8.00

(Andrea Parsneau, MouthyMaven, will be live-recording Book 3 of The Wandering Inn on her Discord server! Be sure to join the server if you’d like to listen!)

 

Three days after the Summer Solstice, there was life. A heart began to beat. A body stirred.

In the city of Liscor, there was life where there had been so much death. Still, the mourning continued. Not just for one person; lives had been lost.

War between the Hectval Alliance and the city of Liscor had claimed lives. The city was both silent and noisy, and too much of each.

Yet there was life.

Beneath the city, bodies stirred in vast, semi-transparent sacs of liquid. Shapes that would have been called foreign, alien, disturbing to Humans or other species, began to move. Their heads were triangular, and they bore antennae. Their bodies—insectile, a fusion of ant and beetle. They had rounded, tough shells on their backs, and four arms.

They were Antinium. And they were being born, as the Antinium understood it.

The luminescent liquid that was growing them was in fact, a being of its own. Albeit with no real conscious mind. Antinium called them Birthers—and they were to their function what Workers and Soldiers were. These specialized Antinium produced each new generation at a speed unmatched by any other sentient species. A Worker or Soldier could form in a month at average production; less if need be.

And there were hundreds such Birthers, carefully contained in this environment, free from any foreign contamination or interference. The ‘food’ they were given was specifically calculated and the Birthers accepted only liquid nutrition that another Antinium had to process to render into usable material.

It was another form of reproduction for a species that had decided manual labor sort of sucked and was pretty inefficient. This new generation would not emerge as infants in body.

In mind, perhaps. But as each Antinium began to drift upwards and be extracted from the sack—or extruded much in the way most infants were—they did not cry or make sound. They stumbled only once; then found their feet.

To one of the new Workers, it was of course the strangest experience in its life. It had been vaguely…aware…near the end of its completion. But unconscious. What it had been processing was information.

 

How to walk. How to manipulate objects. Basic combat. Grab the enemy and kill it. Bite, tear. Pick up this object. Use a hammer like so. Nails go in point-first.

Clothing is to be worn thusly; without it is unacceptable. Beware of moving vehicles. Pronounce ‘Antinium’ with the following syntax…

 

A thousand different concepts, imparted into its mind from previous generations. Even as the Worker looked around the dim room and saw more forms rising, shaking off the nutrient-rich liquid—which was running in grooves in the floor down to a sloping basin for repurposing—it could have joined a construction team in hammering nails into pre-designated positions, or taken up a position in a battle, if only to charge the enemy and attack with bare hands and mandibles.

The Worker knew basic things; that was all. It could hammer nails, not construct a house or see the logic in tactics. The rest it would have to be taught. But it was still a rapid advancement on a Drake baby, whose only instinct after being born would be to cry, or grab the shiniest thing possible and stick it in its mouth.

This generation was not a vast army, just another addition to the Hive. Ninety eight Workers and Soldiers; the Birthers were not synced to all produce Antinium at once. It was a continuous rotation and even now, they were being prepared for more Antinium.

But what now? The Worker stood straight, opening and closing its hands, waving its antennae. Thinking and realizing it was consciously thinking for the first time. Yet it had no direction, no purpose. What—

 

I am your Queen.

 

The thought struck the Worker and it froze in an instant. From somewhere else—another position in the Hive—it felt a presence.

Vast, powerful, a mind reaching out through dirt and space to touch it. And the other Antinium. They froze as the Free Queen of the Antinium touched them, briefly.

 

I am your Queen. You are a Worker. You are Free Antinium. Your purpose is to defend the Hive. Your role will be given. You are to be a butcher of meats.

 

And thus it was done. The Worker received a second download of information, as well as understanding. It was a Worker. One of many. And it had just felt the presence of the Queen, for whom the Hive revolved around.

Certainty steadied the Worker. It was now a butcher. It would learn its job, but already it understood it would be using a meat cleaver to separate meats. Basic ideas like ‘do not get dirt on this’ had been imparted.

Normally, it would then walk to a specified place in the Hive, and follow another Worker about for a week or two, learning the rest of the nuances of its craft. But two things were different with this group of new Antinium than the rest.

The first was that of the hundred Birthers and Antinium—only ninety eight had risen. Two lay on the ground.

Dead. The Workers in charge of this section paused uncertainly over the bodies. The Antinium were whole in every way. A Soldier and a Worker, without defect or flaw, which normally would have been caught in their creation, at least visible ones.

But they did not move. Something was wrong. The Workers slowly began to remove the bodies. The other Antinium watched, not knowing what to feel or think. Death—the idea of death—had not been taught to them in more than an idea of what would happen if they were injured.

No one taught new Antinium to grieve or weep. Or no one had. But things were changing.

 

Go here.

 

The voice of the Queen sounded a second time in the butcher-Worker’s head. He jerked, and then began to move with the other new Antinium. It was the last time the Worker would directly hear the Queen’s voice, except to receive the briefest of orders to reinforce a position or change occupations.

But sound, audible sound, began to filter in as the Antinium left the space where they had been born. Their antennae twitched and their steps stuttered. But they moved smoothly and entered a tunnel.

And there were more Antinium. Hundreds. Thousands, marching in perfect sync. The new Antinium beheld how many of their kind there were—and fell into place into the moving lines without missing a beat.

That was what it was to be Antinium. Born and used and dying without ever leaving the Hive sometimes. With a lifespan of hours in times of war.

But it was not how it should be. Or so some said. And so, the second deviation from the experience of the new Antinium was this:

They were all going the same way. The butcher-Worker realized it was moving right behind an archer-Worker. It had caught a bit of the Queen’s transmission to the closest Worker, this one. Neither acknowledged the other. The butcher-Worker stared at the back of the archer-Worker’s head. But if there was ever a connection…

They might never see each other again. Not with so many different Antinium, they looked quite alike even to their own kind. It made the butcher-Worker a bit glad they were walking together for a while.

The new Antinium filed into a side tunnel after leaving the main thoroughfare. They walked in a line of four, turned left, then right, following the Queen’s instructions in their head. And they came to a large room.

Just a tunnel of space. The Hive was compact walls of dirt and stone, primitive in construction, but made by experts who knew how to brace against flooding, earthquakes, and other dangers. This was a hollowed space, and unlike other tunnels or rooms the new Antinium had passed by, oddly inefficient.

In that it was not claustrophobically built so the ceiling was only a tiny bit above the Antinium’s heads. This was a proper chamber. And more Antinium were gathered here.

Many more. And many…strange Antinium. The New Antinium had been born eight minutes ago, but already they were able to make that distinction. Normal Antinium looked like them. But these had…something strange on their bodies.

Color. Splashes of some vibrant substance. And…clothing? One of them wore a kind of loose robe. Another? An apron and an odd, white, floofy hat. The butcher-Antinium stared at it, and his mind confirmed this was another point of clothing. Not like the loincloths he’d be issued; this was proper garb. It even had words.

He read the first words of his life haltingly, using the new centers of his mind to process the insignia on the apron as the other Antinium turned to regard him.

‘Hug the [Cook]’.

Now what did that mean? And what was the odd, pink-red off-triangle thing below it? The other Worker looked a bit perplexed by the appearance of the New Antinium too. It opened its mandibles.

And then there was a voice. An actual voice, the first the New Antinium had heard.

“New Antinium? Ah. Stand there, please.”

The New Antinium snapped to attention. They looked forwards, ready for orders. And what they saw was…

A Worker. Like them. Dressed in robes, but wearing no paint. His body was more worn than theirs, bearing marks of existence. But he was not…painted.

Still, there was something to him. He stood behind a wooden thing. A lectern. And two of his hands were clasped together for no apparent reason. But when he spoke…something in his voice drew them. Surely, if they had tried to copy his words, they would lack some substance there.

“Welcome.”

That was all he said. But he meant it. The Workers and Soldiers filed into line, and saw how many Antinium were present. Thousands. They stood in this place, listening intently. Somehow—intently, even for Antinium. With every fiber of their being. The Worker at the lectern leaned on it.

He looked tired. And…sad. His antennae drooped. His head hung. But then he straightened. And he gazed across his audience and spoke.

“Who is Erin Solstice?”

It was a question. The New Antinium stirred; they had no answer. There was no ‘Erin Solstice’ in anything they had been taught. They saw the other Antinium stir; some knew the answer. But they also understood it was a rhetorical question, something else the New Antinium would have to learn.

The Worker speaking went on.

“Who is Erin? Not who was Erin. New Antinium, in the days to come, you will hear her name often. To those of you who attend this sermon for the first time, who have lived in the Hive but never had the chance to meet her…the same.”

He looked at some of the Antinium without paint then, and they stirred. They were old—some perhaps as old as five whole years, but unpainted and thus…different. Summoned, like the New Antinium, for a reason. The Worker went on, shaking his head.

“What you will find are things Erin did. Things she helped make. Me. The idea of Painted Antinium. It was not just her. But she was there at the start. We have become far more. But she was there. You must know who she is—who she was—to understand what we are. And then, you must know that she is gone.”

Now, the Antinium stirred. The Painted Antinium shook as though a breeze had blown far underground. The New Antinium experienced a moment of…unease.

Something terrible had happened. The Worker leaned on the podium. His name was Pawn. He was a [Priest].

But he too had changed. The Antinium looked up at him, some uncertain, some with awe, having understood they were being chosen. Regular Antinium regarded him with wonder. The Painted Antinium?

Some…with fear. For he was Pawn. First of the Individuals. Leader of the Painted Antinium—if not in military might like Yellow Splatters, then in charge of their souls and great cause. Yet they looked at him with fear when they had not just a week ago.

[Doomspeaker Priest]. And by his will and hatred, he could conjure that which terrified Antinium.

[Summon Aberration]. The Skill felt dark and twisted in his mind even as he thought it. He had become wrath. Pawn spoke on, seeing the Painted Antinium looking at him.

“Erin Solstice is lost. And she was a good thing. Not just good. The best that has ever happened to the Antinium. Because of her, you will become Painted Antinium. You will have names. A purpose beyond what we were. Because of Erin, you will see the sky and taste food and, perhaps, live far longer than any before you.”

The Antinium looked up, hungry for his words. The sky. They longed for it, even the new Antinium. The thought that there was even more was an addictive drug. Once you saw the sky…you could not go back.

And yet there it was. Where once he had delivered the sermon with only one emotion, there was now nuance. Erin Solstice was…

The Painted Antinium were silent. The [Priest] went on, slowly, painfully.

“Yet Erin was lost. Is lost. She is…she was hurt. By terrible fools. She will be avenged. But she is lost and that is…”

Too much. The Painted Antinium susurrated with grief.

Three days. It had been three days since the Summer Solstice. Longer since Erin had been frozen. Too long. Already—Pawn felt the beginnings of madness once more.

He had seen it once, when he had told the Soldiers of the idea of heaven. Now, he sensed it again.

Heaven exists. A better place for Antinium after death. Erin is dead. Or at least, not alive. In that case, logic made things simple.

This world has lost all that is good and right about it. Why not hasten that journey to a better place if one exists? Especially if she is there?

It was a terrible conclusion, but one that Pawn had seen Antinium come to. He had to tell them they were wrong. So—his sermon was more important than his grief.

“It is true Erin is not here. But she is not dead. And that is why you must not give up. Continue.”

He looked across them.

“There is more to—to life than just Erin. She will return. Have faith.

They listened, believing his words because Pawn knew them to be true. Erin was so much.

But she was not everything.

“There are clouds. They come in all shapes and sizes in the sky. You see—each one is different. And flowers. There are more flowers than you could imagine. In every shape and color and size. I have not seen them all. Not even a tenth. There is good food; a [Cook] named Imani makes new ones every week.”

The Antinium listened, hungry, as Pawn described these things. He tried to tell them what it felt like to pet a sheep. They licked your fingers, even.

“All these things are good. All these things must be protected. We are at war with Hectval. Erin is dead. But she is not lost. She can come back. She will. So we must protect what matters. Her. Her inn, each other, the Hive—the city until then. Believe.”

It was so easy to say that. And they did. Because he was Pawn, their [Priest]. Perhaps he even fooled the two [Acolytes] he had chosen, who began circulating with fresh bread.

Bread he had conjured with his Skill, supplemented with Garry-bread, both of which Antinium could eat, in sparing amounts. The Workers and Soldiers got a bit of honey with each. For the New Antinium it was almost cruel; it would be far more glorious to taste this than the food they would normally live with.

But that was what Pawn wanted to give them. Happy things. He could…say it better than he practiced it. In his heart, he was still kneeling in front of the bier.

Lost. And whilst his sermon kept the Painted Antinium from falling into despair, there it was. Pawn looked at Garry as he prepared to induct the new Antinium who were ready into the ranks of the Painted Antinium. They would be given paints, and a day to choose their identities. They would have been thinking of it for the last week of course.

Those who were just beginning their journey, like the New Antinium, would simply mingle with the Painted Antinium and experience reading a book, or playing chess for a while.

That was what was new in the Hive of the Free Antinium. Pawn resumed his sermon, trying to tell his people to hold to faith. For Erin would return. Surely. Someone would help bring her back.

But it had been three days since the Summer Solstice. And now—a week and a half since she had been lost.

 

—-

 

The sermon concluded. The regular Antinium were released to their duties. The New Antinium stayed, still savoring the taste. Foolishly, they’d scarfed down the honeyed bread, unlike the regular Antinium and Painted Antinium, who knew to savor each bite and make it last for hours.

The Painted Antinium remained, as did the Individuals. For instance, the Antinium with the poofy hat, Garry.

He was to the Antinium what a celebrity was. Garry, Bird the [Hunter], Pawn, Belgrade, and Anand. They were the Individuals, with an option on Yellow Splatters and Purple Smiles and so on as later Antinium of note. The other Antinium—even Painted Antinium—hung back as he moved towards Pawn.

For Garry was grieving too. As was Belgrade, still shaking with it. Pawn went first to them, speaking quietly, touching Antinium on the way. Did they grieve the most? Perhaps, for they were first. They had known Erin longest. Therefore, their grief mattered more than lesser Antinium.

And if that were true, then the Worker who had refused to take bread or honey felt it must be a pain so intense you could barely stand. He did not want to feel that. This?  This was bad enough. He watched as the Individuals gathered in the center of the room, with all other Antinium attending them. Yellow Splatters was moving towards them, Purple Smiles, even the foreign Antinium—Tersk and Dekass.

The ones who mattered. The Painted Worker hung back. For he did not. He had paint on his antennae, and only there. Silver paint. And thus he was ‘Silveran’, or so he’d been named.

A Worker with a nickname, a rarity even among their kind. He watched, enviously, as Pawn embraced Garry. His voice was audible even from here.

“The New Antinium. We must hold on, Garry. We must…”

They were turning to the new near-hundred Workers and Soldiers. Silveran, who was one year old, knew that a lack of a full hundred meant this group of Antinium had had faults with their generation. Some defect in the Birthers?

Or something more insidious? He had heard the words from the scrying orb, spelling a third bad thing in this week. And bad things had happened, so much already that Silveran couldn’t take it in.

The new Workers and Soldiers stood to attention as the others regarded them. They would probably be disoriented; Silveran remembered clearly how his first hour of creation had been filled with combat.

Slimes had broken through cracks close to his area and the Queen had ordered the Workers and Soldiers to fight with her first contact. Silveran had watched a Soldier engulfed by a giant Sewer Slime before tearing the mana core out of the slime and watching it die.

These would have a gentler introduction. For that, Silveran envied them. But they would not meet Erin, even if they were allowed a patrol on the surface. So he pitied them.

Something was different about them, too. It wasn’t completely obvious to them of course since they had no idea, but Silveran detected a fluidity of movement in them. A slight…enhancement around the legs?

Improved muscular design in the lower structure. Or so he’d heard Yellow Splatters remarking. The Free Queen had implemented one of her upgrades to the Worker and Soldier designs and it was only now showing up in later generations. In a month? They’d see a lot of upgrades. Perhaps deficiencies too. Sometimes a Worker or Soldier was created with a flaw in their process that manifested itself only when they were functional.

Pawn was walking to the New Antinium, reaching out to touch shoulders. Garry, meanwhile, had offered a pie around and was sharing slices. Belgrade was being supported by his aides, and there were the two Armored Antinium.

All important. Silveran was not. At least, not in the same way. He was—had been—privileged beyond belief. A Worker employed in The Wandering Inn, a job position beyond belief. But Erin was dead.

So Silveran waited a moment, and found Pawn’s sermon had done nothing to close the hole inside of him that he could not see, only feel. Then he left.

 

—-

 

The city of Liscor was noisy and silent by turns as Silveran left the Hive. He walked the streets, listening, observing.

Was he allowed to do this? Debatable. Silveran was Painted Antinium, but even they couldn’t do what they wanted. Only Garry, Pawn, Bird, Belgrade, and Anand were that special. Yet Silveran?

He would normally be above, already in the inn, sweeping floors, serving drinks, doing whatever was needed. Hauling water from the well; he was good at that. He kept very far back in case he fell in of course. That was his biggest fear. But he was always on time. Erin had told him he could not arrive two hours early the first time she caught him sweeping up before dawn, so he always came exactly on time.

It was such a good job. Had been such a good job. Silveran had been specially chosen for it. Over four hundred Painted Workers had competed. Erin had no idea when she asked Pawn for a Worker to try out in the staff that there would be competition of course.

But Yellow Splatters, Xrn, and Belgrade had all agreed with Pawn that the best Worker should be chosen for the job. They had reviewed each Worker’s levels, and settled on Silveran because he was a Level 7 [Sweeper] and he had participated in eleven combat-events with no injuries.

Yellow Splatters had wanted to make the finalist Workers spar. But Pawn had been content with Silveran and chosen him after seeing Silveran handle a knife.

First of the Antinium staff. There were two more, but Silveran had been there almost every day. He’d go at the crack of dawn and walk for thirty minutes, strolling really, to get to the inn on time.

Such a good thing. He would arrive and clean up and Erin would insist he had a hot breakfast first, and Miss Imani would say ‘hello’ and he would see Erin first thing and work until his shift ended.

Even Pawn wasn’t that lucky. Even Garry saw Erin only once or twice a week. Silveran had considered he was the happiest Worker in the Hive. He’d kept that to himself of course; it was as close to…heresy…as anything to say that he was happier than Pawn, or more fortunate than Bird or Belgrade.

But he’d thought it. He saw how often Bird said hello to Erin. Statistically, the Worker did have as many Erin-contact events as Silveran, but he sometimes missed meals. So Silveran had more seconds of Erin-proximity by far than Bird, even if Erin had conversations or chess games with him.

And yes, he counted. Silveran had counted every day he got to work in the inn. He had the number scratched into his permanent sleeping-cubby in the Painted Antinium’s barracks, and his money was carefully sorted by coin in a small space he’d hollowed out himself. He hadn’t bought anything with it; he would have given it to the Painted Antinium’s funds, but Yellow Splatters had said it was his.

Silveran had even leveled more than all but the most active Painted Soldiers or Individuals. He was a proud, Level 15 [Server], having changed from [Sweeper] to [Server] and he had a Skill Erin had been very happy about—[Remove Mess]. Silveran could just point at a small spill or mess and it vanished! She had said it was ‘the best Skill ever with Mrsha around’ and Silveran had written it down on a scrap of paper.

He paused in the street to open it now. The little, discarded piece of paper with one of Lyonette’s shopping receipts on front was legible in the morning light.

‘The best Skill ever with Mrsha around’.

Yes, it said that. But it no longer filled him with joy. Erin was dead.

Shot with crossbow bolts. Even now, Silveran felt like curling up at the memory. He had been in the inn, weapons drawn, ready to defend the inn if anyone got past the hallway kill zone. When he’d heard a shout and…and…he’d run outside and she was lying on the ground.

She’d been shot with the crossbow bolts right outside the inn and he hadn’t stopped it.

The Worker shuddered. He dropped the piece of parchment and hurriedly bent to pick it up. His fault. He was surprised Pawn and Yellow Splatters hadn’t told him to walk into the dungeon. Or thrown him into a Shield Spider nest. He’d been waiting.

Because, clearly—all of this was his fault. Erin dying and being frozen, the war with Hectval—everything was Silveran’s fault because he hadn’t been outside to defend her. He should have been, even if he didn’t know she’d been right there when the Drake raiding party attacked. But he should have been. All Silveran knew was that he should have died, not Erin.

Ergo, his fault. The logic was clear. Silveran picked up the parchment and put it away in his belt pouch.

Like Pawn, he wore clothing. Robes were the Antinium style since few things covered their bulky bodies. However, Erin had done some experimenting and her outfit for Antinium staff was an apron over their fronts, and a kind of kilt-like lower half, so they weren’t tangled in robes. Silveran had a belt with pouches, a standard, for most people on top of that.

He was just closing the pouch when he heard another bell tolling. The Worker started. He looked around and saw—

A procession. Drakes, heads bowed, carrying—Silveran was hurrying to the side of the street at once.

Carrying a casket. This was a funeral procession. The bell rang again, and Silveran saw it was hanging from the casket being borne by the Drakes. A crowd was following and the Worker pressed himself against a wall.

He knew at once it was someone going to be cremated. Or perhaps the casket bore their ashes for interment in one of the cemeteries.

There had been many of these. Three days of it. Funerals for the dead in the war with Hectval. Silveran remembered that, too.

A soldier bursting through the door to the inn, shouting for the Black Tide at Olesm’s orders. People going to fight—the huge Minotaur with one arm charging through with a roar. Silveran, about to join the thousand-some Antinium when Lyonette had told him to stay, to guard the inn and Mrsha.

So he had. He had not witnessed the battle. But he had heard…Pawn had conjured Aberrations. He had cursed the Hectval army and they had been driven to retreat despite ambushing Liscor’s army. It was a victory against the odds, especially since Liscor’s army had rushed to attack Hectval without preparation and been caught by three armies in a pass.

Still…they had taken too many casualties. The funerals were proof of that. Silveran hung his head as the weeping Drakes passed. They were silent; the pedestrians who’d all stopped to take off hats or watch the procession were not.

“Damn Hectval. And damn whoever thought it was a good idea to attack them!”

A Drake whispered furiously after the mourners had gone. Silveran heard some murmurs.

“Not the time.”

“Isn’t it? That Earl from Terandria and our [Strategist] were all charging off and look what happened. Hundreds dead! Thousands! Why is he still a [Strategist]?”

“I didn’t hear anyone saying to stop at the time.”

A Gnoll snorted.

“The Watch Captain did. But who listened to her? Anyways, unless you have a good [Strategist] in your pocket…”

The first Drake growled, adjusting his coat as his tail lashed the ground. Silveran crept past the group; they paid no attention to the Worker. Liscorian citizens seldom did.

“It’s not right. And where is the army? We’ve needed them more this year than any other and they’re off south, fighting for coin.”

“No arguments there. In fairness—this year’s been like no other.”

“Thanks to that Human. Oh. Well…perhaps it will be quieter.”

The group fell silent. The growling Drake’s face turned suddenly abashed. The others glared at him and he shook his head, coughed into a claw.

“—Just not right, that’s all. I’m not saying Hectval shouldn’t be punished. But we don’t have enough of an army. We need ours back yesterday. Not just for Hectval. If it’s war with Rhir…”

Silveran walked past the group as he heard murmurs and then them breaking up. They were angry. Distraught. And not just because of Hectval.

More bad things had happened too.

 

—-

 

The Wandering Inn stood on a hill outside the city. Silveran walked up to it; he was used to foot traffic, people using the door and thus a constant flow of people in and out, using the outhouses, lining up to go to another city.

It was deathly quiet today. As it had been yesterday, and the day before. Silveran opened the door and saw…

No one. The inn was silent. He looked reflexively left and saw a blank wall. Oh. Right. The magic door had been moved to the portal room. The door to that was closed though, and he heard no one moving behind it. No one wanted to visit The Wandering Inn today. Or if they did? No one was here.

He walked down the long, suspiciously smooth and empty hallway. Halfway across, he heard the faintest of sounds. A shifting—Silveran paused. The Worker looked around and heard a voice.

“Antinium. Recognize it.”

It was muffled. The Worker froze in place and heard it coming from a tiny crack in the wall. A camouflaged arrow slit. He looked at the gap and saw a crossbow bolt aimed not-quite at his chest.

It pulled back. The Worker hesitated, and then walked on. As soon as he came to the door at the far end, he opened it.

An empty common room beyond. The Worker stared about. He heard a faint voice from further in the inn; saw nothing but tables and chairs, sitting empty, everything perfectly clean. Someone was in the kitchen, but no one was cooking anything.

Curious of who had been speaking, the Worker turned right, towards a door set into the wall. He opened it and found a passageway that ran along the hallway. It connected to more private dining rooms and other points in the inn, but notably allowed those in this hallway to peek into the other one or even use the hidden doorways.

Or arrow slits. A pair of men with hats were sitting on stools by one of the arrow slits. They turned as Silveran opened the door. Both had the inn’s crossbows trained and they were just…waiting.

One of them tipped his hat slowly, cautiously, eyes on the Antinium.

“Guard duty. Sir. Pardon the crossbow.”

Silveran recognized the two Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings at once. He also knew the grizzled, older one. Crimshaw. Silveran hesitated, then nodded. The two Brothers went back to waiting.

So someone was in the inn. No staff, no guests, though. Silveran felt…disturbed. He had known The Wandering Inn had been empty at times, but never during his employ. There was always some regulars eating Erin’s food, playing chess, watching the play…

He walked into the common room again. Turned.

The [Grand Theatre] of The Wandering Inn made this a venue that hundreds of people could enjoy at their leisure. In fact, the room was separated by a huge curtain that ran the length of the room. As Silveran ducked behind it, he felt the air go silent.

[Silence] spell. And normally, the stage would be illuminated by mage lights, and an [Actor] would be declaiming to the silent audience below, performing a play. Silveran would enter from the side, with a tray of some quiet food, maybe some drinks, moving around to give it to the person who wanted it…

No one was here. The stage was empty, dark. The backstage clearly deserted. No one at any table. Silveran looked about.

All wrong.

But the wrongest part was in the garden. Silveran…didn’t want to go there. It hurt too much. On that hill with the mists was the frozen bier. And Erin.

To avoid it, he walked back into the main common room. Inspected a table for dust.

Dustless. No dirt to be swept. No dishes to be bussed. At a loss, the Worker wandered to the kitchen. Maybe he could clean up—

He heard the weeping before he entered. The Worker stopped at the doorway. He heard Imani’s voice before he saw her. She was in the kitchen, crying.

The Worker backed away. Palt was there, not smoking anything, eyes red. Imani was leaning against the counter and neither noticed Silveran as he retreated.

This was The Wandering Inn after the solstice. And Silveran felt like it was a terrible dream. He hurried away from the kitchen as quietly as he could.

So empty. Silveran had been here three days ago and he felt the inn hadn’t changed. It was trapped by what had happened. He desperately wanted to turn around and—

Silveran! My favorite Worker! Wait, don’t tell the others I said that. Finger guns!”

Erin Solstice gave him the finger guns, which was their new tradition. Two versus four, unless Silveran was carrying something. She laughed, and gestured to a bag on the floor.

“I bought this huge bag of beans from Pallass. I think they’re beans. Can you help me get it into the kitchen? Imani, don’t be upset, but these are magic beans, see…”

Silveran bent to pick up the bag as an outraged voice came from the kitc—

No one was there. There was no bag. The Worker looked around and remembered. Oh. That was two weeks ago.

Ages ago. If he could have walked backwards in time, he would have. But he couldn’t, and weeping continued. Palt’s quiet voice. Silveran turned away.

And saw that the common room of the inn was not empty after all. Someone was in it, but had been so still and camouflaged that he hadn’t seen her.

A little white Gnoll sat under a table, leaning against the base. She didn’t move. Silveran stopped—then hesitantly lifted a hand.

Mrsha didn’t move. She stared past his leg, blankly. Her tail didn’t move. He barely thought she was breathing.

The Gnoll child was growing. Hardly as large as Gnoll adults who were taller than most species, but she had put on muscle and weight since she had first come to the inn. Lyonette complained about piggyback rides, and Silveran knew the girl well.

She was Mrsha. Mrsha the Brave. Mrsha the Wizard. Mrsha the…the child who was always running about. Sneaking food, playing tag with her little friends. Causing trouble—more often than not, Silveran’s best Skill was used to clean up a mess she made, upon which time he’d have to get Lyonette or Ishkr and she’d cling to his leg, begging him with sign language not to tell. But he always did.

Today, she was motionless, silent, unmoving. So still he hadn’t even noticed her, despite the pure white fur that so fascinated him. Gnolls thought it was unlucky, cursed. Silveran had always thought it was beautiful, like clouds. The color did not exist belowground. Except in chalk deposits. And chalk sucked.

She did nothing as he waved at her. Silveran hesitated…but then moved on. The crying made him feel like he was intruding. So he walked out of the common room.

Not upstairs. He did not wish to pass by Erin’s room, which was first on the right. And besides, he only swept up there, changed bedding…he was used to working here.

Instead, he followed the second sound in the inn. The hallway on the left was just as long as the one the two Brothers were in. It connected to Stitchworks at the far end, as well as to other parts of the inn.

The Antinium-only rooms, the secret, door-less Earth rooms that Silveran had helped build, and so on. There was a weights room next to Stitchworks, one of the main attractions, and before that…

The rec room was one of two, with some key distinctions. After her initial creation of the rooms, Erin had divided the dice, cards, darts, and billiards table into one room, and kept the other full of quiet games.

More chess tables, Go boards, Shogi…as well as some couches and places to just sit. For one of the main attractions of this room was the large, enchanted mirror on the far end of the wall.

That was what had been making all the sound. Silveran peeked his head in and saw another employee of The Wandering Inn—albeit inside the mirror.

The scrying spell reflected Drassi and Sir Relz, both broadcasting Pallass News Network on the screen. Both Drakes were dressed in white, the color of mourning in Izril.

Compared to that, the Human man wore a dark violet, which was the style in his nation. He was speaking and it was that which faintly echoed through the silent inn, despite the closed doors.

“…Retaliation must be brought to bear against the Demon Kingdom on Rhir. That’s not under debate, Sir Relz. But the question is: how. If this Death of Magic really was responsible for the—the abhorrence that took place four days ago, it is entirely conceivable it might happen again.”

Oh yes, the second bad thing. Silveran listened as the two Drakes shuddered. He read the written caption at the bottom of the screen.

‘The Demon’s spell, discussion with Lord Verqen of Ailendamus. Ongoing segment…’

Drassi spoke, and Silveran heard her familiar voice, normally so cheery, laced with emotion.

“Are you saying we—that is—well, our young are in danger of a second spell of this magnitude, Lord Verqen? Please tell me you’re not.”

The Drake with the monocle, Sir Relz, looked uneasy at the very suggestion. The [Lord] instantly shook his head.

“I wouldn’t say that Miss Drassi. And I would hesitate to alarm anyone. I am simply—”

He broke off, and even the [Diplomat] looked pained. Because children had died. Across the world—it was the Demon’s doing, Silveran had heard. Everyone was angry. Grieving. Three bad things, then.

The war with Hectval. The Demon’s spell. And Erin was dead.

“What I am saying is—concurrent to armies, retaliatory forces—anything—is finding out how a spell of such power could be cast. Using safeguards against this magic! It bypassed every protection across the world. Frankly, until we know how it was done, and how it can be prevented…Ailendamus will be safeguarding first. I think we all will, despite his Majesty Othius’ insistence. We have been wounded and that is a fact. But there will never be forgiveness.”

Everyone nodded at that. These were the facts that were being reported. A terrible thing had happened. And the Demons were to blame. Children—unborn children across the world had died.

It unnerved everyone, except perhaps the Blighted King, who was a pillar of terrible determination in these dark hours. He had broken the news, wrought with guilt over his inability to stop the Demon’s treachery. The rest of the world was outraged, grieving—but less committed to an assault than he was.

But there would be vengeance, oh yes. In time. But unease and loss were first, even more than anger. Rhir and the Blighted King were used to loss, to the Demons being their great enemy who would do anything, sink to any lows. It was one of the first times the world had suffered that feeling, though.

Someone had left what Erin called the ‘television’ on. Silveran was about to turn it off when he noticed the mirror had an audience. He stopped, for he saw a familiar person watching the news.

Numbtongue? There was only one species with naturally green skin, so Silveran expected it was him. Then he remembered the other Goblin guests. Let’s see. Snapjaw had left. So this was Badarrow.

Because Numbtongue was in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. He had been three days ago and he did not move. The terrible sword was on his knees and he stood watch over Erin’s bier, as if afraid of…something disturbing her.

That had suited Silveran. He blamed Numbtongue for everything as much as himself.

But was this Badarrow? Badarrow was thinner. And this Hobgoblin was heavier than both Numbtongue and Badarrow, who were rather lean Redfangs. Also—Silveran was pretty sure it wasn’t Numbtongue now, because he was fairly certain Numbtongue did not have mammaries.

He edged around the couch and saw her half-sprawled across it. She wore about as much clothing as your average Antinium, and could have actually fit in because her body was covered in glowing paints.

But such colors and style! Silveran had to admire that. The Painted Antinium could take lessons from this unknown Goblin. They were intricate drawings, and clearly magical. In fact, he was now certain this was not Snapjaw, who wore no such warpaint and had a big head and big teeth. This was…the new Goblin.

She saw him at the same time as he finally remembered someone had arrived on the day of the Summer Solstice. Ulvama’s eyes went wide and she let out a shout of surprise as she grabbed her staff.

Silveran fled backwards and she rolled off the couch, staff raised and aimed threateningly. She bared her teeth, her crimson eyes wide as Silveran froze. He raised all four arms.

Bug! Bug thing! Shoo!

Ulvama hissed at him. She was wide-eyed, but calmed a bit as she recognized Silveran. He stared at her.

This was the Hobgoblin who had come through the magic door on the Summer Solstice. The latest guest of The Wandering Inn. Lyonette must have let her stay. He had only seen her once, and she was clearly warier of him than he was of her.

Back!

Her staff’s tip glowed warningly. Silveran walked backwards and knocked over a chess table. The crash of the wooden pieces hitting the floor made both wince. Silveran bent down as Ulvama stared at him. She looked…afraid? But her staff made Silveran afraid.

The door opened and someone appeared there. Silveran and Ulvama turned and he saw Er—

Ishkr. The Gnoll had hurried over and he stared at Silveran and Ulvama both. He recoiled from the glowing staff.

“Silveran? What are you doing here?”

The Worker waved and began to sign that he had come to work, but Ulvama had already slunk down. She glared at Ishkr over the couch.

“Miss…Ulvama? Is everything alright? Did Silveran startle you?”

The Gnoll hesitated and looked at her. He was [Head Server], and Silveran was used to obeying him. The Worker picked up the pieces as the Goblin [Shaman] didn’t reply. Ishkr scratched at his forehead, sighed, and looked at Silveran, who was trying to set the board up to a pre-game state.

“Silveran, leave the board. Come with me, please.”

Silveran did just that. He walked out of the room, feeling the [Shaman]’s eyes on his back. Ishkr closed the door, and turned to him.

“What are you doing here, Silveran?”

Working.

The Worker signed with his hands. Ishkr read the gesture; it was a copy of Mrsha’s language. The Painted Antinium felt more at home using sign language than speaking, mostly. But Ishkr still looked puzzled.

“Silveran. There is no work. Everything is clean. And no one is…here.”

Silveran hung his head. He knew that. Ishkr gestured.

“Lyonette is not asking for staff. She cannot pay you, and there is nothing to do. You should go h—go to your Hive. She will ask for help if it is needed.”

He knew that. But he wanted to stay. There was nothing to do in the Hive. No one had remembered Silveran had nothing to do now. He wanted to be here.

And yet, Silveran looked around the inn. Down the corridor to the common room where Mrsha sat like a stuffed animal. The faint crying—the lack of Erin.

He wanted to be here. And he hated and regretted coming already. Slowly, he nodded. Silveran saw Ishkr hesitate, then reach out and pat him on the shoulder.

“It won’t be long before we need help. Miss Lyonette has orders while she’s gone. She is leaving today, I think. But soon—Erin will be back.”

The Gnoll was young—at least, young for his position but he had earned it by working hard and being the most reliable person Erin and Lyonette had hired. And he lied well.

Just not well enough. Silveran had heard the same thing from Pawn, Lyonette—everyone. Soon. Someone was going to bring Erin what she needed. A potion, an antidote, a scroll. It would be soon. Erin had friends.

Slowly, Silveran left The Wandering Inn, and walked into Liscor, lost and even less happy. They said these things. But it had been close to two weeks now, and Erin was not back. The city’s bells rang in the distance.

Silveran hated it. He hated the silent inn, the pain in the streets, and how lost everything seemed. Because if Erin were here, she wouldn’t have stood for it. She would have hugged Silveran and told him it was all okay, then done something that would have made people feel better. It wouldn’t have fixed everything. But it would have been something.

If she were here. That was the point. She was gone. Silveran walked into the city. People said she would be back. But people had been trying to bring her back already.

And they had failed.

 

—-

 

Unlike Liscor, this city had not always been a city. Many settlements had a sort of evolution where a village slowly became a town, and slowly added things like walls, more buildings, and became a city at some stage.

Of course, some cities like Liscor were built as such from the start, as checkpoints between north and south, or great projects.

But this had been a village not so long ago. Yet someone had made it into a city over the last few decades. One person’s presence had transformed it. And that was an extraordinary thing. Most people in Liscor would take umbrage to the claim that one [Innkeeper] had transformed Liscor entirely. It was multiple factors. But here?

It was a city-in-progress for all that, still expanding, still growing. It couldn’t contain even half the actual population in the area, so the vast suburbs of temporary housing, tents, even buildings made by people who realized they would be staying for a while or taking over from previous tenants, sprawled around the actual walls.

It was they who really funded the city, so while the [Mayor] disliked them and the walls were high and the gates manned at all times to prevent them flooding the city themselves, the crowds were grudgingly allowed to trade and enter the city, if only for the day.

It was an odd economy system, even including cities like Liscor who had survived on a roaming mercenary army, or nations like Khelt, whose entire foundation was based on undead labor. Because at least both cities had a permanent income source! If the crowds ever vanished, this city would lose its lifeblood of coin.

But so long as they had the very person whom the city was founded upon, all would endure. So it was built around her. And such was her reputation that people came from all over the continent, around the world, waiting for weeks, months…

Years, just to have the Healer of Tenbault lay her hands upon you once. Because that would cure you of all that ailed you, or so the rumors claimed.

The truth was different. The truth was that the city of Tenbault was always packed with supplicants. And that while people did see the Healer—it was few per day. And those slots were always spoken for.

The young man who went sprawling in the street found that out the hard way. He was on his feet in an instant, but wisely didn’t move—the spear one of the Healer’s guards was leveling at him was backed up by two more, and a look.

The look came from the leader of the inner city’s defense force. He was a huge, barrel-chested man with dark skin and a prodigious voice. Even when speaking, it seemed as though you were being exhorted by the sheer suppressed volume.

No exceptions! I don’t care if you’re related to the King of Destruction himself! No one enters without a pass guaranteeing the Healer’s treatment! And those are nigh-impossible to get, even for a Gold-rank team. Try to get in again and you’ll suffer for it, boy.”

He pointed at the young man. He hadn’t even drawn the mace by his side—but his left hand bore studded leather knuckles. A cestus; an old fistfighter’s weapon. He wore azure armor though, marked with the Healer’s sigil; a palm holding a bloom in white.

The guard occupied the gates to the inner city of Tenbault. The outer city was devoted to making money off the countless people seeking the Healer, but she lived in the inner city—and unlike the city’s [Guards], her security let no one in, no matter the bribe.

And they were good. One of them had caught the young man trying to sneak past them in a moment, despite the [Invisibility] spell. He coughed, and then sniffed as he rubbed his bleeding cheek; a hair slower and they might have speared him through the head.

“I merely wished to ask the Healer—”

“You and everyone else. Back up. Now.”

The man’s voice was ominous. The [Necromancer]’s eyes narrowed, but the silver-armed woman by his side grabbed him.

“I told you it was a bad idea, Pisces. Listen—I am Magnolia Reinhart’s niece. Yvlon Byres—”

“Unless she’s here, you’re not getting in, Miss. And frankly, I’ve seen enough desperate Gold-ranks try to take a run at getting in. You want to try it? The next time, not even the Healer will be able to help your friend.”

It was not an idle threat either. The guards were not [Guards], but a team of adventurers—nearly twenty strong. An irregularity among most adventurer teams, which tended towards small sizes, but these were paid by the Healer to protect her.

So they had achieved Named-rank status as a team. And their leader was a Named-rank adventurer himself. Even Elia Arcsinger’s team, Arcsinger’s Bows, had only her to boast of, not a Named-rank designation as a team.

They called him Crowdcaller Merdon. No guesses why; he exhorted the crowds gathered outside the inner gates to the city with the same speech every day. As he turned away from Pisces and Yvlon dragged him back, she heard his prodigious voice ringing above the demands, begging, and shouts for the Healer of Tenbault.

“Attention to all those gathered to see the Healer of Tenbault! The gates are closed and no force of arms will open them! Any intruders will be dealt with without mercy! The Healer will only see those with a pass—which can be obtained in lottery if you have not one yourself! All those gathered, disperse unless you have proof of entry!”

Of course, that didn’t stop them. People came forwards, demanding to be let in because they were rich. Or famous. Or producing ‘passes’ they’d paid for, or asking for clarification…

Merdon dealt with none of them. He walked past the hired [Mercenaries] who supplemented the Shield of Tenbault’s adventurers. The bored [Mercenary]-[Guards] dealt with the crowds. They were a law unto their own.

“That—that arrogant man.”

Pisces spluttered, touching the drying cut on his cheek. He was red-faced, but Yvlon dragged him back.

“Well, you’ve tipped him off you want in. I told you to wait. Come on, it isn’t safe.”

Indeed, the adventurers on duty were watching Pisces like hawks, recognizing perhaps one of the real threats to their job security. Not that Pisces had even gotten close; one had nearly beheaded him as he tried to [Flash Step] past invisibly.

Yvlon pulled Pisces back. The [Necromancer] let himself be pulled away. He watched a wave of people trying to get forwards. Like yesterday, they pushed and pushed—

And then someone made a fatal mistake. Like Pisces, they tried to get through. Only this time it was a [Trader], clutching what might have been a wife, or daughter. He tried to bull-rush past the [Mercenaries] with an escort of [Guards].

Back! Back!

The [Mercenaries] were yelling. But the [Guards] were pushing in. Not bearing steel; they were smart enough about that. But the crowd pushed forwards, encouraged. As if they thought they could overwhelm—

One pushed past the first rank of mercenaries towards the adventurers guarding the sole gate. The walls were fortified with a magical barrier. He reached back to open the hole wider as the [Trader] fought forwards. Then an arrow went straight through his head.

The [Guard] dropped like a stone. There was a scream—then a roar of fury so loud Yvlon and Pisces clapped their hands to their ears. The [Mercenaries] had already put their hands to their ears.

Enough!

It was just a shout. But what volume! Yvlon’s ears rang and she had not been the actual target. Crowdcaller Merdon’s shout reduced the crowd, minus the mercenaries who were magically protected or immune to his Skill, to a group of writhing people on the ground clutching at their heads. Some began throwing up, or just lay, stunned from the vibrations in the air alone.

“He just downed all those people. Some weren’t even trying to get in!”

It was Yvlon’s turn to be outraged. Pisces shook his head.

“That’s Named-rank for you. It was that or let them push their way into the inner city.”

“Don’t tell me you approve of that!”

Yvlon’s fists clenched. Pisces glared at her. Yvlon resisted the urge to hit him—to hit something. He spoke, voice taut.

“I’m just being practical!”

They glared at each other and then, abruptly, relaxed. Both their nerves were frayed to breaking. Yvlon saw Pisces hang his head.

“I should have chosen my moment more carefully.”

“At least you weren’t killed. Come on. Let’s find Ceria.”

Yvlon mumbled. They walked away. They were the Horns of Hammerad, two of them, and they had journeyed as fast as possible to reach Tenbault, southwest of Veltras lands and just out of the shadow of the High Passes, seeking the Healer’s aid.

They were realizing it was unlikely they would get it. It had been four days since they arrived. Each like the last.

 

—-

 

The inns in Tenbault weren’t great. They weren’t even amazing. They were definitely overcrowded and certainly overpriced.

For reference, Yvlon calculated that it would be three times cheaper to stay at the Tailless Thief for a night, and that was the most expensive inn in all of Liscor. And this wasn’t even the best inn in Tenbault. Far from it.

They found Ceria in her room, which was better than the common room of the inn. But one look at Ksmvr’s guilty ball of shame and Ceria’s condition as she tried to hide something behind her back and Yvlon knew.

“You’re drinking again.”

“Am not.”

“I tried to stop her, Yvlon. But I have failed.”

Ksmvr spoke from the floor. Ceria looked guilty as she took another sip from the amphora of something. Pisces wrinkled his nose.

“We have to sleep in here.”

“Sorry. I’ll cast a spell.”

Ceria waved her hand and nearly went over backwards on the bed. The amphora spilled; Yvlon and Pisces both cursed as she sat up.

“Damn. Sorry…”

Yvlon sat down and put her head in her hands. She resisted the urge to hit Ceria. One did not do that to a team captain. And if Yvlon’s instinct was to hit something…again…Ceria’s was to drink. Instead, she did the equivalent with words.

“While you were getting drunk, Pisces nearly got himself killed trying to sneak through the gates. A hair slower and I would have brought back his head and body independent of each other. And he’s not a good enough [Necromancer] to deal with that yet.”

Ceria lowered the amphora at once. Ksmvr stirred.

“Pisces! I told you—”

“We’re never going to win that lottery. I thought it was worth a shot. They were distracted—but their spells were too good. I don’t think they even noticed I was [Invisible].”

The [Necromancer] sat on the bed, eying the stain. Yvlon grimaced.

“And now Merdon himself knows our faces.”

“Crowdcaller Merdon? You got to speak with him?”

“Right before he sound-blasted an entire crowd off their feet. They do not play games at the gates. I saw the team kill a poor [Guard] who was trying to get through.”

“Tree rot.”

Ceria raised the amphora again, but Pisces had conjured it towards him. She wobbled, scowled, and put a hand to her head. Her skeletal fingers were coated in frost; even the spilled drink was beginning to freeze. Cold swirled around her, although you had to be within a foot or two to feel it.

“Maybe we can find another way. Did you say you were—”

“Magnolia Reinhart’s niece? Yes. It won’t work. I’ve heard members of the Five Families get turned away without a pass, Ceria.”

“But Magnolia Reinhart can. I mean—she gets in, right? Can you call her up?”

“No. She’s at sea, anyways, and I’m not that close. I tried—but I don’t even know who to ask to [Message]. I just left a note.”

Yvlon hung her head. Pisces nearly spat out the wine.

“This is disgusting.”

“It’s for me. Give it back.”

“You have imbibed a large amount of wine already, Captain Ceria. Perhaps—”

“I’m fine, Ksmvr.”

Ceria snapped and the Antinium went silent. Instantly, Yvlon kicked Ceria. The half-Elf went over the other side of the bed with a cry.

“Sober up, would you? We’re here for Erin.

The half-Elf’s eyes flashed, but she pulled herself upright slowly. Yvlon tried to calm herself. She shouldn’t have done that. It was just—

Look at them. Ksmvr was miserable, now guilty about Yvlon and Ceria fighting. Pisces wasn’t his usual cool, sneering-but-caring self, but taking risks that had nearly gotten him killed—and he valued his life more than anything else! Yvlon had nearly been ready to go after Ceria for lying about drinking and the half-Elf was…

Ceria hung her head. She let the dregs of the amphora sit. Then, pointed with a curse.

The entire thing froze into a block of ice. Ceria kicked it across the room. Then she grabbed her toe.

Aaah! I just split my toenail!

The Horns of Hammerad considered it was a perfect event to sum up their experience. They watched as Ceria sat on the bed and Ksmvr anxiously produced a potion and inspected the break. Ceria, wincing, put a drop on it.

“We rode for five days and nights in the undead chariot for this. Four more days waiting here…is there any chance we win the lottery today? Ksmvr, what’s our number?”

“#2301, Captain Ceria.”

Ksmvr produced the carefully-marked lottery ticket. They were issued each week, and the winners were drawn per day. But there were thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people with passes and there were sometimes only ten winners per week.

“Is that lucky?”

Ceria shook her head. They’d lost three days in a row, but perhaps today? They would be listening as the numbers were shouted across the city, of course. Winners had an hour to present themselves at the gates.

“How much does a winning ticket go for, Pisces?”

“Assuming someone is willing to sell it? I’ve heard a hundred thousand gold pieces sometimes.”

“…You’re joking.”

“More or less. Ceria, there are entire groups of people who make their living trying to get a winning ticket once. Upon which time they sell it.”

An entire economy based on the Healer. Yvlon shook her head as Ceria swore faintly. The half-Elf rubbed at her toenail. Then she produced a dagger.

“I need to trim them.”

“You’re disgusting.”

Yvlon and Pisces both looked away as Ceria glowered at them. The half-Elf’s oddities from eating bugs to picking her teeth in public somehow ranked below Ksmvr in terms of social acceptability.

“Let’s face facts. I doubt we even have a 1% chance of winning the lottery. Pisces?”

“I did the math with some people downstairs. It is in fact, zero point zero, zero, zero…

“Please stop.”

Pisces did. He didn’t look happy to deliver the news. Yvlon had often accused Pisces of being uncaring, dishonorable, and so on. But she remembered how they had learned about Erin.

Madness. They had been split on what to do. Go after Hectval and burn it to ash? Go to the inn and see? In the end—they had come here.

And much good did it do them. Ceria, wincing and cutting her toenails, muttered.

“Okay. Let’s say we…get a pass.”

“If you’re going to say we mug a winner—”

“Pisces!”

The [Necromancer] coldly met Ceria’s eyes.

“I looked into it. The Shield of Tenbault tracks winners. We’d end up fighting them.”

“Damn. I was going to suggest that.”

Ceria ignored Yvlon’s look.

“From someone who didn’t need it, Yvlon. One of those fake-supplicants, like Pisces was talking about.”

“There might be a lot of them. But there are more people in actual need than I ever want to see. It’s…”

Disturbing. Yvlon saw Pisces nodding, lips pressed together. Tenbault was a thriving city—on people who genuinely needed aid. There were people who had lost limbs, who were sick of some unknown disease—they were kept far away from the city, and indeed, illnesses did spread from guests, hence the Horns paying for an inn which was safer—people who had taken head injuries, children who had gone blind…

And those were people with long-term diseases. People died in the city at the gates, bleeding of wounds no potion could cure. Some who had taken poison, or anything a [Healer] and magical medicine had no answer for.

Tenbault was as much morgue as place of hope. It disgusted Yvlon. Ceria looked at the [Armsmistress].

“What I need to know is: will it even help? We don’t have Erin with us. And the rules state…”

She found the wadded up instructional and opened it. Yvlon saw Ceria go down the page and recite.

“…patients may be accompanied by no more than (2) assistants and/or guardians. Furthermore, the Healer of Tenbault will only administer her practice to those who appear before her directly. Infectious diseases, dangerous ailments of any kind, etc. are to be subject to further inquiry and may not be treated. The Healer of Tenbault does not guarantee success of any kind, no matter how a pass is acquired…”

“It’s a scam.”

Pisces folded his arms. Ceria broke off reading. The [Necromancer] looked around as Ksmvr wiped at the spilled wine.

“Excuse me? Pisces, all these people are here for her. It can’t be if they’re here.”

“This seems exactly like a scam to me. The Healer is making a fortune. Note the wording? We don’t have Erin. Our best bet is to convince her to help Erin—which I do not believe we can do. But I was also not aware of how she conducted her craft. This seems like a scam. Perhaps she has a fake class and is fooling a few people with temporary relief each month…”

Ceria bit her lip. Certainly, this wasn’t the saintly [Healer] they had been led to expect. The Healer of Tenbault was a name people talked about with the worst injuries. A distant hope.

Reality sucked. However, it was Yvlon who disagreed.

“It’s not a scam, Pisces. It may be that the Healer is less than the rumors say. But I know it’s not.”

“And how, pray?”

The [Necromancer] snapped, and then swiveled to watch Yvlon’s foot. It twitched, but the [Armsmistress] contented herself to folding her arms.

“Because my aunt, Magnolia Reinhart, made the Healer of Tenbault. I had hoped that counted for something, but apparently not.”

The other Horns looked at Yvlon. Ksmvr’s mandibles opened.

“Is this true, Yvlon?”

She nodded and gestured. He scuttled around the bed and sat next to her. He had been so…quiet on the way here. Depressed. They all were. To keep hope, Yvlon nodded.

“It’s a story she told me when she used to visit. Or was it mother…? Well, either way, I know how it started.”

“Ah, you mean, the Legend of the Healer of Tenbault.”

“Yes, the—wait, what?”

Ksmvr produced something and held it up. It was…an illustrated placemat from one of the inn’s tables. Yvlon stared at it.

“Ksmvr, I told you that is propaganda.

Pisces snapped. Ksmvr had apparently snatched it last suppertime. He pointed at it.

“But Comrade Pisces, the Healer has endorsed this telling. During the Second Antinium Wars people fighting the Necromancer’s filthy minions, the Goblin King’s armies and Antinium who are foully hated—”

“Um, Ksmvr.”

Two representatives of the three were in the room. The foully hated Antinium looked at Ceria.

“I am taking their opinion for the retelling, Captain Ceria. Comrade Pisces is always well-bathed. It says the Healer appeared here, and began to treat people by the thousands. Such is her legend.”

He brandished the slightly-dirty mat at Yvlon. She leaned away, smiling bitterly.

“Not quite, Ksmvr. Pisces is right. That’s how she might tell it—or this inn. But Aunt Magnolia says it was after the first Antinium War. And it wasn’t so much thousands at first. She saw there weren’t enough [Healers]—or rather, those who could take on serious injuries without potions. So she helped…create the Healer. Rumors spread and it grew out of control, but the Healer was first and foremost someone who was meant to replace potions.”

“Tell us.”

It was Pisces who leaned forwards, eyes glittering. He did love secrets. But the other Horns were just as intent.

“You mean she’s not a great [Healer]? Lyonette said Erin needs—Erin—”

Ceria gulped. She looked around for a drink—then steadied herself.

“An antidote. And…something to unfreeze her.”

“I don’t know. Aunt Magnolia never said exactly how the Healer works. That was why I wanted to see her.”

Yvlon confessed. She searched her memory, hunting for more clues to recollect, then shook her head.

“All I know is that the Healer of Tenbault does heal people. According to Aunt Magnolia, it can be an hour-long process—or days for diseases—but usually minutes.”

“Impossible. Is she some kind of [Alchemist]?”

Pisces’ eyes narrowed. He was becoming more skeptical by the second. But he was listening. He needed to know. This was valuable information. Especially to…he saw Yvlon shake her head.

“Not an [Alchemist]. But she’s not a [Healer], either. What I heard was that somehow, one time, Ressa—that’s my aunt’s [Maid], we saw her once, remember? With Ryoka.”

The others nodded. Yvlon gestured at her hand.

“Er—one time, she got her hand sliced off.

“Wait. How?”

“Aunt Magnolia didn’t say. I think she hinted it was a kitchen accident, but I’ve never actually seen Ressa cook anything.”

“Maybe that’s why. She looked, uh, handed to me. Better than mine.”

Ceria waved her skeletal hand. Yvlon almost smiled as she ducked her head.

“Sorry, Ceria. Well, apparently they had the hand so they rushed both over to the [Healer] in that coach of hers. And Ressa got her hand back; not even a problem.”

“Wow. And that’s from Magnolia Reinhart herself?”

“She told it to us when she visited. I don’t think she lied—maybe she exaggerated. But we have seen people go in and come out…fine.”

It was true. The Horns had seen a man with a leg so badly mangled by a bear attack go through the inner gates and come out walking and praising the Healer’s name. They hadn’t detected any illusions or anything else. But it boggled the mind. How?

Ceria sat back.

“Then we have to meet her. Meet her and ask if—if—she’ll go to Liscor. Or we transport Erin. Maybe we can barter with her?”

“We would have to get past her security first. And I do not believe we are equipped to kill a Named-rank adventurer at this moment. Or his team. I am sorry, but my crossbows and blades are not deadly enough.”

Ksmvr hung his head. So did Yvlon. All three Horns saw Pisces raise a finger to his temple and rise.

“I’m…going to take a walk.”

He murmured. None of the others stopped him. Pisces left the inn as the Horns waited.

The lottery tickets for the day? #199, #4022, #5. Please come to the inner gate. The Healer will see you now.

 

—-

 

In The Wandering Inn lay a young woman. She was an [Innkeeper]. A friend. A young woman from another world.

She was smiling. Her lips were slightly parted. She looked…almost peaceful. Except for the crossbow bolts still sticking out of her chest. Six had struck her; five remained, two with broken shafts. Blood was frozen around the wounds.

She was frozen. She lay there, preserved, neither dead nor alive. You could use magic to check. But she would not stay that way.

She would live. Surely, someone would heal her. She had friends. She was not dead. Surely…

That was the refrain. It came from the hopeful, those in denial. But the truth was that her friends had been told. And still, she lay there.

It was not an unfamiliar feeling. In fact, of all the ones he remembered—this was the one which was most bitter.

Desperation. Denial. A willingness to part the seas and take on armies if only the ones he loved might live. But all his magic had never brought back the dead.

Now? Az’kerash, the Necromancer of Terandria, was in a unique position. For he…sympathized…with the young man. But two things stayed his hand.

The first was that pragmatically—it suited his goals better that Erin Solstice remain dead. He was Az’kerash, bane of the living! What care had he for a mortal life?

Still. He had once been alive. And it was the young man who begged him that…swayed the Necromancer. A bit.

Pisces Jealnet. A [Necromancer], self-taught largely, a Gold-rank adventurer, a former student of Wistram, and someone trained in the art of fencing. So like him and unlike him…

He was not an apprentice. Not like the Goblin Lord had been. In truth, the Necromancer had not wished to involve him so fully in his designs. But Pisces had caught his eyes for a number of reasons. His creation had provided Az’kerash with the key to leveling, that he had hunted for over a hundred years.

And he himself? The Necromancer had seen the day when the Horns of Hammerad had become Gold-rank. And it had reminded him of a man called Peril Chandler, Archmage Chandler of Terandria.

So he listened when the young man begged for aid. He listened, especially when the boy said what should not be said:

“I will do whatever it takes to heal her.”

Never let it be said that the Necromancer did not listen to those kinds of words. So he sat in his castle, pondering the dilemma. And hit upon the second problem of Erin Solstice’s death, one that must have occurred to the Wall Lord of her acquaintance, the Earl of Desonis, the Grand Strategist of Pallass, Saliss of Lights and all the others.

It. Was. Difficult.

“I was an [Archmage] of Wistram. I was called the Undying Shield of Calanfer. I have surpassed my mortal self many times over and I command death in every form.”

The Necromancer spoke as he passed a hand over the thing lying before him. He saw the ice melt…he murmured a spell.

The frozen fox failed to rise. The Necromancer stared at the corpse. He murmured a second time.

[Regeneration].

His forehead began to bead with sweat. This—this one-word spell was a magnitude beyond what most [Mages] could dream of casting. He could cast greater, but this spell lay diametrically opposed to his magic. Life versus death. Even so, he forced mana into the spell, into the body…

But it failed. The body had died the moment it warmed, despite the [Stasis Field] he’d set up. The sixth failure. The Necromancer shook his head.

And you could not regenerate frozen flesh. It was like a conundrum at the academy—but he’d award any of his students who solved it the highest grade. He sipped a mana potion, thinking.

“Why freeze her flesh?”

Annoyed, his eyes flashed and the fox got up and walked off to drag another frozen animal over. It made no sense. He was aware of preserving mortally wounded people of course, but ice?

“If they had simply cast [Stasis Field] or [Breath of Life – Extended] or…”

Exasperated, the Necromancer snapped his fingers. Someone scurried around the side.

Master?

“Ijvani. Peruse my library of tomes again. Search for…cryomancer healing magic?”

At once, master!

The [Skeleton Mage] hurried off. Az’kerash wondered how many days she might search. Healing magic was not a kind of spell he collected and spell tomes were rare, especially since he had lost many books of his collection after his ‘destruction’ at Liscor.

The Necromancer focused on his ongoing communication spell instead, undividing his consciousness. He had been patiently listening to the young man recap the Healer of Tenbault’s information.

Young Pisces. Enough.

The anguished voice cut off. Az’kerash heard emotion there, unfiltered through the mental link. He remembered many friends who had died. And his comrades had begged him to revive them, hadn’t they? He had always refused, for when he did to give them one moment to say goodbye…

It was always the more bitter.

He felt the emotion, clung to it—then banished it. Cold logic. Yes. He was the Necromancer. And he helped this young man only because he too was a [Necromancer] and he might owe Az’kerash a favor. No other reason at all.

“I know of the Healer of Tenbault, young Pisces. If her craft has advanced, perhaps she may help you. But she is a reclusive researcher, not the generous soul rumor has made her out to be. Nor is she a [Healer].”

Surprise rippled through Pisces’ link, though he tried to conceal it. He was learning.

How so, Archmage?

Why did he enjoy the appellation so much? Peril Chandler squashed that emotion too. It was simply nostalgic. And correct, so he didn’t rebuke Pisces over the title.

I investigated her in decades past. She is no charlatan; but she is not a skilled medical expert either. It is correct to say that Magnolia Reinhart created her, however.

Az’kerash sorted through his memories. Ah, yes. When he had first conceived the Izrilian campaign.

I thought she was a force that might wipe out my undead with the ease of the [Clerics] of old.

How wrong he had been. The young [Necromancer] was coy, but the desperation-desire-trepidation was clear.

Then may I ask her true nature, Archmage Chandler?

“It is simple, [Necromancer] Pisces. Her nature is [Mage]. She is a [Restoration Mage] capable of casting [Restoration] numerous times per day. That is all.”

Shock through the link. Az’kerash smiled. And it was such a unique thing that Ijvani stopped and stared as she returned with a book on cryogenic attack spells. The Necromancer waved her away and she hurried off.

Even his tone was different as he spoke-broadcast the reply.

[Restoration], as I doubt you were ever told, is a spell a Level 40 [Mage] can learn with the right disciplines and Skills. Twenty levels higher without specialization. It is a useful healing spell—one of the few spells that can restore a body. However, it cannot heal your friend. And as the Healer of Tenbault has learned, it is limited in scope. I have no doubt she has found many permutations of how it can be applied. But she is no [Healer] who understands injuries. Merely a [Mage] funded by her healing that Magnolia Reinhart gave the spell to.

It was possible she could heal the [Innkeeper]. But not as simply as casting the base spell—Az’kerash had tried that. Perhaps she had some kind of Skill that allowed healing through stasis and restored frozen flesh? The Necromancer allowed that possibility.

I—see.

The disappointment from young Pisces was immeasurable, however. The Necromancer felt…a desire to say something. He searched his mind, but the truth was—he did not have a ready answer for the issue. He would of course, puzzle out the problem in time. But it reminded him of his few weaknesses. He had never specialized in life-magic. Nor did he cultivate a collection of objects that did.

But he knew someone who had them. Yet…that particular foe would slay a hundred Pisces’ in a moment. So the Necromancer hesitated.

Best just to abandon it. Effort has been spent; this is not a cost-effective use of your time. So said his logical self. He decided to ignore it for a second.

Young [Necromancer]. All is far from lost. While I have not the time or inclination to heal, greater magics than the Healer’s exist.

He decided not to mention that [Regeneration] had failed. In theory—if [Detect Death] did not work on the young woman, she was alive. It was most curious. Even fascinating. If he were in Wistram, he might have devoted research to the phenomenon, especially if her Skills were still active. As it was…

But you could, if you wanted to, Archmage?

Archmage Chandler hesitated. Ah. He was reminded of mortal conversations. Even when he had become [Archmage]—

 

—-

 

“Don’t lie to them, Zelkyr.”

It was one of the few times he snapped at the Archmage of Izril. The Drake, classically, went on the defensive, which for Drakes, was the offensive.

“We’re Archmages. We don’t show weakness to our students, Chandler.

Normally the situation was reversed. However, Perril was uncharacteristically annoyed.

“If you don’t know a spell, don’t claim you do and then say ‘I won’t cast it because I’m too busy’.”

He floated over the gravy boat towards him; the other Archmage’s eyes flashed, but he continued eating. The high table was, of course, warded so their conversation was unintelligible, even to Wistram’s most avid secret-seekers.

If there was anyone who was going to reveal the heated discussion, it was the uncomfortable, young, Truestone Golem standing silent sentry behind Zelkyr. Cognita, first of her kind, did not know how to deal with confrontations of a verbal kind, especially since she had been told repeatedly that Perril was one of Zelkyr’s few trusted allies. If anything, Perril felt guilty, but Zelkyr usually enjoyed watching his creations in distress. For how else would they learn?

Zelkyr huffed, but the truth was someone was going to be perusing spell tomes all night or he’d have to own up to it. And—like they had when they were students—it ended up being the two searching the library, arguing and hiding from students with [Invisibility] spells…

 

—-

 

“…Ah.”

Why was he remembering that now? He had not given thought to his life for decades at a time. But now, memory swept in.

He was changing. As well as making his old mistakes.

Knowing full well the memory his consciousness had unearthed proved his hypocrisy, the Archmage’s reply was still the same.

Naturally. It is a task complicated by the nature of this…stasis in a frozen state. But there is little I cannot do, young [Necromancer].

He wondered what the mortal Perril Chandler would have said if he could have been here. Ah, how would that man have ever believed he could come to this? If only he knew the treachery.

Even now, that memory provoked a fury like no other. Even in death, he could not forgive. But…the young man pressed on. That too, he had forgotten.

Archmage. I would surely accept any debt, repay it in any fashion you desired if you could…heal her.

Longing in his tone. And now—well, undead did not sweat. But the Necromancer did experience an unpleasant feeling of tension. He gestured for the undead fox to drag another creature over. A bear, frozen by Ijvani’s spells. Maybe a larger specimen would reveal the issue. The fox did so, with incredible strength for its size.

Now, what was a suitable response? Something truly Zelkyrian…

Young Pisces. I am the Necromancer of Terandria. I do not have time to waste on the living. I grant you this time purely out of interest. Had you the means to compel my aid, I would have offered it. Does your own intelligence not guide you to these facts?

Silently, he waited. After a moment, he thought-heard a faint reply, colored by disappointment.

Of course, Great Master of the Dead.

A [Necromancer]’s salute. Az’kerash sighed. He stood there, preparing the frozen bear for revival. Well, he saw Zelkyr’s point, nigh a hundred and fifty years too late.

Then, I leave you to—

I will provide a suitable gift, mighty Az’kerash. Until then, please bear my request in your mind.

…What? But the connection broke before Az’kerash could inquire into what that meant. He blinked, and again—realized he had forgotten. When you were so desperate, you would do anything.

Lies. How much trouble they caused. He really should have taken his own advice.

 

—-

 

Failure and failure again, though. Pisces returned from his walk looking pale and silent. No one asked where he’d been.

“There’s no way we get in. People have tried; the Healer isn’t likely to respond to a request made at dagger-point anyways. So unless we want to take on twenty Gold-rank plus adventurers and Crowdcaller Merdon—we get lucky or we get more money than we have. A lot more. The kind that makes the Healer of Tenbault travel all the way to Liscor.”

Ceria was already into the hangover section of her days-long drinking binge without more fuel. But one thing was clear: there was no hope here.

“If she can even help. She’s not a [Healer]. She casts [Restoration]. A spell.”

Pisces spoke as Ceria tossed belongings into her bag of holding. Yvlon looked up sharply.

“How do you know that?

“I looked into it.”

The [Necromancer] returned the gaze. Yvlon frowned mightily, but he flicked his gaze to the door and windows. So she closed her mouth.

He had earned trust. The Horns looked at each other as Ksmvr bounced on the bed. Funny that the [Innkeeper] didn’t even bat an eye at an Antinium so long as they could pay. But then—half the people had thought Ksmvr was some kind of Balerosian Gazer or something. They really didn’t know what Antinium looked like and didn’t believe he could be anything but a horrific  monster tearing apart everything in sight.

Ceria had possessed the same view of Antinium before coming to Liscor. And if she had met one on the street and known it for Antinium? She remembered her first reaction to Pawn and the others.

But someone had looked past the insect features and asked a Worker their name. And she was…

Ceria closed her eyes. Drinking was preferable to being sober. But neither helped.

“What do we do, then?”

“Pay the [Innkeeper] for another week. Or look elsewhere.”

That was Yvlon. Pragmatic. But it was wrong to say she cared less than Ceria. She was not as familiar as Ceria was with Erin—but hadn’t they known her for almost as long? Ksmvr—Pisces longest of all—she had changed their fortunes.

And why the [Necromancer]? Why did he care? If you were unkind, you could claim Pisces had few reasons to keep lingering attachments or friends. Certainly, he had cause enough to doubt those bonds.

But Pisces sat there. Guilty, because he consorted and begged Terandria’s nightmare for aid. Guilty, because he had not been there. And because this was a fool’s errand.

As for why? It was also simple. He was a [Necromancer]. He had spoken to the Necromancer and beheld in Az’kerash’s contact an apathy for life. A grudge against the living so great he would embrace a dead world. That was what history had done to the Archmage of Terandria, Archmage Chandler, who had once been called a proud friend and ally by Terandrian kingdoms. A [Necromancer] respected by [Knights].

Betrayal had made him bitter. And Pisces had seen reason enough to share his feelings. The two continents he had known, and the Academy of [Mages] were not kind to [Necromancers]. He might have continued down Az’kerash’s trail of thought in time.

But he had met someone who, despite being irritated, repulsed, and disagreed with what he did—offered him food. Safety. On the basis that he was still a person.

Because of her, he saw a world different from Az’kerash, where necromancy could exist with the living. Could benefit more than just the dead.

“Why should I help those who judge me in ignorance and fear?”

Pisces murmured. Ksmvr’s head turned. He opened and closed his mandibles, but the [Necromancer] answered the question before the [Skirmisher] could.

“Because you’re a better person than they are.”

“What was that, Pisces?”

“Something I was once told.”

He did not have to say from whom. Ceria’s ears drooped slightly. But Pisces just sat there for a second. Secrets. Oh, he had many. Fewer than people might believe, but some terrible ones.

He owed her a great boon. And for that…Pisces looked up.

“I suggest, Ceria, Yvlon, Ksmvr, that we decline renewing our room. That we leave Tenbault. It does not have what we seek. But perhaps…”

The others looked at him. Ceria slowly nodded. Yvlon raised an eyebrow, but she was already grabbing her pack. Tiredly, they rose after Pisces. Ceria hung her head as she looked out the window towards the dome and magical barrier. Hope—the Healer—so close by.

“Okay. Let’s go settle our bill. And while we do that, I’ll tell Lyonette.”

Surely, they said, Erin would come back.

But not today.

 

—-

 

Lyonette, the Healer is impossible for us to reach. I’m so sorry. We’re going to pursue other leads, but we can’t get to her. I’m sorry.

 

We’re looking into passes for the Healer of Tenbault, but even all of Halrac’s acquaintances don’t have much. Where we are has a lot of important people—we won’t give up. But Ryoka’s thing didn’t work. This is Revi, by the way. Sorry.

 

To Miss Marquin in Liscor: Wall Lord Ilvriss sends his deepest regrets, but is unable to locate a curative of the required strength. He will continue to do search, but is unable to provide aid at this moment

            –Administrator Alrric, Gemscale Corporation, Salazsar

 

I am returning to Desonis. Wait for me to send word. Altestiel.

 

Deepest regrets. Sorry. Wait, and, ‘we will not give up’. It was cruel to say, but at some point, the messages intended to be encouraging, or reassuring sounded like—well, political statements.

‘Calanfer shall never forget this outrage!’ Wasn’t that what they said when Noelictus was attacked by Ailendamus during a war in Lyonette’s childhood? And she had believed it.

‘The Eternal Throne shall remember _____’s sacrifice forever’. They said that of some [Knight] who had died. But Lyonette forgot who it was.

She knew they meant it. Each and every one. Same with Jelaqua, who promised to look around—even beseech the leaders of her species for aid. But how long would she wait for them to find the cure? How long, until those daily [Messages] and updates became sporadic?

Hope was a bright, vibrant thing. But it went out fast. And all the flames had gone out of late.

Maviola and Erin both. And she did think of both. For one was gone forever. The other? There was a chance, but powerful people had tried and had no immediate solution.

So, then. It was not enough to wait. If there was one thing the [Princess] knew, it was that you could never outwait something like this. She had waited for years in her kingdom to become a proper [Princess], to find a lovely suitor, or grand adventure.

She had waited to be happy. So she was done with waiting. The [Princess] tucked away the slip of parchment. Then she returned to business.

The first object on the desk was more expensive than anything in the room. It looked like someone had taken a shadow from a dark room lit only by the moon’s glow and stitched it into a cloak. The interior was actually a quite lovely, dark maroon. But the outside was shadow-dark—a blue, in fact, but so close to black as to make no difference.

The Drake placed another object on top. A glowing amulet. Then she added a tiara. The young woman’s eyes locked onto that. The Drake read down the inventory list as she added more items.

“A Cloak of Balshadow. A spent Ring of [Fireballs]. An enchanted amulet that doesn’t work…a tiara with a high-grade protective spell on it, a Wand of Sticky Webs, estimated half-charge, what Mage Montressa assumed to be a Ring of Flash—”

Watch Captain Zevara watched as Lyonette reached out for the tiara. The Drake stood in her office, with numerous artifacts on her desk she couldn’t have afforded, even with a Watch Captain’s salary. She glanced at Lyonette.

“Does that match your list, Miss Lyonette?”

“It does, Watch Captain.”

They were being a bit formal. It was the occasion, and the role they found themselves in. One was a former thief—exiled from the city and managing to return by winning the graces of those she had wronged.

The other? A Watch Captain, who was overseeing the return of confiscated goods now all bounties and damages had been paid.

They were also friends. So Zevara relaxed slightly; normally she wouldn’t have even overseen this, just the desk-sergeant of the day.

“Do you ah, need a minder to escort you to the inn? I wouldn’t think it was too dangerous, but these are high-grade artifacts. And with all the influx of new people…”

Lyonette shook her head. She caught herself and lowered the tiara; she’d nearly placed it on her head. And it would have belonged there, Zevara felt.

“I’m fine, Zevara. Thank you. And I’ll be in the company of, um, specialists anyways.”

“A [Thief] and a [Thug].”

The [Princess]’ face didn’t so much as twitch.

“I have my escort, yes.”

“So you’ll be leaving for Oteslia after this?”

Lyonette reached for the rings. She put one on, put the spent Ring of [Fireballs] into her belt pouch.

“That’s right.”

Zevara waited, but the young woman said nothing more. She put on the Cloak of Balshadow next. Practically relic-class. It swirled around her like a bit of darkness, and then became a nice, grey cloak. Zevara resisted the urge to make a number of statements. But then she couldn’t help herself. She coughed into one clawed fist and Lyonette paused in fastening the amulet to her neck.

“I never asked who you were. I have had—hints. And information sources. I could have inquired, but I didn’t think it mattered. The law is the law. And…well, I never asked.”

The young woman regarded the Drake. Zevara saw her smile, faintly. But it wasn’t a true smile. She looked like she’d been stabbed and was smiling in spite of it.

Zevara felt the same way. She saw Lyonette shake her head.

“Do you want to know?”

The Watch Captain wasn’t sure. She saw the [Princess] reach for the wand and stop.

There, on the desk, was a little—the Watch Captain’s eyes widened. She reached for it at once, but it was too late.

 

Days Since Crazy Human Incident: 4

 

It was out of date. The Watch Captain hadn’t updated it since…

“That’s…”

“I’m sure she would have laughed.”

The [Princess] unfroze after a second. Zevara hesitated.

“Who? You mean…?”

“Erin, obviously. She would have laughed. And probably started selling them, or put one up in her inn.”

It was the first time Zevara had heard the [Innkeeper]’s name here since—the day. The Watch Captain saw Lyonette fumble to put the wand on her belt loop.

“She would have been upset, of course. And demanded—oh, I don’t know. ‘Days Since Dungeon Attack’, and ‘Days Since Mrsha Incident’. And that last one would never be above two, let me tell you. But Erin wouldn’t have been really offended—she knows what she does.”

There it was again. Erin. Lyonette kept saying her name. Zevara had only heard references to it. ‘The [Innkeeper]’. ‘The crazy Human’. The [Guards] spoke of it like that, if at all.

As if saying her name made it realer. But the [Princess] just adjusted the cloak and picked up the tiara again.

“I guess I should keep it off until I need it. It hardly camouflages itself, and it’s quite noticeable, isn’t it?”

“Yes. It is.”

Zevara had never really run out of words to say. She was Watch Captain and normally she didn’t have time to waste words. But she didn’t know what to say. After a moment, she sat back down at her desk and pretended to look at her reports. She glanced at Lyonette as the [Princess] sat back down, now wearing most of her old gear.

“I feel I should caution you, Mi—Lyonette.”

“How so?”

The [Princess] looked almost serene as she sat there. Far too composed compared to the rest of the city. Zevara shuffled her papers. She had to say it. She knew why, but she had to say it.

“Oteslia is far from where I’ve ever ventured. I understand it is as safe as any Walled City—but one can find themselves in great trouble, even behind the walls. I should know. There is danger there.”

“But I’m going.”

“Yes, but the risk—especially with two members of the gangs, is beyond what I’d consider acceptable.”

That was the real issue. Zevara spat the words. She’d looked into the Brothers—oh yes. And she couldn’t think of a riskier proposition. They might appear to be friendly, but they had as much blood on their hats as, well, any other gang. She met the young Human woman’s gaze. But Lyonette didn’t blink as she leaned forwards.

“Can you spare [Guards] to escort me, Zevara?”

“Yes.”

Now there was a blink. But only a second of hesitation. Lyonette dipped her head fractionally.

“And can they protect me better than two criminals? Can they help?

Zevara looked away.

“They would be more reliable than—”

“What’s the highest-leveled [Guard] you could send? Beilmark? Jeiss? They’re both married. Is it higher than theirs?”

They both knew the answer to that. So, Zevara’s last-ditch effort to talk Lyonette out of it failed. She had known it would.

“You have someone in mind?”

“I’m going to ask the [Druids]. Oteslia has [Healers], [Gardeners]—I’m going with Saliss of Lights, remember.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better. He has a criminal record as long as those two. Longer.”

“If you take away the nudism, how much has he actually done?”

“…Fair point. But there’s still destruction of property, disorderly conduct, tripping a [General]…wait.”

Lyonette smiled slightly as the Watch Captain frowned over the list.

“I’m going, Zevara. I know it’s risky. But I have to. You understand? For Erin.”

Zevara looked up. There the name was again, on her lips. The [Princess] was not okay. But she said the name. And she looked…determined.

“Watch over the inn for me. I’m leaving Mrsha, Numbtongue—everyone. I can’t take them. I wish I could, but—it’ll just be us four.”

Zevara half-nodded. Miserably, she put the papers down. There were a lot of things she wanted to say.

I’m sorry, for one. It was Hectval who had attacked Liscor. If she had more patrols. If she had—

But too many people had done the apologizing. And at least, Zevara knew that Lyonette did not want to hear it. It changed nothing.

The [Princess] stood. Lyonette du Marquin of Calanfer. 6th Princess to the throne. Zevara regarded the note Chaldion had sent her.

She said nothing. Lyonette breathed out, looking out the window.

“When I was a girl, I wanted to be an adventurer. Or go on one. I had a grand dream that out there was everything I wanted. Everything I dreamed of. I suppose that’s childish to you.”

“Everyone dreams of that.”

The Watch Captain had done the very same. In her own way. Lyonette smiled and the Watch Captain gave her a rueful grin.

“Mine was curing my breathing problems and becoming the Oldblood Drake everyone looked up to. I also wanted wings.”

Lyonette laughed. Then she grew somber.

“That’s true. Everyone wants that. But for me? That was last year.”

She looked out the window. Her hair was fiery red, the hallmark of royal blood a continent away. Her skin was fairly pale. But she had not the delicate hands of the aristocracy, but calluses from someone who had worked. She kept care of her nails, but she also cooked and cleaned.

She looked so much older than the [Thief] who had been hauled in front of Zevara, calling everyone ‘peon’. Lyonette shook her head and gazed at Zevara.

“Today? I would have been happy to grow old without adventure. I feel old now. Somehow, I became a mother. I know I didn’t give birth to her, but I would never be anything else. I made great friends. I did something important, more important than my old life.”

So said the girl who was eighteen years old. Zevara shook her head. Lyonette’s eyes shone.

“And then—Erin was hurt. And it turned out everything I thought was so secure was so fragile.

Yes. They all thought the Crazy Human of Liscor was…invincible. What a mistake. Lyonette wiped at her eyes.

“Now, it’s all fading away. So I have to fight to get it back. Thank you for keeping my possessions. But I have to go.”

She held out a hand. Zevara rose to take it. She looked the [Princess] in her eyes. Blue. Zevara supposed it was royal blue, appropriately.

“You could have paid for them any time you wanted, couldn’t you?”

The young woman had come here every week, or more often, to add a few silver or coppers to it with her paycheck. She had come this morning with the rest. The young woman smiled slyly. Sadly.

“I enjoyed our talks. I didn’t want to need them. I will see you when I return, Zevara.”

She turned away. The Watch Captain watched her walk slowly to the door. As she was opening it, Zevara called out.

“If I could, I would march the entire Watch out with you. I’d take a vacation, barring that. I’d order my two most idiotic Senior Guards to go with you. But they’re gone. And I’m needed here.”

Lyonette du Marquin looked back. Zevara, Watch Captain of Liscor saluted her briefly. The [Princess] bowed her head.

“I know. Thank you.”

Then she was gone. Zevara sat down, and looked blankly around her desk. It occurred to her for the first time—how small the Watch was. How little power she had. In this moment?

She wanted an army. But instead, a single [Princess] went in search of a cure. Zevara hoped it was enough. She could only ensure there was a city for Lyonette to return to.

 

—-

 

The young woman returned to the inn where silence reigned. It was not an entirely empty inn of course; there were the two Humans who watched everyone coming in. The Gnoll who cleaned things and waited for guests who never arrived.

And there were guests. Multiple Humans. A Naga for some reason—or one of the snake-breeds. Ulvama didn’t know. She’d search the memories of older Goblins for details later.

Nagas rarely came to Izril. So this inn was already weird. Another weird thing?

The [Shaman] stared for a long time at the chess board the Antinium-thing had knocked over. After a moment, she poked a chess piece.

“Hmm.”

She edged around the side. Now, what was this? Nothing in Goblin-memory knew what it was. At least—early Goblin memory. It was conceivable that the Goblins who knew what it was hadn’t died yet.

Either way, she was at a loss. The [Shaman] walked around to the scrying mirror and stared at it. Now a Garuda was talking about ‘lost eggs’. She understood this more than the game. Obviously, this was a scrying spell. And this entire room was…entertainment?

She had never been in an inn before. It was so interesting to her. Interesting and—

“Mrsha?”

The female Hobgoblin froze. She looked around—then scuttled behind a couch. She peeked out of it, hearing the young Human woman. What was her name?

Lyonette, right. Ulvama had a [Bolt of Spite] ready to fling, especially if that horrible bug-thing came back. But all she heard were quiet voices.

Still, she didn’t relax. Ulvama listened, sharpening her hearing with magic as she heard Lyonette moving through the inn. She heard…

A quiet voice from the kitchen. The cooking Human girl had stopped crying, which was a relief. The Centaur [Mage] was talking to her, quietly comforting.

Muffled conversation between the two dangerous Humans with crossbows and weapons. One was debating lighting a puffer. The other told him to put it away.

Upstairs, the rasp of a knife on wood. The other bug-thing was making more arrows.

Then a voice from the common room.

“Mrsha? Mrsha. There you are. Sweetie. Oh, honey…”

The little Gnoll-child was called ‘Mrsha’. Ulvama listened as the young woman crooned and sadly spoke to the child. Ulvama knew that the Mrsha-child hadn’t moved.

She just lay there; the young woman had to get her to eat. Someone had taken away the life from her.

Something terrible had happened here. So terrible that no one spoke of it.

This strange inn where she had found herself after going through the magic doorway on the Summer Solstice? It was in the middle of tragedy. Ulvama licked her lips. That was almost a good thing, for her. Because the inn was empty, and no one had done more than check on her, and give her food. That was good.

Because she was a Goblin and she was afraid.

Very afraid. Ulvama tensed—but the sounds were only of Lyonette going to the kitchen, interrupting the two there and asking if Mrsha had been fed. Guiltily, the two confessed they hadn’t thought of that.

Ulvama wondered if anyone had fed the strange Hobgoblin on the hill. Numbtongue was his name. A Redfang—but a broken one. Had they broken him? But he seemed to be grieving the frozen Human. Strange and strange again.

Ulvama’s heart beat anxiously, but her eyes found the sign hanging in the rec room again. It reassured her, though she did not know why. Why had she felt this place was safe to her? But it hung in every room of the inn, a promise, a rule.

‘No Killing Goblins’.

She had nearly laughed when she read it the first time. It was so ludicrous, despite how welcome the words were. But the Humans had obeyed the rule. They had refrained from slaying Ulvama, offered her food, a bed…

What a strange inn. Ulvama only wished she were not so alone, with a foreign Hobgoblin. The other had left, refusing to take her with him. He had been as broken as the other Hobgoblin and had not trusted her enough to take her with him. Unfortunately, he’d recognized her as Mountain City—their tribes had been enemies and he remembered it.

Badarrow. Two Redfangs, then. Had Garen Redfang’s tribe survived where all the Goblins had died in the battle for Liscor? For that was where she was.

Liscor, again. Where Humans had slaughtered Goblins. She should have been terrified of dying here. But she was only afraid, thanks to the inn and signs.

After a while, Ulvama heard Lyonette take the Mrsha-child to the common room and try to get her to eat. The Centaur and Imani-cook went with her. Ulvama slowly crept out from behind the couch, relaxing.

Then she reached down and crunched on some of the popcorn-things she’d been given by the Gnoll. His name was Ishkr and he kept asking if she wanted anything. She’d checked for poison, but hunger had won out.

Crunch, crunch. The Hobgoblin munched as she thought and listened. Weird food.

She wished Pebblesnatch was here. The silly little [Cook] would have loved the novelty of these ‘popped-corns’. She wished anyone else were here.

Ulvama was afraid. And guilty.

She had left Pebblesnatch behind. Why had she done that? It was a mistake, but one born of the moment. She had been at the door, shouting at the other Goblins.

Come! Hurry!

But they hadn’t moved. News of someone dying had made them all sad. A Human. And so Ulvama had rushed through the door, fearing the shadows and magic tearing the sky apart, that only she had sensed. The power so close to the Goblinlands.

Only to arrive here, in an inn that had not tried to kill her. To be fed, to see the signs and learn that a Human had died here, and everyone mourned her.

There was a connection there. But an incredible coincidence…Ulvama’s eyes narrowed. Crunch, crunch.

She should have grabbed Pebblesnatch and hauled her with Ulvama. But when she had told them of her escape plan, how they could leave this place, start a new tribe—the other Goblins had looked at her as if she were an idiot.

They all had. In that moment—Ulvama had realized they did not have her desire. For her, Riverfarm had always been a trap. They saw something else. An opportunity, even if it was behind walls.

Not for her. She was a [Shaman] of the Mountain City tribe! A Goblin who knew that Humans would always hunt Goblin, no matter what. They might be kind for a single generation—but always, they turned.

That was what the memories of Goblins past told her. Better to hide, or be strong. She was just building her strength, searching for more Goblins. A tribe to join.

She had to survive. She’d do whatever it took to survive. Ulvama knew how the world worked. The world was far crueler than it deserved to be, especially to Goblins. She’d take what mercies there were. If these people wanted to feed her? Fine.

But she’d leave. And bring the broken Hobgoblin on the hill with her. Maybe to whatever tribe Badarrow said was hiding in the High Passes. Ulvama liked that, though she feared that place.

Maybe to the Kraken Eaters? Molten Stone? She’d rather join a strong tribe, like Tremborag’s. She had worked so hard to get to the top there! And it was all gone!

Damn the Goblin Lord. Ulvama cursed as she ate more popcorn. She had a feeling it wasn’t the most energy-filled food. But she couldn’t stop munching. Yum.

Yes, another big tribe. The leader of Molten Stone had scorned Ulvama’s pleas, though. Stupid [Witch]. If Ulvama had to choose, she’d choose the Kraken Eaters. They were a dangerous, nomadic lot, not nearly as easy to live with as the Mountain City tribe, but they lacked [Shamans].

Molten Stone had too many. Hard for Ulvama to get to the top there—and their Chieftain was the Goblin Witch. Female, too. So harder to seduce.

Ulvama had learned how to get ahead as a Goblin, especially a female Goblin. You found other Goblins, and made them like you. Male Goblins? Easy. She’d gotten Raidpear to give her authority—but it hadn’t been a proper tribe in the Goblinlands.

Easier to start with the Kraken Eater tribe, especially if the Chieftain took a liking to her. She’d heard he was a second Tremborag, but even more warrior-like, so she’d opted to remain in the Mountain City tribe. But since Tremborag was dead…

It was simple, to Ulvama, how life should be. Eat, sleep, do not die. Gain power by bullying, giving things, persuading. Do not die. This inn was perfect for her to get what she wanted.

…She just wished the people would stop crying. The Hob bothered her. He was so empty. She’d tried talking to him, but he didn’t move or eat. She’d have to make sure he didn’t die. Goblins had to stick together.

Ulvama crept from the rec room, hoping she could get through that mysterious door again. Now, where was it? That was another mystery of the inn; the garden which could not be entered. She’d only been able to talk to Numbtongue when he left, and he hadn’t moved in two days.

Into the hallway, down towards the common room, head on a swivel for sounds or people. Ulvama peeked around the corner and saw something she wished she hadn’t.

The Lyonette-Human was hugging the little Gnoll. Whispering to her.

“I’m going to Oteslia, sweetie. I have to. To bring her back.”

The dead Human. Or not-dead one. Ulvama nodded to herself. The little Gnoll was stirring. A tiny paw encircled the Lyonette-Human’s neck. Ulvama looked away.

Stupid little children. They were all alike. Pebblesnatch was tougher than most, but children were children. She looked for the door to the garden as Lyonette whispered.

“You have to eat something, okay? Palt and Imani promised they’ll look after you. And Selys and…but I’m going to go, alright? So Erin can come back.

Her voice broke on that note. Ulvama listened for more pieces.

A Human was dead. And apparently, a city mourned. That was what she understood.

If she was callous, she could have sneered. She nearly did.

A single Human is dead? So what? Goblins have died by countless numbers. Enough so that we gave up counting long ago. Each one mattered to someone.

But she did not say that. She understood. She had known death. She knew what it was like. She had mourned her mentor. Her parents. Her first love.

Even Tremborag, in her way. Though she had not loved him. But he had still been her Chieftain. He had still died as a Goblin.

And this Human had put up the signs. She had taken care of Goblins. Ulvama didn’t understand that.

So she listened, furtively, to the conversation.

“I have to go. And you’ll stay. Okay? Please? Be good, for me. Eat and—”

The little Gnoll made a sound. She didn’t speak. Ulvama saw her cling to the young mother, though. And she read every word from the frantic look, the desperate paws trying to hold the Lyonette-mother.

“I have to. You’ll be safer here. I’m sorry.”

Gently, the young woman unclasped the paws. And now Ulvama did have to retreat. Because the sound the little Mrsha-child made was piteous. Ulvama put her hands over her ears.

Not a Goblin. Doesn’t matter. After a few minutes, she looked again.

The young woman was crying as she left. She kissed and hugged the child—but leave she did. As Goblin warriors did when they left for battle. Only, Goblins did not waste water.

And then? She found the Ishkr-Gnoll.

“Please take care of her. Make sure she eats—that she bathes and—”

“I will. I will, Lyonette.”

“I have to go. I’ll—I’ll be back in two weeks. Two weeks, even if I have to return, Mrsha. Even if I’m not done. I’ll bring you with me if it’s safe? Okay?”

The little one said nothing. More tears. Ulvama waited. Then she heard her name.

Ulvama—have you seen her?

The [Shaman]’s heart beat anxiously. She readied herself. Oh, how she wished she had a few Goblins who could fight for her! She could fight—but she was a [Shaman]. She drew her strength from a tribe! This inn was lush in mana, but she was not an expert who could make herself invisible. Turning a bunch of regular Goblins into giant, blood-crazed berserkers? That she could do.

But Lyonette was just talking to the Ishkr-Gnoll.

“I saw her this morning. She is very…wary. What should I do with her?”

Ulvama flinched. But all she heard was Lyonette sigh.

“Just—keep an eye on her? She is a foreign Goblin, and Badarrow said she was a ‘Mountain City Goblin’. How he can tell, I don’t know, but he said Snapjaw was enemies with her tribe.”

“Should I ask the Brothers or Palt or Montressa to keep an eye on her?”

Dangerous [Mages]. Ulvama licked her lips. But Lyonette just shook her head.

“Feed her. Let her do what she wants so long as it’s not dangerous. Ishkr…they’re waiting. I have to go. Please keep the inn until I return?”

“I will. Best of luck, Lyonette.”

And then she was walking to the door full of magic. The Gnoll lingered, and more guests came to see Lyonette off.

It was a moment for them. Ulvama took that chance, while they were all in the hallway, to creep through the common room.

Door, door…where was it? She looked around—then nearly tripped over the little Gnoll.

She was sitting on the ground. The Mrsha-child looked up at Ulvama—then at the door where the [Princess] was saying her last goodbyes. She was listening too. And Ulvama saw her empty gaze.

How bitter. She stood over the Gnoll for a while. There the little one sat, like a doll. Ulvama had seen it before, after great loss. Pebblesnatch had been like that until…

She hesitated. Reached out—then hurried away.

She was not a Goblin. Not Ulvama’s business. Hers was only…

The door to the [Garden of Sanctuary] was in the kitchen this time. Ulvama pursed her lips. Why did it move? She peered into it. She knew the broken Numbtongue was in there.

“[Unlock Door].”

She murmured a low-level spell, calling upon the magic in her ink and the inn. There was so much that she could cast most spells even without a tribe nearby. She pushed at the door—

And her hand ran into solid air. She growled. Again! She heaved on it. Tried another spell.

[Frost Ray]! The staff emitted a ray of, well, frost. It hit the door—

Disappeared. Ulvama peered at the door, the open air. Strong magic. Or…a Skill? She kicked the door’s opening and hopped in silent agony.

Voices. They were coming back. The Hobgoblin froze. She looked around—

“We have to take care of the inn.”

“But no one’s coming, Palt. What do we do?”

Clip-clop went the Centaur’s hooves.  The Imani-Cook was talking to him. Ulvama shivered. She did not trust them. But…

“It’s not like the inn’s poor. Lyonette put money in the Merchant’s Guild so she can take it out in Oteslia, but I have coin—guests might come back, Imani. Worst comes to worst, I could make sure everyone gets food.”

“Thank you, Palt. But what about Mrsha? She doesn’t even move—

“I could try a tonic. I um, don’t have ‘happiness’, though. Just calming, sleep…I can look it up.”

The two entered the kitchen. Ulvama breathed out, sidling towards the door. Imani sniffed.

“I just—it’s all wrong.”

She leaned on the Centaur’s side and he put an arm around her. Ulvama recognized familiar scents. She eyed the cigar he had. She wished she could steal one of them. Aside from that—he probably had a lot of herbs she wanted. She had been debating breaking into his rooms before she escaped.

Strange. She recognized attraction when she saw it, and even in grief, here was a couple. The Centaur was a bit distracted, though. He kept looking around. Did he sense her magic? Ulvama edged a bit further over as her camouflaged skin rippled against the kitchen’s…

“And Numbtongue hasn’t even left the hill! He hasn’t moved for days. He’s going to starve himself!”

“What?”

Imani and Palt jumped as Ulvama accidentally spoke. They whirled—and saw the chameleon-Goblin standing against the counters shed her spell.

Aaah!

Imani leapt back. Palt nearly crashed into a wall, but caught himself from running again. He grabbed for his wand—

“It’s—it’s the Goblin! Ulvama!”

Imani stopped him. Palt still raised his wand. Ulvama backed up.

“No hurt! Only want food, food! Nice Goblin, yes!”

She gabbled, in a mockery of proper language. That’s right. Pretend to be a scared little Goblin…well, she was too big to pull off the trick entirely.

“It’s alright! It’s—”

Imani recovered first. She held out an arm in front of Palt and spoke for both Ulvama’s and his benefit.

“You’re Ulvama, right? Did you want food? We didn’t mean to scare you.”

“Scare her? I nearly died!”

Palt exhaled hard. He fumbled for his cigar, staring at Ulvama’s [Chameleon Skin] spell.

“[Shaman] magic. I would have noticed it at once if I’d been looking.”

Hah. Ulvama rolled her eyes. But he wasn’t, so she would have knifed him twice if she’d been trying to kill him. [Mages]. She backed up.

“Not hungry. Am fine. Sorry Goblin. Is go now.”

She began to scuttle out of the kitchen. Then…stopped. Ulvama ground her teeth. She had to know. She looked over her shoulder and pointed at the door.

“Broken Goblin with sword. He not eat?”

“Broken…Numbtongue? No…he hasn’t.”

Imani looked at Ulvama, and then at Palt.

“I tried to give him food, but—well, I think the plate’s still up there. It’s not like it’s gone bad, but he hasn’t touched it.”

“You…give food to him?”

Ulvama was surprised. Imani nodded, with something like actual concern. Blown away, Ulvama saw Palt nod.

“I could try to talk to him again…but I don’t think it’ll work.”

He half-trotted into the door. Ulvama’s eyes narrowed.

“How do that, you?”

Imani’s forehead wrinkled. Ulvama might have been overdoing the bad speaking. But most Goblins spoke like this. Mountain City tribe was different.

“We…we can go through the garden. Oh. You can’t. Erin’s Skill—”

She and Palt shared a look. That was the frozen Human’s name. Erin. Ulvama hesitated, eying the Centaur.

“I go through? I am Goblin. He is Goblin. I talk to.”

She smiled, trying to look unthreatening as possible. She shouldn’t have shown them she could blend with the walls. Palt hesitated.

“I don’t know. We can’t just bring new people in.”

“They came for the wake. I guess the door’s not letting anyone through? We could…bring her in? I don’t know how, though.”

Ulvama’s smile turned to a scowl as Imani’s back turned. Darn. She thought for a second, but the Garden didn’t actually have much of what she wanted. Just that Sage’s Grass on the hill; Ulvama would love to cut a bunch of the plants. And truth be told…

Goblins could live for up to a week without food. Twice as much if they had the right classes. Tremborag could probably have starved for a month. But without water? She hesitated. But that stupid broken Goblin…

“You give him food. Numbtongue. He eat. Food, water.”

She urged Imani. The [Cook] looked helpless.

“But he won’t eat.”

Ulvama eyed her.

“So? Make him Hungry Hungry Stew.”

“Hungry Hungry…what?”

Did she not know what that was? Ulvama tried to translate.

“Make him stew…with Skill. That makes him very hungry. So even sad Goblins have to eat. You have Skill?”

She looked at Imani hopefully. The [Cook] blankly looked at Palt. He shrugged.

“Must be a compulsion-effect. I don’t know it. I could cast a spell on a dish. But do you know that Skill, Imani?”

“No…”

Ulvama cursed. Most Goblins got that Skill. It’s utility wasn’t just in making sad Goblins eat. It was generally to uh, make Goblins so hungry they ate stews with worms and mud and bark in them without objecting to the taste.

What other ways did you cheer up sad Goblin warriors? Well…she thought Imani and the Centaur would object if she told her to go have sex with the broken Goblin. Getting a Chieftain to kick the sad Goblins into action and go kill something didn’t work either since there was no Chieftain.

“I go into Garden, I help.”

Imani hesitated.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know how to do it.”

“Human poo.”

Ulvama cursed. She leaned on her staff. Then she had an idea.

“I know how to make broken Goblin eat. You have water? Food?”

“There’s a plate. But I could get um—a regular stew.”

Imani fussed with the bowls. Palt came back in and found her a large one, and a spoon. Ulvama nodded. She saw them fill up the bowl with a hearty broth; how fascinating that nothing began to rot here! Another useful Skill. Tremborag would have loved to conquer this inn.

“You give to Numbtongue-Goblin.”

“He won’t eat. He barely moves.”

“He will. I will tell you magic words to make him move. Special, Goblin-words. You must tell him exactly. Um…you.”

She pointed at Palt. The Centaur blinked. Ulvama thought he’d refuse. No Centaur she’d ever met would have treated a Goblin with respect, much less taken orders.

But she was desperate. That broken Goblin should live. And he only hesitated for a moment before nodding.

“I’m willing to try anything. What do I say?”

Ulvama beckoned him over. She knew roughly what the words should be. She whispered in his ear and Imani eyed them. Palt’s mouth opened.

“Er…”

“You say. It work.”

Ulvama urged him to the door. Imani went after Palt as he trotted, bemused, into the garden.

“What did she say?”

“Magic words? I don’t know. It might work—”

Ulvama craned her neck as she saw him head up the hill. Imani followed and then turned to Ulvama curiously.

The female Hobgoblin couldn’t see up into the hill with the mists where the frozen Human lay. But she could see the Centaur ascending most of the way at a fast trot. It was so silent she heard his voice.

“Hey Numbtongue? Numbtongue, you have to eat. This is from Imani and me. And that female Hobgoblin. Ulvama? You need to eat, friend.”

Nothing. Of course not. The Centaur tried a few more times, clearly trying to cajole the broken Hob. Then he sighed.

“Okay. Listen. I was told to tell you this—”

His voice dropped to a murmur. Ulvama waited. She was almost certain—Imani took a few steps. Then she heard a shout.

Raaargh!

That was about right. Ulvama heard Palt shout.

Aaah!

There was a roar of fury, then a terrified bellow and Palt racing down the hill as Numbtongue went after him, in a blind fury. Imani shouted.

Palt! What did you say?

She looked back at the [Shaman]. Ulvama nodded, satisfied.

The words always worked. Palt raced past her line of view, pursued by a Goblin driven mad with rage. Numbtongue hadn’t brought his sword; he just ran, practically frothing at the mouth, trying to beat the Centaur’s brains in.

For about half a minute. Then he dropped as the rage left him, looked around, bewildered. Palt, his hindquarters to the wall, lowered his wand.

“Wh-wh—all I said was—”

Numbtongue was breathing. He looked up, and Ulvama waved at him. He stared at her, then Imani. Palt bit back the words Ulvama had taught him. It was…close to a magic spell.

“Velan, Curulac, Ierlv. You have failed them all. The Goblins Kings die! Shame! Shame upon you, Goblin! You have forgotten your oath.”

Magic words. Who needed an incantation when you could rouse any Goblin out of their funk with that? For greater effect, name more Goblin Kings.

Of course, it didn’t last. Numbtongue was panting; he was clearly dehydrated, such that he didn’t sweat. But he was ready to curl up.

“Give stew. Go! Go!”

Ulvama poked Imani into the doorway. Imani hurried over.

“Numbtongue! You have to drink something. Eat.”

“She’s dead. My fault.”

The Hobgoblin moaned. He curled up as Palt edged around him. He was shooting daggers out his eyes at the [Shaman], but she only had attention for Numbtongue.

“It’s not, Numbtongue. You have to at least have some water, please?”

“No point.”

Ulvama smacked into the door again. She wanted to beat some sense into that stupid Hobgoblin’s head! She rubbed her nose and called out.

“You! Broken Hob! Drink water, stupid!”

He looked at her. She waved her staff angrily and switched to their language.

I am a [Shaman]! You stupid Goblin! Drink, eat food even if stinking Humans make it! Eat, to be strong! Protect! Cannot protect if you eat nothing!

His eyes flickered. He looked towards the hill and Ulvama pointed.

“Human only frozen! Not dead! Eat stew and live, or protect nothing! Do not fail again!”

Imani and Palt were looking at Ulvama, impressed. They had tried their own variations on that line. So had Lyonette, Selys, Drassi—even Badarrow, who could at least move.

But no one had even gotten Numbtongue to blink. Ulvama had gotten him down the hill and now—

The words registered. Numbtongue looked at Imani. Back at the hill.

“Come into the inn. Have a seat.”

“I have to go back. Protect. Bad things…”

He muttered. But suddenly—his stomach growled. And Imani knew how to pick her battles.

“Then have a drink. Where’s that stew? Palt! You kicked it over!”

“I was running for my life!

The Centaur retorted. But he was already trotting back to get more, as Numbtongue let Imani help him back up. Food, water…Ulvama saw him gritting his teeth.

It would taste like mud, but he would live. She sighed in relief. Then she scurried away before the Centaur could take his wrath out on her. She paused in the common room. The little Gnoll hadn’t even moved. Ulvama—no. No, only Goblins.

Only Goblins. She had to live. Goblins had to live. She hurried off. Little Gnoll would be fine. Probably.

Why did she remind her of Pebblesnatch so much? It was probably the fur. It reminded her of that stupid white hat.

 

—-

 

Silveran the Worker was now jobless, and thus, the first Antinium to be laid off in the history of ever. Ksmvr did not count. He had been fired. Different, very different.

Silveran walked the streets of Liscor, lost. The bells tolled. The funerals took place, the people wept.

He could not weep. Nor was sadness the only thing in his heart.

Yes, he was sad. Yes, he was hurt beyond what he believed was possible that Erin was…but more than that, he was longing. He was desperate, an emotion of longing, desperation, want that he had no word to fully describe.

Because he wanted to return to a month ago. He wanted Erin Solstice to bound down the stairs, with some crazy idea in mind, or run about the inn screaming about something like ‘beavers in the bath!’

He wanted her to be back when he woke. He wanted those pleasant days to return. And he feared, now. Feared that those days would never return.

That was death. That was what death did. It took things away. And yes, it was the first time the Worker had contextualized the idea of death thusly.

Silveran had never feared it before. He had seen death in the first hour of his waking and known it was his fate.

Only now did he hate it. Only now did he understand why it was feared. Not for him. But for what it took away.

And in that moment, he knew why Pawn’s vision of Heaven mattered. But still, even if Silveran now longed for Heaven—what was he, Silveran, supposed to do?

He was not Lyonette, who was going to Oteslia. He was not the [Priest], or Garry the [Cook], or Bird. He did not have a grand vision for bringing Erin back. He wouldn’t even know how to begin.

So the Worker wandered. He walked the streets of Liscor, knowing there was nothing for him in the inn while it lay silent. He walked and he walked.

Until he stopped for a small reason.

It was close to evening, when the Antinium Worker found the shop. Not an inn. And it was not a derelict shop. Although it was close.

The doors were open, but clearly, no clientele were present, not even the owner. There was a dirty front, made of crude, cheap glass with warps and bubbles, displaying…Silveran peered at the display.

Dried local herbs and vegetables. Upon further reflection, he saw that this was intentional for the herbs; unintentional for the vegetables. This was a small, local shop that sold locally foraged or grown produce. A grocer’s, really.

But what really caught his eye, more than the nature of the shop itself was…the dirt. The door was open, and the shop was dirty.

Look at it. Someone had tracked muck off the street inside. Ground it into the floorboards. And it had hardened into that calcified mess that made cleaning it so much worse.

Worst yet—this was not a new problem. Clearly, someone did desultory sweeping now and then, which meant that the really bad stains, sticky substances, and so on, got worked into the floorboards between the cracks, until it was practically part of the masonry.

It was horrible to behold. Mainly because Erin’s floors had used to look like that before she got a proper, full-time cleaner. [Basic Cleaning] only got you so far.

The Antinium began to drift on. But then he came back. Lyonette would have him cleaning that floor in a moment. And look at it! Even the dried mud and bits of grass and such were just scattered there, let alone the stuff that required soap, a mop, rags!

And there was a broom, lying against one wall. No one had even picked it up? Silveran hesitated. He looked around…

Then scurried into the open shop. He grabbed the broom and began to sweep, furtively looking around. Someone had to do it. It pained him to see the floorboards so.

[Wide Sweep]. [Magnetic Pull]. And sweep! The particles collected around the bristles of the cheap broom, and without being left behind, he swept a good four feet of space clean out the door in one stroke.

That was satisfaction. You couldn’t get a sweep like that without Skills. It was practically an art form. A lesser [Attendant] sweeping her storefront paused to gape at Silveran’s first mighty work of the broom.

“Whoa.”

The Drake girl of perhaps ten watched as the Antinium turned and repeated the motion. Dust and debris whirled out the door. The Drake girl leaned on her broom, a newfound appreciation for the art of sweeping suddenly instilled in her.

This was his craft. This was his art. Silveran barely needed five minutes to get the main floor clean—then he went behind the counter, around the edges. Three more minutes and the floors were swept.

But not clean. He looked around the empty shop, noting the back door was closed. Still deserted, and no one had stopped him. So he looked at the floor and saw…a bucket.

It held some dead leeks. But if you took them out and got a bit of water, why, you had water in a bucket. And there was some cloth hanging right there! Probably used to hold the fresh veggies.

Silveran knew where all the wells were in the city. He hesitated. He shouldn’t be in here. But the floors…

 

—-

 

Twenty minutes later, the Drake girl watched as the Worker carefully put the cloth into the water. She observed, with the sagacity of youth, that he had no soap. And once again, she underestimated the power of a Level 15 [Server].

Silveran reached into his belt pouch…and produced powdered soap-in-a-vial. An Octavia creation! He dumped half into the bucket and swished the cloth around inside. Then, he fiddled with the broom—the Drake girl craned her neck to see. What was he doing?

The impromptu mop only took some twine and two of the cloths. Silveran dunked it, placed it on the floorboards, and began to mop. Yes, this was how you did such things!

Of course, he was only going after the first level of muck. The trick was reducing the general smudge on the floorboards. First you went after the loose debris. Broom and sweep. That was easy, pleasurable, really.

Second? What water and soap could accomplish. It wouldn’t get it all, but the Drake girl saw the Worker pick up just pure filth on the first swab of the floor. She and he were so disgusted, Silveran got a second bucket so the dirty water wouldn’t contaminate his good source. He began emptying it into the street where it ran into the gutters.

Water and soap cleaned a world of sins. And yes, Silveran had more Skills, mostly devoted to cleaning. He saved his trump card, obviously. One did not simply waste a Skill where a minute of work did the job.

[Fast Drying]. The most important Skill, actually, was to dry the water before it could swell the floorboards. That was why you didn’t splash water down; you were economical. Silveran moved down the shop like a hurricane of mopping, leaving behind cleaner floorboards in his wake. The Drake girl was so moved she copied him, giving her own floors an amateur’s first attempt at a sprucing up.

But once again she did not have Silveran’s insight into the art of clean. Because even after the entire store’s floors had been mopped—after three passes!—he was not done!

The madman. The insanity of the Antinium! Now three apprentice shop workers were watching out of the corner of their eye. Because Silveran had cleaned the floorboards with soap and water, without letting the water actually seep into the foundation. He had swept the floors. And he was now…taking a minute bit of metal and individually removing dirt from each crack in the floor! Scraping at sticky stains that had resisted soap without damaging the wood itself.

You needed the fine control of a [Bladesman] and the nerve of a [Battle Captain] to shave the tops of the floorboards so. The patience of a [High Mage] studying spells to individually lever out each crumb trapped between the floorboards, that they might finally join together in proper harmony.

And he did it. No apprentice Drake or Gnoll would ever have the patience to lie on the floorboards and make sure each was sparkling. They watched in awe, even horror at the dedication to the art of spotlessness this Antinium employed.

Silveran was in the zone. He was enjoying himself, and he had not for weeks. After this? He’d probably do a second mopping because of the micro-bits of dirt he’d left from this removal of the crack-dirt. Then he’d have to wax the floorboards, because, obviously, you weren’t going to leave them unprotected, were you?

Actually, you should probably apply a layer of varnish, use the [Fast Drying] to effectively dry that, then wax, and then obviously polish everything by hand. And then you could move onto the walls—

He was so preoccupied with his craft, he didn’t hear the outraged voice until it was right on top of him.

Who’s there? I’ll kill you, you little thief! I’ll—eh?”

The Antinium whirled as a female Drake burst from the back rooms with a meat cleaver in hand. He froze, throwing up all his arms and she stopped and stared.

“An Antinium? What the—”

She was as astonished as he. Silveran looked around the shop and suddenly—realized he had gone too far.

What was he doing? This wasn’t his shop! He was cleaning on unauthorized grounds! He was in so much trouble. He got up to flee—then nearly ran over the gawking shop apprentices. They turned to run, and Silveran saw the Drake [Shopkeeper] interpose herself between the exit and him.

He froze, quaking. But the Drake had lowered the meat cleaver. She was looking around the shop, in awe.

Perhaps she had never actually seen the color of her floorboards. They were, in fact, beechwood, a light, blonde color. They had been dark brown just this morning.

The entire shop looked ten times brighter. The floorboards? Well, Silveran hadn’t applied wax, but you felt like you wanted to step on them, and then apologize for making them dirty!

“Dead gods.”

The Drake breathed. Silveran trembled. She was clearly in the paroxysms of rage. He raised a trembling hand as she looked at him. The Drake blinked.

Hello, my name is Silveran.

He had a card. Mrsha had helped make him one. The Worker held it out, like a shield. He didn’t have another. The Drake blinked.

“Silveran? Wait. I know you. You’re one of them…Painting Antinium. From the inn.

Her eyes were bloodshot and red. She looked—well, not well. About as well as the average person in The Wandering Inn. She blinked at the meat cleaver in her hand, then put it on the counter.

“What did you do to my shop?”

I cleaned it. I am sorry. Do not kill me. I will pay for the damages.

Silveran signed. He saw the Drake stare, nonplussed at his hands and realized—she didn’t know Mrsha’s sign-language. He opened his mandibles—and she shook her head.

“You cleaned my floors. They’re so—bright.”

She raised a claw, almost to shield her eyes from the glare of the bright floorboards. She stepped back, wonderingly, and Silveran saw his chance.

He ran past her, out into the street. He heard the Drake call out after him.

Stop!

Silveran hesitated. There was a Watch patrol coming down the street! They looked up for the criminal at the shout. They saw only Silveran, so were perplexed. But he froze. He put his hands in the air—

The jig was up. Nowhere to run. He slowly walked back into the shop, to face his fate. The [Shopkeeper] just stared at him.

“You cleaned my shop?”

Silveran nodded miserably. This was a fine fate. What would happen? Would he be executed? What would Pawn say? How much trouble would the Hive be in? The Drake blinked a few times at him—then looked around.

“Well, you can’t just run off after all that. Come with me.

Crime and punishment. Silveran believed in the justice system. He hung his head and walked into the shop. He stood before the counter as the Drake disappeared into the back room.

“Everything alright here?”

One of the [Guardswomen] asked the shop assistants as they watched the Worker. They peered around, but they still didn’t see a [Thief] or anything. The ten year-old pointed.

“Yeah. That Drake—Miss Pelessi—just shouted at the Worker.”

“The Worker? Did it do something?”

The Guards stared blankly at the Antinium. Then they grew worried. Was this the Aberration-event? They’d heard about that kind of encounter. They steeled themselves—but the Drake just shook her head.

“He cleaned her shop. Look at it.”

They all blinked. Silveran saw the Drake—Pelessi—reappear with his punishment. It was…

Rock Crab bisque. She placed the soup in front of him, with a spoon attached.

“Here. Have that.”

Silveran peered at it. Was he…supposed to drown himself in the bowl? Tricky, but he’d do his best. The Drake stared at him.

“To eat. It must have taken hours.

“That Worker was working for the last four, Miss Pelessi! He was digging dirt out of the floorboards!”

A young Drake shouted. The [Shopkeeper]’s eyes widened. Silveran hung his head. Then he raised it. Wait, eat the soup?

Death by poison was appealing. He took the spoon, took a sip. It even tasted good. The Drake watched, a bit warily. The [Guards] were admiring the floorboards.

“Beech wood? Such a lovely color. I’ve walked by here hundreds of times on my beat and I would have never thought. Some luck, eh, Pelessi?”

They jested with her, gently. The Drake replied, scowling. Half-smiling. But the red eyes and tear tracks on her scales…

Something bad had happened. Silveran ate meekly, seeing her gaze on him. And then—she clapped her claws. He nearly dropped the bowl and ran.

“A chair. Why are you standing?”

Why was he standing? She fetched one from behind the counter. It was a stool, but Silveran didn’t object to the improper taxonomy of the object. He sat on it and ate. Which was even better than standing and eating.

“You cleaned my shop. Even my husband didn’t do as good a job, when he was alive. I certainly never did.”

The Drake marveled. She was touching the floorboards. Silveran wanted to apologize for the shoddy work. It was just a compulsion.

She looked back at him once. The Watch had apparently decided that Silveran was no Aberration, so they were walking on. But the Drake…they all saluted her.

“Sorry for your loss, Miss Pelessi.”

She gave them a stiff nod. Silveran saw her turn to him. And apparently his blank stare finally registered. She gestured.

There was something on her chest. The toga-like robes, a light yellow, had something attached. He hadn’t noticed it since it was a white bloom. But Silveran knew what that meant.

“My son.”

She saw the Painted Worker stop eating. Pelessi blinked at his bowl.

“You eat as fast as my boy. Do you want more?”

Silveran didn’t know how to respond. So the Drake got him some more. Workers could always eat—but it seemed to him the act of giving him food was just as much for her as him. She spoke as she came back.

“He went out to fight them. Hectval. For her. That—that—all because he had a mug of that Minotaur’s Punch. That glory drink and he said it made everything make sense. Losing his sister. All the good times, the bad—he kept wanting me to come and try it. Because he said it made him remember why she was beautiful.”

So there had been husband, sister—daughter, rather—and son. Silveran looked around and saw not a one.

Ah. He dipped the spoon into the bisque, unsure of what to say. The [Shopkeeper]’s chin rose, as if daring him to. But Silveran said nothing. He just ate the bisque.

“I’ve seen your kind about. The new, Painting Antinium.”

Painted. But Silveran let her talk. The Drake went on.

“I voted, you know. For Lism. This is his district. I didn’t have anything against the Antinium—not much. But Goblins and…it was all too much. My son agreed, until he visited the inn. I thought he was mad. I’ve never involved myself with the Antinium, though. I never thought one would clean up my shop.”

She hesitated.

“Thank you, for that. Why did you do it?”

Silence. The Worker hesitated. Then he gestured. He’d spilled a bit of bisque in his fright earlier. He pointed—and the Drake saw the stain vanish.

Her eyes widened.

“You have a Skill?”

He nodded. He industriously used the rag to wipe some more off another bit of the counter. As if to say ‘there is a mess. I clean messes.’

Then he shrugged. Pelessi almost laughed.

“That’s all? You saw a mess and cleaned it? Half the shops on this street would love you to do that. We can never keep it clean—this is Clawgrass Way.”

She said that as if it mattered. Silveran assumed it was the street name. The Drake explained, seeing another blank look.

“We sell food. Vegetables, the butcher’s down that way—and whatever people pick. [Alchemists] come here for cheap herbs. Do you know how much dirt that brings in?”

Lots? Silveran just ate the bisque. The Drake looked past him.

“It was hard enough keeping the store clean with four pairs of hands. Now? What am I supposed to do now? They said we’re at war with Hectval. I hope the city burns. But what am I supposed to…?”

She looked lost. The dried produce, the shop in disarray…Silveran put down the spoon. She noticed.

“Keep eating. At least the store’ll be clean for a few days, thanks to you. I heard…the Antinium fought Hectval. Stopped them from killing everyone. Good.”

That was all she said. Then, as Silveran put the spoon in the bowl, she whispered.

“Thank you.”

He had done nothing to earn her thanks, or so he felt. Silveran stood as she took the bowl. The [Shopkeeper] looked at him, then turned away. She put the bowl in the kitchen—where she had made altogether too much Rock Crab bisque, forgetting…there was only one person to eat it.

The Antinium was gone when she opened the door. She was glad of it, somehow. She—

—Nearly tripped over him as he levered up a tiny pebble in the floorboards. The Drake stared at him.

“What are you doing?”

Cleaning. The Antinium’s antennae waved. He was never one to leave a job half-done. She protested, but then stopped. The assistants—and [Shopkeepers]—began to gather. They stared. What horrifying dedication to the art of the broom! And when he started waxing the floors?

The Drake objected. Then she just watched. Because at some point, she realized the cleaning was as much for him as the bisque had been for her.

 

—-

 

The Horns of Hammerad walked out of the city of Tenbault. Ceria paused to raise a finger to salute the glorious city and the Healer. Ksmvr raised four.

“No, Ksmvr. It’s the middle finger. The middle one. You can’t just raise four.”

The Antinium lowered the four fingers on his upper right hand.

“Ah, thank you, Captain Ceria.”

“So what now?”

Yvlon felt tired. They had gone all this way, waited, tried their best. And for what? Another dead end. They were no closer to helping Erin.

It was Pisces whom they turned to. The [Necromancer] had been quiet. At last, he spoke.

“I have an idea. I did not want to mention it so long as Tenbault was the likelier solution. But—you are no doubt aware that I procured the information about the Healer from somewhere.”

Ceria and Yvlon slowly nodded. Ksmvr shook his head.

Pisces turned to them. He looked as uncertain as they had ever seen him.

“I have contacts. I would tell you more but…I cannot.”

It didn’t matter to Yvlon what he was hiding now.

“Just tell us, Pisces. What’s your idea?”

She hung her head, her golden hair drifting across her silver arms. She stared at them, wishing she could use them to any purpose.

Erin Solstice was dead. What seemed like it had been a beacon of hope in the days after the dungeon—a permanent lighthouse—had ended.

What was there now to look for? How did you bring her back, short of a miracle?

Pisces spoke.

“When we left Liscor, Selys asked me if I would go on a quest for her. To find a missing piece of the Heartflame Set.”

The Horns of Hammerad looked at him. Ceria walked into a bush.

“…What?

“Did you just say the Heartflame Set, Pisces? As in, the other pieces of the armor?”

The [Necromancer]’s eyes glinted.

“I did. She is an [Heiress] and inherited the armor.”

“I didn’t know she changed her class.”

He harrumphed mildly.

“Well, she obtained a unique Skill in return. Hints as to where to complete the armor.”

“I am very confused. Do you mean to imply the breastplate was merely a piece of a greater set of armor? That would mean it is…very powerful.”

Ksmvr’s talent for understatement almost made the others smile. Pisces nodded. But he looked troubled.

“I told Selys the odds of us reaching the…destination and recovering the armor piece were remote. We would need to prepare, even ally with other teams to get it.”

“You know where?

Yvlon was incredulous. Pisces shrugged.

“She was given the hint in the form of a riddle. ‘To find the helm of fire/Look to death’s ire;/That village without rest,/Where the Putrid One met his death.’

The others looked at each other in shock. Ceria was trying to pull her robes out of the bush. Ksmvr opened and closed his mandibles and stroked his chin in an imitation of Pisces.

“A difficult riddle indeed. One must look to the clues. A village narrows down the options from possible billions to perhaps only tens of thousands of options. However, by my deductive reasoning—”

“It’s the Village of Death. It has to be.”

Ceria breathed. Ksmvr looked almost hurt.

“This is an obvious deduction, Captain Ceria?”

Yvlon nodded.

“It is to adventurers. The Village of the Dead. I don’t know about the Putrid One—isn’t that an old [Necromancer]?”

“The Necromancer before the Necromancer. And yes, I had the same thought. Any northern adventurer would know it; the clue was not exactly difficult for me to decipher. But…”

“The Village of the Dead. That might be a Named-rank encounter.”

The half-Elf breathed. She looked uneasy. They all knew that place. One of the truly dangerous zones you avoided. Not as large or memorable as the High Passes—but no one had ever found out what lurked in the center. And armies had tried…

“But it’s the Helm of Fire. Not a cure. Why are you bringing it up, Pisces? I’m sure you didn’t tell us because you wanted to inform us when we had a chance of getting it. Or just to be secretive.”

Pisces blushed a bit at Yvlon’s gaze. But he met her eyes.

“That was my intention, Yvlon. But things have changed. I promised Selys I would try—or bring the idea up to you. Now? I am suggesting we get it. And…trade it for a cure.”

The Horns of Hammerad stopped. Ceria’s head slowly rose and she stopped tugging on her robes.

“You mean, to the Healer of Tenbault? That might get her attention.”

“Not to her specifically. I know of someone who might…trade a cure for a relic-class artifact.”

“Your contact. Who you won’t name.”

Yvlon leaned on her sword. Ksmvr was opening and closing his mandibles. Pisces chewed on his lip.

“Yes. But I would also say this: if that was where a [Necromancer] as powerful as the Putrid One met his end, there is surely treasure beyond compare there. The kind that…would pay for the Healer. And the Helm of Fire? A Walled City might pay a fortune for it.”

Any Named Adventurer would. Any [Lord]—even royalty might. Yvlon’s heart began to beat faster. But Ceria had a thought at the same time.

“But Selys was the one who uncovered the prophecy. It’s not hers, but…”

“I know. I am hoping there is more there than just the Helm of Fire. Yet I am still suggesting it. Ceria, Yvlon, Ksmvr. If it came down to it, I would trade the Helm of Fire for a cure for Erin. And I do believe it is the only solution. No matter what Selys thinks.”

Pisces looked at them. And there was resolve in his eyes. Yvlon exhaled.

“Are you mad?”

He half-flinched. But the [Armsmistress] was straightening.

“Selys would pawn the Heartflame Breastplate itself if she thought it would bring Erin back. Well—I think she would.”

Pisces smiled at that. But he raised a finger.

“The Village of the Dead is…an unknown threat. If the Putrid One really died there—it is certainly a Named-rank threat. We are not of that level yet.”

“But we are going. That is what you are going to say, aren’t you, Pisces? Ceria? Yvlon?”

Ksmvr looked around. The Horns jumped. Ceria spluttered.

“I didn’t say that, Ksmvr! It’s dangerous—”

“But you will go.”

“We could die—”

“But you will go.”

“You sound sure, Ksmvr.”

The Antinium [Skirmisher] looked at Yvlon. And for the first time, he smiled.

“Yes. Because I know my team. I do not mean to interrupt the decision-making process. But I find it inconceivable we would not.”

Pisces blinked. Yvlon opened her mouth and Ceria scratched at her head. The [Warrior] had been going to say it was dangerous, and that they were taking a huge risk and that they needn’t all go.

…Then she was going to say she’d go with Ylawes’ team alone if no one else wanted to. And to look at the supercilious expressions on Ceria and Pisces’ faces, they had been about to do the same.

“I am simply expediting our decision-making process. Please correct me if I am wrong.”

Ksmvr’s shoulders hunched. But then he was embraced by a laughing Ceria.

“You’re right, you silly Antinium. I was going to say—”

She looked around and took a breath. So did Yvlon.

The Village of the Dead. The Dungeon of Liscor had been one thing, Albez another. It had been a while since they had taken on a threat like this before.

Was it mad? Yes. Was it foolhardy? Even to suggest it.

But was it a plan where they had been drifting hopelessly? Absolutely. And if risking their lives meant a chance—

It was she who put her hand out. Pisces, Ceria, and Ksmvr stared at the metal hand as the silver-steel skin flexed and opened.

“Erin is gone.”

Yvlon saw the others flinch. She went on.

“But she’s not lost. And if there’s even a chance—no village full of undead scares me. Not with a [Necromancer] on our side. That already gives us better chances than most.”

She looked at Pisces. He smiled. Actually smiled, and brushed hair out of his face.

“Agreed. And obviously, for the…treasure and levels we might accrue, and knowledge, I would never sit this one out.”

“Of course not.”

She elbowed him gently. He blushed, but put his hand on hers. It was warm.

“I will go. This is a team effort and I owe Erin Solstice…almost everything. My team, the rest.”

Ksmvr put his hand there, without hesitation. Ceria was last. She exhaled.

“This is stupid. Even I know it’s stupid. It’s so stupid that Calruz himself would have said ‘let’s think about this’. You all know that, right?”

“Yes.”

Yvlon looked at her. Ksmvr nodded. Pisces scowled.

“My hand is getting tired, Ceria. Are you in or not?”

The half-Elf glowered. But only for a moment. As Ksmvr had said, there was never any decision to be made. She reached out with her good hand.

“One more adventure. A real one. The most important one. Whether it takes us to the Heartflame Armor or—however far.”

The Horns of Hammerad looked at each other. And then they laughed and nodded. It was done. To the Village of the Dead. They broke into a run, heading for their hidden chariot-wagon. Ceria ran, panting, after Yvlon, then Pisces, and Ksmvr. Death and glory, preferably one without the other!

For the [Innkeeper] of Liscor.

 

—-

 

It was just a little thing. But the shop was gleaming when he was done. The Drake thanked him. She wanted to pay him, but Silveran refused. He only took the coins when she said that she couldn’t let him go without it.

She looked so lonely there. The Antinium had cleared her displays, cleaned everything, set all the signs and polished every surface. But that was not enough. So he stopped at the entrance.

Miss Pelessi looked as the silver-antennae ant paused in the doorway.

“Did you forget something?”

She looked around, but the shop was spotless. He shook his head. The Antinium Worker gazed around the store, then at her. Then he opened his mandibles.

“I. Will come back tomorrow. To sweep. I am good at sweeping. And put things in boxes. I am decent at that.”

Her eyes went wide. The Drake started.

“You can talk?

She stared at Silveran. He thought about this.

“Yes.”

Then he walked out of the shop, leaving the dumbfounded Drake behind. Workers could talk.

Hadn’t everyone known that?

And he would come back tomorrow. Not because he wanted coin, or because he thought the Drake could make the shop that dirty in a single day. But because he was needed here.

He thought Erin would approve of that.

 

—-

 

The inn was quiet after all. Great deeds had once been done here. Crowds of people, armies had come through these doors.

But it was empty now. Quiet.

The legend of the inn…had become a wake. And a little Gnoll sat on the floor. Waiting. Waiting…and despairing.

Her mother was gone. Erin was gone. All was lost. The others tried to take care of her, feed her. But they were all lost. Always. All the ones she—

The butt of the staff nudged her.

[Slumber]. The Hobgoblin saw the little Gnoll yawn—and then slide over and curl into a ball before she even thought about it.

Ulvama tsked. Then she tossed the blanket on the ball of fur. Stupid, silly, little children. Children were so hard to take care of. That was why she had never had any, although a lot of attempts had been made.

Anyways, she was only taking care of the little Gnoll because she was staying at this inn for a while. And if the Gnoll-child died, people might blame the Goblin. Yes, that was why.

Someone had to. The Hobgoblin stomped off, to go watch the scrying mirror for more entertainment. Then—after a few minutes, she stomped back and tugged at the blanket so it only covered the little Gnoll’s body, not her head and everything else. Children could suffocate themselves. That was how impractical they were.

She accidentally touched the Gnoll’s paw as she adjusted the sleeping body. Tears had long since dried on the fur. Ulvama, grumbling, tucked the paw into the blanket. Then shouted.

She snatched her fingers back and did a dance of pain.

Ow! What was—

Ulvama stopped. She eyed the strange, flicking thing on the end of her claws. Wait, she wasn’t being burned by…she hurriedly blew on her claw tips.

There was a wisp of smoke. The [Shaman] scrubbed her hand on her side a few times. She blinked, then stared at the little Gnoll suspiciously.

“Huh. Weird.”

She gingerly poked the little Mrsha-child with her staff a few times to make sure she was asleep. Then she eyed her hand.

Fire? Gnolls were so strange. But it hadn’t burned her. It was on her paw. Now, where had that come from? Ulvama backed up. But she still saw it flickering. It had leapt at her. The child still held it.

As the Goblin left, and the child slumbered, and the world changed, it continued to burn. The legend of The Wandering Inn was not ended. And the fire still burned.

It flickered like…

Hope.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: This is the first chapter of Volume 8. And I’ve realized that the first chapters are harder than the last. Because I know exactly how the volume ends. But starting one? Harder. Because there are so many things to do, but how do you start?

I hope it was good. As I wrote at the top, Andrea is beginning to record on Monday—and I am writing!

And The Wandering Inn won a Stabby! It is the third and last we will ever win (because you can’t win more than three in a category), but three more than I ever thought we’d achieve! It was a huge honor, and I have you all to thank for it. The post is here, and I thank you for still voting and reading.

Volume 7 has ended, but you’re still here after that. Let’s see how Volume 8 goes. Thanks once more, and see you next chapter. I’m just getting back into gear. Until next time!

 

Hope, Snuggles, an alternate freezing-story and more by ArtsyNada!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/illudanajohns/

Ko-fi: https://ko-fi.com/illudanajohns

 

The legendary Trash Dragon, Pawn’s wrath, and Inkar by AuspiciousOctopi!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/auspiciousoctopi/

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/auspiciousoctopi

 

Sad Numbtonuge by JackEnza!

 


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73 thoughts on “8.00

  1. Leave a typo for Volume 8! And Stabbies! And audiobooks! Thanks so much!

    (Volume 8 readers: TheZorginator1, aiashi, Gorexn, Aox, Maladal, CodeRace, MrWiggles, Metamere, Joshua Garrison, ChronoMager, Vento, HunterNapk1n, Niello, Koor, Logan morrill)

    • [Summon Aberration] was a red skill, in this chapter it is a normal one. For that matter, is [Doomspeaker Priest] supposed to be a normal class or a red one?

    • In Chapter 7.43 G, Elia’s daughter tells Erin that their team status, Arcsinger’s Bows, is that of a Named Rank team.
      “We’re Arcsinger’s Bows! A Named Rank team! Don’t make us hurt you!”

      But in this Chapter it is stated that they are Not a Named Rank team.
      ‘… Even Elia Arcsinger’s team, Arcsinger’s Bows, had only her to boast of, not a Named-rank designation as a team.’

      Was Elia’s daughter lying to Erin, or is this a typo?

      • Probably a typo/later elaboration.
        But you could read it as a team with a named-rank in them is counted as named-rank.
        Whilst a named-rank DESIGNATED team is counted as named-rank even without a named individual in it.

        So it probably comes down to whether a team is considered named-rank because of a single powerful individual in it, or because the team as a whole is powerful enough to qualify.

    • Left a possible typo as a comment below, but I’ll add it here:

      When Chandler is feeling the heat from trying to restore the frozen fox…
      “His forehead began to bead with sweat.”
      Do Liches sweat?

    • They really didn’t know what Antinium looked like and didn’t believe he could be anything but a horrific monster tearing apart everything in sight.

      he–>they
      horrific monster (double space)

    • Merely a [Mage] funded by her healing that->whom Magnolia Reinhart gave the spell to
      or
      Merely a [Mage] funded by her healing, a spell that Magnolia Reinhart gave to her.

    • I hardly ever comment despite all the feelings you let me experience with this unbelievably good story. But I need to say it: Please bring Erin back! Fast!
      Thank you!

  2. I always love the starts of these novels.

    They always seem to end in sadness, but every beginning has that little bit of uplift that reminds you that for all the ways the world seems terrible, things can get better, with time and effort.

    I think I needed this chapter after last year.

    I think we all might’ve needed it.

  3. I almost decided to stop reading for a bit. I might have if the chapter didn’t end with that flame of Hope burning. Thanks for the chapter. The King of Rhir is full of shit, and I imagine that he won’t get away with it.

  4. Ah. I was wondering why the quest Skill wasn’t being followed up on for so long. Now it makes so much more sense. As always, your timing is impeccable.

  5. Welcome back. I hope you had a restful break.

    I’m glad to see more about the Healer. I’ve been curious about that for a while.

    And we see more of the Horns! I look forward to their adventures.

    As satisfying as it is to read each chapter as they come out, I think this year I’m going to save up chapters in order to avoid cliffhangers. I’ll keep up my Pateron, though! You are an awesome writer, and I love this story. Thanks so much for sharing it!

  6. I wonder if we should expect a bunch of new earthers to show up across the world. And has anyone ever told the king of Rhir about how some of his ‘heroes’ might decide to spawn in the demon’s territory and work for them instead?

    • I have a feeling that if Earthers appear over in the demon’s territory, it would help the King sell his lie that the demons used the spell. Granted he would have trouble explaining why he also has Earthers from his side of the fence but who’s to say that he can’t spin a lie about demons having a spell that summons ‘villainous minions’ with an appropriately bad price (unborn children from across the world) in opposition to how he summoned ‘heroes’.

  7. The Free Queen said in 5.33 B, “I may update the Workers and Soldiers with the changes in muscle fiber. If I am able. There is much to do, Klbkch. Much, and the Hive still consumes my attention”. I hope she updates the current Antinium with her improvements later and the reason they haven’t yet is because she’s busy, needs more levels, or needs more expertise on updating existing bodies. The Izrilian Hives are much closer now so she could probably get more assistance from the other Queens like the Silent Queen for that.

  8. While she is not alive the world still moves on and slowly, but surely… Hope still burns as others try their own hand at reviving Erin.

    A [Princess] on a quest. A team of gold ranks on an adventure. A [Necromancer] who made a mistake.

    Maybe they won’t find their answer, but slowly, slowly they might be able to piece together a solution. Until then we just have to wait and hope.

  9. Horns need to take the Silver Swords along, I think they would be the perfect compliment for what they will be facing.

    • Armies have tried, but they need an Erinfriend army to succeed. I hope that every capable fighter will be there to tear that deadtown a new one. Silver will likely be very important. It’s not impossible that a necromancer, or worse, a VAMPIRE necromancer could be in the depths.

      • You can’t bring too many along since it would lead to a dispute over the helm. I think the Silver Swords would be the perfect complement in this engagement. Shouldn’t have to worry about traps and adding the Swords would give them a tank with taunt, a DPS warrior and a versatile mage to go along with the two specialist mages in the Horns.

        • They’ll probably need a lot more allies than just the Silver Swords. The Village of the Dead being from before the current Necromancer puts it over a century old. That means this site has remained uncleared despite multiple armies trying and its likely filled with a lot of strong undead made from the high leveled individuals that died trying to clear it. It also means that even the Necromancer either thought taking it over wasn’t worth it or he tried and failed.

          I agree that the Horns shouldn’t invite every single one of Erin’s friends but they really are going to need to form a coalition capable of taking on a Named-rank zone. Griffon Hunt will probably join and that Named adventurer that knew corn farmer Lupp might as well. At least the Halfseekers would join from Pallass and possibly Grimalkin for ‘research’ purposes. Ryoka might be able to convince Lord Tyrion for some help, even if she might be going off on a vault heist.

          • I understand what you are saying and I don’t disagree with your logic at all.

            But I don’t think it would make for compelling storytelling.

            The Horns didn’t get a chapter in Book 7 and I don’t think a huge force moving in would highlight the team. This is a chance for the Horns to really show what they are made of now that they reached Gold rank.

          • If you told all the teams she knows that it might bring Erin back, I don’t think anyone will dispute the helms ownership. If the went in planning equal shares of anything else found, EXCEPT that, to even just break even, a chance to bring Erin back and xp/leveling but in a large enough group to provide “some safety” ™…

      • Main difference between them and armies… armies were trying to eliminate the undead. They are trying to sneak in, loot, and sneak out.

        An allied Necromancer with some basic undead domination could help out since most ‘common undead’ are not that smart.

        The real trick is supplies, keeping stealth active, and avoiding the rare breeds of undead who are smart enough to figure out basic tactics and defense.

        In a way it is like the Licsor Dungeon. Small groups of adventures can slip in, get loot, and slip out. Large swarm of soldiers gets large swarm of dungeon defenders.

    • Would they ask the others to risk death?

      It is still open though and they might meet people on the way too.

      What I like about the whole situation is the potential to meet another Legendary being. Remember how Perril was focused on his creation and everything went on automatic when Ryoka visited. He was there yet still Not.
      Same case with the archmage of Izril, Ieka’s aunt!
      They were both stuck in place by their ambitions.
      Maybe someone else will get woken up this time.

      Chances are they will meet the same welcome both pf those expeditions got. Which also makes you wonder. Is that what happened to Selkyr and is he «stuck» in the upper floor of Wistram? And the consequences of that. Does Cognita know? Does it have any relation with why she’s «shackled»? And if Perril messes up with her Magic, liberating her, will it release something?

      • If he is stuck, could Teriarch wake him up, as he is on a boat as Great Mage Eldavin, and he might just go to Wistram out of curiosity, and end up waking Zelkyr

  10. Without Erin the Inn World saga is greatly diminished, the fun has gone out of it. How long can you keep this grief going? Even if she comes back, she can’t ever be the same after dying. Erin was the heart of this story, without her it hardly seems worth reading anymore. 🙁

    • I have a bit more hope than you, but only a bit. When Erin returns (I suppose that we’re at when now, not if) , any fun will be short-lived, bittersweet, and perhaps more bitter and desperate than sweet. But that was also true when the Horns and the other Silver-ranks died, and when Zel died, and when goblins died. And eventually the bitter ebbed to permit more sweet.

      At first, I feared that learning how many paid the price that scars Miss Pelessi — how many died to avenge her, how many mourn those who fell needlessly — would break Erin within days of her resurrection. But the chess club died to save her from Skinner. And countless goblins died when she asked them to save Liscor. And others died when she asked them to save Ryoka. She survived those burdens, if barely. How is it any worse to have strangers die to avenge you?

      Erin has learned, is learning, and will learn still, that life in Innworld sometimes demands blood and pain and death. Worse still, she now knows that she must sometimes ask others to bleed and suffer and die. Maybe, just maybe, the reason for the hurt and brutality and ugliness is to teach Erin that she must be great — truly great, world-changingly great — to make it all worthwhile, lest all the blood flow in vain.

      I still don’t think that this arc is worth it. I still believe that this plot is a frolic and detour, a season (like Buffy 6) that should be treated as a bad dream to be endured — until Erin’s return all Innworld’s tomorrows will creep by at a petty pace, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

      • Perhaps, though if the series has taught me anything about itself it’s that everything in it means something and I suspect Erin’s technical death and eventual resurrection means a lot as well, specifically this.

        It isn’t hard to figure out at this point that Erin is some kind of Messianic figure (even literally to the Antinium), the light around which all will rally in a time of great darkness, as has been stated by the Quarass and assigned to Erin by Maviola and Yvlon. Death and resurrection, done so not by a single almighty being like the ones that are always bailing out Ryoka. But by the collective effort all those who she has touched throughout the story, especially by one who would generally be overlooked in most novels.

        That’s what I find so fascinating about Erin and the story itself.

    • Agreed. I haven’t even read anything since her death – just the comments to see if she’s back. Will binge read the chapters in between if it happens. Otherwise I’m probably gone. I have nothing against the rest of the story, but it’s just not where I get my enjoyment.

  11. I wonder if Erin will have a class change. Half the world (and some outter planes) are moving on her behalf, and she’s in a state of twilight…. Her food, or the Inn’s were fed to fae/others, and her body was guarded by the souls if friends/goblins from an eldritch horror(?)/god(?). Such suspenseful level ups in her future.

    Thank you Pirateaba for the heartfelt stories!

  12. This was a great chapter!

    It was honestly fantastic to see how Silveran decided to help out Pelessi in his free time, with echoes of Erin lessons to help others.

    The new quest of the Horns to recover the Heartflame helm seems incredibly intriguing. For what better to melt Erin than *Heart*flame? Perhaps not just a single item, but the combination of the entire set. As the poems in golemhearts seemed to show, intention seems to matter when it comes to magic. The extra lore with the Putrid One is a big plus as well.

    I’m loving seeing everyone being more proactive with how they respond and attempt to help Erin. It was great to reflect on how Lyonette has developed, and is off to Ostelia.

    Thank you for this great opening!

  13. I was convinced that Silveran was going to unlock the Grocer class when he stumbled into a seemingly abandoned grocery store and started cleaning. It would have been a wonderful parallel to Erin becoming an innkeeper. Then we would have had another antinium shopkeeper in town. Might still happen though, if the lady adopts him as a surrogate son.

    • Aw, that’s actually a good idea in theory, but empty property where it is at a premium is not likely, or realistic. Partnering though, that could work.

  14. Oh, and lassica! I need to know what happened! We need a new Drake/gnoll hybrid in Palass! Where are the new humans, dropping from the sky! Will they have information from earth about the missing? By now it must be known as a world wide phenomenon, yes? Cameras had to have picked up more than a single group disappearing, and all of a certain age…

  15. The new more powerful summoning killed a bunch of summoners and 1 out of 50 unborn all over the world if the antinium hatchlings are a good indication.

    Hopefully Lasica’s kid made it.

    Drowning in soup, heh.

    And a new Horns adventure!

  16. This is a nice reintroduction to the story after 2 weeks. It is interesting to see how Erin makes her return. Still kind of miffed over the solstice chapters and Ryoka being some grand hero simply because she’s obstinate. She may have come far but Ryoka is just not a compelling character. Somehow she’s the hero despite the fact that all she does is run around, mope and have someone else solve all her problems for her whether that was Teriarch, Ivoelethe or Erin herself.

  17. Finaly the Horns are back on stage!

    Their’s and Trey’s are my favourite sub-plots.

    Ulvama is also looking suprisingly interesting, now that she’s out of Goblinlands. Is a Goblin what it takes to re-boot (or maybe just boot?) the inn-crowd?

    On a side-note, you completely got me with your timeskip joke, I was fretting about it for a good 5 minutes until reveal. I don’t mind, and it was funny in hindsight.

    Vol 8 Hype!

      • Things have their time and place but I believe it is still avaiable for a while.

        Pirate writes parts of the story live on twitch tv/pirateaba

        It is just a cursor and the creation and editing of the chapter text, no mic or anything, just the goods, bare and plain.

        However this start of 8.0 Pirate played a trick on the eager watchers.

        It won’t have the same impact for you since you read the chapter, but put yourself in the shoes of one who have not, and start the VoD for 8th of january.
        It is about 1h.55min in length, the relevant part is right from the start, and takes maybe 10 minutes to watch-read. (remember you can timeskip forward 10 secounds by pressing right arrow on your keyboard).

  18. I think you mean GRIME and punishment. Silveran believed in the justice system. He hung his head and walked into the shop
    It really should be Grime instead of crime.

  19. Hey Pirateba,
    I don’t write often.
    But I have to thank you for this chapter.
    Especially the parts with Silveran had my eyes watering…
    I lost my sister and my father last year and it were the little silent gestures, like Silverans, that really help.

    Thank you so much for your writing, you are great.

  20. I just remembered the “tour” guy decided he needed to bring Lyonette to Oteslia. I wonder where he is now. It would be just his luck for Lyonette to head out and leave him behind.

      • You’re right that it was Manus, but there was also a short scene many chapters after that point where he was comparing Erin’s craziness with how Lyonette seemed to be the one actually keeping everything running (and I think he realized she was a [Princess]), and decided that it would probably be better to bring Lyonette.

  21. Thank you for this chapter Pirateaba. It is a good gift for me after my first chemotherapy and immunotherapy session.

    Wish you good health. Take care of yourself and don’t get cancer.

  22. Holy fuck, read through the comments for the first time. What a strange sweet thread of sad solace and pedantic reviews.

    Typo?
    When Chandler is feeling the heat from trying to restore the frozen fox…
    “His forehead began to bead with sweat.”
    Do Liches sweat?*

    And since I didn’t see this mentioned above: the scene with the healer’s guards was a particularly nice response to the past week.

  23. No comments on Ulavama going from painted flesh-based goblin Politicker to reluctant minder and inspire of Goblins and not goblins alike. Reminds me of a grandma or matron, like who left this not goblin on the floor… Ugh well, she can’t just lay here, let me just put her to bed. Truth be told almost reminds me of my grandma or a black auntie.

  24. Now that she mentioned Calruz I am hoping they bring him to this adventure. A named rank threat seems like a great chance for him to finally die. Not like that wimpy creller swarm.

  25. why didnt the queens use the Rite of Anastases to bring back one of the shaper queens of old and put it in a workers body to instruct them how to not suck at being queens

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