Soccer. What a repugnant little word. Football, the sport of sports, was spreading across the world. You couldn’t put the Djinni back into the bottle.
And you couldn’t get a Dragon in a bottle in the first place. The point was that the world changed with a game of kick-the-ball. Because, as scholars had observed—the game was more than just a game. It mattered, it was fun, but it was also a vehicle for ideas. Possibilities.
The game changed the world in a fundamental way. And that had been yesterday.
As the sun rose, King Raelt of Jecrass killed a half-Giant.
It was near the end of a battle with his forces and Reim’s armies. Both the King’s Steward and the half-Giant, Zamea, had left their forces to break the siege on Sadomere. The newly-reinforced city had withstood a full-scale assault by General Lael’s forces and the [General] had refused to retreat, despite the Skill-enhanced fortifications.
This was her chance. Kill the King of Destruction and Reim fell to pieces. Raelt couldn’t fault her for trying.
Orthenon and Zamea hadn’t left their armies undefended. But Raelt’s army had used the flicker-charge Skill, broken past their ranks of half-Giants, the Serpent Hunters, and began to inflict casualties on Reim’s forces.
Rather than risk losing even a quarter of their army’s elites, Reim’s forces had fallen back, ceding one of Belchan’s passes to Jecrass.
A small victory, but born only out of Orthenon and Zamea being absent. But the other victory—came later.
One of the half-Giants was unable to catch up with her peers. She floundered, roped by [Trick Riders], hemmed in by infantry. She scythed left and right with her shield and sword, giant instruments carried by the twenty-foot half-Giant. She had killed countless Jecrass’ warriors already.
But Reim’s forces were falling back. No rescue attempt would be mounted. Raelt would have preferred that.
One half-Giant. One, out of about twenty that Reim was fielding. Not a small thing at all. And yet—the woman put up her sword as she saw herself surrounded.
The half-Giant’s curled hair beneath her helm was wet with her blood. Arrows stuck out on her skin, failing to pierce deeply. But she was tired. Bleeding. She looked down as Raelt rode his horse forwards. She panted.
“I am defeated. Will you accept my surrender, King of Jecrass?”
She asked curiously, resigned. Just—asking. But both of them knew the answer. The King of Jecrass slowly shook his head.
“The King of Destruction will ransom you or set you free if we seek to hold you, Lady Giant. Nor can we keep you prisoner. You made your choice.”
He swallowed hard. The half-Giant looked around. She sighed. And then smiled. Her voice grew deeper and the Humans backed up as she lifted her sword and shield. Her voice boomed.
“Look up, then, little man. See how the tallfolk die.”
It took her a long time to die. Raelt himself fought, pulling back his army rather than let the foot soldiers die by the hundreds. The half-Giantess absorbed spells, arrows—
He cut out her eyes, racing up one arm. She screamed, then. And he saw her stumbling around, flailing. Until she just stopped moving.
She asked for no quarter after that. And she fought to the death for the King of Destruction. Whom the Nomads of the Sky had sworn to fight under.
No one in Jecrass’ army smiled after the half-Giantess’ death. Her corpse just lay there. No glory, no magnificent death. Just a bitter end by numbers. Raelt counted.
One less. Statistically—one twentieth of the King of Destruction’s fighting force had died here. But he’d guard his other half-Giants more carefully.
Raelt muttered to himself. He’d won something, but it didn’t feel like a victory. It didn’t feel—like Jecrass was winning this war. The King of Destruction’s armies fought hot, leveling, retreating rather than losing their elites. Raelt had killed one.
And elsewhere? He raised his head and listened, dully. Sadomere—renamed as Drevish’s Madness—was no longer under siege.
“[Spellcraft: Enhanced Scope]. [Featherweight].”
Grand Mage Esiela cast the spell on the axe. She was not alone. The linked spell of the other [Mages] of Parasol Stroll added to her power. They wove the magic into the axe. And The Grand Mage saw the half-Giant’s hand lift the axe.
“My thanks, Grand Mage.”
Esiela flinched. She looked up and saw Zamea’s burning gaze. The Grand Mage hesitated—but she was bound by blood magic. So she raised her hand and cast the second spell.
The cost of the second spell nearly wiped out her reserves. But the half-Giantess’ eyes gleamed. She clenched one hand, opened it. And she was—faster. She turned, as Orthenon called the charge.
“Break their lines. First Shepherd!”
The First Shepherd of the Nomads of the sky, taller than her fallen kinswoman by ten feet towered across the battlefield. She had been ignoring the arrows raining down around her; the [Mages] were protected by a spell. But now Zamea put the helmet on her head. And her voice boomed.
“I come, Orthenon. Order your [Soldiers] back. I will not stop until the enemy breaks.”
“Parasol Stroll, backwards!”
The [Steward] pointed. The [Mages] retreated. In the distance, Esiela saw the King of Destruction’s forces sallying forth from the city. They hadn’t been broken by the much larger army of Jecrass besieging them. And now—reinforcements had arrived.
It was a silly battle. Esiela looked about. Proper, three-to-one odds against Reim’s forces. Even with reinforcements. But Drevish’ Madness was incredibly reinforced. Magical statues of Orthenon attracted arrow fire, and the inner city was designed to stymie any assault, favoring the defenders in any clash.
But sortieing against the army? Esiela was no [General], so she would never have advised this. But the [Steward] and the King of Destruction had fought countless wars. And this tactic—was something they could finally pull off.
The half-Giantess lifted her light axe and her steps quickened across the field. General Lael was turning her forces to account for her and Orthenon’s [Riders]. Zamea looked across the field of her enemies, unconcerned.
“This is a sad day. A glorious day. I have seen my kin, a small brother in Izril. And heard one of my people die. For both, I will fight until Chandrar’s sands are wet with blood.”
Esiela shivered. That was the kind of mad line that Chandrar’s warriors came out with. Zamea saw a flurry of [Fireballs] and a [Siege Fireball] being launched at her.
Gold-ranks. As well as Jecrass’ [Mages]. The half-Giant saw the spells coming—and dodged. She was fast.
[Haste]. Esiela felt sick. And not just because of the mana drain. She had cast it on Zamea. Normal [Haste] spells were far, far too weak to affect a half-Giant. But a Grand Mage studied spellcraft.
Lael’s forces weren’t prepared for that. But the King of Destruction’s forces pressed forwards, ramming into Jecrass’ infantry and the [King] began to cut a path with his elites.
Zamea charged. Her footsteps were like a fast-beating drum—then a relentless hammering. The horse, spread out and prepared to dodge and encircle her, saw the half-Giantess running at them.
Too fast. She caught them as they galloped, and her axe swung. Esiela looked away.
Carnage. This was taking a titan of the battlefield and making her more deadly. Jecrass’ army broke in the next five minutes as Zamea and Orthenon tore the forces apart.
“General Lael! We can’t outrun the Giantess!”
The [General] had already seen. She looked around, desperately.
“Call the retreat! Send the chariots in! Use ropes—slow her down!”
The [Rider] gulped.
“Nerrhavia’s chariots are already retreating, General!”
“What? I didn’t signal for—”
Lael turned. She saw Nerrhavian ‘mercenaries’ pulling back. The Silk Stitchfolk weren’t going to stay around and die. She already had problems holding them back from charging whenever they felt like. She cursed.
“Send the adventurers—”
“They’ve already left!”
Medain’s forces were also fleeing. Adventurers. Lael looked around.
“Safeguard the [Archers]. Fall back! [Trick Riders], forwards! Warden Emile’s van will hold the line and then retreat!”
Her army rippled. Jecrass’ soldiers held the line, as the King of Destruction’s forces and the reinforcements took them to pieces. They died—rather than the reinforcements from abroad. That was how it had happened the last two battles. Lael had a terrible taste in her mouth as she watched Nerrhavia’s [Charioteers] forming up at a safe distance, banging war gongs and sounding horns to provoke Reim’s forces into chasing them.
This wasn’t their war. Jecrass was bleeding against Reim with half-hearted support. They could have won, if the other forces had held. If they brought down Zamea—
“The Steward is charging!”
Lael spurred her horse and they fled. She cursed. They had been so close. They had been so close to taking the King of Destruction’s…
She lowered her head. She didn’t see a victory in this war. Not without something changing. You couldn’t bleed Reim. They were all war-maniacs, like Zamea, still chasing the [Riders] and cutting them to bits. She looked back once, to catch sight of that monster. She could swear she heard the King of Destruction laughing.
Another easy victory. Well—hard-won by [Soldiers], life-and-death. But when Reim concentrated their power, it wasn’t even funny. Let alone entertaining—the Wistram broadcast barely mentioned the battle, except to dully note the figures. Plucky Jecrass holding the line against all odds, and all that.
What did get attention was what came after. The scrying orb flickered into view. No Noass or Sir Relz to commentate for a moment. The image spoke for itself.
“So, is this how the game is played? Magnificent. How fun!”
The King of Destruction was playing soccer. Football. Whatever. He kicked the ball across the ground, a bit awkwardly, but copying the motions he’d seen on screen. And he was physically adept enough to kick it across the field.
“Yes, your Majesty. Do you fancy a game?”
Mars was laughing. Today, she looked dusky-skinned, her voice purring along with her curled hair. She kicked the ball back and the King of Destruction stopped it with one foot.
It was not the severed head of an enemy. Those didn’t bounce. Rather, the leather ball was quickly-made, enchanted. Flos frowned, then looked ahead.
He kicked the ball. The audience watched the ball soar high into the air—way past Teres, standing a hundred feet away. She went chasing. Flos grimaced.
“I forget my strength. What is the term? Pass the ball, yes. Orthenon! My Steward, your timing is impeccable. Zamea, my condolences on the loss of your kin. Shali, was it?”
His grin faded for a moment as Zamea rested on her axe. Blood still covered Flos’ beard, although he’d removed his armor. Mars of course was wearing her illusion. But as the [Steward] came forwards, Flos smiled.
“It was something to see, wasn’t it? Such a lively game! Let’s play one—match? One set?”
“If your Majesty wills it.”
“I do. And you shall play, Orthenon. By the way, do you like the city?”
Orthenon glanced up at the battle-worn statues of his face, some of them looking exceptionally stupid or exaggerating his features, like his nose. One was just of him mooning the enemy. He grimaced.
“Your Majesty, my enjoyment of Drevish’s posthumous work is matched only by my anticipation of this…‘game’.”
“That’s the spirit! Let’s make two teams. Hello! I understand people are watching?”
The King of Destruction strode up towards the camera. The Wistram [Mage] enlisted to cast the scrying spell flinched.
“Y-yes, your Majesty?”
“Excellent. I’m rather fascinated by this game. If these…players from Liscor are watching, you have my thanks for the entertainment! So novel. If any would like to visit Reim—well, perhaps after the war ends, eh?”
The King of Destruction’s eyes glittered as he smiled widely. He laughed and the entire viewpoint shook as he slapped the [Mage] on the shoulder and sent them sprawling.
“Truly interesting. Teres! Where’s that ball? If they would like to give me any tips on how this game is played, I would appreciate that too. Can you arrange that?”
“Your—your Majesty? I uh—”
About that time, the frozen audience in The Wandering Inn saw a Street Runner edge into the room.
“[Message] for Mister Joseph? First-priority from the Mage’s Guild. The—the King of Destruction has a question.”
And the legend entered the inn.
It was a thing Human beings were bad at. Understanding how…worldwide mediums worked.
Like the super-information highway of Earth, or television in both worlds, or just…phone calls, there was some part of humanity (and other species) that couldn’t process the scope of such technology.
‘When I say something online, or on television, people see it.’ That was easy. But how about a thousand people? A million. The Human mind couldn’t process the scope of that many people.
Let alone the consequences, or what might happen if you became the center of attention, even for a second. It made the abstract real, but you couldn’t know how that felt, really felt, until it happened.
Joseph carefully pinched himself in the inn.
He looked around. Then, felt a pinch.
“Ow! What the—”
He saw Rose pull back her hand. She looked mystified at him. Then Mrsha pinched Joseph’s ear and ran away to safety—Moore—when Joseph swore.
The half-Giant was still staring at Zamea. A familiar stranger. He absently patted Mrsha’s head as she stuck out her tongue at Joseph. He looked around.
“What do I do? That’s the King of Destruction, right?”
Ceria Springwalker squeaked. She looked into the scrying orb. It was on a delay, so only now did the King of Destruction begin calling for a [Message] spell to be sent to Joseph.
“The King of Destruction just sent you a [Message].”
Pisces blinked a few times at Joseph. He was a smart person. Well, Pisces thought of himself as a smart person. He still couldn’t quite fathom it.
“I uh—he’s asking how the game is played, how to kick…what do I do? That’s the tyrant-guy, right? Do I say nothing?”
“Are you crazy? That’s the King of Destruction. You don’t piss him off. Tell him! Write down the rules of the game!”
Rose exclaimed. The other Earthers began to buzz, arguing—looking around for something to write the rules down on, and a map of a football field. The non-Earthers just stared.
The King of Destruction. Gazi the Omniscient had been here, but him? Yet—this was just a backdrop to today.
Soccer had come to this world. Again—this was mainly Erin’s fault since she’d shouted ‘soccer’, rather than ‘football’ into the scrying orb.
Joseph wasn’t happy about that. But he was at the center of attention and began to mechanically write the rules down. Number of players, a field this large…it was actually hard to describe a game to someone who had no reference for it at all. So many little rules.
“Am I dreaming? Pinch me, Ksmvr. No—just surprise me.”
Ceria muttered. She slapped her cheeks. She’d met Gazi, of course, but—she felt a pinch on her pointed ears and yelped.
Ksmvr hadn’t pinched her after all. He’d gently nibbled on one ear.
“Should I consume your ear? I feel like that is not appropriate surprise, Captain.”
“No. I’m awake. Wow. This is—wow.”
The half-Elf just had to sit back. She looked around. And everyone else who had seen the events on the scrying orb were just as stunned.
“Halrac. Don’t pinch me. This is insane! It was just a game of football! And that mad [King] is playing it?”
Revi nodded to Halrac. The [Scout] was just silent. His face was tense, drawn. He couldn’t believe it either. But he was taking it seriously.
Typhenous on the other hand? The old man looked delighted as he worked on something on the table.
“My dear Revi, you underestimate the—commonalities between royalty and we common folk. Everyone enjoys simple things in life. I think rather than worry, you should enjoy the moment—and take advantage of what you can! There. Excuse me, I think this is quite appropriate.”
He eyed the finished product. Revi did too as Typhenous got up. He slid a square of cardboard, the surface, white, in front of Joseph.
“Excuse me, Joseph, is it?”
“What? Yeah. Hey, here are the rules. Do I—do I send it back?”
“I can take it back, sir. No charge. All paid for. Is that your reply?”
The Street Runner Drake held out his claws. Joseph looked around, white-faced. Then he stared down at the sheet of cardboard. Paper glued onto thin wood, really.
Well—it was very clean. And an image of a football—a proper one, with white and black spots—was hand-illustrated onto one corner. Well, close to a proper ball. Typhenous had made them literally spots.
“Your signature, Mister Joseph. Just in the center. I’d appreciate it if you could make it as fancy as possible. I have three more—”
“Uh. Sure. Why?”
The old [Mage] didn’t reply until Joseph signed all three.
“Just memorabilia, sir. Planning against the future. They may appreciate in value.”
He winked at Joseph as he tucked them into his robes. The old [Mage] certainly had a practical eye towards everything. Joseph just looked at the hastily-scribbled reply to the King of Destruction.
“What do I do?”
No one had an answer. So—Joseph looked around, desperately. It was the next morning, and he shouted one word. A name.
The young woman was sitting at a table with Ryoka. Mrsha had already crept over to sit on Ryoka’s lap. She sniffed at a bowl of half-eaten cereal. Ryoka glanced up, but Erin kept talking.
“—and I leveled! Twice! You have to tell me. Come on. Is he really a super-[Mage]? Can he enchant my ovens? Why do you trust him?”
“Erin, it’s a secret. Like—Ivolethe. Same level, you know. I think someone wants you. Do you want a bite, Mrsha?”
The City Runner took a spoon and offered Mrsha a nibble. The Gnoll hugged her and Ryoka smiled—then her face nearly went splut into the bowl of cereal as she ducked. Apista buzzed overhead. Ryoka stared up, wide-eyed.
“What the fuck is that?”
“Language. That’s Apista. Haven’t you met her?”
Ryoka felt Lyonette slap the back of her head; they were sitting at the same table. Mrsha punched Lyonette for hitting Ryoka. She was being mean again! Erin saw Joseph hurrying over.
“Erin. Is this okay to send to the King of Destruction?”
Erin hadn’t been paying attention. Nor did she really process the immediacy of sending the message to the King of Destruction, who was kicking the ball to Orthenon on the scrying orb. The [Steward] refused to kick the ball back.
Erin read blankly, half-listening to Joseph’s explanation. She was still focused on Teriarch and her new levels.
“Looks…like soccer rules.”
“Football. Do I send it? He’s the King of Destruction.”
“Who? Oh, yeah. Are you watching him? I’ve never watched, but Rufelt says he goes around declaring war. And wasn’t he Gazi’s boss?”
The [Innkeeper] looked around for confirmation. Lyonette and Ryoka gave her long looks.
“That is correct in everything, but—how can you be so wrong, Erin?”
Lyonette looked askance. Erin just shrugged. She scribbled something on the paper.
“Well, he’s a jerk. Here, send this to him. Why are you doing it anyways?”
She held it out to the Street Runner. Joseph hesitated.
“He asked for me. He’s live on the TV—scrying orb, Erin.”
“Oh. Really? Weird.”
The [Innkeeper] blinked. Then she went back to her morning porridge. After a few bites, and a sip of blue fruit juice, she woke up a bit more.
“When you say he asked for you…um. You mean, you? And he’s actually there? That wasn’t, like, some formal message or you just talking about soccer to Esthelm?”
“Uh oh. Well, it’s probably not going exactly to him—”
About six minutes later, the scrying orb watching Flos playing soccer with Orthenon was interrupted.
“[Message] from Liscor, your Majesty.”
The [King] read from it. Everyone in The Wandering Inn waited, with bated breath. Erin Solstice…slowly walked outdoors as Lyonette and Ryoka stared at her back. To stretch. It was just the morning, after all. Good time for a walk! Even with Rock Crabs about.
“Ah, I see! We can play this! How fascinating—and what’s this at the bottom? Dear…hah! Orthenon! Read this!”
Flos began to laugh. His eyes widened and he doubled over in guffaws. Orthenon read the paper. His brows twitched.
“Read it out loud! Mars! Mars, you must read this! And Teres!”
Two others came over. Mars read it out loud, slowly.
“Dear, King of Destruction. I hear you’re a big jerk. Your vassal, Gazi, is also a jerk. Go stuff your face and stop declaring war!”
She began to laugh. Flos staggered upright, looked around, and then began to howl with laughter.
The Wandering Inn was in waxworks. Lyonette turned dead-white. Only Mrsha was giggling. Oh, and Numbtongue. He was lying on the floor, laughing his brains out. Typhenous was smiling behind his beard—
But everyone else was quiet. Orthenon read the missive again.
“I don’t believe this came from ‘Joseph’, your Majesty. The writing style is different.”
“Some brave employee at the Mage’s Guild, perhaps. Or someone else?”
Flos paused for a moment and his eyes twinkled. But his vassals kept a straight face as they remembered what Gazi had once told them. The King of Destruction chuckled as he straightened.
“I see. Well, Joseph or not—I shall take the words under consideration. Stuff my face indeed. Yes. Ah—Orthenon?”
“Find me a map. Where’s Liscor again? I’ll add it to my list. Actually, move it to the top, Orthenon.”
The King of Destruction smiled. Every head slowly turned to Erin, peeking through the main door. She slowly closed the door.
“I’m joking, of course.”
Flos and Zamea both started laughing. Ryoka eyed the bowl of cereal. Mrsha looked up, bits of grains on her face. Ryoka slowly wiped Mrsha’s mouth with a handkerchief. About six minutes after that, Rufelt kicked the door open.
He was too late to beat Watch Captain Zevara, Olesm, and half the Council who were all screaming Erin’s name. They knew who had really sent that last bit.
And that was just breakfast.
In all seriousness, though. When the King of Destruction’s little game of football lost interest and the viewpoint changed away from Wistram—
It was still madness. Things did not calm down.
At least, for Joseph. For Erin Solstice, things went back to normal after Zevara screamed for twenty minutes. Which was a record, for her. It was just a little event in the eyes of the world.
And there were important things happening. Ryoka found Mrsha sitting on her shoulders. She stood up.
“Oh no. I have some strange white leech on my back! Oh well, I can’t get it off.”
Mrsha giggled. Ryoka sighed.
“I should go for a run. But stretches first! This way—”
She bent over to the right, raising one arm as if she were doing an actual stretch. Mrsha teetered, then grabbed Ryoka’s arm. Giggling. Ryoka went the other way.
“I wonder if I can touch my toes?”
She could. Mrsha flailed around desperately, only her legs gripping Ryoka’s neck and shoulders keeping her on Ryoka. She laughed, and Ryoka grinned.
Lyonette scowled from the side. But Ryoka and Mrsha had months to catch up on. And Ryoka was trying.
“What do you want to do, Mrsha?”
The little Gnoll looked up as Ryoka pried her from her head. Did she get Ryoka? The City Runner nodded.
“Until T—Eldavin gets here, I’m all yours. If you want to do something.”
Mrsha thought about it. Then, shyly, she went over and tugged on Ryoka’s hand. She wanted to go into the Garden and show Ryoka everything. The City Runner looked at Erin and Lyonette.
Erin smiled. She nudged Lyonette. The [Princess] huffily nodded.
“Don’t be jealous.”
“I just don’t want her influencing Mrsha too much. She has bad habits. And she might run off again.”
Mrsha heard Lyonette’s whisper, quiet as it was. She looked back and then glomped onto Ryoka, tugging her forwards. Erin looked at Mrsha.
“But she loves Ryoka. Don’t be mad, Lyonette. See how happy Mrsha is today?”
“Still. After all she did. Running off and—”
Brunkr. But Lyonette didn’t say that part. She didn’t know what exactly had occurred, but she correctly blamed Ryoka, if for the wrong reasons.
Erin just smiled. Her friend was back. And—a bit better. After a second, Erin ran through the doorway.
“Wait for me! You have to see the stupid chocolate tree!”
Mrsha threw a bit of dirt at Erin. This was her special time! But Erin was just as happy to see Ryoka. It felt like she hadn’t known how much she had been missing Ryoka, either.
For once, the Crazy Human of Liscor had nothing she wanted to change about the world. But another crazy Human—or rather, an unlikely person was getting all the attention.
“That was a great game. I can’t believe you can play it with magic. It changes everything. And I have a new class—look at this!”
Joseph was still smiling. He hadn’t been drinking either. Not that he hadn’t been tempted. His hand still shook to think about a nice, cool glass of…but he had a reason to not drink at the moment. And that purpose made everything different.
He stood outside, kicking the ball up and down. It wasn’t enchanted anymore, but Montressa had promised to work on it. She wasn’t here—or Beza. They were, at that moment, waiting for orders as Wistram had an inner war about how much of this was an Ullsinoi prank and how much they knew, or had.
The United Nations company was looking for a Courier through Luan and Ken. The Queen of Pop was thinking about [Messages] and Wistram as well. Laken was—well, Durene had to keep telling him what had happened, but he got the point. Football was a lot less interesting when you were blind.
They were all other stories. And while they might intersect upon Liscor—at the moment, Joseph kicked the ball up, then looked around.
He turned and blasted the ball towards Liscor’s walls. The other Earthers grinned as Joseph kept speaking.
“I got it! As well as [Sure Footing] and—oh shit.”
The ball flew through the air. Very aerodynamic. And Joseph, already good at kicking the ball, hadn’t realized how powerful his Skill made his kick. The ball flew, and flew from the hill the inn stood on.
The [Watch] ducked as they saw the ball coming at them. It hit the wall—about eight feet from the battlements, and bounced off. Joseph breathed a sigh of relief as one of the Drakes hurled insults at him from the wall.
“Sorry! Did you see how far it went?”
“Dude. Your class is great. I thought about getting it, but y’know…I don’t play soccer.”
Joseph exasperatedly trotted down the hill as Kevin followed him. Rose looked around.
“Don’t break a window, Joseph. I’m going to watch the plays. Galina says they’re really great.”
“Sure. Where are Leon and Troy?”
“Dunno. Watching the scrying orb?”
“Um. I’m going to stay here.”
Imani looked across the Floodplains and shuddered. The stretch between The Wandering Inn and the city was perfectly safe, but Kevin and Joseph waved at her as she edged back inside.
“So—[Kicker]. Why do you think you got that instead of [Player] or [Footballer] or…uh—something else?”
Kevin scratched his head. Joseph shrugged.
“Probably nothing else matches. Ryoka said classes are based off this world’s stuff. There’s no [Gamer] class.”
“Dude. I know. Leon and Troy wanted to get the class, but I told them it would probably only make them better at playing on my laptop. Did you know Ryoka deleted all the stuff? Even the one with—”
“I know. We shouldn’t have given it to her.”
Kevin smiled. He and Joseph went up and down the hills easily; they were in good shape. Erin thought of Kevin as ‘stoner guy’, and that was hurtful—partly true—but Joseph knew that Kevin was actually very athletic.
“It’s fine, man. Look where we are. We could be in the mansion getting attacked by assassins and with all those angry [Maids]. Anyways, I got my laptop. This inn is great. You have soccer, you kicked your habit—what’s getting rid of a few movies?”
Joseph looked up suddenly as Kevin winked.
“…No. She forgot to delete them?”
“No, she did…but I have an automatic backup drive. Remember, I used to work at that bike place? The manager made me do all the bookkeeping. That’s the store’s laptop, well, mine. But we used it for the store.”
Joseph laughed. Not that it was crucial to keep Kevin’s stash, but it was…from home. A great comfort. And all that. Kevin nodded, but he was causal about it.
“It doesn’t matter if it gets deleted, Joseph. I bet you there’s some stuff here.”
“What…you mean illustrations?”
“There have to be. Think about it. Our worlds are so similar. They loved soccer. I bet you that if I looked around in Liscor…”
The two began laughing at the ludicrous idea of going out to buy bawdy illustrations in Liscor. They were friends. Well—Kevin got along with everyone.
“Maybe later. I want to play another game around Celum.”
“I bet you’ll get people to play. I’m going to earn money.”
“Lyonette says she’ll pay me to help out. I can do that. Lift stuff, clean tables. It pays less than begging, though. But I’ll put in some hours after this. Also—that Centaur? He’s really cool. Guess what he has?”
Kevin showed Joseph a spliff. The young man from Spain blinked at it.
“That can’t be what I think it is.”
“Yup. This world is really like ours. Just with magic. You should talk to the Centaur. He’s a really chill guy. Apparently he sells dreamleaf, which is even better than weed. According to him. But since we’re friends of Erin and you know—from Earth—he hooked me up.”
Kevin rolled his eyes. He realized he didn’t have a lighter and sighed.
“Everyone knows. That Goblin dude? Numbtongue? He was playing Journey in the basement.”
“Get out. He looks intense. Have you seen his scars?”
“He’s cool too. I think. I was going to smoke this with him, see if he wants to.”
That was Kevin for you. Joseph shook his head as he finally found the lost football. He checked it, but it was in one piece.
“Think we should walk back? Or use the magic door?”
He glanced back towards the inn. Kevin patted him on the shoulder.
“Tell you what. I’ll use the magic door, you walk back. You need the exercise now you’re playing soccer. We’ll see who gets back first.”
And then—the two young men heard a voice.
“You! Yes, you! Stop right there!”
They turned. A very angry Gnoll woman was coming out of Liscor. Kevin winced.
The Watch? That was Joseph’s first thought. That angry Drake Watch Captain probably didn’t appreciate people hitting her walls. But—he didn’t see any armor on this woman.
Nor, he realized, was she alone. He hadn’t seen Ekirra at first because his mother was dragging the little Gnoll behind her. Joseph recognized Ekirra and the mother.
“Oh—can we help you? Hey, Ekirra.”
The Gnoll cub shyly waved at Joseph. But his mother did not. She stopped in front of Joseph.
“You were the one who played that game yesterday, right? Soccer?”
Joseph winced. Kevin grinned.
“It’s called ‘football’. But yes, I—”
“He got a class. [Kicker]! From your game.”
Ekirra’s mother, Jeva Silverfang lifted her son up by one paw. He kicked the air aimlessly as she put him down. Ekirra seemed quite pleased. Jeva on the other hand—folded her arms together.
Kevin and Joseph both eyed her. Neither was the tallest and Jeva was in the average bracket of a Gnoll woman’s height—which was six foot, two inches. Or, as Joseph would have said, around 1.9 meters.
She was also muscular. And she had claws. A predator’s teeth. She could probably trash both of them if she got mad. Joseph gulped.
“Uh—I’m sorry? I didn’t know. I mean—it was just a game. I—”
He looked at Kevin for support, but Kevin was standing tactically behind Joseph. He called out hopefully.
“We’re really sorry about it!”
“Sorry? For what? He got a class!”
Jeva’s brow wrinkled. Joseph and Kevin both looked up. Jeva shook Ekirra at them by the scruff of his neck; the young Gnoll whined.
“I’m not angry Ekirra got the class. I want you to take responsibility!”
The Gnoll woman informed Joseph. He looked blankly at her.
“Responsibility? For the class?”
“Yes! Teach him how to level up. Otherwise it’s useless, isn’t it? Like being a—a—[Bartender] if you never work in the business! Or one of those little [Gossips]!”
Drassi, trotting past them out of the gates to work, gave Jeva a very hurt glance. The Gnoll woman ignored her as she thrust Ekirra at Joseph like a parcel. The Gnoll boy looked up hopefully; he had his little red ball that had started it all in his paws.
“We can pay. But I want Ekirra to level up. Can he get a job as a—one of your football people?”
“What, as a player?”
Jeva brightened up.
“Yes! Those others were telling me it’s a game. Can Ekirra learn to play? He’s young, but he got the class—he has potential. Doesn’t he? Does it pay well?”
Kevin and Joseph exchanged glances. In their world, the answer was obvious. Well, if you were female that was already a huge pay cut. But sports stars?
“Ye-es. But no one plays uh, soccer—damn it, Kevin—I mean, football around here. I could teach him—I’m not a big expert, but I guess around here—we don’t even have a team or anything. Let alone a field or proper balls!”
Joseph replied. Jeva looked at him, a bit mystified.
“Well, of course not. It’s new, isn’t it? But if it’s Terandrian or Balerosian or whatever—people like it. I just want you to teach Ekirra. Will you? What are your rates per day? We can’t afford a lot of silver…”
“Rates? I mean, I can, but like I said, there’s no game. It’s just for fun, Miss Jeva.”
Ekirra’s mother snorted.
“Hah! You’ll have your game and fields. Or haven’t you heard? That [Architect] Lamia—Hexel or whatever—is already smoothing out the Floodplains! He says he can do it in one day. And the Council is approving a team! They’re probably going to approach you. I saw Watch Captain Zevara running out to the inn just this morning, and Councilwoman Krshia!”
It had been for different reasons. But Joseph and Kevin’s mouths dropped.
“Really? A game? Joseph? They want him to manage?”
“And play. Didn’t they ask?”
“Something else happened.”
Joseph muttered. He looked around, head spinning.
“Why—why do they want me to play? I mean, it’s fun, but—”
“It’s fun, of course! I kicked the ball around with Ekirra when he came back. He wouldn’t go to sleep until he passed out from tiredness! Even my husband and I bought one of the big balls and played after work with some of the others in the neighborhood. I just wanted to make sure Ekirra got classes.”
That was it. It was fun. Joseph blinked. He saw Jeva smiling. What more reason did you need? In a world with so many monsters, a game like this? They had magic artifacts, like Cade’s Box of Wonders, but soccer was a magic of its own this world had never come up with.
Joseph began to smile. Jeva added after a moment.
“—Besides. We have to have you, Mister Joseph. On the team. The Council’s afraid that Esthelm or Celum will make you a better offer. Or Pallass. They’re all putting together their teams and they’ll have adventurers and such. But you’re the expert.”
The matter-of-fact statement made Kevin’s eyes go wide. Joseph felt weak at the knees.
It wasn’t a one-and-done type of thing. Soccer had come, and it was here to stay. Baseball now…baseball had an allure, but no one had made the step of deciding there should be games, teams.
Competition. Because baseball had only ever appeared in Celum and Liscor. But the advent of the Wistram television had changed more things. In a bigly way.
Lism rubbed his claws together in the Council’s meeting room.
“Those Human bastards—er, I mean, Celum and Esthelm have already decided they’re going to make teams. And Celum’s not even rebuilt yet. Pallass wants in, and some of the other northern cities.”
The rest of the Council was nodding. They sat around—Krshia opposite Lism. She spoke, checking her notes, a challenge in her voice.
“That will not take long, yes? Magnolia Reinhart’s aide has come to the city. She has promised gold, supplies, to rebuild. Thanked us.”
She indicated the pink letter. Lism sneered at it.
“After causing all that trouble with the Antinium? Bah. Did she offer to repay us for our help?”
The Drake had taken a sip of tea. He coughed, pounding his chest. Krshia smirked at him.
“And while it may take time, Celum will be rebuilt. In the meantime, the ‘Human bastards’ are in our city, Lism. So I think it is good that we treat them as citizens, yes? Many have useful talents. Or will we throw them out?”
He hesitated. And modulated his tone after a second.
“Of course not. I was just saying—those sneaking bastards in a general sense, Silverfang.”
She gave him a toothy smile and he bared his own sharp teeth. The rest of the Council listened, used to the bickering. Elirr was combing his fur; it was a casual Council that had gotten to know each other after so long. Lism just wished the old Gnoll wouldn’t shed on the carpet.
“Naturally. But the influx is good and bad, yes? People grumble. But Hexel is building, and he will have the soccer pitch done with soon. So—we will have teams.”
“Compete with other cities. In baseball too. Yes, I can see it now. An excellent idea.”
Lism smiled, folding his claws over his stomach. He heard a cough from the left.
“Lism. I don’t see why it’s that useful. It’s fun, but is this a priority for the Council? Surely, the other news is more important…”
Alonna looked blank. Jeiss woke up; he’d had a late night patrolling, and looked around guiltily. Raekea frowned, fingering a patch of soot on her fur.
The other two Council members were, conspicuously, absent. They had ‘accidentally’ not been notified of the meeting. Again. They’d arrive eventually. And it was…convivial, without them.
Even with Silverfang opposite him, Lism felt—content. He actually smiled at Krshia. She understood.
“Alonna, these games may be pointless, but think of it. We have a market for the equipment. We have people who will pay for the pleasure of viewing. And when other cities compete? We get visitors, their money, sales from the events—we can charge entry fees!”
“Tickets. It is an established thing. Very profitable, yes?”
Krshia nodded. The two [Shopkeepers] were in sync. Alonna blinked, and then she caught on.
“…Right! And if Wistram wants to watch—Ancestors, the King of Destruction was playing just this morning.”
“And nearly declared war on us thanks to that damned—one of our Humans. Miss Erin Solstice.”
Lism caught himself quicker this time. Krshia sniffed.
“But Erin will allow instant visitation to our city for all the trouble she causes, yes? And we already have an entry fee for Liscor. If we put one on Celum, and Pallass, even if it is only coppers…”
The two [Shopkeepers] grinned in avarice and Alonna shuddered at the sight. Krshia and Lism, working together. What nightmares might emerge from that?
“Elirr, you’ve been quiet today. What do you think? Jeiss? Raekea?”
The other three started. Elirr checked his comb.
“I agree. It is all coming together at the right time. And Hexel—he is most suited to help. He’s already making use of our Antinium yes?”
The Lamia was very flexible, as, perhaps, a Lizardfolk could be. The Council nodded, even the Drakes.
“I have to admit—he’s quite cheap. Given our initial down payment. I like this idea. Can we get him to—to smooth out more of the Floodplains? Space for multiple games, perhaps.”
Lism muttered. Elirr scratched at his head.
“It should not be a problem. Hexel, he says the trouble comes in the spring, when the rains erode such things, especially if they are flat. But that is what drainage is for—I will ask him.”
He had appointed himself the liaison to working with Hexel. The Council had agreed; Elirr was very friendly, not a Drake, and the logical choice. Raekea on the other hand raised one paw.
“I have no objections either. However, I’d like to move along the conversation. I have to meet with the Dwarf later today.”
“Oh. Yes. Are you busy?”
The Council instantly sat up. Lism’s eyes met Krshia’s. She looked at him.
“I hope you will say nothing of damned Dwarves when he meets with us, Lism. If he meets with us.”
The Drake blushed. She was going to pay for that comment. However…true it may be. He checked his tongue. Raekea, oblivious, muttered as she scratched at her fur.
“I am waiting for Olesm’s reports. We get most of our ore from Esthelm. Cheaply. And the Dwarf, Master Pelt, he is interested.”
“Pallass won’t be happy. They’ve warned us twice—”
“Pallass can eat my tail. If that [Smith] wants to move, let him! Anything you need, Raekea! We’ll even…give him his own forge! As big as he wants!”
“And pay for it.”
Jeiss coughed into one claw. Lism looked at him.
“We don’t need to—”
The [Guardsman] looked at Lism.
“Lism, if we could get mastercrafted blades in our city, no matter how troublesome this Dwarf supposedly is—Zevara would build the smithy herself. So would I. I vote to authorize Raekea to offer Pelt…”
The Council debated. They put it to a quick vote, obviously with two in absentia—they didn’t matter—and it was 6-0. Even Lism saw the point, although he put limits on how much they were going to give Pelt.
But then they were on to the next point of business. By the time Olesm caught up with reports of exactly how much ore of different types they’d imported or had their [Miners] collect in the last year, the Council was going back to the games.
“We didn’t approach the Human? We can’t let him go to Celum!”
“No fear. I think Joseph is with Erin. And we can prevail on her. I’ll put a word in later.”
Olesm reassured his uncle. Lism relaxed.
“Good, good. I hear Pallass saw the broadcast. Hah! As if they even played one game! They’re apparently putting Garudas on a team with Oldbloods. Talking about a ‘practice game’ in one week. Say, what about a game for young people as well as adults? Send a [Message] back about that!”
The others nodded cheerfully. And it went without saying that Liscor had to win, in any practice game or what-have-you. Civic pride, the Drake and Gnollish desire to win and chase the ball—it was all part of this game.
“Put the Human in charge of making the team. Send all the applicants to him. Oh—and I suppose we need to pay him. Let’s work that out as well as charging these…‘tickets’, did you say, Silverfang?”
Lism sighed. The Gnoll nodded. She produced an abacus and counted on it.
“Hrm. I think we can fit in a good salary. For our players as well. And budget for team clothing yes?”
“Argh. The expenses!”
“Don’t worry, if we charge even a few coppers for a ticket at a game and have at least…say, at least twelve games per year, we are making good money, yes? Shall we work it over?”
“Lunch. We also need to account for [Healers]. Did you see that Garuda break her leg? And she was Gold-rank. Let’s do the numbers after we end our session, Silverfang.”
The [Shopkeeper] growled. Krshia nodded. It was another unlikely pairing, but if Elirr was good at being personal and Raekea could talk about mineral deposits all day—Lism and Krshia were both good at numbers and sales.
They were like the treasurers of the Council. Whereas Jeiss was their arm of the law and combat expert, along with Olesm. Alonna advised on magic and politics and handled [Messages]…
The two other Council members were largely useless.
“We will come back with a proposed budget. Now, I think—on to the third most important topic of the day, yes? Perhaps most of all?”
Krshia tapped the table and looked around meaningfully. The others looked up. Lism’s tail began to wag with sheer delight.
“Of course. Do you have the missive, nephew?”
Olesm produced the rather fancy letter that had arrived by [Messenger] just this morning. Not Runner; [Messenger]. As in, a class hired by a person or group for dedicated work, not a freelancer.
“I think we’ve all read it. But can you give us a proper rundown, Strategist Olesm? Tismel and Zalaiss may need briefing later.”
Alonna smiled at Olesm. The Drake sighed; mostly for the latter bit. But he nodded. There were a few places for him to put his maps and documents. He handed them around now. Copies of the letter, and a few strategic notes. Lism saw him point at the map.
Maps of Liscor and of Izril or even the world, were, of course, expensive. Not prohibitively, but the [Cartographers] really did sterling work with their illustrations. You could buy political maps, ones that showed where monsters were strongest, geographical overlays, magical ones…
Of course, nations and space shifted all the time, so no map was perfect. But this one was fairly up-to-date. Olesm pointed at Liscor; the valley and pass leading down through the High Passes was quite familiar to Lism.
“Here we are, Councilmembers. And here—is our new road. It’s nearing completion, despite the setbacks, and Master Builder Reikhle has only a few days to go. Of course, then there will be creating a short wall and shoring up the road…”
“I wonder if we can get our [Architect] to do that cheaper as well.”
Lism snorted. He didn’t exactly like Hexel for all the Lamia was friendly, and he was certain Hexel didn’t like him. Lism felt…sympathetic about what had happened, really. But how quickly did he turn from hating a Lizardman to thinking of him as ‘Liscor’s.’ Funny, that.
Olesm was tracing a careful route through the foothills, south of Liscor and around the Bloodfields, marked in red. And soon, the road would connect to…
Another road. The Council leaned forwards and saw the road network branching out from there. To the south, lay Izril.
Obviously, of course. It always had. But the southern route was only safe in the winter and fall. Liscor was more connected to the north than the south. Isolated from all in the spring.
That was how it always had been. But Lism was already dreaming of rope…bridges…that could be used in the spring. They had been isolated and that had always been their strength. Inter-city wars had never affected Liscor and their army could go abroad and make money while the city stayed safe—although they used to leave more than just the Watch behind.
But it had also made Liscor poor. Reliant on the army. Now, the road would connect.
“The letter we have received comes from Hectval, a small city closest to us. It is part of the Hectval-Drisshia-Luldem Alliance, a defensive pact between the cities and towns here.”
Jeiss drawled. Lism laughed, but he waved for Olesm to go on. The little dot of a city, only visible on very detailed maps, was indeed close to the Bloodfields. And Liscor. Olesm coughed.
“You can see their standing forces and so on there. Public knowledge; I believe they have excellent fletchers. You can see their proximity to the hills here, which have an abundance of birdlife…I can get you more information if you’d like, Councilmembers. But they sent a [Messenger] yesterday.”
“Down our road.”
Lism growled. That almost upset him; he had hoped to send a trading caravan down the road first, as part of a ceremony. But the contents of the letter had been…excellent. Olesm nodded.
“It will be publicly used, Councilmember Lism. The road, that is. But Hectval sent a letter of, well, greetings. It is very formal.”
It was. The beginning of the letter had about four lines of introduction. But Lism could respect that. They had made an impression.
“I was actually told that the letter was exceptionally formal, and had a lot of nuance from Maviola—er—I think we should labor carefully over our reply, Councilmembers. To avoid seeming less than formal. The long and the short of it is that…Hectval would like our cities to exchange goods, ideas, visitors. They’re asking for a meeting.”
Lism beamed. He sat up and looked around. The rest of the Council seemed excited too. Krshia looked a bit confused.
“All this for a meeting? They could have just come and knocked on our gates, yes?”
“Silverfang, you are just a—an uneducated beast! There’s a proper way to do things! With elegance! Tact! Between Drake cities, this is how things are done.”
Lism cried out. He looked around importantly. He hadn’t ever actually been part of a delegation—he’d never even left Liscor. But he felt strongly that this was it.
“I think it’s clear. We should respond, as politely as possible, and agree to a meeting. At last, we’ll have another city to talk to! And this is just the first! More Drakes!”
He smirked at Krshia. The Gnoll sighed.
“Hopefully more tolerable than the ones here.”
The two Councilmembers began to quarrel. Elirr sat back and Raekea helped get the back of his head with his comb.
“You’re making more of an effort to do your appearance, Elirr. You don’t even smell of cats.”
“I have to. I’m a Councilmember and a liaison with our [Architect]. Did the cologne work? Those damned pests dump it in the toilet.”
Olesm smiled. The Council was in high spirits, and Olesm went off to hire Joseph. And find Maviola; she had already began to vet a proper team. She was his acting-assistant. He could hire one. And why not?
The Drake gave that serious thought as Tismel and Zalaiss hurried in—just to hear the Council breaking for the day. He ran off before they could demand to know what had been said.
Olesm was feeling better than he had in months. Maviola was staying at his apartment. He’d had…well, relationships. But none that lasted long. None that felt like this.
He smiled. And the Council were doing big things. Important things. Actually doing things. Lism and Krshia were actually working together, rather than killing each other with knives.
Olesm was happy for them, but he found that his life outside of work also mattered. He, Maviola, Selys, and Lyonette were all going to go to Invrisil to shop. Hawk too, which was fine, but Olesm had heard Selys shouting at him after the game so that might be in doubt.
And another city was coming to Liscor. Olesm sighed. He couldn’t wait. For once, the Drake thought it might be a glorious day.
It was glorious. Below Olesm’s feet, an Antinium with azure colors spread her arms and smiled.
“Antinium walked in Celum. Did you see it, Klbkchhezeim?”
She raised her staff and Klbkch raised one arm to block. Xrn, the Small Queen turned to him.
“So that is the power of Erin Solstice. I see it now. Your advice was right, Klbkch. Give her no vaults of treasure or overt aid. ‘Let Erin be Erin.’ And she brings joy to the Antinium.”
“However much that is worth.”
Xrn flicked the staff at Klbkch’s head. He leaned back.
“You are so lacking in…kindness, Klbkch.”
“I was not made for it.”
“I know. But you could learn. Never mind. Erin Solstice has also distracted Liscor and the other cities from pressing our Hive as strongly.”
“They are still making plans.”
“Yes. But the worth of the Antinium is not in a place. The Painted Antinium must join the other Hives. I will coordinate things here. Support Erin Solstice from the shadows if she needs it. How is the delegation coming?”
“…Well. I am ready to leave.”
“Good. Do you have the snacks? Or rather—are these enough?”
Klbkch and Xrn turned to the Workers busily loading sacks onto their backs. For transit to other Hives. The grand passage under the Bloodfields may have been discovered—but it could still be used. Carefully, of course; it was sure to be monitored. Klbkch eyed the huge pack bulging with its contents as it was loaded onto a single Worker’s back.
It was heavy. The kind of thing even the meanest [Sergeant] wouldn’t make a [Soldier] carry in war. But a Worker? The Antinium bore the load with ease. And carefully too.
Because the contents were all acid-flies. Packed in so heavily that there was probably, oh, at least a hundred pounds of flies.
Another basket had fresh Garry-bread, edible for Antinium. One more had cheese…and there were multiple packs of each. Xrn and Klbkch salivated for a second.
“…We may have enough snacks. But the Queens are voracious.”
“I will send more. Visit the Armored Antinium first. Or the Silent Antinium. Your discretion, Klbkchhezeim.”
“I will. Stay alive, Xrn.”
She lowered her staff and tapped his head. A blessing, then. Klbkch bowed. And then, without a word, he walked away. The Workers followed him as he left the Hive.
He had been just as brief with the Free Queen, for all the emotion in her. Xrn didn’t think he’d even said ‘goodbye’ to the other Workers. But there he went. Anand and some of the Painted Antinium were in his cohort. Anand was practically hopping with excitement because Klbkch had chosen him. Xrn smiled at his glee.
Klbkch spoke briefly, and they walked off. He was truly bad at being kind. Perhaps—if he had been—he might have stopped at The Wandering Inn and met Ryoka Griffin. But Klbkch was a silly Antinium.
And he was on the move.
In The Wandering Inn, Revi Cotton sat and looked around.
“Feels like we never left, right, Halrac?”
“The inn was literally rebuilt from the ground up, Revi.”
The [Veteran Scout] saw the [Summoner] scowl at him. Revi looked about.
“True, but the atmosphere is the same. That game of…football? It feels the same.”
That was also true. Halrac nodded once as he maintained the enchanted bow. He experimentally checked the enchanted bowstring that Hedault had given him to replace the ancient string the bow had been given to him with. It felt good.
Solid. Revi grinned as she looked at Halrac.
“That meeting was something, right? I thought Hedault would kill the Horns. Especially Pisces.”
Halrac was a poor conversationalist. Revi sighed.
“That part where he threw his equipment at Pisces’ head? I nearly died laughing. But he really liked Ksmvr.”
“And that part where he asked Ceria to marry him?”
Briganda snorted with laughter. Halrac paused. He looked up.
“…Do you want something, Revi?”
“What are we doing next, Halrac? We’ve got the money from Hedault coming in, but we’re not spending it or waiting for gear like the Horns.”
Hedault had been very patient. As well as generous. For a nominal fee, he’d be overseeing the conversion of treasure to coinage for both teams. As well as the Halfseekers. Amazingly patient, in fact; Halrac had expected him to murder the Horns of Hammerad. But they must have had one favor because they were actually in talks with him over replacing broken gear and even commissioning more.
Revi’s question reminded him that they had little business with Hedault—or Invrisil or Liscor for that matter. The [Scout] raised his head.
“I suppose it’s time to go. We’ll head through Invrisil’s door when the press slows. Tomorrow, maybe.”
“So we’re going to Riverfarm?”
Briganda looked up. She was feeding Cade lunch. The boy was very interested in a song being played from one corner of the room. He kept forgetting to eat the mushy bits of corn and grain.
“Cade, open your mouth. We could…stay awhile, Halrac. Right, Typhenous? Cade likes it here.”
“I wouldn’t object.”
The old man gave Halrac a knowing glance. And the [Scout] himself hesitated. He looked around the inn.
Pleasant indeed. So much so it would dull your senses. When The Wandering Inn wasn’t in uproar, it was like this.
In one corner of the room, Kevin sat with Numbtongue. He had successfully ingratiated himself into the Hobgoblin’s presence in two ways. Firstly, the spliff, which they were sharing. Second?
His computer was pulsing a soft song into the inn. Amid the quiet voices, the tiny stereo was playing. But the real music was coming from Numbtongue’s guitar. He was playing, copying the song after hearing it the fifth time.
Kevin was tapping the table with a ladle—matching the beat. Numbtongue missed a note, but he was faithfully copying the song. And the quiet singer’s voice added to the song. If no one else were here—you could imagine the Hobgoblin would have sung too.
Rose was tapping her foot to the beat as she listened. For a moment, Halrac listened. His eyes fixed on the [Bard]. And Numbtongue, a Redfang, noticed. He looked up and Halrac glanced away.
“It’s time to leave. We have work to do.”
He spoke reluctantly. But you could stay here too long. And they had already left, once. Briganda sighed.
“I really like it here. Right, Cade?”
The little boy nodded. Halrac glanced at him.
“We’ll be back in time. We’re just going a short ways away from Invrisil. Not more than a week on the road, even with Cade. If he’s coming.”
“Riverfarm is safe, right? Anyways, we’ll be gone for a while if we take this [Emperor]’s offer. When are we going?”
Rose began singing as a new song came on. To the curious, Stolen Dance, on Kevin’s computer became the iconic Hotel California. As the young woman’s voice tried to capture the lyrics—which she did know—Numbtongue stopped playing.
“Rose, this is about the guitar, the guitar. Not singing.”
Kevin objected. As Rose protested, Galina sat at the back of the inn. So far away that the music wasn’t even really audible. And over here there was far less noise. She whispered to the ugly Drake sitting next to her.
“So they do this every night?”
“And they practice! This is Lady Macbeth.”
Relc grinned at Galina. The two were bitten by the stage. They watched as the Players of Liscor began to warm up. The Players of Invrisil were back to work in their city, and neither Relc or Galina had, as of yet, visited the city.
But Relc was going to go as soon as he got a longer break. He certainly had the gold for it. He jingled the full coin pouch at his side. He nodded to Temile ordering the [Actors] about.
“Yup. See, this is a take on the classic Macbeth. Do you know it?”
“Know it? I performed it! Twice. Back in High…do these [Actors] take…notes? How many plays do they know? Have they ever done Wicked? What about—Phantom of the Opera? Mean Girls? Oh my god. Has Erin taught them Chicago? Please tell me yes.”
The [Guardsman] looked at Galina. Temile glanced up. And another victim of the theatre joined the others. Galina had been too shy to confess her addiction. But Joseph was the first—he would not be the last.
“You know…more plays?”
“Anastasia. Um—To Kill a Mockingbird. I know lots. Not perfectly—how did Erin remember them?”
“Skills, duh. Hey, Temile. Get over here!”
Galina saw the [Producer] hurry over. And another of Magnolia’s discarded children began to shine. If someone found her sparks, they caught fire.
“…and she’s a Vampire. Pointed teeth. Hates the sunlight. Literally allergic to garlic.”
Ryoka Griffin sat in the Garden of Sanctuary. Mrsha sat on her lap. Erin’s jaw was open.
“She has red eyes, her family drinks animal blood, and she once threw me like a ragdoll. Pretty sure, Erin.”
“No way. They’re real?”
Mrsha looked up at Ryoka and urgently patted her leg. She wanted to know more! Ryoka felt the need to caution them again.
“This is absolutely secret. Erin. You can’t tell anyone, Mrsha. You know that. Right?”
The Gnoll nodded, as if this was in jeopardy. Well—she was learning to write. Ryoka continued.
“I’m only telling because…you should know where I’ve been. But you can’t tell anyone. Erin.”
“I wasn’t gonna! But that’s so cool! And scary? Do they—”
“They don’t sparkle. They burn up in the sun. Not immediately. Old Vampires apparently literally turned to dust, or caught fire. And they’re…sick. All of them. I think…”
Ryoka felt at the tiny vial at her side. She thought of Teriarch’s words.
“I don’t know what it is. I have something that might help, Fierre, though. And I told her I’d come back. I have to go back.”
She felt two tiny arms encircle her stomach with surprising strength. Mrsha grabbed onto Ryoka and looked up. The City Runner hesitated. She patted Mrsha’s head.
“…Not yet. And Reizmelt isn’t that far from Invrisil. If I’d known, I would have just gone to Invrisil. I can visit. But I have to go back.”
“Can’t you…bring Fierre here?”
Erin spoke wistfully. Ryoka glanced at her, amused.
“She’d never go for that. She has a job in Reizmelt. She couldn’t just…”
Ryoka trailed off. Both Alber and Fierre had careers of moving about. Even so—she shook her head.
“There are too many people I know up there. There’s Lupp, for one. I’ll bring you some corn. And I will come back. But I will have to go back.”
Erin’s statement was joined by Mrsha’s nodding. She hugged Ryoka tighter. The City Runner found it getting hard to breathe.
“No. But Erin—Mrsha. There’s something else. I’m still worried about bringing trouble here.”
“Into the Garden? Let them come. Even that Grand Mage dude couldn’t get in. The only person who ever got in here without my say-so was this [Druid] dude. And that was a special case.”
Erin folded her arms. Ryoka smiled. She’d heard about that, too.
“Probably a function of his class, Erin. But I told you about…the [Witches]. The bad [Witch].”
Mrsha hugged Ryoka—this time shivering a bit. Erin shivered too.
“Yeah. You never said her name.”
“I shouldn’t. Names have power.”
Ryoka looked about. The shadow of Belavierr hung around her, even here. She shook her head, feeling at the vial again.
“…There are things I have to do. Give this to Fierre, anyways.”
She showed them the little vial. Erin gulped. It was a tiny amount of liquid, even by potion standards. But it was a panacea.
“Maybe you could give that to Saliss. If they could replicate it…”
“I doubt it. Besides—I don’t trust anyone with this. Even if I thought Octavia could do it…no. It was a gift.”
Even if you took a few drops to experiment with, it was cutting into Fierre’s cure. Ryoka shook her head. She didn’t know this ‘Saliss of Lights’. A Named Adventurer? Erin said Saliss was ‘cool’, but what did that mean?
“So this Grand Mage Eldavin guy gave it to you. And he’s your ally. But you won’t tell me how he’s so…and why do you trust him with Earth? You?”
Erin waved her hands. Ryoka sighed.
“I can’t tell you everything. Not even you, Mrsha. I promised. Sorry. But I’ll tell you all I can. The reason I think I might have to go is…Ivolethe.”
Mrsha looked up. So did Erin. Ryoka slowly withdrew the shining figure of ice. Mrsha touched it and recoiled at the frost.
Erin stared somberly at the figure. Ryoka shook her head. She closed her hand over the figure. But gently.
“She’s alive. There’s a way to meet her again. I don’t know what it will take. But that’s why Eldavin is here. He’s…an expert. And I need his help. Whatever it takes…”
She looked into the distance. Erin Solstice looked at her friend. And she saw Ryoka’s eyes focus. She listened to the things Ryoka hadn’t said.
A dark [Witch]. An [Emperor] who held Goblins. A Vampire, a [Fistfighter]…
That was Ryoka Griffin’s world. And while she had come here, come back, she was already being tugged towards her other life, in Reizmelt. Mrsha tapped on Ryoka’s chest. She looked up pleadingly.
Don’t go. Not today. Ryoka hesitated, then gently combed her fingers through Mrsha’s fur.
“Not yet. But I have to sometime, Mrsha. I have responsibilities, you understand?”
She didn’t know if Mrsha did. But the Gnoll was growing up. She nodded and hugged Ryoka again.
“Let’s not talk about later. Let’s just—you know. Be here. Okay?”
Erin wanted Ryoka to stay. She wanted to tie weights around Ryoka’s legs so she couldn’t run off. Things were better with Ryoka around. She was sensible. Even if she was sometimes stupid. But she—listened. Ryoka smiled, brief humor flashing across her features.
“Okay. You have to tell me about this mess you’re in, Erin. Wistram [Mages] in your inn? Pallass? That Grimalkin guy? You have a weights room. What did I say about bringing inventions into this world?”
“I thought it didn’t matter! But Grimalkin is making all kinds of weights—he says they’ll be in every city—why does he have to be so smart?”
Erin threw up her hands. Mrsha and Ryoka laughed. The City Runner shook her head.
“Well, I don’t think you can stop him. And I’m staying out of his way. He looks way too smart. As for Wistram—that Palt, the Centaur seems trustworthy. I hope he is.”
“Yeah. I think…he’s a good guy.”
Erin hesitated. Palt had saved them, yesterday. With a bit of cleverness, he’d thrown all of Wistram off instantly grabbing them. She owed him big. Ryoka eyed Erin.
And she had seen the way Palt looked at Erin.
“Well, I think he appreciates you, Erin. A lot.”
Mrsha nodded. Erin hesitated.
“He’s a nice guy. I have good friends.”
The young Asian woman rolled her eyes. Was Erin doing this on purpose? She looked at Mrsha and the Gnoll gave her a look. Mrsha reached up and waved for Ryoka’s attention. Then she made a few signs.
“I don’t know what that means, Mrsha. Hm?”
Mrsha pointed at Erin. Then she made a four-legged centaur with her two paws, pretending to walk with the fingers. Then a heart-symbol. She was actually very understandable. Ryoka bent down and rubbed Mrsha’s head with her chin. Mrsha giggled.
“Oh yes. I think so too. Erin. I think Palt likes you. As in, romantically.”
“Yep. Mrsha agrees, right?”
The young Gnoll smiled happily. Then she had a thought. Maybe she could tell Ryoka about Lyonette’s objectionable tryst with Pawn. She tugged on Ryoka’s arm and tried to figure out how to convey that.
Erin was shaken.
“Nah. But he’s—you know, a Centaur. Not that that’s a bad thing. But I’m just me. Palt’s just nice…”
“So he’s stuck around the inn, helps you, cooks in your kitchen because he’s ‘just nice’. Erin. You’re being cruel.”
The [Innkeeper] recoiled.
Ryoka gave her a level look.
“Be honest. You know I’m right.”
“I don’t know—”
Erin broke off. She had come to the same conclusion. But she hadn’t been sure. Ryoka looked at her.
“You could ignore it. But that’s something I’d have done. You owe it to Palt to say something.”
The City Runner took pity on Erin. She shrugged, self-consciously.
“It’s not my business. But think about it, Erin. Just remember, pretending not to notice isn’t fair to him. Now—tell me about Pelt. Why do their names sound so similar?”
“Oh—he’s a Dwarf.”
“I got that bit. But why…everything?”
Ryoka frowned. Erin shrugged.
“I dunno. I just met him. He’s really good with metal and stuff. He made my knife.”
She unsheathed it and waved it around, cutting a bit of grass. Ryoka and Mrsha both leaned back. The City Runner grunted.
“Huh. If I had anything…well, I could use more caltrops. I threw nearly all of them at the Bloodfeast Raiders. I wish I had something I really needed to buy. But I need a…[Seamstress] rather than a [Blacksmith]. For now. I have ideas.”
Suddenly very interested, Mrsha and Erin sat forwards. The City Runner hesitated.
But this was a moment where they were able to talk. In private, in earnest—only a few things were off the table. Erin’s love life one of them, apparently. Teriarch and Belavierr another. But anything short of that? Ryoka casually twirled a finger.
A breeze blew through the Garden of Sanctuary. It ruffled Erin’s hair and Mrsha laughed in silent delight. Ryoka smiled. Even here, the wind blew. Softly, though; Ryoka doubted she could convince the wind to rage here. There were rules. Even if she didn’t know all of them. That was why she wanted to meet Ivolethe again…
Among other things. Ryoka sighed.
“I’m slow. I’m not out of shape, Mrsha—”
The Gnoll was patting Ryoka’s stomach to see if there was more fat. The Gnoll looked up as Ryoka explained.
“—but I don’t get any Skills. My control over the wind is a lot better. I can call a gale, and the wind is always at my back. I can even do this.”
She blew wind straight up. Mrsha leapt off Ryoka’s lap and dashed around, awestruck as the wind tried to pick her up. The wind gusted up out of the hole in the dome over the Garden of Sanctuary.
—And Bird blinked at the wind suddenly rising up around him. He looked about.
“How strange. The wind? Wait. This is it! I can fly!”
He began climbing out of his tower. Half the Workers on the roof of the inn tried to stop Bird from jumping.
Inside the Garden, Ryoka made the wind stop. She looked wistfully upwards.
“…But it’s not powerful. Not like Skills or a…[Fireball] spell. It’s good for a City Runner, but I can’t beat Charlay or Alevica in a footrace.”
“That’s the Centauress and [Witch], right? With the magic broom.”
Erin sighed wistfully. Ryoka thought Erin would not enjoy meeting Alevica. Charlay would love Erin. If Ryoka could ever get her to visit…
“Right. They’re both faster than me by a lot. That’s my point. You know Hawk, right, Mrsha?”
The little Gnoll nodded. He was faster than Ryoka. The City Runner sighed again.
“I need to get faster. But I can’t level. And I’m not about to chug mana potions until my body turns to magic. Well…it’s an idea. But the point is, I need something that uses the wind.”
She eyed Erin significantly. The young woman blinked. Then her eyes narrowed.
“So a [Seamstress]…whoa. You mean…like…”
She mimed flapping her arms. Mrsha’s eyes went round. Ryoka grinned.
“Maybe not just yet. I can’t control the wind fully and I don’t want to fly and—die.”
The wind could turn on her if it got—moody. Ryoka could just imagine it slamming her into the ground. But she had plans.
“Know any good [Seamstresses], Erin?”
“Uh—uh—Octavia and Revi might know some. Let’s ask! I saw you blowing kids around with the wind! With mini-sails! Hey—can you do that for me? We can make a little cart with a sail—hey! We could travel that way! Like a pirate’s ship, except on land! You can be Toren 2.0!”
Ryoka gave Erin a flat look. The young woman scuffed one foot on the ground.
The City Runner laughed. And Mrsha raced into the inn—appearing in hers and Lyonette’s room. The [Princess] and Pawn leapt away from each other. Mrsha stopped.
“Mrsha! I thought you were—”
Ryoka saw Lyonette getting up and slamming the door. She eyed Pawn. He waved at her. Ryoka’s jaw dropped.
“No fucking way.”
Erin craned her neck, but all she saw was the door slam as Mrsha was practically thrown back into the garden with a large bed sheet. The Gnoll looked smug. She gave Ryoka a glance. And Ryoka Griffin—
“Uh. Erin? Do you think—Lyonette and Pawn—”
“Oh, they’re dating.”
Ryoka nearly fell off the hill. Erin gave her a blank look.
“They’ve been dating for ages. It’s so—cute! Pawn likes Lyonette. She likes him.”
“Right. Right. But do you think…”
The City Runner hesitated. She wanted to ask Lyonette first. But Mrsha was giving her a look that said everything. Holy shit.
“…Let me get back to you. Mrsha, do you want to fly?”
The Gnoll eagerly tied the sheets into a knot. Ryoka laughed. In Pawn’s room, Lyonette covered her face.
A few minutes later, The Wandering Inn had a…moment. Bird, who had been convinced jumping off the roof was not a sound move, saw a white, billowing shape. A…parachute.
And felt the wind rising. It was localized—blowing a little Gnoll upwards. Mrsha slowly floated by one of the windows, a few feet off the ground as Bird froze. The Gnoll waved all four paws, laughing in silent delight as the patrons stared.
Rose breathed. The others flooded outside and saw Ryoka helping Mrsha to ‘fly’. Bird screamed.
“Me! Me! Meeeeee—”
He raced down the steps. And as fate would have it—a certain Flying Gnoll of Pallass had been there for breakfast. But he didn’t run outside.
Felkhr was lying on the floor of the inn. Passed out. Ryoka Griffin was soon attacked by both Antinium and Gnoll.
And in time—once she had realized she’d brought the theory of aerodynamics to this world and asked Erin to punch her—Ryoka Griffin sat in Lyonette’s room.
“Argh. I’m such an idiot.”
She sat in Lyonette’s room, holding her head in her hands. Even something fun for Mrsha—she should have done it in the Garden.
Lyonette du Marquin didn’t see the advent of aviation like Ryoka suddenly did. But Felkhr and Bird were already making parachutes and planning to jump off Liscor’s walls. What had she done?
Still…it was too late. Too late to take anything back. Like the sight of Lyonette smiling and teaching Pawn to play a game with string like Cat’s Cradle.
Just a glimpse. And nothing…lewd. But Ryoka was not Erin. She had seen the truth behind that moment. Lyonette sat across from her, nervous.
The City Runner looked up. She met Lyonette’s eyes. The [Princess]’ slaps still filled Ryoka’s memory. But now Lyonette just looked—terrified.
Afraid that Ryoka knew everything. Which of course, was true. But Ryoka didn’t hold a grudge. She just looked up.
“Erin doesn’t know.”
It wasn’t a question. Lyonette shook her head anyways.
“She doesn’t. Only a few people do—”
“Mrsha does. She’s not happy about it.”
Lyonette’s eyes flickered.
“But we were so careful—”
“She’s a smart girl.”
Silence. The mood was uncomfortable between the two. Ryoka had known Lyonette briefly, respected her—she still remembered the [Princess] trying to manage the inn and Erin’s thoughtlessness. She was sure Lyonette didn’t like her.
But perhaps it was time to try to mend bridges. Ryoka took a breath and Lyonette flinched.
“I’m not going to tell anyone.”
The two stopped. Ryoka half-smiled.
“No judgment, Lyonette. I’m just curious. Uh—how? And maybe why. But no judgment, really.”
The [Princess] looked at her suspiciously. Doubting Ryoka’s motives. But Ryoka was—calm. Very confused, but this was the least she’d judge someone over. Perhaps the [Princess] saw that. Or—she had been dying to tell someone. So, heart pounding, she leaned over.
“The truth is…it was over months, alright? And…”
Ryoka Griffin leaned forwards. Listening, exclaiming. And as she had promised—not judging. Even laughing. Mrsha peeked through the door. Glowering. She wanted a scolding, not an ally for Lyonette! She sighed out of her nose and grumped off.
On this quiet day, where small miracles and meetings still happened, day passed into evening into night. Mrsha the Great and Flying, Galina’s introduction to the Players of Liscor that sent Andel, Jasi, and Emme all hurrying through the magical doorway…
Small events. For, as the sun set behind the High Passes, he appeared.
No one saw him arriving. Not the [Guards] on watch, nor those from the inn. He walked up the hill to the inn, grumbling about feet, robes, a hero from wars no one remembered. A scholar of things lost to time. A leader of dead peoples.
A Dragon, of course.
He was talking as he stopped outside the inn. The [Innkeeper] saw him. Sensed…his presence. She stared out a window and gasped. But for a moment, Teriarch, or Grand Mage Eldavin was grumpily speaking into the air. Holding a conversation only he could hear.
“I’m pursuing my own leisure, brat. Nothing has ‘come up’. This isn’t about those [Raiders] or whatever that event was. Pure coincidence. I have business with Ryoka Griffin.”
Magnolia’s voice was clipped, intent. Teriarch sniffed.
“Nothing that need concern you, Reinhart.”
There was a pause at the other end. Magnolia chose her words with exquisite care.
“But you are…awake.”
“Yes. I had a small nap. That business with the Wyverns and such. I regret missing your messages.”
“Do you…think you’ll have time to visit? I should like to host you. My mansion at Invrisil; to discuss any number of issues.”
“And repair your carriage like some common [Enchanter]?”
The Dragon huffed. Magnolia winced.
“Not if you don’t wish to. Teriarch, it would be a delight…”
“I will consider it. I do have a number of small errands to pursue…yes, perhaps after this. But I have a meeting to attend.”
The Dragon smiled to himself. Magnolia’s voice broke in, worried—almost grand daughterly. She had been so happy to know he was awake.
“Teriarch, if you’d think about it, perhaps you could come with me to Oteslia.”
The old man paused. His eyes flickered. And he saw so many ways that would lead to the kind of disaster that Ryoka Griffin felt in regards towards the parachuting theory she’d just given to this world.
In many ways—they were alike, the two. He shifted the laptop he was carrying under one arm, a copy of Kevin’s. Minus the stickers; he’d peeled them off.
“I think not. I may call on you, Reinhart. But I am—putting in half-effort to my expeditions at the moment.”
“I must go. I will call upon you tomorrow, I think.”
The Dragon hurriedly ended the spell. He saw someone cautiously opening the door to her inn. Erin Solstice raised one hand.
“Good evening, Erin Solstice. I have come to meet with Ryoka Griffin. I trust my presence is acceptable?”
The Dragon’s voice was dignified. He drew himself up and Erin looked up. She nodded, slowly.
“She’s inside. Talking with Lyonette. But I think she’s been waiting for you.”
“I see. Thank you.”
The Dragon tried to sweep forwards, but Erin stood in the doorway. She hesitated as Teriarch eyed her.
“Is something the matter, Miss?”
“Um. Uh—can I ask you a question? You’re…important, right?”
Erin scuffed at the ground. Teriarch blinked a few times at her. Erin eyed him. There was no other explanation for it. Joseph had played soccer, but that had been his thing. This—this was due to Grand Mage Eldavin, she was certain.
“One could say so, yes. I am a Grand Mage.”
“Is that more important than an Archmage or something? Because…I leveled up when you visited. Twice.”
The Dragon froze. Erin thought she heard a curse—though his lips didn’t move. She frowned, then the Grand Magus smiled at her. It looked rather artificial.
“Ah. Unintended consequences. Miss Erin Solstice—it may be that I am quite important. But my time is over. If I have any bearing in your inn—no, let it only be a few moments of interaction. Nothing more. We will not meet again after this.”
He had said that last time. Erin didn’t believe him. She looked at him, cautiously.
There was a coin in her pocket. Made of mithril. Carrying a word that had nearly killed Pelt. She had not shown Ryoka. Or anyone else. The truth was too big. She hesitated, holding it.
“…What have I got in my pockets?”
The Dragon blinked at Erin’s whisper. The young woman looked at him. She paused.
She did not trust him. Not yet. Ryoka said this was a good person. She trusted Eldavin. But Erin didn’t know him. She looked up at Eldavin. She knew literally nothing. Even Montressa and Bezale didn’t know anything. Palt only had rumors of the half-Elven [Grand Mage] who had once been part of Wistram.
“Can I ask why you’re friends with Ryoka?”
The question seemed to offend the half-Elf. He frowned.
“She has done me some services in the past. And she has…rendered services to me. I owe her a debt due to our bargain. We are not friends.”
Erin eyed the laptop under his arm. A copy of Kevin’s. She nodded slowly.
Power. That was scary power if he’d actually duplicated the laptop. But what…who was Eldavin? Erin felt like she was only seeing a fraction of him, as weird as that was. And it made her wary. She knew he was powerful. Scarily powerful.
“I’m um. An [Innkeeper].”
“Yes. That fact is apparent. What is your point?”
He was also pretty rude. The Grand Magus snorted at Erin, impatiently. She frowned. But went on, scuffing at the ground.
“You…you’re pretty good at magic and stuff, right? High-level?”
“One could infer so.”
The Dragon cautiously replied. He had no idea where the young woman was going with this. She looked up.
“Um. I just wanted to ask. Since you’re here and all…you must have lived a long time.”
“You could say that too.”
He whispered. The Human child looked up at him. And he, finally, saw her nervousness. Uncertainty.
“I was hoping you had some advice. I’m sort of…high-level myself. And this inn is cool. The [Garden of Sanctuary] is strong. You said it yourself. But every time something bad happens—Magnolia Reinhart was in here a little bit ago. And I couldn’t stop her.”
Teriarch blinked. She had? He consulted his notes, searching the [Messages] he collected and read for news about that. Erin went on.
“I level up. But when something bad happens, I can’t stop it. I was wondering…if you had any advice. I mean, I know you’re a [Mage] and I’m an [Innkeeper]—but what do you do? To keep people alive?”
The question made the Dragon stop. He looked down at the [Innkeeper]. And suddenly—his focus was on her, not watching the War of Stars or whatever it was called with Ryoka Griffin.
Slowly, the Dragon replied. Searching Erin’s honest face.
“…Erin Solstice. You are quite talented for an [Innkeeper] of your age. This inn proves it.”
She looked up at him. The Dragon went on, looking at Erin. Seeing all the other [Innkeepers] he had ever met flash through her. None had ever been honored with the [Garden of Sanctuary]. But some had been…
“There have been legends, girl. Who reached levels higher than yours by your age. They come—as you do—by virtue of the challenges they surmounted. I cannot ever remember an [Innkeeper] who rose as you did. But [Warriors]? [Mages]? Of all kinds, I have met them.”
She was silent. Listening. The Dragon went on, his voice turning older. If you closed your eyes, you could almost see them in his words.
“Those grand heroes died. Many, in small places, by accident, as their enemies overwhelmed them. By chance. Never forget that. Some became legends. But ultimately—they all died. Some were so mighty that they could slay entire armies themselves. Some had vast empires. And even then—they fell to a blade in the back. A greater foe than themselves.”
He was bad at pep talks. But he was good at honesty. The old being went on, looking at Erin.
“Are you asking how to make your inn safe?”
“Yeah. I have important things here. People. Is there a good way?”
Erin Solstice asked, knowing the answer. And the Dragon knew that she knew. Out of courtesy, another sudden connection, he replied. Honestly.
“No. Safety? Safety is an illusion. Tomorrow, the High Passes could explode and the seas boil into fire and cataclysm stalk the earth.”
The young woman shivered. When the Grand Magus spoke, it was like he could see these things. Had seen them. She bowed her head, crushed by that terrible truth. In any world, normality could be destroyed in a moment. Erin had learned that long ago.
Then the Dragon went on. And Erin’s head rose. For his voice was very kind.
“If you would crave anything, do not crave safety. Look towards the courage to walk through adversity. That is more valuable than any illusion. Treasure the moments you have, child.”
He raised his hand, gesturing to the inn. There it stood. Erin looked up, following his gaze. It was still being built. But there it rose.
What a beautiful thing. She smiled.
“I get it. Be prepared for anything. Rebuild if everything gets destroyed. Again and again. Even if the sky falls down. But…that’s so much work.”
The Dragon looked at her, surprised. He blinked as Erin gave him a knowing look. Then he started laughing.
In his cave, the Brass Dragon laughed until he rolled over on his side. With the kind of humor he hadn’t felt in centuries. And the Grand Mage laughed too. Erin chuckled and then joined in. They laughed for a while. When he straightened, the old half-Elf put a hand on Erin’s shoulder.
Contact. He looked into her eyes with his mismatched ones.
“It is, isn’t it?”
That was all they said. Teriarch entered the inn as Erin held open the door. But those little moments changed everything.
“Ryoka! You have a guest!”
The young woman shouted. Ryoka Griffin came down the stairs. Her eyes widened.
Teriarch was busy observing a scrying orb. The King of Destruction was still playing soccer—that, and baseball. He was taken with the idea of hitting the ball. Laughing.
The orb was also repeating the battle—slaughter—really. Teriarch’s eyes narrowed as Ryoka hurried over. He pointed at the King of Destruction, affronted by the [King]’s rampage as he laughed.
“Who is that impudent little man?”
Every head turned towards Teriarch. Ceria’s jaw fell open a bit.
“The…King of Destruction?”
Eldavin’s voice was very blank. His eyes fluttered and then he snapped his fingers.
“Oh, that one. I thought his kingdom fell apart and he died.”
“No. He was asleep. He came back last year. He’s…going to war again.”
The others exchanged a glance. What hole in the ground had the Grand Magus been in? But it all fit. The half-Elf scowled.
“How tiresome. What a bloody little [Conqueror]. His lot are the kind who slew Giants and made war in any era. Strange to see the descendants of the tall aiding him.”
He dismissed Flos with a shake of his head. The others looked at Eldavin’s back as Ryoka motioned to the Garden. Teriarch’s voice was instantly inaudible as the two bent their heads together. Erin and Mrsha followed through the door. Pisces snuck after them and smacked into the invisible barrier, despite being [Invisible] himself.
“Are you…here to watch another movie?”
“Hm. As time allows. You must explain this to me. It looks like these mortals are in space. But surely that is impossible. Elves and Gnomes were the only idiotic creatures willing to go up there. But Humans?”
“It’s fiction. And we have been to space. I told you, remember?”
The Dragon wrinkled his perfect nose. And Mrsha raced into the Garden, as Erin looked around for popcorn. And yeast.
Numbtongue had already tactically hidden in the trees. This time the Dragon saw him. He strode towards the tree and Numbtongue looked down, warily.
Teriarch looked at Numbtongue. He could have said many things to the Hobgoblin in that brief moment. But he did not. He had spoken to this little Chieftain.
This was not the first Goblin he had ever met. He spoke one word as he looked past Numbtongue.
The Goblin Lord looked at Teriarch. He said one word to Numbtongue.
The two came over to the hill after a moment. Ryoka hesitated.
“I appreciate you coming here. Are we going to…”
“Afterwards. Let us enjoy this moment, Ryoka Griffin. A halfhearted bit of effort. And then we shall speak. After that—we shall not—er—our time may be more limited.”
The Dragon’s eyes twinkled as he caught himself. Ryoka Griffin half-smiled, but her heart began to beat faster. But for a moment—
There they sat. Numbtongue ate yeasty popcorn as Mrsha’s jaw dropped open as lightsabers, blaster fire, and the force flickered across the screen. Teriarch had his own bowl. The largest, and Ryoka felt Erin leaning on her, laughing as Teriarch kept pausing the movie to ask questions.
“Just watch! It’s a movie! A movie!”
In some ways—it was a mimicry of life. Numbtongue and Teriarch experienced the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi differently, but strongly. Death was something everyone here had felt and the movie was much more…real than even child-Erin and Ryoka had known.
But the action was glorious. Even if it was silly at times. Everyone cheered at the end, although Teriarch was a bit miffed.
“But the cost! That was a battle-moon. They should have invaded it, secured it, rather than destroy it! What happened next?”
“There are two more movies. And the prequels.”
“We don’t mention those.”
Ryoka nudged Erin. She stuck her tongue out at the City Runner.
“They’re good! Aw, Kevin doesn’t have them. Who wants to watch the next one? Who has to get more snacks?”
It ended up being Ryoka. She got up as the second movie began to play and she only missed the opening text scrawl.
And it was a glorious night. If only you could linger there, moment by moment…at some point, Ryoka caught herself looking around. Feeling each second lingering.
An [Immortal Moment]. Teriarch met her eyes and they looked at Erin, and Mrsha laughed and Numbtongue sat forwards, watching intently. Erin Solstice laughed and looked up and they grinned in that moment.
But even that was not forever.
Over too soon. Soon, Mrsha was dozing in Numbtongue’s arms, dreaming of Ewoks and giant traps. The others were a bit frazzled by bingeing three movies in a row. Erin was blinking.
“How much popcorn did I eat? Did we have dinner? I don’t feel good.”
“It’s late. Maybe Mrsha should be in her bed.”
It was indeed late. Later than good little Gnolls should be up, or even bad ones. Numbtongue lifted Mrsha.
“I’ll take her.”
It was perhaps the first thing he’d ever said to Ryoka. But she nodded and the [Bard] left the garden with Mrsha. That left Erin. She rolled down the hill. Teriarch and Ryoka heard her voice.
“Oh no, oh no, I’m rolling, stop me, ow, ow, I’m gonnathrowup—”
She lay at the bottom on the hill. Then began to crawl towards the door.
“I’m gonna go lie down, okay?”
That was 100% Erin. Then, Teriarch and Ryoka stood there. The Dragon slowly closed the laptop and it vanished as he waved a hand.
“Entertaining. The things mortals come up with.”
That was all he said. He sat there, smiling. The ghosts of the Jedi had pleased him more than anything else. Yoda…well, the similarities were there. Almost like stories, movies, had shards of truth in them.
For a while, Ryoka looked up at the stars in the sky filtering through the dome. It was peaceful here. No annoying little bugs. Just the wind, the night…
A perfect place. The Dragon remembered sitting here, on this very hill, as a Harpy girl—no, a woman now, looked up and confessed all her worries as her grand empire struggled.
He blinked. And there was Ryoka Griffin. The Dragon sighed.
It was time. He spoke, wearily.
“Ryoka Griffin. We have one part of our bargain left unfulfilled. And time…well, time is neither your enemy nor friend. But it must be done, for we have a pact. Let us speak now of your greatest wish. To meet your friend. The faerie, Ivolethe.”
By his side, the young woman stiffened. She turned to face him and the Dragon’s head moved slowly, fixing her with a piercing gaze.
“Yes. I thought it was time too. You…told me there is a way. Can you help me?”
“I did not promise that. I will not place myself against other immortals, even in a contest of wills. Before I speak of what may be—let me tell you that what you ask is dangerous, Ryoka Griffin. Fae are old as Dragons. Perhaps—older. Certainly, some of them are older than I. They danced in a time when Gods still lived. To strive for anything, much less tempt their wrath…you understand what this means?”
“I do. But Ivolethe is my friend. I…want to see her again. To apologize. To…it’s worth the risk to me.”
Her eyes were steady. The Dragon nodded once, forebode other comment. It was her will.
“Very well then. In that case, I will give you the knowledge you seek. Firstly, know this: the fae have a compact with our world. They enter it with the winter, to bring snow. They are bound by a promise as old as time. But they manifest as Winter Sprites and are forbidden from interacting with the world in…noticeable ways. Pranks their King allows. No more.”
Ryoka nodded. Teriarch went on.
“I do not understand all the ways of their kind. But I understand that your friend violated their rules in the grandest of ways. To save your life—that is the most egregious of sins. The Faerie King may forgive lesser slights, even laugh at pranks. But this? No. Your friend was punished.”
“To never see me again. That was what…Laken said.”
The Dragon nodded.
“A bitter thing, for an immortal. It symbolizes the wrath of the Faerie King. And the difficulty you must surmount.”
Again, the young woman nodded. Steeling herself. The Dragon stroked at his beard.
“…If it were less than that, you could make gifts. Persuade the fae to intercede on your behalf. But I fear this is no small matter. The issue of your friend’s station is also a problem. She is of the highest of the fae. One of the King’s own court.”
Ryoka blinked. She had no idea if that was accurate. But the fae were in all legends. Still—she had guessed Ivolethe was more than she seemed. Teriarch just shrugged.
“I do not know all their names. Yes, from your world, perhaps. The point is that she is close to royalty as any of the fae. She is of the Winter Court—or the Summer Court as they change. The Faerie King’s wrath will be far worse with her than any other.”
The King of the Fae. Oberon. If you believed Shakespeare. Ryoka shivered. That was a creature truly from myth and legend. Even more than Teriarch. He had roots in her world.
“…I didn’t know Ivolethe was so important.”
The young woman said. But she remembered that night when Ivolethe had lost her and she had met the figures around the fire. Then—she had seen Ivolethe differently. Taller, rushing past her in the darkness as they chased…
The Dragon snorted at Ryoka.
“Her status is unmistakable, girl. Did you not think to question her power? Do you think a sprite could have frozen the air like that, wearing a false shell a world apart?”
Ryoka hadn’t. She blinked, remembering…Ivolethe hadn’t even seemed wise, though. Well—a few times. But she could be so petty. She ate bugs and demanded treats. She closed her eyes.
“She always seemed so—small. Selfish. Mischievous. Not like royalty.”
The Dragon rolled his eyes.
“And your image of fae nobility must be the truth. I see. The arrogance of mankind. You saw her, did you? What do you think I saw?”
He looked at her with a Dragon’s gaze. Ryoka felt her skin tingling.
“It makes your task harder. She will be under guard. Watched. And if you seek to meet her, you will need a gesture as important as her station and sin.”
Teriarch was frank. Ryoka’s heart beat faster.
“What do I do? Belavierr said she could help us meet…”
“A [Witch] could. Particularly a powerful one. But their ways are often mixed with old tradition. Sacrifice. I have no such power or rituals. I only have knowledge. Do not mistake me, Ryoka Griffin; I am not helpless. I have thought on this puzzle long and hard, and I have a solution. An elegant one.”
In his cave the Dragon exhaled a plume of flame. Ryoka leaned forwards.
“What must I do?”
The Brass Dragon’s voice was calm in the night.
“Firstly, know this: everything the fae do is born of rules. They delight in breaking them, but they respect rules more than anyone else. They have power. If you want to appease them, you must obey their rules. You know some—cold iron is their foe. Make no promises for words are binding. Also—time matters. The Winter Solstice and Summer Solstice are times of particular power in this world. When barriers grow thin.”
He fixed Ryoka with an eye. She whispered.
“The Summer Solstice?”
“Exactly. That is when the fae are allowed to come through in great number. In the winter of course, they have their duties. But both days are…celebrations. No, I take those words back. Moments of great import to the fae. It is then you must act.”
Now the Dragon raised a finger. And the air began to shimmer. Not with smoke this time; he used the medium of light. Faint, glowing forms flitted across the world. Vibrant shapes.
Fae. Ryoka reached out unconsciously, and the illusion broke on her fingers. Teriarch looked at Ryoka with sympathy.
“The Summer Solstice is your best bet. It is more of a celebration than winter. Winter—the ending of seasons is more somber. Hence, the Winter Court, for all their mischief. Summer on the other hand? A time of rebirth. Joy. Forgiveness.”
“I see. What happens on that day?”
“The fae will visit our world. They are still bound not to interfere, but the restriction is relaxed. They will appear, causing mischief and delight. And especially…where they are welcome.”
The view changed. Ryoka saw a party of people—Gnolls—sitting around a fire. Dancing figures appeared out of the darkness. She could almost see them, laughing, teasing.
“They came to Erin when she threw a party.”
Erin had told Ryoka about that. Where she had received the faerie flowers which were so valuable, even if it had been a prank. The Dragon nodded.
“They do love parties. Especially those thrown in their honor. With particular rules. No iron of course, proper introductions and ceremonies observed…why, on a Summer Solstice, if the correct banquet was thrown, the Court of the Faerie King themselves might descend.”
He looked at Ryoka. And she inhaled. Her mind flashed to the same conclusion.
That was his idea? The Dragon nodded, pleased.
“Not just any party. Do not mistake me, Ryoka Griffin. If you were to bedeck this inn with all manner of delights and invite the fae in—this inn is curiously not made of iron except on the door—the fae would come. You would be assured of pixies, sprites, brownies, those damned satyrs—well, any number of fae that can cross worlds.”
Ryoka nodded. Satyrs were real? She resolved never to meet them. They sounded like assholes, even more than regular goats. The Dragon nodded.
“…You might even receive one of the high court. But it would be chance, you understand? And say you were to meet one of Ivolethe’s peers. It would avail you naught.”
“Couldn’t I ask…?”
“Of course. But this would be a celebration. You understand? They would be little inclined to heed you, and if they did—what of it? It would be one of the high court begging the Faerie King. Almost worthless.”
Ryoka nodded. She wanted the Dragon to get to the point, but he was enjoying this. His own cleverness on display.
“Ah, but you need the full court, or a majority of them. And you need formality. If you were to make a celebration worthy of them, a proper ball, with gifts and an abundance of food and entertainment such as they had not seen for millennia—then you would be guaranteed for most of the Summer Court to arrive. And they would owe you a boon.”
“So you’re saying—”
The Dragon’s voice rose.
“To do this—you would need the greatest celebration. Thousands of gold pieces, creating a proper stage. Entertainment! Food and drink such that even the fae would be satisfied! But more than that, the difficulty, Ryoka Griffin, would be permission.”
The Dragon’s eyes darkened.
“The ruler of the land. Erin Solstice does not own her inn. Not in the way she needs to. You would need the permission of a true ruler, not this…city’s. A high noble. Perhaps Reinhart herself. I will not lie to you, Ryoka Griffin. To do this, you need funding, time, preparation. It may take you years. A decade. But I believe it can be done if you begin seeding the ground…”
He broke off as Ryoka slowly raised a hand.
“I have an [Emperor].”
“Yes, yes, you have—wait. What did you say?”
The Dragon’s jaw opened and stayed there. Ryoka was breathing heavily.
“I have…an [Emperor]. And he owes me a favor. Is—is that enough?”
Teriarch’s eyes bulged. He spluttered.
“A—what? In Izril? There are no—are you serious?”
“Yup. He’s an [Emperor]. From my world.”
“What? No one told me about—”
The Dragon’s strangled voice echoed in the Garden. Ryoka smiled, crazily.
“I can do it. I can get his permission. He has links to the fae. Is that enough?”
The Brass Dragon hesitated. Then he frowned.
“…From your world? Tell me about this [Emperor].”
Ryoka gave as quick a description of Laken Godart as she could. The Dragon listened, frowning. He didn’t care about Laken’s morality or decisions, or even the scope of his empire. He held up a claw.
“…There may be a problem.”
The young woman’s breath caught.
“What? He’s got authority over his land. Riverfarm ceded it to him.”
“Yes. And that solves your issue of location, girl. But the problem remains: that is not enough. Not for the fae. Your [Emperor] has one flaw. Two, really. One is that he is alone. The second? He does not own the land. Not in the right way.”
The City Runner’s heart sank.
“But he’s an [Emperor]. Do you mean he’s not really one?”
“No, no. I’m sure he has the class.”
The Dragon waved that off. He tried to explain. And it was simple, really.
“Your [Emperor] is new to Izril. Even if he were to live here for a thousand years, he would be new to the fae. Because his forefathers did not live and die here. His family’s bones do not lie in Izril’s soil. That is claim. True, the Humans invaded Izril millennia ago. But the nobles, like Magnolia Reinhart herself, have a claim the fae respect. Death and life for generations.”
That was fae logic. Ryoka clenched her fists and punched the grass. Teriarch frowned.
“It helps. Mistake me not. An [Emperor] is attractive. But he has only one [Lady] in his court? Yes, and he summoned the fae once?”
“More like he asked for a favor.”
Laken had once summoned the fae to meet the other nobles. But that made the Dragon smile.
“Of course they came. And that is your answer! Ryoka Griffin! That is your answer. And a mirror of what I intended. The fae came because the other nobles were present. Because the [Emperor] set a stage worthy of their arrival. If such a gathering is made twice, they will come again.”
He stood up, excited now. Ryoka stood up as well, heart beating.
“Your friend arranged a party for the fae. That is once. This [Emperor]? Twice. That means this will be the third celebration ever thrown. At least in recent memory. Fae love such significance in numbers. You have fate on your side, Ryoka Griffin. On the Summer Solstice—you must convince this [Emperor] to throw the kind of ball the world has never seen. With no iron. With mead and food aplenty! With a clear invitation to the fae in all their little rules and formalities.”
Teriarch pointed at Ryoka. She followed him as he walked.
“Yes, yes. That is exactly what I had planned. If you are lucky, you will attract the entire Summer Court. If you have gifts? Well-reasoned words? You will be able to attract your friend. She may even be allowed to attend.”
“The Faerie King is not cruel.”
Teriarch smiled at Ryoka. Her heart felt like it was going to explode.
“Tell me, then. Everything I need. I’ll do it. I have money. I can ask Laken—”
“Hold. There is one problem, Ryoka Griffin. And it is a severe one.”
Ryoka froze. Teriarch raised his head. And suddenly, he was wary. The Dragon looked at her.
“Your truest problem is this: the [Emperor], this Godart, is not enough of a presence. As I said, he is no true [Emperor] as the fae reckon it, no lord of the land who can call them. To honor the fae, you must have more of Izril’s nobility present. Those who live and die here.”
The City Runner’s stomach clenched.
“Laken can—ask them? Invite them.”
“No doubt that would help. Try to get at least a hundred.”
Suddenly, Ryoka felt her legs grow weak. The Dragon looked at her.
“Not only that. You must have at least…hrm. Three. An auspicious number. Three…of the greatest nobles of this continent. All of whom must supplicate the fae. Intentionally.”
“I can’t do that! How am I supposed to do that?”
Ryoka was on the ground. She shouted up at Teriarch. He looked at her, gravely.
“I told you it would not be easy. The fae will respect this if you can pull it off, Ryoka Griffin. And it will be a miracle indeed. Three nobles. Each of…Magnolia Reinhart’s rank. Perhaps a few lesser [Lords] or [Ladies] might do, but three is all but essential. They must know what you intend and welcome the fae by word. Along with the [Emperor].”
“I can’t…do it. Who fits that bill? Magnolia?”
“She might acquiesce. She too is not unkind.”
That was one. But who were the other two. Ryoka buried her head in her hands.
“The Summer Solstice is too soon!”
“There is always next year. You have much time. Three, Ryoka Griffin. Mark my words. I am sorry. But you asked.”
“I did. I did—oh god. What do I do?”
Ryoka forgot herself for a moment. She began to rock back and forth on the grass. How did she…? What would the world look like in a year’s time? But it was too soon.
Teriarch steadied her. His touch calmed Ryoka. Made her look up. The Dragon sat down, heavily.
“Three great nobles. A ball of magnificence. I have ideas as to the gifts. It can happen, Ryoka Griffin. But it does take a miracle. That is the kind of people you want to treat with. Do you have the will? Your friend lives.”
“I want to see her. She was my first true friend. She understood me. Completely. And she still liked me. She died for me, Teriarch.”
Ryoka whispered. Teriarch nodded.
“For friendship—move mountains. For friendship, challenge the will of the Faerie King. Do it, Ryoka Griffin. You are young. Dare it.”
Slowly, Ryoka’s head rose. She looked at him. The Dragon gently held her shoulder. Ryoka took a deep breath. And then another.
“I don’t have much time. I have to…what must I do?”
The Brass Dragon saw her will. So he sat awhile. And they talked. Daring the Faerie King’s wroth. Creating a miracle of a moment.
Three of the Great Houses of Izril. One waited for a Dragon’s reply. And another…
Had three weeks left to live.
Not enough time.
Author’s Note: About 2,400 words over my target. But this is a short chapter. Inconsequential? Hardly.
I hope you liked it. This is a bit gentler after the bombast of the last one, but small things matter. And it helps me recover enough to write another story! Maybe the side story? Or not. We shall see.
Liscor, Ryoka—these plots are hopping! For now, I leave you with some amazing art. There’s little choice this time: so much art is left to feature, but the topical art has to be shown.
Which is, pictures of the reunion between Ryoka and Erin by pkay, as well as Cortz! Cortz has also done a number of other relationships, like Jelaqua and Maughin, as well as pages from a comic about Az’kerash’ youth! And for our third artist, the Flying Gnoll of Pallass has been captured by Mg along with a number of other pictures! Give them thanks and consider donating to the Ko-Fi links!
Ceria, Numbtongue and Cade, Grimalkin, the Hug, by pkay
Archmage Chandler, Hugs, Laken and Durene, Maughin and Jelaqua, and Richard by Cortz
The Flying Gnoll, Hatred Fire, Cellists, Crelers, and Relc by Mg