They were still dying. Geneva Scala’s optimism was tempered by that, in the back of her head. That—despite the cure arriving, it had to be cultivated. And it had yet to reach many places where Yellow Rivers was eating away at the populations.
As well—the cure was a finite resource. Geneva Scala, had, after some quick agonizing, employed its usage before testing proper dosages and coming up with a standard of application. She knew the other [Healers] had encountered success using it and it was that or let her patients die as the cure was literally in the same building as they were.
Just the most serious cases. It meant, simply, that Seql would live. His vitals were already improving. Geneva had spent a night with the most seriously-ill to stop the progress of the bacteria and allow the Occillium to do its work.
She imagined it was like the advent of blood transfusion, or…well, penicillin itself. Something so close to magic in its effects. And no healing potion could have saved Seve. Perhaps some relic-grade potion, but Octavia’s mold would save countless lives where the most magical artifacts could save only a handful—if you could afford it.
Still. The fight was not over. And Geneva had taken to Talenqual’s streets to tell people to stay indoors and prevent the spread of the disease. They listened to her, the people of Talenqual. She had earned that.
The funny thing was that as the morning dawned, Geneva was not tending to a Yellow Rivers patient. They were actually fairly easy now—the cure had arrived and it was what she had needed.
Rather, she was talking to a [Healer] about another patient. A man on his front who was trying not to whimper despite the topical anesthetic Geneva had applied. It was more what was happening that was terrifying him out of his mind.
And the [Healer]. Geneva had a small audience; one of the Level 30 [Healers] who had come to learn how she was fighting the disease. Other, lower-level [Healers]. Some of the [Nurses]—many of whom were Selphids. And just some onlookers.
Some. They were allowed to watch, but most had left after Geneva had opened the fellow’s…well, Geneva termed it an abscess, a cyst that had been infected and left untreated. It was thirty-days old. But given the healing potions applied—Geneva felt like she was looking at years of deterioration.
It was not the kind of thing that was pleasant. Geneva had seen worse—the [Healers] had too. Most of the others had not.
If you had to explain it—the cyst was like an infected…pimple? That drained pus and kept expanding. But unlike the cause being an ingrown hair, it was more of an open wound that refused to heal.
Yellow Rivers looked worse. But the [Healer] was still patently horrified as Geneva explored the wound.
“What are you doing?”
She had an improvised q-tip, which was a bamboo stick with a cotton swab. Geneva was inserting it into the whimpering man’s back. Deep. She stuck the entire stick in and everyone winced.
“I’m exploring the abscess.”
“You’re making it worse!”
“I have to see how deep it is. Look at this.”
It was a mortified hole in his body. She was poking the soft tool inside and withdrawing it to check the improvised q-tip—it was bloody. Which was a good sign? Geneva sighed and explained patiently.
“I’ve been working with this man for the last week. I kept it packed; it’s still healing, Ceriche, but this is a marked improvement.”
“T-thank you, Doctor.”
The man muttered. He could feel the tool poking around. The [Healer] stared. The wound was deep.
“Now what are you doing?”
Geneva was inserting a thin fabric which actually had been enchanted to soak up liquids into the opening. She was briskly packing it in. The [Healer] was astounded.
“You can’t do that!”
“And what would you do? Sew him up? Healing potions caused this. This will keep the abscess from growing worse. But it needs surgery. The entire area must be excised. And when the operation is performed—it cannot be with healing potions. Do you disagree, Healer Rediur?”
That was Geneva’s diagnosis. The Dullahan [Healer], who was from Seql’s city, shifted uncomfortably.
“All of what you are saying makes sense, Doctor Geneva. But without potions—”
“Potions caused this!”
Geneva snapped back. It was her hugest problem with this world. She looked at her audience.
Exploring a wound, cutting into the body to remove something like this—even ideas like amputation or sewing up a wound were seen as primitive when a potion worked. Some [Healers] had poultices that could fight infection, but they had no notion of medicine. She pointed at the luckless [Guard].
“This abscess should have taken years to get this bad. But the use of potions accelerates all parts of the body. So while a serious cut might heal—it increases the likelihood of small, preventable ailments turning into medical emergencies. Potions. Are. Not. A. Cure-all.”
She began closing her patient up. The others watched as she pointed at the back-injury, which was, again, not going to kill Ceriche. But he’d been troubled by it for a month and if he hadn’t come to her, he’d have dealt with it the rest of his life. As a [Guard]—it might have gotten far worse. She tried to emphasize that.
“This will not kill him immediately. But each time he uses a potion—it grows. For a regular citizen, it might not affect them for a while depending on how much they might need a potion. For a [Guard], or [Soldier]? He might be dead in less than a year if I hadn’t gotten to it.”
The luckless Ceriche groaned and the others muttered. They’d seen that too. Geneva appealed to their common sense.
“This is why we need to check patients regularly, regardless of age. I realize some species value privacy. I’m willing to respect that. But this can be life or death.”
The Dullahan [Healer] looked uncomfortable.
“Privacy among our species, Doctor Geneva—”
“It’s a physical. If I cannot look a patient up and down, let alone test to make sure their body parts are working, how will I know if they’re well?”
“Trust them to come to you?”
Geneva stared at the Lizardman [Healer] who’d raised a hand with such wroth that he lowered it and backed up.
It was an education. Earth’s practices coming into contact with this world’s. Geneva had vast admiration for the capabilities of magical medicine. You could save someone who had not a chance of surviving a 5-minute trip to the emergency room in a moment. Blood loss, massive lacerations—a single potion administered by a child would save their life.
By the same token—this world couldn’t fight disease or infection nearly as well as Earth. And some of the [Healer]’s techniques bordered on malpractice at times, especially the ones who used healing potions without diagnosing the issue!
Geneva was talking more about her treatment with Ceriche. Occillium helped him too; it was indeed a widespread general anti-bacterial mold. Her audience listened. It wasn’t just confidence that gave Geneva the ability to lecture a sixty year-old Dullahan [Healer] over Level 30, it was her knowledge. You couldn’t so easily fake that, even if you were an excellent con-artist.
“She’s not a [Healer].”
Umina muttered to herself as she took notes near the back. She’d nearly thrown up, especially as she saw Geneva poking around in a wound. But she was fascinated at the same time. More and more, she thought the Professor was right. Geneva Scala was extraordinary.
And there was something else…but Umina didn’t have the picture yet. She heard an echo of her statement coming from someone who’d been standing in the doorway.
“We could use her back home. My city would pay ten times her bodyweight for someone of her caliber.”
The Lizardgirl turned—and there was Seve-Alrelious. The Hundredfriends Courier was back on his feet. She gave him an impressed look.
“Hello. Are you assisting the Last Light?”
He nodded to her, whispering. Umina nodded respectfully.
“I’m—a volunteer. She’s nearly done if you need her…”
The Courier nodded.
“She asked me to stop by. Fascinating.”
Here was one of the world’s best Couriers. Umina had learned from the Titan of Baleros, though, so she wasn’t about to ask for him to shake her hand…but he was properly famous.
“You’re um—from A’ctelios Salash, aren’t you?”
The Hundredfriends Courier had shining tattoos all over his body. His skin was weathered by sun and surf—but the lines of magical ink shone.
A monkey waved at Umina. She stared at it. Seve winked at her. She jumped and blushed.
“Tombhome. I’ve heard of it. It’s ah…a Shield Kingdom. And…”
Umina recalled a few more salient facts and hesitated. Seve put his hands on his pockets.
“It’s a good place. Peculiar. Dangerous, like some cities, but I call it home. A’ctelios needs someone like Doctor Geneva.”
The [Doctor] was letting the patient get up. He shook her hand and thanked her as the [Healers] clustered around. Seve eyed the man rubbing at his back and Geneva swatting his hands away.
“Oh. Disease, plague…it runs through the Carven City all the time. Yellow Rivers is bad enough—I’m sure old Baosar’s terrified of it reaching home. I don’t know how much you know of A’ctelios…”
“It’s never been taken by siege.”
It was one of the fascinating cities the Professor sometimes lectured on. He’d described how he’d take the city and made his students run through simulations of attack and defense one time. Umina had the impression it was the most atrociously disgusting city to try to take by conventional warfare.
“True. But it’s fallen to disease and plague. We ah, eat lots of raw meat. And nobody’s got any of the—hygienic standards?”
He’d been reading some of the posters with those cute characters that were posted all over the ‘hospital’ telling people about the importance of washing your hands and such. It was so cute that Umina had read them all. One of the other members of the United Nations company apparently drew in the style and it was very fun to see.
“Just um—if I can ask one question, Courier Seve? I know you get it all the time, but—”
He grinned at her and she blushed again.
“It’s about the tattoos?”
“Is it a Skill or magical ink or…? Are they alive?”
The animals were moving across his body. Slowly, but she was sure they had a will of their own. Seve nodded.
“Skill and ink. They’re all living. They just stay with me because feeding so many is hard work. As for the practice—it’s Drathian. They know how to turn pictures into magic.”
“I see. And—okay, so is there a limit? You couldn’t do that with people right? What if—”
Before Umina could ask some of the [Strategist] questions she had of Seve she heard a voice.
The [Doctor] was ready for him. Seve waved at Umina apologetically.
“I have to sail.”
“Oh—of course. Thank you for…”
Umina watched him meet with Geneva. She sighed. But then she listened to the other [Healers] talking.
“It’s battlefield medicine. I can see it being useful there, with healing potions in short supply, however—”
“—makes sense. I’ve seen those—what did she call them? Abscesses. Horrible. If this works…”
“Who trained her?”
That came from one of the [Healers]. She was just shaking her head as she shuffled her hooves.
“I know [Doctors]. There was—I knew a [Saw Doctor] who treated Centaurs who…with bad infections. She’s nothing like them. Where does she come from, to know all this at her age?”
It was the question worth a million gold pieces. Umina saw Geneva leading Seve to one of the smaller rooms ready for use. She frowned at Geneva’s back.
The observation and drama around the Yellow Rivers was one thing. But Umina needed to learn more before the summer ended and she needed to be back in class. This called for more drastic measures. She slipped away to go find Marian.
“How do I look, Doctor Geneva?”
Seve-Alrelious was a fascinating case-study of what made this world different to Geneva. A little bit later he was disrobed down to the waist. Which didn’t mean much because the glowing tattoos covered his body.
Geneva poked experimentally at the Orangutan and it waved its arms. It was stylized—like Aiko’s drawings, but clearly represented.
“That’s Erek. I’d let him out, but he’d destroy your…hospital. He’s too intelligent for his own good and too strong as well.”
“He’s an Orangutan, right? Ah—a monkey?”
Seve was impressed. He raised his brows as Geneva checked his sides. She stared at a faint line along his belly. The man was fit, but that didn’t impress Geneva as much as…she double-checked her notes. He should have a massive cut there. She remembered it!
“That’s right. I don’t know about the first name you called him, but he’s one of the curious fellows from the jungles. Apes and such. They’re quite intelligent. I met him on my journeys and he hid on my boat. So that’s how he came along.”
“Really? Is he a magical variant or…?”
She was no [Biologist], which Geneva regretted at times. They would surely have a field day here. The Hundredfriends Courier pondered that.
“I think Erek’s as intelligent as they get. He can’t properly speak, but he can play chess, sail the boat, and even use magical artifacts. Not that it’s wise to hand him a wand. And he’s strong as a Gemlion. Can other Orangutans do that?”
Geneva didn’t actually know, but it sounded like Erek might be a prime example of his species either way. Seve scratched at his head.
“Let’s see…magical abilities…he can jump about eleven feet if he really wants to.”
“That would be magic.”
“Ah. I’ll let him out if you want to meet him. He’s quite gentle. Again—he’ll steal anything he likes. He—”
Boom. Everyone jumped as a bolt of lightning came down. The magical typhoon wasn’t close to Talenqual…at least, the epicenter wasn’t. But it had been raining and raining.
Geneva jumped slightly, and so did Seve, but she saw Erek race up Seve’s arm and hide behind the Nelgaunt and a few other larger animals. She smiled at that.
“Let’s see. I could inspect your friends, but from what it sounds like, they’re not in need of my help. Neither are you, Courier Seve. I thought you would be but…you’re as healthy as can be. Impossibly so.”
She eyed him and the Hundredfriends Courier sat up.
“I told you there was no need to use a potion on me, Doctor.”
He’d come to Talenqual bleeding, exhausted, after days of nonstop travel. He’d been cut badly from his encounters at sea, but, strangely, refused any potions. They didn’t work as well on him due to the magical ink, apparently.
Even so—he’d healed practically overnight. Geneva was positive she could see the scar on his belly fading.
“You have to explain this, Courier Seve. I’ve never seen a regenerative capability like this in any of my patients.”
He scratched at his hair.
“A’ctelios Salash. That’s all I can say. I’m one of the [Fleshchosen], Doctor Scala. I grew up eating Tombhome’s meat. So long as I have some—I’ll heal faster, be stronger, and live longer than most. If it weren’t for the side-effects, I’d tell you to look into it.”
The back of Geneva’s neck prickled as he brought up the Shield Kingdom of Chandrar again. He’d told her once, but it sounded like…
A horror story. Positively Lovecraftian in nature. But here was Seve, who had brought medicine through a storm for his friend, Seql.
“Tell me more about A’ctelios, Courier Seve.”
“It’s not a great place. Even Selphids think it’s creepy.”
Idis whispered in Geneva’s head. She’d been napping as Geneva worked on her patient and gave her lecture. She yawned, a second voice as Seve shrugged.
“What can I say? I’m sure you can hear all the rumors about the Carven City. How those who enter don’t leave. There’s some truth to it. It’s just—I was born there. Sometimes the rumors are true, but every city has light parts and dark parts.”
“And A’ctelios Salash?”
He smiled with genuine nostalgia.
“Tombhome welcomes you, Doctor Geneva. It welcomes anyone who is lost, who is alone, who seeks a place to be. It is a choice. Always a choice. And there is danger. Eat too much or be drawn in…but A’ctelios is a place of great healing. Our [Flesh Shapers] do the same work as you. No one goes hungry, there. That is the home I know. And I keep its blessings with me.”
He gestured at his skin. Geneva nodded. The bias was apparent, but she supposed there might be some truth in Seve’s words. [Flesh Shaper] on the other hand…
“Is there a consequence for going without the…meat from your home, Seve? I’m asking out of curiosity, not as my role as a [Doctor].”
The Courier hesitated. And his ready smile turned a bit melancholic.
“I grow—hungrier—over time, Doctor Scala. That’s all. The food I bring from home never rots. But I do need to return at least once every few years. And yes—someday the Carven City will call me home. I’ll say goodbye to my friends and return. We don’t leave, then.”
More skin-crawling. Idis made it stop. Geneva nodded.
“It seems like a grave choice.”
“I was given a choice. My parents raised me until I was ten, on outsider’s food. Not all do that, but they let me choose. That’s how it should be. I chose to stay. Strength comes from sacrifice and I regret nothing. Isn’t that close to how you live, Doctor Scala?”
She didn’t think it was the same at all. But perhaps that was what Seve saw in her cutting a patient open or sewing them up.
“Perhaps, Seve. Either way, I owe you a great debt. You won’t take any money?”
He shook his head as he put a loose shirt on.
“Seql’s family paid me. The Great Companies paid me for my delivery. More than that—I would have done it for free, Doctor Scala.”
The sentiment made Geneva smile.
“I heard there was a great deal of trouble hiring a Courier, Seve. But you did it for free.”
His eyes were steady as he nodded.
“There are few like me. But I think your beliefs and mine are similar, Geneva. I am the Hundredfriends Courier. I charge no fee when the cause is enough.”
She sat back. Oh yes. She believed in that.
“You saved countless lives, Seve. If I can repay you in any way, I will.”
He rolled his shoulders and some of his animals climbed onto them to take a nap.
“That’s enough. Friendship is worth more than any currency. More than gold. That’s how I live.”
“If I sail to dozens of ports around the world, Doctor, I won’t be charged to put my boat in harbor. I’ll eat for free and like a [King]. I have far more than a hundred friends. And I’ve learned that’s real value. When I was first starting out, I took a wound at sea. And it festered—the one thing Tombhome won’t save me from if it goes bad.”
He gestured to one arm. Geneva grimaced.
“A [Merchant] I’d done a delivery for heard of it when I was lying at my deathbed. He paid for me to be treated and spent, dead gods, thousands of gold coins on me. All for free. Because I had saved his home from a termite-breed last month—not even saved his life. That was when I knew how I wanted to do my business.”
The Courier related all that with a faint smile of nostalgia. Geneva laughed. She felt—better. Relieved, of late.
“Thank you for doing it. And to the other Couriers. If you ever need treatment—come here and I’ll do my best. That’s all I can offer.”
Seve nodded, pleased. Then he looked at her, up and down with a long, studying look.
“I rather think some of us are in your debt, Doctor Geneva. The Yellow Rivers would have taken Seql in another few days, wouldn’t it?”
“…Yes. Yes, he wouldn’t have made it past the week. But that was—”
“You. And whomever made the Occillium. I didn’t have time to talk long, but the Moonlight Rider of Izril told me that it was a great effort to get it to the port alone. Some other people did their best, didn’t they?”
Seve looked at Geneva sharply. She nodded slowly.
“They did indeed, Seve. There are good people elsewhere in the world.”
Another nod. Seve looked at her.
“Will you tell me their names? It seems that if I owe my own favor for those who’d save lives, some of it belongs to whomever that was.”
Geneva hesitated. Seve looked at her, calmly.
“It is a secret?”
Her mouth stopped moving. Idis whispered urgently in her ear.
“Going to have to stop you, Geneva. That’s important information! I have to run it by Calectus, at least!”
Geneva clenched her fists. She couldn’t reply back, but Idis knew what she was doing.
“Geneva—it’s my job—”
Seve waited, his eyes intent on her. Geneva tapped the roof of her mouth furiously with her tongue. Let me talk!
“Geneva—I can’t just—okay, okay, fine! Just one name?”
“Joseph. From Liscor.”
Geneva’s mouth closed. Seve smiled.
“I’ll surely remember it.”
The [Doctor] smiled and nodded. Idis muttered about ‘breaking the rules’ as Geneva and Seve talked. Geneva understood—and didn’t understand her objections. It was one thing for the Selphids to be paranoid. But this?
A great debt indeed. She owed it to Joseph and this Octavia as well. For giving her hope. The Hundredfriends Courier was the kind of person she wished existed more in any world.
He had to go—but he was going to stay a few days. Geneva had her hands full checking on her patients, but she had a new wind at her back. She did ask Seve for a sample of his…food supply. Just a sample. She wondered if it was possible it could do something miraculous.
Night turned to day. The sun rose again. Over Baleros, still lashed by the typhoon, delaying a certain Fraerling’s plans because of the magical interference.
Over Tombhome as well, who did know there was power to be had in…taking things away. Even if it was not quite as Seve remembered it from his last visit.
Another group was aware that—sacrifice—had its power. The light of two full moons invigorated them as they carefully bypassed the adventurer’s shutters, resealing the exits. Especially against—
Facestealer. And they went about the plan by moonlight. And then daylight.
For the sun rose, but the moons were still in the same positions in the sky, roughly. That was astronomy for you.
The Raskghar gathered. How many? All of them. At least—the ones who’d stayed in the dungeon. A smaller group had split away. Now, the rest waited. Waited for…ropes.
Yet that wasn’t what lingered on the minds of those who rose to greet the day. In The Wandering Inn, for instance, a little Gnoll rolled over, smacked a [Princess] in the face with a paw as she stretched, and then got up to run into the garden for a morning lap around a hill.
A Hobgoblin was already awake, practicing with his sword. He really wanted to do more than the sword exercises. And so did a ghost inside of him. But he’d gotten in trouble for cutting down one of the trees. It hadn’t even been the cocoa one!
An [Innkeeper] snoozed over her magical chessboard—which hadn’t been working properly. It kept moving the pieces back as if something was wrong with the…connection. She and her opponent had been frustrated by it. Erin had subsequently fallen asleep writing out notes on another board game.
Other guests of the inn woke up differently. A Lamia slid out of his bed with a gasp. For a moment, heart-pounding terror made him aim his wand at the ceiling. Then he awoke.
Three Lizardfolk woke up. The Players of Liscor and the Antinium all got up. And when they went downstairs—another ordinarily miraculous day occurred.
“The Players of Liscor!”
Erin woke up to the cheering from below a second time. She slouched downstairs, rubbing at the marks the chess-board had left on her chin and neck.
Ishkr gave Erin a strange look as he tried to process the question. He eventually pointed to Temile, who was beaming and shaking hands and signing autographs with the breakfast-crowd.
Erin yawned. Another reason for her late night was because the excitement over the Player’s appearance on television had dragged out for a long time. Even her opponent had asked if she’d seen it.
“Temile, Temile. Are we going to perform in Pallass?”
“Let’s not count our Goldhens before they lay anything, Rekhi. But we’re in talks. Emme and the others should be coming over as soon as they have breakfast—maybe even for breakfast. Has anyone checked the door?”
Temile was beaming at the Gnolls and Drakes around the table. The Players of Liscor were excited. Five of them raced into the hallway.
“Good for them.”
Erin yawned again. A white blur came racing down the steps, followed by Lyonette.
“Mrsha! Put your skirt on! Get back here!”
Numbtongue walked out of the [Garden] smelling a bit sweaty and grassy. Erin waved at him.
“Numbtongue! Wanna have breakfast?”
As he walked over, Erin saw Ishkr check in the kitchen for a breakfast for them. Imani was hard at work. Mrsha raced over to their table and hid under Numbtongue’s chair.
An ominous voice made Mrsha hide behind Numbtongue’s legs. Meanwhile, Erin sniffed Numbtongue.
“You’re sorta sweaty, pal.”
He sniffed at himself. It didn’t smell bad to him. Erin sighed.
“We need to get you some deodorant! I think Octavia sells some.”
The [Bard] gave Erin a dismayed look.
“I smell fine.”
“Yeah, you say that, but you’re not the one who has to smell you. Right, Mrsha?”
The Gnoll gave Erin a reproachful look for ratting her out as Lyonette marched over with clothing. At the same time a second cheer made everyone turn.
The Players of Celum were coming through for breakfast! They were like rock stars to Erin. Not as in—they were her rock stars, but that’s how they were treated.
“Miss Jasi, can I get a signature? I am such a fan—”
“Whoa, back up. Back up! The Players are here for breakfast. You can’t just bother them.”
A Drake coming over to Jasi was blocked by Eltistiman and a trio of [Bodyguards]. But Jasi pushed past them.
“Eltistiman! She’s one of us! Of course I’ll sign—but we’re fellow [Actors]!”
The security around the Players made Erin blink. But here they were. Jasi exclaimed as she saw Erin.
“Erin! Thank you so much for last night! And you too, Numbtongue! I knew The Wandering Inn’s curs—I mean, blessing would do the trick!”
The Hobgoblin waved at Jasi, grinning. He’d watched the recording of himself at least a dozen times and was very self-satisfied. Erin beckoned to the others.
“Wesle, Jasi, you all want to have a group breakfast?”
“I’d be delighted.”
There came Wesle, and a flood of people from Invrisil who wanted to eat breakfast in The Wandering Inn for no reason in particular today. The security earned their money as the Players sat around the table. Mrsha was high-fiving Grev.
Ironically, it was Lyonette and Ishkr who both looked a bit star-struck by the Players. Erin just treated them like normal.
“Breakfast! What do you all want?”
“See, I can respect this. Other inns—we’ve had amazing food, but nothing comes out faster than food here. No wait, no fuss! All fresh as can be!”
Kilkran chortled as Mrsha reached up to yank on his beard. Lyonette rescued the man from his fate as Imani herself came out of the kitchen with something in her hands.
“I uh—it was an amazing performance you all put on last night, Jasi.”
Lyonette shyly remarked to the Drake. Jasi was still beaming.
“Thank you! And the Singer herself actually sent us a [Message]. She says she’s a huge fan and she actually asked for copies of all our plays, if you can believe that! We’re going to [Message] her back—Emme had the Mage’s Guild send the entire play, which cost a bit, but we’re getting a shipment of song-crystals in return. I’ll give you some when it arrives, if you like.”
“Really? I’d like that. And uh—I hesitate to ask, but I’ve been hearing about autographs. And when you were performing, I uh—”
Jasi laughed as Mrsha rolled her eyes. But the Drake instantly produced an autograph card for the blushing Lyonette. One of the special ones.
This was background to Wesle and Numbtongue greeting each other and Wesle noticing Numbtongue’s fine sword. Erin leaned back as the Hobgoblin put it on the table to Kilkran’s amazement.
“Is that Dragonblood crystal? How did you…?”
He was a former [Blacksmith] after all. Numbtongue looked pleased at himself. Meanwhile, Imani pulled at Erin’s sleeve.
She looked nervous in the crowd, but determined as she held something under an arm. Erin turned to her.
“What, Imani? Do you want an autograph?”
Half the [Actors] turned with a quill in hand. Imani shook her head. She offered Erin what she was holding.
“Erin, am I allowed to use this or what? I tried putting it in a cupboard, but it’s sucking all the light out of the kitchen.”
The Shadow Loaf was in her hands, eating the light. Erin blinked.
She’d forgotten all about the bread she’d baked. And it was apparently becoming a light distraction? Imani blew out her cheeks.
“I had a bit. And it’s not exactly tasty. But can I do something with it? It doesn’t grow stale.”
“No, I mean, I put it outside on the windowsill when I realized it was making everything darker. By accident. But it wasn’t even a bit stale when I pulled it out.”
Erin frowned at her loaf. It wasn’t even the finished product. If you opened a window and put things right on the edge, the [Field of Preservation] didn’t quite work.
“Did anything try to eat it?”
“No. That’s what worries me.”
“Oh. Er…maybe we’ll put it somewhere else. I’ll find a spot for it.”
Erin picked up her loaf. She looked around for somewhere to put it and walked towards a wall. She came out of the [Garden of Sanctuary] a second later and innocently avoided Imani’s stare.
“All done. I’ll find a better home for it later. Maybe like…a dark room? What’s for breakfast, Imani?”
“What do you want?”
The entire table asked for a menu. An exasperated Imani pointed to the one hanging up.
“You don’t read signs, Erin?”
Numbtongue chortled and nudged her. The [Innkeeper] blushed. Before she could retort, the door from Pallass blew open.
“Are they here? Excuse me! We’re from Pallass and we’d love to talk about the acting!”
A flood of people came in from Pallass. And then Liscor. And then Celum. Erin saw Imani take cover in the kitchen. She stood up.
“Sorry, Erin. This is our fault. Hey, you lot!”
Emme stood on her chair. Lyonette rose as well and stopped the flood from reaching the Players. Erin leaned back as someone interposed himself in the way, creating an actual wall. She stared at Eltistiman Verdue.
“Hey…haven’t we met?”
He turned, blinking. Erin exclaimed.
“Eltistiman! Yeah, I remember you! Where did you go? You just vanished one time—”
Montressa and Bezale came rushing down the stairs, still sleepy-eyed to capitalize—er—help, with the situation. They were followed by Palt, who nearly tripped down the stairs. He caught himself from smashing into one of the people slowly slithering down.
Amid it all, Hexel Quithail slowly found a table. The Lamia sat down with his three Lizardfolk assistants and watched the chaos.
“Mornings here are almost as chaotic as back home.”
He remarked to the Lizardfolk. They laughed nervously. The people were spreading out across the Grand Theatre, but the Lamia had secured a table closer to the door.
“Excuse me! Sorry, we’re in a bit of a rush. Can I get you—”
A Drake hurried over and all of the Lizardfolk flinched. Hexel only a bit, but the Drake [Server] saw them and stopped.
“I am so sorry, Architect. I didn’t see you there. I’ll just get…”
She looked around for another server. Hexel straightened.
“It’s no issue. Stop cowering, Zekky, Vile.”
Two of the Lizardfolk stopped leaning back. The Drake looked grateful.
“Can I get you anything?”
One of the Lizardfolk quavered. Hexel nodded.
“Make mine that roasted rat, please. I need to be going in ten minutes, so if you could move it forwards over the…”
He waved at the massive crowd, over a hundred people already. The Drake nodded.
“Absolutely, Architect. I’ll just grab it. And your Sakelet Tea?”
The Drake hurried into the kitchen and came back with the pre-made food, heated up in less than a minute. Hexel sighed and thanked her. Only when she was gone did the three Lizardfolk assistants begin whispering.
“Master Hexel, did you see the play yesterday? It was on the scrying orb?”
“I missed it. And you all didn’t show up to help me fix that building those idiots decided to put up. The scaffolding would have collapsed in a day.”
The Lamia grumbled. The Lizardfolk tried to look innocent. It didn’t fool the Lamia.
He was one of the Naga—a broad term for the higher forms the Lizardpeople of Baleros could become. He was used to herding the easily-distracted, often childish Lizardfolk around. And they were children compared to him. You could have perfectly mature Lizardfolk who were old—but their natures were such that a Naga was always just…wiser, stronger, more intelligent by nature.
Not that his assistants were stupid. They were some of the best [Builders] and [Planners] and so on of Baleros. And his…team…had been eighteen of the finest.
Now, they were three. Hexel still dreamed of it. So did his apprentices.
“Fine. Fine. It’s just doing some alterations. A non-busy day since the workers are laying down the foundations, mainly. Take the day off. But don’t you dare cause trouble!”
The Lamia came to a quick decision after thinking of that. His three Lizardfolk apprentices brightened up.
“Really? No take-backs!”
They ran off to join the hubbub around the Players. Hexel smiled—and then bit into his rat. It was one of the fat ones, not a ‘rat’ rat, but closer to a regular beaver in size. He was glad the new [Cook] was working. She had the guts to prepare one; Erin had just given him a horrified look when he’d asked.
The Lamia ate and drank, observing the chaos around him. It did indeed remind him of home. There was something very Lizardfolkish about Erin. It was a shame—another time his entire team would have been part of this inn’s drama. But they were withdrawn. He’d given them time off because this was a chance for them to be their old selves.
As for Hexel? Part of him that was still the young Lizardboy wanted to stay. But…he put his cup on his plate, uncoiled, and slithered towards the hallways.
“Anyone for Celum? Anyone for Esthelm? Excuse me, no pushing! Wait for people to leave before entering! Thank you!”
One of the staff was shuffling people in and out. Hexel waited. He knew he was getting looks. He was a Lamia alone. But he headed into Liscor, via the magic door and proceeded down the street in the morning light.
More people stared at him there. And he felt distinctly less welcome. Lizard. Among Drakes. He really had thought it was just some joke, or an exaggeration.
More fool, he. Hexel was alone. He felt it in Liscor. And the past—it never left you completely, especially when it was so fresh.
It might have made him want to pack up and leave for Baleros, abandon his contract. Who would have blamed him? But there was always light even amid clouds. Hexel took a deep breath.
He really liked The Wandering Inn. But—he didn’t stay there. Because for all Erin Solstice was entertaining, amusing, and kind—she was that for everyone.
He had his own Erin of a sort.
The Lamia left. He never noticed the white Gnoll slyly leaving the inn and padding after him. Mrsha had always wondered where Hexel went every day. Today, she was going to find out.
Also—she didn’t want to wear a skirt.
“The Meeting of Tribes will begin soon. Are we cutting it close?”
Elirr yawned over breakfast as Krshia consulted a map on the table in front of them. They were having breakfast in his apartment this morning.
It was a social thing. Gnolls—especially Plains Gnolls—were social creatures. They liked to start the day in company, such that even Gnolls without partners in cities might have a morning breakfast group rather than eat alone.
And they were Plains Gnolls, the both of them. Krshia more than Elirr. If you asked her she’d be adamant. She might have become a City Gnoll in parts—but she was still a member of her tribe.
The Silverfang Tribe. Of which they both belonged to. But Elirr and Krshia—were different Gnolls.
For one thing, he had at least a decade and a half on her. Elirr’s fur was grey while Krshia’s had yet to really go anywhere there. Just patches. Elirr was old. Distinguished, he liked to think of it.
But he had to admit, Krshia was still in a sort of prime. She was long past the years when they were in their twenties or teens, able to run all day and then do something else incredibly taxing and sleep for six hours and do it all again.
But Krshia was experiencing a second…prime as it were. Gnolls tended towards two. The first was when you were young and you were that energetic leader. But the second was when you hit your mid-forties? Fifties? And then you were another sort of pillar in Gnoll tribes, the visionary, the leader with the plan.
That was Krshia Silverfang. She was not the leader of the Silverfang tribe—her sister was, though. And she was the actual leader in Liscor, where a decade of work was about to pay off.
More than even they could have imagined. Krshia saw Elirr reach for breakfast. Rich silkap with fluffy bread made from that Octavia’s baking soda. Krshia had made a loaf or two and it was really quite nice. Elirr had provided some drinks. Krshia sipped from what Erin might call a mango lassi.
“This is nice. Where did you get the recipe?”
It was not traditionally Gnollish—while the silkap was. Elirr shrugged.
“From Hexel. The mangos too.”
“Mhm. I see. Very nice.”
She gave him a look over the rim. Elirr sighed. There it was again. Rather than bring it up, he looked at the map.
“Let’s see. If we use the door from Pallass…hrr…well, we have already saved over a month, weeks of travel depending on how we avoided the Bloodfields.”
Krshia nodded. Four hundred miles in a moment. That was…a lot of space. It was one of the reasons why Krshia could leisurely plan their trip instead of being on the road, swearing at the sky if it rained on her group and making sure they had enough provisions.
After all—they just had to be at the Meeting of Tribes by the summer solstice. Still, it was closing in. The only issue was, well, a few things.
“Mrsha’s going to be trickiest. Come to that—the Woven Bladegrass tribe didn’t do us any favors, no. Did you hear about that?”
Gnolls loved to gossip. Elirr had with his customers a few days ago.
“I heard they sacked a city. For the Meeting of Tribes, yes?”
“Yes. Idiots. I hope we don’t run into angry Drakes on the road. I need to promise to Lyonette and Erin she will be safe.”
“You really think they’ll let her go with us?”
Krshia gnawed on a lip.
“Not for the entire time. She just has to show up at the right moment. They can come up with her, except for the actual meeting. Just a bit—it might be better if she isn’t there the entire time, yes?”
“What does Vrrow have to say about her?”
Elirr took another bite of his breakfast as he watched Krshia. Vrrow was the Silverfang [Longstrider Scout] who’d come to make sure everything was in readiness for the Meeting of Tribes. Krshia grimaced.
“I…haven’t brought it up.”
“My sister knows. And that’s all that matters. Mrsha will be safe. Better to have her secret from the other Tribes, yes? We are bringing magic in two forms, after all!”
She folded her arms defensively. Elirr relaxed a bit. He wasn’t even planning to go, honestly. But Mrsha—he was protective of her. She had saved his life and besides. She deserved better.
“If she is safe.”
“I will have the Silverfang’s best guarding her. It will not be an incident, Elirr. I promise.”
“Hrr. Well—the issue of Mrsha might be less than that of…Erin. And Ryoka.”
The other Gnoll’s eyes sharpened.
“Truth, Elirr. It will be a Meeting of Tribes to remember. Our gift, our knowledge—our tribe may be one of Izril’s most powerful after the gathering. One can hope, yes?”
Elirr wasn’t as passionate as Krshia. In truth—he wasn’t as much of a Plains Gnoll as she was. The Silverfang Clan had come to Liscor to make their fortune and buy magic ten years ago. But he, Elirr, had already been there. Technically as a ‘scout’, but in truth—he’d been retired. All the Gnolls coming here had made him feel more of a Plains Gnoll.
“Are you sure you won’t come? You would be a distinguished member to speak, both as your level and on the…Raskghar issue.”
Krshia saw the older Gnoll stop eating for a moment. She eyed him carefully. Elirr shook his head—as the bread suddenly reminded him of the foul monster parts the Raskghar had made him eat. The cage, the smell—
A cat spoke next to his ear. Elirr jumped and the cat dipped its face into his glass of lassi. It licked a few times and leapt away as he swatted at it.
The cat, whom Elirr had never managed to sell, flipped its butt at Elirr as he glared. He was six years old, highly intelligent, and—
“Meow. Meoow. Purr.”
—He always gave the impression he was vocalizing what you thought he should sound like since he didn’t deign to actually speak to you. He was far too intelligent, too.
“Damn pest. I should have sold you for catgut years ago. Stop eating that! It’s not cat-food!”
Elirr realized Alamaran had stolen some of the silkap bread as well. For answer, a dozen other cats meowed at him.
Krshia eyed Elirr’s animals, which the [Beast Trainer] raised and sold. Cats were a big Drake-pet. Gnolls too, but Elirr always had a group of them, and some, like Alamaran, were permanent fixtures.
“Has no one ever asked to buy Alamaran?”
Elirr coughed. The cat smirked at him as it bit into the filched food and licked its whiskers.
“Er—a few times. But I do need a smart cat to teach the other idiots. They grow smarter because of my Skills, but they still need to learn. Besides, Alamaran helps with stray rats, slimes, and other things. I can’t keep the cats in the shop all the time; they always get out. Alamaran keeps most of them from harm.”
“Hmm. Interesting. About the Meeting of Tribes?”
Elirr passed a paw over his face and realized his drink was missing. The cats were working together to drag it up a shelf. He and Krshia stared at them. The [Shopkeeper] slowly covered her glass with her hand.
“No, Krshia. I don’t care to go. Besides, I have enough to occupy me here. The Wyvern…Jekle…and other matters.”
The female Gnoll gave him a knowing look as she sipped at her drink. Elirr groaned. Here it came,
The thing about Gnolls. The thing about Gnolls was…
It was different, being Gnolls in a social relationship than most other species. Especially Gnoll-to-Gnoll relationships. Elirr was sure there was a wonderful breadth of emotional baggage and drama any species was capable of. Maybe Dullahans were a bit more stunted emotionally, but most species were alike in their ability to be petty, kind, caring, loving, and so on.
But Gnolls had an extra element. And that was their hearing and smell. Few species had their senses. Which made it…awkward sometimes.
For instance, Krshia didn’t want Elirr to smell her apartment. He knew what she was trying to hide, but it clearly embarrassed her. So he hadn’t eaten there for a while. Or Mrsha. Lyonette was fine; she’d come over for her regular magical lessons recently. But Elirr?
The second thing about Gnolls was—and this was his personal opinion, not an actual truth—female Gnolls were so inquisitive. They just had to have their noses in everyone’s business.
“Putting aside the Meeting of Tribes, Elirr. How are things going?”
The Gnoll grumbled. He’d known this was coming. Krshia couldn’t lay off.
“Fine. I’m busy, but it’s doing well.”
“Ah. Jekle is learning?”
That was the Frost Wyvern’s name. Elirr nodded.
“Yes, yes. He’s quite a handful. Males often are. Territorial. Thinks he has to pee everywhere. And the cats are no help. They’re too smart, but in that vindictive way. The Wyvern tried to mark his territory yesterday. Poor fellow—the cats urinated on him from above. Bullies, the lot.”
Alamaran and the others meowed proudly. Elirr rolled his eyes. He glared at a cat who flipped up its behind at him. The first thing they learned was how annoying that was, so of course, they did it all the time. Krshia chuckled.
“You can manage your Council duties, your shop, and your personal life all at the same time. Very impressive, yes?”
Elirr waved this off.
“The Council makes me feel young. All these new laws and progress. I don’t mind that. The shop? I’m not doing any other animals besides the ones I have and the Wyvern, so it’s not too hectic.”
Krshia nodded agreeably. Then—she pounced, rather like one of the cats.
“Hrm, hrm. And your liaison duties with Architect Hexel? How is that doing, Elirr?”
He looked at her.
“I gave my report to the Council. Why, is there something you missed?”
The female Gnoll grinned like a cat.
“Nothing. I’m not judging you, Elirr. Not at all—it’s just good you’re not in the tribe. You don’t have a wife to be upset, yes?”
Elirr didn’t dignify that with a response. Female Gnolls. Thought they knew it all. Of course, that just might be Silverfang’s matriarchal tribe leaders, Krshia and her sister. What he did was his damned business. So he pushed back.
“I’m sure it’s harder on you to go to the Meeting of Tribes, Krshia. Speaking of which—we haven’t eaten in your apartment. What about there tomorrow?”
Her smiled vanished. Her ears and tail, always good signs of feeling, twitched.
“Perhaps. It’s quite messy…we could eat elsewhere. With Vrrow. There is much to do, Elirr, for the Meeting of Tribes. Thank you for your input. Packing is nearly done—it’s just security for the book and Mrsha to worry about. I should get to the Council, actually. I wanted to go over some of the new proposals—no need to come yourself.”
She got up and fussed with her meal. Elirr, satisfied, watched her retreat. That’s right. You want to play that game? Krshia bade him farewell and he nodded to her.
Then Elirr went downstairs to the shop he slept above. The cats followed. One burped; Elirr realized they were dragging the mostly-empty glass of lassi down the stairs.
He bent and picked it up, glaring.
“Someday I will eat things that are terribly bad for you. Deathly so.”
They meowed at him. The Gnoll sighed. He was a [Slave] to his pets. But downstairs he went to start his day.
Animals in Elirr’s pet store greeted him. Friendly war dog breeds from as far away as Radivaek in the north, birds in their cages which he sprinkled seed into and which Alamaran knew he wasn’t allowed to eat.
A few irregulars too. Elirr’s odd projects which he was sometimes hired to do, and sometimes did just because of the opportunity or challenge. Like Jekle, who hissed at the cats. At least he didn’t try to breathe frost; he was learning.
“No biting, Jekle.”
Elirr was careful; the Frost Wyvern was highly intelligent—more so than even the cats, or he would be when he was older, and he wasn’t entirely civilized. But he’d learned not to try to bite the old [Beast Trainer] and accepted his meal with good grace.
“We’re going to let you go for another flying and running about later today.”
It was bad to keep the young Frost Wyvern tied up. Elirr was working with a younger [Beast Trainer] in Pallass who exercised Jekle. Otherwise Elirr would be doing it all day—sometimes he devoted most of his day to working with Jekle.
But today was an ‘Elirr-day’, so he let the Frost Wyvern chew on a leg of cow and hiss at the cats who fearlessly tried to scavenge from his meal. They were horrible bullies indeed. The Frost Wyvern could have swallowed them whole, but they’d terrified him so much that he only snapped at them when they stole bits of his meal.
“Stop being cruel to him or I will give you all away. I mean it.”
The Gnoll warned the other cats. They glared, but stopped harassing the young Wyvern.
Elirr Fultpar was good at his job. He really was. Few could tame Wyverns, let alone train them to his quality. He was essentially a version of Tekshia Shivertail—except devoted to animals—in his levels and expertise.
And that was the key. Train. Any fool could tame most animals. You could get a wolf to act as an attack-animal. Ride a Wyvern? Well, a lower-level [Beast Tamer] could manage it.
But training—that was the key Elirr often had to explain. Cats were smart. But Alamaran was a house-cat. Not a magical cat. Yet, with Elirr’s Skills he could open a door’s handle, even convince other cats to form a pyramid to make that happen.
Training made Aldasian Warhounds intelligent and strong enough to take down far larger animals. An Elirr-trained warhound could take down a non-magical bear. Not that he enjoyed training animals for war.
Anyways. Elirr was just feeding the animals and getting Jekle ready. Sure enough—a Garuda fluttered into the shop minutes after Krshia had left.
“Master Elirr! Have you heard about the inn?”
“The Players of Celum? Every Gnoll in Liscor’s told me about it.”
“I got an autograph! I think they’re coming to Pallass! Here—is Jekle ready?”
The younger [Beast Tamer] waved at the Wyvern, who knew it was time for his walk/flying and got excited. Elirr nodded.
“Just remember. Anchor that leash. He’s smart enough to try making a break for it and he outweighs you.”
The Garuda gave him a shamefaced look.
“Yes, Master Elirr.”
Jekle had tried that once already. Elirr saw the two off. And when a Garuda walked a Wyvern—everyone cleared the way for you. He rubbed at his back.
“I shouldn’t have agreed to it. The first Wyvern was bad enough. Gah. The size of the offal. I had to use a shovel and cut it into pieces to even—”
He shuddered. He was lucky he had Jekle young. The Frost Wyvern would learn a lot faster. In two or three years he might be trained enough—and he’d hopefully go to some caring owner.
Fissival had Wyverns. But not Frost Wyverns. Elirr chuckled.
“The only thing worse than a Wyvern is…”
The shop’s door opened. Elirr turned.
He broke off as the person he’d been waiting for came into the shop. Hexel grinned.
“What’s the only thing worse than a Wyvern?”
“Ah, hello there.”
Elirr straightened. He’d combed his hair and had on clothing not covered in cat hair—but he always felt scruffy. Hexel by comparison? Gleaming scales. Not showing an inch of his age. And they were actually around the same age!
But a Lamia would live longer than a Gnoll—possibly twice as long. The two smiled at each other.
“Bears. Bears are troublesome. And you would not believe how smart Sand Octopi are. Worse—they have little suction cups on their tentacles, so they can even open jars and hide in small places. Bats? Wyverns are big, but not the worst. How are you doing today?”
“Quite well. I had a rough wake up and it was a busy inn today—but I feel better now. You’re looking rather dressed-up.”
“You can tell?”
Elirr straightened a bit. Hexel grinned. He slithered over, his lower, serpentine half undulating across the floor. The grey-haired Gnoll smiled. He’d often debated dying his fur, but—distinguished.
“Do you think we have time for some tea? I had a Yoren with Krshia with those mangos, but my cats ate it all.”
Hexel laughed. Elirr gave him a straight-faced look. That only made the Lamia laugh harder. He leaned against Elirr. Almost instantly, his lower-half coiled around the Gnoll.
Gently. But Hexel was closer to snake than Dragon. His upper half was humanoid, albeit still snake-like. But his lower half? Like the giant snakes of Baleros, strong, sinuous. It was possessive. Elirr looked at Hexel, already smiling.
And then the door chimed softly. The two looked over.
Mrsha froze next to the door as a gang of cats stopped her from leaving. She had snuck in, undetected, and was sneaking out as Alamaran and his posse cornered her. One of them had actually triggered the chime.
“Meow. Got you. Meow.”
The cat grinned at Mrsha. He hadn’t actually spoken, but the self-satisfied look on his face was clearer than even Mrsha’s sign-language. The Gnoll child looked up at Elirr as he and Hexel stared at her. She waved and held out a card. Hexel took it.
Second breakfast was an agreeable notion to Mrsha. The mean cats were not. They’d foiled her daring escape! She’d seen Hexel meet with Elirr and gotten nervous they were going to do disgusting things. But the cats had gotten her caught!
Anyways, she was now having second-breakfast with the two. Elirr was fussing over a tea set and Hexel was staring at her.
“I heard you were a little rapscallion. Didn’t you try to steal my breakfast one time?”
Mrsha waved a paw shyly. Now she was actually talking with Hexel, she was a bit nervous. She liked him, but she didn’t know him.
Elirr on the other hand seemed to know Hexel well. He called over his shoulder.
“Young Gnolls steal food all the time. Mrsha though—she’s quite a pawful. I suppose she must have left the inn without a guardian. We should return her.”
Aw. Mrsha’s face fell. She signed with her paws, and then waved at Elirr for his attention.
“I don’t want to get in trouble.”
Elirr’s mouth moved slowly, sounding out her message. He snorted.
“You should have thought of that beforehand. I won’t throw myself in the face of Miss Lyonette’s wrath for you, Mrsha.”
Hexel looked fascinated as he watched Mrsha sign quickly.
“Is that your own language? It looks nothing like the other adventurer code-signs I’ve seen.”
Mrsha perked her ears up. She nodded rapidly. Then she stared at Hexel. She fumbled in her little bag of holding and held out a few cards.
Hi. How are you?
Hexel read the more static messages and got the meaning.
“Mm. Entertained. I’m not angry at you if that’s what you’re asking. Although…will this be a problem, Elirr?”
He cast a questioning glance at Elirr. The Gnoll came over with a cup of tea for Hexel and Mrsha. The Gnoll sniffed and found it was a berry-tea. Balerosian. She smiled and sipped, then scalded her tongue. The Gnoll spoke as he went back for his cup.
“I don’t think so. If we were both Drakes? Yes. And if Mrsha talks about it? Mm—perhaps. Again, more from City Gnolls and Drakes. But I’m a member of the Silverfang tribe and they—oh, Creler eggs.”
He cursed as he sat down and slopped some tea on his vest. It was red—so the stain was unfortunate. Mrsha saw Hexel reach for his side and produce a wand.
“Not a problem. Don’t move—[Remove Stain]. There.”
He tapped the spot and the stain vanished. Mrsha applauded as Hexel ejected a bit of the tea into an unused saucer. She reached for a cracker and the silkap as Elirr sighed.
“Magic. How useful! I envy your class, Hexel. I would have had to find the stain-removing charm while you and Mrsha can just wave your wand.”
Hexel blinked as Mrsha produced a wand and waved it.
“You cast magic too, little one?”
She nodded proudly. Hexel saw her conjure some grass on the table. One of the cats immediately buried itself in the thick grove.
“She’s quite good for a child her age. Anyways, Elirr. I don’t think you have anything to complain about.”
“What do I get? The ability to raise cats who steal my drinks?”
Elirr was guarding his teacup this time from the cats. Hexel opened his mouth and stared pointedly past Elirr. So did Mrsha.
They both saw one of the Aldasian Warhounds slowly dragging out bowls and a bag of feed. It was customized so the dog could open the bag—it poured itself breakfast and the cats food too. Then it pushed the little food-bag on wheels back into a corner. The dog was burly, so she could wedge the bag in a corner such that the cats couldn’t get at it.
Elirr saw the two stare at him. He shrugged, abashed.
“Ah. I forget, sometimes. So they can feed themselves. I teach them that to save time. It’s not er—that’s not that extraordinary—ahem…”
The Lamia chuckled and Mrsha laughed silently as Elirr scratched at his neck. The Lamia was curled up on himself and Mrsha and Elirr were sitting on cushions. Still—Mrsha couldn’t help but notice the two were sitting next to each other. And that they kept giving each other that look.
New couples in the Stone Spears tribe looked like that. Ryoka and Relc had given each other a variant of that look for half a second. Maviola and Olesm…Mrsha folded her arms. There was no need to even intuit however. This was one of the things she smelled.
“Well? Is it an issue? It wouldn’t be in Baleros.”
Elirr sighed. He looked at Mrsha with a resigned look. She uncrossed her arms a bit. There was something…else…
“Not too much. Gnoll tribes don’t mind couples of the same sex. Isn’t that right, Mrsha?”
She gave him a blank look. That wasn’t what she objected to. She was equally upset by all couples. Elirr nodded.
“Mrsha. It is important you don’t say anything. To Visma and Ekirra, or anyone else, understand? It could mean tr—danger for us. Do I have your word?”
Mrsha scratched at one ear.
“Not even Lyonette and Erin?”
“…Not even them.”
Elirr sighed. Mrsha hesitated.
“Y—no one, Mrsha. Understand? No, but you wouldn’t…”
The Gnoll looked exasperated. Mrsha signed again.
This time it was Hexel who answered.
“Because some people won’t like it. And I might go, but Elirr has to live here. They can be unkind, little Mrsha. Does that make sense?”
Mrsha and Elirr both stared at Hexel. The Lamia looked at both of them.
“What? I understood that word. It’s a very intuitive made-up language.”
He was a Lamia, after all. Smartest of the Lizardfolk’s evolved forms. Still—she didn’t quite get it.
“Is it because you two—”
Here Mrsha made some rather graphic gestures and Elirr swatted her paws down. She gave him a hurt look as Hexel collapsed against him, laughing until he nearly spilled his drink.
“Yes, Mrsha. Hexel, stop laughing. This is serious.”
The Lamia pulled himself upright. He looked at Elirr, and shook his head.
“Only on Izril. And Terandria, I suppose. I thought Gnoll tribes didn’t care?”
“They don’t care, but oh—there’s a way about it.”
Elirr rubbed at his face. Mrsha scooted closer to the table as a big dog snuffled her and she patted it on the head.
“Krshia was saying this morning—how did she phrase it? ‘If I had a Gnoll wife, she’d be angry with me’. It’s like that, Hexel. Gnoll tribes are mostly more understanding. But you still have to be part of the tribe. Make babies. It’s why I left.”
“Ah, that would bother me almost more than being hunted. You can have it halfway?”
Hexel grew somber. He and Elirr looked at each other. Hexel…with less of that knowing look adults had than Mrsha. They were on the same page.
“I suppose. It seemed better than Drake cities to me, but I didn’t think other species were…is it really not an issue in Baleros? At all?”
Elirr sipped from his teacup. He looked so grave. Mrsha saw Hexel’s tail twining around his foot. The Lamia grew still.
“I didn’t say that. Dullahans hate it. But Lizardfolk? The Nagas aren’t opposed. We’re not exactly easy to separate out, some of us, Elirr. So I suppose we’ve always been like that. Not sure about Gazers—but Centaurs are very bad, sometimes.”
“So not perfect. That’s…almost reassuring.”
Elirr went back to fill the cups. Mrsha looked at them.
“What are you two talking about? Sex?”
The adults stared at her. Then they looked at each other and sighed. Wonderful. And it was their day off, too!
It was hard—explaining something that everyone knew to Mrsha. Especially from the perspective he didn’t have.
Cruel. Perhaps that was why Elirr didn’t like it. He saw Mrsha staring up at him as he tried to tell her why people might object to him and Hexel doing something as innocuous as twining tails together.
And why it might not be just harsh words.
She understood at last when Elirr told her what Drakes called their people. Turnscales. Mrsha had heard that word in a few of The Wandering Inn’s rare fights not started by Erin. That word got tossed in sometimes and always started a brawl.
“Do you remember how they thought of you, Mrsha? Some—not all, but some might treat us the same.”
The little girl’s face fell. She played with some of the silkap bread and kicked her feet.
Alamaran had a knack for moments like this. He, with the grace of all cats, inserted himself into Mrsha’s lap and demanded to be pet. He had done it to Elirr for countless days after escaping the dungeon.
“Do you understand not to tell then, little one?”
Hexel peered at Mrsha. Elirr wasn’t the best with Gnoll cubs, having not had any to raise himself. Animals now…but Hexel was better at making sure Mrsha got the message. She looked up and nodded. She patted Alamaran as Elirr sat back and sighed.
That was all he could say. Mrsha signed.
“Can I tell Erin? Erin is good. Nice.”
Elirr had no doubt that was true. But the thought of Erin Solstice keeping a secret was…
Well, not implausible, but he didn’t want drama. And Erin invited it through her door. She’d probably put up a sign—
No Killing Turnscales, Especially Not Elirr and Hexel!
That was unfair. But Elirr had not cultivated his levels of paranoia for nothing. And Liscor was a progressive city compared to some. You heard stories about raids, even in Pallass…
“Not Erin, Mrsha. Just…in case. The fewer people who know, the safer. Will you promise?”
Another nod. Mrsha flinched as a cat dropped on her. But the cats were suddenly demanding affection. Cats—could be wonderful therapist animals.
Then again, so could dogs. They swamped the dispirited child. One of the dogs nearly covered Mrsha and the cats as it leaned on her and they all pushed it off.
That made Elirr smile. He stepped back with Hexel, under the pretext of making another batch of tea.
“Is there something to worry about?”
“No. She is a good child.”
The Lamia nodded. He studied Elirr’s fond expression. The two stood together.
Together, but with some unfamiliarity. That was fine. It was just that they were no longstanding couple of a decade, but new. Rather, it was more like…romance. The kind that Elirr had found in the tribes when he was younger.
It was more covert in Liscor, but it felt fresh. New. The kind of thing that made you chase cats away from your good clothing and comb your hair and endure nosy female Gnolls. Even the cute little ones.
Ekirra—now, Ekirra would never have noticed. He’d wander about, picking his nose and never notice two Gnolls kissing in front of each other if he had a plate of sweet buns. But he was also incapable of keeping secrets.
And Mrsha? A Plains Gnoll as well as…Elirr saw her brightening up. But her face had been too old, too grave when she’d finally realized the danger to Elirr and Hexel. She had seen so much.
“I called her a Doombringer once, you know. A monster. Right to her face.”
Hexel twisted slightly.
His voice was a fraction louder than Elirr’s. The two were whispering but Mrsha’s ears pricked up slightly. Hexel waved his wand and a [Silence] spell enveloped them.
“It’s a word for white Gnolls. Legend has it they’re cursed to destroy a tribe. That they appear and bring bad luck, calamity.”
“That sounds like some Lizardfolk tales. And you believe that…?”
Hexel’s voice was carefully skeptical. Elirr blushed under his fur. The Lamia couldn’t see it, but he could sense body heat.
“It was during the dungeon.”
Silence. Hexel wrapped the tip of his tail around Elirr’s leg. It was a comfort gesture among Lizardfolk.
“We all make mistakes.”
“I shouldn’t have. Not me.”
He’d begun to believe in those cages, with the Raskghar out of nightmares eating them. It still haunted Elirr. Mrsha didn’t seem to bear a grudge, which was even worse.
“No one’s proud of what they do under stress. You’ve seen me at my worst. I couldn’t even look the Drake who served me breakfast in the eye. I—”
Hexel shivered. His tail constricted around Elirr’s leg.
Gently. Hexel was probably stronger than Elirr. Certainly—better at fighting. He’d told Elirr the story of the first attack—where half his assistants had died. He’d fought off the attackers, though. Killing them. The rest of his team had died as he led them to safety until only three remained. Not the guards, not the other helpers—
At least Elirr had some closure. He had seen the Raskghar die. Walked the ruins of their camp after Erin had led a counterattack—just to know he was safe. He was behind Liscor’s walls and no one had seen a Raskghar in over a month. The City Watch was still vigilant.
But Hexel saw the same species that had attacked his party everywhere he looked. And the Drake’s hostility to Lizardfolk didn’t help.
Hexel was staring out the shop. He could, apparently, see body heat like Elirr and Mrsha could smell people and things. He had to be looking at Drakes; he was tensed up.
A gentle hug for the shivering Lamia. Hexel blinked as Elirr began to stroke his shoulder and head. He laughed after a moment as Mrsha sneezed on a cat and it sneezed back in outrage.
“You’re petting me like one of your dogs.”
Embarrassed, the [Beast Trainer] nearly stopped, then he tickled Hexel’s chin. The Lamia swatted at him, laughing again.
“You can scratch my chin—later.”
The two chuckled over that and Mrsha shot them a disgusted look. Yes, no keeping secrets around Gnoll children as bright as Mrsha. She knew all the secrets. Perhaps Krshia’s too—for all the Gnoll was trying her best.
“I think it’s time to get you back to the inn, before Erin turns over Liscor looking for you.”
Elirr and Hexel nodded at each other and Mrsha wilted. They left the shop, and became, suddenly, actors in their own play. Only, the audience was everyone and the stakes were high.
Mrsha was clearly nervous as Hexel and Elirr left the shop. She kept staring at them as they walked together. But she needn’t have feared. In their own way, Hexel and Elirr were as good at this act as the Players of Celum.
“Architect Hexel! Inspecting the city?”
“That’s right. Councilmember Elirr is giving me a hand. And showing me the sights!”
The Lamia called out to the first Gnoll they met. He walked with Elirr—not arm-in-arm, but close. Friendly—two distinguished VIP’s in the city, just walking along, greeting people.
Elirr did the same as Hexel, smiling, and giving no clues. Not even smell.
Scent potion. Some might know, but Gnolls didn’t care by and large. As for Drakes—well, the two made a good show of it.
Mrsha’s mouth fell open as she saw how the two were so—good at it. Elirr opened a door for Hexel. They had stopped at the Mage’s Guild to collect any letters.
“This way, Architect.”
“Why thank you, Councilmember Elirr.”
The two winked at Mrsha when no one else was looking. She looked delighted. Elirr just hoped she didn’t make too much of a game of it, but he wanted to allay her fears.
“Let’s see…correspondence from Baleros. Mhm…mhm…is that a letter for you, Miss Mrsha?”
Hexel stared down as Mrsha came away with her own letter from the Mage’s Guild desk. Much to Elirr’s surprise. She opened it.
“It’s from…is it Miss Ryoka?”
Mrsha swatted at Elirr as he peered at it. It was her letter, thank-you-very-much! She read and then signed.
“Oh. The Horns. Well, very good. And I have…nothing. On we go.”
Hexel was the [Architect] of Liscor, and he had done quite a lot already. The new district of Liscor was inhabitable—the wall wasn’t nearly as large as Liscor’s other walls, but it was patrolled hard by [Guards] and still—fifteen feet high and with no gaps. Hexel was overseeing the city’s construction and he was working hard since the Council was coming up with new ideas each week.
But he didn’t have to work every day. So today was an unofficial holiday. After all—Elirr was the liaison from the Council. It worked out very well. They had a few activities in mind—the Mrsha-interruption being the only unexpected event so far, and a minor one at that all things considered.
Well, for Hexel and Elirr. And that was because they knew how to do things. They dropped Mrsha off at The Wandering Inn.
“Mrsha! There you are!”
Erin had a frying pan and Lyonette was out scouting with Numbtongue. The Players were putting on a show for a number of Pallassian dignitaries. Elirr’s ears perked up as he saw them on stage. And there was Grimalkin of Pallass and Chaldion the [Grand Strategist] in the audience!
“You’re in big trouble, Mrsha. Someone find Lyonette! And—thank you so much, Elirr, Hexel!”
The two nodded politely. Erin pointed around.
“Do you want something to drink? Are you staying…?”
“No, we just came to bring Mrsha back. Don’t be too hard on her, please. Little Gnolls always wander off. Their form of rebelling as they get older is to run away. Drakes—smashing things, sometimes, or other outlets. But I used to wander off as a young Gnoll cub all the time.”
Erin stared at Mrsha, who was hiding behind Hexel. The Lamia grinned.
“Lizardfolk rebellions are to form little gangs. Troublemakers, all. Here you go, Mrsha.”
He nudged Mrsha forwards. Erin’s hands were on her hips and she was about to lay into Mrsha when a huge Drake tapped her on the shoulder.
“Miss Solstice. A word about the Players. They’re quite good, but we’d appreciate our own acting troupe. But the Players are resistant to making a Pallassian branch…”
“Because it’s not their branch, but you guys stealing the plays! If you want to let Pallassians join the Players, okay, Grimalkin. But why does it have to be Pallass’ people? Huh? Huh? Huh? Let them perform in Pallass and you can wait for your own group!”
The [Innkeeper] broke off. And that was Hexel and Elirr’s cue to exit, stage left. Because—yes, it was fascinating with the drama around the actors and all of that. But they had things to do. A very sad Mrsha looked up at Erin…then snuck off into the Garden to hide with the Fortress Beavers.
“I’d quite like to see some of the plays. I saw a few, but maybe we could stop back tonight?”
Hexel whispered to Elirr. The Gnoll stroked his chin-hair.
“Your wish may be granted.”
“Oho. Do I have a personal Djinni?”
“Mm. Perhaps. Have you ever met a Djinni?”
The two proceeded out of the inn with dignity and grace as Erin poked Grimalkin in the chest and a team of adventurers entered looking for her. Hexel chuckled.
“I went to Merreid in my youth. The shield Kingdom of Chandrar—one of those cities any [Architect] studies.”
“Really? I wish I had left Izril—did you meet Drevish?”
“Him? Oh, no. It was when the King of Destruction was rampaging around. I was just a young [Builder]—but I saw some of the forts the King’s Architect made in a day. Amazing work. There was this wall he built to block a pass in six hours—he had his own Djinni you see, and there’s no faster or more adaptive worker…”
Stories. The two both came from cultures with strong oral traditions of storytelling. And Elirr and Hexel were still finding out about each other. They left The Wandering Inn behind to return to the date.
Behind them, the adventuring team—actually, two of them—found Erin after Grimalkin stomped off.
“Can we get some of your magic food, Erin? To go?”
She looked around and the [Innkeeper] beamed.
“Earlia! Nailren! You guys going to the dungeon? Be careful!”
The two Silver-rank teams nodded. The leader of Gemhammer propped her warhammer against a table.
“Just your Scale Soup, Erin. Insurance—since we’re the only teams going down at the moment. Don’t worry—we’re sticking within the safe zone. Just prying up trap tiles. The soup can actually really save us from taking a hit. And it’s a lot less expensive than a Barkskin potion each time…”
“Coming up. Hey, Ishkr—”
The people near the stage shhed loudly and Erin lowered her voice guiltily.
“Sorry. So no Bevussa?”
Earlia shook her head.
“Some Pallass event. Bevussa’s team, Keldrass’, most of the Pallassian teams are socializing. Not for us, even if we were invited.”
“Which we weren’t, just to be clear.”
Nailren looked amused. The two Silver-ranks left the inn to descend into the dungeon a little bit after that.
The first stop with the two was a bit of fun and games. Elirr had heard the Floodplains were much safer after the [Druid], Nathalistirieminous or whatever his name was, wiped them out.
But it wasn’t on his Top 10 list of things to do. He wished he could hike around like younger Gnolls. Even Krshia could probably march for thirty miles. But he was older, plusher…
“Distinguished. Nothing like a silver Gnoll to make you feel quite sophisticated.”
Hexel had phrased it like that. Elirr smiled.
“What’s the original expression?”
“Silver Foxkin. The Beastkin of Baleros, you know? Old Fox Beastkin are quite something…”
“Excuse me. I thought you said Gnolls were better.”
And that was certainly the case. Hexel blinked as he saw that Elirr had taken him to one of Liscor’s attractions—especially for Gnolls.
An indoor archery range. It was one of Elirr’s little hobbies—most Gnolls learned how to shoot a bow in the tribes.
“We can pay for a quiver and an hour. I don’t know if you shoot…”
“I’ve been known to do so. This looks like fun!”
The couple set up at their station—the archery range had all kinds of activities for all ranges of skill. Instructors would help you learn a bow and maybe get your [Archer] class—or there were more advanced targets. Even an option for a pottery throw where you shot at moving targets. Liscor had [Hunters] who’d take you on a small walkabout to hunt game…
For today, Elirr just had in mind some archery targets since he didn’t know how good Hexel was with a bow. And for all his griping about his age—Hexel looked suitably impressed as Elirr strung a longbow and sank an arrow into a target.
“What a shot!”
“It’s nothing fancy.”
Elirr had missed the inner painted rings completely, but Hexel looked amazed. He felt at Elirr’s arms suspiciously.
“That takes a lot of upper body strength! I couldn’t use a longbow.”
The [Beast Trainer] grinned and pointed to a far wall.
“There are beginner’s bows as well. Do you have a preference?”
“Do you have…a half bow?”
Half the Gnolls in earshot turned, looking offended. The Lamia held up his hands.
“A shortbow! Fine, fine…do all Gnolls love bows?”
“It’s a hobby, a work of art, and it can feed you, defend you…do Lizardfolk have a similar weapon?”
“Mm. Slings and tridents? We fish in swamps a lot.”
The two had an enjoyable time aiming at targets. Hexel wasn’t strong, but he was quite sharp. Anything he put his mind to—and it was a very brilliant mind—he picked up. Elirr had already given up playing chess with Hexel. The Lamia could win blindfolded and being tickled.
Neither came close to winning a record—there were actually prizes and you got your name on the wall if you hit the most targets with the most accuracy. One name caught Elirr’s eye.
Bird – 1st Place. Score…
He stared at it. Then laughed and resolved to ask Erin about that story.
Next on their list of things to do was sample some of the local cuisines. For that, Elirr took them to one of the few farms over a few hills to whet the appetite. They arrived just around lunchtime, and despite Hexel complaining about the grass stains on his lower half, he was quite taken with the cheese-tasting.
It was another thing Elirr knew younger couples did, but hadn’t had the opportunity to do with someone else for a long time. The farm had a number of animals that gave milk, from goats to cows in magical and non-magical varieties.
“This is an Elanda Cheese. Local—fresh. It goes very well melted—you can taste the fruity nature of it.”
The cheese tasting activity for couples or tourist and Councilmember as Elirr and Hexel obviously were, was a fun activity. The Drake [Rancher] offered them any number of cheeses. And wine. The wine made it quite fun.
Hexel enjoyed himself immensely, despite being more carnivorous. He was especially taken by the fondue they finished with.
“Ooh. So you actually melt it all up and dip things into it? We don’t have as many herd animals in the jungles. Centaurs—maybe? And this cheese! It’s so—fragrant! I have to buy some.”
Lizardfolk with their tongues and Gnoll noses made them both good food-tasters. The Elanda cheese was piquant, a word that instantly identified you to other people as having an opinion on food.
Unfortunately, the duo shot themselves in the foot a bit with the fondue and cheese-eating because it slowed both of them down such that neither really wanted to go on that walkabout of Invrisil just at the moment, which was next on their list.
“Why don’t we…sit while we digest?”
Elirr suggested. Hexel agreed, so they headed back to The Wandering Inn, hoping to catch one of the plays.
As it happened, the Players of Celum were still performing to impress Pallass and capitalize on their big success. Invrisil had the 2nd teams, and 3rd teams performing in the Season’s Theatre, but the A-Team, the 1st Team, the originals were performing live.
It was something Elirr and Hexel had to see, but predictably, the inn was packed. Elirr thought he knew packed, but people were crowded up just to stare through the windows. From Invrisil, Pallass, Celum, and Liscor—
“We’ll never get in! We should have stayed!”
The Gnoll groaned in dismay. Hexel was disappointed too—he had never seen the Players of Celum perform. The two looked around, hoping to find a way in.
And as it happened, their ‘way in’ was sitting at the bar, moodily contemplating a life without dessert—again.
“I think you’ve had enough milk, Miss.”
Drassi grinned at Mrsha as the Gnoll child tapped on the counter for a refill. Mrsha sighed. She had been found by Erin and given her punishment—Erin was no fun with hide-and-seek because she could find Mrsha anywhere in her inn. Lyonette had been very mad, too.
Mrsha smelled Hexel and Elirr’s unique scent quite by chance as the door wafted them in. She blinked and looked up and saw them by the crowd at the door, looking dismayed. Mrsha saw them staring at the Players and brightened.
Now here was something Mrsha the Secret Keeper could do! She hopped off the bar after leaving a tip for Drassi. The Drake blinked at the notecard attached to the cup.
You are a nice person. Have a good day.
“Let’s see if we can get a seat tonight.”
Hexel sighed as Elirr gave up searching. The two turned to go—and the white Gnoll pushed through the crowd.
“Mrsha? What is it this time? You had better not be running off…”
The Gnoll rolled her eyes and signed quickly with her paws.
The two looked at each other. Mrsha impatiently reached forwards and grabbed their hands. She pulled them through the crowd, ignoring the protests.
Straight up to the stage. Mrsha was her own stage-pass and no one objected when they saw her pulling the two forwards. She even found a table for them. Right near the front. She made the [Actors], the Players of Liscor, double-up at another table to make room.
“Why, thank you, Mrsha.”
Elirr was a bit touched by the Gnoll—even if her idea of ‘helping’ was inconveniencing everyone else. He found himself sitting with Hexel in front-row seats as the Players began to put on Elisial.
“Mrsha! Are you causing trouble for—oh hey! Hexel! Elirr!”
Erin shout-whispered over the hubbub as a squad of servers broke through the press with food and drink. She looked at Hexel and Elirr who waved at her.
“I’m sorry, but Mrsha insisted on giving us front-row seats, Erin…”
“Are you kidding? I’d have let you watch from the Garden—but I’m using that to travel about. Good thing you came! The Players are putting on one last show and I haven’t seen Elisial myself. Can I get you anything to eat or drink?”
Hexel and Elirr looked at each other. They had a bellyful of wine, cheese, and they were pleasantly tired from the archery and walk. Hexel nodded at Erin with a smile.
“We’re perfectly lovely, Miss Solstice.”
The best part of all was that it was entirely true.
Hexel and Elirr’s date wasn’t something Erin picked up on. If it hadn’t been busy—perhaps? Or most likely, again, not. She could be oblivious when it suited her—or just because she really did miss things.
But the two’s moment was noticeable to someone besides Mrsha.
Hexel and Elirr, sitting at a table. Obvious as can be.
Saliss of Lights looked at them and saw it in a moment. Because…you would. Anyone would.
Perhaps not some. The people who would object probably wouldn’t see it. And that was because they were good at pretending what they didn’t like did not exist. But to Saliss? You might as well have shone a spotlight on them. Mirn would have picked them out with his eyes closed, [Protector] that he was.
The two were flirting. Inconspicuously, but clearly enjoying the moment. Sitting side-by-side as they watched the play.
It hurt Saliss with that spear of envy. The Drake was sitting closer to the bar, in a small bubble of space despite the press. And that was because nudity got you that elbow-room.
The Named Alchemist had another shot of Firebreath Whiskey as he watched the two glumly. Saliss hadn’t even been here for them. His business was—elsewhere.
Good for them. Also—I hate you two. That was how Saliss would have vocalized it. Almost subconsciously, he cast about the room.
If The Wandering Inn was a permanent source of entertainment for Saliss, the [Alchemist] had still earmarked several important elements.
Erin Solstice. Faerie Flowers in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. And there…watching from afar and talking with Kevin…
Rose. Saliss watched her for a minute.
He knew more about Rose, but not enough. But oh, careful. Be so careful. If Elirr and Saliss had known each other, and had a moment to talk, they would have both agreed. But Elirr’s caution was nothing to Saliss—after all, Saliss had grown up in Pallass, not a Gnoll tribe or Liscor.
Saliss was more concerned for Elirr and Hexel. It was so obvious. Again though—he’d kill anyone who ruined this moment for them. But there was only one Saliss. And even that was one too many.
The [Alchemist] shook his head. His last person-of-interest wasn’t here. In Liscor, then. He slid some coins across the bar and turned to go. Hexel and Elirr were their own thing and much luck to them. He was looking for his…experiment. His project.
Love was in the air. Also—fire. Olesm watched Maviola glowing.
Her hair looked like it was igniting. Black and orange, shining in the light. And there was actual fire sparking in the air—appearing and vanishing.
That was how hot it was. He was at a safe distance. But the young [Lady] was at the center of the flickering radius of heat.
“[Aura of Flame]. Or close enough for my demonstration. See? Whenever you want, Wing Commander!”
Embria eyed Maviola. Not in a particularly friendly way. 4th Company didn’t like challenges to their combat record. But Maviola El was doing just that.
“Forwards, spears! Captain Vell, Captain Wikir, take the enemy position!”
Two squads of 4th Company advanced on the nervous double-line of [Guards] that Embria had set up. New-recruits and a few regular Guardsmen.
Olesm watched, wincing. The [Soldiers] were not Liscor’s best, but they were still one of the veteran wings of the army. The average level of Liscor’s army was 16. Which meant the [Officers] and higher-ranking members were progressively higher-level still than the rank-and-file which lowered the level.
Wikir, Vell, and Embria could all turn average [Soldiers] into elites with their Skills. Liscor stacked commander-classes. And two squads were cycling down their Skills so that when they hit the ranks of [Guards] who had orders to shield Maviola, they had at least eight Skills buffing them.
Even with practice-weapons, the two squads instantly began drubbing the [Guards]. Zevara was watching and wincing as Vell smacked down a shield with brute strength and ‘beheaded’ one of the soldiers.
It didn’t look good, but again, it wasn’t quite fair. If it were Senior Guards versus 4th Company, they’d have…lost with more grace. Only Jeiss or Relc or Klbkch were at the level of Liscor’s army, anyways. And they were anti-crime and anti-monster fighters anyways, compared to an army’s specialties.
But Maviola had not asked for them. She stood with her arms folded behind the collapsing rank of the Watch as Vell kicked past another [Guard], clearly intent on beating her a few times in the ‘practice’. The Drake [Captain] knocked aside another blade—then she hissed.
“What the—ow! Ow!”
She was holding a practice blade, wooden, but she’d kept her armor on. And Olesm saw—it was glowing. Vell twisted, knocking aside a blade and then shouted again.
She gave a shout of pain. Her armor was beginning to glow! And then—her practice sword burst into flame. She had to drop it or be burned. Wikir gave a howl of pain and the two squads began to back up.
Olesm stared. The [Guards] weren’t suffering from the same effects at all. They began to press 4th Company back.
“Retreat! Get out of range!”
It was an obvious move. But as Vell and Wikir’s squads retreated—Maviola pointed.
“Press the attack and encircle them!”
The Watch advanced. And as Maviola walked with them—the 4th Company had to retreat. But they were suddenly pressed against the wall of onlookers. And Vell—she held onto the flaming sword’s hilt as her armor began to turn a dull red.
They weren’t going to surrender, even though half were fighting with flaming weapons and the armor was clearly beginning to scald their fur or scales. Olesm raised one claw.
Embria looked up at him as the fiery aura winked out around Maviola. Panting, the two squads tossed down their weapons and cursed.
Silence for a moment. Then Maviola laughed.
“And that’s how we Humans held the north against the ‘superior Drake armies’. If you want a second demonstration, I can do it again…”
“I don’t think that’s necessary. Wing Commander—thank you for providing your soldiers.”
“Not at all, Watch Captain. It was illuminating.”
Embria glared at Maviola. Vell cursed as she poured water over her burnt hands.
“Auras? We’d just snipe her or charge in…”
“And that’s why we wear artifacts. And I can defend myself. If anyone wants to try me?”
Maviola retorted. She was armed with a practice sword herself. Instantly, half of 4th Company and some of the Watch volunteered to teach her a lesson.
“I’m gifted with a spear. Why not?”
Embria herself gave Maviola a look. Olesm coughed.
“Maviola, this might not be the moment. Why don’t we go over the outcomes with…?”
“I’d be delighted to, Wing Commander. Just so long as you let me use my Skills?”
The Human [Lady] ignored Olesm. The [Strategist] stared at her. Was she insane? Embria was nearly as good as Relc, even if she didn’t have his Skills. But the [Lady] blew a kiss at him. Then she lifted her sword.
Embria accepted a practice spear and stepped forwards.
“Just say when you’ve had enough, Lady Maviola.”
The Drake lowered herself into a stance. Maviola grinned—
And her body burst into flame. Her practice clothes, her sword, all ignited. Embria recoiled—and her armor began smoking. Maviola lunged forwards with a shout.
Olesm’s jaw dropped. Maviola slashed at Embria and the Wing Commander leapt back, knocking the sword back. She lanced out, keeping her distance as Maviola parried. She was definitely behind Embria in Skill. But as the Wing Commander began to launch a flurry of blows, Maviola sparked.
The flames covering her turned white-hot for a moment. Embria was blinded and Maviola pressed in again. She had a shield in one hand and the Wing Commander was on the defensive.
“Olesm, she’s not going to win, is she? Because 4th Company will riot if she does.”
Zevara edged over to mutter to Olesm. He shook his head, listening to Maviola laugh amid the cheering and cursing.
“I doubt it, Zevara. I’ve sparred with her and she’s worse than I am. Embria just needs to back up.”
Even so, he couldn’t take his eyes off Maviola. She was—different. She had been so of late. Of course, their relationship was definitely changed by the revelation that she was Maviola El, former Matriarch of the House of El, woman who was decidedly many times Olesm’s senior.
It had bothered the Drake greatly. They’d fought about it, actually. Olesm was outraged she hadn’t told him there was an expiry on her life—even more than the fact of her age. Maviola had been on the verge of leaving—at least their relationship, possibly Liscor.
And then—had come the change. Maviola took a spear-thrust to the shoulder.
Vell shouted triumphantly. Embria backed up; her armor and weapon were smoldering. She narrowed her eyes at the [Lady].
“You’d not heal that with my spear.”
“And I’d be wearing armor. Come on, I’m not dead yet even if I am bleeding! If I was fighting seriously, you’d be on fire the instant you came at me!”
Maviola lashed out. The Drake had to back up. Even 4th Company looked rather impressed as Maviola took a second thrust to the chest but kept charging in.
Fearless, fiery—that was Maviola as Olesm knew her. But there was a twist on her personality. Even Zevara, who had not known Maviola, could see it. She kept looking at Olesm.
“What’s happened to her?”
The Drake stared at Maviola, whom he was decidedly back together with. He felt sore.
His calves were really sore. They’d gone for a hike this morning. A ten mile hike around the Floodplains before lunch. And this was with Maviola, who claimed she’d done enough walking for three lifetimes.
Something was definitely different. And only the Drake, leaning against a wall nude as could be—and [Invisible]—knew what it was.
“One was incomplete. My potion changed only one thing. This—this is truly…”
Saliss had no fear of being seen with the commotion. Only Maviola could have picked him out. The Named Adventurer felt at his neck-spines. He’d thought he’d sensed it right after Maviola had taken the potion, but he’d been distracting everyone and hadn’t gotten a chance to gauge her properly. But it was clear.
This is what had happened. Saliss had made a Potion of Youth.
Another Potion of Youth. And he’d given it to Maviola El.
For free! That was already the kind of event that would have shaken Pallass if it had been known. Certainly—it would have killed his brokers, and the [Auctioneers] who made a small fortune off of each sale. Come to that—Saliss had passed up two fortunes because the cost of this potion had been a fraction of what a Potion of Youth normally cost in ingredients.
Magical, miraculous. Saliss had found something as revolutionary as Sage’s Grass or Eir Gel. He had created a Potion of Youth with Octavia’s help. But—it had been different.
Color was a big hint. But Saliss had felt this potion wasn’t the same as the other Potions of Youth he’d made. So he’d given it to Maviola because she was down to one last potion and because she was willing to try it.
And this was the result. Saliss understood in a single moment, as Maviola and Embria concluded their duel and the two walked over to shake hands. Embria was grudgingly impressed and Maviola actually embraced the Drake.
Youth. Maviola flicked sweat-soaked hair out of her eyes. True youth. She rubbed at her shoulders.
“Anyone else want to try fighting an aura? It’s been a long time since I did this—but I met a [Knight] from Terandria who could do—this.”
She tossed her burnt practice sword away and raised her hand. A flaming sword appeared in her grip and everyone gasped.
That was a powerful aura. Stronger than the older Maviola could generally summon. And that was because this new Maviola burned. Her spirit wasn’t that of a woman ignited in the last hour of her life. This was Maviola El as she would have been in her mid-twenties, just with the memories of the past.
It made her impetuous, reckless, and vivid. It also meant Saliss…had found it.
The only question was how long it lasted. If it was a week—or even close to it—and if the flowers did what Saliss thought and could be applied, like the Potion of Youth’s recipe to the more powerful Reverse Age Potion…
Flowers. They had neatly established their worth as the most important thing Erin Solstice had ever created. Or found. Where in the name of Dragons had she gotten them from?
“Where in Rhir’s hell is Avalon?”
Saliss had seen countless magical ingredients. He’d handled Unicorn testicles, and that was something you had to think twice about! Kraken’s hearts—he’d used powerful ingredients, but the flowers were…out of this world.
Xif and everyone else could never know. The flowers were too powerful. Mind you—Saliss had used nearly a hundred just to make the single potion and countless more in experiments. Erin Solstice was growing more and more, but…
There it was. Maviola El turned, laughing, and dragged Olesm into a tandem duel with Jeiss and Beilmark. She was alive.
How long could Saliss make those potions? And if he could do it for Maviola—the [Alchemist] wondered about Chaldion.
He watched Maviola for a while longer, invisibly. It was too powerful. That was the thing. The only reason Saliss didn’t open up his own farm and hire Oteslia to breed the flowers by the hundreds of thousands? He stared at Maviola, burning, laughing. Saliss knew potions. He knew alchemy and creation and he had his own experience with power.
There had to be side-effects.
Liscor as it was had been a dreary city plagued by rains. Confounded by Antinium. But a border-city, between north and south. Not as hostile to Gnolls.
That was why she had chosen it. For access—for the potential here. That was Liscor as it had been.
It was hard to remember to Krshia sometimes. When she saw a Human in the streets that wasn’t Erin she stared a bit. But they were already becoming a new normal, like the Painted Antinium.
The new district? It was on everyone’s tongues. You could hear it in the gossip, the streets as Krshia made her way to work—well, one of her two jobs—that morning.
“Did you see the football team this morning? They looked sharp. Think we’ll beat the next team?”
“—walk in the new district. You know, some of those Human shops have some new designs and ideas. The Drunken Gnoll? Fine inn. Very cheap, very affordable. If you’re not going to the Tailless Thief, I can recommend that.”
“Not The Wandering Inn?”
“I mean, for a relaxing time.”
“Ah, right, right. Oh, look! It’s that Soldier. The one with the swirls. See? I told you I knew one…”
The dialogue! It put a smile on Krshia’s face. All of it new. All of it exciting! She passed by a Drake couple exclaiming over a dress.
“I got this from Invrisil! Just—paid to walk through that door, which was hardly anything compared to the dress! There’s so much to do there. You simply must go see, Eshi—”
“But I hear that [Innkeeper] is crazed—”
“Bah, I never had to even see her! Just ask to go through to Invrisil. It was so fast I was in the inn for less than a moment. No Crelers, no Goblins, no blood shooting everywhere—”
Yes, Liscor was changed. Humans on the street—in the Watch, setting up new business. Even competing with Krshia on Market Street. Not that she attended to her stall as much these days. Her [Assistant Saleswoman] was doing a fine job. Very fine; and Krshia just had to manage the inventory with her Skills as a [Royal Shopkeeper].
It was to her second job she was going. [Councilwoman] Krshia Silverfang walked down the street, as people came over to petition her for this or that, or just greeted her.
New Antinium. New Humans. New ways to travel. It was all glorious to Krshia compared to the Liscor-that-was.
Still, someone had to complain. As Krshia entered the City Hall and headed for the meeting room, she heard the familiar voice that usually grated on her ears. Over ten years of hearing him and Lism could still annoy Krshia.
“And why couldn’t Elirr make it? We all agreed to meet every morning. It’s morning, and unless I missed the end of forever, I assume it’s ‘every’.”
“He deserves time off, Lism, you fool, you. Let him escort Hexel around the city. Or is keeping our [Architect] happy not more important than the daily meeting?”
The Drake looked up as Krshia entered the room. So did the rest of the Council.
There they were. Jeiss, sharpening a dagger with a whetstone and yawning over his morning cup. Raekea, smelling of soot from work, Alonna, doodling in the air with a wand as she listened to Lism rant, and the Drake [Shopkeeper] himself.
Krshia’s eternal rival. Even here. He turned and gave her a look.
“Swifttail. I can do it too. Do you ever grow tired of complaining, Lism?”
“Only someone who thinks there’s nothing to improve doesn’t complain, Krshia.”
The Drake gave her a supercilious look. Krshia rolled her eyes, but she sat down across from him. Yes, the entire Council was here except for Elirr, who was busy with Hexel in ways that would make Lism’s tail fall off.
Tismel and Zalaiss were sitting in a corner. Not of the room, but metaphorically. Their usual protests and complaints had been reduced to just sitting there, dreading what was happening next.
Rebellion had taken Liscor. The former Council, who had been made up of the right sorts, with the right backgrounds and perspectives had been replaced by the mob.
[Shopkeepers], [Guard], [Mage], [Blacksmith] and [Beast Trainer] were the Council. Not—the Guildmasters of old, landowners, and so on. Alonna was close—but she was with Lism and Krshia and the rest.
So that was one of the reasons why Krshia sat down and actually nodded to Lism.
“Good morning to you all. I trust you all had a good night, yes?”
“Quite well. Although I was up with that craziness around the Players of Celum.”
Alonna yawned as the others murmured agreement. Lism was muttering.
“I have a lot to get to. Just proposals I need you to sign off on. Oh—good morning.”
“Er—what’s on the roster today, Lism?”
Tismel’s voice quavered as the others helped themselves to food—this time from Raekea. Since Krshia had had breakfast with Elirr, she only took a small bit to be polite. Lism ignored the other Drake.
“Since we don’t have Elirr or Master Hexel, I think we’ll hold off on some of the plans until tomorrow. I’d like to discuss a change to the city’s new plans…”
“Again? Dead gods, how many is that?”
Jeiss raised his brows. Lism shook his head.
“It’s always to Liscor’s benefit. I’ll run it past you all tomorrow. I just need to make sure it’ll work.”
Krshia munched on a scone as she listened. That was Lism. Taking charge and running this like he was the leader. She was almost tempted to interrupt, but—well, she didn’t have anything to lay in front of the Council. They had daily meetings these days, in case something like Erin occurred, but it was sometimes just a twenty-minute meeting to socialize and eat before they went about their day.
But Lism clearly had a plan. He went down the list.
“I’d like you all to authorize me to go to…three meetings on behalf of the city. Make temporary agreements and I’ll run them past you. I’ll also need a two gold and eight silver budget for one of the meetings—and twenty six gold pieces for my [Carer] initiative. Can I get a quick vote on that?”
Instantly, Alonna, Jeiss, and Raekea all raised their hands. It was informal, but Lism was here to request the vote. Without it, he wasn’t allowed to proceed. It was one of those new things the Council had implemented; Lism or Krshia or anyone else could make unofficial promises and reach out to people, but they had to inform their colleagues and official ratification required a vote as well.
Since the Council was eight in total, they required a majority of five. And since Elirr was gone, Lism needed Krshia’s vote. She left him hanging just to make him glare at her.
Predictably, two Drakes did not raise their claws.
“What—er—what are the meetings, Lism? I think we should be informed about them.”
That came from Zalaiss. Lism looked at her.
“Need to know, Zalaiss.”
“But we’re Council members…”
“And I don’t need you to show up with the former Council to try and negotiate on Liscor’s behalf. Shut. Up.”
Lism was about as tactful as a mallet to the head. But since Krshia detested the former Council, who had been petty and complacent, this put a smile on her lips. She raised her paw.
“Majority has it.”
The two Drakes of the old guard sagged. They’d clearly been hoping Krshia’s longstanding and public rivalry with Lism would cause trouble. They’d even tried to exploit it a few times—but Krshia knew the score.
So did Lism, because he was already packing up his notes.
“That’s all from me. Does anyone have anything else to add?”
“Krshia, my wife really wants some ah, tickets to the Players of Celum. I don’t suppose you could…?”
“I’ll look into it, Jeiss.”
The Gnoll nodded and the [Senior Guardsman] gave her a grateful look.
“Thank you. You have no idea how much she’s been pestering me about it. And with Relc gone…”
“Just don’t flaunt it, Jeiss. We’re Councilmembers. We don’t get special privileges. We don’t cut in line—Krshia’s friends with that Human. That’s your ticket, not us.”
“Got it, Lism.”
The Drake rolled his eyes, but he nodded. Lism checked his notes and then—looked at Krshia.
“I need a second on these meetings. And since everyone else has work—Silverfang, do you have a moment?”
“I could c—”
Tismel shut up as Lism raised his clipboard to throw it. Silverfang—er—Krshia, grinned.
“Very well, if you insist, Lism. Where are we going to first?”
“I need the funds. Then—we’ll head to the meeting rooms for the [Carers] initiative. We have to meet with—Hedault—in forty eight minutes. And we’re not going to be late.”
“You’re the one who walks slow. Hrm. Are we paying him?”
The two left the Council room. The rest of the council finished their breakfast at a more leisurely pace. Jeiss yawned into his cup; he wasn’t about to race about like Lism. But he and Krshia had the kind of energy that Jeiss admired.
Not like his children’s energy, which was disgusting and boundless, but that dogged go-get-it energy that had led the two [Shopkeepers] to divide Market Street among themselves.
Famous rivals. Now, politicians. Jeiss shook his head. Tismel and Zalaiss didn’t stay to socialize. They skulked off, no doubt to report to the old Council about what they’d learned.
That left the three, Alonna, Jeiss, and Raekea to socialize. Normally with Elirr, but the group was fast becoming friends.
“And how is everyone doing in your household, Jeiss?”
“The kids are driving me insane. Too much energy, you know? And I’m beat from doing two jobs…I really hope we can get Hexel to upgrade the playgrounds soon. Maybe install a spell to suck the energy out of the kids? We could probably power the wall spells with that alone.”
Alonna laughed as she breakfasted. Jeiss leaned back.
“What’s Lism up to this time?”
The [Shopkeeper] was one of the two unofficial leaders in the room. Krshia led the Gnolls, Lism the Drakes. Not that it was a divide these days. The two had teamed up against incompetence and were working together well.
The [Blacksmith], who’d been refilling her plate, came back to the table.
“Hrm. Some new scheme, no doubt. I’m glad Krshia is with him. She’ll keep his ideas from getting tangled.”
“True that. They’re a good team when they’re not shouting at each other.”
It was remarkable, actually. Jeiss yawned. Raekea sniffed and shook her head. Alonna nodded.
“I can’t believe they could work together. I was sure this would be so—contentious. Didn’t you?”
“At the start, yeah. The election—not pretty. But this is great. And I mean, great. Who’d have thought, right?”
“Mhm. Even so, I can see how it happened. It was just so natural…”
Raekea was nodding as she crammed her mouth full of food. She stared at the door and shook her head.
“I just can’t believe those two are together. That’s the only part that boggles my mind, yes?”
The Gnoll swallowed and reached for a cup of tea. Then she saw Jeiss and Alonna staring at her. Raekea hesitated.
The reason Krshia Silverfang had let Lism go on about ‘his plan’ for the day without giving one of her snarky remarks was because she already knew what was going on.
“You don’t have to be that rude to Tismel and Zalaiss, you know.”
Lism was counting coins out of the Council’s vault of funds. Krshia heard him muttering…
“Twenty nine…plus…signing out as Lism, the day of…”
She poked him in the side and he jumped.
“You don’t have to be rude to Tismel.”
“And why not? He’s an incompetent.”
“But we do not need enemies. At least give him the time of day.”
Lism turned and glared at Krshia. And there they were.
Rival [Shopkeepers]. Enemies in election and from Market Street. It was not an exaggeration to say they properly loathed each other. Or had.
Even now Lism could grate on the nerves. However. How had they come to this? The two stared at each other. Lism scratched at his spines.
“…I’ll think about it. But if Tismel makes one more asinine comment, I will throw a chair at him. Let’s go.”
He led the way down the stairs of the city hall. Krshia followed, reflecting.
Why? Not many people knew, but it was inevitable some would. Elirr knew. Mrsha didn’t, although she clearly knew someone was in Krshia’s life. Little Gnolls and their noses. But Krshia used scent-bombs too. The problem was, it was inevitable Raekea and perhaps the rest of the Council would find out. They met too regularly.
How would she explain it to Erin? Or…anyone else? Krshia watched Lism strut down the stairs. She had once described Lism as ‘a sack of hot air with an ego twice as large attached’, and she didn’t see the need to retract her statement.
However. There were elements of Lism you had to admit he had. Even if they weren’t likable. For instance, Krshia and Lism had always been competing [Shopkeepers] for business in Market Street. Krshia liked to think she’d always been a bit better—until her stall was exploded by Lyonette.
Yet—Lism could not have kept up with her all these years if he was a complete fool. He was certainly foolish. He tended to make far more enemies than Krshia, who was good at making connections. He didn’t have her eye for quality and had lost out on several trades.
But he was also annoyingly good at spotting trends. And stubborn too—he stayed in with a bet or gamble when most people would get cold feet, even if it cost him.
None of that was the endearing factor, incidentally. It was just a fact of Lism. Krshia had—straight up until she was in the same room with him on the Council—disliked him intensely. However, there had been that moment where they’d looked at each other and realized they were on the same side, and against the old Council.
And after that…it had taken a while. A few drinks. A few nights of…but that wasn’t why. If Krshia had to explain it—
The [Carers] initiative was something Lism had come up with. It was not Erin’s idea. It was not even something Erin had helped start. It was entirely Lism’s initiative and it came from years of him doing this.
Liscor’s City Hall had a number of meeting rooms that were seldom actually put to good use. Krshia had, in the practical way of [Shopkeeper’s], decided it was a waste of space and coin and instantly put them to use. Anyone could rent some of the rooms for a get-together, party, or other event. The Council had a few permanently reserved, but it also justified the expense of the [Cleaners] and so on.
Lism had, in turn, put one of the rooms to use for his plan. There was a huge map of the city on the wall, constantly being updated with new streets. But what mattered were the pins.
“I want someone to check on Mister Eli. I don’t care if he throws things or snaps at you. Just make sure he’s actually eating. Is there anything to report?”
For now, Lism was running the meeting room. He had about forty people whom he was paying today. It was a side-job for most, but they had access to food, potions if need be, and an existing network of people who donated to the [Carers] project.
A few Gnolls and Drakes raised their hands. One reported a Drake woman had broken her leg in a fall. A [Healer] was taking care of her and three neighbors had volunteered to help look after her when she returned home. Even so—Lism tasked a rotation to make sure she was looked after.
It embarrassed Krshia that she hadn’t thought of this herself. But she never would have, honestly. The groups of paid volunteers would go across the city to every person on the list. Person or family, and make sure they were looked after.
The names were either young, or old, or people who could not take care of themselves for one reason or another. Lism had brought a list with him when he’d begun the organization, which was now a city-backed initiative. He’d been doing this for years.
“Just make sure Eli has food and water and looks healthy. Is his apartment a mess? Are there bugs? If we need to, one of the Council will speak to him, or one of the Watch. That’s all you have to do.”
He was speaking to one of the volunteers. Krshia watched, checking off names on the list. That was her addition.
Here was the thing. They really did work together well. Lism had come up with the idea of paying people to do what had been a volunteer service. Using the city’s organization and resources to collect goodwill instruments. Instead of a whole damn pie being given to some poor widow or [Veteran] who might not even like pies—it was divided up and shipped out with other gifts donated here. Got a chair you don’t use? Donate it here and someone would use it.
It was one of those things that made sense. Like Gnoll tribes supporting each other. Again though—Krshia couldn’t take credit for it.
What she could take credit for was making it efficient. Lism had a map, but he didn’t have a roster of volunteers. He didn’t organize his data. Krshia had made that happen. And soon—
“You’ll have to appoint someone to manage this, Lism. It’s working well—too well. Someone needs a full-time position and salary.”
“I can handle it. Don’t you think I can handle multiple things at once, Silverfang?”
The Drake looked annoyed as Krshia spoke with him after the volunteers were on their way, with care packages. Krshia bit back the snappy response. Some things were so ingrained in them—but she tried. She moderated her tone.
“You’re adding work you don’t need. Can you give all of your hours to this project, hmm, Lism? I don’t think you can, no. And the [Carers] deserve all your time, yes?”
Lism hesitated. He swallowed an angry retort and took a breath. Once, twice…then nodded.
“I—fine. You’re right, Krshia. I could appoint a manager. And stay on top of things…”
He had to be part of the projects he was in. Like his shop; Krshia could delegate, but Lism was always checking in. It wasn’t a bad mentality to have, but sometimes he got bogged down with too much.
That was one thing. The two studied the map.
“How many Humans are part of the [Carers] project?”
“Not a lot of people who moved to Liscor were in their late years. Most—children.”
The Gnoll woman waited for the inevitable ‘damn fleshy Humans coming to my city and taking jobs from honest working Drakes’, but it didn’t come. Lism just stared at the map.
“What we need…is a place for the children. Most are on the street.”
“Drakes don’t have that kind of institution?”
Krshia shook her head.
“Not in the tribes. But then—no one is left alone in the tribes.”
“Unless they run off or are kicked out. Or they’re Doombringers.”
She glared at him. But he was right. Just—phrasing. Lism saw her look and adjusted his tone.
“I just mean…those kids need a home. Not just food and attention. I know some Human cities have something like that. In Drake cities they’re adopted or become gangs…”
He would know. And if the Drake had one soft spot in his entire body, it was children. After all—he’d raised Olesm and doted on his nephew, even now.
Incidentally, this was still the same Lism who’d tried to con Erin out her money right when she’d first come to Liscor. Krshia still remembered that. But he had changed a bit. Sort of.
Another thing Lism did? He went to consult with experts a lot. Which was why he and Krshia met with Hedault in the man’s workshop in Invrisil.
Krshia considered it a waste of time and coin—especially because Lism was paying Hedault gold for the consultation meeting. But again, different styles.
Lism had objected nonstop to Krshia insisting on making tips mandatory for all the staff the city employed like [Sweepers], [Clerks], and so on. Which in turn she was trying to legislate into a monthly bonus, as well as ones on holidays and year-end. Something to add to what she knew were extremely low salaries. Lism had objected—until he’d seen how spotless the building started looking.
Anyways, the two were in Hedault’s studio having arrived at the appointed time and not inflicted chaos into the man’s life. He looked actually grateful as they sat and asked him a few questions.
“We’re done with Wistram. But we need to maintain our walls. Can you do it?”
That was how Lism led that Krshia appreciated. No dancing around, no pleasantries. Hedault seemed to like it too.
“Wall enchanting is not my expertise. Fissival maintains countless Drake cities, however.”
“Mm. But could you maintain Liscor’s walls? The reason I’m asking is that our [Architect] says there’s a finite limit on how large Liscor can expand. I’m asking you for a second opinion.”
Lism slid over a plan of the city. So that was what this was about. Krshia remembered Hexel saying that there was a limit a few meetings back.
Hedault regarded the blueprints with interest, but he didn’t need to consult them.
“From an [Enchanter]’s standpoint, Master Hexel is entirely correct, Councilmember Lism. Any city has a limit to the enchanted defenses it can maintain.”
Hedault tapped a finger twice against his wrist.
“Aside from the complexity of maintaining so many spells and the cost of enchanting that much space? The limit is in mana-draw. Are you familiar with the Golem paradox?”
The two shook their heads. Hedault nodded and adjusted his spectacles.
“In brief—a Golem can create itself in theory. One Golem can make another if of sufficient quality. But each Golem requires mana to function. Their Golem Hearts draw from the environment. So there becomes a limit of how many Golems that can be made. However, there are ways for a Golem to generate more mana. But to generate more mana to build more Golems, you need more Golems to generate more mana to build more Golems…it’s a famous paradox which many nations have tried to solve to lesser or greater degrees of success over the years.”
“So you’re saying that Liscor’s running into it? Because we’re getting too large?”
“Wall enchantments require mana to recharge and function. When Liscor grows to a certain size the draw will be greater than ambient mana generation. So the walls will eventually self-destruct. Liscor is not near that size…but the expansions will hit that limit soon, especially with regular enchantments within the city. Invrisil has the same issue; hence the lack of enchanted walls.”
Krshia and Lism exchanged a look.
“How do they solve it?”
“Mm. Well, the lack of walls helps Invrisil, as do the populations of [Mages] which add to the ambient mana gain. Invrisil was also built on a ley line so the issue is not there—yet. But Lady Reinhart has regulated particularly intensive spells, much to the magical community’s appreciation.”
Lism’s face twisted a bit at Magnolia’s name. He glanced around the [Enchanter]’s abode, tail lashing a bit as he thought.
“So you’re saying—any city has limits unless they bypass the limit?”
Hedault raised his brows.
“Yes. Although there are exceptions, many cities with enchanted walls—especially Drake cities—have that limit. The most notable examples of successfully bypassing that limit are of course the Walled Cities. But whatever allowed the builders to create such vastly powerful walls has been lost to time.”
Hm. Krshia was frowning. This was a problem a tribe didn’t have. Walls and mana generation.
Lism was determined to make Hedault earn the consultation fee.
“Can you speculate about methods Liscor could use?”
“Of course. The few that come to mind immediately? Precisely—four. I apologize for the lapse in specificity. Firstly: Sage’s Grass. The flaw is it takes a long time to germinate and attracts predators. Secondly? Magicore. In vast quantities, it does generate mana. But it can be depleted and is hard to acquire. Thirdly, magical herds. The issue of feed comes up, and predation and the expiration of such animals…lastly, [Mages]. A large population of mages generates magic of its own.”
Lism and Krshia were making notes. Krshia knew about the magical animals and had some ideas there, but none of that was particularly appealing. Sage’s Grass sounded the most stable…Lism was nodding.
“Fine, fine. That answers my questions on the walls…now, I’d like you to explain which new enchantments we could buy for our walls. And how much will it cost?”
Twenty minutes more and the thirty-minute booking was up. Without a fuss or asking for an extension, Lism and Krshia rose and bade the [Enchanter] farewell.
“I think that’s it. We’ll consult with you if we have more questions.”
Lism wasn’t exactly gracious, but he was certainly polite and hadn’t wasted Hedault’s time. In fact, the [Enchanter] handed two of the gold coins back.
“A discount for efficiency, which I am offering. Thank you for your time.”
“Sage’s Grass. Sage’s Grass…the damn stuff is expensive. And fragile. Do you know much about it?”
“I know Erin’s friend, Wailant, he sells it.”
“But it dies. It’s hard to keep growing. Inclement weather can wipe it out. You grow that kind of thing in some workshop in pristine conditions. I don’t know if we can rely on that. And we’d need big walls to prevent the monsters who want to eat it! It’s that damned Golem-paradox, but with walls! More walls for more mana!”
“What about unenchanted walls? We could make them larger, and rely on stone and mortar?”
The two looked at each other. Krshia and Lism began laughing, and then after they’d wiped the tears out of their eyes, they went on.
The two had a quick lunch at an outdoor café that Krshia had been recommended in Invrisil. They were more…relaxed here. Since there odds of someone seeing them here was lower. Krshia hmmed.
“I don’t need to eat out.”
“My place, then?”
“Very well. Lism. Why are you so fixated on the issue of making the city larger? Hexel has assured us that the city will not reach the limit with the expansion.”
Lism lowered the club sandwich he’d been served. He looked at Krshia and then around, as if they were being spied on.
“The…reservations of new land for the new expansion of the city?”
The district that would make Liscor a third again as large? People like Selys could buy property space. It was one of the ways the Council was making money. Krshia nodded.
“What about it?”
“We’re out of salable plots.”
Krshia didn’t see this as a problem so she went back to her stew and salad. Lism’s tail lashed a bit; it had been curled up around their chairs for politeness’ sake for the other diners moving about.
“But we’re getting more people who want to buy land, Krshia. I’m talking Pallassian [Senators]. Wall Lords and Ladies from Salazsar. There is a lot of money to be made for Liscor!”
The [Shopkeeper] paused with a spoon raised. That…was a lot of money.
“We cannot offer more. Perhaps we can ask if they want to…invest in existing businesses?”
Lism looked around again. He lowered his voice even further.
“Or we can keep offering them space. Mark up the prices say, 23% due to demand? But offer more space.”
“And give them what?”
Krshia felt the hair on her arms raise. Lism wasn’t a scammer. Was he saying lie to these people? The Drake gestured around at Invrisil.
“More space, Krshia! Ancestors, Liscor has the Floodplains—that’s why I was asking! Let’s just—expand the city a second time.”
“Expand the city. Twice.”
She stared at him. Lism steepled his claws.
“Why not? If we get money to do it, these rich people will make property. Do you think they’ll come here? Aside from Wall Lord Ilvriss, none of them have ever set foot in Liscor. What does it matter if they’re funding the first district—or the second one?”
It was audacious. Krshia sat back as she tried to wrap her mind around it. It—she was growing excited—it could work! If they had the space.
If they had the space. Lism’s pressing questions to Hedault made sense all of a sudden.
“The other issue is the numbers to build a second district at the same time as the first. We’re employing every [Builder] and [Craftsperson] in Liscor. Even with the new workers—you’re trying to double our output, Hexel’s workforce, with nothing, Lism. What would you do about that?”
The Drake sat back and dabbed at his mouth with a napkin. He gave Krshia a meaningful look.
“To answer that? We need to go to our second and third meetings. We’ll take care of meeting two along the way.”
“And who are they?”
The Gnoll growled. Lism loved surprises. She wasn’t as fond of them. The Drake smiled archly at her.
“They’re your friends, Silverfang. I thought you’d already have guessed.”
He only used ‘Silverfang’ to annoy her or when they were around others. Krshia blinked at him.
“You don’t mean…?”
Erin Solstice stared at Lism. He stared at her from across the table. Erin slid the glass of iced water with no lemon across to him.
“Miss Solstice. Thank you for meeting with the Council.”
Erin’s eyes slid sideways to Krshia, who was giving her a pleading look. She folded her arms.
“I only agreed because it’s for the Council.”
“I only came because it was for the city I love.”
Lism retorted. The niceties out of the way, Krshia cleared her throat.
“Lism has—a proposal for you, Erin. I hope you will listen to it, yes? It’s only a request.”
“Suuuuuure. What is it? Use my door for fewer taxes? Convince the Players to expand to Liscor? Trade more with other cities? Put a moving-fee on my door?”
Erin looked at Lism suspiciously. He shuffled his notes.
“Not at all. A travel-tax makes sense for Pallass and Invrisil perhaps, but it just impedes business between cities. I’m not an idiot, Miss Solstice.”
“Huh. You don’t say?”
The Gnoll sighed as Lism’s right eye twitched. He went on as if Erin had said nothing and as if Mrsha wasn’t silently giggling on the floor behind Erin.
“It’s come to our attention that Liscor has a number of high-level individuals with…useful skillsets, Miss Solstice. The [Aegiscaster], Montressa du Valeross. A talented [Spellscribe]. The Dwarf [Blacksmith], Master Pelt…even if he isn’t working with Liscor directly, his work benefits us all.”
“That’s not my fault. They just came here.”
The [Innkeeper] raised a finger. Lism ignored it.
“A [Blacksmith], talented [Mages], the connections with other cities are very helpful too, Miss Solstice. The…adventurers for the dungeon. The Players, bringing in revenue and fame. Even the [Footballer].”
“He doesn’t have that class yet. And it’s [Soccer Player], I think.”
Joseph twisted in his seat to scowl at Erin. The young woman ignored him. Lism went on, doggedly.
“This is all—helpful. It has benefited Liscor. Including the ah, Antinium situation. What I’m saying is, Miss Solstice, the Council has determined that we could really use some excellent [Teachers]. Educators for the next generation. Also—more income is always nice. Some trade resource.”
The young woman stared at him. So did Krshia. After a second, Erin nodded.
The Drake [Shopkeeper] checked his notes.
“Perhaps some kind of magical animal? Not Wyverns. Some kind of peaceful herd-animal. We’d also accept technologies…a new industry? The Council is willing to reward substantive contributions to the city.”
The young woman gave Lism the most blank look Krshia had ever seen. Lism looked at her and then at Krshia. Her mouth was hanging slightly open.
“Just keep it in mind, Miss Solstice. Thank you for your time.”
He rose to go and offered his hand. Erin just stared at him. Lism withdrew it and marched out of the inn. When they were headed back to Liscor, Krshia hissed at him.
“Are you stupid? There is no way she can just pull out a Level 50 [Teacher] out of her pocket!”
Lism looked at Krshia.
“Probably not. But did it cost us anything to ask?”
The Gnoll woman hesitated. Lism nodded.
“That’s what I thought.”
Behind them, the Players of Celum were headed into Invrisil. And they had a special guest, drawn by the power of salt-geese and his new disguise.
The Players of Celum—and Eltistiman and the [Bodyguards]—left with Numbtongue chortling beneath his helmet and full-body armor. Most of the crowds followed them, and the Pallassian contingent including Grimalkin and Chaldion returned to the Walled City. As for the Antinium? Most were out of the inn. And Krshia and Lism went to meet with one more in City Hall.
The last meeting for the two Councilmembers happened after lunchtime. There was a bit of a delay, because their contact wasn’t ready.
The Antinium Hive was in a tiny bit of a panic. Because Lism had refused point-blank to meet with Xrn. And she was busy anyways.
Fortifying the Hive. The [Thaumaturge] was drawing glyphs on the wall. Casting spells. She spoke to Pawn and Yellow Splatters.
“If they attack the Free Antinium, they will try to cast [Earthquake]. They will fail.”
Her eyes shone with mischief and passion. Green and pink. Pawn and Yellow Splatters looked at each other. The Hives’ tunnels had always risked collapsing in bad quakes. But with Xrn—the Hive would become impregnable.
If the Antinium were going to war. Were they? Well, the negotiator chosen by Xrn to represent the Free Antinium was hurrying to the meeting spot.
And Lism was talking with Krshia.
“What does Liscor have, Krshia? If we assume a city, a nation has to have a specialty, what’s Liscor’s?”
It was what gave Liscor money and what they were famed for. Krshia counted the rest off on her fingers.
“Shield Spiders? Liscor used to manufacture gear out of them. The spring rains…location…the dungeon.”
“Yes, but these things aren’t what I mean, Krshia. We have to have something if we want to compete with Invrisil and Pallass.”
Lism ignored the look Krshia gave him, half-exasperation, half…
Look at him. The ego of a puffball fish. Compete with two of Izril’s largest cities? But Lism was willing to argue with [Senators] from Pallass, demand Liscor be the spot that the first football game took place because it had begun there.
Even so. She dutifully played along.
“What else do we have then, Lism? The inn?”
“No, not that. That’s a person. What do we have as a…resource? Think of our guest.”
Since he said that, Krshia frowned.
“You mean the Antinium?”
“They’re the largest building force in the world. A second army, but we can’t use that. If we build a second district at the same time at the first…”
“You want to hire them? Lism, we fought about this during the election and afterwards! For weeks! You campaigned on that!”
“And we’ve hired every Drake and Gnoll in Liscor. So? Circumstances have changed.”
Krshia actually tried to throttle him for a second there. How could he…? But that was Lism. And it begged the question as she sat there, listening to what he was about to negotiate to the Antinium with.
Who actually hated the Antinium more? Lism listened to Olesm. When the [Strategist] said the Antinium were a threat, Lism took it at face-value. But Krshia…
“What are you going to offer them? Expansions to the Hive? The Walled Cities would have us killed. As well as the army.”
Lism glanced at her as he sat at the small desk in the meeting room, breathing in and out.
“I have one or two incentives. But Krshia—Silverfang—listen. We could do a lot with the entire Hive at our disposal for…well, if we can convince them to work without gold. A second district? Forget people buying space. The city can own a lot of that space. Undercut [Landlords].”
“You’re taking a risk that giving the Antinium something won’t backfire.”
Lism’s eyes flickered.
“If the Antinium are going to attack us, there’s no future for Liscor anyways, is there? If I believe that, I don’t think I’d be investing my time here.”
And that was how he got her. Sometimes—once. It was in that moment where the Council was debating Liscor’s future. Or Lism said something and Krshia found herself nodding because she saw what he was seeing where no one else did.
Antinium and Liscor’s future.
The Antinium knocked on the door and politely entered when Lism raised his voice. Krshia had been wondering who it would be—but there was really only one choice as to whom the Free Queen and Xrn would send.
Belgrade sat in the chair opposite them and nervously shook their hands.
“Hello, I am Belgrade, representing the Free Antinium. I think we have met?”
He looked at Lism. The Drake stared at the Worker and slowly nodded.
“Yes. Hello…Belgrade. Thank you for coming here. We’re here to negotiate on behalf of the Council of Liscor with the Free Antinium.”
Belgrade raised two hands on his left side.
“I am authorized by my Queen to negotiate, but I must seek her acceptance on any treaty. My words may be in error, but I will attempt to negotiate in good faith for my Hive.”
“Understood. You can relax, Belgrade. We are all fr—allies here, yes?”
Krshia smiled and Belgrade did relax, a bit. He eyed the plate of…well, you couldn’t serve an Antinium crackers, could you? So Krshia had gotten some meat cuts. He took one and nibbled it as Lism steepled his claws.
“[Tactician] Belgrade. We have a…proposal regarding Liscor’s future. Possibly future expansions.”
Belgrade listened to the idea about adding a second district to Liscor. He raised two hands again.
“The Free Antinium will doubtless be willing to construct the buildings. However, I have been instructed to ‘get something in return of substance or don’t agree’. May you assist me in that endeavor?”
The Gnoll covered her face with her paws. He might be a [Tactician], but it felt like stealing candy from a child. And while Lism might hesitate to do it to an actual child…
His smile was predatory.
“Of course. We’d be quite willing to allow the Antinium more space in the Watch. More patrols—expand the number of allowed Antinium Soldiers above thirty? Even expand the Hive’s allowed numbers to—”
“No, thank you.”
Belgrade happily ate another slice of meat. Lism hesitated.
“No? But you haven’t even heard—”
“That is not of substance which my Hive wants. We do not want it. The answer is no.”
The [Councilmembers] were stumped. He might be childish, but Belgrade was also positive when he knew things. Lism coughed.
“Perhaps if we were to offer a tax—”
“…More permits for working Ant—”
“We will sequester that without a substantive deal. It is not of merit. I am sorry. Your suggestions are lacking compared to the Antinium’s contribution.”
Lism’s teeth audibly ground together. Krshia was half-delighted, but she was on Liscor’s side. So she leaned forwards.
“What would the Antinium like, Belgrade?”
“An expansion to the Hive’s—”
The two chorused. Belgrade shrugged.
“Xrn said you would say that. I do not know what else to say.”
Krshia exchanged a look with Lism. He held up a finger. He had one hook. She glared at him. It had better be a good one! She tried one more time with Belgrade before Lism moved in. Even lowering his expectations helped make the last deal stick.
“Besides that, then, Belgrade. What do the Antinium want for a better life? A better Hive? We can attempt to make that happen, yes?”
The [Trapsetter Tactician] stopped eating the slices of meat. He…looked at Krshia, his mandibles open.
“Life can get better than it is now? Is that possible?”
Krshia’s mouth opened and closed. And what was she supposed to do with that?
“I…more food? More tasty food? More Fortresses of Fluff?”
Lism coughed. Krshia sat back as the Drake leaned forwards.
“Interesting you should mention that, Belgrade. Food, you say? I have noticed the Antinium have been buying a good number of supplies.”
“Garry makes food. Food is better than paste.”
The two [Councilmembers] nodded on the basis that this was entirely correct. Lism checked his notes again.
“What would you say if I were to offer the Antinium something for the supply of stone and man—antpower to building more improvements to the city?”
“I would say that you have not so far.”
Lism heard Krshia laughing silently. His eyes narrowed, but he turned it into a winning smile.
“Ahem. Well, now I am. I’m prepared to offer the Antinium…six square miles of space.”
Krshia fell out of her chair. She got up as Belgrade’s mandibles opened.
“We will take that.”
“Lism! You cannot do—”
The Drake held up a claw. He studied Belgrade and went on.
“Aboveground only. An Antinium-district or farmland. You can dig…ten feet below street-level? But no further. And we will check.”
Belgrade spoke as if he hadn’t heard the words before. Lism nodded.
“Antinium could grow their own food. If it’s farmland—we can offer more space on the Floodplains. Think about it. Antinium [Farmers], harvesting the fruits of the land or…whatever you want to grow. Fresh, free produce.”
The Antinium stared at something only he could see. Krshia looked at Lism, amazed despite herself. So that was his big offer.
Expanding the Hive was not a move Liscor or the Drake cities could ever countenance. But farmland? Antinium buildings? Belgrade only had to think for a minute.
“The Free Queen and Xrn will wish to listen to this. I will relay it to them and return to you later if that is acceptable.”
“Of course. Consider the offer. We can negotiate! Is that clear? It’s negotiable!”
Lism called out after Belgrade’s back. He turned to Krshia.
“I hope it—he—understand there’s room for negotiation. We can do more than six square miles.”
She sat there, looking at him. All of this today. It wasn’t the first time she’d followed Lism rushing about. But this—
“You really want to make the city that much bigger, don’t you, Lism?”
He looked at her as he put his notes away.
“Of course I do. And we should talk about you going to the Meeting of Tribes. Just…I’ll keep Liscor running. Send you [Messages]. Hah! It’ll be a relief to have you gone instead of impeding me!”
Lie. He didn’t even meet her eyes as he said that. Krshia sat there.
What an odd thing. Why him? And why…?
They were two different types of people. She had been a Plains Gnoll all her life. Lism? He’d grown up in Liscor. Lism looked across the Floodplains, visible from the city hall’s second floor over the walls.
“Have you ever seen anything more beautiful, Krshia? Tell me honestly.”
The word made Lism twist in his chair. Krshia looked at the High Passes far overhead. The Floodplains.
“Better than this? Really?”
She looked at him.
“Of course I have, Lism. I have roamed Izril’s south. I have seen wondrous sights. The Walled Cities, flowing grasslands, ponds and forests. And that is nature. I have seen taller walls, grander cities.”
It was all true. But he looked so—hurt. Lism looked across the city and shook his head.
“I have never seen those things. I’ve seen pictures—even walked in Invrisil and Pallass.”
He looked back at her.
“How can it be better than the city I love? How can my home not be the most beautiful place in the world?”
His sentiments mystified Krshia. Some places were terrible. Liscor flooded each year like a clogged tub.
But there he stood. A Drake who had never left the city he’d grown up in. Lism leaned on the windowsill.
“Okay. Maybe there are better cities. But I won’t visit them, Silverfang. Krshia. If someone said I could become a [Senator] in Pallass—or move to Zeres tomorrow and live comfortably there all my life—would you take that?”
“Hrm. I don’t like living in one place forever.”
The [Shopkeeper] stared out across Liscor, and the setting sun playing over the hills and valleys as they rose up towards the High Passes.
“I wouldn’t. Not even if it were the best city in the world. Because that’s here. I intend to live and die here, Krshia. I intend for my nephew to live a grand life here—children or grandchildren if I have any. If it’s broken, if it can be improved, I’d rather do it here than look for it.”
That was a Drake’s sentiment. A City Gnoll’s sentiment. Here I am. Here I stay. When things were unpleasant, a tribe of Gnolls moved. But Lism—Krshia had lived in Liscor for ten years. At first, just for the opportunity.
But ten years was a long time. She went to stand next to Lism. And she looked again.
“Liscor is changing, Lism. There are Humans coming in. Humans, Garuda, Dullahans, Selphids…and the Antinium. You—you’ve complained about outsiders for as long as I’ve known you. First they were Gnolls. Do you love Liscor if it looks like this?”
She pointed down into the construction zone where Humans were going to their new homes. Lism scratched at his chin.
“I hate outsiders.”
Krshia shoved him and he grabbed desperately at the windowsill.
“Give me a straight answer.”
“I am! Listen—”
Lism adjusted his clothing, haughtily.
“I…sometimes. Sometimes. I can have the wrong idea. But not about outsiders. Damn them, coming into our city…”
The Gnoll rolled her eyes, exasperated. Lism held up a claw.
“I won’t change my mind about that. If you’re not part of the city, you can’t complain about it! You don’t respect it. But…Erin Solstice.”
She nodded. Krshia saw Lism turn his gaze to the opposite window, where an army had fought and died. Lism leaned back.
“She’s changed Liscor so much. You owe her a debt of gratitude, surely.”
Lism grumbled. He looked at Krshia.
“But an outsider’s still a pest. Why do they get to change my city? Why do they get to strut in and mess things up? I won’t change my mind on that.”
He waved at her for silence, nudging her for once. Krshia let Lism go on.
“Maybe. If someone stood outside the city with a flag and stopped a damn army from taking the city—that’s not an outsider. If they’re pesky Gnolls—that’s one thing. If they’re members of Liscor, that’s another. If it’s damn Antinium, they can all drown. But a Liscorian? A Liscorian fights for their home. Makes it better. If I was going to respect…anyone…I’d respect that.”
The Drake looked past Krshia. She stared at him. Had he just said…?
“You’re sentimental. You’re saying—”
He slapped at her paws.
“It’s a good mood. Stop ruining it, Silverfang. It’s just…look at us now.”
The two Councilmembers stared out the window. The sun was setting. Lism murmured, half to himself.
“I could have never imagined I’d be here. Doing this. It all feels new. I feel alive. It feels like—I’m dreaming of a better Liscor. And pulling the pieces out of the sky.”
It was a moment like that when a kiss would be appropriate. And since Lism was busy being distracted, Krshia did it for him.
She still wasn’t sure why. But it was that attraction—part dislike, part an odd infatuation. The two remained there, in the conference room.
In the inn, Elirr and Hexel were sharing a drink in the quiet as the Players of Liscor took the stage. Numbtongue was missing. Grimalkin and Chaldion were gone.
Olesm and Maviola were talking about tactics with Embria and Zevara. Palt, Montressa, and Bezale were in Pallass facilitating some of the business contracts. The Gold-rank teams were attending a fancy party.
The Raskghar were climbing out of the dungeon.
They had ropes. They had been waiting. They had the plan.
Why now? Why not now? Perhaps—because it was darker. The shadows were rising. The [Guard] was rotating on the walls for dinner. Less alert.
Perhaps it was just the moment.
They emerged, sinking into the grass that was high enough to hide them. First, ones and twos. Then dozens. Then…
All of them. Every Raskghar in the dungeon. None remained. None living.
At first, they began to crawl. But it was a long way to Liscor. So—after ten minutes to rest from the climb, to look, gauge—they got up and ran.
The moons. The Raskghar were faster. Smarter. And they ran.
Straight for the city. Liscor. But not all of them moved in the same group.
Most went for the open gates. But a group of—dissidents—split off. They headed for the inn. And their loping run picked up.
Faster and faster.
Someone saw them. How not, with nearly two hundred Raskghar racing across the Floodplains? Thirty were coming at the inn. They saw a shape standing in the unfinished tower. A flicker—
One of the Raskghar dove, but the arrow curved and hit him in the leg. A glancing shot—the second arrow dropped from the tower a moment later. It was followed by a voice.
Bird. Where everyone left, he remained.
“RASKGHAR! ALARM! ALAAAAAAAAAAAARM!”
His voice cut through the pleasant silence. Mrsha, lying on her back, opened her eyes wide. Hexel and Elirr froze.
“Alarm! Sound the alarm!”
The [Guards] on the wall saw the Raskghar coming. Someone began ringing the bell, summoning the Watch Captain, Olesm, and everyone to the walls. The Watch grabbed for their weapons, aiming them downwards.
But the Raskghar charging at the inn didn’t slow. They were so fast. And this group wore armor. Bird loosed another arrow and a Raskghar blocked it. They were too fast.
One fell. Then another. Bird rained arrows down on the Raskghar.
But they were coming up the second hill separating them from the inn.
Lyonette ran into Pallass, shouting. Erin saw Ishkr wrestling with the magic door.
“Leave it! Into the Garden! Close the hallway off!”
“Stay behind me.”
Hexel was covering the door with a wand as Erin and Ishkr ran back in. They slammed the door as people screamed. The [Innkeeper] looked around. Mrsha, Ekirra, and Visma were staring wide-eyed at her from the [Garden of Sanctuary].
“Don’t leave. Close the door if they come through.”
Fortress Beavers were forming a protective wall between the children and the door. Erin turned. She drew the knife at her belt. The magic door…she should have tried to get Pelt. Or…
“Everyone stay calm. Go into the Garden. They can’t get in. Ishkr—”
He handed her a crossbow. The staff were pressed up against the arrow slits in the hallway. But there was no Numbtongue. No Relc. Or Pawn or…
The Raskghar stormed up the hill, howling. The others had their plan. But they wanted only one thing. They were armed with low-grade magical weapons. The last relics the Raskghar possessed. The inn was deserted, doors locked. Windows shuttered.
The band of thirty circled the inn. Some threw javelins up at the Antinium, who’d taken cover. But the rest just wanted inside.
The door was closed. The Raskghar began to pound on it. They were so strong. The reinforced wood began to shudder with the impacts and one began carving into the door’s hinges with a magical sword. The Raskghar braced as they felt the door giving. Horns were blowing from the walls, but too slow for the inn. They moved back to ran in one rush—
And the outhouse door behind them swung open.
The Raskghar whirled. Someone kicked out the roll of toilet paper. It was…a Drake?
He was naked. And another two fellows with hats slowly rose out of the grass. One dusted at his coat. But they held back.
The naked Drake looked at the Raskghar. And there was something—that made them hesitate.
Saliss looked one of the Raskghar up and down. They had to outweigh him many times over. They were taller, bulkier. The [Alchemist] nodded.
“So you’re Raskghar. That adventurer, Jelaqua wears you better.”
Thirty one. Bird had dropped one more. He was peeking over the edge of his tower and the Gentlemen were stepping to the sides. But it was Saliss who stood there.
One of the Raskghar brought up a shield and charged, a spear raised. The Named Alchemist flicked the vial up and exhaled.
He blew a spray of acid across half the Raskghar. The liquid was colorless, exceptionally fine. They began screaming and dropped their weapons, clawing at their faces and their dissolving fur. The others dodged sideways—
And ran into the flasks flying at them.
Wilovan and Ratici shielded their faces. They felt the flash—heard a few screams. When they looked, Saliss was walking around. He tossed the last of the acid in his vial on the Raskghar still alive. He turned and the Gentlemen Callers lowered their weapons.
That was how Erin found Saliss. The Named Adventurer swung the door open to the common room. She stared, armed with a jar of acid herself and a knife.
The Named Adventurer. Saliss of Lights. For a moment, his face was terribly blank. Then he spread his arms.
“Is all this for me?”
Wilovan never took his eyes off the Drake’s smiling face from behind. He put away his club. And looked out across the Floodplains towards Liscor. The rest of the Raskghar—
Zevara raced for the gates with her sword drawn. Everyone was running the other way, but she shoved past them, cursing, with every [Guard] in the city on her heels. Olesm was running too, with Maviola. Embria had already passed them both.
She found the Raskghar at the gates. Zevara halted as she saw the bodies. And then—the furred forms.
They were kneeling. Arms raised, prostrate on the ground or raised towards the sky. Embria and 4th Company was halted—several Raskghar lay dead, bodies covered with arrows or blown to bits. But the rest—were shouting.
“Surrender! We surrender! Beg mercy! Surrender!”
Olesm was panting. Wide-eyed, he looked at Zevara. She counted. Nearly two hundred Raskghar, minus the ones who’d attacked the inn. But the rest—nearly half younger than the adults—were there.
She heard shouting from above. The wall was in chaos. An arrow struck the ground from above and she heard a shout.
“Hold your fire! That is an order!”
Drakes were struggling with Gnolls who had killed the Raskghar even as they tried to surrender. Zevara saw Jeiss tackle a Gnoll [Archer] who tried to put an arrow through the leading Raskghar’s head.
The Raskghar were howling. The word seemed foreign on their tongues. Zevara regained a moment of sanity at last.
“Hold your fire! That is an order!”
The shouting died down. Embria didn’t lower her spear. Maviola was staring—it was Olesm who looked across the Raskghar towards the inn.
“The Wandering Inn. Erin, Mrsha—are they…?”
“Someone check. Wing Commander, go!”
“1st and 2nd Squad, on me! The rest of you, hold this line!”
Embria roared. She pelted for the door. Zevara stood there, mind racing. Another bow twanged—she whirled.
A Gnoll was shooting at the Raskghar! It wasn’t a [Guard]—Zevara pointed.
“Drop that weapon!”
“Kill the Raskghar!”
The Gnoll tried to loose another arrow. The whites of his eyes were showing. Zevara pointed.
“Guardsman, take his weapon!”
The squad hesitated, but then a trio of Drakes went for the Gnoll. Olesm heard more snarls.
“Kill them! This is a trick!”
“Hold your ground. That is an order!”
Olesm snapped at the [Guards]. But he was watching the Raskghar too.
Any move—and he’d use his Skill to loose a volley at them. Olesm was convinced this had to be a trick. Two hundred? There had been thousands of Raskghar by Calruz’ count.
But then he looked at them. Looked at them and saw something on each one.
Disease. Open wounds, coughing, a rattling wheeze even as they shouted the words over and over. Festering sores, pus, green, yellow, mixed with red blood.
The Plague Mage had said he’d cast a spell. Olesm had not seen the effects—but now he did. Typhenous had struck the Raskghar months ago. And he’d killed them.
Not a single Raskghar looked spared of whatever Typhenous had used. One of them—Olesm recoiled from a limb so rotted it was gone even if the disease were removed.
“Guards—4th Company, back up! Give the Raskghar space! On the walls—move back!”
“They’re diseased! Magical plague spell! Move back!”
4th Company instantly retreated. Everyone in bow range of the Raskghar covered at their faces, looking pale. Olesm felt sick.
“Get me—get me every [Mage] who can cast [Dispel Magic]! No one go near the Raskghar or the bodies! Stand back, this is an order!”
“Gnolls, stand down! I will have the badge of any Gnoll who attacks the Raskghar!”
Behind him, Zevara was stopping Gnoll civilians and [Guards] alike from attacking. The Raskghar peeked up at the chaos in the city. One of them raised her paws beseechingly towards Olesm. She panted.
“Sick. Dying. We surrender. Good slaves. Mercy.”
He looked at her and saw that gleam of feral intelligence in her eyes. Olesm shuddered because she was crawling towards him.
“Stay where you are! If you move any closer, you will be killed!”
He pointed his sword at her. Maviola was staring at him.
“They’re children, Olesm—”
She pointed at some of the Raskghar. But Olesm was just staring at them. The Raskghar were peeking at him, the Watch. Repeating the words.
Surrender. Mercy. And the blue-scaled Drake thought—
Oh, how clever.
Too clever. Olesm began to believe these were all the Raskghar. And if they were—look at them. They were going to die without help. Healing potions? You could kill them faster than an arrow if you tossed a healing potion on them.
Olesm hesitated. He turned his head and saw Zevara blocking Krshia. The Gnoll [Councilwoman] had come running with her own bow. She was pointing at them and demanding—Zevara kill them. The Watch Captain was busy. The air was tense, even as Embria came back and reported that Saliss had locked down the inn.
But any trigger could set the furious Gnolls off. Drakes too—hundreds of weapons were being trained on the Raskghar. Maviola didn’t understand, but she had not been there. The Antinium were marching out of the Hive.
He could end them right now. Olesm just had to shout ‘attack’ and they’d die. Half of him was telling him to do just that.
End it. You know what could happen. You know how smart they were.
“Mercy, kind Drake.”
The Raskghar sniveled at him. She was clearly afraid. But that too-intelligent gaze was on him. Olesm pointed his sword at her.
“Where is Nokha? Your leader?”
He hadn’t seen her. Was she hiding? The Raskghar’s eyes flickered. She cowered.
“Don’t know. Mercy! Left. Left moons ago. Mercy! Treat wounds? Prisoners. Kind! Didn’t kill adventurers.”
Olesm stared. Then he realized—the Raskghar had a bunch of struggling forms lying next to them.
Good thing no one had used an area-spell, because the two Silver-rank teams who’d gone into the dungeon would have been caught up in the blast. They were all battered—but alive. Olesm stared. The Raskghar pointed as someone cried out, seeing the adventurers. It was meant to prove how desperate they were. But Olesm’s scales began to crawl.
They’d planned this. Nokha was missing. He looked around.
Do it. It was cruel. There were children there. But look at them and know what they did. What they want. This was a trap. Olesm saw the female Raskghar staring at him. Then at his eyes. Her smile flickered.
Zevara grabbed Olesm’s arm a moment before Maviola. The Watch Captain and [Strategist] stared at each other. Zevara was breathing hard.
“Strategist Olesm. Are we monsters or people, Strategist Olesm?”
She looked at the Raskghar. Olesm stared at them too, then at her.
“Are these monsters or people, Watch Captain?”
Her eyes flickered. She had to see it too. Zevara was no fool. Two hundred prisoners? Each one who got stronger as the moon rose? Who lived to eat Gnoll hearts and grow stronger? With Nokha missing?
But she was Watch Captain Zevara. She knocked his arm down and turned.
“Ask a Goblin. Anyone who opens fire without provocation will be imprisoned! Stand down!”
Maviola looked at Olesm. She did not ask ‘what were you going to do?’ Or anything trite like that. She knew. The [Lady Firestarter] stepped over to Olesm.
“Are they like Crelers, then?”
She looked at him, weighing his response, looking at the Raskghar. Are they Crelers, to be exterminated? Olesm shuddered.
“Worse. Crelers don’t choose to be what they are.”
So that was how Erin Solstice arrived. How the others came flooding into the inn—too late and unneeded, Numbtongue with his shiny sword he’d not even got a chance to swing.
An unexpected victory. Or was it? Lism stood with Krshia as the Raskghar were taken into custody. They were…prisoners.
The Gnolls wanted them dead. Krshia was opening and closing her fists. Already—Zevara had a wall of Drake and Human [Guards] blocking the Raskghar, but Gnolls were grabbing weapons, vowing the Raskghar would be dead. Elirr stared as Hexel protectively stood in front of him.
Raskghar in Liscor. And at this time? Lism looked at them.
“A gift for the Meeting of Tribes?”
Krshia turned slightly to look at him. Her eyes flickered, then she shook her head curtly.
“No. A warning.”
It changed so much. And as the Raskghar were being led towards the jail, and the [Healers] were shouting for everyone to stay back because the magical plague needed dispelling—and Zevara was demanding Occillium for her prisoners while she argued with Olesm—
Someone coughed. Lism and Krshia turned. They saw three dozen Drakes, standing behind them. Packhorses loaded, each one dressed up. The Drakes looked rather offended. And rather different than Liscor’s Drakes.
“Er…hello? Can we help you?”
Lism stared at the Drake. The other Drake, wearing a wide belt of gold and ornamental armor sniffed at him. He looked around the city, at the Raskghar with distaste, and gave Lism a sophisticated salute.
“We are the delegation from Hectval. It seems we have come at an eventful time. However, I trust we are expected?”
Lism and Krshia’s jaws opened slightly. The delegation from Hectval? They’d all completely forgotten. The [Emissary] or—was he a leader of the Drake city?—stared suspiciously at Lism.
“We are expected?”
“Of—of course. Pardon the interruption. Our city was just attacked by…that’s why we’re here. Members of Liscor’s Council. Greetings! Hectval’s emissaries! Welcome to Liscor!”
The Drake looked around. Lism and Krshia exchanged a glance as Zevara’s head turned and Lism desperately looked around, beaming as he shouted.
“The delegation is here just as planned! Just as planned!”
And the ordinary day became one filled with…Raskghar. Delegations. And more. Amid the chaos, which wasn’t Erin’s fault this time, a figure watched in the crowd.
‘Bearclaw’ grinned and then slipped away.
Author’s Note: Another cliffhanger ending? But you can see why, right? Right?
I…intended this to be 20,000 words. Look at me now. Don’t I look silly? Hah. HAHAHAHA. But anyways, we’re continuing. Liscor! Erin! Are you invested! Were you surprised by any part of the chapter?
Let me know! I’m very tired—and hungry—but the chapter is done and we’ll get another one in…a few days! It’s almost as if I don’t have a long break between chapters!
Anyways, I’m leaving you with some great art. Enuryn had made an animation of Mrsha snoozing in the Garden of Sanctuary! Surfator has created their map of Liscor in the spring and LeChat, the original [Prolific Artist] has a bevy of amazing art! Check it out and thanks for reading!
A map of Liscor by Surfator!
Art, memes, and flying [Witch]-Erin’s by LeChatDemon!
Stash with all the TWI related art: https://sta.sh/222s6jxhlt0
Sleeping Mrsha by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!