7.11

The King of Destruction rode to war and everyone watched. Not directly, but by reactions. In their studio, Noass and Sir Relz scrambled to retell the events, to analyze. Belchan was unresponsive, as was Reim; the nearest nations willing to talk and speculate were Medain and Nerrhavia. And their rulers did.

They were of course, appalled. Everyone was. Queen Yisame was pale as she declared war again on Belchan. And when you looked at her face, well—you might realize that she had never seen war up front. Not like that, in detail. She was a [Queen] who had seen the truth of battle for the first time.

As had many. Wistram was sending out an apology to those who had witnessed the scene and were venting their fury over seeing dead children and blood. Because, that was, of course, unacceptable to broadcast. Clearly, Wistram would need to put policies in place. Delay the broadcast in case of traumatic scenes? Issue a warning?

But meanwhile, Yisame and Nerrhavia’s horror was genuine. And that earned her appreciation for her sincerity. Medain’s High King, Perric, struck a different chord. He too condemned the atrocities, but his was a measured tone. He had seen death, and you could respect a man who could speak levelly, condemning both Reim and Belchan in equal measures. But it was on Belchan his armies marched, to eat away at the north.

And the world watched it all, of course. That was the new way of things. And—was anyone sick of it? Surely so, like the Titan of Baleros, who rolled his eyes and told Foliana to stop watching the broadcasts.

“It’s politics, Foliana. Politics. I’m going back to my chess game. Tell me if they show the actual battles.”

The Squirrel Beastkin woman didn’t respond. She was perched in front of the scrying mirror, nibbling on walnuts and other nuts. There was a little bowl of honey she occasionally dipped them in. This wasn’t a contract; it was just a favorite snack. But she was watching with that absorbed look of someone experiencing broadcast television for the first time. Also…she might have been studying potential targets, but you couldn’t ever get away from the job.

But she was one of many. And the world…

The world watched.

 

—-

 

The world, the world, what a stupid thing…it was always ‘the world’ this, or ‘everyone’ that. Sometimes the dramas of nations could be stupid. Who cared what the King of Destruction did thousands of miles away? What bearing did it have on here?

Nothing. And everything. It would not have mattered as much, that war in Belchan, a single dead Gnoll tribe, if Wistram hadn’t broadcast it. If people didn’t pay attention, it wouldn’t have affected everyone. But they had. And the ripples spread wide.

Tails and Scales, one of the best bars in Pallass, was not a happy place that night. Patrons filled the seats, talking urgently, angrily, or hysterically over what they’d seen. Rufelt, at the bar, was suppressing nausea and anger and a sense of vindication as he did his job. Lasica had gone to her kitchen to feed her clients. She’d shrugged off Rufelt suggesting she sit down. She wanted to work.

The bar wasn’t run by just the two of them of course. Their staff was hurrying about. Two apprentice [Bartenders] and some of Lasica’s assistants were serving tables. One of them, a Garuda, took a trio of drinks to a table where two Drakes were sitting.

“Apologies for the delay, sirs. I have a large water with ice and lemon, a carrot juice, unsweetened, and a Chaldion’s Eye for uh—”

“Me. Thank you, young man.”

Chaldion glanced up from his conversation with Grimalkin. The Garuda bowed and served the cocktail. It was, in fact, a Firebreath Whiskey and an Ultasian bitter made from the Ultasa flower, all mixed together with some lime.

And if that sounded really bitter and sour, well, the key to alleviating the pain was the floating ice ball, carved into the shape of an eye. And inside the already-melting ice was a shot of exceptionally sweet, practically syrupy, wine.

Rufelt’s own blend. It would melt as the drinker imbibed, so long as they had the patience for it. The Chaldion’s Eye was a popular dish in Pallass, especially among the [Strategists]. And the Drake who it had been made for.

“Ah.”

Chaldion sipped the bitter drink as the Garuda bowed. He was new, so he was still star-struck by the clientele. Grimalkin too; the Sinew Magus’ newfound fame made him stand out. As did the bandages.

“Hm. Thank you.”

The two Drakes turned back to their conversation. Around them, the bar buzzed, but the two were fixated on their own conversation. They were, of course, talking about Belchan. They’d both seen the replays, but their own take on the matter was a bit off-kilter to everyone else’s.

“It’s another point in my theory, Grand Strategist. Regardless of the actual origins of the event, you must concede today has not been a normal one.”

Chaldion sighed. He was sipping slowly as the ice melted and the syrup began to release. The [Strategist] was quite contented with it. This wasn’t a drink you could get in any bar. Let alone the inn he’d just been in. The Wandering Inn had a different feel than Tails and Scales. It was charming, engaging—but lacked the heights of craft of this place.

And that was fine. But Chaldion liked his drinks. He waved a claw idly as he glanced over at the scrying mirror on the far wall. Rufelt had left it active, but everyone was watching it warily. Pallass’ own Noass and Sir Relz were on it, a mark of pride of the city, but they’d been apologizing non-stop for the vivid depiction of violence. Now they had another [Strategist], from Manus, giving his thoughts on the matter.

“Magus, you’re conflating the issues. The actions of the King of Destruction or other nations across the world cannot be the product of one [Innkeeper]’s Skills.”

Grimalkin leaned on the table as he drank from his very large vessel of water. Hydration was important! He raised his clawed hand and shrugged.

“Of course not, Grand Strategist. However, I will put forwards these two points. One—the actions occurred in a timeline where we interacted with Erin Solstice and were distracted again, after her use of her new Skill. It bears adding to my list of data points. Secondly—where are we now? Are we at Erin Solstice’s inn, inquiring about her origins or Skills and levels?”

Chaldion paused. His one good eye narrowed.

“True. But this has to be a coincidence.”

“And if it’s not? Let’s leave aside the incident with the King of Destruction. Her Skill, the disappearance of the child, Mrsha. Either Erin Solstice really is as oblivious as she seems, or…”

“No one who plays chess like she does is that airheaded. She magnificently deflected all of our questions. And she beat my [Path to Victory].”

The old Drake’s eye narrowed, and then, unexpectedly, he smiled. He was quite pleased by that last bit. Grimalkin eyed him.

“If I might inquire, Grand Strategist—”

“Chaldion is fine, Magus Grimalkin.”

Grimalkin nodded briefly.

“—Then if it is not a matter of security, your Skill. I have always been fascinated by the higher-level Skills as data on them is sparse. When you say she defeated…”

Chaldion raised his left eye patch. The gem in his eye flashed, creating a bubble of privacy. He spoke casually as Grimalkin switched to his carrot juice.

“It’s no large secret. I’ve used it so many times that its public record, as you well know. It can be defeated; it just shows me one route to victory in any given battle. Not even the optimal one. It has vast utility, but it’s hardly impregnable. Miss Solstice saw me use it; she was able to change her entire strategy and defeat me. But that was a mark of her skill at the game. The third time we played and I used my Skill, she won.”

“Fascinating. And my assertion?”

Chaldion drummed his claws on the table and nodded.

“You have my full agreement. I may personally investigate this matter, along with you; I doubt an agent would have much success. But I have put out an inquiry on her.”

Grimalkin paused, mid-drink.

“And?”

“Nothing.”

The Magus put down his drink and paused for a moment.

“Hardly surprising for a Human no one’s heard about. Or so the other Walled Cities might assert.”

Chaldion’s eyes glinted.

“Yes. If I hadn’t met her, I’d say that too.”

The two Drakes paused significantly. But before they could speculate longer, there was an aggrieved shout from the bar.

“Dead gods take it, Saliss! We told you you’re not allowed in here without at least pants! You’re putting people off their food!”

Rufelt was not in a good mood. And Saliss had just emerged from the bathroom. His claws were clean, but, to put it delicately, he had neither had to remove or put on any articles of clothing throughout his entire process. He was still naked.

“Rufelt! Come on. Have a heart!”

Saliss protested, spreading his claws. Rufelt glared.

“There are paying customers. You’re one of them. Clothes on or you go out. I’m not arguing tonight, Saliss—”

He was interrupted by a Gnoll pushing towards him. The Gnoll had dark black fur and a dark look in his eyes. He leaned on the bar, heavily.

“I don’t care about naked Drakes. Just get me a drink, Rufelt. Bartender’s specialty.”

That was code for ‘give me what I need’. Rufelt, as a high-level [Bartender] could tailor his drinks to his clientele. Usually it was a delicate game, teasing out the emotions or state of drunk they needed to be—or not be. But tonight Rufelt didn’t even have to think. He reached for a glass.

“A Salaszarian Rockhammer, coming up, Felkhr.”

The Gnoll, who was a new guest tonight, nodded. He was the Flying Gnoll of Pallass, another one of those faces. Rufelt had invited him to Tails and Scales after the Wyvern attack. He saw Rufelt fill the glass with ice, mix up the steady drink—and then add something from a bottle.

“What’s that?”

Rufelt glanced up as he slid the drink over, without his usual flourishes.

“Calming drink. Everyone needs them tonight. Xif, Saliss, sell me some more of your tonics. We need it.”

The Drake [Alchemist] paused. He dug in his bag of holding and a Gnoll sitting across from him did the same. Xif, the other top [Alchemist] of Pallass, shook his head.

“I can send a Runner unless you have some, Saliss—”

“No problem, Xif. I always carry—aha! Got them. Here, Rufelt!”

He flung them across the bar. Everyone in the path ducked and Rufelt swore. But the potions, all five of them in small vials, slowed as they arced towards his bar. They landed without so much as cracking the glass.

Rufelt glared at Saliss. The Drake waved. But he was toning down his usual riot act. Rufelt nodded. He began pouring the rest of the calming tonic into the drinks he was serving.

Felkhr sighed as he drained half of his drink. His fur had been standing on edge. Now, he relaxed. But his grip on the glass tumbler was still strong.

“Humans.”

That was all he said. But half of the Gnolls around him nodded. Rufelt said nothing as Lasica emerged from the kitchen. Felkhr amended his statement.

“Some of them are decent. But that—”

“Have another drink. I’m doubling up your tonic. Something sour to chase that down with.”

Rufelt advised Felkhr. The Gnoll sighed.

“Thank you. It’s one thing to know or hear about it, but to see it—”

“We’re all shaken. No one’s denying that. Apologies for the delay, Magus, Grand Strategist. Here is tonight’s special, Chaldion—”

Lasica was being followed by orders of food. The [Chef] came to the two Drake’s table to deliver their orders personally. Both Drakes looked up. Chaldion eyed the dish placed in front of them.

“Interesting. What is this?

He stared at the neatly, even artfully sliced fish on the rice and colorful little bites wrapped in the roll. Well, some were wrapped—some just looked like literal raw fish on rice. And there were little dishes with sauces…

“I’ve heard it’s called ‘sushi’ by Erin, but it’s a traditional Dullahan and Drathian food. Raw fish, rice, seaweed—there are variations, but this is Magus Grimalkin’s request.”

“A Balerosian dish.”

Grimalkin was nodding. Then his eyes narrowed.

“Did you say Miss Solstice had a specific name for it?”

“She has names for everything, Magus.”

Lasica shrugged, unconcerned. Grimalkin gave Chaldion a significant look. The Grand Strategist nodded, his expression calm.

“Ah, I’ve had this. Zeres serves it too. Most excellent, Miss Lasica.”

She smiled. Grimalkin raised one claw.

“I’ll need eight more portions, Chef Lasica. I am attempting to build up my muscles. How about two more of these sushi plates, a stir fry of meats and noodles and vegetables, a steak, no, three—Wyvern cuts? And…any suggestions?”

Lasica eyed Grimalkin. He was thinner than before, but his list of food was making even some of the [Gourmands] who liked to frequent her bar look queasy.

“I’ll throw in some shrimp—fresh from Zeres. I have a quinoa for Saliss—I’ll make two portions. Would you like some lard too, Magus? In a bucket?”

“I’ll think about it.”

The [Chef] shook her head as she went back to the kitchen. Grimalkin turned back to his food as he and Chaldion began to eat. He did not shovel his food; the two Drakes used the lacquered chopsticks they’d been given to eat. Grimalkin was rather adept and Chaldion remembered how to use his in moments.

Grimalkin ate methodically, savoring and chewing each bite. If he hadn’t, Lasica probably would have stopped serving him long ago. She had no room in her establishment for scarfers.

And to be ejected from the bar was to lose your access to it, and that was no light thing. Tails and Scales was one of the best establishments in all of Pallass. That meant husband and wife could cultivate the clientele they wanted.

Rufelt and Lasica had created a very selective clientele. They had a group which were pleasant to serve, got along with each other most of the time, and could pay for quality. And that number expanded seldom and usually by invitation by way of friend, sponsoring. You couldn’t walk into Tails and Scales without being on the list.

Literally. Rufelt had a Skill. [Bar: Selective Admission]. It could literally keep anyone below his level from casually walking in. But emergencies and higher-level individuals were an exception.

And that happened now. The door to the bar burst open and a Dullahan hurried into the room. Or rather—his head. Rufelt looked up from the bar as the apprentice Dullahan hurried him over.

It was rare to see a Dullahan without their body, but the strange, armored folk of Baleros could separate body parts and send them long distances. Usually only a hundred feet, but with practice, you could go further. It was said the Seer of Steel could control his body thousands of miles from his head.

In this case, the Dullahan was doing this on purpose. He was another [Bartender], whose body could make drinks while his head spoke or interacted with his clients. Tonight, however, the head looked anxious, which meant for a Dullahan he was panicking.

“Rufelt! I must seek your help.”

“What’s the matter, Yeart?”

Rufelt didn’t stop fixing his drink, but he turned to the Dullahan as his assistant put the head on the counter and stepped back, bowing. Yeart looked up at Rufelt, worry written all across his face.

“My bar is under siege. You know I just bought a scrying orb? I had a full bar when it happened.”

“Oh no. Were there—”

Yeart nodded, miserably. It was difficult without a neck, but Dullahans could do it.

“Some of the Gnoll families had children watching the broadcast! They’re all howling and I need something to serve them! The parents too!”

Rufelt cursed. Few of his clients had children, but he could just imagine the scene. He looked around.

“Xif, calming tonics. Can Yeart buy some from you?”

“Send a Runner. I’ll bill him later.”

The Gnoll raised a paw. Rufelt nodded to Yeart. The Dullahan was concentrating. His actual body was writing out a request to be fulfilled immediately by a Street Runner; they often lingered around bars or places where they knew they’d find steady work.

“How heavy are the Gnoll kids, Yeart?”

“Um—young. Some are barely old, but the ones who are old enough to know what happened must be—ten? Eight? And older!”

Rufelt nodded. He grabbed the calming tonic and brought it down so the Dullahan could see. He shot a drink sideways as he made a second one, demonstrating.

“Listen up. You give them one drop per three stones. Estimate low instead of high. Don’t mix it with alcohol for the kids. Give them milk, juice, and mix it in—”

“No milk.”

The two [Alchemists] chorused instantly. Rufelt and Yeart looked over, the Dullahan apprentice turning the [Bartender]’s head. Saliss waved one claw.

“That’s right, no milk. Not if it’s the whole thing. A tiny amount’s good, but milk reacts with the calming tonic. Juice is fine. No carrot juice, though. Carrots mess with potions.”

“Who drinks carrots—?”

Yeart’s mystified voice was lost as Rufelt kept giving him orders. At his table, Grimalkin snorted. Chaldion smiled as he pulled something out of his bag of holding.

“Doesn’t that Courier drink it too, Magus? Hawk.”

“He put me onto it. A nutritious drink. I’ve persuaded Miss Lasica to keep a stock—with some of her classic infusions for muscular growth. Both he and I drink it.”

The [Chef] was known for her ability to make food that would make you shed weight no matter how much you ate. She could also make dishes that gave you energy all day, and so on. Erin was taking lessons from her.

Grimalkin eyed the roll of paper that Chaldion had pulled out. A small box, actually. It was a thick cigar, known as a ‘puffer’ colloquially. Recreational drugs had an uneasy relationship in Drake cities most of the time, and they were almost always imported from overseas.

“Where did you get that, Grand Strategist?”

“The Centaur offered me some. Palt, I believe. Wistram has its tentacles in the inn, Magus.”

“So I noted. Did I recount the incident with them to you, Chaldion?”

“No. But do tell. Hm. Not a bad gift or bribe, whichever he intended. Would you care for one?”

Chaldion offered a cigar to Grimalkin. The Magus shook his head. He stared as a hand tried to sneak up over the table. Chaldion brought his fork down.

He missed. Saliss yanked his claw out of the way just in time. The Named Adventurer poked his head over the table with a huge smile. Xif wore a pained expression as he watched his dining partner. Saliss looked at Chaldion with as serious a face as he could muster.

“What’s the Assembly’s policy on substances in Pallass, Grand Strategist Chaldion?”

“I don’t recall, you brat. Here. Give me yours.”

Chaldion flicked a cigar at Saliss. The [Alchemist] caught it, and flicked his claws. The cigar lit instantly; the Drake had conjured sparks with a little snap of the claws. He puffed twice and rolled his eyes.

“Weeeeak. But I suppose it’s the best a non-Alchemist can make. Here.”

He fished out two dark purple-brown cigars from his bag of holding. Xif coughed—Saliss flicked out a third and spun it across the bar.

“If you’re handing those out, Saliss—”

Rufelt caught the two flying his way. Other people hopefully called out and Saliss demonstrated his uncanny ability to throw. He was in a generous mood, and this was another reason why people tolerated his nudity and personality. Palt might have had decent quality, but he wouldn’t find a large market in Pallass if he tried selling his wares here.

“Magus.”

Saliss offered Grimalkin the cigar with a grin. Chaldion was already lighting his. Grimalkin held up a claw.

“I don’t smoke. I regulate all my intakes.”

“Don’t be a lizard, Magus. We could all use one. This had better not be one of your prank ones, Saliss. Or I will throw you in the deepest cell.”

Chaldion sighed. Grimalkin hesitated. He eyed the cigar and at last, took it, muttering.

“…I suppose I could check my physical changes. I am eating enough to throw off my nutritional charts anyways.”

He accepted it and lit it with one claw. The Magus inhaled, coughed—Saliss grinned as he gyrated back to Xif’s table.

“Where were we, Xif? Ah, right. That fire helps cut some of my processes in half. Nice flame; has a magical influence on what it burns. Useful, once I figure out how to optimize it.”

The Gnoll’s eyes lit up. They were, as always, comparing alchemical notes.

“You wouldn’t happen to have a sample of this marvelous fire, would you, Saliss?”

“Sure do. Like I said, it burns fuel way too fast. But it works on wood; I just can’t let it go out, since Miss Solstice doesn’t look like she’ll give me any more easily. When I’m not there, I have to feed it with charcoal or even magicore; I need a device to toss wood at the fire so it always has something to eat. Then it’ll be cheap. I’m going to bug an [Engineer] about it tomorrow.”

The Gnoll [Alchemist]’s eyes lit up. He had discolored fur and smelled of…everything. Mostly acrid powders or substances, even when he washed. He was the best [Alchemist] in the city—or second-best, if you counted Saliss. But while one was specialized mostly towards war, Xif was specialized towards selling his creations. Naturally, the two were friends. It was that or rivals.

“You can leave it with me. I’d be happy to look after it.”

“Hah! Go eat your tail, Xif.”

Saliss grinned over his shrimp quinoa. Xif sighed; the dark cigar lay at the table, for later. Rufelt had already deployed one of his apprentices with an anti-scent tonic to dab surreptitiously around the bar. It cut some of the good smells, but it meant each booth wouldn’t bother other customers with the smoking.

“Come now, I’ll pay you well—”

“Give me some of your flowers. What’ve you found?”

The Gnoll sighed.

“It’s psychedelic. Extremely so. Magically—I tried an anti-magic blocker, but it went through it. Not sure if I’m missing the components, but it keeps reacting differently. Raw, the nectar has one effect. Mix it with alcohol, and—well, I saw my parents.”

“How awful.”

Saliss’ face was straight. Xif ignored that.

“Almost every bit of it is strongly magical. If I had more, I’d test it, but I’m sure it’s a high-magic sample. As good as Sage’s Grass. It must be due to that inn. The ambient magic is high enough to grow it…I regret pushing Miss Solstice so fast. But I must have more.”

“Can’t you take some cuttings?”

Xif glowered.

“They’re extremely hard to grow. I tried with Miss Velaaia. Twice! They died. I’m not risking my one sample; I’m sending it to Oteslia.”

The Drake’s brows shot up.

“Velaaia failed? They must be hard to grow! I wonder how Erin did it. Say, you do that. I’ll just get more fire from her. And flowers.”

“Don’t you dare. I’ll have them—I’ve been meaning to stop by again. Maybe with a little gift. I’ll tell you what, Saliss. You can probably make a potent sleeping agent. Burning the petals when dried creates an amazing soporific effect…”

“Ooh. Do tell. Can I see it?”

“No.”

The two [Alchemist]’s banter was an anomaly in a sea of talk that all went invariably one way. Belchan, the Gnoll tribes. Tails and Scales was discussing what they’d seen. In fact, Chaldion and Grimalkin soon became a center of that discussion.

“Oteslia will not send an army. Neither will Zeres or the other Walled Cities; the declaration of war was symbolic.”

Chaldion was reassuring some clients. He’d been communicating with the other Walled Cities. He sighed.

“Oteslia does have the highest Gnoll-to-Drake population of all the Walled Cities. The Grand Gardener must have decided to make the declaration.”

“And now it’s war. Good. I say that nation deserves it.”

Felkhr nodded. A cluster of Gnolls and Drakes were sitting together. One of the other Drakes waved a claw.

“But it’s the King of Destruction! He might have cause, but this could all be some—trick.”

“Trick?”

All the Gnolls present looked at the Drake. She wavered.

“Well, not a trick, trick. But a—casus belli. You know? He’s still the King of Destruction. We shouldn’t be glad he’s attacking Belchan. This is exactly what we should be worried about. He was bound by his oath, and if he gets stronger…”

Another Gnoll slowly ground her cigar into an ashtray.

“And? The King of Destruction’s gotten a lot of talk, but I don’t remember him ever attacking Gnoll tribes. Seems like there was one good Human I just saw. And it wasn’t Belchan.”

That provoked a lot of nods, again from the Gnolls. They were angry. The Drakes were worried, but the Gnolls—more than one was nodding at the King of Destruction. Chaldion sipped from his drink, watching carefully as they spoke.

“I remember back when I used to live with my tribe. There were some cities we never went near. Ever. One time, we had to stop at one and the first thing I smelled was a hide cloak. Made of—”

Felkhr made a disgusted sound. Some of the Drakes looked uneasy. But the other Gnolls were nodding.

“Small tribes have it worst. I thought I recognized that Chieftain. Nelrra. Um—um—his tribe’s the Dustfur clan. That’s the one.”

“It’s not all like that. Surely…”

“What would you know? Pallass is one thing. But when they talk about some of the cities—”

“Chandrar looks just as bad.”

“But they have a [King] who went to war for them. That’s something.

“But they’re not going to the Meeting of Tribes. Or will they?”

“Surely not. But when you think about it, look—I’m not saying I support the King of Destruction. But…

“White fur, all of them. Do you think it’s really true that—?”

Worrying talk, for some. Rufelt kept his face straight. But Chaldion could see the writing as if someone was indeed scrawling it on the walls. The Gnolls in Pallass, across Izril, were thinking. And their opinion of the King of Destruction was changing.

Grimalkin kept his own counsel, plowing through his food. But he kept a single sushi on one of his plates. And he kept staring at it. The almost unburned cigar lay next to the plate. The Magus frowned.

“Sushi.”

He would remember that.

 

—-

 

When the world shifted, butterflies across the world caught indigestion. Or something like that. But concretely, the events such as the war in Belchan could add a dimension to the thinking of Gnolls in Drake cities. It could inform and change the Meeting of Tribes, move a Walled City, from Pallass to Oteslia.

And sometimes, it didn’t matter at all. It was just entertainment. Horrible, but true. Sometimes it would never matter. And what concerned the fate, rights, and dignity of Gnolls mattered little to…everyone else.

Elsewhere, in a farmhouse, Wailant Strongheart leaned back in his plush chair. He waved a hand and nearly sloshed his drink out of his cup.

“Fuck, that’s interesting. Sounds like there’s gonna be another war. Shame about those Gnoll kids. What’s the white fur mean again? That little Gnoll who came over had it. Another drink? Here.”

He waved a bottle at his guest. Said guest refused, and Wailant shrugged.

He was a humble [Farmer], in his farmhouse, entertaining a guest. Although that sentence got almost every nuance of the situation completely wrong.

Wailant Strongheart was a [Farmer]. He was also a [Pirate]. He had retired, but he was still almost as fit as he’d been in his heyday of marauding the seas. He had tattoos, some of them magical, and a magical cutlass.

He was not wearing the cutlass now, but reclining in a chair in his farmhouse. And yes, it was a farmhouse in that it was a house on his farm. But it was hardly…rustic.

The home Strongheart had built for his family was large, and extravagant. Not on the level of say, the nobility, but a rich place. There were paintings by [Artists], one of a ship caught in the middle of a storm, the second of Wailant, his wife, and a portrait shot of his family. There was a little girl in the frame.

Wailant also had a hardwood floor carpeted by a Chandrarian rug. He had a library of books over there—two shelves of neatly arranged tomes, a few old sea maps, and his furniture was all padded. No hardwood backing for the [Farmer] taking his ease.

Right now, Wailant was sitting at a table filled with food. The remains of dinner, rather. He’d had a bowl of the stuff, with some long-grained rice.

It was fried bits of dough and meat. Dumplings. And Wailant actually had this fermented black sauce. It was food from overseas, again. He’d broken it out as a rare treat and to entertain his guest with.

His guest was a Hobgoblin, incidentally. Numbtongue sat in the chair, staring at the small scrying mirror that Wailant had bought to see what all this fuss was about. The Hobgoblin was still a bit tense.

Firstly, because he’d just witnessed the dead Gnolls, the [King] declaring war, and the Hobgoblin felt like he was almost in the proximity of that raging Human, for all he was thousands of miles away. Numbtongue couldn’t help but wonder how you killed a Human like that.

He could tell that Human was strong just by the way he walked; he looked like a Redfang in how he moved. Deliberate. Trained. So had the others. And strong Humans made Goblins nervous.

The second reason Numbtongue was tense was because he was here. In aforementioned farmhouse, with Wailant and…he turned as someone came from the kitchen.

“Did I miss anything?”

“Nothing, love. Just them showing this High King or whatsit. Medain. I remember sailing there once. Ornery bastards, all of them. You can get into a fight with adventurers in any bar in the port. We have any more of the good wine?”

Wailant waved his cup. His wife, Viceria Strongheart and a [Green Mage] from Wistram, came out. She had a bottle in her hands.

“Before we drink, dear—a word?”

Wailant paused in gulping his wine. He stood up slowly. Viceria smiled at Numbtongue.

“One moment, Numbtongue?”

“Sure.”

The Hobgoblin stared. He had had a dinner here. After Wailant had helped smuggle him from Celum, he’d found himself invited—dragged, really—to the Strongheart family farm.

It was a fairly small farm, if you compared it to, say, what Erin might have thought of as a farm from her world. Wailant worked only a few fields, and they were all small. But they had tremendous yields, faster than a regular field by two or even four times. And one of his specialties was the beloved and expensive Sage’s Grass.

It had made the man rich. Wailant, along with his wife, were decent [Farmers], but they were both high-level enough to protect a farm like this themselves. They had magical fences, wards, and—well, Numbtongue had met Viceria.

She was a lovely woman, with brown hair tied back in a braid that reached down to her waist. She wore a robe at home, and she looked younger than she was. Numbtongue only knew she was older because Wailant had told him, and his wife had laughed and kicked Wailant under the table.

The surreal part was how polite she was to Numbtongue. And how relaxed Wailant was. They’d drawn him into their home, treating him like any other guest. And for the Hobgoblin, that was a strange experience.

He’d been relieved that the dinner had been mostly watching the events at Belchan. Numbtongue began to eat more of the dumplings with rice as he listened to the couple in the kitchen. He had good ears and he was still hungry.

“What’s the matter? Is this about Celum?”

“Yes it is. Don’t dodge me again, Wailant. Bringing back a guest? I know something happened. Tell me.”

A pause. Wailant coughed.

“Okay, so I may have been banned—”

Wailant!

“Listen, hear me out. There was this [Merchant], see—”

Numbtongue listened to Wailant’s version of the events as he filled his bowl again. What a strange place. Wailant was apparently Garia’s father. And he seemed nice. Numbtongue had still picked his escape route in case this turned out to be a trap. Side window. Two steps and he’d go through. He was pretty sure the food wasn’t poisoned, too, but you never knew.

“—So, there I was, and she rolls on past me with a smirk. I may have done something to her wheels, but I asked her to move first! And then, er, well, she hired a bunch of [Mercs] to threaten me!”

“And you slapped her. Wailant…”

“I know.”

The man’s voice was guilty. Viceria sighed quietly. Numbtongue stared at the two Drakes gesticulating to a map in the scrying orb.

“Wailant…”

“I know, I know. But you should have seen that woman’s face! Riding about as if she owned the road because she had a better class than mine.”

“I understand, believe me, Wailant, dear. But we can’t afford to lose more clients—”

“I’ll take care of it. If I have to find ‘em myself. I can ride to Remendia or Wales tomorrow. It’ll be fine, Vicci. We’re not lacking for gold and we could pawn half of the stuff here if we had to—”

“That’s not the point.”

Another sigh. Numbtongue’s ears twitched. Wailant paused.

“I know. I’ll mind myself. Maybe see about paying a fine? If it takes an apology to get them to let me in faster—I’ll do it.”

“Thank you. And we’ll go together to Remendia.”

“But—”

“We’ll set up the wards. But we go together.”

Wailant made a grumbling noise, but he must have agreed because Numbtongue heard nothing more for a second. After a moment, Wailant spoke.

“You haven’t asked me about the Goblin this entire night, my darling.”

Numbtongue eyed the window. And here was his moment…or was the door better? He had seen the trap runes on the door, but they hadn’t activated. Yet.

But Viceria’s voice was lightly amused.

“What about him? I assumed he was the same Goblin that Garia mentioned. Or is it five?”

Numbtongue stopped eating for a moment. Then, he continued eating because it was good food. His old comrades would have approved of eating.

“Didn’t ask. Let’s go ask the bugger, shall we?”

The two reappeared from the kitchen. Numbtongue waved at them as if he hadn’t heard a thing. Viceria smiled as she sat down.

“Apologies, Numbtongue, was it? Would you like another drink?”

“…Yes. Please?”

Numbtongue stared as Viceria reached for the wine bottle.

“I’ll have some too, lady love.”

Wailant lifted his glass hopefully. Viceria shot him a cool look and served Numbtongue first. The Hobgoblin felt like someone was pulling a prank on him. He hoped it was Erin.

This couple was beyond strange for one reason. Not that they were hospitable. Erin was beyond hospitable and the awe of that had actually faded with time. Just a bit. But Wailant and Viceria were different from even Erin.

“So, you told me a bit of how you got here. Mind sharing it again? Wait till you hear this, Vicci. This Hob apparently fought his way through the Goblin Lord’s lot, ended up near Liscor in that inn Garia likes. Some kind of elite Hobgoblin tribe.”

“Really? Do tell us. The Goblin Lord’s army passed by Celum, but our home was left alone.”

“Good thing for them. The cellar’s strong enough to keep all of ‘em out and they’d have died by the hundreds on the trap spells. Don’t glare, Vicci! I can say that—he’s not one of the Goblin Lord’s buddies. I think. Right?”

Wailant snorted. Viceria smiled as she filled her husband’s glass. The Hobgoblin surreptitiously sniffed the drink. But he was sure neither was drunk yet.

Numbtongue had never met anyone who didn’t care. Not about him being a Hobgoblin in Celum; that was why Wailant had brought him to his home. And he’d certainly tried to beat Numbtongue into a pulp when he’d thought the Hob was a threat.

But when he knew what Numbtongue was, he didn’t really seem to…care. Again, not about the fact that Numbtongue was a Hobgoblin who’d survived against all odds. Wailant respected that. But the sheer fact of Numbtongue being a Goblin who could think? Speak? Wailant Strongheart took that at face value.

Even Erin treated it as a fact to be shared as far and wide as possible. But Wailant didn’t. It was as natural as breathing. A fascination to meet a friendly Goblin to be sure, but not miraculous. He explained after Numbtongue had recounted his adventurers in brief.

“See, I’m not surprised to find a Hob who can speak. Vicci is, but she’s being polite. And she’s Wistram. Used to weird things.”

He grinned at his wife. Viceria smiled at Numbtongue. She had her own cup, which she’d filled with a generous helping of wine.

Numbtongue felt awkward around her; a Human that smiled at him was a rare thing and immediately made him want to check for hidden daggers. He didn’t know her, like Erin or Lyonette, or Octavia and Drassi. He didn’t trust her.

“My husband lacks tact, Numbtongue. But I am open to new meetings. I do know Goblins aren’t savages.”

She gave Wailant a look. He shrugged apologetically as he took a gulp. Viceria raised her cup—and downed it.

Numbtongue paused. The wine was strong. He was on his second cup, as was Wailant. Viceria caught up in one go, and filled her cup. Then she took another deep gulp. Numbtongue had to sniff the jar surreptitiously, but it was the same wine. Wailant laughed as he saw that.

“And my girl calls me a lush. Well, I get properly drunk. Viceria—she’s from Wistram. And [Pirate] ships run out of alcohol! My lady love has two bags of holding in each boot.”

Numbtongue looked. Viceria had sandals on. The Hobgoblin blushed mildly as she wiggled her toes and winked at him.

“You were saying, Wailant?”

“Right. Goblins. I’ve met more of you lot. At sea.”

“What?”

Numbtongue nearly dropped his bowl of rice. Wailant grinned at his expression.

“Surprised? ‘Swhy I knew you weren’t a monster. Mind you, it surprised the hell out of me when you appeared. Sorry for knocking you around a bit. Don’t know my own strength. And I’m good on land or sea.”

Numbtongue shrugged and muttered into his cup.

“I didn’t use my guitar. Didn’t want to hurt you.”

Hah! See? I knew I liked this one.”

Wailant reached over and slapped Numbtongue on the back. Viceria laughed at Numbtongue’s expression. She floated over a bowl of cold dumplings and made them hot again.

“But Goblins are monsters. Everyone knows that. Not at sea?”

Wailant shook his head in response to Numbtongue’s question.

“Goblins? Monsters? Sure, we know what everyone says. Goblin Kings? Bastards. But Goblins, savages? That’s just what they tell you, in your fancy landfolk nations. Even in Izril; you think you’re free, but all you know is what Wistram and all the other rulers tell you. Like that line about Rhir, ‘the Blighted Kingdom’, hah!”

He was half-talking to Numbtongue as a representation of ‘landfolk’, half to Viceria. She sighed; it sounded like an old quarrel.

“Wailant, they’re right about Rhir.”

The former [Pirate] rolled his eyes.

“Pah, you’ve never met them, Vicci. Demons aren’t so bad. They’re a folk. Drowned Men and [Pirates] trade with them. So do some of the Dullahans. And Drathians. They’re not any more monstrous than the things you can find in the Blighted Kingdom. Like their damned [Flesh Reapers]. I’ve never been far inland, but the Demons are just people. No worse than their enemies, or places like Roshal.”

“What’s Roshal?”

Numbtongue was embarrassed by the laughter. But Wailant explained, pointing at one of his maps. It was of the world, in miniature. The ends of the world were clearly marked on either end, as were major ports. The one he pointed to was on the southwestern side of Chandrar.

“Slave port. Lailight Scintillion, the port-capital of Roshal and the Market of Fables. One of the wonders of the world. You take prisoners, you sell them there. And you never cross the [Slavers]. It’s a wondrous place. So long as you don’t stare too hard at the shadows. I looked, once. And I never went ashore again. I’ve been around, you see.”

“And you know so much more than any [Mage] or educated sort.”

Viceria raised her brows. Wailant scowled.

“I know enough to know what’s whale shit. I’ve seen Goblins at sea. In [Pirate] ships, no less! Even once or twice on their own ships. Nasty buggers in a fight, but they leave you alone unless they’re [Pirates]. You can even trade with ‘em. If you think they won’t gut you as soon as you lower the gangplank. But that was how I was raised. Not on tales of Goblins as primitive monsters and so on.”

He pointed at the scrying orb.

“Wistram is the worst of ‘em all! Damned liars, the lot. Always plotting and tricking people. You saw how they were setting up those freaks in A’ctelios? They were trying to set up the King of Destruction. Only, they got caught in their own trap. Shifty bastards.”

Numbtongue looked sideways at Viceria. She was rolling her eyes, exasperated.

“Isn’t your wife from Wistram?”

The couple laughed. Wailant took another gulp.

“Damned right! I married one of the sneakiest! Don’t be surprised by her nice demeanor. She’s craftier than I am, and twice as evil. That’s how I know they’re crooked as a [Seductress] with a shiv hidden across her back! Or hidden up her…”

He leaned over and whispered into Numbtongue’s ear. The Hobgoblin paused.

“…No.”

“Happened once to a fellow I knew. Then she stabbed the rest of him. I swear it happened on salt!”

Numbtongue edged away from Wailant a bit. Viceria looked at him and laid a hand on her husband’s arm.

“I think it’s time we let our guest speak, Wailant.”

“Right, right. Hey, Numbtongue. You ever been to sea?”

It was a challenge. Wailant grinned, knowing the answer. Numbtongue frowned.

“No. But I have been in the High Passes.”

“Really?”

Both Viceria and Wailant looked up. The [Pirate] gave Numbtongue another look up and down.

“What’d you fight there. Anything nasty?”

The Hobgoblin shrugged, face straight.

“Not too bad. Do you know Gargoyles?”

Wailant waved off the bravado.

“Gargoyles are tiny bastards compared to a Kraken. You know them? Fleet-killers. Like Sword Whales—they literally crack ships apart unless they’re enchanted! Or—Reefeyes. You drop in the water with those and you’re as good as dead unless you’re at least Level 30 or your mates haul you out in seconds. Land monsters—hah! What’ve you killed on land that’s worse than I’ve seen at sea?”

“Crelers.”

The [Pirate] coughed on his drink. Viceria clapped her hands together with a smile, laughing in delight. Wailant glanced at her, and then looked at Numbtongue, casually.

“Oh? Well, they’re twice as tricky in the water. But er, how many did you run into?”

“Thousands.”

Wailant stared. There was nothing for it but for Numbtongue to relate the battle at the inn. When he was done, Viceria laughed.

“Have you done that, Wailant? I think one of your guests has finally told a better tale than a fine seadog.”

“Argh. Do you have to rub it in?”

“Yes, and relentlessly. Wailant loves telling his sea tales, thank you for taking him down a peg.”

The [Green Mage] winked at Numbtongue. He bared his teeth.

“What about your stories?”

Viceria blinked and both she and Wailant laughed.

I am poor at fighting. The second monster I ever ran into outside of Wistram nearly killed me. It did kill my entire escort, until Wailant saved me. I rather think I’m three times as good at actual combat as I was before we met. There’s a world of difference from learning to cast combat spells in Wistram to seeing an actual monster.”

“That’s how we met, by the by. I saved her, and we got to talking. Among other things.”

Wailant grinned at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin saw his wife roll her eyes. He thought he liked Wailant, a bit. The man was sort of Garen-like. Overbearing, but in a good way to his friends. The [Pirate]/[Farmer] had to recount the story of how he had persuaded Viceria to stay with him, and how she had made his farming venture an actual success.

“Get yourself a lady like I did, Hobgoblin. It’s the only way to live.”

Wailant finished with that sage advice. Numbtongue almost caught himself nodding. Viceria put her hands on her hips.

“And why is it his job and yours to get a woman, Wailant? Can’t we choose?”

The husband laughed, his face flushed with drink.

“Not a chance! Because no lady’d choose one of us, right, Numbtongue?”

He grinned. And Viceria and Numbtongue both burst out laughing. Viceria leaned over.

“Tell me, Numbtongue. I’ve heard Goblins have [Shamans]. Have you ever seen them casting higher-level magics?”

“Here we go. Magic talk. Don’t let her ask you about spells or you’ll talk your mouth off.”

Wailant reached for the wine bottle, found it was empty, and got up. Numbtongue was explaining that the Redfangs hadn’t had many Goblin [Shamans]—a few, but they had died in battle as often as the [Warriors]. Viceria sighed.

“A shame. I was studying different types of green magic. That’s my specialty, incidentally. As a [Green Mage], I wanted to visit Oteslia. Well, I ended up here and I don’t regret it. I had a life of academia ahead of me, and I was rather sheltered—I grew up in Wistram, you know. Most [Mages] do and it leaves us sheltered.”

“Sheltered is better than unsheltered.”

Numbtongue opined. Viceria glanced at him.

“Yes, well, I suppose it is. But we tend to die in accidents, or underestimating our enemies when we leave the academy. I imagine that’s quite amusing to Goblins.”

“A bit. Redfangs…hunt [Mages]. Sort of easy.”

The [Bard] coughed. Viceria glanced at him.

“How so?”

“If we see robes, we run away. [Mages] chase. Forget to put barriers. So then a [Rogue] or [Archer]…sorry.”

Numbtongue gestured, embarrassed. Viceria shrugged.

“I imagine many Wistram [Mages] have it coming. It is an ongoing conflict. But that’s rather disheartening. What happens if a [Mage] is wise enough to keep their barrier up?”

“Run away. Shoot arrows from afar. [Mages] get tired. Have trouble hitting Goblins with [Fireballs], Lightning is the worst.”

The Hobgoblin scowled. Viceria nodded.

“It is, isn’t it? I don’t know if you know this, but Wistram [Mages] duel all the time. And lightning tends to carry a lot of duels. We even have—had—an Archmage famous for her ability with lightning. But among [Mages], it’s seen as a bit of a gimmick. Anti-electricity spells are quite common. And you can stop lightning other ways.”

“Really?”

Numbtongue’s ears perked up. Viceria stared at them and then nodded.

“A rod of metal in the ground will reliably draw the lightning away.”

Really?

Wailant returned and had to give his opinion on lightning at sea—don’t do it. Fire was a nightmare on ships. Numbtongue found himself discussing fighting spells, which was something he knew. Before he had realized it, he was in his third cup and everything felt—better.

“Entertainment. You want to see this. You see, on a [Pirate] ship we don’t fight like landfolk. Formations. [Strategists]. Horses! It’s all action! Boarding the decks! And you fight with a cutlass in one hand and a wand in the other! Or a crossbow or something! See?”

Wailant heaved himself up and went for a set of wands in a case. He tossed one at Numbtongue.

“Don’t worry, it’s just [Light Arrow]. Weak spell, but it’s good for fun. Watch—come on.”

He led Numbtongue and Viceria outside. Wailant had, for his entertainment, set up targets, from glass bottles to metal cans and painted targets. No bulls eye targets for him; he’d drawn in glowing paint, or made clumsy illustrations of sea monsters.

Scit! Scit! That’s the spell. You try!”

Wailant was drunk, but he managed to hit one of the cans on the fourth try. A glowing, orange arrow of light shot from his wand as Viceria laughed. Numbtongue raised his wand, swaying, and tried to aim it. He’d used wands before; they were a nice treasure after a battle for Redfangs and greatly desired.

Scit.

The blue arrow shot from his wand, slower than an arrow, but bright and colorful. He nearly hit one of the cans. Wailant laughed as Numbtongue nailed his target after five tries.

“My turn. Scit. Scit. Scit.

Viceria hit two of her three targets dead-on. She was a good shot. Wailant and Numbtongue applauded, then they took aim at the harder targets. At some point, Wailant decided it was getting hot.

It was a summer’s night and they were still drinking. Numbtongue felt—welcome. He was almost certain he wasn’t going to be attacked and Viceria and Wailant were laughing. And plying him with more drinks. He watched as Wailant tore off his tunic.

“You get naked at sea! Fuck swimming with clothes! Damn them!”

He hurled his tunic to the ground. Numbtongue was nodding—until he saw Viceria toss off her robe. He turned. And then he discovered that nudism was a universal trait. Saliss would have fit right in. And what was Numbtongue to do? Well, Goblins didn’t need clothes either. Just for bugs and keeping warm.

 

—-

 

Later that evening, three figures wavered around the outskirts of the Strongheart farm. Lights illuminated the dark buildings and the barnyard animals wisely kept indoors as the three figures shot spells at targets.

They were, all three of them, naked, and shooting wands of [Light Arrow] at some targets on fences, the roof of the farmhouse—a few hanging from a tree—and very drunk.

That was how Garia found them. The City Runner was jogging up to the house dragging a literal door behind her. It was tied to her waist via a rope and she’d pulled it all the way from Celum; a glittering mana stone lay on the front. She stopped as the three figures turned.

“Who goes there? This is private property. Piss off!”

Wailant shouted. Viceria pointed her wand.

“[Light Beam].”

Garia shaded her eyes as the light illuminated her. There was a pause and Wailant shouted.

“Garia! My girl! Hey! Hey Numb-Hob! Look! There she is!”

He poked a wavering figure. As Garia approached and the light turned into a ball, illuminating all three, she saw a naked Numbtongue blinking at her. Garia stared. She stared at her mother, her father, and Numbtongue.

They had no clothes on. Garia threw up her hands and shouted.

Mom! Dad! What are you doing?

“Entertaining our guests! Come here!”

Wailant went to hug his daughter. He was very drunk. So were Viceria and Numbtongue. Garia dodged him.

“Put some clothes on! Do you know how worried Erin was? I ran all this way—”

“Garia, dear, where’s your bag of holding? Why are you dragging a door?”

“It’s exercise, Mother! Mother! Put some clothes on!”

“My girl, you get naked at sea. What, do you think you swim with clothes on all the time?”

Wailant paused, addressing Garia—or the air next to her. She glared.

Dad.

Numbtongue, head spinning, saw Garia arguing with her parents. He had to sit down. He was rather glad she was arguing about the clothes. It was hard to stop staring at Viceria. She didn’t seem to mind, but he did. Naked female Goblins were distracting enough, thank you.

At this point, Pyrite, who had been silent, helpfully added his memories of naked Goblins, opining that there were only a few differences. He had a number of very unhelpful memories. In vivid detail. Nice memories, but ones that were not helpful here—Numbtongue decided to punch himself in the groin. Then he curled up.

The [Bard] didn’t know Garia well. She’d been in the inn a few times, met him and the Redfangs. Or so he thought? But he really only knew Garia from Erin.

Apparently, she’d changed. The Garia standing in front of her parents and waving her hands was Ryoka-ish. But Numbtongue had never met this Ryoka, so that too was lost on him.

What Erin meant by that was that Garia was slim. She had been heavier, apparently. Which was a good thing for Goblins, a mark that you had enough food to live on, but not for Human females. Whatever the case, Garia had changed drastically when she’d gained the [Martial Artist] class. Her Skill, [Weight Control], had led to…

Well, this. Garia Strongheart was, in Numbtongue’s eyes, a young woman with black hair, not long and wavy but full. She had a bit of blue running through hair, just streaks, a legacy from her mother’s side.

She was also incredibly toned. Slim was not the word. Because slim implied a lack of muscle. And Garia Strongheart had muscle. But her body had shed almost all of its excess fat, and she was much changed.

For one thing—she had inherited some of her parent’s disposition for lack of clothing. Garia’s stomach was bare, exposing some magnificent abdominal muscles. Combined with her emerald green-eyes, a trait shared by all three Stronghearts, she was striking.

Numbtongue certainly appreciated the sight. But he decided not to punch himself in the groin again as he got up. Wincing, he looked around for his pants.

Garia had been shy, loyal, but timid around Ryoka and Fals in the past. But the Garia of today was more outspoken. Certainly more confident as she harangued her parents. But then, she was at home, and Numbtongue had never known the other one. He eyed her as she talked with her parents.

In a way, Viceria and Wailant also explained why Garia was Garia. She had always seemed ‘normal’ in Erin’s description, a good-natured City Runner. But she had an extraordinary family, one she never talked about. But that almost made sense.

If you had parents like Wailant and Viceria, it was hard to follow in either one’s footsteps. And—seeing two drunk parents staggering around blasting [Light Arrows] around at night might make you yearn for a bit of normality.

Certainly, the exasperation in Garia’s tone was familiar.

“Dad, I heard you were banned from Celum. And you hit an unarmed [Merchant]!”

“She had it coming. She sicced a bunch of [Mercenaries] on me. Harpy. Anyways, look what I found.”

“I know what you found! You kidnapped Numbtongue! He’s part of Erin’s inn? Remember? You were supposed to visit?”

Viceria sighed.

“Garia, don’t shout at your father. Why is your midriff bared? And what are you wearing? Are you trying to make yourself a target on the road?”

She pointed to Garia’s wrapped chest. Which was exposing her bosom in a way part of Numbtongue appreciated—and her parents did not. Viceria frowned. Garia glared at her.

Mom! You’re the naked one!”

“And I am naked at home, with your father.”

“In front of a guest!

“So? He’s not one of them raping Goblin bastards. I’d cut him apart before he did. Don’t be racist, my girl.”

Garia stared at Wailant. Viceria murmured.

“It’s speciesist, dear.”

“Right, that.”

Garia threw up her arms.

“I’m home.

She looked at Numbtongue. He paused in putting his pants on and waved.

“Hi.”

Garia stared at him. Then she stared, fascinated.

“Oh…hi.”

She didn’t look away. Wailant and Viceria turned to look at Numbtongue. He hurried to put on the pants. Viceria eyed her daughter and smiled. Wailant scowled.

“Alright, clothes on!”

 

—-

 

A little bit later, Numbtongue was eating cold rice and dumplings again. He rather liked it cold; Garia was eating it hot, and her parents were sitting around their dinner table.

Garia coming home was a bit of a rare occurrence, or so it seemed to Numbtongue. Her parents were pestering her with questions.

“And you’ve just been running? That’s it?”

Viceria sighed as her daughter uncooperatively described her life in the intervening months since she’d been back. Garia shrugged.

“That’s right, mom. It’s just my job. You know.”

“Nothing interesting happened? At all? No fascinating deliveries?”

“Meet any [Bandits] on the road? Monsters?”

Wailant was sipping from some milk to sober up. That sounded good to Numbtongue so he helped himself. Garia glanced at him and shrugged.

“I mean, a few. But I’m not a big name, Mom. You know that. I’m making more of a name now; I still do the big deliveries of heavy stuff, but I’m saving up for a bag of holding.”

“You could take your father’s old one—”

“I can afford it myself! Besides, it’s good training. And I’m safe. I can wear what I want; I knocked out a [Cutthroat] on the road and he had a horse.”

“Aha! Tell us about that!”

“I kicked the horse and then I punched him. That’s all, dad. I don’t take risks, like Ryoka. But I’m getting better requests.”

“And how many of them are from young men?”

Viceria murmured. Garia flushed.

Some. And so what? But I’m faster!”

“Any of them try to put their hands on you? Remember what I said about the plague you can catch—”

Dad.

Wailant.

The man subsided. He glanced at Numbtongue. Then he cleared his throat.

“So, darling girl. You’re uh, looking different again. Been a while since we last saw you.”

“I lost more weight. See?”

Garia indicated her body. Wailant paused.

“Yeah. Good for you? Anyways, here’s Numbtongue. You know him, from the inn?”

Garia paused. She looked at her father and nodded.

“Yeah. Erin sent me, actually. She’s worried about Numbtongue, even though Viceria sent a [Message] saying he was safe. She’s hoping you can let him go through the door.”

“Bah. Let him stay the night. What’s the worry?”

“He’s a Hob, dad. You said you punched him!”

“I kicked him in the nuts. And that’s because no one told me he was allowed in the city. But now we’re chums. He’s a fun one. And he likes it here, right Numbtongue?”

“Hi.”

Numbtongue waved at Garia. She nodded at him, trying to smile. She glanced at her parents. Wailant was looking his daughter up and down.

“So—when d’you think you’ll stop changing around, Garia? It seems like you’re fine enough for anyone’s fancy. Not that you weren’t before—”

Garia stood up abruptly. She glared at Wailant.

“I’m going to the bathroom. One second.”

She walked out of the room. Numbtongue paused with a mouthful of food. He saw Viceria glaring at Wailant.

“Stop pestering her! This is why she hasn’t come back!”

“I just—okay, fine! Fine!”

Wailant protested as Viceria aimed her wand at him. He scowled and folded his arms.

“What’s the problem? People trying to have sex with her?”

Numbtongue looked blankly from Viceria to Wailant. The [Green Mage] started. Then she motioned at Wailant. He grimaced.

“That’d be one thing. How do I explain to you? Well—just look at her. Look what they did, those damned women. Harpies, all of them. You saw how she looked?”

Numbtongue nodded.

“Seems fine to me. Good muscle.”

He patted one arm. Viceria did laugh at that. Wailant shook his head.

“Not that. Her! Damn, you don’t know what she looked like. Take a look—where’s that picture she made us take down, Vicci?”

“I have it. Here. Before she comes back—”

“She’s probably going for a walk. I’ll keep an eye out.”

Viceria hurried into one of the storage rooms. She came back, levitating a painting out. It was of Garia. The [Artist] had clearly embellished her features as one does for a portrait, but he’d kept what was essentially her. And Numbtongue…shrugged.

“Bigger. Ah.”

He remembered his conversations with Erin, and Lyonette worrying about Mrsha being pudgy. Viceria nodded. Wailant muttered as he stared at the old Garia.

“She used to be a sturdy girl. Not gigantic, mind. But properly tough. The kind you’d see on any crew and think twice about tussling with in a ship fight. Dead gods, the women I knew, who could squeeze your head to pieces with one arm!”

Numbtongue nodded. He knew the same types of Hobs, male and female. He still failed to see Wailant’s problem.

“She decided to change herself. She’s not the little girl I raised. She’s lost weight—I’d not recognize her walking down the street. All because that’s the way she thinks she ought to look. Changing her body around like a Drowned Woman with her Skill—what next? Chop off an arm and replace it with one of them fancy magic ones?”

“Shush.”

Viceria came back around the table with a scowl, having put the painting away. She glared at her husband, looking genuinely annoyed with him for once.

“You should treat your daughter’s choices with respect, Wailant Strongheart. We ought to let her be what she wants. So long as she’s not hurting herself, what does it matter? It’s her choice. [Illusionists] do exactly what she does. Except they can only pretend. I use my tonics and spells; why is her Skill wrong?”

She looked hard at her husband. And Wailant hesitated. He opened and closed his mouth, swallowing arguments, and at last, shook it. He looked at Numbtongue.

“Get yourself a good woman, Numbtongue. And it’s get. No lady’ll fish for copper, eh?”

Numbtongue smiled. When Garia returned, looking sour but calmer, no one said anything about how she looked. And the talk quickly went back to Erin and the inn.

“So there’s this magic door that she got from Albez. I heard about that. The Horns of Hammerad. And they gave it to her and we can walk through it and go to the inn. Anytime we want? And it’s sitting on my porch?”

Wailant stared at Garia. She and Numbtongue nodded.

“That’s right, dad. And apparently, Erin’s banned from Celum. Or—she’s decided to take the door away. There was a huge fuss. The Players of Celum are moving to Liscor too. It all happened this evening. I ran the door out of the city, but Erin’s still dealing with the fallout.”

“How’d you get the door?”

Numbtongue looked at Garia. He had a hard time imagining all the Humans would have let her. She smiled.

“I grabbed it and ran.”

“Hah! Hustle like a [Pirate]! There’s my girl.”

Wailant fondly poured a drink around. Viceria was tapping her lips.

“I was meaning to see the Players of Celum. Everyone’s been talking about them, but we had that infestation of moles, and I’ve been travelling to Wales—this door goes to Liscor? Without any delay? What about the mana cost?”

“It’s a magic door, mom. And Erin’s inn apparently charges it.”

“It must sit on a leyline.”

“It doesn’t work all the time. Can’t send many people to Pallass. Two or four per day only.”

Numbtongue nodded around the table. Wailant choked on his drink.

“It goes where?

Garia grinned at Numbtongue, pleased at her parent’s reactions. She explained and Wailant’s brows shot all the way up.

“Really? Pallass? I sell to [Traders] going south, but only during the winter. You can’t get bugger-all past the Bloodfields. But this magic door, it goes all the way?”

He looked at his wife. Viceria leaned over.

“Garia, why isn’t this news larger than it is? Every [Merchant] in a hundred miles should be lined up to use this door. Not just them.”

“Well…that’s the reason Erin was kicked out of Celum, actually. She has a deal not to interfere with trade and the Runner’s Guild and apparently people were.”

“Because that’s smart. Hold on. Pallass. Liscor. Anywhere else it goes?”

“Um, the Bloodfields. And…”

“Invrisil soon. Horns of Hammerad are taking it there. Going slowly. Probably because of lazy half-Elves.”

Numbtongue grunted. He refilled his bowl. Garia offered him some of the dark sauce and he poured it over his rice. They were both eating more than Wailant and Viceria, who’d long since stopped; their metabolisms meant they were packing it in.

“This is really good, dad. Is this the rice you grew?”

“Sure is. Beats buying it from imports. Your mother made one of them wet fields. Take a look in the morning. Don’t fall in. We had to enchant it so bugs wouldn’t find a home, but it’s well enough. Pain to harvest. I’m hiring help to do it next time.”

Wailant picked at his teeth. Then he focused on Numbtongue.

“So, this door doesn’t’ go all the way to Pallass. But it can take some people, can it? Pallass loves Sage’s Grass. Say, Numbtongue. You think I could get a deal with this [Innkeeper]?”

Numbtongue looked up warily. Garia cut in as she offered him the last dumplings. Numbtongue took half and she grinned at him before looking sternly at her father.

“You can ask her tomorrow, dad. Mom, can you send a message to Erin telling her not to worry? I’m here, but Numbtongue’ll stay the night. That should be fine.”

“I can go back—”

All three Stronghearts shook their head, for once in unison.

“And let you go without hospitality? We’ve got guest beds. Garia, tell me more about the door. You too, Numbtongue.”

Dad, Numbtongue’s not the boss. Don’t pressure him!”

Garia warned Wailant. He grinned, throwing an arm around Numbtongue.

“Sure, sure. You don’t speak for her. Erin Solstice, you said? Have another drink.”

And Numbtongue felt a bit uneasy. But Garia gave him a reassuring thumbs-up. He didn’t know what her plan was—until he saw her disappear into the kitchen. When she came back, Wailant insisted on everyone having another round.

Garia poured the drinks. Numbtongue sniffed, smelled the wine and the other, more potent alcohol, and took only a sip. Wailant downed his cup and went over.

“Honestly, Garia.”

Viceria had taken a deep drink, but she only sighed at her daughter’s duplicity. Garia stuck out her tongue at her father.

“He’ll be fine. You want me to help put him in bed?”

“No need.”

Viceria sighed. She flicked her fingers and the [Green Mage] and her husband stood. Well, she was levitating him. Numbtongue stared.

“I’ll put him in bed and give him something for the drink. Too much is poisonous, Garia.”

“And you have all kinds of hangover and anti-drunkenness potions. Dad’s pushy. He’d try and get you to agree to something. Watch out for my mom. She’ll try to do the same, which is why I’m here.”

Garia confided in Numbtongue. Viceria shot her daughter a cool look.

“It’s just business, Garia.”

“And Numbtongue’s a friend. So is Erin. The farm’s doing fine.

“There’s a [Trade War]—”

“Where are those the disposable wands dad likes to buy each time the [Merchant] comes around?”

The [Green Mage] sighed.

“I’ll put your father to bed. I might be a while. Garia, will you show Numbtongue our guest room?”

“Sure.”

Garia had a mildly triumphant look as she watched her parents disappear. She seemed proud, so Numbtongue kept chewing his last bites. He was stuffed. But drinking had made him hungry again, so here he was.

Then he and Garia were staring at each other. Awkwardly, now. It was the first time they’d really talked alone, for all Garia claimed friendship. She took a sip from her cup. Numbtongue paused and then nodded towards the parent’s bedroom.

“Your mom is powerful.”

Garia started.

“What? Oh, yeah. She is. I don’t really think about it, but mom is a full [Mage] of Wistram. She mostly just uses her magic to help with the farm, though.”

“Can you do magic?”

Numbtongue eyed Garia. She shook her head.

“Basic spells. I don’t have the talent. I have a few levels, but I don’t like studying magic. It’s confusing and it’s a lot of hard work. You have to spend like, twenty years to get good at it unless you’re a genius. And I’m not. Mom offered to teach me until I got into Wistram, but I was a [Farmer] and then I wanted to be a Runner.”

“Mm.”

The Hobgoblin nodded. After a moment, he gestured at the room Viceria had pulled Wailant through.

“Thank you.”

“It’s nothing. Sorry my dad kidnapped you. He’s pushy. He does that to people he likes.”

“It was good. I was hiding from the City Watch.”

“Yeah. Um—so. We haven’t talked much, but I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”

“About what?”

“The…battle at Liscor. Erin told me. I only heard about it. I’m—really sorry.”

“You didn’t do anything.”

The Hobgoblin half-turned away, pretending to stare at one of the paintings. Garia hesitated. She put a hand over the table.

“No, but I’m sorry it happened. I didn’t know the others, or you, really. But I’m…sorry. That’s all I wanted to say. Sorry.”

The [Bard] looked back. He stared at Garia. She flushed, and he wondered if that was what she had been like, from how Erin talked about her. But how much had changed? Perhaps, it was just what Wailant saw.

Skin-deep. Numbtongue paused, and closed his eyes, breathing in, and out. And then he nodded, slowly.

“Thank you.”

Garia smiled at him. She sighed as she put away the plates on the table and tossed them in the kitchen to be cleaned.

“I can show you to your room, but it’s just over there. Say—would you mind following me for a second? Mom’ll come back any second now and I don’t feel like answering questions about what kind of Runner I want to be. Or have her try and get you to sign a contract.”

She nodded towards the door. Numbtongue nodded and followed her.

Garia led Numbtongue a short ways from the farmhouse to the barn. Inside, cows and other animals looked up at the safety-lantern Garia lit. Magical light spilled from it, not fire. Good thing too; Numbtongue was familiar with how fast flames could burn things.

Like [Farms]. He’d participated in more than one Redfang raid for food. The Hobgoblin wished he didn’t remember that. Or the dead [Farmers] who sometimes fought back.

History lay between the two. Garia Strongheart had to have known Goblins are a menace, and Numbtongue had fought and fled Humans. But neither said anything about it. They had history, but the two of them had never met.

Now, Garia stood in the barn and silently adopted a pose. She lowered her posture, changed her footwork, and did…a punch.

Numbtongue stared. It was just a punch, in a rather specific form. It looked…practiced. Garia moved through it slowly at first, and then repeated the move. Faster. She had very good control; the punches always went the same way, in the same posture.

Beyond that…it was just an odd exercise. Redfangs didn’t fight like that. They sparred, or did exercises to increase their muscle, but they didn’t practice this. The [Bard] was interested—and then he saw Garia switch to a kick.

It was another move, a set pattern as she crossed her legs and then kicked out. She was less practiced with this, but she was clearly trying to achieve a perfect form. Again, Numbtongue didn’t get why. You kicked things in any position. But he had to admit, that looked like a powerful kick.

“And then—[Flash Kick]!”

Garia finished her routine with a kick. It came in the exact same motion, but wicked fast. That was a Skill, the kind that could change a battle around in one go. Numbtongue nodded to himself. Not bad for hand-to-hand combat. Garia looked strong. If she had a [Lesser Strength] Skill too, that would hurt.

The [Martial Artist]/[Runner] turned to the Hobgoblin after she was done. She wasn’t panting; she’d done a hundred of each. Numbtongue was sitting on some hay bales, staring at a cow and at her. She waited.

“What do you think? I mean, I think I look good. Right?”

He shrugged.

“Looks fine.”

Garia was slightly crestfallen.

“Is there anything I can improve?”

“Improve? Good kicks. Good punches.”

“I mean—oh, darn. I thought you might know some other moves. Ryoka talked about all kinds of things, but I was hoping a Hobgoblin warrior might know some more. This is martial arts, see. I heard Redfangs were the best. Grimalkin taught me that kick, but he said he’s not a [Martial Artist].”

“Martial…? [Artist]?”

For once, the word was unfamiliar to Numbtongue. Garen had taught his Redfangs all about how to fight different classes, but never about this. But this class was rare in Izril, or anywhere, really. Garia tried to explain.

“Right, I did some research when I first got it. I thought it was a bit weird, but I liked my first Skill, and, well, it’s a new class, right? Apparently they fight with all kinds of weapons, not just fists. But they train different from [Warriors]. They fight like…an art.”

Oh. I see. Nice moves. But only one punch?”

“No, it’s the form, see?”

Garia showed Numbtongue. She punched upwards, down, adjusting her form but carrying the same motion. Numbtongue began to understand.

“Oh. Good punching. Like this.”

He showed her a punch. It wasn’t the same, but Numbtongue put his weight and body behind the punch, which was essentially what Garia’s practice was meant to do. She nodded.

“That’s right. Only, you do entire moves. Like jump kicks—”

She stopped as Numbtongue did a jumping kick easily. The Redfang Hobgoblin looked challengingly at Garia.

“It’s different. I have a class.”

“Does it make you stronger?”

Garia hesitated.

“Well—I think so. I have Skills like [Basic Footwork], and I’ve actually beaten a few monsters. Even a rabid bear. Don’t tell my parents. I got cut up, but I knocked it out.”

Numbtongue paused. [Cutthroats] on horses were one thing, but a rabid bear? He stared at Garia. She went on.

“And it gave me [Weight Control]. So I could change how much I weighed. And look—it gave me this.

She pointed at her bare stomach, proudly. It flexed and Garia glanced up at Numbtongue, perhaps hoping for an impression. The Hobgoblin stared blankly at Garia’s abdomen. Then he pulled up his shirt, and pointed.

“Fine. See?”

“Oh. Oh. Wow!”

Numbtongue had abs too. His weren’t as pronounced as Garia’s, but everyone had them. Especially Redfangs; they were really prominent when you were hungry. His had begun to disappear since he’d been eating food at Erin’s inn, but they were still there. To Numbtongue, Garia looked a bit starved for food, but he understood that Humans had different standards.

“You’re in shape! I thought so, but—do you really not practice any moves?”

“Redfangs practice for a fight. Sparring. Don’t practice…”

Numbtongue copied Garia’s punch. She hesitated.

“Really? Well, maybe that will help me level. I’m asking because I want to increase my class. I’m only Level 17 now. I’ve leveled like crazy. It’s practically a record, but I slowed even though I do a thousand punches and kicks at least per day. But I’m sure I need to do something else to level. What if…could you spar with me?”

The Hobgoblin stared. Garia raised her hands.

“Not to the death or anything! Or even getting hurt! Just—to show me some moves?”

She looked so hopeful, the [Bard] agreed.

“Sure. But I’m not a [Warrior] anymore.”

He walked forwards, swinging his arms up. Garia instantly raised her guard and took her stance.

“What are you, then?”

“[Bard].”

Numbtongue feinted and punched at Garia’s stomach. She blinked, and he nailed her in the gut.

Ow. That hurt!

The Hob paused. Of course it had. He’d hit Garia hard. Not as hard as he could, but nearly.

“Too hard? Sorry, Redfangs spar like this.”

“No, it’s okay. I was just expecting—okay. My turn!”

That wasn’t how it worked, but Numbtongue stepped back anyways. He saw Garia step forwards and try to punch.

Instantly, he saw the problem. She was doing that same basic move, which was good for about one type of attack. Not a running punch, or if you were backing up. Just step in and—

“Need different move”.

“Hey! Don’t back up!”

Garia took more swings, trying to keep to her posture. Numbtongue walked backwards.

“Too slow. Need different move. Die in a fight.”

“It’s worked so far! Once I hit you—”

“I’m not a bear.”

The Hobgoblin leaned back as Garia punched at his chest. She ran forwards—he swayed upright. But he still had time as her fist came at his chest. He blocked—

The Hobgoblin staggered backwards, stumbled, and caught himself. He stared at his arms and shook them out. Then at Garia. She had a heavy punch. She grinned.

“See?”

“[Enhanced Strength].”

The Hobgoblin narrowed his eyes. Garia blinked.

“How did you—ah!

Numbtongue jumped at her and kicked. Garia blocked and stumbled backwards. Numbtongue went low, about to hook her legs, but Garia recovered. She was on the wrong foot, and saw him coming in. So the [Martial Artist] in training shouted.

[Flash Kick]!

Her foot blurred. The Hobgoblin saw the kick coming, but he couldn’t dodge in time. It hit his guard, and sent him flying—into the wall of the barn. Numbtongue hit the wall, fell down, and lay there.

Oh dead gods! Are you alright?

Garia stared in horror, and then dashed over to him. Numbtongue stared upwards at the barn as the cows mooed and Viceria came to find her guest with bruised ribs. Garia apologized profusely, but she did point out she’d technically won.

Numbtongue informed her that he hadn’t used his guitar. He was let into bed with a healing potion for his chest, and slept, reflecting that maybe there was something to her class. She certainly hit like Pyrite. The Hob had opined in Numbtongue’s head that he could have beaten Garia in a fight. For now. But he’d prefer an axe.

The Hobgoblin slept, bemused by his encounter with this strange family. And the next day, the family came to the inn. And it was Erin’s turn to experience the Erin-effect. Only, Strongheart-style.

 

—-

 

The next day, Erin Solstice waited by the magical door, a bit anxiously. She knew Numbtongue was safe. Palt had gotten the [Message] and between trying to settle Octavia, Temile and the Players of Celum and deal with the angry [Messages] she was getting from Celum, Erin hadn’t been able to check on him.

But he was her first priority this morning. Garia had assured Erin that her family would take care of him and apparently they were hosting him overnight? That was weird, but it made Erin hope the other family members weren’t jerks.

“What do you think the family’s like? Ryoka visited, but she didn’t say much. Which was Ryoka. You were there, right Mrsha? Are they nice people?”

Lyonette asked Mrsha as the Gnoll cub stood on two legs and waved her wand, creating a bed of grass. Mrsha paused as she began to uproot the magical grass and nodded, vaguely. Erin waited.

The magical door sprang to life and Erin saw bright sunlight. She heard a voice instantly, as the figures on the other side recoiled.

“Buggering kings, it works! Look at that!”

A man stood in the doorway, staring through at Erin and Lyonette. The [Innkeeper] saw a woman dressed in a [Mage]’s robe, Garia, and—

“Numbtongue! Are you okay?”

Erin waved at the Hobgoblin, smiling in relief. Numbtongue smiled back too. He looked fine. She saw him walk forwards—

And the man with tattoos strode through the door. He stared around at the inn, blinked at Erin, and stuck a hand in her face.

“Wailant Strongheart, humble [Farmer] or something at your service. This the inn my girl keeps talking up? Here, have a pie as thanks. Mind if I come in? Dead gods! Viceria, come see this!”

“Don’t be rude, Wailant.”

Erin saw Viceria Strongheart and Garia come through. She found a pie in her hands, smelling of rhubarb, and found her hand being crushed by Wailant until Viceria introduced herself. Numbtongue trooped through and caught Mrsha as she tried to dash through the doorway.

“Viceria Strongheart, at your service. Thank you for being a friend to Garia. I’m sorry about my husband—”

“Oh? You’re Garia’s parents! Right! Wow! Hey, Garia, thanks for bringing the door. Um—[Farmers]?”

Erin stared at the tattoos, a bit lost for words. Wailant had already strode up and down the hallway, noticing the traps. He disappeared through the doors to the common room as Viceria sighed.

“Well, we’re both formerly from other classes. I’m a [Green Mage], and my husband was a [Pirate]—”

“A [Pirate]?

Erin and Lyonette both exclaimed. Mrsha, wiggled in Numbtongue’s arms as he put her down and closed the doors. She glared at him and then waved, signing in her hand-language.

Welcome back! Meanie!

The Hobgoblin blinked at her.

“Hi. I’m not mean.”

“Hello, little Mrsha! Want to go up?”

Garia bent and gave Mrsha cuddles. The Gnoll happily rode on Garia’s shoulders as Wailant stormed back into the hallway, followed by Palt. Erin’s new regular crew was in today, along with Seborn and Ulinde—the two were in Liscor, comparing potential jobs with the ones from Pallass. Wailant himself was agog.

“We’re in Liscor alright! I’d recognize the lumpy landscape everywhere! So this magic door can take us back and forth as much as we want?”

“That’s right. Um—so you’re a pirate—?”

“What? Sure, sure. That’s right. How does this thing work? Ah! Lookit that!”

Wailant had found the dial system Lyonette had built. He exclaimed as he turned the door to Liscor and thrust it open. A couple of Drakes and Gnolls lined up stepped forwards.

“Oh good. We were—”

Wailant slammed the door. Erin opened her mouth as he checked the dial.

“Liscor. And it even says Pallass. Huh. And it really…?”

He thrust the door open. Erin saw the stone room, and the portcullis. Wailant stared through as a Drake behind the gate jerked upright. He had a little viewing port made of glass and he snapped as he saw Wailant and the others.

“Identify yourself! No one’s scheduled to come through for—”

Wailant shut the door in their faces. He turned to Erin.

“Huh. Touchy bastards, aren’t they? Like half the Drakes I’ve met. So that’s Pallass?”

“That’s right. Um—Wailant Strongheart?”

“That’s my name. And you’re Erin Solstice. Listen, I’ve got a business proposition to you. I’m a [Farmer].”

“Right. And a [Pirate].”

“That’s right. I grow a bunch of crap, but I specialize in Sage’s Grass. I have a harvest ready to go, actually. I’d like to sell to Liscor and Pallass. And to Invrisil if you’ve got a door there! I’ll cut you in on the profits. Just a bit, mind! But you benefit and I don’t have to pay some yapping coin-thief to transport my wares. We both win. What do you say?”

Another hand appeared, pushing towards Erin’s chest. She stared at it, and then at Wailant.

“What? Um—selling—”

Wailant. Slow down!”

Viceria came up from behind her husband and pulled him back. He grumbled as she smiled at Erin.

“I’m sorry, Wailant was up since dawn thinking about the possibilities of trading his goods to a Walled City directly.”

“Not just to a Walled City! I hear the door’s going to Invrisil too! That true?”

“Oh, yeah. When the door gets there. It should be soon.”

“Then I’ll pay for that too. How about it? Just let me push some Sage’s Grass through. We can do a transportation fee. I’ll make it worth your while. How much gold do you want per trip?”

The [Farmer] was rubbing his hands together. Erin blinked.

“Hold on, I haven’t thought about making any deals. I don’t know you. Um, Garia?”

The City Runner was staring up at the ceiling as Mrsha held on to her head. Wailant snorted.

“What’s there to think about? You want money, I want money, unless you’re daft. You have a door which teleports things! That’s as good as Fissival’s network! Here, we can take it slow if we want. I’m Wailant. I sell Sage’s Grass. Do you know what that is?”

Dad.

Garia growled at her father. Viceria elbowed her husband. Wailant sighed, but his wife took over.

“Why don’t we introduce ourselves properly, first, Wailant? Erin, may, I call you Erin? I’m sorry, but he’s still a [Rogue] at heart.”

“Hah. I’m better than a [Rogue].”

The Stronghearts began to introduce themselves a second time. Off-kilter, Erin led them towards the common room, blinking at Wailant. Viceria seemed nice and Garia seemed embarrassed, but Wailant was another thing entirely. He had tattoos. And a cutlass!

And he was a bit—pushy.

Inside the inn, Octavia blinked around her breakfast, which was in itself a rare experience for the [Alchemist]. She sometimes forgot to eat, apparently.

“Oh! Numbtongue! There you are!”

“Hi.”

The Hobgoblin waved vaguely and instantly went over to sit with them. Garia lifted Mrsha off her shoulders; the Gnoll didn’t want to go. Garia looked at her parents, but then acceded as Mrsha tried to steer her towards Octavia and Numbtongue.

“Nice inn. Pretty good. Better than the ones in Celum. This a Skill?”

“That’s right. And the Players of Celum actually perform here. We have four of them upstairs now.”

Erin was showing the couple about. Viceria’s eyes lit up.

“Will they perform here? Tonight?”

“Yup. Actually, they’re moving in, but they’re going to perform tonight, Temile said. Some new play from Invrisil, actually. Have you seen them?”

“No, Wailant, we’re staying tonight.”

“Don’t see why that’s a problem. We can pop through that door anytime we please.”

“If you have access. Mister Strongheart, Miss Strongheart? Can I get you anything to drink?”

“I’ll have an ale.”

“Wine would be acceptable.”

Day drinkers. Erin blinked, but Lyonette just smiled. She elbowed Erin in the back as she passed, which Erin took to mean ‘talk about money’. She looked at Wailant.

“Let me get this straight. You want to use my goods to sell…your plants in Liscor and Pallass?”

“That’s right. What do you think?”

Erin didn’t know what to think. She knew Lyonette was nodding and mouthing ‘yes’, but she was reluctant to make a sudden decision. Her actions had consequences!

“Well—I mean, it sounds okay. But maybe I should consider it.”

“Why—”

Wailant cut off and his eyes crossed slightly in a way that made Erin certain he’d just received a very sharp kick under the table. Viceria smiled at Erin.

“That would be fine, Miss Solstice. It’s a mutually beneficial offer.”

Was it? Erin thought it sounded like that, but she just didn’t know…business-y things. Lyonette seemed to agree.

“It’s a fine proposal, right Erin? A modest fee for transactions and people should use the door to transport cargo.”

“But the Merchant’s Guild in Celum was mad when we did that. Wouldn’t it destabilize the economy, or, I dunno, ruin jobs?”

Viceria was nodding politely, and Lyonette was frowning over her reply. But Wailant just snorted.

“What, screw the [Merchants] out of some of their money and transport fees? Fuck’em. It’s convenient, so why not? To save their pretty little hides and keep things like they have…? No. You have a magic door, Miss. Why not use it?”

Erin understood the content, even agreed with it, but she didn’t like the delivery. She narrowed her eyes a bit. Viceria kicked her husband again.

“Pardon us. I normally negotiate with new clients, Wailant—but my husband’s right in that your door is underutilized. Normally, we hire [Traders] to sell our goods or just sell to them with the expectation they’ll sell elsewhere, Miss Solstice. But you would allow us to sell directly to our clients.”

“Which would save them money and earn us some.”

Lyonette muttered, as if she was spelling it out.

“I’m not stupid! I just don’t know if that’s nice!”

“Nice? Have you met [Merchants]? This is business. Just the other day, I met this one who—”

Wailant laughed and went quiet as his wife, exasperated, pointed a wand at his face. The [Silence] spell made Wailant mouth silent for a few seconds as she stood up.

“Will you excuse us for a second?”

She dragged Wailant over to have a quick argument. Erin looked at Garia. She had pried the furry leech off her head and jogged over.

“Hey Erin, sorry about my dad. He’s a bit…”

“No, it’s fine. I heard he helped get Numbtongue away from the Watch. But he’s—is he really a [Pirate]?”

Across the inn, a Drowned Man’s head slowly turned as Ulinde happily sorted the copies of the adventuring requests they’d taken from Liscor’s adventuring guild. Garia nodded.

“He is. Former [Pirate], but he’s always been like this. He’s actually a good person. He just…pushes. A lot. Please hear him out?”

“Sure. I mean, it’s okay.”

Erin smiled at Garia. Relieved, the City Runner let Mrsha drag her over to the Garden of Sanctuary. She blinked at the unfamiliar door. Erin looked at Lyonette.

“Maybe we should discuss this?”

“What’s there to discuss, Erin?”

“I dunno, ask around. Find our options? Plan?”

“Erin, what’s there to consider?”

“I dunno, not using the door for goods?”

The [Princess] gave Erin a long look.

“…Why?”

I don’t know! I just don’t ever do—big business deals!”

Erin had literally never held a full-time job in her home. She had played against chess champions, sometimes in front of crowds, even a child, and been on television for brief interviews. But it never occurred to Erin that that was like adult stuff. Which she conflated with anything where you had to sign a contract and money was involved. She was sweating a bit. Lyonette sighed.

“We’re not agreeing to anything. If they try to use a contract-Skill, I’ll stop them. Just do what you think is best, Erin.”

But how do I trust my brain?

The question stumped the [Princess] so much that she was still staring blankly at Erin when the Stronghearts returned.

“Miss Solstice, have you thought about the possibility of letting us use your door? We don’t want to force a decision; please just bear us in mind.”

Viceria was smooth and polite and nice. Erin relaxed a bit as Wailant sighed and put on a fake smile next to her. Erin fiddled with her thumbs.

“Well—I mean, in theory, yeah. It sounds good. Octavia—she’s an [Alchemist]—she makes potions. She uses your grass, right?”

“That Stitch-Girl? I sold to her last week! Is she here?”

Wailant exclaimed. He looked around. Octavia glanced up and groaned.

“Oh dead gods, it’s the [Pirate].”

“Hey! Are you in the inn too?”

“Yes! I got kicked out of Celum! Or I left!”

“You don’t say?

Viceria sighed, but Erin smiled. Then she looked at the Stronghearts.

“I guess it’s fine. I mean, Liscor might wanna tax you and stuff—”

“We can handle that. If we’re bringing goods into the city, we’re naturally going to deal with the city on its own terms. All we ask from you is transportation, and we will pay for the service.”

The [Green Mage] smiled and Erin smiled back, relieved.

“Well—I mean—sure! Let’s talk! Oh. But you probably can’t go to Pallass easily. Or you’ll have to negotiate.”

“What? Why? Pallass is where we need to be.”

Wailant turned about, frowning. Erin tried to explain about the mana cost and the door.

“Hah! Is that the problem? Just upgrade it. I bet you a decent [Enchanter] could do it.”

The [Farmer] waved a hand. Viceria frowned.

“It’s an artifact, dear. I couldn’t guess at what level you’d have to be to improve this door. Archmage Nailihuaile could do it, I’m certain. But anyone below her?”

“Damn. But you can take things through, yeah? How many people’s worth?”

“Two. Or four, but only one way.”

The young woman spread her hands. Wailant laughed.

“Fine, then! I’ll take it through in bags of holding! Unless—no, I have one right here. I just walk through, sell my stuff, and go back. I’ll negotiate with whoever I need to in Pallass—I mean, my lovely wife will.”

He nodded at Viceria. Erin chewed her lip.

“I guess that’s okay. I mean, if you get permission—”

“Let’s make it a deal, then!”

Wailant exclaimed threw an arm around Erin’s shoulders and held out a hand. She frowned and eyed his arm.

“Dear. You’re being rude to Miss Solstice. Don’t pressure her. Some might call that forceful. Or dishonest.”

Viceria’s eyes flashed. Wailant paused.

“I’m as honest as can be! I was a [Pirate], but I’ve turned over a new leaf. Apologies, Miss Erin. You can’t take the salt out of my sails.”

She nodded as he let go. But Erin felt a tiny bit peeved. She was reminded of chess players who tried to bully a girl when she appeared at tournaments. She sort of wished she could checkmate Wailant. But she saw Garia mouthing apologies so she turned to Wailant.

“So you are a former [Pirate]? Like, with a ship? And…you attacked other ships and stuff?”

She tried to imagine a pirate ship without cannons, but they wouldn’t have those, would they? Wailant nodded, taking his seat. He rolled up one sleeve—fortunately not the lewd one, to his family’s relief.

“That’s right. I was a good [Pirate] too. Good enough to retire! But I sailed to every continent, did my fair share of plundering—but I won’t rob you, Miss Solstice! Forgive my manners. But I’ve had a good time with your Numbtongue friend and I’m keen to make some money! Have you heard about the [Trade War] in the north? Damned thing. Put our farm through a dry spell of late.”

“Oh, well…”

Erin glanced at Numbtongue, relaxing a bit. Anyone who was a friend of Numbtongue’s couldn’t be that bad. The Hobgoblin shrugged and smiled a tiny bit, so Erin turned back to Wailant. She had so many questions.

…That she could have asked someone else. As Wailant sipped from his tankard of ale, about to launch into some sea shanty tale no doubt, a [Rogue] paused behind his chair. Seborn, Drowned Man, member of the Halfseekers, and…former [Pirate], spoke quietly, but with that kind of resonance that quieted a room.

A [Pirate], you say? Funny. I could’ve taken you for a [Storm Sailor]. I don’t remember many Humans in the seas where my crew sailed.

Wailant—paused. His head slowly turned around and the Drowned Man and the Human locked gazes. Slowly, Wailant turned back to stare ahead. He spoke slowly.

“That’s odd. I could’ve sworn I heard one of those Drowned Bastards talking. But they’re not proper [Pirates], are they? Just water-[Raiders], really. Poncing about in their fancy ships and running from a real fight.”

Erin stared at Seborn. The Drowned Man’s non-crustacean half looked at her, and then he pulled up a chair. Viceria, Lyonette, and Erin all saw Wailant turn. The [Pirate]-[Farmer] paused, then exclaimed.

“Well, well, well! A fellow sea dog! I’d not bet on seeing a Drowned Man so far from shores!”

Salt and shore harbor you. Friend.

Seborn, the Gold-rank adventurer, and [Rogue]-[Pirate] rested one arm on the table. His claw-arm, which was part crab, or lobster or something. Erin had never really asked.

Nor did Seborn talk about the sea. She only knew he had been a [Pirate] from Jelaqua or something. But right now…he stared at Wailant. And Erin had a definite sense that his smile was fake.

“What brings a Drowned Man ashore, anyways?”

I’m an adventurer. Gold-rank. Halfseekers.

The [Farmer] didn’t budge. He grinned, eying Seborn up and down.

“Adventurer, huh? Respectable, respectable. What, you too tired of the sea-life too, pal? I should’ve brought my deck of cards or dice! Innkeeper, you have any sets?”

“Cards? No, I—”

Erin began, but Seborn spoke over her. She wasn’t really part of the conversation, she realized.

I just got tired of the waves for a while. As you do. It’s good to meet another of the sea folk. Have you been away from the oceans for long? Buddy?

Wailant slowly sipped from his mug.

“As a matter of fact, it’s been over a decade. Chum.”

Wailant…

Viceria’s tone was a warning, but Wailant just smiled at his wife. She put a hand on his arm.

“Erin! Erin, this is bad!”

An urgent whisper made Erin look around. She got up with Lyonette as Seborn and Wailant kept bantering back and forth. Erin stared at a pale-faced Gnoll. She was unfamiliar until she recognized the dead skin, the peculiar aroma the Selphids used to preserve bodies.

“Ulinde?”

The Selphid [Spellslinger] nodded quickly. Erin glanced at Seborn.

“What’s with Seborn?”

“He’s a [Pirate], Erin. Don’t you know?”

“Yeah, and so is Wailant. Why are they getting mad at each other?”

The Selphid stared at Erin as if she was joking. Then she whispered urgently.

“Erin—Drowned People and regular [Sailors] and [Pirates] do not get along. Oh no. Where’s Jelaqua when you need her? Or Moore?”

“Uh oh. I forgot—”

Lyonette covered her face. Erin stared at Ulinde. Enemies? Why? But now was not the time to ask.

“Jelaqua’s in Pallass with Moore, right? You’ll have to drag Seborn away.”

The Selphid recoiled at the suggestion.

“Me? I’m just a rookie! I can’t—”

Wailant drained half his mug and slammed it onto the table. Erin turned around. The [Pirate] spoke up as every head turned. Some of the regulars were already taking bets.

“Six tables and a chair! At least that, and six silver if it’s below—”

“I bet at least one window—”

“So what’s your crew, Seborn Sailwinds? The Wispguides? Are you part of the Undersea Crews? No—maybe one of the Krakenborne?”

Seborn shifted in his chair and gave Wailant the kind of grin someone saw before they died.

I sailed with The Siren’s Depths. What about you? Seagrass’ Navy? Bloodtear Pirates?

Wailant looked offended as Erin edged around the table. She was going to stop this. She began to concentrate. Now, how did it go? She had to pull…or was it?

“What do you take me for? No, I was with the Steelsails Armada. You ever heard of them?”

Respectable. That’s a good group.

Seborn nodded. Wailant paused, staring at Seborn. He glanced at his wife. She glared, but then stood up. Wailant turned back, mug in hand.

“Funny. I’ve actually heard of your crew. Seborn, was it? The Siren’s Depths are part of the Undersea Crews. Pretty good name, right?”

You could say that. We had our fair share of action over the years.

Seborn’s Human eye narrowed. Wailant went on, clenching his other fist.

“You know—your ship’s actually sunk some of the Steelsails ships before. Didn’t know if you’d know that.”

I tend to lose count about land-[Pirate] ships. But that sounds about right. I don’t remember any Steelsails Armada ships personally, but they clashed with some of the Drowned Folk.

Seborn never blinked. Wailant leaned over.

“Only the bastards that attacked us. Friend.

The Drowned Man opened his mouth to reply as he tensed. And Erin interrupted both of them.

“But that’s all in the past, right? Nobody is going to start a fight.

The air grew heavy at the table. Seborn and Wailant looked up. Wailant blinked. Seborn rolled his shoulders. Both men stared at Erin.

And the full force of her aura pressed down on them. Erin wasn’t used to using it; Lyonette said she lacked finessed, but what she had was power. This was her inn. And she was Level 40.

No one’s going to fight.

Erin stared at both of them. The pressure wasn’t exactly gravity; if it was, the chairs might have broken. It only affected the two men, and it made movement—slow. Seborn slowly raised a hand, concentrating even to lift it. Wailant stared up at Erin. Then he looked at Seborn.

“Sea salt. Is she real? Or twice as old as she looks?”

You’d be surprised.

The Drowned Man gave Erin a cool look. She glared back.

“No fighting. I don’t know what this is about, but I’m not having a fight here!”

“It’s a seafarer’s quarrel, Miss. Mind shoving off?”

Wailant glanced over his shoulder. He had an uncooperative look on his face. Erin glared at him.

“You can sit right here until you make up, then. How about that?”

The [Pirate] eyed Erin. Then he looked at the other [Pirate].

“Salt and sea, this is a strange inn. Well, if that’s the way it’s gotta be, fine.”

Wailant raised his mug, toasted Seborn, and then tossed the contents over his shoulder into Erin’s face. She stumbled backwards, eyes stinging, and her control over her aura vanished. Wailant knocked the table over—

And Seborn’s fist hit him in the face. Wailant went over backwards as the Drowned Man leapt to his feet, but the other [Pirate] was up in an instant.

Come on, you drowned bastard!

The two charged at each other. Seborn was smaller than Wailant by a good bit, but he ducked and punched, retreating as Wailant swung and grabbed a chair. One was big and fast the other nimble and faster. But Wailant caught Seborn with a kick that sent him skidding backwards. Seborn flipped backwards and dashed forwards.

“[Dirty Feint]!”

Wailant twisted, arm snaking out.

[Blur Leap].

Seborn leapt around him. He got Wailant with three punches, ducked a swipe, and got clipped by a chair.

Fight! Fight!

The inn was on its feet as the regulars backed up from the moving whirlwind of punches. The two [Pirates] rolled, fought, cursing each other and swearing as Erin wiped at her face. Mrsha was nowhere to be seen. Viceria had thrown up her hands. Lyonette was getting a drink. Garia was about to leap into the fight with Ulinde when Erin pointed.

Enough!

The air grew heavy again. And this time it was weight. Both [Pirates] staggered and stopped, panting. They looked at Erin.

And she was mad. Wailant and Seborn exchanged a glance, and lowered their fists. The room went still. Someone collected their bets on an [Innkeeper] stop.

And a door swung open from the sides. Everyone turned to stare.

Mrsha peeked out from the garden, staring around warily. Lyonette rose.

“Good job, Mrsha!”

The Gnoll trotted out of the Garden of Sanctuary. Wailant stared. Erin stalked over and pointed.

“What was that? I told you—”

Wailant grinned in the angry [Innkeeper]’s face. He raised his arms—with difficulty.

“Sorry, sorry. Just had to get it out there. Can’t let a Drowned Man walk around and think he’s better than a real [Pirate].”

“Seborn?”

Erin rounded on the Drowned Man. Seborn shrugged unapologetically.

It’s a custom, Erin. His people have killed friends of mine.

“Custom? You mean, punching each other in the head is normal?”

Both [Pirates] nodded.

“Only way, isn’t it? Can’t let a bastard who’s spilled your crew’s blood walk around. He’s a Drowned Man. They fight other [Pirates]. Think they own the seas.”

Wailant pointed at Seborn. The Drowned Man shrugged.

I don’t see you breathing in the water.

And his lot have sunk more than their fair share of crews. But that’s all. A few punches and we’re set. It’s also part of the code. No use spilling sea-blood when there are all these landfolk around. We’re quits, whatever might have passed. Right, Sailwinds?”

Fair enough, Strongheart. Let’s call it there.

Seborn eyed Erin and nodded. Erin stared between the two. Wailant slapped Seborn on the back.

“Then we’ll have a drink, later! We’re staying the night, you know. We can talk about the sea.”

Sounds good. I’ll introduce you to my team.

The Drowned Man was nodding. Not exactly smiling, but he’d relaxed. They turned to Erin—the aura was still weighing them down—and gave her a look. Erin threw up her arms.

What was that?

“It’s just a greeting. What’s got you so mad?”

Wailant’s flippant remark was the last straw. Erin snapped. She was covered in sticky ale. And annoyed, before the ale had landed. She pointed at Wailant.

You, buddy! And I don’t think I want to let you sell Sage’s Grass through my inn! I’m not getting in trouble for selling Sage’s Grass to another city! I don’t need to be banned from Liscor and Pallass! And you’re a jerk!”

Across the room, Viceria poured herself a drink and put her head down at the bar. Lyonette gave her a sympathetic look. Wailant spluttered, holding his hands out.

“Don’t be like that, Miss Solstice! It’s seafarer’s—come on, have a drink.”

“I have one on my face!

“Erin—I’m really sorry. Dad, shut up. Go over there. Here, I have a handkerchief—”

Garia hurried over as Wailant held up his hands in a ‘what did I do wrong?’ gesture. Numbtongue was cracking up a bit, but he went still when Erin glared around. Lyonette came over with some water and they tried to help Erin clean off, but she really needed a bath.

“This isn’t funny!”

“It’s sort of funny.”

It’s hilarious.

Seborn disappeared as Erin glared at him. But Lyonette was nodding.

“Erin, give him a second chance. Let’s get you cleaned up—Ishkr! We’re going to need a bath! We have the hot tubs set up, and we’ll have a bathing room when the inn’s finished.”

“He’s a jerk!”

“He reminds me of you, a bit. A male you, Erin.”

“He does not. Stop saying stuff like this! You’re hurting my feelings!”

 

—-

 

A bit later, some more guests had come into the inn and Erin was clean. Wailant did apologize, sincerely, as both his wife and daughter helped him and apologized with him. Erin was cooled down a bit, but she did not like Wailant.

He got on her nerves. And Lyonette’s pushy remark didn’t help. But she had to admit, Garia vouchsafing for her parents made sense. And Seborn himself had apologized.

It is a custom, Erin. I’d have warned you, but it was that or stab him. It’s not just words. His lot have killed Drowned People. Either I hit him or we went for blades.

“It’s just—fine. Fine. You’re on my bad list, Seborn! I dunno what that means, but you’re on it for today!”

Erin scowled around, but she went back to the table. With Viceria and Palt. The Centaur had come in—he came in every day—and he was chatting with Viceria.

“Mage Viceria, you have my thanks. And it’s a pleasure to see you again.”

“Likewise, Palt. I must say I’m surprised to see you again. And this door!”

Viceria was nodding as they talked. Erin blinked at the two of them.

“Wait, you know each other? Hi, Montressa. Beza.”

She stared at the two [Mages] who were sitting at another table. Beza and Montressa nodded back, polite as ever. Then Erin turned to Palt. He was nodding.

“I stopped by the Strongheart farm on the way here. Miss Viceria is actually a part of my faction.”

“Distantly. One has to be affiliated, but I’m on the outside.”

Viceria smiled. Erin blinked at her.

“Ullsinoi? Hey…are you an [Illusionist]?”

She narrowed her eyes at Viceria and Palt. The woman laughed.

“I’m a [Green Mage], as I said, Miss Erin. Not everyone who’s affiliated with the Ullsinoi faction are [Illusionists]. And it is quite a practical group to associate with. My role is just to supply some of what they need. It’s good marketing, for a [Farmer].”

She nodded at Palt. Erin blinked, and then glanced at the Centaur. He was smoking one of his smoke-less cigars.

“So you grow uh, Palt’s stuff?

The Centaur coughed, looking pained at Erin’s oblique way of referencing his habits. Which was also how she thought about it. It was still illegal stuff in Erin’s mind, but Viceria didn’t miss a beat.

“Dreamleaf? I have a few plants, yes. I can sell you some, Miss Solstice, if you’d like? As well as a gift, for my husband’s behavior.”

“Erin doesn’t smoke any, Miss Viceria. I know, but she’s strictly against all forms of relaxation.”

Palt sighed. Erin opened her mouth to argue it out, but gave up. Wasn’t it bad for you? She didn’t actually know, she just knew it was illegal—and people had been trying to make it un-illegal when she’d left. But she wasn’t a cool kid, in that she’d never taken up invitations to smoke weed. Or drink, that much. Chess was her fuel!

“We’re just acquaintances. But perhaps Palt can help persuade you to let us have another chance. You won’t have to interact with my husband, Miss Solstice. And I’d like to apologize again—”

“It’s fine. Seborn explained it. I guess it’s okay, but look—I’m serious about Pallass. The door has problems. There’s not enough magic, and people are starting to go to Pallass every day! I sent two this morning—and if I sent more, the door runs outta power. It’s two per day, so you’ll have to sign up, and there’s a waiting list of a month now!”

“A month!?”

Wailant shot to his feet. Viceria pointed.

Sit!

“Can’t we charge the door up?”

“I mean, that’s what Moore’s doing, but you have to pay for that and clear it with the Pallass [Watch Captain]. Which I doubt they’ll be happy with. The Halfseekers only get special treatment because they helped save the city. And it takes a lot of mana. Moore can only do it for two people before he gets tired and he has a lot of mana, apparently.”

Viceria was frowning. Palt was nodding as he explained about the issue.

“I can charge it once and halfway. Regular [Mages] would struggle, Mage Viceria, but I’m afraid the door’s under strict control after the Pallass incident. And you know Drake regulations…”

“I see. That is a problem.”

The woman was sighing. It was at that moment when Wailant, glancing at the open double doors leading to the hallway, wandered off. He wasn’t allowed in the discussion, so he devoted his time to staring at the other sights the inn had.

And it had plenty. But the [Pirate] was most interested in the Garden of Sanctuary. He swore softly as Mrsha trotted through it, with Garia. Numbtongue kept glancing up, but he didn’t know what the door was, and Octavia was talking to him, worried about suddenly quitting Celum.

Wailant tried to follow Garia through the door with Mrsha. He slammed against the open doorway, cursed a blue streak, and was grudgingly let in for a look as Erin sighed.

Rather than disappear for a while as Erin had hoped, he came storming out of the door a minute later. Viceria glared, but Wailant strode up to the table with a huge grin on his face. He pointed at Erin.

“Aha! Tell you what—I’ll help you upgrade that door of yours.”

The discussion halted as Palt, Viceria, Erin, and everyone else in earshot turned to look at him. Viceria glowered at her husband as the two other Wistram [Mages] looked up.

“Wailant, dear. If Palt, Miss Montressa, Miss Beza, and the other [Mages] couldn’t upgrade the door, I doubt I could do a thing. Nor would I risk it.”

“Oh yeah? I can do it. And what’s more, I can have it done within a few days! Half a week at most! It’ll be simple and it’ll work.

“What? No way. Pisces and the others couldn’t figure out how to alter the spell!”

Erin gave Wailant a severe look. He waved a hand, laughing.

“Alter the spell? What am I, an [Enchanter]? I know what Viceria said. Hah! [Mages], always making things too complex when there’s simple answers. I’m surprised your Drowned Boy didn’t think of it. I had the idea when I just saw that magical garden of yours. Safe, is it?”

Seborn glanced up from his table. He was lounging about, and Ulinde was doing little Cantrips to amuse them as they waited. There were board games, but neither adventurer was interested. Maybe Erin did need more entertainments, like cards. Or…pool? She made a note as she stared at Wailant.

“Yeah, it’s really safe. No one can get in, I think. Why?”

“Well, that’s all I need. Pay me and I’ll make sure your door can ferry as much as you want to Pallass! Maybe not all the time, but enough to keep it running with a lot more magical power!”

“Wailant, how could you do that?”

Seborn was eying Wailant. The [Pirate] had a gleam in his eyes and a very smug smile. He spread his arms wide.

“When it comes to fancy magic and whale’s crap like that, everyone has a bunch of fancy ideas. New Skills! Enchant it better! Make a gemstone ley line harnessing all the magical power in the region! But look, if you want magic, why not try a [Farmer]’s solution?”

Erin’s brow wrinkled. But across the room, Beza sprayed her drink out her nose. Palt’s mouth opened and the cigar dropped on the table as he got what Wailant was saying. Viceria sat up.

“You don’t mean—”

“What? What?”

Erin looked around. Wailant’s grinned.

“Miss Solstice, did you know Sage’s Grass is magical stuff? It grows and generates magic. Like rare monsters. That’s why [Alchemists] love it. If you want free mana, just plant a bunch of Sage’s Grass and crap around the inn.”

For a second Erin stared. Then she looked at Palt.

“Wait, would that work?

“I—”

The Centaur hesitated, and then turned beet red. Wailant laughed, pointing at his face.

“Why not? See? He didn’t think of it! None of you fancy robes did! Tell ‘em, Seborn!”

The Drowned Man rose. He nodded at Erin.

Now he says it…Drowned Ships have tanks full of Gleamshrimp and magical underwater plants. They can power an entire ship barrier spell. But I’ve never seen a landfolk version of that.”

“Well, I have. And I’m a farmer and I know it can be done. Tell you what, I’ll sell your [Innkeeper] girl a field’s worth of Sage’s Grass—if she can meet my price. And I’ll give her a small discount if she lets me sell to Invrisil direct!”

Wailant jerked a thumb towards his chest. Erin stared at him. It couldn’t be that simple, right? She looked at Viceria, but the [Green Mage] was smiling. And Palt—

“Would that work, Palt? Really?”

“Er, give me one second, Erin. I need to confer with—”

Palt got to his hooves. He hurried over to the table with Montressa and Beza. Even Ulinde rejoined them for a moment. They moved into a huddle and began discussing. Erin heard things like ‘natural leyline’, ‘ambient mana distribution’, and so on being tossed around. And then silence. Then the [Mages] began to argue hotly.

After a while they began to raise their voices and push each other. And given that one was a Centaur, the other a Minotaur, a Gnoll’s corpse and the fourth a slim young Human woman, Montressa got the worst of it.

“Hey! What’s going on?”

Erin looked at them. The Wistram [Mages] turned back to her, looking shamefaced.

“Er, we’re trying to assign blame over which of us is to blame for not coming up with that idea.”

“Hah! Told you!”

The [Innkeeper]’s jaw dropped as Wailant strutted forwards. Montressa closed her eyes.

“Oh dead gods. Are we less intelligent than him?”

Erin turned back, and the [Pirate] winked at her.

“Gotta think practical, Miss Erin Solstice. Like a [Pirate]. So, we making deals or what?”

He held out a hand. Erin blinked at him. She slowly walked over to the table as he smirked with self-satisfaction—

And tossed a drink at him.

 

—-

 

A while later, Wailant sat at the table and spoke numbers. He was in a good humor despite being sticky with ale. As he put it, it made them quits. Erin didn’t know about that—she held a grudge—but she was willing to put all that aside.

“A Sage’s Grass garden. You see, the normal issue is that magical plants, especially Sage’s Grass, attracts monsters and pests. But you’ve got a damned good Skill. I know [Farmers] who’d sacrifice their children for a Skill like that.”

Wailant was explaining as he gestured towards the Garden of Sanctuary. Lyonette, Palt, Viceria, Montressa, and everyone else interested in this deal was gathered around, which was practically everyone, really. The [Pirate] was explaining to them how it would work.

“We’ll plant a field right in the middle of the garden. The Sage’s Grass will generate mana, and the door’ll use it. The more Sage’s Grass, the more power recharging that door-thing. Won’t cost you much, either! For planting and us getting the seeds grown—Sage’s Grass dies if you uproot it, damn fragile—it won’t cost you more than…six hundred gold?”

“Six hundred?

Erin exclaimed, worried. She’d been paid more than that by Ilvriss for her part in fighting the Raskghar, and she knew how much the Horns and the Halfseekers had made, but Lyonette was already spending a lot on the inn! Wailant snorted.

“For an entire field’s worth. A single plant grown to maturity with multiple leaves—with our quality and size, not wild-grown—is three gold pieces. Might not even be that much! Say it’s only sixty Sage’s Grass that you need to keep that door charged. Actually, I remember selling thirty-eight last year to some Gnoll in Pallass. Gouged him a bit, but we’ll give you a friendly rate. So—thirty eight times three…you do that math.”

Erin paused. She could do that math, but she would have liked a calculator. Erin’s mouth moved wordlessly. Half the people in the crowd and the [Mages] instantly began adding up. But it was Wailant who beat them all.

“38 shares of 3 coin’s loot makes out to 114 gold pieces. Which is nothing. I bet you this inn pulls in that much in a month, at least, eh? Hold on, if each customer pays about a silver coin’s worth per night, which used to be standard in fare, but if we assume one silver coin and eight which is the standard for pricy damn inns, multiply that by say, an average visitor number of say, eighty bastards per night, that’s…7 gold and 4 silver if I’m right.”

Erin stared. Wailant was counting on his fingers. He shrugged.

“Could be off. Call half that for paying staff and food. You’re looking at 3 gold and 12 silver. Which means you’d pay off a field’s earnings in a month and a day on your daily profits alone! I’m the bastard being set up here!”

“Wait, your math is wrong. I’m not getting that. Wait—how much per each coin?”

Erin was trying to confirm the [Pirate]’s quick calculus. Lyonette whispered to Erin.

“It’s 10 coppers per silver, and 20 silver per gold piece. I think he’s close, Erin. How in the world…?”

Wailant grinned.

“Pirate’s math. Can’t be off when you’re calculating your haul in front of a group with quick hands. See? It could be cheap! But let’s count on an entire field since you’re using that door. Happily, I have a full stock of seeds since we just finished the first harvest…so let’s call it two hundred plants and go up?”

“Two hundred? Wait, that is six hundred gold.”

“Exactly, and we’re selling it to you at the base price. Because we’ll be using your door. Normally, we’d mark it up.”

Wailant tucked his thumbs in his belt. Viceria nudged him.

“Make it eight hundred gold, Wailant. Or four gold and six silver per plant if we go lower. We have to pay more for fertilizer since the trade war’s cutting off our usual supplier.”

“Mom! Erin can’t pay for that!”

Garia protested. Her parents both stared at her, looking hurt at this betrayal. Wailant shook his head.

“Why not? She’s got a magic door, right? She can charge a mint for it! And we have to look out for the farm, Garia. Don’t want your parents to starve, right?”

The City Runner folded her arms. Erin saw Beza surreptitiously flexing her abdomen behind her. Ulinde was staring. Selphids had a thing for bodies.

Starve? You bought that wine from Chandrar! And Mom said you bought fourteen books—and a bunch of that Terandrian beef! You didn’t even give me a steak when I came home!”

“Yeah, well, it was too good to leave. Come back home more often.”

“But what if I can’t afford it? Lyonette, can I afford it?”

Erin turned to the [Princess]. Wailant waved a hand.

“Not to worry. You live here. Have a little Gnoll kid and an inn? You’re not going anywhere. I’ll take installments. We’ll work out a contract. Not even a blood contract! We’ll just sign a basic magic contract. We have some, right, Viceria?”

“That’s correct.”

Mother! Erin’s my friend! Lower the price a bit!”

Garia was red-faced. But her father just laughed. He wagged a finger at Erin.

“Sage’s Grass farming is expensive. Growing the damn stuff and protecting the fields takes a lot of our profits! Not to mention hiring help for harvests, er, mental stress, and so on. Three—four gold a plant? I’m dying here. Do you know how much it costs to ward my fields from monsters? Hire help? Buy a new wagon?”

“And what about me? Having to pay for all this and run my inn?”

“Well, I suppose that’s part of our deal to transport goods. Which is why, if you give us a fair bargain on our contract, we could lower that price a bit. But we’re the ones suffering here.”

Wailant hugged his wife, grinning unrepentantly. Erin stared at him. He rubbed her the wrong way a bit, but she almost liked him despite that. And he was a [Pirate], even a former one.

“We’ll…talk.”

Lyonette was gearing up for a battle; there was no way she was sitting this one out. But Viceria was smiling and Erin was sure that a [Farmer] who sold magic grass had to be good at bargaining—and it wasn’t Wailant who did the bargaining. But the [Pirate] was in it. He held out a hand and Erin finally shook it. He grinned at her, and grabbed two tankards from Ishkr’s tray.

“Let’s talk it out over another drink.”

He toasted her, a gleam in his eyes. Erin looked at the [Pirate]. Then, she shrugged and drank.

[Immunity: Alcohol], on. Wailant’s eyes bulged as he tried to keep up.

In retrospect, that was his one big mistake.

 

—-

 

Later that day, the contract was settled. Viceria and Wailant were residing at the inn, having completed a contract that Erin was fairly happy about. And they were not alone.

The Halfseekers had arrived and Moore had joined Viceria and Palt as she toured the garden, exclaiming over the unique, separated biomes. Wailant was drinking with the other Halfseekers and sharing sea stories.

“I understand the Ullsinoi’s interest. That is a fascinating garden. Mage Moore—”

“Just Moore. I’m not Wistram-trained.”

The half-Giant was bowing, smiling as he spoke to a fellow [Green Mage]. Viceria laid a hand on his arm.

Mage Moore, have you thought about growing anything in there? The Sage’s Grass won’t take that much room, and there are multiple plots of land, each with their own environment. Miss Solstice has a treasure, truly. The greatest upside will be that it will be free from monsters and pests seeking to eat the magical plants.”

The half-Giant smiled with pleasure. Palt cleared his throat, and nodded around the garden and back towards the inn. Erin was talking with Belgrade about tables which were pools—the Centaur itched to listen in, but this was more important.

“I’m trying to negotiate on her behalf. Which means, Mage Viceria, if you’d care to involve your farm, I’m sure the Elusive Lot would make you a deal—”

“We will pass. My husband would cause more trouble than not. However, I foresee a mutually beneficial relationship, assuming Miss Solstice allows us to transport Sage’s Grass.”

Viceria gave Palt a smile and the [Illusionist] sighed. Well, he’d expected as much. He turned his attention to the garden.

“Perhaps a bit of dreamleaf…I don’t suppose we could alter Miss Solstice’s opinions? She’s rather set against…any drugs.”

“Hm. I could try. What is her holdup?”

“An objection to them in principle.”

“Has she tried them?”

“No. I think they were banned in her city, or nation.”

“Well, it is an issue. I could speak to Miss Solstice. Although, myself, it’s not a hobby I’ve ever indulged in. But I’m familiar with it.”

“You don’t try anything, Moore?”

Palt and Viceria looked at him. The half-Giant shrugged, self-consciously.

“At my size, I couldn’t afford—”

He stopped as the two instantly dug in their pouches and began to confer over the best plants.

 

—-

 

Inside the inn, Lyonette was speaking with Octavia. The [Alchemist] was in a kind of limbo, as were the Players of Celum. But they were setting up for a play; she couldn’t, since she had no shop to work in. But Lyonette was doing her best to make the Stitch-Girl more comfortable and reassured about the future.

“We’ll have Belgrade build your shop as soon as he’s done with Erin, Octavia. I promise. You can even design your shop, which has to be a plus! Right now, let’s talk about um, explosiveness and Mrsha…”

All throughout the inn, people were excited, talking, making plans. And that meant the little white Gnoll wandering around from person to person found no one to play with.

Not even Garia! The City Runner was in a discussion with Beza about [Martial Arts], and Mrsha didn’t like Beza. Disconsolate, Mrsha wandered around. Everyone was too busy for poor Mrsha! Even Apista! She was clinging to the ceiling after sipping from the faerie flowers. She was off the wagon.

And then she spotted someone who’d almost been forgotten amid the chaos. Someone who wasn’t part of all the big things.

Numbtongue. He, like Mrsha, didn’t have to make adult decisions. He didn’t think about gold or stuff like that. He was sitting at a table, having lunch as he read from a book he’d borrowed from Wailant’s collection. He looked up as Mrsha raced over to his table and waved at him.

“Hm?”

Mrsha made sure she had his attention. Then she began to sign with her paws. She had her own language now, and she could express ideas to anyone who had studied Mrsha-signing.

Come, come! Exciting!

She knew Numbtongue understood her. The Hobgoblin paused, and carefully closed the book. Then he raised his hands and signed back.

How much?

Mrsha nearly fell over in surprise. But—the Hobgoblin looked at her expectantly and she remembered. He was Numbtongue. The [Bard]! And a Goblin. Of course he had learned this language, just like he’d learned the common tongue.

Mrsha stretched her paws wide as she could.

This much! Very exciting! Come!

Numbtongue stood up. He paused as Moore, Viceria, and Palt hurried out to go outside for a smoke. Somehow, they had a feeling the garden was not the place for it and none wanted to arouse Erin’s wrath. The Hobgoblin had seen the door of course, but Erin had promised to explain it.

Now, however, prompted by Mrsha, she tugged him into the doorway. And at last, he entered the Garden of Sanctuary.

 

—-

 

It was magical. Beautiful. And oh, so very safe. The Hobgoblin [Bard] stared. Mrsha ran about him, showing him flowers, the different spots. But the Hobgoblin just stared.

A safe place. Literally, a safe place filled with plants. It was…incredible. Stunning. He slowly walked up the hill, looking at flowers, peering at mushrooms. He even ate one and confirmed it was, indeed, a mushroom.

So caught up was Numbtongue that he barely noticed the Antinium Worker standing on the hill. Mrsha paused as she raced up the hill, because here was another member of the Erin family household.

Bird. The Worker was spreading his arms as he stared up at the sky. Rather reminiscent of the way he’d stood on the Wyvern’s head in Pallass, actually. But he was just staring up, at the opening in the dome.

Birds were flying overhead. The Worker was staring at them. He turned his head as Mrsha and Numbtongue crested the hill.

“Oh, hello. Mrsha and Numbtongue. I am not shooting birds. Just staring.”

The Worker waved with one of his four arms. Mrsha somersaulted over to him and Numbtongue waved. He’d gotten to know Bird more since their illicit drinking and Wyvern eating sessions.

“Bird. Hello.”

“Hello, Numbtongue. I have already said hello, but hello again. I heard you were abducted. Now you are here. Do you see the birds?”

The [Bard] looked up.

“Yes.”

“They are flying. They fly away when they see me or the Workers, but if I stand here, they cannot see me. I wonder if I shoot them, will they die? From inside here?”

Bird stared up at the magical opening to the sky. He shook his head slowly.

“But I am banned from shooting birds. Which is sad.”

Mrsha tilted her head. She wasn’t exactly sure why Bird liked killing birds. She waved her paws and the Worker looked down.

“Why do I like killing birds when I like to fly? Because…flying things taste good. And I am jealous they fly. So perhaps we are enemies. But I would be sad if all birds died.”

The logic was far from undeniable. Mrsha and Numbtongue exchanged a look, but the [Bird Hunter] just stood, staring up at the sky. He seemed very content to do just that. Numbtongue looked around.

“Wow.”

He’d heard Erin using the word, but this seemed like the appropriate time for him to use it himself. Mrsha nodded. She ran away and raced back with an armful of flowers. She tossed them at Numbtongue. He grinned.

“Tasty?”

Mrsha sniffed at them and shrugged. The Goblin ate a few.

“Bitter. But good. This place is so…large. It can grow lots of food.”

Mrsha nodded excitedly. So did Bird.

“Very defensible. And there is even food so we will not have to eat each other during a siege.”

“Good point.”

Numbtongue and Bird were on the same wavelength about a lot of things. They stood and chatted as Mrsha raced down the hill to show them more things. And pouted when they didn’t immediately follow. They strolled after her.

“So were you kidnapped? I did not ask.”

“No. Strange Humans took me home.”

“Were they nice?”

Numbtongue rubbed his chest where he’d been kicked. And recalled that he’d been hit twice in the groin since meeting Wailant, albeit once self-inflicted.

“Sort of. Not sure. One is…annoying. Sort of.”

“Would you like me to shoot him? Accidentally?

One of Bird’s antennae waved winsomely, the equivalent of him winking. It was such an Erin gesture that Numbtongue and Mrsha instantly assumed she’d taught him that. He laughed.

“No. But thank you.”

“You are welcome. Oh look. Mrsha has found water. I will die in water, but only if I drown. Belgrade is afraid of it.”

Bird still strode up to his knees in the pond. He splashed around merrily, and Numbtongue marveled.

And Mrsha—smiled. She waved and the two, Hobgoblin, and Worker, jogged after her, all too willing to let her show them about. And they had time for it. Neither one said ‘we have to do this now, Mrsha’, or ‘maybe we’ll play in a bit, Mrsha’. They were all-in. And Mrsha looked at them and tentatively asked a question. Bird and Numbtongue stared down at her paws.

Do you want to play?

 

—-

 

A few minutes later, Bird poked his head up in the tropical section of the garden. A little, white, furry shape was hiding in a bush. It had taken him a while to find her, with her Skills, but Bird was persistent.

He was also monologuing. Bird whispered as he crept up on the bundle of fur.

“This is Bird the [Hunter]. I am now in sight of my quarry. And now I will sneak up on the helpless Gnoll. I am going to eat her. Probably. Although she might not taste good.”

The bundle of fur quivered with anticipation as the Worker stealthily made his way towards her. Again, except for his voice.

“She has no idea of my approach. And now I will grab her, braise her in a pot—aaah! AAAAAAH!

He screamed. And Mrsha screamed, silently, and ran. Bird ran after her, still screaming. Numbtongue, hiding in his tree, fell out of it laughing as Mrsha bolted across the garden. Bird kept chasing her until he grabbed her up, and then the Gnoll fought as he bit her gently with his mandibles.

And Mrsha was so happy she nearly threw up laughing and giggling. She had made a discovery today. And that was that Bird and Numbtongue were a thousand times funner than Lyonette and Erin.

Lyonette and Erin were like…Urksh. They were good. But they could be strict! Or mean! You went to them when you wanted to be hugged, or cuddled, or if you were sad. But they couldn’t run about forever. Erin would flop over and gasp for air, even if you jumped on her back. And she and Lyonette got angry at pranks, or just ran out of energy. They had ‘things to do’.

But Bird? Numbtongue? They didn’t get tired. And they knew how to play. When they played tag, they sprinted. Bird might have been slow, but he had a tactical mind that meant he’d run through some of the prickly bushes that Numbtongue and Mrsha refused to dash into. His armored chitin didn’t mind one bit. And Numbtongue was fully willing to throw the ball all day.

“Catch. Catch!”

Bird happily threw the ball in a triangle and Mrsha dashed back and forth, catching her ball and throwing it clumsily. The [Bard] drew his guitar, thwacked his ball across the garden—it bounced off the other side of the dome. His [Reinforced Guitar] meant he could do that with impunity and it made a lovely sound each time he did.

And when that was done? They invented the greatest game ever, totally by chance. Mrsha went soaring through the air as Numbtongue grabbed the ball and she refused to let go. So he threw her at Bird.

The Gnoll flew through the air, screaming silently. She howled when she landed, the only sound she could make, and Bird looked at her.

“Is this a good howl or a bad one?”

Again, again! Mrsha raised her arms and Bird obligingly tossed her back. Numbtongue grinned and caught Mrsha. This time he threw her high and Bird opened his arms to catch her.

“This is almost as good as flying. I am most envious of you, Mrsha. Fly! Fly!

Mrsha did, flailing her arms and laughing in the air. This was the most fun ever! She went up, panicked as she saw no Numbtongue and fell back to earth—

And the Hob slid down and caught her. Mrsha laughed and smacked his head as he began to heave her, this time towards the pond.

Numbtongue! Bird! Stop that at once!

Their game of ‘Toss the Mrsha’ was interrupted by Lyonette’s angry voice. The [Princess] had come into the garden to show Wailant around and she pointed at the trio with horror. She strode over and immediately began to lecture.

Numbtongue and Bird endured the tongue-lashing as Mrsha tried to protest. But Lyonette was adamant. No games that involved Mrsha possibly landing on her head! The trio walked away as Wailant stared about, exclaiming again and pointing out a good spot to grow the Sage’s Grass.

“Mean. So strict. Poor Mrsha.”

The Hobgoblin [Bard] squatted in the grass as Mrsha rolled over on her back. She nodded rapidly, and Bird nodded too.

“And she does not let people eat birds. She is very mean. Mrsha must be very sad.”

They understood! Mrsha looked up at them and felt…a kinship. Like Relc, actually. Numbtongue and Bird looked at each other and the Antinium’s mandibles opened and rose. Numbtongue grinned, the same expression on a different face. And Mrsha’s tail wagged and she rolled over.

“Let’s go outside to play next time. Somewhere else. Maybe Strongheart farm. Have wands. Can shoot arrows at targets. Birds?”

“Ooh. Ooh. But that would be breaking the rules.”

“Only bad if they find out.”

The Hobgoblin grinned. And Mrsha’s ears perked up. She looked at Numbtongue.

He was actually…her age. Maybe even younger than Mrsha. Goblins lived short lives. And Bird was two. Mrsha pointed this out and Numbtongue and Bird blinked at her.

They were a family. Erin had called them that, but it had really been them connecting to her. Which wasn’t a family. But now—Mrsha felt close to the two of them. And if they were a family, that might mean she was the big sister!

She pointed a thumb at her chest, emphasizing that last point. Bird and Numbtongue exchanged a glance. The Hobgoblin grinned.

“No.”

“I do not believe that is how it works.”

Bird shook his head slowly. But he smiled, and Numbtongue laughed.

“Should go outside more. Too much inside. Garden is nice. But good things are out there. Will take next time. Not inside caves, but somewhere.”

He pointed towards the sky. Mrsha looked at him. Bird nodded.

“I will go too. I am not allowed to shoot birds, but maybe if I go with you, Numbtongue, and a bird attacks Mrsha, I will kill it. In self-defense. Yes. Yes.

He rubbed all four hands together. And Mrsha laughed. Then she sat upright as a bolt of inspiration came down from her from above.

 

And lo. Mrsha’s fur stood on end as she looked at her two companions. No, family. No—teammates.

There came a time when the great wizard of the inn found she was alone. And her power waned in the age of mortals, and the Defenders of the Cave were too far gone, in lands forbidden by the [Princess] of the Inn. So the mighty wizard stood alone.

But she was not alone. For came the singing Green Bard, and the mighty Sky Hunter. And they joined the wizard on more great quests of bravery and glory.

In days to come, in days of yore, they would be known as the most famous adventurers to ever live. The Mrsha Adventuring Team would travel the world, led by Mrsha the Great and Terrible!

The little Gnoll looked up. And Numbtongue grinned at her. And his crimson eyes shone with that wild light of the free. It was a dangerous thing. Because you couldn’t cage them. And Bird stared up at the sky, and he had never been caged by his Hive.

It was the beginning of something powerful. Something new, and definitely not child-safe. And here Lyonette thought she was being astute by making anti-Mrsha precautions with Octavia. She had no idea, no idea at all.

But in time, Mrsha recalled one last thing. And she looked up at Numbtongue and pointed. The Hobgoblin turned his head and saw the last hill, that she had not gone near the entire time. Wailant could not see it. It was only there if you looked for it.

“What is that?”

Mrsha stood up. She looked at Bird. And the Antinium nodded.

“Go. I will stay here in the sun. I cannot be with them forever.”

So the little Gnoll stood up on two legs. And she reached out. Numbtongue paused, because Mrsha’s face was suddenly grave. He took her paw. And she led him up the hill. Past the meadow of flowers. Higher, to a place with fog.

And the statues. And Numbtongue stared. He recoiled. And the [Bard]’s eyes went wide. He stumbled forwards. Then, he fell to his knees.

Mrsha stared. There they stood.

Goblins.

The mists cleared, and they stood or sat on the grassy hill. Goblins. Too many to count. They had not been there for Mrsha, or even Erin. It was as if they had been waiting for him. Now, they were here.

Goblins. Every one Erin had known. And she had known so many. From the Goblins who she had buried, that a Senior Guardsman had killed so long ago to the ones who had died…it felt like yesterday. But it was three of them that crushed Numbtongue’s chest, made him bow his head and clutch at the grass.

Bugear, Headscratcher, and Shorthilt. They stood together. Bugear’s sword was drawn. Shorthilt was kneeling, maintaining his blade. And Headscratcher was leaning on his axe.

They stared ahead, towards some foe in the distance. None of them were relaxed. That was not how they had lived or died. But they looked—content. And they stood as part of a group.

But their companions Erin had not known. And it was enough. Numbtongue could see the others, as if they stood there. He curled up, tears, running from his crimson eyes. And then he looked. He had to.

So many faces. Spiderslicer, sauntering out of the inn for a duel with Redscar. Noears, laughing as he had in his last moments on the roof of the inn. Eater of Spears, a silent shadow.

And—Garen Redfang. He sat on the back of a Carn Wolf, and stared down at Numbtongue. Even him. The [Bard] looked up.

“Chieftain.”

He touched at his heart. And he knelt.

They were all there. Goblins whom Erin had known but for a moment. But she cared. Pyrite should have been there. But she had never known him. And the others—

Pyrite was not there. But another Goblin sat, at the lonely table made of stone. Next to Garen. Numbtongue had almost missed him. But now he saw the last Goblin, smiling with bitter regret.

Reiss.

He looked as he had when Erin had seen him die. A hole in his chest, held together just by will and a [Necromancer]’s magic. Dying. Numbtongue looked at his face. He looked at Garen, and his brother. And he turned away.

Something struck Numbtongue, as he wandered the hill, looking at faces, battering his heart against memory. He went back to the three Redfangs. And he searched.

But there were no other Goblins. And there should have been. At least two. But no matter how long Numbtongue searched, he couldn’t find them. He came back to the trio at last and realized.

There was no Rabbiteater. Or Badarrow.

And Numbtongue had to believe that meant something. No—surely it did. Or else he would stand among them. And if they weren’t there, that meant one thing.

The Hobgoblin’s legs gave out a second time. But this time he fell on his rear, in the soft grass.  And he began to laugh.

The Goblin’s laughter echoed from the lonely hill. It echoed across the garden. Numbtongue laughed so hard his ribs hurt. And then he wept, cried with happiness. And sadness.

By the time Mrsha came with Erin, Numbtongue was just sitting there. Staring up at their faces. The little Gnoll shyly hid at the outskirts of that place. The [Goblin Soulbard] looked up as Erin walked over. Her footsteps were faltering. And she stared at the Goblins as he had.

But then she looked at him. Slowly, Erin walked over. She stared at the three Redfangs. And her face was pale. Her voice was soft.

“I just remembered. Sanctuary means a safe place. A reserve. But it also means a sacred place. That’s what the definition is.”

She looked at Numbtongue.

“I’m sorry.”

He smiled. Erin was uncomprehending, but Numbtongue pointed.

“Look. They’re missing.”

It took Erin a moment to understand. And then she did smile. She laughed, like him.

“So is she. Rags. Missing.”

“Missing!”

He agreed. And Erin turned. She hugged Numbtongue, as tight as she could.

“Thank you. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for asking—”

“We followed you. It was our choice.”

That was all the [Bard] said. He leaned on her. And she on him. They stood together, such that if one had not been there, the other would have fallen. But together they stood.

They stood there, and Mrsha was embarrassed to be here. No, ashamed. Because it was not her place.

She crept away. And she went down the little hill. It was visible, to all for a moment. The Goblin’s laughter had drawn the eye, revealing it. The Stronghearts stared up at that place. And Erin whispered into Numbtongue’s chest.

“If you have to go and find them—I’ll help you. But tell them—don’t forget. This is your home, okay?”

His arms tightened and he hesitated. But then Numbtongue looked up. His eyes ran with tears, but he shook his head.

“It’s fine. I will be strong. Protect you. And this place. And when I find them—I will be strong.”

Behind Erin, a figure stood. Not a statue, but a dead person. A spirit, a ghost. The Goblin Lord bowed. And he stepped away as Numbtongue and Erin embraced. And stood for a moment amid her regrets, her triumphs. Her precious memories.

 

—-

 

“Yup, this is a damn good spot for Sage’s Grass.”

Below the sacred hill, Wailant inspected the meadow. He seemed pleased by it. A perfect little spot. He glanced up at the distant pair on the hill. Then he turned.

“Are those two fucking? I’m just curious.”

Garia kicked him down the hill. Mrsha watched Wailant go tumbling past her. She waved at Garia and the City Runner waved back. Then Mrsha leapt.

The former [Pirate] was cursing unfilial daughters as he got up. He looked up as a black shape hurtled towards him. Wailant dove. And the Antinium missed him by inches.

Bird was sliding down a hill on his back, since rolling wasn’t as easy. But his domed back-shell meant the worker achieved commendable speed on the hill.

Mrsha was riding on his stomach.

“Wheeeee.”

The two nearly went into the pond. Bird and Mrsha raced up the hill, and Mrsha found her ball. She pleaded and Bird obliged.

A family. Garia watched as Mrsha raced after a ball that Bird threw. She turned as Viceria watched the same sight.

“Hey, Mom. Um—I’m sorry about not coming home that often.”

The [Green Mage] smiled at Garia.

“You might not have wanted the illusion spells, but you did find your own way, Garia. Don’t mind your father. He’s just adjusting. But you should come home more often.”

They watched as Wailant, grumbling, began to kick over flowers, muttering about fertilizer and hauling everything in here by hand. Garia sighed.

“Sure.”

“And if you would like, I can lend you some better clothes. I don’t mind your dress, Garia, but you need more magical gear. And maybe some more fashionable leggings, even if they have to be Runner’s…”

Mom.

 

—-

 

In time, even Mrsha was tired out by the fun. And that was something that had never happened before. Mrsha poked her stomach to see if her fun-thing was broken, but she was just tired. She flopped onto her back and panted as Bird walked away to pose in the flowers and bask in the sun.

And in time, Erin and Numbtongue came down from the hill. And Mrsha let the adults do their thing. They had grand plans that involved some stinky grass.

But Mrsha had plans too. This was her garden! She was going to plant all kinds of things here and make them grow. The [Druid] liked that thought. She raced around the garden after a short nap. Then she found something horribly offensive besides Wailant.

It was in the tropical, humid area. Mrsha had a lot of things that had to go, including the pricker bushes. But this? This had to go too.

It was a big tree with…big pods. Orange-brown, deep purple-red, and fat. Bigger than blue-juice trees, or anything else Mrsha had ever seen. Some were reddish, but some of the fallen pods had turned yellow too. Mrsha stared up at them, perplexed.

What a yucky tree. Ew! Not in her garden! The [Druid] frowned darkly. She’d be making big changes here! The Faerie Flowers would be perfect on the sad hill. The mean drunk [Pirate Farmer] could grow his stupid Sage’s Grass—whatever that was—in the meadow, but Mrsha was going to plant nice flowers! And blue fruit trees! And—um—more flowers! For Apista!

She wasn’t going to have nasty pod-trees, no sir! Mrsha kicked a pod savagely. Then she sniffed it, and shook her head. It smelled odd! Odd, foreign—she was sure it would be horrible to taste.

Mrsha waved her wand at the tree, furious at its yuckiness. She was about to cast some horrible, Tier 9 spell on it when a Centaur emerged from the bushes.

“Whew! Thank goodness for emergency bushes. Erin really needs an outhouse for—aah!

He jumped as Mrsha stared at him. Palt immediately backed up. He guiltily shuffled his hooves.

“I uh—disposed of my waste! I can vanish it! Don’t worry about it! It’s just inconvenient for Centaurs to—oh, it’s just you.”

He breathed a sigh of relief as it turned out to just be Mrsha. She glared and signed with her paws. Palt stared at her blankly.

“What’s that, Miss Mrsha? No need to worry. I do actually have my ways. Er—don’t tell Miss Solstice, would you?”

He noticed the tree Mrsha was so furious about as the Gnoll glared. The Centaur eyed the pod Mrsha was kicking and her apparent disgust. He smiled as he levitated the pod up with a flick of the fingers.

“Oh. Cacao trees. That’s a Baleros-native. I think I saw some Chandrarian plants over there in the arid section. They have a fruit on the inside which is edible. Not exactly good if you ask me; too fruity and slimy. But some of our uh, guests at Wistram have been making a fuss over them.”

Mrsha paused. Edible? She wanted to taste it. She pointed and opened her mouth. Even Palt got that one.

“Miss Solstice, would it be fine if I fed this cacao fruit to Mrsha? I can assure you  it’s quite edible.”

The [Innkeeper] was talking with Wailant and the others. Her head turned, vaguely.

“Huh? What’s that, Palt?”

Her eyes were red and Palt stopped. He pointed, lamely.

“You have a tree over there. I don’t mean to disturb. But Miss Mrsha—”

He gestured to Mrsha. The Gnoll signed about Palt pooping. Erin’s brows crossed. She stared at Palt. He turned beet red. Erin’s mouth opened.

And then she paused. The word echoed around her brain a bit. And to be fair, Erin at first assumed it was a word from this world. But had such similarities. And if you knew a bit, a bit at all…

“Say that again? What did you call that tree?”

Palt shrugged.

“Cacao trees. And over there I swear I saw some nali sugarcane. Which would be amazing if you could—”

He broke off as Erin charged. She grabbed the pod like an American football and raised it into the air. She uttered a cry that made everyone turn to her. And the [Innkeeper] stared up at the pod and uttered one word.

Chocolate.

 


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76 thoughts on “7.11

  1. Before the regular comments! Next week is my birthday week! Normally, that means the author takes a break or something, but I don’t do that. I’ve written on my birthday before and I will again. But this time I will be taking it easy!

    That means instead of your regular 20k+ word chapters, I’ll commit to writing a much shorter story each day of the week! They’ll be coming out each night and they will be short! 2,000 words minimum probably because I’m me, but if I wrote 2,000 words per night it would still be less than one of these chapters!

    We’ll see, but keep an eye on Discord if you want for announcements of when the chapters will come out. Otherwise–just be pleasantly surprised by the short chapters! It’ll be fun, random, and what I want to write. Nothing stressful! Happy birthday to me! Someone get me a box of potions! Now, to your regular after-chapter thoughts!

    And we’re back to Liscor. How did you like the format? A short (comparatively) arc, and back to events. And they tie together!

    And perhaps, this chapter is more slice-of-life after war and horror. Perhaps it’s what you want. And maybe there might be a few little interesting things…like chocolate…and nothing else…

    But I realized somewhere in this chapter that the main theme was family. And family isn’t one person. I hope you enjoyed this little chapter, and look forwards to something new starting on Monday! Just for a while.

    Also, I have two new images of amazing Fanart! I have more, including Shield Spiders by Enuryn, but I’ll post only a few if they make sense. And this amazing art by Pkay and Brack displays Grimalkin and Garia Strongheart herself! Amazing art! I have to add it to Fanworks still, along with the rest, but feast your eyes on this! Thanks for reading!


  2. Leave a typo for [Pirates]! And brawls! I’m a pirateaba, not a Pirate or [Pirate]. Totally different. I see how you’d get confused.

    (Piratical readers: belthanyl, Patrik Axberg, lhans, jmgao, Grimmend, seenkay, CarpDM, Drakorise, James Walsh, 1024dp, MrWiggles, Maladal, PanzerSoul, Ali Juhdi, Aoxz, zombieno53, hougi123, Iking, unrivalledsuper, afkcuzbookiscool, Stephen)

    • Love your work, I actually re-read the whole thing about a month ago, haven’t finished this chapter yet but I always forget the typos if I wait.

    • Numbtongue only knew she was older because Wailant had told her -> him and his wife had laughed and kicked him under the table.

    • Missed the fact that the wrong foot was caught before.

      Garia. Don’t want your parents to starve, right?”
      Garia. You don’t want your parents to starve, right?”
      I believe that the sentence flows better.

      • The [Silence] spell made Wailant mouthe silent for a few seconds as she stood up.
        from the internet: mouthe. Noun. (plural mouthes) Obsolete spelling of mouth. Of course if you are looking to hearken back to the old way of spelling to set the tone of the story don’t worry about my comment.

        The [Silence] spell made Wailant’s mouth silent for a few seconds as she stood up.
        or
        The [Silence] spell made Wailant mouth silently for a few seconds as she stood up.
        or
        The [Silence] spell made Wailant mouthed silently for a few seconds as she stood up.
        or
        something else that you figure will set the stage of your story

        Kind regards,

      • “Now he says it…Drowned Ships have tanks full of Gleamshrimp and magical underwater plants.
        I believe the saying is…
        “Now that he says it…Drowned Ships have tanks full of Gleamshrimp and magical underwater plants.

    • She punched upwards, down, adjusting her form but carrying the same motion.

      The down as is, does not seem to fit within the sentence structure. I am not sure what exactly the down is referring to but I made an educated guess below.

      She punched upwards and then downwards, adjusting her form but carrying the same motion.

      Kind regards,

    • “I’ve used it so many times that its public record”
      its -> it’s

      “So, this door doesn’t’ go all the way to Pallass.”
      doesn’t’ -> doesn’t

      “Where are those the disposable wands”
      Remove “the”
      Alternately, the sentence is missing some words

      “Need different move”.
      Put . inside quotation marks

      “The [Silence] spell made Wailant mouth silent for a few seconds as she stood up.”
      silent -> silently

  3. This is why I love WanderingInn. The mages are baffled at how to upgrade the door, everyone is theorising what skill Erin will get that upgrade the door and then there is this free thinking [Pirate] [Farmer] who come waltzing in and install battery plant in Erin’s garden.

    Also chocolate, going to use it to solve every problem now. Wonder if Gnoll can eat it.

  4. Ahh, going with the faster recharge method instead of simply augmenting the capacity. Fair enough, though raising the capacity would definitely help. And…. chocolate, Chocolate? CHOCOLATE!!!!

  5. I wonder how much Erin paid for the Sage’s Grass. Since its in her sanctuary, there’s really no need to get a mark up due to protection from monsters/pests or harvesting. Basically she’s just paying for the seed and the farmers’ growth skills. I suppose she could give a bonus for the idea.

    • I was actually working on a fanfic in which the shaman uses sage’s grass to augment the door from Pebblesnatch’s side. But as usual, Pirateaba can write faster than i can plot.

    • Unfortunately, I think this improvement only changes the recharge time, and not the range. (Could be wrong)

      However, with [Garden of Sanctuary]…I wonder, if she had another Inn built in another city, could she use this skill to go between the two (On the chance her Inn specific skills would transfer over to all Inns she owns, rather than just the one.)

      • @Grimmmend

        We’ve actually had that disproven in the canon. The Door Theorycrafting between mages (Pisces, Ceria, Moore, Silver Sword mage, Ryoka, and some more) back in Ch.3 or so did their measurements, and concluded that it was a mana quantity problem. Essentially, mass*distance=mana usage.

      • I was wondering that too. The garden is still in the inn so teleporting to it from anywhere in the inn would take very little magic. But getting to the garden from another city would be a lot more.

        How good is the garden door at teleporting magic? I could see it being a simple teleport that can’t go beyond the inn. Or it could be even better than the door the horns got which would make it very possible. And might be necessary if her door gets stolen or destroyed.

        But I think each inn would get it’s own garden.

      • Considering the way things like laws of nature, magic and so on get pretzel’ed around Erin, I wouldn’t be quick to discount any possibility of the Inn expanding to other locales and Erin cheating through the garden.

        That said, I also don’t expect it to be a straightforward linking of 2 buildings either. I feel that the other building needs to fit as a part of the inn (so no easy copouts via duplication, like renting a building and having 2 common rooms and so on) as well as… having it’s own “gravitas”.

        At this point in time, The Players of Cellum’s Theater in Invirsil is the only location that feels a properly fitting space for the Inn to glomp on and Escher a connection to.

        That said, both Goblin Home (which we haven’t even seen yet!) and PebbleSnatch’s “pantry” also have the right “feeling” for such an expansion.

      • Don’t forget about vanilla. The Garden would be perfect for it, given how much of a nightmare it is to cultivate.

        Saffron too, come to think of it. The nature of the Garden probably means that it and vanilla would nearly always be ready to harvest.

    • Oh dear. This is going to descend into an inter-continental “how dare you call that sugary effluent ‘chocolate’” flame war on Discord isn’t it?

  6. Have to love and fear the deadly power that Erin has obtained and shall soon unleash upon the world… After a few test trials of course.

    A bit curious at how much chocolate will sell since that has a lot of variations and it sold for a LOT of money in the past. The next trial will be finding the elusive coffee beans… Or finding the one soldier within licsor who does have some coffee beans, but doesn’t realize how to use them to their fullest potential.

  7. Lovely chapter, as always. I look forward to the many chocolate drinks available to the inn. My personal favorite is alcoholic chocolate milkshakes.

    I do wonder if Erin likes chocolate chip waffles, or if they exist yet. Fae flower chocolate bars? Is [Chocolate Addict] a class? Oh, I bet [Chocolatier] is.

    I hope Mrsha gets a new druidic skill by planting – yellow fonted- magic plants.

    P.S. Happy birthday!

  8. In a sense Grimalkin is right, if Erin had not used her door during the moth’s attack, tv would have not yet started or would not be as spread. So, it would be unlikely that this present scenario would have worked. This was all an elaborate plan to distract them, what a twist.

    More seriously I thought of something. The ‘hole’ at the top of the garden let water enter but surely it has a limit after which it refuses to let it enter. otherwise it will get flooded as soon as the raining season start again. it probably blocks a too big difference in temperature to, as it would be dumb to let snow or boiling water enter. More thing to test for Erin and co.

    That all well and good that bug can’t get in, but some bug are important for plan to grow well, I guess those bees will truly find a new home. That going to be such a mess.

    Chocolate is finally in the hand of Erin, forget the god that small potato compares to the chaos THAT will bring.

  9. Hmm. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that she knows how to make chocolate from scratch, how is Erin going to ferment her new cacoa beans with her Field of Preservation constantly active?

    Especially given the fact that Pebblesnatch’s chapter mentions she hasn’t figured out fermentation yet.

    Would be rather amusing if she made such a big deal about her new fruit… Only to have no idea how to use it.

    • The goblin who turns out to be a [Rotter] in that Pebblesnatch chapter could turn out to be the key to making chocolate.

      • Don’t need the [Rotter] when you have a live-in [Alchemist] named Octavia. I’ll be seriously disappointed if Lynette doesn’t create a massive distribution network, and then uses the money re-double the size of the Inn which then doubles the size of the Theater, the Garden of Sanctuary, AND the Inn’s mana capacity (aka able to send a whopping 4-8 people to Pallas and/or Invrisil daily).

        Rinse and repeat until the Inn is the size of a small town. It will also help Liscor with the housing problem if the Inn turns the new wings into full apartments.

    • Well technically you don’t actually have to ferment the beans never tried any so no idea what it actually tastes like but there are parts of the world that make chocolate from unfermented beans. But really all she’d need to do is leave the beans in a barrel outside the inn for a few days.

  10. I can’t be the only one who imagined Erin screaming the Zelda “picking up a treasure” sound while lifting the cocoa over her head!

    Also, I have to think that there is some fanart incoming of Erin and Numbtongue holding each other dearly while Erin “whispers in his chest”…

  11. Actually, I’m wondering if the Sage Grass in the Garden will affect the mana in the inn at all.
    IIRC the Garden of Sanctuary is Erin’s (personal) skill, not an inn skill.

    Is the Garden actually in the inn or is it just some pocket dimension from the skill? The door to the Garden might appear anywhere when needed.
    Would the door have appeared to Mrsha if Erin hadn’t been in the inn at that time?

    So… Can mana “grown” in the Garden get to the inn and recharge the door?

    Open for discussion! 😇😈

  12. my god that face with those abs are cracking me up
    iv been thinking about the slaves ever since this flos arc, what would happen if a eather got into a place of power there?
    granted more likely bad things would be happing to them bbbut a slave uprising or … joining the masters and experimenting with people and classes could give them anything you could want

  13. Sometimes a family is …. honestly it would take me too long to write it all out, but sometimes a family is many many people and their tiny furball of a daughter.

    And that is good.

  14. Original version of The Butterfly Effect:
    When a butterfly waves her wings it cause a tsunami on the other side of the world.

    InnWorld version of The Butterfly Effect:
    When the world shifted, butterflies across the world caught indigestion. Or something like that.

    I found this is really Funny ;^)

  15. This chapter had me choked up. I don’t always know what to say these days. I love your story, but I’m running out of different ways to say how much I enjoy it and how thoroughly it removes me from reality and immerses me in this strange other world. Just, thank you. Found Family is one of my favorite tropes and you have built it up so well that it hurts.

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