose you’re just idiots, and there’s a rank for that.”
Erin covered her smile as Guildmistress Tekshia’s words provoked a wave of confusion in the crowd. But then they understood what she meant.
Yvlon’s eyes widened, and Ksmvr looked back at her and then at Tekshia and his one antennae went still. Pisces frowned, and then he stood straighter. Ceria just looked blank.
“What, Bronze-rank? We’re being demoted?”
Someone guffawed in the back. Relc doubled over, laughing and clutching at his stomach.
“Ha! Ow! Hahaha! Ow!”
More laughter followed his. Tekshia stared at Ceria.
“Grandmother! Can’t you at least be nice? Today?”
An exasperated voice called out. Selys pushed to the front. The [Receptionist] glared at her grandmother and then turned to face the Horns.
“What Guildmistress Tekshia is trying to say, Ceria, is that no Silver-rank team can slay an Adult Creler. So you’re being promoted.”
The half-Elf’s eyes went round. She stared at Tekshia. The old Drake nodded and raised her voice.
“As Guildmistress of Liscor’s Guild, and by my authority I…make you Gold-rank. Congratulations.”
She tapped Ceria’s ankle with her cane. Hard. Ceria yelped and Selys swung at her Grandmother. Tekshia blocked with her cane and walked away.
“What? Just like that?”
Yvlon stared at Tekshia’s back. In the crowd, Alonna and the rest of the Council sighed. They’d been hoping for more pomp, and so had Erin. But this was all Tekshia had been willing to do.
“That’s right. You’re Gold-rank. We’ll announce it to the other guilds tonight. Everyone in Izril will know you’re a Gold-rank team by the end of the month. Um. Congratulations?”
Selys smiled at the Horns. They blinked at her. Then Yvlon let out the breath she’d been holding. Ceria swayed on her feet.
She looked at her team. Then she heard a whoop. Erin threw up her hands.
“They did it! Gold-rank! Three cheers for the Horns of Hammerad! Hip, hip—hooray!”
If there was ever a hype-woman for the occasion, it was Erin. The confused audience cheered along with her. And they shouted. Tekshia grumbled as she watched, but approvingly. And then it hit Ceria. She looked at Pisces with tears in her eyes.
Even the cynical [Necromancer] was blinking in surprise. It hadn’t even occurred to them. In a dream, they looked around. But then it hit Ceria. She looked at Erin. She spotted Octavia in the crowd, Drassi, Ishkr, Lyonette, holding up a waving Mrsha—Relc, leaning on Klbkch—and she realized it.
This was their triumph. This was their party. The half-Elf looked up. She smiled. And she stared at her team.
Gold-rank. Erin had meant for it to be a surprise, a joyous occasion. But—strangely, she realized Tekshia had been right. Perhaps it was just the old Drake’s natural contrariness and irascibility, but—as the party began again, Erin thought the old Guildmistress knew more than she had let on when she’d refused to make a huge speech congratulating the Horns.
They weren’t celebrating. Or rather, they weren’t running about waving their arms and screaming, which was how excited Erin had expected them to be at first. But she’d forgotten. This wasn’t their first triumph. And the battle was too close. The dead were still being counted. The moment of joy, the wild exhilaration of being alive, the triumph—that had been when they had stood in Erin’s inn. This?
This was just good. Good, not perfect. Good, not all-consuming. The moment had depth. Bitter, mixed among the sweet.
Not to most. Erin lost track of the Horns for a second as people surrounded them, wanting to shake hands, congratulate them. The [Innkeeper] looked around the full guild. The first person she spotted was Tekshia herself.
“I’m not giving them a medal. Adventurers don’t get medals. Besides, they’re not even Liscor’s team.”
The aged Drake was serving herself some of the cake Erin had made, partly ignoring Jeiss and Lism who were trying to convince her. She waved a fork dangerously near Lism’s eye.
“You don’t even like them. Fair’s fair—I don’t either, particularly. Let them have their rank.”
“It’s the look of it, Guildmistress. We have to congratulate them—”
“So let them eat cake. Not all of it. I’m having another slice. Move over.”
Tekshia grabbed the strawberry cake as well as the carrot one. She caught sight of Erin at the same time as Jeiss and Lism. The two male Drakes eyed her and Lism nodded.
“Hey, jerk! And Jeiss.”
He glared at her. But then he moved aside, and Jeiss followed. Tekshia glared up at Erin.
“You make this?”
“Hmf. It’s sweet. Got any cookies?”
Erin had salvaged some from her kitchen. Tekshia made a beeline for the cookies and grabbed four. The old Drake had sweet teeth. So did Relc. He came over with six, munching on them.
“Hey Erin, these are great. You doing alright?”
“Oh, hey Relc. Yeah. I’m good. I uh—how are you?”
Erin was staring at Relc. He was covered in bandages from head to toe. He looked like a mummy, but the Drake was happily eating. He noticed her stare and slapped one of the bandages on his arm.
“What, this? I’m fine! See? Ow. Damn. Uh—well, I’m mostly fine. Creler poison stops healing, you know? But I can eat cookies! In fact…”
“I have more. I took a lot from the inn, actually. All the food’s…”
Erin pointed vaguely at the spread which she’d catered to the Adventurer’s Guild, mainly because it was out of her kitchen and would spoil soon. That meant the party had everything from pizzas to steaks to spaghetti and risotto and scrambled eggs. And saffron rice.
Most of it was still basic food, but there was a lot of it. And the guests were only too happy to scarf it down as they talked. Erin saw Relc brighten as he grabbed a whole hamburger and a steak and then spotted a pitcher of blue fruit juice.
“This is amazing!”
“You are eating the food meant for everyone to share. Try to show some level of restraint.”
Klbkch appeared at Relc’s side with a bowl of the saffron rice. The Drake was trying to eat both hamburger and steak at the same time.
“Shut up, Klb. You’re not the one who got half-eaten trying to save people. I’m a hero.”
“Which makes the Horns of Hammerad, what? Legends?”
“Sure, if they want. Hey! I got hurt saving Erin.”
He pointed at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] blushed. She hung her head, and Klbkch nodded.
“Yes. And I died saving her.”
“Glutton. Please stop eating with your mouth open at least.”
Relc tried to reply and choked. Erin was laughing and smiling. But there it was again. This wasn’t a celebration. She kept seeing the Crelers pouring through the inn. Almost reflexively, Erin clenched her hands—
“Erin, have something to eat. The act of eating is wholesome in all examples save for Relc’s.”
Klbkch offered Erin a plate. She started and blinked at him. Then she looked around, and realized he was right. She smiled, took the plate, and nodded to him.
“Thanks, Klbkch. Are Pawn and the others…?”
“They are eating the food you delivered to the Hive, but their presence was not necessary at this moment. I believe they would prefer to celebrate in number in the Hive.”
“Oh. I thought Pawn at least—”
“I declined the invitation on their behalf.”
Erin paused. She stared at Klbkch for a long moment, and then she slowly nodded. She peered at his bowl as she changed the topic
“Okay. I’ll have to see them later. Can you—is the rice—I thought you couldn’t eat bread!”
“Rice is not gluten, Erin.”
Erin began wandering through the crowd, hunting for food. She remembered there was some kind of platter with meats and cheeses somewhere and she was snacky, not hungry. She found it at the same time as she found Temile.
The [Director] looked up at Erin. He waved—and she saw his missing thumb. The man paused, seeing her look, but he smiled. And it was only a tiny bit forced.
“It’s a souvenir, Erin. Besides, I don’t need it to teach [Actors] how to act!”
“Are you okay? I mean…”
“Yeah. I didn’t get eaten. And this—it’s a good story, right? I was too slow so I got bit by a Creler. Well, I cut one.”
“I heard you got the rest of the Players out first. Mister humble [Actor], who’s actually a hero.”
Temile smiled, turning a bit red.
“I’m the [Director], aren’t I? Emme would kill me if one of the lead actors got eaten. Besides—I leveled up. So…”
He trailed off. Erin squeezed his shoulder and one of the [Actors] found a drink for Temile. Erin lingered there. Oh yes. Not appropriate for rewards and celebrations at all.
Some people could genuinely smile. Like Mrsha. The Gnoll was happily trying to eat everything from a bowl as Lyonette carried her about. For once, the [Princess] didn’t scold her about what she was eating, and Erin smiled as she bent down.
“Hey Mrsha! You having a good time? Eat up, because this is all the food we’ve got! But don’t eat too much because we’re going to eat at Wishdrink’s later! And it has good stuff too!”
“What Erin means is don’t stuff yourself.”
Lyonette prodded Mrsha’s stomach and got a swat from a little paw. The [Princess] looked at Erin over the little Gnoll and her smile faded as she shifted Mrsha.
“Belgrade will take a look at the inn tomorrow. If the Watch will be done with the cleanup by then? I mean, the Antinium can help. He says the inn might be…”
“We’ve got money. And the city is going to pay us for helping get rid of the Crelers. Right?”
Erin looked around for Krshia. The [Shopkeeper] was talking to the one Gnoll survivor amid the Silver-ranks. Krshia looked up and nodded and Lism rolled his eyes. He was bogarting a pudding. Lyonette nodded.
Erin nodded. She bent and rubbed Mrsha’s head.
“Did you have a good sleep, Mrsha?”
The Gnoll looked up and nodded. She signed a few words.
“Ooh. Comfortable? Not too cramped? I slept at Selys’ apartment. It’s big! Ceria and Yvlon will be there too, and Pisces and Ksmvr get, uh, a room in an inn.”
“At least she has room. You don’t need an apartment that large, Selys.”
“Well, it’s perfect since Erin’s inn doesn’t work right now, right? And I’m not having you move in, Grandma!”
Selys hissed at Tekshia. Erin smiled.
“And Bird’s going to sleep in the Hive. The Halfseekers are in the same inn as Pisces and Ksmvr—are they still there, Lyonette?”
The [Princess] nodded.
“Moore and Seborn are resting. Both got chewed up pretty badly. But they’ll make an appearance later.”
“Got it. And what about…our guest?”
Lyonette met Erin’s eyes as Krshia turned her head.
“He’s resting too. I left him a book.”
Numbtongue realized halfway through the book that he had to pee. So he got up, wandered over to the toilet, and stared at it.
It was apparently connected to Liscor’s sewers. Plumbing. Now there was a handy invention! The only difference was that the Hobgoblin would have added a bolt hole so you could jump into the sewers if you needed to.
But perhaps that was paranoia. Numbtongue peed, and then went back to lying on the couch. After a moment, he realized he was hungry. But he could only have liquids right now. His torn stomach needed to heal.
The Hobgoblin drank a bit of the broth Lyonette had left him. He was lounging on a worn couch. In the middle of Krshia’s apartment. Lyonette, Mrsha, and Krshia had all left for the party, leaving Numbtongue behind.
Not alone, though. Apista buzzed past Numbtongue and landed on the bed of Faerie Flowers that Lyonette had rescued from the upper floor of the inn. The Ashfire Bee fanned her wings and Numbtongue stared out the open window.
He touched at his stomach, feeling the faint pain from his half-healed wounds. This is why he hated Crelers. The Redfang had never fought them himself; the High Passes were deadly to even smaller Crelers. But according to Pyrite’s memories the poison would prevent healing for the next few days.
Still, there were worse fates than drinking chicken soup and lying in a warm apartment with blankets and a pillow. At least Reiss’ ghost couldn’t follow him here. He was bound to the inn, or so it seemed.
He’d saved Numbtongue. But he was…the Hobgoblin shook his head. He winced—then he glanced out the open window.
The issue of finding Erin’s guests and the occupants of the inn homes was a small problem, but it was a problem amid all the rest of the drama over the Creler attacks. Much had been said, but in the end, the facts were clear. Despite…no, even in the given situation, a Goblin could not be in Liscor.
Not after all that had happened, the unresolved debates and arguments. So a Goblin was not in Liscor. Especially not in Krshia’s apartment, in a street full of Gnolls. And they weren’t sniffing at him from their windows.
The Goblin sniffed back. He smelled a lot of…Gnollishness in the air, but they could definitely smell him, he was sure. Despite all the strong-smelling things Krshia had hung around the room to disguise his scent. But if there was trouble, Numbtongue wasn’t about to start it. And the Council had decided to not let him into the city. It was just expedient. He wondered why they’d agreed. Because he was fairly sure he remembered another time when Goblins hadn’t been let in.
He never forgot. But for a moment, however it happened, the Hobgoblin luxuriated in where he was. Here. After a while, he got up to pee again.
Gold-rank. It was a bemusing thought. Incredible. And yet, Tekshia had hit Ceria with it so fast the half-Elf couldn’t really process it. Much less in her fogged-up mind after casting so much magic. Ceria felt like she was both hung over and drunk at the same time and exhausted—that was how hard it was to concentrate. Stupid indeed.
But still. Gold-rank. It was what her team had dreamed about. The original Horns of Hammerad. It was the dream of all adventurers, really. This was it. The big leagues were waiting. Fame, glory—it was all in this rank.
And yet, it was too soon. This party was nice, but for once, the half-Elf wasn’t stuffing herself. She was eating some fries, but she was mostly just standing with her team.
Talking. The first person to come up after the handshakes, backslapping, and so on was done, was Selys. She paused. She looked first at Pisces, then the others.
“You did it.”
“Good job. I—I heard about the attack, but Keldrass and the other teams were in the dungeon. And they ran into a bunch of undead. So I—”
“No one expected the Crelers.”
Ceria shook her head. She was looking around the room. A lot of adventurers were there, but few had approached. The ones who’d escaped through the door were hanging back. But Ceria thought she saw a familiar face among—she frowned, looking back at Selys.
“Wait, a dungeon attack? What happened? Was anyone hurt?”
“Oh—no. I mean, no one was killed. It was another undead assault, a big one. But the Gold-ranks and Silvers held the line. Some got chewed up, but no one was killed. Bevussa was stabbed, though.”
“What? Is she alright?”
Yvlon looked around as Selys raised her claws.
“She’s fine! She’s at the [Healer]’s. Her team is all there—they got overrun by Ghouls! And they were saying something about a traitor in the dungeon. But only Bevussa saw—well, she’s out cold, still. She took a Ghoul apart with her talons! Keldrass and his team had to bail them out. They must have burned at least a thousand undead.”
Ceria relaxed. She looked around. Hadn’t she seen…?
That wasn’t who she’d spotted. But the Drake was a familiar sight. He looked perfectly hale as he strode towards her. Out of armor, of course, although Ceria had seen one of his teammates wearing the Heartflame Breastplate. The Drake paused.
“Ceria, congratulations. Hell’s Wardens.”
“Oh, that’s not—look, don’t call us that.”
The half-Elf flushed. Keldrass just shook his head.
“It’s an official title. You slew an Adult Creler. That means you’re allowed to claim the title; the Blighted Kingdom itself sent a commendation and the reward this morning.”
“They did? I mean—a commendation?”
The Drake nodded. He eyed Pisces; the [Necromancer] was absently loading his plate, but nodded as Yvlon and Ksmvr came over. He hesitated at Ksmvr, but spoke to them as a group.
“That’s right. Aside from money, the Blighted King does honor all those who slay Adult Crelers. I’m not sure of the specifics; it’s a decree. Not a noble title or estates, but apparently it can do something for you. If, say, you’re a [Shieldbearer], you might become an [Honored Shieldbearer].”
“Nice. I mean, two of us have changed classes and we’ve all leveled up…”
Ceria stumbled over her words. The Drake nodded. He was looking at her, and glancing over his shoulder. But he paused.
“Miss Shivertail—the younger—also looked up your feat. You’re the 1268th team to kill an Adult Creler at the Silver-rank level. Before you became one of us, obviously.”
Us. Ceria focused on that word, then what Keldrass had said.
“Wait, over a thousand Silver-rank teams have…”
Her face must have fallen, because Keldrass’ serious face turned into a smile for a second. The Drake shook his head as Pisces wandered over. The adventurers were congregated at one side of the guild mixing with some of the civilians, but they were…waiting. Keldrass looked at Ceria.
“Miss Springwalker, think of it another way. In the history of our world, of every confirmed Adult Creler kill, of teams who would go on to become Named Rank, or at least Gold, over the last six thousand years since the Creler Wars—since a time before the Demons, when Crelers fought Dragons and overran nation after nation and every species in the world fought them!—only one thousand and two hundred Silver-rank teams have ever killed an adult.”
The half-Elf blushed. That did make more sense. Keldrass grinned at her amusement, then became serious once more. He glanced over his shoulder.
“It’s not something my team’s ever done, even in a larger group. I—well, we were fighting undead. You held the line. You and the others.”
The Horns sobered. Ceria nodded shortly.
“Some of them are here. You might have words—hear them out first. You need to see this.”
Keldrass jerked his head backwards. Ceria blinked at him. Then she realized the Drake was looking at her somewhat warily. She had a…premonition.
A face in the crowd. She saw Walt looking uncertain, Alais talking to someone in the midst of the adventurers. They made way as Keldrass led the Horns over, and adventurers parted. Some shamefaced. Others staring. A few, like Keldrass, looked ready to stop a fight. Ceria’s heartbeat quickened.
Could it be?
Pelico turned. Desirel broke off from eating a bit of cake. Hauntgheist, five members of their team, stood still as the Horns saw them. Ceria halted in her tracks.
Yvlon dropped her plate. Ksmvr dove and caught it. Pisces stared. The [Armsmistress]’s gaze locked onto Pelico.
Surprises. Some of the adventurers who’d fought at the Bloodfields had gotten away. Not Kam. Or Stan. But some. Hauntgheist was the truly astonishing thing, though. But Ceria realized it wasn’t a miracle.
“Scrolls of [Lesser Teleport]. Our entire group has one. It’s our final insurance. I came up with it—it costs a lot and all our members have to buy into a scroll or go without. We always set it for a quick escape. As it is, we lost three. That damn Adult hit us with those spikes. But the rest of us bailed out.”
Pelico spoke quietly, to Alais’ team, Walt’s, and the Gnoll, the survivors. To the other adventurers as well, the Silver-ranks who’d fought then fled through the door, or just ran. Keldrass and some of the older Gold-ranks like the Lifwail Blades stood next to Hauntgheist. Preventing a fight, perhaps.
Ceria just stared. Pelico’s face was pale, but the [Rogue] spoke to everyone present. But mainly to them.
“We took cover in our bailout spot. We saw how many Crelers were out there—and the Adult. We just…we hid. I thought it would be suicide to…”
He trailed off, looking away. Keldrass eyed Ceria. And every eye turned towards the Horns. The others had seen Hauntgheist before, it seemed. Walt was clenching his fists, but he hadn’t thrown a punch yet. Alais wasn’t looking at Hauntgheist. And Ceria—she looked at Yvlon. The Human woman looked back, waiting.
“Good. You made it.”
Hauntgheist started. But Ceria’s face was calm. She tried to smile, and in fact, it wasn’t hard.
“I wish we’d all had scrolls. But they’re expensive, right? You made it. I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same. I’m glad…I’m sorry for the ones who fell. Were they…?”
“Chaida, Sell, and Vend.”
Ceria vaguely recalled Vend’s face. She nodded. The other adventurers relaxed. At last, the wary tension resolved, and more broke up, talking with the civilians.
Non-adventurers. Ceria found herself shaking Drakes and Gnoll’s claws and paws respectively, letting them thank her. It never occurred to her to say it was nothing. But neither was it entirely hers, not by a long shot.
“There were three teams out there with Hauntgheist. The Watch hasn’t even found their bodies.”
“Who were they?”
“The Scales of Anarchy, Traveller’s Yawn, and…anyone know?”
“I—I didn’t stay. We went for the door right as it opened.”
“You were right with us up till the end. We’d have gone if we weren’t on the other side of that Creler.”
“Has anyone seen Montressa? The Wistram team?”
“They were burying their own. The Oldblood Drake.”
Yvlon murmured it as she shook Reikhle’s paw. The [Master Builder] looked Yvlon up and down and only now did someone broach the topic of her arms.
“Miss Yvlon, I can’t help but notice your change. Is it part of a new class?”
The polite question made everyone in earshot look over with interest. Yvlon smiled.
“That’s right. I’m an [Armsmistress] now. It healed my arms. And changed them into…”
She gestured at the silvery metal that was now her flesh.
“I see. That is, may I see? I am a tiny bit interested.”
Ceria bit her lip to keep from laughing as Reikhle bent, nearly touching Yvlon’s arm as he carefully peered at it, sniffed it—he might have actually tried licking it before he caught himself. But he was a [Builder]. Yvlon looked up as Walt wandered over.
She nodded. The man paused.
“You don’t say.”
Ceria burst out laughing as the room erupted with it. Even Yvlon had to laugh, although she punched Walt on the shoulder. He swore.
It was easy to laugh. Harder to note the missing faces. In time, Ceria found herself standing with adventurers, in the center of the larger party. People who had been there. Alais delivered the harder news.
“The confirmed dead—I found Kam. And…Stan’s on the list too. All the Boltspitters but Gerit are.”
Ceria’s stomach twisted.
“They found his body?”
“His bag of holding. You saw him go down, Ceria?”
The half-Elf saw Stan turning, trying to reload—she closed her eyes.
“Yeah. I don’t think he made it out of that. Did they—”
No one was in charge, but Keldrass was present, like a…teacher. Or a helper. He cleared his throat.
“There’s a bounty from Rhir on all Crelers the world over. The Blighted Kingdom pays it on top of whatever local bounties are in place. Izril’s Adventurer Guilds have standard rates too. So…there’s gold for killing the adult.”
He looked at Ceria. Instantly, she raised her hands.
“We don’t want it. It goes to the dead. Their families—it goes to them.”
Alais and Walt both nodded. So did the Gnoll, the lone adventurer. Keldrass nodded. Ceria had to turn.
“I’m sorry. Can I ask who you are?”
“Egliv. Part of Steelhowl.”
The Gnoll clasped Ceria’s hand, and repeated it for the other members of the Horns. He seemed worn. So tired. Ceria knew the feeling. But something in his eyes lit up as he looked at her.
“You took down that cursed Creler. Thank you. It got half my team. The rest…I’m not sure how I made it.”
“Nor are we.”
That was it. But Egliv, Alais’ teammates—Caddin was dead. The other two introduced themselves.
“Shelda and Poiv.”
“Right, we’ve met…”
“You punched my lights out.”
Poiv pointed at his eye and Yvlon ducked her head. Shelda was a [Shield Warrior], only, she used armor made of Chitin. Poiv used bone arrows as an [Archer].
“My boys and I got through it. Yvlon, Ceria, Pisces, Ksmvr—this is Dogil, Grant, and Terrim.”
The three men nodded at Ceria. Grant’s eye was gone and he had a patch over it. Dogil had wounds all over his arms, but the man had kept fighting with his axe to the last. Terrim—he clasped Ksmvr’s hand first. The orange-haired redheaded man grinned.
“Took down the adult. Nice fucking jump! Tommie would have been proud.”
The Horns looked at the other seven. Ceria did not know any of them well, save for Alais and Walt, but she would remember them. Egliv accepted a drink; alcohol was flowing freely in the Adventurer’s Guild along with Erin’s food.
There were things to do, even now. The Council came over to thank the adventurers again. Ceria missed part of the speech on the way to the bathroom, but she heard Elirr speaking solemnly to the others.
“Liscor’s Council has allocated funds for all the teams who stood and fought. I know it is not much, but it’s what the city can afford. We shall pay a pension to the dead as well.”
“And we had to go to the Antinium to pay it and keep on budget.”
Lism muttered from the back, so quietly only the Gnolls and Ceria heard. Krshia reached over and punched him.
The other adventurers accepted the monetary reward, as did the Horns. That was extra. But the Creler’s bounty on top of the one Izril’s Adventurer’s Guilds put on all the Crelers would go to the fallen. Ceria had a word with Keldrass about it as Walt and Alais joined her.
“Do you know—what will happen with the adventurer’s things? Their bodies?”
The Drake hesitated. He waved a claw and Selys came over.
“We’ll have to burn the bodies. Or rather, the Watch is doing that. The Adventurer’s Guild will distribute the possessions of the adventurers to their families or listed recipients if they have wills. Why?”
Ceria looked around. Ksmvr stepped forwards. The [Skirmisher] bowed slightly.
“I would like to purchase Captain Crossbow Stan’s bag of holding and crossbows. If it is acceptable. I understand this is a form of inheritance that adventurers practice.”
Alais looked startled. Keldrass peered at Ksmvr, then Ceria.
“That’s better than what the Adventurer’s Guild would offer. I’ll—I think that’s fine. Let me make a note.”
Selys looked for a quill and ink. Alais looked blankly at Ksmvr and shook her head.
“I can’t believe he’s dead. You’re sure you saw…?”
“I’m sure. There’s no way he survived that, Alais.”
“It’s just—he’s Crossbow Stan. He’s been around forever.”
“I actually knew about his team.”
Egliv put in. The Gnoll gestured around the guild as Selys came back, writing.
“His team was around thirty years back. The Boltspitters. They came south once, my father said. They were good. Not Gold-rank, but they helped kill a bunch of Wyverns with other teams.”
“Stan was a veteran. He just—earned money. For his kids.”
“Oh dead gods. His kids.”
Ceria murmured. Walt nodded.
“How old’re they?”
“Must be—thirteen and fourteen? Dead gods. Seems like Stan’s been watching them for decades…”
“Nah. He married late, remember?”
“But he divorced—”
“Do you think she knows?”
“The Guild will inform everyone. Don’t worry. And I’ll get Ksmvr the bag of holding. We’ll do the transaction later, alright? And his family will get the gold, from the bounty and everything else. I’ll make sure of it.”
Selys broke in gently. Ceria nodded. The Drake patted her arm and stepped back. After a moment, Alais broke in.
“So. Did you level, Ceria? Your eyes…”
The half-Elf’s eyes were less noticeable than Yvlon’s arms, but they had changed too. Walt started; he hadn’t noticed. Ceria nodded.
“Class change. You?”
“Not a class change, but…I leveled four times. And I gained a few Skills. To help with my lightning. Look. I can throw it without it going everywhere.”
So saying, Alais conjured a bit of lightning and threw it from one finger to the other, catching it in midair and creating a small ball of lightning. Ceria and the others recoiled at first, used to Alais’ unpredictable magic. Ceria smiled.
“That’s better control than a third-year Wistram student, Alais! Congratulations.”
Alais smiled weakly. She was still barely on her feet, and leaning on her staff hard.
“It’s what I wanted. I’m stronger now. I can feel it. If I had it back when we were fighting—if I—if I had—”
Her voice broke. Poiv and Shelda reached for their Captain and she buried her face in her arm. Ceria stared at her and the others looked down.
It was a common adventurer’s refrain. Those that survived the worst battles invariably leveled. Becoming stronger. And yet, too late. If I could go back and do it again, as I am—
You couldn’t think about it too long. Down that road lay madness. Ceria turned to Walt as Alais went to sit down for a moment.
“What about you, Walt?”
The man would have normally bragged about a single level. Now, he just smiled quietly and exposed one thick arm. He flexed it, and then held it out for Ceria to lean on. His arm didn’t move as much as a centimeter.
“Look. [Enhanced Strength]. Fucking unbelievable, right? It’s like that Minotauress’ scroll is working on me all the time. Dead gods, I’m going to hit Level 30 before I’m thirty. I never thought of that.”
Egliv too. The [Axeman] was now a [Savage Axeman], owing to the Crelers he’d hacked apart. He even had a [Furious Rage] Skill.
“Must be the [Barbarian] in me, yes? Not that many Gnolls qualify for the class.”
“You’re too civilized. What’s the requirement for [Barbarian] anyways? Seems so…what’s the word?”
Pisces came over, massaging his head. He seemed to be getting over his mental mind-blanking better than Ceria. She nodded at him.
It was Yvlon who looked around.
“How many Silver-rank teams are left? Out of fourteen? Five? Six?”
“Eight, but only three full-strength. Some, like the Boltspitters will have to be disbanded. Or…find a new team.”
“I have an invitation from The Pride of Kelia. Nailren, he invited me. I might take it.”
“Nailren’s good. They’re a ranged team, but they could use someone like you. Hell, Gemhammer might have you, Egliv. They’re all about muscle and melee combat.”
“I—I guess Thunder’s Solace needs to recruit too. We’re going to still…I mean, we have to keep going.”
Alais looked blank as she rejoined the conversation. Walt stared at Egliv.
“Yeah. Our team’s down too. Hey. You want to join us?”
Ceria, Yvlon, Alais, and Pelico all stared at Walt. He looked around.
“Can’t hurt to recruit in Liscor. We could use more fighters. We’re all shields, but…I think the Ensoldier Shields need a [Mage] or two. [Archers], at least.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Egliv looked surprised, gratified, but he shook his head. Keldrass did too.
“Don’t think about adventuring just yet. You all need rest.”
“Even so, so many teams…”
“That’s what happens.”
A steely voice cut through the conversation. The adventurers turned and saw Tekshia walk past them. The Drake sipped from her cup as she entered the group.
“The Silver-rank teams around Celum are torn to bits. It’s the Bronze-ranks and a few Silvers left, now. But we have at least three teams who might be Gold-rank in the future.”
She nodded at Walt, Alais, and Ceria’s teams. They looked at her. Tekshia’s voice was strict, but not unkind.
“This is what happens, children. Good teams die, and the survivors level up. You, Horns. Did you level or did that [Necromancer] just pop in a few new eyes and some arms?”
Yvlon choked on her drink. Pisces nearly exhaled his pasta all over everyone else. Only Ksmvr clapping a hand over his mouth saved everyone. The Antinium politely wiped his hand on a napkin as everyone looked at the Horns. Ceria hesitated, but now wasn’t the time to keep secrets, surely…?
Pisces broke the silence, coughing and thumping his chest. He pointed at himself.
“Two levels in my [Necromancer] class for summoning both behemoths. However, my [Mage] class hit Level 20 for a second time.”
Ceria blinked at him. The young man shrugged.
“I gained a new Skill. A powerful one, in my estimation. [Mana Well]. Ashen.”
Walt looked confused as Alais and Ceria both nodded. One of Keldrass’ teammates was nodding as the [Necromancer] explained.
“Of the Skills which [Mages] obtain to increase the font of their power—and they are the lynchpins of most sources of power, [Mana Well] is considered average. Rather than increasing the body’s natural mana regeneration, or changing the very world or body itself to conduct mana better—”
He gestured to Ceria.
“—I simply have deeper reservoirs of mana to draw upon. And I may…charge my reserves with ambient mana of a specific grade. Death magic, in my case.”
“He’s got an extra amount of magic in his body to use.”
Tekshia snorted as she chewed on a cookie. Pisces looked at her and she glared.
“You use too many words, brat! Yes, that Skill’s useful for a [Necromancer]. Not earthshattering. What happened with you, half-Elf?”
She poked Ceria, aiming her fork at Ceria’s eyes. The half-Elf flinched backwards.
“I changed classes. I’m…an [Arctic Cryomancer].”
It was a modest class change, but it got another ooh of appreciation. From almost everyone this time. Shelda frowned and looked around.
“What does arctic mean? I’m not familiar with the word.”
“Cold. You know, arctic weather?”
“Oh, right. So that’s an upgrade? Cold [Cryomancer]?”
“Colder. I think it’s a hint about my specialization. I didn’t get a powerful new spell, but I did get two Skills that change…well, look.”
Ceria gestured, and a wall of ice rose. Instantly, Tekshia struck it with her cane, lancing it out like a spear.
“Not in my guild—”
She paused as her cane thwacked into the ice. The tip of the cane vibrated away from the ice wall, chipping a bit with it. But it didn’t break. Keldrass raised his brows. Behind Tekshia, Relc pointed and crowed.
“Oh snap. Old Tekshia’s lost her—don’t throw it!”
Tekshia lowered her cane as Relc ducked behind Klbkch. She turned to Ceria and the half-Elf gestured at the [Ice Wall].
“[Glaciersheet Ice]. And [Adept Iceform]. An upgrade of my old Skill. I can make my ice different, see?”
She gestured and a row of spikes emerged from the [Ice Wall]. Ksmvr brightened.
“Ooh. It has spikes. There is much potential here for pushing.”
“Push people into a wall, have the wall come up and impale them…”
Pelico was impressed. Erin, Lyonette, and Mrsha popped over with a crowd, to watch Ceria’s demonstration. Lyonette frowned as Mrsha tried to touch the spikes, so Ceria made the ice wall flat again. Erin looked at Ceria, beaming with pride.
“You did it! It’s tough, right? And you can shape it? Can you do a couch made of ice? No, wait! Make a castle!”
Ceria’s head was smarting. She winced—even this one spell was giving her a migraine. But she tried the couch. She had to give up halfway as her headache became blinding.
“Palt said no magic!”
Alarmed, Yvlon touched Ceria’s arm and the half-Elf gave up. The others inspected the angular bit of ice.
“It looks sort of like a couch.”
“Someone sit on it. How long will it last?”
“Longer, I think. Darn. My head—”
“No more magic, even for demonstrations.”
Ceria nodded, and someone pushed an unlucky volunteer onto the couch. It turned out to be Ishkr. The Gnoll tensed, and then shuddered.
“Cold! I’m stuck to it! Help me off!”
His fur was frozen to the ice. Laughing, Ceria watched, massaging her head as half the [Mages] volunteered to burn Ishkr off, including Keldrass’ team. In the end, some hot water did the trick.
“But you can also make snowflakes! You have that cold…bubble around you! Show them, Ceria!”
This wasn’t magic. Or at least, it didn’t hurt to show off. Ceria concentrated, and the air around her grew frosty. Ice began falling from the air and Mrsha put her paw out and caught one. It melted when she tried to pull it out. Lyonette put her hand towards Ceria and drew it back fast.
“[Aura of Rime]. That’s my big Skill, I think.”
“Is it that powerful? Seems sort of weak if all it does is make snow.”
Walt commented as he stuck a mug next to Ceria’s cheek to cool. She narrowed her eyes and his drink froze into a slurry. Selys raised her eyebrows as Walt swore.
“Auras are physical manifestations of magical fields. Hers could boost her abilities, freeze things more quickly or act as a weapon. I’d say it’s good. Like Pisces said, [Mages] get different Skills that shape how they perform higher tiers of magic.”
“Is it like your master, Captain Ceria?”
Ksmvr looked at Ceria as he experimentally waved a burning torch near her and watched the fire go out. Ceria’s aura was pure cold, not just a manifestation of winter. The half-Elf shook her head.
“Illphres didn’t have one. But she only cared for her magic. Her style was more…well, I don’t know what she had. But I’m okay with my style. Besides, I don’t feel cold. The real trick is turning it off.”
The half-Elf smiled. Everyone turned to Ksmvr and Yvlon. The [Skirmisher] waved one hand helpfully.
“I regret that I did not gain any noticeable level advancement or class. I am a failure—”
The Antinium paused, looking straight past Ceria and his team to Klbkch. The other Antinium’s arms were folded. After a moment, Ksmvr looked away and nodded to Ceria sadly.
“Oh, very well. I cannot even be a failure. But I have only gained two Skills. One of them is [Surefoot], which is a very practical Skill with little entertainment value.”
“We could make a mud hill and push you down it.”
Relc was grinning as the other adventurers nodded. Ksmvr considered the option.
“I believe my other Skill is more applicable to demonstration.”
“What is it, Ksmvr?”
Ceria hadn’t been able to ask yesterday amid the bigger concern of her freezing everything around her and Yvlon’s new arms. The Antinium took a few steps into the center of the room. He raised his arms—
And back flipped. Erin’s eyes nearly popped out of her head. Ksmvr did a tight, springing backflip, landed, front flipped back, and then flipped to the side.
The Worker’s squat body and rounded back shell was not meant for that kind of aerodynamics. Antinium didn’t…do that! But Ksmvr did. Everyone stared, and then Mrsha broke out into applause. Ksmvr landed on his feet, looking pleased as he smiled.
“[Evasive Flip]. Whee.”
“That’s amazing, Ksmvr!”
“Whoa! Do it again!”
Erin agreed. Ksmvr happily flipped forwards as the crowd watched, then sideways, back—after about ten flips in a row he paused and held out a hand.
“I am growing very sick. I may expel the contents of my stomach. Stand clear.”
After that, everyone turned to Yvlon. The [Armsmistress] smiled.
“I gained a new class. [Armsmistress].”
“There may be a few more words in there, Pelico. But just [Armsmistress] for now. I don’t know everything about my class, but I did change my [Crescent Cut] Skill. It’s now [Sword Art: Curve of the Moon].”
Yvlon drew her broken, battered Sword of Weight with one arm to demonstrate. Erin blinked at Yvlon.
“I thought you’d turn your [Crescent Cut] into something that breaks armor. Like your mordhau thing you did on the Crelers. Into…[Ultimate Mordhau]?”
Some of the [Warriors] laughed and Ksmvr made a chuckling-clicking sound. Yvlon smiled.
“You’d think that, but apparently I qualified for a sword art. Which means I’m good enough with a sword to use an actual technique.”
“You can’t change your original Skill into something completely different. A sword art is an indication of ability. This one wouldn’t ever get it, for instance, just a Skill.”
Tekshia poked Walt and the Human glared at her. Keldrass was nodding.
“Sword arts need to be used in combat, at the right time. You have to set them up, not like Skills. They’re powerful, but situational. Drathians are reported to be experts in that field. As are [Martial Artists], [Blademasters], [Sword Dancers]…”
“Relc’s a [Spearmaster]. Hey Relc! Do you know a spear dance, then?”
Everyone looked at Relc. The Drake folded his arms smugly.
“Maybe I do, maybe I don’t.”
“It’s Level 30+ Skills. I know he’s got [Triple Thrust]—that might be the only thing.”
Selys eyed Relc critically. The Drake scowled at her.
“Well, at least I’ve got that! And it works with a spear and in bed—actually, I’ve never tried it in—whoa!”
He broke off as Yvlon demonstrated her Skill. She’d begun cutting in arced cuts, building up to the sword art. When she unleashed it, Erin saw a flash of silver—and Relc and Klbkch dragged her off her feet. Half the audience stumbled back as Yvlon’s cut went across the floor, hit a rafter, and sliced a table a good eight feet in front of her in half.
“Dead gods! The table!”
Tekshia hissed. She glared at Yvlon as the [Armsmistress] halted her blade and stared, wide-eyed at the damage she’d caused. Her Skill had extended the reach of her sword!
“It’s got range.”
Walt breathed. Then Tekshia jabbed Yvlon in the side. Yvlon shouted as the Drake hit her in one of her bandaged spots.
“Use another Skill in my guild and I’ll use you to fix the cracks! Ancestors, you overexcited—”
The Drake grumbled as she stared at the rift Yvlon had cut in the floor. Krshia growled as she inspected the broken table.
“Good thing we were planning on moving the guild, yes?”
“I’ll say. But can we not damage parts of the city?”
Alonna eyed the cut in the rafters. Flushing, Yvlon sheathed her blade.
“That’s the best Skill we’ve seen yet! No offense, Ceria, but Yvlon wins here.”
Ceria waved a hand as the [Warriors] crowded around Yvlon. Keldrass eyed Yvlon.
“Any more Skills, Miss Byres?”
“Aside from that, and the Skill that turned my arms into this?”
“Well, yeah. Aside from that. Obviously.”
He cleared his throat, embarrassed. Yvlon smiled. She raised one hand.
“Well, as part of my new arms and skin, I can apparently do this.”
Her arm slowly changed as the crowd watched. Keldrass recoiled as Yvlon’s arms, a perfect mimicry of Human flesh, shifted. The metal moved, reshaping until it looked like Yvlon was wearing armor—over the outside of her arms. A smooth, silver metal gauntlet protected her forearms, and more armor appeared on her arms, stopping at the shoulder.
If Yvlon had been wearing her breastplate, it would have been a perfect fit. The [Armsmistress] regarded her hand, now a gauntlet, and held it out. Keldrass shook his head, but Ksmvr touched the arm softly. The woman looked around, a crooked smile on her face.
“[Armform]. This is my duelist form. I can make them normal as well. And this—let go, Ksmvr?”
He did. Yvlon whispered.
Her hand changed. Erin inhaled sharply and the crowd stirred. When Yvlon raised her hand next, a cutting edge had developed along the outer edge of her gauntlets. But that wasn’t what was unsettling.
Yvlon’s fingers were blades. Not just as if she’d put on a metal pair of gauntlets. No, the fingers, what should have been flesh and bone were now edged, longer, cutting razors. In silence, everyone stared at Yvlon. She looked up, her face a bleak smile—
Mrsha began applauding. Yvlon started, and then someone laughed. A few others began applauding uncertainly, but then there was laughter. Yvlon relaxed, and her hands returned to normal.
“I can even make a cutting edge on other parts of my arm. So if someone grabs me, they’re in trouble. It’s not too useful.”
That was all Keldrass could offer. Ceria hesitated, and put a hand on Yvlon’s shoulder. It was cool, but not as cold as metal. The woman could feel her—she looked at Ceria.
“Something to get used to, huh?”
“Just when I got used to having metal in my arms.”
The [Armsmistress] joked weakly, but Ceria had seen her expression.
“Are you okay with…?”
“I have my arms. I’ll live with them changing. What do you think, Ksmvr?”
Yvlon glanced sideways. The Antinium was inspecting her arms, poking at her fingers cautiously. She wiggled them and the [Skirmisher] looked up solemnly.
“We must analyze their strength, Yvlon. Your arms are a valuable asset to this team and we must be certain of their exact strength.”
Bemused and amused, Yvlon let Ksmvr inspect his hand. He prodded her fingers, flexed them, seeing how far they’d move, poked her palm, the inside of her elbow—
“Stop that. It tickles.”
Yvlon laughed. Her skin wasn’t as pliable as regular skin, but it did move. It was nearly as sensitive too in its regular form, or so it seemed. Ksmvr was oblivious to her discomfort.
“Does it tickle more or less depending on your duelist form? Please change one arm to your duelist form so we may compare sensations, Yvlon. This is important data.”
“Stop it. Ksmvr, I’m serious—”
He began tickling her. Yvlon tried to pull away, but gently. Then she began laughing. And it was such a refreshing sound that Ceria joined right in. She tickled Yvlon’s sides—until the [Armsmistress] smacked her gently on the head. And ‘gently’ was something Yvlon had to get used to.
After Ceria’s head had stopped smarting, Ksmvr announced his findings to a very few interested people.
“To recap, Yvlon’s base skin strength is already stronger than average skin, but her [Duelist] form lacks sensitivity and has a comparable strength to enchanted armor. This is good, because I had been concerned with the weakness of skin in my teammates—”
Ceria wandered away from Ksmvr’s analysis. She’d seen Tekshia sitting down at one of the intact tables. The old Guildmistress looked up as Ceria approached.
“Something you want, Miss Springwalker? If you’re looking for hugs, go find my granddaughter. Although she seems to be reserving them for the [Necromancer].”
She glared at Selys and Pisces, who were talking quietly together. Ceria shook her head.
“I’m fine, thank you, Guildmistress.”
She sat down across from Tekshia. The Drake eyed her then snorted.
“Out with it.”
“You…didn’t say anything about Pelico’s team. Or the other Silver-ranks.”
The ones that had run. Some had come up to Ceria to apologize. And she’d forgiven them with words, at least. Others hadn’t. Ceria wondered if they’d avoided coming to the party. Pelico—she could sense him looking at her and the others from time to time. She wondered if she could ever sit and drink with him in the same way. Or if there was really anything to forgive.
The old Drake [Spearmistress] snorted. She looked at Hauntgheist and shook her head. Then she gazed at Ceria.
“Say what? It was your decision to ‘forgive’ them. What should I do? Smack their tails for doing the sensible thing? They’ll remember their choice for the rest of their lives. As Silver-ranks. That’s what they’ll be. They had a chance, and they ran from it. Sensible. Which is why they’ll never be Gold-rank.”
She leaned back in her chair and fished in her belt. Ceria was surprised when she saw a familiar, fat cigar. Or maybe a spliff was more accurate. The Drake paused and offered one grudgingly to Ceria.
“Is that—you smoke them?”
Ceria was a former Wistram student, and she could smell the dreamleaf. Tekshia smiled as she lit hers.
“When someone’s in the area. I got a bundle because I threatened that horse to eat him. I still haven’t forgiven those [Mages], but they did nearly die, and one did, so I suppose I’ll let it go. Funny how real monsters change things, isn’t it?”
Ceria nodded. After a moment, she accepted the spliff and the match. She recognized it from Octavia’s sh—Ceria’s eyes narrowed. She looked around for the [Alchemist] and realized that Octavia had been stealthily doing a bit of business. Some things never changed. But the [Alchemist] was genuinely listening to Ksmvr as the Antinium explained the difference in Yvlon’s skin to her.
“Whew. That’s strong stuff.”
“Not bad. This is the kind of hobby you can afford now.”
Tekshia nodded as Ceria took a few deep inhales and coughed out some smoke. The Drake was more steady, but Ceria had a purpose.
“Not happy, huh?”
The [Arctic Cryomancer] hesitated.
“Is it that obvious?”
Tekshia put her feet up on the table, leaning back in her chair.
“I don’t have to look. Day after a battle like that? With all the dead? I told the Council not to throw a party, but they insisted. Your little [Innkeeper] friend too. At least she makes a decent cake. But what did they expect? This isn’t a party. It’s a wake.”
She pointed at the workers on the road crew. They were speaking solemnly and toasting with their mugs. Ceria realized that the food had mostly turned to drinks. She wondered if Tekshia had been instrumental to that; it wouldn’t have been high on Erin’s list. She didn’t understand some of the pleasures in life.
“I guess I can’t really be happy. I wish we’d—being here after all of yesterday—you know?”
Tekshia nodded silently. She took a drag on her puffer and exhaled.
“If you were smiling the entire time after all that, I’d stab you, girl. Mind you, that’s what some Named Adventurers look like, even after a slaughter. I remember one…no. No, you don’t need to smile. And you don’t need to be here. It’s just silly idiots trying to make themselves feel better.”
For some reason, that helped more than anything else. Ceria smiled and looked at Tekshia.
“What do we do?”
“Do? You’re Gold-rank. You’ll have time to figure it out. I’m sure everyone has an opinion. Just sleep. Wake up. And keep going as long as you want. Then—stop. I stopped. Some of us don’t.”
The Drake lazing waved her spliff in the air. The half-Elf nodded. They sat together, smoking, until Erin Solstice came over.
“Hey! Are you doing pot? There are kids here, you know!”
Tekshia glared at Erin. She very deliberately blew a cloud of smoke at Erin.
“This is my guild, girl. You may exit if you don’t like it.”
“Well, maybe I will!”
“Good. Get out. Leave the cake and cookies.”
Erin hesitated. She looked at Ceria and the half-Elf waved at her.
“It’s not bad, Erin. Honest.”
“Well—well—I’m going outside! Krshia says there’s something cool by the southern gate, so we’re going to all go that way. Olesm’ll be there. And the Horns. And Montressa and the others.”
Ceria sat up. Tekshia gently snorted as the crowd inside made for the doors. Some remained, but after a moment, Ceria got up and followed Erin. She reluctantly froze the spliff for later.
“Where’d you get that?”
Pisces muttered to Ceria. She pointed. His brows shot up.
“She’s not going to give you one. I don’t know how Ceria got one off her. She never shares anything.”
Selys complained. Erin gave her a betrayed look. The [Heiress] rolled her eyes.
“Oh, Erin. It’s fine! Grandmother’s been having those for ages. I used to get into them as a kid.”
“You’re all stoners!”
“And you’re being a hatchling.”
Ceria didn’t listen to the argument erupting behind her, which was mainly Erin and Lyonette versus everyone else. Yvlon seemed on Erin’s side, but she elected not to join in. The adventurers and civilians walked down the street, heading towards…what?
Just outside the southern gates, Ceria realized what it was. She saw curiously flat ground in a wide space, nearly a thousand feet diamond next to a flat, stone road. Newly-laid.
Master Reikhle’s workers had been active here as well. No; they’d continued their work here instead of the Bloodfields. But they had also smoothed the lumpy terrain of the Floodplains. And standing outside was a Drake. Olesm turned in the middle of consulting with Octavia. She’d snuck out of the party early. Now, she was helping him lay down a bright, white powder in the grass.
It took Erin only a moment to figure out what was going on. She exclaimed at the same time as Relc and a few others.
Walt growled. The Drake was smiling as he came over to the Horns. But he faltered as he looked at Ceria. He opened his mouth—and she hugged him.
The [Strategist] returned the hug, awkwardly. He looked up and Pisces held out a hand. The two smiled as they clasped palms, and Ksmvr and Yvlon patted him on the shoulder. Time changed a lot.
“Hey, you jerk!”
Erin glared, but even she couldn’t be angry. Olesm ducked his head as he saw Selys, Krshia, and the Gnolls. They regarded him with stately politeness, but Lism beamed.
“And what is this, nephew?”
“Baseball, Uncle. I told you—”
“How’d you do it? No, wait—why didn’t I think of it? This is amazing, Olesm!”
Erin was agog as she popped up in front of Lism. The [Strategist] smiled slightly. He pointed at the temporary field Octavia was working on, and a few people warming up on the pitch. Some of the Drakes and Gnolls who’d played last time were already swinging the bats. And more were watching from the walls and the grass.
Including the Halfseekers and the Wistram [Mages]. All four of them. Ceria started and pointed them out to Pisces. The two abandoned the group as Olesm spoke.
“It was simple. I mean, I know the game just requires flat ground. So I asked the team working on the road here to move some dirt around. The Antinium were able to help since this is close to the city. It’s obviously not feasible in the spring, but for now we have room for at least one game. And people can watch and play—I’m going to have teams sign up for time. There’s a lot of interest.”
“I’ve got to play! Klb, we’re going to get on a team! And look! There’s Grimalkin!”
Relc bounded forwards, excited. Klbkch spotted Grimalkin, swinging a bat experimentally. Erin was delighted.
“This is so cool—and look! There’s the Halfseekers! Jelaqua! Seborn! Moore! Are you all okay?”
The three adventurers looked up. They were all speaking together, Seborn half-lying down. The Drowned Man was nearly immobile from his injuries, but Jelaqua and Moore had lifted him out on a stretcher. Jelaqua was wearing a female Gnoll’s body. Moore was heavily bandaged and wincing, but he smiled as Mrsha leapt into his lap.
“Careful, Mrsha, careful…”
“Hey, Erin. You’re alright.”
Jelaqua smiled as Erin walked over. Seborn nodded and grunted. Erin threw up her arms.
“Did you see? Baseball! In Liscor!”
“Yeah. It’s going to be fun watching Grimalkin hit the ball. I think the Watch might also enjoy playing. I looked in on them; they’re nearly done with getting rid of the Crelers.”
Jelaqua smiled a bit. But she looked back at Moore and Seborn. The Drowned Man just stared at her and the Selphid glanced down at the grass she was pulling up bit by bit. Erin wavered. She looked at Seborn.
“How are you doing, Seborn? Moore? I didn’t get a chance to thank you—”
“We’re alive. No thanks to Jelaqua.”
The [Rogue]’s voice was flat. Jelaqua looked away. Moore paused in patting Mrsha’s head, and the Gnoll looked up, worried. She looked at Jelaqua’s body, sniffing the Selphid and sneezing at the smell of the preservative the Selphid was using.
Jelaqua’s wasn’t the only dead body sitting in the grass. A ways away were the four Wistram [Mages]. Ulinde, Beza, Montressa, and Palt.
Bezale was crying. The Minotaur’s head was bowed. Ulinde just stared ahead. She was wearing a Gnoll’s body too. Female. She bore no physical scars from yesterday. Nor did Palt, really. But they didn’t move.
Montressa’s eyes were red, but she had no more tears to give. And her guilt was less, in a way. She hadn’t run. But nevertheless.
Isceil was dead. The Wistram [Mages] looked up as the Horns approached. Beza stirred, staring at Yvlon, her arms. She wiped at her eyes and the [Mages] got up. Nervously. But the grief was written across them.
Perhaps this was the first teammate they’d ever had die. Even including the accident at Wistram, they might have never lost someone fighting. Their expressions looked too familiar to Ceria. Palt slowly exhaled a bit of smoke as he got to his hooves.
“We’re not going to fight. Please don’t—”
“Who would do that now?”
Ceria looked around. The Wistram [Mages] were silent. It felt like yesterday and forever ago that Ceria had been willing to try and kill them—hurt them at least, to keep them off her backs. Now? She looked at them.
“Can we sit?”
Montressa whispered. The eight sat down, all watching as, in the distance, Olesm marshaled the Council and some interested citizens of Liscor into playing a game of baseball. Grimalkin was on the other team with Relc and Klbkch. Ceria felt vaguely sorry for the Council, even as she watched Grimalkin staring at Klbkch. But that was background.
As the first pitch was thrown and Elirr swung one of the baseball bats, Ulinde spoke.
Everyone looked at her. The Selphid’s expression was bleak. Lost. Yvlon paused. She looked at Ceria and said nothing. Neither did Ksmvr, or Pisces.
“I’ve failed. I had to flee. I left my teammate’s body behind.”
“We had to run. If we’d stayed…I’m sorry, Beza. But I’m no hero.”
Palt spoke quietly. He smoked his cigar, looking at the Horns. He inclined his head to them. Ceria nodded back. So did Pisces. Beza’s tears rolled down her face.
“You should have left me. We should have protected Isceil.”
“How? The adult was too fast. It went for him because he was the most dangerous.”
The Centaur [Illusionist]’s voice was too reasonable, too calm. Ceria saw how furiously Palt was smoking the dreamleaf, but Beza didn’t. She rounded on him.
“We let him—”
“It was no one’s fault, Beza. There was nothing we could do. If it was anyone’s fault, it was mine. I couldn’t save him.”
Montressa whispered. She leaned on her staff. She looked pale, exhausted. Overused from too much spellcasting beyond her limits. Ceria knew how she felt. The [Aegiscaster] looked at Ceria, at Pisces.
She said not a word. But the hatred, the wild hate and fear in her eyes wasn’t there. She just looked tired and sad. None of the Wistram [Mages] said anything as Elirr struck a ball and sent it flying. The crack made some of the people sitting in the grass look up with interest, though, especially the Gnolls.
“I—didn’t like your friend. Isceil. But he did the right thing at the end.”
Yvlon spoke slowly. If it was—well, Ceria saw Ulinde look up. The Selphid spoke shortly.
“Don’t say that.”
The [Armsmistress] met the Selphid’s gaze.
“Don’t say it like that. Like he was just a…a…you didn’t know him. He was awful to you, but he was our friend. He was brave.”
Yvlon paused. Then she nodded.
“I’m sorry. You’re right. He didn’t run. But for him, and we might have all died.”
“‘Drakes don’t run’. He could have, but he didn’t. He stood and fought. Of all of us, the Creler feared him the most.”
Pisces murmured. Everyone nodded at that. After a while, Beza’s tears stopped. Palt looked at Yvlon’s arms. He brushed some ash off his clothes.
“You killed it. You’ve all changed.”
None of the Horns replied to that. After a moment, Palt looked ahead. Ksmvr glanced at him.
“What now? Do we continue our battle?”
“No. I’m done.”
Montressa stood up. She looked down at Pisces, then at Ceria. She shook her head.
“I’m done. I don’t know if I can ever forgive you, Pisces. Beatrice—she still hates you. But Palt has his deal. He’ll be hanging around Liscor.”
“The inn’s gone. Maybe Miss Erin will…”
“No. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’ll see. If anyone wants to come with me, I might…Palt? Ulinde? Beza?”
The Minotauress didn’t respond at first. Palt glanced back towards Erin.
“I have to stay for a bit, Montressa. Beza?”
“I—what are we going to do?”
“Keep going. Search. Go back? I don’t know, Beza.”
The Minotauress nodded.
“We have to deliver Isceil’s remains to his home.”
Palt and Montressa nodded.
“We’ll do that at least. Ulinde?”
The Selphid was quiet. She rose, her Gnoll body turning to look in the same direction as Palt. But not at Erin. The Selphid hesitated. Then she looked at her team.
“I’m going to quit. I’m going to join the Halfseekers.”
Ceria blinked. Montressa stared at Ulinde.
Beza began, but Ulinde stood up.
“Miss Ivirith forgave me. And it’s my dream. They need a [Mage], a dedicated spellcaster. Why not me? I could do it. Moore and Seborn said they’ll consider it. They’re rebuilding their team. If I can—”
She looked at the others, pleadingly. Palt exhaled slowly. His eyes were still on Erin.
“If you want to, go.”
Montressa leaned on her staff. She was just…she looked at Ceria.
“We should talk, before…”
Ceria stood up. Montressa nodded, looking relieved as the Horns rose with her. Palt hesitated, then he turned. He held out a hand.
“I misjudged you. Forgive me?”
He reached out to Pisces first. The [Necromancer] hesitated, but then he took Palt’s hand. Neither Beza nor Montressa did the same. Ulinde was already approaching the Halfseekers.
The Centaur shook Ceria’s hand. She nodded, looking again at Montressa. Beza’s horned head was in her hands. Silently, Ceria got up.
“What do we do now, Montressa?”
Beza whispered. Montressa just wiped at her eyes and watched as the Horns of Hammerad walked away. Palt blew a cloud of smoke that eddied into the air.
The baseball game was underway, and Octavia was smiling as she greeted the hooded shape that hopped out of the gate and made a beeline for her. Numbtongue and the [Alchemist] sat together and watched the game.
On the baseball pitch, Grimalkin was thinking over the logistics of baseball and the merits of the game. He casually caught a ball shooting at his face with a bare claw. And the spectators groaned.
Two on base, one out. The audience was filled. But they were not all together. Some of the Antinium had come out of the Hive and Yellow Splatters was organizing a team of Painted Soldiers and Workers. Bird was curled up into a sulking ball as Anand, Belgrade, and Pawn tried to cheer him up. He glanced up as the Horns passed by him.
Olesm was refereeing the game, but the others were sitting together. Erin, Lyonette, Mrsha, Krshia, Selys—a familiar sight. Mrsha was happily balancing, one foot on Krshia and Lyonette’s hands as they hoisted her up into the air. The Gnoll cub was giggling silently and reaching for Apista as Lyonette warned her to keep steady. But they’d catch her if they fell.
Still, it was to the Halfseekers that the Horns looked. And there was the one note of discontent. Jelaqua sat silently as Seborn and Moore argued. Ulinde was trembling in front of them.
“I—I have gold! And contacts at Wistram. I can be of use! I promise! I can put more into the team if you need me to—I could probably get an artifact if I asked—”
“That’s not the issue.”
Seborn growled. He was trying to prop himself up on a pillow. Moore gently tried to help him and the Drowned Man swatted at his hands.
“I’ll do it myself. Leave off, Moore.”
“What’s the problem, Seborn? You said we could use more members. And I think it’s worth a shot. I don’t mind being the other [Mage] on the team. I’d prefer another one, actually—”
“I’m not against Ulinde, you idiot. I’m for it. But I’m asking whether we’re a team, or a glorified bunch of [Layabouts]!”
The Drowned Man snapped. He looked at Jelaqua. So did Moore and the Horns. Ceria put a hand out to keep Ksmvr from walking over and joining the conversation. Erin and some of the others were not-so-secretly listening in as Seborn glared at Jelaqua.
“You’ve been dancing off to Pallass every damn day since you met that Dullahan.”
“Maughin. His name’s Maughin.”
“And is he a member of the Halfseekers or not?”
“I like him.”
Jelaqua’s expression was closed. The [Rogue]’s Human hand tightened on his bandaged side.
“And so you’re abandoning your team? For what? When the Crelers came through that door, where were you?”
“Seborn! That’s not fair!”
Moore looked shocked at the accusation as Jelaqua went still. Seborn scowled at his friend.
“Is it? We had to drag that damn door around for days. We’re going to Invrisil! We’re adventurers! Jelaqua is our Captain, our leader! Not some lovesick child! If we’re going to be a team and take on new members, I want to know we’re actually going to work, and that we have a leader I can respect. Otherwise, I’d rather go find work elsewhere.”
“You don’t mean that. That’s—Seborn!”
The [Green Mage] looked rattled. Ulinde’s expression became one of horror. Seborn looked at Jelaqua.
“I mean every word. I’m not going to wait for another week, much less a month. If Jelaqua can’t stay with us while we’re working, I’m out. She can take her time off however she pleases. But if we’re going north, we won’t be coming back to this inn every night!”
“But Jelaqua can come back if we’re nearby. She’s been gone a bit—”
The half-Giant shut up as Seborn pointed a finger at him.
“Stop taking her side. You’ve been just as annoyed as I have. What if we take a request that puts us a month away from Invrisil, Moore? Jelaqua has to make a choice. Her personal life or her team. Which is it?”
He looked at the [Iron Tempest]. Jelaqua was staring at the ground. Now, she paused. Moore opened his mouth, but then he slowly looked down. The two Gold-rank adventurers waited, looking at the Selphid. Ulinde stood, petrified, staring at her idols. And then Jelaqua looked up—
And burst into tears.
Moore, Seborn, the Horns, and everyone else froze. Jelaqua began to sob. She didn’t cry, but her body did everything short of producing liquid. She even wiped at her eyes, giving great, hiccupping sobs in her Gnoll body.
It was so unexpected that Mrsha began to cry as well.
Erin looked over uncertainly. Jelaqua was sobbing, and something was running from her nose and eyes. Not tears. She tried to speak, hiccupped, tried again.
“It—it’s not fair! It’s not fair!”
Seborn stared at Jelaqua, too taken aback for words. The Selphid turned her leaking, sobbing face to him.
“I just—I don’t want to go! I like him! He’s the first person I’ve found that I like. Why can’t I stay? It’s not fair!”
Moore and Seborn looked at each other. The half-Giant raised a hand and patted Jelaqua on the shoulder.
“There, there, Jelaqua. Seborn was being angry.”
“You damn traitor—”
“There’s the door, Jelaqua. We can work around Invrisil. You don’t have to avoid Maughin. It’s just—”
“I know! But I don’t want to quit the team, guys! I don’t want to—but I know we’ll have to leave! If we take a big mission we’ll be gone for months! And I can’t ask him—I just wanted to stay for a bit longer. But then the Crelers got you and Seborn and I nearly lost my guys—”
Jelaqua’s outpouring of liquid was rapidly stopping. The Selphid sniffed something up her nose and Ceria had to look away. She was making wet, bubbling sounds as she spoke.
“I—I’m sorry. I know, Seborn. I know. I wasn’t there for the fight, or the Crelers—we can take Ulinde. We can try. I just need to talk to Maughin. But it’s so—”
She began to hiccup. Loudly. Moore was staring at Jelaqua, helplessly. And enviously. Seborn looked up at the sky, around at the staring people. He glared and everyone looked away. At last, the [Rogue] growled.
“Fine. Shut up. We’ll do it.”
Moore and Jelaqua both looked at him. The [Rogue] looked like he was spitting nails. He nodded at Jelaqua.
“We’ll work in the south. Take jobs around Pallass. They have work anywhere we go.”
Jelaqua’s eyes widened. The [Rogue] lifted a finger.
“If you sail off on us when we’re working, I will quit. But we’ll take jobs, work from Pallass. We did it once. On two conditions. We’re getting steady work, not taking breaks for your little holidays. And second, we recruit. We try Ulinde out. And we find more teammates and—”
Jelaqua tackled him. The [Rogue] vanished with an oath before she could hit the stretcher where he was lying. Jelaqua grabbed him as he reappeared to the left, hugging and kissing him.
“I love you! Thank you, thank you, thank you—”
“Let go of me you damn idiot!”
Moore was beaming and smiling as he tried to hug the [Rogue]. Seborn drew his dagger and both he and Jelaqua let go. Ulinde stared at the three Gold-rank adventurers.
“D-does that mean…?”
“She’s not getting a full share of the bounty.”
Moore poked Seborn affectionately.
“Shut up. That’s right, Ulinde. You’re a member of the Halfseekers. We’ll try you out and—”
Ulinde’s screech made even the baseball players look up. She threw up her arms.
“I did it! Palt! Montressa! Beza! Did you hear? I’m a Halfseeker!”
Montressa smiled, but she ducked her head and her shoulders sagged. This was how it ended. This was how it began. As Ulinde rushed over, Erin got up.
The Selphid was smiling fit to burst. Seborn looked irate, but Moore was smiling too.
“I guess we’ll see you on Pallass’ side, Erin. We don’t want to tax your door. But we’ll be around.”
“That’s good. But—who’ll take the door to Invrisil?”
Erin looked at the Halfseekers. Seborn paused.
“Right. We left the door.”
“We could always finish delivering it. It’s not too far.”
“Let’s just hire Hawk to deliver it to Invrisil. We only didn’t do it to save money and because we were going that way.”
“Where is he? On delivery? We can take it out of Jelaqua’s share.”
The debate between the Halfseekers cut off as Ceria walked forwards. She raised a hand.
“I think it’s us.”
“What do you mean, Ceria?”
The half-Elf smiled at Erin. The young woman blinked as the Horns came over. While the Halfseekers had been debating, they’d had their own conversation. Now, Erin looked at her friends. It was Yvlon who began.
“It’s been a while since we finished the dungeon. And we always knew we wanted to go to Invrisil. I mean, we have to, in order to exchange our…”
She looked at the Halfseekers. Seborn nodded.
“We have contacts there. We’d have done it already if it wasn’t for someone jumping that Dullahan every time she—”
“Hey Seborn? You made your point. I’ll hit you right where the Creler bit you.”
Silence. Ksmvr took up where Yvlon had left off.
“I have never been to Invrisil. But it seems that this city is quite important for Gold-rank adventurers to visit, is that not right, Comrade Pisces?”
“It is certainly one of the major cities of Izril. And it would present us with a chance to update our equipment, purchase new spells—and work.”
The [Necromancer] was looking at Erin. The [Innkeeper] had a blank—perhaps deliberately blank—look in her eyes. Ceria concluded.
“And we’re done here. I mean, I’d love to stay. But we can’t. We need to…go. So if the Halfseekers aren’t going north, we will. We’ll take the door to Invrisil. It’s, what, only a bit away, right? We’ll go through the door, head north. Maybe do some work along the way, but we’ll open the door in Invrisil. And then…”
She looked at Erin. The young woman was looking at Ceria. At the Horns.
“We’ll stop by every chance we get. But we might be away for a while.”
Erin Solstice took the news silently. Mrsha popped up from Lyonette’s arms. She’d stopped crying, but now she began to howl.
“It had to happen someday. And we’re not going to be gone away forever. Erin—”
“No, I get it. But you’ll stay for a bit, right? You need to recover. And we need to have a farewell party! I can—”
Erin stopped. She slowly caught herself and looked around. So did the others.
The Wandering Inn was barely visible from the baseball field at the southern gate. It was to the east, a small building on a hill, past the tall walls of Liscor. Even from afar, Ceria saw how it was broken. The walls caved in. The floors crumbling.
She had seen it broken before, but never this badly. Erin trailed off. There was nowhere for the Horns to stay. Slowly, she looked around.
“You’re going to come back though, right?”
Ceria realized her eyes were stinging. She tried not to cry. This was silly! They’d always known this day would come. And she wasn’t even leaving yet. It was just her…aura. Conjuring a bit of snow.
That was all. Slowly, Erin looked at her friends. At Ksmvr, pausing, head turning towards the distance, already calculating provisions, supplies, thinking of his team. At Yvlon, feeling at her arms, smiling crookedly. Ceria, trying not to cry and failing as she looked at the young woman. And Pisces. He looked…tired. But happier than when they’d met. He bowed slightly as Erin looked at him.
“Thank you for taking care of a rather wretched fool, Miss Solstice. Erin. But we all must go. We shall come back. That is a promise.”
Ceria sniffed. Erin looked at them. And then she did cry. The last day of spring was a bright one, too bright and warm for tears. But they fell anyways. For good or ill. For that truth of truths.
He saw no light of day in his cell. Nor did he see his friends. Calruz the Minotaur could neither move nor stand. But he was alive.
“I’m alive. I’m still alive.”
The Minotaur wept and laughed, uncontrollably. Despair and a fierce relief ran through him. Despite it all! He had hurled himself into the heart of the inn, into death.
And it hadn’t been given to him. He could have died with honor. But they had found him. Erin had. And she’d pulled him back.
Into hell. Into damnation. Calruz saw a little rat scurry over him and nibble at one of his bandages. It fled as he laughed again, hysterically.
“You should have let me die. Why? Why didn’t she? Why didn’t you?”
Watch Captain Zevara sat on a little stool across from Calruz. She looked at him.
“I suppose because I’m a cruel person. Because I think you can still earn redemption. Because I don’t want you to die. As for Miss Solstice? She can be cruel.”
Calruz looked at her. The Minotaur laughed again, hoarsely.
“I leveled. I changed my class.”
The [Honorbound Prisoner] stared at the [Watch Captain]. She smiled, slightly. Then she looked past him.
“I can’t change your cell, Calruz. Nor can I pardon you for your crimes. Or prove your guilt or innocence one way or another. Not yet. But I can do what is in my power as Watch Captain. You won’t earn your freedom for risking your life once. Even against Crelers.”
“I just wanted honor. And death.”
The Minotaur whispered. Zevara paused.
“I know. But I can’t give it to you. I still see an innocent person in my cells. One day, I’ll prove it. Until then, I’m sentencing you to hard labor. To—certain death. Should the Watch be in need.”
Something like hope surfaced in the Minotaur’s eyes. Zevara looked at him.
“There’s always something. I can’t offer you anything else.”
“But you’ll let me fight? Let me—face odds like that again?”
“It’s a promise.”
The Drake looked at Calruz. Slowly, the Minotaur sat up. His body screamed. But his soul shouted louder. He looked at Zevara. And he recalled the nature of the Skill he had gained. His new class.
Maybe it was wrong. Or maybe he could believe he’d reclaimed something he thought lost forever. Perhaps it wasn’t for the system to decide. But for a second, Calruz let himself believe. He looked at Zevara and closed his eyes. The Skill burned its name into his mind, louder than the whispers. A promise.
[Death Before Dishonor].
After a while, Erin stopped crying. She sniffled, wiped at her eyes, and hugged Ceria fiercely. Then Yvlon. Pisces demurred until she squeezed him tight, and he hugged her back, gently.
Ksmvr was last. The Antinium looked at her, and she saw their history together. But she reached for him and he uncertainly spread his arms.
A furious voice broke the peaceful moment. Erin whirled. And she saw a furious person charging at Ksmvr.
Bird. The Worker rammed into Ksmvr, knocking the [Skirmisher] back. But true to his new Skills, Ksmvr just caught himself. He backed up as Bird attacked, all four arms swinging wildly.
“You! It is your fault! You—you bad Ksmvr! Idiot! Fool! All of you!”
He swung his arms wildly, at Yvlon. She raised an arm, but Ksmvr blocked Bird. The [Bird Hunter] flailed at Ksmvr as Erin, startled, cried out.
“Bird! What are you doing?”
Klbkch turned, his hand on his sword as the other Antinium and audience rushed forwards. Bird shouted, furiously snapping his mandibles together as he battered at Ksmvr.
“It is your fault! You should have killed the Crelers and not brought them to the inn! Now the inn is broken! My tower is broken! My tower is always broken!”
The enraged Worker hit Ksmvr with all four arms, slapping him on his back shell and head, battering him. Not hard, like, say, a Soldier might. More like a child throwing a tantrum than deadly force.
Even so, he was smacking Ksmvr on his injuries. Erin rushed over at the same time as Yvlon, Pisces, and Moore.
“Bird, stop that! Stop! Ksmvr didn’t call the Crelers! Stop hitting!”
They gently pried Bird away from the [Skirmisher]. He flailed at them. Then, abruptly, he sat down and curled up. Bird turned into a ball, ducking his head down, immobile. Much like Pawn once had. Erin hesitated.
“I want my tower. I am sad.”
The Antinium’s voice was small as he curled up. Erin knelt by him as the others drew back. She hugged him.
“Bird—I know you’re upset.”
“I am muchly upset. It is all gone. Why is it all gone?”
Erin looked at her inn. Mrsha began to sniff again, until Lyonette cuddled her. Erin’s voice was very soft. Her own heart hurt too as she stared at the distant inn. It was broken. But it was hers. She looked up at the Horns, standing around her. What mattered.
“Bird, sometimes bad things happen. But do you know what the good thing about the inn being wrecked is?”
“…You do not have to cook?”
“Exactly—no. It’s that we can make things better next time. Okay, Bird? Sometimes, things break. But you can make them better. So—so don’t be mad at Ksmvr, alright? It wasn’t his fault. Or anyone’s but the Crelers.”
Bird paused. After a long moment, his head popped back up.
He looked at Erin. She smiled.
“I know you’re very sad, Bird. So am I. But you should apologize.”
“Yes. I was very angry. But I did the wrong thing. I am sorry I hit you, Ksmvr.”
The Worker turned and looked at Ksmvr. The [Skirmisher] hesitated, but then he nodded. Yvlon was checking his bandages.
“I accept your apology, Bird. I have made mistakes as well. I should apologize for them too. Properly.”
He looked past Bird, at Pawn. At the Antinium, who stared at the once-Prognugator. Erin let out her breath in a sigh.
“After all this does anyone else want to pick a fight? Say something sad? Anyone? Now’s the time!”
She looked around. No one did. So, slowly, Erin got up.
“Why don’t we have a bit of fun, then? Come on, there’s baseball! And—and some of us might be going, but this is a celebration! Right?”
“I think it can be now.”
Ceria smiled. She stood with her team. And they smiled. The adventurers looked at the baseball game, at Grimalkin at bat and the outfielders standing deep. And Erin smiled. She laughed, and looked around. At Palt, waiting for a chance to talk to her, Selys, tickling Mrsha, Numbtongue, so relaxed and tired that he was sleeping in the shade.
A perfect moment. Or nearly. The Horns sat back down, and began talking about Invrisil with the Halfseekers. About the future. Some of the adventuring teams opined that they’d like to try baseball themselves. Grimalkin hit a baseball and snapped the bat he was holding like a twig. Ksmvr dove and caught the pop fly.
Even the Wistram [Mages] looked up. Beza took a bat when it was offered and stared at it. Something lit up in her eyes and she took a place in line and practiced a swing. Montressa looked at Pisces, and then turned to stare at the distant mountains, just thinking. Palt surreptitiously edged over to Lyonette, who was counting over the inn’s funds with Belgrade. Apista buzzed overhead as Liscor’s Council played baseball or retired, panting.
It was a perfect day. And summer was oncoming. But for the broken inn on the hill, you might have never known something had occurred. But for the pause sometimes on the faces of the living, a moment of silence, you’d never guess.
Why was it that the inn was such a source of danger? Perhaps it was cursed. Or maybe that was just the fate of inns. They were, after all, places where stories began and continued. The inn sat on the hill. Waiting.
After a while, someone entered it. A young woman. Not really a traveller. She sat down at a table, eying the collapsed second floor, the place where the basement was exposed. A bit of floorboard was hanging above her head—she avoided it, walked around a fallen pillar.
The Crelers were gone. And the inn had been swept, and the blood was mostly off the floors. But it was wrecked. So much so that Erin couldn’t imagine repairing it. That—that was probably a support beam, right? You couldn’t just replace that, surely.
Not even her [Grand Theater] Skill was working anymore. There wasn’t really a room for it to activate in. Erin looked around for a chair and table. Then she slapped her forehead.
“Duh. [Partial Reconstruction].”
She pointed, and a chair and table reassembled for her. Erin tried it on a few more tables and chairs. But it wouldn’t work on the broken floor, or the sagging ceiling in places. And she’d known that. She knew her inn was…
The young woman put her head down on the table and closed her eyes. Her inn was dusty. And she was so tired. She told herself that it didn’t matter. But in truth, it did. Not as much as her friends.
But it did. Who would ever lie about that? This was hers. And it was—breaking. But she would give it up again, a thousand times! In a heartbeat, to save a single one of the people who mattered to her!
Again, and again. In the silence, Erin Solstice closed her eyes. Far, far away, the people played baseball and smiled in the sunlight. But here, the [Innkeeper] closed her eyes. She was so tired. So Erin Solstice relaxed…and…slept…
“[Magical Innkeeper Level 40!]
[Conditions Met: Innkeeper → Awesome Innkeeper Class!]
[Skill – Inn: Unlimited Mana Pool obtained!]
[Skill – Kamehameha Punch obtained!] Whoo!”
Erin burst upright, waving her hands. She looked around wildly. Waiting, hoping for the magical voice.
But nothing came. So the young woman sat back, laughing and shaking her head. She looked up, struck by a thought.
“I wonder if there’s any popcorn left.”
She stood up, turned, and saw him. He stood in the kitchen’s doorway. Still as a statue. He’d been there the entire time, but she’d missed him at first. Now his eyes burned with purple light. The skeleton moved. He grinned as he spread his arms, welcoming her back. Home himself. At last.