7.26

In Rhir, Tom the [Clown] was a [Hero]. Two classes of arguably different natures. Although he would call them the same.

He was mad. Laughing, sequestered in his room when not killing things.

And beloved. Beautiful women threw themselves at him. People had copied his face paint. He, more than the others, was an icon to the people of Rhir. And the Blighted King had made him—a celebrity.

He might have children. On dark nights—and they were all dark—Tom would fall asleep laughing. And that was Tom, not him.

The [Clown] rarely joined Richard and the others. For all they were guests of Lord Hayvon Operland at the moment, he sat in his rooms with groupies mesmerized by the [Clown]’s mixture of darkness and glory for slaying the Demons. Or alone, giggling at the ridiculousness of it all. What he had turned himself into.

He only came out to eat, and then—seldom. Or to watch broadcasts on the scrying orb. Today, Tom was having an interesting day. He’d begun by smashing every mirror in his room, the ones he talked to other-Tom with, scaring the ladies he’d slept with out of the room.

This was Tom’s tragedy. Self-made. Something part of him luxuriated in. Enabled by the system and himself. And the Blighted King saw a useful, if erratic piece on the board. He saw potential. He made plans that would shake the world to its core. The errant, traitorous [Mages] had been recovered. The magic could be wrought again. And this time—the Demons would die. Rhir would know peace.

…And you know what? It mattered. Oh, the machinations of the Blighted King and the Demons influenced the world. But today—they were small. They would do nothing so significant as the events unfolding elsewhere in the world. They were not all-encompassing.

 

—-

 

In Izril, a Dragon walked through Celum. In disguise, using a magical avatar, but he walked. And he saw a young woman, an [Innkeeper], and a City Runner embracing. This was their story, a reunion so long in coming.

Away, hundreds of miles away. Running in shame, for the deaths she’d brought to Liscor. And back again. Ryoka squeezed Erin as tightly as she could, lifting the [Innkeeper] up from the ground. And Erin hugged her back, so strong for someone her size.

“You big dummy! You can’t just run away. We missed you so much. I’m so sorry I told you leave. I didn’t mean it! I say stupid things!”

Erin shouted into Ryoka’s chest. The City Runner felt tears in her eyes.

“I’m sorry. It wasn’t you. I just—brought too much. I had to change. I tried. But I missed you all. I’m so sorry for leaving. I had to come back. I…had to stop running away.”

“Don’t go again.”

The young woman squeezed her friend tightly. Ryoka smiled. She was embarrassed, knowing people were watching. But she didn’t let go.

“Not anytime soon. Erin. Erin—”

“Mm. Shut up.”

For a while, they stood like that. The wind blew around Ryoka, merrily sending giggling children spinning about. Forgetting the tragedy around them for a while. True magic.

At last, Ryoka heard something. Rumbling. It came from Erin’s stomach. The young woman started. Ryoka heard a reciprocal growl. She let go of Erin, laughing.

“I haven’t eaten since…yesterday night. And that was only a snack.”

Roast beef and tea. It was probably haute cuisine for someone from the United Kingdom if you added sauce and potatoes. And yes, that was complete shade. Ryoka stepped back, or tried to.

Erin refused to let go. She dragged along the ground as Ryoka edged back.

“Erin. I’m not running away.”

“I don’t believe you. You have to come with me. Mrsha misses you. So do the others. They’re all here.

Mrsha. The City Runner tensed. And mortal fear flooded through her veins. Fear, and guilt.

“I know. I’m not going to run.”

“Liar. Come on.”

Erin’s arms tightened. She began to drag Ryoka in a bear hug. It was comical, the short [Innkeeper] dragging Ryoka’s lanky body behind her. It made people laugh—or it would have, if anyone in Celum had been in the mood for it.

Do not forget that the Bloodfeast Raiders had been here. Ryoka’s smile flickered, looking around.

“Erin. I did…come at a bad time. Maybe Celum was always going to be attacked. But I was here when it happened. When I left, it was because I couldn’t do anything…”

“Shut up. I’m not letting go. My inn is safe. You can’t go. I’ll bite you if you try to run.”

She raised her face. Ryoka saw tears, and Erin gnashing her teeth threateningly. The Runner tried to pry Erin off her, and then gave up.

“I’m not. Fine. I’m heading towards your inn. Where is it?”

“The magic door’s in the center of the city.”

“Okay. Let go.”

“No.”

That was how Ryoka Griffin ended up trudging down the street as she dragged Erin behind her. Even in the desolation, the people of Celum turned and stared. The young woman was holding onto Ryoka’s waist and refused to let go.

As Ryoka struggled, cursing Erin, and trying not to laugh, she passed by a paragon of the half-Elven form. The Dragon stood, watching her and blinking.

It was hardly an auspicious moment. The two locked gazes. Ryoka’s jaw dropped. Teriarch blinked at her.

Perhaps he had envisioned some grand moment where he revealed himself. If so—he had failed to land the legendary aspect of it. The Dragon eyed Ryoka. She stared.

T-Teri—”

“Hello, Ryoka Griffin. I believe our business is unfinished.”

The Dragon’s heterochromic eyes glinted in the rising daylight. Ryoka was at a loss for words. Teriarch drew himself up—and he was taller than her, powerfully built. He pointed at Ryoka’s chest.

“Child, do not mistake me. I am Grand Magus Eldavin to you. And we will speak further. I do not leave a debt unpaid. You and I will—”

I knew it. Who’s this? Doesn’t matter. You’re not getting away!”

Erin Solstice stood up. Teriarch broke off and eyed her. The [Innkeeper] made a hyeup sound, and lifted Ryoka up in a bear hug.

Erin! Stop!

Ryoka immediately began to struggle. But her [Lesser Strength] and occupation had made Erin strong enough to lift one Ryoka. She began carrying Ryoka down the street. Teriarch stared at Erin.

“Hey, whoever you are. Sorry, I’m borrowing Ryoka. You can have her later.”

Erin grunted, red-faced. Ryoka stared helplessly at the Dragon. Teriarch’s mouth was slightly open. He stared at Erin.

“Do I know you…?”

“Probably. Get in line!

Erin shot over her shoulder. Faced with that, the Dragon had no choice. He began trailing after Ryoka. The young woman might have noticed him, as striking as he was. Hair like white silver, beautiful, robed. Also—somewhat unsteady on two feet.

But she was focused on Ryoka. She put down Ryoka after one street because Ryoka was heavy, but she didn’t let go. She linked arms with Ryoka, afraid her friend would disappear.

Not again.

And Ryoka Griffin felt it too. She looked back at Teriarch, the Dragon, once. Then she looked ahead, and took a deep breath. For there were things in this world more important than Dragons.

The Brass Dragon had the surreal experience of being ignored. He trailed after Ryoka, opening and closing his mouth, caught in the Solstice Effect™, as first observed by Magus Grimalkin.

Just like that, on a day following magic and tragedy, Ryoka Griffin returned to The Wandering Inn.

 

—-

 

Mrsha du Marquin woke up with a start. She sniffed the air, rolled out of her bed, disoriented. She distinctly remembered serving people food and drinks last night. But now it was bright! The Gnoll sniffed her empty mattress, noting a distinct lack of Lyonette. She put two and two together as the child looked about.

She must have fallen asleep last night! Sometime before midnight! And they’d put her to bed! Mildly outraged, Mrsha raced at a wall. Before she collided head-first with the wood, the Garden of Sanctuary opened.

The white Gnoll raced onto the grass and then did a u-turn. She charged at the door again, and it revealed the common room of The Wandering Inn. She raced forwards on all fours and looked about.

“Mrsha! Ancestors! You scared me out of my scales!”

Drassi jerked and narrowly avoided a collision with Mrsha. The Drake was yawning, but she was already serving weary guests at this early hour. Adventurers, Celumites, people from Esthelm, Liscor—all of them were wearily sitting about the inn.

Lyonette du Marquin herself, Mrsha’s mother, was still at work. She wobbled as she put some food in front of a starving group of [Guards].

“On the house. That means ‘free of charge’. Thank you for all your hard work.”

The surprised group of Gnolls and Drakes looked up. Some murmured thanks, appreciatively digging into the rich food, loaded baked potatoes with topping of sour cream, sauce, fried Rock Crab meat, pig bacon, butter…

The kind of meal that sat in your stomach and walked you straight into bed. Some of the Watch was so tired they couldn’t even eat—at first. But the food reinvigorated them and they dug in. Lyonette smiled. Then she felt something small leap onto her legs.

“Mrsha! You’re awake?”

The Gnoll rubbed her face into Lyonette’s side as she climbed up. Lyonette grabbed her with both arms and hugged her.

“Hello, dear. Did you sleep well? You worked so hard last night. I’m fine, really.”

Mrsha looked up anxiously at Lyonette. The [Princess] had rings underneath her eyes. But she was smiling.

“Truly. I’ll rest after we find Erin. She’s been up all night, too. Do you want breakfast? Then you can help out. I’m sure we need it. I could use some food, too.”

Mrsha nodded. She raced into the kitchen as Lyonette put her down. She was going to help! Lyonette looked hungry, and there was nothing better than a fat fish for breakfast. In Mrsha’s opinion. With butter and nice and hot from the oven? Oh, how delicious! Mrsha would bring it for Lyonette since she was being helpful.

The Gnoll ran into the kitchen and saw a group of Humans clustered around the cupboards. She stopped, nearly slamming into them. She saw Joseph, Kevin, Galina—five out of the seven, minus Leon and Imani. They were clustered around a counter and eating.

“Joseph, stop drinking! You’re sick.

Rose hissed at Joseph as they ate the fish and a casserole for breakfast out of one of the cupboards. Joseph was drinking.

“I. Need. A. Drink. Or don’t you, after last night?”

The young man from Spain on Earth, growled at Rose. He was having a morning cup of gin and blue fruit juice. Which was really, very tasty. But possibly not the best for you. His hand practically shook in relief as he took a huge gulp of the drink.

Mrsha just—stared. Kevin was salting the fish and yawning.

“Anyone know where the ketchup is? Why are we eating a fish?”

“I couldn’t find any of the other food. Just eat. We’re staying out of Lyonette and Erin’s way—oh.”

Rose caught sight of Mrsha. The little Gnoll stared at the Flatfish—one of the native, biting fish from Liscor’s streams and rivers that liked to jump and try to bite you—being eaten by the group. They turned, guiltily.

“Uh, hey! Mrsha—”

The young woman got no further because Mrsha charged her in ire and frustration. The Earthers yelped as an enraged Gnoll cub attacked.

And Mrsha was heavy. She could and had beaten Elirr’s dogs in sheer strength competitions—well, all except the warhounds. She pummeled Joseph’s lower back in a rush of furry punches. The young man yelped. Mrsha leapt and did a sideways kick like Garia had taught her at Kevin’s leg.

“Ow.”

The young Californian man rubbed his leg. Mrsha opened her mouth and he warily moved back. Rose snatched her hand back from trying for a pet and Galina and Troy, who’d been quietly having breakfast, edged back.

Mrsha snapped a few times, and the Earthers warily retreated. But she couldn’t really punish them because her blessing was gone! Lyonette had given it to someone else.

“Mrsha! What are you—oh.”

Lyonette hurried into the kitchen, and stopped. The Earthers hesitated.

“Um—sorry. We woke up, and we didn’t want to be a bother. So…”

Lyonette eyed the five diners, who had not only managed to pull out several drawers in hunting for utensils and cause a mess, but were neatly occupying half of the inn’s kitchen just in case anyone wanted to bring out food to the actual customers. She put her hands on her hips, took a breath—

And sighed. One week had passed, well, roughly a week and a few days, since the seven had come to The Wandering Inn. And their acclimation had been rough. Lyonette spoke firmly—she might have been more kind if Imani had been among them.

“I appreciate the effort. But why don’t you all eat at a table instead? We can bring you food. But Mrsha and I need to get at the cupboards. Mrsha, stop punching Kevin’s back. I’m sorry, Kevin.”

“Actually, I don’t mind. It’s like a back massage. Sorry about the trouble.”

Kevin obligingly stood up. Joseph nearly hid the gin and blue fruit behind his back, then tried to pretend it was just blue fruit juice. Lyonette wasn’t fooled, but she forbade comment. Rose ducked her head guiltily. Galina looked at Mrsha.

“Hi!”

She smiled at Mrsha. The Gnoll gave her a narrow-eyed look back. She waited until they were gone and then looked at Lyonette. It was a look with so many words packed in that Lyonette didn’t even need to read Mrsha’s sign language.

“I know, dear. But they’re guests. Erin’s guests. Try to be nice. Anyways, I’m sure Erin will turn them into flying Garudas or something in a few days.”

The [Princess] saw Mrsha giggle at the thought. Smiling, the [Princess] picked Mrsha up and put her on the counter. She massaged her lower back with a sigh.

“There now. Let’s see what we’ll have for breakfast. Not the cake, Mrsha! That’s special…maybe a little slice. You and I have been working hard. Ooh, a quiche? Did Erin make that? No—it’s got seasoning and little spinach baked into it. And bits of meat! Garry must have, when he came over. Why don’t we have that, and some bread? Get us two plates…”

In a few moments, Mrsha was happily dining on Garry-quiche and Palt-bread in the common room. The Centaur could also cook, and he had lent his expertise—as well as his spells to the inn.

In fact, there he was. Wearily trotting down the stairs.

“Morning, all.”

The Centaur yawned, and then did a double-take as he saw Montressa and Beza sitting in the common room. They had helped in Celum as well, conjuring water-based spells to put out the remainder of the fires. But they were here again.

Watching the Earthers like hawks. Mrsha sighed as she saw Montressa not-quite-looking at Rose and the others. She had to watch Montressa. Mrsha briskly pointed two furry little fingers at Montressa, then at her eyes, copying Erin’s gesture. The [Aegiscaster] blinked at the warning gesture.

But they’d been warned off of trying to poach the Earthers. Lyonette eyed Palt and the other two Wistram [Mages].

“Palt, thank you for the help. We have breakfast—”

“I can serve myself. You look dead on your hooves. Er, feet. Is Erin back yet? I might go fetch her. You can die for lack of sleep.”

The Centaur had retired earlier in the night. He nodded to Lyonette and carefully trotted into the kitchen. Lyonette sighed. So did Mrsha, as she cut up the quiche to share—two thirds to Lyonette, one third to Mrsha. Lyonette needed to put weight on her skinny body.

She liked Palt. He was a nice horse-person. She thought he would be good if Erin liked him. But that was uncertain. Mrsha approved of Palt, though; he always gave her scraps when he was cooking and he smelled nice. Always of something interesting.

“Hello. We are awake. Comrade Pisces is still asleep, but we would like refreshments!”

A voice rang out from the stairwell, following Palt. Mrsha saw Ksmvr, Ceria, Yvlon, and Griffon Hunt all coming down the stairs. She smiled as she saw Ksmvr.

“Oh, Ksmvr! Everyone!”

The other adventurers nodded to Lyonette. But before she got up, Drassi was intercepting them.

“Hello! Thank you for all the hard work, Ceria, Halrac—did you change your stitches, Revi? I love the red. I can get you some food. Lyonette, eat with Mrsha!”

The [Princess] sat back with a groan. Mrsha happily offered her a bite of quiche. Lyonette laughed, bit the morsel on the fork and offered Mrsha a bite.

“You’re so nice today, Mrsha! Well-behaved. Is it because of the cake?”

She teased. Mrsha wagged her tail, happily. She just wanted to help out Lyonette since she was so tired! (She’d go find Erin when Lyonette was asleep.) The Gnoll was a big girl and she had to make the inn better.

She spotted a few more people rousing themselves as breakfast’s smells and atmosphere brought the dead to life. In this case—Wesle, yawning and scratching at some stubble. The [Actor] wasn’t performing, so his voice wasn’t the usual echoing, deep voice of the stage. He and Jasi had been in Celum, trying to inspire the residents.

“Can I have something to eat?”

He croaked as Jasi woke up from her nap on the stage. Only those two had come from Invrisil, to save as much mana for teleportation between Esthelm, Celum, and Liscor as possible. They’d actually slept in the old stage-area after coming back for the night.

“Thank you so much. I can—”

“I’m here. Anything to eat, Mister Wesle, Jasi?”

Ishkr arrived just in time for his morning shift. The normal Gnoll briskly came over and Wesle looked about. Jasi yawned as she leaned on his shoulder.

“Do you have any tea?

This was The Wandering Inn. As Mrsha persuaded Lyonette to sit, relax, ignore Joseph surreptitiously pouring more gin into his cup, and just eat breakfast, more people came into the inn.

Relc and Embria from Celum, having helped secure the area. No Halfseekers, but they’d promised to come as soon as the magical door wasn’t so occupied. People coming from Liscor, asking to be teleported to Celum to look for their families—Celumites who’d been housed in Liscor since their homes were burned.

So much to do. So many faces. And Mrsha the Brave and Merciful was going to help. She would get Apista and they’d find Erin in Celum. She was busy trying to push Lyonette upstairs after breakfast.

“Mrsha! I’m fine, really. I need to wait for Erin.”

The [Princess] was yawning, smiling at Mrsha’ anxious entreaties that she should sleep. Drassi called out, helping Mrsha.

“You should rest, Lyonette. The Horns can get Erin.”

“Well…I suppose I have been up a while. But—is everyone settled? We’re going to be busy all day sending people to Celum…”

The [Princess] wavered. But sleep called to her. Ceria waved a hand as Pisces stumbled down the stairs.

“We’re good, Lyonette. You rest! We’ll drag Erin back.”

“I can do it.”

Palt announced, dining on some lettuce and spicy salad dressing for breakfast. Lyonette smiled.

“We’ll help too!”

Rose announced loudly. Joseph waved, now content with two shots of gin in him. Kevin nodded and Lyonette—winced. Growing less relaxed.

“I’m sure you will. Maybe I should stay up…?”

We have this, Lyonette.

Drassi firmly helped push Lyonette towards the stairs. The [Princess] looked down at Mrsha’s anxious face, and smiled.

“Oh—fine. Go look for Pawn too, will you? He’s been out all night with Yellow Splatters, helping build and dig…”

Mrsha rolled her eyes, but she nodded. Apista was flying out of the Garden of Sanctuary, and Lyonette was laughingly going upstairs.

At that moment, the door to the hallway opened. Mrsha, busy pushing Lyonette, heard a gasp and Lyonette stopped on the stairs. The white Gnoll caught a whiff of something and turned.

Erin? And someone…her eyes went round. She looked at the tall figure, the young woman with black hair coming through the doorway.

Ryoka Griffin saw the new inn as a blur of faces, color, for one moment. She stopped, dizzy and the familiar unfamiliarity of it all. Then she saw the white figure on the stairs.

Mrsha?

The City Runner froze. Erin, pushing Ryoka into the room, looked up. She saw Mrsha’s little head turn. Her brown eyes were wide as could be. Stunned. Shocked.

“Ryoka?”

Pisces dropped his toast. Ksmvr dove for it. Yvlon and Ceria just stared. Halrac, Revi, Typhenous—

Relc blinked a few times. Embria just scratched at her neck-spines, uncomprehending. Montressa’s head shot up with sudden interest. Drassi looked about, wondering what was so important. Palt blinked at Ryoka and then narrowed his eyes.

“Um. Hello, everyone.”

Ryoka looked about. She looked at Mrsha. The little Gnoll was just frozen there. Caught in another world, remembering all the times Ryoka had been with her. All the times she had been gone.

She had never even said goodbye to Mrsha. Ryoka’s eyes locked on the girl, and her stomach clenched. Joseph nearly did a spit-take on Rose, but gulped down his drink instead. Rose’s jaw dropped.

So many people, all of whom knew Ryoka. Whose stories intersected. At that moment, Garia Strongheart was jogging towards Celum from her farm. Octavia Cotton shouted as Lyonette’s blessing burned in her mind.

I’ve done it! I did it at last!

She ran around her shop, screaming in delight. And then—she opened the door to The Wandering Inn, ran down the hallways.

And saw Ryoka. The young woman stood in the doorway, looking about. Unable to say all the things she needed to tell the others in front of her. Mrsha stood on the stairs, afraid to move. Not sure if she was happy or—multiple emotions ran through her at once.

Someone moved, though. As Erin halted, next to her friend, Lyonette turned and walked down the stairs. Disbelieving, she looked at Ryoka Griffin. She walked up.

“Ryoka?”

“Yes. I’m—”

Lyonette du Marquin, Princess of Calanfer raised her hand and slapped Ryoka. The sound made half the inn flinch. It was a [Flawless Attempt] at a slap, and it had all the force behind it Lyonette could muster. Ryoka actually spun a bit with the force of it. She caught herself, felt her skin burning. The [Princess] looked at her, disgust in her eyes.

Not all reunions were happy.

 

—-

 

In total, it was five. Five slaps—even if they weren’t all backed by a Skill. They were more like punches near the end, until a shocked Erin, Yvlon, and the others managed to pull Lyonette off Ryoka.

The City Runner sat on the ground, her head ringing, cheeks red from the blows. She hadn’t tried to dodge or step back. And in some ways—that was better. She hadn’t expected it from Lyonette, but it made her feel as though she was getting what she deserved.

And yet, it solved nothing. Lyonette was forced off Ryoka as Erin shouted and waved her hands. Those who knew Ryoka flooded forwards; people who only had a vague understanding of the moment, like Wesle, Jasi, and the others held back.

But each person who did know her—took something different from the moment. Lyonette was furious, but she calmed quickly from her rage at seeing Ryoka just—walk in. Without warning Mrsha or Lyonette or anyone.

The emotions weren’t so complex in others. Ceria threw her arms around her friend, and Yvlon grabbed Ryoka in a one-armed hug. Ryoka gawped at Yvlon’s arms. Because, of course, she didn’t know what had led to it.

That was pure. But some, like Halrac’s team, stood back. Not angry—just cool. Appraising. Remembering the circumstances surrounding Ryoka’s disappearance, perhaps.

Regrika Blackpaw. The death of Ulrien, Brunkr…

So many old failings, stories, buried threads unearthed by her return. Yet, the little white Gnoll standing on the stairs was one of those to whom it mattered most.

The Dragon saw that. He was unaccustomed to being a bit-player, but he had followed the two into The Wandering Inn. Now, he muttered to himself.

“A door? Didn’t Reinhart say something about…? This? Truly? This is the fantastic artifact that…?”

He was catching up on world news, plucking the scrying spells out of the air and copying them as he watched the events unfolding in the inn. And of course, analyzing the people and things within the inn.

“It’s just a teleportation spell on a door. Someone’s mangled the enchantment. I grant you, it’s a decent idea, but can’t they just recast…or is this an artifact? This?

Affronted, the Dragon poked the door, eying the mana stones that were crudely forming locational anchors. He heard a voice.

“Excuse me! Don’t mess with the door please. Thanks!”

Drassi bustled by Teriarch. He stepped back.

“How dare you—I mean, er, my deepest apologies, child.”

The Drake [Gossip] eyed Teriarch. She smiled, briefly.

“Sorry. We’re just transporting people to and from Celum. I need to change this to Liscor…”

Teriarch watched as she adjusted the dial, and then opened the door.

“Hello! Essential travel only today! Who’s for Celum? Come in, come in! Make a line—we’ll get people from Esthelm before transport to Liscor. Thank you! You can ask questions later—we’re a bit busy.”

Teriarch glanced down the hallway as people—Gnolls, Drakes, but mostly Humans, flooded past him. He was a bit…overwhelmed by all the mortality about him. He glanced into the common room. Of course, it was far away, but his eyes were superior. He saw Ryoka stammering to the others, heard her voice perfectly.

“I—I was in Reizmelt. I didn’t intend to come back, but…”

Look at the child, you fool.

The Dragon murmured into his beard. He plucked at it. Stupid hair. What was the point? But his image of Grand Magus Eldavin had a beard. The little Gnoll child was practically burning with her emotion. And Teriarch, the Dragon, had a soft spot for children.

They were all children to him. The Dragon looked about. This was a reunion for Ryoka Griffin and he was loathe to include himself in it. He had tact. But he had witnessed the destruction of Celum.

“Mortal grief.”

The Dragon tried to justify it. But he watched as blank-faced people stumbled through the doorway. Drassi adjusted the door, opened it to Celum and they poured through.

Bereaved, lost. He had seen it a thousand times. He watched the Drake let people through to Liscor, and then shut the door, promise to open it in ten minutes, hurry off. The Dragon looked back at Ryoka.

“Mrsha?”

The young woman just stood there, amid her friends. And they fell silent. The little Gnoll child looked at Ryoka. The City Runner hesitantly opened her arms.

“Mrsha. I’m sorry. I—”

She ran. Dashing up the stairs, howling with a sound that had no translation in any language. Except, perhaps, betrayal, grief, loss. Ryoka ran after her, and Lyonette, and Erin.

The Dragon turned away. Why was he here? It had just been a passing fancy. And clearly—he had forgotten how mortals worked.

Ryoka Griffin had been so—grateful to meet with him. But she had a life. Mortals always did. The Dragon shook his head. He debated just—cutting the supply of mana to this simulacra. Going back to sleep.

But he could at least stay awake after going to this much effort. The Dragon huffily examined the door.

“It really is just a…spell. Elegant. ‘Signed by Warmage Thresk’. Who? Hmf. I suppose ingenuity knows no limits. So each of these is a location. This one…”

He eyed a crimson mana stone. It was…pulsing.

“Shamanic magic on the other side. Odd. Ah, I see. The teleportation spell has limits. Of course it does. I’m amazed anyone repurposed this as an artifact. Why not just cast [Portal] and have done with it? Children. They don’t even have the ability to—unless this was improvisation? By an [Innkeeper]? Yes, yes. I sense the leyline of magic here. That makes sense.”

The Dragon happily investigated the door, turning the dial, sensing a connection out of range somewhere to the north. He itched to fix the stupid enchantment. If you just tweaked it a bit, added a few levels of spellcraft, you could practically double the range, create a permanent—

“No, no. This is entanglement.

The Dragon caught himself as he began to sketch a prototype for an efficient door on the wall. He hurriedly stopped, adjusted his robes. What was he doing? Putting effort into this door? He might as well create a Fissival-style teleportation network. Change the world. What had Griffin said again?

“Half-effort. A modicum of effort. I am just here to rest and…watch a movie. Why is that creature an Ogre? Has the creator never seen an Ogre before? Or is this in some hideous world where Ogres have been so mutated that they’re green and…were those ears?”

The Dragon shuddered. He had seen monstrosities, and this one wasn’t the worst. But it was too disturbingly—person-like. He needed Ryoka to explain it.

But she had a life. The Dragon was an outsider. He sighed as he stood in front of the magic door. Perhaps Reinhart…? But she had made her oath. Teriarch absently twisted the dial to a yellow gem.

“Now, this cannot lead to where I think it is. They didn’t disable the teleportation web just to—”

The door opened to Pallass. Teriarch saw a huge Drake, arms folded, standing in the transit cell. Grimalkin of Pallass recoiled slightly, seeing the tall half-Elf standing in front of him.

“At last! I sent you two [Messages]—oh. Excuse me.”

The Drake blinked at Teriarch. The Dragon blinked back. His first impression of the [Sinew Magus] was that someone had taken a bundle of muscles and attached a Drake’s head to it.

“Excuse me?”

The half-Elf [Mage] turned his head slightly, a superior look in his eyes. To Grimalkin—it was like running into one of Fissival’s lead [Mages], or an Archmage all of a sudden. The Drake’s mouth moved. He could sense the magical acumen in the person standing in front of him.

“…I am Grimalkin of Pallass. Who might you be?”

“I am T—Grand Magus Eldavin. I apologize; I have just arrived in this inn via Celum. I was inspecting this…door. And you are a [Sinew Magus]. Fascinating. I didn’t think that anyone in this world still practiced physical enchantments anymore.”

The half-Elf’s eyes lit up on seeing Grimalkin. He inspected the Drake, much like a [Scholar] looking at a particularly interesting sample. Grimalkin huffily drew himself up.

“My field is underappreciated, but I’ve been working in it for the last three decades. Who might you be? Grand Magus Eldavin? I don’t recall hearing…”

He paused, narrowing his eyes. The Drake actually…did…remember that name. somewhere. They’d never met; he never forgot a body type. But didn’t Wistram’s roster include…?

The Grand Magus’s eyes flickered.

“I was formerly of Wistram’s Council of Magi. But I have not been to the Academy in over a hundred years. I do not recall your name. But I have been—sequestered of late. Tell me—does this doorway lead to Pallass? Unsecured?

Grimalkin opened and closed his jaws. Over a hundred…? Half-Elves. He nodded, brusquely, eying the hallway behind the Grand Magus. He would have stepped through and told the man he was busy—but Grimalkin was reluctant to do so. He answered politely, instead.

“We are in a holding cell. Hardly unsecured.”

“If you say so.”

The half-Elf’s brows rose with clear disdain for the ‘holding cell’. Grimalkin bristled—although he saw the point—then stopped. He looked Eldavin up and down.

“You, sir, have excellent musculature. I’m sorry, but I have to bring that up. I’ve hardly ever seen such optimal distribution of muscle mass in most [Warriors], let alone a fellow [Mage].”

“Oh? Well, thank you. It isn’t much.”

The Grand Magus seemed pleased. He regarded his body as if he hadn’t even noticed. Grimalkin’s attention was drawn to his midsection. He could see the abdominal muscles there.

“Do you…exercise, sir?”

“Not often. I seldom leave my c—research laboratories. Did you say your name was Grimalkin? Ah, of Pallass, yes. Interesting. You’ve written a number of papers…”

The half-Elf was suddenly distracted, as if he in turn was recalling information—or probably, consulting magical notes. Grimalkin bowed his head slightly. He walked into The Wandering Inn, motioning at the Pallassian [Guards] behind him.

“You…don’t maintain your form, sir? Perhaps you have another class? [Blademaster] or…?”

Half-Elves were an eccentric lot. But Eldavin just shrugged. He stroked his beard, eying Grimalkin up and down.

“Not at all. My…class…is solely that of [Grand Magus]. Hrm, yes. I maintain my athleticism via spell, naturally. Exercise, however commendable, is too much of a waste of time. How fascinating. You are certainly a specimen of physical prowess yourself.”

Grimalkin’s jaw dropped. He replied, faintly.

“You maintain your form by spell?

“Obviously. Form-shaping spells, spells to build muscle—”

The Grand Magus waved the idea away as if it were too elementary for consideration. Then he noticed Grimalkin’s stare.

“Er…they are elementary, aren’t they?”

“N—I mean to say, I prefer working out physically, but—they are not in my lexicon of spells, Grand Magus.”

Grimalkin replied weakly. Eldavin frowned and scratched at his beard. He muttered into it.

“Dratted hair. I should have gone bald…is spellcraft really that behind? Physical enhancements were far more complete in my day. Do you not know any form shaping spells?”

“…I have a few Skills. Sir. Uh—may I ask what your business is here?”

Grimalkin found himself humbly squaring his shoulders. The [Grand Magus] couldn’t be serious. But—half-Elves. He had white hair, which meant he was at least two hundred years old. Feor wasn’t nearly as old-looking! Or in such exemplary shape! Eldavin just waved this off. He eyed Grimalkin worriedly, coughed into one hand and replied with an innocent tone.

“Purely a coincidence. Young…Drake. Form shaping is the fundamental nature of necromancy and flesh magic. Blood magic to some extent, but that is too sacrificial…ah, but I recall now. Your academic works are quite interesting. Hardly novel, but studious. Well done.”

He nodded to Grimalkin in a grandfatherly way, smiling proudly from one [Scholar] to another. The Grand Magus went on as Grimalkin had to lean against a wall.

“It doesn’t surprise me that you lack form shaping spells. Exercise is all very well, but for we mages, well, it can be a waste of time, can it not? When a spell can do the work of running up and down a mountain…we may lack Skills, but we have sorcery. I would advise you to travel a bit. Inquire into A’ctelios Salash, other colonies of necromantic or blood magic. Khelt as well…they have experts in the field. The [Flesh Shapers] of A’ctelios are quite adept.”

“I…see. But surely exercise has its own merits? Sir?”

Grimalkin saw someone coming through the door behind him. Watch Captain Venim, to investigate these claims that a Drake had been part of the Bloodfeast raiders. But suddenly that was a secondary concern to Grimalkin. Even Erin herself—no—wait. The Solstice Effect. This must be…

“May I ask how you came to be here, sir? Did you meet a young woman? Erin Solstice?”

“I may have. The name is familiar…hm. No, I am just here out of curiosity. As to your question—exercise is a physical virtue. It builds willpower, muscle memory—but sorcery compensates for the sheer…muscular growth and such. As I’m sure you know. Like the [Shapeshifters] of old would tell you, the body is eternally mutable. Still, a valiant effort on reintroducing the physical school of magic.”

He patted Grimalkin on the shoulder. The Drake looked at Eldavin. Reintroducing? He blinked a few times.

“I—yes, sir. C-could I trouble you for more of an explanation on—everything?”

Eldavin’s face grew troubled, and suddenly, wary.

“Er—of course. Quite something to meet another [Mage] here. Ahem. Indeed. But this is all public knowledge, surely.”

“Not to me. Are you…familiar with my studies on Drathian cultures?”

“…Pills? I have no objections against using their tinctures. Quite remarkable, aren’t they?”

“Yes, yes. Er—apologies, let me get a notepad…”

The half-Elf found himself sitting in the common room as the suddenly very polite Drake hurried to escort him to a table. Pulled out a chair, ordered food, asking the Dragon what he wanted.

“I could sit for a few moments.”

Teriarch muttered through Eldavin’s voice, enjoying the attention. He chuckled as a menu was brought over.

“How delightful. What is this? Hamburger? Is it…pork? I should enjoy myself, yes. And how cheap.

He was looking at the ice cream’s prices. And the young Drake was so attentive. Teriarch decided he could pontificate about the basics of physical magic. He stroked his beard, and then looked up.

“…Is that Drake naked?”

Saliss danced past him, laughing. He looked around, merry. And then the Named Rank Drake did a double-take as, through a window, Mrsha leapt off the roof.

 

—-

 

“Mrsha! Come back!”

A dozen people ran after Mrsha. But she was running. She leapt out her window, ran down the edge of the roof, then jumped down. She landed with a splut on the ground, ran past the outhouses. The largest one opened. And Moore walked out, adjusting his belt.

Moore! Stop Mrsha!

Erin shouted from the roof. The half-Giant looked up, saw Pisces and Ryoka leaping off the roof—and then Mrsha running around him. He bent down, and grabbed Mrsha.

“What’s wrong, Mrsha? Are you being naughty?”

The half-Giant looked anxiously at Mrsha. He saw her wriggling, desperately trying to get away. Then he looked up. His jaw dropped.

Ryoka Griffin?

His grip loosened just enough for Mrsha to crawl over his hand. She leapt away and Moore grabbed for her and missed. Mrsha ran down the hill.

She didn’t know why. She just knew—it was too much. Ryoka was there. But she had been gone. She had left Mrsha, and Mrsha had just stopped remembering her. Crying at night, thinking Ryoka had left her because she was a Doombringer.

Happy and sad. So strongly of each that she couldn’t bear either emotion. Mrsha leapt down the hill. She heard Ryoka call out after her, but she was going to run to the cave and hide forever—

The wind blew. Mrsha, leaping down the hill, felt it blowing around her. It tugged at her fur. And then—howled.

A gale of rushing air howled around Mrsha, drowning out the howl in her head. She blinked, eyes wide, as the wind slowed her fall. Then—began to blow her up.

It was so powerful. The Gnoll felt herself flying up. She heard Moore’s exclamation of surprise. Mrsha turned in the air, flailing her paws in confusion. She felt the wind. She was a [Druid], and the wind was part of nature.

But someone was calling out to it. Asking—pleading for it to carry Mrsha back up the hill. So strongly—more strongly than a spell. Mrsha looked back.

And there was Ryoka Griffin. She walked towards Mrsha, holding a bit of ice in her hand that refused to melt.

A memory. Mrsha looked at the tears in Ryoka’s eyes. The angry slap marks on her face where Lyonette had hit her.

The City Runner caught Mrsha gently. The wind blew around them as Erin, dangling from the roof’s edge as Yvlon held onto one arm, stared. Pisces, who had been poised to grab Mrsha, looked at Ryoka, stunned. Her friends saw the Wind Runner of Reizmelt clasp Mrsha to her chest, and only then did the little whirlwind dissipate.

“I’m sorry, Mrsha. I’m so sorry for running away. It was all my fault. I didn’t want to hurt you. But I shouldn’t have gone without telling you.”

It came out of Ryoka in a rush. She hugged Mrsha tight—and then released her. Ryoka held her apart from her body, as if fearing the intimacy.

Mrsha looked up at Ryoka. She smelled of blood and ash. And something foreign. Gold? She smelled of beef and tea and sweat, and the wind. And of guilt.

She looked like sorrow. She looked tired. Older. And so very sad. Mrsha balled up her little paws into fists. She raised one and Ryoka waited.

But Mrsha had felt bad when Lyonette hit Ryoka. She couldn’t. She didn’t know if she wanted to. She wanted—

The little Gnoll’s eyes filled with tears. Where have you been? She tried to ask Ryoka that. But the City Runner didn’t understand her sign language. She just bent over Mrsha, repeating the same words.

I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…

She could be so angry. She deserved to be angry. Mrsha looked up at Ryoka. And she felt it. All the loss—of Ryoka, the one who had saved her from the Goblin Lord—leaving her. When she needed Ryoka.

As much as Lyonette. As much as Erin. She had a mother. But Ryoka—there were no words that described what they were to each other. They had been there when Mrsha’s world ended. And Ryoka had left.

Her anger was righteous. Justified. But—oh, how could you be so angry at someone—

And love them so much? Perhaps it was that. Mrsha reached out. She took Ryoka’s cheek, and pinched it gently. Just to make sure Ryoka was real. At the same time, Mrsha pinched her cheek. She felt the small bit of pain. And knew.

Then she decided what she wanted to do. Solemnly, the little Gnoll put her paws on Ryoka’s shoulder. And looked up at her. The silly, crying Runner looked at her. Mrsha looked into Ryoka’s eyes. She shook her head. She pointed at Ryoka, sternly.

You are not forgiven. You did a bad thing.

The young woman understood that, or enough. She waited. Mrsha looked at her. Then she said the second half.

I’m happy you’re back.

She hugged Ryoka, squeezing her arms around Ryoka’s neck and shoulders. Burying her head in Ryoka’s chest. And crying too.

She came back.

Erin, dangling from the roof, watched as the little Gnoll hugged Ryoka. She started hiccupping with emotion. At the same time, she heard a sniff from above.

Yvlon’s eyes were swimming too. Ceria looked a bit emotional, but not close to tears. Yvlon on the other hand?

“Yvlon, you’re getting emotional.”

“No I’m not. It’s just—touching. Why aren’t you crying?”

The [Silversteel Armsmistress] raised one hand to object to Ceria. The other went to wipe at her eyes. To do that—she absently let go of Erin.

Aaah—

The two adventurers heard a thump from below. Bird peered out of his third-floor tower.

“Oh. Miss Ryoka. She is back. Are you alive, Erin?”

He heard a curse from below. Bird nodded and sat in his tower, humming. All was well in the world. Or it would be. The [Hunter] looked up at the sun as he put an arrow to the bow. And he sang, his cheerful voice lingering as those below rejoiced.

La, la. It is a glorious today. All our friends come back from far away. Unless they are dead. But they are alive in my head. Today, our friends come back to the inn. So I will sing. Happiness is today. Tomorrow may be sad, but I do not think of tomorrow. So I am always glad.

 

—-

 

There was so much to say. So many reunions. And Mrsha would not let go of Ryoka. Like Erin—only, the Gnoll had more perseverance. She sat on Ryoka’s shoulders, paws tight around Ryoka’s head. Refusing to let go.

No one could blame her. And if—Lyonette notably, and Griffon Hunt were cooler to Ryoka, many were not. And there were stories to tell.

“New arms. Same Yvlon.”

The [Armsmistress] smiled as she flexed one arm. Ryoka just gaped as Yvlon dragged over a table one-handed. She looked at Ceria. The half-Elves eyes were different.

Ksmvr and Pisces were the same, at least. But so much was changed. Octavia bounced around the table.

“Ryoka, hey Ryoka! Guess what?”

“Hi, Octavia. Who is…this?

“This is Numbtongue! He’s a part of the inn. You never met him! You missed—the Goblin Lord and…Numbtongue, this is Ryoka.”

“Hey.”

The Hobgoblin stared blankly at Ryoka. Her mouth opened and closed. She had seen Laken taking Goblin prisoners with all that entailed. And Erin had—she looked at Erin.

“Is this—uh—is—is this a Toren scenario, Erin?”

She tried to be oblique, but Erin’s face instantly fell. The others winced. Numbtongue gave Ryoka a cold look. The [Bard] thought about it, raised a finger, and walked off. He was rather pleased about that. Mrsha smacked the back of Ryoka’s head.

“No, it’s not. But you warned me about Toren. Numbtongue’s cool. I—met Toren again. Right before the inn was destroyed.”

What?

Ryoka sat up, alarmed. Erin tried to explain.

“Don’t worry. He’s dead. I’m almost positive—we found bone dust. And that was when the inn collapsed…oh. You didn’t know about that. But that wasn’t Toren, that was the Crelers.”

The what?

Ryoka half-shouted. The others smirked at her face. Then Ceria turned pale.

“Oh dead gods. You don’t know anything. You’re so behind!”

“I know that. I’m sorry—”

“She doesn’t know anything. Pisces!”

Ceria grabbed the [Necromancer]. Pisces sniffed, looking amused; he’d already caught up to what Ceria was thinking of. Ryoka blinked.

“What have I missed?”

Erin began to count on her fingers as Mrsha rested her chin on Ryoka’s head.

“Oh, the Goblin Lord’s army nearly destroying the city. The Raskghar, the dungeon always attacking us, Pawn and his Painted Antinium—there were Wyverns at Pallass, but that was this other thing…we have a door to Pallass, by the way. And Invrisil. Krshia’s a member of Liscor’s Council, and so is Lism, that jerk. Oh, Magnolia came by with this [Druid], we made chocolate—I have a magical garden—and magical fire—”

Ceria broke in, urgently.

“Calruz.”

The City Runner had been trying to ask questions. But that one word silenced her. She turned to Ceria. Erin’s eyes went round.

“Oh. Yes.”

“Calruz?”

Ryoka breathed. It couldn’t be. But—Ceria was looking at her. And she and Olesm had survived…Ryoka was suddenly on her feet.

“W-what about Calruz?”

The half-Elf [Cryomancer] took a few breaths. She looked about—Yvlon steadied her. Then she looked at Ryoka.

“He’s alive. In Liscor’s jail. He—”

Ryoka’s ears rang. She leaned on the table. Listened as Ceria told her—something. Then she looked up.

“Where is he? He’s in Liscor?”

The others looked at each other. Erin nodded.

“I see him…sometimes. Mainly to throw bread at him. I threw a bagel last time. He’s got two rats. He’s…”

“I have to see him.”

The City Runner got up. Mechanically, she listened. Then—since Mrsha wouldn’t let go, she began running. The magical door was occupied? She ran down the hill, out of the inn. Mrsha clinging to her head as Erin and the others tried to chase her.

 

—-

 

“Hold still. You’re wounded.”

“I’ll heal.”

“Not if your rats eat you, you won’t. This costs the Watch nothing. Shut up or I’ll waste healing potion on you.”

Calruz sat in his cell. Zevara was touching his cuts with a rag dipped in healing potion. He was cut about—bleeding or scabbed in dozens of places.

“I am fine. I’m grateful.”

“You walked into a Face-Eater Moth colony and killed them all with a rusty axe.”

The Watch Captain would have sounded almost admiring if she wasn’t sternly speaking to a prisoner. Calruz smiled.

“None of them were big enough to kill me. I’m too—high-level. I’m grateful to be of some use.”

“Well—you cut down on the Watch’s injuries. So be quiet.”

The two fell silent. Calruz sat there. Zevara was half-passed through the door to his cell; the magical field didn’t affect her. Only him.

“You shouldn’t be so close. I could attack you.”

“You could.”

The Drake paused as she inspected his cuts, healing with the potion coating the wounds. Undeterred, she motioned for Calruz to raise his arm.

“Well?”

He asked after a moment. Zevara glanced up. She was totally unafraid by the suggestion. Rhata sat on Calruz’s head, tail curled around one horn. The Minotaur waited.

“Isn’t this a risk unbecoming of a Watch Captain?”

“It would be. If my prisoner was anything less than honorable. Turn around; I need to see your back.”

The Drake briskly mopped at a wound on Calruz’s leg. He winced. Then he heard a commotion.

Hey! You can’t come in here! Wait—

Shouting at the entrance. Zevara spun. She grabbed for her sword.

“Wait here.”

Tensed, the Minotaur saw her stride down the jail. After a minute—he heard an exclamation. Then, pounding footsteps, slapping on the stone floor. The Minotaur waited. Who was…?

The sound was familiar. His eyes widened. A young, Asian woman ran down the jail, stopping when she saw his cell. Her hair was mussed. She was panting. Her face was pale, and she had lost two fingers on her right hand. The wind blew, bringing the Minotaur the scents of summer. It entered his cell, whirling around him, making his two pets hide.

A little white Gnoll clung to Ryoka’s head, a bit motion sick from her run. The guards and Zevara, who had let Ryoka in, followed, but held back.

“It can’t be.”

The two said it almost at the same time. Calruz slowly rose, staring. Ryoka looked at him. At his missing arm, the scars, the painful humility written across every line of him. She breathed in heavily.

“Calruz?”

Her voice broke. The Minotaur looked at that familiar face. From before Liscor’s dungeon. He stepped forwards, bowing his head. It hurt for Ryoka to see him more than any other. Because they were back then.

The City Runner remembered an angry young woman, so ungrateful for all she had been given. Self-destructive, lashing out at her friends.

Her regrets…her hand trembled as she put it on the magical barrier. Calruz reached out with his good hand and copied the gesture, ignoring the pain as the magic seared his flesh. They looked at each other, Ryoka, and Calruz.

And Mrsha, staring at Rhata on Calruz’s head. Four of them, rather. Five if you counted Haldagaz nibbling at the rag soaked in healing potion. Ryoka slowly sat, the energy pulled out of her. She looked up at Calruz and smiled.

“It’s so good to see you again.”

The [Prisoner] looked at Ryoka. And then he began to guffaw. He sat down, laughing for the first time in forever.

“My friend. It is good to see you again. Where have you been?

Ryoka Griffin opened her mouth. She searched for an answer that would make sense of it all, apologize—and there wasn’t one. But then she looked at Calruz. And a twinkle entered her eye. She grinned at him.

Running.

 

—-

 

You could write a hundred thousand words about the moment where Ryoka Griffin met Calruz of Hammerad again. A story in itself, of her asking, judging, and understanding all the Minotaur’s sins. And he—hers.

Mrsha as well, seeing the two little rats hiding behind Calruz. Listening, and learning the kind of lessons neither Lyonette nor Erin could teach her.

A lifetime of stories, from the Horns, to Calruz, Erin’s triumphs and travails, learning just who Numbtongue was and why it mattered—let alone his ghosts—and that wasn’t even going into Ryoka’s stories.

Catching up, laughing, mourning those lost—it could be a million words, easily. And even if every moment of those conversations was set down, you’d still miss Octavia, who couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

And there was still more. So, when all that was said and done, Ryoka Griffin looked around. Her nose felt sore from blowing it so many times. Mrsha had just wiped her nose on Ryoka’s hair. It was…congealing.

That was when she saw Teriarch. The Dragon, as a half-Elven [Mage], sat at a table. Amusedly watching Grimalkin demonstrating workout methods.

“But why would you bother, young Drake? Change your form with spells. I admire the willpower it takes. However…you are no [Athlete], but a [Magus].”

Grimalkin’s face fell.

“But surely the effort means something, sir? If a spell can achieve what months, years of calculated exercise can do, what is the point?”

Teriarch’s eyes glittered.

“The point? The point is that mastery of magic achieves the same goals. Is it any easier to study for three decades to achieve such convenience? Or do you wish to protest the power of magic?”

The muscular Drake struggled with his response. At last, he spoke in a strangled voice.

“No, sir. It is just—difficult for me to accept.”

The Dragon’s face softened.

“Young Drake. You are being foolish. Magic—nay, this world is unfair. Skills and spells derived from Skills make mockery of hard work already. Unfairness is a part of life. Your efforts are not in vain, though. Your study of this—weightlifting will improve all those who do not reach the mastery of magic. That is your great worth. Believe me, it will matter. I should know.”

“Yes, Grand Magus. I am humbled by your words!”

Grimalkin bowed, claws behind his back. He was so respectful, more than Erin could remember him being to anyone, even Chaldion. Teriarch sipped from his cup with good humor.

“Excellent. Keep studying, and you too may achieve the rank of [Archmage]. You are a tad bit too ignorant in other schools of magic yet, but one may hope you become an [Archmagus of Strength] yet. I personally recall—hmm?”

The Dragon broke off as Ryoka approached. Mrsha stared at Teriarch, sniffing the air as the City Runner cleared her throat.

“Ter—”

“Grand Magus Eldavin.”

The half-Elf smiled, warningly. Ryoka saw the Drake glance up; he was no idiot. He scrutinized Ryoka as the City Runner nodded.

“Sorry—I was delayed. I…had to come home.”

“So you told me. I am contented. This outing was not entirely in vain.”

The Dragon smiled to himself. Ryoka eyed him. No, not in vain at all. He had a pile of plates.

…Like in TV shows, or movies, where you had a tower of plates for comedic effect? That was reality here. Between him and Grimalkin, there was a pile of dishes and Drassi came over to take them away.

“Er…Grimalkin, Mister Eldavin, do you want more food?”

“I am content.”

“I as well.”

Grimalkin picked at one tooth. Drassi nodded, a bit awestruck. Six hamburgers, two slices of lasagna, three entire pizzas, a milkshake, ice cream, seven chocolate squares, fries of course, complimentary with each course, blue fruit juice, goat milk, a quiche, saffron rice, a supreme meat sub split between the two, a spaghetti pot

And they’d paid for it. Drassi had insisted after the second course, having learned her lesson with Rose and the others. Teriarch had footed the bill; Grimalkin had gladly offered, but the Dragon wouldn’t allow the ‘young Drake’ to do so. Ryoka eyed the Drake trying to take the dishes back.

“I’m uh—grateful. Exceptionally, Grand Magus. I know it’s an imposition. But could we delay speaking a moment longer?”

“I am not made of time, Ryoka Griffin.”

Sternly, the Dragon raised one finger. Burped. He eyed the menu.

“…But I could remain a moment longer. Perhaps a curry, next? Magus Grimalkin?”

The muscly Drake actually looked sick as he put one claw to his mouth.

“I may be ah, reaching my limit, Grand Magus.”

“A shame. You should master a digestive spell. A’ctelios! Only, bring your own food. Go forth, young Drake!”

The Dragon was having too much fun as he shook a finger at Grimalkin. Ryoka saw the Sinew Magus’ face—and then Erin’s. She looked delighted.

“Hello! I’m Erin! Are you Ryoka’s friend?”

The [Innkeeper] beamed her way over. And the [Innkeeper] of The Wandering Inn met the Dragon. They stared at each other.

“Do I know…you?”

“Um. Maybe?”

Erin frowned. The two blinked at each other. And then Pisces’ jaw dropped.

The [Mage]!

“You attacked our wagon!”

“Hey! You’re that jerk with the iPh—”

Ryoka slapped a hand so fast over Erin’s mouth that she went over backwards. The Dragon watched Erin topple over. His eyes lit up.

“Oh. You! That nosy little Human who bypassed all my wards and—”

He coughed as everyone looked at him. Grimalkin was scribbling furiously. Teriarch coughed as he finally remembered where he saw Erin. And he gave her a look of respect.

“Well met, Erin Solstice. I am Grand Magus Eldavin, indeed. I am—acquainted with Miss Ryoka Griffin. We have had business together. And we have more still. I trust I am not trespassing?”

“No. Make yourself at home! My inn is your inn. I mean, it’s my inn. But you’re welcome in it. Wow. You’re that guy with the spells. Pisces and Ceria are such huge fans. Right?”

“Er—Grand Magus?

The [Necromancer] came over, practically fawning over Eldavin. The half-Elf looked up, perplexed, as Ceria crowded behind him. He wasn’t the only one.

Moore practically shoved Jelaqua out of the way. So did Revi, and Typhenous.

Grand Magus?

To make a baseball analogy, it was like a bunch of sandlot baseball players meeting an all-star champion. A Grand Mage was only below an Archmage in rank. Of course, it could be ceremonial—but Grimalkin looked like he was an excited pupil in his favorite class.

“I am on something of a break. My business is with Ryoka Griffin. Hm. Yes, I recall you. Bronze-ranks? I’m pleased to see your magical acumen has increased. Have you reached Silver-rank, by any chance?”

And that was Teriarch. He politely, even in a complimentary way, crushed Pisces and Ceria’s egos. Ceria stammered.

“No—well—actually, we’re Gold-rank. We haven’t studied as much—but we killed an Adult Creler—”

Really? Miracles exist, then! Fascinating! And you—young woman? Your arms are fascinating. Are these all your friends? Silver—er, Gold-ranks? The same level of proficiency, certainly.”

The Dragon luxuriated at being in the center of attention. But he was focused on Ryoka. Disconcertingly so, actually. He brushed away Revi’s stammered attempts to get him to drink with them.

“Ryoka Griffin, it is past time we talked. Of high-importance, in fact. But perhaps—privately?”

He cast his eyes around at the other fawning [Mages]. Dismissing them, even Grimalkin. Erin blinked.

“Your friend’s sort of big-headed.”

She whispered in Ryoka’s ears. Too quietly for any but Ryoka to hear, surely. But Teriarch’s eyes still narrowed. He looked at Erin and she beamed innocently at him.

“Hey! Great to meet you! We have private rooms! Eldavin, huh? You’re like—the third half-Elf I’ve ever met. Where have you been? I didn’t know a Grand Mage lived in Izril.”

Teriarch coughed.

“I—ah, prefer solitude.”

“No kidding? So you’re in hiding?”

“…Yes.”

“So, this is like a big deal that you’re out here. Hey, how did Ryoka meet you?”

The City Runner wondered if kidney-punching Erin would cause that much of a distraction. Teriarch narrowed his eyes.

“I travel quite often. My abodes are hidden. I have long since abandoned Wistram and politics. My meeting with Ryoka Griffin was coincidental.”

“Oh. So when she went to the High Passes, you’re the person she was delivering for?”

Say this for Erin—she wasn’t an idiot either. She just lacked—the ability to keep things secret. The other [Mages] turned into wax works. Grimalkin’s quill nearly caught fire. Teriarch just looked at Erin. At a loss for words.

“[Group Memory P—]”

He hesitated. Then put down his hand as he subvocalized it. He might fail—so far from his actual body. Grumpily, the Dragon gave Ryoka a look.

Do something. Ryoka Griffin looked around desperately.

“Um, Erin, Grand Magus Eldavin is a private client. We have a relationship—I’d hate to compromise it. Can we—be more private? He has pressing business. And I’m wasting his time.”

“Hmph. Exactly.”

The Dragon harrumphed, clearly relieved. Erin’s eyes widened.

“Oh! Sure! I have tons of private stuff. Private rooms, a private garden! Oh wow! I forgot to show you my garden! Ryoka! Mrsha, we have to show her!”

Mrsha perked up. She leapt off Ryoka’s shoulders for the first time. Teriarch stared at the Gnoll and she sniffed at him for a second. Then she raced off the table and towards a wall. Ryoka turned her head. She saw a magical doorway appear as if it had been there the entire time. Her jaw dropped.

“No way.”

Eldavin-Teriarch stood up too. His eyes narrowed.

Fascinating.

He glanced at Erin. Her anti-[Appraisal] ring might have as well been toilet paper in front of a tidal wave. The Dragon murmured under his voice, in his cave in the High Passes.

“Ah, Level 40, of course. Spatial Skills.”

Then he did a double-take.

Is she engaged to a Wall Lord of Salazsar?

The Dragon opened his eyes wide. Ryoka’s friends were—fascinating. Just as well he’d stayed! He had to ask about that!

The Dragon eagerly made his way after Ryoka as Erin tugged her to the door. On the wall, he had to swat the other [Mages] aside.

“Grand Magus, if I could just have a word—”

“Young [Necromancer], I have a predisposition against the field of necromancy of late. I have no interest in teaching you.”

“If I could just ask—”

“Sinew Magus, we level by experience, not by having our claws held. I suggest you educate yourself in the ways of other species. Drake magic is commendable, but too cloistered.”

“I’m uh, Revi—”

“A [Summoner], yes, Miss? And what of it? Begone, begone.”

“As a fellow mage of years—”

“How old are you, eighty? Kindly master a longevity spell and talk to me in a hundred years. Thank you.”

Dragons. They could savage you with words. Ceria opened her mouth, saw the Dragon glance at her. Of course, to her, he was only a half-Elf.

“Child, you are far too young to be out here. Perhaps consider studying for another two decades?”

The last comer was Moore. And the half-Giant flinched, rather than be casually split in twain by Eldavin’s words. The Dragon paused as he saw Moore.

“A [Green Mage]? And a half-Giant?”

“A poor one.”

Moore muttered into the floor. Teriarch looked at him. And smiled widely.

“Farwalker, you are far from your clans. Are you a half-Giant alone? Your blood runs thin.”

“Yes, Grand Magus. I am short—my parents left me behind. Out of necessity. I was Terandrian.”

The half-Giant looked at Teriarch. The Dragon reached up, caught Moore’s arm in a crushing grip as the [Green Mage] tried to bow.

“Then walk with pride. Your blood runs in the very mountains. Walk well, child.”

Moore looked at him. And his head rose. His spine straightened. He bowed deeply to Teriarch. And the Dragon looked at him and smiled. He bowed his head once. From one of the oldest races to another.

No more. He walked past Palt, Ulinde, Bezale, and Montressa. They were all quietly screaming into a [Message] spell.

Yes! Grand Magus Eldavin is here! The Grand Magus from Zelkyr’s era! Tell the Archmages! He’s still alive! He’s in this inn—oh, Dead Gods, he’s looking at us!

Bezale nearly swooned into Montressa’s arms. Or rather, onto her. The Grand Magus huffed.

“Children. Not a decent one among them. Except perhaps the Sinew Magus and the half-Giant.”

He paused in front of the door. Ryoka stared into the Garden of Sanctuary.

“It’s…magic.”

The White Gnoll raced about the grass, laughing silently as a bee flew around her. The [Garden of Sanctuary] bloomed. And Erin Solstice spread her arms.

“Ryoka! Come on! It’s safe here! Just you—”

Ryoka hesitantly put her hand on the doorway. And for a second there was resistance—

Then it was gone. The City Runner stepped into that magical little world. Mrsha ran up to her, holding tiny little blooming flowers. The City Runner began to smile. She inhaled the scents of nature.

“Ah. The [Garden of Sanctuary]. How long has it been since I’ve seen it?”

The Dragon breathed. His eyes misted over as he put a hand on the doorway. He frowned as he walked forwards and smacked into the opening. Eldavin glowered.

“I come in peace. I bear no hostility towards the owner—let me in.

Erin Solstice, laughing as Ryoka stared about and Mrsha tried to tug her up to the hill full of statues—stumbled. Something was pushing against her head! She looked about.

“What the—”

The Grand Magus was frowning thunderously as he pushed at the door. Erin saw the opening shuddering. She felt the inn—resisting. She was too.

“Wait! Stopstopstop!

The young woman ran at the opening. Just in time—she felt the inn shake for a second. But then the Grand Magus was pulling his hand back. He hadn’t managed to get in. But he’d been trying.

“Why am I blocked from entering?”

“It’s just for friends! I’ll let you in! There! Come in! Don’t break my door! Jeez!”

Erin put her hands on her hips and glared at the half-Elf. He stared at her, haughty as Pryde. Haughtier, if that was possible. Then he ducked his head, almost abashed.

“I—appreciate the honor, Miss…Solstice?”

“It’s Erin. And don’t you do that again! Aw, but you’re okay. Come in! You and Ryoka can talk here.”

I’ll come too!

Half the [Mages] in the inn shouted at once. They streamed after Eldavin and smushed into the door. Erin winced. She saw Pisces clawing at the invisible barrier and called out.

“Sorry, guys. Just Ryoka and Eldavin for now.”

“Grand Magus Eldavin.”

“Did I say your name wrong? Sorry.”

Erin looked blankly at the half-Elf. He hesitated.

“Er…no. It is just that—never mind. Ahem. You are quite something to own a [Garden of Sanctuary], young woman.”

“I am?”

The [Innkeeper] looked confused. The Dragon looked her up and down. Almost—haughtily, he replied. Ryoka was staring at Gerial’s statue on the hilltop as Mrsha stood solemnly by her side, holding her hand.

“It is an honor. One that comes only to those who have experienced—loss. Who are worthy of it. I am surprised you have the Skill.”

Erin Solstice ducked her head slightly.

“…Yeah. It is something.”

“It is not to be taken lightly. [Empresses] have owned such a Skill—to give them places to reside. Memory resides in this garden. If you are so cavalier about it—”

“I’m not.”

The young woman whispered. The Dragon snorted—in his half-Elf form it came out as a sniff.

“Your attitude gives me little to believe in. A Skill of this worth is not something—”

I don’t take it lightly.

The young woman spoke. And the Dragon halted. He looked at Erin Solstice. And saw her eyes locked on his. Erin’s voice was quiet.

“I would never take it lightly.”

The Dragon looked at her. He glanced up towards the hill, and froze, slightly.

“It has not changed since I last walked here.”

That was all he said. Teriarch looked at Erin. Then he bowed, truly, bending his waist.

“May you be always worthy of it. Your name, again, young Human woman?”

“Erin Solstice.”

He nodded to her.

“I will remember it. Perhaps…I will hear it again. The [Garden of Sanctuary] would not belong to anyone less.”

He turned away. Then his shoulders hunched. He looked back at Erin, urgently. And his voice lowered.

“It was first created by Empress Sheta of Iltanus. There is only but one. Tread these grounds with respect. If you will allow me—I will walk here.”

“…Of course.”

Erin nodded. And the Dragon began to walk. He put his hand against the walls covered with ivy. They had just begun to grow when he first…and someone had removed many plants, changed the cliffs that had been…there. But the hill was the same. The lake smaller, but…he walked for a while.

Marveling, and closing his eyes. Remembering a fluttering Harpy, full-grown, leading him about it for the first time, telling him where she would plant flowers. And though they were different, they still bloomed aeons later. The Dragon walked, until Ryoka and Mrsha came down from the hill, wiping their eyes.

Then he nodded, once. And looked at the young woman who stood there, basking in the sun.

“Very good. You have my thanks, Erin Solstice. That which is glorious should not be lost.”

He turned away. Erin blinked. She had to ask Ryoka—was Eldavin always so—sanctimonious? But she sort of liked him.

 

—-

 

Ryoka had been crying a lot today. She wasn’t sick of it—but it was a lot of tears. And happiness. In the end, she sat with Teriarch. Solemnly, she looked at Erin.

“Can I tell her…?”

“No. It is your choice. But my nature is secret. Sacrosanct. If you would honor aught about me, honor that.”

Ryoka bowed her head. She rested in a patch of grass and resisted the urge to rip it up as they spoke.

“I won’t, then. But Erin is a good person.”

“That I know.”

The Dragon was…more subdued. If he had been caught up in the energy, the thrill of being praised in his disguise as one of the foremost [Mages] in the world, he was—older now. The [Garden] had left its mark on him.

But it wasn’t a bitter sadness. Just nostalgic. Painful and glorious, like meeting Calruz. Now, the Dragon looked at Ryoka. And smiled. And she shivered because she meant something to the Dragon.

That was a kind of immortality. The young woman ducked her head.

“Thank you for coming after me. I didn’t ask about Ivolethe. Can—I meet her?”

“Of course. There are opportunities. The soonest comes in the middle of summer. You are running out of time. But ere the winter passes, you will have another chance. But you must make it. I can only tell you what might be.”

The Dragon kindly replied as he lay in the grass. Not sitting, or even politely laying like a corpse in a coffin. But stretching out, languorously rolling about. Silly in a half-Elven magus, but exactly like a Dragon might laze about a bed of flowers. Ryoka nodded, serious as she could be.

“I’ll do it. Whatever it takes. Just—please tell me.”

Teriarch sat up and shook grass out of his hair. Below the hill with Sage’s Grass, Mrsha was running about, playing tag with Erin and Apista.

“Before that. You have a debt to me, Ryoka Griffin. And I will remain a while, out of forbearance for your obligations. For a small time, in this form. It has been entertaining. But I require your attention.”

Ryoka’s heart began to pound. She owed him…? She took a deep breath.

“I—I’m not sure what that is. But anything you want, I’ll do. If I can.”

The Dragon nodded. His eyes narrowed at Ryoka and she felt a chill.

“In that case—this, I demand of you, Ryoka Griffin.”

He raised his hand and whispered a word. Something materialized out of the air and onto the grass. Ryoka blinked.

A laptop sat there. It was glowing, battery recharged by magic. The screen shimmered and Kevin’s stickers on it—showing pictures of him skateboarding, surfing, were copied down to the exact detail. Teriarch poked the screen.

“This.”

Ryoka wasn’t sure what she was seeing at first. It…looked…like a paused movie. Showing a farting Ogre bathing in swamp water. But that couldn’t be right. Ryoka felt at her neck.

Hm. Heartbeat’s fine. She checked her wrist, although that was more inaccurate. Because she was convinced she was having a stroke.

“Um…that’s a movie.”

“It’s offensive. Disgusting. What is that abomination?”

“That’s—an Ogre.”

Ryoka stared at the character on the screen. Teriarch wrinkled his nose.

“It’s hideous.”

“Well, you say that. But this is just the opening.”

“This is nothing like that other ‘movie’. That one had class. It captured the plight of Dwarves. It was elegant! This is—an abomination. That’s not even an Ogre.”

“Yeah, well—you’ve gotta watch the rest. He’s not that bad. He’s got layers.”

The Dragon stared incredulously at Ryoka. She weakly looked at him. She was definitely having a heart attack. And this was all just hallucination. The half-Elf avatar folded his arms.

“I insist you explain the thought that went into this.”

“Okay. Wait—you came all this way to ask me to commentate over it?”

“I will not watch this filth without an explanation.”

Teriarch looked at Ryoka. She looked at him. She had an urge to laugh completely at odds with his serious expression.

But look again. The old Dragon glanced at Ryoka’s face. Then at the frozen figure on the screen. his lips quirked.

“…I suppose there is something amusing about it. But I do require an…interpreter.”

He said that. But what Ryoka heard was something different. She looked at the old man still lying in the cave. And she smiled.

“On one condition.”

No more artifacts. I told you—

He growled. Ryoka looked down the hill.

“No. They get to watch. I’ll tell them you know about—home. But they have to watch.”

Mrsha’s ears perked up as she raced about. She looked up suspiciously towards the two sitting on the hill and the laptop, smelling of smoke and oil and other stuff. Erin looked up as Ryoka waved at them.

“Oh—very well.”

The Dragon gave in only after a moment. With a harrumph he sat back. And Ryoka called out.

“Mrsha?”

The little Gnoll looked up at her. For a second she hesitated. Then she ran up the hill.

 

—-

 

Ryoka didn’t know what she said to convince Erin. Nor did she really care what Erin thought, even after Ryoka’s preaching about telling no one about Earth.

She just sat there, as she moved the cursor back to the opening. Teriarch harrumphed as Ryoka showed him more computer functions. For some reason, this offended him.

“You can rewind the story to the beginning!?”

“Um. Yes. What’s the problem?”

The Dragon paced back and forth.

“It’s—wrong! This is a narrative! The audience should not be allowed to control how it is presented! Not for a work of art!”

Ryoka eyed the Shrek movie as Mrsha bounced up and down in her lap, staring at the screen. It was art. But…she’d never heard a Dragon say that unironically.

Don’t start it yet! Oh my g—I mean, dead gods, I have to see it! I’m getting popcorn!

Erin screamed as she ran out of the doorway with salted and buttered popcorn in a huge bowl. And that was Erin. She could adapt to meeting Grand Magus Eldavin and watching Shrek without batting an—

Okay, even Erin had blinked a few times. But she was all-in. She huffed up the hill.

“Can we invite anyone? Are you sure we can’t?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Even Ekirra? He and Visma are coming to visit—okay, okay! I’ve locked down the Garden. This is so great. Here. Bowls. Eldavin, here. Do you like yeast?

“…What?”

The Dragon looked down at the two bowls. Erin was offering buttered popcorn with salt, and nutritional yeast, her personal favorite in one. Ryoka reached for the non-yeast bowl. Erin had gotten the edible yeast from her local [Fermenter], but that wasn’t the problem.

“You’re disgusting. She’s disgusting, right, Mrsha?”

The Gnoll ignored Ryoka. She was already chowing down on the yeast-bowl. Ryoka shuddered. After a moment, Teriarch copied Mrsha and took a yeast-bowl. Which left Ryoka as the only voice of popcorn-sanity.

“This is so great. I’m going to scream when I see Donk—”

Silence. I require commentary from only one source.”

Teriarch pointed casually as the opening narration began. Erin, affronted, slapped at her mouth and then punched Eldavin’s shoulder. The Dragon’s head swiveled around.

As the two engaged in a pushing war, Ryoka felt Mrsha’s eyes lock on the images on screen. They hadn’t—talked. Not really. Just hugged. Mrsha couldn’t talk. But Ryoka, so caught up in the other introductions, had yet to speak to her.

“Mrsha.”

The Gnoll’s ears flicked up. Ryoka took a breath as someone kicked an outhouse door open. She tried to whisper into Mrsha’s ears as the song of the decade of the century began playing.

“I just wanted to tell you. The reason I—”

A furry little finger nearly went up Ryoka’s nose. Mrsha pressed it against Ryoka’s lips as the song began playing. She stared—and then began giggling. Erin and Ryoka stared at Mrsha. And then Erin began laughing too.

Shh.

The little Gnoll didn’t want to hear the reasons. Or excuses. She just sat there, resting against Ryoka. And the young woman closed her eyes and realized how much she’d missed.

The silly little movie began to play. Teriarch suspiciously looked at the other three giggling and laughing females. Then he began to smile and get into it. Until the false Dragon appeared.

And all was right in the world for a little bit.

 

—-

 

Of course, they noticed. Even Mrsha noticed. Moore, not exactly the most suspicious character, noticed.

Who was Grand Magus Eldavin? He had come out of nowhere. And he knew Ryoka Griffin.

Was he that Grand Magus, who Montressa was raving about being a former high-mage of Wistram, excellent in magic but who had retired rather than be part of the rat race? Did he really have an abode in the High Passes?

It explained so much. The implications were shaking everyone to their core. They had seen past the veil. Grimalkin was practically frothing at the mouth with all he’d been taught.

The Wistram [Mages]? Ironically, after that first outburst of [Messages] back to Wistram, they were paralyzed. Even as Archmage Naili and their faction leaders demanded an explanation, the Wistram [Mages] were suddenly afraid. You didn’t want to get in the way of a serious individual, especially retired Council [Mages].

Ah, what fools they were. The Drake wove his way through the crowd. Of course, he’d come as soon as he’d heard about the Bloodfeast Raiders.

To kill them.

But he’d been too slow. If they’d attacked Liscor, perhaps he might have made it. As it was—he felt useless. The Humans in their city were dead. He’d walked around—but there wasn’t much to be done.

Just rebuilding. And Saliss of Lights did not rebuild. He was good at destroying.

So the Drake had come back to The Wandering Inn on a hunch. For here, the magic happened. Octavia caught him as he reentered and listened to the gossip.

“A Grand Magus? Ryoka Griffin. Interesting. Barefoot Runner? I wonder if she’s a nude buddy?”

The Drake grinned. Then Octavia waved her arms, desperate, nearly in tears for anyone’s attention.

“Master Saliss! Master Saliss, I did it!

“What? Hi, Octavia.”

The Stitch-girl [Alchemist] was too excited to stand on ceremony. She tried tugging Saliss to her workshop, newly built.

“The mold! I think it worked! It killed the bacteria stuff! Can you see? Please? Lyonette gave me—it’s secret—but it helped me! Please, Master?”

“Octavia, I’d love to.”

Saliss brightened up. He had yet to complete his tests on the magical flowers Erin had given him in such profusion—and Xif was indeed crying himself to sleep—but this was new too.

Erin’s inn had a magic Saliss wanted to bottle. He envied her. He knew something about creating miracles, but she had more talent at it than him. His idea of a ‘miracle’ was destroying a lair of Crelers and killing an Adult by himself to save a town.

There was some magic there, and it was necessary. But he liked hers better. Saliss turned as the door to the inn opened.

Two doors. Ekirra raced into the room.

Mrsha! I have my ball! Let’s play! Let’s play!

He howled around—and then saw all the adults. Ekirra would be sad, because Mrsha was in the Garden of Sanctuary, watching Shrek, and they had on their lineup Contact, Star Wars, all three episodes—

In grainy resolution, yes, but Kevin had okay taste. Mrsha was at that moment amped up on the movie. And the adults, Teriarch, Erin, and Ryoka were entering the inn.

“Sorry, Ekirra. Mrsha’s a bit busy—can we let him play? Ryoka? Eldavin?”

“I have little time.”

The Dragon huffed. Saliss narrowed his eyes as Octavia tried to talk about ‘multiple test cases’ and ‘cultures’ and so on. He fixed on Ryoka—then Eldavin.

“Now that’s odd.”

“Aw.. But Ekirra—can he watch?”

“No.”

Ryoka and Eldavin chorused at the same time. Erin saw Ekirra looking up pleadingly.

“Is Mrsha busy?”

“I’m so sorry, Ekirra. Maybe another time? We can—let you have fun. But it’s so busy…I’ll tell your parents. Or—you can have a snack!”

The little Gnoll had sat down and opened his mouth to howl. He perked up, though.

“…Ice cream?

“Yes! A snack! Mrsha can play in a bit. Maybe we’ll let her not watch Contact. That’s not for kids, right? I mean…I’ve never seen it.”

Erin whispered to Ryoka and Teriarch. The City Runner looked at Erin.

“You’ve never seen…? I guess Mrsha doesn’t need to see it. How about we…? Mrsha…?”

Unfortunately, Mrsha refused to be distracted from her newest obsession, even for her best friends. Erin sighed, but she signaled to Drassi she needed reinforcements.

“Mrsha’s busy. Can you entertain Ekirra and Visma?”

“I can try. I mean, there’s two of them. Do I get paid overtime?”

“Yes!”

That was all background. Ekirra pouted and cheered up as Erin promised him and Visma treats since Mrsha was ‘busy doing very important things’. She wished Eldavin would relent, but the Grand Magus was very stubborn. Erin edged over and kicked him in the butt.

“You’re sorta mean.”

The Dragon whirled about. He gaped at Erin as she walked off, satisfied that justice had been wrought.

You could almost forget that Celum lay in ruins. Ekirra’s parents certainly didn’t know, or care. Celum was elsewhere. And Erin had managed to distract herself.

But the city still lay in ruins. Justice…the [Alchemist] watched Ryoka and Eldavin. His [Eyes of Appraisal] did nothing. He was not content.

And the two made him curious. Ryoka now—she could be one of the weirdos. But a [Grand Magus]…no. Either he was magically warded, which made sense—but why was he here?

Saliss didn’t believe in the Solstice Effect. He believed everything had a reason. So who was this? He stood up.

“Hey, Erin. Who’s that?”

“Oh? That’s Eldavin. Ryoka’s friend.”

Really? Interesting…

The Drake’s eyes narrowed. He looked at Erin. Who had ties to the Antinium. He liked Erin, he really did.

But he was also Saliss of Lights. He had killed more Antinium than she could imagine, on border wars no one talked about.

Casually, the Drake moved forwards to intercept Grand Magus Eldavin. In a truly Saliss-way. But as effective as Erin could be. He felt—wary as the half-Elf kept asking Ryoka about what kind of demented idiots came up with Dragons like that. Not that Saliss could hear him.

Someone was making Saliss’ senses tingle. Not a [Dangersense]—but instinct. It told him he was…outclassed. The Drake didn’t like the feeling.

He did his best. The Named Adventurer bared his teeth in a truly friendly smile as he gyrated his hips. Ryoka turned. She stared down at the nude Drake.

“Oh my g—”

She was not prepared for Saliss. The Drake winked at her as he struck a pose. Ryoka recoiled. Then she looked him up and down.

“…You have to be Saliss.”

“My earholes are burning! Did someone mention me? Saliss of Lights! At your service!”

The [Alchemist] bowed. Teriarch and Ryoka stared at his nudity in the fullness. They were not prepared for this. Even the Dragon stared. He was technically nude in his cave but—

“Saliss of Lights? The Named Adventurer?”

Ryoka was aghast. He was important! But the Drake just sidled up to her.

“They just call me that. You’re Ryoka Griffin, right?”

“Um—yes.”

“Cool. City Runner? I always need people to deliver my stuff without getting robbed or killed. I’m a friend of the inn. And you are…Grand Magus Eldavin.”

“Correct. You are naked.”

The Dragon stared at Saliss. The Named Adventurer was impressed he didn’t stare down. It took force of will to even avoid glancing. Ryoka had already looked down three times before jerking her attention up.

“Naked is a way of life. I like to show everything. You’re a City Runner, Miss Ryoka? What class?”

“Oh—I uh—”

“No class?”

The Drake winked at Ryoka’s face. The City Runner blinked. Saliss laughed.

“Don’t worry. I’ve met people like you. There’s one in Zeres, actually. Important people. Interesting.”

“I uh—that’s—how do you—”

Ryoka gave up. She backed up. Put one hand over her mouth, went to see Mrsha.

Cautious. There was something there. Saliss smiled toothily as Eldavin held his ground. All you had to do was ask. Grimalkin didn’t get that. Just keep asking Erin who she was—not that Saliss cared. But this one? He leaned forwards.

“Psst. Who are you?”

And there he made his one mistake. The Named Adventurer looked in the Dragon’s eyes. And with a single question he tried to cut to the heart of the mystery.

But the Dragon looked back. And he was more than anything Saliss could have guessed at.

He was a soldier of a thousand armies, a general, a leader, a hero alone.

A poet, a scholar, a writer and bard who remembered works untold.

He had been a king, a ruler, a servant, a protector, and just himself and knew the value of each.

He was a Dragon. And Saliss had forgotten—when you looked at someone. They looked back. Saliss was just so good at being the Named Adventurer—even Erin didn’t know him.

People forgot how good a Dragon’s eyes were. Far better than any [Alchemist], or even a Skill.

The Dragon slew the [Alchemist] with a single question. He scrutinized Saliss, perplexed. And then leaned forwards and whispered.

“Why do you hide your true form, girl? Alchemy-wrought it may be, but it shines truer than your false skin.”

Saliss’ smile winked out. He stared at Teriarch, and the blood drained from his face. He looked around—but no one had heard. Yet the Dragon looked at him. And Saliss staggered backwards. Teriarch waited, calmly looking at him with ancient eyes.

He could not know how much his words hurt. How deeply they reached and shattered something deep in Saliss’ soul. Forever changing him. Unearthing her with a single question.

How much it wounded, how reassuring it was. Her true form. The words were spoken with such conviction that Onieva believed them. Like a light in her head that no self-doubt or lesser phrases could ever erase.

No one could know—but perhaps the Dragon. He, who had seen it all. Perhaps he did know. Or it might be ignorance. But something like understanding shone in his eyes. Lacking judgment.

Why are you wearing an illusion?

The two eyes stared at Saliss. And the Drake was left exposed. Before the burning gaze. It broke Saliss of Lights in half, when armies and monsters had not.

With words.

She walked away, weeping. And all those who looked at Saliss of Lights were struck silent. But that had been it. She hadn’t been a match.

No match for a Dragon at all.

Teriarch stood there, watching Saliss go. His face was conflicted, in the moments when Saliss walked away. Guilt, sadness—comprehension—the Dragon turned and walked backwards to the Garden. He had not lied to Ryoka.

He was a Dragon. And he changed the world just by being. Not always for better or worse. But changing nonetheless.

Once you met the Dragon, you couldn’t ever go back again. The Dragon looked at Saliss and whispered a silent blessing, worthless as it was. The Gods were Dead.

Then he went back and watched a movie about faith. Contact. And knew it for what it was. One of the few people besides those from Earth who could—would see the truth.

 

—-

 

It was a glorious day. For all the City Runner raged at the Minotaur’s flaws—and her own. In between the slaps. It was the kind of day that you lived for.

Even the small things. Like Erin tripping up the hill with an armful of snacks to watch Contact. Teriarch sitting on the grass, grumbling about clothing, feet, and hair. The Dragon brightened up as Erin put down the food.

“Here’s snacks! No one get fat! I mean—today’s special. So it doesn’t count.

She reassured herself as she took an experimental corndog and a handful of frenched fries. The Dragon licked his lips as he reached for a chocolate square. He looked down as someone plomfed into his lap.

Mrsha stared up at Teriarch. He stared down.

“Get off my lap, child.”

She slowly took the chocolate square he had been reaching for. Without breaking eye-contact, she put it in her mouth. The Dragon’s eyes narrowed. He reached for a fry.

Mrsha stole that too. The two stared at each other. Then Teriarch snatched with inhuman speed for a corn dog. He had it in his hands—Mrsha leapt and bit the lower half.

I’ve killed for less.

The Dragon whispered to Mrsha. She smirked as she chewed. Bring it. They began fighting over the food. After half a minute, Teriarch tossed Mrsha off the hill and into the pond. It was a mighty throw. He began levitating the food high overhead as Mrsha raced up. In response—she head-butted him in the chest until Erin and Ryoka came to break up the fight.

Seeing all the food there—was tempting. It made Apista vaguely hungry. But she had flowers. On the other hand…Numbtongue, hiding on the hill and watching the movie behind the audience felt his stomach growl. But he was totally willing to watch in hunger; the movies were amazing and the volume was turned up enough for him to hear.

That was the kind of day they had. Cuteness, sorrow, threats of violence over food—The Wandering Inn at its finest.

But. What of the rest of the inn? Ekirra stared at the wall where the door to the [Garden of Sanctuary] had been. He sadly kicked his little red ball and it bounced off the wall.

“Mrsha’s mean. I hate Mrsha.”

He announced. Visma looked up and nodded distractedly; she was playing with Mrsha’s makeup set. But Ekirra wanted to play with his ball. Even if Mrsha had seven. Or was it eight?

His mouth began to tremble. Drassi picked up the ball.

“Ekirra, Mrsha is doing something very important today. Ryoka came back, and she and Mrsha need to spend time together. They’re…the best of friends.”

She hesitated, not knowing if stuffing your face counted. But the part about Ryoka was true. Ekirra stamped his foot.

I’m Mrsha’s best friend!”

“Right, right. But—what if we play ball?”

Ekirra looked up at the Drake. He kicked the ball to Drassi. She awkwardly kicked the ball back. Ekirra’s ears and tail drooped. Drassi was slow.

At the same time, someone else was not having such a glorious day. And that person was Lyonette du Marquin. She paced back and forth.

Ryoka. Why did she have to come back like that? Why did Mrsha have to—no, it wasn’t about Mrsha. She was Lyonette’s darling child. Too generous by half.

But Ryoka? She just waltzed back in, and everyone forgave her. And maybe there wasn’t much to forgive. But Mrsha?

She had left Mrsha. Lyonette’s hand itched to hit Ryoka again. Just for that. How many nights had Mrsha woke up crying for Ryoka? How dare that—that—

And Mrsha was with Ryoka. Which—was fair because they hadn’t seen each other. But not with Lyonette. The [Princess] knew it was irrational. But part of her rage came from fear. She was Mrsha’s mother. But would her daughter go with Ryoka?

To distract herself, Lyonette busied herself with the affairs of the inn. And they were legion.

“Where’s Erin? We’re moving through people to help in Celum. Some Antinium—although it’s…difficult…to justify them in the north. But they build like no one else, and Celum needs rebuilding.”

Olesm was looking around as he wearily supervised the streams of people moving through the doorway. Lyonette stared at the crowded trap hallway and realized they needed a bigger waiting area. Perhaps before the trap hallway? With refreshments, tables? Wait, that was called an ‘inn’. She looked at Olesm.

“You’re letting the Antinium go to Celum?

The [Strategist] grimaced.

“I…am. No one builds like Antinium, and we needed them to excavate.”

Besides, they’re not all alike. You watch your enemies.”

A Human [Lady] appeared behind Olesm. Maviola El was smiling. Lyonette actually smiled at Maviola. After a week of her visiting the inn—they were something like friends. Although Maviola made Lyonette feel decidedly younger. But they’d had talks, gone to the public baths together—

Olesm nodded, smiling foolishly at Maviola. They were both managing people. He cleared his throat and went on.

“…Even with them, though, rebuilding Celum will take time. And it’s not our job. Liscor’s help only goes so far—Celum will have to pay for at least some of it. And the people might not want to stay there. Many have already been put up in Liscor and Esthelm and that might be permanent…”

The Human population in Liscor had sextupled overnight. There was so much change in the air. Lyonette nodded.

“Whatever you need, Olesm, we’ll try to help.”

“Food and drink is enough for now. And your beds!”

“Comfy. And your Skill is very useful. I mean, Erin’s.”

Maviola smiled. The two had literally fallen asleep the instant they’d returned, but thanks to Erin’s [Twofold Rest] Skill, they were already fairly alive. Lyonette smiled.

“It’s very useful. The door’s yours today. Let me know if—”

Crash. All three jumped. They heard a sound from outside. Then a voice.

“Oh shit. Sorry!”

Lyonette’s tentative smile snuffed itself out. She knew that voice. More importantly—she knew the scenario. She strode outside. And there they were.

Okay, what had happened was that the seven Earthers—well, four of them—had been outside. And the city of Liscor was sending supplies towards The Wandering Inn from the gates as well as the magical door. And perhaps one of them had got in the way because they hadn’t noticed the carts coming up the hill. Leading to one of the drivers swerving and the entire cartful of nails spilling out.

Nails. In the grass. Mrsha ran about there. Not that she’d be doing that for…Lyonette closed her eyes as the Gnolls and Drakes argued.

“Dead gods.”

“Ah.”

Maviola eyed the Earthers. This had been Leon’s fault. But there was Troy, Galina, Rose—all of whom guiltily turned about as Lyonette walked outside.

“Sorry, Lyonette…”

“Someone please cast a—metal-grabbing spell? Anyone?”

Lyonette beseeched Montressa, Bezale, and Palt. The three [Mages] groaned, but began levitating the nails out of the grass. Lyonette turned to the others.

“Please don’t get in the way of the traffic.

“Sorry. Leon wasn’t looking where he was going—”

“You shoved me!”

Leon accused Galina. Lyonette sighed. Then she heard a voice from above.

“That’s true. Totally Galina’s fault. Right, Bird?”

“I saw it all, Kevin. This is Galina’s fault.”

Slowly, Lyonette looked up. Kevin was sitting on the roof, next to Bird. Joseph stopped drinking as she looked up at them. The [Princess] began to twitch.

“Please get down from there.”

“But Bird’s up here—”

“Bird does not fall.

Lyonette could just imagine one of the two Earthers falling, needing a [Healer], and ruining her day. Again. She looked around.

“Where’s Imani?”

“In her room. Too many people.”

Kevin called down. He stood up, and Joseph did too. The young man was drunk though, and wobbled, flailing his arms. Lyonette and everyone below ducked as he wind-milled his arms.

“Fuck—”

Bird and Kevin grabbed him. All three teetered on the edge of the roof. Lyonette put her hands to her mouth. Oh no. Bird!

They stabilized just in time. But the call was literally them balancing on the edge. Sheepishly, Kevin and Joseph came down. Joseph looked embarrassed, his flushed cheeks red.

“Sorry—”

“Stop drinking.”

Lyonette snapped. She was in no mood to be kind. It had been…one week. And the Earthers as a whole were driving her insane.

As individuals, they were actually okay. But some of them got on her nerves more than others. Imani? Lyonette had all the time for Imani. The young woman could cook, and she helped out when she wasn’t suffering panic attacks.

But the others…Rose liked to think of herself as a leader. When this was Erin’s inn and Lyonette ran it. Joseph had a drinking habit he refused to quit. Kevin was Kevin. Which wasn’t always bad. Leon and Troy saw everything as a game, and were always debating things from their world. ‘Are Gnolls like Wookies?’

Galina kept trying to pet Mrsha.

Small things. But they added up. And as a whole, the seven could cause more trouble than Erin and Saliss rolling barrels full of cheese down a hill. Lyonette was just done. She looked at Joseph. And her ire wasn’t without company.

“Sober up. There’s a time for drinking. A city is destroyed, and you’re causing trouble?”

Palt snapped as he trotted by the Earthers. He’d taken on some of the burden of managing them—and fighting Montressa and Beza off them. He tapped Joseph on the face.

“[Remove Intoxication].”

The young man stopped standing so unsteadily. Some of the flush went out of his cheeks. Suddenly faced with stone-cold sobriety, Joseph rubbed his face. He needed a drink.

“Why don’t you all go inside?”

“We can help clean up.”

“You’ll step on a nail. Why don’t you go inside? You can help serve tables, or clean up, or—play with Ekirra.”

They were bad at serving things too. The Earthers looked at Lyonette’s face and went inside, arguing quietly. She rubbed at her head. She had a migraine.

“I wish you the best of luck. I’d trade with managing relief to Celum—but I don’t want to.”

Olesm commented. Lyonette smiled for a second. Maviola put a hand on Lyonette’s shoulder.

“Be kind to them.”

“I know. It’s not their fault they’re…”

Useless. Lyonette knew their history. Held prisoner—or as ‘guests’ of Magnolia Reinhart and being waited on hand-and-foot. They were like a lot of the nobility or monarchs she’d known, with less than 10 levels in anything. Like her, really. But she hated seeing herself in them.

But the [Lady] of House El shook her head. Maviola looked at Lyonette.

“No. Be kind to them, Lyonette. Not gentle. They may be poor embers, but everyone has a spark. You just need to find it. Magnolia tends to no flames. But they might surprise you.”

“They do every day.”

Lyonette grumbled, but the words gave her some pause. Maviola always talked about fire. It was her motif. But she was also right, usually.

Everyone has a spark. Thoughtfully, Lyonette looked back into the inn. She heard the others arguing. Then a crash as Joseph tried to put the bottle of gin back and knocked something over. Lyonette’s grabbed at her hair. Maviola hesitated.

“…Sometimes the spark is well-hidden under all the ash. Good luck.”

 

—-

 

Fix them. Find their inner fire. Turn crap into gemstones. Who could do that to this lot? This sorry lot that even Montressa and Beza weren’t sure would add much to their reputations if they were brought back to Wistram?

“I am so sorry—

Joseph backed away as Lyonette stared at the broken bottles of liquor. She saw Ekirra precariously near to a few shards of glass. She lost her temper.

Erin Solstice! Ryoka Griffin!

She shouted into the Garden of Sanctuary. Even Lyonette was banned for the moment, but she could make the door appear. Erin, Ryoka, and Teriarch all looked up from their movie-watching. Mrsha was sniffing the air and scenting Goblin and bee.

“What’s up? Oh no. Is it…”

Erin’s face fell into a look of dismay and annoyance. It was mirrored by Ryoka’s as she saw the mess. Lyonette put her hands on her hips. She stared at Ryoka.

“Your guests are causing trouble. Thank you ever so much for sending them, Miss Griffin.”

Ryoka turned red and shuffled her feet.

“I’m sorry. I—there weren’t many places they could go. And I thought…”

“They’ve been here one week. They have no classes worth mentioning. No talents. What are we supposed to do with them?”

“…Keep them here? Alive?”

Erin and Lyonette looked at Ryoka. The City Runner blushed again.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know! It was that or send them to Laken. And knowing him…no, I don’t know him. They’ve had a rough time in their own way, Lyonette, Erin. I just thought of you all. I’m sorry.”

Lyonette had no idea who that was. She sighed, rubbing her forehead.

“What are we supposed to do with them? Ryoka, you found them. How do you manage them?”

The young Asian woman hesitated.

“…Don’t kill them?”

She had no idea. They had gotten on her nerves, as well as Alber and Fierre’s. Let alone Madain—okay, he’d had fun drinking with Joseph and the others. So both Ryoka and Lyonette looked at Erin.

“What?”

The [Innkeeper] looked blank. Lyonette put her hands on her hips.

“Do something. Make them…better.”

“Me? How?”

The two exchanged a look, Ryoka and Lyonette in sync for one moment.

“Erin, you could turn a Creler into a house pet. Can’t you—you know—unearth some goodness in them?”

The [Innkeeper] made a face as she eyed the quarreling six. And Lyonette saw her shuffle her feet.

“I dunno…”

Even Erin was tired of them. In a rare moment of uncharitableness, the young woman scowled. She could do something. But today?

She looked up the hill where Mrsha was pouncing on Numbtongue. Movies, Ryoka—not today. Not now. She looked at Lyonette.

“I don’t wanna. You do it, Lyonette. Please? Just for today.”

Me? I’m not you, Erin. I can’t—you have to make them better. Please?”

The [Princess] pleaded. But the [Innkeeper] shook her head. She looked at Lyonette, seriously.

“Lyonette. I don’t make people into anything. I just find what’s there. It’s not me. You can do it too. I’ll help. But please—just for today?”

She linked arms with Ryoka. The City Runner opened her mouth. The [Princess] glowered. Then she sighed, looking at Mrsha laughing and bouncing on the prone Numbtongue.

“Fine. I’ll try.”

Grumpily, she stomped off. Erin winced, as she saw Lyonette begin ordering Kevin to stop picking up the glass with his bare fingers. The door shut.

And Lyonette was alone.

 

—-

 

Find what they had inside them. Maviola had said it, then Erin. Perhaps they were right because the two were alike. But how was Lyonette supposed to do it?

Perhaps…perhaps by doing what had been done to her. Lyonette took a breath.

Kevin. Joseph! Troy, L—where are they?”

“I think they went to their rooms. To stay out of the way.”

Galina replied. Lyonette just stared at her. She swung around.

“Kevin, Joseph. Why don’t you help me unload the wagons?”

A delivery of food had come up the hill with the goods. The two young men looked at each other. Ishkr and the Gnolls and Drake staff would normally take care of the work. But Lyonette decided this would be good. She looked at the two young men.

Joseph groaned, but nodded. Kevin just gave Lyonette a thumbs up.

“Cool. Be happy to.”

She blinked.

“Really? I mean—excellent. We’ll just store all the dried goods in the basement. Come on.”

They trooped outside, navigating between the waiting people going through the magical door. The cart wasn’t that big. There were just some heavy bags of flour, perishables—

“I’ll take the eggs and such. You can get down to the basement?”

“I’ve been there. Yup. Lift!

Kevin picked up a bag of flour. Joseph tried to do two, then put the other down. Lyonette sighed. She took the eggs into the kitchen. Then came back and saw…

Kevin and Joseph working. It was nothing special. They grunted as they navigated around people, didn’t smack into Ishkr cleaning up the glass or alcohol, dodged Ekirra kicking a ball and Drassi chasing after it, panting…but they carried the heavy loads down to the basement.

They weren’t exactly strong. Your average male Gnoll could do two bags on his shoulders. But they were around a Drake’s strength. And both were actually decently fit, not overweight. They didn’t hurry.

But to Lyonette’s surprise, they got the job done. Kevin was actually more motivated than Joseph, who had gone from pleasant intoxication to something of a hangover. The young man was from…California. Erin had described him as a ‘stoner dude’. Which was uncharitable, but Kevin had that vibe, Ryoka and Erin could agree on.

However, he was laid back. Friends with Bird, strange as that was. Lyonette felt the most from him and Imani. And he was putting some effort into the lifting and carrying as Joseph paused for a drink of water. Lyonette felt moved to have a word with him as he wiped sweat from his brow.

“Good work. Thank you for doing it.”

“Nah, it’s nothing. We’re getting fed, right? You tell me to lift, I lift. It’s good exercise.”

Kevin smiled. Lyonette almost smiled back.

“Great! And you are putting some effort into it. You—could get the [Laborer] class. Or maybe [Server]? That would be good, right?”

Kevin looked up. He hesitated.

“…Nah. I don’t think so.”

Lyonette’s face fell.

“Why not? If you put in the work—”

Kevin flipped his hair up as he responded. He was actually walking back to get another bag. He hefted one onto his shoulder as he turned around. Lyonette decided the inn needed a back door. No—a postern gate.

“No, totally. I could get the class. But I’ll probably just say no to it, y’know? I’ve done that to the last…six classes.”

The [Princess]’ jaw dropped. She nearly walked into Wilovan. The Gnoll tipped his hat. So did Ratici.

“Pardon me, Miss.”

“Oh, sorry—Kevin! What do you mean?”

Lyonette hurried after Kevin as the two Gentlemen Callers watched Kevin walk by. Joseph, grumbling, went past them for another load. Kevin shrugged as he walked towards the basement.

“I don’t want to be a [Laborer]. I think I got…[Layabout]? [Beggar], from Invrisil. Um—[Rider] when we were on the horses…what were the other two? [Potter], oh yeah…I turned them all down. I think I’m a Level 4 [Warrior]. That’s about it. I should probably have gotten rid of the [Warrior] class.”

Lyonette stared. But she would have taken them all! Except [Layabout]. And maybe [Beggar]. She searched for words.

“But why? You could get a class from working here! If you keep working—you could get to a high level! Strength-enhancing skills! Don’t you want that?”

The young man shrugged. In the basement he put the flour down on a large pile of bags of flour. He turned to Lyonette.

“Sure. Strength Skills would be cool. But I don’t want the [Laborer] class.”

Why?

Lyonette snapped. She was getting angry again, with Kevin more than the others. She had wanted to level so much she’d run away from home! And he—

Kevin, unfazed, looked at her.

“Because that’s not me. I’m not a [Laborer]. Or a [Beggar].”

The [Princess] paused. Kevin went on after a moment.

“I don’t know what I am. But I don’t want to be those things. Do you? I thought I wanted to be a [Warrior]—but I don’t like killing things. That was a kid’s dream. I’m happy to help. But this isn’t what I want to do with my life. You know?”

He looked at Lyonette. And the [Princess] slowly nodded. She…understood that.

She was a [Princess]. She couldn’t have been a [Dishwasher].

“But if you need money…if you had to work.”

“I’ll work. But that’s what I do. That’s not my class.”

It was a perspective from Earth, different from Ryoka’s, which was denial, or Erin’s. Kevin dusted his hands.

“Alright, back to the job. Right?”

“Right. Sorry. For saying…”

“No, it’s cool. I know we’re a pain.”

Kevin grinned at Lyonette. She flushed a bit. They knew?

“It’s just…what can you all do?”

The Californian man rubbed at his hair.

“I don’t know. But that’s because we’re from Earth. I didn’t go to college—I was working part-time at this repair shop for bikes. We don’t know what we want to do until we’re older. Is that okay? I know it’s not how this world works. But we don’t know.”

“It’s okay. It’s completely okay. Just as long as you keep looking.”

Lyonette felt for Kevin. That was her. He grinned.

“Great. This is an amazing inn, you know? Erin is really—cool. She made this. Herself. I wish I was that certain.”

Wistfully, he looked around at the stone and wood, the inn that was Erin’s. Lyonette nodded. She looked upwards as they climbed the stairs.

“She made more than that. She’s brought together so many people.”

“Yeah. And there’ve been monster attacks and stuff? Someone keeps mentioning this evil skeleton. And Celum. Heavy stuff. It’s like—terrorism. You know?”

“Not at all. But I wish we could do something. Erin’s door is doing a lot. But what can you do?”

Kevin was shrugging. How could you help a city after devastation? With widespread, organized help, like Olesm was doing. But if you weren’t Liscor’s [Strategist] or didn’t have a magical door, what then?

He caught sight of something as they were nearing the top of the stairs. Kevin paused and Lyonette nearly ran into his back.

“Whoa. Dude. What’s that?

Something was lying in a corner of the basement. Lyonette peered down.

“Oh. That. That’s the baseball equipment. Do you know baseball?”

Do I? You have baseball?

Kevin’s face lit up. Lyonette half-smiled.

“Erin brought it to this world. Sometimes people play in Liscor, but they haven’t organized many games recently. Do you play?”

“I mean—yeah. I grew up playing pitcher. That’s awesome. We should play a game!”

Lyonette’s eyes lit up as Kevin jumped down the stairs. He picked up a ball and bat and chortled at the glove and baseballs. She understood, in a flash, what Erin and Maviola had meant. The [Princess] looked around.

“I think I have an idea.”

 

—-

 

The inn’s guests looked up as Lyonette came up the stairs. She said one word.

Baseball!

Kevin followed her, carrying baseball bats, gloves, and the balls in his arms. The other guests stared. Some of them scratched their heads. Menolit commented to a Gnoll beside him.

“Eh, I don’t feel it.”

It didn’t have the same…ring to it as Erin did. The regulars were disappointed. The [Princess] looked around at the ambivalent tones.

Baseball!

She tried again, louder. The others looked at each other. Relc, leaning his chair against a wall, sat up slightly.

“Baseball?”

Baseball!

Now they got it. The adventurers looked around. Halrac grunted. There were shrugs, nods. Yeah.

Let’s play some baseball!

“There’s a diamond right outside Liscor! We’ll play a game—with Humans, Drakes, Gnolls—anyone who wants to join in! Come on, who wants to play?”

Lyonette clapped her hands, going around, getting people to agree. She was channeling her Erin and trying to be bouncy. She…half-succeeded.

“I guess it could be fun.”

A few of the Drakes and Gnolls agreed. The Humans in Celum stirred, recalling those games. A few drifted after Lyonette, when they saw Kevin marching out the door.

“What’s baseball?”

Wailant Strongheart looked interested as he came through the door from Celum. Garia burst into the inn after her father.

“Ryoka! I heard she was here from Fals! Where’s…?”

Fals himself looked at Lyonette. He was tired, burned. She stopped.

“We’re…going to play baseball to get people’s minds off things. Do you want to come, Fals?”

“I’d love to. And that’s a great idea, Lyonette. But—I want to keep working. Could I…get some food?”

The City Runner looked back towards Celum. Lyonette stopped, nodded.

“Of course. Kevin—can you take people outside?”

“Sure! Baseball this way! Let’s play a game! Hey, Rose! Get Leon and Troy!”

“They don’t know how to play baseball. Leon’s from Poland and Troy’s from Greece!”

Rose objected. Kevin rolled his eyes.

“Everyone knows how to play baseball, Rose. Even if they’re not from America, like us. Come on. Galina too! Joseph?”

“Fuck baseball. Who likes that game?”

The young man from Spain was sitting down. His headache was in full force. Kevin hesitated. Then he shrugged. He led people out the door. Not an Erin-sized crowd. But Lyonette was getting Fals food, trying to explain that Ryoka was busy to a disappointed Garia.

And the baseball game commenced. It wasn’t an Erin-phenomenon, all magic and spontaneity. It was more…calculated. Lyonette took groups of people bound for Celum, had them organize into teams. It was just…relaxing. As Kevin explained the rules, took up the pitcher’s mound. The Liscorians knew how to play. Gnolls and Drakes roamed out of the city, sensing the excitement. They stared at the Humans. But they picked up gloves, bats—

Lyonette smiled. Joseph refused to go, as did Galina, but the other Earthers, even Imani, joined in. And Kevin was pitching to the Gnolls.

Unlike the adventurer, Kevin had no illegal ice-balls, the ability to levitate a fastball, or fly. But he could throw a curveball. The Gnoll with the bat blinked as the ball curved.

“How did you do that?

“It’s easy. I played baseball growing up.”

Kevin grinned. Lyonette beamed as she saw more people look up. A Human tried to copy the pitch and nearly beaned a Drake.

“Watch it, you damn Human!”

“Hit the ball, scaleface!”

The two shouted at each other. Lyonette winced—but it was more good-natured. People laughed at the two. Sports had a power. She looked at Kevin as he threw a knuckle-ball to the amusement of all.

“Kevin! You have a talent!”

The young man grinned at Lyonette. He called back.

But this isn’t my thing. I just like it.”

Lyonette’s face fell. She had no way of knowing it but Kevin was just a decent baseball player by Earth’s standards. Not an athlete who could win a scholarship. She sighed.

One step at a time. At least they were out there, playing.

Most of them. Joseph sat in the inn. He wanted a drink. He had…a problem.

[Drinker]. A class bordering on uselessness. Well—he could put away alcohol, and apparently it was a recognized class. Like [Layabout]. But it was—consuming him.

He couldn’t help it. The young man sat there, until the [Princess] came back to check on him.

“Joseph? Are you not playing baseball?”

“I don’t play baseball.

He snapped, and saw her brows contract. The young man tried to speak calmly. The Centaur had taken away his drunkenness, but the hangover was here now.

“Sorry. I just—don’t. It’s not my game. I could really use a drink.”

“You shouldn’t have one.”

I know. It’s just—I started and I can’t stop. I never drank this much back home. But it’s been rough, alright?”

He growled. The [Princess] looked at him.

“You mean, you were almost killed? Like Imani?”

Joseph put his palms over his eyes, wishing the noise would just stop. He should go upstairs, to sleep.

“No. We just landed here. And then Magnolia picked us up. And it was…easy. We had food, money, and she asked us questions at first. We wanted to be adventurers, learn magic, you know? But then she let us become adventurers and we—couldn’t kill monsters. Too much blood. It was like sawing through a corpse.

He shuddered. He had killed an Eater Goat, with Magnolia’s servants helping keep them safe. It refused to die. He had stabbed it, and stabbed it, until his arms were heavy and it kept coming at him, even after it could only drag its front half as the guts of its lower half remained.

He was no [Warrior]. Magic was…hard. And they wondered why he drank?

“We don’t belong here. I can’t be a hero. I’m not Erin.”

He whispered. The [Princess]’ face was sympathetic. But her voice was stern.

“You can’t just drink, though. Nothing is free.”

“I know. I won’t. I’ll—go to my room. Okay? I’ll be useless somewhere else.”

Joseph hoped he wasn’t lying. He saw Lyonette pause.

Useless? Oh yes, Joseph and the others knew what the staff called them. The ‘Useless Humans’ that Erin had taken in. Of course it stung. But it was true. Joseph hung his head. After a while, he heard someone sit down next to him. Lyonette du Marquin looked at Joseph.

“I don’t think you’re useless. You just haven’t found what you’re good at. That’s not a crime. It’s just—hard.”

“Thanks.”

He raised his head, grateful for the words. But it was true. Joseph felt worthless. He sat there, too tired to go upstairs, as Lyonette hurried off.

Joseph longed to do something. But he was no leader. Rose wasn’t either. They hadn’t led people in times of real crisis. Joseph was a [Warrior], Level 8, but even though he had tried more than Kevin, he wasn’t one either. He was just…a person.

In a tale of fantasy. Look at that huge muscular Drake! Could anyone from Earth take him on? Maybe Earth’s champions. Or—could you become a [Warrior]? Maybe a soldier. But Joseph? He had never been in the army. He was just a kid from Spain.

Magnolia Reinhart had done a wonderful job of pacifying the people from Earth under her control. Lyonette looked at Joseph, crushed. And she disliked Magnolia intensely for that. It was so…much like her father.

Joseph sat there, as, outside, Kevin got the game of baseball running. He knew he should move, but he was so tired.

You’re not fun!

A loud voice made him wince. He heard a shout, a smack as something leathery bounced off a wall.

And then a little red ball rolled towards him. The young man looked down at it. Drassi, panting, clutching at her back, walked towards it.

“Joseph? Can we get the ball?”

Joseph looked at the ball. It was small. A bit bigger than two hands put together, meant to be thrown or chased about by little Gnoll children. Ekirra’s special little ball. Not like Mrsha’s fancy ones.

The young man stared at it. The leather ball was neatly stitched together, made by Gnolls, because of course there was a market for it anywhere Gnolls resided. He stood up slowly.

“The ball?”

Drassi panted. She wanted triple overtime pay for trying to keep Ekirra happy. She saw Joseph reach for the ball. With his foot. He rolled it onto the front of his foot, then kicked it up into the air.

The Drake blinked. Joseph bounced the ball on his foot, keeping it in the air. Ekirra, folding his arms and grumpy, stared. He pointed.

“How do you do that?

“Skill.”

Joseph replied before he remembered.

“I mean, practice. Here.”

He kicked the ball back towards Ekirra. The Gnoll boy opened his arms and the ball sailed into his grip. Drassi gave Joseph the first impressed look she’d ever given him.

“That was cool. I have to pick it up.”

“Huh? Yeah. Well…I played all the time back home. Not baseball. But every kid plays…”

Joseph trailed off. He stared at the ball. Ekirra threw it and it hit Drassi in the back. The Drake swore.

“Can I murder kids?”

“Hey. Where did you get that ball?”

Joseph slowly squatted down as Ekirra ran over to his ball. The Gnoll child looked up.

“It’s my ball.”

“I know. But who made it?”

“Someone in Liscor. It’s my special ball. It’s red, see? It cost twelve silver.

Ekirra was very proud of the ball, when he didn’t think about how many balls Mrsha had, and how special they were. His face alternated between happy and hurt as he thought about the inequalities.

“Huh. That’s a lot. It’s a great ball.”

“Yes it is! Do you want to play? She’s bad.”

The Gnoll practically pleaded. He pointed at Drassi. The Drake stuck her tongue out.

“Brat.”

“Where’s the shop that made the ball? Can you tell me?”

Joseph felt at his coin pouch. He’d sold the steel sword he’d been given. But he still had…Ekirra shrugged.

“It’s down Sailtclaw way.”

“…Where’s that?”

“If you go left when you go through the door—then you go straight, and then left—and then past the shop that smells like fish—”

Ekirra had terrible directions. But Joseph listened closely. He stood up as Drassi hopefully turned to him.

“Hey Joseph, if you want to help out, I could really use someone to play with Ekirra…”

“Sorry, I’ve got to go. I’ll be back in a bit.”

The young man hurried out the door. Drassi stared at his back as Ekirra wandered over to Visma, who was applying makeup. Drassi threw up her hands and looked around.

“Useless Humans! I told you. It fits, right, Ishkr? Ishkr?”

“Keep playing.”

The Gnoll advised Drassi. The Drake groaned. But she was wrong. Because one of her ‘useless Humans’ no longer looked quite so useless. He walked through Liscor, to a shop that sold leather balls stitched together of all sizes. They were light, and if this world hadn’t yet managed to create ones as lightweight as home—they could at least inflate a few bladders and slap some leather around them.

The young man looked into the shop and the Gnoll [Leatherworker] looked up. Joseph stared at the display. He felt at his belt pouch. And—he had to make one more little mistake. He winced.

“…Can you charge it to The Wandering Inn?”

 

—-

 

Lyonette got the Street Runner’s bill about the same time as Joseph got back to the inn, holding a large ball. She snapped.

Joseph! You cannot buy—what is that?”

She stared at the large sphere in Joseph’s arms. It was the largest ball the shop sold. Lightweight. Joseph bounced it. Not as bouncy as…but it was nearly the right size.

“I’ll pay you back. I’ll work. Sorry. I really am. But I had to get this.”

“A ball? Mrsha has tons! Just borrow one of those!”

“They’re too small. This—is perfect. Hey, Ekirra. Do you want to play?

The Gnoll looked up. Lyonette hesitated as she saw Joseph bouncing the ball on the ground. And she sensed it. She closed her mouth, looked around.

“Not inside.”

“Right. We’ll break everything. Is there anywhere flat to play?”

Joseph looked around distractedly. Lyonette had to think.

“…Not in Liscor. There’s the diamond, but they’re playing baseball there. The only other place is in…”

She hesitated.

“Celum. We could send you through. But Ekirra should stay here…”

“What if we’re just outside the walls? Is that okay?”

There were adventurers and all kinds of people in Celum. Lyonette slowly nodded. She was exasperated at Joseph. And yet—he slammed the ball down and it popped back up to his hands. Ekirra’s ears perked up at the sound. Even Visma looked up from playtime.

“Are you…going to play a game? Like baseball?”

Lyonette asked casually, over the thumping of her heart. Joseph smiled.

“It’s a game. But it’s way better than baseball.

 

—-

 

There was something logical about it. Just…it made sense. From baseball to a little Gnoll, and a Human and a few watchers from the inn, including Lyonette, watching them standing in the grass outside Celum.

Parts of it were burned. And the city was destroyed. Joseph looked at the ruined houses. He couldn’t fix them. He couldn’t even fix his habit.

But this? This he knew. He kicked the round ball and it rolled across the grass, under a summer’s sun. Ekirra picked it up.

“No, kick it back. See?”

Clumsily, standing on two legs, the Gnoll tried. Joseph made an encouraging sound as he ran to catch the ball with one foot. He kicked it back. The Gnoll ran on all fours after it.

“Don’t touch it with your hands! Paws! Whatever. You have to kick it! Or use your head if it’s in the air.”

Joseph called back. Ekirra’s ears perked up. There were rules. The young man knew what he was talking about. Ekirra leaned back and gave the ball a mighty kick.

He was small. But he was still a Gnoll. Joseph saw the ball flying and his eyes widened. He moved—not with a [Warrior]’s battle-honed reflexes, but with something else.

Lyonette saw the young man turn, run, and intercept the ball with his chest. It bounced off, he caught the ball on one foot, and lobbed it back.

Nice kick!

Ekirra’s tiny mouth gaped open. So did Lyonette’s. That was so—natural. And Joseph had done it? But he was grinning.

“Hey, how’d you do that?”

Drassi protested weakly. Joseph saw another ball coming his way. He blocked it with a leg, gave it a kick back—so Ekirra had to chase after it, laughing. He grinned.

“Pass me Ekirra’s ball?”

Drassi tossed it at him. Joseph rolled it onto one foot, kicked it up. He gently kicked the ball as it came down, kicked it up, juggling it.

“I played all the time back home. There’s a game that uses a ball just like this. See?”

He kicked the ball back into Drassi’s claws. The Drake nearly fumbled the catch. Ekirra blasted the ball at Joseph. He had to shoulder-block it with a grunt before it hit Lyonette.

“Not so hard! Control! Let’s play!”

How?

“Well—we’ll go towards a goal. Let’s make one.”

The Gnoll’s ears perked up. He stared as Joseph outlined a goal against the wall.

“You shoot here, see? And I’ll block. I can use my hands if I’m a goalkeeper.”

“Okay. I shoot! Aha!

The little Gnoll kicked. The ball soared—and Joseph dove. He blocked the ball as if his life depended on it. Ekirra saw the ball flying and ran after it.

“Nice try!”

The Spanish young man was grinning as he got up. He blocked a shot coming at the goal with his foot, booted the ball back across the field. Now Ekirra was barking with delight.

“That looks like fun. Can I try?”

Drassi perked up. She hurried over and Ekirra passed her the ball. Drassi gave a wild, but terribly inaccurate kick. The round ball bounced off one of Celum’s walls. And the sproingy sound it made—

From inside the inn, Ishkr’s ears twitched. A few Gnolls looked about.

There was a logic to it. Drassi swore as she rubbed at her feet. Joseph worriedly checked the ball.

“No claws! You’ll burst the ball. Use the inside of your foot, like this. See? You want control.

He demonstrated to his audience. Ekirra passed the ball back. Drassi missed the ball and gave up.

“I’m not good at this game. I’ll go back to the inn and work if that’s okay.”

“Can I…trade places?”

A voice made Lyonette turn. Ishkr was watching. His tail was wagging ever so slightly. His eyes were fixed on the moving ball.

Baseball, now, baseball had a ball. And catching and throwing and hitting the ball. So of course Gnolls loved it. But Drakes loved the idea of stealing bases and controlling territory just as much. This game had…chasing.

“Sure. If that’s okay, Lyonette?”

Joseph looked at the [Princess]. She nodded to Ishkr, who never asked for breaks unless he really needed them, unlike Drassi.

“Go ahead, Ishkr. Take an hour’s break.”

I never get an hour’s break.”

Drassi grumbled. Lyonette rolled her eyes. But she saw Ishkr take off his apron and hurry outside. Then there were three.

“There are two goals. And you try to score. You can’t go outside the lines. We don’t have a field, so let’s just play. Try to score a goal.”

“A goal! I want to kick!”

“Try passing it. So I can’t tell where it’s coming from.”

Joseph saw Ishkr pass to Ekirra, and then saw the wild kick. He was too slow to dive—but the ball missed the goal. Ekirra ran after the ball.

And there was that sound again. Leather hitting stone. More people turned.

I’m going to kick it back! Look how far!

The little Gnoll was having fun. Joseph shouted as Ekirra booted the ball back.

“Go back! I’ll kick it to you. You think this is far? Back! Further back!”

The Gnoll ran back. And then again, growing more excited as Joseph made him go…well…a field’s length a way. A hundred meters. Or in American feet—pointless.

Because Joseph was from Spain, which used proper measurements. Joseph backed up. It was going to be a stupidly long kick. He had little faith in his abilities to make a controlled shot. But a wild one?

He did a run up and kicked the ball as hard as he could. To his surprise, it was almost on target.

Okay—it was off by about thirty degrees. Terrible for a pass. But the ball flew. Ishkr’s head craned and his mouth opened. He began to run, instinctively pursuing the ball.

Yet it was little Ekirra who ran. Howling in delight as the ball flew hundreds of feet into the air. And heads in Celum turned, wondering what strange bird that was. People heard the laughter, the delighted howl.

Logic. Spontaneity. As Joseph called for Ekirra to kick the ball back and the Gnoll tried to repeat his feat, he realized there was an audience.

“What is this? This isn’t baseball.”

A Drake spoke, almost accusatorially. A group of people from Celum—mostly young men—were gathered on the walls. Joseph waved at them.

“No, it’s not. This is football.

“What’s that?

The young man grinned.

“Come down and play!”

The people on the walls hesitated. They looked as the ball soared through the air and Ishkr performed the first header in the entire world, bouncing the ball at Joseph. The young man ran after it. And then more people hurried out the gates. And there was a team.

A game.

 

—-

 

Erin Solstice felt her eyes bugging out after Contact. Two movies in a row were overtaxing her eyes, which were unused to the silver screen after so much time.

“Maybe a break?”

“But this one says ‘Star Wars’.”

The Dragon pointed at the screen. Ryoka burped; she was full of snacks. Numbtongue was gobbling food, having been revealed by Mrsha. The little Gnoll was lying on her back, stuffed.

“I think we can watch later, T—Eldavin. If you have time.”

“Certainly. Can I replay that scene from earlier? This is so fascinating. What is ‘Solitaire’?

Erin just shook her head. Who was this guy? Why did Ryoka trust him so much? She stood up.

“Let’s go outside. Lyonette might be killing the others. And I need to pee. Numbtongue, can you pick up Mrsha?”

“I can—”

Ryoka stopped as Mrsha rolled into Numbtongue’s arms. The [Bard] smirked as he put her on his shoulder and marched down the hill. Ryoka followed, awkwardly wondering what to say to the Goblin. Why did Mrsha like him?

The Wandering Inn was empty when Ryoka and Erin and Numbtongue entered it. The young woman looked around, frowning.

“Where’s everyone? In Celum?”

She spotted a baseball glove on a table and her eyes widened.

“Oh, no way! Lyonette got the others to play baseball!”

“You brought baseball here?”

Ryoka yelped. Erin beamed. She threw open the door to her inn.

“Yup! We even have a baseball field—huh?”

She pointed at the baseball field. It was just outside of Liscor. And it was…

Empty. Erin turned to Ryoka.

“But…baseball? Where’s everyone, then?”

The City Runner shrugged. She wasn’t psychic. But Mrsha’s ears heard something. She pointed and Numbtongue turned his head. He’d heard it too.

“Lots of people cheering. Magic door.”

He pointed. Erin and Ryoka looked at each other. They walked back inside, and heard the same sound at last.

The sounds of hundreds—thousands of people shouting. In the distance, a whistle being blown. The two exchanged a glance. They walked through the door. And for once—Erin Solstice and Ryoka were too late.

Because the game was already underway.

Outside of Celum, under the sun, a team of players was running after a ball. Ryoka saw Joseph running after a large leather ball. He kicked it—and it flew.

Don’t let him score!

People were shouting from the walls of Celum. The ball flew towards a net. A literal fishing net attached to a wooden frame. Someone was standing in the goal posts.

Moore. The half-Giant was nervously shielding his face and the goal. But before the ball could get there, it had to get past the other team. And as it flew, someone kicked it out of the air.

Bevussa knocked the ball down. It hit the ground, and her team rushed after it. But a [Necromancer] appeared in a burst of speed. Pisces [Flash Stepped] as he kicked the ball ahead.

Stop him!

He was too fast! He ran around Ulinde, wearing a Gnoll’s form, and Ishkr. But then—his shadow moved.

Seborn Sailwinds leapt out of Pisces’ shadow. The [Necromancer] jerked—too late. The [Rogue] kicked the ball straight up.

Bevussa.

Got it!

The Garuda kicked the ball in the air. It soared over Joseph’s head. Straight towards the other goal. He saw the other team charging after it. But the goalie—Ceria—caught the ball.

“Throw it back!”

The half-Elf reversed the ball. But her throw was weak. It barely went anywhere. She cursed, charged out of the goal—

Relc kiiiiiiiick!

And the Gecko of Liscor shot forwards. He kicked the ball and it blasted past Ceria as she dove for her life. Ryoka heard groans and shouts.

Springwalker, you idiot! You block the ball!

Pisces shouted at Ceria. She pointed and he dove as a clump of snow shot at him.

“You try it!”

3-2! Throw the ball back!”

Ekirra ran around the outside of the pitch, after the ball. He threw it back; Mrsha’s eyes widened as she saw his ball being played with in a smaller, kids-only game to the side. She immediately began to wiggle off Numbtongue’s shoulders.

“No way. Is that Joseph?”

“That can’t be Joseph. He’s not drunk. He’s actually moving.

Erin and Ryoka looked at each other. And now—more people were calling out.

Substitution! Let us play! Losing team out!

Kevin jogged onto the field. Joseph gave him the ball and the young man grinned. Ceria threw up her hands.

“If you’d let me use [Ice Wall] again—”

“That’s cheating.”

Yeah! Play us! No one can beat the Gecko! Yeah!

Relc posed in the field to cheers. The new team formed up. Humans from Celum,—Kevin, Jelaqua, Bezale, Elirr

Erin had to sit down. And she realized—many people were. Those not in Celum—no—most of the city was taking a break—were sitting on the walls. Eating.

Forgetting, for a moment. There was something blissful about focusing on the game. Kevin was pointing.

“Okay, go!

He kicked the ball to the other team. The other players charged. Bevussa kicked the ball out of the air.

Foul! Hey, she’s too good!

The Horns complained loudly as they pointed at Bevussa. Joseph was scratching his head. Football had not been designed with flying players in mind.

“Maybe—but the other players can use their Skills. See? Oh wow—

He pointed. The ball had been caught by Kevin. He carried it up the field. And Relc was charging at him.

“Oh heck.

Kevin kicked the ball to Jelaqua before Relc ran over him. The Selphid charged.

Rampaging! Whoo!

She shot forwards, faster than anyone. She booted the ball towards the goal. Moore looked up. No one was there. Jelaqua had missed—

Beza appeared out of nowhere, shedding her [Invisibility] spell as Bevussa and a Human ran after the ball. She smirked—and the Minotauress [Spellscribe] kicked the ball.

Right between Moore’s legs. The half-Giant was too slow. The others applauded and laughed.

Invisibility is cheating!

Relc howled in disgust.

“Not if you can use Skills! Losers out!”

Kevin shouted right back. Erin exchanged a wondering glance with Ryoka. Teriarch wandered out of the magic door.

“Where has everyone gone?

Then he saw the game of football. Erin pointed at it. Palt was running down the field, trying to kick the ball, but the Centaur’s legs weren’t exactly good for the game. Still—he was fast. And there was Halrac. Palt passed to him—the [Scout] kicked the ball. And refused to run.

“You coward. This is a game!”

Revi jogged past him, panting. She’d switched out her body for a more athletic Revi. The [Scout] grunted and walked into the soccer goal to play defensively. Typhenous stroked his beard.

“I might want to play. What are the rules about—”

Jelaqua kicked the ball wildly and everyone ducked as it soared over Celum’s walls, just missing the spectators.

“You could break someone’s neck!”

“Sorry! This is so fun! Hey, are there more of these balls?”

The Selphid was laughing. And more people began calling out, wanting to play in their games. Joseph looked around.

“Do we have any more balls? This size?”

“We can make them. What’s special about them?”

One of the [Tailors] from Celum called out. Joseph pointed.

“It has to be lightweight. Strong—hey! Kick the ball back!”

He shouted at the people on the walls. Someone shouted.

“Coming back!”

The ball flew through the air, high into the sky. People ran after it—

And then something hit the ball. Everyone looked up as the ball fell out of the skies. It landed on the ground, suddenly, deflated.

There was an arrow in it.

Everyone turned to the Antinium on the walls. Bird held his bow behind his back.

“…I thought it was a bird.”

No!

Joseph was heartbroken. The other players clustered around as Erin promptly confiscated Bird’s bow and put him in no-hunting timeout for three days. But then a group of [Mages] strode up.

“Quite the pickle, yes? But if we cast [Repair]—hm. That fixes the tear.”

Typhenous tapped the ball. The rip repaired, but the deflated ball didn’t fix itself. Montressa rolled her eyes.

“You’re talking to an [Aegiscaster], Mister Typhenous. Allow me.”

She poked her wand into the ball, whispering a spell to cut the fabric. Then she blew air into the ball.

“[Orb of Air]. That makes it tight—”

“Hold on, too tight and it’ll blow!”

Joseph cried out. Montressa smirked. The inflated ball began to glow.

“[Fortified Material: Steel]. Don’t worry, it makes it strong as steel, not as hard. If you would?”

“[Repair].”

Typhenous tapped the ball. It fixed itself. Then, Montressa bounced the ball. It was more buoyant than before. The [Aegiscaster] looked around.

“We can make it better. [Featherweight]!”

She touched the ball. And when she tossed it at Joseph, it flew. He grabbed the ball. Then kicked it straight up.

Everyone stared up into the sky. The ball soared up…Ryoka’s head stayed back.

“Holy shit.”

“That’s too light! Oh my god.

Joseph was laughing with shock and awe. Montressa shrugged.

“I can adjust how light it gets. Isn’t lighter better?”

“You could kick that a thousand feet! Joseph, why can’t we play with one of those? Can you make more, Mons?”

Kevin excitedly looked at the [Aegiscaster]. She puffed out her chest.

“Sure. Just get me a ball and I’ll enchant it! It won’t last unless I do rune work, but—go ahead!”

A second ball was produced. The first one began flying about, with the [Featherweight] enchantment removed. Erin laughed as she saw Halrac grumpily block a ball.

Go Halrac! This is a game!”

“Dead gods, we have to broadcast this! Anyone have a scrying orb?”

Someone exclaimed from the side. Erin didn’t hear, nor did Ryoka. They were following Mrsha onto the field, laughing. But so it began.

One event after another.

Wilovan, watching from the side, found himself being tugged into one of the scrimmage games. Joseph was organizing the tournament. The top players from each team would keep playing each other. Bevussa, Jelaqua—Pisces smoothed his hair and nudged Ksmvr. Yvlon decided she was better as a goal-keeper.

The games began, three at once. Wilovan refused to take off his hat as he and Ryoka took a team against Relc, Olesm, Krshia—

They were all there. Maviola was laughing as she ran over to join Olesm’s team. Everyone was focused on the games. And Sir Relz was interrupting Noass’ broadcast on art.

I think we have a new broadcast. Excuse me—if you’re just watching, we have—what is this? Something from Celum? Not the Bloodfeast Raiders—

Ratici quietly stood in The Wandering Inn. Alone, but for a few staff members hurrying into the kitchen. He walked upstairs, not invisible or camouflaged.

Just casually. As if he belonged there. The [Thief] adjusted his cap as he found the room he’d scouted out.

“Here we are, sir. Are you listening?”

Yes.

The voice was tense from other end of the communication spell. Ratici bent over the board. He concentrated.

“Let’s see, sir. You vouchsafed the combination to me as something like this: Pawn to A1—Knight to E6—a curious combination, sir. What’s a pawn?

“The…small pieces. Do you not play chess?”

The voice was frustrated. Important, but Ratici liked to chat, even to the rich and powerful. He wasn’t lesser than them. The [Thief] bent to his task, speaking casually.

“Insofar as I have time off, no, sir. Not my sort of game. Ah—there we are.”

He heard a sharp breath on the other end. The board’s pieces were rearranged to a completely innocuous pattern, like a chess game someone else played. But—the key to the pudding was something on the other end, Ratici was certain.

“Tallman, sir?”

It—it’s a match. It’s good. And you’re sure that this—this—room belongs to her?

“Young woman. Female. Human. ‘Bout twenty years old. [Innkeeper], Erin Solstice. Yes, sir. Her room. We’ve checked multiple times.”

I see. Thank you. Your job is accomplished. Dead—thank you. And this is without a doubt?

“Unless someone can fool my associate’s eyes and mine, it would be apparent that this is the case as evidenced by our eyes, sir.”

Ratici’s voice was patient. On the other end, the Titan of Baleros was silent. He stared at the magical chessboard. A copy of the one he had hired Ratici to change.

“…Put the board back to its original spot. You’re—the payment will be sent at once. Until I get there, you’re hired. Escort duty.”

He whispered. Ratici frowned.

“Begging pardon, sir, but my companion and I don’t take that sort of request—”

I’ll double your fee.

“Well, on the other hand, we always like new experiences. Let’s say we’ll keep an eye out, howsabout that?”

Done. Just—good work. Remove yourself before you’re detected.

Niers Astoragon sat back. He stared blankly at the board as Ratici hung up, grumbling about paranoid employers.

“It is true.”

He hadn’t believed it. But the Titan of Baleros…looked at the board. His hand was shaking as he reached for a glass of water.

“Time to go.”

That was all he said. And he began making plans. Until Peclir Im knocked, with a scrying orb in his hands.

“Sir? You may want to see this. Another ‘event of interest’ around Liscor.”

Niers Astoragon looked up.

“What? But I didn’t—what event?

He looked into the scrying orb. And saw a pair of very familiar Drakes, speaking in front of…no, they were outside! Sitting on a table on a wall. And below them was…

“If you’re just tuning in, this is Sir Relz and Noass, from Pallass! Only we’re in Celum and broadcasting what I understand is an impromptu game outside of Celum! Shattered by a Bloodfeast Raider attack, these plucky Humans are raising spirits with a game of ‘kick the ball’.”

The other Drake coughed, adjusting his monocle.

“I think it has a name, Noass. Let’s see if we can talk to some of the people. You there! Miss! Can you tell us what this delightful pastime is?”

Drassi looked up. She had been cheering from the walls. The [Gossip]’s mouth fell open.

“Oh. Ancestors. Are you—how are you here? Dead gods! Sir Relz and Noass! I love your show!”

The two Drakes preened as the young [Gossip] ran over. Noass smiled at the audience.

“We came from Pallass directly. Miss, this game?”

“Right, right! It’s so amazing, isn’t it? Look! That’s my favorite team, there—”

Everyone in the world saw Pisces kicking the ball. Bevussa dove for it, but an Antinium leapt. Ksmvr made Bevussa recoil as the [Skirmisher] kicked at the ball.

“I can fly. Whee.”

The Antinium landed. The ball shot towards Halrac and Revi ran after it, battling with Kevin.

Sir Relz’s monocle nearly popped out of his eye.

“Good gracious! This is nothing like that game of—er—‘base the ball’ we observed a while ago. That was before we were doing these broadcasts, viewers. And Celum—or the area around Liscor has two such games?”

“Yes! Look at them play!”

The Drakes craned their necks. The two looked at each other. They were [Commentators]. And this deserved…Sir Relz cleared his throat as he smiled.

“I believe, Noass, this is what we were made for. I’m observing two teams here. Is that the Horns of Hammerad I see?”

“Yes, Sir Relz. Newly minted Gold-rank adventurers. After slaying that Adult Creler, battling…er…Griffon Hunt? I need to consult my notes, but certainly good adventurers! Oh—sorry—”

The ball flew down the field. Drassi danced from one foot to another as the [Commentators] fumbled for their notes. Noass raised one finger.

“As I understand it—they’re down one member. That Human…no, not part of their team.”

He squinted at Kevin. The young man had the ball and was passing to Relc. The watchers cheered as the Drake ran with the ball, roaring and swinging his fists at Pisces as the young man tried to take it.

“That would be…the Gecko of Liscor. Ah, retired, but let me just provide some historical context here…”

Relz saw Pisces take the ball. He was trying to explain about Relc’s career. Drassi eyed the two Drakes as they stumbled. She saw Noass pull out some notes. And then—she shoved Sir Relz out of his seat.

Pisces has the ball!

“Young woman! We are the [Commentators] here—”

Sir Relz gasped. Drassi ignored him trying to get back into frame. She spoke urgently to the viewers, tilting the angle to get the game as Pisces raced down the field. Her speech was urgent, rapid, keeping up with the action.

“Pisces has the ball, long shot to Ksmvr, he’s taking it around Moore, and he shoots—no! Halrac’s blocked the ball! He’s tossing it back and here goes Relc again! He’s kicking from that far? Oh Ancestors!”

The ball smacked Yvlon in the chest. She went over and the audience exploded. So did Drassi, fighting the two other Drakes off.

Goal! That’s 2-1 for the teams! And on the other field—is that Typhenous? He’s way too old to be playing goalkeeper! Someone stop him!

She pointed. An old man had walked into the goal and was confidently leaning on his staff as Jelaqua took the ball down the pitch. The Selphid was too excited to notice him.

Maughin, watch me!

She was Rampaging. And she’d raced past the other players. The Selphid kicked the ball past Ryoka like a cannon’s shot. Straight at Typhenous.

Oh no—

The Plague Mage’s eyes glinted. He raised a hand. He was holding something.

A magical buckler.

“Forceshield.”

A small barrier of rippling air appeared. The ball hit the buckler and bounced backwards. Jelaqua gaped.

Foul!

Half the stands booed. The [Mage] laughed as he planted his staff in the ground. Drassi was shouting.

“It’s good! That has to be fair if they’re using Skills!”

“Cheater!”

Ryoka howled, but the wind was blowing the ball back through the air. She looked around.

Mrsha was kicking the ball, running after it on all fours, but she was less adept than the Human children her age on two legs. Ekirra on the other hand—was scoring another goal. Ryoka ducked as someone shouted.

Incoming!

This time it was Keldrass who set up the shot. The Drake was wearing the Heartflame Breastplate in the other goal. He hurled the ball back and a Gnoll blasted it at Typhenous. The [Mage] blocked it. He grinned. The goalie duel began in earnest as both sides abandoned going for defense and began taking shots at both goals.

Drassi kept commentating, belting out names and shifting from game to game. Noass and Relz fought her, but the [Gossip] was living her dream. Her trying to push them over the side of Celum’s walls and Relz dangling from the walls as Noass held on—was a backdrop to the games.

And more and more people were coming.

“Dead gods, are we late? I told you we had to cut the date short, Hawk!”

Selys Shivertail appeared out of the magic door, panting. She ran up the walls and gasped. Hawk grumpily followed.

“But we were having such a pleasant time—whoa.”

They stared at the games being played. Selys brightened.

“Amazing! Erin? Erin! Did you do this?”

“Not me! It was all Joseph! And Lyonette! Look!”

Joseph was organizing the next game. On one side was Bevussa, Jelaqua, Seborn, Relc—the most athletic and nimble players. Pisces was on the other side. And there—jogging onto the pitch and throwing Ryoka into a massive hug—

Ryoka!

Garia hugged her friend, lifting her up. Ryoka stared. Who was this?

“Do I know you?”

“It’s me! Garia!”

Garia? But you look—”

Her friend looked unrecognizable. Ryoka stared at Garia.

“I have the [Martial Artist] class. And [Weight Control]—the Skill. I owe it all to you, Ryoka!”

“But—how—I just taught you one punch and a kick!”

“I know! You have to teach me the rest! Look at me!”

Ryoka did. Garia’s clothing was more revealing. She looked—confident. Definitely fit, although she had been before, just not…like this. But she was so changed. Ryoka felt uneasy. This was the work of the system. She forced a smile and Garia didn’t seem to notice.

“That’s…great. Really—”

Hey! Get off the field!

Wailant shouted at his daughter and Ryoka. Garia tugged Ryoka to one side.

“Come on. We have to talk.”

And there was another team. Fals and Wailant and Numbtongue passing the ball to each other. Selys was cheering from the walls.

Go Pisces!

The [Necromancer] was one of the better players on the field. He wove around Beza, kicked the ball—Selys jumped up and down, cheering. And Hawk glowered. He looked at Selys—then at Pisces. His eyes narrowed and his rabbit ears lowered.

“Hold on, I’m going to play.”

He leapt from the walls. Pisces, running with the ball again, saw a flash. The Courier was there, standing in front of him. He snagged the ball, kicking it away from Pisces. And then he ran after the ball, faster than it was moving, and kicked it a second time.

It went straight past Yvlon. The crowd went wild as Pisces and Hawk looked at each other silently. Selys bit her tongue from the walls.

“Oh wow. This is going to be the game of the day!”

Joseph looked at Hawk, who had to be on the team now. Bevussa was looking about. She pointed.

“Hey! We want Typhenous for goal keeper!”

She caught Typhenous, who was shutting down almost every goal with his semi-legal Forceshield he’d borrowed from Ksmvr. The others protested.

“If you get him—we want—Numbtongue! And you! That Gnoll!”

Ceria, with Ksmvr, Yvlon, Pisces, Joseph—feeling distinctly understrength against the dream team of Relc, Jelaqua, Bevussa, Hawk, Seborn, Typhenous—pointed at one of the faster Gnolls.

Wilovan looked up. So did Numbtongue. They walked over and the Gnoll adjusted his hat.

“I must confess, I’m new to this game, Miss. But if I’m called upon, a gentleman doesn’t refuse a lady’s request.”

He smiled toothily. Ceria blinked at him. Typhenous paled as the teams took shape. The first kick came from Yvlon—Bevussa kicked the ball straight at Hawk. The Courier kicked the ball at the goal—then blazed forwards and kicked the ball again.

It went straight past Moore, who’d taken up the position. Hawk raised his hand and the crowd cheered. Selys just glared at him from the walls.

“Show off.”

“It looks like our B-team might be failing against so many fast players! That’s Hawk up the there—”

Drassi was waving her tail back and forth as Relc tried to tail-slap the ball. He shouted in pain.

“Oh, Ancestors! My tail!

Even so, his team scored again. Jelaqua raced past Ceria, headed the ball towards the goal—and Seborn appeared out of the air, kicked the ball, and vanished again.

“Seborn! This isn’t fair!”

Moore protested as the other team scored. There was another groan.

“We need reinforcements! Who can we get to help?”

Ceria looked around. Yvlon shook her head.

“I’m too slow. Get—Briganda? Halrac? Halrac! Switch with Moore!

The [Scout], sitting on the walls, shook his head. The B-team looked around. Ceria spread her arms.

“Hey! Give us Relc!”

“No way!”

“Do you wanna play?”

Erin was sitting on the walls. The Dragon looked at her. Grand Magus Eldavin just sniffed.

“I don’t like running about. However, I am enjoying myself. Another bucket of…this.”

He handed Erin an empty popcorn bucket. She looked at him and sighed.

It looked like it was going to be a one-sided game on the B-team’s side. Pisces was glaring at Hawk, ready to take on the other team. But Ksmvr looked around and brightened.

“Ah. Quality members of our team. Captain Ceria, please remove yourself.”

Ksmvr!

The half-Elf looked at him, hurt. The Antinium innocently spread his three arms.

“But Captain Ceria, we wish to win—look.”

Here. They. Came. Bevussa looked up.

“Uh oh.”

Grimalkin of Pallass looked across the games. He wrote a little note.

“Incredible. I nearly have all the pieces—are you quite well, Saliss?”

“Never better.”

The nude Drake folded his arms. He looked around for Teriarch. The Dragon gave him a nod. The Drake sniffed, then his eyes lit up.

Wing Commander Embria looked across the field at her father. 4th Company stood on the walls. Those of them not queued to play.

Go, commander!

They cheered. Relc pointed at his daughter.

“Hey! You’re supposed to be on my side!

“It’s looking more even…and who is this?

Someone tapped Pisces on the shoulder as the [Necromancer] tried to figure out how to stall Hawk, who was faster than even Bevussa.

“Excuse me. My wife insists I show off. May I join you?”

A somewhat resigned man smiled at Pisces. The [Necromancer] jerked back—and then eyed Thomast up and down. The [Chevalier] stared at a screaming [Lady] on the walls.

Thomast! Win for me!

Bethal Walchaís shouted and screamed. Maviola’s eyes narrowed.

“My money!”

She ran off. And the game began. Hawk sprinted at the ball—and Pisces and Thomast appeared in front of him. The [Chevalier] smiled—and a copy of him appeared. Hawk blinked and it vanished. The real Thomast somewhat awkwardly kicked the ball, blurred after it, and shot it at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin and [Chevalier] eyed each other—then Relc ran over Numbtongue.

Foul!

The cry went up and Joseph had to explain what a penalty shot was to everyone. Drassi ran down the stairs and Sir Relz and Noass followed.

“Excuse me! This is our broadcast—we haven’t even named this game! Excuse me, young Drake!

The [Commentator] finally wrestled the orb away from Drassi. He turned back to the audience and gave them his best smile.

“Now, with some proper, relaxed commentary…Miss? May I ask you your thoughts on the game? What is this sport called, perchance?”

He walked over at a slow pace to Erin, who was cheering. Instantly, [Messages] of complaint began flooding the show and Drassi would soon have the scrying mirror again. But by now, people were watching. They saw Erin shouting.

“What? Oh—this game is called soccer—”

 

—-

 

Football!

Daly, the Bushrangers, and every member of the United Nations screamed. They stood around the scrying orb, pointing.

It’s football! It’s one of us!

Paige was screaming. She looked at the viewpoint switched to Joseph, the ‘creator’ of the game. Geneva was frozen as Paige hugged her, forgetting their enmity. Daly just stared as the game began.

“Fucking hell! Look at them go!

The Garuda was diving out of the skies, kicking the ball her teammates launched up. And the ant-man was leaping after her, like a grasshopper. A young man in robes shot after the ball, disappearing and reappearing five feet ahead with each step. He beat a rabbit-man to the ball, passed it.

Joseph! Go!

Drassi shouted. Siri grabbed Kirana’s shoulder.

“Joseph.”

“I have his name. I am sending a [Message]. Or should we wait?”

Ken looked at Aiko and the others. They were all consumed. Luan’s hands were clenched.

Go for it!

He shouted at Joseph. The young man was charging down the field. And there came that giant of a Drake. Relc had dodged Grimalkin and the Gecko was speeding at Joseph.

Stronger, bigger, faster. How did you beat that? Perhaps—with practice. Skill. Joseph turned. And the ball moved as if it was glued to his feet. He went around Relc, who charged right into Numbtongue.

Foul again! B-Team has the ball!

The female Drake called into the scrying orb. But it wasn’t her that they were looking at. Across the world—those Earthers with access to a scrying orb stared.

 

—-

 

“That’s soccer.”

Richard commented. He heard hysterical laughter. Tom was laughing. Lord Hayvon was speaking urgently to one of his servants. Richard looked at the others.

“They’re out there.”

The [Knight] stood up.

 

—-

 

How did Montressa and Bezale not report this?

Nailihuaile shouted at the others in her faction. She pointed at the scrying orb.

“There they are! Tell them this is a disaster! We want them contained! I want them here—now!”

“Football!”

Aaron stared longingly at the pickup game. He itched to play. Look at them move!

“Straight up!”

Saliss shouted. He booted the ball up as the naked Drake wove around the others playing. Bevussa wove. She kicked—Aaron heard an exclamation. The Garuda fell to earth.

Oh no! I think Bevussa’s injured! Hold on! We’re getting closer!

“She’s just faking it.”

The other Earthers in Wistram were clustered around the scrying orb. Shoving even the [Mages] out of the way to see. Elena was nodding—and then she inhaled. Aaron turned pale.

“Ooh.”

The Garuda’s foot was broken. Her light bones had hit the soccer ball at the wrong angle. Her team urgently waved.

“[Healer]! Healer!

Clear the field! Healing! Emergency! Emergency!

A team of Antinium raced across the field, holding a stretcher. Pawn led a group of Painted Antinium. The Archmages were having conniptions. Feor strode towards Nailihuaile, pointing at Pawn as he put a hand on Bevussa, carrying her to safety.

Why are they in Celum!? They cannot have Earthers. Archmage Naili, Archmage Viltach, I propose we order all agents to make sure the guests are taken.”

“Agreed. And Grand Magus Eldavin—perhaps that’s why he’s here.”

Viltach stared at the game of soccer. Plans were running through Wistram. But they were only parts of what was happening.

 

—-

 

“Oh shit. They’re not faking.”

Greg stared at Bevussa being carried off the field as a very fit young Runner took her place. Garia Strongheart took over for Typhenous, who was exiled for reasons of using the Forceshield. She waved at Ryoka.

“Hey Greg? Shut up. We’re watching.”

Cara, the Queen of Pop, stared at the scrying orb in their trailer. She looked up.

“Joseph in Celum. Or Liscor. He’s there. Send a [Message] spell before Wistram gets their fucking fingers all over him.”

The world was coming together. And it was all turning on the Human, the Crazy Human of Liscor. Obviously—

Joseph. Who else could it be? The young man kicked the ball at Garia. She turned, set herself—and punched the ball.

 

—-

 

It was already going fast. Garia hit it perfectly. The [Martial Artist]’s blow made Orjin smile. Pomle’s warriors were clustered around the one scrying orb in the entire nation.

Ooh.

Salii winced as the ball shot forwards. It hit Pisces in the chest as the [Necromancer] raced forwards. The young man looked like Palt had kicked him in the chest. He landed on his back and stopped moving.

“He just broke three ribs. Fractured, at least. Good punch.”

One of the other [Martial Artists] commented. The stretcher came out again.

Good job, teammate!

Hawk ran over, beaming, to high-five an aghast Garia. Selys shouted insults at him. But the goalie’s actions were fair. Even Pomle watched.

 

—-

 

“Maybe protective spells on the players?”

Montressa was debating with Typhenous and Bezale. She was laughing, hair mussed up. And Beatrice saw her friend—Montressa—waving at Ceria.

It was all coming together. Like a tidal wave, the world was turning. And it might not have been his fault.

But there sat the Dragon. Magnolia Reinhart would see him in the scrying orb. Wistram would wonder. He sat there, setting fire to the best laid plans.

Maviola El laughed. She had chased Bethal down and after a scrap—had her money. And perhaps Bethal’s. The other [Lady] had lost the brief tussle.

Although both had wounds. Maviola had a cut on one cheek. Bethal had nails like razors. The [Lady Firestarter] laughed and laughed. This was worth it! All of it!

“I have to play with Olesm. This game. How have I never heard of it? How—”

She turned. And then her face went gray. Maviola stumbled, felt a pain in her arms, legs—her heart was beating too fast. She looked down and her hands were wrinkled.

“No—”

The [Lady] reached for her belt. Her hands were shaking. She plucked a glowing viridian vial from her belt. Opened it. Drank, begging the potion to—

The shaking stopped. Maviola lay on the ground, licking the vial, letting every last drop fall into her mouth. She stood up, panting.

Three weeks.

That was all she said. Her heart began to beat normally again. She took another breath. Then walked out, to make the most of her time. It was worth it.

Ratici emerged from The Wandering Inn to see Wilovan running. The Gentleman Caller was a big Gnoll. But he moved with an agility that fooled even Relc. He kicked the ball—and Garia kicked it back. The [Thug] dodged the deadly projectile as it shot down the pitch. He caught his hat.

“I say, what a lovely sport this is.”

He was smiling. The others were laughing. Erin clapped her hands—and Ryoka grabbed her. The City Runner’s face was white.

Erin.

“What? This is great! Garia’s so good, Ryoka—”

“Erin, this is being broadcast. Live!

Ryoka pointed. Erin turned. Only then did she see Sir Relz, Noass. She hadn’t realized. No—she’d been on the scrying orb. But she’d been so caught up in the excitement and they’d been here before. She didn’t see the problem at first. Ryoka put it into clarity with one word.

Wistram. This is soccer! Football! Damn it, whichever! They know!

Erin Solstice went pale. She looked at Joseph.

“No. But—”

Like this? She’d been careful! She’d tried to be! She’d made deals with Montressa, and Beza—

But both [Mages] were speaking urgently as they raised their fingers to their temples. And they were looking around. Montressa met Erin’s eyes.

The air froze between them as Montressa looked away. Erin stood up. Suddenly—she was afraid.

“What do we do?”

“It’s too late to stop the broadcast. Erin, get out of sight. I can’t be heard! If they hear my voice—”

Ryoka was panting with nerves. What did this mean? What would happen? She hadn’t even witnessed the kidnap attempt of the Horns of Hammerad. Erin had. She clenched her fists.

“No. What do I do? What…”

She looked around. Suddenly afraid. Not knowing what she could do against this. The Academy. The sudden revelation. She turned. Ryoka was looking for help. Perhaps Fierre could…?

Erin ran too. Looking for someone to help her. For Grand Mage Eldavin, or—

And there he was. She looked for him, and he was just standing there.

Having a quiet rollup as he watched the games. A smile on his face. Palt turned as the [Innkeeper] ran up to him.

Palt!

He looked at her. The words spilled from Erin’s mouth. Her fears, the Earthers being revealed. The Centaur looked at her.

Was he an ally as he claimed? Or was he one of them? The [Illusionist]’s brows snapped together. He looked up, saw the scrying orb, cursed. The dreamleaf cigar dropped from his mouth and he caught it.

“Of course. I should have known.”

“What do we do? I don’t want—”

Erin was close to panicking as she had been this entire year. Palt looked at her. And the Centaur inhaled. His brows snapped together—and then he smiled.

“I have an idea. Hold this.”

He handed the cigar to Erin. She blinked at it. Then she saw the Centaur trot forwards. And then gallop.

As the game between Joseph’s team escalated to the final, game-defining point, Joseph kicked the ball.

“Go for it!”

It shot to Thomast. The [Chevalier] instantly kicked it left. Around Hawk, who was fast, but not a team player. To Wilovan, who obligingly sent it up.

And there he was. The Antinium flew through the air. Ksmvr kicked the ball down. Relc dove. Jelaqua ran—but she was too late.

Numbtongue stood by the goal. That Hobgoblin, unnoticed by all, smiled at Garia. She leapt—and he jumped as well. The ball grazed his hair. And he bopped the ball slightly. It bounced into the goal.

Goal. Amid the cheering, Erin saw a figure running. In front of the scrying orb as Drassi shouted and B-team celebrated. Palt pointed, and the air shimmered and glowed as he cast a spell.

Just a little spell. But an [Illusionist]’s flair on it. Archmage Nailihuaile choked. Feor shot up and stared around the banquet hall. Montressa, Bezale, Pisces, Ceria—all saw the Centaur’s writing in the air. It was a message.

 

Presented by the Ullsinoi of Wistram.

 

Flowery, beautiful. The world’s first advert. Across the dining hall, a group of [Illusionists] fell over laughing and cheered. Erin breathed out. Palt winked at her.

All three Archmages exploded. Teriarch hmmed as he smiled.

“Well, they’re still about? Those tricksters. I should visit Wistram. So much intrigue.”

He happily copied all of the [Messages] the so-called ‘Archmages’ had been sending to Beza and Montressa and other agents.

And the day was saved. Erin Solstice blew out, shaking. And realized she was smoking the dreamleaf cigar. She went cross-eyed and snatched it from her mouth.

“Hmm? Hm.

She eyed it, hesitated, put it back down.

That was it. More happened—and would happen. But Joseph ran until he couldn’t move. Then he just flopped down in the grass. He laughed, not consumed for a desire to drink. Just happy. For a moment, he had brought something from home here. And it was even more magical. He closed his eyes and heard the words.

 

[Kicker Class Obtained!]

[Kicker Level 8—

 

—-

 

And that wasn’t all. Erin Solstice hugged Palt when he came back. The Centaur was smug as Montressa and Beza received new, angry messages. He bowed slightly to her, and took the cigar.

“Very entertaining. I may stay here a while. But we have business. And you must run, Ryoka Griffin. If you wish to meet your friend by the Summer Solstice.”

Grand Magus Eldavin nodded to Ryoka. Celum needed to be rebuilt—the world’s urges reasserted themselves. He would not stay the night. But Erin had fed him—a lot, actually—and he would come again.

If only to watch the movies. Ryoka presented Kevin with his laptop. She’d deleted his porn stash. Mainly because Mrsha wanted to watch movies.

So much. But that night, Ryoka slept in a room with Mrsha. Lyonette was grumpy about it, but it was a special occasion. Joseph went to bed without needing drink for once.

And Erin had seen his spark. She went to bed smiling. Not quite aware of how the world was different. But it was.

That night—little Ekirra gained the [Kicker] class too. But that was a tale for tomorrow, and other days. Celum would not forget this day. Nor Pallass, or Invrisil, who had watched the game making history. The world shifted—possibly because of a Dragon.

And one last thing. Erin closed her eyes.

 

[Magical Innkeeper Level 43!]

 

Her eyes snapped open. That was two. Erin sat up, and screamed.

Who was he!?

And the answer…well, it was obvious by this point.

 

 

 

Author’s Notes: That was a lot of work. I am so tired. I didn’t land every single long, in-depth scene. I had to cut for time and it’s still a mega-chapter.

But here we are. Is it everything you dreamed of? Dragons don’t appear lightly. If they did, what would be the point? Erin might not have gotten a Skill, but you don’t every level. Or every two.

And here we are. I’ve known this chapter was coming for a while, but it was still hard. As I said, hope you enjoyed! I’m going to rest. Tuesday’s chapter may be…an easy one.

Don’t forget to vote in the polls! I’ll leave you with a bit of art. For today, I have an Adult Creler by tck_tck, a great artist on Instragram! Jason, another artist, asked for the drawing as part of a commissioned victory! I’m featuring Jason’s art, and the Creler! And Drassi, by fionclissmannart!

Give them all some love!

 

https://www.instagram.com/_zanic/

https://ko-fi.com/zanic

https://www.instagram.com/tck__tck/

https://www.instagram.com/fionnclissmannart/

 

Adult Creler by tck_tck

Adult Creler by tck_tck

 

Jason’s Relc, Courage, and Antinium!

 

Drassi by fionnclissmannart!

Drassi by fionnclissmannart

 


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174 thoughts on “7.26

  1. I have to express how big of an impact that scene with Teriarch and Onieva was to me as a trans woman. I cried. The idea of someone seeing her even as she hid herself was so meaningful. The true her. Thank you so much.

    Also wow what a big huge chapter in general. I’m so so excited for Niers to finally meet Erin! I don’t even know what to expect. It’ll probably be super awkward.
    And omg the penicillin is HUGE.

    I love this world you’ve built.

  2. Amazing a always. Thank you Pirate.

    So does Palt have a chance at all with Erin? Though it being her maybe she’ll be paired with someone stronger.

      • Also, me being speculative, I’m concerned about his past charm abilities and whether he had any say in how Erin found the joint in her mouth here. If he’s been charming her this time, only subtly instead of a hard press, then I feel it’s like Okasha all over again. I have a gut feeling about this similar to Ryoka’s dragon geas and how she overcame it (only with drugs instead of buff minotaurs).

    • No. Born a male drake, makes potions to transform (temporarily) into a female drake.
      It really doesn’t make sense how Teriarch spotted it, unless it turns out the System assigns a hidden sex tag to someone’s soul and he could see that.
      Plus, Saliss is not really “hiding” if he wears the body he was born with, so the statement makes even less sense.

      • It “makes sense” insofar that “dragons eyes see more”. Teriarch sees Onieva for who she is (Onieva), who hides her true self (Onieva, “alchemy-wrought it may be” refering to the potion which lets her have the body she wants) with her persona Saliss and by not telling anyone.

    • Saliss is Transgender. Drake culture is basically completely unaccepting of ‘turnscales’. She’s physically male without potions, and her public persona is male, but again- shes trans and is dealing with the whole of drake culture who wouldn’t accept that.

    • I might be off the mark but from bits and pieces we have gathered so far I think Saliss’ actual problem is less about gender (or being a turnscale in Drake terms) and more about… an inheritance issue?
      A more esoteric problem than simple gender preference issues…
      S/He is a protector for the persecuted but her/his issues seem to be even more convoluted.
      Probably quite a hefty bit magic, inheritance requirements and all other similar weirdness of the Innworld involved.

      • I think so too. I thought (regardless of species differences), it was a transgender issue (female inside male body). After what Teriarch said I’m not sure. It may be a crucial plot point later. Or maybe just a normal plot point. Or maybe I’m overthinking it and the answer is male inside female body.

        Regardless, chapters with Onieva (sorry, Saliss) never stop being interesting.

        • The two issues are related, but are ultimately rooted in the fact that Onieva is trans and drakes do not accept that (even less so than gay people, see Chaldion being ok with them, but not with Onieva because “she chooses that”). She could never be Onieva openly and now that she built Saliss into a hero in Palass (which partly happened because she saw the need for a hero and partly because that’s what Chaldion wanted) she is in an even harder position to ever be able to come out. If she were to do that, then Saliss of light would from that point cease to be a hero (bc drakes are queerphobes, even become a symbol for hatred), not only undoing the good work the Saliss persona has achieved, but also preventing Onieva from carrying this good work on. She could fake Saliss death and start over properly as Onieva, but that still bears the risk of someone realising because of the skillset or by accidentally interogating someone queer that knows or through Chaldion or w/e.

  3. I love Erins chapters. But I dont understand why Erin paniced when she find out that everyone can see a football match. Hogward already know about her and they are not screaming there about beeing from another world. If her friends from inn didnt find out allready about it yet so how other could just from one video. And i still dont undestand how magic (Garden) doors work. Dragon couldnt walk throu them without Erin knownlage but a stranger – Druid that invaded her inn with ladies could. I hope there is more Erin and less Genewa chapters. I want to throw away my phone when im reading and seeing thats its cristal creal that she will end up as a slave to those warms. I hate it but i can only believe that this will end as fast as posible. I could be great if it would start and end in same chapter without timelaps. God I hate it!! Autor, if u are reading this i beg u dont hurt Geneva for more than one chapter T.T ;<<<<

  4. I have to say this chapter has got to be one of if not my favourites before this one I was considering dropping this book but after this one and the last one I’m definitely all aboard the hype train again! Niers Astoragon meeting Erin finally HYPE! Though as an Australian I’m surprised the Bushrangers didn’t think it was soccer or get into an argument! This is because the sport is definitely soccer! Football you have goals and points and giant metal posts stuck in the ground as markers.

  5. Saliss/Oneiva might not be transgender… it might be that Oneiva went and gave herself a male body for reasons involving Chaldion needing a male heir. Chaldion clearly wants Oneiva to do _something_ , in the Saliss form.

    Considering the ‘turnscales’ bar episode, transgender is more likely. But I’m not thinking it’s a lock yet.

    • That’s my impression as well.

      I feel like the lifestyle & expectations on Saliss is the main complication.

      • “Why do you hide your true form, girl? Alchemy-wrought it may be, but it shines truer than your false skin.”

        That sentence (and also the chapter we get to meet Onieva) very cleary states that she is indeed a Transwoman. The “true form” being a woman (which is why Teriarch calls her “girl”) which is Alchemy-wrought (refering to the temporary potion she managed to brew (maybe even invent, but that is hard to say in a largely queerphobic world)). THat being said, I’m just going to copy an earlier comment I made regarding the Chaldion situation:

        “The two issues are related, but are ultimately rooted in the fact that Onieva is trans and drakes do not accept that (even less so than gay people, see Chaldion being ok with them, but not with Onieva because “she chooses that”). She could never be Onieva openly and now that she built Saliss into a hero in Palass (which partly happened because she saw the need for a hero and partly because that’s what Chaldion wanted) she is in an even harder position to ever be able to come out. If she were to do that, then Saliss of light would from that point cease to be a hero (bc drakes are queerphobes, even become a symbol for hatred), not only undoing the good work the Saliss persona has achieved, but also preventing Onieva from carrying this good work on. She could fake Saliss death and start over properly as Onieva, but that still bears the risk of someone realising because of the skillset or by accidentally interogating someone queer that knows or through Chaldion or w/e.”

  6. Oof, I was not ready to remember the [Clown].

    Things are coming together for sure, as all of the friends of the inn begin to gather… are we approaching the climax of this wonderful story?

    • Just my humble opinion, but I suspect the storys climax will be the gathering of all the inns FOES (which should eventually be many and powerful.) The more powerful a person is, the more heavily invested they are in the status quo, and the Earthlings presence and knowledge is truly revolutionary. That, after all, is why Rhir sacrificed a whole generation of its own CHILDREN to bring Earthlings to Innworld: Maintaining the status quo would doom Rhir and perhaps the world itself.

      • OTOH, we only have the Blighted King’s word for it that letting the demons loose would be a bad thing. Every time we’ve actually seen/read about the demons they’ve been portrayed as being perfectly capable of functioning in society under the right circumstances, while the Blighted King is someone who would sacrifice a generation of children for his ends. Also, IIRC the demons also have at least one earthling in their camp – back from book 1/2.

        • True, but that was clearly not a decision the Blighted King made lightly or easily: He believes what he says, whether or not it is actually true, but was desperate because he believes the status quo hopeless. Part of that is how much the Demons do have in common with “civilized” species: They can gain Levels and Skills too, and the Blighted King can be excused for believing that, combined with their capacity for carnage, makes their eventual and complete victory inevitable.

          Part of the challenge here is that it is hard to get a read on whom the primary antagonist even IS, since the Demons and virtually everyone else has enjoyed at least a few sympathetic portrayals. For a while I thought the Necromancer was Public Enemy #1, but his PoV during observations of Pisces suggest otherwise. Smart money right now looks to be on the “dead” or slumbering god apparently behind both the Demons’ genesis and the Antiniums flight, in which case guns and bombs are likely to be even more indispensable, and a common existential threat may prompt Drakes, Humans, Gnolls and Antinium alike to unify, even with the weird dangerous Earthlings.

        • That’s an interesting point. Are the demons truly evil?

          If you continue this idea… Do we know where the crelers come from? They are always referred to as being “not from this world”, “otherworldly”, “from hell”.
          All we know is that they originate from Rhir.

          Are they maybe an experiment from the Blighted King (or rather one of his predecessors) gone wrong?
          Summoning an army of truly terrible creatures to fight the demons but then losing control over them?

          Another thing: When or where was it mentioned that the demons have an earthling? I can’t remember that at all. Do you have anything more precise than “book 1/2”?

  7. “Oh. I see. You’re her…mysterious client?”
    – Book 3, chapter 30

    “Say this for Erin—she wasn’t an idiot either. She just lacked—the ability to keep things secret.”

    Narration here is a bit weird – it seems more like Erin is deliberately revealing to everyone what she already knew. She’s not being an idiot imo

  8. Wow this chapter was huge literal and metaphorical!
    Sounds like the blighted Kind was unaware that his ritual is sprinkling earthers all around. That has changed now, wonder what that will entail.
    Niers on the way, Genevas group, the pop queens and all of them now aware of Liscor

    My biggest issue with this chapter though is political. The broadcast featured antinium and a hobgoblin in this game with humans and drakes to a huge freaking global and significant audiance. And there was no exclamation over it anywhere in the text. I would be disappointed to not hear any of it later at least, this chapter was already so rich how much more can you fit into one?
    This was the biggest wideranging show of peaceful and prosperous coexistence ever before so much that i wondered if even Teriarch would comment on this fact… but not a single soul commented on it… not even here in the comments yet.

    Okay hard to rival this with the emotional impactfulness given Onievas showing, Ryokas reunion with mrsha and everyone, giving hope an purpose to the useless humans, Lyonette being the secret behind the scene super mom unhappy but keeping everything running,…that didnt leave me with dry eyes either.

  9. First usage of the phrase “Solstice Effect” with a Trademark and I lost it.

    This is an excellent chapter with a wonderful variety of viewpoints. It was a joy to read.

  10. I don’t see a typo thread, so, I’ll just leave this here 🙂

    “Lyonette wasn’t fooled, but she forbade comment.” — Forbare?

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