(The Wandering Inn is on break until January 18th, or the 21st for public readers! Have a great New Year!)
He was known to some as the fifth most powerful [Lord] in the world. If you were doing a ranking, that was. If you looked at the most dangerous, most influential, and most high-level [Lords] the world over and made a list of the top five, he always appeared on the list.
Usually exactly in spot five, no matter your criteria. Because Lord Hayvon Operland did not stand out like, say, the [Lord of the Dance] of Terandria, Lord Belchaus Meron, who topped the lists for both eligibility and strategic genius. Lord Belchaus had held Terandria against foreign fleets for over a decade and his presence alone ensured that the coast where his fleets patrolled remained safe harbors even in wars.
Similarly, Lord Hayvon was rich beyond most mortal dreams. But not as rich as Yazdil Achakhei, the serpentine Emir of Chandrar, whose wealth wasn’t just beyond most mortal dreams, but immortal ones. He wasn’t the charismatic [Slave Lord] who was considered among the most intelligent men—or males—in the world. Cunning and intelligent.
No, fifth place was for Lord Hayvon. He was no Tyrion Veltras, rumored to be the best [Lord] in personal combat, or Lord Imor Seagrass, the self-styled [Stormlord Captain] who ruled over much of the sea with his vast armies that ensured trade. Lord Hayvon was simply a [Lord] in service to the Blighted King of Rhir.
Fifth. Largely boring compared to the rest. He had no unique quirks people liked to talk about. No one would remember his name outside of Rhir if you spoke it in most circles.
And yet—fifth. Fifth most important, and of Rhir, the greatest of the nobility. What did such numbers mean? If one were to tell Lord Hayvon he was fifth-best, he wouldn’t bat an eye. He didn’t care about such things.
What Lord Hayvon did care about was the sight from his personal mansion’s balcony. It overlooked a series of fields, extremely close to his home. Not just close in that ‘you could see it if you really squinted’, but close as in if you hopped past the tiny garden, you’d be knee-deep in wheat.
The [Farmers] grew their crops extremely close to the Operland mansion, where most of the nobility would prefer them out of sight and out of mind. But Lord Hayvon did not believe in wasting space. Rhir had nothing to waste and vanity was an extravagance he could not afford. He spoke absently as he watched the sun dawning over the fields. Men and women were already hard at work, cutting down a spring harvest and replanting quickly for multiple summer harvests.
“You know, I was something of a [Historian] in my youth. I had an endless passion for literature. I even gained the class. When my father found out, he beat me within an inch of my life. My mother would have done the same if she’d been first, I have no doubt. I would too, had I the ability to reach back in time and strike myself. Sometimes I wonder if Nereshal might indulge me—but you understand my point. It is a waste of a class, for a [Lord] of Rhir.”
No one responded. But Hayvon had an audience. Three people stood on the balcony behind him. The [Lord] went on, watching a [Farmer] with a scythe clear a huge radius with a single swing.
“These days, I don’t level in the class. It was removed by his Majesty, and if I do indulge my love of history and understanding the world, it is in my [Lord] class. All in service of Rhir. Still, betimes I think that if I had not been born into my position, I might have made a fairly decent [Historian], or perhaps a [Poet]. I have little time for such pursuits. But I do keep up with worldly affairs.”
Silence. Hayvon paused. Two people were standing behind him. One was seated.
“Yesterday, Rhir’s courts received word that a Silver-rank team had earned the title of Hell’s Wardens. They slew an Adult Creler in battle. A Silver-ranked team. Of course, his Majesty celebrated the news. I myself broke open a fine vintage. Can you imagine? An Adult, felled by Silver-rank adventurers?”
Someone moved slightly. Lord Hayvon nodded.
“A bit of history. You may be aware, High Magus, that the Crelers were a product of the blight that afflicts Rhir. Our foul continent has been settled, lost, retaken—many times. The last time it was lost, the world believed it was better to abandon Rhir to the blight, rather than attempt to retake it. That was about six thousand years ago.”
He paused. Again, no one responded. Lord Hayvon sighed, his eyes going north and west, his voice growing dark. In the distance lay one of Rhir’s walls. The second wall of Rhir that few enemies had ever crossed. Four sheltered the Blighted Kingdom from invasion, and a fifth was being built. Attempting to be built. Hayvon went on.
“The world left Rhir’s blight alone, cursing this land, this hell to isolation. And for that, it paid the price a thousand fold over when the Crelers emerged. For eight hundred years we fought the Creler Wars, before we drove them back. They devoured entire nations, reduced the world to a dark age. But when the Crelers were defeated, it was in a time of legends.”
Lord Hayvon half-turned his head. He smiled, clenching his fist.
“Imagine it. For all the Crelers destroyed, legends rose to fight them. Over eight hundred Silver-rank teams killed Adult Crelers during the Creler Wars. What we think of as Gold-rank Adventurers were commonplace. People leveled like they breathed. There were documented cases of individuals passing Level 80. One of them was the first Blighted King, who settled Rhir and created our kingdom that such a threat might never come to pass again.”
He waited, but the seated figure made no sound. Lord Hayvon sighed.
“So. That brings me to my point. Do you know, High Magus, what impresses me after all this time? Slaying an Adult Creler, certainly. But wheat. Growing wheat impresses me.”
He gestured at the [Farmers] below.
“You may argue the point. But growing wheat is a task. You cannot do it overnight, even with all the Skills in the world. In a week? If you had magic, Skills, everything at your side, perhaps. But growing plants is far more difficult than say, flying. It is not difficult to fly. Anyone may fly. Like so.”
So saying, Lord Hayvon stepped up and into the air. His feet left the ground. And his boots shone. Lord Hayvon’s Pegasus boots, made of ancient hide from the very animals and decorated with feathers, carried him up into the air. He soared higher with each step, then walked forwards.
He took a short lap of eighteen steps, walking off the open balcony and into the tiny garden that was his nod to decadence, and back around to step neatly onto the stone railing. He spread his arms, looking at his audience. The two [Mages] standing next to her didn’t move. And the seated High Magus never spoke. Hayvon paused, then stepped off the railing and landed lightly on the ground. He went on.
“Flying is simple. As simple as buying the right artifact, or magic spell. But wheat? Corn? It takes the highest-level [Mages] to create magical food, and that is a poor substitute for the real thing. A man may starve on food born of a cornucopia artifact if he eats only of it each day. He can literally burn more energy than the food grants him. I have seen it.”
He shook his head.
“There are five artifacts in this world capable of creating food on par with what can be grown in the soil. Five. And a Level 30 [Farmer] can out produce all but one of them. Think on that, High Magus. The food you and I grow fat on cannot be conjured, and in times of famine, it cannot be bought.”
He waited. She stared at him, sweat rolling down her forehead, although it wasn’t warm yet. Lord Hayvon turned back to the fields.
“I have no end of respect for the [Farmers] in my domain. No—in all of Rhir. For not only must they grow food in this blighted soil of our continent, they must safeguard it from plague, raids, even monsters and insects sent by the Demons. They grow food in hell, to keep the kingdom safe. Thus, I think of them as valiant as [Soldiers], in their own way. Emisa?”
One of the two [Mages] standing next to the High Magus lifted a bowl. The High Magus flinched as Lord Hayvon turned back. He plucked a small, wriggling shape from the bowl and regarded it with disgust. It was a tiny caterpillar, hairy, small—with an oversized head. It had a very large mouth, tiny, nubs of legs. It wasn’t a cute caterpillar. Lord Hayvon showed it to the High Magus.
“These are one of the plagues the Demon King has sent against us, in ages past. One of his Deathless created it. The Vorepiller is a cowardly bug. It flees everything, and it does not evolve. But it reproduces faster than any species and it is highly inedible, such that other insects and birds will not eat it. The Demon King unleashed them in our fields and Rhir nearly starved during that decade, oh, around three thousand five hundred and two years back. 2118 Zekol, by Rhir’s calendars. Have you ever seen one, High Magus? Or have you never seen our fields battling these infestations?”
She said not a word. Lord Hayvon dropped the Vorepillar on her hands. It joined the hundreds of tiny caterpillars squirming over her hands. Her arms. Eating the High Magus alive. Lord Hayvon stared down at the insects chewing into her flesh. They had torn away the first layer of skin. And they were burrowing deeper, eating…everything.
The mass of Vorepillars fled as one of the two [Mages] silently brushed them away and applied a healing potion to the exposed flesh. It regrew in an instant, and the hungry caterpillars fell back on the spot, devouring the woman anew. Hayvon looked at High Magus Laisa. She was sweating, her face white, but her lips were sealed. Lord Hayvon patiently studied her.
“You will not speak? High Magus Arneit confessed many things long before this point.”
“I have nothing to say. Lord Operland.”
High Magus Laisa spoke through pale lips. Lord Hayvon shook his head.
“You stand accused of high treason against the Blighted Kingdom, High Magus. You and six others! Six of our High Magi! Tell me why, at least.”
The woman opened her mouth. She bit back a sound of pain and snarled.
“Why? You need to ask, Hayvon? Performing the ritual again is madness! Sheer madness! One million lives! For a fraction of what? Children? The Blighted King has lost his mind.”
The two [Mages] standing next to Laisa moved. One nearly struck her, but Lord Hayvon shook his head. He stared down at Laisa and then turned away. Back to the fields. He spoke, absently.
“Do you know what happens when the Demon King marshals his forces, High Magus Laisa? It looks nothing like the stalemate of today. And you have fought on our front lines. But when his Deathless take to the field, armies die.”
“So you don’t care that a million unborn children will die?”
Laisa snapped. Lord Hayvon rounded on her. And heat entered his voice.
“I care. Do you think I would not? Do you think His Majesty does not? But he and I would sacrifice anything to end this war. To finally drive the Demons back! Wouldn’t you?”
“Not like this. Are we Demons? I thought his Majesty was better than the Demon King, Lord Operland.”
The High Magus glared at him. Lord Hayvon drew breath to respond as his hand twitched towards his side. Someone opened the doors to the balcony.
“Lord Operland? The guests have arrived.”
Lord Hayvon paused and addressed the servant.
“Have Sir Richard and his company delay our ride a moment longer. I shall be with them shortly. What of Sir Tom?”
“Retired to his quarters already, Lord Operland.”
“I see. Leave him be unless he requests anything.”
The [Lord] waved the servant away. Then he turned to the High Magus.
“High Magus Laisa, you would have the Blighted Kingdom sheathe its sword rather than attack the enemy. I have a son and a young daughter. I know what the ritual entails. But I would use it. I have ordered tens of thousands of men and women to their deaths with a single word. No doubt, I have overseen the death of a million souls at least.”
Lord Hayvon stared at his hands. Scarred from battle. He shook his head.
“What are a million lives unborn compared to the horrors the Demons will inflict on us? What makes this the step too far, High Magus?”
She said nothing. Laisa’s lips were compressed as the worms ate deeper once more. Hayvon paused. He leaned forwards and the cowardly Vorepillars fled even his shadow.
“Tell me where the other [Mages] are hiding. And what they fear more than Demons, that they have rebelled against the kingdom.”
For a moment, the High Magus seemed like she might keep silent. But pain—or anger—loosened her tongue. She shouted back.
“We fear tearing the world apart. We fear a spell that should not work! Magic that has no origin and rips a hole in a void we cannot even sense! We fear—”
She paused, breathing hard. Her eyes went to the door and she whispered.
“We fear that child’s madness. That [Clown]. And another world filled with weapons that can sunder islands! We fear the Blighted King’s ambitions, Lord Operland.”
“You have lost faith with him?”
“He is consumed. Impaired! Nereshal should have never let him live so long! He will lead the Blighted Kingdom to death! You must convince him to change his mind! The ritual—”
Lord Hayvon turned away. He waved a hand and one of the [Mages] gagged Laisa with a spell. Hayvon shook his head.
“Dead gods. The Fool’s madness is spreading. His Majesty is the finest ruler Rhir has had in centuries generations, Laisa. And this ritual is no act of desperation or foolishness. It is a chance.”
He pointed back at her.
“You are only delaying the inevitable. Your fellow [Mages] will not leave Rhir.”
He nodded at the [Mages].
“Question High Magus Laisa under truth spell. If she refuses to answer—leave her in the care of an [Interrogator]. One will have arrived from the capital.”
“Yes, Lord Operland.”
They left. Lord Hayvon didn’t say anything more. He just watched the [Farmers] at work. In time, his eyes fell on the one with the scythe. An old man, well into his seventies. And yet, his body was hale. He cleared an entire field in minutes, his scythe clearing a far larger arc—nearly three times what the instrument should reach—with each swing.
A [Servant] reacted to Lord Hayvon’s words. He pointed.
“That [Farmer] with the scythe. Inquire as to his health. His means. Let it be known that if he wishes it, he shall retire to the capital and live in comfort for the rest of his days. Or even further. He and his family will obtain passage to any city in the world, and they shall have gold for the rest of their days. I remember him as a boy. He has served Rhir for over five decades. If he wishes it, let him rest, in this continent or any other.”
The [Servant] paused as Lord Operland raised a hand. Hayvon looked at the old [Farmer].
“And if he wishes to stay—take his name. And all of my estates shall break for three days of feasting after the spring harvest in his honor. It is a time of plenty, after all.”
“Yes, Lord Operland.”
Lord Hayvon listened to the door close. Fifth best, yes. And all that entailed. His armies stretched beyond sight when he called them. His wealth was beyond mortal measure. He was one of the blades of the Blighted King. The fifth-most powerful [Lord] in the world.
“Flying is so easy. But wheat is terribly difficult to grow. Far easier to gather a hundred thousand men than feed them.”
It was a time of plenty. The fields of Operland were rich and bountiful. The [Lord] looked down on them. No plague of Vorepillars had struck them, no airborne attacks. No Demon raids—Rhir bloomed for once. And yet…he spoke softly.
“Let the harvests grow golden,
And the fields burst with plenty,
Let the [Farmers] sharpen their scythes
And the bellies of old and young grow fat.
Let the world rejoice and lie replete for a moment,
And peace hang in the air,
But never let the war forges grow dark,
Or lay down the arms you bear.
For this age is but passing,
And peace remains a fleeting breeze,
Stoking the embers of strife,
War ever beckons, and soon
Smoke shall blot out the sun.
And arrows fall in place of rain, while
Demons stalk out of Rhir’s blight. So be watchful;
Dark will come that night.”
“It needs work.”
Lord Hayvon turned away as a [Servant] found the old [Farmer]. The [Lord] turned, and his gaze went north again. He stared towards the blight, the land of Demons. And then he turned. The children from another world awaited. And there was much left to do. But surely—he felt it in his breast.
Hope. Lord Hayvon murmured as he walked away.
“Someday soon, Rhir will know true peace.”
Daly had heard it said that some part of Baleros was always at war. And sometimes it seemed that way. Mercenary companies fought each other over every part of the rich continent. And the jungles were alive with monsters. Baleros was unsettled, at least insofar as colonized landmass. It was the largest, the most unclaimed, the wildest still of all the continents.
And he hated it. He hated the way people died to monsters, how they killed each other so—casually. He hated it, and loved the magic, the sights he could never dream of. He loved the fact that there was a world where mysteries still remained.
He would have been happy, if he was the only one here. But he wasn’t. Daly sat in the conference room of the United Nations company. He was representing a concept from Earth. A dream that had never been fully realized there. And here—well, there was some irony in it. Because the united nations of Earth, all that they had gathered, was small. Weak.
Young men and women sat in the chairs around the room. Ken, Luan, Paige, Aiko, Siri, Kirana, and lastly, most importantly, Geneva. The [Doctor] sat with drink in hand. A stiff one. Daly could have used it himself.
“You’re sure it’s real, Geneva?”
Paige was speaking, looking shaken. Geneva took a long drink and regarded the paper again. She held it up and Ken saw the beautiful wax seal glittering in the light. Magic. Magic wax. Who’d have thought.”
“It’s real. I could get it tested, but I’m pretty sure it’s real.”
The [Expert Rower] shifted in his seat.
“I told you all, I talked to the Minotaur, yeah? It’s real. Trust me—they can pay however much they want. The Minotaur had more gold than I’ve ever seen in my life, and he was a student.”
The company sitting around the table nodded. Daly was still in a bit of shock about how much gold Luan had brought back. Enough to solve the daily expenses of the United Nations company…forever. Pretty much. Already, they’d upgraded their headquarters, bought all the amenities Paige and Kirana wanted so much. Some of the people working hard jobs could quit and look for better ones. And Geneva’s clinic was fully stocked.
The only thing Luan’s gold couldn’t buy was magical gear for the Bushrangers. The crossbow-wielding team was set up with leather armor, good steel—but no magic. Even so, the money he’d brought in was amazing.
And more was on offer. Aiko looked at Geneva. The young woman from Japan hesitated and raised her hand.
“So, this letter. Will you please explain it again, Geneva? I did not understand parts of it.”
The [Doctor] paused, and someone else spoke for her. Okasha. The Selphid moved Geneva’s lips, speaking in a different inflection. More friendly, deeper. Daly was used to it.
“It’s an invitation to have Geneva demonstrate her techniques to the students in the academy at Elvallian, Aiko. The academy run by the Titan of Baleros. One of the most powerful people in the entire continent. He’s offering her gold to do it. Lots of gold.”
“Not that much gold.”
“Says the City Runner who brought back a heaping bagful.”
Luan grinned as Siri looked at him. Ken smiled too, but he was looking at the letter as Geneva passed it to him.
It had come through official channels, not from Venaz personally. The note was signed by someone called Peclir Im, and there was even a travel expenses fund that Geneva could call upon at the Merchant’s Guild if she accepted. It was…big.
“This is it. Isn’t it? This is what we’ve been waiting for. Geneva can show her medical techniques to the world. I mean—this is huge. Right? Why are we nervous?”
Paige came out and said it. Everyone nodded, but they were disturbed. Siri murmured.
“It’s the Forgotten Wing Company. One of the four Great Companies. It’s—well, it’s big, Paige. When they go to war, it’s like five nation’s worth of armies fighting at once.”
“But they’re not fighting.”
“But they’re huge. And they can be dangerous. Remember the Roving Arrow company? The Razorshard Armor company? They can do what they want.”
Daly spoke up quietly. Luan nodded as the others grew sober.
“I told you what I saw at Daquin. That was a—a game, and people died. At least six, I heard. They brought in warships.”
“Tulm the Mithril.”
Ken murmured. The Japanese [Negotiator] looked around. Luan’s return had hardly been quiet. People had seen him playing at Daquin. Even now, Dullahans kept stopping Luan, wanting to buy him a drink to hear all about the Titan’s game and his role in it. And Tulm the Mithril. The [Rower] nodded.
“When Daly says they’re dangerous, I agree. But it is a big opportunity. And as I said, I saw the Titan of Baleros.”
“He’s tiny! A Lilliputian, right?”
“I have no idea what that is, Paige. But yeah, a small man. Only—”
Luan gestured with his hand. Daly shook his head.
“No wonder the buggers at the bar laughed their asses off when I asked how tall he was. Bastards.”
Siri grinned. The Swedish [Ranger] paused, then looked around.
“All we have to do is say yes or no. That’s simple. The harder part is—the Mage’s Guild.”
Daly nodded. All eyes turned to him.
“Daly, will you tell us what you saw again?”
The Australian man took a seat. He shrugged at Ken.
“Like I said, Ken. Nothing much. I saw an American flag in the Mage’s Guild. Just…over the counter. Someone had made one. I think I played it well when I asked the [Receptionist] about it. But I also think she took down my name and details.”
Silence. Dead silence around the table. Kirana was nervously clasping her hands together. The [Housekeeper] looked at Paige. Paige, their [Engineer], looked at Geneva. The [Doctor] was frowning.
“Are you sure it wasn’t a coincidence? Maybe there are other flags—”
“With fifty stars and stripes? Believe me, I counted, Geneva. You can look yourself. But—be careful. That [Receptionist] wanted me to talk with the Guildmaster. She’s on the lookout for people from Earth.”
“But what does that mean? Does that mean Wistram knows about us? Are there people at Wistram? Wherever that is?”
“I hear Wistram is…different. I hear many good things about Wistram. And bad things. The war with Tiqr, for instance.”
“What about it?”
A hand. Paige cut off Ken’s reply as she looked around the meeting of the company’s leadership.
“Ask Ken later. Look, the flag tells us one thing. There are more people from Earth. They’re at Wistram. We know they’re at Wistram. The question is: are they there against their will? Do we trust the academy? Do we trust…anyone?”
She looked at the letter as Aiko passed it to her. Paige picked it up, speaking quietly.
“What do we do if Geneva goes? Tell this Titan about Earth? It’s one thing to get attention on Geneva’s medicine. Another to give anyone what we know.”
She looked at Daly for a moment and he paused, his face blank. Luan sighed.
“We have to do something. We can’t be alone.”
“We’re too weak. If another company attacks Talenqual and beats the Featherfolk Brigade—we can’t even kill most Silver-rank monsters, let alone Gold. The Bushrangers, I mean.”
Siri agreed. She looked at Daly and he grimaced. His hand went to the pocket crossbow unconsciously as his trigger finger twitched. But even the bigger one wouldn’t go through a giant serpent’s hide. But…
“That’s not exactly true, Siri.”
Daly looked up sharply. The young man stared warningly at Paige. But she was staring back. He shook his head warningly as Geneva, Luan, the others turned to her questioningly. Siri paused.
“What do you mean, Paige?”
“It’s time I told you something.”
The young woman met Daly’s eyes. He felt his heart skip. He opened his mouth, but Paige was already talking. And it was a relief. So Daly waited.
Paige rose. The [Engineer] looked around. At Ken, who understood other people, who kept them together. Luan, their champion athlete. At Daly, who led the armed branch of the company. And finally at Geneva.
Geneva, who some still called the Last Light of Baleros. Paige’s eyes were filled with guilt. She spoke slowly, looking at the [Doctor].
“Everyone, I—changed my class. I leveled up thanks to some work I’ve been doing. So I gained—I think they call it a class consolidation.”
The table erupted in gasps. Daly blinked. He hadn’t heard of this! He stared at Paige.
“Isn’t that a sign you’re gaining power? What level are you, Paige?”
“It’s amazing! Why didn’t you say anything earlier? We have to have a party!”
Aiko clapped her hands together. Paige tried to smile. It failed.
“Don’t…celebrate. Just yet. I gained my new class…because I’ve been experimenting hard. With weapons. From our world. I…Daly?”
She looked at him. Daly felt all eyes turn to him. He looked around. Luan was staring at Daly. Ken looked confused. But Geneva—the [Doctor]’s gaze pierced him. She knew. He met her eyes, looked away.
“I asked Paige to work on some weapons for the company. For the Bushrangers. To fight monsters. Or people.”
“Weapons? You don’t mean the crossbows, do you?”
Geneva’s voice was low. Intense. She stared at Daly, then Paige. The [Engineer] murmured.
“This is my new class.”
She lifted a hand, placed it on a table. Spoke a Skill. Daly saw black powder fall on to the table, from her palm. Just a bit. Just enough to make a small mound. But he recoiled fast.
The others just stared for a moment. Then the tang of the powder filled the air. Some, like Ken and Aiko, still didn’t get it. But Luan shot back in his chair. Geneva rose, staring. Paige looked at the powder. Then she looked up.
“[Blackpowder Engineer]. I can make gunpowder. A tiny bit. Every single day. With a Skill. And I can make more out of the ingredients. I figured out the recipe. Daly and I have been working and we’ve created grenades. Bombs.”
Dead silence. Kirana froze. Siri rose, staring at Daly. But it was Geneva—the [Doctor] looked at Daly.
“You made gunpowder?”
The young man nodded. He met Geneva’s eyes. The [Doctor]’s look went beyond betrayal. She stared at him and he wondered if she could see his soul. But even so. Daly spoke, looking at her, around the table.
“I did. I asked Paige, so it’s on me. But—I’ve seen what the world has to offer. If I had a tank at our disposal, I’d still sleep uneasy. We need gunpowder. To fight.”
“You’re bringing guns into this world?”
“Not. Yet. Just bombs.”
The table erupted into shouts. Geneva was just staring. Ken was looking around. Aiko looked horrified. Kirana was backing away as Siri exploded to her feet, shouting furiously. Luan got up, staring at Daly.
Daly bellowed. The room fell silent. He looked around. Then at Geneva. The [Doctor] was still looking at him. Just looking. And Daly wondered if he’d taken away her smile again. But even so.
“Listen up. We can’t go back in time. We’ve got an offer from the Titan. Wistram’s got people from earth. And we have gunpowder. The cat’s out of the bag. Now, let’s talk about what happens next.”
Flos Reimarch liked balconies like he liked thrones. He could take them or leave them, but he had to admit, they did give a view. But he wasn’t much for pontificating.
“Look! Another group of my people! There, Orthenon!”
“I see them, your Majesty.”
The [Steward] stood next to his King. Flos of Reim was doing what he loved: watching his people. In this case, his people returning.
From far and wide they were coming. Across Chandrar’s arid land. People. Citizens who claimed allegiance to the King of Destruction. Flos’ proclamation of peace had sparked a migration.
It had been hard-won. Tiqr had fallen. But the King of Destruction had kept to his vow, when every nation had been prepared for him to break his word. And because he had, his people had come.
Neither Flos nor Orthenon were using any sight-enhancing artifacts, so the distant group was hard even for Orthenon to count.
“It seems like a group of ten thousand, your Majesty. I shall send riders to appraise their condition. And they must be settled, at least temporarily. Perhaps in Hellios or Germina?”
His words were as always, crisp, precise. And pointed. Flos ignored the look as well.
“In time, Orthenon. But they must come here first. They are my people. They have travelled here for me. Should I not greet them?”
The [Steward] sighed, but he didn’t argue with that point. Flos was smiling, with pure, genuine happiness.
“Orthenon, my horse. I’ll ride out to greet them.”
“Your Majesty, it would be more dignified to wait for their arrival.”
“It would honor them, my Lord. Think of your position as it affects them. Do the service of greeting them as they would will it.”
The King of Destruction paused. Orthenon heard the female voice and turned his head. Gazi the Omniscient grinned, two of her four eyes on Flos, the other two inspecting the far-off band. She looked at Orthenon and he gave her a grudging nod.
“Hrmf. I suppose you’re right, Gazi.”
Flos looked displeased, but he acquiesced. He stood on his balcony, resting his scarred arms on the stonework as he stared at the approaching group. Some were moving faster towards Reim than the others now. The [King] blinked as he stared. Then he looked at Gazi.
“Gazi—do you see—”
The half-Gazer only smiled. Flos made a sound.
“What is it?”
Orthenon looked at Gazi, keenly aware of how good her four lesser eyes were, never mind her injured main eye. The [Scout] grinned.
“Armored troops. Look.”
She pointed out a fast-moving group, all on foot, surging ahead of the rest. Orthenon saw Flos’ eyes widen. He breathed.
“What? Are you sure?”
Even the [Steward] looked astonished. Gazi nodded. Flos was staring at the fast-moving group of about a hundred or so.
“At least a company of them. How did they abandon their contract…?”
“They must have split from the main army.”
Orthenon smiled, despite himself. One of the finest infantry groups in the world was marching straight towards the capital. The [Steward] could even hear their chanting from afar. He wondered if they’d brought their death drums. With even a hundred, they could…
Flos’ exclamation made the [Steward] look up. The King of Destruction had seen another sight, another group moving nearly as fast as the armored [Soldiers]. He pointed.
“Look! Orthenon! Look! They’ve made the journey!”
Orthenon saw. And this time, he realized that the group travelling weren’t as far away as he thought. Flos spread his arms wide. They were overtaking the Rustängmarder with ease.
“My old friends! How did they pass as refugees?”
“Maybe no one dared to stop them.”
Gazi murmured. The three watched as the second group strode towards Reim. Faster than even the marching infantry. There were actually more of them than the company of soldiers. And they were laughing, shouting as they pointed at the citadel. Some of them were close to the gates, now. They saw Flos and a roar came from them.
Half-Giants. Some as tall as sixteen feet high! [Nomads], [Travellers]. And—warrior classes too. One of them raised her hand and bellowed a greeting up at Flos. He laughed and shouted back.
“King of Reim!”
The bellow came from the famous band, one of the last groups of half-Giants in the world, who could travel even the Great Desert, Zeikhal. Flos laughed and spread his arms, welcoming them.
“With the Nomads of Sky and a company of the Rustängmarder, we could hold an entire stretch of our borders. Assuming the Nomads are willing to fight entirely. We will have to speak with the Tallest Strider—”
The [Steward] was revising his estimates of their war strength. Flos flapped a hand at him.
“Oh, hush, Orthenon. Let me savor the moment. There are children with them! They’ve grown, see?”
“Thanks to you, my Lord. It seems time has only helped that.”
“Open the larders, Orthenon!”
“We will have to.”
The [Steward] sighed. He massaged his forehead. But Flos’ mood put a smile on even Orthenon’s face. The King of Destruction sighed. He paused as the Nomads of the Sky began to enter the city. He waved, but then turned to his two vassals.
“You see, Orthenon. My proclamation of peace is bearing more fruit. At cost. But it grows Reim.”
“Yes, your Majesty. But so many numbers will strain Hellios, Germina, and Reim’s ability to produce to the limit. Even the [Edict of Bloom] might struggle to grow enough. Even with the rains.”
“And yet, now I have an army large enough to challenge even Nerrhavia. Not every nation, but a proper army, Orthenon. What I lack now are more of my vassals. And arms, artifacts for my officers! They will come. There are dungeons to be plundered, stashes of artifacts—my vassals are more difficult. Many are still far removed from Reim, and they cannot march to me without being attacked. Some may need to be convinced to rejoin me. Or simply rehired. That is the task before us.”
The half-Gazer raised one brow. Flos laughed.
“It makes you feel twenty years younger, eh, Gazi? Why not? Mars can walk in front! But I shall need armor and artifacts, even if Nawalishifra can produce a Naq-Alrama blade for me. That is not all, either.”
He paused. And then he looked at Orthenon.
“Last night, I received a…message of inquiry from a potential ally. Reim is not completely alone, and with Khelt to watch our flank, we are increasingly well-set.”
The [Steward]’s brows snapped together. Flos waved a hand, and Gazi’s eyes all spun, checking for secret spells or listeners. Even so, the [King] lowered his voice.
“Later. But as I say, Reim is increasingly well-placed. All that remains is to strengthen our hand. And…Amerys.”
He paused. Orthenon saw a flash of discontent pass over the King of Destruction’s face. The [Steward] thought now was a good time to bring up another point.
“There is another factor I would like to bring up, my King. Hence my return to the capital. Takhatres reports that the Empire of Sands has pulled back multiple armies and [Mage] battalions. His tribe has begun taking casualties.”
Flos grimaced. He looked back at the approaching lines of refugees.
“Tell him to buy me the summer if he can do so without losing his tribe. The summer, Orthenon. And I will have a position to fight the Empire of Sands from. How far has it grown?”
“By summer’s end, it may be half as large as Nerrhavia’s Fallen. And its armies are gaining in level rapidly, my King.”
Gazi looked at Orthenon. The [Steward] folded his arms.
“That is not how I would describe it, Gazi. Reim must consolidate its power. The only thing protecting us is distance—”
“And Takhatres. Let him hold the Empire of Sands at bay as long as he can, Orthenon. I must prepare Reim. Or it will shatter in the first true conflict.”
There was no denying that. Orthenon bowed. Flos nodded and turned away. He grew pensive, and he stared north. And east. As if he could see…his voice was low.
“Amerys. I have sent letters to Wistram, Orthenon, but I have no strength abroad. Yet I must see her. If it is her choice to remain, I would hear it from her. The last of my Seven is needed. All of you are. But if it is her choice—”
“She would not abandon you, your Majesty.”
Gazi murmured. Flos nodded.
“Not the Amerys I knew. So then—what? Wistram feigns ignorance, but I have no patience for lies and petty politics. They have Amerys. So—Orthenon.”
He turned his head. The [Steward] smiled coldly.
“Your Majesty’s will?”
The King of Destruction paused. And then he spoke, calmly.
“Publically—yes, publically—[Message] the Iron Vanguard. The Seer of Steel, or the Mithril—ask them how much the Iron Vanguard would ask to take Wistram.”
Gazi’s brows rose. Orthenon considered the state of the treasury. He opened his mouth, and Gazi interrupted.
“I have a better idea, my lord. One that need not beggar Reim?”
Flos’ cold look vanished. He looked at Gazi and raised one eyebrow.
“Oh? Then I’ll hear it, Gazi.”
“Later, my Lord. Out of public?”
“Of course. Hold on asking the Iron Vanguard, Orthenon. They’re the only ones with a navy, aren’t they? A pity.”
The King of Destruction looked at Gazi and she smiled her enigmatic smile. Orthenon sighed. He looked at Gazi, and then at the King of Destruction.
“One question, your Majesty? You will have your armies, and your vassals and perhaps even magic and artifacts. But you have sworn peace. You have no cause to declare war, even on the nations that brought down Tiqr.”
Flos paused. He sighed, drumming his fingers on the railing. He shook his head as he looked out at his people.
“I do not need to declare war, Orthenon. I think, perhaps I fear, that I will have more than enough reason soon enough. After all, this is Chandrar. Now, come. I must greet my people.”
He smiled, ruefully. His hair blew in the dry breeze as he turned.
“This should prove to be a most interesting summer.”
Three of them greeted her. The shackled, bound prisoner didn’t respond at first. Only when one of them called her name again did she raise her head.
“Ah. Feor. Naili. Viltach. Back again?”
She grinned. The three Archmages of Wistram paused. Feor, the half-Elf of two hundred years, Naili, the Star Lamia, and Viltach, the Archmage of nobility in Terandria. He, at least, was Human, like Amerys.
But Viltach had none of her intensity in his gaze. They stopped before the magical barrier. Feor spoke slowly.
“Amerys, we are told you have refused to eat for the last week. You must eat.”
“I’m too weak. Feed me.”
“You bit off the last [Mage]’s fingers. Poor Teligrain didn’t deserve that.”
Naili leaned on her staff, looking at Amerys with interest. And wariness. The former Archmage grinned.
Vilatch’s voice was harsh, impatient. He stared at Amerys, as if she was beneath him. Ignoring the magical wards drawn around her, the antimagic field in her cell, the physical chains and bindings wrapping her.
“You won’t get out of here by resisting. If you starve yourself, we’ll simply be forced to feed you. Be reasonable. If you accept—”
Amerys spat. It was a good shot—the glob of spit hit the force field in front of his face and Viltach recoiled. She laughed as the Archmage reddened. Naili hid her own smile as Viltach cursed at her.
“Never. I will swear no oath. Release me or kill me. If you had the courage, you’d have done one or the other long ago, Viltach.”
“You do not get to make demands, Amerys. You are our captive.”
Feor corrected Viltach with a frown. The Human glared. And again, Amerys laughed. She was, Naili reflected, good at it. The mocking laughter bothered the three Archmages. It was contemptuous of their position, their power. Everything about them. Amerys caught herself and shook her head.
“Tell me, Feor. Viltach. Naili. Does Cognita not still rule Wistram? Because you talk as if you do.”
The Archmages paused. Naili smiled at Amerys.
“Not yet. But we’ve got more Earthers on our side. Did I tell you about the shock orb I made? It’s nearly as good as a Level 30 [Lighting Mage] on its own, Amerys. We are advancing in power. And you—”
The Lamia fell silent as Feor shot her a warning glance. Amerys just laughed again.
“You think you’ll beat Cognita with tricks from another world?”
She shook her head as far as the chain would allow her. She looked at Feor, the ancient Archmage of nearly two hundred years.
“You are a fool. Put your ‘Earthers’ against true magic, Feor. Against the kind of magic that tears at time and created the Golems of Wistram! Place another world against my King. He will devour and destroy it. And I will join him. You cannot keep me here forever.”
“You will not escape so long as we do not come to an accord, Amerys.”
Amerys rolled her eyes. She looked past Feor.
“Naili. I will ally Reim with the Revivalists and give you Wistram if you set me free.”
Viltach and Feor both wavered. Naili hesitated.
“When you say—”
Feor looked at her. Naili closed her mouth. Amerys looked past her.
“Viltach, then. Or one of the other ‘Archmages’. You cannot keep everything balanced, Feor. I will get out.”
The half-Elf hesitated. He motioned and the Archmages drew back, conferring. At last, Feor stepped back.
“Tricks will not get you anywhere, Amerys. Consider our offer.”
“Go back and hide in your rooms from Cognita, Feor.”
The half-Elf turned away stiffly. Amerys watched him go. She kept smiling, a moment longer. They were coming more often again. They must be getting worried. She paused. And then Amerys sighed.
Fragments. Across the world, history was in motion, being decided. Some events were momentous, or reaching a precipice. But in some places, time flowed onwards. Steadily. The world wasn’t one big buildup to the next event. And the future, however interesting, still came one day at a time.
In Liscor, two Gnolls poured themselves a drink in Elirr’s pet shop after retiring early from a game of baseball. They were tired of watching Grimalkin hit the ball out of sight, anyways. One of them was the owner.
The [Beast Trainer] had a stiff Gnollish drink in one paw. Cats meowed and wandered around the shop. But Elirr ignored them as he raised the cup.
So did Krshia. The [Royal Shopkeeper] smiled.
“The month of Rerrk ends. To the warm days, Elirr.”
“Thank you, Krshia.”
They clinked cups gently and drank. The Gnollish drink was smooth, not like the fiery stuff Drakes liked to imbibe at every opportunity. But it was also very strong. Krshia growled with pleasure as she felt it warm her up.
Drinking a cup to mark the end of the month of Rerrk was a Gnollish tradition, and as such, one the Plains Gnolls practiced by themselves so they didn’t have to explain or justify it to everyone. Even Erin. Both Gnolls liked Erin, but knowing her, she’d introduce pizza to it somehow.
There were other things to do too, of course. Although the drink and conversation was important. Elirr and Krshia were the best match, hence them standing in Elirr’s pet shop. Across the city, Gnolls would be doing the same. Krshia spared a thought for little Mrsha—but she didn’t need to observe it yet. She sighed as she took another sip.
“An eventful spring.”
“More so than I can remember. Raskghar, Moths—I think I shall lose all my hair. Or turn grey entirely.”
Elirr grumbled. He was already refilling his drink. Krshia couldn’t disagree, either.
“It feels long. But then, the Winter Sprites came late and left early, yes?”
“A shorter winter. So if the spring was four and a half months…maybe two months till the summer solstice?”
Krshia thought about that. Four months per season. And if Rerrk was about now…she shrugged.
“Close enough. The time of the meeting of tribes is upon us at last. It feels like forever since the last one, yes?”
“Ten years. I can remember where I was. There were less cats. Shoo!”
The Gnoll grinned and shooed a cat trying to sniff at his cup. The affronted animal turned and flipped its tail at Elirr, exposing its butthole. The Gnoll rolled his eyes and turned away.
“I don’t know how they all learn to do that. Or that it’s so disgusting. Yes, the meeting of tribes awaits. Although…do you know what Erin called it? The Gnollmoot. That…what’s a moot?”
“Hrr. I have no idea. Another drink?”
A pause as both refilled their cups and drank again. Krshia sighed.
“Ten years. And this time, we have a gift worthy of our tribe! I have not told my sister yet what it was except in vaguest detail lest it be overheard in our correspondence. But it will be unsurpassed, I think.”
Elirr grinned, sharing her delight.
“And there are Gnolls in power in a Drake city. That is not little, even compared to our gift!”
The female Gnoll nodded. She grinned, showing all her teeth, but then she paused, contemplatively. It was such a huge change. She was on the Council. Who could have imagined that a year ago?
“It was a struggle, yes. Perhaps too large a gamble, but Elirr—I hope to take as much as we give. And we have much to discuss. Gnolls must move as one to deliberate over Erin Solstice and Ryoka Griffin. I hope to gather aid from our mightiest and wisest. I only have a few fears. Such as—”
The old Gnoll looked into his cup. Krshia nodded somberly.
“She must come to the Gnollm—the meeting of tribes.”
“I fear for her safety.”
Elirr offered that cautiously. Krshia hesitated.
“We will look after her. The Silverfang tribe all will. But she must come, you agree, yes?”
“Yes. Magic and white fur. The other tribes must see and witness. But I have heard that the Magus Grimalkin, he is training another Gnoll capable of magic. That is strange, yes?”
“Strange indeed. Our grudge of four decades against Wistram is passing odd. How could they not have known? Perhaps—”
She broke off, waved a paw.
“We shall see. Honored Elirr, I am nervous and excited for the future. Our people have enough enemies, let alone infighting. The Raskghar is my second fear.”
“Honored Krshia, they are my nightmare. But while some remain—let us speak of happier things on the end of Rerrk.”
“True. My apologies.”
Another drink. Krshia smiled, looking at Elirr. Her chest beat with excitement, but the moment was far off yet. Still. She dreamed of it. Seeing her sister again. Seeing her tribe. This time…she raised her cup.
“To the future. Let the tribes gather.”
The two Gnolls drank a third time. After a moment, Krshia looked over.
“Hrr. Elirr, your cats are trying to drink the alcohol.”
She pointed at the cats, who’d knocked a bottle into a water dish.
Elirr just sighed.
“I’m convinced they’re trying to kill themselves. One day, I’ll let them.”
Cats were intelligent. Dogs were fairly smart. But raised by a [Beast Trainer], let alone a [Beast Master], animals could be scarily intelligent. That was how two Antinium walking down the street saw a pillar of cats unlock Elirr’s door and then charge out into the street. The irate Gnoll raced after them.
“Get back here! You’re not getting dinner if you run off! Come back!”
He raced after the cats, grabbing the slow ones and bringing them back. The intelligent felines grumbled, and a few, wary of Elirr’s threat, crept back inside. But most, like cats will, ignored the Gnoll and happily escaped for a few hours of freedom.
“Why do I raise them? Why do Drakes love you pestilential creatures so?”
The Gnoll trotted past the Antinium, talking to a happy cat, too busy to notice them. The two Antinium watched him enter the shop.
If Elirr had been watchful, he might have noticed that the two Antinium were…different. They were both much like Soldiers. They had four arms, the same general build—but their bodies looked even more reinforced than the average Soldier. And they had fingers on their four hands, not the stubs most Soldiers used for combat and little else.
The two Antinium stared at the Gnoll’s shop. One of them turned and opened his mandibles. He spoke, another huge clue.
“What were those things, Prognugator Tersk?”
“I believe they were known as ‘cats’, Prognugator Dekass. They are listed as safe consumables and also kept as animals of reconnaissance and scouting roles in Drake society.”
“Ah. Infiltrators. Very clever.”
The two Antinium nodded to each other. They stared around the city and then kept walking. One of the Antinium was a bit taller than the other, as befit his higher status. His name was Tersk. The other was known as Dekass. They were Prognugators. They did not wear their customary steel armor. They were being subtle.
“I do not comprehend why we have been sent to establish relations before the Grand Queen’s envoys to the Free Antinium.”
Tersk turned his head as the two wandered down the street.
“We are acting as both a personal greeting from the Armored Queen, and a…preparatory measure of sorts, Dekass. A warning. My desire to visit the city of Liscor is also personal, as I have informed you.”
Dekass analyzed the statement and nodded.
“Even so. I understand that the Armored Queen desires closer ties with these ‘Free Antinium’, Tersk. But I do not comprehend your personal ‘connection’ with the Antinium Worker known as Pawn.”
“There is much here that may benefit the Hives, Dekass. I have seen it. And you will observe the same too. Soon. Now, I must inquire for directions. Maintain the disguise.”
A Drake was passing down the street with a Gnoll. Both of them were fairly young, and they halted as Tersk raised a hand. The Prognugator spoke slowly to the Drake.
“Hello. Sir. We are normal Workers. Looking for our Hive. Will you direct us to the nearest Antinium location? That, and/or the whereabouts of Revalantor Klbkch of the Free Antinium?”
The Drake and Gnoll stared at the two towering Antinium. They looked at each other. After a second, the Drake pointed.
“Hive’s that way.”
“Thank you, sir. We will humbly go about our duties.”
Tersk and Dekass strode past the duo. The Drake opened and closed his mouth. The Gnoll growled.
“This city, man. I tell you. It gets weirder every day…”
The two Antinium didn’t hear. Dekass turned to Tersk as they went in the direction of the Free Antinium’s Hive.
“Communications were successful, Tersk. The citizens are completely ignorant to our presence. This city is weak. The Armored Antinium could take it with a single legion thanks to the access tunnel.”
Tersk nodded. The access tunnel was done. And the two Antinium were the first visitors to the city. More would come.
“Liscor is indeed vulnerable. But I am convinced the city is useful to the Antinium in its own way. The Free Antinium may be a more substantially allied Hive than the others. Especially the Twisted Antinium.”
“If the Armored Queen desired an alliance, Prognugator Tersk, she would have informed us.”
“I am merely speculating as to her plans.”
“Speculation is a form of extrapolation not needed by Prognugators!”
The other Antinium grew agitated. Tersk looked coolly at him.
“I am the first of the Armored Prognugators, Dekass. Speculation is within my domain of allowed thoughts. Focus yourself. We are all working to a greater purpose. We are all Antinium. It is our destiny to conquer Izril. Even if there is dissent. Combined, the six Hives may finally complete our objectives the Grand Queen has laid out for us. Or the Armored Queen’s personal directives.”
Dekass’ antennae waved furiously as he walked with military precision after Tersk.
“I have doubt that these Free Antinium have much to show the rest of Antinium, Tersk.”
“You are wrong, Dekass.”
The other Antinium considered the statement. Grudgingly, he opened his mandibles.
“I will concede one point. The inn we passed was somewhat enticing. At least that was impressive architecture. Very porous.”
“Mm, I agree with you on this detail, Dekass. It had a very Antinium-like structure. Which reinforces my point: there is worth above after all. Now, follow me. First we will inform the Free Queen of the tunnel’s completion. Then, we shall find Pawn. And perhaps find some soup. Soup is very tasty.”
The arrival of two strange Antinium to the city went unnoticed by everyone except the Antinium. The Watch was distracted with the Bloodfields and the Crelers, and anyone who might have picked up on the subtle hints was playing baseball. Or distracted.
Someone else might have noticed, if he had been paying attention. But Az’kerash, the Necromancer, was speaking to himself. And his servant, Ijvani, was far from Liscor. She stood in a cave, listening to her master speak.
“Strategically the battle was completely lopsided. Were it not for the arrogance of the Adult Creler, the adventurers would have perished. It sent the Crelers into the magical doorway, rather than encircle them. And yet, the odds of it falling was remote. And they did it.”
The skeleton’s inner voice was patient. She adored her master’s words. But he had gone over the battle over four times now. To the undead, who never forgot, it was odd. But she still luxuriated in her master’s attention, his words. And his satisfaction. Az’kerash spoke, all of his thoughts focused on one thing for once.
“I was never an adventurer. But I have fought Adults. I have walked Rhir and seen terrible things brought to life by the blight, by the Demon King and his Deathless. Opponents that I will face at the end, one way or another. Even now, they wait, and the world forgets the peril of assailing the Demon King.”
“Was this Creler nest particularly dangerous, Master?”
“Not to an army. The Adult might have bested you, Ijvani. But not Venitra, or Kerash had they used their abilities correctly. But to Silver-rank adventurers? It was…”
The Necromancer caught himself.
“It was an…amusing distraction.”
“I did not collect the [Necromancer] known as Pisces, Master. I am still able to do so, if you wish.”
Anxiously, the black skeleton wondered if her master didn’t think she was capable. But she was reassured by Az’kerash’s casual flick of hand.
“Let the young [Necromancer] be, Ijvani. His victory is unexpected. But insignificant in the larger scale of things.”
“Yes, Master. What…what are those things?”
The Necromancer absently split his thoughts.
“There is much I must do. Create more of my Chosen, perfect my creations. And yet—at least that Dragon knows I exist. And the City Runner. Time works for and against me.”
He sighed. His elation faded, cold logic returning as he reassessed his situation. Got back to work, so to speak. He thought about the state of the world, split part of himself to analyze his analysis.
“The state of the world is relatively stable. For now. The King of Destruction is a welcome distraction. Perhaps I should encourage his victory, at least for now. And sow dissent the world over. The Antinium Hives continue to grow in strength while the north is fragmented after their failure at Liscor. But that is hardly war, which suits my ends. Perhaps—”
He broke off. Ijvani actually felt her master’s thoughts halt and reverse. Perril Chandler paused. He stared at an invisible memory.
“They never left. Not once. They summoned a Frostmarrow Behemoth. Poorly, of course. Spontaneous magical combination. I have seen that…they never left. She told him to run.”
He kept coming back to it. It was…strange. Ijvani felt her master’s elation, then him suppressing it, growing calm. And then—memory.
His. Perril Chandler stood on a battlefield. Alone. No one stood with him. No one living. They had all fled. Ijvani saw them, saw the bright [Knights] in retreat, their banners broken. Saw faces she half-recognized from her master’s thoughts. Saw a face like Bea’s looking back.
But she did not stand with him. Perril Chandler stood alone on Calanfer’s borders, as four armies advanced. But the [Necromancer] never stepped back.
The broken dead of Calanfer stirred. Four kingdoms halted their approach as the dead rose. Alone, the Necromancer of Terandria stood. And that day, he earned the title of Archmage of Wistram. That day, they called him the Undying Shield of Calanfer. When he stood. Alone—
But he had not been alone. The memory, which was glorious and overshadowed by bitter regret changed. Ijvani saw a memory of a young man, standing with his team. Holding hands with a half-Elf. And she felt something rise in her master. Something…soft.
The skeleton looked down at her own empty ribcage. Oh, wait—not empty. The Healing Slime shivered as she poked at it. Around Ijvani, the Defenders of the Cave hid. For death walked among them. The [Blackfire Fireball] still burned in Ijvani’s mouth, ready to detonate as the teleportation sigil gleamed around her.
Her master’s voice was slow. Thoughtful.
“The Horns of Hammerad. Perhaps. Perhaps I have been without allies for too long. And there are a few, even now…Fetohep? He and I have never spoken, despite my admiration. Why did I never venture…?”
“Loyalty to hearth and home. Ah.”
His laughter was tired. But it was laughter. And Ijvani sensed her master’s thoughts splitting again. In a new direction.
“Allies. A few. The Stitch Witch, for one. Does she remain on Izril? Perhaps. Perhaps—”
“They never ran. And she—she came back for him. ‘There are worse monsters than me’.”
Softly, Az’kerash sighed. And Ijvani hesitated. She was loathe to interrupt him. But it was time. She yearned to see him. She spoke.
“Master. Should I return home?”
“Yes. Return, Ijvani. Erase the sigil as you leave.”
Happily. Ijvani took the burning, compressed fireball out of her mouth. She inspected the black flames, ready to detonate, let it hover in the air. At last she could use the spell.
The Defenders of the Cave froze as a wall of bone rose, trapping them in the cave. Shield Spiders and Fortress Beavers scuttled towards the entrance, away from the fireball. But the wall of bone was absolute. They scratched at the wall. But the flickering fireball began to pulse. Expand. The skeleton stepped into the teleportation sigil.
And stopped. Something was pounding at her chest. Like a heartbeat. She looked down.
The Healing Slime was trying to stop her. It felt the power waiting to be unleashed in the fireball. It threw itself against Ijvani’s ribcage, making a tiny sound. And both she and the Necromancer heard it.
“Ijvani? What are you doing?”
Guiltily, the skeleton tried to hide the slime.
“Nothing, Master. It is just a slime I found. It reminds me of Oom.”
“Show it to me.”
The skeleton pulled the healing slime out. It writhed, trying to get away as Az’kerash stared at it.
“Odd. That’s no slime I am familiar with. The magic in it looks—is that a potion of speed? No—”
Ijvani felt something biting her leg. She looked down, casually kicked. A Fortress Beaver went spinning across the floor. Az’kerash paused. He frowned.
“Leave the creatures, Ijvani. Fortress Beavers are a part of this world as much as spiders. Leave them.”
“Master, the fireball—”
“No. Alter the spell sigil to erase itself.”
The skeleton’s mental voice became something like a whine. The Necromancer sighed.
“Enough, Ijvani. You may bring the slime. I will inspect it.”
The skeleton brightened.
“Thank you, Master!”
She erased the fireball and lowered the bone wall. The Defenders of the Cave fled as the noble Healing Slime, trapped, distracted the death-thing. Woe! Woe, for Mrsha the Great and Terrible was not here to do battle with the foul thing! Darkness had triumphed, as the skeleton adjusted the spell sigil that would teleport her back to her foul lair.
Ijvani was nearly done altering the spell as Az’kerash patiently adjusted the teleportation rune on his end. He paused as Ijvani turned her head left and right, ensuring the matrix was perfectly altered.
“What is that strange…?”
“Master? I’m done. Is something wrong?”
The Necromancer paused. He thought he’d sensed something through his connection with Ijvani. But the skeleton wasn’t him, so there was a limit to how far he could extend her natural abilities. He waved a hand.
“No, it’s probably nothing. Teleport back, Ijvani.”
The skeleton smiled as she stepped into the teleportation sigil. At last!
“I’m going home. I’m going—”
Some days, she wondered if she had less bad days than before. She couldn’t remember. But perhaps, the point wasn’t how many bad days she had, but how she handled them.
Ryoka Griffin tried to smile. And it was easier. It wasn’t forced. She could smile. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t like—well, Erin. Or Mrsha. Ryoka was not a happy person.
But she was getting better. That was the point. She couldn’t be perfect, ever. But she was better than before.
Better than last time. She’d be better still next month, hopefully. It was a learning process, and more than that—
She was learning to laugh with people. Ryoka and Fierre sat together in the Huntress’ Haven, eating lunch and laughing. It didn’t matter what they were talking about. Well, it did, but it was just so strange.
Ryoka was relaxing. She had no purpose. She was just…’hanging’. Which was awkward the instant you thought of it like that. But really, it meant she wasn’t running. She wasn’t forcing herself to be social.
It was easy to be her. And wasn’t it wonderful and depressing how rare that feeling was? But as Fierre giggled over a terrible joke Ryoka had made, the young woman found herself smiling.
Just for a moment. Then of course, something happened. In this case, something was Mad Madain. He kicked his way out of his room, growling as he clutched at his head.
“What the fuck is making that racket?”
It was midday, but the man had just woken up. He stared red-eyed at the two young women. Ryoka looked up.
“Sorry, did we wake you, Madain?”
“Too fucking right!”
The man’s glare was designed to start a fight. Part of Ryoka instantly bristled, but she had changed. She nodded towards the door.
“We can leave if you want.”
Ryoka offered casually. If she had to, she’d be angry. But she would leave. And probably…probably not dwell on this moment for the rest of the day. It was a referendum on Madain’s reaction, not her.
And surprisingly, the mad [Innkeeper] paused. He glared, but then he shook his head like a dog.
“Gah. I’m going out. You two stay and chatter like women. Can’t lose my last two bags of coin, can I? Now that bastard [Fistfighter]’s gone.”
Ryoka and Fierre blinked. The Vampire girl looked up at the ceiling quickly.
Madain was drinking some stale water straight from the pitcher. He grunted as he swallowed.
“Alber, right. He’s off to another city. Left last night.”
“Oh. He didn’t say anything to me. How about you, Fierre?”
The broker shook her head. Ryoka felt a pang of guilt. She had liked Alber. And she was afraid he hadn’t liked her that much. Another missed opportunity.
But—don’t dwell on it. Or if you do, not now. Ryoka smiled as she looked back at Fierre and Madain disappeared into his kitchen.
“Alright, contrary to what Madain says, I’m pretty sure neither of us want to be here when he has breakfast. I’ve seen him eat.”
Fierre laughed and shuddered as she rose. The two got up and headed for the door. Ryoka was smiling, but the news about Alber reminded her of something.
“So—Fierre. I might go to that address you gave me. If you’ll tell me which city it is. Or just give me the address again. Come on.”
She held out a hand. Fierre had told her the address before, but celebration drinking had wiped most of it from Ryoka’s head. And now she was being very reluctant to hand the information over to Ryoka again. The Vampire girl paused. She looked at Ryoka as they stood in the shade outside Madain’s inn. She pulled her hood over her head.
“I—look, Ryoka. I know this matters to you. But that group you had me find is backed by…her.”
“I just don’t want you to get hurt. I mean, the…Stitch Witch is one thing. But this is another very dangerous lady.”
Ryoka sighed. Reflexively, she scratched at her missing fingers.
“I know. But Fierre—”
The Vampire girl gripped Ryoka and swung her around easily. She was so much stronger than her appearance suggested. She stared up at Ryoka, her red eyes intent.
“Look, Ryoka, I know you’re advancing fast as a City Runner. You’ve got credibility, speed, your wind, and some fame for your runs. You’ll be getting the real contracts, soon. Private ones, or even the kind of requests that Couriers might get. High-level City Runners can compete with some Couriers. It’s all in the future. I just don’t want you to toss it all away by making an enemy of…her.”
Fierre hesitated. Ryoka understood nervousness, but Fierre was reluctant to even say the name out loud.
“The Flower Lady. She—she’s ‘nice’ now. But do you know how she gained control of her family? Do you know what she can do? What her family did in the past? Balmer has stories—”
Ryoka put a hand on Fierre’s shoulder. Tried to budge her. It was like trying to move a rock. She sighed and tried words instead.
“I’m sure. Please, Fierre. I’m not going to make her my enemy. I’m just going to…negotiate. Make a trade. And she knows me. If she was going to kill me—well, she’s had a lot of patience with me so far.”
The Vampire girl hesitated. She looked Ryoka up and down.
“Can’t I talk you out of it?”
“I did pay you all that money to find them. Trust me. It’s fine. I’m not going to start anything. Runner’s honor.”
But Fierre did let go of Ryoka. She fished in her belt pouch and pulled out the bit of parchment where she’d written the address. She handed it to Ryoka and the City Runner unfolded it.
“Aha. I knew I remembered the street. But not the city. Hold on—”
Ryoka stared at the address. Then she frowned. She looked at Fierre, and went for the small map in her belt pouch. Ryoka unfolded it, stared at the city listed on the piece of parchment. Stared at the map. She cursed.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me. They were right there? All this time?”
She jabbed a dot on the map barely thirty miles south of Reizmelt. Fierre grinned weakly.
“In fairness, it was really hard to find them. I only got one tip when I asked about…odd people. But then someone connected me with all the details. That’s them. About eight of them. They’re listed as Bronze-rank adventurers, some of them. Half are enrolled in the local Mage’s Guild…you’re sure they’re the ones?”
“Pretty sure. I’ve never met them. But the names match up. I’m going to visit them.”
“And you’ll be—”
Ryoka hugged Fierre with one arm. She grinned at the Vampire girl reassuringly.
“Stop worrying! I’m just going to make a little trade. I’ll be back before night. Everything will be fine, Fierre!”
She turned and jogged into the sunlight before the Vampire girl could stop her. Ryoka took off at a jog. It would be fine. She was a changed person. Nothing was going to happen.
It was a spring day when the young woman ran down one of the large paved roads, heading south. Not on the actual stone road; she ran to the side of it, to avoid the traffic as well. Wagons, people on horseback and foot—all were travelling on the last day of spring.
The City Runner ran barefoot, and the wind blew at her back. Some people, sensing the breeze, or seeing her distinctive features among the fairer-skinned population of Izril, as well as the bare feet, called out.
She waved at some of them. A few months ago she’d been new to the area. Now, people knew her. Little children followed her about with improvised sails, laughing. The Wind Runner of Reizmelt ran, blowing a gentle breeze with her.
She had made mistakes. But she had also had her triumphs. The Pithfire Hounds, returning with a wagon full of dead Stelbore corpses, waved at her, and she caught the whiff of charred flesh and hair. Not exactly good, but the dog that sat up and looked at her made her smile. She paused a moment, ran on.
It was a short run, at least in how City Runners measured such things. It still took her a good while, but there were harder roads. Longer paths. You could run for a month straight and you might not even get to First Landing. And she was a bit faster. A bit wiser.
A bit older. The young woman ran to another city, well, barely more than a glorified town. But the city of Laiss was still populated by countless souls she’d never met before. Some of them looked up as she blew into town, through the gates, flashing her Runner’s Seal at the guards.
The young woman ran through an open square. As she did, she passed by a [Fistfighter] plying his trade. Alber glanced up and he met Ryoka’s eyes for a second. She waved—he kept standing in his little boxing arena.
Ryoka found her destination wasn’t far from the square. In fact, it was a pretty little home in one of the nicer districts in the city. Of course it was. Magnolia Reinhart might not flash her wealth, but she wasn’t going to buy an apartment. This was—well, a mansion much like the one in Celum. Far from her true estates, with the moving animals on the walls, the massive garden and so on. But it was better than any townhouse.
And it was occupied. Ryoka paused at the gates. How many mansions did Magnolia have across Izril? Were they all staffed? She spotted a little root cellar to the right, past the smooth walkway that led up to the doors. Delicate stonework gave the mansion a commanding overlook of everything around it. Narrow windows, though, closer to crenellations. Ryoka wondered what style and point in history this mansion had been made in.
She wiped her feet on the street, getting some mud off it before she walked down the pristine stone walkway. She hoped there was a rug. Maybe just wipe her feet on the grass over there?
The double doors opened, catching the young woman trying to wipe her feet on the soft grass. She froze as a [Maid] appeared in the doorway. Definitely a [Maid], dressed in the Victorian-era dress. The woman eyed Ryoka.
“Can I help you, Miss?”
“Sorry. City Runner. May I speak to Miss Rose? Or Mister Joseph?”
Ryoka flashed her Runner’s Seal. It didn’t work as well on the [Maid]. She studied Ryoka up and down.
“May I ask if this is a delivery, Miss Runner?”
“Um—no. I’m actually just a friend. Well—I don’t know the—”
Ryoka hesitated. This felt awfully familiar. She tried again, smiling.
“Sorry. I’d just like to talk to Rose. Or Joseph? Imani? Galina? Troy?”
The [Maid]’s face grew more hostile with each name. Ryoka knew there were three others, but Erin had never remembered their names. She hesitated.
“I’m—are they inside? May I speak with them?”
“I’m afraid I do not know who you’re referring to, Miss Runner. This is the estate of Lady Magnolia Reinhart. She is not inside at present. Perhaps you have the wrong address?”
The [Maid] looked at Ryoka. The City Runner sighed. She’d thought it would come to that. Now, what was old Ryoka’s move? Challenge the [Maid] to a fistfight, probably. So…don’t do that at any cost.
“I’m sorry. I’m aware this is Magnolia Reinhart’s estate.”
“Ah, then perhaps—”
“I know they’re living here. And Magnolia Reinhart knows me.”
The [Maid] paused, one hand on the door. She looked back at Ryoka suspiciously. The City Runner tried to smile.
“I’m Ryoka Griffin. I…I’m like the others. Lady Magnolia knows me. Can I just have a word? Please?”
The woman’s eyes flickered at Ryoka’s name. She looked at Ryoka, and then she stepped back.
“One moment, Miss Runner. I shall inquire within.”
She closed the door. Ryoka stood outside, shifting from foot to foot. She sensed people on the street, idly passing by and watching, probably wondering what delivery Magnolia Reinhart was getting. One of them called out to her, cheerfully.
“Hoi, Miss Runner! You’re arriving at a busy time, eh? You’re that Wind Runner, aren’t you? Can you conjure us a breeze?”
He was loitering around with a few of his buddies, male and female. Ryoka grinned and waved at them. A little breeze blew their way. The man laughed.
“You’re alright, then! Hey, you lot—fifteen minutes before break’s up!”
He turned back to his companions. Ryoka refocused on the door, smiling. Yeah, smile. She saw the door open—the [Maid] reappeared.
“I’m afraid Lady Reinhart’s orders are quite clear, Miss Griffin. There are to be no visitors. Kindly remove yourself from the grounds at once.”
“Look, I know Magnolia doesn’t think highly of me. Are those her orders directly, or just in general? Can I send her a message? I promise, I just want to talk. Make a trade—”
“I’m afraid my orders are quite clear, Miss Ryoka. Please leave, before I am forced to summon the Watch.”
The City Runner bit her lip.
“Look. Does Magnolia Reinhart know I’m here? If not, can you let her know? I’ll leave! Just let her know I’d like to talk. And—”
A shadow appeared behind the [Maid]. The Human woman glanced back and moved out of the way.
“And what were you intending to do, Miss Ryoka Griffin?”
Ryoka looked up. A towering Gnoll appeared in the doorway. She was definitely she. And she had on a maid’s outfit, complete with a headband. But…it had to be said that she really carried the black and white dress well, but it just didn’t suit…her. Ryoka recognized the Gnoll.
“We’ve met before, yes? Tell me, Miss Griffin. Are you planning on forcing your way into the mansion? Because that would be most inconvenient for the staff. Yes?”
Bekia, the Gnoll [Maid] was about, oh, seven feet tall. And her arms were thick with muscle. Most importantly though—she was built for that height. Gnolls weren’t Humans, where seven feet tall was an aberration.
They, male or female, were perfectly capable of living long lives at such heights. And fighting with all the height and weight and reach that entailed. Bekia looked like she could take apart a heavyweight boxing division, male or female. She grinned down at Ryoka. The six-foot-tall runner girl stepped back
“We have met. I was at Lady Magnolia’s mansion. You remember me?”
“I’ve seen you. Hrr. I hear you cause trouble from Theofore. Will I have trouble, Miss Ryoka?”
“Um. No. I just want to talk.”
Ryoka raised her hands carefully. The Gnoll [Maid] inspected her. She frowned.
“Are you sure? What if I poked you?”
She raised one huge paw and poked Ryoka with a furry finger. Ryoka edged back.
“What? No! I’m just talking. I won’t cause trouble. I’ll leave if—who’s Thomast?”
Bekia paused. She looked disappointed.
“Pity. I thought you’d try to beat Nerrissa.”
“Is that why I had to answer the door?”
The Human woman looked outraged. Bekia shrugged. She turned to Nerrissa and shook her head.
“Inform Lady Reinhart that Ryoka Griffin wishes to see the children. Come in, Miss Ryoka. Would you like some tea?”
She opened the door and Ryoka stared at her. Bekia grinned with all her teeth.
“You could always throw a punch too. That would be most welcome.”
“She’s where? And she just walked up? She—did she punch anyone? Scream? Prevaricate in any way? No? That is odd. I wonder if she’s come down with something.”
Lady Magnolia Reinhart spoke into the little speaking stone as she sat with Ressa. They had broken off deliberations about the upcoming visit to Oteslia at the sudden news that Ryoka Griffin had found the place where Magnolia’s guests were staying. Ressa listened intently as Magnolia drummed her fingers. She pointed at Ressa.
“Send Reynold over at once.”
Ressa nodded and vanished. Magnolia spoke a few more words—Ressa reappeared.
“He’ll be there in less than thirty minutes. Should Bekia detain Ryoka Griffin?”
“Not forcibly. Not, Nerrissa. Have her sent to me. No—by all means, let her talk with the children. Tell me what she says. Thank you!”
Magnolia cheerfully ended the call and turned to Ressa. The [Head Maid] raised her eyebrows.
“Ryoka Griffin found the children from Earth. What does she want?”
“I imagine we’ll find out, Ressa. Now, back to our visit. What’s an appropriate gift for—who’s next on our list? Ah, Helessia Gemscale. And Navine Gemscale. Both Ladies of the Wall of Salazsar. So not gemstones, then.”
Ressa tsked as Magnolia went back to her list.
“Magnolia. Are you sure this is the time to be travelling around Izril? The Guild of Assassins has been too quiet. And the Circle of Thorns—doesn’t it bother you?”
The [Lady] looked up with a sigh.
“Ressa, it does bother me, but forging an alliance is essential. Izril cannot descend into war. Not with the Necromancer and the Antinium. This [Trade War] is forcing the hand of the local nobility. I’ll do a circuit before I leave. Mend as many bridges once they’re inclined to listen. But we must have peace with the Drakes. It won’t be more than a week, at most.”
“And a dangerous trip, even if we use the carriage.”
“I rather think we won’t. By sea, Ressa. Let’s not alarm the Drakes. Although I’d like to bring the carriage…we must go over our planned entrance. And all these gifts.”
Magnolia sighed. Planning out a thoughtful gift for each Drake she planned on meeting was taxing even her ability to host. Over a hundred gifts were already neatly packed away and it was a king’s ransom of goodwill she hoped to buy. But that was the good and bad thing; you could buy goodwill among Drakes with a good present. They were refreshingly straight forward in that way. Like Dragons.
“Speaking of which…I wonder if Teriarch knows about him. Or her? Both of them? Neither?”
Ressa looked confused. Magnolia’s relationship with Teriarch was something even the [Head Maid] and Magnolia’s oldest friend didn’t know the full details of. She herself had met Teriarch…fourteen times.
“How wouldn’t he?”
“He sleeps. And I think he’s stopped caring about the Walled Cities—no. Surely he knows. Perhaps he doesn’t. Either way, I’d better prepare—no, wait. I’m not supposed to know. And I imagine the Drakes will not take it well if I suggest that I know. For now. Or ever, perhaps. They would be rather…I wonder how many know themselves?”
The [Lady] mused out loud. Ressa shrugged.
“Maybe telling them is worth something politically. Why not try it and see what happens?”
“Ressa, you would be a terrible [Politician]. Either I start a war or…no! Absolutely not.”
“Fine. But what name am I crossing off the list?”
“Oh—that one. No, wait. I’ll still meet him. So…just make a little note?”
Ressa pointedly made a note on the paper, all without taking her eyes off Magnolia. The [Lady] ignored the look.
“Now, let’s discuss what to bring again. I may have to bother the old man—either old man—for a better bag of holding. I simply must bring enough magical mirrors to communicate with. Or those terribly gauche talking marble busts. But bringing so many artifacts together in a limited space without having them all explode or react to one another is…”
Magnolia threw her own quill at Ressa. The [Head Maid] caught it deftly. The [Lady] scowled.
“Difficult! Ressa, we are sparing no expense. This is our one chance to end this ridiculous conflict between Humans and Drakes. They wouldn’t even let one of our ships into Zeres’ harbor most times, let alone brook the idea of peace! It has to go well. These Drake [Ladies] are the one sensible option we have, and if I have to give them half of the artifacts Regis has plundered from them over the years—”
She broke off and Ressa saw Magnolia’s eyelids flicker. The [Head Maid] bit off the retort she was making about how many cargo ships that would take and looked at Magnolia, worried. The [Lady] paled.
Her head snapped around, staring at some unseen sight. Ressa reached for her dagger reflexively.
“What is it? The Stitch Witch? I thought you said she was moving away from—”
“No. Ryoka. The children are in danger. Warn Bekia!”
Ressa shot to her feet.
“Reynold is already on the way.”
She shot out of the room. Magnolia looked around.
“Ryoka Griffin. What has she done?”
Ryoka found herself having tea with Bekia. The Gnoll [Maid] was rather informal, not like the other servants in the household. That was because she was actually a former [Chieftain]. Of a Gnoll tribe.
“You’re kidding me. The [Chieftain]? Like—Urksh of the Stone Spears tribe?”
“Oh yes. I was for a while. But I got in trouble, yes? Got kicked out—came here. Being a [Maid] is rather fun. Relaxing. But I miss fighting. We had sparring matches in my tribe.”
Bekia grinned as she sipped from her tea cup. Ryoka eyed her brawny arms.
“So…Magnolia put you here, to watch over the people from Earth? Rose and everyone? And they are here?”
“Oh yes. Hrr. Nerrissa should be getting them since Magnolia has given you permission to speak. And yes, we rotate in staff to look over them. It is a chore.”
“I bet. Er—I mean, I heard from Erin that they were here, but I never met them myself. They were gone when I came. I heard they were…troublesome?”
The Gnoll [Maid] only grinned in response. It had an edge.
“Tell me, Miss Ryoka. Do you think you have worked hard to become a City Runner? They speak of you, even here. The Wind Runner of Reizmelt. And I saw Miss Erin Solstice, when she came. I understand she runs an inn. Did she work hard?”
“Yes. I know Erin did. And I worked hard too. Not as hard as I could have. I—made lots of mistakes. Magnolia was very patient with me. In her way.”
Ryoka had mixed feelings about Magnolia Reinhart, but she had to admit, she wouldn’t have been as tolerant of her. Bekia nodded reasonably.
“Yes. Lady Reinhart, she is good at being patient, yes? But she demands people try. They must work, if not their hardest, at least some, no? But these children…I am afraid they have exhausted her patience. Hence why they are here.”
Ryoka considered her words. She glanced past Bekia—she thought she could hear some voices from further in the mansion. And she found herself arguing against what old Ryoka would have said. Old Ryoka was probably all on Magnolia’s side.
“Yeah, but sometimes people need help, Bekia. Sometimes they need guidance. Or…just a helping hand. Not everyone can make it alone. I know Magnolia is good, but she’s far from perfect.”
“True! Hrm, you have good points, Miss Griffin. But this group—they are rather good at needing lots of help, yes? Lady Reinhart offered them many opportunities. But they are rather content to be—well, you shall see for yourself.”
Her ears twitched, and Ryoka heard the voices getting louder. She stood up uncertainly, as the parlor doors opened and someone stumbled through. She saw a young man, a spray of messy hair. Ryoka stepped towards him.
And then she caught the whiff coming from him. Ryoka recoiled and Bekia sneezed. It was distinctly alcohol. The young man was inebriated. No—drunk. And it was barely midday! He looked at her. Then Ryoka saw a group of young men and women pour into the room.
“Nerrissa! Who is—”
A young woman with a slightly worn shirt, jacket, and pants, all too bright and colorful to be made in this world, was complaining to the [Maid] as she was shepherded into the room much like an actual sheep. She turned—and stared at Ryoka.
“Oh my god. Are you her?”
“Who’s this? Rose?”
One of the others stared blankly at Ryoka. Another looked at her feet. The drunk guy stared straight at Bekia’s chest. The Gnoll sighed. Ryoka looked on the people from Earth.
What a wretched hive of scum and…well, the Antinium Hive was actually quite neat. These…kids weren’t. Most of them were well—dressed, aside from the drunk Joseph, and another sloppily-dressed guy. The girls were clean, at least. But they looked…indolent.
Yeah. That word described it. A bit too lazy. As if they weren’t running about each day, or working. Too…bored, relaxed. They sat down in the parlor, sprawled over the couch, stared at Ryoka as Bekia rose and stepped back.
“You’re her, aren’t you? The Runner! The one that Erin told us about!”
Rose gasped. Some of the other Earthworlders stared at Ryoka. Joseph jerked up.
“What? We’ve got someone else joining us?”
“No. I’m just visiting. I found out you were here. And I—my name’s Ryoka Griffin. Nice to meet you.”
Rose stared as Ryoka held out her right hand. The City Runner didn’t know why—until she remembered her two missing fingers. She hesitated, but Rose gingerly shook her hand.
“How’d you find us? I mean—you’re an actual Runner? A Street Runner?”
“No. City Runner.”
“The Wind Runner of Reizmelt.”
Bekia spoke helpfully. Nerrissa blinked. Rose and the others just looked blank. Joseph looked excited.
“Wait. Is that a title? Are you famous? Or is that your class? I’m Joseph. [Warrior]. [Mage].”
“Oh. Pleased. What level?”
“Uh—Level 4? And 6?”
Ryoka stared at Joseph. She looked around. Rose was trying to introduce the others.
“This is Galina, Troy—hey, where’s Imani?”
“Coming. She was in her room. Oh my god. Do you have a computer? An iPhone?”
“I do, but—”
It was—Ryoka found the others fighting for her iPhone, despite Rose’s attempts to keep order. Joseph, ignoring the fight over the technology, was trying to explain.
“We’re all sharing devices, but only one of us has a laptop. Mac. So we synched everything up—except for the Androids because…Macs. We don’t have any new songs, and we take turns playing all the games on Troy’s laptop—”
“Oh my god! She’s got podcasts! And music! And Pokémon!”
Ryoka turned beet red as the theme song began playing from her iPhone. She nearly grabbed it back, but she turned to Joseph instead. She caught sight of Rose, staring at her.
“How are you all doing?”
“Good. I mean—we’re Magnolia’s guests. Do you earn a living for yourself? Do you know what happened to Erin? I thought she’d come with us, but she never came back.”
“She’s fine. I think. She has her own inn.”
“Her own inn? She’s an [Innkeeper], right. But why is she doing that?”
“Well, she has to earn a living.”
It was like they were from different planets. Or worlds. Rose blinked.
“But Magnolia offered her a chance to stay. She could come here. Are you staying?”
“No. Actually—stop that, please.”
Ryoka grabbed at her iPhone. They were going through her pictures. Disappointed, the other kids—they were only a few years younger, but it felt like more—stared at her. Ryoka took a deep breath and met Bekia’s stare.
“What do you do all day? Are you adventurers? That’s what Erin said you were doing.”
The Earthworlders…paused. They didn’t quite meet Ryoka’s eyes. Rose hesitated. She looked at Joseph.
“Some of us tried. But it’s too dangerous.”
Joseph rubbed at his arm.
“It’s really—hard. Turns out killing monsters isn’t our thing. We fought these Goblins—got cut up. It’s—not for us.”
“Oh. So what do you do?”
Ryoka thought she knew the answer. Joseph looked around and waved a hand vaguely.
“We just go sightseeing. Around. I’m learning a bit of magic, but—it’s hard, you know? We’re all low-level because it takes years to get to Level 20! And—we’re from earth. What can we do? I don’t know how to use a sword or a bow. I’m practicing.”
Ryoka looked at Rose. She paused.
“I’m studying to be a [Mage]. I’m Level 11. I think I really have a knack!”
“You’re Level 11? Do you have any other classes?”
“No. What’s your class?”
“I don’t have one.”
The others stared. Even Bekia and Nerrissa.
“Why not? Have you seen what Skills can do? Show them your [Power Strike], Joseph!”
Bekia barked. The Gnoll restored order as Ryoka had to take a step back. Thankfully, Bekia drew her back, forcing the others to sit and have some tea. Rose clearly wanted to talk to her, as did the others, but Ryoka needed one second.
“They have a stipend. And we clean up for them. From time to time.”
The Gnoll murmured to Ryoka. The City Runner stared at her.
“You’re babying them. That’s why they’re like—”
She waved a hand at them. One, Troy, went up to grab his laptop to synch Ryoka’s iPhone. Nerrissa followed him, exasperated. Bekia shrugged.
“Lady Reinhart did let them try to live alone. They were rather poor at it, no? Hold on—”
As Troy left, someone else entered the parlor. The eighth member of the group. Ryoka saw dark skin, downcast eyes. Imani paused when she saw Ryoka. Bekia turned to her.
“Imani, are you well? You look much rested, yes?”
The Gnoll’s voice was much gentler than it was with the others. She led Imani forwards, offering her a cup of tea. The young woman went to Ryoka instead.
Her eyes were too wide. She looked sleep-deprived, too. Ryoka looked at her and remembered something else Erin had said. Something from a phone call. A chat room.
“My name is Ryoka Griffin. Who are you?”
“I’m Imani. I’m—you’re from Earth?”
Imani looked Ryoka up and down, desperately. Ryoka smiled.
“That’s right. I’m just like you. I work as a City Runner.”
“You go outside?”
Imani’s eyes widened in horror. Ryoka nodded. The young woman stared at Bekia.
“Imani ran into monsters when she first came here.”
The Gnoll murmured quietly. Ryoka looked past Imani at the impatient others. Rose was keeping them back. She was looking at Imani. Ryoka turned to the girl.
“What sort of monsters?”
“Tunnel Crawlers. They—we appeared right next to them. Lots of us. We ran. And we got a call—but no one helped us.”
Imani’s voice trembled. Ryoka’s stomach clenched.
“Tunnel Crawlers? Oh. Crelers. How’d you…?”
“We got onto the rocks. The big ones. They couldn’t climb the rocks. And the little ones—we kept throwing them off. Or trying to. I was…I was the only one that made it.”
The young woman’s voice broke. Bekia took her shoulder reassuringly. Ryoka didn’t know what to say.
“I’m so sorry. I’ve only ever seen Crelers once. And I ran and reported that nest—I’m sorry.”
She hesitated, and then touched Imani’s shoulder. The young woman flinched. But then she looked up at Ryoka.
“Are you here to stay too?”
Ryoka looked past her. Joseph, Rose, Troy, Galina, who was arguing with the others about spilling tea on the expensive couches—Ryoka bit her tongue. Joseph waved at her.
“Yeah, are you going to stay, Ryoka? We could use more company!”
You’re all pathetic.
That was what Ryoka wanted to say. But she didn’t. She really, really wanted to shout it at them. Maybe drop kick Joseph or all of them except Imani. But she didn’t. For one big reason: it wasn’t really their fault.
Okay, it was. But on the other hand—no. Ryoka looked at the expensive mansion, the staff who’d keep the Earthworlders alive, if not always happy. Food on the table, roof over your head—and a stipend. All for nothing.
This is what happened when Magnolia Reinhart didn’t like you. She treated you like, well, like a child. And it was unfortunate that it seemed like it worked.
Ryoka had met people like the Earthworlders. Spoiled, rich children with too much power and wealth. They wanted for nothing except everything. She’d been one of them, in her way. It wasn’t everyone. Some people took wealth, even if they’d grown up in it, and still worked. But Ryoka thought those were the exceptions, rather than the rule. Money changed you. And there was a surfeit of money here that no one had earned.
Perhaps just as Magnolia had intended. Ryoka took a deep breath. She addressed Rose and the others.
“I’m not here to stay. I have a job. I am a City Runner, and I can’t stay.”
“But—why? At least let’s have some drinks. Do you live nearby?”
“I—not at all. I run around a lot.”
“What did you come here for, then?”
Rose elbowed Joseph and looked at Ryoka. The City Runner nodded to herself. Time to make her pitch. She pointed at Troy’s laptop.
“I want to make a deal. I need your tablets, smartphones, computers—MP3 players, even—anything you’ve got. Every electronic. I’ll return it to you, I promise. But I need to borrow it. For two weeks. Tops.”
The Earthworlders stared at Ryoka. Then someone laughed incredulously.
“Are you kidding? No!”
They reflexively held onto their possessions. Ryoka understood, she really did. It was the last working thing from their world. So she dug at her money pouch.
“Here’s what I’ll pay you to borrow them.”
She put down stacks of gold coins onto the table, her entire fortune, almost. She saved twenty gold coins to sweeten the deal and to survive off of. She’d borrow from Fierre if need be, but Ryoka was making a gamble. She doubted Magnolia’s stipend was that high.
And she was right. The Earthworlder’s eyes went round at the sight of all the gold. Troy nearly reached for it.
“How did you earn all that?”
“I’m the Wind Runner. Look—I’ll borrow everything for two weeks. You can manage for two weeks, right? And I’ll bring it back.”
Two weeks was a good amount of time to reach the High Passes. Ryoka saw Bekia looking narrowly at her. Nerrissa grabbed Bekia’s arm and towed her back. The City Runner looked around.
Rose was blinking and shaking her head. She seemed taken aback by all of it. She looked around, and then at Ryoka.
“This is all so sudden. Can’t you explain things? Come on, sit down. Tell us everything. Why are you—”
“Ryoka Griffin! Step away from them, now!”
Bekia’s voice roared. Ryoka jerked backwards. The Gnoll charged forwards. She was suddenly growling, her hair standing up. She made one huge fist.
“Back away from them slowly. Hands behind your head!”
“What? What’s going—”
The Gnoll had a battleaxe in one paw. She had her own bag of holding. Ryoka saw it cut the air—she froze, hands up.
“What’s going on? Bekia!”
Imani screamed as Nerrissa covered Ryoka with a crossbow. More staff flooded into the room, [Servants], [Maids]—Ryoka froze as Bekia advanced. The Gnoll was snarling.
“What did I do?”
The Gnoll stared at her.
“What did you do? You don’t smell like guilt. But Magnolia Reinhart, she sent an immediate warning. What did you do? Tell me now, or—”
Something exploded. Ryoka saw a blast of fire, saw the splinter of wood. One of the servants coming in through the right door jerked. She saw a splinter of wood enter through the woman’s neck. She collapsed. Bekia whirled. She stared at the fallen maid. At Ryoka. Then someone tackled Ryoka.
“Down! We’re under attack!”
“Get them to the safe room!”
The Earthworlders were shouting in panic. The servants shot out of the room. Ryoka heard a shout. Screams. A roar.
“To the front! It’s not Ryoka! To arms!”
Whoever was on top of Ryoka let go. The City Runner rolled, getting to her feet. One ear was ringing. She stumbled past Rose and the others. And she saw—
The front of the mansion was gone. The gardens and walkway were on fire. Ryoka saw Bekia standing with the battleaxe gleaming in the sunlight. She was staring at a man. A silhouette, rather. Garbed entirely in black.
An [Assassin]. He stood behind ranks of black-clad figures, all wearing dark colors. Some wore dark armor, others bound cloth. A few had masks. One or two were even bareheaded.
Assassins. Ryoka’s breath caught. Where had they come from? Then the leader spoke.
“Strange. The Gnoll’s a high-value target. Miss Runner, you ran out of time.”
He nodded cheerfully at her. Ryoka recognized the voice. It was one of the loiterers who’d called out to her. He nodded at his companions.
“Ignore the City Runner. She’s not on our list. And the extras. Be professional about this or I will kill you.”
He pointed. Ryoka whirled. Rose and the other Earthworlders were stumbling out of the broken mansion, wide-eyed. Bekia turned her head.
“Get inside! Now!”
“Is this a joke? Oh my god, it’s like the other time at the mansion! They’re coming after us!”
Galina screamed. The [Assassin] looked at Bekia.
“We’re not here for the civilians. We’re here for you. Reinhart’s staff. You may surrender. The Guild of Assassins has marked Magnolia Reinhart’s—”
The [Assassin] blurred, dodging left. One of the black shapes folded up behind him. The leader tsked as Nerrissa lowered the crossbow.
The [Assassins] charged silently. Ryoka saw half of them throw something and dove.
The wind blew fiercely. It knocked the Earthworlders off their feet. Ryoka hit the ground, but most of the [Assassins] weren’t aiming at her. Ryoka got a kick as the group flailed, but she was on her feet.
She saw a full-scale battle behind her. The staff were fighting with the [Assassins], pulling back into the mansion. The leader beheaded a [Maid] and a [Butler] with his sword as Magnolia’s staff drew their own weapons. He leaned back as Bekia swung her axe. She halted mid-swing, brought the axe down.
“You filthy rats!”
The axe glowed. The magic in it exploded outwards. The lead [Assassin] cursed and vanished. The ones behind him weren’t so lucky. A scythe of gold cut through three. One spun away, grabbing at his arm. But he never made a sound.
“Fall back! Behind me!”
Bekia roared. The [Maid] swung her axe as if she wasn’t wearing a maid’s uniform. So quick—Ryoka saw her bisect a jumping [Assassin].
“Oh my god.”
Someone threw up behind her. Ryoka turned. The Earthworlders were staring at the violence.
“Get to cover!”
Ryoka snapped. She grabbed Rose and pushed them. Imani was already inside. Ryoka saw more staff flood down the steps. She stared. These servants were armed.
A pair of [Maids] threw open a window and aimed crossbows down at the [Assassins]. They fired, then retreated behind the narrow opening. Their bolts missed both their targets, but they exploded as they hit the ground. One of the [Assassins] vanished in a cloud of acid.
“Hold the entrance!”
Bekia roared. Ryoka saw a pair of [Servants] armed with dueling swords take up flanking positions inside. They swung as an [Assassin] leapt through the doorway. The man blurred, turned to smoke for a second, landed, and engaged both. More [Servants] fell back.
Then—a shriek. Metal screaming. The [Assassins] paused. Ryoka looked around wildly. Something was—
A Steel Golem burst out of the cellar door, exploding the wood and iron like fireworks. It exploded onto the mansion grounds. The lead [Assassin] stared as the towering Golem swung the huge sword it carried and cut two [Assassins] apart.
Someone shouted behind Ryoka. She stared. Then the pieces fit. More [Servants] appeared. They were changing into armor. And more carried weapons. The windows of the mansion opened.
Crossbows. And magical ammunition. The first quarrel struck an [Assassin] and exploded. The other [Assassins] dove out of the way as the staff loosed a deadly volley.
“A trap. And I had to pick this assignment. The other strikes better be going better than this.”
The leader’s voice was resigned. He leaned out of the way as the Steel Golem swung at him. It stopped the blade, tried to strike him on the backswing. The [Assassin] raised his sword.
He blocked the Golem’s swing with a sound like thunder. The man turned to the other shadows.
“I’ll bring down the Steel Golem. Hold off the Gnoll [Maid] until I do.”
Shadows blurred forwards. They leapt at the Gnoll [Maid]. She whirled the blade, howling. Ryoka grabbed Rose. The young woman was shouting as she stared at the Steel Golem.
“That was in the basement the entire time!?”
“Run! Follow me!”
Ryoka shouted. She dragged at Rose and the others. They broke out of their paralysis, looked at Ryoka. She pointed left, around the fighting.
The City Runner screamed it in their ears. The Earthworlders ran.
“Get back here!”
Bekia howled. She swung the enchanted battleaxe like it weighted nothing at all. But the darting [Assassins] were forcing her back, battling the staff at the entrance. They weren’t prepared for this mansion’s army of armed servants. But this was a trap. The Earthworlders—and yet, the [Assassins] ignored the Earthworlders and Ryoka as they ran for the gates.
But if they weren’t after them, then who? Ryoka saw reinforcements charging into the fight. More shadows. A townswoman drew a veil over her face. She must not have heard the leader because she saw Ryoka sprinting out of the mansion’s gates with Rose and the others and she drew a throwing dagger.
Ryoka pointed. Wind blew the woman off her feet. The dagger went wide. Ryoka saw the woman backflip backwards.
“Oh my god. Joseph!”
“I don’t have a sword!”
Ryoka ignored the young man. The [Assassin] caught herself. The second blast of wind buffeted her, but she crouched low. She drew a second throwing dagger, aiming at Ryoka—
Alber hit her. The [Fistfighter]’s blow rocked the [Assassin] alongside the jaw and she stumbled. But she didn’t fall. She slashed at him and the [Fistfighter] ducked back.
Ryoka lunged forwards. She took aim; there was no time to kick. The female [Assassin] raised her dagger, got a jab to the face. Then two heavy hits. One-two—Ryoka hit her, ducked back. She had her hands up, guarding her face. She swung in, fast, as the dagger slashed wildly. Three, four—five—
The masked woman folded up. Ryoka stood over her, panting wildly as the Earthworlders and Alber both stared at her. The Earthworlders’ eyes were wide; Alber just blinked. He looked at Ryoka.
She panted. The [Fistfighter] looked at the unconscious [Assassin].
“Nice punches. I guess you do know something. What’s happening?”
Magnolia Reinhart’s estates were under siege. [Assassins] fought with [Maids] and [Servants] as the city folk stared in horror. There were so many [Assassins]! The staff were retreating inside the building. Ryoka saw Bekia dueling the leader—the Steel Golem had been beheaded! They were going to—
Something blurred past Ryoka, shooting down the streets. Alber grabbed her as a ghostly horse raced past.
“What is that?”
Really fast pink death. The carriage hit the first group of [Assassins] and Ryoka saw one bounce off the front before landing on the ground. Another tried to dodge; the impact sent her flying. She was actually alive when she landed—right until one of the carriage’s wheels ran over her head.
The [Combat Butler] took the carriage around in a tight loop. He’d drawn his sword and was defending himself from [Assassins] trying to leap on the pink carriage as it ran over another fleeing shape. Ryoka nearly turned back—but what could she do?
Protect the kids.
“Let’s get out of here! Follow me!”
She pointed. Rose and the others needed no encouragement. Even Alber pounded after her as they fled the fighting. The City Watch was gathering uncertainly, wide-eyed [Guardsmen] staring at the combat well above their pay grade and level.
Past the crowds. Out the gates. In the confusion, no one stopped him. The Earthworlders were babbling questions—Alber was staring back at her.
“What was that?”
Ryoka felt a twist in her stomach. She hesitated.
“It wasn’t me. I’m pretty sure. Magnolia Reinhart is under attack. This is a war.”
“A war? Between Reinhart and the Assassin’s Guild?”
Alber paled. Ryoka nodded tightly.
“Them, and whoever else is against Magnolia. Alber, you should get out of the city. Thanks for helping me—”
“What do we do?”
The City Runner and [Fistfighter] turned. Rose stared back the way they’d come. Smoke was rising from the mansion. Ryoka looked at them.
“It’s not safe for you. You’ll be targets if you stay under Magnolia’s protection. These [Assassins] had no idea you were even here. The next lot will.”
“But—what do we do?”
The young woman demanded, pale-faced. Someone, Troy, was being sick again. Ryoka looked at them. People from Earth. But not—she hesitated. They were looking at her. What could she do?
“There’s someone I know. From our world. He—no. She can take care of you.”
In a split second, Ryoka made a decision. She looked back at the mansion. Then at the Earthworlders. They had their electronics, at least. Ryoka looked at Troy’s laptop, a smartphone in Galina’s hand. She felt at her belt pouch and cursed.
“I’m going to have to borrow money from Fierre. Alber—I need to get these people to Reizmelt. Will you help me?”
The [Fistfighter] nodded. Imani looked back.
“But—Bekia. Nerrissa. What will—”
“I’ll come back. But regardless of what happens, you’re not safe here. You need to go somewhere else.”
“The Wandering Inn. Erin runs it. She can help you.”
Ryoka could have said the Unseen Empire, Riverfarm. Laken. But she made a decision. And the world changed. Rose’s eyes widened. The Earthworlders looked up.
“It’s a long ways away. But I’ll help you as much as I can. But you’ll have to make the journey.”
Ryoka ignored the protests. She looked at Alber.
“I’m going to find a wagon. Anyone to take them. Will you ride with them? I’m going to stay. See who wins.”
She pointed at the mansion. Alber just looked at her. Top to toe, mystified.
“Who are you?”
“Me? I’m just a Runner.”
Ryoka pointed at her chest. The [Fistfighter] shook his head.
“Sure you are.”
He paused. Ryoka had to laugh. She held out her hand. And Alber took it. His palm was callused and rough, and his grip was strong. Ryoka shook Alber’s hand.
It was so simple. Ryoka turned back as she ran towards a moving wagon, shouting for the driver to stop. Termin raised his brows. And Ryoka felt it in her bones.
Changing. Everything was, not just her. She almost smiled. Then she feared for the future. But she looked back, at the lost group from Earth. And she thought of her friend. Trouble was coming her way. Or at the very least…
Peace. Consequence. Growth. Rebuilding. Plans for the future. Alliances. Regrets. War. The world changed. It repeated history. It stood still.
None of it mattered. None of it at all. The world was a vast, uncaring place. Coincidence looked like fate. Here, now, was all.
And the world itself paused. He felt it. Nothing mattered outside of this building. This place. There was only him.
There she was. After all this time, after so long. Toren the skeleton stood in The Wandering Inn, arms outspread. Welcoming the young woman who sat at the table in front of him. Amid the broken inn, the partially collapsed ceiling and floor. The inn was not what Toren remembered. But it was still the inn.
And he was home. So was she. The young woman with her light, brown hair with that slight hint of orange, hazel eyes. Longer hair than he remembered. Different clothes. But that was all. She was the same person. His owner, his mistress, his…
She spoke, breathing the words. He smiled.
It had been a long time. So long, he had almost forgotten her voice. But he couldn’t really forget. To Toren, memory was unfading.
Even so, she was here. In front of him. Erin. The skeleton waited. The young woman, the [Innkeeper] half-rose. Paused. Staring. She hadn’t seen him for a long time. He’d seen her lie down at the table, pretend to level up. And he had been waiting.
Erin Solstice stumbled over her words. She stared at him, her eyes wide, breathing faster. Toren saw it all as he waited.
He had waited a long time for this. Hiding, watching the inn from afar. He had run out of mana potions, even. So he’d come to the inn.
It made sense. The door was gone, hauled out by the Drakes and Gnolls. So the inn was full of mana. Full of magic! It astounded Toren. When had this come about? It filled him, gave him strength. He could live, here. And only here. If he ran, he might make it to the dungeon.
But he wasn’t going back. Toren looked at Erin. Studying her as she tried to process his being there.
There she was. Alive. But he didn’t feel her. She was—gone.
She’d tried to kill him. The thought hit the skeleton again and the purple flames in his eyes flickered. That was the truth.
No—maybe it was an accident? Maybe, yes, maybe all of her magic had gone into the inn. That was a possibility.
He didn’t know. He didn’t know. He thought he knew, but there was nothing in this world that was sure. Nothing that was true. So Toren had come here, to find the one thing he could believe.
For a long time, the two just looked at each other. The young woman, seated, breathing quicker. Eyes wide. The skeleton, alive in undeath.
Their history played before them. Toren remembered it all. Waking. First becoming him, obeying orders. Struggling with her orders.
Leveling. Finding joy in it. Finding joy in killing. Growing. Hating her orders.
An exploding inn.
Lyonette. Mrsha. Snow.
And then—Esthelm. The Goblins. Her…death.
The dungeon. Hearing her name.
And back to here. Toren didn’t know what Erin thought as she looked at him. But he remembered it all so clearly. So clearly—and yet the Toren of old was a stranger to him.
A foolish skeleton, who understood nothing. Who took pleasure in simple leveling, in fighting. Who knew nothing of—pain. Of regret.
Because Toren regretted killing Erin. It had torn at him. He had lost the pleasure he took from killing, from leveling itself! He had become she. And she had tried to show him something.
But it turned out he and she had been wrong. Because Erin had never died.
She tried to kill him.
Or perhaps not. The skeleton waited. He was alone. The sword he’d stabbed Bevussa with hung at his hip. A worn shield lay on his back. He had torn away the clothes she wore, left them, and the mask in the kitchen. Erin was…unarmed? She had a knife on the belt at her side. Two potions.
A golden ring on one hand. It looked strange to Toren. Gold, then bronze. Magic flickered.
Toren didn’t move. He was waiting for Erin. He would wait forever, if need be. Now, in this moment, he was afraid. Relieved. Furious. Happy. Something…else. So many emotions, but balanced perfectly together, waiting for the uncertain future.
Anything could happen. And Toren didn’t know what came next. He had no idea. He waited for Erin to do something. She might attack. Flee. Question. Her head might explode. She could just go back to sleep.
She might even hug him—
Toren waited. And at last, Erin stood up.
He jerked at his name. Erin smiled. She spread her arms.
“It’s so…good to see you, Toren! Are you okay? I thought you got lost when I told you to carry me in the sled—”
Toren smiled. But then—he heard a sound in his skull. He twitched.
Ding. The sleigh bells. He remembered them. He remembered everything. He remembered why he had hated her.
No. Wait. Erin was looking at him. She’d paused when he moved. Her voice was cheerful, bright. She gestured around the inn.
“I…I’m so glad you’re back! The inn’s a bit of a mess. But it wasn’t your fault this time! It was Crelers! Hey—why don’t you grab a broom, or help me clean up? I’ll just go look for one—”
Clean up? Hey, Toren! Clean the rooms! Hey Toren, get me some water!
The skeleton stared. That wasn’t it either. Erin paused as his arms dropped. She stared at him. And he stared back.
“Doesn’t look like there’s a dust rag around here. I’m just going to…”
The door. She was edging towards the door. Then one of the holes in the walls, closer. Toren walked forwards. Erin halted.
He walked around the table. Blocking the way she’d come. Erin’s eyes flicked towards him. And then the opening. She looked around. Toren stared at her. Erin looked back. And he saw it.
Something in the eyes. More than fear. More than surprise. Something—the skeleton hesitated.
“It’s so good to see you.”
Lies. He read it in every line of her posture. Tense. Wary. The skeleton paused. This was all wrong.
Slowly, Toren looked at Erin. She waited, eyes flicking past him. The skeleton hesitated.
Then he opened his jaws. The ivory teeth parted. Toren spoke.
Erin looked at him. The skeleton paused.
“Um, hello? Toren?”
She hesitated. Toren spoke.
But that was only a thought. Not sound. Again, Toren tried. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. He clattered his jaw, helplessly.
“Yes. It’s great to see you. Really cool. Um.”
Erin moved around the table. Toren watched her, turning his torso. She couldn’t hear him. He tried to speak. He tried with every fiber of his being. But he was voiceless.
How could he make her understand? The skeleton looked at Erin. Could he write on something? Did he even know how to write? He could read any language in the world. But could he…?
She didn’t understand him. Or maybe she did. Erin stared at Toren as his jaw opened and closed silently.
“What is it? What do you want to tell me, Toren?”
He just looked at her helplessly. That was what lay between them. Unspoken words. Did she know what he wanted to say? Could she read into his heart? He waited. Hoping.
Erin studied Toren. And this time, he saw that flicker in her eyes growing. Something staring behind the smile she gave him.
“Toren. I have something to tell you too. Let me just go get a thing real quick, okay?”
She tried to walk around the table, towards the door. He blocked her. The young woman halted. Stared into the skeleton’s eyes.
“Toren. Let me pass.”
The skeleton felt the order. He put out an arm. Blocking her. Erin looked at him.
That felt good. Toren almost smiled. He opened and closed his jaws.
Erin. No, that wasn’t right.
Erin looked at Toren.
“I’ve heard a lot of things about you, Toren.”
So have I…mother.
A dark light flickered in the young woman’s eyes. She was breathing more slowly, and her voice was growing calm.
“I hear you did some bad things.”
Toren screamed the word. He looked at Erin.
“You killed people. Is that true, Toren?”
Mother. Erin. Hello. Can you hear me?
The skeleton waited. Erin looked at him.
“Do you…understand me?”
He nodded. Erin’s eyes widened only a bit.
“Thought so. Then—answer my question. I heard you killed people. Is that true?”
The skeleton paused. Erin stared at him. Straight into his…he nodded. Then he tapped his chest.
Can you hear me? Can you—
The first punch knocked his skull across the room. Toren’s skeleton crumbled as Erin shouted.
His skull hit a broken beam, cracked. The rest of Toren jerked. Erin turned and ran for the door. She hurtled for it—and Toren leapt. His torso tackled Erin, bringing her down. His skull flew back towards his head. Erin fought, knocking Toren off him
Mother! Listen to me!
Erin screamed, but there was no one around the abandoned inn. They were all playing baseball, far from the inn. She punched as Toren grabbed at her mouth.
No! Listen to me. Talk to me!
But she heard nothing. She wasn’t listening. Toren saw a flash—he recoiled. The edge of Erin’s knife sliced through the front of his skull. So sharp.
Mother! Are you my mother?
Erin slashed at Toren as she tried to kick him off her. Her knife went through his bones like hot butter. But the mana in the inn was already mending them. Toren stared at Erin. How could they ever understand each other? He tore Pelt’s kitchen knife out of Erin’s hand. Flung it to one side as his bones began to mend.
The young woman finally got a foot under Toren’s chest. She heaved and the lighter skeleton went flying. He hit the ground, scrambled up. Erin was already on her feet. She panted, staring at them.
“You killed them. Why? Why did you do it?”
Killed who? Why does it matter? Mother, it’s me. Don’t you remember me? Don’t you need—
“Was it me? Why did you kill all of them?”
The young woman feinted, went for another opening. Toren charged her. Erin’s fist came up. This time she hit him in the solar plexus. The skeleton went staggering backwards. Erin ran for the door.
He threw his shield. It hit Erin behind the knees and she stumbled. Toren was on her again. But Erin threw him off. She kicked, catching him in the ribs, but the blow failed to scatter his bones.
“You killed them.”
Why shouldn’t I? Mother, what am I? Why was I created? Why—
Erin grabbed Toren’s arm, threw him across the room. He was too light! The skeleton went over a table. Erin turned. Then she grabbed at something. An emergency box still lying there, contents half-spilled.
As Toren rose. Erin looked at him. She looked at the opening in the wall. The skeleton ran at her. Erin looked at him.
“Why are you so…evil?”
Evil? What was evil? What was good? No one had ever taught him that! It was just—‘bad Toren’! ‘Don’t do that, Toren!’ ‘Stop that, Toren—’
The acid jar hit Toren in the chest. He staggered as the acid covered him. The skeleton stared as the green liquid splashed around the tables. Erin stared at him.
He looked down at his melting bones.
No. She’d hit him with an acid jar. Toren raised one hand. He saw his hand begin to melt off, eaten away by the green liquid. It was on his skull, his ribs, his bones. He was dissolving.
He took a step towards her. Another acid jar hit Toren in the face. The skeleton’s head slowly began to melt away. He took another step. Tripvines exploded around him. Erin stared at Toren. He was melting.
You hate me?
The skeleton stared down at his body. His leg collapsed. He began melting into the acid. Erin Solstice watched. And that look in her eyes.
Toren understood it at last.
Hatred. Pure and simple. It was such a familiar look. He’d seen it in Nokha’s eyes. In the eyes of the Goblins. The [Knight]. The people he’d killed. Even animals. A pure, simple thing.
She wanted to kill him. Not tried. She wanted him to die. The skeleton looked down at his dissolving bones in the acid. It all made sense now.
The undead skeleton smiled. And part of him relaxed. It was all so simple, in the end. He’d never made a mistake. She’d wanted to kill him from the start. She didn’t want him. Or need him.
Mother. Why do you hate me?
Erin was watching Toren dissolve. The acid had taken his legs, part of his arms, his ribs, his skull. But something was wrong. The rate of disintegration was slowing. Then—his body began to rebuild.
Piece by piece. The melted bone reformed, slowly started to regenerate. Erin’s eyes went wide with horror.
She’d realized he was healing. The acid ate at Toren, as fast as his bones could regenerate. But there was a limited amount of acid. Toren rose, slowly. Erin had never known the limits of the magic in his bones. She’d probably thought that would kill him, despite his abilities.
Erin looked at the open door. But it was too late. The skeleton slowly drew his sword and Erin froze. He looked at his blade. And then at Erin
She’d tried to kill him. He had his answer at last. Something in Toren was screaming. He’d wanted her to hug him. But what he wanted would never have come to pass.
What did I do? Why is killing bad? Why do you not listen? Why can’t you hear me? Why—
A thousand questions. But she’d never answer them. So Toren asked himself one important question.
What did he want to do?
That was easy. Toren charged, dropping his sword. Erin turned. He leapt at her, and she punched.
A fourth time. This time her fist snapped his ribs. But what were ribs? He was undead. Toren grabbed Erin. He brought his head back and smashed it into Erin’s forehead.
She stumbled. Erin blinked. Toren raised a fist. She brought up her guard too late. He punched her as hard as he could. She staggered.
That felt good. Toren grinned. He’d wanted to do that since—
Erin’s foot cracked Toren’s leg, sent him stumbling backwards. She hit him, across the face. Toren’s skull rocked backwards. Another punch, then a kick to his midsection. The skeleton stumbled back, blocked a punch. Regular. Weak. He swung his fist, saw the uppercut too late.
The skeleton’s head went flying again. Erin ran. But the skeleton’s torso leapt and kicked her in the back. He was used to being broken.
But how strange! She was so good at fighting. For someone whom Toren had seldom seen doing it. He’d watched her fighting the undead. Erin twisted, kicking Toren off him. The skeleton reclaimed his head.
Erin was screaming now. Toren lunged—took a kick. He came in low the third time, impossibly low to the ground. She kicked his shoulder and he struck her in the stomach.
The [Innkeeper] doubled over, but she swung at his face with a hook. Toren leaned back. Again! He hit her on the cheek, his knuckles cutting open her skin.
That was for every sweeping job, every petty errand! Every time she made him gather Ashfire Bee honey and be torn to pieces! Toren stood over Erin and kicked her as she fell down.
Look at me! Look at me! Do you see me now, Mother?
She rolled over and yanked up on one knee. Toren tried to balance, but Erin heaved up and he went down. His skull cracked as the back of it hit the floor. Erin pulled and tore off his leg.
She was better than he was. Stronger. She had flesh and bone and he was a weak skeleton, despite it all. Even with [Lesser Strength], he was weaker than she! She had the same Skill. And—Toren felt her throw the leg, run for the door.
See how she hated him. How she feared him. Wanted to kill him. That hurt Toren. So he hurt her back. He reached out for a blade lying on the ground. Threw it.
Pelt’s knife went through Erin’s leg. She cried out, falling, grabbing at the blade that had gone straight into her bone. Toren’s leg reassembled. He rose, adjusting his skull, as Erin yanked out the blade, scrabbling for a healing potion.
I hate you.
I ____ you.
Toren looked at Erin and then he smiled. Bitterly. The skeleton spread his arms like he had at the beginning, as Erin pulled herself up. She stared at him, panting, blood dripping down her leg. And at last, he understood.
Mother. You want to know why I do what I do. But I have only done what I want. What pleases me.
Erin got up. Toren jumped and kicked her in the chest. She reeled back and struck him across the ribs. They broke, and he broke her nose. She reeled backwards and Toren brought his hands together and clubbed her across the skull. More blood.
How strange. He should be enjoying this. And he was, immensely. And not at all.
The skeleton’s head went flying again. This time, Erin blocked his swing. She swung again and this time hit his lower spine. The skeleton frame fell, but one of his arms tangled her legs. As he reassembled, Toren saw Erin’s golden ring glowing. The words glowed.
So Toren ripped it off her finger. Erin grabbed at the ring, running for it. Her hand closed over it and Toren stomped down on it, grinding her fingers. Erin refused to let go, so he kicked her in the stomach.
I care for no one in this world. No one, but perhaps you. And you don’t love me at all, do you?
Erin rolled away. Toren let her go. She clutched the ring, looking at the golden letters. She tried to put it on her hand.
Toren picked up his sword.
Erin paused as he aimed it at her. Slowly, she put the ring in her pocket. Toren tossed aside his sword.
They looked at each other. Erin was breathing hard, a rasp in her voice. Toren’s bones steamed as the last of the acid burnt away. And both understood each other, a bit, then. Erin found her last potion, the glass cracked. Her nose popped as she drank it. She spat blood, coughing. And Toren waited. Anything could happen.
But he knew that only one thing would. And Erin nodded. She clenched her fists.
“Fine. Let’s do this.”
She stared into Toren’s flaming purple gaze. And he saw the depths of her hatred for him.
Was I ever more than a thing?
“You’re my mistake. All of the dead people. Esthelm! Numbtongue’s friends—all of it’s because of you. Come on.”
Erin raised her fists. Toren saw her look past him. The [Skeleton Knight] leapt. Erin whirled and decked him. She jumped on him, trying to break him long enough to get away. The skeleton rose. He bit, and Erin screamed. She hammered at his skull, throwing it off him. Crashing into one wall and scattering his bones. Toren refused to die. He tripped her up. The skin on Erin’s hands tore. She ripped a rib out and stabbed it through his gaping jaws.
There was nothing glorious about it. Just two people, rolling about, fighting in a broken inn. A young woman. An unwanted skeleton.
He hurt her. Toren knew. He put his fingers in her eye and she screamed. He bashed her head with a chair and she planted the sword in his ribs. Erin drove the sword through a table, pinning him. She turned. Toren stared as she ran.
At the edge of the inn, past a broken wall, Erin stumbled. Toren tackled her. She went down, rolling down the muddied, broken slope with him. Toren felt his bones leaving the inn. Magic faded.
Erin’s voice broke as Toren struck her in the throat. She choked. But she kept moving.
He was hurting her. But he wasn’t hurting her. Toren realized it as he beat at her face, feeling her fists striking his bones. Look at her. Look at her eyes.
All he was giving her was pain. But it didn’t hurt her. Not Erin Solstice. He couldn’t do that with his fists, or even his sword. Not to her. But she was hurting him. She had hurt him by making him hers, by not understanding.
By not needing him. Toren rolled as Erin threw him. In the mud, they fought each other, trying to knock each other down, get up. How could he hurt her as much as she hurt him?
Erin’s fist struck Toren. She looked up. The walls. Someone had to have seen—
They were on the wrong side of the inn. Erin couldn’t see the walls of Liscor. No one could see her. Then she remembered what she’d forgotten.
A Skill. She drew breath, deep, deeper, and Toren sensed her lungs inflating. He remembered. [Loud Voice]!
The skeleton’s hands tightened around Erin Solstice’ throat. She choked. And the words never came out. Toren stared down as Erin’s eyes went wide. Her chest convulsed. She tried to throw him off her.
He choked her. Strangling her. His grip was weak. His body fragile. Light as bones. But no matter how much she tore at his grip, broke his bones, shattered his skull—
He wouldn’t let go.
Silence. She was like him now. Toren saw Erin’s mouth opening. Closing. She struck him. But she couldn’t break him.
Toren waited. He felt her legs kicking, but he was kneeling on her chest. Erin’s fists flailed on his body. Still—he waited. Ready to roll. The golden ring. Someone from Liscor.
But nothing came. Erin did nothing. Her eyes were wide, locking on his. Fluttering. Blood filled her eyes. She was trying to say something.
He wished he could understand her. The skeleton’s grip tightened.
Once. Erin convulsed, her fist struck Toren’s chest as she punched up. Too weakly. But—Toren looked around. Erin’s arms fell.
Where was it coming from? What spot? Who? What?
But nothing moved. And Toren realized nothing was coming. She had nothing left. He stared down.
No one would stop him. No one but himself. The skeleton looked down at his hands.
They never loosened. Erin Solstice’s mouth fell open.
Her hand rose.
Her legs went still.
Her eyes opened wide.
She stopped moving.
Erin Solstice inhaled with a gasp. Air flooded into her lungs. She jerked—trying to move, her mind fragmented. Thoughts spinning. What? Where—
She sat up. Her lungs were burning. Her throat rasped, her windpipe broken—
She felt at her throat. It was whole. And the pain in her body—gone. Erin looked around.
And she saw him.
Her voice rasped. The skeleton was standing in the sun. Staring up at the sky. He made no move as Erin shakily got to her feet.
It hadn’t worked. Even at the end, he hadn’t hurt her. He couldn’t hurt her, only kill her. And if she died—if she died, what was the point?
Nothing. He had lived without her, once. And that was enough. Toren turned his head back from the sun. He looked at Erin.
But living was worse. She didn’t love him. She hated him. To her, he was just a thing. That was why he had left her to die. That was why he hated her.
She spoke his name. She looked at him. Maybe—maybe—the skeleton saw the fading marks around Erin’s throat, still healing from the potion.
No. Anything could have happened. But no more. The future he’d been chasing vanished. And the skeleton grinned a mirthless grin.
He saw it all so clearly. The folly of his creation. His damned, worthless life. Toren raised his hands. He looked at Erin. And he did what he should have done long ago. A minute too late, now. Toren placed his hands together, curving them. And Erin stopped.
It was not one of Mrsha’s sign-words, or part of any language. But it was universal. Something even Erin could understand. She looked at Toren’s hands, placed just so. Forming a symbol that was nothing like reality. But one she knew, without ever having seen one in truth.
The skeleton looked at Erin. He held up the heart and faced her. He touched his chest, his skull, his burning gaze. And he pointed at her. The heart rose again.
It broke into two pieces.
Now, she understood him. Toren spoke, without words. Hoping she could hear the rest.
I’m so tired, Mother. If not even you love me, if there is no place for me in this strange, painful place, then why was I created at all?
Erin tried to speak. Choking, coughing. The skeleton stepped back. The sun shone on his bones. There was no magic here. Just him. Fading away.
I have nothing. And I—even she has something. But I don’t even know what I’m missing. I don’t know how to find it. And you won’t give it to me. You hate me.
“Toren. I—I thought you—please.”
You hate me.
He’d tried to kill her. Erin reached for him, but she was too weak. She fell to her knees. Toren looked at her.
Maybe there was a way back. But it was too far. And it all hurt too much. He nodded at her.
Mother. I just want to not worry anymore. To not feel pain. So look, Mother. Look at me.
His bones were trembling. The fire in his sockets were growing dim. Toren slowly reached up, feeling his skull.
I ____ you.
Hurt her. Erin tried to stand. Her mouth opened.
You should have never given me hope.
It was so easy. The skeleton found the base of his skull, gripped tight.
He pulled his skull off his body. The purple flames in his eyes went out. Erin made a sound. She stared into Toren’s eyes, the depths of his soul. And then nothing.
On a bright day, the last day of spring, a skeleton collapsed onto the ground. The skull fell from the hands, as the bones fell into a messy pile. The skull struck the ground, the jaw detached. And the empty socket stared up at the sky, as the young woman who ran and bent to pick it up. Nothing appeared in the sockets.
But it was smiling.
There was nothing grand about it. It was a silly little story. About a skeleton and a girl. Miscommunication. A wish one had, then the other. Then shared, a moment too late.
Ijvani nearly laughed. But her master was silent. He watched the young woman, Erin Solstice, kneeling there. They’d arrived too late except to watch. Now, the young woman stood up. She stumbled back into her inn. Making not a sound.
“Take the skeleton’s body, Ijvani. It is…unusual. Maintain the animation spell with your mana if possible. Make an imitation—no. Make a pile of ash infused with death magic; disperse it with the wind. Teleport back then.”
Ijvani approached, invisible, unheard. She bent over the broken bones. She paid no attention to the [Innkeeper]. After a while, she left.
Erin Solstice knelt in her broken inn and wept. She was bloody, battered. Injured. But she was in pain. She was hurt. Too late, she understood something she had never grasped. She had heard the silent scream, seen the pain, the longing, too late.
She understood now her failure. Erin sobbed, in the center of her ruined home. It stood, in that spring day. As its owner cried for what she’d thought was a thing.
And perhaps the inn was just a thing. Something creaked. Wood, disturbed by the fighting, shifted. It was probably just the fight.
Nevertheless. It was hers. It was part of her, and she of it. It defined her.
Long had it stood. Amid tears. During grief. Through triumph and victory, basked by glory and haunted by cowardice and treachery. The Wandering Inn had withstood it all.
Now, it was enough.
As Ijvani left, her hands holding the ivory remains, Toren’s skull flickered with a tiny spark. His soul screamed.
And the inn broke. It showered down around Erin Solstice, falling to pieces. The upper floors slowly collapsed, roof, beams, copper nails, all breaking at last. Raining down around the young woman. Until naught was left but rubble.
That, at least, was seen by the city. By the audience sitting in the sun of the baseball game. They turned. And the city over, people, ran. They rushed for the hill. Guests, enemies.
The Wandering Inn was gone. A pile of broken pieces lay on the hill. It was gone. The first of the people raced onto the hill, crying out, digging at the heavy wood. Searching.
Sometimes, the world hurt. Sometimes—the skeleton screamed, unheard, crying out for death. And a hand smacked his skull.
“Stop that. Noisy thing.”
Ijvani stared at Toren. And he stared up at her, into golden, burning flames. A beautiful gaze. Like his. And Toren’s scream stopped. Ijvani sighed and walked back into the cave. Going home.
The end was never the death of it all. It was always the beginning of something new. So the digging people found her kneeling there. Protected by a beam that had caught the weight of the inn. Erin Solstice wept as they carried her out.
Spring ended, and summer began on a quiet day.
[Magical Innkeeper Level 40!]
[Skill – Inn: Garden of Sanctuary obtained!]
[Skill – Like Fire, Memory obtained!]
I’m still a bit sick. But almost entirely better. You wouldn’t believe it to hear me cough. Hello. And welcome to the end of Volume 6. It probably could have been tightened up in parts.
It’s always imperfect. And it could always be better. But that’s the nature of this story, of web serials, of writing. What I enjoy is seeing people read it as soon as I publish it. That’s a rare gift to an author.
It’s not always easy. Sometimes I make grave errors. And as I say, nothing is as good as if I revised each draft. I’m going to publish this chapter after about 9 hours straight of writing and it could use a month, maybe even a year to sit and let me work on it. But that’s just not how it happens. And for putting up with my typos and inconsistencies, I thank you. For enjoying it? Thank you.
With that said, everyone needs breaks. Mine will last until January 18th, which is when I’ll post the first chapter of Volume 7. I think that’s enough time for me to recharge a bit, but I will try to take a break at least once every three months of around two weeks. That may seem like a lot, but I think it’s needed at this point to keep me refreshed to write like I do. If I need more, I will take more breaks.
But I do like writing. Despite how hard it is hard to write at times, despite my complaints. It’s a strange, wonderful problem I have. And I turned it into a job. How about that?
It’s been an interesting volume. Not one filled with war, or one overarching plot. It had high points and low points, good chapters, and bad chapters. But say it like that and it sounds like any other story. I hope you enjoyed it, though. Don’t you hate the book in your favorite series that just felt slow and you read or skip it when you go back to the series? I’d hate for Volume 6 to be that volume.
My hope is that while some chapters might not be good, there are always more good than bad. And that you’re with me. I know many are, in fact, the web serial has never been better. But there will always be the part of me that asks. After all, I’m just sitting here, writing, staring at a screen. I don’t read my story like other people do. But I’m glad you enjoy it.
We’re not done yet. And if you’re with me, let’s keep telling this frantic, relaxed, terrible, glorious, happy, and sad story. Thanks for reading and see you in Volume 7,