(A preview of Volume 2 is now up on Soundcloud! Check it out here! The audiobook will be release July 14th!)
Another day passed. And whatever madness, glories, tragedies or acts of fate had passed, the next day the world remained.
Well…for now. She woke up in the rolling, bumping darkness and realized she was alone. Which was preferable, for now.
Slowly, the City Runner reached into a pouch. And for light, instead of a spell, came a glowing vial. The liquid sloshed around.
Viridian. What a color. Blue and green, ostensibly. What vibrancy. What magic. For a moment, Ryoka Griffin marveled at it. Such a little vial; less than a mouthful, unless you were a baby.
It could change everything. Or…nothing.
“Panacea. Fierre…but what did Teriarch say? What did he mean? What causes Vampires to fall ill? He knows.”
The mumbled questions from Ryoka’s sleepy lips were still tinged with a bit of satisfaction. A bit of happiness, wonder. She had met the Dragon. And he had left the cave. He had given her hope. And this.
A magical potion. And a question. The Dragon might refuse to interfere—but he was fairly bad at this commitment. And even half-hearted replies told Ryoka a lot.
There was a tap; Ryoka jumped and fumbled the vial into her belt. When the coachman opened the sliding window to address her, she was stretching.
“Miss Griffin? We’re nearing Reizmelt. Should be in eight hours if there’s no delays. Nothing bad’s happened yet, huh?”
“Don’t jinx us.”
The lanky young woman stretched out. She was rewarded with a grin—but a nervous one. The [Coachman] chuckled.
“Never thought my only passengers would be a City Runner, eh?”
It was a joke, albeit at her expense. Ryoka took it in good humor.
The driver was nervous. Ryoka hadn’t known the overnight coaches were part of the Merchant’s Guild, but it was obvious in hindsight. They needed a central authority and management, and theirs was an important service, even if Runners did deliveries.
After the Bloodfeast Raiders attack, the Merchant’s Guild had done an inspection to make sure Ryoka hadn’t provoked the attack. She had been carrying valuables, but since it wasn’t on a delivery, they hadn’t banned her from using the coaches.
But it was a close thing. Besides which—word had got out. Bloodfeast Raiders, riots; few people were using the overnights. So somewhat ironically, Ryoka was providing this [Coachman]’s coin for the day. She had tipped handsomely; in fact, in advance.
[Coachmen] were practical people. You gave them money up front and they made your passage more comfortable, rather than after the fact. Neither had seen anything more dangerous than a wild Mothbear, and it had ignored them.
Even so, both she and the driver were nervous. Ryoka smiled at the driver.
“I can’t run from Invrisil to Reizmelt as fast as a coach. Not nearly, even if I drank stamina potions every mile. Not high enough level yet. Sorry.”
He grinned toothily at her.
“‘Sokay, Miss. Your lot is the ones targeted by [Bandits] on the roads. Usually. They know the overnights don’t carry more than people, and not wealthy folk, most off. Let’s just not have trouble, eh?”
“Your wish is my dream, Mister Randal.”
The little sliding hatch shut. Ryoka sat back. Staring blankly at the covered windows. After a moment, she rolled up the shades. Sunlight streamed into the coach. She was headed back to Reizmelt after The Wandering Inn.
She would return. She had promised Mrsha. But she had a job to do. A party the likes of which even the fae would want to visit. Powerful nobles to impress.
The Archmage of Izril waited. Ryoka felt the wind blowing around her, cooling down the horses. She smiled, slightly.
“Better find a [Seamstress], too.”
She had plans that might just involve breaking every bone in her body. So, some things never changed.
As the coach rumbled forwards, the roads were mostly clear. Riots had happened. Not in smaller towns or cities, but Invrisil had not been the only place struck by them. Terandria, even as far away as Baleros and a very few Chandrarian cities…the synchronicity across the world was frightening.
And even now, the [Coachman] was reading the ‘new papers’ he had gotten from the Mage’s Guild on his 30-minute stop in the last town, detailing the riots. Created by Wistram, distributed to most Mage’s Guilds. He passed the paper to Ryoka when he was done and steered with one hand as he drank a soup-breakfast.
She contented herself with some of Erin’s sandwiches. They held up pretty well in her bag of holding. She just wished Erin made more sandwiches than ‘grilled cheese’, ‘peanut butter and jam’, and ‘ham ‘n egg’.
Erin was weird.
And as it happened, the coach rode past a weary three adventurers, arguing as they headed north. They were covered in blood, and the travellers on the road steered wide of them. The [Coachman], Randal, slowed to stare at the trio. They weren’t [Bandits]; rather, they were adventurers.
“I’m telling you, I didn’t know they exploded.”
Falene snapped. Dawil and Ylawes glared at her. The half-Elf was only partly covered in blood. But the [Knight] in his armor and the Dwarf were soaked. They had run into some monsters—part-fungi, part flesh-and-blood—whose defense-tactic was to explode and thus send viscera and spore everywhere.
“Let’s not point fingers and blame Falene now. We all know whose fault it was. The problem is that we’ve lost our horses.”
Dawil growled. He dumped a water flask over his head. Ylawes spat and Falene slowly cast a cleansing spell on her robes rather than her companions. The [Knight] spoke, gagged on mushroom-blood, took a swig, spat, and spoke again.
“We’ve lost our horses. They were galloping for the High Passes, last I saw. If we lose them, we’re only out the cost of the saddles and rental. Let’s ask if a [Hostler] can locate them. Some can whistle them back from miles and miles away. And they’re trained to run back home if they’re in danger.”
“If they’re dead, the stables will give us hell. Damnit. I hate mushrooms. Think we could’ve eaten them?”
The Gold-ranks stared back the way they’d come. All three shuddered. It hadn’t even been a quest; they’d just seen the carnivorous fungi close to the road and decided to do the world a favor and themselves a disservice.
“I miss Durm. We should buy dedicated warhorses. Or at least, I’ll buy one. Falene, please stop cleaning yourself and conjure some water for us?”
The half-Elf [Battlemage] pointed and a jet of water blasted Dawil in the left ear. He roared in fury, but after a brief scuffle, the three Gold-ranks looked at each other. Dawil grimaced, feeling at his belt.
“Let’s talk after we get back. We’re not sitting flush when it comes to coin, Ylawes. Although…that old woman did give us this amulet-thingy. And those other two heirlooms. And the family’s treasured potion of who-knows-what. Might be worth something.”
He named the gifts the last three villages had given them after the Silver Swords had killed monsters, removed a landslide, and recovered a lost and prized magic cow carried off by a pair of Ogres, not in that order. The Silver Swords operated like that. They were as antithetical to Todi’s Elites and even Griffon Hunt as possible.
And there came the overnight coach. Dawil spotted it as Ylawes scrubbed at his armor with a bit of soap, cursing the sticky blood.
“How much further is it to Reizmelt?”
“Eh. Should be a day’s ride. Told you we should have taken a coach. Say—hey! Hey, hold up there! We want a ride!”
Randal slowed the carriage, warily. Adventurers weren’t a preferred passenger. They tended to cause trouble. Even so, after a moment of shouting he slowed.
“Yes, we can pay! Gold!”
Ryoka awoke from a daydream involving disease and Vampires. She realized the coach had slowed. The speaking-slot opened.
“Sorry, Miss Ryoka. We’ve got company. Adventurers. They want a lift. Lost their damn horses, but they seem decent. I know the team. They’re a sight. Take a look.”
The door cracked open. Ryoka blinked at the trio of Gold-ranks. Ylawes raised a hand.
“Ah! Excuse me! We’re getting on the coach. Are you the only rider?”
Ryoka peered surruptitiously at the very knightly-looking [Knight]. He was blonde, tall, he looked like a fairy-tale hero. There was a Dwarf, a half-Elf…she had the instant urge to hum a certain theme song. She was tempted to look around for an army of Orcs.
“I’m deeply sorry, Miss. Rest assured, we’ll clean ourselves before entering. We ran into some…unpleasant monsters just before reaching the road.”
“It’s fine by me. You’re adventurers, right?”
The [Knight] blinked and then smiled as the half-Elf waved her staff and a huge orb of water splashed down on the Dwarf’s head. He kicked her.
“Excuse me; we’ve been impolite. My name is Ylawes of House Byres. This is Falene Skystrall, and Dawil Ironbreaker. We’re Gold-rank adventurers, the Silver Swords.”
Ryoka nodded to them and sat back, waiting as the Silver Swords washed themselves as clean as possible. She wished she had her iPhone.
Outside, Ylawes sighed as Falene blew wind around them, drying them off.
“Not far to Reizmelt, now. And our objective.”
“Mhm. We’ll let Erin know when we arrive. Say, lad…”
Dawil tapped Ylawes’ arm. The Human man looked down at him.
“Don’t call me lad. What?”
“Just a thought. I’m all for helping Erin out. Not like we have plans. But er—it occurs to me just now that we only have a name to go on. Have you met this girl we’re supposed to find? What does this ‘Ryoka Griffin’ look like, anyways?”
The half-Elf and Human exchanged a glance. Falene put a finger to her temple.
“…I’ll ask for a description from Ceria. She’s finally mastered [Message].”
“I’m sure Pointy-Ears would have come up with it, eventually. She just didn’t want to say to embarrass us. Obviously.”
The Dwarf’s smug look earned him a deep glare as he clambered into the coach. He waved at Ryoka, who nodded back; he was the first Dwarf she’d seen up close. The other two piled in and the coach moved on in short order.
They were an interesting bunch. The first thing the Dwarf did was hold out a hand.
“Sorry about the smell. Exploding mushrooms. Appreciate you letting us in.”
“Not at all. Adventurers keep everyone safe. Especially someone like me. Good to meet you all.”
They nodded in a friendly manner at her. The [Knight] glanced at Ryoka; the half-Elf was doing something magical to judge by the way her eyes were flickering.
“May I ask where you’re bound? We’re headed to Reizmelt.”
“Oh really? Me too. I’m a City Runner. I work around there. Sorry, I should have introduced myself. My name’s Ryoka Griffin.”
Ylawes’ hand tightened on Ryoka’s hand. He blinked. Dawil sat up. Falene lowered her hand, [Message] unsent. The [Knight] stared at Ryoka as she saw his face change.
“Really? Well, this is fortunate. We’ve been looking for you, Miss Griffin.”
Ryoka’s face froze. She stared at Ylawes. She couldn’t help notice that Ylawes’ armor—along with his sword—was silver. She hesitated.
“What did you say your name was?”
The [Knight] saw Ryoka start.
“Oh. Do you know Yvlon?”
“She’s my younger sister.”
“Small world. So—you’re looking for me?”
The Silver Swords nodded. They gazed at Ryoka and Falene casually adjusted her staff.
“Someone would like to speak to you, Ryoka Griffin. Please—”
The City Runner exploded out of the coach. Randal jerked, and the horses reared in alarm as Ryoka Griffin took off running. He turned to stare after the Silver Swords, who poured out of the coach, chasing her.
They’d laugh over it later. Well, probably. Ryoka Griffin might not laugh as much. And after a while, in hindsight…she would blame Erin for all that happened next.
The Wandering Inn was having a busy day. There were quiet days, when the worst thing that happened was Erin spent all day hunting for a missing chess piece or tried to make a 10-foot pizza for fun.
But busy days came after dark drama, or triumph. So much was happening.
The [Lords] were gone. Lady Bethal was in Invrisil, enjoying a play. But the door was popping with activity.
Maviola El was there. And before the sun had even properly risen, you could hear her haranguing an [Innkeeper].
“—and when you make a contract, you need to have it officiated at least by the Merchant’s Guild. It isn’t that hard, Erin.”
“Leave me alone! Lyonette’s better at this!”
“They’re negotiating with you. You need to learn how to talk to them. It’s not hard. Listen, we’ll practice. Stop running away—”
Thump, thump, thump. Erin ran down the hallway. Maviola El pursued her.
“Stop being childish.”
“I don’t wanna do it!”
“You are impossible. Don’t make me spank you.”
“I’ll punch you! Why do I have to learn all this?”
The two arguing young women were talking about contracts. Sending food, supplies hundreds of miles via magic door. Erin Solstice had struck a deal—at least the beginning of one—and Maviola was determined to make it real. The [Innkeeper] was less than happy, but her protestations grew weaker because Maviola was right. She sighed, turned—
But of course, it wasn’t always about Erin. As the [Innkeeper] reluctantly returned to her room, a little white paw reached up. A white Gnoll hefted a giant rock, still covered with dirt, into a drawer. She tossed it—and never heard the thunk.
A tail wagged. Mrsha peered into the drawer. Then she put a pillow in there. It vanished as soon as she inserted it into the drawer. Mrsha padded off. She came back with hers and Lyonette’s blankets. She stuffed them into the drawer.
From the outside, the single compartment in the chest of drawers should have held some clothes—a few knickknacks. But six rocks, a pillow, blankets, and now a variety of Mrsha’s gifts, including Numbtongue’s silver ball and her horn went sailing into it.
A very excited little face poked over the edge of the drawer. Mrsha rubbed her paws together.
Most excellent. Of course, this was the most important thing happening in the inn. Mrsha vaguely heard Maviola sitting down.
“Okay. This is a sample contract. Note the magical bindings on the side? Magical contracts are essential for agreements you need to enforce with magic. Skills on the other hand can do the same. So never sign anything unless you’re sure…”
Oho! What else can I put in here, then?
Mrsha padded out of her room. After a second, she pushed open another door, came out with Numbtongue’s pillows and blankets. She pushed them into the drawer. Stared inside.
It was mostly full. Mrsha, experimenting with the limits of Erin’s [Compartments of Holding] had discovered that they were far more spacious than your average Bag of Holding. So much so that the upper limit of even the drawers in hers and Lyonette’s room could comfortably hold all this stuff.
She liked it. Erin had woken everyone up in the middle of the night shouting about her new Skill. Mrsha had wanted to experiment, but she’d been so sleepy.
At first, Lyonette hadn’t been too impressed. Numbtongue had decided it was useful for storing more weapons, but had promptly gone back to sleep. But for the Gnoll child—this was amazingly fun.
She could hide all her things wherever she wanted! In a tiny little space! Mrsha’s mind raced with the possibilities. Hide snacks Lyonette would never find! Store all her favorite things!
Lyonette only had boring ideas like ‘let’s store even more food and supplies and facilitate trade with the nobles!’ Erin’s new Skill worked on anything that was a ‘compartment’. Be it drawer, closet, cupboard, or even sacks in the basement, it essentially made the insides larger than what they should be. Multiplied space.
Mrsha reached down into the drawers and pulled out a pillow. She fluffed it experimentally.
So convenient. The Gnoll’s tail wagged. She had another brilliant idea. She stared into the compartment, which had held two blankets, six pillows—Numbtongue liked pillows—rocks, some of her toys…it was full to the brim. But if you removed two more pillows…
There was a nice divot of space in there. Mrsha eyed the open spot. She had been told by Lyonette you should never put living things into a Bag of Holding. But this was a Skill. Slowly, Mrsha looked around and then surreptitiously climbed into—
The first screaming howl made Erin and Maviola jump from their room. They shot to their feet and looked around. They couldn’t place it at first. But the second howl of pain made them run out of the room.
“Mrsha? Where are you?”
Erin located Mrsha in Lyonette and Mrsha’s room a beat before she saw a green blur race upstairs. Numbtongue kicked the door open, his new sword drawn.
They found Mrsha in the cupboard. She was compressed along with the blankets, rocks, and other objects in the now ordinary-sized cupboard. Numbtongue tugged at the door, but Mrsha just howled louder. So the Hobgoblin aimed his sword and carefully cut the entire cupboard apart.
Broken bits of wood—the objects had cracked the other drawers when they reverted to real space—pillow feathers, and Mrsha all exploded outwards. The Gnoll was crying. She let Erin scoop her up as Lyonette, panting, raced up the stairs with a sword in her hands.
Sniffling, Mrsha explained to Erin and Numbtongue out what happened.
“Bags of Holding don’t contain people. At least—not alive. Erin’s Skill must not either. It’s a failsafe. Better than what the enchantment does to some people. It’s definitely Erin’s Skill—if Mrsha tried that with a superior holding enchantment, it might have compressed her. Or even let her climb in—without air.”
Maviola wiped at her pale face. The teary-eye Gnoll found herself cuddled and scolded by turns. Only after Erin had made Mrsha promise to never, ever do that again, did she relax.
That was how her day started. Mrsha’s, that was. Twenty minutes later, she was feeling better. Even if Lyonette had been very mad.
But aside from that near-squish experience, Mrsha decided the drawers were alright. She was careful not to put herself in them. But as Numbtongue (now acting as her supervisor until Drassi signed in), remarked, the Skill had benefits for the creative.
“Nice Skill. Pyrite has a good idea. Can’t put people inside, but storage isn’t the only trick. You still hurt?”
Mrsha’s hurts had been healed with a little sip of healing potion. She shook her head bravely and sat by his leg. Cross-legged, the Hobgoblin was sitting with a chair lying on the ground in front of him. He had a knife, one of the inn’s crossbows, and several bolts lying there.
The crossbow was unloaded. And it said something that Erin had asked Numbtongue to take care of Mrsha, believing, rightly, that she would be much safer in his company. Mrsha reached out to touch a crossbow bolt. Numbtongue let her. If she stabbed herself, he wouldn’t offer much sympathy.
His new, Dragonblood-crystal sword on the other hand, he didn’t even let Mrsha near. And when she tried to edge around to see the wonderful scabbard, which had a red fang sewn on it—he looked at her.
“Do you want to lose your paw?”
Mrsha hesitated. The Gnoll child scooted back on her bum and made no more efforts to even touch the sword. She was a good girl. She really was. Her adventures were just…er…adventures. In that sense, Erin, and even Lyonette and Numbtongue were all poor role models. Bird was somehow the most careful and that was a horrible thought.
Well, she was learning things. And one of her favorite, if rarest instructors now appeared. Numbtongue raised a finger. Then his expression changed.
His posture grew more heavyset—out of memory, not reality. He sat back, grunted. Scratched at his belly, and then looked at Mrsha.
“Hello, Mrsha. Good children don’t play with artifacts.”
She respectfully waved back. But the Hobgoblin—the Goldstone Chieftain—Pyrite, did not waste time. He picked up the knife and got to work with the chair leg at once. As he did, he spoke.
“Had a thought. Interesting. Skills of [Innkeepers]. Not very Goblin. Extremely powerful. Wish I had been one. Useful. Idea with compartments. You see?”
He dug the knife into the cheap chair leg. Mrsha frowned. She didn’t. But Pyrite was smart. She watched; he was cutting into the wood. Cutting a block out of the leg.
“Hm. Concealed. Hollow this.”
The Hobgoblin began digging with one claw into the wood, hollowing a cavity. He showed Mrsha. She frowned, then figured out what he was doing. Her eyes went round and the [Chieftain] gave her a slow wink.
“Drawer. Compartment. Now. How powerful is Skill? Is it based on size or always makes everything bigger by same amount?”
The crude drawer was tiny. But as Pyrite slotted the secret compartment into the table leg, Mrsha saw it expand. Pyrite checked the drawer. He grunted.
“Hm. Three times bigger. Rat. Then—”
The time limit expired. Numbtongue blinked. He shook his head, paused a brief moment, and finished Pyrite’s thoughts in his own words.
“—Can’t hide the crossbow in here. Is okay. Can hide it in a slightly bigger spot. Here. Watch.”
The chair he abandoned. This time, the Hobgoblin wandered downstairs and came up with some bits of wood. Quickly, he fashioned together a crude box. It was small—the size of two hands. But when it was sufficiently box-like, it took on Erin’s Skill.
Numbtongue put the hand-sized crossbow and some iron-tipped bolts inside. Then he closed the lid. It appeared to be impossibly small. And if you weren’t careful—unnoticeable. The Hobgoblin winked at Mrsha and she grinned.
“Now, where do we put it?”
They walked downstairs and investigated. Mrsha wanted to install the tiny box under a table, so you could pull out a crossbow and go boom, like those ‘Cow Boys’ that Erin had told her about. But Numbtongue was more practical.
“Everyone sits at tables. Better to put it here.”
He placed it right next to the windowsill, next to one of the flower planters. Erin had moved the Faerie Flowers to her garden to prevent thieves, but she’d liked the flowers so much that she had some lovely scented red ones there. The crude box was innocuous. Mrsha grinned. She saw Numbtongue lean against the windowsill, check the room, and slowly slide the box open. He grinned at her with his teeth and she gave him the same smile. The Hobgoblin leaned down and muttered in her ear.
“Now just have to hide the acid-jars. Maybe small vials in chair legs? Or just shiv?”
Mrsha was just done hiding the acid jars in secret spots in the inn with Numbtongue—they’d decided not table legs given how often they got smashed—when they heard Palt calling for Erin.
The Centaur didn’t like stairs. He could do them—but with difficulty. Lyonette was working on a special ramp between floors in the new parts of the inn. But it wasn’t done yet.
“I have a spell from the Silver Swords! It’s urgent! They’ve uh—they say they’ve found Ryoka Griffin?”
Erin came clattering down the stairs. Mrsha’s ears perked up. She saw Erin, with Palt’s help, using the communication spell. Even Mrsha couldn’t hear the other side of the conversation, but she heard Erin’s side.
“Ryoka? But why—I—uh oh. Uh oh. Falene…um, no, listen. Listen—wait, you got her? When you say…tied up? What happened? She did w—no! No, she already came back here! Yes! A few days ago! I forgot to tell you! Uh…um…is that Ryoka in the background? Listen—no, I’m so sorry. But listen—”
All was well. Mrsha relaxed. And the guests of the inn started coming in as Erin began apologizing profusely.
The first was the two strangers with hats. A rather stylish Gnoll and a Drake. Mrsha liked them. They were always polite. They tipped their hats to Lyonette, they spoke funny, and the Gnoll gave her some snacks.
“I say, Ratici. That was a bit of a scrap yesterday. I feel somewhat embarrassed to tell the truth. We nearly failed our contract.”
“How were we to know, Wilovan? But we were stuck in Invrisil. Perhaps we should stay here?”
“Some thought on that, Ratici. The Tall Man’s paying well. Too well to pursue our—other activities. I say we devote more effort to this.”
The two sighed. Then the Drake did a double-take as he stared at one of the windows. His eyes narrowed; they flicked to a beam on the ceiling, the kitchen, and then he looked all around. Wilovan patiently cut a pork chop in half.
“Something the matter, Ratici?”
“…The inn’s different. I’m seeing multiple holding areas, Wilovan. Either this [Innkeeper]’s leveled up or an [Enchanter] went insane. And someone’s already created multiple stashes.”
“Anything good inside?”
“Hand crossbow, knife, jars of…something.”
“Sensible precautions. Pass the salt?”
A high-level…something. Mrsha stared at Ratici, suspiciously as the Drake noted all the places she and Numbtongue had just been. She looked around for the Hobgoblin, but he was gone.
“Numbtongue, Numbtongue! They found your secret stuff! The hat-duo!”
Mrsha found him in Octavia’s shop. She waved her hands, using sign language. At first, the Hobgoblin didn’t notice.
“Mhm. Looks like nice paste. Edible?”
“It’s more than that, Numbtongue. And no, don’t eat it. Ryoka calls it penicillin. Or something close. I’m spreading the word, trying to find a buyer among [Healers].”
Octavia was leaning across her counter, showing the Hobgoblin something in a jar. Mrsha waved her paws.
“What? Is that Mrsha? Hey! My shops off-limits, kid! Say, Numbtongue, do you know why all my cupboards are suddenly three times as big on the inside?”
The [Alchemist] frowned. Numbtongue grinned.
“What happened was—what, Mrsha?”
He bent down. With some trouble, Mrsha explained. Numbtongue frowned and his eyes flicked back to the common room. But he didn’t seem too concerned.
“High-level. Smart. I’ll watch them. You go back. No Mrshas allowed in shop. What buyers, Octavia?”
The two went back to smiling over the weird-smelling paste. Mrsha huffily walked back to the door. Some people weren’t grateful for Mrsha the Spy’s information! How dare they!
She was ready to spy on the two dangerous, potential infiltrators when the door opened and brought through a slurry of people from Pallass.
“Hello everybody! Did you miss me!”
A naked Drake strode into the inn. Ratici choked on his drink. Mrsha’s head turned. Saliss of Lights bounded into the room, smiling, waving—naked. You got used to it.
“I say, sir! There are children here! Put on some pants, please!”
Wilovan rose to his feet. The Drake spun.
“Excuse me? You and what army? Say—”
The two locked eyes across the room. Ratici’s eyes narrowed.
Saliss eyed them.
Saliss of Lights had not had a good day. Or perhaps that was inaccurate to say. Saliss had been fine.
Yesterday, he’d been largely out of sight during the riots. And even afterwards—he’d just gone around handing out potions to injured people, nakedly posing in front of [Guard] patrols and annoying the heck out of them—that was what Saliss had done.
At the same time, though, a certain female Drake had seen fighting. She’d dragged more than one person out of the protests when the Watch came cracking down on them like a ton of bricks. It did not put either Drake in a good mood.
Saliss didn’t know why he’d come here. Perhaps because he was in a bad mood. He did not want to be in…Pallass at the moment. The curfew and martial law was still in effect.
He narrowed his eyes. He couldn’t read either Wilovan or Ratici’s levels or classes. But that didn’t matter. Saliss recognized talent. And anyone who bought charms that blocked [Appraisal] usually needed such items for a reason.
“Say, fellows. Do I know you?”
The Drake skipped over and put an arm around the Gnoll’s shoulder. For a moment he saw the Gnoll’s body shift. He was quick. But he relaxed and let Saliss do it.
“I am, sir, Wilovan. And this is my partner, Ratici. You must be the infamous Saliss of Lights.”
“Guilty! But don’t arrest me! The jails are already full in Pallass!”
The Drake grinned about them. Wilovan looked down.
“Sir, there’s a young Gnoll child in this very inn. I have to insist you put on something to cover your shortcomings.”
“Hey! They’re not that sh—well, maybe they are. But I’m afraid they’re there to stay.”
The Gnoll coughed. He adjusted his hat.
“Adventurer Saliss. I’m but a poor fellow compared to a personage such as yourself. But I fear I must insist. Good dressing and decorum are the manners of every gentleman.”
That rankled Saliss more today. He grinned, toothily.
“I’m afraid no one puts pants on me.”
Wilovan glanced at Ratici. The Drake raised his brows. But the [Thug] stiffly addressed Saliss.
“Sir. There are women, children, and people I assume who don’t wish to see unmentionables while dining and taking their leisure. I feel I should insist.”
All three individuals paused there. Saliss’ smile never wavered. But his eyes narrowed.
“Like I said. You and what army?”
What Wilovan might have said or done next was up for debate. The Gnoll was glancing about, inspecting the inn—not a good place to cause trouble—a little Gnoll child peering at them around a door, and no doubt aware of Saliss himself. He adjusted his tall hat—
And Erin Solstice shouted.
“Hey! Saliss! There you are! I could have used you yesterday! What’s up?”
She waved and the Drake turned. Wilovan hesitated, stepped back, and Ratici relaxed. Saliss of Lights turned. And there was Erin.
“Erin! My favorite Human! I think! How are you?”
He spread his arms, laughing, and posed. Just to annoy the Gnoll. But Erin was hurrying over and she had something in her hands.
A box. Saliss recognized it. He put up his claws.
“Hold on now, that was only for Mrsha’s birthday, Miss Erin.”
“Aw, Saliss. But people like eating here! Come on! I added something to make it better.”
“Added? Erin, as I was just telling this fine fellow, you and what arm—”
Erin showed him the front of the box. Saliss blinked at it—and then burst out laughing. Wilovan and Ratici craned their heads to see. Erin grinned. That was the thing. She got Saliss.
In short order, the Drake strutted around the inn, now with a box on his private parts. It was just a box, but it had one notable addition.
Warning: contains small nuts.
Only her. Chaldion had never tried that. Saliss kept laughing about it and in a fine humor, found Erin sitting him down.
“Hey, how’s it been? Sorry, I can’t stick around long; I have this thing with Maviola. Have you met Maviola?”
“Who? I can’t say I have. Say, I heard you were involved in a riot.”
Saliss’ eyes twinkled. Inside, his good humor over the box faded. Erin’s face fell.
“Yeah. They were everywhere. Hold on, can I get you anything to eat? Or rather—Ishkr!”
As the two sat and Saliss ordered breakfast, he talked with Erin about yesterday. Mrsha sat at a table next to them, eagerly bouncing up and down in her seat. She was getting a cheese-and-bacon soufflé.
“It’s all puffy and hot. Soufflés are the only thing that doesn’t keep well. You want one? Or just your salad?”
Erin presented the puffy soufflé-in-a-cup to Mrsha. The Gnoll picked up the spoon and dug into the fluffy breakfast with delight. Erin turned to Saliss.
“Mrsha had a scare this morning. She’s still being punished, but this is also to cheer her up.”
“…What’s the punishment, then?”
The [Alchemist] eyed Mrsha eating the soufflé. Ratici instantly ordered one for his table and Wilovan doubled the request. Erin smiled.
“No cake for dessert.”
“Ah, the worst of things! So you outrioted a riot by beating them all to the ground with your fists?”
The Drake found that amusing. Even if his memory of yesterday made the smile artificial. Erin sighed.
“It was that or let them kill the [Lords]. Who were stupid. But that’s this entire thing. Tell me about Pallass. I heard…the riots weren’t as bad. But um. I heard that’s because Chaldion put down the riots. Hard?”
The Drake toyed with his fork. He felt a hot flash in his chest and smiled at Erin.
“Oh, you know Chaldion. Everything’s a war for him. There were only a few thousand [Guards] and [Soldiers] kicking people’s teeth in. Literally. I sold a few teeth-regrowing potions. Broken bones—I think they beat a few children—excuse me, troublemakers—unconscious. But that’s Chaldion! You should ask him about it.”
Erin’s face went still. She saw Saliss eating the food he didn’t really taste.
“I will. He…ordered that?”
He winked at her.
“Everything to keep law and order, right? Hey, this is great, by the way.”
The Drake gobbled at his food, but the [Innkeeper] wasn’t fooled. In a way, they were too much alike. Erin watched Saliss eat for a second.
“Think I should kick Chaldion in the butt when he comes into the inn? Nah, I’d probably break his tail or something. How about I beat him ten times in a row at chess? I can do it. He’s not as good as he thinks he is, Skills or not.”
The [Alchemist] looked up. He blinked at Erin and then he guffawed. Saliss slapped at his knee as Mrsha began to giggle. He must have laughed for at least a minute because everyone saw him on the ground, rolling around with the box. When Saliss finally got up, he was actually smiling.
“Would you? Can you do that?”
The [Innkeeper] just grinned at Saliss and winked back.
“I can probably do twenty. If I really put him off his game. How about this? Um…okay, I can challenge him to speed-chess, which he’s bad at. His [Path to Victory] helps, but he can’t keep using it in game after game. And I can win even if he sees one path. But once I beat him four times, you can like, I dunno, run up behind me and start waving a sign and counting how many times he loses, see…”
He laughed and didn’t know he needed that until he did. Erin sat with Saliss. After the laugher, she asked.
“How bad was it, really?”
Thoughtfully, Saliss looked at her. He had resolved not to complain. But with Erin…the Drake wavered. Still, he shook his head. Onieva was his secret. And he trusted almost no one with it.
“I—didn’t see much of it. I was in my laboratory, making potions. Those faerie flowers are giving me lots of trouble, by the way.”
“Yeah. Xif doesn’t have any to experiment on except the one, but…well…he said the same thing. They’re magically potent, but I feel like I’m missing something. Something about their natures. It’s just a hunch, but mind telling me how you got them?”
Saliss sighed. But he had expected that. He was about to ask Erin about these Humans [Lords] when someone called Erin’s name.
“Erin Solstice. You have a lesson to learn! Stop having breakfast and come on!”
Maviola had been waiting in Erin’s room the entire time Erin had gone down to persuade Saliss to box his genitalia. Now, she came downstairs. Erin stood up.
“I’m sorry, Maviola! I forgot! Saliss, I have to go.”
“That’s fine. Just promise me you’ll make Chaldion cr—”
Saliss spotted the fiery-haired young woman. She didn’t notice him; she was haranguing Erin. The Drake [Alchemist] stabbed himself in the mouth with his fork. His eyes bulged.
The fire burnt away day by day. But how beautifully it died.
Mrsha ate her soufflé. It was fluffy and delicious. She was thus in the best of moods as her minder for the day arrived.
“Sorry I’m late. Visma’s family wanted to walk her to the door. And I forgot it was moved to right next to the Adventurer’s Guild. I mean, it’s closer, but I went the wrong way…here they are! Mrsha! Ekirra and Visma are here!”
Hey! Mrsha threw up her paws and scampered towards her friends. She saw a shy Gnoll and Drake poking around Drassi’s legs. Ekirra went over to Mrsha at once, but both he and Visma were…shy today.
This was not the first time they’d visited The Wandering Inn by far. But today they were reserved, and Mrsha was confused for a good minute until she saw them staring. Then she knew why. They looked at Erin as she made Maviola drag her up the stairs. The silly [Innkeeper] was the same. But the way Mrsha’s two friends looked at her was different. Mrsha saw it in their eyes.
Awe. They were not the only ones. A group of Humans from Earth were breakfasting and looking at Erin surreptitiously. As Drassi tried to herd the children towards the [Garden of Sanctuary], which was their approved play-area, Mrsha heard Troy and Leon talking to the others.
“Dude. We were hiding in a shop the entire time. You said Erin charged them?”
“We all saw it. She went straight into them! She got stabbed, but she had a potion and Bird was shooting people in the legs and they actually broke up one of the crowds! Twice!”
Rose was looking wide-eyed at Erin’s back. It was the same look they’d had after the Rock Crab incident. Only, magnified.
“Miss Erin is cool.”
Ekirra informed Mrsha. Visma just peered at Erin’s back as the [Innkeeper] was finally dragged upstairs with a wail. It was hard to conflate the two Erin’s. But Mrsha had seen both. Rather proudly, she signed at her friends—who could understand her hand-signals—that Erin had always been cool.
The play date in the inn was, for once, without reservation on the parts of Ekirra and Visma’s parents. Erin had found both families during the riots. And more notably—stopped a riot around Visma’s house that had threatened to burn down her home.
“She was invisible. And then she appeared and told the people go away or else. And then she went bang! With the pan and Mr. Goblin. And Miss Minotaur.”
Visma relayed the entire event to Ekirra and Mrsha; she had been there. Mrsha had been in the garden and only heard some of it. Mrsha was nodding proudly. She made a triumphant fist on Erin’s behalf. Then paused; Ekirra was waving a paw for attention.
“My dad says Miss Erin was lucky no one was killed. He says she could have made things worse.”
The Gnoll boy’s comment made Mrsha frown. She folded her paws and then—since she had to use them to communicate—unfolded them.
“Erin did good! She saved Visma’s home. And yours!”
“No one burned down our homes. My father says people got hurt when Miss Erin stopped the riots. Badly. Some had to go to the [Healers].”
Ekirra’s parroting of his father’s opinion offended Mrsha to the core. She glowered at him as he played with some flowers in the grass where they were sitting. Drassi was lounging, reading a book; she didn’t seem aware of the moralistic debate occurring and assumed they were just playing.
“Erin did nothing wrong. The riots were wrong! She should have hurt them more. Bird should have shot their arms and legs so they hurt no one again.”
The Drake and Gnoll child looked at Mrsha’s furious face. Now Mrsha thought of it—she grew angrier and angrier about the riots. As she had been yesterday.
Visma’s short tail waved uncertainly in the grass. After a second, the Drake girl spoke, her voice tinged with uncertain certainty.
“No. Because that would be wrong. Bad people hurt each other. Erin shouldn’t hurt people.”
“But she saved your house! And what about the Workers?”
Mrsha furiously pointed out. Visma had nothing to say to that. Ekirra waved his paw again.
“My dad says—”
He flinched at Mrsha’s scowl, but went on determinedly.
“He says that the Antinium were dangerous too. They marched.”
“Not all of them. Workers got hurt!”
Some had died. The two children hadn’t known that. They went still as Mrsha got up. She glowered at them and decided it wasn’t their faults. She had to show them.
“Hey, Mrsha, don’t go into the jungle! Remember you got your fur full of burrs when you went in there!”
Drassi lazily shouted at Mrsha as she led the two others over the hill. The Drake yawned and lay back in the sunlight. Meanwhile, Mrsha led the children down the hill to the edges of the dome.
The door was waiting for them. Ekirra and Visma drew back doubtfully.
“We’re not supposed to leave. We’ll get in trouble.”
Visma peeked out through the door. There was a…humming sound. A wooden hallway. Mrsha waved at them, signaling for quiet.
Workers had died during the riot. But Visma and Ekirra hadn’t known. Mrsha doubted their parents had been aware—or cared.
After all, who cared for Worker casualties? No one said it. Olesm’s newspaper had illustrations of the destruction, counts of people injured, hurt, dead, arrested…but the Antinium were only mentioned as ‘The Black Tide’, sweeping through the city in a mass.
No one spoke of the Workers who’d been cut into pieces or smashed and killed and left to die by angry people. Angry people who pretended to be normal the next day.
But some people did not forget.
The place Mrsha led her friends was a new part of the inn. A new wing, off the kitchen-side. It had not been part of Lyonette’s original plans. But it had been funded and paid for by Xrn. And conceived of by Erin and Pawn.
The humming in the air was louder as the children crept forwards. Ekirra’s ears perked up and even Visma heard it as multiple voices. And as they moved towards a room where light spilled from behind two double doors, they saw.
Antinium. They knelt, or stood, in a room designed for them. It was simple, adorned by color. Pictures on the wall. Each one unique. This place was a copy of a room in the Antinium Hive. And in it—standing behind an altar stood a [Priest].
The humming came from him as he swung the censer. It was not a single-minded drone—but nor was it music. It was meaningful, wordless.
Now, Pawn bent. In front of him were about a dozen Workers. They were all—wounded. Or they had been. Mrsha saw one Worker had no antennae. Another’s carapace had been cracked in multiple places.
The Workers knelt there, as Pawn put down his censer. Two of his hands were clasped in prayer. Now, the other two offered something with reverence to the first Worker. A bowl.
It did not contain food. Rather, it had small sections. Each one with a different color of paint. The Worker’s hands trembled as he slowly accepted the bowl. Slowly—so slowly, a finger dipped into the paint.
“We pray for the souls of those Workers who have died. Let them rest in Heaven. For the living—we continue on. Despite suffering. To make earth as it is in Heaven. Do not forget. Do not give in. You are not alone.”
Pawn’s voice was quiet as he walked down the line of Workers, offering another bowl. The children heard a sound.
Click. The Painted Antinium standing around the room made the sound. It made Ekirra jump; Visma sucked on her thumb. But it was not a harsh sound. There was something beautiful here. Mysterious.
Yellow Splatters stood at the back of the room, waiting. The others looked to him. One who had been there.
Heaven. Something worth dying for. And more—worth living for. Pawn’s hands were gentle as he blessed the first Worker. His [Benediction of Hope] made the Antinium rise. But more than that, the [Priest] prayed, and the Antinium prayed with him. For the dead.
For better days.
The children crept away as the Workers painted themselves. Shining with the drying paint, they left the chapel made only for them. A Worker with green pools of blood, as if symbolizing the other Workers. A Worker with a white flag on his chest.
It did not mean pain was gone. The two Gnolls and the Drake saw Pawn splitting from the others as they marched back to the Hive, bearing food with them. He paused, and entered his rooms.
A [Princess] slipped in after him. Mrsha scowled as Ekirra prowled forwards. She was pretty sure they didn’t want to see—
“…wasn’t there for them. I couldn’t bring them back. I tried. But one died. It wasn’t enough.”
Pawn and Lyonette sat in the room together. Mrsha heard him speaking, his voice low. Filled with…
The Antinium [Priest] looked older as he sat by Lyonette. She was holding his hand. Crying for him. He held her hand with his own, as if it were the only things keeping him anchored in this world.
Ekirra backed away. Mrsha looked another moment. Then she fled.
These were the things Mrsha saw. And her two friends saw something their parents had never conceived of.
Drassi wondered why Visma burst into tears. She thought Ekirra had been throwing rocks at her or something.
Not all the Antinium painted themselves. Not all prayed. On the roof of the inn, now with three floors, they built a tower.
It would be tall. It would be fortified. No random Hobgoblin with a sword would destroy it. It…might have a ballista. Lyonette and Erin had sort of vetoed that one.
But the Workers there…worked. Building the tower up.
Slowly, though. Usually, the worked with a determined energy that meant they didn’t race, but didn’t stop until a job was done. Now, though, they worked more…slowly. Taking their time, passing objects to each other.
It was a new concept. There were more than there needed to be. Most of them were actually the Archer Workers.
Archer J3 passed a piece of stone to Archer B23, who had some mortar which the other Worker carefully applied. With one hand, the other [Archer] applied it. And with his two free hands, he slowly, ever-so-gingerly dipped a little bit of fufu into some spicy beef soup.
Fufu was gluten-free, if you made it without…gluten. All of Erin’s agonizing over bread, wheat, and so on, had been solved by Imani in three seconds when she’d heard of the issue. Now, the Antinium ate. And the one responsible for the food on the job, insisted on the slow pace—he was named Bird.
“Why did Workers die, Hunter Bird?”
Archer A11—the third of his designation—asked that question. His unit had seen high combat, but there were enough Autonomous Workers to fill the seventeen archer groups now formed in Liscor’s Hive. Thanks to Anand and Belgrade, the Antinium died less.
But they still died. Every head turned to Bird. He sat above them, in his tower as it was being built around him. The [Bird Hunter] watched the sky. He looked down at them.
“Why do you ask ‘why’?”
The Workers looked up at him. Bird sat there, legs dangling happily. He stared at some birds out of his range. His voice was cheerful.
“Bad things happen. They always happen, like good things. Sometimes people do bad things. Sometimes people do good things. This is so. I have observed it.”
The other Workers thought on this. Another Workers spoke.
“Is there a Heaven, Hunter Bird?”
“I do not know. Ask Pawn. Or Yellow Splatters. He has been there. So probably?”
“Is Heaven nice?”
“I do not know. I do not care.”
The Workers thought on this. They were not ordinary Workers, with no names. But neither were they Painted. They looked up at Bird. And at last, one asked a question they often asked.
“What is good, Bird?”
The Worker thought about this. And each time his answer was different. Mainly because he forgot all the other answers. After a while, he spoke.
“Good is a feeling. Good is not happy. Happy lasts a short time. Good feels good even when happy is gone.”
They thought about this. After a while, one raised a hand.
“What is happy, Bird?”
The Worker sighed. He wondered when they’d stop asking him questions. But this was alright.
And then the important guest entered the inn. At first, Montressa and Bezale didn’t notice.
The two Wistram [Mages] sat together, having a meal at a table. Beza poked her deflating soufflé with a dubious expression. Montressa was halfway through hers.
“Beza. Have you been thinking what I’ve been thinking?”
“I doubt it, Montressa.”
The [Aegiscaster] sighed. Beza was…difficult. As bad as Ulinde, who wouldn’t sit still for five minutes, or Isceil, who had been rather arrogant and grating, or Palt who enjoyed being difficult, or…[Mages] were hard in general. They tended towards unique personalities.
“Master Hedault has a meeting scheduled with Miss Solstice. Today.”
The Minotauress dug into her meal at last. Montressa exhaled.
“…I think she forgot. Even Miss Maviola. What with the riots and all. Neither one’s come down from whatever they’re doing upstairs.”
The [Spellscribe] raised one eyebrow.
“I see. That’s rather unfortunate. Master Hedault is known to be extremely punctual.”
“I know. But what if—hear me out, Beza—what if we reminded Erin?”
The Minotauress gave Montressa a blank look. The [Aegiscaster] waved a hand; she’d taken too large a bite.
“Sorry. We reminded her and offered to go in her place? Or—or even got Master Hedault to come here?”
Her companion gave her an odd look. Beza was still a bit sweaty; she’d been working out with Grimalkin’s weights, having developed something of a compulsion in that regard. She rolled her shoulders.
“Because Master Hedault is one of the best [Enchanters] in the region. Because Erin would think more kindly of us if she did.”
“If you’re expecting her to throw Palt under the wagon for us—”
“Not at all. And I’m not asking for help with the Earthers. Beza, think about it. If we flatter Master Hedault, and we can do that—he’ll remember us. Right?”
“Master Hedault. The best [Enchanter]. You’re a [Spellscribe]. Your classes are related.”
“Hmf. True. It would be good to learn from him, but he’d never teach anyone.”
“That’s not the point. Master Hedault will probably want to come to the inn anyways, once he hears Master Pelt is now close enough to have his works enchanted. Right?”
Slowly, Bezale raised one thick eyebrow.
“Aha. And Master Smith Pelt is one of the best [Blacksmiths] in the region.”
“Pallass will certainly want his works, even if he’s not based in the city. Which is convenient because we happen to be close to Pallass.”
The Minotauress flicked a finger and blasted a fly out of the air with a little gust of wind.
“And a number of [Lords] are now seeking Erin for trade rights. You know, Beza. I was a secretbroker back in Wistram.”
“I’m quite aware, Montressa. But I see your point. You had connections.”
The [Aegiscaster] smiled. She sat back in her seat.
“We failed when it came to getting Erin out of her inn. But I think that might be a good thing. Think about it, Beza. This inn has access to two major cities. That’s…a lot of influential people. And both are trade hubs.”
Beza slowly exhaled.
“Hm. You’re proposing…what? The same thing Beatrice and you did?”
“Well…we’re not exactly popular at Wistram. And I do know how it goes. It’s all about making connections. Introducing people to people. And we know the person with the magic door. Why don’t we just nip up to Erin, offer to greet Master Hedault and…?”
The Minotauress hmmed and leaned forwards. They had been largely aimless of late. But this was something she understood. Liked.
Neither one noticed the gaggle of Drakes and Gnolls coming in from Pallass. Many were wide-eyed. But here were…tourists.
One, with a smart cap, adjusted it and looked around, murmuring. Another, a Drake with a leafy staff stared around, blinking. A Gnoll with a bow on his back and travelling gear—a tribal Gnoll on whose fur was stamped a silver crescent—or fang—sniffed the air.
“Excuse me, Miss. Do you know where the owner of this inn, a, ah, ‘Erin Solstice’ is?”
The Gnoll with the cap strode up to the nearest person. That happened to be Lyonette, still a bit red-eyed, but back to work.
“Oh—Erin? I’m sorry, she’s personally occupied. But I can help you. Are you looking for a place to stay? Directions? We can transport you to other cities…”
The Gnoll gave Lyonette an abashed smile. Awkwardly, he fumbled for his belt.
“I’m sorry. I should have introduced myself—oh—”
He dropped the bit of paper and several coins. Lyonette bent to pick it up, but with flustered apologies, the Gnoll scrambled to pick it up. She felt bad for him, as, blushing, he stood upright.
“Sorry, sorry! Let me begin. I’m ah, sent here on behalf of my company. Izril’s Wonders. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of us…?”
Lyonette had to dash his hopeful look. The Gnoll sighed, despondent.
“What is it? Can I get you a drink?”
He was dusty, Lyonette realized. The Gnoll brightened.
“That’d be wonderful, Miss. I’m actually here on behalf of our group with an offer. You see, we’ve heard of this wondrous inn. And we’d love to expand our destinations. I’m forgetting myself again. You see, my company takes people to each Walled City. Shows them the sights.”
“Oh! How delightful! And you want to put Liscor on that list?”
“Well, Invrisil, in point of fact, Miss. We’d love to discuss the matter if we may.”
The [Princess] smiled. Her mind began racing at once.
“I don’t think Erin would have a problem with that. I’ll let her know as soon as possible. It might be a little bit, but she’s sure to be interested. Can I offer you something to eat and drink while you wait? What’s your name?”
The Gnoll slapped his forehead. He took off his cap, abashed.
“I forget myself. I’m no [Negotiator], Miss. I was just closest when I got my orders. I’m just a [Coachman], me. Not sure why they wanted me, but we’re not the biggest company…Ferris, Miss. Ferris Seftpaw. Oh behalf of my company, I’d love to make a deal with Miss Erin Solstice. Even offer her a free trip. We can get you to a Walled City within a week from one to another.”
“Trade secrets, Miss Lyonette. Well, I say trade secrets, but really, it’s just good wheels, magical horses, and…”
The Gnoll took the drink eagerly as he told Lyonette about the fantastic company. Meanwhile, the Gnoll with the bow on his back had found Ishkr, the first Gnoll on staff.
“Excuse me. I seek Krshia Silverfang. I was told this door leads me to…Liscor. This is Liscor, yes?”
He had an accent, a far more growling tone, with connected words. Ishkr blinked at him.
“Er. Yes. The door connects to Liscor. The same one you came through.”
The Gnoll’s brows crossed. He glanced sidelong at Ishkr, as if believing he was being tricked. Ishkr gestured.
“I can send you to Liscor right now. This way, please. Krshia is probably at City Hall or tending to her shop.”
“She’s a Councilwoman of Liscor.”
The Gnoll’s jaw dropped slightly. He quickened his steps, suddenly full of questions. Ishkr sighed, but bothersome customers came with the job.
…Neither one was the important guest. And important was a relative term. Montressa and Beza rose, on their important work.
“Let’s go to Master Hedault now. We can show Erin our initiative.”
It was the kind of thing that would have earned them accolades in Wistram if they pulled it off. Beza was nodding. They hurried out of the inn, towards Invrisil, past the Drake with a leafy staff.
She was….interesting. Her clothing was sparser than most Drakes. Rather than being seductive in any intention though, they gave her the look that she was going to bushwhack or do something that involved dirt. And dirt did cover her clothes; not that she was dirty, but it had been worked into fabric from much exposure.
She’d tied something interesting around the top of her staff. It was, in fact, a delicate lattice of cobwebs. It seemed incongruous, as if a strange spider had woven all around the top of her staff. But if you looked closer, you realized her clothing, the staff—
It was all spider’s silk. Some dyed, but nonetheless. The Drake had been staring around the inn, first in puzzlement, noting the weird Drake with a box, the two [Mages], the crowds—she didn’t seem at home with anything there.
But she had migrated over to the wall, as if drawn. Now, she murmured.
“Oh! What power runs here. What power. Magic. But what is this? This—this is strange. This calls to me. I am a humble traveller. What waits for me here?”
She put a claw out, gingerly. And jerked it back as a door appeared. The Drake stared, wide-eyed at the door. Then she put a claw on the handle and opened it.
The [Garden of Sanctuary] opened for her. The [Druid] hesitated at the opening.
“How magnificent. A sacred place! Here?”
She stared about the inn, marveling. No one really paid any attention. Lyonette was listening to Ferris’ clumsy upsell. Erin was upstairs, listening to lectures on how to negotiate. Numbtongue was making boxes full of hidden weapons.
The Drake hesitated at the opening. She touched at it and recoiled. There was a…barrier. She frowned. Then she stood back and bowed with her staff. Ishkr, passing, gave her a strange look, but he was busy. The Drake spoke to the open doorway.
“I am a humble traveller. I mean no harm. I beg entrance; I am Shassa Weaverweb, granted my name by those who still walk the wild green. May I enter?”
She closed her eyes. After about two minutes where nothing at all happened, she cracked one eyelid open. Shassa gently felt at the opening.
The barrier was gone. The Drake blinked, then smiled, ducked her head, and entered the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Then she gasped and stared.
Mrsha and Ekirra and Visma were playing, now tearless and chasing around Mrsha’s magic ball. They were laughing and running up and down the hill as Drassi snoozed. At first, they did not see the Drake with the staff.
That was because she walked about the edge of the dome, looking at the mushrooms in the loamy soil, marveling at the pond. A pair of Fortress Beavers backed up warily from her, but the Drake murmured and bowed and they soon were nuzzling her, letting her check their scarred flesh with dismay.
“You poor things! I am sorry. This is not my forte. Web-cousins did this to you? I am sorry. They can be cruel. On their behalf, I will do all I can. How many…oh. So few. But this place is surely safe. Can I do aught for you?”
The Drake bent her head. The Fortress Beavers nibbled on her staff and she gently lifted it.
“I see. But how strange. Someone has…”
Her head swung. The Drake frowned.
“Low-level. But…but I see a wild-walker’s touch. Is someone…?”
Mrsha was running over the hill, pursuing the magic ball, when she felt something. She looked around.
Are you here, friend?
Mrsha looked left, at Visma. But the Drake girl, laughing and breathless, hadn’t said that. Mrsha cocked her head. She ventured a tentative…yes?
It was a voice in her head. Mrsha felt the impression of a smile. And then, as she crested the hill, Ekirra came racing back towards her.
“Mrsha! Mrshamrshamrsha! Who is that?”
He pointed. Mrsha ran up on all fours and saw—
A Drake with light clothing and a staff of cobwebs. The Drake had been looking in their direction. Her eyes and Mrsha’s met at the same time. The Drake’s eyes widened.
You? You are a child!
Mrsha stared. The voice was in her head. The Drake’s jaw dropped.
“A wild-walker? So young? Ah—but you have no name! You—”
Mrsha backed up. She did not know this Drake. The voice in her head alarmed her. She turned. Ekirra and Visma looked at her, just curious.
“Who is that, Mrsha?”
“I don’t know. Stranger.”
Mrsha signed. Both glanced down at the Drake again. They looked at Mrsha, suddenly alarmed.
“Hello? Child? Are you she? I apologize for intruding!”
The Drake was waving up at them. Mrsha backed away from her.
She—the Drake was calling out with words and the voice in Mrsha’s head. Mrsha felt, instinctively, that she should trust this Drake. But that just made the other part of Mrsha, which was sensible and Lyonette-like, very worried.
“Let’s go to Miss Drassi.”
Ekirra tugged on Visma’s claws and Mrsha’s. The three backed up. The Drake slowly approached, lifting one hand.
“I’m sorry if I intruded. But I mean you no harm! I swear by the webs!”
Mrsha paused. The voice in her head echoed the Drake’s sentiments. And it was so sincere. It was like she had cast a [Truth Spell]. Slowly, Mrsha stopped.
Ekirra whined. Mrsha ignored them. Slowly, she walked down the hill.
If it had been anyone else, Mrsha would have hesitated. But this certainty was like gravity itself. In her chest, Mrsha knew…
The Drake smiled. She looked down as Mrsha stared at her.
Mrsha waved. The Drake’s face was puzzled.
“I am Shassa Weaverweb. May I know your name, keeper of this…garden?”
She waved her staff around. Mrsha pointed at herself and looked around vaguely for her notes. The Drake was puzzled again.
“Can you not speak?”
No. Mrsha sighed. This was a common problem with strangers. She always needed someone to explain…
The Drake’s eyes widened.
Mrsha’s head jerked up. The Drake peered at her. Slowly, she touched her breast.
“I heard you nonetheless, small friend. Tell me.”
Mrsha thought her name. Tentatively. She saw Shassa’s mouth curl upwards.
“Ah, Mrsha, right?”
The Gnoll child jumped. Shassa laughed.
“I can hear you! We two are similar. You see?”
Mrsha almost did. She narrowed her eyes. Shassa felt her wariness and hurried to explain.
“I am sorry. But I came here. I was told this was a shortcut around the Bloodfields, but—I was not used to Pallass! Too many people. Too much noise. And then I was here and I felt this.”
She shuddered. Mrsha almost felt her confusion, being lost. The Gnoll nodded. The Drake bent.
“I am…ah, a bit lost. I was told I could go to Invrisil, you see. By magic? But I went through one door and I did not see the other.”
The little Gnoll rolled her eyes. Visitors. They never listened. They were so—
She caught the Drake woman frowning at her.
“I did listen! What? The door goes to Invrisil? Well—that Drake didn’t explain fully!”
It must have been one of the new staff members. Mrsha huffed. Lyonette had hired a new batch and they kept making mistakes. Shassa’s eyes flickered.
“Oh. I see. So the door goes to Invrisil? Six silver?”
She felt at her pouch.
“Hm. Well, I have that. Thank you, little friend. I am in your debt.”
She bowed. Mrsha felt quite pleased at this and nodded. Shassa laughed and the two relaxed. The Drake turned, heading back the way she’d come.
“I am on a mission for my city. Thank you, wild-friend. If time permits, I will call on you. With permission!”
She spoke sidelong to Mrsha. The Gnoll looked up, entranced by this peerless method of communication. She tugged on Shassa’s leg. Wait! Stay a while! No one had ever understood Mrsha like this, not even Urksh or Ryoka! How did Shassa understand? Who was she?
Mrsha felt like she should know. And the Drake’s eyes certainly crinkled up. Then she frowned.
“Dear Mrsha, has no one taught you of your class? How can you not know me?”
She listened. The Drake and Gnoll stood there, as voices floated down from the hill and Drassi’s sleepy one replied, then began to wake up. Shassa frowned.
“What’s that? Really? By yourself? How extraordinary! And so young!”
Mrsha nodded proudly and then frowned at the implicit slight. Shassa laughed, and it was a merry sound.
“I apologize, Mrsha! You are no doubt quite talented. I should explain—I will explain! You see, you have entered with a pact. You are a Tribal Gnoll, aren’t you? They are granted the honors far more than City Gnolls. But you must have met with a sign. Some great event of nature.”
The Frost Faeries. The Goblin Lord. Shassa’s face froze. Her head dipped with shock, then sorrow.
“Oh. Little one. You have seen such terrible things. But this class—listen to me. You are one of us. I go now to meet a great keeper. In Invrisil. But upon my return, I promise you—”
“Mrsha! Who is that?”
A voice rang out from the top of the hill. Mrsha and Shassa spun. Drassi, bleary-eyed and followed by Ekirra and Visma, stared down at Shassa. She of course, knew everyone allowed in the [Garden of Sanctuary], like Mrsha. She did not know Shassa.
“Hey! You! Get away from Mrsha!”
The clear alarm and fear in Drassi’s tone caused the older Drake to back up. Shassa held up her staff and free hand.
“I am sorry! I wasn’t aware—”
“Mrsha, get back! Where’s Numbtongue? Erin, Erin!”
Drassi began shouting. Alarmed, Shassa fled towards the door. Mrsha wavered. She tried to wave her arms, explain, but Drassi couldn’t read her thoughts.
Shassa fled into the inn. Drassi’s shouting followed her. Mrsha ran through the doorway as the Drake sprinted down the hill.
“Lyonette! Numbtongue! Help! She was in the garden!”
Heads turned in the common room of the inn. Shassa looked around.
“No—I was just lost! I—”
Too late. Drassi, meaning well, sprinted into the inn after the Drake. Mrsha tried to grab her arm, but the [Gossip] shouted as Lyonette turned.
“Intruder in the inn! Alarm!”
This time the effect was immediate. Shassa opened her mouth and saw Lyonette go for her sword. A pair of Antinium Soldiers sitting at the bar surged to their feet. She backed up.
Erin Solstice and Maviola surged down the stairs. Numbtongue leapt over them and landed with his sword drawn. The newcomers to the inn screamed. In the chaos, Shassa ran from the Hobgoblin, the Antinium, and the angry [Princess] with a sword.
That was understandable. Mrsha ran too. She weaved between the legs as all the inn’s defenders tangled up with the panicked crowds. Drassi was shouting an explanation, Lyonette was looking for Mrsha and telling Shassa to stop. Erin was demanding to know what was happening.
Help me! Oh, Ancestors, they’re going to kill me!
Like a beacon, Mrsha heard a thought, full of panic. The Gnoll dove through the crowds, dodging feet. She found Shassa. The Drake looked at her. Mrsha pointed.
To the door! Erin would probably punch Shassa’s brains out of her head and Numbtongue might actually kill her! The Drake fled as Mrsha dragged the hallway door open.
A bellow from behind Mrsha. She felt Erin’s aura freeze the entire crowd. Shassa stumbled; Mrsha dragged her towards the door. She needed to set it to Invrisil!
The Drake picked up Mrsha. The Gnoll swiveled the dial. At that moment, Numbtongue came charging through the door and saw Shassa holding Mrsha.
“Stop! Put her down!”
The Hobgoblin charged them with his sword. Shassa turned white. Mrsha yanked open the door. The Drake ran. Numbtongue hesitated, sword drawn, afraid of hitting Mrsha.
The Drake fled. The Hobgoblin pursued her into a room full of Humans. Half of them saw the Redfang Warrior with the blade and reacted like Humans did. Numbtongue cursed, but Shassa was out the door and running. And by the time he got free—she was in the crowds. He saw the Humans pointing and screaming and cursed.
After about five minutes, Shassa’s frantic fright slowed. Only then did she stop and gasp to catch her breath. And then, the Gnoll child she’d been holding under her arm finally got her attention.
The Drake stared down at Mrsha. The Gnoll child stared solemnly up at the Drake. They shared a thought.
They were dead. Mrsha had already had one bad incident with the drawers this morning. Shassa…she pictured Numbtongue lopping off her head.
The Drake turned pale under her scales.
“I didn’t mean it! Let’s explain! No—I’ll bring you back!”
That was a very sensible thing to do. Mrsha wavered. But she knew that Erin was about to destroy all of Invrisil to find her. She nodded solemnly. Shassa took a breath.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t think—of course it was a sacred place! I will apologize. Just—don’t let them kill me, please?”
They stood together. People stared at the outlandish Drake talking to the Gnoll child who never made a response back. A few began looking around for the Watch themselves. But Mrsha pointed the way they’d come, where someone was indeed yelling at the top of her lungs.
They began to move back. Shassa caught her breath, muttering explanations—or at least trying to think up things that wouldn’t get her killed in an instant. Mrsha nervously tried to think of how to explain how she’d known Shassa was nice.
Was it all coincidence? Of course not. There were other important events taking place. Other confluences which were fateful, or just mere chance that melded together. But Shassa had not met Mrsha by accident. They were two of a kind.
And so—perhaps inevitably, as both walked back, full of trepidation, they turned down a street. The Drake and Gnoll’s heads rose. They glanced at each other. And then they stared at a crowd, shouting ahead of them.
The people of Invrisil surrounded something. There was screaming, shouts for the Watch. Mrsha and Shassa pushed forwards. Mrsha felt something. Blinding rage. She heard someone begging for someone else to stop, a thud.
And then she saw a man. His beard was wild, his robes covered with nature, poo, and other things. It was ratty, and he himself smelled like…nature. He had a staff—not decorated like Shassa’s.
Well, unless you counted blood. The man was standing over a figure on the ground. Another woman—a young wife or lover—was trying to pull him back.
The young man on the other hand wasn’t moving. He’d been beaten bloody, and the man was kicking him. A horse was standing to one side, blood on the fur. Mrsha saw spurs on the young man’s boots.
“Stop! Someone call the Watch!”
The man ignored him. Quite deliberately, Nalthaliarstrelous, keeper of Magnolia Reinhart’s gardens, raised his staff and began to beat the nearly-unconscious young man. People tried to pull him off and he began to lay about him with his staff.
Shassa Weaverweb and Mrsha du Marquin stared at Nalthaliarstrelous. The man was hurling curses, roaring like an animal as the crowd backed up. He was preparing to swing again when his head turned.
He looked up and met their eyes. And Mrsha felt the same shock of recognition as the first time she’d seen him. Now she understood. Nalthaliarstrelous lowered his staff. He looked at Shassa. And she bowed. Mrsha saw the man look at her. And she finally, finally got it as she heard his voice in her mind.
Well met again, little friend.
The man bowed. He, Shassa, Mrsha—
They were all [Druids].
[Druids] were rude. Not just individually; as a class. There was something about [Druids] that clashed with most other sensibilities. Of course, they were focused around nature, like [Shamans], but where [Shamans] could be said to work and respect the natural world, [Druids] lived with it. They cared.
So…rude. The kind of rude that ranged from petting your cat since the cat was okay with it, to rummaging about in your gardens and making alterations without your consent, to causing a sinkhole to swallow a [Lord]’s mansion when he refused to stop overhunting.
That kind of rude. They were perfectly respectful of course; their definition of whom to respect just differed from most people. And anyways, there were other groups far, far ruder than [Druids].
One of the last of them stood now in Magnolia Reinhart’s estates. Yawning, he pointed. And a magical carriage, garishly pink, turned into a crimson red coach, highlighted by black and gold on the trim. It looked fast.
“Grand Mage Eldavin! Lady Reinhart was most insistent about the color scheme!”
A man protested. Reynold, the [Butler], was holding a tray of drinks and snacks as he followed Teriarch about. The Dragon ignored him.
“Pink affronts my eyes. She wants me to repair it? She can paint it later. Let’s see. What’s wrong with this thing? Hm. Hm…ah, a failing conversion spell for these stupid mana crystals.”
The ‘Grand Mage’ poked around dismissively, sighing and grumbling. He didn’t like working with enchantments. And he was less than motivated. To amuse himself, he kept snacking, casually emblazoning a few sigils of long-distant empires on the newly-painted coach. Reynold glanced up and protested weakly again.
“Grand Magus—perhaps you would consider relenting?”
Meow. A loud yowl of complaint came from above. Eldavin glanced up. So did Reynold, with a pained look.
Magnolia Reinhart owned cats. How many had never been ascertained until now, but she tolerated them about as much as they tolerated her. It was now clear—and Reynold would bet on this—that all eighteen in the large mansion were now stuck on the roof. They were hissing at the Dragon.
He ignored them. Teriarch kicked around the carriage.
“…Well, I bridged it. But the entire enchantment’s old. Someone needs to just recast the magic. Tell Reinhart that.”
“Er—recast, Grand Magus?”
“That’s right. The wood is what’s decaying. Build a new carriage, port the enchantment over. I’m not doing it. What else did that brat want?”
The Dragon yawned a fifth time. Reynold felt sweat beading down his back as he followed the half-Elf around. Of course, Reynold knew.
What exactly he knew was up for debate, but he wasn’t an idiot. Still, he had exact instructions and this thankless job was mostly humoring Teriarch.
“I er—believe Lady Reinhart would appreciate a few discreet…scrying spells…on some individuals. [Assassins], mainly.”
“No, Grand Magus?”
“Too much work. Too much interference. I’m doing this…half-hearted. I’ll have some of that good wine now. And those annoying pests may come down.”
Teriarch pointed a finger. The cats, about to set up for another chorus of yowls, found themselves on top of the magical carriage. They leapt down, hissing or flipping their butts at Teriarch. He ignored them. Reynold stared.
Instantaneous teleportation. A high-level [Mage] could in theory perform [Lesser Teleport] sub-vocally, even teleport a group like that. But a bunch of cats spread out on a rooftop to another point in a moment without proximity himself? That would be a…high-level, dedicated teleportation expert.
But he had also seen Teriarch physically reconstruct the destroyed Steel Golem, literally reshaping the metal and reanimating it while pocketing all the latest books in Magnolia Reinhart’s library. Now, the Dragon wanted popcorn.
“With…yeast. Yes, that’s what that [Innkeeper] served me. Salt, butter, yeast. And where did I put that infernal device? Summon. I mean, er—[Summon Object].”
The laptop popped into Teriarch’s hands after he cast the spell. Reynold hurried into the kitchen. He needed a sit down.
Magnolia Reinhart was out. She had not been in a good mood and was wise enough not to butt heads with Teriarch. He had been exceedingly amused by the news about the [Lords] and Erin Solstice, conveyed through her informant networks. The Dragon even chuckled about it as he played Solitaire on the computer.
“Hah. As if you’re the only one who can conduct trade deals, you little brat! That was so amusing. Ah, well…where’s my popcorn? The inn was faster than this!”
He shouted as a [Chef] in Magnolia’s kitchen labored over a stove. Teriarch was a menace.
But not unkind. Since he had been here, Reynold couldn’t help but notice that Bekia, the Gnoll [Maid] who had been sick ever since their clash with the [Assassins] had suddenly stopped puking. She’d taken many poisoned daggers, such that even their best healing potions and Magnolia’s [Healers] hadn’t done more than slow the toxins in her systems. Magnolia herself had been arranging a visit to the Healer of Tenbault.
But she’d had a word with Teriarch—er—Eldavin. And the Gnoll had looked better the next day. Reynold hurried back with a heaping bowl of popcorn. Teriarch took one bite, and pointed a horrified finger.
The entire bowl caught on fire. Reynold saw the Dragon spit and gag.
“What was that?”
“That’s not yeast! The other yeast, you fool!”
Anyways. Between the [Butler] running about, he nearly slammed into Sacra. The [Maid], who was one of their best disguise-experts, was heading in from Invrisil. She was dressed in the regular maid-uniform and looked exasperated.
“Reynold! What are you doing?”
“I need yeast! Edible yeast, apparently!”
The [Maid] gave the [Butler] a look that suggested he’d taken leave of his senses. She opened her mouth—
Both staggered. They were back in the large parlor. Teriarch waved a hand without looking up from the computer.
“I changed my mind. I shall have just the wine. And a good cheese to go with it. Make it one of the magical varieties.”
Reynold ran for it. Sacra just stared. She checked herself. She should not have been teleported. Not without a line of sight or…had he just grabbed her?
The Dragon looked up after a second.
“What are you doing here?”
He stared at Sacra. The [Maid] bowed slowly.
“Who? Oh…yes? What is it? I’m not in the mood to entertain more of Reinhart’s requests. I’ve already done enough!”
The Dragon snorted. He stretched out in the comfy chair, playing with one hand and grumbling about uppity young [Ladies].
It was a funny thing. In The Wandering Inn, the Dragon had been like thunder and lightning. Kindly, but there you were. Here, he was more retiring. This wasn’t his first visit. Although Sacra had been a girl when she first remembered the ‘Grand Magus’ visiting.
“Is there anything I can do for you, Grand Magus? Reynold is procuring your desired items.”
The [Maid] waited, hands folded behind her back. Teriarch glanced up. For a second, his eyes sharpened.
“Do I…know you? The butler’s new. But your aura—were you a new employee?”
Reynold had been serving for a long time. Sacra chose her words carefully.
“I was a girl in the Reinhart employ, Master Eldavin. Perhaps you recall me from an earlier visit.”
The Dragon’s expression grew uncomfortable. Abruptly, he made the laptop disappear. He sat back.
“Where’s Reinhart? Off, trying to stop this trade deal, I’ll warrant? If she’s so busy, I won’t trouble her.”
Sacra began to panic at once. Her top order—all of their priorities were to keep Teriarch entertained and here. Magnolia would kill them if he disappeared.
“No—that is to say, she’s only out for the day, Lord T—Magus Eldavin! I’m sure she didn’t want to bother you!”
“Well, I’ve already been here three days. If Reinhart’s busy, so am I. I still have to figure out how to construct a ‘mice’ for this…this game Ryoka Griffin showed me. And deal with all these [Messages]. Shoo!”
He waved at something in the air. Much like a cat. Sacra held her breath.
“I—perhaps we could offer you entertainment, Magus Eldavin? We have a quite splendid number of [Musicians] or [Bards] we could summon from Invrisil. There are even—yes, the Players of Celum! We could arrange a private play—”
“I’ve seen them. Not interested. Maybe I’ll go back and call a later time.”
The Dragon snorted. He began to rise and Sacra panicked. Later meant…far too long. The last time he had been here had been over eight years ago.
“Lord Teriarch…perhaps you could aid us? There’s a small issue in Invrisil!”
Desperately, she spoke. The Dragon looked up.
“What’s this? What issue?”
The [Maid] froze. But she’d said it. So she went on in a rush before he could draw a magic circle in the rug.
“Er—I was just in Invrisil. An urgent issue was sent for Lady Reinhart. One of the staff—Nalthaliarstrelous has gotten into an incident. Assault.”
“That [Druid]? Someone jumped him? What, a Level 50 [Thug]? I swear I saw a high-level one about last time, but who attacks [Druids]? They carry moss, not gold!”
The Dragon raised his eyebrow incredulously. Sacra wiped at her brow as Reynold ran back in with twenty plus cheeses and as many vintages as his bag of holding could carry.
“No, Lord Teriarch. Actually… Nalthaliarstrelous has apparently, er, beaten a young man half to death.”
Reynold winced. He was familiar with this. The Dragon just stared.
“Apparently, the young man spurred his horse to the point it was injured. Nalthaliarstrelous has…a history of attacking pet owners for abuse.”
“Of course. [Druids] don’t stand for that sort of thing. I’ll wager that young man got what he deserved. Time was, a [Druid] would shoot a [Poacher] with the arrows they left in animals.”
The Dragon leaned back. But he looked interested. Sacra nodded as Reynold set up hurriedly.
“Yes, Lord Teriarch. But…Invrisil has laws. Lady Reinhart will reimburse the injured party, of course, but the Watch and the [Mayor] are objecting. Strenuously. Nalthaliarstrelous’ actions are somewhat problematic.”
“I suppose they are. Huh. Well, well. He’s quite respectful. Perhaps…yes. Perhaps that would be an interesting conversation. Not that I don’t approve of it, but I can speak with him. I’ll do that.”
The half-Elf stood up. Reynold and Sacra looked at each other.
“Grand Magus? We can find Nalthaliarstrelous. There’s no need to—”
“Nonsense. I don’t need help. I’ll find him myself. One good scrying spell—no. I’m not spelling that name out. I’ll just track his magical trail. I’ll be back.”
“Grand Magus, wait—”
Too late. Pop went the half-Elf. He vanished. Reynold stood with a plate full of exotic cheeses. Sacra’s mouth opened in horror. They looked at each other and ran.
[Druids] in the inn. They stood in the center of a gathering of onlookers. From afar, though. Guests sat at the tables, absorbing…
The ambiance. It took a particular guest of culture, to appreciate The Wandering Inn’s unique ambiance.
But picture the scene. A Centaur was smoking near an open window, taking his leisure. The drinks were ready at hand. A Dwarf was having just a light ale—he had work later. The air was filled with the smells of good food from the kitchen. An [Actor] was striding the stage.
The sound of clattering dishes, muted voices—shouting from the place with the three [Druids]. Classy. Well, a certain level of class. A cold drink with ice cubes in claw, and in the background, a Hobgoblin strumming on a guitar.
Ambiance. And as you sipped, you could listen.
“—kidnapped Mrsha! And why do you people keep walking into my Garden!? It’s not supposed to be open to other people! And who are you? You’re that guy!”
An [Innkeeper] was screaming. The other guests peered at the three [Druids].
One was a very nervous Drake with her webbed staff. Another, a little Gnoll who was really in trouble. And the third, a Human man with a wild beard polishing the staff which had been covered in drying blood. He didn’t seem affected by the shouting.
“I am so sorry. It’s just that I was lost and I was looking for someone. And the door was open—I didn’t mean to kidnap her!”
Shassa pointed at Mrsha. The Gnoll was trying to explain. She held up her deposition and Lyonette snatched it. She read it, and glared at Mrsha.
“That’s no excuse, young Miss! What did I tell you about strangers?”
“Yeah! Stranger danger! Look at him! He’s like—the exact person you don’t go with!”
Erin pointed at Nalthaliarstrelous. The [Druid] gave her an affronted look.
“Innkeeper. That child is one of us. We are [Druids]. We know each other.”
So much for subtlety. Some of the guests sat up. A Gnoll tipped his hat at his fellow and they took notes. A muscular Drake was hunched in a corner, coming up with a second theory.
But it was that kind of mood. After Erin and Lyonette tried not to throttle the [Druid]—some kind of order reasserted itself.
There were a few things to be mad about. And so, Erin made a list of priorities. She didn’t even have time for Ferris—the Gnoll was politely shuffled off to a corner. She stalked past the line of people jostling for her attention. She pointed at the first culprit.
“You. You know you don’t go with strangers. And there was the cupboards incident this morning. You’re in big trouble, buddy.”
The Gnoll child, Mrsha, gave Erin her most soulful, pleading, tearful look. Erin poked at Mrsha.
“Oh no. You’re not getting out of it. You’re in trouble. You just wait!”
“Excuse me. What is the meaning of—”
“Hold it, #4!”
Erin whirled and shouted at the orange-haired man. Montressa turned white.
“Shush! Now, you.”
Erin moved to her next person on the list. Shassa shrank.
“I can’t apologize enough, Miss Solstice! I didn’t mean any of it. I just saw—”
She waved at Numbtongue, who had nearly beheaded her. Erin thought about this. She folded her arms.
“…I’ll grant you it was a mess. But! You can’t just grab Gnolls and run off. I’m uh—mad. At you too! How do you just walk into my garden? It’s private! It’s supposed to be safe!”
She pointed at #2. Nalthaliarstrelous blinked at her.
“It is. What’s the problem?”
Erin stared at him.
“It’s a [Garden of Sanctuary]. No one can get in but the people I allow! Even Grimalkin can’t get in! If it’s not safe…”
“It is safe. It is a sacred place. Bound by powerful law. An army would fail to enter.”
The [Druid] leaned on his staff. Erin narrowed her eyes.
“You say that, buddy, but I saw you just waltz in there when you and Magnolia came.”
“Erin, this is H—”
“Shut up, #5!”
Erin spun back to Nalthaliarstrelous. She poked at his chest; he swatted her finger away.
“How did you get in?”
“I am a [Druid].”
“Oh, so anyone can just walk in if they have the right class?”
Nalthaliarstrelous and Shassa exchanged a glance. The Drake raised a timid claw and Erin nodded at her.
“No. Only us, Miss Solstice. We are…allowed access. That is the nature of our class. No place of nature is barred from us in general, so long as we obey the rules.”
“Hmm. I dunno. That seems awfully convenient.”
Erin stalked in a circle around Shassa. The Drake stared at her as Erin peered at her from different angles. She looked at Mrsha—the Gnoll shrugged. Erin was crazy. Sometimes.
“We could no more harm someone in the garden than anyone else. Should we break such sacred laws, we would lose our very class.”
The Drake [Druid] explained. Erin rubbed at her chin. At this point, a horrified [Lady] staring at #4, spoke up.
“Erin. I really think you should—”
“#7, don’t push me. Ow!”
Maviola smacked the back of Erin’s head. Hedault glanced at Maviola as Erin punched at her. The [Princess] decided to hurry this along. Lyonette faced Nalthaliarstrelous and Shassa.
“The fact remains that you two still entered the garden illegally. Why? Don’t you have any respect for boundaries? Even [Druids] should!”
She looked down her nose at them, with proper disdain for troublemakers. The ‘homeless vagrants’ stared at Lyonette. Nalthaliarstrelous just sneered.
“What, respect? For what, exactly? Laws of the land? Of course not. You put a flag here and say ‘this is mine’. Why would anyone acknowledge that, any more than a piece of metal on your head? We respected the one law that mattered: do no harm. Come in peace. No other one was made apparent.”
“But it was private property!”
Lyonette’s eyes flashed. Shassa and Nalthaliarstrelous looked at each other. Both raised a hand.
“How were we supposed to know? We thought it was part of the inn.”
That was a good point. Erin exchanged a quick glance with Lyonette. The [Innkeeper] faltered.
“Well—well, it obviously wasn’t accessible to just anyone!”
Nalthaliarstrelous snorted in contempt.
“No one indicated that to me. Why wasn’t there a sign? I would have obeyed it.”
The question did so much damage to Erin’s psyche that she had to walk away for a second just to deal. She came back with an actual sign, and showed it to the line of suspects. Problems 1-7 read the sign. Problem #8 (Ferris was still not included), walked through the door, muttering to himself. He stopped as Erin shoved the sign in the other’s faces.
“See this? See this? ‘No Killing Goblins!’ I’ve got signs! No one reads them! Who here read this, huh? Huh?”
Every person in line raised their hands, slowly. Mrsha, Shassa, Nalthaliarstrelous, Hedault, Montressa, Beza, and Maviola. From his point in the audience, Teriarch tapped Ishkr on the shoulder.
“Popcorn. With yeast.”
The [Innkeeper] stared. Nalthaliarstrelous folded his arms.
“I read signs. Who would not?”
The guests of the inn looked at each other uncomfortably. Erin turned to the [Druid]. He looked like the least law-abiding person in the inn. She had heard about the beating of the young man.
“You. You read signs?”
“I make signs.”
“No way. Get out!”
The [Druid] glowered.
“I write many signs for Invrisil. Warnings, just like that one. There’s one outside this very inn. I was putting more up when I saw that man mistreating that poor horse.”
Everyone looked at him. Nalthaliarstrelous pointed. Erin, Lyonette, and Mrsha all poked their heads out of The Player’s Retreat. And indeed, in neat lettering, one of the [Druid]’s signs was clearly visible, on a billboard with pieces of news and other public-service announcements with large type font. The sign read as follows:
‘If you kick your dog, you will never walk again.’
Back in the inn, Erin decided she needed to tackle #3 on this point. She pointed at him. Again, the [Druid] swatted her finger down.
“Why’d you beat that guy up? They had to take him to a [Healer]’s! There was blood!”
The [Innkeeper] drew back. Nalthaliarstrelous—whom she was quickly abbreviating to Nalth in her head, was completely unrepentant.
“Look, Nalth, buddy. No one likes mistreatment of animals. If I saw a dude kicking a dog, I’d kick him! Or her! But you broke his skull.”
Mrsha peeked up at Nalthaliarstrelous’s blank face. He seemed to sense Erin’s complete lack of understanding and explained.
“He spurred his horse until it bled. Until it screamed for mercy. No one stopped him but me.”
The guests in the inn rumbled. That was poor treatment of any animal. Even so—Erin looked at him.
“You were close to killing him.”
“And if I did—would the world be any poorer?”
The [Druid] leaned on his staff. It was the [Princess]’ turn. She smiled at Nalthaliarstrelous.
“But sir. The Watch would have fined the man. Or arrested them. You did not need to resort to violence. There are laws—”
She broke off. Nalthaliarstrelous was blowing his nose on the sleeve of his robe. He looked at her with clear disdain. He sneered at her.
“Law? Laws say many things. ‘Do not hurt that man’. Make him pay money for torturing his wards. He will not learn. When I break his legs for spurring a horse when it screamed and bled—he will remember.”
“But you could stop him without hurting him! Or at least—not that much!”
Erin protested. The [Druid] looked around the inn. He spotted Teriarch, half-bowed in acknowledgement. Eyes swung to Teriarch as he chewed on some popcorn. Much better than the mansion.
Nalthaliarstrelous replied to Erin curtly.
“Let me ask you something, Innkeeper. When you see a man yanking on a dog’s leash, mistreating it, would you say something? Stop him?”
Erin didn’t blink. The [Druid] eyed her. He seemed approving of that. Shassa and Mrsha both nodded. But he went on.
“Good. But would you take the dog from that man? If he mistreats it once, he will again. Will you, on the spot, take the dog so it will suffer not a second longer? What if he is an important man? The [Mayor] of the city?”
The [Druid] nodded, almost understandably.
“Yes. It does to you. You have laws. The dog is that man’s property. You cannot take his property. So for laws, for words, you allow the dog to suffer. And that is the difference between you and me. I do not wait.”
Mrsha and Shassa stared at Nalthaliarstrelous in silence. They felt his rage—the willingness to kill the man a second time if he did not change. The Drake leaned over and whispered to Mrsha.
“…That’s his perspective. We’re not all alike.”
A thoughtful silence ensued. Nalthaliarstrelous wasn’t entirely losing his audience. Although the perspicacious among them could still note blood on the tip of his staff. Even so—he was a character. More people began to order popcorn, or snacks to go along with their drinks.
“I get that. I even respect that. Sort of. Don’t look at me like that, Lyonette. But you’re like—that went too far.”
Erin argued with the Human [Druid], but her temper had subsided somewhat. Shassa waved an urgent claw.
“Again, we’re not all like him. I don’t break the law! Excuse me, I’m so sorry about this. Again! But I was just coming through to Invrisil. To meet with Druid Nalthaliarstrelous, actually! I’m from Oteslia!”
Ferris’ head snapped up. Teriarch, Grimalkin—the inn turned to Shassa. Erin blinked.
“You are? Wow, that’s far!”
“Yes—but we have an urgent appeal for Nalthaliarstrelous. If—if we could just talk, I will remove myself forthwith.”
Erin looked around. She counted. Problems 1-3 looked at her expectantly and Lyonette blew out her cheeks. Erin nodded at last.
“Okay. I guess that’s okay. #1. You’re not done.”
She pointed two fingers at her eyes and then at Mrsha. The Gnoll child gulped. Shassa exhaled in relief. Nalthaliarstrelous nodded.
“Good. Then we shall confer among ourselves.”
He beckoned. Shassa and Mrsha walked off after him. Erin blocked them.
“Hold it. Mrsha’s staying here.”
The two adult [Druids] looked at her.
“But she is one of us.”
Lyonette scooped up Mrsha. The Gnoll fought her, squirming to get free. Nalthaliarstrelous looked at Erin.
“She is of our class. But she does not know our role. She must come with us. I thought she had a teacher. She does not.”
“Yeah, but…how about no? You two can talk. Mrsha, stay here.”
The [Innkeeper] blocked Nalthaliarstrelous. The [Druid]’s eyes flicked to Mrsha. She was squirming to get free. She wanted to know what they had to say! Lyonette threatened her.
“Let her go.”
The [Druid] slowly raised his staff. Erin raised a fist. Teriarch raised a hand.
“[Druids] do not break their word lightly. Let them walk in the garden with the child. She will not come to harm among her peers.”
Erin blinked. She turned.
“Eldavin? When did you get here?”
The Dragon sat at his leisure. He nodded at Nalthaliarstrelous. The [Druid] bowed deeply. Shassa blinked, frowned at Teriarch, uncomprehending, and then hurried to copy the other [Druid]. Mrsha saw Lyonette waver.
“Excuse me, sir. But Mrsha is my child.”
“Good. Appropriate. Let her go.”
Teriarch waved a hand. Mrsha slipped out of Lyonette’s hands like grease. She landed on the floor. Lyonette spluttered.
“Buddy, you just became #8.”
Erin warned Teriarch. He narrowed his eyes.
“I am not a number.”
“Don’t make me make you #9. Lyonette…maybe we should let Mrsha talk with these two? In the garden. They’re not going to run off. Right?”
Nalthaliarstrelous and Shassa nodded. The [Druid] murmured as Mrsha hid behind him.
“I wouldn’t need to run, anyways.”
The [Princess] glared daggers. But Mrsha scampered into the garden and the two [Druids] followed.
“Hold on! I’m not done!”
The [Princess] followed. Erin let her go. She had a feeling…Nalthaliarstrelous was hard to deal with. Momentarily lost, she had to lean on a table.
“…I’m tired. Where was I?”
A man cleared his throat.
“I believe I am next. Number 4.”
Erin looked up. She blinked at Hedault.
The [Enchanter] nodded at Erin. Hedault, precise, hair slightly thinning on top, but pale orange. Pale-skinned from being indoors. He tapped a finger on his wrist.
“I am Hedault. [Enchanter]. We had an appointment this morning. I was approached by these two [Mages] who informed me the meeting would take place at this inn. I have little time, but I understand this is in connection with the Horns of Hammerad, as well as the House of El. So I am willing to make concessions.”
His little speech made Grimalkin reach for a second sheaf of notes. Erin just blinked.
“…Are you Ceria’s fiancé?”
Hedault looked at her. He closed his eyes. Montressa covered her face.
“Okay. Um. Sure. #5, #6, what’s this about?”
Montressa and Beza looked at each other. Hedault’s eyes slowly turned to them and they gulped. The guests at the inn nodded approvingly. This is what they came for.
Explanations ensued. Hedault did not look pleased, upon learning that Erin had not set up an appointment and had indeed forgotten all about the meeting. If anything kept him from storming out, it was familiarity with the Horns of Hammerad, and the fact that he’d vaguely approved of Erin’s numeric system of dealing with issues.
Even so, he retired as Erin waved her arms in a panic and turned to Maviola, who had also forgotten.
“Ridiculous. My debt only goes so far. First that obnoxious [Necromancer]—now this.”
Only the Antinium had been pleasant to work with. And wasn’t that an insane statement? But Ksmvr had been very straightforward, direct, and orderly. The half-Elf? Fiancé?
Hedault was about to just leave and blacklist the entire inn when someone walked over to him.
“Hedault, right? I was meaning to talk to you.”
“I do not make unscheduled appointments.”
The [Enchanter] snapped, irritably. He turned—and saw a Dwarf sipping from his chilled ale. Pelt burped.
“I don’t care. Pelt. I was going to speak to you. Pallass. We talked now and then. You did that enchantment on a few blades of mine two years back.”
Hedault’s eyes focused on Pelt’s face. He opened his mouth. After a few seconds of thinking, he chose the most economical response.
“The magic door. Didn’t you hear? Connects Pallass to Liscor to Invrisil.”
“I did hear. I didn’t credit it, though.”
Hedault had inspected the magic door before the crowd had swept him into the inn. Now, he was compelled to stride down the hallway. Grumbling, Pelt followed. And a few others.
“Remarkable. This is indeed the work of Warmage Thresk. Of Albez. And someone’s performed a very crude alteration to his enchantment trap. Any regular mage would be hard-pressed to notice the teleportation trap!”
The [Enchanter], now that he had the leisure to look at the magic door, was agog. Pelt peered at the door.
“Good wood. Deceptive iron bands, see? It’s actually pure metal.”
“To hold the enchantment. It would not last this long otherwise.”
The Dwarf grunted.
“I don’t see how that’s possible. Not that I’m an enchantment expert, but who enchants damn wood doors?”
Hedault tapped at his wrist, somewhat annoyed by the question. He replied snappily, ignoring the argument coming from the inn. Lyonette was trying to remove Mrsha and the two [Druids] were arguing again.
“This wood is exceedingly precise in the ah, cutting. Not only is this door all cut from the same tree’s wood, but to maintain the perfection of the enchantment, the grain is uniform. One has to imagine even finding the correct tree took countless fellings. All to create this innocuous door.”
“But why a door? And who is this ‘Warmage Thresk’? I do not know of him.”
A slightly supercilious voice. Hedault did not look about; he was eying the enchantment and the splicing of the elegant spell into this…aberration.
“Warmage Thresk of Albez is a [Mage] I have studied from various artifacts unearthed. His personal, and quite secret quarters were recently looted by adventurers, but his creations have long been uncovered from the ruins. As to the reason the door appears so plain—I gather this was a trap. The final trap of his apartments was, apparently, to lure unwary robbers into touching the door whereupon it teleported the intruders into a room filled with [Insanity] spells from every side. I would imagine the effect reached Tier 6 with so many overlapping spells.”
A murmur. A huge figure folded his arms.
“Not a bad trap. Too paranoid by half, though.”
“[Warmages] of the Albez City-State were exceedingly paranoid about competition. This is a disgusting alteration to the door. It bleeds efficacy.”
“Doesn’t it, though? I noticed it myself. Amateur work. But inspired.”
Crunch, crunch. Someone was eating something. Hedault found that annoying. In disgust, he rose and withdrew something.
A treasure. The wand looked plain at first. But the wood that had made it was ironwood. And the core? Heads turned. The Dwarf, Pelt, murmured.
“Now that’s good wood. Ironwood, right?”
Hedault drew the wand down the door’s length. Ah, what a perfect spell. Barely faded with time. He smiled as the wand allowed him to feel the enchantment buried in the wood. He was no expert in earth-magics, but the wand boosted his connection, even focus. He sighed.
“I would take months to even try to alter this enchantment. Fixing this…basic teleportation network I could do. But I’m disinclined to work in this inn. Too many Skills; casting a spell in the common room would be dangerous. This has been a waste of time.”
“Not if we talk about enchanting my products.”
Pelt sipped from his mug. Hedault looked at him, annoyed by the Dwarf’s manner. Of course, he knew Pelt. And his image of the Dwarf’s craft—such wonderful purity of his metals, and delicate hammer work!—was rapidly being dashed by the rude fellow.
“I will make an appointment, Master Smith, to consult. I do not have a surplus of time.”
“Bah. I don’t have time for appointments.”
“And I am exceedingly busy!”
This place was stressful enough. Hedault turned and reached for the door. As he did, someone tapped him on the shoulder.
“Excuse me. I was actually hoping to consult with an enchantment on some weights. Grimalkin of Pallass.”
Hedault turned. He stared at a muscle-bound [Mage] in some amazement for a second. It seemed inconceivable that the body had that many muscles. Hedault blinked.
“…of Pallass? I can make an appointment, Master…Drake, but—”
There was a roar from the common room. Hedault winced at the unorganized sound. He wanted to go. But a third figure was there. He was a tall half-Elf. Hedault glanced at him as he stroked his beard.
“Interesting. Warmage Thresk…Warmage…it still doesn’t ring a bell. But it’s not bad. I take it back. Insanity room traps are entertaining. I wish I could have seen it. Are there more Albez artifacts? I should like to see them.”
“Excuse me, I don’t have time to speak about the entire history of Albez! Whomever you are. I apologize, but I must go.”
Hedault snapped. Teriarch fixed him with a single eye and the [Enchanter] slowed. The Dragon slowly popped a kernel into his mouth. Chewed. Then, he spoke.
“As you wish. But tell me one thing before you go. Is that a genuine Living Wand? I thought no one made them anymore. How old is it?”
The [Enchanter] wavered. He looked at the wand. Grimalkin’s eyebrows rose. Pelt scratched his head. Master Hedault…decided to stay.
Later, the [Druids] walked around the garden with Mrsha. Lyonette didn’t like it, but they had pointed out, quite reasonably, that Mrsha did not know her class. And while Nalthaliarstrelous was arguably a public menace, Teriarch had supported him.
Lyonette was nothing if not practical at some points. Even so, she was sitting on the hill, glaring daggers down at them as they circled the periphery.
As they talked, Hedault found himself having a drink in the inn. The table was full, and onlookers hovered in the background.
Palt, Montressa, Beza—and even Guildmistress Alonna, and other [Mages] who knew what was what. They ran errands, listened in silence, and seldom dared to ask questions.
But the real table was only a few people. Hedault. Pelt the Dwarf. Grimalkin. Teriarch. Or Grand Mage Eldavin.
“Another round, sirs.”
Reynold brought the drinks. He was well aware someone’s head would roll after this, but the put-upon [Butler] was helping serve the table, much to Ishkr’s bemusement. The [Mages] barely noticed.
“Yes, well. Enchantment is not what it was. One remembers rather grand enchantments that could be transcribed on a coin, say. So, one would offer a competitor [Mage] a triple-bound [Fireball] on a silver coin and watch their heads explode. Not that I ever did so myself, but it seems to me that the compression of spells is what’s lacking.”
Eldavin was waving a hand airily as he spoke. It was Grimalkin who objected.
“Politely, Grand Magus, I’d say the complexity of spells has also gone down. Wistram Academy isn’t the only institution that lacks for advanced spellcraft these days. The competency of magic has decreased worldwide.”
“Nonsense. The advancement of magic ebbs and flows. True, as a whole, the power of magic dwindles, but Archmage Zelkyr is not to blame for all of it. How long has it been since a true, worldwide disaster struck?”
“…You mean, the King of Destruction? Or the Demons?”
Hedault was tapping on his wrist, listening intently. Eldavin’s brow wrinkled.
“The…oh. No, I mean, a disaster. Like the Creler Wars. That level of adversity.”
Those sitting around the table exchanged glances.
“…Not within the last thousand years. I can name some events, but that’s a high bar to set, Grand Magus.”
The Dragon snorted.
“There you are then. When such an event strikes—it will change the next thousands of years. You see—those who level up to such high levels may pass away within mere centuries. But their artifacts remain. And the next generation is thus of a higher level. Now, we’re all at a low point in history, but the long view is where you see it at. But that’s not about enchantments. In truth, I think it’s a shortage of compression theory. And I know I’m right. Compression theory leads to higher-level enchantments.”
“Why, Grand Magus?”
Everyone leaned forwards. The Dragon tapped at the side of his nose, enjoying the moment.
“Enchantment is a series of building blocks. One can create a monumental enchantment on something the size of a mountain. But the purity and scale required is too great. Because modern-day enchantments are not compressed, the difficulty is scaled up exponentially on all levels. Compress the amount of runework needed by a factor of even two, and the benefits. It’s about dimensions. Modern enchantments only seem to use two, or three at most for some reason…”
At that point Montressa had to ask.
“But Grand Magus. What other dimensions are there?”
The Dragon’s eyes twinkled. And he refused to talk. He felt quite happy with the attention and he believed that he was managing to just drop the most nebulous of hints.
He was, of course, wrong. The problem wasn’t that Teriarch was speaking in abstracts without dropping any concrete magical examples to his audience about how spellcraft had waned and could be discovered. Nor was it that he was avoiding any specifics.
The problem was that he was absolutely correct about the vague flaws he pointed out. And the students of magic, from nosing about aimlessly in the maze of spell theory, had just scented the cheese.
Such delicious moments. Such informative talks. Such notes. But that wasn’t the point. As Teriarch stretched back, he heard a sound amid the talk, the eager questions, Grimalkin’s quill skritching.
It was the sound of wood on wood. A delightful little noise. The Dragon looked around. And he heard a curse.
Erin, in a very unsportswomanly like display of conduct, checkmated Maviola’s king. The [Lady] glared.
“How are you doing that?”
“Pure skill! This is vengeance! Hey, Saliss, want to get in on this?”
“I don’t play chess.”
The [Alchemist] was in the group watching Teriarch, for different reasons. The Dragon leaned back, craning his neck to and fro.
“What’s that over there?”
“Someone take me on! Where’s Belgrade? Pawn? It’s been a stressful day!”
Erin Solstice was slapping down her opponents. Maviola had lost eight games in a row; Erin was feeling unusually uncharitable. She was warming up for a Chaldion match, and her regular chess game wasn’t until later tonight. She looked around.
No one met her eyes. Olesm might have, but he was in Liscor. None of the Antinium were her chess veterans. The staff hid. Even Numbtongue carefully and deliberately walked out the door and went into the outhouse.
Into that opening came a Dragon. The table of [Mages] fell silent. Erin Solstice slowly looked up as the half-Elf walked over to her. And the inn…
Grand Mage Eldavin. He sat down as the regulars of the inn turned in their chairs. They knew. They looked at each other. Someone ran for the doors and sent a Street Runner for every chess lover in Liscor.
Erin Solstice cautiously looked at Eldavin. She knew something. Reynold and Sacra looked at each other. Eldavin sat down slowly.
“Good evening, Erin Solstice. How curious. You know this game?”
“Of course. I mean…I only learned it two years ago.”
Erin’s eyes flickered. Across the room, Grimalkin snorted.
The Dragon’s eyes narrowed. He recalled something Ryoka had told him.
“Only naturally. I myself learned the game two years ago as well.”
Sacra and Reynold exchanged a glance. Sacra recalled—quite vividly—seeing this game before. Teriarch had taught Magnolia how to play.
“Cool. Do you play chess? You’re uh—a friend of Magnolia’s. I didn’t know that.”
The young woman looked carefully at Eldavin. He gave her a half-smile, mysterious, a bit superior.
“One cultivates acquaintances over time. It is an inevitability of age. Would you object to me challenging you to a game?”
“Chess? Not at all. I’m actually a huge fan.”
Erin smiled. The Grand Magus glanced at Maviola. At the crowd suddenly pulling up tables, chairs. Palt produced a ledger.
“You…appear more than confident, Miss Solstice. ”
“No, I’m not that good—”
Erin began, blushing. In other areas, she could maintain a big head. But a good chess player wasn’t overconfident. Neither were they humble. But the Dragon cut her off.
“That’s rather fortunate. I don’t play chess for lack of suitable opponents. I myself am something of a…master.”
The [Innkeeper] paused. Slowly, her eyes lifted and she met his.
Eldavin polished his nails on his robes.
“I can’t remember losing a game in recent memory.”
“Huh. Well, I’m decent at the game myself. Perhaps I could give you a good match.”
Something in the air. Maviola blinked. Erin Solstice was terrible at using her aura. But the [Innkeeper] leaned over the table.
“Would you like to play a game?”
The Dragon offered her an arrogant smile.
“I suppose I could pass the time.”
His tone suggested that winning a game or two might be enjoyable. No hint that he would ever lose. Palt glanced at Montressa. Numbtongue poked his head out of the door.
By the time Olesm burst through the door, panting and clutching at his side, the two were sitting.
“I prefer playing black. But if you have a preference…”
Erin politely switched the board around. The Grand Magus waved a lazy hand.
“I’m quite fine with either side. Rather—to make this interesting, why don’t I spot you a move?”
The young woman’s eyes narrowed.
“I am most adept.”
“Cool. That’s really generous. How about this, though. I could spot you a move.”
The Dragon hesitated. He sat up slightly. His eyes narrowed. Erin gave him a big, friendly smile.
“I’m adept too.”
Somewhere in Pallass, Chaldion was fighting with his [Healer], demanding to see. Erin Solstice cracked her fingers. Winced. She didn’t even notice the rings of people watching. Belgrade, Olesm, Garry, Pawn…Montressa, Bezale, Pelt, Palt…Hedault…
Saliss of Lights casually walked down the hallway. He leaned on the magic door and switched it away from Pallass. Then he dusted his claws and walked back, smiling.
Two voices spoke in the silence.
“I’m serious about spotting you a move.”
“You seriously believe you have a chance, Miss Solstice?”
“Yup. But hey—I do like a nice, fair game. Equal. I’d even bet on it. Like…a few gold coins?”
“I wouldn’t like to take money from you. Why don’t we simply play?”
“As you like.”
The Dragon slowly moved a pawn to E4. The [Innkeeper] looked up at him. She smiled.
…Of course, that wasn’t important. In the [Garden of Sanctuary], oblivious to the sounds coming from the common room, three [Druids] walked. Two upright, one on all fours.
Nalthaliarstrelous, when not beating animal-abusers with his staff, was much different to the person Lyonette and Erin mistrusted so much. The first thing he did was see to Mrsha’s Fortress Beaver colony.
“Oh, you poor things.”
Mrsha saw him gently coaxing the Fortress Beavers out of their dam. Then, the [Druid] held them. He gently inspected their scarred flesh. And to Mrsha’s amazement, produced little balms, rubbed them into the flesh. And the scar tissue began to fade.
Even Shassa, the other [Druid], was amazed. But Mrsha felt it. If Shassa was a sapling, Nalthaliarstrelous was a tree. And his power ran deep.
“Healing is one of our talents. Few spells heal outright, but our class can cast [Regeneration] at the utmost highest levels. Which I am not. But I can still remove scar tissue.”
The [Druid] explained to Mrsha. His fingers were gentle, and the Fortress Beaver nuzzled him before she waddled off. The animals trusted the [Druid] instinctively. And he knew his work. He inspected the stool of the beavers—which Mrsha had to toss out every day as part of her responsibilities. He kicked one fresh leaving apart and hmmed.
“The wood isn’t as good for their diets. There are better trees. And they will want different food by season.”
Mrsha looked up at him. She was impressed. This smelly Human was smart.
Shassa laughed, appalled. Nalthaliarstrelous just guffawed. The Drake bent down and addressed Mrsha.
“You mustn’t mock him. Nalthaliarstrelous is among the best of us.”
“I am just a man. Our little landfriend has the right of it.”
The older [Druid] snapped. Shassa jumped, blushed under her scales and ducked her head.
“Forgive me, Nalthaliarstrelous. As I said. Oteslia craves your aid. He is the best of us at terraforming, you see, Mrsha.”
And combat and shapeshifting. The Drake’s thought ran parallel to her words. Mrsha peered up at Nalthaliarstrelous. She nudged him.
Show me. The [Druid] understood her without words. He shook his head.
“This garden is a sacred place. I will not casually move earth. It is just magic anyways. Any [Earth Mage] could do the same, or [Geomancer].”
His tone made it clear what he thought of them. Mrsha wrinkled her nose. She had walked with the [Druids]. But she didn’t understand what made them…unique.
Shassa and Nalthaliarstrelous both smiled at that.
“The answer, Mrsha, is that we are more than just ‘protectors of nature’ like many call us. Your—your mother for one.”
She pointed up at Lyonette, who scowled at them from her hilltop. A bee was buzzing around her, lazily feeding on flowers. Nalthaliarstrelous nodded.
“You saw me dealing justice.”
Smacking bad mens with a club. Mrsha felt that was less…impressive than she had hoped from her class. The [Druids] chuckled.
“Not always. I do not attack [Woodcutters]. Despite what your parent thinks. You may chop down trees. You may hunt for food, or coin, or need. These things are what all people do. But when you destroy, waste lives—that is when I break your legs. My Skills and spells empower me to do that.”
The [Druid] tapped his hand with his staff for emphasis. His palm turned into a valley of thorns. Shassa shook her head.
“Nalthaliarstrelous—his role is more punitive, Mrsha. He deals with people. Myself, I deal with animals. Plants. Animals can be cruel as well. Sometimes they need to be disciplined. A rabid bear must be calmed and healed—or put down. In the same way, plants need water, but sometimes they must also be pruned. This is my role.”
Gently, she uprooted a thistle plant that had migrated into the [Garden of Sanctuary], perhaps borne on someone’s boots. Without malice. Mrsha was puzzled. Wasn’t the thistle a plant? Well—Mrsha would have yanked it up too.
“It doesn’t need to be here. It can serve another purpose as food if boiled, or in other ways. Again, we’re not all like him. I don’t break the law! And while I’m part of Oteslia, I am not under anyone’s command. Nalthaliarstrelous…the Circle of Oteslia is concerned about your involvement in the Antinium affair. We want to talk to you about that as well.”
She pointed at the Human [Druid]. Cautiously. The man ignored the implicit criticism. He addressed both Mrsha and Shassa.
“Sometimes, we must seek the authority of cityfolk to do greater good. Such as that woman. What she gives is more than is asked for. I deem it well enough. And my work is my own law; I am the only [Druid] around Invrisil.”
He meant Magnolia Reinhart. But his thoughts also indicated that [Druids] were rare. A Circle of them—rarer still.
Chastened, Shassa nodded.
“We acknowledge that, Nalthaliarstrelous. But—”
She broke off for a second. Mrsha heard a buzzing. All three [Druids] looked up.
Apista flew upside down past the three [Druids], ignoring the stares. Mrsha distinctly got an impression that if the bee could speak, Apista would be saying—‘whee…look at me, I’m flying!’
“What’s wrong with her?”
The Drake [Druid] looked concerned. Mrsha explained. Flowers. Apista got silly when she drank their nectar. Nalthaliarstrelous shook his head, frowning.
“Those flowers. Just as well they’re not fully matured. Terrible and beautiful. Where did they come from?”
Mrsha wasn’t sure she should explain. The two [Druids] frowned. But they did not press her.
It was funny. For all Lyonette called them ‘lawless rulebreakers’, it was clear that they regarded this as Mrsha’s domain. They were respectful to her, listened when she wanted to say something, and treated her like an equal. Mrsha liked it.
“What you must know of us, Mrsha, is that we occupy many roles. It is not just people and pets that concern us. In fact, it is seldom them for most of us. Nalthaliarstrelous is an exception. We must battle monsters, disease, starvation, fire, even animal species themselves.”
Shassa went on with the explanation. She lifted her staff, and showed Mrsha the tip. To Mrsha’s horror, she saw it actually had a small nest of tiny purple spiders. They scurried out as Mrsha backed away. Shassa laughed.
“Don’t worry, they’re friendly! Nor would I let them infest this place.”
She lifted her staff and they disappeared into the web. The [Druid] gestured about.
“Our job is balance. Not protection. For instance, I am a [Spiderweb Druid]. But when Shield Spiders bred over their limits and began eating everything in the Kask region—I exterminated them with my fellow [Druids], adventurers, and military. Because it was necessary. In the same way, unnatural things, like undead, some monsters, are also our enemies.”
“Crelers. We exterminate them.”
Nalthaliarstrelous was blunt. The Drake shuddered. So did Mrsha. But it was an important distinction to make so the Human took over.
“Few things we loathe, Mrsha. The Bloodfields are a type of nature. However changed. Not nature I would allow to persist outside of its zone, but nature nonetheless. Crelers destroy everything. Even rabbits would destroy Creler eggs rather than let them exist. What [Druids] deem enemies, we battle. We are warriors.”
Shassa touched her chest.
The Human [Druid] bent down. He touched the ground.
“You and Shassa wonder why I worked with Magnolia Reinhart? The Antinium are our enemies, little one. When they came, they eradicated everything around their Hives. We fought them.”
His eyes flickered. Mrsha felt his cold resolve. He had fought them. Buried them, drowned them, torn them apart during both wars…
Indignantly, the Gnoll [Druid] stood up on her two legs. No! The two [Druids] recoiled. Mrsha punched Nalthaliarstrelous’s leg. Not Pawn! Not Garry! Not Belgrade or anyone here! She’d beat them up first, she’d—
Nalthaliarstrelous picked her up. Lyonette jumped to her feet.
The [Druid] ignored her. He let Mrsha swing wildly in the air.
“Stop that. Explain. The Antinium have always been one Hive. Explain, little one.”
Mrsha hesitated. She thought—and both [Druid]’s eyes widened. Mrsha imagined Garry, feeding her scraps, Belgrade, learning to play chess—
Pawn, praying for the dead. Was that evil?
Slowly, Nalthaliarstrelous lowered Mrsha to the ground. He blinked. Shassa turned pale.
“I cannot believe it. The Antinium are one thing.”
“Clearly not. Listen to the young [Druid], Shassa.”
“But she’s a ch—”
Smack. Nalthaliarstrelous bopped the Drake so fast Mrsha didn’t see it. The Drake clutched at her head and squatted down. Lyonette hesitated as Mrsha excitedly nodded. Nalthaliarstrelous scowled at Shassa.
“Do you deny the truth? Look! Listen! If she says the Antinium are not one thing, they are not!”
He turned to Mrsha.
“If they are not all the same, we will treat them as such. But this is a revelation. The other wild walkers must know. Now I regret helping Reinhart.”
His face was troubled. But as he bent low to look at her, the man’s face broke into a huge smile behind his beard.
“It must be fate, that the wilds make you a [Druid] so young! You have battled Raskghar, monsters! Little landfriend—you now bring us important knowledge! If the Antinium are not our enemies, we should not fight them as we assumed in the Third Antinium War.”
Shassa cried out, horrified. The [Druid] spun, staff raised. But this time the garden’s law made him hesitate. Apparently educational bops counted—not beatings with sticks.
“We will debate it. You see, Mrsha—there are only two large Circles. One, in the Vale forest under the aegis of House Veltras. The other in Oteslia. There are [Druids] in other places, but two gatherings in Izril. In every continent we roam, but two there. And we are not all united.”
Shassa edged away from Nalthaliarstrelous as he pointed at her. Mrsha began to see. The Drake felt very peaceful compared to Nalthaliarstrelous’ wild impulses. A warrior and caretaker, indeed.
“Yes. Perhaps let’s leave it at that. For now—Mrsha, you should come to Oteslia with me. Or at the very least—wait until Nalthaliarstrelous returns to learn from one of us.”
Even him. The Drake rubbed her head as she looked up at Lyonette. She saw Mrsha tug at her leg. Why? Mrsha was happy to learn, but she’d leveled up well enough.
“To understand what it is to be kind. One can be cruel by being kind. Or make mistakes. You were close to losing your class. And you have hurt these children, haven’t you?”
Nalthaliarstrelous bent down. Mrsha went still. Her face fell.
The rats. Gravely, the [Druids] nodded. They felt her guilt.
“Just so. And the Fortress Beavers fought the Shield Spiders because you did not separate them. You must learn some lessons to help, not hinder. We will teach you. But later. It may be difficult if that one objects.”
Nalthaliarstrelous waved at Lyonette. Mrsha nodded slowly. The [Druid] bent down.
“For now, just know that your class is not just nature-mage. Magic is a side-effect of our class, not the goal. We do not crave power. We are not all one people. But we share ideas in common.”
He tapped his chest.
“Here is mine, and what I believe: to hurt those who cannot defend themselves is a poor thing. To waste is a poor thing.”
His voice was gentle, but like steel, vines rooted in the earth. Shassa raised her staff, and nodded.
“To destroy without leaving something behind is to be worthless. That is what the [Druids] of Oteslia believe.”
Cowards. Nalthaliarstrelous glanced at Mrsha. She began to suspect part of Oteslia’s project involved combat of some kind. But as the [Druids] walked on, they explained a tiny bit more.
“You will not master magic as well as [Mages]. But nor will you be as unfit to survive without magic. But the true root of our power is in our connection with nature. Plants—animals—we are shape-changers. You have one Skill. We have many.”
The Drake touched her chest.
“For instance, I am spider-friend. If I will it, I can spin silk. Climb even the tallest trees.”
Nalthaliarstrelous’s already-hairy arm covered with fur. He grinned at Mrsha with bear-teeth, only cooler than Erin.
“I am bear-friend. Wolf-brother. Many things in one. You have one ally: beavers.”
Shassa giggled. Mrsha and Nalthaliarstrelous both glared at her. He raised his staff and she raised her claws.
“I’m sorry! But that’s just rare!”
Nalthaliarstrelous nodded. He—twitched—blinked. Mrsha saw him look around, feel at the back of his neck. What had that been? But the [Druid] didn’t know himself. She felt his curiosity.
“True. But all of us have our paths. You might be a fine grower, or more magically inclined. The point is that nature is supported where you find it. It may be a garden, like I tend. Or Oteslia’s produce.”
Druids could sell plants? Wasn’t that bad? Shassa shrugged.
“Everyone has to earn money. And we put it into sanctuaries for animals. You see, some of us are less active than others. Because of [Druids], the Pegasi populations did not dwindle like Unicorns! They now live in Oteslia, even if their numbers are still small.”
“Companions! They’re well-cared for, Nalthaliarstrelous!”
“Mhm. As slaves. They are not free to fly.”
“Don’t start, please! The Circle of Oteslia decided centuries ago—”
“The north never agreed to it.”
“How many Pegasi are in the north, then? Huh? Answer me that?”
“They died free.”
“Well, don’t hit me for speaking the truth—”
The two began to quarrel. Mrsha listened, hearing insults both verbal and mental begin to fly. Her takeaway was that [Druids] were a bit high-strung.
But she liked her class. She didn’t know if she wanted to just be a [Druid], though. Mrsha rather liked the idea of being a [Druid]-[Adventurer]. A real adventurer. And maybe a [Wizard] too!
Both Nalthaliarstrelous and Shassa stared at the Gnoll child in consternation. It seemed to occur to them only now that Mrsha might not be as invested as they were in their class. Nalthaliarstrelous opened his mouth—
And twitched. His head spun around. Mrsha and Shassa looked at him. The [Druid] stared about. Then up.
“What is that?”
Twang. On his roof, Bird happily hummed and shot another arrow. Another bird fell out of the skies.
“Two birds, three birds, all in the pot. Or if I leave them out, they will rot.”
Bird happily sing. He ignored the roar from below. An outraged Dragon overturned a chess board. An [Innkeeper] danced. Chaldion pounded on the door as Saliss leaned on it.
Spectacle. But Bird didn’t care. He aimed his bow at another frantic, diving shape. He sighted, calculating velocity, wind, drew back and—
The Antinium froze. He had heard nothing. Seen nothing. Up until that moment—slowly he turned his head.
A vast bear stood behind him. No—not a bear. It had climbed the tower in three moves. Long claws had torn the wood. But this creature was bipedal. It opened its mouth and dark venom dripped between huge fangs. It rippled with muscle—Bird swung his bow around.
“What are you doing?”
The thing spoke. The Worker hesitated. He saw a Drake and Gnoll race onto the roof, alarmed. The other Workers scrambled for weapons, but Nalthaliarstrelous paid no attention. Bird hesitated.
The [Druid] waited. Bird stared up at him. Slowly, Nalthaliarstrelous looked at Bird.
“Tell me. How many do you kill? How many do you eat? How many do you leave to rot, or strip only for feathers and trophies?”
He had exceptionally long claws, Bird noted. Venom bite—it was like someone had engineered parts of bear, wolf, and something with venom for combat. The Antinium reflected he might die unless he jumped from the roof. But someone would die either way. Still—since Mrsha was behind the [Druid] and frantically trying to pull him back, the Worker replied. Honestly.
“I will kill as many birds as I see. Yes, as many as fly past me. I eat them all. I leave some to rot so they get squishy. And I like their feathers very muchly. Will you kill me?”
He drew back the arrow, aiming for Nalthaliarstrelous’s open jaws. The [Druid] stared at him. The Workers froze. And then—Nalthaliarstrelous laughed.
A naked [Druid] stood on the roof of the inn, putting on his robes. Mrsha learned something interesting about him. About [Druids].
Nalthaliarstrelous didn’t care. Or rather—he had thought Bird was just shooting the birds and leaving them to die for fun. When he heard that Bird would eat each and every one, his wrath had abated.
“All things die. I object to waste.”
He explained to Mrsha. On the other hand, Shassa had been horrified to learn about Bird’s one-bow crusade against all that flew. She was explaining to Bird about conservation of species, nests, and so on. Nalthaliarstrelous’ mental thoughts were dismissive. He sat with Mrsha on the roof, listening to the cheers as Teriarch bellowed for a rematch. Foul! He hadn’t been trying!
The [Druids] ignored the silliness. Nalthaliarstrelous nodded to Bird.
“Shassa is wrong. That Antinium cannot kill every bird in the Floodplains. The smart ones already fear him. I sensed that and assumed he only cared for sport. They will learn to avoid him.”
Mrsha didn’t know if she agreed with that. But Nalthaliarstrelous was, in fact, a proponent of hunting.
“Animals kill each other to eat. Only those of us like Shassa want people to eat leaves all day. And she is a Drake.”
He grinned at Mrsha. Lyonette huffed onto the roof after extricating herself from the mess in the inn. She saw the Human [Druid]—now thankfully clothed or there would have been trouble—peering around the Floodplains.
“This is not my place, little landfriend. But if I had to solve one issue of this land…no [Druids] reside around Liscor.”
“Gee. I wonder why. Excuse me, but Mrsha can’t stay with you fine [Druids] forever!”
The [Princess] stomped over to them. Nalthaliarstrelous glanced up at her.
“This place would be better for our kind. Now I look at it—perhaps we should have come earlier. Now I see.”
His eyes flashed across the Floodplains. Mrsha saw lush grass, butterflies, flowers—not many trees, but a nice place to run about if you didn’t mind Shield Spiders and Rock Crabs. She sighed.
She was banned from going out. Stinky Lyonette and Erin said—
Tap. Nalthaliarstrelous’s staff touched Mrsha’s head. Lyonette made a sound. But the [Druid] just looked at Mrsha.
“Just as well. There are threats here to children, even [Druids]. You lack judgment. Even we follow rules.”
She was tough! Mrsha made a fist. Nalthaliarstrelous raised his staff. She…lowered the fist. Lyonette lowered her fist. The [Druid] paid no attention to her. Nalthaliarstrelous’s head turned once more.
What was? Her? Mrsha poked at him. The [Druid] didn’t respond for a second. Shassa came stomping across the roof.
“What a monster! He doesn’t see how many birds he’s killing!”
“He eats them. Maggots and all. You could learn from them.”
Lyonette made a sound. She stood up.
“Bird? What did I tell you about—”
The [Hunter] fled. Shassa blanched. But Nalthaliarstrelous was just frowning. He had sensed something. And Mrsha waited. At last, the Human [Druid] rose.
“Shassa Weaverweb. Mrsha of the Stone Spears Tribe. I am minded to call together a circle to debate a grave issue I see.”
The Gnoll blinked. She hadn’t expected that. What grave issue? Shassa was just as taken aback. Her gaze swung to Mrsha.
“A circle? But there are just three of us!”
“Three is enough.”
“But she’s not even recognized. She’s only—”
The Drake saw Nalthaliarstrelous’ eyes flash.
“She is a [Druid].”
“She is too young.”
The female [Druid] protested. Nalthaliarstrelous shook his head.
“This is her place. Would you exclude her?”
Shassa bit her tongue. Mrsha glowered. Yeah! Exclude from…what?
“A decision. Something grave affects this land. Worse than the dungeon.”
Nalthaliarstrelous stared across the Floodplains. He touched at his eyes. Mrsha saw them flicker. She sensed…something. Shassa bit her lip. And the [Druid] turned.
“To me…this place seems much worse than it has ever been. Mrsha du Marquin. Look and see.”
He turned to her. His brown, plain eyes deepened. Mrsha’s gaze was drawn into the black pupils. Something was in there. A…picture. She blinked—
And she was standing in the same place. Mrsha looked away from Nalthaliarstrelous. And froze.
She saw the Floodplains as they had been. The mountains were the same. But—the land was different.
Gone was Liscor! There was no tall walls! No city of stone! Just—water. Mrsha’s jaws dropped. She saw Nalthaliarstrelous pointing. Only he, Shassa, and she were left. Even the roof of the inn was gone.
“See through my eyes. What must have been here once.”
The [Druid] pointed. Through his Skill, Mrsha saw.
First—a vast lake. Oh! The Gnoll saw, in a flash, how this basin, the rains—it had been a lake! Of course! Only, at some point someone had pulled the plug and the waters drained. But before—she saw water everywhere, only a few points of shallow land. Vast things swam in the waters. Mrsha saw something far larger than a Lurkersnatch fish moving in the deeps. And then—
Then it was a swamp. Mushy, overgrown. But beautiful. Nalthaliarstrelous’ eyes reflected in their very depths a buzzing place full of wild creatures, large predators who lived in water and on the sparse areas of land. Lots of trees, growing wild. Not a fun place to live for people. But so full of life!
Mrsha saw Razorbeaks in the trees, amphibious reptiles—snapping, fighting with snakes—mammals were rare. She looked at Nalthaliarstrelous. Shassa was wide-eyed.
“[Memory of the Earth]. Nalthaliarstrelous, why—”
“And then came Drakes.”
The [Druid]’s voice was calm. Mrsha saw trees disappearing, the murky waters clearing. Someone was removing the trees! Harvesting them—to build settlements of wood. And the effect of the clearing was pronounced.
The waters drained. The marsh system turned into something familiar. Mud flats and a temporary lake by spring. And at other times—
No more trees were left. But that was not a bad thing. Just something new. Mrsha blinked, ran over a field of flowers.
What was this?
The Floodplains were dry. They filled and drained, but in the summers, they bloomed verdant. Mrsha saw Corusdeer herds, vast plains full of moles, rabbits, and other grazing animals like cows and sheep! Not all native to Liscor. It was a vast pastoral land! Albeit not flat.
Of course, predators roamed this place too. Foxes, wolves—Carn Wolves too, hunting, larger species such as Rock Crabs at the top of the hierarchy. But it was filled with wildlife. Mrsha smiled. She raced after a rabbit—
Nalthaliarstrelous caught her from going over the edge of the roof. Mrsha blinked. Suddenly, she was back in reality. The Floodplains looked almost like her vision. But something was wrong.
Where had all the animals gone? Mrsha blinked. The Floodplains now had butterflies, ordinary bees, birds, flying well clear of the inn—a few rodents. But not the abundance of before. Even the [Shepherds] and their herds were gone. Liscor was back, but…
“Oh. No, Nalthaliarstrelous—”
Shassa breathed. Mrsha glanced at her and then the Human [Druid]’s face. He looked…weary. Concerned.
“Do you see?”
He asked Mrsha. She did. Sort of.
Something strange was happening here. The [Druid]’s eyes glittered and he waited for Mrsha to solve it. She thought. She had seen life in abundance in three stages. First, fishies in the lake. Second, marsh-stuff. Third—plains animals.
This was the plains now, largely unchanged. But why were there no animals? The young [Druid] thought. And she had it.
They were all over the Floodplains. Not visible, but Mrsha knew from experience that their camouflaged nests were all over the place. You stepped on them and you went into a nest full of hungry Shield Spiders. That was why you had to stick to the road. And why…the animals were gone.
“They are not native to Izril, you know. They came from Baleros. Only one species. And while not as terrible as others, they breed in great numbers.”
The [Druid] sat heavily on the roof. Shassa was breathing hard. She looked at the man as he spoke to Mrsha.
“Few things can live where one species dominates. Now I have shown you what I see. Tell me— Mrsha of the Stone Spears tribe. Think of the Shield Spiders of these Floodplains. You, who have seen them more than I or Shassa. Do they spread beyond number? Do they choke other life? I say it so.”
He held up a hand before Shassa could reply.
“I say they will multiply until all else dies here. I say—the Floodplains may lack for trees. It has changed, by the actions of Drakes. But what it could be now is still less than it is. Think carefully before you respond, Mrsha. But this is your land. What do you say?”
What did she say? Mrsha looked at Shassa. The [Spiderweb Druid] was a friend of the Shield Spiders. But even she…the Drake looked across the Floodplains. She bowed her head.
“I say it is so. Ancestors, but the webfolk are too hungry. They eat everything. There are hundreds of thousands. And those don’t even count the young, the unborn…”
She could sense them. For a moment, Mrsha saw as she did. She saw the nests. Thousands of them. Some close to the inn. Spiders milled about—Mrsha felt her fur standing on end.
Nalthaliarstrelous nodded. It was two votes now, a clear majority. But that wasn’t how it worked. They waited for Mrsha.
Below, in the inn, a Dragon blasted a chess board and sent everyone running for cover as he vented his fury. Above, a small Gnoll thought gravely. And at last…
She nodded. Nalthaliarstrelous bowed his head.
Shassa’s eyes filled with tears. Mrsha looked at them. She did not understand. Yet.
She had one last lesson to learn about [Druids].
Xrn hiked up towards The Wandering Inn. She wanted to see what all the fuss was about and why Belgrade and Garry had both run out of the Hive. She pushed open the door to the inn.
Just in time to hear the cheering. The crowd barely noticed her.
Erin Solstice was shaking hands. Teriarch—Grand Magus Eldavin had stormed off.
Contrary to the mood, it wasn’t the sweeping victory you might expect. To the chess aficionados, it was clear that it was very close.
Erin and Teriarch, as master-players, had played to a draw eight games. Between master-classes, that was usual. But Teriarch had lost the first game due to his overconfidence. By the time he’d taken the game seriously, Erin had smoked him.
He’s actually won the next game, and the fourth. But Erin had won the eighth after four draws, and the Dragon had lost his temper.
“Poor sportsmanship. Just, just tragic.”
Olesm was remarking to Belgrade. The [Tactician] nodded. It was clear Erin and Teriarch needed to settle this. One last win took all. But the Grand Magus had flipped the chess board after the first loss, and then proceeded to blast a table out of existence so thoroughly that even [Partial Reconstruction] wouldn’t salvage it. People were…concerned about a third loss.
But Erin was on fire. Almost literally. Her competitive spirit had been turned up by the only other player in this world who could match her. Teriarch was good. He didn’t play like her mysterious opponent; he was far more aggressive. She’d tried out-speeding him, but he’d taken her down effortlessly. He could process faster than even she could. But he grew overconfident. And that meant…
“One more game takes all. But we’re betting on this one. I won’t lose again!”
A roar came from across the room. Erin saw the half-Elf stalking back down the room. He wanted to put it all on the line. He passed through the crowd.
“Erin—maybe a bet’s a bad idea.”
“I dunno, Olesm. I’ve played for money before. What do you want to bet, Eldavin?”
The Dragon looked at her, snarling. He was tempted to say one million gold coins and be done with it! Reynold and Sacra were trying to drag him back, remind him to keep his cover. But he was too incensed. The Dragon’s head turned as he looked for things to bet.
The magic door? He had magic doors! Gold? She couldn’t match his bet! A magic sword? Hm. His eyes alit on Numbtongue’s sword. Bah, but it wasn’t valuable. He looked around.
And there was Xrn. The Centenium stared at the Dragon. Her interested yellow-and-rose eyes turned bright yellow. Orange. Shock. Alarm. The Dragon’s eyes widened.
“You? What are—”
The Dragon’s anger turned to hostility at once. Grimalkin and Chaldion looked around. Saliss of Lights reached for his bag of holding. Xrn’s hand tightened on her staff. She looked around, unafraid of anyone. Wary of Saliss and Eldavin.
“Ratici. I think we might be earning our pay.”
Wilovan adjusted his cap, looking worried. He saw the Centenium shifting. And his [Dangersense] began going off.
Erin Solstice didn’t notice the ringing in her head at first. She was reaching into her pocket. He wanted a bet? She didn’t know if it was a good idea. But she had something to bet. Pelt was watching her.
The world was ready to change. But if you understood this moment, you know—it wasn’t about chess. Or Dragons. Or even Antinium.
It was about [Druids].
The first rolling drumbeat came from the roof of the inn. Soft. Then louder. Everyone in the inn looked up.
Erin rose from her seat. She heard a thunderous beat. It shook through the entire inn. Everyone, the crowd, the guests—even the Dragon looked up.
Slowly, they came out of the inn. The sound was louder now. On the walls of Liscor, someone was shouting the Solstice-alarm. The Watch stared towards the inn. Towards the source of the sound.
Nalthaliarstrelous was banging his staff on the roof. Mrsha, standing next to Shassa and Lyonette and Bird, felt like the entire world was shaking.
“What’s happening? What is he doing?”
Lyonette was screaming at Shassa. The [Druid] shouted something back. But no one heard a thing.
Lyonette screamed. Bird shouted.
The Drake [Druid] screamed loud enough, even as the pounding grew louder.
And then it was silent. Mrsha saw the [Druid] halt, his staff raised. She heard shouting from below, confused voices.
“#2, don’t make me come up there! We’re playing ch—”
Erin Solstice froze mid-shout. She saw, behind her inn, across the Floodplains—
The grass moved. The fake nests collapsed. Black shapes boiled out of the holes. Not hundreds. Not thousands. Not tens of thousands.
Shield Spiders. The [Innkeeper] turned white as the innocent Floodplains, green and lush, turned into a sea of spiders. They popped out of the ground where they had been hidden, an infestation out of sight. The holes in the grassy hills and valleys were like gaping wounds in green skin, divulging the foul nests.
On the walls, Watch Captain Zevara saw a flood of Shield Spiders even greater than the one in the dungeon coming at the walls. Her mouth went dry. She croaked.
The Shield Spiders rolled across the plains in a fury. Some were as large as cars. Few were the size of those in the dungeon, but they were everywhere.
“Inside the inn! Get in the garden—now!”
Erin was the first to break the shocked silence. She screamed and pointed. People ran. The [Mages] and warriors stayed.
“That damned [Druid]! I’ll kill him! Erin—inside! We need barriers, Montressa! We’ll have to blast them! Grand Magus!”
Bezale roared. The other [Mages] were running, shouting at each other to erect walls, cast [Fireball] spells—
Teriarch didn’t move. He looked up at the roof. Then at Xrn. The Centenium had raised her staff. But she was waiting on Teriarch. The two locked gazes.
“Leave him. This is his duty.”
That was all the half-Elf said. He turned back and walked into the inn. Erin stared at his back. Leave him? Who—
From the roof of the inn, Nalthaliarstrelous leapt. Impossibly far, soaring through the air like Grimalkin had done when the Wyverns attacked. He landed on a distant hill and strode forwards, robes fluttering. And the Shield Spiders converged on him.
They ignored the inn. They ignored the [Mages], the walls of Liscor where horns were blaring. They cared only for one person.
He waited until the first wave was nearly on him and then struck the ground with his staff. Erin saw him raise his arms.
The Shield Spiders racing up a valley between two hills had one second of warning. Then the two distant hills rolled towards each other. The dirt and soil merged—and the Shield Spiders were buried.
The [Innkeeper] saw Nalthaliarstrelous stride forwards onto the bare land. Shield Spiders came at him. He struck the ground again—and it turned to mud. The spiders sank into the mud, suffocating, struggling. The [Druid] spun his staff. The earth opened and a rift sucked thousands more into it. It snapped closed. The soil crushed the Shield Spiders, smashing them to bits.
“Dead gods. What level is that [Druid]?”
Zevara snapped, command scrolls in her claws. She saw the [Druid] whirl. This time earthen spires shot out of the ground, impaling the Shield Spiders in a huge radius around him.
“He’s funneling all of them at him. It’s all area-spells.”
Grimalkin had leapt onto the roof. A [Siege Fireball] burned in one claw. He saw Nalthaliarstrelous spin. He ran down the hill and the entire hill turned into an earthen avalanche that buried another wave.
“Geomancer. He’s not bad. I could still beat him. But this is the best of their kind. Watch him. This is who you will fight.”
Xrn remarked to Belgrade. The [Tactician] turned to her, shaking.
Nalthaliarstrelous made a hole in the world. Spiders poured into it. The sinkhole opened deeper, deeper as he stood on a small ledge, a small pillar. And then the soil moved back together.
“He’s taken magic from the inn. But he’s running out. Those are too many spells.”
Hedault felt his wand vibrating in his hand. He saw Nalthaliarstrelous drop to one knee, panting. The Shield Spiders flooded at him, greatly reduced.
“Why are they attacking him? Even insects should retreat.”
Chaldion ignored the look Yellow Splatters gave him. He turned to Teriarch for confirmation. The half-Elf shrugged.
“[Challenge of the Wilds]. He wants to erase their foothold on the Floodplains.”
Shassa breathed. Mrsha saw Nalthaliarstrelous on his knee. He was panting wildly. She could feel his exhaustion. But the spiders—
Lyonette shouted in horror. Grimalkin pointed. The [Siege Fireball] blew a section of them apart. The other [Mages] rained spells at a distance at the black wave. But Nalthaliarstrelous was their target.
As they came for him, the [Druid]’s body grew. Mrsha saw brown fur race over his body. His form changed—
Erin heard someone breathe. The Dire Bear form rose. It crushed the largest spider with a roar, claws tearing through even the thick armor with contemptuous ease. Nalthaliarstrelous brought his arms down, smashing the body.
The spiders swarmed him. Erin lost track of the [Druid]; the hill poured with spiders. But something was thrashing about as they tried to bite through his fur and flesh. Crushing them. Tearing them apart. Eating some of them, or spitting out fragments from his jaws.
From The Wandering Inn and Liscor’s walls came spells. Grimalkin grimly blasted pockets of spiders with his spells. So did Montressa and Palt; others shot arrows, like Bird. But it was all from afar.
Nalthaliarstrelous held the hill. He must have used potions; Mrsha twice saw-felt the [Druid] flagging, and then a surge of fury and vitality. He cut and tore across the spiders and they refused to stop attacking him.
Until…it ended. There was no signal. One moment the hill was boiling—the next, the Shield Spiders were fleeing. They fled over thousands of their dead, across the soil where buried, crushed spiders lay. A fraction of the army that had assailed him.
Mrsha tried to run, then. But Lyonette and Shassa both held her back. It was Grimalkin, along with Numbtongue and a few others who approached the hill.
Nalthaliarstrelous lay naked amid the destruction. His body was covered with blood, bites. He didn’t move as the party extricated him.
But he was alive.
“It was just spiders. Saliss could do it. Or…Magus Grimalkin. At some point—spiders can’t hurt you. Keldrass could probably survive with the Heartflame Breastplate.”
The shaky opinion came from one of the guests. Later, in the inn, they analyzed it.
It was just spiders. They had been crawling all over one another to get to Nalthaliarstrelous. No wonder his spells had been so effective. The [Druid] had challenged them and he was an earth-specialist with Erin’s inn to back him up.
No wonder he’d won. Absolutely. Plus, the others had helped! [Siege Fireballs] had come from Magus Grimalkin. It was…was…
Olesm didn’t add to the appraisal of Nalthaliarstrelous’s abilities. He just sat there, trying to imagine a conventional army fighting that. Or even if the Shield Spiders had attacked Liscor’s walls.
“One. Two. Three. Four? No…three. Four if you give him that artifact.”
Maviola was counting. Olesm looked at her.
She smiled at him. Then she pointed.
Xrn. Saliss. Eldavin. And then Grimalkin.
“Those are the ones who could do that. I’m not sure about Eldavin, but the other three—yes. Grimalkin might need the Heartflame Breastplate, though.”
Olesm looked at the [Sinew Magus]. Grimalkin’s face was unreadable, but his jaw was clenched. The [Lady] kissed Olesm lightly and he looked up at her. She smiled, less shaken than the others.
“That is what power looks like, Olesm. It was a good lesson.”
The Drake’s jaw worked.
The Antinium watched the [Druid]. They looked at Xrn’s calm expression. She was appraising the [Druid].
For his part, all Nalthaliarstrelous did was weep. Mrsha hadn’t realized it. But the [Druid] was crying. So was Shassa. But Nalthaliarstrelous cried longer.
Tears ran down into his beard. But all he said to Erin, Lyonette—the others who now treated him with respect—and wariness, was this.
“They have died. They must be hunted. The city must do this. But the nests can be destroyed. And if they are—the Floodplains will be bountiful again.”
“I…remember Tekshia saying that once, there were all kinds of [Shepherds] here. And you could walk up and down the Floodplains.”
Selys mumbled. Nalthaliarstrelous’s tears dripped into his beard. He was sad. Mrsha touched his leg. Then, why had he done it?
“Because it had to be done. We are [Druids]. Not all would do it. But little landfriend—they would have eaten the world in their hunger.”
That was what he told her. And when he rose, the [Druid] leaned on his staff, looking worn and wan. But that was the lesson.
“Some of us are warriors of great destruction. We burn forests that new life might live. We do battle that balance might be restored. In old ages, we fought the tree-folk when they tried to exterminate villages. Then we were their allies when the small villages became cities that threatened to destroy the great forests.”
He touched his chest. Closed his eyes.
“We failed. Now, most of us are guardians of small places. Connections to the wilds that speak with law. I am the largest of the small.”
Erin Solstice looked at him. How dare he say that after that display? But the [Druid] turned away. He looked at Shassa—the other [Druid] bowed to him.
“I will consult with Oteslia. When I am able. I have duties here, but I will come.”
“Of course. Walk well, wild keeper.”
They nodded to each other. Shassa bid farewell to Mrsha as well.
“If fate allows it—we shall meet again, little one.”
Solemnly, Mrsha shook the Drake’s claw. She would not forget this. And she had seen what it was to be a [Druid]. Now…she wondered if [Wizards] were recruiting.
Well, only half-seriously. The Drake’s eyes crinkled up. So did Nalthaliarstrelous’. He also paused to say goodbye.
“Small or large. Each thing matters. I entrust you with the bees. I have no more strength for a fortnight, save at great need. If you are no more a [Druid] than you are this day—that is well. But remember what we are: neither good nor evil.”
She nodded solemnly. The [Druid] ruffled her hair.
“If you lack a teacher, landfriend, wild child, I will teach you at a later date.”
He stood, and slowly walked past Erin and Lyonette. They bade him farewell. Erin stared at the [Druid]’s back. Lyonette waved, calling out polite thanks. When he was gone, she turned to Erin.
“We are never letting him back into the inn.”
It was hard to argue with that. Then again—Erin wanted to know how Lyonette was going to stop him.
Anyways. It was just a day in the inn. The day turned to night. Ryoka Griffin glared at the Silver Swords in Mad Madain’s inn.
Mrsha leveled up. But just a tiny bit.
That night, someone hammered a nail into a door. Now, the [Garden of Sanctuary] had a sign. It read as follows:
Private garden; no [Druids] allowed.
Mrsha took it down the next day.
After Chapter Thoughts: Well, we’re over my projected chapter length by…10,000 words. And again, this is a suitable interlude where NOTHING AT ALL…
You know what; I just wanted to call it ‘A Meeting of [Druids]’. That’s a cool interlude title. I hope you enjoyed the craziness. And while not as restful as I would have liked, I enjoyed it a lot. I wish I could have added a few more scenes, but I pushed the limits as-is.
For now, I’ll just say that my break allows me to write like this! And there is much to thank from these wonderful artists!
I’m featuring two artists this time. Firstly, Plushie. Who has made a bunch of Mrsha-emotes! We’re already using them in the Discord server, but they’re so cute on their own! Also, there’s an amazing picture of Bird the Hunter and more!
The second artist is Eris, who has done a sprite of Ryoka Griffin! It would be great in a videogame…give thanks to both of them! Have a good night and thanks for reading!
Mrshas, Bird, Me…?, and more by Plushie!
Pixel-Ryoka by Eris!