It started out with such a silly thing for such a busy day. An [Innkeeper], a cake, a white Gnoll, a Hobgoblin, an Ashfire bee. And of course…
If you added in a harried [Princess], you had a family. Dysfunctional of sorts, and Erin would admit that she had a family. She didn’t think of them often. Her parents, back at home. She knew they must be frantic. And she had been gone for a long time.
Thoughts like that sometimes troubled Erin. So deeply she couldn’t sleep. But her mind, somehow, had seemed to develop a coping mechanism. Erin didn’t think of her home on Earth, and that was both a relief and a source of guilt when it came up.
She loved her parents. But if anyone asked her, she would have claimed this was also her family. It wasn’t fake, or a name. These were the people most precious to Erin Solstice. If Mrsha was Erin’s child in a way—so was Bird. Children of different sorts, but who needed someone to love them. Which made Lyonette the…father. Probably. Or the wife?
If you broke it down into the ‘traditional’ family matrix you began to have problems. Erin and Lyonette were the parents if Bird and Mrsha were the kids. Which made Numbtongue…
“I don’t believe it! You’re in so much trouble, mister!”
Erin’s shout in the early morning of the inn roused the customers. They looked up and waited, expectantly. But Erin was upstairs. Shouting.
“Bird’s being punished! What is this?”
Numbtongue and Bird were frozen in the midst of eating two plates of eggs. And fried chicken. They also had a stein of beer. Bird slowly put his plate behind him.
“Nothing. We are just looking at the food, Erin. Not eating it.”
“Numbtongue! How could you?”
Erin stared at the Hobgoblin, now acting in the part of rebellious teen. The Hobgoblin shrugged, a bit guiltily. Erin had thought it was odd when he asked for his breakfast, but Numbtongue ate a lot, and she’d been happy to let him eat whatever he wanted. If she hadn’t come up to ask about Bird’s breakfast, she’d never have known what they were doing.
“You know Bird’s being punished! Numbtongue—”
Erin was at a loss for words. When Lyonette came up the stairs, she too stared, then propped her hands on her hips.
The Antinium Worker trembled.
“Please do not take away my bird hunting privileges. There are five days left.”
“Oh, we’re going to have to take it away for longer than a week. It’s gonna be—two weeks! You’ll have to hunt rabbits or something!”
“No! They do not fly! They are nice! But tasty.”
Lyonette was nodding. Bird was aghast. The [Princess] glared at Numbtongue. He was looking less nervous than Bird.
“As for you, Numbtongue—”
The Hobgoblin folded his arms as he sat cross-legged. Erin stared at him.
“What do you mean, ‘what?’ You know what you did! Bird’s being punished.”
“So? Stupid punishment.”
Erin and Lyonette stared at him.
“He nearly started a war.”
“For shooting Wyverns. So?”
Numbtongue picked at his teeth unapologetically. Erin frowned.
“He’s not allowed in Pallass! He knew better—”
“Yes, yes. Bad Antinium goes into Pallass. Evil Antinium, not allowed there. Like Goblins. Ooh. Bad Ant. Bad Goblin. Must punish him. Don’t punish bad Goblin!”
The [Soulbard]’s voice was just a bit sarcastic. Erin faltered.
“That’s not—Bird knew what he was doing. And you know he nearly started a war—”
Numbtongue’s shrug, was Goblin. And it had multiple answers on many levels to that. Erin hesitated. Lyonette took over, glaring sternly at Numbtongue.
“It doesn’t matter if you disagree, Numbtongue. This is Erin’s inn. And mine. And those were our rules. We’re going to have to—to take away your guitar?”
She sounded a bit uncertain here. The Hobgoblin looked at her.
Erin and Lyonette blinked at him. Numbtongue rose. He took his plate of food and walked past them.
“I am not a child. No punishment. Kick the bad Goblin out of the inn if you don’t like it.”
Not really a rebellious teen. His look made Erin falter. Lyonette opened her mouth—and Erin put a hand on her shoulder. She looked at Numbtongue. And didn’t talk to him like a naughty kid.
“Fine. But Bird’s different. Please let us make rules, Numbtongue.”
The Hobgoblin paused. He nearly shrugged, then he nodded. He shuffled his feet, and then muttered.
Erin nodded at him. Awkwardly, the Hobgoblin left. It was the first time Erin could remember ever disagreeing with Numbtongue. She stared at his back. And she felt embarrassed, a bit hurt—and a bit happy. Aside from Rags, few Goblins had ever pushed back. But Numbtongue was changing, even if it meant he was metaphorically hiding behind the dumpster and smoking cigarettes.
“Enough with the analogies.”
Lyonette turned to Erin. She was trying to get the plate of egg and chicken from Bird.
“Give it to me, Bird. You are in trouble. Numbtongue may have offered, but you know you’re doing wrong. And you’re being punished, mister.”
Bird slowly stood up. He looked at Erin and Lyonette, the plate still held behind his back.
“I am not a child. I will not be punished.”
The [Innkeeper] and the [Princess] looked at him. Bird’s antennae drooped. Slowly, he held out the plate.
“Please do not make me punished too long.”
“Everything alright up there?”
Palt the Centaur was standing by the kitchen, smoking, when Erin came downstairs. She glared at him, and then caught herself.
“Yes. It’s all fine. Why are you—”
“No smoke. I can put it out.”
The Centaur quickly fished the cigar out of his mouth. Erin eyed it.
“Why is that thing blue?”
“Ah, this is a very light plant from the sea. It’s called Mela’s Kiss, and it practically evaporates under a tiny bit of heat. And it doesn’t produce smoke, as you can see—”
The Centaur took a slow drag. Erin saw a tiny bit of vapor. Palt hesitated.
“If you want to—”
“No, it’s fine. Let’s go back to chatting.”
He was trying. Erin took a seat at the table and Palt trotted over. The Centaur hesitated, but he decided not to ask.
“Right! So, your door. As I was saying, just a few sigils around each one. I’ll mark the walls—no one will notice unless they know to look for it.”
“And I have to do what?”
“Just…give them free passage to wherever they need to go. Perhaps help them out. I’m planning on sticking around here for a while, so I’ll try to introduce you.”
Erin looked at Palt. He waved one hand.
“Criminals? No, no. The Ullsinoi faction doesn’t deal with criminals! Explicitly. Anyone who can see and read the sign is a friend of our group. Some of them may be a bit loose with the law, but we don’t treat with [Murderers] and [Cutthroats].”
“What have I gotten myself into?”
Erin rubbed at her forehead, groaning. Palt sighed.
“Miss Solstice, they’re good people. Really. I know what you must think of [Illusionists], and I admit we have a reputation—but we’re honest. Twisted, but honest.”
“Erin’s not backing out of our agreement, Mister Palt. She’s just learning to come to terms with it. Because this is what it means to have an ally, isn’t that right, Erin?”
Lyonette passed by the table, looking meaningfully at Erin. The [Innkeeper] sighed. They’d had a chat about diplomacy. One of the instances where Lyonette taught Erin about the world.
“Yeah. It’s fine, Palt. So—they’ll come here if they need transportation? Or help? How much help am I giving them?”
The Centaur took a puff of his blue cigar.
“…As much help as you see fit, Miss Solstice. By all means, give the minimum. But if you help them, we’ll compensate you for your time. That’s how the Ullsinoi faction does things. It’s a give and take. Sometimes, yes, some people might be coming through with trouble on their heels. You don’t need to shelter them if it’s bad. It’s under your discretion. But other times, if they’re looking for help, say, finding an adventuring team, or an item, or they just, say, really need to get somewhere fast—give them a helping hoof.”
“So I’m like…”
Lyonette passed by again, this time with a large pitcher of wine headed for a table that held Montressa and Beza. Erin stared at her back. She turned to Palt. The Centaur was coughing into one fist.
“She’s giving me lots of lip these days. Okay, that sounds reasonable. So—if they see the sigil, or trace it, I know they’re from your faction.”
“Usually. There are a few phrases I’d like you to memorize. And we’ll leave you some way of getting in touch with one of our representatives. I’ll be here, obviously. And if you have any questions—”
“Right, right. Um. How long will you be here? What about Montressa and Beza?”
Erin glanced at the two [Mages]. They were day-drinking, which, apparently, wasn’t uncommon in Wistram. The two weren’t quite glaring at Palt. He twiddled his thumbs as he didn’t look their way.
“They have a vested interest in your door, Miss Solstice. And looking for more people like you. I think they want to negotiate with you on behalf of their factions.”
“Should I say yes?”
“I’d…like to hear whatever they’re offering. It’s your choice, but it could get tricky. And inter-factional politics in Wistram can get messy. But as I said, I’m not bound to Montressa. I can take time to help you, especially since the Elusive Lot considers you an asset. And anything you want to share…”
Erin sighed. She had responsibilities now. One of which was to give Palt and his friends some information about Earth. Apparently, there were at least two dozen people from Earth in Wistram! And that had been when Palt left! It boggled Erin’s mind. Ryoka had said there was one more person from Earth she knew of in Izril, but Erin had only known Ryoka and the kids at Magnolia’s mansion. Two dozen…
“I’ll make a list, Palt. I can probably get all the plays from Celum and stuff. And tell you about…basic things.”
She’d have to think about the bad things to tell him, like, say, bombs, and what she could give away. Was this what Ryoka had been so concerned about? Erin’s head hurt. Palt was nodding eagerly, though.
“Plays would be welcome, Miss Solstice. The Elusive Lot’s heard about your friends in Celum and they want to see these plays. There are some transcripts, but the originals would be well-received. Hah, I imagine half of them would like to put together a performance?”
Erin blinked at Palt. He smiled and winked at her.
“I don’t know what you know of [Mages], but like I said, we are a unique faction. The Elusive Lot love entertainment. And not just vices. One of my orders was to record the Players of Celum doing some performances. The Elusive Lot probably wants to duplicate the plays across the world. That’s good money. My master is an amateur [Singer] themselves.”
The [Innkeeper] felt a bit better about that.
“I can get you some plays! Hey Lyonette—the Players—”
“Fals went through the door late last night, remember, Erin? I haven’t heard from him. If Temile doesn’t show up in two hours, I’ll get him.”
Lyonette nodded. Erin smiled.
“You and Palt can go into the kitchen. And you can make me a cake.”
Erin’s face fell.
“Wait. But I’m so busy—”
The [Princess] walked over with a big smile on her face.
“Talking. Which you can do with Palt! And whomever else comes by! But you’re the best [Cook] since I still can’t hire Garry or anyone else—and I’d like Garry. Since you agreed with that…I’m very busy, Erin. The staff can cook, but you have the most Skills. I need cakes. One big one for a celebration.”
“Of you returning. The Players are going to perform tonight, and there will be cake sold! I need one big one—make it three, actually—and, oh, two dozen smaller ones. We’ll sell them in tiny boxes with a customer’s name or a message on them. I can do the decorations.”
Erin blinked. Lyonette was definitely getting a hold of the mercantile nature of the inn. Erin wanted to protest, but Lyonette had held down the fort and built the inn while Erin was gone. Slowly, the [Innkeeper] got up.
“Maybe we don’t need Garry. I mean, I’d be okay with any [Cook].”
“I can cook. And I’d be delighted to do something with my hands while we chat, Miss Solstice.”
Palt rose to his hooves quickly, smiling at Erin. She smiled back.
“Well—I guess that’d be okay. Sure. Lyonette, do we have—”
“Fresh eggs, I just got a delivery of milk—check which one, since we have goat’s and cow’s. Oh, and we have goose eggs and chicken eggs. Sugar’s ready, flour’s good…”
Lyonette waved them off. Bemused, Erin went into the kitchen. Palt trotted in after her. It was odd, being back in the inn like this. But good at the same time.
After a while, the inn began to grow more crowded. Olesm bustled through the door after the breakfast crowd had thinned a bit. The Drake wiped water off his scales as he entered through the doors. Lyonette blinked at him.
“Olesm! Hello! Are you here for Erin?”
“Yes. Sorry about the water. It’s raining a bit in Liscor.”
“Not a problem! I’ll put some towels out in the hallway on a rack. Come in! Erin’s in the kitchen.”
“Oh! Well, if you don’t mind, I’d like to chat with her. Just about—well, about the situation. Not officially, but I’d love to catch up.”
Olesm headed for the doors. Lyonette opened her mouth, but the Drake walked into the kitchen before she could say anything. She heard a muted exclamation, a short conversation, and then Olesm walked back out.
“Sorry. Erin’s talking with Palt. Have you met him?”
“I believe he was arrested, yes. Zevara mentioned him.”
Olesm’s tail swished back and forth, a bit agitated. Lyonette eyed him as he glanced towards the kitchen.
“Does Erin, uh, know him well?”
“He’s a friend of the inn. Why don’t you take a seat? Erin will have time to talk to you. While she’s making cake.”
“Oh? Well, I can help…”
Olesm sat down at a table. Then he migrated over to one of the dedicated chess-tables. Bird came downstairs.
“I am punished. The other Workers will not let me sit in my tower.”
“We asked them not to. If you’d like, you may have breakfast, Bird. Not eggs or poultry.”
The Antinium drooped.
“May I have acid flies?”
“Do they have wings, Bird?”
“…I will have a fish. May I draw wings on them with ketchup?”
Lyonette gave up and nodded. Bird brightened as he saw Olesm.
“Hello, Olesm. It is me, Bird.”
He sat down at the chess table. Olesm paused in the act of setting up the board—it looked like he’d been prepared to lure Erin out with chess. A cunning [Strategist]. But he stared as Bird sat opposite him. The Antinium moved a white pawn.
“Um. Hi, Bird.”
“Let us play a game of chess.”
Olesm stared. He opened his mouth, but Bird was a member of Erin’s chess club. The Drake hesitated, and then nodded.
They began playing. Lyonette, humming to herself, passed by Beza and Montressa’s table. She didn’t quite eavesdrop, but she was listening as the two talked.
“…Telling you, Palt’s doing his own thing. What’s our purpose, Montressa?”
“I know what my orders are. Look, Beza. We don’t need to stick together. I made a mess of things—I have to sit and report on the inn and Antinium. If you want to split, I understand. Ulinde’s having a great time.”
The [Aegiscaster] looked down. Bezale, the [Spellscribe] Minotaur, harrumphed. She put one arm around Montressa and squeezed gently.
“I’m not abandoning you. Besides, I have orders to sit and stare too. Let’s just make amends. And when Palt gets back, I’ll threaten to dunk him in a horse trough until he cooperates.”
A new cast, a new inn. Lyonette thoughtfully nodded to herself. Erin was a good [Innkeeper] in her own way. She was terrible at business, unlike the Drake Peslas who ran an actual inn. But Erin was better at people, and at creating moments. With Lyonette handling the practical aspects, they made a good team. And Lyonette could be the one who appraised people without Erin’s generous trust.
Three Wistram [Mages] would have been trouble back in Calanfer. Well, these ones weren’t the worst, but Lyonette knew what trouble Wistram could cause. She’d have to manage them…at least they hadn’t begun asking questions about her red hair. Montressa must have gone to Wistram young, which was a relief.
And indeed, the new cast appeared soon after Olesm’s game. Lyonette heard voices from the hallway and hurried to the double doors. She opened them and saw, down the trapped hallway, an argument at the magical door.
The Gnoll was staring into the magical door. Every member of Erin’s staff was trained to check each opening of the door by turning the magic dial every ten minutes. They’d open it to Liscor, Celum, Pallass, Esthelm, and, if requested, the Bloodfields, where the road was continuing to be built.
Actually, opening the Bloodfields door only happened to let adventurers or workers in and out, and Lyonette had mandated the door not be opened unless some people with combat Skills were present. Also, the Bloodfields door was now located on a hill, far from the Bloodfields. It meant more of a walk, but no one was complaining.
However, this time the dial was locked onto a glowing yellow stone. Pallass. Ishkr was staring into the portal for one main reason. Lyonette stopped too when she saw what it was.
A…portcullis. Yes, a miniature one, made of newly-forged steel, was sitting in front of the door. Not the usual streets of Pallass. Instead of opening into Pallass directly, Lyonette realized the door had been moved to some kind of chamber. There was a portcullis that seemed to lead into the streets, but between any visitor wanting to enter was the steel gate…
And eight [Guards], half of whom had bows. They were staring at Ishkr. Not aiming the bows at him, but staring.
“Two to go to Liscor! Hold! No entry to Pallass!”
One of the [Guards] called out to Lyonette as she approached. She stared at them.
“What is this?”
“Security, Miss. Just a precaution. Mandated by the Assembly of Crafts. Please step back.”
A Drake walked over to the gates and began to raise the portcullis. Lyonette stared. She knew it was a bit hypocritical to complain, since she’d insisted Belgrade make the trapped hallway for anyone wanting to attack the inn, but this felt a bit overdone on Pallass’ side.
Two figures waited as the portcullis rose. They stepped through and the [Guard] called out.
“Two to Liscor! Lower the portcullis!”
“They’ve overdone it a bit.”
Lyonette murmured as the other [Guards] shouted an affirmation and the wrought steel lowered quickly. Ishkr nodded, eying the door.
“They were not happy when I opened the door, Miss Lyonette.”
“Apologies. They’re new to the posting. They’ll relax in time, but I’m afraid the door stays.”
A brisk voice spoke from the other side. Lyonette jumped. She focused on the two visitors and realized they were waiting for her to move out of the way.
“Oh, I’m so sorry—”
Grimalkin and Chaldion stepped through the door to Liscor. Lyonette blinked. The [Grand Strategist] nodded at Lyonette.
“Good morning. We’re visiting for the day, Lady du Marquin.”
Lyonette nodded to him. Then she turned dead white and froze. The [Grand Strategist] smiled.
“Is Miss Solstice around? Magus Grimalkin and I were hoping to talk to her. I would like to play a game.”
“And I would appreciate some time of my own. I also have a few sets of weights I’d like to deliver, to Sergeant Relc among others.”
Grimalkin’s body was still bandaged up, but he was as brisk as ever. Ishkr looked at Lyonette. She was still dead-white.
“I-Ishkr, could you show Grimalkin to—the kitchen?”
Lyonette didn’t even mention Palt. She just stared at Chaldion. As Grimalkin walked past them, the [Grand Strategist] waited. His one good eye was glinting as he adjusted his eye patch. Lyonette waited until Ishkr had gone through one of the open side-doors and then breathed.
“How did you—”
The Drake’s voice was quiet as he touched a ring. Lyonette felt some spell envelop them instantly.
“Princess du Marquin. You do not hide your heritage well. And you are using your first name. I would suggest changing both hair color and name, and buying a charm that wards against a basic [Appraisal] spell if you wished to keep your identity secret. I was not interested earlier, but circumstances have changed. This inn is being investigated by every Walled City, and that is the Drakes.”
“I—I—please don’t tell my family.”
The Drake regarded Lyonette. Her chest was constricting. The [Grand Strategist] shook his head.
“Pallass does not need to meddle in Terandrian affairs, Miss Lyonette. Your secret is safe…with me. But I would take precautions.”
“Now, if you’ll excuse me…is Miss Solstice available?”
“She’s talking and there is a queue—”
“Of course there is. I will be content with a drink. And something to eat.”
Lyonette rushed after Chaldion, heart pounding. What was she going to do? Change her name? Hair dye? Oh, dead gods—if Chaldion had found out, how long until…?
Chaldion found Olesm and Bird at the chess tables with a few of Liscor’s new board game aficionados. The Drake had thrown his hands up and the [Grand Strategist] made a beeline towards the game.
“How? How does this happen?”
“I am in checkmate, Olesm. That was a good game.”
Olesm stared at Bird. He didn’t look happy about his victory. Lyonette didn’t get why everyone was murmuring. Even Chaldion looked impressed as he stared sharply at Bird.
It took Lyonette a moment to figure out what had gone on. Then she realized that the finished chess game looked a bit like a bird, with black and white pieces maneuvered into place during the course of the game. Bird looked pleased. Then he glanced up.
“Oh. Hello. We have met.”
“Yes we have.”
Chaldion stared at Bird. Lyonette caught her breath, but the [Grand Strategist] just looked at the board. Olesm went pale under his scales.
“Grand Strategist! Sir—”
He scrambled to his feet. Chaldion nodded to him.
“Olesm Swifttail of Liscor? Good day. And you are Bird the Hunter.”
“I am Bird. Am I in more trouble?”
The [Grand Strategist] narrowed his eyes.
“No. Tell me, Bird. Do you like chess?”
“It is fun.”
“Let’s play a game.”
The old Drake walked over to the chess board. Bird obediently reset the pieces. Olesm looked at Lyonette; she was about equally flabbergasted at the moment. Chaldion sat down and inspected a white piece. He moved it, and his one eye glittered as he looked at Bird.
“So, are you a Prognugator of the Free Antinium…Bird?”
“No, that was a lie.”
Bird moved a piece, as innocent as could be. Chaldion nodded to himself. He eyed Bird and grinned to himself in a way that would have made Klbkch’s cold blood run colder if he’d been there.
“Let’s talk about your Hive.”
It was a busy day. And Lyonette heard a voice from the kitchen. She peeked inside to see Grimalkin and Palt regarding each other as Erin threw up her hands.
“Either help me make cakes or get out!”
It was the beginning of a busy day. But the silly thing hadn’t happened yet. Lyonette went over to sit at a table for a second. Her head was spinning. She only looked up when she had a thought that trumped all others. Erin, secrets of the Antinium, her exposed identity—
She stood up and checked the window. Nearly time! She hurried over to a place where she had some parchment and ink and a quill.
“It’s nearly time for her to come back. Krshia has the Council meeting…Apista!”
Lyonette scrawled quickly, drafting a message. At her voice, an Ashfire Bee floated lazily across the inn. Apista landed on the little podium Lyonette was writing on. The [Princess] tied the parchment up with a bit of twine, and put a loop of the twine over one of Apista’s legs.
“Take this to Mrsha. Understand? Mrsha.”
The Ashfire Bee didn’t nod, but Lyonette sensed its acceptance. She opened a window and it flew out. Lyonette didn’t see half of the inn staring at her. That was normal compared to everything else. The [Princess] sighed as she checked the door to Liscor.
“Come on, Temile.”
Maybe the Players of Celum had wigs she could borrow.
A bee flew across Liscor. Her name was Apista, and she was a recovering Faerie Flower addict. Ever since Lyonette had put the faerie flowers in her room, Apista hadn’t indulged herself every waking moment on the powerful nectar.
She was detoxing on regular flowers Lyonette had put around the windowsills in the planter-boxes. The [Princess] had even made a few boxes to hold mint, and other seasonings. Free money was free, and they added a pleasant scent. Apista, who now dined on those flowers, was a changed bee. She’d seen the error of her ways. But she dreamed of faerie flower nectar.
The bee flew through the air, towards the city just a little bit away. The air was clean and good, and no birds flew around the inn to threaten her. She flew, and thought deep thoughts. For a bee.
She was a bee, and she was as free as could be. Although for a bee living in an inn, that wasn’t very free. But it was good. Better than the other bees.
They were not free.
Apista buzzed, turning and flying about through the air. She could feel them, the other bees, calling out to her. But the bees were sealed in a very dark place. Without much room or light or space. They lived, on honey and things in the cave. For now. But they would die in time.
And there were dark things in the cracks in the stone of the cave. Air, and thus life, yes. But more. And they climbed up, time again and again. Driven back by fury and wings and stings, the knaves. But not forever.
The bee named Apista wished the others could be saved. But she flew on, because she was alone and their prison was made of stone. Apista could do nothing. Instead, she flew, to call the white thing she loved to the inn.
Mrsha the Studious sat in Krshia’s apartment and learned magic. A magical tome sat in front of her, a book that was the font of an entire civilization’s worth of knowledge. For beginners. Well, that was how a Dragon thought of it.
For anyone else, it was an artifact beyond compare. Palt, Montressa, and Beza, who were focused on Erin like a magical laser thanks to Wistram, would have probably given up the door, Erin, and someone else’s kidneys for the magical book Mrsha was reading. But they had no idea it even existed.
That was life. And a little white Gnoll was reading spells written in the language of magic—well, one interpretation of it—that the Wistram graduates had never dreamed of. Mrsha the Magically Gifted stared at the book.
Then she rolled over and yawned. She rested her little head on the huge book, which was about as big as she was. She vaguely waved a paw as she decided to curl up.
“Mrsha, are you studying?”
A voice interrupted the little Gnoll cub’s nap. Krshia stared down at Mrsha, looking severe. Mrsha slowly sat up and made an unhappy sound in her throat. Krshia, [Royal Shopkeeper], and [Politician] by way of her new status as Councilmember of Liscor, stared at the white Gnoll. Then she turned to Elirr.
“What do you think is wrong?”
The other Councilmember and [Beast Trainer] looked up. Elirr was reading a book. Absently, the Gnoll put a furry finger in place and closed the book. He looked at Mrsha. She dejectedly slumped over the book.
“I think Mrsha is done for the moment, Krshia. Yes?”
“But she has barely started, Elirr. Surely—”
“She has the look of a cat, I say. One that will not be learning any new tricks. And she has been studying every time she comes over, Krshia. Let us let Mrsha play.”
The white Gnoll sat up instantly, wagging her tail. Krshia hesitated. She looked at Mrsha, sighed, and growled.
“I suppose. But—”
Mrsha leapt from the table, overjoyed. She hugged Krshia’s leg. The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] waggled one finger.
“But Mrsha, you must try to learn a spell, understand? It is important. At least a Tier 3! Within the next two weeks? Please?”
Mrsha’s face fell. Krshia looked at her and the Gnoll cub nodded reluctantly, avoiding Krshia’s eyes. At that moment, all three Gnolls heard a tap from the window. Mrsha looked up and saw a bee buzzing around the glass. Krshia blinked at it.
“Ah, Apista. She has a message?”
She opened the window. Apista buzzed on in and promptly landed on Mrsha’s head. The Gnoll grabbed the bee and gently held her. Krshia retrieved the message from the string.
Please come to the inn in one hour. Erin is baking a cake for tonight. Yours truly,
“Ah, Lyonette wishes to have Mrsha back in an hour. Well, I suppose there is time to let her play. But if she…well, I will go see if there is anyone. Wait here, Mrsha. Elirr, will you send a message back?”
She sighed, and went for the door. Elirr nodded and found something to write on the other side of the parchment with. While he did, Mrsha rubbed her nose gently against Apista’s side. Then she paused.
She felt sad. But then Mrsha realized she didn’t feel sad. It was Apista! The little bee felt…Mrsha stared at her, inquisitively. Something was wrong. Apista felt sad. Because…? Something was wrong. But what?
The little bee stared at Mrsha, her tiny antennae waving. Mrsha, curious, sat down by the magical tome. What is wrong? She felt Apista was trying to tell her something. As if the bee sensed Mrsha could listen. The white Gnoll cub got a flash of something.
Darkness. Stone. Little air. Things crawling up from below. Stab! Stab for the queen! Running out of honey. Dead things—don’t want to eat. Need air. Need the sky! Need—
“Mrsha. Ekirra will come over in ten minutes. Let Apista go, yes? And if you can, read the spellbook before we must put it away.”
Krshia interrupted Mrsha. The Gnoll blinked, and Apista’s wings buzzed as she flew up to accept the message. The moment was gone. Mrsha looked at Krshia. The [Shopkeeper] pointed at the magical tome. Mrsha slowly, reluctantly, trudged over to the book and stared at the spell she was trying to memorize.
And mistakes had been made. Not silly mistakes. This was more of a stupid mistake, but one that had happened naturally. It was no one’s fault. It was just that Krshia, Elirr, and to some extent, Mrsha, had made mistakes.
It was now custom for Mrsha to be allowed to visit ‘Aunt Krshia’, or ‘Aunt Selys’ in the city. ‘Uncle Relc’ was on the blacklist, but Mrsha would spend a few hours or even parts of the day with people since the inn wasn’t large enough for a growing Gnoll child. Each one had their specialty.
Uncle Relc was a last resort and usually taught Mrsha how to hit things, or lessons about things she really shouldn’t learn…ever, according to Lyonette. Aunt Selys was very nice, but she spoiled Mrsha by buying her whatever the little Gnoll wanted.
And Aunt Krshia—well, she had many good qualities. And Elirr, who was no uncle, but a very good friend, was just as good. They taught Mrsha things about Gnolls, and they let her run about, do Gnoll things that Lyonette and Erin didn’t understand.
But they also had the magical tome Ryoka had given them. And Krshia insisted Mrsha try to learn as much as possible before…well, she hadn’t told Mrsha why, just that it was very important.
And that was her mistake. Mrsha spent at least an hour each visit looking at the valuable tome. Reading spells, trying to learn new ones. And—she had failed.
She knew 6 spells now. Six spells, all related to plants or the earth. She had learned no more, after weeks of studying. Krshia and Elirr didn’t understand it. Mrsha had actually learned a seventh spell—and in the process forgotten one of the other six she’d learned. She could not memorize above Tier 2 spells at best, and sometimes she got nosebleeds or bad headaches or just lost interest.
The reason for Mrsha’s slump was simple, as any [Mage] could have told the Gnolls, from Moore to Falene to Ceria or Palt. And it was simple:
Mrsha was a child. She was also not a [Mage].
Mrsha was a [Druid]. She’d gained the class after the battle with the Defenders of the Cave. She was a [Druid], not a [Mage]. Krshia and Elirr did not know this, so it wasn’t their fault entirely. Only Mrsha’s family knew she was a [Druid]. No one else needed to know, not even the Gnolls, who’d kept their magical book secret from Mrsha’s family in turn.
But a [Druid] was not a [Mage], as Pisces would have happily explained with a few sniffs. He’d sniff, and inform any uneducated soul that a [Druid] was as close to a [Beast Tamer] and [Gardener] as a [Mage]. They drew power from nature, shaped and worked with it. That was not, to be sufficiently precise, the same as a [Green Mage].
Oh no. [Green Mages] were simply a specialization in the magic they used, which was earth magic. But [Druids] were different. Their power and abilities stemmed from nature. They were not the same as studious [Mages], who studied spells.
That was problem one. Problem two was simpler. And it was really something the Gnolls should have known.
Mrsha was a child. She was young. She had the attention span and cognitive abilities of a child. Even if she was old for her age, matured because of what she had seen and done, she was still a child. If Krshia had thought about it, she would have realized her errors.
Pisces, a [Mage] who had been considered a genius when he was a student, had taken over a month to memorize one Tier 4 spell in Wistram. He and Ceria had Skills that allowed them to remember the complex spells, the way magic moved and formed, had the training and experience to understand foreign concepts, how to move magic, which most people couldn’t even sense.
Mrsha had none of their advantages. She couldn’t even really cast magic without the little wand. She tried to memorize magic, but she struggled even to remember all the spells crammed into her head.
And one last thing. It was true magic was wonderful. It was true Mrsha would like to cast a Tier 5 spell, if the book had held one, and if she had the mana to cast it without dying. But the little Gnoll had grown used to having to study the book every time she came to Krshia’s apartment. It wasn’t her secret anymore, it was work.
And, as most good [Teachers] knew and accounted for, if you had to do something, it stopped being fun very quickly.
All of this led to this moment, as Mrsha glumly studied a spell that looked like it was meant to allow the user to meld with the ground, in this case, dirt, but in theory, stone or even other substances. But it made her head hurt and she didn’t want to learn. She gave up after a few minutes and just pretended to study.
“Alright, that is enough. Good job, Mrsha. Let us put the book away.”
Krshia sighed after six minutes had passed. She hid the book and Mrsha brightened up. Krshia patted Mrsha on the head. The little Gnoll smiled. She did like Krshia. She just…didn’t like studying the book that hurt her brain.
Elirr let Mrsha jump onto the couch as Krshia hid the book. The [Beast Tamer] smiled at Mrsha.
“You hard worker, you. Next time you visit, you should visit my shop, yes? The cats seem to like you. And the dogs. And everything else. You can see the baby Wyvern I’m supposed to be raising.”
Inside her bedroom, Krshia nearly dropped the spellbook she was putting into the secret vault. In doing so, she nearly set off three spells that would have done horrible, horrible things to her. She emerged from her bedroom.
“The what? Elirr, you did not say!”
The [Beast Trainer] looked very pleased with himself as Mrsha shook his arm, wide-eyed, communicating the same thing nonverbally. He stroked the fur along his chin.
“I did not? Well, I have Council duties, but I accepted the request. One of the Frost Wyverns—it was killed, yes? The army was collecting bodies, and found a young Wyvern who had returned to its parent. It had not been killed; it hid under the wing and they captured it rather than slew it. It was a miracle, so Pallass, they sent out for a good [Beast Trainer]. I am not the highest-level, but I have trained a Wyvern before.”
The older Gnoll grinned abashedly.
“In my youth. It was a challenge, but it was older than a newly-hatched one. This one—it is very dangerous, since it is a rare hybrid, but I will take up the challenge.”
“There is no way you will have time to do that and sit the Council meetings.”
Krshia protested. Elirr shrugged.
“I do not have to do it long. My job—and what I am good at—is to get the Wyvern used to people. I will do so for a while, and when it is able to handle others, I will transfer it to a trainer who knows how to prepare animals for war. It will be a challenge, but…would you like to see it?”
The [Beast Trainer] met Krshia’s eyes.
“It is very safe, Krshia. It will have a muzzle for a while, and it cannot spit frost yet. It is a frightened thing, and I will try to make it welcome and feel safe. I will have to prepare my shop for it as well.”
He grinned. Mrsha was nodding. Krshia looked dubious. Then she nodded. She winked at Mrsha.
“So long as Lyonette does not find out, no?”
The Gnoll cub grinned. Then she heard a knock at the door. Mrsha sniffed the air and leapt off the couch. The other two Gnolls sniffed and grinned.
“Jeva! Come in! And little Ekirra too, I see.”
Krshia opened the door. Mrsha saw a taller Gnoll with dark fur—before a blur of dusk-red shot into the room.
A Gnoll cub, a bit smaller than Mrsha, leapt towards Mrsha. She dodged and Ekirra landed. They raced about the couch as Elirr closed his book and got up to greet Jeva. The Gnoll mother called for Ekirra to stop, but he was too excited.
The two Gnoll cubs stopped. Both were running on all fours, and Mrsha grinned at Ekirra. He grinned back and the two sniffed each other. He had red fur, and a black splotch across one eye. He was around Mrsha’s age. But he could talk. And he did.
“Mother! I want to play with Mrsha, yes? Yes!? Can we go to the park? I have a new ball, Mrsha!”
He raced back to Jeva and reappeared with a ball. Mrsha raced over and the adults laughed, Jeva apologized.
“I’m sorry, but he’s been cooped up in the apartment all morning. He just got his ball—”
“Not at all. Mrsha is always delighted to see him. But we should take this outside, yes? Before a little Gnoll knocks over everything in my apartment!”
Krshia raised her voice warningly and the two Gnolls paused. They raced out the door, down the steps, and into the street. Ekirra grinned.
“Let’s go to the park!”
“Walk on two feet!”
Jeva shouted as the adults more sedately went down the street. Mrsha and Ekirra groaned. They stood upright, grumbling. They walked down the street as the adults followed. Little Gnolls living in Krshia’s block ran to the windows, smelling Ekirra or Mrsha. And the two Gnolls were, for a moment, just more children in Liscor. And that made Mrsha happy. She walked with Ekirra as he showed her his new ball, talking rapidly.
“It was my birthday, so I asked and I got this ball! It was in the shop. I bought it and it bounces and it lights up in the dark! I want to show you! Mrsha! You smell like bees! Is Apista here? Can I pet her?”
Mrsha signed back as Ekirra babbled. He’d picked up on some of her paw-words as Erin had dubbed them, but Mrsha was still less chatty than Ekirra by nature. He was bubbly, talkative, and her first friend her age in Liscor. He was also younger than Mrsha, despite being actually a few months older than she was.
Adolescence was a funny thing. The young of each species grew differently, and with quirks that surprised those not of the species. For instance, Centaurs notably had children who could walk within an hour of being born, like horses. They took a long time to develop enough to speak, but Centaur children had a definite edge up on other species.
Where they lost was that Centaurs had one of the longest pregnancies of any species, except for like, whales. And Dullahans. In exchange for magical abilities, or functionality at birth, some species paid a price.
For instance, Lizardfolk children were close to feral, hungry things, when they came out of eggs. Tiny, and primitive. Left unchecked, they would do what other reptiles did and fight each other to the death.
Garuda chicks were flightless and helpless for a long time compared to other species. Human babies died if you dropped them too many times. And they basically wriggled around and wailed.
But, among others, Gnoll children were different. The Gnoll species was nomadic by and large and their children were able to run about on all fours very quickly. They developed muscle fast, and if they kept to their four-legged run for longer than they needed to, well, it was because their bone structure would eventually shift to encourage standing on two legs.
It was a painful process, known as the ‘shifting year’ to Gnolls. But each species had its flaws. Humans got pimples. Drake children went through a hoarding phase. Dullahans had to keep changing their armor. And so on.
Gnolls grew up fast, but like Humans, female Gnolls hit their puberty a bit before males. Ekirra was about Mrsha’s age, but he was sillier. A City Gnoll as well. Mrsha still liked him a lot.
“Let’s play, Mrsha! Let’s play. Catch!”
He had his new ball, made of soft leather and painted with bright silver on darker black. The silver paint shone when he threw it, and it even glowed in the dark thanks to an alchemical compound applied to it. Ekirra was happy as could be with it and Mrsha was jealous. But the other Gnoll let Mrsha inspect his ball and they began to toss it back and forth.
Ekirra raced around Mrsha, careless and free, and she grinned. Ekirra didn’t care or know what the adults said about the white Gnoll cub and his mother was a niece-sister of Elirr. He’d been introduced over Erin’s holiday, when Mrsha had been forced to live in Krshia’s apartment. Now, she met with him at least three times a week.
Not just him either. As the two Gnolls hurried towards the park, the adults calling on them to slow down because they were slow and old, Mrsha and Ekirra both sniffed the air. Ekirra bounded forwards.
A Drake mother and her daughter turned. Visma, nibbling her thumb-claw in her mouth, turned as her mother, Selena, spotted Ekirra barreling towards them. He slowed down and Mrsha ran over on two legs.
Visma! Mrsha waved and Ekirra raced around the Drake with pearly-white scales speckled with greens to show her his new ball. Selena, a [Painter], smiled.
“Hello, Ekirra. And Mrsha too? Visma was just going to the park.”
“The park! Let’s all go together! There are Humans there now! Human children!”
Ekirra nearly went mad with excitement. Selena laughed and waved at Krshia and Elirr and Jeva. The adults made a group and Krshia greeted Selena.
“Ah, what timing, Selena. Are you going to the park too?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact. I was walking Visma over—I hear there are Human children playing there, and I wanted to watch her for a bit. I hear there were a few incidents—”
“They copy the adults. The Humans immigrating to Liscor—”
Mrsha ignored the grown-ups. She waved at Visma.
The Drake shyly greeted Mrsha. She was a friend too, but more timid than Ekirra. Visma was shy and liked copying her mother by making sculptures out of mud or things she found. Then again—anyone was shy compared to Ekirra.
She and Mrsha had become friends when Visma asked to paint Mrsha because she had such lovely fur, like a canvas. Normally she and Mrsha would quietly talk, but Visma seemed restless today. She stared at Ekirra.
“It’s my ball. Isn’t it wonderful?”
Ekirra showed it to Visma proudly. The Drake stared at the ball as Mrsha, signing, tried to ask her ‘how are you today?’ But Visma just stared at Ekirra’s ball.
Then she grabbed it. Visma yanked the ball out of Ekirra’s paws. She hugged it in her arms.
Ekirra was so shocked he just stared for a moment. Then he tried to grab the ball back.
“It’s mine! Give it back!”
Visma turned around. Ekirra raced around her furiously. The adults didn’t notice at first, debating about Humans and when Gnolls had entered the city first. Visma glared at Ekirra.
“Mine now. Mine!”
“No! Give it back! Or else!”
Ekirra was getting angry. Visma refused to give the ball. He tried to grab it, but she had it in a death-hold. She hissed at him.
Ekirra stopped. He stood on two feet, raised a paw and made it into a fist. Mrsha, anxious, ran over to separate the two. She clumsily stood up, putting two paws out.
Don’t fight! Don’t fight!
Anxiously, she looked at her two friends. What was wrong with Visma? The little Drake girl glared at Mrsha, then looked at Ekirra. His fur was standing up.
“Give me my ball, Visma!”
Visma punched Ekirra in the nose. He fell onto his behind. All the adults looked down in shock.
Selena shouted at her daughter. The little Drake looked up, realized she was in trouble, and fled. Visma ran off with the leather ball. Mrsha was so shocked she just stared.
The Gnoll boy, sitting on the ground, staring in shock. His nose wasn’t bleeding or anything, but the blow and Visma racing off had stunned him. He looked around as Visma rounded a corner. Her mother ran after her, shouting. Ekirra looked ahead, looked at Mrsha, and then his mother.
He began to howl. Jeva bent down and grabbed her son. She nuzzled him.
“Shh. Shh, Ekirra! It’s not bad. How is your nose? Shh.”
Windows flew open as Gnolls stared out to hear who was howling. Gnoll howls were important. Plus, a single crying child could wake up an entire neighborhood of sensitive Gnoll ears. They grumbled when they saw only Ekirra. Elirr and Krshia called up, reassuring them.
“I am so sorry. She’s into her hoarding year and—where has she gone? Visma! Visma!”
Selena ran back to them, apologizing profusely. Mrsha ran after Selena as the other Gnolls hurried forwards. But Visma had run left down another street and she was gone.
“Yes—she’s grabbed everything at home—I am so sorry, Ekirra. Let me buy you a treat. We’ll find Visma—where did she run off to? She’s probably hiding. I’m so sorry, could I trouble you to help me find her?”
Selena was upset, rather than worried. And the Gnolls, all of them, nodded. Ekirra stopped wailing as his mother put him down.
“Stop crying, Ekirra. Miss Selena will buy you a treat. Let’s find Visma, okay?”
Mrsha was already sniffing Ekirra and the ground. Elirr nodded.
“Mrsha has her scent. Let’s go find her.”
Wiping his nose, Ekirra looked at Mrsha. She pointed and they ran forwards. The adults loped after them.
“Not too fast, Mrsha! Mrsha!”
The Plains Gnoll didn’t listen to the others. This felt like home! She raced down the street. Liscor had few horses because the Floodplains were so up and down and this wasn’t a street that allowed wagons. She raced past pedestrians, shot left down a street—Ekirra ran with her. Mrsha felt alive. This was primal, that spoke to their ancestral roots. Mrsha turned another corner, raced down a street—
And stopped. Ekirra skidded to a halt next to her. The adults, panting, caught up a few seconds later. Selena was worried, gasping for breath.
“What if she fell into the sewers?”
“They’re very clean these days. They were cleared out and I haven’t had a blockage in—”
Elirr paused in reassuring her. He stared too.
Visma was standing in the street. She had Ekirra’s ball in her claws, but she hadn’t run any further. She was staring. Staring up at someone she must have run into.
A huge Gnoll with scars instead of fur across her body. She was big. As burly as—Mrsha’s heart stopped for a second—
But she wasn’t one. She was just a Gnoll. Mrsha breathed. Then she took in the Gnoll a second time. The Gnoll was bent, inspecting Visma. She had a nasty look. A nasty smell.
Like old blood. She was walking with two other Gnolls and a Drake. All of them looked…bad. Like Gnolls that the Stone Spears Tribe had to watch out for. Wanderers. The kind Urksh had told Mrsha not to go near.
She smelled like that. The two Gnoll cubs stared as the huge Gnoll woman looked at them. She noticed the adults.
“Ah. So this is the child’s parent. Ran into us she did. Run along, little girl.”
The Gnoll’s voice was low. Almost pleasant, but it had a rolling quality. And she even sounded dangerous. Mrsha saw Visma turn.
“I am so sorry. Visma, come here!”
Selena, breathless, opened her arms. Visma fled.
“Ekirra, Mrsha, you too.”
Jeva called out, frightened. She was more worried than Selena. It was one thing if someone looked like they were a bit nasty. But Gnolls could smell it. This Gnoll—Mrsha saw Ekirra run backwards.
Krshia and Elirr stared at the female Gnoll. She was eying Mrsha, having spotted the white fur. The two Gnolls next to her reacted as they saw that Mrsha was completely white.
“A Doomed One?”
The first Gnoll leapt back. The second flattened her ears. Without looking at the two, the huge Gnoll swung a paw.
“Shut up. I heard there was one in this city. You must be Mrsha. Is that your friend?”
She bent low, grinning. Mrsha saw a huge face and held her ground. Whoever this was, she wasn’t worse than Nokha. She nodded slowly. The Gnoll woman grinned.
“It’s so nice to meet you, little Mrsha. They call me Bearclaw.”
She sniffed once. Mrsha’s hair rose. Bearclaw wasn’t a Gnoll name.
“Apologies for the little one. It is good to meet you, Miss Bearclaw. Are you new to Liscor?”
Krshia’s voice was strained. Her fur was standing up a bit. So was Elirr’s. The two Gnolls motioned and Krshia backed up. Bearclaw inhaled again. Her eyes flicked from Mrsha to Krshia. She stared at the Gnoll and then grinned.
“Honored Krshia, yes? I’ve heard about you.”
“Really? I am delighted. But I do not know you, sadly. Are you from the tribes?”
Krshia bared her teeth in a not-grin. Bearclaw’s smile widened.
“I was. I came to Liscor for business. Are you this Gnoll’s caretaker? I heard she had another.”
“Bearclaw, she’s white. Soot didn’t say anything about—”
Mrsha slunk behind Elirr as one of the Gnolls, who was nearly all-brown save for some tufts of silver around his ears, whispered in Bearclaw’s ear. The Gnoll cuffed him. Hard.
“Shut. Up. That’s just superstition.”
“We should be going. Apologies for bothering you.”
Elirr nodded to the other parents. They turned—and Bearclaw walked forwards.
“Why so soon? I haven’t met another Plains Gnoll worth talking to in a long time. Let’s talk. You can tell me what one of the white-furs is doing around here. I knew a few over the years.”
She looked at Mrsha and the little Gnoll looked up. Bearclaw smiled, but Elirr and Krshia did not.
“I think not. The children have to be at the park.”
There was always a [Guard] there. Mainly to watch out for accidents, although the parks had a lot of safety magic. But there was always a member of the Watch there. Mrsha remember that all of a sudden. Bearclaw tilted her head.
“Am I bothering you?”
Whatever Elirr or Krshia said next might have gone a lot of ways. The two Gnolls and the Drake were staring at Mrsha and Bearclaw. She smelled like danger, and Mrsha’s little nose told her that Bearclaw had steel in either pocket of her vest. She wore leather, incidentally. And both leather and steel smelled of that old blood.
It could have gone a number of ways. But it didn’t, because at that moment someone clicked.
“Excuse me. I believe Councilmember Krshia and Elirr have pressing business. As do you all. Kindly move along.”
Bearclaw turned. Her smile vanished. Mrsha turned and inhaled a familiar, reassuring scent.
Klbkch and Relc stood in the street. Relc, grinning, counted. The Drake [Guardsman] stared at Bearclaw and grinned, much like she had.
“So you’re Bearclaw. Hi. Klb told me all about you.”
The adults relaxed. And it was the possible [Thug]’s turn to stiffen as Liscor’s infamous Senior Guardsman pair strolled down the street. Bearclaw instantly swung around, putting both paws in her vest pockets.
“Hello, Guardsmen. What seems to be the matter?”
“You may move along. Now.”
Klbkch’s voice was flat. Bearclaw blinked. Normally, there was usually some byplay of ‘what have we done?’ Or something. But Klbkch seemed to have missed a line.
“We were just—”
“You will walk away. Now.”
Klbkch looked at Bearclaw. Her hackles rose.
“Is that an order?”
“I am in a bad mood. I would appreciate it if you refused to move along.”
Klbkch stared at her. The other Gnolls and Drakes stared at Klbkch warily. Bearclaw eyed the Antinium, his two swords, then Relc. She snarled, and spun.
They walked off. Relc whistled. He called out after Bearclaw.
“Klbkch, my man—he has no calm! Normally I’m the bad guy. We’ll see you again, Miss! Tell Soot we said hi!”
She didn’t reply. Krshia and the others relaxed as a Klbkch marched up to them. The Antinium looked at Mrsha, and then crisply saluted Krshia.
“Apologies, Councilmember. We delayed stepping in, hoping that Bearclaw would reveal something. You were never in any danger.”
“You are monitoring her, Guardsman Klbkch?”
Shaken, Krshia looked at Klbkch and Relc. The two nodded. Relc waved at Mrsha and she waved back. Klbkch nodded, his gaze following the way Bearclaw had gone.
“Relc, follow them. I will catch up. Of course, Councilwoman Krshia. Watch Captain Zevara is investigating whatever she and her associates are up to. But we have no proof. And Bearclaw was able to testify under truth spell that she had not committed a crime…in Liscor.”
Relc jogged after Bearclaw. Elirr blinked.
“She had committed. Yes. I must follow my partner, but I apologize for the delay. Bearclaw is, for the moment, a private citizen. Please lodge any complaints at the Watch House for Senior Guardsman Klbkch—”
Mrsha watched as Klbkch hurried off, following Relc. She stared at Ekirra and Visma. Their parents watched as Elirr and Krshia came over, and then they all gathered together in an anxious knot.
“Who was that, Krshia? I saw Jeva’s fur standing all up on end!”
“She called herself Bearclaw. I think she’s a criminal. From another city. Or the wilds, perhaps.”
Krshia murmured. Elirr was nodding. Both looked tense after meeting Bearclaw. Mrsha saw Ekirra sidle over. He leaned against Mrsha, looking frightened. She patted him on the head.
“We shouldn’t allow such people in. Krshia, you should get the Council to amend the law about allowing in…visitors like that! Why was she let in to begin with?”
Jeva was speaking loudly, and anxiously. Krshia just shook her head.
“If their sentence is not murder, or something equally guilty, they are allowed into the city. That is the law. This Bearclaw, though—I think she would have proven cases of self-defense…or been present at murders someone else committed. Technicalities like that exist. I will ask Watch Captain Zevara to investigate, but we need not change the law. There are cases—”
“We should! She looked ready to attack Visma!”
“She wouldn’t have. And it was just a lesson for Visma not to run about, eh?”
Elirr murmured. But Selena was more and more upset as she realized who Bearclaw was.
“You have to do something, Elirr! That Gnoll woman—a murderer? And she was just walking down the street with those other [Thugs]! Change the law! If you won’t, maybe Councilmember Lism—”
Elirr’s voice was hurt. The Drake paused.
“I’m sorry. I’m just trying to look out for—”
“Bearclaw is one Gnoll. We must trust the Watch. Senior Guardsman Klbkch was right there. Surely—”
The adults began to argue politics. Adult things. Mrsha, Ekirra, and Visma all looked at each other, dismayed. The visit to the park might be off. It was already eating into Mrsha’s hour before she had to go back. Ekirra looked at Mrsha, and then at Visma.
The little Drake was pale-faced. She looked at the ball she’d stolen, and then slowly, held it out to Ekirra.
“Sorry I took your ball.”
She shyly mumbled an apology. Ekirra licked her cheek. And that was that. Mrsha hugged her friends and they went to play. Then, Mrsha went back to the inn, and her two friends came with her. Elirr had promised to drop both off at their homes.
He did not tell Lyonette about Bearclaw, and Mrsha’s tail wagged and wagged, almost as hard as Ekirra’s as Lyonette greeted them.
“Thank you, Elirr. And is this Ekirra and Visma? Hello! Will you be staying?”
“No, we have to go home. This is my ball!”
Ekirra announced loudly. Visma shyly waved at Lyonette. The [Princess] smiled.
“Well, ask your parents if you can come by tonight. There’s going to be the Players of Celum. And cake.”
Both little Drake and Gnoll grew excited. Mrsha ran around Elirr and he sighed as he bade Mrsha farewell. The little Gnoll signed to Lyonette that she’d had a big day! But the [Princess] was very busy.
She put Mrsha down after a hug and the Gnoll sighed. Krshia and Elirr had to go to the Council, Drassi was off work today, and Selys was busy. So was Relc. So no one could watch over her, even Ishkr. But that was okay. She was going to get cake!
The silly thing had still not yet occurred, by the by.
“The Wandering Inn is back open!”
Fals, the City Runner, had had a good night’s rest in The Drunken Swordsman, one of Celum’s inns. He settled his bill, jogged to the Runner’s Guild, and delivered the good news.
The [Receptionist] at the desk pulled a face. Fals paused. He knew all the local staff, and he was on familiar terms with Esi.
“What’s wrong, Esi?”
“I’m sorry, Fals. I know it’s good news for you, since you don’t have to run back. But—honestly, the Guildmaster is not going to be happy about it. Neither should you, really.”
The City Runner was mystified. Esi leaned over the desk, grimacing.
“Well—you delivered your package, right?”
“Yup. Long run, but the door cut me all the time going back.”
“Right, but you got paid for the run. Even though there’s a magic door that could’ve done all the work for you. It wasn’t working until now, which is why you got the delivery. We ran tons of deliveries south to Liscor. Fat chance of anyone getting work now.”
Fals blinked at the young woman.
“But—I just used the door to come back. I did the entire run myself, none of Erin’s door. That’s her deal, remember? No using the magic door to deliver messages?”
“Oh, Fals! You think anyone actually does that? I’ve seen more Drakes last month than I have in my entire life! All who want to post letters of packages going north! Guess where they came from.”
Fals’ jaw dropped.
“Wait. I didn’t hear about this!”
But it made sense. He hadn’t gotten any contracts to run south to Liscor in a long while, or even Esthelm. Esi shook her head.
“I bet Liscor’s Runner’s Guild is just as steamed. And Esthelm’s! Normally, they go through Esthelm. Waypoints north. But ever since that damn door appeared—that’s a hundred mile route gone! And it’s costing Celum’s Guild and the runners money!”
She looked meaningfully around. Fals glanced about and realized there were less City Runners in this guild than there usually were. He straightened.
“I’m sure Erin doesn’t have any part of this, Esi. I can talk to her—”
“Who, the [Innkeeper]? What’s she going to do? Charge a fee for people using the door?”
Esi laughed and shook her head.
“Face it, Fals. It’s just less business. We do get outbound deliveries, so that’s something. But it’s just—not great. Sorry, I shouldn’t be griping to you—”
“Hey. It’s not your fault.”
Fals leaned over and gripped Esi’s hand. He smiled and she smiled back. The City Runner looked around.
“I’ll tell Erin, maybe see if something can be done. But the inn is back, and Liscor’s a fine city to go to. One step and you can be there, Esi. That’s something.”
She smiled a bit, but her smile faded as she looked for the Guildmaster’s office. Fals sighed.
It was strange. Everyone else he told the news to that day perked up.
“The inn’s back? I’ve been wanting some of those cookies! Promised my girl—she’s coming from Ocre—that I’d give her a bag. Damned expensive, though.”
A [Shoemaker] that Fals knew grinned as Fals passed by. The City Runner told a [Trader] and she brightened as he haggled for a spyglass. It was cheap, and, Fals discovered, made of glass instead of metal!
“This is so affordable. How’d you get it?”
“From Pallass, of course! I was one of the few people who signed up on that list they have. Walked through, did some trading—Pallass makes these. And even cheaply, I can make double the profit going north. You say the inn’s open? I’ll be there tonight! A few drinks—that Gnoll [Bartender] is a genius—and a play before I head north!”
“I think there’ll even be a door going to Invrisil.”
The [Trader]’s eyes widened as Fals paid for the spyglass. He almost thought about going to Pallass to get it cheaper—but Erin had told them it would be complicated after the Wyvern-Bird fiasco. She put her hands on her hips.
“Imagine that! Dead gods, I might just stick around, then! If I could jump all the way there I’d beat my competition without having to walk a mile! And the new trade route!”
Not to mention the savings in sending packages. Fals paused, and his smile slipped as he put away the spyglass. What would that do for Runners? So many parcels got sent north and south. The Runner’s Guilds all the way to Invrisil would lose money! No—all the guilds would lose money because you’d have to charge less if the route was that much shorter.
He began to see Esi’s point. Fals thanked the [Trader] and hurried away, thinking deeply.
Fals was, in his own admission, an ordinary fellow. A good City Runner, and he liked to think he was the best around Celum. Around Celum, though, and that was precarious now. Fals had been humbled by Ryoka. Persua had been a poke in the eye; she’d gotten lucky, not deserved her new Skill. And now Garia was running faster and faster these days.
Sometimes, Fals felt like an ordinary fellow running against special people. But he liked to think he was good at being a decent person to everyone he met. He had few enemies, and a lot of acquaintances and friends. That was valuable to a Runner.
He stopped by at an acquaintance’s shop on his way to find the Players of Celum, as he’d promised Lyonette. Octavia’s shop, Stitchworks, was normally a place of moderate business. But again, today, Fals found the unexpected. Octavia’s shop was wide open—and people were roundly cursing the door to Liscor.
By proxy this time. Fals pushed his way past dozens of…housewives. Younger [Bakers]. And at the front, arguing with Octavia, a group of some of Celum’s best [Bakers].
“Octavia! Hi! What’s the matter?”
Fals was just here for two stamina potions, but Octavia’s shop was flooded. The [Alchemist] was arguing with the [Bakers] as she tried to sell packets of white…powder. Fals stared.
“Fals! Excuse me! That is my merchandise! I have a right to sell! Yes, thank you! It’s eight silver per packet! Makes dozens of loaves!”
“You can’t do this! It’s just fake stuff! I demand you stop it! Who knows what it’ll do if you eat it?”
A burly [Baker] woman was shouting at Octavia. The [Alchemist] shouted back as the people in line wavered.
“Do? People have been eating it for months! Erin Solstice sells bread and cakes made with it in her inn every night! That’s right, step on up, folks! Baking soda, for sale at a very reasonable price! While stocks last!”
Fals had to ask. One of the upset [Bakers] glared.
“That’s right. It’s this damn white stuff—makes bread rise, apparently! Some kind of [Alchemist] hoppycock!”
“Whatever they use! I’m sure she’s ground it up in there! Probably bugs and worms and whatnot! But it makes bread rise and poof up! It’s an outrage!”
The [Baker] just cursed. Octavia, who’d shoved off the angry [Bakers], grinned and explained as she did business with the eager people in line.
“I sold some to a woman the other day. I’ve had it for ages, but only Erin ever wanted it, so I thought it wasn’t that good. But the woman came back—said it made her bread delicious and puff up! What do I know? I’m not a baker! Everyone wants it!”
“It’s not right! They didn’t earn the Skills to make their bread rise! I’ve got [Natural Yeast]! I apprenticed for years for my Skills! You’re selling a shortcut! Probably with negative side-effects!”
“Erin says it’s fine!”
Octavia bellowed back. She looked at Fals.
“She did say it was fine. I’d better, uh, check. But I’m doing mad business and I dare not leave the shop right now. Could you check for me?”
Fals blinked. The magic door was sitting there, and Octavia had left it open, but the door must have been linked somewhere else. He raised his hands as all the [Bakers], some of which he knew, stared at him.
“I’m afraid I can’t, Octavia.”
Rather than make an enemy out of Celum’s baking elite, Fals slid sideways. He saw a young man in line, trying to hide behind a few excited amateurs.
“Hold on. Don’t I know—”
“Shh! Don’t let them see me!”
The [Apprentice Baker] whispered to Fals. He had a hood on and was nervously clutching three packets of baking soda. Fals blinked and obligingly covered him.
“What’s the matter?”
“I want this powder! I could sell as well as my master with it! It’s wondrous! The other [Bakers]—they’re furious because it allows amateurs to make risen bread! Normally you need a yeast or Skill, and it’s a big secret. But now—”
Another convenience. Fals saw the [Bakers], unable to stop Octavia without breaking the law, storming towards the door. One turned and shook her fist.
“This isn’t over! The Baker’s Guild won’t let this be silent.”
“Good! Shout it to the world, folks! Baking soda is on sale! And matches! Light a fire and bake some bread! But don’t put any flour in the fire. It explodes. Courtesy of Miss Erin Solstice! Visit The Wandering Inn! Next!”
Fals shook his head as he left Stitchworks. He couldn’t fault Octavia, or the apprentice. Maybe the powder was bad? But if Erin vouched for it…could an [Alchemist]’s powder really replace honest baking?
Fals wasn’t an expert, but he was glad Octavia was making money. He’d get his stamina potions later. And ask Erin about the baking soda. But he had one more important stop.
“Welcome, welcome to Blazehound! We have a practice session by the Players of Celum!”
A voice greeted Fals as he pushed open a door to one of Celum’s other finest inns. Blazehound. True to its name, the inn was merry and lit, and the charming innkeeper, Ulia Ovena, swept towards Fals. He smiled—this was a popular place for couples and people seeking the plushest experience. The Drunken Swordsman was more utilitarian, and larger.
“Miss Ulia, it’s me, Fals.”
“Oh, of course! Fals, good morning to you! Are you not on a run? I can set you up with a table, if you’d like. A room?”
“Actually, I was hoping to speak with Temile?”
The woman beamed. She had a few streaks of grey, but she was considered to be one of the most eligible bachelorettes in Celum. She pointed Fals to the stage.
“You and everyone else. I don’t know that they’ll let you see Temile, unless you have a delivery—and a number of Runners have tried that!”
“Well, I don’t have a delivery but I know Temile. And I have good news for him.”
Ulia followed Fals. The Players of Celum had made an impromptu stage and backstage out of one of her private rooms. They’d clearly been here for a while; the full room at midday and Ulia’s pleased look, that of a very solvent cat, was proof enough. Fals smiled—then he had a premonition. You didn’t have to be a genius to see the third time coming.
He was definitely going to ruin her day.
“Er…yes, Miss Ulia. The Wandering Inn is back open. The magic door’s back, so Miss Solstice wanted me to send a message to—”
Ulia’s smile vanished in an instant. She grabbed Fals’ arm with surprising strength as he tried to make his way to the stage where a few [Actors] were practicing.
“That inn? Hold on now! You don’t need to tell them—”
“The news is all over, Miss Ulia. I’m just doing my job—”
The [Innkeeper] was trying to pull Fals back. One of the [Bouncers] was strolling over and Fals was about to cut his losses and let someone else tell the Players when he heard a shout.
Temile himself had spotted Fals. The [Stage Manager] strode over and Ulia let go of Fals with a furious sound. Relieved, the City Runner gave her an apologetic look as Temile appeared.
“Fals! You’re back in Celum already? I saw you off days ago. Does that mean…?”
“Temile, hello. The Wandering Inn is back open. Miss Solstice sends her regards. She was wondering—”
The young man got no further because Temile let out a whoop that made all the Players stop practicing. He turned.
“The Wandering Inn is open! Pack it up, people! We’re rejoining our Liscor [Actors]! Get to Miss Octavia’s shop! I want everyone there in the hour!”
The [Actors] cheered. So did many of Ulia’s patrons. The [Innkeeper] hurried over, grabbing at Temile’s arm.
“Temile! Let us talk about this! You’ve had splendid performances in my inn! And Timbor was getting ready to host you in The Drunken Swordsman! He’s even prepared a stage! Do you have to go to that—that inn?”
The [Manager] gave Ulia an astonished look. Fals wanted to slide out the door. He saw the [Bouncer] glaring—less crowds meant less profits for the entire inn, even if it meant more work. But Temile was just shaking his head as Ulia pleaded with him. The woman was charming and she was turning it up—Fals felt uncomfortably hot, but the [Actor] and [Manager]—or was it [Producer]? One had evolved into the other—was adamant.
“We have half our new [Actors] in Liscor, Miss Ulia. And even if they were willing to work elsewhere—Miss Solstice’s inn is the place! She’s the architect of our grand tragedies and triumphs! I’m sorry, but we did say it was just until she came off holiday. Pack it up! Everyone, we will be at the inn tonight!”
He shook off Ulia and hurried off. Fals saw the [Actors] rushing to pack their props. He winced as the other [Innkeeper] stood there.
She did not look so charming or pleasant. Fals hurried out the door before Ulia could turn her wrath on him. Almost everyone was happy about the news.
Except for the Runner’s Guild. The Baker’s Guild. The City Watch, who feared Goblins and Antinium, and the association of [Innkeepers] in Celum. Timbor, owner of the very inn where Fals had slept, Miss Agnes, Miss Ulia, and more, cursed the inn. They cursed Erin Solstice.
Something had to be done about her. But Fals had done his due diligence. He hadn’t made a mistake.
The incident occurred about thirty minutes after Mrsha returned to the inn. She was prowling around, bored. She knew no one could take her in Liscor, but she wanted to have fun!
But she wasn’t allowed outside of the inn. Mrsha would have visited the Defenders of the Cave, but Lyonette was worried about Mrsha’s tendencies to fall into dungeons, find Creler eggs, and so on. She was overprotective. Mrsha was brave! She was Mrsha the—
“Mrsha! Stop bothering the Workers!”
Lyonette scolded Mrsha as the Gnoll scampered over the half-finished second floor. The Workers were making fast progress, but they paused to look at the white, fluffy little Gnoll. They were disappointed when Lyonette made Mrsha go down and scolded her for risking injury!
“I know it’s boring, sweetie. But everyone’s busy today. Tell you what—why don’t you ask if one of the nice people will play chess with you? Or Go? Or Shogi? Or—you could help the Players set up. Fals just came back and said they’re coming tonight!”
Mrsha’s tail wagged. The Players were fun! It was never boring when they were around, and one of them was teaching Mrsha how to tumble. She agreed to go downstairs.
That was when she smelled the cake.
Glorious. Oh, simply glorious. Mrsha was drawn to the kitchen without realizing it. A glorious cake was sitting on the new stone counter, cooling.
Lyonette had redone Erin’s kitchen, making it bigger. Allowing for more ovens, places to cook. It still didn’t have magic conveniences, but it could handle all the cooking the inn needed.
Erin Solstice looked up from the frosting she was coating the cake with. She even had different colored food dyes courtesy of Octavia. And the cake—made with baking powder—was nearly done.
“I made a thing! See? Look, it’s an illustration!”
Erin pointed proudly at the cake. Mrsha, salivating, peeked over the edge of the counter.
The cake was big. As big as the oven could afford, wonderfully thick—vanilla—but that was one of the few flavors Erin could make. And she had outdone herself today.
It was decorated. Colored frosting, a first, had been transformed into an image of the inn on a blue-sky day. There was a green hill, brown inn and yellow windows and sun—
It wasn’t a great drawing. Erin wasn’t a [Confectioner], if the class even existed, and her artistic skills weren’t aided by her [Advanced Cooking] Skill. Even so—it was beautiful.
Mrsha reached for a bit of frosting. Erin lightly tapped her hand with a spatula.
“Ah! No frosting for you, Mrsha. Paws off. This is for tonight! If you sneak a snack, you don’t get any.”
Mrsha pouted. That was the rule Lyonette had made. And she was serious about her rules. Mrsha opened her mouth, begging. Just one little taste?
“No, Mrsha. I need to bake some more, anyways. Whew. But it’s hot in here!”
Erin was sweating, having used fire for the cakes and having to adjust the heat, rather than a conventional, convenient electric stove.
“Lasica says you can buy heating runes. Can I get some of those, Palt?”
“Absolutely. I can’t draw them, but ask Montressa or Beza. They can actually set you up.”
Mrsha noticed only now the Centaur standing to the side. He was helping with the cakes. The Centaur nodded at Mrsha, watching his hooves carefully around her. Erin spun.
“Yup. Beza’s a [Spellscribe]. That’s close to [Enchanter]. Anyways, a heating rune’s only difficulty is mana consumption and being able to adjust the heat. Surely you have some in this inn. Right? I mean, all the mana’s being absorbed by the door. But you have—”
The Centaur took his cigar out of his mouth. Erin stared at him. He stared uncertainly at her.
“I could draw a basic one. I know that Pisces fellow and Ceria were there. Well, she should be able to do cooling runes. If—wait. If she graduated. Any other [Mage]?”
“We had Falene—but she was a [Battlemage] and she said—and there was Moore. And Typhenous. And Revi I guess.”
“None of them knew basic runecraft? And you never asked Magus Grimalkin?”
Erin’s head turned. Mrsha knew Grimalkin was in the inn. She’d seen him demonstrating his weights to a female Runner who’d come in. Garia. He and the one-eyed Drake and Olesm all wanted to talk to Erin.”
Right now, the [Innkeeper] wanted to talk to them. Badly.
“I need to talk to them! Now! Grimalkin!”
“Careful what you say! Don’t let them know—Miss Solstice, be cautious! They want to know—excuse me! Sorry!”
Palt hurried after Erin. Mrsha heard Erin shouting at Grimalkin.
“Hey! Rune me!”
It sounded like fun stuff. Mrsha grinned happily. She’d get to watch something funny! And maybe play with Apista. She could do that until the Players came. It wouldn’t be boring! She began to trot out after Erin.
The cake was right there. Still warm. Erin had placed it on a long piece of wax paper. And the frosting was in a lovely bowl. Mrsha stared up at it.
She wasn’t a glutton. But she hadn’t eaten sweet things back in her tribe much. At all, really. There were a few sweets for Plains Gnolls, but Mrsha loved cake. Like any child. And—she glanced out of the kitchen. Lyonette was busy, Erin was busy. Grimalkin was negotiating. What will you give me for runes? Montressa and Beza had seen their chance. Garia was flexing and Olesm was staring at her stomach.
This was her moment. And no one would notice if a bit was missing, right? Right? Mrsha wasn’t fat, anyways. Lyonette kept thinking she was, but Krshia said Mrsha was a fine weight. Gnolls were bigger than Humans! They didn’t get thin and—whatever.
The Gnoll crept up to the counter. She had a Skill. More than Ekirra, who was a Level 2 [Thrower] because he loved throwing his ball so much. Or Visma, who was a Level 3 [Shaper].
Mrsha was Level 5. A [Druid]! And…a Level 9 [Last Survivor]. Once, she had been a [Young Hunter] in the Stone Spears Tribe. But it had been turned into her other class.
Either way, She had a lot of Skills for someone her age. Like [Natural Concealment]. Now, Mrsha used it. No one would be able to see she was here!
Except Chaldion. And Grimalkin. And some others. And Erin if she concentrated hard—it didn’t matter! Mrsha was going to use this moment.
She leapt up onto the counter in a single bound. It was a big jump, but Mrsha grabbed the counter with her forepaws and pulled herself up. As she did, a bit of the wax paper the cake was on caught on her paw. She accidentally pulled—
And the entire thing went face-first onto the floor.
Mrsha froze. The cake went splat so fast she just stared. It landed, and the frosting smudged the kitchen floor. It wasn’t face-down either. It had landed at an angle, and bent, tearing along the center.
Oh no. Oh no. Mrsha let go. She dropped to the floor and stared. Oh no. The cake was ruined. Mrsha stared.
It took her a minute to process what had happened. First, Mrsha was shocked. Then she was upset. Angry at herself. Stupid Mrsha! Then she was sad. Tears welled up in her eyes. The cake Erin had worked so hard on. And then—
She was going to get in so much trouble. The Gnoll cub began to breathe faster and faster. She panicked. She was going to get smacked! Krshia would do it in a heartbeat! She was going to be put in time-out and never eat cake again. She was going to—
There wasn’t even a chance of salvaging the cake. It was ruined. Mrsha looked at it. She heard Erin arguing with the others. Mrsha crept from the kitchen.
“Look, I just want a rune. I’ll pay you. No favors! Who do I have to pay for a rune? Palt? Palt can do it! No, I’m not answering all your questions. Where am I from? Noneya! Noneya business! Boom!”
Erin self-fived and felt stupid. The others stared at her. Someone began to laugh hysterically.
“Oh, Ancestors. That’s good.”
A very naked Drake leaned against the door he’d just come in and wheezed. Everyone stared at him. Saliss took one look at Erin and guffawed.
“Noneya business! I need to use that! Hi. I’m Saliss.”
Erin turned bright red. She shuffled her feet.
“…I’m never telling that joke again. What do you want?”
Lyonette shouted. She’d gone white at Saliss’ nudity. She looked around.
“Mrsha! Cover your eyes!”
The Gnoll had a heart attack as she crept away. Mrsha looked at Saliss. He posed.
“Don’t fear, Miss. It’s nothing unnatural—”
“Get out! Who is this?”
“Mrsha, don’t look. Go upstairs!”
Lyonette hurried over to Mrsha. The Gnoll scampered up the stairs, her heart beating out of her chest. She didn’t know. Not yet. The Drake was arguing with the others in the inn, many of whom had never seen him before. He had an entire city to flash and he was starting with the inn.
But he was small potatoes. Mrsha was terrified. She nodded as Lyonette told her not to come down until she dealt with that Drake. Erin was pointing at her kitchen.
Mrsha hid in her room. Under the bed. For good measure, she put her paws over her eyes. She had good ears. Erin was letting Lyonette fight a losing battle with Saliss. [Princess] or not, she was outmatched by the peerless, nudist hero of Pallass.
A new cast, a new inn. Mrsha heard Erin leading the way into the kitchen. There was an exclamation. Silence.
And then a voice.
“Mrsha! Get down here right this instant, young miss!”
Mrsha shook with fear. She looked around as she bolted from her bed. She had to run! Erin was furious—then Lyonette heard. And she was worse.
“Mrsha? Down here, right now.”
The Gnoll shot into the hallway. At the far end, sunlight beckoned. Worker Antinium were constructing the rest of the second floor. But Mrsha could run across the roof—get off the inn!
“Mrsha! I’m counting to three! One! Two!”
Erin’s voice was loud. Mrsha ran. One of the Worker Antinium looked at her, and put out a hand.
“This one is not supposed to allow you onto the roof. Please return to the inn.”
He blocked Mrsha from going further. The Gnoll looked at him. She tried to jump. He carefully caught her and put her down.
“Mrsha, don’t you dare run away.”
Lyonette was coming up the stairs slowly. She wasn’t shouting like Erin. She was being very…serious. That was worse. Mrsha scrabbled as the Worker put her down in the finished hallway. Run! Run!
She fled into the nearest room as Lyonette appeared in the hallway. The [Princess] sighed. She marched over to the door. It was one of the rooms not occupied by Erin, Bird, Numbtongue, or Lyonette and Mrsha. The [Princess] was going to start letting people stay here as soon as the second-floor was finished. Palt, perhaps. Although stairs were an issue. But certainly…
“Mrsha, come out this instant, young lady.”
Lyonette tried the door handle. Then she frowned and pushed. The door was jammed.
Mrsha had pushed a chair under the knob. Lyonette’s brows shot together.
“Open this door this instant, Mrsha. Do you hear me?”
Mrsha was hiding under the other bed in this room. She was crying. It wasn’t her fault! Today was a good day! She was supposed to eat the cake with Ekirra and Visma! And now it was ruined for everyone!
She was so upset. And Lyonette was rattling the door. The chair hadn’t been perfectly placed and it was sliding out of the way. Mrsha looked around the inn, desperately. She had to go out the window! Run away until Lyonette wasn’t so mad.
“Mrsha, come out. I’m not going to shout at you. Neither will Erin. Mrsha? Don’t go out that window!”
Lyonette’s voice sharpened as Mrsha flung open the window. The Gnoll hesitated. But she was panicked. She looked back at the door and weighed her options. There was a breathless moment in time, like an [Immortal Moment], but made of fear as Lyonette pushed at the door and the chair slid. One more and it would come open. She was angry now.
“Mrsha! Go out that window and—”
Mrsha froze. She looked at the door. The empty guest room had a table, the other door, a chair against one wall, a bed, the window, looking out across Liscor—
Lyonette heaved at the door and the chair finally slid out enough for her to ram to the door open. She shoved the door wide.
“Mrsha! Don’t you dare—”
The [Princess] stopped. She stared at the empty room. It had a table, a chair, and a bed. And an open window. The [Princess] rushed to it. She stared around. But there was no white Gnoll. Not on the hill, not on the roof—the other Workers shook their heads as Lyonette called out to them. She looked around wildly.
“Mrsha! Come back! I’m not angry!”
Erin blinked as Lyonette came downstairs. The [Innkeeper] wasn’t upset. Lyonette glared at her.
“We’re not shouting at her.”
“I wasn’t! Okay, I was mad, but I wasn’t gonna hit her!”
“Who’re we mad at?”
Saliss leaned on Erin. She sidled away and he fell down. Lyonette ignored the Drake.
“She went out the window!”
She rushed out the doors and through the hallway. Lyonette flung the main doors to the inn open and stared around. But Mrsha was nowhere to be seen.
Lyonette had a good vantage point from the hill. She should have seen a white figure among the grass, even with Mrsha’s Skill. But if she wasn’t here—
The [Princess] ran about the inn, wondering if Mrsha was hiding from her. By this point, Erin, Saliss, and Grimalkin had all come outside. The [Sinew Magus] sighed.
“It’s just as well the cake was destroyed. That thing is sugar. And I was meaning to talk to you about a dietary plan, Miss Solstice—”
“Mrsha! Come back! We’re not mad!”
Erin cupped her hands and used her [Loud Voice] Skill. Not as ear-splittingly loud as she could, but loud enough. She saw no Gnoll. Grimalkin sighed.
He leapt and landed on the roof. Bird and the other Workers stared at him. The Antinium gaped.
“He can fly! Muscle bird! Look! Look—”
Grimalkin ignored him. He turned, staring in every direction from the top of the inn. He muttered another spell. And then he frowned.
“I don’t see your little Gnoll. Perhaps she’d hiding in the inn?”
“Mrsha! We’re not mad! Come back!”
“Yeah! Whoever you are! Who are we looking for?”
Saliss glanced about. For all he joked, he was peering about. More people came out of the inn. Palt was next.
“Let me trot this way. Maybe she’s running about—”
He began circling the inn. Montressa and Beza appeared. Eager to help out.
“Maybe she’s in the inn?”
“No, there was only one way out besides the door. The window.”
“Did the Antinium see anything?”
More people. Olesm got up. And even Chaldion came to the door.
“What’s this about?”
“The Gnoll—Mrsha. Chaldion, use your eye.”
Grimalkin sighed. The [Grand Strategist] shrugged. He opened his eye patch and to Lyonette’s horror, pulled out the blue gemstone and replaced it with a white one. It was clouded, but it glowed as Chaldion tapped it.
“[Scrying]. Mrsha. Last name?”
“Mrsha of the Stone Spears Tribe. That’s all we know.”
“Hm. I don’t think that will be enough. I’ll scry this area.”
The Drake sighed. He leaned on his cane as the others spread out. Palt decided to run down the hill, check some of the valleys out of sight. Grimalkin leapt down the hill and did likewise.
“This is pointless. Ishkr? Ishkr, can you get Mrsha’s scent?”
Lyonette went back into the inn. Ishkr obligingly sniffed the room where Mrsha had gone. But then he wrinkled his nose.
“I can’t find a new trail. Sorry, I’m no [Tracker]. Does she have a Skill?”
“Yes! At least one. But she can’t have gone far.”
“She’s fast. Gnoll cubs can sprint far. And if she was worried—let’s see. You took about one minute? And if she was still running out of sight—”
Grimalkin was doing a quick calculation. He glanced about. Erin shook her head.
“Mrsha’s not gone far. I’m sure of it.”
Lyonette stared at Erin. The [Innkeeper] opened and closed her mouth and frowned.
No one worried. It was one Gnoll cub. And Chaldion would find her. Until he didn’t. The Drake announced he couldn’t locate Mrsha anywhere around the inn.
So they searched the inn. Numbtongue, sitting in his room, embarrassed, was confronted by Erin and Lyonette throwing open his door.
“Is Mrsha in here? Numbtongue, we’re not mad—”
The Hobgoblin stared at them. He was embarrassed—but one look at their faces made him shake his head. Erin looked at him, smiling with a hint of worry. He stood up.
“Oh, Mrsha ran off. She broke a cake. We’re not mad—we just want to find her.”
“She’s not in the inn?”
The Hobgoblin looked at the two young women. Lyonette shook her head.
“She’s probably hiding. She jumped out a window. She might have hidden—”
The two young women hurried out of the room. Numbtongue stared around. He checked under his bed. He followed the two as they went into Erin’s new basement.
Mrsha was not there. But that was fine. The two young women assured Numbtongue he could go back to his room. Someone would have seen her from the walls of Liscor.
By this point, Garia Strongheart, the City Runner was helping search. And everyone else in the inn. Fals jogged back after having run ten minutes one way. Palt was coming back, having done the same. Numbtongue looked at Garia.
“Hi. Little Mrsha’s gone, right?”
He nodded slowly. But there was nothing to fear.
Until the [Guards] on Liscor’s walls reported to Olesm they hadn’t seen a white Gnoll. And then—Numbtongue saw Erin and Lyonette’s faces. They conferred with Chaldion and Grimalkin.
And Numbtongue began to worry.
He was a [Goblin Soulbard]. A Hobgoblin, alone. He had seen his people die. His comrades had fallen. He didn’t know if Rabbiteater and Badarrow were alive. But he had buried Shorthilt and Headscratcher on a small hill where flowers bloomed.
Mrsha had helped with that. And she, Erin, and Lyonette, and Bird were the reasons why Numbtongue stayed. Someone had to protect them. Or were they protecting him?
Sometimes he forgot that. But now, as no one panicked over Mrsha, who had been gone for nearly half-an-hour despite everyone searching harder and harder, the Goblin felt his duties pressing. He closed his eyes as Erin went to ask for a Gnoll to help track Mrsha. One with a good nose.
“Let me try. I like sniffing things.”
Saliss was joking around in the kitchen. Lyonette made a sound of disgust. But Erin paused and looked at him.
“Don’t be so serious! Little Gnolls run off all the time. She’ll be back.”
The [Alchemist] laughed. But as Erin turned away, Numbtongue saw him reach into his bag of holding. The casual smile on the [Alchemist] vanished. He fished around and pulled out a small, marked vial. He opened it and downed the contents. Then he did take a good sniff.
The Hobgoblin watched him bend, sniff the cake, and turn. There was even a bit of white hair there. Saliss of Lights stood up, saw Numbtongue watching. He affected a look of shock.
He raised both hands. Then Saliss pointed.
He grinned. Numbtongue didn’t laugh. Saliss was giving him goose bumps. The Named Adventurer smiled. He wasn’t even wary of Numbtongue.
“Hey. ‘Sup? Nice class.”
He made finger-claws, pointed them at Numbtongue. Then he walked past the Hobgoblin. On a hunch, the Goblin followed him.
Upstairs Saliss went. He went to the room Mrsha had allegedly vanished in, and looked around. He sniffed again. Then his brows crossed.
“That is strange—”
He caught sight of Numbtongue watching him. Saliss grinned.
“That little Gnoll must be very good at hiding. Well, I tried!”
He wandered out of the room. He didn’t fool Numbtongue. The [Bard] stared into the room.
What did this mean? He was working with pieces. No one was worried. Except Numbtongue. And so, the [Bard] took this more seriously than everyone else who hadn’t panicked. He looked around the room.
Numbtongue nearly used his Skill. [A Minute, Reborn]. But he decided to call on Pyrite’s intelligence and memories instead. His new Skill would bring Pyrite into his body, but he didn’t need Pyrite himself, just his perspective.
The Hobgoblin Chieftain had been intelligent. A brilliant mind. He had been stronger than Numbtongue, wiser. He should have lived. But he hadn’t. And now, he was in Numbtongue’s head. And whatever you might think—part of that Pyrite was glad to help.
Think. The other Hobgoblin was more focused than Numbtongue. Mrsha was gone. She had to have left the inn, as Lyonette had said. There were two entrances to the room. However, the young Gnoll was clever. She, fearing her punishment, had run away.
She could have run so far even Palt and Grimalkin and the Runners, making increasingly large rings around the inn, couldn’t find her. But—consider what Lyonette and Erin were too afraid to.
Consider the worst. Pyrite directed Numbtongue to look up.
How fast would a bird dive? Could a Razorbeak carry Mrsha off? Surely, not without a Worker Antinium noticing. That was the thing. A Wyvern had not gotten her, or the Antinium would have noticed.
Mrsha had used a Skill that could evade even what was probably a very powerful smell-enhancing potion Saliss had used. She had snuck away. And then…what? Had she run and continued to run? That was a possibility, but Mrsha having that level of fear was an odd bet. Pyrite kept thinking.
“I can find her.”
A voice spoke. Numbtongue’s shoulders stiffened. He didn’t look behind him. He knew who was speaking. Because it wasn’t a physical voice. It was in his mind.
“Let me help. If she’s in danger, I can find her at once.”
Slowly, Numbtongue turned around. He stared at the other Goblin.
Reiss, the Goblin Lord, stood in the hallway. He looked as he had died. A hole ran through his chest and he had been cut. He looked as real as anything to Numbtongue, though. But the Hobgoblin knew he was dead.
The [Bard] gritted his teeth. Reiss shook his head.
“You need me. I can help you. I can’t leave. I’m—I don’t know what I am. Not a ghost. I thought I left.”
So did Numbtongue. He remembered the hill, and the Goblins disappearing. He had seen Reiss. The other Goblin nodded. He could read Numbtongue’s thoughts.
“So what am I? A soul? A fragment? A memory? Let me help you. That’s why I’m here.”
Numbtongue folded his arms. Pyrite was telling him to be careful too. But the other Hobgoblin hadn’t said ‘no’. He had a list of benefits and potential consequences. But Numbtongue said no.
Reiss had killed Headscratcher. Because of him, Garen, and so many others were dead. Reiss nodded.
“But let me help you. Use me. You need my power. You have no idea what terrors rule this world. You need my power. I can find the Gnoll child.”
Numbtongue glared. Reiss raised one hand, touched an eye.
“[Detect Life]. I can find her.”
“Other [Mage] could do. Go away.”
The Hobgoblin turned away. Reiss sighed.
“If you refuse, it will be like the Crelers. You need power.”
Pyrite agreed. Numbtongue told both to shut up. His shoulders hunched. Below, he heard Erin’s voice.
The Hobgoblin’s shoulders straightened. He turned. Pyrite blinked.
Reiss was gone. Odd, that. The Hobgoblin spent one second thinking over why. Different class. Of course. The [Magestone Chieftain] nodded. Then he focused all of his power on helping Numbtongue.
“Gnoll is gone. No smell, not seen—”
He paced around the room, thinking it over. The odds of Mrsha escaping so many eyes and running so far was remote. Ergo, she hadn’t run. She also hadn’t been attacked. Blood smelled strongest. Think. What—
“Ah. The door.”
The Hobgoblin strode downstairs. Pure logic. He saw Erin disappearing into the magic door in Liscor.
“Have you seen Mrsha?”
He asked Olesm, who was going through to Liscor. The Drake jumped.
“Numbtongue? No! Erin was just going to check Liscor—”
Pyrite nodded. He let the Drake go through and closed the door. Thoughtfully, Pyrite inspected the dial.
There were a few settings.
Liscor, Celum, Esthelm, Pallass. Also, the Bloodfields, and the red gemstone for the Goblin cave.
You could rule out Liscor and Pallass at once. Thoughtfully, The Hobgoblin shook his head at the Bloodfields door. Mrsha wasn’t stupid. He slowly turned the dial to Esthelm, then shook his head.
That left one option—no, two. The Hobgoblin eyed the red mana stone. He switched to it, pulled the door open.
Nothing happened. It was dead. The Hobgoblin shrugged. He felt his minute evaporating. He switched the dial.
Numbtongue finished the sentence. Pyrite’s detective work had led him to the right conclusion. He thanked Pyrite in his head. Then he swung open the door.
Octavia’s shop was trashed. Numbtongue stared at the clutter, as if hundreds of people had been through here. But the [Alchemist] was beaming. She hurried around.
“How have you been, friend? I have had the best day ever! Let me tell you—”
The Hobgoblin smiled at Octavia. But he was looking around the shop. Pyrite was smart.
“Octavia. Did Mrsha come through this door an hour ago?”
The [Alchemist] stopped. She blinked at Numbtongue.
“Mrsha? No. Why? Is something wrong?”
The Hobgoblin’s face fell. Pyrite had been sure. But then—
“Oh no. How? Let me help. Hold on—I’ll just lock the shop—”
Octavia hurried over to the door. Numbtongue nodded, gratefully. He saw a Goblin standing in the inn.
Slowly, the [Bard] turned. He glared. But Reiss just held out a claw. Numbtongue reached for it—
“Alright! Secure that door!”
Numbtongue whirled. Octavia froze at the entrance to her shop, key in hand. The Hobgoblin strode over.
Guards, dozens of them, were converging on Stitchworks. One of them, the Watch Captain, marched up to Octavia’s shop. He tried the handle, then bellowed.
“Open this door!”
“We’re closed! What’s this about?”
Octavia looked at Numbtongue. He looked back at the inn. The door had closed. Someone had just used it! The Watch Captain hadn’t seen Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin crouched as the man bellowed back.
“Open up! By order of the [Mayor], the door to Liscor is confiscated! And Celum will no longer be doing business with the inn! Open! By order of the Watch!”
“You can’t do that! You—stay back!”
Octavia looked at Numbtongue. The [Bard], crouching, saw more [Guards] converging. They weren’t looking for a fight. But they had weapons and he was alone. Octavia was thinking the same thing. She pointed to the back of her shop.
Numbtongue ran. Erin Solstice didn’t think to check Celum until ten minutes later. When she did, she found her door was confiscated. And the Watch Captain was dismayed to learn he’d only seized the portal stone, not the magic door itself. She stared at him. Octavia mouthed to her frantically. Erin’s brows snapped together.
But he was gone. No one had seen him in the city after the fight. And so was Mrsha.
The white Gnoll stared around a minute after she escaped Lyonette’s not-wrath.
She was lost. She remembered, vividly, the moments before Lyonette had opened the door. She had looked around, seen the open window, the table, the door, and—
The other door.
It had been strange. Faded wood and iron, and a brass handle, set into one wall. It had been different from the other ones in the inn. And it hadn’t belonged in the guestroom. It should have connected to the roof, so Mrsha had flung it open. But when she’d rushed through—
The door was gone. Mrsha stared about. She was standing in grass. But shadowed. Tall plants grew behind Mrsha, twisting vines, covering a…wall of sorts behind her.
The Gnoll sniffed the air. She inhaled the scent of nature, strong. Wild. No smells of fire or metal. Just—plants. The grass was interspersed with tiny flowers. And the…place she was in was shadowed. Partly. Darkness obscured the area to Mrsha’s left and right.
But there was sunshine ahead. It poured down, and Mrsha saw more plants. Wild grass where she sat. She wriggled her toes.
But where was she? She only knew she’d been afraid, and the door had been here. Slowly, the Gnoll padded forwards. The first to step into a magical room, one that whispered in the faint breeze, where plants grew. A safe place.
The [Garden of Sanctuary].