(A young woman from the Phillipines is a [Fisher] at the end of the world. The Last Tide, a comicbook illustrated by Shane Sandulak will be coming out this summer! Click on this link for more details!)
“Ooh. Oooh. Birds.”
The weyr of Wyverns flew through the sky. High, high overhead. So high that they were specks in the sky, despite their massive size. In fact, they really didn’t belong in the sky, not with how much they weighed and the limited lift their wings could provide.
But anyone doing that calculation had failed to factor in magic. And the Wyverns flew. Frost Wyverns, to be exact. Hundreds of them. Nearly a thousand. They were flying in a huge formation, leaving the High Passes.
Not fleeing. Not exactly, but they had been bested. A certain Dragon had forced them to abandon their challenge to his territory and in the way of such monsters, the Wyverns had to go. They weren’t happy about it. And the Wyvern Lord, far larger than his smaller clutch, was angry.
He passed over Liscor after a single look. Not because the city wouldn’t provide him with the opportunity to express his rage, not because it wasn’t inhabited by fleshy creatures he would dine on—but because it wasn’t large enough.
The Wyvern Lord glared down at the tiny figure of the Antinium crawling over the inn, the Drakes and Gnolls on the walls not quite yet aware of his presence. He snarled. Not enough! There were nearly a thousand of his kin behind him. Wyverns! The average adult could be anywhere from thirty to sixty feet from head to long, serpentine tail, and he was larger still. He wanted proper quarry, not this tiny city!
And bugs! Wyverns hated bugs. So the Wyvern Lord flew on, much to the disappointment of only one person.
Bird. The [Bird Hunter] stared up at the sky and waved hopefully upwards.
“Birds! Big birds! Come down, please?”
He stood in his ramshackle tower, bow in hand. He had a quiver of arrows beside him and now the Worker took aim. He sighted down the arrow, but even with all his Skills—the birds were far too high. Yet, Bird could see them.
“Birds. There are so many birds. One, two, three, four, five…”
He stared and amended the statement.
The concept of fear didn’t really occur to Bird, but in a vague way, he was aware that they were very big birds, and there were a lot of them. Bird, who’d had many conversations with Erin and Lyonette and Klbkch about this, debated raising an alarm. But the big birds were going away.
“Come back! Come back!”
The other Workers laboring on the second floor of the inn looked around as Bird waved all four arms pleadingly. But the weyr was on the move. Bird stared after them.
They flew off. Bird stared down at his feet. He stared around at his tower, and then looked at the nearest Worker.
“I must have a larger tower. When you build it, make it twice as tall as the city, please.”
The Worker stared at Bird. The [Bird Hunter] paused.
“Please and thanks?”
The flight of the Wyverns wasn’t noticed by Bird alone. Although it took one of the more far-sighted Gnolls on duty several more minutes than Bird to recognize them. When he saw, the Gnoll in question swore and shouted.
Senior Guardsman Jeiss came running at the tone in Beilmark’s voice. When she pointed the flight out to him the Drake fumbled for one of the magical eyeglasses, put it to his eyes, and swore.
“Sound the alarm? It would be when The Wandering Inn reopens! I knew it! You owe me seven silver if we survive! Dead gods, we have to get everyone in cover! There are hundreds!”
Beilmark howled in alarm. Liscor’s City Watch was looking up and even the most stalwart of Drakes was turning pale. So many Wyverns! But Jeiss held out a claw as Beilmark grabbed the horn on her belt and prepared to sound an alarm.
“Wait! Don’t sound the alarm just yet!”
“Are you mad? If this many attack—”
“I think they’re passing over.”
Beilmark froze. She whirled. More [Guards] were trying to sound the alarm. Beilmark quietly howled.
“Belay that! Send a runner to Watch Captain Zevara! Now!”
In silence, the Watch stared up as the Wyverns kept flying. They barely breathed as Zevara came at a run with Wing Commander Embria. The Drakes stared up at the Wyverns.
“Watch Captain, they’re passing.”
Jeiss, or Councilman Jeiss, a member of Liscor’s Council, was on duty. Unlike the former Councils, this current one was occupied by working-class Gnolls and Drakes who performed their jobs when not trying to steer Liscor in the direction they wanted. And in this moment, it was Zevara everyone looked to.
“Wing Commander Embria, thoughts?”
Embria swallowed hard.
“My 4th Company has brought down Wyverns before, Watch Captain. But speaking freely—if that weyr descends, I recommend everyone gets indoors and we hope the Wyverns can be driven off or lose interest. There has to be a thousand up there.”
“My thoughts. Ancestors.”
Zevara whispered. She’d been a Watch Captain in trying times. From undead boss monsters like Skinner to the Raskghar and Face-Eater Moths and even a near-siege and a Goblin Lord’s army, she’d held Liscor. But this threat chilled her. It was…very bad.
“But they’re passing. Look. They’re not even headed our way, but past us. Towards the Blood Fields.”
Jeiss spoke softly. Zevara saw it was true; the Wyverns were already halfway past Liscor as they flew high along the mountains to the west. And yet, and yet…Zevara had a communal thought.
“The Wandering Inn’s opening again.”
Along the wall, the City Watch looked at each other and murmured. A few [Guards] tugged their helmets low and groaned. They were, by and large, not largely superstitious. But Erin wasn’t folklore, she was a phenomenon observed and tested on the sliding scale of calamity.
“Ancestors preserve our scales, if the Wyverns attack Liscor, I’m going to tie that Human to a ship and send her to Rhir. Let her bring disaster to the Demons.”
Zevara muttered under her breath. Across the wall, Beilmark’s sharp ears picked up a Gnoll’s soft growl.
“—Could also be the white—Doombringer—”
Beilmark’s voice was overly loud. The Watch waited, tense, but the slow flight of the Wyverns was indeed unchanging. After a minute, then five, Zevara exhaled slowly.
So slowly. It was possible to almost see the dead, the terrible battle, and the weight of all of it easing from her shoulders. If you bottled that relief, you could…well, probably cure incontinence? Something like that.
“Senior Guardswoman Beilmark?”
“Yes, Watch Captain?”
Zevara turned. She nearly sagged, but discipline kept her spine straight. But she did smile, in pure relief. Then her mind was racing again.
“Send word to every city south of here! Priority-message to all the [Strategists] that a Wyvern migration is taking place! A huge one! Get me an estimate and speed on that weyr and let [Strategist] Olesm know!”
“At once, Watch Captain!”
Beilmark saluted. Across the wall, Embria and Zevara heard a faint cheer go up. And it was worthy of a cheer even if that cheer was for nothing happening. The two Drakes nodded at each other. Then Zevara had a thought.
“Wing Commander Embria, what do you suppose prompted the flight of Wyverns?”
The cheer stopped around her as if someone had kicked everyone in the throat. Embria’s head snapped around. She stared at the towering, shrouded heights of the High Passes.
“Something that can chase off Wyverns?”
“An Elder Creler?”
Someone moaned. Fear became infectious once again. Zevara held up a claw, looking around.
“I want eyes on the mountains. Anything moves up there, I want to know at once! It could just be a migration. I want that report out in ten minutes!”
The City Watch sprang into action. Drakes and Gnolls rushed to work. A [Message] was sent, and Olesm left The Wandering Inn in a minor panic. Even the celebrations at the inn ground to a halt—everyone had the same thought.
But nothing happened. The Watch waited, but no greater monster came. In time, they allowed themselves to relax. And they were right to do so. Because nothing was going to happen to Liscor, for once. Thank the smaller city. Thank the Antinium and the general distaste of Wyverns.
Liscor was safe.
Outside of Pallass’ walls, a young woman sighed. She stood in an idyllic place, a meadow next to a stream. The kind of place where you just had to imagine fishing for a few fresh-caught trout or whatever lived in streams, maybe rustle up some grub (the fish, not actual grubs) and enjoy the scenery while living in nature.
And indeed, the young woman had a fishing rod and a little long-handled net. She even had a tent, and the remains of a fireplace set up. She had been living here.
Or rather, vacationing. She was on holiday. But the holiday had ended. She felt it. Something in her bones, in her heart.
It was time to go home.
But she was far from it. In the distance, Pallass rose out of the ground, a huge fortress-city of four massive walls, rising into the sky. Against nature, the builders had erected the towering walls, hundreds of feet high, to guard their home against any threat. They had made it to be a symbol. To last forever.
From afar, it was no less towering. But the young woman could appreciate what lay outside of the city as well. She looked around and saw…peace.
There were no monsters here. No threats. Just wildlife, as she might find in her world. A fly buzzed past her and she swatted at it. But it was just a fly. Not an acidfly, glowing green and loaded with corrosive, flesh-eating acid. Or a huge hornetfly, able to literally bite out chunks of your arm. This was just a fly. She stared at it.
The fly left. And the young woman stared around. It was indeed the kind of place her father would have loved to come to, dragging his wife and his chess-loving daughter out of the house for some of that vaunted ‘quality time with nature’ she heard so much about. The said daughter, after living here for a while had to admit he might have been right. Grudgingly. And she’d never have said it to his face.
It was something, living on your own. There was satisfaction in catching your own meal and preparing it. It was rewarding. And it gave you time to think. That’s what she’d been doing for the last two weeks, really.
Thinking. Remembering. But now, it was time to go. Absently, the young woman began tidying up her camp.
“Let’s see. Fishing rod. Fishing net. Fire—better kick dirt over it. Um. Bedroll. Where’s my cooking stuff? Oh, right.”
She found a neat, washed set of utensils for cooking. Absently, the young woman picked up a frying pan, some utensils, a plate—she wasn’t a barbarian!—and then a kettle, some long-handled tongs, a…poker for poking things, flint, steel…
It was impossible for one person to hold all that without some very complex rearranging and strong arms, but the young woman wasn’t carrying all this gear. She had a small magic bag she kept tossing the items into, against the rules of physics. But the bag was magic, and while she was camping, she was not by any means roughing it. After a while, the young woman rose and dusted her hands.
“That’s it? That’s it.”
She looked around her camping spot. Save for her kicked-over fire spot, there was little sign she’d been out here for so long. Even so, the young American woman had to pause.
“Thanks. It was fun. Sort of. Too many bugs, but that wasn’t your fault.”
She waved around the campsite vaguely, as if it was able to listen. The young woman paused. Then she sighed.
“Time to go.”
Erin Solstice turned. She stared back towards Pallass in the distance. And she inhaled. After a moment, she sighed.
Waving it off, she trudged away from her campsite. She wasn’t lost. If the giant Walled City in the distance wasn’t a guide, well, Erin knew the surrounding area fairly well. She had about a mile to walk she guessed, so she walked at an ambling pace. She was still thinking.
This was Erin Solstice. [Innkeeper]. Rather, [Magical Innkeeper], and owner of The Wandering Inn. A young woman from Michigan, in another world. And a myth and legend, at least in one small Drake city named Liscor.
They told stories of her. The [Innkeeper] who could spit blood like an Oldblood Drake. Who tamed Goblins like [Beast Tamers] tamed monsters. Who owned a magical inn. And attracted trouble like metal in a storm.
The truth was a bit less amazing than the stories. But there was truth in each story, no matter how twisted. Erin poked at her stomach. She’d had a bad morning.
“Periods. Eugh. I need an Octavia potion.”
Magic was a wonderful thing. However disgusting other species and half of her species found her gender’s biological functions, menstruation was a fact of life. But in this world, people had done what science could not! They’d triumphed over the tyranny of reproduction!
Erin’s greatest discovery in life had been that [Alchemists] who catered to Humans could sell you a draught that cut down on your monthly week of cramps, bleeding, and grumpiness. For that reason alone, Erin considered her trip to another world to have not been in vain.
“You could sell it for gold. I mean, actual gold. Even on Earth. You’d be like…a billionaire. A trillionaire! Here Octavia is, looking for magical potions and whatnot, and she has that! Amazing!”
To be fair, the potion was commonplace and did account for some of an [Alchemist]’s income. But Erin was way more agog with it than, say, matches. But what was common to one world wasn’t true of the other. In her world, Erin could get in a car and move faster than almost anyone could dream of. She could, with minimal effort, buy a gun, a weapon far deadlier than any spear or sword. She could fly through the air at speeds no Garuda or Oldblood Drake could match.
But she couldn’t do magic. She couldn’t completely cure cramping each month, even with modern medicine. And she couldn’t…
Erin stopped. She cupped her hands and waited.
“[Like Fire, Memory].”
Nothing happened. Erin stared at her hands.
In theory, she should have been holding fire at this point. But she wasn’t completely able to master the new Skill she’d learned. Erin sighed and kept walking.
This world had a lot of things her world didn’t. For instance, if you got a Skill, you could jump higher than any athlete from her world. Erin was fairly sure she could lift as much as any guy her age who wasn’t a bodybuilder thanks to her [Lesser Strength] Skill. And there were far greater miracles people could pull off with the right Skill, like having skin as tough as iron, or arms made out of silver and steel.
But there were threats like Earth had never seen here too. Monsters. Erin Solstice had seen more than her fair share of monsters. She’d gone through trials and tribulations she’d never have dreamed of back home. And she was tired.
Not physically. But Erin wasn’t the infamously energetic, smiling, crazed [Innkeeper] that someone would have expected going off of the stories of her. At the moment, she was fairly quiet.
Still a bit eccentric, though. Erin began muttering to herself after a second.
“Okay, what do I say? Alright! Hey everyone! It’s me! Erin! Did you miss me? I—I brought souvenirs!”
She put on a big smile for no one in particular. After a moment, Erin sighed.
“…I need to buy souvenirs.”
At least for Mrsha. Maybe something nice to eat. Or—since Lyonette was worried about her weight—a ball. But Mrsha was getting older and Erin thought she was a fine weight. Lyonette was a [Princess] and she had a thing about being svelte. But Gnolls were big! Erin had never met a short Gnoll by Human standards; the shortest were still taller than her by a bit. And they were heavier too, by and large. It was all muscle. Usually.
“There are fat Gnolls. Like that [Senator]! Errif! Fat Gnolls. Hm. Maybe Lyonette has a point. Mrsha could use a ball. But she’s growing up! Maybe…a fishing rod? But all the fish around the inn are huge jerks that jump at you. No fishing rod. How about…a toy car? Would that be a toy wagon in this world?”
Erin knew she was distracting herself. She looked around as she wandered out of the meadow. This entire area lacked a road, but it bordered a decent forest and if you followed the stream back…Erin found herself skirting a large area of tall grass, up to her waist.
A voice called out. Erin’s head turned. She saw the grass move and jumped. A huge, furry Gnoll rose from the grass. No—two. Both carried slings. Erin blinked.
“Careful! We nearly nailed you! This is our hunting area. Are you lost?”
One of the Gnolls, female, called out to Erin. She sounded a bit put-out. Erin smiled apologetically.
“Sorry! I’m actually done, so I’m heading back. Am I going the right way?”
Erin had learned that a smile was magic. As magic as a spell. So was being honest. The aggrieved Gnoll’s expression faded and she nodded.
“Oh, you’re done? You’re on the right trail, then. Just head a bit to the left. And watch out! There’s a group with bows hunting along that forest and they shoot before they look.”
Erin eyed the forest and shook her head.
“I’ll walk around it, then. Unless I’m scaring off game?”
She looked at the two Gnolls hunting in the tall grass. The other female, with dusky fur, grinned. She held up a dead hare by the ears. It had a dented skull. Erin saw blood and felt bad for the creature, but the Gnoll just looked triumphant.
“No fear! There’s enough to go around. We bagged our breakfast already. Come on, Ferri. Good meeting you, Miss Human.”
The two Gnolls waved and Erin smiled and waved them off. She distinctly heard them talking as they disappeared into the tall grass.
“I didn’t know a Human was on one of these trips. So she’s the one by the stream.”
“Just goes to show, even Humans have good taste.”
The young woman had to smile. She kept walking around the tall grass which marked the two Gnoll’s hunting ground. The summer day was warm, but Erin was dressed lightly. She was more impressed by the two Gnolls in their fur coats. Erin stared at Pallass as she kept walking. It was far away. Miles and miles, but it was still a sight.
She imagined what it must be like, to live with this one landmark on the horizon each day. Of course, she’d lived in a city, but there was no grand thing that defined her existence there. Pallass was a symbol of Drake might. One of six in the world.
After a while, Erin realized she was stalling again. She sighed.
“How about I just walk in and wing it? No?”
Something was off. Erin Solstice knew it. She smiled. She tried to come up with something to say. ‘Sorry I’ve been away, but I’m so glad to see you all!’ Or—‘I can’t wait to show you my new Skills!’ Maybe—‘Hey! What did you do to my inn, Lyonette?’
But it just didn’t work. Erin’s smile slipped. She felt a bit artificial. A bit fake. Not because she didn’t mean every single word, but because…it was only half-true.
She could smile. But she couldn’t be…‘Erin’. The sort of Erin her friends deserved, the ones who wanted to see her smile and laugh. Part of her was still on break. Part of her was still thinking of him.
The skeleton. Her first [Barmaid]. Or…worker in the inn. Her undead servitor. What she had thought of as rather annoying, sometimes creepy, but useful…tool. He was dead. Erin was almost sure of it. And he had possessed a soul. He had attacked her, in her inn two weeks ago.
And it was her fault. Erin closed her eyes for a moment. She walked into a patch of tall grass.
Erin opened her eyes. She kept walking. But thoughts of Toren weighed on her mind.
She wasn’t sad about him. Or rather, it wasn’t just sadness. Erin had had a long time to think and she’d come to some conclusions. And she’d put some pieces together.
A ‘masked woman’ in the dungeon. Numbtongue’s encounter with a skeleton at Esthelm. At least some of the history that had led Toren to her inn on that fateful day had come together for Erin. He had come to see her. And if she’d listened. If she’d…
Erin shook her head. It was the same argument that had been playing over in her head for two weeks straight. Even knowing what she did, could Erin truly forgive Toren?
He had been…evil. Or he’d done evil, as evil as Erin understood the word. He’d killed Numbtongue’s friends. He’d stabbed Bevussa, killed people for no reason Erin could understand.
And it was her fault he’d gotten there.
Erin paused for a second. She would not forget that. Toren had become a murderous skeleton, who had killed dozens, maybe over a hundred people directly and indirectly. But that was her fault. How had he become like this? How had she never seen him becoming…
She knew he was intelligent. But she’d thought of him more like a…robot. With quirks. But Erin hadn’t made the leap of realizing he was a person. She remembered her last sight of him.
A heart, breaking. A skeleton laughing silently. Pulling off his head and crumpling into the ground. From bone to dust.
Erin touched her chest. She sighed. And her eyes found the summer sky.
Here was the thing. Erin Solstice was on holiday. She was off her holiday. She was coming back. And she had recovered.
Truly. Erin Solstice was not about to burst into tears, or wallow in grief. She had done that before, months ago after the battle with the Goblin Lord. After Zel Shivertail had died. After Skinner—after so much. If it was just grief, Erin might have pulled out of her funk long ago. No, this was similar, but different. It was a pall over her. Not grief, but guilt.
Guilt was a harder thing to bear than even sadness. Because Erin had been sad before. She had lost friends. She had seen tragedy and buried friends. But guilt?
Her guilt never left. Even after time. Erin could but close her eyes and her failures and guilt stung her. Toren was her fault. Hers, and hers alone.
Erin cupped her hands again. This time, something burned in them. She looked down.
“Fire. Why’s it blue?”
A small, blue flame with a core like a deep, glittering sapphire burned in Erin’s palms. She didn’t feel heat from the fire. But she had made it. Erin stared at the flame, mystified. Sometimes it appeared when she thought of Toren. She was using her Skill instinctually, but she didn’t know what it did.
Erin waved her hands vaguely, and the flames disappeared as she uncupped her palms. Erin jumped as bits of blue flame fell towards the grass. She stomped fast; in this heat, if they caught on the tall grass—but no, the blue flames died away.
Sighing in relief, Erin Solstice walked on. She was nearly at the meeting spot. She tried to smile, thinking of her friends and her family in this world, waiting for her. They deserved a happy Erin. But no matter how she tried…she couldn’t shake the blue flame burning in her mind.
“Alright everyone, this is the spot! Please remember your designated hunting areas! We don’t want accidents! We’ll be here for the next hour to help you, but after that you’re on your own! We will have at least one of our expert [Hunters] present at all times, but transport back to Pallass is once every morning!”
A quartet of Gnolls dressed in snazzy hunting uniforms complete with camouflaged caps addressed an excited group of fourteen or so Gnolls and a few Drakes getting off the padded wagons. The Gnoll were dressed for the hunt—overly so. But their clientele was even more outdone.
Hunting bows, slings, even a few throwing spears and throwing knives adorned the group listening to the leading Gnoll’s speech. They looked like they were armed for guerrilla warfare, and Thift, one of the Gnolls giving the speech, had to stop himself from rolling his eyes and laughing at their silly attire.
But then, he was dressed in the magical, color-shifting hunting gear he’d never wear if he was actually going hunting. It was overkill and the garb made him feel incredibly silly. But his job demanded he wear it and look the part, so he stood straight, the hunting bow and quiver on his back rubbing against his fur.
“Remember your whistles are only for emergencies, yes? But if you hear one, immediately return to this spot. Our [Hunters] will instantly respond to your distress call, but please blow them only for injury or monster sightings.”
The lead Gnoll, Terrisca, was still giving the standard orientation speech to the armed Gnolls and Drakes. Thift saw one of the Drakes put up a claw.
“Excuse me. How likely is it that we’ll see monsters?”
She looked vaguely worried. Thift saw her clutching her fishing rod rather uncertainly. Some of the other Gnolls and Drakes laughed, and Terrisca smiled.
“Not likely, Miss Teclaw. This land is under Pallass’ aegis. It’s one of the safest places on the continent!”
Thift nodded and pitched in with practiced timing.
“However, we take every precaution just to be safe. If you see any monster, even a slime, blow on your whistle at once. This area is regularly patrolled, but there are always exceptions. I heard there was a Creler infestation at the Bloodfields.”
Some of the clients shuddered and Terrisca shot Thift a quick glance. But she nodded after a second; better to have the clients a bit wary. Some of the Gnolls near the front murmured, but one of them spoke up with a quick grin.
“I’d rather like to find a monster. With a few good shots, I believe I could take down a…a Scrawgie or two!”
He flexed his shortbow and the others laughed. Thift tried not to let his expression change.
It took all of Thift’s control not to grimace. He bet none of this group had ever seen so much as a Sewer Slime before. They’d lived behind Pallass’ walls all their lives, and that was one of the safest places…anywhere. Indeed, he thought of the group he was leaving here as rather overfed and clueless.
But perhaps that was him being harsh. His clients had signed up for their exciting outdoor survival getaway. They were expected to hunt and prepare their meals, and they’d be sleeping out in the open—except for the few that had brought tents.
Even so, it was the kind of getaway only a City Gnoll or Drake would pay for. Plains Gnolls, of which Thift was one, were used to this lifestyle in general, not as some exciting venture.
“Remember, keep in your designated area! We don’t want anyone injuring each other while hunting! You may gain the [Hunter] class if you’re lucky!”
Terrisca smiled at her excited group. She pointed in the distance.
“There is also a fishing option; we have a plentiful lake and some of our [Fishers] have caught harvests there. If you’ve signed up for a creek spot, just remember to bury your waste far from the water!”
The Gnolls and Drakes nodded wisely. Thift sighed. Terrisca had neglected to mention that her outdoors organization paid said [Fishers] to stock the lake up ahead of their groups, and [Trappers] and [Hunters] also made sure there was game to be had. Frankly, if none of the clients bagged a single animal, he, Thift, would conclude it was because they were both blind and deaf.
But it would be fun. Terrisca let the clients go. Some instantly scattered, heading towards their designated hunting spots. A few looked quite sharp. Thift, the seasoned [Hunter] had to admit that the pair of Gnolls with hunting spears might actually bring down some of the deer scattered around the area.
“There, you see, Thift? That trio looks like they’ve hunted before.”
As the employees of Pallass Hunting, the company that ran this outdoors experience relaxed and fielded a few questions from their clients, Terrisca murmured to Thift. The Gnoll growled very quietly so no one but his coworkers would hear him. He nodded at the trio of two Drakes and a Gnoll who were moving in a single line towards a forest.
“I’ll admit, they can move quietly. But if they catch a deer, it’s only because they’re fenced into our ‘outdoor’ area.”
Terrisca cuffed Thift on the shoulder lightly.
“Don’t spoil their fun. They’ve paid up and it beats having to track one for miles. Most of these Gnolls and Drakes have jobs and don’t want to travel into the real wilderness.”
“I know, I know.”
Thift sighed. This was his second year working the spring-summer job with Pallass Hunting, and he couldn’t say that it was a bad job. He only had to stand around and give advice to rookies. Terrisca, who’d recruited him, grinned.
“Don’t be sour. And remember—smile.”
Thift glowered back at his second-cousin. He shifted as all four employees saw someone heading their way.
“Excuse me! Terribly sorry—”
“I’ll handle it.”
Terrisca waved at one of the Drakes whom they’d escorted here a few days ago. Thift eyed the anxious Drake, and he caught the distinct odor of bad feces on the wind. He coughed.
“Phew. What did they eat?”
One of the other Gnolls complained. They were used to bad scents, but even so—someone had had a very bad time. Thift listened as Terrisca talked to the anxious Drake, but he didn’t catch what they were saying. Terrisca spoke—then hurried back.
“Zeky. Barra. I need you to follow this Drake and help her and her group.”
The other two Gnolls looked up.
Thift hadn’t smelled blood, but the Drake woman was clearly in distress. Terrisca grimaced as she explained.
“This Drake’s group—they were fishing and hunting and caught enough game and fish, yes? But they must not have been experienced as they said. They—get this—they ate their game without gutting them. Or removing the entrails of their kills.”
The other Gnolls gagged.
“You mean, they ate the stomachs?”
Terrisca nodded. The other three [Hunters] stared at each other. Thift covered his mouth. Terrisca poked Barra as the other Gnoll’s shoulders began to shake.
“Don’t laugh! She can hear you!”
“But that’s—what did they eat?”
“Grass from the stomachs. And they were fishing with some of our bait. The hairy caterpillars.”
“And they didn’t notice?”
The other [Hunters] were in the middle of concealed hilarity. Thift saw the concerned Drake shifting from foot to foot. Terrisca’s lips twitched.
“They made a stew, apparently. Now they’re all having trouble. Zeky, Barra, give them something and show them how to clean their kills.”
“Aw, Terrisca! The smell—”
“Make sure they dispose of their waste too. No arguing!”
The two other Gnolls groaned, but they loped off towards the female Drake with little grumbling. Incidents like this happened. Even so—Thift and Terrisca waited until everyone was out of earshot, then they began laughing.
“Really? They didn’t know about removing the stomach?”
“All Drakes. Remember the group? I bet they’ve hunted, but they’ve always had someone prepare their kills.”
Thift slapped his thighs, chortling. Terrisca had to laugh for a while longer, then she spotted another Gnoll headed their way. No, a pair. This time Thift smelled the tension.
“Oops. Looks like a hunting area dispute.”
The female Gnoll sighed. That was another common issue where the would-be hunters got on each other’s nerves. They had a wide hunting area, but even so, Gnolls could be territorial when they were in the mood, and greenhorns even more so. She waved at Thift.
“We’re off in an hour. I’ll help you get as many complaints settled. Then you’re alone for the day.”
Thift sighed, but he relaxed near the two wagons that had brought everyone from Pallass. He’d set up his camp later. It wouldn’t be hard to get something to eat in these woods. Hopefully, no one would put an arrow through anyone else and he’d have a quiet night relaxing.
The Gnoll [Hunter] was thoughtfully thinking of what he wanted to eat tonight—he’d brought a number of spices to make any game he caught really pop—when he saw another client headed his way. With a sigh, Thift propelled himself up. Then he paused.
The Gnoll grimaced. He spotted the young Human woman from afar. Thift sniffed the air, but he didn’t smell any trouble coming from her. Nevertheless, he trotted towards her.
She was a problematic client, in the usual lineup Thift got working his job. Not because the young woman had been trouble the last two weeks she’d been here. But she worried Thift.
Because she was Human. It was just…Humans weren’t clients of Pallass Hunting. It was usually City Gnolls, and Drakes who were either significant others or wanted the same experience. Thift had been worried a Human would starve to death or do something incredibly stupid that would give their company a bad name. But apparently she was here on invitation by the owners of Tails and Scales, and Pallass Hunting wasn’t about to refuse such big-name clients.
“Anything wrong, Miss Solstice? How can we help you today?”
Thift smiled as the young woman approached. He looked her up and down, but she really seemed okay. No—wait—he smelled a faint odor of blood. Was she hurt? But the young woman gave him a smile.
“What? No, I’m fine. I’m actually done, so I thought I’d head back.”
“You are? I mean—how long have you been out here?”
“Um. Two weeks?”
The [Hunter] blinked. That was long, even for his most adventurous clients! But now he thought about it…he had dropped her off two weeks ago! He hadn’t seen her since. He gave the young woman another look, this time of grudging respect.
She didn’t seem malnourished. Thift coughed and gestured to the wagons.
“Well, we are all set to return within the hour, Miss Solstice. Do you have all of your equipment? Were there any incidents? I trust you enjoyed yourself?”
“What? Oh, yeah. I have the bag of holding right here. And I had a good time. Yeah. I was just fishing. I did some hunting, but I missed most of the time.”
“Really? That is a shame. If you’d like, I can run you through basic game hunting.”
Thift gingerly offered, but the young woman waved it away. She smiled.
“Nah. I was just throwing rocks. I have [Unerring Aim], but those darn rabbits are fast!”
“Ah. A very handy Skill. But rookie hunters usually forget to aim for where the target will be. You will almost always hit your mark, but you still must aim for the right spot.”
The Gnoll smiled encouragingly. What was this Human’s first name again? Something Solstice. She shrugged, unconcerned.
“Yeah. But I felt bad for the bunnies. I was mainly fishing. It was relaxing, since there’s lots of fish. And none of them have huge, sharp teeth.”
Thift had to pause again.
“There are fish with teeth where you live, Miss?”
“Oh yeah. Huge ones. And they jump at your face if you get too close to them. Total jerks. Huge. Like this big.”
The Gnoll stared at the young woman. He wanted to believe she was doing the classic exaggeration of the size of the fish, but she looked genuinely serious.
“Where do you come from, Miss Solstice?”
“Call me Erin. And I’m from Liscor, originally.”
She gave him a smile. Thift did a double-take and eyed her.
“Liscor? Well, that is far off. I hear it’s very…rustic.”
Wasn’t there a magical connection to Liscor these days? Thift had heard the rumor, but he hadn’t considered going himself. There was hunting, apparently, but he’d been told there were too many Shield Spider nests and giant crabs to make it worth hunting some Razorbeaks. But the young woman nodded.
“Oh yeah, it’s nice. But I couldn’t ever do this around Liscor. Too many monsters, y’know? A Rock Crab would sneak up on me as I slept and kill me. This was fun.”
She smiled again. Thift saw her look past him, towards Terrisca. The other Gnoll was waving at Thift and pointing. She probably had to sort out the dispute. He waved back, and turned to Erin Solstice.
“Well, I am delighted to know you’ve fared so well, Miss Erin. If you enjoyed yourself, please recommend us to, ah, your friends in Liscor. Pallass Hunting is here to give the real wildlife experience.”
“I will! And it was great.”
Erin Solstice smiled. But Thift felt embarrassed giving the canned line to her. Rock Crabs? He looked at her and caught the distinct odor of grilled fish. She didn’t look ill, so she must have prepared her catch properly too.
“If I may speak candidly, Miss Erin—”
“Hm? Oh yeah, sure. What’s up?”
She looked at him. Thift coughed, embarrassed.
“I’m surprised that a Human is so adept at living on their own. Are you a [Hunter], by any chance?”
She looked a bit embarrassed and pleased at the question.
“What, me? Nah, I’m an [Innkeeper].”
Thift stared at her. Erin flapped one hand vaguely.
“Yeah, but on holiday. Don’t worry, I knew what’s what. Hey, did you hear about that group that ate their fish without gutting them? Ick. I only did that twice. And you can eat entrails, if you clean ‘em. Obviously.”
“Obviously. And er, you’ve had an easy time skinning and preparing your game? We do have some clients who don’t do well with blood. But if you have any pelts, Pallass Hunting can sell whatever you’ve got.”
“Really? Well, I ruined the rabbit I caught. My knife was too sharp, so it kept going through the skin. See?”
She showed him the knife at her side. It was a kitchen knife, nothing like what Thift carried. But the edge—the Gnoll was about to test it, but Erin’s warning made him look twice.
“That is a wicked edge.”
“Right? And it hasn’t even grown dull. Well, I had to use one of the knives you guys gave me.”
“Who made this blade? It’s very impressive.”
Thift stared at the gleaming metal. Erin laughed.
“That? It was sharpened by Lorent. You know him?”
“Of course. I go to him for some of my sharpening. But the blacksmith? I don’t see a signature, but it’s clearly a master’s work…”
“Oh, it was made by Pelt.”
The [Hunter] nearly dropped the blade.
“Pelt? You mean, the Pelt? The Dwarf?”
Erin took the knife back as Thift stared at her. This time the [Hunter] looked Erin Solstice up and down. Not as a strange Human but fully. He saw the way she stood. Smelled the faint blood on her hands. And from somewhere else. But mostly, he looked at her. She smiled at him, but the smile was…
“Are the wagons going straight back to Pallass?”
“Yes, Miss. Directly—we may have to take on the sick group, but we will try to put them in a separate wagon. Downwind.”
“Good idea. Thanks. I’ll go wait over by the wagons if that’s cool? It was fun. Thanks. Thift, right?”
Thift nodded. Wait, she remembered his name? He saw Erin wander over to the wagons as more Gnolls and Drakes, done with their own time hunting, wandered back. Some looked fed up, others exhilarated by their experience. They boarded the wagons as Terrisca and the other [Hunters] came back. Thift remained as people boarded the wagons, chattering, showing off skinned pelts or trophies.
Erin Solstice stood alone. She smiled and chatted with some of the Drakes and Gnolls who approached her in much the same way Thift did, but she had no group. And when no one was approaching her…she looked lost, standing there. Staring at her hands. At Pallass.
“Last call! We are headed back to Pallass!”
Terrisca called out. Erin Solstice started and headed to one of the wagons. Thift couldn’t help it. He trotted after her.
“Huh? Oops, did I forget anything? Wait. Am I tipping? Is that a thing?”
Erin Solstice fumbled for her belt. Thift stopped her, even though he’d never turn down a tip—which he’d never actually gotten.
“No. I’m sorry, Miss Solstice. It’s just…I wanted to ask something.”
Erin turned to him with a smile. But—Thift looked at her face.
“I don’t believe you had an enjoyable time with Pallass Hunting, did you, Miss Erin?”
She paused. And Thift saw her smile fade. Erin glanced towards the wagons, and then nodded at him.
“Maybe not. But it was what I needed. It was nice, Mister Thift. But it’s time to go back.”
She paused, and then turned away. Thift saw her board a wagon as a pair of Gnolls gave her a paw up. Erin sat on the wagon and turned back. She waved as the wagons drove off. But Thift kept watching. And, too late, he wondered who she was. Each of his clients had a story. But Erin’s was one Thift would have liked to know. He saw the young woman disappear, heading back towards Pallass. And Thift thought he would have liked to hear her laugh.
Erin Solstice’s ride back to Pallass was smooth. Drakes and Gnolls chattered around her, but she tuned them out. She sat in the summer’s warmth, staring over the side of the wagon.
And she saw the land around Pallass. It wasn’t what she had imagined. Similar, but so different from Celum. To Earth.
Erin saw a Drake [Farmer]. Just…tilling a field. It was strangely normal, seeing him working with a hat on, and clothing that, while not as iconic as the farmer’s from Erin’s world, were similar in function.
She watched. She listened. And she saw. Differences. Like how the farm had a windmill, and how it was partially irrigated as the wagons crossed over a river. But she saw more.
It was so peaceful, here. There were no monsters. The land around Pallass was like Earth in that there was safety. The Walled City kept away threats. There was no walking into a Shield Spider nest if you strayed outside the city. The worst the clients of the Pallass Hunting experience faced was bad poops.
Thift’s question to Erin stayed with her as she rode. She wondered what the Gnoll thought of her, to ask that question. She wasn’t sad, but guilty. But she couldn’t have explained that to him in the brief window of time she’d had before getting on the wagon.
Erin was thinking. She was thinking of the rabbit she’d killed two days ago. She’d killed it, and then stared at it. She hadn’t wept for the rabbit, barely more than a bunny. Did that mean she was jaded? But she’d eaten it. She might have been horrified at the idea before coming to this world.
Now, Erin thought it was fine. She’d killed an innocent creature, but she’d eaten it. If she hadn’t eaten it, she’d be a monster. No, that wasn’t right. But you had to eat what you killed. Just like these Gnolls and Drakes—they enjoyed hunting, but they ate what they killed. And that was a kind of fair. But this was for their own enjoyment.
There was no right answer, but Erin was thinking. What did the rabbit think before she hit it with the rock? What did Thift think about his job? What did he think of her?
She wanted to know. That was what Erin realized. She wanted to know, to reach into the Gnoll’s head and figure out what he thought of her. And she would have liked to talk to him. To know…
More. Erin had a perverse thought—there was a skeleton trapped in everyone. But was the skeleton laughing or crying? What did people’s inner skeleton say? Did she know anyone?
Montressa du Valeross was still around Liscor. No, she and Beza and Palt had taken Isceil’s body south through Pallass’ door. But they might be back now. Erin thought of Palt.
“Stoner Centaur dude.”
But wasn’t that the same as saying ‘my stupid undead skeleton, Toren’? Didn’t that trivialize him? Erin closed her eyes. And she thought that summed up her conclusion over two weeks.
She was good at maneuvering people. Like chess pieces. But had Erin ever stopped and asked what the pieces on the chess board thought?
“Well, no. They’re chess pieces. But people…”
One of the Gnolls looked at her oddly. Erin smiled, and wondered what she thought. She didn’t really want to know. Erin wasn’t interested in everyone’s personal life story. But maybe if she and that Gnoll got to talking, she’d find out more.
Erin had lots of friends. But sometimes, she felt like she was the shallow one. Her life intersected with so many people and Erin knew only a few of them deeply. She knew Relc’s past, but she didn’t know more than what she’d heard. She knew Klbkch was known as Klbkch the Slayer, but she had never asked him about it.
Erin felt shallow. She felt different. She wanted to…change. At least a little bit. But she didn’t know how. She looked up at Pallass as the swift-moving wagons carried them back.
“I’ll be different. A little bit. I have to be.”
“That’s right. It’s a changing experience, isn’t it?”
Erin looked around. The female Gnoll nodded solemnly at her. She smiled at Erin.
“It was your first hunt, wasn’t it? I shot my first deer. Skinned, cooked, and ate it. I have the pelt—I’ll turn it into something. It felt good. Connecting with my ancestral roots. Life changing.”
She nodded solemnly. Erin stared at her, and then nodded as well. She smiled.
“Yeah. It was deep.”
The female Gnoll nodded wisely and sat back. And Erin Solstice turned her head up to the sky and thought. You never really knew anyone in this world, did you? How could you?
Ninth Floor. The [Smiths] of Pallass were already hard at work. The forges rang as the day opened. On lower floors, people could hear the distant ringing sounds. And if you lived under the forges, you simply had to invest in a few good silencing spells. For in the City of Invention, the forges never stopped.
Literally. The smiths working the vast forges that gave Pallass its reputation for good, quality steel worked day and night. They started their day in the forge and didn’t leave until the sun had long since sunk past Pallass’ walls. Sometimes, not even when the moon was high overhead. And there were always night shifts, [Farriers] making emergency shoes, sudden requests from the [Engineers] for a ‘gear’, or even more outlandish things.
But that was Pallass. Of the six Walled Cities, Pallass was spontaneity and change. The [Alchemists] came up with new potions, the [Engineers] had built the elevators that carried goods from floor to floor. And someone was always coming up with something new.
Like the Gnoll that kept jumping off the walls. People called him the Flying Gnoll, or ‘that idiot with the wings’. Since he didn’t fly so much as fall each attempt. But he was an example of what made Pallass…Pallass. A character.
And if the Flying Gnoll was a face that defined Pallass, another one was the grumpy Dwarf named Pelt. He stumbled into his forge late morning, badly hung over.
A Drake was waiting for him. Whether Pelt knew her actual name was debatable, although she was his one apprentice, unlike Maughin’s team of journey-smiths and apprentices. The Dullahan was already hard at work making new steel and equipment. And the famed [Armorer] was hard at work himself.
Forging a flail, of all things. It didn’t suit Maughin the Armorer, who made…armor, but everyone on the ninth knew it was for his romantic interest that had sparked scandal and rumor across Pallass’ Dullahan community. He was dating a Selphid. Imagine! Jelaqua of the Halfseekers.
Pelt didn’t care, although he spared one glare for Maughin delicately forging links of chain for the flail. He glared at everything. The Dwarf [Smith] was renowned in his own way as the Flying Gnoll of Pallass.
This is what people said of Pallass’ [Smiths]. There used to be two other masters. Drakes, but Salazsar stole one of them, the greedy lizards. And the other one, Old Quaiss, he was a master. But he died. Terrible tragedy, but he was old. Now, the two new best [Smiths] are Maughin and Pelt. Maughin’s lower-leveled, but he does quality work. You want reliable steel you can enchant? You go to Maughin.
But if you want genius, you go to Pelt. If the Dwarf’s in a good mood, he’ll make you something unsurpassed. But that’s as rare as a Dullahan smiling; otherwise you’re throwing gold at a cat.
That was the catch. For all of it, Pelt didn’t lack for work. And his apprentice hurried over to him.
“There’s that sword you were commissioned to make, Master Pelt. And one of the new gears.”
“What? Shut up! My head hurts.”
Pelt swiped at his apprentice, hunting for his hammer. She scurried out of his way and Maughin shot Pelt a glare over his forge. It was by design he and Pelt normally forged next to each other. Maughin wasn’t happy about the drunk Dwarf being his company, but lesser [Smiths] found Pelt even harder to abide because the Dwarf could and did sneer at lesser smithing. More than one time the Watch had been forced to break up fights that Pelt had started with his insults.
“Another damn gear? What do they want now?”
“This is the shape, sir.”
Pelt stared at the convoluted gear with tons of tiny teeth and an odd central space shaped like an ‘s’. It was tricky—and even more oddly, square.
“More experiments. It’s not gonna turn properly.”
“The [Engineers] are paying, Master. They say the teeth cannot snap—”
“Then get some other [Smith] to do it and enchant it!”
The Dwarf snapped at his apprentice. She winced.
“Apparently it needs to be very strong, Master. So they need the highest grade enchantment—”
She got no further because Pelt clutched at his head.
“Fine. Fine! Shut up and start the forge fire. I’ll make it. Get me my billets.”
The Drake hurried around the forge as Pelt finally found his hammer. The Dwarf sat, cradling his head, while she brought out the steel and started the fire, shoveling charcoal into the custom-made furnaces that were part of Pallass’ genius.
The other part was obviously the steel. The forges of Pallass produced excellent blades of course, but half of being a [Smith] was just making the very metals they forged into shape. In fact, you could argue that shaping metal was only an afterthought. If the steel wasn’t good, what was the point of taking it to a hammer?
But Pallass was known for its steel. And it churned out much of the quality steel that armed Drakes across southern Izril. It imported ores from its mines along the High Passes, and the steel was good. But Pelt never used any of the cheap steel provided to the [Smiths].
He made his own. In fact, the Dwarf was obsessed with the purity of his metals. It was a known fact. He’d discard steel that other smiths would happily use, steel that was far purer than even Pallass’ best products. The Dwarf was a master among masters, but he had so many faults that it was no wonder that Maughin was considered the better choice and received orders from [Generals] and rich clients far more than Pelt.
“What shall we begin with today, Master?”
“…Who’s paying us more?”
“The sword, Master.”
“Then the sword. Get me steel in the furnace.”
Pelt waved his hammer. Obligingly, his apprentice put steel in the forge. Pelt closed his eyes. But then he opened them. The Dwarf’s eyes fixed on the fire his apprentice had just started in his furnace. And he stopped.
It was another day in Pallass. And there should have been nothing interesting—except whether Pelt would actually swing his hammer or just boss his Drake apprentice around all day. But something happened.
It was just one face in millions. A silent figure, waiting at one of the gates aboard a pair of wagons populated mostly by Gnolls and a pair of Drakes. A young Human woman, staring at her hands and thinking. But it mattered. For Pelt stared at his flames and paused.
She started, looking up guiltily from cleaning the forge. Pelt was exacting about cleanliness in his forge as well. The Dwarf rounded on her.
“What did you do to the fire?”
“You didn’t put anything into the charcoal? Let me see.”
Pelt pushed past her as she offered him the charcoal, wondering what she’d done wrong. He inspected the black charcoal, split two open with his fingers. Then he looked around.
“Not my fire. But where is it?”
The Dwarf didn’t answer. After a second of looking around he strode out of the forge.
“Something’s off. Oi. Maughin!”
He bellowed at the Dullahan. The huge [Armorer] paused as he brought his hammer down.
“Pelt. What’s troubling you?”
Today was the unspoken addition to Maughin’s question. Pelt ignored the tone of the Dullahan’s voice.
“Are you using something different in your forge today? Salt? Something from those [Alchemists]?”
The Dwarf pointed his hammer at Maughin. The Dullahan paused. He frowned past Pelt at the Drake apprentice. She spread her claws helplessly as Pelt glared. Maughin shook his head.
“I’m using the same forge I always have. No magic.”
Pelt, scowling, looked around. He paused. Stared at his forge fire.
Maughin stared at Pelt, bewildered by the Dwarf’s antics. Pelt didn’t reply. He glared around, and then snorted. He stomped back into the forge without another world.
“Master? Is everything alright?”
The Drake apprentice looked at Pelt worriedly. He stared at the steel heating in the fire. Then he tossed his hammer down.
“I don’t feel like hammering a damn sword for some Drake fool today. You do it.”
“But Master Pelt—!”
The Dwarf snapped at the Drake. He stomped off. Maughin glared at Pelt’s back and gave the Drake apprentice a sympathetic look. She wavered, but then snatched up the tongs and checked the steel in the forge anxiously. And Pelt took an undeserved break. The Dwarf stomped over to a corner of the forge and dragged something out.
One of the unique items Pelt’s apprentice had to relocate every time they changed locations was a chair. A sling chair, to be precise. It was more like a bench than a chair. Made up of crossed legs and a stretched canvas top, it was simple in design. However, this one was unique in that the frame was made of steel. Pelt had forged it himself on a whim.
Light, sturdy, and not really the kind of thing you wanted in a forge, even if only the stretched hide was flammable. But Pelt kept it around. Now, he lay down on it, grabbed a pair of gloves, and put them over his eyes. He could stretch out fully on the chair without issue. The Dwarf sagged backwards, already dozing.
Some of the other [Smiths] who could see Pelt glared at the Dwarf. A Gnoll [Blacksmith] paused in hammering and glared at the Dwarf as his apprentice did the job that was Pelt’s responsibility.
“That damn Dwarf doesn’t deserve his place on this floor.”
It was a sentiment shared by many. Pelt was making his apprentice do work he’d promised to do himself! It was an open secret it happened. Just look at him, sleeping away!
That was Pelt. The disgracefully unsurpassed drunkard of the ninth. He was indeed lazy. And rude. And ill-tempered. And napping while his apprentice anxiously took the steel billet out and placed it on the anvil. He could sleep even with the forges ringing around him.
But he was listening. As the young Drake began hammering, she began stretching out the heated metal, attempting to forge out the rough shape of the sword before it would be quenched, tempered, ground to sharpness, the edge honed…oh, and a handle constructed, fitted, and the countless other little details that made a blade even usable.
She was good—good enough that she could take over for her master. But obviously, far from a master herself. The other [Smiths] believed, rightly, that she’d never make a sword of the quality that Pelt had promised, thus disgracing the Dwarf further, if that were possible. But that was only her alone.
As the Drake hammered the metal thinner and thinner, trying to keep it even and straight, Pelt spoke up about twenty minutes into the hammering.
“Too thin halfway up the blade. Start over.”
The Drake started. The Dwarf never moved from his comatose spot. Nor did he adjust the gloves over his eyes. But—she looked down at her steel. And she saw that the middle was indeed too thin.
Blushing and ashamed, the Drake dropped the steel next to the anvil. She grabbed another billet of prepared steel and tossed it into the forge to heat. She could see Maughin looking at her sympathetically. He must have thought she’d caught her own mistake. He glared at Pelt. But the apprentice was relieved.
Her name was Emessa, a fact which she sometimes wondered if Pelt knew. He just called her ‘apprentice’, like the last six apprentices he’d had over the year. She was the longest to work under him by far. But who cared about Emessa? What secrets did she have?
A few. If you looked, if you cared, and if you asked her, Emessa might tell you more than you expected. For instance, the reason why she worked for her ill-tempered boss wasn’t what most would expect.
She’d received offers from other [Smiths], including Maughin himself to take on her apprenticeship, but turned them all down. Emessa knew that her fellow apprentices didn’t understand why she’d work for the infamous Pelt, and she got a lot of questions whenever they talked. But they didn’t understand.
In a way, being Pelt’s apprentice was the most comforting position to be in, for Emessa at least. As she heated the steel, the Drake anxiously checked the temperature, trying to eyeball the proper temperature to beat it into shape at. Too cool and she’d begin to crack the blade as she worked. Too hot, and the steel would scale over too fast, form crystals, and just waste time.
Emessa had completed the basics of her apprenticeship, but on this summer day it was harder to identify the proper color. She risked taking the steel out and gave it a few strikes with the hammer. But before her third one even landed she heard a bark from behind her.
“Not hot enough. Heat it properly. Six more minutes!”
Pelt’s growled voice made Emessa start. She put the metal back in the fire. And that was the thing. He might be lazy, grumpy, and rude, but Pelt was still…Pelt.
He was a Dwarf. But even among Dwarves, Pelt was a master. He could uncover flaws in metal just by sight alone, even when it was covered by scaling. He knew when metal was too hot to quench, too thin—Emessa couldn’t count how many blades he’d made her scrap for some slight imperfection.
And he could monitor her even with his eyes closed. She’d tried to figure out if he peeked, but as far as she could tell, he didn’t. He could just hear her mistakes.
He didn’t respond. And he wouldn’t until she made another mistake. But that was why Emessa loved being his apprentice. It was so…
Easy. She didn’t have to worry about the quality of her blade, just making mistakes. If Pelt didn’t snarl at her and tell her to start over, by the time Emessa finished a blade, it would be as good as Maughin’s work. She would know the steel had been heat-treated perfectly, know it had no imperfections. What a relief!
That was the nightmare of every apprentice—no, every [Blacksmith] in existence. That there was some hidden flaw they couldn’t see. But only Emessa lived without it. Because Pelt made almost no mistakes, or if they were there, they were microscopic fractures. He had a problem with anything short of perfection, but Emessa would take near-perfection.
Emessa took the steel out of the fire after six minutes and began hammering. Pelt listened, his eyes closed. He might snap her blade even after she’d finished it, for a slight flaw, a delamination in the metal or an improper heat-treatment. In that case, Emessa would just start over. She’d level up. And she’d learn, and she’d earn the pittance Pelt paid her. It was fine by her.
And he—Emessa knew her master. He was always like this. Even when he was in the mood to forge, he seldom did it with anything more than desultory effort. He was always like this; making quality with ease, but with the barest of effort to pay for his livelihood. Never more than that.
Never…Emessa paused. The rhythm of her hammer striking steel, striking anvil, then striking steel faltered. Pelt swore at her and she hurriedly resumed the rhythm. The Drake was thinking, though.
Sometimes Pelt was in a good mood. And then he created masterpieces. Emessa had seen him do it twice. No—three times. She remembered when he’d forged the kitchen knife for that Human girl. She remembered the perfection in the way he’d shaped metal, faster than any smith, better than Maughin himself.
And the ending. Pelt, staggering away from a blade with the smallest of cracks. A tiny imperfection in the steel had caused him to flee his forge as if ghosts haunted it. And he hadn’t come back for four days. Emessa had been forced to drag him to work after he’d drunk enough to be thrown out of eight different pubs.
Something had happened with Pelt, long ago. He was paranoid of flaws in his steel. Something had broken her ill-tempered master. And Emessa, like a [Smith], wondered if the flaw had gone to the very core of Pelt’s being. If you could even fix what was wrong with him or if he was damaged beyond repair.
The Drake’s hammer hit the metal harder. Emessa’s sinewy arms moved, striking harder. Fine, then! Let the other smiths mock him. And let the apprentices scorn her. They didn’t see Pelt for what he was. And they didn’t understand how Emessa adored her master.
There they were, then. A Drake girl too afraid to be her own [Smith] and a lazy master. No—a broken one. They complimented each other.
Emessa messed up again as she forged the tip. She’d gotten too excited, thinned out the tip of the sword. She stared at the piece. Normally she could thin the blade, snap the tip off and shape a new one, but she knew Pelt would break the blade before he let her do that. A sword must be sturdy as well as light! Sadly, she cast the steel to the ground. They’d repurpose it, at least. She turned for a third billet, wincing, waiting for Pelt to curse her out—
And stopped. She saw the Dwarf, heavier set than a Human man and shorter too, about five foot four, staring at the furnace’s flames. He looked up, looked straight through Emessa.
“I’m sorry, Master. The tip—”
The Dwarf [Smith] ignored her. He turned back to the fire. He was staring into the heart of the forge.
“The fire’s all wrong today.”
The Dwarf was staring into the heat. Emessa copied him, wondering what he was seeing that she couldn’t. The flames were hot enough to bring steel to forging temperatures quickly. But Pelt was staring at something she couldn’t sense.
“Is Xif doing something? No. No, it’s magic. One of those [Mages]? No. Something—a Skill.”
“Master? Is something wrong with the fire?”
He shook his head. The Dwarf’s beard moved as he murmured.
“Something…feh. It’s her again. Feels like it.”
So saying, he stared down at something, straight through the forge floor. The bewildered Drake stared at Pelt.
Pelt started. He looked around as if he was only now realizing he was talking to Emessa. Then he stared at her sword.
“You thinned the tip? You idiotic clod!”
His roar drowned out the other forges. Emessa winced, but she was at least on solid ground now.
“I’m sorry, Master Pelt. I’ll start over.”
She had the steel billet of metal ready to go a third time, but Pelt shook his head.
“Leave it. And bring me the mithril!”
Emessa gaped at him. But then she dashed for Pelt’s bag of holding, which held many precious tools of his trade, including some of the metal he used. She saw Maughin’s head rise from his anvil; the Dullahan had good ears and Pelt, like any [Smith], shouted above the din.
“What’s the type of sword I’m supposed to make?”
“A basket-hilt, Master.”
“Cavalry? Or just a damn showoff?”
Pelt growled. The basket-hilted sword was a sword with a guard shaped like a basket, to protect the hand. It was a sword used for cutting and thrusting that [Riders] liked to use in the military. Emessa hurried back with something in her claws.
What she and Maughin saw was a glow brighter than silver. A beautiful square of metal, rounded at the edges, came out of a cloth wrapping. Emessa’s breath caught, and a few [Smiths] who’d heard Pelt stared.
This was the other reason she worked for him. Because Pelt, of the few smiths in Pallass, perhaps the world, could work more than just varieties of steel. The mithril shone in Emessa’s claws, unbelievably light. And hard. The metal was legendary. Pelt stared at it and flicked it with one finger. He was not impressed.
“This all we have? It’s not even pure! It’s an alloy. Well, I need an alloy, but…did we buy this crap?”
“No, Master. You made it.”
Emessa reverentially offered it to Pelt. The square wasn’t that large; Mithril was expensive. In fact, Emessa was worried on seeing it because there wasn’t much. Pelt stared at the metal. He didn’t handle it with care. He grabbed it, and tapped it on the anvil. The metal rang, a pure note like a bell. The Dwarf peered at it.
“I don’t remember. When’d I make this?”
“When you were drunk, master.”
The Dwarf paused. He eyed the block of metal.
“Fine. There’s enough for an edge. Which is what I was probably intending…what’d I put in this? Not wolfram. Dwarfsteel—?”
Emessa listened sharply. Pelt tapped the metal with his hammer, trying to figure out what he’d done to it. She wanted to know too; he hadn’t taught her how to refine mithril. This metal, like so many in his collection, he’d made in secret. Moreover, he was talking in code as he guessed to the composition of this particular bit of mithril.
Dwarfsteel was an alloy. That much she was certain about; a special alloy made of some unique material that gave Terandrian arms made by the Dwarves their reputation as some of the finest weaponry money could buy. But every smith worth their anvil knew that. Techniques to working metals, forging points—the world of blacksmithing was as competitive and secretive as any royal court.
Knowing Dwarfsteel existed wasn’t huge. Knowledge of how to make it? Pallass would pay a lot for it, but Pelt refused to talk about the metal.
Wolfram now…that was new. Emessa made a tiny note to ask an [Alchemist] about it later, or a [Miner]. She had no idea how it might be used, though, and Pelt knew any number of combinations.
At last, the Dwarf seemed to come to a conclusion. He weighted the metal on the side of his hammer, lifting it up and down, measuring the weight against the weight of pure mithril he must have memorized and eying the color. He snapped his fingers. The pop made Emessa jump.
“Ah. Aaah. Truegold. Buggering kings, why did I make it with…? A ghost slayer? Huh. Well, it’ll do. This’ll be a fancy magic mithril blade. Worth lots of money.”
He grinned then, and Emessa smiled too. Gold was a simple addiction the both of them shared. Just one of Pelt’s masterpieces would put them ahead of all the days when she had to take up his slack.
The Dwarf glanced up.
Emessa ran for the Dwarf’s supplies. Now he’d decided to work, she did everything in her power to encourage his moment of inspiration. Pelt snatched two stocks of steel from the selection she fanned out for him.
“You’re making a sandwich, Master?”
“[Cooks] make sandwiches. I’m making a layer weld. Shut up and add more charcoal. This forge needs to be hot to move the damn Mithril. Hold on—”
The Dwarf pointed at the bellows.
“That. Give. And hand me the charcoal.”
When Emessa did, Pelt hurled it into the forge. The fire roared and he took the bellows, stoking it with powerful strokes. Emessa backed away. The forge was twice as hot in an instant! He was using a Skill to push the forge far past its intended heat.
“Master! You’ll crack the forge—”
“Shut up! More charcoal!”
Emessa watched as the fire grew hotter. Pelt was grinning as the flames roared out of the forge.
“Mithril needs to be hot. Can’t forge it to another substance before its damned hot—but it’ll cook lesser metals. Like the steel. So you have to keep a balance. Understand? This is how. You have a second to beat it together.”
He had two flat pieces of steel ready to go. He pointed at them, and Emessa watched. Pelt was a poor teacher, but there was nothing like seeing him work. He turned and roared.
“You watching, Maughin?”
Across the distance, the Dullahan jumped guiltily and missed his swing on his anvil. Pelt laughed derisively—at himself or Maughin, you couldn’t have said—and turned back to the Mithril. It was heating up in the blaze and Emessa couldn’t even get close.
The Dwarf flicked the tongs up, grabbed the mithril, and slammed it onto the anvil. The mithril was so hot that Emessa was sure it would melt through even the hardened anvil steel—but Pelt was quick! He raised his hammer and brought it down.
And the mithril moved. The first impact shook the entire anvil. Emessa swore the huge anvil jumped. Pelt growled.
“Should have bolted it to the ground. Lazy—useless—weaklings!”
His hammer fell so fast Emessa couldn’t catch it. A blur—the mithril deformed. She knew what Pelt was doing as he grabbed two bits of iron.
“Quick! Amateurs need time! Mithril isn’t something you play games with!”
Pelt efficiently folded the metal, forge-welding the mithril between the plain, but strong steel bars he’d taken out. It was something the Dwarf was known to do—3-layer construction of a blade was a technique that put a hard metal ‘core’ that would become the blade’s edge between two softer, resilient metals that would cushion said edge and give the sword cutting edge while keeping a shock-absorbent spine.
It was a skillful technique, Emessa knew, and one that compensated for a lack of quality material while combining the properties of other metals. And it was even harder since Pelt was forging a sword with edges on two sides, thus with two edges to expose and keep clear of the iron. But she knew that the real reason Pelt used the technique so often was simply that the Dwarf was cheap.
With 3-layer welding, he could sell a blade with a mithril edge and use a fraction of the material. Not that anyone would use a pure mithril blade anyways unless it was a dagger or something—even so.
“Can’t let the steel burn up. Mithril doesn’t crack easy. See?”
Pelt was hammering fast. The mithril was already losing the insane heat it had taken at the start, enough so that the iron was welding to it. He was shaping the blade, the tip, the edges—
In truth, he was nearly done. Aside from moving the mithril at the start, he’d taken three long pieces of metal almost the size of the sword. The trick of tricks had been forge-welding the entire piece without a flaw. And he’d done it so fast!
Emessa watched, taking as many mental notes as possible as she saw Pelt continue his work. Soon, he had what he wanted; mithril along either edge and an iron core.
“Won’t it deform, master?”
“The mithril keeps it in shape. Steel’ll probably bend eventually. Who cares? Someone will pay thousands of gold for it. The trick now is quenching the mithril while keeping the middle from melting. Get me clay.”
The Dwarf spoke smugly. Emessa heard a grunt from Maughin. Disapproving. As she fumbled for a pot of the clay the Dwarf wanted, she reflected that it would be a trick selling the mithril-and-steel blade. Whoever bought it might not realize that the steel cladding would make the blade weaker. It would have a cutting edge and be light and fast—but it was a skimping use of mithril.
No wonder Maughin disapproved. But there was a saying among Pallass’ smiths: you could criticize a master on their work only if your tongue could keep up with their hammer. And because it was Pelt, even Maughin had to keep silent.
The process of making a sword was involved, but Pelt stopped right after he’d forged the blade to his satisfaction. He held up the sword after he’d done an edge quench of both mithril sides while leaving the steel interior far cooler. The Dwarf eyed the metal and Emessa knew he was seeking any flaw, any weak spot.
She held her breath. If he found even a grain of sand or dirt in the blade, even along the edge, he might snap the blade, or hurl it away. If he did, Emessa hoped he’d leave her something to sell, even if she turned the pieces into a dagger. His forge had expenses after all.
But the Dwarf didn’t break the blade. He grunted, and with a flick, tossed the now-cooled blade onto the anvil. Dismissively. The blade shone, and the edges looked like glowing silver. Emessa had never forged a blade half as beautiful. But Pelt looked at it as if it were trash.
“Done. Put a handle on it and do the guard.”
Pelt turned away. As if the beautiful blade he’d worked on was nothing. And—it wasn’t. Emessa looked at her master and saw the Dwarf settle down on the sling-chair. He sighed. Then grinned up at the ceiling.
“That’ll shut him up. And make sure to raise the price! Triple it and if that Drake won’t pay, find someone else.”
Emessa stared at the finished sword. Pelt’s trash. And she looked up and saw Maughin staring at the beautiful sword. Then at his unfinished flail.
That was why Pelt’s apprentices quit. Not just because of his abuse. Any apprentice would suffer the worst of masters to learn secrets of smithing. No, it was the way Pelt could make masterpieces beyond any other smith and still treat them like trash. His contempt for himself and his art was what tore your heart to pieces.
Emessa took the half-finished sword. She’d have to sharpen it with a special method, or give it to Lorent. And the handle—she’d do her best, but it would be plain compared to what it deserved. And she had to wonder…would she ever make something so beautiful? Then she looked at Pelt. Her master was snoring.
Could she ever make a blade half as good as something he could toss contemptuously aside? Emessa’s heart hurt. With a bowed head, she began to hunt for metal to make the basket guard. And her master slept, while far below, a young woman rode an elevator and walked randomly around the Walled City of Pallass.
“Monster sighting! North-northwest!”
The bellowed word made a Gnoll’s head snap up. On Pallass’ wall, dozens of heads in earshot turned and armed Drakes, Gnolls, Garuda, and Dullahans all turned to the shout. But it was a single Gnoll who ran to the shouter.
The Watch Captain on wall-duty for the day was not Watch Captain Venim. She was a Gnoll named Rekhassha who had the duty. It was normally light work that involved standing around, not the busier task of managing the affairs of such a huge Walled City. And in fact, Pallass had multiple Watch Captains, unlike smaller cities due to the sheer necessity of it.
Rekhassha skidded to a stop. She snapped at the Garuda pointing at something in the distance. Rekhassha’s eyes were good, but she couldn’t even see what had alarmed the Garuda. She growled.
“What is it?”
“[Scout] Sixt, Watch Captain! I spot a large number of shapes headed this way! It’s at the edge of my vision, but whatever it is, they’re large.”
The Garuda pointed and the Watch Captain fumbled one of the newfangled glass scout-scopes to her eyes. The spyglass, a product of Pallass’ ingenuity, was less costly than a magical artifact, even with the necessity of glass and the construction, but it had flaws. Among them—Rekhassha cursed as she tried to wipe the lens. Some fur-brained idiot had scratched the glass!
“I see it.”
At last, she spotted the distant flight Sixt had pointed out. The Garuda was clearly nervous, although the dots were tiny on Rekhassha’s vision. Then she thought about how big something had to be to be visible from that far away. She turned her head and raised her voice.
“Day Strategist requested! North-northwest!”
A Drake came over at a fast trot. The Drake in question was also not Pallass’ sole [Strategist], but simply the one assigned to the walls this morning. He heard out Sixt, but unlike Rekhassha, only nodded calmly.
“It has to be the Wyvern migration called in by Liscor. I just received word from two northern settlements about the sightings. You are aware of the migration, Watch Captain? I sent copies to both Watch Captains on duty.”
He turned a proving look towards the Gnoll. Rekhassha paused.
“I didn’t receive the missive, Day Strategist.”
She looked past him as the Drake sniffed disapprovingly. The [Scout], Sixt, looked past both Watch Captain and Day Strategist, pretending not to hear or see them for a moment. Rekhassha didn’t blush, although she knew her fur would cover it if she did.
In theory, Watch Captains were supposed to review any priority-message to Pallass, but they actually came more often than you thought. Jumped-up [Tacticians] could issue one if they saw fit and while a rogue Livingtree was cause for alarm for a small Drake village—no. Not for Pallass.
“I see. Well, the priority message I read clearly mentioned a Wyvern weyr heading this way. A quite large one. I shall copy the documents for you.”
“No need, Day Strategist. I shall request a new copy. Which was clearly lost.”
Rekhassha gritted her teeth. She tried not to glare at the Drake [Strategist]. He was going to write her up! For missing one stupid priority message? The Drake pretended not to notice her look.
It was hard rising in the ranks in Pallass as a Gnoll. Not as hard as a Garuda or Dullahan, which was why there was no Watch Captain of either race, but just because she hadn’t completed her training at Manus, Rekhassha felt like she got written up twice as often as Venim or the other Drakes.
“Were there any casualties from the weyr’s passing so far, Day Strategist?”
“None at all, Watch Captain. Nor do I personally find this flight alarming. We’ll confirm the migratory report, of course. Get me a Garuda [Spotter] or [Scout] with movement and sight Skills. I want an accurate count of the Wyverns.”
The [Strategist] briskly turned to [Scout] Sixt. The Garuda nodded and Watch Captain Rekhassha tried not to glare. The Day Strategist was well within his rights to demand all of it. Even if she was in charge overall.
He was just doing his job. She resisted the urge to pick him up and toss him over Pallass’ walls. Instead, Rekhassha turned her attention to the weyr and analyzed it for threats. They were just specks you could only see with a spyglass for now, but there were lots of them.
“What if they come this way? Shouldn’t we alert the [General]? Prepare the 1st Army…? Or Strategist Chaldion—”
The Day Strategist twitched at Chaldion’s name. He swished his tail, and Rekhassha thought she’d insulted his pride by insinuating they go to a superior [Strategist]. He spoke quickly and irritably.
“There is no need. The situation is under control. I will send an immediate request to mobilize Pallass’ 1st and 4th armies. This migration obviously cannot be allowed to settle or roam unchecked. We may bait them with a large herd and attack them while they slumber.”
Rekhassha relented. She folded her arms as Sixt returned with a pair of Garuda. She let the Day Strategist rattle off orders as if she wasn’t there. The Watch Captain turned to Sixt and nodded at the distant Wyverns.
“Keep an eye on them. They’re still an hour away, at least.”
“At least, Watch Captain.”
She nodded. Then, annoyed, Rekhassha stomped off to read a damn report about Wyverns. She wasn’t very concerned. Pallass had armies, and the walls. The Wyverns would never get close to the city. But her vacation might get cancelled due to some idiot Drake writing her up!
She wondered what it was like to be a Gnoll in Liscor. Better, perhaps. She heard their Council actually had Gnolls on it. More than just a token few! Imagine! In a Drake city…
Did they need good Watch Captains?
“Hm. Maybe I should just sneak back through the door. No—wait, that won’t work. Maybe I should get Lasica and Rufelt to come with me. Or Grimalkin. But he’s always like ‘no, only if you tell me how treadmills work. I’m muscular! Testicles! Blah, blah…’”
Erin Solstice walked through Pallass. Past streets, entire floors built into the side of the Walled City. She walked in the shade, as the higher floors partially blocked out the sun. Thus, Pallass has any number of magical lights providing a second daylight. It was odd, to not see the sky, but a stone ceiling. But people had painted the ceiling!
The eighth floor Erin was doing a slow circuit of was home to the magical door that would bring her to The Wandering Inn and Liscor. But the ninth floor, where the [Smiths] and [Alchemists] worked, lay above it. And so part of the eighth floor was overshadowed by the bottom of the ninth floor, providing welcome shade in the summer.
But also a blank, grey overhead. That had to get depressing. So the colorful illustrations and designs overhead were a delight to see. Erin hadn’t noticed them before; they weren’t all over, but apparently they were drawn by enterprising youths of all species. Gnolls and Drakes would climb up and draw, but it was the Dullahans who could remotely control their body parts and the flying Garuda who were most infamous for it.
Tagging. Graffiti. They were literally doing just that! It wasn’t as bright as some of the graffiti as Erin’s world; the children of Pallass lacked for some of the artificial pigments. But it was no less expressive. Erin saw a few spots that had been clearly painted over, but she saw names, illustrations—
Of magic and monsters. That was the difference. If Earth had graffiti of both outlandish pictures and reality, this world had the same—but reality was strange as fiction. Erin smiled as she saw a stylized Dragon with feathers instead of wings.
“Wow. That’s a good artist.”
“It’s an eyesore, that’s what.”
Someone muttered as Erin passed by. She eyed the Dullahan who scowled upwards while his body carried his head in a basket. Erin stuck out her tongue at his armored back and winced when she saw his head glaring back at her.
Erin sighed. She liked the art. But apparently the residents of Pallass regarded it as youthful vandalism. The Watch didn’t get rid of all of the art, though, just the offensive stuff. To Erin, it was like a breath of home.
“Home. I should really go.”
Guiltily, Erin looked across the eighth floor. She’d done one lap around the magical door, then two. She was procrastinating. Avoiding walking through the magic door.
She knew there was no point to it. But Erin was still reluctant to go back. To be part of the celebration that was surely going on at the inn. She wanted to see her friends.
But it was hard to go off holiday. Hard to go back and try to do everything the same. But different. It had to be different, but what was different?
Her [Garden of Sanctuary]? Erin hadn’t used her Skill yet and she couldn’t imagine what it would be. Or her Skill, [Like Fire, Memory]? Erin had leveled, but she felt less excitement in her Skills. Because at least one was…
Erin cupped her hands together.
She tried to conjure a flame. But nothing happened. Thoughtfully, Erin ignored the two Garuda teenagers pointing at her.
“So it’s all about what I’m remembering, huh? What about—when I had breakfast?”
She put her hands together.
“Fried fish, fried fish, fried fish…”
Nothing. Erin sighed. She folded her arms. Causal memories didn’t work. She probably had to remember something vivid. And right now, she could only remember one thing.
His memory provoked a blue flame. Beautiful, but…Erin hadn’t tried doing anything with it. Looking at it made her too sad. It hurt.
“What a lousy Skill. What’s it good for, huh?”
Erin sighed. She was in the dumps. She slapped her cheeks.
“Alright. I’m gonna get back, and smile, and I’ll figure it all out! Cheerful! Cheerful! You hear me?”
She shook her fist at the sky. At this, the two Garuda had come over.
“Hey, Miss Human. Are you alright?”
A laughing pair of young male Garuda flew over to her. Erin blinked at their bright plumage. One of them, with a dark black tip on his beak, held out a hand.
“Are you lost? We can show you around.”
“Nah, I’m fine. I’m just practicing a new Skill.”
The two Garuda looked interested. One of them nudged the other.
“Told you. Hey, Miss Human, show us. This is Weki, and I’m Assaln.”
One of those names did not sound like the other. The Garuda blushed.
“My parents thought it was better to have a Drake name.”
He rolled his eyes along with Weki. Erin smiled.
“It’s not bad. My name’s Erin.”
“Hey! Can we show you around the city, Erin?”
“Nah, I’m really alright. I’ve got to go home—”
“Oh, you live here? I haven’t seen you around. And Humans are rare in Pallass! Want to have a drink with us? We know all the sights!”
The two Garuda had a habit of half-flying, half walking. Erin began walking towards one of the staircases, trying to fend them off.
“I’m actually going out of the city—thanks for the invitation.”
“Come on. We don’t get many Humans in Pallass. At least show us your Skill! What are you, a [Cook]? Something to do with fire? A [Smith]?”
“No, I’m an [Innkeeper]—”
“Oho! Where’s your inn?”
The two Garuda elbowed each other. They were actually getting on Erin’s nerves a bit. She wasn’t used to being flirted with, especially not by two…she had to imagine they were at least two years younger than her. Plus, they were bad at it.
“In another city. Liscor, actually.”
“Wait, you mean Liscor, Liscor? Why don’t we go with you! Through the door! I heard anyone can!”
“Not everyone can.”
Erin found herself on the grand staircase, one of four that let people go between floors traditionally rather than by elevator. Weki looked at his friend.
“We could go with you. See your inn.”
“I don’t think the [Guards] will let you.”
“As if they could stop us! We’ll just fly through after you, how about that?”
Incredibly annoying. Erin could just imagine the trouble she’d get in with the surly Drake [Guardsman], Kel, or Watch Captain Venim. In fact, what if the two Garuda ran into Bird?
This was exactly the kind of catastrophe she didn’t need to bring to Lyonette. Plus, why were two Garudas hitting on her? Now of all times? Erin sighed.
“I’m not interested. Shoo, please?”
“Hey! You’re wounding us! You’re the first Human we’ve seen in…months! The first one our age! Come on, Miss! Show us your Skill. And at least let us show you around.”
“No. And no. How old are you two?”
“Old enough for you.”
Assaln tried to give Erin a meaningful look. She gave him a flat stare. Relc was better than this. Maybe it was just that these two Garuda seemed so young. Erin knew Lyonette was their age, but she was far older than them mentally. But Lyonette had grown up. These children were like…
Children from home. Erin sighed.
“Please go away.”
“Come on. At least humor us?”
Erin was walking along the edge of the eighth floor. She was on the right section now. Maybe she could get someone to chase the Garuda off when she got to the door. Exasperated, and knowing it wouldn’t work, she snapped at them.
“If I show you the Skill, will you leave?”
That was a lie. But Erin was also curious about her own Skill. She wondered if the blue flame was different from….regular fire. She’d only held it until now, not wanting to accidentally burn down her campsite. But if one of these two Garuda burned his feathers touching her fire, she wouldn’t mind.
So Erin halted in the street next to a balcony that kept her from falling over the edge of the eighth floor. A huge drop down onto the seventh floor awaited anyone who went over the edge. And below that, the sixth floor, the fifth—you could stare down into the heart of Pallass from here.
Unconcerned, Weki and Assaln hovered in the air over the balcony’s edge. They were flying, showing off their feathers. Jostling to show Erin their brilliant plumage. Peacocking. The word had never made as much sense as it did now. Erin saw a Dullahan girl passing by and rolling her eyes as she carried her head.
Erin cupped her palms together. She focused. It wasn’t hard to come up with a memory to conjure the blue flame. And her irritation over the two young Garuda, her anxiety over going home…all faded away.
Toren. She saw a heart breaking. Erin saw the light in his eyes go out. She felt hands around her throat. Evil. Good. Was it what he was or hadn’t she seen? She closed her eyes and her hands sought the flame as the two Garuda laughed. Let this chase them away. Her grief.
[Like Fire, Mem—
“You! Human! I knew it was you!”
Erin jumped. The two Garuda did a double-take in the air. The roar made everyone around Erin look up. She stared up—
And saw, on a balcony high above her, a short figure. Pelt, his face red, bellowed down at Erin from the ninth floor.
“Stop messing with my forge fire or I’ll put this hammer in your skull!”
Erin was so surprised she completely lost focus. No flame appeared, but Pelt’s roar was no less furious.
“Every damn time! Use that Skill one more time and I’ll come down there and break both kneecaps!”
“Hey! It’s the mad Dwarf!”
Weki half-cawed uncertainly. He pointed up at Pelt. Assaln flew up effortlessly through the air. He shouted at Pelt.
“Lay off the Human, you old drunkard! We’re with her!”
“No they’re not! And what did I do?”
“Get lost, you feathered ducks!”
Pelt roared at Assaln. He had a hammer in his hand and he swung it at the Garuda. Assaln dodged back.
“Hey! Watch it! We’re with the Human, so—”
“I said. Get. Lost.”
Pelt roared. He threw the hammer. It spiraled past Assaln’s face. So fast that the shocked Garuda only dodge afterwards. Erin heard a gasp and a scream from Assaln. The spinning metal hammer was heavy and Pelt had thrown it fast.
“He’s out of his mind!”
Weki shouted. Erin turned, shouting.
“Watch out below! Hammer—”
She saw the hammer curving around in the air. It spun back towards Pelt. The Dwarf caught it. He aimed it at Weki.
“Get lost or it’s going through your head!”
The two Garuda hesitated. Pelt drew back and they fled. Erin was vaguely amused to see them flying down, shouting about insane Dwarves. She waved up at Pelt.
“Use that Skill again and it’s hitting you! You damned empty-headed Human!”
Pelt swore at Erin. Her gratitude ebbed. But the Dwarf’s rage was curious.
“What did I do?”
Erin shouted up, but Pelt had already vanished. Erin looked around—everyone in earshot was staring at her.
Erin hurried off. She ran back towards the stairs and went up them. Pallass’ residents cursed at her.
“Wrong side, idiot! This side’s going down!”
Erin hurried to the other staircase. She was panting when she reached the top of the stairs. It was a workout going from floor to floor. Lots of climbing. She looked around.
The forges were hard at work. Erin heard the familiar, rhythmic clang of metal on metal. She stepped towards them, circumnavigating the pedestrian’s walkway. She saw Maughin at one forge. And then Pelt.
The Dullahan turned at Erin’s voice. He waved one hand to her—or rather, his torso did. His head was lying on a little pillow next to his anvil. Erin waved at him, but she didn’t come over as he bellowed a query. Instead, she headed towards Pelt’s forge.
The Dwarf was lying on the sling-chair, arms folded, gloves on his head. His apprentice was hard at work, shaping some thin metal in a complex pattern. And there was a sword, lying on the anvil.
Erin eyed the sword. It was beautiful. It had yet to be polished and ground, so parts of it were black with oxidization, but along the edge of the sword was a band of pure, silvery metal. No—silver was dull compared to the color this metal gave off. She had only seen metal so beautiful and shining once before.
Mithril. Erin felt at her belt pouch for a coin. Then she paused, looked at the Dwarf.
He flipped the gloves off his eyes and stared up at her.
“Buggering kings. What do you want? Get lost!”
“I—thanks for chasing away those Garuda. They were bothering me.”
Pelt just stared at Erin. The Drake apprentice working on the metal muttered under her breath.
“You’re going to be in trouble, Master.”
“For what? Throwing a hammer at those bird nuisances? Shut up! And I didn’t do it for you, woman.”
The Dwarf cursed at her too, throwing a glove at the Drake. It bounced off her arm. Erin glared at Pelt.
“Hey! Don’t be a jerk!”
“I said, get lost. This is my forge! What in the hells do you want?”
The Dwarf glowered at Erin. She put her hands on her hips.
“I was trying to thank you! And ask what you meant! What do you mean, I messed with your fire?”
“You know exactly what I mean, you lead-brained piece of scrap iron! You’ve been fucking with my forge fire all day! One more time and I’ll break your hands!”
Pelt flailed for his hammer lying next to his sling, but didn’t have the energy to get up himself. Erin stared at him.
“Wait. You mean, the blue flame? But I wasn’t anywhere near your forge! And I didn’t even use it!”
“So? It’s fire! Do you think I’m an idiot? You’re blasting that thing all over the place—apprentice! Throw this Human out!”
“Master, I don’t think she knows what you’re talking about—”
The Drake avoided the second glove. Erin folded her arms.
“Your apprentice is right! I have no clue! How did my little Skill affect you all the way up here? All I’m doing is making fire!”
Pelt’s face turned as red as a beet. Or at least, a red beet. He inhaled to scream at Erin and seemed to realize she wasn’t about to leave. In a strangled voice, the Dwarf pointed at the fire that his apprentice was working with.
“It’s not natural. It’s magical fire. I can feel you making it. It’s distracting. And it will interfere with my metals. If I was forging truegold it would ruin the process!”
Erin raised her eyebrows. She glanced at the sword. Erin was no [Metallurgist], but she had eyes.
“And were you forging with truegold?”
The Dwarf uttered an oath. Erin shook her head.
“That’s what I thought. I’m sorry if I’m making you sensitive—”
The Drake apprentice chuckled. Pelt looked around for something to throw, but he was out of nearby objects.
“—but I’m testing out a new Skill! And I don’t know how it works!”
“Test it somewhere else! I don’t need to feel every time you make a half-baked flame.”
“But why are you so sensitive?”
“I’m not sensitive, I’m a grandfathers damned [Blacksmith]! Of course I can feel magical flame! Anyone who can’t is a useless lump who doesn’t deserve to pick up a hammer! Which is apparently everyone in Pallass!”
Pelt howled at Erin. Across the ninth floor, hammers stopped ringing for a second. Erin hesitated.
“Um. Okay. Sorry.”
The Dwarf stared at Erin.
She threw up her hands.
“Fine. I was trying to say thank you! I didn’t mean to do anything with the fire, so I’ll stop! Thank you for chasing away those Garuda you huge jerk!”
She shouted back at Pelt, using a touch of her [Loud Voice] Skill. His eyes rolled up in his head. Erin realized he was not only grumpy, but hung over. She smirked as his apprentice covered a grin and turned to go. She’d talk to Maughin, maybe bring him back to the inn. Erin was feeling more the thing. She was tired of flirting Garuda boys and mean Dwarves! Time to go back—
Erin was walking out of Pelt’s forge when she heard a strangled noise. She ignored it—until a hand seized her lower arm.
Erin whirled. Pelt was on his feet. And suddenly—the Dwarf was right there. She stared down at him. Erin wasn’t tall and Dwarves weren’t as short as she was given to believe. And Pelt was—
Right there. The Dwarf’s eyes were huge. And suddenly—he wasn’t angry. His big hand suddenly held Erin’s arm. As tight as a vise. As tight as steel itself.
“That’s my knife.”
“What? I’m sorry. Huh?”
Erin tried to yank away reflexively. But Pelt was just staring at her. No—not her. Her butt! Erin was outraged—then she heard him. She twisted and realized his knife was hanging from her belt.
“Oh. The kitchen knife—”
“I made that. Back with that stupid competition. That’s my knife.”
Pelt looked at the knife, tucked in the sheathe. Erin tried to smile. But suddenly she felt a tiny alarm ringing in her head.
[Dangersense]. And the Drake apprentice had put down her hammer, looking at her master warily.
“Yeah, um, I remember it too. You did an amazing job! Maughin gave me the knife, and I took it to Lorent and he said it was brilliant, so I’ve been using it ever since. It’s amazing. Thank—”
“It was flawed.”
Pelt’s voice was low. His eyes were wide in his face. And it was bloodless suddenly, not flushed with color. Erin’s stomach jumped. She tried to tug away, but it felt like Pelt had turned to stone. He was unbelievably strong.
“No, it was a tiny crack. Maughin ground it off in a moment! And it’s great knife. Actually, I’ve been meaning to pay you back for it.”
“It was flawed.”
There was something wrong with the Dwarf’s voice. It was strangled. Horrified. And something else was mixed with it. Pure, raw emotion. The kind of emotion Erin recognized. She had heard Montressa speaking Pisces’ name with it. She had heard it in her own voice.
A pure note of madness.
“I’m—it wasn’t that flawed. Look, I’m sorry about the competition. But it was really—”
“It’s flawed. A flaw! A disgrace!”
Pelt’s voice rose, and now there was a note of hysteria in it. He grabbed for the knife and Erin wrestled away.
“Hey! Wait a second!”
Emessa dropped her hammer and hurried over. She grabbed at her master, but Pelt was focused on the knife.
“Flawed. Flawed. Give it to me! I have to erase it!”
“Hey! That’s my knife! Wait—wait!”
Erin might have pulled the knife off and given it to Pelt if she could. She was afraid—the Dwarf was yanking her arm so hard she was shouting with pain. He was pulling it out of the socket! His eyes were wide, his face staring.
“Pelt! Stop! I’ll give it to you!”
The Dwarf didn’t reply. He was grabbing at the knife, trying to tear it off Erin. And he was going to break her arm! The [Innkeeper] felt his hand grinding her bone. She cried out in agony.
A huge hand grabbed Pelt’s arm. Maughin had come charging out of his forge. The huge Dullahan [Smith] grabbed Pelt. Erin felt the immense power of Maughin’s arm trying to force Pelt to let go of her arm. Emessa had hold of Pelt’s other arm that was trying to tear the knife off Erin’s belt.
“Master, let her go!”
“Pelt! Let go!”
The Dwarf screamed. He was fighting both smiths now. Maughin gasped as he finally tore Pelt’s hand off Erin. She staggered away, trying not to scream in pain. She fumbled for one of her emergency healing potions. Then she heard a scream.
“Give me that knife!”
Pelt lunged. Both Emessa and Maughin caught him, wrestling him back. But the Dwarf was as strong as Maughin despite his size! Two more journeymen smiths rushed out of Maughin’s forge, and a burly Drake from another. They grabbed Pelt.
“Stop him! Hold him back!”
Maughin shoved at Erin. She stumbled back. Her skin was crushed where Pelt had grabbed her. She heard the Dwarf screaming, heard fighting as she tried not to cry out. The potion went down her throat and the pain—eased—
The white mist around Erin’s vision cleared. She hadn’t even known it was there until the pain subsided. Then she could think. She heard shouting, Maughin’s deep voice—and then silence. When Erin’s arm finally healed and she could take a shuddering breath, she saw Pelt lying on the forge floor.
The Dwarf had a bleeding nose and busted lip. Someone had hit him hard. The other smiths were panting, staring at Pelt. Maughin spoke shakily to Erin.
“Are you alright?”
“My arm—but it’s fine.”
Erin shakily indicated the arm. Some of the blood from the crushed spot was still there, but fading as her tissues reabsorbed it at speed. Maughin nodded and whirled on Pelt.
“Disgraceful. And you call yourself a smith?”
“My knife. Flaw in the steel.”
The Dwarf stared up at the ceiling. Erin saw one of the Drake smiths spit. Maughin’s voice was thunderous.
“You call that a flaw? And you’d attack a young woman for it? You nearly tore her arm off!”
Pelt didn’t respond. He was staring at the ceiling. Erin saw liquid running from his eyes. Red seeped from his mouth and nose. Maughin turned away.
“You should go. This isn’t a matter for the Watch.”
He informed Erin, looking at her gravely. Erin opened and closed her mouth. She saw the other smiths returning to their forge, warily. Maughin covered his face.
“I’m sorry. I would have never given you that knife had I known. It may be better to break it. But it is made so well—do not bring it here, I think.”
“R-right. I’m sorry.”
“You did nothing wrong.”
The Dullahan’s voice was flat. And his face was expressionless as he detached it from his shoulders. Erin knew he was furious. Jelaqua had told her that Dullahans went cold and impassive the angrier they got. She looked at him, and then at Emessa, standing at her forge, staring down at her master.
Maughin didn’t respond. Erin turned away. Now she felt—shocked. Shaken. She turned away.
Erin Solstice walked slowly along the lines of silent forges. Someone began beating metal again, and sound—quieter, resumed. The young woman walked very slowly. What had happened? Why had Pelt gone berserk?
But she knew part of the reason. Something about metal. And the competition where she’d goaded him and Maughin into making her a blade…Erin stared down at the belt knife. Pelt had nearly torn her belt off her. She looked at the knife, in its little sheathe.
Was this her fault too?
Erin looked up. Then she turned around. She ran back towards Pelt’s forge. Maughin saw her and called out, but Erin skidded into the forge. Emessa whirled.
Pelt was still lying on the floor. He looked up as Erin stopped, panting.
She thrust the knife at him. Pelt stared at it. His hand shot up and he grabbed the knife. He unsheathed it. Steel, folded alongside iron shone in his grip. He looked at it. At Erin.
She looked down at him. The Dwarf said nothing. He was still bleeding. And crying, she saw. His apprentice watched silently as Maughin thundered back over. The Dullahan stopped when he saw Pelt and the knife. But the Dwarf was silent. He stared at the knife, then looked at Erin.
“I’m sorry. Is it—wrong? Is something wrong with the blade?”
The Dwarf spoke hollowly. Maughin inhaled roughly behind him.
“Flawed? There was a single crack, a tiny imperfection in your steel! I took it out in a heartbeat! That knife has no flaw.”
“An imperfection in the steel. Where there is one, there may be more. My fault. I should have checked the steel.”
Pelt’s voice was completely flat. His eyes stared straight through Erin, at something else. She recognized that, too. Slowly, cautiously, Erin bent.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have taken it.”
“You did nothing—”
Maughin stopped as Erin looked at him. The Dullahan threw up his hands in a rare display of frustration and stomped away. Erin knew he was angry, but she was focused all on Pelt.
“I’ll uh, I’ll find some wood for the handle, master.”
Emessa backed away into the other section of the forge. Pelt was just sitting now, staring at the knife. Erin looked at him.
“Why does it matter that much?”
He didn’t answer.
“You have to break it?”
“This is my sin.”
His voice was hollow. Erin nodded.
“I am sorry. I didn’t know. Or—I knew, but I didn’t think it was a big deal.”
“You and that giant armored bastard.”
That was a bit like the old Pelt. Erin let it go. She sat down next to Pelt.
“I think it’s beautiful.”
Pelt finally looked at her. His voice trembled.
“You know nothing. Don’t act like you know metal, you Human vixen. You’re no better than females from home! Always tricking, sly—”
His hands shook on the blade. Erin saw the sheathed edge digging into his palm. And his words stung. She glared at him. But then—relented. There was a mortal pain in his eyes. She tried one last time.
“I really am sorry. I didn’t think about how you’d feel. About the blade. And the competition. I did trick you. I feel awful, seeing how you—I’m so sorry.”
He didn’t respond. Pelt was just trembling, staring at the steel, working through something of his own. Erin lowered her head. He was ignoring her, now. And why not?
I’m sorry. I’m sad. Those were just words, after all. Who knew what you meant by them? It could just be a lie. Erin had every right to be angry. And she should be! She was! But she also wanted Pelt to know she was sorry for the things that were her fault. She had hurt him as badly as Toren. With thoughtlessness. But that could still cut as deeply as anything she’d intended.
But he’d never believe her. She’d never reach him. And Erin felt it in her breast.
Was it instinct that made her cup her hands? Instinct, or some understanding on a subconscious level? Erin didn’t know. But she felt it.
Burning in her chest. In her soul. Her hands tingled. And she felt it. At the tips of her fingers. Something…new. Something she had felt only once before, but could give a name to instantly.
It rose in her now. Like the magic of the faerie’s feast. Like the magic of an [Immortal Moment], like a perfect game of chess. It was a feeling of something beyond perfection. Something eternal. It told her what to do.
Erin cupped her hands. And she called the memory into her palms. Memory. The feeling of her guilt over Pelt’s expression, fresh and vivid. But also—she couldn’t help it. The memory of a skeleton’s last smile. A broken heart.
Grief and guilt and sadness. It was just memory. But in her hands it ignited. Emotion so real that it took shape. And fire appeared.
A blue flame, with a dark core of sapphire emerged from Erin’s palms. Small at first, but growing. Larger. A nimbus of brighter flame surrounded the dark core, until the edges were a pale blue. Emessa turned, a piece of wood in her hand. She dropped it and stared.
Erin Solstice looked down at the flame in her hands. To her, it was a familiar sight. She had called on it before. But it was still beautiful. The blue flame was not hot, to her. And it shone like no fire Earth had ever conceived. The glow was soft, unlike mortal fire. And it grew larger. It was memory burning into flame.
But the memory didn’t vanish. It was in her. In the fire. If Erin could have burned away the memory, she wouldn’t have. And she couldn’t. This fire burned on a limitless fuel. It lit up the forge in a dark blue glow. Brighter and brighter.
At first, Pelt didn’t notice. He was bent over the blade, flexing it, preparing to snap it to pieces. But the Dwarf had spoken honestly. Though his back was turned to Erin, he sensed the flame. He turned, a trace of fury rekindling in his eyes. He turned, and saw the flame Erin held.
It was large now. The flames engulfed Erin’s palms, burning on every available inch of them. And the fire roared higher, above her head. Erin stared at it. Her eyes reflected the blue glow. She looked at Pelt.
The Dwarf stared at the fire. At the dark burning heart of it. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. And Erin waited. She saw the Dwarf staring into the heart of her flame. And then he heard a sob.
It didn’t come from Pelt. It came from behind him. Emessa backed away. She dropped the wood she was fashioning into a handle. And Erin saw to her amazement that the Drake’s eyes were filled with tears.
Erin’s voice was soft in the forge. She looked at Emessa, bewildered. But part of her understood. And the Drake gave voice to that knowledge.
She pointed at the fire Erin held. She wiped at the tears coming from her eyes. Erin looked at her, and at the flame.
For a moment, the conscious part of her brain still refused to understand. Then a piece slid into place. And Erin realized. The reason why the flame was just beautiful to her and nothing else. Why it did not burn her skin. Why it was just a sight to her.
Because it was her memory burning there. Hers. And she knew exactly how she felt. Of course she did. But other people? Pelt stared into the azure flame. And Erin stared into his eyes.
The Dwarf’s tears were still wet in his beard. His nose bloodied, drying. He had dark green eyes. Erin hadn’t known that until just now. She looked into the depths of them, seeing small pale green lines, like strata of earth. But she could not see behind his dark pupils.
What pain waited there? What crime? Only he could tell it, and only with words. But she—her grief burned there, a flame everyone could see.
Erin said the words and she meant them. The flames licked upwards. Pelt looked at them. Then, slowly, he nodded. Her words were hollow things. Anyone could lie with them, or tell half-truths. They were just words. But fire burned true.
“[Like Fire, Memory].”
The Dwarf paused and then nodded. He reached for the flame. His hand paused a foot away from the fire.
Erin couldn’t feel a thing. Pelt shook his head. He stared at the flame and slowly rose. He looked at the knife. And then at Erin’s fire.
“It burns like magic fire. What is it for?”
“I just wanted to show you how I felt.”
Erin stared down at the fire in her hands. It was trying to spread up her wrists, up her arms. She realized she couldn’t turn off the fire. She looked at Pelt and the flames grew. Her guilt.
He saw it too. The Dwarf looked around.
“It will burn you. Put it there.”
Erin saw him pointing. At his forge. She hesitated. But the flames were growing. Emessa thrust open the forge where coal would normally go. Erin hurried over. She hesitated—she could feel the heat from the fire, but not from her hands. She looked at Pelt. Then she tossed the fire.
It flew from her hands. A dancing flame. And it landed in the forge. Erin didn’t know what to expect. Part of her assumed the fire would simply go out, without fuel from her directly. But to her surprise, it landed among the charcoal.
And it grew. The bright red flames coming out of the forge turned purple, then blue. The normal flame was consumed by the blue fire. Emessa leapt back. Erin felt a sudden, terrible chill. A hand pulled her back.
Pelt stared into the fire.
“Cold flame. The burning ice. Exactly like it, but for the grief.”
The Dwarf didn’t reply at once. He looked at the fire in the forge. And then at Erin. His voice cracked as he spoke.
“You are sorry. Am I—”
He reached for a bit of charcoal and hurled it into the forge. And the flames ignited. The Dwarf’s Skill turned the blaze bright. Erin covered her eyes as the fire blazed.
In his forge, Maughin was pounding on metal, venting his anger. But a blue glow distracted him. Made him turn. The Dullahan stopped, hammer in hand. And he saw a bright, sky-blue flame erupt from Pelt’s forge. It was so bright. Yet, dark at the same time.
“What is that?”
Once more, the forges of Pallass grew quiet. [Smiths] left their stations. They turned.
Not just them. Pelt’s forge was hidden from view from the lower floors. But now, the flame vented higher, escaping through a chimney in the forge. There was no smoke. The flames burst from the top, and on the lower floors, people standing on the other side of Pallass turned. They saw the flame from afar. Small at first, but still rising.
Maughin the [Armorer] paused. He stared at the flame. It consumed his attention. But more than the beauty of the fire, something else tugged at him. He felt something strange on his head and his body brushed at his eyes.
One of the apprentice Dullahans looked up at Maughin, concerned.
“Master Maughin, you’re weeping.”
“So are you.”
The young Dullahan wiped his eyes. He brushed at his face, mystified. Then he looked at the flame and shook his head with his hands.
“I can’t stop. I—when I look at the fire. I think of my mother. I—I should have been there.”
Maughin looked at the young Dullahan. His name was Flintel, and Maughin remembered that he had buried his mother two months ago. He had been working in the forge when she passed. The Dullahan was weeping.
The [Armorer] looked back at the fire. And he realized it wasn’t just Flintel’s grief. Maughin saw it there. He remembered. And his hand rose and clutched at his breast.
Erin’s flame kept burning. Higher and higher, rising from the forge. But not brighter anymore. The color deepened, growing more vivid. Realer. It burned, and the sight of it touched all who saw it. A fading, brilliant, sorrowful glow.
In the forge, Erin felt it at last. She was looking at a reflection of her memories. But while the raw emotion was hers, it was an echo. Everyone had their guilt. She looked at Pelt.
Pelt looked up at the blue flame as it burned higher. They were such heavy emotions. And the fire that burned from them was intense. Yet it couldn’t even burn his hands as he reached out towards the moving fire. Even this close—
The Dwarf touched it. And his hands burned. His skin chilled. He snatched back his fingers and stared at the faint red blister of skin. Like ice burn. It could not be from heat; he could hold red-hot steel without issue.
Across the ninth floor, the [Blacksmiths] stopped working. On the lower floors, those who saw the flame wiped at their eyes. To just see the flame was to feel it. Up close—Emessa had turned away. But Pelt stood there. And the Dwarf’s voice was calm when he spoke. Dreamy.
“Emessa. Bring me the box marked with a blue stamp from my house.”
The Drake started. She looked at the flame, and then turned away. She ran. Erin didn’t know where Pelt lived, or how long it took the Drake to return. She was in another world.
When the box came back, Erin saw it was a strange container. It didn’t have a lid like a present box, but rather it was a screw-on lid, more like a canister. But made of steel, seamless, identifiable only by a blue stamp of wax. And as Pelt undid the lid, Erin caught an acrid, eye-watering emanation that made her back away. Pelt poured what it was out into a waiting basin he might use to wash his tools. Erin saw a dark green, thick…liquid? No, it was more like mercury, but green, dulled rather than shiny.
Pelt was careful to let none of it touch his hands. And he had gloves on. He lifted the bucket. Emessa stared at Pelt.
“What is that, Master?”
The Dwarf smiled. He looked at the blue flames. Then at his apprentice.
“This is a metal that melts at room temperature. It’s akin to quicksilver. It’s known to some as bronzewater. Because of the color. But it has another name. Grasgil. The frozen metal. You can’t forge it with heat. But you can forge it backwards.”
He pointed at the blue flame. Erin started. She looked at Pelt. But the Dwarf was already moving.
“Everfrozen Ice. Here and here. Break it with a hammer, girl. Fine as you can. I need a powder.”
He pulled out crystals of frozen ice. Erin saw Emessa start and stare. But she moved, following Pelt’s orders as the Dwarf approached the furnace. He shoved the entire bucket into the flames.
Erin expected the bucket to catch fire. And it did. But with the same blue flames. And slowly—the wood refused to ignite.
“A heavy flame. It burns so slow. But so cold.”
Pelt murmured. Erin backed away still further. The forge was freezing. The blue flame was cold now it was out of her hands. Cold. Freezing in fact, creating particles of ice.
As cold as guilt. As sorrow.
It was freezing the liquid inside of the basin. Pelt drew it out as Emessa hammered on the Everfrozen Ice. Erin saw the ice shattering under her hammer, falling into a little bucket. Pelt took the basin out of the fire with tongs. Frost rimmed the metal. And the barrel was on fire.
“The powder. Quickly, girl. More of the ice. Buy it from an [Alchemist] if you have to.”
So saying, he tossed the powdered Everfrozen Ice into the basin, swirling it with the already-melting Grasgil. And Erin saw the two mix.
Or rather—not mix. The Everfrozen Ice didn’t dissolve, and the Grasgil accepted the particles into it, grudgingly. But the Everfrozen Ice was cold. And with the cold from the blue fire—
Pelt dumped the Grasgil onto his anvil. It was half-solid, but in the temperature above freezing, it was trying to melt. He took more of the Everfrozen Ice as Emessa ran from the forge and dumped more of it onto the Grasgil.
The powdered crystals mixed with the metal, making it cold. Colder.
Erin realized what the purpose was. Pelt looked up and nodded. The Dwarf’s face was pure concentration. Neither fury nor sadness intruded now. He looked at the fire.
“Grasgil gives you only one chance. Once it’s cold, reworking it is dangerous. Mixing the cold into it means you get it right once. Reheat it and it falls apart. See?”
He showed Erin how the metal was now a solid circle, a copy of the basin he’d dropped it in. The Dwarf picked up his hammer.
“Shape it. Shape it well, with cold and ice.”
He began striking the metal, deforming the perfect circle. Erin saw him pause, bring it over to the fire. Now Pelt could handle the metal with tongs. But he had to get it colder. The metal was too warm. It wouldn’t hold any shape. So Pelt froze it colder as Emessa ran back with ice. He and she began to crush the ice into powder again.
This was how Pelt forged. As Erin’s flame burned, he took the Grasgil and put it in the flames, letting the cold magic fire freeze it colder. When he took it out, the metal began to warm—until he tossed Everfrozen Ice into the metal, working it in, giving it an inherent cold of its own.
It was a careful, delicate game. Each time he brought it closer to the blue flames, or poured the powder into the mix, the metal grew more rigid. The colder it became, the stronger the metal, until the anvil shook from each hammer blow. Stronger than steel; Erin saw that in a contest, even the hardened steel of the anvil would lose to the very thing Pelt was forging.
Yet there was a flaw there; if the Grasgil became too hard, it would simply shatter under a hammer blow. It had to be strong, but not strong to the point where it was too brittle. She knew that must be a danger. Erin looked at her fire.
“It is too sad.”
A voice spoke from behind her. Erin turned. Maughin turned. The Dullahan [Smith] stood with a crowd of other [Smiths]. Some were still wiping at their eyes, overcome by the emotion. But others looked at Pelt working.
That was all Erin could say. Maughin nodded slowly.
“And your fire. I knew a smith who knew the secret to cold fire.”
His voice was low. The Dullahan looked at her. The young woman nodded.
“I see that. And I am sorry—I did not know.”
Erin saw Maughin look at her. He knelt, so his head was on a level with hers. One armored hand touched her shoulder slowly.
“I did not know you grieved so.”
The smith looked at her. Erin smiled.
“It isn’t always like that.”
She felt Maughin’s hand tighten on her shoulder, so gently. And she felt a furry arm embrace her. Erin turned her hand and saw Bealt. The Gnoll [Farrier]’s tears were running down his fur.
What grief lay in everyone’s hearts? Erin looked at her flame. The two [Smiths] stood side by side. Bealt murmured.
“It’s so painful.”
There was nothing more Erin could say. So she watched Pelt. Frost covered the Dwarf’s beard. The cold burned now from the hammer and the Everfrozen Ice. And one had overtaken the other. The freezing chill of the fire was nothing compared to the frost vapor wafting from the anvil. And surely—the steel itself would crack from the cold.
It did, on the fourth reshaping of the metal. But Pelt simply kept hammering on the broken piece of the anvil as part of it cracked with a sound that tore the air. The Grasgil was taking shape.
It wasn’t a sword he was making. Erin saw a curved edge, a stout head. And a gap—
Erin saw how the long-edged axe would be fitted with a long shaft of wood. And she realized, as Pelt drew out the axe, shaping it, that he was nearly done.
The Dwarf had to use a fuller, a tool to punch holes in metal, in order to shape part of the bardiche. His hammer strokes weren’t huge, powerful ones anymore, but he had to strike with such force Erin feared the anvil might crack a second time, just to move the metal. And the Grasgil was growing colder by the second. It was a race against time and Pelt’s strength to finish the work.
The metal had lost the brighter green color, turned darker. And, fittingly, bluer. A dark cyan, trending towards black as the cold intensified. Pelt had minutes left at most before the metal became practically immovable. But his hands were a blur. Emessa had placed his tools next to the anvil on a workbench and Pelt grabbed tool after tool, perfecting the design. Then he grabbed a handful of the Everfrozen Ice powder.
Barehanded. His gloves had long since frozen too stiff to use. Erin saw the Dwarf’s raw fingers sprinkle the powder onto the Grasgil. Then he hammered the powder with tremendous blows that rang in the forge.
The last baptism of powdered ice buried itself in the axe head. It still stood out, flecks and clear spots of the magical crystal or ice or whatever it was, buried among the metal. But along the edge? Only metal.
The design was finished. Erin exhaled, but Pelt wasn’t done. He still had one last task, Erin realized, as she looked at the edge of the bardiche itself. It was rough. Unrefined. You could strike a crushing blow with it, but never a cutting one. So Pelt grabbed another pair of gloves and seized the axe head.
“Another fire. Not cold, but hot.”
“No. It needs to be close.”
Emessa and two of the apprentices hurried over to an unused forge in Pelt’s workshop. They lit it, and a warmer flame burst into existence. Pelt kept them from making it too hot. Erin looked at his hands as he shook them out.
The cold burned his hands. Chilblains stood out on his fingers and skin, but Pelt never spoke a word. He took the Grasgil bardiche, and holding it by the tongs, inserted it into the fire. Quickly, as the heat softened the edge, Pelt yanked it out.
“Sixteen minutes until the metal freezes solid. And when it does, mithril will melt before this axe does.”
Between the mortal fire and the blue, cold flames he alternated, softening the axe, working the edge. With grinder first, tearing the rotating stone that his apprentice worked to pieces, then doing the same with a file, and finally sandpaper. Trying to keep the edge from freezing over while preventing the heat from deforming the razor’s edge.
Erin realized the cold was intensifying. Now the Grasgil was generating it, and the Everfrozen Ice. The magical metal forced her and the other [Smiths] back, until Pelt was working alone, with his apprentice. Both were shivering, their extremities and skin going numb.
But they finished the job. That was all there was to it. They were [Smiths]. And either would have frozen their skin off rather than leave the work undone now. Erin remembered the Dwarf hurling his metal aside. That Pelt had been joyous, enraptured by the love of forging.
The Dwarf she saw now was different. He loved his work, or else he would not labor so. But focus defined him. A determination as heavy as his hammer blows. He looked into the heart of the blue flame as he tested the edge.
When he held the finished piece up on long-handled tongs, Erin breathed. And she felt a cold unlike any other radiating from the metal. Far colder than her fire.
That was all Pelt said. He laid the bardiche’s head on the anvil. Emessa staggered away, and the smiths helped her. Her limbs were frosted. And Pelt moved slowly.
“The heat. Will it…?”
Bealt looked at the bardiche. Pelt shook his head.
“It will not grow warmer. And the colder it becomes, the harder the blade. Too cold and it will shatter, but short of a volcano’s wrath no fire will undo the cold temper. And it will grow little colder in the coldest blizzard.”
He looked around. Then Maughin seized his shoulder. The Dwarf looked up and the Dullahan spoke shortly.
Pelt nodded. Bealt pounded a paw against his shoulder. More smiths came over, and the Dwarf shook hands, accepted a drink. But then they stood back.
It was Erin that Pelt looked to. And the two stood together outside of his frosted forge. Erin’s flame was dying, having consumed the charcoal. But still it burned. Pelt looked at it. And then at his work. Erin stared at the magical blade.
“What will you do with it?”
The Dwarf shrugged.
“Sell it. An [Enchanter] could bring out its potential. With runes, it would fit any Gold-rank’s hand and satisfy them. As it is, it is as good as any Silver-rank’s blade, magical or not.”
His voice rose. And heat, the kind of heat that had burned despite the cold, entered his voice.
“Let it be a glorious weapon. A powerful one, worthy of a true warrior’s hand! Let it cut down a hundred thousand foes! For this was made of Grasgil! And it will freeze what it cuts! Let all those not born of snow fear its touch!”
He clenched his fist, his cold-cracked skin opening. Erin reached for a healing potion, but Pelt ignored his hands. He looked at Erin. His eyes were still red. The blood on his nose still frozen there, into his beard. He spoke to her, urgently.
“Once, it would go to the [Runesmiths] next, before it had frozen completely. And they would etch it. Now, someone else will have to take it, with the craft. That damned Lizardwoman in Wistram. Or someone who knows Grasgil. Perhaps it will be sold as it is. I don’t care.”
“I don’t care.”
But his eyes lingered on the Grasgil axe. And Erin heard the lie in every syllable. He was proud of it. He stared at the axe, his warming forge. Then he looked at her.
“Aren’t you going to ask?”
The young woman paused. Now, in this moment, she felt like Pelt was looking at her. Straight at her. And there was so much unsaid.
I’m sorry. The flames burned in his forge. They whispered. I’m so sorry. I’m so sad.
He didn’t need her to say it. And he understood. More than words. Erin shook her head.
“Not if you don’t want to tell me. Everyone’s got secrets. But I’d like to know. I want to know more about people. I want to—change.”
Something lit up in Pelt’s eyes. He looked at Erin, like an equal. And the Dwarf, whom Erin realized looked down on everyone else, nodded once. He turned. Pointed to Maughin, whose head was held in his hands, staring at Pelt’s forge with longing. And Erin’s flames with grief.
“Look at that boy. Staring at me, when his people invented the way to smith Grasgil. He can do it, though it would take him a day for my hours. He can make mithril, if he but tried.”
“He thinks he’s low-leveled. Compared to you.”
“Levels do not define the smith. Only the will behind the hammer.”
Palt sounded like was quoting something. He shook his head and looked at Erin.
“Low-leveled for now—who cares? I knew the two smiths that were here. The one Salazsar stole was Level 41. The other was Level 48. He died of old age, but both were old, for Drakes. The boy is still young. He could make it to Level 50. Or even higher. It took me eighty years, but I had time. And I won’t grow any higher. I think. No longer.”
Erin’s breath caught. Pelt held out one arm. Thick muscle, still frostbitten, flexed as he held out something to her.
Her knife. The metal had somehow not shattered despite the cold. Pelt looked at it. And then he held it out to her.
“I am one of this world’s best smiths. There are older. And better. But I have given nearly a century to my craft. Once, they called me a master and I forged the like of this each day! My team and I represented Dwarven craft! Even now few of my kind could surpass me! All but him, and the old grandfathers! I can still forge even the rarest metals! Even now!”
His voice shook with pride. Erin looked at the small knife in his hands. The Dwarf stared at the bared metal.
“But. I made a mistake. We all did. In our arrogance we—he—we committed a grave sin. For the steel was impure. As impure as our hearts. And for that, we incurred a debt. So heavy, I cannot pay it. And we left our home. I shall never go back. Never reclaim my pride.”
Water ran from his eyes. Pelt dropped to one knee.
“Never again, never again. But for one moment—”
He stared at the fading blue flame. Memory. It burned regret. A skeleton’s death. Tears stood out in Pelt’s eyes. He looked at his work, and at Erin. He offered her the knife and she took it.
“I made an error no one would forgive me for. So I left in disgrace. I will not go back home ever again. What more is there to say?”
“I know. And I remembered my pride. Twice now, you’ve uncovered it.”
The Dwarf shook his head. He laughed, bitterly, with more pain than Erin wanted to hear. He shook his head, turning away. The blue flame was dying. Only a spark remained.
“Your flame hurts my heart, girl. Take it away. And leave. Please.”
He knelt in his frost-covered forge, the tears of ice running and freezing. Erin looked at him. This wasn’t what she’d wanted. Pelt clutched at his heart.
But he knew that. Erin stepped backwards, holding the kitchen knife. No. She wanted him to smile. But her flame was only sorrow. She turned away, tears springing into her own eyes.
The young woman turned. And the Dwarven [Blacksmith], kneeling on the ground met the [Innkeeper]’s eyes.
“My craft. The art of it thanks you.”
He bowed his head. And she bowed back. Erin walked backwards. And she stared around. At staring smiths. At a forge where frost did not melt in the summer’s light. At people, staring at a legend from Liscor that had stepped into Pallass.
But she wasn’t happy. Erin Solstice shook her head, brushing at her tears.
“What a terrible Skill. What a horrible, cursed…why do I have it?”
She clenched her fists. But then she remembered Pelt’s tears. She looked back. And the smith was rising. He stood, his back straight and looked at Erin.
Erin Solstice turned. And she heard a click. It was soft, metallic. Erin felt something cool on her wrists. She looked around.
A pair of Drakes sighed in relief. Erin stared at her manacled hands. Then at the squad of [Guards] dressed in the yellows of Pallass’ City Watch. One of the Drakes shouted.
“We have the troublemaker! Her mass-effect Skill is subdued! Human, you are under arrest by the authority of Pallass’ City Watch! Anything you do from this point on will be seen as an addition to your crime of mass mental alteration without consent on the citizens of Pallass!”
Half a dozen clawed hands seized Erin. She blinked at the Drake.
“What? Wait, I—”
“I caution you that any further use of Skills will force us to use force! Take her to the prison, squad. The matter is taken care of, citizens of Pallass!”
He saluted. The Drakes began dragging Erin backwards. The young woman gaped as someone grabbed her legs and they lifted her up. Pelt stared at Erin and the [Blacksmith] blinked. Erin wriggled.
“Wait. What? Hey! Listen—this is a mistake! I didn’t mean…hey! Put me down!”