In the darkness, there was fire. And fire, that elusive, dangerous thing, was brightest as night fell around Invrisil.
It was a horrible thing. It could burn the land to ash. But it was also essential. And it was at its most beautiful when the shadows closed in.
Fire. A contradictory thing. It blazed in a young woman. If you looked at her and saw, you could witness it. An old flame, emitting one last surge of radiance.
For the [Lady] remembered. And fire was like memory. They had called her Lady Firestarter, once.
She watched as another spark of fire blossomed. This was mundane light. But no less welcoming for it.
Outside the gates of Invrisil, an adventurer was starting a fire. A woman wearing somewhat battered plate armor, well-maintained, but clearly damaged from fighting, was attending to it.
There wasn’t that much tinder to be found lying around Invrisil. It wasn’t as if she could jog towards the nearest forest miles distant and find the waiting sticks and logs of wood pre-chopped on the ground. And trees didn’t actually like to burn that easily.
So she’d had to improvise. She had pried off sections of the rickety wagon the adventurers had been riding in. The guardrails, taken her sword to the back of the wagon—
They were burning their ride. But they’d come to their destination, so the wagon was so much scrap. It was, in fact, a very practical action. And Yvlon Byres only despaired that other people weren’t capable of thinking on their feet. And that number included her team.
“What do you mean, the city’s closed? The gates never close!”
A [Trader] was wailing at the [Guards] on the gate. One of them shouted down as the others ignored the plaintive voice. A crowd was milling around the shut gates.
“Mayor’s orders, sir! The city was attacked less than a week ago! There’s a travel restriction—whomever sent yonder giant at our walls is still out there!”
He pointed. Every head turned to the decomposing flesh giant in the distance. It was being burned. But flesh liked to burn even less than wood, and the thing was massive.
The [Trader] paled.
“But what are we to do?”
“Find an inn. Come back in the morning.”
The [Captain] was unhelpful. The crowd milled about. Yvlon watched, sighing as she fed the small blaze she’d created with some flint and tinder.
“What a mess. Invrisil almost never gets attacked. Let alone closes the gates.”
She remarked to no one in particular. Her teammates had wandered off the instant they realized they weren’t getting into the city that night. They might still be milling around the gates. But the [Silversteel Armsmistress] had immediately taken stock of the situation. She’d moved the wagon off the road, set up a small camp.
She was an adventurer. And unlike the distressed [Trader] who was terrified of having to camp with his valuables outside, Yvlon was already planning out a night in the open. It wasn’t hard; they didn’t have a tent, but they could sleep in the wagon or under it if it rained. She wished they’d kept the outdoor tents adventurers brought, but they had blankets aplenty.
She’d started the fire, checked their supplies. Another mistake; they had little more than dry rations, but with some water from a well somewhere, they’d make do. A bit of hunger never killed anyone. Well—a bit.
And Yvlon would dig a latrine. Maybe Ksmvr could help with that; he was Antinium. The [Armsmistress] glanced about.
“Where are they? I swear, if Pisces gets caught trying to go over the walls…”
She grumbled under her breath. Her team. She loved them. But they were a disaster of a group in some respects. She still remembered the eggs incident. Food poisoning! For nearly two days she’d had to herd her teammates around. And they could get into other trouble as well.
Ksmvr, at least, had the excuse that he was three. Ceria and Pisces on the other hand? [Mages]. And while Ceria wasn’t as arrogant or inclined to causing mischief as Pisces, she could be just as crazy.
Yvlon’s old team hadn’t been that bad. They’d had characters, but—actually, no. Compared to the Horns, they’d been as interesting as dirt. Yvlon had never walked in on one of the Silver Spears rolling around in a pile of treasure. That had happened twice with her teammates. First Pisces and Ksmvr, and then Ceria who’d heard about it and wanted to try it out.
“Let’s see. Fire’s good.”
The [Armsmistress] critically examined the fire. She added some more wood, fearlessly inserting her hand into the fire. Because her hands and arms up to her shoulder weren’t flesh.
They were a strange metal, a mix of silver and steel, hence her class. And the metal imitated her arms perfectly. Down to the curvature of her muscle; they even flexed and tendons rippled as she adjusted the fire.
Metal like flesh. Or rather, metal that had replaced her flesh. Yvlon could even feel the heat; she felt exactly how hot it was. But the sensation was removed from the burning she would have experienced normally. It was passing strange.
Yet, here were her arms. And they were far better than the crippled mess she had been resigned to a month ago. Yvlon inspected her hands as she took them out of the fire. She touched her leg and burned herself.
Her arms kept the heat of the fire. Yvlon stared at them, slightly exasperated, slightly…
She’d had time to get used to them. But how much time was enough? These were her arms. And they were beautiful.
And foreign. They were lovely art. People stared at them when they met Yvlon, even more than her features, which had always been the case beforehand. They told her how beautiful she looked.
But she was Yvlon, not art. She would have admired her arms too. But they were hers. And that changed everything.
Nevertheless—she had her team. That was what mattered. Grumbling and looking around for them now, Yvlon made sure the fire wouldn’t spread and then dusted her hands. She looked about.
The smart visitors to Invrisil, the City of Adventurers, were on the move. [Farmers] were taking their goods back, bemoaning the lost time, but with homes to visit. Or—they were heading back down the road to find lodging.
Some were milling about. Unable to cope with events so dramatic and profoundly troubling to their way of life as being locked out of a city for a night. They’d make poor adventurers. Yvlon had some sympathy for them, but it had limits. They were all adults. They had to take care of themselves; if they couldn’t handle this, how could they even live in this world where monsters might attack out of nowhere?
The uncharitable thought gave Yvlon some pause. Of course, it was the Byres way to give aid to anyone in need. Her brother would, at this very moment, be organizing everyone, making sure no one went hungry. He was like that.
But she wasn’t. Yvlon sighed as she watched a family milling about. Well—maybe they could share their rations. Such as they were. Just a few mouthfuls of some seeds Ceria had bought to snack on, some flatbread, two days old…where could she find food?
“And where is my team?”
The Gold-rank adventurer complained. She looked around and spotted a young woman tethering her horse to a rock. She was well-dressed, in a somewhat ill-fitting noblewoman’s garments. But they were expensive and Yvlon imagined the young woman—around her age—was a [Lady] of some sort. At least of the landed gentry. But she seemed industrious. Industrious and inexperienced, that was.
She’d started a fire. A brilliant flame on the ground. But—Yvlon frowned. There was no firewood. Some Skill? The young woman had left her horse some grazing room and tied it securely, but now she was rummaging around. And she clearly had nothing to eat or anywhere to stay.
A traveller for a day. Yvlon shook her head. Now, Ylawes, or her father, Yitton Byres would be trying to figure out how to feed everyone. Ylawes would raise his voice, stride into the road, and tell everyone he’d watch out for them. Yvlon didn’t have that kind of courage. Her older sister did, and Ylawes—but of different sorts.
“Hah—Ysara would be selling them food. And Ylawes…did Pisces go looking for a way into the city? We have to bring the door.”
One of the objects in the wagon was a wooden door, inset with a magical stone. It should have been the first candidate for burning, rather than the wagon, which could be sold. But Yvlon hadn’t touched it. Because it was a magical door.
And they were nearly at Invrisil. So nearly. But one last hurdle eluded them, after a long while of small adventures. Fighting off natural stone golems, experiencing food poisoning—hostility against Ksmvr as a member of the Antinium—Yvlon sighed.
“If only we could hop through the door. But—no, that would never work. It wouldn’t be able to take us all, anyways. Just two of us at best, right? Still—”
She rolled her eyes.
“Pisces would demand to be first. And Ceria. So Ksmvr and I get to guard the wagon. I suppose that’s better than listening to Pisces grumble all night. Hm.”
She reached for the door. In the darkness, other people were setting up camp outside the walls. Yvlon coughed as some of the foul odor of the burning flesh giant in the distance wafted to her. She reached for the door’s handle—
“I wouldn’t do that, Yvlon. The door won’t activate. And even if it does, I think we’re good.”
A female voice. Yvlon Byres’ head turned. She saw a half-Elf, her hair shining by firelight. The [Cryomancer] smiled as Yvlon straightened. And she was different too.
Ceria’s eyes were pale. And the air was colder around her. Just a bit. If she lost control, it turned to ice, and it might even snow in her presence. One of her hands was skeletal. And the [Ice Mage]’s magical powers in her element had grown even stronger of late. She was also carrying something.
“What? I thought you’d want to try the door, Ceria.”
Yvlon gestured at the door. She saw the young noblewoman looking around and cursing, clearly unsure of how to find food at this hour. Ceria grinned.
“What, me? I can sleep outdoors one day. And I doubt Erin’s attuned her door to ours. It won’t open if she doesn’t set the stone, remember? We’ll have to [Message] her. You can try it, but I think we’re stuck for the night.”
Yvlon lamely opened the door. And of course, nothing happened. She sighed. There went one of her food options.
“Where did Pisces and Ksmvr go?”
“I have no idea. But I’ve got water.”
The [Armsmistress] looked up. Ceria held up something. Her bag of holding.
“I went to find some. First things first, we need water, right? I don’t know how much food we have, but conjuring water is a pain. Magical ice you can’t eat, so…here. Enough to fill the pot a few times.”
She held out the bag of holding. Yvlon blinked. She peered inside.
“Did you pour the water inside? It’ll get—”
“I took everything else out first. I’m not an idiot, Yvlon. Shame we don’t have a bag of holding with multiple pocket-spaces. Anyways, it’s simpler to find a river, like I did than to keep conjuring water. I’m a [Cryomancer] after all; I sensed it. Did you make that fire? Nice!”
Ceria sat down with a smile and began to warm herself. Although it was mostly for pleasure; she felt little cold anymore. Yvlon blinked at her friend.
Ceria Springwalker, Captain of the Horns of Hammerad. She was a good leader in a fight and the most easygoing of all of them, but Yvlon had never really thought she was this resourceful. But she forgot—Ceria had lived in a forest growing up.
“Well, did you see Pisces and Ksmvr?”
“Nope. But I’m sure they’re just scoping out things.”
Yvlon doubted that. But—her uncharitable thoughts about her team’s expertise in a survival environment were shattered yet again. Because out of the darkness emerged a glowing [Light] spell. And there was a young Human man, dressed in white robes, a rapier at his side, and an Antinium Worker.
At her fire, the young [Lady] raised her head warily as the two approached. But Pisces, for all his newfound power, looked like…Pisces. And until he sniffed or sneered or conjured an undead creation, he was actually fairly handsome. As for Ksmvr—he was a Worker. And they were both carrying armfuls of—food?
Yes, food. Pisces put an armful of potatoes on the wagon’s back—enough to feed everyone dinner and then some. Ksmvr had a jug of milk, a half-wheel of cheese, and a small jar filled with strong-smelling spices among a few other sundry ingredients. Pisces pulled a few more items out of his pockets, some onion, a bit of wrapped butter, as Yvlon stared.
“Where have you two been? I thought you were looking for a route over the walls! And where did you get that food? Don’t tell me you—”
Pisces glanced up at Yvlon. He shook his head, mystified.
“We stole nothing, Yvlon. Rather, I was securing our dinner. Ksmvr helped me carry the lot.”
“I have also found some natural growing rhubarb and an herb I believe is known as basil out of the ground, Miss Yvlon. I had also dug up a number of nutritional worms, but Comrade Pisces believed they were unnecessary.”
The Antinium watched as Pisces fished around in the team’s belongings. He had a bag of holding too and he came over to the fire with a pot, cast-iron kettle, and nodded at Ksmvr.
“Ksmvr, peel those potatoes. We can cook the food in here. Where’s the butter…?”
“Here. What are you making?”
“Hm. I have no idea. Cheese and potatoes were all we could get. I intercepted some of the [Farmers] and this was cheapest. Brown the potatoes with the butter, add in a bit of the milk and cheese?”
“Mhm. Any meat?”
“Damn. I’ll live. Ksmvr, how tasty were the bugs you found?”
“Mostly worms, Captain Ceria. I can retrieve them if you’d like.”
“…Nah. Nah, I’m good.”
Yvlon watched in a minor state of shock as the rest of her teammates gathered around the fire. Ksmvr peeled potatoes with all three hands as Ceria levitated a few ingredients to Pisces. He was gently heating the cast-iron pan and cooking the first of the potato slices in the butter before she came to her senses.
You could know someone, and not know someone. Her teammates had changed so much since she’d met them, but still—Pisces sat by the fire. And he grumbled about the weight of the cast-iron pot, and began to levitate it instead of holding it. And he was browning the potatoes as he made an impromptu meal of cheesy potatoes. Ceria was making some tea in a kettle, and Ksmvr had found more wild plants to add to the meal.
Yvlon had assumed prior to this moment that if they were ever dropped without her in the middle of a forest, her team would starve—or Ceria and Ksmvr would eat Pisces.
“I had no idea you could cook, Pisces.”
The [Necromancer] sniffed. That was somehow reassuring to Yvlon; he hadn’t been replaced by some phantom taking his body.
“I seldom do. I find cooking quite inconvenient and time-consuming since I have few Skills. But it behooves one to know a few tricks of the trade. Cast-iron is a wonderful retainer of heat, incidentally. Ksmvr, some salt?”
“Here, Comrade Pisces.”
“And you found the rhubarb and other plants, Ksmvr?”
The Antinium that had been adopted by the Horns of Hammerad, whom Yvlon thought of like a younger brother sometimes, the one she had never known she wanted—smiled brightly.
“Yes, Yvlon. I have studied many edible plants as part of my training to become a Prognugator. And Comrade Pisces is a good cook. He has cooked many times, with things he has purloined. Or so he informs me.”
Pisces coughed hurriedly and turned his head. Yvlon narrowed her eyes, but Ceria was inspecting the tea.
“It’s sort of weak, but it’ll do. We’re sleeping in the wagon tonight, everyone. I was just telling Yvlon I doubt the magic door to Erin’s inn is open.”
“I could send a [Message]. I have the spell now. To that…Palt? Or Montressa?”
Pisces commented neutrally. Ceria chewed on her lip. She glanced at the wagon, part of which had been cannibalized.
“Nah, this isn’t bad. Besides…I want us to be in Invrisil before we see Erin, you know? Hey, who destroyed part of our wagon?”
Yvlon turned red. She looked at the fire, which she’d made. The food, water, everything else? Her team. She’d been about to suggest they all have a handful of seeds and dry flatbread and call it a night.
“I uh—I did. Sorry.”
“Lowers the resale value.”
Pisces murmured with a frown. Ceria waved it off.
“The Halfseekers bought the wagon, Pisces. It’s fine. Nice fire. Say—it’s getting a bit cold, isn’t it? Windy.”
Indeed, a wind was beginning to whip around Invrisil. Yvlon didn’t feel it on her arms, but her face objected to the sudden chill. She heard a curse—the young [Lady]’s fire had gone out. Another mark of inexperience; you couldn’t make most Skill-based creations last more than an hour. She needed actual firewood to keep the fire going.
Pisces frowned as he adjusted the pan. He was putting in shredded cheese and a bit of milk and watching his potato slices marinate.
“Inconvenient. Oh glorious captain, can you deal with that?”
Ceria rolled her eyes. Yvlon got up quickly; she’d unhitched the horses and tethered them.
“I can help push the wagon against the wind—”
“Nah. My [Ice Walls] should do. They’ll last a few hours. I’ll recast as we sleep and we won’t notice once we’re out.”
Ceria drew her wand. The [Artic Cryomancer]’s pale eyes, like a winter’s chill, flashed as she pointed. Yvlon saw walls of opaque ice rising out of the ground. On all four sides, the ice rose higher. And then made a slanted roof overhead. Critically, Ceria added a few windows. And the ice house was done.
“There. Shouldn’t whistle with the winds in the background. And the campfire shouldn’t melt it.”
Yvlon stared about the temporary dwelling. Ceria had even included the wagon inside.
“…Won’t the ice drip over time? Even if the campfire doesn’t melt it?”
The [Warrior] lamely looked at Ceria. The half-Elf shook her head.
“Magical ice. It’ll just vanish if it does. Whoops! Good catch, Yvlon. Nearly forgot the chimney.”
The ice reshaped itself as Ceria pointed. Her mastery of her magic had improved; before she had only been able to conjure simple walls of ice. Ksmvr happily stared around.
“Very defensible, Captain Ceria. I will then take first watch. I see there are also spaces for cover that I might shoot our enemies through. I would expect nothing less.”
Pisces snorted as he checked on the potatoes. Ceria sighed.
“Ksmvr, we don’t need a guard. I mean—it makes sense. But we’re not in that much danger here.”
The Antinium [Skirmisher] thought about this.
“Ah, this would be part of our talks about ‘paranoia’ and ‘not alarming people’, yes, Captain Ceria? In that case, I will obey. And simply set up a few tripwires.”
He bustled out of the ice home’s door. Yvlon saw the Antinium produce lengths of thin string. And he hung a few bells on them that would jangle if anyone tripped over them, tying the strings to stakes he hammered into the ground.
One of the first things Ksmvr had bought with his share of the immediate profits from killing the Crelers and his adventures was more gear. He already had his personal bag of holding with a number of crossbows in it; Crossbow Stan’s legacy. But he’d added bells, two bear traps, and any number of gadgets to his repertoire.
And with that, their security for the night was taken care of. Yvlon would have wanted a watch, just in case. But between the ice house and Ksmvr’s traps…
The daughter of house Byres looked around. More people had set up camp, but the Horns of Hammerad’s camp was by far the most…luxurious. Ceria was laying out blankets in the wagon. Ksmvr was patting horses. Pisces pronounced his first bowl of potatoes done and the smell was making Yvlon’s mouth water. She decided to pour everyone some tea.
“Thanks for the fire, Yvlon. Really helped to come back to it.”
Ceria smiled at the [Armsmistress]. Pisces handed a bowl of food over.
“Yes, thanks are in order.”
He nodded. Ksmvr bowed his head slightly. Yvlon—waved her hand.
“…It was nothing.”
Humbling, surprising, but gratifying. The Horns of Hammerad sat about the fire and Yvlon realized—this was why she liked her team. They, including her, were a band of idiots. But they were united idiots. Teammates. She was laughing as Pisces began to complain about the flesh giant’s smell—muted by Ceria’s ice walls.
“I’m not saying I approve of the methods. I am just saying that it was inefficiently made! Solid flesh? You can make a framework and—no, I’m not endorsing killing that many people, Ceria! I’m just saying that if I were doing it—hypothetically—”
The sound of a few bells ringing made the Horns of Hammerad look up. The adventurers immediately stood. From outside their fort, they heard a muffled curse. And then a voice.
“Excuse me! I’m unarmed! I just came to ask if you’d be willing to share some food? I can pay!”
The adventurers looked at each other. Ceria relaxed. Pisces—vanished.
The invisible [Necromancer] brushed against Yvlon and she glanced over his shoulder. He was at a window. Paranoia? Or sense? Ceria called out.
“Come on over, by all means!”
She stood. And that was when Yvlon saw the young woman she’d observed earlier.
The [Lady]’s dress was mussed from travel. And her hair was in disarray. More than that—she looked a bit saddle sore. Yvlon hadn’t seen a saddle on her horse. The young woman was wearing slippers, not riding boots.
Her clothing didn’t fit, Yvlon realized. And that made her suspect a [Thief]. But who wore what they stole? And for all that, she belonged in the clothes. She had a presence.
Her hair was jet black, mixed with fiery red and orange. Like embers in the smoke. Long gleaming hair, a strong profile—oh yes. Yvlon recognized the blood of a noble house at once. Many mothers had childbearing or bloodline Skills. Some fathers, come to that. The nobility and even royalty bred their offspring to be the best.
But the young woman was perfectly respectful. She bowed slightly, smiling with a touch of wariness as she held up a string with bells attached.
“I broke it, I’m sorry. I—hope I’m not intruding? I was wondering if I could—share the pot? I can pay, but I was locked out of the city with everyone else. And I don’t have supplies for the night…”
Her words were also a bit odd. Not as if she had a lisp, but rather the tone and wording themselves. She switched from authoritative to polite halfway through. Yvlon got the impression the young woman’s preference would have been to demand the adventurer’s food.
All heads turned to Ceria. The [Ice Mage] blinked, but she only had to look at Yvlon for a second before she smiled.
“Of course. Don’t worry about the money. We’re all stuck. I’ve never heard of Invrisil being closed. Come on in—we’ve got more than enough food. Come to that, I wonder if anyone else is hungry? I thought I saw some families.”
She looked at Yvlon. And that was why she liked Ceria. The [Armsmistress] half-rose.
“I saw a few families. I can check.”
The young woman was hesitating at the opening to the ice house. She looked at Ksmvr and then pretended not to be. Ceria smiled and waved her over.
“Come in, have a seat. Don’t mind Ksmvr. He’s…”
The young woman murmured. She walked forwards. Not afraid, but wary of Ksmvr. She studied him as Ksmvr raised two hands on his left side.
“Hello, I am Ksmvr. I am not a monster. Also, I do not eat people. I am an adventurer and perfectly safe.”
He’d been working on that introduction. It hadn’t ever quite worked beforehand, but the young woman nodded tightly. She sat on the other end of the fire as Ceria checked the pot. Yvlon was heading for the door when a figure bustled in.
“I’ve just done a quick circuit of the other fires. It looks like most people are well attended to—oh, hello. Who is this, then? A guest? Many people are sharing fires.”
Pisces smiled innocuously at the young lady. Maviola glanced at Pisces, and smiled in a friendly way as Yvlon stared at Pisces. He gave her a nod and stepped back.
“Thank you, I didn’t know where to go. I was about to ride back, but I was afraid my horse would stumble in the darkness.”
Maviola didn’t seem surprised to see him. Nor had she blinked at his sudden entrance as the rest of Pisces’ team had. The [Necromancer]’s [Invisibility] spell…hadn’t worked on Maviola El.
But no one noticed that. Ceria sighed as she stared at the browned cheesy potatoes, bubbling hot.
“Dinner’s ready! Don’t worry about paying. Miss…?”
“Maviola. And thank you. Are you sure you wouldn’t accept—?”
The half-Elf impatiently waved off the offer as she ladled the piping hot food into bowls and passed them around.
“We’ve got money. We’re adventurers, actually. The Horns of Hammerad. Any idea why Invrisil is closed?”
Maviola accepted a bowl, murmuring thanks. She shook her head.
“I heard there was a failed attack. That Flesh Giant. No casualties in the attack, but an entire village was…killed to make it.”
The Horns looked shocked. Pisces just counted as he moved his lips silently. You could make three if—Yvlon punched his shoulder and he winced.
“We had no idea. Where did it come from?”
“A [Necromancer], or so they say.”
Maviola’s face was guileless. She was dissembling, but she couldn’t have known how that comment would make the Horns wince.
“That’s not good. [Necromancers], huh? Sounds like whoever killed those people was a monster. Right, Pisces? I wonder who might have done that?”
The [Necromancer] burned his tongue on his food, but it really was delicious for such a simple meal. He put more potatoes into the pot to be seared as he thought out loud.
“I can’t think of any cult or group with the power to make a giant undead like that. It must have been a Level…40 [Necromancer]. Surely.”
Maviola’s head turned. She saw a chitinous hand waving at her and instantly recoiled.
“Would you like some salt, Miss Maviola?”
The Antinium was politely offering some salt in a packet to Maviola. The [Lady] hesitated.
Gingerly, she accepted the salt packet, taking care not to touch Ksmvr’s hands. And she looked at him. The Antinium was smiling, forgetting that most people had no idea of how to read his face.
The other adventurers noticed. Yvlon chewed, swallowed, and then spoke.
“Miss Maviola. Are you part of the noble houses of Izril, by any chance? Perhaps related to the House of El? Their matriarch is named Maviola.”
The [Lady] blinked. She looked up—and again, she was very good at hiding her feelings. Her eyes flickered.
“…Slightly, yes. I was named after Maviola El. And I’m a distant relation. Not that noble, but my family thought it was a good way of currying favor.”
Wariness. Yvlon instantly tried to clarify.
“I see. I just ask because I’m Yvlon Byres. Third Daughter of the House of Byres. I know a lot of the family names.”
Instantly, Maviola relaxed. Her expression cleared and a smile flitted across her features at last. She seemed to notice Yvlon’s arms again.
“House Byres? That’s an honorable lot. What is a daughter of the Byres family doing here? I know of a Ylawes Byres, a Gold-rank adventurer. Would you be…?”
“His younger sister. Gold-rank as well, actually. We were just promoted.”
The young woman blinked. She chewed on the burning-hot potatoes. Even Ceria, who would eat bugs, and Pisces, who would eat hot dishes, had to wait. Yvlon too. Only Ksmvr and Maviola seemed immune to the sheer heat of the food. The [Lady] looked around.
“Forgive me, but I didn’t know I was bothering a team of Gold-rank adventurers.”
“Forgive what? We’re not that big. And we just got promoted. I’m sorry, we haven’t introduced ourselves, have we? The Horns of Hammerad, adventurers from down around Celum. I’m Ceria Springwalker, the Captain. [Cryomancer]. Don’t mind the hand.”
The half-Elf waved her skeletal hand. Maviola blinked at it. Pisces bowed slightly.
“Lady Maviola, I am Pisces, a [Mage] from Wistram at your service.”
“Yvlon Byres, [Armsmistress]. My arms are recent too.”
Yvlon stared at Pisces. Ksmvr raised one of his hands.
“I am Ksmvr, formerly of the Free Antinium. But I was kicked out. I am a [Skirmisher] and the least-able member of my team. Hello!”
The young [Lady] was blinking at the introductions. Skeletal hand, silversteel arms—Ksmvr. She looked around.
“I am Maviola Imarris. Distantly related to the House of El and the Imarris family, but an offshoot branch. Not really of the high nobility, but I am a [Lady]. Thank you for gracing me with dinner.”
“Not at all. Heck of a thing, isn’t it? Invrisil being closed. Even if there was an attack, I can’t remember it ever happening in the years I’ve been in Izril.”
“It’s happened three times in recent memory. But it is rare.”
Maviola murmured. She was eating with a passion. Her eyes lit up as she savored each bite while trying to scarf at the same time. It was rather reminiscent of Ksmvr, actually. The sheer joy she had for the food made Yvlon envious, and she liked the meal.
“This is amazing food. Thank you so much for sharing it.”
“It’s not that excellent. But I have to admit, there is some pleasure in cooking a meal well. By all means, have seconds.”
Pisces puffed up slightly and he tended to the second serving. And there were certainly a lot of mouths to feed. Yvlon was a [Warrior] and hungry—and the rest of her team was just gluttonous by nature. Maviola no less than the others.
“May I ask, what brings an Antinium out of their Hives? I don’t…know the Antinium nearly as well as I thought I did. I thought they never left their Hives. Much less became adventurers. Or…spoke. Except for their leaders.”
Maviola had to breach the question at last. Yvlon was impressed by her restraint, but she was still clearly wary for all she was relaxing. It was Ceria who replied with a smile.
“Ksmvr’s a bit—different. He was kicked out of his Hive. And he was an uh, Prognugator. That’s one of their leaders. But he’s alright. Don’t mind him if he makes any mistakes.”
“I am learning. And I was a disgrace to my Hive so I was exiled. Hello! Again!”
Ksmvr waved at Maviola. She blinked, and her eye sharpened with interest.
“Really? May I ask—if it’s not too impolite? What brought an Antinium into a team? Are there more like that? And—”
She glanced at Yvlon and Ceria. The [Armsmistress] smiled crookedly.
“Don’t worry, everyone wants to know. And it is a story.”
The other Horns chuckled. By now, the tale of their slaying of the Adult Creler wasn’t something that filled them with an abundance of embarrassment and pride. But—it still felt good to tell. Yvlon told it as quickly as she could, with Ceria helping and Pisces adding anecdotes as he stirred the potatoes. Maviola listened. And her eyes lit up.
“You killed an Adult Creler as Silver-ranks?”
“Not alone. We lost a lot of good adventurers. We got lucky. It was Yvlon who kept bashing it in the head.”
“It was all luck, Miss Maviola. But we’ve had a lot of it. We paid for it, though…Ceria’s hand, my arms.”
“Even so. Adventurers. I dreamed of being one as a girl.”
Maviola looked at them, eyes shining by firelight. Somehow, the fire wasn’t dying down. Yvlon hadn’t needed to add to it for over an hour. Ever since Maviola had arrived. And—the young woman had an aura about her.
Not just a presence, an aura. Yvlon recognized it. It wasn’t hostile, though. But when the young [Lady] leaned over, you felt like she was looking only at you. It made you want to tell her everything. It was also, vaguely…familiar. Different, but familiar.
“It’s not all glory and treasure. Being an adventurer is sometimes wading through muck. Or getting hurt. But it is—something. Not that I’m saying you should dive into it, but you could get into adventuring, Miss Maviola. Sorry—is it [Lady]? You’re young enough.”
The young woman laughed ruefully.
“If only. I’m not the best for fighting. And I think I’d better leave such things to you. I’m just envious from afar. Once again, thank you for hosting me. I haven’t had a meal like this in…dec—years.”
“You don’t really need to thank us. It’s just a little bit of food.”
But the [Lady]’s smile was infectious. And Yvlon, sitting in the ice fort, listened as Maviola had to ask what had led to Ceria’s skeletal hand. Her ice magic—the conversation turned lively.
And outside of Invrisil’s walls, the people were sitting around campfires. Even if not protected from the wind, they huddled together. Taking something from the communal experience. Strangers, moving closer in the darkness.
And enterprise was a thing of beauty. It could fit anywhere. As Ceria was explaining about Skinner and Maviola was gripping her bowl, Pisces looked up from his second round of potatoes.
“Wine! Half-price if you’ll throw in part of your pot! Silver a cup; twelve a bottle! And that’s a bargain!”
A [Trader] was shouting as she went down the lines of campfires. Pisces’ head rose. So did Maviola’s. She reached for her purse, but Ceria was faster than both.
“Ksmvr, secure that wine!”
The [Skirmisher] shot to his feet. He rushed out the door, like a shot. Maviola jerked as the [Skirmisher] moved with all the Skills afforded to him and a Prognugator’s reflexes. He was as fast as a horse for a second. Yvlon heard his voice from outside.
“Excuse me! I would like to purchase—”
A scream. The [Trader] saw a huge bug-person coming at her in the night. Yvlon jumped to her feet, sighing. Ceria looked shamefaced.
It took Yvlon a minute to calm the [Trader] and get her coin. When she came back, it was with three wine flasks.
“Oho! That is generous for you, Yvlon!”
Pisces rubbed his hands together, beaming. Yvlon gave him a look, although it was true.
“We have a guest, Pisces. It’s not the best, Lady Maviola—”
The young woman’s eyes were locked so hard on the wine flasks that Yvlon thought she was a [Drunkard]. But her first sip of the wine made her sigh. And her eyes watered with emotion.
“I haven’t had a good cup—tasted it in—eight years?”
“Well—I had poor taste buds. I um—had a sickness. And restrictive family members. [Healers]. I’m free to drink now, though. And allow me to pay for my share.”
“I insist. Here.”
Maviola dug out some silver coins and handed them to Ceria. The half-Elf accepted.
“Thank you. And let’s all have a drink. To burning Flesh Giants outside of Invrisil and good potatoes!”
Everyone laughed. The wine began to flow as Maviola settled back. She sipped liberally, and Yvlon found the drink was a welcome comfort in the cold; Ceria’s ice walls kept out the wind, but they themselves had a chill. And soon—the Horns of Hammerad were back to their usual mood, plus one.
“Okay—hear me out. This is a hypothetical scenario.”
Ceria was smiling as she waved at the others over a third helping. Yvlon sat back, groaning and adjusting her armor as she lifted the wineskin. She squeezed a bit too hard and splashed far too much wine into her cup. She didn’t know her strength, sometimes.
“So—here we have some uh, cute, fluffy—uh—uh—things. Like bunnies, except they have two legs.”
Yvlon laughed. Ceria waved at her.
“Shh! Listen! Here’s the thing. The bunny-things are magical. They don’t hurt anyone, and they go around eating grass and crap all day. And they’re intelligent, and cute, and they’ve done nothing wrong. But if you kill them, you level up. In any class. And you get…one level for each fifty you kill.”
Everyone stared at Ceria. Yvlon checked how much wine Ceria had had. It was fairly strong, but—
“Okay, twenty? Kill twenty per level, then. I’m just asking—would you? If you could level up, but they were crying and begging when you killed them—”
“No! Not even one! Let alone fifty, or twenty!”
Yvlon was disgusted. She raised a finger and then hesitated.
“—I mean, they’re sentient, right? And you can’t level up forever, right?”
“Forever, let’s say.”
Ceria spread her hands out, grinning. Yvlon had to think.
“But that’s so wrong. Even if they were just bunnies….”
“Wait, is killing bunnies better?”
Yvlon was trapped. Pisces slowly raised a hand and Ceria pointed at him. The [Necromancer] tapped his fingers together thoughtfully before speaking.
“…Is this in an isolated place with no possibility of the consequences of my actions coming back to haunt me, or would this be a known fact? How morally acceptable would this practice be, culturally?”
Ceria was laughing. Yvlon raised a fist. Pisces edged back.
“It’s worth levels, Yvlon! Morality aside, or even with morality—the benefits are—”
“I have an opinion.”
The Antinium made Maviola look up slightly from her cup. She regarded him with the slightest haze of wariness. But Ksmvr spoke brightly, looking innocently from face to face.
“I would divide the totality of these creatures up into segments of fifty, or twenty and kill one fourth of them to thus split the potential level growth, Captain Ceria. Or perhaps it would be most efficient for one of us to kill all these creatures to achieve the highest level in one person? I can see why this question is so difficult.”
Everyone looked at Ksmvr. Yvlon put her head in her hands. And Maviola El began to laugh.
It was an old laugh, at first something like a cackle. And then—it became younger. She began to chuckle, giggle. Hiccup. The laughter turned into hiccups as everyone laughed. And the [Lady] kept laughing. She had tears in her eyes, but she forced herself to speak.
“May I share my opinion?”
Yvlon looked exasperated at the ethical dilemmas Ceria and Pisces loved to argue over. Maviola quieted. And then she nodded authoritatively at Ksmvr.
“It’s a nice idea—Ksmvr? However, flawed.”
She took a deep drink from her wine, tossing her head back. And her hair caught the light. Yvlon saw Maviola smiling. And in that moment, Yvlon was envious of that young [Lady]. Because here was a beauty people would talk about. As much as Lady Dealia. Maviola must have been from an obscure family if she wasn’t famed for her looks. The [Lady] smiled.
“Regarding these creature—if you wanted to maximize their worth, you’d breed them and keep leveling…forever. Then sell them to people. No, wait. You’d allow them to open up your own businesses. They’d have to slaughter on-site and you’d have to make sure no one walked off with one. That’s a mistake I’d make.”
The adventurers stared at Maviola. Yvlon’s jaw dropped. Ksmvr was nodding. So was Pisces. Yvlon looked at Ceria—
And then they all began laughing. Yvlon found herself holding her side and wheezing because it wasn’t funny. But they had drinks, food, company. And this was her team.
Pisces was cooking the last of the food, Ceria was splashing wine into the pot to ‘give it taste’ as he flung spices at her, furiously, and Ksmvr was speaking to Maviola. She caught herself, looked at him. And an expression of strange curiosity flickered across her face. Wariness, reserve, hostility—but she looked at Ksmvr again. And smiled, spoke. Answered his question.
Who was she? Yvlon didn’t know. Not Maviola’s deepest secrets, or why she had ridden towards Invrisil with naught but an ill-fitting noblewoman’s dress and slippers, for all she had money. Or why the fire blazed around her and the young woman made the air feel alive. Made each moment feel worth living.
But she didn’t have to know. You could fail to be friends with someone after knowing them for years. Or find a fast connection in a night. And that night, Maviola El sat and ate and talked and drank with the Horns of Hammerad, a chance meeting, long into the night. She slept in the house of ice.
And she felt more alive than she had in a long time. The cooking fire blazed all the way into dawn as she slept. Smiling.
An ordinary night, to follow an ordinary day. No monsters attacked The Wandering Inn. No armies marched on Liscor.
That was a good sign. It was going to be uneventful today. Erin could feel it. And that was okay.
And she didn’t know. The young woman was surprisingly ignorant of many things. Perhaps—it was willful. Perhaps ignorance was bliss.
“Morning, Mrsha. How’re you doing today? Where’s Lyonette?”
The white Gnoll cub was sitting at a table when Erin came down. Arms folded. Scowling. Erin blinked at the uncharacteristic look on Mrsha’s face.
“Is Lyonette asleep?”
Two shakes of the head. Erin frowned.
“Oh—maybe she’s getting our new guests ready. Right—we need breakfast for everyone! Good thing we have the preservation stuff, right?”
She closed her eyes, thoughtfully. Yes, Temile and some of the [Actors] were in their rooms. Palt was too, and Montressa. Beza was—in the outhouse.
Erin could feel their presences. It was part of her new power as an [Innkeeper]. Perhaps—[Crowd Control]? [Inn’s Aura]? Or was this just her class? She couldn’t tell what they were doing, just their general area.
“Hm. Looks like…oh, good. Our Antinium guests are still asleep. And Lyonette is with Pawn. I bet she’s teaching him dancing and stuff. They’re pals. Isn’t that great?”
She smiled at Mrsha. The Gnoll gave her a look. But she said nothing. And Erin didn’t pick up on the look. She just assumed Mrsha was jealous, which was a conclusion perpendicular to the truth.
Willful ignorance or not? Erin Solstice got ready. By the time her guests came down and Lyonette hurried out to help, the food was ready.
And—the inn had guests. Erin stared at her magic door, tilting her head sideways from left to right. Lyonette frowned as she looked at Erin.
“You’re doing it again, Erin.”
“Staring at the door. What’s wrong? You keep doing it, every few days.”
“I do? I guess I do. It feels—different today. Huh. Say—do you have a fever? You’re sweaty.”
“Me? No. I just did some sword training this morning. Let’s get to work, Erin. Liscor—hello, Drassi! Welcome, guests.”
“Well, okay. But stay healthy! That’s important because you can’t get sick in an inn. I mean, you can, but it’s not good. Hi, Drassi! Menolit. And there’s little Visma!”
“Hello. I came to have breakfast.”
Visma stared solemnly up at Erin with her brother holding her claw. Erin smiled at Feiss. He ducked his head shyly as the other guests came through.
“Hi, Feiss! We have breakfast! Come in!”
“Ah—my mother wanted to give you the coin for last time. Visma ate the ice cream, Miss Solstice…”
The young Drake, blushing, shyly offered Erin some coins. She waved it away, laughing, and slapped him on the shoulder. He jumped.
“Don’t worry about it! Visma’s Mrsha’s friend. And a friend of a friend is…uh, it’s on the house!”
She nodded at Lyonette and the [Princess] nodded back. Anything for Mrsha’s little friends. The older brother watched his sister run into the inn, shouting for Mrsha. He nodded to Erin, blushing still, and hurried after her.
“Esthelm. Hello! Anyone for Liscor? Come on through! One moment please!”
Erin waved at the Humans waiting in line. A few she knew; the others bowed to her, having heard of her by reputation. Erin adjusted the door as Lyonette let her take over. She moved the dial to the third setting.
“Anyone for Wailant’s—”
A gaggle of Humans stared at Erin. She stared back. Citizens of Celum, [Farmers], and more were waiting.
“Is this the inn?”
“Told you. Pay up. I mean, pay me later. Morning, Miss Solstice! Just spreading the word about your inn to other folk. Good business, I imagine.”
The [Pirate], Wailant, winked at Erin. She gave him a look. But she had to welcome people through. And whatever Wailant’s finder fee was—she wasn’t in the mood to catch him today.
“Hey, is Numbtongue here? Thought I might stop by.”
Garia was at the end of the pack. The fit City Runner looked like she’d dropped another few pounds. Erin blinked at her. This was more than just weight loss. She even looked more…lithe.
“Um—yeah. He’s having breakfast. Come on in, Garia! You’re looking good!”
“I know. Thanks, Erin!”
The young woman closed the door as Garia came through. Wailant sighed, and walked off. And then—Erin stared at the door.
“Curious and curiouser.”
The feeling hadn’t disappeared. Erin felt like something was calling to her from the door. Her eyes moved to two unused stones on the door. She kept trying one, on a hunch. The red stone that had belonged to the Redfang Goblins and Cave Goblins. But the other one? Her hand reached for it—
And then, Erin remembered.
Almost perfunctorily, she switched it to Pallass and threw the door open. Then she’d try—
Muscles stared down at her. Erin looked at the green wall of scale and sinew in front of her and blinked. Then she looked up. Grimalkin was standing in the doorway, arms folded.
“Oh. Grimalkin! Hey! You want to come through?”
The [Sinew Magus] stepped through. And Erin saw—six people waiting in line. She blinked. Octavia hurried forwards.
“Sorry! I’m late for my meeting with Master Saliss! Thanks for breakfast, Erin—I took some food for—”
“Halt! No entry without—”
“She’s on the list!”
Erin shouted at Kel. Grimalkin waved a claw and the [Guardsman] checked his list. Erin stared at the two Drakes, a Dullahan, and two Gnolls and a Garuda. She recognized none of them.
“Are they on the list?”
Kel informed Erin. She crossed her arms and smirked at him.
“How do I know?”
Sergeant Kel’s right eye began to twitch uncontrollably. The Drake [Sergeant] slowly turned his list towards her.
“But you could have just written that down. How do I know—”
“I don’t have time for this. Miss Solstice, kindly stop harassing Pallass’ City Watch.”
Grimalkin sighed. Erin looked at him.
“Oh, fine. Come on through! Anyone want to go to Liscor? Anyone for the Strongheart Farm? They’ve got good eggs! Esthelm?”
“Me! Me, please!”
One of the two Drakes pushed forwards. It was—Emessa. The Drake [Blacksmith] apprentice glanced at Erin.
“I’m going to Liscor, and then Esthelm. To look into—um—can I go to each? Do I have to pay…?”
“Nope! Free of charge! Which one first? Liscor? Through you go! And you just have to wait like ten minutes, tops, and the door will open! Have a nice day!”
Erin waved after Emessa. And then she smiled to herself. Aha! The other guests hurried past, staring at the inn, asking about the play.
And then—Erin turned back to the door and saw Grimalkin. He was standing there. Watching her.
She jumped. The [Sinew Magus] eyed Erin and then stared at the door that Emessa had hurried through.
“Miss Solstice. May I have a word? On behalf of…Pallass.”
Erin stared at Grimalkin. She looked at the door, and then at the [Sinew Magus]’s narked expression.
“Aw. What, am I in trouble?”
The inn was back to normal. Or rather—the pain had ceased. The danger was non-imminent. For now—the inn was peaceful.
And because it was, on such a day as this, Apista woke up. She was rather miffed as she flew around the Garden of Sanctuary. Someone had been having a good time. And it hadn’t been her. She’d rather enjoyed the sensations, but it wasn’t her mating.
And in fact, the Ashfire Bee had a purpose today. She flitted about the Garden, busily inspecting the growing plants. They were shooting up, thanks to a certain Gnoll [Druid] who was racing around the garden with her best friend, Visma. Ekirra was grounded due to throwing a ball through a window.
Soon, though, Apista flew towards the special hill at the back of the garden. There were no statues for her. But there were the flowers.
The Faerie Flowers bloomed in the garden, vibrant. Magical. The bee alighted on each, sucking up the nectar, spreading pollen.
Not getting high. A shock! An upset! The bee ingested the nectar, but it didn’t go into her stomach-stomach, but her other stomach. Her honey-stomach, which bees had and was separate from the digestion one.
Bee fact. And that was deliberate on Apista’s part. Now she was feeling better, she was working on her project.
Because Apista had a life. She was a bee who knew how to take care of herself, even if she and Lyonette were a pair. She had mixed feelings on the Pawn thing too, but at least Lyonette might increase the size of her Hive in time.
And when her second stomach was full, the bee flew off. She did a loop-de-loop out of the joy of flight as she flew up, through the garden’s roof. And she appeared on top of the inn.
A Worker Antinium stared as Apista flew past him. Belgrade, waking up and sitting in his room and marveling at his own Fortress of Fluff TM, saw Apista fly by his window. He waved.
Bird aimed his bow down from his tower in progress on the third floor.
“Oh. It is Apista. How disappointing.”
The bee flew through a window. Lyonette’s. Mrsha had been the only one asleep the entire night there. But the bee was a third occupant from time to time, although she had a lovely little nest in the Garden of Sanctuary. But today—she climbed up to the top of the dresser. And there, on the top, was a bit of…hive.
A few small, hexagonal cells made of propolis and other substances. Honeycomb. Just a few sections, nothing like an actual Hive with walls. The inn was her hive. And still, it was part of the Hive.
A crucial part. Apista crawled over to the little container. She had to process as her insides moved for a moment. And then—
Blergh. She vomited the contents of her honey-stomach into the little wax honeycomb cell. Apista regarded the nectar from the Faerie Flowers she normally liked to ingest. Then she began eating the contents of her stomach and chewing it up.
She was adding to it, making it into honey. This was the job of a worker bee in the hive, but Apista was a bee alone. And she was…different. Not a Queen, or a Worker, or anything else. So she was doing a full Hive’s job.
Chew, chew, chew—Ashfire Bees were good at making honey. So it wasn’t long before Apista felt it was time. She forced the new substance out of her honey-stomach once more.
Apista vomited a second time and regarded the syrup that would become honey with time. That was how bees made honey. Second bee-fact.
It was just a little bit. Not even enough to fill the cell up a quarter. So Apista covered the honeycomb with a bit of wax. She, in her vast intelligence, had made a removable lid! It still preserved the honey within.
Even with her labors, the end result wouldn’t be vastly impressive. It was her project. Just a bit of honey to pass the time away. She was a bee after all, and honey was food for the future. And it was fulfilling work.
Was it crucial? No. It didn’t really matter. It was just honey. Made from faerie flowers. Apista liked the labors of her work as she flew off to begin the laborious task of making more. She just wondered if she was doing it wrong. No one had ever taught her.
…Was honey supposed to glow like that?
In the inn, a bee flew upside down past Erin’s head where she sat at a table with Grimalkin. The Drake and Human looked at the bee for a second. That was just Apista being playful, incidentally. And maybe a tiny contact high from all that processing. Just a buzz.
“…As I was saying, Miss Solstice. Stop poaching our best artisans.”
Credit to him, Grimalkin was by this point inoculated against minor weirdness at Erin’s inn. The [Innkeeper] sighed.
“I didn’t steal—”
“You were heard by a number of sources. And the Assembly as well as Pallassian leadership turned to me. Because we have a relationship.”
“Aw, stop, you. We haven’t even dated!”
Erin laughed and waved one hand. Grimalkin’s expression didn’t change.
“Pelt is considering moving to Liscor. On your suggestion. That is active poaching of an exceptionally high-level individual. Miss Solstice. This is what we would recognize as economic attack or even destabilization against the Walled City. A hostile action.”
The [Innkeeper] hesitated.
“N-no it’s not. I mean, I just suggested it. If he’s happy, it’s okay, right? It’s not a big deal, even if he moves. Right?”
The huge Drake leaned over.
“Miss Erin. I would not be here if it wasn’t a ‘big deal’.”
The young woman gulped.
“But…what do I do? Tell Pelt not to come?”
Grimalkin pinched at his snout, tiredly.
“Unfortunately, that isn’t how it works, Miss Erin. Pelt is a free individual. The wheels are in motion, to use a Pallassian term. I am telling you that you have done something that is jeopardizing your relationship with Pallass, and Liscor’s by proxy. There will not be any immediate consequences…especially if Pelt does not move. But it will not be forgotten.”
Erin looked at Grimalkin.
“What kinda consequences?”
“The kind that involve a Walled City blacklisting you. Or taking other punitive measures. Erin. Frankly speaking, I think you understand that it is better to have a Walled City on your side?”
“And you know your actions are punishable? You were jailed. The goodwill certain members of our society have towards you does not place you above the law. You understand that when I warn you, it is a true warning?”
“…Yes. I’m sorry.”
Erin hung her head. She felt her stomach twisting a bit. Grimalkin sighed. He drummed his claws on the table as Erin fidgeted.
“Pallass would like to be—strongly connected with The Wandering Inn, Erin. I’ve been aiming for that myself. This warning is, I hope, carefully taken, but without animosity.”
“You’ve been wanting Pallass to be buddy-buddy with the inn and Liscor? Aw, Grimalkin! I didn’t know you cared!”
Erin glanced up, smiling. The [Sinew Magus] looked at her.
“Why did you ask Pelt to begin with, Erin? You’re not a fool. You clearly knew…”
He broke off, eying her. Erin shrugged.
“I thought he’d be happier. That’s all. I mean, it would help Liscor. But I thought Pelt would like it more.”
The [Mage] looked incredulous. And Erin gave Grimalkin a cheerful, and unsettlingly direct smile.
“Yes. Sometimes I like doing things that I think will make people happier. And do other things. But I like doing good things for friends. Is that strange for Pallass’ leadership to consider?”
The Drake narrowed his eyes. And the [Innkeeper] glanced at him.
“Why does Pallass like me, though?”
“Aside from the fact that you have a magical door?”
“…Oh. So the Walled City actually likes me?”
The Drake had a headache. How could someone be so intelligent and so obtuse at the same time? He saw Lyonette giving him a sympathetic shake of the head as she passed by. Grimalkin shook his head slowly.
“Affection has nothing to do with this, Miss Solstice. It’s about courting useful allies and individuals. Their relationship matters, but…this is a matter of forging connections. Do you—do you understand the basics of politics?”
“Um…you make laws?”
How much was deliberate? Erin turned as a welcome relief came for both sides. Drassi stopped at the table.
“One…Meat Supreme Sub…and two letters for you, Erin. Street Runner from Liscor.”
Drassi panted. She put down the gigantic disgrace to cuisine on the table. Grimalkin eyed the stacked meat.
“I heard people talking about it. Excellent. This is an absurd amount of meat you realize, Miss Solstice?”
“Yup. Are you…gonna eat all of it?”
Not even Palt and Beza and Numbtongue had managed anything close to one whole sub. Relc hadn’t come by, but—Grimalkin nodded.
“It’s hardly…elegant. But I’m still rebuilding my body to its optimal condition. I’ll digest it—I may need more drinks.”
“Coming up! Drassi, water! And—aw, it’s just more of the spam letters.”
Erin sighed. She looked at both letters, addressed to her. Grimalkin eyed embossed lettering and rather delicate penmanship.
“Mhm. Junk mail. You know—it’s like Pallass courting me. Wait—these can’t be real, can they?”
Laughing, she showed him one of the letters. Grimalkin choked on his bite. The letter was from Oteslia—the other from Manus. Erin waved both as she began to fold one to make an airplane for the fireplace. Then she thought better; Mrsha liked drawing on the backs.
“I keep getting them. Invitations. You know, ‘would you like to visit Oteslia? Travel and lodging paid for a week!’ I dunno, it looks like a tourist advertisement.”
The [Sinew Magus] just stared. He began thinking, and then slowly, nodded.
“They sent letters addressed to you. And you think…? No, you’re absolutely right. Another piece of the puzzle. [Tourist]? Where is that a common class in…?”
He was adding to his notes on her. Erin scowled. She liked Grimalkin. He was sort of a jerk at times, but she thought he was a genuinely good person.
But like Xrn—she wasn’t a Pallassian. And she didn’t trust him. Heck, Erin slightly regretted telling some of her other friends. How many knew or suspected? And they didn’t know…
“Wait, these aren’t real offers, are they? No one just pays for people to visit! Why me?”
The Drake gave Erin a searching look. But her confusion was genuine, which in turn genuinely confused him. Erin stared down at the letter. And part of the problem was that she didn’t think of herself as…important enough to be sent an offer like this. She laughed a bit.
“No way. Right?”
That was Erin Solstice. She felt the tugging again, from the door. And she turned her head. On days like this, there was so much she missed. So much she saw through.
And it was coming. Can you feel it in the air? Erin could. But what, she didn’t know for certain. She had plans. Plans that involved, yes, advantage to Liscor, to her inn. But also making Pelt happier. And luring him out of a city so she could ask about magic rings.
Because Dwarves probably knew about magical rings. Or was that racist? And her coin. And…
Was it today? Invrisil awaited. The gates were opening, and the Horns of Hammerad stood in line, speaking with a young [Lady] who had lived in an era when three times as many nobles ruled Izril. And—was it now?
The City of Adventurers. As famous as Pallass, the City of Invention. But if Pallass had begun to take note of the temptress in her garden, the other city was unprepared.
Unsecure. Unable to comprehend what waited. A laughing trickster that mocked law and tradition.
The door entered the city. And it called to her.
Lady Chaos. The Damsel of Drama. The Harbinger of Hilarity. No one ever called her these things, in point of actual fact. But her time had come again. And this city had no idea. No idea—
Was it all an accident, as she claimed? Or was it fate? Some Skill?
Or was she smart enough to plot it all out in advance? No one knew. But here was a question to keep you up at night: which would be more terrifying if true?
The next day began as Erin stared at her magical door now and then. Wondering what she was feeling.
And then they were at the gates. As the sun rose, so did the portcullis. And despite it all, the adventurers couldn’t say it had been an entirely unwelcome night.
They’d made a friend. Maviola stood with them, talking more naturally, even with Ksmvr.
“Just stick in the city for a day or two. Tell us where you’re staying; maybe we can get the same inn. We’re actually delivering cargo. And you’ll want to see what happens.”
Ceria was talking to Maviola, but the [Lady] herself wasn’t sure if she’d be staying.
“I don’t have a plan. What kind of cargo is this?”
She glanced at the door as the wagon rolled forwards. Ceria grinned.
“The best kind. I shouldn’t say just yet, but—”
“Reason for entry?”
The [Guardsman] was yawning as he checked people through the gate. But he did a double-take as he stared at Yvlon and Ksmvr in the driver’s seat.
“What is that?”
He grabbed for his weapon. Yvlon raised one hand.
“That’s our teammate. Ksmvr. He’s an Antinium. We’re the Horns of Hammerad, a Gold-rank team.”
“An Antini—they’re not—that’s a Drake thing. No one’s seen an Antinium in the north—”
The [Guardsman] backed up. Ksmvr opened his mandibles and smiled.
“Hello. I am Ksmvr. I am not a monster—”
The [Guards] heard the commotion. They aimed their bows and crossbows down at the adventurers. Ceria sighed.
“Damn it. Not again. Hey! We’re a Gold-rank team!”
She shook her fist upwards as Maviola turned her horse, eying the suddenly very awake Watch. The [Captain] on the gates hesitated.
The word was like a magic spell. Ceria sighed.
“Yes. Gold-rank. Adventurers! The Horns of Hammerad! This is our teammate! Not a ravening army!”
The [Guards] relaxed a bit, looking shamefaced. The [Captain] stared at Ksmvr, but the half-Elf had practice at this by now. So long as you didn’t let Pisces needle the local Watch, or Ksmvr didn’t do anything alarming…
“Stand down. Someone fetch the list.”
The [Captain] ordered the others. Ceria sighed in relief. Pisces sniffed.
“I told you we should have let Ksmvr hide in the wagon and sorted it out later.”
“We tried that. I’m not being run out of Invrisil.”
Soon, the [Captain] was walking out the gates. He stared at Ksmvr, but he was more interested now in Ceria’s claim.
“Horns of Hammerad? You’re not on our list of Gold-rank teams.”
The [Cryomancer] blinked.
“Well—we are. Ask the Adventurer’s Guild.”
“I have a Street Runner doing just that. If you’re on their registry, we’ll see. You are aware, Miss, that impersonating a Gold-rank team is a felony?”
The half-Elf gave the [Captain] a look. She turned to Pisces and he leaned forwards.
“Captain, why would we both have an Antinium teammate and claim Gold-rank status when we’re already under scrutiny?”
The Watch Captain’s brows snapped together. He glowered, but Pisces’ acerbic tone was a careful weapon.
“Move your wagon over there. Next! You, miss. Purpose of entry?”
“I may see you later. Thank you for the company.”
Maviola smiled at the Horns. She rode up to the [Guard]. They gave her a look; she had mismatching clothing, and slippers. And her horse was bareback.
However, they didn’t test her via truth spell. They were too distracted by Ksmvr, which was lucky. Maviola sighed as she rode through the gates. That might have been a problem, although she could have passed by telling them she was a [Lady] first.
She looked around as the Horns of Hammerad waited at the gates, arguing about whether they could have stormed the gate without taking a single wound. Not the kind of topic that endeared them to the Watch, but it was entertaining.
“What a strange group.”
Maviola smiled. She fidgeted; she was definitely sore from riding the horse without a saddle. Damn Lady Bethal’s eccentricities. Then again—that was why Maviola had stolen her horse.
And—just like that, she was in Invrisil. The young woman stared around at the city, with the towering buildings. One of Izril’s capitals.
“It’s changed so much.”
Wonderingly, she slid from her mount’s back. Her horse snorted. Someone swore as they walked around her.
“Get your horse off the sidewalk, woman!”
A man dodged around her, and waved a ring-bespectacled fist at the young woman. Maviola blinked. She pulled her horse left, nearly walked into traffic. Someone else yelled at her. It was a novel experience. No one had raised their voice to Maviola and not been immediately sorry in years.
The young lady smiled despite the ire. She looked around. What did you do when you first went into a city like this? Normally, her attendant, Zedalien, would arrange everything. But now…it had been so long.
“Stables. And then—clothes.”
Maviola looked down at her dress, and laughed. She glanced around.
“Excuse me, do you know where the nearest stables are?”
A young Stitch-girl, walking and talking with an older Stitch-woman, gave Maviola a look. She sighed, but pointed.
“Right there, Miss. Tourists.”
Revi commented to Dewlana and the two walked off. Maviola grinned. She debated kicking the rude Stitch-girl in the back. But then she walked off.
Soon, Maviola had her horse stabled. And then she found the nearest [Tailors], without asking for directions. She entered, reassured the salesclerk that she had gold, and emerged a few minutes later in travel clothes. Maviola looked around. And the city shone.
So did the young lady. People turned as she walked past. Her presence shone, even in the crowds. And so did her eyes. She looked around and smiled. The City of Adventure. A fitting place for something. Maviola El walked into the crowds.
“Oh, how it’s changed. I wonder if Seatale’s Tavern is still open?”
She walked forwards, excited. And she resolved to stay a day. If only to meet the Horns of Hammerad again. Antinium. How strange. They had just been faceless enemies two decades ago. Were they walking around now, as adventurers? She hadn’t known.
The thought made her feel…old.
The Horns of Hammerad were not delayed long. Soon, the [Captain] found they were indeed Gold-ranks. Newly minted ones, but still Gold-ranks. He let them in, even with Ksmvr. Because the Antinium was indeed alone.
It was funny. Ceria had no doubt that in the south of Izril, Ksmvr’s very nature might get them attacked. But in the north? The Antinium weren’t as immediate; they had never passed Liscor. Pisces as a [Necromancer] was more reviled. An Antinium alone wasn’t a threat, especially in a Gold-rank team. Ksmvr was treated like a strange species, like a Selphid or Drowned Man.
And they were here. The adventurers stared around. Buildings, as tall as Liscor’s very vertical city, stretched upwards. But Invrisil was far vaster than Liscor, where you could almost always see the walls boxing in the city.
It might have been ten times as large as Liscor. Or twenty? People of every species bustled around the walkways. A thousand sights to see. People calling out the latest attractions. Gelato from Terandria, the latest sights at the Season Theatre, a menagerie showcasing a caught Griffin—
“Invrisil. I remember passing through with the original Horns…dead gods, must be three years ago. Have you been here before, Pisces, Yvlon?”
“Once. But briefly.”
The [Necromancer] murmured. Yvlon nodded, looking around.
“I used to visit all the time as a girl. Not so much after I became an adventurer, ironically. I always thought I’d come back here, though.”
Ceria nodded. Back. That was the thing. The City of Adventurers had a lot of work for adventurers. It was connected to most places and you’d pass through on missions. But—it was for higher-ranking teams. You’d come back here, after making your mark. And then you’d have the coin to buy all the magical items on display, to walk into the back of the Adventurer’s Guild and sit with the Gold-ranks.
The half-Elf found a smile crossing her face. And that was what had happened. She looked at Yvlon, who understood.
“We’re here. We made it back.”
“It took us a while. But we did. I wish the others could have seen it.”
Yvlon stood, looking around the city as if she’d never seen it before. Ceria was smiling and nodding, caught between—happiness and regret. Pisces scratched at the back of his head. He looked at his two friends, and about the city.
Ksmvr? He just stared. The [Skirmisher] turned his head, his attention rapt on this unfamiliar world.
And people were staring at the Horns of Hammerad too. Not as many as you might think, but even in this city, an Antinium, Ceria’s skeletal hand and Yvlon’s arms stood out. The adventurers slowly drove into the city.
“What do we do first?”
Ceria had to think. Her mind was spinning. There was so much.
“There’s the door to Erin’s inn. We should find a place to set it up. But we should go to the Adventurer’s Guild. You know? Introduce ourselves. And—and—get our loot appraised!”
“With that [Enchanter]. What’s his name? Hedault?”
“Yeah. But there’s also the market—and Ryoka’s in the north. Maybe the Runner’s Guild will know where she is? Erin said Reizmelt, but Ryoka’s bound to be all over.”
The Horns looked at each other. Now, they were getting excited. Like children at a fair. Ksmvr bounced up and down, staring about.
“This city is very big. And colorful. I am eager to see all the tactical advantages in the stores.”
Ceria was smiling as Ksmvr looked around, eyes shining. But then she felt a lump in her throat. Her excitement faded as the most important thing came to mind for her. She looked at Yvlon and Pisces.
“I need to visit the Adventurer’s Guild. I have to ask about Griffon Hunt—they might have come through before us. And I want to deliver some news. I’m sure they’ve heard, but you know, there are some families of teammates that live around here. Even in the city.”
Yvlon sobered. She looked at Ceria.
“Crossbow Stan’s family lives around here, don’t they?”
“Yeah. And Gerial was born in Invrisil. I sent word—and the coin for both. But the Adventurer’s Guild would be able to connect us. I’ll go there, ask about.”
The half-Elf took a deep breath. She had sent a [Message] and the money owed to each family, of course. But she had never told any of her teammate’s families how they had died. And if they wanted to know from her—
“I’ll go too.”
Ceria forced herself to smile and shake her head at Yvlon.
“No—it’s just going to be an inquiry. Why don’t you and Ksmvr go find that Hedault guy, Yvlon? Take him around? Keep him out of trouble? Pisces, you too.”
The [Necromancer] hesitated. He sniffed.
“I think I’ll accompany you to the Guild, Ceria. I wouldn’t mind looking around the Gold-rank’s section.”
The half-Elf smiled as Pisces adjusted his robes. Yvlon looked at Ceria, but then she saw how happy Ksmvr was. She smiled.
“That sounds good. Where should we meet?”
“Um—easiest place is probably the Mage’s Guild. Let’s head there in—an hour? Then we’ll find an inn and set up Erin’s door.”
“It should prove entertaining.”
Pisces remarked drolly. His team grinned. They parked the wagon at the stables and Ceria leapt down.
The [Hostler] walked up. He was leading Maviola’s horse into a stables. Ceria saw a [Lady] and her [Chevalier] speaking to the [Stablemaster]. That was Invrisil for you; you could see noblewomen mixing with the common folk. First Landing was even more cosmopolitan.
“Nope. Actually, we’d like to sell the wagon. And horses.”
“Can do. Say, why’s the wagon all chewed up? This happen on some kind of adventure?”
The [Hostler] looked at Ceria. Yvlon waved to the others as Ksmvr looked about.
“Yvlon, Yvlon. What is that?”
“…Looks like a sign for the menagerie. One must be in town. That’s a—place to see a bunch of animals, Ksmvr. Would you like to visit it?”
“Maybe after we locate the [Enchanter]. What is that?”
“…That’s a carriage, Ksmvr.”
“It is pink.”
“Yes. Yes, it is.”
The Horns of Hammerad left. Ceria looked about and nudged Pisces, who was counting the coins he’d gotten from haggling with the [Hostler].
“Hey. The Adventurer’s Guild is that way. Anything you want to do?”
He sniffed. The [Hostler] glanced up as the [Necromancer] walked off. The magical door was in Pisces’ bag of holding. And who the heck carried a door about? The [Hostler] frowned.
“Nothing that cannot wait, Ceria. However, I am keen to learn how much money we will make.”
“And to see Erin?”
“Yes, I suppose. It will certainly be an eventful moment when we see her. Tell me—are you tempted by the bounty on the Wyverns?”
“Maaaaaaybe. But it sounds like trouble. The High Passes? I want to explore Invrisil, honestly. And didn’t you say that you had an adventure in mind?”
“Ah, well, that would be Selys’ request. Further north. I fear we might be under-leveled for it, but let’s first see how well we can equip ourselves…”
The two adventurers walked out into the crowd. The [Hostler] chewed over what he’d just heard as he tended to the two horses who’d been forced to pull the wagon for ages. He was planning on rubbing them down, but he murmured the name.
“Ceria. Ceria…where did I hear…?”
And the sniffing. It had been described to him. The [Hostler]’s eyes opened wide.
“Grev’s friends? Hey! Wait!”
He raced outside. But—too late, the adventurers were all gone. The [Hostler] cursed. There was a damn finder’s fee! Six tickets to the plays! But he’d get something for the word alone. He shouted at the [Stablemaster] and hurried off.
The Horns of Hammerad were not the only Gold-rank team in the city. Another team had recovered from their injuries and an encounter with a dark legend.
Griffon Hunt had taken time to understand what they’d run into. And more crucially, decide if they were going south, to battle with Wyverns. That had been the plan, but as they nursed their injuries, Halrac had begun talking with Briganda.
She was poking at her ribs and leg, which up till now had been healing the minor fractures she had received. The lot were staying at the Players of Celum’s inn. Briganda and Halrac, at least. Typhenous was teaching Grev a few street tricks.
And Briganda was bouncing her son, Cade, on her knee. She nodded at the mission request she’d pulled from the Adventurer’s Guild’s board.
“Told you it was near your home. Riverfarm, where the Windrest folk got to. Most of them. I thought it was insane, but—read it.”
Halrac did. He stared at the request, which, like the incredible bounty on the Wyverns, was an unusual piece of literature unlike most quests offered at the guild. Most were utilitarian, listing the monsters or type of assignment, defense, search and exterminate, escort, and the prices and locations as well as the guild’s analysis on the threat level. But this?
By order of His Majesty, [Emperor] Laken Godart of the Unseen Empire, a Gold-rank team or high Silver-rank team is requested for a range of tasks, including treasure finding, bandit and monster extermination, and other assignment as needed on a long-term contract.
Payment is minimal per week and may be negotiated, but a share of any treasure recovered will be awarded to the team. Food and lodging will be provided for free, as will most mundane supplies.
Adventurers must be willing to work with a variety of individuals, open to command. Also, the killing of Goblins under Emperor Godart’s protection is strictly forbidden. Adventurers must be willing to refrain from killing Goblins.
Below was listed the location, Riverfarm, and the pay. Halrac stared at the numbers. Even for long-term duty, it was very, very low. Barely more than a few gold per adventurer per week. For a Gold-rank team?
Well, that wasn’t the least of it. The terms were—insane.
“The Unseen Empire? I’ve never heard of it. Is that—Riverfarm, now?”
“Yup. Some [Emperor] showed up out of nowhere. I heard a lot of weird rumors from there. Isn’t it hilarious. It was being shown around the Adventurer’s Guild for near a week. Mind you—some people would have jumped at the request if it wasn’t for the last bit about the monsters.”
Briganda snorted. Halrac glanced up.
“Oh yeah. That [Emperor] visited Invrisil, once. Left a big impression. Two Silver-rank teams went with him on some quest to his lands. Around mid-winter. Liked it so much they stayed. And there’s rumors this Godart fellow has some kind of seeing Skill. Knows whatever’s in his domain. But—Goblins?”
Cade repeated, and his little box of wonders produced some Goblins he instantly put on the table. Halrac saw a bevy of the [Knights] chasing the little green figures around, hacking at them. There was no blood, but—
Briganda saw Halrac tap the box. Cade’s expression went horrified as the Goblins disappeared.
“Halrac! Don’t do that to Cade. It’s okay, just make more.”
The [Veteran Scout] looked at Briganda. He read the line again. The [Shieldmaiden] glowered at Halrac and then frowned.
“What’s gotten into you? We’ve smashed enough Goblin tribes before. ”
“Things are different now. I told you about the inn? It has a Hobgoblin. It—had more. This is an odd request.”
Halrac went back to reading as Cade glared at him and then produced some little Crelers, which his illusory [Knights] began to battle. Halrac looked at the assignment.
“Minimal pay. But a share of treasure…”
“That’s the funny thing. How much treasure are we getting? Treasure-finding? Eliminating [Bandits] is the work we’d be doing, I bet. And being a permanent militia. It’s clever, but that’s just an empty line.”
The [Scout] nodded absently. That was what he’d have assumed. But that last line…
“Maybe it’s worth looking into. We don’t have to accept. Riverfarm isn’t too far, and—we might go.”
Briganda looked up as Typhenous produced a coin behind Grev’s ear. And the boy’s money pouch in the other hand. Grev looked at the [Mage] with awe as the Plague Mage winked.
“I have a hunch. ‘No Killing Goblins’.”
Halrac’s mouth twitched. And he had a sense—this might be something. Briganda blinked a few times.
“Well, if Halrac the Grim has a hunch…it’s not far, yeah. Fancy that. Cade, we might get to visit an [Emperor].”
The boy looked up blankly. Briganda was scratching at her head when the door flew open.
A boy shouted as he tried to kick past the [Bouncer], Redit. The man had him in one arm. Grev stood up.
“What’s up? Redit, that’s a pal. Let him in.”
The urchin tumbled past as the [Bouncer] grumbled. But Grev was of the Players of Celum and they were faces in this city, however new. The boy panted.
“Grev! It’s them! One of the [Hostlers] saw ‘em, the ant-fellow, the sniffing [Mage], and the half-Elf! Ceria! He didn’t catch ‘em, but they’re in the city!”
Grev’s eyes widened. Typhenous sat up and Halrac and Briganda turned. There was only one group with that description.
“The Horns of Hammerad?”
The old [Mage] looked at Grev. The boy was panting.
“Southwestern gate. Is there a reward? You said, six tickets—”
“One for the [Hostler]. I’ll give you one for running the information, but the rest only go to someone who brings me to them.”
Grev produced two glossy pieces of paper, and the young boy’s eyes went round. He snatched at one. And then Grev held out the other.
“Straight to the [Hostler]. It doesn’t disappear. [Street’s Honor].”
“I wouldn’t sell it! I’ll get it to ‘em—only let me out the back so I can get out!”
Grev led the boy out and then whirled around. His eyes were shining.
“Did you hear? The Horns’re here at last! Took them long enough! But if they’re here, that means so’s the magic door!”
“Yes indeed. This should be interesting.”
Typhenous stroked his beard, smiling broadly. Halrac didn’t smile, but he did lean back in his chair.
“Might be worth finding them to visit the inn. Briganda will want to see it.”
“Too right! These are the new Gold-ranks, right?”
“Yup. They’re an odd team. New, but competent. We should find them and join up; the Players will want to meet them too—”
Revi skidded into the inn around Redit as Halrac was trying to explain each member to Briganda.
“Halrac! Typhenous! I just heard that the Horns of Hammerad were in the city! Someone was talking about this giant bug and it has to be—”
Typhenous gave Revi a smile and she stopped.
“Grev just got word, Revi. The street moves faster than gossip. We were just thinking of finding them. It shouldn’t be too hard. I imagine the first thing they’ll do is visit the Adventurer’s Guild, right, Halrac?”
The [Scout] was nodding.
“That, or the [Enchanter], Hedault.”
Revi snorted, annoyed by the name.
“Good luck with that. We haven’t gotten more than an appointment in two weeks, and that’s just because we’re established names. There’s no way the Horns will…”
She trailed off. The [Summoner] looked at Typhenous and Halrac. Briganda sat up.
“Cade, sit on the table for a second. Halrac, is this a new Gold-rank team?”
The [Scout] frowned. He looked at the others. Briganda raised her eyebrows.
“Which means they’ll go to the Gold-rank section. First time?”
“Damn. We have to catch them.”
Revi shot to her feet. The other Gold-rank adventurers stood up. Grev looked confused.
“I was gonna go out and find them. What’s wrong?”
“They may not know how things work, Grev. Let’s go to the Guild. That should be their first stop. Briganda, can you leave Cade here?”
Griffon Hunt hurried towards the doors. Briganda pointed at the [Bouncer]
“Watch after Cade.”
The man protested, but the adventurers were already out in the street. To save the Horns from themselves.
The Horns of Hammerad were in Invrisil. And that news was worrying. To their friends in particular. Because if Invrisil was unprepared for magic doors and Erin Solstice—the new Gold-rank adventurers weren’t prepared for Invrisil.
They were used to Liscor and Celum. But Invrisil was one of the cities. It had rules which the Horns didn’t know about, even if they’d visited a few times. They might have been the big cheese in a small city, but in Invrisil?
There were rats.
Pisces and Ceria walked into the Gold-rank section of the Adventurer’s Guild. Ceria was breathing a bit heavily. With nerves.
She’d already checked into the Guild and inquired after the families of the deceased. That had been hard, but the [Receptionist] had assured her they’d get in contact within three days’ time. Then—after verifying their rank, she’d pointed Ceria towards this room.
The Gold-rank’s bar and private area. It was, to adventurers, something of a holy land for anyone under Gold-rank status. A place everyone wanted to enter.
“Oh wow. I can’t believe we’re here.”
“Try not to gape, Ceria. Myself, I think it looks rather plain.”
“Plain? Shut your mouth, Pisces! I’ve dreamed of being in here! So has Yvlon!”
Ceria looked around the bar. It may have been just another room, albeit far more plush than the main room of the Adventurer’s guild, but there was the board with requests meant for Gold-ranks and higher. Worn, from all the many teams who must have touched it!
And the room had teams in it! They turned to see the two new adventurers. Ceria stared around as Pisces, cool as a cucumber in the shade, looked about. She knew she was gaping.
“Well, well. Fresh meat! Are you two lost or do you belong here?”
A swarthy man with a bandage on one shoulder stood up. He strode over with a swagger; Ceria saw him pass by a table of three half-Elves and three Humans, who looked up and dismissed him. The man walked over to Ceria.
“Name’s Todi. Captain Todi. And you’re what, greenhorns? Silver-ranks?”
“Gold-ranks, actually. We just arrived to Invrisil. I’m Ceria, Captain of the Horns of Hammerad.”
Ceria smiled. Todi glanced at Pisces. The [Necromancer] nodded.
Todi’s eyes flickered. He frowned.
“Name’s…familiar. Do I know you?”
“Not at all.”
“Well, you two are clearly new in Invrisil. Greenhorn’s stare. Know it anywhere. You have more teammates?”
The man’s presumptuous questioning made Ceria blink, but she was still riding a high from being here.
“That’s right. Two of our teammates are out, but—”
“Excellent. In that case, why don’t you get them and come back. Introduce yourselves properly and we’ll all have a drink.”
Todi smiled. He patted Ceria’s shoulder and gestured towards the door. Ceria stared at him.
“It’s customary. New teams come in together. Buy everyone a round. Then, we talk. It’s respectful. Don’t worry, I’m just saving you some embarrassment. Not everyone would tell you. Off you go.”
He motioned them towards the door. Ceria blinked. She nearly turned, but Pisces just sighed.
“This reminds me of Wistram. Thank you. Todi, was it? You may buy us drinks if you wish. But we’re not staying around long. Let’s check out the requests, Ceria.”
He glanced past the man and walked past Todi. The Gold-rank adventurer’s face darkened.
“Hey. Rude fellow, aren’t you? Sure I don’t know you? You’re making a mistake.”
“And you’re being quite rude yourself. How do we know you are not new yourself, sir?”
Pisces looked back. There was a chuckle from around the inn. Some of the other Gold-rank teams were watching the spectacle. Todi blinked at Pisces. Ceria sighed.
“Excuse me. That’s my teammate. Pisces, be polite. Thank you—Captain Todi? But my other teammates are out.”
She walked past Todi as well. The man looked at the two Horns and shook his head.
“Brats. So that’s the new generation, huh? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
He walked back, chuckling to himself. Ceria felt a dozen pairs of eyes on her back. She hesitated—but Pisces was studying the requests board.
He appeared unaffected by the stares. But that was just because he was an excellent actor. Ceria looked at the requests. Or pretended to.
“Maybe we should leave.”
“And bow to a petty little tyrant? We can play their game, or not, Ceria. This is hazing, like the 3rd Year’s swim around the island. Remember?”
Ceria nodded glumly. Wistram had their own groups like this. But—she hesitated.
Everyone was watching. Pisces eyed a few requests, and then went to sit down. Ceria followed him. Conversation started back up, but she was aware of other teams glancing at them now and then. Amused. Todi was watching with his group.
No one went over to talk to the Horns, as they might in another guild. Ceria fidgeted.
“I think, Pisces—”
“Ignore them. I refuse to humor the man. I may have a drink. Then we can leave. Relax, Ceria. We belong here.”
The [Necromancer] leaned back and studied the bar’s menu. The other adventurers began talking, and Todi’s voice rose among them.
“So, as I was fucking saying, we should muster up and head south. We lost too much time to that damn [Witch]. And my team just healed up!”
“Head south? Maybe with one of the faster carriages. It’s not going to be cheap.”
“Then we pool our money. Sounds good?”
Todi was leaning on a table, talking with a few other teams. Ceria stood up.
“I’m gonna talk to them.”
“You’re making a mistake. You know what sort of man that is. Play their game or don’t, Ceria.”
“There’s such a thing as politeness, Pisces. Hello! Are you going after that Wyvern bounty as well?”
Ceria walked over. She smiled at another Gold-rank team. The woman glanced up as Todi turned his head. The half-Elf paused and smiled.
“I’m Ceria Springwalker. We were just from down south, around the High Passes. We arrived in Invrisil today.”
The woman shifted. She was athletic, clearly a [Warrior] and she carried a thin blade of some kind at her side. A [Fencer] type? She glanced at Ceria’s proffered hand; the half-Elf had hidden her left, skeletal hand in her robes. Always easy to talk about it later.
“…Jewel. Captain of Glitterblade. Pleased to meet you.”
But she didn’t take Ceria’s hand. The half-Elf wavered. Some of the other Gold-ranks who’d pulled their chairs out to join the discussion looked at her. Some amused, some blank-faced. Jewel hesitated. She glanced at Todi.
“Come back and introduce yourself properly.”
The man grinned at Ceria. She stared at him. She withdrew her hand slowly.
“Rank means a lot here, huh?”
“Gold-rank is something you earn. Even if you get certified, girl. And you two are definitely new.”
Ceria’s lips compressed. There was a laugh—although Jewel and her team looked sympathetic and definitely annoyed at Todi. But he had seniority. Yet—Ceria was more like Pisces than she liked to admit. She glowered at Todi.
“So we should come back, introduce ourselves properly, and you’ll forgive us? And we do that because everyone has, right?”
“That’s the way it works, girl. You want to change it? Become a Gold-ranker with experience yourself and let a little snot-ranked Silver come in and think you’re equals. But you can do it when you’re in my boots. But everyone else here knows that respect matters.”
Todi laughed at Ceria. She had heard the same kind of line back in Wistram. And—just like in Wistram, here came Pisces.
The [Necromancer] strolled over and smiled at Todi. The man gave him a toothy grin. Pisces looked around.
“Respect does matter. Both ways, one assumes. Seniority? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of your team. The ah…?”
“Todi’s Elites. We might not have been heard of in a backwater like—what? Celum? But that’s fine.”
The man laughed. Pisces’ brows rose.
“Indeed not. Nor in Wistram Academy. Or in First Landing, or any other city I’ve ever visited. But well done. Your career must have been illustrious. So much so that in your…forty years, my companion hasn’t heard of you either? She would also be older than you. A different kind of seniority, then. Age is clearly not worthy of respect, only age as an adventurer.”
The room went quiet. Todi’s eyes narrowed.
“M’boy, you have a fast mouth. But you’re not exactly as smart as you look if that’s how you want to introduce yourself.”
“To a man like you? I’d prefer to say—”
Ceria kicked Pisces. He winced and she looked around.
“Pisces, enough. I’m sorry about that. Captain Todi. He does have a fast mouth. And a big one.”
“Well, at least one of you knows respect.”
Todi relaxed a bit. Ceria nodded. She glanced at Pisces—he was glowering, but his mouth was shut. The rest of the adventurers saw Ceria bite her lip.
“I apologize, again. I didn’t know you were senior adventurers. Respect is important. I only wish I’d known. Like Pisces said, I haven’t ever heard of you either.”
She turned and walked off. Todi’s face went flat as Jewel and the Glitterblades burst into guffaws and the other teams laughed too. Ceria felt a bit hot—but mostly cold. Pisces grinned as he walked after her.
“Well, we just burned that bridge. Damn it, Pisces—”
“You would have frozen his boots to the floor.”
Ceria calmed down. She sat back down as Todi turned his back on them without another word. The man said something and his team laughed along. Ceria saw some of the other Gold-rank teams glancing at them, but they turned their backs too.
“We can sort it out later. Let’s leave.”
Pisces sighed. Ceria was nodding, but she didn’t want to just run away after that. She glanced around. There had to be some team willing to—
Oh. The half-Elves were sitting at their table, ignoring Todi. In fact, they looked annoyed by his presence and the man made no effort to include them in his conversation. Ceria stood up.
“I think we can at least make one group of friends. Hold on.”
She walked over to the team of three half-Elves and three Humans. Todi glanced up.
“No fucking way. They are green as grass.”
The other Gold-ranks looked about. Jewel’s mouth dropped. Ceria was waving at the other team. Two half-Elves, both female, one very young, a teenager nearing the end of her growth, and the other older—but appearing in her late twenties—looked up.
“She doesn’t know. I’m going to stop—”
Jewel felt an arm. Todi had grabbed her. She shifted, and he let go.
“Let them. It’s their funeral. Exactly what they deserve.”
The woman sat down slowly. She didn’t like Todi at all. And she heard, in the sudden silence, Ceria’s bright voice.
“Hi! Are you all from Terandria? Mind if I have a seat and talk about home? I’m from The Edwivil Forest. How about you?”
The third half-Elf was male. He looked up. Slowly. And he stared at Ceria and then at his teammates. Incredulously. The other Humans looked similarly nonplussed. And the youngest half-Elf—dead gods, she might only have been in her twenties biologically!
Half-Elves aged as quickly as Humans, more or less, until they were of around their teen years. Then they slowed. Puberty took a long time and this young half-Elf looked…sixteen.
For all that, she was in this room. And she sneered at Ceria.
“Tree rot. Everyone we meet uses the ‘we’re from home’ line on us. Then they want to waste our attention.”
The aggressive response made Ceria blink. She looked around, and then heard the beginning to at least six fights she could remember. A haughty sniff.
“That is a commonality of superfluous people. Thank you for noticing and refraining from wasting our time.”
Pisces looked dismissively down at the team. Ceria groaned, but the [Necromancer] was clearly keen on not making any friends here. The young half-Elf blushed as she glared at him.
“You have no idea who we are, do you? Even that obnoxious Human knows about respect.”
She nodded at Todi. The man flushed, but he didn’t call her out. Ceria began to feel uneasy, but Pisces had had enough. He rolled his eyes.
“Respect, as I previously stated, goes both ways. No one here knows who we are. It would be courteous to inform us of social norms politely. Perhaps then we’d care to be polite in return. Or are Gold-rank adventurers all as petty as that obnoxious Human?”
He pointed a thumb at Todi. The Captain rose from his chair.
“That’s it. I’m gonna—”
The other adventurers shushed him. One of the Humans—a [Warrior], shifted. He looked at Pisces—he was in his late thirties.
“You’ve got a loud opinion, fellow. But Captain Todi’s right. You’re walking in here, throwing a lot of weight around. Most good teams listen first.”
Pisces flushed. And that was a good point. He opened his mouth—and Ceria put a hand on his chest. She looked at the [Warrior]—his gear was clearly enchanted, all of it. The rest of the team of six was decked out. The older female half-Elf had a silver bow, gleaming with magic. Ceria pushed Pisces back and ducked her head.
“You’re right. Sorry about bothering you all. We’re leaving. And we’ll come back and buy everyone a drink. Except Todi.”
She looked around. The room was silent as Pisces turned. And then—the other female half-Elf, the older one, spoke.
“What happened to your hand?”
Ceria turned. She realized she’d blocked Pisces with her skeletal hand. Now, the adventurer with the silver bow was staring at it. So did the other two half-Elves.
“Dead gods. What’s that?”
The half-Elf girl recoiled. Ceria flexed her skeletal hand. She addressed the wielder of the silver bow.
“This? I lost it casting a spell. But it’s nothing big. I’ll introduce you to my teammate, Yvlon. One of her arms was torn off in our last big encounter. But she got better.”
The line made some of the adventurers chuckle. The female half-Elf smiled. She looked at Ceria.
“What was that? The battle that made you Gold-ranks? What were you fighting?”
Todi grumbled out loud. The half-Elf looked past Ceria and he went quiet. Ceria blinked. She had a feeling…this was the leader of the team. She looked at Pisces and he smirked.
“We took out an Adult Creler around the Bloodfields. And fought a bunch of Crelers with Silver-rank teams.”
The other Gold-rank teams looked up. Jewel turned in her seat and Todi lost his smirk. The older half-Elf looked at Ceria and the male half-Elf murmured.
A susurration. The woman with the silver bow looked Ceria up and down. The man who’d spoke gave Pisces and Ceria a second look, almost incredulous.
“You’re telling me you took out an Adult Creler to become a Gold-rank team?”
“Not by ourselves. There were a lot of Silver-rank teams there. And a lot more Crelers. We got torn to bits. But we took it down.”
Ceria answered modestly. The team in front of her looked at each other. The silver-bow wielder nodded.
“Take a seat. Tell us about it. I’ve fought an Adult Creler four times in my career. I can’t imagine a Silver-rank team besting one, or even a dozen. How did you get through their armor?”
The youngest half-Elf protested. Her mother gave her a reproving look and she fell silent. Two chairs were pulled over. Ceria was about to sit when she had to ask.
“Sorry, my name’s Ceria Springwalker. Can I ask who you all are?”
A smile. The others laughed and the half-Elf Captain, the one with the silver bow raised a hand. She was young. A bit older than Ceria, but…young. And her daughter was super young. She replied, calmly.
“My name is Elia Arcsinger. Named Adventurer and Captain of Arcsinger’s Bows.”
Ceria’s jaw fell. Pisces started.
“Oh dead gods. You’re famous! My entire village talked about you—I’m so sorry!”
Ceria stammered. Pisces just eyed Elia up and down as her daughter smirked. But they were at the table and Elia looked amused. Intrigued, even.
Hell’s Wardens. That was a title that had respect, even among Gold-ranks. Todi grumbled under his breath. He eyed Pisces from behind.
“Pisces. Pisces. Where do I know that fucking name? I’ve heard it, but I haven’t met an asshole like him—”
“Captain. I know it!”
One of Todi’s teammates leaned over. He whispered. Todi shot up.
“I knew it! You’re that fucking [Necromancer] with the bounty!”
He bellowed. Every head turned as he pointed at Pisces. Ceria froze. Pisces’ shoulders hunched, and then he swung around. He looked at Todi’s triumphant face.
The man faltered. Pisces looked at him.
“You can try to claim it. I need a new wand.”
Then he turned around. Todi went crimson. He looked at his team, at Pisces’ back, and at Elia Arcsinger. What might have happened next was anyone’s guess. One more smart comment from Pisces—or Elia’s frown turning into an order for Ceria and Pisces to vacate the table—
It could have been any of these things. But at that moment, the door blew open and Griffon Hunt strode into the room. Revi was in the lead, panting. She took one look at the scene and assumed the worst. And she wasn’t really wrong.
“Oh dead gods. I am so sorry. You idiots! Get up! Miss Arcsinger, sorry—get over here! Didn’t you even bring your entire team?”
She yanked Pisces and Ceria up, and was dragging them to the door before anyone could blink.
“Halrac! Revi? Ow, let go of my hair!”
Ceria protested. Pisces was yelping as Revi scolded them. She saw Halrac, Typhenous—and a woman she didn’t recognize standing in the doorway. And she was very confused.
“You didn’t come here with your team? Don’t you know anything about how this works? What did you say? That’s Elia Arcsinger. You can’t just bother—”
Halrac put a hand out. Revi shut up and looked about. The Gold-rank teams were all staring. Todi blinked a few times.
“You know these two jackasses, Halrac?”
“That’s right, Todi. We’ve adventured with them. So have the Silver Swords and the Halfseekers. They’re new, but they’re good adventurers.”
Ceria blinked and the tips of her pointed ears turned red as Halrac stood with her. Had someone hit him on the head? Who was this Halrac? Pisces was blinking as Typhenous whispered to him, using a miniaturized [Silence] spell.
“The Half-Freaks and those insane snobs? They don’t know anything, Halrac. Came in here, rude as you like. To me.”
Todi emphasized the words. Halrac sighed.
“Todi, you’re not the most welcoming Captain in the world. I apologize on their behalf.”
He glanced at Elia’s team. She waved a hand, looking vaguely amused. Halrac glanced around.
“Let’s forget this happened.”
“Fat chance of that.”
Todi growled. But the Gold-ranks were nodding. Todi’s face soured, but Halrac saw more than a few teams looking mildly respectful. He grimaced, and motioned to the two [Mages].
“Out here. Let’s have a quick word.”
The reunion of the two teams was held in the common room of the Adventurer’s Guild. Revi hugged Ceria, to the half-Elf’s surprise, and then kept scolding.
“You two are idiots. Congratulations on your Gold-rank! Are you insane? You don’t bother a Named Adventurer and you have to introduce yourself, even to a muleskin idiot like Todi! You killed an Adult Creler? You have to tell us about it! Please tell me you didn’t say anything offensive!”
The mix of compliments and insults poured over the two. Ceria was blinking as Pisces nodded at Typhenous and the [Mage] smiled back. The other woman put an arm around Revi.
“Revi, you’re blabbering. So these are the famous Horns? Hey there. Where’s the fellow with the nose problem, Revi?”
Ceria let out a guffaw. Pisces colored and Halrac took over.
“This is Briganda. She’s one of our teammates who rejoined us. Ceria, Pisces. It’s good to see you. Apologies for Revi, but the Gold-rank teams do have their hierarchy.”
He delivered that with his classic dour expression. Ceria nodded slowly.
“It’s great to see you, Halrac. Sorry, I mean, thanks. We just walked in there and met that Todi guy. We—might have said a few things.”
Halrac grimaced and Typhenous winced. So did Revi. Briganda just laughed. Halrac nodded to the closed door.
“We’ve all been there. Todi’s…unique. But we’ll smooth it over.”
“Don’t worry about it. Todi deserves a kick in the ass. If he mouths off, I’ll smack him around. I’ve done it before and we’re as senior as his team. Hello. I’m a [Shieldmaiden]. Part of Griffon Hunt; just rejoined.”
She held out a hand with a warm smile. And Pisces and Ceria smiled too. They shook hands, introducing themselves.
“Oh, so you’re the [Necromancer]?”
Pisces froze, but Briganda shook his hand. Typhenous shook his head.
“Everyone knows I’m afraid, young Pisces. Your bounty was circulated, and even if it’s much lower than what it was—it is common knowledge.”
“Some Gold-ranks’ll care. But most are adventurers. You can worry about that later.”
“And right now, we should go back in there and smooth some feathers. We can catch up later. But we need to talk to you all—and Erin. You have the door, right? We need to make sure you all don’t cause trouble. Invrisil has rules. Let alone that insane Human.”
Revi added, looking serious. Pisces and Ceria glanced at each other. Pisces tapped his bag of holding and Typhenous’ eyes lit up.
“We have it here. Yvlon and Ksmvr are going to meet us in about forty minutes, however. They’re finding the [Enchanter]. Hedault.”
The four adventurers of Griffon Hunt froze. Revi groaned.
“Oh no. You mean, you’re going to his door? Don’t do that! You don’t have an appointment! Don’t you know? Hedault hates interruptions! He’s going to blacklist you.”
The two [Mages] looked askance. Revi pointed.
“Hurry! Let’s stop them before they annoy him! Dead gods! You rookies are nothing but trouble! Great to see you again, though. I can’t wait to visit The Wandering Inn. And the Players want to see you. Hurry up!”
Invrisil had rules. Unfortunately, no one wrote them down. They were just unspoken rules. Things people ‘should’ know, but usually found out by erring. It was all status and connections. Respect, unearned or not, and proper procedure.
Was that better than Pallass, where laws were the law? It was hard to say. In any case, it didn’t matter.
“This is clearly the house. I appreciate the nameplate. This is an organized system.”
Ksmvr pointed to the nameplate over the small apartment in the upscale area of Invrisil. Yvlon nodded, eying the thick, enchanted door. There was something like a scrying orb—or half of one inserted into the door. Like a peephole, but magical.
Well, the apartment looked magical in itself. And rich. The sign plate read: Hedault—[Enchanter]. Nothing more. Ksmvr walked up to the door.
“Ksmvr, maybe I should knock—”
Too late. The Antinium used the door knocker and rapped a few times. He stood back.
Silence. The door didn’t open and no sound came from within. Ksmvr looked at Yvlon. She shrugged.
“Maybe he’s out.”
“He is not, though. I see a light through that window.”
The Antinium pointed at a window. Yvlon squinted and saw, behind a closed blind, a flash of magical light. She blinked. Ksmvr was observant.
“True. Maybe he didn’t hear?”
“I shall knock again.”
Rap, rap. This time Ksmvr was louder. Yvlon saw the people on the street staring at him, but no one was screaming. A good sign. Ksmvr happily rapped on the door six times. Then eight. Then twelve…
“Ksmvr, I think you’re knocking too long.”
The Antinium paused.
“But perhaps he is short of hearing. I should keep knocking.”
He began to knock again and Yvlon was raising a hand when the scrying orb flashed. Ksmvr leapt back, drawing a shortsword and his Forceshield in a moment. Yvlon saw words writing themselves in the air, in an irritable, fast scrawl, as if someone was writing them with a quill.
NO SOLICITORS. BEGONE.
The words hovered, and then vanished. Ksmvr and Yvlon looked at each other. Some of the pedestrians saw the armed Antinium and backed up fast. Yvlon took no notice.
“Well, he clearly heard that. Maybe he’s busy. We can try again later.”
Ksmvr sheathed his blade.
“But he owes us a favor. That is what Ryoka Griffin said. Hello? Enchanter Hedault! We are a team of adventurers who would like to speak with you! We are the Horns of Hammerad! I believe a favor is owed and we are here to collect it!”
He put two hands to his mandibles and bellowed at the apartment. Yvlon shook her head.
“Ksmvr! That’s not how you address someone.”
“How should I do it, then?”
The Antinium was walking towards the window where the light had been, waving his spare hand. Yvlon was about to tell him to come away and explain the intricacies of speech vis-a-vis what sounded like a threat when she heard marching boots.
“There it is!”
Someone pointed. Yvlon groaned as she saw a squad of Invrisil’s [Guards] appear around the corner. They jerked when they saw Ksmvr.
Apparently, word hadn’t spread fast enough about him. Because the Watch leveled their weapons at Ksmvr.
Their leader, a female [Sergeant], aimed a hand-crossbow at Ksmvr, looking unsettled. Yvlon moved. She put her hand out.
“Lower your weapons. That’s my teammate, an adventurer.”
The Watch stared at Yvlon. They stared at her arms. Ksmvr looked up, and then crept over to the window. He peered through the little gap.
“Hello? I am an adventurer. Are you alive? I believe a favor is owed. Hello? …Is it w—”
Yvlon looked at him, cursing, but the Watch was spreading out. The [Sergeant] pointed at Ksmvr.
“What is that thing?”
“Antinium? Those are just Drake stories!”
One of the [Guards] cried out. Ksmvr turned his head and someone drew back on an arrow. Yvlon blocked them.
“He’s an adventurer. I’m a Gold-rank adventurer. We’re part of the Horns of Hammerad.”
“A Gold-rank team?”
The [Sergeant] blinked at Yvlon, and then at Ksmvr. But her nerves had overtaken her sense. Ksmvr looked like a giant bug-man—a monster.
“I’m confirming this with the Adventurer’s Guild. You two, you’re…being escorted to the guild.”
Yvlon ground her teeth. This was a familiar scene. At least the Watch hadn’t actually attacked; there had been incidents in the other settlements they’d come to. But Yvlon was getting tired of it.
“That’s not necessary, [Guardswoman]. We’ve already been let through the gates by the [Captain]—”
“And I’m a member of the Watch. We’re confirming this! The city’s already under curfew at night after the attack! You could have snuck in!”
The [Sergeant] snapped back. She was throwing rank at this point. Yvlon glowered. Petty woman. She shook her head, trying to keep her voice reasonable.
“I don’t want to make a scene, Guardswoman. My teammate is clearly not a monster. He is a registered adventurer through Liscor’s Guild and he has taken on numerous requests in the north—you can contact Celum’s Adventurer’s Guild. He hasn’t—”
“Enough. Silence. Both of you! You’re under arrest—”
Yvlon reached the end of her patience as the [Sergeant] snapped at Ksmvr, who was tapping on the glass window with one hand. As the [Sergeant] marched past her, Yvlon turned.
The [Armsmistress] reached out and grabbed the [Guardswoman] by the shoulder. She yanked the woman over and stared at her. The [Guardswoman] yelped and struggled, but Yvlon was strong. She held her effortlessly. The other [Guards] stared as Yvlon spoke into the woman’s face.
“I am Yvlon of House Byres. Magnolia Reinhart, the [Lady] of Invrisil, is my aunt by relation. Ksmvr of the Free Antinium is my teammate and I vouch for him. If you would like to question my authority, you may forward my complaint to Invrisil’s [Mayor]. I will discuss the matter with them. Or Lady Reinhart herself.”
The [Sergeant] stared. Yvlon let go and the woman staggered back. She looked at Yvlon, and the noblewoman folded her arms. The [Sergeant] backed away.
“Lady Byres. Well? Your response and name, [Sergeant]?”
Ksmvr, staring through the window, saw movement. The magical light went out. He turned as the patrol marched off. The Antinium had left it to Yvlon, as he had been instructed to do.
“Are we under arrest, Yvlon?”
The woman shook her head. She ran a silvery hand through her hair and cursed.
“No, Ksmvr. But that was unpleasant.”
“You utilized your superior station quite effectively in establishing dominance, Yvlon.”
The Antinium smiled, but Yvlon did not. His compliment had the opposite effect. She shook her head, looking guilty.
“Don’t compliment me, please. That wasn’t…good of me to do. I try to be reasonable, Ksmvr. Someone has to be. I hate pulling rank. Or acting like Pisces. Don’t do what I just did. Unless you have no other choice.”
Ksmvr analyzed the contradictory statement and added it to his list of lessons.
“Yes, Yvlon. I will not do so unless necessary.”
The [Silversteel Armsmistress] smiled wanly at him. She nodded to the [Enchanter]’s door. People had seen the commotion and were staring from afar.
“I think we’ve caused enough trouble. Let’s go and sort it out later, Ksmvr. We shouldn’t bother people.”
“But we have a debt—”
“Remind me to teach you what politeness is, Ksmvr. And no, Pisces is seldom polite. Ceria either, for that matter.”
The two were walking off when the door to the [Enchanter]’s home opened. A man appeared in the doorway. He snapped after them.
“Why are you disturbing me?”
Ksmvr and Yvlon turned around. Ksmvr brightened, but Hedault was looking decidedly unhappy. His eyes locked on Ksmvr and he frowned.
“My apologies. Master Hedault?”
“That is my name. You have wasted my time and interrupted me as I was working. You two are now blacklisted from my services, as is your team. If you continue to linger, I will inform the Watch.”
He tapped his left wrist twice with one finger, a tic. Yvlon winced.
“Master Hedault, I apologize for—”
“Name your team and leave and I may consider removing your blacklisted status. I do not have time to waste on worthless apologies.”
The man’s voice was sharp. Yvlon bristled and tried to think of something diplomatic to say, and Ksmvr raised a hand.
“Enchanter Hedault, I believe you have much time to waste if you do not honor your debts. Is, perhaps, your unwillingness to answer the door a sign that you are being hunted by [Debt Collectors]? This would be a most disturbing turn of events.”
Yvlon and Hedault looked at Ksmvr. The [Enchanter]’s mouth opened and closed twice and Yvlon put a hand on Ksmvr’s shoulder.
“Please stop talking.”
“Why? I am only informing Master Hedault that he is refusing to honor his commitment to us. Ryoka said he would. Either she has lied, or he has.”
The [Enchanter] started at the name.
“Ryoka Griffin? And her…”
His eyes narrowed. He tapped his wrist again, twice.
“…Are you the Horns of Hammerad?”
Yvlon turned her head. She nodded.
“That’s correct, sir. We are.”
The [Enchanter] pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Of course. The similarities. And your need of my services?”
Yvlon opened her mouth, but Ksmvr spoke.
“We would like to appraise a number of artifacts retrieved from the dungeon. Some may be cursed, and we have jewels, gold of uncertain purity, and other mundane objects. We also were told we had a debt we could collect on.”
Hedault blinked at Ksmvr. The Antinium’s precise answer made the [Enchanter] focus on him.
“I see. Which dungeon?”
“Liscor’s. Do you intend to honor the debt? I am Ksmvr, by the way. Hello. I am an Antinium. Not a monster.”
The man’s gaze focused on Ksmvr. On his shortsword and the bucker on his side.
“Ah. The Ring of Jumping, Barkskin, and the Forceshield. I see. Liscor’s dungeon? In that case…”
“Master Hedault, Master Hedault! Stop annoying him, you idiots!”
Revi shot around the corner. Again, too late. Yvlon turned and saw her team and Griffon Hunt running at her. Revi, breathless, shoulder-charged into Yvlon. She bounced off and fell down; Yvlon was too solid.
“I am so sorry, Master Hedault. They didn’t know. We’ll make an appointment—”
The [Enchanter] blinked at the second team of adventurers. His eyes focused on Halrac.
“Griffon Hunt? Your team is scheduled in two weeks. Are you related to this team?”
“They have treasure from the dungeon too. We would also like it appraised as part of our debt.”
Ksmvr put in helpfully. Revi raised a hand to slap it over his mouth and stared at his mandibles. She lowered the hand.
Hedault looked at Ceria. No, at her wand. He stared through her, at Pisces, noting the [Necromancer]’s ring. He saw Halrac opening his mouth, grimacing, and nodded a few times.
“I understand. I will make time. Tomorrow. Come at dawn. Bring both team’s treasure. Kindly make the Antinium stop peeking through my window.”
He stepped back. Both Gold-rank teams stared as the [Enchanter]’s door swung closed. Revi gaped at Yvlon and Ksmvr.
“Wait—did he just say you’re visiting tomorrow? He never does that!”
“He owes us a debt. He was a most agreeable person. Very precise. Hello, Revi. Hello, Halrac, Typhenous, and whomever this woman is. I see we have met Griffon Hunt.”
Ksmvr smiled happily. Yvlon exhaled, and looked at Griffon Hunt. The established Gold-rank team looked at each other. Typhenous raised his white brows.
“Master Hedault is notoriously difficult, as befits the best [Enchanter] in all of Invrisil. Even the nobility must avoid offending him. He must owe a rather large debt. More than I expected.”
“From Albez. Yeah.”
Ceria was panting. Pisces was not. The [Necromancer] turned, looking somewhat exasperated.
“We appear to be doing everything wrong. Except, unless I heard incorrectly, we are now scheduled for tomorrow with Master Hedault. Should we return to the Adventurer’s Guild to kowtow now?”
The other adventurers looked at the Horns of Hammerad. Revi was panting, but as she looked at Pisces’ somewhat smug expression, Ceria’s bemusement, Yvlon’s confusion and Ksmvr’s happy innocence, she had to finally reconsider.
Look at them. The Horns of Hammerad. They were rookies in a new city, unaware of how things should be done. As they headed back to the Adventurer’s Guild, catching up, the Gold-rank teams within talked about the team.
A [Necromancer]. An Antinium? They were oddballs. Idiots. And they had no sense of the way things worked.
Still—look. And listen. The Horns of Hammerad never made it to the Adventurer’s Guild. They were intercepted, just outside of it. By a crowd and a familiar set of faces.
“Ceria! Pisces! Is that Yvlon? And Ksmvr!”
A Drake cried out. Jasi, radiant, spread her arms. And the Gold-rank adventurers heard a roar from outside. They peeked out of their private space. And saw a crowd.
The Players of Celum were in the street. All of them. The first-stringers, the A-team. Wesle, Jasi, Kilkran, Yimur, Pralcem, Emme—being led by a triumphant Grev.
And their admirers filled the streets. A group of [Bodyguards] had to keep them back. Jasi embraced Ceria and the half-Elf blinked at the resplendent Jasi. She looked completely different. Radiant. Wesle was beaming and slapping Pisces on the shoulder. The [Necromancer] stared past him at the cheering crowd.
“No fucking way. Is that the Players of Celum?”
The Gold-rank teams were coming out of their bar, because even they were fans. Arcsinger’s Bows and Elia Arcsinger herself emerged with the Gold-rank teams to see—
The Horns of Hammerad, standing in the middle of the crowd. Emme was shaking Ksmvr’s hands as he shook Kilkran’s and Yimur’s at the same time. The Gold-rank team’s jaws fell off their faces.
“Is that the Players of Celum? We have tickets for them tonight! But they didn’t have time to visit us!”
Elia’s daughter exclaimed. The Gold-rank teams saw Pisces flourishing, smiling broadly. Yvlon’s arms were drawing every eye. And Jasi was hugging Yvlon now.
Star power. The Horns of Hammerad stood in the middle of it all, bemused, amazed. And Todi slowly swallowed his tongue. Because they didn’t know how things should work.
But clearly—people didn’t know who they were talking to, either. How big were these cheeses? Ceria started laughing. She hugged Wesle and looked around. Halrac was bemused, Revi shocked but smiling. And Ceria saw Pisces feeling at his bag of holding, looking at the others. He met her eyes and she nodded. Typhenous was watching the [Necromancer]. Invrisil began to turn around the Horns of Hammerad.
And it had seen nothing yet.
Something was up. But only the Players of Celum, Griffon Hunt, and a few others knew what yet. As they practically carried the Horns back to their inn, the door awaited.
But no one knew. And other people were living their lives, separate from the drama that was the Horns of Hammerad’s life.
Maviola El walked through Invrisil. She had a little snack of a sandwich in her hand. She was savoring each bite.
Even her taste buds were fresher. The taste. The feeling of being able to walk, to breathe in the air and not cough or feel cold. She felt alive.
Alive—and older. The [Lady] paused in front of a shop. And she stopped eating. She looked around. And then, slowly entered the shop. She asked a question, and then slowly walked out.
The [Lady] stood in the street, and looked at the shop. Next to it was a [Seamstress]’ shop. And this place was a Cloth District, filled with Stitch-Folk. They glanced at the young [Lady]. And she looked around.
“It was right here.”
But the tavern was gone. Closed, turned into this shop and the Stitch-Folk’s parlor. Over two decades ago. That was what the [Shopkeeper] had kindly told Maviola.
She had been—amused to know that anyone still remembered that old place. Maviola looked around.
Even the street was different. It was called Satin’s Way. But it had had a different name, long ago. Maviola tried to remember. But her memory was fading.
The cobblestones were the same. Similar, to the ones of long ago. But nothing else was. Maviola felt a pit in her stomach.
She slowly bit into the sandwich. But the explosion of flavor, the joy of eating it with strong teeth—it suddenly soured.
The food turned to dust. Maviola lowered the sandwich. And she looked around. And everything was different. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was knowing what should be. What had been. And realizing how much had changed.
“I walked this very street. Sixty years ago. This very place. And nothing remains.”
The young woman whispered. Dewlana, returning to her shop, glanced at Maviola and checked the stitching on her ears. And Maviola felt—
Wrong. She stumbled away from the street full of memories. Because like ghosts, they clung to her. She walked away. And she realized—
“Lord Reinhart is dead. Magnolia owns this land now. All the other nobility moved back north. Who—who—was I going to call on?”
No one. The young woman looked around. And realized she was alone. Everyone she had known, all her old friends, even her enemies—almost all were dead.
The world had moved on without her. And that was fine. She had seen it. Lived it. That was fine. But Maviola El suddenly realized that she didn’t know what to do next.
She had planned for this ending. Hoarded her personal fortune, bought three vials of miracles. And she had reclaimed her youth.
Yet she was now aimless. She had wanted to reclaim her youth from her armchair. But now, having it, reliving her memory, she realized how much had passed.
“I am Maviola El. Matriarch of…”
The woman trailed off. And she realized that was no longer true, either. She had left the House of El. Her duties had gone. The weight that she had carried for decades had been like the wheelchair. A prison. But it had also meant she had been strong enough to carry it.
Now—she was unbound. What did she have to live for, these last weeks? Maviola stumbled, as she walked. And her footsteps grew slower.
All her physical pains were gone. But this world—the changes cut her deeper than any blade or ache. Look. She remembered a different city. It was too tall now. Magnolia had made it a capital. But everything was different.
Maviola El had been happy, a minute ago. Living, breathing, rejoicing in her youth. But happiness becomes sadness in a moment. Darkness engulfed her heart, moving at the edges of her vision.
“It’s so…different. What was I going to do? There’s no one alive. Only…”
She began to count on shaking fingers. Less than ten. Less than ten, enemies and friends. Maviola looked around, and had to rest her hands on her legs. She stopped, by the side of the street, as people glanced at her.
A beautiful young lady. Maviola looked around. There was so much she could do.
Find love, drink, explore, run as fast as she dreamed. And yet—she suddenly felt it. Her age. It crept up on her, making her breath slower. Her heart faltered.
She was old. And it was more than a word you could throw off with a magic spell. And this place—this was all wrong.
She shouldn’t have come here. Because it just told Maviola her time was over. Her memory had faded away. Just like her.
The young woman sank to her knees. Something was wrong with her heart. It was beating too slowly. She touched her chest. She heard it thumping. And waited.
But the next beat was too late. Maviola lay with her back to a wall, breathing slower. She reached for something. Something to blaze for. But they were all gone.
And she would like to go too. She had made her peace. Why had she wanted another week? A day was enough.
This was enough. Maviola saw some people peering at her with concern. But the [Lady]’s gaze was fading.
“It’s all left me behind. When did that happen?”
“Excuse me? Miss. Are you alright?”
Lady Maviola saw a figure waving a hand at her, concerned. So young. They were all young, but for the half-Elves. And they went mad with age. It was so hard to be old. She sighed.
And on the street, a slow-rolling carriage halted. A door opened. And a voice tsked. The young man waving at Maviola turned. And the young lady, the old lady, heard a voice.
“You look unwell, Lady El. Are you quite alright?”
The voice was familiar. Maviola’s eyes moved. She blinked. Magnolia Reinhart was standing over her, smiling. Ressa stood behind her.
Maviola breathed. She knew Magnolia. But…she didn’t think to ask why Magnolia was here. Dreamily, she spoke.
“Magnolia? I feel silly, all of a sudden. I was so fired up. And now, I feel quite tired.”
Magnolia Reinhart gracefully sat on the ground. Maviola jerked her head. Her vision was…dark. And her heart. Fading, not because it was weak physically. But because her soul was.
“It’s all so…different. Good. But different. I saw an Antinium. An adventurer. Are they…no longer monsters? Everything’s changed.”
She looked at Magnolia. And the [Lady], not the girl Maviola remembered, smiled. At least the smile was the same. Mischievous, bold, and fearless.
“I know. And they are still our enemies, Maviola. There are just—new things happening. But the garden of Izril is infested with insects. And the guardians of Izril must prune them away. As we always do. That is the same.”
Maviola breathed. She raised her head and shook it.
“We’re not guardians. You are. A soldier, to fight the Goblin King. And the Antinium. Perhaps we need you. But we are caretakers, not guardians.”
“A small difference.”
“No. You don’t understand. Then—that Antinium—”
The young woman breathed again. Her heartbeat increased. She saw Magnolia Reinhart, looking at her. Ressa stood with Reynold, keeping the passersby back. And two [Ladies] gazed at Maviola from the carriage.
“I think I fell down. I felt so tired. And I do, despite the potion. Is it flawed?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“Then I’m just old.”
Maviola closed her eyes. The Lady Reinhart nodded.
The young Lady Firestarter opened one eye. Magnolia smiled.
“Lady Maviola El. Presumptuous as it may be, may I ask you to stand? You shouldn’t rest here. Not now. There is still something left for you to do?”
Magnolia reached down. And her hands squeezed Maviola’s hard.
“Something. Find it, I pray you, Maviola. Age wears you down. But you must not sleep. Wake up.”
Her voice deepened. And it grew urgent. Maviola felt herself stirring as the other [Lady] held her hand.
“Age is your foe. But keep moving. Find something to do, even if it is selfish. But don’t lie there. Stand. Move, and burn. Fire dies when it stops moving. Maviola, do you hear me? There is still something for you to do, isn’t there?”
She had a meeting to go to. The Lady El inhaled. And her heart began to beat faster. Her vision slowly swam back. And she remembered.
She looked up. And she saw Magnolia more clearly. Slowly, Maviola’s head rose. She got up, looked around at the small crowd, at herself.
“Oh. I think I nearly died.”
“I feared as much. Do you feel yourself, Lady El? A stamina potion might help—”
Magnolia brushed off dirt from her dress. She studied Maviola, as the [Lady] looked around and blinked.
“I—shouldn’t have come back. Memory changes. Thank you, Magnolia. That was most fortunate.”
“It would be a poor ending. I think Invrisil is not for you, Lady Maviola. If you wish it, my carriage can take you somewhere—new.”
“No, no. And yes. But I will find my own way away. I have a meeting to keep.”
Maviola smiled. She looked back once, but then shook her head. Not yet. She clutched at her heart and breathed deeply. Savoring each breath.
Not yet. She had forever to rest. But what was the point if she wasted even a second? She looked at Magnolia, slightly mystified.
“Why are you here?”
The [Lady] gave Maviola an infuriating smile. Maviola remembered she always hated that little upstart smirk.
“I have business in my city. But I wanted to make sure you were quite well. I bid you adieu, Lady El.”
Their meeting had not been coincidence. But Maviola simply nodded and watched the coach roll off. Then, shaken, she walked forwards. Searching. For a flame without fuel did go out. If it stopped, it died. She wondered how Magnolia had known that.
But then the young woman walked on. Searching for that source.
And Magnolia Reinhart settled back in her carriage and watched the young lady with hair like embers in the darkness disappear into the crowds. She looked sideways as Ressa joined her.
“Apologies, ladies. I had to make a quick check. To our appointment, Reynold.”
“At once, Lady Reinhart.”
The famous carriage began to move. It rolled down the street. And Magnolia turned to her two guests.
Lady Pryde and Wuvren. They sat in the carriage, Pryde impatient, Wuvren staring after Maviola.
“What a [Lady]. When I was a girl, I grew up to stories of Lady Firestarter.”
“She seemed rather insipid to me. Her flame is long past.”
Pryde tossed her head. Magnolia tsked gently.
“You are in a foul mood, Pryde. Maviola deserves all of our respect. It cannot be easy, watching the world change.”
The two [Ladies] glanced at Magnolia. She had been rarely intense as she held Maviola’s hand. Pryde just turned her head.
“You said you had grave need of our aid, Magnolia. But so far we’ve been idly circling the city. I grow tired of discussion. What is it you want of us?”
“Well—first of all, I have gifts. We’re nearly at the [Seamstress] I mentioned. Ah, but she does hair very well.”
The carriage stopped in a Human district. The three [Ladies] got out as Reynold and Ressa swept forwards. The [Hairdresser] herself, the best in all of Invrisil and Magnolia’s personal stylist, hurried forwards.
“Lady Reinhart! And Lady Ulta and Lady Sitil.”
“Wuvren, if you please.”
Lady Wuvren smiled, and she was as young as Maviola. She didn’t match with Pryde and Magnolia; both women were older, although Pryde was about three years younger than Magnolia. But then—that was Wuvren.
She could be middle-aged, or a young flower, or anywhere in between in a moment. And it was almost always the age and appearance that struck the hearts of those around her most.
“Deepest apologies for the delay, Cedava. We might have to hurry. I hate to rush your art, but…”
“Not at all, Lady Reinhart. We will work our fastest and best. We have the designs ready, and the clothing. We’ve been waiting for you.”
The [Hairdresser] swept the three [Ladies] forwards, and her famous salon’s windows were shrouded. Pryde glanced at Magnolia.
“Is something wrong with my dress? This is the height of fashion in Ulta.”
And indeed, it was a Terandrian dress, much in style with that lace that critics claimed was good for strangling yourself with. Magnolia laughed.
“Pryde, this is something special I’ve been saving. Do me a favor and don’t judge until you see it—and the hair style. Cedava has a picture, don’t you?”
The Balerosian woman was nodding and showing Pryde an image. The [Lady of Pride] hesitated as she blinked at the image. Wuvren murmured.
“Oh my. And is that one of me? I can certainly—accommodate.”
She aged up a few years, struck the pose. Some of the assistants in the salon murmured. Pryde was striking, her features as strong as her personality. But she was a contender for one of Izril’s beauties, even if it was in her age bracket. Wuvren on the other hand had dominated the top list all her life.
If anything, Magnolia was the odd duckling. But that was only by comparison. The [Lady]’s eyes twinkled.
“I thought you’d like it. Well then, [Ladies]? As I said, we have much work to do. Reynold, we’ll be busy. Kindly pick up our guest?”
All the women turned, half in outrage; Wuvren was already being undressed. Pryde turned fearlessly, but the [Butler] had his back to the entire affair and it hadn’t moved once.
“At once, Lady Reinhart.”
“Ressa will mind us until then. Try to be tactful?”
“Absolutely, Lady Reinhart. Shall I pick you all up?”
“No, simply meet us at our destination. We shall walk. And I’m sure we’ll enjoy the attention.”
Magnolia saw the [Butler] exit the salon. Then she turned. And she clapped her hands together.
“Time, [Ladies]! We are on a schedule.”
The pink carriage rolled down the street. Most people stared, but only as they did with idle curiosity, knowing that it was Magnolia’s famous carriage. As it rolled, it passed by a young woman who hid from the carriage. But Reynold took no notice and Magnolia Reinhart was absent from it.
Rose hurried down the street after the carriage had left. She turned the corner, searching. She didn’t take long to find the person she was looking for. Because he was standing on the corner, holding out his hands and shouting.
“Alms? Alms for the poor?”
“Oh my god.”
Rose hurried towards him. Another young man appeared, leading another group at the same time. Rose reached the other young man and looked at him.
“Kevin. Are you insane? What are you doing?”
“Begging? We need money, Rose. What are you doing? I’ve got…one silver and three coppers. People think it’s funny.”
The young man stared at her challengingly. Rose shook her head, at a loss. She saw another figure, leading more of their group.
“Joseph! Where have you been? I’ve been trying to contact Ryoka, but they said she’s on a run!”
The young man rubbed at his head. he was sober, since their group had run out of coin. Imani and the other people from Earth were standing with him.
“Why are you all here? I thought we were going to look for jobs!”
Rose snapped at them. She was angry. They were out of coin, and yes, she was responsible for part of it for tipping their [Wagon Driver] and escorts, but everyone had mismanaged the coin. And now they couldn’t even find work?
“It’s settled, Rose. We’ll have enough money to rent an inn tonight. Not a good one, but we can figure out if we’re going to keep heading to Liscor tonight.”
Joseph stuck his hands in his pockets. He looked…miserable. Imani, nervous, glanced around as Rose threw up her hands.
“How? Did you steal the money?”
“No. I sold my sword. I got a good price for it.”
Rose was appalled. Joseph looked at her.
“Don’t worry. I haggled for it. Hard. I went to six shops and checked the prices. I’m not an idiot.”
“You just sold one of our only weapons.”
“Yeah. Because I’m not good with it. I’ve seen our [Guards] training. And the Pithfire Hounds. I’d just get killed. Now we have money.”
“Well, what did you want to do?”
“Alms! Thank you, Miss. Alms for the—”
“Don’t be an asshole, Kevin. Stop shouting at people. They’ll arrest you.”
“Hey! I’m making money—”
“We should be trying to meet the Players of Celum! Not wasting time like this! Why are you all following Joseph?”
Rose snapped at the others. Joseph closed his eyes.
“Rose! We’re not seeing a play! We can’t afford it and unless Ryoka gets money to us, we have to find our way to Liscor by ourselves!”
The others looked worried. Rose glared at Joseph. Neither one was in charge, or rather, both thought they were, so that led to these fights.
“If we could just find one of the Players—”
“They’re famous. We’re nobodies and we have no money.”
Joseph snapped back. Rose pointed at one of the big posters.
“But they could help us! Didn’t you see the play they’re putting on? It’s Pygmalion! They know about home! Don’t tell me we shouldn’t—”
“It could be a trap. We’re going to Liscor. Ryoka warned us about Wistram.”
“Well, she took our electronics and left us here—”
“Hey, guys. Chill.”
“Shut up, Kevin!”
Rose and Joseph shouted at him. The young man raised his hands and backed up. The two young people began to argue.
“This is all your fault, Rose. Not mine. If you didn’t give away our money.”
“I thought we had more! Everyone else kept borrowing from the money pouch, even though I said—”
“You’re the one who looked at our coins and said ‘yeah, that’s all we have, why don’t I give it away to these people?’ You tipped them the last of our coin!”
“And you were drunk half the way here!”
The passionate argument was attracting attention. Kevin furtively edged away and kept begging. One of the [Beggars] was taking notes from his unique style. But then—Rose began to sniff.
She wiped at her eyes. Joseph broke off and the other Earthers looked askance. Rose was angry, and crying.
“We messed this up. Why does it always go wrong? I tried. But we’re not Ryoka. Or that other girl. I tried so hard and—”
“It’ll be okay. We’re nearly there. Well…no, but we can try. We just have to work. No more Gnoll [Maids].”
Joseph murmured, trying to cheer up Rose. But the young woman was miserable. The group stood there. And at that moment, a young woman walked past Kevin.
“Alms for the poor, Miss?”
The young man tried hopefully. The woman’s head turned. And she blinked at Kevin, and then at Rose. The tableau of despairing young people, the begging Kevin—Maviola El took it in with a glance.
And unlike everyone who’d passed by, the [Lady] turned. She looked past Kevin.
“Is that your friend?”
Kevin lowered his hands. Maviola El hesitated. But she had nothing to do. And here was a crying young woman.
“Excuse me. Are you all in trouble?”
Rose, sniffing, turned. Joseph saw the young woman with the striking eyes like embers looking at him.
“Oh—I’m sorry. It’s nothing.”
“We’re poor. Anything you can spare will help us out, Miss.”
Kevin helpfully interjected. Rose glared at Kevin. He looked at her.
“Really? What happened?”
“We ran out of money. We were heading south.”
Rose sniffed. Maviola looked at the group. She stared at them.
“Small embers. What’s your class?”
“…[Mage]? We’re just…travellers.”
“Visitors from another—ow!”
The Earthers responded. Maviola smiled and chuckled a bit. She looked at them.
“Are you hungry?”
A stomach rumbled. Imani’s. The girl blushed, but the she couldn’t help it. Maviola laughed.
“Why don’t you come with me? I’m going to find some friends and have a meal. I can at least treat you to one.”
She felt at her belt pouch. She had almost no money left. Which meant for a [Lady] that she could probably buy a good horse or two. Certainly as many meals as she wanted. The Earthers stared at each other. They huddled, quickly.
“Maybe it’s a trick?”
“Don’t look a gift horse—”
“I’m just going to an inn. You can follow me if you like. But I don’t mean you any harm. My name is Maviola.”
The [Lady] called out. And she pushed. And the Earthers looked at her. And Lady Firestarter conjured a small fire. In her, in their hearts. They looked at each other. And then followed her.
Maviola El smiled. She had no idea who these lost young people were. But they were in distress, and wasn’t helping them a good use of her time? She reached for her soul and found it burning.
And the pieces came together. Like this. The Horns of Hammerad stood in the Players of Celum’s inn, talking and listening to old friends. They had told the story of the Adult Creler. Revi had wondered over Yvlon’s arms, admiring.
There was so much to say and do. Too much for one encounter. Ksmvr had just encountered Cade and the young boy was staring at the Antinium. So was his mother. Halrac was showing around the request for adventurers.
Jasi was autographing one of the cardboard squares for Pisces, and he, being Pisces, had done one for her. Wesle was listening to Ceria as Andel took rapid notes about the battle.
But—they were all waiting on one thing.
The door. Typhenous was inspecting it; it was set up against one side of the room. And both Pisces and Typhenous had sent a [Message] spell, to the Mage’s Guild and Montressa respectively.
“This is going to change so much. We have a play tonight; I hope Erin opens the door so she can attend! We have a box reserved for you all. And just imagine! We could perform in Pallass and Invrisil! Temile has more [Actors] for us—this is going to rock Invrisil.”
Emme predicted. Everyone was nodding. But Ceria looked at Wesle.
“One person’s going to rock Invrisil.”
The [Actor] smiled. His voice deepened.
“Ah, the Crazy Human of Liscor. The leader of Goblins, the [Innkeeper] herself. Erin Solstice.”
Everyone smiled or laughed. Halrac rolled his eyes, but he was sitting near the door. Typhenous smiled as he straightened.
“Everything looks fine from this end. Miss Solstice probably has yet to see the [Message].”
“We’ll head through. As many as we can. And then—perform! We have some guests scheduled—I just want Erin to see how much I’ve improved!”
Jasi fussed as she looked around. Grev laughed.
“You’ll blow her socks off, Jasi! And her trousers too! And that’d be a sight to see!”
“Grev, you little imp—”
“Excuse me! Ceria Springwalker, are you there? Pisces? Horns of Hammerad?”
There was a shout from the doorway. Ceria’s head turned. She heard a scuffle. Redit, the [Bouncer], stumbled back.
“Gah! Stay back!”
A young woman with hair like fire entered—no, wait. Her hair was fire.
Maviola El blazed. And the [Bouncer] flinched back as fire raced up her arm. She walked through the door. The Horns turned. Ceria saw Redit reaching for a club as a second [Bouncer] charged forwards.
Ceria pointed. Ice engulfed Redit’s arm, shooting up from the floor as he raised a club. Maviola saw the half-Elf check the second [Bouncer] with an ice wall.
The young [Lady] smiled.
“Apologies. Am I intruding? I heard you were here. I can leave.”
“No, no! Come in! I mean, if that’s okay?”
“Who is this?”
Kilkran stared at Maviola as her hair went out. The [Lady] blazed like a beacon, as strongly as Wesle or Jasi. She smiled, fearless, as Redit backed up and Ceria made the ice melt. And behind her came a group of young people.
“This is Lady Maviola Imarris. And these are—?”
“Friends I met. I hope they’re not intruding?”
Maviola gestured to Rose and Joseph, Imani, and the others. They stared wide-eyed.
“Oh my god. The Players of Celum?”
Rose squeaked. Pisces’ head rose and turned. But everyone else was shouting at Redit, telling him to back off, and asking Maviola what that Skill was. Ceria was looking at Wesle. He pitched his voice.
“Ladies and gentlemen!”
The [Actors], adventurers, and everyone else quieted. Wesle looked around.
“I think any friends are welcome here. Let’s have that door closed before anyone else shows up. We have a play tonight, but food is important! Come in, Lady Imarris was it?”
He swept a hand and the [Lady] smiled. She walked over and the Earthers fell forwards. Redit hurried towards the door and closed it.
“Oi, Halrac! It’s me, Todi, and Jewel and—”
The door slammed in front of the Gold-rank adventurer’s face. The [Actors] clustered around Maviola. Because they could recognize someone in a similar field.
“Hello. Did Maviola say she knew you?”
Ceria looked at Rose. The young woman stared at Ceria.
“You’re a half-Elf! Oh—your hand! Look at her arms!”
The [Cryomancer] smiled. Joseph started as Ksmvr turned.
“I am Ksmvr. Hello, I am not a m—”
Look at it. The chaos, the moment. Rose was babbling, trying to communicate something to Jasi.
“Um, I’m a fan. I haven’t seen anything, but Pygmalion. Do you—I mean, how did you learn the play?”
“We might go to this Riverfarm. I don’t know what your team’s doing, but—”
Typhenous was talking to Pisces as the [Necromancer] nodded, distracted. Joseph was trying to get to Rose and pull her back as Ksmvr happily kept talking.
“I have eaten no Humans. And I have killed Humans only in justifiable acts of law enforcement or bounty-hunting—”
And in Liscor, a [Mage] burst into the inn from Pallass. Montressa shouted.
“Erin! The door’s in Invrisil!”
The young woman had a note saying the same thing from the Mage’s Guild, delivered by Drassi. She turned.
“No way! It’s there! The Horns are there! Everyone! Where’s Numbtongue? Lyonette? Mrsha, the Horns are in Invrisil!”
“And the Players of Celum! Wesle, Jasi! Emme! Someone grab the door!”
Temile leapt off the stage. The [Actors] shouted and poured forwards. And the inn exploded into motion. Mrsha leapt out of the Garden of Sanctuary as Visma peeked out of it. Numbtongue poked his head out of the kitchen.
“Someone go tell Relc! And Selys! And Krshia and—”
Drassi raced out towards the hallway, gleeful as a [Gossip] could be. Someone swore.
“I’d better tell the Watch Captain! And the Council!”
Beilmark raced after her. The Senior Guardswoman charged out. Erin looked around.
“Get the door! Get the—”
The [Actors] rushed back into the common room, holding the magical door. Erin saw Lyonette hurrying downstairs with Pawn. And Belgrade and Bird—they’d been making a Fortress of Fluff for Pawn. Nothing untoward. This time.
“The door to Invrisil?”
Grimalkin stood up. He looked around the inn as Erin pointed at the door. Lyonette was shouting.
“The ice cream! Get the ice cream, Ishkr! We’re going to sell everything!”
“Someone get the Halfseekers! In Pallass!”
Erin was laughing. She hurried over to the door.
“Everyone outta the way! I’m gonna open it!”
“Hold on. Everyone’s not here yet!”
“Erin! Wait! We need to get ready for the rush! Ishkr, we need all staff here!”
“Access to Invrisil will change how Pallass sees The Wandering Inn. Erin Solstice—”
Grimalkin was cautioning her. He tried to move forwards and a Gnoll bounced off his head. Grimalkin stared at Mrsha. She crawled over his shoulder and over Temile’s head.
“Someone get my ‘No Killing Goblins’ sign! I’m gonna open it! Apparently everyone’s with the Players!”
Palt murmured to Montressa. She and Bezale stared as Erin adjusted the dial.
Too soon. No one was ready! The Council of Liscor exploded out of their seats.
“Stop that insane Human! We need to regulate this!”
Lism roared. Even Krshia was cursing and rushing out the door. Relc threw down his spear.
“I’m on duty! Watch Captain—”
“Get to the inn, Relc!”
The Drake brightened. Zevara roared and pointed.
“Get me a platoon to that inn! Before that [Innkeeper] does something!”
They all ran, cursing, laughing, expectant. Liscor’s inhabitants flooded after them.
“Now this is the crazy Human I know. About time!”
A Gnoll remarked as Selys pushed forwards, through the gates since the magical door was broken. And it was too late to stop.
Erin Solstice adjusted the magical mana stones. She threw open the door. She blinked.
“Whoops, wrong setting. This one.”
She closed the door, adjusted the dial. The inn roared. Laughter, excitement, a hundred little stories. It all came together. Erin Solstice, the [Innkeeper], chaos, threw open the door.
The Crazy Human of Liscor. And the doorway flickered to life. Another room appeared. And there she was. And no one was prepared for her.
Erin Solstice paused. She blinked. And then she took a step back. The crowd froze. And someone stepped through the doorway.
Lady Magnolia Reinhart. She looked at Erin Solstice as the young woman blinked up at her.
In the inn, Redit blinked at the sword Reynold was pointing at his throat. The Players of Celum, the Earthworlders, the adventurers stared as two [Ladies] walked forwards.
Lady Pryde, and Lady Wuvren. Ressa glanced at Imani and nodded once. And they walked through into Liscor.
And there she was. Unprepared for. Unlooked for. Lady Magnolia looked around the inn. Every eye fell on her.
The Deadly Flower Blooming in the North. Magnolia Reinhart, of the Five Families. And she smiled that infuriating smile and looked at the [Innkeeper].
“Hello, Erin Solstice. I’ve been waiting to meet you again.”
Erin gawped at Magnolia. She stuttered.
“But you—the door—wait—wait—!”
But it was too late. Magnolia Reinhart swept forwards. And she was inside the inn. Everyone backed up from the [Lady]. She looked around.
“My, it is grander than I thought! But what lovely refurbishment. I’m sensing some Terandrian architecture here. Ressa?”
“Everything looks Terandrian to you. It’s a box.”
The [Maid] grumbled. She was glancing around. She looked straight at Grimalkin. The [Sinew Magus] had frozen. He was looking at Magnolia.
One of the highest-leveled [Ladies] in the world. And behind her came—
Pryde. Erin saw a stylized bob cut, blonde hair with dusky threads shining. Lady Pryde strode through the door. And she was wearing—
A tracksuit? No—yes! She looked like she had just walked out of a model lineup…fifty years ago. Out of some of the 1970’s of American fashion. Not just any tracksuit, either. It was made with glossy satin, bright yellow, and gave the impression of authority. The long leggings stretched down to Pryde’s shoes.
It fit her. If there was any woman meant for a business suit—or tracksuit, it was Pryde. And next to her—Erin’s mouth opened and she lost all words.
Because Wuvren followed Pryde. And if Pryde was striking, Wuvren was gorgeous. Her hair had been pulled back, and her makeup had been styled in a modern fashion. Her dress was very modern, revealing her bare shoulders, and it was kept up by a precarious strap around her neck. Her dress had no back.
She looked like a model. And she was the most beautiful woman Erin had ever seen, bar none. The young woman stared. Then she realized—Magnolia was also wearing a rather unique style of dress.
Of course, she was wearing pink. More rose in color. She had a wide-brimmed hat, and a—business-like dress. As in, someone from the business world might wear it. Maybe not in that shade of pink, but it was a jacket-like top and skirt, not a dress like most [Ladies] wore.
And they wore dresses, not—this. This was Earth’s fashion. Erin blinked at Magnolia. So did everyone else. Even their haircuts were minded in Earth’s fashion, not the styles of Terandria today.
Magnolia had kept her hair long and free-flowing, but Pryde had consented to her cut, and Wuvren had done the same with the braiding.
“No way. What is—I mean—Magnolia?”
The [Lady]’s eyes twinkled. She adjusted her hat as Ressa stepped past her, dressed as the Victorian-era [Maid] as usual.
“Erin, it is a delight to see you again. I hope you’ll pardon the intrusion, but I’ve heard so much about the door to Liscor. And if you don’t mind—I’ve brought some of my closest friends. May I introduce you to Lady Pryde and Lady Wuvren.”
Wuvren smiled at Erin. And the [Innkeeper]’s heart skipped a beat. Ishkr stared and someone sighed from the crowd—Wuvren was the [Eternal Beauty] and everyone fell in love with her.
“So this is the inn? Hm. So much to do over such a small place. And we’re in Liscor, are we? That’s decent magic.”
Pryde looked around. Her eyes flashed towards the Antinium. And her face froze. Magnolia nodded.
“We are in Liscor. Oh! It is something, to see all of this and not hear about it. Is this the [Grand Theater]? How nice! Although—I think the Season Theatre might be bigger at this point. And this must be little Mrsha!”
All three [Ladies] looked down. A white Gnoll stared up at them, blinking. Wuvren blinked. And her intoxicating charm turned into genuine delight. Erin blinked. She looked like she was in her thirties now. Not the young woman who had just been there a moment ago.
“Oh, what a beautiful child!”
Mrsha bashfully retreated. No one had ever called her beautiful before. Lady Magnolia smiled.
“Wuvren, you’ll have more time to spoil Gnoll children later. We are on a timer. But—ah, hello!”
A claw pushed a staring Temile and half a dozen [Actors] out of the way. Grimalkin looked at Magnolia Reinhart.
“Lady Reinhart. I am Grimalkin of Pallass.”
“Ah, [Sinew Magus]! How delightful. I was hoping to meet with you—briefly. Do excuse me for my sudden interruption. I won’t be troubling the inn long. Reynold? Where’s our guest?”
Magnolia smiled. Grimalkin gazed at her, and flicked his eyes towards Ressa. She was watching him, as well as looking around the room.
“Lady Reinhart. Your presence in Liscor is exactly what I should have been prepared for. May I respectfully ask that you return to your door until I notify Pallass’ High Command?”
Magnolia didn’t budge. Grimalkin’s brows drew together.
“I’m afraid I must insist.”
He reached out. Ressa barred his path. And so did—Pryde. She sized up the giant Drake.
“You are the largest Drake I’ve met. I am Pryde. And one does not insist anything of me. Kindly step back.”
“I’m afraid I cannot do that. Lady Pryde.”
Grimalkin reached for her shoulder. And his claw jerked downwards. Pryde smiled coolly.
“Allow me to rephrase myself. You cannot insist.”
[Pride is Weight]. Grimalkin’s muscles bulged and the [Sinew Magus] withdrew his hand with a grimace.
“Gravity Skill. I would prefer to keep this civil. Whatever you are planning—I—am—here.”
He reached out. At first his hand jerked as Pryde’s aura dragged it down. Then Erin saw the scales and flesh twist. But Grimalkin murmured.
“[Lion’s Strength]. [Stoneskin]—”
Half a dozen spells. He reached out and Erin swore she heard his bones creaking. Lightly, he moved Pryde back a step.
She blinked. Wuvren and Magnolia watched. Magnolia smiled and Wuvren laughed in delight. Pryde glanced at Grimalkin’s arm.
“Not bad. But you cannot stop—”
“Pryde, don’t antagonize Magus Grimalkin. And Magus—we aren’t here for any action that would harm Pallass or Liscor. I would swear on a truth spell. In fact, if you have one…”
The Drake flicked his gaze to Magnolia.
“Nevertheless, I cannot—”
“Oh, you. Please allow us just a moment.”
Wuvren sighed. She blew a kiss. Erin swore she saw something flying at Grimalkin. The [Sinew Magus] jerked back. Too late. He blinked. Stepped back, and bowed slightly. And his voice was suddenly polite, formal.
“Of course. My apologies, Lady Wuvren.”
Wuvren laughed and patted him on one arm.
“I do apologize, but it really is in the best of all our interests. We are bound by hospitality’s rules. Pryde?”
The [Lady] walked past Grimalkin. The [Sinew Magus] stood there, calmly. Then his jaw began to twitch. Erin saw something pulsing at his temple.
“Damn. Formality Skills—”
He turned his head slowly.
“Stop them. Warn Saliss. Chaldion—no, wait. I can do that. Just not interfere—”
He put a claw to his temple, and his eyes flickered. Erin looked at Magnolia. She was arguing with someone on Invrisil’s side.
“Reynold, what’s the hold up?”
“He was beating a man with his staff. Lady Reinhart—”
“For what? Abusing his dog? Well then, arrest the fellow and we’ll sort it out later. Nalthaliarstrelous, I told you—”
A figure stomped through the crowd. Erin saw an old man—or plant. His beard was not, like Typhenous’ neatly combed. And the [Druid] was either younger or kept younger by his class. It was a tangled mess, though.
And his clothing! It was ragged, stained with old soil and dirt. Not filthy, just not like the [Butler]’s immaculate costume. And the Druid gave off a similar odor.
He wasn’t stinky. Just earthen. He walked with the long, curved staff. And Erin saw the staff was still growing. Buds of flowers and leaves grew from it. Also—there was a bit of blood on the bottom.
“Hm. Portal door?”
The [Druid] poked at the edge of the boundary with a staff. He glanced at Magnolia.
“As I said, Nalthaliarstrelous. May I call you Nathal?”
“No. This feels like….Liscor.”
“Again, as I said. Won’t you indulge us? This entire affair falls apart without you.”
The [Druid] crossed his arms. He didn’t seem to care. He glanced at Erin.
“Hi, I’m Erin.”
That was all Erin could think to say. She was on the wrong-foot here. And more—she was being overpowered.
Inside her inn. But the three [Ladies] were quite literally forcing Erin backwards. Erin could feel it—especially Wuvren. She felt compelled not to speak, or interrupt the scene. She was fighting, but it was three versus one.
The [Druid] glanced about. Then his eyes brightened.
“A garden. Here?”
He walked through the doorway. He passed by Erin and looked around. His eyes found the Garden of Sanctuary.
He hurried into it. Erin gaped. He’d just gone into her Garden! Magnolia tsked.
“Oh dear. I should have predicted—Ressa, fetch him.”
The [Maid] hurried after Nalthaliarstrelous. She ran smack into the doorway. The open air blocked Ressa as she pushed against it.
Magnolia snickered. She covered her mouth as Ressa looked back at her. Then both of them looked at Erin.
“Miss Solstice? If you’d allow Ressa a moment? We really do have a schedule to keep.”
“Why are you here?”
Erin was trembling. She saw Ceria gaping. Mouthing Magnolia’s name. But everyone was stuck. Magnolia sighed.
“It would be hard to explain. Oh well. We have ways. Excuse me? Little Gnoll? Mrsha?”
She bent down. Mrsha stared at Magnolia as the woman smiled at her.
“Would you mind fetching Nalthaliarstrelous? Please?”
Erin heard the [Charm] in the voice. She glowered. Mrsha blinked a few times. She walked towards the door—and someone scooped her up.
“I’ll do it. Excuse me, Erin. Lady Reinhart.”
Lyonette patted Mrsha on the head. She turned her head. Magnolia Reinhart met Lyonette’s eyes. The [Princess] curtsied.
“Oh? And you are?”
Magnolia Reinhart touched the tip of her hat. She regarded Lyonette levelly. The [Princess] was breathing hard, but she was moving. She bowed deeply.
“I am the [Barmaid] in charge of The Wandering Inn. May I serve you [Ladies]?”
“Hm. I believe so. Our [Druid] has invaded the garden. I would quite like him back.”
“Of course, Lady Reinhart.”
The [Princess] turned. Magnolia raised a finger.
“Ah—but before you do. Might I ask, Miss…[Barmaid]?”
Lyonette froze. Her shoulders hunched. And she turned with a friendly smile on her face.
“Yes, Lady Reinhart?”
The [Lady] regarded her as Ressa stepped back.
“Do you enjoy it, working here? I ask just out of curiosity.”
The young woman hesitated. Then she curtsied.
“Yes, milady. Quite a lot.”
Magnolia smiled. And she dipped her hat in a gracious nod.
“All well and good, then. If you could fetch Nalthaliarstrelous? And do use his name. He’s peculiar about that.”
Lyonette hurried through the door. Erin heard her raised voice. But the action was here.
“By order of the Watch! Stop that [Innkeeper] until—”
Zevara charged into the inn with a squad of [Guards] and Liscor’s Council. They stopped, as all three [Ladies] turned to them. Magnolia Reinhart opened her hands.
“Ah, and this must be Liscor’s esteemed Council! Do pardon me. I am Lady Reinhart. I couldn’t help but visit your wonderful little city.”
The name began to echo around the crowd. Erin saw a few people, like Drassi, looking confused. But the older inhabitants of Liscor started at the name. Lism, wheezing, leaned on the doorframe as Krshia’s eyes went wide with shock.
“Oh. Her. That busybody?”
But the rest of the adults stared at Magnolia, with awe. And Erin remembered—Magnolia had led the first defense of the city against the Antinium, breaking their siege long ago.
History. Watch Captain Zevara stared at Magnolia Reinhart.
“A [Lady] from the north is…may I ask why you’re here?”
“Just on a small errand. Watch Captain Zevara, I believe?”
“You—know my name?”
“Of course! Pryde, what are you so fascinated by?”
The [Lady of Pride] had ducked into the inn and was looking around.
“There’s a Hobgoblin over there. Also—there’s a room full of objects. Those weights you mentioned.”
“Yes, yes. You can investigate later. Wuvren?”
The [Eternal Beauty] was standing to the side. She turned.
“Just investigating, Magnolia. It was good to meet you…?”
“Belgrade. You are very beautiful. Goodbye.”
The [Tactician] stared after Wuvren. The two [Ladies] returned as Magnolia sighed. But—there came a figure. Nalthaliarstrelous didn’t stomp or curse in the Garden of Sanctuary. He emerged, looking thoughtful.
“Good plants. Young place. Why’d you pull me out?”
He glowered at the [Lady]. She opened her mouth and Nalthaliarstrelous turned away. He gazed around.
“Hm? Hm? Where are you?”
He peered around, suddenly, frowning. The [Druid] stared under a table. Then he whirled. And met a little Gnoll’s eyes.
Mrsha stared up at the [Druid]. Nalthaliarstrelous bent down. He stared, and his aggressive features—softened for a moment.
“You? Well met, little landfriend. You’re untaught, aren’t you? Strange. Is this your place?”
She nodded, solemnly. The [Druid], still ignoring Magnolia, straightened. He swept her a formal bow.
“My apologies for intruding. ‘Tis good land. Wondrous, terrible flowers. I am on my duties. Until then.”
He nodded to Mrsha. And she nodded back. Then, Nalthaliarstrelous turned. He looked at Magnolia. And suddenly, he was focused.
“Let’s go, then.”
Magnolia Reinhart sighed in relief. She nodded to Ressa, and Pryde and Wuvren.
“I believe the door takes us to Liscor. Ressa? Reynold?”
The [Maid] closed the door as the [Butler] stepped through. Erin saw them shut the door—at the last moment, the [Ladies] let go and she heard the exclamations from the other side.
“What the hell is happ—”
Then the door closed. Ressa adjusted the dial to Liscor, and opened it. Magnolia Reinhart sighed.
“How useful. Come, [Ladies]. And Liscor’s Council, Watch Captain, if you’d be so kind? Nalthaliarstrelous, lead the way.”
“Hmf. All stone. Disgusting. And there’s something beneath. Damn Drakes, messing up the land and burying damned dungeons all over the place…”
The [Druid] stomped through. Magnolia nodded, and Reynold and Ressa followed. Then she, Pryde, and Wuvren walked through. Erin felt the pressure on her release. She sat back.
Lism shouted. The Council and Watch charged through. Erin sat on the ground.
“This is a disaster! But she didn’t bring an attack force. Why did she come here?”
Grimalkin growled. Ishkr started and looked alarmed.
A few of the Gnolls in the crowd groaned. Mrsha looked up, alarmed. She ran through the door.
Lyonette ran after her. Erin sat there, as most of the inn ran after Magnolia. She looked at Grimalkin. He gazed down at her. Erin raised one hand.
“This one wasn’t my fault.”
The [Sinew Magus] gave her an uncharacteristically alarmed and sympathetic look. He nodded, and folded his arms. His legs twitched, but he couldn’t walk through the door. After a moment, he growled.
“I know. But at least now you know how it feels.”
Erin caught herself nodding.
Magnolia Reinhart walked through Liscor. Through a storm of questions, through crowds of people. And her name was on every lip.
Magnolia Reinhart. The savior of the city, long ago. But her presence here was like a lightning bolt. Before any emotion could be had, people had to get over the shock. And it was a physical thing.
But some of them were fast on their feet. Some had sworn an oath to protect this city. Some had the will.
“Lady Reinhart! Please halt!”
Zevara barred the way as Magnolia walked towards one of the staircases leading up to the ramparts. Instantly, Pryde pointed.
“One side. We don’t have all the time.”
Zevara stepped to one side. The Drake blinked in outrage, but she kept pace with Magnolia.
“Lady Reinhart, what are you doing in my city, may I ask?”
The [Lady]’s Skills were even forcing her to formality in speech. Magnolia nodded at her.
“I am just taking a short visit, Watch Captain. I can assure you, this is meant in all aid to Liscor. You have my word as a [Lady] on it.”
Somehow, that reassured Zevara. Because it was part of the very Skill that bound her.
“Even so, Lady Reinhart—I must protest.”
“By all means. I’m aware how irregular this is. Ah, the Council. Hello. Are you…Lism? I have heard so much about you.”
The Drake thrust his way forwards. He was gritting his teeth, jaw clenched to fight his way past the invisible field around Magnolia and the two [Ladies].
“I’m Councilmember Lism of Liscor. And this is my city.”
Krshia pushed Lism to one side. She was panting too, but she followed Magnolia as the woman walked up the stairs. Pryde had already strode past the others thanks to her mobile tracksuit and was staring off the battlements.
“Councilmembers, I am delighted to meet you. And again, I apologize. But you really will see that my intentions are good. Nalthaliarstrelous?”
“I’m doing it. Go. Away.”
The [Druid] was standing in the street, not with the [Ladies]. He’d planted his staff into the street by smashing through a cobblestone. He closed his eyes. Magnolia nodded.
“Then—Reynold? Escort one of the [Mages] up here. Preferably Miss du Valeross”
She was on the battlements. Lism was drawing breath.
“You are violating Liscor’s laws! There are no civilians allowed on the walls, much less foreigners! I demand to know what you’re doing and—”
“Silence. Thank you.”
Lism recoiled and clawed at his mouth. Magnolia saw Montressa being escorted up the stairs by Reynold.
“Ah, Miss Montressa. I think we’ve actually met. I visited the du Valeross estates about twelve years back. Hello, how do you do?”
“L-Lady Reinhart? I am Montressa—I mean—hello. How can I help you? And why are you…?”
Montressa stared wide-eyed at Magnolia. The [Lady] sighed.
“All questions will be answered. Would you kindly cast a [Scrying] spell to Wistram? I’m sure you’ve already informed them I’m here. If they’re waiting, please connect me. Onto that new television network.”
How did she know? But it was all cause and effect. Of course, Palt and Beza and Montressa had been screaming the news. But how had Magnolia known they were here?
But there was nothing for it. Wistram was screaming at her for a broadcast anyways. The [Aegiscaster] slowly raised a finger to her temple. Her eyes unfocused and then she felt part of her consciousness fade away.
“Thank you. Ah, Reynold, the scrying orb?”
The [Butler] produced it. Magnolia stared into the blank orb. So did everyone else. Pryde edged over and gently…shoved Magnolia to one side. Wuvren took up the background. And then—there was an image of Magnolia Reinhart.
Just her. No Noass—or anyone else. The broadcast had cut off and Magnolia had appeared. The Floodplains were at her back. Well, Pryde was in the way. Then Magnolia gently shoved her aside.
There was the [Lady]. People began to tune in. The King of Destruction, idly watching and not understanding all the nuances. Terandrian royalty. But most importantly—the Walled Cities. Pallass especially.
And [Lords] and [Ladies]. Ieka Imarris choked as she saw the image. Maviola, standing in the inn with the Horns and Players of Celum, gazed at Magnolia Reinhart’s face.
And Tyrion Veltras saw Magnolia smiling at him. His gut clenched.
Magnolia Reinhart spoke to her audience, which was really Montressa, as if she was used to the idea of a camera. She adjusted her hat. And then nodded.
“Good evening to you all. I am Magnolia Reinhart. And I have your attention.”
The [Lady] looked about, and laughed a bit to herself. Self-consciously.
“My, I didn’t plan this part out at all. Well—to begin, I’m in Liscor. On the walls, with Lady Pryde and Wuvren. Wave for the people, Pryde.”
The view moved. Magnolia stepped to one side, and the viewers saw the city from above. Magnolia spoke, and everyone could see the staring Drakes and Gnolls, gazing up at her. Watch Captain Zevara and the Council were frozen in the background.
“Liscor. It is quite a lovely place. I feel privileged to stand on the walls. Rather than see it damaged.”
She looked at the audience. Straight at Tyrion Veltras. Standing on the walls of Liscor. The [Lord]’s hand cracked the scrying orb as he stared at her. Magnolia went on.
“But I don’t mean to harp. I only asked for a bit of attention at this moment to make a small speech. Something about alliances. Here—we have Liscor’s Council. Councilmembers Krshia and Lism, I believe. And the stalwart, fiery, I daresay, Watch Captain Zevara.”
The Drakes and Gnoll started. Lism looked at the scrying orb, saw himself in it, and gave the worst smile to the scrying orb. Krshia did the same. Magnolia’s was more realistic.
“I was just saying how delighted I was to visit Liscor. And it is a rather unique thing, a Human coming to this city. But Liscor is…an important place. It marks the boundary between south and north. And it is also where Drakes and Gnolls and Humans fought. Against a common foe.”
She looked across Liscor. Something was moving. A thread of black bodies and a blue one. Magnolia smiled tightly.
“The Necromancer. Ah! I mean, the Antinium of course. Well, both. But the Antinium are the living ones, aren’t they?”
She chuckled. Az’kerash stared at her face. So did Ilvriss. Magnolia Reinhart went on, and the viewers saw something moving in the streets.
“It is a curious thing. War. And I realize the north and south are traditionally opposed. However—there are some things I think we can agree on. I’m sorry, I’m rambling. But I really just wanted to attract some attention. Naughty of me, I suppose. But look—”
She pointed. And everyone in the world turned and saw the Antinium.
They marched down the street. A flood of Antinium. Black-bodied Workers, Soldiers. And more.
Xrn the Small Queen strode forwards with Klbkch. And there was Pivr. Xeu. Tersk and Dekass.
And they did not know they were being watched. Lism recoiled as he saw Flying Antinium, stalking Silent Antinium. Armored Antinium and Painted Antinium. Magnolia’s eyes glittered.
“Ancestors! What are those Antinium doing? Those aren’t the Free Antinium!”
Zevara made a strangled sound. She hadn’t seen the other Antinium. Magnolia didn’t look surprised.
“I believe they’re from other Hives.”
Every head turned towards her. Watch Captain Zevara caught herself.
“But—we didn’t see them. And we’ve kept a lookout—”
Her scales turned white. And Magnolia Reinhart’s eyes glittered.
“Imagine that. Pryde, as I recall, your House fought in both Antinium Wars.”
“Of course. And excuse me.”
Pryde walked down the battlements. The [Lady] was staring at the Small Queen. But Xrn wasn’t focused on her.
“You! Stop! Enough!”
She shouted. At a figure standing in the street.
Nalthaliarstrelous. The [Druid] ignored her. His eyes were closed, but there was no sign of what he was doing. At least—obviously. Xrn pointed her staff at him.
Pryde barred Xrn’s way. The Small Queen saw the Lady Ulta standing in front of her. And two figures flanked Pryde.
Ressa and Reynold. The Antinium halted. And Magnolia spoke.
“The Small Queen of the Antinium. Good evening to you.”
Xrn looked up. And her eyes fixed on Montressa, the scrying orb. Klbkch made a sound next to her.
“Kvetch. That is not good.”
“You. Are Magnolia Reinhart. Call off that spellcaster. Now.”
The Small Queen spoke flatly. Magnolia looked at her.
“No. I have never met you, myself. But then I never fought on the front lines. Xrn, I believe your name is?”
The Small Queen raised her staff. Looking at Nalthaliarstrelous. The [Druid] was unmoving.
“Stop him. Or I will do it.”
“That. Would be war. And I would take that as a personal affront if you tried.”
The [Lady] looked down at Xrn. The Small Queen hesitated.
“Why are you here? We bear you no specific enmity. Nor you us.”
“True. It is nothing personal. But that makes us the best sort of enemies. Ladies and gentlemen, I believe in only one thing. And that is unity. I am a [Lady] of Izril. And before politics, before species. I believe we do not stand alone. When an enemy comes, Izril repels it.”
Magnolia Reinhart looked down at the Antinium. And they gazed up at her.
What was the point? Of any of it? To denounce the Antinium? No—show that they were in Liscor? How had she known? But the last piece of puzzle was this. Magnolia waved a hand in Montressa’s face as Nalthaliarstrelous’s head rose.
“How do you turn her off? Excuse me—I’m done.”
Montressa blinked. Lism started.
“What did she say?”
It was a universal question. But Magnolia Reinhart was snapping her fingers.
“Excuse me, would you mind cutting the spell? I’m quite done. And this distraction is fin—”
The [Scrying] spell cut out. And that was it. There was only silence, as Magnolia turned to Wuvren.
“Go first. I’ll go last.”
The [Eternal Beauty] was looking down at Klbkch and Xrn. Magnolia strode down the steps. The air was humming between Pryde and Xrn. The [Lady] looked away as Ressa and Reynold backed up.
The [Druid] was panting. He nodded to her.
“I have it. Not all that lies beneath. That dungeon—it’s vast. But I have it. Tunnels. You’re right. There’s a damn one going south. Big. And all the numbers.”
The…Klbkch’s mouth opened. He looked at Xrn. And the Small Queen’s anxiety made sense. The [Druid] looked at the Antinium.
“Counted all of them too. Some are higher level. Most’re the same. Here’s the numbers. I’ll do the map later.”
He scribbled down on a piece of paper Ressa produced, with a quill. Magnolia studied the first one.
“How. Interesting. Nalthaliarstrelous, you are a treasure. And with that, our work is done. Watch Captain, Council. Miss Xrn.”
“You have made an error.”
The Small Queen stared at Magnolia. Her staff was glowing. But Wuvren took Pryde’s place. The [Lady of Pryde] looked at Wuvren.
“I’ll go last. Pryde, don’t be stubborn.”
Pryde retreated. Wuvren blew a kiss. It went through Klbkch and nothing happened. Her face fell slightly.
“Not even a bit?”
Magnolia was walking back towards the door as Reynold helped Nalthaliarstrelous. He looked tired, from the life-sensing spell. Because that was what a [Druid] did. And of course, they could sense things like nature. Like…tunnels in the earth.
Klbkch ignored Wuvren. He put one hand on his sword and looked at Xrn.
“Do we stop them?”
“You may try. But that would be war. And you’re surrounded.”
Magnolia called out cheerfully. The Antinium looked around. At the crowds. At Watch Captain Zevara, who had suddenly put herself in their way. The Watch Captain looked at Magnolia.
“I plan on sharing it. And I will of course have Nalthaliarstrelous copy the map.”
“I hate maps.”
The [Druid] growled. They walked through the door. And the Antinium just watched.
Erin Solstice saw Magnolia Reinhart enter the inn, then Ressa and Reynold and Nalthaliarstrelous.
Then Pryde. Wuvren was last. Warily backing up. And Erin just looked at Magnolia. Just—looked.
“What have you done?”
“What matters, Miss Solstice. I hope you’ll forgive me. But even if not—Ressa? Our next destination.”
Magnolia turned. And Ressa was adjusting the door. Erin saw a glowing yellow stone.
Pallass. And it all came together. Erin reached out and Pryde and Wuvren blocked her.
“Stop. Please. They’re not—”
Grimalkin caught Erin’s arm. Gently. And Magnolia Reinhart walked through the doorway.
In Pallass, the Drakes and Gnolls on duty stared at her. And Lady Magnolia spoke.
“I am Lady Magnolia Reinhart. I would like to speak to Grand Strategist Chaldion, please.”
They hesitated. The other [Ladies] and servants walked through. Nalthaliarstrelous walked back towards Erin’s garden. [Sergeant] Kel looked at Magnolia.
And whatever he thought about Erin, Lady Chaos, whatever you wanted to call her—
Here was an actual [Lady]. And a City Runner stormed into the checkpoint.
“Sergeant Kel! Immediate orders!”
The [Sergeant] read. The gate rose instantly. And Magnolia Reinhart walked forwards.
“We have orders to escort you to Grand Strategist Chaldion at once.”
The Watch informed the [Lady]. She nodded.
And she entered Pallass. Magnolia Reinhart stepped along the street. Drakes and Gnolls looked up as she walked. Pryde and Wuvren fell in behind her.
“The last time a Reinhart walked on Pallass’ walls was nearly six hundred years ago. And that was to be executed after capture in battle.”
Magnolia Reinhart spoke lightly. She followed Kel, pausing as she walked along the 8th Floor. And Pallass looked up at her. A [Lady], dressed in a new style.
“Ressa, my documents. Also—how do I look?”
The [Maid] was glancing around tightly. She had a manila folder. Magnolia accepted it. Pryde paused on the 8th Floor.
“Not a bad city.”
She looked down her nose at the city. The embodiment of a deadly sin. Or a virtue for Drakes. Wuvren blew a kiss as she walked and broke ten thousand hearts.
Charm and pride and…Magnolia saw a figure being carried towards her. Chaldion himself was sitting up in his bed. The Lady Reinhart stopped, in clear view of everyone.
“Grand Strategist, I would have come to you.”
“Save it. That—show me what you found. Did you just detect the exact count of Antinium in Liscor? Magus Grimalkin says there’s a tunnel—”
Chaldion was reaching for the piece of paper. Magnolia offered it to him. He read, cursed, and read again.
“Completely accurate. Nalthaliarstrelous is a high-level [Druid]. I hope you’ll copy this information to the other Walled Cities, and Liscor of course. Also—”
Magnolia’s next words were drowned out by a cheer. People were pointing up at her. And word was spreading. Grimalkin paused, staring at the [Ladies]. And now it was becoming clear.
An ally. Chaldion blinked with his good eye at Magnolia. He glanced over the side of the 8th floor.
Drakes and Gnolls and Garuda and Dullahans were cheering. Calling Magnolia’s name. Not all of them. A minority in fact. But some remembered.
During the First Antinium War, Magnolia Reinhart led the defense of Izril against the Antinium.
That was a page from a history book. And they remembered it now. The [Lady] waved a hand, and the people cheered. More were looking at Pryde’s dress, or Wuvren’s style.
Wistram had reinstated the scrying spell. It was zooming in on the three [Ladies]. All adorned in unique fashion. Someone in Wistram was having a fit.
And Lady Magnolia? She looked at Chaldion.
“I hope you can appreciate the moment, Strategist Chaldion. It took some doing. I have a few more gifts as well. This would be for your [Engineers].”
She offered him a page. The [Grand Strategist] looked at a diagram of a gear. A system of pullies…he looked up.
“This is the elevator. And this?”
“Moving floors. Escalators. I’d be happy to discuss it more. I have a few more notes, but this is goodwill.”
The [Lady] looked at the Drake. His good eye narrowed. She had taken more than just dresses from her guests. Information. All that mattered.
“You’re putting all your eggs in one basket, Lady Reinhart. Why now?”
“Hm. I hope you’ll attend a…little party in Oteslia in the near future, Grand Strategist. As for why?”
Magnolia Reinhart turned her head. She lifted her hat and smiled down at the people of Pallass. And they shouted her name.
“Reinhart! Magnolia Reinhart!”
Cheering for her. A member of the Five Families. What madness.
Onieva, looking up, sighed longingly at Magnolia.
“Ancestors. What a presence. And that dress.”
Mirn gazed up at Magnolia’s stylized dress. At Pyrde, Wuvren. The [Protector] spoke longingly.
“Especially that dress. What style is that? I need it. Onieva, go up there and strip them.”
Magnolia glanced at Chaldion as the cheering went on.
“Humans should not be alone. How long have our species fought? Consider this a gift, Grand Strategist. And think on my words? We have bigger enemies than each other.”
The Drake eyed Magnolia. But he nodded. And Magnolia Reinhart turned. She waved once, and left. And chaos? She turned a Walled City on its head. And perhaps only the old Drake heard Magnolia murmur.
“Besides. I owe Zel Shivertail this, at least.”
Chaldion looked at her back. And he half-rose, ignoring the [Healer] and his bodyguards. And he wanted to believe.
Erin Solstice sat in her inn. Liscor and Pallass were ringing with Magnolia Reinhart’s name. The Antinium had retreated to their Hive. And Erin stood up as the three [Ladies] returned.
“That will be all. A success. Pryde, Wuvren, thank you ever so much for your help. Let’s reconvene tonight. I should have a fair amount of [Messages], but I will be free to attend this play.”
The door to Invrisil was opened. Pryde and Wuvren walked through. The Players of Celum parted as the [Ladies] walked past them, talking. And Magnolia watched as Reynold led a grumbling Nalthaliarstrelous through.
And no one stopped her. Grimalkin had helped her, when he’d figured it out. Magnolia Reinhart sighed. She fanned at her brow; she allowed herself to sweat lightly only now. In relief. She turned her head.
A fist flew at her face. Ressa caught Erin and the [Innkeeper] staggered as the momentum of her fist stopped. She strained, but Ressa had her neck in a hold—
“Ressa, stop that. Miss Erin is quite upset. As she should be.”
Erin breathed as Ressa let go. The [Innkeeper] staggered back. Magnolia waved at the doorway.
“Everyone, stand back please. I will be returning to Invrisil in a moment. But I think this is a private conversation.”
Everyone else shuffled back. But Erin and Magnolia stood in the young woman’s inn, in a circle of silence.
“You—you ruined it. They didn’t do anything.”
Erin pointed at Magnolia with a shaking finger. The [Lady] looked at her, calmly, coldly.
“On the contrary. I haven’t ‘done’ anything other than make Pallass and the Walled Cities wary. As they should be. Or were you aware that multiple breeds of Antinium were in Liscor?”
The [Innkeeper] opened her mouth. She bit her tongue. Xrn had hinted, but Erin hadn’t realized—
“Some of them are good. The Antinium! How could you just walk in and—do that?”
It had felt like all three [Ladies] had just squished her against the floorboards. She hadn’t been able to do anything. In her own inn. Magnolia’s eyes were sympathetic. But cold.
“Miss Erin Solstice. Drakes and Humans have torn each other apart for countless generations. I made an overture, of goodwill. Did I step on your toes to do so? Yes. And I will be called traitor by some of my peers. But this may lead to peace in a war as old as my House. Consider that.”
Erin opened and closed her mouth. Ressa was standing next to her. Erin made a fist—and then just shook it at Magnolia.
“Just—just answer me this. Do you know what you did? Really? If they die—I’ll never forgive you. Do you have any idea? Or is this just politics? Is it—”
Magnolia Reinhart snapped. Erin fell silent. And Magnolia looked around. At the inn. At all the people whose names she’d known without ever having met them.
She glanced through the doorway, at the Players of Celum, whom she was going to watch that very night. And at the Earthworlders. Some were hiding behind the tables. But Magnolia just looked back at Erin.
“My dear Erin Solstice, I know exactly who my enemies are. And I watch young women like you. Yes, I know what I’ve done. I planned it. The only part I didn’t account for was the eggs.”
“Eggs…? What eggs?”
Erin whispered. Magnolia shook her head.
“I will remand Rose and the others into your care, since Miss Griffin seemed so insistent on it. Do you know where she is? Reizmelt, or the area thereabouts. I apologize, again, Erin. That is all I can truly say.”
She nodded and turned away. Erin whispered.
“I hate you.”
The [Lady] walked through the doorway. Ressa followed, sparing Erin a look. Magnolia sighed as she walked out of the inn.
“Another one on a rather long list. A shame. But she shouldn’t forgive me.”
“Absolutely not. That was an incredibly underhanded move. Milady.”
Ressa opened the door to the carriage. Magnolia gave her a reproving look.
“And would you have done otherwise? I didn’t hear you gainsaying any plans.”
The [Maid] settled herself into the coach.
“Absolutely not. Better to try this than war. But don’t expect Erin Solstice to ever forgive you.”
Pryde had already walked off, but Wuvren was sitting in the coach.
“My feet hurt. Did that young woman have words for you? She was strong. I didn’t believe you when you said you feared you might not be able to suppress her, Magnolia.”
The [Lady] smiled thinly as the carriage began to move.
“I told you she was significant, Wuvren. I fear she hates me.”
“With good reason.”
“Oh, shut up, Ressa.”
Lady Wuvren smiled. She was older now, closer to her actual age. She looked thoughtfully out of the window as the coach pulled away. Nalthaliarstrelous was riding on the roof, closer to nature. And because he smelled.
“She was something. She has a number of charm-related Skills. [Crowd Control], I think. She doesn’t control it. I can see how she could start a riot if she wanted to, especially if it began in her inn. Why did you feature Liscor in that scrying broadcast?”
“Because it’s not war yet. And either way—the city could grow. Invrisil, Liscor, Pallass—Wuvren. I should like it so very much to be the case that the Antinium are changing. That we can ally with the Drakes and deal with…unpleasant people. But if that is not the case? Liscor will not fall easily.”
Magnolia’s eyes flashed in the darkness. Wuvren just nodded. And they rode away.
The end. Chaos had hit. The [Lady] had come and gone. And no one had been prepared for her. But—the door to Liscor was open. And timidly, slowly, the Horns of Hammerad entered the inn.
The young woman was resting her head on a table. But her friends were there. And a group started at her name.
“She didn’t go after us. But she saw us.”
Rose looked at Joseph. Imani just stared at the magical doorway. She didn’t know what had happened, not all the details. But she heard the name. And she saw a familiar face.
“It’s here. The Wandering Inn.”
The group from Earth stared into the inn. Amid Magnolia Reinhart’s splendid chaos. Montressa du Valeross looked up as the Earthers followed the Horns into the inn. So did Palt, blinking as Griffon Hunt followed.
Change. A growing flower of trust between the north and south. A blow against Antinium plans. Was it good or evil that had been done? One thing was for sure.
“How inelegant. How—rude. She is the rudest [Lady]. But the Reinharts are. She could have lit a flame. But the Deadly Flower of the North just pricks with her thorns.”
Maviola El scowled after Magnolia. She had disapproved of all of it. But her head turned back to the inn. And inside it, the doorway.
Pure magic. A bridge from north to south. And Magnolia’s first thought had been to sabatoge the Antinium. That was a Reinhart for you. But look—
It called to her. Maviola El stared into Liscor. And she felt it. In her chest. In the inn itself. It burned.
Fire. Her heart beat in her chest. And the [Lady] smiled. She walked, almost stumbling towards the door. That young woman had the fire. More than that. A living spark, as strong as Maviola had ever seen.
But she was inexperienced. That was why she’d been faltered. But she could learn. Grow. The door called to Maviola. One last time. One last—
“Aha! I have it back, you [Thief]!”
Someone shouted in her ear. Maviola whirled. A [Lady] was riding past her. Bethal Walchaís, laughing merrily, was atop her bareback mare. She galloped past Maviola, raising a finger. Maviola blinked. Bethal rode off through the streets, triumphant.
And a figure—Maviola turned and saw a [Chevalier]. Thomast. He looked apologetic as he bowed to her.
“Apologies, Lady El. My wife thinks it would be a merry prank for a day or two. I will ensure it is returned. But Bethal claims it is part of youth.”
“Are you…Thomast? Her husband?”
Maviola blinked. And then looked at Thomast. The man bowed, with a regretful smile. Handsome—a [Fencer] with a silver bell. Some [Ladies] had all the luck.
“Bethal insists on fair turnabout. I apologize, again.”
Lady Firestarter grinned. And her eyes lit up, like burning embers, beautifully orange.
“Well, I stole the horse from her.”
“That is not what I meant, Milady. But Bethal was insistent. I hope you will cope with the loss. It may prove to be…eventful. I did meet Bethal under a similar situation. I apologize again, but Bethal knows how to live, if anyone.”
The words were very confusing. But Maviola was also drawn to Thomast. And Bethal glanced back as she stopped her horse. In sudden, abrupt paranoia.
“Thomast! Hurry up!”
The [Chevalier] bowed and walked away. And Maviola? She blinked and realized something. Thomast had been her type. And that was the problem.
Charming young men. Well—youngish. The suave ones stole more than just your heart for a moment.
“He took my money pouch.”
She stared after Thomast and Bethal. But they were already gone. Maviola had her bag of holding, her three vials. And nothing else.
But that was fine. She looked at the magical door. And Liscor was changed. But—here. Maviola walked forwards, smiling. She saw Grev dash through, calling Erin’s name. And Maviola walked forwards, into the inn. Into—
Into a wall. The [Lady] bounced off the inn’s wall. She stared at the blank door. She opened and closed the door a few times. Nothing happened.
Author’s Note: I don’t know how much you’ve read of this. The last…7,000 words was a step too far. I am about 3 hours past my projected mark.
And this is a BIG CHAPTER. Maybe I’ll cut it. If I do, you’ll read the rest tomorrow. But for now, I’m out. Thank you for reading! This chapter…was a chapter. As always, I tried my best.
Today’s artwork is Maviola, by Microwaved Mrsha Plushie. A glorious Peki…and we have some amazing art for next chapter! But I need to eat food. I’m also…many hours past dinner. Which I want. So enjoy and thanks for reading!
Maviola by Microwaved Mrsha Plushie
Peki by Panzersoul
Fetohep and Peki by Brack
The Boom and Ryoka by Mg