Ryoka, Fierre, and Salamani were over two thirds of their way to Invrisil when the news about the Raskghar caught up to them. Rather—they had to go to the Mage’s Guild and get a letter from Mrsha addressed to Ryoka.
Dear Ryoka—the letter began, because of course, you had to have manners and Mrsha’s mother was a [Princess]—
Raskghar have left the dungeon. They are prisoners in the city, but Nokha isn’t there. Everyone is worried. Hurry up and come here.
Of course, that made Ryoka run faster, but she was still a City Runner. She slowed Fierre and Salamani down.
But she was coming. And if you looked or listened—they were drawing together again. Faces seen and never seen at that inn.
Away from Invrisil, Laken Godart was fulfilling a debt to Ryoka. Some of her needs he couldn’t oblige her, but a party? He had gotten a few RSVP’s from nobles that Rie could lean on. The ones who’d attended his gathering during the time of the Goblin raids—had politely refused.
But he had his own concerns which dovetailed with the party. Riverfarm would be ready for Ryoka’s guests.
Some of it was design. Some of it—coincidence. For instance, Ryoka had not told them she was going to Invrisil. Certainly, after the last few encounters she was not kindly disposed to the three Gold-rank adventurers sitting in the wagon headed far more slowly to Invrisil.
It could be as long as a week’s trip. But they were headed back. For a few reasons. Mostly, to see about a famous Dwarf-smith that Dawil thought he could get in with. Also, to meet one of Ylawes’ old friends in the area…
That wasn’t the surprising thing. The surprising thing was that they had company who also knew Ryoka. Two people, in fact.
“So you both know Ryoka Griffin?”
“Well, I can’t say as I have personally known her, Lord Ylawes. More like an encounter one time.”
Termin tipped his hat as he ordered the two mules to stop flirting and keep going. He chuckled.
“Crazy, meeting a Gold-rank team who just met her. She doing well? She was rescuing this team from these evil frogs…”
“The very ones. Actually, I owe her a bit of a debt. Leveled up from that encounter, so I did. But how’d you meet with her, sir?”
The [Wagon Driver] nodded, much pleased. He turned to the last rider on the wagon—well, Termin was doing a bit of a passenger shuttle so people kept getting on and off, riding with the goods. But the ones bound for Invrisil, his last stop numbered four in total.
The recalcitrant young man looked up.
“We stayed at the same inn. I’m just moving cities to earn more money. Reizmelt’s dried up.”
“Fist fighting. You know, I’d have given you a shot if you hadn’t laid out that huge fellow. Must have been three hundred pounds. You should have tried it, Ylawes.”
“It wouldn’t have been fair. Without my armor…and with it, certainly not.”
The [Knight] demurred. Falene rolled her eyes. She objected to the trivial pursuits both her companions were on. Wistram called to her. But—she’d heard some Wistram [Mages] were in the inn, so she had her own reasons for going too.
But that was the thing about travel. The Silver Swords were moving slowly, able to run off and slay some monsters before catching up with the wagon. Ryoka and the other two were moving for Invrisil as fast as they could. Yet they would be too late. Had been too late, for the Raskghar.
Not that they had been needed. The attack had been a non-attack. But the problem with things you didn’t kill was that they remained.
Erin Solstice had been intending to end her day with a bracing game of chess. Perhaps even a few games of cards with Numbtongue who had developed something of an addiction to it. Or perhaps an addiction to gambling.
Instead, she rose before dawn after a sleepless night. She had slept—in that way where you forgot you’d rested because you’d kept waking up and falling back into uneasy slumber.
As a girl, Erin would sometimes watch a horror movie or see some creepy picture and have nights like that on Earth. That had been one thing, with only the phantoms of her mind for company.
Knowing there were actually things out there had meant that Erin got probably two entire hours of sleep out of the eight she had been ‘sleeping’.
Only her Skills had given her enough rest to function. And even then—Erin looked around the [Garden of Sanctuary].
Little sleeping forms. Numerous bedrolls—and a bed. Erin passed a hand over her weary face. Dozens of figures, actually.
Silently, she checked the two objects she’d been sleeping with. Not next to her—so there was no risk of rolling into them, but close enough to be grabbed in a moment.
A knife—a frying pan, and closer than that impromptu bar-weapon—a glowing, green jar. Erin examined it in the faint light before the dawn. She was careful not to touch the edge of the knife as she unsheathed it. Normally, she didn’t even use it for cooking.
As for the jar—Erin looked it over, making sure the seal was tight, and not corroded. She ignored the pan. Pans were pans. Erin put the knife on her belt, stretching. Then she remembered—
Potions. Erin checked her belt. Two healing potions, one Tripvine…no, that was in the bag of holding. She sighed as she put the pan inside the magical bag.
Erin checked the jar of acid one last time for cracks or flaws in the glass. Honestly, she wasn’t happy even carrying it in a bag of holding. If it broke—you had less than ten seconds before whatever the acid did probably wouldn’t ever heal.
But as weapons went—Erin carefully placed it in her bag of holding and stood up. She stretched again as she looked around her garden.
She knew how many people were in and out of it. Two had left—Numbtongue, which was fine, and Palt. Both okay. Even so, Erin checked the numbers within, expanding her…senses. Her aura? Checking her garden for intruders.
Surely she would have noticed. But Erin did it anyways because she felt uneasy.
Mrsha and Lyonette, check. Pawn, snoozing in an Antinium-huddle with the Workers and six Soldiers—check. The Soldiers were clearly awake—they were staring at Erin.
Little snoring buzzes coming from Ekirra’s nose for all he’d been so nervous Saliss had given Erin a drop of sleepy-stuff to put in a cup of blue juice for him. He slept with his parents and other Gnoll families who’d asked…
Visma, curled up with her parents, holding onto one of the Mrsha-toys. The silver ball Numbtongue had made. Better make sure she didn’t try to keep it…
Bird wasn’t here. He’d refused to leave his tower, claiming, accurately, that he didn’t need to sleep and that the inn was far more secure with him there. He was still up there.
Kevin, Rose, Joseph, Imani, Troy, Leon, Galina…check. Erin ran down the few others in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. And those in the inn.
Few had wanted to sleep in the rooms when Erin had offered the garden for the night. Even people from the city had approached her when they’d heard Erin talking about it. After all—it was probably the safest place in all of Liscor and Erin wasn’t making that up.
The people who’d refused were Bezale and Montressa, who’d put up wards on their rooms, and the Players of Liscor—half had wanted to be with their families or slept in Invrisil given their ongoing thing.
The other half were here with said families or friends, snoring away. They were using bedding from the inn, turned into bedrolls; it was Lyonette who had arranged for a bed to be imported here for herself and Mrsha, and set up a small space for them.
She was holding Mrsha tight and Erin didn’t wake either. The [Innkeeper] exhaled as she finished her check.
“Nothing happen when I was out? Yellow Splatters?”
She turned and the [Sergeant] paused. He had walked up on her from behind.
“No, Erin Solstice. No reports from Liscor, either. I have checked every twenty minutes with Purple Smiles, who is deployed there, along with Belgrade.”
He spoke. An Antinium with a voice that made Kilkran remark that he’d fear for his job if Yellow Splatters were anything but Antinium. Erin looked at the Soldier and had a flash of another Antinium.
“We are here to protect you.”
Would she ever forget any of the other moments like these? Perhaps not. They all flashed across Erin’s mind. Some more pressing than the others.
For instance, the Painted Antinium were here in force. Erin had two squads in the [Garden], and she knew that forty were in the inn, hiding in the basement, resting, patrolling—each one a Painted Soldier or Worker-Archers and thus superior to even normal Antinium.
The night Skinner attacked would not repeat itself. The Raskghar’s raids would not repeat themselves.
“We live and learn.”
Yellow Splatters watched her. Erin looked around. That was the thing about surviving stuff. You tended to not want it to happen again. Zevara had requested six hundred Antinium Soldiers to patrol every inch of the city and hold the walls. And no one was complaining about that.
Not today. The [Innkeeper] walked towards the door. Yellow Splatters followed.
“What are you doing, Erin Solstice?”
He was formal and not at the same time. He did not call her ‘Miss Solstice’ these days. Which Erin liked. But he did use her full name. Erin turned as she walked towards a door waiting for her along the walls.
“Someone needs to make breakfast. And since the staff are all here or on vacation…”
“It may be dangerous.”
The [Sergeant] moved to block her. Undeterred, Erin walked left—the door was in front of her again.
“If there’s a monster in the inn, it’s both invisible and it can evade my [Innkeeper]-senses, Yellow Splatters. My innsense. No…that sounds horrible. Have you had anything to eat?”
Yellow Splatters hesitated. He seemed so large, despite not being that much bigger than regular Soldiers. But Erin was so familiar…
“The Antinium have brought field-rations.”
The look of horror on Erin’s face made it quite clear that she knew exactly what Antinium rations looked like. She pushed open the door, shaking her head—
Every Antinium in the common room stood up as Erin stepped through the door right outside her kitchen. A dozen bows raised and lowered instantly. Soldiers prepared their fists—and stopped.
The young woman reacted with the same speed; she lowered the knife and jar.
“It’s just me, guys. Erin.”
The Antinium looked at her as she waved. As if they needed clarification on that last bit. Erin sighed as her heart decided it was time for a sudden sprint in the morning.
“Everyone’s on edge. Hey, Pink Stripes? Nice to see you.”
Erin made finger-guns at a Soldier standing closest to her. He copied the gesture with all four hands, slowly.
Outgunned, Erin looked around. She caught sight of herself in the large scrying mirror. Fortified inn, armed Erin, Antinium ready for a fight.
What if this had been the Erin who arrived in this world way back when? Almost a good thing she hadn’t—the Goblins who’d attacked her and the Rock Crab wouldn’t have survived those meetings. Erin walked into the kitchen and stared at a Worker with a bow sitting next to it.
“Archer C2, get that out of your mouth. I’ll get breakfast. Anyone want food? You know what? I’ll just…”
The Worker slowly spat out the bit of Antinium rations—the bar of—the congealed and dried substance that—
The…semi-solid matter that was slightly crumbly, but was lightweight, kept for over a month, and which even rodents wouldn’t eat. Erin still had to worry about pests, even with her [Field of Preservation]. The Children of the Grain Sack had taught her that, so she did arm her traps.
She’d tried using the Antinium’s field rations until she realized nothing would eat it, not even bugs.
A bee buzzed out of the doorway, saw the room full of predators, and immediately buzzed into the kitchen. Erin, yawning, was grabbing all the pre-mades. Not Imani’s more elegant dishes, but the old standards she made.
Pizza, big pots of soup you could warm up…damn.
“They can’t eat these pizzas. Where’re Garry’s special pizzas with his dough? Let’s see…oho!”
The ‘oho’ was because Imani had labeled everything. One of the things Erin had never done.
‘Antinium-safe foods’ was a pantry with a lot of space in it. So much so that Erin had food for all the Antinium just from it alone. She began heating things up. Meanwhile, Apista crawled around.
The bee wasn’t hungry, per se. Since the Garden had an ample supply of all the plants she could want and she had a small supply of emergency-honey she was adding to.
However, she was a bit—jazzed. She could take the edge off. Mrsha and Lyonette had been worried, and the air, to the bee, was a bit tense. Apista cast about and then flew out of a window Erin cracked open to let some fresh air in and the smoke from the fires out.
“Hm. Hm…okay. Hey guys! Food! Come and get it. Help yourselves.”
Erin put Soldier-safe bowls and the first pot of soup out after a few minutes. Antinium clustered around. Assured by Erin that the bread was Garry’s and thus safe, they lathered it up with butter and dipped it into the rich—and buggy—soup.
Funny thing about Antinium. The ones like Yellow Splatters had no problem doing anything. But Erin took the extra minute because she knew Antinium to make a few pick up the butter knife.
“Put butter on the bread. It’s optional, but you’re allowed to do it, see? All of you, have one buttered slice. That’s an order.”
She phrased it like that because if you gave an Antinium a loaf of bread and something optional, they wouldn’t ever do the optional bit. Like condiments—you had to teach them it was alright to use up a stick of butter. It was…them thinking a bit of ketchup was worth more than they were.
Just a small thing. But you had to do it in Erin’s mind. So one of the things Ishkr taught [Servers] was to add condiments to an Antinium table’s order so they’d eat it. Don’t give them the jar of ketchup! And yes—it was a jar. Erin hadn’t developed squeeze-technology yet, at least in a way she was happy about.
“Greedy Drakes now, they’ll take the jar with them. Especially the food-thieves. Don’t see them around.”
Erin shot a glance around the inn, as if checking for the spies who liked to frequent her inn. To her surprise…she realized the inn had a few people loitering outside.
Busybodies? Erin would attend to food first. Food made the world better. Speaking of which—
She looked around for her mother before she bit into a lukewarm piece of pizza. Just—because her mother would have had something to say about that for breakfast. An odd thing, to think of her mother. Erin really didn’t…so the pizza bite’s swallow was a bit hard for reasons other than consistency.
Mom now…her mom didn’t understand the joys of cold pizza over a morning game of chess. Whether that was in the morning or night didn’t matter mom! She wasn’t gaining weight!
Erin prodded at her stomach just in case. Decent, decent. Lasica could always make her famous weight-loss menu.
“The joys of a magical world. Hey, can you all help me bring the food out? No—you can finish your breakfast first—”
A dozen Soldiers walked into the kitchen. Erin sighed, but directed them with the goods into the common room. And then, after a moment’s thought, she had them roll one of the round tables into the garden and set up there.
That proved to be a good move because people were waking up—or hadn’t slept—and few looked like they wanted to leave. Erin let them handle the food, like Ekirra’s mother, who thanked Erin profusely until the [Innkeeper] shushed them both. Little Ekirra was still sleeping.
Bird needed his food so Erin brought it up to him on a plate.
He didn’t draw his bow at her. Probably because he knew she was coming. Bird sat in his tower.
“Hello, Erin. Is that food for me?”
She smiled at him. Bird was as calm as could be.
“Yes, Bird. I have some of that g—Saltbird you loved so much. And eggs.”
“Oho. A bird breakfast! This is good. Thank you, Erin.”
But Bird didn’t touch the food. Erin saw him looking around.
“What is it, Bird?”
Normally he’d descend on the food. The Worker sighed.
“My hands are full. I must remain at full-vigilance and I cannot eat just yet. I will eat when the sun comes up.”
“…But you have four arms.”
“And they are all full, see? I cannot load and fire with only two arms with any efficiency, Erin.”
He had two arrows in his spare hands, his bow in one hand, and another hand on the arrow nocked and ready to go. Erin knew how fast he could loose—he’d taken 1st place in an indoor archery range one time and really ruined the old champion’s day.
“Maybe you could eat with one hand, Bird?”
“But that would decrease my firing time by point…”
“Bird. Maybe it’s safe to be slightly less optimal?”
He considered this.
“What if you fed me?”
Erin passed him the plate. Bird put one arrow down and sighed.
“I will eat. But if we all die because there was an inefficiency in my fire speed, I will be slightly upset!”
“Okay, Bird. You go sleep when everyone’s up, okay?”
It amazed others how calm Erin was. The Raskghar were in Liscor. The killers who had eaten hearts of Gnolls, who grew smarter with each full moon and the two moons were both still pretty full!
And yet—she had done this. It was not that Erin was untroubled. But she was ready. Breakfast done, Erin leaned against a wall and decided—
“Interloper-people. Maybe I should grab one of the crossbows.”
She thought she knew who they were, but they were on the edge of her inn’s ‘radius’ of detection and there was enough reason to be suspicious. Erin looked around for a crossbow. Numbtongue had hidden two dozen around the inn.
“Right here. No. right…here? No?”
…And she realized she hadn’t any idea where his secret compartments were. He kept showing her and she kept glazing over the details. Erin peered at a chair leg. She eyed a loose floorboard—no? One of the Antinium stopped to stare at Erin climbing onto a table to inspect one of the beams in the ceiling.
“Anyone seen a crossbow hiding around here?”
She was just giving up on the crossbow thing. It wasn’t as if she was that great a shot compared to her aim with an acid jar, anyways. Then, Erin heard an angry voice outside.
“Get back here! Get back h—”
A bee flew out of the kitchen, carrying a trail of smoke. Erin and the Antinium stared as Apista buzzed back into the [Garden of Sanctuary].
Carrying a full cigar. She had purloined it from the owner, who clip-clopped into the room a moment after her.
“You damned pest! That’s my—”
The drug-carrying bee disappeared into the Garden as Palt stopped. He saw Erin and coughed into a fist.
“Oh, hey, Erin..”
“Did you get that bee hooked on…?”
Erin stared at Apista and then at the Centaur. He raised his hands defensively.
“No! Probably not? I’m amazed it likes my cigars. But since it doesn’t pay—er, hi, Erin. Did you sleep well?”
“Mhm. Thanks for help with those [Calm] and [Soothe] spells.”
The Centaur’s face softened.
“My pleasure. How’s Imani?”
The two stood together. Palt produced a cigar—a long, thin one this time. Bright orange. He lit a finger—and hesitated. He looked sidelong at Erin and she waved a hand.
“Go for it. Today’s a rough day, anyways. I could almost use one.”
She flicked the cigar he proffered her away.
The [Illusionist] gratefully lit up. After a few puffs—the smoke flowed into a small ball over his head—he spoke out of the corner of his mouth.
“Good thought you had with the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Ingenious, really.”
“Mm. It’s obvious. All my smart ideas are.”
Sleep in the Garden. Really—it just made sense. Palt shrugged.
“I didn’t think of it and no one else did. You know, I looked it up. Er—I was doing a bit of digging. With my faction…just out of necessity, you know…”
Erin gave him a look as she decided she had room for like—half a pizza slice or something nice. One of the boiled eggs with pepper, maybe. Palt exhaled more smoke.
“It’s an Inheritance Skill. And since you probably don’t know—it’s a Skill that only one or a few people get at a time. There’s another famous carrier in Izril—well, I can name four total worldwide including you, now. Lots more in secret, perhaps.”
“What, the [Garden of Sanctuary]?”
Erin blinked. But she remembered what the Grand Mage had told her. An [Empress] had first owned this Skill. Palt nodded.
“It is—or was—a secluded place for those of royal classes. Occasionally others. A [Healer], an actual [Gardener]…you’re using it um, differently.”
The Centaur gestured at the door.
“They used it as a refuge. Not as somewhere where you’d let someone sleep. Mind you—it’s secure. The most secure place I could name. You could—well, build a room in there, couldn’t you? Live there. Unable to be harmed except by someone of exceptional levels. I know some people who’d pay you a thousand gold a month for that.”
Erin nodded absently. Then she looked at the [Garden of Sanctuary] and shook her head.
“But it can’t support everyone in there right now. It’s too small. And if the inn goes, so does it. Also…”
He prompted her after a moment. Erin looked into the Garden, where more people were waking up, then up at Palt.
“It’s a great safe-room. Even if it wasn’t designed like that. I don’t use most things like how they’re designed.”
She nodded at the magical door. Palt chuckled.
“True. But why not build a house in there or something?”
“Because the inn’s supposed to be a home. If I need to stay in the [Garden of Sanctuary], something’s gone wrong.”
She looked up at him seriously. Palt nodded after another long pull.
“At least it’s comforting to people now.”
“Yeah. Any word from Liscor?”
“I could check. But I just went outside to smoke. Numbtongue’s practicing with his sword.”
The [Innkeeper] glanced towards a window. The Hobgoblin had been on a hill blooming with flowers when Palt saw him.
“He’s fine. I think he’s just mad he didn’t get to cut any of the Raskghar. He feels guilty.”
“Not his fault. He can’t be here forever.”
The [Illusionist] was pragmatic. Palt trotted over to the bowls of soup, saw the floating acid-flies, and trotted back.
“Besides, Saliss of Lights handled the situation better than anyone else could’ve.”
Erin ducked her head. That was true too. He wasn’t here today—but she vividly remembered the [Alchemist] in the moments after the attack had ended.
Saliss had been posing with Ekirra and Mrsha while wearing the ‘privacy box’ in the garden. Comically. He’d reassured everyone that the Raskghar were dead, let everyone else run around and investigate—and played up the silliness for the frightened children.
He’d also killed over thirty Raskghar in less than a minute. Erin had seen the bodies—or what remained.
“And here I thought my acid jars were dangerous. Does he harvest acid too?”
“Maybe. But he probably buys and enhances it. There’s a reason why he’s called the most dangerous Named Adventurer for five minutes. Dead gods and hoof rot, I’d hate to be on his bad side. He’d do your curry trick with Isceil…only with acid.”
Palt wore the same expression Erin had had while thinking about her mother for a moment. Erin nodded. Saliss was capable of protecting anyone he wanted.
Protection, safety, it wasn’t the real issue today, was it? Everyone was vigilant but the Raskghar were detained! In jail! They were safe, and this was just worrying.
Because Nokha hadn’t been with them. Erin bit her lip. But would Nokha dare attack this inn? Palt could probably take her in a fight if he saw her coming.
Yet, it was the things you didn’t see coming. That went bump in the night if they were clumsy. The things you couldn’t predict. Erin was less experienced with that. Most of her fights had been fast, to the death, and immediate.
This was messy. Raskghar prisoners. Potential enemies skulking about. Erin shook her head.
“And why are they here? I had my suspicions and Numbtongue was…Palt? Can you walk out with me one sec?”
The Centaur stopped smoking. He looked quizzically at Erin. She glanced towards a point on the far wall with nothing special in particular about. But she had that look that said she wasn’t looking at the wall.
“I don’t think so. At least, not with the Antinium around. Just in case.”
That didn’t reassure the [Illusionist]. He began muttering spell buffs and casting them on himself. He wasn’t Isceil, who’d been able to decimate an area with a single breath, or Montressa who could throw up barrier spells or Bezale—well, he was closest to Bezale and Ulinde. But he could cast a lot of enchantments on himself if he had prep time.
Even so, he was support. And he reminded Erin of that. She just shrugged.
“It’s probably fine. It’s not strangers.”
“And if it’s trouble?”
“Ah…and if they block or dodge that?”
“You’ve gotta take modest risks, Palt.”
“I do. Gambling. Not with anything that might hurt so much as a hair on my body. Er—where are we going?”
Erin Solstice stopped outside. She stood in the grass, looking over Liscor. A summer day was beginning. The sun had yet to appear past the peaks in the High Passes but the air was fresh, the day as yet cool. The Flood Plains looked fairly lovely.
They were alone on the hill outside of The Wandering Inn. The city’s walls were fully-staffed and mage-lights were illuminating the ground outside of the city. Palt heard a distant call, identifying both of them.
High alert in short. The kind of thing that made him feel safe. Erin stared ahead. No one was in the outhouses. Numbtongue was by himself on that hill.
“This Raskghar thing’s scary.”
“Um. Yes, it is. But I have calming tonics and spells if you want—”
Erin glanced at Palt and he fell silent. She went on.
“It’s so dangerous. I’m so glad I’m being protected. By Antinium. And Numbtongue. And you, Palt.”
He fell silent again and stopped preening. Erin had given him another look. This time—Palt began glancing around with his magic, keeping his eyes on the city’s walls.
[Detect Magic]. Nothing but the walls…Erin’s inn was lit up and the door was blinding.
[Detect Heat]. Hm. Palt ran hotter than Erin, but nothing…was that a colony of rats just over there? Erin wouldn’t be happy about that. But nothing…
“I mean, I love the protection. Not that I, personally need it. You sort of wonder why everyone likes to protect me. Since the Raskghar attacked Liscor. And why now? It’d sure be great…if I had protection when the Wyverns attacked, y’know? But there are reasons. Still…I like knowing who’s protecting me, and why.”
The Centaur said nothing.
[Scrying: Palt Fenrisol]. Fun fact? Erin Solstice was invisible to [Appraisal] and [Scrying] spells these days, thanks to the ring Saliss had given her and…something else. Even the Elusive Lot had problems and they could scry past Palt’s defenses. But he saw nothing.
“Sure is a thing. Yup, yup. Ayup. Yuppers. Yeperoonie. Yep…”
The [Illusionist] heard a sigh.
“I think, comrades, that we’ve been made.”
A Gnoll, Drake, and five Human men rose out of the grass a foot in front of Palt. He freaked out.
“Burn my tail! [Haste]! [Shadow Leap]! Run for—”
He grabbed at Erin. She hadn’t been expecting that. Palt tried to turn and gallop into the inn as his spell snatched at him. But he tripped.
Erin and Palt flickered out of the air and crashed out of the doorway in a heap. Erin went whubpgh as Palt landed half on her.
Wilovan, Ratici, and the five Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings adjusted their hats and stared as Erin lay on the ground and Palt’s hooves waved frantically before he got up. The Gnoll tipped his hat to Erin after she’d stopped being squished.
“—Pardon about that, Miss Solstice. It seems we might’ve been a bit too conspicuous, as it were, and Ratici here misjudged how long your ear is.”
“What level is that Skill?”
The Drake groused. The other Brothers looked amused as they adjusted vests and straightened caps. Erin stared up at Wilovan as he held out a paw. The other Drake, the one with the cap, helped her up.
“Seems we have a bit to talk about, Miss Erin.”
Erin wheezed. She would have felt more triumphant if Palt hadn’t landed on her. That guy was heavy.
Something was wrong in the world. Twenty minutes later, Erin Solstice was sitting in the inn across from the Gentlemen Callers.
Few people were in the inn. Temile had checked in from Invrisil and the door was currently ferrying people from Pallass to Liscor—but the inn wasn’t open.
Most of the people were in the [Garden of Sanctuary] and not coming out. They had their entertainment.
Joseph had a football, but he’d been told by Lyonette that if he so much as kicked it into a single one of the fragile Sage’s Grass plants she’d bury him headfirst. So the others were sitting, talking—but mostly, helping with planting some of the seeds or cuttings that Lyonette and Erin had been meaning to get to.
Weeding the jungle biome in the [Garden of Sanctuary] and arguing about what was a weed in the thick foliage. Ekirra and Visma were trying to get Mrsha to help them make a ladder to grab a ripe cocoa pod.
All was well—on the surface. But Erin felt the tension. Still—that wasn’t what was wrong with the world.
What was wrong was that the good fellows had turned their backs until she put her shirt back on. And Bezale was smacking Palt hard as Montressa checked Erin’s midsection.
“Any more pain?”
“No. I think it’s good.”
Erin had cracked a rib when Palt fell on her. Two, actually. Which—to be fair, wasn’t exactly surprising when a horse fell on you.
“I am so sorry…”
“It’s fine. Healing potion’s already working.”
Cracked ribs weren’t as bad as broken bones. But Erin would have loved for Pisces to be here. She’d survived Skinner with…okay, maybe it wasn’t as fair. But Wyvern attacks? Crelers? And this was how she went out?
“Death by horse.”
“I said, I’m sorry.”
Palt was beet-red. He might have been a skilled [Illusionist], but he didn’t exactly have the most nimble build.
Erin eyed the Gentlemen Callers. They had refused to look until she put her clothing on. Not that she’d even exposed more than navel and said ribs. She knew beachgoers who were far more scantily clad than she had been.
But they were—The Gentlemen Callers. And the five Human men whom had introduced themselves to Erin and were politely helping themselves to a non-Antinium spread of food?
The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. And they were…criminals.
What astonished Erin was that they came out and said it. Twenty minutes was all it took. Five minutes really; patching Erin up had taken longer, mainly just to find a female pair of hands to administer the potion properly.
“So you guys are a gang?”
The Gentlemen Callers looked at each other. Wilovan, the burly Gnoll with the nearly-top hat and Ratici, the capped Drake who was short and slender. They glanced past Erin.
“It’s a delicate subject, Miss Erin. I’d hate to insist, but—”
One look was all it took. Palt grabbed Montressa and Bezale.
“Why don’t we stand over here, you two?”
Erin blinked. She saw the Centaur shuffle them off and mouth something at her which she completely missed. And it was something because Erin was certain none of the three [Mages] were listening in magically. Beza made a gesture to Montressa and Palt began shaking his head like Mrsha after a rainstorm.
“The Gentlemen Callers are two big Faces, Erin. That’s like—a ruler of the underworld. You don’t make them your enemies. They’re part of the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. They’re a smaller gang, but they’re elite. Erin—these guys are big players in northern Izril. I have no idea why they’re here! Even one of the Elusive Lot would have trouble getting them to move, let alone send the Callers here!”
That had been Palt’s whispered explanation when he’d put three and three together. It had confused Erin, but Ratici had made it clearer.
“We’re criminals, Miss Solstice. Call us a gang—call us [Rogues] if you like. We prefer to be called upstanding sorts—but only by comparison. We were hired to look out for you.”
That was easier to understand. Wilovan tipped his hat as Erin turned back from the [Mages].
“To be more precise, in the interest of honesty, Miss Erin, Ratici here is the finest [Thief] you’d ever lay eyes on, which is an indictment, of course, in his line of work as it were. And I’m a humble [Thug]. A fellow with a club who taps folks and absconds with coin. Dishonest men that we are, you can see why we’d hesitate to introduce ourselves before now.”
Erin had noticed this before, but the way they talked and even acted had roots in her country’s past. Not entirely one-to-one, but the Gentlemen Callers had a style about them.
But they were criminals. Honestly, the first Erin had really met. There was Pisces…and Lyonette, and the thugs and Grev. But these two were actual professionals compared to the amateurs.
“A [Thug] and a [Thief]. So you two are jerks who beat people up and then steal everything they own?”
She expected them to bridle at that, but the two just smiled. Wilovan touched a furry hand to his cap in a kind of salute.
“High-level, so a bit more than that, but we did start there. And I regret to say there was a time I roughed up any sort, Miss Solstice. But we’re part of the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings, and we follow a…code. If we prey on those with coin—it isn’t those down on their luck. Never children, never decent sorts.”
They were Robin Hoods of this world. But when Erin made the comparison without the name, the two chuckled.
“Hardly, hardly, Miss Solstice. We don’t ‘give to the poor’ save by way of spending large at a favorite restaurant or such. We’re simply honestly dishonest folk in that we pick our targets with more care than say—another gang.”
“And…why do you have a code of conduct at all? Are you honorable guys?”
Erin saw Wilovan blink slowly at her. He had that unflappable refusal to get angry or riled that Erin had seen in, well, only a few people.
“If there’s an [Honorable Thief], it isn’t one Ratici and I would bump elbows with, Miss Erin. Say rather we do what we do with the modicum of integrity we have—simply to live with ourselves.”
They were honest about their dishonesty. Erin sat back.
“So why are you here? Someone hired you two to protect me? Who?”
The two exchanged a glance.
“I’m afraid that’s confidential, Miss Solstice. You may have noticed us around—we accepted the contract just a bit ago.”
Erin had noticed them for a while. She scowled.
“But who? Ilvriss? See here—you can’t just sit in my inn and, er—guard me.”
The duo sighed even as Erin realized she hadn’t phrased that quite right. Wilovan looked at Ratici. The [Thief] glared at Erin.
“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you hadn’t picked us up, Miss. You must be over Level 40. I could sleep cheek-to-jowl with that Level 30 Drake [Innkeeper] in his bed and he’d never notice me.”
“Peslas? Ew. Why would you want to?”
Wilovan’s lips quirked. He nodded at the Brothers.
“My friend Ratici is free to entertain himself as he will on his time off, Miss Erin. Not that he’s generally so rude. But the fact remains—we wished to be unnoticed guests, but it seems our client was rather perspicacious as it were.”
Erin really wished Pisces were here. Even Ratici’s lips moved.
“What’s that then, Wilovan? Wait. I think I know. Perspi…sweaty?”
“Not at all, Ratici. Fine word. Read it in a book with a lovely woman just the other month. It means a discerning fellow. One with a lot of insight.”
The two had the same rhythm as Relc and Klbkch. Perhaps that was why Erin smiled despite wanting to be mad. The problem was—she had met these two and been amused by their colorful interplay before. They seemed friendly. And Numbtongue liked them.
Even so. They were [Thief] and [Thug]. Erin narrowed her eyes as she had a thought.
“Hold on. How long have you two been protecting me? I remember you being here for a while. What else have you two done?”
They eyed each other. Erin folded her arms. Wilovan coughed into a paw.
“Is this necessary, Miss Solstice?”
“It sure is if you want to stay here another second! I’m not having strange criminals under my roof!”
Ratici gave Erin a long look.
“As opposed to known criminals?”
“I know a jerk who sniffs a lot. He tried to rob me once. That’s—that’s not the point! I’m in charge here! Well?”
The two sighed. Wilovan snapped his fingers.
“Ah. There was that nastiness with that Bearclaw personality. One of the small-timers from down south. Messed about your friend. Terrible thing, that. Apologies, but we weren’t able to stop that.”
Relc. Erin’s stomach tightened up.
“You let it happen?”
“He seemed like a good sort to defend himself. Mind you—we were already taking liberties if you don’t mind me saying so. Our client’s orders don’t pertain to anyone but you, Miss Solstice. But we ah, had to adjust our criteria. A few unscrupulous sorts were going to kidnap the little Gnoll child. We persuaded them not to.”
Erin did remember that Bearclaw’s gang had been found unconscious. She hadn’t delved into it, with Relc being beaten up and his apartment burned by the Golden Triangle mob. She looked at Wilovan.
“You two did that?”
They winked as one.
“The Brothers don’t stand for kidnapping or anything that’d hurt a child. Cute little girl. Could use some pants, but then, we were all young once.”
Erin sat back. She had no idea! And she wouldn’t have if they hadn’t been obvious. She hadn’t even sensed Ratici and Wilovan except that the other five Brothers had made them noticeable.
“So you were in my inn to…”
“Chase off any of the rough fellows who came calling yesterday. Since that fine Named Adventurer isn’t here, we thought a bit of emergency help wouldn’t be amiss. Mind you—we’d have let the Antinium take the first swings. No offense, but we’re not here to risk our lives.”
But they were here to help. And who had hired them? Erin had a list of…well, she could imagine Ilvriss, maybe Magnolia or…
There were a few others. Erin narrowed her eyes.
“How long are you two going to guard me for? Can you tell me who hired you?”
“That would be a secret on both counts, Miss Solstice. We’re already compromised—we should remit some of the fee to the client, Ratici.”
“Damn. Pardon my language, Miss Solstice. Won’t happen again.”
The Drake looked embarrassed. Erin sighed.
“…Call me Erin.”
The young woman smiled a bit. Then Erin narrowed her eyes again as she had a sudden realization.
“Hold up. Invrisil. The mob…you two were there as well! You protected me!”
“And this is why we don’t take these sorts of jobs, no matter how good the pay is, Wilovan.”
The Drake leaned over and muttered. Wilovan whispered back.
“You’re being quite rude, Ratici. I hate to remind you in front of Miss Erin like this.”
“Terribly sorry, Miss. It’s been a fraught day.”
They both tipped their hats again.
Double damn. She was beginning to like them. Erin folded her arms.
“So you two won’t tell me who’s hiring you. But you did say you’re under orders to protect me?”
The two winced. Erin rubbed her hands together.
“So if I punched a Rock Crab…”
“I’d be amazed anyone would risk that, bodyguards or not. We can’t be everywhere and we don’t work miracles, Miss Solstice. Quite the opposite. And until now we thought your inn was safe at night.”
Erin’s face fell.
“So did I.”
Reality was Raskghar and this messy situation. Honestly, the Gentlemen Callers were the bright spot in Erin’s day. She looked at the Brothers.
“So those guys are like underlings?”
“Lower-ranking members. Decent sorts. Inherently trustworthy with anything but money, Miss. They’d rob you blind if you weren’t under protection, but make sure you got home in one piece. Can’t say that’s fair, but it’s how we work. Wave at the [Innkeeper], lads!”
All five instantly stopped having pizza and gave Erin a tip of the hat instead. She looked at Ratici. Now what was she going to do with them?
As happenstance would have it, Erin never got to answer that question. Because—the Gentlemen Callers were not actually applicable to her problems. They could have stopped the Raskghar cold. Would have—if Saliss hadn’t been there. Erin sensed that. They were two of the most high-level guests she had, right up there with Grimalkin. Not like Saliss, who was at the top or Grand Mage Eldavin, but…
But the problem was different. Erin heard a howl from the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She was out of her seat in a second.
Ratici beat her to the door. The fellow smacked into the open doorway and bounced off. Wilovan stepped back and held the door to let Erin through. He’d taken in the scene in a moment.
The children, of which there were eleven, were in the Garden, all crying. Some louder than others. Erin saw Mrsha standing with Ekirra. Visma was lying on the ground, howling as she held the silver ball. Her dress was muddy—Mrsha had pushed her along the pond-area’s banks.
“What’s going on here?”
Apparently, there had been a squabble. Visma had refused to give the ball back after breakfast when Mrsha wanted to play, and Mrsha, usually caring and generous with her gifts, had demanded it back. She’d pushed Visma, the Drake girl had begun crying, and so had everyone else.
Erin felt like crying, a bit, as she saw Mrsha’s tear-stained face and snotty nose. The little Gnoll toddled over to her on two legs and hugged at Erin’s leg.
She was shaking. It wasn’t the fight that had started the crying. Erin bent down as the adults rushed over.
“Here, here. It’s okay, Mrsha. It’s going to be okay. I’m sure Visma forgives you. See? She’s alright. You just have to say sorry. You’re Mrsha the Big and Brave, aren’t you? It’s alright…”
Mrsha sniffed as Lyonette halted. She looked at Visma, and then buried her face in Erin’s shirt. She was still trembling.
“What’s wrong, Mrsha? Everyone’s okay, see?”
The Gnoll shook her head. She looked up and her trembling paws formed one word. A biting claw descending on a heart made out of her paws.
Erin stopped for a second. Of course. They hadn’t gone away. They were in Liscor. They had bypassed the walls, invaded the heart of the city. Who cared if a few metal bars stood in their way? They were there.
No wonder she was terrified. Gently, Erin held Mrsha. Lyonette reached out, but Erin held Mrsha for a moment. Hugging her tight.
“Don’t worry, Mrsha. You’re safe here. No one’s ever going to hurt you, I promise.”
A lie that Erin knew she couldn’t keep. But that was how you were supposed to lie to children. Especially your children. And Mrsha—if only she could believe that. Erin held her and looked to the open door, around at the frightened faces.
“It’s going to be alright. Okay? It’s going to be alright. I promise.”
She transferred Mrsha to Lyonette after the crying slowed and a few minutes had passed. Then Erin walked slowly towards the door.
“Handkerchief, Miss Erin?”
Wilovan handed it to Erin for her wet front. She blinked at it and shook her head. Then she checked her waist.
“You two…if you’re here to protect me, we can talk about it later. I have somewhere to be.”
Slowly, she walked past the Gentlemen Callers. They exchanged a glance as Erin walked into the city. Her knife was at her side. It weighed so little. But it was sharper than last time. Erin had prepared her inn, herself for this kind of day.
Never again. She walked into the city as the real troubles began.
Evil sat in Liscor. Monsters. Things from the dungeon and the ancient past. If those in Erin Solstice’s inn had little sleep—at least they had the [Garden of Sanctuary].
Those living in the city, let alone close to the prison had even less. To be fair—some hadn’t bothered to even try.
It would be wrong to call the group of mostly-Gnolls and some Drakes ‘demonstrators’. Demonstrators implied they had something to demonstrate and were at least vocal about the subject.
This crowd was quiet. And armed. They said little. But if the line of [Guards] around the prison’s entrance were to open—Watch Captain Zevara was certain that the prisoners would be dead within five minutes.
She repeated the word so it lodged in her own head. That was how she had to think of them. Inmates, prisoners…as the law prescribed them. She could hear what other people were saying just fine, thank you very much.
Monsters. The Gnoll’s forsaken ancestors from ages past. Nightmares which deserved neither mercy nor pity.
But they had surrendered. So—treat them like prisoners of war? Criminals each with a part in aiding and abetting murder at the very least?
The Watch Captain wished tea was stronger. Or stamina potions lasted longer. She stood in her office.
“We have the cells for them. Barely. We have to fit multiple to a cell, even in cases where the solitary confinement won’t do. Also—the issue is that we can’t use some of the older cells. On advice, I’ve moved Raskghar only to cells we’re sure can hold them since none can use Skills.”
“On whose advice, Watch Captain?”
The Council was listening. And unlike previous Liscors, this Council seemed prepared to act. Unfortunately—Zevara was at a loss to tell them what she thought should be done.
Not kill all the Raskghar was a good step. But sentencing? Containment? There was going to be trouble soon with the Gnolls who wanted vengeance and everyone knew it.
But the Council had two problems today. The guests from Hectval had arrived unannounced. Getting them situated had been easier with the Raskghar situation, but they’d still been all ruffled scales until they were placed at the Tailless Thief. Not her problem, anyways.
Zevara stood straight and looked past Lism’s shoulder as she always did when she had news that she didn’t want to actually convey. They were all here, including Jeiss, who was in the position of having to be a superior to his boss. There should probably have been a law against that or something.
“…the advice comes from prisoner Calruz of Hammerad, Councilmember Lism.”
“Watch Captain! That Minotaur is responsible for—”
“He is the only known expert in the world on their capabilities, sir. It was my decision to stand by his advice, which only goes as far as whether the Raskghar could bend the steel bars of their cells. Which they could on some of the iron ones. Sir. I take full responsibility for the decision.”
Lism’s outraged mouth clicked shut.
“Is the Minotaur still under confinement?”
“Yessir. In the magical cell.”
But he was not the issue. Or rather…it was a good thing the cell was there. As the old saying went, not to protect Calruz from the Raskghar. Quite the opposite.
The [Guards] in the jail proper watched as the Minotaur and the Raskghar sat in a staring contest. Neither side moved or blinked. Calruz’s eyes were burning.
“Let me out.”
“Can’t do that, Minotaur.”
Drakes and Humans in the City Watch here only, by the Watch Captain’s orders. One of the Humans looked wary—but he had no bones in the matter, having been hired two months ago. The Drakes eyed the Raskghar with a lot more wariness than Calruz.
“Let me out. And I’ll put an end to my dishonor myself. You won’t have to guard either of us.”
Two hundred sick Raskghar versus a one-armed Minotaur? But then…if you’d seen Calruz fighting, you might wonder…
Even so, none of the [Guards] moved. And it was a strange thing. Beyond strange. But look what time and relativity did.
Here was the Minotaur responsible for so much death. And here were the Raskghar who were arguably just as responsible. But one had been prisoner for months. He was repentant—the same Minotaur who’d charged into the inn full of Crelers and routinely cleared monster nests with a rusted axe, hauled heavy stones all day…
The [Guards] did not like Calruz. But they weren’t the Gnolls who hated him and never got assigned to prison duty. He was familiar to them. And what’s more—an [Honorbound Prisoner]. They had [Appraisal] artifacts and Skills. They could read.
Compare that to the Raskghar. More…bestial than Gnolls. Larger, more primitive, some called them. Certainly with smaller head relative to body size, a more…
Earth Humans would have compared it to their version of Neanderthals versus Humans of their era. The Raskghar were coughing, weakened despite treatment—
But they snarled and sniffed the air and snapped at each other in their own language. The Watch was far warier of them than Calruz.
“Minotaur. You sure the bars can hold?”
One of the Drakes broke the silence to eye the Raskghar standing too close to one of the cell’s fronts. A [Guard] moved them back with a shout and a prod of the spear’s butt.
“They can bend iron. Not steel. I’m sure that one couldn’t. Tell that Human to stop that.”
“They’re too fast. They’ll grab the spear and yank her through the bars.”
The [Guardswoman] stopped. The others looked at Calruz. One of the Drakes coughed.
“You mean…into the bars?”
The Watch slowly moved back from the cells. Calruz looked at the overcrowded prison.
“Hypothetically…if they were able to break the cells…”
The Drake glanced at Calruz. The Minotaur’s eyes flickered.
“I’d have explosive and Tripvine type weapons ready to throw. No one walks next to the cells armed with those. They can hear you—don’t go near for any reason unless you make them manacle themselves. Don’t give them anything to throw. I’d put [Archers] behind a magical barricade there. If they come out—abandon the cells. Throw potions and spells in and cast a cloud spell until we’re all dead.”
The Drake glanced at the silent Raskghar. They had heard that. He looked at the others.
Oh, how things changed. Slowly, he nodded.
“Move back. One patrol moves across the prison if need be; no more. Get the reinforced manacles; set of eight. Tell the Watch Captain we’re fortifying the entrance. I want fifteen potions from our armory with a blast-factor and…”
That was something. The Minotaur’s status was changed. But the proof of his failures lay in front of him. The whispering was starting again. He closed his eyes.
Never again. [Death Before Dishonor]. He clung to it.
“…Someone’s got to entertain them! Despite this—this crisis.”
“We can decide the Raskghar issue now, Lism! Just call for a [Headsman] or let the Gnolls do it ourselves!”
Krshia snarled. Lism nearly—nearly snapped back.
But it was not a time for rage, but quick thinking. And since Krshia was the one beyond reason for once—he remained calm. Strange, how that worked when Lism was almost always ready to yell first.
But it was seeing her so furious and—worried—that made Lism hold up his claws placatingly.
“Watch Captain Zevara has them under lock and key.”
“For how long? There is only one way to deal with Raskghar.”
That came from Elirr. The Gnoll was hunched over in his seat, looking—well, ragged. Lism and everyone else in the Council’s room eyed him with concern. Even Tismel and Zalaiss.
“Elirr, you really needn’t be here. You could rest—”
Alonna began, but the [Beast Trainer]’s haunted gaze silenced that train of thought. And Lism understood that too, he really did.
Elirr—nearly eaten alive by those damn things, sacrificed and forced to live in a cage? The Drake shifted nervously.
“True. The issue of what to do with the Raskghar—we certainly have few options. However, killing all of them sounds a bit…”
Well, rational if you listened to the stories. Lism wasn’t in disfavor himself. But the objector in the room also happened to be Watch Captain Zevara. She folded her arms.
“That is an entire people, Councilman.”
“They are Raskghar. Not people!”
The Drake’s face didn’t move. Lism tapped a claw on the table.
“Watch Captain, this is not the Minotaur situation all over again. We have no doubt that the Raskghar killed Gnolls—that their—their basic nature revolves around the murder of Gnolls.”
“Yessir. However—that’s painting all of them with the same brush. Sir.”
Lism’s tail unhappily struck the carpets. He leaned forwards as Krshia made an inarticulate sound.
“They fed on our people in the darkness when we were hiding! They are monsters and if they are not slain—”
“What do you propose, then, Watch Captain? Do you suggest that we don’t hold the Raskghar accountable for their crimes? Hold them indefinitely in a prison which—you have intimated—isn’t large or sure enough for them?”
The Council fell silent once more. Jeiss was watching Zevara nervously. Her eyes flicked to him.
“Give me time, Councilmembers. I can expand the jail. And I certainly don’t intend to hold the Raskghar to anything less than another criminal. But I will not have people—Gnolls—march in there and execute them before they have a chance to be tried—”
“—and duly sentenced under the law. Which is me!”
Zevara slammed a fist down and Krshia blinked. The Council fell silent as Zevara straightened and took a deep breath.
“My first duty is to the security of Liscor, Councilmembers. And as Watch Captain, I need to make sure no other Raskghar are coming from the dungeon! If this Nokha lives—I want to find her. With respect, the issue of the Raskghar can wait until the threat of the Raskghar is dealt with.”
Lism looked around. No one was happy with that, but Zevara had reminded them that she was Watch Captain. Unless they wanted to remove her, she didn’t have to be here, especially in a crisis.
“See to the security of the prison, Watch Captain. We’ll discuss the matter.”
The female Drake saluted and marched out of the room. An unpleasant silence fell afterwards.
“They have to die.”
Lism heard one of the Gnolls mutter that, but when he turned his head he couldn’t tell which one. Krshia was practically shaking in her chair—her paws gripped the table so hard he feared she’d crack the wood.
Elirr was just sitting. Alonna and Jeiss were whispering about security—and that was half of their problems.
“…Councilmembers? The delegation from Hectval is breakfasting. They’re wondering if—”
Liscor’s Council looked at the nervous [Clerk] who’d come to deliver the message. The Drake froze on the spot. Lism rose and placed his claws on the table.
“Thank you, Miss. We’ll attend to it.”
“Why now? First they delay arriving, then they don’t send word—”
Alonna muttered. Krshia snarled.
“This is not the time for it!”
No, it was not. However—this was the first Drake city besides Pallass to make contact with Liscor and Lism knew that Hectval was part of a larger alliance. More importantly, all the Drake cities would be watching this meeting.
“We have to deal with them. I don’t know why they’re here. But I suggest—”
“Lism. This Raskghar issue is larger than them!”
Krshia looked infuriated, as if Lism was placing the Hectval group over the rest. That was a Silverfang thing that had always annoyed Lism. She had priorities. If there was a large issue, you dropped everything and dealt with that. Lism on the other hand had projects. He was working on the [Carers] situation, expanding Liscor—
On the other hand, that single-mindedness had lost him several trade deals when she capitalized on things he didn’t. And it was a useful asset in the Council. If you worked with her right.
The Council’s heads moved to Lism as he raised a claw.
“I’m not suggesting we table the Raskghar issue, Silverf—Krshia. As I understand it, we have two pressing dilemmas. The delegation from Hectval cannot wait. But the Raskghar have to be monitored, the city calmed. I propose we split the Council. Councilmembers who wish to deal with the Raskghar—Jeiss, I think you’re one, Elirr…”
The Gnoll nodded shortly. Lism sighed.
“I’ll head the Hectval issue. Alonna? Tismel and Zalaiss too, I suppose. Councilmembers Krshia and Raekea, your preference. But we need to move quick! We’re supposed to have a reception. Entertainment!”
Krshia’s fur, which had been standing on end, began to lower. That was an interesting Gnoll-trait. She looked at Lism as the Council rose to their feet. Jeiss gave him a quick nod.
“Good thinking. I’m no good at diplomacy anyways. One thought: we could use our [Negotiators]…”
“All three are with the delegation right now.”
They should have had a lot more. And a staff—an entire group dedicated to events like this, not the Council! But how long had it been since formal diplomacy had been conducted? Not with the Human cities, with other Drakes!
The Blood Fields had cut off trade for a long time—the winter and late fall allowed it of course, but it was only [Merchants], seldom other people in any large numbers.
“I’ll go on-duty then, talk to people, make sure the cells are holding and see what the Watch Captain’s plan is. Anyone with me?”
Raekea and Elirr followed Jeiss. Krshia was about to, but then strode over to Lism, Alonna, Tismel, and Zalaiss as they conferred.
“…need to stall them. Tell Peslas to feast them and when they’re done, do a walking tour of the city? Yes, just a basic around-the-walls. Let them stare at the Floodplains for a bit. Find someone who knows Liscor’s history and give them a talk about the founding! And, Ancestors, keep them away from that Human and her inn! I’ll try and see what—Krshia? What is it?”
The Gnoll saw Tismel and Zalaiss head off with Alonna to buy Lism time. She stopped, breathing heavily. And they were alone for a second.
“You can handle the Raskghar. I’ll deal with the delegation.”
“If I trusted you to do it yourself—”
But her heart wasn’t in the insult. Lism patted Krshia on the shoulder. They both stared at Lism’s patting arm until he dropped it.
“Ahem. Well, I wouldn’t mind some help.”
“To get you started? You have no idea what to do about the delegation, no?”
Lism opened his mouth—and closed it.
“Er…entertain them? I was going to have Tismel rustle up some of his old [Councilmembers] for a get-together…something convivial.”
But he was a [Shopkeeper]. His idea of entertainment wasn’t some fancy party. Krshia’s face told Lism he was making a mistake.
“We need to consult someone who knows Hectval—or at least, other cities. Their arrival was very strange, yes?”
“Remarkably. Who doesn’t send ahead they’re coming? But who’d know about Hectval? One of the [Merchants]? I could go ask, but I don’t want to waste time.”
The Gnoll nodded. Her eyes flicked to the window.
“I know who to ask. Follow me.”
She led him at a quick trot out of City Hall. Lism followed. Krshia was fast when she wanted to be. Damn Gnolls who were used to running about.
Krshia. Krshia Silverfang. It was still odd to not have that as an epithet on his tongue. But then—there were good qualities to the Gnoll. Lism had always known that. He just hadn’t ever felt like giving her credit for them. Until recently. But he could make a list if he had to.
Quality #4 on the list Lism did not have in his head was that Krshia Silverfang…knew people. Lism knew people, but there was a definite disconnect in how they operated. Krshia had clients who let her be their middlewoman, shop for them. She made friends. Lism? He had business associates.
“Who’re we going to meet?”
“Wing Commander Embria.”
“Why her? The last thing we need is the army mucking about and—”
Love the army, support them and all that. But they weren’t exactly the first people you went to for diplomacy. 4th Company had a record of clashing with the Watch and assuming their authority trumped a Senior Guardsman’s. Krshia rolled her eyes as she looked back at him.
“Lism, you fool, you. The army has worked for Drake cities more than anyone else in Liscor! Wing Commander Embria, she and the other officers negotiate with the leaders of Drake cities! I heard as much over tea!”
Oh. Then Lism frowned.
“You’ve had tea with Wing Commander Embria?”
“Mm. Only four times, but I made a point to do so, especially when I became Councilwoman. Good to know the army’s representative, yes?”
“Yes…but who has time for four tea sessions?”
Wing Commander Embria had her company sweeping around Liscor and inside of it. The [Soldiers] were on high-alert; they were also monitoring for [Invisibility] spells, Skills—even though the Raskghar didn’t have them. For once, Lism was glad to have experienced warriors to supplement the Watch.
Mind you—even if the Raskghar were five times larger than the ones in the cells, you couldn’t walk down a street without seeing a group of armed Gnoll civilians, most carrying bows, a patrol of the Watch, an Antinium squad, or one of 4th Company’s groups. It made Lism feel a bit better.
However, this was not what he wanted Hectval’s delegation to see. Wing Commander Embria blinked as the two found her.
“The Hectval delegation? Me?”
“That’s right, Wing Commander. We’d value your input. In private? We won’t detract you from your duties long. But this is an important moment diplomatically for Liscor.”
Lism and Krshia expected Embria to object, but after a moment’s thoughtful silence, she nodded.
“Of course, Councilmembers.”
They headed to City Hall at a fast march. Lism was panting when he arrived and he was the only one. Embria turned once they had closed the door.
“I forget that Liscor isn’t…in touch with a lot of Drake cities, Councilmembers. But you deal with Pallass.”
No, they talk down to us and we argue until they try to force whatever they want down our throats.
But Lism didn’t say that. He cleared his throat.
“The Hectval situation is…new to us. Our [Negotiators] and some of the Council are hard at work, but we’d appreciate some clarity here, Wing Commander. They accepted our invitation and were due to show up nearly a week ago—then they appear without warning?”
Also, the delegates had been very standoffish. Not shaking hands—of course, Lism had hurried them to the Tailless Thief in all the chaos, but he’d definitely gotten an odd vibe from them. Almost—challenging.
Embria hesitated. Her eyes flicked from Krshia to Lism in a way that said she had thoughts—but she was reluctant to say them. Like a customer asking themselves if they really needed an embellishing ornament on their scabbard.
“Councilmembers. As Wing Commander, of course I would be delighted to assist Liscor in any way I can. Naturally…as Wing Commander…but as advice goes, or input, I, uh, might clarify my remarks differently as Embria.”
Lism and Krshia frowned. Embria scratched at her chin awkwardly.
“Of course, I can give my best input. As Wing Commander—”
“We would accept comments ah, unofficially, Embria.”
Krshia grinned, catching on. Embria sighed and relaxed. She took off her helmet, as if doing that and losing her militarily-straight posture made her not Wing Commander all of a sudden.
“Okay. Look. It’s not something I can say er, as Wing Commander. Badmouthing another city could land me in hot water in the army.”
“But we’re just asking you for advice, Wing Commander.”
Embria looked uncomfortable and Krshia nudged Lism. Not the point right now. The flame-scaled Drake scratched at her neck-spines.
“Politics, sir. More than one Wing Commander’s lost their jobs because they make the wrong comment while we’re working for a client. This is off-the-record. But what Hectval’s doing is sort of a classic among Drake cities. They show up unannounced, don’t respond to your invitations on time—and then complain you’re the ones responsible for poor hospitality. And if you rise to the bait, they’ll shout about it to every Drake city in range. I don’t know why, but they’ve decided they want to make Liscor look bad. You need to win them over or turn the tables on them.”
Lism and Krshia looked at each other. Lism dug at one earhole with a claw.
“…Say what now?”
Intercity politics in Drake lands was another world. Feuds, alliances—the Drake city-states were each a law unto their own, with different customs, rules, and so on. Each one was like a little nation and you made friends and enemies to stay afloat.
Of course, Lism had known this. That was like any city, really. But Drakes took it to another extreme, according to Embria.
“Hectval is part of the Three Cities Alliance. Hectval-Drisshia-Luldem.”
She actually remembered the names? Embria shrugged.
“We have to. It’s our neighbors and they can cause trouble—mind you, they’d never be as rude if the army was in two hundred miles of their city. They’re known for…crossbows, strong bows and arrow fletching. Hilly terrain—makes fighting their [Archer] battalions a right pain in the—”
She broke off tactfully. Lism stared at her.
“Fight them? Dead gods, we’re entertaining them, Wing Commander!”
“Sorry, sir. Liscor’s army has fought almost every city in Izril at one point or another. We take notes. I’m not the best for diplomacy, but Liscor’s army has to negotiate with clients and keep abreast of the weather.”
“So Hectval’s holding a grudge?”
“Or they think you’ve slighted them somehow. It could be anything. Maybe they want to pressure Liscor into helping them. You have to ask—and mend bridges if it’s a slight. But er, tactfully.”
A word as foreign to Embria as it was to Lism. Krshia was already eying him with great concern. He could be tactful! Lism bridled a bit.
“It’s just such an odd way of going about it.”
“It’s politics, sir. Liscor’s been isolated for a long time from Izril proper due to the Bloodfields. Personally, it might just be that they don’t like the idea of Liscor.”
“Don’t like the…that’s it?”
The Wing Commander looked more astonished than Lism. She eyed him right back.
“We’re Drakes, Councilmember. The last time I was with the army before heading to Liscor—we were around Oteslia, taking work in a Walled Cities conflict because the Serpentine Matriarch of Zeres insulted the First Gardener for refusing to attend her birthday.”
Krshia stared at Lism. He wanted to protest that he hadn’t been responsible for that. It sounded crazy to him as well. Mind you—how hard was it to attend a birthday if that was the result?
He pulled himself together.
“We are Drakes, Wing Commander. If they want hospitality, we won’t give them an inch to complain about. Some good, Liscorian traditions to strengthen long-lost ties between cities and we can sort things out.”
Embria had a dubious look in her eye. She bit her lip.
“…Might be harder than that, sir. As I said, that’s the Scalespeaker—the one with the golden belt you need to impress and he’s a staunch traditionalist. I’d have to ask Wikir or someone who’s up-to-date with records.”
They had records on individual’s personalities? Dead gods, they needed to hire more [Negotiators]. Lism tried to recall that Drake.
“Ah, their leader?”
“No…I think they have a Council. Scalespeaker is like—the diplomatic version of a Watch Captain. We don’t have one, but they’d be the top [Diplomat]. Again, off-the-record, but I’d keep Antinium out of sight. Er, Erin Solstice too.”
“You don’t have to tell us twice, Wing Commander. We’ll make it good, old-fashioned—”
“Try really old-fashioned, sir? The Scalespeaker’s a traditionalist and a liberalist city like Liscor is already—”
Lism’s jaw dropped. Now he was convinced Embria was lying to his face. Liscor? She saw his genuine confusion and coughed into a claw. Was she…was she covering a smile?
“You have Antinium in the city and trade with Humans, Councilmembers. Most Drakes don’t see Humans unless they visit a big city. Or enlist. You’re as bad as Zeres to Hectval. Maybe even Oteslia or Pallass.”
The Drake [Shopkeeper] had to sit down for a moment. Liscor? Liberal? His entire life, he’d fought to keep Liscor’s traditions and they were…
Krshia was fighting not to laugh her stupid tail off. Too quick to laugh, that was Krshia Silverfang. It was not at all endearing.
“We’ll—see what we can do. Any general tips, Wing Commander? Putting on a parade or anything grand is difficult with the Raskghar situation—ah, and I’ll let Councilwoman Krshia go with you to oversee that.”
Embria saluted, and chewed at her lip.
“…I’m not an expert on Hectval, but a show of generosity in the face of their attitude is probably the best bet. Gifts of Liscor’s trade goods, something impressive—if you do it well enough, they’ll have to reciprocate even if they hate your guts. It’s another power-move, but it has to be done well.”
Great. And how was he supposed to do that? Lism sighed. He straightened and nodded at Krshia.
“Thank you, Wing Commander. Krshia, go deal with the Raskghar.”
“Are you certain, Lism?”
“Of course I am. You—you’ll be fretting over them and getting in my way. I’ll handle this.”
He looked as confident as possible. Krshia relaxed. She smiled at him as Embria turned to go. Lism waved surreptitiously—
And then sagged when the two were gone. Uh oh. But he’d volunteered for this and it was time to impress Hectval. Impress them. Impress—
What would Silverfang do? She’d…why, she’d do something Gnollish. Put out some silkap and tea, and charm them. But that wasn’t the move here. Lism would offer around a snack platter over some of the decent wine if they were his friends. No, no…he didn’t have the right mindset. He needed…
Lism looked around. And then he hurried off, as one did, to consult with the person he went to for advice. Krshia had a network.
The proud uncle had his nephew.
Olesm Swifttail was interrogating one of the Raskghar. Safely. The Raskghar was in one of the individual, temporary cells in the Watch House’s barracks. And everyone was keeping their distance.
Magical plague. The Raskghar had been hit with it and it had killed them. Typhenous had probably slain more Raskghar than any other adventurer with a few spells. Olesm had studied plague spells and they were nasty.
However—also easy to deal with in some situations if you had the right spells. [Dispel Magic] erased a magical plague spell in most cases. The trick was having enough spells and mana for an entire infected regiment and catching it before it got that far.
Normally, the ailments caused by magic lasted as long as the magic did. It was worse on [Mages] of course, unless their natural skills let them fight magical effects. Half-Elf armies were bad targets for plague spells…
What else had his course in Manus taught him? Ah—that the real danger was that a magical plague effectively compromised your health so that you’d get sick with regular diseases.
As was the case here. The Raskghar hadn’t known what the magical plague was. And it had infected them multiple times over. Even with the magical cure now—the Raskghar was coughing, ill.
“Good magic. Make better. Surrender.”
She kept saying that. As if someone had been teaching her the words. Olesm folded his arms.
“Who told you to surrender? You are under truth spell. Answer—or we will know.”
And do what, torture you? Kill you? Zevara wouldn’t stand for it. But Olesm still felt as though someone was creeping up with a dagger.
The Raskghar needed no threats, anyways. She looked at him with dim wariness in her eyes. The effects of the moons were fading. She was the most intelligent of the un-Awakened lot; half had already lost the ability to speak in coherent words.
Everyone in the room shivered. A dozen [Guards] were ready to attack this single Raskghar if she tried anything. But there she sat.
“Where. Is. Nokha?”
The female Raskghar shook her head.
“Nokha leave. Many moons ago. Take…strong. With…her.”
She growled something unintelligible. But the truth stone Olesm was consulting—all three of them—glowed. Even the most advanced one just said that the Raskghar was uncertain, but truthful.
Damn. The [Strategist] consulted his notes.
“Let’s see. Nokha was sick with the others. You were attacked by—undead. Adventurers. Antinium. And more and more Raskghar were dying. Then she decided to leave, and told you to come up when both moons were full to surrender. She told you to surrender and that we’d make you better.”
Olesm threw his clipboard down. The Raskghar watched.
“Good slaves. Mercy.”
“Mercy? We should execute them now, along with the Minotaur, [Strategist]!”
One of the Drakes hissed. Olesm itched to say ‘yes’, but he held up one claw.
“That’s not your decision, Guardsman. Watch Captain Zevara is handling the situation. We want to know more. Where did Nokha go? Did she say anything?”
The Raskghar growled.
“You can eat if you tell us what we want to know. What did Nokha take?”
“Sword. Magic. Food?”
The Drake’s fist clenched.
What made him so angry was how confident this Raskghar was. How they all were. They didn’t fight, they just answered questions and expected to be cured. To be fed and protected from the angry Gnolls. Because that was the law and Nokha had figured out how to take advantage of it.
He wanted to toss them all in a pit with Shield Spiders until they told him—
“You’re losing control. Calm.”
Something cool touched Olesm’s head. A hand—and a gentle, blue flame.
Maviola El held the flame out and the room grew calmer. Angry [Guards] stopped fingering their weapons. Her flame was blue, like the open sea, tinted a bit with green.
Calm fire. Not like Erin’s. But Maviola wasn’t Erin and her fire was different. She stood there, regarding the Raskghar.
The creature was more nervous of her than Olesm. Maviola walked forwards until she was at the bars.
She ignored Olesm’s warning. Maviola squatted down.
“Good slaves. Mercy. Nokha told you that you’d be safe here. We’d turn you into slaves, but you’d be saved and cured, didn’t she?”
The Raskghar didn’t respond. She was staring at the calm flame in Maviola’s palm. It winked out. Maviola snapped her fingers and a second flame danced across her fingers. It was red.
“But you don’t want to be slaves, do you? You just want to be cured. And Nokha was wrong. We’re not going to feed you. We just want to know where she is. If you don’t tell us—you’ll die. We don’t care if you live or not.”
Olesm felt a surge of annoyance at Maviola. This was his interrogation! He opened his mouth—and caught himself.
The red flame was fury. The Raskghar growled.
“Won’t kill us.”
“We won’t kill you? You stupid thing. You don’t matter. You’re not going to be a good slave, are you? You want to eat Gnolls. But that won’t happen. We’ll pluck your teeth out.”
The Raskghar bared her teeth; some had fallen out from her disease. She drew herself up. Maviola perched on her heels.
“Oh, really? Someone get me some pliers and rope. You made a mistake, you stupid Raskghar. Did you think we’d make you slaves without—”
The Raskghar leapt, but Maviola was already jumping back. The huge female Raskghar slammed into the cell’s bars. The gate shook, but the room was full of shouting [Guards] and the Raskghar froze as arrows were aimed at her head.
The magical fire winked out. Maviola stood up, dusting her hands.
“There you have it, Olesm. You were right. They are preying on your morality. If they think they’re in danger, I have no doubt they’ll try something.”
The Raskghar realized she’d been tricked, manipulated, and shrank back.
Someone spat at her. The Raskghar growled, but didn’t do anything. She feared Maviola more than Olesm. The blue-scaled Drake nodded at Maviola, the last vestiges of the emotions the flame had created in him going out.
“Thank you. But you shouldn’t have gotten so close.”
She winked and whispered.
“I had to give her an opening. Anyways, someone’s got to give you a hand. Just showing you a few tricks.”
She was so much different than she had been a week ago. More…active. Maviola wouldn’t have done that before. This Maviola was more willing to take risks.
And Olesm now had proof to give to Zevara that keeping the Raskghar around was not a safe move. As soon as they recovered he was sure they’d try to escape.
“Take her back to prison but put her in a separate cell. Let’s bring another Raskghar in and confirm the information. Then I’ll talk to Zevara…”
The Drake heard a familiar voice and sighed.
“Nephew! Nephew—a moment!”
Lism hurried into the Watch House looking for Olesm. Maviola trailed after the [Strategist] as the Watch ordered the Raskghar to put on the manacles and she complied, sullenly asking for food.
“Uncle—Councilmember Lism—this really isn’t a good time. I’m interrogating the Raskghar—”
“And I’ll leave you to it, Nephew. But I have a situation. The delegation from Hectval is here and we need to blow them away with a Tier 4 spell. A celebration! Something to really establish our diplomacy. At least something to break the ice!”
The Drake stared at his uncle.
“Delegation? Uncle, this is not the time for—”
A finger flicked one of his neck-spines and he winced. Maviola laughed, eyes dancing, and bowed as Lism and Olesm turned to her.
“Hello, venerable uncle Lism! I’m keeping your nephew company.”
“Ah. Miss Maviola.”
Lism eyed her. He didn’t like Maviola—well, he had a thing about Humans. And some Gnolls…although Olesm hadn’t heard him grousing about Krshia of late. And this wasn’t the time for that!
“Uncle, I’m sure the delegation is important, but this—ow, Maviola!”
She’d flicked his neck-spines again. The [Lady] shook her head playfully.
“Olesm, you’re a good [Tactician], and I love you for it, but you have yet to be a [Strategist]. Diplomacy matters! What’s this about the delegation?”
Lism hesitated, but then explained in brief the problem. Olesm rubbed at his forehead.
“Oh dead gods, inter-city politics. I know all about that. Just don’t offend them, Uncle. It might be a small setback, but we can have a substandard get-together and patch it up later. Just don’t let Erin get near them. Or the Antinium! Or…Ancestors. Maybe just lock them in the Tailless Thief until they get mad and leave?”
But Lism was wringing his claws.
“Nephew, this is the first Drake city to make contact with Liscor in ages!”
“Pallass was first, Uncle. And we’ve been in contact with Esthelm, Celum, Invrisil—”
“That’s not the same! This is a city like us. Come now, I know you can think of something!”
Olesm tried, he really did. But the Raskghar was too big.
“Er…have the Players of Liscor put on a show and turn the entire City Hall into a large festive area? We have large enough rooms. Make the entrance lobby up—give them some gifts like trophies from the dungeon, get some of Erin’s food—”
“No, no, no! You want to impress them, don’t you? Make them feel indebted?”
Maviola interrupted Olesm. She clapped her hands together, looking excited.
“Leave it to me.”
The two Drakes looked at her.
“Maviola, you’re not even a Drake.”
The [Lady Firestarter] winked at Olesm’s dubious expression.
“But I am a [Lady] and I know how to impress fellow nobles. I can help! Just give me the authority to use some gold, and one hour. Olesm’s right—we’ll turn City Hall into a grand reception.”
“Really? Er—Olesm, your Human friend…”
Lism tried to draw Olesm away, but Maviola just leaned into both of them and put her hands on their shoulders. The Drakes looked at her and she smiled impishly.
“I think she knows more than us, Uncle.”
“Very well. What do I do, then?”
“Get as many of the old Council and important Drakes as you can. No one under Guildmaster status. Tekshia Shivertail, definitely. Dress up—in whatever traditional Drake clothing you can. You get the gifts, too. And some good wine! Olesm, I’ll handle this! Keep dealing with the Raskghar!”
Then Maviola was gone. She was laughing as she ran from the Watch House. Having the time of her life. Lism eyed Olesm.
“Not that I mind your, er, choices, Nephew. And it’s not my decision, it’s yours—”
“Uncle, I like her. And it’s…”
Olesm bit off the word he was going to say. Temporary. Oh, Ancestors. But Lism just patted Olesm solemnly on the shoulder.
“She seems…nice. Quite spirited. Good to have someone like that in your life. I’ll er, get ready for the delegation. You continue keeping us safe.”
He hurried off. Olesm opened and closed his mouth. Who had replaced his uncle? He shook his head.
The trust Lism put in Maviola El was surprising. And not. She was…not Erin Solstice. But sometimes you looked at her, especially if you knew who she was.
Erin Solstice would not have been the right choice for delegates from a touchy Drake city. But Maviola El? She understood diplomacy, politics.
And it was easy. Drakes, Humans—she had a simple three-step plan to throwing a proper reception.
Maviola raced into The Wandering Inn. She could have cartwheeled, despite the Raskghar, despite the mood of the city.
She was alive! She had felt young before, of course, rejoiced in regaining her body, her mobility and energy. But this? This felt like the moments after she had first taken the Potion of Youth, spurning Belavierr and riding off. She felt like she was bursting with energy. This was true youth that Saliss had given her. Blessed, beautiful.
She wanted to live forever like this.
“Lyonette! Octavia! I need you, quick, quick! And you, Palt, and Imani! There’s money to be made and people to impress! And I need one of the Players! And—”
And the inn was empty! Almost deserted. The Antinium stared at Maviola as she whirled.
“Where is everyone?”
In the Garden, of course. Lyonette stared at Maviola as she cuddled a still red-eyed Mrsha.
“Maviola? What’s wrong? Is it the—”
Mrsha looked up fearfully with the others. Maviola saw the anxious faces and smiled.
“Nothing’s wrong. Have heart! And help me out. I need to entertain some fussy Drakes from Hectval. Cheer up, little Mrsha. No one will harm you. See? Hey, Goblin! Catch!”
Her eyes blazed. And so did the fire she conjured. Maviola raised her hand and threw a ball of burning yellow-white. It landed in Numbtongue’s hands and he nearly dropped it.
But the fire was yellow, a pure thing like a dandelion, or the sun on a bright day. And it burned him not at all, but the fuel was him. He grinned—and the fire of happiness, a tiny thing but born of Maviola’s soul, burned a bit larger.
It warmed the Garden. Magic, a Skill. Those within it looked up—and the fire reflected itself in them. It gave to them and then took their energy.
“No one will harm you. Not in this garden! Not in this inn! Haven’t you seen worse? Haven’t you defeated worse?”
Maviola challenged them all. The people raised their heads. And they remembered.
Face-Eater Moths. Skinner! The siege of Liscor. Take heart. If the enemy camps outside your gates, be wary. But don’t despair. Not after all you’ve been through.
Lyonette blinked at the yellow fire. It was—like Erin’s flames, but Maviola conjured them more rapidly. Because it was her Skill. And she had experience and time, so much time to master her Skill compared to Erin.
Mrsha smiled and relaxed. And the [Princess] hugged her.
“Oh, so you believe a bit of fire more than me? How dare you, you silly little bean!”
The Gnoll giggled. Bean? She squirmed out of Lyonette’s grip to go apologize to Visma.
The [Lady] exhaled as Lyonette walked over.
“If you say I’m ‘like Erin’, I’ll have to slap you. Olesm says it all the time. I was here first. Erin copies me.”
“Erin’s not like you.”
The [Princess] remarked, her eyes on Maviola. She couldn’t have missed how Maviola had changed. But both Maviola, young and old were unlike Erin. Erin was concerned and had gone into the city.
Maviola ignored the shadows. She looked around and saw a Stitchgirl waking up at last after having been passed out well into the morning.
“Wuzzat? Did someone want me?”
Octavia yawned, and then was seized by Maviola. The [Lady] looked at her.
“I need some of your ingredients. Can you unlock your alchemy shop for me? I’ll pay you back. 12% over the market value!”
The [Alchemist] blinked. She had no idea what was going on, but the first words out of her mouth were—
“18%. And I want a receipt.”
“16, and hurry up!”
Octavia got up and looked around. Maviola was striding about.
“Imani! Palt! I need food! Liscor will pay for it all! We’re catering to a fancy party and you two have what I need! Can someone get a bag of holding and deliver it to City Hall?”
“What’s going on, Maviola? A party?”
The [Lady] winked at Lyonette.
“Just one of those Drake city things. I’m helping. Lyonette, can you get me in touch with the Players of Celum? And then I need to work on Pallass. Actually—I’ll do Pallass as soon as I deal with the food.”
The three keys to a good party were as followed for Maviola: fame, fortune, and exoticism. She’d never quite figured out how to get that last word to start with an ‘f’.
“You want us to cater for this reception, Maviola? I can cook—but I’m only familiar with Balerosian dishes.”
“Is it…safe, Palt? To go into the kitchen?”
“Perfectly, Imani. And I’m here.”
The Centaur reassured the young woman. Montressa snorted as she and Beza inspected Maviola’s fire.
“And that means…? Watch out for broken ribs, Imani.”
Palt glared as he ushered Imani out into the inn. Maviola was busy explaining.
“Your inn is one of the few places that has food ready to go, fresh. I need you to make some of the more elegant dishes—but they might not even touch them.”
The Centaur was confused. Maviola rolled her eyes.
“Prissy Drakes, apparently. It’s there to be seen. The real menu is—Erin’s food.”
“But it’s from Earth! And it’s about as gourmet as my hoof in a pie!”
“Ah, but it’s now ‘Liscorian food’. It works! Trust me. We’ll get some of the ‘traditional’ foods from Peslas’ inn. I just need to make it fitting for the reception.”
Both Palt and Imani tried to stop Maviola as she yanked open cupboards, taking out a lasagna, pizzas—their natures as [Cooks] objected to this!
“Maviola, this is not great food. It’s enjoyable, but even the Drakes can probably tell that it’s not fancy!”
Her laugher was infectious. Maviola tossed them into the bag of holding and then investigated Imani’s latest creations.
“Don’t worry, you two. I need Imani’s fufu and her other dishes. They’re…mm…close to Chandrarian? We’ll call them that. Exoticism. And for fortune…Octavia?”
“What do you need, Maviola?”
The [Lady] rushed into the [Alchemist]’s shop. Octavia was all set with a notepad to take down the market-price of the goods she was selling to Maviola and Liscor at a very reasonable…17% markup. She saw Maviola hunt around, and then grab a single tube of—
Octavia smiled. Maviola walked back into the kitchen.
“This is how we make the pizzas and such ‘top-class’ and fit for a gathering.”
She held out a tube and Palt groaned. Maviola opened the tube and began to sprinkle flakes of gold onto the top of one of the pizzas. Imani looked like she was about to vomit.
“Stop that! It doesn’t taste good! What are you doing?”
“It’s gold leaf. It’s digestible. And believe me, this is what some of the nobility think makes food rich. Well, certainly expensive.”
Maviola knew all the tricks. She had a few rhinestones, which she decorated one of the cakes with. Souvenirs. She slapped down Octavia’s hand as the [Alchemist] began writing eagerly.
“I know those come from Numbtongue. Don’t mark it as Salazsar-quality! Now, all we need is to throw something glittering into the blue fruit and we have ourselves a noble’s treat.”
“Lasica is going to murder you.”
Imani whispered as she stared at the opulent decadence. Maviola clapped her hands together briskly.
“She can line up with all the hundreds of other enemies I have. What’s she got, a ladle? The last enemy I had came at me with a spear and chariot. Now—start porting that to City Hall. Palt, Imani, some actual Balerosian elegance, please. Make a list and Liscor will pay you for it. Lyonette?”
She was putting together this moment on a budget and a time limit of one hour. Good thing it was Maviola El, who had once entertained an entire group of nobles on eleven gold coin’s worth of delicacies. The El family had little money at times. But a whole lot of style and experience.
“What do you want with the Players of Celum?”
The [Princess] followed the [Lady] as Maviola marched straight into Invrisil after flipping some silver coins into the bowl. Maviola looked at her.
“We need the last part of a party. You should take notes, young woman! This is how you entertain.”
The Players of Celum were having breakfast—well, a breakfast meeting that had run late as they discussed a third branch of their organization or just a joint group under Temile.
“We’ll see what Pallass says, but I think Temile needs to front the Pallassian group either way. No objections! There’s no one I trust except for maybe Pralcem and Jexam and since neither one wants to be a [Manager], the Drakes can take him or leave him. It’ll be a mostly non-Human cast anyways—”
Emme looked up as Maviola walked up to them.
“Can we help you? Lyonette, um…Maviola? Is something wrong with Liscor? We heard about the Raskghar.”
Jasi stood up at once, a worried look on her face. Temile twisted in his seat and Wesle and the others rose as well. Maviola shook her head.
“The Raskghar are dealt with. For now. But I am inviting all of you—especially you, Emme, you, Jexam, and Jasi—and Wesle too, I suppose—to Liscor’s City Hall in…forty six minutes! We are having an event.”
The others hesitated. Maviola had that way of speaking that said ‘this is how it is’. Emme though, had heard that voice many times. Usually coming from her mouth instead of anyone else’s. She raised an eyebrow.
“And why would we do that?”
“Because not only will Liscor’s Council be there, but a number of Pallassian [Senators], as well as a delegation from Hectval. Other Drake cities. Dress up!”
Maviola clapped her hands cheerfully. Emme began to ask questions, but Maviola was through the door and adjusting it to Pallass before anyone could leave the table.
“You don’t have Pallassian [Senators]!”
Lyonette hissed at Maviola as the door opened and they stepped into the checkpoint. But her look was admiring. She saw where Maviola was going. The [Lady] turned to the [Princess].
“It’s a self-fulfilling promise. Like a riddle. Follow my lead, please? We might both level! Well—you might. Anyways, here’s a tip, Lyonette du Marquin. Once you have one…”
The other fell into place. Maviola began to clear her throat as the Drakes inspected them.
“You’re not on the list. Reason to enter Pallass?”
Kel the [Sergeant] looked suspiciously at Maviola and Lyonette. The [Lady] responded in a breathy rush.
“I am so sorry, but we’re trying to deliver an urgent message to the—the Wings of Pallass? And the Flamewardens. It’s from Erin—”
There was a groan from the [Guards] at the checkpoint. Maviola held up her hands.
“I know! I am so sorry. But also—to Miss Drassi? And whoever’s on duty at the Wistram News Network. I’m sure they’d want to know. I think there’s even a bounty on news?”
That was actually true. The [Guards] hesitated. Some of the napping ones sat up in their chairs.
“Well—and if any of you want to tell Drassi, since we’re so busy—can you raise that gate? It’s this huge event in Liscor. A delegation from Hectval—and the Players of Celum are attending—I can’t talk about it. We’d like to go, please?”
“Adventurer Bevussa’s team is attending a gathering in Pallass.”
Kel remarked suspiciously—but two [Guards] were already buying favors to go run out of the checkpoint real quick. Maviola’s eyes glittered as Lyonette decided that she had a new mentor.
“I know. But Erin was sure they’d want to skip that one to attend this one. Please—we’re in a huge hurry. It would be terrible if the Gold-rank teams were to miss it!”
All true, except for the Erin-bit. But since Maviola had been telling truths, she risked one unconfirmed lie if they were watching their truth spells. After a few seconds of whispering, the [Sergeant] grudgingly raised the gates. Maviola and Lyonette swanned through, already talking.
“It was so much gold leaf on those dishes, Maviola. Really high-class food you said?”
“I can’t believe anyone would miss it, Lyonette. Honestly—how many [Senators] do you think are attending? I didn’t get the number.”
“Just the important ones.”
That was a bit of good dialogue. They’d have to repeat that once they burst into whatever party Bevussa was at and pulled her away. Probably with a lot of [Senators] who wanted to be the ‘ones who were invited’.
Maviola El smiled. She loved games like this. By the time she hurried Bevussa’s team to the very important event in Liscor, there was a queue outside the door to Liscor. Gossip moved faster than Maviola could jog—people had been whispering about it at the social event by the time she’d told Bevussa about it.
The [Lady] returned to City Hall with food, guests, and thus, entertainment as well in tow. A fancy event in less than an hour, with prestigious guests from two major cities, and less than a hundred gold coin’s budget. Far less if she could kick Octavia’s inflated prices off.
“Let’s see Erin Solstice do that.”
Erin Solstice walked through Liscor, towards the prison.
She got lost twice. She wasn’t actually that familiar with the jail, despite having once spent a night there. But all she had to do was follow the angry people.
Many were armed. In this world, everyone had a belt dagger. And many Gnolls owned bows.
They were afraid. Erin sensed it in the air, even without her lessons from Maviola. But more than that—there was anger there.
Far worse than Calruz, even. The crowd in front of the jail wanted vengeance. And Erin couldn’t blame them. She had seen what the Raskghar would do.
Mrsha. Erin suppressed the feeling rising in her chest. It felt like—
Invisible flame. Hatred. Ready to burn out of her. But the Raskghar were contained. She just wanted to make sure her friends were safe.
The Gentlemen Callers were probably following her. Erin wasn’t sure if anyone else was. It didn’t matter right now. She saw a huge crowd in front of the prison.
“Let us in. Let us in.”
They were chanting. The line of [Guards] had been reinforced and—Erin saw—they were armed with nonlethal weapons. Well, not immediately lethal weapons. Well—if you swung them lightly—
Shields, clubs, and so on. They clearly didn’t want to fight. Or be here. Erin stood on her tiptoes at the back of the crowd. She tapped the nearest Gnoll on the shoulder.
“Excuse me. Is there any news about the Raskghar?”
“No sign of ‘em. They took one out and put one back, but the bastards are in there, being fed and treated while—”
The Gnoll growled as he stared ahead and then realized who he was talking to. He stared at Erin.
“Me? Hi. Have we met?”
The Gnoll pointed at her.
“We’re not letting you save this lot! It’s not like the Goblins!”
He raised his voice. Erin blinked.
“No, I wasn’t—”
More people were turning. The Gnoll’s shout attracted them and they looked around.
“The Human! The [Innkeeper]!”
“Erin Solstice! I knew she’d be here sooner or later…”
“Can I get a hamburger? Hold the onions—”
The Watch reacted at the same time as Erin tried to explain that she was just looking and asking what the news was. Erin was protesting as the Gnoll began listing dead Gnolls, growing louder and louder.
“Move it! Make way by order of the Watch!”
An entire squad of sixteen stormed down the street, forcing the crowd back. One of them, a Drake, pointed at Erin as they halted around her.
“Miss Solstice, by order of the Watch Captain, we have to escort you to the Watch House. Please don’t approach the jail or start a riot!”
“I wasn’t gonna—”
“There she is! Intercept her before she gets to the jail!”
Another squad pounded down the street. The [Lieutenant] raised one hand and shouted at the second squad of Liscor’s Watch.
“We got her! Stand down!”
The other [Guards] stopped and looked visibly relieved. One of them actually took off a helmet to wipe at his brow. Erin began to feel hurt by all of this—until she remembered half the things she’d done.
“Am I under arrest?”
The [Lieutenant] gave Erin a side-long look.
“And where would we put you? We evicted everyone but the worst criminals to get the Raskghar in there. No, the Watch Captain just requests your presence. Without incident? Please?”
“I just wanted to find out what the Raskghar were up to. Okay, fine. Stop looking at me like that!”
Erin sighed and walked with the entire patrol moving around her, clearing a way down the street. After two streets she had to protest again.
“Guys. Guys. Can you stop shouting for people to clear the way? This is really embarrassing.”
“Watch Captain’s orders, Miss. Move it, you lot! You—ma’am. Ma’am. Stow that enchanted arrow now, please…”
The air was tense. The city unhappy. And for some reason, Erin saw Ishkr bringing a stack of pizzas towards City Hall. Well, you didn’t need an excuse for pizza, she supposed. Life got weird.
“Hey Zevara, you wanted to see me?”
The Watch Captain was in her office. The patrol, having escorted Erin to the building, loitered downstairs leaving Erin to walk up to the office and knock by herself.
“Come in. Have a seat, Miss Solstice.”
The Watch Captain looked weary. Sleepless. The look she gave Erin was only slightly less miffed than normal. In other words, deeply suspicious that Erin would ruin her day.
“Thank you for not causing an incident.”
She rubbed at one eye. Erin folded her arms.
“I wasn’t going to! I just wanted to make sure the Raskghar weren’t up to something. Are they up to something?”
She took a seat as the Watch Captain looked around.
“I’d offer you something to drink, but I don’t know when that tea kettle appeared. As far as we understand it—these Raskghar are not here to cause trouble, but rather seek our help, Miss Solstice. Nokha and a smaller group have vanished…I have no idea if they’re in the city or far away, but I’m posting an all-city bounty on them and issuing an alert as if they were all Gold-ranks.”
Erin hadn’t gotten a good look at the Raskghar. Zevara laid out their problem succinctly.
“We’ve applied spells and most should live. They would have died without cures for the magical plagues. As it is—all of the [Guards] are on hazard pay for risk of catching something and we’re consulting with Typhenous about preventing the spread of disease. The city’s being patrolled and I can’t imagine there are enough Raskghar to mount a full-scale attack if that’s how they all look. Still—a small band of infiltrators is the real threat.”
The Watch Captain checked a list of patrols and a map of the city where she’d strung up pins and thread to mark routes before turning back to Erin.
“With your permission, I’ll have two squads supplement the Antinium in your inn. I understand you’re using your…magic garden-thing to protect some citizens? They should remain there if possible for the foreseeable future.”
“That sounds…great. Thank you.”
Erin decided that, on the whole, mentioning that she had two master-class criminals who had been hired to protect her and a major gang chatting with the Antinium in her inn over snacks wasn’t going to enliven Zevara’s day. The Watch Captain nodded at her.
“As for the Raskghar—Olesm has confirmed that Nokha gave them instructions to surrender to the city, in hopes of a cure. He’s also made it clear that the Raskghar don’t have other orders…but are unlikely to remain docile once they recover. Nor do we have the space in the prison at the moment. Hexel is already drawing up plans for secure containment, but it will take time, even with Antinium.”
“Sounds about right. Are they under guard?”
“Yes. I doubt two hundred could overwhelm the security checkpoint Calruz—the [Guards] set up.”
Calruz. Erin leaned forwards, urgently.
“Is he in there, with them?”
“Yes. Still in his cell.”
“Can you put him somewhere else? He doesn’t deserve to be locked up with them. He’s not a monster.”
Zevara paused. She eyed Erin and shook her head slowly.
“There are no cells rated to hold someone of his level. It’s temporary. But I can’t deal with any issue other than the Raskghar. Half the city wants them dead. The other half just wants them gone. If I don’t keep a majority of the [Guards] protecting the jail—and only the non-Gnolls—the crowd might rush in and slaughter the Raskghar.”
“Yeah, I saw that. Tense.”
The [Innkeeper] nodded slowly. Zevara waited…for something? Erin stared at her blankly. After a second, the Drake coughed.
“…That would be illegal, obviously. As Watch Captain my duty is to uphold the law. Not all the Raskghar are guilty of murder. Some are, obviously, but they cannot all be executed.”
Another peek at Erin. The Drake slowly turned. She sat down and regarded Erin as she shuffled some papers into line.
“You…don’t have anything to add, Miss Solstice? I had a patrol looking to prevent you from storming into the jail.”
“I wouldn’t do that. I mean—I was going to ask, but I wouldn’t storm in. I uh—might deserve that, but I’m trying to be a good citizen! Really!”
Erin saw Zevara blink a few times at her. The Drake’s face was slack. She was searching every inch of the young woman’s expression for…what?
“So, you don’t have an appeal for me about how the Raskghar should be treated?”
“D-don’t let them out? Watch out for Nokha?”
The blank look from both sides dragged out until Erin had to ask.
“What? What am I supposed to be doing?”
Zevara slowly sat back in her chair, staring at Erin with that strange expression in her eyes.
“Speaking up for the Raskghar. Convincing the crowd not to storm the jail. Worrying about their…wellbeing. Ensuring they are not executed out of hand.”
The [Innkeeper] sat there, confused.
But then—she did see why Zevara and that Gnoll and the crowd would have thought that. Here was Erin Solstice, the Crazy Human of Liscor, the one who fought for Goblins, made friends with the Antinium.
“Do you agree that the Raskghar are not monsters but a people, Miss Solstice? It is not a view all Liscorians share. Even those on the Council. I reminded them that there should be justice. As with Calruz. Goblins, perhaps.”
“Yeah. No—no killing all the Raskghar.”
Her heart wasn’t in it. The Watch Captain looked at Erin strangely. The young woman felt self-conscious. She wasn’t on the ‘kill them all’ side. But it had never even occurred to her to stick up for them.
“I thought you’d have stronger opinions on the matter, Miss Solstice.”
The paper-shuffling thing seemed to be a self-defense mechanism for Zevara. Erin took a deep breath.
“I—agree with you, Zevara. The Raskghar aren’t all evil. Probably. It’s good that they’re not being butchered.”
“I see. And do you have any ideas about how to resolve this situation?”
Zevara slapped her papers down. A familiar snap returned to her voice.
“Yes, you! I asked you to come here so I could listen to your input about the Raskghar problem! I do not have a solution! But I hoped—for once—that you would! I cannot let them be executed en masse! That is not justice!”
“I agree with you, Zevara. But I don’t have any ideas.”
The young woman sat there, looking at the Drake. The Watch Captain calmed down a bit.
“But you don’t seem to care. Not about Raskghar. About Antinium or Goblins? If it were a Goblin tribe…but Raskghar don’t count?”
That stung a bit, and made Erin sit up. Because it was…true.
She looked in her heart for the outrage, the passion that would make her stand in front of the prison if it were Rags’ tribe and wave a flag and dare a mob to attack. Even idiot nobles being hunted.
And it was not there. It wasn’t hard to understand, either.
“Goblins…yeah. Goblins maybe. Maybe not the—the Goblins who killed people in Invrisil. But if Goblins were defending themselves? Yeah. But the Raskghar—hunted Gnolls. They ate them. That’s not the same, Zevara.”
“Of course it isn’t. I’d be the first to say so. And yet—I did expect you to defend them, Miss Solstice.”
“Me? They nearly ate Mrsha! They tried to attack my inn yesterday!”
Erin gripped the desk in fury. Zevara’s gaze didn’t move.
“Goblins killed Senior Guardsman Klbkch. They attacked you multiple times. Again, I am not saying it is similar. I am just asking why it is different, Erin.”
The Human sat there. There was something in Zevara’s gaze that bothered Erin more than the arguments. It was…disappointment. And it stung Erin. She tried to qualify her side.
“It’s because the Raskghar attacked. Not defended. They weren’t at war with other species. They saw Gnolls—and sacrificed them. It’s—it’s that. Goblins, Antinium—they’re people. They attack and kill, but that’s because they have enemies. Raskghar—it’s in their very nature to want to eat Gnoll’s hearts, right?”
“Indeed. They’re creatures of legend. I have appeals from two dozen Gnoll tribes to execute or contain them.”
The Drake nodded. Erin went on.
“So…yeah. That’s why. They kidnapped Mrsha, a child, and were killing people. Systematically, in those rituals. It’s not the same to me.”
“Of course. Incidentally, Miss Solstice. It’s said that Goblins are, by their nature, doomed to follow the Goblin King and destroy. The same could be said of the Antinium of Rhir. A relentless foe that—”
Erin slapped the table with her hands and stood up. Zevara looked up at her as the young woman took a deep breath.
“Don’t do that.”
“Miss Erin. Is your objection to the Raskghar personal? Because it was Miss Mrsha, your inn?”
It was. And both Human and Drake knew it. Erin Solstice turned away. When Zevara commented the other species Erin had stuck up for were the same, she had seen it too. Intellectually—Erin could admit it.
There were probably Raskghar who were not evil. But she saw their species as…evil. Dark. Where she had not with the Goblins and Antinium, it was true. She remembered the altar, the cage where Mrsha had been imprisoned. Where they would have dragged Elirr, Mrsha, every Gnoll they could find.
“The difference is that the Goblins, Antinium…it’s not so deliberate. They kill people like…warriors. The Raskghar? It’s like torture. It’s—wrong.”
She couldn’t explain it fully. Zevara nodded.
“But what if the practice of consuming Gnolls hearts is something they learn? Is it innate to Raskghar? That is what I have to know. Is a child Raskghar evil, Miss Solstice? Because we have many in our cells. And if I am not here—the rightfully grieving friends and families of those the Raskghar have killed will enter the jail and kill children and adults.”
She sat there, the one Drake who objected to the killings in a position of power to stop it. And she had called Erin Solstice here, for once not to berate her or stop her. But because she’d been hoping for an ally.
Ironically, the one time Erin had no sympathy to give. The [Innkeeper] stood up.
“I—I’m sorry, Zevara. But I agree with you. I’ll say as much! Talk to Krshia—”
“I don’t want or need that, Miss Solstice.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do?”
Zevara stood up too.
“Be Erin Solstice. The young woman who always had a solution. Who never backed down in front of injustice as she saw it. Give me—something. Because I need help.”
Erin stood up. She pushed the chair into the desk, and walked towards the door. Zevara waited. Erin looked back at her.
She closed the door. Zevara did not yell or come after her. Erin walked down the stairs.
“Miss Solstice? Any order from the Watch Captain?”
They were all looking at her. Erin shook her head, mutely. She noticed this squad had Gnolls in it since it wasn’t on guard-duty. One of them raised a paw.
It was Tkrn.
“Miss Solstice, I know the Watch Captain probably had words with you…it’s not that we don’t want to uphold the law. But it’s Raskghar. Everyone knows someone killed by them.”
The squad waited. And since Erin didn’t say anything, Tkrn awkwardly went on.
“It’s just—we have family killed by the Goblins. And that’s why we’re not okay with Goblins, some of us. But we get they’re not all alike. Humans—some died at the Bloodfields. But the Raskghar—it feels different. That’s why—”
“I get it. I agree!”
They stared at her. Tkrn lowered his paw.
“Oh. Well—that’s why. We just wanted you to know that.”
Erin couldn’t take it. She left the Watch House. There were people outside too. Erin hadn’t heard it—Zevara’s office either had enchanted walls or they were thick—but they were shouting.
“Justice! Raskghar killed our families!”
One of them caught sight of Erin. It was a Gnoll. He lowered the sign, but didn’t walk away.
“I’m not wrong, Miss Human!”
He called out to her. Erin looked at him. The Gnoll was defiant.
“My daughter. She was fourteen.”
His voice cracked. He pointed towards the jail.
“They ate her. Why shouldn’t I want them dead?”
“If it was a Goblin, I deserve justice. Just like anyone else! I deserve—”
“I know! I agree! Stop it!”
Erin shouted at him. The crowd, the watching [Guards]…everyone fell silent. Erin looked around.
“I agree. Why do I have to object? Why do I…”
She looked up at the Watch House. Zevara was watching her from the window. Erin closed her eyes.
“Why do I have to be the moral person here? For them?”
She turned to the Gnoll.
“You deserve justice. Just not all the Raskghar. But you deserved justice.”
He looked at her blankly.
Erin stumbled away. Why was Zevara turning to her for answers? People expecting her to stand in their way or argue with them—why her?
Because, a guilty little voice whispered in her heart. Because you stood there too many times and did what you thought was right. Defying everyone else.
What made Raskghar different? So many things. And yet—it was all familiar to them.
Monsters. Could she call all of them monsters? Crelers? Because if Erin saw a Creler egg, she’d stomp it and then burn her shoe and the flagstones themselves. Crelers deserved no pity.
“Erin! Erin Solstice!”
Maviola found Erin, breathless, but vibrant. She was smiling.
“There you are! Have you heard about the Hectval delegation and the little party?”
“Hmm? Oh. No, Maviola. I haven’t.”
Erin mumbled. The [Lady] peered at her.
“You look put out. Well, I arranged a party in less than an hour. There will be Pallassian [Senators], a number of dignitaries—I did use your name to gather some of the Gold-rank teams.”
“Oh. That’s okay. It’s for Liscor, right? Thanks.”
The black-and-orange haired young woman hesitated. She had spoken about her accomplishments like it was a challenge and seemed disappointed that Erin hadn’t fired back. Maviola was acting weird, but Erin was staring at her feet. The [Lady] studied the Watch House.
“So—have you settled the Raskghar issue yet? That would tie the score, or so I think.”
She missed Erin’s head rising and the flash in the young woman’s eyes.
“Why me? Why do I have to solve it?”
Erin screamed at Maviola. The [Lady] actually took a step back in surprise. Erin threw up her hands. She noticed a hatted duo watching her from down the street. She screamed at them, and Maviola. Her voice was growing too loud—her Skill amplified it.
“Why do I need to solve every problem Liscor has? I’m not a Watch Captain! I’m not the person who made the Raskghar sick! I don’t even own a sword! Why me?”
She felt silly and stupid as she threw a miniature tantrum on the street. Zevara had ignited the guilt in her and Maviola and the others were making it worse.
After a few seconds, Maviola El cleared her throat. She looked at Erin kindly. Not unsympathetically. And also as if Erin was a brat Maviola was itching to smack.
“Erin, you are no [Lady]. Not of royal blood. Nor are you a leader of a city or own a large area of land. But you are a leader of people. Drakes have few nobility. But in northern Izril—this is what we do. The nobility. This is what we are meant to do. More than squabble and amass our fortunes. When there is a problem—the nearest [Lady] or [Lord] solves it. You have solved so many of Liscor’s issues, accidentally or intentionally. And you wonder why they look to you now?”
The [Innkeeper] hung her head.
“I don’t want to save the Raskghar. And that sounds wrong even as I say it.”
“That is the difference between upholding the laws and doing what you want.”
Erin nearly threw something at Maviola. Because she was right. It was how she said it that annoyed Erin so much. The Maviola who was old could say it more elegantly than the young one. The new one made Erin want to [Minotaur Punch] her for being right. No wonder she had made enemies.
“Okay. Okay…what do I do?”
Erin stood in the street and raised her head. Now it had been said—she could not unhear Zevara’s words. She had not asked for a response from anyone in particular, but Maviola decided she had the answer.
“Perhaps some magic fire to calm the crowd?”
The young woman cracked one eye open. Maviola smiled at her. The fact that it was the exact thing that Erin had been thinking—and also that it came from Maviola meant Erin now hated it.
“You can’t solve everything with fire.”
“It seems you have, with my Skill. Why not? You’d be amazed at how many problems I solved in my youth by burning something down.”
The young woman put her face in her hands. Is this what she was like to Zevara?
“I hate your Youth Potion. You need a new one.”
“Hah! You’ve just never met anyone with spirit.”
The young [Lady] slapped Erin on the back and grinned at her. Erin staggered, feeling the stinging pain. That had been on purpose. She told herself punching someone who was actually more than four times as old as she was, was not the right thing to do.
Even so—she balled her hand up—and saw Maviola was holding something.
A red flame. It was deep red, not like the red of a fire, but brighter than blood. It was beautiful—but even looking at it made Erin feel angrier. And she felt the emotion coming from the fire.
Fury. She looked at Maviola as the [Lady] held her fire made of memory and emotion.
“Try. We share the same fire, Erin. You can feed your anger into it. I’d conjure another one—but this suited you. You are my inheritor. I should have taught you this long ago.”
The [Lady] smiled. Erin looked at Maviola and grew calmer. She stared at the fire. It was…taking her anger.
“I didn’t know you could do that.”
“Of course you didn’t. You have a lot to learn.”
The fire jumped an inch in Maviola’s palms. Erin narrowed her eyes.
“Is now the moment to teach me?”
“If you want to create more flames. I don’t know what will fit, but I used a flame of happiness in your inn and it helped. Here—try this one and I’ll give you the others.”
Maviola offered Erin the flame. The [Innkeeper] sighed. She reached out for the fire, reluctantly. The [Lady] transferred it to Erin’s palms—
And the fire went out. The two stared at the spot it had been. Then Maviola looked at Erin accusatorially.
“You did that on purpose.”
“No I didn’t! Okay, I wasn’t feeling happy with you, but that should have…can you do it again?”
“Of course I can. Here.”
Maviola made another angry-fire. Erin glowered at her as the [Lady] dropped it in Erin’s palms.
“This time actually c—”
It went out the instant it touched Erin. The two stared at each other.
“You are doing it on purpose. Stop being petty.”
The [Lady] folded her arms. Erin threw up her hands again.
“Me, being petty?”
Then she realized what was wrong. Erin checked herself.
“No. Oh no. I’m covered in hate fire again! It’s all over me! No wonder I’ve been feeling terrible! How do I get it off? How do I—”
Maviola smacked Erin on the shoulder.
“You’re not on fire! I’d be able to tell!”
“Stop hitting me!”
Erin swung at Maviola and the [Lady] backed up. The two gave each other bad-natured looks. Maviola took a deep breath and visibly centered herself.
“I’m going to try again with calming fire. Calm. Perhaps you’re just not able to work the flame of fury at the moment.”
“…’s a stupid sounding name.”
The [Lady]’s eyebrows twitched. She produced a tiny flame of calm and handed it to Erin.
“Just take some this time.”
Erin reached out to pluck the fire from Maviola’s palm. She grabbed at it—and her fingers passed through.
“Ooh! That’s cool!”
“What is going on? Pick it up!”
“I’m trying! It’s not—”
The fire went out. This time because Maviola clearly lost whatever calmness had gone into the fire to begin with.
“What is happening? Can you take this fire or not?”
The furious red flame covered her arms and set her long hair aflame. Erin backed up. She saw Maviola extend a burning arm at her.
“Take the damn fire already!”
Erin grabbed at it—and got a handful at last! The fire sputtered on her hand for half a second. And then it went out.
Slowly, the flames on Maviola went out. She and Erin stood there, on the street, panting and looking at each other. Someone tossed them a copper coin. It bounced past Erin’s left foot. Maviola scooped it up and threw it back at the person who’d tossed it.
“What’s going on?”
She turned to look at Erin. The [Innkeeper] thought she knew.
“It’s…different. Your fire and mine. Isn’t that it?”
The [Lady Firestarter] hesitated. Both of them could remember when their Skills had mixed and let them see into each other’s memories. And Maviola’s fire—she had demonstrated each one she had to Erin.
“Your fire…sorrow, depression was blue. I have sadness. But it’s not like yours.”
“And my hate fire—it’s different from your color. That has to matter.”
Slowly, Maviola nodded. It was different perspectives. Erin thought of the color of her happiness. Different from the yellow of Maviola’s. Glory was pink—to Maviola it was gold.
“I don’t think you can teach fire that easily. At least—not if we’re like this.”
Slowly, the [Lady] nodded.
“I’m sorry. I suppose I don’t know how my Skill interacts with other people. You are the first I’ve met.”
“Yeah. Sorry for snapping at you. It’s just been—I’m stressed.”
“I’m not sorry.”
Erin’s face twitched. She looked away from Maviola. The fire thing had been a pleasant distraction. What she needed…
Was to figure out what the Raskghar were to her. She walked off. Towards the one place that had the answer. Maviola El hesitated. Then followed. Erin really wished she hadn’t. Young Maviola was kind of a jerk. Beautiful and passionate. But also a jerk.
Later that night, Lism was pondering the definition of words. And he was pleased that this was the only concern in his immediate life. He glanced around the decorated entrance of City Hall, which could serve as a functional ballroom if you did a bit with it.
[Waiters] were serving food to the glittering crowd standing around and talking. There was no dancing, but a wonderful ambient music was floating through the hall. Drakes were talking in groups; most of the Gnolls were busy with the Raskghar business, but adventurers and Drakes mixed and a few Gnolls were present from Hectval as well. The Players of Celum had their own group of attention and the entire atmosphere? Convivial. Cozy, without being cramped.
Most excellent. Lism sipped from his glass as he thought.
Would it be polite to call it a ‘soirée’? No, wait, those were in smaller houses. Well, this was a reception then.
Lism was muddling over the exact wording for the speech he had to give. He nervously adjusted the ruff of one of the very traditional suits he’d put on. But this was a success. Maviola’s efforts had paid off.
No, this was a triumph. Liscor’s City Hall was filled with dignitaries. [Senators], Guild Leaders, and rich (and thus, important) people from Pallass and Liscor.
It was the kind of thing that impressed. Even Gold-rank teams, who liked to hobnob since a lot of the richest members of a city were often the ones who’d hire you.
Dazzling, radiant—and the pizzas looked fancy. At least, to Lism. Gold flakes. There had to be something fancy about them if you ended eating gold, right? He heard a commotion from the doors.
“Get back here! He’s stolen a pizza!”
One of the food thieves. They got everywhere. Ancestors! Lism was sort of glad, actually. It proved there was something to steal.
And certainly…he owed Krshia a large debt. Even that Maviola character might be decent, halfway worthy of Olesm. No Erin Solstice had popped out, no Crelers had tunneled out of the cake to attack everyone…it was an unmitigated victory for Liscor.
Even more than Lism could have predicted. Mystifyingly so. The Scalespeaker of Hectval, Yisht, lushed over to Lism. And that was the correct word in this case.
“Councilmember Lism. This—this is hospitality. Accept my deepest gratitude—and you have my apologies. Just this morning I thought this city was a cesspool and look at it now!”
He had a glass of expensive wine in one claw and a ruby plucked from a cake wedge in the other. Drakes hadn’t ever seen the El family style of decorating appetizers and they’d made a run on the desserts. It was the glitter, the shine.
“Delighted, Scalespeaker. And never mind the introductions, eh? Your delegation is welcome in Liscor! It’s splendid to have you!”
The two Drakes laughed together. Hectval’s delegation were socializing with the people in the room, and positively beaming with Tismel, Zalaiss, and Alonna, who were the Councilmembers present.
Strange, though. The Hectval delegation’s attitudes had done a one-eighty since arriving. The Scalespeaker nodded.
“The fault was mine. Misconceptions, you see, Councilmember Lism. I’ll have the mud on my tail when I go back to explain it. But you’ve been nothing but hospitable in clearing this mess up and I’m sending for proper gifts to match this generosity as we speak. Just wanted to let you know that this—this won’t be forgotten.”
He gestured around the room. Lism laughed and smiled as Yisht escorted him around. And he resisted the urge to shout ‘what the hell was going on?’
They must have really wowed the Drake city, or they didn’t have experience with this kind of wealth. Lism puffed up. At least he’d have something good to relate to Krshia tonight. He thought he could sequester some of the good food; they could have it at his apartment.
He hoped the Raskghar issue was settled. And he’d introduce Krshia later. A success! They were going to have to do this again as well! The Pallassian people were so taken with this event that they were asking if they could do it again.
“Just elegant food, good conversation—for the gifts between Hectval and Liscor? Of course. And here I thought Liscor was unstylish, pardon me. But this—”
A Drake from Pallass rolled her eyes and exclaimed. Even Tismel and Zalaiss and the old Council were pulling their weight. Yes, Lism beamed as he took a drink.
It was all coming up just fine. He saw someone waving urgently at him behind Yisht.
“Ah, excuse me, Scalespeaker. Perhaps something to do with the Raskghar…we will certainly have time to continue this.”
The Drake waved him off jovially. Lism hurried over to Jeiss, who was waving at him in armor, looking worried.
“Jeiss! This is going amazingly well! I have no idea what we did, but that Maviola saved our tails! Please tell me it’s not an emergency.”
Lism closed his eyes.
“Don’t say it. Please.”
The Drake wanted to cry. He covered his face as Jeiss patted him on the shoulder.
An hour ago.
Erin Solstice stood in the prison. The [Guards] had let her through the crowd on Zevara’s orders. They were staring nervously at her from their double-line of fortifications.
They were ready to destroy the entire prison and everyone in it. The Raskghar were dangerous. Even behind bars—Erin had a sense that if they worked together, they might be able to rip a bar free or something.
And even if they couldn’t? They just gave her the impression of being wild things locked up.
The [Guards] had cautioned her to stay back from the bars. She had eight around her, all the best fighters, watching the Raskghar carefully. For their part, the Raskghar stared at the backs of the cells, away from the bars.
They were still sick, but noticeably better after having the plague spells dispersed. Some were eating, but most had ravenously consumed the food.
It smelled. There were sewage holes that allowed waste to be…processed, but the Raskghar themselves sort of smelled and the excrement-shafts were very small. That was important; you could smuggle something in or out that way. A master [Thief] could squeeze through improbably small places.
Erin wondered if the Gentlemen Callers had followed them inside. She looked around. If Wilovan and Ratici were here, they weren’t immediately noticeable. And as they had said—they couldn’t save her from everything.
So she was careful. Erin Solstice looked around. Maviola had left to find Olesm after taking one whiff of the prison. There wasn’t much for her to see, anyways.
Here were the Raskghar. What did you do with them? Erin saw small Raskghar, sniffing at her. But they didn’t look like Mrsha.
They looked like they were wondering if they could kill her if she was in the cell with them. But maybe that was bias? Goblin children…Pebblesnatch had been dangerous.
The poor, happily cooking Cave Goblin with her poofy hat. Erin clutched her heart. She had been a slave to the Raskghar.
It was the wrong thing to remember here. Erin Solstice looked at the eyes watching her, glinting in the hung lantern’s light. And she tried.
The young woman walked down the jail. She came to a stop at a glowing cell and looked in.
“Erin Solstice. Zevara was expecting you. I did not hope to find you here.”
The Minotaur was petting one of the two rats. The other was perched on his head. Erin almost smiled at the sight. But it was another reminder.
A rat king made by a little Gnoll. A tortured Minotaur. Justice and…
“Zevara was right. But why didn’t you want me to be here?”
The Minotaur bared his teeth.
“Because there is nothing to save. Goblins? Goblins can fight with honor, for all they are a foe my people have fought against. Antinium may be a people, foreign as they are. But the Raskghar are nothing but madness. Look at me.”
He gestured to himself.
“There is nothing for you here to redeem, Erin Solstice. Tell Zevara that. She will not listen.”
“Maybe because she believes in you.”
The Minotaur’s eyes flickered.
“It is the one flaw in a good—no, an excellent Watch Captain. Justice, Erin Solstice. Let those outside have their justice. Or let me exact mine and we will close this chapter, the Raskghar and I.”
Erin looked at him. The cells stirred. She looked around. And she did not miss the looks some of the [Guards] gave Calruz. They were not entirely hateful.
“Zevara spoke to me, Calruz. About…justice. She has a good point. Not all of the Raskghar are murderers. There’re kids here.”
“And some ate the hearts of Gnolls for power. I ordered it.”
The Minotaur did not blink. He didn’t stop petting the rat either, with a finger as gentle as a feather’s touch. The rat curled up its tail and yawned as it stared ahead. It was happy.
It was easier for rats. They did not have to judge. And it was that reason why Erin came here. To find what Zevara wanted. She looked around.
“It’s not right to punish a species for…everything.”
A snort from behind her.
“No? Perhaps not. But if justice waits, it is not justice at all. How long must the grieving wait for the murderers to die?”
“At least a day.”
Erin thought she heard a chuckle from a [Guardsman]. She looked around, unsmiling.
The patrol fell silent. Back to Calruz, the young woman walked.
“It’s not right to let a mob in here and tear people apart, Calruz. That’s why the law’s there. You don’t hang people instantly either. You make sure they’re the ones who did…whatever it was. Justice—probably shouldn’t be swift. That’s more like vengeance.”
“But either way. Murder was done and far worse than murder. Ask the living. Ask the child. Look at them, Erin Solstice.”
The Minotaur was unwavering. Erin stood up. And she did look. She did try.
Raskghar. There was a cell of young ones. If they weren’t so large, Erin might have called them…four? Six? They were the youngest living ones.
There were no babies here. The plague must have killed them. Erin tried to think of that.
“Can I see them?”
“They’re dangerous, Miss Solstice.”
The Senior Guardswoman considered that.
“Back up. Back up—this one. Forwards.”
She pointed to the smallest Raskghar. They others crept forwards, but the [Guards] slapped long-handled poles on the ground and they moved back.
Now that—that seemed wrong to Erin. Even so—she looked at the little Raskghar.
“Hello. Can you understand me?”
It growled at Erin. Making a low whining sound. Erin felt like she was talking to a feral dog. Maybe it was too young.
“I’m Erin Solstice. Are you okay? Can you…do you know what I’m saying?”
No response. Had the moons already waned? The Raskghar just crouched on all-fours, peering at Erin. It was so young. And—it wasn’t cold, but the Raskghar looked like it was shaking a bit.
“What’s wrong? Is—he?—cold?”
The [Innkeeper] turned to the [Guards]. They shook their heads.
“Shakes, Miss. [Healer] says it’s not cold. They didn’t want the blankets. At least, this one didn’t.”
They pointed at the pile one Raskghar was curled up in. The young woman nodded. Then she eyed the Raskghar again. It looked thin. No doubt starved.
“Can I give them some food?”
“We fed them—”
The [Guardswoman] saw Erin dig at her belt. Slowly, Erin pulled out…some dried meat. A snack. Jerky.
The Raskghar sniffed. It edged closer—the [Guards] warned the others to stay back.
Slowly, so slowly, Erin extended her arm with the bit of meat. She tried to wave it in order to capture the Raskghar child’s attention
“Hi. Can you talk to me? Are you hungry? What’s your name?”
The child looked at Erin. And then it lunged. Erin jerked her hand back as the jaws snapped next to where her hand and the meat had been.
One of the [Guards] yanked Erin back. She lay there, panting, as the Raskghar child fled, disguising itself among the others.
Erin heard silence. Then—laughter. Her skin prickled.
It did not come from the Watch. She looked over—and a Raskghar crouched at the front of her cage.
A large one. She was more like a Gnoll. But again—larger. Primal, like what Gnolls were in times before they had possessed spears and weapons and had to defend themselves with claw and muscle alone.
“Little one stupid. I. I Asoma. Still speak. You give food? Kind master.”
The words. Erin stared at the Raskghar as the squad froze, watching the Raskghar and waiting for Erin to move. That sounded like speech. But the Raskghar was both too intelligent and undeserving of the language at the same time.
It sounded like an evil parody of speech. And there it was again. The Raskghar might have been smart, with the effects of the full moons but it was not clever except in the way a predator was. Erin got the distinct impression the female Raskghar wanted to get something more to eat, or be favored. It was obvious.
“Asoma? Your name’s Asoma?”
“Yes. Good Raskghar. We surrender. Kind not-Gnolls have mercy. Asoma be good slave. Clean. Lift things. Kill things for masters.”
The Raskghar smiled like a lying child standing over a dead pet. Erin shook her head.
“We don’t want slaves. And we know what you did.”
Asoma looked at Erin curiously.
“You are not Gnolls.”
Why do you care? Erin shook her head. It was not like talking to Numbtongue, or even one of the Goblins like Rags with a poor command of language. Her [Dangersense] was a constant buzz in this place.
“Why did you kill Gnolls?”
A blank look. Then Asoma bowed her head to the ground.
“Bad things. Very sad! We never do again! Mercy! Surrender!”
The other Raskghar in her cell and who were listening echoed the words, sounding piteous. But Erin had not missed the blank expression on Asoma’s face where she’d been thinking of what to say.
She looked towards Calruz’ cell. He watched her and nodded.
Look at them. There was not an ounce of contrition in Asoma, no matter how she made her face contort.
“Do Raskghar know how to cry?”
The words slipped out of Erin. Asoma looked up.
“Yes. Cry much. No tears left?”
“Dead gods, shut up.”
One of the [Guards] muttered. They were possessed of the same loathing of this moment as Erin. She shook her head. This—this was having the opposite effect she wanted.
“Asoma. Just you speak. Asoma—why did you surrender? What did the Raskghar want?”
The Raskghar’s eyes flickered. Then she pointed at an open sore that had erased fur in a patch across her chest, one of many.
“Bad pain. Bad sick. Make stop. Come here for—”
“Mercy. Yes. And when you’re all better, what will you do?”
Another flicker of the eyes. Then a smile.
“Surrender. Not do anything. Good Raskghar. Eat, sleep, grow more…”
A mutter. Asoma’s ears twitched and she amended the statement quickly.
“Grow bigger. Stronger. Serve masters.”
It was so—Erin closed her eyes. She couldn’t even lie for Asoma. Grow more Raskghar? Until the ‘silly masters’ dropped their guard and the Raskghar went back into the dungeon, maybe with some Gnolls?
What was she supposed to do? Erin—wanted—to draw her knife. To demand to know which Raskghar had killed Gnolls. And then?
Maybe that was it. She had never gotten that vibe from Numbtongue. But perhaps—Erin opened her eyes.
And she saw a murderer smiling back. Not like her. Not with the same reasons as a Human might have. But—someone who had done evil.
She had seen people like that before. Different than a monster. Erin remembered a face. A terrible suspicion.
Regrika Blackpaw. The Named Adventurer had killed Ulrien, murdered Brunkr. When Erin had confronted her and the other Drake—they had that same look in their eyes.
Everything but remorse. Erin opened her eyes. Yes—it was simple, really.
“Are you sorry for what you’ve done?”
The Raskghar opened her mouth at once. Erin cut her off.
“No. Be silent. Listen. Don’t lie to me. I can tell when you’re lying. I have a Sk—I have great magic. See?”
She raised her hand. And produced a little flame of sadness. Because…the Raskghar locked eyes on it.
“Oh yes. And I want to know. I won’t be angry. Are you sad?”
Asoma hesitated. Her eyes flickered.
“You’re going to lie to me. Don’t think. Just answer.”
The Raskghar muttered in their language. One of the [Guards] banged on the bars and there was silence. Erin changed tactics.
“Let’s go even simpler, Asoma. Are you afraid of dying?”
The Raskghar nodded. Erin nodded. Animals. Animals could be afraid. That was what separated animals from rocks and stuff. But people?
“You killed Gnolls. Gnolls who had families. You know families?”
“Yes. Raskghar have…bigger Raskghar make smaller Raskghar.”
Asoma gestured, spreading her legs and pulling aside a corroded leather skirt—Erin looked away. She looked at Asoma.
“Yes. The Gnolls had parents. Children. Family. You killed them. Do you feel sorry for that?”
The Raskghar opened her mouth. She looked at Erin, and saw the young woman peering at her intently. I will know if you lie. She considered this. Erin broke into the silence again.
“Do you have a—no. Do you have a—mate? A favorite Raskghar?”
Asoma pointed. Erin didn’t look. That was true. One of the [Guards] had produced a truth stone and was consulting it.
“Would you be sad if that Raskghar died?”
A worried growl. Asoma wasn’t worried, though. Her eyes flickered to Erin’s face and she nodded.
They were getting somewhere. But again—animals could be sad. As much as people, more, perhaps. Erin didn’t know.
“You killed Gnolls. Gnolls who were like that Raskghar is to you. They are very sad. Are you sorry for doing it?”
The Raskghar pondered this. She sat there. And Erin tried to persuade her to tell the truth. Her aura was almost nonexistent outside of her inn. But look at me [Crowd Control]. Whatever she had—
Tell me. Show me there’s something. At last, Asoma looked at Erin directly.
“Why? Why am I sorry?”
Erin sat back. A mutter ran through the listening Watch.
“Because it was wrong. Because—it led to this. You being sick. Being hunted.”
She pointed at Asoma. The Raskghar slowly nodded. Erin whispered. Her throat felt tight.
“I won’t be angry. I just have to know. Now that you know all that—are you sorry?”
Asoma looked at her warily. So Erin Solstice smiled. It wasn’t even a good smile. But Asoma saw that and relaxed. She spoke.
There was no redemption to be found there. Not in the Raskghar. Asoma had none in her. Perhaps—perhaps she didn’t know it was wrong.
Or maybe there really wasn’t anything in her. Erin had to stand next to a wall and inhale the smell of an alleyway for nearly ten minutes after leaving that cell.
No wonder Calruz had gone mad. Look at them. Perhaps the children—but the Raskghar boy, if it had been a boy, hadn’t even seemed like he understood Erin at all.
Kill them all? Erin wasn’t there. But it was more like the issue of killing a bunch of…wild dogs. She hated the Raskghar. And she saw little there to uncover.
Even so—had Zevara spoken to them? Looked into their very souls and seen the smiling Raskghar who would have eaten Gnoll’s hearts all over again? Surely she had. And still, she looked at the law and the law was clear.
But Erin’s heart was not. And it was her heart she was guided by. She had fought for Goblins. Because she could look at Numbtongue’s face and see in the crimson eyes tears. She could remember a Goblin smiling as she held his hand and he died.
There was nothing for the Raskghar. So what did she do?
“Miss Solstice? Are you alright?”
One of the [Guards] followed Erin outside. She’d practically run from the cell after a few more minutes. He offered her a handkerchief.
Erin looked at him. He gestured to her.
She was. Not for the Raskghar. Just for the bitterness of it all. Her friends—who got tarnished by the same brush as the Raskghar. Erin wiped at her eyes.
“I’m sorry. It’s horrible in there. I—the Raskghar aren’t like Goblins or Antinium.”
The Drake shook his head as he took the handkerchief back.
“No they are not, Miss. But orders are orders. Law’s the law, am I right?”
He looked at her as if to ask. Was he right? People wanted to know. They looked to Erin. Why was she…?
Because Maviola was right. If anyone was going to give the Raskghar the benefit of the doubt…she took a huge breath.
“Zevara. Is right. The law’s right. If the Raskghar are people—if they were animals. Like this herd of wolves that ate people.”
“Er—pack of wolves. They don’t have herds.”
Erin glared at the Drake and he shut up.
“Pack of wolves. Okay, if there was a…pack of wolves, and they ate people. What would they do?”
“Send for [Hunters]. Exterminate the pack. Wolves that eat people—they’re people-eaters.”
“But are like, wolf pups going to do that? What if you let them live? Adopted them?”
The Drake sighed.
“Some might say they learned from their parents.”
“But do they deserve to die?”
“…I wouldn’t object if the [Hunters] let ‘em live. Some might.”
Erin nodded. She didn’t know where she was going with this. It was just—if you let animals live, you should probably let people do the same. She tried to summarize it.
“Zevara is right. Raskghar can think. They can use tools and stuff. They’re people. Unless they have no hearts or souls.”
She and the Drake paused.
“On paper, Zevara is right. If you don’t talk to Raskghar—she’s right that some deserve a chance.”
And there it was. Reality did not meet expectations, please send other species for mercy. Because the Raskghar deserved none. And Erin could not immediately prove they had anything worthy of redemption in them.
Gnolls were dead. Murderers—clear murderers sat in the prison. Erin took a deep breath.
“What do I say?”
“Let ‘em all go to the noose except the children? Or the ones who’re actually innocent?”
The young woman looked up at the Drake [Guard]. She closed her eyes and then nodded. She stood up and looked around, lost.
“Yeah. I’m afraid…that’s close.”
But how did you even do that? The crowd was gathering. The Raskghar’s cells were overcrowded. And this—this city did not want even that lenience. It wanted blood. Death. Erin looked across it all. And she went to find a jury of the Raskghar’s peers.
It was a simple question Erin asked Numbtongue. Then Pawn. And then Bird because…it was a wildcard answer.
“What would you do about the Raskghar?”
She wasn’t expecting wisdom. But they were the same people who had faced similar treatment. Her answer was simple.
“Kill the adults. Let children go. Kill them if they grow up and try to kill you. Or kill all of them.”
Numbtongue’s was a Redfang’s answer. There was no equivocation. And it was a bloodthirsty answer until Erin remembered he was still a Goblin who had fought other tribes and other peoples. Murder was murder.
“I—believe only the Raskghar who were responsible for killing a Gnoll directly should be killed.”
Pawn’s was the opposite of the spectrum. Erin asked why. The [Priest] clasped his hands together.
“If it were Antinium—they would follow orders. Antinium have killed many for the Queens. They would not know better. Perhaps.”
“And what do you do with the survivors, Pawn?”
He looked at her.
“Try to make them better, Erin. As you did with us. Did you see nothing of us in there? If they are a people…”
“I didn’t, Pawn.”
The Worker hesitated. He looked at Erin.
“Not that I could see.”
Solemnly, Pawn nodded. He looked at Erin, sitting wan at the table.
“Perhaps, then, you must believe there is goodness there. And try.”
That answer bothered her almost as much as Numbtongue. Erin had sat right there and looked at Asoma. Surely…
Lastly, Bird. The Worker sat in his tower. When he looked at Erin, it was solemnly as he gnawed on a drumstick bone.
“What does the law say, Erin?”
“About the Raskghar?”
“Do that. I will have another question if you wish.”
Erin Solstice sat there. She looked at Bird.
“Do what the law says?”
“Yes. If it is the law and the law is right, follow the law. Otherwise it is a bad law. These are easy questions, by the way.”
Bird smiled, pleased with himself. Erin sighed.
“You’re right. Thank you, Bird.”
She turned to go. Then she stopped.
“You are right about that.”
“Yes. So you have said twice.”
There was…something Erin could do. She thought of it as she walked down from Bird’s tower. Just give up. Obey the law. Zevara was right.
The only problem was that Erin still had to ask—by what standard did you treat the Raskghar? Kill the adults? Kill the murderers and raise the children as best you could? It would be a nightmare. And that was if there was something in them.
She had to know. Erin walked through her magical door and came back thirty minutes later. She had a long conversation with someone and then came back. Lyonette looked quizzically at her.
“Someone’s coming, Lyonette. This place will be busy—we might have to move the door. I have everything but—”
She clenched her hand over her chest.
“It still doesn’t feel right.”
The young woman had a decent answer. Even so—she could not forgive them. And that was the heart of it.
Erin Solstice hated the Raskghar. She hated what they had done. For Elirr—for Mrsha, who was hiding in the Garden? Erin wanted to kill them.
She took out the jar of acid and stared at it. It was more than she had felt for many enemies. Face-Eater moths? Monsters. You killed them to defend yourself. Enemy Human army? Oh yes, she hated them, but not with the same intensity. It was the leader who was most culpable.
This—this was like only a few others. Regrika Blackpaw.
Skinner. The Crelers who she thought had killed her friends.
And one last name—her greatest failure.
Erin’s eyes opened.
Lyonette flinched. Erin looked at her.
“Could you ever forgive Toren, Lyonette? Could you ever forgive me for…not knowing what he was doing?”
She had never forgotten or forgiven herself after putting together the pieces. Toren had killed people. Lyonette was slow in replying.
“I can forgive you, Erin. I…it took time, but you didn’t know. But that—thing?”
She shook her head.
“That was a monster.”
Her knuckles were white on the broomstick. Erin nodded. Toren had tormented Lyonette. He had killed so many. Tried to come after her.
And yet—she sat in her inn. And remembered how it ended.
He had placed his hands together and made the symbol Mrsha used in her sign language. A simple symbol.
Love. A heart. It had broken. And he’d removed his head and died. He—had been choking her. But he had not killed her.
Was that the last bit of redemption in a monster? Perhaps Toren could not be forgiven. But Erin had seen at his last—that he was not a skeleton. Not a monster, or undead. But a person.
He might have still deserved death. But she should have given him that chance long ago.
Toren. Erin slowly rose. And she had her answer. In Liscor’s jail, there were two hundred Torens. Not in the same way. But Erin had, had to trust Bird. The singing, silly Worker was the smartest of them all.
Trust Zevara. Because she was right. The law existed to protect people. And you had to believe the Raskghar were people. Who would be tried. Erin took a breath.
And she felt lighter.
“So that’s how it is. It wasn’t in them all along. Silly Human.”
Lyonette’s back was to Erin. She was sweeping up gold leaf that had been dropped on the ground.
“What was that, Erin? Are they getting to you in Liscor? And who’s coming through the door? Is it—”
She heard a gasp. A small intake of breath. Lyonette du Marquin saw a glow illuminate the inn. The [Princess] turned.
Erin Solstice held a flame in her palms. She had reached into her chest and pulled it out. It had been there all along. She had found none in the Raskghar. Because it was not in them.
“Erin…what fire is that?”
The [Princess] lowered the broom. Erin, the [Innkeeper] cupped her hands slowly. The flame was grey. Not white. Not black. But perfectly, even agonizingly split between the two. Radiant. Yet—static. The flames looked cut out of the air, moving with an odd pattern, like stop-motion. Each flame as if it were a single image reformed in a slightly different spot and size a moment later.
What fire? What emotion? Lyonette opened her mouth to ask again. But she realized she didn’t have to. It burned in her. Erin lifted the fire. And she said—
Maviola El sensed the fire like a spark in her mind. She entered the inn, panting. And there Erin Solstice stood. She turned—and Maviola gasped.
“What—what is that flame?”
“You don’t know it?”
The [Lady] shook her head. She struggled for words as she stared at the foreign fire.
“That’s not—I’ve never seen it before. How did you—? It shouldn’t be possible.”
She had never made the fire Erin was holding. Hers were emotions. They blazed across Maviola’s soul. But the one Erin held? The [Innkeeper] returned the [Lady]’s gaze.
“A different perspective.”
Maviola straightened. And she nodded, slowly. She pointed.
“That’s your fire. Yours and yours alone. I—don’t know if I could create it. Learn it? Perhaps. But I could never form the spark. How did you?”
The young woman looked down.
“It was in me the whole time. I just didn’t see it with the Raskghar.”
The flame flickered in her palms, growing larger. It was a single idea. But too complex for any one emotion. Maviola read the fire’s nature in a moment as Erin closed her eyes.
A word the Raskghar used but had no notion of. Yet—she did. The fire Erin Solstice held was grey.
Grey. Neither black nor white, but the most terrible of the flames Erin had ever conjured. It was not invisible hatred, eating away at your body. It was—
“Lyonette. I need to borrow your broom.”
Silently, the [Princess] held out her broom. Erin took it. The flames covered the handle of the broom, the brush end, slowly, as Erin ran her palm down it.
The fire caught and burned. The wood…began to disintegrate. Faster than hatred, or depression. Not as fast as happiness left. But a slow wane.
And the way the fire looked. It was that static impression of blades that made Maviola marvel. As if each lick of flame were…separate. Cutting, rather than burning.
It was a stick with a thousand blades of fire. Erin swung it. It was not a good weapon. But it did hurt. She lifted it up, and then shouldered it.
“Let them into Liscor, Lyonette. I’m going first. To make sure.”
She walked out of the common room and into the hallway. Maviola followed. The [Innkeeper] walked into the hallway, and then found a Hobgoblin. He was playing cards with two fellows with hats.
The Gentlemen Callers looked up. Wilovan and Ratici stared at the flaming broom. Numbtongue just grinned.
“Thanks. I’m going for a walk, you guys. I don’t think there’ll be trouble. But there might be a mob and riot if it goes badly.”
Ratici opened his mouth. That didn’t sound like ‘no trouble’ to him. But his objections were forestalled as he looked at Erin’s face.
“Well then, I suppose we should accompany you. It’s getting late and it wouldn’t do to leave a lady unattended, wouldn’t you say so, sir?”
Wilovan adjusted his vest and looked at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin raised an eyebrow and grinned.
“My dear mother told me never to get in the way of a proper woman, Ratici. And that advice seems to hold true here.”
The Gnoll watched Erin Solstice march into Liscor. Lyonette saw the two Gentlemen Callers and Numbtongue follow Erin.
Mercy. She was seen the moment she walked into Liscor, of course. By the Watch who went to find Zevara. The Drake was on a call. She lowered the speaking stone.
“Let her go.”
She exhaled and sagged onto her desk.
“Thank you, Erin Solstice.”
She would deny ever saying that, of course.
More people saw the young woman marching with the flaming broom coated in mercy’s fire. It was so bright. Of all the flames Erin had ever made—it illuminated more with grey light than anything but glory. And it was a longer light.
“Stop. Don’t do this!”
The Gnoll who had lost a daughter barred Erin’s way. He looked at the fire she held. And he knew what it was. But—he put one paw out.
“Not for them. Please. Don’t do this.”
There was so little of it in him. Not for them. Erin Solstice nodded.
“Don’t worry. There will be justice. Trust me. I just want to see.”
“But you’re holding—”
The Gnoll looked at her uncertainly. Erin held the stick out. The edges were sharp enough to cut her—she wasn’t immune to this fire.
“It’s mine. But it’s not soft. See?”
It cut him too. The Gnoll lowered his arm. And Erin walked on.
She had been looking for it in the wrong place. Redemption from the Raskghar? She had felt it talking to Zevara. And she had some herself.
The crowd in front of the jail didn’t want to let Erin through. Even the [Guards] were uncertain. She turned to them.
“I won’t let them go free. I just want to see for a moment. They will not go free. There will be law. But that’s not going to come from me. I promise.”
It reassured them. A bit. Perhaps they would have not let her through if she was anyone else. But she had earned a chance. So Erin walked into the jail, bearing the waning torch.
The Raskghar in their cells looked up as the harsh light flooded into the prison. They looked uncertainly at each other.
Then came the Human. Asoma stared at Erin Solstice as she walked into view. She threw up her claws and covered her face.
Erin Solstice sighed. The broom was falling to pieces. But the flame still burned—radiant in this place. It was, to her, a harsh light.
But blinding to the Raskghar. Painful. She held up the flame and the Raskghar shied away, covering their eyes. They whimpered and whined, crying out in pain.
More than just them. Calruz stared at the flame that cut him just by sight alone. He knelt. The pain was welcome and bitter to him.
Numbtongue leaned against the prison’s entrance. He looked after Erin and waved at the [Guards] waiting there. They stared at the flames, almost missing him entirely.
“Why does it hurt? And why are you smiling?”
Erin Solstice had tossed down the broom onto the floor. The remnants of the fire burned away the wood. But she was walking back. And there was a faint smile on her face.
“It was the proof I wanted, that’s all. The fire.”
The Gentlemen Callers stood, listening. They had taken off their hats—a gesture that meant something else anywhere else. But they listened now, as the [Innkeeper] spoke to the Goblin.
“Because it hurts. If they were monsters, it wouldn’t hurt.”
“Oh. So what does it change? Can it make them…better?”
The [Innkeeper] shook her head.
“I don’t have that kind of power, Numbtongue. The fire’s for me, not for them. That’s sort of how it works. That is all I can give them. Give Liscor and Zevara.”
She pointed. A second commotion was occurring outside. Her visitors had arrived and Lyonette had let them into the city.
In the end, Bird was right. Erin had no good answer for the Raskghar. Neither did Zevara. But they could not stay here. Not in Liscor’s jail, where they were wanted dead.
It wasn’t even a nice jail. Sort of smelly, small, nothing to do, and the Minotaur had dibs. But Erin had been in a larger, nicer prison. Very secure. Lots of space.
An old Drake walked forwards, using a cane to support his weight. He was flanked by dozens of [Soldiers] in yellow armor. He nodded at Erin. And Watch Captain Zevara and the Watch of Liscor. When he spoke—it was in the same ringing tones with which she had heard him defying the Wyverns.
“I am Grand Strategist Chaldion. By my authority, and the consent of the Watch Captain of Liscor, I will take the Raskghar prisoners to Pallass.”
A roar of protest followed his words. The [Strategist] slashed with a claw and there was silence. He went on.
“Given the nature of the crimes the Raskghar have committed—they will all be tried and their guilt determined by magic and Skill and law. No one is above the law, and no one beneath it. The Raskghar will be imprisoned—and those responsible for their heinous crimes will be executed by the end of the week. The rest will be prisoners of Liscor and Pallass until their fate is determined.”
Faces turned back to Erin. The [Innkeeper] exhaled. Numbtongue let her lean against him. And the crowd’s objections—still present—were subdued.
They were going to die. And the sapphire eye of the [Grand Strategist] held little mercy in his own right.
“Some live, some die. But they do die.”
The Hobgoblin remarked to Erin. She nodded without saying a word. Numbtongue watched as Chaldion ordered the first mobile cells to be brought on Pallass’ side of the magic door. They’d load the Raskghar straight into them.
“Why did you work so hard to do it this way? Easier to just not care.”
The young woman looked up at the Goblin. And then sideways. The Gentlemen Callers heard her reply.
“So I could live with myself. Chaldion promised to give the children a chance.”
Wilovan and Ratici stirred. They looked at Erin. Then, slowly, the Gentlemen Callers put their hats back on their heads. They tipped them to Erin and bowed.
“It doesn’t seem that arduous now, does it, Ratici?”
“No indeed, Wilovan. Not if you meet the right sorts. Well done, Miss Solstice.”
She didn’t nod or shake her head. She just hugged Numbtongue. And then she went home. The fire still burned, though. The same light that had been there for the Redfangs, for Goblins and Antinium.
It lit The Wandering Inn that night. In a little lantern Erin had made, like her sad fire. She didn’t know what this one’s purpose was. Mrsha had tried cutting a carrot on it, but it just made lots of little cuts and wasn’t that great.
The little white Gnoll had been staring at it for a long time. Listening to what it told her. It was Erin’s special flame. And when she touched it—it cut her not at all. It was so warm.
Harsh, beautiful, depending on how you looked at it. The Gnoll girl curled up as she knew the Raskghar were gone. In the [Garden of Sanctuary], she sat on the hill—mostly empty now the crisis had passed.
The delegation remained. The Raskghar were still out there, but secured in Pallass prisons. Erin was drinking and playing cards with the Gentlemen Callers and Numbtongue.
The door to the garden opened. Mrsha heard ragged panting. A rough voice. Something ran at her and she turned—
Ryoka Griffin seized Mrsha up in her arms and hugged her. The Gnoll’s eyes went wide.
A Vampire and a Courier lay on the floor of the inn, covering their bruised noses. Mrsha hugged Ryoka back fiercely.
And then everything was really alright again.
Author’s Note: Once more, I threw everything into the chapter when I wanted to take it easy. It’s okay. As long as the chapter is good.
I realized—there are only three more, counting this one this month until my break anyways. Weird. But you toss everything into the fire and then rest.
I hope to get Volume 3 out before the end of the month! I will let you know—I’m working on it, but I do die after these chapters. Hope you enjoy!
Today’s artists are Brack, who’s done some amazing art that needs to be featured! Also, pkay has a touching reunion and Wing has also done a very fitting image for the end of the chapter! Give them lots of praise! See you next time!
Kilt Mrsha, Numbtongue on Guitar, Cooking Erin, Titan Erin, and countless more excellence by Brack!
Fighting Erin and Touching Reuinions by pkay!
Ryoka, Ivolethe and Mrsha by Wing, AKA Mole!