Can you feel it? Sense it in the air?
The Fraerling hummed as he adjusted the doublet in the morning. He checked his reflection in the full-length mirror, barely more than a compact for anyone else.
He was the most famous Fraerling in the world. The only one with a name, really. One that remained.
Niers Astoragon. The Titan of Baleros.
The other species knew so little of his kind. Fraerlings were as reclusive as Gazers. As mysterious as Demons, if not so feared.
One foot high, and still athletic. Far stronger than he looked, although that was strong for his size. And…the [Grandmaster Strategist] checked his hair.
“Greying. Should I dye my hair, do you think, Perorn?”
The Centaur [Strategist] sighed. Another famous member of her species in her own right. She eyed Niers’ clothes critically. This was the third outfit.
“No. And the doublet’s too much.”
“Damn. You think so?”
“Try this one.”
She handed him another outfit, one less flashy. It wasn’t the style of the doublet, it was the eye-catching color. Niers Astoragon had clothes that could put a [Troubadour] to shame. Good-naturedly, he tried on the other suit, a more restrained Chandrarian-style outfit for semi-formal occasions.
“Thank you. I think this might do?”
“I’m not sure why you asked me to help you choose clothes. I’ve never even worn pants.”
“Ah, but it was you, Peclir, Foliana, or a few others. And you’re known for having a sense of fashion. The others? Not so much.”
Perorn preened a bit at the rare compliment.
“I suppose that’s true.”
She herself had a light cardigan on—something for teaching. And true to her comment—Centaurs wore kilts, or long dresses, rather than anything so form-fitting as pants. Niers shook his head.
“Fashion sense matters across species. I think it’s a talent. Even if there are no Centaur pants.”
“No doubt. And I didn’t say there aren’t pants for Centaurs. I saw a Centaur wearing them. Once.”
The Titan was sufficiently thrown by the comment, enough to stop putting on his boots.
“…Say what now?”
“Pants. I saw a female Centaur wearing them, once. The most unattractive thing ever. I nearly found the [Tailor] so I could kick him.”
“What did it look like?”
“Imagine…pajama pants, but all four legs. Ran all the way up to here.”
Perorn indicated her midsection. Niers hesitated.
“That cannot be comfy.”
“Oh, it wasn’t. She wore it to put off her suitors. It worked.”
“Dead gods. I wish I could have seen that. Pants on a Centaur.”
Niers sighed. But then he resumed putting on his boots, humming under his breath. A marching song, a tune from Baleros. It meant he really was in a good mood. Perorn eyed him.
She was a bit confused. The Titan could be jolly as you liked at times. Expansive, excited, keen—or sourly annoyed. His students had long learned to watch out for his mood, as had his enemies in battle.
But she wouldn’t have expected him to be so…chipper today. Especially since she felt like the news wasn’t calculated to make the Titan smile.
The news. It wasn’t just informant reports, or gossip anymore. It was…a thing. The scrying orb on Niers’ table-room aside, Perorn saw the ‘news’ lying there, freshly printed from the Mage’s Guild by a [Scribe] in ink.
Chess Weekly, delivered just this morning. She had a subscription herself and after reading the front page and the big font next to the stylized cover of the magazine (a giant rook piece on a chess board, outlined since the [Scribe] had to draw it for each edition), she’d been dreading Niers’ mood.
Eight of the best games you’ve ever seen! An exclusive interview on weather-based combat with the [Knight Marshal of the Rains] himself!
The writer of the magazine, this Olesm Swifttail, had begun to learn the art of selling each magazine. Headlines designed to attract attention. The subheading was the one that Perorn had winced at, though.
Earl Altestiel’s battle with Grand Strategist Chaldion! Best of 5! Down to the final game!
Earl Altestiel. If you didn’t understand why it mattered that he was in the same place as Chaldion of Pallass, you didn’t know geography or politics. But more than that…for them to be in the same place, they were in a certain building.
Which meant the famous Earl was there. And as Perorn had thought she understood it—Niers Astoragon should have been spitting fire. Certainly, he had been three days ago when the news had come to the academy. He’d had the students hiding under the desks.
But today he was humming. It boded. What, exactly, Perorn didn’t know. She studied the other pieces of paper on the table.
Next to the chess magazine was another sheaf of papers, this one copied out and harder to get ahold of—although it was offered at a pittance.
The Liscorian Gazette. Not as widely circulated as, say, The Pallassian Times or the other newspapers now competing for attention. This one was a local paper.
No less important to those who read it, though. It had memorable events, news for [Traders], adventuring opportunities—
It was going to change the world. Assuming of course, you had a supply of parchment or paper and the infrastructure to support this industry. Certainly, you wouldn’t get this in a nation newly impoverished due to war or catastrophe. But most decent nations?
Perorn could already see how it was changing things, let alone the scrying orb. It was exciting times for the [Strategist]. After all—she didn’t just specialize in war. The business of empire was her job.
The Forgotten Wing Company was a nation unto itself. One of the Four Great Companies of Baleros—and she was near the top.
She read with a practiced eye, catching headlines as she paged through the newspaper. Niers was busy shaving, assembling his morning kit—she opened the folded newspaper. Niers had to buy the large-print editions used by the ‘tall people’.
Few Fraerlings were employed in cities and he would have had to have the newspaper copied by a second, Fraerling [Scribe] to read it in miniature. He only did that for reports he wanted made permanent.
Well, that was his prerogative. Perorn read the first sidebar—for quests around Liscor.
Wanted: Adventurer to kill rats. Not a joke. Hundreds. Big as dogs, some of them. 2 CP per Tail, again, a bargain since there are HUNDREDS. Please hurry, inquire at Adventurer’s Guild.
“Nasty infestation of rats. Have you seen anything in the Fraerling-ways?”
“Not a one. Damned things. I’ve been thinking about finding a [Beast Master] who specializes in attack-mice. Fraerlings buy them for the villages sometimes.”
Even after having been comrades for so long, there were things you learned about the other. Perorn shook her head. A section on trade news…
…Prices up on Sage’s Grass nearly 17%, expected to rise further, according to local expert, Wailant Strongheart. ‘Business has never been better, so you should buy my stocks while it’s still cheap!’ says the former [Pirate], now successful [Farmer], and Strongheart Farms outside of Celum has indeed…
She passed by the ‘Business’ section. She knew the writer of that section, Drassi the [Reporter]. Ah, here was the main news. The first headline stood out to her as Niers muttered about cats.
[Farmers] Returning to Floodplains?
The article was speculating about the future of Liscor. Perorn had to remember the unique geography of that place. She read down…something about a crazy [Druid]…yearly floods, but…aha!
‘Now the Shield Spider population is so reduced, I’m really thinking about putting down some roots there. Rock Crabs—well, they’re nasty, but I have it on good authority you can scare ‘em off with some seed cores. Freaks them out. And why not? That’s perfect grazing land. Farming too, if you can find a big enough hill for the spring…’
A [Farmer]’s take on it. Celum, Pallass, even as far as Invrisil, prospective [Farmers] and [Herders] were thinking of acquiring a lot of cheap real estate.
“Good for them.”
“Good for whom?”
The Titan of Baleros emerged, boots on, freshly-pressed outfit straight and gleaming. Hair combed, and as always, artifacts on. Perorn nodded to the newspaper.
“Have you, ah, read the latest news, Niers?”
“I have, Perorn. Would you mind helping me towards the dining room? I don’t feel like walking.”
What was a 30-second stroll was a few minutes’ walk if Niers used the Fraerling-ways. Perorn blinked.
So he’d read the magazine. The Centauress frowned as she picked him up, set him on her shoulder, and trotted towards the dining hall.
Foliana was there. Eating beets. Cooked beets.
No one so much as bat an eyebrow. The Squirrel Beastkin, leader of the Forgotten Wing Company, was not alone.
Unusually today, Niers Astoragon had invited a number of people. He preferred to dine with only Foliana or Perorn, or his closest confidants. But now all of the top brass of the Forgotten Wing Company was present, eating, chatting…
The [Chamberlain] was eating uncomfortably with the others. Niers had insisted. Perorn recognized the six top-strategists Niers had recalled from their posts. Foliana, every senior instructor—who were also [Generals], [Commanders], and the best of the Forgotten Wing Company in times of war in their own right.
The citadel that had been converted into part-academy, part-base of the Forgotten Wing Company was the only real home Perorn had had for two decades. She forgot, sometimes, that it had been a base of royalty until the Titan had bought it for them. The exquisite private dining room was still far from filled. And the private [Chef] had laid out a sumptuous meal, even for breakfast.
“Lord Astoragon. Good morning. May I ask what this is all in aid of?”
One of the Dullahan [Strategists] stood up at once, more formal than the others. Some just waved, or called greetings. Foliana twitched her tail, looking ready to vanish at all the unwanted company.
“Would you put me down, Perorn? Thank you.”
Niers had a little dais and tray that allowed him to eat closer to head-height at occasions such as this. He regarded his meal, perfectly arranged in miniature. Then he took his glass, and tapped it with a fork.
The sound was tiny. Half the diners looked up, but some didn’t notice. Niers sighed. He lifted the glass, downed the magical, flavored water, smacked his lips, and threw the glass onto the table.
The shattering sound made all conversation stop abruptly. Foliana vanished and reappeared a heartbeat later. She stared reproachfully with her tricolor eyes at Niers.
“Your attention, please.”
Perorn rolled her eyes as she reclined into some cushions. Even here he had to steal the spotlight in the most dramatic way possible. A [Servant] delicately swept up the powdered glass as Niers looked around.
“Friends. Comrades of the Forgotten Wing Company. Foliana.”
The Titan looked around the table.
“I see a number of faces that haven’t been here in a while. Strategists—thank you for making the long trip.”
The six nodded to Niers. He went on.
“And congratulations—our interference in the battle with Maelstrom’s Howling and the Iron Vanguard was effective, unexpected, and eye-catching. Not what I would have done, but just as effective. Tulm was very upset. He nearly threw his head at us!”
The others chuckled. Perorn just listened. The six [Strategists] had formed a think-tank to come up with that maneuver, and facilitated the diplomatic agreements that led to the Bannermare getting her surprise reinforcements. Niers had ordered them to do it. He had not taken part in the planning, only execution.
“I’m sure you’ve all speculated why I asked for that little maneuver. And why indeed I’ve been moving our top people about. Concentrating them here when we have so many holdings.”
“I have to ask. Is it war?”
A Lamia grinned from her seat at the table. Niers threw a fork at her. It bounced off the scales of her arm.
“Don’t devalue the saying, Zecila! Too many people use it and it loses what makes it so great to begin with.”
“Well, is it a war we’re preparing for, Niers? There’s few other reasons to call more [Strategists] here.”
If they let him dance about, he’d do it for an hour. Perorn raised one brow and the others murmured. The expectation in the air heightened.
Was it war with another of the Four Great Companies? Niers shook his head after a moment, almost regretfully.
“No. The truth is, friends, Foliana—the truth is that I called the [Strategists] here to see if they could manage the Forgotten Wing’s affairs. They can. So—in my absence, they will take over. For a while.”
He let that sink in. The others blinked. Foliana chewed down another beet. Perorn started.
“Niers. Are you—”
“I. Am going on a vacation. Don’t worry. I have a double set up. The Forgotten Wing company does not lack for intelligence or capable minds in my absence. But I will be gone for a while.”
Silence. Stunned silence. Niers Astoragon had not taken a vacation…ever. He, like Foliana, embodied the newest of the Four Great Companies. They had any number of powerful, talented individuals like Perorn.
But the Titan was one of the reasons why the other Four Great Companies took theirs so seriously. And unlike Foliana, Niers was the most responsible, most…
It was the infatuation. Perorn had seen all the signs. The Titan growing distracted, moody—she’d seen it with the Lord of the Dance fiasco. She just hadn’t expected it to get this far. It had only gotten this far twice.
She and the others had questions. But the Titan just held up a hand. And there was silence. He spoke, looking from face to face.
“Friends. It won’t be long. But listen to me. I’ve realized something of late.”
He glanced at his reflection in a tiny spoon, at the others. All far older than when they’d first met. He chuckled, almost ruefully.
“We have grown complacent. All of us. Look at what we are. The Forgotten Wing Company. One of the Four Companies of Baleros and all that. But do you remember how we started? We were adventurers. A mercenary group, fighting for gold—running, negotiating—look at us now. Growing fat and complacent in our success. Our old age.”
“I’m not fat.”
“Shut up, Foliana. I’ve been thinking, and it seems to me that in Baleros at least, age is, if not complacency, then preservation. The old excel at keeping things running. At creating nations. Building and managing and maintaining things the way they are. The young are good at, well, destroying things. Growing fast. Not so much building.”
Fair statements, if general. There were murmurs, agreeing and dissenting. Niers sighed.
“When we were young—and I feel like it was yesterday—we fought like we were invincible. We won battles we could have never won with sense. In our old age, we’re cannier. We fight battles we know we can win.”
“That’s just good strategy.”
Someone snorted. Niers nodded.
“But it was that spark of youth, Juste, that let us beat the old guard. The old [Generals] and leaders who thought they had us cornered. When did we lose that? Have we lost that? Because if we have—it’s time to retire. Get out before we end up like the very same people we defeated. But if we’re still young—let’s continue. Which is it?”
Silence for a moment. It wasn’t something the Titan wanted an answer to, anyways. Perorn listened. Niers looked around, eyes glittering with excitement.
“…I’m going. I’ll be back. But I want to reclaim that youth, if it’s even slipped a bit. Friends. I leave the company in your hands. Peclir, Perorn, all of you—take care of Foliana.”
The [Rogue] rolled her eyes. Niers laughed. He accepted a tiny glass and raised it. The others did likewise, staring at him. He was serious.
“Let us never grow old!”
He drank, and they toasted him. Perorn rose, as the others ate or asked questions. Niers looked…excited. Eating his food quickly, chattering, trading jabs with Foliana—
“No, you can’t come. One of us gets to go. You’ve had your vacations. Try and sneak along and I’ll burn your t—well, actually, you can’t. So suck it up and eat your beets.”
“When are you leaving, Niers?”
Perorn saw the Fraerling turn. She expected him to say tomorrow, or in a week. Yet his smile was answer enough.
The Titan looked at Peclir Im. The [Chamberlain] bowed, shock on his face.
“Now? Then—which mode of transport should I prepare, Lord Astoragon?”
“No need. I have that set up. I just need you to do something for me to help me on my way, Peclir. You’re about to learn one of my secrets. Quickly now—I need to be on my way in five minutes. You just need to…”
He stood up. The others stirred, knowing which trick this was. And their speculation intensified. He really was leaving. The Titan rose. He turned, beaming, and swept off his hat.
He was gone.
The Earl Altestiel of Desonis left The Wandering Inn in the early morning. It was raining in Invrisil, as he began his journey home.
…Mostly over the carriage his people were bundling him into. Nowhere else, really. Just a storm cloud in the air. Erin thought it looked really cool. And silly.
And it was bundling the Earl, not escorting him. Erin Solstice had never seen an Earl being practically tied up and carted off, but the Queen of Desonis had apparently given an order no one but Altestiel dared to disobey.
“I could delay another day! Say there’s a damn Creler infestation on the roads!”
Altestiel was sulking as Kiish and two others tried to push him into the carriage without actually doing so. He turned to Erin.
“Miss Solstice. I hope I can prevail on you for at least a few games? Keep in [Message] contact? And my invitation stands…”
“Of course, Altestiel.”
She was trying not to laugh, but he took her hand meaningfully.
“If I could just say that—Kiish, I will fire you!”
The [Strategist] pulled.
“Milord, the Queen is threatening to remove your estates!”
“I have too many to begin with! Miss Solstice—it has been an honor. And if you should ever find yourself by way of Terandria…”
The Earl hesitated.
“…I could stay for that gala you mentioned. Kiish! Tell her Majesty that it’s a social event. Building ties with Izril. It won’t be longer than a week. Maybe a month to—”
“I’m sorry about this, Sire.”
Kiish and two [Knights] tossed the Earl into the carriage, slammed the door, and then jammed a piece of wood in the rattling handle. The [Strategist] turned to Erin as the coach began moving and an angry voice began to echo from inside.
“Miss Solstice, allow us to convey our gratitude on behalf of Desonis. I…”
She looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] stuck out a hand, smiling.
“Take care of him, would you?”
Kiish shook Erin’s hand. She smiled faintly. Then she hopped on the carriage. The Earl shouted and waved at Erin as he left. Then he sighed and, looking forlorn, disappeared.
So they left. But they would meet again. Erin shook her head over the silly Earl of Rain. She had rather liked him.
She returned to Liscor just in time. Wilovan and Ratici, who had escorted her as she said goodbye to Altestiel in Invrisil, paused by The Player’s Retreat.
“Miss Solstice. Just to clarify, as a man must do, but the door will be offline for an hour or two, is that so?”
“What? Oh yeah, Ratici.”
Erin paused. On the other side, Hexel was chivvying about a group of Lizardfolk and Antinium. The hallway was busy and everyone was waiting on her. The Drake nodded and sighed as he adjusted his hat.
“In that case, we might take ourselves off for a bit of a break. Just in that the door being offline might reduce the incidents if you catch my drift. Never fear, we’ve got two good folk on your side.”
“Okay, Ratici, Wilovan. If you want to! Hexel should have it installed and done in—”
“Four hours or less. Longer if Miss Solstice stays there.”
The [Architect] called through the door. Erin scowled and shook her fist at the Lamia.
“I’m coming! I’m coming! Sheesh—I’ll see you tonight, you two!”
She waved at the two Gentlemen Callers. They tipped their hats at her, then sighed and stretched when she was gone. Finally, a break. They’d been watching incoming visitors like hawks ever since the Invrisil incident. But they’d be free to relax soon enough…
On the other side of the door, Erin saw Hexel disengage the door from its temporary frame the instant she was through.
“Very well. Let’s begin the transfer.”
“Isn’t it as easy as just, I dunno, plopping it into another room and then building around it, Hexel?”
The Lamia slowly rotated on his serpentine body and looked at Erin under the reading spectacles he’d donned.
“Excuse me, Miss Solstice? Do you mean, put the door in any random spot in the inn? Not, as I had understood it, perfectly calibrating the door’s position to take advantage of the mana flow in the inn, the natural synergy of room design to begin with, even shaping the natural currents of mana to gather more strongly in that room? Well, if it’s just ‘plopping it down’, why don’t we just—”
“Alright, alright! I’m sorry! I didn’t know it was all feng shui and stuff. No need to bite my head off.”
“Then stop belittling my craft. If anyone could just put up a wall and have it as good as any other wall, then Antinium would rule this world. You’ll see results as well. Now—building team, with me. We’ll have to lay down temporary tiles once we see how the door fits…”
The Lamia slithered off. Erin stuck out her tongue at him. Then her eyes went round.
“Oh no. Wait. Is this a Wednesday?”
The Lamia turned around. Erin hesitated.
“The…third day in the week?”
He stared at her.
“Yes. By that, you mean—”
“I need to use the door!”
Erin threw up her hands. The discussion of applying a seven-day week naming convention to this world’s longer week was put to one side. Hexel grabbed her foot with his tail as she ran for the door.
“Absolutely not! Miss Solstice, I told you to make time for this! All your guests were aware I needed the door! If you keep using it—”
“I know. But Hexel, this is really important! Belgrade! Belgrade—can you change the door to the beige one? Please?”
The Antinium did so as the two Soldiers put down their burden, but his fingers slipped. He peered at the red stone marked with a ‘???’.
Hexel and Erin stopped arguing as the Lamia threatened to choke Erin into unconsciousness and Erin tried to explain. Both blinked.
“—What was that?”
Flicker. For a second, Erin saw…a hut? Beyond, some dirt, tamped down. She thought she saw someone jerk—
The light went out. Hexel frowned.
“What was that? The door just—”
Frowning, he slithered over. Erin stared at the red stone. She thought that had been—
“Wait, turn it back, Belgrade! Turn it back!”
The [Tactician] did so. But the door failed to activate the portal. Erin put her hand on it.
“I thought…what happened, Hexel?”
“It must be out of range. The door just drained all of its mana.”
The Lamia frowned, inspecting the wood. He looked at Erin.
“Where does that stone lead?”
“I don’t…know. I—how can it run out of mana?”
“At a guess? The connection was boosted for a moment. Perhaps your Skill is stronger or…something on the other end gave it the power to link. But it clearly ran out in less than a moment. Hm. Well—another reason to let me install the door in a specialized room. It might improve the connection and range of the spell. Which is why you will not be travelling—”
“I have to. It’s really important, Hexel.”
“What could be—”
The Lamia was ready to strangle Erin. But she looked at him and explained. And his wrath faded.
“…Very well. It may delay the door, but go. We’ll have it set to your destination. The orange one?”
“Thank you. Let me just get…um…I’ll be five minutes!”
Erin ran off. Hexel’s fingers twitched towards the wand he carried.
“If I hex her—will anyone object?”
The Antinium hesitated. Silveran looked at Belgrade. The [Tactician] rubbed at his head.
“Sometimes it may be warranted. But not in this case, I think, Master Hexel. Let us talk more about traps.”
“Oh, very well. Maybe we can test them out on her.”
The [Architect] grumbled. The building team took five. Which turned out to be eight. Erin had to change clothes. But no one stopped her or complained beyond that.
It was the second funeral she’d been to this week. She had asked—and the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings had seen off Teor by themselves. They thanked her. But they laid him to rest. She had seen him once.
The same with Redit. This funeral was grander than both combined. A procession of honor guards. [Lords] and [Ladies] in attendance. The people of House Everight.
A parade of thousands. Weeping, or silent, hats off. Kneeling or reaching out to touch the platform he was being carried on.
A bier. That was the word for it. The old man lay there. Much like in life.
No—better than he had been in life, in truth. The [Mortician] had brought some color into the cheeks, preserved his body. Concealed the wounds that had ended the brave old man’s life.
Erin saw it as she wiped her eyes again. She stood, near the end.
He would be cremated, as per his will. No coffin for him. Even in his family’s cemeteries, Lord Toldos had written, he did not want to risk his remains being despoiled by necromancy or death magic.
Cremation was, apparently, the most common practice. Sometimes the ashes were buried afterwards.
They lit the flame as the [Lords] and [Ladies] spoke. Then the retainers, one of whom was old enough to have known Toldos as a boy. The woman was in her eighties. And she shook as she looked at the burning light.
Erin wiped her eyes again. People stared at her. Some—some accusatorially. She had come, with flowers, in black.
The mourners wore white, mostly. Erin hadn’t known that. The colors of death changed. The meaning did not.
It was a bit too long. A bit too drawn out. It was sad to say—but each of the [Lords] had prepared a lengthy speech and not realized their counterparts would do the same. Erin listened, sensing the mourners fidgeting. A baby wailed—multiple ones.
Did it take away from the moment? Erin didn’t know. All she knew was that they had every right to hate her.
He died because of me. She did not say that out loud. But she thought it.
Redit, Teor—and more that she hadn’t known. She had seen the new markings on the wall of the Antinium’s barracks and asked Pawn about each one. Even if it had been less than she could have hoped for.
I asked him to fight for an idea. For what was right and good. I asked him if he would die. And he never hesitated.
“…Lord Toldos Everight was a true [Lord] of Izril. We will never see his like again.”
Erin Solstice looked up. Lord Alman Sanito was delivering the last lines of his farewell. They were the same words she’d heard others say.
We will never see his like again. He will be dearly missed. He was taken too soon. He died well.
If you were uncharitable, you could call them trite words. Too often repeated, until the meaning was taken away. Insufficient for a life.
“Miss Solstice? Will you speak?”
Erin looked sideways. Edere Sanito was holding a child, one of the ones who’d been complaining with more insistency as the funeral went on. The [Lady] stared at Erin uncertainly, like many here.
No hostility here. Just…confusion.
Who was this young woman? Why had the retainers given her a place of honor? Why—her?
Give meaning to his death. They wanted that. Erin shook her head.
Lord Alman left the pyre. Now—all those who wanted to could file by. And there were many. But the nobles of Izril were first. They went, one after another, paying their respect. Saluting the man with blade, swearing to hunt down the last of the Circle of Thorns, or the Guild of Assassins.
Children, holding onto their parent’s hands. Not comprehending the entirety of it.
A baby crying again. Shuffling people, moving into a long procession line. Erin saw Edere tugging her son along. The [Lords] looked back. The waiting retainers, the closest of the servants to the last [Lord] of House Everight looked ahead.
Hostility, not given voice here. Erin Solstice saw the smoldering embers, reduced to ash by the furious blaze. At least they knew how to burn a body properly in Izril. She had been afraid when she went to Redit’s funeral…
House Everight ends with me. It was one of the last things he had said. Then he had charged towards the Runner’s Guild.
He could have fallen back. He should have. He had plunged ahead, practically inviting his death. Vainglorious. Stupid.
The wrong thoughts for a funeral. Erin didn’t exactly think them. She’d just heard it said. She stopped by the embers, felt their dying heat.
She tried to remember the old man’s face in every detail. And it was hard. She had looked at the portraits of him, which captured a younger man.
But the truth was? She did not know him well. She had met him twice at length, other times to help bring through food for Everight, talk about the door. Reassure him that Bird wouldn’t go through, he was just looking.
He had fought for an ideal without knowing her well. And that spoke to more of Toldos than Erin knew.
She didn’t belong here. The gazes pricked at the young woman as she stopped there. How dare she? He was dead. Lord Toldos died for what? An arrogant young woman from…
The [Innkeeper] slowed, bending slightly, standing before the pyre. The wind stilled. The baby’s shrill cry, stifled once, breaking the somber mood—
—faded away. The biting flies, attracted to the crowd, stopped buzzing their wings. A noisy cough in the crowd seemed removed. Then stopped.
There she stood. The hostility in the crowd stopped. They saw…a young woman standing there. Dressed in dark clothing, teary-eyed. Not weeping, for she had not known him well. And she had wept enough.
She was here to pay her respects. She looked past the remains of the fire. Towards the venerable mansion. Over the heads of the crowd.
This was Lord Toldos Everight. This was his legacy. The worth of a man was more than how he died, or his funeral. It was in how he was remembered.
The Flowers of Izril, stopped in the street, looked back, sensing…something. The air was still, devoid of mortal irritations. Something more than silence stole the sound away.
There she stood. Erin looked past the fire. And knew—she did not remember his face. Not perfectly. But every line of it, every stern facet carved by age, every mark laughter had given him would be there.
In the garden. On a statue on a hill. Never forgotten. Nor would any of them.
He had not been her lover. Her dear friend. He had not ruled her, and she had so few words with him.
But he had died, fighting for what he believed was just and true. He had been her guest.
That was all. Slowly, the [Innkeeper] spoke. What she said, not even the closest to her could hear. Just a bit—perhaps minutes. Perhaps hours.
A moment. Then she stepped past him. Stopped.
Erin raised a hand in farewell. She shed more tears.
Then she was gone.
But the [Immortal Moment] remained. The next man to stand there spoke, and time dared not touch him. He walked past the pyre, and the next came.
It took a lifetime.
It took a moment. It was almost enough time to say goodbye.
The thousands filed past the pyre. In the time it took the embers to cool. Between the moment of a baby’s cry.
Then the moment ended. The baby drew breath to wail—and stopped, perplexed. A fly bit again. A hand slapped it.
The eyes followed the [Innkeeper] as she joined the wake. Then came sound, grieving by a different mood. Laughter, jokes. Reminiscences. Food and conversation.
It was a poor thing to let the dead lie too long in silence. Remember their names. The people of Izril knew that much.
It was a fast moment between funeral and wake. But a long time had passed, or so it felt. And the hostility? The first person to approach Erin was one of the [Soldiers] who had ridden for House Everight that day. Erin transferred the drink to her other hand and shook his.
There was nothing immortal here. But it was enough. She had given the one thing she had to the old [Lord].
“…Thank you. I’m so sorry…”
He nodded, teary-eyed.
“I—he always swore he’d rather die in the saddle than alone. Mind you, I don’t think he’d have desired it too much. But it was something.”
Erin nodded. Half-shook her head.
“He would never have died alone.”
The man paused. She was looking at him. His grip weakened.
“True enough, milady.”
“I’m not a [Lady].”
Erin shook her head. The retainer looked at her oddly. But then he bowed slightly and stepped back.
“Miss Erin Solstice. Was that…your Skill?”
“Yes. I’m sorry if it…”
Erin found herself speaking to a [Lord]. Not one she remembered directly. He had been at the riots too. He shook his head.
“It was—appropriate. Momentous. I thank you.”
“I’m glad. Lord Ranga, right?”
He nodded. Erin heard laughter. She turned. Someone was telling a story of Lord Toldos. They left his remains behind. Trying to capture the man, explain him with words.
His mansion would be filled. The streets of his town filled with people from the wake, celebrating it in their own way.
Erin wiped her eyes again. Lord Ranga looked away, as if they were something to be ashamed of.
She hadn’t known she could use [Immortal Moment] like that. She’d just…felt it. And it wasn’t as if she had used it on every person there.
Just on one man. One moment.
She was getting stronger. What a way to find it out. What a…
Useless Skill? No. The most important Skill in the world. Just not one that fit battlefields or fantastical scenes.
A Skill for a funeral. The [Mortician] had shaken Erin’s hand and thanked her for it. She thought of that class with more respect than she ever had before—not that she had thought of someone whose job it was to tend to the dead.
What an important job. Erin took another breath. She let it out. And realized Lord Ranga had said something.
Goodbye, Lord Toldos. I will see you again. And never. I wish—
Then Erin looked up.
“What was that, Lord Ranga?”
“…I said, I should be delighted if you visited House Owe. I believe Alman has tendered the same invitation? Certainly, it would be an honor. Have you met my son?”
Erin recognized the impetuous young [Lord]. She eyed Lord Ranga. Then she shook her head.
“Maybe in a bit, Lord Ranga. But there’s somewhere I have to be.”
“Well, I didn’t mean directly after this—”
The [Lord] looked slightly affronted. Erin clarified.
“No, I’m grateful for the invitation. It’s just—I have somewhere to be soon. Very soon. Actually—”
It was time. She looked up at Lord Ranga.
“—Have you heard about what’s happening on the Summer Solstice?”
“The Summer…ah. Do you mean the event in…where was it…Riverfarm? I did receive an invitation, but I thought it was far too late—and far.”
“Mm. What about with a magic door?”
The man looked struck for a moment.
“I hadn’t considered it—mind you, I hadn’t any desire to return to Invrisil. Say. Could I just walk through to visit House Sanito?”
“…Yeah? Wait, how did you get here?”
“We rode. It took two—and that door would have brought us through?”
Erin eyed Lord Ranga and took a long slurp from her drink. The man colored slightly in the meaningful silence. She threw him a bone.
“Don’t worry, I made the same mistake before I realized how to use it. Yes! Lyonette mostly sends through goods, doesn’t she?”
“The young woman? Er—yes. We have a shipment of nails from Esthelm, very cheap—very convenient! Lord Alman! Alman, Edere! Listen to this—”
Ranga practically dragged Erin over. Alman’s expression was much like Erin’s own.
“You rode here, Ranga?”
“Yes, I—wait. How did you get here, Alman?”
The [Lord] slowly raised his cup to his face. Edere hid her expression behind a fan and waved it delicately.
“What’s this about that event in Riverfarm? We received an invitation, but it seemed quite far. Are you planning on attending, Miss Solstice?”
More of the nobility looked around. They drifted over as Erin nodded.
“Yep. I’m told it’s…really important. Well, my friend will be there. She had better be there. I’m going.”
“I hear that rumored [Emperor] lives there. Although I heard it was just a [Baron]. Not an actual [Emperor].”
“I heard he’s called the Unseen Emperor. Who told you he was a [Baron]?”
“Er…well, he couldn’t be an actual [Emperor]. Could he?”
The nobles murmured. Some of them eyed Erin Solstice. They knew. The [Innkeeper] of The Wandering Inn. And the name of the inn—and she herself was enough that she was part of this aristocratic gathering amid the wake.
“There’s an [Emperor] there.”
Erin told them. They blinked. But they looked at her and believed. The [Innkeeper] took a breath.
“I’m going to be there. If you want, you can use my door from Invrisil. We have to leave soon.”
“So you are going?”
Edere glanced at her husband. Erin nodded.
“Me. And some of my…family. We’ll probably need like, an escort. But apparently there’s this coach service that can take us pretty cheap and fast.”
“An overnight carriage? Well—I did hear Lady Imarris was attending herself. And a number of the nobility. Lady Walchaís—”
“Lady Imarris and Bethal Walchaís? That can’t be right. They’d skewer each other with the dinner forks before attending the same event.”
Edere shook her head, looking as mystified as her husband.
“I know what I heard, Alman. It may be expedient to attend.”
“Do you know if Magnolia Reinhart is back on Izril? She promised to attend.”
Erin looked around. The moment she mentioned Magnolia’s name, the other nobles rustled like a breeze had run through them.
“Magnolia Reinhart was going to attend?”
“Yeah, I’m a bit worried about—”
Erin saw significant glances and listened to the whispers. She wondered if she shouldn’t have said that. But suddenly—Edere was asking her when she planned on going, and was a RSVP too late?
Well, it seemed like she had some work to do. Erin began talking up her door. And the party. Definitely an [Emperor]. Maybe even two! I mean, how would you know if you didn’t…?
Then she went and looked at the portrait of Lord Toldos. His family. She listened—and realized he had been at the Sacrifice of Roses.
House Everight ends with…it had died there. She listened. She wept. She shook hands and talked to people.
Then she went back home. She left those who knew him better time to grieve. And plan for the future amid death.
It seemed callous. But what else did you do?
Erin came back and upset Hexel’s calibrations. He swore as she walked through, but only sighed.
“Okay. Let’s all ignore that spike in the mana flow and recalibrate. Two more hours, Miss Solstice.”
She’d only been two hours? It felt…far longer. Belgrade was equally impressed.
“The last funeral took six hours to attend, Miss Solstice. I am pleased that the efficiency of funeral services has increased nearly 250%…”
“No, Belgrade. And that’s not the point. I think it was my fault.”
How long would the paying of respects have taken without her Skill? Erin hoped it had been something Lord Toldos would have wanted. But everyone had had time to…she walked past Belgrade.
“I need to talk with Lyonette. Sorry, Hexel.”
“Just don’t go back through the door! And don’t step on those tiles! They’re monitoring the mana—”
Erin heard too late. She heard a sound from the Lizardman and looked down.
Little marked tiles, with arrows and lines indicating some kind of mana flow—and other invisible currents in the inn spun, destroying the delicate pattern Hexel had been monitoring around the door to place it just so. Now they were all pointing at her. Hexel closed his eyes.
“…Brunch break. I need a drink.”
Erin slowly backed into the common room. By the time she’d changed into her typical dress, Hexel was making good use of his ‘free drink’ policy.
“I’m sorry! But I had to go—the stepping on the tiles was a mistake. Lyonette, by the way, we might get a bunch of nobles who want to go to the solstice party.”
The [Princess] put her hands on her hips and blew out her cheeks.
“And you didn’t discuss teleportation fees? The mana issue?”
“…Lyonette, you know I super appreciate you and everything you do, right, right? Have we given you a raise recently?”
“Save it. Erin—the party. Is Ryoka awake?”
Erin’s face fell. She rallied after a second.
“But she’s got time! And I’m helping!”
“I’m sure that would fill her with nothing but delight and confidence.”
The [Princess] relented at Erin’s hurt look.
“Oh, very well. But I’m worried about the party. We know where it is, and this…Lady Rie sent word that we had a free ride to the party. But should we go now?”
“Yes. I think. Maybe. And you’re coming, right?”
Lyonette du Marquin folded her arms.
“This is all something we should have discussed at the time with Ryoka. I’m beginning to think she’s worse at planning than you are, Erin. Who’ll manage the inn?”
“Well, he could hardly make a mess of it. Fine! But there’s more that needs to be done!”
Lyonette waved a finger, conceding that point. Erin chewed on her lip.
“Right. And if Ryoka’s asleep…Maviola needs to come. I know that. She should be here soon. Didn’t Olesm say she’d arrive today or tomorrow at the absolute latest? In that case—I’ll make sure we’re good to go now. Then we’ll leave at the end of the week with Maviola. Sound good?”
Lyonette looked at Erin, blinking. The [Innkeeper] smacked her palm with her fist.
“End of the week gives us like, two days! Maybe a day or two earlier? Just to be safe. I’ll tell the nobles to come tonight. Assuming they go back to their homes. Actually—they’re coming through the inn, even Lord Ranga. I’ll get them then. Let me just tell Mrsha, Numbtongue…do we take Bird?”
“That seems like—”
“—A bad idea. Right. Darn. Too bad. But it’s just too dangerous. Numbtongue? Maybe if he wears his armor. I’ll have to make sure.”
Lyonette’s eyes were bugging out. She was opening and closing her mouth. Then she burst out.
“Protection! You haven’t thought of—”
“Exactly. We should be careful, right? I was thinking the Halfseekers. And maybe Todi’s Jerks. If we invite Selys, she might pay for it. Do we take Olesm, and like—others? Wait! We’ll get the Silver Swords to come. And Fierre of course. I’ll talk to all of them.”
“Who are you? Are you really making plans? Albeit late?”
Lyonette stared at Erin as if the [Innkeeper] had turned into a Creler. Erin looked at Lyonette.
“Hey! I’m just being responsible. You should try it, Lyonette. Speaking of which! The others! There’s someone from E—okay, let’s get to work.”
The [Princess] was so offended she didn’t even have the breath to reply. She stared after Erin as the young woman strode off.
“Fierre! We’re going to the solstice party! You should pack!”
The Vampire glanced up.
“In Riverfarm? Ryoka’s party?”
“Yup. Ryoka should be there. No, she will be. I’m telling you since we might leave tomorrow—two more days at max.”
“Dead gods. I forgot it was Riverfarm. I—I need to buy some protective charms.”
“Wait, is there danger there? Ylawes! Do you want to go on an adventure to Riverfarm?”
The [Knight] glanced up, slurping up some spaghetti. He patted at his mouth.
“We need protection! Here, come over and I can explain. Fierre—is there danger?”
The Vampire girl shuddered. Erin nodded a few times.
“Needles, Ylawes! Evil needles, probably! We need your help! And—Kevin, Rose, Joseph—”
The three looked up. Erin hollered.
“You want to go to a party? Meet someone like us?”
They stared. Rose pumped her fist into the air.
“Oh, heck yes! You mean the super-party with the [Emperor]?”
“That’s right. Ylawes, Fierre will explain all about the…evil needles. Joseph, you find Troy and Leon. Rose, Galina. Kevin, I think Moore’s in the garden with Mrsha? Can you get him to send a [Message] to Jelaqua in Pallass asking if she can go? What’s her rates?”
The others scrambled about as Fierre edged back from Ylawes and he gave Erin a pained look. Erin looked about.
“No, Fierre? Okay, tell Dawil or something—now, I need to talk to Selys. And Mrsha and Numbtongue. Where’s—what’s up, Lyonette! Hey! Your hand is cold!”
The [Princess] was feeling at Erin’s forehead for a fever. Erin slapped away her hands.
“Don’t be weird, Lyonette.”
“Yes, you. Go send a [Message] to—actually, Temile! Temile! Lyonette has a job for you and the Players of Celum! Maybe Liscor too! We’ve got to get them to the party! Dead gods!”
Erin slapped her own forehead. Now she was thinking of everything—
But she had risen to greater challenges before. She’d organized a battle in less time. The trick was just…
“The Players of Celum performing for an [Emperor]? We’ll all level! I’ll tell Emme right away! She’ll rush everyone to—where is it? Riverfarm? Wait a second, I think she did get an invitation, but she turned it down—”
“Well, unturn it! Okay! Players done!”
Erin spun. Lyonette’s jaw was hanging there.
“Just like that?”
“That’s how you do it, Lyonette. Temile and Emme will handle it. So it’s like—check! Next on the list!”
The [Innkeeper]’s style of management was different from Lyonette’s. And the [Princess] was taking notes—Erin was a master-delegator. She poked someone, told them what to do, and let them do it. Wait—had she been doing this with Lyonette the entire time and was only working hard because she needed to now?
There were some similarities with the Goblin Chieftain’s ethos right there. Snapjaw saw Erin march into the Earth-rooms a moment later. She was overseeing a competition between Badarrow and Numbtongue. They were playing on Kevin’s laptop.
“You die. My turn.”
Numbtongue pounded a fist on the table. Badarrow was smug. He was winning, thanks to the most unfair of things—his aiming Skills let him hit his targets in the FPS-game better than Numbtongue, even with less experience.
“Numbtongue! We’re going to a party in two days or less! Not sure if you’re able to come. I’m gonna ask, but either way, Mrsha is coming. Yes, Mrsha! You can take Moore!”
Erin shouted back into the garden. A little furry ball raced into the inn. She got to take her Moore? Huzzah! She did a dance in celebration. But what about her Numbtongue?
“Ryoka party? With [Emperor]?”
“Yes! I’m going to ask but—Badarrow, Snapjaw, if I can get Goblins, do you want to show up incognito?”
The two Hobgoblins looked at each other. Erin’s finger wavered from Goblin to Goblin. Snapjaw raised a claw.
“…Party? Will there be lots of food?”
“Yup. Lots of nobles too. But lots of food—”
“Okay. Badarrow, we go. Tell Chieftain.”
Now that was the kind of decisive Goblin decision-making she liked to see! Numbtongue grumbled as he watched Badarrow turn back to his game.
The two brothers glared at each other as Erin checked things off her list. They could bring the laptop, maybe. Well, should they bring Palt? Montressa? Beza? You always needed a utility-[Mage]. Why not?
Drat! She kept forgetting Imani!
Within an hour, Erin had it set. Players? Check. Earthers? Check! Especially since Kevin was going to bring a bike prototype out and make some sales. Same with Joseph and the soccer ball. Imani would go, and Palt had asked even as Erin explained.
So that meant Montressa and Beza would also come. Which meant they needed more carriages. Especially since the Halfseekers and the Silver Swords were coming. Which meant Todi’s Jerks didn’t need to come, but maybe? It was a Ryoka-party which meant anything could happen and some meat shields would be great if it came to bad stuff.
Erin made a note to find out how much food they should take. Not that there wouldn’t be food there already…but she didn’t know.
She didn’t know. Ryoka had been in charge of the plans and she’d been preparing with Maviola’s help. But since Ryoka was out of action—it was up to Erin. And she regretted not getting on this a month ago. Honestly, she could have gotten…Grimalkin? Chaldion? Saliss?
Eh. That wasn’t exactly a smart move. Erin wouldn’t consider getting Ilvriss even if she could. Selys might be okay—not a Wall Lord of Salazsar.
No Antinium, and no super-important Drakes. Goblins now? She marched out of her inn. It was time to do what she’d been putting off.
It was time. She walked into the Mage’s Guild. The [Scribe] at an empty desk looked up, remembered yesterday, and hurriedly cleared his workload. Erin leaned on the counter with a smile.
“Hey. Can someone send a [Message] to…let’s see. The [Emperor] of Riverfarm? Tell him it’s Ryoka Griffin’s friend.”
Erin waited. The [Scribe] blinked as she waved a hand in front of his face.
“Hello? I’m sort of in a hurry. Why are you looking at me like that?”
The Mage’s Guild in Invrisil was not the Mage’s Guild in Liscor, where some Human could walk in and bring it all to a standstill. One was a small city, at least compared to the metropolis of the City of Adventurers.
In Invrisil’s Mage’s Guild, what brought the Guild to a halt was this:
“Incoming delivery! Long-ranged teleportation! I need a link!”
“Baleros! Recipient: Master Merxel—of course. It’s that time of the month again.”
The [Mage] on duty sighed. She knew what the delivery was. Heck—most people in Invrisil did who were in the know.
The best [Spymaster]—or perhaps ‘information broker’ in all of Invrisil was Master Merxel. It was unwise, generally, for someone to have their class so openly advertised in his line of work. So rather than [Spymaster], call him a retired one who essentially distilled all the information worth knowing in his area of Invrisil and sold it to…everyone.
Master Merxel was one of those sorts who had cultivated a reputation like Drassi’s. Quick, informative, and never unfactual information. If it was a rumor, he tried to get to the source of it. He dealt in numbers, locations. As a consequence, his work was prized and he didn’t really cultivate enemies since he stuck to what was known—he just reported all of it.
It was a fact that he had clients as famous as the Titan of Baleros, Queen Yisame—or at least her representatives—the Iron Vanguard’s top [Strategist], Tulm the Mithril, and so on. They all relied on him to be their eyes in Izril. Of course, they probably had other sources of information…
But Master Merxel had a special relationship with the Titan of Baleros. Not only did he do the most work, it was a known fact that Niers Astoragon was generous to those who helped him.
Hence, Merxel being delivered exceptionally expensive vintages of wine each month. Wine, spirits—boxes of Balerosian grapes minutes after being plucked—thousands of gold pieces. Tens of thousands! Each month, on the dot.
It was facilitated by teleportation. The [Mages] linked as their counterparts had to do the same.
Teleportation was only easy in bulk with Fissival—or powerful Mage’s Guilds. And even for a bottle or two of wine—the [Mages] had to strain to manage it.
Gone were the times when an [Archmage] of Wistram would teleport over for a cup of tea. That was Zelkyr’s era and before.
Nevertheless—pop! Three bottles of wine appeared in the summoning circle as an equivalent amount of air was exchanged. The [Mages] gasped, wiping at their brows.
“Status of cargo?”
“Intact. Dead gods!”
The [Mage] in charge of the delivery service looked up anxiously as a [Mage] exclaimed over one. The man shook his head.
“Nothing’s wrong. It’s just—this is a six hundred year old vintage! Enchanted! You could send five dozen deliveries like this just for the bottle alone! Just a sip—”
“Oh no you don’t. Someone get a City Runner with a high credibility rating to run this to Master Merxel, with our compliments. Dead gods. Stop fondling that wine bottle!”
“But it’s what Dragons used to drink! Six hundred years old! Distilled from half-Elven vineyards thousands of—”
“Shut up! Stop tempting us!”
The [Mage] snapped. She was tempted, hearing that. She was glad enough when they handed it over to a City Runner.
“Not in the bag of holding. Instructions are clear. Must conflict with the holding spells.”
The [Mage] repeated the order. The City Runner rolled his eyes.
“I’ve done this before. And rest assured—by my House, it will get there. All half a mile.”
Delanay d’Artien saluted with his hat and rolled his eyes. But it was paid work. He jogged, making sure not to slosh the bottles of wine and he was soon at the rather fancy estates that belonged to Master Merxel.
“Priority from the Mage’s Guild. Delivery for Master Merxel?”
The [Bodyguards] checked him thoroughly before entering, but then let him in. Inside the estate, Delanay only had to wait a moment.
The [Spymaster] had known he was coming, perhaps even before Delanay had arrived at the Mage’s Guild. Delanay was waved in, and a rich Runner’s Seal was produced and handed over.
“Ah, the usual wine. Dead gods, is that an Iremmien Bottle? What have I done to…? Well, I can think of a few things!”
The [Spymaster] chortled, looking delighted at the gift. Delanay himself did a double-take, noting the vintage at last.
Merxel was slightly paunchy with time, but he had never been the fittest, even as a [Spy]. He was a jovial type, the last person most had suspected of being a [Spy]. Now, he dressed himself like a Chandrarian [Sultan]. He was rich and wanted people to know that.
He also had a huge drinking habit, and his eyes were on the bottle. Delanay reflected that the vintage, which had appreciated in value for six hundred years, would meet its end tonight.
What a waste. But he kept a smile on his face, tipped his hat, and was out the door in a minute, to collect his fee.
It was always like this. The bottles came like clockwork, a handsome bribe of loyalty. And they always had the same strict instructions. Master Merxel rubbed his hands.
“What generosity. I certainly earned it with all that data about that [Innkeeper]. Spits blood my left testicle. But I laughed hard enough—dead gods. Dead gods, an actual Iremmien! I suppose just a sip—and I’ll have company tonight!”
Allegedly, just one sip of the heady wine was enough to make even Dragons smile. The [Spymaster] reached for the bottle. He produced a corkscrew, delicately inserted it into the bottle.
Then hesitated. Wait a moment. Normally, these bottles were blast proof. Enchanted such that air or spells couldn’t ruin the aging vintages. You had to actually recite passcodes to unseal the magic. The corkscrew had gone in with ease, and Delanay hadn’t given the man any magical words.
A little warning bell rang in Merxel’s head. Slowly, he took his hands away from the corkscrew. He reached for—
Pop. The cork blasted out of the bottle. Merxel saw a head poke out of the top—
He screamed, fell out of his chair, and was halfway towards the door and his [Bodyguards] before he saw the Fraerling clamber out of the bottle, soaked in wine, holding a crossbow aimed at his face.
Niers Astoragon, the Titan of Baleros, had tiny flippers and a Fraerling-style diving suit on. He kicked off the wooden flippers, and pulled out of the waterproof suit with a grimace. He left a puddle on the desk as Merxel stared at him in shock and horror.
“Paugh. That’s close to vinegar! I should have told Peclir to fill it with a better vintage.”
“Merxel. Thanks for opening that right away. I would have blasted out of it if the City Runner had been daft enough to put it in a bag of holding.”
“I am going to have a heart attack one day, sir.”
Merxel spoke faintly, hand on his chest. It had been sixteen years since the Fraerling had done that—and Merxel had been in Terandria. It was going to take another decade before Merxel opened another bottle by hand.
“Stop whining. You know how the system works.”
The Titan of Baleros. Some people wondered how he got around so fast. Rumors were that he could be in multiple places at once, or he had doppelgangers, or it was just his mythos.
The truth was…most people forgot the rule of magical physics sometimes overlapped with actual physics. Smaller, lighter things were easier to transfer.
Even a small person was exceptionally hard to transfer short of grand magic or a lot of [Mages]. But a Fraerling?
The trouble was, Niers had too many enemies and he’d be too noticeable. So he’d established the wine trick long ago.
“You should switch back to fruits. It’s healthier and a lot easier to hide in.”
The [Grandmaster Strategist] wiped some wine off his arm. Merxel still hadn’t gotten up.
“I think I may be off the drink completely. Thank you for that, Niers.”
“Don’t be such a baby. What, do Fraerlings in wine bottles scare you? Do you know how many mashed up bugs you eat in wheat?”
The [Spymaster] didn’t answer. He was still trying not to imagine bugs or something else lurking in the other bottles.
“…May I at least assume there’s liquid, not an army of Fraerlings in the other bottles, Lord Astoragon? If my Iremmien is not to be enjoyed?”
He couldn’t help but sound disappointed. Niers rolled his eyes.
“I’ll gift you two Iremmiens and a fat bonus once I’m back. Is everything ready?”
Merxel sniffed. He hadn’t known it would be Niers himself, but he could follow orders.
“I understand Peclir has organized an appropriate escort. Lodgings. And a contact on the ground.”
He fussed about, and produced a packet of details. Niers strode over the desk. Merxel stole a taste of the ‘Iremmien’ and shuddered. Diving suit aside—it really was vinegar.
“Whoever disguises wine like that should be shot.”
“I’ll give you a crossbow later, if you like. Mine’s not for sale.”
Indeed, the little Fraerling was bedecked, as Merxel noted now. He hadn’t seen Niers Astoragon since Terandria. And then…
Well, the Fraerling was older. And some of his gear had changed. But some hadn’t.
He had a masterwork Fraerling-sized crossbow at his side. The same one he’d menaced Merxel with. Enchanted, made by Fraerling-experts. A shortsword at his side, six rings, a bag of holding—
This was Niers Astoragon, the adventurer. The same equipment he wore when the Titan went to war. The enchanted leather armor over his clothes—all made by the tiny people of Baleros.
“You look quite ready for an adventure, Lord Astoragon. Is the adventuring team in aid of you conquering Liscor’s dungeon? Albez’s?”
Merxel had a few ideas of why Niers Astoragon would appear in Izril himself. The Titan waggled a finger as he paged through the documents, flipping over each page with effort.
“The Cherinion Swords? Never heard of them. Well, whatever. Lodgings in…the Tailless Thief, if I need them…mhm. Peclir’s a tidy worker.”
He sighed. The [Chamberlain] had set all this up within less than an hour, with the Forgotten Wing Company’s extensive contacts. He did frown at one note hastily added from Peclir himself.
“…may need to travel on foot. Dead gods, why? I thought the magic door was right in Invrisil! The…Player’s Retreat?”
He looked at Merxel. The [Spymaster] shook his head.
“The door’s under renovations, Lord Astoragon. Poor timing.”
“Damn. Well—perhaps it’s for the best. The door’s too obvious. I’ll just move into Invrisil and…who’s my contact?”
“A ‘Remane’, Sire. Drake. And I don’t believe the door’s out for long. A few hours was what I was told…and it has been a few hours.”
“Oho. Well, in that case…I’ll see him now. Mind sending for him? Again—”
“Not a word, Lord Astoragon. I know the score.”
Merxel sighed. He shook his head as he went to send a runner for the Drake, who was one of the Forgotten Wing’s actual agents on the ground. Niers Astoragon. Merxel was sure he’d hear of what the Titan was up to soon.
He just wished the Titan wasn’t so surprising. Merxel put a hand to his heart. But it was thudding for another reason entirely.
The Titan had come to Invrisil.
Oh yes. It was happening. As Remane strode hurriedly towards the [Spymaster]’s mansion, exhorting the adventurers to do exactly as they were told, Hexel was finishing the door’s placement.
At the same time? Laken Godart was interrupted at work by Lady Rie.
“Your Majesty. I don’t want to interrupt you, but—”
“What is it, Lady Rie?”
“I have a…a [Message] request. For dialogue with someone in Liscor. I wouldn’t trouble you, but the sender represents herself as ‘Ryoka Griffin’s friend’. And it is not Miss Charlay. I did check.”
The word provoked a memory in Laken. He sat up.
“I’ll need you to take my words, Lady Rie. I can, of course, trust you, can’t I?”
“Absolutely, your Majesty.”
The [Lady] nervously produced a [Message] scroll. Laken smiled thinly.
“Good. Then accept!”
The [Lady] moved about as Laken decided he should relax, rather than sit on the throne. He was reclining in a significantly more comfy seat in his Riverfarm home when the [Lady] connected him with Liscor.
She read the words out loud to him, transcribing his responses. Laken listened, not interfering. He found…his heart was beating quicker. His pulse racing.
When the first line of the conversation was read out loud, he sat up.
Are you Ryoka’s friend? She told me to contact you. Sorry it’s taken a while.
“That’s what it says?”
“Verbatim, your Majesty. How would you like to respond? I could advise her that you are—”
Laken drummed his fingers on the armrest of the padded chair. He was aware this was going through a Mage’s Guild, and he assumed the other person was, so he hadn’t minded Rie transcribing. It was a sign of his confidence in her—or that was how she could take it.
His curse was in another language. Rie hesitated with her quill over the scroll.
“Just—write my words exactly. Just as I say them from now on, would you, Rie?”
So the conversation began.
Are you Ryoka’s friend? She told me to contact you. Sorry it’s taken a while.
…Are you really an [Emperor]?
“Wait, she wrote ‘…’ down?”
“Yes, your Majesty. Er…”
Wait, she wr
I am. I think Ryoka has referred to me as ‘L’? She has told me a bit about you.
She told me your name was Laken. I’m Erin.
I see. Forget about the aliases, then.
I can call you ‘L’ if you want. You can call me ‘E’.
Rie did not copy down the German swearing.
Door. Titan. German [Messages]!
It mattered not. The citizens of Liscor dwelled in blissful ignorance, going about their day. What they did not know was that this was the day their sins came home to roost! They had escaped justice too long.
Today—vengeance would be dealt upon them. The most important event in Liscor’s recent history was about to occur.
The force of Drakes crept towards the city, moving off the road once they were clear of the Bloodfields. They were a seasoned force. Veterans.
Their city lay behind them. Not far—but they had marched hard. Come farther than they had ever gone.
For justice! For insult! The honor of Hectval had been damaged! A Scalespeaker insulted under the banner of peace!
It was not a full army who came. Oh, no. That was too easy to spot. Just an elite strike force, ready to lay carnage and waste! The leader was a seasoned [Ambush Leader], who had raided other cities before.
“In and out. We’ll use the hills as cover. Those soft-scaled idiots haven’t offended a real city with an actual army in centuries. They won’t know what hit ‘em. Crossbows up, boys!”
The Drakes sniggered as they moved under stealth Skills. Oh yes. This was going to be both fun and rewarding. Liscor would rue the day they crossed Hectval! And besides—their strike force was one of four waiting in the area, ready to strike a devastating blow against the city and retreat. All was in readiness, and the Drakes expected to take the shoddy City Watch off-guard. Heck, they didn’t even have patrols on the road! It was going to be simple, and they were excited.
They were positively, absolutely certain that they were going to be the most surprising thing that had ever happened today.
The Last Light of Baleros. The United Nations company. Another world. I put it all by the wayside for this.
Perhaps…it is all connected. But either way—it will be today. And I will be shriven of it.
Shriven—a word out of time. Of an era where there had been [Priests]. When, perhaps, the gods had been…
It was like an obsession. He knew that. So he had decided, in the end, thanks to the Earl of Desonis’ taunt, to do it like this.
“There’s no plan, Remane. The Cherinion Swords walk in with you, carry me out to Liscor. I’ll enter in my own terms. I’ll retain the team’s services—they’re paid for…?”
“Indefinite retainer, Lord Astoragon. Master Im wanted to make sure they were at your disposal.”
Niers nodded. The Drake agent that the Forgotten Wing Company employed was clearly nervous. After all, the second-in-command and functional head of the company was right here.
And he’d be riding in Remane’s coat pocket into The Wandering Inn. Niers sighed.
“Just get me to an inn. I’ll walk in on my own two feet.”
The team of six Gold-ranks nodded, listening intently. Master Merxel had given them room to ‘plan’. Which was tricky because they expected a plan and this was not a plan.
“And we’re just waiting around, er, Titan—Lord Astoragon?”
One of the [Warriors] asked, visibly confused on how to address Niers. And the plan. Niers rolled his eyes.
“Yes. Think of it as a paid vacation. Just stay available.”
The others brightened at that. But some were just staring at him, fascinated. Niers could practically hear their thoughts. It was a common reaction. This was the Titan of Baleros?
“He’s so tiny.”
One of the Humans whispered to the others. Her voice was a bit too loud. Remane whirled around and raised a claw.
“Don’t be disrespectful! Lord Astoragon—”
“At ease, Remane.”
The Drake desisted. The Gold-rank adventurer looked guilty, but Niers just put a foot on one of Merxel’s books as he looked at her.
“What’s your name, Miss…?”
“Chres. Lord Astoragon.”
He nodded, amiably. Niers knew they had to be checking out his enchanted gear. He let them look him over. His voice was quite gentle. Lecturing, as a professor to a student.
“You may think I’m small, and not much use in a battle with monsters. However, I’ve fought with Named-rank Adventurers. Given them orders in combat. I was one. Not part of a Named-rank team. A Named-rank Adventurer, before I retired. Tell me, have you ever had a [Strategist] boost you while adventuring? Have you ever worked with any?”
“Er—no, Lord Astoragon.”
She shook her head, looking bemused. So did the others. Niers smiled.
“Then do you have a [Leader]? [Commander]? Team captain in anything but name?”
Another, hesitant, shake of the heads. Niers sighed, almost dramatically.
“In that case, you haven’t ever assembled a proper team. When you want to stop playing at combat, hire a [Tactician].”
He looked around the room and clapped his hands briskly.
“Now, let’s get moving. To Liscor. Unless that damn door’s out. In that case, drinks are on me.”
And they were moving. The disgruntled Swords escorted Remane as Niers hopped in a slightly-smelly pocket. He tried to relax. But here they were.
He should have done this a long time ago. Throw it all to the winds. He wondered…the Titan sighed as he sat in the fold of cloth.
Either way. It would be worth visiting.
The elite raiding party was the fourth to get into position. They moved, noticing the flashes of directed mage-light from the other three groups. It was still mid-morning. They could strike, but they’d reconnoiter with the others. Form a plan of action.
They had camouflaged blankets they used to disguise themselves in the lee of a hill, giving them almost perfect cover to observe Liscor. The [Ambush Captain] smirked.
“Not even a dozen patrols out. Sitting ducks. I’ll communicate with the other [Captains]. Get ready—we might be moving on a target if that Gnoll-hugging bastard shows himself. Remember—he’s top of the list. Purple scales.”
The others nodded. They settled back as the [Ambush Captain] wormed his way stealthily towards another marked position. When he was in range, they could use [Throw Voice] to communicate.
“Squad Four has arrived and is in position. Status? Do we have any targets to hit immediately?”
“Reconnoitering. Hold for delays on assault, Four.”
The [Ambush Captain] paused. He heard a strained voice from the female Drake, the [Captain] of Squad Three.
“…Squad One was here longest. They ran into some kind of huge monster. A crab encased in stone. Hollowstone Deceiver. They’ve taken two casualties. Be on the lookout for unusually large stones—”
The [Ambush Captain] hesitated. He glanced back at his squad just in time to see a large boulder creeping up on their left flank. Then he heard the clicking.
The conversation went like this.
It might be unwise to communicate too much like this. I assume you’re planning on joining the event?
Yup. I’m going to start moving tomorrow or two days at the latest. Is that okay?
You should make it by carriage. I would warn you to be careful. We are not always safe.
I know that. I’m taking some help. That’s why I wanted to talk. I think some [Lords] and [Ladies] might come with me—or soon after. Not the Five Families, but local ones.
Did you persuade them?
A break in the writing. The cheerful scrawl went on.
I’ll be safe from jerks. Even ones who like to listen in on private conversations. But how much protection should I bring? Do you have a lot of monsters?
That depends on your point of view.
Hmm. Well, I’ll have some people with me if that’s okay. And some people you might want to speak to.
Yup. But my real question is: are you okay with Goblins?
Silence. Or…blank space on the scroll for a while.
I do not have a problem with Goblins. Why would you ask? Ryoka has mentioned some things…
I would like to bring some Goblins with me. If they’ll be attacked, I won’t.
I see. I believe they would be quite safe.
I see myself. So they’re okay?
And you’ll put away your trebuchets?
A slight wobble in the reply.
I believe I have much to apologize for. And much to speak of, with you, Erin Solstice.
Yes. If Goblins are okay, then I’ll have like, at least twenty people with me. And about eight noble families. Just FYI.
Laken Godart drummed his fingers on his armrest. Lady Rie was giving him an incredulous look. He had heard Ryoka talk about her friend—but this was already unexpected.
On her side, Erin leaned on the counter. She narrowed her eyes, waiting.
Is Ryoka Griffin well? We have inquired after her health, but she has not contacted us or been seen.
She was hurt. I think she’ll be okay.
Very well. We’ve received no word that Magnolia Reinhart intends to attend the gathering. What of the other Five Families?
I think one will come, at least. Probably two. We’ll see. Say, I have another question just in case.
Do you kill little Gnolls? Or Drakes? I normally wouldn’t ask, but I feel like I should be sure.
I do not. And I will guarantee their safety. My army
Your army? Say whaaaaat?
I have a personal force that will protect the event. And one Gold-rank team on retainer. Griffon Hunt. You may look up their history. They’ve been quite effective
GRIFFON HUNT? I KNOW THEM!
“Your Majesty, she’s writing too fast for me to finish my sentences.”
Rie was exasperated. Laken just rubbed at his forehead.
“Someone call for Captain Halrac and his team.”
Okay, if you know Halrac (how is he?), you’re probably okay. In that case, I’ll bring friends! And food. I have some things our ‘other guests’ will really like. Like this bread.
Bread? I would be grateful for any entertainment you could provide. I believe the ‘Players of Celum’ are already moving to Riverfarm. Do I have you to thank?
Maybe. Yes. Well, say ‘hi’ to Halrac for me.
The [Emperor] hesitated. He felt that at some point—probably the opening lines—he’d lost control of this conversation. Negotiation was a fine dance of status and intention.
I will be delighted to welcome you to the Unseen Empire, Erin.
Oh, right. You’re an [Emperor], huh?
And what did you say to that? Rie sounded exasperated as she read out the reply. Laken sighed. But the writing went on, scrawling, chatting. Using up a lot of their [Message] budget per word.
Okay. I think we’re cool on most things. Is there anything I should know before I arrive? Really important stuff?
…I believe that everything that merits discussion should be had in person.
Good point. Well, so long as you’re cool with Goblins…we’ll head out in two days. Big guests. Bring lots of food. No killing Goblins, got it?
Laken lost his patience.
I do not kill Goblins out of hand. There is an entire area in my domain known as the Goblinlands. They are accorded rights and protected by my authority. Does that reassure you?
Erin Solstice’s fingers slipped on the quill. She stared at the message. And everything changed. She looked around. Then—came to a quick decision.
We’re leaving tomorrow morning if we can. Tell me about these ‘Goblinlands’.
That is a discussion best had in person.
I’m sure. Tell me about them now.
Niers Astoragon entered The Wandering Inn in a coat pocket after a twenty minute wait. Apparently, the door had just been finished.
It was such an anticlimax he nearly poked his head out of the pocket. He heard—
“Are any of you here harboring ill intent against Liscor, The Wandering Inn…oh, hold up. Is that The Cherinion Swords? What are you bastards doing here?”
“Todi? Is that Captain Todi? You’re on guard duty? How much are they paying you? A thousand gold an hour?”
Good natured laughter. Todi’s voice was irritable.
“I’m helping out. You lot coming through?”
“No, we’re ah, going through the door right away. Is that alright?”
“Hm. ‘Sfine. Let me just adjust the door there—done.”
“Thank you so much.”
“See you around, Todi!”
One of the Swords called out, ribbing the other Gold-rank Captain. As they passed through the door, he muttered to his friends.
“I hate him so much.”
“Shut up. Lord Astoragon—”
Niers nearly stabbed Remane with his enchanted shortsword. For an agent, he was as obvious as the sun! But he was whispering.
“—we’re just entering Liscor. Should we head to the inn now or…?”
The Fraerling heard a murmur of voices. He hesitated.
The other inn Peclir had booked would be good. He’d stay there, maybe get a lay of the city, hear about the inn. And then the next morning? Walk on in…by himself.
“That’s fine, Remane. But now that I think of it—do me a favor and do a walkabout outside the city?”
Remane hissed at the others. He spoke.
“Very good idea, Lord Astoragon. Change course! Out the gates.”
Niers nodded to himself. The one thing he couldn’t do was see the landscape for himself. Short legs.
“Let me know once we’re out of the gates. And Remane?”
“In the name of Gazers, stop saying my damn name.”
He was going to recommend Remane for immediate reassignment after this, hard work or not. Niers sat back and waited for his first view of Liscor. And The Wandering Inn.
The Rock Crab was dead. The [Ambush Captain] saw it stop moving at last and breathed out. He was—shaken.
Half his squad had taken hits in the fight from the pincers. No one was dead thanks to them noticing the monster in time. But they were armed with crossbows and shortswords. Not exactly how you wanted to fight a giant crab armored in stone.
“That’s Liscor’s monsters? Ancestors! What’s wrong with this place?”
“We fight Bloodfield things.”
One of the Drakes retorted. But they were all a bit shaken. The [Ambush Captain] shook his head. He called in to the other squads.
“The area is not secure. Recommend moving forwards or finding a secure spot.”
A moment of hesitation and chatter as the words were repeated from squad to squad, bouncing along the link.
“…Agreed, 4th Squad. Let’s do some damage and get the hell out of here. Hectval forever!”
“Hectval’s arrows! Move up and communicate targets…”
At this point, one of the Listeners below the chattering Drake squads felt this merited relaying. It had listened to the quite loud conversation amid all the other background noise. It sent out a signal. Soon—the entire conversation was relayed to a thinking mind, rather than just the sensor-Antinium.
“Hmm. Hmm. That is odd. Hectval?”
In The Wandering Inn, Belgrade received the incoming transmission via the Free Queen. He tilted his head left and right. Simultaneously, Yellow Splatters halted his patrol of the city and saluted.
“Senior Guardsman, I beg to report an incident!”
Jeiss nearly jumped out of his scales. He whirled as the first Antinium patrol followed him around, observing the Senior Guardsman and [Councilmember].
“Ancestors! Don’t shout, Yellow Splatters! What is it?”
He listened, around the same time as Belgrade was deciding that this was a hostile force and something should be done about it. He looked around.
“Numbtongue? I have an issue and Miss Erin is not here. Would you hear me out?”
The Hobgoblin sat in a chair, moodily playing on the guitar. He looked up and grunted.
It was an uncharitable response from the [Bard], who normally had a lot of time for Antinium. It was because Numbtongue was in a bad mood.
He had a problem. And it was this: Badarrow cheated at video games and was, therefore, a terrible person. He wouldn’t even admit he was cheating, and Numbtongue, who had practiced and was the best player in the inn, was, in fact, better.
The second was a more prosaic matter. And it was that he had an unhappy ghost in his head.
Well, two. Reiss was sulking somewhere, as per usual. But the second Goblin was being moody.
Shorthilt. Numbtongue understood the problem just as well. See—the issue was—
The Circle of Thorns and the Assassin’s Guild of Izril had gone to war against Erin and Ryoka and lost. It had been a huge battle. [Assassins]. The Small Queen. A war in a city, and he hadn’t cut anything with his Dragonblood Crystal sword!
“This is the problem, Numbtongue. I believe the Watch will handle it, but I thought it might be dangerous. You see…are you listening, Numbtongue?”
The [Tactician] looked so hurt that Numbtongue grudgingly put his guitar down and listened. Then he sat up. Then he brightened.
“I believe that is the case. Bird has confirmed two squads moving in. He saw them three hours ago, but did not report it until Silveran asked.”
Belgrade’s antennae waved in a mix of irritation and anxiety. Numbtongue grinned.
“What do we do, Numbtongue? The Watch appears to be classifying them as a threat, or so Yellow Splatters relays. The Queen also desires them removed.”
“Where are they now?”
“Heading straight for the city. Camouflaged. Numbtongue? Numbtongue what do you think we should—”
The Hobgoblin slowly reached for his sword. Belgrade stared at it.
“Ah. That works.”
The [Bard] nodded and grinned as the [Weapon Expert] in his head clamored. He stood up, looking around furtively. One of the squads was heading right this way. Oho! Ohohoh—
“Numbtongue. What are you doing?”
Lyonette du Marquin was standing behind Numbtongue. A timid Silveran was behind her. The [Bard] closed his eyes slowly.
“Oh, really? What’s this about Drake squads I hear?”
She tapped her foot as the Hobgoblin glowered at Silveran, who shrank behind the [Princess]. Lyonette glanced out the window.
Hectval’s glorious four avenging squads crept towards the city. Stealthy. Unnoticed by all.
Niers Astoragon poked his head out of Remane’s pocket once they were past Liscor’s walls. He inhaled the fresh air gratefully. Too much pocket odor and wine fumes of late.
The Cherinion Swords had made good time out of the city. Niers had actually heard them leasing horses from a stable to expedite the reconnoitering.
“I think I’d like a look at the dungeon, Remane.”
“Of course, Lord Astoragon. It should be ahead.”
“And the inn?”
“We’re past the walls, sir.”
The Fraerling thought that was fine. Take a scout around. Check out the dungeon—was it truly a Vengeance Dungeon? Maybe he could investigate. Head to The Wandering Inn at first light, though. That was the priority. Tonight? He’d lay low, get Remane to gather some of the local gossip on…
He looked around. The area wasn’t what he’d expected. But then—he thought of vast hills and valleys, filled with waters. The awe-inspiring High Passes reaching upwards. Brave Drakes who’d settled there against all odds, or with that characteristic arrogance and stubbornness.
“Hmf. Short walls for a Drake City. At least, compared to Zeres.”
He muttered. But then, he only had the City of Waves to compare against. The Titan looked ahead. Looks like someone had terraformed the local area. Not many hills or valleys at all.
The Titan frowned. He felt at his side though.
“Gear’s all here. Dead gods, that vinegar wine better not have ruined my tonics. They cost more than an Iremmien, each.”
“Really, Lord Astoragon?”
Remane did a double-take as he stared at Niers. The Fraerling had a number of tonics he was checking in his bag of holding. Not standard potions either. The Fraerling noticed the Drake’s avaricious look, then how Remane caught himself.
“Er—that is, I’m sorry, Lord—”
“No need, Remane.”
Niers decided not to upbraid the Drake over his name. He lifted one of the custom-made tonics he had brought with him. Six. He put it back carefully as all the adventurers and Remane stared at it.
“What’s that tonic? Some kind of super-potion?”
“You could say that. If you had to put a market value on it—it’s probably a hundred thousand gold pieces.”
One of the adventurers sprayed the liquid he’d been drinking out of his mouth. A potion? The colored liquid hit his companions and a horse reared.
“A hundred thousand?”
Remane stared. Niers grinned at his look.
“Don’t be so amazed, Remane. It’s not something you can sell on the market. And that’s a comparative price. That’s…about what the Fraerlings charge for it. Incomparable to change, really. More common in the villages—but outside? I’m pretty much the only one with a source.”
“I see. Well, Lord Astoragon—I’m afraid there’s not much to see, as you can…see.”
“Indeed. It’s sort of disappointing.”
The Flood Plains really weren’t all that. Oh, the High Passes were high, but the city wasn’t as grand as a Balerosian fortress. Niers sighed. He eyed the road they were travelling down.
“We can circle back, Remane. I’ll take care of my business after taking a look at the dungeon.”
“Ah, of course, Lord Astoragon. Just a bit further. Then we’ll get you to the inn so you can visit the [Innkeeper].”
The Fraerling nodded to himself. He looked ahead…
And his spine prickled. Wait a moment.
He’d never told Remane or Merxel he wanted to meet Erin Solstice.
Todi was watching the portal room. Half his team was in the inn. Something was up. Drakes? Lyonette was calling for Mrsha, arguing with a Goblin.
But his attention was on the door. One of his adventurers, a [Mage], was frowning at the door where The Cherinion Swords had just gone through.
“Why’d they go through to Esthelm, Todi? Do you think they’re on the Wyvern bounty?”
The Gold-rank Captain grunted sourly. He adjusted his grip on the crossbow he’d drawn out of reflex.
“If they are, good. And good riddance. You don’t want that team lurking about Liscor, Geori. I’d actually have to talk to Miss Solstice about that.”
Todi pursed his lips to spit, and checked the tiles and temporary flooring Hexel had laid in record time after all the disruptions. The visitors mostly thought the door was still offline, but a few had been trickling in. Good thing the inn wasn’t too full if they had to wipe off some Drake idiots. He hoped it would earn him credit. And he was just glad the other team was gone. He nodded at the door as he muttered.
“They’re thugs for hire. Disreputable bastards, the lot. Closer to the Gangs then actual adventurers. Mark that Drake’s face too. You hire that team if you want to kill someone.”
The road was so flat. And they were headed through the High Passes—Niers stared back at the city in the distance.
“Did you say The Wandering Inn, Remane?”
The drake faltered. His eager smile flickered. The Cherinion Swords glanced up.
“I just assumed that was your destination, Lord As—sir. What else is there to see? Besides the dungeon, of course.”
“Oh, of course. Damn. Well, that’s me. Slipping up. Clever picking up on it.”
The Drake saw the Fraerling nod, disappointed.
“It’s really not always that secret, you know, Remane. A clever Drake like you can figure that kind of thing out.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Remane beamed. Then his head rotated slowly as Niers went back to pondering the disappointing ‘Flood Plains’. He looked at the Captain of The Cherinion Swords. The scarred man gave the Drake a slow nod and finished downing the potion. His team waited. The Drake looked down.
“Incidentally, Lord As—”
The tip of the tiny crossbow bolt punched into the roof of his mouth and blew the top of the Drake’s head off. Niers felt the flash of heat as he yanked another bolt out and slapped it into his crossbow.
The adventurers recoiled. Niers took aim, standing out of the pocket.
“You fools! You damn—”
He fired. The bolt went low; Remane’s corpse was collapsing. But the enchanted quarrel blew open one of the adventurer’s stomachs. The man dropped.
It was a trap! Niers cursed as he reloaded. He was reaching for one of the expensive Fraerling tonics. Idiot! Idiot! He should have done it all himself! He should have planned!
But he had been betrayed. It was one of them. It could only be—Niers’ eyes flickered. Most had been allies for too long to be traitors now. And of those who could have feasibly found out—
He was preparing to leap clear of the Drake when a Gold-rank adventurer recovered from their shock. Too fast. He lifted a wand.
Niers saw the flash of burning orange light. He tried to raise the tonic to his lips—
He thought he heard a voice as the explosion blew the corpse to bits. It was a man’s voice. Jovial. Laughing, yet serious. Speaking to him.
“We have grown complacent.”
By now, the trap would have been sprung. In the inn, wherever the Titan went. It was a Gold-rank team. That was the Titan of Baleros—
But he was a Fraerling. Vulnerable. And he had left his guard down. He thought he was surrounded by allies. That was how great men and women died, regardless of species.
Because of the traitor.
“So that was how he did it.”
The [Chamberlain] murmured as he regarded the racks of wine bottles, some large enough to fit a tiny body through the spout. He’d wondered why the Titan of Baleros wanted to maintain such a collection.
Foliana didn’t drink and even if Niers spent the rest of his life in the cups, only a fraction of the bottles would be necessary. Had it just been for his guests?
No. How clever. His employers had speculated, but Peclir Im had concrete proof of the Titan’s trick. A shame it wasn’t replicable.
He regarded the carefully marked bottle he’d swapped the contents of the expensive drink with. It was actually vinegar mixed with wine he’d given for the Titan’s last voyage. Just a parting gift.
Peclir Im had been working for a few years as the Forgotten Wing’s [Chamberlain]. He had passed every test, asserted his loyalty—and he knew he’d been watched.
Well, he’d given no one any reason to suspect. That was what the best [Infiltrators] and [Traitors] did. Not like fat Merxel, an unwitting dupe. Not that he was a traitor in his mind.
He was always loyal. Peclir carefully poured himself the actual vintage of Iremmien. Then he sighed as he took a slow, deep sip.
People thought the Forgotten Wing Company was impregnable. The genius of the Titan, the terrifying Three-Color Stalker—well, they were certainly extraordinary. But not invincible.
The trick was—you just had to know where Foliana was at all times. When you were certain? That was when you were safe. Peclir knew Foliana was tormenting Perorn at this very moment. Therefore, he was safe.
She wasn’t the all-seeing eye, nor was Lord Astoragon, for all he was sharp as a needle. But everyone slipped up. You just needed to think—
And have nerves as tough as steel. Peclir wondered if Remane would succeed. A Gold-rank team…but it was the Titan.
Either way, it did not matter. Because you didn’t plan around uncertainty. Peclir shook his head. The Titan was stranded. Or dead. He raised the single-use charm to his mouth and spoke the words he’d been waiting to say for a long, long time.
“The Titan is out of the way.”
Then he took another sip of wine. It really was the best.
I’m heading out tomorrow. We’ll talk.
Erin Solstice finished writing. Laken Godart read her message and sat back. He really wanted to meet her. If only so she would stop haranguing him via text.
Erin’s nerves were buzzing. Not just that. She felt like something was going on in her inn. But the news made her electric as she left the Mage’s Guild.
Goblins were alive. She hurried towards home.
There was going to be a reckoning. But first—why did she feel like someone had just been in her inn as important as…? It was just a feeling. If it had been real?
Where had they gone?
The bits of the Drake lay in the grass and on the ground. The Cherinion Swords were shouting, looking around.
“He just killed Are! That bastard said he was just a [Strategist]!”
“Where is he? Where is he?”
They were looking around. The Fraerling was gone. Had they blown him up? One of the [Mages] lifted his staff.
“[Detect Life]! Guard me!”
Two [Warriors] closed up. The five traitorous adventurers, who were sometimes killers-for-hire, looked around. They’d drunk potions. They’d come ready to kill, and their opponent had been taken off-guard.
But he’d gotten the drop on them. And what was worse, they’d made two mistakes. The first was believing that even a Fraerling had enchanted gear below theirs. His tiny crossbow didn’t have as big an explosion as a Human-sized one, but it had blown off a head and destroyed the midsection of their friend in two shots!
And the second? The [Mage] turned his head frantically.
“Where is he? Where?”
“I—I don’t know! He’s too small! There are moles and frogs and damn stuff all around!”
They had never fought a Fraerling.
The Titan of Baleros crouched behind a tiny stone in the grass. Panting. His armor was charred and he felt roasted. But his amulet had saved him from a direct [Fireball].
Damn tallfolk [Mages] and spells ten times larger than you are! The [Strategist] had dropped the tonic. He nearly reached for another one—
But no. Hiding was his best gambit here. Principles of engagement. He’d taught his students the rules that were guiding his actions here.
Don’t take risky battles unless you have to. Unless the reward outweighs the risk. These were hired thugs. There was no reason for Niers to risk dying. He could fall back. Go to Esthelm or Liscor—damn them, he’d been too distracted!—and secure aid. Or just hide and figure out how badly Peclir had betrayed him.
One [Message] scroll…or had Peclir already subverted their communications systems? Which company had hired him? Damn, damn—
The words were echoing in his head. He heard his own voice, mocking him.
“…look at us now. Growing fat and complacent in our success. Our old age.”
He whispered. He still had his crossbow and gear. The [Mage] couldn’t find him. Niers heard them debating.
“—let’s just get the hell out of here. Forget the bounty—”
“Like hell! We kill the Titan, we’ll be famous!”
“Not if I kill all of you. Get lost, you amateurs. You can’t even spring a trap properly.”
The team whirled. Two of them cast spells—Niers plugged his ears as the explosions echoed. He felt the impacts—but then spoke again.
“You really think you can kill me? I’m the Titan of Baleros.”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know!”
They stared in the wrong direction entirely. Speaking stone. Niers smirked. He’d tossed one and was bouncing his voice. Intimidation tactics.
“Let’s call it a draw. You all get lost and I won’t put a hundred thousand gold bounty on all your heads. I know who betrayed me. I know who to go after. And I don’t feel like wasting a ten thousand gold bolt on each of you.”
One of the adventurer’s nerves was already breaking. Niers saw the Gold-rank Captain’s head swivel around.
“No. No, shut up. We’re dead if he gets away. He’s bluffing.”
Damn. He had better nerves than the rest. Niers felt in his pouch. He’d have to set a trap. They were moving towards the speaking stone. He began dropping miniature charges. Here, here—blow off a leg and hopefully take—
“Wait a second. I have an idea. Stop! [Detect Magic].”
Niers’ skin prickled again. Oh no. Not—
The [Mage] whirled. Niers raised his crossbow.
“He’s right th—”
The bolt exploded on the magical barrier. The [Mage] went flying. Niers began to shout. Skills! He had so few Skills that worked without a group! Damn it! He shouldn’t have bluffed. He should have run. Idiot. Overconfident—used to everyone running from him. Used to having an army.
“…that spark of youth…When did we lose that? Have we lost that? Because if we have—it’s time to retire.”
A [Warrior] charged at him with a roar.
“You little bastard! You—”
No time. Niers kicked his boots against the ground.
He shot upwards as the Boots of the Grasshopper flicked him into the air. The [Warrior] recoiled as his [Braveheart’s Charge] sent him forwards. He tried to swat at the foot-high figure—
Niers landed on his head. He caught himself by an ear. An armored gauntlet went up to swat him—
[Potion of Haste], drunk in midair. The Fraerling disappeared. The [Warrior] screamed.
“He’s on me!”
“Hold still! Where is he? Where—”
“He’s in my armor! He’s in my—”
The armored man had been yanking at his breastplate, feeling the movements. Suddenly—he began screaming.
“Miral! Miral! What’s happening?”
The Human man fell down. He began thrashing. The others crowded around as he screamed. Then opened his mouth wide.
Wide. As if someone was forcing his jaws apart. He howled with such an animalistic sound of pain the others recoiled. Then suddenly—shuddered.
Blood leaked from his mouth. The others stared at him. They’d yanked off the breastplate. And they saw—
Someone had cut into his chest, through the shoulder. Just carved into the man’s body like—like—
“Dead fucking gods.”
Then the man’s chest bulged. An enchanted sword carved out. A tiny face appeared. And a crossb—
The third adventurer’s face exploded. The last two recoiled with screams. The Fraerling fired again, cursing. He missed—the last two had shields on.
“Kill him! Kill him!”
The adventurer captain was shrieking at the [Mage]. The spells blasted into the [Warrior]’s corpse, but the Fraerling was using it as a shield.
The Titan was laughing. Covered in blood, he clutched at the tonic.
“You should have run.”
He rose—and saw the adventurer [Captain] charging at him. Niers cursed. He raised his crossbow. And too late—saw the [Mage] switch tactics.
The world went bright. Niers felt his amulet give. He shouted in pain. His shot—hit the adventurer’s shoulder and detonated. The man cried out, but he came on. Niers raised his sword.
And the man stomped on him.
The blow drove Niers into the dead man’s flesh. A crushing impact. He rose—and saw a wand pointing down.
[Fireball]. This time the Fraerling went flying. He landed on the road. Picked himself up. His crossbow—he’d dropped it. He scrambled for his sword.
He saw the [Mage] running at him. No, no—
It was just a kick. That was all you needed to do. When he was a boy—the greatest Fraerling [Warrior] of their time, over Level 40—
Had died when someone stomped on him.
They were strong for their size. The Titan’s amulet flashed.
The [Mage] screamed. The blow had shattered two toes. Niers’ amulet went dead. The Titan was still thrown through the air. He landed.
Unfair. He was still holding his sword. It was so hard to fight the tall alone. The captain was running at him. Niers reached for his tonic.
His hand didn’t find his bag of holding. He looked around. Where—
His belt was torn apart by the spells and impacts. The Titan stared about him.
“….Get out before we end up like the very same people we defeated.”
The captain kicked him again. Niers tried to stab. He felt his sword pierce the man’s toe before he was hurled through the air. This time—he felt every part of the blow.
He landed on his back. Blood in his mouth. His ribs felt—his leather armor had saved his life. He lay there.
“—dead? Get up! It’s just a broken toe!”
“They’re all dead! All—”
“I’ll kill him.”
The adventurers looked at the tiny figure. He was pulling himself up. The captain raised his spiked mace, sneering.
“Not so tough without your gear, eh, you little shit?”
“You pathetic little Human.”
The Titan’s voice rasped as he stood. He had only his shortsword. No gear. But his Skills burned. He beckoned.
“Come over here and die, adventurer. You think you can kill me?”
He flicked his sword up. The little Fraerling cut the air as the two Humans stared. And his voice was louder. A shout.
“My sword will slay the skies! The tall fall harder! Tallguard of the Fraer!”
A young Fraerling’s boast. The Tallguard’s motto. Niers beckoned.
And the Human adventurer—wavered. The tiny little man wanted him to come close. All he had to do was get a handhold. Then he was climbing a mountain of flesh and bone.
He muttered to the [Mage]. The man hesitated. He lifted his staff.
Niers spat. He pointed at the [Mage].
The magic died. The [Mage] stared at his staff in horror. The Titan exhaled. That was a Skill meant for a damn army. What a waste.
“He just killed our artifacts. Boss—he just killed—I can’t feel magic—”
“Well, we’ll fucking step on him! You go left, I’ll go—”
The two Gold-rank adventurers circled him. The Titan checked his sword. He spat blood. Then he laughed. They flinched as they charged.
“Let us never grow old!”
“We have a list of targets. Let’s just hit one—and—”
The [Ambush Captain] was nervous as the Hectval elites moved towards the city. They were looking for anything to hit.
Something was wrong. They were in range of the other three groups. But one squad’s transmission had cut off and they were not responding.
“4th Squad to 3rd Squad. Report!”
The [Ambush Captain] shouted into his Skill. He had no fear of the words being heard—and yet no one replied.
“2nd Squad, what happened to 3rd? They were headed around the city from the east approach—going to attack that farmstead. Where are they?”
“Farmstead looks untouched. I don’t know. 4th, 1st—I think we’re made. Fall back?”
“Not without taking revenge! The Scalespeaker will have all our tails! We’re approaching the inn! W—”
“1st Squad under attack! Under—”
The [Ambush Captain] heard shouting through their link.
“City Watch! Surrender!”
“Contact! Fall back! F—aaah! AAAAH!”
The scream came from 2nd Squad. The [Ambush Captain] shouted through his Skill.
“What is it? What is it?”
Then silence. The [Ambush Captain] tried again as his Drake [Elite Skirmishers] stopped, staring nervously at their leader.
“1st Squad, fall back! 2nd, where are you? Do you need reinforcements? 3rd? Is anyone there at all?”
“Captain. I think—this was a bad idea.”
One of the Drakes whispered. The [Ambush Captain] was shaking.
“We can’t leave without firing a single shot! Our city’s pride—we’re undetected. The others were just sloppy. Let’s…”
He focused on the building closest to them.
“The inn. We’ll sack the inn and go. Move up the hill!”
The Drakes surged out of their cover, their camouflaged cloaks rippling in the wind. They had the element of surprise! The Watch was occupied, and the Antinium were too!
“For Hectval! K—”
An arrow sprouted out of one of the Drake’s heads. He dropped as the [Ambush Captain] began to shout.
“Archer! Take cover!”
They screamed—and another Drake raised his crossbow only to have an arrow appear in his throat. The [Ambush Captain] stared in horror up at the inn. And the figure shooting down the hill. He recognized, with horror, the legendary Antinium that had climbed onto Pallass’ walls. No. Why here?
The Wandering Inn’s lower floors were in chaos. Lyonette had all the guests far from the doors and Todi’s elites had manned the kill-zone. So had the inn’s staff—Silveran had two crossbows trained on the door. The [Princess] though, was worried.
“Mrsha, stay in the [Garden]! No one goes out until Zevara takes care of it! Bird! Don’t attack them! Bird! Stop killing them! They might not be enemies!”
This could be a diplomatic incident! Belgrade had gone off and attacked one of the patrols! Lyonette was tearing at her hair. But the worst offender was—
He and Badarrow halted as they went for the doors. Snapjaw was rolling her eyes. But the two were glaring at each other.
“I get five first.”
The two shoved at each other. Lyonette ran over as Mrsha peeked out of the [Garden]. A worried Moore pulled her to safety.
“Are you two competing? Don’t be idiots!”
“Bird will kill all of them. Our turn.”
The [Bard] had the Dragonblood Crystal sword and his guitar on his back. Lyonette shook her head.
“Absolutely not. Numbtongue! Come back! Don’t—argh!”
He ignored her. The Hobgoblin bounded for the door as Badarrow surged up the stairs.
Death! Niers howled as he cut at the air. The two adventurers were hesitating. He taunted them. Which one would come first? He spat another bit of blood out of his mouth.
“I’m not old yet! Let’s see if you can slay the Titan, you little insects! Come on!”
He brandished his sword. The taunting worked at last. The adventurer captain surged forwards with a roar, bringing his mace up to hammer the little target down.
As if Fraerlings stood still. Niers spun to meet him as the [Mage] belatedly ran flat-footed towards him on the left. He leapt forwards.
Idiots. They’d forgotten his boots.
He shot upwards. The adventurer recoiled, but he was fast.
He screamed. Niers grinned. He pointed at the man.
Something hit him in the air. The Titan vanished. The adventurer’s swing missed. He looked around, waving his weapon and shield wildly.
“He’s on me! Get him off! G—”
No Titan. No Fraerling. The [Mage] halted, equally confused. The two looked around. Then they saw it.
A Razorbeak winged upwards, gripping the large insect it had found in both talons. It struggled and bellowed. The adventurers, dumbfounded, stared up into the sky.
Niers Astoragon twisted helplessly in the tight grip, holding onto his sword.
“Put me down! Put me down you damn bird! I’ll kill you! First them—then you! Put me d—”
He saw the bird open its huge, toothy beak. The Fraerling felt a twinge of unease. He was already hundreds of feet in the air. And what did a bird do with its prey if it didn’t eat it then and there?
A Fraerling’s worst nightmare. He howled as he was carried higher.
Into the High Passes.
“Stay down! Stay down! Return fire!”
The [Ambush Captain] had an arrow in his shoulder. He yanked it out and stared at the wood tip. Just sharpened wood. And this [Archer] was pinning down his entire squad?
A dozen Drakes lay in the grass, shooting back up at the tower. But they were at the wrong elevation, and the archer had pinpoint accuracy.
“D-do we surrender, Captain?”
One of the Drakes was holding a buckler up as he tried to cover a reloading comrade. The [Captain] howled back.
“Drakes do not run! For Hectval!”
His shout did not inspire his [Soldiers]. They were looking around, searching for a place to fall back. But the archer could hit them—
Surrender? The rain of arrows stopped for a moment. The [Captain] distinctly heard a voice.
“Ooh. A scaly bird. Oh, hello, Badarrow. Do you want to—?”
Was he mocking them? The [Captain] seized the moment and rose to his feet with a roar.
“Coat your arrow tips, soldiers. We’re—we’re not going down without a fight! Charge!”
They stormed up the hill, towards the door. They just had to get into close-quarters—
The door of The Wandering Inn opened. The Drakes faltered in their rush.
A grinning Hobgoblin stood in the doorway. A [Weapon Expert].
He held a blade that was both beautiful and deadly. A hundred times more expensive than the [Ambush Captain]’s weakly-enchanted steel sword. The Drake faltered.
“Would you stop killing them?”
An enraged voice from the inside. Shorthilt ignored the [Princess]. He lifted the blade, feeling the balanced edge cut the air.
The [Ambush Captain] saw the crimson stare. Heard the laughter. He bellowed.
Lyonette was in the hallway. But the Hobgoblin wasn’t listening. Nor was it Numbtongue anymore.
On the roof, the [Sniper] had replaced Bird. He took aim. And his brother below charged. A master with the blade.
A dozen Drakes with crossbows in their claws took aim. The Hobgoblin saw the tips aiming at him. The [Captain] roared.
Shorthilt threw himself forwards. [Evasive Dodge]! He heard the snap of the crossbows firing, like thunder.
Lyonette screamed in alarm. She thrust her way forwards as Todi cursed and ran forwards with two of his team.
The Hobgoblin hit the ground and rolled onto his feet. He checked himself. Hah! Missed! Not a single bolt had struck him. They’d all—
—Missed. Shorthilt brought up his sword and sundered the blade of the Drake [Captain]’s with a single slash. He pivoted and destroyed a crossbow with a flick of the wrist. The Drake holding it backed up, staring past the [Weapon Expert]. Shorthilt heard a voice cry out in pain. Behind him.
Someone fell onto the ground. Shorthilt turned his head for a moment. Wait. He saw a young woman curled up. He saw—
Numbtongue felt his grip on the sword loosen. He looked back as Shorthilt’s control suddenly vanished. He stared at the figure lying there.
Someone was sprawled on the grass outside the inn. It was a Human. A young woman.
A mess of light brown hair mixed with a hint of orange covered half of her face. Her skin was pale, not white. But just pale. Her eyes were hazel. They were half-closed. Opening. Closing. Blinking slowly in shock.
Disbelieving. She’d changed back to plain clothes, and put on her iconic apron on top. Her fingers were still smudged with ink. A dropped kitchen knife lay on the grass next to her.
Erin clutched at her chest and stomach. Staring at the blood, seeping from between her fingers. A rush of blood left her body. It ran onto the grass and the ground outside of The Wandering Inn.
It was an accident. A chance moment. An [Innkeeper] returning to her home on foot because she thought the magic door was broken. A vengeful unit of [Soldiers].
A dodging Hobgoblin. And a target, an enemy of a Drake City.
Lyonette halted by the door. Badarrow lowered his bow. Below—the Drakes scrambled back. Their [Captain] was shouting.
“Target down! Back up! Back!”
They ran. Numbtongue just stared. Why was she here? She—the crossbow bolts had—
She tried to sit up. And he saw six shafts of wood, fletched with bright colors—sticking out of her chest. He dropped his sword.
Lyonette ran as Todi stared. He roared over his shoulder.
“Miss Solstice is hit! On me!”
They charged out of the inn. But the Hobgoblin was faster. He was at Erin’s side in a moment. She stared up at him, gasping, her mouth red with—
“Ow. Ow. I—I’m hurt, I think. Numbtongue? What happened? I think—”
She stared. She’d heard shouting. Had—had—
“You shot. Hold still. Healing potion—”
Numbtongue fumbled with his belt. Erin flopped backwards. He stared at her, producing a glowing bottle.
Potion. It was all going to be alright. Idiot! Idiot, careless—
He yanked the bolt out of her stomach. It took blood with it, and flesh. Erin made a sound—but he had to remove the bolt to heal. His fingers shook as he opened the potion Octavia had given him and poured it on the wounds.
He waited. The wound began to close—
The flesh would knit—
Nothing happened. The Hobgoblin stared at the potion. Was it a mana potion? He tossed it aside, dragged another out of his belt. Erin was gasping.
“I have one on my belt…”
She saw him yank at the cork—then smash it in one hand. The healing liquids poured onto her chest. Numbtongue felt the shards of glass digging into his flesh—then the pain vanishing.
It was a healing potion. He watched it pour into Erin’s wound—
And then nothing. Numbtongue stared. The magical liquid ran with the blood. He thought he saw the tiniest movement of flesh—then it stopped.
Lyonette skidded to a halt, panting. She saw flashes of light as Todi’s group pursued the Drakes. But Erin—she stared down at the [Innkeeper]. Erin was opening and closing her mouth.
“What are you doing? Heal her! H—”
She rounded on Numbtongue. Then she saw the broken bottle in his fist, the empty one.
“It didn’t work.”
He dumbly stared up at her. Numbtongue knew the answer to this one. Pyrite was saying it. Shorthilt had gone quiet. Lyonette’s eyes flickered. She stared at the bolt he’d pulled out.
Slowly, she reached down and picked it up. Lyonette stared at the bloody tip. It was…covered in red. Erin’s blood. She brushed at the tip—then recoiled. She stared. Something had been smeared on the tip.
Something dark. She inhaled once.
“Poison. The bolts are poisoned.”
She showed the coating to him, covered in blood. Numbtongue’s eyes went wide.
Healing potions didn’t work on—
“Guys? I think I’m hurt bad. I could use a p-potion. What’s—”
Erin tried to move. Both snapped out of their horror and looked down. She was reaching with one arm. Trying to reach her belt. Trying to pull out—
She was bleeding and the blood ran onto the grass. Numbtongue looked at Lyonette.
“I didn’t mean—”
He just wanted to scare them. He hadn’t been going to—he looked back at Erin. And suddenly—put his claws over the rushing blood in her chest.
Erin cried out. She flailed, weakly. Numbtongue pressed. Suddenly—he was trying to stop the blood. Stop. The poison. Could they scrape it out of…?
It didn’t work like that. Poison. Lyonette looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] was panting.
“I need a potion. Why isn’t anyone got…?”
The [Princess] spoke numbly.
“It’s poisoned, Erin. We have to get an antidote. Octavia! Get Octavia! Get a [Healer]! Run!”
She shouted at the inn. Silveran, Ishkr—the staff—Numbtongue looked up as he heard voices from inside.
“What’s wrong? Is it safe?”
“Erin’s hurt! Get Octavia!”
Lyonette screamed. And it was a scream, now. Ishkr was standing there—but Silveran turned. Yet a crowd of bodies was suddenly in his way. He fought, but they knocked him back.
“Erin? What? Did those b—”
Menolit stopped just outside the inn. Liska halted, eyes wide. Lyonette looked around. Someone peeked out the doors behind the adults. Her eyes fixed on the body on the ground. Mrsha smelled the blood. But that wasn’t right…
“What are you doing? Potion. Here—”
Menolit stumbled forwards, pulling his emergency vial out. Lyonette knocked it aside.
The [Veteran] looked at her. More bodies spilled out.
“What’s happening? Wh—”
Palt halted, wand raised. Montressa, Bezale, heard his shout in the hallway. They pushed forwards.
A Hobgoblin stood in the tower. Badarrow stared down, hearing every word. Snapjaw ran out of the inn. He saw her drop to her knees and slide to a stop. She stared at Erin.
The [Innkeeper]’s voice made the hubbub cease. Then—a terrible world of silence followed.
Numbtongue’s ears were rushing. He saw Snapjaw’s eyes widen in horror.
Poison was how you stopped healing potions. You couldn’t save someone—and she’d been struck. In the chest. In the belly. Six bolts. She was bleeding.
Snapjaw breathed. She looked around. Numbtongue stared at her. She shoved him.
“Bandages! Run, Goblin! Run!”
He just stayed there. The Redfang felt paralyzed. His claws were covered in blood. He was trying to hold Erin’s life back. The [Eater] rose with a snarl. She turned and charged back into the inn.
And suddenly everyone was in the way. Asking questions. Staring, dumb. Kevin and Joseph skidded to a halt with Rose in front of them.
Rose breathed, turning pale. The others were spreading out. Menolit tried to pour the potion on Erin’s chest. Lyonette—he heard her screaming for Octavia.
“Who did this? The Drakes? Who let this happen? How can she be shot? She’s—the Crazy Human of—”
Someone asked lamely. Numbtongue looked around. Shut up. He tried to scream it at him.
Press! Pyrite was roaring in his head. Press, you worthless fool!
Numbtongue tried. And Erin cried out.
He released the pressure at once. But then Kevin was moving. He knocked the others aside.
“Slow the blood! Pressure—”
He joined Numbtongue on the ground. He pushed down and blood bubbled up. Numbtongue heard a cry. But Kevin was shouting.
Numbtongue obeyed. Rose and Joseph stood there, staring. Rose half-knelt.
“She’s shot in the stomach. Potions can’t…?”
“Poison. They used poison. You can’t heal it until it’s purged. W-what do we—?”
Montressa looked around. Rose gasped.
“Tourniquet! That’s what you do. You make—how do you make one?”
She looked at Kevin. The young man didn’t respond.
“Bandages! Someone get bandages! Joseph! Get your shirt off! Someone help us! Get a [Healer]! Get—”
He roared. Numbtongue heard a cry. Mrsha. She had seen. Moore hovered there pale. Someone shoved past him.
Snapjaw. She had bundles of towels, cleaning cloths, anything she could grab. She threw it down.
“Press! Stupid Goblin! Press!”
She shrieked at the others. Numbtongue obeyed. The cloth turned red. He reached for the bolt and Snapjaw knocked his hand away.
Of course. He knew that. But he felt—
“I’m shot? Poison?”
Erin was murmuring. She didn’t understand. Her eyes were fluttering. She was biting her lip, trying not to scream. Kevin bent over her.
“Don’t move, Erin. It’s going—press! Can’t we get rid of the poison?”
He looked at Snapjaw desperately. The Hobgoblin looked around. Montressa was staring down at Erin. Rose grabbed her, shaking her arm.
“Get a healing potion! Do something! Cast a spell!”
“What spell? I didn’t study healing—”
The [Aegiscaster] jerked away. Bezale knocked both to the side.
“Pressure! [Healer]! Get a damned [Healer]! Go! Run!”
She bellowed at Montressa. She and Rose ran. The others looked on as Beza joined the group clustered around Erin.
They had no idea what to do. Only the Goblins, Beza, and Kevin had any clue.
“Press! It has to clot! We need a blood transfusion! [Healer]! Get Pallass!”
Lyonette shouted. She was dragging the [Alchemist] out. The Stitch-Girl stopped.
“How? Poison? Where is it?”
Lyonette ran forwards. She snatched up the bolt, shoved it at Octavia.
“Find an antidote!”
“Where do I…? From this?”
Octavia stumbled backwards. Numbtongue was staring at Erin’s face. And he saw more blood dripping from the sodden cloth. Snapjaw made a sound.
“Stay awake. Erin. Stay awake.”
“She’s—she’s losing too much blood. I think they hit an artery or a vein. Magic. Use a spell.”
Kevin pleaded with Beza. He looked around. Montressa had forgotten to run for the [Healer].
“Healing magic was lost millennia ago. There are spells like [Restoration], but that’s at least Tier 6 magic.”
“There has to be something. Cauterize the wound!”
“W-what are we supposed to do? Burn her? We’ll burn out her stomach just trying!”
Montressa spluttered. Palt looked around. Menolit was pounding towards the magic door.
The Centaur slowly raised a finger to his head. Badarrow shoved past him, dropping his bow. Bird was behind him. They’d only now descended the stairs.
“Erin? She was shot?”
Time was—too fast. Too slow. Numbtongue felt like every second was rushing past and taking forever. He heard Palt talking to the air.
“Master Galei. Master Galei. Pick up!”
Montressa jerked around. She heard shouting. Someone had wrenched the door open to Pallass. Drassi. She disappeared through.
“Let me through! Chaldion! Grimalkin! Open the g—”
The [Aegiscaster] finally raised a finger to her own brow. She began shouting.
“Emergency! We have someone from Earth dying of multiple arrow wounds. Poisoned. Is there any spell that can—”
The babble of voices—people finally moving—it was all too slow. Numbtongue stared at the ground. Red had already stained Erin’s clothes, absorbed by the grass. He pushed and she cried out once more. She was alive. Still alive.
“Can’t we do something to clot the injuries? I don’t know enough medicine! Take over! Joseph—Joseph—I have to make something to bind—”
Kevin was crying out. But his friend was stupefied.
“Embria! Get Embria here! Zevara! Get a [Healer] over here! They can stop the bleeding with Skills!”
Lyonette whirled again. She ran past a little figure. Mrsha was staring at the wound as Apista buzzed around, stinger extended.
This was a joke. Only, it wasn’t funny. Right? This wasn’t happening.
Not to Erin. Not again.
She reached out. Touched the blood as Erin gasped again. Mrsha jerked—stared at her paw.
Blood on her white fur. The Gnoll flung herself forwards. Clung to Erin. Was shoved away. Snapjaw snarled at her.
“Stay back! Get help!”
Mrsha turned. She ran past Moore. The half-Giant was whispering. But it was no spell. He had no magic.
How long had it been? Numbtongue pressed, desperately trying to hold the blood back. But it kept seeping away.
“I’m dying. Aren’t…I…?”
Erin stared up. She saw—Beza, Snapjaw, Numbtongue—faces crowding around her. Shouting voices from so far away.
“No you’re not. Stay with us, Erin. [Healer]! What’s taking so long?”
Beza roared. But it had only been one minute.
Just a minute. And already—
Erin’s eyes slowly roamed, blinking. Searching the faces. She settled on Numbtongue.
“Are you crying?”
She blinked, almost tried to sit up. The Hobgoblin felt her warm blood, sticky on his palms.
“Stop, stop—need [Shaman]—stop, stop!”
Snapjaw was saying it like a…prayer. Badarrow was looking around.
“Erin? You must not be hurt. This is wrong.”
Bird stood there, bow in hand. Looking down at Erin, confused. He glanced around, and came to a slow conclusion.
“This is a bad dream. I must be dreaming. You cannot be hurt or I would be dead first—”
“I’m sorry. My fault.”
Numbtongue whispered. Erin blinked at him. Time—time was—
Not immortal. It was mortal. It was fading. She whispered, fighting for the words.
“No. I don’t want you to think that. It was an accident. I didn’t even see—who got me?”
“Really? I didn’t—why?”
She didn’t even know them. She didn’t know why. Erin thought that was really…she tried to laugh. Or smile. Her eyes roamed upwards.
Snapjaw slapped her.
Badarrow made a sound. But Beza repeated the words.
“Fetohep. The—we need some kind of magic. Octavia?”
Kevin was looking around. He and Snapjaw were trying to wrap cloth, hold the blood in with pressure and cloth—but the bolts were in the way. He looked at Snapjaw.
“Do you have tape? Glue? Anything. We can’t use our hands. We have to—”
“Octavia. What about a potion that clots blood?”
Joseph muttered. Kevin looked up.
“That’s right! There has to be. Go! Get one now!”
The [Kicker] looked at Kevin. The [Mechanic] screamed.
The young man turned and lurched into a run. Numbtongue heard voices.
“—[Innkeeper] wounded. Poisoned arrows—get the Watch Captain. [Healer]! [Healer]!”
Two minutes. The Watch only heard now? They needed a [Healer]! Beza roared the same. Troy and Leon—Galina, Imani, were frozen outside the inn. Leon half-shook his head.
“They’re not going to make it.”
“Shut up. Don’t stand there!”
Octavia had returned.
“I don’t—I don’t have what Joseph wants! I can’t just make an antidote on the fly. Here are my best potions—”
She dropped them onto the grass. Bent to pick them up. Numbtongue whirled. He grabbed at them.
“Where is the [Healer]?”
Lyonette had returned. She looked around.
“They’re coming! They’re coming! But—”
It was too slow. The [Princess] stared at Erin. The red bandages. Then she grabbed Bird. Why—why hadn’t she thought of this?
“Get Pawn. Tell the Queen! Tell Xrn! Get them up here—now!”
“He can heal her! Get Pawn!”
“Pawn. Pawn. Emergency. EMERGENCY.”
Bird turned. He began screaming the word. Suddenly—Silveran had returned. He screamed the same word.
The other Workers picked up the shout. They screamed it. Lyonette turned towards the city. Hurry.
“Pawn! Come quickly! Erin is dying!”
She screamed. Her [Boon] flickered. She was trying to put it on Erin. But—
Numbtongue shouted, turning his head.
Snapjaw stared at him. The [Bard] looked around. Take my hand. He saw the Goblin Lord. Reiss was kneeling next to them. His head in his claws. He looked up at Numbtongue and shook his head. The [Bard] reached out.
But the Goblin Lord had no answer. Not for this. His power had never been to save.
Lyonette’s words echoed. Becoming truth as it was said at last.
She was dying.
Erin lay there. Blinking slowly. The world was growing…she tried to listen. Someone—many people were pleading with her. Arguing. She tried to tell one.
Not your fault. I didn’t even see it coming. Don’t feel bad. She remembered—she had never known.
“Headscratcher? What did you say to me?”
Above her, Numbtongue had torn the bottles from Octavia’s grasp. He dumped potion after potion onto her wound. Lyonette was screaming at him to stop. That he’d hurt her. But—
Suddenly, Kevin, the others, were silent. Just holding her tight. Erin didn’t feel—anything—below her. She rasped.
“No you’re not. Erin, accept my [Boon]. Use your Skill on yourself! You have to fight. Use—use your [Immortal Moment]! Don’t give up!”
Lyonette was speaking to her. Holding her hand. Erin saw Mrsha. Other faces. She tried to shake her head, but that was beyond her. There was something she had to say.
“Ryoka? No. Tell her yourself.”
The [Princess] whispered. Erin’s eyes flickered.
“My family. Tell them.”
Lyonette du Marquin’s face turned colorless. She froze, as Erin exhaled.
Numbtongue heard shouting from the hallway. He looked up.
“The [Healer] is coming! Just hold on! Hold on!”
Erin’s skin was so pale. Her lips were blue. She was—Numbtongue stared at the liquid. Willing it to stop. Go back inside. He choked.
“It won’t close. Please. Not you. Not you too.”
In the distance, the city exploded with noise. The Black Tide erupted from the tunnels. Light flashed. A spell in progress.
Too slow. Every horn was blaring from the walls.
“The world is ending.”
Bird had dropped his bow. He stood there. Looking down at her. Erin inhaled.
She was trying to say something. But the words ended in her throat. She just looked at Bird. At Mrsha, clinging with bloody paws to Lyonette. Up, at Numbtongue. At something else. She tried—
Erin was breathing so slowly, now. And the blood’s flow was stopping. They needed more time. Kevin was shouting at Palt. The Centaur was howling, trying to shout at the same time as Montressa.
The sphere of reality shrunk. It was just Erin. She looked up.
“I was so happy.”
He told her. Don’t say that. The [Innkeeper] smiled at him. Gently. Her regrets. Her sorrows. Her triumphs. For a moment, he saw her hand rise. And he saw the light in her eyes.
The crowd around the fallen young woman fell completely quiet as a light illuminated the bloody hilltop. The light flashed from the [Innkeeper]’s fingertips.
It burned bright, a tiny little thing. As vast as a hundred burning lifetimes. A thousand stories. As small as a sigh.
The little flame was not one color. It was one and many, made up of so many things. Sadness, like blue despair. Hatred and mercy, invisible and grey.
Fleeting pink glory. And dozens more colors, in every shade, some that those who saw them would never be able to name.
Take it. The hazel eyes looked past the light. Perfectly calm.
She held it out, the spark. A dozen hands reached for it, hesitating. Wavering. Trying to keep it alive. Erin Solstice reached out, trying to—
Her eyes fluttered.
The light winked out.
The hand fell.
Numbtongue caught the cold, cool hand. He stared, but the beautiful flame was gone. And—he waited.
Lyonette whispered. Mrsha nudged the [Innkeeper]. Snapjaw’s claws trembled. Beza was frozen. She felt at Erin’s face. Then she looked up.
“She’s not breathing.”
Slowly, she pressed on Erin’s wrist. Felt at her neck. No one else moved in the world. The Minotauress whispered.
“Her heart’s stopped.”
Numbtongue’s world ended. He stared at the body, lying there. Slowly, he shook her. Hard. Harder. Her head wobbled. The faint smile—her closed eyes—
“Stop. Stop it.”
Snapjaw grabbed Numbtongue’s arm. He looked at her. Her crimson eyes were filled with tears.
“This is not happening.”
Palt spoke. He looked around. Searching the faces for someone who would wake him.
—an army of Antinium flooding out of the gates. The Watch charging up the hill. Forces from Pallass, hammering on the door.
Too late. It had just been minutes.
She was…Erin Solstice was…
Kevin lowered his hands from the bloody scratches his fingernails had torn in his skin. He looked around. At the Goblins, the Antinium. Lyonette, Mrsha, the guests. Palt, Montressa, B—
He grabbed Montressa. The [Aegiscaster] had lowered her hand. She stared at him. He shook her, insistently.
“What? Do what?”
“Fucking freeze her! As cold as you can! Do it! Do it now!”
Kevin’s voice suddenly rose. He shouted, looking around. The others started. Numbtongue saw Kevin shoving everyone out of the way. He looked at the [Mages].
“Freeze her! She’s not dead! Not entirely.”
“Not yet! Do it!”
Slowly—Palt looked at Montressa. Beza. Moore raised a faltering hand. They stared at Kevin. He shouted—and the frost covered the ground. Covering the young woman who lay there.
The Antinium rushed onto the hill. The Watch, Olesm, Zevara, Embria—Grimalkin burst out of the door to Pallass, followed by an army of [Soldiers], [Healers], [Mages], until the door winked out.
They stopped there. In time, the Silver Swords burst in through from Invrisil. The rest of the Halfseekers arrived. The Wings of Pallass. The Flamewardens.
Selys, disbelieving, weeping. The Council. More and more, crowding the hill. Fighting. Arguing, not ready to accept the lies.
Until they saw the body. The slight smile. The blood and frozen ground. Six casual, worthless pieces of wood and metal tipped in poison.
A petty revenge from a city few had even heard of. They looked down and waited for someone to tell them they were just having a nightmare.
But they never woke.
The word spread from the inn. Into the city of Liscor. Into the Walled City of Inventions. To Celum, Esthelm, where a Dwarf abandoned his forge. To the City of Adventurers, missing the [Actors] who heard it only on the road. A Vampire girl grabbed the person who had cried it, protesting that it could not be so.
Across the continent. Catching an Earl as he waited for a game of chess. He turned back, disbelieving.
In the city by the Flood Plains, the people who heard it shook their heads. An incredulous laugh, a cold stare. That wasn’t funny.
What did you say? The Human, dead? Erin? You had to be mad.
It could not be. You were mistaken. Be silent.
Not like that. Not—a petty little raiding party. Not Hectval.
They dropped what they were doing. They abandoned their tasks. They found friends. Family. They walked out of the city. Climbing the hill, and seeing the scene play itself out and turning truth into shards of reality.
She lay there, on the grass. Unmoved as people knelt or reached out to touch her, held back. A city stopped in disbelief. As if so many people could turn time back and make fact reverse.
How did you remember someone? It was not in how they died, or the funeral.
It was what they left behind. Who remembered them. Erin Solstice lay there, her fingers on one hand still extended slightly. Holding out her will.
The fire was dead. And her friends and guests and family stood there.
It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. And they said the same things all people said. The same words. As disbelief turned to grief. As they waited for the young woman to rise and laugh.
She did not.
The sky fell away. Hours slipping into evening. The world changed.
They knelt, in front of her. Out of order. Trying to speak. Some wordless.
“Silver and steel be my guide. Everything dies. But not…not you. Not here. Not this way.”
Ylawes Byres clenched his hand until his gauntlets dripped blood. He had not been there. Dawil’s face was a mask of tears. Falene was shaking too hard to speak. She leaned on the Dwarf as he gently placed his helmet down before her, on the frozen ground.
“Grandfathers take you to the next adventure, Erin Solstice. May it be a better one.”
“She’s not dead. She can’t be—”
Dawil took Falene’s arm. The [Knight] stared ahead.
“What have they done? What have we done?”
Ratici was held back only by Wilovan. Their hats were off. They looked around for someone—but the Drakes were dead. They had been relaxing. They had not been here.
Seborn said nothing. No matter how long he knelt. Jelaqua was screaming. Ulinde—she looked up as Moore spoke at last.
“Those who slew you will end. Then—I will protect the little ones.”
He turned away. The half-Giant stared at his hands. He clenched them. He had been able to do nothing.
“I thought I was strong.”
Fierre mumbled. She stood with Alber. She had found him. She had been going to show him to—the [Fistfighter] looked at the body and turned away. Fierre was trembling.
“Wh—wh—I thought I was strong. I thought—what am I supposed to tell Ryoka?”
“It’s not right.”
Grimalkin of Pallass looked down. He looked around. Searching for—
“Erin! Get up! You can’t—”
Selys was being held back by Ishkr. Drassi. They heard the howling voices. The shouting. The hilltop was removed from all of it. Selys screamed.
Tekshia shook her head. She looked at Erin like so many before. She leaned on her staff, silent.
More and more. They came for the door. The Watch Captain. Adventurers. [Mages].
Someone spoke, from a dais in Liscor. To a crowd of thousands, his words repeated by countless more. They filled the plaza.
“Today, fools killed the greatest treasure our city has ever known.”
Lism’s eyes were red. He looked, and they all looked with him. Towards the walls. And what lay beyond. The inn.
“Not the woman herself. Not just her. But what she represented. What she became. Every step, every life which met with hers, every meal and Skill and day made our city better. She was—”
He stopped. His throat worked. The [Councilmember] said nothing more. He stepped away, shaking.
“Enough. There is nothing else to say. This goes beyond mere crime. Beyond offense. Strategist Olesm—your words?”
The [Strategist] stirred. He had not shed a tear. He had not—the ghost of a Drake moved. He looked away from the inn. He spoke. He shouted. He screamed.
“For the [Innkeeper] of Liscor. To war!”
The army moved. Zevara watched from the battlements, head bowed. Below her, the Watch of Liscor marched, their numbers swelled by nearly fourteen thousand volunteers. Menolit marched next to Moore.
They left the city. The stream slowed as night fell. More came. They spoke. They wept. They raged. They made all the sounds in the world.
But not the small group in the inn.
They said nothing. There were no words in any language. Not enough, not for this.
A little Gnoll sat, fur pale as the colors of death. Stained crimson with blood in places. Unmoving.
The [Priest] had torn at himself until he was held down. Lyonette hugged Pawn to keep him from doing himself more harm.
Bird had stopped moving. He lay on the ground.
The children of Earth held each other. Faces in their hands. Weeping.
Badarrow and Snapjaw surrounded Numbtongue. Badarrow was weeping too hard to see. Numbtongue was holding the knife. Holding his sword. Snapjaw’s claws strained as she held him still.
Octavia had removed her face in her shop. She plucked at her strings, as if trying to remove her heart.
Silveran. Ishkr. Drassi—the Players of Liscor held Temile, who had collapsed without a word. Palt had nearly broken his back hooves, kicking at the wall. Blood trickled onto the floorboards, next to Montressa. Bezale, slumped.
In the prison, a Minotaur broke the walls of his cell. He saw the magic break. He walked towards the inn, stumbling, holding two little friends, who clung to his horns.
This world ends. Numbtongue stared at the blade. It ends.
Reiss held him back. Pyrite. Shorthilt. The Goblin Lord looked at him.
“I cannot bring her back the way you want. Wait. Please. Wait.”
The [Bard] strained. But the ghost held him still.
He saw a figure stir. Lyonette looked up. She spoke, into the void.
“She’s not dead. She’s not dead. Not yet. Say it again, Kevin.”
The figures in the inn turned. The young man’s head rose. He looked around, his eyes red with grief. His throat was raw.
“…It’s beyond our world. I’ve never heard of anyone actually being revived. But with magic—there’s a chance. That’s all I could think of.”
“You froze her.”
“Her body. If you could mend the damage—maybe.”
He shuddered. Trying to explain. The others tried to understand.
“If—there’s a chance you could bring her back. Her heart’s stopped. But her brain’s there. Her—”
“Is she there?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry. It’s all I could think of.”
“The antidote. I could make it. Saliss—someone.”
Octavia looked up. Pawn stirred.
“I will—I was not here. I was not here. I was too weak. I tried. I am—nothing. I have wasted all she gave me. Heaven—what is heaven in any world without her?”
“Pawn. But she lost blood—”
“They tell stories of magic that can heal any wound. The Healer of Tenbault. If there was a chance…”
If there was any chance?
The inn lay so empty. They rose. The guests of The Wandering Inn, the family. Friends beyond friends. They looked towards the garden.
The Titan of Baleros flew through the night sky, bleeding. Lost. The traitor plotted in the center of the Great Company, bereft of him.
So time ran on. Curling into the future, uncertain now, where it had been so clear a moment ago.
The Meeting of Tribes.
The Summer Solstice.
The Titan’s grand arrival.
The fate of Izril.
The burgeoning link between cities, the fate of Vampires, the little white Gnoll, the schemes of Wistram, the worlds of friends.
And so much more.
The Wandering Inn itself, standing silent. An icy bier of frost, an altar upon which a young woman lay, on a hilltop filled with statues above a garden where the flowers bloomed eternally.
All of it waited. But someone was missing.
Ryoka Griffin lay dreaming.
Erin Solstice was dead.
Can you feel it? It was all…