It was another day. One where Erin didn’t have anything planned while waking up.
No—to rephrase that, she didn’t have anyone else telling her what they needed done. No Grimalkin and his weights, no playdates with Mrsha at the inn. Nothing new, save for what Erin herself took on.
Normally, Erin treasured those days. They were rare in The Wandering Inn. And yes, some days Erin Solstice, insane Human, [Innkeeper] of the infamously famous inn, friend to Goblins, purveyor of strange events and her own kind of magic…sometimes she was tired.
It had been an interesting week. And they were all interesting weeks. The only times Erin really remembered nothing happening in the inn was every time something so large had happened that everything was background noise. Static.
Like the battle against Reiss, the Goblin Lord. The silence after Skinner had attacked. The days following Ulrien and Brunkr’s deaths.
The inn only really grew silent when something bad had happened. But Erin also remembered the feeling after the Horns of Hammerad had returned, victorious. There had been sadness, then. But triumph.
Until Toren, that was. It was true that the inn had a reputation. For great tragedy and great joy. But Erin felt like there was as much victory as loss.
Still, she recalled something. A brief two weeks where nothing had happened. A little camp, a ‘wilderness adventure’ which was really as dangerous and dramatic as camping in a curated safe zone. But it had been fun. Relaxing. She had needed it.
It already felt like a long time ago, but it had only been…a month ago? Something like that. And yet, Erin remembered waking up and fishing, or wandering around the camp. Taking out the portable chess set she’d brought, or staring at the sky.
She’d been terribly sad, then. But the two weeks had helped. And Erin had done a lot of thinking. She hadn’t enjoyed it as much as needed it. And if she had a choice—no. Erin wouldn’t do it like that again.
For one thing, Erin had a family. Mrsha, Lyonette, Numbtongue, Bird. She had left them behind because she’d needed to. But if Erin could do it again, she’d have brought Mrsha and Lyonette with her at least. Bird and Numbtongue would have been hard to smuggle into that campsite. But if Erin could take them to a theoretical campsite…
Erin Solstice lay in her Garden of Sanctuary and stared up at the sky, through the domed roof. And she felt the same feeling as before. But—different. Because she was all too aware this was a reprieve. She’d woken up near dawn, as always. It was a habit. And soon, Numbtongue would be here, scavenging his breakfast from the premade meals. Or Bird would appear, or Mrsha would rush down the stairs or use the Garden as a shortcut.
If Erin stayed here, she wouldn’t have her quiet days like at the campsite with Pallass Hunting. And in a way, that was what she craved.
Quiet times. Solitude. It might amaze anyone who had met Erin, but she enjoyed being alone as much as other people. Before coming to this world, she had sat in front of a chess board and practiced her game. Studied chess in solitude.
Erin Solstice had learned she was good at being social. She had learned who she was, and that she had other talents. Like fighting. Like her own brand of innkeeping, her special magic. But on a quiet day like this, where no one was supposed to ask her anything, part of Erin Solstice would have loved to do nothing more than lie on her back and stare at the sky for hours.
The [Innkeeper] felt tired today. She couldn’t have said why. Poor sleep, perhaps. It had been busy. And she’d pulled a muscle trying to do some lifts with Grimalkin and the others. He’d told her to tough it out. Erin wanted to wimp out with a healing potion, but she hadn’t bothered after the Antinium had come and Erin had fed them all and cried and given out hugs and chocolate…
Busy days. She’d gotten, what, five hours of sleep? Erin yawned. She’d love nothing more than to go to bed, but she was programmed to wake up at dawn from the first days in the inn. She could just close her eyes…
Scampering feet. Mrsha appeared through a door and Erin heard Lyonette’s scolding voice.
“Mrsha, you can use the stairs. You don’t have to use that door to take a shortcut for—”
Erin saw the White Gnoll race into the garden, circle once as Lyonette stepped through, and then leap back as the door showed the kitchen. She hadn’t noticed Erin lying in the meadow.
The [Innkeeper] paused. In theory, she wasn’t needed for breakfast. Lyonette was perfectly capable of rousing the inn’s staff as they arrived, serving guests, and handling a lot by herself. In fact, Erin thought she might be crowding the [Princess]. She could just lie here, resting, until Wailant came to plant the last of the grass.
And yet. The [Innkeeper] slowly rose, groaning. Her bed of grass and little flowers was so wonderful. There were no bugs in the Garden, no little ants to crawl onto your face and remind you that nature was always present. It was the perfect spot to relax, and Erin had seen Mrsha snoozing on Numbtongue’s chest as the two napped in the sun. Even when it rained and rain poured through the opening in the dome, it was a beautiful sight. Safety.
But still, Erin Solstice got up. She would have loved to take a break. No one was demanding anything. But she had things to do.
A new feeling. Erin generally reacted to things coming at her. Monster? Pan to the face. Strange guest? Investigate. Important moment? Improvise. She did not initiate that much. But—as any good chess player would tell you, you had to plan ahead, be proactive.
The young woman hated doing it. She knew there were things to be done, and she did not want to do any of them. A few of the things had names.
Palt, Klbkch, also, finances, learning to cook with Lasica, making magical food, improving the inn, Wailant, putting money aside for taxation, suspicious Grimalkin…Erin felt exhausted just thinking of it all. And she hated it.
She didn’t like economics, or politics—Erin’s definition of that being any kind of deals, like she had with the Ullsinoi faction—or problems where you had to make a decision that might and definitely would bite you in the butt if you made the wrong choice. Or even the right one.
Erin liked chess, where you could be intense and competitive, but at the end of the day, no one died or got hurt for your mistakes. Life should not be about hard choices.
But sometimes it was. And Erin, rightly or wrongly, conflated adulthood with confronting those hard decisions. With making mistakes but choosing rather than letting other people and life choose for you. She was facing it today. Not because she’d suddenly received an influx of strength; she was run down, even with her [Lesser Endurance] Skill that let her push her limits.
No, it was because of yesterday. Yesterday, where she’d seen…Bird.
Her lovely Antinium child, her [Hunter]. Erin had seen Bird speaking to the Antinium. Leading them, rejecting his Hive and showing them his way. All on his own.
Bird, who had rediscovered childhood, being silly, learning how to cry. If he could do that, then Erin was embarrassed not to try. So she walked into her kitchen.
The [Princess] stared at Erin as the [Innkeeper] found a bowl of grains and poured milk into it. Cereal. Sometimes you needed a basic food.
“Good morning. You have grass in your hair, Erin.”
“Grass beds are the best beds. Prove me wrong.”
Mrsha grinned. She stood on the high stool and gave Erin a hug. The [Innkeeper] smiled. She ate her cereal. And began doing the hard things.
“…five hundred and fifty, five hundred and seventy five, six hundred.”
Erin counted the gold onto the table. The stacks of gold coins shone in the morning light. Wailant stared. He looked at Erin. So did his wife, raising her brows over her morning drink. And yes, it was wine. The Stronghearts were weird like that.
They were not in The Wandering Inn. They were in fact, in the Strongheart farmhouse. Erin had visited. She had not kicked in the door, or been invited. She had politely gone through the door, knocked at a reasonable hour in the morning, and asked if Wailant could spare her a moment of his time.
Numbtongue had not been involved. Nor had some calamity of great fortune or misfortune impelled Erin to this spot. Again, she’d walked. It had taken about two minutes, since Erin had had to wait for a crowd coming through from Esthelm; they were beginning to fill the Celum regulars’ spots. Speaking of which, Erin had gotten a lot of sad messages from people who were really, genuinely upset their favorite inn had gone. She had added it to her list.
Back to Wailant. The former [Pirate] looked at the neat clusters of twenty-five Erin had counted out. He blinked at Erin.
“That’s an awfully timely payment, Miss Solstice.”
“Well, I thought that since I already paid the advance, I should do the rest without having it hang over my head, right? And I have the money. Can I assume that’s everything?”
Wailant exchanged a glance with his wife. She nodded.
“Yes, Miss Solstice. Would you like us to clear the contract between us?”
She meant destroy the magically binding agreement that Erin had signed. Erin nodded.
“That’d be great, thanks. I mean, if you have time.”
She smiled slightly at Viceria. The [Green Mage] nodded her head towards the back rooms.
“I’ll go get it. One moment.”
“I wasn’t going to hold your feet over a barrel of biter eels, Miss Solstice. I don’t know what you thought or heard, but that was just a sensible formality. You had all the time to pay this. My girl likes your inn. It’s not bad in my books myself. If this is because of my class or personality—”
The [Farmer] protested, looking a bit upset. Erin shook her head. She smiled, in a way that made Wailant relax. Mostly because it was genuine.
“No, it’s fine. I just wanted to make sure I got it done. You know? Get ahead of myself.”
Wailant nodded slowly. He eyed the gold coins, and then swept them into a bag of holding.
“Mind if I ask how you got it so quick? Your [Head Barmaid] or whatever, Lyon, said it might take a while.”
Erin had forgotten Lyonette was using ‘Lyon’ as a slight attempt to mask her identity. She laughed a bit, remembering a certain jerk who’d bothered her by using the nickname.
“Actually, we took the money from the Halfseekers. Which is why I’m sending a chocolate cake with a heart drawn in jam through to Maughin. He can surprise Jelaqua with it. Ulinde, Moore, and Seborn will get some specialty food too, when they get back from their thing with the locusts. Just a thank-you.”
“Oh? Well, well! That Drowned Man’s fairly generous with his friends.”
“Well, I think he thinks he owes me. So we’re square. At least, I think so.”
The young woman shrugged and didn’t elaborate. She’d taken the gold, and Erin was trying not to feel guilty about it. As Seborn had said—they owed the gold to Numbtongue, if not Erin as they’d claimed. And she needed it, and…
“And here we are, Erin. The contract. Let me simply sign here and…it’s merely paper. You can dispose of it however you wish.”
Erin waited as Viceria signed the roll of vellum that looked very official and document-like—it was actually sold by Wistram, another thing the academy provided to the world for situations like these. She took it and tucked it into her belt.
“I should buy a bag of holding, I really should.”
“Huh. You still don’t have one?”
“You know, finances…I’m actually going to make it a priority.”
Wailant stopped cutting up his breakfast and got up.
“Let me check my chest. One moment.”
Erin waited. Viceria offered her a second breakfast of fresh eggs, straight from some rather large chickens. Literally, three times as large as a regular chicken. Mean suckers too, or so Garia claimed. Genetically-modified animals had nothing on what magic could do to wildlife in this world.
Erin politely declined and Wailant came back with an old little purse with a drawstring on it. The cloth was burnt in one place, although not holey. He offered it to Erin.
“This is an old one. We offered it to Garia, but she wanted to make her own mark in the world. Holds about five pounds of weight, or—hm. A box this large. If you’d like it, take it.”
He indicated a very small container, just bigger than Erin’s head. She blinked at him.
“Aw, you’ve done me some good business. No use to me; I got mine custom. But for little things, free of charge. Go on.”
Erin took the bag of holding.
“Thanks. That’s really nice of you.”
“Go on. Won’t you stay for breakfast? We’ve got these large eggs. Courtesy of our Bullhens. Large suckers—bought ‘em from a [Rancher] who has the best damn eggs this side of the High Passes.”
“Maybe later. I just ate. But I’ll buy some of your eggs for later.”
“Take a basket. We have more than we eat with the runes of preservation.”
Erin ended up with a bag of holding and a basket of about a dozen of the huge eggs. She thanked Viceria and Wailant. And then she went back to the inn.
“What is this?”
“Eggs. Eggses. You want?”
Erin showed Lyonette the basket. The [Princess]’ eyes widened. And Mrsha sat up from her breakfast of suddenly substandard, subpar eggs.
“I—well, Viceria and Wailant gave them to you? We’ll have to give them something in return. Mrsha, do you want special eggs for breakfast? Don’t finish your plate, if you do, dear.”
Mrsha instantly pushed back her plate and nodded rapidly. Erin saw a Drake having breakfast turn around instantly.
“Me too! I want them sunny-side up! On toast! No, wait—wait—toast and a slice of smoked bacon. Thick!”
Relc waved a claw. Erin saw him staring at the huge eggs. Lyonette sighed.
“One perfect breakfast coming up.”
She went into the kitchen and Erin followed her, just to watch Lyonette expertly roast the huge eggs until they were crispy but not overdone, slide them onto some beautifully golden toast, and fat bacon.
Mrsha stared at her big egg and drooled over it. Relc lifted his toast, crying softly.
“This is why I come here. Erin, you’re the best. Can I have another egg if I pay for it?”
“Sure. What, just the egg?”
“No. Can I get it…softboiled? Hear me out. Give me a soft egg, with a gooey center, and some salt and pepper in a tiny packet. Then I can break it open during my lunch and eat it.”
The Drake was salivating at the thought. He also looked rather…content. Erin eyed him.
“Fun night last night?”
The Drake choked on his breakfast. Erin waved a hand.
“I’m not prying. Or judging.”
The Senior Guardsman stared at Erin warily for a moment. Then he nodded.
“Well—yeah. You could say that. I mean, it’s just a natural thing—”
Relc eyed Erin, clearly waiting for the catch. But Erin was focusing. She paused as Relc relaxed again.
“I’ll get you the egg. You want two?”
“T-three? So I can brag and then share one with the guys. Or Beilmark, I dunno. Senior Guard pairings are all over the place this week.”
“Sure. Lyonette? Price me three eggs! And can I get a pan with water so I can boil ‘em?”
Lyonette left the boiling to Erin since she’d used her [Flawless Attempt] for the moment. Relc rubbed his hands together.
“You’re the best, Erin. Have I said that recently?”
“Go on. Actually, I was hoping you could take a message for me. You’re on duty, right?”
Relc craned his neck, staring out the window. Erin nodded.
“Perfect. Then—could you tell Klbkch I’d like to have a talk when he’s on duty next?”
Relc halted and frowned suddenly.
“Klb? Huh. Might be tricky.”
The young woman had feared that might be the case. She looked at Relc.
The Drake frowned, and, abruptly, lost his appetite. He ate more slowly as he spoke around his mouthful.
“Klb’s investigating uh, a criminal in Liscor, Erin. There was a bad situation with two of our Senior Guards. Watch Captain Z’s literally spitting fire and Klb and some of our smart Senior guards are investigating.”
Erin hadn’t heard of this. But then, she really hadn’t spent much time in Liscor even after coming back from the inn. She leaned over.
The Drake glanced surreptitiously at Mrsha. He motioned Erin over and spoke in a normal tone of voice. Interestingly, that was how you avoided accidental eavesdropping; Gnolls were more likely to pick up on a sudden whisper in a conversation rather than a normal flow of words.
“Two of the newest Senior Guards who were following this Gnoll—some big shot named Bearclaw? They got…”
Relc drew a finger across his throat. Erin stared.
“Really? Someone called Bearclaw…is Klbkch alright?”
“Oh, sure. You think they got him? He’d probably have gotten Bearclaw first if she tried, even if she’d jumped him with a gang. But the two others were…new. We haven’t found the bodies. Klb’s one of the people investigating.”
The young woman absorbed it all. She’d had no idea.
“Not you, Relc?”
The Drake gave Erin a sidelong grin.
“That’s right. Klb’s been busy on her case. Not me. I’m not subtle enough. But when we drag her in, I’m gonna be there. I’ll probably see him tomorrow, though. What do you want me to say? He’s sort of in a bad mood, though. Has been all week since the Bird thing.”
He might not have actually heard about the events last night, then. Erin felt her stomach twist, but she just nodded. All the more reason to ask.
“Well, when you see him next, can you tell him I’d like to chat?”
“Sure. About what?”
The Senior Guardsman gave Erin a knowing look, but he just nodded as he reached for his glass of blue-fruit juice.
“Sure thing. I’ll tell him. Oh—and when you make all three eggs, can you write something on the third one? Like ‘you’re an idiot?’ So I can hand it to Beilmark or whoever I’m partnered with and then they see it and—”
Erin stared at Relc.
“Don’t push your luck, buddy.”
After the morning lunch rush abated and Relc walked off with three of the eggs, Erin looked around and called out.
“Mrsha, can you come over here?”
The Gnoll cub obediently trotted over from where she was playing with her crimson, magical rolling ball. She looked up at Erin as the door to the Garden of Sanctuary appeared.
“I just want to show you something real quick, Mrsha. Through here.”
Erin opened the door. She led Mrsha through the door. And right next to the doorway, was the arid section of the Garden of Sanctuary. Erin could make the door open anywhere around the dome and the entrance/exit anywhere in her inn.
In the long, yellow grass, under the shade of the acacia tree was a little box, buried in the soil. But not covered. It had a simple lid, and there was a smaller, tiny little box next to it. That one was made of metal, and the latch was secured. Erin saw Mrsha blink at both camouflaged objects.
“This isn’t the vault. But I wanted you to know it’s here. This is the emergency stash, okay?”
Mrsha nodded as Erin bent and opened both chests.
“An invisibility potion, a speed potion, healing potions, tripvine bags—these ones explode. See how the crate is secured? Do not play games. Understand? Never. Play. Games. And don’t use them! They’re only for emergencies. Let someone else use them, but if you get hurt or…”
Erin trailed off. She didn’t need to tell Mrsha what might happen. The Gnoll looked up at Erin. The young woman gave her a reassuring hug.
“Just stay in the Garden, okay, Mrsha? Even if it looks bad. We can take care of ourselves, but we have to know you’re safe. This is only for emergencies. But better to be prepared, right?”
The little Gnoll signed back. Erin didn’t know what had happened yesterday—Mrsha had vanished with Bird—but she’d been rather chastened since. Erin suspected, but she decided not to ask. Bird had told her he’d made a terrible mistake. And Erin had talked with him.
That was that. And this was that. Erin let Mrsha scamper back into her inn after their little talk. It was enough that Mrsha knew it was there.
Erin relaxed in her room and played the magical chess game with her partner. She had a little chat; nothing consequential this time. Her opponent was apparently ‘brd’ and ‘hv mch wrk’ today. Erin could sympathize.
The young woman stood up. She didn’t like this part. It felt like leaning too much into the paranoid…dark thoughts. But she had a definite reason to be worried. So she took a breath.
“Okay, one, two, three…”
She began counting as she took the kitchen knife from her belt. The gleaming edge that Pelt had forged, and Lorent further refined, gleamed. Erin turned.
The door to the Garden of Sanctuary was open and she stepped through. Then turned—
The door was open again. But it was not connected to her room. Erin walked through into the kitchen and saw a figure. She’d known who it was before she even saw him.
Palt was making crepes; he really was taken with Erin’s cooking and adding stuff like a bit of drizzled chocolate and whipped cream was a treat. Of course, he was also a huge fan of his Balerosian dishes—Erin had to admit his curry was actually tasty, unlike the curry she’d made to attack the [Mages].
Six seconds. And Erin had known where Palt was, even appeared right behind him in the kitchen along an empty wall. She stood there silently as Palt turned, and stowed her knife.
The Centaur was humming to himself as he flipped a crepe. He turned, spotted her, shouted.
“Aah! Erin, don’t do that to me! Mrsha’s bad enough with that damn Garden! I don’t need two [Panic] spells on my tail!”
The [Illusionist] clutched at his chest. For someone in the Ullsinoi faction and a huge horse-man, he was very sensitive to scares. Mrsha loved Palt for that reason, although Erin had told her not to get near his hooves.
But then, Centaurs were apparently prone to frights, like horses. And Erin supposed being around a faction of Wistram’s worst tricksters and pranksters did things to your psyche. She waved at him, smiling.
“What? I walked in ages ago. You didn’t hear me. Nice crepes.”
“What? Oh—well, I get absorbed in my cooking. Thank you. One of your guests ordered it, and I decided to make some for myself. That’s alright, isn’t it?”
Palt blushed. Erin waved an airy hand.
“What? Sure! Like I said, thanks for helping out. Uh, I think your crepes are burning.”
Well, that worked.
Erin mumbled to herself as Palt salvaged his crepes. The Centaur turned, sucking on a burned finger.
“I think that stove’s a bit hot. It’s still running on fire; I should really pay for those heating runes.”
She gave him a cheerful smile. The Centaur nodded.
“True, but that’s no excuse on my side. Speaking of which, I know you’re extremely busy, but if I could borrow you for just a minute, Erin?”
He looked ready to plead, but Erin nodded. She had been expecting this too.
The Centaur looked surprised, but he trotted into the common room hurriedly after Erin.
“Maybe in a private room? It is about the sensitive issues.”
The Centaur ate from his slightly burned crepes in one of the private rooms. Well, the last one left; the other two were now in Octavia’s storage and the lifting room. There was a neat little table in here and chairs, and Erin waited as he tapped his fingers together.
“Well, Erin. About yesterday. I uh, know you don’t like these questions, but the Elusive Lot got wind of the broadcast Magus Grimalkin put out. I know, I know, spying, but it’s an open secret with these kind of things. Er, and since it doesn’t seem to be a huge imposition and you’ve told Magus Grimalkin—”
“You want to know about the weight training.”
“We’d like to compensate you. Obviously, I don’t have anything planned, but as I said, we’re making this an exchange, Erin. And favor’s the real currency with a lot of these—”
Erin pretended to sigh, but only mildly. She eyed Palt as he paused.
“You’ll do it?”
“Yep. Okay, you win. Lifting. I’ll give you the details. But it’s just…I dunno, muscle stuff. Does your faction really want that?”
Palt gave Erin a long look.
“Erin, you heard Magus Grimalkin. This is valuable information. Yes, absolutely. Anything you can tell us specifically about it we’ll take, even if it’s already being disseminated.”
Fair enough. Erin had, in fact, already done the calculation of risks in telling Palt. And she’d concluded that if none of the Earthers in Wistram Academy knew more than she did about strength training, it would be a strange thing indeed. So she nodded.
“Sure. It might take a while since I’m not an expert…and I never really did it, but let me tell you everything. Which you’re not going to tell anyone but the Elusive Lot, right?”
“Lips sealed. If it gets out, it’s through them, but I’m not mentioning anything to Magus Grimalkin.”
Palt instantly nodded, tracing a line across his face that shimmered in the air. Erin scratched at her head.
“Okay. Aside from what Grimalkin told you, let me tell you about…protein shakes. Which are the most disgusting things in the world. Also—eating raw eggs. Um…punching bags. Hydration?”
The Centaur had produced a series of notes and he was transcribing with a magical quill that seemed to be recording Erin’s words automatically as he added notes. He looked up.
“I think I know hydration. But go on.”
“You drink water to live. No water is bad for the muscles and brain and stuff.”
“…Yes. I think we have that.”
“Also, if you drink too much water you’ll die.”
The [Illusionist] paused, a second quill in hand.
“Say what now?”
Half an hour of questions and answers later, Erin felt more tired than this morning. And she’d just gotten started. But she was knocking things off her list left and right. Serious Erin needed coffee, or something stronger than tea, but she got work done.
Of course, Erin was still winging her order of events. And as it happened, one of the items on her list decided to bump itself up on the queue. Erin saw a duo sitting at one of her tables, and sighed.
“Uh oh. They’re back again.”
Palt peered over Erin’s shoulder and spotted Beza and Montressa. The two [Mages] instantly turned as they saw Erin and Palt coming out of the private room. They gave the Centaur a dirty look and Erin some rather false smiles.
“Are they coming every day for the same reason you are, Palt?”
Erin frowned a bit, inconspicuously nodding towards Montressa and Beza. The Centaur paused. He absently reached for a puffer, and then checked the motion. Instead, he produced a dark, black round lump and began to chew it. It looked like gum. Mixed with nicotine.
“Don’t worry about Montressa and Beza, Erin. They have orders, just like I do. For now, their factions want them here. I’m sure they’re not planning on anything radical. My faction has you claimed, so to speak. Not in any possessive way! But we’ll fight tooth-and-hoof to keep anyone from…doing anything. If you wanted to, you could ban them…”
He clearly didn’t want that too much. Nor did Erin. She regarded the two [Mages]. They weren’t something she knew the answer to. But…she had a sudden, really, horribly mean thought. The kind of mean thought that you should really get a slap on the back of the head for. But also, a smart thought.
The young woman hesitated, and then glanced at Palt. She nodded covertly at Palt.
“I’m gonna investigate. Back me up.”
She wandered over to the two [Mages]. And, with as much subterfuge in her voice as Mrsha hiding a cookie behind her back, she nodded at the two [Mages].
“Hey, you two. How’s things?”
“Pretty well, actually. Good morning, Erin. Palt.”
Montressa smiled at Erin. The young woman was as always dressed in her robes, but she lacked the magical staff or floating brass orb. She was also better at acting or more genuinely relaxed than her companion.
Bezale or Beza, the Minotauress [Spellscribe], bared her teeth at Erin like she had a toothache. Montressa went on as Erin pulled out a chair.
“We were hoping to speak to you actually, if you’re not busy?”
“No, go on. I mean, I’m just puttering around. Doing stuff, y’know? But I have time. Did you see the Grimalkin lifting thing yesterday?”
“Beza actually did a lot of lifting. I passed.”
Montressa gestured at her friend. Beza wore a sour expression.
“I came in 8th place. Eighth. Disgraceful.”
“Sounds pretty good to me?”
The [Spellscribe] turned a face full of wrath Erin’s way. Montressa kicked Beza under the table and went on smoothly.
“The broadcast was actually really…interesting. It caused a bit of a stir at the academy, actually. You—wouldn’t happen to be free to chat about your home, would you? I could offer you compensation if—”
“I don’t think Erin needs to speak with your factions, Montressa. Good morning, by the way.”
Beza folded her arms, much like another Minotaur that Erin had known.
“And what would Erin get from sharing her valuable information with you two? Just asking.”
Palt gave the two of them a smirk. Montressa’s left eyelid began to twitch. She sighed, and gave up the pretense. She looked straight at Erin.
“I know we’ve been trouble, Erin. But I can make you an offer Palt can’t. We could, at this moment, connect you with some of your friends from home. Let you two talk.”
Erin blinked. For a second she stared. Palt’s snort of outrage brought her back.
“And how many people would be listening and recording the conversation?”
“We’d swear to privacy if you wanted it.”
Montressa looked like she’d rather stab Palt than the cinnamon bun she’d been served. The Centaur rolled his eyes.
“Absolutely. Just let the two speak in perfect privacy—then ask the other person from Erin’s…home what was said.”
The young woman exhaled slowly. She had nothing to say to that. She looked rather hopelessly at Erin.
“They would like to speak with you, Erin…what do you think?”
The Centaur was certainly against it. He was actually whispering to Erin—she glanced back and saw his lips weren’t moving. But his voice was speaking audibly in her right ear.
“I really wouldn’t. They’re just going to ask questions they want the answer to. Some of the Earthers are joining up with the factions. We can arrange a conversation. It’ll take a while, but…”
Erin tuned him out. She had already come up with her answer after the moment of surprise. She smiled at Beza and Montressa.
“Hey, um, that’s flattering, but I’m gonna pass, okay? I’m really busy, you know, making a gym, hot tubs…”
She excused herself and Montressa let her go without too much more argument. She turned, watching as Erin walked through the Garden of Sanctuary to find Mrsha and see if she wanted to go plant blue fruit seeds. Montressa stared enviously at the door to the garden—she wasn’t allowed in.
Palt was, but he could only walk through, not summon the door. The Centaur chewed on his tobacco gum or whatever it was as Erin paused and swung the door closed. And she left it open a crack, and sat down and listened.
The [Aegiscaster]’s tone was acidic. Also, hurt. Erin heard a screech of chairs being moved—Palt would be kneeling on the floor, chairs not being a thing Centaurs used.
“Look, I’m just doing my job. Try to understand Erin’s perspective. She does not need to be involved in a power play, especially with an Archmage’s faction. You know what will happen if they get nasty, especially the Libertarians.”
“Well, what about some damned friendship? We came here together. This is you stabbing us in the back.”
“Hah. Good one, Montressa. I prefer to think this was a stab from the front. That you walked into. We knew we were going to duke it out over the Earthers.”
The [Illusionist] was snappish, which was another tone Erin never heard. At least Beza’s voice was the same tone—that was to say, grumpy Minotaur.
“Do you need to completely turn on your friends, Palt?”
“Don’t give me that, Beza. Both your factions have Earthers. This is my big shot. You have to understand what that’s like.”
“We do. But we’re in boiling water right now, Palt. We need something. Or…can we talk? Negotiate, just between us.”
A silence. Mrsha rolled around the grass and went down the steep hill, giggling silently. Erin wondered if they could import butterflies. Then again…caterpillars were actually really gross. Bees were nice, but they were stinging jerks. And after the Ashfire Bees…
Were there any bugs that were cute up close as well as far away? Besides Bird with a hat, that was. He was…fishing in the pond? Did they have fish now? Erin suspected Numbtongue.
“I suppose we can. I don’t want to pull a [Bloodmage] on you two. Let’s talk. Tonight? The inn?”
“I hate that Drake. Peslas. He has a real problem with Humans.”
“You think it’s bad? I’m a Minotaur and the only other one this city knows is a convicted murderer and teamslayer.”
“We’ll talk in my room. Tonight. After dinner? I’m here all day.”
“I bet you are.”
Pause, clopping hooves. Erin tensed, waiting for them to come for the door, but Palt was going somewhere else. She relaxed.
“What an ass. I thought of him as a friend.”
Beza growled. Montressa made a soft, sighing sound.
“It’s his big break, Beza. Tell me you wouldn’t do the same thing?”
“I…what are we going to do? The [Innkeeper] doesn’t trust us.”
The conversation grew silent as Erin made the door disappear. She paused.
She leaned back and sighed. It would be so much easier to relax and just distrust Montressa. And Beza. And Palt for good measure. It would be so much easier, if she hadn’t met this sniffing [Necromancer] from Wistram. Who turned out to be not-a-jerk. And even heroic at times.
Even so. Erin leaned back against the wall. This was only uh, Palt-level intrigue. If that. Time to get really nasty.
Mrsha raced over as she saw a glow from where Erin was sitting. Her eyes went round as Erin closed her eyes. She stared—but Erin shooed her away.
“Go on, Mrsha. I’m going to do a bad thing. And don’t look. You’ll get all sad.”
Beza and Montressa were discussing Palt and talking lightly when they saw Erin wandering around the inn again. She was laughing, talking with Drassi, and the group of [Actors] who’d come in like they did every morning.
The Players of Celum were expanded, ready to roll, and indeed, some only had to roll out of bed to be ready for work. Temile had gotten up around lunch time, bleary-eyed and yawning. The [Actors] worked late into the night and slept in or conducted a lot of their non-dramatic business in the mornings.
Montressa and Bezale were well aware they weren’t welcome in the inn, if Erin’s muted reaction and Palt hadn’t been enough of a clue. They’d been civil, at least. But the two had a reputation.
Not undeserved. The Wistram team had caused a mess when they first arrived and Montressa would readily admit that. And they were not getting a lot of friendly looks.
But then—no one was stopping to throw their drinks in the two’s faces, so there was also that. The Wistram [Mages] had caused trouble, yes. They’d fought the Horns in the Bloodfields. But Isceil had died battling the Crelers, and people remembered that too. So their reception was mixed between frosty tolerance and muted distrust.
It would have been easier for the two to relax with the [Actors] taking the attention of the theatre-loving crowd, which was the usual crowd at this time of day. A Drake [Veteran] with a severed tail, some apprentices on their days off, some hopeful [Actors] or just people who wanted to enjoy and not partake…
Unfortunately, the Players of Celum were not performing a literary classic that would last across the ages. Or at least, not one that had stood the test of time yet. They were doing Frozen, and Bezale winced as the lead [Actress], a Gnoll playing the [Ice Queen] with a wand, began to sing.
“Ugh. I cannot stand the singing. Montressa, hit me with a [Deafening] spell. Better yet, let’s go somewhere else.”
She hated catchy songs. The Minotauress looked at Montressa. The [Aegiscaster] shook her head.
“We can’t leave, Beza. We’ll miss…whatever crazy thing is happening next. I’ll deafen you if you want.”
Bezale was seriously considering it when Erin walked over.
“Hey you two. Enjoying the music? We’re gonna audition some of the [Actors] today. You can join in if you want. It’s fun for everyone!”
Indeed, there were some kids volunteering to be part-time child [Actors], an apprenticeship much like many in the city—only they’d be key parts of the play.
“Will they be…singing…all day?”
She indicated the performers. Erin paused.
“…Yes? I mean, these are just auditions. Then they’ll practice, oh, and do a performance tonight…”
The Minotauress looked like she was about to cast [Deafness] and [Blindness] on herself. Erin noticed. She paused and bit her lip.
“We have a private room too. If you’d like to drink there.”
Montressa and Beza looked at each other. Montressa silently weighed the odds of Beza literally charging the stage after the tenth run-through of a catchy pop song and nodded.
“That would be great, Erin.”
Beza looked at her. Montressa whispered as she stood up.
“We can always hear anything happening.”
The same private room that Erin and Palt had used was comfortable. Montressa and Beza relaxed. Erin lit a candle, put it on a table, and then offered the two refills of their drinks and snacks. The two [Mages] accepted gratefully. Out of the common room, they felt better, relaxed.
The singing had been grating on Montressa’s nerves too, which was odd because she had enjoyed the play the first four times. Maybe fifth was when you got tired of it? But she liked pop songs.
The two waited as Ishkr came in and served them, then they relaxed. Montressa stared around the room, and sighed.
“Nice place. Look, she’s even got colored candles now. And private rooms—that garden we can’t enter…it’s different than when we first came here.”
“Yes. Shame it’s all to Palt’s credit.”
Beza leaned one arm heavily on the table. She sighed. Both [Mages] drank fairly liberally. Day-drinking was a Wistram student’s hobby—well, for some of them. They partied hard, studied hard, and since neither [Mage] thought they’d be working much today, they were going for the former.
Also, they were both feeling down. Their encounter with Palt had just hammered home the situation they were in. Down a party member—no, three. But one was dead and the other two had left. In hot water with their factions…Montressa levitated the pitcher over and filled Beza’s cup, then her own again.
Beza didn’t return the gesture. She drank, and then looked at her friend.
“What are we doing here, Montressa?”
“You think Palt will give us more than scraps to give to our factions?”
“Doubt it. But we’ll get something. And soon, Archmage Naili will send us another person to check up on. Maybe ‘L’, or that [Emperor]. Or ‘batman’.”
“Huh. And you’ll do it? Really?”
The Minotauress looked at Montressa. The [Aegiscaster] grimaced.
“What are we supposed to do? Go back to the academy?”
Montressa du Valeross paused. She looked up at Beza.
“You’re thinking of it. I don’t blame you. Beza, if you want to go, don’t let me stop you. I’ve made a mess of things.”
The Minotauress snorted. She scooted her chair in.
“Don’t be ridiculous. If you’re staying, I’m staying. I don’t walk off on my team. Much less friends. If you wanted to go on after the Horns of Hammerad, I’d be right behind you, never mind what my faction says.”
She pointed a finger at Montressa. But the young woman didn’t jump at the suggestion like she would have a while back.
“I don’t think that’s necessary, Beza. I…I’m done with that. I’ll have to answer to Beatrice when we get back, but I’m done.”
The [Spellscribe] looked at the young woman’s face. She eyed her cup of ale, tossed it down, and poured herself another cup.
“Do you want to…discuss it?”
She waited, but Montressa didn’t reply instantly. Beza sipped and spoke, curtly.
“It would be simple if we were in my homeland. In Minos, we believe in one virtue above all others. Honor. We’d execute someone like that, or rather, pass judgment first. Our King would decide the matter. We don’t revisit sentences. Once punished, the matter rests. Forever.”
“Yeah. I know, Beza. Honor…”
She sounded tired, as much as anyone who’d heard a Minotaur lecturing about honor. Beza waved a big palm.
“Hear me out. I know I talk about honor, but I don’t know if you understand what I mean. It is more than what other cultures think of it. For you it’s something stiff, cumbersome. But to us, honor is more than that. It’s…a way of life. Duty, conduct, and it is its own reward. Minotaurs strive to improve themselves, to contribute in a meaningful way. And yes, to be examples to the world.”
She tapped herself on the breast. Montressa nodded. Beza went on.
“It’s a simple system. Those above us judge those below. But those with honor also make their own judgments. Each one of Minos acts by our conscience; we allow no corruption from above or below.”
“What about sideways? Sorry, sorry. But how does that system work, Beza? Everyone’s honorable? Is your King the most honorable Minotaur of all?”
Montressa raised her hands as Beza glowered. The Minotauress drank.
“Absolutely. Our King is a wise leader. She is a paragon of honor, and all respect her because she exemplifies our virtue.”
The young woman paused. Beza had made a grammatical error.
“Your King? But you said she.”
“Beza, Kings are male.”
The Minotauress snorted.
“King is a title. Queen implies that gender matters.”
“But king is masculine. The word, I mean.”
The two looked at each other, frowning as if they were debating some minutiae of magical theory in class. The Minotauress sighed gustily.
“King is what other nations respect. Queen makes Humans ask who the king is, or if she is married. We have a Minotaur King, and that is all other species need to know about her.”
“Oh. I’ve never been to Minos. I didn’t know.”
“Because we don’t need to talk about it. Not like Humans who always have to tell us who they serve.”
Beza nodded wisely and somewhat arrogantly. Montressa gave her a dour look.
“So Minos is wonderful. I get it. Honor above all else.”
“You don’t understand. I’m just saying that it’s better to have a system like that. Clear-cut. No backtracking on rules, no negotiating sentences…if the rest of the world were like home, it would be easier. Well—I suppose that’s what my ancestors thought. We were not always on the Archipelago, you know. Once, we had lands elsewhere. Until the Era of Conquest. For that, we were exiled to the House of Minos, condemned to face our ancient foes.”
“Beza, you’ve told me this a thousand times…”
The young woman sighed. When Beza got drunk, she lectured people on honor and her home. The Minotauress waved an urgent hand.
“I’m not saying it’s perfect! Just—nearly.”
“Oh yeah? You have your ancient foes. Goblins. Explain that one to me.”
The Minotauress paused. She took another drink. Glumly, Montressa did the same.
“You don’t understand. You’d have to see them. Well—I never have. Up close. But I’ve seen the results. They are not like the Goblins on the continent. Your Goblin Lords…you had one come through here. We know what power they possess. Even after thousands of years, we can’t wipe them out from their damned island.”
“Not for lack of trying?”
“No. But it’s our burden to bear. Our punishment, that’s what I’ve heard. Personally, I believe the world forced us onto our islands because they were afraid of what would happen if we grew in number.”
Beza flexed one huge arm. She was taller than most species—even most Gnolls—and she had an incredible physique for a [Mage]. Second only to Grimalkin, really. Although that was an unfair comparison.
“Minotaurs are naturally stronger than any other race; we make siege weapons, which only Pallass and a few other nations even understand. If we are not the most gifted at magic—well—you have not seen our [Warmages], our navy and army.”
“Gee, tell me more. Why did you come to Wistram, then?”
The [Aegiscaster] heard nothing. She glanced up and saw Beza looking into her cup. The Minotauress mumbled a reply.
“I…went to Wistram because I lacked the magical ability to qualify for that role.”
Montressa sobered a bit. She sat up.
“It’s a fact. But I was weak, for all I loved magic. You understand? I fought for the honor of leaving the House of Minos, but it was a lesser one. Not like Venaz of Hammerad, who learns from the Titan himself.”
“Do you miss it?”
The two were maudlin now. Beza chewed savagely at some of the fries and Montressa helped herself to some of the nuts.
“Yes. No. The House of Minos…is a peaceful land, Montressa. That’s what people do not know. We clash with the Goblins, defend our shores. But we live in a utopia. If you do not desire to leave our islands, you may live and work and prosper in peace. Even the other nations which claim perfection admit ours is a wonderful place. Fetohep of Khelt himself acknowledged it as such under the last three Minotaur Kings.”
“Really? Even with the Goblins…?”
“We can’t get rid of them, but they have never invaded, save for when the Goblin Kings appear. Believe me, it is a paradise. One of few in the world.”
“Do you have a list? I know Khelt, and the Archmage’s Isle, but…”
Beza had a list. She counted them off on her fingers.
“Khelt in Chandrar, the Kingdom of Keys in Terandria, the Archmage’s Isle of Heiste, and of course the Silent Dome the Dullahans built—and the House of Minos. Paradises in our time.”
“So why leave?”
The [Spellscribe] coughed, pounding on her chest. She dipped a fry in ketchup. It was interesting—this was a much realer talk than Beza normally gave. She must really be as down as Montressa not to be glorifying her homeland with every second word.
“I left because I was like the others who leave. I wanted to explore the world. To show them—honor. To test myself and grow, and return to Minos a hero!”
She clenched a fist, then sagged. Her horned head lowered and nearly scored the table.
“Instead, my comrade died. And—I was carried off the battlefield while the very people I came to capture slew an Adult Creler.”
“You fought. They nearly ate you alive, Beza. If the [Healer] hadn’t been there you’d have lost a leg and your arms—”
“Better that I had. Better than running. I was worse than the adventurers who stayed and died. I wasn’t ready. He was right.”
Montressa looked at Beza’s wretched expression. The Minotauress turned away from Montressa.
“I came here knowing what was right in the world. Prepared to do justice. Now, I find myself wondering if Calruz of Hammerad is the monster I assumed.”
The young woman didn’t reply. She knew that had been one of the reasons why Beza had come here. She looked down into her own cup. Montressa felt her eyes sting. Then she spoke, abruptly, like forcing a splinter out of her chest.
“I liked him. So much. He was so intelligent, and witty, and handsome and—I really liked him. Even after I found out he was a [Necromancer], I still wanted to get to know him. He was so talented. But that wasn’t just it. I thought he understood something about magic I didn’t.”
Beza’s head rose. But she didn’t interrupt. Montressa took another long drink and burped.
“When we found out he did necromancy, everyone abandoned him. Beatrice, Calvaron, Ceria—we were a group of four back then. Calvaron sort of talked to Pisces, but he was always apolitical. And Beatrice didn’t like Pisces like everyone else. I think Ceria was the angriest. But I never gave up. I kept talking to him. Helping out, learning from him. And you know what? I asked him to teach me necromancy.”
Beza swung around. Her eyes were round with disbelief. Montressa waved a finger at her.
“Shut up. Back then, I thought—it wasn’t corpses. He was teaching me how to animate things. Rats. Little creatures, along with regular spells.”
“But…why? Did you want to become a…”
“No, no. Listen. I thought he was right. Magic is magic. If we cut ourselves off from understanding something—blood magic, necromancy—how can we call ourselves true [Mages]? It’s how it’s used that makes something evil.”
Beza nearly nodded. She waited as Montressa put her head down. The young woman muttered into the table, closing her eyes.
“And then he opened Archmage Nekhret’s crypt. And Calvaron died. And I saw what undead were. Evil. They want to kill us. I saw it. You can control them, but something in them wants to kill us. Turn us into them.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“I thought it was. I thought he was a horrible person, and he’d tricked me and I’d made it happen. Beatrice was furious at me. And Ceria. No one talked to me at all for nearly a whole year. Until you and Isceil, Palt, and Ulinde came along, I was a pariah, and most of the new students heard about me.”
The Minotauress shifted uncomfortably.
“In truth, I wanted to see if you were what the rumors said of you, Montressa. And what I found was the most talented [Mage] of her year, and a secretbroker.”
Montressa didn’t reply. She’d fought her way back up into everyone’s good graces. Risen in her faction, leveled—and for what? She’d met Pisces and this time she’d tossed herself into the gutter.
“What am I supposed to do, Beza? Calvaron’s dead. He died a long time ago. And I’ll never forgive Pisces for that. But why…”
She closed her eyes. She bit back the other thing she was going to say and looked up, red-eyed, but not crying.
“Why do I still admire him? When I saw him make that—thing—to beat the Adult Creler, with Ceria. I thought, ‘that’s magic.’”
She put her head back down. Beza stood up. She shuffled around the table, and sat next to Montressa. The Minotauress patted Montressa awkwardly on the head and looked around for something to feed her. Rather like someone trying to soothe a dog or cat.
“Let’s go back, Montressa. To the Academy. Someone else can take up our role. Palt. He’s already begun cutting us out of the loop. He wants to monopolize Erin. And Ulinde…left.”
“And do what? Beatrice won’t understand. She loved Calvaron. She would kill me. I’m actually almost serious. What do I do?”
“It’ll be fine. If you don’t want to do that—we’ll stay here, as you said. Try to get into Miss Solstice’s good graces.”
“I’m a failure. Everything I do turns to dust.”
“That’s not true. You’re a fine leader. Who can predict Crelers? How about this, we stay another week, ask for another Earther. If we don’t get a reply…we could visit the House of Minos. You’d be welcomed with me.”
“I’m just a slime. A sewer slime. I got Isceil killed. He trusted me—”
At this point, their conversation got too depressing. So it was rather fortuitous that there was a knock at the door.
“I’m so sorry. Montressa? Beza?”
Drassi interrupted the two [Mage]’s pity party. The Drake stared at them as Montressa and Beza jerked upright.
“What? What’s the matter? How can we help?”
Montressa put a not-at-all convincing look on her face. Drassi pointed uncertainly.
“Actually…Erin was talking with the Players of Celum and they don’t have great uh, ice spells. For the play? She was asking if you two wouldn’t mind casting [Ice Wall]. I hear Montressa knows it. And Palt doesn’t—I mean, he can make fakes ones, but…I can tell Erin you’re busy.”
The [Aegiscaster] looked up.
“No, I’d love to help. Beza?”
“Coming. I’ll just [Deafen] myself.”
The Minotauress drained her drink. Montressa and Beza, somewhat unsteadily, left the room. And that was good. They’d feel better in a bit.
There was something that made Drassi pause as she closed the door, but she didn’t figure out what it was before she followed the two [Mages]. If she’d stopped and thought about it, she’d have realized it was the extra door on the far end of the room.
Montressa and Beza hadn’t given it a second glance. They’d probably assumed it was a door leading into some closet. And like [Mages], what wasn’t magical wasn’t obvious to them.
Also, Erin hadn’t wanted them to know. She didn’t know if it was [Crowd Control], or the [Inn’s Aura], or just luck. But neither had noticed a tiny detail. The door was slightly ajar.
Just a crack. But it led to a special place. That could be everywhere or anywhere.
The Garden of Sanctuary. Erin was sitting in the doorway; right next to the slightly open door. And she had been keeping it there; a bemused Mrsha, Numbtongue, and Bird who’d wanted to try planting blue fruits in the garden had been unable to summon it.
Now, she stood up and entered the room. If you looked closely, you’d know this door was the door to the Garden. For one thing, it had iron bands along the door. Nothing else in the inn had iron in it. She wondered…if that was her, or her Skill. After all, she loved the visitors, but they were dangerous too.
Erin shook her head. She felt strange. Guilty, sympathetic—but mostly like the biggest weasel in the world. She walked over to the glowing, blue flame in the corner of the room. After a second, Erin blew out the magical fire.
[Like Fire, Memory]. It was the only one she could conjure at will. Erin stared at the wick and tallow; it had burnt down the full candle nearly to the nub. Saliss had said her happy flame burnt even faster. Then she looked at herself.
“I had to do it. But—Erin punishment! Hiyah!”
Lyonette opened the door just in time to hear the thump. She saw Erin crouching on the ground, holding her forehead.
“…What are you doing, Erin?”
The young woman clutched at her ringing skull. She looked up and met the [Princess]’ skeptical gaze. Erin paused.
Lyonette’s brows crossed. Erin paused, then stood up. She put on her best Erin-smile and cheerful tone of voice.
“I mean, oops! I was just looking for a place to turn into a…dance floor. Y’know, since we have a gym? Grimalkin left us a set of weights, and I thought we could do yoga. Or something. Finger guns!”
She smiled cheerfully, doing said finger guns. Then dropped the smile, looked levelly at Lyonette and walked off. The [Princess] stared after Erin.
Well, that was something. Almost too much. Erin had to take a walk around her garden to relax. She was still feeling guilty.
But she did have to know. That was what she hated. Mistrusting people and…to take her mind off the situation, Erin decided to move back to the fire.
“Fire. Fire! Angry fire! Gaaah!”
Erin stood next to the pond and a stack of firewood and shouted. She pulled at her hair—gingerly, paced back and forth. Trying to remember when she’d been furious. Then she tried happiness.
She tried. But—it was like trying to start a fire with a low heat. Something needed to explode and Erin wasn’t running on enough angry-fuel to make it work. Or happy-juice.
But she always had a surplus of sad-stuff. Or maybe because she’d done it a few times, it was easier? Erin held out her palm.
She concentrated. And she had no lack of things to remember. When Erin opened her eyes from a memory of Bird standing in the circle of statues, she saw the blue fire burning in her palm.
“Okay. Cold. It can get pretty cold! But it’s not exactly [Fireball]. Uh—concentrate. Sadder. Bigger!”
She tried, but even with more sad memories the fire stayed the same. Erin was fairly certain this was as large as it got. She studied it.
“Utility. Flame attack!”
She lifted the handful of fire and threw it as hard and as fast as she could, at a tree. The fire flew—and flopped into the grass.
Erin stared at it. It was rather like throwing, well…fire. As in, it had little weight, and terrible aerodynamics.
It began to burn the grass a bit. It didn’t even spread fast. Erin stomped on the fire and felt the chill. But only as much chill as you’d get from that amount of fire’s heat. She sighed.
“Okay. New plan.”
She lit a long stick and stomped the blue flame out. Erin lifted her torch and felt the cooling air.
“Hm. Magic torch? Hah, hah!”
She pretended to stab at someone. But—it wasn’t exactly a pot or pan, so her [Bar Fighting] Skill didn’t work either. Erin stared at the torch. She recalled actual [Fireballs] being thrown around.
“…Okay. No, it’s fine. I don’t need to be a face-kicking warrior. This is okay. Palt’s okay. Montressa and Beza are okay. Sage’s Grass is good. It’s…okay. I think?”
Erin sat down. She looked around.
Maybe that was it. Was she done? Done worrying? She sighed, and flopped back on the grass, as she planted the torch in the soil to keep it from starting a cold fire. The last thing she needed was to burn her garden down. She wondered if the dome was flammable.
Maybe…well, that wasn’t so bad. Erin tried to smile. But…she’d done this before. Made mistakes. Made preparations. She’d failed, though. That was the thing. That was why she kept doing it. To relax, she had to be ready. And would it be enough?
The young woman sat up and put her head in her hands. Why did it have to be so hard? She just wanted to help people. But she was terrified of her family, her friends dying—
She stared at the blue torch.
“You jerk! You make other people sad, not me!”
She kicked over the torch and began to stomp on the fire. The outraged [Innkeeper] had been hoisted on her own petard! Erin was just about to snuff the flame out and go and do something happy, like ask Bird why her pond had fish in it, when she had a thought.
“Hm? Cold. Fire. Cold fire.”
Erin picked up the torch. She eyed the frost on the grass around it.
She walked back into the inn. Lyonette found Erin again in the kitchen, muttering about blocks of wood and sandpaper. The [Princess] glared at Erin. Then stared at the blue flame in one of the ovens.
Erin had a little rack of wood in there. And she had a bunch of bits of wood she’d been industriously prototyping with. The [Innkeeper] glanced up as Lyonette appeared.
“Oh, good. You’re here. I need help.”
“What’re you making, Erin? What is that?”
“Don’t look. You’ll get sad. It’s infectious.”
Erin casually shielded Lyonette from the glow. It only worked if you looked at it. Then she pulled something out of the oven. Lyonette stared.
Erin had put a…tray in the oven. With little sections in it. Erin cracked the tray gently on the counter. And she held something out to Lyonette. Just frozen water.
“…Wanna ice cube?”
Later that day, Erin was smiling. She was out of the inn, but she had discovered free cooling. Also—free ice cream. Also, free ice.
Wasn’t that the dream of every hotel-goer? Free ice? Ice cubes for days! Without having to prod lazy half-Elves for it! And Erin had begun thinking of more things too.
Fun things. Now that she wasn’t stressing about the list, it was back to doing, well, good things. Erin had discovered that the fire had something of an odd effect. If you stared at it, well, it made you sad. But you could be near it and not be affected too much by the emotion, just the fire’s temperature. So she had invented…
Erin waved a little wooden lantern at Selys. The Drake stared at Erin.
The two were walking through Liscor. It was a sunny summer’s day. And the young woman was a bit miffed that Selys wasn’t as impressed as she was.
“It’s my fire Skill, Selys! Look, I can only make the sad one and just a tiny one right now. But it burns if I feed it, and it’s hot outside. So…this.”
She had a lantern and the depressing blue flame was inside it. It was a unique lantern that Erin had made with a bit of work and her [Advanced Crafting] Skill—along with Lyonette’s [Perfect Attempt].
There was an opening in the top, and a shutter you could open and close. But the shutter was closed at the moment so the fire wasn’t visible. But it did burn. And as a result, cold air was wafting out of the lantern.
“See? Nice and cool.”
Erin expected Selys to be blown away. With just a bit of coal or wood, the lantern would emit cool air as the flame burned! She’d had to line the insides with metal to keep the wood from catching, but it was free air conditioning! Another dream from her world! Selys just shook her head.
“I could have bought you a cooling stone, Erin. Or you could yourself. They’re not that expensive.”
Erin paused. Somehow, her friend managed to literally suck all the enjoyment out of Erin’s invention in three sentences. She mock-glared at Selys.
“But this is free. And very cool. Plus, I can open the shutter and depress people. Free depression! Get your free depression here!”
She waved the lantern around at the passersby, ignoring the looks she got. Erin laughed. She was feeling silly and free. Truly so. The young woman saw Selys roll her eyes. But the [Heiress] was smiling.
“Come on, let me show you the construction. And stop making people depressed. There are laws about it in Liscor, too, you know.”
“I’m not depressing anyone! I mean—unless they ask.”
The two young women walked towards the western gates. And Erin saw that something strange was afoot. Because rather than lead into an old stone road heading to one of the few villages on the hills, the city did not end at the western gate. She walked onto freshly-paved cobblestones. And then Erin’s eyes widened.
A street ran ahead of her. And then—more buildings. Fresh, new. Erin stared up at an apartment, tastefully designed in the Drake style with smooth stone and wide balconies. It was one of many buildings you might find in Liscor’s residential districts.
But it was…new. And not only that. Erin’s eyes slowly swept across the ground. And she saw a city being built.
Gone were the rolling hills and valleys. Someone had pounded the earth flat, filling in places, smoothing others, creating a flat foundation. People had begun laying cobblestones around cement. In places, rope and pegs clearly marked where buildings would go. And people were hard at work already.
Teams of black-bodied Workers were heaving huge quarried blocks of stone towards waiting stonecutters. Erin saw Drakes and Gnolls wheel barrowing bricks to another spot. The young woman’s eyes widened as she saw a team pulling up a wooden frame.
It was so…organized! Whoever had laid out this new part of the city, they’d done it so well that even Erin could see where everything would go. And more than half a dozen buildings were already up! In fact, Erin could see a tenant Gnoll idly combing her hair on a balcony as dozens of Workers trooped past, carrying beams of wood on their shoulders.
“I don’t believe it! This is incredible!”
“It’s been in construction for a while. Have you really not visited?”
Selys looked pleased as Erin stared about. The young woman shook her head.
“No. You know I don’t go into Liscor that much. And the Inn’s on the opposite side of…wow! This is incredible!”
“Don’t get too excited. This is just a residential district. The Council’s building it first, but the rest of the expansion will make Liscor a third again as big. But the Council wants it done by sections. Let me show you the area I bought. This way—and watch out for the construction teams. Not all are employed by the city and quality varies. I paid for Antinium Workers, by the by.”
Indeed, as Selys walked Erin down the road, the two were wearing helmets. Steel—the [Guards] at the gate had made them put it on. Regular civilians weren’t allowed beyond certain points as well; some buildings were going up and they were going to be tall. A dropped nail or brick or hammer could kill from even a short drop.
“No, no, no! You idiots! That’s not part of the design! Don’t assume the Antinium are making the same things we are! Clear it away! You’re way off your designated zone!”
A Drake [Foreman] was berating a group of [Builders] as Erin walked past. She had her own blueprints of the city, and where her group could build. Apparently, much of the city had been designed, but the individual plots of land were up for sale and design within their confines. Selys shook her head as the [Builders] swore and began to uproot their hard labor. Erin was still just amazed.
“This is so cool. I can’t wait until this [Architect] arrives. What’s taking them?”
“Apparently they’re coming all the way from Baleros. It’s a long sea-voyage, even with a fast ship, plus they’ll have to travel inland. But they already sent the designs, and part of what they’ve done is already finished, see?”
The roads were indeed neatly laid out already, to allow wagons and pedestrians to pass by in the most efficient system possible. Selys was pointing out her section, swarming with Workers, where she was planning on some nice apartments and warehouses, all to rent. It was along the edge of the residential district.
“There’s the temporary wall. The Antinium put it up in a single day. Amazing, right? The Watch don’t like it, but they did it in a day. And I wouldn’t try getting over it.”
There was a short, ten-foot high outer wall that was protecting the buildings. It was made of stone and dirt and looked primitive, but it would stop your casual monster from appearing. [Guards] were patrolling around the walled section of the city in numbers, so Erin assumed it was fairly safe.
“Wow. So you’re building apartments?”
Selys nodded proudly.
“Nice ones. I’ll pay for quality and charge a decent rent. It’ll take me a while to get my money back, but when I do it’ll be steady income. No cutting corners and paying for it later. I’m not managing it myself of course; I’ll hire someone to do the job.”
It was a new world to Erin. Selys was moving up. Then again, Erin could hire people too, but not build entire districts from scratch. She stared at Selys, at a loss for words. Selys was making the choices Erin had agonized over of her own volition. She wanted to do this.
“You know, my inn’s nearly finished with the second floors. I can start renting rooms out now.”
“Huh. Who’s your clientele going to be?”
Selys looked sideways at Erin. Another adult question. The young woman shrugged, but she was relieved she could talk with Selys about it. Why hadn’t she done that before?
“My staff. Temile, some of the players. Actual guests, you know, who might be travelling? Lyonette wants a stable. For horses.”
“Inns have stables, Erin. Generally.”
The young woman threw her hands up.
“No one told me! The inn didn’t when I found it! Although Relc said it probably just rotted away.”
“Anyone else in particular? I mean, will you specialize? Peslas has rich guests. But knowing you…”
“Well, I’ll probably offer Palt a room too. And…well, other people.”
The [Heiress] looked sideways at Erin. She paused.
“Interesting. Well, if you want we can look around, but the Workers are busy and I don’t want to disturb them. Please don’t make them riot or anything. We can go have a drink somewhere if you want, catch up. Wishdrink’s? They’ll let us in and it’s a nice place. You can ask for a private room.”
“Hey! I don’t always do that. Sure. This helmet is making my head sweat. Tell me about what being rich is like!”
“And you can tell me about your fire. And why Mrsha keeps losing her ball every time she comes to play. Does she hate it? I can get her a new one if she doesn’t like it…”
The two were walking back through the city under construction when they heard a shout. The stream of people moving back and forth faltered. Selys looked ahead and Erin saw a group of [Guards]. Selys wavered.
“Oh. It’s him. Erin—”
She looked at Erin. The young woman stared back.
“I forgot. You really didn’t hear when you were on vacation—look, stay calm—”
And then Erin saw him. A tall, brown-furred form. A bowed head. A pair of horns. She froze.
The one-armed Minotaur was walking slowly. And he was being followed. A group of people were following the pocket of [Guards]. Some were shouting. Others hurling insults. The [Guards] snapped. Erin heard one shouting.
“No stones! That is a fine! Make way! Watch Captain’s orders! Miss, I will arrest you if you throw that!”
Erin stared. She wasn’t ready. She hadn’t prepared for him. She hadn’t expected it. But he was there. Selys looked at her.
“You didn’t know? He’s been doing this the last three weeks. Well—normally they take him out at night. There was a near riot the first time. No one said anything?”
“No. I was in Pallass with the Wyverns. And then—they let him out?”
“For certain tasks.”
The young women listened. The [Lieutenant] was snapping at a furious Gnoll woman pointing at the Minotaur. She was shouting.
“Why hasn’t he been executed? Why is that thing allowed to walk around?”
“Watch Captain’s orders, Ma’am—until the prisoner is found definitively guilty—”
“I like your Watch Captain! But she’s mad in this! Mad! He killed Gnolls! Doesn’t that matter? Why are you protecting him?”
The Drake [Lieutenant] flushed. And—Erin saw with a start, it was only Drakes on the guard detail. And a pair of Humans. New recruits?
“Doing my job, Miss. And this is not a relaxing job. This is punishment detail. Culling a nest of Shield Spiders. Hauling stones—he’s under guard, Miss. But he’ll be clearing Hollowstone Deceivers. He volunteered for it, too. Jumps into nests of spiders alone. No weapons. We don’t even use healing potions. He gets hurt; a [Healer] stitches him up. If he dies…”
“He’s not good enough for thread. Do you hear me? You monster? Look at me!”
The Minotaur’s head never moved. He walked forwards as the others hurled insults at his back. And Erin saw him. Scarred, thinner. Without the crazed crimson light in his eyes.
And without the pride, that fearless smile, and his team of adventurers. This was neither Minotaur. But it was him.
“We should go. Please don’t start anything, Erin.”
Selys looked worried. As if she thought Erin would fly into a rage like the crowd—mostly Gnolls—who were following Calruz. But Erin wasn’t angry. She…stared at him.
The Minotaur never looked right or left. He let them shout at him. Even seemed to welcome it. He didn’t flinch as a rock bounced off his shoulder.
“Who threw that? I will arrest you!”
The Drake roared. But the thrower was nowhere to be seen. Erin saw Calruz twitch as the rock hit him. Hard. But he kept walking.
The young woman clutched at her chest. It was…burning. With so many emotions she couldn’t count them. One was anger. Fury. She remembered Mrsha, the days of fear. Remembered so clearly she could have been back there, deciding to kill the Raskghar.
Anger. Fear. The two emotions were burning in her chest. Selys stared at Erin. The Drake saw the young woman clutching at her chest, trying to hold something in. But Erin didn’t want either emotion. They were reactions.
But something else was burning. Erin looked up. And she saw Calruz stop.
He had seen her. The Minotaur had not halted for anyone else. But he saw the young woman and halted. The [Guards] froze, swinging their weapons up.
Calruz’s arm was secured to his neck by a strange steel collar—he couldn’t be cuffed normally. And he had magical shackles around his legs, limiting his motion. But the Watch stared at him, as warily as could be. They kept their distance.
She was neither angry nor afraid. Those were just emotions. Erin could have snatched at them. Could have conjured fire in that brief moment. She was certain. But she didn’t want to share that fire.
“I’ll be back. I’m not going to…”
Erin Solstice trailed off. She walked forwards. Selys moved to stop her, and then halted.
The crowd had seen Erin. Some were murmuring. They knew her. The crazy Human. And they knew her role too. They backed away.
“Miss—I have orders. No one is to go near the prisoner.”
The [Lieutenant] licked his lips as Erin approached. He was new to his role; he had never met her. But he knew her. Erin looked at him.
“I want to talk with him. I’m owed that.”
The Drake opened his mouth. He looked at the other [Guards]. Then he slowly backed up.
“Don’t get close. Back up! Form a ring, [Guardsmen]!”
Erin ignored him. She walked forwards, slowly. And stood in front of the Minotaur.
If you were cruel, you might even laugh. Calruz was thinner from his days in captivity. His muscle was still heavy, but the cell and his diet had worn at him. He looked older by a decade. And his hand was awkwardly bound to the neck-collar. But Erin didn’t laugh. She couldn’t ever.
“Erin Solstice. We meet again.”
He was the first one to speak. Erin started. Calruz’ voice was quiet. Low. But his voice silenced the crowd.
The Minotaur didn’t sound like a monster. He sounded like…a person. Tired. But he enunciated each word with care, with a disused voice. Quietly, he looked down at Erin. And she nodded.
“Hi, Calruz. We met once, in prison. Do you remember?”
He nodded slowly.
“You look the same. And different. I have heard much about you.”
“The Watch Captain. She visits me, sometimes. And Ceria used to.”
“She left. With Pisces. After…”
“Right. You were there. At the inn. You went in first.”
Erin felt a bit silly. But her head was crowded. And only the trivial words, the trite sentences came out. Calruz nodded again.
“I did not find my death there.”
“So this is what you do now?”
The Minotaur didn’t smile. He replied levelly, his blue eyes meeting Erin’s. She searched again for the madness, but she saw only tired grief. Sorrow.
“It was offered to me. It is better than the cell. Better than I deserve. It would be justice, to execute me. To let me rot away. I would rather death than confinement. But it is not my decision.”
His voice was loud enough that the crowd could hear. They stirred. Erin looked up at him.
“She still thinks you’re innocent.”
“Yes. And I…sometimes believe her.”
For a moment, Calruz smiled. And Erin saw a flicker in his eyes. Then his cracked lips sagged. He looked down at her.
“Ceria told me she was leaving. I wish her the best. And you. I am sorry.”
He began to walk past Erin, slowly, step by step as the chains dragged. Erin looked at him.
The Minotaur paused. The [Honorbound Prisoner] looked back.
The word struck Erin. Her history with Calruz unfolded before her. Him and his team, teaching her to punch, Skinner, the Raskghar, Mrsha, the rituals—all of it. In one long moment, she saw Calruz turn away. Erin looked at his back. And she remembered a Minotaur striding into the Crypt of Liscor. Back straight and proud.
“Don’t you dare.”
He turned. Erin stood behind him. She looked at Calruz. Angry.
“Don’t you dare apologize like that and just walk away.”
The Minotaur bowed his head. Erin was shaking. Not with anger, or sadness, or any one thing. She touched her chest. Then she looked at Calruz. She turned around. Then stared at him.
“You killed good people. You did horrible things. I saw it. Don’t you dare apologize like that.”
“I know. I cannot.”
The Minotaur murmured. Erin went on.
“And don’t you dare apologize for the rest. Not for everything.”
He looked up. Erin stared around the quiet crowd.
“I saw you. I saw you charge into the inn. Alone. With hundreds of Crelers inside. I knew a Minotaur who taught me how to punch. Who led the best team of adventurers I ever met! Don’t’ you dare apologize for him. For the one who taught me—this! [Minotaur Punch]!”
Erin’s fist flashed through the air. It stopped, and she pointed at Calruz’ chest.
“And don’t you dare hide. The Calruz I knew wouldn’t walk like that. He’d take the burdens on his shoulders.”
“I’m trying. But how can I atone for what I’ve done? How, in a thousand years?”
He whispered. He met Erin’s eyes, lost and sad and…searching. Erin Solstice stared at him.
“I don’t know. But I know this. I remember Calruz the Adventurer. Calruz, the mad thing in the dungeon, leader of the Raskghar. Calruz the [Prisoner]. Calruz of Hammerad, this is what I think of you.”
The [Innkeeper] slowly reached for her chest. She looked at Calruz. The one-armed Minotaur, who had lost everything. His honor, his team. His mind. And he was not one thing, like the emotions in her chest.
He was a monster. A brave adventurer. A remorseful prisoner. A distant figure, charging into the inn alone. All these things and more.
Could you forgive someone like that? Could she? Erin Solstice reached into her chest and pulled out the answer. She cupped it in her hands.
Fire, like her memories.
A small flame blossomed between Erin’s hands. A tiny, but painfully bright light. Calruz tried to shield his eyes. But he couldn’t. He looked, and stared.
“What is that?”
The young woman stared at the fire. It burned. And it had a mild heat. But…terribly warm. The kind that could keep you warm in the face of the coldest winds.
It burned, with an [Innkeeper]’s regrets. Her sorrows. And yes, even some hate. Anger. But it was also made of something else.
Glory. All she remembered of Calruz, all she respected and loved about him. All he was. And the shadow he had become. But the glory, the memory of it did not, could not be consumed by the bad. The fire was mercy and redemption. Forgiveness, all she could give.
But—glory. And that word was not bravery or courage alone. It was good and bad. And it burned, with the brilliant white center that seared the eyes, turning lighter, from white to pink and red.
The fuchsia edges of the flame melted with darker edges, like the very blood that had been spilled. Erin held it up. And the crowd looked at her. The Minotaur’s eyes reflected the glow. And he and Erin saw in it all he had been.
Slowly, his back straightened. Erin Solstice looked into Calruz’s eyes and blinked away tears. He did not weep. But he stood taller, taller. Until he looked around.
The crowd of people looked at Erin’s fire. It did not captivate all of them. Some spat and turned away. Others hurled insults, fleeing the painful light. And still more looked at Calruz. At Erin. And she held the flame up.
“This. Don’t forget this. Ever.”
That was all she said. The Minotaur nodded. Erin cupped the flames. The shadows seemed long, despite the daylight streaming up. People moved around her pointing, staring. But Erin’s heart held that brief sight of glory.
And then she threw the fire up, out of her hands. And it burned for just a second and then vanished. For it was a fleeting thing. Erin looked at Calruz. Then she turned and walked away.
She did not say anything more. She did not watch, as the Minotaur kept walking. Erin Solstice sat and talked with Selys. In time, she began to feel normal. But her Drake friend stared at her as if Erin had horns growing out of her head. Or something else.
The young woman found Beza and Montressa standing in the inn, helping with the production of Frozen. They looked wan, tired from the other fire, but determined to be helpful. Erin looked at them.
“Palt, Montressa, Beza, can we talk?”
The Wistram [Mages] turned to her, two of them looking apprehensive. Erin motioned them around the table. Then she sat.
“I was thinking about the future. Um…you know the inn’s growing, right? Well, we’ve nearly finished the second floor and I was thinking. We have three new rooms which opened upstairs. Since you three are always around here, I was thinking of offering you all a place to stay. If you can get up the stairs, Palt?”
They stared at her. Palt nearly choked on his gum. Montressa started.
“W—you want us, Erin? To stay at your inn?”
“If you want to. Pay, obviously. It’s not too expensive, and you get free breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Um, unless you get more than one plate.”
“But why us? You have every right to bear a grudge. Why change your mind?”
Beza folded her arms. She looked at Erin, and the young woman wanted to know all about Minos, suddenly. About how their King judged honor. But she just shrugged.
“Why not? I don’t mind. You two were sort of jerks, but you also helped fight the Crelers. I’m not telling you stuff just like that, or joining your factions, but you can stay, if you want to.”
“You fought the Crelers. That doesn’t balance you out because that’s not how it works, but it matters.”
She looked from face to face, meeting each eye squarely. And then Erin smiled, mischievously.
“Besides, someone has to balance Palt. Or his faction has too much power around here and he’s the only person from Wistram telling me what’s what. What if I want to negotiate or undercut him somehow?”
The gum caught in Palt’s throat. He choked and Beza slapped him on the back. Erin eyed the saliva and gum on the table. Then she looked up.
She smiled, and winked. And all three Wistram [Mages] gave Erin the look everyone gave her when they saw behind the curtain for a second.
“Think about it.”
And that was all. Erin got up as Palt stared at her. She wandered over to Lyonette.
“Hey, it’ll probably be a full house tonight. Get ready. I’m going to bring it down.”
The [Princess] looked at Erin.
“What are you planning?”
“I’m going to use my other Skill.”
Erin met Lyonette’s gaze. Slowly, the young woman nodded. Erin relaxed, chatting with Saliss and Octavia who’d come back through raving about isolating one single component in their potion. Xif, who had a present for Erin. Relc showed up, with Beilmark, smug as could be.
And they came. All the others. As if they knew something was up. Perhaps they’d heard about Calruz. Or perhaps Erin had summoned them. Olesm and Selys, Krshia and Elirr, the latter muttering about Wyvern bites.
Even Embria and the 4th Company. Although they were just here to work out. Erin saw how Embria sat with her command, laughing and glancing at Relc as he sat and had a poke-fight with Mrsha. And Erin waited.
“Miss Solstice? [Message] for you.”
Erin received one last surprise that night. A Drake Street Runner arrived with a little letter. Erin blinked, and unfurled it.
It was a [Message], as you got from the Mage’s Guild all the time. It was addressed to her. Erin’s fingers froze when she saw who had sent it.
I’m sorry I haven’t written you. I’m so sorry about how I left. And I’m afraid I’m not sending you good news. Well, it’s a burden. There are some…people coming towards your inn. People like me. I didn’t know where else to send them. And I hope you can do for them what you did for me.
I’m rambling. Hey, can I pay for—never mind. It’s sort of hard to say, Erin. I’m uh, dictating this out loud if you didn’t know. I just wanted to say that I’m sorry. Not just to you. To Mrsha. I let her down.
I should have stayed. But I make such a mess of things. I couldn’t even face my mistakes. I want to change. I have to. Until I do, I’m afraid I’ll end up killing you or ruining your life. But I will come back.
I promise. I will come back, no matter what. But not yet. When I come back, I need to be different.
There’s nothing else I can say. I’m sorry I haven’t returned. I’m sending gold, for Mrsha, and anything else you need. Please tell her that…I wish I could have helped her. I wish I was worthy of it. But I’m not.
Erin read the letter twice, slowing down as she noticed what looked like the transcribing [Mage] having real difficulty with Ryoka’s dictation. She stared as the Street Runner waited.
“Oh. A seal. And a tip. Here.”
The [Innkeeper] pushed a seal, a silver coin, and a chocolate chip cookie into the Drake boy’s claws. He blinked at all three and then bowed.
Erin slowly sat down at a table. She read the letter a third time, and stopped halfway through.
“This is the worst letter I’ve ever read.”
It really was. But it was also Ryoka. And Erin thought—it was something. To get a letter from Ryoka that read like this. It was her. Infuriating and sincere and sad at the same time.
…It also pissed Erin off. She stood up and glared at the letter.
“Who’s coming? What do you mean? Lyonette!”
Erin threw up her arms and stormed into the kitchen. The [Princess] was trying to flawlessly make an order for Saliss.
“I’m busy, Erin—”
She stopped as Erin thrust the letter into her face.
Lyonette did. She read the letter, swore with the kind of filthy language she’d banned in Mrsha’s presence, and read on. She looked up at Erin with much the same look.
“What is she thinking?”
“I don’t know. But she sent the [Message]. There’s no return address.”
The [Innkeeper] had cooled down. Now, she looked at the letter Lyonette was threatening to shred like a valuable thing.
“Don’t wreck it. Mrsha needs to read this. It’s good practice for her letters, anyways.”
The [Princess]’s lips compressed. Her eyes flashed.
“I don’t know that she needs to see this.”
“She absolutely needs to see it. If she wants to.”
Erin shook her head. She looked at the letter. Then she whirled.
“I’m going into Liscor. Be back in a second.”
She stormed out of the inn.
“I’m sorry, Miss. But it was sent with an anonymity clause. We’re not allowed to share the details.”
The [Scribe] at the desk was unhappy, but he shook his head as Erin stood at his counter.
“You don’t know where it came from?”
“No, Miss. We’re not allowed to divulge confidential information.”
Erin paused. She narrowed her eyes.
“…Do you not know, or are you not allowed to tell me? Because it sounds like you could find out?”
The [Scribe]’s eyes flickered. Erin leaned over the counter.
“Do you know who I am?”
“I’m insane, you know. They say I can spit blood and that I have a Hobgoblin [Bouncer].”
“Miss, if you threaten me, I’ll call the Watch.”
Erin smiled, spreading her arms wide. Like Wailant. And like the [Pirate], she suddenly leaned in.
“Magus Grimalkin stays at my inn. Also, Krshia’s a great friend. And Selys. And uh—I know Olesm. Tell me where it came from. I know you can buy information from the Mage’s Guild. They’re as leaky as a sponge if you squeeze. Tell me. How much? Ten silver? A gold piece?”
She began slapping money on the counter. The [Scribe] raised his claws.
“Do you want to be depressed? I can do depressing fire too!”
Erin was ready to cause a riot. But as it happened, it didn’t occur. The [Scribe] was looking for the bell to summon the Watch when someone slid past Erin.
“Excuse me, Erin. Ahem. May I have a word?”
Montressa du Valeross walked over to the desk. The [Mage] leaned over and tapped on the counter.
“A word with your Guildmistress? My name is Montressa du Valeross. I’m a Wistram Mage.”
The [Scribe] froze. He looked at Montressa. So did Erin.
The [Aegiscaster] smiled at Erin. And the [Scribe] wilted.
A few minutes later, Montressa handed Erin a small slip of paper. Erin unfolded it wordlessly.
“That’s all we got. Did you want more?”
“Nah. I just needed to know.”
“Who was it?”
Montressa looked at Erin. The young woman raised her brows.
The [Aegiscaster] hesitated. And Erin could see the little magical gears spinning in Montressa’s head. So the young woman tugged her out of the Mage’s Guild.
“You know, Palt’s told me all about factions. And how you’re supposed to report stuff. And you’re smart.”
“Thank you for saying that.”
Erin nodded. She looked at Montressa.
“Don’t report that.”
The young woman held up a finger.
“Palt keeps telling me about trust. Secrets for secrets, right? That’s how Wistram works? Don’t report that. And I’ll tell you about weights. And other things. Give me a reason to trust you. And I will.”
She waited. It was a gamble. The [Aegiscaster] eyed Erin. And then she nodded slowly.
“Done. Would you like me to swear it on a truth spell?”
Erin waited. Montressa did. The young woman smiled.
“Now, do me another favor. I need you to send two [Messages].”
“Falene Skystrall of the Silver Swords. And Ceria Springwalker or Pisces Jealnet of the Horns of Hammerad.”
Montressa froze. She looked at Erin. The young woman explained.
“They were both going to learn the spell. It’s silly, not knowing it. Either one works. You can send it directly, right? So the Mage’s Guild won’t listen in or Wistram?”
Slowly, the young [Mage] nodded. She put a finger to her brow.
“What do I say?”
“Tell them—tell them this. Ryoka is in Reizmelt. That’s some place north of Invrisil a good ways. Tell them she’s there. Tell them to find her.”
Erin Solstice paused. She looked up at the fading light in the sky.
“When they find her, tell her to come back home.”
She left it at that. Montressa concentrated. A reply came back almost instantly.
“The Silver Swords acknowledge. They said they’ll stop by on their way north.”
Then she paused. Her expression grew blank. But Erin watched the emotions flickering in her eyes. Montressa’s mouth moved, and she sent more than Erin’s message, the young woman was sure. But all she did was produce a bit of parchment and write on it. When she was done, she bowed slightly, and walked away without a word.
Erin read the reply. It was neat, but she instantly recognized Ceria’s tone.
Sorry we’re delayed, Erin. Had some incidents with Ksmvr. Also, took a contract along the way fighting wildmagic Stone Golems. Like Snow Golems, only stone. Will absolutely find her. Nearly at Invrisil. See you then,
Erin stood in the fading light. She smiled, and tucked the note away.
It wasn’t over. That night, the inn was full. And Erin Solstice waited until people were drinking, and the Players of Celum had put on one performance. And then she strode into the center of the room.
“Excuse me everyone! Can I have your attention? Can I have your attention?”
At first they didn’t hear her. So Erin shouted louder. She saw Zevara wincing, glaring with some of the [Guards] who’d dragged her here for a night out. Or perhaps it was her instinct too. Erin waved her arms.
And then they were looking at her. From Saliss and Octavia to Zevara, Olesm, Relc, Mrsha—so many faces. Montressa was drinking with Palt and Beza in one corner. Erin turned.
“Tonight’s a special night.”
Relc shouted from his seat with Mrsha. Erin looked at him and smiled.
“Because I said so.”
There was a murmur of laughter. Erin waved for silence. She put her hands behind her back. And her chest burned.
Her head was light. The young woman walked in front of one of the fireplaces. And her voice was loud.
“I saw someone today. A Minotaur. Not Beza, sorry. The Minotaur. Calruz.”
The room went silent as if Erin had doused it. But she spoke into the silence.
“I don’t know what you think of him. I know what he did. I saw it. But I also saw what he did before that. Calruz and the Horns of Hammerad were the first adventurers ever to visit my inn, did you know? Before it was destroyed. The first time.”
There was a laugh, and then silence. Erin went on. Her voice was trembling, but it stopped as she went on.
“The Horns of Hammerad. They went into the Crypt and…well, you know the rest. But they reformed. They beat Albez, and found treasure! Including the magic door!”
“Hurray for that!”
Saliss shouted. Erin smiled. He was watching her. Knowingly. Perhaps he knew what she had in the cupped hands behind her back.
“And then the Horns came back here. They fought the moths. They fought the Raskghar. They brought down a monster. Calruz. He was in prison. And when I saw him the second time, he was mad. Insane. But then I saw him in prison. And I wasn’t sure if he was mad, or if something had happened down there. Maybe it was him. Maybe it was something else. I don’t know. But when the Crelers attacked the inn, the Horns of Hammerad killed the Adult Creler. They brought it down. And brave people died.”
She looked around. Some adventurers were in the inn. Bevussa, Keldrass—and some who’d fought there. The Ensoldier Shields and Walt glanced up.
“They fought and won. But a lot of people died. [Mages], adventurers. The Horns were one of the groups. But they fought. All of them. Calruz was the first one into the inn.”
“What’s your point?”
That question came from the front. Erin searched the crowd, saw an angry face.
“Just this. It happened. All those things. The good and the bad. And tonight, we’re going to remember that. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I’ve got a little Skill. So—tonight—I’m remembering that. And this is what I remember.”
Erin took her hands from around her back. And there it was.
A pink glow. The color of glory and mercy and forgiveness and redemption and triumph and sorrow.
It was such a tiny thing. Erin stared at it. Happiness to her was purple. And sadness blue. Was happiness that close to sadness? Did it work like that? Why was glory pink?
But it wasn’t gold. The white, painful light in the center made people shade their eyes. But it was such a tiny flame. Most in the inn couldn’t see it. The little fuchsia flame wavered as if it might go out at any second. So Erin stepped back—
And she cast it into the fireplace.
The merry orange flames changed color in an instant. The bright, harsh, warm, glow, lit up the inn. Her guests cried out in astonishment. And Erin saw the light grow.
And so did the shadows. The light of the magic fire of glory had a strange effect. For all it shone and was even painful to look at, it lengthened the shadows as much as it cast light. So it was bright as day and dark as night.
The young woman stood with her back to the fire. She caught some on her fingertips. Catching it without being burned.
She didn’t know she could do that. But she was acting on instinct, now. There was a thundering in her chest, a burning in her veins. And the fire shot from fireplace to fireplace.
Now the inn was basked in the light. And it was not gentle. It was warm. But not all looked at it with fond memory.
Some flinched away from the burning light. They fled it, leaving. But most stayed. It was beautiful to many.
Frightening to others. Watch Captain Zevara was one. She flinched away, staring with fear at the bright, shadowed glow. And Zevara whispered a word.
The young woman turned. Her eyes shone as she held the magenta flame. Slowly, she walked over to the bar. And Zevara beheld in her Skinner. She remembered the rotting thing.
But also, the sight of a tribe of Goblins standing over its corpse. An inn that stood. The Workers who stood with the Black Tide as they crushed the undead and saved her city.
Both things at once. One might outweigh the other at times, but neither was complete alone. That was what glory was, to Erin.
And it called her. Slowly, she looked across the bar.
“Pour me a drink, Drassi. Something that burns.”
The Drake [Bartender] stared at Erin. Slowly, she filled a tumbler with Firebreath Whiskey. Erin looked at it.
“No. Not right.”
Her mind was shimmering. Something was calling to her. She looked at the glass, at the fire in her hands. She was missing something. Drass looked past her and whispered.
The young woman looked down. A little furry paw reached up. And Erin saw a little faerie flower.
Saliss and Xif stared. The room stared as Erin took the flower out of Mrsha’s grasp. And the little Gnoll looked up, waiting. Erin stared at the flower. At her fire.
And she performed her magic. She squeezed a few drops of nectar into the drink and mixed it. Then—she set the flower in the glass. And the pink fire consumed it.
The magenta flame burned across the glass, turning the liquid inside into a shimmering glow. The Faerie Flower burned to ash in a second, and Erin stared at the cup.
She looked at the drink. And it was complete. It held…something. Erin lifted the flaming shot glass and turned. Rufelt watched from a seat where he sat with his wife, and the [Bartender] smiled.
“So. Does anyone want a drink?”
The room was silent. Everyone stared at the fiery glass. Octavia looked around.
“No way I’m doing it.”
The guests looked at each other. Wailant half-rose, and so did Palt, Saliss, Xif—
But Relc was first. He strode past Grimalkin who was scribbing notes like a maddrake, and walked over to the bar. The Drake squared his shoulders.
“Mind if I have it?”
Erin handed him the glass wordlessly. The Drake eyed the drink. He looked at the cup, and at Erin. He knew what it held. He had taken the bitter draught of memories before.
He raised the glass to his lips and drained it in one go. The room watched in silence. The Senior Guardsman smacked his mouth and then paused. He looked past Erin. At something she couldn’t see.
Erin’s heart was pounding. She looked at her old friend, one of the oldest in this world. And she didn’t know what he saw as he turned. Relc took the glass. He stared at it, and at Erin.
Then he hurled it to the floor. The glass shattered, and Erin jumped. The Drake [Sergeant] looked around. And then he leapt onto the bar. He planted his feet on it, and grabbed a second glass and the bottle Drassi had pulled out.
“A toast! To the damned 4th Company of the army! New and old! Raise your mugs, you ugly bastards!”
He shouted across the room. And there were tears in his eyes. Embria started at her table. And 4th Company stared at Relc.
The Gecko of Liscor. They never spoke to him. Hadn’t acknowledged him until Pallass. The former [Sergeant] and [Spearmaster]. But tonight, Relc roared.
“Pour one out, you worthless fleshbags!”
He poured a shot and drank. The [Soldiers] of 4th Company shot to their feet. Not just Embria. They raised their drinks. And they shouted.
“4th Company! The Skywalker’s Company! 4th!”
“And the Gecko of Liscor!”
Embria raised her drink. Erin heard a roar. She looked at Relc. And then saw him turn to her.
“We run on [Light Bridges]. What?”
The young woman paused.
“Is it good?”
Relc looked at Erin. And the fire she held. He raised a glass to his old company, and his daughter. He stared, at that elusive, oft-painful fire. But wonderful, too. And he nodded.
The drinks burned bright as Erin served them. She didn’t have to, or rather, she wasn’t alone. Drassi and Rufelt were helping her.
The faerie flowers were a bitter poison. And they were poison. A memory so real and painful you could die in it. But when the fire burned, you drank it. And you didn’t see a vision that snatched you into a world of what might have been, or vivid and real memory.
The drink made you remember the best and worst of it. All at once. And that—was not nostalgia. It was not for everyone. But it was glorious.
People were toasting and shouting. The inn was in uproar. Erin had never seen it like this. She had seen it panicked, confused, happy and sad. But this was chaos. Pandemonium.
“It’s almost like a real inn.”
Rufelt stared at Erin. He slipped as he slid a shot glass across the table, and it flicked, spinning, going to hit the floor.
A hand caught it. Erin saw a dark, slim Antinium inspect the fiery drink.
Klbkch. She looked at him, and her breath caught. The Antinium looked—unhappy. So deeply so, Erin could feel it. But this wasn’t the night. She couldn’t help him now. She had to—
The Revalantor, Klbkch the Slayer raised the glass. He stood in a moment made for him, as people like Saliss and Grimalkin turned. Chaldion looked up. Olesm froze, and Zevara tensed.
Klbkchhezeim of the Free Antinium stared around the room. He looked at Pawn, and Bird and Belgrade and the others who were here against his orders. At Erin. But he did not say anything to them.
It was not the moment. The Antinium simply lifted his glass. He opened his mandibles.
“To the Centenium of the True Antinium. To the Antinium of Rhir!”
He drank. And then he hurled the glass to the floor, as Relc had done. The Slayer walked back. And no one stopped him. It made the eyes of some burn with more than sadness, but his was not the only toast. He had the right.
“Attention, attention everyone! Shut up!”
Erin climbed onto a table. She kicked someone’s spaghetti out of the way. Erin waved her arms. She had a mug in one hand, filled with alcohol, not the burning magic drink. Everyone turned as Erin shouted.
“I have only one thing to say tonight! This is my inn! And you’re all my guests! You’ve seen it destroyed, rebuilt! You’ve seen monsters—and heroes!”
She shouted to the roaring crowd. And Erin felt more like an [Innkeeper] than she had before. People shouted, someone screamed about their spaghetti, and Erin shouted louder as the drinks and food flowed.
“Just remember this! This is The Wandering Inn! And we’ve seen good people and jerks come through here! Legends and monsters! But we remember the good ones now! Raise a cup to them all! They’ll be back again, someday!”
People began to thrust their tankards and cups up, but they paused. Erin looked around. And in the sudden lull, she nodded.
“The good and the bad. But that’s okay. Because this inn’s open. And I believe that if you can do terrible things, you can also redeem yourself.”
Her words carried across the bar. And Erin gazed about. She looked past Beza, Montressa, and Palt, past Relc, Olesm, Klbkch, standing silent, watching, past Lyonette and everyone in the inn who looked at her and listened and remembered. Out, through one of the windows at the distant city. And further still.
“No matter how far you go, no matter where you go or who you become—you can always come back here. That’s a promise. I might hit you with a pan, but this inn welcomes you all. Because it has only one rule. Which is?”
She waited. Her guests murmured. And then a Drake jumped onto his chair. The Senior Guardsman raised his mug and met Erin’s eyes. He nodded, and then bellowed. And he was not alone.
Relc shouted it with Saliss, and the [Mages], and Lyonette and Numbtongue and everyone who’d ever been stopped and had the sign above the bar pointed out to them. Who’d ever looked up and read the words, or seen the little sign by the door. They shouted it.
“No killing Goblins!”
Erin laughed. She lifted her tankard and drank it down in one go, to cheers from around the inn. Then Erin got down from the table.
“Nice speech. Also, that would be more impressive if I didn’t know you were immune to it.”
Lyonette helped Erin onto the floor; glass shards had been swept, but Mrsha was sitting on a table much to her delight. Erin wobbled as she went to put the mug down and missed. The world was suddenly…tilted.
“What was that?”
The [Princess] stared. And Erin moved forwards. People she knew called out to her. She paused by a table.
“Give me another drink! Also, I’m getting hungry again! Let’s get something to eat!”
Then she sat down. Erin wasn’t using her Skill. For once…she was drunk. And laughing. And then there was another round. Erin took it, and sipped this time, but she did drink.
She drank, and realized it wasn’t actually a bad thing to be drunk. She’d just never tried it that often because she’d been so busy and she’d always thought it sucked. And she’d always kept her Skill on. But it was sort of fun, especially with people laughing and talking with her.
Who would have thought?
The end. Or rather, the end of the night did come. It was probably into dawn, but the people left. Some were actually passed out on the floor, and Erin thought Numbtongue and Bird had collapsed somewhere in the Garden of Sanctuary.
Klbkch had left, and Grimalkin, and so many others, in various stages of inebriation. Tomorrow, they’d be dealt with. But for a moment, Erin sat in a chair.
She was drunk. She had been very drunk, but time had downgraded her to merely intoxicated. And she was pleasantly so. The [Innkeeper] was happy.
It was a good night. Not a perfect one. But you never got those. She remembered, that was all. And the pink flames shed their last glow one last time.
Erin reached for a drink. A mug. And it held not liquor, but chocolate. Warm, sweet chocolate. The young woman loved it dark. She sipped from her mug, and the rich taste made Erin smile. Then she paused.
“Hm. I need more chocolate.”
She should have probably said something special for a night like this. But that was all she got. Then, Erin yawned, and put her head down on the table. She smiled as she went to sleep.
[Magical Innkeeper Level 41!]
[Skill – Inn: Twofold Rest obtained!]