“It’s uncanny. She’s rather like an enigma wrapped up in a bottle inside an aggravating pot enchanted to annoy you.”
“…I understand what you’re saying, but I’d never have expected that line to come from you, Grand Strategist.”
“Magus Grimalkin. Do you disagree?”
“Not at all. I would have simply abbreviated the analogy. Erin Solstice is more like someone with layers.”
“Like an onion?”
“No. I was going to say a multi-level shield spell. Why an…onion?”
“Don’t you cook with onions? Either of you two?”
“I do not cook. I’ve studied nutrition, but cooking is not a practice I need to or care to study.”
“I can cook, Saliss. How is this germane to the conversation?”
“I’m just saying. Onions. Fry them up and they’re good. You can toss some oil in a pan, some onions, and maybe a bit of sauce or salt—that’s a snack.”
“Hm. Nutritional value?”
“I mean, they’re onions. I use them in one of my cloud-based recipes. So you get a killing cloud of poison that smells like onions.”
“We’re being derailed. Be silent, Saliss. My point is simply that she’s clever, intentionally or not. Grimalkin, you have experience with her. Is this…normal?”
“Hmf. I’d say it’s partly unconscious. But she obfuscates intentionally. Nevertheless, I’ve experienced this before. Not in this fashion, but a quiet, normal evening in this inn is a rare phenomenon.”
“Yeah. Why are we whispering?”
Grimalkin and Chaldion both turned to look at Saliss. The third Drake paused.
“I mean—Chaldion’s using his ring. Why are we whispering?”
The other two Drakes stared at the [Alchemist]. ‘Annoyed’ was a mild word to describe how they felt about Saliss. Resigned, aggravated—you had to combine descriptors. But the Named Adventurer was the best [Alchemist] in all of Pallass, perhaps the world. He was more useful than he looked. And—well, he was also hard to get rid of.
Moreover, he was amid equals, in a sense. Grimalkin, the [Sinew Magus], and Chaldion, [Grand Strategist] in charge of Pallass’ armies were both famed and influential. If anything, Grimalkin was the lesser figure here. If anyone was being a stickler for the exact nuance of rank.
But no one was. And the three Drakes outranked and mattered more than anyone else in the inn in which they stood. And yet—they stood in a corner, talking. They were here, having taken time out of their incredibly busy schedules—again, Saliss being a sort of exception—to come here.
Because of a Human. Erin Solstice. And at this moment, Chaldion and Saliss were experiencing a phenomenon Grimalkin in his personal notes was dubbing the ‘Erin-chaos effect’.
Chaldion went on, looking around. He stopped whispering as Saliss, still nude, busily mushed up something in a mortar and pestle. It was amazing how fast you could get used to a naked Drake. No one in the inn even paused to stare at Saliss. Because there were more important matters to deal with.
“The Gnoll child is gone. I’ve scried this entire area. Even with her full name—she’s gone. That should not be possible.”
Grimalkin nodded. The [Magus] paused, and then extended a claw. Saliss glanced up as the burly Drake murmured.
“Mrsha Stone Spears. [Scry].”
There was a flash and his eyes glowed blue-white. Grimalkin paused.
“Nothing. It could be the scrying spell is struggling with Gnollish naming conventions. Plains Gnolls don’t have last names. [Scry] Mrsha Stonespears.”
“I’m used to [Scrying] spells, Magus. I can’t imagine we’d both fail. But yes, it is cumbersome.”
Chaldion sighed. He flipped up his eye patch and his blue pearl fake eye glowed with the same magic.
“[Scry]. Krshia Silverfang.”
This time, something clearly happened. Chaldion’s eye continued to glow. Saliss turned and waved at the ceiling, from where Chaldion’s magical gaze was coming. Grimalkin looked up too. You could actually detect a [Scrying] spell if you knew where to look. Chaldion nodded.
He turned and all three Drakes stared at the tall Gnoll woman, the [Shopkeeper] who was one of many people in the inn. Krshia was conferring with Elirr and some other Gnolls trying to pick up on Mrsha’s scent.
They’d all failed. And after two hours since Mrsha’s disappearance, the not-panic had involved more than just the inn’s guests. Relc had appeared, on-duty, as had Klbkch, two Councilmembers from Liscor—it could be said that even Zevara was taking an interest through her Senior Guardsmen.
And no one had found Mrsha. Now, the not-panic was becoming something more than a concern. But Chaldion was cool-headed. He looked at Grimalkin and Saliss.
“The name is not the issue. Wherever the child is, she either possesses a Skill or artifact that can defeat a [Scrying] spell—and scent—and turn her invisible to Antinium Workers and leave no trail—”
“Or something got her.”
The others nodded. Saliss paused as there was a sound from the doors. Everyone in the inn turned. A Centaur trotted in, breathing hard. He looked around.
“No news. Sorry. I ran all the way down to the road north. No one’s seen her.”
He was looking around for Lyonette or Erin, but the two were still out looking. Relc was at the Bloodfields, scouting around with Klbkch. They’d checked Pallass already; the guards had denied seeing a white Gnoll. Esthelm was being investigated by Erin herself. Liscor was looking out for Mrsha and Elirr had checked Krshia’s apartment.
And Celum…well, that was another thing. Chaldion paused.
“Put aside the child for now. Let’s focus on what happened. Just as I was attempting to speak with that young woman, this incident happened. As well—Celum has suddenly decided to refuse entry through their magical door.”
“Good summarizing. I ate eggs today for breakfast. With toast.”
Saliss murmured. Chaldion ignored him. He looked at Grimalkin.
“You’ve said that getting information out of Miss Solstice is difficult, Magus Grimalkin. I assumed it was because you didn’t press her. Now I’m beginning to understand.”
“In fairness, the events with Celum were a long time coming. And Mrsha’s disappearance could just be chance. I doubt Erin Solstice wanted either event. However—I have witnessed her deliberately causing this kind of incident. Did you know, half of her guests assumed Pallass was attacked because she was vacationing there? The rumor is that she has a Skill which attracts trouble—or luck, as the case may be.”
“Really? I’ve met [Gamblers] who can do that. You think if I tag along with her, she can do something really entertaining? Like, say, accidentally knocking down one of Pallass’ walls?”
Saliss’ eyes gleamed. Chaldion turned his head and glared.
“Sir Saliss, if you have nothing to add, please remove yourself from my presence.”
His voice was icy. And the Grand Strategist of Pallass was normally known for being even-tempered. Cunning, deliberate, ruthless—but seldom just angry or annoyed. Then again, Saliss was Saliss and they had a long history. Grimalkin folded his arms.
“Erin Solstice’s place of origin and history are part of her mystery. I personally suspect that she’s hiding something incredibly significant, but as I’ve said, this is only a supposition based on no proof but instinct.”
“Well, that is why I am here, Grimalkin. I just can’t help but marvel at the timing of her coincidences.”
Chaldion’s eyes narrowed. He too sensed something, even if he couldn’t put it into words. Erin Solstice’s ability at chess, her personality, her knowledge of…lifting…all of it spoke to the [Grand Strategist]. Yet, like Grimalkin, he didn’t even have the framework to guess at the truth.
“I just came here for the food. And Xif keeps bragging so I wanted to annoy him. Plus, I wanted to see what Liscor’s prison looks like. No one’s arresting me in Pallass anymore.”
Saliss scratched at the scales on his butt. Grimalkin sighed.
“Wow. You say that so unironically. I haven’t heard someone do that in years. Do it again!”
“Sir Saliss, have you tried to locate the child?”
The [Alchemist] paused. He sighed as Grimalkin gave him a look devoid of humor. The adventurer grew serious for one reluctant moment.
“No smells, no unusual sights. I used two good potions, too. It is weird. Kids don’t have Skills that good. Even if she was Level 20 or something—”
“Nah, it’s happened. I think the record is Level 21 at age seven.”
The three Drakes grew quiet again. They eyed the room. It was full of stillness and motion. People were reacting to the situation as befit their personalities. Some, like Drassi, were rushing about, getting water for the panting Palt, encouraging other people, working to keep themselves from worrying.
Others, like Krshia and Elirr, were still. Waiting for…something. Then they’d move like wildfire.
But what were they waiting for? The worst? A miracle? No one could say. But Grimalkin, Chaldion, and Saliss stood together, outsiders to this inn. They didn’t know Mrsha well. Even Grimalkin was a more sporadic visitor. He turned as there was a sound from the hallway.
“Erin! Where’s Erin?”
Every head turned, hopefully, expectantly. Saliss just glanced up and went to grinding with his little pewter bowl. The door opened and a team of four rushed in.
Adventurers. The Halfseekers. Ulinde, their newest member, followed Seborn, Moore, and Jelaqua. All four were panting.
“I just heard. Has anyone found Mrsha? We’ll help look!”
Jelaqua stared about the room. Krshia hurried over to her. Moore bent over as the Halfseekers listened to the Gnoll woman; Moore’s face was one of anguish and worry.
“Lot of strange people around here.”
Saliss murmured as he poured the powdered Eir Kelp into one vial for making a healing potion with later. Chaldion glanced up sharply.
“You mean, their classes. Which ones?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Isn’t that what all your investigations are supposed to turn up?”
Saliss fluttered his eyes at Chaldion. The [Grand Strategist] turned away. The [Alchemist] did not look directly at Krshia. The three Drakes fell silent as Jelaqua took her team upstairs, to look at the spot where Mrsha had been.
They were being logical. And keeping their heads in the panic. Better than Krshia or the others; their veneer of control was just that. But the three Drakes were calm, used to graver crises than this. But it had to be said that they were also…
Embarrassed. Frankly, that was the emotion that unified the three. They were all the most important people in the room. And yet—they’d been just as stumped by Mrsha’s disappearance.
It was like she’d vanished. And between the three Drakes, that was a hard thing to admit. If Mrsha had been teleported, even with [Greater Teleport], there would have been a magical residue. If she’d been attacked, carried off, Saliss would have scented it.
Chaldion had gone through the logical exercises that Pyrite had, but every avenue revealed no white Gnoll. Not even Celum; the City Watch and Octavia both denied seeing Mrsha and the odds of her being in the city were remote.
“It has to be a Skill. But whose?”
Grimalkin growled. Chaldion folded his arms.
“Another point to investigate. My time was not wasted coming here. However—”
Every head turned as Erin Solstice appeared. She walked through the front doors leading to the trapped hallway.
“She’s not in Esthelm. I think…I think she’s here. Lyonette. I’m certain of it.”
The [Innkeeper] turned to Lyonette. The [Princess]’s hand was bleeding. The Gnolls smelled it and Saliss’ keen eyes saw the blood from where her fingernails had cut into her skin. But neither one was panicking, or wailing. What good would that do? And Erin Solstice…
“She’s here. I wasn’t sure at first, but I know it, Lyonette. That’s why I’m not panicking. Mrsha’s…here.”
Erin slowly walked into the inn. She looked around, her eyebrows furrowed. Staring around and searching for…something. Lyonette followed her, white-faced.
“But we’ve searched everywhere! She wouldn’t have hidden! Mrsha’s not like that! Once she heard us calling out—did she fall into one of Belgrade’s traps? I told him—”
“No. She’s here. But not…here.”
The young woman cut Lyonette off. She was visibly confused. Erin looked around, and then straight at Saliss.
“Hi. Yes I am.”
He waved at her. Erin ignored Saliss. She stared about the room.
“Is Palt here? Or Montressa?”
“Yes, hello! How can we help?”
Montressa interrupted the exhausted Centaur. The [Aegiscaster] hurried over, staff in hand. Erin nodded to her as Beza hung back.
“Can you do something for me? Turn invisible?”
“I can do that.”
“What do you want to do?”
Grimalkin was curious too. Erin looked at all three [Mages].
“I’ll turn my back. Go invisible and hide.”
“I’m testing something, Lyonette.”
“Give us ten seconds.”
The three [Mages] exchanged looks. Erin turned around and all three vanished. Saliss and Chaldion both didn’t blink, and their eyes followed patches of air moving across the room.
The others weren’t able to track the [Mages] so well. The Gnolls sniffed the air, getting approximate locations. Drassi noticed a chair moving as Montressa bumped it. Lyonette recoiled from a breeze. But then there was just silence.
Erin finished counting. She held still. Her eyes were closed and her back was turned to a wall. She didn’t immediately turn around. Instead, her head rose. And then the [Innkeeper] thoughtfully spoke.
“Palt is upstairs. Somehow. Montressa’s in the kitchen. And Grimalkin’s…not in the inn.”
Lyonette stared at Erin’s back. There was an exclamation from the kitchen and Montressa reappeared. Someone went to get Palt.
A number of voices chorused. Drassi went to fetch Grimalkin. He strode back in.
“I walked down the hill. Your findings?”
Erin looked around. Her eyes narrowed.
“I couldn’t do this when I was Level 20.”
Chaldion eyed Erin. Saliss just grinned. Erin Solstice looked at Lyonette. The [Princess] was piecing together what Erin had understood.
“So—so you’re sensing Mrsha? You know she’s here?”
“I am. That’s why I wasn’t that worried, Lyonette. I thought it was my imagination. But Mrsha is in my inn. Just not…here, here.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. She’s in my inn. But she’s not anywhere I know.”
Everyone looked as perplexed as Erin. She hadn’t figured it out yet. The Grand Strategist’s eyes narrowed though. He touched his ring and created another space to whisper to the other two Drakes in. Grimalkin walked over and nodded.
“No. Perhaps a new facet of her class. A new Skill. Didn’t she mention having two?”
Grimalkin and Chaldion were beginning to put it together. They exchanged significant looks. Saliss…well, he glanced at Erin as he put another bit of dried Eir Kelp in his bowl to mash up.
It was only a matter of time before she figured it out. She’d fooled even him. For a moment. Then he’d put it together.
Saliss’ eyes were reptilian, a long vertical pupil instead of rounded ones, like Gnolls and Humans had. Like a Dragon’s eyes, although Dragons would balk at being compared to their descendants. Yet, Saliss’ eyes were more like a Dragon’s than most.
They narrowed now. Staring at Erin Solstice. And Saliss saw…all there was to see.
[Eyes of Appraisal]. A Skill for an [Alchemist]. Saliss looked at Erin. He saw her level, her class. Her Skills. He nodded to himself. Unusual Skills for an [Innkeeper], some of them. She had a weird distribution.
An [Innkeeper] who had to fight monsters got Skills like these. One who valued people more than, say, the ability to conjure up free food each day, or who had the ability to boost her staff into working like fiends. But clearly, she didn’t know how at least two of her Skills worked.
Well, well. The [Alchemist] busily mashed up the second bit of kelp as Grimalkin and Chaldion walked over to Erin and her head kept turning. He was just a bystander, watching the show. If she or Lyonette had started crying, he’d probably have given her a tip.
But at the moment? Saliss looked into his bowl, with a serious, detached expression on his face. Anyone looking at him would have assumed he was just as grave and concerned as everyone else. But the truth was that Saliss was trying really hard not to laugh.
Mrsha stood in another place. She stared around the strange world she’d entered when she’d fled from Lyonette. It was completely foreign to her.
Soft grass covered the ground. Behind her stood a wall. But covered with vines. Mrsha stared at the wall, where the door had allowed her in. And then vanished. Where it had been was a wooden wall, made of dark brown wood.
It looked like the wood of the inn. But older, weathered. Solid. It stretched up, curving. And it became the sky. Mrsha stared at it. It had taken her fifteen minutes to pry away the creeping vines from the wall to expose the sight of the wooden wall. Like ivy, it had subsumed the actual surface.
Now, Mrsha sat back. She stared up at the wall. It rose, arching, creating the shadowed dome that she realized encircled this entire place. But it was so tall. And there were no supports. It was an unnatural structure, to Mrsha. Perhaps you could make something like this in reality, but where had this come from?
She had been in Erin’s inn. And now…Mrsha’s small head went up and up, looking around.
She was lost here. The door was gone. And the wooden wall that was so familiar and different created a domed, circular room.
All but in one place. The dome of wood and twisting vines stopped in the air. And a large, circular center let bright light shine down into this strange area. Mrsha saw the beam of light, illuminating the world ahead.
She wiggled her paws in the grass. It was so soft. Not like full-grown, whippy grass with seeds and other plants mixed in. This was pleasant. Soft. You could roll about in it forever.
Mrsha did, for a bit. She felt her anxiety disappearing. She should have been afraid, snatched away to somewhere else. But she wasn’t. Instinctively, Mrsha felt reassured and she couldn’t have said why. Her [Druid] class told her she was safe.
And so did something else. This world was familiar. If anything, Mrsha just wanted to find the door so she could show Lyonette. But—she was still angry. So Mrsha decided to explore. Maybe she’d find the door when she did.
Shade engulfed this part of the…garden. And Mrsha saw that light would seldom come here. Grass grew in places, like where she’d walked in. But soft, loamy soil was just as frequent. Mrsha stopped as she saw a large stone with large mushrooms growing next to them. She sniffed cautiously, but she recognized some of them. All edible, according to Urksh.
Mrsha nearly nibbled a few, but she wasn’t hungry. They were big mushrooms, though. She looked around. And blinked.
This world wasn’t one flat place. It was large—large enough to hold a small hill in one section. Mrsha saw the sunlit ground sloping up. But the garden was divided into different spots.
She stood in the shade, here. And Mrsha saw something curious.
A ring of mushrooms. It was a big circle in the middle of the grass. The Gnoll trotted over, fascinated by the way the little, purple shrooms sprang up yet kept to the formation. She put one paw in the center of the circle, and then leapt in.
Mrsha’s hair stood up on her body. She inhaled, and waited. But nothing happened. The Gnoll child laughed silently. She rolled around in the grass, and then leapt up. And she knew, knew, that this place had been meant for her. So she began to run.
Soft dirt and shade. A mushroom as large as Mrsha. The soft smell of decay, and life budding again in shadows. A glowing strand of fungus. And under a rock—
Nothing. Mrsha saw no bugs. She should have. Bugs loved to live in places like this. But the only living thing besides the plants was her. Mrsha ran ahead, and found there was a little path of flat stones. Who had made it? Why?
She followed it. It ran right, sloping upwards. Mrsha raced up, laughing to run freely. She couldn’t run in the inn without hitting something! But this—
The white Gnoll crested a bit of earth and stopped. She beheld more of the garden. And she saw at the center of the area, bathed in sunlight, was a plateau.
Filled with flowers. A meadow sprang to life on the upraised dirt in the middle section. Large enough to play in. Not to play baseball, but throw a ball as far as anyone but Relc could. Mrsha saw big flowers blooming, and stalks of wheat, full-grown grass, and no stones or weeds or anything hurtful in sight.
Her eyes grew round, and then the Gnoll ran joyfully into the meadow. She leapt through the flowers, inhaling a dozen pollens and sneezing gleefully. Mrsha emerged through the other side and looked back. But no butterflies or small animals escaped her rampage.
That gave her a moment’s pause. Not seeing any other life was eerie. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was safe. It was a certainty. And Mrsha saw how every color of flower bloomed. Well, except black. But it was uncanny to see so many different colors, as if someone had intentionally created the diversity.
Mrsha trotted over to a lovely pink flower blooming in the grass. She hesitated, then gathered it up, and a few yellow ones, a white one there—she made a little bouquet. So Lyonette would not be mad. She’d be happy to see this place.
But where was she? Again, Mrsha looked around. She raced to one edge of the meadow. There! There was the mushroom-spot. And if you circled the…dome…
Mrsha stared. Then she abandoned the flowers and raced down the hill. She tripped, tumbled, and nearly fell into the pond.
It was most definitely a pond. Mrsha caught herself and stared into the clear waters. She sniffed, and tasted experimentally. Good water. Mrsha cupped her paws and drank some. Then she frowned.
The pond wasn’t being fed by anything. It ran up against the wall, and Mrsha, peering in, could see smooth stones making up the base. And a bit of sand. But—she was no hydrologist, but she understood water had to come from somewhere.
The white Gnoll peered at the clear pond, and then at the plants growing around here—now, more suited to a swamp or lakeside biome. She turned, and raced back up to the central meadow. Plants. Which wanted water and sunlight.
Mrsha looked up at the hole in the roof. And she saw the sky. It shone down, a bright ray of sunlight. She saw blue skies. Clouds. It…looked like the very same sky as she’d seen from Liscor. Then, Mrsha spotted something. She ran left. No—she ran right. Nearly fell down the small incline again. And then she spotted it.
Aha! The Gnoll pointed with one paw. There, peeking out if she craned back. A mountain!
The High Passes. Wherever she was, this dome reflected the sky above Liscor. Which meant…Mrsha ran back to the pond and sniffed.
Rainwater, probably. Runoff from the sky. Mrsha nodded to herself. That made sense. Contented, Mrsha ran back a few paces, and then leapt.
The white Gnoll splashed into the pond and happily swum around. With a breaststroke, rather than a doggy paddle, thank-you-very-much. Who called it that, anyways?
Erin could be so weird. Mrsha dove, touching the smooth stones at the bottom. She swam around, delighted to do it. No one had let her swim in the rain, and she’d missed swimming. Plains Gnolls swam all the time in ponds or lakes or rivers they came across. Some City Gnolls her age didn’t even know how to swim, like Ekirra.
After a minute or two, Mrsha surfaced. She clambered out of the pond and shook herself. Okay, like a dog. A bit miffed, Mrsha looked back into the pond.
No fish, either. She was beginning to sense a trend. Huffily, Mrsha ran back up the meadow and lay in the sun for a while. It was so pleasant.
Mrsha might have taken a nap. Just for a bit! Because she woke up when a cloud obstructed the sun for a moment. The white Gnoll got up. And she remembered.
Lyonette was still mad with her. And she was gone from the inn. Vaguely alarmed, Mrsha sat up. This place was doing something to her. She’d forgotten all about Lyonette!
This time Mrsha ran down the hill and back to where the door had been in the soft soil. The stone path even led right up to…nothing. Mrsha could see where she’d cleared the vines from the wooden wall. But there was no door.
Frowning, Mrsha sat there and stared at the spot. The door was still gone. But perhaps it would come if she wanted it to? Mrsha paused.
Did she want it to? She backed up from the spot a bit nervously. She was going to get scolded. Maybe—maybe she should explore a bit more. So Lyonette wouldn’t be as angry when she came back. Oh! There were still more spots to see! She should explore this entire place so Lyonette and Erin would know what was what when Mrsha got out.
Mrsha ran off, relieved at this sensible Mrsha-logic. She raced past the pond, doing a circuit rather than climbing higher. She’d spotted a path leading higher, and a large hill running up against the dome’s side, but she wanted to explore the low ground first. Mrsha ran around the wall—
And entered into a sea of fog. One second, Mrsha was leaving the pond, the next—white enshrouded her. Instantly, the Gnoll fled backwards. Wet fog clung to her fur for a second. And then she was back.
The Gnoll stared ahead. At the base of the hill was a spot enshrouded in fog. Like—well, fog. Cloud, that rolled in when the air was thick with wet. But this was unnatural.
It was moving. Mrsha backed up as the fog slowly rolled around her. Her fur became wet with dew. Mrsha inhaled—yes, fog. It was wetting the grass and—Mrsha saw as the fog went past her this new spot was dense. Trees sprang up in profusion. Wild sycamores, tall fronds—
A jungle! Mrsha the [Explorer] needed something to hack at the plants with. She looked around and found a stick. Mrsha fought her way into the first layer of dense vegetation—
And immediately backed out when a burr-bush got her fur. There were dangerous plants here! True, this one was just little seeds, but a put-out Mrsha had to yank the sixteen or so burrs that had got her from a swift encounter. She glared at the jungle.
No thank you! Mrsha ran the other way.
Through the fog again. It was travelling around the entire place! Mrsha raced through it—went right into the pond.
She clambered out, glowering. Well now! She supposed the fog helped keep the place nice and growing. It went uphill, rather than go near the mushrooms. Because they didn’t need as much water? Mrsha went left, declining to run through the fog and hit something.
The other side of the hill had…dryness. Arid land. Mrsha sensed it was drier here almost immediately; the fog had definitely not done good work. And she stared at a tree blooming in the yellow grass.
Mrsha had never seen an acacia tree before. The tall, broad canopy was foreign to her. A tree, but different in ways of nuance. If a sycamore was one big base with branches all full of leaves, creating a…a…bushy effect, an acacia was more like a mushroom.
It let all its green near the top, creating a hat, an umbrella to create shade, to allow dew to gather in the mornings. Mrsha stared up at it, and then at the yellow, dry grass.
What a strange place! And this tree—Mrsha spotted browning…things hanging off the branches. She peered up at them. They looked a bit like bean pods, but far larger. Seeds? She nearly climbed the tree, but forewarned with the tropical zone, Mrsha spotted the tiny thorns on the tree.
So, this place had some mean plants. Mrsha backed up from the tree. It wasn’t overtly hostile; nothing in this area screamed ‘Bloodfields’ at Mrsha. Certainly, none of the plants were alive like the biting plants with mouths. Some just had thorns, or stupid seeds.
But it made Mrsha feel like this spot had moods. Dry, shaded, jungle, wet.
Marshlands, arid, tropical, temperate—Mrsha turned around. And finally, she got it. She ran back up to the meadow and stared around. This was it.
The [Garden of Sanctuary]. It had taken Mrsha a while to figure out what it was, but there could be no doubt. Erin’s Skill had worked. It was just that Mrsha had been the first to find the door in.
Awed, Mrsha looked around. The garden bloomed about her. Wild plants, blooming in profusion. Different spots, which could host different plants. The Gnoll took all of this in. And then she laughed.
Mrsha laughed. Silently, giggling as she fell onto her back. Of course! The garden! And Erin had thought her Skill was bad. But this!
This was another world. A safe haven. Mrsha leapt around the meadow, imagining what it could become. You could grow anything here! The Faerie Flowers that Lyonette were worried might be stolen could grow here! She could put fish in the pond and Relc could teach her to fish with his spear! Apista would love it here. And maybe a few butterflies? Mrsha could see a few rabbits, birds—unless Bird killed them all.
And it was safe. The door had come when Mrsha wanted it. Surely, it would let her out again. A safe place that only Mrsha and her best friends and family could enter. She could run about here forever, with Ekirra, Visma—and no one would ever be able to hurt her.
It was perfect. Now, twice as excited, Mrsha ran about, sniffing everything. Mushrooms for food! Maybe you could eat some of the stuff in the jungle? What—what if Erin grew Blue Fruit trees here? Or—or some of the fruit trees that Mrsha knew about? She’d help! She could grow things because she was a [Druid]!
Excitedly, Mrsha grabbed her wand and began growing magic grass. It wilted after a little bit of course, but she was overjoyed. She had to show Lyonette and Erin! They’d be so excited—
Maybe they’d forgive her for the cake?
Mrsha paused. Her face fell.
Uh oh. She’d forgotten. And—Mrsha didn’t know how long she’d been asleep after her nap, but she had a sinking feeling she was in more trouble. Wasn’t that how it worked? Somehow, if you ran away from trouble with adults, you just got into more.
The Gnoll’s ears flattened. She looked around. But the door wasn’t here. Because Mrsha really didn’t want to go back. She knew she had to. But maybe she should wait until it was dark? Pretend she couldn’t come back, that she was lost here? Maybe if Lyonette worried, she’d be nicer.
But she would worry. Mrsha knew that too. Guilt squeezed Mrsha’s heart. But it was warring with her desire not to be scolded. Mrsha looked around, unhappy. And then she turned and saw the hill.
It was a tiny hill, but it was the last spot not explored. The central meadow and the stone path sloped up towards it. The last spot Mrsha hadn’t explored. The Gnoll cub hesitated. But then she padded up the steps.
Just a moment longer before she went to get her punishment. Mrsha walked up the stones neatly set into the earth. And she wondered—who had made all this? Was it just the product of the Skill? Or had someone designed it?
She got her answer as she climbed the hill. It was steeper here, although Mrsha doubted you could break anything even if you leapt from this spot. It was Erin’s [Garden of Sanctuary], after all.
But there was a stillness up here. As Mrsha reached the crest of the hill, she turned her head. She could see the entire garden below her. It was a commanding view, and she would love nothing more than to roll down the hill.
But not yet. The air was solemn here. Too quiet. Mrsha’s fur began to stand up. She stared around. The top of the hill could get some light from the hole in the dome. And it felt like a perfect day.
A single tree bloomed in the middle of grass. Just grass. It was a surreal scene. As if someone had cultivated this space. And then Mrsha saw what lay in front of the tree. And her hair rose even more.
A bench. It was just a bench. Made of wood and smooth metal. But it was unnatural. Not a plant, not meant to be here. Because—Mrsha felt that someone had to have made it. You couldn’t just conjure a bench. Right?
To begin with, benches were foreign to Plains Gnolls. Mrsha approached it, slowly. It sat in the grass, waiting for someone to sit. It was an invention of cities. More at home to Erin’s world, the idea that you needed something to sit on rather than the ground.
And indeed, this bench might have come from Erin’s world. It looked worn, not new and shiny. It smelled like that to Mrsha. As if it had always been here. It even looked comfortable, although Mrsha could see putting a pillow there and napping.
She ran her paws over the wood. No splinters. But—what was the point of this hill? The grass? The bench? The tree? It was a serene sight. But Mrsha felt there was something here.
Waiting for her. She slowly walked left. And then—it was there. It surely hadn’t been a moment ago. Mrsha had seen the entire hill in a moment. But like the door, it was suddenly present. And Mrsha spotted it.
A table. Like the bench, it was familiar. Wooden. Worn. But suddenly—here. Without explanation. And the bench was gone. But that wasn’t what held Mrsha’s gaze. It wasn’t what stopped her. Stopped her cold, and made her heart freeze.
The table waited. And something sat there, at it. Mrsha froze.
She stopped and stared up. At what was waiting there. As if it had been there forever, waiting for her. And Mrsha knew the truth of what the [Garden of Sanctuary] held. She stared for a second. A minute. Longer. And then the Gnoll child turned.
She ran away, crying. Mrsha tumbled down the hill, raced through the valley of flowers. Down, the little stone walkway. The door was waiting for her. She flung it open, raced through.
“—but I don’t know how to activate the garden! I thought I needed a garden—”
Erin Solstice was arguing with Grimalkin and Chaldion in the common room of the inn. Mrsha raced through the door and nearly smacked into her legs. The Gnoll stopped herself.
For a moment no one registered Mrsha. Heads turned. Everyone stared. Then someone shouted.
Lyonette grabbed for Mrsha. She swung the Gnoll up.
Grimalkin jumped. The [Sinew Magus] looked more spooked by Mrsha’s reappearance than Erin could ever remember seeing him. Mrsha had appeared out of nowhere! But Erin was already hugging Mrsha.
“Where were you?”
The little white Gnoll had tears in her eyes. But she was more confused by the exclamations than anything else. Lyonette squeezed, looking frantic.
“Where in the world…?”
“I didn’t see her come in! How did she—”
Grimalkin spun, staring for the point where Mrsha had entered from. But there was only blank wall, next to the bar. He turned back as a crowd engulfed Mrsha.
“Is she hurt? She’s crying—”
“She smells like—”
“Everyone back! Give her some room!”
Relc exclaimed, pulling people out of the way. Bewildered, crying for different reasons, Mrsha saw all the adults crowding around her. Lyonette was tearful—and Mrsha, seeing everyone’s worried faces, realized how long she’d been away.
“I was so—so afraid—”
Lyonette’s eyes were flowing. And Mrsha began to cry again as well, not even knowing fully why, only that Lyonette was sad. She hugged Lyonette, trying to apologize silently. Grimalkin looked about, opened his mouth as he reached for Erin’s shoulder, and Saliss nudged him.
The [Sinew Magus] blinked, and fell silent. He let the [Innkeeper] hug Mrsha without interruption. Drassi rushed out of the room to find all the other searchers, and so did Palt and a few more.
It took a long time for everything to settle back down into normalcy. Explanations had to be given. Some people had still been looking, like the Halfseekers, and they had to come back and see Mrsha was well.
The little Gnoll was much chastised. She shrank down as she saw all the worried people who had to hug her. Lyonette nearly scolded her—until she saw how guilty Mrsha was.
And then they finally had to ask where Mrsha had gone. Grimalkin was the first to point it out. He looked around the crowded room, filled with all of Erin’s friends and acquaintances who’d come for her. For Mrsha.
Selys, Krshia, Olesm, Klbkch, Relc, Zevara, Krshia, Elirr, Palt, Montressa, Beza, Chaldion, Saliss, Jelaqua, Moore, Seborn, Bird—and the Antinium were missing since Klbkch had forbidden them from leaving the Hive. Octavia and Numbtongue were presumably in Celum, and people like Rufelt, Lasica, and Bevussa’s team and so on weren’t here. Or the Horns, or…
But there were so many. An [Innkeeper]’s strength was in her friends. And they’d come, at her call. Even him. Grimalkin paused. Then, he interrupted Lyonette, still holding Mrsha as if to never let go.
“Where did she go? And where did she come from?”
“That’s right. Mrsha, honey, where were you? We were so worried! Didn’t you hear us? How did you get past the Workers? Did you jump out the window?”
Lyonette was caught between being angry and gentle. Mrsha shrank, flinching at all the stares. Apista flew possessively over Mrsha’s head. Erin shielded Mrsha from some of the looks.
“No one’s angry, Mrsha. We were just worried. You were gone for two hours, but we’re all happy you’re back. But we’d like to know. We’re not angry, right?”
She turned her head. Everyone nodded hurriedly. Grimalkin uncrossed his arms as Saliss nudged him again.
“You are not good with children, are you?”
“What’s that got to do with my work?”
Grimalkin glowered at the [Alchemist]. He tried to smile at Mrsha. The Gnoll hid her face in Lyonette’s chest. The [Princess] glowered at Grimalkin.
“Maybe turn around.”
The Named Adventurer suggested cheerfully. Grimalkin blew out his cheeks.
“Let me try.”
Palt clicked his fingers. Mrsha looked up to see a happy, smiling crowd around her. The [Illusionist]’s spell even turned Grimalkin happy.
Affronted, the [Sinew Magus] immediately dispelled the magic.
“May we stop with the tricks? Where did she come from? I have excellent awareness, but she snuck up on me. Even most [Rogues] can’t do that.”
He nodded at Seborn. The Drowned Man raised an eyebrow and Jelaqua patted his shoulder.
“You can try later, Seborn.”
“Mrsha? Can you tell us where you were? We’re not mad.”
Lyonette whispered to Mrsha. The Gnoll nodded, wiping her eyes on the handkerchief Apista flew towards her. She immediately began signing with her paws.
“What? What is she doing?”
Chaldion wasn’t in the know about Mrsha. He stared at the Gnoll child.
“I think she’s mute.”
“What? That cute little Gnoll? I thought she was shy!”
Palt stared, nearly dropping his cigar he’d lit up in relief. Beza slapped his side.
“Don’t be an ass—”
“I didn’t know! How’s she supposed to tell us—”
Across the room, Watch Captain Zevara was standing with Relc and Klbkch. She was a bit out of place, but she’d come when Drassi had told her. The Watch Captain wasn’t a huge friend of the inn, but every instinct told her she should know what new mischief was brewing now. But her eyes were locked on Grand Strategist Chaldion of Pallass and Saliss of Lights. Even the Halfseekers were sneaking looks at them.
“Yes, Captain Z?”
Zevara ignored that.
“Why are three of Pallass’ biggest names in this inn? Klbkch?”
The Antinium shrugged. He was eying Chaldion too. Relc scratched at his neck spines.
“Dunno, Captain. They were here when we showed up. We were pursuing the Bearclaw lead—someone’s watching her, right?”
“Another Senior Guards pairing. So are they here to pay…Erin Solstice a visit?”
“Looks like it.”
Zevara gulped. She looked at Erin and Lyonette. The young woman was frowning.
“Wait, you were afraid, I got that. Lyonette wasn’t really mad, Mrsha. But go back. You did what?”
The little Gnoll’s personal sign language wasn’t by any means complete yet. She mimed moving with her paws, rotating them around. Then pointed at the door.
“You moved—through a door?”
Nod, nod. Mrsha then pointed at Erin. Everyone looked at Erin. Lyonette frowned.
“Mrsha, what do you mean? Erin? Erin’s door? You moved through Erin’s door?”
Another nod. Mrsha impatiently waved her paw at Erin. The slow adults took a moment.
“Psst. The [Garden of Sanctuary]. I knew it.”
Saliss stage-whispered. Grimalkin’s head turned and Chaldion’s eyes narrowed. Erin started.
“It was that? But how?”
“Mrsha, can you show us? There was no door when I entered the room. Just the window.”
Lyonette was pointing towards the stairs. She nearly carried Mrsha up there, but the Gnoll began squirming. She fought her way out of Lyonette’s grasp and landed on the floor. Then, Mrsha looked around. She seemed to be looking for something.
“Where’s the door, Mrsha?”
“It’s probably invisible.”
Palt frowned, smoking hard as he peered around the room. Grimalkin and some of the other [Mages] were casting similar spells and looking around. Saliss rolled his eyes.
“No. It’s probably—aha!”
He pointed. Everyone turned. Zevara leapt back with an oath. A door had appeared right behind her! It was set into the wall, next to one of the unlit fireplaces. And it had not been there a moment ago.
“What in the name of scales…”
Selys’ jaw dropped. Bird peered excitedly over her shoulder.
“That is a door. It was not there before. I remember it not being.”
Everyone clustered around, exclaiming. Mrsha proudly marched up to the door and pointed. Lyonette stared at Erin. The [Innkeeper] was slack-jawed, as taken aback as anyone.
“A magic door! It’s like one of those doors at Wistram. Montressa, Beza, remember?”
Palt dropped his cigar in excitement. Montressa’s eyes were bulging. Beza was aghast.
“It can’t be! You can’t just—that’s a Skill? Wistram Academy is ancient! This [Innkeeper] has two magic doors?”
“It’s not the door. It’s the room. Isn’t it, Saliss? What’s the [Innkeeper]’s Skill?”
“[Garden of Sanctuary]. And I didn’t put it together that much earlier, oh, wise and mighty Chaldion. But it was fun waiting for the reveal, wasn’t it?”
The [Alchemist] grinned at Chaldion. Erin’s head turned for a second and she looked at Saliss. He’d known—? She was going to remember that! But everyone was staring at the door.
“You just saw it, Mrsha? Why?”
Relc was pulling at the door, and swearing. It wasn’t opening for him. Mrsha was nodding, trying to explain.
“You were worried? Oh, Mrsha. I wasn’t that mad. It was only a cake! Erin can make another! You were only naughty for trying to get some frosting! That was what it was, wasn’t it? You silly little—and this appeared?”
The [Princess] hugged Mrsha again. Abashed, Mrsha nodded. Relc glared at the door.
“I can’t get it open! Klb, help me out.”
The Antinium grabbed the door handle. He and Relc both pulled, but the door refused to open. They stared at Mrsha. She stared back. That hadn’t happened with her.
“It must not open unless you’re in trouble?”
Moore delicately pulled at the door as the two [Senior Guardsmen] stood back. He couldn’t budge it either. Palt was nodding.
“A secret door that only appears with certain conditions. Wistram has a few. Obnoxious. There’s one that only appears when both moons are full—you can get locked inside and that is how some students die—”
“It’s a magic safe room. Handy for this inn. Let me try to get in.”
Seborn appeared by the door. He was inspecting it with some of the [Mages]. Everyone else was looking at Erin.
She’d been quiet in the face of the sudden door. But not still. Erin was…vibrating. Now, it burst out of her. She threw up her hands, startling the heck out of everyone around her.
“The Room of Requirement! I’m Hogwarts!”
Selys stared at Erin. Chaldion made a little note—he had a quill and ink out. Erin waved her hands, trying to explain.
“It’s awesome! I have a secret garden? How come I didn’t see it? Does it only appear when you want it? Or maybe if you’re in danger—”
“Mrsha clearly summoned it because she knew it was there. It must have appeared due to her stress. But it’s not opening. Maybe if Mrsha tries to open it again?”
Montressa’s postulation was correct. The others stood back as Mrsha walked up to the door. She stood on two legs and pulled it open. The door swung open as easily as anything.
“What? But I pulled on it!”
Relc was outraged. He ran for the door as Erin stared inside—
And the door closed. Relc slammed into the door. Mrsha, already inside, stared back in alarm. She pushed the door open and saw Relc recoiling and swearing.
Zevara instinctively reached for Mrsha through the open door. But as her claw tried to touch the Gnoll, the Gnoll vanished. Solid wood appeared.
The door was still there. And as soon as Zevara snatched her claw back, the Gnoll reappeared, looking very alarmed. Lyonette rushed forwards. She had no problem opening the door and holding Mrsha.
“Aha. Definitely a trick.”
Palt nodded to himself. He stared at Erin. The [Innkeeper] looked around.
“It’s your door. I think no one gets in except the ones you allow.”
“Not even me, Erin.”
Selys, put out, was trying the door, but it wouldn’t budge. She looked at Erin. No one could open the door. Not Drassi, Ishkr, Krshia—the door swung open as Lyonette stared at them.
“What’s the matter?”
“No one can use Erin’s door but you two.”
Moore gave Erin a hurt look. The [Innkeeper] turned red.
“But I didn’t know it even existed! I didn’t block anyone—”
“Then it must be set to the people you really trust.”
Montressa looked at Mrsha and Lyonette. Erin paused.
“Oh. In that case—one second, Lyonette?”
She reached for the door and closed it in Lyonette’s face. Then, Erin turned.
“Bird? Open the door.”
Everyone turned. Bird, who had been watching with interest, trotted over. He put one hand on the door and swung it open. Very pleased, the Worker waved at Lyonette and Mrsha and then turned.
“Yay. I am family.”
Klbkch’s head swiveled. Erin smiled at Bird. Then she looked around.
“I think Numbtongue could do this if he were here. Which reminds me—Celum—”
She nearly backed up, but half a dozen hands pulled her back.
“He’s fine! Probably! Can you let us in, Erin?”
“Just wish it. I bet you can change who’s allowed in versus who can open the door too.”
Saliss slyly gyrated over to Erin’s left. Zevara and Selys backed up fast. They were also not used to a nude Drake. Erin looked at Saliss.
“Don’t take too long. Let me in. You know who’s allowed in already, and who can open the door.”
Erin closed her eyes. When she opened them, Saliss reached for the door. It was still ajar, but the Drake still put his hand on the doorknob. He pulled, and nothing happened. He sighed, giving Erin a betrayed look. Then he sauntered on through the doorway.
“Well, at least you trust me enough to let me in.”
Lyonette backed up from Saliss, covering Mrsha’s eyes. She glared as the Drake, delighted, leapt about.
“What a wonderful place! What’s that? Mushrooms! Don’t mind if I do!”
He ran off. The others in the inn immediately tried to copy Saliss. Zevara, grunting, found she couldn’t move the door an inch. She gave Erin a cool, unsurprised look, and marched through.
It was going to be a test of friendship. Erin hadn’t concentrated on individual faces. Like Saliss had said, she knew. Palt, Montressa, and Beza all couldn’t move the door. Only Palt was disappointed, but they could all go through.
Actually—Montressa and Beza slammed into the wall, but Erin let them in after they looked truly hurt. And most of the others could enter.
Selys, Krshia, Elirr, the Halfseekers but for Ulinde—all of them could enter and use the door. The Selphid was allowed in, but not with access to the door. Neither was Grimalkin or Chaldion.
The true surprise was Klbkch, Olesm, and Relc. Olesm and Klbkch couldn’t open the door. They looked at Erin. And Klbkch’s face was blank. But Olesm’s was—Erin looked at him.
Was it Bird? And for Olesm, was it—Lism? His distrust of the Antinium? Erin had no answer. Silently, the Drake [Strategist] walked through the door, head bowed. Erin looked at the door of the [Garden of Sanctuary]. It was telling her more about herself than even she knew.
Relc was last, of all people. He’d hung back. And now, he put one claw on the door’s edge. He hesitated. And pulled.
The door swung open easily. Relc turned to look at Erin. She blinked at him, and then smiled. The Drake’s eyes widened. He opened his mouth to crow at Klbkch and Olesm’s backs—
And then he stopped. Relc closed his mouth, and looked at Erin. He ducked his head and entered the garden silently. But he looked happier than Erin could remember seeing him in a while. Erin Solstice stared at the door to the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She heard voices from within, exclamations. But she herself hadn’t stepped into the doorway.
Mrsha had been afraid. In tears. There was something in the garden. She hadn’t been able to tell the others what. It was hers. But Erin—hesitated. Then she put her hand on the door, opened it, and walked forwards.
Erin’s friends and acquaintances stood in the [Garden of Sanctuary] and stared. They stared at the plants, the different sections of the garden. And at Erin.
The [Innkeeper] stared around as well. The [Garden of Sanctuary] wasn’t a massive place, but it easily held everyone who’d come through. Indeed, it was bigger than the [Grand Theatre] which a few visitors had entered, bemused by the total absence of anyone in the inn.
Sunlight shone down from above. And the meadow was large enough for Mrsha, Jelaqua, and Relc to run about in. Selys had given up and was lying in the bed of flowers, staring up at the sky.
“Incredible. Magical fog. I’ve seen similar effects. But this is a lesser [Gardener]’s Skill right here.”
Grimalkin, and the Wistram [Mages] were stalking the fog rolling across one section of the garden. Krshia and Elirr were sniffing the acacia tree.
Chaldion poked at the grass with his walking stick. He looked up, narrowing his eyes at the center of the dome.
“That’s Liscor’s skies. Does that mean this place is in the inn? Could that be a weak point?”
Zevara frowned up at the opening in the ceiling. Olesm shrugged.
“Maybe. It’s high up, but—hello? Can I get some help climbing up there?”
Moore walked over. He and Seborn had been inspecting the pond. The [Green Mage] tapped the ground.
A spire of stone rose under Zevara and Olesm’s feet. They slowly rose upwards, towards the hole in the ceiling.
“Hey! Don’t ruin my new garden!”
Erin shouted at Moore. The half-Giant looked abashed.
“Don’t worry, Miss Solstice. I’ll return it to normal. But they wanted—”
Everyone looked up as Zevara and Olesm, perching carefully on the stone spire, reached the top of the dome. Zevara waved at Moore and bellowed.
“Keep it steady!”
She reached up, pulling herself over the edge as Olesm held her steady, reaching up to see what lay beyond the dome—
And vanished. Moore’s eyes widened with alarm. Erin shouted in panic—and then paused.
“Wait a second! They’re on—”
Zevara and Olesm blinked as they found themselves on the roof of the inn. Olesm was clutching Zevara’s legs and she stared about. A group of Antinium Workers stared at the two Drakes, who’d appeared out of nowhere.
“Well, that settles that. It’s a secret room. Lets in sunlight, probably rain—but you can’t enter it any other way. It would be silly to have a weak spot like that.”
When Zevara and Olesm returned, Palt nodded wisely. Some of the others had come back too. Lyonette had pursued Saliss about the garden and Klbkch was covered in plant matter.
“The tropical area contains a number of plants indigenous to Baleros, but nothing harmful. Some thorns in plants, but nothing magical or dangerous.”
The Antinium Revalantor sheathed his blades. Saliss had a basket.
“And I’ve found a lot of mundane plants! I suppose it was too much to ask for something crazy. But this is nearly as good as a smaller garden in Oteslia! Lots of good stuff to eat!”
He was chewing on a mushroom. Grimalkin slowly nodded.
“A useful Skill. I’ve checked the entirety of the garden. Let’s appraise how strong that door is, shall we? The garden is clearly a secondary effect to the sanctuary aspect for now. It has potential, as a sealed room—I’d have preferred a training area, but perhaps it can be converted—”
He marched out. Erin, bemused, saw the others leaving too, having had their fill for a moment. She stared at Mrsha and Lyonette, Bird, Relc, and a few others.
“Didn’t he see it?”
Erin pointed up at the hill. Grimalkin and the others had never gone up there. But Relc, Selys, Krshia—those who remained could see it. Mrsha clung to Lyonette’s legs. She pointed up at the hill, remembering. And her paw shook.
The others looked at each other. Bird, Selys, Relc, Erin, Lyonette, Mrsha, Krshia, Elirr—the Halfseekers had gone with Ulinde, keeping up the ruse. Slowly, Erin nodded.
“Show us, Mrsha.”
They walked up to the meadow, and higher. Erin saw the hill, and the tree. A lovely tree, sitting in the grass. But she didn’t see the bench, as Mrsha had at first.
Instead, the table was waiting. And it was there. Erin froze. Lyonette stared, and dropped Mrsha. The Gnoll slid down and looked. Elirr recoiled, and Bird and Relc stopped.
Krshia had frozen. Slowly, Erin looked at her. And then Mrsha. And then she saw the others. They appeared, when you thought of them. They were always there, waiting for you.
Mrsha had seen one. But now, with the presence of others, with Erin, more were there. On that hill, waiting.
Erin Solstice had been amazed at her garden. She had taken in the wonder of this separate world, been excited and awed at the possibilities. Grateful, relieved at what her Skill might mean. Impressed at the power she had been given.
But she stared at this. And Erin Solstice only now took in the true meaning of her [Garden of Sanctuary].
Mrsha stared up at Erin. It was just a room. Grimalkin had been impressed, up to a point. But he had regarded the garden as no more impressive than a miniature world, like the ones he could make. The strength of it might have been beyond him, as he was finding, but he had not been impressed with the basic nature of it.
And yet—this Skill, this garden had been built of her. Erin. Shyly, Mrsha looked up at Erin. Shyly, with a bit of wonder. Because for the first time, she sensed something of what Erin hid. More than simple power.
Erin stared at what sat at the wooden table. Krshia was shaking. And Erin’s eyes filled with tears. She bawled, then. Wept.
Because there it was. Waiting for her.
The garden’s secret, a reflection of her heart.
Proof, that she had never truly forgotten.
A wooden table sat in the grass. And some chairs. It was a round table, like the one that Erin’s old inn had held. The exact replica of one. But it was not unoccupied.
Someone sat at the table. A Gnoll. He was young, but strong. And his fur seemed to move in the wind. But it was just a statue. Carved of stone, but capturing every detail of him as he had lived. The little Gnoll approached him.
Brunkr stared down at Mrsha with a pleased smile on his face. He sat, on a seat made of wood, captured forever as he experienced his first bite of cake. Mrsha remembered that moment. She reached for him, touched his paw.
Cool stone. It was just a statue. A memory. But it existed. It was…hers. Erin cried. And Krshia looked down at her nephew.
She slowly sat, pulling out a chair. Speechless. Looking at him. Mrsha wiped at her eyes. She was crying again. But he was smiling.
Then, Mrsha looked around and stopped. There was something else in the grass. A ring of statues. She stared. More statues, more faces of—of the dead.
But they had not been there when she left. Mrsha tried to tell Erin and the others that. The Antinium statues were new. But no one was listening.
They were all lost. Lost, in a memory. Relc leaned on his spear as he watched Bird walk forwards. The Antinium stared at the statues, nearly two-dozen in total.
They stood in a circle, facing outwards. The chess club. Workers who had died against the undead, fighting Skinner. Erin looked at them.
There was no difference in their figures. No difference at all, but they were different. Erin went over to one. She stared at him, at the stone which made up his body. As true to her memory as…
There were only four gaps in the circle. Bird stood in one of them. He turned his head.
“I belong here.”
That was all he said. The Worker stood still, looking left and right. The Workers stood, their backs to the empty center. Erin belonged there, on a night from hell.
Selys was sitting in the grass. She stared at a group laughing at a table. A group of adventurers. Laughing, sitting in a circle with two gaps.
The Horns of Hammerad were looking at their leader. But he was gone. Gerial was busy trying to drink from a mug as he looked sideways. But Ceria Springwalker was missing. Yet, it was them.
Memory. But unlike fire, the statues were still. And Erin’s head was blank. She looked at Krshia. The Gnoll was leaning against her nephew.
Relc and Elirr had left. They knew no one among the statues. Not as well as the others. Bird just stood with the other Workers, staring ahead. The hilltop was silent.
Ulrien stood alone, greatsword in hand. Mrsha looked up at him and then hid in Lyonette’s arms. The [Princess] stared at another statue. A Drake, who stood in the silence. A [General] who had broken the tide itself.
Zel Shivertail. Lyonette wept. Selys stopped, as still as time. Erin looked at him. She turned her head.
She saw so many statues. Her friends had only a few they could name. But Erin Solstice saw them all. Goblins, Antinium. People. Each one in vivid detail.
It hurt. More than anything. But it was also a relief. Because it was proof that she had known them. That they had mattered. Lyonette gathered up Mrsha and hugged her.
Krshia hadn’t moved. Neither had Bird. He stood, as still as the statues. When Erin came over to him, he shook his head.
“I will stay here, please. Just for a while.”
He stared at the others. Bishop, Emanuel, Milner-Barry—all the others, who had named themselves after chess players from Erin’s world, or pieces. Bird spoke slowly.
“Pawn should see this. And Anand, and Garry, and Belgrade. They must see it, I think. It will make them sad. And happy.”
Erin couldn’t bear it. She went over to the Worker as he stood with his friends.
“I’m so sorry—”
She hugged him, tears running down her face. One of Bird’s arms gently touched Erin’s back.
“We will protect you until the end. Did you not hear us the first time?”
She looked up at him. Bird stood among the others. And he seemed taller than they were. Time had stopped for them. This was but a memory. But from them he had come. And all that Bird was came from this moment. He turned his head up.
“This is a nice place for them to sleep. Better than Pawn’s heaven.”
Erin Solstice left. She walked across the hill.
A nameless Worker sat at a chess table, waiting for her to play. She sat by his table, and remembered. And when she left, in time, with all the others, he remained.
Safe. In a place without harm. A promise as strong as her Skill.
Mrsha left Brunkr behind. Krshia was just sitting there. Elirr murmured to Mrsha as Relc stared from the base of the hill.
“I’ll stay. You go.”
The little Gnoll went down the hill and lay in the meadow with flowers. In time, the others came down. Some had cried. Some, like Bird had no tears. But they were not broken by what they had seen. If anything—Mrsha looked at Erin and thought she looked stronger. As if you could throw a mountain at her. And it wouldn’t crush her, because she’d lived through worse.
“Even my Skill are jerks to me.”
Erin smiled and wiped her eyes. But she was smiling. And there it was. A hilltop, waiting for anyone who wanted to rest there a while. Mrsha didn’t know if she could bear seeing Brunkr again. Perhaps, the next time she went up there, it would just be the bench. But he’d be waiting, for whenever she wanted to see him.
Mrsha had not seen the other faces precious to her. She longed for just a picture of Urksh’s face. Of all the others in the Stone Spears tribe. But this was Erin’s place. And despite her tears, Mrsha was jealous of her. Just a tiny bit.
For the proof of her feelings. But that was the power of her Skill. And the kind of person Erin was.
Mrsha wanted to level up.
The others hadn’t noticed the interlude without Erin and the others. Perhaps they guessed, on seeing red eyes. But no one would talk about it. And the others had been busy.
“What have you done to my inn?”
Erin stared down at the scorched wood around the door. Montressa blushed.
“Just some unlocking spells—sorry, it’s not permanent.”
“The door vanishes if we don’t look at it. Only someone who can open the door can bring it back. And it can appear wherever there’s space.”
Olesm was making his own set of notes. Palt and Grimalkin were still trying to magically unlock the door.
“It’s not going to work. It’s a Skill. You’re using magic on something that doesn’t answer to you. You can’t force it!”
Saliss danced around the two. Grimalkin looked sourly at the shut door.
“Let’s find out if that’s true.”
He put one hand on the doorknob. Erin blinked at him. The [Sinew Magus] heaved, but the door didn’t move.
“Told you. I couldn’t get it open with Klbkch. You’re not gonna get it open, Grimalkin.”
Relc advised the Drake. Grimalkin ignored him. The [Sinew Magus] changed his leverage, put both hands on the doorknob and heaved.
Grimalkin’s muscles bulged. His eyes opened wide. Mrsha saw the magic burning bright in him. Brighter than anyone, even Pisces, or Moore, or the others.
The door refused to budge. Grimalkin growled. And then he gave up. Panting a bit, he stared at the door. After a second, Mrsha padded over. The door was actually slightly ajar. She nudged it open with her head.
No one else spoke. Laughter would have been a bit cruel. Grimalkin turned around.
“So it won’t open. How sturdy is it?”
“Let me try.”
Relc rubbed his claws. He could open the door, but as Mrsha scampered back, he took a run up and leapt.
“[Relc Kick]! Ow!”
He hit the door like an avalanche, but nothing happened. Rubbing his foot and swearing, Relc motioned.
“Anyone else want a try? Hold on—my spear! I’ll poke it!”
He raced off. Saliss brightened.
“You mean, we can take turns trying to destroy the door? Is there a prize if we succeed?”
“No need. I’m going to test the limits on this Skill.”
Grimalkin stepped up again. He looked annoyed. Relc halted as the [Sinew Magus] lowered his center of gravity and glared at the door. He made one fist at his waist.
“[Bound Spell: Siege Fireball]. [Salamander’s Skin]. [Lion’s Strength]. [Dual Binding: Valmira’s Comet]. [Haste]. [Thunder Step].”
“Whoa! Whoa, whoa whoa—”
Relc backed up fast. Everyone else did likewise. Erin shouted at Grimalkin.
“Hey! That’s my door you’re punching! What if you go through a wall?”
“We just renovated! Magus Grimalkin—the wall’s not that strong!”
Lyonette was also shouting at Grimalkin from a safe distance. The Drake turned his head.
“I’ll compensate you for all damages. Put up a barrier, Mage Montressa.”
Too late. Grimalkin was very angry. Mrsha hid behind Moore as the Drake took one breath. He narrowed his eyes, stepped in, and punched the center of the door.
Multiple spells activated at once. Mrsha saw Grimalkin zoom forwards, and heard an explosion as his kick-off actually cracked the floorboards. She saw a bloom of fire, blocked by one of Montressa’s shields. At the same time, the force of the fireball and the other spell created a shockwave that tore up the floorboards around the door.
And the door itself? Grimalkin hit it with a blow stronger than the one that had made the Wyvern Lord back up.
The entire inn shook. Erin staggered—everyone stumbled, but she reeled for one moment. She fell down as Klbkch and Olesm caught her.
Lyonette cried out. Grimalkin appeared in a cloud of smoke. He stepped back—and his face was beyond sour.
The door had vanished sometime after the punch and the cloud of smoke. And beyond it—
The wall wasn’t even damaged. Grimalkin stared down at the knuckles of his fist. He’d split and burned his scales from the impact. He’d done more damage to the floorboards. The [Sinew Magus] stomped away from the spot he’d hit.
“Clearly the Skill is tied to the structure of the inn. In theory, I could break it. I’ll pay for the floorboards. Grand Strategist, your thoughts?”
He stared at Chaldion. The old Drake was rubbing at his earholes.
“My eardrums hurt. Magus, a silencing spell would have not gone amiss.”
The old [Strategist] sighed. Then he looked at Erin.
“That defense is…Saliss, what level is she?”
Everyone looked at the Named Adventurer. Saliss paused innocently.
“Who, me? Why would I know something like that?”
Chaldion’s eyes narrowed. Saliss looked at Erin.
“Did you know you can use a spell called [Appraisal] and read someone’s level and Skills?”
“Huh? But wait—hey! Hold on, isn’t that private?”
Erin’s eyes went round. Beza, Grimalkin, and Palt all stared at Erin. All three [Mages] began muttering—Bezale went for a scroll. Chaldion was reaching for another eye.
Saliss was faster. He already had something in his claws. Now, he threw it at Erin.
“It’s dangerous to walk around with clothes. Take this!”
Erin caught a ring. It was a ruby mixed with what looked like gold—or what people thought gold should look like. A black, faintly luminescent sigil had been traced in the center, where a gemstone might go. It looked like a crossed-out eye, stylized. Erin saw the other [Mages] casting and slipped it on her finger, next to Ilvriss’ ring.
“Ancestors damn it, Saliss!”
Grimalkin roared in outrage. Chaldion stared at Erin, his fake eye shining, and then rounded on the [Alchemist].
“Miss Solstice, if you’d take off that ring for one moment. Or tell us—”
“Hey! My Skills are mine! Don’t peek!”
Erin protectively covered her body, as if that was what Palt and the others were looking at. Chaldion had stepped over to Saliss. He poked his cane at Saliss.
“Tell us what you read. This is not a game, you insubordinate child.”
“Beat me in a dance-off and I’ll tell you. Anyways, why didn’t any of you try that earlier? Seems like you underestimated Miss Erin. What a blunder for Pallass’ Grand Strategist!”
The Drake’s face was incredibly smug. Erin was staring at her ring.
“Wait. Is this expensive?”
“Nah, nah. Wait, I mean, a bit. Truegold and ruby. Now I don’t have one!”
Chaldion immediately focused on Saliss. The Drake put on a duplicate of the ring he’d given Erin.
“Just kidding! Spares!”
The [Grand Strategist] tapped his cane twice, and then slashed at Saliss’ legs. Erin saw the glowing magical spear at the tip of the cane, but Saliss dodged it.
“Violence against a citizen of Pallass! Help! Where’s the Watch?”
He fled, laughing his tail off. Chaldion glared after him. He turned to Erin.
“You wouldn’t care to tell us what Skills you have, Miss Solstice? Or what level?”
Everyone was looking at Erin now. She blushed.
“What? Nah, it’s nothing big…”
Chaldion stared pointedly at the wall Grimalkin had failed to damage. Erin hesitated.
“It’s my Skills. Hey, Saliss! I don’t owe you anything for the ring, do I?”
The [Alchemist] poked his head out from behind Moore. The half-Giant was gently swatting, trying to make Saliss stop circling him, but the Drake was too nimble. Saliss eyed Erin.
“…Can I have one of the flowers Xif keeps bragging about?”
She expected Saliss to haggle or use a Skill, but the Named Adventurer just shrugged.
“Fine. We’ll call it even for the magic fire. It’s still burning, by the way. Bit expensive to upkeep, but it’s worth it. Can I have some blue fire too?”
“Wait, you still have that?”
“Sure do. About the depressing flames? No?”
Erin looked around. Grimalkin was shaking his head.
“I heard rumors, but this is incredible. Has he always been like that?”
He looked at Chaldion. The [Grand Strategist] looked like he was going to have a heart attack.
“He revels in it. Ignore him and he’ll leave. Liscor may well have to suffer him, come to that.”
The look he gave Zevara was sympathetic. The Watch Captain paled as Saliss walked over and grinned at her.
“So, what’s the law on nudity in Liscor?”
Erin Solstice decided to ignore Saliss. She looked around—
And the door to the [Garden of Sanctuary] was there. Closer to her, next to the kitchen’s door. It could be anywhere.
“It’s powerful, but localized to your inn. And what good is a door in a sudden attack? Against the Crelers it would have helped, but it’s situational. For the durability, I’ll give it close to a perfect grade. For your level…perhaps not. There are other Skills.”
Grimalkin folded his arms. He’d cooled down a bit. Erin looked at him.
“There are better Skills?”
“For a capstone level? Yes. If you’d care to furnish me with a list of your Skills and your exact class and level—which is probably Level 40—I’d be able to evaluate your efficiency. You have a mixed bag of Skills, owing to your own interests and focuses. However, as an [Innkeeper] you lack a lot of more widely applicable Skills in favor of unique ones.”
The muscular Drake sighed. He looked at the magic door.
“I’ve heard of people gaining one powerful Skill at a capstone level—or as many as six more mundane ones. It does depend on chance, as much as intent. But I think there’s someone you should meet to understand what you lack in your class.”
“Pallass’ best [Innkeeper]. He runs The Noble’s Fancy. 2nd Floor, so you’ve likely never seen him. I’ll write you a letter of introduction. He might inform your weaknesses.”
Grimalkin nodded at the door again. Erin frowned at him.
“I think it’s a great Skill. It’s the one I wanted.”
“But can it protect anyone? If you need to open it, if you need to be conscious of the danger…”
Olesm was frowning, seeing the same problem. Erin looked at him. And then at her door. And she had a thought.
“Maybe there’s more you don’t know. More no one knows. Maybe it’ll get stronger. I didn’t use to be able to find people with my other Skill—”
She saw Chaldion poised to take a note and sighed.
“—But I think it’s more than just a door. Look.”
She walked backwards towards a wall. The door had vanished. Erin spread her arms. And the room watched. Erin smiled. She concentrated. Took a step backwards.
And the garden was there. The door swung closed as the others stared. Erin looked around the grassy hill. She turned.
The door swung open. And Erin Solstice walked out of her kitchen. Seborn jumped as he leaned against the doorframe. He stared at her.
“It’s based off my magical door. Maybe—if I didn’t have the magic door, I’d never have gotten this Skill.”
Erin looked back at the garden’s door as it swung closed. She looked around the common room.
Grimalkin and Olesm were staring. They’d gone speechless for a moment. Erin looked at Mrsha. The little Gnoll looked delighted at the possibilities. But everyone else was speechless. And Erin realized she might have overplayed her hand. She’d shown them what Mrsha had seen. A glimpse of power. The [Innkeeper] hesitated. She spread her arms.
“Do you know what this means? I can go to the bathroom without having to walk downstairs.”
She smiled. No one laughed. They looked at her, and Erin let her arms hang loose. She sighed. And then she looked around.
“Lyonette? Mrsha? Those jerks are still boycotting us in Celum. I’m gonna go shout at them. Let’s go find Numbtongue. He’ll be safer here.”
She reached out. Mrsha ran over and grabbed Erin’s hand. The [Innkeeper] smiled as she held Mrsha’s paw. And the little Gnoll knew she’d be safe here. From the Raskghar, from Facestealer. From anyone.
It was a small, but blessed thing. As the guests of Erin’s inn marveled, or wondered, a little bee flew through an open doorway upstairs. Into a garden. And she was happy.
Because there were lots of flowers.
This was what happened to Numbtongue. At the same time as Erin and Lyonette were searching for Mrsha, he’d gone to Octavia’s shop in Celum. His conclusion, founded off Pyrite’s intellect, had told him it was a likely place for Mrsha to be.
He was of course, wrong. And at that moment, the Watch had surrounded the [Alchemist]’s shop to confiscate the magical door. That was a separate matter, but the Hobgoblin did not, as a rule of thumb, like Humans with weapons.
So he’d fled. Octavia’s shop had a backdoor, because what self-respecting [Alchemist] didn’t have a second bolt-hole to flee an explosion—or a mob angry about said explosion? The Hobgoblin had raced out into the street ahead of Celum’s Watch surrounding the shop.
Humans had screamed or fled of course, but they’d heard of a Hobgoblin so he didn’t get too much of a stir after his initial appearance. The [Bard] had hurried away for a place to hide, or at least figure out what was going on before making a move—
And he’d run into the [Farmer].
The [Farmer] was a bit of a thug. He had scars, a very lewd tattoo over one arm, and more on his chest and other spots. However, in deference to Celum and the sensibilities of others, he’d chosen a long-sleeved tunic as he drove his wares to market earlier this morning.
He had a rather nice wagon. Not a huge one; it didn’t need to be. A large bag of holding at his side was doing as much work as the wagon itself, but bags of holding had limits, so a lot of mundane produce was piled up in the back under a tarp. The two draft horses were carrying the wagon through Celum’s gates.
There was, of course, a small line. Celum had only some roads devoted to wagons, and the [Guards] were doing a cursory check at the gates—just to make sure nothing illegal was going through. Just asking questions with a truth stone, really. The [Farmer] was impatiently waiting and drinking from a flask at his hip when one of the wagons rolled forwards.
Normally, all things being equal, he’d have ordered his horses to move up and gone forwards one more space in line. However, a rather fancy little cart decided to pull in front of the [Farmer] with the tattoos before he could do so. A [Merchant], seeing the gap, had ordered her small escort forwards.
Some of the other good and gentle folk accustomed to doing business in Celum grumbled at seeing the rude move, but a [Merchant] could be trouble, oh yes indeed. Better to just take it and slight the woman behind her back.
However, as it turned out, the [Farmer] with the tattoos was neither good, nor gentle. He also had a temper.
The man leapt from his wagon and strode forwards. Two of the [Caravan Guards] tried to stop him as he strode around the front of the wagon. They had horses, and weapons. But the [Merchant] herself waved them off. It would not do to cause a fuss with the [Guards] so close ahead.
“Is something the matter, my good man? How can I help you? [Merchant] Geala at your service.”
She sounded quite innocently perplexed. The [Farmer] glared up at her as he strode over.
“You cut in line. Get your wagon out of the way.”
He jerked his thumb at her travelling cart, a rather splendid one that had a full-vehicle enchantment to contain more than it seemed. Merchant Geala blinked at the unfamiliarly aggressive tone in the man’s voice.
“I’m sorry, sir. I simply spotted an opening and well, here we are. I’m simply a humble [Merchant] and you know how we are. It’s one position in line, sir. Nothing to be worked up over?”
She had a pleasant demeanor, and a twinkle of ‘oh, what can you do?’ in her eyes that suggested this was all a bit of a misunderstanding. Live and let live! But the [Farmer] had a look in his eyes that suggested he didn’t find being cut in line humorous.
“Oh, is that so? Well, I’m just a humble [Farmer], miss. Going to sell my wares at the market and menial crap like that. Don’t mind me. If I had a cap I’d doff it at your fat ass, but there we are. Move your wagon now.”
Geala’s face went a bit slack. The [Farmer] pointed.
“Back of the line. You heard me.”
The [Merchant] did not like the tone of his voice. Neither did her [Guards], which, if it hadn’t been mentioned, did number eight in total. With armor. And weapons? And three were glaring at the [Farmer]? He didn’t seem to notice.
“Well—I’m terribly sorry you feel this way, but I see we’re nearly at the gates. So I’m afraid I’ll have to decline, sir. Allow me to buy you a drink later.”
Geala tried to pretend the angry [Farmer] wasn’t there. He glared at her.
“So that’s how it is?”
“I’m terribly sorry, sir.”
Politely, the [Merchant] stared ahead. Two wagons left before she got into the city. But the trick was just to ignore the man’s ire. If he cursed her out, her escort would deal with it. You had to know what you could get away with in the [Merchant] business.
And indeed, the [Farmer] took one look at the [Merchant] sitting in the driver’s seat and spat before walking back to his wagon. The [Caravan Guards] saw him off and the [Merchant] smiled.
She was smug. And rude. And oh yes, she had cut in line. But it had to be said that the [Farmer] wasn’t exactly a model of patience. Or sobriety. Or even-temperedness. A few of the other wagon-drivers had recognized them and they were signaling to him not to—
Well, too late. The [Farmer] casually strolled after Geala’s wagon as it began to move. The female [Merchant] didn’t see what happened, but she felt and heard the wagon wheel crack.
The wagon stopped and her two mares reared in alarm. The [Merchant], swearing, twisted in her seat as one of the [Guards] raced around back to see what had happened. Geala just heard it was a broken axel—very strange since she kept her wagon in perfect repair—when she saw a wagon rolling past her.
The [Farmer] with the tattoos grinned as he moved past Geala. She stared at him.
“Terrible shame and all that. What can you do? Should’ve taken it slow.”
He grinned—he had two silver teeth. And spat. A bit of it hit the side of Geala’s painted wagon.
Miss Geala’s Auspicious Assortments.
Then he rolled over to the gates. The [Guards] clearly knew him, from the wary way they treated him. Geala stared after him. The [Head Caravan Guard] winced. This was clearly coming out of his pay.
“Who is that?”
She snapped at one of the other drivers rolling past her. One, who’d stopped to offer some help, winced. The man waved his hat apologetically in the direction of the ill-tempered [Farmer].
“Er—that would be Farmer Strongheart. Miss Geala, I really wouldn’t provoke him.”
“Me? Provoke him?”
That was this morning. Later in the day, around the time a Hobgoblin was exiting Octavia’s shop in a hurry, said [Farmer] was talking with a [Trader].
He had a cutlass. And Farmer Strongheart was leaning on the [Trader]’s wagon with an expression that said he was about to use it.
“So you’re telling me you’re not going to buy my wares, is that right?”
“Please, Mister Strongheart. I’m just a [Trader]—”
“And I’m a humble [Farmer] selling my wares at the market. You have a problem with that?”
Wailant Strongheart adjusted his tunic, and one of his tattoos shone blue and black in the sunlight. They were colorful tattoos, and he had any number of them. One was of a sea monster, the other he’d been banned from showing about in public—it was an odd choice for a [Farmer], especially since tattoos were seen as vulgar in a number of cultures.
It was something you’d see more in, oh, say, [Sailors] visiting ports. Or, if you wanted to go the other way, [Pirates].
But Wailant Strongheart wasn’t a [Pirate]. He was a friendly [Farmer], who was not towering over the shorter [Trader] with a glint in his eyes.
“You buy the Sage’s Grass every time you come here. I’ve got twenty of ‘em right here. Bag of holding. What’s the hold up? I came here for you, my man. Not to offload a bunch of vegetables and crap!”
He jerked his thumb at the wagon being offloaded. Farmer Strongheart was one of the higher-level [Farmers] around Celum. Of course, there were smaller [Farmers], but a few big farms could provide enough food for an entire region. However, Wailant’s farm was also known for a specialty crop it grew.
Sage’s Grass. The famous magical plant was sought after by [Mages], [Alchemists], and generally any class that worked with magic, including, yes, [Tattooists]. It was a [Trader]’s profit. But the nervous [Trader] was shaking his head.
“It’s the dispute between the nobility and Lady Reinhart, sir. She’s put on a [Trade War] with all of ‘em—nothing goes through her lands Lady Reinharts doesn’t want. But the other nobles are retaliating. Alchemical ingredients, ores—anything bound for Invrisil is bound to searches and stops. Confiscation or high tariffs at the very least if I go through the wrong lands—and they’re patrolling all the trade routes. It’s just not worth my time!”
“So you’re not going to buy from me? Is that it? And you expect me to just take that? I have a living to make! You think we’ll keep doing business if you decide to run out on me when it’s a bit hot?”
Wailant leaned over the man. The [Trader] leaned back.
“I’m just trying to make a living! Mister Strongarm—”
“—It’s no one’s fault but the nobility’s! When the trade war is over, I’d be delighted to buy your goods. But for now—”
“Hah! You won’t get Sage’s Grass from my farms! Not now, and not even if prices are tripled and you’re the only [Trader] in a thousand miles!”
Wailant shoved the man back hard. Disgusted, he turned and stomped away.
“I don’t deal with people who try to screw me over. I don’t remember your name, but I never forget a face. Got it? You lot! Finish unloading my stuff! I’m off!”
The [Farmer] stormed over to his wagon. The [Laborers] hauling his goods began to work twice as fast. One of them leapt off the wagon with four sacks, two on each shoulder. Lifting Skills. Wailant waited, back turned to the indecisive [Trader]. He pretended to be checking his horses.
“Now let’s see if that sniveling coward changes his mind.”
The [Farmer] muttered to himself. He was a fearsome fellow, Wailant Strongheart. Not to be trifled with. A former [Pirate], they said.
And ‘they’ were right. But for all his fearsome reputation, Wailant was usually on the right side of the law. He had black hair, green eyes, and stubble on his face—along with a circular scar on one side of his jaw. His shirt was linen, costly, and colorful.
His tattoos, as mentioned, varied between lewd and impressive. One of them, a fish, seemed to swim every time his muscled moved. Magical ink that didn’t fade over time kept them fresh. It was his history, but Wailant Strongheart’s cutlass seldom saw use. It was more of a prop most of the time, for negotiations with [Traders] and so on.
But it was his. And Wailant was a former [Pirate]. And so, when he saw the Hobgoblin creeping along the back of the plaza where he was trying to sell his goods, the [Farmer] didn’t hesitate.
“A damn Hobgoblin!”
He pointed and roared. Numbtongue, who’d been edging around a cart, froze. The other citizens of Celum looked around. They stared at Numbtongue.
Yup, Hobgoblin. Word had gotten around. It was that crazy innkeeper! And the Hob sometimes played in front of that shop, the one with the Stitch-Woman. Stitchworks. You could buy this miraculous powder that helped baked bread, did you hear?
They were leery of Numbtongue, but he’d been seen around the city. No one was stopping him as he made his way to the place where he remembered the Players of Celum were supposed to be. Numbtongue saw the [Farmer] running at him, though.
And it occurred to Numbtongue about the same time as everyone else that Wailant Strongheart might not have come to Celum often enough to pick up the latest gossip. Numbtongue froze. He reached for his sword—then the guitar—then just made a fist.
Wailant Strongheart shoulder-charged past the cart, scattering people like flies. He opened up with a huge swing—Numbtongue dodged backwards. The Human was fast! Wailant caught himself, swung again, quicker. At the same time he kicked.
Numbtongue blocked the kick and stumbled backwards. A punch and a feint? The kick was heavy. The Hobgoblin’s eyes narrowed. He leapt forwards, punching.
“Farmer Wailant! Wait! Wait!”
Wailant ignored the shouts. He blocked Numbtongue’s punch, swung high at Numbtongue’s head. The Hobgoblin ducked the swing, punched low.
The former [Pirate] staggered. Wailant took a hit on the ribs, then a kick on the chest. He staggered back and people tried to shout at him. The [Farmer] ignored them, charged in again. Numbtongue was ready this time. He braced as Wailant charged at him like a bull. Take him down with a leg sweep, kick him a few times, and run off—the man swung at his face and shouted.
The punch coming for Numbtongue vanished. Numbtongue blinked—
And Wailant kicked Numbtongue in the balls. The [Goblin Soulbard] folded up, as his entire head went blank with agony. Wailant stood over him. Numbtongue was a Redfang Warrior, but even Goblins had limits on the pain they could take. He curled up as Wailant guffawed.
The angry Human fought like a Goblin, which meant he wasn’t above kicking Numbtongue when he was on the ground. He only stopped when a bunch of people shouted.
“Farmer Wailant! Wait! Wait! It’s not a rogue monster!”
Wailant turned, astonished. It was the lovers of theatre in the crowd who knew the full score. A pet Hobgoblin! Works at that magical inn with the Players of Celum! Absolutely!
The [Farmer] pointed at the swearing Hobgoblin.
“Selphid’s tits, are you serious? When did that happen? Why did no one tell me?”
Wailant studied the Hob on the ground. Neither he nor the Hobgoblin had drawn their blades, but Numbtongue looked like he might as soon as he got back up. Wailant opened his mouth—
And here came Merchant Geala. With her escort of eight [Caravan Guards]. Not the Watch—a specialized variant of [Mercenaries]. They flanked the angry woman.
“Ah, the line-cutting [Merchant]. How are you?”
Wailant turned and spread his arms wide, grinning without a hint of worry. The woman stared at him. She was pale with fury.
“You, sir, have damaged my wagon. Someone cut my wagon’s axle. And you were behind my wagon.”
“I demand an apology. In gold and word.”
Geala stared at Wailant. The [Farmer] noticed the crowd who’d been so eager to save him from attacking the poor Hobgoblin had hurried away. He folded his arms.
“And if I say no?”
“I will have to require you to do so.”
This time the [Merchant] had no subtlety. Her eight escorts stepped forwards, hands on their blades. They wouldn’t kill the [Farmer], but certainly draw blood and drub him if he went for his own outlandish blade.
Wailant wasn’t impressed. He spat at Geala’s feet.
“Seems to me you got off lucky, rude as you were. Why don’t you turn around, Miss Merchant, and piss off? You don’t get to bully anyone you please just because you have a painted wagon and a group of idiots with swords.”
Geala went white. She looked at the [Head Caravan Guard] and he stepped forwards. He was more reluctant than his employer—if the ornery [Farmer] actually died, it would be a black mark on his name, never mind being possibly banned from Celum.
“There’s eight of us and one of you, man. Don’t be stupid.”
The [Farmer] didn’t even glance at the leader.
“One warning, Miss Merchant. Back off and let sleeping krakens lie.”
“You’ve been warned! Do it!”
Geala shouted at her guard. The other mercenaries reluctantly strode forwards.
“Don’t make this—”
Farmer Wailant Strongheart drew his cutlass.
It was not, as someone familiar with the stereotype of [Pirates] from Erin’s world might have expected, an oversized blade. Real cutlasses were short sabers, curved, yes, but not oversized. The cupped guard and hilt made the weapon a good fight for close-quarter combat. Boarding actions, for instance. On boats. You might also use another weapon in your off-hand.
Like a wand. Wailant aimed the wand at the [Head Caravan Guard]’s face. The man froze. Not just because of the wand—the cutlass shone. It was, after all, enchanted. The [Caravan Guards] backed up. Merchant Geala froze.
You got all sorts of [Farmers]. All sorts. Crazy ones, normal ones, [Farmers] who were more like [Managers] than the ones who did everything manually. But it was a rare [Farmer] indeed who owned an enchanted blade and knew how to use it, let alone fought like a [Pirate].
“See this? Magic cutlass. You got anything half as sharp, landfolk?”
The abnormal [Farmer] swung his cutlass easily through the air. The mercenaries stopped. They wore metal and leather, unenchanted. A sword like that might have a lesser enchantment. It didn’t look like that, of course. And a good one would cut right through their armor. They looked at their leader. Their leader stared at the glowing wand’s tip. It might just be a bluff.
“That’s what I thought. You piss right back into the sewer you came from. And I won’t remember your faces.”
Wailant snorted. The mercenaries had a choice. They could get into a fight with an angry [Farmer] in a foreign city—who had an enchanted sword and a wand—or they could walk off. It took them one second.
They walked off.
“Get back here!”
Mistress Geala was white with rage—then paled as she saw Wailant sheathing his sword. She backed up.
“Don’t you dare lay a land on me! I am a [Merchant] from First Landing and I’m bound for Pallass! I—”
“Don’t worry. I don’t kill landfolk for slights. Even if it’s deserved.”
Wailant sighed. Mistress Geala backed up. The [Farmer] looked at her.
Then he slapped her. Numbtongue, who’d finally got up clutching his groin, saw the woman twirl with the impact. The street gasped. The Hobgoblin winced.
Wailant Strongheart nodded, satisfied. He stared down as the [Merchant] fell over.
“That’s for threatening to beat me down. Miss. Do it again and I’ll cut off a finger. If you’d been able to mind your manners or let live and sail on, none of this would have happened. Idiot.”
He walked backwards, whistling. Numbtongue stared at the woman. So did everyone else.
It was about personalities. Merchant Geala wasn’t a bad woman. Probably. In another circumstance, her brazen attitude towards business might have come off as mildly infuriating, but acceptable. And a broken wagon wheel was something to get mad about. You could take demanding an apology too far. But still.
It was all about the person. And Wailant Strongheart was…Wailant. And he was a known figure. But in this moment, as the [Farmer] dusted his hands and looked about for the Hobgoblin he’d just attacked, he was not exactly in the right.
A group of [Guardsmen] raced around the street, marching fast. They’d remembered the other door to Stitchworks. Their leader was shouting.
“Secure the door! Make sure it doesn’t use its magic! Don’t let one of the ants through! Where’s that Goblin? I saw it come through! Capture it! If it resists—”
He paused as he saw Wailant, the [Merchant] clutching her cheek. Wailant stopped and his look of satisfaction vanished.
“Strongheart! What’s this about?”
The [Lieutenant] knew Wailant. And it only took him a moment before his face turned crimson.
“You hit a [Merchant] and damaged her wagon? Are you a Troll, man? That’s a woman!”
He strode up to Wailant, with the authority and force of outrage behind him. His patrol didn’t look happy about confronting Wailant, who was a known character. They didn’t like fighting a Hobgoblin either, but it was hard to tell who they were more reluctant to battle with at this moment.
“Forgive me, sir. I didn’t know what I was doing. Defending myself from someone who hired a lot of toughs to beat me down if I didn’t grovel at her feet.”
Wailant rolled his eyes, crossing his arms. The [Lieutenant] metamorphosed into purple. He pointed a finger at Wailant’s face.
“That’s it, Strongheart! You’ve been warned! You’re banned from the city for a month!”
“What? For dealing with some stuck-up foreigner?”
The [Farmer]’s eyes narrowed dangerously. The [Lieutenant] was listing off offences.
“Damage to property! Aggravated conduct! Striking a civilian! Intimidation! Offers of violence with a magical artifact! Repeated misconduct—don’t walk away from me! You’re lucky it’s a month! I should fine you on top of the wagon’s cost—”
He grabbed Wailant’s shoulder. Another mistake. The [Farmer] spun.
“Make it six months, idiot.”
He laid the [Lieutenant] out with a single punch. The plaza stared at the unconscious man. The patrol stared at Wailant. The [Farmer] looked at his bleeding fist—he’d nicked it on the edges of the man’s helmet. He cursed.
In short order, Octavia’s shop was secured. Aside from the incident in the plaza, the door was secured and the Watch Captain learned to his displeasure that was not the magic door, but a receptacle for the actual magic.
The [Mayor] was not going to be happy. But done was done. The Watch Captain was just a vehicle to the desires of Celum, and he was still put-out over not making the final cut with the Players of Celum. They’d given him a choice—supporting cast or keep his old job. He’d lobbied for lead actor, and he’d been turned down. Wesle had gotten that role.
He was still mad about it. And madder still to hear about Wailant. The Watch Captain saw the [Farmer] lined up to leave the city by the northern gates. He stormed over.
“You! Strongheart! Get out of here! You’re banned for a year! Got it?”
“Yeah, yeah. Once you need my produce, you’ll want me back! And your [Alchemists] too!”
“All but two of them are out of commission, you idiot!”
The Watch Captain shouted at Wailant’s back. It was sort of an odd way to be triumphant, given the troubles with the [Alchemists], but he was pleased by Wailant’s glower. The [Farmer] drove out of the city, swearing at everyone he passed.
“Damn, damn, damn. I didn’t even get to unload the Sage’s Grass! Viceria’s going to rip my fucking jewels off.”
When he was a few miles out from the city, Wailant stopped urging his horses at their quick pace. He couldn’t help but swear, though. Banned from Celum. It wasn’t a light thing, and he hadn’t even sold his main product, the aforementioned Sage’s Grass. Furiously, the [Farmer] took a deep swig from his flask. It had a strong odor.
“Hold up. Hold up, you dumb horses!”
The driver ordered his animals to a halt. He jumped off the driver’s seat and casually walked around to his wagon. It was empty now, of the mundane produce he’d piled up in it. The valuable stuff was all in his bag of holding. You didn’t put gold in the wagon. That was a fool’s game.
The tarp was lying on the wagon. And the wagon should have been empty, but a [Pirate], even a former one, had sharp eyes. Wailant paused as he stared at the lump near the back.
“I’ve seen stranger things at sea. But never on land. Hey, greenskin. Want a drink?”
Numbtongue sat up fast. He had his sword drawn. Wailant held up his hands.
“Easy. I heard you’re a ‘friendly’ Goblin. If I wanted you dead, I’d just have shouted for the Watch to deal with you. Seems they don’t like Goblins, even ones that live in the city.”
The Goblin [Bard] lowered the blade a fraction. Wailant was right. The [Farmer] studied Numbtongue, perplexed. He jerked his head at Numbtongue.
“Are you a polymorphed bloke? Heard an Archmage once got offed after losing a duel like that.”
That Numbtongue could speak didn’t seem to surprise Wailant either. He paused.
“No. I’m me.”
“Just a fucking Goblin?”
“Yes. Just a fucking Goblin. You have a problem?”
Numbtongue bared his teeth. He was looking around—Wailant had stopped just off the road, but there would be more travellers soon. The [Farmer] shrugged.
“Eh. And here I thought my girl was blowing wind up my sails. Since you’ll probably get killed if I let you hop out—fancy a drink?”
He offered Numbtongue the flask. The Hobgoblin blinked and Wailant tossed it. Numbtongue sniffed the drink, took a sip, and brightened up. He’d experienced the joys of unlimited alcohol in Erin’s inn. Normally, it was a rare treat for Redfangs.
“Hm. Thank you.”
Wailant did raise his eyes at the courtesy. Numbtongue took a swallow, threw the flask back. The [Farmer] regarded him, and then climbed around the front of the wagon.
“Alright then. It’s a ways to my farm, so keep your face hidden if anyone drives by. What’s your name, Hob?”
“Numbtongue. What’s yours?”
Numbtongue warily sat in the back of the wagon, facing Wailant. He kept an eye out for travellers, ready to hide his head. Who was this [Farmer] who fought well and had tattoos? Wailant Strongheart was drinking, and tossed the flask over his shoulder.
“Wailant. Say, do you know Garia? Runner girl? Looks as sturdy as—no. She’s thin? But got muscles, blackish hair? A bit of blue, if you look right. Skin about as tan as—”
He tapped one arm, and Numbtongue noticed Wailant was a few shades darker than most Humans he’d met.
“Yes. Garia Strongheart.”
“Ah, that’s the one. Good. I’d hate to think my daughter was meeting all kinds of weird Goblins about.”
“Yeah. Yeah…I was going to see her. Damn. She was going to show me that inn! Damned [Merchants]. You know, she cut in front of me. Think they own the roads.”
Numbtongue eyed Wailant and said nothing. After a second, the [Farmer] looked back at him. He waved one hand impatiently at Numbtongue—and also to get his flask back.
“So…why everything about you? Start with the guitar.”
It depended on how you looked at them. Someone willing to give a Goblin in danger a lift could be a jerk. And a good man could be a poor one, or vice versa.
The [Mayor] of Celum might have been a good man. He wasn’t a renowned figure, known the breadth of the region for his accomplishments. He wasn’t that famous, but he had won his position by vote.
He might not even have been a bad man. Erin didn’t know. But as she sat across from him in the little meeting room, arms folded, she was certain that if she had the opportunity, she was gonna punch him.
“That’s being investigated, Miss. Apparently, he was seen in a run-in with one of our local troublemakers. Another one, I should say. Captain, the Hobgoblin’s location?”
“Unknown, sir. But I’ve got my boys searching. It won’t hide long, and if it causes trouble—”
“He won’t cause trouble! And he’d be here if you didn’t steal my door!”
Erin slammed her hands on the table. The [Mayor] leaned back. Cetris Duiland was his name.
“Miss Solstice, as I said, that was an unfortunate accident. But please, calm down.”
“Mayor Duiland, this is exactly what we’re talking about! She’s got no respect for the city or its laws! And that Hobgoblin! How has she been allowed to act like this for so long?”
An angry voice rang out from behind the [Mayor]. Erin glared and was met by glares from a number of faces, familiar and unfamiliar. The Head of the Merchant’s Guild, the Baker’s Guild representative, the Guildmaster of the Runner’s Guild, were all present. As well, there were three familiar faces.
[Innkeepers]. Miss Agnes, Miss Ulia, and Mister Timbor, all of Celum, glared at Erin. She looked around. She had Octavia, Lyonette, Montressa, and a really bad mood.
When Erin had finally opened the door to Celum to confront Numbtongue’s disappearance, she’d received a message that she needed to appear before the [Mayor] of Celum. She vaguely knew the man—he’d yelled at her when she brought in Grimalkin and Relc to help fight that gang terrorizing Octavia. But she didn’t know him.
Now, clearly, he was going to be trouble. Erin folded her arms. She would have felt better if she had Grimalkin in her corner, or Zevara. Or anyone from either Pallass or Liscor.
But they’d declined to come. This was Erin’s squabble with Celum, and as Krshia had pointed out, it would not do for Liscor to start a conflict with a Human city. Nor for Pallass. It was a sign that Krshia was taking her new position seriously, much to Erin’s dismay.
However, she’d left Relc at the door and told the Watch Captain of Celum outright that Erin was Liscor’s. If Celum tried anything, well, they’d never be able to close the door with Relc around. And he’d come get her if Erin was gone for more than an hour.
Some comfort. Erin glared at Mayor Duiland.
“If one of the Watch hurts Numbtongue…”
“Miss Solstice. Threats against Celum are only adding to the case against you.”
“What case? You stole my door!”
“Because you’re a menace to Celum! You steal jobs, cause havoc—we can’t trust this Hobgoblin! Mayor, consider your own children! If this Hob were to run into your daughter—”
Miss Agnes’ voice cut off as Cetris turned in his chair. He was not a powerfully built figure like Wailant. But Erin saw him turn and she caught half of his expression.
“Was that a threat, Miss Agnes? What about my daughter?”
“Nothing! I was only concerned for—”
“A Hobgoblin is still a Goblin, Mayor Duiland. I’m sure Miss Agnes forgot herself.”
[Innkeeper] Ulia bowed slightly. Cetris stared at her and then relaxed. And Erin took his second measure.
“I’ve been told that this…Goblin…has never caused an incident in Celum aside from the encounter with the [Thugs]. So, therefore, I chose to ignore it. As I did the incident with the Antinium, and all the other incidents in the city. Celum, is, after all, a place of trade. But it seems in recent weeks that it has become a lopsided trade, Miss Solstice. Hence the confiscation of your door.”
“Which you guys thought was the actual magic one. You tried to steal it. I wonder who got that wrong?”
Erin glared at Miss Agnes. The older [Innkeeper] glared back. What had happened with Agnes? She’d once been a friend. But Safry and Marian had been bad, and Miss Agnes—Erin had liked her. Right up until she hadn’t.
“We attempted to steal nothing. The association of [Innkeepers] in Celum is simply opposed to your tactics of coercion. And [Innkeepers] across Izril will hear of you—you—thief! You stole my best workers and then fired them within a week!”
Miss Agnes pointed at Erin. The young woman shot up.
“Because they bullied Mrsha—”
“Enough! Please! Enough!”
Cetris stood up. He glared around and put two hands on the table. Then he looked past Erin.
“Mage Montressa. May I ask why Wistram is present at these negotiations? This is not the Academy’s business.”
His tone was politest towards her. Montressa cleared her throat as she tapped her staff on the carpet.
“Indeed not, Mayor Duiland. I’m simply here to aid in the negotiations as a friend to Miss Erin Solstice. I am a private individual conducting my business, and the academy does not back my presence in this regard.”
She nodded at Erin. The young woman nodded back, warily. Montressa had offered her help, and Erin had taken it. Cetris frowned. He didn’t like Montressa being here, ‘private individual’ or not.
“Very well, very well. Let’s put aside the matter of the Hobgoblin for now. When he is found, we will address any concerns. Miss Erin Solstice, you’ve been summoned for a number of reasons. Namely, your…portal door and its usage, and your influence on the city at large.”
Erin blinked at him.
“What about my door? It’s been there for months!”
The [Mayor] held up a hand.
“It has, and I have been aware of it and considered it a boon to Celum. However, this morning, I received not one, but numerous complaints related to your presence in the city. If I may, I will list them now. Firstly—”
Erin stared as he slowly read from his notes. The Runner’s Guild was angry that people were using her door to carry parcels and letters. The Merchant’s Guild was mad about the same thing. The Baker’s Guild hated Octavia’s baking soda and thought it was fake alchemy instead of real methods to rise bread. And the [Innkeepers]—Cetris had to pause at the lengthy list.
“Well, I have numerous complaints, regarding the treatment of staff, going against other inns in a combative spirit, taking over an inn despite the wishes of the actual [Innkeeper], poaching entertainment—”
“What? When did I do that last one?”
“The Players of Celum! They’re Celum’s people and she’s been funneling them all into her inn! Into Liscor!”
Timbor Parithad glared at Erin. She threw up her hands.
“They’re [Actors]! I taught Wesle and Jasi how to perform plays!”
“But they’re Celum’s citizens.”
A fist crashed down on the table. Lyonette looked at the Head of the Merchant’s Guild. The man was red-faced. He barked down at Erin.
“So your inn’s taking away wages and profits that belong to Celum, young lady! This is our city, and you—”
Cetris Duiland pushed the man back. He glanced at the three younger women—and saw all three of them eying Guildmaster Trent. They did not look unnerved by the man’s show of aggression. If anything—
Lyonette was calmly eying the room, as cool as ice. Montressa was frowning at the red-faced man. Octavia was glaring at the [Bakers]. And Erin was wiping spit off her face.
“If he spits on me again, I’m gonna smack him.”
She warned Cetris. Erin was a head shorter and a lot thinner than Guildmaster Trent, but she seemed to suggest the smack would come whether Trent wanted it or not. Cetris paused. He’d heard Erin Solstice was good at fighting.
“Outbursts like that will not happen again, Miss Solstice.”
He shot Trent a warning look. The Guildmaster subsided. Lyonette took over.
“Celum has a number of complaints about The Wandering Inn, Mayor Cetris. However, I didn’t hear the city voicing their objections until now. There was an agreement in place about the use of the door to transport letters and goods belonging to the Merchant’s Guild and the Runner’s Guild, but the inn hasn’t received any notifications of impropriety until now.”
She glanced at Erin and then looked at Cetris with a smile. The young woman was polite and well-spoken as she glanced around the room.
“It seems that Erin’s property has been forcibly confiscated, and she herself has been summoned to a room to be threatened and shouted at by some of Celum’s elite for faults the city has caused, rather than approached in any diplomatic manner. Which is surprising to me that a city, or [Mayor] would act this way, but I assume this is all in good faith?”
Her tone was polite, but the delivery made Cetris flush. The Guildmasters all fidgeted uncomfortably as well. The [Mayor] shuffled his notes quickly, wondering who she was.
“It’s a regrettable oversight, Miss…”
“Miss Lyon, yes. But the fact remains that the ah, benign neglect has added up. Let’s run through the issues one at a time, shall we? The situation with individuals bearing packages through the door—”
“Is it an issue?”
Lyonette stopped Mayor Cetris with a raised brow. She heard a splutter.
“Of course it is! That’s our money—Runners make deliveries going south! This door is undercutting their work!”
“Because it’s more convenient.”
Lyonette coolly looked at the Guildmaster of the Runner’s Guild. The man hesitated.
“It’s magic. Cheating, is what it is!”
“But people should pay for City Runners to deliver goods slower and at cost, when a magical door can do their work for them? I fail to see the logic, Guildmaster. Unless your point is simply that the Runner’s Guild deserves to keep working as it always has?”
The man hesitated.
“It will ruin the economy. The Merchant’s Guild is in agreement. Transport to Liscor—”
“Doesn’t occur. Letters always go by way of Esthelm. And trade and transport ceases in the spring. The magic door may well put City Runners out of work in regards to going towards Liscor, but doesn’t Celum’s Runner’s Guild get more deliveries going north? If anything, Liscor’s Guild is the one that should be objecting.”
Mayor Cetris turned his head, eyebrows raised.
“Is that true, Guildmaster Eirnhen?”
The Guildmaster hesitated. Lyonette folded her arms and declined to high-five Erin. Both Trent and Eirnhen looked at each other. Eirnhern raised a finger.
“The fact is that it’s still free access to Liscor and Celum. Money that doesn’t go to either city, unless Liscor’s taking a cut?”
“But no one’s charged for the door.”
“What? You mean—you don’t charge people for using it?”
Trent stared at Lyonette. She half-glared at Erin.
“No, we do not, in fact.”
“But what a waste of money!”
The [Merchant] burst out. Lyonette nodded. Erin sighed. So did Cetris.
“I see the issue. Moving ahead. We’ll return to you, Guildmasters. The Baker’s Guild is furious because of a…baking…soda? Some new alchemical concoction.”
The [Baker] sent to represent her guild nodded, looking angrily at Octavia.
“It’s going to ruin our jobs, Mayor! It’s not a real baking thing at all! Just some fake powder. You have to do something with acid. I heard that [Alchemist] telling her customers!”
Alarmed, Cetris looked at Octavia. The [Alchemist] raised her hands.
“Hey! I just meant buttermilk! Acidic liquids! Not acid, acid. It’s a technical term. And it’s completely good powder! Right Erin? You can use it for baking!”
“It’s ruining jobs! You’ll get jumped-up apprentices trying to replace masters. We cultivate yeast, and gain Skills for rising bread. But this powder will undercut all our levels and hard work!”
The [Baker] made her case. Cetris nodded a few times, looking at Erin and Octavia.
“Do you two have anything to say, Miss Solstice, Miss Cotton?”
Erin raised her hand.
“Um. Yeah. Baking powder’s normal. It’s not a weird alchemical thing. Well, it’s not like flour or oil, but it’s not a trick. You can make bread with baking soda, just like with yeast. Or powder.”
“There’s a powder?”
“What’s the difference?”
The [Baker] and Octavia exclaimed. Montressa narrowed her eyes at Erin’s back. Erin shrugged.
“I have no idea. It just makes bread rise up and stuff. But look—it’s natural. That’s why I asked Octavia for help. I didn’t have a Skill, so I needed baking soda.”
“But it’ll undercut—[Mayor]!”
The [Baker] appealed to Cetris. He was nodding.
“Miss Cotton, Miss Solstice. You can see that this will damage our [Baker]’s livelihoods, can’t you? These new changes, this door—all of it is destabilizing Celum’s workers. Who have worked in their professions for generations!”
He thought it was quite well-put. But all four young women instantly opened their mouths. Montressa was first.
“Mayor Duiland, I’m sure that Celum’s workers are quite traditional. And if you so require it, I’m certain Miss Cotton will happily stop selling her soda in Celum.”
Octavia stared at Montressa’s back. The [Mage] turned her head.
“Didn’t you say you wanted to move to Liscor, Octavia? I heard Lyonette discussing it with you.”
The [Princess] blinked.
“Well—we were suggesting a wing of the inn.”
“Perfect! You can do that! We don’t need that trouble, anyways!”
The [Baker] was beaming. But Cetris had caught Montressa’s implication. He rubbed his forehead.
“That would mean baking soda is then imported to Celum, wouldn’t it, Mage Montressa? Which means we would be paying for the very goods our own Miss Cotton is producing in the city?”
Montressa smiled at Cetris as Guildmaster Trent’s head snapped up.
“Precisely, Mayor Cetris. You can stop baking soda from being imported into the city, of course, but you cannot stop a new invention. I’m sure Liscor’s [Bakers] will face the very same issues as Celum’s, but baking soda exists and if it isn’t harmful—”
She looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] shrugged.
“Just don’t swallow it alone. That’s probably bad. Probably gives you bad gas or makes you throw up if you do it wrong. But it’s not poison. I think.”
“—then I’m afraid that’s where the Baker’s Guilds will have to adapt.”
Montressa nodded at the crestfallen [Baker]. Cetris looked around.
“Surely…surely Miss Cotton would be amenable to halting her sale of baking soda.”
“I’ll move to Liscor.”
Octavia raised her hand. Cetris glared at her. But for the baking soda and her matches, he’d be glad to see the end of another of Celum’s headaches. But now—he drummed his fingers on the table.
“That would be unfortunate for Celum.”
“Hey, I like it here. Lived for years in Celum. But I’m getting a new place for free—”
Lyonette coughed into one hand. Octavia faltered.
“Well, safer than Celum. On the whole. I think. At least I won’t be extorted. It’ll be part of Erin’s inn, right?”
She got encouraging nods from Erin and Lyonette. Mayor Cetris’ face fell. He looked around.
“Mayor, we could prevent her from leaving. Just close the door! She can’t go through that way!”
One of the [Innkeepers] leaned over and whispered to Cetris. He flushed and snapped.
“Miss Agnes! We aren’t going to constrain Miss Cotton of anything!”
He glared at the [Innkeepers].
“This is a purely reasonable decision, without…punitive emotions involved! Miss Cotton will of course be allowed to move her shop if she so wishes! Quickly. Today. I imagine this—this door can do it all, can’t it? She’ll forfeit the lease on her shop, but that is a simple solution. Or she may go to Liscor properly! Without magic! Which is the normal way of things.”
Cetris turned around. He might not have been a bad man. Erin looked at him.
“But the door’s being closed to Celum? Why?”
The [Mayor] looked at her.
“Well, Miss Solstice, the complaints of the other Guilds aside, I have two good reasons. Firstly, I’m afraid the Innkeeper’s Association of Celum has the most complaints against you. You’ve been blacklisted by the local inns, and I’ve no desire to see a miniature trade war in my city. The one in the north is bad enough.”
“What, those three?”
Erin pointed at Agnes, Ulia, and Timbor. Cetris nodded.
“They have a number of complaints—”
“So what? They’re jerks.”
Erin glared at them.
“I helped you! And you betrayed me by taking my customers, my staff—”
Miss Agnes was furious. Erin pointed at her.
“Safry and Marian were an accident! They wanted to quit and they were awful! Why should I give them money for being lazy and mean—”
“[Innkeepers] cooperate. What don’t you understand, young woman? We share our profits, support each other—”
“Yeah, and lean, I bet! I don’t take orders from you—”
Cetris stood up. Erin sat down. The other [Innkeepers] moved back. The [Mayor], breathing hard, shook his head.
“Miss Solstice. Aside from the fact that I’d like to discourage another conflict between professions, there’s a simple reason why your door will be banned from Celum. Firstly, because there is animosity between you and three guilds, and two of my best inns in the city.”
Miss Agnes’ smug smile slipped. Cetris shook his head.
“But mostly, Miss Solstice, I was persuaded because of your Hobgoblin. Because of the incident where an Antinium Soldier fought Celum’s citizens—even criminals! I’ve heard about Pallass, you see.”
Erin looked at Lyonette and Montressa and Octavia. Montressa winced.
“However, I’d be fine with dealing with that. Even the Antinium, yes. Gates can be built, access restricted. Inns monitored for infighting.”
Cetris glared over his shoulder. Then he sighed.
“The truth is, Miss Solstice—it’s just your inn. And you. I’m not sure you’re aware of this, but you have…reputation for trouble. I’ve studied up on Liscor. The monster attacks, the dungeon. Crelers. You have a habit for attracting trouble. Thus far, it hasn’t been to Celum’s detriment, but—Pallass.”
He spread his hands. Erin’s face fell.
“That wasn’t my fault. Chaldion said. He’s the Grand Strategist. You can ask him if you like.”
She pointed towards the door. Cetris paused, then he shook his head.
“Miss Solstice, I’m sure he could vouch for the Wyvern attack as coincidence. But you were in the Walled City when it was attacked, were you not?”
The [Mayor] nodded. He sighed.
“It’s not that I believe you have a…curse Skill. Or bad luck. But this morning I was informed there was a betting pool. There are individuals…even rich individuals…monarchs, among others, placing bets on whether Celum will be attacked in the next month. This year. And how many casualties will occur. I understand there’s a betting pool on Liscor as well.”
Erin’s jaw dropped. Lyonette and Montressa exclaimed.
Octavia looked around. She raised her hands defensively.
“Just me? Okay. I thought everyone would like to know…”
The mayor of Celum looked at Erin. Not without sympathy. He steepled his hands.
“Miss Solstice, that was the crux of my decision. The rest of it I felt you should have the opportunity to explain. And you have. But for that aspect…can you assure me Celum would be safe with precautions?”
“I mean, if you put a gate on the door like Pallass—look, Liscor’s just next to a dungeon. It’s sort of dangerous.”
“And a gate would keep us safe?”
“Well, the door would have to be open. And there’d have to be something that could go through the gate. Which wouldn’t be—I mean, a Raskghar could probably do it. Or evil Calruz. Or Crelers. Or…”
Erin realized she was not making a case for herself. The [Mayor] stared at her, along with everyone else. Erin Solstice slowly stood up.
“So—so the door’s banned from Celum?”
“We’ll let Miss Cotton move if she can effect it within the day, of course. And we’ll consider all events dealt with without fine or offence. I think that’s the least we can do. The Hobgoblin will be allowed to return, so long as no one is injured or killed, Five Families forbid.”
Cetris Duiland nodded, shuffling his papers. Erin stared around. Most of the people on Celum’s side looked some measure of triumphant, although Trent was looking worried as he stared at Octavia.
Lyonette seemed to accept the measure, albeit with pursed lips. Octavia was scratching her braids.
“How can I move everything…? Well, I suppose. Hey, Lyonette. Is the uh, other shop you promised actually built or…?”
Montressa was shrugging. She whispered to Erin.
“We can always do another city, Erin. Do you need Celum?”
“No. But I like it here. Even with all the jerks.”
Erin muttered back. She saw Cetris turn his head. But the [Mayor] said nothing more. Erin looked at him.
“Fine. We have all of today, right?”
“Let us say by midnight?”
He nodded at her. That was more time than Erin had thought. She smiled a bit.
“Thanks. I’ll want to find some of my friends. And—I need to tell the Players of Celum to come through. Some’ll have to stay I guess, but Temile and most of the others can go with their families, probably. Selys might be able to house them in the new part of the city.”
The Celumites turned as one. Ulia’s head snapped around.
“The—the Players of Celum?”
“Well, yeah. They’ll have to come since the door’ll be gone.”
Erin blinked at them. Ulia’s brows shot together.
“No. They’re staying here.”
Mayor Cetris looked around wildly.
“Because they’re Celum’s [Actors]. That was one of your complaints, wasn’t it? Miss Ulia?”
“Naturally! They should be performing in our inns! They won’t just leave because Miss Solstice demands it!”
“But I helped make them. Besides, I help with the plays. And I have a stage. Temile’ll come if there’s a choice. I think.”
Erin furrowed her brows. Mayor Cetris was giving the other [Innkeepers] a death-glare. Timbor raised his hands.
“But—hold on now. They’re the Players of Celum! They can’t leave the city! That’s their name.”
He laughed as if that settled that. The young [Innkeeper] shrugged. Erin thought for a second and snapped her fingers.
“They can be the Players from Celum. I don’t like it. Families will have to move, and maybe some of the [Actors] will have to stay. But that’s life, right? You chose this. Not me.”
She looked at Cetris Duiland. The [Mayor] stared at her. Guilds were one thing. Inns were one thing. Even the threat of monster attacks. But Ulia had quoted the money and attention the Players of Celum—even the group that had been left behind—would bring the city. Without Miss Solstice’s inn to take custom into Liscor. He raised his hands.
“Wait a moment. This is an unexpected—let’s talk this through. I call—[Disadvantaged Renegotiation]! Thank you!”
Erin paused. The entire room paused. Cetris wiped at his brow with one sleeve.
“You can’t do that!”
Montressa glared at Cetris. But she and Octavia were already sitting back down. The other Guildmasters and [Innkeepers] were returning to their places as well. Cetris nodded at Montressa.
“Mage Montressa, I can and I did. It’s to Miss Solstice’s favor—”
It was one of his Skills as [Mayor]. Not a perfect one, but it worked. They’d begin again, albeit with the odds against Cetris. Or…it should have.
The young woman named Miss Lyon hadn’t moved. She’d folded her arms by the door.
“I don’t believe we need to renegotiate. Erin, Montressa, Octavia, let’s go.”
Cetris’ eyes bulged as he felt something resisting his [Disadvantaged Negotiation]. Somehow, the young woman was pushing at his Skill, fighting it off! That shouldn’t be possible! At least—not unless she was a [Diplomat], or [Merchant]! How was she…?
The [Mayor] and [Princess] locked gazes as they clashed in the inn. Erin, who was also on her feet, saw the invisible battle of wills. She hesitated. Then she waved a hand.
“Lyonette. Let’s try again. I don’t want to leave Celum if I can help it.”
Lyonette glanced at her. Then she exhaled slowly.
She returned to her position. Cetris exhaled, and found his handkerchief to mop at his forehead. Before anyone could object, he sprang into action.
“Very good! I, personally, and as [Mayor], see no reason not to allow the door to stay. I can even see a special permit—so long as this Hobgoblin stays in Miss Cotton’s shop. Signed! Ratified with the Adventurer’s Guild!”
Outrage from behind him. Cetris turned his head.
“Can any of you think of a reason that outweighs the Players of Celum’s departure? No? Thank you! Be silent!”
He turned back towards Erin. She smiled at him. She almost liked him, despite the situation. He was doing his job. It depended on how you met someone. Cetris smiled back as well.
“I believe we can come to an accommodation, Miss Solstice.”
“Yeah. I’d like that. We can try regulating the door. And like Lyonette said—the [Bakers] and so on in Liscor are going to be mad too. I’ll talk with Liscor’s Council, but if the door can stay open—let it, right?”
Mayor Cetris Duiland nodded and relaxed. He sat back in his chair.
“Excellent. Now, let’s just talk import and export taxes, and a small usage fee. This has been a method of somewhat illegal transport, after all. And the Runner’s Guild and Merchant’s Guild should inspect the situation in an equitable way for all…”
Five minutes later, Erin strode back through Octavia’s shop. A babble of voices followed, and Relc looked up from where he was inspecting potions. He guiltily hid an opened bottle behind his back.
“Hey Erin, what’s—”
“We’re out of here! No, I’m not negotiating it! I’ll find a better city! Like—like Esthelm! Octavia, pack up! And Temile, tell the Players its decision time!”
Erin shouted at the [Producer] as the [Mayor] and a host of angry, desperate, concerned, people followed. Relc chuckled.
“Now this is what I come here for.”
He casually blocked the door to Octavia’s shop as Erin stomped through to her inn, followed by Lyonette and Montressa. The [Mayor] stared up at the huge Drake with the spear. He made one fist and cracked his knuckles as he squeezed.
“Hi. They call me Relc.”
Erin felt sad, and relieved, and angry at the same time. She stared back into Octavia’s shop as Relc barred the door. The [Alchemist] was running about.
“I’m going to need help bringing all my stuff through! But I’m doing it! I’ll—uh—how am I going to move…?”
“I’m sorry, Temile. But there is space in Liscor. I imagine some of the [Actors] will stay, right? There’ll be work. They can keep the plays going. What will the entire group do, though? You don’t have to come through.”
Temile was gnawing on one lip. The man looked at Erin. And then he glanced at his hand. His missing thumb. But when he put a hand on Erin’s shoulder, he squeezed tight.
“We might not be the Players of Celum, but where would we be without the one who started us down this road? I’ll talk to everyone. There are some families—but there’s work in Liscor, right?”
“Yeah! Look—I’m going to get Selys. We’ll arrange it all before midnight.”
“Got it. I will be back!”
Temile ran off. Erin looked around. Montressa raised her eyebrows.
“Does this always happen in your inn?”
“More than you think. Drassi, get Selys. Is she in the inn? Liscor?”
“The garden! I’ll get her! Selys!”
Drassi opened the door and walked through. Lyonette sighed.
“I’ll clear out one of the private rooms for Octavia. It can be storage for now. Erin, you get to tell her that her shop isn’t actually built yet.”
She hurried off, calling for Ishkr. Erin sighed—and then she paused.
She’d forgot again! Erin spun towards the door, but the Watch Captain hadn’t found him. Erin looked at Montressa.
“I have to find him. Montressa, tell Lyonette I’m going to search!”
“I’ll go with you. Those [Innkeepers] looked like trouble. You could use a barrier or two. Or just a [Mage].”
Montressa hefted her staff. Erin nodded. They headed for the open door.
“Excuse me! Erin! Erin!”
Palt trotted in front of them. The two stopped.
“Hey Palt, I’m sorry, but Numbtongue’s—”
The Centaur put one arm out, looking satisfied beyond belief. Erin stopped and did a double-take. There was no Hobgoblin behind Palt.
Erin raised a fist. Palt backed up.
“Er, sorry. But he’s found! I got a [Message]. Believe it or not, one of my…acquaintances knows him. My faction.”
He gave Montressa a triumphant look. The [Aegiscaster] just stared at Palt. Erin blinked.
Palt inhaled on his cigar. He puffed out.
“It’s a funny thing. But—you wouldn’t happen to know a Viceria Strongheart, would you? Apparently, her daughter’s in the city. She knows you?”
Erin Solstice blinked. She looked around. Then she raised her voice.
Someone fought through the crowd Relc was blocking. He let her go through, and a slim, physically built young woman entered the room. She had the kind of body Erin expected on an athlete. Ryoka-ish, but Ryoka didn’t have those abdominals. Or the inclination to show them.
But Garia Strongheart was a changed young woman. She panted as she wiped sweat from her brow.
“Erin! Did you call my name? Is Mrsha found? I’ve been running all over Celum with Fals, but I’m almost certain she’s not here!”
Erin saw Fals waving a hand from the crowd. She sucked in her breath.
Montressa echoed her.
Erin waved guiltily at Garia.
“Come on through. You too, Fals! You need to see this. And uh, I’ll be in the kitchen after this. For a—thank-you cake. A big one. So long as Mrsha doesn’t smash it.”
Garia trotted into the inn. She exclaimed as Erin told her the news about Mrsha and the garden. And then her eyes widened.
“Mom sent that [Message]? But—how’d he get there?”
“Apparently her spouse picked him up after some sort of fight in Celum.”
“Dad? Oh no. Did he cut Numbtongue? He’s got a magic cutlass that he coats with some kind of paralysis poison! As if the wand and the enchantment isn’t bad enough!”
The City Runner groaned. Erin stared at her. She realized she’d never met Garia’s parents. Ryoka had, with Mrsha, but all she’d said about them was that they were ‘interesting’. How interesting, Erin had never known. She looked at Palt. He waggled his eyebrows.
“Garia, your parents have Numbtongue at their farm. He’s not hurt, but—”
The [Martial Artist] sighed in relief.
“Oh, good. Then—I could actually run the magic door gem-thing over there! It’s not far! My parents have a farm around Celum.”
“What do they grow?”
Garia made a face.
“Produce. Dad rotates it when he gets bored, but we have a few fields of Sage’s Grass. It’s more trouble than it’s worth.”
Montressa and Palt stared at Garia. She shook her head.
“I just hope they don’t do anything weird to Numbtongue. They drink like, well, retired [Pirates]. Which Dad is. Haven’t I ever said?”
“Wait, say that again?”
Erin tried to clear out one ear. She saw Mrsha running through the doorway. And then, of all people, Seborn appeared.
“Did someone say [Pirates]?”
He stared at Garia. And Erin had a surreal experience. Upon her inn, all things turned. It was a place of magic, mystery, and event. But for the first time…
Everything was revolving around Garia.
A Drake stood in a building in Liscor. Which one wasn’t important. He had a few like it. Safe places. Places where a…[Thief], or someone who knew the right people could hide out. For a price. The Drake had ashen scales, and he was old.
He was called Mister Soot. Mister Soot. He was very particular about that. If you asked the right people, they’d tell you about Mister Soot.
He was a crime lord. Not a [Crime Lord]; that was a bit above his actual class, [Mastermind]. [Gang Mastermind], if you wanted to be specific.
It sounded better than it was. Or maybe it sounded exactly like it was. Soot was no ‘stache-twirling evil genius. But he was smart, and he operated a significant portion of Liscor’s underworld.
Because it did have one. True, the city had Drake-style law enforcement, which meant it had less casual corruption. But that just meant crime evolved to meet the challenge.
Soot ran a gang, a euphemism for any group of organized crime. His was hardly a group of [Thugs], after all. His gang had magical wands, gear, and good numbers. They weren’t shy about tangling with the Watch, although they stayed away from the dangerous fighters, like Jeiss, Relc, and Klbkch. They prioritized money over petty fights, which was why Soot was where he was.
In fact, Mister Soot was known by all of the Watch as one of their most wanted. But he was an elusive enemy, and one that controlled his elements well, so that the [Guards] usually had bigger fish to fry, including actual monsters. Soot understood that well, which was why he didn’t fight the Watch most of the time, just frustrate them. He also kept his claws clean of crime himself.
Zevara had never gotten Mister Soot for his crimes. She had a lot of circumstantial evidence, even a few people willing to point at him as…‘someone’. But never anything she could concretely use to kick him out. If she could exile people just based on her feelings, Soot would have been gone long ago.
And at the moment, Mister Soot was well-placed to be even bigger than he was. Liscor was a hopping place to be right now, and Mister Soot saw his opportunity to finally make a fortune worthy of his ambitions.
A magic door, interest from abroad—not to mention the road to Pallass, which was reportedly almost halfway done already—at least, in regards to clearing the Bloodfields. Soot was no Gnoll, but he smelled the opportunity to be the liaison between a new wave of crime and opportunity.
He’d make a fortune if he played his cards right. And then he could retire and never have to work with something like Bearclaw ever again.
He stood alone in this safe room. Alone, but for Bearclaw and two figures. The huge Gnoll was bent over one of them. She stepped down, and Soot listened to a bone break. He’d heard bones break before, but this time sounded the worst. He saw the figure on the floor move. But it was bound.
[Silence] spell on the gag. Soot looked down at the Gnoll dressed in the Watch’s colors. His gang had killed [Guards] before. Sometimes it was necessary. But this—he looked at Bearclaw.
She was huge. And unlike Soot, she got her paws dirty. Bearclaw had come from the south. Not through the magic door—Pallass might have tried to arrest her, and they certainly wouldn’t condone her going to Liscor if they’d known. She’d made the journey on foot.
“You said this one’s a Senior Guard, Soot?”
Bearclaw turned her head. She had countless scars, some of which were visible since the fur had never regrown. She was known as ‘Bearclaw’ because of the metal claws she used to fight with. She hadn’t pulled them out yet, even when she’d brought both of the [Guards] tailing her.
“Yes. She’s—she’s a decent Senior Guardswoman. Just got promoted last year.”
Soot avoided the gaze of the Gnoll on the ground. She was still alive. But her limbs were—twisted. Bearclaw grinned.
“She was. So was the other one. For a small city like this. See? She’s trying to get her blood on me. Her scent.”
She nodded at the Gnoll. The [Guard] had bit her lip and was trying to spit blood. Bearclaw kicked viciously.
“Smart. But that’s why I’ll remove it with a tonic.”
“If she dies…”
The [Mastermind] hesitated. He saw Bearclaw look at him. Normally, Soot wouldn’t have been around her without his [Bodyguards]. But he was not in control. He’d lost control the moment he’d walked into his safe room and found…this.
“Don’t worry. She’s not going to die. Not even if she bites her tongue. And my person will be here. I told you—I know how it works.”
Bearclaw’s reply was followed almost instantly by a rap on the door. Both she and Soot turned. It was the right phrase, but still, Soot held the dangerous wand in one claw, ready to draw, as Bearclaw checked. She let in a hooded, totally masked figure.
Another Gnoll? Or maybe a bulky Drake. Soot avoided his gaze as the figure came for the two [Guards]. They were still alive, but Bearclaw hadn’t left them able to fight back. They were loaded into a handcart like things and vanished with the other figure.
“I’ve heard of it being done. But I don’t…need to do that myself.”
Soot kept clearing his throat. Bearclaw gave him an amused grin. She had a small bottle out and was mixing the liquid into her fur, removing scent.
“It’s simple, Soot. I don’t know where she died. I don’t know how she died, officer. I wasn’t anywhere near her when she apparently died. She didn’t die the day I saw her, neither. Might not even be someone who killed them. Might have just been monsters. Hear you have Shield Spiders and Rock Crabs. Big pity, that.”
The Gnoll looked at Soot. He paled.
“What if they ask if you had anything at all to do with her death? Or if you ran into her or encountered her in…?”
The Watch weren’t idiots. They knew to ask multiple questions. And they would. Why had she done it?
“Then I use my [Four Good Lies] for the week. But I think I’ll level up tonight. Or at the least, the Watch’ll think twice about tailing me. That Drake and Ant would’ve been different, but they’re busy. And it proves the Watch isn’t invincible. Like you kept telling me, eh?”
Bearclaw rested one paw on Soot’s shoulder. He flinched away.
“Absolutely, Bearclaw. But…what happens if I get questioned?”
She grinned at him.
“You keep your mouth shut no matter what, eh, Soot?”
She went back to cleaning herself. Mister Soot eyed Bearclaw. She’d come to him with a warning, but he’d assumed he knew crime. He’d killed people with his claws before. With knives, wands—but always with the long view in mind.
Bearclaw didn’t care about consequences. She’d killed the two Senior Guards because she could.
“The inn. You had a message for me?”
The Drake started. He nodded a few times, relieved.
“There’s a claim on the inn. The Brother of Serendipitous Meetings has one. And another—from the Elusive Lot. Claws off. Paws, that is.”
“Who’re the Brothers?”
Bearclaw didn’t look up. Soot paused.
“A big name up north. Two of their agents work in the south, sometimes. The Gentlemen Callers?”
“Never heard of them. What do I care?”
“The Elusive Lot also has a clause on the inn.”
“So? My gang doesn’t answer to [Mages].”
This time the Gnoll woman stared at Soot. He nodded a few times.
“Of course. But…I’m just letting you know.”
“And I don’t care. If that’s your message, it’s wasted. I can taste the money here.”
Bearclaw grinned again, flexing her huge paws.
“Bounty on a white Gnoll, alive. Bounty on an [Innkeeper]. Bounty on the magical door. And the Heartflame Breastplate.”
“The inn’s dangerous.”
“Yeah. I saw.”
Bearclaw knew about Grimalkin, the Gold-ranks, and all the others Soot had heard of going through Erin’s inn. The Drake had even gone there himself for a ‘pizza’. Still, she was smiling. Soot eyed her.
“So—your other members. Are they coming along soon? Because our entry route is compromised and I don’t know if I can bribe anyone after today—”
The Gnoll woman shut him up with a paw. She sighed.
“Idiot. The Meeting of Tribes is coming. You don’t attack an [Innkeeper] in her inn. I have what I wanted. You just keep your eyes open. And I have the little one’s scent.”
She laughed. She meant Mrsha. Soot wished he didn’t know the Gnoll’s name. But she’d come over and sniffed him until the [Barmaid] had drawn her away. Soot…liked children. He did not think of himself as an entirely bad person. He wondered if Bearclaw had even asked herself that.
To think of anything to say, Soot found the first thought and blurted it out.
“Who wants the white Gnoll? Aren’t they supposed to bring doom? I can’t imagine anyone wants her—but the bounty was alive, right?”
Bearclaw snorted. She looked dismissively at Soot.
“You’re too wrapped up in this tiny city, Soot. You should go to Pallass. Meet some real gangs. Who wants a white Gnoll? Her kind, obviously. The better question is—who wants the [Innkeeper]? Because half of the bounties on her are alive. Half are for dead.”
“And which one are you taking?”
The Gnoll gave Soot a wide, pleased smile.
“I’ll figure it out when I get her. Pass me the towel.”