7.54

On the fifth day of their sickness, Tyrion Veltras snapped. He summoned Jericha, his [Majordomo], Ullim, and gave them a single order.

“Watch over Sammial and Hethon. I am going to secure an [Alchemist].”

The Circle of Thorns had left a mark on House Veltras already. Over two dozen dead [Healers] and [Alchemists] in the local region had…proven their commitment to this gambit. Each one, House Veltras had reached out to regarding the poison afflicting Lord Tyrion Veltras’ sons.

And each [Healer] and [Alchemist] had been warned. At first, the first group of them had weighed shadowy figures claiming to be the Guild of Assassins and the Circle of Thorns against the might of one of the Five Families. They had hired [Guards] or looked to existing defenses, the City Watch. Adventurers.

The Circle of Thorns had delivered their heads to House Veltras’ door thereafter. And no one in the region had been willing to even reply back to Jericha after that.

However. Tyrion Veltras was unwilling to give up. Not just yet. The contract that the [Assassin] who had come to his keep had offered him was a fully-binding magical contract. One with few avenues for escape.

So he demanded his newest warhorse saddled. Tyrion called for an escort of two hundred of the fastest [Riders]. His plan was to head straight for the highest-leveled [Alchemist] along the port-city of Keriwrel—to the west and secure a cure.

He had a vial of his son’s blood, a description of their ailments and the preliminary work other [Healers] and [Alchemists] had done. If the Guild wanted to kill the [Alchemist] in his presence, they would have to fight past House Veltras’ finest.

Tyrion Veltras made it sixteen miles before Jericha called him back. He turned in his saddle and saw House Veltras’ keep burning.

 

—-

 

“Ambush, Lord Veltras. Dozens of spells struck the keep within the first volley. Indiscriminate fire. The city—”

Tyrion saw smoke from the city as well. The keep was relatively undamaged. But the volley had been a warning. And the [Assassin] with the mask who lounged in the guest room applauded him as he stormed in.

“Lord Veltras. The Circle anticipated you might try that. This was a warning. If you leave your estates, I cannot guarantee your sons will be there when you get back.”

She saw the [Lord] tense, his hand going to his sword. But a change had come over the [Assassin]—the poison expert that had been sent here to threaten Lord Tyrion.

She had already been…brave? Mad? She was not one of the Guild’s finest; the possibility had existed that Lord Tyrion would simply have her executed despite the warning. But neither was she of the Ranks, the expendable, numerous [Assassins] that the Guild inducted and trained.

She had been wary but confident. Five days later—she didn’t even bother to rise as the [Lord]’s eyes flashed.

“You have attacked House Veltras—”

“Lord Tyrion. We’ve already poisoned your sons. Do you really think the Guild will quibble if we have to burn a city down? That was a warning. My masters have instructed me to tell you that the next time our aim won’t be off. If you try to ferry your sons elsewhere—well, you can try. House Veltras has a fine army.”

But not one specialized in warding two sick boys against [Assassins] for an entire journey to whatever safe haven you might find. Tyrion Veltras’ jaw clenched. He surely would have loved nothing more than to split the arrogant [Assassin] in twain. Yet she knew he wouldn’t.

He really did love his sons. And that made the [Toxins Expert]—confident. If he found no other routes, he would sign the contract.

But he’d try. Oh, he’d try. The [Lord] spun on his heel without so much as a second word. Ullim, Jericha—both stared at the [Assassin] without even trying to conceal their hatred.

“I’ll have a drink of wine, thank you. Have it sent to my rooms.”

She was enjoying herself, a guest treated like royalty—with perhaps something to be desired for friendly attitude. The [Assassin] saw Jericha clench her fist.

“Something you want to say?”

“Watch your behavior, poisoner. When all this is over, do you really think everything will be forgiven?”

The [Assassin] thought about this. Then she swung herself up nimbly. Jericha watched her walk over, hand hovering at her side. Jericha was probably higher-level, more experienced than even the [Assassin] in combat. Certainly, possessing more expensive artifacts. She was a nobleman’s second-in-command, elite, for whatever that word meant.

The [Toxin Expert] regarded Jericha and adjusted her mask. Then—she stabbed Jericha.

Her dagger flashed from a hand and Jericha threw herself back. She was good. And anyways, the [Assassin] hadn’t gone for a killing thrust. Jericha clenched at her stomach, and her hand lifted a wand—

The [Assassin] waited. Jericha’s hand trembled as the tip of her wand glowed.

“That’s right. I would watch your tongue as well. And heal yourself too, lest your master take offense. So long as the two young [Lords] are sick—Lord Veltras will abide. And he will obey. So will you. Stop bothering me and leave me. Send a good vintage to my rooms.”

She was enjoying herself. The [Assassin] regarded the blood on her dagger as Jericha stared at her, then backed away. The door shut and the masked assassin sat back with a chuckle. She had been worried for her life at first. Not anymore. Tyrion Veltras was looking thinner; he’d lost weight. The man had stopped eating.

He was softer than the rumors made it out to be. Or perhaps—only fierce in war. She waited. Some things were inevitable. The next thing he’d do was…

 

—-

 

House Veltras sent another request for assistance with the poisoning. Only this time—they did not reach out to local [Alchemists] and [Healers], few as there were of the right level. They called for aid from the Five Families.

It was a sign of weakness, obviously. And one Lord Veltras had to be reluctant to give his political rivals. But if push came to shove and he couldn’t leave his sons unprotected—

The news was shocking and not depending on who you were. And of course, it spread to even those without their sources of information. The two children of House Veltras were sick?

Not poisoned. Not yet. The Five Families got a more complete picture, as did the rest of House Veltras’ members. Tyrion needed a cure.

Now. Would he get it? There was a bit of debate. Perhaps an hour of reflection as the leaders of their houses got the message and were apprised if they weren’t already. Then the answer came:

Of course. They were children. Magnolia Reinhart was absent from Izril, but the other three families had [Alchemists] and [Healers] in their employ. They wouldn’t shirk for fear of violence…

Deilan El himself visited the House of El’s [Alchemist], Master Menob—one of the better ones even among the Five Families. After all, the House of El were artisans and a good [Alchemist] was a must.

The newly-instated patriarch of the El family knew his business—he had been working as Maviola’s assistant for a long time, after all. And this matter with Tyrion—he himself was a father. Politics aside, he would have agreed.

However, Master Menob’s shop was locked and the man had refused to answer [Message] spells. Deilan waited as his bodyguards investigated the shop and found it empty.

“Where is Master Menob? Time is of the essence!”

They found Menob hiding in his laboratory. Four men had to drag the old man—in his late seventies, skin purpled around his hands from some failed experiment, but a genius at creating alchemical powders—out. He was shaking.

“Lord El!”

“Master Menob, what are you doing? I sent word two hours ago to begin investigating the antidote for—”

The man was shaking his head. So violently Deilan feared he’d injure himself in his old age. Menob’s eyes were wide with a mortal fear.

“Lord El—I cannot. Please—forgive me. I cannot do this.”

Deilan stared at him. And then he felt the first pinprick on the back of his neck. It did not take long for Menob’s terror to become apparent. You see—he was a grandfather. A great grandfather, actually. And the moment Tyrion had made his appeal to the other Five Families, some strangers had paid a visit to both children and grandchildren’s homes. Handed two of the children cards to give to their parents with a familiar mark.

Menob had heard about the other [Assassins]. He might not have feared for his life—but his family’s? Deilan El tried to assure them they would be safe.

“The House of El’s personal guard will watch over them day and night, Master Menob. Until the cure is done.”

“Can they watch over them for the rest of their lives? Every second, Lord El? My relatives? My friends?”

Deilan couldn’t answer that. Not right away. He had to retire and pour himself a drink. Madness. And yet—and yet—

Lord Tyrion began to receive regrets from the other Five Families.

 

—-

 

It was madness. The Circle of Thorns could not threaten the Five Families, even their servants. They might be made up of powerful…nobles…although that was unsubstantiated, but almost certainly true. Even members of the Five Families themselves, perhaps?

But even if they were—this was like an idiot with a crossbow holding up a room full of [Knights] in armor. He might do damage, but if it came to blows, the Circle of Thorns could not stand against the wrath of Izril’s greatest houses.

Yet—Magnolia Reinhart was familiar with the tactic. She was thoroughly sick of salt and seawater, but look where she was? On the Reinhart’s flag ship, the Velistrane, surrounded by her servants rather than on land. She had been chased from her home. And, suddenly, people weren’t taking the Circle of Thorns as lightly as before.

The Courier incident had put them on the map. Made people aware that the Assassin’s Guild wasn’t Magnolia’s anymore. But it hadn’t worried them. Today?

The Circle had come within a heart’s breath of killing Magnolia Reinhart. By treachery, in a surprise attack and ultimately failing—yes. It had taken Tyrion Veltras himself interceding to stop them. And now look at Tyrion. He’d put the target on his back. The question now was: who would be next?

And if they dared to poison his sons, what would they do to someone who wasn’t so crucial? Ask yourself that.

“It’s like an idiot with a crossbow standing in a room full of…[Knights]. Or nobles, I suppose. If he makes them all his enemies, he dies. But the first person to jump up gets a crossbow bolt in the chest, Ressa. Is that a suitably…[Warrior]-like explanation?”

“It certainly seems distilled. What will you do?”

Magnolia pursed her lips.

“What can we do, Ressa? We’re under siege.”

She was evacuating her estates across Izril. Her staff—combat-trained, extremely competent, were in danger of their lives. The Circle of Thorns was sending their lower-ranked [Assassins] in and Magnolia, rather than stick and fight, was pulling out of Izril.

“We could take the battle to them. If House Reinhart goes to war—”

Magnolia tsked. She knew they could fight back. After all they’d done—Sacra, the other deaths—the Circle of Thorns deserved it. However—

“I would rather not, even now, Ressa. I realize that may sound…cowardly, Reynold?”

She looked to the side. The [Butler] stood, his face bordering on blank. Not impassive—he bowed too-precisely, even for him.

“Not at all, Lady Reinhart.”

The [Lady] regarded him and nodded. When she spoke next, it was for his benefit, not Ressa’s.

“The reason is that it’s escalation, Reynold. Escalation which is deserved and will come! But I cannot journey to the Drake’s cities and fight a war in the north. And…if House Reinhart goes to war against the Circle of Thorns, it will be war until one side or another is destroyed completely. Just like my grandmother faced, and they haunted her into her deathbed. Let them think I’ve run.”

“Retreat and ambush, Lady Reinhart? I don’t see anything wrong with that strategy. As a [Warrior], if you’ll pardon my input.”

The [Lady] nodded.

“Thank you, Reynold.”

“What about Tyrion?”

Ressa shot Magnolia a sidelong look. The [Lady] frowned.

“…They’ve calculated this with more effort than anything so far. They don’t want to fail after the Couriers incident and failing to kill me. If Tyrion tries to secure help from overseas—whatever cure he secures, or person, won’t make it out of the port-city. If you had to, Ressa, and I was perfectly safe—could you fend off the Guild’s best efforts?”

“You mean—the Faces? It could be three Level 40+ [Assassins] coming at a vulnerable target at any moment along the trip. Even a higher-level one, or more. I’m not a [Bodyguard]. I’d need help. A Named Team or a Courier—and a good one.”

“And Teriarch hasn’t answered since that last strange message.”

Magnolia sighed. Why now? And why—why were her reports indicating that the Eater Goats and Gargoyles were suddenly getting a lot more active around the High Passes?

Unintentionally or not, Teriarch’s presence had kept the High Passes calm, for a measure of calm, for decades! The monsters didn’t act up when the biggest predator around was all too willing to incinerate anyone who woke him up from his nap. But it was almost as if…

He’d probably gotten around to securing his cave and hidden his presence. Magnolia closed her eyes. The Archmage of Izril was back, that headache…

It was falling apart. Yet she thought of Oteslia. Hold to that. What Tyrion had to learn was that you had to fight these kinds of wars differently than an actual battle…or was that wrong?

Secure your back, have allies you could trust in…the dance of [Assassins] and watching for poison, traps, magical hexes and so on was just another plane of fighting. Magnolia searched for an answer.

“Nalthaliarstrelous…is not a healer. He has contacts, but if no [Druid] in Veltras’ lands has volunteered already—and they are not proof against [Assassins]. If they were in his garden and we were in the mansion, I’d try.”

“The Healer of Tenbault? We have a personal connection…”

The [Lady] sighed.

“She’ll refuse. Her security isn’t up to the task of defeating the Guild and she herself is not…mm…brave enough to even dare them to risk killing Izril’s finest healer. If it were me, I’d demand Regis open his vault. But it’s House Veltras—

Ressa grimaced. And Regis Reinhart would rather let children die than aid his enemies for no gain. Well, that was harsh. He’d rather dance on their graves than help.

“Frankly, Ressa. It’s easier to break a magical contract then get a cure to Tyrion now. I haven’t even the faintest clue what it is. And you…? Theofore…?”

The [Head Maid] shook her head silently. The one last [Assassin] in Magnolia’s direct employ was also clueless.

“We’re experts at using poison, Magnolia. It could be any number of poisons or some mixed dosage based on the symptoms. You need a master [Healer] or [Alchemist] who knows poisons.”

The [Lady] nodded gravely.

“…Then I think Tyrion Veltras will sign the contract. We’ll have to break the enchantment, Ressa. Either by Regis or Teriarch or one of our [Mage] allies. Either way—we simply can’t fight on Izril, not with every servant available preparing southern Izril.”

Not against the kind of [Assassins] who’d ambushed her. They were of a level beyond that of most of Reinhart’s servants. Ressa bowed slightly.

“Yes, milady.”

Magnolia Reinhart closed her eyes. If it were a war—she felt for Tyrion. If he had a heart, it was in his family. And this was no war, no enemy he could face with lance and shield.

“Give in, Tyrion. Don’t let pride break you.”

She murmured once. He surely would. She just hoped he could survive whatever the Circle demanded of him. How had she not noticed them growing amid the weeds?

That was Izril for you. Gnolls and Drakes and Humans, all of whom could kill each other so efficiently they barely had time enough for one another.

It made her miss the Antinium Wars, even Velan the Kind, it really did. Peace was harder than war with all the idiots clawing at each other for power. Magnolia Reinhart sipped at her tea to wash the disgust off her tongue.

 

—-

 

There was a Vampire in her inn. Erin Solstice kept peering at her from the doorway that morning. Fierre seemed normal. Sitting in a hoodie-type thing, baggy clothing, sipping at some tea.

Not biting everyone in sight. Not sparkling either or speaking with a heavy accent. Red eyes, though, pointy canines if you watched her mouth. Oh, and she’d ordered an extra-rare hamburger last night.

All of that could be a normal person. Erin narrowed her eyes. Except she knew. Not that she’d made…preparations.

Like a garlic bomb, or—or a jar of acidfly juice infused with garlic. Wait—did you even need the garlic? Really…Erin felt like Vampires in this world had it rough. All she had to do was remove the pointy steel tips of her crossbow bolts to create…a more Vampire-killy weapon?

Was her acid not good enough? Her ability to call fire? …Wands loaded with deadly spells? Now, when you got down to it, how much more dangerous was Fierre than, say, your average angry-Klbkch? You couldn’t scare Klbkch off with spare change, could you?

Erin decided to throw caution to the wind. She walked over.

“Hey Fierre—good morning! How’s it going?”

The Vampire girl looked up. She smiled without showing her teeth.

“Oh—um, hello Miss Erin.”

“It’s just Erin. How’d you sleep?”

“Good. I mean…really well. You have a Skill, right?”

“[Twofold Rest]. Yup! More sleep, less time! Although I just wake up and snuggle in my blankets for like—an hour.”

Erin hesitated and coughed. This might have been too personal. But Fierre laughed.

“I do that too! There’s nothing better, right?”

Really? Er—well, obviously. You know, we have one of the Antinium—Bird—”

“Bird the Hunter?”

The [Innkeeper] grinned.

“Nah, just Bird. The rest’s an exaggeration. Although that is his class. Anyways, he has this ‘Fortress of Fluff’ which is like—a mountain of blankets and pillows. Since the Antinium can’t really lie on their backs with the shell.”

“Is that so? That’s—hold on. You don’t mind if I make a note of that, would you? [Twofold Rest] as well…I’ve got notes on the Skill. Is there anything special about it?”

“Um…what are you doing?”

Erin saw the Vampire produce a small journal with neatly-written pages and an enchanted quill. She began scribbling industriously.

“Just taking some notes. It could be worth something—well, the information about Bird the Hunter definitely is. Sorry—you don’t mind, do you? Tell me if it’s confidential. You’re Ryoka’s friend, but you know my job is an Opener and broker, right?”

Erin had heard that, but she’d forgotten what it meant. She began to panic.

“Whoa, hold on! You can’t write down what I say!”

“Why not? Is it dangerous?”

The Vampire paused, looking worried. Erin waved her hands.

“That’s not it! I say all kinds of stupid stuff! Don’t write down…well, okay, Bird not being super dangerous—that’s sort of fine?”

“Is that so? I saw him shooting Wyverns through the eye at range.

Fierre raised an eyebrow. Erin brushed that away.

“He’s just super-talented at shooting birds. Which he thinks Wyverns are. He’s nice! I’ll introduce you! He’s a [Singer]—hey, are you writing that down?”

“Only in case anyone’s interested. Information is money.”

Fierre tried to look innocent. Erin wasn’t sure if she could scowl at Fierre or not. If the Vampire had been a certain [Necromancer], Erin would already be bopping Fierre on the head.

“You sound like Montressa and Bezale.”

Erin looked for them, but they weren’t up yet. They were always running about—apparently setting up deals between cities. They were sort of steamed since Pallass was blocked from entering The Wandering Inn for six more days. Mind you—the door was still active and it got checked. But Erin had deployed her aura and only Saliss, Rufelt, Lasica, and Chaldion could walk through without trouble.

“Those two?”

The pale-skinned girl grimaced. She was apparently older than both Erin and Ryoka, but she looked sixteen or something. Erin really wanted to know if Fierre could turn into a bat. Ryoka didn’t think so, but she hadn’t asked, had she? But Erin was going to keep the secret. Definitely. She just wished Ryoka would convince Fierre to tell Erin. Because Erin could keep the secret! Absolutely.

…What did blood taste like? Blood? Or something better?

“Something wrong with Montressa and Beza? Have you met them before or something?”

Erin asked cautiously. She was still sort of awkward around Fierre. And not just because of the secret. But the Vampire girl seemed friendly, if shy! Fierre hesitated. She looked around and grimaced before lowering her voice.

“It’s not that. It’s just—I know they’re in my line of work.”

“…Sending [Messages] and opening letters? Oh, you mean secrets. Ceria said that was Montressa’s job. How do you know? Is it like—a sixth sense or something?”

Erin nearly said ‘a Skill’, but Fierre didn’t get those. Wait—should she have asked? This was too hard!

“Er—no. I asked. Their names popped up—you tend to know other people in your line of work.”

“Oh. So they’re rivals? Is that it?”

Fierre seemed a bit peeved at them for some reason, despite them never having met. She sighed.

“It’s like this, Erin. They’re…Wistram. You know, the Academy? Full of secrets? And they’re both [Mages]. Du Valeross is a royal title. I imagine they have tons of secrets and levers. I’m not saying Mage Montressa didn’t work hard! But she had advantages. And I had to earn my position and respect! But she could come to Reizmelt and put me out of work.”

Oh. I get it.”

The Vampire gave her an embarrassed grin and then covered her mouth with a hand.

“Sorry, I just feel competitive.”

“Hey, I understand! They’re like—‘these bigwig information people, coming and throwing their weight around compared to us humble people who had to start from the bottom? Huck-phuh!’”

Erin pretended to spit. But then she actually did. Fierre and Erin stared at a bit of spit on the table. The [Innkeeper] turned bright red.

“I’m so sorry. Let me just clean that up—I didn’t mean to—”

Fierre started laughing so hard she nearly fell out of her chair. Erin, flustered, started giggling too. By the time Ryoka came downstairs, they were already more at ease with each other. Erin liked Fierre. She was fun.

 

—-

 

Mrsha the Slightly Filthy had been kicked out of Ryoka’s room. The Gnoll kicked Ryoka’s door and grumped off. Straight into Lyonette’s arms. The [Princess] scooped her up, having heard Ryoka exile Mrsha, and sniffed at her head.

“That’s it. Bath, young miss! You’re filthy!”

Mrsha the Eminently Clean wiggled in outrage! Not in the morning! What was the point of bathing yourself when you had an entire day ahead of you? But it was too late. The tyrant carried Mrsha towards the newly-instated bath rooms.

1st Floor, part of the new wing along with Octavia’s shop. Not open to the public as of yet. Erin and Lyonette had decided they didn’t need to compete with Liscor’s public baths anyways, but having a private hot tub appealed to Erin. And it certainly made it a shorter trip. Lyonette was already asking Silveran to draw water for the tub.

Inside of her room, Ryoka listened to Lyonette arguing with Mrsha the Escape Artist as she did something she hadn’t done in…years?

She made her bed. Ryoka adjusted sheets, flipped the blanket off the bed to shake it off, and put it back on. You tucked in the corners…put the pillows…Mrsha had lots of white fur. Better make sure none was on the pillow…

Ryoka stepped back to check her work and adjusted one crease. There. It looked reasonably well-made. No clothing lying about, no dirt…well, she’d been in the room all of two days. But you’d be amazed how much dirt Mrsha tracked in using her garden-gateway.

But how was the room? Ryoka had borrowed a broom and you probably didn’t want to eat your food off the floor, but it was at least decent to walk on. The City Runner checked her reflection in a personal mirror.

That was definitely Ryoka Griffin. Reasonably unsmelly…not noticeably worse-for-wear today. But did Ryoka like Ryoka? That was always the pertinent question.

Self-hatred aside…was there room for improvement? Ryoka felt there might be. She could…dye her hair? Octavia had some magical dyes and Ryoka—who had gone through a phase—was almost tempted to try it. Hair dyes on Earth took a long time, had all kinds of nasty chemicals and weren’t actually that vibrant unless you really worked at it—and even then, artificially.

Magical dyes were magic, looked amazing, and if there were bad chemicals, they were magic chemicals.

But that was definitely too much. Ryoka shook her head and headed downstairs. She opened her door—and a Lamia blinked as he coiled down the hallway.

“Oh, good morning.”

“Hello. Sorry—”

Ryoka let him pass. Hexel slithered downstairs and Ryoka couldn’t help but stare after him. And that was normal these days. She saw someone else walk out of his room, scratching at his stomach.

Numbtongue and Ryoka Griffin locked eyes. They blinked at each other, knowing each other, but like Erin and Fierre—not being completely on the same page. Ryoka had been wary of the Redfang when they’d first met. Even offended him.

“Hi.”

“Good morning.”

“Right. Good morning. Sleep well?”

The [Bard] stared at Ryoka’s slightly-nervous grin and shrugged.

“I think I slept on a book.”

He grumbled as he poked at his stomach. Ryoka looked down and saw…an indentation on his front. Was…was that some kind of problem going around the inn? Erin had complained about the exact same thing! Then Ryoka noticed that Numbtongue was in shape.

Those were Hawk-level abs. She blinked as the Hobgoblin walked downstairs. Then Ryoka shook her head. What was with [Warrior]-types…who burned a lot of energy…actually, it made perfect sense. Especially when Erin had revealed that there were [Chefs] who could make weight-loss foods.

But in this world, didn’t it make more sense for people to idealize a chubbier form, or had they already gone through that period like Earth? Maybe it was because there were other species, some of whom might really object to that aesthetic…

Ryoka had time for her odd speculation on the development of bodily beauty this morning. Because, as was evident from the inn, there was at last no huge crisis. At least—not an enduring one.

It was a relief to Erin and Ryoka, especially because both kept expecting the bathtubs to explode or Skinner 2.0 to crawl out from the sewers or something like that. Yes, Ryoka had returned to the inn.

She was back, but historically that led to so much…flak. Trouble was common to Erin and Ryoka’s general experience. From Frost Faeries to the first time they had met and gone into the dungeon to find Olesm and Ceria—Ryoka and Erin had few calm days between them.

Good days? Of course. But calm? Fewer of those. So the idea of ‘calm’ was actually on both Ryoka and Erin’s minds today.

“Crepes!”

Erin announced, having bullied Imani into providing the meal today. With whipped cream, strawberries, and a host of goodies that had Mrsha racing out of the bath room, sopping wet, pursued by a furious Lyonette.

“Morning, Erin.”

Ryoka greeted Erin and the [Innkeeper] pointed to Fierre.

“Hey Ryoka, I made friends with Fierre.”

“What? Already?”

You left Erin alone for five minutes and she was making friends with your friends! Ryoka felt a bit…well, almost annoyed at how easy it was for Erin. Inconsiderate to anti-social people like Ryoka.

The City Runner saw the Vampire girl munching on a crepe with strawberry jam—probably reassuring to her—and watching Numbtongue out of the corner of her eye. He went straight to the table, loaded up his crepe with butter and whipped cream and began munching down unapologetically.

“Yeah, she’s cool. And I didn’t mention you-know-what, even though it was really hard!”

Erin gave Ryoka a wink. The City Runner gave her a long look.

“How tempted were you to say something?”

“Um…crepes?”

The Wind Runner gave up and went over to the table. Erin followed her, chattering.

“I had some ideas about today, actually. I know you have to meet with that Lady Ieka person and do all kinds of stuff with Salamani—he’s already in Invrisil, by the way. Guy wakes up early. Do you think you’ll have some free time, though?”

“Huh. Well—it shouldn’t take too long. Hedault maybe, but I doubt we can even schedule time with him today. We’ll sound it out. But on that note, Erin…I actually wanted to ask you a favor?”

Here it came. Erin visibly braced.

“Sure? For what?”

Go into the dungeon? Fight a Rock Crab barehanded? Ryoka’s favors could be anything. The City Runner took a breath.

“I…need you to take care of Mrsha instead of letting her latch onto me around dinner, okay? I mean—it might not be necessary in which case I’ll let you know. But just in case.”

Erin Solstice gave her friend a blank look.

“What, that’s all?”

“Yes. But I’m serious, Erin.”

Ryoka met her gaze, trying not to look embarrassed. Erin scratched her head.

“Sure can do. But why?”

“I…might be occupied.”

“With what?”

“Someone.”

Erin! Ryoka glared at her. But the [Innkeeper] was giving her one of the blank Erin-stares that was either genuine or completely fake.

“Who’s someone? Whoa—you mean a date? Who?

Ryoka flushed. Erin was doing it on purpose this time. Sometimes you couldn’t tell, but this time it was obvious, no matter how good the act was and it stung.

“You know who!”

The [Innkeeper] had to think. She shook her head slowly.

“I do? No. Who?”

“Relc! Stop playing dumb, Erin. I know you don’t like—what is it?”

The aggravated Runner saw Erin’s face fall. Ryoka stopped growing angry abruptly.

“What?”

Relc. The goofy [Guard] of Liscor, and also an exceptionally dangerous guy with a spear. He had doubtless been busy with the Raskghar situation, but Ryoka was…curious if he’d stayed away because he’d heard she was back or if he was just busy. She thought—but Erin’s face had suddenly fallen and Ryoka realized something had happened since she’d been gone.

“Did…something happen to Relc?”

 

—-

 

Relc was gone. Ryoka Griffin listened to the brief account of him—leaving due to the Golden Triangle situation and sagged.

“Oh.”

There was nothing more to say. If you weren’t there, you couldn’t complain about having missed it. Erin nodded glumly.

“Yeah. Another city. I forget which one. You were…gonna see if he was there?”

Ryoka nodded absently. Erin peered at her.

“You did like him?”

Dead gods, she could be sensitive or cripplingly insensitive at times. Ryoka rubbed at her face. Or was it just her being embarrassed to talk about normal things? She spoke, haltingly.

“He’s…a nice guy. Sort of an idiot, but that made two of us. I did like him.”

“Oh. Good. Sorry. I thought you knew. Well, I forgot.”

Ryoka nodded, then shook her head.

“It’s no big deal. It was just—I was just going to take a hike with him. I kind of offered to last time. See the Floodplains. It was just a thing. Sorry for snapping at you.”

Erin’s eyes flickered.

“Wow. So you liked him?”

The other young woman snapped at last.

“No, Erin. I barely know him! I just liked…him. He seemed like a nice, lonely guy to me. I was wondering how he was doing, that’s all.”

The [Innkeeper] looked guilty and backed down at once.

“Sorry. I just wanted to know.”

It wasn’t her fault. Ryoka felt bad about not knowing, so she was being snappy. She shook her head, mumbling an apology. But she did wonder about Erin.

Don’t you feel alone some days? But perhaps Mrsha, the inn, her friends and family were enough for Erin. Ryoka envied that, if it were true.

“Have you heard from Relc?”

Erin shook her head sadly.

“I sent him a [Message], but I never got an answer.”

“I see. I hope he’s okay.”

“Me too.”

That was all there was to say. Ryoka went to get a crepe.

 

—-

 

Crepes were crepes, and Erin could only hype them up so much. Honestly, Ryoka enjoyed them. Fierre enjoyed them more, having probably not had them before—and Mrsha was a kid, so she enjoyed them most. But was Ryoka supposed to do a dance every time she ate a crepe?

Well, it was entertaining to watch Mrsha do one. And this time—there were two other little dancing kids who joined her. Ryoka had to rub her eyes and wonder if Mrsha’d multiplied.

She had never met Ekirra and Visma before. And the little Gnoll and Drake had come for breakfast.

“Crepes, crepes!”

Erin joined them for a little bit. She’d invited Ekirra’s older sister and Visma’s older brother, who had to bring them, to have food. Ryoka saw Ekirra put a crepe on his head and Mrsha nearly fell over laughing.

They were such…kids. And Erin was the worst one. Ekirra and Visma stared at Ryoka as they took a seat at the table where the breakfast was happening.

“And these are your friends? Hi. I’m Ryoka.”

The two children stared as Mrsha said something complicated in sign language. She’d been teaching Ryoka, but whatever it was made them nod. Ekirra began licking at his plate until his sister made him use utensils.

“Are you Mrsha’s…mom? I thought that was Miss Lyonette.”

Visma saw Ryoka cough on a bite. Lyonette shook her head.

“Ryoka is Mrsha’s…she’s Mrsha’s…”

Aunt.

Erin brightly replied. Visma went ‘oh’, ignorant of the consternation she’d put among the adults. Ekirra licked syrup off his arm fur and stared at Ryoka as she ate.

“Why are you missing two fingers?”

“Ekirra!”

His sister smacked him on the head. Hard. Ekirra howled and started sniveling, which made his sister, in her very early teens, flustered and embarrassed and tried to shut him up—until Erin gave him a cup of blue fruit juice.

“Well, it’s very nice to meet you two. Er…Visma, is it? I think that’s my fork—”

My fork.

The Drake hissed at Ryoka. She’d purloined the fork when Ryoka wasn’t looking. Her brother growled.

Visma!

They began wrestling for the fork and Visma held onto it with the force of kleptomania. Ryoka ended up getting another fork from the kitchen.

Kids. She was reminded why she used to dislike them. Visma and Ekirra were more…childish than Mrsha. Although Mrsha could be just as silly.

Their presence was a good thing, though. It meant their families felt the inn was safe enough to send them. And they were clearly good for Mrsha. She hung out with them, giggling at inane things, running into the garden straight after to play with her enchanted ball…

Her enchanted ball? Ryoka stared. And she realized—she’d missed Mrsha’s birthday.

 

—-

 

Numbtongue was highly interested in the guests this time around. He knew Ryoka Griffin of course. She wasn’t his favorite Human—but she seemed decent and at least in better shape than Erin, who couldn’t run for a mile without asking to stop.

…Although she certainly seemed to always be in some kind of emotional distress. Erin was reassuring her as she clutched at her head.

“We had a great birth—we had a fun birthday! With only a few hiccups, Ryoka! Don’t worry! Mrsha got enough presents already! Like—way too many. Selys, all the adventurers…it’s sort of good you didn’t give her one. Look, we can make her something special and call it a late-birthday, howsabout that?”

“What day is it? How long did I miss it by? How old is she, Erin?”

“These are all good questions, Ryoka. With good answers. We think it’s—”

The Hobgoblin watched Ryoka idly. He wondered where the Courier had gone. Couriers—tough. Redfangs knew of them since they had clashed with Humans.

You didn’t fight Couriers. Let them run off. They were trickier than adventurers because their entire thing was to get away from monsters. Not that Numbtongue was going to ambush Salamani. It was just a thought.

No, if there was someone he was really interested in—the Hobgoblin snuck another glance at her.

Fierre was staring nervously at Mrsha and her friends, who were throwing around the silver ball Numbtongue had gifted Mrsha. He had no idea why. Nor why Fierre was so…

Appealing? Well, attractive was the right word. Not that Numbtongue was necessarily attracted to her! It was just—he’d never met anyone with such fine Goblin features.

Red eyes, pointed teeth—Numbtongue was fascinated. Had he just never met Humans who looked like that?

He was fascinated. But—the Hobgoblin was also aware he was a Goblin so he didn’t want to alarm Fierre. He watched as she ate more strawberry jam. Numbtongue…

…Was sort of bored today.

 

—-

 

Three newly-rich people had crises that day. And they were all somewhat related to each other in the grand scheme of things. For instance, Ryoka actually did return to the Earth-rooms with Erin where she’d dealt with a discipline issue with Troy and Leon—they weren’t showing their faces today.

Kevin and Joseph had also volunteered to bounce their heads all the way down Pallass’ grand staircase if they went to Grimalkin again. They were rising in Ryoka’s esteem.

This time, however, she found an unexpected guest in the room filled with Earth facts and memorabilia. Selys Shivertail was sitting in front of a laptop, watching a movie.

Ryoka threw Erin into the [Garden of Sanctuary]’s pond when the [Innkeeper] had the audacity to look at Selys and go ‘what? Oh, I forgot to tell you.’ The City Runner was all prepared to give Selys a more involved talk about the dangers of spreading information about Earth…but she relented when she saw Selys.

The Drake was a bit…drawn. She didn’t look like she’d slept, and she was mumbling to herself as she rocked back and forth in front of the laptop, wrapped up in a blanket.

“Everything is so small. We can build higher. Higher—this place is so crude. I should invest in glass. Glass is the future.”

She was staring at some of Kevin’s pictures of Earth. Ryoka and Erin checked her worriedly.

“Hey Selys…Ryoka’s here.”

The Drake jerked and looked up at Ryoka.

“Another one? Oh, right. Right…are you from one of those countries? Where?”

“Er…I’m from America, same as Erin.”

“You look different.”

“Her parents are Japanese, Selys. Are you okay?”

The Drake stood up and stared at the world map. She traced Japan to America.

“It’s so far. No, wait—it’s a round world. Round! There’s no end to the world. And—and—you can fly in giant metal Dragons all over. Right, nothing strange about that!”

She laughed hysterically. Ryoka saw Erin bite her lip. Selys Shivertail was the first person Ryoka had met who had well…an appropriate reaction for someone being told another world actually existed.

She was no Grimalkin, or Pisces, or even Krshia—who might not understand everything, come to that—or Teriarch or Ivolethe. Selys was shaking so bad Erin had to ask if she’d had breakfast. When Selys asked if it was morning, Erin went to get her some food.

“She’s been watching movies nonstop. I think she thinks they’re real. I tried to explain, but she’s uh, freaked out by everything. Maviola’s fine.”

Galina whispered to Ryoka when Erin was gone. And that brought up another person of note.

Maviola El. It was going to happen. Ryoka hadn’t been able to talk to the [Lady Firestarter] yet, but she was at the top of the list. Only—she hadn’t come into the inn. But Erin promised that it was actually Maviola El and Fierre confirmed it.

“I have some notes. I can’t believe it, but I heard about Maviola El downing a Potion of Youth and riding off, Ryoka. It was the talk of Izril a month back! I…can’t believe she’s still alive, honestly. Either she has a lot of Potions of Youth or they last longer than I thought!”

“Wait, alive?”

Ryoka hadn’t heard about Maviola’s swansong. But it immediately spoke to her. And made her worried.

“She might not even make it to the Summer Solstice, even if she decides it’s worth attending!”

“Um…she’s got a good chance of making it. And she promised to come. There’s like…a good chance of her making it, actually. With uh…stuff…happening.”

Erin coughed into a fist. Ryoka and Fierre stared at her.

“Erin. Have you managed to stop time itself?”

“Not me. It wasn’t my fault! Well, I just helped—I’ll tell you about it later, Ryoka.”

The [Innkeeper] had stopped to eye Fierre, who’d guiltily put away her notebook. But if Erin was being circumspect…

Ryoka’s mind was awhirl. It could happen! Only—Magnolia Reinhart was the second complicating factor. Still, that was possibly two! And since Ryoka was reminded of the oncoming solstice, she went to Invrisil.

 

—-

 

Magnolia Reinhart’s mansion stood deserted, the gates locked. Ryoka called out several times. She saw nothing—not even the patrolling Golems. The ominous storm cloud was still present though, and the glowing animals moving across the mansion’s walls made Ryoka sure she was not about to try climbing that gate.

She knew the storm cloud was armed and she had no desire to be fried. So she kept shouting, hoping for a response and feeling it was futile. After a while, someone did come out, though.

“Everyone’s gone. Get lost.”

An old man in some ratty, nature-covered robes stared at Ryoka. She stared back at the [Druid].

“Are you…N—Lady Magnolia’s [Gardener]? I need to speak with Lady Reinhart.”

“She’s not here.”

The [Druid] turned away. Ryoka called out desperately.

“Is there anyone I can talk to?”

“No.”

Well, he was no help. Ryoka paced back and forth for another twenty minutes—then wondered if the empty mansion might be connected to a real and pressing threat from the Circle of Thorns. After that, Ryoka felt like dozens of eyes were watching her so she made tracks fast towards Invrisil. She’d send a [Message] and hopefully Magnolia would reply. Or…would Teriarch help? Ryoka thought about visiting his cave.

After Ieka, maybe.

 

—-

 

Lady Ieka Imarris had been a flurry of motion for the last fifteen minutes. It was about presentation. Not that she wasn’t exceptionally grateful in her own right and impressed to boot! But she had ulterior motives for deciding to receive Ryoka Griffin in style.

…Something was wrong, though. The [Lady] of House Imarris frowned as she received a report from one of her—contacts.

Not her House’s personal bodyguard, but a different source. The fellow was nondescript and his tone was a bit pressing for her tastes.

But then, Ieka might be a powerful [Lady], but her ranking in the Circle of Thorns was supposed to be a completely different matter. In practice it wasn’t, of course; people were aware of who she was, and either relished their power over her, or bore it in mind.

This fellow was of the former, despite being lower-ranked. He was a bit too presumptuous. Ieka opened and closed her hand-fan as she listened.

“…asked to meet Magnolia Reinhart by name. And she has just sent a [Message] via the Mage’s Guild.”

“The contents of which are…?”

The man hesitated. He probably wasn’t even one of the [Assassins] who was watching the mansion.

“Her message referred to a ‘meeting’ and ‘promises made to old friends’, but it was clearly coded.”

“Ah. So you have no idea why Miss Griffin visited the mansion, and you just came here to complain that I had hired the same Runner without proof she was conspiring in some way against me, or had any idea of my allegiance?”

The agent flushed as Ieka laid in as much sarcasm as possible into her voice. It honestly should have been a Skill.

“She has an established connection with Lady Reinhart, who has interest in this City Runner—”

“As do we all. Any competent Runner is worth cultivating and Miss Griffin woke the Archmage of Izril. If you have anything substantial, I will of course entertain it. You may go. I have to meet with Miss Griffin now, anyways, and it would not do for you to be here, hm?”

Faced with that overt dismissal, there was nothing for the jumped-up toady to do but bow and leave, flashing disrespect all the while. Ieka scowled at his back. She had been tempted the entire time to blast him with [Acid Spray].

But then—one of her [Maids] announced that Ryoka Griffin was here. Lady Ieka smiled. She adjusted the bag of holding which was prepared to spill out a very handsome fee, went over a few casual phrases, adjusted her poise—and called for Ryoka to be sent in.

“Ah, Miss Griffin. I owe you a great debt. Come in and—”

Ryoka Griffin and Salamani entered Ieka’s room, both bowing. The [Lady]’s face went slack. Then she suppressed the largest scowl she’d had since finding out what the Circle was planning to do to Tyrion Veltras’ children.

“—and Courier Salamani. Welcome.

“Lady Imarris.”

The Mage Runner gave her a polite bow and his own neutral smile. Ieka was suddenly reminded that she had sent him to wake the Archmage of Izril and that he had apparently nearly been slaughtered by the same defenses Ryoka Griffin had somehow managed to overcome.

It didn’t do to be rude to Couriers, though, so Ieka put her best face on it.

“Miss Griffin, I, no, Izril, is in your debt. I must confess—although I hired you to do just what you have done, I hoped only that you would survive or bring news that Archmage Valeterisa was alive. That you have woken her is deserving of the largest of rewards.”

She still went off her pre-written notes, though. Ryoka Griffin looked incredibly awkward as she bowed—she was barefoot! Imagine running on rocks!

“I’m exceptionally grateful for your praise, Lady Imarris. It was luck—and I didn’t do it alone.”

To be precise, you did it with some strange girl from Reizmelt, and a significant amount of wind magic despite not being a [Mage]. And my aunt mentioned that and barely even mentioned meeting Salamani.

Ieka kept that on the inside. She nodded graciously and laughed behind her fan.

“So humble! I am indebted to you—and to you, Courier Salamani, for assisting with the delivery.”

“As I said, Lady Imarris, I cede all credit to Miss Griffin.”

The Courier was being very polite. And giving Ryoka all the credit? If he weren’t in the way, Ieka would have applauded him. Since he was—she made a gesture and cast [Faraway Voice].

Have a sum of three hundred gold coins brought out for Courier Salamani.

It was a steep, steep thing to give him, but you had to tip a Courier especially since Ieka was certain he’d done a lot of the work. How had Ryoka Griffin got past Valeterisa’s defenses? Ieka had tried—once, right in the third year of Valeterisa’s absence.

She’d known about the fake mansion, but she’d barely gotten past the room of mirrors with her life. Ieka had promptly fled. She’d lost three people and half had been wounded and that was the first room.

Miraculous. Ieka was genuinely curious and she pressed the two, but Ryoka Griffin was surprisingly evasive.

“Magical secrets, Lady Imarris. I was able to break out of the cells in a way Archmage Valeterisa didn’t expect.”

“And you can’t tell me? Ah—Runner’s secrets, I suppose?”

“It’s…I’m very sorry, Lady Imarris. But it is one of the secrets that keeps me alive.”

A very fitting answer which Ieka could understand. But she had to wonder. How in the name of Rhir’s hells did you break out of a prison made by an Archmage? Even if Valeterisa claimed she wasn’t even a tenth of the [Archmages] of old?

She was growing more and more interested in Ryoka, and not just because of the Runner’s looks! But there was only too long she could drag out the conversation. Ryoka Griffin was clearly nervous as Ieka presented her with her reward. And as it turned out—the second newly-rich person in distress was Ryoka Griffin herself.

“This is for me? But the delivery wasn’t nearly—”

The young woman choked on her words as the pile of gold pieces threatened to cave in the ornamental table. Ieka was quite pleased by the reaction. Even Salamani looked impressed.

Ieka was hardly poor, but it was a large sum even for her. She fanned herself idly as she watched Ryoka recover.

“This is only for the look of it, you understand. I could hardly present all the coins at once—far too much for any bag of holding. The Merchant’s Guild will present you with the full sum.”

“But Lady Imarris—we didn’t agree on this amount! I had another request for waking the Archmage—”

What was with this young woman? She was astonishingly modest in the face of a personal fortune! Ieka snapped her fan closed briskly.

“And you shall have it! However, Miss Griffin, did you really think I was the only person interested in waking the Archmage of Izril? This is a collective bounty, shall we say. And I will ensure the Runner’s Guild accepts your candidacy for Courier!”

She expected Ryoka Griffin to leap for joy at that. Or at least be impressed. But—it was perhaps well that Salamani were here because Ieka’s expectations had been lowered. Ryoka bit her lip.

“I ah, believe I’ve already been tested, Lady Imarris. And failed.”

Failed?

The [Lady] snapped. By which idiot? Then Salamani coughed into his fist.

“Mihaela Godfrey herself met with Miss Griffin, Lady Imarris.”

The Guildmistress of First Landing? Ieka hesitated and sat back. Er—there wasn’t much even she could do about that. Damn that old monster. Obstinate as a mountain and she ran the Guild in First Landing with an iron…foot. Which Ieka approved of except when it got in her way.

“Miss Ryoka—may I call you Ryoka? It’s far easier.”

Ieka paused for Ryoka’s nod and went on.

“Ryoka, I have every intention of acceding to your other request. If you wish me to take part in a…party, I shall! At your time and place of choosing. And I shall prevail on the Five Families to join me, of course.”

She didn’t know if she could actually get the others. Ulva Terland for instance…highly doubtful. She was paranoid ever since her sister had been killed by the Goblin King, practically a recluse. The others? Tyrion Veltras wasn’t going to be sociable and Magnolia Reinhart had fled, but maybe the other two—

Ryoka Griffin bowed, looking relieved—even anxious. What was this party she was so desperate to throw? It hardly seemed like a vanity project. Some great favor? Ieka hoped it wasn’t for a lover.

“Thank you, Lady Imarris! It’s…an important event for me.”

Ieka smiled, and that was genuine.

“In that case, I shall be there and I hope we may speak more informally. On that note, I shall ask you to return again so we may coordinate this event?”

“I—I’d be exceptionally grateful if you would spare me the time, Lady Imarris.”

Salamani eyed Ieka, but she ignored him.

Wonderful. Of course I should have the time for the Wind Runner, who woke the Archmage of Izril!”

And then you won’t have a damned Courier with you. Ieka let a [Maid] remove the gold and offer to transfer it into Ryoka’s bag of holding—or her account at the Merchant’s Guild. She was the gracious [Lady] as Ryoka bade farewell with a promise to help her with her project. Only when she was gone did Ieka toss her fan at the wall and sigh.

“Damn that Salamani.”

Ieka sighed and ran her fingers across the pendant she had put on just for the meeting. Her personal interests aside—Miss Ryoka Griffin had just become an important Runner in truth, as she’d said to the agent of the Circle of Thorns.

Her aunt was interested in Ryoka Griffin, which was enough. But had she checked…? Ieka shook her head, almost too shook for words.

“She has no levels. Either it’s a Skill or magic or—but I would notice.”

Another, less-capable person using an artifact or spell might not have gotten that nuance. But Ieka could tell when her spell was being blocked. It hadn’t been. The [Mage Lady] stared after Ryoka Griffin and felt as if she’d been speaking to a ghost.

She had no levels.

 

—-

 

Troubles with money? Or troubles of people with money…that the money itself couldn’t immediately solve?

The third person who had come into an amount of wealth very recently and was disturbed by it was…

Cetris Duiland. A name so unremarkable that most people, even in his city, had no idea who it was.

He was [Mayor] of Celum for his sins. And if they had been his sins, he must have done something truly terrible to have earned the Bloodfeast Raider’s attack on his city. Or nothing at all.

Cetris had seen his city through a seeming windfall in Octavia Cotton’s inventions. That horrible business with the [Alchemist] gangs—a Hobgoblin in his city, and an Antinium! A freak avalanche in the winter, and so on—

But the Raider’s attack had been beyond all of that. All the things Cetris had thought were the ‘worst thing to ever happen to Celum’ like that [Innkeeper] moving her door out of his city?

He had experienced true devastation with his city and Cetris had thought it was the end of Celum. Certainly, people had fled the city and he himself had been looking for a future in which it all seemed bleak.

Then—a miracle. It had just been an innocuous line. A throwaway moment in an event. But Jasi Redigal, a former inhabitant of Celum and another one of the people who’d gotten away to bigger and better things had mentioned Celum.

Raising funds for a city devastated by the Bloodfeast Raiders. But she’d said it on Wistram’s television network. And so something spontaneous—something people from Earth might have recognized for how naturally it came to be—a miracle occurred.

Money began pouring into Celum’s coffers. At first, Cetris hadn’t even noticed. Then—the Merchant’s Guild had asked if this was real. He’d investigated and gold had appeared like—like magic.

Not credit. Not a loan. Gold, sent by other nations. So much of it that it didn’t seem real. It was just a number on paper! That was what Cetris believed. He was having a dream and when he asked for the gold, it would vanish.

…Yet the Guildmaster of the Merchant’s Guild had told him that if he wanted a pile of gold, they could do a pile of gold but they’d have to send for other cities to even have it delivered and wasn’t that dangerous with [Thieves] and desperate folk?

It was real. Cetris’ new fear, the one on his thoughts as he paced back and forth in front of the magic door was—

Was anyone going to ask for it back? Did he owe someone something? Because Cetris intended to spend the gold.

“Is—does it usually take so long to open to, er, the inn?”

He inquired of the [Guards] standing to attention. They looked at each other.

“It’s usually checked every ten minutes, [Mayor]. It’s only been two minutes since the last opening.”

“Ah, of course, of course. Felt like an hour, there.”

“Is everything…alright, Mayor?”

The [Guardsman] eyed the [Mayor] with some concern. On the outside, it looked as if Cetris was badly ill. Sweating but pale-faced, pacing back and forth…the others were keeping their distance in case he was sick.

“Everything’s fine! Grand, really. Just grand. I ah…”

The [Guards] waited, but Cetris just trailed off. So much gold. He’d asked for a list of people who’d sent it in—sometimes you couldn’t get that information, but they’d wanted it known. Wanted other people to know, in fact.

Countless nations. Even ones he hadn’t heard of! Some he had. Ailendamus, Nerrhavia’s Fallen, the Forgotten Wing Company—

Individuals from the north too! Magnolia Reinhart had sent relief already, but other nobles had contributed to the cause. Cetris was beside himself. This—this could save Celum! He just needed [Builders], material!

And an assurance no one was going to demand the gold. Much had been said of Cetris Duiland. Lots of unkind words—some by the very [Innkeeper] he was hoping to meet, as well as the Players. But there was something to speak of Cetris’ good character too. And it was this:

When the door opened to Liscor and the [Mayor] rushed in and found Erin Solstice consulting with Imani about not adding garlic to any meals in the foreseeable future, don’t ask why, he shook her hand and thanked her profusely before she had any idea what was going on.

“Donations? What? Whaaaat? Jasi did that? I don’t r—oh, right! People were donating?”

“It’s a miracle, Miss Solstice! A miracle! Celum is saved! Only—they are donations, correct? The Players and the inn don’t want a…an amount?”

Erin shook her head, mystified. She looked around.

“Oi, Temile! Did the Players want money from Celum? No, right?”

“Money from Celum?”

Temile looked around. He was relaxing since talks with Pallass were stalled. It was a bit of a relief, really. He came over and promptly lost his jaw to the floor.

“People gave money? How much?”

Cetris was afraid to even say it. He was shaking.

“So they are—just giving money to rebuild Celum? For nothing?”

“Of course they are. I guess some good, kindhearted people heard about it and wanted to help. Good thing a lot of rich people saw it, huh?”

Erin gave Temile and Cetris one of her blank looks. The idea of charity was nothing new to this world. But charity of this sort? She took pity on both as Fierre began writing frantically behind her.

“Look, I think it is relief funding. So that means…build the city back up! Hire workers, make sure it’s secure! And—you know what you need?”

“What?”

Cetris was willing to listen to anything Erin Solstice had to say today. The [Innkeeper] thought for a moment and snapped her fingers.

“You need to—after you fix everything and stuff—you need to pay for like, a fancy sign.”

“A sign? With what, ‘No Killing Goblins’ written on it?”

The [Innkeeper] gave him a cool look.

“No…I mean, a—a statue. A memorial with all the people who donated. Thanking them. Something to make them see you care. And you could probably get Wistram to feature you. Gratitude.”

“Oh. That’s—a fantastic idea, actually.”

“Eh, it’s just common courtesy.”

Erin smiled a bit. Then her eyes narrowed. She looked Cetris Duiland up and down as she had a thought spawned from Earth’s take on this kind of thing.

“…And you had better make sure you don’t waste that money, Cetris. Don’t let it go to waste or let some person misuse it or overcharge. Got it?”

The [Mayor] looked at Erin, and then nodded slowly.

“You’re absolutely right, Miss Solstice. It’s a miracle Celum couldn’t ask for twice. Which is why—which is why one of the reasons I came here was to ask about hiring Liscor’s [Architect] and [Builders]. Even—even Antinium? I hear they work cheap?”

Erin’s jaw dropped. Temile whistled.

If there was one good thing to be said of Cetris Duiland, it was that he hadn’t considered embezzling Celum’s funds until Erin Solstice had mentioned it. And he’d discarded the thought on the basis of it was wrong. There were worse things to be said of a [Mayor].

 

—-

 

“Hmm. Hmm. Hm.”

The [Innkeeper] walked around her inn, on the prowl like some shark in deep waters. It was not wrong to say she was being watched.

Food spies, city spies, and just regular spies and guests of the inn watched her. Drassi was snoozing at her bar; due to the embargo between cities she had a vacation.

“It’s too bad. Really too bad that I shut that door. But you’ve gotta do these things, right, Saliss?”

The [Innkeeper]-shark paused by a table. A Drake with a box over his private parts grinned.

“Absolutely. Especially if it annoys everyone.”

They shared a smile—although the intent was perhaps a bit different, Erin got along with Saliss. And that was because they were similar in some ways, but also because she’d made an effort. So had Saliss, of course. But friends…

Erin was watching some people out of the corner of her eye as she moved around the inn. Fierre, Salamani, who had come back to avail himself of all the free food, which even a Courier didn’t pass up lightly.

And a few others. A pair of hatted fellows who weren’t trying to be as inconspicuous as before. They were resigned to being known, and had debated in their unique parlance between themselves what might come of being asked for ‘favors’ as it were. You couldn’t allow that sort of thing, so they’d either have to refuse and jeopardize their relationship or cancel their contract outright—or stick it out till the end.

They didn’t know Erin that well. And more than one person was watching the Gentlemen Callers—with considerably more apprehension.

“They’re definitely Brothers. But I think—I think they’re the Callers.

“Please tell me the way you said it doesn’t mean they’re important.”

Ryoka saw Fierre biting her lip nervously. The Vampire’s stomach was growling around lunchtime; but she’d stopped for some justified, pants-wetting fear at one of Erin’s guests.

“They’re…bad news, Ryoka. I mean, you know the Brothers. They have a good reputation as gangs go. No extortion, kidnapping, not much murder and it’s usually only in inter-gang fights…but they are a gang.”

“How do you make money if you don’t do all those things?”

Fierre gave Ryoka a grave look.

“You keep the streets clear and everyone happy and aware that it’s better to have the Brothers mug a few rich idiots than have the Sisters of Chell or another group moving in.”

“That’s extortion.”

“No, isn’t that racketeering? See—they have jobs which the city sometimes provides—it’s very official if the Brothers control a city. But the Callers are two of their best. Ryoka—the Gentlemen Callers, well, they’re gentlemen apparently—but they’ll still kill you dead if you’re an enemy of the Brothers.”

Ryoka’s stomach lurched. Wonderful. Fierre nodded. Then her stomach growled again.

“Sorry. I can’t make it stop.

“You uh…need something to eat?”

“I was going to go into Liscor. But if you have um…”

A pint to spare? Ryoka nodded covertly. Both of them avoided each other’s eyes. Ryoka had donated blood to Fierre on the way to Invrisil because the Vampire girl had to make sure her blood wasn’t contaminated. In Liscor she could probably find animals that had never drank from Byres-tainted wells.

Fierre thought it didn’t matter as much if it was a river-fed animal anyways. Ryoka’s tasted ‘fresh’, according to her, and Ryoka knew she had to have drunk at least a tiny bit from Reizmelt and the Lischelle-Drakle wells. She was having charcoal pills made up like her family anyways…

But the point was that Ryoka gave blood and would probably give Fierre a snack. Was it supposed to feel so intimate? Maybe she could just drop blood into a bowl if you wanted it to be more impartial…blood transfusion bags, that was the ticket.

Before they headed upstairs, though, Ryoka had to tell Erin there was trouble in her inn. She hoped like hell that it wouldn’t turn into a gang war

As it turned out, Erin Solstice already knew. She smiled brightly as Ryoka pulled her aside for a whisper with Palt’s help for [Silence] spells.

“Oh, them? That’s Wilovan and Ratici. Yeah, I know they’re criminals. Hey Wilovan, Ratici! You got enough to eat?”

The two Gentlemen Callers saw Ryoka and Palt duck to hide behind Erin. They tipped their hats as Erin waved.

Are you mad?

The [Innkeeper] stared at Ryoka.

“No. I know what I’m doing. Hey, Wilovan, Ratici, you’ve got a huge reputation. Come meet my friend! Ryoka! And Palt—you’ve met him. By the way, Ryoka? Don’t let Centaurs fall on you.”

“I’m sorry.

Palt and Ryoka nervously hid behind Erin as she pulled them over. Ryoka’s skin was crawling. Oh no. The duo with their hats—Ratici and Wilovan stood to tip their hats and the instant they spoke, Ryoka’s internal warning bells all set themselves off.

They had style. You didn’t fuck with people who had style. It was like Belavierr all over again.

“Miss Ryoka Griffin, it’s a pleasure to meet you. And whatever you might have heard, let me assure you we’re the most reputable sorts. Not always pleasant, but I’d hope it’d never be anything to ruin our good name.”

“Not at all. Exceedingly hard to get to that point. If words and goodwill don’t prevail, it’s a crying shame.”

Ratici added as Wilovan shook Ryoka’s hand. If Ryoka were a Gnoll, all the hair would have been standing up on her body. Beaming, Erin watched as Palt did the same and the two gave her sidelong looks.

“Don’t be like that, guys. They even told me they’re criminals. And you can’t get more honest than that, can you?”

The Gentlemen Callers actually chuckled at that. Ryoka looked at Erin. Why were they here? The [Innkeeper] had the audacity to wink at her with everyone watching.

“Don’t they remind you of home, Ryoka? At least a little bit? It’s like—hats, being polite even if you’re a criminal—”

Wilovan winced and lowered his voice.

“Miss Solstice, you’re being a bit loud. We happen to be perfectly normal citizens.”

“Until we aren’t.”

Ryoka scratched at her head. Remind her of what? The mafia? The roaring twenties? What was Erin going to do to charm them, jump up on stage and put on a show and twirl a cane?

“That’s a great idea, Ryoka!”

The City Runner wanted to hit Erin. But the [Innkeeper]’s eyes were twinkling. She wasn’t afraid of the Callers, even though she had to know who they were.

That was the magic. Wilovan and Ratici were perfectly polite, even reassuring to Ryoka and Palt. Accustomed to people who knew them giving them a wide berth. But Erin, knowing exactly who they were and what they did, threw her arms around them and invited them to try a milkshake. It was refreshing, perhaps. Ryoka saw Ratici lift up his cap and glance at Erin with actual surprise.

“They’re fine, guys. Wilovan and Ratici are like—honorable hatmen!”

Wilovan’s ears lowered slowly. Ratici made a face.

“Er—gratifying of you to say, Miss Solstice. But as names go—you needn’t trouble yourself, really. We’ll stay out of your hair—”

“Nonsense! You guys’ve helped me out before. And I’ve got Salamani and Fierre as guests—have you tried all of the inn’s foods? Tell me about yourselves—come on, Ryoka, Palt! Pull up a chair! Do you like to play board games?”

They never had a chance with their politeness against Erin. You had to literally kick her and run if you wanted to get away. Ryoka got away on the pretext of helping Fierre—she came back ten minutes later with Fierre to find Erin winning at cards.

“See, it’s called ‘card counting’.”

“It’s cheating.”

Ratici looked offended. Erin laughed.

“No it’s not! You’re cheating whenever you steal a card! Numbtongue says you keep doing it.”

Palt, Erin, Wilovan, Ratici, and Numbtongue were all playing poker, a game from Erin’s world. Palt gave Ryoka a mute look of desperation. She was tempted to leave him to his fate since he was distracting everyone else.

“Miss Solstice, could you explain how it works?”

Wilovan leaned over as Erin tried to explain the concept. So did Ratici, despite his arguments. If it was cheating, they wanted to learn it.

“Magical cards are really fun. I wish we had magical chess pieces. But how would that even work? Aside from them, like, beating each other up. And that just slows things down.”

Erin admired some of the cards from Ratici’s personal deck. A little white paw reached up to steal one and Erin smacked it gently. Wilovan glanced up as he sampled a bit of a new snack that Ryoka didn’t recognize. Imani’s cooking? A dozen people were surreptitiously stuffing them into pockets or belt pouches.

“You play chess, Miss Solstice? This is a fine, er, biscuit, by the way.”

“I thought it was a fritter, Wilovan.”

“It is! Imani? Imani, what is this called?”

Erin shouted into the kitchen and Ryoka heard a shout back as Imani named the potato-fritter dish. It wasn’t the newest thing if you accepted that potatoes and french fries had existed—but it was the way it was made, the recipe—a few were stuffed with a bit of fish, the rest plain—

For a [Cook] or [Chef], Imani and Erin’s inn was a goldmine of new ways to make old foods fresh. And the jaws of the trap were closing. Once Erin started feeding you, it was all over…

And the second weapon was the little Gnoll who’d beg for food winsomely at your table. Not that Erin needed any help, because Wilovan had just run into the greatest Erin-trap of all time.

“I play chess. I’m—decent at it.”

The two Gentlemen Callers weren’t idiots. They heard the snorts and saw the look from everyone in the inn. Too canny to be pulled into a shell game, those two. But there was bait you turned down and the bait that was too interesting to pass up.

“I have an interest in chess myself, Miss Solstice. A fine game, a fine game. You seem to be something of an expert?”

Fierre looked at Ryoka with interest. So did Palt.

“I’ve seen you playing, Erin, but I don’t think we’ve ever played ourselves, have we? Montressa, Bezale, and I all play.”

“What? You never said!”

Erin slammed her hands on the table, outraged. She stared at Montressa and Bezale, who had wisely stayed out of the Erin-whirlwind for now. They were sucked in.

“Do you play chess? We have a bunch of boards at Wistram—right when it came out. We even got the Go boards that the Titan was playing with before…what’s so funny?”

Montressa had no idea why people were sniggering at her trying to show off. Erin Solstice smiled. She cracked her fingers and winced.

“Ouch. And I know Ryoka can play.”

“Poorly. Fierre, you know how to play, though, right? And you too, Salamani?”

“Yes…”

The Vampire girl looked suspiciously at the twinkle in Ryoka’s eyes. So did Salamani, as he broke off from staring at Apista flying upside-down around the inn. He eyed Ryoka, whose smile was as uncanny as it was unusual.

The City Runner had given up and was going along with the fun of it. Some of the people knew; Montressa, Bezale, and Palt had all seen Erin beat Eldavin at chess.

But it was one thing to know she was good and another to realize they were sitting across from the world’s best player, who had played…a Dragon and won. Wait, how did Teriarch know how to play chess? Had he just picked it up or learned it when he wasn’t snoozing the years away?

Something to wonder about. For now—Erin Solstice pulled out a chessboard. She waited for her first victim.

There were no takers. Wistram [Mages]—including Salamani—Fierre the Opener and Vampire, the Gentlemen Callers, they weren’t rubes and they were all waiting for someone else to take the bait first. So Erin began tossing more bait in.

“How about two at once?”

She pulled up another chess board. Ratici blinked.

“You want to play us two at a time?”

“How about blindfolded? I used to do that as a trick at parties. Three at once blindfolded?”

“Miss Solstice, there’s a limit to how much you can tease us. We know you’re good.”

“I’m not trying to be mean, Montressa. But it’d be a fun challenge for me.”

The [Innkeeper] was throwing insane taunts at the challengers. They looked at each other. There was a limit to how much they could take. Pride was on the line, but their metaphorical [Dangersenses] were going off. Erin’s eyes twinkled. And she threw in the last bit of audacity into the pot.

“I’ve played a lot of great players. Olesm’s pretty good, Belgrade, Maviola—oh, there was Eldavin, Magnolia, Chaldion—”

Fierre reached for her journal like it was on fire. Bezale’s head snapped up.

“You’ve played Magnolia Reinhart?

“And Chaldion? Did you…win?”

Salamani stared. Erin smiled.

“Yes I did. Want to play?”

 

—-

 

It was four-versus-one. Ratici was sitting at one table as Wilovan advised him. Ryoka and Fierre had another. Montressa was taking table three as Palt and Beza backed her up and Salamani had Mrsha…snacking and occasionally pointing at a chess piece for encouragement.

Erin Solstice sat happily across from all the boards angled towards her, chattering away. A huge crowd had gathered—including Belgrade, who’d run into the inn with Olesm. The Drake had dragged Maviola over, but she’d left him to watch and take notes. She’d gone to socialize with Drassi.

There was a limit to how much other people were invested in chess. Some people didn’t care for it and that was fine. Ryoka could have fit into that number any other day.

But she really wanted to wipe Erin’s smug smile off her face. Unfortunately, it was Erin Solstice they were up against. Ryoka wondered if Erin would have been as good as a state champion on Earth. Hadn’t she said she competed in chess tournaments in other countries…? She had been a real prodigy as a kid, Ryoka remembered.

As it was, she was good enough to take four people on while nattering away. Fierre was trying to take notes and Ryoka kept making her focus on the game.

“You beat Magnolia Reinhart?”

“Mhm. Check, Montressa. Magnolia was fun. Although she cheated. Actually—half the people I play try to cheat. Put the pawn back, Ratici. I know you took it. It’s interesting playing non-professionals. The way they play is like…it reveals something about how they like to play. Does that make sense?”

“Can you elaborate? No, move that one, Fierre. She’s going to check you…”

Erin grinned as Ryoka avoided a fork-play.

“Sure. Right—well, for instance, Magnolia had like—these really good plays. Someone taught her well, but she always tried to make her plan work. If it fell apart, her game fell apart. You know? Whereas if you’re really good, you just…improvise. And you have a long game of course. Eldavin was amazing, by the way.”

“Yeah. You beat him? I wish I could have seen his face.”

“He tossed the chess board! Which is so rude—anyways. Chaldion’s like that too. Good at long game and short game. He beat me all the time when we first met with his Skill.”

“[Path to Victory]?”

Fierre eagerly wrote with one hand as she reached for a chess piece. Erin grabbed it.

“You’ve got ink on your fingers. Respect the board.

The other players were busy learning to respect Erin. She was someone else on the chess board. Bezale’s eyes were bulging as Montressa got checkmated faster than everyone else. She and Palt jostled to take Montressa’s place.

“I’d love for you to play some of Wistram’s best. You know, Archmage Feor is considered to be Wistram’s top player?”

Montressa shook her head, staring at the board. Erin perked up.

“Really? Do you think I could play…? Ratici, put the piece back.

“How did you beat Chaldion, Erin? I’ve heard about his famous Skill. Isn’t it…unbeatable in a game like chess?”

Erin waved that away as she replied to Salamani’s move. He was actually doing the best. Mainly because Olesm and Belgrade had come over to reinforce his plays. A poor French Defense opening variant from the Courier had turned into an aggressive attack Erin was having to devote more and more time to—she’d gone easy on Salamani and Olesm and Belgrade were trying to turn that into a win.

“You can beat Chaldion even with his sneaky Skill. It’s—well, it’s not easy but it’s simple. Let’s say he just used the Skill. I’ll do it on Fierre’s board since Olesm and Belgrade are helping Salamani. Okay—do it, Ryoka!”

Erin pointed. The City Runner folded her arms as everyone stared at her. After a second, Mrsha poked her in the leg.

“Why?”

“Come on, you have to say it.

“There’s no point—fine. [Path to Victory]. This is silly.”

Erin smiled hugely and then closed her eyes.

“Okay. The Victory-breaker gambit! Um…Belgrade!

The Antinium dropped all of his chess notes he and Olesm were sharing.

“Yes, Miss Solstice?”

“Choose a number from one to eight! Don’t think about it! Hurry!”

“Th—six!

Erin opened her eyes. She found the coordinates on the chess board and the one piece there was—

A rook. Which she promptly traded for a pawn. Fierre instantly ate it with a bishop. Ryoka gave Erin a long look.

“That was a bad move.”

“Mhm. But it’s not one I’d ever normally make. And like that, boom. Chaldion’s [Path to Victory] dies. Y’see, it only works since he sees a path based on the current game. If I mess it up, it’s gone.”

Everyone stared at Erin. Fierre actually stopped taking notes to look up.

“You mean—you beat the Grand Strategist’s best Skill?”

The [Innkeeper] shrugged innocently.

“Just in chess. That’s not the same as wars and stuff. Ooh. Check, Palt.”

 

—-

 

It was true that you couldn’t do the same thing as easily in war. And that her skill was the product of hard work, years of it, compared to everyone else.

But there was still something amazing about watching a true expert do something. Whether that was cooking, magic, or…chess. Erin Solstice shook Wilovan and Ratici’s hands when it was done. The Gentlemen Callers were giving her amazed looks, like all the others.

“It’s the one thing I’m actually good at.”

Good at? You didn’t lose once!

“Olesm and Belgrade tied me. That happens a lot in professional games.”

“And then you beat them in the next match. You’re a disgusting monster, Erin.”

The [Innkeeper] mock-punched Ryoka’s arm. But she looked happy at having played; Ryoka’s mind felt overstuffed from trying to score one win.

Erin Solstice saw the chess crowd break up, to her mild disappointment. There was a finite amount of chess most people could stand. Only a few, like her mystery opponent and Belgrade and Olesm and so on were in it for life.

And that was cool. It had been a great day. Erin wanted to make it better.

“You know, we could all pay a visit to Invrisil if we’re looking for something to do after being pushed around by Miss Solstice. The Players have that open booth…”

Montressa suggested slyly. Erin saw Salamani, Ryoka, and Fierre look up. And Wilovan and Ratici’s heads perked up. No one looked straight at Erin. But if anyone could get a ticket to the coveted plays in an hour, it was only Erin Solstice or someone who had a significant in with the Players of Celum. Even the nobility had to fight for one.

“You all want tickets, huh? Is that it? Huh, huh?”

“Yes.”

Palt didn’t even try to lie. Erin blinked at him.

Hey Temile! Do you have tickets?

To the Players of Celum? What about our troupe?

The [Actor] shouted back from the stage where his group was rehearsing. Erin instantly rounded on Palt.

“Yeah, what’s wrong with the Players of Liscor?”

“Nothing! It’s just—”

The Centaur put his hands up and backed up. Erin smiled as he tried to justify himself to the outraged [Actors].

It was tempting. And certainly—on her radar for her friends, even if Erin herself hadn’t been as interested. But Erin had a feeling about the plays and Invrisil. It would be…

Exciting. Possibly something might happen that would lead to event and perhaps a good outcome—but Erin knew Numbtongue had been sneaking into Invrisil in his disguise and she wondered what effect a Vampire, a Courier, two Gentlemen Callers, and a few Wistram [Mages] might have in the same room. Plus one Mrsha and a Ryoka?

Anyways, Erin had come up with a better idea already. The crying shame was that Pallass was off-limits for now. She could walk through the door of course, but she didn’t think the [Guards] would be predisposed to let her in.

“It’s a darn shame we can’t go to Pallass…are you staying for like, an entire week, Ryoka? Because I really want to have this thing with you and Lyonette and even Numbtongue if the helmet-trick works on Pallass. Maybe there’s something like it here?”

Erin mused out loud. Everyone looked at her with that familiar suspicion in their gazes. Ryoka raised an eyebrow.

“Erin. What’s in Pallass?”

“Nothing big.

Menolit snorted as he sat at a table. Olesm shook his head. Maviola looked excited and Drassi leaned over the counter. And that was just a few in the crowd. Lyonette folded her arms. Erin was hurt.

“Honest! It would be a little thing! Tiny! Compared to going to a play in Invrisil? It’s just…has anyone heard of Pallass Hunting?”

The [Innkeeper] looked around. And she received a room full of the blankest looks imaginable. Even from Ferris.

“Pallass wha?”

“It’s the group I went with after the um—inn was destroyed.”

“The inn was what?

Ratici looked around. Erin smiled a bit.

Toren.

“Yeah. I was thinking…it was nice. See, Pallass Hunting is this group of well, mostly Gnolls that lets you go right outside the city. And just…hunt and fish and stuff. In the wilderness. You camp for a week or two—as long as you pay for. But it’s not really camping because it’s safe.”

“You bet it is. Outside of a Walled City? You’d have an easier time finding monsters inside the city coming out of the sewers.”

Menolit snorted in disgust for the tame activity. So did a lot of patriotic Liscorians. In our city you’d get your face torn off in half a day! Erin raised her eyebrows.

“But it was fun, Menolit. What’s wrong with that?”

The [Veteran] hesitated and looked thoughtful. Erin looked at her audience.

“It was really nice. I didn’t have to worry about monsters, I got to be outside and catch fish—they stock the ponds and forests with game and fish—I thought we could do something like that.”

Mrsha’s ears perked up. She did like that. Erin gave the Gnoll a knowing look.

“Something like that. An outing without, like, Rock Crabs.”

That did sound nice. And it was a very Erin-thing to imagine. Camping? But then—Ryoka was reminded that Mrsha was a Plains Gnoll. Her tail was wagging at the very idea.

“Pallass is closed, though.”

“Because you closed it.”

Erin waved that point of logic away as she thought.

“You know, I hear some of those [Lords] we’re trading with are close to lakes and stuff in the north. What about…isn’t House Everight close to the ocean? We could go to the beach sometime!”

Erin saw Lyonette smile at that. So did Ryoka. The beach! It was one of those classic ideas. Relaxing, fun…were there beach monsters? Erin looked for Mrsha’s excited reaction.

The Gnoll gave her a dour look and signed back emphatically.

Sand is stupid.

Erin’s face fell. She’d even been thinking of adding a beach to the [Garden of Sanctuary] in the arid biome! It was possible, but it would have been for little Gnolls as well as Erin. And Mrsha looked about as enthused as…

…As someone with fur would be about getting sand all over you. A number of Drakes could see it from the Human perspective—although few Liscorians were familiar with beaches or the idea of surf and sea. But not the Gnolls. As it turned out, Gnolls were not naturally fond of sand.

Neither was Fierre. Erin sighed. You couldn’t please everyone. And it was a moot point, anyways. There was no Pallass Hunting to go to—and she’d have had to set up an appointment. Even if you could bully them into giving you an instant vacation, it was still days of camping to do it properly.

“Maybe we could fish in the pond and like…sit in the sun and throw sand on Mrsha.”

That was as close as it got. Erin sighed and decided perhaps it was time to use that favor Wesle had been bugging her to make good on. And then, as it often happened—something happened.

The door exploded inwards. The City Runner saw something charge at her.

Ryoka Griffin! You didn’t say you came back!”

Garia Strongheart swept her friend into a hug. Ryoka struggled at first—and then struggled more because Garia was actually lifting her off the floor in a hug.

“Garia? Let go of me! I can’t breathe—”

The other City Runner was laughing as Erin turned and saw a second figure jog into the inn.

“Fals?”

“Aha! We caught her, Garia!”

The second City Runner ran into the inn. They had both just arrived from Celum and a long run. Fierre blinked. Ryoka’s friends?

 

—-

 

Ryoka’s friends. The young woman was ashamed to realize that she hadn’t even thought of contacting Garia what with everything else that had happened. She really had…forgotten about her old friends.

She was glad to see them now. Despite how much one of them had changed.

Fals was the same. At least—if he had changed, it wasn’t as noticeably as Garia. Ryoka had seen it before, but Garia was a completely different person. Her [Martial Artist] class had given her the ability to control her weight and so she had gone through the most dramatic change Ryoka had seen in anyone.

She had Numbtongue-abs. And she looked fit. Not that she hadn’t been already…Ryoka remembered that Garia had been hauling huge packs of weight around even before her new class. It was just how she looked.

But what a difference it made in Garia’s confidence. She laughed as she punched Ryoka’s shoulder and looked around the inn.

“I’m glad I found you! You ran off last time and we barely got to exchange two words!”

“I’m sorry, Garia—”

Ryoka saw Fals grinning and stuck out a hand.

“Fals! How are you?”

“Good well! Nothing special—not like the Wind Runner of Reizmelt! We’ve been keeping up on your exploits! Well, Garia and I are doing well. Garia better than me these days!”

He looked a bit embarrassed. Garia turned red herself as Ryoka stared at her.

“Really? Well, I can see…are you getting more jobs, Garia?”

“Not just jobs. She’s got a nickname. Celum’s [Martial Artist].”

“Only because I’m the only one. I’m not even Level 20 yet.”

“She’s passed Level 10 in less than a year. In months! She’s always practicing—and she actually trounced a [Bandit] group that came after her, hence the nickname. Dragged four of them into town knocked silly and collected the bounty and delivered the packages.”

Fals rolled his eyes. Garia’s smile widened as Ryoka turned to her friend.

“You, beating up [Bandits]? Garia?

“I’ve been practicing your punches. You have to teach me more, Ryoka. That’s half the reason I found you—the other reason is to find my friend before she runs back north! Tell me everything! And don’t lie—what’s this about the Archmage of Izril—

“Ryoka, would you mind introducing your friends?”

Salamani stood up, looking highly amused. Ryoka saw Fals and Garia look up, do a double-take, and then lose their minds.

Salamani the Mage Runner?

They were in awe. Ryoka remembered what it was like when Valceif had paid a visit. The Courier shook hands, blinking at Garia’s grip, and then gestured to Ryoka.

“I’m actually in debt to Miss Ryoka herself.”

Garia’s mouth opened wide as Fierre got up too. Ryoka pulled her over, almost in self-defense.

“This is Fierre. An Information Broker from Reizmelt.”

“And a friend of Ryoka’s. Hello.”

Fierre gingerly shook Fals’ hand and then Garia’s. Fals gave Ryoka a considering look.

“An Broker, huh?”

The [Martial Artist]’s eyes flickered as she looked at Fierre. Ryoka remembered that information brokers, which implied Fierre’s other job, Opener, weren’t as common around Celum and a lot more shady—

“It’s more political in the north. Come on, you two. Fierre’s honest—Fierre, Salamani, these are two of my fellow City Runners from when I ran around Celum.”

“Not that we ever ran together. Ryoka was always the fastest of us all.”

Fals put in. Ryoka ducked her head, embarrassed. That was Ryoka then, who had not been a good friend.

And still, they had come to see her. Garia was beaming. Erin came over—and to Ryoka’s surprise, Numbtongue.

“Hey Garia.”

“Numbtongue! There you are! Dad’s been complaining that you don’t visit the farm. He says to drag you over sometime.”

“Too many naked Humans.”

The Hobgoblin grumbled. Ryoka did a double-take; she hadn’t heard about that particular event at the Strongheart family farm. Nor had she known that Numbtongue and Garia were friends.

…Ab-friends? They were certainly of like minds when it came to working out. Not that Ryoka got to talk—Erin was the one who looked in disgust at the healthy people standing around. But she was smiling.

“The Wailant farm! Did you come from there or Celum, Garia?”

“Celum. Home’s nice, but I always have to stick around when I visit. It’s so nice to meet you, Fierre. And to see you, Erin! I keep meaning to visit the inn, but I’m always running.”

“Me too. We’d come more often, but Liscor doesn’t need mail as often as cities without the magic door.”

Fals mock-sighed. Erin laughed.

“We’re working on that! Everyone, take a seat! I’ll get you Imani’s weird potato-things.”

She headed into the kitchen, mulling something over. When she came back, everyone was taking a second measure of each other.

Fierre was smiling—with a tiny bit of a bite in the smile at Garia and Fals. Possessively, rather. It was more of a Ryoka-thing than Ryoka herself, who was clearly trying to be the friend she hadn’t been in the past.

Salamani looked amused, the older Courier and third wheel to the established friendships. He excused himself after less than fifteen minutes. Erin wondered how long he’d stick around. Ryoka had said he owed her a debt.

“It’s great, Ryoka. Having a second class? I keep telling Fals he should take a complimentary class like [Martial Artist]. Of course, you wouldn’t know.”

“Guilty. But how often did you say you practiced punches?”

“Every day. You told me to!”

“Yes, but….”

Ryoka ran a hand through her hair. The things that happened when she said things and people listened. She turned somewhat awkwardly to the Hobgoblin munching on a fritter.

“And you know Numbtongue?”

“Mhm. Naked [Farmers]—”

Everyone waited for Numbtongue to finish his sentence. Garia burst in.

“He’s talking about my parents. He met them in Celum—”

“Naked?”

Ryoka had met Wailant and Viceria, but she clearly had not gotten the same impression as Numbtongue. Garia tried to explain.

“…And Numbtongue’s an amazing fighter. He helped spar with me a few times and he comes over to drink sometimes.”

“Redfang training.”

The Hobgoblin [Bard] offered when Ryoka looked at him. He was studying Ryoka with interest. Especially when Garia looked between the two.

“I wonder who knows more about fist fighting? Ryoka taught me all those punches, Numbtongue. She practices…what was it called?”

“Just as a hobby.”

Ryoka instantly demurred as Fierre narrowed her eyes. So did Numbtongue.

“You know one of those fighting styles from Chandrar, Ryoka?”

The Vampire girl leaned over. Ryoka tried to lean out of the conversation.

“I used to do it back home…it’s nothing like being a [Warrior] or even as good as Garia, I’ll bet. You saw me sparring with Alber, Fierre? It’s like that. He could light me up even if I wasn’t boxing.”

The Vampire girl nodded. Garia and Numbtongue just looked more interested.

“Who’s Alber?

“A friend from Reizmelt. He’s a [Fistfighter]. Look—I’m happy to show you more, Garia, but I’m terrible at actually fighting.”

“Come on, not even sparring? I’ve been wanting to since the last time you arrived.”

The City Runner pointed accusingly at Garia.

“Garia, before you even became a [Martial Artist], I saw you lay out a Bronze-rank adventurer with a single punch. You have [Enhanced Strength]. Even Salamani would probably stay out of a fistfight with you.”

“I heard that! And yes I would!”

The Courier looked up from chatting with Palt. The table laughed. Fierre sipped from her drink, her eyes cool.

“I’d try it. If I wasn’t worried about people getting hurt.”

Numbtongue and Garia looked at Fierre, who looked innocent as Ryoka nudged her hard. Vampires. Arrogant as…half the other species in the world. Although Ryoka was curious. Fierre had super-strength, speed, regeneration…and Garia had her Skills. Who’d win…?

It was a bad train of thought to go down. Especially because Numbtongue looked at Fierre and instantly raised one eyebrow.

“Are you good at fighting? Could spar in the Garden. Or outside.”

Redfangs. They didn’t wait around. Fierre hesitated.

“I have some levels, yeah…”

“Really? What class? Or is it secret?”

Fierre. I don’t think that’s a good idea. We’re all just having a good time. We just met—”

“Good time to punch each other.”

The Hobgoblin opined. Ryoka was trying to get Fierre from bragging again and it was hard. Fierre wanted to prove she was stronger than a Gold-rank adventurer—or Garia and Numbtongue. Worse—Ryoka was afraid she might actually win. She’d punched Golems to pieces when Ryoka had passed out.

“Hey! No fighting in the [Garden of Sanctuary]!”

The voice of reason turned out not to be Ryoka. Erin Solstice walked over as Mrsha practiced a few punches just to show everyone she was cool too. Erin smiled, turned to Garia, and instantly invalidated her ‘voice of reason’ credentials.

But it’d be really cool if we could visit the Strongheart farm sometime, Garia. I’d love to come! It’s really safe, right? Nice to run around—is there anywhere to fish?”

“Fish? Dad has a pond, yeah. He killed all the freshwater fish three years back by tossing a bunch of salt in and trying to import ocean fish—you can come over whenever. He likes you all. In fact, you could come over today.”

“Really? I was just thinking—have you heard of Pallass Hunting?”

Garia listened, blinking. And she laughed when Erin finished.

“That sounds sort of like the farm! Only, it’s not that safe. We have all those ward spells up because predators come for the Sage’s Grass. But if Dad and Mom are there, it’s pretty safe! Like I said, you can come over whenever. They don’t mind.”

“Really?”

“Why not? Everyone’s welcome! And I have to go anyways…”

Erin looked around.

“Well, Numbtongue likes to go.”

“So long as they keep their clothes on.”

“Is that really a big problem? It wasn’t when Mrsha and I went—”

“Yes.”

Erin looked around. The idea was taking hold of her. She really, really wanted…

“Hey, I know everyone can’t go, but Lyonette? Fals? You too, Salamani, if you want to. Palt, Montressa, Bezale?”

She wondered if it was too many people. The Gentlemen Callers demurred of course, but they seemed interested in the outing as a break for them if it was really that safe.

“If it’s too much, Garia—”

“My family doesn’t care. Come on over. Bring some snacks and Dad’ll roll out a carpet—and whatever there is to drink.”

Garia looked delighted at the idea. And the idea took root in more minds. Mrsha was excited; she liked the farm where she was allowed to run about. Ekirra and Visma instantly demanded to come. And then Erin had to ask their families if it was alright and assure them there was no nudity—

“I’d love to. I just need to make one stop in Liscor—when? In an hour? I’ll be there. My family are farmers too, actually.”

“Really?”

Garia gave Fierre a second look. The Vampire nodded.

“Lischelle-Drakle.”

Drak—

Ryoka slapped a hand over Erin’s mouth so fast the [Innkeeper] fell over. Fierre didn’t notice because Garia had exclaimed.

Lischelle? I know that family! You’re one of the Lischelles? They’re famous!

“Only a bit.”

[Farmer] fame. Ryoka blinked. She remembered that Colfa was supposed to be royalty among [Herders] and so on, but she hadn’t taken it seriously. But Garia looked extremely impressed. She grabbed Fierre’s hand.

“You have to come! Dad will be so impressed! He’s not great with barn animals, but if you took a look—”

And despite herself, Fierre grinned while covering her mouth. Numbtongue went to get some appropriate drinking snacks from the kitchen—Imani chased him out.

“I’m coming too! Don’t you dare rummage through my pantry, Numbtongue! I just got it sorted!”

“Are we allowed to come too?”

Montressa and Bezale looked at each other. So did Palt and Salamani. Garia nodded at Erin’s questioning look.

“Wistram, right? Mom’s from Wistram.”

“What faction?”

Salamani instantly asked. Garia rolled her eyes.

“You’re from Wistram alright. I forget. Does it matter?”

The outraged looks she got made Ryoka grin. It was settled! The Stronghearts wouldn’t know what hit them. Garia jogged through the door to deliver the news and Erin did a headcount.

“Anyone else coming? Rose. Joseph, Galina…?”

She ignored Troy and Leon, who were in disgrace and hiding. Joseph shook his head.

“We have football practice.”

Ekirra’s face fell. Torn between his passion and getting to run about! Rose nudged Joseph.

“I have to help—Kevin’s missing, that idiot. But we could come through after practice? Galina?”

“I’m acting!”

The [Actress] was on stage with the Players of Liscor. Erin saw Imani hurry out with a basket full of food and Palt trotted out and told her to put it in a bag of holding because why would you ever carry anything? The [Innkeeper] saw the others talking, Numbtongue insisting that Ryoka show him a single punch, Salamani talking about factions with Montressa and Beza—

“Good.”

The Gentlemen Callers gave her a tip of the hat. Erin winked and they walked through the door. A roar came from the [Pirate] who grabbed Ryoka in a hug.

“There you are! And here’s that little brat! Hide the snacks, Viceria! Mrsha, you scamp! And who’s this?”

Erin walked through the doorway, laughing, as Wailant picked up Mrsha and tossed her up. This was what she’d wanted to organize. An escape from The Wandering Inn. Not that it wasn’t a nice place. But it was also good to be…she took a breath of fresh air as she walked onto the Strongheart family farm.

Away from drama, except that which a [Pirate]-[Farmer] and a [Green Mage] could conjure. Visma followed Mrsha with the magic ball in her claws, looking around at all the vast farm, so unlike the Floodplains, surrounded by the High Passes on both sides. Ryoka tried to get out of Wailant’s headlock—until Garia hit her father in the side.

They piled through, leaving the inn’s madness behind. And sure enough—forty minutes after they’d gone, Kevin burst through the magic door, shouting.

It’s done! It’s done! Everyone we finally—

He stopped. Pelt and Hedault, following him, looked at the relatively empty inn. Kevin hesitated.

“…Where’d everyone go?”

 

—-

 

Ryoka Griffin faced Numbtongue in the ring. Well, in Garia’s barn with a small crowd of onlookers. Mrsha was cheering on…she couldn’t decide, so she was cheering on both silently.

“Come on, Ryoka!”

Fierre was watching as the City Runner nervously watched Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin was waiting for Ryoka to make the first move.

This was stupid. Ryoka felt way too tense. She had been served her humble pie—and then learned to bake it because it was a good recipe.

She remembered being dumb enough to challenge Calruz and Yvlon. That was old-Ryoka and new-Ryoka hated remembering that scene in particular. And yet—

She remembered boxing with Alber. That was fun. Ryoka feinted and Numbtongue didn’t even move. Great. She felt doubly-outclassed. Not only was she pretty sure he was a lot stronger than she was, he was a seasoned warrior.

On the other hand—she kicked and he stepped back. He was definitely waiting for her to try something.

“Mm?”

That was all the [Bard] said. But it was provocative, taunting—you could put a lot into a single syllable. And Ryoka smiled. She took a step, pivoted—

Erin Solstice, watching with a drink in her hand, sighed. She recognized that kick. It had been a long time since Ryoka’s roundhouse kick—and Numbtongue tried to block it and nearly got knocked off his feet. He staggered—

“Hoo boy. Hope no one gets hurt.”

Wailant Strongheart was also watching, already drinking, and happily. He’d practically begged Ryoka to spar with Numbtongue.

“That’s what healing potions are for. Hey, have you heard that they’re doing this in Pomle? I found it on my scrying orb. You can watch [Martial Artists] beat the hell out of each other, even bet. I can’t stop watching.”

“Or betting. She’s quite good. Is she a [Martial Artist]?”

Viceria looked amused as Ryoka tried to capitalize on the surprise kick. Numbtongue had surely seen a lot of kicks in his time—but one of Earth’s techniques was still surprising to a Hobgoblin who hadn’t studied from the same school that had tried to refine a move out of all the possible variations.

Ryoka tried to jab and the Hobgoblin threw a huge haymaker of a punch. She jumped back and he reset his posture.

Oh shit. He’d freaked her out and instead of coming in, Ryoka was back to square one and he’d seen her kick. The Hobgoblin shook out his arm. He grinned at Ryoka with all his teeth and that wasn’t intimidating at all.

“Nice kick.”

Then he tried it on her. Ryoka stepped back. And she found she was grinning.

Right. That was how you were supposed to do it. Numbtongue’s kick was fast, painful if it landed, but he wasn’t trying to break her bones. He was—having fun.

When she’d gone at Calruz and Yvlon, it was with the express intention of beating them. But you could be a decent Human being—or Goblin—and not do that. Ryoka relaxed. She saw Numbtongue try another kick and knew it was bait. So she stepped in and when he lashed out with a fist, she countered.

Hah! Got him! Kick the shit out of him, Ryoka!

That was Wailant. Erin sighed; she didn’t see the appeal of punching each other, but at least Ryoka was having fun. Numbtongue too.

He beat Ryoka, mainly by letting her punch him and charging into her. Ryoka knew how to grapple, but the Hobgoblin was faster. She also might have been outweighed by a number of weight classes. But who said Goblins fought fair?

“My turn. I want to try.”

“Don’t kill anyone.”

Ryoka rubbed at her back as Numbtongue patted dust and hay off her shoulders and demanded to know how she’d kicked like that. So did Garia, who Fierre wanted to fight. Garia called out.

“It’ll be fine, Ryoka!”

The City Runner gave the Vampire a warning look and Fierre grinned innocently. Numbtongue gave Fierre a suspicious look; Pyrite was telling him that the Vampire had the same look on her face as someone with a secret weapon. No other input—just ‘don’t trust that smile’.

It looked ridiculous to see Fierre squaring off against Garia, who, despite having lost weight, was both a [Farmer] and [Martial Artist] and outweighed Fierre. Ryoka watched nervously as Garia showed Fierre a punch.

The Vampire played along, right up until she swung into Garia’s arms. The [Martial Artist]’s eyes went wide and Ryoka heard the thump of an impact.

The Wind Runner closed her eyes. But Garia just shook out her hands and laughed. She stopped taking it easy. Fierre gave Ryoka a triumphant look. She was taking it easy, good, good.

“Little Lischelle-kid’s stronger than she looks. After them, it’s my turn. What do you say, Ryoka, Numbtongue? Let’s make it a proper brawl, with a wager!”

Wailant grinned. The [Pirate]’s scarred arms raised and Ryoka instantly refused. So did Numbtongue. He nudged Ryoka.

“He fights dirty. Also, loses his temper.”

“You don’t say?”

Wailant looked hurt. He appealed to Salamani, who raised his eyebrows.

“Only if I get to cast [Haste] and other enchantments on myself.”

“You’re all cowards.”

The [Pirate] folded his arms grumpily. Someone kicked him in the leg and gave him the old one-two. Wailant looked down as Mrsha danced around, paws raised. Visma attacked Wailant’s other leg.

“Little monsters! You want to fight, eh?”

The two ran off in terror and Wailant chased after them, laughing. He was a good dad-type, despite everything. Ryoka saw that the Wistram [Mages] were all engaged in some kind of debate.

“But it’s the Libertarians who’re backing Ailendamus. I’m just saying—”

“Not this again, Palt. We know there’s more continents than Terandria.”

“I’m just saying that Ailendamus’ conduct sets a bad example for when Wistram should intervene. And that’s with Baleros—”

“Hold up. Are we talking about Ailendamus? Because I have definite opinions on that. Who’s not rooting for the Dawn Concordat?”

“To listen to Palt—”

Montressa was complaining as the Centaur tried to hand out cigars. He was actually on the same page as the others—but there were roughly four factions represented, maybe five, among Salamani, Bezale, Montressa, Viceria, and Palt, and [Mages] loved to argue politics.

“I remember why I left the academy.”

The [Green Mage] murmured and Salamani rolled his eyes. Palt, Montressa, and Bezale looked hurt. Viceria gave them all a steady look.

“Oh, fine. I’m interested in that as well. Let’s talk about the odds of Pheislant or Noelictus entering the war. They attacked Pheislant ships with [Knights] on them, did you hear? And maybe after that one of you can tell me what all this fuss is back at the academy. Something secret going on? No one will talk to me…”

At the same time, Imani was standing with Erin. Since the other Earthers had yet to come through the door, she looked a bit lost. She had been hanging around Palt, but the political talk—and the smoke—had repulsed her.

“Aw, look. Ryoka’s being nice.”

The City Runner was chasing around Mrsha and Visma as the two giggled and fled. Numbtongue—Wailant had already given up to go smoke—was also ‘playing’. But as Mrsha had observed, the Hobgoblin didn’t do anything halfway. He sprinted at Visma, who instantly shrieked and covered her eyes.

Fierre was watching Garia talk about punching [Bandits] and the two were going to persuade Ryoka to show them how to do her jump-kicks. And it seemed like that was a group. Garia, Numbtongue, Fierre, and Ryoka.

Fals wandered over to Erin and Imani, looking a bit disconsolate.

“…can always ask Palt to ward your rooms. Or keep sleeping in the [Garden of Sanctuary] if the dreams won’t stop. Would that help?”

“I—I think I have to learn to deal with them, Erin. Thanks. It’s just…I want them to stop, but not because I’m drinking a tonic or getting a spell cast on me. But because I’m better, you know?”

“I get that. I…I don’t know if they do, Imani. Sometimes it just takes time. There’s no shame in—”

The two looked up as the City Runner stopped in his tracks. He jerked a thumb at the others.

“Sorry, I’m not interrupting, am I? I’m just not as good at fighting as that lot.”

He looked embarrassed to walk in on the conversation. Erin smiled and motioned him over.

“It’s okay. Imani was just talking about…bad dreams.”

She looked at Imani to silently ask if it was okay to share. The [Cook] nodded, a bit shyly. But not as afraid as she had been.

“Nightmares? I know a good [Alchemist] for that.”

“It’s…more than that.”

“Imani, um, survived a Creler attack. Not the one at the inn. A bad one. With some friends…”

Fals inhaled.

“Oh. I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you. I’m trying to—stop dreaming about it. I take potions, but I stop dreaming altogether.”

“You know, it’s weird that something called Dreamleaf doesn’t, y’know, give you dreams.”

Erin threw up her hands. Imani smiled slightly, but…Fals looked at her.

“I know some Runners who have the same problem. There’s [Healers] for it, you know.”

“Really?”

She looked interested. Fals scrubbed a hand through his hair.

“Yeah. I don’t know as much myself…but I’ve heard there are specialists. Few and far between since it’s—healing the mind? But they exist. Magic schools, too.”

“What’s this about magic?”

Wailant had obtained a cigar but had rolled his eyes out of the conversation of international politics. He came over and that was the group. Erin explained and the [Pirate] raised his brows.

“[Thought Healers]. That’s what you’re thinking of. Not sure if that’s the exact class or the basic one. But yeah. Go to a major port and there’s probably one. The other option’s to find a good [Mage] or [Shaman]. Not yon [Illusionist] but a specialist.”

“You know about that, Wailant?”

The former [Pirate] gave Erin an embarrassed shrug.

“You sail the wrong places enough and you see things, Miss. Crelers? I met the bastards at sea—twice. I’d like to forget that myself. Trick is—you put distance between yourself and then. That’s the trick. Take as much damn dreamleaf as you want, Miss Imani. I’d grow it myself but it likes humid weather. Viceria has a stock, though. We could sell you some.”

“Thank you.”

Imani ducked her head and the [Farmer] gave her a kindly look. Which immediately turned into a boisterous laugh.

“Mind you, the trick is being strong enough that you know you can crush any bastard that comes at you! And write your victories on your arms, like so! Did you see the Hundredfriends Courier? I only wish I had magical tattoos that did stuff like that!”

The others smiled. But Erin hadn’t missed Wailant’s best side before he’d covered it up. And he had a lot of good sides. A few jerk sides.

“Thanks for letting us come to your farm, Wailant.”

“Ah, it’s fun. That’s the ticket. Fun. You can come over every week—makes a nice break from a hard day of farming. That little kid’s fun too. Reminds me of Garia, growing up. She wasn’t as fast as Mrsha, but she could run around for ages.”

Ryoka was shielding her face as Visma and Mrsha decided the only way to win was to throw clods of dirt to slow her and Numbtongue. Wailant roared.

“That’s good soil you’re tearing up! Oi! What are you doing? I didn’t say stop!”

The Hobgoblin saw a clod of dirt flying at his head. He grabbed it and used a Skill. [Redirect Missile]—it smacked Visma in the face and she began crying. Shorthilt’s minute of return turned guilty, but kids cried. Wailant didn’t so much as budge and Ryoka and Mrsha went over to comfort Visma.

“I like that Hobgoblin. Kids’ve gotta learn that if you throw shit, shit throws stuff back. He’s welcome too. And we do not get naked all the time! Slanderous.”

“What is that about?”

The [Farmer] looked embarrassed.

“It’s this—activity. Look, we have wands and targets…and sometimes it’s hot, okay? It’s a private damn farm! We have fences for a reason!”

Erin was so taken with Wailant’s description of what sounded to her like laser tag—or paintball with wands?—that she asked if they could try. Wailant was only too happy to provide the wands.

She, Fals, Imani, and Wailant walked over to one of the makeshift target ranges, laughing as they shot [Light Arrows]. Wailant was telling Erin about sea combat.

“Cutlass in one hand, wand in the other. You see, you can swim about—”

“With the cutlass in your teeth?”

The [Pirate] gave Erin a long stare.

“…With the wand in your teeth. Why a cutlass? That’s far too heavy. Anyways, that’s how [Pirates] fight. Mobile. You saw that Rasea Zecrew? She’s new-blood. One of the best damn [Pirates] of her generation.”

“Any of it make you want to go back to sea?”

The [Farmer] snorted.

“Are you kidding? She attacked a damn army by herself and her ship. You saw them showering arrows and spells on the Illuminary? They probably couldn’t even scratch her hulls with an unenchanted ballista! I’m glad I left. Undersea Crews surfacing under your ship and tearing a hole in the hull, bastards sending sea creatures to eat a hole in your keel—no thank you.”

“Huh. Hey! Is that the Sage’s Grass stuff? It’s growing nice!”

Erin saw a glowing field of widely-spaced, glowing red plants. Sage’s Grass. Wailant proudly surveyed his farm’s specialty.

“Yep. Almost ready to harvest. Eight months. Premium. I’d let it grow longer, but—bigger monsters’ll show up. We already had to kill a herd of damned Eater Goats last week.”

“Eight months? They grow for that long?”

“Yup. You can harvest in three—and it’s three, even with Skills. But Sage’s Grass grows for ages. I don’t try to do that, though. Too much chance they’ll die. They’re such fragile things. You can kill ‘em by speaking harshly, I swear. Actually—that reminds me. Come take a look at this! I got some more magical crops.”

He led Erin over to a far smaller plot with some odd…Erin stared at a huge, vertical oval. It looked like some kind of shiny melon. Or…or…no, there was no comparison in her world. Watermelons?

But watermelons were not four feet tall. This was a huge plant! And apparently—hollow?

“It’s called a Goudolep. Chandrarian. Stay there. You have to sneak up on it. See? I pruned it so you can get around on this side without triggering it.”

Wailant moved around—Erin saw he was dodging around some bright flowers on top. She frowned.

“Sneak up on it? Is it alive? I mean—”

The [Farmer] got around the plant and Erin saw he’d installed something like a tap into the side of the plant. He called for a cup and Fals tossed him his.

“They’re hollow! Mostly! Got a lot of water inside—it’s a self-defense thingy! See, if you get in range of the flowers—hold on, I’ll get the drink first.”

He snuck back around with a purple-green liquid in the cup. He offered it to Erin, Fals, and Imani.

“Go on. Have a sip.”

Imani tried first. She recoiled.

“It’s sour! It’s so—”

She laughed despite the expression her face was trying to make. She handed the cup to Fals and Erin.

“It’s so sour!

Erin made a face, laughing. But it was refreshing and not that bad! It was like a super sour candy from her world. She liked it! Wailant grinned.

“Good, isn’t it? I put it in the rum for a change of pace. Your Hobgoblin loves it. See, the trick is this is a specialty-bred Goudolep. Wild-bred ones? It’s like being slapped by an angry lemon, it’s so bad. Not good at all. And if you get close…any volunteers?”

Erin raised a hand, and so did Fals, but Imani volunteered herself. So Erin had to let her try. Nervously, the [Cook] sidled forwards towards the flowers at the top. They quivered when she was about ten feet away—

And then a jet of the liquid splashed Imani. She screamed, gasped, and started laughing. So did Erin.

“See? See? What a beautiful bastard of a plant! I had to buy it. And some invisible pumpkins!”

Erin rolled her eyes.

“Oh, hah-hah, Wailant. I may be gullible, but I’m not that gullible.”

“I’m serious, I’ve got an entire crop over there! I heard Octavia was using some for her molds? Well, mine are just for fun.”

Erin eyed the empty field. She walked forwards, laughing.

“Invisible pumpkins? Why would you even—aaah!

She tripped and smacked into the dirt. Wailant laughed as he clutched at his sides. Erin got up and stared at the empty patch of soil. She crawled over and felt at it. Then she looked at Wailant.

Sell me some! I’ll make you an invisible pumpkin pie! Or Imani will!

“Everything alright? I heard a scream. Imani?”

Palt trotted over to check on them. Erin had to show him the invisible pumpkin—or rather, not show him. Imani was smiling as Fals offered her some water—Palt cast [Cleanse]. Ryoka and Numbtongue and some of the others jogged over to see the spraying melon; Mrsha got a faceful as she rushed over.

The party reconverged around the melon for a bit. It was still far from dinner, and Mrsha had to try target-practice with her wand. Garia came over to Wailant with Fierre.

“Dad. Fierre told me there’s the softest sheep in the world which nuzzles you! It’s called the Sariant Lamb and it survives because it’s so adorable even monsters protect it! Can we get one?”

The [Farmer] took the cigar out of his mouth and gave his daughter a long look.

“Absolutely not. I’d rather buy a Seedspitting Vecker than a damn animal like that.”

Dad!

“Hear your daughter out, Wailant. Haven’t you wanted a dog for ages?”

“No farm of mine is going to have creatures that pathetic. It cuddles things? Absolutely not!”

“Mother says their wool is worth a lot. She never got one because, well, we have regular sheep and Sariants don’t get along. Jealousy.”

Fierre slyly remarked as wife and daughter tried to convince the [Pirate]. Wailant looked around for his writing spectacles.

“Well, hold on. That’s different. What’s the market value of a single harvest? And cost of one? There’s always shipping fees and it can double the expense, especially if you lose your shipment…”

“Let me get my notes.”

Fierre stepped back towards the inn, laughing. On the way, she saw the magic door open.

Erin. Rose and Joseph are done. They’ve brought Ekirra. Selys and Drassi want to come through too. And…there’s something Kevin thinks you should see.”

Lyonette had stayed to manage the inn. But now she came through as Fierre stood to one side. She saw the others standing and exclaiming over something. And there was Pelt, Hedault—

Fierre stared at them. And the strange contraption being wheeled out by Kevin. Two master-artisans? She opened her mouth as she walked into the inn.

“I just need to get something from my room. Don’t do anything just yet!”

“Oh, of course, Fierre. You know how to work the door? Ishkr’s holding down the inn.”

“I do, thanks Ly—Lyonette.”

Fierre stumbled over her words. The [Princess] gave her a smile and walked through. Fierre watched her go. And suddenly—she had to run to her room.

The Vampire girl rushed up the stairs. She tore through her belongings, forgetting Wailant’s notes for a moment. She grabbed some freshly-bought blood from Liscor, hidden in pouches and canteens. The Vampire drank two entire meals in one go. But it didn’t stop the sudden, intense, craving she felt.

“What’s wrong? Stop it. Stop it.

Fierre grabbed her arms until the shaking stopped. She was so hungry. She had fed from Ryoka and drank enough animal blood today! But—

It had begun at her farm. And it was getting worse. Fierre had never been so hungry. And Lyonette? Erin? Not Ryoka—and most in the inn didn’t make her so hungry. But Salamani. The Callers, even—

“Stop it. Not now. Don’t ruin it.”

She mumbled to herself as she sank to her knees. Not when it was going so well.

 

—-

 

No one noticed Fierre returning late. They were all clustered around something that Kevin had brought into the farm. Asking questions. Some—the Earthers—were in consternation.

None more so than Ryoka Griffin. She stared down at the contraption made of metal and wood. Metal and wood.

Not plastic. Not titanium, or aluminum, refined and calculated such that the—vehicle—was as efficient as could be.

This was a prototype. But where industry was lacking or inefficient, magic came into being.

They were both here. Hedault and Pelt. They had taken time out of their schedules to complete this thing. Swept up by—Kevin’s—enthusiasm.

Erin had nearly forgotten about it. Kevin’s skateboard was being reverse-engineered by Pallassian [Smiths] for the hungry market of young adults who had seen it. But this was a far more complex creation. Yet Kevin had access to experts, he had time, a budget granted to him by Lyonette and Selys. And he had done it since he had repaired countless machines like this in his job.

The bicycle sat in the dirt, wooden frame polished, lightweight, metal wheels and wooden ‘tire’ with etched grooves to grip at the ground hand-forged. Everything from the spokes to the gear-system had been made to perfecting exactness out of flawless metal by Pelt.

“Damned thing. Worse than one of Pallass’ big gears. But it’s the challenge of it.”

The [Smith] was proud of himself. So was Hedault. His spectacles gleamed with the promise of speed.

“Most of the enchantments were simple, but there are many component parts. The frame’s enchanting was last as we put it together. The entire device weighs…six point eight pounds. And we can further cut down on the weight.”

Six point eight? That’s without the wheels, right?”

Ryoka stared at Kevin. The [Mechanic] was grinning like a madman.

“No, that’s the entire thing, Ryoka. Hedault’s spell only works when it’s in one piece. But he can cut the weight down—and there are spells that are anti-gravitational. So, in theory, you could make a bike that—”

“You made a bicycle?

Erin was staring. And she had repeated herself at least eight times. Joseph squatted down.

“You actually did it. Are there enchantments on the wheels?”

“Oh yeah. And just wait until you hop on. Lightweight isn’t the only enchantment we put on it—”

“You made a bicycle.”

Kevin glanced at Erin.

“Er…you said it was okay, Erin.”

Ryoka turned her accusing gaze to Erin. The [Innkeeper] snapped out of it.

“I—er—well, yeah! It’s…”

She fell silent. Everyone waited for Erin to speak. The young woman closed her eyes.

“It’s so cool. Can I ride it?”

Ryoka saw the others burst into huge smiles. She saw Kevin offer it to Erin.

“We wanted you to be the first person to really ride it. Don’t worry, it’s tested!”

It even had a damn kickstand. Brakes…Ryoka saw Erin taking a few deep breaths.

“So what is this thing? Some kind of two-wheeled wagon? It’ll never stay upright? Unless—is it enchanted?”

Wailant was fascinated as everyone else. But he didn’t get it. Numbtongue did. He was watching Erin with acute interest. So was Mrsha. Palt, the other [Mages], were murmuring. The Centaur’s avid eyes were on Erin.

But the Earther’s eyes were on Ryoka. She was breathing heavily.

A bike. This was beyond anything else that had ever been brought to this world. More than a trebuchet, even. More than…

Because this was both worlds. This wasn’t something from Earth, or something this world had like the trebuchets. This was a fusion of technology.

And he’d brought it. Kevin. And she’d been okay with it.

Erin.

“Ryoka, do you know what this is?”

Fierre whispered behind Ryoka. She was keeping her distance. The City Runner saw Rose watching her. Joseph—even Kevin’s smile flickered.

“Something wrong with it, Ryoka?”

Garia and Fals were watching Ryoka too. They knew her. And they were familiar with the signs of a real Ryoka-eruption.

“It—I know what it is. It shouldn’t—making it was—”

Ryoka Griffin struggled for words. Part of her was shrieking at her. Gears. The idea of bicycles! Their cover was beyond blown! What might Pallass do with this kind of technology? Even the bicycle chain—you could engineer anything off of this! And the potential of magic!

She saw Erin get into the padded seat.

“It’s so soft!

She laughed. Then Erin caught sight of Ryoka. She put one foot on the ground, balancing on the bicycle.

“…Is it okay, Ryoka? I should have told you. I’m sorry. I just forgot.”

“You forgot?

Ryoka’s voice cracked. She looked at Erin’s guilty face. Now everyone was watching her. Mrsha touched a paw to Ryoka’s leg, worriedly.

“Is this a problem, Miss Ryoka?”

Palt spoke up. Ryoka almost nodded. She restrained herself. Erin not seeing—you had to look ahead.

Not yet. But a bicycle would change everything. It was gears—it was what they represented. How would someone who wasn’t Pelt make this? Why, they’d have to figure out a way of making lots of gears in a row. Maybe develop a system. What else could you make with gears? Let’s think…

She was getting angrier. Angier about the carelessness. Angrier about what it revealed. About what it might do.

And still—part of Ryoka said something else:

Look at that. It’s a bike! You want to ride it! That’s so cool. I wish I had one. Aren’t you tired of being angry?

And she sort of…was. Ryoka Griffin looked at the bicycle. And some of her incandescent fury wasn’t there. It was a bicycle. Okay.

She’d seen the Singer of Terandria put on a music video. Kevin had a laptop with video games. Wistram had Earthers and apparently—they were making things.

It was a bicycle, not a gun. It was conceivable it might lead to the creation of something bad. But in this moment, right here, right now—

It was a bike. Ryoka walked over. Kevin tensed, as if he expected her to kick it over and start pulling it apart. Fat chance of that. Pelt would probably break Ryoka’s knees before he let his hard work go to waste.

“Huh.”

It was an amazingly comfy seat. Ryoka squatted to take a look at the chain and gears. Erin wiggled as she grinned at Ryoka.

“Think it’s okay if I take it for a spin, Ryoka? We can keep it secret, right?”

The City Runner looked up. She met Erin’s gaze and sighed. It was a long sigh. The kind that took an hour for Ryoka. A moment. A long moment where she and Erin’s eyes met. And they said a lot of silent things.

In that moment, Ryoka let go. When she rose, she raised her eyebrows at Erin.

“I don’t see why you want to make this a secret, Erin. I think this is going to be big. If you can patent it—I’d do it now. Or get on the ground floor of making this.”

Everyone looked at Ryoka. Erin’s jaw fell in amazement. Ryoka looked at the bike.

“Let’s talk about it later. I want to ride it too. Go for a spin—Kevin, does that have shocks? I don’t see anything, but if it’s got magic—?”

Funny you should mention that…

The [Innkeeper] gave Ryoka another look. But it wasn’t as long as…an [Immortal Moment]. Ryoka smiled and nodded.

“Go on. Everyone’s going to want a turn.”

Slowly, the [Innkeeper] pressed on the pedals. And she felt the entire bike begin to move. Everyone watched. Wailant’s eyes bugged out as he saw the intricate system begin to turn, each piece working upon the other.

“What’s…happening?”

Fals stared as Erin moved forwards. Perhaps he sensed it. That while there was magic here—it wasn’t the magic making the bike move. It was…different. Different from a horse, which was an animal, your feet, which were yours, or magic, which did all the work.

Machinery. It turned into motion as the bike rolled forwards. Slowly at first, just leaning on a pedal. Then Kevin coughed.

“Erin. You’re holding the brakes.”

Whoops.

She let go. And suddenly—she shot forwards. Erin let out a small scream.

Aaah—

The world’s first wipeout came bare seconds after the first official bike ride. Erin shot forwards, ran into the fence where the magical plants were kept, and went down.

Ryoka Griffin winced. Erin picked herself up as everyone rushed forwards.

“—that was fast. I’m okay! I’m okay! Thank you, Mrsha. Just scrapes.”

Mrsha ran over, anxiously holding her own healing potion. Erin took it, took a single sip, and brightened up. Spills on a bike weren’t so bad when you had potions! She got up and picked up the bike.

“You okay, Erin? That thing took off! Kevin, what kind of magic is on that?”

“Just [Weight] on the pedals. See, it amplifies each press. Sorry, Erin.”

“It’s okay! Let me try again!”

A determined look on her face, the [Innkeeper] walked over to the bike. She got on it again, took a breath, and aimed the wheel away from the fence and straight ahead.

“Here goes—”

She pressed her foot down. And this time—the acceleration was fast and smooth. Ryoka had seen the prototype-bicycle had no gear-shift. But if it had—surely that was the highest gear?

Yet Erin pressed down as lightly as anything and the bicycle took off. Her eyes went wide and it wobbled—it had been a long time since Erin had ridden a bicycle. But some things were like…

The vehicle wobbled once. But Kevin and Hedault and Pelt had worked to give the bike real balance. Erin pedaled forwards, and then turned the wheel. She did a slow u-turn, and came back around.

“Oh my god, she’s doing it.

Rose exclaimed. Pelt twitched, but every eye was on Erin. She came back towards the group and everyone but the Earthers backed away as if she was riding a lion. Yet Erin had control now. And she was pedaling harder, moving faster.

“It’s working! It’s working! I’m riding a bike!

She laughed. Joseph and Rose began laughing too, at the absurdity of the statement. Ryoka watched, spellbound.

There she went. Erin Solstice rode even faster. And a blur took off after her.

Mrsha! The Gnoll raced after Erin. The [Innkeeper] saw, ignoring Selys and Lyonette worriedly shouting for Mrsha to stop, as if the wheels would bite Mrsha. The Gnoll ran on all fours, abandoning the stupid kilt! And Erin leaned forwards and picked up the pace.

“Dead gods. That thing’s fast!

Salamani jerked. He hadn’t been aware that Erin had been taking it easy. The magical bicycle accelerated even further, and Mrsha realized she was being outmatched. She howled a challenge and tried to up her own pace. But Erin kept pedaling—and Mrsha slowed.

I’m going so fast! This is so easy! This is amazing, Kevin, Pelt, Hed—

Erin’s voice was distant as she turned the bicycle again. Ryoka was trying to figure out how fast she was going, now. Magic wheels—on a regular bicycle, Erin would have been going fast and this had yet to hit top-speed.

A work of art. Pelt gave Kevin a slap on the lower back and something went crack. Hedault looked as pleased as Ryoka had ever seen him. As Erin came back around, they couldn’t help it.

Salamani broke into a run as Erin passed him. Ryoka heard him whisper ‘[Haste]’. And someone else galloped forwards.

“How fast does it go?”

No one had ever seen Palt run. He didn’t hang out around Couriers or Runners that much. He was always smoking or cooking or…Erin turned her head and saw Palt racing next to her. He pointed forwards, urgently.

“Don’t look at me!

“It’s a bike, Palt! Salamani? Come on!

Erin pressed harder on the petals. Both the Centaur and Courier looked at each other as Erin began to move even faster. They charged after her. Erin was riding for the road; she was aiming to do a circuit of the entire Strongheart farm.

“Dead gods. How much does one of them cost? It’s faster than a wagon already! And with a bag of holding…you’d smack yourself into the ground, though, right?”

“Not as often as you think.”

Ryoka remarked to Wailant. The [Pirate] eyed her. Hedault murmured.

“Cutting down on the cost of production is a challenge. But Miss Selys funded this project and it seems…worthwhile. Wouldn’t you say?”

“My apprentices could do the gear-things.”

Pelt snorted. Kevin nodded. More could be made. Each person watching was taking something different away, though.

Good as a horse. Especially if you can put it in bags of holding. Chieftain would’ve…”

Numbtongue murmured. Imagine how far he’d come with the Redfangs and how fast they might have gone with those? Outrun Eater Goats. Garen might have hated them because Carn Wolves were better. But how convenient.

Fierre was writing furiously. Perhaps she saw it too. Ryoka looked around, heart singing a bunch of different messages. And she saw someone was not smiling.

Fals and Garia were watching Erin circle the farm. She was still laughing as the Courier kept pace; Palt was already growing tired but doggedly keeping up. But Erin could ride and talk; heck, you could ride one-handed or with no hands at all! Especially with training wheels, which…

“Something wrong, Fals?”

The City Runner saw her friend look at her. Fals’ face was—he was half-smiling. But there was something in his gaze. It reminded Ryoka of when she’d first passed him in the guild’s rankings. When he talked about Garia being better than he was—Persua getting a rare Skill out of pure luck.

“Sorry, Ryoka. It’s just—I think I see the end of Runners, there.”

He nodded at the distant bicycle. Garia nodded solemnly. Ryoka looked at Erin. Oh yes, that was what she’d seen. Many things to fear. But even so—she shook her head.

“The death of Runners, Fals? We’ve been competing with horses for ages.”

“Can we compete with that, Ryoka? If everyone had a magical carriage like Lady Reinhart…”

He trailed off. Ryoka knew what he meant. It was because magical carpets and flying spells and the carriage were so rare that…again, she demurred.

“They’re not perfect, Fals. They break—and you can’t take them uphill. Maybe Kevin can make one that flies or rides off the ground…”

Kevin started guiltily out of the corner of her eye. Ryoka went on.

“…but it won’t kill Runners.”

“You’re sure?”

Garia looked at the device, worried. Ryoka smiled.

“Even if it were the fastest thing in the world that everyone used, Garia—and it’s not—we’d just get [Bandits] on bicycles instead of horses. And it would look ridiculous.”

The other two chuckled a bit. The young woman laughed and then sobered.

“It might…no, it will change running. But it won’t do away with us. You might be right, Fals. If this becomes cheap enough and widespread enough, most people might just ride bikes. But—there will always be Runners. We just might not be called that. We’ll just all have to become…Couriers.

He started, and some of the heavy emotion swirling around him faded. He looked at Ryoka, for a second, and then laughed and nodded.

“You’re right. Dead gods, you’re right. And I want to try my turn on one.”

“That’s right. Hey Erin! Get over here! We want a turn!

Joseph put his hands to his mouth and hollered at her. She waved, lost her balance—and down she went. Everyone winced.

The bike came back and Fals won the next turn after a short contest of rock-paper-scissors or whatever this world’s equivalent was called. Erin rubbed at her back as she hobbled over.

“Whew. Was that a protective spell?”

“Salamani got you. But that’s a clear case for wearing that ring, right, Master Hedault?”

The [Enchanter] nodded gravely. He handed Fals a ring—the one Kevin had used for the skateboard and Fals grew far less apprehensive.

The Earthers stood together as they watched Fals ride slowly forwards. Lyonette scooped Mrsha out of the way; the Gnoll had been reaching for the spokes. So had Ekirra.

“It’s a bit dangerous. That’s what you were worried about, right, Ryoka?”

Rose glanced sideways at the Runner. Ryoka knew she wasn’t talking about the bike alone. Slowly, the Wind Runner nodded. The breeze moving across the Strongheart farm was gentle, though. Calm.

“It’ll be okay, I think, Rose. I hope.”

“Are you really okay with it, Ryoka?”

The City Runner took her time in replying. And when she did, she looked at Erin and smiled faintly.

“A while ago I wouldn’t have been. I…I’m aware of what some knowledge can do, Erin. I thought I was protecting everyone by keeping it safe. But…”

“But?”

Ryoka rolled her shoulders.

“But these days, I have a different perspective. Back then, I trusted no one. Not even myself. Now? I’m neither the sole owner of dangerous knowledge—”

She nodded at Kevin, who gave her a wave and a guilty smile.

“—or an absolute authority on morality and the future. I never was. Anyways. It’s like you said.”

“Me?”

“During chess. You said people like Magnolia Reinhart have big plans that go astray. Well—I can’t see how this is going to turn out. But it’s not a bad thing, is it?”

“Mm. Maybe it’ll take Fals’ job away.”

“True. It could turn out bad. But it’s about who you trust, I guess. And you’re better than anyone else I’d trust with this.”

“Aw. Thanks.”

Erin hugged Ryoka briefly. Mrsha ran over, panting, begging to be next. Please? Ryoka laughed.

“We might have to ask Kevin to make one for you, Mrsha. I don’t think your legs will reach the pedals, even if we adjust the seat!”

Injustice! Mrsha stomped on the ground—until she caught the part about her bicycle. Selys was watching too. The future was here. And she was invested in the future.

“Does that mean…you’re okay…with…Wistram…?”

A wheezing voice interrupted the sanguine moment. Ryoka turned and saw Palt clutching at a stitch in his side. As it turned out, the reason people hadn’t ever seen Palt run before was that he was about in Erin’s level of physical shape—just for a Centaur. Erin laughed.

“As long as you’re okay with these, Palt! I don’t think there’s a Centaur-bicycle.”

“Bah. I have my hooves. Thing looks unsteady. But you non-equestrians can do it.”

The [Illusionist] caught his breath at last. He looked questioningly at Ryoka.

No longer being the gatekeeper of all Earth’s knowledge was a lovely burden to realize she’d never held. Strange how your own thoughts could weigh like that. Pretentiousness was heavy. Ryoka rubbed at her neck.

“Yeah. I think it’s okay, Palt. But…maybe it’s time to have another chat. Erin—there’s something else. And you too, Rose, Joseph, Kevin, Imani. Not Leon or Troy. Galina?”

She shrugged. The others looked at her. Palt’s eyes focused suspiciously on Ryoka. But it was the Vampire, Salamani, and a few others who watched as the group moved into the inn for a moment.

“Why does she know them so well? What is this?”

Fierre muttered to herself. She was hurt that Ryoka hadn’t included her. But then—Garia patted the Vampire on the shoulder.

“I don’t think it’s personal, Fierre. I think it’s the kind of secret…you have to wait to know.”

The [Martial Artist] looked towards the door. Fierre opened her mouth. But her job was finding things out. She closed it after a moment. That was probably the difference between being an information broker and a friend. Ryoka would tell her someday, Fierre hoped. She turned away, as Salamani tapped Hedault respectfully on the shoulder.

“Master Enchanter, I hate to bother you. But since we have you here…”

 

—-

 

Of the two, it was Taxiela, the Lizardgirl, who answered Palt’s spell. She listened for a while, then laughed in delight.

“Palt, you beautiful apprentice! A what? And it does…yes, yes…if it outran you, that tells me nothing. Don’t pout. Of course I’ll help!”

She was delighted. If it was she or…Galei and Taxiela, presumably the same being, and presumably, Palt’s master and member of the Elusive Lot, swished her tail back and forth.

“You’re in my good books, Palt. The best of books! Not only do we have…how many Earthers? You got something like that? I’ve actually heard of them, but all the other attempts have failed. So you have an expert, hmm? This calls for a reward. I’ll see about getting you a tome and forwarding your lessons!”

Ullsinoi, like every other faction, rewarded the [Mages] who contributed the most. At the root of each faction, the reason they had begun was for groups to become better [Mages]. All the rest was pageantry.

And Wistram Academy was changing greatly. Taxiela had a thought and spoke quickly over Palt.

“Wait a moment, Palt! Since you’ve been so helpful, I think Liscor—or Invrisil or Pallass or all three—deserves to be one of the first cities to experience our simulations. It’s this magic illusion-creation…think like a contained dimension, but far less expensive to create! You see, the idea is you get to fight monsters without the danger…”

She explained in brief the collaboration she was working on with Aaron. Palt was dutifully impressed and Taxiela could have left it all at that and had the best day in a long time.

But like any good [Illusionist], or trickster, or magician…Palt had saved the most impressive bit for last. Taxiela’s eyes widened as he laid out a request for her.

“I…can do that. It might take a bit of doing. Give me an hour or two…just stay ready. You’ll get a small window or a large one depending on how it goes. Okay?”

Taxiela dropped the spell and hurried off.

 

—-

 

She was walking by herself when they grabbed her. She tried to scream—but it was too late. She was whisked away and standing in a dark world with no light and nothing in it except for one person besides herself.

“What are you doing?

Elena demanded. The figure in front of her materialized into a [Mage] she vaguely recognized.

Taxiela of the Elusive Lot. The [Mage] Aaron had gotten in contact with and…

The young woman blinked. She saw Taxiela was holding something. It couldn’t be; even the Elusive Lot didn’t have one. But it was a very good illusion.

The Lizardgirl was smiling. She winked at Elena.

“I think you’ll want to take this one.”

She held out the vibrating, glowing phone to Elena. The young woman stared at it. She hit a button.

…Nothing happened. Taxiela peered at the fake smartphone.

“Is that supposed to make the thing work? Fascinating. Okay, here we go.”

She vanished. Perhaps she was still there or not listening; Elena operated as if every [Mage] in Wistram was breathing down her neck, as Cara had warned her.

Yet perhaps there was more secrecy here. Because the voice on the other end spoke.

“Is this…Elena? I hear you’re someone who knows the Singer of Terandria. And someone trustworthy, according to the Ullsinoi faction.”

“Hello? Who is this?”

Elena stared at the glowing phone—Taxiela didn’t know enough to make the illusion perfect so there was no caller-ID or anything else. A pause from the other end. And then the female voice replied.

“This is…batman. I don’t know if you know who that is—”

You’re batman? I mean—oh my god. They’ll know where you are! Listen—Wistram knows where every device they call is!”

Elena grabbed at the phone. She raised it to her ear, looking around. ‘batman’ replied.

“This isn’t a call. It’s a spell. In theory—only Ullsinoi knows where I am. Well, some other [Mages] might. But I think I’m safe for now. Listen—pretend they’re all listening in.”

“Of course. I—I’m Elena. I don’t know how much you know, but I’m a friend of the Singer of Terandria. The [Popstar]’s. Cara. You know her? She wanted to talk to you, but didn’t know how. And Blackmage—Aaron—says you dropped out of contact. He’s here. Lots of us are. Hello?”

The young woman pulled herself together. There was so much she had to say.

After a pause, Ryoka spoke. Everyone was listening; Erin was biting her knuckles to refrain from saying anything. And they were all doing a Mrsha and writing things down. Joseph had volunteered to be Joseph and Kevin had volunteered to be Joseph and Rose had volunteered to be Rose—but Ryoka had insisted.

“I’m here. Listen, Elena. There’s a lot we need to say. First off—do you know if someone is taking Earthers?”

“Besides Wistram? We think there is. Wistram’s hunting the world for people, but some are gone before the teams get there. Everyone else comes here.”

“And can’t leave.”

“No. But listen. Cara’s safe. They haven’t gotten her and I don’t know if they can. She’s too big. She can protect you if you need it. She’s high-level and she has friends.”

Ryoka chuckled.

“So do I.”

Elena relaxed. She was trying to get her thoughts in order. And chief among them—if this was the Elusive Lot playing a joke, she’d borrow that airsoft gun and shoot all of them.

“That’s good. Listen—we’re stuck here. But we’re not exactly being held hostage at knife-point. We can help. Aaron’s been sending help to others he knows. If you need gold, artifacts—we can try getting stuff to you. But carefully. Each faction in Wistram wants Earthers—people from Earth.”

Joseph waved his hands excitedly. Ryoka glared at him.

“I see. We can talk about that, Elena. I want to go over locations—anything Wistram knows. Information, um, anything we can share. Messages if you can get them to the Singer. But first—”

“Yes? What can we do?”

Elena leaned forwards in the dark room. Ryoka paused a moment.

“…Well, Elena. I was more wondering what we could do for you. Or did you want to stay in Wistram forever? Let’s talk about that.”

The young woman’s breath caught. And she was sure if they were listening—the [Mages] were laughing. She began smiling herself.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: One more chapter. I’m running low on gas. Or magicore. Or whatever I use. But that’s okay! I’ll get a refill soon enough.

Hope you enjoy. What do I have to say about this chapter? Well, the bicycle scene was one of those written long ago. And…and…

That’s about it. I’ll leave you with arts and we’ll see what the next chapter brings. I don’t have much more to say; I’m just sleepy and hungry. Everything I had went into the chapter. Thanks for reading!

Today’s art is by Enuryn who’s done Sage’s Grass, Shane Sandulak of The Last Tide, who did a Solca-abs sketch at the request of readers…and Cortz, who did and is still doing art for Inktober, pratically daily!

…Readers are too into abs.

 

Sage’s Grass by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!

 

Solca’s Abs by Shane Sandulak

 

Slippery Goblins, Skinner, Scale Soup, and more by Cortz!

 


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70 thoughts on “7.54

  1. Leave a typo for hungry writers! I can’t eat words…if I could, I’d never be hungry.

    (Food typo-finders: Gorexn, Kaitiaki, Maladal, MrWiggles, Ciriolin, Mack, ChronoMager, Onyavar, Ryplinn, Octo)

    • I think maybe it’s meant more as a lead-in to the humble-brag. She knows Erin plays chess, and was definitely there for the first Eldavin matches, but probably doesn’t really understand just how good Erin is at this point.

      So she’s really trying to brag about Wistram’s access, without realizing that Liscor’s the source of basically all the changes to chess and introduction of Go.

    • “An Broker, huh” –> follow up error: “A Broker.”
      Also, huh. Would people call Fierre a Broker or a [Broker] if they don’t know she doesn’t have any levels?

      • Oh, Onyavar beat me to it. That’s what I get for not refreshing the page before checking to see if anyone else has mentioned the typo, I guess.

    • “The Drake had dragged Maviola over, but she’d left him to watch and take notes. She’d gone to socialize with Drassi.”

      I think you have Maviola doing two things here, when you might’ve meant for her to be doing one.

    • One or more of the fanart by Cortz seem to be missing: at the very least there is no skinner for me, maybe something to do with viewing from mobile? I did notice you or someone in the comments referincing an image from a gallery that just doesn’t seem to be there in earlier chapters as well.

      The images that I can see from Cortz are: Beavery, TrapLuan, Meetings, Throw, Badarrow, Scale Soup, Blade, Slippery, Mrsha and Moore 1,Lifesand, Dizzy, TeaFishing, A’ctelios, Mrsha and Moore 2, Storm, and GoblinTeeth.

    • The part toward the beginning about an idiot with a crossbow is in there twice (different versions of it). Kinda redundant.

      • Probably when we get some hints of something that can either occupy or challenge all the heavy hitters frequenting the Inn. Might not necessarily be a physical fight such as the recent Grimalkin confrontation.

        • Or when the protagonist moves far away from her stronghold and allies:
          – Gnollmoot;
          – Summer Solstice for the faerie party in the Unseen Empire.

          Actually, was it already said who is going with Mrsha and Krshia? Is Lyonett letting her go alone? What about Ryoka and Erin?

          • I remember the discussion between Krshia and Elirr to be something like this: Lyon and Erin will be allowed to travel with them but will be kept outside the meeting proper when they arrive. I don’t think that Ryoka was mentioned.

    • “Everything is so small. We can build higher. Higher—this place is so crude. I should invest in glass. Glass is the future.”

      Correct me if I’m wrong but glass already exists in the innworld – Erin has glass windows.

      • Sure, but not in the amounts present in a movie set in a modern or futuristic cityscape. She’s seeing glass-covered skyscrapers. And she isn’t thinking “this is something completely new and could change the world” — like with the bicycle — so much as “the world will want more of this, and I should start investing in it now before everybody else catches on”. (Whether or not that is a correct analysis of near future market trends is another matter…)

      • highly unlikely, we wouldn’t let notorious disease-spreaders into Europe.

        I’m only half-joking, there are travel bans in place. Even so, Europe is having a major outbreak anyway; but imagine what would have happened with unrestricted travelers from America.

        • There are plenty of responsible Americans and we Europeans have our share of covidiots I am afraid. It is just, that the USA is so…. loud.

          A good thing, that I did not start the chapter yesterday. I would have been even later at work, than I already was. It was great and such a cliffhanger!

  2. SO MUCH IS HAPPENING!! Thank god I saw this before I went to sleep, this chapter is definitely one that I’ll be finding new stuff on a re-read!

    And there’s some seriously good artists in the community, it gets better every week!

  3. Little worried about what’s happening with Fierre — my hope is that she eventually starts going out with Ryoka, but the way it’s going it seems more likely that she’ll end up draining her into a dried up husk.

    • Fierre is small potatoes. What about ALL the other vampires that are going to get just as ravenously hungry without the regular silver poisoning but won’t have any human friends to tug on their conscience and stop them from feasting?

      Northern Izril is doomed to Vampire Wars 2: Revengence. Except, this time the noble houses which specializes in vampire extermination are just a pale shadow of their former strength.

      Ryoka nearly had a meltdown over magitek bicycles, which fair enough can lead to something big, but are nowhere near literal bloodthirsty monsters that grow stronger with every kill.

      Where are all the tough guys that wanted the Raskghar exterminated, children and all? How do you feel about vampires?

      • i think vampires hunger more for high levelers and elite classes, so the general populace isnt at stake so much?

        so, the innworlders unfortunate multiclass distribution actually works for them instead of against them in this case.

        anyone above level 30 in a specialized class, or who didn’t multiclass heavily is in for problems tho

  4. Got to love the early update and how Erin is still spreading just how far her chaotic reach can go.

    Move a door stone to Wistram and get a lot of magic pumped into it and you might be able to skip the sea voyage. That or a much less crazy, but still slight crazy plan.

    Also no clue on what is happening up north. Best shot he has to cure his kids might be sneaking the magic door up north to his house and try getting a Drake to heal his sons. Of course that would be a blow to his pride so not sure about that.

    Selys is still finding new stuff about earth and how… Different or vast it cam be.

    And we have Fierre having to deal with her hunger growing around high level individuals. That might be very dangerous in the future. Still love that Erin pretty Mich figured her out so quickly.

    No clue how the vampire would react to knowledge about Earth.

    • Saliss would probably make the antidote for the children even if the Drakes would despise him for it. Salamani owes Ryoka a favour so maybe he could deliver the door gem. The only other person that might be able to cure them are the [Witches] who already hate the Circle of Thorns but I am not sure how Laken would send help in time.

      • Remember how Ryoka is all love and stuff on childs. How aline the fae she is by how she saved Mrsha. This might be a Ryoka thing!!

        And ignore whatever she says she dislikes- like kids. She’s not/never honest.

      • I’m hoping Erin leverages Saliss’ help for something like a non-aggression oath regarding the non-humans of Izril. The fact that such a deal would piss off the Circle of Thorns makes it an easier sell.

    • Wrt Tyrion’s children, the problem with mobilising help from Erin/Laken et al is that these groups are (for the moment) still in the dark. Hopefully, with the news now being shared with the five families there is a slight chance that Erin might learn of it via Maviola or some other way.

      I think both Erin and Laken would actively go out of their way to help in this situation simply because children are involved. Of course, learning the full details of the ‘illness’ and who is behind it might give pause, but might also make them redouble their efforts.

  5. Seeing as level ups come from sleeping and an inn is a place to rest Erin should get a skill that accelerates or power levels people below her when she hits level 70 or something

    • [Twofold Rest] should already be doing that indirectly: it halves the time you need to sleep so you can spend more time working/leveling/whatever.
      I expected TWI to already be mobbed by all the workaholics who think that sleep is for the weak! The skills is wasted right now, not a plot point at all.

      • I’m guessing that [Twofold Rest] is considered a good skill for an innkeeper to have, but not a great one. That is: there’s better ones out there. Considering Erin’s skills are skewed in all sorts of directions not usually taken by innkeepers, I’m guessing that where sleeping is concerned, she’s not even particularly in the ‘rare’ category. Besides, what kind of skills does a ‘maid’ have for the beds they make?

        Also, we haven’t seen much of it so far in TWI, but if we consider the middle ages example, there’s probably a few [Housewives] here and there, the skills ‘they’ must have for things like that could be truly exceptional.

  6. Ryoka scratched at her head. Remind her of what? The mafia? The roaring twenties? What was Erin going to do to charm them, jump up on stage and put on a show and twirl a cane?

    “That’s a great idea, Ryoka!”

    The City Runner wanted to hit Erin. But the [Innkeeper]’s eyes were twinkling. She wasn’t afraid of the Callers, even though she had to know who they were.

    Did Erin just lowkey read Ryoka’s mind? There’s nothing in those paragraphs that suggests Ryoka said what she was thinking out loud, and Ryoka is still twitchy about discussing Earth with people present who she doesn’t trust.

  7. Wouldn’t Gnolls be able to detect that something is up with vampires due to their good noses?
    Even if vampires themselves don’t smell different from humans, the blood drinking should leave traces.

    • Maybe. Innworld vampires are living beings, not a form of undead. But as you mentioned, the blood should have been noticed. After all, Mrsha was able to sniff out Pisces’ blood on the Wistram hit squad.

      Gnolls being able to tell apart vampires by smell would explain how they managed to solve their own vampire problem.

      Most likely, the Gnoll sense of smell is just like physical distance and travelling speed: variable, as the plot demands. I don’t mind the distances/speed anymore but the other established “facts'” of the world being inconsistent really bugs me.

  8. “Wistram knows where every device they call is”

    This is definitely an interesting point to emphasize to Ryoka…whose phone was stolen by a group whose membership is protected by amnesia spells and Skills.

    • Well the Bloodfeast Raiders are only actively being protected/hidden during the scheduled raiding window by Roshal. Although Lady Salkis probably has items to block Scrying considering she has a [Raider] Class.

      • Oh definitely true, but since the theme of the second half of the book definitely seems to be uniting and coordinating between the disparate Earthers I could see batman selling Blackmage on “Find my phone and help me f- over the Bloodfeast Raiders”

        It would probably appeal a bit to the little superhero inside him, that prompted his Iron Man designs.

  9. I like the idea that the regulars have a list written up somewhere in the inn with a phone tree equivalent. So if something starts to happen whoever is in the Inn grabs the list, steps through the door into Liscor and flags down a runner.

    Chess: Olesm, Belgrade, Anand, message spell to Chaldion
    New Food: the other big inns
    New Play: Relc, other fans
    Monsters: Zevara, Klbch

  10. As a person who had no abs for 24 years of 24 years of their life, i can’t recommend doing daily routines enough. Just plank bro.
    Obviously i don’t just plank, but getting abs is THAT easy.

  11. The whole assasian guild plot line feels bizzare.

    why the hell does the guild leadership think any of this is a good idea?

    power structures survive by destroying challenges to their monopoly on force and the five families lasted a long time so evidently some competent people exist at the different levels of rulership that know the bare basics of what they need to do to keep the system running.

    there is no scenario outside of an all out war where attacking two of the five families and on different sides at that that doesn’t end with every guild member whose identity Any of the families people learned not being grabbed tortured and some eventually selling the higher ups.

    the guild can’t compete with the family resources and support and control of the populace or it would be the five guild chambers or whatever Instead of five families.

    the families can’t allow an enemy to conquer them and since the attacks are on both sides’s top leadership it isn’t some other faction’s problem.

    all that sums to the guild even existing in a year’s time barring massive war breaking out AND the circle gaining total control AND the circle not doing the self preserving thing of not giving carte Blanche to attack the leadership which is now theirs complete absurd.

    so what is supposed to be going on there?

    Have the guild leaders embezzled an impossible fortune of all guild assets and have left the continent Years ago and this is them organizing the deaths of everyone below them who will soon find out all the money and artifacts are gone?

    • I hope it’s a setup for Magnolia and the other members of the Five Families to eventually unite with the Drakes and form their own little Izril Union like the EU. At least for them to eventually agree on certain things to be enforced on the continent, like no child assassinations, etc.

      • i get what the writer motivations for the plot line can be this isn’t what is bizzare.

        what I can’t get is what the in-story character motivations are supposed to be.

        for the guild leadership this makes no sense unless they want to destroy the guild and are VERY confidant no one can sell them Personally out or track them.

        for the hundred+ doing all the legwork to keep track of all The healers and alchemist and threaten important workers across all the five families the stupidity gets worse since the whole operation is obviously too big not to leak and it is a given a lot of them would get tracked down eventually and if lucky be allowed to die after being drained of any intel they have, the unlucky ones who can’t give up someone higher up can look forward to being made examples.

        where do so many suicidally overconfident yet discreet and careful enough to run the operation‘s support tasks people even come from ?

        the herd of lemmings that got butchered on orb-tv was allready stretching credulity to the breaking point but at least there the sorting criteria for finding people was “idiots who can use a weapon ok’ish” where here the criteria is “careful,experienced and discreet people who also have no ability to consider the results of what they are doing”

        • I think that the combination of ‘impossible fortune’ and the fact that not every family pays for the Assassin’s Guild implies that these mercenaries will leap at the jobs that they will be paid for regardless of the long term consequences. I have a suspicion that these low level assassins helping out the guild are actually transported Earthers who had the ‘bright idea’ to quickly level up in a traditionally helpful class in RPGs and are being slaughtered for it. For all we know, someone may have already reached a high enough level to depose the guild leader and is running things now (poorly I can imagine). What do you think?

          • I don’t think all the low level cannon fodder are Earthers at all. However, if the question is: where’s all the money coming from? Then maybe the answer is that the top guild heavy-hitters either “recruited” or are being bankrolled by whichever Earthers are behind the Golden Triangle.

            In fact, if we accept that the end result will be a self-destructive war between the Five Families, the Guild and the lesser nobles of Izril then maybe that is, in fact, the goal of the Golden Triangle! The Singer of Terandria is unlikely to be the only Earther with no love for all this feudal nonsense in Innworld. If you’re amoral enough to start a pyramid scheme, it’s not much of a stretch that you can also be willing to start bloody war to wipe out all the competition (and loads of innocents).

            However, that’s a bit of a stretch. What’s almost certainly the case is that the Necromancer infiltrated the Circle of Thorns and aims to weaken all of Izril before he reveals his army. In this case, all the self-destructive stupidity will be just sabotage.

            • Huh, I forgot that the Necromancer could do that…I agree with that theory. I also forgot about the fact that there were Gnolls and the like among their ranks. I stand by the possibility that some amoral Earther idiots are mixed into the low-ranks. I think it would be funny if an Earther could level fast enough to supplant the Guild leader so I’ll also keep a tab on that theory. I also feel it would be satisfying if the Golden Triangle people were able to bankroll these Assassins as a way to gut the people who tried to kill them in the past. Thank you for your ideas!

              • I feel like yall are forgetting the pertinent fact of…. magically binding comtracts.

                They keep mouths shut and make people do things they don’t want to without being able to tell anyone. and the Circle of throns has been recruiting ppl,,, and they arent allowed to say if they wanted to join or not.

  12. Sometimes Ryoka is very silly.
    Gears? gears have been around on earth for more than two thousand years.

    Pallas having gears is mentioned just before she starts panicking, but almost all farmers in the world are likely to have gears, Simple mechanics are used for mills (wether powered by oxen, wind, or water) and for pumping water.

    The chain drive likewise existed in our world for hundreds of years without making big waves.

    Given the point of this section is showing that Ryoka *is* being silly when she thinks she can predict and control consequences it’s doing a very good job.

    Ironically mixing magic into the project, though it allows it to be more ambitious, lowers the chances bicycles will revolutionise anything. What makes most changes are things that get mass produced, anything involving a mage that took years to learn magic will never be that.

    • I’m just imagining a situation where Ryoka or someone invents a bike making factory with a mana-automated assembly line, but years down the line instead of everyone having understood the basics of mechanics and factory assembly, you simply having people start cropping up with classes like ‘Engineseer’ and ‘Techpriest’.

      • That would be a very cunning way by the System to restore stagnation to the world!

        In fact, I think that has already been happening with the existing [Engineers] and [Architects]: they have no actual technical knowledge, only [Skills] that make things happen. Makes me wonder if Hexel can even design a pyramid that won’t collapse on itself without any [Skills] to keep it propped up…

  13. Watermelons can grow bigger than people. The largest varietals of watermelon went out of fashion with the refrigerator.

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