“Is it war?”
Three words. An Antinium standing on a dead Wyvern. In the City of Invention. If you were writing a newspaper headline, you wouldn’t even need to think. But this was no report, a story to be written after the fact with all the little details.
It was happening live. Now. Bird stood, staring interestedly down at the rows of arrows aimed at him, the Drake [Mages] aiming wands and staves—even one of the ballistae on the walls had been swung around to cover him.
Not to mention Grimalkin, Chaldion, General Duln, and Saliss of Lights. The Antinium was surrounded, with no possibility of escape or victory.
And yet—he was Antinium. And the Hives waited. And the Walled Cities waited. Because if you bluffed well enough, the lie became the truth.
The Third Antinium War. Erin Solstice was frozen in place. She didn’t know what to do. Tackle Bird? Shout he was lying? Start throwing sad fire at people until everyone started crying?
Every idea ended with something going terribly wrong. This was not a minor incident. This was—it could be the third war to sweep Izril, the one that would plunge Liscor, the continent, everything Erin knew into a conflict that wouldn’t end with a single desperate battle against Wyverns or other monsters. Or even countless thousands of Goblin deaths.
“Is it war? Tell me, please. I am getting tired of waiting.”
Bird’s cheerful voice was hilarious if it weren’t so terrifying. Erin looked around. Everyone was frozen, but Noass and Sir Relz were still broadcasting the image of Bird. All eyes were on the actors of the scene.
Grimalkin, Chaldion, and Duln for Pallass. Bird for the Antinium. And…Erin. But aside from Bird, everyone was still, weighing the consequences. For the first time in her life, Erin was paralyzed. It was like playing chess blind and without knowing where any of the pieces were. And checkmate? Oh, that was just war.
All eyes slowly turned from Erin to Grimalkin, and then to General Duln. And then, almost naturally, to Chaldion. Because the Drake [Strategist] was the only one moving. His eyes were narrowed and he was glancing at Erin, at Bird, around the city. Assessing. Analyzing. But unlike Erin, he seemed to see a path.
Perhaps not to victory, but a route nevertheless. The world held its breath. At this moment, when the stakes were so high, where could you go from here? What would happen next? Because standing still forever wasn’t an option.
Bird was getting bored. And his cheerful innocence might provoke a stray arrow. Or more.
So Chaldion moved. The [Grand Strategist] turned, smoothly, and Erin felt her heart jerk in her chest. Every head snapped towards Chaldion. The Drake’s clawed hand rose, moving, pointing—
At Noass and Sir Relz. Chaldion spoke.
“Restrain those two. Confiscate the scrying mirror and break the scrying spell. [Mages], cast anti-divination wards. Now.”
Erin blinked. Noass and Sir Relz, the two [Commentators] who’d broadcast the battle blinked. The [Soldiers] and Watch, on a razor’s edge of anticipation, paused for only a second at the unexpected order, and then rushed at the two Drakes.
“Wait! You can’t do this! The world deserves to kn—”
Noass was tackled by three Drakes and a Gnoll. Sir Relz fought, and the aforementioned world saw a sea of faces grabbing for the mirror he held. The other Drake tried to shout.
“This isn’t right! We deserve freedom! Freedom of the, uh—”
They weren’t quite there. Part of them knew the tune, but not the words. The two Drakes disappeared—the viewers got an earful of shouting, scrabbling, swearing—and then the sight of a Gnoll staring directly into the mirror.
The projection vanished. And everyone was left to wonder ‘what happened next?’. Many waited, tense, demanding a [Message] spell from Pallass, seeking someone who knew. They experienced uncertainty, and for the first time cursed a world in which information wasn’t instantaneous and readily available. And this was a world in which Couriers and Runners still delivered information by foot.
In the end, what the world got wasn’t a confirmation of war or anything else. It was simply a broadcasted message, written thusly from Pallass itself, to go along with the myriad of reports by people who had seen or allegedly seen the entire thing:
Antinium repatriated to Liscor without incident under Pallassian authority. Restoration and damage assessments of Pallass underway. The Walled City stands.
It wasn’t quite as bold as brass. And it wasn’t as clear as anyone wanted. But one thing was certain: the war was off. But the echoes of that moment kept bouncing around the world hours, even a day afterwards.
And coincidentally, almost as a byproduct of it all—
Erin Solstice came home.
“Move, move, move! Get through that door now! Make sure it’s charged, [Mages]!”
“Stop yelling! Stop yelling! And stop poking me!”
The Wandering Inn’s doorway was full of bodies. Then, shouting. And then a young woman came hurtling through the door. Erin Solstice found herself stumbling out of Pallass and into an unfamiliar hallway. She turned and saw Olesm nearly fly through after her. Relc came after, prodded by a sea of spears. And then Bird.
The Antinium wasn’t being poked, but the [Soldiers] were cajoling him to move as they bellowed threats, orders, and pointed. The Antinium walked through the door and Erin saw he was carrying a wing.
Or—part of one. The Antinium was trying to gnaw at the meaty portion of the wing he’d somehow managed to sever from a Wyvern. He also appeared to be largely unconcerned as he walked into the inn.
“Thank you. May I have more of the big birds later? Please and th—”
The door slammed shut. Erin Solstice stared at the door, and then around. Relc, Olesm, Bird—the adventurers from Pallass hadn’t been included, but all four of Liscor’s residents had been herded into the door at incredible speed. Per Chaldion’s order.
That was all Erin said. Her knees were still weak. She looked around. This was—a hallway? It felt funky to her. Off, somehow. Why were there little narrow windows in the walls? And what was up with—she felt the holes in the ceiling. And someone had made a hollow space under the floorboards, there!
What was up with this place? But also—Erin felt a sudden, incredible connection. Because it was new to her, but she had felt it being built.
It was her inn. And she was back home. Erin Solstice looked around. Relc stared at Erin, and then Bird. Olesm got up from where he’d been thrown.
“Ancestors. We’re alive. It was nearly—I think I saw the Third Antinium Wars. And my entire life flash before my eyes. I—I’ve played a bit too much chess. I should have been studying.”
“There’s no such thing.”
Erin muttered. She looked at Relc. The Drake was blinking.
“Um. Hey. You.”
“Hey, Relc. You came through the door?”
“Well, you know. I love a good fight. That giant Wyvern was tough, though. Even my [Relc Punch] didn’t work on it. But hey, maybe I’ll level—”
Erin heard a sound. And when one of the hidden side doors slid open, she was surprised and not. But the little white figure that tackled Erin in the stomach was a surprise.
Erin fell over, winded. And not in a laughing, great-to-see-you, happy way. Mrsha had gotten heavier and stronger than Erin remembered! And she’d done a perfect flying head butt to Erin’s stomach.
“M—M—I can’t breathe.”
“Mrsha! No, come back here! It might be—”
Lyonette appeared in the doorway. Erin saw the other side door opening. Then the one down the hallway. People flooded into the entryway. Familiar faces. Krshia, Zevara, Pawn, Montressa—so many, all shouting at once! And Mrsha was hugging Erin and licking her face anxiously. Erin was still trying to breathe.
“Sergeant Relc! Report! What the hell happened?”
“Erin! We were watching, but then the image vanished! Is it—”
Zevara and Selys. Relc was shouting, trying to lift Mrsha as she clung to Erin.
“Bird! You were not supposed to go through! Why did you leave? Erin? Where is Erin?”
“Erin? There she is. Back off her! Everyone—Mrsha, stop hugging her. She cannot breathe, yes—”
Pawn and Krshia. Erin struggled to lift Mrsha. She was bigger! And hugging Erin, which was great. Strangling her, which was not. She felt Olesm tugging at her until someone bowled him over.
“It was you. I knew it! Every time! Even in Pallass! Well, this is enough. There will be laws—”
“Excuse me. Excuse me. I have to talk with Erin. Erin, it is great to see you—”
Lism and Palt. Jostling each other to shout at Erin. And they were just six of the voices amid the shouting. Erin looked around, wide-eyed. And then she heard a shout.
“Everyone, be silent!”
Lyonette put her foot down and the inn paused. It wasn’t just her words. But Erin felt the familiar tingling in the air. She looked at Lyonette. The [Princess]’s aura hit everyone in the inn, silencing all but a few voices.
Such as Relc.
“So there I was, right? I punched that bastard in the side, but he’s tough. Anyways, I was pretty sure I drove him off all by myself. I got three Wyverns—with a bit of help—”
“Sergeant Relc, shut up!”
Watch Captain Zevara barked. And Erin felt the same authority radiating from her. The young woman’s jaw dropped, but it was unmistakable. Lyonette and Zevara traded glances, but they were in synchronization, not opposition.
Faced with two presences demanding silence, the entire inn went still. Erin could move, but only because it was her inn. Experimentally, she pushed. She felt like she could beat both pressures on her and the room, if she really tried. But this was her place. And no one else could, surely.
Not even Relc. He looked around, blinked, and fell silent. Erin looked around. Everyone stared at her now. Erin Solstice opened her mouth.
“Um—so…I can exp—”
A figure pushed through the crowd. Erin spotted a single Antinium moving, ignoring the dual authorities of Zevara and Lyonette. Erin saw Klbkch, pushing past two very odd Antinium…Soldiers? He shoved aside a Minotauress, walked past the other Antinium.
Senior Guardsman Klbkch walked straight up to Bird. The Antinium was shaking. He looked at Erin. Then at Bird.
His voice—freed Bird. Or maybe Lyonette and Zevara did. The [Bird Hunter] stopped chewing on his bit of Wyvern.
“You went into Pallass.”
Erin looked at Klbkch. She looked at Bird. Everyone did. The Antinium who had nearly started the Third Antinium War nodded absently.
“Yes. That was fun. Yay. But I left all the big birds in Pallass. May I go back and get them later? They will be very nice and squishy soon. And I found Miss Erin. I—”
Erin barely saw Klbkch’s arm move. The Antinium’s right hand blurred and then he struck Bird with a downwards blow across the head. Erin saw Bird’s head jerk downwards and she heard a crack. The Worker’s carapace along the top of his head had broken from the impact.
The shout came from more than one voice. Erin saw Bird stumble and drop his Wyvern wing. He reached for it.
“Ow. Revalantor Klbkch, why did you—”
Klbkch struck Bird again. Erin saw Bird cover his head with all four arms and crouch. Klbkch’s voice was thunderous.
“You are a fool. And you have disobeyed orders. You will not do so again.”
He raised his hand. Shock left Erin.
Erin swung at Klbkch. He stopped striking at Bird and leaned back, effortlessly dodging Erin’s fist. She swung again and he knocked away her arm without even looking at her. He raised a fist as Bird shrank down—
And Relc smacked Klbkch. Erin saw a blur, saw Klbkch stumble and whirl. The two Senior Guardsmen stared at each other.
“Whoops. Sorry. I meant to hit you harder.”
Relc made a fist. Klbkch stared at him.
“Stay out of this. Relc. I am disciplining this—this krxsching, worthless thing for nearly starting a war.”
He turned and raised a first. This time Erin grabbed for Klbkch’s wrist. She missed. He was fast in his new body. Faster than she’d ever remembered. Klbkch stared at Erin.
“Get out of the way, Erin.”
“No. Stop hitting Bird!”
“He nearly started a war.”
“I just wanted to shoot the big birds.”
“Guardsman Klbkch, stand down!”
Zevara barked, but Klbkch ignored her. He was staring at Bird. Shaking with wrath. Erin saw Ishkr and Beza both standing behind Klbkch reaching for the Antinium and clearly deciding not to.
Pawn and the other Antinium surged forwards. They tried to block Bird, but they too stayed back from Klbkch. He was staring at them. Yellow Splatters walked in front of him. The other Antinium were tense. But Klbkch had one hand on his swords.
“Move. This is an order.”
Erin saw the two strange Antinium staring at Klbkch, Pawn, Belgrade, Yellow Splatters and the other disobedient Antinium. Klbkch looked straight past them. At Bird. Erin hadn’t seen that look in his eyes. And she remembered.
They called him Klbkch the Slayer. It was that Antinium who was looking at her now. Not Senior Guardsman Klbkch, or Revalantor Klbkch.
Erin put out her arms, shielding Bird from Klbkch’s wrath. She saw Relc raise a fist—and hesitate as Klbkch looked at him. The Antinium’s hands were hovering over his hilts and Klbkch looked angrier than Erin had ever seen him.
“I know that! But hitting Bird is not the answer! Stop it or so help me, Klbkch, I will make you regret it!”
Erin clenched her fists. Klbkch hesitated. He stared at Erin for a long minute, and then whirled. He stalked past Relc, and the crowd parted before him instantly. He stopped at the door to Erin’s inn. Not the magical one. Klbkch looked over his shoulder. Straight at Erin and Bird.
“Antinium. Return to the Hive. Without Bird. If he enters Pallass again, I will kill him.”
Erin Solstice stared at Klbkch. Her oldest customer turned. The door opened and slammed shut. Wordlessly, Erin looked around. She looked at Bird as he rocked back and forth, covering his head. A trail of green blood ran from the spots where Klbkch had hit him.
It was like that, she remembered. Surprise. A normal day, where you expected everything to go one way. And then—in a moment—everything changed. She looked around the inn.
And nothing was quite the same ever again.
It took a minute after Klbkch had left for the babble to start up again. But when it did, it was focused. The moment of Klbkch’s rage had focused everyone.
“I can’t believe he did that.”
Erin stared at Bird. She fumbled for a healing potion.
“Here. Erin, we must leave. Yellow Splatters, form up the Antinium.”
Pawn looked at Erin, handing out a bottle. She took it. He was not surprised. Pawn opened his hands and nearly reached for Bird for some reason.
“[Minor—]. No. Use the potion, Erin.”
He looked around. The Antinium were already marching out the door, silently. Erin saw the two strange Antinium leaving too. They weren’t the only ones. Zevara started.
“I’ve never seen Klbkch—is that his idea of discipline? Ancestors.”
Then she looked at Erin. Her eyes widened.
“Ancestors. Ancestors. I have to get back to Liscor. The other cities must be in an uproar. I—”
She stared at the door. Then at the [Innkeeper] again. Erin checked Bird, kneeling to inspect his head.
“Are you okay, Bird?”
“I am all better.”
Erin looked up at the Watch Captain.
“It wasn’t my fault. I think. Well, maybe Bird was. But—”
She tried lamely to explain. Zevara just shook her head.
“Tell me later. Miss Solstice, keep the—keep Bird out of Pallass. I need to—Sergeant Relc, on me!”
Relc murmured, staring out the door Klbkch had left from. He went over to the magic door and set it to Liscor, pulled it open. That made some of the others move as well. Lism hurried out of the crowd. Erin stared at him as he brushed past her. The Drake’s head turned and he snapped.
“The Council needs to convene at once. The other cities will need our input. Watch Captain, Olesm, we’re meeting at once. Let’s go!”
Krshia appeared with the other Gnoll. Both looked at Erin. Krshia half-smiled.
“Erin. We must talk later—”
They vanished through the door. More Gnolls and Drakes hurried after them, some to shout about what they’d seen. The inn was depopulating fast. Some people stayed, wanting to talk to Erin, but she focused—
[Crowd Control]. And [Inn’s Aura]. They stayed back, murmuring amongst themselves. Erin looked around as familiar faces appeared. A Hobgoblin pushed towards Erin. The little Gnoll cub was still there. Mrsha had hid behind Erin. Now, Lyonette swept her up.
A bee floated past Erin. She looked at them, and then at Bird. He was crouched, eating his Wyvern wing. Erin looked at her family in the other world. Lyonette was wide-eyed, holding Mrsha. It was Numbtongue who eyed the door by which Klbkch had left. Then he looked at Erin. The Hobgoblin was least surprised out of anyone in the room by the previous moments. He shrugged and then grinned.
“Wyverns. Lots of Wyverns. Hard to beat, even for Redfangs. Cold ones are even harder. It was a nice fight.”
He held out a hand. Erin took it. The Hobgoblin [Bard] effortlessly pulled her up. Now, Mrsha squirmed and waved her paws. Erin went over to her.
She gave the little Gnoll a huge hug, squeezing her tight. Erin felt someone else hug her. Lyonette. Numbtongue was inspecting Bird’s head. Erin looked around.
“It’s never quiet with me around, is it? Sorry.”
The [Princess] almost laughed.
“For what? I was so worried. We all were. What was that with Klbkch? He was—Pawn said he’s not like we know him in the Hive. But I never thought—”
She caught herself. And so did Erin. The [Innkeeper] looked at the others. And she realized this was the moment. Erin let go. She stood in her inn, and inhaled. Her inn.
It was strange and unfamiliar. But home. And she saw faces she knew. Erin smiled as Bird stood up. She looked around and breathed out. There was a way to do it, after all.
“Hey Lyonette. Numbtongue. Mrsha. I’m back.”
They looked at her. And then Lyonette smiled.
“Hi. Did you have a good holiday, Erin?”
The young woman hesitated. She looked around her inn and shrugged. It was a Goblin’s shrug, which meant everything. Numbtongue grinned. Mrsha wagged her tail. Erin Solstice scratched the back of her head.
“Eh, it was okay. Sort of boring. Right up until the end.”
After all was said and done, Erin found herself eating a sandwich. Grilled cheese. With a bit of ham in the middle with the cheese. A nice, sharp cheese too. Erin hadn’t realized she’d needed food, but Lyonette had learned from her.
Food was a comfort thing. And Erin hadn’t eaten since…this morning. Between Pelt and prison and Wyvern attacks, she’d missed out on food—even in Tails and Scales! Erin’s breakfast of grilled fish was a long way away, and Erin found herself scarfing down the food.
“Here. A drink. Good job, Mrsha!”
Mrsha brought over the glass of goat’s milk, not spilling a drop. Erin drank gratefully. People were still in her inn—she noticed a familiar trio of [Mages], a Human, a Centaur, and a Minotauress, as well as her staff, a number of guests, and a few unfamiliar new ones, but no one was coming over.
They all were willing to gossip or debate the incident in Pallass, and Erin was keeping them away, whether they knew it or not. It was Numbtongue, Mrsha, Drassi, Ishkr, and Bird and Apista who could get close. And Lyonette, of course. The [Princess] had brought out the sandwich after heating it up and she was directing the staff flawlessly.
“Lykr, before the tables are cleared up, check for coins. Anyone who hasn’t paid—make a list! You have [Server’s Memory]—you do the list, everyone else clear only the tables Lykr’s done with! I need Ississi in the kitchen for dishes…”
Erin looked around vaguely. She saw a Drake with cream-colored scales trotting into the kitchen. Erin blinked at her.
“Do I know her?”
“She’s a [Dishwasher Cleaner]. Specific class, I know. But she’s good at her job. I hired her and she can clear the inn’s dirty dishes faster than anyone else. And clean the floors almost as well.”
Erin blinked. She saw Lykr, the Gnoll with striped black and chestnut fur walking over to the tables.
“And him? Do I know him? I do, right?”
“Yup. Lykr gained a new Skill.”
Lyonette nodded. Erin knew all of the staff’s names, but no one as well as Drassi and Ishkr. And Drassi hurried back through the double doors leading to the trapped-out hallway at that very moment.
“Lyonette! Erin! Okay, word on the street is that Pallass sent an all-clear. Which is putting most of the city in a panic because they didn’t have scrying orbs! Word’s spreading—it’s chaos out there! I have to get out there and share what happened!”
“Later. Anything else from Pallass, Drassi? What about us? Bird?”
The [Gossip] came over to the table as Lyonette shook her head. The [Gossip] shrugged.
“The Watch House is full of [Guards], but all they told me is that Zevara’s sending [Messages] like crazy and the Council is too. They’re trying to make sense of it all, but Zevara isn’t sending [Guards] to arrest anyone. She said that’s the last thing they need, apparently.”
“So no one’s in trouble?”
Erin looked at Lyonette and the others anxiously. Numbtongue shrugged, watching Beza, Montressa, and Palt out of the corner of his eye. He strummed idly on his guitar. Drassi shrugged helplessly.
“I don’t think so. No one’s screaming for it as far as I can tell, and I went to the Mage’s Guild. I mean—Bird did help out during the battle. And threatened war. But the other cities might be blaming Liscor. Or the Hive.”
“No one’s going to arrest anyone. I think. If I know the way the other cities are thinking—they won’t try to arrest you or Bird through Liscor, Erin. They were spooked by the thought of the Third Antinium War. They’ll assess. If they do move, we have a few days.”
“And what if the Council or Zevara decides to arrest everyone in the inn?”
That came from Ishkr. The Gnoll looked uncharacteristically worried. His fur was still standing up on end. Everyone at their table turned to stare at the Antinium sitting by himself at another table.
Bird was recovered from Klbkch’s attack. In fact, he was still happily trying to eat the extraordinarily tough Wyvern wing. And winning. Erin looked at Bird and Lyonette exhaled slowly.
“If they’re coming, it’s not for a few hours, I bet. And what will they say? It was Bird who went through. Erin didn’t order him to. I think it’ll be a reprimand.”
“And if it’s not?”
Erin remembered Lism was on the Council. But she was also thinking about Klbkch. He had been—she felt a nudge and looked over. Numbtongue grinned down at her. The Hobgoblin nodded at the doors leading to the entryway.
“Let them. We can fight. Antinium built a nice hallway. Full of traps.”
Erin blinked. She looked at Lyonette.
“Yeah, what is that about? What are those—slits in the wall? And the holes in the ceiling? And the hollow space under the floorboards?”
“You noticed those?”
Lyonette started. She looked at Erin and shook her head.
“Of course you did. It’s your inn. That’s a trapdoor Belgrade installed. I had him design parts of the inn. He went overboard with the entryway. Those are arrow slits, murder holes—the walls are three times as thick, so I doubt even Moore could smash through, and the two sliding doors are equally tough. If we think there’s an attack or any chance of one, we can close the side doors and someone will have to come down the hallway.”
“And the trap door?”
“I told Belgrade not to make one, but he seems to think you’re the Queen and that there’s no need for an escape route if there are enough traps. He wanted to engineer part of the inn to collapse if need be, and he wanted to fill the pit with blades. Or water. He also wanted a hallway eight times as long—”
“Good idea. Also—more potions. Octavia made them. Very nice.”
Numbtongue was nodding. Lyonette sighed.
“Numbtongue’s also hidden potions and other things Octavia’s made all over the inn. And he wants crossbows.”
“Very nice. For shooting. Everyone gets one. Point and click!”
The Hobgoblin grinned. Erin stared at him. She felt it. Her inn was a fortress now.
“The walls are twice as thick as they used to be everwhere else!”
“And the foundations are made of stone. The inn’s only partly finished; it took the Antinium a long time to do it, but it will have multiple floors—and a postern door. I don’t care what Belgrade says—we can make it lock from the inside.”
“A what door?”
Numbtongue nodded. Mrsha nodded too. The Gnoll cub was happily waving her wand, sitting next to Erin. The [Innkeeper] stared at Lyonette.
“How did we pay—”
“Liscor paid us for the inn. We got money from the Creler attack, you have money saved up even with taxes—but I’m counting on some good business to finish funding the inn. I’ve even got plans for other wings, but we’re finishing up the guest rooms. I’m hoping we can have more Gold-rank teams here.”
Erin slowly gulped down her milk. Her mind was spinning. Lyonette looked at her.
“Now, tell us about the battle.”
“What? Oh—that was—I stayed out of the fighting. I didn’t expect Bird to be there. And it wasn’t my fault! I think. But I stayed out of trouble. Completely.”
“We saw you.”
Lyonette stared at the young woman. Erin faltered.
“Saw the fighting. Nice flaming things. And knife.”
The [Bard] nodded at Erin. The [Innkeeper] slapped a hand to her forehead.
“Aw. I lost the knife Pelt gave me. I’m gonna have to see if someone found it.”
The [Princess] and the [Innkeeper] traded looks. Erin paused and sighed.
“Well, I had to do something. And I was safe. Rufelt and Lasica were the insane ones, believe it or not. Did you know? I think Lasica’s pregnant—”
Lyonette stared at Erin. But then she shook her head.
“But Erin. What do we do now? About…”
She nodded covertly. Everyone turned their heads. They all stared at Bird. Erin’s stomach fell.
“I don’t know. It wasn’t that…”
She couldn’t even finish the lie. Mrsha looked up worriedly at Erin. The young woman hugged her with one arm.
“It’ll be alright. Olesm and the Council and Zevara—we’ll deal with whatever happened. We can explain.”
“Or not. But that’s not what I’m talking about, Erin. It’s not the consequences for us. It’s about him.”
Bird was happy. He sat in his chair, eating the wing of the big bird. He kept thinking that if it was the right wing, maybe he’d grow them too. He’d seen the Flying Antinium. Pivr. So Bird knew it was possible.
He was happy. He had been hit! But healed. Klbkch was very angry, but Bird was not dead. So that was a win. The Worker was wondering about all the big birds in Pallass. He’d wanted to pick them up somehow, but they’d told him to go, and so had Erin. But maybe, tonight, when no one was looking…
The [Hunter] looked up as Lyonette and Erin walked over. They were looking grave, but Bird was happy. He waved three of his hands at them. It was nice to have hands again.
“That is me. Hello. I am glad you are done with your break, Miss Erin. And I shot many big birds. Did you see me?”
The shorter of the two young women hesitated. Lyonette was a bit taller than Erin, for all she was two years younger. Erin shot a quick look at Lyonette and then nodded slowly.
“Yes we did. Bird—are you hurt?”
She indicated Bird’s head. The Worker felt at it.
“My head is not hurting much. And I stopped bleeding. See? It is not bad at all.”
Erin had even wiped away the blood. The [Innkeeper] nodded, relieved. She looked at Lyonette. The [Princess] nudged her. They gave each other a look that Bird ignored—he was trying to figure out how to bite off more of the Wyvern’s wing. Erin sighed.
“Bird, we need to talk. Um. Let’s go to your room, okay?”
Bird stood up obediently. He began to trundle over to the stairs. The newly-built inn had two stairwells on opposite ends that would lead up to the second floor. Right now, only a third of the second floor was done, though, so one stairwell was blocked off. Erin stopped Bird.
“You have to leave the…wing, Bird.”
The Worker started. He looked down at the half-eaten Wyvern wing.
“But it is mine. I must imbibe nutrients.”
“Just leave it, Bird. We need to talk.”
Lyonette’s voice was more severe. Bird knew that tone. It was the tone she used when he climbed up on the roof without a railing, or brought in birds he’d left outside to get squishy and full of worms. Bird hesitated.
“But it is my wing.”
“Bird—please put it down and come upstairs.”
The Antinium stopped. He looked at Lyonette. Slowly, gently, he put the wing on the table and patted it with his two other hands. He turned and went up the stairs. The two young women followed him.
Bird had a room. It was not the same room as his old one. But it was nice. Bigger. And Lyonette had helped him make his Fortress of Fluff again. It was a small cave of pillows and blankets Bird could sit in. The Antinium Workers could not sleep on their backs due to the rounded shell—maybe Soldiers could since they were built differently, but Bird was used to sit-sleeping. Only now, instead of packed dirt, he had softness.
His Fortress of Fluff was the thing of envy of all the others. Pawn had helped make some in the barracks, but the other Antinium had to share it. Bird’s was his alone.
He also had other things in his room. Some of his feathers had been destroyed when the inn fell down. Bird had been very sad, but he still had Bevussa’s feather. And he had many more, in his Fortress of Fluff and around the room.
He also had a few dead birds. They weren’t rotting any more since they were in the inn, but Bird hurried into the room and tossed them out the window before Lyonette could be angry. Angrier. Neither one was shouting, but Bird hurried around his room, checking for wriggling worms. His room was very clean. He had everything in piles.
“Wow. They are bigger. And you want the second floor to be as big as the first?”
“That’s right. We’ll have guest rooms. And regular guests, not just your friends, Erin. That’s how inns make money. And stables.”
“Stables? Like, with horses?”
“Yes, Erin. With horses. Its customary for an inn. How do you not know this?”
“Well, the old inn didn’t have one.”
“It probably rotted away. Or it was too dangerous with the Shield Spider nests and hills and valleys. But we’ll have a proper road and we’re close enough to Liscor. Stables—and the new door to Liscor is going to go right next to the Adventurer’s Guild and the Mage’s Guild. Same street.”
“Wait. They moved the Adventurer’s Guild? When?”
“When you were on break. There’s all kinds of changes. They’re building new parts of the city—I’ll tell you more tomorrow. For now—”
Bird’s door opened. The two young women walked in. Lyonette glanced around the inn and Bird hoped she did not see the wriggling worm in the corner he’d just spotted. She frowned at Bird. Then she nudged Erin.
“You do it.”
The two Humans whispered to each other. Bird looked from one to the other. Erin came over. She looked around.
“Sit down, Bird. Let’s all sit.”
“May I sit in my Fortress of Fluff, please?”
Erin smiled, and then lost it.
“Yeah. There’s a chair there—”
Lyonette watched as the two sat down. Erin dragged the chair over to Bird’s fortress as he sat down in it. Bird looked from face to face.
“May I get my wing, please? I would like to eat it.”
“Later, Bird. We need to talk.”
The Worker’s eyes were innocent as he looked at Erin’s face. She hesitated. Bit her lip. Lyonette nudged her. Erin sighed.
“Did you know you’re not supposed to go to Pallass, Bird? I remember Klbkch ordering Pawn and the others not to go through. You heard him, right? And you know how Pallass feels about Antinium.”
“But there were big birds in Pallass. I saw them. And I was helping.”
Bird pointed towards his window. Erin nodded.
“I know. And you did help, Bird.”
“I shot many big birds. Through the eyes. They have very thick skins. The biggest bird did not die. I think it might be a super bird. Like the super man you told us about.”
Erin stifled a snort. Lyonette’s face didn’t change. Erin told Bird and Mrsha and Numbtongue and sometimes Lyonette many stories about her home. It was Bird’s dream to meet the bat man. Or the hawk man. Or an airplane. Well, one of his dreams.
The [Innkeeper] had schooled her face back to seriousness. She was biting one lip. She looked at Bird, meeting his eyes.
“Bird. You knew it would be trouble to go into Pallass. Didn’t you?”
Bird—paused. He didn’t meet Erin’s gaze. Bird shuffled his feet as he sat in the chair.
“I only wanted to eat big birds. I was helping.”
A pause. Erin looked at Bird. He was pretending to be very interested in the lining of his Fortress of Fluff. It was a familiar look. She’d seen Mrsha do the exact same thing. Erin felt Lyonette nudge her again. Erin glared at Lyonette, but she went on.
“Bird, I know you wanted to help. And you did. But you caused a lot of trouble. A lot. Klbkch shouldn’t have hit you, but you are in trouble.”
“Will he kill me?”
“No! But you can’t go to Pallass. Understand, Bird? Never.”
“But what if—”
“Never, Bird. Do you understand? Klbkch was being serious.”
Lyonette leaned forwards. Bird looked up at her.
“Yes, Miss Lyonette.”
Erin looked at Lyonette. The [Princess] nodded back at her. Erin turned to Bird. He was looking at her.
“I will never go to Pallass. May I go now?”
“No, Bird. There’s one more thing. Hitting you was wrong. Klbkch was wrong to do that. You know that, right?”
Bird sounded like he was saying it just so Erin would be happy. She really didn’t know how far she was getting to him. Erin took a breath.
“But you also did something wrong that caused a lot of trouble. And you knew you weren’t supposed to. Didn’t you, Bird?”
No response. Erin wavered.
“So—so you’re going to be punished. Do you understand?”
Bird’s head snapped up and looked at her. And then he began to shake. No—quiver. The Antinium rocked back and forth, disturbing his fortress. His voice shook as he shrank back from the two young women.
“Am I going to be destroyed? Am I Aberration? Will the Free Queen kill me?”
It was everything Erin had feared. She looked at Lyonette and waved her arms quickly.
“No! No, Bird. We’d never do that.”
Lyonette shook her head. Bird stopped quivering. He relaxed at once.
“Oh. Then what is my punishment?”
Erin wiped her brow. But here came the hard part. She looked at Bird. Lyonette had insisted and Erin had to admit, it was the only thing that would work. They had to make Bird understand. The [Innkeeper] hesitated—but Lyonette had insisted she deliver the news.
“You—you’re forbidden from hunting birds, Bird. For—for an entire week. And you…don’t get to eat birds either? Not even eggs.”
Erin glanced uncertainly at Lyonette. The [Princess] nodded.
“For an entire week. No birds. And if you lie or try to hunt them or eat them, it will be longer, Bird.”
She folded her arms and looked severely down at Bird. The Worker’s head swung from Erin to Lyonette. He stared at them. And Erin saw his mandibles open wide and droop. The Worker shook. Then he shouted.
“Bird, listen. We don’t want to make you upset, but you know—”
“No! I do not want this!”
Bird shouted for the first time, in actual distress. Erin tried to talk over him. Lyonette raised one finger.
“Bird, it’s only for one week. And listen—you caused an awful lot of—”
“Bird, be quiet and listen to us—”
The Worker ignored both of them. He flailed his four arms and began to kick the air. The Fortress of Fluff fell down around him.
“Waaah! Waaah! Waaah! Waaah! Wah. Waaaaaaaaah! Waaah!”
Erin stared at him. Was he—crying? The Antinium could not cry. But Bird was imitating a wailing baby. Well, he was shouting the word ‘wah’. But it was similar. Erin looked helplessly at Lyonette. The [Princess] was staring at Bird.
“Waaah! Waaah! Wah! Waaaaaaaah! I am crying! Is it working?”
Lyonette was opening her mouth. Erin felt the [Princess]’ aura gathering. But—Erin looked at Bird. She thought of the blue flame she could conjure. She put out a hand and Lyonette looked at her. Erin took a deep breath as Bird kept shout-crying. She focused.
“Bird! Be quiet!”
The air—went still. It wasn’t pressure so much as weight. Erin focused. And below, for an instant, her guests looked around, feeling a huge—weight on their shoulders. Not pressure—Erin remembered making her inn shake with force. But this was different.
She concentrated. The area of effect narrowed, until it was only the room. She felt Lyonette pushing back. Erin focused on Bird. The Worker’s flailing slowed. He wasn’t being crushed. She was just…weighing him down.
Focus. Erin wanted him to be serious. She didn’t lean. It was an odd sensation in her mind. Unlike any other sense Erin had ever employed. She couldn’t explain it, but she’d done it before. Now, doing it intentionally, Erin felt fatigued. But that was enough. Erin released the weight.
Then she put both her hands on Bird’s shoulders. And he stilled, looking at her. Erin spoke slowly, looking into Bird’s multifaceted eyes.
“Listen to me, Bird. I know you’re not happy. And young. And I know you like birds and you’re…Bird.”
He opened his mandibles. Erin raised a finger and he went still. Not because of her aura. Just because of her look. Erin stared at him.
“You’re Bird. And you can be silly and wonderful and…young. But I remember when you first came to the inn. You can be serious. You’re smart, Bird. Smarter than anyone thinks because you pretend. Or you—you can be serious. You know you did something bad. And this is punishment. It’s fair. You do understand it, don’t you, Bird?”
He looked at her. Erin waited. He remembered it too. She saw the shaking Aberration in her inn. Heard the distant horns blaring from Liscor. The undead.
“I am Knight.”
The Antinium looked at her. Naming himself. They all did. Her chess club, those brave Workers. Erin still remembered them. The ones who had never had a chance. Named after the legends of chess in her world. Knight, Milner-Barry, Calabrian—
He had been there. Before he was Bird. And the little Worker, bigger than Erin, but little, slowly nodded. And his voice grew…sharper.
“I understand. I do not like it, but I understand.”
No less Bird. But he paused. His tantrum ceased. It wasn’t a child who sat there, looking at Erin and Lyonette. Antinium were never children. This one had found his childhood, but he was still—
Bird. The Worker paused. He bowed his head.
“I am sorry for causing trouble, Erin, Miss Lyonette. I did not mean to. I just wanted to hunt the Wyverns. I will be punished and obey.”
Erin Solstice sat back. She heard Lyonette sigh in relief. Erin looked at Bird.
“Good. You know you can’t go to Pallass, Bird?”
“Yes. I am very sorry.”
Bird bowed his head lower. Lyonette nodded.
“Just—don’t do it again, okay, Bird?”
The Worker kept nodding. Erin and Lyonette rose. Bird looked up.
“Am I forgiven?”
“Yes. And I’m really sorry Klbkch hit you.”
Erin hugged Bird. He smiled, relieved. Then he paused.
“May I hunt birds tomorrow?”
Erin’s smile vanished. She stared at Bird.
“In three days?”
“No, Bird. No birds for a week.”
“…In six days?”
There he was again, Bird and serious Bird. Erin stood up. What would her mother have said? Erin should have thought of that from the beginning. She pointed sternly at Bird.
“No arguing, young miss…ter! Or it’ll be even longer!”
Bird clapped all four hands over his mandibles in horror.
“I will not argue! Do not make it longer, please!”
“Well—well, just you think about what you’ve done! You can help build your tower, or play chess—but no hunting or eating Birds!”
“Yes. And—and we love you, but that’s final!”
Lyonette and Erin looked at each other. They exited the room before they could make any more mistakes. They shut the door, leaned against it, and listened. For a second there was only silence. Erin was afraid Bird would start crying, but after a moment, she heard a sing-song voice, warbling from within.
“Now I am sad. Because I have been bad. This is my bad bird song, which is all I can do because I cannot eat birds. Which is sad.”
Erin and Lyonette nodded to each other. They hurried down the hallway, and then downstairs, and then they high-fived in relief. They’d done it. Erin was no parent, but she did have a family. She wondered if she’d ever been like that.
Probably n—Erin caught herself. Definitely. And Bird was reasonable. More than a child. She sighed in relief.
In his room, Bird kept singing. He was gloomy. He was being punished. No birds! But he had done a bad thing. He was not dead, too, and Erin had not thrown him out of the inn so the Free Queen could tear Bird apart and make True Antinium maybe.
Bird threw up his four arms. He stared around. If not Birds, then what?
The maggot wriggled in the corner of the room. Bird stared at it. He could build his tower. But an entire week. It was almost as bad as if Klbkch had broken open Bird’s head. Almost.
“So sad. Because I was bad.”
The Worker wandered over to the maggot. Maybe—his Level 8 [Tactician] class told Bird something. Maybe he could feed birds. For an entire week? Yes! And they would fly around him and he would not be eating or hunting them. Bird trundled over to the window and put the maggot just outside the window. Yes. He would earn the birds’ trust.
This was a good plan. Bird heard the door open and jumped.
“I was not hunting!”
He shut the window quickly. But it was not Lyonette or Erin. Instead, Bird saw a green figure with glowing, crimson eyes.
The Hobgoblin [Bard] nodded to Bird. He sidled into the room, carefully looking down the hallway for the two young Human women.
“I am in trouble and being punished. I cannot hunt or eat birds. I am sad. But I did a bad thing.”
Bird announced. The [Bard] shrugged. He was carrying something behind him. Bird saw him wander over to the chair. The Hobgoblin smiled.
“Saw the fighting. Good shooting.”
He sounded approving. Bird tilted his head.
“I shot many birds.”
The Goblin nodded. He and Bird hadn’t talked—much. But they had lived in the same inn for a while, after Bird had recovered. Numbtongue had even apologized for the sword and Greydath, but it had not been his fault. Bird had said sorry that all Numbtongue’s friends were dead.
Now, though, Numbtongue just stood in Bird’s room. The Worker stared back. At last, the [Bard] nodded again.
“Stood in Pallass. Made lots of others upset.”
“Yes. But it was not war.”
Bird realized that might be why Erin and Lyonette were upset. But Ksmvr had assured Bird it was a good bluff. It had worked. Therefore, statistically, it had a 100% success rate. Among three cases. Even so, Bird was vaguely aware that might have been a bad thing.
But the Hobgoblin didn’t seem to mind. He was smiling.
“Antinium stood in Pallass. First time. Like a Goblin in Liscor.”
“Yes. It makes people very upset.”
Bird looked at Numbtongue. The Goblin grinned. Two members of a species who were banned from civilization looked at each other. And then Numbtongue pulled his arms out from behind his back.
He showed Bird what he had in his claws. The Antinium stared and his mandibles opened. Numbtongue had a bottle of Firebreath Whiskey—and Bird’s Wyvern snack, both confiscated from downstairs when no one was watching.
“But that is forbidden.”
The Hobgoblin grinned. He pulled the chair over to the door and wedged it under the handle. Then he sat down. Bird sat too. Numbtongue gave him the wing. Bird stared at it, and then at Numbtongue.
“You are a good Goblin.”
Numbtongue tapped his chest. Bird tapped it too, gently. Numbtongue laughed. He held out a fist to bump. Bird hesitated. Then bumped fists as the Hobgoblin grinned and produced two cups to drink from.
“I like you very much, Numbtongue.”
The Hobgoblin grinned and laughed. And the two of them found they were friends.
Below, Erin Solstice didn’t notice the wing vanishing. Her head was spinning. Now that Bird was…reprimanded, she found other people coming over to her. Her Skill had ended, and they wanted to talk to her.
She wanted to talk to them! Erin saw familiar faces. No Horns. No Ceria or Pisces or Yvlon or Ksmvr—that hurt. But she had seen them off, two weeks ago. And there were so many people she did know.
And so much to say! Erin found herself telling people about her new Skill—and Pelt—the parts that wouldn’t embarrass the Dwarf—and the attack—in between hearing what had happened in Liscor.
“Wait. The new city’s being built? Humans? More Humans than just me? Where? You’re living in Liscor! No way!”
Erin’s jaw dropped as a family from Esthelm introduced themselves. They were staring at her like she was at them. Wide-eyed. And Selys was telling Erin she was buying land?
It was too much to take in, honestly. Erin felt like she was swimming through the faces and voices. She didn’t even realize how late it was until Lyonette’s voice cut through the chatter.
“Thank you, everyone! But Erin’s too tired for more! Thank you! You can all come back tomorrow! We’ll be open bright and early!”
Everyone protested. But Erin saw Lyonette herd them towards the door. She was still using her aura. When had she learned that? Erin found Mrsha pushing a cup of water into her hands. She drank. Lyonette appeared next to Erin.
“They’ll want a piece of you later. I bet the Council and Zevara and everyone else in Pallass is trying to figure out what to do, but they’re probably still weighing their options. For now—the second floor has a few rooms done. Yours was first. Here. Let’s show you. Mrsha?”
She helped Erin up. Mrsha tried to take Erin’s other side, but she was too short. So instead, she raced up the steps and opened the first door. Erin blinked at the lovely room as Drassi took Erin’s other arm. She didn’t even realize she was lying in bed for a moment.
“Hey! I’m totally awake!”
Erin called out, but it was dark. Moonlight from two moons and the stars was the only illumination in the dark room. Erin looked around. Where had everyone gone?
She was so tired. The [Innkeeper] blinked. She looked around. Well, maybe they were all tired. The young woman yawned. That pillow was suctioning her head right back down. She stared up at the ceiling. A new ceiling. A new inn. New worries.
But even so, Erin smiled. At least she was back. She was back. And that was alright. The rest could come tomorrow.
“What a day. What—”
Erin passed out before her head hit the pillow.
Pallass watched the Antinium leave. And the Human. The streets still rang with the shock. An Antinium! But they were expelled, the 1st Army herding the Liscorians through the door. For a moment, they were gone, out of sight. If not out of mind.
And then—it was over. After the trials, the tribulations, and not least, the Antinium, it had ended. And while the world was left to speculate over the news, the people of Pallass who weren’t the movers or shakers or leaders or anyone of importance found themselves doing something else entirely besides worrying.
Evening bled into the night. Exhausted [Soldiers] slept. And indeed, even into the darkness people were scrambling to help [Healers], repair the worst damage. And find the wounded. It was the work of necessity that pushed other concerns to the side. Searching through the rubble of a buried house. Listening for a baby’s cries.
Heartbreaking work. And boring work. They could mix. Burying bodies. Searching for loved ones. Counting the dead. And it was familiar to Erin, but new to many of Pallass.
Yet it was the next day that brought surprises. And Pallass’ citizens, some who had had very little sleep, others who had worked through the night, rose and found themselves at work a second day.
They were doing what all people who endured disaster inevitably did. After the mourning—no, amid it—and between the emergencies and blaming, there was just…cleanup.
Cleaning. It wasn’t something people thought about. But there was masonry on the streets. Blood on the walls. Scorch marks to be removed, oh, and yes.
Wyvern corpses. Hundreds of them. Some had been hauled into warehouses filled with runes of preservation, but moving the Wyverns had been a low priority yesterday. Now, it was rising on the list.
The Wyverns stank. They were rotting—some of them—and bugs were attracted to the decomposing flesh. Ironically, the Wyverns struck by lightning or killed in non-obvious ways were in the best of shape; their bodies hadn’t begun to rot nearly as much as those cut apart.
Even so, Wyverns. Pallass saw every [Butcher], [Tanner], [Hideworker], [Armorer], [Hunter], [Trapper] and specialist in hides at work in the early morning. They were trying to remove Wyvern hides before they rotted, or salvage meat from the corpses. After all, Wyverns were money. And Pallass was the City of Invention.
Cleaning, corpse disposal—and repairs. [Engineers] and [Builders] surveyed damaged streets and houses. And it had to be said, as the Wyverns were dissected, more people saw opportunity in the monster’s corpses. Teeth could be used for arrowheads. Wyvern leather—aside from protection—might be a trendy accessory. A reminder, a mark of pride.
There was work for [Healers], tending to the wounded. Countless potential for [Laborers] who were sorely needed to help dispose of the bodies. Even for [Gravediggers]. A surplus of jobs in fact. If it weren’t for the fact that people had died, this might have been a good day for Pallass.
But people were dead. And many who walked the city had elected to tie a bit of red to some part of their body. Around their head as a sweatband, or an arm, or some other body part. Garuda, Dullahan, Drake, or Gnoll. A bit of red to show that they had lost someone, or known someone who had died in the fighting. Or that they had simply been injured.
Red, for blood. Blood for Pallass.
Of course, it wasn’t all grieving. And the changes to Pallass were more than just a sudden surge in the economy in certain sectors. Yesterday, Pallass—no, the world—no, Pallass and thus, the world had witnessed the drama of the Wyvern attack. They had seen legends. And heroes.
And if that was an exaggeration, you could go to Rhir. People did not forget, at least not so soon.
So the next day, Grimalkin, the Fist Mage of Pallass opened the door to his mansion. He was covered in poultices and bandages and he looked like…if Erin had seen him, she’d have called him a mummy. Grimalkin just felt like a wounded [Soldier]. He hurt all over. The [Healers] had managed to save some of his body that had been frostbitten, but the outer layer of his scales had just peeled off like dead skin.
It was just as well his vitals weren’t affected. Nevertheless—part of Grimalkin’s body had sloughed off when he pulled at the frostbitten sections. Removing it had hurt, but Grimalkin had cut it away. No sense in delaying recovery, and now he was trying to regrow as much of his lost scales and tissue as possible.
Not just tissue either. The Sinew Magus even looked thinner as he stopped in the doorway to his home. He’d used up his muscle during the fight with the Wyvern Lord. Instead of looking like the most muscular body-builder from Erin’s world, he now looked…
Well, he was still huge. But a bit less wide. And he had a surprise waiting for him. Grimalkin blinked at the line of people outside of his door. It stretched out of sight, around a corner. He stared at the group of Garuda at the front of the line, and the pair of Gnolls, all pushing to be first.
“What is this about?”
The Drake stared at the excited Garuda. One of them—a Garuda Erin would have recognized—waved his talons at Grimalkin.
“We’re here to sign up!”
Grimalkin was a bit slow today. Not only did he hurt, he had to regain all of his lost muscle so he’d eaten a massive breakfast and he’d been determined to work out for hours today with the finest potion supplements to aid in his recovery. He stared at the Garuda, and then past them. Gnolls, Drakes—Dullahans—young and old. Mostly young, though.
“Yes! You teach apprentices, right?”
“I do. But why—”
“We saw you fighting!”
Weki pushed past Assaln excitedly. Everyone in line nodded. Grimalkin stared at him.
“You mean, the Greater Wyvern? That was an embarrassing display—”
“Not that! I mean, part of that! But we saw you! You were first on the walls! You punched through a Wyvern and tore out its heart!”
The people behind Weki were nodding. All of them stared at Grimalkin. They knew him of course. The Muscle Mage of Pallass. Grimalkin the Fist. The [Sinew Magus]. How many times had he done his demonstration? Or tried to get new apprentices? It usually only got Grimalkin a handful of students at any time. But today—
“You threw a Wyvern! And you battled that huge Wyvern! Even General Duln couldn’t keep up! Can all of your students do that!? Can you teach us to do that?”
The two excited Garuda stared up at Grimalkin. He looked at them. And finally, the surprise faded. Grimalkin looked at the lines, the line of students. Excited civilians, not military students. Just…people who wanted to learn. He drew himself up slowly.
“Well, of course. My magical sinew theory will work on anyone! I’m accepting new students. Do you—all want to join?”
The exclamation came from hundreds of throats. And more were hurrying into the queue upon seeing Grimalkin’s face. The [Sinew Magus] stared. They’d surely wash out in days. Especially the two Garuda in front. But even if you had a 1%…no, even 0.1% success rate—and Grimalkin was sure he could manage at least 10%—how many gems would he find?
The Drake’s mind began to race. For the first time he looked on people motivated to seek him out. Who looked at him like…for the first time, Grimalkin began to think about setting limits on the numbers of his pupils, weeding out the best. The [Sinew Magus] smiled.
Others found the new day to be a trial. Or rather, one Drake in particular. Saliss of Lights stood outside the Watch House on the 4th Floor. It was one of many, but the Drake was standing outside of this one.
Naked. Bare to his scales. Oh, and he was dancing. The [Alchemist] and Named Adventurer shook his rear, and his tail waved about on the cobblestones.
“Dance to the beat of a new day! Come on, people! Watch Captain, get loose and free!”
He hopped up and did a sideways dance left. People stared at him. Saliss was standing in the street, or rather, dancing across it, and the Watch House was located at a busy intersection on the 4th. But even after Saliss started doing high-kicks, no one stopped him.
Ordinarily, someone would have shouted for the Drake to cover up, or thrown something, or demanded the Watch lock Saliss away. At the very least, the [Guards] would have herded Saliss somewhere less public with a long-handled pole. But today, the [Guards] on duty just stared at Saliss with a kind of resigned sadness.
No one stopped the [Alchemist]. Even when he faced the Watch House and managed to invent twerking, or something close to it. None of the pedestrians shouted at the Named Adventurer either. Parents just covered their children’s eyes and hurried them along.
The hero of Pallass looked around after a few more minutes of dancing. He could see Watch Captain Qissa, who’d survived the battle, working in one window of the Watch House. She even met his eyes once. But she didn’t so much as react.
Saliss looked around. He struck a pose.
“How’re you doing today, sir?”
A Dullahan walked right past Saliss with the same expression on his face. He even nodded his head at Saliss. The Drake paused. He looked around. It wasn’t exactly hero worship, but absolutely no one was giving him the stink-eye.
The Drake threw up his claws.
“This sucks. I’m going back home. I’ve got to make hundreds of potions—can’t even get arrested—what’s the world coming to? Prison’s great for focusing, but no…”
He stomped off, leaving the Watch House. He didn’t even harass anyone on the way back to his home and workshop on the 9th floor. Watch Captain Qissa, staring after Saliss inside the Watch House nearly dropped her mug of tea.
“That’s all it took?”
She shouted. But the Named Adventurer was gone.
Changes in the city were one thing. But the true causality of yesterday’s events coalesced in late morning. Not on Pallass’ streets, but on the 5th Floor.
The Assembly of Crafts was based in the 5th, or at least, the senate where laws and reform and debates took place. They had a large, circular chamber where they debated, each [Senator] elected by their district.
It was a democratic system, the scorn of many other Drake cities and other nations. But it worked—even if it was far slower than regular monarchies or tyrannies. Yet, it was also stronger in other ways. You could not behead Pallass’ government in a single stroke.
Something up, something down. Grimalkin of Pallass strode down the 5th floor, towards the senate’s building. It was soundproofed, but citizens of Pallass could walk in and observe the arguments if they wished. Grimalkin passed by the [Guards] on duty, entered the building—
And turned left instead of heading towards the spectator’s seats or onto the senate floor. He was walking to another meeting room. He had been summoned.
And he was not the only one. Grimalkin passed through another layer of security. This time, a pair of [Soldiers] waved Grimalkin onwards. Into the private parts of the senate, reserved for the politicians and staff. And then—a third checkpoint.
“Name? And intent?”
“Grimalkin of Pallass. Summoned to testify.”
“Do you harbor any intent to harm or otherwise subvert those within?”
The truth stone flashed and the [Lieutenant] nodded. Grimalkin saw the [Soldiers] relax, but only slightly. This group was the sharpest by far, and they were ready to take or stall even the [Sinew Magus]. Grimalkin saw the [Lieutenant] motion.
There were two doors in the security system, both of which had closed when Grimalkin had entered for the questioning. Now, the door in front of him opened. If he’d answered incorrectly or if the [Lieutenant] had any suspicion, Grimalkin was sure the magical traps would have activated. They did not, and he walked through.
“I’ll escort you, Magus. Command is hearing from the other witnesses, so there may be a delay. Can we offer you refreshments in any way?”
“If you have anything to eat, I’ll take it.”
Grimalkin nodded as the [Lieutenant] marched smartly with him through the inner, secret halls of Pallass. He was familiar with this place. They headed left.
“Certainly. I’ll send someone. Just in here, Magus. I’m sure you’re familiar with the proceedings?”
“Then I’ll have refreshments sent shortly. And—may I shake your claw, sir? It was an inspiring feat. I witnessed. I wish I could have been in the fighting, but our orders were to hold—”
The [Lieutenant] held out a clawed hand. Grimalkin shook it firmly.
“Duty is duty, [Lieutenant]. The walls stand.”
“The walls stand.”
The Drake saluted and made his way off. Grimalkin entered the waiting room and found he wasn’t alone. A green-feathered Garuda sat in a comfortable chair. A door led into another room, but Grimalkin heard nothing from the soundproofed meeting room. He took a chair opposite Bevussa and nodded to her.
“Captain Slenderscale, isn’t it? The Wings of Pallass?”
“Bevussa. And it’s only ‘member’ of the Wings of Pallass. Outside of here, at any rate. Magus Grimalkin.”
Bevussa bowed slightly to Grimalkin. He nodded.
“Good morning to you. I heard the Wings were among the first to repel the Wyverns. Did you take casualties, Captain?”
“None. We got torn up, but we healed most of it. I lost some feathers and one of my adventurers—Kin—has a torn wing. But it’ll heal. We were lucky. I leveled from the fighting.”
“Congratulations. I did not, but I feel like I’ve advanced at least halfway towards the next level.”
The Garuda nodded. The two stared at each other for a moment and then both glanced at the sealed door. Bevussa shifted her talons.
“Magus? Refreshments. And for you, Adventurer. It’s an honor, sir—”
One of the [Soldiers] appeared with a tray of food. Grimalkin accepted it, and shook the other Drake’s hand. So did Bevussa. She eyed Grimalkin as he inspected the tray. Fruits, Gnollish dumplings—Grimalkin forgot the name—he selected some hard-boiled eggs and chewed one down without even bothering to add salt or pepper from the bowl.
It looked like they’d grabbed whatever they could. Grimalkin hoped he wasn’t eating someone’s lunch, but he had to keep eating to grow muscle. And bags of holding were not allowed in Pallass’ inner sanctum. Bevussa indicated the tray.
“You don’t mind if I…?”
She selected some fruits and began peeling an orange. Fresh, probably from Oteslia.
“So you were called to testify, Magus? I shouldn’t be surprised. Sorry. I’m just a little nervous. I’ve never been here.”
She indicated the rooms of stone. Grimalkin recalled that Garuda were naturally claustrophobic, which probably didn’t help Bevussa at this moment. He nodded.
“Would you like a calming spell?”
“Oh, no—I’m fine. Plus, it would probably set off half a dozen alarms, wouldn’t it?”
“We are being monitored. But I can cast magic if need be. You needn’t worry, Captain Bevussa. This is just questioning. Not an arraignment.”
“A—of course. It’s just…”
Bevussa nodded towards the door. Grimalkin nodded. He knew what lay beyond. Not specifically, but he could guess.
While the Assembly of Crafts debated, another body of leadership in Pallass was also thinking over what they’d just witnessed. Of course, Pallass was a democracy. But it was also a Drake city. And that meant the military weighed in on decisions that were a threat to Pallass’ safety.
The door opened suddenly. Bevussa started. Grimalkin heard a flurry of voices. Then someone marched out.
The Drake paused, seeing Grimalkin. The [Sinew Magus] looked past him into the room. He saw a group of conferring people.
Some of the more influential [Senators], three of Pallass’ [Generals], Chaldion and two other [Strategists], the [Lead Engineer] responsible for the elevator system in Pallass, three Watch Captains—and a few more faces Grimalkin and Bevussa recognized.
Names. This group made up a…not higher command than the Assembly, but a group of people who would decide what needed to be done. Along with, or parallel to whatever the Assembly of Crafts came up with.
Keldrass saluted Grimalkin reflexively. Grimalkin stood up, but the door closed just as quickly as a Garuda walked out.
“Captain Keldrass, thank you for your time. Magus, Adventurer, I apologize, but you’ll have to wait for the command to organize their thoughts.”
“By all means.”
Grimalkin paused to shake Keldrass’ clawed hand. Bevussa looked like she wanted to ask questions, but the Gold-rank Captain was escorted from the room before they could talk. That left Bevussa and Grimalkin.
“We may be here a while. As much as an hour for you.”
Grimalkin nodded. He wished he’d brought a book. But he might as well work out after eating. Squats. Now would be the perfect time for some weights, but he’d never have gotten them through the checkpoint. Sighing, the Drake shook his head.
“How long have you been here, Captain?”
That explained why she was so restless. Grimalkin shook his head.
“I get the necessity. What’s going on outside?”
“Cleanup. The Assembly hasn’t stopped debating since yesterday. They’ve only taken a recess to help clean up the city, distribute aid—take care of their districts.”
“Of course. Did they say how many…?”
“They’re still counting. The estimates are at around five thousand six hundred, but they haven’t climbed for a few hours.”
Bevussa closed her eyes. Grimalkin nodded. It could have been worse. A thousand Wyverns? It could have been far worse, but it was bad enough. Most had died in the first attack. More civilians than the defenders of Pallass, who’d been hit by the freezing Frost Wyvern’s breath.
“There will be a formal gathering later today. I believe the command will recess even if they’re not finished.”
The Garuda nodded a few times. She fell silent. Grimalkin sensed she was about to ask something. He contented himself with two bananas. Oteslia must be growing more. They were native to Baleros, but he thought they were quite good fruits. Diet menu. With his new apprentices, he should rework—he wondered if Erin Solstice knew anything that would help.
Then again, with the way she made her food, perhaps not. He’d ask. Speaking of which—Bevussa glanced at the door again.
“Can I ask what I’ll be expected to share, Magus?”
“Of course. You’ll speak under truth spell, of course. It’s just a formality. But you can be sure the questions will revolve around your observations of Liscor. The Antinium. And of course…”
The two fell silent. Grimalkin nodded. He swallowed, reached for the dumplings.
“The command will appreciate detail, even if it’s speculation. Your personal thoughts are welcomed. Perhaps not by all of the [Senators] or those within, but Chaldion will be present. Don’t fear—this isn’t a military command structure.”
“I saw General Edellein in there. And General Duln.”
“Naturally. But they’re two voices. Don’t worry.”
Grimalkin understood Bevussa’s apprehension. General Edellein of the 4th Army had to be spitting fire—well, if he could. Already, people were asking why the walls had been taken, why the 1st Army had been so slow to react. General Duln had been blasted, but at least he’d been there. The 4th Army, which had failed to lure the weyr was being mercilessly shredded by the Assembly of Crafts.
“Just speak your mind. Everything is to allow the command to make a more informed decision.”
“And they can’t fire me.”
Bevussa half-laughed. Grimalkin nodded. It would have been a concern if she were in the army. Gold-rank adventurers were more autonomous, but this was a Drake city. Even the adventurers reported to their leadership.
“Was that Keldrass of the Flamewardens I saw? Apologies, I’m blanking on names. My mind’s overly taxed from yesterday’s battle.”
“That’s right. He stayed at the inn too. You know Keldrass?”
“I’m familiar with Keldrass. I believe I taught his unit when he was in the army.”
Grimalkin saw Bevussa shifting.
“Something wrong with his testimony?”
“What? Oh, no. It’s just—Keldrass is a [Soldier] at heart. I was in the army for less time. Just to get my wings in. But Keldrass—he says what he sees. And he hasn’t been in the inn as long.”
Grimalkin nodded. He began to understand a bit of Bevussa’s hesitation.
“When the command finishes deliberating—I’ll request permission to speak first. And I will begin with that.”
“Wait? You’ll ask?”
Bevussa stared at Grimalkin. Few people were aware of Grimalkin’s exact rank. But he worked with the army more closely than many imagined. The [Sinew Magus] nodded.
“It’s pertinent. And I have no doubt that while many questions will be about the Antinium, just as many will be about her.”
Again, the name lingered. If Grimalkin had said her name before, no one in Pallass would have cared. Today, it was one of a handful of names being repeated.
“What will you tell them?”
Grimalkin looked at Bevussa. The Garuda hesitated. She opened and closed her beak, and then collected her thoughts.
“I know Bird. I’ve met him. Actually, I’ve chatted with him a lot. He’s…obsessed with Birds. He gets me to tell him stories. And when he figured out he could pay for my drinks, he was completely willing to pay for my team’s drinks forever just for a single story about flying monsters. He doesn’t…manage money. And Erin’s had him in his watchtower forever.”
“I had the same impression, honestly. I hadn’t met him more than a few times, but…I am familiar with Miss Solstice’ inn.”
“It’s her inn. And Bird’s—I don’t know how I’m going to say it. But I have to, right?”
Grimalkin remembered one conversation with Bird. He paused. Nodded.
“That’s my intent too. Temper whatever radical thoughts are out there. Tell the truth. Whatever the other Walled Cities may think—the world may think—”
The two looked at each other. How were they going to say it? It was hilarious, ridiculous. Bird wasn’t a new form of Prognugator, or a Centenium. He was just an employee at an inn and Erin Solstice…
“What a disaster. How can I tell them?”
Bevussa put her head in her talons. Grimalkin was nodding, but he caught himself. He remembered Bird’s line.
“I am as simple as I choose to be. I am a Bird and I am free to be me.”
The Drake thought of Erin and paused. It was ludicrous, how it had all played out. Even so…his claws drummed on the armrest of his chair as he picked up another morsel.
“Honestly, I cannot say that it’s entirely coincidence.”
Bevussa looked up sharply. Grimalkin nodded his head at the door.
“When I think of her, I can’t imagine she’s duplicitous. But there are layers I do not know about Erin Solstice. And the Antinium—when I testify, I will explain as much as I can. But I cannot swear that it is not all part of a larger viewpoint I’m unaware of. No doubt that’s why Chaldion is taking it so seriously.”
“Neither can I. And I mean—I didn’t think it would come to this. But it’s her. How do I explain her, even if you can make sense of Bird and the Antinium?”
It was going to be hard. Both adventurer and [Mage] nodded. Bevussa sighed.
“I’d like to say she’s just—Erin. But then—she’s Erin. I wish I knew more, honestly. I knew she was—but I thought she was just weird. You know?”
“I think after today, we’ll all be regretting not looking into her sooner, Captain Bevussa. The only question is—what each city does about it. Pallass is ideally placed. But now all the cities know about her.”
Grimalkin’s exhausted mind was thinking of all that might transpire from today’s events. He shook his head. He’d ask the command. Weigh in as hard as he could, and Grimalkin could exert some weight. Even so, today he was a witness, and he was no [General].
What a mess. Bevussa’s feathered head turned as she looked towards the door.
“About Erin. Do you think—I know she was here for the Wyvern attack, but that was an accident this time. Probably. She’s done so much—and I wasn’t even around for a lot of it. But how much will the Assembly or…anyone look into her?”
Grimalkin considered it. Whatever would be done, he was going to caution prudence. No radical moves. But of a certainty, he was going to move Erin up on his priority list. He suspected he wouldn’t be the only one. But carefully. Very carefully…
“Erin Solstice is odd. An enigma in many ways. But you are correct, Captain. She isn’t as important as the Antinium Hive in Liscor, or even many individuals or organizations the Walled Cities have to deal with. She knows many people, and that is her worth. That’s the power of an [Innkeeper].”
“Right. She didn’t slay any Wyverns herself this battle. But she employs Bird.”
Bevussa nodded a few times. Grimalkin nodded as well.
“She’s part of a puzzle. A keystone. A useful ally, or an unpredictable force multiplier for good or ill.”
“Even then, her power isn’t everything. She can sway events, not change them by herself. Erin Solstice is not Saliss of Lights. Saliss could break an army of Antinium by himself. Like Zel Shivertail, he makes up the Walled Cities as much as the walls themselves. He is irreplaceable.”
The door opened. Grimalkin saw someone waving at Bevussa. She stood up uncertainly, and Grimalkin walked towards the door. Say his part. He looked at Bevussa and his thoughts came together. The [Sinew Magus] turned his head as the inner circle of Pallass’ leadership looked at him. He spoke to Bevussa.
“Erin Solstice is not Saliss of Lights. But she might be one day. The only question is—whose?”
Then Grimalkin turned and walked forwards.
The best laid plans of Drakes and Gnolls…had nothing in them that accounted for Erin Solstice. They had no idea who she was, what she could do. She was a wildcard in a game that had no idea you could cheat like that.
In a way, Ilvriss felt bad for the Walled Cities. He knew they were already trying to put her in their square holes and they had no idea what kind of shape she was.
Neither did he, honestly. But he knew the Walled Cities. The Wall Lord of Salazsar sat in his office and guessed what they might do.
“First debate. Manus’ war councils, Pallass’ inner circles, Zeres’ admirals, Oteslia’s matriarch…Fissival’s idiots…”
Yes, he knew the Walled Cities. They were predictable, at least. Each city was assessing, convening their leadership. And that was, again, just the Walled Cities. Ilvriss guessed that the Humans and even other nations might be making plans off what they’d seen.
But they had no idea. None at all. They thought they knew, and perhaps some in Pallass had learned what Erin Solstice was. But few others did. They had no idea about the hilarious, disastrous…
“Bird the Hunter.”
Ilvriss closed his eyes. The purple-scaled Drake sat back in his chair. It was already spreading. Bird the Hunter’s name was being etched into security briefings, [Strategist]’s notes. Who was this new Prognugator? As dangerous as Xrn the Small Queen, or Klbkch the Slayer? Wrymvr the Deathless? Surely so, for he had a name.
They’d be asking questions. About Erin, too. The Human who knew a Prognugator. Erin Solstice, who’d they’d finally connect with the small, but entertaining incidents around Liscor. A girl who’d led a Goblin army. Employed Hobgoblins?
Erin Solstice, possible enemy of the Walled Cities. Erin Solstice, the enigmatic, mysterious force to be appraised. Erin Solstice, connected to the dangerous, unpredictable new Prognugator.
Bird the Hunter.
Ilvriss couldn’t take it anymore. He began to laugh, caught himself, slammed his head—lightly—onto his desk, and then let out a guffaw.
That was an appropriate response. Aside from weeping.
“Ilvriss? Wall Lord?”
Alrric, the [Administrator] of the Gemscale holdings and second to Ilvriss in the matters of his business, opened the office door. He stared down at Ilvriss. The Wall Lord was sitting in his chair. But the chair had fallen backwards onto the carpet of the office.
“Are you all right, Wall Lord?”
“Merely expressing my emotions towards the battle, Alrric.”
The Gnoll watched as Ilvriss got up and pulled his chair up. He eyed Ilvriss oddly. It was rare to see Ilvriss Gemscale, the dignified, handsome, proud Wall Lord of Salazsar do anything that might embarrass himself, and thus, his city. But Ilvriss had changed since returning home.
Everyone knew it. Oh, he’d hosted parties and reentered Salazsar’s highest society, but the Wall Lord was changed to anyone who was familiar with him. Alrric, as someone who met with Ilvriss on a regular basis, saw it even more especially. But the Gnoll just nodded.
“A dramatic battle. And that—Antinium. Bird the Hunter.”
Straight-faced, Ilvriss stood behind his chair. He was going to have to say that without laughing.
“Exactly. It’s not a matter to take lightly. I’m going to be busy today, Alrric.”
“Anything in store for me?”
The Gnoll walked over to Ilvriss’ neat desk. The Wall Lord had a sheaf of papers, all magically transcribed. Ilvriss picked them up and nodded before Alrric could see the contents.
“The Holders of the Walls will be convening. All of them. Later today. I shall be joining them—but before that, I will be conferring with my family.”
“Obviously. I’ll manage things today.”
The Gnoll nodded. He was one of the most powerful Gnolls in Salazsar, as the [Administrator] behind the Gemscale holdings. But there was power and power. Ilvriss was a Wall Lord. He and his peers ruled Salazsar.
They had no Assembly of Crafts, no senate. Nor did they have a Dragonspeaker, or a matriarch like the other Walled Cities. They had never changed their rulership. Salazsar had been founded by the Wall Lords and the Walled Ladies and it was still theirs. Such was Salazsar. Tradition, gemstones, and pride.
“Is it war, Wall Lord?”
Again, Ilvriss nearly laughed. But he turned it into a bitter quirk of the lips.
“Do you think the Walled Cities are ready for it, Alrric?”
The question surprised the Gnoll. He peered at Ilvriss.
“I would have thought you’d have assured me the Walled Cities were ready to stamp out the Antinium threat, Wall Lord. And I’d have assumed so, before what I saw yesterday. What will you decide?”
“I have a plan. Which doesn’t involve war yet.”
Ilvriss indicated the sheaf of papers. He sighed.
“I can’t say more, yet. I’ll let you take charge, Alrric. But before that—we need to talk funding.”
The Gnoll’s eyes sharpened. This at least, he knew quite well. The [Administrator] saw Ilvriss check his notes, and then find a paper and offer it to the Gnoll. Alrric read and his brows rose. Ilvriss nodded.
“Can you sequester the funds, Alrric? Without slowing operations or making it an obvious withdrawal?”
“I assume this isn’t a one-time cost?”
“It’s per month.”
Alrric sighed. It was not an easy sum to manage. But it never was, in his position. He didn’t ask Ilvriss what it was for. He just did math. Ilvriss saw Alrric’s paws twitching, as if he was using the abacus. Ilvriss had one on his desk too. At last, Alrric nodded.
“I can do it. If you let me sell the rights to the opal shafts.”
Ilvriss’ brows shot together. The [Administrator] nodded.
“They’re tapped. It’s steady, but we’re not employing enough [Miners] to justify the teams working on this and the new seam. I say sell while it’s still worth something and use the funds to pay for investment in the new seam. We’ve already gotten truegold and magicore from the vein—it’s a safe risk.”
The Wall Lord tapped his claws on his desk. He was a [Lord], but it had to be said, Ilvriss wasn’t a purely war-based [Lord] like Tyrion Veltras. He could fight, and lead, and manage, but he was specialized towards one end: making money. And he did it well. Ilvriss chewed over Alrric’s words and nodded.
“Very well. You have control over the development. I’ll leave it to you. And the bonuses if we strike enough at year’s end. Full control. My claws are off the project.”
That surprised Alrric, the second time in as many minutes. The Gnoll’s brows shot up. He eyed Ilvriss.
They were familiar enough that sometimes Alrric dropped Ilvriss’ title, but they were still superior and subordinate. Ilvriss had understood that Alrric addressing him informally was part of the give and take. But he’d seldom referenced it openly. Today was different. Everything was.
“There was a time you’d never have let me manage your company, Wall Lord. Not with full control, even if you agreed with all my plans.”
Ilvriss nodded. That was absolutely true. He’d managed his company since he was barely Erin’s age—each Drake family had a portion of Salazsar’s economy that built their towers, teams of miners and others they employed that fed their fortunes. And while some Wall Lords and Ladies preferred to leave it to trusted individuals, Ilvriss had always, always been in charge.
But now, the Wall Lord just folded his claws behind his back, keeping the soft papers from wrinkling as he looked out his large glass windows.
“It was Tasilt who introduced me to you, wasn’t it, Alrric? Twelve years ago?”
Alrric frowned. Wall Lord Tasilt, the renegade of the Wall Lords for marrying a Gnoll and employing unorthodox business practices had indeed recommended Alrric. He had been an on-off-on-again friend with Ilvriss for that reason. Ilvriss regretted that now. The Wall Lord nodded absently.
“It took me over a year to agree, you know. Even though you were the best Gnoll for the job. But Tasilt had to talk me into it. He was right that a non-Drake [Administrator] was better than a Drake. If I hadn’t listened to him, taken a ‘chance’ after the corruption scandal—I wouldn’t have been able to leave the Gemscale holdings to you when it mattered most.”
The Gnoll standing across Ilvriss’ desk was blinking hard. He peered at Ilvriss, wondering if the Wall Lord had taken ill. Or simply leave of his senses. Ilvriss turned.
“Call on me if you need to use one of my Skills. Otherwise—you’re in charge. My family doesn’t need me to explain or justify your authority. I have to go, Alrric. The Holders of the Wall are meeting and I have to convince my family first.”
He strode towards the door. Alrric stopped him. The Gnoll looked Ilvriss up and down and came out with it.
“Wall Lord, are you well?”
Ilvriss grinned mirthlessly. He felt like he could read Alrric like a book, at least in this moment. The Gnoll stared at him. The Drake just turned his head and shook it, meeting Alrric’s stare.
“I’ve learned to look harder at people in different ways, Alrric. You have my trust. And certainly, certainly I’d like to earn yours sometime. It occurs to me you’ve never once told me about your family. Or your past outside of your previous jobs.”
The Gnoll blinked. He replied automatically.
“It never came up, Wall Lord.”
Ilvriss glanced at Alrric’s face thoughtfully. And now he was on the back claw. Paw. Foot. Whatever. He shook his head again.
“No. I doubt it ever would have. We will have to talk, Alrric. I wonder how many suggestions you had that you’d never have run by me a month ago.”
He put his claws on the door. Alrric, staring at Ilvriss, looked at the desk and then at the Drake. He called out as Ilvriss flung his office door open.
“What happened to you in Liscor, Ilvriss? When you left?”
Everyone knew something. But Ilvriss hadn’t told anyone directly. Everyone ‘knew’, but it had never come from the Wall Lord’s mouth himself. Now, the Drake [Lord] turned. He looked at Alrric.
“I saw my love die, and the Tidebreaker die hundreds of miles from the nearest Drake army. I met an idiot, and I quit drinking.”
Then he turned away. Ilvriss shut the door quietly. Alrric stared at it, and then looked around the office. He blinked.
“That would about do it, yes.”
The Gnoll looked at Ilvriss’ desk. He walked around it, and stared at the seat. Then, slowly, he pulled out the chair and got to work.
Wall Lord Ilvriss strode across the spires and upper walkways of Salazsar. Power climbed, at least in the City of Gems. He could look down and stare into his city, built into the side of a mountain. Salazsar, the lone Walled City that kept building itself, year by year, century by century, was vast. Sprawling. Magnificent.
And also—complacent. Ilvriss saw it in the grand towers, decorated and beautiful. In the anxiety of the people who called out to him. In his family, his fellow Holders of the Wall. The Drake saw it in his city and he disliked it.
Complacency. How had he not seen it before? He had been blind, but now Ilvriss felt like he was staring at a different world. It wasn’t just Erin Solstice that had changed his perception either. She was just a catalyst. For the rest—no—Ilvriss wouldn’t have been able to see what he needed to become if he hadn’t seen the very icon of it, been lectured by him himself.
Zel Shivertail. The hero of the Antinium Wars. The Tidebreaker.
“Grimalkin of Pallass is bigger than Shivertail. But he is a poor copy. If Shivertail stood on those walls?”
Ilvriss tried to imagine that scene. It would be similar. But—
“If he stood on those walls, that Antinium would have never gotten away with his bluff.”
The Wall Lord shook his head. He could almost see it. That damned Drake’s back. But Zel was dead. Slain.
Dead. But not forgotten. Never forgotten. His shadow loomed over Ilvriss, a reminder. And a word came to Ilvriss’ lips that he would never speak, not even as he walked in his secure home.
Az’kerash. The Necromancer.
Ilvriss had one enemy. Only one. The Antinium, the Humans, all took a back seat to the Necromancer. But Ilvriss’ foe was elusive. His reach might be anywhere. Ilvriss trusted so few—
“Ah, Captain Shieldscale.”
One of them saluted Ilvriss now. Osthia Blackwing, disguised as the blue-scaled Captain Shieldscale, fell into step with the Wall Lord. She had been promoted to the his head of his private armed forces. Ilvriss knew people were already speculating about her relationship with him, or the other reasons he might have employed her.
Let them talk. Right now, Ilvriss was focused. He nodded to Osthia and murmured.
“Is my father in his quarters? I need to speak with him, and then get to the meeting with the Holders of the Wall.”
“He is. About yesterday. That Antinium—”
Osthia was vibrating with tension. And how not? It was her city that had been attacked. But she didn’t know Erin. She didn’t know—Bird. Ilvriss put a claw on her shoulder.
“I’ll meet with you later, Captain. For now—I’m putting the plan into action.”
He brandished the papers. Osthia’s eyes widened.
“Now? But I thought—”
“This is the perfect excuse. The perfect moment. If you see my sister coming for me—stall her. I don’t want her getting wind of what I have planned until the meeting.”
Osthia nodded. She slipped away as Ilvriss walked through his mansion. His people greeted him, anxious to know more, but Ilvriss had no time. He had a schedule, and a plan.
The first part of his plan sat in a chair in his quarters, near a fire. Zail Gemscale, Ilvriss’ father, looked up sharply as Ilvriss entered the room.
“Ilvriss. You saw?”
Zail was staring at a scrying orb. Ilvriss saw a wyvern soaring through the skies and for a moment his heart skipped. Were they attacking again?
No. it was a replay. One being broadcast from Wistram. Ilvriss relaxed. He didn’t trust the scrying orb—the [Wardmistress] who’d inspected Ilvriss’ mansion had told him point-blank that they were weak points. Even so, this conversation was fine to share even if there was a watcher. That was the point.
“Father, the battle’s over. You can relax.”
“Relax? After seeing a Walled City nearly fall to Wyverns? Those fools can’t even hold their walls.”
Zail sneered, but his scales were paler than usual, despite the fire’s heat. Wall Lord Zail was pale, and his claws shook a bit. He was also wearing his sword in its scabbard, Ilvriss saw. Zail had fought in wars before, and the dent along one side of his head was proof of his sacrifices for Salazsar. He had even commanded during the two Antinium Wars, but his health was gone.
Even so. Ilvriss stooped, peering at the orb.
“I heard it was a failure of the [Strategist] on the walls. There was a survivor. He claimed the [Cage of Pallass] spell wasn’t used—that the Wyverns launched an incredibly fast attack.”
Zail shook his head. He stared blankly at the scrying orb. The Wall Lord shuddered as an image appeared. Ilvriss only saw Bird. But Zail recoiled from the orb. He pointed at it.
“I saw that thing, Ilvriss. You were in Liscor. Were they—there?”
“Yes. The Antinium.”
Ilvriss’ eyes glinted.
“What madness possesses those idiots? Now, one stands on the walls. Even for Pallass.”
“It may be a sign the Antinium are changing.”
Ilvriss spoke casually. He wasn’t lying. Zail had a ring on his finger that commanded a [Truth] spell. No, a more powerful version of it. He hadn’t twisted it, but you never knew how the spell worked. Zail twitched.
“Something has to be done. Another one. We killed the other. The Slayer. And the others. What was the name of the one?”
“Devrkr. Devrkr the Glowing.”
“Yes. I saw it die. We had to kill it again and again. It kept coming back. But it died. The last time it died.”
Zail whispered. His clawed hand was gripping his sword. He stared up at Ilvriss.
“Three of them. Now four.”
“Bird the Hunter. He may not be a Centenium, father.”
“Don’t believe that. Don’t underestimate them!”
The Wall Lord snapped at his son. Now he was turning the ring. Ilvriss bowed his head.
“I would never. Father, I have a plan. I’m going to meet with the Holders of the Wall and present it. I wanted to outline it to you first.”
Wall Lord Zail stared at his son. He glanced at the papers Ilvriss handed to him.
Ilvriss waited as Zail rifled through the papers. The Wall Lord blinked, his faded eyes tracing lines of Ilvriss’ neat handwriting, magically copied exactly.
“That’s part of it. I’d like to expand the scope, though. Do I have permission to withdraw some of the heirlooms from Salazsar’s treasuries?”
Not just the Gemscale armories. The greatest of the Walled City’s treasures were even more heavily guarded. Zail recoiled.
He hesitated, staring at the orb, Ilvriss’ proposals.
“You want to do this?”
“What would you have me do besides this? I will manage the heirlooms myself. And I plan on using money from the mining operations to fund all of it. As well as ask for a joint contribution.”
“Yes. But artifacts—”
Ilvriss’ father hesitated. But his eyes went back to the scrying orb. Bird’s form didn’t magically reappear, but it didn’t matter. Zail shuddered. He saw a nightmare. And Ilvriss felt guilty for using Bird. But—
“Go. I’ll get the key. Go—tell the others.”
Zail whispered, staring at the scrying orb. A memory. Ilvriss looked at his father, his sword half-drawn from his sheathe. The younger [Lord] paused, then he bowed and left.
The thing about Erin. Ilvriss walked into the room where the other Holders of the Wall stood. Each bloodline had sent one representative, at least. The Holders of the Wall had a place to meet, in the ancient stone where the Walled City had first been hollowed out of the mountain. It was ancient, and glorious, and normally Ilvriss entered the place with reverence.
Not today. That was the Ilvriss of old. The new one was a stranger to these halls. But he walked with a purpose.
The thing about Erin Solstice that Ilvriss had learned was how to manage her. You had to react to Erin. You never knew where she could jump. She made mockeries of plans. Even by accident, she found herself at the heart of conflict. She didn’t start it, but she shaped it.
The thing about her was that you couldn’t wave your claws and scream in surprise or demand answers. You had to strike. She presented an opening, and Ilvriss reached for it.
Someone called out to Ilvriss in the rows of seats. He saw his sister, Navine Gemscale, glaring at him. Osthia must have kept her from meeting Ilvriss, because the younger Gemscale was furious. And suspicious. She was historically at odds with Ilvriss; the two had never seen eye-to-eye. The Gemscale family of four was split down the middle.
Zail Gemscale and his son were different from Helessia Gemscale and her daughter, Navine. They disagreed on topics like war, politics, the way Salazsar and Drakes should change. On Humans above all.
Well, until recently. Ilvriss nodded to Navine, but sat opposite her. The Holders of the Wall murmured as Navine glared; some came over, talking to Ilvriss as he readied himself. They were already debating, although no one had claimed the floor yet.
“Ilvriss. You saw what happened yesterday? What a disaster.”
Wall Lord Brilm, a continual drinker and fascinated collector of what was new and trending was the first to approach Ilvriss. He was shaken—as shaken as many of the other Holders of the Wall.
They had seen Antinium only a few times, during war. And the sight of one inside a Walled City had rattled them. Ilvriss nodded to Brilm.
“A disaster. The Wyvern attack should not have reached Pallass. It was only luck that they repelled the attack so well. But if they hadn’t had Grimalkin of Pallass or Saliss of Lights—”
“They still blundered. Ancestors, an Antinium in their city! That magic door—how did they not protect against it? If I were them and I had to have that thing, I’d have it outside the city under lock and key!”
“No doubt Pallass will take precautions. It was only one Antinium, though.”
“Only one! Did you hear what it said? It threatened war.”
“I heard. And I have a plan I intend to lay before all present, Brilm. Can I count on you for support?”
The more portly Drake’s eyes widened.
“A plan? Of course you have one. About time someone does! I was talking with the others and no one’s got a decent—Manus is sending orders, as always. But we have to have our own response. I’ll back it. Just give me a signal.”
“Votes are enough. Here. I’ll pass you a copy—”
The papers Ilvriss had labored over changed hands. Brilm hurried away, waving some of his friends over as he paged through Ilvriss’ documents. The Wall Lord nodded, seeing Navine glaring at him.
“That is some stare your sister’s giving you, Ilvriss.”
A voice came from the Wall Lord’s left. Wall Lord Tasilt, another old friend and the odd one out—metaphorically speaking since the room was filled with only Drakes—walked over. But he was different, even more so than Navine and her allies. He’d married a Gnoll, and Ilvriss had once considered that the height of difference.
What fool, he. Ilvriss nodded to Tasilt. Now, oh, now, he looked at his old friend a lot more favorably than Brilm. He always had, Ilvriss supposed. Tasilt had ideas. Brilm had trends. What had impeded Ilvriss before was prejudice.
Past time to start making the right choices. Ilvriss nodded to Tasilt.
“Navine’s suspicious. Rightly so. I have a plan to put before everyone.”
“Well, it occurs to me we should have had them years ago, but I’ll listen.”
Tasilt nodded cautiously. He didn’t offer Ilvriss a vote. The Wall Lord nodded.
“Take a look at this. And before you say anything, I’m going to distribute it to everyone and I’d like your input. It’s not set in stone. The concept, yes. The execution?”
He let Tasilt take the document. The other Drake read quickly. He was well-liked among the public of Salazsar. Less so in this august gathering. But no one would deny that Tasilt hadn’t done well with his ventures. Some failed, some went spectacularly well. Now, the Drake eyed Ilvriss’ proposal.
“Well…that’s something. But is it just lip-service, or will it actually change things, Ilvriss? One more group won’t do much. And if this is just designed to one-up the other Walled Cities…”
He looked at Ilvriss meaningfully. The Wall Lord almost smiled.
“Not at all. I mean every word.”
“In that case, you’re planning on starting the Third Antinium War. If not now, then in a few years.”
“Then what am I reading?”
Tasilt glanced sharply at Ilvriss, looking him up and down. Ilvriss took a breath.
“The only chance we have of creating a unified force between all the Walled Cities. Because that was what won us the last war, Tasilt. The last two wars. We lost Zel Shivertail. And he was the only Drake who could do it alone. This? This is attempting to replace what one Drake was.”
The other Wall Lord’s brows rose. He stared at the papers. Then he nodded, slowly.
“Let’s get a drink together later. My place. Assuming you can pass it.”
“In this room?”
Ilvriss looked around at the worried Drakes. Tasilt paused. He almost smiled.
“I’ll introduce you to my family. You’d be surprised how much they’ve changed.”
He walked off to his seat, and to confer with some others. Ilvriss waited, talking to others, distributing the papers around. Navine had a hold of one, he saw, and she stared at Ilvriss’ words and then glared up at him. But before she could make her way over to them, the Holders of the Wall heard a voice.
“It’s time. Is every representative here?”
An old Drake, Wall Lord Calistoca, took the center of the room. She looked around. The Wall Lords and Ladies present slowly turned, and sat. This was how they ruled, the leadership of Salazsar. They presented their rings. Copper and brass, disguised, turned to gold. The rings glowed. Ilvriss lifted his claw, but his ring was missing. He saw Navine and some of the others looking at him sharply, but the golden magic that worked only in this room still illuminated him.
No one could stand in this room whose heart did not belong to Salazsar. The glow faded, and the Holders of the Wall spoke. They needed no solemn vows, or oaths of fealty. Their presence alone was enough.
The word was an echo of Ilvriss’ thoughts. He stared as Calistoca, oldest of those gathered, hissed across the room. The Drakes here could speak at will, but they let each other speak by turns. She opened with that word.
“The Walled Cities have known peace! But today we saw an Antinium on the walls of Pallass. One, but it named itself. It called itself—Bird the Hunter.”
“We saw a Human too. Aiding it.”
A Wall Lord to Ilvriss’ left spoke up. The room was divided into camps. Ilvriss, traditionalist, a supporter of Salazsar’s superiority and conflict with Humans, and any number of stances—in the past—was directly opposite Navine. Brilm was closer to the middle. Tasilt sat more on Navine’s side. She and some of the others glared at the Wall Lord who’d spoken.
“We saw a Human, which is part of what we’re discussing. Who was that?”
“Never mind the Wyverns, eh?”
Brilm joked. Some of his peers glared at him too. Voices sprang up, worried, thoughtful, agitated.
“What do we know about the battle?”
“Aside from what we saw, you mean? There’s no information about that Human—”
“Weird name. No information about her, or that Antinium. Bird the Hunter.”
“A Prognugator? How has Liscor not informed us of it? What are they doing?”
“They’re all mad. I told you. The border city’s gone cracked, and this just proves it. We nearly went to war over them—it’s Pallass’ domain, but that city can’t even keep a hold over its walls—”
“What are the other Walled Cities saying?”
“Well, Manus is giving orders. They want a full investigation, Pallass to do wall drills—”
“Hah! Those were Frost Wyverns. I found a bestiary and heard the accounts. They blasted everything off the walls—they had less than a minute to react. That was just bad luck.”
“Well, it’s still idiotic and a disgrace. What about the Human? And the Antinium?”
“Manus wants more funds.”
“Do they? How incredible! I’d never have imagined it! I’m being sarcastic, by the way.”
“Well, someone has to do something. Fissival’s put forwards a proposal to increase our military spending across all the Walled Cities by another ten percent—”
“Which does what, exactly? We’re already stalemated with the Antinium. Let’s just fund Manus. They can hire a few [Geomancers] to cast [Earthquake] on the Hives. Something serious so they know we mean business this time.”
“You’ve read the reports. The spells don’t do as much damage anymore. And each time we do that, the Antinium always retaliate. Our border lines—”
“So hire six [Geomancers] all at once. If Manus wants to keep up the harassment, let’s fund them. Oteslia’s suggesting we go after the Wyverns—nothing about the Antinium.”
“They’re just afraid the Wyverns will go and eat their pegasuses and crops.”
“Pegasi. It’s plural.”
The conversations were pedantic, pointed, and quick. Sometimes they got off-track, but Ilvriss heard only worry, nothing concrete. The other Walled Cities were doing exactly what he’d predicted. Fissival was planning new war spells. Could use funding from other cities. Not naming Salazsar exactly!
Oteslia wanted to take down the Wyvern threat, and it was motioning for a hunting force from the other cities. Manus needed support for their secret operations—a strike against the Antinium, no doubt. Pallass—in between defending itself—was suggesting the Wyvern corpses could outfit a new regiment. Zeres wanted ships since the Antinium were obviously unable to defeat a naval force.
That was what the Walled Cities were saying. But Ilvriss was certain each city also had a group like this, which was planning. Looking for more private measures they could take. Even united, each Walled City wanted to have the advantage over the others. That was the problem with Drakes.
Ilvriss sighed. He listened as his peers argued. But then he heard a voice override a discussion about Wyvern armor versus normal leather.
“Why don’t we let someone who was at Liscor tell us what he thinks about the entire affair?”
Brilm winked unsubtly at Ilvriss and sat down. But it was an opening. Ilvriss stood and felt all eyes on him. Navine glared at her sibling.
“And why don’t you tell us what’s been passed around, Ilvriss? You clearly came here with a plan.”
Murmuring in the ranks.
“Plan? What plan?”
“He was there. What a cursed city.”
“What plan? Pass me that—”
Ilvriss raised his claws for silence. He indicated the stack of papers he had.
“I have indeed come here with a plan, Wall Lady Navine. And as I pass it to you, I’ll deliver my thoughts.”
He walked around the room, handing out the sheaves of paper. The Holders of the Wall read, relieved to be reading a laid-out plan, a document like the ones they reviewed in their jobs managing their business. Ilvriss took the center of the room.
“I have been to Liscor. And I’ve met that Human. And that Antinium. Not personally, but I have seen them.”
“And is it a Centenium, Ilvriss?”
The Wall Lord felt countless eyes on him. And truth spells, appraising him. He paused.
“No. I very much doubt it is. But consider what we saw. We saw an Antinium claiming to be a Prognugator. Whether he is or not, I again doubt. But what we saw, to me at least, is terrifying. Anyone else with a military background surely agrees.”
He looked at some of the [Lords] and [Ladies] who’d graduated from Manus, or fought. All of them, including Calistoca, nodded slowly.
“How so? It was one Antinium.”
Navine glared down at Ilvriss. He raised one brow.
“One Antinium? Yes. But one who was not Centenium, or else we would have met him in the Second Antinium Wars or the First, and who was clearly a new addition to Liscor’s Hive. The city is aware of…Bird the Hunter. But they haven’t classified him as a Prognugator until now. Think about what that means. A Worker who can use a bow.”
“They can all use bows. We’ve seen the Hives in battle. Their Workers can use bows, the same as any idiot with arms and legs.”
One of the Wall Lords snapped at Ilvriss. Calistoca glared.
“Can they shoot a Wyvern’s eye out from hundreds of feet away? What young Ilvriss is saying is that this one’s good. It has levels.”
The room fell silent. Ilvriss nodded.
“We’re prepared for a third war. We’ve taken countermeasures. But we’ve trusted in the Antinium’s weaknesses. Inability to swim. Lack of flying Antinium.”
“Except for the damned ones with wings. They’re changing.”
“But they can’t fly, Brilm. Manus’ reports put them at huge leaps, but we were convinced that our Oldbloods would be able to dominate the skies from range, excluding artifacts, conflicts with Xrn, or Wrymvr, or some of the Twisted Antinium. Until now.”
Tasilt pointed out. He looked at Ilvriss. The Wall Lord nodded back.
“Exactly. With some difficulty, we could hold the skies. But consider this Antinium. He is a dedicated anti-air specialist. Capable of bringing down Wyverns with what appears to be an unenchanted bow. You know what that means.”
Someone muttered. The room fell silent.
“He’s just one. Prognugators can level. We all know that.”
“Yes, but what if the Antinium can make more? That’s the point, isn’t it? If they can make one Prognugator capable of defeating our fliers…”
What else have they got? Ilvriss saw the others looking at each other uneasily. Almost everyone had a copy of his proposal now. Now, it was time to take advantage of the fear. The uncertainty. This was Ilvriss’ plan.
“That’s what I see as well. Perhaps not immediate, but the threat is there. So I have a proposal before you all. I had it in mind before this incident, but it’s only convinced me that the time is now. With your support, I’d like to enact a project beyond whatever support the Walled Cities agree on as a whole.”
The Holders of the Wall murmured. They checked Ilvriss’ plan, looking at each other. Navine was shaking her head, arguing with those around her, but the others liked this.
“We have to have something. Manus will be cooking something up as well. All the other cities…”
“I was thinking of investigating that Human. Sending a few [Spies], but this—what am I reading, Ilvriss?”
Ilvriss smiled. He indicated the papers.
“I’m proposing funding. Not funding for our armies, but a contribution from each tower. Off the books and in secret. With it, I’ll put together a force. I’m planning on approaching other cities. Even other Walled Cities. Recruiting. Even from outside Izril.”
For a second the room fell silent. Then Navine shot to her feet. Her tail lashed as she glared at Ilvriss.
“Ridiculous! You want to put together this—this force of elites? We have elite soldiers! What do we need another one for?”
“Fighting the Antinium, obviously. Salazsar has powerful groups, Wall Lady Navine. But it does not have a superior force. I am not calling for the development of one single group of [Soldiers]. I am saying I want to steal every elite Drake, Gnoll, or other species I can find and put them into a single, cohesive group. And if the Antinium attack—we have seen that high-level elites do far better than any other force. Well, this will be superior even to Liscor’s vaunted armies.”
“Don’t listen to him. This force won’t be just used against the Antinium. If it’s formed, I guarantee it’ll be used against Humans or anyone else ‘we’ decide is an enemy.”
Navine glared at Ilvriss. She looked triumphant, furious—Ilvriss knew she was thinking she’d found out his grand plans. And she was disgusted. This was another attempt for him to secure Salazsarian superiority. Or so she thought.
“Shouldn’t we have a force like that? It’s expensive. This is calling for—Ilvriss, why all the gold?”
“Gold buys everything we need, Wall Lord Khaiss. Arms, training, equipment—”
“It’s just a waste of gold. It’ll be another drain on our coffers…”
“Say that to Pallass. Did you or did you not see it being attacked? And that Antinium?”
“We can’t authorize this! If the other Walled Cities get wind of this—listen to me! Leaving this in Ilvriss’ discretion—”
“Not his alone. You can read, can’t you? It says joint command. But I like the sound of a secret project like this. And if there is a war…”
Ilvriss waited. He met Navine’s eyes as she glared at him. She looked down at the papers for a moment.
“And what do you call this grand proposal, Ilvriss?”
He told her. Navine stared at him. And for a moment she faltered. The other Drakes stared at Ilvriss, but no one commented on it. Ilvriss nodded. Let them think what it meant. The name had a deeper meaning.
“I believe it’s time for a vote. All in favor?”
The Holders debated. Hands rose and Ilvriss counted. Oh yes. It would pass. In this room, at this moment? The shaken Holders of the Wall would vote him some of what he wanted. Not all. And Navine would try and block him. She had her own plans. But Ilvriss would have his secret project, gathering an elite force that may or may not be used against all of Salazsar’s enemies…or just the Antinium.
He gave it a week, two on the outside before someone blabbed and all the Walled Cities heard about it. It would be an open secret; you couldn’t hide this. No doubt Az’kerash would hear of it too, somehow.
Well, here went brave Wall Lord Ilvriss, preparing to assail the Antinium. He’d go around, beating a war drum and coincidentally, visit other cities. Ilvriss had an excuse. It would be messy, and it would be political. But he’d have a reason to travel.
And that’s when his work, and Osthia’s would really begin. Ilvriss nodded as the Holders of the Wall began to vote. He saw Navine glaring at him, Tasilt watching Ilvriss as he voted ‘yea’. One was his sister, the other a friend Ilvriss had grown to respect more and more after his trials at Liscor.
But could he trust any of them? Could he trust anyone? Az’kerash hung in the air, a shadow in the light. Ilvriss paused. He’d find the traitors. And build…
Not a shadow army. Nor a secret force. That was stupid. You couldn’t hide [Soldiers]. But you could hide a conspiracy. One of the people who knew the truth.
The motion passed. Ilvriss sighed as the Holders began to debate the terms of the plan, how much gold would go to him. Step one completed. All thanks to Erin Solstice. Ilvriss had a list he’d written down. It was so secret only two Drakes in the world knew about it. It was a list he was going to check and double check until he had enough people to march on that forest and burn it and the Necromancer to the ground.
And all that stood in his way were the other Walled Cities, the Antinium, the Humans—and other Drakes who might be traitors or just well-intentioned. Ilvriss sighed. But as he left the secret meeting, at least he had one thing.
Project Periss was underway.
The next day, Erin Solstice woke up late. She was hungry, groggy, and the entire world wanted a piece of her.
Well…actually…the inn was quiet. No one had popped over to scream at her. Erin felt that was very disturbing. People wanted to see her, of course. Relc was there. Selys, Krshia—but there was no Zevara here to twist off Erin’s head and arrest Bird.
“What’s wrong with the world?”
Erin wondered aloud as she had a porridge breakfast. Mrsha sniffed at her bowl and agreed. Not worth stealing. She shook her head sadly at Erin and turned away.
“I suppose you’re not in trouble, then. Good. Can you please avoid making the inn detonate before I finish building it? Oh, and I’m going to get the Players of Celum later. They still haven’t come by! I think they haven’t heard the inn’s open and I forgot to tell them with all the drama.”
Lyonette passed by. Erin saw Mrsha nearly fall off her chair as she giggled silently. Erin stuck out her tongue at Lyonette’s back.
“You’re just jealous that I have all the fun. Just you wait! I’ve got new Skills and I’m gonna try them out! [Garden of Sanctuary], for one! Activate!”
Erin raised her hands. The [Princess] whirled.
“Not in here! Are you cr—”
She shielded her face. Mrsha ducked. Everyone in the [Grand Theatre] ducked. Erin’s eyes widened.
She looked around. Nothing happened. Erin pointed at the walls.
“Um. [Garden of Sanctuary]! Go!“
She stared at the wall. Nothing happened. A magical garden did not appear, or whatever Erin was supposed to get. She stood up.
“[Garden]? Over here? Maybe this room overrides—nope?”
She tried the private dining room Lyonette had built—and then the hallway. Then upstairs. Workers constructing the hallways stared at Erin as she waved her hands. Mrsha followed Erin and shook her head.
“I know it’s not working. Well—maybe I need an actual garden first?”
Erin scratched her head. She went downstairs. Lyonette raised one brow.
“And you have a Skill that doesn’t work. I’m so incredibly jealous.”
“Hey! Rude! I’m…fairly certain it’ll work if I figure it out! And I can use my other Skill! Oh yeah. I can make fire now. Magical fire. Wanna see?”
“No. If you burn down this inn—”
“I’ll show you somewhere else! Jeeze!”
Erin sighed. Mrsha grinned, and even Lyonette had to smile.
“Is it useful?”
“Well, I was gonna cook with it or something. But I haven’t gotten it completely down. And I want to see what’s new in Liscor! If I’m not under arrest—there’s so much to do!”
Erin smiled and looked around. She saw Palt trot over.
“Oh, hey Smokey.”
“Please don’t call me that. I’m not even smoking anything. Erin, it’s a delight to have you back.”
The [Illusionist] smiled at Erin. She half-smiled back. But she could see Montressa and Beza behind them. Then Erin looked at Palt, seriously.
“Did you…deliver Isceil’s remains?”
The Centaur nodded gravely.
“We brought it in range of Fissival’s teleportation network. They…took the body. The family didn’t wish to speak to us.”
Erin looked at the three [Mages]. Palt forced a smile.
“It’s a topic we’ve been over, believe me. Erin, I do need to talk to you. Not urgently, but the Ullsinoi faction—”
“Uh oh. This is their demands, right?”
Erin sighed. She propped her hands on her hips. The [Illusionist] waved his hands.
“Nothing major! But the world saw your inn. It’s an ongoing negotiation, Miss Solstice. Give and take! We help you, you help us. Believe me, mutually beneficial arrangements are something the Elusive Lot understands. Not like some factions—”
“Palt, we can hear you badmouthing us.”
Beza shouted at Palt. The Centaur flapped a hand at her. Montressa and Beza wanted to speak to Erin too. She sighed.
“Okay, what have I gotten myself into?”
“Nothing much for now! Just—if I could have your permission to write a few…signs…outside your door? And we could discuss people with the proper signs coming to your inn? No questions asked?”
“I knew it! You want me to smuggle drugs!”
Erin shouted. Relc’s head turned. Palt winced.
“I’m not asking for that! It’s just discretion—”
“Which Erin will have and we can discuss. She upholds her commitments.”
Lyonette stomped on Erin’s foot. The [Innkeeper] hopped around.
“This isn’t fair! I just wanted to come back to my nice, peaceful inn! Why do I have to…”
“Delivery for Miss Erin Solstice!”
The young woman turned. Fals stood behind Erin, a package in his hands. The City Runner looked slightly put-upon. But this is how it had started. With a package. The City Runner had been delayed by drama, Wyverns, and an absent [Innkeeper]. But nothing—not even Palt jockeying for position—was going to stop him.
“A delivery for you, Miss Erin. It came by City Runner, and I’ve been waiting to get it to you. I just need a seal, so I can confirm I got it to you. It’s slightly heavy.”
“Oh. Well—do I have a seal?”
Lyonette passed Erin one. She handed it to Fals. He grinned, relieved.
“Thank you. I just have to give it to you so I can swear it was delivered to you by truth spell!”
He handed the package to Erin. She took it.
“It is heavy! And square!”
She stared at the wrapped package. Something…flickered in her memory. Not like fire, but this was a familiar scene. She stared at Fals.
“Did you…who is it from?”
“Don’t know. But it came here through me, from the north. No idea who it is, but I’m fairly certain no one’s unwrapped it. They do that sometimes. Thanks. I’m going to head back to Celum. I’d love to chat, but you have a line. Can I drop by tomorrow?”
Erin saw there was indeed a line of people. Wanting to speak to her, to catch up, and so on. Fals grinned at Erin.
“It’s good to see you back, Miss Solstice.”
Erin reached out and grabbed Fals’ arm. She smiled at him.
“You too. Don’t be a stranger!”
“And tell the Players that the inn’s open, please!”
Lyonette followed Fals out the doors and into the hallway. Erin turned to the package. Palt was eying it too, curiously. He glanced up at Erin.
“Anyone you know?”
Erin blinked at the package. It was heavy. And—she looked at it and remembered something similar. It was even wrapped the same way. Speculatively, Erin looked around the inn. Mrsha got up on two legs to sniff at the package, but she clearly detected nothing from the inside.
“Hey Lyonette. Where’s my chess board?”
“In your room. Mrsha kept swatting the pieces off it.”
Erin saw Mrsha roll under a table. She turned.
“I’m just going to open this in my room. Be right back!”
“Aw! I want to see!”
Relc complained. He jostled Beza out of the way—the Minotauress tried to shove him back, but she missed. Olesm entered the inn.
“Is Erin here? Oh, Erin—I’m so glad you’re back. I wanted to say—”
“Back of the line!”
Selys, Beza, and six other pairs of hands dragged Olesm back. Relc was shoving with Palt. Erin laughed.
“Keep back! All of you! I’m going up to my room for one second! I’ll deal with you one by one!”
She headed for the stairs. Relc shouted at Erin’s back.
“If it explodes, just scream!”
Erin laughed, but she eyed the package a second time. She felt…well, she headed up the stairs.
Her room was new. Lyonette had made the bed, but Erin had already turned it a bit messy. Erin’s room…didn’t have much. Her clothes had been folded and put into a dresser—what ones Lyonette had salvaged from the inn. She had a few other possessions in the room as well.
Her belt pouches. A knife that had been sent through the magic door this morning by Lorent of all people. The [Sharpener] had identified the blade. A toothbrush in its stand. A few books Selys had gifted Erin. Oh, and…
A chess board. Erin hadn’t noticed it as she slept. But there it was. The pieces glowed, a ghostly colors in the morning’s light. Erin stared at them thoughtfully.
Palt had noticed the board when he’d visited Erin’s inn. He’d asked how much the board would cost and then gave her an estimate when she hadn’t known. And it was just a feeling…
Erin looked at the second package. It was bulky, more ovoid with that packaged phenomenon. But it was vaguely…square. And she had a feeling, as strong as instinct. As strong as memory.
Slowly, Erin reached for Pelt’s knife. She sawed at the bindings, then stared at the knife. The packaging was just plain, dark brown wrapping paper tied with string tightly. Or so she thought. But she couldn’t cut the wrapping. Even with Pelt’s knife. Erin frowned.
She reached for the strings. It was easy—all you had to do was pull and the strings came apart. For her. It was a complex little bow, which was probably why no other Runner had gotten the package open for a look. That and their Runner’s code.
Probably. Erin pulled at the brown wrapping. It came away, layer by layer. It was bulkier than the package. It didn’t need so many layers. But the original shape…
Erin knew. She saw the rectangular board before she completely unveiled it. But she knew, she knew. And when she saw the perfectly round, white and black stones, she knew she was right.
The go board sat in front of Erin, on the table in her room, next to the chess board and a comfortable chair. It was magical. One look and Erin knew it was a twin to the chess board.
The Go stones were black and white. But they had that translucent, ghostly quality. They were real—Erin could feel them. But they were a mirror. They were sticking to the board, despite having been carried around by runners all the way to Liscor. That must be a new feature; whoever had commissioned the board must have been tired of little Gnolls hurling the game pieces everywhere.
The stones were lined up around the edges of the board. Normally, they’d be in little pots, and Erin saw two had been included. She tossed them in now. White and black, two colors, ready to play.
A Go board. Enchanted. Erin looked at it. She’d known it was that, but…who had sent it? Fals hadn’t known. Palt, for all he was an [Illusionist], hadn’t seen through the wrapping. Mrsha hadn’t smelled anything.
But it was here. A game board just like the one Erin had been sent, so long ago. Erin remembered the excitement, the mystery over finding it. This time…she just stared.
“Who…what am I supposed to do with you?”
She knew the answer. Play me. The board called to her. So did the chess board. It was rearranged to the last move of the game. Erin had stopped playing after the Creler attack. The chess board had been recovered from the rubble, but she had left her mysterious opponent, who was as good as she was, alone.
She’d never asked. She’d wondered, but Erin had simply loved playing the game. Enough to not wonder who it was. Well, and she hadn’t known how to look without causing a fuss.
If it had arrived two weeks and a few days ago, Erin might have been delighted and played a few games right then and there if she’d had time. Surely, she’d have unwrapped it downstairs with all to see. But today, Erin stared at the board.
“Who are you? What happens next?”
Outside of her inn, she was certain, people were moving. They were thinking of what they’d seen. And they’d seen her. Even if she wasn’t aware of it yet, part of Erin was. The world had moved during the Wyvern attack. And events were starting to include her. That Human. Erin Solstice. Palt was only the start.
“I just wanted a vacation. I wanted it to be simple.”
Erin Solstice looked at the board. She looked up. So much was going to happen. She couldn’t play the same game like she had last year. She looked at the chess board and shook her head.
Here was the thing. Erin wasn’t a good Go player. She was…good. Probably better than most people in her world. Because she practiced and knew the game. But she wasn’t one of the best at it. And she was at chess. That was the truth of it.
But Go was different. Some people said more complex, and Erin was willing to admit it was in some ways. She liked chess more, but Erin liked strategy games on the board, like this. She stared at the board.
All you had to do was place a stone. Black stones went first in Go, unlike chess. And when Erin put down a stone, usually in the corners, she’d wait for the opponent to place a stone. Her goal was to take as much territory—the squares on the board—as possible. Her opponent would try to box her in, and thus take her stones.
It was a game about territory, control. Just like chess. Or shogi. Or any other game Erin knew. Control, pieces on the board—each game was different and the same.
“Erin! I’m bored! I want pasta!”
Relc shouted up at Erin. She heard more voices from downstairs. Erin looked at the board.
The thing about Go—the thing about any game like this—was that two people had to play. You could play against yourself of course, but one person had to start. Then the other could lead. Whoever had sent her the board had waited. Waited for her to continue their game of chess, to place the stone on the Go board.
If Erin waited forever, neither game would continue. But you couldn’t do that. There were rules. Time limit, etiquette towards other players…and if she waited too long here, Relc would storm up the stairs.
You had to move. You had to keep moving, even if you didn’t know what was the right thing to do. Erin felt the world moving, felt the invisible pieces landing around her. She was just a pawn on someone else’s board, the grand board of the world. She couldn’t see the hand that moved her. Or where she was pushing herself.
But right now she had a choice. Erin squatted by the board. It was summer. She listened to Relc shouting for pasta. Looked out the window at the Floodplains, listened to the far-off sounds of events taking shape, people making plans—and she made her move.
Erin Solstice slowly picked up a piece and put it on the go board. The black stone glittered in the sun, magical and ghostly. Erin Solstice looked at it. She nodded.
“4-4 . Classic.”
The upper left corner of the board had a single black stone. Waiting for another player to move. Somewhere, Erin’s opponent would surely see it in time and play their move. Erin knew that. And they’d play a great game, probably.
Erin Solstice looked at the black stones in her bowl. And slowly, carefully, she picked up a second stone. She looked at it, and then she broke the rules.
A second black stone joined the first. It wasn’t even on the intersections on the lines! Erin Solstice looked at the second black stone, standing in defiance of the rules of the game, and nodded. She picked up another stone. And then another.
It took the young woman only a minute to finish her placement. The black stones clicked onto the board as she placed them delicately, trying to remember how to hold them just right. There was an art to it. She wasn’t good at Go, and right now she’d have been expelled from any match in history.
She was placing stones. Black ones, without waiting for her opponent. The white stones didn’t even stir in their bowl as Erin finished placing hers. She studied the board, and then stood.
“I’m coming, Relc! Stop screaming!”
She shouted back down as she opened the door to her room. Erin hurried down the stairs, and rejoined her inn. She shouted, catching up with friends, asking questions—and forgot about the new board sitting in her room.
Just for a moment. But she’d come back. And the stones placed on the board, in defiance of the game, were also waiting for her opponent. Erin Solstice had cheated. She hadn’t placed one, or two, but almost all of them. They didn’t stay on the lines. Instead, they spelled out something. A message. Waiting. And in time, someone saw it. A little message, written on a tiny Go board.
who r u?
And the world changed.