8.03

Humans.

Why Humans? That was what they had said, at first. The group that knew the truth of worlds, or at least, part of it.

The Gnolls of Liscor, that was. Because they had known for a while. Not all of them, but the older ones. The ones who didn’t talk about the vast secret. At first it had not been so vast since it was one person. Now? It was growing.

But at first—they had said this. Why Humans? Why couldn’t there be a race of Gnolls who’d managed to create an advanced civilization in another world? Of course, Gnolls would do it differently. Probably…they’d invent better shampoos that didn’t smell so strongly.

Or something.

This was what Krshia wrote. In code.

 

Send one of the Humans. We have met another.

 

Another one. So, Elirr gathered some of the senior Gnolls remaining in the city. Grey-furred City Gnolls, not a tribe per se, but a community.

“This is getting too big, Elirr.”

A Gnoll petting a cat peered at him. [Senior Scribe] Hemera. Another Gnoll sleepily blinked.

“We have to do something. The Meeting of Tribes will produce a large result. Plains Gnolls, though…unpredictable. I’ve never been to the tribes, but they’re temperamental, aren’t they?”

That came from a City Gnoll for life, Permel. Also old—pushing seventy. Many of the most distinguished Gnolls had gone, but still—a [Master Potter] was something to admire. He made wonderful porcelain and had banned Elirr’s animals from his shop forever.

“The tribes are fickle. But it is Krshia who asks, not them. I trust her.”

“Ambitious, though. Young Gnolls—yes, she’s still young enough to be ambitious! Of course, we help, but I’d rather roll around in ink than put little Mrsha in danger. Doombringer. We called her that and we’re city-born. Imagine what they’ll do?”

Hemera put in. The others nodded.

“If only we could send a Gold-rank team. The Halfseekers?”

“Perhaps. They would not be cheap. But they love her too. As for a Human…well, they are older. Krshia is right in that one should go, especially if they have found another. Perhaps bring them back here?”

More nods as a cat teased the shy Wyvern, Jekle, who’d finally been left to wander the shop. The other two Gnolls eyed it, but Elirr could sense the young Wyvern’s emotions and the most the youngling felt was fear towards the evil cats.

Elirr pointed at the offending cat.

“Berry. Enough. Leave him alone. Scat.”

The cat gave Elirr a look. He turned and proceeded to try to—Elirr threw a crumpet at the animal and the cat grabbed it and fled.

“You’ve created monsters.”

Permel shook his head. The other Gnolls chuckled, and presently, the group of six nodded.

“A Human it is. One should go.”

“But which one?”

Ah, now. That was the question. The others looked at Elirr and his ears and tail drooped. He would have to visit. For a strange inversion had taken place.

Where once the inn had been the center of change, now the world was passing it by. And it sat in…stasis.

Waiting for the [Innkeeper] to wake up.

 

—-

 

The Wandering Inn held so few these days. And even if they slept there, many left as soon as they’d eaten, before they’d eaten. It was like an abandoned…inn…

Before a young woman had found it. A perfect circle—although this inn was not completely deserted. But even the Humans had drifted away.

Case in point. Kevin Hall woke up from the room in which he’d been sleeping at the urgent pounding on his door. He fell out of his chair, hit the ground, and heard the urgent voice.

“Mister Kevin? Mister Kevin—it’s a client!

“I’m just Kevin! Who—”

But Kevin already knew. The young man picked himself up; his chair was on the floor, and he rubbed at a bruise as he scrambled to his feet.

He had been sleeping in, well, the office. The small room, the building rented for the new job he was working at.

…In Esthelm. Selys had pushed for Liscor. Hedault wanted Invrisil.

Invrisil was expensive. Liscor had—had been The Wandering Inn and besides, the new quarter was unfinished and neither artisan worked there, only the money, Selys. So Kevin had chosen Esthelm. It was cheap and Hedault responded to [Messages].

Master Pelt did not. And yes, Kevin would have benefitted from the sleep Skills in The Wandering Inn. He had his own room—but he’d fallen asleep balanced on the chair in his office, half-leaned back.

It was an art form and Kevin must have managed at least a good six hours in that position before the knocking had awoken him. Also point in fact?

It’s three AM. Or thereabouts.

Kevin stumbled towards the door. And yet—someone had woken him. He recognized the worried Drake [Scribe] he’d hired as a general assistant to write down orders and so on.

“It’s just Kevin. Speaking stone?”

“It’s Client F.”

The Drake was very nervous. He handed Kevin the stone and the young man groggily raised it.

“This is Kevin of Solar Cycles, how can I help you today?”

He recognized the echoing voice and tone immediately.

“I am Fetohep of Khelt.”

Of course he was. Kevin’s skin chilled. He waved the Drake off; the Drake sleepily went back to taking [Messages] or waiting for calls from the people who insisted on it. They had to actually have a speaking lodestone enchanted and then send one to the shop. But some did.

And only one person would call at night. A universal night! Kevin felt he should really look into that at some point. He checked the crude clock he had set up by his desk.

…And recalled that sundials really needed daylight to work. And he wasn’t at the level where a mechanical clock was feasible.

More clear audio than a phone call—sundials. That was technology here for you. Kevin slowly relaxed into his chair.

“How can I help you today, your Majesty?”

Fetohep’s voice was calm. Precise—commanding.

“I have a copy of your latest catalogue, Kevin of Liscor.”

Kevin bit his tongue. Fetohep always said that after the first conversation, but the way he said it made them both know what he really meant.

“Er—yes, your Majesty?”

They’d put that out right before Kevin went to sleep! The Mage’s Guild got a copy, which they could print on demand for whomever wanted it. And the Runner’s Guild had been upset because they wanted to sell copies…

Fetohep had a lot of time on his hands. He kept doing this, sometimes at midnight, or other times of the day. He seemed sort of bored. Kevin fiddled with a gear lying on his desk as he listened. Pelt had been trying different teeth…

“I notice your latest catalogue lists a ‘four-wheeled carriage’ option to be assembled and tethered to a bicycle.”

Oh, the pull-along rickshaw Kevin had thought up. It was a simple idea. If Hedault could enchant a bicycle to be practically weightless, why not add pedal power to create an alternative to a horse-drawn carriage? Was it better? No. But it was fun, and both the [Enchanter] and the [Smith] had okayed a trial version. So had Selys; she’d green lighted it a minute into Kevin’s pitch.

After all, novelty sold. And while Solar Cycles had yet to make many actual sales…they were rolling in orders.

Fetohep of Khelt was not pleased, though. And it took Kevin a hot, sweating minute to understand why. Their first—most important (according to him), and undead client’s tone was irate as he spoke with icy reserve.

“This ‘Cycle Rickshaw’ option is clearly derivative as only the wheels and connective material will be provided. However, it is a new option produced by your store.”

“Yes, your Majesty. Only the parts to ah, modify any standing wagon or carriage will be sent. But it is a new concept! A do-it-yourself assembly; much faster to produce than the entire vehicle.”

“And you did not think to immediately inform me of this new addition to your lineup?”

Ah. Kevin exhaled, keeping his head pointed away from the speaking stone. He spoke quickly, sitting forwards urgently at his desk.

“I ah, did think you would be interested, Your Perpetual Majesty. Which is why we already added the item to your order, gratis. Free of charge, that is! That’s uh, standard policy for Khelt alone. Any new item we deem worthy of import is automatically added to your list of purchases. We will, of course, bill you for more costly additions, but your patronage more than pays for this small addition.”

Kevin waited for a response. He slowly, and covertly, wrote down a note on the wood itself with a quill and ink to do that. And waited on tenterhooks for the King of Khelt’s will.

It was like having a multi-million—a billionaire walk into your bicycle shop and demand quality service. Only—most billionaires even from Earth didn’t employ an army and have the resources to hire [Assassins] if offended.

…Or did they? Kevin was sweating as the silence lingered on the other end. He heard no breathing, no sounds of life. Which, of course, made the wait only more dreadful.

“Very wise of you, Kevin of Liscor. It seems I have underestimated the commonality of knowledge among some of this generation. Very well. And the arrival of my first object?”

“One week, your Majesty. Master Pelt has finished the newest bicycle to exacting performance as you know, and it is in the enchanting phase. I will add that the uh, gold plating did take time to work on, but it will be…”

Kevin consulted his notes and winced. A golden bicycle with superior enchanting and craftsmanship to even the one Ryoka had wrecked on her now-famous run.

“…one week until enchanting is finished, upon which time the Courier of your choosing shall escort it to Zeres.”

“I see. Very good. As to the nature of the request you made of me, Kevin of Liscor…”

The young man sat up. The voice continued as, suddenly, adrenaline ran through his veins.

“I have considered your plea at length. My answer is unchanged from the moment I gave it. An object of such worth is more costly than a hundred such vehicles your company could produce, as you know. If Master Pelt and Master Hedault…and you were to swear yourselves to Khelt’s service, I would consider the issue further. As that is not likely, I will consider the matter closed.”

“I…I see, your Majesty.”

Kevin hung his head. The voice was not unkind at the other end. But neither was it kind. It was, simply, impartial.

“My offer to those still living extends, Kevin of Liscor. Remember that.”

There was no click, but the subtle glow faded. Kevin sat there, exhaling.

It had never been likely. But he had hoped—yet, no. No grand artifact from Khelt. As the ruler of the nation of Chandrar had pointed out when Kevin had begged for it, hoping against hope—

What you ask for cannot be reproduced, and lingers only in the vaults of those who have saved it from times before I was born, Kevin of Earth. Should we relinquish such objects so lightly? Not even for my own people would I lightly open my vaults.

No Potion of Regeneration. No artifact of healing. Kevin knew it was fair. Fetohep, for all his horrible hours in calling, was polite and knew there were production delays. Kevin put his head down on the desk.

When he woke, he had ink on one cheek and a back-ache from sitting in the wrong spot. But he was back to work already. He wished for coffee and got tea. The Drake—Merckle—was replaced by a Human [Assistant] and maybe even [Mechanic] in training. A local Esthelm young woman who was taking orders.

“Pallass wants their cycle today, Mister Kevin.”

“They can wait. How many bicycles do we have?”

“Unenchanted or enchanted? Master Hedault—”

“—Works slow. I know. We should hire a cheaper, faster one.”

“He won’t like that.”

“Which is why I get to talk to him. How many unenchanted, then?”

“Um…um…three should be done.”

“I’ll go see.”

Kevin adjusted the clothing he’d worn for uh, two days straight. He sniffed himself a second, but he didn’t notice any odor. And where he was going, all you could smell was soot and metal.

“Phew. He stinks. Humans never bathe.”

“Imagine being in the tribes. We don’t bathe.”

“Do you just get used to the smell?”

“Well…we get used to the smell of sewers.”

“Hrr. Fair point.”

The small group of Gnolls watched as covertly as possible as Kevin left the headquarters of Solar Cycles. The small building was one of many in the rebuilding Esthelm. It hadn’t achieved Liscor’s rapid pace of immigration, but people were coming for work.

Not least because this city now had a calling card. Humans were casually glancing at the three Gnolls peeking around the corner, but they probably assumed the Gnolls were here for the same reason people were deciding to settle here, and trade and business was flowing in.

Master Pelt of Esthelm’s forge was already clanging with sound—but the [Silence] spells meant that it wasn’t that loud.

Until you passed the boundaries and heard the roar of the Dwarf’s voice, louder even than the forges and hammering of metal.

You! Out of my forge! Out!

Kevin, Elirr, Permel, and Hemera all watched as a young man fled the furious Dwarf in the early hours of morning, face white, as Pelt hurled something down.

It looked like…Kevin blinked. Dust?

It was a very fine, dark dust mixed with some red. And a few flecks of…well, Pelt was already roaring the answer.

I told you to watch the metal like your life depended on it! Half a dozen flaws from the very steel we’d make? Why don’t you stab the [Warrior] who tries to use a blade made with steel this shoddy? Out! Out! You won’t work in my forge again! Begone!”

He hurled more insults as the apprentice [Smith] ran for his life. Kevin stared blearily. It was probably like…six AM.

“Hi, Pelt. What did that poor guy do?”

The Dwarf was red with fury. But he was animated. And Kevin saw no less than nine apprentice-smiths—some actual [Smiths] who’d come to apprentice themselves once more—huddling over their work. Not all were banging metal. The Dwarf pointed with a shaking finger.

“Smelting steel. That’s all that fool had to do, but they cut corners. I told them to sieve the dust we use to smelt our crucibles. And look!”

He gestured at the raw iron dust and ore. Kevin bent and inspected the pot.

“…Not all of its iron?”

He saw tiny, tiny specks of what might have been other stone or just sand in the mix, although it was currently lying on the ground of Pelt’s forge. The Dwarf growled.

Contamination! I demand purity. Not as if we wouldn’t fold the metal and work it out. But look at it! As if you could just trust the smelting process to burn it away! What kind of half-rate—quarter-rate—[Blacksmith] would work like that?”

Possibly no other [Smith] in the world would be so demanding. The Humans, Drakes, even a Gnoll and pair of Dullahans, bent to their work, and those preparing the metal for smelting sweated harder.

It was not fun having Pelt as your teacher and master smith. He was not a nurturing presence and Kevin had seen dozens—literally dozens—of prospective apprentices kicked out. Not always by Pelt himself. His top apprentice, Emessa, was almost as exacting as he.

“Idiots who can’t even follow basic orders don’t deserve to be [Smiths]. What do you want? I’m busy managing these fools as much as—”

“Master! Your steel’s ready!”

A panting voice. The Drake, Emessa, was waving at Pelt. The [Smith] turned.

Ah. Wait here.”

He curtly told Kevin. The young man knew that even top-class [Merchants]—Esthelm’s ruling body—and anyone else would wait. Kevin was an actual exception. But even he waited as Pelt marched back to the anvil where the metal was hot and ready. The Dwarf picked up his hammer and tongs—

And the anvil sang. Everyone stopped—at least, if they weren’t at work themselves—to watch and listen. The metal moved when Pelt struck it, shaping itself faster than all but the best machines from Kevin’s world could match.

And machines did one thing. Pelt was infinitely adjustable, doing whatever needed to be done in a blur. He was shaping another gear, hand-hammering in the perfect symmetry of each groove and tooth.

Not even Emessa could match that. Although…Kevin saw replicas being made at other anvils.

Not half as good, for all the [Smiths] sweated on them for…it must be a factor of thirty times as long as Pelt took, even counting Emessa ‘prepping’ everything for him.

But that was how a master worked. It was as close to assembly-line as Kevin had seen, and the Dwarf had actually smiled when Kevin brought it up.

Pelt did not do much himself besides oversee. His apprentices forged iron, purified steel by folding it, cleaned, created usable billets—and only when the masterstroke was needed did Pelt step in.

Or when the material itself was magical. But that way, the [Smith] was only working when he was absolutely needed.

It was either efficient—or lazy—or both. Not everyone could handle it. Many people quit, but many stayed long enough to learn how the best [Smith] in the region—perhaps all of Izril—did it.

He was done and letting Emessa check the measurements, check the steel, and then finish it with quenching, filing, and so on after ten minutes. He strode back, briskly, barking orders, critiquing work—but alive with energy.

Master Pelt had returned in truth. So much so that the Dwarf in Pallass seemed like a cheap joke, a rip-off of the real thing. Pallass had had a master-class smith. But this was him working hard.

“Bicycles. That’s why you’re here.”

He grunted at Kevin. The young man nodded. The Gnoll’s ears perked up. More were done already? The Dwarf spat. And the first bit of reserve entered his voice.

“They’re not the best…”

“I know. But they are done?”

“Yes.”

The Dwarf stretched out the word reluctantly. Kevin shrugged.

“The customers know they’re not your work, Pelt. It even says so. They still run, don’t they?”

“Passably. I tested them out; everything spins. And the steel is good. I wouldn’t accept it for less, but—well, come and see.”

Kevin did. The three Gnolls edged out. Elirr adjusted the hat he was wearing. It didn’t really help since they were still Gnolls in a Human city, but Kevin hadn’t noticed and neither had Pelt.

The bad bicycles were lined up. Three, made of iron, steel, or wood in parts. Pelt looked ashamed of them as the [Smiths] responsible for making them looked up.

Kevin thought they were fine. Not as light as a modern bicycle made of aluminum—and Pelt could forge his bicycle parts out of Dwarfsteel or extremely thin steel for Hedault to enchant, but that was the point.

If he worked at it, Pelt could create a custom-built bike with gold plating that was a masterpiece. But it took him days upon days to do, and he’d happily trash a piece he worked on for two days plus if it didn’t fit his standards.

This? This was his apprentice’s work. Kevin had suggested it to reduce the huge bottleneck and Pelt had reluctantly agreed.

“It spins. But notice that gear? We had to file down the teeth because it was wrong. And it’s not the best of fits along the metal to wood frame…”

Pelt was groaning and hemming and hawing, but Kevin thought it was just Pelt’s standards. He commented mildly.

“The bike runs. That’s good enough. And it’s why we’re providing the option.”

Cheap, unenchanted bicycles. Three, as ordered. Pelt grumbled into his beard.

“I shouldn’t let you take them, really. They’re passable, but—”

“But I’ll say they’re not yours. See? We can even write, ‘not a work of Master Pelt’ on it. And it takes the load off. In fact, other smiths are already trying to make bicycles.”

Hah! Let them. Those damned gears really are a pain to make. If you have a mold you have a shot, but…”

Kevin smiled. That was his talent. People liked Kevin. And before you knew it, he was wheeling out the bicycles with an apprentice. Elirr and the other two Gnolls listened to everything, of course.

“This one goes straight to Pallass. This one? Liscor’s Runner’s Guild. Ask for Hawk. He knows where to take it. The last one I’ll take to Invrisil. Someone’s getting it. Um—where are my orders? Oh, and I should get a receipt signed…”

“It’s good work. A bicycle, hm? I wonder how much the cheap ones cost?”

“More than we can afford. Yet. He could be good. But he is clearly needed here. That grumpy [Smith]—few could work with him, yes? But he would be a good choice. I like Kevin.”

“He is likable.”

Elirr agreed, watching the young man. But Kevin had established himself here. He had created a job—an entire industry really—where none had existed. He would be a good choice for Krshia, though. Still…

It was Pelt that Elirr glanced at. The Dwarf was working. He was angry, focused, and grudgingly approving at times. He had regained his spark. And one person was to thank for that. It all went back to the inn.

Alas.

 

—-

 

The Wandering Inn was empty. No one came in.

Empty. No one came by, anymore. Who would come to drink and eat when Erin lay in the garden? People did come, but not to dine. Not for those fun gatherings.

The Players of Celum had left. The regulars didn’t show their faces except to ask to go into the garden. A few people did come day by day, like clockwork.

Ishkr, who swept up, served drinks and food, Selys, to check on people. And the inn had guests. Hexel the [Architect], who breakfasted in Liscor and only came back to sleep. His apprentices…a few others.

But all that remained were ghosts. If you walked about the inn, you might find them. A Hobgoblin, sitting in the Garden, usually, sword on his knees. A Worker with a bow, who no longer sang.

Humans, talking quietly. A Centaur, a Minotaur and Human [Mage]. And among them all, one constant.

A little white Gnoll who sat in the middle of the vast common room, like a large stuffed animal. Or a puppet with its strings cut. She didn’t move. Her fur was white, a rarity among Gnolls. Normally she was running about; in other times, better times, she would be playing amidst the chairs, sneaking food, or playing tag with her two friends.

Today, like yesterday and the day before, she sat, unmoving, except when her mother fed her or tried to get her to do anything. She sat there in the empty inn and knew it was all her fault.

For she was Mrsha.

And she was a Doombringer.

I am doom.

That was the one thing that she heard. It was her voice, in her head. Every moment. It was a certainty.

I am doom. Erin is dead, and I am doom. Mother left me. Two mothers, because I am doom.

This she knew was true. She had denied it. But the truth was clear. So the certainty repeated itself, again and again, second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour.

I am doom. I am doom. I am doom. I am doom. I am doom. I am doom. I am doom. I am doom. I am—

Ulvama kicked Mrsha across the inn. The little Gnoll went flying and landed on a table. The Hobgoblin decided that was worth two points.

The art of kicking children was a surprisingly complex mechanism to anyone who was unskilled at it. Ulvama was an expert.

You didn’t kick a Goblin child or Gnoll the same way you hit a soccer ball, for instance, although there were some parallels. As Joseph could have told you for the game of football, it wasn’t kicking with the impact so much as pushing the ball, launching it with momentum. An impact-kick could break your toes!

The trick was to insert the tip of your foot underneath the child—Mrsha in this case—and loft her into the air. Thereby achieving maximum flight and distance with the least amount of damage to your foot and said child. Gnoll punting. It could be a sport.

Mrsha landed on the table and slid slightly, but didn’t go off the edge. The [Shaman] rubbed her claws together. She waited—but the Gnoll just looked at her and then lay on the top of the table.

Ulvama scowled. Well, this was depressing. She wasn’t an expert on Gnoll children, having come from the Mountain City tribe, but she’d expected this one to be at least a bit like little Goblins. But the Mrsha-Gnoll was practically unresponsive.

“Mm.”

The [Shaman] wandered off. Mrsha lay on the table. That hadn’t actually hurt; it had just been surprising. She did not like the [Shaman]. But who cared?

For I am doom. This is what I deserve. Lyonette has left and that is good for she will die if she stays with me. She left because of what I am. Doom, doom—

“What’s this?”

The [Shaman] waved something at Mrsha. The Gnoll’s head moved slightly. She saw the Hobgoblin had found some of the face paint the Players of Celum had left behind in the stage-section of the [Grand Theatre]. The female Hob was sniffing at it.

Mrsha didn’t respond. She turned her head to the wall. She heard Ulvama unscrewing the jar, tasting it, spitting, and then muttering as she put some on her arm.

Shuffle, shuffle. Mrsha wished the Hobgoblin would go. She was the only moving thing in the inn.

Lyonette was gone. Selys came by.

The inn did get visitors. Lyonette had asked so many to take care of Mrsha. And they tried. Oh—they did try.

“I got her to eat a bite. Mrsha? Won’t you have another? Okay, I’ll be back. Ishkr, see if you can get her to take another…”

Selys came every day. She’d been coaxing Mrsha to eat, without knowing that the Gnoll usually spat out the food after a single begrudging bite.

The assigned people were Selys, Ishkr, Drassi to some extent, Rose, Kevin, and Pawn. But Pawn was absent, preparing Antinium for war. Selys came as often as she could and she and Ishkr did their best. So did Rose and Kevin, when they were here, Rose more often than Kevin since she wasn’t fully employed. They all watched out for Mrsha most of all.

But if they compared notes, they might realize that the food Mrsha was ‘eating’ was never eaten in front of them. They would get her to have a bite, put the plate down and have to do something.

Then it would be empty, the bowl cleaned. They would smile and be reassured. What they didn’t notice was in the five minute gap to go to the outhouse, or stretch their legs or talk to someone, Mrsha would throw it into the [Garden of Sanctuary] and the Fortress Beavers would eat.

Mrsha’s stomach growled. She ignored it. She closed her eyes. She didn’t need to eat. She didn’t deserve to eat. She was a bad Gnoll. A bad—

Crunch, crunch, crunch. Mrsha’s ears picked up the sound. She smelled—saw Ulvama walking out of the kitchen with a huge bowl of chips and dip. It was fresh; nothing went bad in the inn, even with Erin on ice.

More growling, but Mrsha had learned you stopped getting hungry if you were too hungry. She’d forgotten that. It was like when everyone had left the first time. But then Lyonette had…

She buried her face in her fur and tried to go back to the half-sleep trance. Covered her ears as the crunching grew louder and the Hobgoblin smacked her lips. She’d appeared at the end of the Summer Solstice, through the magic door. Mrsha didn’t like her.

No, that wasn’t right. She had thought nothing of Ulvama until today. The Hobgoblin had been sneaking around for days. But suddenly—she had decided to pick on Mrsha. First it was staring, then poking Mrsha and scuttling backwards. Then—she’d started kicking Mrsha and doing this!

Ulvama was a bad Goblin. Rude. She kicked Mrsha, poked her, when Mrsha just wanted to—

“Hm. Hmm.”

The Hobgoblin put the chip bowl on the table where Mrsha was lying and then put one of the dip-bowls on Mrsha’s head. She balanced it there as the Gnoll remained motionless.

Mrsha didn’t move. She refused to. She heard more crunching, and then the Hobgoblin began dipping chips in the salsa-bowl on Mrsha’s head.

At that point Mrsha rolled herself and the salsa over. It spilled onto the table and Ulvama made a sound of annoyance. Some got onto Mrsha’s fur. She stayed still. She waited—

Crunch. After a second, Ulvama adjusted her seat and began mopping up the spilled salsa with the chips. The tables were clean, after all. You could eat your dinner off them.

The crunching got to be too much after a while. So Mrsha got up, and padded away. She slunk downstairs, and hid behind a barrel. She was d—

Cold!

Ulvama shouted after a minute. Mrsha jumped. The Hobgoblin came down the stairs, wide-eyed, licking some ice cream.

“This sweet. This good!”

She pronounced, looking around for Mrsha. The Gnoll hid behind a barrel, wishing the Hobgoblin would explode. Ulvama looked around for Mrsha. Her eyes glowed in the darkness.

Ulvama was a Hobgoblin. Not like Numbtongue; in fact, different in every way as a Hobgoblin could be. It wasn’t body size so much as attitude.

She wasn’t a fat Hob like some were. But she wasn’t exactly a lithe Hobgoblin warrior who trained—or had trained—daily in rigorous workouts. She was well-fed. Also—a [Shaman].

Her body was adorned with more colorful, glowing paints than even a Redfang and she carried a staff. She also dressed in what Lyonette called ‘scandalous’ attire. Mrsha thought it was close to a Plain Gnoll’s outfit, minus the fur.

She was also rude, mean, and she didn’t leave Mrsha alone. Ulvama looked around the basement.

“Stupid white sad Gnoll? Where are you?”

Mrsha didn’t respond. Ulvama grunted. She adjusted the bowl, and then tapped her staff on the ground.

“[See Heat].”

Her eyes flashed crimson in the darkness. She turned—and spotted Mrsha at once.

“There. Stupid Gnoll. Stupid Gnoll—”

She poked Mrsha with the edge of her staff. Mrsha glared up at her. Ulvama pointed at the ice cream in the bowl.

“Where more this?”

Go away. Mrsha glared. Ulvama poked her again.

“This. More of this. Where?”

The Gnoll refused to respond. Sh—

Poke, poke. Ulvama, like annoying children or people everywhere, refused to give up. On the eighth poke, Mrsha grabbed the staff’s tip and snarled silently. Ulvama, undeterred, simply dragged Mrsha out of cover.

“Where more sweet stuff?”

Mrsha ran off. She raced up the stairs, into the common room, and then—up the stairs again. Into hers and Lyonette’s room. She pushed the latch on the door, hid under the bed.

Doom. After a few seconds, she heard someone come up the stairs. A mutter—then a knock.

“Stupid little Gnoll. Mrsha-child.”

Ulvama tried the door. It was locked. She called out again. Mrsha ignored her. Now she could—

Click.

The latch slid back and the door opened. Ulvama walked in.

“Little smelly Gnoll—”

This time Mrsha attacked. Furiously. How dare Ulvama come in here! She lunged out from under the bed and—

The Hobgoblin bonked Mrsha with the staff as the Gnoll ran into it, then put her foot on Mrsha’s back. She held down the outraged, squirming Gnoll, and looked around.

“Ooh. Stick here.”

Webs shot from her staff and immobilized Mrsha! The Gnoll struggled as she was covered by a spell. She saw Ulvama walk over to a dresser and immediately open it. She began rummaging through Lyonette’s clothing! Pulling out everything, discarding what she didn’t like—

Mrsha began snarling and tearing at the webbing, but it just stuck even more. Ulvama chortled for ten whole minutes until the spell began to dissipate. Then she shouted as Mrsha bit her leg.

Aaah! Stupid Gnoll girl!

She smacked Mrsha on the head. Mrsha let go; it wasn’t a heavy blow, and jumped back. She had blood in her mouth. She snarled as Ulvama raised her staff. The Hobgoblin chased after Mrsha—

And Mrsha ran into a wall. Into a place beyond. The Hobgoblin [Shaman] lunged and smashed into the invisible barrier. Mrsha stood in the Garden of Sanctuary and listened to the cursing and shout of pain with bitter satisfaction.

It did not last. Mrsha’s head turned. She looked towards the hill with the mists. And there, a guardian before that place…

The Hobgoblin with the sword. The crystal-metal blade gleamed. He was as empty as her.

But he had eaten. He ate mechanically, as if only to keep this strength for danger. He sat, empty.

Slowly, the little Gnoll crept up the hill. Numbtongue saw Mrsha come. She hesitated; but she was afraid to go beyond. It was too sad.

So Mrsha approached. Numbtongue watched her; then looked past. The Hobgoblin [Shaman] was banging on the door at the far end of the garden, far below. She hammered, shouted—then gave up and stormed off in a huff.

Mrsha approached. She looked at Numbtongue. Her big brother. He said nothing. Did nothing.

Slowly, almost shyly, afraid, she leaned against him. She wanted him to say something. Even if he was mad. She looked up—

His face was blank. He didn’t respond. Mrsha leaned against him for a while. That made her feel b—

Numbtongue moved and she fell over. He went to sit further up the hill. Mrsha looked at him. She had tried this very thing days ago. The same happened. He sat there, face half-grieving, half-frozen in a kind of bitter concentration.

Mrsha hung her head. She padded down the hill. Furry shapes went to cuddle her, but she pushed them away, like Numbtongue had done to her.

This place was too happy. She wanted a dark space to curl up. That evil [Shaman] was there, though. Mrsha left the hurt Fortress Beavers and changed the door’s position.

Her room and Lyonette’s. No—Erin’s. It smelled of Erin, there. Mrsha sniffed and listened. She didn’t hear the Hobgoblin. She must have left after finding the door impossible to breach. Mrsha padded through the door.

Aha! Got you, biting little Gnoll!

Two hands seized her the instant Mrsha was through. The camouflaged Goblin came off the wall—she’d been in Erin’s room, waiting for Mrsha! A trap!

Mrsha fought furiously. Her body was leaden and weak, but she had had enough! She twisted to bite—and Ulvama dropped her. Mrsha hit the floor and tried to scamper off, but she was so exhausted she was not her normal, quick self. She saw a shadow and moved—but too late.

Ulvama sat on Mrsha! Her big, huge, fat butt sat on the Gnoll—not with all her weight, but pinning Mrsha to the ground! She pinned Mrsha with her legs.

“Got you, sly little stupid Gnoll. Always sly. Always throwing good food. Eh, eh?”

Ulvama happily poked Mrsha in the side. The Gnoll snarled, twisted—then abruptly, gave up. She went limp, lifeless. Let Ulvama do what she willed. Mrsha didn’t care. She probably deserved it.

The [Shaman] eyed the limp Gnoll, pursing her lips. Well, the Gnoll was as tricky as some Goblin children or [Warriors]. But Ulvama had been [Shaman] to the greatest of Goblin tribes! Little children were no match for her intellect.

“Hm. Little Gnoll, you hungry? I have meat. See?”

She produced a sausage and warmed it with a spell. The meat smelled heavenly. Mrsha refused to move or even blink.

“Open mouth.”

Mrsha felt Ulvama poke her in the face. A finger tried to prize her jaw open; Ulvama had a slice of the meat ready to insert.

The Hobgoblin saw the mouth open and snap. But her fingers were already jerking back. She saw Mrsha bite—then go limp.

“Hm. Okay, not good idea. How this?”

The [Shaman] was actually enjoying herself as she spoke in a version of Goblin-cant. She thought, and then began to tickle Mrsha.

“Tickle, tickle. Open mouth.”

Mrsha tensed. She tried not to move as the Hobgoblin tickled her neck, her belly, and the pads of her paws. Then she wriggled, fighting to get free. She couldn’t—but she refused to open her mouth, even when tears started leaking from her eyes.

“Stubborn.”

Ulvama gave up in exasperation. Well, it was time for a trump card. She shrugged, adjusted her staff, and bonked Mrsha lightly on the head.

When cleverness wouldn’t work, use magic. That was a [Shaman] motto.

“[Gnawing Hunger].”

Mrsha’s eyes snapped open. She heard the first growl from her stomach so loudly that it seemed like a second animal inside her. Suddenly, her hunger pangs were back and three times as overwhelming. She began to drool as Ulvama cooled the meat in one palm, then put it in front of Mrsha.

“You eat, you go. Deal? I can sit all day. Little Gnoll good pillow.”

She grinned down at Mrsha. The Gnoll wanted to poke her in the stupid face! She was so hungry!

Who made spells that made you hungry!? Only Goblins. Mrsha hesitated. But she was so—and she couldn’t get free.

The stomach overwhelmed even the sad brain’s best efforts. Mrsha scarfed down the bit of sausage. Humming, Ulvama cut more with a knife and let Mrsha devour it piece by piece.

Mrsha hated that it tasted so good. She hated Ulvama—but she ate.

“Let’s see. Sausage for Gnoll stomach…not good to eat so much…if I think about the starvation of Hobgoblin [Warriors]—how much did I feed them during the siege? But that was vegetables, which fill you up…do Gnolls eat vegetables? Tricky, tricky…”

The little Gnoll frowned as Ulvama thought to herself. She sounded—smart there. As in, Numbtongue-smart, who could talk with big words. Was she pretending to sound like other Goblins?

She was curious—and then remembered she should be sad. Mrsha pushed at Ulvama’s legs. I ate! Let me go! She wanted to sign, but her arms were pinned.

“Not yet. Little Gnoll eat this, too.”

Ulvama put a cookie on the floor. Mrsha glowered. No! Ulvama flicked her forehead with a finger, ignoring Mrsha trying to snap and bite it.

“Good sweet thing makes Gnoll girl happy. Stop pretending not to eat. I see. I am not stupid. If little Gnolls dies, everyone is sad. Including not-dead Human, isn’t that so?”

She nodded to the open door. Mrsha…hesitated.

Erin would be sad if she died? A pang of guilt. She wasn’t doing it on purpose! She spat on Ulvama’s leg. The Hobgoblin narrowed her eyes. Deliberately, she wiped the spit off—then used Mrsha’s fur as a handkerchief! Mrsha wiggled in outrage.

“You spit on me, I wipe spit on you. Now, eat sweet thing. Wait—maybe little Gnolls are allergic? Are Gnolls allergic? Why would there be food that is bad for little Gnolls here? No, no. It’s fine. Eat.

Another tap on the forehead with the staff. Ulvama was smirking as Mrsha glared.

The only warning the smug [Shaman] got was seeing Mrsha’s face suddenly turn to one of…satisfaction. Ulvama looked up and heard the angry buzzing.

A bee the size of her face came buzzing down like the wrath of…bees. Ulvama shouted.

Aah! What that!?

She fled. Mrsha went scampering as Apista, who had likewise been in silent mourning, came to life. Ulvama ran about Erin’s room, shouting, then whirled.

“Die, bee!”

She raised her staff. Mrsha tackled her as Apista swerved out of the way.

No! Mrsha grabbed for the staff. Ulvama shouted.

“Stupid Gnoll! We both lose our eyes if I don’t kill—”

She stopped, seeing Mrsha’s desperately shaking head and frantic look. Ulvama lowered the staff, eyed Apista. The bee made her back up and it protectively hovered between her and Mrsha and then landed on the little Gnoll’s head. Protectively, Mrsha grabbed her and hugged her as she backed away from Ulvama.

They disappeared into the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Ulvama’s jaw closed after a second as the door slammed shut.

“…What?”

But at least the little Gnoll had eaten something. Ulvama sighed. Stupid door. If she could get through it, she could take care of both Mrsha-child and Numbtongue-idiot. It was getting in the way of her work!

Now, how to trap the Gnoll when she came back? If Ulvama smelled throw-up, she’d have to make sure the little Gnoll didn’t do it again. Not that she thought the Gnoll was that self-destructive. Good thing, too…the [Shaman] hurried off to lay traps.

 

—-

 

Humans and inn. It was true most did not stay at the inn. The Gnolls of Liscor were considering their options.

Kevin was your first pick, obviously. Because he was Kevin. But because he was Kevin, he was useful wherever. So was there a second-tier pick which was actually superior since they wouldn’t be as missed?

No one wanted to give Krshia a headache, though. But still…consider the options. Check the field.

And speaking of fields…as the sun rose, a young man jogged across the grass.

He had a headache. But he was moving quickly. Despair and activity alternated place with Joseph. He had a drinking problem. Yet what got him out of bed as soon as Kevin was responsibility.

Maybe it was a purpose. Maybe it was the conscience of knowing hopes and dreams rested on his shoulders.

Maybe it was because the team would drag him out of bed if he didn’t make it to practice.

It could be any number of things, really.

Football—real football—had a team of eleven players. But obviously, a team should be larger so they could be rotated in and out. And given how some people might have accidents, and those accidents could also be ‘monster attack’ in this world, thirty players were jogging after Joseph.

And that was only Liscor’s team. And only the adults! The little leaguers were trying to follow, but Joseph had had them stop after only one ‘lap’ of Liscor. They had heart, but it was hard to keep up with adults and their parents would be upset if they pushed too hard.

Besides, they had practice all day. Joseph thought that was insane, but for these players?

The game was all. Mind you, he’d be going to Invrisil to coach a second team after lunch. But he started them off with the run. He panted, and then shouted, half-exasperated.

“Pick up the pace! Don’t stop! This is the final lap!”

Four laps around the city, each day. He had to stop drinking; it was miserable with a hangover and before breakfast. To drown out the pain, Joseph shouted the chant they’d made up.

Which city wins at every game? Liscor!”

Liscor!

The Drakes, Gnolls, and Humans echoed him. Joseph winced. The new [Kickers] ran in a line; from the walls he heard a slight cheer before the Senior Guardsman admonished the [Guard].

It was like, well, home. And seeing a beloved team—undefeated!—practicing. There would be a game in a week’s time. No chance of Esthelm winning. Not yet. But soon there would be competition. Invrisil practically guaranteed it since Joseph was creating their team, and they had some strong players…

Say it louder!

Liscor! One, two, three, four! Liscor roars and always scores!”

Oh, the developing culture of the game. Both Drakes and Gnolls found reasons to like bot baseball with the Gnoll love of catching the ball and Drakes liked the idea of possession of the football. And vice versa.

Also—it was a bit easier for Drakes in Pallass to play soccer in a confined space than baseball.

Basketball now? Well, Joseph was no good at that. But somehow, here he was.

Joseph the Soccer Player. And damn Erin for…for…giving him that nickname and spreading the misinformation about the proper name around.

A celebrity, though. He had people coming up to him asking for an autograph. Sometimes very attractive people, of every species. Joseph concentrated on running, on teaching the players football. It beat thinking about anything else.

The Gnolls watched from the hilltop, lying flat to observe. Well—one of them was keeping an eye out for Shield Spiders or Rock Crabs, too.

“He could be good, yes? A celebrity.”

“Hrm. But he drinks. And he is not as discreet as Kevin, I think.”

“You think Kevin is discreet? Hah! You just like him because he reminds you of the grandson you do not have.”

“So what? Stop bothering me, Elirr. You have cute little Mrsha. Where is she, by the way?”

“…I have not checked. Ow!

“You are leaving that child alone when her mother is gone and that [Innkeeper] is dead? Shame on you! We’re visiting the inn after this. Anyways. Joseph is good, but he cannot go; there are too many people depending on him here. And we must win the next game.”

Elirr massaged his ear.

“True, true. Well, a shame. Let us—oh!”

The oh was because the spying Gnolls realized another group was conspicuously worming its way through the grass. The two Drakes stared at them. One coughed.

“Er—sorry. Are you here to check out Liscor’s team too?”

“No…we were just finished.”

The three Gnolls exchanged a look. The Pallassian Drakes nodded to each other.

“Well, we’ll just take this spot. Have they begun practice yet?”

Elirr stared over his shoulder as the two observers set up their own observation of the Liscorian team practice. He had a distinct desire to want to rat them out to Joseph or the City Watch.

“Spies. They are everywhere, yes? Not that copying our team will let them win! When’s the next game?”

He huffed with civic pride. The other two grinned at him. Hemera scratched at her chin.

“Speaking of spies…why don’t we check on someone before we visit the inn, yes? I hear Miss Imani is holding a…a…class? In the city.”

The other Gnolls raised their brows.

“A class?”

 

—-

 

“The first step is to cut the squash into roughly one inch cubes. We’re going to bake it, so let’s all do that.”

Imani grabbed the butternut squash, fresh from Oteslia, and began peeling the outer rind with well, a peeler. Shreds came off and the Gnolls and Drakes in her cooking tutorial class copied her.

Elirr and the other two Gnolls peeked in the windows—before someone coughed.

“You have to pay for instruction—wait, is that Elirr?”

Palt had caught the three Gnolls. The Centaur was smoking as per usual and the stern look he gave to the three peeking into the window of the large kitchen rented to Imani for the day turned to one of surprise.

“Er, hello Palt. We were only checking in on Imani.”

The [Illusionist] blinked at Elirr’s shamefaced look. Also—the hat and rather conspicuous long coats each Gnoll was wearing.

“I…see. Well, she’s teaching the [Cooks] and [Chefs].”

“Teaching?”

“Some of The Wandering Inn’s recipes. Cakes, cookies—anything they want. It beats people stealing her recipes every time she comes out with something. Not that…it’s a problem anymore.”

Because The Wandering Inn was closed. Elirr’s ears drooped.

“Is she working, then?”

“What? Oh, yes. At The Drunken Gnoll. The inn run by Timbor Parthian?”

“Ah, the new Human inn. That is good. That is…well, we just wanted to see how she was doing.”

The three Gnolls apologized. Palt hesitated then waved it off. He exhaled a ring of smoke from his cigar.

“…If it’s you, it’s probably fine. Come in. Just watch from afar.”

 

—-

 

Inside, Imani was teaching her first class of [Cooks] her recipes. She’d started with one of her breakfasts. Which included cubed, baked squash—until it was tender and firm, seasoned just right—that was just the side, obviously.

She had decided to offer it after one spy too many. Of course…much had changed since then, but Imani had decided to do it anyways. Just because she didn’t have to cook all the time at Timbor’s inn; he might not have Erin’s Skill, but he had invested in Runes of Preservation like any good [Innkeeper] so he had his own ‘stock’ of fresh foods.

Imani had run into a problem, though. Which was that the crowd of about thirty or so people taking her lesson weren’t all on the same page.

They were about six to a table, since it was a waste of food and time for each person to work on the dish. And it was hands—or paws—or claws-on work. But Imani saw one group of [Apprentice Cooks] struggling.

One group of impatient Drakes had already peeled their entire squash, sliced it open, removed the pulpy, seedy core, and begun cubing it. They were clearly the advanced crowd. As good as Lasica, well nearly…

Poor Lasica. Imani swallowed hard as she thought of that. She hadn’t seen either Lasica or Rufelt since…

Anyways. The apprentices were in trouble.

“Are you having a hard time with the peeler?”

They were only a quarter done. The Drake looked embarrassed as another apprentice clearly wanted to take it and do a good job.

“Sorry, Master Imani—I’m just having a tough time!”

He’d hit his hand twice. Imani stared at him.

The Drake was using the peeler—much like the ones from her world, a type of blade on a handle, to peel the hard rind of a squash off. Obviously it wasn’t the easiest thing because the squash was gourd-shaped. But still.

He was peeling towards himself as he held the squash sideways. Imani slowly took the squash and tilted it.

“…It might be your technique. Why don’t you peel down like so, and…?”

The Drake tried it. He gasped.

“That’s so easy!

Gravity and the cutting board meant he wasn’t in danger of hitting his scales every time he cut. The rind came away.

“Dead gods, what have I been doing with my life?”

The other apprentices groaned—but two looked like they shared the unlucky Drake’s opinion. Imani shook her head as she joined the other tables.

“Sorry for the delay.”

“Hah. We’re paying for lessons, not hand-holding.”

One of the [Chefs] groused. He’d created perfect cubes of squash. Imani half-agreed; she felt like it might be a waste of his time.

“I’m sorry, Chef…?”

“Remiss. I work at the Tailless Thief? I’m here to learn your secrets.”

The Drake nodded to Imani. He was stiff—a tad bit unfriendly, but perhaps it was warranted. The other [Cooks] and [Chefs] murmured.

There was a pecking order among the culinary elite. Imani had never been in that world before coming here; she was an amateur cook!

Now, a dedicated one, perhaps soon to be [Chef] herself. She nodded to Remiss politely.

“Thank you for coming, Chef Remiss. I hope not to waste your time. This is my first cooking class…”

“…And we were not expecting one of Liscor’s finest [Chefs] about. Chef Remiss, amazing knife work. I’m a fan of the art of cooking myself. Can I offer you something to smoke? Chew?”

A voice. Imani brightened as Palt clip-clopped over. He offered around cigars, spliffs—the Drakes and Gnolls brightened.

“Never in the kitchen when cooking!”

Remiss glowered, but relented as he saw the smoke from Palt’s cigar being trapped in a ‘safety bubble’. He took the cigar, though, sniffed it, and tucked it away.

“I’ll have one later. You must be that Centaur.”

“Palt, [Illusionist] of Wistram at your service.”

The Centaur bowed from the torso. The others introduced themselves as the apprentices got their squashes ready.

“[Line Cook], Errez—I’m doing work at a number of restaurants…”

“I’ve seen you about. I’m a [Soup Chef]. Veriny. You can find me at the Crab Bowl—we’re not as fancy, but I had to learn how to make a ‘cookie’…”

“Surely, you mean sous-chef?

“No, I know what I meant.”

There were a number of high-level cooks in the audience! Imani gulped, but Palt gave her an encouraging wink. She hurried over to her demonstration table in the center of the room.

“Is everyone done? Well then, I like to apply the following. Some olive oil, a bit of pepper, s—”

One of the apprentices upended the pepper all over their bowl. Imani heard a cry of dismay, and coughed as a stinging cloud hit her nostrils. Palt waved his finger urgently and the pepper cloud whirled back to the bowl.

The other [Chefs] and [Cooks] stared at the same Drake with the peeling problem. He hung his head. Imani hesitated.

“…We can wash the squash. As I was saying?”

 

—-

 

They were done with the squash when Imani realized there were multiple levels of her class, as if that hadn’t been obvious. She turned to Palt.

“Can you…demonstrate the rest of the breakfast dish?”

“It’s just the hamburger on rice, right? And I know a few more. I can take over.”

Thank you. I’m just going to get the recipes.”

The Centaur clip-clopped over to the demonstration table and smiled.

“Cook Imani is just going to get some reference materials. If you’re with me—let’s go over making the ground beef into patties. Have you all washed your hands?”

Some of the class were watching intently. But about…twelve of the thirty were looking impatient. Like Remiss. Imani hurried over and beckoned them.

“Excuse me? I have the recipes of what we’re going to make today. If you’d like, I can run through them with you while Palt goes step-by-step.”

She presented them with a small sheaf of neatly-copied recipes and instructions, with ingredients, measurements—all done by a [Scribe], very cheap.

Remiss, who had been folding his claws and glowering, blinked.

“You have the recipe books? And you’re just…giving them away?”

“Yes. I was going to hand them out after the class, but I didn’t realize you knew all the techniques. I would not want to waste your time…here.”

She handed them out to the higher-level [Chefs] and [Cooks] she’d noticed. The Drakes, Gnolls, and one Human looked at each other as they paged through.

“Mm. This is easy to understand! Not like some home-recipes I’ve had to copy. Thank you! I don’t think there’s much—certainly not the breakfasts. Good cooking! Thank you for the recipe, but I don’t need to know how to make a hamburger. Figured it out after four tries myself. Only trick was cooking it just right.”

One of the Gnolls commented. The others nodded. One frowned and raised a hand.

“Ah—I’d like to see the ice cream process, actually. And your technique making…what is this? A croissant? Intriguing.”

Imani was only too happy to show them. She waved at Palt, then took over the advanced class for a run through of what she’d go through with the others later.

It was refreshing to be around, well, experts who enjoyed something as much as you did. That was why Imani and Palt had somehow met. The Centaur had kept wandering in to ask how she’d prepared a dish and they got to talking about recipes, techniques…

And cooking was fun. Something Erin never really understood. She enjoyed serving food, but—Imani pushed the thoughts out of the way as she talked animatedly.

“So this technique is actually hard to do in a place with a [Preservation] spell. I actually had to ask…had to ask for a space without the effect to let the aging process take place for about four days. In a refrigerated place, though! So our patty is actually going to be poached in said butter as it melts…”

“This is decadent.”

“Heinous. I can’t wait to make some of these.”

Some of the Drakes and Gnolls were discussing the technique—one among many. They had varying fields of knowledge; the [Soup Chef] could have taught everyone about soups, for instance, but Imani was explaining some of the more esoteric ideas to them. They watched as Imani began to poach said hamburger in the butter wrap…

“I’d never have the time to personally prepare some of the meals with how much food I have to serve during the busy hours. Well, that’s what an apprentice is for.”

Remiss commented to another [Cook] and the man nodded. Everyone winced as someone dropped a bowl from the junior-instructional area. Imani didn’t even have to look to guess who it was, from the apologizing voice.

“Who is that klutz?”

Remiss was outraged. A Gnoll—Errez—murmured.

“That must be Cepil. Young lad—recently apprenticed. You’d never guess it, but amazingly precise at telling when something’s perfectly done. Give him a steak and he’ll make it medium-rare even if the heat’s twice as hot as it should be. Not even a Skill, just good temperature-sense.”

“Well, he’s not ready to learn any of this. Why did his master pay to let him…?”

“Ah. Remiss? His master—Yen? She’s dead. Army versus Hectval.”

Imani’s fingers slipped as she was cutting up some nuts. A hand darted out—Remiss caught the knife a second before it could slash her. Shaken, she stopped.

“I’m sorry. Thank you—”

“Think nothing of it. I see. And no one’s taken him in?”

“Not a one. Not that Yen was ever good at teaching the basics. Did you see the way she cut up…?”

The [Cooks] and [Chefs] were laughing, talking, but sadly. Even here, the aftereffects were present. Imani turned to look at the Drake apprentice in a new light.

So did Remiss.

“Well, someone should take him under their wing. I’ll put up with him in my kitchens, at least until he stops dropping everything in sight.”

“Excuse me—we’re just doing frosting now. Decorations for the cake you wanted?”

Imani adjusted the cooking hamburger example. The others jumped.

“Terribly sorry, Cook Imani.”

Some of them ducked their heads. Imani shook hers.

“No—it’s fine. I was just wondering, is that how it works? You apprentice to a master? Can’t he learn any other way?”

One of the Gnolls scratched his ear. He was very careful about getting hair in his food, Imani noticed, and stood well back from her work space.

“If he has the talent and drive? He’s fine to. But otherwise he should get a good master. Mind you—not all can teach properly. My master never taught me how to properly debone a fish. Never learned; his one weakness each spring. That was how he died.”

“He choked to death on a fish bone in his dish? That’s awful.

A female Drake commented. The Gnoll gave her a crooked smile.

“No. Someone else nearly did and they stabbed him.”

Imani shivered. The others shook their heads.

“Different standards of teaching. You can see it—see that Drake over there? The girl so artfully doing everything? Her master is Tell Rissiel. I’m sure she’ll be an amazing [Chef].”

Imani listened as she mixed up some frosting and coated a demo-cake. Then served everyone a slice. They nodded appreciatively, asking her about toppings. Had she ever tried meats? Imani suspected there might be some weird cakes coming out of Liscor soon.

“So there’s no school for new cooks?”

“School? Like some…some…well, no!”

One of the Drakes snorted as he took a bite of his cake. He shook his head, chewing.

“Good cake. No, we were all surprised you even were holding this class. Normally we fight tooth-and-claw over recipes.”

“Well, I’m happy to share these ones if you all stop stealing my techniques! Anyways, I have more. These are just the basic ones.”

They all laughed at the first part, and then narrowed their eyes at the second. Imani sighed. Cooking was cutthroat in a world where a new recipe or a sudden rush of customers could mean a new level and thus Skill.

“But how long do apprentices take? Can’t they all take a…a class like this and learn how to do everything for a year or a few months?”

“That sounds like an apprenticeship but with more steps, Cook Imani. We’d still need to teach them more.”

“Yes, but it would stop…that.”

Palt had to halt the lesson again as he stopped the luckless Drake from using a chopping technique that was going to lose him a claw sooner or later. The other [Chefs] and [Cooks] looked at each other.

“I wouldn’t say ‘no’ if there was one. But who would want to teach all day? For that matter—we’re [Cooks]. We don’t enjoy training up good apprentices. I know I curse each time a senior one decides to leave. I’d pay proper [Cooks] as assistants if it wasn’t so expensive.”

A Gnoll sighed. Imani half-shook her head at the way they thought. The idea of institutionalized schooling, a system for it? It made so much sense to her—

But she saw how it was hard to occur naturally. Someone had to plan it out. Teaching was a skill, an actual skill, not Skill, and you had to find someone willing to teach it all.

“Well, I can at least teach your apprentices how to cut properly. It takes just an hour of time. If you want—you can send them to me and Palt. Peeling, chopping, maybe I should open it for everyone. Everyone should know how to cube a squash without losing a finger, shouldn’t they?”

All the cooks smiled at that. There was a sentiment they could get behind. They thanked Imani and left; two stayed to watch and talk as Imani went to help Palt with the class. After thirty minutes, one came over to ask if she was serious about teaching the apprentices. Imani looked at the luckless Drake, and then at Palt. She decided it was worth a shot.

Cutting, peeling, and…baking bread? She could always give the bread and output to Timbor to sell cheaply as snacks and appetizers.

 

—-

 

“Look at that.”

Elirr murmured. Permel glanced up; he was jotting notes down himself from the class they’d watched.

“What was that, Elirr?”

“A teacher or instructor of some sort…”

Elirr remembered a silly request. His eyes stung and he looked away. Permel didn’t understand the context and gave him a blank look.

“Miss Imani could be another good one to send. She cooks—she is polite—”

“She was attacked by Crelers. She is fine now, yes, but I would not want to make her travel.”

“Hrr. No. And the Centaur would want to come too. And he is Wistram—

And the tribes hated Wistram. Elirr snapped his fingers together. Three down! Drat. Four to go.

“Well, maybe—who is left? Rose, Galina, Leon, Troy…hrm. I do not know about Leon and Troy—I heard there was trouble from Erin when I visited.”

The Gnoll [Scribe] nodded.

“Perhaps not them. But Rose or Galina? Where are they? I have seen Miss Rose about now and then, especially helping Joseph or Kevin. But not Galina.”

That was a good question. The Gnolls looked at each other. And they realized no one had seen Galina for…

 

—-

 

Galina was gone. It was a slow realization for Ishkr. Selys noticed when she came back to check on Mrsha just around lunch.

“You haven’t seen Galina?”

“No…but the guests feed themselves. But now that you say it, Selys, I have not seen Miss Galina in…er…”

The Gnoll hurried to Galina’s room. He knocked—then tentatively tried the handle. When they opened the door?

Her room was empty. The two looked at each other.

“Are you looking for Galina?”

Rose had been neighbors to the young woman. She poked her head out the door; Ishkr and Selys saw she was red-eyed. Also, holding a book.

Rose had been reading books when not helping some of the others. Just…reading. Holed up in her room, processing grief differently. She shook her head.

“She’s in Invrisil. Didn’t she tell you?”

“No! What is she doing there, Rose?”

Selys was aghast. Rose just shook her head.

“She’s joining the Players of Celum. For real. She’s going with Wesle, Jasi—Emme offered her the spot and Temile will keep her if not. They were fighting over it.”

“She never told me!”

“Maybe she told Lyonette. I don’t think we were really talking about it. She just said—she said she couldn’t stay. I know how she feels.”

Rose sniffed. Selys exchanged a glance with Ishkr.

They were moving out. Moving away. So fast, without someone to tether them. It was strange, for the Humans who had stuck so closely together at Magnolia’s mansion. But then again…Selys recalled that Galina had always been watching the Players and hanging out with the [Actors], even going on stage.

Theatre had stolen another one. Selys shook her head.

“I—I’ll tell Lyonette. She should be at Oteslia soon. I don’t know what else to do…”

There was no one else to tell. Ryoka? Selys looked around.

“You haven’t seen Mrsha, have you, Rose? She needs to eat lunch.”

“I think I heard her run upstairs. And that female Hobgoblin was about.”

Rose sniffed again. She closed the door as Selys looked around. She opened the door to Lyonette and Mrsha’s room. If only Mrsha would let Selys take her to Selys’ apartment! But like last time, Mrsha refused to leave. It was so heartbreaking. Selys called out.

“Mrsha? It’s time to eat. Come on, Mr—”

Zap. Ishkr had been looking around Galina’s room to see how much cleaning it needed. He heard the peculiar sound, stepped out—

And saw Selys, stiff as a board, neck spines standing straight up. She was vibrating slightly, her foot on a glowing rune—

Aha! Got you, stupid little—

A [Shaman] came racing up the stairs. Ulvama lowered her staff as she saw Selys recoil from the trap rune. The Drake shuddered. She and Ishkr turned…

Ulvama looked at them. She backed up.

“Wrong person.”

She fled down the stairs again. Selys touched her chest.

“I felt all staticy for a second there! Like my entire body went to sleep! What was—is she safe?

She turned to Ishkr. The Gnoll blinked.

“I have never seen her do anything like that before. I…don’t know.”

He felt a bit uneasy. She was a Goblin. But Ishkr knew that Goblin…didn’t mean all Goblins. He had seen both the kindly ones and remembered the unkindly ones. He wished—

Well, everyone knew what he wished. Selys was shaken. She caught her breath, and heard a flat voice.

“She looks around. She feeds Mrsha. She does not seem dangerous. If she is, I will kill her.”

Selys and Ishkr turned once more as another door opened down the hallway. They saw a mandible and eye stare at them from a slightly-open door. The nameplate was shiny brass, but they didn’t need to read it.

“Bird?”

It was the first time anyone had seen Bird since…Selys hurried over. Bird didn’t open the door.

“Bird! I haven’t seen you in ages! Are you okay? Have you eaten?”

“No. And no. I am Bird, Selys.”

It was the same way of talking. The same Antinium—but a different Bird. The Drake [Heiress] hesitated at the door. Ishkr walked over.

“Would you like food, Bird? I can bring you something…”

“No, Ishkr. I will find food if I need it.”

“Bird? Is everything…what are you doing in there?”

Selys had caught a peek of something from inside the room. Something odd. Bundles of…Bird didn’t reply.

“Bird?”

The female Drake slowly pushed open the door. And she recoiled.

Bird? What is this?”

Ishkr walked over. Rose poked her head out of her room again. And what they saw was Bird’s room.

Bird’s…room. Always so decorated. Bird had always had, well, things pertaining to birds in here.

His feather collection. His Fortress of Fluff instead of a bed. A children’s book on birds. His arrows, tools for maintaining his bows, dead bird snacks—sometimes with wiggling worm ‘extras’.

That was what Ishkr was used to; he never cleaned the room, but sometimes he and Erin would go in and fumigate the place.

—That was not what the Gnoll saw now. Selys stopped. She stared about.

Bird’s Fortress of Fluff was gone. His collection of feathers? Gone. Everything was just bundles of…she stared.

“Sticks?”

No. She knew what they were. Some were wooden. Others tipped with steel, or iron, or bone. Some were hand-made. Others produced by experts.

They were arrows. Hundreds of arrows. Thousands of arrows. Ishkr was surprised the room hadn’t caved in from the weight.

Bird sat in the center of it, making…arrows. His bow was leaned up against one of the stacks of neatly-piled arrow shafts, tied together. Selys looked around, shocked.

“What is this, Bird?”

“My room. Which you are standing in. Hello. Goodbye.”

He did not look up from his task, carefully attaching an arrowhead to a shaft. The smell of glue was strong in the air. He was fletching with a bird’s feather.

A familiar feather. Only—it had been cut up to make the arrow’s fletching. Selys stared.

“Is that…Bevussa’s feather, Bird?”

“Yes.”

The Worker carefully attached a piece of it to the arrow. Selys stared. This was wrong. That was Bird’s favorite—

“Bird. What happened to your blankets? Your pillows? Your feather collection? Your Fortress of Fluff?”

“I sold it all. For more arrows. It is cheaper to make them.”

Bird did not look up. Ishkr looked around.

“So many.”

“I shot birds. I shot deer. I sell them and buy more arrows. It is efficient. I can buy more arrows for each one I shoot if I do not miss. Even more if the arrow does not break.”

Rose was gaping. Selys backed up.

“Bird? Why do you need all these arrows?”

Slowly, the [Bird Hunter] looked up.

“Including the arrows in my bag of holding, I have twelve thousand, eight hundred and fifteen arrows. When I have enough, or the room is full, I will go to Hectval. Then, I will shoot them.”

The three stared at Bird. Selys blinked. It was such a ludicrous statement.

“What? That’s crazy, Bird.”

“I know. I do not have enough arrows. Yet. I must have more. One for every person in Hectval. Two, perhaps. In case the first one misses.”

The Worker calmly replied. Selys looked at Ishkr. She wanted to laugh—because if she did—that meant Bird was not serious.

But he was. He carefully cut another piece off Bevussa’s feather.

“Bird. Stop. This isn’t what Erin would want.”

Rose burst out. She was nearly in tears with horror again. Bird froze at the name. Slowly, the Worker looked up.

“How do you know what Erin would want, Miss Rose? She is dead.”

“She’s not dead, Bird. She can come back.”

Selys breathed. Bird tilted his head.

“When? And if she does—will Hectval not come back and try to kill her again? If she comes back, I will come back. But before she does, I will go to Hectval. My room is nearly full. I think more arrows will collapse the floor. So I will go and then come back. It is less efficient than having all the arrows at once. But that is fine.”

He put down the arrow to dry and reached for another. A piece of Bevussa’s feather.

His fingers were trembling slightly as he cut another piece off. Selys reached out to stop him.

“Bird. Enough. You can’t do this.”

“Yes I can. I should have. I should not have stopped. Miss Lyonette was wrong.”

“Erin would not want this.”

Erin is dead.

The Drake recoiled. Rose backed up, behind Ishkr. All his fur was standing on edge. There was sound in Bird’s voice that he had never heard before. The Worker looked at them.

“I am going to go to Hectval. They killed Erin. So. I will kill them.”

He gestured to the bundles of arrows.

“I will kill their army. I will kill their Council. I will kill their Scalespeaker. Then, I will kill all of them. Until there is nothing left in Hectval. That is what I will do. Please do not interfere. I have work to do.”

From anyone else it sounded like hyperbole. And that would have been bad enough. But Ishkr knew Bird. He meant every word.

“Even the children, Bird?”

“That is what all of them means, Selys.”

“That’s murder.”

Rose whispered. Bird looked up.

“Yes.”

The three stood there. Looking at each other in the sudden silence. In the sudden…Ishkr looked around. He had been here day after day and not known what Bird was conceiving.

Madness. Selys shuddered.

“You can’t do this, Bird. Erin wouldn’t allow it. I won’t. I—I haven’t forgiven Hectval. But this is insane. You’ll die.”

“No, I will not. And why is it not allowed, Selys?”

“It’s wrong.”

“We are at war with Hectval. They are the enemy. I am not wrong. If you would like me to join the army, I will do so. Maybe they will give me arrows.”

“No. Bird—you can’t kill them all. That’s not right. That’s—an eye for an eye. It’s not right.”

Rose struggled, trying to put it into words. Bird just looked at her until she flinched and stared at the ground.

“Then have you forgiven Hectval, Rose? Miss Selys? Ishkr?”

“No, but—”

“They have done a terrible thing.”

The Antinium whispered.

“So I shall do a terrible thing to them. Until they are gone.”

“It won’t bring Erin back, Bird. Ishkr, say something. Ishkr—it won’t make you feel better, Bird.”

Rose turned to Ishkr. But the Gnoll was silent. Bird looked at Rose.

“Feel better. Bring Erin back. These are strange things you say, Rose. I did not plan this to have any of this happen. I chose to do this because I want them dead. Not to feel better. Not to bring Miss Erin back. Your logic is faulty. Mine is simple. Hectval exists. I wish it to be gone. I will never forgive them.”

He put down another arrow. Then looked at his bow.

“Please tell Erin I will be back if she does return. I will be leaving tonight, Ishkr.”

The Gnoll hesitated. Selys looked at him—then shook her head.

“No, Bird. This isn’t right. I have to tell…”

Who? Lyonette? Zevara? The person who should know, who could stop Bird was…

Pawn? Maybe one of them. Selys turned. Bird slowly drew an arrow.

“No, Miss Selys. You will not.”

She heard a terrible concentration in his voice. Selys’ [Dangersense] began to ring. She turned. She should—

An arrow thunked into the wood right past her face. She recoiled with a small scream.

Bird!

Ishkr and Rose ducked. Bird had another arrow on the string. Two more in his other hands.

“I see. You are going to tell someone and stop me.”

“No, I—”

“That is what you said. I am not deaf, Selys. If you run I will shoot you. In the feet. I do not miss.”

Selys froze. Bird tilted his head at her.

“Yes. This is a problem. I must leave sooner, then.”

“B-Bird. Don’t do this…”

He aimed the arrow at Selys’ feet. She hesitated. She had a wand, protective rings. But nothing immediate that could deflect…

What had he once said? Who needs a ring that can deflect a single arrow? Damn Pisces.

“You will stay there. Ishkr, Miss Rose, you two as well. I know what must be done.”

Bird’s hand moved and they flinched. But he was just tugging at an arrow bundle. Arrows cascaded onto the floor as he removed the rope.

“Tie up Miss Selys, Ishkr. Then Rose will do the same to you.”

“Bird! This is crazy!”

The Worker looked at her, completely calm.

“No, it is not. Give me your bag of holding, Miss Selys. Yours is superior to mine. I will leave. By the time you are free, I will be gone. Goodbye.”

He made them tie each other up—then checked the knots. Then he gagged them—and rolled them into Rose’s room. All three wiggled and protested, but Bird knew how to tie knots. The ropes cut into Ishkr’s wrists as he saw the Worker close the door. He tried to burst free—but he couldn’t. And Bird was moving about, putting arrows into the bag of holding.

“Many trips. I must buy a wagon. I have time until they get free if I check on them…”

He walked out of the inn. Ishkr saw Selys and Rose’s pale faces. He struggled, tried to bump the floor or kick a wall. But no one was listening.

 

—-

 

“Hello. Do you know where I can buy a wagon and horses?”

Ulvama was setting a trap with her staff under one of the tables. Both Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings were watching her out of the corner of their eye as they ate silently.

Crimshaw glanced up. He blinked at Bird.

“In the city?”

“Where in the city? What kind of shop?”

“A…stables? I’m sure they provide one with the horses.”

“I see.”

The Worker walked past them. He ignored Ulvama—she warily eyed him. Bird stopped at the door.

“Thank you.”

The Brothers looked at each other, but then they silently touched their hats. They did not ask questions. Sometimes a man needed a wagon.

Mrsha the Sad watched Ulvama from the basement’s steps. Eyes narrowed. Apista buzzed quietly on her head.

Someone was bumping on the ceiling. The two Brothers were talking about ‘relief shifts’ coming in. Ulvama was chuckling to herself and Bird was counting coins he’d taken from the purse and talking about paying Selys back afterwards.

Mrsha paid attention to none of it. Someone was probably having sex upstairs. And her focus and ire was directed at her.

Ulvama. The [Shaman] had been laying traps! Mrsha had heard Selys get got. But she was clever. Now she’d eaten, she had used her brain.

She could see magic. She was a [Druid]. Ulvama thought she was stupid, but Mrsha was smart. She could see the runes if she squinted. The [Shaman] was hiding them, but Mrsha knew better. And Mrsha was going to…to…

Trip Ulvama? Lure her into a trap? Hit her with a rock? Put poo in her hair?

These were all options. But Mrsha did not feel any particular one was sound. Because she was conflicted.

She was angry at Ulvama. She had been furious when Apista had rescued her. But then…as she plotted making Ulvama fall into her trap and beating her, Mrsha had thought again.

Ulvama was mean. But she hadn’t been…cruel. She’d kicked and poked Mrsha, but she’d also made Mrsha…eat food?

And the things she had said. Mrsha frowned and lurked. She listened.

“Stupid hungry Gnolls. Stupid hungry broken Goblin. Need good food. Why all food in here all weird?”

Ulvama had found pizza, popcorn, hamburgers, even ice cream and cookies, all of which puzzled the Hobgoblin who had never seen any of it before. She turned and watched as the two Brothers finished their lunch and stood.

“Change of shifts. Be out of your way, Miss.”

One of them tipped their hat to her. The Hobgoblin nodded at them, clearly taken aback as two more replaced them, walking into the killing-corridor without a word. Mrsha stared as Ulvama edged back—then looked around.

“Food. Feed them…? Weird foods. Hm.”

Feed them. She was trying to do all this to feed Mrsha? Almost like she cared. Mrsha’s eyes narrowed. She didn’t believe it.

Maybe…maybe the bothering her was to get her to eat. Maybe. But that was maybe. Mrsha crept after the Hobgoblin. Stealth Mrsha, activated. Apista got left behind because she was not Stealth Apista yet.

The Gnoll had Skills. [Natural Concealment] wasn’t as good as Ulvama’s camouflage; Mrsha just tended to be unnoticed unless you focused. But that was still useful.

The Hobgoblin marched into the kitchen. And there her helpful monologue halted. Mrsha listened, but there was no hope for it. She peeked around the edge of the kitchen.

Ulvama was investigating the cupboards and food again, sans voice. She was smacking her lips, trying the guacamole, spitting out some fishy Gnoll sauce, grumbling. She seemed to be hunting for ‘good foods’.

Veggies, probably. Another reason to despise…Mrsha hesitated as Ulvama pulled out an entire steak and made an approving noise.

“Mm.”

Healthy for Goblins differed from the Lyonette-Erin methodology, apparently. Ulvama seemed to want more, though.

“Chewy.”

She grumbled. Mrsha wondered if she was looking for something for her. Ulvama pulled out a shrimp linguini that Imani had made and brightened up.

“Ooh! What is this? Fancy.”

She looked around, then found a fork and began to eat. Mrsha rolled her eyes. But her stomach rumbled. She…felt some of her anger ebbing.

What was she doing? Mrsha hung her head. She should be mourning Erin, not being hungry or interested in the Hobgoblin! Be sad! Be sadder. She wasn’t sad enough. She was ashamed for being distracted from her grief.

She was about to pad away when Ulvama began choking on a shrimp. It wasn’t the fault of Imani not…deboning shrimp…but just the fact that the Hob was gobbling and one went down the wrong tube.

Ulvama hecked the shrimp onto the floor and gasped.

Aah! Stupid thing!

She put the meal down, appetite suppressed and went back to searching the cupboards. All things being equal, Mrsha would have left her to it. She’d just been making sure Ulvama didn’t die and didn’t need a punch on the back to get the shrimp out. Just because the inn had had enough dead Goblins. Not because she liked Ulvama.

She was thinking of a place to hide—maybe the rooftop or Bird’s tower—when Ulvama gasped.

Cold! Cold place!

She danced back from a cupboard. Mrsha saw frost billow out and realized Ulvama had found…it.

The sacred source. The font of goodness. The freezer from which ice cream and other delightful sugary snacks were kept. It was in a pair of cupboards higher up, out of range of Mrshas unless the kitchen was empty.

And it was a proper freezer. The Hobgoblin was astounded.

“How is this possible? There was no rune…”

There was even frozen ice up there, in wooden ice cube trays that Erin had made. Ice in your drink was normally something you paid for. Here? It was one of the reasons why people paid Lyonette’s prices. Ice in your drink. You had to know to ask, but regulars like Menolit liked having it all the time.

But why was ice here? Ulvama was confused.

“Preservation Skill in the inn? No. That doesn’t work. Why is this place cold? Strange. Strange…”

She narrowed her eyes and dug around in the freezer. Mrsha heard a gasp and knew what she’d found.

A lantern. It was probably running low unless Ishkr had replaced the fuel, but it burned for long periods. This flame, at least. It was the source of the cold. Actually—four lanterns were enough for freezing in a cold environment.

A cheap freezer. Cheaper than Hedault’s work, and he could have done it, or Montressa or Palt. Freezing was not hard if you had enough money, just like the preservation spell.

It was just The Wandering Inn’s style to do it this way, though. Mrsha felt a pang. She turned her head as Ulvama investigated the lantern. It was probably shuttered to avoid depressing anyone; it grew cold either way. And Mrsha was sad enough…

Or maybe not sad enough. She peeked. What could the flame do to her anyways? She deserved that too, for she was Doombringer. She was d—

Ulvama stood, holding the opened lantern facing her. Mrsha could not see the blue, beautifully painful flame of sadness and guilt and loss. But she knew what it looked like.

What she did see was Ulvama. The Hobgoblin’s crimson eyes were open, staring.

Tears were running down her face, dripping down her cheeks and chin and onto the floor. Her eyes were wide. Her face contorted by grief.

Mrsha stared. She had not expected this. Somehow—childishly—she had forgotten that Ulvama was a person. That maybe she had reasons to be sad. She just seemed so bossy or mean or…

The Hobgoblin’s arms shook. She reached to close the shutter. But then seemed unable to. She leaned on the counter. And then her body was shaking. Her chest heaved as more tears fell from her eyes. So many.

She collapsed in the blue glow, onto the floor, weeping silently. Mrsha saw her shaking. The little Gnoll stared. Then crept forwards.

 

—-

 

all of them, dead. Thousands upon thousands. Tens of thousands. Each one she had known. Dead.

Dead! Slaughtered. The Great Chieftain of the Mountain, who had met his end without fleeing.

As it was. As it always was. Ulvama tried to stop. But the flame burned her. She tried to stop crying—but she could not.

She had failed them. She was tribeless. Worthless. And that was only what had happened recently. Too much. It was all there, burning like a dagger in her chest. Cold flame. She was—

Click. The tiny sound was matched by the pain welling up in her shutting off. Ulvama gasped and jerked. She looked up.

The lantern with the dreadful flame was closed. Someone had shut it. Not her.

A little white Gnoll stared down at her from the counter. She had done it. Seen Ulvama’s suffering and…

Something like recognition flickered in Mrsha’s eyes. She slowly watched as Ulvama drew herself up. The two regarded each other in silence. After a second, Ulvama drew breath.

Another fire? She looked at the little Gnoll. Mrsha did not run. She saw Ulvama reach out and then steady herself on the counter. She nodded to the girl.

“Good little Gnoll-child.”

They looked at each other a second time. After a second, Mrsha sat on the counter and began eating the linguini. Ulvama joined her after a second. And she noticed it still burning.

Hope. But…had it changed? Because now it spoke to her like something else. Perhaps…

Kindness.

 

—-

 

A Worker paid for a wagon. A young woman stood in a theatre, leaving Liscor and the inn behind.

Armored and armed Antinium trained for war.

How they moved on. How things changed. Had they all given up on her? No—no, but what did you do?

Everything had failed. Magic—true magic—was difficult to obtain. And it seemed like the best, one of the only hopes had failed.

The Summer Solstice. So much work, for what? For naught. For despair.

For, in fact, worse than where the world had been before that. For…things…coming back. Nothing. A rift between the worlds. The flight of the fae.

All for nothing. Seemingly.

At first glance. It was true that terrible things had happened. That the best had not come to pass and the worst might have instead.

But something had been kept. Something had been brought in that time of times, from worlds apart. Perhaps it was nothing. But…the young woman sat on the bed and pondered it.

A plastic dagger. So it had seemed. A gift of the Faerie King. She spoke as she held it in her hands, in this world apart.

Oh my god I broke it.

Ryoka bit her tongue and felt a lurch in her chest. She desperately—

Tap, tap, vring.

The last sound was…technological. Impossible to replicate, surely, without a level of technology or instruments not accessible to a medieval world.

Ryoka Griffin had once heard that the sci-fi shooting effects for Star War’s blasters had come from someone throwing stuff at power lines. It was not that sound, not by far. Vring was a good way to describe it, but it had that quality that sounded so—foreign.

Alien. She stared at the…blade…and gulped.

“Um. Never mind.”

A plastic dagger. In the land of the fae, Ryoka had met, well, a group of space-people. Possibly aliens. Possibly.

…Probably. But they had been dressed like a bad, 90’s cosplay of an astronaut or space trooper, complete with toy guns and so on. Which made sense since perspective had meant a lot there.

And their weapons had been about as effective against the fae. Even Ryoka had walked through their attacks like it was nothing.

But she had known it was not. It was just technology versus a pure kind of magic. It wasn’t their fault.

Anyways. From that encounter she hadn’t done much other than help them survive and introduce them to a weapon—which might have been a kid with a stick or a young Dragon wielding an artifact.

It was a weird place. But the bottom line was that when she had left, one of them had, at the Faerie King, Oberon’s request, handed her one of the plastic daggers they’d been carrying.

It had looked like a cheap dagger there. Clearly plastic, not even entirely solid. One of those toys you could break with your bare fingers and bent with your first thrust while playing about. Ryoka had owned one; possibly why it had looked like it to her.

Here?

Well—she hit a ‘button’ and the blade vanished. Ryoka eyed the blank space.

“No afterimages. Right—right. Don’t want to blind the holder. And I just…”

She inspected the weapon of the future. It looked like, well…a hilt. Yes, that was it exactly.

A hilt—meant to be held in a grip slightly different than Ryoka’s. She eyed the contouring, felt at the difference in her fingers than this thing’s.

A different hand, and the material was—well, not plastic. And yet, not a metal. Call it a super-plastic? She’d gingerly, gingerly tried to scratch at it with her sharp steel dagger. Then really put her back into it.

Not so much as a scratch. The steel reacted as if it were smooth, unable to even find a grip except on the grip section and there it hadn’t left a mark. But that was just the vague outline. A rough hilt, complete with a crossguard.

Where it differed was that there was a kind of glass-plexiglass covering from the handle. The entire material was a type of reddish material, dark red.

Red like Mars for martians? No, that was stupid. But it did have a lovely, subtle pattern of the reds and faint oranges mixed in.

Yet the handle was not a sheer hilt minus a sword. It had, well, buttons.

To be more accurate? Ryoka didn’t see actual buttons like on a remote or controller. She saw the distinct colorations against the grip, blue, brown, marked with little symbols that glowed when she touched them.

One even in the grip. So if you squeeze like s—

The blade projected outwards and Ryoka drew a breath. Carefully, she swung the blade down.

It went through the floorboards. Ryoka cursed.

“Oh sh—”

She relaxed her grip and something in the weapon detected it. The blade went out. Ryoka bit her lip.

A perfect line in the floor, very thin. And very cut. Ryoka observed a few more things.

“No smoke. It’s not hot or cold…ff—

She cut her finger on the cut on the floor. It was so damn sharp! Ryoka blew on her finger and put a bit of healing potion on it.

“Also? Sharp as hell.”

Of course it was. The blade looked like it might be some kind of concentrated plasma, but that would indicate heat. Maybe it was—Ryoka had no real idea. Hardened light? That was something she’d heard in a sci-fi, she thought. Yes, if you could constrain it to a matrix, why not make a perfect cutting edge? If that was what it was. It could be some other thing entirely. Maybe a…a magnetic field containing some other energy or material she couldn’t fathom?

But she thought the blade was beautiful. A glowing, semi-transparent edge. Orange, and Ryoka believed the depth of color was not one her eyes could process, forming a double-edged blade about as long as a longsword. Light as a feather.

She wanted to say it. But she thought it was embarrassing. But she wanted to say it was a…luminescent…sword…

The hardlight blade was sharp as a razor. Yet, Ryoka was certain, it was not the only thing this object was capable of.

In fact, she knew it. Doubly in fact? She doubly knew there were more functions of this technological weapon from an era far past Earth’s.

Because…she sat on the bed and glumly looked at the second thing she’d been given. She hadn’t realized it at first, but it had been wrapped around the handle.

Here was how Ryoka could describe the object on the bed. Imagine a civilization capable of creating ships capable of interstellar travel, that had formed a kind of galactic empire. An alliance of other species that might stretch impossible distances to Human understanding.

Then imagine they were at war with a second empire, and apparently, losing. So they’d gone into a gateway that only opened once in a long time with an entire war fleet and armies of technologically advanced soldiers.

Such that each one had armor, sensors, a plethora of weapons—even damned missiles mounted in their armor if Ryoka’s perception had been right, and their basic side arms were multi-functional blades that could shear through wood, and even steel, like it wasn’t there.

Got that? Now, the object on Ryoka’s bed is what they would use as paper.

It was dark. Not black—more like a super-dark grey, such that the words stood out. They did not exactly glow, but they were extremely sharp to Ryoka’s eyes. Also? The ‘paper’ was extremely, extremely thin and tough.

Ryoka thought paper was thin. But you couldn’t fold paper more than like, eight times without the layers making it too tough. Books could stop bullets at range sometimes, not that she’d like to try it.

This stuff was thin. It unfolded so many times it messed with your head; you kept thinking it was as large as could be, but it kept unfolding.

It was instructions. And Ryoka thought it had been printed just for her. There were buttons, clearly labeled, diagrams, commentary…

And here was the rub. Ryoka thought to the alien commander she’d met. She’d been reactive, even if she hadn’t understood the basic nature of the fae’s world at first. So this wasn’t her fault

It was just that everything was in another language. In their defense, they probably thought it was fine since the fae’s world had made understanding universal—perceptions bridging the gap. Ryoka buried her face in her hands.

She just bet they’d dumbed it down for her, too. It looked like someone had done a crude diagram of her and was indicating different things with the handle. Only, like futuristic tech, they’d managed to animate the thing into the poses they wanted rather than redrawing it each time.

“I can handle this. I can do this. Perspective…change!

Ryoka steadied herself. She did as she had done in the lands of the fae. Ordinary to grand! She opened her eyes—

—and it was all the same. Ryoka sagged.

“Different world, different rules. You have a weapon from the future and you can’t read the instructions. And you didn’t stop long enough to ask for a dictionary.”

Story of her life. Ryoka glumly went back to the instructions.

The problem was also that this civilization had different basic icons for…everything. They had done little graphics, but even their arrows looked different. Their conception of basic elements even seemed odd. Or maybe it was the artist. Ryoka fumbled.

“Let’s see. I…hold these two? And then grip…”

She’d tried tapping both times. She shifted the blade, trying to see what was wrong. She held them, pressed the trigger—

Nothing.

“Okay, that turns the auto-grip off! Good to know! So to reactivate I do the—no—”

She realized the hilt was aimed at her shoulder too late. The blade reactivated. Ryoka cried out—

The first mistake of guns or weapons was never point it at you. But the hilt was so short and she had forgotten the reach on it! She shouted, and then stared at her shoulder.

The hardlight edge stopped a millimeter or less from her skin. Ryoka shakily released the grip and the blade disappeared. She breathed in, out, in, out, then put the hilt down and curled up on the bed. After a few minutes, she pulled the blankets over her head.

“Okay. Automatic safety mechanism. Good to know.

Good thing stupidity transcended realities or the makers wouldn’t have created this function. With that said? Ryoka realized something. She wasn’t going to point the weapon at herself…again…but the blade had stopped rather than gone through her arm.

Ergo, you couldn’t ever touch it without being hurt. Also, it couldn’t phase through something without going through it. It had a kind of mass, then.

She was learning a lot. Ryoka still shivered in her blankets for a while. But then she got out of them.

Because she had to. Because four days had passed since the Summer Solstice and she’d…failed.

Failed, Erin. Failed to bring what was needed. The world had been lost to something. The fae had fled.

…And yet, it seemed no more different. Ryoka had waited. She had waited for the foundations of reality to start coming undone.

But save for the terrible news coming from Rhir? Nothing else had happened. No…things…had manifested as of yet. Perhaps there was time.

Four days. Ryoka’s head bent. She had only told Lyonette she’d failed. She had not left this place. She had been…busy.

Busy, thinking, confirming things she’d learned, writing down things she had not. Figuring out how to turn this thing on had taken nearly a day; it was harder than it looked! There’d been an activation process that even with a step-by-step cartoon had taken Ryoka nearly an hour.

And more. But here she sat. Ryoka Griffin’s head bowed as she looked at the hilt and gash on the floor. Yet, she did not give into despair or guilt.

The time has come for you to do more than just run.

She picked up the hilt and regarded it grimly. The blade came to life. Now, surer she wouldn’t hurt herself, she performed a vague cut. It was…terrible. She’d never swung a sword! But still, the deadly edge cut the air. Ryoka lifted her belt dagger. She eyed the half of it lying on the floor.

It was not what she had wanted. She had nearly had the scroll! It had been in her hands until the magical protections stopped her and Ivolethe dragged her away. She had not the cure, nor aid from that other place.

She could have used a starship and a legion. She could have used the Wild Hunt and Wyrms and one Nama.

But this would do in lieu of nothing else. Ryoka Griffin sighed. And then she stood. She was rising to greet the day…midday, rather, when someone entered unannounced.

“Wind Runner! I’m bored. What are you doing? What’s that?

He pointed avidly at the hilt of the futuristic sword in Ryoka’s hand. She hid it behind her back reflexively and realized that was the stupidest move. Instead, she gingerly showed him.

“This? Oh—an artifact. Creates illusions. I’m trying it out.”

The young [Lord] stared at Ryoka. His eyes narrowed. And in that moment he looked like his father at Lord Tyrion’s grimmest. Not that Ryoka had known the man long. Sammial glowered.

“Liar. I saw you cut the floor with it!”

Ryoka Griffin wavered.

“What? You saw—”

She looked around her room. In her house, in, not to put too fine a point on it, her space that Laken Godart, the Unseen Emperor had granted her. Sammial had barged right in, which was fair since Ryoka hadn’t locked the door after breakfast.

But even so.

“How did you see that?”

The boy gave Ryoka Griffin another suspicious look. He pointed at the window to her room, whose shutters were slightly agape. Just enough to leave a crack of daylight.

“I’ve been watching you all morning, obviously. What is it? I want to use it! Give it to me! I order you to!”

He held out a hand imperiously. Ryoka Griffin stared at him.

She had never learned the art of child-kicking. But she was a willing student in this moment.

 

—-

 

There is something about Sammial Veltras that rubs you the wrong way. Hi, it’s me, Ryoka Griffin. And I need an internal minute.

Mostly to prevent myself from killing him.

Firstly? He’s been spying on me all morning? Which means that after my morning run and awkward breakfast with the nobility still in Laken’s empire, I changed clothes. Wonderful.

Second? He saw advanced alien technology and schematics, which means I’ve had the…Faeblade*…for all of four days before the secret got out.

 

*No, that sounds stupid. Lightsword? Hardlight blade? Sword of Light? Wow, I cannot name things.

 

I take a calming breath. The trick to calming breaths is to take huge ones, so that hopefully it distracts you, lets you calm down—or you pass out.

It’s that or kill Sammy.

Sammial Veltras. A ‘prodigy’ in that he has an aura and he’s so young. Not even ten? I forget. Hethon is more reserved, more likable. Sammy is a brat.

However, Ryoka, remember all the lessons you’ve learned over your tenure in this world. Namely? You’re a brat. You were, still probably are, and he’s a kid.

So I take a breath, and look at him.

“You were watching me all morning, Sammy?”

“Except when you took off your clothes. I turned away. Where did you get that? From the weird people? I didn’t get to talk to them, except the rude one with horns on her head. Jericha said it was too dangerous. She says you’re an unpredictable element. Where did you go? You vanished. Then fell out of the sky!”

All true. I wonder what the party guests think. Laken claims they were assailed by four—then five strangers who brought shadows and knew the fae.

No guesses who they are. I shouldn’t have even said their name, even by accident. Holy hells. We are in trouble.

I look at Sammy. He doesn’t know any of this. He’s just staring at the faeblade*. I sigh.

 

*Damn it, it’s starting to stick.

 

“Sammy—it’s a secret. I’m sorry, I can’t tell you.”

His eyes narrow again. He has a temper worse than mine, something I’ve observed. Is it natural, because he’s young, or because he has no mother and his father’s as distant as mine?

“I order you to! I’m sick of adult secrets!”

Again, his aura assails me. I grit my teeth, but in truth, he might be a prodigy but I’ve met Magnolia Reinhart and uppity Dragons. Yes, plural. I wish I could have talked to the Dragon of the Trashheap again.

Still, it’s rather like someone trying to force you to do something by grabbing the nape of your neck. At least how Sammial does it. Magnolia’s subtle. He’s like someone kicking the back of your head, all brute force.

It makes me mad. So does the spying! However, calming breath. I try to think of something reasonable to say.

It’s funny, because a while ago, my go-to response would be, verbatim—‘you little shit, I will kick you into the sun.

And to judge by some of the things I saw, that’s not entirely unwarranted with Sammial, at least. He rubs people the wrong way and it’s not his fault per se. He’s patently miserable.

How do I know? He’s always angry, always demanding things, and always wants attention. Guess who that reminds me of*?

 

*Angry Ryoka, ages 3 to present. Accept no substitutes.

 

And no, I’m not wiser for going into the land of the fae. I have…learned things. But I’m not better at controlling my temper. I just know I have one and what happens if I snap.

I’m not smarter. I’m not better. I’m just more experienced. And—let that make all the difference.

“Sammy. Stop using your aura on me.”

“Tell me what that is!”

“Sammial Veltras. I said, stop using your aura on me.

I look at him. His tenuous control wavered and I feel the pressure relent. I nod.

“Good. Don’t use your aura on me. Not now, and not on other people. This is like being rude. No—it’s worse than being rude.”

His cheeks redden. He opens his mouth and lets out a whooping cough. He tries to speak, begins hacking.

Asthma? I look around for…what, a paper bag? An inhaler? I have neither, and within seconds he’s done. He pretends nothing happened. I feel bad for him.

“You’re not Jericha! Stop telling me what to do!”

I sigh. How would I talk to young Ryoka? First, smack her hard. No—I can’t do that. I patiently bend over, and realize that’s patronizing. So I sit down instead, cross-legged.

“I’m giving you advice. I’m not your father, or your—guardian. I’m not Jericha or anyone else, Sammial. But I am telling you, person-to-person. You can’t do that and expect to get away with it. You understand?”

He gives me a long look.

“I know what you mean. Be polite. Make people like you. That’s what Hethon does. But I am a [Lord]. I have pride as a nobleman!”

I scratch my head. Where’s Tyrion? Ah, out riding with the other [Lords] and [Ladies]. Those who didn’t run for the hills the instant the party ended like Lady Ieka and some of the others.

The rest have enjoyed His Majesty’s hospitality, also mainly because they’re trying to figure out what the heck happened? Also also? To eat all of the good food he has. It’s rare so many are in one place and there’s potential here for diplomacy.

Anyways. I’m learning more about Tyrion Veltras, counterpart of Magnolia and the famous [Lord] of war in the north.

He. Sucks. At. Parenting. And I know this might come back to bite me, but I have to say it.

“Okay, Sammy, you’re a [Lord] of House Veltras. So what?”

He blinks at me.

“So, I am a [Lord] and more important than other people.”

I shake my head before he even gets that last part out. Oh no, I have to at least present the counterargument, bad idea or not.

“Sammy, I don’t believe that.”

“Why not?”

He narrows his eyes as if to feel out how offended he should be. I tap my chest.

“We’re all Human. We’re all people. I believe that being a [Lord] means you’re important in one way. But you should still try to be polite. To think about others. Okay?”

“What if I don’t want to? What if other people are stupid and I know what’s best?”

I blink. That’s a Ryoka-question right there. But instead of my parents or teachers or…well, I never liked the answers I got. So here’s a better one. I shrug.

“That’s fair, Sammial. You don’t have to care about people. But you should. Remember the Satyr? The horned lady?”

He nods, cautiously. I smile.

“She would have murdered you for mouthing off. And she’s an extreme example, but your people are no different. Haven’t you ever made…Jericha angry?”

He looks away.

“…Sometimes.”

I just bet you have. I bite my tongue, and keep my voice reasonable.

“Well, Jericha likes you so she puts up with that. No one else has to. Not fellow [Lords], not your people, even. So think about that next time you want to be mean. There are consequences for everything you do. They might not come today, or tomorrow. But they will come.”

He digests that. I’m laying a lot on a kid. But—he’s a kid with an aura. A [Lord], which can’t be fun. He looks at me, and I remember—he was dying of poison less than a month ago. It wears at him and he looks uncharacteristically old.

“Is that true? Then do bad things happen to bad people? Like the [Assassin] who poisoned me and Hethon?”

I bite the inside of my mouth. After a second, I don’t go to true honesty.

“I believe so. And that’s how I try to behave. I try to do good things.”

“Like deliver medicine for me and Hethon.”

“Yep. Anyways. Don’t boss people around because they can hit you. And don’t boss me around. Or spy on me.”

He kicks at the floorboards sullenly. I exhale. Maybe he’s forgotten…

“What about your magic sword? Can I see that? I’m sorry for using my aura.”

Shit. I hesitate.

“—If I tell you, will you promise not to tell anyone? Even your brother? Swear on…your honor as a [Lord] of House Veltras?”

“I swear.”

He says it instantly. I can only hope he takes it seriously. Young Ryoka would. And he’s already seen it so I pull out the hilt.

Sammy’s eyes fix on it.

“What is it?”

“An artifact. Just an artifact, Sammy. I got it from the uh, strangers. But you can’t tell anyone or I’ll never forgive you. Got it?”

“What if they find out? And what will you do? Hit me?”

He looks at me, testing. I smile.

“Me? I don’t hit kids. I just won’t do amazing things for you, Sammy. Like…let you fly.”

He does a double-take.

“You can do that?

I think of the parasailing kids and smile ruefully. I want to go back to Reizmelt and…but no. I cannot. Erin is frozen. And I know where to find the cure*.

 

*I should have grabbed it, taken the time to make Ivolethe break the magic on it. Dead gods, how will I get it now?

 

“Totally. I could do it in f—ten minutes if I wanted to. Let you fly about. Kids do it all the time. Why do you think they call me the Wind Runner?”

His eyes flicker as he tries to figure out how I’d do it. After a second, he looks at me.

“Without an artifact? And I could do it?”

“Without an artifact. And not even Jericha would be mad. I think.”

“I want to fly! And see the sword.”

“Well, if you keep it a secret…fine. As much flying as you want when I’m around.”

He nods rapidly. I sigh. Then I hold out my hand. He regards it, then shakes my hand briefly.

“Did you lose your fingers to the strangers? I heard they bit off—”

“No. Goblins.”

I withdraw my hand quickly and hide it. Sammial blinks at me; I’m not normally so self-conscious, but he does stare.

“Sorry. Father says never to point out a [Soldier]’s war wounds.”

He takes that more seriously than anything else and ducks his head. I sigh.

“It’s fine. Now—stand back.

He obeys. I motion him back.

“Further back. It’s very sharp.”

“I saw. Can I hold it?”

My brain conjures the image of Sammial somehow bypassing the safety mechanism or cutting me and the room apart.

“Absolutely not. The deal was to look. Then you can fly. All we need are bed sheets. You can use mine.”

Bed sheets? Oh—like the flying thing?”

He’s excited and young again. I half-smile. Speaking of flying things…well, for now, I grip the Faeblade*.

 

*Copyright, Ryoka Griffin. 2017, or whenever the hell this is in this world’s convoluted dating system.

 

And it comes to life. Sammial gapes at the blade as I hold it very carefully up.

“It’s so amazing! Father showed me a Kaalblade—is it like that?”

Great cover, Sammial! I nod.

“Exactly like that. It’s a unique one, though.”

“Oh. And I thought it was super-special. It’s very pretty, though.”

He’s disappointed again. I sigh. Sammial eyes it, then looks at me.

“How strong is it? I saw you cut the floorboards.”

“Er—strong. It goes through steel.”

“What grade of magical artifact is it? Can it cut a [Hardening] enchantment? What about a mithril shield? All of father’s equipment can break weak magic.”

I would love to know, Sammy. But I haven’t tested it.

“What about my dagger? You can cut it! It’s just a weak enchantment.”

He eagerly unsheathes his belt knife. I eye it.

“You’re allowed to carry magical artifacts?”

He stares at me.

“Just weak ones. I’m not a child. Hethon cut himself on his first dagger, but I never do.”

Huh. Well, kids learn to hunt. And a belt dagger’s not exactly the worst item. Good thing he’s not that violent or he’d be stabbing kids with it. I hesitate.

“I don’t want to break it.”

“Please? It’s not valuable! Here—I’ll do it for you!”

The young [Lord] dashes forwards. I hold the sword up.

“No, Sammy—don’t—”

Too late. He hops up and slashes. He’s aiming for the Faeblade’s ‘sword’ rather than the hilt. I see his dagger slash towards the glowing orange light and before I can pull it away—

His magic dagger meets the Faeblade. I see the artifact of the future, the magic sword that cuts steel like nothing, the hardlight projection shatter into pieces and dissipate in the air.

Sammial and I stare as the hilt goes dead. The light fragments and vanishes. My jaw is wide open in horror. Sammial has the exact same expression on his face.

“You broke it.”

I stare at the priceless technological wonder from the—Sammial slowly looks at his undamaged, low-grade enchanted dagger. He slowly puts it in his belt sheathe. Then he backs up. He walks out the door, shuts it, and starts running. I stare at the Faeblade.

I am so upset right now.

 

—-

 

“Jericha. Jericha—I broke something! You have to fix it!”

The [High Mage] and assistant to Lord Tyrion Veltras hated hearing Sammial’s voice pitched just so. When he said something like that her stomach hurt. Because when he acknowledged he’d broken something, it was usually not a cheap object.

Statues. Pieces of art thousands of years old. Paintings?

“Lord Sammial. Where have you been?”

She turned as the young [Lord] ran up. He looked guilty.

“I can’t say! But I broke something of the Wind—of Miss Ryoka’s! I can’t tell you what it is! But I broke it and it was…very expensive! You have to [Repair] it!”

Ryoka Griffin. Jericha’s stomachache was joined by the beginnings of a headache. Now there was another enigma wrapped up inside a conundrum.

Four days since the Summer Solstice and they were still trying to figure out what had happened and if it related to the tragedy that came from Rhir. And Ryoka Griffin. Who was she?

House Veltras did not have Reinhart’s spy networks, but Jericha had Lord Veltras’ authority. And even if House Veltras was not…rich…second only to the House of El for poverty, in fact, they had money.

And money meant information from those who gathered it. None of them knew where Ryoka Griffin had come from before Celum. No one knew what her nation was, although the smart money was on the Drath Archipelago or mixed heritage from Chandrar or Baleros perhaps.

Did she matter? Well, to Jericha her identity did. And more pressingly—Lord Tyrion Veltras believed he owed her a debt. Jericha needed to ensure it was not a debt to the wrong person.

“What did you break, Lord Sammial? Why were you bothering Miss Griffin? Your father would be upset.”

The boy looked worried, but Jericha wouldn’t tell Lord Tyrion—unless his son had really broken something expensive. Tyrion Veltras would be furious, and he had been doing his best to spend time around his sons.

Of course, that was time, not ‘all the time’. Case in point, he had gone hunting with Gralton, Pellmia, and some other [Lords] and [Ladies]. Jericha sighed. She’d sort this out.

“I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.”

“Miss Griffin’s secret?”

Sammial shut his mouth. Jericha pinched the bridge of her nose, over her spectacles. Well, maybe she’d uncover a mystery. She was just about to head to the cottage Ryoka had been assigned when the Wind Runner came jogging after Sammial.

“Sammy! It’s fine! I—ah.”

She stopped when she saw Jericha. The [High Mage] eyed Ryoka and…pinged her.

Rather, she cast [Detect Magic], using her spectacles and more refined knowledge of magic to actually gather as much magical data as possible. A basic [Mage] just cast [Detect Magic]. Jericha could sense intensity, even nature.

What she found was…confusing. Ryoka had a number of artifacts. Rings, amulets, the very nice bag of holding which held more magic besides. But Jericha couldn’t see what had made Sammial so excited.

Weak magic aura, wind element. Doesn’t explain how she commands the wind at all. She’s like a Level 3 [Mage]. Which makes sense if she has no levels…

Oh, and another thing. The most powerful magical object Ryoka held was not actually near her hands. They were on her feet.

Foot wraps. Just strips of seemingly-ordinary cloth that covered her feet. The crudest of bindings glowed in Jericha’s vision. She wanted to know where Ryoka had gotten them and what they did.

Ryoka noticed the look. She shifted. Sammial peeked out from behind Jericha.

“It didn’t break? But I saw—”

“It uh—came back. You didn’t break the important part of the you-know-what. Let’s not talk about it.”

Jericha’s eyes narrowed.

“Has Lord Sammial been bothering you, Miss Griffin? I could inspect whatever he claims to have accidentally damaged.”

“No, it’s fine, Miss Jericha. I—I’m fine. Sammy was just bored and uh, I promised to let him fly.”

Fly? Jericha instantly shook her head.

“I regret to say that your method of flying would put Lord Sammial in grave danger, Miss Griffin.”

“No, not that. I mean—it’s just parasailing. You get some bed sheets and…”

Sammial looked at Jericha pleadingly. And she saw Lord Hethon was coming—no doubt equally bored since she had forbidden consorting with the young [Witches] and the other young [Lords] and [Ladies] had no such injunctions and had formed, as children did, a roving group of children: the street urchin Grev, the Riverfarm children, and the next generation of Izril’s nobility.

Jericha wavered between duty and a desire not to have to entertain two bored young [Lords]. She turned to Ryoka.

“I—what does this look like, Miss Griffin?”

The Wind Runner smiled. Jericha wished she could be certain of Ryoka Griffin. If only because Lord Tyrion had spared no expense healing her. Had ridden himself and prevailed upon Ulva Terland to come to the party. Had challenged a warrior of peerless skill for her.

And still, he said the same thing.

He owed Ryoka Griffin a debt. Jericha was worried because she knew her [Lord]. When he said a debt

He took it seriously.

 

—-

 

Ryoka Griffin had received several things from the journey to the land of the fae. Besides knowledge? Three objects, fittingly. She hadn’t considered it as such, but three was what the final count turned out to be.

Most obvious was the Faeblade, which she was now considering naming the ‘Techblade’ since it was clearly not a blade of the fae.

A low-grade enchantment had shattered the blade like glass! It came back in a second after she reactivated it, but that had shaken Ryoka.

Like the land of the fae, magic beat tech. On the other hand? Tech beat steel. Ryoka could do lightsaber tricks with the sword—unless the material was enchanted. She wondered if she could literally slice a tree in half.

She’d try it later.

The second thing Ryoka had she wore on her feet. Nama’s foot wraps. Nothing special about them…except that Ryoka had run in them through the lands of the fae, across fields of fire where the Phoenix had lived and they hadn’t been singed. They might have magical power. If they were anything like Nama, they were more than they seemed.

Lastly, and this was sort of weird—her third gift was uh, autographs.

Signed autographs by the King of Chivalry himself. Arthur of Camelot, the King of Knights. All three ages, although the youngest Arthur Pendragon’s personal one to her was never going to be sold. But she had the most valuable autographs in the world if she could convince anyone they were legitimate.

Footwear, sword, and autograph. Had she gone shopping at the world’s weirdest mall or something?

All that. And here she was, back where she’d started. Letting kids sail around on makeshift sailboats. Ryoka felt like she was back at Reizmelt.

She sat there, watching as Lord Hethon and Sammial shouted with glee. Sammial had tied Ryoka’s bed sheets in a knot around his chest and was being dragged backwards. He hopped, and travelled a good fourteen feet before he landed. The wind playfully blew Hethon about, and he was laughing and trying to hop and touch the rooftops and leap from there.

“Careful, Lord Hethon, Lord Sammial! Miss Griffin, can you control the wind?”

“I don’t quite control it, Jericha. It’s…safe. Probably.”

The bespectacled woman gave Ryoka a look saying that ‘probably’ wasn’t nearly good enough. She watched anxiously, wand at the ready.

Ryoka watched too.

After all the travails and heartache, here she was. She had come so close. She had the scroll in her hand. And now—

The Gods were alive. She had seen the message on Laken’s phone. She had known…what? That someone in Wistram was on their side? How had they known what to send?

Laken didn’t know what to make of it either, but he was…cagey about what he’d seen.

What now? Ryoka sat there. The boys were laughing. And soon, more people heard the laughter and came running.

“Wot’s this now? Look at that! Come on, you lot!”

A slightly scruffy boy stopped and stared as he saw Sammial being blown around and Jericha chasing after him. He wasn’t far off the ground, but he was flying. Grev Redigal pointed, and heads turned.

Lady Eliasor Melissar, two of Mister Prost’s children, eight young [Lords] and [Ladies], fourteen more of Riverfarm’s own, and six [Witches] all stared, mouths agape.

Well, the [Witches] looked more familiar with flying. Grev was delighted.

“It’s Miss Griffin, innit? I heard she was the Wind Runner—let’s all fly! Come on! All we need’s a sheet!”

“Are you sure, Mister Grev? She was at the party. She could be…odd.”

Eliasor wasn’t certain. Lady Zanthia had debriefed her wards after the party and cautioned them about what had occurred, but she wasn’t here to ask; she was still abed. Sick, from the trials of the party.

The scarf. It had turned to dust the next day, but Lady Zanthia had slept four days from the stress of it and was still abed.

Grev was already racing forwards before Eliasor could object, though.

“Miss Griffin! Miss Griffin, will you let us do that?”

The Wind Runner waved at him; Grev grinned and turned to the others.

“She’s alright! Come on—she’s fine. I know her!”

Grev knew everyone. And he had somehow become the center of this group of children. After all—he was Jasi’s brother, and a Face of Invrisil. He gestured at the others, then went back to chivvy one of the slower children along.

“Come on, Nanette!”

The [Witch] girl didn’t smile with anticipation. But she did quicken her steps a bit as the others broke up to grab whatever sheets and blankets they could find. The Riverfarm [Washers] and people objected to the purloining of their sheets, but they stopped when they saw who it was taking them—the noble’s children, rather—and what they were being used for.

Soon, more children were begging to go flying and sailing about, shouting, colliding with each other, and experiencing the joys of aviation. The highest they got was a rooftop; Grev was blown onto one with his makeshift parachute. And they laughed and smiled.

Ryoka Griffin sat there. Smiling faintly when she saw Sammial screaming in delight or Hethon tying his sheet to three others to create a mass-sail that dragged a cluster of children along. For a moment, it was good.

But it could not last forever. The truth remained. Erin was gone. And Ryoka…she knew and did not know what came next.

She opened her eyes when the quarrel started. Predictably, it was Sammial, who wanted a turn on a wheelbarrow-sailboat. The older children refused, giddy with excitement.

He threw a tantrum.

 

—-

 

The [Emperor] of Riverfarm watched Ryoka Griffin with his all-seeing…vision. It seemed like a little fight had broken out. He identified Sammial Veltras punching a larger boy before he was dog-piled.

“I never really got into fights because I was blind, but even I know better than that.”

The young man murmured to himself. Jericha and Ryoka were striding to the fight, and Laken could not hear since he was sitting in his home, but he imagined tears, tantrums, and all of what you’d normally expect.

It was a bittersweet thing. A good thing, probably, after all that had happened. He had heard of Eliasor’s tragedy. And he knew Nannette’s all too well. Even Sammial Veltras deserved happiness—although Laken Godart would let him have his fun away from wherever he, Laken, was. The boy was a bit obnoxious.

It was good to see them running about, even if it was briefly. Yet, there were shadows in even childish joy. And not the tantrums.

Erin Solstice. Laken had never met her. But Ryoka Griffin had told him more about her after the Summer Solstice. They had shared a drink, to debrief, talk.

He wished Erin had been there. She had been…gone…for less than two weeks. And it was too long, and far too short for processing. Griffon Hunt had stopped working; Ryoka Griffin had been beating herself up over her failure.

Not that Laken knew all of what had passed. Nor did he know what Ryoka Griffin was going to do. She probably thought he was reluctant to talk about what they should talk about.

“The truth is that I don’t want to know.”

The [Emperor] muttered to himself. He did not want to know Ryoka’s plans. Because, perhaps if he knew…

He sat alone in the cottage. But presently, he felt around with his walking cane. He had taken to carrying it with him again. And he poked around, even though his Skill told him he was alone.

Wherever Ryoka Griffin went, whatever she did—he would help. But he would not ask her plans. Nor could he tell her why. And he had tried to write it down, say it, record it.

A name haunted his mind. A promise.

We will meet again. Sooner, this time.

 

—-

 

It was such a bleak world after that. And it was not, not really. The sun still shone. But what darkened it for them was heartbreak.

The fire had gone out. The young woman lay encased in ice.

The Worker had parked the wagon outside the inn. He was loading it with arrows as the nervous donkey snorted and pawed the ground.

“There you are.”

Bird found Ishkr trying to nudge Selys’ bindings undone. They froze—he rolled them away from the walls where Rose had been trying to kick a message. But the walls were thick and only one person would have heard them.

Don’t do this. Selys tried to speak, but Bird just left. He was transferring his arrows to the wagon, one load at a time. She frantically tried to remove her bindings. All her Skills and artifacts were useless or Bird had taken.

Ishkr was likewise helpless. It was Rose who kept struggling. She was trying to do something. She rolled over, and over—and then put her back to Selys. She’d wavered between her and Ishkr. But Selys was chosen because…the Drake saw Rose jerk her head.

She wiggled her bound claws over at last, and Rose pointed her bound hands back towards Selys. After confirming she was aiming at the bindings, she muttered.

Fmgh.

A jet of fire shot out of her fingers. A tiny one. Selys yelped—then realized. Rose was a [Mage]! She winced as the heat cooked her scales, but better her than Ishkr. And all they needed was…Selys’ eyes began to water with pain, but she held on. Bird walked past their room and they all froze, but he just loaded more arrows into his bag of holding without checking on them.

 

—-

 

Oh, these dark days. Mrsha made her peace with Ulvama. But she still did not want to be tormented into eating. She ate to prevent that. Then curled up on the counter. She just wanted to sleep, now.

“Poke. Not sleep yet, little Gnoll-girl. You help me, now.”

Ulvama jabbed Mrsha in the side. The Gnoll girl swiped at Ulvama irritably. But the [Shaman] was insistent.

“You know how to get into plant-place. The garden?”

She pointed out the kitchen, towards where the door was. Mrsha thought—and Ulvama jumped as it appeared on a wall of the kitchen.

“Good Skill. Not yours?”

Mrsha looked at Ulvama. The [Shaman] pressed a palm against the invisible barrier and looked at Mrsha.

“You help me through. Broken Goblin inside. Numbtongue?”

Mrsha nodded. Numbtongue? What did she want with…?

Ah. Ulvama had the steak. She looked at Mrsha, almost pleadingly.

“Stupid Goblins starve after Chieftain dies. You help me. He won’t starve. Show me way through. Special words? Special objects?”

None of that. Mrsha shook her head. She wasn’t sure. Ulvama probably couldn’t harm her or Numbtongue even if she was let in…but Mrsha had never tested that. The [Shaman] glowered. But then her face twisted.

“Please?”

It came out reluctantly. Ulvama was not used to saying the word. Mrsha hesitated. She looked at Ulvama. The Hobgoblin reached out to Mrsha—eyed her. She stared at something Mrsha could not see.

“Little Mrsha-child, help me. Do a good thing for the sad Goblin. You care about…Numbtongue?”

Mrsha looked up. Slowly, for answer, she stood up. She dropped onto the floor. Ulvama watched her. Mrsha beckoned. She held out a paw and stood on her two legs. Ulvama looked at her paw. Slowly, she took it. Mrsha walked clumsily forwards, into the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She tugged and Ulvama gasped.

The girl pulled Ulvama through. The [Shaman] stood on the grass of the safe place. She inhaled the fragrant, fresh air. She looked up at the opening in the dome letting in fresh sunlight.

She smiled. Mrsha looked up at her. She did not smile, but she didn’t feel bad about her decision either. Ulvama looked at the statue sitting on the hill who yet breathed and mourned. Then at Mrsha.

“Thank you, little Mrsha-child. Now—I help that Goblin.”

Mrsha nodded. Ulvama looked at her, gratitude in her crimson eyes. Then—she carefully walked around Mrsha. She angled her foot, inserted it beneath Mrsha’s bum—and punted the Gnoll straight out of the garden.

Mrsha went flying. The Gnoll landed in the kitchen of The Wandering Inn and whirled around. What the—? Ulvama smiled at Mrsha. Then she spoke.

“Little children stay out.

She slammed the door.

 

—-

 

Numbtongue sat on the hill, barely registering anything.

The statues were gone. They had returned to their place on the hill. But there was nothing…left.

Just memory. They had been here. And they had gone.

Something had come. Something…and Reiss had nearly been destroyed. But he had saved her.

Numbtongue should have taken his hand from the start. But if he had?

They were gone.

And so was she. Despair was the Goblin’s world. Despair and grief and…he would sit here. If anything came, he would kill it.

He had let Mrsha come and go. He had eaten when Palt made him move. Beyond that? He had no desire for anything. His ghosts were silent. Possibly Pyrite thought there was nothing to be said. Shorthilt…Shorthilt mourned.

And Reiss was just fragments. Numbtongue didn’t know what to do. Badarrow had gone, and Snapjaw before him. His brother had been just as broken.

All was lost. Numbtongue bowed his head. He only raised it when he saw the figure coming up the hill. He recognized Ulvama—ignored her.

Then blinked. Even in his full depression and mourning, the Hobgoblin noticed a distinct lack of clothing.

“You.”

Ulvama grinned at him. She had removed her top. Numbtongue stared at her. He…recognized her. No—

The [Shaman] seductively walked closer. She bent down.

“Sad Goblin. You need to eat. Listen to me. I am a [Shaman]. Why don’t you—”

She was reaching out to touch his shoulder with a simmering spell in her claw when the [Goblin Soulbard] caught her wrist. His eyes flickered.

“Ulvama. Enough. Leave him alone.”

The [Shaman] recoiled. The broken Goblin’s face had changed! His voice, too! He spoke shortly. Her memory tingled—but then she collected herself. She tried to touch his hand—he let go.

“Grumpy Goblin. You remember me. Don’t want to talk to female Hobgoblin after all this time? What about big, strong, male Goblin? Better? I can be both.”

She poked him gently. That would normally get a rise out of a Goblin either way. This one just grunted. He scratched his belly.

“[Shaman] magic is not what Numbtongue wants. Sex is not useful. Go away.”

She frowned. Was he speaking in third-person? The Hobgoblin picked up something. Grass from the hilltop. He put it into his mouth and began to chew.

“Hm. Bitter.”

He sounded so—familiar. She knew the mannerisms, way of speaking. And he seemed to know her.

“Have we met?”

She demanded. Why was he suddenly so talkative? The Hob glanced at her.

“Little [Shaman] of the Mountain City tribe. Used to get in trouble for stealing chief [Shaman]’s paints when we were small. Helped me when I didn’t poo for two weeks after eating rocks.”

She stared. Only one Goblin came to mind. But that was impossible. She had seen him die.

Pyrite?

“Mm. Thirty seconds. Leave Numbtongue alone. He will cut you. Unstable. Unhappy. Doesn’t need Ulvama-treatment.”

The Hobgoblin chewed. Ulvama’s mind raced. She knew Pyrite, before he had left Tremborag’s mountain. If he was here—she gasped.

“He knows the old secrets! He—Numbtongue—is a [Ghost Shaman]!?

She looked at the Hobgoblin’s possessed body with awe and fear. He had become a medium for the Goblins of old? Pyrite shook his head briefly.

“No. [Goblin Soulbard].”

“Oh.”

Ulvama hesitated. She didn’t know that one. But she knew it existed. She peered at Pyrite.

“He has your ghost.”

“For ten seconds. Nine, eight…”

“Wait! Does he have ghost of Garen Redfang? Tremborag? Goblin Lord?”

She grew excited. This was it! If he was this rare Goblin, then—Pyrite looked at her.

“I told him all about you. Do not play your tricks. He does not need—we do not need a Ch—”

The last word cut off as Numbtongue returned. The Hobgoblin’s voice halted in the middle of the word.

Chieftain. He inhaled, coughed, and spat the mouthful of grass out. He stared at Ulvama. His face twisted into hostility in an instant.

“Go.”

Ulvama backed up. She saw the crystal sword in his lap tense. She smiled—

“Pyrite in your head. He tell you about me?”

“Seducing [Shaman]. Go away.

His eyes burned. She indicated her full figure.

“Not interested a bit?

Numbtongue turned to look over his shoulder. Towards the hill with mists. He looked at Ulvama—she was already making tracks. She knew a murderous look in the eyes when she saw it.

 

—-

 

The art of seducing Goblins wasn’t usually this hard. Ulvama investigated the [Garden] as she tied her top, grumbling. Although there were things you learned.

Like…don’t try to seduce a Goblin when the dead body of their friend was only a dozen feet away. She’d forgotten that there was a frozen Human here. Rookie mistake, really.

She’d have to try again. A [Soulbard]. Ulvama didn’t know the class, but she could investigate by memory. A [Shaman] remembered.

And this garden was fascinating. Ulvama saw plenty of things she could use for her craft. Sage’s Grass aplenty! So that was how the magic door ran. This place was also a ley line. If she had a tribe and this wasn’t so close to the city, she’d have wanted to settle here.

For now, she had to think. The female Hobgoblin kicked around, spotting a pond, the arid and jungle sections—

Then ran smack-dab into an angry little Gnoll with a bee on her head. And a half dozen big Fortress Beavers.

Ulvama halted and stopped. Mrsha was giving her a dirty look. She folded her arms as the big beaver chittered loudly.

“Uh. Nice Mrsha-child?”

The [Shaman] hesitated. Mrsha made a rumbling sound in her throat and the beaver-gang slapped their tails on the ground. Ulvama did not want to pick a fight with a bunch of giant rodents who outweighed her and had teeth like shovel blades.

“Sorry, little Gnoll. Trying to cheer sad Goblin up! Didn’t work!”

Mrsha stared at Ulvama and glowered harder. She made some rapid signs with her paws. Ulvama frowned.

“You…is that words?”

Mrsha nodded. What she had just said was—well, it was rather rude, but it translated to ‘don’t have sex with Numbtongue and if you kick me again, I’ll have a beaver eat your foot!’

Ulvama got the message either way. She hissed and backed up. Bratty little Gnoll children and ghost-possessed Goblins! Everything was so much easier with Tremborag. Love him or hate him—and Ulvama had not loved him—he had been simple to anticipate and deal with, his tribe likewise.

The Ulvama-method of working your way to the top of a power structure did not apply to Pyrite—who knew all her tricks—or Mrsha. And she wasn’t sure she could seduce the Gnoll who cleaned things or whether that was useful.

She was frustrated, but she didn’t give up. If the most direct and, to her, easiest method failed, she could always be nice. She smiled at Mrsha.

“Sorry, Gnoll-child. I will not do it again. Let’s be friends. I take care of you, you help me. Okay?”

Mrsha gave her a flat-eyed stare. She folded her arms—then nudged one of the beavers. The gang waddled off, but the big one gave another tail slap and Ulvama a look as if to say, ‘we’re watching you. Don’t mess with our kid.’

Ulvama eyed the beavers, then saw Mrsha glancing towards Numbtongue.

“Sad Goblin has ghosts. Harder to make happy, get to eat.”

She explained. Mrsha blinked. She didn’t seem surprised to hear that; only surprised Ulvama knew. Curious. Ulvama sighed.

“Little Gnoll, this place is weird.”

After a moment, Mrsha nodded and sat down on the grass. They could both agree on that, even if Mrsha didn’t think that was necessarily a bad thing.

Well, here they were. Ulvama sat on the grass. She felt unaccountably tired; of course, she’d also laid a dozen trap runes all over the inn. Drat. She was going to have to take them off. But at least…

“Silly Human. Your mother? She left you here. Stupid woman.”

Mrsha punched Ulvama in the stomach. The [Shaman] doubled over, wheezing, and then brought her staff down. She missed. Mrsha glared. Don’t say bad things about Lyonette!

“Little Gnoll…ow. I meant, stupid because she did not take you! Even if it was dangerous—children should go with parents. Better than being left to stay.”

Ulvama wheezed. Mrsha hesitated, and nodded. Tentatively, she patted Ulvama’s stomach. The [Shaman] gave her a look.

“You punch me again and I smack you hard.”

She raised her staff. Mrsha nodded. This was fair. Ulvama sat there. Yes, that young woman should have taken the child with her. She had left her with well-meaning people. But the Gnoll, the Drake, and the others weren’t…caretakers. They had no idea.

And perhaps Mrsha saw that. Because she looked so lost and sad and miserable. And what they should have done was never leave her alone. Not for a second. Not children.

Ulvama sat with her back to the rising hill. She leaned back. She was tired. This was enough progress for one day in her mind. Numbtongue wouldn’t starve in a day, not after being fed.

Mrsha sat there. Her expression grew clouded, uncertain.

Bad thoughts. They led to bad feelings, bad actions. Bad things. Ulvama knew it all too well. She could remember…she looked at Mrsha, sighed, then patted the ground next to her.

“Silly Gnoll. Come here.”

The Gnoll-child hesitated. But…she had leaned against Numbtongue until he left. Slowly, she edged over. Ulvama immediately tugged her next to her. She leaned Mrsha against her.

“There. Sleepy.”

She murmured. Mrsha felt uncomfortable at first—then—reassured. She leaned against Ulvama. This was what she had been missing. Not Ulvama—but Lyonette.

She sniffed quietly. Ulvama pretended not to hear. She began to hum, absently. The [Garden of Sanctuary] was a good place. She felt safe here; and she had felt safe in this inn. She didn’t know why. Only that she felt…she owed the owner of this place a debt. Not from her, but on behalf of her kind.

She was on the hill, Ulvama knew. But she sensed neither life nor death there. Just power. Absently, she hummed. After a second, she began to stroke Mrsha’s head as the little Gnoll began to drift off to the first real, unaided sleep in a week.

 

—-

 

“Enough, Bird. Please, stop.”

The Worker turned. He raised his bow, but Selys was unarmed. She held up her claws; one had been badly burned. But a healing potion had mended it. And they were free.

Rose and Ishkr all blocked the way to the stairs and the last load of arrows. The Worker looked up at Selys.

“I do not wish to hurt you, Miss Selys, Ishkr, Miss Rose. But I will if I must. I will go to Hectval.”

“You’ll die, Bird.”

“I do not think I will.”

“Don’t you think it’s wrong, Bird? To kill innocent people? I could—understand—Hectval’s army. Or even hating their Council. But everyone? Don’t you feel guilty about that? You will feel guilty.”

Bird tilted his head.

“Miss Rose. I have killed people. I have killed monsters. I have killed birds, and rats that eat the food here. I do not feel guilty about killing things. Some things must die. Hectval is one of them. You cannot change my mind. Nothing you say can.”

He aimed the bow at them and they flinched aside. Bird walked past them, and Selys followed.

“Bird—if Erin was here—she’d stop you.”

“Yes. And she is not. So no one can.

There was calm, pained certainty in his words. Selys looked at Rose and Ishkr. What could they say? They had to go for Zevara, then. But surely…surely there was something that could be said, or done. But what?

If only she was here. And she was. But Selys did not know the words. Selys looked at his back. At last, she spoke quietly, as he was putting the last of the arrows into the bag of holding.

“Bird. We can’t stop you. But if Erin was standing here, and she heard what you wanted to do, if you did it and she woke up—she would cry. She would not want this.”

Bird halted, hand on the last arrows, the one made with Bevussa’s feather. He looked up at her. For the first time, he wavered, dropped an arrow.

“But she is not here.”

That was all he said. He turned, and resumed picking up arrows.

 

—-

 

Ulvama gently patted Mrsha’s head. The Gnoll was drifting off when she heard the curse.

Aaah! Again! Giant’s poo!

The [Shaman] waved her clawed hand. Mrsha jerked. Was something wrong? She looked up and saw—

A glowing flame. Mrsha’s eyes went round. It burned bright and clear. It gave off such a pure light it almost hurt. And it was blue.

But not the blue of winter, the blue of depression and darkness. This was the same color as the brilliant sky. The color, like fresh air. Like…

Hope. Mrsha stared at it. It could not be. But only one flame burned so. She reached for it—

Ulvama blew it out and wiped the fragments on the grass.

Gah! Everywhere!

She glowered at her hand, checking to see if it was burnt—

Mrsha tackled her. She began pounding Ulvama with her fists—gently—beating her. The [Shaman] yelped.

“Stop! Stop it! What is wrong with you?”

She yanked Mrsha off her. The Gnoll was trembling. She pointed at Ulvama’s claw. You! What did you do? It was there and it went out!

Ulvama stared at Mrsha, then the fire.

“You know what that is? Keeps getting on you. There!”

She pointed at Mrsha’s paw, accusingly. Mrsha gazed at it, hopeful, then confused. She saw nothing—Ulvama scooped something up. She eyed it—then hurled it down and began to stomp.

“Stupid—magic—fire—”

Mrsha went for a leg. Ulvama toppled over and Mrsha looked around desperately for…

She saw nothing. She sagged. Then looked furiously at Ulvama. The [Shaman] raised her staff protectively.

“Stop it! Why that flame matter so much? Too many weird fires! Bad if it burns all over!”

She squawked, defensively. Mrsha opened and closed her mouth. How could she even explain? It was Erin’s fire.

How had Ulvama gotten it on her claws? Mrsha remembered Erin’s last flame going out. She had been so…it had been…

Ulvama saw Mrsha’s mouth opening and closing. She scratched her head, sighing.

“Little Gnoll-child. Too bad your mouth doesn’t work, eh? It would be so much easier if I could understand what you were saying!”

She grumbled, shaking her head. Mrsha looked at her. She held up a single paw and felt at her waist. Then remembered she had no belt pouch. She ran for the closest wall of the garden.

Bemused, Ulvama watched. She saw Mrsha come racing back with quill and paper. She began writing furiously. Ulvama blinked.

“You. You can write?

Duh. Mrsha wrote, getting ink on her white fur while Ulvama read. She blinked.

“Erin’s fire? Magical fire? [Like Fire, Memory]? Ooh. Oh. Hm, hm—went out?”

She looked at Mrsha’s wretched face. The Gnoll held up a pleading note.

Please bring it back! Is there more?

Ulvama checked Mrsha up and down. The Hobgoblin gave her a big smile. And edged back.

“Um. All gone. Sorry.”

She’d taken it off Mrsha. The Gnoll looked at her and fell flat on her back. Ulvama hurried over.

“I thought it was bad! Kept changing! I didn’t know! It kept burning little Gnoll. See?”

She grabbed Mrsha and the Gnoll saw her lift her arm. Sure enough; the fur on her arm was short. Mrsha stared. She hadn’t noticed.

“You said, flame went out when dead Human—er—Erin tried to give it to you?”

Mrsha nodded. Ulvama nodded wisely.

“Ah, but some on little Mrsha-child. Because…fur is flammable.”

She pronounced her scientific hypothesis as to why the flame had lingered. Mrsha blinked at her a few times. So a spark had remained. So small she hadn’t noticed it, on her fur. A bit of hope and kindness and Erin’s fire, still burning.

And now it was gone, thanks to Ulvama. The little [Druid] nodded solemnly. She put two paws in her mouth and whistled. Time for the Beaver-gang.

“No, stop!”

Ulvama waved a frantic claw. She pointed at Mrsha’s notes as ominous furry beavers surfaced out of the pond. Apista buzzed around Ulvama’s face and the Hobgoblin ducked. The little [Druid] held up a paw. And what did Ulvama have to say?

“Fire went out. Not good. But…so what? Give me one chance. Help me—and I help you.”

Ulvama pleaded with Mrsha. She looked at the little Gnoll. She did not regret taking the fire. Perhaps it had been burning those emotions away to survive. It was a glorious thing. But dangerous. Mrsha looked at her, confused.

But a flicker of that same fire in her eyes. Ulvama reached out and took Mrsha’s paw. She looked at the little Gnoll’s face and understood at last.

She did not know the story. But she saw what Mrsha needed.

“Come with me.”

 

—-

 

Sammial was red-faced. Not crying—but he had tears in his eyes from refusing to cry.

He had a scratch on his cheek; another boy had been kicked in the gonads. The wind had died. Ryoka looked at the upset children.

“I think that’s enough flying for today, guys.”

Sammy!

Hethon rounded on his younger brother. Sammy was red-faced.

“It wasn’t my fault! They wouldn’t give me a turn! And I asked! Politely!”

“It’s not Sammy’s fault—”

Entirely. Ryoka soothed the children. They’d gotten a good thirty minutes of playing, anyways. And she—she was out of sorts. She had fumbled around with the Techblade—Faeblade—dead gods, she needed a better name for it—long enough.

The truth was, she was still mourning. Still grieving Erin. She had not processed it while hope remained. Now? She had only two avenues left. One easier than the other.

The first was Teriarch. But he had not responded to her. His cave seemed…gone. Yet she needed his aid. She craved it. For a Dragon—where fae failed, perhaps the Dragon could help her.

And she would do whatever it took this time.

But the other road was longer still. More dangerous. She knew where the scroll Ivolethe and fate had led her to. Yet…it would be hard.

So that was why Ryoka Griffin played peacekeeper. Why she reassured Hethon they’d all get a turn—after dinner. And why she put up with Sammial. That—and she saw more than a bit of herself in them.

But she might need Lord Tyrion’s help. And she had called on more than enough favors for him to consider the debt repaid. Yet she might need the aid of House Veltras. The Emperor of Riverfarm.

Even more. Ryoka straightened as the children begged for another go.

“In a moment. Right now…I need to do something. You can all watch, but—there she is. Miss Yesel?”

She turned to Prost’s wife. The woman was waving at her.

“Is now a good time, Miss Griffin? We finished what you were asking for. We think it’s all good—it’s quite an honor, you entrusting it to us!”

“Well, you are the best [Needlewomen] and [Sewers] so on in all of Riverfarm. Er—except for—”

Belavierr. And there was no way in any hell Ryoka would ever ask for aid from her.

Miss Yesel’s face darkened at the unspoken name, but she smiled, beckoning Ryoka. The kids, curious now, followed. Some knew what Ryoka had asked the woman and the other [Seamstresses] and so on’s aid for and brightened.

Not just them, but [Carpenters], woodworkers, even the crabby, spitty Jelov’s aid. It was two things, rather. Ryoka followed the woman.

“I have to pay you, Miss Yesel—”

“His Majesty won’t hear of it. Besides which, it is something to brag about. At least, if you keep using it!”

“I’ll try. I still have the scarf you gave me. It kept me warm all winter, Miss Yesel.”

“Do you? Oh my, that seems so long ago. I’m glad you kept it!”

Ryoka smiled. It was a polite lie; she’d actually burned the scarf less than a week after receiving it. During the Winter Solstice.

This world sucked sometimes. Sammial was still angry and miserable again as he saw the Wind Runner conferring with Miss Yesel. He wanted to see, but the other children—and even some adults, the women whom Ryoka had asked for help from and [Builders] and even the [Engineers] were all crowded around and she was thanking them and shaking hands.

“Does this mean you’ll be leaving soon?”

It was one of the things she had stayed for. Sammial stared up at Ryoka miserably as Jericha helped him through the crowd. He stared at the…triangle of cloth. The light wooden frame. The children looked avid.

Ryoka had changed her clothing too. She was adjusting her new garments and Sammial thought they looked interesting—and stupid—at the same time. He knew what it was they’d finished.

And it was exciting—but it meant she was going to go. The Wind Runner hesitated.

“I will have to go back to work, Sammial. I am a Runner.”

“Courier. You’re a Courier now.”

Ryoka blinked as if she’d forgotten that. She smiled at Sammial, faintly.

“Yes, well. That too. But if you want, I can always drop by, Sammial. And I’m not leaving right away.”

The hang glider sat there as she adjusted her clothing again and took a breath. Sammial stared at it.

“Are you going to use that thing again? You said you’d crash like a bug if you did.”

Indeed, Jericha was eying Ryoka as if she was insane. The Wind Runner’s first flight during the run to House Veltras had nearly killed Ryoka. The Wind Runner shuddered at the memory.

But not all had been for naught.

 

—-

 

The Hobgoblin [Bard] saw Ulvama coming up the hill again. She had more clothing on, but his eyes flashed and his hand shifted on the blade.

If she tried to touch him again, she would lose her hand. He was on the edge of all things. Numbtongue wanted to kill something. He wanted the simplicity of violence.

He looked at her with murderous intent. But Ulvama was walking up the hill, aiming past him. She was headed—

Up. And she did not deserve to be there. She had not been there. Numbtongue growled. He would not have her defiling Erin’s resting place. Never mind that she was a Goblin and had not known her. He was in no mood to be reasonable.

He stood, stumbling a bit as his frozen muscles complained. Ulvama halted a second—then hurried left.

“Stop.”

Numbtongue stumbled after her. But a figure blocked his way.

A white Gnoll. He snarled at Mrsha. She flinched—but a bee buzzed past Numbtongue’s face warningly. He swatted at Apista.

“Out of the way!”

He was going to—

A sound crossed the garden. A menacing sound, so rare here.

Thump thump slap. Thump thump slap.

Numbtongue’s head turned. He stared.

Beaver gang. The Fortress Beavers marched up the hill, slapping their tails. He raised his sword, but couldn’t swing it—they bowled him over. The weakened, hungry [Bard] rolled—

And they sat on him. Mrsha patted Numbtongue’s head and showed him a card. He stared at it.

“What?”

Ulvama was heading up the hill. Towards the frozen bier, and the young woman.

She stopped when she saw Erin Solstice.

“Ah.”

That was all. The [Shaman] saw the crossbow bolts, the blood; it did not take a genius to see what had happened. She looked at the faint smile and shook her head.

For a moment she bowed her head. And if Numbtongue had feared she’d be disrespectful…Ulvama bent and felt the permanent cold, eying the runes of power, the altar of gifts.

“Good place to chill drinks.”

She commented to Mrsha. The Gnoll gave her a warning look. The Hobgoblin shrugged. She felt little sadness. A bit, but—

“She is not dead.”

She patted Mrsha on the head. The little Gnoll looked up at Ulvama, longingly, hoping it to be true. Ulvama bent, studying the young woman. And at last, she nodded.

“Yes. I see it now. She is the one. Why it feels safe here.”

[Natural Ally: Goblins].

No killing Goblins.

It had begun here. With a young woman, long before the fire. With an inn. Mrsha’s eyes filled with tears. She wanted to go to Erin and hug her. But it was so cold. And the fire…

Ulvama studied Erin Solstice. Then, slowly, the [Shaman] bent down. She halted at the magical barrier. Then, reached past it.

She touched Erin’s hand. Just—touched. Numbtongue made a sound. He knocked the beavers off him, struggled up the hill. Ulvama closed her eyes. She held up her claw as he shouted, lifting his sword.

And she was holding the fire.

Numbtongue stopped, sword in hand. He stared at the burning flame, in Ulvama’s palm. Mrsha’s eyes opened wide.

It was tiny at first, a spark, nothing more. But it grew, dancing, as Ulvama focused on it. The [Shaman] bit her lip as the flame grew. Then she held it out.

“There.”

She looked at Mrsha. Numbtongue swayed, incredulous. Uncomprehending.

“How?”

The [Shaman] looked at him. She smiled. And the flame grew as she handed it down. To Mrsha. To Numbtongue, who clasped at it, his eyes wide.

It burned in the gaze of the beavers. Over the frozen young woman.

The Worker, who had to come to say farewell, fell to his knees. Rose, Selys, and Ishkr all halted.

Look at it. There it burned. That beautiful flame, made of so many at once. It changed as Numbtongue and Mrsha held it.

Hope. It burned like brilliant blue. In Ulvama’s claws it was different.

Kindness. Which was red like a rose, crossed with gentle orange. Soft and marvelous.

“How?”

That was all the [Bard] asked. He held it, the last gift he had thought lost. Hope. He looked at Ulvama. She smiled, and this is what she said.

“Silly Goblin. When the fire goes away, you light it again.”

The flame grew.

 

—-

 

“I didn’t get what I wanted. Not all of it, Sammial. And I’ve got a lot to do.”

Ryoka spoke to him as she adjusted the straps and harness. The others were backing up. He looked at her. The City Runner looked…worn. Sad.

But not empty of resolve. She glanced up at the sky, her lips moving upwards as she looked at him out of the corner of her eye.

“But you got something.”

“Yes.”

He meant the secret artifact. But Ryoka meant something else. She sighed.

“The strangers—they’re friends of a sort. And they couldn’t help me in the end. But they didn’t leave me with nothing. They gave me some things. And…well, they told me what I might need to do. Where I might need to go. But they gave me one more thing. Hah. Three and three again. A trinity.”

“What, exactly?”

Jericha looked at Ryoka. The wind was picking up. Across Riverfarm, people were working, the nobles riding in the distance. The [Witches] at their craft. Ryoka Griffin’s hair blew in the breeze.

“They gave me gifts, and knowledge. And one more thing. Can you guess what it is?”

She looked at Hethon. He shook his head blankly. Sammial bit his tongue.

“Is it—is it—I don’t know. What is it?”

The Wind Runner looked at him. And her green eyes sparkled. She looked happy for the first time since the Solstice had ended. She glanced up. Then grinned.

“They taught me how to fly.”

She leapt, and the air pulled her into the sky. Sammial’s mouth opened wide. He waited for her to come down.

But she never did. The wind caught the glider as it leapt upwards. Ryoka was blown upwards in a second. She clung to the bar and everyone gasped. They waited for the wind to hurl her—

Ryoka twisted in the air and flew higher. Then she dove. She skimmed over the tops of Riverfarm’s roofs. Then turned. Sammial realized it first as she did a U-turn and came back the way she’d come towards him.

“She’s really flying! Look! She’s really—”

Jericha, Hethon, and the others looked at him without understanding. Then they saw what he meant. Ryoka dipped—and flashed right over the heads of the crowd who ducked. She winked at Sammial and then the updraft carried her into the air once more.

This wasn’t following the wind. She was—Sammial’s mouth opened wider, wider—such that even Apista could have buzzed in and out. He saw Ryoka accelerating. Faster.

The Wind Runner was flying.

 

—-

 

The group of nobles on horseback were enjoying a leisurely hunt, which did not suit the ones who had actually come to hunt.

Lord Tyrion kept riding ahead with Gralton, rather than socializing. Pellmia alternated between social graces and spirited riding. Typically, Pryde was in the ‘move fast’ group and seemed to want to make it a competition who could bag the better game.

Bethal was taking her leisure and chattering away with Wuvren. Lord Tyrion was grinding his teeth. He longed to be riding. He’d had a ride this morning, but with Lord Pellmia. And no disrespect to the other [Lord], a good campaigner and fighter and [Lord], but no one could keep up with Tyrion in the saddle.

It was the freedom to ride that Lord Tyrion sought in his morning rituals. Since it had been denied him, he was grumpy.

His head was turning impatiently, for a Corusdeer or other quarry he could use to take off after. Thus—he was the first one to see the speck in the air heading their way.

It was coming from Riverfarm. For a second he thought it was one of the ‘kites’ that Emperor Godart had shown the children how to make. But then he did a double-take.

“Tyrion? What is it?”

Bethal called out as the [Lord] changed course abruptly. The [Lord] didn’t answer. Bethal turned and gasped.

“Is that…Ryoka?

The Wind Runner was flying out of Riverfarm. She crossed the river, and Bethal’s eyes picked out the young woman. She was ‘lying’ against the triangular…thing that was flying through the air! She had seen it in the famous run. But now she saw it again.

A hang glider. Each piece hand-woven with the most secure threads by the best Skills and hands in Riverfarm. The frame likewise designed by the [Engineers] and [Carpenters]. Even mildly enchanted thanks to Lady Rie’s [Mage].

It was not Kevin’s tuned-up bike. And it didn’t need to be. All it had to do was provide a surface.

The wind did the rest. Ryoka saw the ground passing below her in a blur and slowly at the same time; she stared before keeping her eyes ahead. She saw the hunting party as she covered the ground in a minute.

Ryoka! Ryoka, wait up! How are you doing that?

Charlay charged across the bridge, shouting up at the sky. The Centaur was slower than Ryoka! Panting, she saw Ryoka angle the glider and turn.

The slight move sent Ryoka down and around towards the ground fast. Tyrion heard a curse and winced as he saw the glider dive; she was too low to the ground! But before the Wind Runner could crash, a gust suddenly righted her. She soared on, gaining altitude.

“My word! I think she’s controlling the wind! Could she do that last time?”

Lord Pellmia blinked. The hunting party came to a halt. Ryoka Griffin soared past them, dipping again. She was only twenty feet off the ground now—and moving—faster—

Flying. The wind was at her back. This—this was what Ryoka Griffin had always imagined. The wind was blowing, not just propelling her forwards, but an updraft keeping her from diving. Faster.

She skimmed across the ground, turning, arcing, racing past the riders and people on horseback. The nobility were all staring. Their swift horses and Skills—even the Centaur Runner couldn’t keep up. And they all belonged to the land. Ryoka was in the air.

Lord Pellmia jerked as someone ran into him. Both Lord Ranga and his son were gawking and had collided their horses with his. For that matter—their horses were staring too.

Ryoka was already threatening to cross into the forest leading up to the Goblinlands. A Cave Goblin sitting in one of the watch towers and having a snack sprayed his cup of water as he saw her flying past him. Ryoka waved.

The glider turned, swinging left. Ryoka was laughing—a touch manically. It was so—so—natural!

They had given her wings. The fae. That was what Ivolethe had given her.

Flying lessons.

After all, no one was good at something the first time. And learning how to skydive or hang glide or…the air was unforgiving. But Ryoka had known flight in the land of the fae. And she remembered.

The wind was also different. Ryoka twisted the glider, soaring down. She soared along the ground, as fast as a bird! And she was laughing.

“I can fly!”

The wind snatched away her voice. Ryoka felt the wind rippling at her clothes, and it was getting chilly despite the summer heat. But…she flew higher again, seeing the world drop away and become small.

It did not bring Erin back. Nor was the sky safe from danger. Plus, she needed goggles or a stray bug would put out her eye.

But look. Ryoka laughed and laughed. She was free.

And she was not the only one laughing. The Wind Runner raced across the ground, and only realized she had a tail when she heard his voice.

Lord Tyrion. Charlay was trying to keep pace, but she gave up after less than a mile. But someone was following her, leaping a stream, urging his horse onwards. Ryoka stared down.

He was laughing as he raced after her. Racing the wind. And…keeping pace. She saw him raise a hand, grinning like a boy. She waved.

Then nearly hit a flying squadron of geese. They honked in alarm. Ryoka wobbled and swore. A feather smacked her in the face and the quill actually cut her cheek!

Are you alright, Wind Runner?

Tyrion saw the incident. Ryoka swooped lower, shouting.

“I need goggles!”

Why?

He looked mystified. Ryoka opened her mouth and saw Tyrion suffer the same fate as she had nearly a second ago. His horse’s hoof kicked up a stray pebble and it shot towards his face.

Then bounced off a field. The protective spell. She pointed.

“I need that!

“Ah!”

He nodded, smiling faintly. Ryoka turned.

“One more thing, then! I’m going up!”

She shot into the air. Higher—she was up a hundred feet above the ground in moments and climbing higher. Tyrion slowed and shaded his eyes.

What was she doing now? Ryoka was breathing harder. But she was excited.

Ivolethe had given her the blessing of the fae. And more…her hand fumbled for two objects on her belt. A glass bottle and—

The hilt. Ryoka bared her teeth as Riverfarm became a dot below her. Tyrion saw her stall out in the air, coming to a dead stop as the momentum of the glider met gravity.

“That’s—”

Ryoka gripped the Faeblade. It ignited. She took a breath as gravity began to pull her and the glider down.

“Here we go.”

She had been terrified of the hurricane that had dragged her into the sky. A terrible, careless force of nature that could not be controlled. But now, she knew the trick of tricks. The wind was her friend. And more than that?

She swung the Faeblade and touched it—the harness’ straps parted like tearing paper.

The glider came away. Lord Tyrion shouted. So did everyone watching. Ryoka saw the glider separate. And now—she was free falling.

The young woman was dropping out of the sky. Jericha grabbed a horse and aimed her wand frantically at the target—but it was a million-to-one shot even if her spell had range—

Then she saw Ryoka’s downward momentum…shift. The [High Mage] stared.

“What the—”

The wind caught Ryoka as she dropped. It yanked at her clothes. And it found purchase. Loose fabric—and the stupid suit Sammial had observed inflated, creating drag, and a kind of wings…

The nobles and people of this earth had no reference for this. If they could understand the glider, this was nonsensical. Even Laken Godart, listening to Gamel and Durene shout commentary, had to think. Then he started laughing.

Wingsuit.

Ryoka Griffin had done crazy things. But even she had not ever gone wingsuit surfing. That was a special kind of crazy. A special kind of dangerous.

Even skydiving was really only pulling a chute at the right moment. This? Wingsuits let you fly or glide at extreme speed. One wrong move and you could go splat.

But she had the wind on her side.

Ryoka dove, as Lord Tyrion galloped after her. The glider was carried by the current of air, to land in the forest where the Goblins would retrieve it for study before it was recovered.

But Ryoka sped on. The wind was doing its own thing above her; the breeze that high was blowing north steadily. Ryoka raced perpendicular to it, in the wingsuit, carrying her back towards Riverfarm, above the fields where the [Farmers] stopped and stared.

The wind ignored her, but something still carried her down. A powerful gust that belonged only to her.

“What the f—”

Ryoka blew past Alevica. The [Witch] twisted to catch her and was nearly blown away. There was a wind surrounding Ryoka!

She was her own breeze! Ryoka felt the magic burning in her veins. That was it! The final clue. She laughed as she felt her magic exhausting itself to keep her going.

She landed just past the fields, turning, slowing—and at the last moment a mighty updraft totally stopped her momentum. Ryoka hovered—then dropped.

The Wind Runner was panting. Both physically and mentally—and magically—drained from the flight. But she was grinning like a madwoman.

Lord Tyrion was the first to arrive, then Alevica, who had lost her hat. Charlay, the nobility—Ryoka was trying to speak.

“It—that was—where’d my glider go?”

“The forest. I saw it land. That was insane! Ryoka! You’re flying! You’re practically a Garuda! That’s not fair! I’m supposed to be the faster one!”

Charlay swept her up into a hug. Ryoka felt the Centauress squeezing. She laughed.

“That was—intense. I should have had goggles. Or an amulet.”

“We thought you were mad when you cut yourself loose of the glider!”

“I knew what would happen. Or I thought so. And I had insurance.”

“Insurance?”

Tyrion raised an eyebrow. Ryoka showed him the second object in her grip; she’d put away the Faeblade.

A bottle. A Potion of Slow Fall, in addition to Hedault’s crash-ring. His eyes flickered and he nodded.

“Wise.”

The Wind Runner nodded to him. Then Charlay hugged her again until Ryoka squeaked and asked to be let go. Then everyone wanted to know what the Wingsuit was—and Hethon and Sammial were already begging to try, which neither Ryoka nor Jericha would countenance.

Bethal wanted to try too, which her husband shot down, and Ryoka had to tell people about the dangers of non-wind hang-gliding—but admit it was a possibility. Pebblesnatch’s mouth opened wide as she peeked out of the forest.

Word spread. Well—who cared about word spreading? The nobles here had seen it! The Wind Runner had built her own wings!

She was a flying Courier.

 

—-

 

The fire burned. Ulvama saw Numbtongue sitting with it.

In the inn. He held it in one palm. And he was drinking—water. Eating.

Light had returned to the inn. It was small, but Mrsha had put it on her head. Selys was fussing—

“Does it hurt? Is it burning your fur?”

The Gnoll looked cross-eyed at the flame burning on her head and giggled. She laughed, and it was a good sound to hear. Ulvama smiled.

Fire could not solve all the world’s problems. It usually added to them. But this was a special flame. It was beautiful, glorious, sad, humble, and powerful all at once.

Ishkr cupped a tiny flame in his paws. It might go out. It might be extinguished. And so what?

Light it again! However many times it took.

Until she came back.

Bird sat with the flame burning on the table in front of him. It began to go out—until he scooped it up. Only then did the flame brighten. This fire could not exist without someone holding it. He looked at it, trembling. Rose and Selys watched him out of the corner of their eyes.

After a long time, the Worker whispered.

“I miss my Fortress of Fluff. I wish I had not cut Miss Bevussa’s feather up, now.”

“We’ll help you get it back, Bird.”

Selys would toss gold at people if it meant getting back his possessions. Beat them to death with sacks of it. She went to Bird. He held the flame. And the vengeance against Hectval seemed less important than this.

Fire and memory. They would carry word of it. Carry the flame. It was not yet lost. It was a sign, a symbol.

As much as anything else. Anything could be a sign. But this? This was good.

The door to The Wandering Inn opened as the light came back. The first visitors in a long time came, bearing a flower to tell Rose that she was the lucky pick they’d settled on. If she was willing to make a commitment, that was.

And Mrsha looked at Ulvama and decided she was okay. The Hobgoblin contently sipped from the alcohol collection she’d finally discovered at the back of the bar—she’d never actually seen a bar in her life before.

This inn was better than she thought!

 

—-

 

I relax afterwards. I meant what I told Sammial. There are always consequences.

For instance—I may have introduced hang-gliding to this world and thus upped aviated deaths by an uncountable number. But you know what? To hell with it.

There are people from Earth here. And I need to fly. I have a sword from another time and reality and even if magic can destroy it, I can use it.

I will use it. Every tool and means I have. Teriarch. My head is spinning.

I just received word from him. From ‘Grand Magus Eldavin’, rather. Who’s at…Wistram Academy?

Holy fuck. Unholy fuck. Why am I swearing? I have to send him a reply. Does he want an autograph by the King of Chivalry himself, in triplicate? Does he want a super-sword? Please.

Oh, please.

And if that doesn’t work? If he refuses? Well—it’s probably still a bit more dangerous to raid a Dragon’s hoard. But I’ll risk it. Whatever I need to do, I will.

Halrac just told me Griffon Hunt is taking a leave of absence from Riverfarm, despite their contract. The Horns of Hammerad have sent out a call.

We will not let Erin stay dead. So, my heart is lighter even as I talk with Lord Tyrion. For some reason, he seems to still tolerate me. Maybe because of the kids. Maybe that’s a way to persuade him. No one else seems willing to really treat Sammial like they should.

And I’ll be a Courier. I’ll do what it takes. I can move across Izril now. Even if I need to learn the air. Even if I can still run out of mana. But Ryoka is flying your deliveries now.

…Am I going to get out of shape? Well, running is still useful, especially during rain.

All of this is in my future. I am not afraid of it. But before that—the scroll. Perhaps Teriarch can help. Perhaps the Horns or someone else. But if I believe the fae, maybe this is the best and most likely solution. Ivolethe always said it was ‘if’, not ‘when’. Maybe I have no chance and the answer is some other way.

But I know where it is. I know where something that can help Erin lies. I only must get to it.

If only it was easy. If only it was convenient, like challenging Lady Pryde to a cage match. Because I knew that vault. I’ve seen that symbol on the news. A famous place.

Hells, hells, hells. It’s not even close by. Even for a flier. But…well…

Ailendamus.

How the heck am I going to get in there?

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I need help. Is there a group for authors who can’t write under 25,000 words?

And this is even longer than the last three chapters.

But I had fun writing the last parts of it. And with this—we may be ‘caught up’ in most of the central plotlines. Not that we’ve been stagnant, but the opening of a volume or book in a series does need recap.

Does everyone remember Ailendamus? Ah, well, here we go. Flying and technological swords (I’m accepting better names than Faeblade or Techblade, by the way), and more.

Hope you enjoy! There’s only actually 1-2 more chapters before my monthly break…but the poll chapter will be one of them! See you next time and hope you enjoyed this one! Thanks for reading!

 

Belavierr’s Deal by Brack, Commissioned by pirateaba!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

 

Fire, Selys, Tyrion, and Pisces by Tomeo! (Pisces made with Picrew Image Maker.)

 

Erin’s Fire, Backpage, Cat Revi, and more by Anito!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/anito

 


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136 thoughts on “8.03

  1. Leave a typo for fire and flying! Don’t mix the two unless it’s a hot air balloon. Even then.

    (Firery flying readers: MrWiggles, Gorexn, Aox, Maladal, afkcuzbookiscool, Octo, emphes, razzputin, Gecko13)

      • I’m not sure what the origin of Kaalblade is but my brief googling has lead me to believe it’s sanskrit for a fire/time blade so I can see there already being an in universe name for a wind or light blade that would be appropriate.

      • The Octarine Destiny, Texcalibur, Sisterhood, The Glass of the West, The Giant’s Knife
        I want to make a “giant’s sword that killed Grendel’s mother, but then the blade disappeared and all that was left was the hilt” pun, but that sword and even Grendel’s mother never get proper names. Which, y’know, sucks because it would be perfect.

    • I’d like to suggest The Line. A mathematical construct that has no business hanging around in a world of magic, infinite in magnitude yet unable to intersect anything not from its dimension.

    • Vorpal lightblade.
      Satblade: Sufficiently Advanced Technology blade.
      Quibly.

      Hrm, the erlking is fake mythology, and an “extended resonant light blade” as an erlblade might fit.

    • The button sword, the clicker sword, the vapor blade, the stained glass blade, the dusk blade, the dust blade, the mute blade, the dead blade, the trick blade, the dull blade, the xenoblade, the alien blade, the synth blade, the mass blade, the light-edged blade, the whisper blade, the machine blade, the brittle blade, the whicker, the exquisite stick, the nightstick, the FTL (faster than light), dimshard, sherbert, nightlight, void light, Ryoka’s handy dandy wacker smacker, traveler, rustbeam, maple light, the citrine wraith…. there’s more in me but I have to move on with my life.

    • Considering it’s probably a monofilament or at least a monomolecular edge, maybe the monoblade? It’s also one of it’s kind in innworld, so a nice double meaning there.

    • Windcleaver, Kazaguruma (japanese for wind blade), Shatterlight, Stormsaber, Zephyr, Turbine, Alien Excalibur, Ascalon (which besides being an already well known sword name, was also the name of sword in Ben 10, which fits with the alien theme though I’m not entirely sure if Ryoka is the kind of person to have watched a children’s show), Tempest’s Edge, Skylight, Solstice, Enigmablade, Joshua

    • The Doorman? ‘Cos it could open doors for her… boom boom!
      Safecracker? Sting? Slicy McSliceface? The shatterblade? Xenoblade? Er… photonepee? Absolutely-not-a-lightsabre? (Really bad acronym!) Airblade? Caliburn II? Son of Excalibur? The Gift? The Equaliser? Penknife? Exoblade? Cosmoblade? Astroblade?

    • Even if it’s high tech, in the end it is just a folding blade.

      I could see Ryoka publicly referring to it as just “Blade”, if only because she likes projecting the practical, levelheaded Ryoka image.

      I could also see her privately naming it something really fancy that reminds her of its origin, something she doesn’t really tell others she calls it, because she thinks it’s too pretentious.

      “Starshard” ? “Summer’s edge” ? I have little sense for naming things.

        • Wind— makes more sense if others are nameing it for her though?

          To Ryoka it’s probably more associated with her summer solstice jaunt through fairy-ville and the space-invader guys it originated from or maybe Oberon who gave it to her?

          If Ivolethes name wasn’t so long, I would had used it for basis. or Oberons.

          Maybe it should be “Winters Favour” ?

          My only other upshot is naming it after some adventurer who fought the gods, as they are set up to be her enemies.

          “Prometheus” ?

      • I think it can do more than just a blade, it’s just that Ryoka can’t figure out the instructions.

        (It’s supposed to be a “sidearm” for a species that is several thousand years beyond the era when melee combat was good for anything, so either the aliens gave her the least useful weapon in their entire arsenal, or it’s got some extra tricks in it. Maybe it’s an omnitool sort of deal where it can project other useful shapes but the blade is the most readily accessible for combat.)

    • Starblade or starsword, possibly? It’s from a space faring group (the stars), looks bright without leaving much afterimage (like far away stars), and cuts through most things (as starlight does the dark skies of night).

    • Are we giving the blade a name or naming the blade? If it’s the former then I vote Amelia, or maybe Adrian for gender-neutrality.

      It’s a sword for a runner so:
      The Letter Opener
      Universally Piercing Saber, UPS

      What about just copying some other fantasy swords:
      Æsahættr (The Subtle Knife) or Ætherblade
      Transistor (the game)

      Wait, it’s a future-tech sword:
      BIOSblade
      NASAmune
      MAChete
      RAIDiance

      Maybe it’s super advanced like how the Goblins see iPhones and will have technology convergence:
      Smartsword
      iCalibur
      μSaber

      Wait, if it’s super-advanced it should definitely have some sort of AI inside right? Maybe that’s why Ryoka doesn’t stab herself:
      StabOS
      knAIf
      Bill Strife the Science Knife

      Most of the comments are about it being a blade of hard light:
      Stillighto
      Octarine’s Edge (Yes, I know it’s not magical but it’s a color that Ryoka hasn’t seen before)
      Dawnbringer
      Photon’s Beak (Because Ryoka is now a bird)
      Aurora Bladealis
      Holoshard/Hollowshard

      Actually it’s not a sword at all is it? It’s just the hilt and Ryoka would definitely call it that:
      Omnihilt
      柄 Tsuka (Japanese name for the handle of a katana) and I think vol.1 Ryoka would go for this given that she probably knows Russian swear words
      Handle in the Wind

      Wait, the only reason we’re coming up with names is because Ryoka can’t call it a lightsaber isn’t it? Guess we need some Star Wars names:
      The Skywalker or Skywalker’s edge (Because she now flies)
      Space Windu

      I think that’s all I’ve got
      Everblade Neverblade Whateverblade

    • I’m really enjoying the start of this volume. There’s so much going on and I want to know it all. I’m not interested in focussing on any one character’s arch.

      Don’t worry so much about chapter length, unless it interferes with your 2 chapters a week goal. Long or short I don’t think anyone here will complain.

      THANK YOU PIRATE ABA for inviting us into your imagination, it’s a wonderful place to visit.

      Your record 2,100,000 words in volume 7 was not a deterrent to myself and it appears no-one else is unhappy with the length, judging by the comments I’ve read here.

      My suggestion for the blade name is WINDSHEAR,

      It’s the wind runners blade and it easily shears through things perpendicular to itself, Just like wind shear in nature. I’m sure if Ryoka hits some in her new hang-glider the name will hit her too!

    • Whisperblade
      Razorblade
      Shardblade [or no, that’s the other sort of Windrunner with a sword that cuts through anything…]
      The Skewer
      Switchblade
      Tickling stick
      Needle
      Cleaver

      How about people-names that are also weapons:
      Dirk
      Kris (as in, an Indonesian weapon)
      Spike
      Bilbo!! (a rapier)

      …or Daphne?

      • I like this one, especially if it’s pronounced just like Excalibur just with an t at the start. Texcalibur is a great pun for this sword

        Also… What stops ryoka from saying lightsaber? Seems close enough

      • This. Either Photon Blade, or just Photon.
        It’s short, sweet, to the point, and it’s a name that can be told to non-Earthlings without giving away the blade’s origins.

    • It’s a fae blade that can cut through anything(ish).

      Someone else suggested Vorpal Blade, and that’s a good suggestion.

      I suggest Snicker Snack.

      • Has nobody seen the obvious ? Or was it too obvious ?
        No levels.
        The Snarkyness.
        Beating the most powerful beings with her Brain.
        The Flight Suit.
        Insanely prepared.
        Ryokas Chat-Persona

        it has to be the Batknife

    • Maybe the missing blade, or the empty hilt, Or blade of nothingness. Could call it paradox blade. Fits because it’s the sharpest blade in the world, but it can’t cut magic, and it’s not actually a blade, but a multitool. If you’re a who fan you could call it a sonic screwdriver.

  2. I love the chapter and not to knock things but I swear Ryoka has to be one of the dumbest smart people I’ve ever seen. Most of thr north, major figures two (possibly three) Walled Cities, multiple adventuring teams, one of the largest Gnoll tribes, several Goblin tribes and one of the highest ranking nobles of Desonis would shake the Earth to help Erin and Ryoka’s first thought is to try and break into a heavily fortified vault of one of Terandria’s most powerful Kingdoms? You really think that between all of them you couldn’t come up with something they’d trade for?

      • Ailendamus is the expansionist Terandrian nation currently at war with the Dawn Concordat (Calanfer (Lyonette’s home), Kaliv (with the Griffins and the [Murderer], and one other). And yes, Rabbiteater’s group of the Order of the Seasons were captured by Ailendamus until Erin helped them escape. They may still be on Ailendamus territory now.

    • I’m surprised Selys hasn’t just traded/pawned the Heartflame Breastplate for a Potion of Regeneration or similar artifact. I’d expect the armor to be at least worth that much?

      • That’s too easy, but I think it’s a much better idea for Erin to be cured as a collective result of all the people she has helped returning to help her instead of it being solely on trick Ryoka bit, whom, while I might of misread things, has rocks where brains should be because she once again is try to this by herself despite being told very clearly by the fae that she needs to seek out the help of friends.

        • Erin is not dead. She is not alive.
          Couldn’t they just pull out the bolts and use a simple [Repair] spell on her? Then they just need to figure out how to thaw and resuscitate her. Maybe even with her own hope flames.

    • Hmm? She said multiple times throughout the chapter that she would ask others for help.
      She mentioned that she will talk to Tyrion and Laken, and also mentioned that she is gonna ask Teriarch for help and was wondering what she could offer in exchange for his assistance.

      Getting to Alliendamus was literally her last thought.

  3. Re-igniting the flames or the flame of hope sounds like it is going to be useful and important for helping things out within the Inn… Or possibly getting Erin back.

    Getting to ailendamus is going to be tricky, but Lord Tyrion did have the invite or request to give aid or not give aid to certain factions within the “human continent” so he might be able to help. Tricky bit would be traveling across the sea and the host of problems from it.

    Both getting there and getting out since there is a war brewing and people who would want the cure.

    That just leaves the Human Pick… And trying to figure out where the missing two humans are.

    Also a [dragon] within the school of stagnant [mages] could go down really well… Or really horribly. Bets on how much damage it does or does not cause.

    Last, but not least… The [Parasite Devils] are planning their return. Laken is trying to figure out how to remove his parasite since it puts everyone else around him in danger… Especially since they can force people to act against their own free will… And make everyone forget about them.

    Not a lot of folk left who can help with that problem.

    Also not calling them “Gods” because at best they seem like Jerk Greek Gods… And worse they are conning Devils. Because shoving your hand in front of a blind man’s hand to force a pact is just BS in the highest degree.

    Even Black Mage for all of his faults managed to get something useful out of the trade before he got forced into doing something he didn’t want to do. Like being unable to resist casting the spell and pressing the send button.

    Still time to wait and see what happens next.

    • This sounds almost exactly like every god humans invented. Most often, at best, morally corrupt, contemptuous, tricksters (and not just harmless fun. Cruel, rapey, and dismissive of human will. How many children of gods and demigods came about through honest conversation and a good old fashioned courtship?

      The creation of woman, Pandora, by Zeus and Hephaestus. Her whole purpose was to eventually just be the vessel of his ire, and made to make a human release all the evils in the world.

      Dionysius, the coyotes of Native American mythology, the Indian and Hindu myths are loaded. Christian mythology, Yahweh and the devil both do terrible, deceitful things, either to “test” them, punish them, or just mess with them. Odin and Loki, Anansi, Maui, the list goes on.

      Gods are almost universally jerks at one point or another. Especially to simple minded man.

    • Ailendamus is the country that’s going to war with just about everyone in Terandria. The naval blockade that took up a couple chapters last volume, Ailendamus did that. The war over farmland with the griffon flying faction from a few books back, Ailendamus did that. The general Rabbiteater fought, Ailendamus. The war there is one of the longer slow burn plots in the background. Technically they are and aren’t supported by Wistram. One of the ‘archmages’ comes from Ailendamus and is using his power to keep the academy neutral because most of Wistram dislikes Ailendamus, so by proclaiming neutrality on the issue he keeps the other countries from gaining help. One of the nations he’s fighting against is Calanfer, the place Lyonette comes from. The country The Singer is putting distance away from is Ailendamus, she didn’t like them much while her band was there and sees staying the hell away as a priority. Part of the weird music video she did aimed at Earthers painted them in a bad light if people knew Earth culture ques to stay away, even if it was mostly aimed at Wistram. As Erin would say, Ailendamus are a bunch of jerks. I think that about covers the major points.

  4. Ryoka needs a pair of those translating glasses she was using back in Magnolia’s library. So, can we skip the part of her being flummoxed by the translation of the instructions. Just have her go to Invrisil and pick up a pair. She knows they exist, she used a pair for weeks. I’m going to be disappointed if this turns into a whole thing if she forgets about the translation glasses to cause plot problems. She has a problem, she isn’t stupid, ergo, solution. An easy solution that’s of the type Ryoka as one of the less scatterbrained characters should be good at solving.

    • I definitely want Ryoka to try those out cause I’m curious if a [Translate] Spell would even work. We still don’t know if the [Translate] Spell references off of languages known to the Innworld or if the Spell somehow figures it out itself.

        • There were also Earthers transported with at least some basic understanding on how phones worked like battery needs electricity to function. Plus Blackmage’s phone was examined by Wistram’s best near immediately and Blackmage gained his [Engineer] Class by taking his phone apart and putting it back together. So there would be at least some basis for [Repair] to work off of if it requires that.

  5. I wonder if Laken has to renounce Tamaroth completely to get him out. The same type of deal he did with getting [Emperor] except more of the Oath Goblins gave against the gods. Also going by Blackmage’s hand interaction with his god, betting he’ll have to cut off his hand to get rid out of his deal. You know what that means…Magi-tech steampunk hand here we come!

    • Renouncing Tamaroth would be tricky since Laken was conned into the deal. Blind man looking for cane only for Tamacon to shove his hand in front of the walking cane.

      He wanted to go to the party, but couldn’t and even tried to resist inviting them yet was nearly forced to until someone else managed to stop him.

      If cutting off your hand breaks the pact then that is an easy trade… But somehow it would not surprise me if the “gods” prevent you from being allowed to renounce them… Unless you get outside help.

      Sadly for them the Fae seem to be out of the picture so that leaves possibly eldritch beings to bargain with… Which is a whole other can of worms.

  6. Between this and the last chapter I am really starting to respect Ulvama. That is one sensible and practical goblin. And boy, am I glad, that Bird came to his senses. Going on a killing spree would be wrong for him in so many ways.

    Despite the sadness permeating these chapters I enjoy them.

    With Erin out of commission for the time being and everyone scattering, her influence is actually going to grow. It will be interesting to see the results. Although I am still a bit miffed, that the Erin/Niers meeting is postponed.

    • Really? At this point I am waiting for Rags meeting Niers since they are both going/at the same place.

      Also lets face it. If Niers does get into Goblinhome then when he goes back to the inn he will have Rags also there to finally get a good reunion moment without anyone trying to kill somebody.

      That and goblins might be the key to getting Erin back. Even down she still protects them as they in turn protect her.

      • Niers has one of the most substantial artifact collections in Innworld and is kinda in love with Erin. Could that not be a path back as well?

        • Niers going missing is kind of a hinge upon which the whole “Erin is dead but also not” storyline rests isn’t it.

          He probably would be willing to beggar himself to revive her, and he could actually afford to buy, alternatively has the army to invade and take, any cure-all that is identified as sufficient to heal her.

          Which is why I boldly predict he’ll be missing untill Erin is back, or longer.

  7. What a great chapter. Heart strings are all stretched out by all the tugging. I’m glad Bird came back from murderous grief. It was hard to “see” him like that. While obviously he kills when needed, his innocence and nature was always so childlike, but I guess an angry child, especially in grief, can do terrible things.

    I’m really hoping the “poor Lasica” comment is a red herring. While a massive amount of dead unborn I has happened, I thought the Dick from Rhir said 100,000, which leaves the possibility that many did actually still survive. I’m hoping the comment is just made for us to think the worst, but in reality is a mention to the terrible morning sickness an interspecies pregnancy causes, or some weird effect like growing a pup loaded with hormones is making her grow gnoll hair or something.

    Ulvama is both a better person, and certainly more powerful that I had originally guessed. She can read a persons skills at a glance, even Erin, who is still wearing an anti appraisal and scrying ring!

    Wing suits are normally used in conjunction with a parachute to get to the ground. They can’t fly you to the ground. Did Ryoka use the potion? It said she had one as a backup. I’m guessing she will use the glider all the time and the wing suit would just be her “escape hatch”? This scene was just testing out both? Wouldn’t a hot air balloon be more efficient and effective? She could keep a small base in a decent basket. With dimensional magic, she could make a small home that fits in a standard basket size. Also, could she not get a featherweight and strengthening enchantment (she should be able to afford it) and make something a bit more sturdy and able to practically float on the wind?

    I love the direction the book invariably loops back to. Tragedy and strife always leads to strength. For her circle, this will no doubt make them stronger, in a way that could never happen if she was present. I look forward to every chapter, but I’m chomping at the bit within hours of each release right now. I believe I’m drawn in stronger now than at any other time in the series except for a couple chapters like when the horns died and again when the horns were really reborn as gold ranks. Thanks for everything.

    Lhf

    • Remember that Ryoka is using the wingsuit in conjunction with magical wind, her own private breeze. It’s therefore quite possible that she can do things with her wingsuit – like fly all the way to the ground – that wouldn’t be possible in our world without going splat.

  8. I’m a bit confused on Ryoka’s new wind talents using mana–they never did before.
    Obviously it needs some kind of limiter on it, but is this the talent using mana, or is she using a spell to create her own wind here?

    • “But Ryoka sped on. The wind was doing its own thing above her; the breeze that high was blowing north steadily. Ryoka raced perpendicular to it, in the wingsuit, carrying her back towards Riverfarm, above the fields where the [Farmers] stopped and stared.

      The wind ignored her, but something still carried her down. A powerful gust that belonged only to her.

      “What the f—”

      Ryoka blew past Alevica. The [Witch] twisted to catch her and was nearly blown away. There was a wind surrounding Ryoka!

      She was her own breeze! Ryoka felt the magic burning in her veins. That was it! The final clue. She laughed as she felt her magic exhausting itself to keep her going.”

      Here Ryoka is using mana to create her own wind to go against the natural wind. She can still do manaless flying by asking the natural wind for help but what is doable with that natural wind is limited by what it allows.

  9. How the moved on. How things changed. Had they all given up on her? No—no, but what did you do?

    Did you mean “they”

    Also you spelled Earth as Erath.

  10. “Wind’s Edge” or “Wind’s Fury” to fit “Wind’s Child/Friend”. Some others “Sky’s Bane” “Tempests’ Edge”(<– saw that mentioned already, after it came to mind), "Origami Blade" "Star's Reckoning" "Faes' Wrath" "Final Wind" or perhaps "Wind's Consequence"

    As it is from some form of advanced coalition I can see fancy tech names, but given ryoka's conscious effort to avoid spreading her worlds' influence I see her using every effort to disguise it's power as magical. Unless she has abandoned that precaution, then I suppose anything goes.

    First post, had to catch up before I felt I could reply!

  11. Ryoka needs to have pull releases on her glider. Cutting the straps each time is stupid. Also, once the goblins figure out the tech, some of the small ones will become [Wing Scouts].

    As for the blade, i’m thinking of Larry Niven’s artifact, the Soft Weapon. Failing that, call it the Aura Blade, because it would be an easy sell to the locals, auras are mysterious, often personal specialties, and hard to detect when not in use.

    • I’m glad someone mentioned Niven. I was going to point out how awesomely “soft weapon” like the whole concept of figuring out an alien weapon with unknown features actually was.
      Niven’s name for such a sword is ‘variable sword’ but I don’t think it quite fits here as I doubt one could recover from being collapsed by magic. Thus I’d call this a Forceblade, and ‘extend it’ leaving ‘igniting’ for the kallblades.

  12. My username comes from a long-ago D&D character name, Surfal. Surfal was a paladin in a longterm game, and eventually he achieved the goal of many a paladin: The +5 Holy Avenger longsword.

    I thought long and hard when the sword was named, and I offer that name up to Ryoka:

    Occam.

  13. Thank you for the chapter Pirate.

    I couldn’t stop smiling at the image of Mrsha and her beaver army with Apista on her head the whole time.

  14. While I’m enjoying the look at people’s lives as they deal with Erin being down for the count at the moment, I also miss her and hope it won’t take all book to heal her.
    I’ll admit I’m curious if her spirit is doing anything while she’s down. Is it haunting her friends, off on some adventure in the spirit world, or is it all just black for her?

  15. I still have my fingers crossed that Erin won’t be passive in all this, if she spends all this time in an unconscious frozen coma she’s going to be left behind kind of, and besides that things are just more fun when Erin is an active participant. Hopefully, she’ll do some spirit walking adventuring or visit Antinium heaven or something else completely wacky before she’s healed and resurrected … bonus points if everybody turns up at the Inn with their magic MacGuffins only to find that Erin has managed the healing on her own.

  16. So we already have Geneva involved in Erin’s coming back to life and now a possibility for Cara and her gang, along with Rabbiteater, to support the robbery of Ailendamus’ vaults. Or Niers might have an artifact with his company and he’s gonna escape the High Passes with Rags’ help and use the artifact to resurrect his chess opponent. Maybe he’ll declare war on Ailendamus’?
    There are so many possibilities!!

    Also, I find it incredibly irritating that the useless 7 have all abandoned the inn after freeloading off Erin. They aren’t even interacting with anyone in the inn? Even Mesha? And who’s gonna cook now that Imani’s gone? Ullvama? Bird?

    • I have a feeling that Joseph, Kevin and Imani are sending money back to the inn. It was mentioned that Rose was the one who came back “the most” because she has no stable employment so chances are the other humans are coming back and forth and not abandoning it. I believe that Galina was the only one explicitly abandoning her post due to her position as an actor.

      • Does that even count as abandoning? Ryoka dumped them on Erin for Erin to take care of them. If they move out successfully, it means Erin’s job is done. If they come back, it means they haven’t gotten their feet yet.

        • Fair point. The purpose was to help them find their feet. Maybe ‘abandoning’ is the wrong word. Based on how they were handling them, I got the feeling that they have to stick together because [Kent Scott] is implied to still be hunting them and there is greater strength in numbers. Still Ryoka wasn’t too clear on that goal and I want to remain optimistic that finding their feet means that they have an overall greater chance for survival. Thank you for pointing that out!

  17. Blade name: Childproof. The Safety Blade! Not a Toy Blade. Le Blade, um. And since its not Excaliber, theres always Noncaliber the Sword.

    I get Ulvama now, and like her. This chapter was fun!

  18. I just realized the blade could probably be enchanted and that with a good enough enchantment will just cut through anything magical.

    • Yes, think of the possibilities. If it could resist magic even a little it would leave terrifyingly sharp blade. Although, how do you enchant the hilt so that the blade is as well?

  19. Don’t worry, the chapter didn’t feel particularly long! I could take another 10-20 of these a day to be honest! Take it easy, mkay?

  20. It would be awesome if Erin’s fire was carried out into the world and became the symbol of hope to many. Pawn in particular should integrate it into his new religion. Also, the XP for Erin would be insane.

    • Class gained – messiahs or Race change – god?

      I mean Erin as a god of good with ryoka as her – no skills therefore she can cheat pawn could be an interesting endgame

  21. I love Sundays and Wednesdays now – another chapter to read of this wonderful story. Delayed gratification is really the best.

  22. If the previous chapter was good, this is great! Not just because of the more hopeful tone. For me, it is great because it is about the people we already know and care about, how they are reacting to Erin’s timeout and fighting back.

    By contrast, the previous chapter had way too many FNGs coming in very late into the story (so many new names, I wrote myself a cheat-sheet with who’s who). Miss Magical Anime Girl stargnoll, her quirky yet loveable squad, evil genius nemesis, frenemy law enforcement childhood pal… they would have been super interesting had they not shown up for the first time way too late when there are so much more important things happening than whatever their sideplot is. Also, I find it hard to get attached to any new character since the battle for the 5th wall.

    I literally lol-ed with the reveal that the vault belongs to Ailendamus when Ryoka thought it is up to her, a mere Courier, to complete the “grail quest”, triumph over the evil kingdom, loot its treasury and revive the fair maiden. That’s a knight’s job, if there ever was one! A certain [Knight-Errant] already in the neighborhood comes to mind, or [Knight-Erin] as I like to call him…

    Also, the “blade” is clearly a utility tool, high-tech xeno Swiss-army knife, not a real weapon. So that is its proper name Utility Tool. Possibly “Multitool” once Ryoka figures all the other settings.

  23. “Author’s Note: I need help. Is there a group for authors who can’t write under 25,000 words?”

    No you are just a brilliant freak of nature. John Hamilton is the only person I know of was like that and he did not have word processing.

    Seriously though you due realize you now have the longest Fantasy series in existence written by one person. I think only like Star wars has more words but that is from dozens of authors. Unless someone can find a non-English series that beats it but the next nearest series is around 6 million words. You have done it in less than a Decade. So you are pretty unique. You are just demonstrating how prevalent the Praeto Curve is in real life when it comes to specialized skills, in that you are on the extreme end and have almost no peers.

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