A day had passed since the run that defined Izril, for a moment. No—just a night. And what a sleepless night, for so many.
The electric shock of adrenaline in the veins, the excitement. The grief and fury and satisfaction of victory—all of that mixed together in the body, both chemical, emotional, until sleep was an impossibility.
Rewatch the clips being broadcast on Wistram News Network. Talk with the others who’d seen it. Speculate. Worry.
The day after an event as momentous as the ‘Wind Runner’s Delivery’—or perhaps, ‘Maviola El’s Final Ride’—or ‘Saliss of Lights Saves Those Stupid Humans From Themselves’ as the other species were naming the event, was far too much to process.
Especially if you weren’t used to such moments in your life. A certain [Innkeeper] and her clientele, for instance, could actually get some sleep after the events of the run. Even if they worried for Ryoka Griffin. Even if friends had died—they had lived through such days.
The unprepared did not sleep. And indeed, he was so exhausted that after riding for two hours and returning the plough horse he’d borrowed, Farmer Lupp practically collapsed into his bed.
He could have slept for sixteen hours, despite going to sleep as the sun was rising. As it turned out, he got exactly three hours.
Someone knocked on his door, loudly. The [Farmer] ignored it until the banging became too loud to ignore. He stumbled upright.
“Corn crows take it, who’s making a racket at…?”
Well, it was a proper time to get up. The [Farmer] blearily looked around, and realized he didn’t need to put on clothes; he’d had them on.
He walked towards the door. Scowling at first. Then smiling.
She did it. The Wind Runner, Ryoka Griffin. Someone he knew. Come to that—all of Reizmelt had celebrated. Lupp would have stuck around, but the huge gathering didn’t suit him. And he’d been happy enough to see the Lischelle-Drakle family receive news that their daughter was well.
Maybe he’d head into the city, see if people were still talking about it. Bring some corn, roast it and share it about.
The [Farmer] was smiling as he opened the door. Right up until he saw the four people standing on his doorstep.
It was not a question. The [Farmer] looked at the four people. They wore ordinary traveller’s clothing. Innocuous, inconspicuous, bearing common self-defense weapons. A dagger, a sword, a bow on one’s back and a small quiver. They could have been [Hunters] and perhaps if he saw them on the road, riding the four horses tied to his gate, Lupp would have ignored them completely.
…What made them different today was that they had put on hoods, tied strips of cloth over their faces, covering all but their eyes. A simple disguise you could put on and take off in a minute.
[Assassins]. The [Farmer] tried to back up. One of the four swung up a crossbow and aimed it at his chest.
“I—I—I don’t have much gold. It’s under my bed—”
He started, even as he knew that wasn’t why they were here. The [Assassin] looked at him.
“Farmer Lupp. Local [Farmer], grower of corn—”
One of them had plucked some freshly grown corn. Lupp, for a moment, was terribly offended. He defended his corn against crows and thieves—the scarecrow standing in the field was proof of that. As if that was the worst sin they would commit on his land this morning.
“T-that’s me. If you’re here to rob me—”
He had gold from Lady Bethal, who bought his corn these days. The [Assassin] shook his head.
“You know why we’re here.”
“Farmer Lupp. An acquaintance of the Wind Runner of Reizmelt, Ryoka Griffin. A…friend.”
The [Assassin] hesitated. He looked at the others, almost embarrassed.
“One of the few acquaintances she has. She’s paid you visits for more than just deliveries.”
“Just to deliver things from my daughter. I don’t know her at all.”
The [Farmer] had a bow. And he had shovels, pitchforks—none of which came to hand. He was no killer, either. The [Assassin] looked at him, almost pityingly.
“Blame yourself, [Farmer]. There’s not many on our list. And you’re by far the easiest.”
The others. Fierre, an Information Broker, used to watching her back. Mad Madain? A former Gold-rank Adventurer? A [Fistfighter] in Invrisil? Forget the damned inn.
“Who will miss a [Farmer]? Step out and we’ll make it quick.”
Lupp had the door in his hands. He pushed—but one of the [Assassins] was holding it open.
“I don’t know her.”
A lie. The [Assassin] produced a red, glowing stone. He offered it to Lupp. He did not look…happy to do this. Just resigned. Tired.
The Guild of Assassins was burning. But neither Lupp nor Ryoka had considered that even if the Faces were massacred, the Guild broken—they could still find one or two agents to take vengeance.
“You don’t have to do this.”
He tried one last time. The [Assassin] in front looked at him.
“You’re friends with Ryoka Griffin. She destroyed our home. Will it be slow or quick, farmer?”
The old man’s heart beat too quickly. He was shaking. Like other people in this situation, he was searching for a way out. But few attempts on his life had been made like this. A [Mugger], a [Thief]—a confrontation at a tavern.
This—was different. The [Farmer] looked at the [Assassins]. If he shoved the door closed and went to run—
They’d put a bolt in his back before he even took a step. The [Corn Farmer] looked at them. Then…he let go of the door.
“I know Ryoka Griffin.”
They stirred. The [Farmer] opened and closed his hands.
“I know that young woman. She’s a friend. Not one I knew long. But I think I knew her well enough. She was so sad. Too sad for a girl her age. Younger’n my daughter, even.”
He was shaking harder. His eyes blurred a bit. Lupp had to say it, though.
“I saw her on that orb. Running for her life. Defying your Guild. She never looked—”
He swallowed. Then smiled through the tears.
“She never looked happier. She flew. I was never prouder of anyone. If you’re here to kill me for being her friend—d-do it. I’ll never regret knowing the Wind Runner.”
Lupp’s voice stumbled a bit. He wished he’d said his last words as bravely as he thought them, with confidence and daring.
…It was enough. The [Assassins] listened, politely. Then, the one in front nodded.
“Said well enough. Do it.”
The one with the crossbow raised it. Lupp closed his eyes.
Snap. A bowstring cracking.
Lupp cracked one eye open. He saw the [Assassin] collapse. An arrow was sticking out of his head.
The scarecrow had shot him in the face.
The scarecrow had—?
The [Assassins] whirled. A second arrow knocked the leader down. He screamed as he tried to drag it out of his thigh. Lupp stared. He fell back, as the other two crashed around the side of the house, for cover.
Lupp was stunned. He didn’t know what was happening. He certainly wasn’t about to fight or take cover more effectively. He just had one thought.
I’ve leveled up. I’ve gained [Awaken Scarecrows]. No—[Automated Scarecrows]. I didn’t hear it. I must have leveled—
He realized, a moment later, that this wasn’t true. The big hint was the shouting voice.
It wasn’t the [Assassins]. Lupp heard them die. Screams—two more thunks as arrows hit them. He dared to peek out his door. He saw his scarecrow lower the bow. Then—brush at its face.
The wicker creation he used to scare crows away as, even dressed up as himself, became a figure standing in the field. The illusion spell melted off the [Archer] as she looked around.
More figures spread out in his field of corn. Each one had a bow. They’d killed the [Assassins].
“Secure the farm! Make sure there’s no backup. What word from the other teams?”
“Reizmelt secure. Second farm secure. Assassin team headed to the farm intercepted and dead.”
The figure walked up the hill towards Lupp. Reflexively, he almost closed the door in her face.
“Farmer Lupp? It’s safe.”
The figure nodded at him. She—it was a she—was wearing a strange armor that seemed to take on the characteristics of whatever was around her. Right now it looked like the dirt of his farm’s path; if she laid down, she’d be all but invisible.
“I am a [Stealth Archer] in the employ of the House of El, Farmer Lupp. You are under the protection of the Five Families.”
“The House of…”
The woman nodded, her eyes on the distance.
“The aegis of the Veltras Family is on you. Until the Guild is destroyed, we will be protecting your farm.”
The other figures in his field, searching the bodies of the [Assassins], wore the colors of House Veltras. [Soldiers]. Expert [Marksmen]. Lupp stared.
“Lord Veltras requested aid from the Five Families. Friends and family of the Wind Runner of Reizmelt are to be guarded. Obviously.”
The [Stealth Archer] smiled, eying the dead [Assassins]. She turned to Farmer Lupp.
“Apologies about the delay. Veltras’ agents were still getting into position. I would have taken all four if I had to, but…”
She shrugged. She must have come first; the other [Archers] looked exhausted, having ridden through the night to get here. Lupp was at a loss for words. He looked at the [Stealth Archer]. At the dead [Assassins]. Relief made him weak.
As before, so, now. All the [Farmer] could think to do was point towards his open door.
“Thank you. Thank you. Would you like—some corn?”
Even their most tertiary agents were dying. The Guild of Assassins lay in ruins. The headquarters in First Landing was obliterated and two more of their bases were burning.
There was no leadership. Conflicting [Messages], ordering them to regroup, or strike at their enemies—the agents of the Circle of Thorns were similarly panicked.
The truth was—their great gambit had failed. In every conceivable way. And now that the threat upon his sons was ended, both Tyrion Veltras and the Five Families—and even lesser houses of Izril were turning their might upon the Guild without fear.
The worst had happened to them. So—now came wrath and ruination.
House of El. Lord Deilan had, with Zedalien’s advice, stones brought out. [Appraisal], [Truth]—to find agents in his lands. Any that were located were not engaged directly, like Veltras’ forces who were running down every [Assassin] they could find.
“Seeker arrows. Target is fleeing.”
One of the El Family’s [Archers] stood on the roof of their manor. He drew a crafted arrow, one of the El Family’s creations, and loosed it. It flew up and kept flying, defying physics, arcing with more range and accuracy than even most Skills could allow. The [Eagle-eye Marksman] saw the fleeing figure crumple.
The Wellfar Family at sea sunk another burning ship. The Guild had ships, some of whom had been trying to flee. In vain; Wellfar’s navy was their strength, and even their flagship was out. In a show of force, it had bombarded the cutter-sized ship with firepower meant for another warship.
It was raining, as water fell around one of the [Captains]. He grimaced and wiped at his cap. Then turned his attention towards the coast, sighting other ships. Not one rat would flee Izril.
For Gresaria and Regein Wellfar. The Harbormistress of First Landing’s reputation had been such that even [Captains] who had disliked her work keeping the docks clear of contraband were refusing to carry [Assassins].
It was personal to them, such that the [Lords] and [Ladies] were leading their own ships, on the hunt for [Assassins] in the waters. Out for blood.
The Terland Family was more prosaic. They did not take to arms themselves; well, some of the younger hotheads did. But Ulva Terland simply gave one order, and remained secluded, safeguarded until the threat passed.
For the Terland family, that was enough.
The Guild’s stronghold in the northeast was fortified against magical attack as well as mundane. It was less-obvious than the one in First Landing. But overconfidence had lost its chief protection—secrecy. And like the Guild in First Landing, it might have staved off an army with its fortifications.
But not a bombardment from a relic of the House of Wellfar. And similarly—
A cry. The [Assassins] watched the doors, which were being battered by some unknown force. The Guild was trembling with the impacts. They coated their weapons with poisons, trained Wands of [Fireball] on the door.
An [Assassin] peeked out an arrow slit. But the fog-spells made it impossible to see what was assailing them. House Terland, of course. But what kind of army? They’d loosed arrows and bolts and spells, but heard no cry of—
A fist punched through the arrow slit. Through enchanted stone. The [Assassin] screamed—a second before the fist tried to draw her through the small opening.
Her body resisted. But the Golem’s strength was inexorable. It pulled—and most of the [Assassin] followed.
The other [Assassins] saw a glowing rune as the Golem proceeded to punch through the wall again. Then the double doors burst open.
“They’re just Golems! Destroy them and—”
The words left the [Assassin] leading the defense. The wind sucked out of the room. They gasped—looking up.
A glowing Golem’s Heart. Whirling pieces of armor surrounding it. But the body of one of Terland’s greatest relic-protectors was just…
Poetically, perhaps. Given the Wind Runner’s involvement. The [Assassins] did not admire the Wind Golem. They fell, choking for air or grabbing emergency artifacts like Jars of Air as the lesser Golems charged into their guild. The few Humans hung back until the job was done.
The Reinhart Family, mostly confined to their estates in decadence, placed bets on how many [Assassins] were dying. They had lost nothing, given nothing. They took part in small ways.
Their matriarch, and not well-beloved, was gone. Most watched the slaughter with urbane amusement.
House Veltras’ army had long been considered the largest and most powerful, at least under Tyrion Veltras. A standing force that was mighty—yet, as the [Assassins] had proven, flawed in some crucial areas.
Counterintelligence was the game of Reinharts. That would change. But at least in open conflict, they were greatly feared. And all the pent-up wrath of nearly a month was unleashed in the bloodiest purge of their lands and the surrounding region.
[Assassins] fought [Soldiers] in one-sided melees. The Skills that allowed them to kill foes in armor, from afar, in secret, were of less use in a pitched battle. And the best of them, who had killed [Knights] and high-level foes, the Faces, were dead.
Or being hunted down.
There were three. One was fifteen, a daughter, an [Alchemist] in training. Like her mother, she had a gift. A boy, fourteen, held back by the younger daughter, who was eleven. The daughter had inherited something…odd. A preternatural strength that meant that even at her age, she was stronger than her siblings.
It came from her mother. They had not seen her for the last month; she was a travelling [Trader]-[Alchemist], who had a lot of clients.
They, and her husband, had been shocked beyond belief when she returned, missing an arm, in the late hours of the night. She had told them to pack everything in their comfortable manor. To run with her.
They had asked too many questions. Or perhaps—
An army had followed them. The [Commander] wore the insignia of House Veltras. A reassuring sight; they had lived on the edges of House Veltras’ territory all their lives.
But the [Soldiers] were training their weapons upon the manor. And the [Commander] was shouting.
“Mire of the Assassins’ Guild. Leave your manor now or we will demolish it to ash.”
“Mire? Mother, who’s that?”
The oldest daughter stared up their mother, Chena Vall. Chena said nothing.
“Chena—what’s going on? They have to be joking. This—”
Her husband was a local [Vintner], respected for his quality. He’d met Chena while working on an alchemical stock of his wine…
Decades lay between them. Her children had grown up here without fear of hunger or sickness. Everything she had wanted. Mire looked at her husband and the truth, the real truth of who she was, finally gave way.
Maybe he had suspicions. Tiny clues he pushed aside. Perhaps he had wondered about their youngest daughter’s gifts, somehow transmitted by potions she’d drunk while carrying her.
It broke him in two. The [Vintner] exited the manor, holding his hands up.
“There has to be some kind of mistake. My wife—her name is Chena. Chena Vall. I’m Loren Vall. [Commander]—”
“Mire the [Alchemist] is a one-armed [Assassin] from the Guild. Hold your ground, sir. You will be taken in for questioning in your involvement in the Guild’s attempt on the lives of Lord Sammial and Hethon Veltras and the threats made to the Five Families of Izril.”
His eyes bulged.
“Lords…but we sent our wishes for their health! We’ve been staunch supporters of the Veltras family all our lives. Chena! Chena, come out and tell them—”
He wanted to go back towards the manor. The children looked up at their mother. She was crouched—a glowing potion in her grip.
“Mother? What’s that potion?”
Her daughter locked eyes on the glowing liquid, of a far greater potency than the humble [Trader]-[Alchemist] should have been able to brew. Her mother said nothing.
“Stay down. The windows are warded.”
“Chena! Come out here! This is all a mistake, Commander—”
“Stay where you are! Do not go inside!”
The man didn’t listen. He went for the door after a moment’s hesitation.
A snap of bowstrings. A scream from inside. Mire said nothing.
The youngest daughter let go of her brother. He ran for the door.
The bows which had slain Loren trained on the boy. He halted. And Mire spoke at last.
“Enough! Don’t kill him!”
“Exit with your arms raised.”
The [Assassin] did. Her arm, actually. The [Commander] stared at her.
“That’s her. [Assassin]! Drop your gear on the ground! [Mages]—”
They were checking her, appraising her to make sure she had no secret weapons. Bitterly, Mire tossed her potion, her belt, her bag of holding, secret blades on the ground.
Her son, her daughters, stared at her. The illusion ended. The [Assassin] laughed.
“You’ve taken it all from me. I surrender. Just—just let them live and I’ll tell you everything.”
The [Commander] didn’t take his burning eyes off Mire. [Soldiers]—Veltras’ best—dragged her down, securing her in cuffs that blocked both Skills and magic. Relics in their own right. Mire bared her teeth as they shackled her legs; hard to do with one arm.
“Keep them back. Mire the Alchemist. You have made an attempt on the lives of multiple members of the Five Families. What say you, if anything?”
They forced her face into the dirt. Mire spat up at them.
“I’m an [Assassin]. I had my orders. You’re a [Soldier]. Listen, I know all the Faces, and the Guild’s locations—”
“I’m sure you do. My duty, however, is clear. For your crimes, the House of Veltras judges you guilty. By admission. By witness. By magic. That is enough. The sentence is death. Execute her.”
“Wh—no! I have information!”
Mire had not been expecting that. She’d been prepared to bargain it all away. There was a cry from the manor.
“Keep the children back. No—lock them inside. Away from the windows.”
The [Commander] glanced over Mire’s shoulder. Mire struggled then, trying to throw the arms off. Break the grips—fight barehanded.
The [Commander] dismounted. Mire cursed, screaming. There were voices from behind her. Arguing, begging, pleading. One of the [Soldiers] cried out as the youngest daughter shoved him aside. The children raced past the guards. It couldn’t be true. Even now—
Mire looked up as the sword swung down. Her head rolled. The [Commander] wiped the blade and handed it to the [Soldier].
“Target neutralized. To the next. You—you. Ensure the children are managed until Lord Veltras decides their fate.”
Such was House Veltras’ justice.
The hatred of it—it was almost funny. Look how efficiently vicious they were when you roused them to it.
House Veltras, and its prideful [Lord]. If only they were this ruthless to begin with, it would have never come to that.
You couldn’t have threatened Magnolia Reinhart the same way you did Lord Tyrion. But now he’d found his wrath.
“We were close. I had my hand on his throat. I could have killed them. I was more powerful than the leader of one of the Five Families.”
She mumbled. Not sure if the words were actually coming out of her lips. She felt odd. Naked.
Her mask was gone. That was worse than the lack of her gear. Her mask.
The [Toxins Expert] had wondered why she wasn’t dead when she first woke up. But the answer was obvious.
To her disappointment, it was not Lord Tyrion Veltras who descended the steps into this small place. But it made a lot of sense. The [Assassin] mumbled.
“Am I in the Veltras Manor?”
“I would not suffer your presence. Nor would Ullim. Your companions are dead. Your Guild is burning, [Assassin]. The cure has been delivered. All your plans have come to naught.”
Jericha descended the steps and looked at the [Toxins Expert]. The [Assassin] paused. It had been she who’d defeated the [Assassin] in the moments when Lord Tyrion had gone to secure the cure. If it had been the [Lord]—well, the [Toxins Expert] thought she wouldn’t have been in one piece.
…Comparatively. She spat some blood, hoping that the woman would come closer. Even her blood was poisonous. But the second to Lord Tyrion was careful. She’d removed all the [Assassin]’s weapons, even the hidden ones.
“The Guild’s being destroyed? The other Faces?”
“Dead or being hunted.”
“It will be rooted out and purged. Every traitorous member. My [Lord] has sworn it.”
Jericha hesitated. She eyed the restrained [Assassin].
“You have nothing else to say?”
“I never liked the Guild. Or my fellows. I had a few friends. I came close, though. Your [Lord] begged me on his knees for my help.”
Jericha clenched one hand. She took a step forwards—then relaxed. She stepped back, sighed.
“House Veltras is extinguishing your fellow [Assassins] one by one, [Assassin]. But your existence proves we were unprepared. There are more, aren’t there?”
The [Mage] found a seat. She sat there, and the [Toxins Expert] looked up at her.
“You will tell me everything. Your Guild—your secrets. Where you all sprung from.”
“And if I do…you’ll kill me swiftly?”
A hoarse laugh. Jericha’s stony face twitched. She looked at the [Assassin] and almost smiled.
“No. That is what you will tell me. Either way, you’ll live. We have personal business to settle.”
The [Assassin] began to giggle, and laugh. She wondered if Jericha even knew how she’d been trained. If she should surpass that—she’d be very impressed.
Oh well. She kept laughing, until the [Silence] spell cut off the sound. And still laughed then.
She’d been so close! For a no one like her—hadn’t that been something?
Alas. Here came the consequences.
“Our best [Assassins] are dead. Some of our agents have been compromised. Rooted out. They—they’ve killed one of the Petals of Death!”
The Circle of Thorns met thusly. Not in person; but their representatives filled the room built for them. Some from far away. Puppet proxies, magical reflections, their origin and sending disguised.
One of them was shouting. Raving, in a panic. In fear of his very life. Some of the others were likewise. Two were silent. The rest?
“We are all in danger! What will we do? The Five Families—that damned Veltras has sworn to find all of us! We have to hide. We—we must—”
They had tried to take it all, and in the process, lost everything they had. The Circle could still fight back, though. They had agents, members of the Guild who weren’t active fighters. They just had to…
The inner sanctum of the Circle of Thorns was suddenly filled with a strange sound. The Petals of Death, and the speaker, jerked. Suddenly—
There was applause. Half of the Petals of Death stood on their feet, applauding, a standing ovation. One of them spoke.
“Well done! Splendid! This has been the greatest display of ineptitude from the Circle! More than in a thousand years! More blood spilled, more members lost! A disaster like none ever seen! The guild is broken, the Circle is hunted!”
The Petal of Death laughed. The others were laughing, applauding, even cheering.
The other Petals stirred.
“Wh—what? Are you mad? There’s no time to applaud!”
“On the contrary. It’s exactly what we wanted!”
It was a standing ovation. Half the Petals applauded, the other half sat in bewildered silence.
“For so long, your Guild has been a powerful force. Reinhart used it to kill our agents. It may have preyed on Izril—but it was a spider that caught too many flies. And the Circle has been both a check on the Five Families and an opponent of all who would take Izril. No more. Well done.”
Another Petal leaned forwards. The Petals of Death who hadn’t applauded stirred. They were, of course, minor [Lords] and [Ladies]. Those who had connections with the Circle. Who desired a change in how things were.
But…what had that Petal said? ‘Your Guild’? Suddenly—the Petals were silent.
“You. We inducted you into our order. You’re…[Lady] Melisaw.”
One of the Petals murmured. It was anathema to reveal one of their members to each other. But—the figure appeared, shedding the disguise on her scrying mirror.
It was Lady Melisaw. A slightly pudgy [Lady]. Born of a small House in Izril, who had faithfully worked her way up the ranks. It was her—
And then it wasn’t. A blur surrounded the real woman. It might not even have been Human. The Petals recoiled.
“Well done. But we don’t meet face-to-face, do we? And all my lovely agents swore that I was who I said I was.”
“You—who are you?”
The other Petals, who’d applauded, changed. They laughed. The Circle of Thorns, the true Circle, looked at their imposters.
“Izril’s famous Guild lies in ruins. Nobles are dead, fighting each other, and more will die as the Circle is destroyed. The best part is—I couldn’t have even planned this. I was prepared to do something, but you all hung yourselves without me needing to do more than nod along.”
Another fake Petal chuckled. The others laughed.
“You were once called Izril’s unseen dagger. A weapon that fought in secrecy. Look at you now. Rot and decay have crept into your ranks. If all of us could infiltrate—you deluded fools. Well, we have you to thank. We’ll see you all soon enough. Count on it, fools.”
The blurred woman. She sneered as the Petals of Izril looked at each other in horror. Other species! Other nations.
Other continents. The Circle of Thorns was filled with more mocking laughter. Then the traitorous half vanished. The remaining Petals realized—they were compromised. The Circle had been infected from the start. They panicked, shouting at each other, screaming, the smart ones disconnecting from their conference right away.
Only two remained, in silence. Perhaps—shock? Or something else. The last two Petals sat there a moment, regarding each other. Then they too, vanished.
So. Deception on all sides. Vengeance and death. The day after the cure was delivered and two young [Lord]’s lives were saved contained almost as much death as the day before.
From some. Blood and panic and wrath.
Not all. The [Lord] of House Veltras, for instance, surprisingly, had forsworn the same fury that led his people to cleanse his lands. He knelt at his son’s bedside, listening to calm breathing in slumber. It was a sweet sound.
It could consume you, that bitter need to draw blood. To exact more pain than you’d taken. Some things mattered more, though. Tyrion Veltras just listened to his sons sleeping. If not for them—he would have heard nothing else.
Presently, he rose. Ullim remained. And countless guards. Tyrion was exhausted. But he stopped at one more room, to look in, for a moment.
The savior of House Veltras lay unconscious. The [Healer] still ministered to her. Worried. But she still breathed. Tyrion Veltras nodded to her again, then went to rest for the first time since this ordeal began.
Away from Izril’s north, boiling with anger. Away from bloodshed. The news was focused on all these things of course, the discourse of the world obsessing over the new Courier, the implications, a weakened Izril…
But this time, this time, they hadn’t missed it. It had been a tagline on other events around Liscor, the Wyvern attack on Pallass. Hints of it had appeared before.
Now—it was impossible to ignore. It was a name, which was suddenly on everyone’s tongues. Multiple names.
The Wandering Inn. Liscor. And, following that, an almost inevitable question.
“Who is Erin Solstice?”
Why was that name important? Yet—if you traced why the [Lord] of House Everight had fought at Invrisil—why Grimalkin of Pallass had been seen fighting—the Black Tide…it came down to a name.
Erin Solstice. You had to be smart to uncover that name. Most curious viewers would only get as far as ‘The Wandering Inn’, and only if they broke down the events at Invrisil in a meaningful way.
Most remember Maviola El, Saliss of Lights, Ryoka Griffin, as the names. But the clever ones?
“Who is Erin Solstice?”
The question appeared on the streets of Liscor. Humans from Invrisil sidled up to groups of Drakes or Gnolls. Hello, fellow citizen! What an event. I am much shock! Are you? We are all friends here. What say you know about Erin Solstice?
…About that level of subterfuge, from some of them. The Liscorians would give the Humans odd looks. They were clearly outsiders, but they were only too happy to talk.
“The Crazy Human of Liscor? Been here for ages. You want to know about her?”
And of course, they did. So the others would chuckle, motion a friend over, and relay what was almost becoming a sport of its own, or tradition in Liscor. Telling stories of the [Innkeeper]. Erin Solstice.
“Now, look. She might look normal on the outside. But she’s strong as a [Minotaur]. Once beat a [Knight] barehanded. I saw it myself.”
“She’s actually an adventurer. Went into Liscor’s dungeon. You didn’t hear about that? She’s a retired adventurer—carries jars of acid around.”
“The best chess player in all of Liscor. She beat our [Strategist] on her first day here. Undefeatable. I tried playing her myself—she beat me while making a pie! Without even looking at the board!”
“She’s actually not entirely Human. Part-Drake. Oldblood. She can spit blood. It’s like, her special attack. That, and throwing frying pans. Why? Don’t ask me. She’s crazy.”
“Employs Goblins and Antinium. Not that there’s anything wrong with either! I know this Painted Worker—has a bee on his chest and yellow striped antennae. I wave at him all the time. There’s some good ones! Anyways, they’re her security.”
“Don’t kill Goblins. Don’t even joke about that. She’s mad. Rip your legs off and beat you to death with them. She’s so crazy, she destroyed her own inn. Twice! Burned it down just to build it up again.”
The [Informants] and such were writing down notes frantically. The happy citizens went on.
“She makes all kinds of new food. Well—brings ‘em over. She’s Terandrian, I think. A [Princess]—or related to the throne. I’ve heard it, now and then.”
“She’s been married. At least once. Young, for her age, but then, I was married at sixteen myself. To a Gnoll. That’s the little white Gnoll running about.”
And inevitably, at some point, one of the others would interrupt.
“Hold on, that’s not true! That kid’s the last Gnoll of a tribe. The Human only rescued her. Fought the Goblin Lord one-on-one.”
“No, you’re both wrong. I was there. She rescued the kid from bees. Poor mite was carried off by Ashfire Bees—there’s a colony nearby. So the [Innkeeper] took some magic flowers, put the hive to sleep…”
Everyone stared at the last speaker. He threw up his claws.
“What, you believe everything but that? It’s true! She has magic flowers—”
No one listened to the more obviously fake tales. But there was documented proof! She’d fought Skinner, she had an army of Antinium at her beck and call—
“And she’s a sexual fiend.”
One of the Gnolls whispered to the others in confidence. He looked around.
“Insatiable. I heard she’s had sex with Senior Guardsmen, the strategist of Liscor…”
The other listeners turned to him. One of the other Drakes nudged his friend. He indicated the Gnoll, who was sighing over Erin Solstice’s sexual conquests.
“Why do you hang out with him? And what’s he on about? Sexual fiend? He is so creepy.”
“I know. I thought he was fun, but—yeesh. Ancestors.”
They edged out of that particular gossip circle. Some people always ruined a good thing. But so it went. The Wandering Inn’s name was repeated on distant continents. And as for the [Innkeeper]? People wondered about her. Some people added her to their internal lists, or tried to factor her into plans.
They didn’t know her completely. Not yet. But they knew her name.
And in time, Erin Solstice woke up. She stretched out in her bed and looked up at the sun shining through the window.
It was rare that she got up after the sun rose. For a moment, Erin Solstice stared at the ceiling.
Had everything that happened last night…actually happened? Yes, it had. The good and the bad.
Living and the dead. Erin Solstice thought about all of it.
Ryoka flying, Maviola—Saliss. Some were still out there, their fates unclear. But Ryoka was alive. She would live.
The [Innkeeper] lay there, thinking of getting up. She…was tired. She had called every favor she could think of. And today, it was over. It was cleanup and aftermath.
She went back to sleep. The [Innkeeper] dozed, woke up, stared at the ceiling again, felt the sore muscles in her arms and legs from yesterday. She put a pillow over her head to block the sun. Curled up in her bed sheets.
“Erin? Erin? You know what? I bet she’s asleep.”
Montressa’s voice at the door. Erin heard it, then dozed off. This was nice. This was…
The chatter of a beaver. A door, and the fresh air of a place. The [Garden of Sanctuary]. Erin’s head sleepily rose—
Pow. Mrsha’s flying head butt hit Erin in the back. She screamed.
The white Gnoll had no time for sleeping [Innkeepers]. She leapt onto the bed. That was okay. It was when a Fortress Beaver tried to climb onto the bed that Erin jumped out of it. The giant beaver weighed more than she did! By a lot, actually!
“Alright! That’s it! Everyone, get out!”
Mrsha and the beavers fled. Erin threw a shoe after them.
“Stop coming into my room when I’m sleeping! Mrsha! You were warned!”
She dressed herself, rubbing at her lower back and groaning. Mrsha had learned you could get anyone out of bed if you did that. It was certainly true, but it was a bad lesson.
“Ow. Ow. Ow.”
Erin hobbled past her chess board. She paused. She has three in her room these days. One for studying, one for fun, and the magical one. You needed at least three in your room, obviously. The magical chessboard and the go board, arranged side-by-side for moments like this, had a message on it via both arranged pieces.
Want to talk?
Erin stared at the board. Well, it was more like ‘wnt 2 tlk?’, since there were a finite amount of pieces. She groaned, rubbed at her back, then her stomach.
Srry. Bsy. Ltr.
She scrawled, and then hobbled downstairs, not seeing the frantic counter message. Erin appreciated her mysterious opponent.
But here was more immediate. And now she was awake, Erin’s stomach was growling.
“Food! I’m so hungry!”
She hopped down the stairs and shouted it, spreading her arms wide. Erin stopped.
Her inn, her full inn, with countless guests at the tables, all turned to stare at Erin. Dead silent. They gave the [Innkeeper] the stare, the one that asked who she was. That waited for her to explode, spit blood, or conjure armies.
Expectant, bewildered, amused or awed, or more emotions. There were…hundreds of people in her inn? At least a hundred! Humans, Drakes, Gnolls…Erin realized her arms were still spread.
She lowered them. She looked around at the sea of faces. Erin glanced over her shoulder. She backed up the stairs, slowly.
Lyonette unfroze as the inn murmured. A good portion of the regulars were laughing their tails off. The rest were asking—was that her? She signaled to Silveran and found Erin upstairs, peeking down.
“Why is the inn so full, Lyonette?”
“Because we have a lot of customers?”
Erin gave Lyonette a long look. The [Princess] rolled her eyes.
“Because you brought an army to Invrisil?”
“Yeah, but I didn’t think they’d all come back to have breakfast!”
“Brunch. You’ve been asleep for a long time. I was going to let you sleep in; or are the walls not soundproof?”
“Nah. I was attacked by Mrsha. And the beavers.”
“That little…I’ll have a word with her. Do you need a potion?”
The [Innkeeper] rubbed at her back. Yes.
“…No. Are uh, all those people…”
“Most just want to know about the inn. But it is fairly busy. Tell you what—oh, thank you, Silveran!”
The Worker had come up the stairs with a tray of breakfast. Erin brightened up.
“I could eat it in my room!”
“No. That’s how we get more bugs. Um. No offense Silveran. Bug-bugs. We’re not repeating Bird’s room. Take it to the private dining room, please?”
The Worker nodded. Erin shuddered. Bird had cultivated an infestation of buzzing insects in his dead bird collection one time. Preserved they might be, but that still didn’t stop the creepy-crawlies.
“Silveran! I’ll eat in the Garden instead! There, please?”
Lyonette nodded. The Worker turned and instead of going downstairs, walked at a wall. The door appeared, and Erin followed.
It was a sign that Imani was swamped by the guests that she was taking out the premade foods. Breakfast for Erin was a bacon-and-egg hash, one she’d made oh, a month ago. It was still fresh as when she’d made it, and hot!
“Mm. Thanks, Silveran. What’s that? Milk? Thank you!”
Erin sat on the hilltop, next to the Sage’s Grass, which had a faint aroma, and ate breakfast in the sun. She realized she was not alone.
The flood of people in the main inn had chased the shy or reclusive into the Garden. Those with access, that was. A trio of Goblins looked up from the arid section. Erin stared down at them, mouth full of hash.
“Issat—ahem. Numbtongue! Badarrow! Snapjaw!”
She waved at them, coughing. The three Goblins looked up. What were they doing? They were all lying down and…
Sunbathing? Erin saw them sit up. Save for towels or undergarments, they had been lazily basking in the sun! With a bowl of roasted peanuts.
“I didn’t know you guys sunbathed!”
Erin saw Numbtongue’s head rise, and then fall. The [Bard] was snoozing. And because Erin wasn’t the new, amazing thing, he let Badarrow get up. The [Sniper] ascended the hill as Erin turned towards him.
They looked at each other for a long while. In the rush of, well, everything, his arrival had been slightly overshadowed. Not entirely, but it was still something to see him standing there. He looked at her like a long-lost friend. Uncertain of what to say.
Erin knew what to say.
“Want something to eat? Take a seat, take a seat! Did you have breakfast?”
Badarrow sat cross-legged. He smiled as Erin indicated her plate.
“Had food. Good…”
He tried to think of the word.
He shook his head.
“Tasty thick soup. Dark skin cook make. Say from home.”
“Oh. Imani’s porridges. Yeah, they’re more savory. Like, made out of pureed beans.”
“What that? Bug?”
The [Sniper] was alarmed by the word ‘pureed’ for a second. Erin laughed.
“No, it’s fine! Its regular beans. Not bugs. She just blends it all up really smooth. That’s probably what you ate.”
“Oh. Yes. Good. Pureed soup. Ate lots. Too many Humans so—”
He waved at the Garden. Erin laughed. She took a bite of her breakfast—she was starving.
“That’s great. I didn’t know you sunbathed, though!”
“At Goblinhome. High Passes cold. So—Goblins lie in sun when sun out.”
“What? No way! You do it like that?”
“No. Furs. Wrap up like…”
He gestured. Erin had forgotten that Badarrow was the least-talkative, but he had no choice with her. And his diction was much improved! Snapjaw?
“Watch out for Razorbeaks or Wyverns, but warm. Also, wrap up next to big fire. With Carn Wolf at night. Lots of Goblins.”
“You all snuggle together?”
The [Innkeeper] was delighted. Badarrow hesitated. She was probably right, but he disliked how she said it for some reason he couldn’t explain.
“Sit together for warm.”
He corrected her. Erin laughed.
“Call it what you like. But that’s so great! So…I’m glad you’re okay.”
She’d locked them in here during the battle. But they’d gotten out and fought near the end. Badarrow gazed at Erin.
“Lots of fighting. Lots of Humans. [Assassins]. Entire city fighting.”
Because of you. He looked at Erin. And the day’s events became realer in her mind. She ran a hand through her hair.
“Has anyone found Maviola? Saliss?”
He shrugged. The Hobgoblin didn’t know who they were, not having met them for long enough.
“I’ll ask. I’m just glad…you three are okay. It was something.”
“Heck of a Tuesday, huh? Wait till next week.”
The [Archer] blinked at Erin. Then he narrowed his eyes. Erin kept her face straight. The Hob hesitated, then reached out and shoved her slightly.
“You got me!”
Erin giggled with laughter. Badarrow relaxed. The [Innkeeper] sat with him, offering the Hob some of her bacon, asking how he’d slept, in peace while her inn buzzed.
A shape in the large pond made Erin turn. She saw a huge Fortress Beaver and some kits surface, their large dam and some fish the residents of that area of her garden. And then—a rather wet, giant, white fish beached itself.
Mrsha the Fish had been swimming around in the pond, hiding in the dam from the wrath of adults. Now she galloped up the hill, charging at Erin.
“Oh no you don’t! No, Mrsha—”
She was going to tackle Erin and then shake herself dry! The [Innkeeper] was serious this time! She did not need this! But Mrsha was filled with too much energy—and perhaps, worry. She was the ruiner of clothes! The bringer of baths! The—
Badarrow grabbed Mrsha as she leapt. The Gnoll found herself under one arm. She struggled, but the Hob carried her down the hill. Then he tossed her into the pond.
Mrsha the Cannonball hit the pond with a splash. Erin laughed until she nearly choked on some potato. That was why you needed a Goblin around!
And that was how Erin Solstice greeted the next day. She finished her breakfast as Mrsha tried to tackle Badarrow and the [Archer] tossed her in the pond three more times. Eventually, Mrsha the Waterlogged gave up and went over to Snapjaw and Numbtongue to dry off. Erin finished breakfast.
The Wandering Inn came alive.
Olesm Swifttail found Erin Solstice as she emerged from the Garden of Sanctuary. People flooded towards her—and then back as three Hobgoblins emerged behind Erin. And one wet Gnoll, ready to shake herself like a dog on her unsuspecting victims.
Olesm though—was used to the inn. He pushed past wretched Humanity, wailing as Mrsha the Waterlogged unloaded her vengeance to shouts of dismay.
“Erin! Erin, we found Maviola! She’s alive!”
“Mrsha! You’re in so much—what? She is? That’s great! What about Saliss?”
“A [Fisherman] saw him float past! He’s alive too!”
“That’s amazing news!”
Erin threw her arms up. She hugged Olesm tight. And Fierre was safe and Salamani had gone after Ryoka! That was…she let go of Olesm, beaming.
“I was so worried! They have to get back here but—they’re alive. Thank you for telling me, Olesm! [Boon of the Guest]!”
She pointed at him. The blue Drake, who had been demurring, blinked.
“It was nothing, Erin. I was so w—what?”
Erin waggled her finger.
“[Boon of the Guest]? Aw, come on.”
She poked Olesm a few times in the chest.
“…Feel any different?”
He rubbed at his front.
“…No. Is that your new Skill, Erin?”
“It should be, but it’s not working! Aw. Don’t tell me I have to do it Lyonette-style and kiss people?”
“Mrsha! Come here!”
Erin ran after Mrsha. The little Gnoll wiggled hard—and harder when she realized Erin was going to kiss her head. Erin planted a dramatic mwah on Mrsha’s head.
“How do you feel, Mrsha?”
Mrsha squirmed out of Erin’s hands. How did she feel? She made a furry fist, punched the nearest leg.
Earl Altestiel stared down at Mrsha. Mrsha stared up at him and rubbed her paw as she stared at his cloth armor leggings. His escort looked outraged.
“How dare you—”
The [Knight Marshal] rolled his eyes and stopped Kiish from menacing Mrsha.
“Kiish, enough. Miss Erin Solstice. Good morning to you. And—if I am not being too forwards, I believe your boon Skill requires a missing condition that you are not giving it. I couldn’t help but overhear.”
“Earl Altestiel! I mean—er—good morning, s-sire?”
Erin tried her best. The Earl waved it away.
“I should be delighted, Miss Erin, if you would allow me to address you informally, and insist you do the same.”
Olesm’s jaw dropped. Erin just pretended to wipe away some sweat.
“Phew! Well, I’m happy enough to do that, Altestiel! How are you? Did you come from Invrisil this morning?”
“As soon as the doors opened. One cannot help but feel that this is the place to be—especially in light of yesterday. Good morning to you as well, Strategist Olesm…Goblins Numbtongue and…Badarrow, is it?”
The Earl was good. He’d read the inn, learned the lessons that normally took a pan to the head. He barely stumbled as he turned to the Hobgoblins.
Only one remained. The other two had taken one look at the crowd and decided to go back to the Garden. Numbtongue scratched at his stomach.
“So what’s this about my boon Skill needing something else?”
Erin waved an urgent hand. Then recalled that you didn’t tell strangers your Skill. And perhaps she shouldn’t have been shouting it all the time. But they never came with instruction manuals! The Earl smiled into one hand.
“A [Boon] Skill is a rarer form of Skill, Miss Erin. Blessings and boons are the purview of very high-level individuals—and usually rulers.”
“Oh. Well…I got mine. Which doesn’t mean anything.”
Erin hesitated. Level 45 [Magical Innkeeper]. She felt like it was hovering over her head, but Saliss’ ring should be protecting her.
“Indeed. I’m unfamiliar with [Boon of the Guest], however. Kiish? Ventel?”
He gestured and the two [Strategists] stepped forwards. Kiish was consulting a book.
“…It is not immediately within our records, Earl. But then—this is the battlefield edition.”
“Is that…a book of Skills?”
Olesm had seen the like at Manus. He edged over slowly and Kiish gave him a long look. The Drake stopped—she edged back and then jumped in alarm. Numbtongue and Mrsha were peering over her shoulder.
“And their effects. I’m not surprised. We could inquire of Desonis’ libraries…but there is usually a simpler way. Miss Erin—that is to say, Erin. Would you concentrate on your Skill? Surely you feel something is missing.”
That was true. The [Innkeeper] had felt similar promptings before, like how [Basic Cooking] helped her cook dishes. Now—she felt the urge to…
“Hm. I think I can use it. [Boon of the Guest]. But I’m trying to give a boon. What is the boon? Is it me?”
…No, it’s not. Erin’s eyes opened. Her instincts had said to use it on Olesm, Mrsha. That was correct. So what was missing?
“What is a guest’s boon, anyways? I’m familiar with other [Boons], Earl Altestiel.”
“Indeed, Strategist Olesm. Boon of the Whetstone, Blessing of Armor, as the King of Destruction indicated—normally they’re quite straightforward. A boon is singular, by the way, Erin. Whereas a blessing is usually more widespread.”
“Ah. Well, maybe…”
Erin had a thought. The other two were speculating. Erin looked around.
Guests. Her guests were there. Some familiar, many new. She didn’t see Wilovan or Ratici. Oh. No.
Poor Teor. Erin had heard he’d…she closed her eyes. And Lord Toldos! She had asked him first, after Lord Sanito. And he had agreed without an objection.
Redit…Maviola’s friend, Gresaria Wellfar…they had been here moments. And slipped away. Erin remembered them, though.
Old guests and new. Once—she looked around as a familiar, scarred Drake laughed. Menolit. He was a regular face.
But once there had been another Drake. Even bigger, laughing, causing trouble…
“It’s possible that it needs to be a guest. In which case, we should ask Palt. Hey, P—”
Olesm was waving a claw at the Centaur when Erin’s hand descended on his shoulder. He looked back in time for him to see her eyes flash.
For a moment, her hazel irises lit up.
“[Boon of the Guest: Relc]!”
Olesm staggered. Altestiel’s head snapped around. Mrsha whirled. Numbtongue looked around as Olesm blinked.
“What the—I feel—”
He felt at his chest. And then at his arms. Erin blinked at Olesm. Was his voice…deeper? And the [Strategist], who had been decently fit, suddenly looked muscular.
“Yeah. Yeah! I feel amazing!”
Olesm flexed his arms. Erin stared at him.
“Olesm? Are you stronger?”
“Let me see! Where’s—aha!”
Olesm looked around. Then he found a table and lifted it up.
“Hey, our food—”
One of the protesting diners stopped as the heavy, wooden table lifted off the ground. Olesm grunted, and the wood rose…
Erin breathed. Olesm’s grip slipped as Mrsha hopped on the table. It fell with a crash.
“I’m stronger! Did you see that?”
“The boon is your guests? The variety—”
Kiish stared at Erin. The Earl, meanwhile, was laughing. Olesm seemed to have inherited more than just Relc’s famous strength though, or maybe it was the sudden rush of power.
“I feel tougher. Is this how Relc feels all the time? I need—”
“To the weights room! We have to quantify this!”
Palt galloped over, followed by Montressa and Bezale. Olesm looked up.
“Yeah! Let’s go!”
They practically left Erin in the dust. And half the inn—Erin was actually unable to follow the blue-scaled Drake as a flood of people went after him.
“Whoa! We need bigger hallways! Hey—I’m the one with the Skill! Hey—”
She stumbled. Someone caught her.
“You do realize what this means, don’t you?”
She blinked. The Earl had remained. Even his company was pushing to see, and discovering the weights room along with a lot of guests. Altestiel was looking at Erin.
“It means the boon can be a lot of guests? I dunno.”
The [Innkeeper] met his eyes innocently. Altestiel smiled.
“You had the same thought I did. Any guest means any guest, surely? Such as…”
Xrn the Small Queen? Ilvriss? Relc? Klbkch?
Erin had thought the exact same thing. She took a slow breath. Altestiel was a bit worrying. In that…he wasn’t fooled. He’d seen too much of what she could do, too soon.
“I…who were you thinking of?”
“To name a few names? Xrn. Myself. Magnolia Reinhart.”
That last one surprised Erin. She thought for a moment and then smiled.
“Not Magnolia Reinhart? Is it her level?”
The Earl was surprised. Erin shook her head.
“She’s never been a guest. She came through the door once, but she wasn’t exactly a guest. You…I don’t think you’re quite right either. But Zel—I think I could do a bit of Zel.”
She frowned, puzzling it out. It was because…the Earl was probably around Zel’s level. Maybe even lower? Erin didn’t know that, but they were close enough.
“It’s because…Zel was a guest for a long time. You’ve only been here twice.”
“Ah. A Skill worthy of the [Innkeeper] indeed. One cannot simply steal a guest’s full might.”
Erin laughed lightly. But she was edging away from Altestiel ever-so-slowly. He was giving her a very disconcerting look.
One full of admiration.
“I guess…not. It’s not like Olesm’s that strong, anyways.”
“Dead gods, did you see how much that was?”
The roar came from the weights room. Erin scowled. She looked at Altestiel. The Earl was chuckling. Then he looked at Erin, seriously.
“Miss Erin Solstice. I have no intention of purloining the secrets of your class—or Skills. If my understanding made you uncomfortable, I sincerely apologize. It is simply—”
He gestured towards her. Towards the inn. The [Knight Marshal of the Rains] bowed slightly, towards the shorter, younger [Innkeeper]. Erin tensed—Lyonette peeked out of the kitchen with a worried frown.
“…I am a taken admirer of you already, Miss Erin Solstice. Would you do the honor of hosting my small group? I would be delighted to play another game of chess, if you have the time.”
Erin Solstice blinked. Kiish, hurrying back to check on the Earl, smacked into a wall.
They kept staring at her. Too many people, a vast crowd. Even though it was her inn—Erin did not like being the object of attention. The center of it, if need be, but not a thing.
She had to do something with them. And unlike the restaurant, it was her inn. So, Erin Solstice leaned over and shouted.
The young man jumped.
“I wasn’t doing anyth—what, Erin?”
“Everyone’s cooped up inside! Let’s get a game of baseball started! And some football?”
People’s heads lifted at the familiar names. Some with the interest of casual players. Others—
“Did she say ‘baseball’? The game on the news? You can just play it around here?”
What a funny thing to say. And yet—Erin’s inn was one of the few places in this world that had a working collection of gear, players, and the knowledge of how the game should go to casually pick it up.
Joseph looked around as people focused on him as well. Joseph, the [Kicker]. Joseph—another name that had circulated, albeit in a different context.
“You’re asking me to start baseball?”
“Just get it set up! Ask Rose to help! Please?”
He nodded after a second. And like a gathering wave, the crowd split. Some remained in the inn, but the rest followed Joseph, because they wanted to see the game, because they wanted to be outside, and because they might appear on Wistram News Network.
Soon, Erin heard the crack of a baseball meeting a bat. It was a simple sound. Crisp, loud—it made some of the others stir.
It was a good sound, was the point. Oh, it might not be a regulation bat by Earth’s standards—the bat was in fact, an enchanted piece of wood someone had brought from Liscor that Rose immediately disqualified on the grounds that it was enchanted to bounce the ball twice as far as normal—but it had a cadence to it.
Not like the thud of a club hitting a skull. Not the snapping of crossbow strings. Or even the breaking of bones. It was the sound of a sport.
The sound you heard on a peaceful day. And you needed that.
“Give the bat to a kid if they play with adults! But you can’t just bring an enchanted bat to a casual game! If Gold-rank adventurers start playing, bring it out.”
Rose the referee snapped at the unhappy Drake. Erin laughed. Liscor had a proper football field too, and a baseball diamond! People trooped down the hill. Some remained to watch Erin experiment with her new Skill.
“Let’s see. [Boon of the Relc]!”
“Yeah! Y—why am I saying that?”
Jelaqua paused in flexing her arms. Everyone started laughing. The last three people Erin had applied it to had all made similar sounds as they experienced the rush of the Skill activating.
Some notes on the boon. Firstly, it was definitely different from Lyonette’s boon. Erin could reapply the boon a lot faster, but it was still one person it could be active on only. Which limited its strength a lot compared to a blessing.
Moreover, she had the sense that it wasn’t permanent like Lyonette’s boon was. Erin’s was more varied, more temporary.
And it changed your personality a bit. Jelaqua immediately headed to the weights room. But to her disappointment, it did nothing for her personal best.
“What? But my body’s fresh! I—oh, rot. I’m stronger. Not my body! How is that fair?”
The Selphid complained. Another funny lesson.
“That’s boon Skills for you. Not like enchantments. My turn! Do me next, Erin! Can you do someone other than Relc?”
Montressa waved an excited hand. That was just what Erin had been thinking of. Also—she was seeing how impressed the others were.
A [Boon of the Guest] Skill was…good. But it shouldn’t have been this effective, or easy to reapply. Unless—you were a Level 45 [Innkeeper]. That might have made the difference.
“Okay. What boon…what boon? What about—”
And here Erin made her first mistake.
“[Boon of Saliss]!”
She tapped Montressa forehead. The [Mage] blinked.
“Whoa. My eyes feel—and my—”
The [Aegiscaster] stumbled back, and then caught herself nimbly. She was not the most agile on her feet, being just above Palt and behind Bezale for nimbleness. But that seemed to be a lesser effect.
The greater one being Montressa’s throwing abilities. That was fascinating to everyone.
“Shouldn’t she be good at alchemy?”
“Maybe. But Saliss is a battle-[Alchemist]. Maybe it’s—dead gods, Montressa!”
She skimmed a coaster over Palt’s head. It curved—and Mrsha and Visma ran after it, jumping and missing it. Ekirra was already outside, queuing for a game of football.
“This feels great. I feel agile, I could throw anything—maybe I’m smarter! Or better at alchemy. Let me see! Where’s Octavia! Whew!”
Montressa was grinning, on a giddy high of her own. It seemed to be a common phenomenon. Then she paused.
“Does it feel…stuffy to anyone in here?”
Menolit’s head turned with a sudden insight. So did Erin’s.
“Uh oh. Let me just—”
“Montressa. Not a good idea—”
“I feel really confined—”
Palt, Bezale, and Ulinde tackled Montressa before the worst could happen. And before it did, Erin reapplied the boon on another assumption.
“[Boon of Bird]!”
She pointed at Bird. The [Bird Hunter] stopped, halfway towards collecting his breakfast. Everyone turned to stare at him.
What would happen? What would—Bird slowly picked up a hard-boiled egg. He chewed at it as Erin’s finger wavered.
“Hello. I am Bird. I feel no different.”
“What, not at all?”
The [Innkeeper] felt crestfallen. Bird looked at her, almost sternly.
“I am already Bird. I am so much Bird that I cannot be more Bird, Erin. Therefore, the boon has no effect. That is obvious. You must use more logic.”
“Sorry. I’ll do better next time.”
He took his tray and walked back upstairs. After a moment, Erin decided to try [Boon of Pisces]. She hoped it would cause sniffing. Because that would be hilarious.
Someone stopped her as she looked around for a target of her suddenly boon-shy audience. Montressa’s crimson cheeks had suddenly alerted her guests that there was danger in the boon—at least as strongly as Erin could apply it.
“Psst. Erin. Would you mind putting the boon on me and leaving it on? I’ll pay. Anything except being naked to my feathers I’d take. And some of your soups? Do they go bad?”
Erin twisted. And there was…
The Garuda was smiling. But she and her team were all geared up, unlike the other casual guests. Erin blinked.
“Oh, right! You want to use it to go into the dungeon? What, am I going to rent my Skill out?”
She saw Lyonette’s eyes light up. Erin scowled at her. But Bevussa demurred.
“Not the dungeon. Someone saw the Wings of Pallass in action. Or they just realized they can hire one of the few flying teams on the continent. We have a job to the north. Search and recover some heirloom from ruins high up along the High Passes. Can we use your door?”
Erin’s jaw dropped. So did several Pallassians. A job for a Drake adventuring team?
“Wow! I mean—sure. I don’t know about my boon, Bevussa…”
“That’s fine. But what about your magical foods? That’s a cheaper Barkskin equivalent, right? Even if they do taste like Shield Spider entrails.”
Erin put her hands on her hips.
“I’ll have you know they’re improved! And a bit stronger? Maybe. Um…you could take them for like, a few days before they get nasty. A lot more if they’re refrigerated or in a bag of holding. Anyways, the Scale Soup is now the Scaleguard Sandwich! It’s…a giant stuffed artichoke leaf. But it tastes better!”
Bevussa brightened up.
“I’ll take eight, then. Double dose.”
“Shut up, Issa. Artichokes won’t kill you.”
Erin bustled into her kitchen, happy as could be. Her forays into magical food had paid off! Indeed, even the giant artichoke leaf sandwich was a thousand times more appealing than…blue sludge. Someone actually ordered it just to see what it tasted like.
“A job to the north? Think we might get any takers?”
Keldrass and his team, relaxing after their combat as well. Bevussa could only shrug; her team could fly to their destination and back, meaning they didn’t have nearly the same travel time and they could deploy faster.
“But the Flamewardens are the mostly highly-armored, elite group in the region.”
Bevussa snorted at that. Jelaqua raised a fist and punched Keldrass in the shoulder.
“Only because you outbid us for the Heartflame Breastplate, scalehead.”
The Oldblood Drake smirked. Right up until Selys slapped her forehead.
“Oh, Ancestors. I forgot. This isn’t a great time to bring it up, but—Keldrass? Once your lease of the Heartflame Armor is up, it’s actually going to General Edellein. Or Pallass in general. They want to lease it for a month and…they’re paying a lot more. Sorry.”
“What? But I’ve been wearing it for—”
Keldrass choked on his drink as Jelaqua chortled. The Drake tried to argue, but he wasn’t really able to outbid Pallass. He looked like he was going to cry.
Everything was changing. Not just in the inn. Levels had been earned by many after the battle in Invrisil. Almost everyone who had fought had leveled, come to that. But among the notable levels were…
Pawn. The [Priest] was walking the Painted Antinium’s barracks in his Hive. He should have been at the inn. And he would be.
But he was mourning the dead. There were always dead. Precious few in this battle. Only six Soldiers and eight Workers had fallen and the Black Tide had marched on Invrisil.
He was responsible for that. And Xrn. Yet still.
The Centenium was waiting for him after he turned from the fresh markings on the wall.
“A strange Antinium, even for an Individual. We did not mourn our dead—save for the greatest among us. You though—you treat each Antinium as if they were Centenium or Queens.”
“Should I not?”
Xrn tilted her head as she considered the [Priest]’s question.
“I am not Klbkch. If you wish to, I can only admire such beliefs. But I will not share them. If I cared, I could not sacrifice.”
“That is at least better than Klbkch.”
Pawn replied slowly. He had seen Xrn wiping out her enemies, flying overhead, like a figure out of Ryoka and Erin’s tales.
A peak of might. Compared to her…but Pawn was growing stronger. And Xrn knew it too.
“You are beginning to learn more tenets of your class. A different power. And it comes from…Heaven? Belief, rather than a thing?”
She asked him about that constantly. Pawn nodded.
“Good. Keep it that way. And show me—your new Skill.”
Pawn hesitated. Xrn was pushy. Klbkch was authoritative, though. He put two of his four hands together, and murmured.
“[Prayer: A Leaf in the Storm].”
He felt it working. A tiny thing, here. But if Antinium prayed together as they marched—Xrn studied Pawn. She raised her staff.
She loosed it at his shoulder. The spike of ice shot towards Pawn. He flinched; but at the last moment something pushed the spike slightly to the side. It missed him.
“That was dangerous, Xrn.”
She ignored him.
“A Skill that allows the Antinium to march through missiles and even spells. Magnificent. You have the Skills that we needed in the first and second wars.”
“But they are not Skills I desire to use for war.”
The Centenium paused and turned back to Pawn. She was going to investigate Yellow Splatters. She looked mystified at the pushback in Pawn’s words. Then she smiled.
“Of course you do not desire it. How amusing. How amusing…”
She walked off, chuckling. Pawn watched her back. And he thought—the Antinium should have a farm on the surface, as they had been offered. Just a farm. Xrn, he realized, thought of some great conflict. Yet Pawn was realizing more and more that someone had to save the Antinium. Find them a safe place, not a temporary reprieve. Erin had begun it. And she had helped make him.
He would have to do it himself.
Another level of note was the first in the entire existence of the young…woman…who sat in her room. She had declined to join the hustle and bustle below.
She could hear the chatter. Laughter, Erin’s voice. And then the game outside. She could hear more clearly. Her eyes felt sharper, and they had been already capable of perfect night-vision.
The sunlight streamed through one window. Fierre could have left the shutters closed. But she was watching the ray of light from the shadows.
Slowly—she extended a hand. Moving it through the ray of light. Instantly, her skin turned dark, as if it had tanned for hours. She regarded the peeling skin after a second pass, the red sunburn.
But it faded. She would heal. She had to know how weak she was.
Because she was strong.
Fierre’s stomach did not growl, as it had almost continuously after Ryoka had given her the potion. She sat, languid, able to think. And she realized she’d been operating on a lower level of energy and thought. Because she had been starving.
Only now, she knew what she was missing.
A Level 7 [Assassin]. A Vampire. She bared her teeth. That kind of…windfall…wouldn’t come so easily again. Amid the distraction, with all those—
But now she knew. Fierre smacked her lips together. Felt it again. She made a sound.
“Hrkgh. Hkk. Hk—”
It was…rather like watching a cat throw up a hairball. With about as much grace and appeal. Fierre slowly regurgitated something black into her hand. She regarded it.
She went for the charcoal pills she’d had made up. But secretly, as she wiped at the bile in her mouth, she was very pleased. And—confident. She felt so confident now. Invrisil? She was done with Reizmelt, honestly. Invrisil would be her home.
The Vampire stretched. Someone—something was on her side. Ryoka, perhaps. And she was on Ryoka’s. She lay back. Her class was attuned to her—[Assassin] wasn’t her first choice, but it was a good one for an information broker like her. And clearly—it was giving her the Skills she needed.
Her very first one had been [Body: Reject Toxins]. Fierre began to chuckle to herself. She rolled over on the floor, languid, powerful, a True Vampire of Izril—
And rolled into the ray of light.
“Aah! Ow, ow, ow!”
The last great leveler among the many was not someone Erin knew. Nor was she at The Wandering Inn.
The two [Witches] spotted her on their way back towards Riverfarm. Laken Godart waited for them. The [Emperor] was suddenly very busy, having established more of his credentials by their involvement.
And more—because he was suddenly a firm believer that the party could happen.
“Lady Maviola El. Quite a striking person, eh, Rie?”
“Absolutely, your Majesty.”
The nervous [Lady] watched as the flame-haired woman rode off. Neither one mentioned the fact that she wasn’t going to return that horse. Laken nodded.
“We’ll need to upgrade everything as she said. Well, we already have suitable housing. Gifts—there’s Ryoka’s work to be done. But let’s devote every resource towards the party. I will leave it in your capable hands to directly manage it, Rie.”
“Your confidence in me is—is very gratifying, Emperor Godart.”
That was all he said. The [Lady]’s loyalty might never have been higher. As for Laken Godart himself—he drummed his fingers on his leg.
“That statue of Ivolethe, Rie? Have two more made. Tell Jelov if he can’t get one done within three days, I’ll ask for the others to do it. And do we have [Poets]?”
“A smattering, amateur, one with the class as their main, Emperor.”
“Have them come to me later today. I think some suitable odes would be in order. Now…”
He leaned back and tracked the progress of the two [Witches]. Then he heard them.
“Stop! Would you stop—”
Alevica was screaming as they screeched into Riverfarm. And it was a scream, a howl of wind.
They’d replaced her broom. After all, it was just a broom. Alevica had spares. But—the problem the Witch Runner had was that she wasn’t flying.
Mavika’s leg was still broken, and set. So she’d decided to use Alevica’s broom. They were flying through the air like an arrow, weaving through trees on the ground—Mavika the Crow seemed to be enjoying herself.
“You’re insane! How do you know how to fly?”
“Did you think you were the only [Witch] who ever tried?”
Mavika’s voice was almost amused. She was sitting side-saddle on the broom, her splinted leg and good one dangling as her flock trailed behind. She remained like that even as the broom slowly rotated her upside down—to avoid a branch.
That was more than Alevica could do. The [Witch] was holding onto the broom’s bottom and flying along behind.
They passed over a large crowd toasting the preening Centaur and slowed at last. Mavika lowered the broom as Alevica ran to throw up. And there she was.
Charlay the Dustrider was being celebrated. Modesty was…not in her nature.
“There I was, eleven [Assassins] on my tail! But I kicked up a dust cloud and circled back around—they never saw me coming!”
The proud Centaur was itching to demonstrate her new Skills. Her enthusiastic crowd…backed up. They were all set for listening to the local heroine’s tales, but they were getting tired of the clouds of dust she could generate with her hooves.
Those who were not laughing or smiling came for lunch. They had a bit of trouble entering, though.
“Hold on. Who’re you lot. Shady buggers.”
“Who are you, sir?”
Wilovan, Ratici, and the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings stared at the group of adventurers letting people enter the inn.
“Captain Todi of Todi’s Elites. Making sure no bastards come into this inn—just a bit of pro bono work, actually. And you’re a group of ne’er-do-wells if I ever saw ‘em. Here, Miss Solstice, should we kick ‘em back—”
Erin shoved Todi out of the way. She grabbed the two Gentlemen Callers and hugged them tight.
“How are you? Come in. All of you!”
The Brothers stirred. They had hoped—not even expected—an open door. But what they got was a free lunch, drinks—
Friendship. Captain Todi was promptly ignored as Erin sat with the Brothers. She had abandoned a game of chess for it, having given her last boon and realized that it was running out of power.
You couldn’t keep slapping it on people. So, she’d given her [Boon of Numbtongue] to Drassi. The [Reporter] was off-duty since the news was just doing coverage of the aftermath and she’d done practically all-day coverage yesterday. She was currently jamming out with Numbtongue on one of his spare guitars.
That was all Erin said at first. The Brothers were reduced in number. Perhaps some hadn’t come, but…
“Are you burying Teor today? Or have you already…?”
“We’ll see our fellows off later, Miss Solstice. Don’t you worry. A proper, respectful little thing. Nothing grand, but nothing small.”
She nodded. Then looked at Ratici.
“If it’s alright…I’d like to come.”
“That’s not necessary, Erin—”
“I’d like to. He died because I asked him to. It’s the least I could do. I’m going to Redit’s funeral. And Lord Toldos…he’s being…prepared.”
The Brothers looked at Erin. She held their gazes. They tipped their hats to her. And then they ate.
Food, drink. Baseball, the news, or a game of chess. Uncomplicated things. A bit of excitement. But it was healing, resting after those days of days. After a while, Erin Solstice had a thought.
“After you two are done, Ratici, Wilovan—and the rest of you. You should see something. In my [Garden of Sanctuary].”
They looked up at her. Erin’s eyes glittered. But they would be there.
They would always be there.
Lord Alman Sanito didn’t know why he was here. He felt ashamed. And certainly out of place.
He had not ridden with old Lord Toldos to his death. And…he had not been asked to.
House Sanito had fought for Invrisil. Their banner had earned them commendations from other nobility. But he had not.
“You have a wife and kids.”
That was all the [Innkeeper] had said. Now—Alman looked around the inn. His son, young, a [Lord], looked at his father uncertainly.
“Go to your mother.”
Lord Sanito informed the boy. He wasn’t sure if this inn was for his sons. It was so—informal. No one had greeted him. He had to wait for others to be served first! Albeit not long.
Erin Solstice herself had greeted him like, well, one of her guests. It wasn’t even to upbraid him; she’d completely forgotten he was here amid the other guests.
Including an Earl. Lord Sanito had swallowed his complaints for that alone. Even so—
He forgot his complaints. He forgot the small bit of anger at the death of old Lord Toldos, dying and not being mourned by all of Izril amid the drama of yesterday. The retainers, who had come here, lost, of House Everight—
She brought them to their knees. Not with any word. With sight. With a single place.
The hill was grassy. A small bench. Sometimes a tree. And always, if you came here, a statue. So lifelike that but for color they could have turned and greeted you.
Lord Toldos sat on the bench, in a moment that had never happened. But might have. He looked half-relaxed, turned to talk with the young man beside him as Redit looked ahead, perhaps watching something.
Teor had his tricorne in his hands. An earnest look on his face as he spoke to the old [Lord]. The Brother’s hats were in their hands.
“Memory. Statues. I don’t know. But if you ever want to come here—my door will always be open.”
Erin looked at the three and rubbed at her eyes. There were more. Antinium, gathered together, inspecting what might have been an actual anthill in the grass over there. Two more Brothers she had seen, walking along.
Here they were. And here they remained. Lord Sanito looked at Erin Solstice.
“May I—show my family this place?”
“Of course. Wilovan? Ratici?”
The two Gentlemen Callers were looking at Teor. Crimshaw looked about him.
“…More than a fellow could ask for. This—”
He didn’t finish his sentence. He didn’t need to. The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings looked around. Good fellows. Bad men. They lived well, they were able to sleep most nights.
But they would die forgotten, but for the other short-lived people who remembered them.
Except here was immortality. A bit of forever. Erin Solstice stood on the hill for a while. And she wondered if the first person to gain this Skill, the Harpy [Empress]—had made this place.
Surely, she had. She had been like Erin, in that. The [Innkeeper] saw one last statue, as she turned to go. Then she did start crying.
Tritel stood on the hill, his gloves dangling from one hand. He looked content. But he was waiting. And the longer the better. But someday—his friend would be here too.
Look upon her. She had led more Goblins to death than Garen Redfang, his old Chieftain. She had asked Humans, Drakes, Gnolls, and more to die for her.
They would not have done it if she didn’t care. Badarrow was still shaking from his encounter with the hill.
He stood in the Garden, far below. Amid mortality. That hilltop could tear your heart to pieces if you stayed. It was terrifying. Wondrous. But terrifying.
In the inn, Numbtongue was listening to Drassi trying to copy a riff. He was grinning—but ducked out as a crowd of admirers drew around, wanting to try the guitar.
Like the other Goblins, he wasn’t at home with so many…other species. Even now, he still felt like Badarrow. A sense that but for Erin, they might have been enemies.
Were there daggers behind the Earl’s smile? Badarrow stayed in the Garden as Numbtongue trudged over.
“Erin went up to the hill?”
The [Sniper] grunted. He didn’t need to talk with Numbtongue. The [Bard] was chatty—perhaps because he had not recently been in the company of other Goblins.
“Chieftain will want to see hill.”
Numbtongue stirred. He looked at his old friend. His brother-in-arms. But time had changed them.
Snapjaw. Numbtongue’s posture had been by turns, amazed, happy for Badarrow. And faintly, envious. Badarrow understood, of course, and it was just the shadow.
“Erin not changed.”
That was all Badarrow said. Numbtongue looked up at her, lost on that hill in the mists.
“No. She’s changed a lot. Fire and…lot changed. Garden. See?”
Badarrow nodded. But for once, the Goblin communication network had lost his true meaning.
“Yes. But not changed. Here.”
He tapped his breast. Numbtongue looked at him.
They looked back up.
“Will you come with to Goblinhome?”
The [Bard] stirred. He looked at Badarrow.
“Maybe. For bit. But this…will you stay?”
Badarrow knew it to be true. Numbtongue’s face fell. Badarrow looked at him.
“Erin does not need…me. Lots of Antinium. Scary blue-death one. Adventurers. She does not need…us.”
He meant himself and Snapjaw. It hurt, a bit. For the days when there were just five Redfangs—Badarrow would have traded so much. If only you could make the past the same as today and take the best of both.
“Yes. Does not need…”
“She needs you.”
Badarrow looked at Numbtongue. The [Bard] blinked. But that too was true. Not Badarrow, but Numbtongue. The [Sniper] looked at his friend.
He reached out and touched Numbtongue’s chest. The [Soulbard] closed his eyes.
That was all Badarrow said. Numbtongue blinked. Badarrow had been shocked, even frightened, uncertain about the ghosts that Numbtongue had taken. But now—the [Sniper]’s eyes held something else as he looked towards the hill.
“Yes. Good. You stay here, protect here. Visit Goblinhome. Talk to Chieftain. But here. Maybe if you have Shorthilt. And Pyrite, then…”
Numbtongue’s eyes widened, and he nodded slowly. The two stood there. And looked up towards the hill as the [Innkeeper] descended.
Tragedy and grief took place in the garden. Elsewhere—Joseph kicked a football into the air and people ran after it, shouting. People laughed.
Mrsha sniffed the air. She padded over the floor. And eventually, the patch of air grunted.
“Gnolls. I could have sworn I was odorless.”
That was true. But as Grimalkin reappeared, Mrsha smirked and pointed at his foot. The [Sinew Magus] regarded his foot.
He’d stepped in some spilled blue fruit juice on the way over. He folded his arms as Mrsha smirked up at him.
“I am not spying. I was simply observing without wishing to cause an altercation. There is a difference.”
Mrsha smirked. Then she went to fetch Grimalkin some of Imani’s healthy appetizers. The Mrsha-fee was 18% of whatever she got. Grimalkin murmured as he eyed the odd bowl of orbs.
“What is this. Some kind of…ball of compacted nuts? Hm. What is it called? A…protein ball? What is that?”
He eyed the mix of nuts held together and baked for a slightly crispy bite. Imani had worked them up when she noticed the gym’s popularity. Grimalkin popped one into his mouth.
“Is this…actually nutritious? Where’s the person who made it? I need a word.”
Mrsha nibbled at hers happily. Indeed, Imani had changed the inn for the better. Joseph was playing football, Rose helping out…
And here came the Players of Celum. They swept through the door with a second wave of guests.
“Here’s the heroine of the Battle for Invrisil! No, the Three-City War! I’m working on the title!”
Andel the [Writer], Wesle, Jasi, Emme, Kilkran—the entire crowd made Mrsha’s head snap around. And there was Galina!
Each to their own. Wesle elbowed Andel before the [Writer] could go on.
“We’re not here to cause a scene, Andel. We are here to say hello to Erin. And to take part in that game of baseball! At least, I am.”
“The Players of Celum?”
Eltistiman checked a running Human before they could lunge at the Players, begging for autographs. More chaos in the inn—and Erin wasn’t out of the garden yet! But this time the Players were taking some of the drama off the [Innkeeper].
Earl Altestiel looked up with a blank stare of shock from his game with Bird. Not only because he was losing somehow, but because he hadn’t put together the Erin-Players connection yet.
“I am winning. Yay.”
Bird confided in Olesm, who was playing Kiish. The [Strategist] looked at Bird in dismay.
“You’re not doing that bird-game, are you?”
“I am not always silly, Olesm. I am playing to win. And I am a [Tactician].”
Bird had leveled up in that class at first. Olesm stared at Bird’s game—he was pressing the Earl! True, neither were using Skills. But how?
“Are you just that talented?”
Bird made the closest sound he could to someone blowing a raspberry. Silveran and the other Antinium turned to stare at him.
“Foolish Olesm. Talent does not define a chess player. That is what Erin says. And I play her every day. She bets bird dishes on each game. So I must beat her.”
Erin Solstice knew her opponents. At least, how to motivate Bird. Wesle spotted the games of chess and headed over with the air of a [Humble Actor] who intended to use [Method Acting] to win a few games by copying Erin’s skills.
He was about to get his rear end handed back to him. Meanwhile, Jasi spotted Drassi and asked to play on the guitar. And wasn’t that a repeat of the same moment everyone had seen on the news?
Laughter resumed. By the time Erin Solstice reemerged with the silent crowd, they were swept up in the mood and they could smile.
Times for silence, times for action. Times for merriment.
And time to work. Most of the Earthers had a spot. And even if it wasn’t permanent, they were gainfully employed, like Rose. Heck, even Leon was helping manage the games outside. Troy was somewhere else, though. Galina was acting.
And Kevin was working.
The Wandering Inn was still under construction, although less than eight Workers were working on Bird’s tower or small renovations these days. That might soon change, especially since Selys was looking at spots for the new shop.
She wanted more in Liscor, but Kevin didn’t want to walk. And neither did Hedault or Pelt.
For the moment, it was a sign hung on one of the private rooms. Kevin had turned it into, well, an office.
He was creating a filing system. Kevin, who had worked part-time in a bike shop, now wished he’d memorized the system they’d used to file orders. And it was ironic—he’d hated his duties and only worked because he needed money.
“Is this the shop?”
A man pushed open the door. Kevin glanced up, in the act of dipping his quill into a pot of ink.
“Hello. This is Solar Cycles. I’m Kevin. How can I help you?”
The richly-adorned man hesitated. It was a small room, but Kevin had put the bike shop’s new name on the door. He was rather proud of it. Catchy and puntastic.
“You’re the one who made that vehicle?”
“I’m Kevin. [Mechanic], and one of the co-owners of Solar Cycles. I didn’t make the bike alone; I’m just managing the shop. How can I help you Mister…?”
The man drew himself up. He was wearing silk, and, Kevin noted, some ostentatious rings.
“I am the representative of Lord Helmaunt Terland. [Merchant] Enitere. Lord Helmaunt will purchase six of your cycles—at an appropriate price.”
Kevin blinked at the man. He sighed.
“I’m sorry, sir. But we’re not accepting new orders right away.”
The [Merchant]’s eyes bulged.
“Did you not hear me? My [Lord]—”
“Can you authenticate his identity?”
Kevin interrupted Enitere. The haughty fellow hesitated.
“Prove his identity? We’ll take Mage’s Guild certifications—they have to come and tell me in person, though. Merchant’s Guild works too.”
“How dare you imply that I—”
“Also, does he beat a [Marquis]? This Lord Helmaunt? Or Lord Deilan El?”
Kevin happily interrupted the man. The [Merchant] lost his words again.
The first few orders had been scary. And they’d come in like rain, even yesterday. But today, Kevin had a system down. He helpfully showed the man the list he was working on.
“You’ll have to be put on the reserve list, mister. Once you authenticate. I have dozens of orders, and Master Pelt and Master Hedault are at work at once, but we do have to go by priority. Some people have paid for it—and we can’t rightly offend the leader of the House of El, can we?”
“Er. No. Lord Deilan ah—that is to say—”
“Also, our prices are high. But here—I’m having these worked up. But here’s a prototype. Prices subject to change.”
Kevin helpfully offered the man a small catalogue with all the prototype bikes. Tricycles, the standard bike, a highly-tuned version like the one Ryoka had ridden—he hoped the one she had was still working, he wanted it back!—and more. The [Merchant] took it.
“Er, thank you.”
“Tell your [Lord] we’ll accept his order and get right back to him! Solar Cycles!”
Kevin called after the man. He went back to work. Every few minutes someone would interrupt. An [Engineer] from Pallass, a [Trader] seeking to get on the ground floor of this business way too late—
All his experience running the counter on Earth made Kevin…ideally placed for this job. In fact, he had talked to a number of people not even in this room.
“Mechanic Kevin? Another speaking stone for you!”
A Gnoll City Runner knocked on his office, breathless. She was half-exasperated, half in awe. A speaking stone! Way above the [Messages] that you normally got. Yet—Kevin had defaulted to the service industry standard. He didn’t even think as he thumbed it—after tossing the City Runner a seal and a tip—and raised it to his lips.
He’d done phones too, after all.
“Yello. This is Solar Cycles. I’m Kevin. We’re not accepting new orders at the moment, but if you’d like to leave an order, I can get back to you. Inquire at your Mage’s Guild for prices and options. Hello?”
It could have been anyone Kevin was talking to. A member of the Four Great Companies—royalty from some distant nation.
The smart ones made appointments. But Kevin just spoke casually. He was taking a page out of the Erin-book, or rather, the Kevin-manual. Just roll with it, like begging in Invrisil.
He heard silence from the other end for a moment. And wondered if he’d failed to activate the stone. It looked expensive. A custom-linked speaking stone—a lodestone enchanted that you could link with another across the world. Not like even the other ones the Mage’s Guild had given him. Odd. Was it not a stone at all? It looked like…
Then the voice spoke.
“I am Fetohep of Khelt.”
Kevin’s fingers jerked back. He stared at the speaking stone.
“Um. Hi? Can I help you—”
He was scrambling for an encyclopedia of names. Khelt, Khelt…that name sounded familiar. The hollow voice spoke in his ear.
“I desire these bicycles for my kingdom. Money is no object.”
Kevin found Fetohep’s name in the encyclopedia. He instantly made a notation at the top of his list.
“Er—of course, your Majesty. Your Undying Majesty, Ruler of the Sands, Guardian of the Kingdom of Khelt in death and life—”
He was reading off a list of appellations provided by the Diplomat’s Handbook, Edition #2411. This seemed to please the Ruler of Khelt.
“I wish a dozen of these vehicles.”
“Y-yes. Absolutely, your Majesty. But Solar Cycles—our shop is just manufacturing these highly-artisan, custom-forged works. We can’t mass-produce them. We—have orders for a lot of [Lords] and [Ladies]—other kingdoms, even—”
“Khelt shall obtain them first.”
It was not a question. Kevin winced.
“The issue is—”
“Whatever the highest order is—I will double it. Do not take more of my time with the minutiae of lesser bidders. Simply inform the Mage’s Guild of Khelt of the price and it shall be paid. I am content to wait for the peak of craftsmanship. Time matters less to me.”
Kevin was writing like a madman, underlining Fetohep’s words and desperately wishing he had an auto-transcription Skill. Selys needed to hire a [Receptionist] or [Secretary] now. If he had a minute to run—but he was speaking frantically.
“Absolutely, your Majesty. We have a small selection—I will send it via the Mage’s Guild.”
“Good. Now you will answer my queries. You are the inventor of these…bicycles?”
The delicate question made Kevin hesitate. This was where it got tricky. He’d done this before and slowly replied.
“It’s…a collaboration, your Majesty. The idea isn’t mine. I’m just a [Mechanic] that puts together the pieces which are made by Masters—”
“Then where does the notion of this device hail from? Some…new…creation?”
“I’m afraid I can’t reveal confidential details, your Majesty. It’s…new, yes.”
“I…see. The secrets shall remain thusly, then. Send your selection to my Mage’s Guild.”
The pregnant pauses could have formed a baby shower. Kevin was sweating. But he’d deflected well enough.
“At once, your Majesty. And we will deliver the first bicycle to you right away—”
And notify everyone else they’re being bumped down the list. Kevin was no entrepreneur, but he’d heard of bidding wars over less back home. You could dream. He relaxed—a moment too soon.
The voice of the undead ruler spoke through the speaking stone.
“This is well. I await your work with interest. And should your work please me, Khelt’s borders will lie open to you and your kin. Remember that, Kevin of Earth. I shall not forget your name.”
Kevin’s fingers slipped. He gasped and involuntarily, spoke.
He snapped his mouth shut. But too late. The chuckle was all he heard—then the bone speaking charm disintegrated. Kevin stared at the bone dust on his table.
They knew. And there were some smart people out there. The kind who had insight. Who listened. Who looked for the root of things.
Kevin’s papers scattered as he vaulted his desk and ran.
It was too late to put the Djinni back in the bottle. Too late to take back awareness.
Too late to take back friendships, too.
Delanay d’Artien waved at the group being cheered into Invrisil. The Silver Swords were still a bit grimy, but they entered the city to wild cheers. Ylawes looked right at his childhood friend and Delanay blinked as he saw Ylawes’ intent gaze.
It was unmistakable. Look at them. Even if they hid their levels via anti-appraisal gear. Look at them.
Erin Solstice. Lyonette. Standing amid [Actors], an Earl, Antinium unlike any other—
It was only a matter of time. And with that understanding, everything shifted. Sometimes you had to be bold.
Erin Solstice was talking urgently with Kevin. The young man was wide-eyed. She pointed towards the Garden.
The Gnoll sighed as he stood, adjusting his clothing. Damn well past time. He strode forwards.
“Miss Solstice? My name is Ferris—”
He got that out before someone shoved him. The Gnoll stumbled. Erin’s head turned. Ferris turned.
Someone dragged him off his feet. The [Infiltrator] went for his sidearm. But he paused as he felt the prick on his fur.
“Ferry! My old buddy! Let’s go for a drink!”
A grinning Gnoll had grabbed him. The same one who pushed him. Ferris growled, on sudden alert.
“I’m sorry, I think you’re—”
He heard a whisper, in his mind. A kind of sub-vocalization Skill that you used if you had certain classes.
“You’re out of your jurisdiction, Manus. Play along. Pallass’ Eyes.”
The Gnoll grinned at him. Ferris twisted, debating his options. And he saw someone stroll past him, using a cane for support.
“Well, well. It seems there are some interesting players in the inn today. Would you mind if I joined your company?”
Altestiel had sensed the intruder and his escort before seeing him. The [Knight Marshal] was already on his feet.
Erin’s head turned.
Kiish straightened. The [Knights] of Desonis and the others in the Earl’s escort looked up. The [Soldiers] of Pallass that Chaldion had managed to bring into Erin’s inn despite her ban eyed the Humans.
The [Knight Marshal of the Rains] and the [Grand Strategist of Victory] locked gazes. It was like distant storms, humidity and wind in the air meeting the clarion call of horns, the sound of metal on metal.
Everyone flinched back as the two looked at each other.
“Grand Strategist. What an unexpected surprise.”
“The Earl of Desonis, the Knight Marshal of Rains. It has been a while since I met a Terandrian of such note.”
Chaldion’s good eye glittered. Olesm slid back from his table. He couldn’t help it. Nor had his legs moved. He stared down. His chair was being pushed with a slow screeching sound without anything touching it.
He breathed. The others were of the same opinion. Desonis’ company squared up as the Drakes behind Chaldion halted. Everyone was far clear of the clash. They watched with trepidation, awe, speculation, or just sheer enjoyment of the moment.
The two hadn’t blinked. And for all Chaldion only had one eye to Altestiel’s two—was he stronger? Two invisible forces clashed—the players outside looked up, as if sensing a change in the weather. The intensity in the air was like nothing they’d felt except those few times—
“Dun dun. Dun dun dun. Ba dum.”
A voice from the side. Altestiel’s gaze flickered. Chaldion looked sideways. Erin Solstice.
She did a quiet drumroll on the table.
“Dun dun dun!”
Both auras collapsed in an instant. Tension had a half-life of seconds in front of that kind of…Erin looked at the two.
“Stop stare-fighting in my inn. Want to play chess?”
She looked at the two. Chaldion’s lips moved. The Earl laughed. Erin Solstice looked at the two as the inn relaxed. Then she had a thought. She went upstairs and came down.
“I have a special board I’d like you two to play on. You two are pretty good at chess. So do your best. I will too.”
Dun dun dun. They stared at the chessboard and the smart ones remembered another kind of legend. A mysterious opponent.
You couldn’t take it back. Nor did Erin Solstice try. She sat down and moved a pawn forwards.
“The Wandering Inn.”
Ignorant of the chess tournament occurring in the inn itself, Geneva Scala stared at the tiny spot on the map where Liscor was. She’d had to look it up.
Paige, Daly, everyone was clustered around.
“Yep. And a bike. And…Ryoka Griffin?”
Daly traced a finger across the map. It wasn’t even a world map; and the distances were already vast. He looked at Geneva.
“It’s a long way away. If we even wanted to get over there. Let alone move the entire company…”
“Do we need to?”
“Strength in numbers.”
He countered. The others murmured. It was so far. A continent away. But there was…certainty.
“One person could make the journey. But it’d take a long time.”
Paige muttered. Siri looked around. Luan rubbed at his neck.
“It’s really far, yeah?”
Ken and Aiko nodded. The [Rower] glanced at them and looked at Geneva.
“To get there in any reasonable time…we’d need a Courier or something like that.”
There was significance in his words. The other stirred. After a moment, Kirana sighed.
“…Seve is on a delivery.”
That was all Geneva said. It was far indeed. And who might go to who? Did they need to? Rather—
She wanted to meet them. Joseph, the owner of The Wandering Inn, perhaps. Ryoka Griffin.
Names to remember. Certainly, other people wanted to meet Ryoka Griffin. Humble and grand.
Like the Gnoll who stood on Pallass’ walls. He had worked all night. Feverish. But now—the [Soldiers] who liked to mock him were staring. Eying something different than the feathered wings. It looked like wings still. But the fabric, the copy—
He leapt. And the Flying Gnoll of Pallass, Felkhr, jerked as something happened. His usual falling turned into—the Pallassian [Soldiers] on the walls stared. Someone fainted.
“I’m flying! I’m f—”
Felkhr shouted as the wind let him glide down the walls. Then he made a rookie’s mistake in the annals of flight.
Encouraged by his performance thus far, he tried to flap the wing-gliders he’d fashioned. Instantly, he lost the air resistance and went into a nosedive.
Everyone winced. Potions of Featherfalling normally saved Felkhr. Not this time; he’d gone down faster due to the aerodynamics of the wings.
“I—I was flying—”
They ported him off the ground in a stretcher. The Gnoll lay there, moaning. Both his arms were broken.
It wasn’t the first time, but this time hurt more. He was onto something! He was close! The Gnoll almost wept with frustration. His head lolled back.
Had he fallen unconscious—not a good thing as the [Healer] kept slapping him awake so they could set the arms and tend to the bleeding first—he might have been rewarded.
But perhaps that was just as well. Someone caught him in the knot of onlookers. The Flying Gnoll moaned as he was carried towards one of the large elevators.
“I was so close—”
“You’ll do better next time. And I think I can improve your designs. You don’t flap the wings, see. Not unless you had a lot more coverage. You could probably enchant them, but you’re doing it wrong. You’re way too heavy, to begin with.”
Someone spoke to him. The Gnoll, through a haze of pain, looked up.
The voice was so confident. The young man stepped into the Flying Gnoll’s line of view.
“I’m Troy. And I like flying.”
The chess tournament was Olesm vs Bird. Erin vs the magical chessboard.
The Earl vs Chaldion. For round one. Lesser players queued up, but the line of other Pallassian [Strategists] and Kiish and Belgrade were putting down weaker players before they ran into the top seeds.
And here was the competitive spirit. The Earl half-turned in his seat as he placed a knight, threatening two pieces at once. Chaldion looked annoyed as Altestiel smiled at Erin.
“You are aware, Miss Solstice, that your chess ability is so supreme that it is actually of considerable material value? One can level after playing you, and I would imagine that the effect reduces quite considerably after the first few games—but any [Strategist] or [General] would benefit from playing you. So long as they continued to struggle. I wonder if anyone ever mentioned that to you outright? I feel it is only natural to do so.”
Olesm guiltily knocked over a piece. Chaldion regarded the Earl steadily as Erin blinked and looked up. The [Grand Strategist] interrupted Erin’s reply.
“That was obvious, I assumed, Earl Altestiel. If I lost my first game against Miss Solstice, I might have benefitted more. Unfortunately, I won.”
The [Knight Marshal]’s smile faded. The two stared at each other and went back to the game. Erin finished her game with her opponent first. She was instantly deluged in offers for a game while the Earl and Chaldion played a slow—intense grudge-match.
“Kiish. Play this board. I’ll wait for the next opponent.”
Erin thrust the [Strategist] into the seat across from the magical chessboard, which was resetting its side. The [Strategist] instantly froze up.
Chaldion and the Earl turned to look at her. It could be someone else. But Kiish’s fingers trembled as she moved the pieces.
“Erin! Play me, play me—”
“Is that chessboard…?”
Erin backed up as she realized the crowd she’d dispersed had come back threefold. She looked around. Saw two Hobs walking out of the inn, and came to an instant decision.
“Okay, bathroom break!”
That stopped the mob in their tracks. There were acceptable things to follow someone around for—that wasn’t one of them. Erin edged out of the inn. She hurried after the two Goblins and flung her arms around their shoulders.
Badarrow and Snapjaw started. They looked over their shoulders.
“Erin? Not playing game?”
Snapjaw pointed at the inn. Erin rolled her eyes.
“I’ll come back after twenty minutes.”
She’d ditched them! Just like that! She winked at the Goblins.
“It’s not like the tournament revolves around me.”
How she liked to lie. The [Innkeeper] walked past the outhouses with the Goblins.
“So, tell me about Goblinhome.”
The two looked at each other. They had just been looking up at the High Passes, where Goblinhome was buried. Talking about the future.
“Don’t say much. Secret place. Secret things. Humans should not find.”
Snapjaw said it half to Badarrow, half to Erin. He glared at her, hurt on Erin’s behalf. But the [Innkeeper] just nodded.
“Don’t tell me where it is. But I’ll give you a mana stone if it reaches…or again. We can figure it out. Just—how can I help?”
The two looked at her. Snapjaw hesitated. Badarrow nudged her. See? See? She hadn’t believed him. She ignored his smirk deliberately.
“Goblinhome needs things. Nails. Potions. Rabbiteater got. But…was going to buy from there.”
She waved a claw at Liscor. Erin looked alarmed.
“That’s…dangerous. Numbtongue tries it sometimes, but—”
Both Hobgoblins grinned. They produced helmets and put them on. Erin started laughing.
“Hah! But wait—if you need stuff, Krshia can help. And Lyonette! What do you need? I bet you they can get discounts.”
Snapjaw removed her helmet with some relief. It was tight on her head! She consulted the internal list Rags had given her and went to the very first thing in light of recent events and in general.
Badarrow’s eyes brightened. So did Erin’s. They’d had the same thought.
“Why didn’t you say so? If that’s what you want—here. Let’s walk around the side and…”
She ushered the two Hobs around the side of The Wandering Inn. Then, Erin pointed and asked for a boost.
They climbed through Stitchwork’s window. Octavia nearly tossed the vial she was working on at them.
“Erin! Don’t do that!”
She clutched at her heart. Erin paused.
“Sorry, I didn’t think we’d scare you!”
Octavia had a thing about surprise-visitors of late. She waved it off.
“It’s okay. Just—don’t do that. Why didn’t you use the [Garden]?”
“I think Mrsha’s using it to play teleport-tag with some kids. I don’t want them to smash into a wall.”
The games Mrsha played with her friends were really fun. Teleport tag meant you could run through walls and it was almost as fun as monster hide-and-seek. That was where Palt cast [Cloud of Darkness] and the monster found people—you could move around in the dark.
“Why are you here, Erin? It’s a huge crowd out there, by the way. And no one’s buying. They keep asking if Saliss is here. Or where the restroom is. Or Solar Cycles.”
Glumly, Octavia went back to her brew. It was fair. She wasn’t the highest-level yet and her first Invisibility Potion attempt had failed.
But here was Erin Solstice. And Snapjaw and Badarrow. Erin pointed at the two.
“They want mana potions.”
Octavia’s ears perked up. She turned around.
Then she eyed her potential customers.
“Um…although, Erin, I have some I can give out. But the cost is—”
“They can pay, Octavia.”
The [Alchemist] brightened up instantly.
“Excellent! Not that I would have been stingy! It’s just—money for goods. How many mana potions do you need? I have a deal with Wailant, that cutpurse farming b—but I have lots of Sage’s Grass, even if I do have to pay more than I should for it. You won’t get cheaper potions around!”
Snapjaw nudged Badarrow. Whoa. And she thought all his coincidence-stories had been just talk! Octavia pointed at rows of potions, sold generally to the [Mages] in the inn.
“How many are you looking for, um, Snapjaw? Badarrow? Great to see you again, by the way. I said that, right?”
Badarrow nodded. Snapjaw consulted her internal orders. She pointed at the shelf.
“…All of it?”
Octavia turned around slowly. She removed an ear and Snapjaw nearly leapt into Badarrow’s arms.
“What was that? Let me just resew—”
“As many as have. And healing potions. As many as can buy?”
Badarrow informed her. Octavia looked at Erin—the [Innkeeper] was just as amazed.
“Er—and what’s your budget?”
The two Hobgoblins conferred. That made Octavia worry—right up until Snapjaw pulled something out of her bag of holding.
She put a handful on the counter. Then another. Then—a lump of gold. Erin and Octavia stared at it.
Badarrow smirked. Numbtongue wasn’t the only gifted Goblin miner. Pyrite’s legacy. Snapjaw shrugged.
“Found some in Goblinhome when digging. Kept running into it. Very pretty. Too heavy, though. Used for adventurer bait. Is good as gold coins? Have more. Also—this?”
She produced something else that made both of them stir.
A wyvern’s fang. Octavia blinked at it.
“Good for arrowheads. Weapons. Got more. Good meat?”
“D-do you have a Wyvern’s head?”
“…Bones? Good soup stock. Calescent make good Wyvern-brain jelly.”
Badarrow shook his head rapidly behind Snapjaw, making a gagging motion. Octavia was blinking.
Goblins. Who had artifacts, gold from adventurers. Who didn’t prize money. And who had access to a lot of monster parts. Heck, even Goblin toenails if you believed Xif—
“Will give more. For potions. All potions. Many as can make.”
Badarrow informed Octavia. She looked around. Her shelf of mana potions? All she could make?
She looked at Erin. Then she thought about the offer from Pallass. Octavia shook her head.
“This is why I stick around.”
Erin Solstice returned to the chess tournament after a few more minutes. So much was happening. But she should have been watchful.
All this attention—not all of it was positive. You had to watch for the future. Someone waited for their moment to get to her.
And someone found Joseph as he went for some hydration, panting. The games of football and baseball were underway. He was ascending the hill, and reflecting that they needed a barrel of water and some oranges or something.
“Ishkr, could we get—”
Someone grabbed him and pulled him behind the inn. Joseph jerked.
“Hey, what the—”
“Joseph of The Wandering Inn.”
Someone whispered into his ear. Joseph twisted. He saw a figure, covered in…shadows? They came from a hat he wore on his head. Someone in disguise.
“Who are you? Hey! H—“
The figure stopped him again. Joseph realized the sounds from the game and inn had stopped. They were in a bubble of silence. The figure advanced.
“I have an offer for you from my employers.”
“Whatever you want—”
“Hear me out.”
Joseph held still. The figure looked around. And then advanced.
“You stand to make a lot of gold. If you agree. Listen to me, carefully. Do you think you could train a football team to beat both Liscor and Pallass’ teams within the month?”
The young man from Spain stared at the shadowy—suddenly much-less-frightening figure. The Invrisil representative produced an exclusivity contract for their new team—they wanted to be the best team in all of Izril! And they were both Humans here—if Joseph would become exclusive manager, they’d pay—Joseph’s eyes bulged at the sum.
He…was going to need to talk with Erin about that.
Calruz of Hammerad did not go out to celebrate. Nor—did he leave his cell. That being difficult. But he did stare at the scrying orb someone had left behind by accident.
Placed just outside his cell, actually. Since the cell would have cut off the signal. He could ask for it turned off since you could watch it all day. Rhata and Haldagaz were sitting on his head, watching the replay. The Minotaur kept watching.
“Well done, Ryoka.”
He waited. Doing one-armed pushups. Then lifting weights. It was odd to think he was in far better shape now than even before entering prison. But what else was he supposed to do?
Erin Solstice actually had to go to the bathroom after four more games.
“Stop following me!”
She opened the door to the outhouse twice to throw things at the crowd, who hadn’t believed her after her first bit of duplicity. Erin eventually stopped throwing rolls of toilet paper as the crowd dispersed, mostly thanks to the cloud of smoke covering them.
“Thank you, Palt.”
Someone was waiting for her after she left. Erin stopped adjusting her belt and blinked.
She had been prepared to throw something at the next person to bother her. But this person merited some respect.
“I wonder if I might borrow you for a moment before you return to that engaging tournament? I’m taking part myself—but we have urgent business.”
“We do? Urgent? What about?”
Erin followed the long, sinuous tail and walked apace with Hexel the [Architect] as they left the inn. Instantly—a crowd spotted her.
“She’s trying to get away! Get—”
They walked into the [Garden] and everyone who wasn’t wise splatted into the seemingly-open doorway.
The Lamia was here. Of course he was. With a Gnoll who had been cheering him on as he rose through the tournament’s ranks. But the [Architect] had business with Erin. As they slowly walked around the Garden, he admired the Fortress Beaver’s dam.
“You are aware I love buildings, don’t you, Miss Solstice? There’s something indescribable about edifices. Permanent—until someone knocks them down.”
“Or blows ‘em up.”
The [Architect] nodded.
“In your case, your inn has been destroyed, what, twice now?”
“Mhm. Wait. Maybe three times? You lose track. You know, Lyonette wanted to hire you, but she said you declined.”
“I was rather busy with my principal job. I still am; I must design an entire city, and that is no small task. One I enjoy—but I have realized your inn should become just as high a priority.”
Erin waved a hand awkwardly.
“Aw. You don’t have to. It’s decent as it is—unless you think there’s something wrong?”
“No, it’s quite Terandrian in design, but wonderfully made. The Antinium did a fine job. I certainly don’t intend to redesign everything…but I would like to offer my services for certain improvements that you desperately need. This day, in fact.”
Erin couldn’t think what was alarming the Lamia so. Hexel looked at her, and sighed.
“Your magical door. With this incident with the Guild of Assassins, the door must be guarded at all times. It is no longer appropriate to just leave it…unsecured.”
“We have the hallway of traps.”
Hexel rolled his eyes.
“Yes. But—Miss Solstice. Allow me to put it like this. You are aware one can simply…pick up the magic door and move it wherever they please? If I wanted, I could grab the door and drag it out of the inn.”
“…No one’s done that more than once. Besides, we need to move it sometimes. For tactical advantage and stuff.”
Erin shuffled her feet, coughed. Hexel gave her a long look.
“So you left it unsecured. Moreover—even with the hallway of traps, the [Assassins] simply walked into your inn because you did not detect them.”
“If you’re going to tell me I’m being stupid, I’ll admit to that, but it’s hurtful, Hexel.”
The Lamia laughed at this.
“I would not be that indiscreet. And rather like your [Farmer] friend’s solution to your door’s mana problem—I have an [Architect]’s solution to these needs. If you will look at this?”
He murmured a Skill and produced a piece of paper. It unfolded—into multiple dimensions. Erin saw a three-dimensional projection, a blueprint in color and detail, appear.
She had not seen his presentation to the Council of Liscor and was agog. The Lamia gestured at the floating design.
“Allow me to show you my proposed fix. This is the simplest of methods to secure your door. You see?”
Erin saw. And it was so much easier to see than a blueprint, or even a picture. She saw the door, suspended above a small staircase. Fixed in place by…
“Bars of wood? No, wait—”
Yes! They were like wooden door bars, except they secured the door by all four corners! And they had…locks! They turned as Hexel manipulated the design. The door came clear and two Gnolls that looked like Ishkr carried it off.
“A simple lock and wooden bars means ordinary wood with your [Reinforced Structure] Skill can lock the door into place when it is in this entry spot. And it would still be stronger—far stronger—than normal brickwork or stone. The cost, with Antinium labor, is almost negligible. You could make this almost instantaneously.”
“That’s so smart! Hexel, you’re a genius!”
“You only noticed now?”
The Lamia grinned. Then he rolled up the scroll, making the projection vanish.
“That’s the simplest measure of course; one could still break the wood itself. This is a more ambitious design. I made it for fun.”
The second ‘Portal Entry Room’ as he’d titled it appeared and Erin’s eyes bulged. The first design had spoken to the practical [Architect], who could create something cost-effective and workable. This was the mad dream of a builder with an unlimited budget.
The second room was a lot larger than the first. A dedicated area for people to enter and exit by. However—it was trapped to all hell and back.
The magic door hung suspended over a walkway with a hundred foot drop into a pit. The inn actually extended all that way down, having been built extensively downwards. Meanwhile, a single suspended bridge allowed access to the inn which could not only be collapsed at will, but was also supported by an advanced version of Belgrade’s kill box.
For final effect, the entire room was underneath a body of water…Erin read the floating words ‘lake? Connected to Liscor reservoir?’ scrawled there. If necessary, and via trapdoors, you could flood the entire room and seal it underwater in an emergency.
“…That would be the second-most daring design. As I said, not practical. Very fun to draw up.”
Hexel rolled up the scroll and Erin’s mouth closed.
“That is insane. You made that for fun?”
“You didn’t like it?”
“I did, but—why are you helping? Not that I mind, Hexel, but—you have a job.”
The [Architect] smiled with his pointed teeth.
“I do. It’s self-interest as much as my occupation. I wouldn’t like to have the door stolen, or have [Assassins] bothering me in my sleep. I’ve nearly died once on Izril; that’s enough. If you’d like, I can work on a simple security system and have it done…today?”
“Wh—the door entryway?”
“No. That’s quite another thing. You would have to dedicate a room—and even with my Skills and Antinium labor, it would take longer. I mean, a security system just in the interim. It is remarkably easy. Give me one hour and the use of your Workers?”
Erin ran to get Belgrade.
She played two more long games against the Earl and Chaldion and beat both in the next hour. At the same time her mysterious chess opponent did the same.
Undefeated. They were playing at the top of their games. Erin was angling for a rematch when Hexel told her the ‘security device’ was done.
She found him overseeing an archway just over the door. It was ‘locked’ into the wall with a variant of the door-latch system he’d showed her. A very simple one, but he’d attached a metal lock to the bar.
“What is this?”
The archway looked close to one of those Japanese arches in temples to Erin’s eyes. The wood was…different.
“I had the Antinium and my assistants cut this to design. It’s just an amplifying design, Miss Solstice. Now—install it there, and there, please.”
The Antinium were already lowering the beams of the arch into the hallway. They’d cut holes perfectly fitting the pieces. Hexel was admiring of their technique.
“Antinium have a wonderful design system. Positively reminiscent of Dullahans, actually. Their concept of building individual pieces that can be assembled on-location is so much more efficient than static designs. And…aha!”
He gestured to the arch, a tiny bit smaller than the hallway itself. People would pass through…and it had something in the center. A socket. Erin stared at it blankly.
“It looks nice. But what’s it for?”
Hexel produced a glowing gem. He showed it to Erin.
“This is mine. The archway goes here. Truth stone embeds here.”
He reached up as the stone glowed blue. Erin’s eyes widened as Hexel extended his body and placed the stone in the socket.
“Truth spells can replace it later, but your average truth stone won’t run out of charge for three days…now, we test it. You there. Halt!”
Liska, who’d let in another group from Invrisil, looked up. And the mob of mostly-Humans stopped in their tracks. Hexel gestured at the stone, concealed from them.
It was about twelve people. The Lamia addressed them as they looked uncertainly at him and Erin.
“All of you. Are you entering this inn for malign purposes of any kind, be that theft, subterfuge, violence, magical works, or any purpose that goes against the interests of Liscor, The Wandering Inn, or the occupants of each? Answer one at a time, please.”
He pointed at the woman in front. She hesitated.
The truth stone glowed blue. Erin clapped her hands together as she realized. How simple! And how elegant! Todi and his Elites, who’d been doing the same with truth stones, looked at the [Architect].
“Trust a [Builder] to make it simple. Alright, Miss! Go on through. Next!”
The Gold-rank Captain motioned the woman through with the voice of command. Erin stared at Todi.
“Thanks. Um. Who the heck are you?”
The man’s face fell. Meanwhile, Hexel asked the others to respond. He didn’t even have to repeat the question. They came through one at a time—until one man blustered at the back.
“No, obviously not! This is such a waste of time…”
The truth stone glowed…violet. Erin’s head turned. Todi’s head snapped around.
“Back! Wands up!”
Instantly, his entire team lifted [Wands of Fireball]. Hexel was already slithering back. The man froze as Liska stared at the glowing wands.
“Don’t shoot! Liska’s there!”
Erin shouted. Hexel was looking at the stone. He peeked out from behind Todi.
“Half-truth. They’re not entirely lying…”
The white-faced man was backed against the wall, scrambling to open the door. Todi cocked a crossbow and aimed it at his stomach.
“Don’t move or we’ll nail you to the wall. Got it?”
“Okay! Don’t hurt me!”
The man began to sob. He was not an [Assassin]. Or the stone would have been red. Todi’s Elites made him divest himself of his belt, his money pouch, and his dagger. They got the truth out of him as the crowd watched at a safe distance.
“I was supposed to hire her. By any means necessary! Steal her recipe book, otherwise! I’m just an agent! I’m not a [Thief], though! I’m just a [Line Cook]! Don’t eat me!”
He begged to Erin. She blinked. Eat him? And who was he pointing at?
Imani. The [Cook] looked exasperated.
“I’m teaching people recipes! Steal my book? You could buy a copy of whatever you wanted! I…”
Her face turned thoughtful.
“I could hold classes.”
Hexel slithered over to Erin as the panic subsided. The [Innkeeper] was about to go to the finals of the game—when he stopped her.
“That is a stopgap. There are criminals and other classes who can beat an average truth stone. But as I said, I worked last night on designs and I can continue to do so. Add some design-based improvements to your inn to complement your Skills—your [Grand Theatre], for instance. I’ve worked with similar Skills.”
Erin brightened up at once. Then her face fell.
“H-how much would it cost…?”
Lyonette was there in a moment. Apista buzzed off her shoulder, chasing Erin away.
“Erin, allow me to handle this.”
She smiled at the Lamia. The [Architect] watched Erin run back to her chess tourney in some relief, and then Apista go back to terrorizing guests with her very presence.
The [Princess] and [Architect] had some measure of each other. They regarded each other in silence. Then, Lyonette gave him a sweet smile. She didn’t insult him by wasting his time, but she ushered him over to a table. A drink was already waiting—the sweet milkshakes the Lamia loved.
“Master Hexel, in addition to free room and board for you and your team—and we can certainly upgrade you to a room of your design, and individual rooms for your assistants if you would like—what else can we offer in addition to your fees?”
The Lamia chuckled as he took the milkshake and sipped gently.
“Ah, a reasonable Human at last! Well, to begin with, do you offer private dining?”
Lyonette’s eyes sparkled.
“Exclusive. A permanently reserved room for you and any guest? Antinium Workers can serve it; complete anonymity. Unlimited drinks from the bar, save for obviously excessive consumption?”
Hexel smiled widely.
“I think we can talk. Oh yes, indeed.”
The final chess game of the tourney began. You could focus on chess—but there was so much going on that sometimes it was a waste.
Chess did not define everything. Then again—he did so love it.
Earl Altestiel watched Erin Solstice play an opponent who was unknown—and who he thought he knew.
Look at her. Amid the drama. An [Architect], the [Players], games of sports outside. He had been right to come here.
He only wished he could stay forever. Or…take that kind of crazy magic with him. But therein lay the rub.
Earl Altestiel was intelligent. Intelligent enough to make Chaldion come to the inn. To worry, perhaps, a certain chess player.
And because he was intelligent, and he’d done his research, he saw the problem and didn’t make the others’ mistakes. He did not sweep in with grandeur and offers of an estate. Even a royal title—and he thought he could convince his Queen to give one—because that was stupid.
Know your opponent. Not money, not threats, and not offers of power. The Earl had thought about it and he was stumped.
How did you get Erin Solstice to leave her inn? He sighed. At least he was here first, instead of that damned Fraerling. Perhaps it was this chess tournament?
People wanted to meet Erin Solstice. If only to play chess. And for other reasons.
A certain Wall Lord. A certain Fraerling. A [Necromancer], a King of Destruction…
Many people took or tried to change what they thought the future would be today. And it was all coming together. All these plans, people tugging on strings.
For today, The Wandering Inn was just the center of potential. It was a day of excitement, a day of rest.
Until the last person came to the inn. And the future, potential, uncertain, arrived.
Too soon, perhaps too late.
The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] interrupted Erin from her game. She smiled. But her eyes were looking southwards. Ferris’ head rose. Ishkr looked at her. And Mrsha stopped playing and looked at Krshia Silverfang.
“It is time, Erin Solstice. The Meeting of Tribes will begin soon. Past time to go. The Silverfang tribe marches. Many from Liscor have already gone. I would like to speak with you, now, if I may. About Mrsha.”
Author’s Note: Can you feel the Volume ending? I have one more chapter left before my November break. I hope you’ve enjoyed these chapters.
They’ve worn me down. Enough so that my actual muscles—tendons, whatever, are a big unhappy. But stretching helps and it’s not actual pain. That part of my writing career sucked.
I’ll enjoy this break. But one more chapter. Let me know if you liked this aftermath chapter. And we’ll see if you can tell how Volume 7 ends.
Thanks for reading! Until next time, I’ll leave you with art by pkay, who did, among other things, an amazing Volume 7 cover about Ryoka, art of Erin by Arh, and more Erin, Cutlery Yvlon, and a commission of Pirate the character by Me! Not me…someone with a username of Me…give them lots of love!
Volume 7 Ryoka, Pisces, Yvlon, and more by pkay!
Sad Erin, Cutlery Yvlon, and Pirate commissioned by Me!
Chess, and Erin by Arh, colored by Enyavar!