Interlude – A Night in the Inn – The Wandering Inn

Interlude – A Night in the Inn

“We have a new enemy. A name, among the countless species. Magnolia Reinhart.”

Xrn spoke calmly to the images of the assembled Queens. Her voice was controlled, but her eyes belied her true state. Darkness crossed each of the colors. Black fury.

Klbkch stood by Xrn’s side. Marveling. Not at her, or the unrest of the other Queens. Xrn was calm.

No—he was simply astounded by a new kind of war. One with not a single drop of blood spilled, but had done more damage than even a hundred [Siege Fireballs] might. That woman—that [Lady] had reached into the Hive and unearthed terrible secrets. Their numbers, their fortifications, the true extent of the Free Antinium’s Hive. The tunnel leading south—

Everything. And she had managed it because the [Ladies] fought in ways that drew not blood you could see. But Klbkch, a master of blades, felt cut.

“What will happen next, Xrn? You assured me your presence would bring only benefit to the Hives.”

The Grand Queen snapped. Xrn leaned on her staff.

“We must take precautions, see what the Drake’s response will be, my Queen. And mark her. Like Zel Shivertail, I ask that the Hives agree to designate Magnolia Reinhart an entity of maximum threat.”

The Queens stirred. But none objected. The Silent Queen spoke, thoughtfully.

“So she is among my Hive’s targets if we go to war.”

The Silent Antinium, including Xeu, moved slightly. Their targets were marked across Izril.

“Do you object, my Queen?”

Xrn bowed. The Silent Queen raised one feeler.

“No. It shall be done. The Silent Antinium agree.”

“That woman withstood two of our Centenium. The Armored Antinium designate her a threat, in the past and now. Let this Magnolia Reinhart never rally to the Drake’s defense a third time. We agree.”

The Armored Queen turned her massive head. The Flying Queen, smaller, rubbed her feelers together anxiously; her Hive rustled around her, mirroring her mood.

“What strange classes, [Ladies] are. To use such Skills. Can she employ such in war?”

“If. She can. Wrymvr will slay. Her.”

The Twisted Queen’s halting speech was last of all. Klbkch saw her turn towards him, looking past the Free Queen.

“Klbkchhezeim. Wrymvr wishes. To speak to you. It would please the Twisted. Antinium. For you to visit.”

Xrn’s head rose. She looked at Klbkch, cautiously. The other Antinium folded his arms.

Wrymvr of the Centenium. Wrymvr the Deathless, the other races named him. And his name was most fitting of all the Centenium they had met. Xrn wanted to speak, but she held her voice.

And Klbkch bowed.

“It may be suitable, Twisted Queen. I can make no promises.”

“Then it is agreed. Magnolia Reinhart is marked. Now tell me Xrn. How were you unable to stop this…[Druid]? We encountered that class seldom. Speak. And what will happen to the Free Antinium now? Are we…”

The Grand Queen spoke impatiently, and the Queens debated. And elsewhere in Izril, the Walled Cities were in conference. Arguing, trying to understand both the information they had been given and why they had been given it.

Magnolia Reinhart of the Five Families. An enemy of the Drakes—or rather, her family had been. An ally?

There was a party scheduled in Oteslia soon. And suddenly—it was even more important than it had been. People marveled. At Magnolia Reinhart’s information network, the audacity of her move, to confront Antinium directly, at the unnerving actions of the Antinium—even distant figures like the Blighted King paid attention to an old foe.

Look at her, Magnolia Reinhart. And that dress. Fashion and spectacle and treachery and Skill.

And while the rest of the world heaved—the inn that had been used by Magnolia Reinhart was bubbling. No—burning with what had happened. And you might hate it, or approve of what had happened. But forget about the world for a moment. The world was sometimes a stupid place.

In The Wandering Inn, that night, many faces, new and old met and mingled. And—that young woman, that [Innkeeper], Erin Solstice. Her place had been used by Magnolia Reinhart. And she was sorely hurt.

Yet, the night was more than Magnolia Reinhart. One by one, they arrived.

 

—-

 

Guests. Old friends. New people, stumbling in, looking around, wide-eyed.

The Wandering Inn had come to Invrisil. What event. What chaos.

But Magnolia had overshadowed it. Used the inn harshly, like a piece on a larger chessboard. It was unsettling. And so—at first, they came in like visitors to a wake.

At first.

“Erin…?”

Ceria Springwalker walked into The Wandering Inn. She still felt—stunned. The [Ladies] had swept through the Players of Celum’s inn. And Ceria had just watched them moving—only when they’d gone had she ceased to be a member of the audience.

A young woman was sitting in a chair. And—Ceria had thought of her friend often. But Erin looked unfamiliar, for a moment.

Older. Tired. Sadder, staring down at her clasped hands. Like—someone overburdened, and young. Not the force of personality and goodwill she normally was.

“Erin?”

She reminded Ceria of Erin before Skinner, a young woman who did her best, but hadn’t been the Crazy Human of Liscor. For a moment. Then, hearing the half-Elf’s voice, she raised her head.

“Ceria…?”

Lyonette stirred. The [Princess] was holding Mrsha, at a loss for words. But both looked at Ceria. And the half-Elf raised one hand.

“Hi. Um—we made it.”

She didn’t know what to say, but Erin’s head rose. And she smiled.

“You did. Ceria!”

She rose to her feet, slowly. But she walked over and gave Ceria a big hug. The [Cryomancer] felt Erin squeezing, and hugged back. For a moment, Erin just leaned on Ceria.

“Sorry. I had no idea that Lady Magnolia Reinhart would—”

“S’okay. I don’t think anyone did. She just—hey, Ceria. Where’ve you been? And the others?”

Erin raised her head tiredly. And behind Ceria was Yvlon, Ksmvr, and Pieces, all standing in the inn. Behind them were the young people they’d just met, the Players of Celum—the door flickered out as Grev ran through.

Everyone was just watching, though. Erin Solstice looked so tired.

Mortally tired. She’d thrown everything she had against the three [Ladies]. And she hadn’t stopped a thing. It wasn’t just physical exhaustion, it was mental, spiritual. Ceria saw Erin looking around, blinking.

“Yvlon? Pisces. Ksmvr. Is that—Wesle and Jasi? E-Emme? Kilkran? Grev? Where did you all come from?”

“We’ve been eager to see you, Erin.”

Jasi spoke hesitantly. The others nodded, but the mood was somber. Erin Solstice smiled, but it wasn’t that glorious look, that picked you up on your darkest day and said that everything would be alright. It was just a curve of the lips.

The [Innkeeper] had lost. And she was so tired. And the [Innkeeper] was her inn. Ceria felt Erin straightening, but she held her friend, as if Erin might fall down.

In that moment, even the [Actors] didn’t know what to say. They could pretend everything was alright, but it was so clearly not. The adventurers? Yvlon looked around at the inn and shook her head. Ksmvr was opening and closing his mandibles uncertainly.

Who could say something? And what would it be? Ceria didn’t know—but then she saw, out of the corner of her eye, one of Erin’s oldest friends moving. Because of course, he had been there way back when.

Slowly, Pisces looked around. The [Necromancer] found a chair in the silent inn. And, as Drakes and Gnolls and guests from Invrisil looked at him, he sat down. And then he leaned back, precariously perching on the back two legs of the chair. And he put his feet up on the tabletop.

Pisces sniffed, and looked at Erin. And his voice was mock-acerbic and mostly kind.

“Well, I expect service, Miss Innkeeper. Pasta and blue juice, if you please. For me and my team.”

The young woman and Ceria looked at Pisces. Ceria opened her mouth, and saw Erin’s face. The young woman sniffed. And if she’d been close to tears—they were gone when she put her hands on her hips and glared.

You again? You’d better have some money.”

Pisces ostentatiously slapped a few coins on the table. And he smiled at her.

“If the food is good, I suppose I could give you a tip.

And Erin Solstice laughed. Like a normal person, but her eyes lit up. She looked around her inn, at her old friends. And they smiled. Erin inhaled, and looked about.

“Hey. We’ve got guests. Lyonette, do we have any food left? Get something for Mister Necromancer here.”

The [Princess] rolled her eyes. But she was smiling. Mrsha leapt out of her arms and tackled Ceria’s legs. The half-Elf hadn’t been expecting that. She went over with a crash. Yvlon winced. Ksmvr hurried over to help her out.

And Pisces began laughing. So did Erin. And the inn came alive. More people laughed, and Ceria, getting up, saw Erin turning. The [Innkeeper] breathed in and out. And then she smiled.

She wasn’t over it. But she had guests, so Erin put the feelings away for a bit. And The Wandering Inn began to shine again.

“Damn, the door’s out of mana again. Are the Sage’s Grass not working right?”

Palt grumbled as he trotted over. Ceria looked up and saw Montressa holding out a slow hand. Ceria took it, unthinking, and Montressa helped haul her up. Bezale was standing next to her, arms folded. She grunted at Yvlon and the [Armsmistress] nodded slowly back.

As the others began chatting, Ceria saw Numbtongue reaching behind the bar for a drink with Bird. A love struck Belgrade was still standing where he had been.

“So pretty.”

Pawn was hurrying after Lyonette. And the Players of Celum were looking around. Temile made a choked sound and began to push towards Wesle and Jasi. Ceria realized Maviola was missing. Still in Invrisil?

And at that moment, one of the young people looked at Pisces and exclaimed. Kevin pointed at Pisces.

“Dude. He’s a [Necromancer]?

Everyone turned to look at Pisces. And the [Necromancer] stiffened. But Kevin promptly turned to his friends.

“That’s so cool.

 

—-

 

The first few minutes afterwards were full of chaos. Erin was surrounded by the Horns of Hammerad, who she was hugging and talking to. But then she looked up and her eyes widened.

“No way. Halrac’s here? And Revi and Typhenous?”

She saw the second team standing by the door. Revi waved as she looked around.

“This place looks a lot better than it used to. I always thought the old place looked a bit run down. Hi, Erin.”

“Miss Solstice.”

Typhenous’ eyes twinkled. Halrac nodded to Erin, cool as could be. He was not prepared for the [Innkeeper] to charge him.

Halrac! How’ve you been?

Erin tackle-hugged the [Scout]. He growled, embarrassed.

“Get off. Erin. It’s good to see—”

A flying Gnoll, Mrsha, in this case, leapt off the table and shot towards him. Halrac caught her rather than let her drop and she hugged him gleefully. Revi and Typhenous started guffawing at the look on Halrac’s face as Mrsha tried to nuzzle his face and Erin laughed.

Someone else slapped her thighs and nearly doubled over. Erin turned as Briganda, eyes streaming, pointed at Halrac as he tried to get Mrsha to let go.

Halrac the Grim! More like ‘Halrac the Softie’! Hah! Wait till I tell Elm and Cassielle about this!

Erin saw Briganda stride over. The [Shield Maiden] grabbed Erin in a one-arm and wrapped an arm around Halrac and Mrsha. She gave them all a bear hug. Erin squeaked.

“Let. Go.”

Halrac growled. He retreated, letting Mrsha drop to the floor. She and Erin turned to the woman.

Erin’s first impression of Briganda was a smiling face. She was probably ten years older than Erin—still young, but she seemed more motherly. That wasn’t just a lucky guess either; she had that sense of looking out for children.

“Hello! Who are you?”

“The name’s Briganda. I’m a member of Griffon Hunt. One of the old crew. I just rejoined. And are you Erin Solstice? I’ve heard so much about you!”

“Really? I mean, hi! Any teammate of Griffon Hunt’s is welcome. I’m Erin—this is Mrsha—”

“I know! Hello, little one! Is she yours? Halrac didn’t say. And he didn’t say she was so adventurous! She’d be a regular [Swashbuckler]!”

Briganda knelt down. Mrsha blinked up at her, but then boldly rose onto two legs and stuck out a paw. Briganda clasped it and shook vigorously. And Mrsha was quite pleased by the [Shield Maiden]’s bold smile.

“Mine…? No, Mrsha’s, uh—I mean, I raise her, but she’s not mine. She’s—”

“Mine. Hello. Halrac, Revi, Typhenous! And did I hear Briganda? I’m Lyonette, the manager of the inn.”

The [Princess] came over. Briganda turned and her eyebrows shot up. She looked at Lyonette, who was eighteen or closer to nineteen these days, up and down.

“Well! You started early, but she’s a darling child! And who’s the man, I mean, Gnoll?”

“Oh—”

Halrac slapped his face. Revi choked and Typhenous starting chuckling into his beard again.

“Briganda—”

“Oh. Oh. Dead gods, tell me these things, Halrac!”

Briganda grew flustered as she saw Halrac’s face. She turned to Lyonette.

Males, am I right? Up and leaving you? Sorry about that. I’d like to say mine ran off, but I never knew who it was! I have a kid myself.”

She smiled as Lyonette’s face contorted, trying to sort out what part of the misunderstanding to address first. Erin started laughing.

“It’s so good to see you all! Give me a hug, Typh! You too, Revi!”

The old man was only too glad to, and Mrsha raised her arms so she could be picked up and hugged. Revi embraced Erin lightly, laughing.

“It feels like ages since we saw you! Erin! How did you manage to get Pallass attacked by Wyverns?

Erin colored.

“I didn’t—that was just a coincidence! I think! You’re looking good! New stitches?”

“You noticed?

That was a guess, but Revi was beyond pleased. She scooped Mrsha up and the Gnoll promptly licked her cheek. Mrsha liked Revi.

“Come in, sit, sit! Did you get to Invrisil at the same time as the Horns? What’s happened?”

“Aside from travelling and Halrac punching our old teammate? Nothing much.”

“Whaaaaaat?”

“Why don’t we sit? Erin—any chance of a drink and some food?”

Halrac cleared his throat, avoiding Erin’s gaze. The young woman brightened up.

“Oh my gosh! You have to try the Minotaur’s Punch, Halrac! I mean, the flaming glory drink! I mean—I can make fire!”

The Gold-rank adventurers knew she meant something else, but Revi had to take her shot.

“Congratulations. So can anyone with a flint and tinder. Sure, set us up.”

“Over here!”

Erin led them to a table and was seating them, chattering and trying to explain the memory flames Skill she had—not to mention the Garden—when Briganda exclaimed and stormed over.

Halrac, you pissant!

She kicked at him. The [Scout] growled as he had to half-leap out of his chair. Briganda’s face was red.

“Why didn’t you tell me about Mrsha before I made an idiot of myself?”

She pointed at Lyonette, who had cleared things up and was investigating the door. Revi chortled but stopped as Briganda raised a fist. Halrac folded his arms.

“If you’d listen before you spoke, Briganda—”

“Argh! I did! Dead gods. And we’re in Liscor? Can we get back? I left Cade in the inn. He’s fine I’m sure, but…”

Briganda glanced anxiously back at the door. Erin hurried to reassure her.

“The door’ll be recharged soon! It just ran out because we had…”

She counted. Nearly twenty people had come through before it had failed. That was a lot better! Like Wailant had claimed, the ambient mana gave the door more teleportations and it would hopefully power back on soon.

“Thank goodness.”

Briganda sighed. And then Erin heard a shout from the side. She turned in time to see Temile charging the other Players of Celum.

“Wesle! Jasi!”

The [Producer] threw his arms around his friends. Wesle was laughing as he pounded Temile on the back and Jasi gave him a hug.

Temile! We missed you!”

“Liar! Did you even remember me? Wesle—dead gods, are you taller? Kilkran too!”

The [Blacksmith] turned [Actor] with the voice like deep honey was beaming. The other Players crowded around Temile, whom they’d left behind in Celum, laughing and trying to talk at once.

“Yimur and Pralcem too! And where’s that damned [Writer], Andel? His first good play and he writes it only after you get to Invrisil? What have we been paying him for?”

Temile shouted, looking around. A short part-Dwarf woman pushed her way through the others, literally lifting Andel out of the way. She raised a fist and shouted up at Temile.

“And me too! Where’s my [Actors], Temile? You promised me—”

And there they were. The original cast of the Players of Celum turned and saw over two dozen Gnolls, Drakes—even a Garuda staring at them. And they were just the [Actors]!

“Dead gods.”

Wesle breathed. Jasi’s eyes went round at the sight of so many Drakes—an oddity to a Drake girl raised in Celum. Temile beamed.

“May I present to the Players of Celum—the Players of Liscor! That’s what we’ve decided to go as, to avoid confusion. But our [Lead Actors] are over Level 15 already and everyone else is leveling fast! And behind you—”

“The stage. Oh, the stage!

Jasi sighed. It wasn’t the very first stage she and Wesle had performed in—that had been in The Frenzied Hare, back in Celum. But this one was iconic. And the other, newer [Actors] were staring at the originals.

Perhaps they could even feel the disparity in levels. Because Wesle and Jasi and Kilkran, Yimur, and Pralcem and some of the others shone. But Wesle and Jasi most of all. And—in the silence, Wesle swept a bow.

His voice took on that echoing quality, even though he was speaking normally.

“It’s a pleasure indeed to meet the Players of Liscor! We salute you, fellow [Actors]!”

Yimur and Pralcem, the Gnoll and Human, instantly stood to attention like [Guardsmen], giving such serious salutes that it was comical. Kilkran just drew himself back like the haughty [King] he loved to play and looked down his nose. But it was Jasi who had the best impression.

[Actors]? Why, my good Wesle, we shouldn’t allow such rabble in an establishment such as this. Send them away at once!”

She turned, with such immediate and haughty distress that one of the Gnolls began to laugh. And then the Players of Celum flooded forwards to meet their counterparts.

“Dead gods! You told me you’d been putting the gold to good use but—dead gods!”

Emme was exclaiming. Temile was grinning at her.

“You think you can use them, then?”

“Of course! We’ve been having Yimur playing every Gnoll character running. And Eltistiman’s been doing illusions along with makeup but it’s not the same! We might have to train them up, but there’s room on even our first lineup for them! You need to give me a list of their Skills—”

“Done. And you have an actual [Illusionist]? We have this Centaur, Palt, helping us, but you have one on the team?”

Emme gave him a sly smile.

“And more gold than you can count! We have our own theatre! Not that The Wandering Inn was bad, but we have security—beard maggots! Have you not heard about the autographs?”

“The—you’re still doing them?”

“Yes! We have to catch up! No—we need to cast you in tonight’s play! Emme! Temile would be the perfect replacement for one of our parts! And Temile—what happened to your thumb?

Jasi exclaimed. Temile looked down at the missing thumb on one hand and chuckled ruefully.

“I’m afraid I’m ruined for swordplay. But I gave it for a good cause—the Creler attack, I told you, remember? Andel needs to put that to a script.”

The others sobered for a second. Then Emme slapped Temile on the back.

“Of course! Of course! There’s so much we need to do! And we have seats for everyone at the Season’s Theatre—tonight! Everyone! Stop hugging each other! Remember, we have an hour to get on stage! We need to prepare!

She roared and the Players of Celum stopped talking. Instantly, Wesle turned serious.

“I forgot! But Lady Reinhart and a number of nobles will be in attendance!”

Dead gods! We need to get into makeup!”

Kilkran tuned pale. The [Actors] rushed towards the door, but it was only just coming back to life.

“Stand back! We’re recharging it. Ceria, Pisces—Revi, Typhenous—can you add your mana to the door? It can probably stand a few trips, but no one goes through! Got it?

Lyonette shook her fist at the people on the other side and a young woman with black and orange hair backed up. The Players were crowding around the door. Emme, worried, stumped over.

“Can we put the Players back through, Miss Lyonette? We have to perform?

“Oh—damn! If the [Mages] cooperate, yes! and the Sage’s Grass will do its work, but I need to check on Liscor and—yes, yes! But only a few through at a time! Give the grass time to recharge!”

“Wesle and Jasi first, then. And Kilkran and Yimur.”

Emme immediately ordered the others. The four stormed through and the door went dead again. Lyonette threw up her hands, but it was a faster recharge time.

“They’ll have Eltistiman recharge the door on his end. Dead gods, I’ll pay for [Mages] to recharge the door if I have to! We can’t have our best [Actors] over here! Send a [Message]!”

Emme was pulling at her hair as she shouted. Lyonette was trying to calm Emme.

“Don’t worry! Don’t worry! The door will put all your [Actors] through within an hour, Emme! Definitely! Even without anyone helping!”

“But they need to get prepared now! They need makeup and—”

“Why not use ours?”

Temile interrupted. Emme looked at him. The [Producer] turned and pointed. The Players of Liscor were already ransacking their makeup and props.

“It might not be what you use in Invrisil, but—”

“Temile! My lovely Human!”

Emme dragged him down and planted a kiss on his forehead. Then she pointed.

“To makeup, everyone! And the rest of you—you’ll all be guests of the theatre! In the Solstice booth! Wait—will we have Erin herself? Because we might not have enough room!”

Lyonette and Temile stared.

“The Solstice…?”

Then they looked at Erin. She was high-fiving Briganda and laughing in delight as Ceria and the Horns of Hammerad shouted their own stories. Lyonette shook her head after a moment.

“I think Erin will be here, Emme.”

“Just as well. She’s a guest of honor and she deserves it when we have a moment ready for her. But the rest of you—let’s get this done! The show must go on!”

The part-Dwarf woman and Temile began giving orders as the [Actors] occupied the back of the [Grand Theatre] and began hurrying through the doorway. But they were only a part of the moment.

Eggs? You got sick eating eggs and that was why you were late?”

Erin stared at Yvlon. The [Armsmistress] rolled her eyes as the rest of her team objected.

“Not just eggs. We beat Golems—Ksmvr got run out of town—”

“Twice.”

“The eggs were just the latest thing.”

Yvlon assured Erin with a long-suffering sigh. Erin grinned.

“You have to tell me everything. But—there’s going to be a lot of people coming in. Chaos. I’ll get you your food, though!”

“When is it not chaos here?”

Ceria wondered aloud, with a laugh. Pisces sniffed.

“You would be surprised how quiet it was before. This is marginally more pleasant. At least now there’s help. Ah, thank you.”

Drassi had brought over a steak. Pisces and Ceria licked their lips and then stared at each other. Ceria whipped out her wand.

“Play you for it.”

Both glanced at each other. Magical symbols began to flash in the air and then both conjured one. Erin saw a floating droplet of water, and a flying raven. Ceria groaned.

“Damn.”

She let Pisces take the steak-dish. The [Necromancer] smirked; it was magical rock-paper-scissors with far more combinations. He began slicing his steak into bite-sized pieces as Ksmvr raised one hand.

“May I have some of the pizza, Miss Erin? Extra crusty?”

No one had ever demanded that, but Erin assured Ksmvr she’d do her best. As she went into the kitchen, a white Gnoll raced up excitedly. Mrsha had hugged Griffon Hunt and now it was their turn!

“Mrsha!”

Yvlon bent. Mrsha sniffed at her arms and hugged her as the [Armsmistress] with excruciating care, gently squeezed Mrsha with a feather’s amount of pressure. The Gnoll wiggled, was put down on the table, and got a hug from Ceria as the half-Elf laughed.

“You’re getting bigger! And heavier!”

Mrsha turned expectantly to Pisces. She spread her arms out mock-reluctantly, pretending to glare. And the [Necromancer] glanced up.

“It’s you! Um…”

He snapped his fingers a few times. Mrsha gave Pisces a look and folded her arms. The [Necromancer]’s face was perfectly blank.

“Ksmvr, help me out here.”

The Antinium looked from Pisces to Mrsha and then his mandibles opened in comprehension.

“I have no idea who this strange Gnoll is, Comrade Pisces. In fact, we should eject her for this rude interruption to our meal—”

Mrsha scowled and leapt off the table. She punched Pisces in the leg. He smiled and flicked his fingers. A cube of cut steak floated off his plate. Mrsha jumped with her mouth open and it swerved out of the way. She glowered at Pisces, and then gave him a grudging thumbs-up with one paw.

It was good to have him back. No one else in the inn dared stand up to her.

Erin giggled as she came back and saw Mrsha leaping about, trying to grab the bit of meat. Pisces was smiling and Ksmvr’s mandibles opened wide.

“What is that?

“Dis? Dis is a calzone. You want?”

Erin proudly pointed at the abomination that was pizza folded over to create a pocket stuffed with goodies. Ksmvr nodded rapidly.

“It is very good-looking.”

“I’ll have one too, Erin. Not to share.”

The half-Elf waved a hand eagerly. Yvlon looked disgusted.

“Can I get a salad? And something—else?”

“Sure! We have a menu. Wait, I probably should have brought that, shouldn’t I? Here, Ksmvr…I’ll be back!”

Erin hurried into the kitchen as Mrsha poked her head over the table and stared at Ksmvr’s calzone. He put one hand over it, protectively.

“I do not know you, stranger. Begone.”

As Erin walked through her inn, she stopped for a second. She felt incredibly, almost deliriously happy to see her friends—and it hadn’t been that long ago! But—then Erin froze and her brow darkened. Her mind connected something Magnolia had said.

“Oh. Those eggs.”

She looked back at the Horns of Hammerad. And felt something dark in her chest. Magnolia Reinhart. She’d…beaten Erin. At her own game.

She’d been prepared. And Erin had not. She’d thought the Garden could save her friends. But the [Druid] had entered it—and Magnolia?

Erin had meant every word. ‘I hate you.’ Had she ever said that to someone else and meant it? Something black was in Erin’s chest, burning there like a memory.

Hatred. Helpless injustice, rage—oh yes, Erin could remember that. And it was rising in her, like some creeping dark force. Pure, unforgiving loathing—

Erin blinked at her hands. She expected to see black fire, but…there was no flame. Erin sighed, but was almost relieved. She rubbed her hands on her jeans; they were all sweaty. Some fire she didn’t need to see.

And as she passed by them, a group of young people stared at Erin’s back. Kevin whispered.

“That was a calzone. I know it is! And that’s Erin. I think. I don’t remember her, do you?”

“Just wait and see, Kevin. Don’t be an idiot. I think it’s her, but…this is her inn. Let’s just listen.”

Rose whispered back. Joseph was half-rising. He glared at Rose. Why wait? But then—a Gnoll hurried over.

“Sorry, everyone. My name is Ishkr. I will be serving you all for tonight. Do you have your menus? I will take your orders now.”

The Earthers stared up at the tall Gnoll. Then they looked at their menus. And they were hungry. Imani looked at the list of foods and her stomach rumbled from meals missed or cut in half due to their dwindling budget. Joseph felt at his side. He had the coin from selling his sword, after all.

“Um—sure.”

“C-can we get a pizza? No—three?”

Kevin almost begged the Gnoll. Ishkr nodded and wrote down their order. Rose was looking at the menu and salivating.

“Oh my g—is that a milkshake? I’ll have one.”

“And me.”

And me! And some french fries! French fries, guys—

The Earthers began ordering feverishly. Ishkr sighed as he wrote down the orders. And they actually cheered when the first pizza came towards them, already hot. It was only after they’d fought over the slices that Joseph raised his head and remembered something.

“Hey. Where did that Maviola person get to?”

 

—-

 

The [Actors] had all left for Invrisil as [Mages] on both sides of the magical door charged it up. However, they were hardly the only people wanting to visit the inn.

Word was spreading. As it did. And Maviola was suddenly among a press of people trying to get into the Player’s inn, let alone The Wandering Inn.

Fortunately, the bouncer, Redit, recognized Maviola and let her in while blocking the mundane patrons. But the [Innkeeper] in Invrisil wasn’t about to let this many paying clients wait. He waved at Erin through the doorway as she passed by.

“Miss! Miss! Can I have a word?”

“Oh! Hey! Are you the [Innkeeper] of this inn? I’m Erin, hi! Sorry about the confusion!”

The man was slightly portly, but jovial and a manager rather than hands-on—almost a stereotype of an [Innkeeper] as Erin imagined them. Sort of like the Drake, Peslas, from Liscor.

But not as mean. He beamed at Erin, peering into the inn.

“Yes, this is the inn that serves the Players of Celum! We’re renaming ourselves to The Player’s Retreat, actually. My name’s Veeid; I’m the [Innkeeper]. Level 36. This is one of the best inns in Invrisil; we can hold over a hundred regular guests easily. Which we’ll need to do if the Players keep growing! And you must be Erin Solstice!”

The young woman blinked at the man’s obvious admiration for the Players.

“That’s me. Wow, a hundred guests?”

“Of course! That’s most of our profits. We have a stables—very fine [Hostlers] who put any animal that comes in right to rest.”

The [Innkeeper] looked shocked. Erin blinked.

“Stables. Wow, other inns actually have them?”

The man looked askance, and then laughed heartily. Erin smiled too. He seemed decent.

“Well—there’s a bit of a crowd around my front door this moment. My [Bouncers] can keep most of ‘em out, but they’re begging just to see what’s in your door. Mind if I let them in? The Players are out and we’ll cordon them from the regular sitting area…”

“Oh!”

Flustered, Erin hesitated.

“We’re going to switch this door to Pallass and Liscor and other places—but yeah, I can keep it here. There won’t be much to see, but maybe they can chat with other people? If they want to come through…well, the door runs out of mana, but we can work something out.”

Veeid was nodding. He hesitated, looking towards the shouting coming from his front door.

“I—I’d be rather pleased if you kept your door here, Miss Solstice. The traffic might bother the Players, but for tonight? Its profits to be made. I’d give you ten percent of what I earn, even if it’s just letting the people in?”

“Ten percent? Nah, I don’t need—”

Erin!

Lyonette rushed over and knocked Erin aside. She smiled at Veeid’s shocked expression.

“Sorry, Erin’s too nice for her own good. Let’s do ten percent. And we can sell through to your inn, Mister Veeid? We have ice cream. Gelato, I think it’s called.”

“You have—well, the Players said you did but I didn’t believe ‘em! More fool me! Absolutely, Miss! Sell into my inn and I’ll have my staff take it. Ten percent?”

“Yes. We can just do a headcount if you want to make it simple.”

Lyonette hesitated, but took the man’s hand. He smiled.

“I’ll do an accounting; don’t you worry, Miss…?”

“Lyon, sorry.”

Veeid nodded, waving at his [Head Waiter].

“Don’t you worry. I’ve heard all about them bad eggs in Celum. Mister Wesle and Miss Jasi had some tales. I’m a fair fighter when it comes to adding and subtracting—I know exactly how much I make in a day, down to a half-copper or pennies! Not that anyone pays with those in my inn!”

He laughed. Lyonette smiled in relief. Veeid glanced at the door.

“Redit! Let ‘em in! I’ll tell you when to stop! Just keep out the riffraff!”

The [Bouncer] stepped back. A flood rushed into the inn, staring at the doors. Veeid looked at Erin.

“We can put up a little barrier, keep ‘em out of your inn, Miss Erin.”

“What? You don’t need to do that. It’s free. We just need to move people back and forth.”

The [Innkeeper]’s brows shot up. Maviola, looking around and feeling around for a spare coin, sighed in relief. She began to shove into line as the patrons heard and clustered up.

Free? You’ll get everyone in Invrisil wanting to duck in and out, Miss Solstice.”

“Ooh. Yeah. Then—hey! We’ll let people in, but later! We’ll do random selections! Don’t make a line! Just give us—half an hour!

Erin waved her hands at the people. They blinked and shouted back, but Erin shouted.

“No line! Go eat food! We’ll get you menus! Who wants ice cream? Gelato!

The crowd murmured. They returned to their seats, demanding to see as Lyonette hurried back with menus. Veeid’s eyebrows were almost engulfing his scalp. He stared as Erin nodded at him.

“I’m gonna let Lyonette handle the door. Nice to meet you, Mister Veeid! I think Zevara’s coming and she is angry!

She hurried off. Veeid glanced at Lyon…or Lyonette. The [Princess] grimaced, but the [Innkeeper] hadn’t caught Erin’s slip. He stared after Erin’s back.

“Who is that, Miss Lyon?”

Lyonette didn’t know what he meant at first. But the male [Innkeeper] was staring at Erin’s back in awe. He looked at his orderly guests.

“She just ordered them about like that. I couldn’t manage it with Redit behind me on a crowded day. She has to be—and that level at her age?”

“She’s…fairly high-level.”

The [Princess] murmured. Veeid gave her a knowing look and shook his head.

“There are less than twenty [Innkeepers] in all of Izril higher level than her, I’d wager. Dead gods. And I thought the Players of Celum made it up. Let me know if you have anything and I’ll be right over, Miss. It’s a…pleasure to have The Wandering Inn connected to mine for the night.”

The [Princess] blinked as he gave her a little nod. She smiled back. And then Veeid turned back.

“Oh. One important thing, Miss Lyon?”

“Yes?”

He’d intercepted a menu. The [Innkeeper] dug out some coins and handed them to Lyon. Exact change.

“One ‘ice cream’ for me, please.”

 

—-

 

Watch Captain Zevara stormed into Erin’s inn. She looked around, and asked if Magnolia or the other [Ladies] were present. When Erin assured her they were not, the Watch Captain grunted.

She’d come here on foot, but more and more people wanted into the inn now. And they were coming via the regular door or the magic one as Lyonette turned the dial frantically.

“If they’re not here…I’ll take some of your portable foods, Miss Solstice. Those ham…ham…”

“Hamburgers?”

“Yes. Make it four. No, five. And some drinks. Alcoholic. I’m not facing this sober. And the door to Pallass—”

She turned as the door opened. Magus Grimalkin strode in.

“Watch Captain. There you are. Pallass’ High Command wants you on a group communication chat. I’ll provide the spell.”

“I was just getting hamburgers. Does four for you work?”

“…Do they have ham? I was under the impression they were beef.”

Both Drakes looked at Erin. She blinked at them. At Grimalkin.

“They’re…beef. With lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cheese, and stuff.”

“No onion on mine.”

Zevara informed Drassi, who’d hurried over with a bag of fries. Grimalkin saw the sealed mug of whiskey.

“Drinks, Watch Captain?”

“I’ll have it after I hear that number Magnolia Reinhart promised me, Sinew Magus. And you?”

He thought about it.

“…Maybe an ale. Miss Erin.”

He turned to her. And then the two looked at each other slowly. Erin gazed up at Grimalkin.

“Are you happy about what Magnolia did, Grimalkin?”

Her face fell as the [Magus] avoided looking directly at her.

“I would have preferred not to be caught off-guard, but on the whole, it was beneficial to Izril, Miss Solstice. Liscor as well. That number…you understand Magnolia Reinhart analyzed the entire Hive? It is substantially higher than it should be, under any implementation of the Antinium’s treaty. This is information all the cities need to know.”

Zevara’s shoulders hunched. She looked at Drassi, hurrying over with the burgers.

“…Double my drink order.”

The [Bartender] threw up her claws and raced off. More people were coming in. No Antinium, save for the ones present. Erin looked at Grimalkin.

“I guess Magnolia’s on your side, then.”

The [Sinew Magus] refused to answer that. Erin felt something dark creeping up on her. But she forced it away. She shook her head.

“Fine. Go.”

“More people from Pallass are waiting to come through! I have two [Tacticians], Watch Captain Venim, Major—”

Sergeant Kel was arguing with Lyonette as she tried to protest that the door would run out of power again. Erin walked up to the door.

“What’s this? The door doesn’t have enough power. Get a [Mage].”

“We would like to enter the inn.”

A haughty Drake informed Erin. She looked at him.

“Oh, really? But are you on Kel’s list?”

The Drake hesitated. Sergeant Kel bit his lip. And Erin shut the door and turned the dial.

Lyonette stared at Erin. The [Innkeeper] looked at her.

“Change it back once we get more people through from Liscor and elsewhere.”

The [Princess] did, biting back a comment about how unusually aggressive Erin had been.

“What do we do about people in Invrisil, Erin? They want to come through and we can’t handle the numbers, even with the Sage’s Grass…”

Erin watched a small flood of Gnolls and Drakes, arguing about what they’d seen, come through. She caught a few hints of conversation.

“—came to our aid the first time during the First Antinium Wars. She may be a Human, but she’s the best of them.”

“She’s one of the Five Families. As trustworthy as a snake in your pants!”

“What kind of snake?”

“She just kneecapped the Antinium with that move. If they have kneecaps. I don’t know. But she’s on our side.

“Yeah? And I think the Antinium are fine. Who saved us in the Second Antinium Wars?”

“Why are they called the Antinium Wars, scales-for-brains?”

The [Innkeeper] shook her head. She felt—lousy. Despite her friends coming to visit. And the lousiness was getting worse by the second.

“We’ll let some of them through, Lyonette. That’s all from Liscor? Check every five minutes. Now—Esthelm—Wailant’s farm?”

Dead gods! I just saw everything on the scrying orb! Is that [Lady] still here?

Wailant stormed into the inn, Viceria on his heels. Erin recoiled as the [Farmer] looked around. He shook Erin’s hand, laughing.

“Rhir’s hell! What a thing to see! No Reinhart, huh? Damn, but I’m in such a good mood! We’ll visit the inn if that’s alright, Miss Erin? And the door’s open to Invrisil?”

“Oh, Wailant. Sure. I mean—yeah!”

“Invrisil. What a miraculous thing. We might have to prevail on you to visit, Erin.”

Viceria’s eyes were shining. Wailant laughed.

“Just drinks for tonight. Dead gods, what a sight! Hey, is that Seborn bastard here? I want to jaw with him about what he said about [Storm Sailors] on that damned scrying orb! As in, punch him in the jaw…

He walked past Erin. The [Innkeeper] saw Viceria give her an apologetic smile.

“Sorry, Wailant’s very passionate.”

“Oh, no—I’m glad someone is.”

The two entered the inn. And then Lyonette changed the door to Invrisil.

“Okay, so what are we going to do about the visitors, Erin—?”

And he was standing in the doorway. Erin and Lyonette recoiled, but it was too late. He stepped into the inn.

Reynold the [Butler] bowed smartly to both Erin and Lyonette. He had a letter and scroll in his hands. Erin backed up and looked for Magnolia. But she was not there.

“Reynold? What are you…?”

“Good evening, Miss Solstice. I apologize for the disturbance, but Lady Reinhart has ordered me to deliver both a piece of correspondence for Miss Byres and a proclamation regarding the use of your door. I regret the disturbance, and, indeed, the last incident as does her ladyship.”

Reynold spoke crisply, but Erin’s face was frozen. She had liked Reynold. But that had been on their short ride. And he no longer called her by her first name—perhaps sensing that the trust had been broken.

“What does Lady Reinhart want?”

Lyonette was cautious. Reynold unfurled the scroll. He read out loud and to everyone in earshot.

“In light of the marvelous door connecting Invrisil to Liscor, Lady Magnolia Reinhart, as [Lady] of Invrisil, has decreed that the usage of the door is to be taxed per visitor for any usage with exception only in the case of Miss Erin Solstice and the employees of her inn. The price per visitor shall be six silver coins, two of which will be given to Invrisil, two to Liscor, and two to The Wandering Inn.”

Erin blinked in surprise and then outrage. She opened her mouth, but Reynold went on. And there was a—significance to his words.

“Lady Reinhart also decrees that this door shall not be used to transmit correspondence, merchandise, or any other goods or valuables that would interfere with the natural order of trade without signatory agreement between Invrisil and the concerned parties. This order is enforced by Lady Magnolia’s Skill, [Written Decree] and shall take effect this very moment.”

He rolled up the scroll. And Erin felt the Skill take hold in a moment. There was no flash of light. No other effect. She just knew and was bound by it.

And her mood turned blacker still. Reynold bowed slightly to Erin.

“I am sorry, Miss Solstice.”

“Damn. There goes easy selling the Sage’s Grass. That Reinhart is a clever bitch.”

Wailant cursed at his table. Erin looked through the door. Lyonette herself was…impressed.

Six silver? That wasn’t exorbitant, but you had to pay it twice to get back. And it would prohibit most casual people from entering while at the same time promoting healthy visitation. And it would make the inn, Liscor, and Invrisil a tidy profit.

However, Erin was clearly not in the mood to think of that. She glared at Reynold.

“I guess that’s another thing I don’t have a say in, huh?”

“I am deeply sorry for the inconvenience, Miss Erin. But Invrisil is the domain of Lady Reinhart. She has a vested interest in not destabilizing the Runner’s Guild or Merchant’s Guild.”

The [Butler] bowed again. Erin shook her head. She was angry. Hateful. And trying not to throw it onto him. But she couldn’t help herself.

“Reynold. How can you be part of that? That—you’re not a bad guy. But that was wrong. Magnolia could have talked to me! She could have done anything else! But she didn’t. She did the worst thing. She’s—an idiotic—that stupid—”

Erin literally didn’t have enough bad words or practice using them. She was so angry at Magnolia. But—to her surprise, Reynold looked up and shook his head at her words.

He had been shamefaced, refusing to meet her eyes. But now the [Butler] stiffened. He nodded to Erin, politely, but his voice was firm in disagreement.

“Miss Erin. I do regret the way the incident occurred. And Lady Reinhart is less than…polite in her way. She has used your inn to her advantage. However, I would ask that you refrain from insulting her in my presence.”

Erin looked at Reynold incredulously.

“Don’t you know what she did? She wrecked the chances of helping the Antinium! She just made war more likely and for what? To get in with the Walled Cities? She could have done something better. Nicer. She could have—”

The [Butler] met her eyes calmly as he shook his head.

“Miss Solst—Erin. I hope you will never have to defend all of Invrisil. Let alone Lady Reinhart’s estates, which contains more land and people than many [Kings] or [Queens] will ever rule. It is true she can be cruel. It is true that for her justice or safety, she runs roughshod over the rights of a few for the many.”

He looked at her.

“She is cruel. But have you never hurt someone to help them? I set bones in battle. And men screamed and cursed my name at the time. But they thanked me later. Perhaps Lady Reinhart could be kinder. But was she wrong? Erin Solstice, you have never seen The Black Tide march. Perhaps you would change your opinions then. But I hope never to see such a sight again.”

The young woman didn’t know what to say to the polite [Butler]. But the [Princess]? Lyonette du Marquin looked at Reynold.

“Well said, Mister Reynold, was it? I’d expect nothing less from one of Magnolia Reinhart’s servants. She does garner loyalty from her people.”

She paused as Reynold and Erin looked at her. Lyonette went on.

“She has earned your loyalty, sir. But I fear Lady Reinhart treats others like disposable objects to be used against their will. I hope you never find yourself a piece in one of her games.”

The [Butler]’s eyes flickered as Erin looked gratefully at Lyonette. He hesitated, and then Reynold bowed again.

“Begging your deepest pardons for my incivility, Miss Solstice, Miss Lyon. I will not trouble you further.”

He turned and marched over to Yvlon. The [Butler] bowed, handed Yvlon a letter. Then, he returned to Lyonette, handed her six silver coins, and walked out the door and back through to Invrisil.

“Damn.”

That was all Erin could come up with after that. Another slap in the face. And worst—she couldn’t even undo the slap. She tried—she could go through, but when she asked Ceria to flout Magnolia’s rules, the half-Elf found she couldn’t leave without handing Erin six silver coins.

“Now that’s enforcement of a rule. A Skill for a [Lady]. Yvlon, what was that missive?”

Pisces observed. Yvlon stared up at him from her letter. The woman’s face was pale.

“She knew. Take a look at this.”

She showed her team the letter. It was a short message from Magnolia Reinhart.

 

Dear Yvlon,

I consider the presence of your little friend, Ksmvr, an acceptable one in Invrisil, and I have spoken with the Watch Commander regarding it. Please do refrain from using your rank too much in Invrisil, although I quite understand this occasion.

On another note, do send me more of your little letters if you ever have the time! I did regret it when they stopped, but I suppose you grew older. You must call upon me on my estates sometime. Oh—and your Gold-rank is exceptionally well-deserved. Do introduce me to your team when you get the chance.

Best,

–Magnolia Reinhart

 

“No way. How did she know?”

Ceria stared at Yvlon. The young woman was blinking.

“I—I’d almost forgotten I used to send her letters every week. I stopped when my brother and father told me it wasn’t good etiquette. She missed them?”

Another moment of awe, superstition around Lady Magnolia Reinhart’s reputation. Erin had had enough of her.

“I’m going to go upstairs and play chess. No one had better bother me!

She growled and stomped off. Her mood was darker still and she couldn’t shake it off. Damn Magnolia Reinhart and her stupid laws.

On Invrisil’s side, Veeid was relieved about the rule. He waved at Lyonette as he spooned ice cream out of the bowl.

“Lady Reinhart has it, Miss Lyon. We’ll also be safe of people sneaking through—unless they’ve the Skills or level to defeat Lady Reinhart’s Skill! Hm, shall I let people come through now? And may I purchase this delightful ice cream?”

Lyonette smiled.

“Certainly. We’ll talk pricing later. But The Wandering Inn is open for anyone who’d like to come through—or visit Liscor! Line up and once Master Veeid accepts your coin, we’ll send you through. One moment!”

She closed the door and began to announce to Pallass the new fee—not that Magnolia’s Skill worked on Pallass’ side. Lyonette just thought it was a good idea to establish standards.

And that was that. A few patrons promptly went to Veeid, but most were content on this side—for the time being. After all, the Players had left so Erin’s inn really only had the food going for it, and that was flowing through the door. The new travel-fee was sensible, mildly obtrusive, didn’t gate the door’s usage too much…

“Oh no.”

—But really put a sour note in Maviola’s mouth. She felt at her belt pouch. And then she began to curse Lady Bethal and her charming husband with every word she knew. And unlike Erin—she knew a lot of them.

 

—-

 

The Wandering Inn was beginning to gather a crowd. It hadn’t been much more than early evening when Magnolia had launched her sneak attack, so now the dinner crowd and people wanting to be in the inn where the drama had happened were flooding in.

Mrsha was over the moon. She was leaping from Griffon Hunt’s table to the Horn’s, playing with her old friends! And here came the Halfseekers, who hadn’t had to pay any silver!

Halrac! We got to Invrisil at last! Come here you idiots!

Jelaqua charged the table and Halrac kicked her away. He’d had enough of hugging. But then Moore and Seborn and that new Ulinde were coming through! Mrsha beamed.

But they were so busy talking they had no time for her! Moore patted her head a few times, but everyone was caught up reminiscing. And Mrsha was bored.

So she took to the street, which was actually the inn’s floor. And went hunting, or rather, begging for scraps.

“Aw, what a cute Gnoll!

A Human exclaimed. Rose offered Mrsha some fries. Mrsha stole the plate. She ran away as the Earthers laughed and just ordered another. Mrsha wasn’t really that hungry, but the victory of snatching food was the rush she craved.

She was dashing towards the door to Invrisil, wondering if she could intercept some ice cream on the way out—although Ishkr was a tricky opponent, who’d promptly call Lyonette for any trouble—when a boy appeared in the crowd.

He was short—thirteen or so—but taller than Mrsha. Just by a bit if she stood up! And he looked tough, agile on his feet. He blinked as Mrsha appeared and she blinked at him.

She…knew him. Grev? Grev, yes! From the Players of Celum. Only, he hadn’t gone with the [Actors] to the play.

“Hey! You’re that Mrsha kid! Fancy that! We meet again!”

Grev grinned at her. Mrsha didn’t like the ‘kid’ bit. But she saw Grev tug and out of the crowd came a little, bawling…

Boy? Yes, a little boy! He was all snotty and crying. Grev showed him to Mrsha; the boy was very young.

“This here’s Cade. Mind helpin’ me find Briganda? This is her boy and he’s snottin’ up something fierce wanting her.”

Mom!

Cade wailed. Mrsha realized Briganda must have forgotten about him in the heat of being caught up with all these new people. And Cade had wandered into The Wandering Inn through the door, rather than staying in Redit’s care. A failure on multiple sides, although Briganda would probably kick Redit into the wall.

“She’s around here somewhere. But all these adults are getting in the way!”

Grev groused as the inn filled to maximum, despite the [Grand Theatre] Skill. Mrsha looked around. Even she couldn’t see over the crowd, but she knew where the adventurers were…roughly.

The problem was that Grev and Mrsha might have dodged the many legs, but Cade was slow and much less nimble. Mrsha regarded him. Then she tapped Grev on the shoulder.

“What? What? What’s that paw-stuff? Oh, right. Can’t speak, can you?”

Mrsha rolled her eyes as the [Street Urchin] squinted at her. She pointed at the nearest wall and Grev tugged Cade over.

“C’mon, Cade. Your mom’s not far. Stop crying, would you? I should’ve gone with Jasi and the lot, but I’ve seen all the plays dozens of times…here. Look, this’ Mrsha. She’ll help you find your mom, see?”

Cade stopped crying as Grev pointed at Mrsha. He was clutching his magical little box in his other hand, but he dropped it as he stared at the white Gnoll. His mouth dropped open.

“Dog?”

Mrsha shook her head. Then she jerked backwards; the little boy was trying to pet her head!

Grev sighed as he scooped up Cade’s precious toy.

“Not a dog, Cade. A Gnoll. Don’t pet her head! What’s this, Mrsha? That’s a wall. We going around the edge of the room? Might work.”

He critically eyed Mrsha. She shook her head and pointed. Grev was a kid of the street. But in his way he knew his world. He was asking her, a [Hunter] in her domain, where to go.

She had ways. Grev’s eyes lit up as Mrsha walked towards a wall and motioned. He stared as the magical entrance appeared, showcasing a grassy hill, a jungle to the left. His jaw dropped.

The Garden of Sanctuary. Cade stopped crying through his eyes and nose entirely.

“Blooming rat shit. That Miss Erin got even weirder than I remember. No one’ll ever believe this!”

Grev strode up towards the door. Mrsha raced forwards as guests of the inn turned, and Grev, Cade, and a few Drakes and Gnolls tried to follow her. All ran smack into the invisible barrier.

Cade began to cry again. Grev felt at the magical barrier, frowning, as some of the adults pushed. But that [Druid]—Nathal-whatever—hadn’t broken the entry mechanism. Mrsha frowned.

Normally Erin had to let them in, but Mrsha had assumed Grev and Cade, as children, were on her list. But apparently not. Still—Mrsha needed them to come through.

So she tried it. She padded over and grabbed both’s hands. Then Mrsha tried to pull them into the garden.

There was resistance, but Mrsha felt both pulling forwards. Cade and Grev yelped, not exactly in pain, and Mrsha ­heaved. There was a pop and both tumbled forwards.

Into the Garden of Sanctuary. Grev immediately got up and stared around.

“No way. It’s grass and stuff! And it even smells nice!”

“It’s pretty.”

Cade looked around, wide-eyed. Mrsha was smiling smugly. She gestured around and then made the door reappear by the adventurers. But Cade and Grev were awestruck. They stared around and Mrsha decided to give them the silver-coin tour. She raced forwards and they ran after her, excited as could be.

As they ran, they didn’t notice the figure sitting on the hilltop at first. But that was because he was green, and sitting still.

Numbtongue chewed on some of Erin’s new calzone and listened. He was separate from the main inn, having retreated here for some peace and quiet. Sit in the inn among all the other people and be bothered? No thank you.

But he was also in…a conference. A meeting of minds. Or souls.

His other two guests weren’t eating, but Pyrite had had a minute’s worth of pizza—just a slice, you had to savor your food—and pronounce it good. And the other Goblin—well, he wasn’t part of Numbtongue. Yet.

And they were speaking. Advising the [Bard]. Numbtongue didn’t trust the Goblin Lord. He had killed Headscratcher, or Az’kerash had, through him. But he was listening. That was all.

He’d been blindsided by the [Ladies]. Helpless as everyone else. He hadn’t even realized he’d done nothing until it was over. That was what terrified the [Bard]. But Pyrite and Reiss were more sanguine about it.

“Can’t defeat high-levels. Plans. Three at once. Not good. [Ladies] hard to kill. Run away—throw an axe when not looking.”

Pyrite opined. He was sitting at his ease, in a Sage’s Grass plant. But his ghost was there. So was Reiss’. The Goblin Lord nodded.

“Ladies can’t hurt you directly. If they wanted to hurt you—you could fight back. They used the power of formality, which relies on doing no direct harm. All their power is like this.”

Reiss reached through Numbtongue. The living Hobgoblin recoiled, but Reiss’ hand was just nothingness. The Goblin Lord nodded.

“The power of [Ladies] is strongest in their class. Alliances. Indirect power. They do nothing to your face, but they hit you a day, a week, a month later with a thousand spears. Words are their weapons. If I was joined with you—I could have resisted. But for one minute.”

“Not bad thing happening to Antinium. Good to watch flanks. Antinium are dangerous. Good ones are good. But bad ones? Like Humans.”

Pyrite nodded as Numbtongue tore off some of the calzone and chewed. He felt better. Reiss nodded.

“Az’kerash is more dangerous. His minions are everywhere. I told you. Let me help. I can enchant basic objects. Use my strength.”

“Not yet.”

Numbtongue muttered. Not yet. He didn’t want to have Reiss in him. It was more than just a grudge. Being Reiss meant living his perspective, knowing his memories. He would see Headscratcher die a second time. He also didn’t want…to sympathize with his foe.

Reiss sighed. He looked at Pyrite and the [Chieftain] tried to chew on some dirt. He was probably thinking of something that would convince Numbtongue when the Goblin heard a scream.

“G-G—Goblin!”

He looked down. Grev was standing there, with Mrsha. But the little boy who’d run up the hill, laughing too hard to notice him at first was unfamiliar. And Cade, for all his youth, was an adventurer’s child. He took one look at Numbtongue and screamed.

Goblin! Mom! Gooooblin!

“Hm?”

Numbtongue stared blankly at the child as the boy tumbled down the hill. Cade ran screaming as Numbtongue kept chewing on his food. Mrsha waved her paws, but she couldn’t shout. And Grev wasn’t helping. He laughed at Cade’s panic as the boy fled—

Right until Cade ran into the jungle section. Into one of the burr-bushes Mrsha wanted uprooted and gone out of her garden.

The burrs were big. Not the sharpest, but they hurt more than anything. Numbtongue winced as Cade screamed and thrashed around in the bush. The Hobgoblin got up with a sigh and strode down the hill as Mrsha and Grev tried to help.

“Move.”

The Hobgoblin shooed the children out of the way. He picked Cade up and began to pull the burrs off him as the child screamed.

And only then did Numbtongue look up and realize that the door to Erin’s inn was connected right to the adventurer’s seats. And Briganda was on her feet, looking at him.

Cade!

The adventuress bellowed. The other adventurers had been laughing or seeing what was the matter. They didn’t realize how alarmed Briganda, the only one of them not used to Numbtongue, was. She charged and they grabbed for her, shouting, too late.

Stop, stop! He’s not a monster! Well—he is, but he’s a guest of Miss—

Grev shouted as he and Mrsha tried to bar the way. But Briganda had her axe and buckler out. She charged with a war cry as Numbtongue put Cade down. Tensely, he felt at his sword.

“Looks strong. Pyrite?”

He’s used his Pyrite-minute already, but the Hob could give him tactical advice. Pyrite stumped over as Numbtongue’s world slowed, and stared at Briganda, sizing her up. The [Chieftain] narrowed his eyes, nodded.

“…Nope.”

The [Magestone Chieftain] sat on the floor. Numbtongue stared at his friendly ghost. And then realized.

“Oh.”

Briganda charged at Numbtongue, who was standing in the garden with her son. She smashed into the open doorway and the invisible barrier protecting the Garden of Sanctuary. Mrsha, Grev, Numbtongue all winced. Cade looked up as his mother reeled backwards.

“Mom?”

Briganda hacked at the invisible door, but she only struck the wall with her enchanted axe. She left a few marks in it before the others pulled her off. And calmed her down.

“We told you there’s a friendly Goblin in the inn! You know the Halfseekers!”

Revi shouted at Briganda, embarrassed, as Numbtongue ushered Cade through the door. The boy, no longer frightened, stared at the Hobgoblin. Briganda was bright red.

“I reacted, okay? I heard Cade screaming and—I’m sorry! I just didn’t—I’m sorry.”

“Apologize to him.”

Halrac turned his head, gesturing at Numbtongue. Briganda stared at him and then called at Numbtongue.

“I’m sorry—Hobgoblin fellow. Didn’t mean it.”

Numbtongue waved idly. He tossed Mrsha and Grev through the door. Then he calmly went back up to the hilltop. Reiss eyed the milkshake Numbtongue had taken.

“Are you sure you do not wish to mingle with them?”

“Nope. Too many people.”

“And you will not accept my aid?”

“Not today.”

The Goblin Lord sighed. He looked at Numbtongue’s food. Pyrite smacked his lips.

“…Is that…tasty?

The [Bard] smirked.

“Yep.”

 

—-

 

Maviola El stared through the open doorway. She cursed Lady Bethal. She cursed Magnolia Reinhart’s door tax. It looked really fun in there.

“Excuse me. Could I just—”

“No fee, no entry.”

Redit folded his arms. He was managing the door. Maviola fumed.

“Couldn’t I just walk over and…?”

“Nope.”

She could have walked through that door, Magnolia’s orders or not. But the young [Lady] was stuck. Fuming, she watched as, through the door, more people began entering the inn. They were paying, going through—and eating food! Her stomach was rumbling fiercely; she’d had breakfast with the Horns, half a sandwich, and nothing else.

“I know the Horns of Hammerad. Let me at least talk to them. I told you, my money pouch was stolen!”

Maviola snapped at Redit. The [Bouncer] regarded her, and reluctantly, sighed.

“It’d get me in trouble with Master Veeid.”

He looked pointedly at the [Innkeeper], who was among the people enjoying The Wandering Inn’s food. Maviola’s eyes narrowed.

Now, how would she do this as a young woman? Flirt with the big man, probably. That would do the trick. That was a young woman’s trick and it would work.

But Maviola was old and young. And she had no time for insolent [Bouncers]. So, as the crowds cleared, she raised two hands to her mouth and shouted.

Ceria Springwalker!

Her voice was loud. Redit winced and began to push Maviola back, but the half-Elf had heard. She came to the door. Her eyes widened.

Maviola? Oh, tree rot! I’m sorry, I totally forgot you were with us! Come on through! I have to introduce you to Erin! And I think your friends are somewhere around here…”

Maviola smiled in relief.

“Actually, I’ve been stuck here. Someone stole my money pouch! And my horse!”

She neglected to mention who. Ceria’s eyes went wide.

“What? That’s terrible!

“Can you spot me six silver? I’ll pay you back.”

“I can just give it to you—hey! Redit! Here’s the money. Let her through already! And come on, we’ve got food!”

Ceria waved Maviola through. The young woman smiled triumphantly at Redit, who looked slightly abashed. But she was serene in victory. She only paused at the entrance of the door to give the [Bouncer] a damn good kick in the rear.

“Who’s this?”

The other adventurers blinked at Maviola. Ceria explained about her situation, but the [Lady] was optimistic.

“I’ll put in a request with the Watch. They’ll get the gold back in a couple of days.”

That was what Thomast had promised. Pisces looked dubious, as did Typhenous.

“The Watch doesn’t find most [Thieves]. We can surely feed you. And give you some coin—”

“I’ll take the food. But I can manage with only a bit. Thank you. It was a stroke of luck meeting you all.”

Maviola smiled. Yvlon murmured.

“Unless meeting us got you robbed. And here I thought Invrisil was safe.

“It is unless you have money. The gangs aren’t as strong elsewhere, but one must watch oneself. If Lady Maviola looked like a ripe mark—er, that is to say, an easy target, she’d have been sought out.”

Typhenous murmured. Pisces grimaced as he glanced sidelong at Maviola.

“…Her horse was quite splendid, what I saw of it. And a [Lady] would be…”

The others fell silent. Maviola grimaced, but only for a moment. And here they thought she was an air-headed [Lady]? Well enough. She sat at the table, and noticed Grev grabbing some pizza. She copied him.

“I’ll sort it out. But tonight, if you’ll tolerate my company—I’ll toast the generosity of adventurers and friends on the road!”

“Hear, hear! So long as you don’t mind drinking with Selphids? And my…partner is coming. Maughin. You have to meet him, Halrac!”

Jelaqua raised her mug, laughing. Maviola laughed.

“Selphid? I’ll trade kisses for drinks with Antinium or Goblins!”

She saw Yvlon blink. So did Ksmvr—well his antennae waved. The others laughed. But Maviola was partly serious. She wanted to know what these…unique Antinium were up to. Why a Hobgoblin with a guitar sat in an inn.

This was a perfect last adventure. But for the moment Maviola bit into the pizza. And the novel experience made her laugh with delight.

 

—-

 

In the inn, the party was really getting started. Although…Erin was upstairs, playing moody games of chess and ignoring her partner, who was asking if ‘anything had happened’. Did he know? Who was he?

The world was sucky. Erin Solstice sat, remembering Magnolia Reinhart smiling as she hurt Erin’s friends. She wouldn’t forget this. She slammed a chess piece down, angry. Not even chess was calming her down.

Below, in the inn, the real party had begun. Relc leapt into the inn.

I’m here at last! Get me a pizza, a drink, and let’s get this party st—”

He looked around. No one was paying any attention. Relc’s shoulder slumped.

“Aw. Where’re my people? The Players of Liscor?”

He looked at the empty [Grand Theatre], forlorn, as Selys walked past him and towards the table. She was…apprehensive. And then—

“Selys?”

Pisces saw her first. He stood up. Selys waved a claw at him, smiling.

“Hey.”

The two met as the others stood up, calling out greetings to Relc and Selys. The [Necromancer] blinked at Selys.

“Well, I suppose we are meeting all the old friends. Hello.”

He smiled. Selys did too, but with reservation.

“Hi. I didn’t know when you would arrive at Invrisil. You kept us waiting.”

The [Necromancer] smiled ruefully.

“Circumstances…arranged that. But we are back in Liscor, for a time. And, while our future is in the air, I was considering bringing up your—request to me with my team. Why don’t you sit, and we can catch up? This amusing incident occurred with eggs, aside from Lady Magnolia’s eventful arrival, of course.”

Selys smiled. But she was looking about.

“I’d love to, Pisces. But—”

Selys! And all the adventurers!”

Hawk bounded through the crowd, beaming. He was back in Liscor already, having beaten even the door. And—he was dressed to impress. Pisces blinked as Hawk came over, in a suit contoured for his body. It wasn’t really fitting with the inn—but the Rabbit Beastkin was smiling at Selys.

“Selys, I’ve gotten the private room. Unless you’d like to eat out here? Hi…Halrac, right?”

The Gold-rank adventurers nodded to Hawk. But the Courier wasn’t exactly a regular at the inn. Relc chortled as he edged over to the table.

“Mind if I sit? Hey, do I know you?”

“Yeah. And I’d know you anywhere. Relc, right?”

Grev eyed Relc. But that was background noise. Selys was looking at Pisces. He blinked a few times, and then, instantly, smiled.

“Ah, you’re engaged. Well then, I’ll discuss the matter later.”

“Yeah. Later.”

Selys smiled. The two of them nodded at each other, and Hawk escorted Selys away. Pisces sat back down, reached for a drink, and saw Ceria and Yvlon looking at him. Ceria looked oblivious, laughing at Relc as he blinked at Briganda, who was sizing him up. Yvlon…just tipped her cup up and gave Pisces a nod. He sighed.

“…Do they have anything stronger in this inn?”

Strange meetings. The same question was being asked by Kevin, who had some of Joseph’s sword-money coin and was inquiring about drinks at the bar.

“So…what’s a Drake do for fun, anyways?”

Drassi gave Kevin a blank look as she served drinks.

“The same thing Humans do, I suppose. Are you flirting? Because I’m on duty and I’m probably going to be too tired afterwards. Late night shift on nights like these.”

“Oh. Well—what’ve you got on tap? Strong stuff. Good money for the drink. I’m on a budget.”

Kevin slapped the coins down. Drassi looked at him.

“Hm…Firebreath Whiskey is cheapest. Let me get you…a quarter of a bottle? How many shots?”

“Seven.”

Kevin sighed and leaned against the bar. Strike out. And don’t go back up to bat or you’ll just look stupid. More so than already. The young man sighed, looked around the inn—

And jumped as he saw Bird at the bar. The Antinium was eating—Belgrade and Pawn were enjoying a meal with Lyonette in a private room during her break, but Bird, oblivious to everything, was eating a chicken wing at the bar.

It was breaded. And the Antinium was sitting by himself as no one wanted to be near him; probably why Kevin had been able to order. He stared at Bird. Bird stared at his food.

“…Hey. That’s an Antinium. They’re friendly. Not monsters, got it?”

Drassi poked Kevin in the back. He jumped. She had the shots. He took them, carried them over to the table with his friends, and then came back. Bird was still eating.

“Uh—hey. Cheers.”

Kevin spoke. Bird looked up and the young man took a sip of the powerful, painful, spicy whiskey. It did a lot of good work for what you drank, he knew full well. Bird waved his antennae idly.

“What am I being cheerful about, please?”

“…Stuff. Hey. My name’s Kevin.”

The Worker digested this, and then nodded. He began eating the bird bones as well as the meat.

“I am Bird.”

Kevin looked at him.

“Cool. So, what are you, like—an Ant-person? Nice to meet you.”

“That is correct.”

“So—why’s your name Bird?”

The Antinium looked up again, as if surprised this conversation was still ongoing.

“I like birds.”

Kevin nodded agreeably.

“I like ‘em too. You mean, like…chicken? Turkeys and stuff?”

Bird nodded, and then his mandibles drew together. He paused, and then edged over on his seat. He gave Kevin a long stare.

“…What is this ‘turkey’ you mention? And please explain other stuff, which may be birds.”

And Kevin made a friend.

 

—-

 

They strolled in as gentle as you please. Coins to the doorman, a doff of the cap. And they walked in, proper as you like.

Manners mattered, after all. And the pair of them, while certainly unique, attracted less attention than you might think. After all, with a [Lady] whose hair ran like fire, and Antinium about, much less a half-Giant in his seat and a white Gnoll harassing the tables, who was to notice a pair of smartly-dressed sorts?

Anyone with an eye for such things. But everyone was distracted who might pick up on the clues. And the two made no effort to distinguish themselves.

Aside from common courtesy. The shorter one—and he was short compared to the tall fellow who was more brick than man—touched his cap as he sat.

“We’re much obliged for the menu, Miss. Might we inquire if there’s any specialties of this establishment which we have heretofore not experienced? Somethin’ a traveller might appreciate.”

Lyonette blinked at the rougher speech, but the man was polite as could be. She smiled.

“Pizza’s unusual, but if you want something fancier, the lasagna is always received well. We have small, medium, and large portions. And the ice cream comes from Terandria.”

“Ah, the gelato. I’ve tasted it myself, so I might have one of these—hamburger here. And this—blue fruit juice?”

The smaller man read very carefully from the menu, taking effort to do it. He wore innocuous, brown clothes, and a floppy cap. Lyonette scribbled down the order and smiled.

“And you, sir?”

“I believe I’ll settle for a medium portion of lasagna, this pizza you recommend—and a ‘milkshake’. How many…slices would this be?”

“I’d say two or three unless you’re hungry, sir.”

Lyonette eyed the bigger man, but she was respectful. Because the bigger fellow was rather large, but he had a quite dapper vest and leggings on. And his hat was in fact somewhat tall. Not as splendiferous as a top hat, but certainly with breathing room for the scalp.

He had no problem reading, and his voice, deep as it was, was quite thoughtful and quick. The two settled back as Lyonette nodded and got their orders. They blinked when she brought back fries and condiments.

“Ah, I’m afraid we didn’t order this, Miss.”

The smaller man was quick to point this out. Lyonette smiled.

“Oh, it’s on the house for any larger orders! Help yourselves! These are ‘french fries’.”

“We’re much obliged by the hospitality, ma’am. Any place that as gives out free food must be confident in the rest.”

The smaller man looked happy at the mention of ‘free’. He reached for a fry, but then caught himself. He and the bigger man tipped their caps to Lyonette.

But they didn’t remove them. They were only odd in that way—and perhaps their speech. And they were certainly not snobs. They dug into the french fries with a working man’s appetite. And exclaimed and savored the new food as most clients did.

As normal as could be. Except for the hats. And except, of course, that they were them. The smaller man remarked as he stared at the door to Invrisil, which was still letting in new people.

“Wilovan, I had a thought.”

“Only the one?”

The smaller man gave a quick scowl at the bigger fellow for the wit. Then he went on, eying the people paying in silver to go through the door.

“Doesn’t this put a bit of soot in the eye of all the hard workin’ folk who, have so far and probably must continue to travel about the country by horse or foot? And what does that make us, then? Are we the posh folk who go around with literal magic doors that the regular people can’t afford? Is that where we’ve got to?”

The larger fellow raised his brows. He shifted in his chair, delicately munching on a piece of pizza.

“One imagines that it would be a sign we’ve made it, Ratici, my friend. And what sort of people would we be if, for purely moral or philosophical reasons, we did not use a door of such convenience. Because it exists, the door in itself is not an act of classism. However, the way it is used becomes an act that separates the rich and the poor.”

“True. But the inn’s using it in such a way.”

Testily, the shorter fellow snatched a fry away from Wilovan’s plate. Silently, Wilovan pushed the rest of the fries towards Ratici. He sighed and cleared his throat.

“Happily, I noted in the very minutiae of conversation between yon [Butler] and Miss [Innkeeper] that her door had been free for all up till Lady Reinhart’s order. Therefore, we have established that this inn is egalitarian in principle, even if the world forces it to be otherwise.”

Ratici, munching on his fries and the hamburger, and rather wishing he’d ordered a slice of pizza, coughed.

“True, true. What does ‘egalitarian’ mean?”

“Equal for all. You should know it, Ratici. It’s a line that goes well with your philosophical talk.”

Wilovan replied steadily. Ratici, as shorter men sometimes did, spoke faster than Wilovan’s measured tones, as a man might who was afraid his opinions might not be heard in time or be stomped on. And Ratici tended towards fanciful words as a manner of deliberately heightening his speech, while Wilovan kept up purely as a result of his self-education.

And Ratici was a bit conscious of that. He sighed as he nibbled from a bit of pizza.

I never needed books to teach me how to be intelligent, Wilovan. Where d’you find all the time to read these books, anyways?”

Wilovan gave Ratici a look.

“I notice you’ve stolen my pizza, Ratici.”

“I’ll buy you another.”

The big man sighed. He waved at Lyonette to effect that at once, rather than let Ratici add it to the list of debts unpaid.

“As you like. And to answer your question—I read in the recumbent embrace of beautiful women, Ratici. As they or we lie together in their inner sanctums, one finds time to read a book or two. I’m a [Reader]; I can read a book and memorize it in an hour, which is often granted to me as the lady and I must rest before parting.”

“Surely that’s a waste of a class in the businesses we find ourselves in, Wilovan?”

“Knowledge should be its own reward, Ratici. But since it affords me classes and levels, I’ll happily keep it as a side class. So long as I keep up with you, there’s no objection, is there?”

“None. Another two pizza slices, Miss? And perhaps some more free fries? And—let’s have a pair of these ‘chocolates’.”

“Are you sure, sir? They’re expensive and small. But a delicacy.”

“Of course.”

Ratici harrumphed. He hated spending too much money on useless things, but food was hardly that and he considered himself an object of paramount value. Too—he hated being seen as stingy. He also hated being seen as lower-class, but he refused to wear anything that looked ‘noble’.

He was an odd mix of contradictions, Ratici. And his partner, Wilovan, was surprisingly unsimple, especially to the women he romanced. Of course, he had a preference.

“Dead gods, what a lady. Did you see, her over yonder?”

The man stared across the inn. Ratici looked up.

“I fail to see her. But knowing your eye—yon [Shield Maiden]?”

“None other. Shame she’s with her child. But what a figure of a lady.”

Wilovan sighed, staring at Briganda’s form. Ratici rolled his eyes.

“Wilovan, your tastes never fail to amaze me. And what, per se, is wrong with a child?”

Wilovan looked offended.

“Only that the poor little fellow shouldn’t be forced to wait—much less topics of an intimate nature discussed about him, shouldn’t you agree? It would be different in other situations. But given the moment, it would be highly inopportune, rude, and I’d expect any woman as amply gifted as that lady to make the child her priority over any hairy interloper such as I.”

The Gnoll sat back in his chair and adjusted his vest. Ratici swished his long, scaly tail back and forth as he counted his fries.

They were of course, men. Just a different kind of men than Human men. And they had come through a door.

Pallass’ door. The Gnoll and Drake partnership was a long one, though, and soon they fell to discussing business.

“It took us longer than we would’ve liked, coming north on an errand as this. But this door is more boon than not, despite its implications. I’ll not miss going around the Bloodfields again.”

The Drake sighed as he nodded at the door. Wilovan nodded. The Gnoll tapped his furry forefingers together.

“We’re late on contract. So the Tall Man might be unhappy.”

“Let him. The Brothers didn’t tell him we were in the south; nor how fast we move.”

Ratici flicked his hands and in so doing, produced the ketchup in its little cup, despite it being right next to Wilovan. The Gnoll didn’t react; he was used to Ratici’s abilities.

“True enough. Then, you’re keen on taking the contract?”

“The Tall Man pays and it seems after this Lady Reinhart business that this is the place to be. We may also practice our work in Invrisil with minimal effort. Think of that, Wilovan.”

“I have assuredly given it all the thought, Ratici. The proximity to home, the pay, and the distinction all make me inclined to agree. But we may still scope out this work before we accept. And I would like to visit home even if we accept.”

The Gnoll nodded sagely, as did Ratici. Home. That was Invrisil; they had both been born in the north, a rarity for a Drake and Gnoll among Humans. That they were…not Human wasn’t a problem either. Their organization, the Brotherhood of Serendipitous Meetings, wasn’t discerning on petty matters like species.

A man’s conduct was more important. His sense of style—not a universal thing, just his internal sense of it, and of course, his skill was what mattered in the end.

And the Gentlemen Callers were the best of the best. The Gnoll and Drake wore hats—the floppy one helping with Ratici’s neck-spines, and the tall one and vest suiting Wilovan quite well, despite the fur. They stood out in their way.

But they could be very hard to find as well. So hard that the passing [Mage], on his way back from the outhouse, never noticed them until Ratici leaned around the support beam where they were sitting and called out.

“Ah, Typhenous. You wouldn’t happen to be runnin’ off, would you now? We’ve come an awful long way to say hi.”

The Plague Mage…froze. He turned his head slowly and saw them.

The hats. The Gnoll and Drake pulled out a chair and Typhenous hesitated. He turned his eyes towards his team, laughing and talking, oblivious in their special corner of the inn. Ratici smiled. With his teeth.

“Don’t be shy. We’re just here to have a nice chat, as it were, without the tit for the tat in this meeting at least. Take a seat. Can we buy you a drink?”

“I—I’m well set. Hello there. You must be…Ratici. And Wilovan.”

The two smiled. Wilovan touched his hat.

“You’ve heard of us?”

“Of course.”

“But were you expectin’ us?”

Ratici looked pointedly at Typhenous. The old man licked his lips.

“And why would I expect the…Gentlemen to pay me a visit?”

The Drake smiled and Wilovan sat back, eying his lasagna and wondering if he had to undo a button on his vest.

“Oh, that might depend. It’d depend whether the Plague Mage owes us a debt or not. In his mind. In our mind, a debt’s owed, Mister Plague Mage. And if it were accidental, that’d be one thing. Intentional now…that’d be a serious matter. We’re here to have a discussion, though.”

He nodded. Wilovan took over as Ratici sipped at his drink.

“Words have been spreading from fellows with hats, Mister Typhenous. Unkind words, about a fellow who did us wrong. So says our Nose, and he sniffed around and asked the right sort of questions. Questions that infer you might have all our answers.”

“I can assure you I’ve done everything in my power to help the brothers.”

Typhenous smiled, but palely. Ratici smiled too. His head turned slightly.

“Debts are debts nonetheless. But let’s talk it over civil-like. Stop whistling for your mates, by the way.”

He raised his claw. The [Thief] had a handful of little glittering things. Spells, little butterflies. Illusions, which should have been untouchable. Typhenous gulped.

Ratici was a [Thief]. Well—broadly. Just like Wilovan was a ‘[Thug]’. But the dapper Gnoll just sat back, looking…patient.

“We have no designs on making this a serious matter at the moment, Mister Typhenous. So we’d be kindly inclined if you didn’t. And as you know—even if it were an unkind debt you owe, calling it in the most final of ways isn’t our style. Repayment takes many forms.”

Ratici nodded. He glanced at the Gold-rank adventurers, but not with fear, so much as…

“Don’t make us take off our hats, Typhenous. ‘Specially not here, with innocent children about.”

“Never here. But we would like to discuss the matter, as gentlemen might.”

Wilovan nodded. So did Typhenous. The two Gentlemen Callers saw the [Mage] relax—slightly.

“In that case—as a gentleman, which I hope you see me as—what should I say to assuage your suspicions, sirs?”

The two looked at each other. Wilovan nodded.

“Why it happened. And no lies, sir. Just the truth as you see fit to tell us. If it’s a poor truth—it must will out.”

Typhenous breathed in and out. And then he spoke, with all the honesty he could muster and as little artifice as he thought he was allowed.

“Would you accept that it was to prevent a certain inn and city from being sacked, Gentlemen Callers? Or at least to let this young [Innkeeper], the child she’s taken in, and her friends escape if an army claimed the city by fire and blood? I also gave your friends fair warning; even I didn’t expect them to be taken out so…quickly.”

The two Gentlemen Callers glanced at each other. A bit surprised by the response. Ratici checked something and nodded.

“Interesting. You told them all of it?”

Typhenous squirmed.

“I…may have under exaggerated some of it. But I told all in scope. They seemed to believe the er…Goblins…weren’t a threat. Which they were.”

“A death by omission. A terrible thing. But you claim it was to aid yon [Innkeeper]?”

Wilovan sat back with a pained sigh. Typhenous nodded, and Ratici glanced at Wilovan, but so swiftly the Plague Mage didn’t notice. The Gnoll spoke, lugubriously.

“We might accept that. Some of our members do not have the kind of vision to see where their actions affect the lives of innocent folk, which is, of course, a thing of honor. And that is a factor.”

“Nevertheless, a debt remains.”

Ratici pointed out quickly. Typhenous inhaled and exhaled. Wilovan nodded and pinched the bridge of his furry nose.

“You’d better tell us all of it, Plague Mage. But you’ve run up a debt. Which—frankly speaking, is how it goes. A debt to foil a theft. Which in turn incurs another debt which must be paid. Nothing comes free in our line of work. Tell me though: was it worth it?”

The other two, Drake and Human, listened and nodded. Nothing was for free in their world. Blood debts were avenged, same as money. Typhenous looked from face to face. And he had been tense. But now, in honesty, he spoke, almost relaxed.

“Gentlemen, I will do my best to tell you the truth, since I cannot lie. I most likely do owe a debt. But I do assure you it was to help a young woman who deserved no theft. To save an innocent life. A glorious one, no less.”

The Drake and the Gnoll looked at him. In another place, another circle, the words would have provoked laughter and derision. Mockery and disdain, because some people could buy a life with a gold coin or less. But the Gentlemen Callers just nodded and tipped their hats.

Well said!

They chorused, and then leaned forwards to collect. For a gentleman was a gentleman, but he always honored his debts.

 

—–

 

“It’s…good to see you. Again.”

Montressa du Valeross spoke stiffly to Ceria. The half-Elf nodded. Once.

“Yeah. How’s things?”

“We…sent Isceil’s remains to his family. Ulinde’s part of the Halfseekers and enjoying it. Beza and I—well, Palt too—we’re just at the inn. Doing a bit of Wistram work on the side. You know how it is.”

“…No, not really. Little assignments?”

The [Aegiscaster] shrugged.

“Yeah. Looking into things. Um. You’re looking good. Your aura’s strong. You’ve got it under control now, though.”

“Sort of. I can do this, but it’s not that impressive.”

Ceria picked up her glass of blue fruit juice. And instantly, it was a smoothie as the cold from her hand enveloped it. Montressa smiled slightly.

“Now do that with spells. Pisces had a—deeper mana well. It’s fairly impressive.”

“Oh? Well—he hasn’t needed to use it that much. We fought a few natural Golems…”

The two looked at each other. Ceria’s words drifted off. She coughed.

“Well, why don’t we call Pisces over? He’s not doing anything.”

Indeed, the [Necromancer] was trying to imbibe as much as possible as Ksmvr stared at Cade and the boy stared back. Montressa shook her head slightly.

“No, that’s alright. I’ll wait—um—”

The painful conversation was interrupted by Beza scooting over fast. The Minotauress wasn’t that furtive, but she was doing her best.

“Montressa! Mon—oh.”

She saw Ceria and hesitated. Montressa saw her old…friend…step back.

“Let me give you a moment.”

She wandered back to her team and was soon engulfed in the laughter. Montressa turned, feeling isolated. But Bezale’s eyes were focused.

“Montressa. I think I just spotted some guests.

“What? There are tons of—”

Montressa had had a few too many drinks. So her mind took a beat longer than it should have. Then she focused.

“Impossible.”

“You think so? This inn has people from Invrisil in it. And I distinctly heard one group—over there, you see? Seven of them? They were arguing about whether this pizza ‘tasted like it did back home’.”

The Minotauress indicated a group of young folk around Montressa’s age. The [Aegiscaster]’s eyes narrowed. They…fit the bill. Around sixteen to twenty six on average, Human…her heart began to beat wildly.

“The Solstice effect.”

“The what?”

“Magus Grimalkin has a theory. I was talking to him about—never mind! If they are from…we have to do something.”

“Too right. Let’s grab them when they go outside to the outhouse, throw them in the prison cube and run for it.”

Bezale cracked her knuckles. Montressa looked askance.

“Bezale!”

“I’m not taking risks. This would redeem us both, Montressa. And then some!”

“Yes, but you want to start something in this inn? With three Gold-rank teams, Erin, and everyone else?

The Minotauress hesitated. She glanced about.

“Then what?”

“Wait. Confirm they’re guests. And then—find out where they’re staying. We make them an offer first, like Erin. They’ll jump at it! Come on, we need to get closer…”

Montressa began to look for a good place to listen in. Thankfully, Palt wasn’t about to interfere—the Centaur was helping cook some food in the kitchen, having been press-ganged into the job by Lyonette. This was their moment. Montressa began to cast a listening spell. It went right past the table with Typhenous and the two men in hats. One of them actually leaned out of the way.

“Something wrong, Ratici?”

The Drake adjusted his cap.

“Listening spell. Not on us. Continue.”

And the inn was merry. Oh, there were any number of little plots, intersecting goals—but it was a party! And that was strange.

Because Erin Solstice hadn’t arranged the party. She was in her room, moodily playing chess. Aside from greeting her friends—she hadn’t organized the convivial mood in her inn in any way. Perhaps it was a function of her class—or the reputation of her inn—that her guests instantly began to celebrate any occasion like this. Even without her.

But then—that was why it was just a nice atmosphere, not Erin Solstice’s brand of contagious excitement. The inn depended on the [Innkeeper]. But she was—

Upset. Beyond that, really. The young woman came down the stairs, too angry to even continue her game of chess. She walked down and looked around at the happy guests.

And felt annoyed they were so happy. Didn’t they know what Magnolia Reinhart had done? No, some of them even approved. Idiots.

The [Innkeeper] just stood there as Drassi came over, smiling. The Drake [Bartender] took one look at Erin’s face and her smile dropped. She backed up. And Erin Solstice turned her head as Jelaqua wobbled over.

“Erin! Erin, come tell the story about Pallass and the Wyverns to the others! They want to hear it!”

“No.”

The Selphid hesitated. But Erin’s expression was inhospitable. And—the atmosphere was spreading. Jelaqua put a hand on Erin’s shoulder, recoiled as Erin brushed the hand off. She walked backwards.

“Fine. Be like that.”

She sat down with a harrumph at the table. The adventurers fell silent. And the goodwill—began to turn sour. Maviola looked up as Jelaqua ignored Maughin leaning over to talk to her. She stared at Jelaqua. And then she turned her head.

“Five Families, what—

Lyonette felt it too. A sour aura, running through the inn. It came straight from Erin. And it was—powerful. People stopped smiling. They began frowning. That was the power of an [Innkeeper]. And usually it was such a positive force.

Not this time. The Earthers began arguing at their table.

“We don’t need to buy drinks! Stop wasting our money!”

“Our money? You mean, my sword!”

Joseph snapped at Rose. The two began quarrelling again. Lyonette frowned and concentrated. She tried to push back, but she wasn’t Magnolia. And this was Erin’s place. Lyonette made her way over to Erin.

“Erin, what are you doing?”

“Nothing. What?”

The [Innkeeper] looked up. Her eyes flashed and Lyonette stepped back. Something was wrong. But what?

Maviola was just staring at Jelaqua. And then Erin. Her eyes were wide.

“She has it too? But—”

And then her head spun, searching. Maviola saw another figure getting to his feet. And she swore.

Wailant Strongheart was drinking. Or had drunk and was still drinking, rather. But his jovial expression from entering the inn was…changed. He made his way across the inn’s floor, shaking off his wife’s arm.

Wailant!

But the former [Pirate] was in no mood for reason. He stopped at the adventurer’s table.

“Oi. Sailwinds. I want a word about what you said about my crewmates.”

The laughing adventurers looked up. Seborn smiled, in a good mood for once.

I meant what I said. Obviously. That was a sight. That Drowned Man [Depth Captain]? That was actually my f—

Wailant’s fist hit the table. All the dishes and some of the adventurers jumped.

“Take back what you said about [Pirates].”

Seborn blinked.

It was a jest. Why are you taking it personally?

He gave Wailant a very odd look. Seborn had said any number of things, but Wailant was the last person he’d have expected to take it personally. But the [Pirate] turned [Farmer] was angry.

“Our ships would’ve trashed the Underseas Crews in a real fight. Let’s settle this, Drowned Man.”

He reached for Seborn. The [Rogue] leapt out of his chair.

“Are you drunk? What’s gotten into you? We settled this—”

“Until you insulted my class!”

Wailant snapped. He went for Seborn, but Moore, Halrac, and Yvlon all grabbed him. They pulled Wailant back as he snarled.

“I’m sorry, this isn’t like him. I have no idea what—Wailant! Stop disgracing yourself! He’s never like this, even when he’s at his drunkest!”

Viceria hurried forwards. Wailant cursed as the others pulled him back. Yvlon was frowning. Halrac glared. And even Moore’s expression turned into a frown as he looked at Seborn.

“It’s not his fault. Seborn, did you have to be so rude?”

Me? They were a seafolk’s jests!

Seborn looked incredulously at the half-Giant’s frown. But it was spreading. Maviola looked around wildly. No one was seeing this?

No, of course not. She slapped her forehead and rose.

“Ceria. I’m borrowing this—”

She grabbed a pitcher of the most potent drink at the table, the Firebreath Whiskey. The half-Elf, distracted, was staring at the fight. Maviola hurried across the room.

“I’m not mad.”

“Then why are you speaking like that? And making that face?”

Lyonette was glaring at Erin. It was on her, too. She scowled at Erin as the young woman raised her head.

“I’m just tired and I’m not in the mood to be friendly today, alright? Why doesn’t everyone just get out of my inn?”

Her voice quieted the room. The others looked up. And most just stared. But a few—sensed something.

“Wilovan, you feel that?”

Ratici narrowed his eyes at Erin. The Gnoll frowned. He sniffed the air cautiously.

“I suspect I do, but whatever it might be is too elusive for me to pick up. Definitely an aura, but…”

Erin was standing. Her eyes flashed with anger. Lyonette was sparking too.

“Don’t get rid of our customers!”

“Customers? You mean, your profits! It’s my inn!”

The two began to clash. The [Princess] narrowed her eyes as Mrsha ran forwards. She bumped into Erin, hugging the [Innkeeper]’s leg. And then she began to glare and try and pull the two adults apart.

It was turning ugly. Moore, Halrac, and Yvlon were snapping at Wailant and their teammates. So was Jelaqua, and now Maughin. Erin was glaring at Lyonette. She raised a hand to shove the [Princess] aside—

Oops! Watch out!

And Maviola tripped and threw the entire pitcher of alcohol over the arguing trio. Erin was doused. So was Lyonette, and Mrsha.

Hey! What the heck was—

Erin whirled. And then fire bloomed around her. Mrsha ran, screaming in fear, and Lyonette shouted. Fire! The liquid—the whiskey had ignited as it hit them!

But how? The two stared at each other. The fire was burning on them. But it wasn’t burning their skin, or Mrsha’s fur. Because the other fire was—

The other fire? Erin stared down at her body. Her arms, legs, even her clothes were covered by flames. They were barely visible as the mundane fire licked across her body. But now she saw it.

She was on fire. But the flames were—invisible? Erin stared at the burning fire on her arm before the alcohol burned away. Lyonette’s entire arm had been engulfed, and so had Mrsha’s paw.

Where they’d touched Erin. Slowly, the [Innkeeper] looked up. Her patrons stared. Then, they whirled.

Alcohol flew, and water. Mostly it just drenched people. But Jelaqua exclaimed.

“What the hell is this?

She was aflame. Wailant was almost consumed by the magical fire. So were the adventurers who’d touched him.

“It’s—your fire. Erin? What did you do?

Too shaken to be angry, Lyonette looked at the young woman. And Erin knew.

“Hatred.”

Maviola murmured. It burned in her vision. A black flame. Erin tried to explain.

“I—must have conjured it. But why is it invisible? It should be hot. Burning—”

That was what she thought. But—Erin looked around and realized.

Of course it was invisible. Hatred wasn’t even that hot—no one was being burned physically by it. But it was all-consuming. It spread, from person to person. An insidious flame.

And—she saw Viceria beating at the fire on Wailant, Jelaqua pouring water on her arms.

It was so hard to put out.

“Make it stop! It’s burning Mrsha!”

The flames were beginning to eat away at the finest hairs on the tips of Mrsha’s fur. Erin realized her skin was…hurting. She reached for Mrsha, but the Gnoll recoiled as Lyonette grabbed her with her free arm, and brushed at the invisible flames.

“Stop it, Erin!”

“I don’t know how!

The [Innkeeper] looked around. And she felt the hatred burning on her skin. She fought against it. But how did you get rid of it?

“Pull it back to you. It’s yours.”

Someone spoke. Erin’s head turned. But she didn’t see who it was. Still—the words were right. She concentrated.

“Come back. Come back, right now—

Across the inn, the black flame winked out. Jelaqua gasped as she stared at her dead flesh—the flames had eaten away at her dead body fastest. She looked up. No flames on her, or Wailant. The [Pirate] relaxed.

“Storms at sea. What was that—”

Every head turned to Erin. The young woman was engulfed in the fire. From head to toe. It did not burn on the floorboards as she stepped back from Lyonette and Mrsha. It only thrived on living things. And now it was visible.

A dancing, dark flame, like a shadow in the light. Lyonette held Mrsha as she backed away.

“Erin? Can you put it out? Someone—get some water!”

She nearly reached for Erin, but someone—a young woman with black and red hair, put an arm out. And Erin Solstice turned. She saw Ishkr grab a glass of water and hurl it at her.

The water burned away as it landed on the fire. Lyonette saw Erin regarding her hands.

“Can we help?”

“No. I’m fine.”

Slowly, the shrouded young woman looked up. Her eyes burned behind the black veil. They flashed as she looked around.

“You’re not fine. We need to put that out—I’ll try my magic.”

Ceria stood up. Erin glanced at her friend.

No. Sit down.

The half-Elf froze, and slowly her legs collapsed. Erin Solstice looked around. And then she walked towards the magic door.

“I’m going for a walk.”

She reached for the magic door, adjusted the dial, and opened it. Walked through. The flames engulfed her. Her hatred.

But that was right. That was what she needed. Not a damn party. She needed strength. Magnolia. Erin narrowed her eyes. She walked forwards. Sergeant Kel backed up in his checkpoint.

“Let me through.”

The Drake opened his mouth. Erin Solstice looked at him. She grabbed the portcullis. And the steel—slowly—began to heat up. Warp. The [Sergeant] looked at Erin. He turned.

“Raise the gates.”

Sir?

The [Guard] looked at Kel incredulously. The [Sergeant] snapped as he stared at Erin and the dark, almost invisible fire. It was only visible under the light. In the shadows, it just made her form ripple.

“Open the gate. And send a runner to the Watch Captain, Grand Strategist, and—Saliss of Lights. Run!”

The gates opened. Erin Solstice strode through. She turned, and walked down the street. The flames were invisible on her in the darkening night. But people avoided her. The look on the Human woman’s face cleared her way in the already emptying streets as she walked.

Listening to the sound of hatred whispering in her ears.

 

—-

 

She was being consumed by it. Maviola tried to go after Erin, but the [Sergeant] refused to let anyone else through. She hesitated. But it was the young woman’s fire. It wouldn’t kill her. Maviola just hoped it wouldn’t consume her.

“She’ll be alright. I’ll go after her. Mrsha, stay here. Mister Kel, let me through!”

Lyonette went after Erin. The others stood still, murmuring. But without the flame and Erin—the inn was returning to normal.

“Something crazy each time I come here. I tell you, that’s our crazy Human.”

A Drake joked. There was laughter, nervous. But aside from Erin’s friends, people were relaxing. And as Ceria, Pisces, Jelaqua, Maughin, and a few others hurried after Lyonette to Pallass, the others sat back.

“I’m uh—anyone going to Liscor? Wailant? Are you alright?”

Drassi looked at the [Pirate]. He laughed, a bit shakily.

“Nothing burned, Miss Drassi. Apologies, Seborn. That was a hell of a fire, though.”

No offense taken.

The Drowned Man nodded warily. Drassi began adjusting the door, letting some people through and out. She opened the door to Liscor—and blinked at her next guests.

“Oh! Olesm! Councilmembers?

“Hello, Drassi. We’d like a private table.”

Krshia smiled at Drassi. Elirr was with her, and behind her, Guildmistress of the Mage’s Guild, Alonna. And—

“We’re still discussing the matter, Silverfang! The council session is not over! Bah! And this inn’s at the heart of it all!”

Lism strode through the door, tail lashing the ground. The Councilmembers glowered, but they nodded as Drassi looked about hurriedly.

“We can put you at the table at the back over there—um! Oh, hi, Olesm. Are you sitting with…?”

“No, Drassi. Is Erin here?”

A [Strategist] entered the inn. Olesm, blue-scaled, tail hung low, was exhausted. As the four Councilmembers marched over to the table, still bickering, Olesm deliberately hung back.

“Wow. You look tired.”

Drassi was adjusting the door to Esthelm. Olesm nodded.

“The Council’s been in session for hours. Well—they’re still talking. Jeiss and Raekea had to go, but…Ancestors, you heard about what happened, right?”

The [Gossip] nodded, not quite comprehending.

“That Lady Reinhart found out how many Antinium were living under the city and other stuff, right?”

“That’s putting it mildly.”

Olesm’s stomach was in knots. The Antinium were double even the largest estimates he’d seen. And they had a tunnel that led southwards? They could sack Liscor anytime they wanted. And the Walled Cities were in a panic.

The only reason they’d let Liscor’s Council and Olesm go was because they clearly thought the Council and Olesm were idiots who hadn’t known anything about the Antinium. And they were right. Watch Captain Zevara was getting grilled—and Olesm?

He just wanted to talk to Erin. It had been so long since he’d come here. He didn’t feel…welcome anymore. Not after the election. That had been his choice. But…

“I’d really like to speak to Erin, if she’s here?”

The Drake looked hopefully at Drassi. She sucked in her breath.

“Ooh. You know, she was just here. But there was this thing with black fire and uh—not a good time? She’s in Pallass.”

“Pallass? Oh—fine. But let her know I’d really like to talk? If she has time?”

Olesm sighed. Drassi nodded sympathetically.

“Do you want to sit with the Horns?”

“They’re here? Ceria’s here?”

Olesm brightened. He looked around and saw—Yvlon and Ksmvr, talking anxiously. But no Ceria. Drassi winced.

“Ceria’s gone too. She went after Erin—”

The [Strategist] eyed Ksmvr and Yvlon. He sighed.

“I’ll sit alone.”

“Oh! Well, sorry—I’ll let you know when anyone comes over!”

Drassi called out after Olesm. She went back to the magical door, adjusted it to Invrisil and blinked.

“Ancestors! Um. Hello!

 

—-

 

Olesm found a seat next to the Councilmembers. The four of them were still talking. Lism was speaking to Krshia, Elirr, and Alonna. And for once, they weren’t in disagreement, just shock.

“That was a disgrace. A [Lady] can just—walk into our city and take command? She overwhelmed us! I felt it!”

Alonna nodded. The [Mage] was shaken.

“If that was a brawl, that was the two of them pinning us down while that [Lady] stomped our faces in. I couldn’t move. I didn’t even think! I was just—watching. I don’t know how you and Krshia even moved, Lism—”

“Bah. We didn’t do anything. And I’ll say this. Damn that Reinhart, but she helped us. Don’t give me that look, Silverfang! I can admit that.”

Lism sat back. He gulped from his mug. His claw was trembling.

“Antinium. They have a tunnel. And they’re in our city. I was right.”

Krshia was subdued. She looked pale under her fur.

“They have taken no…action.”

“Don’t give me that! You saw their numbers! And they’re flouting every rule in the treaty! They have a tunnel to the other Hives. This—this could have been the beginning of them sacking the city.”

The other Councilmembers fell silent. Not even Krshia could find a response to that. It was true. The Antinium could have marched all six Hives into Liscor. And no one had known but Magnolia Reinhart. Lism drank again. And his voice was surprisingly steady.

“What do we do? We can’t allow this anymore. I say—we find as much room in the budget as we can. Damn the army—we demand the funds and approach…Fissival? We need [Enchanters] over Level 50 here today! We need to double Watch Captain Zevara’s budget.”

“And the Antinium? Do we kick them out of the city?”

Alonna looked around. Olesm raised his head anxiously. Lism was nodding, but it was Elirr who raised a paw. The Council were being served food, but they weren’t that hungry despite not having eaten dinner. The [Beast Trainer] looked around.

“We must take precautions. But regarding removing the Antinium—even if we agreed. Could we?”

Dead silence. The Council looked at each other. Remove the Antinium? In what world did the Antinium just pack up and leave? Lism growled.

“We have to prepare the city. Fortify it against an attack. Can we—reinforce the ground so they can’t tunnel up through the streets?”

“They could collapse the city. At least—parts of it that aren’t magically reinforced. That’s what one of the [Engineers] in Pallass was saying. How did we not know? How did Magnolia Reinhart…? And what do we do?”

Alonna murmured. The Councilmembers were reaching for their food, trying to think, when a figure slithered up to their table and spoke brightly.

“Excuse me. If you’re debating securing the city, I have some thoughts on the matter. It might be outside your budget, but I can certainly make accommodations to my design.”

The two Drakes and Gnolls looked up. Their jaws dropped. Lism recoiled, and the figure standing or rather—coiled in front of their table smiled brightly.

“Good evening. This is a fortuitous meeting, isn’t it? I hope I’m not interrupting, but that polite Drake told me you were Liscor’s Council. Hello! A pleasure to meet you.”

“What in the name of the walls are you?

Lism sat back in his seat. Because the figure in the inn was an anomaly in Liscor. In southern Izril for that matter. He was…a Lizardperson. But not just any Lizardperson. Rarer still, even in Baleros.

A Lamia smiled at the group, ignoring the looks of horror or amazement from the others in the inn. He was short—well, average height, when ‘standing’. But his lower, serpentine half was long, trailing behind him.

The Lamia’s scales were larger than a Drake’s, but he possessed two human-like arms; and a more bipedal upper body. Unlike a Naga, who was larger, stronger, or a Gorgon who was even more imposing still, the Lamia’s body was agile. A form suited for intelligence, spellcasting.

His gaze was certainly quick, and the Lamia seemed to be appraising each member of the Council in turn. His eyes flicked to Olesm as the Drake stared at him, but he nodded politely to the table.

“Excuse me. I’m the [Architect]. Hexel Quithail, at your service.”

He bowed slightly, his body undulating with the graceful motion. Lism’s eyes widened and Krshia stood up.

“Master Quithail. We apologize, yes? We had no idea you were here. I am Krshia Silverfang.”

The Lamia beamed. He had a scar on one cheek, Olesm saw. And his reptilian eyes were bright. Olesm saw a trio of nervous Lizardfolk hurrying over behind him. Carrying a number of bags along with their personal bags of holding. They huddled together behind their master as Hexel gestured towards them.

“Not at all. Not at all. Miss Silverfang of the Council of Liscor, I presume? I apologize for the delay; I landed at Zeres, but I had to sail north and disembark in Human lands. Lady Reinhart kindly escorted me to Invrisil and assured me I’d have transport.”

He gestured at the door, smiling widely as he shook Krshia’s paw.

“How incredible. Is this magical door property of Liscor? Or the inn? Ah, but the events of today were also quite dramatic. Antinium under the city? I have my work cut out for me, clearly. I would deeply love to see the maps of their tunnels—I can rework the city in some ways to avoid deliberate sabotage. But again, that will require some redesign. But I do apologize, I’m talking too much.”

He had that chatty way of most Lizardfolk about him. The Council blinked, but then Elirr rose and offered his paw.

“I am Elirr Fultpar. It is an honor to meet you, Master Quithail.”

“Hexel, please. We’ll be working together.”

The Lamia beamed at Elirr. Alonna rose.

“I am Guildmistress Alonna of the Mage’s Guild. Hello.”

Hexel turned to her. He smiled.

“Charmed.”

He did not take her claw. Lism looked at Hexel with obvious distaste.

“It’s good to meet you…Mister Hexel. Our [Builders] have been working according to your designs. But this latest incident has…changed things. This isn’t an official meeting of the Council, but we welcome your input. Please. Sit.”

He nodded a few times, still looking warily at Hexel. And the Lamia smiled. With his teeth.

“Thank you. Councilmember Lism, I presume? I was delighted to be offered the job to build a city like Liscor especially given the weather conditions when I received it. However—before I sit, and indeed, begin my work, may I have a few words on the matter of…security?”

“Security?”

The Councilmembers blinked. Hexel smiled and gestured to his crew of three Lizardpeople. They stared at the Drakes. And Olesm saw Hexel’s eyes flicker to him, Lism, Alonna.

“Indeed. I’d heard Drakes didn’t like Lizardpeople, but I wasn’t aware of how badly that truism ran. Did I mention I first disembarked at Zeres? Well, I was heading north to Liscor. As it happens, Drakes slaughtered half of my [Assistants] and gave me this scar.”

He touched the scar running down his face. The table fell quiet. Lism’s jaw opened and stayed open. The Lamia went on. And his smile widened.

“So, while I’m fully delighted to be working on a project like this, I must insist on [Bodyguards]. And if this inn is open? Yes, I’d prefer to stay here. And I insist on protection for me and my people. Non-Drakes. Gnolls or Humans, preferably. Without that, I will be returning to Invrisil and Baleros this moment.”

He looked at the table. Alonna, Lism—both Drakes looked astounded. Krshia’s eyes were wide.

“Master Hexel—we had no idea. What happened? Were they [Bandits] or…?”

“They were Drakes. More than that, I think they simply objected to Lizardfolk. Astounding, really. Zeres was pleasant, but the further north I went…it was rather reminiscent of the scene in Chandrar, actually. You recall, with the Gnolls? Drakes attacked my party. I was forced to kill the rest after the ambush.”

The [Architect] looked about. And his eyes focused coldly on Lism’s.

“I trust that will not happen here? In fact, I will ensure it will not.”

“Of course not. We’re not about to kill youthat was bandits.”

Lism looked rattled. The Lamia shrugged.

“Just as you say. But I have your word on bodyguards? Now?

The Council stared at each other and then nodded. Krshia spoke.

“You have our word, Master Hexel. We will arrange it. Absolutely. And let me apologize for…”

She trailed off. The Lamia smiled at the Gnoll. Olesm just looked at Hexel’s assistants. They stared at him and the other Drakes, clearly terrified. And his chest felt tight. Lizardfolk. Of course they were…lizards. But they’d been attacked for being…? Or was it [Bandits]?

Hexel just nodded at Krshia. He smiled again, and slithered over to the table. He didn’t sit, but rather reclined on his lower half. And he beamed. But again—with that edge.

“Excellent. Now that little matter is settled—I will make other provisions tomorrow, as we settle the matter. But for now, let’s get to work. Blueprints!”

He gestured and a Lizardman hurried forwards with a map of Liscor. Hexel produced a wand, waved it. All the dishes on Lism and Alonna’s side went scooting away as the map was unrolled. He addressed the Council.

“If you would like to discuss security for your city, it’s rather been on my mind as well. However, I am delighted to speak with you all. Tell me more about yourselves! And if you wouldn’t mind—I am famished.”

He waved and Ishkr strode over. His apprentices were seated at another table, and Hexel, smiling, ordered and began to chat. He leaned over to Krshia and Elirr, rather ignoring Lism and Alonna. The two Drakes were speechless anyways.

So was Olesm. He looked at Hexel, but what could you say? Olesm was biting his tongue as he remembered well—Lizardpeople jokes. No, it had to be [Bandits]. It was just dislike. No one was actually going to go out and kill a Lizardperson over that grudge. Right?

Surely not. Olesm had to stand up and look for Ceria and Erin. But they were still gone. Some people were discussing what had happened. Olesm found a Human [Mage] and a Minotaur. He vaguely recognized them.

“Excuse me. You wouldn’t know what happened to Erin, would you? I’m a friend. I was hoping to talk to her…”

Montressa and Beza looked up from their covert observation of the Earthers. Montressa nodded to the door.

“She’s in Pallass. Something to do with her magical fire gone wrong.”

“Her…magical fire? Oh, right. That. Uh—gone wrong?”

Olesm blinked a few times. The [Strategist] wondered if something was caught in his earholes. Montressa gave him an odd look.

“Yes. Her magical fire. Anyways, she’s gone. The other adventurers know more about it.”

She pointed. Olesm hesitated. He didn’t know the other adventurers as well as…Ceria and the Horns. He ducked his head.

“Oh, well, thank you.”

He walked past them. As she did, Bezale leaned over to Montressa.

“Who was that? Not one of Erin’s regulars. You know him, Montressa?”

The [Aegiscaster] whispered back, a bit too loudly.

“No idea. He might be new. You know, Erin makes a lot of friends.”

The [Strategist]’s shoulders hunched. He stopped heading over to the adventurers and scuttled back to his table. Then he put his head down.

“Strategist Olesm of Liscor. That’s me. New guest of the inn.”

He muttered into the table. And only the [Lady] with fire in her hair heard him. Olesm waved for a drink. Why had it all gone wrong? He’d just tried to do what was best for Liscor. And the worst part?

He’d been right. But it hadn’t been enough. The Antinium. Olesm clenched one claw into a fist. What was he supposed to do? Be nice to them?

They could wipe out Liscor. He was supposed to be one of the people who would stop them from doing that. But how did you stop The Black Tide?

He was no Zel Shivertail. And now—Erin didn’t even speak to him anymore. Olesm tried to cure this with the only medicine he had.

Lots and lots of alcohol.

 

—-

 

She walked, aflame, through the City of Inventions. The invisible fire flickered by moonlight. But she kept it burning. She let it feed on her.

Erin Solstice welcomed the flame. She didn’t need to be happy now. She didn’t want to put a smile on what Magnolia Reinhart had done.

She wanted to hate. She’d lost again. And Magnolia Reinhart would pay.

Take the hatred. Let it burn her. Let it become her weapon. Erin Solstice walked up the steps, and people flinched away from her.

The [Innkeeper] was weak. But her fire—it could be a weapon. One that could burn even Magnolia’s smile away. Erin wanted to hurt her.

So she walked, along the 9th floor. And she thought of all the ways you could hurt someone. Stab them, burn them, pull out their eyes. Burn their faces off with oil.

Some people deserved to die. That was what the fire whispered to her. And Erin agreed. She wanted a weapon. So she walked towards the one who could make it for her.

The Dwarf. Why hadn’t she carried an acid jar on her? She could have thrown it at Magnolia. What would happen if Ressa tried to block that? Could you pump it through a hose? A sprinkler?

No one was going to take her friends from her again. And this fire—this was power. Like the night she had made the faerie’s meal. Erin felt the power coursing through her.

Because her magic was intention, will, emotion. And the moment. One of the moons shone down on her. The other was shrouded, dark.

“Give me a knife.”

Pelt had said he could forge something far better than the steel knife she carried. Erin wanted it. Use her flame. And give her a knife that could cut.

His forge was still lit, a small glow among the few other forges at night. He was still there. Erin’s darkest voices whispered in her head.

 

Make me a knife made of hatred and flame. To cut away my weakness, my enemies, my shame.

 

“Pelt. Where are you?”

Erin strode into the forge. She saw a single flame, lit in one of the forges. Just for light. An anvil shone. There was a tiny, pointed chisel, lying on top of it. The tip was as fine as could be. Erin looked around.

Pelt! I want—”

 

Give me a weapon to make a monster out of me. A weapon so terrible the world will flee—

 

And then she found him. Erin Solstice halted. The Dwarf was lying on his back, behind the anvil. Erin’s eyes went round. Pelt held a small mallet in one hand.

His eyes were wide, his mouth agape. Gasping for air, but his lungs didn’t move.

The mithril coin lay next to him. Erin’s black flames—flickered.

“Pelt?”

The Dwarf was twitching. The coin—glittered in the moonlight. It lay on the ground, where Pelt had dropped it. And Erin saw.

The Dwarf had begun restoring it. Erin saw a shining city. Half re-made, the tiny, delicate details given clarity by Pelt’s metalworking tools.

An empire. Symbols of an old nation. A sun rose behind a city. But that was not where it had stopped.

Around the rim of the coin were words.

Letters, delicate. But visible. Erin read them in between Pelt’s choking. A phrase on the minted coin. Or an epitaph to a long-forgotten kingdom.

So old that the mithril had worn with time. And yet, Pelt, the master, had restored it. Almost all of it.

And the words. Shone.

 

Tamaroth, Who Leads. The G— of Rulers. Protect Us in Our Weakness.

 

That one word. Pelt had managed to recreate a single letter of it. But the rest was—scratched out. His shaking hand, so perfectly steady in everything else, had damaged the rest of the word.

Erin Solstice saw this all in a moment, between the Dwarf’s seizing chest, clawed hands. That one word. The flames around her went out. She looked at Pelt. His eyes were wide. He wasn’t breathing.

She took the coin and shoved it in a pocket. And then she screamed for help.

 

—-

 

Later. The flames were gone. Erin Solstice sat, shaking, in Pelt’s forge. The Dwarf was breathing. Coughing. But breathing.

Alive. Saliss knelt next to him—and Ceria, Pisces—Venim—all the people who’d come after Erin. [Smiths] too—the Watch was keeping them back.

The important part was that Pelt was alive. Alive. Erin had found him scarcely a minute after he’d collapsed.

Working on the coin. The scratched out word burned in Erin’s head. The coin felt red-hot in her pocket.

Her flames of hatred were extinguished. Erin hugged Pelt as he coughed and pushed her off him.

“I’m so—glad you’re okay. And I’m so sorry.”

“I just froze up. I started breathing! You didn’t need to pound on my damn chest!”

The [Blacksmith] coughed again. He’d started breathing after the coin was removed. Saliss was offering Pelt a bottle of compressed air.

“Breathe into this. What happened?”

Erin opened and closed her mouth. But the Dwarf just thrust aside the bottle.

“Just an accident at the forge. Too many damn distractions. That was all. I needed a break. Somewhere quieter to work. Said it for years.”

He and she said nothing of the coin. Pelt didn’t even look at Erin. Trembling, he put his tools away.

“Big fuss over nothing.”

Watch Captain Venim sighed. Pelt passed a hand over his eyes.

“Nothing. I saw nothing. Can’t even remember. If I think of it—”

His breath caught in his throat. He choked—everyone reached for him. But the Dwarf started breathing again.

“Nothing happened.”

His gaze was blank. Nothing. Erin met his eyes for a moment. She backed away and Pelt looked around.

“Why did you come here, Erin?”

“I wanted to…”

She’d wanted a knife. But Erin—her desire was extinguished along with the dark thoughts. The hatred was gone. She had looked into Pelt’s face and been terrified for him. She was…she liked to believe she couldn’t kill like that.

But part of her knew otherwise. Something had to change. She’d been blindsided by Magnolia because the [Lady] had planned for her. And Erin—she hadn’t. It was as simple as that.

Vision. Magnolia had once told Erin something like that.

Save the world. But Erin couldn’t even beat Magnolia at Magnolia’s game. At chess, yes. But Magnolia’s board was vaster than Erin’s.

How did you fight Magnolia Reinhart? Erin sat in Pelt’s forge as the Dwarf coughed, already forgetting, snarling that he was fine. And Erin, shaken, looked around.

For something. Her eyes settled on Saliss. The Named-rank adventurer was naked as always. You almost forgot about that. He grinned at Erin.

“Hey. You always show up at the right moment, don’t you? That’s an adventurer’s trick.”

“Hah.”

Erin tried to smile. She looked around, and then sighed.

“Want to go to my inn? Drinks are on me, Saliss, Pelt. And a free round for everyone else.”

The others looked at her. But the [Innkeeper] just smiled wanly. And the others smiled back. Because that was Erin’s power. Her real power, that was.

Soon, they were back in the inn. Lyonette relaxed and Erin went around, apologizing to her friends. She put Pelt in a private table and loaded him up with drinks—despite that probably not being the most sound medical move. But the Dwarf was happy.

And Erin owed him a debt. Saliss followed Erin into the inn on her insistence. He grinned as he saw Octavia and Revi exclaiming over Revi’s stiches. Revi glanced up.

Oi! Naked Drake! Put some pants on—

Her eyes widened as she recognized Saliss. Her jaw dropped. And Erin elbowed Saliss.

“Don’t leave just yet. I have something I want to talk to you about.”

He looked at her with a bright smile. And saw right through her. Erin Solstice looked around. She breathed in and out. And then she put on a happy expression. And she made herself—cheerful. And the inn followed suit.

Why did she throw a party even in her darkest hours? Erin Solstice walked around, talking to people. Making them feel welcome, joking about the invisible flame, apologizing. And why?

Because it wasn’t about her. She was an [Innkeeper]. And her guests came to her inn for what she gave them.

The [Lady] saw it all. And approved. Just look!

The Players of Celum and the Players of Liscor were coming back. They entered the inn with an explosion of sound, a babble of voices.

Dead gods! I’ve never seen acting like that!

Temile was dumbstruck. He looked at Jasi and Wesle with awe. And even a bit of fear. The [Actors] were radiant as Wesle and Jasi laughed. Emme was hugging Kilkran’s side.

“We did it! The [Ladies] loved the performance! All of them! They were bidding to have us perform in their lands! Private performances—we can go on the road—this is it! We’ve made it!”

The Dwarf [Manager]’s eyes were shining. She didn’t think to keep her voice down. The [Actors] turned as Erin overheard. Wesle faltered.

“Oh. Erin—”

“You did well? You’re going to be sponsored and stuff? Hey, that’s great.”

Erin smiled. And she meant it. Jasi exchanged a look with Wesle.

“We owe you everything, Erin. You have to see us.”

“It was the most impressive performance I’ve seen, Erin. I think I might level just from having seen them!”

Temile was babbling. He had tears in his eyes. Erin wistfully smiled.

“I wish I had seen it.”

“We have a booth reserved just for you. We’ll perform tomorrow.”

Kilkran was stroking his beard as he spoke—he was wearing a wig over his bald head, a rather good one. But then—Wesle looked across the room.

At the stage. The [Grand Theatre] waited. And the [Actor] cleared his throat. The others looked at him.

“Kilkran. Why do we need to wait for a stage? Our first one—well, one of the first—is here already.”

The Players of Celum turned. And they looked at their old stage. Erin’s head rose as Jasi, resplendent in her dress, twirled and looked at her cast.

“Of course! Players of Celum! I believe it’s time for an encore. With all of us! What say you?”

The [Actors] glanced at each other. And then they rushed towards the stage. Erin saw Wesle leap onto the stage.

“Which play?”

Do them all!

Relc shouted. He was wide-eyed as the high-level [Actors] fussed about, ushering their Gnoll and Drake counterparts into place, debating. Eltistiman walked forwards, flicking his wand.

Both Liscor’s crowd and Invrisil’s stared through the doorway. The magical door promptly went out as Invrisil’s patrons tried to flood through. And the Players of Celum began to act.

“Dead gods.”

That was all Erin said. The first play they did was Juliet and Romeo. A classic, the very first they’d done. And Wesle was playing Romeo, and Jasi, Juliet.

Erin remembered the first play, full of half-remembered lines, awkward [Actors] who didn’t know how to face the audience. But still with that spark, buried among the lines. The magic of the stage.

Now, that magic shone. You could believe the love story, see it amid you. Erin wiped at one eye as she stared at the stage.

“But they just did a performance. They’re exhausted.”

Emme whispered as she watched. And that was true. The Players were tired. Some voices were hoarse. Erin’s stage was smaller, the set less grandiose. The other [Actors] from the Players of Liscor who were joining in lower-level.

But still, the [Actors] shone. Temile looked at the stage. And he had seen the best performance of his life an hour ago. The best—until the one tonight.

“We’ll never recapture this.”

He murmured, looking at the [Actors], striding about on the stage. The audience watched, laughing, enraptured, gasping at the fight scenes.

Look at it, lightning in a bottle. Erin looked at Jasi, shining, and remembered the [Washer] whom she’d met in Celum. How could they be one and the same? But because they were—it was glorious.

She walked around her inn, as the guests turned and smiled. Greeting people. Slowly moving towards her destination.

“Miss Solstice, I presume? The Council of Liscor has hired me. My name is Hexel Quithail. Might I ask if my three apprentices and I could stay at your inn?”

A Lamia, a half-snake person addressed Erin. She blinked at him. And then smiled.

“Of course! Hey, are you a…um…snake-person? That’s totally cool.”

Hexel blinked at his serpentine half. And then—the [Architect] began to laugh with genuine amusement for the first time. The three scared apprentices forgot their nerves and fell over themselves laughing. Hexel assured Erin he was. And she grinned.

“Sorry, Lamia. Right! Of course you can stay! We just built some new rooms, so they’re a bit rough…”

“Really? Well, I happen to be an [Architect], Miss Solstice. Lovely inn you have. Could use some changes to accommodate for the Skills. And is that a secret Garden I spotted?”

The young woman went on, shaking hands, speaking to people. And the Gentlemen Callers found her at their table. She smiled.

“Hey, how are you two doing? Can I get you anything? Nice hats.”

“Why, thank you miss. And we’re quite well set up ourselves. But it’s a kind word you have for us, and a lovely play!”

Wilovan touched his hat. Erin blinked at the unique speech, but then beamed at him.

“Glad you like it! Let me know if I can do anything! Oh—and we’re serving a special drink. The Minotaur’s Punch. Try it later!”

The bar was lighting up with her fire of glory as Erin conjured some for Drassi. The duo glanced after Erin. Wilovan murmured.

“Ah. What a nice young lady. Not that I’d speculate, but whatever would the Tallman want with her?”

“I suspect we’ll find out. But insofar as we’ve seen, Wilovan? Who wouldn’t want to know more about an establishment such as this? Let’s try that drink.”

And they were unprepared for the shot of memory. Even them, the famous duo. The [Actors] shone on stage.

Erin stopped at the last table on her route. She’d saved Saliss for last. Pelt was snorting and waving off her apology; he was drinking and looking around the inn, thoughtfully. And Saliss of Lights was smiling.

He was drinking the Minotaur’s Punch. He looked at Erin.

“I hear you had another fire. And I wasn’t here to see it! Then again—I also hear it wasn’t the best one.”

“It was stupid fire. I don’t think anyone should have it.”

Erin sat down at the table. She looked at Saliss. And wondered about him. But Saliss smiled. And Erin felt a kinship, of sorts.

How did you beat Magnolia Reinhart? The question was in her head. By making plans, thinking ahead. But you had to do it well. And—she looked at the stage. At Saliss, a person who could bottle that lightning.

“Say, Saliss?”

Yes, my lovely Erin Solstice?”

He fluttered his eyes at her. Erin smiled and rolled her eyes. Because they both looked at each other and saw the other was pretending. To be happy. To be helpful, even when they didn’t feel it. Because, fundamentally, they believed in good things. So Erin took a deep breath.

“You know, Octavia tells me you use up a lot of ingredients when you experiment. And I’m not saying I have a lot of them. But if I had some…flowers. Do you think you’d be able to make something with them? For a price.”

The [Alchemist]’s eyes widened. Erin met his gaze, serious. Because you had to prepare for the future. The Named Adventurer sat back. And his eyes glittered as he imagined what could be.

And also waving the flowers in front of Xif’s shop until the Gnoll cried.

 

—-

 

She was wrong. That was what Maviola thought. So close, and yet so far. The [Lady] looked around Erin’s inn and saw genius.

“What a beautiful inn.”

Lady Firestarter gazed at The Wandering Inn and beheld it all fully. Like the fire she had seen on Erin, she saw all of it.

Look at this place. Gold-rank adventurers and Hobgoblins just as fierce, sitting together in this inn with Antinium and a Named-rank Adventurer?

Erin Solstice had made only one mistake. And that was going to Pelt for her knife. Going to Saliss with her flowers. That was thinking like Magnolia Reinhart. But this? She was nearly there in Maviola’s mind.

Nearly. And she thought she was weak? Ridiculous! The strongest [Lady] in Izril had been forced to ambush her with allies just to get her way. Who else could lay such a claim?

Erin Solstice didn’t need a weapon. This was her power.

Not fighting. Not wrath or hatred or war. Just this. Tending to the fire. The [Lady] sighed. Didn’t she realize? Perhaps that too was her strength.

But look at all these burning flames. She had blown on the embers, and now they shone. How glorious. Like her flame. The [Lady] raised the glass and drank. Her eyes burned as she closed them.

Still. The young woman was young. And not all flames burned bright. She didn’t tend to them all equally. But again—she was also an [Innkeeper]. Maviola took even more to fire than Erin Solstice.

And she saw the burning souls of all in the inn. So, the [Lady] looked around and saw flames that could be nurtured. Low spirits. She made her way to one.

Not blazing. Erin’s fire was the one that shone in this inn, and two flames only distracted the eye. Maviola was a dull glow besides Erin. She didn’t need to steal the stage like an [Actor] or Magnolia. She knew the value of warmth.

“Hello. Mind if I have a seat?”

A Drake looked up from his half-drunken stupor. Olesm was kicking himself. He’d tried to apologize and talk to Erin as she passed by his table, but she was busy. He blearily looked at Maviola.

“Huh? No. Sure. I mean—have a seat. The table’s open.”

Maviola sat. Olesm tried to drag himself into some semblance of…anything. And he felt warmer, all of a sudden. He blinked as he sobered. The [Lady] looked at him.

“Sorry. I’m new in Liscor. I just came from Invrisil. You were looking depressed, so I couldn’t help but come over.”

“You just…walk over to sad people in bars?”

The young woman laughed. Olesm felt bad about the snippy question. But she smiled and the smile was infectious.

“Why not? Haven’t you tried it? Everyone has a story. Also—I may have heard you were the [Strategist] of Liscor. A lot’s happened, hasn’t it?”

That’s an understatement. Yes, I’m Olesm Swifttail, nice to meet you. I was hoping to play some chess with the [Innkeeper] here. But I’m something of a pariah these days.”

Maviola nodded, listening. Olesm felt embarrassed, whiny. But something about her reminded him of the old Drake who had raised him before he’d come to Liscor. An openness that didn’t judge. She leaned over.

“Chess? I’ve played a few times. [Strategists] love that game, don’t they?”

“Oh, yes. And Erin’s one of the best in the world.”

Olesm saw Maviola laugh incredulously. He sat up, indignant.

“She is! I can’t even beat her. But—well—”

He looked at Erin, sitting with Saliss. The [Strategist] grimaced. And Maviola followed his gaze.

“Surely someone else can play the game. Speaking of plays—that’s some glorious performance on the stage.”

She indicated the Players of Celum, who’d taken an intermission. The inn shone in Maviola’s eyes. And Olesm perked up. He glanced at the stage—Wesle was shouting.

“And now, a unique performance never played in Liscor—Elisial!

The crowd went wild. Relc pushed people out of the way as he dragged his daughter to the front row seats. Grev was trying to tell Mrsha and Cade about it as the boy made little magical apparitions come out of his magical box. Mrsha was staring in awe.

Erin was talking to Saliss. Numbtongue had found Octavia with Revi and was talking animatedly about fabrics, which he had an opinion on to both Stitchgirl’s surprise. Or rather, Pyrite did.

Jelaqua, Maughin, and Ulinde had approached Hexel and were exclaiming as the Lamia and his crew brightened to see fellow Balerosians. Kevin was trying to explain peacocks and penguins to Bird, who was buying him drinks.

The inn brightened around Olesm as he came out of his funk. He looked at Maviola. And realized she’d helped him with that. Slowly, the [Strategist] looked around. And there was Belgrade, playing chess with Lyonette as Pawn gave her tips.

Why hadn’t he seen any of this? He was so focused on Erin. But now, the [Lady] laughed.

“I can play chess too. Why don’t we play a game? And you can tell me about Liscor. Do you know—I’ve never visited Liscor? Never gone further than Wales.”

“Really? Well, that’s not surprising. Most Humans don’t go further than Celum. Esthelm’s practically in the middle of nowhere. Besides, you’re quite young…”

Olesm wondered why Maviola laughed so hard at that. But he found himself pulling a chess board over. Absently, he began to play.

“I’m actually a decent player. I run a chess magazine. I haven’t updated in a while…this inn has all kinds of entertainment. The plays, drinks…”

“I saw. So what’s your job?”

“Managing the city. It’s boring—well, it used to be. But I’m still not doing much.”

“Really? A [Strategist] who doesn’t do much? Why?”

“Well, we have a Watch Captain. And a Council. I just give advice.”

“Hm. So you’re just not doing your job?”

Olesm blinked. Maviola gave him a steady look. The Drake found himself clarifying.

“No, I mean, I have ideas. But we have the budget to think of, and we can’t just shake things up—”

“What ideas?”

“Well—I have a number of proposals, but I don’t want to get into them—”

“Like what, exactly?”

The Drake opened and closed his mouth. He peered at Maviola. And the [Lady] moved a piece.

“Check, by the way.”

Olesm looked down at his board. She winked at him.

 

—-

 

Erin talked with Saliss for a while. Then she went into her garden, uprooted a flower, and handed it to him. She sat in her inn.

Better. Not full of angry fire. Still upset. But better. Erin sighed to herself.

“One step at a time.”

The coin burned in her pocket. And Erin had a supposition. Or perhaps it had just been a dream.

But where had the coin come from?

She looked around her inn. And shook her head.

“Dead gods. Dead gods…what a day.”

She looked around. People were applauding the exhausted [Actors]. But many were leaving. The Lamia—the Lamia was smiling at Lyonette, keeping his distance from Lism and Alonna as Krshia shook his hand and left the inn.

Sour notes amid the good. But Erin had given a flower away to an [Alchemist] who told her he could experiment—it just might take a lot of flowers. And she saw Lyonette counting a pile of silver from the magical door.

Good and bad. And perhaps it was because Erin was in a decent mood that the world decided to give her one last kick in the pants. Or again, it could be it was just chance.

“Erin. Excuse me, Erin, we have a problem.”

Ishkr walked over to Erin. The [Innkeeper] groaned.

“What is it, Ishkr?”

“Some of our guests…can’t pay for their meal.”

The Gnoll grimaced. Erin did too. That happened now and then.

“How much did they buy?”

Ishkr named the number. Erin fell out of her chair.

How?

“Drinks. Ice cream. Pizzas. Blue fruit juice, chocolate—”

Ishkr rattled off the most expensive items on the menu. Especially the ice cream and chocolate. Erin saw Lyonette’s head turning with wrath and ruination. Both she and Lyonette marched over to the arguing group of seven.

“I thought we had enough!

“We did! Why does it cost gold?

“Because no one checked the prices! I—oh—”

Lyonette propped her hands on her hips, looking at the group of young people. Erin blinked. There was something…familiar about them.

“Call the Watch, Erin?”

The [Princess] looked annoyed. Rose raised her hands hurriedly.

“No, please!”

“Someone call for the Watch? I can hit a few people before I get to bed!”

Relc was in a fine mood. He had autographs from the Players, and he was beaming after seeing the new play. He raised a jovial fist. The Earthers stared at him. Kevin laughed incredulously.

“No way. Right?”

He looked around. But Joseph and Rose had seen Erin. They were staring.

“Erin, it’s us. Rose. Remember? Uh—we know each other?”

This time Lyonette and Ishkr both rolled their eyes.

“That’s the oldest trick in the book. Relc? Just hit them a few times and drag them off to the jail, please—”

“No, wait! Erin! It’s us! From Magnolia’s mansion!”

Joseph shouted as Relc walked over with fist raised. Erin blinked. And she remembered.

Joseph? Rose? Wait—I think I remember—”

She closed her eyes. She heard a thud a shout, panic—Erin opened her eyes. Relc was standing over Joseph. The young man was on the floor. Erin held up a hand.

“Wait! Relc! They’re—they’re from Ryoka! That’s who she meant!”

She turned, eyes wide, to Lyonette. The [Princess] stared at the Earthers. They were ducking away from Relc. The Drake paused, ready to kick Imani as she flinched and covered her head.

“Wait, do I hit them or not?”

Erin looked at the group of seven. They stared at her. Rose tried to smile. Erin looked at their table stacked with dirty dishes. She thought about Ryoka’s letter. Magnolia’s brief aside. And she groaned and ground her teeth.

Lyonette looked at Erin’s face. The [Princess] closed her eyes. And she realized, as Montressa and Beza groaned and Palt made the same, sudden connection and came galloping across the inn’s floor.

“I’m going to kill Ryoka.”

Mrsha solemnly nodded. She looked at the downed Joseph. This was what Ryoka had sent? The Gnoll child wrinkled her nose. Then she sneezed on Joseph and went upstairs to sleep.

Erin looked at the others people from Earth. And then, to everyone’s surprise she laughed.

“Hey. Nice to meet you all again. Welcome to The Wandering Inn.”

She reached down and pulled Joseph up. He blinked at her. And Erin might be exasperated, confused, annoyed, but she looked at them.

“We’re all from the same home. It’s good to see you.”

And Imani burst into tears. Erin reached out and took her hand. And her friends sighed. Or smiled. Relc lowered his fist and patted it sadly. But they were here at last.

It was an eventful night.

 

 

 

Author’s Note: This was a short…interlude. Gah. I can’t even make the interludes after the big stuff short. I quit.

I hope you enjoyed it. This was just characters meeting. Some other stuff that might be important. You know, maybe. But mostly nothing.

But the inn’s come a long way. Can you remember Volume 1? Well, some of our readers can. And Knight Commissar Yarrick, the [Commissioner] behind some of the amazing fanart has done it again. He hired LeChat Demon, another amazing artist we’ve seen before to make art that…encapsulates Volume 1.

It’s just amazing. And I think it fits this chapter. Look at it and see if you remember all the faces and events. And here we are now. I can’t express enough thanks to these two passionate readers! Enjoy, and thank them in the comments!

https://ko-fi.com/lechatdemon

 

Volume 1 by LeChat Demon!

(Full-Size Version)

Volume 1 by LecChat (Commissioned by Yarrick)

 


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