[Spearmaster Level 36!]
[Skill – Recall Weapon: Spear obtained!]
[Guardsman Level 17!]
[Skill – Eyes In The Back obtained!]
The Drake opened his eyes as the sun hit his head. Sometimes the announcement came in the mornings. If he fell asleep and it didn’t wake him up, it lingered in his mind. Like words seared onto the inside of his brain. He blinked a few times.
Then made a fist and punched it up in victory.
“What was that?”
“Nothing. Well, actually…”
Relc rolled over and Ryoka blinked at him. She was there too of course. And while level-ups had never troubled her, the Drake was only happy to explain.
“I leveled up. Twice, actually. In two classes.”
“Thanks. And uh—”
They stared at each other. Ryoka was in the same bed as Relc. Of course, he had known that. He hadn’t drunk enough to forget last night either. A good thing, despite how his day had gone.
Sunlight was streaming through an unfamiliar window. Relc blinked around at the nice room. It wasn’t his. It was, in fact, Ryoka’s. True to form, he hadn’t woken up in his apartment. This room was better, anyways. The sun was rising and he’d slept through his dawn routine for once.
Probably because he’d been stabbed multiple times. And for other reasons. The Drake was explaining his new level—he already felt like he had a vague sense of what was behind him. Just a wall, and the sunlight. Not like ‘eyes’ but—better than intuition.
“Yeah, that’s me. I’m going to be even harder to jump. Nice Skill—although Klbkch always had my back.”
“Right. You said.”
Ryoka sat up. Relc stared at her. She blinked a few times. And blushed. A bit embarrassed by the stare more than anything else.
“So uh…nice room.”
“Yup. Erin’s giving it to me rent-free.”
Both of them latched onto the trite conversation. But after a second of looking around, Relc decided it was a good topic.
“Really nice. Good bed, more spacious than my apartment—do you know how much she charges?”
Ryoka paused as she looked around for clothes. She found her bag of holding. There was a skittering sound from outside the window.
“Er…ask Lyonette. But ask Erin if you want a deal. I’m sure she’d give it to you cheap.”
“Yeah. Yeah…I might like living here. Y’know, if Erin has room. I’d help out! Kick Rock Crabs and stuff. But it’d be nice. You could swing a spear around in here.”
Ryoka glanced around. Relc frowned. Instantly, he began to panic.
“…Where’s my spear?”
“I think your daughter has it.”
“Oh. Right. Right.”
The Drake relaxed. Normally, he wasn’t out of reach of his spear at any time. He thought about his other new Skill. Should he…?
Nah. It’d probably try to come to him if he wasn’t out of range. And you didn’t want to get in between a recalling spear and the target. He lay back. Then sat up.
“I should go. Really cool and all—”
Ryoka glanced at him. The Drake stared around vaguely for his clothes. But propriety demanded he soon exit. To his surprise—Ryoka hadn’t suggested it already.
“Cool, cool. I uh—can jump out the window—”
“Or walk down the steps. Do you often do this?”
The Drake had run the gamut from every kind of morning after. Good, bad—this was already shaping up to be a good one. Bad ones were where the angry lover hit you in the middle of your sleep.
The two looked at each other. Ryoka—who had thought this was all a great idea yesterday—was mostly perturbed by her brain. What did you say? She was out of practice—and she actually knew Relc. She was clearing her throat—when the skittering grew louder.
Both heads turned. Ryoka heard something like a squirrel—but the fattest squirrel in the world—creeping around the window outside her room. Then she heard a sniff. A growl.
Premonition was a terrible thing. Because it only told you what was going to happen, not how to stop it. Ryoka cursed. She turned to Relc.
Like the furry face of wrath, a little Gnoll’s head popped into the window from the outside.
Relc fell out of bed as Mrsha stared through the window. Her eyes locked on Ryoka’s, accusingly. The City Runner winced.
She raised her finger warningly. The Gnoll was not happy. Thunderclouds practically filled her face as she looked at Relc and Ryoka, who she both loved. Both of whom had done bad things. Like Pawn and Lyonette! Was that all adults did?
“Mrsha, listen to me—”
Too late. The Gnoll stuck out her tongue. Then—she disappeared.
“Oh, good. That was Mrsha. I thought it was a monster for a second. Good thing I didn’t have my spear.”
Relc looked around. He was relaxed—unashamed—which Ryoka wasn’t! Ashamed, that was! But he didn’t seem to register the gravity of Mrsha’s wrath.
Ryoka eyed the empty window. She had another premonition.
“I think we should split.”
“Aha! I was ready for that. Give me one second to find my belt…”
“No, it’s just that Mrsha gets mad. I think—she might—”
A sound came from Ryoka’s left. She whirled.
“—and I was just like—y’know, deciding what we could put in the garden. I mean, we can put living things in here. We have fish. So—what about crabs?”
“Crabs live in the sea, Erin.”
“I know. But can we make a saltwater pond? Huh? Huh? Krshia says they’ll make a huge pool in the city. So how deep does the [Garden of Sanctuary] run? Hey, Lyonette. Hand me a shovel.”
“Erin, you can’t dig…”
Lyonette du Marquin paused as she reached for a shovel to hand Erin. The [Innkeeper] paused.
She was standing in her garden. Next to Lyonette, in the early morning. She was marking out a possible spot for creating a saltwater pond—a terrible idea because it would leech salt into the soil. Ryoka could have told her that.
In fact, she could. Because the magic door to the inn was connected to her room. Someone—and that little someone was a white Gnoll sitting with arms folded and a vicious smile behind Lyonette—had opened the doorway into Ryoka’s room.
“Hey, Ryoka. Do you know where my belt is—oh.”
Relc paused as he swung around. Erin’s features, which had been one of shock—locked onto his body. Relc was almost nude, but for his underpants. Which was a good thing. But the [Innkeeper], however oblivious, couldn’t deny this. She stared at Ryoka. Ryoka stared at Mrsha.
Lyonette stared up, her cheeks red. Mrsha stuck her tongue out.
“Ryoka? Relc? Why are you two—what is—oh my—what is happening?”
Erin’s scream ran through the entire inn. It almost made the person outside Ryoka’s door hesitate. But she pushed open the door anyways.
“Dad? I brought your spear back. We didn’t get Bearclaw, but we found Soot. Are you here? The little Gnoll—Mrsha—pointed me to—”
Ryoka swung around. Wing Commander Embria stared at Ryoka. She nearly dropped Relc’s spear. The Drake cursed. Both of them looked around—Mrsha was racing off. Ryoka stared as she recalled—now, more clearly than ever—that Relc was a father. Embria looked at Relc. Erin’s eyes bulged.
In that moment—there was a lot of accusation in the air. A lot of shock. Judgment. Ryoka looked over and met Lyonette’s eyes. The [Princess] was trying not to smile as she gave Ryoka a covert nod.
But Erin was shocked. Even outraged. And that went double for Embria. Relc was embarrassed, looking around for pants that were missing when needed most.
“Hey. Uh—I told you I should have gone out the window. Stuff like this happens all the time.”
The City Runner looked at him. And then she looked around. At the judgment. Shock, turning to outrage. She thought of the ways she might react. Run away, deny…
Instead, she started laughing. The young Human woman clutched at her bare stomach as she chuckled. And then just laughed. For surely Ivolethe would have been laughing too. The others started as Ryoka laughed. And Relc laughed too. They leaned on each other, laughing, as the shouting started. Let someone else be angry or ashamed.
But it looked like it was going to be an interesting day.
Honestly, it made sense with Mrsha. She regarded Lyonette as her mother. And it was rightfully earned, by love. Ryoka—their relationship was different. But Ryoka was a guardian, if a faulty one.
Her jealousy and sense of betrayal made sense, even if it was a bit childish. Embria—well—Relc had watched her stalk off in a huff. But she was an adult.
What didn’t make sense was Erin. Later, Ryoka sat a table across from the [Innkeeper]. And of all the people with a stake in this, she seemed to be the most…indignant.
“I can’t believe it.”
“Hey, what can I say? No one can resist the Relc—”
Ryoka and Erin looked at the Drake. He hesitated, and then shuffled off to another table.
“I’m gonna sit here.”
The [Innkeeper] stared at him, and then at Ryoka, bug-eyed.
The City Runner did not blush. She met Erin’s eyes. A bit uncomfortably.
“…Unless you think we’ve done this multiple times, yes.”
“No! Erin, why is it a big deal?”
The young woman just kept staring. It was starting to weird Ryoka out.
“You. And Relc. You two…”
Slept together. Erin mouthed the words. She didn’t even say it outright, as if it was a curse. Ryoka Griffin did blush then. Mainly because Erin was making it weird.
“Yes! Alright! It was one time. What is the problem?”
“Everything! How? Why? When—no, wait. Don’t answer…Ryoka!”
Ryoka grabbed at her hair. She had indeed slept with Relc Grasstongue, the burly Drake whistling and ignoring Mrsha, who was punching one leg. His scars were still fresh. And he looked—well, down and up.
Down from the bad hand he’d been dealt yesterday. An ambush, finding out The Golden Triangle was a big scam—and up for one reason alone.
Ryoka had helped with that. Sex, in other words. Bumping uglies, uh…she ran out of metaphors, but there were a lot. Had it been sudden? Yes. Was it a mistake? Well, now…a day later she was overthinking it—and Erin wasn’t helping.
“I just—it was spur-of-the-moment, okay? I felt bad for him—”
“So it was pity you-know-what?”
The Drake [Guardsman] drooped. But not by much. Ryoka shook her head at once.
“No! I mean, a bit of it was but—look, Erin! Have you looked at Relc? He’s pretty built!”
Erin blushed. She stared at Relc, who was preening since he was listening in. Ryoka turned red herself. She looked at Erin.
Yes, it had happened. She hadn’t been expecting to make a big thing out of it, but here they were. Ryoka sat back, feeling at her ears. She was sure her entire face was hot. She took a few breaths as Mrsha began to attack Relc’s tail. She grappled it—and he lifted her off the tail.
Strong muscles. Ryoka knew that. She turned to Erin, and saw the [Innkeeper] was no less embarrassed.
“What’s wrong with…something casual? I mean, I had this same conversation Erin, with F—well, that’s different. This?”
They didn’t know each other as well. That was what Erin objected to, but it was why it had happened, in Ryoka’s opinion. She had felt good about it, actually. It had been…good.
At this point Relc unhelpfully leaned over. Or—helpfully.
“Yeah. It’s just s—”
Erin slapped a hand over his mouth. But really—Mrsha was the only other person privy to this conversation. And the Gnoll knew full well the occurrence. She gave Ryoka a betrayed look. Ryoka tried to beckon her over—Mrsha just walked off in a huff.
The [Innkeeper] repeated. She didn’t seem to get it. Ryoka looked at her.
“Erin, do I have to have a reason beyond ‘I want to’? It wasn’t a bad thing. Relc’s not complaining.”
She looked at the Drake. He smiled.
“I mean, no one complains afterwards!”
He puffed out his chest, hesitated.
“…Most of the time. Uh—it was good. Yeah.”
He gave Ryoka an awkward grin. She colored as Erin’s jaw dropped. But Ryoka was past the days of never seeing the person she spent a night with. She half-smiled and replied.
“You’re not half-bad yourself.”
The two started laughing. Erin looked at them, aghast. Perhaps it was because they were both friends of hers. Ryoka turned to Erin. She lowered her voice as Mrsha came back with a pot and slapped it down on Relc’s tail. He yelped and got up to chase her.
“Why wouldn’t you like him? Is he that bad?”
She didn’t know Relc much—well, she knew more after a night in his company, and that included the morning thereafter. Erin hesitated. She looked at Relc, who had scooped Mrsha and was tickling her as she punched and giggled silently.
“…No. He’s a good guy. But I just can’t see myself…”
“Huh. Not ever?”
Ryoka blinked. There were a lot of people whom she’d never see anything with. But not even imagining it? Maybe Erin just didn’t…like…non-Humans. An odd thought, but they had never discussed this. Erin squirmed uncomfortably.
“Not like that. I just don’t—I mean, look, Ryoka. I’m not judging…it’s just not for me.”
Oh, how the lie emerged in that one. Ryoka gave Erin a steady look.
“That’s fine too. But as long as no one hurts each other’s feelings, or there’s no…pregnancy or STI’s or stuff, that’s fine, right?”
She was making a point. Erin hesitated and bit her lip. She was wrestling with the news.
Ryoka Griffin peered at her. Was Erin Solstice, Erin who welcomed Goblins into her inn and Antinium, uncomfortable with sex? Was this like drugs? It was so…odd for someone like her. And yet, it also made sense. Erin was against a lot of things. She hadn’t handled Relc’s being part of the Golden Triangle well yesterday. Maybe…
Something was wrong. Erin looked so unhappy about it. Ryoka wanted to ask why. She stared at Erin closely until the [Innkeeper] looked away, turning red.
“Sorry. I shouldn’t judge.”
“…Nah. I get it.”
The City Runner replied softly. Erin looked at her.
“If it was just this—thing. Because Relc was upset…I mean, one time and all…”
“Erin. I don’t do pity-sex. I liked Relc. Look at him.”
He was an ugly Drake. Or so people said. Something about the tail? And face? Ryoka couldn’t tell. What she saw was, well…
She liked musculature. Hawk, Calruz—Ryoka had a type, aside from immortals. And Relc was close to peak physicality as they went. Grimalkin was a few strides over that line. But Relc? She’d seen narcissistic bodybuilders who looked poor compared to him.
Erin squinted at Relc. She shook her head after a few seconds, looking bothered. Ryoka sighed.
“Anyways, it wasn’t the first time I had sex since coming to this world, Erin. More like the third. I think.”
“What? Wait, what?”
Why was she so shocked about this? Ryoka looked as strangely at Erin as the young woman was looking at her. But more of Erin’s history was revealing itself to Ryoka.
Erin was someone who might believe—or have been taught—that sex was only for when you were married. Ryoka winced. Well, that was an opinion in the world. Not hers.
“I guess…it’s all okay. But it was just sudden. That’s all.”
That Ryoka could understand. It had been sudden. But it had taken a long night, and…extraordinary events. She had been the one to find Relc, lying amid the bodies. She’d called for the Watch. And she’d been the one to get him to come to the inn.
Why had it happened? It was more than just a spur-of-the-moment. The moment wasn’t the moment but a long night where she kept Relc company, even when Erin and Embria and the others surrounded him. Talking about…well, running. Shared experiences like how they knew Erin.
He told her about being a [Soldier]. She—she talked about the Goblin Lord because it was personal and he was hurting. And it was intimate. He talked about Embria. Endlessly, really. How he’d tried to raise her, how she ran off and was disappointed in him…
It was odd, talking to a regretful father because Ryoka disliked her parents intensely. But then—her parents didn’t care. Relc cared, but he was clumsy. He’d made mistakes. And that was something she completely understood. And after that?
At one point Relc had successfully struck himself out with six different females of different species with his atrocious pickup lines—and he had sympathy scars! But Ryoka had laughed herself off her seat and then—
Well, they’d worked on her when she’d encouraged him to keep going. Ryoka had felt a strong connection with Relc over doing the right thing, however hard. Rather like her and Lupp, really. But different. Relc laughed a lot more. He was, in his way, rather considerate. Kind.
Kindness was attractive to Ryoka Griffin. She discovered that about herself. She had never realized that.
“Uh—uh—who were the other two?”
At this point Ryoka decided she’d shared enough details. She got up.
“I’ll tell you later. Erin, I have to run soon. Let me just talk to Relc—I think he’s going to need to go to the Watch barracks.”
He had been summoned to discuss the Bearclaw incident. But for now, Relc was swinging Mrsha off of one arm and she was laughing hard enough to have forgiven him.
Maybe not Ryoka. Mrsha turned her head, but Relc gently lifted her up.
“Hey. I’m cool. She’s cool. What’s the problem?”
The little Gnoll considered this. She grudgingly gave Ryoka a nuzzle. Ryoka held Mrsha and then let her wiggle off to the ground and pad off. She and Relc stood there. After a moment, Relc cleared his throat.
“Hey. Just wanted to say thanks. Y’know. For…stuff. And it’s totally cool if it was just this one time. It—helped me out. We don’t need to mention it. We can just wave at each other or something…”
That was the funny thing. Ryoka looked at Relc. He did think about these things. Even if he had little tact. She nodded at him.
“You’re not a bad guy, Relc. Why don’t you wait to see me again and we’ll catch up? No promises.”
He looked at her. From the way his jaw dropped, she was fairly certain that wasn’t an offer he got very much. He hesitated, and then blustered.
“Hey, sure…open minded. That’s me! That’s Relc-style.”
She gave him a look. He dropped the bluster and looked embarrassed. Ryoka couldn’t help it. She laughed and Relc started laughing too. The secret of Relc was that he didn’t take himself that seriously.
The secret was that he was deeper than what you took him for. Like everyone else.
“I don’t regret it. Just so you know. And it was my decision, bad lines and all.”
Ryoka punched Relc in the shoulder. The Drake grinned.
“Hey, you know, once you use the best lines on the ladies, they can’t resist—”
He caught her expression.
“It’s alright. We’re adults. And this—is fine. We don’t need to defend it.”
Ryoka said it half for Erin, who turned red at the unspoken reprimand in the City Runner’s voice. And half for Mrsha. The little Gnoll probably should be scolded for her prank. She sat under a table, ready for one.
But the City Runner just scooped her up in a hug. She swung Mrsha back and forth.
“You little prankster. Don’t do it to anyone else, got it?”
She meant Pawn and Lyonette. Mrsha hesitated. Ryoka hugged her.
“It’s not a bad thing. It just means two people—like each other, Mrsha. I’d never stop loving you. You understand? I might be a bad person. But I’m not that bad.”
The little Gnoll looked up. And then she hugged Ryoka, fiercely. She sniffed. Perhaps more of her prank had been part of her emotions.
“Hey. It’s totally cool. You can hit me. I’m an idiot, Mrsha. Go ahead. Punch me. I can take it!”
Relc was alarmed by Mrsha’s sudden grief. He came over. Mrsha punched at him, weakly. But that wasn’t it.
“It’s not you, Relc. I…just have to go. I should have stayed with Mrsha. She knows I have to leave today.”
Ryoka felt guilty, now. She had focused on Relc, gone after him because she knew how he must have been feeling. But Mrsha clung to Ryoka.
“Does it have to be today?”
Erin spoke up. She looked a bit ashamed as well. Ryoka was glad—she hadn’t flared up at Erin. Not today. She met the [Innkeeper]’s eyes.
“I’m sure. I have to, Erin. There’s so much to do. I have to beg an audience with Magnolia—well, T—Eldavin is going to do that. But I need to find more. Two more, at least.”
“To bring back Ivolethe.”
“To meet her again.”
The young woman nodded. Erin hesitated. Bit her lip.
“But it’s just once. Why is it…?”
So important? Ryoka knew Erin had questions. Doubts. Of course she did. To meet Ivolethe one more time, Ryoka had to do the impossible. Create a party to summon the fae, invite three grand nobles of Izril.
Why was it worth it just to see her friend again? Perhaps—because she and Ivolethe were friends. Ryoka couldn’t explain it better any other way. She had so few friends. Erin, Ivolethe, Fierre, Lupp—maybe Alber, Relc, Ceria, Calruz and a few others counted.
But so few in this world. For any one of them, Ryoka would run through the Bloodfields in the summer. To save their lives? She’d risk her life. Ivolethe had died for her. Ryoka wanted to see her again. Not just because she missed her friend.
Ivolethe could teach her how to master the wind.
“I have to go, Mrsha. I do. And I’m not going alone. The Horns are going to pick up their gear, and then we’re going to head north. Together. For a bit.”
She’d run as soon as they left Invrisil. The Horns were too slow. But Mrsha didn’t have to know that. She hugged Ryoka tight.
“Griffon Hunt too. We’ll be on the road for an hour or two.”
The City Runner gently cradled Mrsha as she heard a snuffle. Erin looked misty-eyed too.
“I know they just got back. But—but—can’t you stay forever? I’ll feed you until you get fat and old. You can even sleep with Relc.”
“Hey! Am I negative or positive, here?”
Relc pretended indignance. But Erin was just as upset as Mrsha. Like before, they were leaving. The adventuring teams had come back for a few glorious days. But they couldn’t stay here.
“I’m sorry. I’ll be back. Now I know the door is in Invrisil—I’ll visit. Even if I have to take a carriage to visit. Reizmelt isn’t that far. It’s not like I’m at First Landing. And I’m a Runner. We go everywhere, Mrsha. You’ll be brave for me, right? I’ll come back. I swear.”
Ryoka knelt down. Mrsha nodded. Her face was streaming with snot and tears. Ryoka wiped at her face.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t say goodbye. I was just afraid you’d be sad. But I’m a bad person, aren’t I?”
A desperate shake of the head. Again, they hugged. Relc cleared his throat. Ryoka looked up at him.
“For what? I meant what I said. I’ll see you again, Relc Grasstongue.”
He smiled. And looked just a bit pleased about that. Ryoka Griffin took a deep breath, as people began to come down the stairs.
Grumpy Halrac, Revi, asking what Erin had been shouting about so early. Tousle-haired Ceria, yawning as she leaned on Ksmvr. Yvlon, properly attired and dragging Pisces down the stairs. Typhenous, Briganda bouncing Cade who waved at Mrsha. Ryoka Griffin looked up as she lifted Mrsha in her arms.
And she said goodbye. Just for a little while.
She thought of him more thereafter. Fixated on him, really. She had liked him. Really. An embrace—she yearned for it.
And it scared her to pieces. But she had experience in sex, relationships both carnal and otherwise. To judge from Erin’s shock—the [Innkeeper] had not.
In a way, it fit Erin’s personality. She liked everyone. Loved? Ryoka could see Erin ‘loving’ Relc, just like she loved Bird and Mrsha and everyone else. But love, with that painful emotion that tore bits out of you and made you insensible and…Erin?
No, that was harder to picture.
When Ryoka Griffin fell in love with someone, even for a night, she overthought things. Were they a good fit? What would they look like older? Could the relationship last? What about kids?
She had those thoughts. Her brain ran ahead of any relationship. Confuscated the issue. That was why hookups with people she didn’t know were so much preferable to her.
It was just strange to Ryoka that Erin was so…withdrawn. Prudish. Maybe it was the way she was raised. But it was—had been—2016. Or 2017, now, Ryoka supposed.
Sex was something everyone had. Except the Antinium. Except people who didn’t.
Ryoka fell in love—or attraction, at the very least. If she had not admired the Drake—felt for him—nothing would have happened.
Erin now—Ryoka was almost certain she had not seen Erin in love. The [Innkeeper] was surprisingly close with her inner feelings. You thought she was an open book. But few people had seen Erin in the height of a genuine emotion.
Rage. Hatred. Sorrow—Ryoka had seen Erin angry, once. She had an intensity about her. What did Erin in love, real love and attraction look like?
The City Runner almost wanted to know. But she was on the road. She stepped through to Invrisil. And she left The Wandering Inn behind.
Two Gold-rank teams joined her. The Horns of Hammerad waved until the sad Gnoll was gone. Ryoka was afraid to turn around after her goodbye or she’d start crying. Griffon Hunt was more stoic.
“Hedault has our gold and the artifacts he promised. We need to pick them up. Meet at the northern gates in…forty minutes? We’ll ride together until we split.”
Halrac looked at Ceria and Ryoka. The City runner nodded.
“I have to check with the Runner’s Guild. I doubt I’ll get a delivery—but don’t wait on me if I do.”
“We’ll go too. I mean—we’re picking up our stuff from Hedault. We’ll wait for you, Ryoka.”
Ceria sniffed and wiped at her eyes. They split up.
It had been a quick goodbye. But no less emotional. Mrsha tugged at Pisces’ robes, as if asking to just keep him. Erin had burst into tears—and only the fact that they’d already done these goodbyes had kept them from being overdrawn.
Actually—there had been one funny moment. Jelaqua had cried almost as much as Erin and Mrsha—but the Selphid was emotional like that. Green tears had leaked from eyes as, for some reason, she singled Ceria out.
“Congratulations. Is it serious?”
“We’re pretty serious, yeah. I mean—we’re giving it a shot. I’ll let you know how it goes.”
The half-Elven [Cryomancer] was astonished to see Jelaqua burst into more tears. The Selphid hiccupped and turned to her team.
“Oh dead gods. They grow up so fast. This is huge. I—I—are you sure? You just met, but if you know, you know, I guess. Maughin and I were like that.”
She looked at Seborn. The Drowned Man just looked at Ceria.
“Thanks? We won’t be gone long.”
“I hope not. We will take care of your loved ones for you.”
Moore promised Ceria solemnly. Ulinde shyly offered her hand.
“Congratulations, Miss Ceria. I—I’m sorry for before. Best of luck.”
“You’re really going to do it?”
The half-Elf nodded slowly. Griffon Hunt were going on a request to Riverfarm, wherever that was. But somehow Montressa and Beza—and the Halfseekers—must have heard about the Horn’s plans. They were headed north. To take on more requests—but also to try to find an artifact for Selys.
“I mean…we discussed it. Everyone. And we think it’s for the best.”
“Dead gods. That changes everything. I—um—invite us when it’s time.”
Bezale gave Ceria an odd, awkward look. The half-Elf put it down to the way they’d been at odds recently. She smiled.
“I will. We’ll come back too.”
Jelaqua came over, all weepy. She insisted on hugging Ceria again.
“Let us know. And good luck on your adventures! You have something to come back for now, don’t you?”
“I always did.”
“Oh dead gods! It must be true!”
The Selphid had given Ceria an astonished look. She turned away as the goodbyes were said.
“I can’t believe it. But I guess the rumors are true. Hey—hey Relc! Have you heard…?”
That had been…weird. Ryoka suspected something had been off. But she hadn’t asked. The Wandering Inn would continue. And…
She would come back again. Ryoka had promised Mrsha. To seal that promise—she had left something behind. Her inspiration. The reason for leaving.
The little statue of Ivolethe wasn’t much compared to Mrsha’s birthday presents. But it was valuable. The Gnoll had put it under her pillow. Ryoka would come back for it.
She would come back. The City Runner inhaled as the Gold-rank teams saw the door to The Wandering Inn close. Ryoka nodded to the others.
“Forty minutes. I’ll be there.”
She jogged off. It hurt, leaving the inn behind. But Ryoka had to move. She’d come back when she had more time, after the Summer Solstice.
There had been one more interesting event. As Ryoka jogged through the city, making for the Runner’s Guild, she reflected on another person she’d left behind. Whom she wished she had more time for.
The City Runner’s eyes widened as she broke off from hugging Erin. She looked at the Stitch-girl.
She embraced the [Alchemist]. They hadn’t had much time to talk. In fact, among all the drama, Octavia had been shoved to the back. And—Ryoka was about to leave in ten minutes.
The [Alchemist] looked at Ryoka.
“I did it. I made the penicillin, Ryoka.”
“You did? Holy—”
Ryoka was stunned. Unfortunately—she had no idea what to do with that information. She’d settled for putting her hands on Octavia’s shoulders.
“Sell it. Give it to [Healers]. It can help with bacterial infections. It’s yours, Octavia. It must have been hard. So it’s yours. Just—just do me a favor? Don’t tell anyone how you discovered it. Call it something else. And make it as cheap as possible, please? It will save lives.”
“I will. Oh, dead gods. I wish I’d talked to you earlier, Ryoka.”
The City Runner had been ashamed for missing Octavia, but the [Alchemist] had been just as embarrassed.
“I wanted to say—thank you for helping me. I wasn’t grateful. And you helped me out more than I can say.”
“Me too. I mean—I was a terrible person. I probably still am.”
Octavia gave her a watery smile.
“That makes two of us. Here—please, take this.”
And she’d pushed all of her new potions she’d learned from Saliss into Ryoka’s arms, refusing to take money for it, much to Ryoka’s astonishment. Octavia had changed.
So had she. Ryoka Griffin reached the Runner’s Guild of Invrisil. It was a bustling place. Four times as big as Reizmelt’s Guild.
Inside, the place was hopping with Runners going to the multiple stations for [Receptionists], turning in local deliveries, larger ones—there was even a damn horse standing next to a remarkably short man.
A Courier. Ryoka vaguely recognized him. The Moonlight Rider. Well—Invrisil’s Runner’s Guild was one of the biggest on the continent.
So Ryoka squared her shoulders and approached the counter.
“Station and purpose?”
The [Receptionist] was brisk, efficient. Nothing like a smaller city’s [Receptionist] who would happily gossip, ask your name and so on first. Ryoka Griffin spoke.
“City Runner. Looking for high-risk or reserved deliveries for [Lords], or [Ladies]. Danger’s no problem. Any of the Five Houses is preferred, thank you.”
The [Receptionist] glanced up with a frown. She did a double-take, noting Ryoka’s features, as well as the extraordinary nature of the request.
“There are a few requests for City Runners of that nature. But they’re hotly contested, Miss…?”
“Griffin. Ryoka Griffin.”
The [Receptionist] flipped through a small three-ring binder of the latest requests.
“Well, we get all sorts of requests. I can find…eight for you, Miss Griffin. Two Courier-rank in danger…”
“I’d like to look at them all, if I may?”
Ryoka’s heart was pounding. She knew it was a risk. But she had to take big risks to meet with a [Lord] or [Lady] who could satisfy the fae. Laken alone wasn’t enough, as Teriarch had pointed out. Even if Magnolia agreed—that left two. Erin had promised to help, but even her luck didn’t mean a member of the Five Families would just up and visit her inn, surely.
“Hm. Even so, Miss…Griffin…we do not offer dangerous requests to unproven City Runners. We lose enough as it is. I’m afraid you’d have to file your name for the requestees to look into, and they seldom—oh. Ryoka Griffin?”
She looked up, and her disinterested expression turned into one of study. Ryoka felt her stomach lurch.
“Erm. Yes. That’s right.”
“The City Runner who survived the Bloodfeast Raiders?”
The young woman’s heart fell in her chest. She bowed her head.
“…Yes. That’s right. I’m sorry—”
“For what? That changes things. Let’s see. Miss Ryoka Griffin, the Wind Runner of Reizmelt. Yes…that changes a lot. Your name is on record.”
Ryoka glanced up. The [Receptionist] actually smiled at her.
“Alime, the [Receptionist] of Reizmelt’s Guild? She’s put a number of comments on your file to—compensate for the other notes, it seems. You have a history, however short you’ve been running, Miss Griffin. I think I can authorize you to apply for some of these requests. I have to run it by the Guildmaster, but I think he will accept. Will you give me one second?”
“Oh. Yes! Thank you!”
Ryoka stood straighter. The [Receptionist] gave a nod and left her station, walking into the Guildmaster’s office. Ryoka stood at the counter, noting the eyes on her from the other Runners waiting in line—or now hopping to other lines as it became clear Ryoka was going to take a while.
“Ryoka Griffin. Well, well. We’ve all heard your name around here.”
An accented voice drawled behind Ryoka. The City Runner felt her shoulders begin to hunch. But—she was still new to Invrisil, having only visited once before. She turned around, slowly.
A lot of Runners, both Street and City, were looking at her. But the young man directly behind Ryoka was the most direct about it. He eyed Ryoka up and down, one eyebrow raised, and nodded.
“We’ve heard about you. Nothing but trouble. You once caused an avalanche in a guild, you steal other Runner’s contracts, and you’re a violent, slattern of a foreigner.”
Each accusation put Ryoka’s shoulders up more and more. That sounded a lot like—
Persua. And if there was a name for the pustulent mole on the ass-crack of the Devil himself, it was Persua. Ryoka had heard Persua was being considered for Courier status and had gone north from Fals. She hadn’t realized that would mean trouble for her.
The young man regarded Ryoka. He was shorter, but looked tough. A crossbow and rapier hung from either side and Ryoka felt her internal warning bells go off. But before she could deny the allegations or do anything—the new City Runner held out his hand.
“I’m delighted to meet you. You must be an upstanding citizen if that’s all I hear. Delanay d’Artien.”
Ryoka blinked at the gloved hand extended towards her. She took it automatically, and felt a firm handshake. Then she took in the City Runner, Delanay, again.
He was, possibly, among the most stylish of dressers that Ryoka Griffin had ever met. And she had met many people.
He wore, from top to bottom, a long, rakish hat that would have fit any debonair [Duelist] in an action movie, bright red like blood, adorned with a sigil of a…crossbow and an oversized arrow? In silver. It was buckled around the brim, rather like a pilgrim’s hat, but meant for style, not utility.
Below his hat lay a silvery scarf, the most vibrant thing on him, wrapped around his neck. It glistened in a way that even silk would not; the fabric looked metallic. The young man had on a modernistic, long-flowing trench coat that reached down his body. Red again, over a white button-up shirt that was only changed by the same sigil—again, drawn in silver, not gold.
The jacket, incidentally, was outfitted with a number of compartments, both visible and concealed, and was thus practical and stylish. And stiff; it was dyed leather, not anything else. It looked old, but it was meticulously well-kept.
His pants were of course, loose, for he was a Runner, but even here, he wore red, darker, but noticeably thick as well for all they moved freely. Some composite fabric that gave him closed shoes, the four rings he wore, the amulet like a dagger around his neck, the spectacles on his nose—a look.
Vampire hunter. He could have stepped out of the same cloth the [Hunters] from Terandria had been cut with. His insignia was a cross and stake. And even his hair had silver strands crossing his duller, brown hair.
“At your service.”
The young man swept his hat off his head and gave her a courtly bow. Ryoka, taken, bowed back, or tried to.
“Delanay, again. House Artien. I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Ryoka Griffin. I’ve heard you’d sleep with a horde of Goblins and kick little babies for fun. But since I heard it from the most objectionable rat-girl I’ve ever met, I have to conclude the opposite.”
That little speech was meant for everyone listening. There was a susurration around the room, and Ryoka smiled despite herself. Here was someone who gave no fucks whatsoever and she liked him, instantly.
“Thank you, Delanay. I uh—don’t suppose this ‘rat girl’ has a name?”
The young man grimaced. He adjusted the silver scarf—oh he was definitely a Vampire hunter—and glanced about the Guild as he spoke.
“You might know her as Persua—”
He broke off as Ryoka groaned.
“Persua. Wait, is she here…?”
“Not today. Or I wouldn’t be here. I take it you’ve run afoul of her? She’s wormed her way into the Guild by, as I would put it, sleeping with every Goblin or Runner she could.”
The young man raised his voice and received glares. He didn’t seem to care. He smiled at Ryoka and tipped his hat again.
“Myself, I’m a common City Runner despite my nobility. And both my common side and noble upbringing told me not to associate with that kind of scum. I’ve been waiting to meet you, Wind Runner.”
“Ryoka, please. And Persua and I are enemies. Or rather—when I think of her, I wish she was dead.”
Ryoka’s earnest comment made Delanay laugh. They stood in front of the counter, talking.
“I hear you work around Reizmelt. Myself, I’m mostly around Invrisil. I heard you asking about dangerous request because I was listening in. Are you in a bad spot?”
“The other way around. Trying to get to the top.”
The young man gave a knowing nod. He had to be hot in all his layers, in the summer, but he gave no sign of it. He tipped his hat as he eyed the Guildmaster’s office.
“Well, I can respect that. Us City Runners need to work hard to get to the same rank as that lot.”
He jerked his head at the Moonlight Rider and his horse, who was inspecting the requests he offered her and rejecting them. Ryoka eyed the duo as well.
“You’re a City Runner?”
“Not fast enough to be a Courier, for all my noble house. I’m not low-ranked, if that’s what you mean. Excuse me, I should introduce myself fully. I am of the Artien family. A minor house as nobility goes. Out of date, out of style.”
He gestured to his clothing and insignia.
“We’re descended from Noelictus, the Kingdom of Shade. Our family’s oh, nine thousand years old? Young. We traveled to Izril a long time ago, practically at our founding. But that’s old news. We’re just relics, tarnishing in the modern era. Like the Byres house, actually.”
“Oh—do you know House Byres? I’m actually…friends…with one of their descendants.”
“And here I go, running my mouth. We’re actually very close with House Byres.”
“Oh really? What a coincidence.”
Of course. Ryoka stared at Delanay’s dress. Crossbow. Rapier—a [Vampire Hunter]’s garb. She shouldn’t be talking to him. She was very conscious of the panacea meant for Fierre. But Delanay was friendly. And—dismissive of his roots.
“It’s old hat. We’re both anti-monster noble families, but the monsters we hunt are long-dead. So we’re poor, but honorable. Myself? I just like how we dress.”
He winked at Ryoka. She grinned at him.
“There is that. Well, thank you for not listening to Persua. I hate her.”
“Oh, dead gods. Thank you for saying that. She’s endeared herself to half the Runners here with her sob stories of how Celum mistreated her and whoring herself out to everyone else. I’m sick of it.”
Delanay did not mince words. Something about him struck Ryoka as being too judgmental. The kind of fellow who would judge you for a smudge on your clothing as a personal sin. But before they could talk longer, the [Receptionist] was back.
“Miss Griffin? We can approve you to meet with some of the requestees for Courier-level assignments. They will choose whether to disclose the request, but you are allowed their information.”
Ryoka turned to the [Receptionist].
“I am? Thank you. Can I see…?”
The woman had a list ready. Ryoka ran her eyes down the list. She recognized only a few names. But some were in Invrisil. Ryoka asked for a copy and the [Receptionist] provided it.
It was up to Ryoka to approach the clients to be allowed the right to deliver the dangerous packages. She wasn’t a Courier, so they risked losing their cargo. She risked losing her life, so fair was fair. Ryoka had only twenty minutes left, though. But some of the nobles—while not of the Five Families—were important.
“Thank you. I’m going to approach them at once.”
The [Receptionist] waved her off. Much to Ryoka’s surprise, Delanay left his place in line. He trotted after her.
“I recognized some of the names on that list because I was reading it. Strikes me that you might be able to meet with two of them if I accompany you.”
He informed Ryoka as they left the Runner’s Guild. The City Runner did a double-take.
“You will? I mean—if you can get me an introduction, thank you. But why?”
She wasn’t a complete fool. Delanay smiled.
“Aside from wanting an ally? I consider helping Persua’s enemies a reward unto itself. And lastly—I hope you’ll do me a favor as well. That’s how we work, right?”
Ryoka conceded this. Delanay could have other motives, but she’d take anything she could. Hell—she’d invite Yvlon’s entire family to the solstice party if she couldn’t get three great nobles. The two trotted through the city.
“Practical. I knew I liked you. Now, the first member of the list, Lady Imarris, is actually in Invrisil. More’s the luck. Let’s ask to meet her. She’ll know my house’s name. And then you can do me a favor when I need it.”
“And the favor is…? Sorry, I know you’re a City Runner. Don’t you have work to do?”
He grinned, and his teeth were very white. Delanay adjusted his scarf.
“Actually, I’m a special type of Runner. I’m an Emergency Runner. I don’t run normal deliveries. I only run when there’s trouble and they need someone who can fight and deliver potions or antidotes. That’s me.”
He gave her a nod.
“You run my kind of job, Miss Ryoka Griffin. And you’re no [Mage]. I’d love to know how you conjure your windstorms.”
“Oh…you’re going to be disappointed.”
“We shall see. Now, do you have a plan or were you going to just stride up to Lady Imarris’ household, assuming you even knew where she was staying?”
Ryoka Griffin grinned as she checked the time. About twenty minutes left. Well…she had told the others to leave without her.
“I have my ways too.”
Lady Ieka Imarris was having a bad day. She stood in her rather large, luxury room rented in one of Invrisil’s best inns. It could have held multiple families and still had space left over.
But it was not her estates. This was not her city. And she had not bought properties here, because the owner of Invrisil was not her friend.
Magnolia Reinhart. Oh, how the name galled. How did the woman manage to be so—so repellently evil and petty and still cling to her power? How did she get away with everything?
How was she so lucky? Ieka fumed as she threw herself into a couch. Not her stuffed rabbit-hide furniture; this one roughed her skin for all it was high-quality.
“Zenna! What’s next on my itinerary, after this waste of a day?”
The [Mage Lady] grumpily called out. A half-Elf [Aide] came forwards, amid Lady Imarris’ bodyguards, her elites. The [Spellarmor Warriors], her escort, guarded her room.
All women. Including Zenna. The half-Elf was old, old enough to have grey hair mixed with auburn. And she looked at Imarris with an exasperation you only got after looking after someone’s every affair for over twenty years.
Lady Ieka Imarris was a practical woman. Ambitious, yes. A member of the Circle of Thorns? Ditto. Interested in lovely members of her own gender? Absolutely—but that was a secret to all. But practical nonetheless.
She—took—good ideas that she saw from her peers and implemented them. Having a ‘specialty’, refusing to innovate—that was how noble houses died. And Ieka Imarris was cutting-edge.
The [Spellarmor Warriors] were a copy of Lady Bethal’s Knights of the Petal. Ieka’s fondness for [Maids] came from Magnolia—and Ressa. And Zenna?
Well, the House of El had half-Elven guides. Why shouldn’t she? Ieka had hired Zenna two decades ago and hadn’t ever had a cause to regret it.
She even had Golems, in the style of Wistram and the Terland family. She’d experimented with taming monsters, but after a few disasters, she’d given up.
The point was that Ieka innovated. Some called her a copycat, and it was true that she didn’t excel—her bodyguards were not as famous as Bethal’s [Knights] for all Ieka tried. But the lady mage had had good success herself.
But she was annoyed today. For one main reason. Part of what Ieka did was…invest in concepts she believed in. All nobles did that, really. But Ieka kept her ear to the ground. Or she kept other people’s ears to the ground and had them report.
She’d heard of the Players of Celum. But Magnolia had been one step ahead of her, as usual. Somehow, she’d secured their loyalty.
The [Manager], Emme, had explained it all apologetically to Ieka. And the [Lady] had endured watching a play that Magnolia would benefit from—she was sponsoring the Players of Celum to expand their production and take it even further north—with ill-grace. The worst part was that the [Actors] were so charming.
That Drake in the dress—well, Drakes were not Ieka’s style. She admired the Human form. But not everything was romance and lust. She wanted the [Actors]. And Magnolia had gotten them first.
Ieka’s bad temper was also a copy of her peers. It wasn’t as infamous as Bethal’s tantrums, or Pryde’s rage. She just got snippy.
“You have yet to visit The Wandering Inn, Lady Imarris. I know you expressed some interest.”
“Before today. Before I learned that Pryde has been bogarting the entire place. She’s probably bought everything of worth. I’m not chasing after Magnolia’s leavings, even if there is a magic door there, Zenna. Next?”
“Erm. That would be it. You have no business in Invrisil. This has been a complete waste of your time, Lady Ieka. I shall remove myself now before you throw a snit.”
Zenna bowed. The half-Elf had a rather direct manner of addressing her [Lady] herself; it had reminded Ieka of Ressa, hence the hiring. The [Lady] glowered at nothing and everything.
After a while, she decided she was going north. Nothing to do here? She might as well weigh in on this Ailendamus drama. They had apparently earned the Lord of the Dance’s wrath in some ill-conceived attack on his forces.
She had things to do. She was important. Ieka stood up.
“Zenna! We are leaving. Prepare the carriage north.”
Again, her carriage wasn’t as fast as Magnolia’s, but it was still enchanted. Zenna appeared in the doorway to the antechambers.
“Pardon, Lady Ieka. But you do have something else to do. It just came up. There is a City Runner hoping to see you…two of them, actually. A Lord Delanay d’Artien offered his name as well. But the City Runner would like to take care of your request for the Couriers.”
Ieka sat up.
“Really? A City Runner?”
She wasn’t that interested. Her request was meant for a Courier because it was dangerous. Covert. But it was always interesting, being sought out. She drummed her fingers on the armrest of the cough.
“This Runner is…?”
Zenna consulted the notes she had.
“A Ryoka Griffin. Wind Runner of Reizmelt is her nickname. Reliable—if you overlook rumors about her. Apparently, commands the winds in some way. Let’s see…she’s run for Lady Bethal, Lady Reinhart…survived a run through the High Passes…”
That was intriguing. Ieka kept a scowl off her face as she heard the other two [Ladies]. That wasn’t the Runner’s fault.
“Did she say anything?”
City Runners sometimes volunteered for dangerous jobs. Ieka had dangerous assignments in spades, and she had heard them try to pitch themselves. The trouble was that hiring a City Runner meant your request was likely to fail, and your valuable cargo likely to be stolen or your plans unraveled.
Nevertheless, you could sometimes take a risk. Ieka waited as Zenna’s lips quirked. The half-Elf looked up.
“Indeed. Aside from Lord d’Artien’s request for an audience, Miss Griffin’s exact words were—‘I hope Lady Imarris will see me. I have successfully run deliveries for no less than Magnolia Reinhart, and survived. With that said, I think Magnolia Reinhart would be gladder if I were dead.’ She is apparently desirous of a reward other than your posted bounty, Lady Ieka.”
The Lady Imarris had been scowling at Magnolia’s name. But that last part made her laugh. And her mood lightened at once. Whether it was true or untrue, Ryoka Griffin had done her homework and delivered the message that Ieka wanted to hear.
“Clever. Well, I am not busy as you said, Zenna. Have the carriages prepped while I entertain this—Ryoka Griffin. Send in young Delanay as well.”
Zenna nodded. She went to the doors. Ieka arranged herself on the couch, waiting. But as Zenna opened the doors—an argument floated into her rooms from the antechamber.
“I would like you to say that again, Miss.”
Delanay d’Artien was quickly revealing himself to be a hothead just as bad as Ryoka in her prime. He had one hand on his rapier as he studied the [Spellarmor Captain], who was guarding Lady Ieka’s rooms. She had made a few comments about Ryoka after hearing that Ryoka had ties to Lady Magnolia.
After all, Ieka’s bodyguards shared their mistress’ opinions. Ryoka had been willing to let being called a ‘lapdog’ slide—but Delanay had not. He leaned forwards as the [Warriors] looked at him with contempt. They had thick, ensorcelled plate armor on. He had stylish dress and a sword. Nevertheless, the City Runner replied to the [Captain] with an edge to his voice.
“If you’re going to insult us, say as much to our faces. I am Delanay d’Artien and if you have the guts, Miss, I’ll answer your every insult. Assuming you’re not content to hide behind your Mistress’ authority?”
“Delanay, drop it. We’re here for an audience.”
Ryoka hissed. The [Captain] looked outraged as she shifted her grip on the mace. Delanay gave Ryoka a glance full of anger.
“No one looses insults in my presence. Well, Miss [Captain]? Or is that mace for show? Let’s not pretend there is a fairer sex if you’re worried of having your features marred. Either you are a [Warrior] and can back up your words or not.”
He strode forwards and prodded the [Captain]. Ryoka covered her face. Was this how Erin had felt around her? She saw the [Captain] purple and was sure they were five seconds from being beaten to a pulp—when the doors opened.
“Lady Imarris will see you now. Lord Delanay, your restraint. Captain Kelda?”
Everyone straightened as a half-Elven woman opened the doors. Ryoka sighed in relief. Delanay turned and bowed, abashed.
“Miss Zenna. A pleasure.”
“Lord Delanay, your tongue hasn’t improved with age. Perhaps another ten years will do. Pray, enter. And mind your manners. Miss Griffin? Lady Imarris awaits.”
The half-Elf gestured. Ryoka took a deep breath. She had asked Fierre about how to approach Ieka. And her informant and friend had provided the easiest summary of Ieka.
Innovative, magical. Strongly dislikes Magnolia Reinhart and her circle. Fond of pretty faces. Try to smile.
“Thank you, Fierre.”
Ryoka would bring her medicine soon. And then…well, who knew? The City Runner squared her shoulders and walked into the room. She needed to make friends. So she’d bow and scrape if need be. But she didn’t need to. Because the first thing Lady Ieka Imarris said upon seeing Ryoka was—
Lady Ieka’s first impression of Ryoka was tall, somewhat Drathian features—darker skin than the natives of Izril. Tall, as tall as she was, or even an inch or two taller. Long, black hair—
Beautiful features. The [Lady] stared as Zenna introduced Delanay and Ryoka.
She was familiar with Delanay—nobles always kept track of each other—Ieka’s attention was on Ryoka. She had bare feet? For some reason, that only made it more scandalously attractive to see her standing on the rich carpets.
“I—I am very intrigued by your request, Miss Ryoka Griffin. And such startling words. Please, approach.”
Lady Ieka produced a fan and gently waved it as Ryoka stepped forwards. The City Runner bowed, made her introductions. Ieka barely listened as Delanay apologized for nearly picking a fight. The Artien family was full of hot-heads.
“…was hoping to take your Courier-level request, Lady Imarris. The one you had reservations about?”
Zenna interjected and Ieka blinked. She blushed, hiding it behind her fan. She had been imagining what Ryoka would look like in a dress. Ieka’s previous favorite maid was…no longer working for her.
But the mention of the job snapped Ieka back to reality. She scrutinized Ryoka.
“The Wind Runner of Reizmelt? Yes…Zenna mentioned you could command the winds. But I’m afraid my request is for a Courier-class, Miss Griffin. I would hate for you to risk your life…unnecessarily. By all means, I shall remember your name. But…”
She looked helplessly at Zenna. Ryoka Griffin took that moment to take a knee. In doing so, she drew closer to the couch.
Ieka’s bodyguards stirred, but Ieka waved them to silence. She covered the lower half of her face as Ryoka looked up at her. The City Runner’s voice was low, urgent.
“Lady Ieka, I do crave a boon. I’m not interested in gold so much as—a favor. There is an event on the Summer Solstice I would crave your attendance at. It is—an odd request, I know. But for this, I would risk my life. I can talk to the winds. I have survived the High Passes three times. Even if I haven’t gone far in. Let me listen to the request—and then decide.”
Imarris blinked at Ryoka. She took her in more fully.
To buy time, she closed the fan and tapped it to her lips. The young woman was earnest. And the favor…intriguing. More than that, she was interesting. Ieka didn’t know, though.
Her request this time was to make contact with…a dangerous person. Not hostile; but dangerous. She had been in seclusion for months and unless roused, might well spend another year or two in her hiding place on her island. But waking an Archmage was dangerous. And Ieka would not wish to see Ryoka’s guts adorning the ground like the last three she’d sent—including one Courier.
Nevertheless—she had a soft spot for brave young women. So Ieka sat back on her couch.
“Tell me more, Miss Griffin. Zenna, do offer them a seat…”
Ryoka Griffin convinced Lady Imarris. It took some doing, but the [Lady] had given Ryoka a shot, despite her reservations. That was all that needed to be said.
Delanay had also been a piece of work. He had saluted Ryoka, promising to call in his little favor if they met again. And they would. City Runners always did.
But Ryoka Griffin ran down the road. Leaving Invrisil behind. She was busy. This was the first request…of many. Waking an Archmage from her seclusion. Well—it had to be easier than a Dragon, right?
“I’m going to have to go further north than ever. Take a damn carriage or something to cut down on travel time. Fierre might know…damn, damn, damn…”
Time was an issue. But even so, Ryoka Griffin slowed as she saw a wagon rolling north. For at least a little while—she could say goodbye to them.
“Ryoka! You didn’t show up, so we started moving.”
“No problem. Sorry I’m late. I had to take a big request.”
“Anything we can help with?”
Ceria pulled Ryoka up into the wagon. Yvlon asked as she took Ryoka’s hand in her silvery grip. Ryoka smiled at the two of them.
Old friends. New friends as well. They had all changed. And it was a funny thing. Some things never changed.
“Oi! Is that Miss Ryoka Griffin? Well, I’ll be darned. It’s old friends all around.”
Termin, the [Wagon Driver], looked up from his seat. Ryoka stared at him.
“I saw you at Reizmelt!”
“Yup. Yup. Well, we get everywhere, don’t we, Erma? Fox?”
The old man patted the two horses trotting ahead of the wagon. Ryoka grinned.
Halrac nodded to her. The city Runner sat there. She looked around.
Both teams were headed away from Invrisil. The Horns—who would go on foot at the crossroads—and Griffon Hunt. Cade was sitting on Briganda’s knee, a new addition to the party. Briganda waved at Ryoka. The City Runner looked around.
“I can’t stay long.”
The words hurt her. But they all knew it. And the adventurers had parted before. They smiled.
“We did not have a chance to speak. But perhaps we shall call on you in our travels north.”
Pisces commented as he shaved bits of cheese off a block to feed to Ksmvr and himself. The Antinium nodded, happily.
“I do not really know you, Miss Ryoka Griffin. But I am told you are a good Runner with an objectionable personality at times. Hello. I am Ksmvr. We have met, though.”
Ceria turned red. Ryoka just laughed again. She sat there, for a moment.
“It’s all true, Ksmvr. But I’m trying to change. Listen—if you need a delivery, or a message delivered—probably go to a Courier or Mage’s Guild first. But if you need me, give me a shout.”
They all laughed at that. Even Halrac. Revi chortled as she sat on the front of the wagon.
“We’re all friends of The Wandering Inn, I guess. Sure. We’ll look you up. It’s going to be boring in Halrac’s old village, anyways.”
Ryoka glanced at her, but she hadn’t heard where Griffon Hunt was headed. Typhenous just stroked his beard.
“We shall remember it, Miss Griffin. And we will meet again.”
That was all they said. The adventurers and City Runner sat in the wagon, sharing an early lunch. Ryoka saw Cade staring up at her. She tried to smile—and Briganda threw an arm around her shoulders.
“We’ve never met! But I’m pleased to meet you! C’mere! Cade likes hugs.”
She was friendly. Also—a bit intoxicated. Briganda apparently drank to cure motion-sickness. It was her logic. And Ryoka settled back, ready to get back to work.
She’d visit the [Seamstress] in Reizmelt. No time here; although she had been tempted to ask Delanay. He seemed like a fellow who would know how to get quality tailoring done.
But…The Wandering Inn had been a peaceful, needed interlude. Magical and wonderful. And she had to leave. The adventurers understood that, too. If Ryoka was fine with being old and fat, she would have stayed there forever. But she needed…to see Ivolethe again.
The knowledge burned in Ryoka’s chest. But that was her goal, not the journey. For now, she just sat. And after a while—her conversation from this morning began to eat at her head. She coughed, and in a lull in the conversation as the Horns asked Griffon Hunt where the best villages to stop were—she spoke causally into the silence.
“So…this might be an odd question. But who here has had uh—carnal relations this year?”
Griffon Hunt had been having a drink of water—Briganda, beer. Halrac sprayed his drink onto Typhenous’ back. Ryoka saw Ceria inhale her packed lunch from Erin and began to choke.
Cade just looked blank. He laughed at the expression on the other’s faces. Ryoka turned beet red.
“Uh—sorry. I just had a conversation with Erin. So it’s been on my mind…”
The others relaxed. Oh, Erin. It all made perfect sense when you just said her name. ‘Hey, does anyone have a wart on their knee? I need to know because—Erin.’ It was the perfect excuse.
“Well—if anyone’s asking…yes. Why?”
Ceria slowly put up her hand. Ryoka hadn’t asked for a census—well—she had, and she saw the other adventurers putting up their hands.
Yvlon did not. Neither did Ksmvr. Halrac folded his arms, which could have meant anything. But everyone else raised a hand. Everyone stared at Typhenous’ raised hand. Ryoka’s eyebrows raised. The old man had game.
“I knew it. I’m not weird, Erin.”
Ryoka muttered to herself, neglecting the fact that she’d just asked both teams about it. And Termin—he’d been waving his hand so as not to be left out. She sighed, leaning back.
“What’s this in aid of, Ryoka? Everyone has sex. Right, Yvlon? Right?”
Ceria nudged Yvlon. The [Armsmistress] folded her arms and glowered.
“Stop that, Ceria. My life is private. What I do or don’t do is my business.”
Halrac nodded, giving Yvlon an approving look. Ryoka just sighed.
“I just didn’t know how much people here—er—well, I was talking with Erin. She—objected—to me doing things.”
“Oh, you mean having sex with Relc?”
Revi spoke as Briganda clapped her hands over her son’s ears. Everyone else in the wagon stared at Ryoka. The City Runner turned red. The [Summoner] on the other hand just rolled her eyes and took one out of her eye sockets to adjust the fit.
“I don’t know why you Humans are so prudish. Sorry, Ceria, Ksmvr. But it’s natural. I have sex at least twelve times a year. Once per month, or I get grumpy. At minimum.”
“Revi! There are children here!”
Halrac growled at her. The Stitch-girl raised her hands.
“Pardon me for being honest, Halrac. Humans get so worked up about it. I get half-Elves. They have sex like, once every decade.”
“Er…half-Elven villages get weird. But it’s natural. Right? Yvlon?”
“Stop nudging me.”
“It is a biological function. One should not judge others based on the need to seek comfort. Erin is…somewhat strict in her views, I gather.”
Pisces coughed, looking a bit embarrassed himself. Ksmvr waved a hand helpfully and everyone looked at him.
“I do not have genitalia for reproduction. So I do not have sex. Thank you.”
He sat back down, his contribution to the conversation over. Typhenous was laughing into his beard.
“It’s private. It doesn’t matter.”
Halrac’s voice sounded like the end of it. Briganda nudged Ryoka, winking.
“Good on you getting the Drakes, though. Don’t mess with the same species, I say. Experiment! Plus—you can get pregnant in the same lane. Not that I don’t love my boy, but I’m careful not to get another!”
She laughed and Cade laughed too, not understanding what was being said. Ryoka bowed her head. After a moment of silence where she regretted her stupid mouth, Ksmvr turned to Ceria.
“Captain Ceria, as perhaps the foremost expert on intercourse in the wagon, can you tell us what marital life is like? Or have you not been married yet?”
For the second time Halrac spat his drink onto Typhenous. Ceria turned beet red.
“What? I’m not married, Ksmvr!”
The Antinium gave her a very blank look.
“You are not? Are you not engaged to—aha. You are engaged to Master Hedault, your fiancé. I apologize; the nuance was lost on me.”
Ksmvr’s team stared at him as the [Skirmisher] sat back, satisfied. Revi’s eyes slowly went round. She sat back as Typhenous, Halrac, and Briganda stared at her.
“What? I—no! Dead gods! I never—he doesn’t even like us, I’m pretty sure! Who gave you that idea?”
Ceria spluttered. The half-Elf was red to her pointed ear tips. Pisces was starting to laugh into his robes and Ceria tried to kick him over the side of the wagon. Ksmvr looked very concerned.
“I heard it being said at some point. Were you not aware of Captain Jelaqua congratulating you on your upcoming nuptials?”
“Oh tree rot. She can’t—how did—Ksmvr?”
The half-Elf turned white. She looked at the [Skirmisher]. Slowly, he shrank into his shell.
“I heard that Master Hedault proposed to Ceria. I have taken the liberty of informing everyone of the engagement.”
Pisces began choking on his snack. Ryoka started laughing. Griffon Hunt slowly looked around at Revi. Briganda coughed into one hand as Cade played with his box on her lap. The others studiously pretended this was news to them.
Ceria Springwalker got up on the wagon.
“Turn this wagon around! Send a [Message]! Tell them—”
But they were gone. And in time, the Horns left the wagon. Teasing the bride-to-be until she started throwing snow at them. The City Runner ran north, as the wagon turned west, heading towards an [Emperor]’s lands.
It was time to go back to work.
After Ryoka left, Mrsha cried for about ten minutes straight. Not for hours or hours; she got tired. But enough.
It was still better than waking up and knowing that Ryoka had left without a word. Mrsha had cried every night because of that. This time—it was only for ten minutes.
She would come back. She had promised Mrsha that. And the proof was hidden under Mrsha’s pillow. So—the little Gnoll wiped her nose on Rose’s pants and felt better.
Rose looked at the snotty Gnoll’s leavings. But Erin Solstice herself was teary. She wiped her eyes and bent down as Lyonette just sighed.
“I miss them too. But you’re being very brave, Mrsha.”
The [Druid] nodded. She was a big, brave girl. Erin Solstice smiled.
“I think we need a treat. What say you we have Ryoka’s special dish?”
Calling it that was a bit of a misnomer. Rather, it was Ryoka’s new dish that she’d insisted on adding to Erin’s list of recipes. Mainly after Erin had presented her with all the fast food she’d imported from Earth and Ryoka had seen the advent of grease and heart attacks and balked.
She lifted Mrsha up and carried her into the kitchen. Erin called out.
“Hey Palt! Can you give me a hand with Ryoka’s bibimbap dish?”
The Centaur looked up. So did a number of people. Erin was very casual about it as she laid out the neatly-chopped veggies; some of the saffron rice that Palt liked to make, and organized it into a bowl.
Well—Palt organized it. Erin wasn’t precise enough. And arrangement mattered.
“But we’re just gonna stir it up anyways. That’s the point.”
The [Innkeeper] complained as she fried some eggs to be put over the top of the bowl. Palt sighed as he heated up the bowls with a spell.
“Erin, presentation is half of the meal. Food is art.”
“Yeah, well, I like chess.”
Erin grumbled. The vegetables needed to be sautéed, and Palt was doing complicated seasoning. She admitted it; she wasn’t a [Chef]. She could cook and derived some pleasure from it, but she didn’t have the patience of Lasica or Palt. Actually, Erin had been doing a lot less cooking of late. Lyonette, Palt, and Garry all took turns helping her out and since they could pre-make a lot of food…
Well, the bowl did look pretty when Palt was done. Colorful—the veggies were on top of the rice. Ryoka had agonized over the ingredients, but this was a versatile dish. You could improvise—and she had.
“Let’s see. Fresh beef. Raw—is that okay? Ryoka said it was okay. There might be parasites, though…”
“Not in my food. And no good [Rancher] will give you infected beef.”
Palt snorted. Erin stared at a bit of paste.
“Hot, fermented peppery paste from my guy. I mean, my Gnoll guy. Um. Add less in my bowl. Thanks. Sliced carrots, bell peppers, spinach…onions…”
That was where the ingredients from Earth ended. Instead of the soy bean sprouts Ryoka wanted, there were a number of tubers. Large suckers you found in caves known as dedem roots. They were chopped up finely. And instead of the zucchini or cucumber, the Centaur had used some plant from the gourd-family that apparently tasted the same. It was blue, with swirls of white in the inside.
The dish was colorful. And of course—most of the vegetables had also been seasoned or prepared. Erin had to admit, it smelled good.
Mrsha was less sanguine about the dish. She sniffed suspiciously at the food as Palt carefully prepared four bowls, and then another four, with leftovers if necessary.
This looked like vegetables. She stared up suspiciously at Erin. The raw beef she approved of, but that was only a snack.
“Ryoka says it’s really good. I think I had it once or twice. Don’t say that, Mrsha. Try it, first.”
The Gnoll was emphatically saying in sign language that for her tears she deserved some meat. Mrsha, grumbling, swiped some raw beef and gobbled it before following Erin out into the common room.
“What is that?”
Jelaqua was still sniffing over Ceria’s upcoming nuptials. But she blinked at the hot, steaming bowls of food. Erin smiled.
“It’s this thing. Bibimbap. Don’t ask me what that means. Ryoka suggested we make it.”
It wasn’t Ryoka’s culture either. The name of the food made all of the inn’s regulars look up. They sensed it. And Kevin, Troy, and Rose all looked up.
“No way. Bibimbap?”
They grew excited. Erin looked at them, and then around for Montressa and Beza. There they were, taking notes. She sighed.
“Mrsha, you sit there. Lyonette? Want some?”
“Of course. Where’s Numbtongue?”
The Hobgoblin appeared at the table and Erin sat down. Palt trotted out, balancing four more bowls. He joined the table.
“I’ll make more. Let’s just see how it tastes…I think I followed the recipe.”
They sat down. Erin explained how to eat it and Mrsha suspiciously eyed the spoons. Palt had two little sticks, claiming that was how you ate Balerosian/Drathian food. The little Gnoll took her spoon, and mixed up the bowl. Indeed, why did you waste time making it all pretty if you mixed it up? She bit at the egg—but Lyonette scolded her.
“Don’t eat it by parts, Mrsha. Mix it up. And take one big bite.”
But it’s just rice and vegetables! There’s barely any meat or egg! The Gnoll whined. But the [Princess] was giving her a stern look.
Mrsha gingerly took a bite of the food. She tasted the crunchy, vibrant taste of the veggies. A hot flash of the peppery paste. The hot rice mixing with egg yolk and a bit of the beef. Her eyes widened. Her tail began to wag.
“See? It’s good, right?”
“I dunno about the raw beef. It’s just a thing from home. Right, Kevin? Kevin?”
Erin complained. But even Palt was chomping down on the food. The others were eating fast. Numbtongue was halfway through his bowl already, but slowing to savor each bite.
“Hey. That looks good. I’ll have one.”
A Drake commented. The others nodded. No one had thrown up and the food smelled good. So that probably meant it was one of the good new things to come from the inn. Another Gnoll hurried out the door.
“Street Runner! Hey! I need a Street Runner!”
He shouted. There was a Gnoll kid in about a minute. The Gnoll gave him a short [Message]. It went to half a dozen [Cooks] in the city.
“Tell them I get the finder’s fee. It’s called bees-in-pots. I don’t think it actually has bees. Lots of vegetables, apparently. Raw beef, too. And an egg!”
The Street Runner raced off. And the cooks of the city abandoned their posts to be the first to steal—er—uncover the secrets of this new dish. After all—what else were you going to do? Let Erin Solstice be the only one to cook it? Nonsense.
The hot food was satisfying. And it made Mrsha happy. She wished she could have eaten it with Ryoka. The City Runner had promised. But then Relc had been attacked and no one had been that hungry. Today though, she licked her bowl until Lyonette scolded her that a ‘lady’ didn’t do that.
Which meant ladies didn’t get the delicious eggy juices and bits of rice on the bottom of their bowl. Horrible. Mrsha was unrepentant. And as orders flooded into the kitchen for the new dish and Erin taught Lyonette and Palt taught Ishkr and Drassi how to prepare the dish—The Wandering Inn was back to normal.
“Hey, you! I know you! You’re one of the [Chefs] who steals my food!”
Erin spotted a Drake wearing a hat and thick clothing trying to hide in a corner of the inn. The Drake jumped to his feet and she chased him with a spatula.
“Out! Out! This is my dish! At least give me one day to make a profit, you jerks!”
She chased away other notable [Cooks] she’d seen before. But Erin knew they’d just get someone else to buy the dish for them. She sighed. But she was smiling.
“Hm. Tastes like Dullahan cooking a bit. They trade with the archipelagos.”
Jelaqua wasn’t blown away by the food—mainly because it was from home. It was nostalgic, not new. She still wanted to share it with Maughin. But Seborn was all over the dish.
“Finally, some good food.”
The Drowned Man grumbled. Moore sighed; he had to wait until there was enough rice and ingredients to make a big bowl for him.
And the day continued. Ryoka Griffin was gone, but Erin Solstice remained. She felt wistful as she paused in throwing bits of dirt at the fleeing [Cooks]. She looked around.
“I guess I’d better help out too.”
Ryoka Griffin had a quest. A big one. Throw the biggest party the world had ever seen—for the fae. She had told Erin about it. Not all the details. Or why that Grand Magus knew so much. Well—he was a [Mage]. But she had asked, begged Erin for help.
The problem was that Erin didn’t know how. She was touched that Ryoka had asked for help for the first time. But how was Erin supposed to find a noble [Lady]? She’d volunteered Lyonette at once, but apparently Terandrian [Princesses] were only frosting on the cake. Ryoka needed the real nobility.
“Does Ilvriss count? Uh…Pryde?”
Erin thought. She didn’t know. But she did know that Ryoka would need money. Cool things for her party. She had a location in mind.
Riverfarm. Apparently someone else from Earth was there…Erin wondered if the door would go that far. Ryoka had said it was still out of range. Either way, though. Erin would be there when Ryoka needed help.
“So that means money. Cool ideas. Like—like pool. Do faeries play pool? Chess?”
Erin wasn’t good at throwing parties. At least—other people’s parties. She was good at her thing. The young woman sat on the hill as a Hobgoblin exited the extra-large outhouse designed for Moore-sized guests. He liked the space.
Numbtongue had been borrowing one of the books that Pawn kept bringing Lyonette. He closed the book as he saw Erin sitting on the grass. The inn was bustling. This was a rare moment.
The Hobgoblin sat down. Erin looked up and smiled.
“Numbtongue, hey, how’s the book going?”
The Rise and Continued Success of the Walled Cities, by Krsysl Wordsmith. The Hobgoblin showed Erin the book. She made a face.
“Oh, that one? Don’t read anything by that Drake. According to…everyone, he’s really biased.”
The Hobgoblin knew that. The Drake kept touting how the Walled Cities had been all over the continent. But where were they now? It was still good reading.
As always, the [Bard] was sparing with words. Was that ironic or indicative of his class? Erin shrugged.
“Just…thinking. I want to help Ryoka. She’s off on an adventure. I feel like I should do something too, y’know?”
She pounded a fist into a palm. Life was good right now. Her rate-of-catastrophes was way down, and that was great. But Ryoka had lit a spark in her.
Numbtongue just shrugged. He hadn’t known Ryoka before this and she had been very leery of him at first. He had warmed to her, but she seemed like a Headscratcher-type. Always wondering over things and fretting. That was partly a compliment. And she knew a Dragon.
But the [Bard] was good at keeping secrets. He sat back and shooed away Reiss as Erin kept talking.
“I just want to do something new. Maybe…maybe I should sell more stuff.”
“I can enchant items. How long will you make me stay here?”
“Shh. Like what?”
Erin Solstice frowned. She lowered her voice since Numbtongue seemed to think that was important.
“I dunno. Maybe…maybe my fire? Saliss and Xif both want it. So maybe it’s useful?”
“Hm. Fire any good?”
Numbtongue stared at Reiss as Erin thought. The Goblin Lord gave him a glare. Numbtongue didn’t want Reiss in his head. Both the ghost and Erin shrugged.
“Well, let’s see. I have angry, invisible fire. Glory fire…and depressing fire. Um. Um. I made one thing out of the depressing fire.”
Numbtongue nodded appreciatively. Free cold air in his rooms. He kept his lantern faced away and fed it with a bit of fuel and it cooled everything down. Erin had even worked up a little system with one of her stoves; she could now freeze water into blocks of ice if she put a bucket in the stove and left it there for an hour.
“Magical fire is good.”
“Yeah. But it makes people sad. I can’t—use that in other stuff, right? Imagine me selling that to adventurers? Get a Depressing Fire Lantern for cheap! Feel bad about killing monsters and the hopelessness of life while you try not to step onto a trap! Also, free cold air!”
The Hobgoblin chuckled. He could think of a few good uses for that lantern. Shine it on an annoying team of Gold-ranks while they were hunting you and they might just curl into a ball and give up. But it wasn’t marketable since Goblins didn’t have much money, he agreed.
“What else? Why magical things?”
Erin was trying to call her happy fire. But that was the hardest fire to conjure because it was so pure. She broke off, looked up.
“Oh. It’s for Ryoka’s middle-of-the-summer party. The Solstice thing, you know? On my birthday. I think. My parents said it was a sign. Since y’know, my last name? But I’m not sure it lines up exactly. There are more months. Time is weird here.”
The year was longer than in her world. Numbtongue nodded. He vaguely wondered if he could find some gold and have Pyrite shape it into something for Erin. Mrsha had been easy.
“So why magical things?”
“Oh, it’s for the fae. Frost faeries? Winter Sprites?”
The Hobgoblin shrugged once more. He saw them now and then—vague balls of lights bringing snow. They never bothered Goblins.
“Yeah. Yeah. They like magical stuff. I could do magical food…but it’s such a pain.”
Numbtongue’s ears perked up. Of course, he knew about the magical food. But Erin had run out of scale soup and her other rather noxious foods and hadn’t made more.
“You mean…invent more magical food? You can do that?”
Erin gave him a distracted nod.
“Yeah, but I haven’t tried making more in a while. Think I should?”
The [Bard] stared at Erin. She looked up.
“You can make…magical food. Like potions. And you do not?”
Numbtongue had to speak slowly to make sure he was getting this. Erin frowned.
“Eh. It’s hard.”
The Human girl hesitated, put off by the intensity in Numbtongue’s voice.
“Well—it takes money. Time. And no one likes eating my stuff. Even me. It’s risky, y’know?”
She could make magical food and her objection was that it was ‘too much of a pain?’ The former Redfang Warrior was offended. Erin hesitated.
“W-well. I was busy. I mean, I always meant to try it again. Don’t look at me like that. I meant to! It’s just—hey, why don’t you help me experiment? Sometime this week? I’m sure I can…”
The Hobgoblin folded his arms. Erin hesitated.
“Um. Tomorrow? I need to get things ready and think about how to be magical…”
He said nothing. The [Innkeeper] wilted.
“You know, I have an empty schedule.”
That was how Numbtongue, Palt, and Erin found themselves outside, bubbling stuff in a pot and debating what constituted ‘magical cooking’. Palt had joined because of course he would. And they were outside because Lyonette had heard the words ‘experiment’ and ‘magic’ from Erin’s mouth and banned them at once.
“I just don’t know how it works. It’s [Wondrous Fare]. I’ve done a few good things—I made this dish for the Winter Sprites once, but it was just intuition. This could be magical. What do you think?”
Erin had altered one of her standing recipes. She had taken the element of heat and tried to infuse it into her cooking.
That meant a milk-and-butter base, to warm you up. Hot peppers, including the paste being sold in her new dishes. The element of heat, to Erin, was also represented in food you ate when you were cold. So she’d put a tiny bit of chocolate in. And now she was tossing other spicy things into the pot, like some tubers.
Palt looked into the pot, already simmering with a half-dozen ingredients. The milk looked like it was curdling. He put a hand over his mouth.
“You—this is your process?”
“Yup. All intuition.”
The Centaur said it as much to Numbtongue as Erin. The Hobgoblin was trying the recipe. It was hot. Edible, at least to him. He smacked his lips.
“Where’s the magic?”
“Um. Usually I put something from Octavia’s shop in there. Maybe salamander skins? I think that’s what we used last time.”
“Well, I’ll probably boil them first.”
At this point the [Illusionist] had to trot off for a second. He came back after a few minutes of Erin tossing Sage’s Grass into the pot. The worst part was that it was actually working.
Numbtongue was sweating profusely in the heat.
“Yeah. Yeah. This is magic! Heat soup!”
It was disgusting. Even Numbtongue would have rather eaten something else. But the soup did warm you up. Not just from the peppers. Palt tasted the magic as he took one grudging sip. And a bit of salamander skin. He retched.
“Dead gods. This is horrible!”
And he’d studied alchemy for one semester in Wistram. Erin shrugged.
“It’s a brew.”
“It’s an insult to cooking is what it is! Even [Witches] cook better than this! And they use toad scrapings!”
The Centaur snapped. Erin looked vaguely hurt, so he moderated his tone.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that—do you have a plan, Erin?”
The [Innkeeper] looked up innocently. Palt sighed.
“I didn’t think so. Even for cooking, Erin. You have to have a recipe. Not knowing anything and improvising is the hallmark of bad cooking. Even an idea helps. And this?”
He waved at the curdled, burned mess that was putting some of the guests in the inn off their feed.
“…It’s not magical. You’re adding something to it. I can tell.”
Or rather—Erin was allowing the inherent magic in her ingredients to combine in some way. She had a rare Skill. Palt wasn’t the most up-to-date on Skills, but he’d never heard of her cooking Skill. He went on.
“Each Skill does something different. How does yours work, Erin?”
She thought hard about it as Numbtongue dumped the pot into one of the outhouses and then tossed a jar of acid fly acid down too.
“Hm. I think I need an…element. No, a theme.”
That was how her cooking had always worked. She combined things of the same…idea together. And once she got started, it made more sense. Palt nodded.
“In that case—why don’t we gather ingredients up and you choose a theme? Also—for your base. Please don’t use milk.”
The Centaur produced a cigar, took a puff. It was outside so Erin let it go. She was not judgy! Ryoka was just…okay, maybe she judged a bit. But…
“Use water infused with Sage’s Grass. That’s a common alchemical trick. It doesn’t affect the flavor—much. You’re making highly magical dishes, Erin. Don’t use bases like milk. It seems to me you’re using so many ingredients because they lack sheer magical force.”
“Hey, that makes sense! I was always asking Octavia what was like, the most magical. The thing is, there isn’t much magical stuff.”
“Not highly magical. True.”
Octavia wasn’t a rich [Alchemist]. The Centaur reflected that was part of the problem. If Erin had complete access to Wistram’s stockpiles for instance, what might she make?
Thirty minutes later, a small group clustered around a new pot. Numbtongue, Erin, Palt, and now, Octavia and Mrsha. They had all come out—especially because Octavia was interested and familiar with the process.
“I can spare some of my ingredients. Just please don’t go overboard.”
The [Alchemist] was a lot more helpful than the first times they’d done this. Also, Erin was being deliberate. Octavia had brought her ingredients out, the kitchen’s goods had been placed on a blanket on the grass—and she had pans, pots, and utensils.
Numbtongue had even brought out a number of his ingredients. Which were all rocks. Palt eyed some raw magicore and a handful of gems.
“You mine these?”
He addressed Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin shrugged. Gemstones were more plentiful in this world, but the small pile of gems of all colors was still impressive to Erin. She looked at them, oohing and ahhing.
“I think I’m getting some inspiration here.”
“Remember, think it out before you get started. How does a Sage’s Grass base sound?”
“Standard to me. I’ll do it.”
Octavia reached for the grass, but Palt grabbed her hand.
“Sorry. But it’s Skill-based.”
The [Alchemist]’s eyes widened. Erin put the grass in the cauldron and poured in water. The Sage’s Grass was already minced. But it was her hands doing the mixing. Mrsha peered into the pot—
Lyonette grabbed Mrsha and towed her off.
“Oh no you don’t, missy. You’re not getting near that.”
The Gnoll girl complained silently. But Lyonette was predicting something. So were the guests, who were staring out the windows. They were taking bets on whether something exploded.
“Let’s see. Wow. That’s amazing.”
Erin stared into the glowing red water. The Sage’s Grass was dissolving under the intense heat. And the glowing red grass had imparted the water a color she could only describe as…magical.
Palt and Octavia exchanged a glance as Numbtongue watched. He was taking notes in case Erin came up with something he could try making. Pyrite and Reiss were both interested.
“Sage’s Grass doesn’t dissolve that fast! Even my bases take a week to do that!”
Octavia hissed at the Centaur. He nodded. Erin had a powerful Skill. The question was—what did it do?
“Theme. Yeah. I’m getting it.”
Erin closed her eyes. She had made Scale Soup with the idea of making a defensive layer. She’d put hard things into the soup. Now she thought of it—her mushrooms for the fae—every recipe had a theme. Why hadn’t she put that together before?
Perhaps because [Alchemists] had their recipes based off experimentation. But Erin’s Skill—her magic was all about feeling. So she had to do it her way.
“What do you want to create?”
Palt asked Erin. Which was the sort of question that was hard to answer. Because if you didn’t have a purpose—how did you find it?
The young woman closed her eyes. What would be…powerful? More powerful than a Scale Soup, which was weaker than [Barkskin], even if a bit less costly?
Power. The kind she lacked. In her head, Erin saw the most powerful artifact she had ever held. Or had she? It had been just a dream.
But the young woman reached into her pocket and felt the coin.
“I offer an umbrella made from the sun’s light. To bring day into blackest night.”
She remembered holding the umbrella and feeling the sun’s light on her skin. So beautiful, so bright. The very sun itself, that no magic could copy.
To her, that was power. And yet—Erin Solstice shivered.
Go the opposite way. That was what she wanted. She looked into the glowing pot. And suddenly—she knew.
“That’s the theme?”
Palt and Octavia looked up. Numbtongue saw Erin’s features firm. Her eyes flickered.
“The fire’s wrong.”
They looked at the magical fire Palt had conjured. Erin reached out as Palt cleared his throat.
“If it should be less hot—”
The flames turned invisible. The Centaur froze. For a second, Erin’s face was wrathful. The flames of hatred weren’t hard to conjure. Hatred was easier than true happiness.
“Something dark. To hide you from…even the sun. I think I get it. I have to really want it. Because it’s there.”
The [Innkeeper] could see it in her head, now. It wasn’t just her ideas. It was—instinct. She looked around.
What spoke to her of darkness, here? She walked down the lines of neatly arranged ingredients. Spotted three things.
Erin picked up a good amount of black liquid. Octavia started.
“That? That’s ink from the Lurkersnatch fish. It’s cheaper than octopus ink since you get them every spring.”
“It’s good at hiding things. That’s what I’m making. A hiding…thing.”
Erin spoke dreamily. Yes. The ingredients didn’t matter. No—they did, but it wasn’t the recipe that mattered. That was how she differed from Octavia. [Alchemists] were all about the process. So long as Erin achieved the goal—the food worked.
“How much do you—”
Palt’s mouth closed as Erin dumped the entire container of ink into the pot. Octavia closed her eyes.
“Positive Octavia. Positive Octavia.”
She muttered to herself. Numbtongue patted her on the shoulder. He offered her some of the leftover silver he’d mined. Octavia brightened up. Palt eyed the Hobgoblin.
“…Can I have some?”
Erin was turning to the second ingredient. It was onyx. A few gems that Numbtongue had found.
“This is also dark.”
“It’s a gemstone. Can you eat rocks?”
Palt looked nervously at Octavia and Numbtongue. Both nodded, casually. Pyrite would have loved to see this. For a moment—a minute—Numbtongue became him.
“Here. I can grind.”
The Hobgoblin helped Erin as she found a mortar and pestle. He easily ground the rocks with his hands. Even chewed one up and spat it into a bowl. Palt gave Numbtongue a wide-eyed look. Erin nodded.
The ground-up onyx went into the pot. And already—the pot was dark. But still glowing.
“I want this Skill.”
Octavia muttered. It was just—bypassing a lot of what she knew as alchemy. But Erin wasn’t listening. She was following the idea in her head.
The third item was charcoal. Erin smashed it up and dumped a pound into the pot. Palt had to object here.
“Oh come on. That’s not good for you.”
“I need something dark.”
Erin muttered. She looked around. She had—well—it was like when she’d made food for the faeries.
Part of it was silly. Childish. Like a girl pretending to make magic. But that belief was what made the magic in the first place. This would hide people.
“One soup to rule them all. One soup to bring them together. And in the darkness blind them.”
“I think she’s losing it.”
Octavia muttered to Palt. Erin grinned. But that was just a joke. In truth—she frowned.
“I don’t think I want a soup.”
The [Illusionist]’s hand meeting his face was loud in the silence. Erin frowned.
“I think—I’m imagining balls.”
The Centaur frowned. Erin nodded. She was imagining…it was so clear in her head.
“They’re…powdery. Like dough-balls. Small, but powdery. You roll them up and then you pop one into your mouth.”
She was sure that’s what it looked like. Octavia, Numbtongue, and Palt exchanged a glance. Erin looked sure, now.
“Flour. Is there black flour?”
Erin was hunting through the bags of ingredients. Palt cleared his throat.
“Actually, there is. There’s a kind of wheat. Noelictus exports it.”
The [Innkeeper]’s head rose.
“Yes. That. I need it.”
“Um…we could order some?”
Octavia helplessly looked at the others. Erin’s face fell.
She was sure she needed it. Octavia shook her head helplessly. Erin frowned.
“Maybe…some regular flour works? I need a lot of it. To make this thick. It can’t be a soup. That’s how it can start, but—”
Distractedly, she began pouring in flour to the pot. Bags and bags of it. Palt looked concerned.
“There’s surely enough ink in the pot to dye whatever you need—”
“It has to be dark! It’s a theme! The flour makes it too not-dark!”
Erin snapped. She could see the recipe struggling to adapt. Not dark enough! She cursed, added some other powder.
Octavia saw Erin pouring a lot in. the [Innkeeper] scowled at her brew. It was indeed turning grey, not entirely black. She had to adapt. This would be—ashy. Well, that worked.
“I need some dust. Ash.”
“Potash? I have some.”
“Yeah. Yeah. So—okay. We’re mixing white and black now. To get grey. This will be like dustclouds. Um—um—”
The image changed in Erin’s head. She was imagining bread now. Bread, like dust. Her eyes snapped open.
“Oh come on.”
Palt objected. The pot was full. But Erin looked at him and she seemed certain.
“Bread works. It’s changing, Palt. Where’re the eggs? We should add more flour—we’re making a dough, now. Hold on.”
The mixture was too thick, practically dusty. But since Erin didn’t have enough darkness—she looked around. Saw some water in a jug. Octavia’s eyes widened.
“Erin, that’s not w—”
She poured it into the pot before she heard Octavia. Erin saw the mixture change. It began to bubble—she looked at Octavia. Something had gone wrong. She felt it. Now her image of the ash-bread was gone, as well as the shadow-powderballs.
“Um. Octavia. What did I just add?”
The [Alchemist] saw the pot bubbling up. She said one word.
Numbtongue was already running with Palt. But it was too late. Erin backed up and—
Mrsha the Experimental, grumpy at being left out of all the fun, was watching through the window. Lyonette had let her do that. She saw the four running for the door a second before the pot boiled up.
Vinegar and baking soda. It didn’t quite explode. But the mixture, far lighter than it should have been, bubbled high into the air. Mrsha’s jaw dropped. And then she saw the mixture turn gaseous in the air. Partly gaseous.
A cloud dropped over the entire inn. Abruptly, all the light went out. The fireplaces weren’t lit. Inside the inn, there were shouts of confusion. Mrsha looked around wildly.
“It was that pot! Hah! You owe me five silver! I told you—”
The only light was from the kitchen. Awestruck, Mrsha looked around. In the darkness, Lyonette raised a hand.
“Everyone stay where you are! [Light]!”
The magic from the Sage’s Grass field boosted her spell. Multiple orbs of light emerged from the table, floors, walls—the guests oohed and applauded. The [Princess] gave them a little pleased bow and then looked around.
She sighed as she saw the Gnoll wagging her tail. Then Lyonette went to the window.
It was perfect blackness outside. No—that wasn’t quite true. The particles of blackness in the air were shifting. It was like the inn was engulfed in a cloud.
“It’s like—a cloud spell. Erin made that?”
Wonderingly, Montressa went to the windows. Mrsha heard a banging sound from the hallway. She turned as Palt, Numbtongue, Erin, and Octavia stumbled into the inn.
They weren’t actually dirty—but the dark cloud clung to them, as if the cloud were thick and physical. They were all coughing.
“It sort of worked. I just need black flour. And um—no vinegar and baking soda.”
Erin looked around. Lyonette put her hands on her hips. But the inn’s patrons were excited. They rushed out the door, exclaiming and tripping into one another in the darkness.
“I suppose as events go, that’s not a bad one. But how long is this going to last?”
Even the [Princess] had to concede that. Erin hesitated. She raised a finger and the answer sprung into her mind.
“If the recipe had worked? Three hours.”
Everyone looked at her. Mrsha leapt off her chair as Lyonette covered her face. Erin laughed, though. She had failed, but she was figuring out her Skill. She just needed…black flour, huh? She might also need a few other things. But she could see it. [Wondrous Fare]. It was telling her how to make magical foods.
Of course—the cloud of darkness had a few other unintended side effects. Bird, sitting in his tower, called out after a while.
“Hello? Who has turned the sky off? Hello?”
This would make hunting birds harder. But not impossible. The [Hunter] waited for the bats—which he termed ‘dark birds’ to come out.
Others were less sanguine about the affair. One of the [Guards] on patrol on the eastern wall saw the cloud appear. Instantly, the Gnoll shouted.
“Hey! Get me a Street Runner for the Watch Captain! It’s the inn!”
He needed to say nothing more. The rest of the Watch groaned. The new Human recruits stared at the cloud of darkness as they trooped down the stairs, already calling for Zevara and preparing for an attack, generalized madness, or anything else in the world.
Zevara cursed and slowly reset a little marker on her desk before she grabbed her sword and rushed to lead a squad to investigate.
Days Since Crazy Human Incident: 0
And life had been going so well.
But it was all good. Really. It was just a failed experiment. The cloud did disperse after two hours. And Erin Solstice resolved to be more careful next time. But she could see both dishes in her head. You’d eat the black powderballs and spit a cloud. It would help. The ash bread? She wasn’t sure what it did, but presumably it had another effect related to dust.
It would take time. But she would make new things. Numbtongue would see to that. He was already imagining how useful this would be. Make a cloud of this—even the accident—then shoot arrows or roll boulders into the trap.
It was just a day. Innocent. A little event. With no consequence but a bit of surprise and worry for some. Oh—and one more thing.
It took them a while to notice. Lyonette was the first, because of her new instincts. But she had checked once and then looked away. And by the time she realized that a little, white Gnoll had used the cloud cover to escape—it was too late.
Mrsha was a good girl. She really was. She was being an adult. Most of the time. She wasn’t childish like Ekirra. She had seen things. She could be responsible.
It was just that the adults never let her do anything by herself. And sometimes Mrsha wanted to be independent. So—sometimes she had to take opportunities like this.
The dark cloud stuck to Mrsha’s fur, making her giggle. She wanted to run about in it and sneak up on people lost in the cloud. But she had to take this moment to get away from the inn.
Bird had orders now and he would spot her almost every time she ran for it. She wouldn’t get this chance again. So Mrsha ran out of the cloud and down the hill.
She was running towards the city. Mrsha saw that and immediately reversed, away from the squad of Liscor’s [Guards] led by Angry Zevara. That wasn’t where she wanted to go.
Stealthily, using her Skills not to be noticed, Mrsha the Sneaking Sneak padded through tall grass. Rustling away from the inn. She had a destination in mind, and she was smart enough to stay away from suspicious spots where Shield Spiders might make their nests, or conspicuous boulders.
She knew she would get in trouble for this. But it had been a long time. So long—and she was Mrsha the Great and Terrible. Mrsha the White. The great [Mage]! The hero who had made a compact with her brave alliance in a battle of history.
The Defenders of the Cave. Mrsha knew them now. She had, after all, watched The Hobbit. And so she had her wand, which was almost as good as a staff. She stood up on two legs and tottered towards the cave.
She needed a hat. But a wizard—Mrsha the Wizardly decided she wasn’t late! She was right on time! She was always on time!
She should have brought Numbtongue. Or Erin, or Lyonette. But the cave was her special place. And the Healing Slime was afraid of strangers. Mrsha had tried to take it to the inn—twice—but it had always rolled away. But she’d convince it this time. The Defenders of the Cave awaited. Their sacred pact endured! The cave was as Mrsha had left it. And inside—
Scuttling spiders milled about in chaos. The white Gnoll slowed, padding into the cave. She froze. They were clustered around large egg sacs. Webbing covered the ground and walls.
Desiccated, half-eaten corpses lay on the ground. Large, furry shapes. Fallen, devoured, torn by Shield Spider fangs. At the far end of the cave, a blockade of wood, sticks, and stones. Shield Spiders tore at it, and Mrsha heard the sound of tails desperately slapping the ground.
She had arrived too late. Days—perhaps weeks too late. The Shield Spiders clicked, uncertainly registering the intruder.
Food? Mrsha backed up, eyes wide. She could sense them with her [Druid]’s senses. They radiated a single emotion, like the bees.
Hunger. Hungry. Hungryhungrystarvinghungryravenousfoodfoodhungry—an overpowering rush of a single emotion. The Shield Spiders were hungry.
They had tripled in number since the last time she’d been here. The summer had fed them. Too well; they had expanded and without the other peacekeeper of the caves, the Healing Slime—the compact had fallen apart.
The Fortress Beavers and Shield Spiders had gone to war. And one had won. Mrsha saw a tide of spiders scuttling at her. She froze—
And a large Shield Spider clicked. It blocked the starving younglings. It knew her.
The Shield Spider was one of the original members of the nests. It had fought the Crelers. And something in it—recognized Mrsha. The Shield Spiders drew back. Mrsha stared up.
This Shield Spider was twice her height now. A patriarch of the nest. She shook as it clicked over to her, eight legs moving on the bare stone.
What had happened? She could feel the hunger in the giant Shield Spider as it regarded her. Mrsha looked around, desperately. The Fortress Beavers—and there had been so many—were dead.
Where was Healing Slime? Had it run away? Died? She looked at the Shield Spider, asking a desperate question.
It had no answers. Only—vague shapes. Dark, flaming eyes in the cave. Death. Fire. Death. Magic. No more slime.
And then hunger. Mrsha knew the rest. She looked at the Shield Spider. Despairingly.
Why? How could you do this? They were your friends. She wanted to ask the Spider. But she had no words.
And no words would have mattered. The giant spider was a creature. It wanted to live, first. People—people might starve rather than turn on each other. But animals were practical. The nest was starving. The Shield Spiders would eat each other without food. Or expand. This brood would expand, soon. The cave would become another nest.
After they killed the last of their food. Mrsha broke out of her horror. She heard a sound.
Slapping tails. Weak rustling. She looked past the nests. And saw the barricade of wood. A Fortress Beaver dam.
Some were alive. Mrsha’s eyes opened wide. The Fortress Beavers had retreated. Built their famous fortresses to hold the spiders out. She could sense them. Hiding, weak from lack of food and wounds. But they were alive.
She stepped forwards. The giant Shield Spider barred her way. It was getting hungrier. Mrsha was food. It wanted her to leave. Leave, before the lesser spiders lost control and attacked her.
But Mrsha—the white Gnoll hesitated. She was Mrsha the Great and Terrible. No—she was Mrsha the Great Wizard—
No. She was just Mrsha. The great adventure was done. It had ended with pettiness. With her absence. See how the mortal, short-lived races forgot. They turned on each other so quickly.
She wept for them. But she would not run twice.
In the opening of the cave, the Gnoll lifted her wand. And the tip shone with light. The Shield Spiders rustled. The ones from the nest outside began to creep upwards.
But the [Druid] was wrathful. Her eyes blazed.
“Fools! You fools! Shame on you all!”
She shouted, though she had no words. The Shield Spiders looked upon her. The White Druid of the Inn aimed her wand at the oldest of the Shield Spiders. The Shield Spider King.
A spell lashed from her wand. It struck the Shield Spider in one of its many eyes. An arrow of thorns sent the Shield Spider reeling back, bleeding. Mrsha’s other paw produced a sharp, deadly thorn. She saw the Shield Spider recoil—then advance.
The Fortress Beavers stirred. They remembered. But there was one of Mrsha and many Spiders. So few beavers. The Gnoll was backing up as the Shield Spiders advanced. But they came from behind as well. She was surrounded.
The Gnoll reached for something at her side. She had changed as well. The Shield Spiders saw her raise something to her lips. Mrsha inhaled.
And then blew on the horn. The sound echoed in the cave, making the Shield Spiders flinch. The blaring horn echoed. Louder. Mrsha slashed at a Shield Spider, cutting the little thing in half. The Gnoll backed up, dropping the horn back to hang at her side. She whirled.
Grass ensnared another large Shield Spider coming up on her from behind. The Gnoll looked around. The largest Shield Spider advanced, mandibles wide. It scuttled at her and Mrsha crouched.
The air buzzed. A figure hurtled out of the skies. A giant, flaming bee landed on the Shield Spider’s face and a jagged stinger impaled the Shield Spider’s face.
Apista! The bee flew around Mrsha as it stung, her stinger going through the Shield Spider’s armor. As the giant Shield Spider recoiled, Mrsha looked up. Apista flew around her as the Shield Spiders hesitated, afraid of the fire.
Now it was two versus hundreds. Mrsha bared her teeth in a silent snarl. She heard a sound.
The Fortress Beavers were breaking down their fortress. Sallying forth in one last stand. Large adults smashed into the Shield Spiders from the rear, ignoring the biting fangs and sharp legs. Their fur, torn by injuries, ignored the bites as they furiously bit, pounded the spiders with their tails.
A third time the horn blew. Mrsha cast another [Thorn Arrow] spell and hit a spider. That broke the stalemate. They rolled forwards and Mrsha braced to run, to open a window for the beavers to escape. The largest Shield Spider rushed at her. Mrsha turned—and saw a group of spiders had snuck up on her, sealing the entrance! Apista bared her stinger, desperately—
The Shield Spiders heard a roar. It sounded like the hills had come alive. The ones near the cave’s entrance looked up. They saw a figure blocking the light.
Moore stomped. His foot crushed the first Shield Spider and he kicked the second one into pieces against the wall. The half-Giant ran past Mrsha and stormed into the Shield Spiders, covered in thorns. He crushed them as the Shield Spiders recoiled.
And behind him—Numbtongue cursed. He drew his sword.
The [Chieftain] barreled into the cave after the half-Giant. He cut the oldest Shield Spider in half. The pair of them had noticed Mrsha’s absence almost immediately after Lyonette. And both knew Mrsha.
Moore shouted as he reached a hand out. His staff laid around left and right, smashing the smaller spiders as it had when he had breached the giant nest in the dungeon. Pyrite backed up, kicking spiders and downing Octavia’s potions. He thrust one at Mrsha—Barkskin.
The Gnoll drank it. But the two were focused on protecting her. She saw the Fortress Beavers in the back of the cave. They were being overwhelmed. And the two didn’t see them!
So Mrsha blew her horn. Then she raised her wand and charged. Numbtongue and Moore cursed and went after her. Apista struck from above. Mrsha charged through the traitorous Shield Spiders. She saw a Fortress Beaver, twice her size, lying on the ground. Guarding the remainder—a scant eight. Mrsha dove for them—and a wall of thorns encircled her.
“Halfseekers, to me! Jelaqua! Seborn! Ulinde! Get your damn bodies over here!”
Moore roared. His voice was as loud as Mrsha’s horn. The others, who had been searching from the inn, heard the roar in the distance. They turned.
The Shield Spiders had no chance. Not even against the Hobgoblin and half-Giant, in truth. But as Jelaqua charged into the fray, flail spinning and Seborn appeared out of Moore’s shadow—a Selphid leapt into the nest and cast [Fireball] twice.
Ulinde pulled herself out of the nest as the entire place exploded. The rest of the Shield Spiders were dealt with.
Mrsha nursed two large bites on her body. Apista had taken a cut on her body and one of her wings was wrinkled. But when the wall of thorns went down, she was holding a baby Fortress Beaver, its fur covered with blood.
Three adults remained. Five little beavers drew back around Mrsha as the panting adults stared at her. They stared as Mrsha anxiously poured healing potion over the living beavers. She lifted one up as Numbtongue opened his mouth to shout. He stared at the beaver. And remembered Mrsha’s class and closed his mouth.
“What possessed you?”
Lyonette was not so understanding. Mrsha was beyond in trouble. Moore was angry too. And everyone was more nervous of that.
“Don’t ever do that again.”
He picked up Mrsha. Wide-eyed, she nodded. The Shield Spiders hadn’t even gone through her skin. The half-Giant passed a hand over his face—then saw the beavers.
“I don’t understand it. How did she know there were beavers in the cave? Why did she…?”
Erin Solstice remembered Mrsha’s class as Numbtongue whispered in her ear. They looked at Mrsha. She was holding the shivering Fortress Beavers. And her expression was—guilty. Sorrowful.
It was an adult’s bitter expression of failure. Tears in her eyes, Mrsha held up the beavers. She could not explain the healing slime, or the pact against the Crelers. Not fully. Not now.
“As I recall—we found beavers in that cave back when Mrsha brought that Creler egg to the inn.”
Jelaqua muttered. The others looked at her and nodded, slowly.
“Mrsha? Are these your friends?”
The little Gnoll nodded to Erin. She wiped her tears and the eight Fortress Beavers hid behind Mrsha, staring at the strange adults. Erin looked at the beavers. Then nodded.
“You did rescue them. But you mustn’t take risks. You’re in big trouble, you know that?”
Yes. Mrsha nodded. But it had to be done. Erin looked at the beavers.
“What do we do with them?”
“They like living in forests. These ones must have migrated south. The wrong way. They’ll just run into the Blood Fields. Why not let ‘em loose around Celum?”
Jelaqua suggested. The others agreed tiredly. But Mrsha shook her head. She clung to the beavers and they surrounded her protectively as the adults tried to take them away. They had big, sharp teeth. Erin blew out her cheeks.
“Mrsha! They’re animals. They have to go somewhere.”
She had failed them once. Mrsha shook her head again and again. She had to protect them. They were her—charges. She edged towards the inn.
“Mrsha. Mrsha? What are you—”
The doorway opened for her at once. The adults stared as the white Gnoll backed up. The Fortress Beavers stared too. But this new land was verdant. There was a pond. Water. Fish, even. And many plants.
No predators. A safe land. A promised land. They looked at Mrsha. She nodded.
“They’ll eat the trees!”
Lyonette protested in horror. But Erin held up a hand.
“There’s only eight.”
“Erin, they’re Fortress Beavers.”
“We can always plant more trees. Mrsha. Are you sure you have to do this?”
Erin knelt down. Mrsha nodded slowly. The Fortress Beavers looked at her. One was already padding towards the pond and the fish were scattering. Erin took a deep breath. The others looked at her. Lyonette was incredulous. Moore almost approving.
“It’s a better pet than a bee, right?”
Apista landed on her head and fanned her wings. Mrsha had to promise to do many things. And if the beavers ate the sacred chocolate tree or the sprouts of the new Blue Fruit Trees—well, they listened to her.
And as that [Druid] slept that night, the [Garden of Sanctuary] gained another life form. The fish in the ponds were joined by a small colony of Fortress Beavers, who were already making a dam on one edge of the pond.
Lyonette was exasperated. Numbtongue vaguely approving—they could be emergency rations in times of siege—and the others bemused and worried about Mrsha’s tendency to get in trouble. But the [Druid] knew this was right. She slept, wondering where the little slime had gone.
[Druid Level 8!]
[Natural Allies: Fortress Beavers]
[Natural Gift: Fur of the Fortress form obtained!]
Mrsha’s eyes opened wide. She sat up in bed. Lyonette du Marquin opened her eyes and saw a huge, shaggy furry beast sitting on her chest. Fur like armor.
She screamed. Mrsha didn’t get dessert for two weeks.
Those were small tales. Little events. Sometimes with lasting consequences. And Mrsha—like Ryoka was learning about herself, or Erin about her Skills—was learning about her class.
Intuition came well to [Druids]. But she could have used a teacher. Because then she would have known that the power she had came from no books, but nature. And her allies in nature mattered.
Fur like a fortress was just the start. There was far more you could gain. But you couldn’t do it just by leveling. It was a compact with nature, like [Witches].
And that power could be used to protect or destroy. It depended on the [Druid].
He sensed the intruder coming unwelcome. A foreign power. Coming unannounced. He grew. Nalthaliarstrelous left his mortal, Human shape behind and grew taller.
The vast rows of hedges in his overgrown garden betrayed a hulking figure. Envenomed claws. Bestial teeth. Eyes which glowed as he moved to war. He roared as the intruder turned his head. Nalthaliarstrelous opened his mouth of layered teeth—
And froze. The intruder stared at the [Druid] without fear. The [Druid]’s wild form faltered. And then—he turned back into a Human man. Naked, much to the objection of the [Maids] and [Servants] flooding out of the mansion to do battle.
They saw Nalthaliarstrelous bow. He pressed his forehead to the ground as the old, half-Elven figure passed them by. Magnolia Reinhart’s servants froze. They recognized this person. They hid the weapons they’d drawn behind their backs.
“He never does that for me.”
Magnolia Reinhart stood in the doors of her mansion. She was beaming with unadulterated pleasure as she stared at the respectful [Druid].
Grand Mage Eldavin—Teriarch—harrumphed as he walked towards the doors. He looked at Ressa. She nodded to him.
“He is respectful. I could wish the same of you, brat.”
Magnolia laughed. She curtseyed deeply, almost a mockery of subservience. The Dragon glowered. But when the [Lady] straightened—she looked at Teriarch.
“It has been a while since you left your cave.”
“A little while.”
He ducked his head, murmuring. Magnolia smiled.
“Come in, then. We have a lot to catch up on.”
“I suppose so.”
The [Lady] turned. She breathed in, and smiled. It had been too long. She had developed lines since they had last seen each other outside his cave. She smiled, even so. And then hid the other emotions behind a single, half-taunting line.
“Come in, old man. Let’s have some tea.”
The last meeting was also expected and unexpected. The first to see her was a skeleton sweeping the floor. He didn’t need to do this. But sometimes—more often now—he remembered the times he had been a [Barmaid].
Longingly, now. The skeleton looked up, flinching at the sound as the doors opened. If it was one of the Chosen—he would run away. A little, trembling slime hid as well.
Children stalked this castle made of black stone. They laughed, leveled. Learned. But children could be—monstrous.
Yet, this was no child. She was old. And as her eyes alighted on him, the skeleton froze. And fled. He was beginning to understand danger, now. He had lost his eternal regeneration. And he feared those eyes.
Ringed eyes. Glowing orange. A vast hat. Dark blue robes. The [Witch] paused for a moment. And listened.
The clash of swords. In a courtyard, which had been long unused, Venitra and Kerash dueled. The Gnoll and bone woman fought. They had never trained before this. Now—it was a competition. And the reward?
“I am a Level 8 [Warrior]!”
The Gnoll roared. His ability to level had been granted so recently. But he and Venitra were relentless. And the undead were only allowed to spar and practice for now. But they were tireless.
Venitra’s face contorted in displeasure. She had fallen behind. The flames in her eyes burned as she advanced, attacking the Gnoll. They cut each other mercilessly; their bodies could be repaired. And that was only an excuse to see their master.
They never saw the face poking around a corner, staring at them. The [Witch] tapped her lips. She walked through the castle. Poking about.
The master of this place knew she was here already. But he was sitting. Speaking with a rotting woman, a zombie made of plague.
“A [Lady] acts for the good of her subjects, Bea. If you would take that class—you must learn the ways of the living.”
“If you wish me to, master.”
The plague zombie was petulant. Bea sat there, dressed beautifully, but unsure of why she had to learn mortal etiquette. And the Necromancer sighed, but fondly.
“It is what you wish, Bea. You are the first of the true undead. You must choose to be a [Lady].”
“If you want me to, master.”
His voice was so gentle. So patient. The four living Chosen rejoiced in it. Well—technically you could argue there were five unique undead in the castle. But they hated the fifth. He was wisely out of sight. Not that they were allowed to punish him in front of their Master.
“Master, why did you remove all the spells from my head? I cannot cast magic.”
Ijvani whined. Az’kerash looked at her as she labored over a beginner’s book.
“Levels come from adversity, Ijvani. What I gave you by grace you must earn. We will spend as long as it takes to make a proper [Mage] out of you. Be it years—I will instruct you piece by piece.”
She shivered in delight at the promise, and forgot her dislike of studying. The Necromancer, Az’kerash, smiled at them.
His children. Oh yes, the world was changed. Then he looked up.
“Ah. Our guest is here. My Chosen, attend me. And be your politest. This being tolerates no disrespect. And she is far older than I.”
They met in the ruined throne room. He stood in front of the dais where once a throne might have been. She stopped there, surveying the ruined room. The Chosen stood behind their master, curious. Dismissive.
Which was a mistake. Az’kerash inclined his head in a small bow.
“Spider of Terandria. We meet again.”
“A third time. Portentous.”
That was all she said. She was—different. Az’kerash had felt it in her reply. He narrowed his eyes, appraising her from afar.
Some of her protections—no—most of them were gone. The others were weaker. What had happened—?
“My daughter. I was hunted.”
The Stitch Witch replied to the [Necromancer]’s fragmented thoughts. He jolted. His robes—which looked to be sewn of midnight, rustled as he glanced at her. They were her garments. He was aware…that would be an issue if they came to strife.
But that was not his intent. The man who had once been Archmage Chandler smiled thinly.
“I heard. I congratulate you on your survival.”
“Does one congratulate the rock for existing?”
The [Witch] did not smile. She tilted her head, regarding the Chosen. Then she looked up at Az’kerash.
“The first time we met as enemies. The second I did you a favor. By right, this time the favor is to me. So I have come at your invitation.”
The [Necromancer] nodded. [Witches] had their ways. He vividly recalled their first meeting.
Before the legend of the [Necromancer] had begun, Belavierr was one of Terandria’s nightmares. And the Undying Shield of Calanfer had challenged her.
If there had been a winner—it was she for escaping. The second time, he had been dead. And she had made him a gift, to be called as a favor. He was no fool. Belavierr’s favors were like a poison. But he hadn’t cared then. Now?
“It will be mutually beneficial. Our alliance, should you choose to take it. I have made a discovery that will change this world. I offer you an opportunity, Belavierr the Stitch Witch.”
Her eyes glowed in the darkness. She knew. She could read created things like books. Az’kerash made no mention of Pisces, though it burned him to steal work that wasn’t his. But she would use that information. And death would be a mercy for the young [Necromancer] if Belavierr desired the secrets for herself.
“Curious. But not new. Fools of old made things with sentience. I liberated them and watched them kill their masters.”
The Spider’s head twisted left and right as she eyed the Chosen. Az’kerash nodded.
“Stringfolk. I am aware of history, Belavierr. Nevertheless—these are not my slaves. They will be my children.”
“Another word for ‘slave’ for some.”
She laughed at him. The [Necromancer]’s jaw clenched with unexpected emotion. He nearly let the emotion die—then embraced it.
“If you come to my place of power to insult me, Belavierr…I call my Chosen my children. Insult them again at your peril.”
The two looked at each other. And the Chosen stirred. The undead in the castle moved. A single step. Belavierr’s eyes flicked around the room. Two types of magic clashed. He could feel her dissecting the death magic around her, drawing it into threads in preparation for combat.
The Necromancer was under no illusions. Fear was a foreign emotion to the Stitch Witch. Like life was distant for him—but she was far more ancient.
And yet—something had revealed her mortal soul. After a second, she nodded.
“I have a daughter already. What will you offer me, Peril Chandler?”
That surprised Az’kerash. It was no apology, but even so. Slowly, the Necromancer of Terandria stepped back. He spread one robed arm.
“I offer you the protection and secrecy of my place, Belavierr. As long as you wish it. I offer you my resources, and my power. And I crave your power in an alliance. To create. Walk this castle and the forest as you wish. My hospitality is yours.”
The two immortals locked gazes. One, black eyes with white pupils. The other, ringed layers of immortality, shining orange. After a moment, Belavierr nodded. And smiled.
“I will stay here awhile. We may strike a bargain.”
(I’m planning on taking my monthly week-long break after next chapter. I think. I’ll let you know the details next chapter!)
Author’s Note: And that’s about it. This chapter comes before the side-story chapter which will probably be the next one. And it’s short! Or rather, a proper length.
Yeah…yeah. Writing 30,000 words is a lot of work. Well, even 21,000 is a lot. But this still feels short…I should probably work on that perception.
Anyways, reunions end and people get back to work. And other people meet. Does this chapter lack much plot? Or do you enjoy smaller little stories? I think it suits this narrative at least, and it’s good in between the action. Sometimes you just get a chapter with nothing…happening…hm. I don’t think I’ve ever written a truly ‘nothing happens’ chapter. But this is as close as I get.
I have one piece of art for you today: Enuryn the [Naturalist] has done it again! Today’s art is a catalogue of magical weaponry and artifacts used by the Horns of Hammerad! Look at it! Marvel! And enjoy! We will see what Hedault thinks in time, but there is more story to enjoy. So many perspectives…but that’s why this is a web serial. Thanks for reading!
Equipment Catalogue by Enuryn!