7.31

(Warning: Last chapter for Patreons was cut by about 5,000 words. Check the ending so you’re not confused about this one!)

 

Mrsha had failed. The Fortress Beavers—the last remnants of the Defenders of the Cave—now occupied The Wandering Inn. The [Garden of Sanctuary] was their home.

Lyonette had objected; Erin had overruled. The [Princess] had made many reasonable arguments. Like—giant rodents who lived to eat wood weren’t the best guests for a garden with minimal foliage compared to your average forest. Also—they could be dangerous.

A regular beaver could take chunks out of you; a Fortress Beaver could take off body parts with some biting. Yet, Erin had pointed out they could import wood; Mrsha could communicate the priorities of not eating the garden’s trees to the beavers. They were cute. And—

They were her responsibility. Mrsha had let them down. In days of yore, she had brought beavers and spiders together with the Healing Slime to fight Crelers. But that alliance had fallen apart because…they were different species.

It could have worked. If Mrsha had stayed. If—for some reason—the Healing Slime hadn’t vanished. If she had just visited once a week, something in Mrsha told her they would have been fine.

She was a [Druid]. What that meant Mrsha didn’t entirely know. Lyonette described them as ‘homeless vagrants’ who got into fights with [Woodcutters] in Calanfer. Nuisances who prized animal and plant life as much as any others. This had been before she learned Mrsha was a [Druid]. Now she described them as wonderfully powerful nature [Mages], if sometimes misguided.

She wanted Mrsha to be something else. Not even Erin knew that Lyonette was teaching Mrsha more etiquette, hinting about how nice [Courtiers] and [Princesses] had it. Mrsha took the lessons in stride and happily forgot everything until next time.

She had seen the Frost Faeries bringing winter to the bad Goblins. She had seen the Wind Runner. She was a Stone Spears child as much as Lyonette’s. And the magic of plants had saved her life.

It made sense to her. But Mrsha had forgotten her duties. Now—she strongly felt that these beavers were her responsibility. They could not die. So she combed the little kit’s fur and made sure the adults were healing—she’d even used her allowance on extra tonics for their healed wounds. She’d even slept with them at night; Lyonette had been very unhappy to find beavers in her bed.

A microcosm of responsibility. When one of the beavers got a splinter from the jungle biome, Mrsha pulled it out. She didn’t baby them. But they were hers.

And now—

The Fortress Beavers hid in the pond’s dam. The pond wasn’t that deep or vast. But you’d have hard trouble breaking into the dam from above. Sediment, plant matter, and of course, wood, some of it bought from [Carpenters] in Celum—had been turned into a rough dome.

The kits and few adults were sheltering in one of the main chambers. Mrsha anxiously stared into the pond and saw one emerge from the underwater entrance. A large Fortress Beaver—bigger than her—surfaced. It stared at her.

Stay. Bad things outside.

The beaver solemnly looked at Mrsha. It was…eerie in the way the beaver didn’t nod, or show any other signs it had heard Mrsha. She knew it understood because it looked around, baring it’s large incisors.

But it was not Human. Not even part-Human, like Apista. The bee was part-Lyonette after all, but the beaver had no Skills affecting it. It just understood—‘ally’, ‘enemy’, ‘danger’—and so on.

Mrsha padded towards the garden’s door. She heard loud voices, arguing. To her surprise—the beaver came with her. It didn’t like the noise, but it was protecting—her.

She tried to shove it towards the pond. The she-beaver refused to go. She, having determined that there was some danger to Mrsha, had decided to accompany the Gnoll child. Mrsha couldn’t overpower her without Lyonette’s blessing, so she gave up.

The two peeked into The Wandering Inn’s main room—Mrsha’s living room—and found her family and guests in conference.

“It’s a riot, Lady Walchaís. The local [Lords] have whipped the people into a frenzy. They’re marching on Lady Reinhart’s mansion—and smashing streets up as they go. The Mage’s guild, the Merchant’s Guild, even the Adventurer’s Guild—are all under attack.”

“But why?”

Erin Solstice stood there, with a young woman who sometimes felt very old to Mrsha—Maviola El. And with her was a [Lady] like flowers. Beautiful, but prickly. She stood with her husband, a tall man that had a rapier like Pisces, only, he wasn’t as stylish. Mrsha stared at them as the [Lady]—Bethal—turned to the pink [Knight]. He had cool armor too.

“One assumes they’re holding the Guilds to account for the Golden Triangle debacle. This is what it’s about, isn’t it, Kerrig?”

“As far as I could ascertain, milady. Many of those who have lost money are taking Lady Reinhart to account for failing to shield them or warn them. They want…her to reimburse them.”

A snort. That came from Maviola. The [Lady] shook her head.

“Give money to them? They lost it. Granted, it wasn’t their fault—but have you ever heard of a Reinhart giving away gifts?”

“Magnolia’s unlikely to do that. She doesn’t believe in charity. But which idiots decided they could storm her mansion? Are they mad?”

Bethal murmured. She looked around the room. Lyonette, hovering unobtrusively at the back, glanced around.

“Mrsha? Oh, good. Stay in the garden, dear. It’s…just a riot. I told you about them.”

 

In Calanfer, riots happened when the monarchy made mean decisions or some aristocrat did something stupid. Sometimes because something bad happened just by chance, but that was rare. In such times, you should hide with your treasure until people got tired and then send your [Knights] out. No sense in spilling blood; that just engendered bad will.

If they came for you—make sure you had a bolt hole, a few choke points, and loyal defenders. [Peasants] couldn’t kill [Knights]…mostly. Which was why you had good relations with adventurers and [Warriors].

            –Lyonette du Marquin’s Lessons From Home, Lesson 13, on public disturbance.

 

Mrsha didn’t know whether Lyonette’s lessons applied here, but there were nobles, [Knights], and a riot, so she guessed Lyonette did know what she was talking about. Nervously, she peeked around. Erin was worried. Even Numbtongue was worried. The Hobgoblin was sitting at the bar, listening in to the conversation while eying the pink [Knights] warily.

But he hadn’t sipped from his drink in minutes, which wasn’t something Goblins did. That meant he was prepared to throw the drink in someone’s face and then stab them with the fork next to his empty cup before actually resorting to his sword or guitar.

 

Everything was a potential weapon. Rocks, grass, dirt—but it was better to have actual weapons. Hence, Numbtongue’s refusal to go anywhere without a sword or guitar nearby. He’d helped show Mrsha how to quick-release her wand for a fight. Also—how to make a garrote out of long reeds of grass. Garrotes were always nice. You could use them for sneak attacks, repurpose them as tripwires, snares, or to carry snacks.

            –Numbtongue’s Combat Training, Series 2: Improvisational Combat

 

“We have to do something. They’ll get smushed if they go to Magnolia’s mansion. I’ve seen it! It has giant steel golems and magical walls and stuff!”

Erin was worried. She looked around, but didn’t get much support for the idea. The Players of Celum had entered The Wandering Inn. Jasi, Wesle, Grev, Emme, Kilkran with his excellent bald head—Mrsha liked his wigs, very adaptable—and all the others. Tonight’s play was cancelled.

“Do something? My dear Miss Erin, there’s nothing to do. I quite understand your reservations, but Magnolia isn’t a—an old-fashioned member of her family. She won’t even bother entertaining the rioters, let alone put them down Terland-style.”

Terland-style? Maviola grimaced. Lyonette did too. She whispered when Mrsha poked her leg.

War Golems. They crush rioters hard.”

Bethal wasn’t worried about that anyways. The [Lady] waved a hand. She—like Rose and Galina—thought Mrsha was cute. Also—like a dog. Mrsha hadn’t smacked her, but only because she was a guest.

Drakes and Humans both have issues with our species. Many other species—no. We do not have enough contact with them. If we have allies, they are the Beastkin of Baleros, yes? They are traditional allies and some of them visit—like Hawk’s parents. But they are a minority.

 

If we hate Drakes, it is because we clash. They and we are very different. And too similar! Ah, but Humans…Humans can be as bad as Drakes, Mrsha. Worse, sometimes. If Drakes call us savage beasts, well, Humans do not as often. But see how they pat you on the head? To them—we are still animals. And animals are less than people. Yes, I’m talking to you cats. Shoo!

            –Elirr’s General Lessons on Species, Anecdote #4.

 

Lady Bethal went on, her voice calm despite the tension in the room.

“Magnolia’s mansion is impregnable. If she’s even home—the rioters won’t get in. The gates are spelled.

“Oh.”

Erin relaxed a bit. She looked around; the magical door was gone. Lyonette had ordered it put back in the hallway, but it was still open—to the Player’s Retreat. And from that inn, Mrsha could faintly hear the sounds of many people and loud voices. But Redit had the door and the other [Bouncers] were locking down the fancy inn.

“Still. Can’t we do something? We should. Riots aren’t good. I’m pretty sure of that.”

The others looked at Erin blankly.

“Why? Let them tire themselves out. This isn’t Liscor, Erin. It’s Invrisil.”

“But—what if someone gets hurt?”

“It’s not our job to stop that. Let the Watch deal with it. Erin. Don’t go out that door.

The [Princess] scowled at Erin. And her words were accompanied by nods all around. The [Innkeeper] hesitated. Then she relaxed.

“Okay? So what do we do?”

“Nothing.”

“But—”

It went against everything Erin was. Mrsha thought Erin was like Apista and flowers. If there was a new one, Apista had to investigate. In the same way, if there was trouble, Erin wanted to go there and be Erin.

Mrsha wanted Erin to be safe. Riots…Gnoll tribes didn’t have riots. They had bad fights. The Stone Spears had once fought another tribe—not all of them, but Urksh had been very angry and there had been many talks. Two Gnolls had died from the skirmishes.

This was far bigger. So—Mrsha crept through the crowd. The Fortress Beaver helped her push people out of the way.

“Hey, what the—”

Rat! Giant—

The guests jumped away as Mrsha rode the Fortress Beaver forwards. She spotted a familiar duo, heard two voices.

“…Archmages didn’t predict this. Beza, have you heard from your faction? The Revivalists haven’t sent me new orders in a while. I’m worried Beatrice might know I—aaah!

Montressa shrieked as Mrsha climbed up her robes. The Minotauress jerked and stared as Mrsha looked at her.

“Is that Mrsha?”

Getheroff!

“Here. What are you doing, child?”

The Minotauress [Spellscribe] pulled Mrsha off Montressa. The Gnoll found herself gently held in front of Bezale—at arm’s length. The Minotauress didn’t seem to know what to do with her.

“Where’s Lyonette?”

Mrsha tapped the Minotauress’ thick arm. Then she pointed. Beza and Montressa looked around.

“Erin, for you.”

The [Innkeeper] turned as Mrsha was brought over. She stared at the little Gnoll.

“Mrsha? What are you doing? I said go in the garden—well, I guess it’s safe. Is that…one of the beavers? We should give them names.”

They should not. But Mrsha just let Beza drop her into Erin’s arms. Then she hugged Erin. The [Innkeeper] held her.

“I’m not going anywhere, Mrsha. I just thought—the riots—oof! Stop hugging me! Maybe we can stop them?”

“You don’t try to firefight an inferno, Erin Solstice. You cut off its air and keep it from spreading. Even you, I, and Bethal couldn’t stop it with our auras.”

Maviola’s arms were folded. Bethal sighed.

“Again with the fire analogies…I quite agree. Thomast, dear, I think we had better stay here. Or at least in the Player’s Retreat. Ser Kerrig and my Knights of the Petal shall guard the inn.”

“Absolutely, Lady Walchaís. Innkeeper Veeid, with your permission we will keep the order around your inn.”

The nervous man with the chubby belly mopped at his forehead and brightened.

“Sir Knight, that would be a most welcome—of course! My permission and thanks! May I offer you a room, Lady Walchaís? On the house! Or—will you be staying here?”

He glanced around The Wandering Inn. Mrsha had to admit that Veeid’s inn was very comfy. She had peeked through the door a few times and even visited once or twice. It had sofas where you sat about them and ate. And—and big rooms!

“Hm. We may stay here. What do you think, Thomast?”

The [Chevalier] spoke up for the first time so far. Calmly, he looked around.

“The [Knights] will guard Master Veeid’s inn, dear. I think we should stay on the same side of the door, at least when resting.”

“Oh—very well.”

Bethal puffed out her cheeks, but sighed. Then she looked around.

“In the meantime, I suppose there is a silver lining! Do my eyes mistake me, or are the redoubtable Players of Celum here? I’ve tickets for tomorrow—I hope the show isn’t cancelled!”

The [Actors] started, and then Wesle swept a low bow. He had a charming smile and a presence. Mrsha still remembered the silly [Guard] that Erin called ‘Fuzzylips’. But it was harder to remember.

“Lady Walchaís, we are indeed the poor [Actors] of Celum! At your service! I regret that today’s play is cancelled—tomorrow’s as well, perhaps.”

“Depends on how badly they smash up the Solstice Theatre.”

Emme muttered. A few of the women accompanying Bethal made sounds of dismay. The [Lady] on the other hand waved that away.

“Understandable. But we are all trapped here—and better in Liscor than Invrisil one feels, yes? Would you oblige us by a small performance? I see what appears to be a stage yonder—and [Actors]!”

She pointed. Every head turned. And Maviola and Erin both looked at Bethal. The [Lady] smiled, and her eyes shone with real excitement.

“If it isn’t too bold—I should pay for a performance and consider it better than a public spectacle.”

“Of course! We’re all here, aren’t we? Let’s put on a show for Erin—you haven’t seen Elisial, yet, have you? Why, we could invite crowds from Liscor in!”

Jasi leaned out of the crowd and spoke, her voice melodious and measured. Her scales glimmered and Mrsha longed to touch them. She looked less like the weary [Washer] and more like a—star on the stage. The others cheered up, especially Emme.

“We could charge tickets. Why not? Dead gods, that magical door is a blessing!”

“But about the riots—”

Erin looked back at the door, but everyone else was happily following Bethal’s suggestion. Mrsha turned to stare at Bethal from the [Innkeeper]’s arms; she had Erin-energy. Mrsha liked her already.

“Oof, Mrsha. You’re getting heavy. Did you grow again?”

Erin had to put Mrsha down. The Gnoll child sighed, but she was relieved. The others were in a buzz, taking Bethal’s suggestion. A play! And Lyonette was hurrying to get people seated. The Wandering Inn itself had learned to create a moment even without the [Innkeeper].

She kept staring towards the door to Invrisil. But Ishkr walked over and changed it to Liscor and Mrsha poked Erin in the leg and begged for Erin to teach her chess.

 

Pawn to E3. That’s called the Van’t Kruijs Opening, you see. It’s an irregular opening and it’s not that aggressive, but you can transition into a reversed King’s Pawn—Mrsha, are you paying attention? You see, the idea is to control the center and blah blah, I’m boring and stuff when I play chess.

            –A Symposium on Chess Opening, by Erin Solstice, [Innkeeper].

 

“Oh, alright. Let’s sit down. Hey, Maviola. You gonna throw more poo or teach me stuff?”

“I could. I should find Olesm, but what’s this about chess? I’ve been meaning to play you. Olesm says you’re the best player in the entire continent. Perhaps anywhere.”

Maviola’s eyes glittered. Mrsha saw Erin smile and Bethal turn her head.

Chess? Why, I play that too. Thomast dear, this is wonderful! Don’t make that face. I won’t make you play chess.”

The Wandering Inn bustled and hummed, and Mrsha successfully distracted Erin. Which was her job, and everyone else helped her distract Erin from going out there and somehow turning the riot into a mega-ultra riot or something. After all—it wasn’t something that mattered to them. And what could you do about riots, anyways?

 

—-

 

Riots.

In a way, it was like Erin. What could you do about her? Well—a lot of things came to mind. Kill her, incapacitate her, drug her, imprison her on numerous and justified legal grounds.

The problem, to Magus Grimalkin, known as ‘Grimalkin the Fist’, or the Muscle Mage of Pallass—all monikers he had accepted because they disclosed the underlying truth about him—wasn’t in execution.

He could snap Erin Solstice’s neck in a moment. Unless she was prepared, the [Innkeeper] was very defenseless. He wouldn’t ever do that of course, but Grimalkin had lists of people who could kill him. He had thus, empirically, and logically analyzed everyone he had ever met to see if he could kill them.

No, you didn’t kill Erin Solstice. Like the damned riots; the [Sinew Magus] strode along Pallass’s 8th floor and heard the shouting. The Watch Captains had their claws full.

“Not riots yet, at any rate. But Wistram has done us little favors. And it will just take a spark. Riots…”

There was one in Invrisil. Grimalkin was keeping abreast and ahead of the news, mainly because Sir Relz and Noass were in Pallass. And they had just gotten word about the riots and were having a viewer-mage go there to suss it out. They’d tentatively cancelled his hour-long special report on weights for that.

The Drake was annoyed. But not just by that. He’d just received another complaint about Erin and this one—well—the [Senators] wanted her head on a platter.

And he wouldn’t be the one to pull it off. Indeed, the problem with Erin and riots was that killing people solved nothing. You could disperse a mob with a [Siege Fireball]. But where did that leave you? With dead bodies. Loss of citizens of Pallass. Lingering fury—a bad stench—

In the same way, Erin Solstice was an asset. Look what she had wrought. You couldn’t kill someone like that. Not unless you were certain she wasn’t on your side.

“And therein lies the question. Whose side? Liscor’s? The Antinium? No—before you can change her allegiance, I must know where she comes from. And that question…”

That question he was so close to unearthing. Grimalkin had all the pieces. He’d taken her innocuous statements, her little hints, the knowledge that shouldn’t be there, the ignorance—and put it together. In the way of a true Fissivilian [Mage], he had logically compiled it into a visual format. He had an entire room in his studio devoted to analyzing her.

But his conclusion was…extreme. Even for him. The Drake shifted uncomfortably as he walked and a passing Gnoll paused to stare at Grimalkin’s entire body ripple as muscles all moved together.

His conclusion was extreme. But the evidence supported it and there was no other…alternative. Grimalkin didn’t know if it was the truth. But if it was—

No one could kill Erin Solstice. And indeed, the truth might drive the Walled Cities to their knees. However—it assumes I am correct.

Either way. The Drake shook his head. He quickened his pace. It still didn’t excuse Erin Solstice’s actions. Regardless of her origins, she was still someone who meddled in Pallass’ affairs. Who had cost the city—helped it—and caused trouble. Today, she had dealt Pallass a major blow. But Grimalkin had spoken out in her defense against the Council and Pallass’ high command. Because of his suppositions. If it was true—they needed Erin.

He just needed to be sure. Sure…the [Sinew Magus] had to lean on a wall as he approached the magical door and checkpoint. When he saw the waiting room inside, he did have to sit for a second, in one of the chairs. He stared at the newspaper, the vase of flowers, and the drawings on the wall. His eyes narrowed.

It had to be true. Grimalkin the Fist Mage waited until the door opened. He knew what Erin was.

“Dead gods. Ancestor’s bones give me strength.”

He whispered. The [Guards] shifted; they couldn’t square Grimalkin with the nervous Drake that sat there. And when the door did open—Erin Solstice herself stood there.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m checking, Lyonette! I—oh. Grimalkin! Hey!”

The huge Drake stared at her. At the brass ring on her finger. At the young woman’s clothing—casual. Even bright. But he had observed the others, with their strange clothing. Outlandish designs. He had heard their whispers, looking at him. Calling him a ‘bodybuilder’. Also, a ‘narcissist’, but that wasn’t the point.

“Erin Solstice. If you have—no. There is a situation that requires your presence.”

The [Mage] stood up. Erin blinked.

“Uh—is this about this morning? I can put this stuff away. I don’t want to cause Venim trouble.”

“This morning?”

Grimalkin glanced around. He shook his head, distractedly.

“This is a minor inconvenience compared to—the Assembly of Crafts is in uproar, Miss Solstice. You will have to come with me. Now.”

“Uh oh. I didn’t do it! I think!”

Erin began to panic. Grimalkin saw another woman appear behind Erin. Who was this? No, wait, he recognized her.

“What is it, Erin?”

“Nothing, Maviola! I mean—what did I not do, Grimalkin?”

The Drake folded his arms. He spoke one word and saw Erin’s face change.

“Pelt.”

“Oh. That…might be me. What’s happening?”

“He’s leaving.”

Maviola gasped. Her eyes went wide. Erin? Grimalkin saw her half-smile and then cover it. Her face turned into innocent shock.

“Oh wow! I mean—that’s not my fault! But good for him, right? He’s not happy here, anyways.”

She peeked at him. The Drake said nothing, but his eyes narrowed slightly.

“The situation demands your presence. Now, Erin.”

“Fine, I’m coming. Maviola—”

“I’m coming too. This is exactly what I was trying to teach you about, Erin.”

The [Lady] looked excited. Grimalkin sighed but took it in stride. He stepped aside.

“Let’s go. 9th Floor. We may make it in time.”

“Okay. Lyonette! I’m going to Pallass for a bit! It’s not my fault!

Erin shut the door. The two Human women began walking. Grimalkin followed them. Looking sideways at Erin.

“You don’t seem that remorseful.”

“I didn’t do it. M-mostly.”

She avoided looking at him. Grimalkin thought about the things he could do. The things the [Senators] wanted to do to her involved at least a public quartering. But they needed her. Dead gods, how would he convince even Chaldion of his hypothesis?

But it was true. Grimalkin was not an idiot. He exercised his mind like every other body part. He had noticed Erin’s inconsistencies. And over time, methodically come to the one logical explanation. He tried not to stare at her back, tried to make his silence feel like anger rather than—shock. Awe.

“How much trouble am I in, Grimalkin? Um…asking for a friend.”

He didn’t reply. The [Sinew Magus] followed Erin. Staring at her back. Yes. There was only one thing she could be. He had considered everything.

That she was the daughter of a Wall Lord of Salazsar. That she was a [Princess]. An adventurer. A Drathian—the disciple of Niers Astoragon?

A member of the King of Destruction’s court? A child of Rhir? Related to one of the Archmages—no—a descendant of a real [Archmage]? Nothing had been off the table.

But the truth was that there was no trace of Erin. Nor did she know enough about…anything. She knew too much, and too little. She had taught him about protein shakes. But she wouldn’t explain what a ‘protein’ was. He had no doubt she knew.

So—the Drake would learn. For now, he contained his awe. He worked on validating his theory. He looked at the back of the…time traveller. The girl from another era. It only made sense. The question he had to ask was simply: before, or after now?

It would make all the difference.

 

—-

 

Grimalkin was rather quiet as he marched them towards the 9th floor. Maviola was staring about, playing it cool. But this was her first time in the Walled City and she seemed—antsy.

“Something wrong, Maviola?”

The young woman jumped. She smiled at Erin.

“No—er. It’s just that this is something I never thought I’d see. My family hasn’t been to a Walled City…ever.”

Oh. Of course. She was Maviola El. This was probably the last place she wanted to be known. Erin had a crazy urge to mention her name to Grimalkin just to see his eyes pop.

But the Drake was already in a bad mood and that seemed like a stupid thing to do. Erin was tempted nonetheless.

“So…Grimalkin. Buddy.”

“Keep walking, Miss Solstice. This is a matter of high priority.”

Erin gulped. Grimalkin stared down at her.

“How mad were people…?”

“There will be a number of [Senators] present. I believe they were attempting to convince Master Pelt to remain. They also voted to censure your inn or even eradicate the doorway to block the move. The vote failed.”

“That’s a rel—”

“By six votes.”

“Ah. Um. Er…I’m sorry.”

Rather to her surprise, the Drake didn’t lecture her about responsibility, the consequences of her actions and so on. He just folded his arms as he walked.

“…I rather imagine you have no idea how close a vote like that is in the Assembly of Crafts since you did not grow up around Pallass, Miss Solstice. A democracy such as this…it was a close vote.”

“No, I know. I mean—I didn’t know about the Walled Cities.”

“Until you came here.”

The Drake glanced sideways at Erin. She shrugged, self-consciously.

“Uh—no. Not at all.”

His head drooped.

“Hm. Troublesome. One would have assumed the Walled Cities were a household name. When–wherever you were.”

Erin bit her lip.

“Well, I’m used to big cities. Buildings just as tall.”

“Oh? Well, names can change. But this kind of architecture isn’t unfamiliar?”

The Drake brightened up. Erin drew out her words slowly.

“No…er, but hey! I like Pallass! How’s the weight training going?”

“Oh, that? I have a lot of new apprentices. Most washed out, but there’s a lot of talent…enough about that. So, when you say buildings of similar architecture—”

The Drake cut off as they ascended the 9th floor. Maviola gasped.

“Craftsman’s hammers. So these are the forges of Pallass!”

Erin and Grimalkin both looked at her in some surprise. Of course. The 9th floor with its endless forges wasn’t anything new to them. But then they saw Maviola’s shining eyes. The wonder in her expression. And they looked again.

The pride of Pallass. Massive forges for working steel—and steel was what Pallass made. Enough industry to supply the entire Walled City and other Drake armies with Pallassian steel!

“There is no one place with equivalent industry. It’s a marvel. Why, if we had this in the north, we wouldn’t have to hire out to damn—”

Maviola El looked around. Grimalkin straightened in pride.

“Yes, well, Miss Maviola, isn’t it? Pallass is known for its metallurgy. We do not specialize in magical goods, but our steel is second only to Dwarf-craft. A fact Miss Solstice knows full well.”

She turned her head and pretended to whistle as he fixed her with a meaningful eye. Maviola broke out of her stupor and glanced about.

“That’s right. You had Pelt. W—er, I heard the Five Families tried to buy him.”

“Wait, you know Pelt too, Maviola? Small world!”

The [Lady] rolled her eyes along with Grimalkin. She turned to face Erin, exasperated.

“Erin. Everyone who wants to hire the best knows Master Pelt’s name. He is one of the best [Smiths] in the world. Or—was. There was a time when he was one of the Dwarf-masters of Terandria. His name was one you memorized if you wanted the best. Well, along with Cinadel of the Lapis Anvil, Doon of Invinctel, Forgemaster Taxus, and so on…”

“Uh huh. Okay. Pelt was a big deal.”

Was. And now is again. Thanks to someone. Which also makes this moment even more inauspicious.”

Grimalkin pointed. And Erin saw—across the usually-busy 9th—every forge had gone dark. The hammers had stopped pounding. Only the smelters continued—burning, but unmanned.

There was a gathering around one forge Erin knew very well. She saw Drakes, a few Gnolls, Dullahans—a familiar giant of a [Blacksmith]. And some people in robes. [Senators]. But as Erin walked forwards, she saw a shorter figure than the rest, standing there, arguing with the ones in robes. Speaking with others. She felt it in the air, even over the angry chanting coming from the lower floors.

“Pelt.”

Erin breathed his name. One of her…special projects? Her allies? No—

Her friend. Someone she’d reached out to. The proud, broken Dwarf [Blacksmith]. He walked across the 9th floor. Past lines of [Smiths], ignoring the [Senators] and people trying to get him to stay. They approached, and now heard his voice, a roar that could have been heard over the sound of hammers hitting metal.

Enough! I’m done with Pallas! I’ve been here over a decade; I repaid my debts. This is my choice! Shove off before I split your hands with a hammer!

Maviola and Erin saw the Dwarf shrug off a pleading hand, reply with a rude comment that caused the speaker to recoil. He looked ahead—and his eyes met Erin’s for a second. The instigator. Then he wheeled, answering sharply to someone else.

This wasn’t the drunk Dwarf that Erin remembered. This one had fire. He was still sort of a jerk. But he walked between the [Smiths] and they made way for him.

“Look at him. You lit his fire.”

The [Lady] turned to the [Innkeeper]. Erin saw. She saw what Maviola meant. To her it was different, though. She shook her head absently.

“No. I didn’t. I just found the real Pelt and woke him up.”

Maviola’s warm hand gripped Erin’s arm. Her smile was wide.

“That is what you and I do. You see?”

Erin did. Now, they were closer, on the edge of the out lookers. Pelt walked past the ranks of silent [Smiths] until he stopped. He looked up at a kneeling giant.

Maughin the [Armorer]. The Dwarf looked up at him. Said something. The Dullahan, holding his head, smiled. But uncertainly.

The [Smiths] looked like they were afraid of what was happening. Of Pelt—leaving. But Pelt’s reply made Maughin stiffen, then nod. The giant Dullahan [Blacksmith] put his head on his shoulders, then extended his hand.

Pelt shook his hand. He smiled, one of the few times anyone in Pallass could remember the expression on his face. Then he turned away.

His voice was louder now. Erin caught a fragment of it.

“You’d never level with me anyways, Maughin. Not chasing my shadow. I was not the greatest smith of Deríthal-vel. Nor will I ever be. Even of those of us that left—I was only the second. Find a better way of forging and surpass me. If you don’t—I’ll put you out of business.”

He walked on, never looking back. Erin Solstice saw three apprentices follow the Dwarf. One of them was Emessa. The Drake apprentice didn’t hesitate as she left her home behind. She followed her master. And he had lit a spark in her soul. She walked taller now.

Erin hadn’t done that. It had been Pelt. Maviola saw flames igniting each other. Erin just saw—connections. Pieces on a board. But also her friends.

And then he was walking towards them. The Dwarf looked at Erin, and she was conscious of every head swinging towards her. The [Senators] hissed or growled or fluttered their wings at her. The Dullahans just stared.

“Uh. Hi, Pelt. What’s up?”

He grinned. The Dwarf’s teeth flashed in the sunlight.

“Heard that damn Golden Triangle thing caused protests. Decided it’d be a good day myself. I’m leaving Pallass.”

“He can’t. We hired him! We paid your asking price! Master Pelt—don’t listen to this—this lowly [Innkeeper]!”

Senator Errif howled. He chased after Pelt. Erin saw everyone following; to avoid being caught by the angry ones, she and Maviola stepped after Pelt and the apprentices following him.

“Who’s the other Human? Smells like fire. Keep away from my forge.”

Pelt grunted at Maviola. She bowed.

“Master Pelt? My name is Maviola—”

“Like that old crone who tried to hire me for the House of El? Gah. I already don’t like you.”

The Dwarf snorted. Maviola’s mouth slowly closed. She raised a fist and then punched Pelt in the back. He stumbled, swearing.

“Gah! What’s your problem?”

“That’s my—namesake!”

Grimalkin glanced sharply at Maviola and his claws twitched towards his belt and a quill. Erin saw Pelt snort at her. Something came out his nose.

“So? You can tell her what I said. Word for word. You another fire freak like she was? Feels like it. First you—then you—I almost joined El over Pallass since it was closer, but I got tired with her fire-talk after the first minute.”

Maviola turned pale. Erin had to actually hold her back from kicking Pelt down the stairs. He strode on.

There were protests. The entire fifth floor downwards was filled with angry people. Erin saw the Watch keeping them back, though. Pelt snorted.

“Just another reason to get out of here. At least in a smaller city I’ll have less idiots bothering me at my forge. Incidentally—”

He pointed at Erin.

“—That’s the reason I left. Not because of you.

“Sure, Pelt. So—I guess people are angry about it?”

The second crowd chasing them seemed to be a good indication of this. But the [Senators] weren’t as fast on their feet and their robes slowed them down so that even Pelt could outdistance them. He jogged towards the door on the 8th floor, puffing.

Don’t let them leave! [Guards]! Close the checkpoint!

Sergeant Kel had a bad day. But Grimalkin put one claw out.

“Belay that order. Master Pelt is authorized to travel to Liscor.”

“Hey Kel. Tell Venim this wasn’t my fault either, okay? It was Pelt’s decision, right?”

Erin nudged Pelt weakly. The [Sergeant] stared at the master [Blacksmith] and then at Erin. Pelt strode through the gates. But the Assembly of Crafts put out one last desperate attempt.

“Master Pelt. We’d hesitate to stop you by force. You are a lawful citizen—”

“And you couldn’t stop me. I know my rights in your damned Walled Cities. You hold me a day and Dwarfhome will cease all trade with Pallass. And you lot still need our knowledge!”

The Dwarf glared. The [Senator], Errif, hesitated.

“—That aside. Master Pelt, we are all too willing to d—triple whatever Liscor is paying you.  Consider it a signing fee for another—five years?”

Erin inhaled. Pelt only thought for a second then shook his head. The door swung open and Erin heard a commotion on the other side.

He’s coming? Is it the Dwarf? Everyone line up! I can’t wait to see the looks on Pallass’ stupid faces—ahem.”

The Council of Liscor was on the other side. Pelt glanced up at them and then rounded on the crowd. He pitched his voice so they could all hear.

“You want to know why I’m going to another city? Easy. They made a better offer. Also, I don’t feel like having my work stolen by a thousand damn spies. I want to forge in peace and quiet. It was too much work to move before; this time it’s easy. Out of the way.”

He kicked a Drake [Senator] as he strode through the door. Erin covered a smile with her hand.

And Liscor’s Council was waiting there. They jumped as they heard Pelt’s words. But Lism bustled forwards, full of self-importance. Raekea and Alonna practically sprinted from the inn. Erin heard Raekea panting to Alonna.

“We have to get them to finish the woodwork! He didn’t tell us he was coming—where’s Master Hexel!?”

Inside the inn, everything was sunshine and gloating expressions.

“Of course. Master Pelt, your forge awaits. Free of charge, of course. Rent-free! And we’ll work out the particulars of your stay…”

Lism was rubbing his claws together, trying to bow and shake Pelt’s hands—both of which the Dwarf ignored.

The Dwarf looked at the Drake. And looked through him. At Erin. The [Innkeeper] saw him push through the Council. And the short man looked up at her. He paused a second there, contemplatively looking around Erin’s inn. Then Pelt grunted.

“Well, this is your fault. I told everyone that.”

“Um. Thanks.”

He grinned. But he was alive. Burning as Maviola saw it. But Erin just saw him put his hands under his apron and scratch at his stomach.

“Thing is. I always liked Scales and Tails. But you promised me drinks. And Lasica’s cooking isn’t that good. I drink my meals, so if you can replace Rufelt’s fancy stuff with a keg…think it’s a good idea? You told me to try.”

The [Innkeeper] looked at all the angry people. But that was a byproduct of almost everything she did. She looked at Pelt and saw the smile on his face. So she smiled too.

“Yeah. I think so. So—you’re coming here?”

“Hm. Let’s see.”

The Dwarf looked around. He narrowed his eyes.

“Too much damn wood. Flammable. But there’s magic here. Even if it’s channeled. Good ore comes from Liscor when it’s winter. Drake cities—there’s worse places to be. Nice security. I hate water, but it’s better than having Human gangs running the place.”

Everyone held their breaths. The Dwarf touched the hammer at his belt.

“I could make a masterpiece. With privacy. With proper apprentices, equipment—I’ll have to forge the tools myself, source the ingredients. But if no one steals my work, I could make proper blades.

He spoke to shake Pallass and Liscor, as if everything before now, even the Grasgil axe, all his begrudging art had been just trash made in his sleep. The Dwarf inhaled.

“Yeah. A forge here…what do you think, Emessa?”

He turned to his apprentice. The Drake’s eyes were shining.

“We could make a proper forge, master. To your specifications. Even here…

She gestured around the inn. Erin’s breath caught. The Dwarf nodded. Liscor’s Council looked at each other. The [Senators] looked like they were having strokes. Pelt looked around.

“Liscor. Hm.”

He walked down the hallway. Senator Errif ran after Pelt, through the magic door. The others fought to get through and it turned off, leaving only a handful with Maviola and Grimalkin.

“Master Pelt! Let’s talk about this! We can offer twice the space Liscor has! And far better accommodations—”

“Excuse me! This fine Dwarf has made his decision!”

Lism jostled with the Gnoll as the [Senators] and Councilmembers fought to get Pelt’s attention. Threats were exchanged—fighting broke out. Erin just followed Pelt.

The Dwarf walked back and stopped at the magical door again. It was open to Liscor. He looked back at Erin.

“Miss Solstice. I still owe you one favor. Despite the damn mithril thing. Not sure…”

He passed his hand over his face and his expression went perfectly blank for a moment. Then he shook his head. And then he smiled. For a moment, he looked at the magical door. Krshia had set it to Liscor. And he looked like a grandfather, many decades older than Erin, a young man remembering his passion, a [Smith] regaining his fire. He reached out—

And slapped the door shut. Erin jumped. Maviola blinked. The fighting Council and [Senators] stared as Pelt reached up. He was too short.

“Apprentice! Change the door!”

Emessa hurried forwards. She adjusted the dial. Everyone stared. Erin’s mouth opened.

“Wait a second. That’s—”

The door opened. Pelt strode forwards.

“Aha. I’m expected, am I? Is my forge ready?”

And the Human man on the other end bowed.

“Master Pelt—it is. We’re honored to have you.”

The Drakes, the Gnolls, stared. They looked in horror as Pelt walked forwards, through the door. He had been stolen. By—

Humans?

Lism whispered in horror. Errif’s jaw dropped.

“Invrisil?”

And Erin’s smile vanished. She shouted.

Magnolia Reinhart?

She looked at Pelt, her eyes bulging. Betrayed. The Dwarf looked back. And he laughed in her face. He laughed his ass off. He laughed—and Erin realized—she was wrong.

“Wait.”

The door had opened onto a street. Not an inn. And even if it had been moved—this was the wrong street. Her eyes narrowed. Then widened as she realized the trick Pelt had played on them. On them all.

It wasn’t Invrisil. It was—

Esthelm.

The small Human city of [Miners] situated north of Liscor was turned out to see the Dwarven [Smith]. Pelt walked past their Watch Captain and head of the militia, a man she’d met before—

Umbral. The man who had taken over the city’s security. He had helped Erin with a coup this one time. He was bowing to Pelt.

“Master Pelt, we’re delighted to have you. We have your quarters for your apprentices. And your forge. We even have a small celebration in your honor…”

“Good to hear it. But I want to make sure my forge is ready first. Save your celebration. Maybe cheer these idiots up with it.”

Pelt jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the speechless crowds. He smiled, in the best of moods and walked forwards.

Esthelm cheered him. The people turned out of the stone houses built into the city that lay in the middle of the High Passes and the road heading north from Liscor. The mining folk—who had suffered the Goblin Lord’s assault—were shouting Pelt’s name. And why not? Here was a master [Smith]. In their city.

Not Liscor. Not Pallass. Not Celum or Invrisil. It left the others speechless. But despite herself—Erin found a huge smile on her face. Maviola was crestfallen. But she didn’t get it.

Look at him. Pelt looked so happy.

“But why Esthelm? It doesn’t have anything!”

Lism spluttered. The [Senators] were just as appalled. It was Pelt who snorted.

“Doesn’t have anything? Esthelm provides all the damn ore in the region! They offered me iron for copper.

And that was what mattered to a [Smith]. More than drinks. More than a Walled City. Erin marveled. Of course, someone like Pelt wanted those things. So it was a good thing he had a magical door.

“You brilliant jerk.”

Erin whispered. Then she was through the door like a shot. She hugged the annoyed Dwarf, but he didn’t brush her off for a good six seconds. Erin laughed until he shoved her off, growling curses.

They left behind the angry people in Liscor’s inn. Esthelm’s ruling body of Master Crafters—who had replaced the military leader that Erin had helped get rid of—cheerfully body-checked the [Shopkeepers] and [Senators]. Esthelm’s legislative body was made up of [Miners], [Shepherds], and tough people; in the war of knocking each other down, they were Gold-ranks.

“I hear there’s some good lots in Esthelm. Umbral, was it? [Sigilists]. [Gemcutters]. I want to talk with all of ‘em. Some of the magical metals take tricky things. You give me what I want—I’ll pay for it. No one spies on me but my apprentices. And I’ll cut Esthelm in their share of my sales.”

“Of course, Master Pelt. They’re all waiting to meet you.”

“They are, are they?”

That pleased him. Pelt walked past cheering faces, affecting not to notice them. But Erin saw him glancing at children waving little hammers, people who knew his name. His reputation. He smiled, and hid the expression in his beard.

“Grandfathers, but I never get peace and quiet anywhere. The price of being too good at my trade, I suppose.”

Erin snorted. Umbral gave her a mystified look as he nodded. Maviola, fuming, stomped back to the inn.

Someone else trotted after them. Erin turned her head. She saw Montressa—Beza—and—her face broke into an excited grin.

“Psst. Pelt. Pelt. I want to introduce you to some friends. [Mages] from Wistram.”

“Hm? Oh, fine. This parade’s for me, but ruin my day, will you? I suppose knowing a few decent [Mages] is important. Although I was going to work with Hedault of Invrisil. Who’s this lot?”

The Dwarf turned around. All three [Mages] bowed. Montressa lifted her staff.

“Master Pelt? I am Montressa du Valeross, an [Aegiscaster] of Wistram. This is Bezale, a [Spellscribe], and—”

Erin nearly shoved her aside. She grinned eagerly as she indicated the Centaur with two hands.

“Pelt. I want you to meet…Palt. Hah!”

The young woman looked around excitedly. She laughed, slapped her thighs—and realized no one was laughing.

Pelt blinked at Palt’s name, but the Centaur just bowed.

“Master Smith. It’s an honor. I’m an [Illusionist]. I realize our classes aren’t that complimentary, but we wanted to introduce ourselves to such an important [Smith]. All our factions would love to speak with you.”

The Dwarf looked at Erin, still waiting for someone to laugh with her. He opened his mouth to shout something insulting—then caught himself. He nodded at the Centaur after a moment.

“I’m sure they would. But I’m getting set up. Come by later, I suppose, Emessa will make an appointment. You want more of that thing, huh? Something’s odd about the insides. Crystal magic? Fine. But later.”

He pointed. Montressa jumped. Everyone turned to stare at the brass shock orb hovering behind her. Palt bowed. And the Dwarf went on.

“I don’t like Wistram. But a [Spellscribe]’s useful. You—Minotauress—we’ll talk. You’re staying at The Wandering Inn, right? Anyone who can put up with her deserves some sympathy.”

He jerked a thumb at Erin. She looked indignant.

“Hey! Is no one going to talk about the names? Pelt? Palt? Huh? Huh?”

The others looked at her. Umbral, Pelt, Palt, Montressa, Beza…the Centaur slowly puffed away on his cigar. He offered Pelt one; the Dwarf refused it.

“I pity you bastards. Alright, Umbral, show me my forge. And do me a favor?”

“Anything, Master Pelt.”

The man bowed. And the other leaders of Esthelm and craftspeople were coming forwards. Pelt jerked a thumb at Erin.

“Get rid of her. She’s bothersome to my work.”

Erin saw every head turn to her. She wavered.

“Hey now. Pelt, that was a joke, right? We’re best buds! Hey—don’t shove—Pelt, say someth—Pelt, you traitor! Traitor!

 

—-

 

Pelt of Deríthal-Vel heard Erin’s voice growing softer in the distance. He had travelled far from his home. But he would always be from there.

The Dwarf was old. Old—and young. A lad, really. They called him a master. But he had seen masters. If he had stayed—

Perhaps it was better he’d left. As he had told Maughin, greatness came from challenging, not copying. If only he had known that and left with his head held high. Rather than disgrace.

The Dwarf’s eyes grew dark. He nearly stumbled and fell—in front of all the Humans. But though that blasted girl had—knocked the rust off him, he couldn’t confront the last.

This was enough. Pride in metal. Pride in your craft. Pride in yourself. What good is the quality of the steel if there was no heart in the hand the held the hammer? Damn that Dullahan.

Maughin would be a master in his own time. For now—Pelt murmured something as Umbral led him to the forge.

“You don’t have to kick her out of the city. That was a joke. Didn’t you say you owed her countless favors?”

“Of course, Master Pelt. But you said—apologies.”

The man bowed, flustered. The Dwarf saw him hurry off. And he sighed as he beheld his forge.

Ah. That is what I wanted.”

The others stared. Some dismayed. Liscor’s Council, other [Smiths]—the aghast [Senators] made no effort to hide their disdain.

But the [Mages] were smarter than that. Out of the corner of his eye, Pelt saw the fiery-haired Maviola—much like the old woman he’d refused to serve—inspecting the forge.

“Hm. Interesting.

The forge was—primitive. Not like Pallass’ grand forges ready to shape steel, or even Liscor’s new one meant for him. At first glance it seemed crude.

Oh, the people of Esthelm had worked hard. The stone and mortar made a large, large building. Three times larger than any other forge. And they’d built it carefully, leaving no flaws.

It just lacked pomp. Expensive wood, color—who needed that? It had more. Pelt stomped into his forge as his apprentices stifled their dismay.

“Living quarters. Good. Don’t care. Put my stuff in a room.”

He shouted at the apprentices. Then he turned to regard the forge. He found the smart ones already there. Palt, the Centaur, nodded to him as he trotted around an anvil placed in a magical circle.

“Sub-compartmentalized rooms. Each one blast-enchanted?”

“Good eyes, Baleros brat. You’ve seen smithies before?”

“Not like this.”

Beza murmured. The Minotauress eyed the multiple anvils. One was made out of stone. Another in the magical circle—and there were multiple forges. Mostly shells; Pelt would have to customize them.

“What is this, Master Smith? I have been in the House of Minos’ forges, but never seen this.”

“Bah. That’s because your lot doesn’t forge magic. This is magic. I’ll need to hire someone to make sure the forges can get hot enough. Stone melts, damn the stuff. You’ve never seen Wistram’s smithing halls?”

“Few smiths come to Wistram with the talent anymore.”

Montressa emerged from another room, brushing frost off her robes. Grasgil would be made there. Pelt grunted; he didn’t mind them looking. Wistram had stolen forge designs; they wouldn’t get his metals, though.

“What a waste. Alright. You lot clear out! It looks decent. But where’s the standard anvils?”

“Here. Master Pelt—”

There were mundane ones. Pelt chose casually; they were all alike.

“Get it out there. In the open. Huh. That one’s got a fucking crack. Get rid of it!”

He kicked the offending anvil. There was a flurry and other hands dragged his chosen anvil out.

The crowds were still there. Pelt strode past the annoying flies—people from Liscor and Pallass. He looked around.

“Apprentice! Emessa, damn it. Get your tail out here!”

The Drake appeared and Esthelm’s people murmured. But the Antinium had rebuilt their walls and she carried a hammer. She was familiar to them because of that.

An angry [Innkeeper] was dancing about in the street. But she’d brought a Gnoll and one of Terandria’s [Princesses] to see him. Pelt recognized the hair color. Also, the way Lyonette carried herself.

He didn’t care. The Dwarf looked at Emessa.

“Set up the outdoor forge. I’m not hammering hot; steel temperature. And get me the crystal.”

Her eyes widened. The others stirred. Maviola glanced at Pelt.

“You’re going to do some hammering?”

The Dwarf didn’t reply. He glanced at Maviola, and then narrowed his eyes. Grandfathers, it was her. The same flame! You couldn’t copy that. He shuddered. Magic potions and immortals. He was just a smith. He didn’t say a word though; he had kept far greater secrets than hers faithfully.

He only knew one thing. The Dwarf saw the [Innkeeper] approach. He made no sign he saw her. She had a big enough head already.

“Say. Centaur. Palt’s the name, right?”

The [Illusionist] jumped. He took the cigar out of his mouth.

“That’s right, Master Smith—”

“Enough with that. I don’t care. Nor do I care about Wistram. Or petty Walled Cities or anything else. I just move metal. I was happy enough to drink myself to death. Or so I thought. That damn Human. Just—tell me something. In her inn. She has a Hobgoblin, right?”

The [Mages] exchanged a worried glance. Maviola just narrowed her eyes and looked around. Palt nodded slowly.

“One. Numbtongue.”

“Right. I saw that bugger a few times. Uses a sword, right? Longsword? Decent steel but someone’s notched it a thousand times.”

“Yes…”

The Dwarf nodded. He’d known that before. He didn’t bother asking if it was the preferred weapon; odds were the Centaur didn’t know and Goblins used whatever they could grab.

Where’s my crystal and fire, apprentice?

He roared. The crowd jumped. Emessa, though, was used to it.

“Heating up, master! Any pick on steel?”

She had billets ready for him. Pre-made. Pelt knew the steel on each was perfect, but he still chose carefully, examining micro-fragments. The minutiae of the alloy material in the steel itself. He selected one, grunted.

“It’ll do. Heat it up. Now—I’m ready.”

There he stood. The crowd was murmuring. At last, one of them called out. She was a [Smith]. A Human woman, talented for her brief time. That was the thing. Smiths leveled faster the shorter their lifespans.

Ah, but true skill took decades. Centuries, even. That was the unfairness. Pelt felt for these young children. He had been born with an advantage—and he hadn’t squandered it. Every day of his youth he’d swung a hammer. And he had longer than them left to live, even with diluted blood running in his veins.

But don’t scorn them. The Dwarf inhaled. And then he bellowed.

That’s right, Mistress Smith! Have you not heard of the tradition of every Master Smith who has mastered at least five of the great metals beyond steel?

The crowd blinked up at him and shook their heads. From Pallass, the [Smiths], including Maughin raised their heads. Pelt kept one eye on the steel in the fire. He drew a hammer and looked for Erin again.

There she was. The Dwarf’s voice was no less loud, but more conversational as his apprentices laid out tools for him.

“Well, it’s simple. The custom is that a true master should—nay—must, upon moving to a new place, a new land, prove his worth. For great masters move seldom! They travel—ah, but when they move, they should demonstrate their craft. By forging in public some blade or work of art. Large or small. It’s no grand tradition like Terandrian kingdoms have. Just respect for the metal.”

“You never did that when you came to Pallass!”

A voice. Pelt threw his hammer. Senator Errif ducked as the hammer cracked the very flagstones of the street and then flew back towards Pelt. The Dwarf roared back.

“Well, I didn’t feel like it. I do now. Apprentice! Where’s my crystal?”

“Here, Master!”

And there it was. The Dwarf sighed as he drew something out. Everyone saw a long, long sliver of…red-gold crystal? Mrsha climbed onto Erin’s head and then leapt onto Maughin’s shoulder for a better look. The Dullahan tried to make sure she wouldn’t fall as he called out.

“Master Pelt! What is that?

Crystal. That’s all, Maughin. The kind that cuts sharp and hurts whomever it touches.”

The red was mixed with gold. Truegold—a ghost-killer’s blade. But the crystal could cut mere steel. And it would not break easily. Nevertheless, it was too costly; all he had was a tiny amount, stretched long.

An edge. The crowd murmured. Maughin stared at the beautiful, thin crystal. The Dwarf was taking care not to even lay the edge down on the anvil, lest it cut into the iron.

“Does it have a name, Master? It must.”

The Dwarf glanced up, irritated. But perhaps that was the act. He replied curtly.

“Everything has many names in smithing, you Dullahan pest! Some call this crystal Cridel. The deadly blood of Baleros! Others knew it of old as a different thing: Dragonblood Crystal.

Silence. Someone laughed, disbelievingly. The Dwarf shrugged.

“The edge is good. I have little of it. But this would make a fine blade, even with steel to hold it. Steel and iron. So look, people of Esthelm. I am Pelt of Deríthal-Vel! And look, you annoying [Innkeeper]! You insane wretch of a girl!

He bellowed as he raised his hammer and pointed it. Erin jumped. She saw the Dwarf raising his hammer high, as he grabbed the steel out of the forge at the perfect temperature. He bellowed.

This is my art! ‘Let the world remember only what I have made!’”

Fine words, uttered by his friend. The Dwarf’s hammer fell. It struck the metal, bounced up, and came down again.

First, it was a single beat. Then—a ringing in the air. Then drumming.

Faster. Faster. Until each blow rang in the air and the watchers thought the anvil itself jumped with each blow. The steel moved like water under the hammer, but not without function. Shifting, changing.

Folding. Lengthening. Erin had seen the Dwarf do it once before. For her knife. He was using the same technique; folding the metal to create a sandwich. And there, a glittering edge waited.

But the difficulty of it was different. When the smith placed the glittering edge in his waiting sword—his thunderous hammering became as quiet as butterflies landing on the anvil. He refused to strike the crystal, melded the steel around the edge so gently that it seemed like each individual tap did nothing. But slowly, the metal engulfed the glittering edge.

A master’s work. He couldn’t have been at his work longer than an hour. Just one hour, to forge a sword. Insultingly short for anyone else. But before the hour was done, Pelt was removing scaling with a single motion, adding a design into the edge of the blade, fitting it to a hilt.

And when he was done? The sword had only one edge. The steel was polished, and it gleamed like a grey mirror. Beautiful with oil and polish.

But the red and gold shone like the very edge of the blade dripped with the blood of some magical beast.

Dragonblood Crystal. And Truegold. It was attached to a simple handle with a guard for the hand. And the smith regarded it thoughtfully.

“A simple piece. I had not the materials for anything greater yet. The edge—the rest of the blade is expendable. But the edge can be fitted again and again. And if treated with care, it shall last a year of war. A decade without. A century if only worn about and carried like a damn heirloom. While it lasts, it will cut down anything it touches. Like so.”

He turned the blade and brought it down. Erin saw something fall from the anvil.

The horn. The Dwarf sliced again, and another chunk came loose. The crowd gasped; the blade was beyond a razor’s edge. Pelt held the blade and Erin saw him smile.

“It will be long before I forge a blade worthy of legends such as I have seen. But for now—this suffices. So. Take it.”

He stepped out from behind the anvil. Erin saw him walking towards her. She looked around and stepped out of the way. But Pelt followed her. He held the blade in a cloth grip.

“Don’t touch the edges, girl. If you lose a finger, I won’t take responsibility for it. Don’t trip either.”

She blinked. Lyonette gasped and Mrsha stared. From where she stood, Maviola’s eyes blazed. The [Mages], the other [Smiths] were silent. Erin looked down at Pelt.

“Wait. Me?

“Give it to that damn Goblin with the disgusting piece of metal he calls a sword. Yes, for you. Or did you think we were quits? I don’t forget my debts. This is better than the Grasgil.”

The [Innkeeper] looked at him. At a loss for words. She looked at the beautiful sword.

“Um. How much is it? I can pay—”

Someone laughed. It was Pelt. He laughed and threw his head back. He looked at Erin, shook his head, and laughed again.

The [Innkeeper] stared at him. Then she heard a giggle. Lyonette and Mrsha were laughing, the Gnoll silently, Lyonette trying to stifle the noise. Then Erin smiled. She saw the silly humor too. She laughed as well, and hugged Pelt, keeping away from the blade. She kissed his cheek and whispered.

“Thank you. Don’t stay away from the inn.”

“You can give me as much free drinks as you want, then.”

She hugged her silly, grumpy, friend. And he gently hugged her too.

The [Innkeeper] took the beautiful blade in a sheath back to the inn. A Hobgoblin got a new sword.

Just in time for the riots to get markedly worse.

 

—-

 

In Invrisil, a mob was marching on Magnolia’s estates. It had taken the [Lords] some doing—to get the crowds to move out of Invrisil and actually march to Magnolia’s mansion. Because it was several miles outside of the city, perhaps for that exact reason. Travelling salespeople, thieves, and mobs all had to walk and were conspicuously exposed on the approach.

But they’d done it. People were angry. Their money was gone. Lost to ‘The Golden Triangle’, which had turned out to be nothing but an idea. Words that stole your money and gave back promises.

What made them so angry was that the fraud had been exposed—but no one was held to blame. Wistram had ended the illusion. But they hadn’t cleaned up the mess. Now—people wanted to blame someone.

And why not Magnolia Reinhart? Lord Andel, Lord Ranga, and the other [Lords] had convinced thousands to move out of the city. Now they were marching on Magnolia’s mansion.

Chanting.

“Give us our money back!”

“Hold the Merchant’s Guild responsible!”

And so on. It wasn’t one idea. Some wanted the Mage’s Guild to be held to account since their [Messages] had been so instrumental to the scam working. Others blamed the [Merchants], who should have known about all this. Or the Adventurer’s Guild, because of the fake adventuring teams they’d been sold on. And many wanted Magnolia herself to pay them back. She was, after all, rich, and the [Lady] of Invrisil.

Anger ran in the streets. Desperation. It wasn’t just young men, but mothers, fathers—people who had nothing left because they’d put everything into this grand new thing.

Pain. Well, the Hobgoblin understood that fairly well. Numbtongue sat in the hallway, listening to the crowds passing by The Player’s Retreat outside. He knew Erin and the others were in Esthelm; he wasn’t keen on returning, even to watch the Dwarf.

The memories were too painful there. So the Hobgoblin listened to the riot. It sounded like pain to him. The angry voices were angry because they’d been hurt.

Not physically. But money mattered to Humans and other species like blood mattered to Goblins. Numbtongue understood. And didn’t at the same time. He understood from living here that if you lacked money, you could die. Suffer. Money mattered.

At the same time—they were alive. They had their health. They were angry that something bad had happened. And they expected someone to do something about it.

That was what made the [Bard] cynically amused. Darkly furious. What arrogance. He strummed harder on the guitar. If you could be helped by begging, Goblins wouldn’t die.

But that was a very Redfang thought to have. A very Goblin complaint. Numbtongue still felt bad for them, the sad and raging people. That was an Erin-thought. And in between the two emotions he just felt concerned.

“Thousands of people. Could probably kill everyone in that inn.”

He commented to Drassi. The Drake glanced at him as she checked the door for travellers from other cities. Veeid, the [Innkeeper], turned pale before the door flickered to a view of Liscor.

“That’s pretty dark, Numbtongue.”

“Just saying. No reinforcements on the windows, not enough [Bouncers]. Bad-bad. Needs good hallway like this.”

“Should we be concerned? Listen—there’s protests in Liscor.”

Drassi pointed. The door was set to Liscor now and both heard angry chanting. But not on the level of the riot. Numbtongue had seen people in Invrisil armed with rocks, sword—even bows. Even city folk had weapons on the level of daggers. Liscor’s crowds were, as yet, unarmed.

Dismissively, the Hobgoblin adjusted the guitar’s chords.

“No problem. Even if Invrisil crowds attack us, they have to get through the other inn. Same with Liscor. Then they’re here. Nice hallway. Could probably hold it forever.”

He approvingly looked around Belgrade’s trapped hallway. If someone held the doors they could take even a thousand people to bits. Their only fear was running out of acid jars and crossbow bolts to shoot through the arrow slits. And Numbtongue had helpfully ordered two thousand more bolts with the inn’s funds.

The Drake [Gossip] didn’t seem to understand Numbtongue’s satisfaction with a good kill zone. She gave Numbtongue a sidelong look as she switched to Celum.

“Why will they attack the inn, Numbtongue? They’re mad at other people.”

“Sure. But this is just in case. Right?”

“Uh…right?”

The Hobgoblin went back to playing his guitar. He didn’t like mobs of Humans. If you were caught outside, now—even a hundred Redfangs would eventually die to thousands of angry Humans. Riots were scary things. No one seemed to get that; everyone was behaving normally, as if the riot in Invrisil wasn’t bad. But he was concerned, which is why he was sitting here. A few lightning bolts would really help if the mob came calling.

Or a few [Deathbolts]. Why won’t you take my hand?

Reiss sat there. Numbtongue glanced up.

“I don’t like you.”

“That’s hurtful, Numbtongue.”

“Not you, Drassi.”

“Oh. Excellent.”

It was more that he was nervous. Numbtongue adjusted his guitar again. Pyrite, now—Pyrite was part of him. Which meant that Numbtongue had all his memories. He could think about thinking—he was a better fighter. And he had an inordinate amount of knowledge about rocks thanks to the memories of the Goldstone Chieftain. That was…fine. Pyrite had been a great Goblin.

But Reiss? Numbtongue feared what his memories, his personalities would do to him. Nevertheless, he hadn’t banished Reiss. The dead Goblin Lord was like a cursed blade. If Numbtongue needed him to defend the inn, he’d take Reiss’ offer. Until then—the Goblin Lord sat patiently.

Waiting.

They will never take Magnolia Reinhart’s mansion. My master, Az’kerash, told me about her. The Reinharts have a vast treasury of artifacts hoarded over millennia. She could crush them a hundred times. She also has an alliance with that Dragon.

“Mhm. Reinhart scary. Pink knights? Think I could kill one?”

Numbtongue glanced towards the common room. He hadn’t missed that Lady Bethal, the dangerous Thomast, and those [Knights] kept eying him. Reiss replied thoughtfully.

Enchanted warriors. You’d suffer. Their armor is top-class. Their Skills and levels—less so. I could. I have. But that [Chevalier] will kill you fast-dead.

Pyrite’s memories nudged Numbtongue. The [Knights] and Lady Bethal fighting Rags’ tribe in the forest. The [Bard] bared his teeth. He also remembered Pyrite’s conversations with that Ser Kerrig. However, he was disinclined to speak with them himself. Why were they here?

“Don’t attack the guests, please, Numbtongue. Lyonette and Erin will have my tail. Hey, anyone coming from Celum? Last call!”

A Human walked through. He started as he saw the Hobgoblin; Drassi reassured him.

“That’s Numbtongue. Read the sign, thank you!”

She pointed to the ‘No Killing Goblins’ sign. The Human stared at Numbtongue. He waved.

“Hi.”

“Er…hello?”

The man shuffled off quickly. Numbtongue went back to playing. Drassi sighed.

“I wish this could be automated, Numbtongue. I mean—it’s not hard, but every fifteen minutes? Okay, Wailant’s farm. Anyone here? No? Good! Now, Pallass…and then you can go back to watching riots.”

She switched the dial to the yellow gemstone, and the door shifted. The two saw the waiting room, now spruced up with decorations from this morning. And sitting in two of the chairs were—

Sir Relz and Noass. Numbtongue glanced up as the two Drakes jumped. They stared at Numbtongue. But then they focused on Drassi.

“Dead gods! At last! We’ve been waiting!”

Noass practically shoved his way through the door. Drassi backed up as Sir Relz and a Gnoll assistant holding a scrying mirror hurried through.

“Noass? Sir Relz?”

“Hm? Is that our sports-person? Drassi, is it? Excellent! Transport to Invrisil at once! We can pay. What’s it—eighteen silver for three? Here. Keep the change.”

Noass fumbled a gold piece into Drassi’s claws. She blinked.

“I—uh—I can do that. But what’s going on? Invrisil has riots, Mister Noass. I have to warn you—”

“My dear young Drake. That’s precisely why we’re going. We just got word. And we’re broadcasting this live!

Sir Relz adjusted his monocle. Noass was rubbing his claws together.

“We’re broadcasting live the moment we go through. Scrying mirror set? How’s things on Wistram’s end?”

“Good, Noass. Wistram is preparing to broadcast.”

A voice from the other end. Numbtongue peered around the Gnoll holding the mirror and saw a [Mage] in a room filled with mirrors. The Dullahan jumped.

“Is that a Goblin?

“What? Oh—yes. Numbtongues or whatever. Just part of the inn, Miss Beatrice. Miss Drassi, Invrisil?”

“I—okay. I guess I can let you through. Are you sure, though? There’s a lot of angry Humans.”

The [Gossip] hesitated. Both Drakes nodded, impatiently. Numbtongue on the other hand—eyed the mirror.

“I wouldn’t. Bad idea. You’ll get eaten.”

Sir Relz and Noass paused. It was, perhaps, the first time the Hobgoblin had ever spoken to them. Or they had acknowledge his presence beyond stares.

“Excuse me?”

Sir Relz peered at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin had a feeling he was being appraised. He stared up at them from his cross-legged seat.

“Riots are bad. You’ll get hurt. Or make them worse.”

He glanced pointedly at the scrying mirror. Noass huffed.

“Thank you for the warning, Sir Goblin. I think we know what we’re doing, don’t you?”

“Nope.”

There was nothing to say to that. The two Drakes glanced at each other, then deliberately turned their heads and pretended Numbtongue didn’t exist.

“The door is open. But maybe Erin should—”

Drassi glanced at Numbtongue, but the two Drakes pushed through and their Gnoll camerawoman followed them after a moment. Numbtongue sighed. He heard Noass talking rapidly.

Are we live? We’re live! Hello, this is Noass coming to you from Invrisil! We’ve just received word there’s a riot happening about The Golden Triangle fraud and Sir Relz and I are giving you the premium, exclusive coverage as-it-happens—

“Idiots.”

The Hobgoblin called through the door. He was rewarded with a spluttering sound and his voice was broadcast, for a moment, worldwide. Drassi covered her mouth in horror.

“Numbtongue!”

But then the two Drakes were gone. Numbtongue sighed. He expected them to come back in pieces as he sat there, listening to the riots. But in that way, the [Bard] was wrong. He let Drassi go back to waiting tables and kept playing music. The shouting in the distance didn’t change as Sir Relz and Noass left the inn.

Meanwhile, the pink Rose Knights and Veeid were fortifying the inn—perhaps due to Numbtongue’s words. Boarding up windows, blocking the back door, and so on. The Hobgoblin watched with one eye, playing song after song to pass the minutes by.

But he heard the riots moving away from Invrisil. Towards Magnolia’s mansion. He supposed he was wrong; only one [Lady] was in trouble, and if Reiss was correct, not in much trouble at all. He got up, deciding that if it was all-clear, he’d go play on Kevin’s laptop or mine something.

That was when he heard a worried voice.

Numbtongue?

The Hobgoblin looked up. He saw Drassi peeking through the door at him. The Hobgoblin tensed.

“What’s wrong?”

“I think—you were right. Numbtongue, the riots—”

The Hobgoblin stood up. He checked the sword at his side—glanced through the door and shut it. Then he realized something.

The shouting didn’t stop. Slowly, he turned his head. The shouting was coming from the other door. The one leading outside. He stared at Drassi.

“Liscor.”

She slowly nodded and pointed. Numbtongue followed her. Into the common room. There he saw Lady Bethal, Thomast, and some of the guests staring into a scrying mirror the [Lady] held.

We’re—we’re seeing the crowds marching on Lady Reinhart’s mansion! There’s fury in the air, right, Sir Relz?

“That’s right! People are incensed! And—and rightly so! The devastation this Golden Triangle fraud has brought about is unconscionable! People need to hold someone to account! The question is—stop pushing—is it Magnolia Reinhart?”

The mirror was showing Sir Relz and Noass in the middle of the riot. People were shouting. Screaming. Some—were fighting to shout into the mirror. Numbtongue saw a mass of angry faces. He felt a prickling down his spine.

The air was electric. Even just seeing the mob had an effect. On Numbtongue—it was the prelude to a fight. But that was because he was a Goblin, he had no stake in this matter. In the inn—it was different.

“They’re right. Those bastards at the Mage’s Guild did this!”

Menolit pounded the table with one fist. The [Veteran] was simmering. And his mood was being echoed and amplified by the scrying orb.

“They’re broadcasting the riots. I hope Magnolia doesn’t deal with them too harshly.”

Bethal was calm. Unconcerned even by the people moving on the distant mansion. But Thomast had another take. He glanced at the scrying orb, around the room. He noticed Numbtongue, but then looked at the orb.

“They shouldn’t be broadcasting this.”

“Whyever not, Thomast? It’s topical.”

The [Chevalier] glanced at Menolit’s face. The Drake had lost money to the Golden Triangle. And there was more simmering in the room.

“They’re making this worse.”

 

—-

 

Riots were like wildfire. To use a Maviola-expression, the anger spread from person to person. But until now, riots were still contained to a city, a region, a nation at worst. What no one had predicted until now was the effect of something like…the world’s most popular and only news show broadcasting that kind of fury to other disgruntled cities.

In Liscor, people watched Invrisil’s protests. And the fury there amplified. Spread. If the Humans were rioting, well, why in Rhir’s hell shouldn’t we? The fury that had been suppressed by the Watch bubbled up again. And this time it ran hotter.

Pallass too. Chaldion emerged from the [Healer]’s clinic on a crutch, snapping orders.

“Stop those broadcasts! Someone go to Invrisil now and get those two idiots to stop! Send a [Message] to Wistram!”

Too late. Pallass’ protests on the 5th floor turned ugly so fast Chaldion saw the relatively peaceful crowds turn on the Watch. The [Guards] holding back the crowd from the Merchant’s Guild were hit by something. Chaldion saw an explosion, heard screaming—

Flashpowder Orb. Someone had tossed an alchemical weapon. The [Guards] reached for their weapons. Which was a mistake. The instant one of them drew a sword, covering his wounded friends, the crowd reached for their weapons. Chaldion pointed.

“[Long-Range Command]. [Rapid Retreat]. By my order as Grand Strategist, do not engage the crowd you idiots—

Too late again. Someone leapt forwards. A hothead Garuda with a dagger, brandishing it. Chaldion saw, with his one good eye, a Drake whirling. The Garuda youth was fast, but the [Guard] was quicker. The sword came up—the Garuda blinked. Everyone stared at the sword buried in his gut.

In the silence, the Grand Strategist cursed. And then—Pallass erupted.

 

—-

 

By the time Erin returned with the sword—things were very bad. An hour, or even a minute could change a lot. And the noise from the city—Liscor—had taken on a bad tone.

“Uh oh. Uh oh. Uh oh.”

From his tower, Bird saw bad things. He heard bad things. He felt bad things.

Liscor was on fire. He counted seventeen separate sources of smoke. And he heard very many angry people.

The Antinium Worker saw no birds. That was always a sign. You had to watch the Birds. He always told Mrsha this.

 

Look up. There are probably birds.

            –Bird’s Observation on Birds

 

Usually, they flew around the Floodplains, even if they kept out of his range. But right now—everything was hiding. Animals sensed moods. And accordingly—so did Bird.

It was like an entire Hive of angry people. Bird listened.

“—they’re fighting with the Watch! Erin, what’s that sword—”

From his tower, he heard Drassi’s voice. Bird was always in his tower. That did not mean he saw or heard nothing. In fact, he often saw and heard more than everyone else. Just from a different perspective.

“Bad, bad. Uh oh. You stay here.”

The Workers who had been helping make his tower looked at Bird. The [Bird Hunter] waved at them.

“No going to the Hive. It’s bad-bad in the city.”

“Bad, Hunter Bird?”

One of the Workers looked at Bird. The communication between them was—odd. Workers didn’t usually ask questions. But these ones had been at Erin’s inn. They had experienced luxuries like time off, snacks, and so on. Bird nodded.

Bad. Stay here.”

“We may use the secret passages, Hunter Bird.”

The same Worker pointed out, speaking for the others. Bird looked at him. The [Hunter] shook his head.

“No. Silly Worker. Be sh—be quiet. That is not the point.”

They looked at him. Bird glanced around, counting.

“You stay. So we can fight. If needed.”

The Workers went still. Bird remembered other Workers. An inn under siege. Right now—he felt the same tension in the air. But instead of undead—it was Drakes and Gnolls. All of them turned towards the city. Bird whispered.

Can you feel it?

They looked at him. Bird’s antennae were waving rapidly. He turned his head. He could hear Erin below, demanding answers of Drassi. Other people—Lyonette telling Mrsha to go into the garden again. But his senses reached beyond sight, smell, hearing. He looked towards Liscor.

“Bad things are happening. To us.”

 

—-

 

What did people in Liscor have to be angry about? So many things.

Monster attacks. The Golden Triangle. The damn sewer stench. But that was just backdrop. There was more.

The Antinium. The Humans coming into their city. Goblins. Some people didn’t care. But Liscor’s election had been fraught. And of late—the Human population had swelled. The Antinium’s true numbers in their Hive had been exposed and Lism had run on a campaign of distrust.

It just took angry people. People who had lost gold. People who really didn’t like Antinium.

There had been mobs on the day The Golden Triangle fell apart. But the Watch had suppressed them fairly effectively. Now, though—they looked at the images of Invrisil and when they took to the streets this time, the people were armed.

Disperse back to your homes! This is an unlawful gathering!

Watch Captain Zevara bellowed as a line of [Guards] advanced. It wasn’t martial law—yet. But the armed crowd had converged on the Mage’s Guild and the Council had ordered her to protect the building.

A hundred [Guards] blocked the streets. More were surrounding the Merchant’s Guild, other sources of fury. The crowd shouted; some people threw rocks, bricks; there was a surplus of ammunition with the new district under construction.

“Hold ranks! No one is to return fire!”

Zevara shouted at the Watch hiding behind shields and barricades. She wasn’t about to risk a clash. And indeed—the crowd wasn’t about to charge a line of [Guards]. Zevara saw people milling about. Her eyes narrowed.

“What are they doing? Are they pulling back…?”

That was when she saw the first smokestack rising. And she realized—

No crowd of people attacked a line of [Guards]. They weren’t mad. They were furious. And since the Watch was guarding this street—the riot just moved to the next street.

Market Street began to burn. Zevara’s head snapped up as the first report came in.

“Watch Captain! They’re torching buildings!”

“What? Why?”

“Residential apartments! Places where members of The Golden Triangle were!”

The Watch Captain cursed.

“Get me a squad of high-level [Guards]. We’re taking everyone who was part of The Golden Triangle under protective custody! Move!”

Then she had a thought. Relc. Zevara turned her head. She left her line of [Guards] behind. Took a squad of forty into the city.

The first thing she saw was Humans on the street. Refugees from Celum—fleeing. They’d been evicted from their homes. Then Zevara passed by a burned shop front.

“A member of The Golden Triangle. Find them.”

Jeiss took a second squad. The Councilmember had left the rest of the Council in City Hall. Zevara ordered her [Guards] to speed up.

They came upon the first mob attacking another target. The Drakes and Gnolls saw Zevara’s squad coming around the street and fled. She saw a shape lying on the ground. The Watch Captain pointed.

Guards! Arrest that group!

The [Guards] pursued—but the mob was too fast. They just ran. And Zevara saw the shape on the ground huddled into a ball. She approached. And saw blood. But not red.

Green ichor. The Worker lay on the ground. He had tried to protect himself, but without fighting back. He’d managed to shield his face, body—from the worst of the kicks and blows. But his antennae were torn off.

Healer!

Zevara shouted. She approached the Worker.

“Worker. Hello. Are you—”

The Antinium jerked away from her. The Worker scuttled away, running. Zevara turned. Her view of the mob changed again.

“They’re going after the Humans and Antinium. As well as members of The Golden Triangle.”

“Watch Captain? We lost the mob. What order, Watch Captain?”

A [Guard] panted, coming back from chasing the crowd. Zevara hesitated. Her instinct was to tell them to fan out, secure any Workers and escort them back to the Hive now along with the Humans. But then she heard a roar.

No more outsiders! No more lies!

A distant shout. Magnified hundreds of times. Zevara and her small squad looked about. They saw torches, armed Drakes and Gnolls. They filled the street, some hurling objects. Others were taking advantage of the confusion to loot shops.

Here they came. The squad of forty saw a flood of angry people coming at them. Zevara didn’t even pause to think.

Back to the Mage’s Guild! Move!

The Watch retreated. The mob spotted them and broke into a run. There was no individual person there—who might respect the Watch, know a few [Guards] personally. It was just angry people whose every grudge was out in the open. The Watch retreated. The injured Worker hid in an alley.

Bird felt the Worker’s fear.

So too did the Free Queen. And Xrn. In the Hive, Yellow Splatters looked up as the first Workers began to flee into the Hive. Pawn ran for them and saw the blood.

 

—-

 

Erin had thought it was bad before. Now—it was worse.

Pelt’s sword was almost an afterthought as she returned to The Wandering Inn and found that things had escalated without her knowing. The Invrisil broadcast had lit sparks. For once, Maviola’s analogies were appropriate.

“They’re kicking out Humans. Attacking Workers. But they’re mostly after members of The Golden Triangle. I should have stopped Noass and Sir Relz! I just thought they were going to report what was happening! But people saw the riots in Invrisil and—it got bad, Erin.”

Drassi was panting. She’d gone into Liscor but fled after only a few minutes. Ishkr was missing. He’d been allowed to go home early.

But that was a bad thing, now. Numbtongue was inspecting his new sword. He grunted.

“Inn’s safe. No one else. Don’t go into hallway.”

He sat by the door to the common room. Ironically, the magic door had been moved to the common room. The danger wasn’t something coming through there—it was a mob converging on the inn. Erin looked around.

“What’s Zevara doing?”

“Holding parts of the city. Economic districts, the Watch House—only a few streets. There aren’t enough [Guards].”

Drassi answered for Erin. The [Innkeeper] looked askance.

“What about the rest of the city? She has to protect the Workers! People are attacking them?

“Yes.”

Bird had come down from his tower. He had brought his bow. He was, Erin realized, handing out crossbows to the other Workers. She saw Numbtongue nodding.

“No. What are you two doing?”

Both Worker and Goblin looked at Erin.

“Preparing.”

“For a riot? No. We’re not killing people. We can still do something. Maviola. You have your aura! I have [Crowd Control].”

“Don’t be an idiot. You can’t control a riot. Even a [Queen] hides when the mob marches on her palace!”

Maviola snapped. Erin shook her head. She looked around.

Palt! Get over here! And my lanterns! Where are they?”

She had an idea. The [Innkeeper] marched into the kitchen. When she came back—she was holding something.

The cold-fire lantern. Maviola eyed it.

“What is that?

“Depressing fire. Palt—come with me. Montressa, Beza, do you know any spells like Palt?”

The Centaur [Illusionist] looked up. So did Montressa and Bezale. They blinked to be addressed by Erin.

“Us? Well—sure. But why?”

“We’re going into Liscor. To stop the riots. Palt, you know [Calm], right. Can’t you cast it on…?”

Erin waved her hand at the door. The Centaur frowned worriedly.

“I have a lot of spells, Erin. But mass mind-control spells aren’t a good idea.”

“I don’t want you to control them. I just want you to stop them from attacking people. I’ll use this.”

Erin opened the shutter of her lantern. Maviola shaded her eyes as the depressing, cold flame washed over her. Montressa shuddered.

“Hey, that’s—wait, you’re going into Liscor?”

“Yeah. And you’re coming too.”

“Erin. This is not a good idea.”

Lyonette began. But the [Innkeeper] whirled.

“I should’ve tried this on Invrisil’s riots. Palt, Montressa, Beza—Maviola? Uh—Lady Bethal?”

The [Lady] looked up blankly from where she sat with Thomast. Maviola just shook her head.

“No. Absolutely not. Erin, your Skills aren’t going to work like you think.”

“What am I supposed to do?”

“Stay here!”

Half the inn chorused. Palt shook his head as he trotted over.

“Erin. Even the Elusive Lot would have trouble with this. I don’t think—”

He halted as Erin turned to face him.

“Palt. I need your help. Please help me. Montressa—Beza. Please.”

The Wistram Mages looked at each other. Doubt was written across their faces. But after a second, Beza nodded.

“Better than sitting around.”

“Beza!”

Montressa looked worried, but Erin took that. She yanked the door open.

“Let’s go!”

“Erin! This isn’t a good—”

Lyonette didn’t reach Erin in time. Something slowed her on the way to the door. Maviola cursed; of all the times for Erin to learn—

Beza strode after Erin and then Palt and Montressa followed. Erin found herself in the streets, suddenly surrounded by noise. She looked around.

“Okay. Okay—let’s do this.”

“Erin. This really isn’t going to w—”

The [Aegiscaster] was cut off by Palt. He blocked her with one hand. Erin wasn’t listening. She had to do this. She’d caused crowds to appear. She could force them to stop, right?

It wasn’t hard to find the mob. Erin just had to follow the shouting.

She found them outside of City Hall. A group of Drakes was surrounding the lines of [Guards], throwing things at the building. A few had made primitive firebombs out of alcohol or alchemical items. Or just oil.

Stay back!

Senior Guardswoman Beilmark was leading the [Guards] holding the doors. They weren’t advancing and the crowd wasn’t getting closer. They were chanting, Erin heard.

No Lizards! No Lizards!

Give us the Minotaur!

Erin’s blood ran cold when she heard that. She counted; there were hundreds filling the square. The [Mages] looked worriedly at each other.

“That’s a lot of—”

Palt raised a finger to his lips. He pulled out a black cigar, but didn’t light it. Montressa du Valeross watched as Erin Solstice surveyed the crowds.

Montressa liked Erin. Despite it all. The [Innkeeper] was extraordinary, besides her nature as someone from Earth. She was the most accomplished, highest-level Earthworlder that Montressa knew of. She was also—insane.

Not just about this. She made friends with Goblins, liked the Antinium—but she had the same kind of mad genius that some of Wistram’s best [Mages] had. Montressa could respect that. But in this—Erin was over her head.

“Okay. Cast [Calm] and spells when I start talking. Got it?”

“It’s not going to work.”

Montressa’s voice went unheard. Erin didn’t understand! The [Mage] looked at Palt; he should know more than anyone!

Mass-control spells existed. [Mass Calm], for instance—Montressa knew it. But her lessons in illusion magic told her this was not the crowd to try it on.

Then again—this was Erin Solstice. The [Innkeeper] strode forwards. The Crazy Human of Liscor raised her lantern.

Hey!

Her voice was louder than the crowd’s. They turned. They saw the blue flame. The young woman concentrated.

“What are you all doing? Who’s killing Calruz? Who’s attacking Workers?”

The Drakes and Gnolls turned. They saw her. Erin Solstice. The flames washed over them and they faltered. Montressa heard the chanting falter.

“The flame.”

She breathed. She remembered it. What a dirty trick! But she remembered Erin’s instructions.

“[Mass Calm].”

“[Calm]. [Calm].”

Beza was casting the spell on individuals. Montressa saw a group of twenty lower their weapons. She grimaced. This was not her forte. Then she heard Palt murmur.

“[Calming Winds].”

The Tier 4 spell conjured a breeze. Montressa felt her own heart beating slower as the wind blew. For a moment—before her natural spell resistance took over—she felt herself draining of the worry, the fear and anxiety—

And Erin was speaking. She waved the lantern. The saddening fire burned bright.

“Hey! Listen. Who’s attacking Hexel? He’s my guest! And Calruz? This isn’t right. I know you all! You know me! Who’s angry at Humans? The Antinium aren’t bad! Let’s all just put down our rocks and stuff, okay? I know you’re mad. But…why don’t we go to my inn? Free drinks! Free cookies!”

The crowd stared at her. The [Mages] kept casting; Montressa saw faces slackening. Staring at Erin. She saw Erin smiling.

“Let’s play some football! Hey—hey, Palt. We’ll get Joseph and Kevin to set it up. A few tactical sports games and everyone will forget about this.”

She turned her head. The Centaur glanced past her. He had the black cigar in his mouth.

“Maybe. But Erin—”

Hey everyone! Let’s play some soccer instead of smashing things, huh?

The [Innkeeper] turned back and shouted at the crowd. Her cheerful voice rang out. And Montressa felt something snap.

“Soccer?”

A Drake near Erin blinked. He passed a claw over his face. And Montressa saw—Beza’s [Calm] spell fading from him. He looked at Erin. She smiled.

“Sure. Free drinks, soccer—what about it?”

The bronze-scaled Drake looked at Erin. Just—uncomprehendingly. He stared around. And then his brows crossed.

“Will soccer pay for my rent? I have no more money. What am I supposed to do? I won’t have a home in a week.”

Erin’s smile faltered.

“But—that’s bad. But breaking things doesn’t solve anything. Let’s all calm down.”

The Drake was breathing heavily. Montressa pointed at him.

“[Calm].”

But it didn’t work. Illusions spells lost their potency the more you used them in rapid succession. The Drake’s eyes flickered. Then he stared at the flame. In Erin’s lantern.

He was quicker on the draw. And Erin was being far less subtle about it than when she’d used it on Montressa and Beza.

“What are you doing? That fire—what’s that? You—you think everything’s going to be better if I have a drink and eat a cookie? And kick a stupid damn ball around?”

The other Gnolls and Drakes started. Montressa felt sweat running down her back. She heard Palt muttering.

“[Fog of Apathy]—”

This time mists began to coalesce. Dampening emotion. And it worked—but more and more people were beginning to notice. They pinched each other, gritted their teeth.

And the air became electric. A Gnoll stared at the fire. And then at Erin. He focused on Palt and spoke.

“They’re using spells on us.”

Erin’s face froze. The murmur was muted. People blinked. And then—they all realized it at once. Erin Solstice raised her lantern.

Listen to me—

The blue flame went out. The [Innkeeper] stared at it in horror. Palt’s fog tore to wisps and dissipated. Montressa felt her spells fizzling out. She couldn’t even cast [Calm]. In a moment, the air grew hot.

Beilmark cursed as she saw the crowd swing around. Erin Solstice stood there. She focused. Trying to make the others calm. She concentrated—

The dam burst. The Drake screamed in fury. He ran at Erin, a fist raised. Erin dropped the lantern. She was faster. She decked him.

[Minotaur Punch]. The Drake went sprawling. The crowd stared at Erin. The [Innkeeper] looked around. Montressa was backing up.

“I think—”

Kill them.

The roar came from dozens of voices. And the mob rushed forwards. If they had been angry before—the calming spells had doubled their fury. Now they tore forwards at Erin—and City Hall.

Guards! Hold them back! Clubs only! No blades!

Beilmark snarled. The [Guards] had a chokepoint. But Erin and the [Mages] were on the streets.

They ran. Erin just stared for a second in horror as her plan backfired. The first rank of the mob came for her, reaching, cursing—

They smashed into a barrier in the air. Montressa raised her staff.

“That won’t hold them for long! Run!

“Damn, damn—”

Beza grabbed Erin. The [Innkeeper] turned and ran. Palt was already pointing.

Back to the inn!

All three [Mages] ran. They had ten seconds before Montressa’s [Forcewall] failed and the crowd streamed after them. It could have blocked multiple [Fireballs], but the sea of people pounding on it was just as effective. Erin had dropped her lantern. She ran—but Gnolls and Drakes were in the crowd. Only Palt was faster than them.

Dead gods—

Montressa saw someone leaping at her. She raised her staff; a wall of stone knocked the Drake flat. The others just boiled around them. They had bows! Erin saw Beza stagger as something hit her. A brick!

Stop! I said—

“It’s not going to work. Get behind me.”

Palt turned. The three passed him. Erin turned.

Palt!

The Centaur stared at the mob. Slowly, he lit the black cigar. Black smoke rose from it. He inhaled so hard nearly half of it ashed in a moment. Then he exhaled.

[Volcanic Smokescreen].

Black smoke rushed forwards. The entire street was consumed in an instant. Erin heard panicked voices, screams as people collided. She slowed—Palt turned.

Run!

He galloped past her. Erin didn’t understand why at first. Then—she saw the first high-level member of the mob racing out of the smoke.

A furious Drake with a block of wood in one claw. She didn’t know his class until he tossed the log of wood. Then she realized.

He was a [Thrower]—

Montressa’s barrier blocked the block of wood before it hit Erin’s face. The piece of wood exploded. The sound was like a thunderclap. The Drake cursed, picked up a stone.

“[Stone Dart]. Run!

Beza pointed. The stone bullet hit the Drake in the chest and he vanished into the cloud. But more people were coming out of the smoke.

This time all of them ran. They went for the door. Erin was gasping, clutching at her side and Beza was shouting for Montressa to run faster. The [Aegiscaster] gasped.

“[Haste]—”

She sped up. Erin ran for the open door. She saw Palt urging them through.

“Hurry! Get through! Get—”

His eyes widened. He pointed.

“[Air Sh—]”

The brick hit him in the chest. Erin saw the Centaur hit the ground. She turned around.

The mob was on them in a second. Someone yanked Erin off her feet. She punched a snarling face, heard Montressa shouting.

Palt! [Five-Fold—]”

Her voice ended in a strangled noise as something hit her. Beza rose. Of them all, the Minotauress was fastest.

[Iron Skin]. [Haste]—she laid about her, knocking people off her feet. She grabbed Montressa and was covering Palt as he struggled to rise. Erin was surrounded. She felt someone yanking at her hair.

Stop!

She hit someone else. [Minotaur Punch]. Then Erin’s hand was on her kitchen knife.

A claw raked her down the side of her face. The [Innkeeper] felt the burning pain. She closed her eyes.

No, please no.

She drew the deadly blade. Erin felt the air grow hot. Then—the person holding her burst into flames.

She heard screams. The air turned to fire. Erin froze, blade ready to stab. She saw people stumbling back. Then she heard something else

“[Fast Fireball].”

A [Lady] pointed. From her finger a [Fireball] spun up, a bolt of fire. It detonated just over the heads of the crowd. They all ducked. Maviola pointed.

Burn.

Her aura reached out and a Drake was covered in flames. Shouting, screaming in alarm, the crowd backed up. They grabbed for Erin—still enraged. Someone seized her—

“[Power Strike].”

Pyrite kicked the Gnoll into the air. He grabbed Erin, grunted.

“Bad idea. Let’s go.”

He towed Erin back. She saw a blur—another [Lady] stood at the door. Bethal and Thomast, his sword drawn. Palt, Montressa, Beza—Maviola was last. She slammed the door shut as her fire winked out.

“Change the dial.”

Lyonette swiveled the dial and the sound cut off. Erin lay in the hallway, panting. The other [Mages] collapsed. Numbtongue blinked as Pyrite vanished. Maviola stood there. Her dress wasn’t even singed by the fire she’d called forth. She looked around, counting, and then stared at Erin.

That. Is how you use an aura. You cannot stop a riot with just spells.”

“Not at our level. It was worth a shot. I’m bleeding.”

Palt groaned. Erin rose.

“Palt? Are you…?”

The Centaur looked up at Erin. His chest was torn open. Lyonette bent.

“A potion. You’re bleeding. Erin—your face.”

The [Innkeeper] had been raked across her face. She let Numbtongue apply a bit of potion. Then she stood there.

“I’m sorry. I thought—”

Her confidence was gone. She’d thought she could stop them. She knew Liscor’s people. But that had been—Erin looked around. Montressa wouldn’t meet her eyes. Beza shook her head.

“Never in the House of Minos. Madness.”

“I thought that might happen. But it was worth a shot. A lesson.”

Palt shakily got to his hooves. He looked around. Maviola nodded at Erin.

“Your plan was flawed. I told you, Erin.”

Her gaze was accusatory. Erin wilted.

“Yeah. Yeah.”

“It was a good effort. Wuvren might have done it, with help. She can charm a crowd. I have seen it done. My mother once halted a riot.”

Lady Bethal spoke distantly. She looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] inhaled.

“I guess I can’t. Okay. Okay…Numbtongue? Thank you. Maviola, thank you. Palt—I’m so sorry.”

“What are allies for? Let alone friends? My Master would be disappointed in me. I should have prepared [Invisibility], but that’s hard to cast in quick succession.”

The [Illusionist] grinned weakly. Erin stood there. She rubbed at her face.

“I understand now. I guess…Lyonette? Is Mrsha in the garden?”

“Along with the beavers and Apista. Should we go there too?”

Erin Solstice looked at the [Princess]. Blankly. Then she shook her head.

“Not yet. How many people are in the inn, Lyonette?”

“I don’t know?”

“Feels like…eighty. The Players of Celum…the [Knights]? Lady Bethal, right?”

“That’s correct. They’re in Invrisil.”

The [Lady] was watching Erin. Not without sympathy. The [Innkeeper] had blood on her face. Erin looked around. She rubbed at her face.

“Palt. Beza. Montressa. I owe you one. But I might need another favor. We should—pass out those crossbows. Loaded.”

Maviola stirred. Lyonette slowly looked at Numbtongue.

“Already done. Bird’s in his tower.”

“I doubt the mob will come for the inn. It’s too far, Erin. They might, but your inn’s sturdy. They’ll turn their anger elsewhere.”

Palt panted. Erin blinked at him.

“Maybe. Either way—can we get the [Knights] in here, Bethal?”

The [Lady] blinked.

“I could—order a handful here. But Invrisil is also enduring a riot, even if most are headed towards Magnolia’s estate.”

“Please?”

The [Lady] exchanged a glance with the [Chevalier]. She nodded slowly, looking faintly…disappointed.

“Only naturally. I shall give the order.”

“Good. Numbtongue, Beza—is Pallass bad too?”

“Yes. But Chaldion’s declared martial law. We opened the door to check.”

Lyonette looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] set her jaw.

“Maybe…okay. Numbtongue, Beza—Palt, Montressa—I’d be grateful if you helped.”

“Absolutely, but Erin, your inn is secure.

The others looked at the [Innkeeper]. She was going overboard. Erin looked around.

“I know that. But I need those [Knights]. How many. Six? Plus Numbtongue, Beza, me, Palt, Montressa—Maviola?”

“Erin Solstice. What are you doing?”

The [Innkeeper] turned.

“Ishkr’s in that mess. So is Ekirra, Visma—the Workers. What about Selys? She’s at the Adventurer’s Guild.”

The others looked at her. Lyonette opened her mouth furiously.

Erin!

“We’ll grab the door and move it. And check. Or should we leave them?”

“You’ll be torn apart! Didn’t that teach you anything?”

The [Innkeeper] gave Lyonette a flat look. The [Princess] wavered. Slowly, Erin walked over to her emergency box. Saliss had given her many potions. And she’d bought more from Octavia. Erin picked up a bag of Tripvines and checked it.

“Absolutely. Palt?”

“Yes, Erin?”

The Centaur looked at Erin. Not with the exasperation written on Maviola’s face, but a calm look. Even expectantly. Erin glanced at him.

“How many people can you cast [Invisibility] on at once?”

Numbtongue glanced at Erin. The Hobgoblin’s eyes lit up. And Palt smiled.

“Let’s find out.”

 

—-

 

It was all reaching a critical point. Yellow Splatters stared at the Workers flooding into the Hive. Many were hurt. They’d been attacked by the mobs on the streets. Those that had been closest to the Hive had fled.

Some hadn’t made it. Some were alive. Xrn calmly stared upwards.

“They are hurt. Some will die.”

“Some have died.”

Pawn whispered. He knelt over a Worker, clasped his hands. The Worker’s torn antennae stumps healed. But the missing appendages did not. The Worker stopped shaking—reached up. Pawn clasped his hands with two of his.

“I am so sorry.”

“It is not your fault.”

Xrn’s eyes were black. She looked above. Yellow Splatters clenched and unclenched his hands.

“They have turned on the Antinium.”

“Yes. What did you expect?

The Antinium didn’t know what to say. The Free Queen however, remembered.

It has happened again. So once, when we first settled in Liscor. Now again. Abide.

Her command came through their mental link. The Antinium—shuddered. Yellow Splatters disagreed. He looked at Xrn.

“Prognugator. Those Workers are innocent.”

The Small Queen heard the anger in his voice. She looked around at the silent Painted Antinium, bearing witness. Xrn smiled. Fury and light in her eyes.

“Yes. So what will you do?

 

—-

 

The riot had reached Magnolia’s mansion thirty minutes ago. Now—the mansion was under siege. Lord Alman saw people trying to scale the walls. Break down the flimsy-looking metal bars on the gates.

Unfortunately—of all the riots occurring in the world, this was the least successful. Those two wretched Drakes were reporting on it.

“—hearing reports of riots from Pallass! Ancestors! Should we go back, Sir Relz?”

“I think so, Noass. The protests here have hit a standstill. As you can see—the people cannot even get into the mansion. And from what we understand—Lady Magnolia Reinhart doesn’t even appear to be in residence! Something of an embarrassment, yes?”

Lord Alman glowered at them. Drakes. But they were right. He saw someone trying to climb over the walls of Magnolia’s mansion. The man got to the top of the low-flung wall—and the air shimmered. He was casually knocked off the wall and into the crowd below.

“Ensorcelled walls. Even the damn gates.”

Lord Ranga was cursing, his face pale. A team of people were hauling on the gates, having attached ropes to them. But a team of two hundred couldn’t so much as make them budge.

Magic. The high-quality kind. The [Lords] sat together, feeling foolish. The mob was growing restless. They had gamely tried to draw Magnolia out. But a [Maid] had appeared and told them she wasn’t even here.

Worse—the people weren’t trying that hard to enter anymore. Mainly because they had spotted something that made even the angriest rioter pause.

A sixteen foot tall Steel Golem. It was armed with sword and shield. And it was just—standing at the gates. Not just one, either.

The tall War Golems weren’t the same as the ancient ones Magnolia had used on the Goblin Lord. But that was like saying a Gold-rank adventurer wasn’t as bad as a Named-rank. Lord Alman started sweating just imagining trying to fight one without an army.

“Ranga. I think it’s clear that this is a disaster. We should go.”

Alman spoke intensely. Ranga hesitated. He clenched his fists on his reins as his horse danced nervously.

“We’re so close! This is on the scrying orb!”

One of the other [Lords] was actually giving an interview to the two Drakes, talking about the unfair [Trade War]. But Alman was more and more convinced this wasn’t a good look for his House. He shook his head.

“I’m minded to leave myself, Ranga.”

“Alman! We’re in this together!”

“I apologize. But frankly, I don’t see the point of—”

The [Lords] heard a roar. They spun, hands on weapons. And then they saw it.

At last. A pink carriage shooting down the road. The crowd stared. Then they surged forwards. The [Lords] wavered. Then they spurred their horses.

Magnolia Reinhart!

The roar was fury. Noass and Sir Relz spun, and the camera-Gnoll raised her device.

There she was. The pink carriage raced towards the mansion as if the driver wasn’t even aware of the crowd. They were spreading out, angry people with ropes, weapons. Ready to slow the carriage—

When it slowed. But it didn’t slow. The carriage moved faster than any horse in the world. Everyone knew its reputation. A bandit-killing vehicle on the road. But Magnolia Reinhart wasn’t crazy. She could see—

It didn’t slow down. The angry sea of people wavered. They began to turn. Now trying to get out of the way. Just in case—

The carriage raced at them. People screamed. Lord Alman’s blood turned cold. She wasn’t going to—

“Dead gods! Noass! Are you getting this? She’s going to ram—

At the last moment, the carriage’s wheels glowed. It rose upwards, and shot over the heads of the crowd screaming in horror. Everyone fell silent.

They stared at the flying magical pink carriage as it casually flew over the gates of the mansion, the mob, and landed on the other side. Lord Alman’s jaw dropped. Ranga turned pale.

“It can fly?

“—Er. Of course, anyone familiar with the specifications of the carriage would recall that—but it appears Magnolia Reinhart is there herself!”

Sir Relz recovered. He pointed.

And there she was. Magnolia Reinhart. The doors opened—

And a grumpy half-Elf emerged. Everyone stared at Teriarch, or Grand Mage Eldavin, as he kicked his way out of the carriage.

“Infernal magical devices. This one feels slower than it used to be. I’m going to rest.”

The Dragon grumpily walked out of the carriage, addressing the person inside. Magnolia Reinhart herself. He hadn’t noticed the crowd. Indeed, it was only as he was walking across the grounds when he heard their roars of fury.

The Dragon stopped. Perplexed, he looked around. Rubbed at one ear.

Then he saw them.

He stood there and saw the angry mob approaching the gates. The Dragon heard their furious shouts.

Magnolia Reinhart! Come out!

Give us our money!

The [Lord]’s voices were mixed with that of the protest as they tried to ride through the throngs of people who weren’t willing to part for them. The Dragon blinked. He stared at the furious faces and then at the [Lady] emerging from the carriage with Ressa.

“What is this, then?”

“Mm. It appears to be an angry mob.”

Magnolia Reinhart herself hadn’t known about the riot until recently. She’d had difficulty extricating herself from Lady Edere’s company at the Sanito House. Now—she wished she’d never left. She stood there, looking at the angry crowds.

“Ah. Ressa, how disappointing. Do you see? So that is where Lord Alman was.”

“Yes. And several [Lords] of the realm.”

The [Head Maid] surveyed the crowd without fear. More people were trying to climb the gates, or bring them down. Without success; they could hit the barriers all day.

The two women were calm. Even if Magnolia was annoyed. She tapped her lips, just surveying the crowd.

How disappointing. And I suppose—ah, yes. I even see those two Drakes. So that is why half the cities in Izril are suddenly rioting.”

She’d been perplexed by the reports. Now it made sense. Magnolia Reinhart’s eyes narrowed. But the effect on Teriarch was far more immediate.

The Dragon turned to look at the mob. Magnolia saw his face harden. Turn bitter. She glanced at Ressa, worriedly. Then she saw the Dragon’s shoulders slump. He looked at the gates, at the people pounding on it, demanding Magnolia to come out.

“As I understand it. You did nothing about this Golden Triangle nonsense, Magnolia?”

“No, Teriarch. I rather think this mob has been persuaded to call on me to demand their money back. By the [Lords].”

The Dragon nodded. He bowed his head. Magnolia clenched her fists. Of all the times! He had been perfectly happy this morning. But now—she saw a shadow cross his face.

“Your subjects, Reinhart. See how quickly they turn to drag you down? That is the nature of people. Devouring. Thoughtless. How will you deal with them?”

He judged them harshly. With weary cynicism. How many protests had he lived through? Magnolia’s lips thinned.

The shouted insults and jeers didn’t affect her as much as the Dragon. She spoke, crisply.

“I should usually let them bang on the gates until they go home. But since this crowd would have never come here but for those [Lords]—I rather think I should grant them the audience they desire. Ressa?”

“As milady wishes.”

The [Maid] smiled. Or her lips did something equivalent. Teriarch looked at them. He snorted once. Turned away.

“Do as you will. I find myself too tired to deal with this. I will watch.”

He walked over to the mansion, the spring out of his step suddenly. Exhausted. Magnolia looked at him and then turned to the gates. Her eyes narrowed. Oh yes. Someone was going to pay.

This was how she greeted them. The [Lady] swept forwards in her shockingly, affrontingly pink dress. The crowd grew louder as Magnolia approached the gates. Like a beehive sensing the intruder.

Magnolia Reinhart waved an elegant hand as the [Lords] and [Commentators] fought forwards. She spoke, brightly.

“Good evening, ladies and g—”

Someone threw a rock. Well, a lot of people threw things as she came into range. They bounced off the shimmering force field in the air. Magnolia sighed.

“Excuse me? I say, might I have a—”

We want our money back! Stop this [Trade War]!

Voices roared at her. Magnolia waved a hand, but the noise was overwhelming. She shrugged. And brought her foot down.

Silence.

A shockwave rippled through the crowd. Noise stopped. Teriarch sighed; the only sound in the sudden hush. Magnolia Reinhart stood there, calmly looking from face to face.

“That’s better. Now, good evening to you all. What, may I ask, has brought you all here?”

Lips moved. But something was holding the shouts of fury down. Some of the higher-leveled members of the crowd could speak, though. Magnolia heard a voice.

“The Golden Triangle. We want reimbursement!”

She stared at a face in bemusement. It was a Gold-ranked adventurer. She blinked at him.

“You, my good man? Aren’t you an adventurer? Tobi the Turbulent, or something.”

Todi, the leader of Todi’s Elites, hesitated as every eye fell on him. But he shouted, clenching his teeth against her Skill.

“I lost almost everything on The Golden Triangle! Same as everyone here! You’re the [Lady] of Invrisil—shouldn’t we be paid something back?”

Yes, exactly. Todi wasn’t the ideal mouthpiece—but the crowd managed a swell of voices. Magnolia waved them down. She looked calmly around.

“Ah, I see. This terrible business with The Golden Triangle. You’d all like your money back, would you?”

Yes! The [Lady] paused to let the noise fall.

“And why is it my fault? Did I tell you to spend the money? Did I end the Golden Triangle? Why not petition Wistram? They rather crudely brought the scheme down. But at what point did I assume responsibility for your decisions?”

Silence. Then someone shouted.

“But it wasn’t our faults! We were tricked!”

“Indeed you were. And that is quite tragic.”

Magnolia Reinhart smiled. Only, it wasn’t a smile. She looked at the shouter.

“I still do not understand why it is my responsibility to fix your mistakes. You all invested money of your own will. Perhaps it was too much. Perhaps it was tricked and you lack for everything. But why must I amend your faults?”

“Because you’re Invrisil’s [Lady]!”

Todi bellowed back. The crowd echoed him. Magnolia sighed.

“And that means I should hold your hands? Cover your every ill? I am quite happy to end a plague, or reimburse damages from a storm. But this was no storm. This was your choice. Should I then replace a baked loaf of bread you let grow stale and moldy? If you lame a horse by your poor care and riding, should I buy you another?”

The stinging words were not endearing her to anyone. And Sir Relz and Noass were capturing it all. Todi blustered, pointing a finger at Magnolia.

“So that’s it? What’re you going to do?”

Nothing.

Magnolia’s calm reply made the Gold-ranked Captain freeze. She looked at him and he quailed. Magnolia Reinhart glanced around.

“I do not owe you money. I rather believe you have been misled to protest here. Ladies and gentlemen—I am a great fan of charity. I do not believe in covering for other’s mistakes. You may demand as much gold from me as you wish. And you are welcome to protest. But you may not enter my mansion. You may try, of course. That is your choice. As it has always been.”

The crowd waited. But Magnolia Reinhart was done. She pointed.

“Now, if you will excuse me. I believe the fine men who prompted you to waste your time here would like a word. Milords? You may enter. No one else.”

The gates swung open. The crowd backed up. Some tried for the opening. A few could make it past Magnolia’s aura. They moved forwards—

And the Steel Golems swung down their swords. Todi—a handful of others backed up. Magnolia Reinhart gestured.

“Come, [Lords]. You wanted an audience? You shall have it. Now.”

Lord Alman, Lord Ranga, the other dozen [Lords] and their retinues hesitated. But she gestured and they came. Riding through the silent crowd. Lord Alman was sweating.

The gates closed. The crowd waited outside. But now—now—it was too quiet. Magnolia Reinhart didn’t move as the [Lords] dismounted slowly. Ressa stood with her. Teriarch got up for a better look. Some stared at the tall half-Elf. Others looked warily at the giant golems.

A bright clap made all of them jump. Magnolia smiled, sweet as sugar.

“Well, gentlemen! This is an unexpected house call. I would have set out tea, and refreshments if I had received a missive. Since I did not and you have brought so many guests here, do understand if I refrain from niceties. Here you are. You have your audience with me. I hope you will have cause to regret it.”

They shifted. Magnolia ran her eyes down their ranks. Few were high-ranking [Lords]. She focused on two, and her smile deepened.

“Ah, Lord Ranga. Lord Alman—I just spoke with your wife. How terribly disappointing to see you here. I shall have to tender my regrets to Edere regarding our talk.”

Lord Alman started. Eyes swung towards him, accusatorially. He paled.

“You spoke to Edere?”

“Just this morning. But that feels like ages ago. Tell me, Lord Alman. [Lords] of Izril. Why are you here?”

They hesitated. Lord Ranga thrust past his son.

“To put an end to this damned [Trade War], Reinhart! It’s gone on too long! And it’s crippling our economies! We’ll have an end to it. This unfair business—”

Magnolia Reinhart’s eyes narrowed. Her lips thinned. Her hand came down against the side of her carriage with a slap that made all the [Lords] start. Magnolia rubbed her hand with a wince.

“Unfair. What an…extraordinary word to come from you, Lord Ranga. This crowd, which had come here at your direction has more claim to that word than you. This Golden Triangle fraud was unfair. Had I been able to see and prevent it, I would have. But your complaint? My [Trade War] is unfair? Need I remind you that this all began when you sent me the black rose of shame? An insult to my name and honor?”

Outside, the crowd stirred. Sir Relz pantomimed exaggerated shock for the viewers. And the [Lords] shifted. Teriarch’s eyes burned.

“That was—”

Lord Ranga saw Magnolia snap her hand closed. His jaw clicked shut. Outraged, he tried to speak. Magnolia Reinhart ignored him. She looked around at the gathering of [Lords], noting their arms and armor with clear disdain.

“Tell me, my noble [Lords] and members of the realm—if I had the audacity to slap you in the face with a glove and call you a coward, would you not seek to reply? Or are you saying that I was not at the Sacrifice of Roses? That I did not march against Velan the Kind? Say so, now, if any of you believe that.”

None did. Lord Alman flushed, and then saw one of the other [Lords] move. A man with white hair and a trick leg advanced with a limp. He had a sword-cane, and while his clothes were magnificent—they were also old. Heirlooms, the enchantments weakened, the fabric fraying despite best efforts to keep them maintained. He addressed Magnolia curtly.

“I would never deny your presence at the Sacrifice of Roses, Magnolia Reinhart. But that is not the issue. When Lord Tyrion was poised to take Liscor, deceptive as his actions were, you stopped him. Rightly or wrongly—war with the Drakes isn’t something I yearned for. But the way you did it was to threaten his children. You held their lives—and other innocent lives to achieve your ends.”

His voice was steady. Teriarch turned to stare at Magnolia. She waited, her face expressionless. The [Lord] went on, his eyes never wavering from hers.

“That is a coward’s act. So I believe, Lady Reinhart. I stand by the rose I sent myself. And I was not there that day. I would never deny the truth of your bravery. Then. Now—I question your honor.”

Some of the other [Lords] murmured support, including Alman. Magnolia’s stare was flinty. But after a moment, she nodded. Not without respect.

“Lord Toldos. Well spoken. It seems, then, we came at odds with one another.”

“So it appears. Now, this [Trade War] threatens my people. They suffer for it. I will have it ended.”

The old Lord Toldos looked at her. Magnolia looked at him.

“Why?”

“Because it is unfair—

Again, Lord Ranga was transfixed, this time by Magnolia’s stare. She looked at him, and then spread her hands delicately with a sigh.

“Gentlemen. Here we are again with that word. Unfair. Iniquitous. I am attacking your pockets, your gold reserves with my ‘underhanded’ ability to apply economic pressure. Would you prefer if I challenged you to a joust and ran you through?”

She didn’t wait for their reply. Magnolia raised a finger.

“Whilst you studied swordplay, I studied ledgers. This is how I fight my battles and you are simply weaker. Would you dare complain if I were a [Warrior Lady] who had just thrashed you on the field of battle?”

“Probably.”

Ressa muttered. She smiled politely as half a dozen glares turned on her. Teriarch just waited. He had heard all of this before. Perhaps Lord Toldos would have replied then, or Alman, who was working up to a reasonable argument.

But Lord Mel, son of Lord Ranga, pushed forwards. He was bristling with fury, on his father’s behalf as much as anyone else. He pointed at Magnolia, face red with emotion.

“We demand you stop your Skill! We outnumber you! And there are over a dozen noble houses—and dozens more who will have our backs if it comes to a conflict!”

Lord Alman’s head snapped up. He heard Ranga hiss between his teeth.

“Mel! Don’t be a fool!”

The [Lady] looked amused and annoyed at the interruption. She turned to face Lord Mel.

“Young man, you have a very simple view of the world. But since that seems to be on the level of most of the [Lords] here, I’m willing to entertain it. If you would like to persuade me with violence, go right ahead. Ressa, don’t touch the lad. You too, T—Eldavin.”

The [Lordling] hesitated. His father was hissing at him, but Magnolia gestured at him.

“Go ahead. It should prove interesting for both of us. How will you force me to change my mind?”

“By any means necessary. I shouldn’t want to, because you are a [Lady], but I don’t respect your title.”

The young man hotly strode over. Magnolia raised one eyebrow.

“Oh yes. And I am much aquiver in my shoes. Lord Mel, I would advise you to shut up. Your father is not a good example in that regard, but one can always dig deeper, I suppose. What can you do to me? End my [Trade War]? Threaten me? Or will you run me through with your sword?”

“Lady Reinhart, don’t tempt me.”

Mel was breathing hard. His hands were clenched. Magnolia sighed.

“Young man, I am not impressed by heavy breathing. Let alone empty threats. Nor can you—”

He slapped her across the face. It was a fast blow, open-handed.

Magnolia blinked. The [Lords] susurrated. Lord Alman closed his eyes. Ranga snapped.

Mel!

The [Lady] rubbed at her cheek. Lord Mel opened his mouth. Teriarch stirred—Magnolia raised a hand.

She slapped him back. And Lord Alman felt that slap. He saw a figure fly back, twisting. Lord Mel spun around and hit the ground so fast Alman swore he heard something crunch.

Everyone stared at the motionless Mel. Magnolia rubbed her cheek again. Then she shook out her hand. Calmly, she looked around.

“[Insult to Injury]. Would any of you like to try stabbing me? Ressa, block them if they try that.”

Lord Ranga knelt by his son. So did Alman. Mel’s eyes were rolled up in his head.

“I don’t think he’s more than unconscious. Ah—his fingers.”

Alman winced. Lord Ranga rose to his feet, white-faced.

“Magnolia Reinhart. You will answer for that.”

“I rather think I did, Ranga. Your son may well be able to force his future wife to agree, but not me. Not with the threat of violence. I hope he recalls that on his wedding night.”

Magnolia’s eyes glittered. She looked around, one of her cheeks glowing red.

“Let us end this pointless argument. If you would like to attack me, [Lords] of Izril, go ahead. I will, regretfully, order my people to break as few bones as possible. If you would like to mobilize an army against me, again, you are welcome to try. But do not dare assume that you have a right to order me to do anything. You have insulted my honor and I have no obligation to do anything. Indeed, I am rather less inclined at this moment than I was this morning.”

“Reinhart. My people are suffering.”

Toldos spoke up. Magnolia looked at him.

“One feels you should have considered that along with my impugned honor, Toldos. If they dislike it so much, I will offer them an incentive to move to my lands.”

He paled in fury. Magnolia turned, and waved a tired hand.

“That is all. This was exceedingly stupid, my [Lords]. Begone from my estates, please.”

The [Lords] felt her pushing. They held their ground.

“This isn’t over, Reinhart! Don’t force us to take this to a more severe step!”

“Bring your armies, Lord Villmen. And we shall see how well that goes. Or you might try an apology. Diplomacy!”

Magnolia whirled around and pointed at him. He stumbled back. Towards the open gates. The [Lords] looked at each other. And then they realized.

The crowd was still there. They had listened to the entire debate. And now—they were looking at the [Lords]. Who had made this about a [Trade War]. Something…Invrisil’s people didn’t care about.

They were very quiet. Lord Alman realized. The mob was staring at them. Alman felt his feet moving. He tried to get his legs to stop taking him out of the gates—but this was Magnolia’s ground.

“Reinhart! Be reasonable!”

Ranga was supporting his son on the horseback. He looked back. Lord Toldos was pale. His retainers clustered around him.

But Lady Reinhart had lost her temper. Alman saw that too late. From the beginning she had been incensed. He could not have known why. But he should have remembered what a Reinhart’s wrath looked like.

Slowly, Magnolia raised her hand. The gates swung closed. And her last words rang in the [Lord]’s ears.

“You provoked a riot in my city, gentlemen. I think it’s only fair to hold you accountable for that.”

 

—-

 

They ran. Magnolia watched them go. The [Lords] fled. Not that she had doubted it. Even lower-level, they had money. Artifacts. She was poised—but she only needed to use [Deft Hand] once to trip someone up before they seized Lord Mel.

The crowd charged after the [Lords], converging on Invrisil.

“Well, that was a mess.”

Magnolia muttered after they were gone. She had noted that the two Drake [Commentators] had fled ahead of the [Lords]. They weren’t complete fools.

“Who thought it was a good idea to broadcast a riot? Wistram and two Drakes from Pallass. Of course. The masters of societal understanding.”

The [Lady] rubbed at her cheek. She felt a soothing bit of liquid; Ressa dabbed at her swollen cheek.

“That stupid boy. I didn’t think he’d actually slap me. I thought even Ranga’s son had more sense.”

“You did provoke him.”

The [Head Maid] wasn’t exactly sympathetic. Magnolia sighed.

“I did. Well, let that be a lesson.”

She turned. And nearly ran into Teriarch.

There the Dragon stood, arms folded. He looked at her, mismatched eyes—not disapproving. But not complimentary either. Magnolia hesitated. And in front of the Dragon she felt younger.

“What, old man? I’m not in the mood for a lecture.”

“Neither am I. What did that [Lord] say? You held children hostage?”

“Oh. That. I shall explain the entire business, Teriarch. It was a bluff. I knew Tyrion wouldn’t risk his sons. To prevent a Drake city from being taken—”

The Dragon listened. Magnolia felt the swelling in her cheek grow down. She sighed.

“And so, you see—I play the villain nicely. Which leads to this debacle. But at least there is a chance for negotiation with Oteslia.”

“In the meantime, the [Lords] and this crowd are your enemies.”

She smiled thinly.

“One must give to get. I realize that isn’t a Reinhart tradition, but we tend to just steal. And make no friends at all. Teriarch, what would you have done to that crowd?”

The Dragon gazed at the gates; the mob was gone. He remembered countless riots. Protests over lack of food, deranged figures—hatred of him—

In his mind, he saw an [Empress] flying down to address tens of thousands of her subjects. Fearless. He blinked—and saw a dead [Prince] who had tried the same. A [Lady] savaged for trust—

He set them to flame and they ran, screaming. Ranks of armored [Knights] put down the insurrection with force.

The Dragon looked at Magnolia and shrugged.

“I have seen every answer. None is perfect. There have been [Orators] who quelled a riot with words alone. It did not mean they were right or the problem was solved. What would I have done? Better not to have the riots to begin with.”

“Spare me the philosophy, old man. If you have a suggestion, I will listen. At least those damn Drakes have left. I—agh—Ressa, handkerchief.”

The [Head Maid] was a beat too slow to get it to Magnolia. The [Lady]’s nose began to bleed profusely. Teriarch started.

“What? The feedback?”

Magnolia pressed the linen to her nose as Ressa pinched the bridge.

“Too many people to hold still. At least I put on a good face. Now—the riots. They’ll be centered in Invrisil. Reynold—”

Magnolia waved her free hand. The [Butler] appeared.

“Milady?”

“Send the Golems.”

Magnolia’s eyes glittered. Teriarch waited.

“To put down the riots?”

His tone was neutral. His eyes though—Magnolia rolled hers.

“I’m not a [Tyrant] yet, Teriarch. Reynold, deploy them around the Mage’s Guild. Merchant’s Guild. Any hotspots. The Watch will keep order as it can. But let’s not let the rioters destroy Invrisil. The Golems are not to fight back unless provoked. Minimum damage.”

“By your will, Lady Reinhart.”

Teriarch saw the Golems marching out the gates.

Minimal force is something only a higher Golem knows the nuance of.”

“And I should then let them torch a building full of [Mages]? Should I have coddled the [Lords]? Better to be feared than loved after all. Or do you disagree?”

Magnolia held the bloody cloth to her nose. Teriarch looked at her and shook his head.

“That is certainly how Dragons ruled. And a soft hand usually invites rebellion. I am not condemning that.”

“But you have a point.”

They stood together. The Dragon looked at the [Lady]. And he saw how much had changed. And how little. But he wondered if the girl of sixteen years would have acted like the [Lady]. He couldn’t imagine her sending Golems into a riot, even to protect. But that did not mean she was wrong.

“Tell me, Magnolia. As I understand it—this entire affair with the [Lords] was you declaring a [Trade War] over their insult to you.”

She sniffed and regretted it.

“Argh. Yes. They put themselves as my foes over the outcome of Tyrion’s gambit. They could have chosen not to. Wherein lies my flaw in replying to the insult? They impugned my honor, Teriarch. Would you have let that go?”

For a long while, the simulacra was silent. Teriarch watched the Golems disappearing towards the city. He smelled smoke. He still heard the distant din. After a while, he looked at Magnolia.

“No. If someone insulted me, I would reply just as you did. Because I am a Dragon. You need not be one, though.”

He turned and walked back towards the mansion. Magnolia watched his back. Then she turned with a curse.

“Ressa, make sure none of those idiot [Lords] die. If you can.”

 

—-

 

The Watch of Invrisil was about as efficacious as Liscor’s Watch. They pulled back, guarding important streets to them and let the riots move through the streets. The [Lords] were in flight, but they found themselves driven into the city, unable to escape streets of angry people who wanted their blood.

Meanwhile—Steel Golems marched into Invrisil. They stopped around the Mage’s Guild. The crowds attacked them. Once. The Golems threw down the crowd in seconds. So parts of Invrisil were madness. Parts contained. And that meant the city burned all the brighter in the areas where no one was halting the madness.

Parts were also safeguarded by individuals. The Adventurer’s Guild was untouched. About two-dozen adventurers, Silver and Gold-rank, loitered casually outside. And even members of the riots like Todi weren’t about to clash with fellow adventurers.

That was Invrisil. In Pallass—Chaldion declared martial law. The Walled City was as large as Invrisil, but in Pallass, the riots ended fast.

1st Army and 3rd Army as well as 4th Army sent [Soldiers] to break up the fighting. Even the hottest of flames were quenched by hundreds of armed [Soldiers] willing to apply force. The [Strategist] hunted down pockets of violence like he was fighting an insurgence against a guerilla force. He stomped the embers into ash and an uneasy peace reigned in the Walled City.

That was a fact Noass and Sir Relz would have gleefully pointed out—if they had made it back to Pallass. Unfortunately, they were hiding in Invrisil’s sewers, having also been turned on. When the riot struck Invrisil—minorities like Revi’s friend in the Stitchfolk districts hid. So too did Garuda and Dullahan populations in Pallass, by and large.

In Liscor though—the Antinium Workers had been caught out. And the Humans ran in terror. The Watch was doing its best, but the thing about the law was that it was always outnumbered.

Watch Captain Zevara found Relc Grasstongue. He was sitting outside his apartment. She looked at him.

“Relc…?”

He was covered in soot. His apartment was gone. Torched. The Drake glanced up at her.

“Oh, hey, Captain Z. My home burned down. Sorta sucks.”

“Are you alright? Someone get the [Healer]—”

The Drake shrugged away Zevara’s claws.

“I’m fine. Just a bit singed. Had to get my puzzles. Most of them got out. Guess it helps with packing, huh?”

He looked up at her. Grinned weakly. Zevara looked around.

“Where’s Wing Commander Embria?”

“She’s got one district locked down. But 4th Company can’t hold more than a few streets. Only a hundred. You need a tail?”

The Watch Captain looked at Relc’s soot-covered smile. She hesitated, then reached down.

“That’s right, Senior Guardsman. Gear up.”

He rose, stiffly, shedding layers of ash, and saluted briskly.

“Aye, aye, Watch Captain.”

They were marching back towards the Watch House when Zevara heard the sound of screaming. She turned.

Get ready to pull back or fight!

The Watch braced for a fight with the mob. They’d clashed a few times already with larger groups. If it came to it, they’d run rather than fight.

They saw a wave of people coming at them. Hundreds. Zevara didn’t even bother to count.

Fall back! Down Turnip Street!

She pointed. But Relc grabbed her arm.

“Captain! Look!”

The Drake whirled. And then Zevara saw something strange. The crowd was running at the Watch. But not like a ravening horde. She heard screams. They were fleeing.

Then she heard the drumming. It sounded like a thunderous beat. The Watch Captain halted, confused. She frowned.

“What is that sound?”

Footsteps. Marching. The crowd fled, splitting up in every direction. The two Drakes and the [Guards] heard the second group behind the first. Then they saw. And Zevara felt her scales turn to ice.

“Antinium.”

They marched down the street in formation. Soldiers, Workers. Painted Antinium and regular. Even the other varieties. The people of Liscor fled, screaming.

The Black Tide marched. And leading them was a blue Antinium. Xrn. And beside her—Yellow Splatters. Pawn.

“What are they doing?”

A [Guard] turned pale at the sight. Zevara just counted.

“…Three hundred. Or I’m a Lizard.”

“What, Watch Captain?”

Relc glanced at her. Zevara looked at him.

“Three hundred. They’ve deployed the Hive’s garrison. They’re securing the streets.”

Indeed, the Antinium were clearing street after street. No one was fighting them. The individual rioters took one look at the Antinium and ran. Meanwhile, they were finding Workers.

It still chilled Zevara to see them. The Watch moved to one side. She saw Yellow Splatters break off as the Antinium marched in thunderous silence down another street.

“Yellow Splatters! What is the meaning of this?”

“We are restoring order. And locating members of the Hive. I have ordered this as Prognugator of the Free Antinium.”

The [Sergeant] replied calmly. Zevara’s mouth opened. Her eyes flicked to Relc. And she had a moment where she decided…to do the only thing that was logical.

“—Very well. The Watch requests the Antinium to cooperate! We need to lock down streets where the riots are burning parts of the city! I can show you—”

“It will be done.”

The Antinium marched. And the riots ended where they moved. But those who saw them felt mixed relief at best.

 

—-

 

The fire was going out. Maviola saw the riots quelling, order reasserting itself. She still waited. Waited for the crowds to turn on The Wandering Inn.

And it came close. But the sight of Bird and dozens of Workers standing on the roof of the inn—perhaps the distance outside the city, the knowledge of the inn’s sturdy walls—saved it. At the very least, no large mob converged on The Wandering Inn.

If they could have gone through the magic door, that would have been another matter. But the crowds found the magic door missing. And indeed—they saw very little of The Wandering Inn after Erin’s first mistake.

Ekirra’s family was sheltering in their apartment. They hadn’t joined the fury—even though they’d lost gold. The protests, yes. Afterwards? No. Ekirra’s father and mother and his siblings all sat together, talking, playing little games with wooden tops. The little Gnoll was worried. Also upset—he wasn’t allowed to kick the ball inside. Everyone had snapped at him when he tried to kick it off the wall and practice what Mister Kevin had showed him.

When the angry people passed by their streets, everyone went silent. The last crowd had been mostly Drakes, but they’d been looking for things to steal, not to burn homes. Ekirra had heard them.

Now, he nibbled on the fur on his arm, a nervous tic he wasn’t supposed to do anymore. No one stopped him though.

When the knocking came on the door, Ekirra’s parents stiffened. The room went silent; there wasn’t any light in the room. They were quiet.

Make no sound.

Ekirra’s mother whispered. The knocking came again. Ekirra’s father stood up. He reached for a belt-dagger and his family stared at him. Then—a voice came.

“Ekirra! Hey—is anyone in here? It’s me!”

The others jumped. That was Erin! Ekirra’s tail began to wag. He finally sniffed her scent over the smell of burning.

“Miss Solstice?”

The father whispered. He went to the door, peered through the spy hole.

“I don’t see you.”

“I’m invisible. Hey, Numbtongue—hold that door steady! Palt, can you re-visable me for a sec?”

The door opened. Someone entered the room. Erin reappeared. The Gnoll family gasped. Erin waved at them.

“Hey! Glad to see you’re okay. Do you want to come with me?”

“What? I don’t understand. Miss Erin, how did you get here? There was a crowd—it’s not safe. Come in!”

The Gnoll protested. But Erin pointed.

“I was invisible. We’re going around, making sure people are okay! We’ve checked on Selys, Visma, Ishkr’s good, but he’s looking for his sister.”

She waved towards something. Ekirra, peeking around his father’s legs, saw the magic door. It was being held up by…he sniffed. Mister Numbtongue and Miss Minotaur?

“If you want to stay here, that’s fine. But we can let you come to the inn. It’s safe. There’s the Garden and no one’s come to bother us.”

Erin was telling Ekirra’s family. The parents wavered only a second. Then they nodded.

Hey! Anyone else who wants to come to the inn! Come on through!

The young woman was aware of the power of Gnoll hearing. More than one apartment opened and disgorged the largely Gnoll residents. She herded them through the door. Then she turned.

“Okay, Palt. Invisibility time.”

She vanished and Numbtongue, Beza, and Erin all hurried down the street. When a crowd came by—they put the door down. No one noticed.

“I think that’s nearly everyone. Let’s get this door close to the Watch House or the Adventurer’s Guild.”

Erin panted. Numbtongue growled an affirmative. Erin walked forwards—right into Bezale.

“Ow. Sorry, Beza. Let me just—oh, that’s you, Numbtongue. Sorry, sorry.”

Swearing, the three got the door down another street. They found 4th Company locking down the area around the Watch House. Here they ran into trouble.

“Captain! I’m sensing something! Invisibles on approach!”

The [Mage] attached to the blockade of Captain Wikir’s squad couldn’t see them, but even low-level [Mages] had their ways. Erin, Numbtongue, and Palt saw the [Soldiers] curse.

Halt!”

Wikir roared. The [Mage] pointed his wand.

“[Dust Wind]!

Erin coughed as the dust suddenly covered her invisible body. She waved her arms as the [Soldiers] aimed weapons at them. Unlike the [Guards], 4th Company stuck to their blades.

“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! It’s me! Erin!”

The [Soldiers] lowered their weapons. Erin staggered forwards, coughing, as Palt dropped his spell.

“We’ve got a lot of people in the inn! We’re taking the magic door to the Watch House. We can do that, right?”

“Hm. Granted. Send a runner to Wing Commander Embria and the Watch Captain.”

The Gnoll [Captain] eyed Numbtongue and Beza’s silhouettes, but he waved them through. Gratefully, Erin staggered down the street. Then she turned.

“I think we did it. Okay, everyone! We’re in the clear! Anyone got water? I’ve got dust all on me.”

Inside the inn was packed. Even the [Grand Theatre] was stretched to accommodate everyone. The Knights of the Rose and Lady Bethal were standing around with Maviola, Mrsha—who was greeting Ekirra with Visma and urging him and his sibling into the [Garden of Sanctuary] to meet the beavers—Lyonette, reassuring people, and everyone else.

“I’ll admit. This is a better plan than your last one.”

Maviola herself brought over some water. Erin washed her face as Numbtongue grumpily reappeared, sneezing. Beza trotted into the inn.

“Thanks, Maviola. It’s not everything. But you’re right.”

Erin had seen the riots. Looting shops. Harrying Humans and Workers. Apart from one instance, she hadn’t confronted them. When she had, though…well, Numbtongue had skinned his knuckles.

Lady Bethal eyed Erin as the young woman splashed more water on herself and yelped because it was cold.

“You’re a young woman after my heart, Miss Erin. You don’t believe in sitting around, do you?”

“What good does that do? Hey, thanks for lending me the [Knights].”

They bowed. Kerrig, Nil, Welca—there were six in all. But you didn’t need more than six. Maviola glanced at them.

“You’re not going to go anywhere else?”

“…No. Not unless it gets bad. But it sounds like the Antinium are helping to keep order. Apparently there are hundreds of them stopping the riots. That’s good.”

Lady Bethal and Maviola both glanced up at that. Thomast nudged his wife, and Maviola just nodded slowly.

“Yes. ‘Good.’”

Erin ignored that. She turned to Drassi, who was monitoring the news and the door.

“Anything else, Drassi? How’re the other cities?”

“Good. Sir Relz and Noass aren’t on-screen. It’s this Garuda.”

A Garuda was filling in for the two absent Drakes. Erin nodded.

“How’s Esthelm? Celum?”

Drassi shook her head.

“Calm. Celum’s too banged up from the raid to really explode. I checked; Fals said it’s fine.”

“And Esthelm?”

A wry smile. This came from Palt. He was passing around something—Erin nearly objected until she saw it was just little sweets. Mints. Not everything was an edible edible.

“Peaceful. Even besides Master Pelt showing up, I don’t think Esthelm was a huge target of The Golden Triangle. They’re not as connected and they didn’t have as much money to spend.”

“That’s a relief. Selys is at the Adventurer’s Guild and Keldrass’ team is there. So is Hawk and Tekshia. So Selys is safe. I talked to a [Guard]—Jeiss—who says they found Relc and Olesm’s helping from City Hall. So…I guess that’s it.”

Erin leaned back with a sigh. She was tired. But she’d done something. She looked at Maviola.

“How’d I do?”

“Aside from trying to stop a mob with your aura alone? Well. Besides—we just saw Magnolia doing the same.”

The [Innkeeper] sat up with a frown.

“Really? Aw, so that means I’m too low-level.”

“To a point. The riots are contained in most cities, but she seems happy to let them run in Invrisil. I suppose that’s in contrast to Pallass. Grand Strategist Chaldion put the riots down hard.

The [Innkeeper]’s heart sank.

“Chaldion did…? How hard is—hard? What about Saliss? I bet he didn’t do anything like that.”

“He is a Named Adventurer. Not the law.”

Maviola didn’t reply to Erin’s first question, which was telling. The [Innkeeper] looked around. Then she saw Visma’s mother hurrying over.

“Miss Solstice. Is Liscor safe? We’d like to check on our homes if it is.”

“Not yet. But soon. The Watch is outside—I’ll get people to check on it, okay? You just sit tight. Have something to eat. On the house.”

Erin soothed her. The many people in the room were nervous, but the Players were putting on comedy bits, and Lyonette was passing out free snacks and drinks. Erin sighed, sat back—

And Ishkr was there. The Gnoll hovered at Erin’s side.

“Erin. Miss Erin, have you heard about my sister? Liska?”

Erin sat up.

“Oh—Ishkr. I didn’t. I’ve asked, but she’s not at your apartment and no one else saw her…”

The Gnoll [Waiter] growled under his breath. Erin began to stand up.

“We can go look for her. Numbtongue, Beza—”

They glanced up. But the Gnoll shook his head. He hesitated, bent down.

“She—she may be with the rioters, Miss Erin. It would be like her.”

“Oh. Then should I…?”

“I’ll go look for her.”

The Gnoll wanted to go through the door, but everyone blocked him.

“My dear young…Gnoll. If your sister is with a mob, there’s nothing to do. Sit down, please. Ser Kerrig, perhaps you could go look. Even a mob is unlikely to stop you. Is there a description for this young Gnoll…woman?”

The Rose Knight nodded, donning his helmet. But Ishkr shook his head again.

“No. No. Thank you. I will wait. She’s probably with—it’s fine.”

He was glancing at Visma’s mother and around the room. Clearly nervous. Erin hesitated, but Ishkr strode off.

“I will help wait tables. Please let me know if you hear from her.”

“Of course. I’ll get Drassi to check.”

The [Innkeeper] looked around. She saw Drassi raise her head and glance at Ishkr. Then the Drake [Gossip] slid over to Erin.

“Um. Erin. I think Ishkr’s really worried. Liska might actually be with a riot. That’s like her. I can go through. I’ll stick to the safe zones.”

“You sure, Drassi? What’s Liska like? You know her? I’ve never even met her.”

Drassi rolled her eyes, indignant for a second.

“Erin, I know everyone. Yeah. Ishkr’s sister is two years younger. She’s uh…difficult.”

And that came from Drassi, who had few bad words about anyone. Erin frowned. They headed into the kitchen, where even Gnoll ears would have trouble if they whispered. Lyonette glanced at them as she pulled more pizzas out of the oven and distributed them for the guests.

“What’s wrong with Liska?”

“Oh—that’s why Ishkr doesn’t want anyone to find her but him or maybe you. She’s uh—well—I happen to know this, but you shouldn’t tell anyone. I haven’t! Obviously! Ishkr asked me not to. But she gets in trouble because she’s often with…female friends.”

Erin stared blankly at Drassi as the Drake [Gossip] looked uncomfortable.

“Okay. What kind of female friends? [Thieves]?”

“No, Erin. Female…friends.

“Uh huh.”

The [Gossip] gave up. She leaned over.

Turnscales, Erin.

The [Innkeeper]’s eyes slowly narrowed. She…knew that word. But the meaning was…

“Why’s that bad?”

“She’s gotten arrested before. Look—it’s not my secret. Just—just don’t announce it. That’s why Ishkr doesn’t want her found in front of everyone.

Drassi hurried off. Before Erin could process that revelation, she heard a sound.

—them—

A roar of fury. Everyone in the inn froze. Erin barreled out of the kitchen.

“What was that!?”

She looked around. Numbtongue recoiled from the magic door.

“Invrisil! It’s still in the middle of the riots!”

“Maybe let’s put the magic door back in the hallway, huh, Numbtongue?”

The Goblin nodded. Embarrassed, he dragged it down the hallway. Ishkr and Erin went to help.

The [Innkeeper] stared at the door after it was placed back in its usual spot. She glanced at Ishkr, but said nothing. The sudden surge of sound had worried her.

“I’m going to open the door. Just to see how Veeid’s doing, okay?”

Numbtongue nodded. Ishkr backed up.

“Miss Erin, maybe we should—”

Erin yanked the door open for a second, ready to slam it shut. She heard another wave of sound. People were shouting! But the inn was safe.

Boarded up. Veeid spun as he saw Erin appear.

“Miss Solstice! Dead gods! Please, let us have those [Knights] back!”

“Veeid! What’s wrong? Sorry, we were in Liscor with the riots—”

The portly [Innkeeper] was pale. The [Bouncers] were watching the doors, looking very nervous. The staff were hiding in the kitchen.

“We—the crowd went to Lady Reinhart’s mansion, but they came back even more furious! They’ve been tearing up parts of the city! They didn’t break in here, but they tried—twice! They’re hunting some people. I’d take it as a kindness, Miss Solstice if you’d let us shelter at your inn. Just for a moment!”

Erin nodded instantly.

“Of course. Come on through! But who’re they after, Veeid?”

The man practically jumped through the doorway. He looked back as the other staff flooded after him, even the [Bouncers].

“[Lords]. They’re going to be torn to shreds if they don’t get out of the city. Nothing to do with us, though. They started this. I hope they get what’s coming to them.”

Veeid’s tone was vindictive. Erin looked at him as the others came through the door. Her eyes flickered.

“Yeah. What’s coming to them. Getting beaten up.”

“Or lynched. Either way—where’s Lady Walchaís? My inn!”

The man ran down the corridor. Erin looked at Numbtongue. She recalled quite clearly—her first reaction to hearing about the riots in Invrisil.

“I wanted to go out there and stop them. The riots, I mean. Good thing I didn’t try then with the lantern, huh, Numbtongue?”

“Mm.”

The [Bard] watched as Redit, the [Cook], and two [Barmaids] hurried through the doors. They stared at the Goblin’s face. But they knew the score. Anywhere else—and he would have been in trouble.

Erin knew that. What protected Numbtongue was her. Even with his ‘honorary citizenship’ thing that Liscor had given him, he couldn’t just walk into Liscor. In fact, the only two times had been during riots when something worse than a ‘Goblin’ was striking the city.

“Why did you want to stop the riots?”

The [Bard] was looking at Erin. She shrugged.

“I just—don’t like how it felt. You know, Maviola shows me auras. And they felt so angry. And sad. Upset. It wasn’t their fault.”

The Hobgoblin shrugged, a metaphysical commentary on the nature of injustice in the world. Erin looked at him.

“I couldn’t magically make them feel better. I thought I could. You know, with sports. But it doesn’t always work. Guess I got a big head.”

“I’ve seen worse.”

She smiled for a second. The Hobgoblin unslung his guitar. And Reiss kicked him. The ghost pointed, even though Numbtongue didn’t feel the blow.

Watch her.

Numbtongue saw Erin looking out the door. He heard the shouting. He saw something on Erin’s finger glitter.

“The thing is, Numbtongue. It’s a bad thing. Riots hurt everyone. Even if you just burn down houses. Let alone kill people.”

“True.”

The [Bard] stood up, told something by Pyrite’s intuition. His own mind. Reiss’ whispers. He saw Erin smile.

“Numbtongue.”

The Hobgoblin reached for her arm, then tightened his grip. He was her protector. And that meant doing things to protect Erin. Even if she didn’t like it. She looked down at his steely grip.

“Hm. Everyone’s through. I’ll let the [Knights] go through. You should go back to the inn.”

The Hobgoblin blocked the door casually with his body. Erin looked at him.

“Numbtongue…”

Her eyes flickered. Then she backed up. The Goblin tensed—but Erin just smiled, raised her arms.

“Good point. You can’t be stupid, right?”

“Right. Stupid gets you killed.”

“Right. Totally understood. I learned my lesson.”

The [Innkeeper] backed up. Numbtongue didn’t move from his spot. He saw Erin smile.

“I really did, Numbtongue.”

She walked back into the common room. The Hobgoblin sighed. He sat down. This time he kept his eyes on the two secret side doors. He closed the door, set it to Liscor and put his back against it.

Even the garden wouldn’t get past him. The Hobgoblin began to play. He listened to a song from another world and closed his eyes. He kept playing for a minute, then two.

When he heard the soft footfall, he didn’t open his eyes or stop playing.

“Go away.”

She didn’t leave. The young woman stood there. She had brought something with her. Well, more than one thing. But one thing mattered.

“Numbtongue…”

“No. I’ll get Lyonette.”

“Numbtongue. I learned a lot. And—I never forget. You know that.”

He opened his eyes. And saw what Erin was carrying. The Hobgoblin’s fingers slipped on his guitar. He tried to stop her. But really—he had never been able to.

On Erin Solstice’s finger, her ring began to shine gold.

 

—-

 

The pursuit ended when the horses threw their riders. They had carried Lord Alman faithfully along with his two bodyguards. But the noise, the screaming, the rocks—drove the horses insane. They did what people would have done long ago and reared.

Lord Alman hit the ground. He struggled to his feet as another of his [Bodyguards] was dismounted. The other—an [Archer], kept control of his mount.

“Lord Alman! The crowds!”

The [Lord] ran on foot, then. And the crowds followed, screaming in fury. Magnolia had turned them on him.

On them all. And even she underestimated the danger. Lord Alman ran past the Mage’s Guild, clutching a stitch in his side. He hoped that would slow them—

The crowd brought down the Steel Golem. It knocked them back, but the magical instructions kept it from splattering them. They swarmed it, tossed grappling hooks and dragged it to the street. Then they smashed it with sledgehammers, hacked at it until the magic failed.

That only made the [Lord] run faster. He saw Lord Ranga, his face torn by an arrow, shouting.

Alman! Alman! Over here!

The man rode at him, sword drawn. Bloody; but he’d been fleeing. The young [Lord], Mel, was still half out of it. Alman and his two bodyguards ran after Ranga.

They found more [Lords], those who hadn’t managed to escape the city. Lord Toldos was on foot as well. The old man had lost half his bodyguard.

“Where are they?”

“Dead. They ran right over us.”

The old [Lord]’s face was white. He limped after other [Lords] as they tried to find a way out.

“We could fight through…”

Another [Lord] opined. Toldos looked at him.

“And kill hundreds of civilians?”

“Besides which. They’d kill us first. Even with our artifacts.”

Lord Alman’s voice was low. He panted. The street was clear for a second. A group of [Maids] and [Butlers] had ridden wagons in front of the last crowd, blocking them. But even Magnolia’s servants—if that had been them—were fleeing the fury.

“Magnolia has to help us. If we die like dogs—our Houses will declare a blood feud!”

Lord Ranga struck his horse’s saddle. The stallion reared and he nearly fell off. The other [Lords] nodded. But—Toldos limped behind the others, his face gray.

“She’s miscalculated. Magnolia likes tidy plans. She doesn’t know riots. She might send her golems in after us, but I think she’s lost control.”

The others looked at him. That was an unwelcome assessment. Before they could suggest anything though—the riots found them.

 

—-

 

Let us in!

Lord Ranga pounded on a door as the crowds advanced. The [Shopkeeper] refused to open up. Alman grabbed Ranga—someone had shot his horse.

“Ranga, we have to move! Grab Mel and follow us!”

The [Lords] picked up Mel. No more arrows flew. The crowd was advancing…slowly.

Were they wary of the [Lord] and their bodyguard’s blades? The two dozen men were outnumbered hundreds to one. Slowly, they backed up, hurrying down the street.

Another crowd came down it. This time the [Lords] were trapped. From her rooftop, Ressa cursed. She crouched. She’d been trying to steer them, but Invrisil had been boiling like a rat’s nest and the [Lords] had kept going in circles.

“Magnolia. They’re cornered.”

“Ressa. They must not die. Teriarch. Can you teleport them out?”

“If you know each of their names, yes. Otherwise, I can fly over there and lift them to safety. But that would be obvious. And Wistram is already pestering Grand Mage Eldavin. I won’t get tangled up in politics.”

The Dragon’s voice was testy from the other end of the speaking stone. Magnolia cursed at him.

“Ressa. Do not let them die.”

“What do you want me to do? I have stunning vials. I can drop one crowd. But if they charge in, I’ll have to go down myself.”

Ressa had the poisoned blade that Regis Reinhart had given her. If she went down—people died. Magnolia fell silent. Teriarch was listening. Ressa waited. The voice, when it came, was distant.

“Do not let them die, Ressa.”

“Acknowledged.”

“Reinhart! That would be a sl—alright, I’m going. Where are they? Wait, I’ll scry Ressa and teleport to—”

Sounds from the other end of the stone. Ressa put it away distantly. Teriarch might not make it. She focused down on the crowd. Either way—

The [Maid] had changed clothes. At least she looked like an [Assassin] now. She drew the blade. And waited.

 

—-

 

Below. The crowd was more like a predator. It rolled forwards slowly as the [Lords] backed up. They were offering threats, demanding passage. It was ignored.

Kill them. Vengeance!”

Vengeance!

The crowd echoed it. For what? Well—something to do with the Golden Triangle. Being sent against Magnolia Reinhart.

“We’re tired of noble’s tricks! They killed some of us!”

Bodyguards dead. They had killed one [Lord]. Magnolia hadn’t reached him in time. The silent advance from both sides forced the [Lords] into a ring.

These were the consequences. Of what? Well—just consequences.

No Wistram broadcast here. Sir Relz and Noass had fled the violence. This—this crowd was ready for blood.

Stay back! We are [Lords] of Izril. By right, we rule you! We settled these lands!

Lord Ranga bellowed. It was an amazingly stupid thing to say. Someone laughed.

“First you, then your Rhir-taken house!

The [Lord] paled. There was a cheer from the crowd.

Yes!

“Justice!”

“Woo! That’s right! Kill them! Start with the women and children! And babies too!”

The vindictive rage—faltered. The crowd hesitated. They were behind a lot of things, but that was a bit too on-the-nose. But the shouter continued.

Let’s kill them all! And then kill all the villagers! Especially the babies! And the cows! And uh—rats! Kill all the rats and sheep! Kill ‘em all!”

Someone was disrupting the flow of this moment. Like cold water down the back. It was unpleasant. Going against what was right. Righteous anger snarled—turned.

Who’s shouting that?

People turned. And they saw her standing there.

It was a…young woman. Wearing trousers, a light shirt. She had something in her hands. The crowd focused on that. On her.

“Who are you?”

Erin Solstice smiled. This time—there were even more people. And they were armed. They looked like bad news. She carried no lantern. And the only Skill she used was [Loud Voice].

Listen up. You can’t kill those people.”

She pointed at the [Lords]. Lord Alman stared at the young woman in the street. Holding…what was that? He peered past her as Lord Toldos—Ranga—the others stared at her. She was alone. The street was full of closed doors. Frightened people. He saw some of them poking their heads out. A furry face withdrew quickly.

“Back off.”

A man with a sword warned Erin. She looked at the sword, dismissed it. She called out to the crowds.

“Listen. I don’t know who they are. Really. I don’t.”

She pointed at the [Lords]. Lord Alman’s heart sank. Erin looked about.

“But you can’t kill them.”

Who was she to set rules? People swung around. Someone threw a stone. The rock soared at Erin’s face.

It exploded in midair. Three things hit it; an arrow, a bolt of light, and a shimmering force field. Erin recoiled—and a trio of people looked out through a magical door.

Bird. Palt. Montressa. They walked out. A Centaur, an Antinium, and a [Mage].

Not the people to calm a mob. Four versus hundreds. Even so—they weren’t alone. Erin turned. She planted something on the ground.

“I know you’re angry. Something terrible has happened. I can’t fix that. Or give you your money back. You should be angry! You deserve justice!”

She pointed at them. The people standing there hesitated.

Six men and women in armor stepped out of the doorway. [Knights]. And then—a Hobgoblin. They formed a line behind her. The young woman went on, spellbinding the crowd. Not with a Skill, but just the strangeness.

“It sucks. Sometimes life is terrible. And I can’t help you. I can’t stop you from rioting. Or change your minds. But there’s just one thing. You can’t kill them. That’s not right.”

She pointed at the [Lords]. At this, there was jeering. The door opened. A [Chevalier] stepped into place. Antinium joined the others. A giant with yellow paint on his body. A muscular Drake and then another that put even him to shame. The Humans eyed the muscular Drake. But he was still one and they had brought down a Golem.

“You can’t stop us. Get lost.”

The [Innkeeper] didn’t argue. She looked at the hundreds. Then turned her head. It was about twenty people. She shook her head. The door opened. A Drake in armor strode through. The Heartflame Breastplate.

A half-Giant ducked his head to exit. The people looked up. But he was shorter than a Golem.

The young woman called out. As the crowds were hesitating.

“Listen, everybody. I can see we’re not going to resolve this with words. And that’s fine. I didn’t really think it would work. But look.”

She planted the thing she was carrying on the ground, in the street. And the bundle of white cloth unrolled. The crowd looked—saw only a white bit of cloth.

A flag. White. The Hobgoblin stared at it. Erin looked at the murderous riot. She shook her head.

“This isn’t justice. You don’t know what fighting for something important is. So I’m sorry for this.”

For what? The young woman raised the flag. She hefted it higher, taking a two-handed grip on it. The people of Invrisil—the riot—uncomprehending, saw the young woman look behind her.

The Hobgoblin tensed. The Antinium with the bow plucked an arrow out of a quiver. He drew—loosed.

The arrow went through a woman’s knee. She went down with a scream. Erin Solstice ran forwards. The crowd saw a second arrow flash forwards and hit a second knee. They stared. What was she—

Charge!

The [Innkeeper] shouted. The word reverberated down the street. The people flinched. And they saw that strange group charge. The Rose Knights surged past Erin and rammed into the crowd. Bereft of weapons, they punched with gauntleted fists, ignoring the panicked blows on their armor. The Hobgoblin thrust Erin back and knocked a huge man flying.

A Centaur galloped to the side and began to unload spells on the crowd. Arrows of light. A Minotauress punched through on another side, her skin like iron.

Montressa du Valeross calmly pointed. A barrier rose around the [Lords]. Disbelieving, Lord Alman saw an Antinium fighting side-by-side with the huge Drake. Grimalkin grimaced as he swatted a man down and then pointed.

“[Delain’s Fist].”

The spell sent a group of Humans flying. With some relish, Relc grabbed a spear—a knife tied to a length of wood and snapped it. He decked the man holding it.

“She’s mad!

Lord Ranga exclaimed. The young woman was charging. The half-Giant, the Hobgoblin—they all followed her, trying to keep her back. But she screamed and charged, holding the flag like a [Banner General].

Erin had seen battle. She ran forwards, the [Barkskin] potion warding off a stone that grazed her cheek. She blocked a club with the haft of her flag and kicked someone in the stomach. Out their lunch came. She bellowed.

Forwards, you cowards! Let’s go!

She charged past a disbelieving Grimalkin. Ser Kerrig spun, blood on his gauntleted fists. Erin ran as if there was an army at her back.

And there was. The mob fractured. It was just angry people. Erin had all the sympathy in the world for them. But not to murder.

Like Liscor—the answer was simple. To stop them burning down a home—or killing anyone—Erin charged.

One arrow, two arrows, three arrows…three legs go ouch…

Bird hummed as he shot more people through the legs. The [Mages] were knocking people back. Palt blew a cloud of smoke that rendered those inside it breathless. They staggered away, choking.

Erin ran. She drew Keldrass in her wake, blocking weapons with the burning armor. Her friends streamed after her, but Erin didn’t slow down. She swung her flag, and people ran from it as if it was a sword. Numbtongue hadn’t drawn his. He just punched people flat.

Her ring was glowing. The golden shine made Grimalkin’s eyes widen. He turned. Words were spelling themselves out.

“Impossible.”

 

SALAZSAR.

 

—-

 

Inside the Walled City of Salazsar, a voice began to scream an alarm. A Daughter of the Walls called for aid. Wall Lady Navine heard the siren as well as her ring lit up. Her eyes went round.

“No way. Invrisil? What—

 

—-

 

Erin didn’t notice. Nor was this the place.

She charged past a Gnoll with a top hat. He blocked a knife thrust meant for her and his club blurred. A Drake cursed as he kicked someone’s legs out and then struck a head. They took their eyes off her for one second and—

“Split them in half! Come on!

Erin shouted. The people parted in front of her. She saw a ring of steel, a shimmering barrier. Lord Alman stared at Erin Solstice as she broke through the crowd. The people hammering on Montressa’s shield on the other side gaped at the young woman.

This way! Follow me!

She pointed. The [Lords] needed no further urging. Insane or not—the young woman was life and behind them lay death.

They ran. The crowd made one effort for them. Right up until the half-Giant got tired of people trying to stab him and punched a hole through the crowd. A huge Selphid wearing a Raskghar’s body thrashed the ones on the ground. A Dwarf, unconcerned with the niceties of this attack, broke someone’s leg with a swing of a hammer.

They were all here. As many as she could call. Erin Solstice ran back towards the inn. And the crowd broke. They ran, rather than fight the invincible Rose Knights, or clash with the Hobgoblin—the Drake [Mage].

Quality over quantity. Ressa stared from the rooftops. She was so amazed she forgot to sheathe her blade. The young woman had chosen a small army of everyone who didn’t take wounds easily and punched through the lower-level mob.

“Ressa? What’s happening? Ressa? Did Teriarch make it?”

The [Maid] glanced up. A puffing Dragon flew through the air. Well, a half-Elf, his robes fluttering wildly.

“Where’s the riot? Where’s—”

He stared down at the chaos below. Erin Solstice herded the [Lords] through the door. The Rose Knights fought a rearguard as Montressa’s barrier collapsed and the crowd charged them. They moved through the door—and it swung closed.

Teriarch stared down, and then met Ressa’s eyes. She expected his fury—or annoyance at the very least. But instead, the Dragon sat down and laughed. He looked at the closed door the mob was smashing to pieces. His eyes crinkled up with mirth.

“I’ve only seen that before twice.

 

—-

 

Maviola El looked at the [Innkeeper] in the silence afterwards.

Erin had a cut down her face. Two more spots of blood on her clothing from where she’d been stabbed. But Saliss’ potions had taken the blows.

Not many people were hurt bad. Moore had taken a knife wound nearly through his foot—that was when he’d lost his temper. Numbtongue had torn a nail clean off and was annoyed.

“What was—who are—”

One of the [Lords] was stammering. He looked around, so shocked he didn’t register the high non-Human presence at first. But when he saw Numbtongue, he reached for his sword.

Goblin!

It was a classic response and the other [Lords] jerked upright. Numbtongue eyed the sword the man was waving at him. He calmly walked behind Lady Bethal.

“Oh, put it away, Ranga. This young lady has just saved your lives. In stunning fashion too.”

Bethal Walchaís’ presence made some of the [Lords] gawp. But most had eyes only for Erin. She was walking around.

“Everyone okay? Pelt? Moore? How’s the foot? Grimalkin?”

“Fine.”

The [Sinew Magus] stared at Erin’s ring. But it was dull. His mind was racing. If she had activated that in Pallass, let alone Liscor—Ancestors!

“You actually did it. You attacked them.

Erin turned as Maviola approached her. The [Lady Firestarter] looked strangely at Erin. The [Innkeeper] exhaled. She poked an injury on her side and winced.

“Healing potion…there. Yeah. It was the only way. You were right. I can’t control a mob. So I beat them up.”

She popped a cork and drank. The [Lady] just looked at Erin.

“That was your solution?”

“Only if they attacked people. I had to save Visma’s apartment that way. Well—that was easier. I just needed the [Knights]. Hey—Ser Kerrig? Thanks!”

“Milady Solstice, my pleasure.”

The [Knight] bowed to her. The [Lords] turned back to Erin Solstice.

There she stood, wiping blood from her cheeks and asking for a towel. The flag was only a bit covered with dirt and blood. It had looked far worse.

“She charged them under the flag of truce. Who is that young woman who saved us, Bethal?”

The voice came from Lord Toldos. He looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] turned. She offered him a weary smile.

“Hi. I’m Erin. Erin Solstice. I heard you were all in trouble. So I went to find you. Guess I made it just in time, huh? Who’re you?”

The [Lords] looked at her. It was inconceivable to some that they should be saved by someone by chance. Lord Toldos bowed after a second.

“I am Lord Toldos of House Everight. I am in your debt—Lady Solstice?”

He glanced at Ser Kerrig. Erin laughed.

“Oh, I’m not a [Lady]. I’m just an [Innkeeper].”

Again they gaped. But the truth was undeniable. Erin stood there, panting, wiping her brow.

“Hey Lyonette! Got any water? And more healing potions. That guy doesn’t look good.”

Lord Mel was indeed still out of it. Even healing potions didn’t do for concussions well. And as the [Lords] relaxed, coming to grips with their rescue, they finally noticed the people in the inn.

Drakes. Gnolls. The Human [Lords], some of whom had never been surrounded by non-Humans in their entire life and only seen them when they clashed at the Bloodfields, checked their arms nervously. But Erin walked around.

“Thanks for coming at the drop of a hat, Jelaqua.”

“Well, Moore was already insisting we see if Mrsha was alright. And my man was in Esthelm so we were right there. Right, Grimalkin?”

The Selphid threw an arm around Grimalkin’s shoulder. The [Sinew Magus] deliberately folded his arms and ignored the now-copper ring. He wondered how many had seen it. How many knew.

“I consider it a small debt, Miss Solstice. I will have you oblige me with some…help with my training regimen. Later. I understood the necessity.”

“Thank you. And you, Pelt.”

“Hah. I got to break a few legs. Felt like the old days with Terandrian snots. Just give me free drinks for a month.”

The Dwarf trooped over to the door. Erin rolled her eyes and gave him a hug from behind until he grumped off. She went on, talking to the others, speaking to Yellow Splatters, thanking Keldrass, who shrugged, somewhat pleased at being able to punch Humans.

A mixed group. Some close friends. Others—acquaintances. Maviola watched too. Erin had splendidly called them to her. An [Innkeeper]’s power. Someone who cultivated friendship like Magnolia and the others cultivated sheer power, force of arms.

But it disturbed her, slightly, to see Erin use it like that. Maviola was no stranger to war. She could see the necessity of putting down a riot. But Erin Solstice had made the jump from trying to calm a riot with no violence at all to the most expedient route: beating them down with a group of elites.

“What a dangerous girl. She has both flower and sword in either hand.”

Maviola shook her head. She had misjudged Erin slightly.

“Excuse me. But where’s Lord Eick?”

“Dead. They killed him.”

Alman answered curtly. He was shaking. Now he came to grips with it—Magnolia Reinhart. He closed his eyes. When all was said and done—his grudge to her was deepened this day.

“Where are we, father? Are we safe? Can we go home?”

Lord Mel was dizzy. Lord Ranga knelt by his side, worried, checking his head.

“I—we are safe, Mel. Lady Bethal, where are we? Might we go home?”

“You’re in Liscor, Lord Ranga. Home is far away. Fortunately, Erin has a magical door connecting to Invrisil. Or—she did. I rather fear it’s broken for the moment.”

The exclamations drew Erin over. She blinked, then smiled at the worried looks—not just on the [Lord]’s faces. The Players of Celum and Veeid and the other Invrisil citizens were alarmed. She waved a hand, laughing.

“Don’t worry. I used a spare mana stone on that door. The door to Veeid’s inn is there. See?”

She opened the door. Everyone relaxed. Then they marveled.

“A magic door! Dead gods! So this is that inn that Reinhart travelled to? And we’re in Liscor? A damn Dr—”

One of the [Lords] caught himself. He saw Relc grinning at him. The Drake blew on his knuckles.

“Say. I can punch anyone I want since I’m getting kicked out…”

He eyed the man. Erin just laughed.

“It’s fine. Liscor is nice to Humans.”

She faltered.

“…Usually. It’s been a kind of sucky day for everyone.”

No one disagreed with that. Well—Pelt might have, but he was gone. Montressa just looked at the [Lords]. She counted minor houses, but some, like Lord Toldos, were known to Wistram. In Erin’s inn.

She wasn’t one to miss the opportunity. Nor—it seemed—was Palt. He was going around, shaking hands, casting [Calm] spells.

“Palt, sir. Pleasure to help. Of course, I couldn’t refuse when I heard—from Wistram. Yes, Ullsinoi. I don’t know if you heard…a steadying smoke? Something stronger? Please, allow me…”

Montressa began doing the same. After a bit, Erin wandered over to the [Lords]. The first person she met was a tall fellow. Almost too skinny.

“Innkeeper Solstice? My name is Lord Alman of House Sanito. I am in your debt. As are we all.”

“Oh. It’s my pleasure. Like I said. I heard you were in trouble. And I had to do something.”

The [Lord] peered at Erin.

“…It’s a rare young woman who would charge a crowd that murderous.”

She laughed as if he’d said a joke.

“Well, that’s just me. We can’t let people be murdered, right?”

“…Surely. May I ask—what this place is? I assume your inn?”

The [Innkeeper] looked around. She smiled broadly.

“Of course! This is The Wandering Inn! Welcome! I forgot to say that! It’s safe here. We have drinks, food—hey Lyonette! Bring over some blue fruit juice and a pizza! That’s good for the nerves, Alman. Can I call you Alman?”

“Er…yes?”

Taken aback, Lord Alman saw a lovely young woman hurry over to him. He was presented with a bow, quite formal, and a cup of blue…liquid…and a triangle of what he was assured was food. He found himself sitting down.

“Is this…what is this, may I ask?”

“Um. Blue fruit juice. It’s sweet. Go on!”

Erin urged the man. Somewhat apprehensive, and hoping this was, in fact, blueberry juice, the man took a sip. His eyes widened.

“How sweet! And this—”

He nibbled at the pizza. The hot food was comforting. Erin beamed.

“Good, right? Here—this is for you.”

She took more drinks from a relieved Gnoll who had found his sister, gave them to Lord Ranga and Mel. The young man just stared at his cup for a while. Lord Ranga blinked and took a sip.

“I—it is sweet! What is this? It’s not blueberry…”

“This is the Amentus fruit.”

Lord Toldos stared into his cup. The old man blinked at the drink. The other [Lords] nearly spat out the drink.

“Amentus wine? Dead gods, that’s expensive!

“What? No, this isn’t alcoholic…wine?”

Erin looked surprised. Lord Toldos peered at the drink.

“Does this come from a blue…fruit with a toxic center, Miss? I know it germinates in southern Izril. It comes so dear up north.”

“Oh, that’s blue fruits alright. We’ve got an orchard, don’t worry. Here, have some. On the house. Everyone feels better after blue fruit juice and pizza. Don’t look at me like that, Grimalkin. It’s comfort food.”

The [Innkeeper] offered more pizza. The old [Lord] nibbled at it. Alman had finished his slice without even knowing. He chewed on the crust, reached for another since they were on offer.

A little white paw grabbed his slice. The [Lord] peered under the table and saw a white…dog? No, a Gnoll! He nearly jumped out of his seat. Mrsha scurried away and shared her pizza with Visma and Ekirra.

What an inn. What a place! His head was spinning. But he had to ask.

“Is that…is that Hobgoblin er…t—safe?”

He almost said ‘tame’, but he was catching up. Numbtongue glanced up.

“Usually. If people attack me, not very.”

He answered for Erin. Then he went back to strumming on his guitar. The [Lords] checked their drinks to make sure it wasn’t wine.

Erin Solstice laughed. It was an infectious sound. It didn’t change the world. Bring back the dead, or stop a riot. But Maviola thought it was as compelling as Magnolia’s charms. Perhaps more so. She laughed, leaned on a table, and sat down.

“Whoof. I’m dizzy. My legs are shaking. That was crazy. That was…I’m so glad.”

She looked around, smiling at the others. And Lord Alman was compelled to put aside his drink.

“Miss—Miss Erin. I should like to say that House Sanito owes you a debt, once again. If we can repay you in any way…”

He hesitated. Now, he was thinking of his house. That damn [Trade War] wasn’t going to end anytime soon. But there was that and this.

“…I should like to oblige you. I would be dead but for your intervention.”

The young woman looked up at him. Her eyes opened wide.

“Really? Well—there is something. But…hey. You don’t have to do anything for me. I just did what any person would do.”

The ridiculousness of that statement made Alman smile. He saw the young woman lean back, sighing.

“So what happened? I just heard Magnolia kicked the riot back into Invrisil. That was…bad of her. I don’t like her, but I didn’t think she was evil.

The [Lords] exchange a glance. Uncomfortably, they saw Bethal—and the young [Lady] with the fiery hair looking at them. Lord Ranga cleared his throat.

“We—were trying to force Reinhart to end her [Trade War].”

“Wow. That was never going to work.”

Erin commented. The [Lord] narrowed his eyes; gratitude only went so far. Lord Toldos sat there.

“It was a fool’s errand, I suppose. Still—if we hadn’t angered her…the riots were our fault. She would have listened to reason if…”

He trailed off. And Erin looked at him. Really…looked at him. Her easy smile vanished.

“…What did you just say?”

 

—-

 

In the news, the riots were said to have ended after law reasserted itself. A rather shaken Noass and Sir Relz reported that. They’d missed the fighting, having hidden in the sewers.

They looked more aware of their roles now, and culpability they shared. But the [Commentators] still made a point of showing the living [Lords], safely ensconced in the inn.

“…We’re returning to Pallass now. And once again—I think this is a learning experience. The—the synchronization of these riots leaves us all with some soul-searching, however just the reasons, right Sir Relz?”

“Absolutely. We have to condemn violence such as this in unequivocal terms. I’m only glad that good Samaritans like this young [Innkeeper] exist.”

Sir Relz gestured at Erin, who was folding her arms and glowering at the [Lords]. But they left it at that.

To most people—it was just the ending to some drama. They wouldn’t even glance twice at Erin’s face, except to maybe comment how lucky she was or venture that she was the [Innkeeper] with the magic door. Someone to remember, maybe.

For Archmage Nailihuaile, Erin Solstice’s name and face was burned into her retinas. The Lamia Archmage sat in front of her personal scrying orb.

“An ordinary [Innkeeper]. With a magic door. Hm. Beatrice? What did Montressa’s last report say about this Erin Solstice?”

The Lamia brightly turned to a Dullahan. She’d taken Beatrice under her wing. The Dullahan bowed.

“She reported that after investigation, Erin Solstice was not from Earth. Her original reports were in error, due to Erin Solstice meeting those from Earth and learning recipes. She is sheltering this ‘Joseph’ in her inn, but Montressa has been unable to make contact due to the Ullsinoi faction’s influence and complications in Liscor.”

“Complications in Liscor…? Ah, that fight with those adventurers she was after. She didn’t get them either, did she?”

Beatrice’s grip closed on the notes.

“…No, Archmage.”

Nailihuaile affected not to notice. She was good at that, especially around Viltach and Feor. She looked at Erin Solstice.

“Well, well. You know something, Beatrice?”

“No, Archmage Nailihuaile. What is it?”

The Lamia sighed. Beatrice was no fun. She was very competent—but not fun. Montressa could be fun.

“Beza’s report says the same thing. The Scriptels shared it with me. And you know—I think Montressa is lying. Lying through her teeth. About this ‘Pisces’ fellow that we expelled. About Erin. I think she’s become a bit traitorous.”

She smiled brightly. Beatrice’s expression was thunderous. She stared as Sir Relz and Noass returned to Pallass.

“What will you do, Archmage Nailihuaile?”

“Call me Naili, I keep telling you, Beatrice!”

The Lamia laughed lightly. She slithered over to the orb and disconnected it. Then she turned.

“I think I should make sure. With someone other than Bezale or dear Mons. And before Viltach and Feor wise up—if they haven’t already. And when I do—if Montressa has been lying to me?”

Her smile was very happy. But Beatrice saw the gleam in the Lamia’s eyes. Like a serpent.

“…Montressa may just have to be expelled from Wistram too. Beatrice, let’s find out. I hope she’s been honest. She is your friend, after all.”

The Dullahan woman looked at the dead orb. She shook her head.

“She was, Archmage.”

 

—-

 

Erin Solstice was angry. She was indignant. She was many things. But at the end of it all—she wasn’t going to kick the [Lords] out of her inn.

Not just yet. She sat in her inn, arms folded. The [Lords] looked at her.

They did not like being judged. Magnolia had judged them and they had hated her for it. Somehow, this young woman was worse. Magnolia had contempt. Erin had disappointment.

“Over a [Trade War]? People died.

“People…are dying, Miss Solstice. Perhaps not directly. But our lands cry out for want of resources. Invrisil is a trading hub. We have given Reinhart offense. But I hoped she would relent.”

Lord Toldos inclined his head at her. She narrowed her eyes.

“Couldn’t you have just apologized? That was what she wanted, right?”

“Apologize?”

It was as if they were speaking different languages. The [Lords] looked aghast. Lord Toldos hesitated.

“I stand by my insult, Miss Erin. What Magnolia Reinhart did was, to me, an affront. Perhaps I should have made reparations. I would have if this failed. Now? I fear apologies will be the least of what she requires.”

The other [Lords] went still. Gloomily, they nodded. They had the air of a defeated squad, to Embria, who had come to check on her father. Relc was in a good mood, despite losing his entire apartment. Or perhaps it was an act. But he was rubbing Mrsha’s head and smiling. For now.

“What’s going to happen?”

Erin looked at Maviola. The [Lady], whose hair was almost a match for Embria’s scales in places, made a face.

“If I know Magnolia, it will be…costly reparations, Erin. Magnolia Reinhart will likely keep up the [Trade War] at least another week or two. Perhaps a month. And then lower it for a number of concessions. Political or otherwise.”

The [Lords] flinched. But they were beaten. Perhaps they might rally in time, but the near-death experience had humbled them. Erin looked at them and then at Maviola and Bethal.

“But that’s just bullying.”

“Magnolia does that. Only, not on the battlefield like Tyrion, but with gold. At least she doesn’t kill her enemies. Usually.”

Bethal looked unconcerned. Even unsympathetic; she was on the side of the rioters in large. The [Lords] had caused a mess and this was just deserts.

Erin understood that too. But she wished that no one had died. Liscor was a mess. Pallass was okay, but Chaldion…and now Invrisil. She sat down at the table.

“I get that. It just sort of sucks.”

“We were insulted first. You cannot know how severe of an insult it was, Miss Erin. Given the circumstances, I would normally seek vengeance. But one [Lord] has died already and Thomast is, unfortunately, disinclined to add to that number. I might not be.”

Bethal’s eyes glittered. All the [Lords] stared at the [Chevalier]. And they looked around.

When you came down to it, Liscor was the city over this entire affair. Liscor would have fallen but for Lord Tyrion being held hostage by Magnolia. And so they had insulted her, only to be saved at the last moment by…a Human girl from Liscor.

There was something odd about that. Ironic, even. But for now, the men just looked at each other.

“Lady Walchaís. We are not rich in lands like your House. If I may be candid—we are at Invrisil’s mercy. May I assure you the black flower pertained only to your actions around the siege? Not the Sacrifice of Roses?”

“You may. I hold a grudge, Alman.”

The [Lady]’s retort made the weary Lord of House Sanito flinch. Erin felt compelled at this point to show some mercy.

“Look—I guess you could say Magnolia did do wrong things. But no one’s in the right here.”

“What a brilliant way of distilling every political dispute.”

Lyonette muttered sourly from the back. Maviola stifled a laugh. The [Lords] stilled.

“There is little more recourse. I shall ride back after purchasing a horse. My house is in your debt, Miss Erin. I—I wonder if there is a way to avoid going through Invrisil? I should return, but not directly.”

Lord Toldos rose to his feet. He looked tired. Erin hesitated.

“You don’t have to go yet. I didn’t mean all those things I shouted. Well, I did—but I was angry. Stay the night. I can move the door so in the morning you’re outside of Invrisil. Where’s your home? If it’s far, we can’t move the door more than a couple of miles, but we can at least get you away from people who want to kill you.”

Toldos and the other [Lords] blinked.

“Move…the door? You said you sacrificed one.”

Alman carefully reached for another pizza slice. Mrsha snatched it again and raced off over to Relc. She liked the garlic-sprinkled ones.

“Oh, I can move the door. Not much further than Invrisil, but it has a huge radius. I just put it at Invrisil because it’s convenient, see? But if you’re south of Invrisil I might even be able to get it to your home.”

“My estates are south of Invrisil.”

Lord Ranga raised his hand. Erin nodded.

“Cool! If it’s too far west or east—same problem. But what if I…darn. Who can I get to move the door? What if we paid Hawk—he’s this Courier—but he might want to be with Selys…”

“Any City Runner could take the door south. Or anyone with a wagon, Erin.”

Maviola remarked softly. She was glancing at Erin. And she had a thought. Some of the other [Lords] had it too. Toldos was checking his cup of blue fruit juice, nearly empty.

“You only need the stone anyways. The doors can be set up.”

“And, pray…is there a limit? To what can be sent?”

“Yup. Used to be I could send two people over and door goes dead.”

The [Lords] deflated. Erin went on.

But…I’ve improved the door with the help of this [Farmer] I know. Wailant. He planted Sage’s Grass and now it can do like, fourteen, and recharges quick. And you can use a [Mage] to recharge it faster. Don’t worry! We can get you all to Lord Ranga’s place.”

She was oblivious to the mood moving through the inn. Lyonette was looking at Maviola, gesticulating, and the [Lords] were coughing, glancing at each other. Lady Bethal was the last to catch on. Her jaw dropped and she sat up.

“Wait a minute. Could you then transport goods through the door?”

Erin looked blankly at her.

“Nah. I mean—I could. But the Merchant’s Guild got really mad at me the last time, so I stopped. Anyways, the door has a mana limit! That’s for people!”

“But perhaps—if someone were to pay for the…access. One could in theory, transport some goods through the door?”

Lord Alman remarked carefully. Erin’s brows creased. Finally—finally—she looked around.

“Well…yes. I suppose they could. But Magnolia wouldn’t like…it…”

A thoughtful silence fell around the room. Everyone exchanged a meeting of the eyes. A nudge. Mrsha gave Lord Toldos a tap on the nose. He blinked at her. Numbtongue grinned from behind the bar and toasted Relc. The Drake raised a thumb-claw and grinned.

Magnolia Reinhart wouldn’t like it indeed. But of those who cared in this place? Perhaps it was only Lady Bethal. Slowly, the [Lords] turned to Erin Solstice. Lord Toldos was the one to say it.

“Miss Erin. We have debts to pay, it seems. We have erred gravely. Had our [Ladies] spoken to us—or been with us still—”

His face twisted. He went on.

“—We would have known better. Age makes fools of better men than I. But I hope you will at least listen to our request. Would you…care to discuss a business offer that might solve our woes? It stands to benefit you as well.”

Erin Solstice stood there. She looked at the [Lords] who started a riot. Silly men. But not evil men. Just desperate. Sometimes stupid. Rather like rioters. And with very real reasons for anger, sometimes.

Just misdirected. Could she forgive that? Well, the answer stood in Montressa, Beza, Palt. Friends like Relc.

So she thought for a moment. And then she smiled. They were not perfect men. But she saw people. And people changed.

Pieces on a board. So she moved one and spoke.

Her reply would make Magnolia Reinhart well and truly lose her temper. Yet there she danced. A young woman, laughing and tap-dancing on a flaming stage. Aided and abetted by Maviola. Bringing the best-laid plans to destruction.

Chaos. A kindly [Innkeeper]. The owner of The Wandering Inn.

Erin Solstice.

 

[Magical Innkeeper Level 44!]

[Skill – Inn: Compartments of Holding obtained!]

 

[Conditions Met: Warrior → Bannerlady Class!]

[Class Consolidation: Warrior removed.]

[Bannerlady Class obt—

 

“Nope. But yes to [Innkeeper]. Ooh. Oooh! Numbtongue, guess what!?

 

 

 

 

Author’s Notes: And we’re done! Wow. This chapter kicked my butt.

But not as much as the last one. I erased about 5,000 words from the last chapter because it sucked. Also, I didn’t have enough snacks and it clouded my judgment.

This is what the shape of what I envisioned looked like. It might not be as good as I wanted, even now. But it makes me feel better than last time. At least I’m not writing that I feel poorly about it.

Hope you liked it! I’m going to leave you with something special: a picture by Enyavar. It’s a map…of Liscor. I’m talking everything. Streets, buildings—our [Cartographer] made it from scratch! Take a look and compliment him! The full-size version has details! Also, I’m sharing only one of pkay’s new pictures becaus it…fits. General Solstice. Just amazing.

Enjoy, let me know what you thought, and thanks for reading!

https://ko-fi.com/peekay

 

Liscor by Enyavar the [Cartographer]!

(Full-size Version)

 

Liscor by Enyavar

 

General Solstice by pkay!

General Solstice by pkay

 


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205 thoughts on “7.31

  1. Given the topical nature of this work, or the way it seems to respond to what’s happening in the world at least in a minor way (understandable, you as an author require inspiration to summon 5mil words from the ether) there come extra little hiccups in how you make word choices. I’m not saying you necessarily need to rewrite anything, but I’d say that regardless of what’s going on in-universe or the particular conceits of how one character speaks, it’s in particularly poor taste to have the riots inspired by real life riots with a chant ‘I can’t breathe’ that refers to a man suffocating in broad daylight because he was choked to death be described by Maviola as ‘you can’t firefight with an inferno. You have to starve it of air until it dies’? That’s… maybe just come at it from a different angle in future, or find another character to make your general point and give up the fire metaphor for this one instance?

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