(The next Public chapter will be released on June 22nd, as the Patreon chapter is delayed. The revised chapter will come up as a ‘double update’ later on, but the story is delayed by one chapter due to this.)
It was time.
Enough time has passed. Too much. Time was finite. Time ran out before you expected it to.
So, on days like these, time skipped and jumped and came together in important events.
In ways unforeseen by almost all.
It began with a departure.
“I’m leaving Oteslia.”
Lyonette du Marquin interrupted breakfast with Mivifa, the Gentlemen Callers, and Saliss for this. Well, all but Saliss; he had passed out in his impromptu alchemy-station and heard about it near the end.
“You’re going, already? But after the ball…”
The Oldblood of Feathers trailed off realizing that Lyonette’s near-fatal stabbing might be the exact reason for her departure. However, the [Princess] just gave her a smile. The real reason was much simpler and planned in advance.
“I have to go back to Liscor. I promised I would. I know a lot’s going on, but…it’s time to go.”
Mivifa met Lyonette’s gaze and hesitated before nodding. After all, she could hardly insist Lyonette stay. The young woman was a guest that was only here because of Saliss. However curious she might be and Cire asking about her—no, that was just another reason it might be for the best.
She hadn’t seen Cire since…
But that was Mivifa’s problem. Lyonette thanked her, promising a gift from Liscor, and that was that. It was not hard to leave a city.
“Is um…what’s his face still in prison? I bet he’ll have something to say about you going. Hah! That’s hilarious.”
Saliss blearily looked at Lyonette. She had no idea why that poor Gnoll’s fate was so funny to Saliss.
“Ferris? I haven’t seen him. I chartered a coach from Izril’s Wonders. We’ll be riding with others, but we’ll get to Pallass.”
“That’s hilarious. Well, I’m staying. I have more work to do here. More ingredients to get. That okay?”
Lyonette nodded. She was rather pleased not to suffer his presence on the way back. Besides, Ratici and Wilovan would escort her.
There were reasons she should stay. Magnolia Reinhart had asked Lyonette to call on her. So had Ilvriss, the First Gardener…they all received Lyonette’s careful, hand-written note that morning.
“Leaving? She absolutely cannot! Ressa, do something.”
“Like what? Slash her carriage’s wheels?”
“Mm. That’s a good idea—”
Ilvriss just accepted the note, while the First Gardener was dismayed. And she was far from the only person who wanted Lyonette’s attention. The owner of the Faerie Flowers, the Human who had danced with the Wall Lord, who was from that famous inn in Liscor—leaving?
“She can’t! I haven’t even talked to her!”
Cire shouted in dismay; Rafaema was already out of the door. Lyonette hadn’t even sent her a note, but the Dragon wasn’t about to let her go! So she marched out and found a small crowd outside of Mivifa’s home. One of the Gnolls was already hammering at the door, but one of Oteslia’s top [Pegasus Fliers] knocked instead.
“Miss Mivifa? The First Gardener’s sent us to request the Human, Lyonette’s presence urgently.”
Mivifa eyed one of her co-workers and the crowd all demanding to see Lyonette. She coughed into one claw.
“Not to stand in the First Gardener’s way, but…she’s already gone.”
The Named Adventurer sighed and rubbed at her earholes. Still, she had to hand it to Lyonette.
She didn’t know that the [Princess] was from Calanfer, and thus an expert at things like this. When you announced your departure—you left before you could be held up.
In fact, Lyonette had outsmarted even the people now trying to race out the city gates and stop ‘her’, because she wasn’t leaving with the first shuttle north. She’d made one stop with Saliss in tow, just before she left.
“Excuse me? I’m looking for Researcher Dromenl? Lion Solstice and Saliss of Lights.”
The research institute that Lyonette had visited before opened its doors to her and she was conveyed for a speedy meeting with the Human man. After all, she’d convinced one of the best research teams in Oteslia to take on her case. It was in their best interests; they’d get no Faerie Flower parts without her help.
Thus, Researcher Dromenl had taken half his team to look into Lyonette’s quandary while the others were using their sample of non-growable cuttings to find out what they did. The man was quite polite, and offered her 3-day old tea, which Lyonette refused.
“I see you’ve been working hard?”
He wiped at his face, and was mystified by the smudges his hand returned.
“What? Oh, yes, Miss Solstice. Quite. It’s a fascinating problem, if a confusing one. Returning a frozen person to life…there are precedents. We’ve made some headway.”
Lyonette and even Saliss leaned forwards. She’d been worried they’d be devoted only to the flowers, for all that had been the carrot to get them to take on her project, but it seemed once a [Researcher] got stuck into a project, there they remained. Dromenl nodded enthusiastically, sipping from the old tea with no apparent disgust.
“Indeed. Healing issues aside…well, your poison is a known mix in the Hectval region. Tongueshade, Pithberry, and I think the venom of a Sworttoad or something similar. We’re working the last one out; it’s a classic anti-healing poison, practically standard on crossbow bolts.”
“I could have told you that. I did tell you that, didn’t I?”
Saliss snorted. Dromenl gave the [Alchemist] a reproving look. Lyonette just sat up, writing down the ingredients. They’d actually found out the poison?
“Yes, well, Master Saliss, you could probably heal or produce an antidote easily enough on a living patient. However, in this case? We’re working on neutralizing it, which won’t be easy if it’s in the bloodstream, but there are ways.”
Dromenl sighed, but recited his findings from memory.
“Well now, what we’re looking at are multiple issues, so my team is working on each one…with various degrees of success. The poison’s easiest. We debated a counteragent, but if it’s in the ah, body—it would be easiest to extract it prior to a healing attempt. What we need is a skilled [Mage] who can perform a [Detoxin] spell that removes said poison. We’ll find the right spell; we just need to consult enough spellbooks.”
Lyonette and Saliss exchanged a look. Just conjure the poison out? Dromenl nodded.
“That’s simple. The harder issue is…bringing back someone who’d technically alive, but frozen. Frankly, I’m not sure if this young woman is alive—”
“She is. We tested.”
“—Then the trick is her flesh. Not healing. The Potion of Regeneration may have failed simply because her flesh cannot be unfrozen by mere heat. The damage…well. That’s why you hired us. I’m still not sure a Potion of Regeneration even works on someone with her parameters—only the living. We’re looking into precedent.”
“That doesn’t sound promising.”
Saliss raised his brows. Lyonette’s heart sank. Dromenl gave them another patient smile.
“It doesn’t? It does to me, because there is precedent! Old, but there. We have at least four studies we’re trying to find more data on—old records of adventurers surviving freezing by Ice Dragon breath, or similar spells. Even someone who was frozen in a block of ice but later thawed by a [Sage].”
Dromenl was nodding.
“Not the same, given poison, but we have progress, Miss Lion. We just need to run down each option. If you are leaving, does that mean you won’t require checkups?”
Lyonette shook her head instantly.
“Not at all. Weekly at minimum, [Researcher]! I need you to send updates to Liscor, The Wandering Inn. The Mage’s Guild will know me. I’ll be back within a week or two, but I have to return. Will you have more progress by then? This is excellent, thank you for your hard work.”
Knowing the poison was valuable, but Dromenl could only shrug rather than reassure Lyonette.
“These things come in leaps and bounds or slow stretches, Miss Solstice. Not predictable at all. However…”
He chewed on one lip.
“I hesitate to mention this, but your down payment won’t last for the entire duration. We’ll need more funding over time. I’d ideally like a sample of the ice or even tissue…I know that’s extreme. Maybe just the same spells used, so we can duplicate it on testing subjects? But ah, financially, are we secure on this project?”
Lyonette hesitated for just a second, although she did have quite a bit of gold—just perhaps not for an entire [Researcher] team? However, Saliss interrupted both.
“Money? How about this?”
The Drake slapped a copper coin on the table in front of them. Lyonette and Dromenl stared at it. Saliss looked at their faces, then reached into his bag of holding and slapped five more down.
He met Dromenl’s gaze.
“There’s more of that if you keep bothering me about money. Literally. I will dump two thousand copper coins down and make you clean it up. She’s good for money.”
“If a Named Adventurer is vouching for you…very well.”
Dromenl pushed the coins back towards Saliss. The Drake happily flicked them onto the carpet. Dromenl sighed.
“Very well, Miss Solstice. It’s back to work for us. Fissival is sending some of our notes via teleportation—two have to be transported by Courier, given the fragility of the information—we will communicate with you in seven days, sooner if we have a breakthrough…can we arrange the Merchant’s Guild to pay and communicate extraneous costs? Adventurer Saliss, please stop throwing copper coins on the ground! Please?”
And that was that. Lyonette bade farewell to Saliss as Wilovan and Ratici walked with her to the waiting coach. It was anticlimactic, but she’d be back.
“Maybe with Mrsha. Or not…I was stabbed.”
“Eh, you get stabbed everywhere. I can get stabbed on my way to the toilet. Don’t worry, I’ll check in too and kick their tails if they slack off.”
“So you are staying?”
The [Alchemist] grinned; he’d put on pants and even clothing to help her leave in peace, a heavy imposition, but one he’d agreed to. He adjusted the hat he’d insisted on wearing as part of the ‘disguise’. It still made him noticeable, but Lyonette had to admit that even a bright yellow hat and garish clothing still made everyone assume the peculiarly-dressed Drake was anyone other than Saliss of Lights.
“Eh, I need more ingredients and the Faerie Flowers are being researched here. Might as well stay; Xif needs someone to bother him. Be seeing you.”
He saw Lyonette off as the young woman got in the coach. Saliss said nothing about Manus’ agent, who was probably tearing his fur out at her leaving after all his hard work. Nothing about Magnolia or Ilvriss, because, in the end, Lyonette leaving was probably the most chaotic thing she could do.
Saliss was all about that, so he waved as she sped out the gate with an actual coach of Izril’s Wonders and a Drake [Coachwoman] animatedly chatting up the guests within about their first visit to Pallass—or returning trips for Lyonette and a Garuda.
The Drake smiled as Lyonette went, wished her the best of luck and turned away. Then he whirled back.
“No damn way. Lyonette! Lyonette—”
He began running, but it was too late. The first boom-boom of distant drums met Saliss’ ears. He raced out the gates as Oteslia’s [Guards] came alive. Saliss stopped, and stared out across the bridge leading over Oteslia’s lake.
There, in the distance, just as he’d heard, came war drums. Lyonette’s coach slowed, and those within Oteslia looked up. At…the army coming their way. Saliss heard someone sound inner alarms, but he didn’t need to hear them.
“Army within siege range! Lock down the gates!”
“Everyone in! In!”
The queue at the gates turned into a panic as the [Senior Guards] shouted in alarm. One of them turned to the sentries on the gates.
“What army? Gnoll? Drake? Where’s it from?”
The enchanted spyglasses trained on the flags. Saliss saw with his augmented eyes a second before the sentries.
The City of Waves had come in force. They had been at war with Oteslia for a while, but war between Walled Cities didn’t always come to full blows. Normally, it was assailing each city’s assets; attacking a Walled City front-on cost too many lives for Walled Cities to countenance. Even sieging a city was dangerous, as their protections made it more dangerous for the besiegers than defenders.
This? This was a rare case. A kind of gesture, although it would certainly lock down Oteslia. Zeres had sent an army, one large enough to make Oteslia’s own army hesitate to sweep down and push them aside. They might have still tried it, but the immediate effect was to shock and awe.
The Sharkcaptain of Zeres himself was leading the gesture, courtesy of the Serpentine Matriarch. He was aware the gesture was more of a middle finger to Oteslia. And Magnolia Reinhart.
He snorted as he saw the foot soldiers advance. Mostly infantry; Zeres, being a naval nation, didn’t specialize in riders or fliers like Manus and Fissival. However, they were good enough on land.
“Halt! Oteslia is under siege! Halt for inspection!”
A Zeres [Lieutenant] was in front, stopping all traffic in or out. Most vehicles halted; several leaving Oteslia went straight back the way they’d come, fleeing inside the City of Growth.
All except one. A coach bearing Izril’s Wonders’ logo was heading north. It seemed to waver and began to slow, turning in a ponderous arc to return to Oteslia. That was all fine and the [Lieutenant] was happy to ignore it.
…Right up until there was a muffled argument from inside, and a Drake clambered out to replace the terrified [Coachwoman]. He whirled the coach and began to take it north.
That was when Zeres’ army took notice.
A full squad of Zeresian [Soldiers] charged after the coach, but they were on foot, and the coach was heading north, at a gallop now. Swearing, the [Lieutenant] called it in.
“Coach going north! Probably civilians—orders?”
It went to two leaders; the Admiral of the Land, and the Sharkcaptain. Femar, the Champion of Zeres, stirred himself, but the Admiral of the Land just sighed.
“Long-range [Appraisal] check. Occupants?”
The [Mage], one of the specialists in counter-smuggling and spells like this, usually on a ship, grumbled. She cast the spell, a Drake Drowned Woman, her scales turning into a fish’s gills on half her face. Her breathing was thus harder in the air. She frowned.
“Six civilians, all below Level 20, Admiral, but…three unreadables. All masked.”
The Admiral of the Land and Sharkcaptain stirred. Both of them glanced at each other.
“Magnolia Reinhart, the [Butler], and that [Maid]?”
Femar suggested. The Admiral of the Land shook his head.
“That’s a regular coach. Just a coincidence. Still…don’t risk it.”
Every instinct in Zeres’ command was that if someone ran and you couldn’t tell what they were carrying, stop them. They were used to smuggling runs, so the order went back.
“Stop that carriage. Mark it!”
The army gave chase, more [Soldiers] streaming out. Still—the few [Riders] were distant and for all the Drakes on land charged, the coach was getting away. The Sharkcaptain watched calmly. After all…
Saliss commandeered a horse and a [Guard]’s gear by grabbing it. When the Drake resisted, Saliss just ripped off his clothes.
“Saliss of Lights! Give me that!”
The Oteslian [Guard] was smart enough not to argue with a Named Adventurer. Saliss swore as he rode the horse forwards. He would have given anything to use a Potion of [Haste] rather than a stupid horse, but he was low on every potion! Damn, damn…
He saw Lyonette’s coach heading north, pursued by Zeres’ army. Saliss thought they’d make it—right up until the second army came over the hilltop. This time, Saliss snarled.
“You bastards! That’s your own side! Don’t do it—”
But it was too late. A wedge of riders made for the carriage, alerted by their allies, no doubt. It was all so ironic. Saliss’ eyes focused on the distant flags, the second set of war drums. He had been taught by Chaldion since he was small. Of course, Saliss knew what this army was.
Liscor’s army had been participating in the war between Oteslia and Zeres. Now—Zeres called them in. A group of riders shot towards the carriage and it turned, realizing it was heading for the second half of the sieging force. It turned back to Oteslia after hesitating—too late. Now, Zeres’ [Soldiers] were closing in and it was a race to the bridge and the closing gates.
Lyonette’s first view of Liscor’s never-seen, oft-spoken of army was a smaller force than Zeres’, but with just as many standards. It appeared and [Riders] shot forwards, riding down on them.
“You’re going to get us killed! We have to surrender!”
“No, back to the city.”
Wilovan snapped. Ratici was flapping the reins, urging the horses onwards, but he was no [Driver]. Lyonette looked at him.
She had asked them to try and get them north, but they’d already been acting by the time she made the gamble. Now, they ignored the pleas from the other passengers to stop!
“How much trouble are we in?”
The Gentlemen Caller gave her a snarl of a grin, so uncharacteristically worried she realized something was wrong.
“Us, Miss Lyonette? In for a rough share of it, but no more than that, I’d wager. A bit of a to-do—if we weren’t with you. The trouble with fine folk like Zeres is how they treat people on their lists. They like looking into things, which means all three of us are up a few creeks I wouldn’t mention in polite company.”
He meant them. The Gentlemen Callers! And her. Lyonette’s heart began to beat faster. If they took her ring off and read her class—
“Looks like they spotted us coming.”
“You really thought they wouldn’t?”
The Sharkcaptain and Admiral of the Land were talking, ignoring the only bit of drama. Some idiots in a coach; Oteslia was their focus, and there were really no surprises. Their army was ready for this, even if the citizens were panicking. No one escaped fliers’ visions, especially not with an army.
They’d never siege Oteslia to surrender; the city could literally feed itself forever. What they could do was strangle trade, make Oteslia sweat gold, and it didn’t have much to sweat.
Reinhart. That was the issue. The Sharkcaptain’s eyes narrowed. Their agent must have seen something truly nasty, to not hold off and move right away. Too many Drakes from other cities were here for his liking. Peace with the Humans? It was going to be a knife in the back. So…
“Admiral, clash with the coach!”
Both Drakes turned back. The coach had stopped, chased by Liscor’s riders straight into Zeres’ troops. It had tried to swerve past, but been caught by the unique weapon employed by the infantry.
Nets. They’d tangled it up and now the army was going to conduct some questioning. Or…they would have. Because three had come out of the coach, a young Human woman, a Gnoll, and Drake. And they were fighting.
The Sharkcaptain stirred and snarled. Half a dozen Drakes were down!
“Those are high-level! Dead?”
No blood was visible at this distance; it looked like that Gnoll was laying about him as the other two ran for Oteslia. Which, of course, was the wrong move. Zeres’ army, interrupted from the enclosing operation, began to close in.
“Looks like they’re not bad. I’ll go and sort that out.”
The Sharkcaptain didn’t wait for a reply. He took off running, a grin like his namesake on his face.
For a second Lyonette had wanted to talk to Liscor’s riders, but telling them she was a citizen and proving it was…not going to work, even if she had documentation. They’d turned back and run into the nets.
Now? It was getting bad. Ratici was running with her, and he blocked a Drake coming in with a spear thrust, severing it, and kicking the Drake. Wilovan was knocking Drakes down, too fast for them.
But that just meant Zeres was beginning to realize they were a threat. They came in, and Lyonette felt an ominous shudder run through her. A knife pricked her skin.
“Wilovan, Ratici! Someone’s coming! Someone with a powerful aura!”
Like jaws! Like teeth!
The two Gentlemen Callers heard her and ran faster for Oteslia’s walls. They would not surrender, if it had been an option before. If they were caught? They died. Zeres dealt with criminals one way.
Lyonette ran, now drawing her sword to defend herself. She saw Ratici swear, and jump back—arrows thudded into the ground ahead of him. The bridge! It was so far away, and Zeres’ troops were entering into Oteslia’s range, cutting them off. She saw Wilovan snarl and take a sword slice from the enemy [Lieutenant]. He lashed out, but a wall of [Soldiers] had spears. They were trapped! It was surrender or fight and die or…
That was when Lyonette saw the single rider racing across the bridge. She turned and her eyes widened.
It was all damned idiocy. Drakes and pride. Drakes and grudges.
Saliss was sick of it. He knew why Zeres had come; to force the issue of Magnolia. The Walled Cities would take sides. This? This was flexing their muscles.
So was the carriage. They just had to stop everyone. Couldn’t let something lie. Now, because they saw the three as a threat, they were ready to spear all three.
Idiots. It didn’t have to come to this! Oteslia was blasting warnings at Zeres, he knew. But they wouldn’t open up with their attack-spells, though they could kill hundreds of Zeres’ [Soldiers]. They didn’t want war.
And Saliss didn’t want Lyonette to die. Or risk becoming a political captive if they found out she was Calanfer’s 6th Princess. Wouldn’t that be a disaster on multiple fronts? If worst came to worst…Saliss could just imagine Terandria pivoting and declaring war with Zeres for taking a [Princess] prisoner.
Not to mention the two Gentlemen Callers. So—Saliss rode. He hadn’t ridden a horse for a long time; he could run with potions much faster. Yet it was familiar. The horse was used to combat, and obeyed his directions easily. He bore down on the stream of soldiers hemming in the three. No blood had been spilled save for Wilovan’s. Saliss bellowed.
“Saliss of Lights. Lower your weapons, in the name of the City of Inventions!”
Mivifa stared from her position on top of the walls at Saliss in shock.
“Saliss? What are you doing?”
She couldn’t credit it. That wasn’t like Saliss. She could imagine him causing chaos, even confronting an army with potions, like he had with the [Assassins], but this?
He had taken weapons from the [Guard] he’d accosted, and the horse. She knew he had to be low on potions. He was shouting as he bore down on Zeres’ [Soldiers], trying to free Lyonette and the other two. Mivifa didn’t understand why they’d panicked. However, now she saw Zeres’ soldiers turn to face him.
They looked up and saw the Drake riding down on them. Naked. Carrying a spear and shield he’d snatched from one of Oteslia’s guards. They hesitated, and maybe some thought of the famous Named Adventurer, but…they were [Soldiers]. They set themselves in a quick spear line. Mivifa expected Saliss to turn away.
He did not.
Idiots. Saliss looked down at the line of Drakes, the thin gap where flight remained. He shouted at them to stop, listen to him! They did not. It was always like this. The [Soldiers] watched the Drake bearing down on them. Maybe some knew he was Saliss of Lights, but it was Saliss with a spear. Not potions.
As if that made him less dangerous. Saliss? Saliss was a Named Adventurer, you stupid idiots! Potions or not, a Named Adventurer. And what they forgot every time—
Granddaughter of the Cyclops of Pallass. Chaldion’s heir of war.
The Drakes fighting with the two Gentlemen Callers barely saw him coming. Saliss struck through the first line of Zeresian [Soldiers] in an instant, spear whirling. Unlike Wilovan—he played no games. Unlike Wilovan, the criminal, but a gentleman of one—Saliss had been trained by no gentleman.
He left behind only dead Drakes. The [Lieutenant] turned, eyes wide—Saliss brought the spear down as the Drake tried to pivot with the sword. A sword versus a Drake on horseback? Idiot—
Lyonette saw blood fly. The Drake fell, cut across the arm and chest as Saliss slowed. Lyonette, even the Gentlemen Callers stared up at Saliss. He’d—killed six Drakes, running them through with the tip of his spear in rapid succession.
“To the city! Now!”
He snapped, leaping from the horse’s back. Lyonette was boosted up and they fled. But more [Soldiers] were coming.
“A Named Adventurer is assailing our forward ranks! Saliss of Lights!”
The Admiral of the Land couldn’t credit it. He stared at the lone rider, and turned.
“Someone stop Femar! Stop—pull back the [Soldiers]! We don’t want conflict with Pallass!”
It was too late. The Sharkcaptain had seen the first [Soldiers] go down. He roared, already running forwards, pointed at Saliss and the others, and bellowed over the top of the commands.
He might not have even recognized Saliss. The four were running towards Oteslia, but the [Soldiers] were keeping clear of Saliss’ spear. The naked Drake turned as he saw and heard the Sharkcaptain running at him. Wilovan turned, eyed the Sharkcaptain and ran faster after Lyonette.
The idiot of idiots was coming his way. Saliss saw the Sharkcaptain of Zeres, his own barbed spear aimed at him and shouted back.
“You idiot! Just let us go! Don’t make this worse!”
He didn’t get an intelligible reply. The Sharkcaptain of Zeres bellowed in fury and charged. Saliss swore.
“Don’t make me—”
That Drake was far more dangerous than a regular [Soldier]. Saliss checked his bag of holding, mind racing.
He had two dozen items in stock he could use. He reached for the shapeshifting tincture. If it was the Sharkcaptain, it was kill or die if that idiot lost his head.
Not one of our best, dying over this! Senseless, senseless—his mind was racing. But if it was him or the Sharkcaptain…Saliss grabbed the tincture and lifted it, swearing. Lyonette’s horse reared, screaming, as the jaws of the Drake’s aura closed on it and Lyonette screamed. She stared down at the blood from the gashes on her arm and barely blocked the rest of the aura; Ratici staggered, Wilovan snarled, spinning with his club. Saliss saw the huge Drake leap through the air—
And twist. Something flickered past Saliss and he heard a second bellow, saw a blur in the air. The huge Drake crashed down, slashing with his spear, rolling upright and clutching at…the stab wounds?
Shriekblade leapt backwards, grinning, her daggers stained red. Saliss blinked at her.
She was slashing, diving in and out, tagging the Sharkcaptain twice more, ignoring his aura, which cut at her own scarred scales. Saliss turned, half about to go back. One stab and she was dead—or the Sharkcaptain was. Either way, Izril lost someone they couldn’t afford to, and this was the worst duo to get into a fight. Neither one would back down until the other was dead.
It was about this time the Admiral of the Land realized how far it had all gotten in moments. This ‘routine’ siege had turned into the makings of a true disaster. This wasn’t supposed to turn into combat action! They were just here for the referendum on the Human peace—and the Meeting of Tribes. Not this.
“Dead gods! Two Named Adventurers—get the Sharkcaptain to safety! Pallass and Salazsar have taken the field!”
If he died—calamity, not just from the Serpentine Matriarch’s wrath. It would be war indeed, full-out, and in earnest. More of Zeres’ soldiers rushed forwards, to prevent the bloodbath. The three who’d started all this were trying to make for the gates, but now Liscor’s army had seen and the [Riders] were shooting towards them.
A massacre! But for who? The Admiral of the Land saw a single shape break through the horror-show. His eyes widened and he threw up a claw and bellowed the only order he could.
“Hold! Everyone—hold! Do not advance! Do not attack!”
His army slowed as the last party entered the fray. Lyonette du Marquin looked up and could have sobbed in relief.
The pink carriage of Magnolia Reinhart. It stormed towards the Drakes and Humans, faster than even the Drakes riding down on them from the north. Reynold bore down on all those fighting, and came to a stop, door already open.
No compliments from the [Combat Butler], no polite greeting; Lyonette piled in with Wilovan and Ratici. Saliss turned.
“Tessa, get in there!”
He thrust her back. The Sharkcaptain looked up, snarling.
“I knew it! You—”
He stabbed. Reynold turned and the carriage slammed into him side-long, and the two Named Adventurers leapt inside. The Sharkcaptain stabbed the coach from the side as he was knocked back; the spear left a mark, but that was all. Then the pink carriage was racing towards the last gate open in Oteslia. Only then did Saliss breathe out.
Everyone was safe. Everyone was alive. Except…for six poor Drakes he’d just killed. Six, because of stupid pride and armies. He realized their blood was on his scales.
Some days Saliss hated Saliss more than others.
That one incident had caused almost as many problems as Zeres’ army. Ilvriss and Magnolia both met the [Princess] and two Named Adventurers as they poured out of the carriage, and Oteslia was fully locked down. Neither one spoke to the other; Ilvriss eyed Magnolia, and Ressa and Osthia exchanged appraising looks that Osthia was afraid she got the worst of.
Unfortunately, it was done. Zeres’ army had clashed with representatives of Pallass, Salazsar, and Magnolia Reinhart’s people. Six Drakes were dead.
Recriminations could come later. Lyonette stumbled towards the waiting Wall Lord and [Lady].
“I just wanted to go back. Why are they here? Why now?”
She was almost weeping, she was so angry and distraught. Magnolia pursed her lips, staring towards the army behind the gates. Ilvriss was striding towards Saliss and Shriekblade.
“My dear, I fear—”
Ratici was getting out of the carriage too, feeling at the cuts from that Drake’s aura. He’d seldom tangled with a foe who could cut him just by being in the same area! He also felt, instinctively, that his and Wilovan’s presence hadn’t helped Lyonette at all. But for them, she might have never come to this. The [Gentleman Thief] was remonstrating with himself when his head snapped up.
Too late. Ratici threw himself forwards at the same time as Ressa, Shriekblade, and Saliss, a beat behind them, reacted. Lyonette looked up as death shot at her, Magnolia, and Ilvriss.
Six projectiles, two magic, four blades flashed out of the crowd, from windows, and even from the top of Oteslia’s walls themselves. One actual arrow, two bolts, and one, a blown needle. A bolt of lightning and a [Fireball] spell. Each one soaring at the cluster of individuals standing together.
Not a one made it. Ratici grabbed both bolts out of the sky, twisting to block Lyonette with his body. Ressa made a quick gesture and both magic spells vanished as they hit an invisible barrier in the air. Shriekblade slashed the arrow in half and turned. But the needle—
Saliss blocked the needle with one claw. He frowned down at it, as it quivered, stuck between his scales. It had struck him, drawing blood. Everyone whirled and he winced, then pulled it out. He waved it in front of Lyonette’s shocked face, and grinned at her.
“Good thing it was me. Poison’s nasty on other people. Oh, wait. It’s acidic. Never mind. Still okay.”
A small trail of smoke rose from his scales—then stopped as the acid neutralized itself. Saliss patted the cut, then he glanced up and met Magnolia Reinhart’s gaze. Ressa’s own hand, and Reynold’s was outstretched to block the last needle. Saliss’ face fell as he looked at the [Lady] of House Reinhart.
“Aw. No. Did I accidentally save your life? Sorry about that.”
Magnolia Reinhart made no reply. She looked around. So did the others.
Ilvriss, Lyonette, Magnolia, all stood together, the Wall Lord’s hand on his sword hilt, Magnolia’s on one of the rings on her finger. Lyonette met everyone’s shocked gaze at the same time, and the thought flashed between them.
Which had been aimed at? All three? Just one?
In the uncertainty Oteslia became chaos and confusion. Mivifa flew down and Rafaema skidded to a halt, as Ferris and Hunt Commander Makhir growled curses at Zeres’ poor timing, only a few facts were clear.
Two armies were camped outside of Oteslia, the City of Growth. It was under siege. Magnolia Reinhart’s trip had begun to reap a harvest of consequences. And…Lyonette was not getting home to Liscor any time soon.
Time, time…it seemed like everything took too long.
Tic, toc, went the metronome. It counted down time so smoothly. But what was the point? Everyone said they were going to come back, or things were going to happen. But they lied.
“Lyonette is delayed at Oteslia.”
Mrsha didn’t react in tears or biting or any of the ways Ishkr feared she would. She threw no tantrum as he explained about the army, omitting the assassination attempts as Lyonette had told him to. The little white Gnoll listened, nodding.
It can’t be helped.
She lay on the floor of the inn, next to the metronome. Lyonette wasn’t coming back like she promised. There were reasons. Probably even good reasons.
A worried Hobgoblin [Shaman] sat there, poking Mrsha and chewing on some salted chips Imani had made. She poked Mrsha in the side; the Gnoll girl didn’t react. Even when Ulvama sprinkled salt on her nose and she sneezed.
Ulvama needn’t have fretted. Mrsha wasn’t sad. She knew it wasn’t Lyonette’s fault and Ulvama was being worried for nothing. She was just…
Going to lie here for a while. Ishkr fussed, but eventually left it up to Ulvama, trusting her. Mrsha was just about to do something to make Ulvama stop poking her when she had a visitor.
Someone came to visit her, as Mrsha lay on her back and stared up at the ceiling. The poking Goblin stopped, and glanced up warily. She edged backwards as a polite person greeted both.
“Hello. I hope I am not disturbing you two? I heard Lyonette would be delayed and came to check on Mrsha. Do I know you?”
“No. Who you?”
Ulvama grunted in her pretend-speech, which was worse than her actual diction when she wasn’t around strangers. The Antinium bowed slightly and held out a hand which she didn’t take.
“I am Pawn.”
Pawn? Mrsha’s ears perked up. She looked up at Pawn, sitting, and saw the Antinium turn to her.
“Hello Mrsha. Are you sad? I have come to visit.”
Mrsha stared up at the [Priest], her mother’s consort, and leader of the Painted Antinium. She saw Pawn smile at her.
Her ears flattened and she crossed her arms.
Astonishing as it might seem, but for all they had been at The Wandering Inn for quite some time, neither Pawn nor Mrsha had really spent a lot of one-on-one time together.
Oh, they were there in all the big events. From baseball to huge battles. But neither one had participated with the other. Their connection was mainly through Erin, through Lyonette.
Mrsha sat, arms crossed, as Ulvama walked off. She had apparently decided to let the strange Antinium talk to Mrsha, and Pawn sat, very amiably chewing on some bratwurst that Ishkr had fetched as a snack.
He was, of course, an honored guest. A longtime friend of the inn. Mrsha scowled at him.
“Are you sad, Mrsha? Would you like some of my food? I am sorry I didn’t come earlier. Managing the Painted Antinium takes time, and I was uncertain of how to visit. Lyonette did ask me to check on you, and I believe I failed in that regard. I am sorry.”
The [Priest] smiled at Mrsha. She began to sign…then decided only the written word could convey the full nuance of what she wanted to say. She scribbled and he waited, eating quietly.
He was so…polite. So nice. The Antinium walked with genuine faith in his heart, and the other Antinium who had come with him, a small group of four Painted Antinium, ate at a far table, savoring the food.
I am not desirous of sharing food with you at common table at this time, Pawn. May I inquire as to why you have paid this social visit?
Pawn read the neat, curved words, and considered his reply. He nodded at the Painted Antinium.
“I often come to the surface. Liscor, that is. However, no longer to this inn. It is no longer appropriate now that…Erin is gone. We visit other restaurants and places, now. It took some doing, to find establishments that were willing to serve Antinium.”
That didn’t answer her question. Mrsha glanced at the Painted Antinium. She was glad they had a place to eat. She hadn’t thought of the Antinium, but if she had, she would have worried about them having a place to experience joys and wonders.
However, Mrsha didn’t want to hear that from Pawn. He was being too…chatty. Too friendly.
Of course, Mrsha would have accepted that from Garry, Anand, Belgrade, even Yellow Splatters or anyone else. Pawn was different, and he seemed to sense her hostility. Pawn carefully stopped chewing the food and looked at her.
“I did not come by, except to visit Erin, because I felt that Lyonette’s request might be problematic. You—do not like me much, do you, Mrsha?”
She hesitated. How did he know? Maybe it was written on her face. Mrsha checked her reflection in the blank scrying mirror and saw a little Gnoll, scowling back at her.
The Gnoll girl supposed the clues were there. He might have picked up on it from the times when she’d glared at him and Lyonette, tried to sabotage their time together, thrown bread crumbs on Pawn’s head when he was leaving…the clues could be uncovered by an astute [Detective].
She wrote back.
My animosity towards you is entirely based on your relationship with…
Mrsha crossed that out. She liked the fanciful writing that Lyonette had taught her, but sometimes you just needed to Erin your intentions out there. She handed Pawn a revised note.
No, I don’t like you, Pawn. You stole Lyonette. Go away, I’m fine.
The [Priest] looked at the note. He looked up at Mrsha, and the two met gazes. Ah, now. It was in the open. Mrsha didn’t just ‘dislike’ Pawn’s presence. She disliked…him. He was the first Antinium that Mrsha had disliked. Perhaps he was the first Antinium in the world to be disliked thusly.
This was a landmark moment in some ways. An Antinium had made an enemy, socially speaking. Not a dread enemy in blood and fire; just made someone who didn’t like them being around.
It was strange to Mrsha too, to dislike one of the Antinium. Oh, she’d been afraid of them, and Liscor’s citizens no doubt had mixed reactions to them. However, that was the unthinking bias against a species, which was in itself racist; they did not hate Antinium as individuals, just for existing.
Mrsha disliked Pawn for reasons that had nothing to do with his species and everything to do with Lyonette and Pawn being so…Pawn. He regarded her, as if mystified by the animosity. For a moment, then he nodded, slowly.
“I thought that you did not like me, Mrsha. Lyonette claimed you were simply jealous, but it seems I was right. May I ask if it is just because of Lyonette?”
Mrsha scribbled a response.
Yes. You took her away. Thief. Jerk. Bad smelly person. Creler-bait Selphid’s tits.
She added that last part in uncertainly, but she’d heard Seborn using the phrases, so figured it had some kind of insult-quality. Pawn lowered the note.
“I see. You resent me for liking Lyonette?”
Mrsha nodded, glaring. Why did he have to like Lyonette? Lyonette was Mrsha’s mother! She had said so! Pawn sat there, thinking.
“Lyonette is the first Human—no. The first person to ever truly know me, Pawn, besides Erin herself. I hope you understand that, Mrsha. It is impossible to love Erin like Lyonette. She is too much. You see—in my mind, she is up there.”
He gestured at the sky, or rather, ceiling. Pawn went on.
“As wondrous as the sky. Lyonette, though…Lyonette is different. We knew each other for a long time. I helped her when she was alone in the inn. I grew to like her. I hope you know this?”
Mrsha rolled her eyes. She signed with her paws, dismissively. Oh, here it came. I like your mother, so that’s why I took her away! Pawn was going to be nice and try to make friends with her. Fat chance of that. She knew she was being petty, but since Lyonette was her mother, Mrsha believed there was a time and place for pettiness.
She wrote back, as Pawn tried to cozy up to her. She handed him a reply.
I don’t like you, Pawn. I know that I should and it is unbecoming of me to be jealous, but I cannot gainsay how I feel. You took Lyonette from me, and that is a bereavement, however slight, I shall not, cannot forgive.
You can explain your affection, but it does not change the fact that I harbor a grudge towards you. We cannot be friends, so I invite you to stop trying. I will be fine on my own.
The little Gnoll waited. She’d be guilty if Pawn was crushed, but he had to know. She was sensitive to the Antinium’s fragile emotions and she even felt bad about being so direct, but it would be best if he left and they only met when Lyonette returned.
If Pawn was wounded by her letter, he did not show it easily. His mandibles opened and closed a few times as he read, and his antennae waved softly. Then he looked up and nodded.
“I see. Thank you for being clear, Mrsha.”
She sighed. He’d taken it better than she thought. She waved at him, graciously inviting him to leave. Pawn glanced at her, then looked around the inn. Ishkr was coming back with some drinks for the Antinium. Pawn leaned forwards.
“It is just as well, I suppose, that you do not like me, Mrsha. After all. I never liked you much either.”
The little Gnoll’s jaw dropped. She stared at Pawn and he sat back.
“Not as much as the others, to clarify. I never harbored you as much animosity as you seem to have towards me, but I do not like you that much. If we are being honest, I should tell you this too.”
Mrsha stared at him. She was outraged! Then hurt! He didn’t like her? Everyone liked Mrsha, except for bad people! Pawn’s mandibles rose in a smile when she opined that.
“I believe that is untrue. You are very cute. I quite like your company, and your antics. I do not mind when you steal from other people or cause trouble; all these things are well and I like you more than many people in Liscor. Less than other Antinium. You do cause trouble, however, and I believe that you are what Erin refers to as a ‘jerk’ from time to time. Sometimes, I feel as though you cause too much trouble with too little comeuppance, and get away with it because you are a child. You are older than I am, you know.”
Mrsha stared at Pawn. His admittance that he didn’t like her, not to mention these—these scurrilous allegations struck her deeply! She began to question him. Why didn’t he like her? Mrsha…felt sort of hurt!
Pawn thought about his reply for a while. At last, the [Doomspeaker Priest] nodded.
“I suppose it is not fair, Mrsha. I am being unreasonable. It is just…when you came to the inn, Erin had less time for me. I know it was necessary, but I resented that, though I never told her. You see, I was Mrsha before Mrsha. You took my place.”
The little Gnoll stared at the first Mrsha, dumbstruck. She…had taken Erin from Pawn? That wasn’t true! Erin loved Pawn!
But he didn’t stay at the inn. And…didn’t Erin care for Mrsha because Mrsha needed help? Not as much as Lyonette, all the time, but she taught Mrsha and played with her and…Pawn came by and she had time for him.
Mrsha had stolen Erin? But Pawn had stolen Lyonette! Mrsha felt disoriented. Weak. The world was on its head! Top was bottom! Right was left!
The first Mrsha and the current Mrsha regarded each other, realizing how one held a grudge for affections robbed. Meanwhile, the first Rags snorted in a corner at the latecomers.
It seemed she had been selfish. Mrsha realized that. If she could hold a grudge—other people could do the same. She looked at Pawn and felt a bit—bad.
But the [Priest] didn’t seem angry. He just spoke the truth. And the truth was…they weren’t friends.
“Nor are we enemies. Are we?”
He looked at Mrsha and she shook her head. They were just—acquaintances. Unfortunately bound by Lyonette and the inn. She didn’t hate Pawn, and shyly corrected her mean words. He nodded.
“Thank you for writing that. This is why I did not come earlier; I felt my absence was best. However, since Lyonette will not be coming for a longer period…I miss her. I wished to make sure you were alright. It is hard, with her gone. Harder than it should be, because I was fine before I knew her.”
Mrsha looked at Pawn and he bowed his head. She scribbled.
Are you alright?
He looked up.
“I am fine, physically, Mrsha. I simply—miss Lyonette. You see, she left so quickly after Erin was hurt. We could not talk long. I…wish she had asked me to come. I know it is impractical, but she left because helping Erin mattered. As it should. But it felt as though our relationship was less important. More fragile. I would have gone with her, despite the danger, if she asked. I wonder if we will be the same when she returns.”
He was uncertain too. Mrsha reached out and patted Pawn on the knee. There, there. She was sure it would work out. He nodded at her.
“Thank you, Mrsha. I miss her. That is all. And I will not take up your time or bother you. We do not have to like each other, Mrsha. However, if you need help, I will give it. I know you are safe here, but if you need me—ask. And I will do what I can.”
It was a powerful promise. Mrsha looked up at Pawn, appreciating it. She had a new regard for the Antinium. Not that she liked him more—but perhaps she respected him, despite their animosity. And perhaps that did mean liking him a bit. Just a tiny bit. She thought, as Pawn rummaged in his belt pouch for money and a tip, then held out a card.
There is one thing you can do for me, Pawn.
He glanced at her.
She wrote her request.
Give me cookies.
Pawn stared at the note. Mrsha met his gaze, deadly earnest. Imani and Ishkr guarded the kitchen like the most zealous protectors of a treasury. She waited, expecting the [Priest] to refuse.
Instead, Pawn just nodded, walked into the kitchen, and came out with cookies. He gave Mrsha five. Her eyes went round at the five, each a different flavor.
For me? Really?
She signed, and Pawn nodded. He let her gobble, furtively watching for rogue Ishkrs, but he didn’t even glance their way. Pawn explained his reasoning as Mrsha happily devoured the desserts.
“Cookies exist to be eaten. You should not eat too many, but I see no harm in giving you some.”
Mrsha decided this Pawn fellow was alright, after all. He had dubious designs on her own relationships, and he was objectionably direct, but he could deliver dessert where it counted. She saw Pawn smile, and then he spoke.
“I will tell Ishkr, of course, that you have had a satisfactory amount of dessert. You cannot have too many sweets, or so Lyonette says. And it is not good to lie.”
The little Gnoll stopped, mid-chew. Her smile turned sour. Her eyes rose to meet Pawn’s calm gaze. She gave him a narrow look which he calmly met.
It seemed they were destined to be mortal enemies. So the little meeting went, on the heels of bad news from Oteslia. However. It was still a time for choices.
A time for relationships. Distant, acrimonious…
Or even those about to end. Those on the brink. A decision had to be made. For everything was…falling apart.
I’m going to rest I’m going to sleep
I’m going to cry I’m going to weep
I’m going to look out over the sea
Where there’s nothing left of you and me.
— Rufelt Owelt, [Bartender].
As poems went—it was not the kind of thing that would adorn the history books of fine poetry. It probably wasn’t even good.
He only wished…it would make her laugh again. The Gnoll’s quill scratched in the silence, yet he did not think he would show it to her.
Not anymore. Perhaps not ever.
Rufelt felt a pang in his chest. It joined the pain in his stomach, the fear and trepidation and terrible longing. Destruction, absolute, rampaged through him, just emotion, but with such intensity that his body was beginning to break along with his heart.
He sat at an empty bar. There was a bit of dust on the surface. He’d have never allowed that. Not normally. But Tails and Scales was closed. They’d open, maybe, in a bit, but the regulars weren’t there.
The spirit wasn’t there, and their guests noticed. It had been packed the first few days when Lasica returned, but it had soured, like beer.
Everything was falling apart. The business. And…Rufelt and Lasica themselves.
If he showed this poem to her, what would she say? She’d told him his little poems, far from impressing, were just annoying.
Annoying. That hurt. That stung. It wasn’t just that Lasica said it, it was how she said it. She could be direct, but they made up, laughed about it.
There was nothing like that now. It was like being cut. Rufelt recalled what he’d said back and felt the pain intensify.
Barbs and sharp glass. That was what they tossed at each other. Words. So harsh.
“What do you see in this picture?”
That had been the start of it. Rufelt whispered the words. It had started with that—then led to another fight. He couldn’t get them out of his head. He sat at the empty bar counter. He knew he looked—bad. His clients had asked if he was well. They knew he and Lasica were fighting, guessed part of the reasons.
They could not know all of it. Rufelt’s paws trembled as he looked at the rectangle he was holding. Not a glass or dust rag like usual.
Their fight last night had been bad. Lasica had stormed out. She’d be back by nightfall; she hadn’t gone missing again, but he dreaded her return as much as he longed for it.
What was wrong? It had never been like this. Not once. They’d fought, like every couple did, but this? This wasn’t the same. When they snapped at each other, they left wounds Rufelt could feel.
It was her. The [Bartender] knew it, in every hair on his body, in every fiber of his being. Lasica’s anger, his retorts which were too harsh, the discord in their relationship, and what was driving them apart rather than together could be traced to one person. So many little events—all part of the same web. The same skein.
Belavierr. The Stitch Witch. The Spider of Terandria.
Was it wrong to blame her for everything? The miscarriage had been bad enough, but Rufelt thought they could have survived that. It was the [Witch] appearing, offering them the deal that was doing it.
“I can bring your child back. Just give me a bit of you. Just a bit of time, and everything will be made well.”
Rufelt heard her voice, whispering in his ear. He hated it. He hated her. Yet Lasica listened. Rufelt would have refused Belavierr, reported her to the Watch.
He could not. The words didn’t leave his tongue. The writing wouldn’t be put down, even in clues. He couldn’t talk to anyone, even his regulars, even in his own bar. He’d tried dispelling the curse or hex—but nothing worked.
Lasica refused to say anything. She’d told the Watch about her encounter with the ‘strange Gnoll’, but not Belavierr. She was listening to the [Witch]. She hadn’t said ‘yes’, because she wanted Rufelt to agree first.
The Gnoll didn’t want to. This was how they lived, these last weeks. Going mad with indecision. Fighting. All tangled up in her web of lies or…worse, truth.
She had sworn she could do it. The history books said she could do it. Rufelt wanted to believe it was a trick, but he’d found copies in other libraries when he’d tried to disprove it. She could still have lied, but…the most dangerous thing was if she didn’t. If she could make good on her promise and channel a magic beyond even the Archmages of today.
Rufelt muttered. He turned over the rectangle. Each day, she visited them. Each day they fought and cried and—she came by and asked them. Why them, why so much effort for someone so powerful?
“Because you have more to give me than most.”
Rufelt knew it was true. She looked at him and he shivered, knowing she didn’t mean gold or their status as a famous bar in Pallass. Their levels. Their…
He stood in the bar, dull-eyed, going through the same thoughts in his head. As if hypnotized. Here was every father’s nightmare.
The loss of a child. Here was every parent’s dark dream.
If you could bring them back, what would you sacrifice? If it were any other way, Rufelt would have said anything. His health? His levels? His fortunes and life? For Lasica—in an instant. For the child he hadn’t known? Of course. Some nights Rufelt lay awake, thinking of the names they’d made. Dreaming of if. If the Demons hadn’t…
What would you do? But this was a different deal. Dark magic. Yet Belavierr said that in this case, she would make no simulacra. She would use true magic. She had looked him in the eye.
“I swear upon my craft, Rufelt Owelt, that I do not lie. Upon my hat and daughter that I possess—I can bring the dead back to life. It is a great magic. Yet give me what I want, and I will perform it. For I desire your strength. What would you do if all I said was true? Think of that.”
He did. He couldn’t help it.
If it could all go back to how it was before…
Rufelt Owelt no longer feared ‘what might be’, the cursed hope the [Witch] dangled in front of him, that he might see the child that had been lost. He feared what would happen if he refused her.
He feared he would lose his wife too. Lose everything.
He couldn’t think. He lived, day in, day out, like a zombie, only thinking of the choice. He knew it could not continue.
Time. Time to make a choice.
He sat in the empty bar, head in his paws. Going mad. She made it so hard. The Stitch Witch knew her clients. She knew how to plant the worst seeds in their heads, hatching dark fruits.
“What do you see in this picture?”
He whispered it out loud. Then, Rufelt picked up the object he held, which he’d been turning over, staring at. No glass ready to be filled with alcohol. It was…a frame. A glass frame, with a little mage-picture, an illustration inside.
The words of a monster. Oh, dead gods, but she was evil. Pure evil. Rufelt tried to look away, but he couldn’t.
He looked and saw a picture that had never been. There he was, with Lasica, grinning, her laughing at something to the side as they stood in front of his bar in Tails and Scales.
Holding a child.
The image had been torn out of…something. An alternate time? He kept staring at it, trying to believe it was an illusion. Trying to tell himself it wasn’t real. The longer he stared, though…
“What do you see in this picture?”
Rufelt stood in the darkness. Wearing himself at the impossible choice, waiting for Lasica to return. Wrestling with his fears, his desires, his hope and love. Until it or he—
Niers Astoragon frowned as he sat in the beams of The Wandering Inn. He was shaving. A bit of metal and a bit of glass and black fabric did for the impromptu kit. He even had a gel from the [Alchemist]’s shop.
Yes, life was pretty good for the Titan of Baleros. Better than slogging through the High Passes. Yet it couldn’t continue.
He knew, even now, that his opponents had to be searching for him. The Wandering Inn might be on their lists and if the Great Companies were after him, well. The Iron Vanguard had the loyalties of countless Dullahans and Pallass was filled with enough.
They didn’t even need their own species. So when Niers acted, it was to stay ahead of his opponents. He waited until the strange Antinium finished exchanging insults with Mrsha and left.
She’d saved him some cookie. Well—a crumb, which was good enough. Niers took a few bites.
“Thank you, Mrsha. Now, I have work for us. Are you willing to help out?”
He didn’t mention her mother and Oteslia, though Niers was wondering what that boded. Drake infighting was plain enough, but there were layers and if he’d had proper intel, he might have made it an assignment with his class to puzzle out.
No time for that now. Focus. Niers knew he wasn’t really abreast of things. So, what he did today was ask Mrsha for help in an interesting way. A safe way, which disappointed her a bit, but a vital one.
“There you are. I heard from Pawn you ate five cookies. No dessert for you. What do you want?”
Mrsha scowled up at Ishkr. She handed him a bit of paper.
I would like to visit Liscor, please.
It was one of her standard cards. Ishkr eyed Mrsha.
“To eat more snacks?”
Mrsha shook her head. She signed that she wanted to pay a visit—to the Mage’s Guild. Ishkr hesitated.
“Oh—I suppose so. Do you want to send Lyonette a [Message]? We can do that.”
To his surprise, she said ‘no’, although Mrsha did amend that to ‘maybe’ after a second. But that wasn’t her purpose. She really wanted to go check something. The Gnoll hesitated, but the inn was empty as always, so he agreed to take her.
Niers tagged along in Mrsha’s belt pouch. It was far from comfy, squished up as he was, and he risked a bit of squashing, but he wanted to know. She walked on two feet with Ishkr as they went to the Mage’s Guild and he waited for her to put his plan into action. She heard Ishkr muttering as they went to the head of the line.
“What’s this about? Excuse me, hello.”
“Hello! How can I help you today? Oh—is that Miss Mrsha?”
The little Gnoll was a celebrity of sorts, if only for her white fur. She waved at the Drake, who knew Erin. The [Scribe] smiled as Ishkr explained.
“We have a [Message] to send to Miss Lyonette in Oteslia…but I think we have other business?”
Mrsha nodded. The [Scribe] read the neat writing, which was a match for her own, and her brows shot up.
I, Mrsha, would like to inquire into the Merchant Droshi’s business and news. He is working for The Wandering Inn.
Both Ishkr and the [Scribe] looked puzzled, but the [Scribe] at least nodded.
“I can pull up anything…one second.”
“I didn’t know we were working with a [Merchant]. Did Lyonette ask you to check?”
Ishkr grumbled at Mrsha, a bit nonplussed that he had no idea who this was. Some person in the north, like the [Lords] who still asked if they could get goods shipments? Mrsha made an excuse as Niers grinned inside the belt pouch.
It was hardly the most cunning plan, but it worked. ‘Droshi’ didn’t exist—it might be some Drake’s name, but it was one of a few he knew to ask for. And he did exist today, and his regular reports to his clients were lodged at a Mage’s Guild, ready to be retrieved. It was service they offered.
And the Forgotten Wing Company often made use of it. In fact, Mrsha received no less than a full page of writing, and paid for it out of her own belt pouch, much to Ishkr’s bemusement. The [Scribe] who’d copied it out looked a bit amused.
“I’m afraid it’s a bit dry, but I hope you find it um, useful. I’ll take your [Message] to Oteslia now. Care of Lyonette? One second and I’ll run it up to the [Mage] on day-duty. That will be…”
Niers tuned out the rest. He’d come along just to make sure it all went well, and while Mrsha had neatly folded the bit of paper and put it in the pouch he was in, he didn’t want to unfold it and make noise. It was also too dark to see, so he stared at the bits of words he could see until they got back to the inn.
Far too long! Mrsha put Niers down on the table in the secret part of the jungle in the garden and he sprang out, swearing.
“Argh! What was that, forty minutes? I’m too old to do that! Not your fault; I should have waited! Excellent job.”
She nodded, a bit confused. She held out a card as Niers unfolded the paper eagerly. He glanced at it.
“What? How did I know there was a ‘Merchant Droshi’ to ask about? Basic subterfuge, Mrsha. I made contact with my company after the Village of the Dead’s raid. They knew I was alive—so I told them to send a report via Droshi and that I needed help and was in Liscor.”
Mrsha’s ears perked up. He’d done all that? How? Niers grinned at his pupil.
“Think about it. What do I have that connects right back to my company? That only they’d be able to see? I was worried they wouldn’t check, but my people are clever. Perorn’s probably the one who thought to look.”
The Gnoll girl tilted her head left and right. What…? Then her eyes widened.
The chessboard. Of course! Niers had arranged a message and it had appeared on his little board in Baleros! Genius! But what about Droshi?
“If I had you ask for anything for ‘Niers Astoragon’, the Mage’s Guild wouldn’t give it to you and my enemies would know right where I was. Merchant Droshi on the other hand—less easy to track. They might still notice, but they can’t easily figure this out. See?”
Mrsha stared at the paper summary of the [Merchant]’s reports. It was indeed, as the [Scribe] had warned, dry.
To my esteemed clients and friends, I, Droshi, have undertaken the following business this past month, which I hope will provide illumination.
Firstly, my people have sold a quantity of candlesticks at no less than fifty six pounds, at commendable profit. I have personally sold six red candlesticks, which were of quite elegant make.
Next, we engaged in a bit of light trading of Silvergrape, although at a loss. Flies have ruined a good amount of the crop, and I fear we will not be returning.
As for other goods…
Niers Astoragon read. He had, apparently, not even trusted a long message to the chessboard, although he’d gotten a lot of info from it. He explained to Mrsha.
“The chessboard was never meant to prevent magical interference. This is safer; I risked a lot on that message alone. This…hm. They’d only tell me of important news.”
The cipher he’d established relied on a lot of useless information. The key was trigger words that provided context. Niers read through impatiently, wincing twice. He elaborated to Mrsha.
“They’re hunting for Peclir. ‘Loss’ and Silvergrape. The key is flies—they went after him but haven’t found him. Damn. Six assaults on the Forgotten Wing already. Not sure what. I—”
Then he went still. Mrsha saw him stop, nearly stumbling as he went down the paper. He walked back slowly and read a part near the end.
“I—no. How did they…? Peclir. Peclir—”
He was staring at a line near the bottom. Mrsha saw him read it out loud and then to her astonishment, saw the Fraerling begin to tremble.
“Issues with the supply of grain? Might be rats in the warehouse, but we killed one. No. They didn’t. I’ll—”
He looked up. Mrsha saw the Titan bite back whatever he was going to say. She backed up, slowly.
Niers Astoragon didn’t know what expression was on his face. All he knew was that his head went white for a second. The Fraerling Villages? One was—
And then he knew he was out of time.
Mrsha sat in her and Lyonettes’ room and listened to the Titan. He could be—scary. Very scary. Even so, she was disappointed as he spoke. Because—he was leaving?
The Fraerling stood on the windowsill, next to her, staring out across Liscor. He turned to Mrsha, eyes serious.
“I have a lot of Skills, Mrsha, but even I need a scrying orb to make them work. I need to be back with my company—and without me, they’re in trouble. They have Foliana, my technical superior, but she’s not me. They need me. Something bad is happening and I think…”
He stared out across the rolling hills and valleys.
“…It’s not one of the Great Companies. They’d never do this. They want to capture me, you know. Kill me, maybe, but if I’m taken off the board, everything changes. You see, the Forgotten Wing company is the thing that keeps Maelstrom’s Howling—the Centaurs—and the Iron Vanguard of Dullahans from triumphing. Either one. Either I support one or attack if one gains too much ground. They’d want me gone, but I’d be a better ally.”
Hence his bounties. Mrsha nodded. Niers had told her all about the people who wanted him, and she’d thought it was a grand adventure. Until he’d killed the [Spymaster]. Now? She saw him wearing that same, adult, dangerous expression.
“This? This is…someone who wants me dead. Peclir, the traitor, knows what the Fraerling Villages mean to my company. He knows the secrets. Damn him. How did he find out? Even Perorn doesn’t know their locations. Maybe he just has general locations. Either way—I have to go. I could wait out anything but this.”
He turned to her.
“The problem is—I have a Skill that lets me know about impending military assaults. All but the most secretive ones. I know there are two attacks that are coming towards The Wandering Inn or Liscor as a whole.”
Mrsha’s eyes went wide in alarm. She began to write, but Niers held up a hand.
“I didn’t tell you because I could have handled it. Believe me. If it was Hectval or…anything. Monsters from a dungeon? I could empower this inn to hold off an army. But I can’t stay and fight it off. Nor does my Skill detect infiltrators, spies. So rather than that—I’ll take the offensive. One letter to Chaldion and your Watch Captain each should do it. I can arrange for a division of Pallass’ finest to occupy the inn.”
He hopped off the table. Mrsha’s head was spinning. He was moving so fast! Niers turned back to her.
“Don’t worry; the Cyclops is cunning, but he knows the odds. He’ll move for me. I can probably even get them to send a [General] if they have a spare. I’d love to stay. But I have to get to Baleros. My company is sending help, but I need to get to a port if I can.”
Mrsha signed quickly and Niers tried to follow.
How are you going to get away? Can I help? A port is far!
“My plan was to wait for them to send some trusted agents and go with them—have them help out here, even. I can’t wait a month. I can’t wait a week. My students—no. I’m going to reach a port as fast as possible and there’s only one way to do that.”
He turned. The last occupant of the room looked up from where she was doing something on top of the dresser. She flew down and Apista landed in front of Niers. He looked at her, the little saddle he’d made, and then at Mrsha.
“Give me your bee-friend. Apista. I’ll keep her safe, Mrsha. I’ll fly to a port.”
Mrsha’s eyes went round. Apista fanned her wings as Mrsha signed frantically. Apista? But she was Lyonette’s! She was part of the inn! She couldn’t go! It was too dangerous!
“I’ll keep her safe!”
Niers tried to soothe her worries. He pointed to Apista and drew a little container out of his bag of holding and waved it at Mrsha. The price of him helping with the Thronebearers prank; they were still visiting the inn, preparing to head south for Lyonette, securing passports and papers.
“All I need is enough invisibility potion and a few other of your [Alchemist]’s goods. Frankly, it’s not ideal, but it will be for stealth alone. We’ll head to a port. It will take weeks, maybe, even if Apista can fly as fast as a raven, depending on whether we run into pursuit, but they can’t tell where I’m headed. Not with the door.”
Mrsha looked at Apista, desperately wanting to refuse and knowing this was the option Niers had chosen because it was safest. What did Apista think? Was she willing to do this? Was she even aware of what it meant?
Apista saluted Mrsha with one antennae. She had to do her part! Besides, a bee had to fly. If this helped the white Gnoll or Lyonette, she was willing to let the weird little man tell her where to go.
Niers smiled wearily as Mrsha looked at him. She was distraught. So was he, in a way. The grand adventure was being curtailed. Curtailed by pettiness and reality and…death. He looked at her, gently speaking.
“I’m…not willing to risk your life. Nor can I stick about forever, as fascinating as it is. If I return? I promise I will, but when I’m not putting my company at risk.”
She nodded at last. Mrsha sniffed, and Niers patted her paw.
“I’ll be back. And I’m not going tonight. One more day. I’ll make my arrangements. And there’s something I’d like to do. Listen, can you get me into the [Alchemist]’s shop again?”
Mrsha nodded. Niers was already getting on Apista’s back. He buzzed out the door, and she made to follow. Mrsha looked out the window, wondering if she would see Apista before Lyonette. Why did they have to go? They all promised to come back. She hated how they lied and told her it would be safer. Take her with them. She didn’t want to be alone.
The little girl rested her head against the glass. Then rose to follow Niers. However, Mrsha halted.
“Mrsha? Mrsha, come on! I need you to open doors! Don’t get sad, my little helper!”
Niers buzzed back five minutes later, impatient, trying to raise the girl’s spirits. He really wasn’t a child-person. Worse than Foliana—okay, maybe not. Then again, she could be nicer.
Mrsha was at the window still. She jumped and turned, and then began to pad after Niers. She wavered and looked back.
Had she missed it? She was reluctant to tell Niers, because when she’d looked back, it was gone, despite her searching. Maybe it was just a trick of the light, or her seeing one of the [Hunters] or so on wrong. It was just…
She could have sworn, for a second, she’d seen something out in the Floodplains of Liscor. A figure, staring at her. Then it had vanished. Nothing strange about that; there were plenty of people who left the city. Only, it had been unique. She could have sworn she’d seen…
A white Gnoll.
Somehow, Rufelt left his bar and found himself wandering Pallass. He didn’t know why, only that at some point even his mental loop of misery and confusion impelled him out of that dark place.
Still, it seemed the City of Inventions had lost its spark for the Gnoll. He walked around in a haze. The sun shone, but it was not comforting. It was hot, not warm. Bright, not light.
He supposed he was looking for Lasica. He didn’t know where she went on her walks after they fought. She knew him well enough to be able to avoid him. The library? He went looking for her, a single Gnoll stumbling forwards. Disheveled, unsteady—but one in a crowd. Sometimes a [Guard] might stop him, or a friend, on days like this, but rarely. Pallass was home to millions.
So, it was unusual for Rufelt to be noticed, but he met someone as he walked up to the 6th Floor. They were talking next to the grand staircase, another chance meeting. He noticed them because it was impossible not to; even in Pallass, a Centaur was rare, and a Human unusual. But the figure of the massive Drake bulging with muscle, Grimalkin of Pallass, was more unmistakable too.
It seemed he wasn’t the only person having a bad day. Not that Palt and Imani looked like they were suffering; they were arm in arm, doing some window shopping in the City of Inventions. They had discovered that it was quite possible to go for a day-trip and explore the quite fascinating Walled City, from visiting the public bathhouses to different shops, and so on.
It was Magus Grimalkin of Pallass who looked upset. Only, not miserable—he had the narrowed eyes and tense posture that Rufelt had seen rarely when the Drake visited his bar. Grimalkin was angry.
“…I’d like to talk to this Elirr, or any other Silverfangs still in the city. Miss Mrsha has quite good diction; would she know anything about this? I’ve questioned Plains Gnolls in Pallass, but no one can give me a straight answer.”
He was talking to the two, who looked genuinely concerned. Imani was nodding.
“Of course. Come on through any time; Liska checks the door, and it’s not like we have any visitors. Do you know why it happened?”
Palt was smoking a thin blue rollup. He took it out, frowning, as the smoke funneled away, rather than fill the air around them, a permanent little cantrip. Rufelt stopped, swaying, focusing on something else with relief.
“You hear strange things about Gnolls and magic. I heard a secret once in Wistram about the tribes sending one of their own to the academy, but I’m embarrassed to say I never looked into it. Could Ferkr have been…doing someone a favor? It’s the only reason I can think of.”
“I don’t teach my apprentices to lie, Mage Palt.”
Grimalkin snapped back, and then visibly controlled himself.
“Apologies. She’s not responding to me and I have no idea where she is. I am going to get to the bottom of this. Thank you for your time. I apologize—I will visit the inn. Excuse me, I must make arrangements for my travels.”
He stalked off, clearing a path by his presence alone. Palt and Imani watched him go. Rufelt heard the two whispering, Imani standing on tip-toes to whisper into Palt’s ear.
“I wonder what happened. Did you ever see Grimalkin so mad?”
“Not since he got locked out of Erin’s garden. I know it’s inappropriate but—did you see his upper bicep twitching under his shirt? The one on the left? I couldn’t stop staring at it!”
“Palt! He’s worried about his apprentice.”
“It’s still hilarious—”
And then they noticed Rufelt. The two blinked, and then Imani’s eyes widened.
“Is that you, Rufelt? You look—terrible!”
The Gnoll blinked at them. He realized he’d been standing amid the traffic, ignoring the insults and occasional shoves from passersby. He jerked.
“Oh. Imani. Palt. I’m just…what are you doing?”
The [Bartender] saw both exchange glances. They came over and stood by the railings, talking. Imani peered at Rufelt.
“We’re on a little shopping date. Ingredients, but mostly interesting things. I haven’t seen you or Lasica since…”
She trailed off and Rufelt felt a pang in his chest. It still happened—people meeting him and remembering. Or not knowing and asking—
Where was his white armband? He’d forgotten it. So many people had stopped wearing it after the first week, the first month. As if—it was already time to move on. Rufelt hated that. He just shook his head.
“Condolences. Are you…”
Palt hesitated because ‘are you feeling better’, or ‘are you well’, or any question of that nature was clearly evident from look alone. Rufelt mutely shook his head.
“I’ll be better soon.”
What do you see in the picture? He tried to smile and they gave him uncertain grins in return; he couldn’t have known what a rictus was on his face.
He looked at them. On a date, they’d said? Imani was asking about Lasica and he mumbled something.
“You’re seeing each other, then.”
Imani smiled and Palt ducked his head.
“It just sort of—happened.”
“No, it didn’t. It took a while and it was completely uncoincidental. Palt helped me so much in dealing with my nightmares about Crelers and he can cook. Then, he had to deal with his love for Erin, and now we’re finally here.”
Imani poked Palt in the side and he shuffled his hooves.
“I like my version better. It sounds more romantic. Like the mov—like a classic romance from your home, you know?”
“More romantic than a genuine connection? Palt! Accidentally falling in love with someone you run into is…such a Centaur idea!”
Said Centaur harrumphed.
“It’s a classic in my culture too. Two Centaurs nearly gallop into one another, or collide, they get to talking after the first quarrel…”
“Sounds like a recipe for broken legs, especially if it’s Centaurs.”
“You’re not romantic at all.”
The two smiled at each other, before recalling Rufelt, so into each other’s presence that it was the kind of thing a little Gnoll might pretend to dry-heave at. Yet it struck Rufelt differently. He looked at the two and the words slipped out as part of him…came awake.
“A Human and a Centaur. I imagine it draws a few comments, even in Invrisil. Do they bother you in Liscor?”
He asked because—well, they were familiar. They were younger, but not actually that different in age from the Drake and Gnoll when they’d met. And while it was a different pairing of species, he did understand this. Imani’s smile slipped and Palt frowned, puffing on his blue cigarette.
“You get a few idiots wherever you go. I’m used to the stares. You’d be surprised; Invrisil is the worst with it. I suppose Drakes think Humans can do whatever they want. It’s why we prefer Pallass. But then—I suppose you’d know, wouldn’t you, Mister Rufelt?”
The Gnoll did know. Gnolls and Drakes marrying was the most common interspecies marriage in all of Izril, even more than Humans and Drakes or Humans and Gnolls, given the proximity of the two species in the south.
Even now, though, he remembered family, friends…and comments. He looked at Imani and Palt, who were clearly familiar with whatever was said by now. And content to ignore it.
It was like looking at an old reflection of him and Lasica. Not alike in so many ways, but the core of it…Rufelt’s knees trembled. He felt weak. He looked at the past and the words spilled out of his mouth in the present.
“Don’t invest everything in it. Don’t—be careful when you care for each other. Children, marriage—it’s a double-edged sword.”
Don’t fall in love. He nearly said that, but he was ashamed when it came to the tip of his tongue.
Imani’s eyes widened. Palt trotted his hooves back in astonishment. For a moment, the two just looked at Rufelt, and he stared away.
“I’m sorry. I have to—”
He turned, to go back to the bar. To—
“No. Don’t go. You’re clearly not well, Rufelt.”
The [Chef] caught his arm. He’d forgotten she had the same class as Lasica. Wretchedly, Rufelt turned back.
“I’m fine. I’ll be fine. I’m sorry, I’m just—”
“We understand. We heard about the spell and, well…you look thin. When did you last eat? Sleep?”
Palt was nodding. The two clustered around Rufelt and the Centaur eyed him. Rufelt was shaking his head, but Imani had a firm grip on one arm.
“Is Lasica in the same shape, Rufelt? Where is she?”
“Better. She’s—a bit better. I don’t know where she is. She goes out.”
Another look between Imani and Palt. The Centaur chewed on his cigarette rather than smoking it. Imani opened and closed her mouth. It was Palt who spoke.
“I heard about the Demon’s ritual and I know you’ve lost a lot, Rufelt. I…”
He hesitated, eying Imani, but then went on, taking the rollup out of his mouth. The [Illusionist] fixed the Gnoll [Bartender] with a serious gaze.
“Mister Rufelt. I know you’ve suffered a great loss. I don’t mean to be…insensitive. I am going to be, though. You need to pull yourself together. It’s a traumatic experience, miscarriage. But you need to move forwards or you’re going to fall to pieces. You and Lasica.”
Rufelt jerked. He whirled on Palt, and Imani gasped.
The Centaur raised his hands at the angry Gnoll.
“I’m sorry. Centaurs have it terribly bad too. It’s—a huge complication in our species. But it happens more often than you’d think. It’s one of the reasons our species are less numerous than Humans. Usually only early on. It’s because of the difficulty of creating, well, two species in one. It’s terrible, and I have friends and family who went through it. They go to [Healers]—[Thought Healers], though. You…can’t stay like this. You’ll waste away. I’ve seen that too.”
He shuffled his hooves, looking quite uncomfortable. Even ashamed.
“I’m sorry. I know this is not the right thing to say, but I’ve seen this kind of thing tear relationships apart. You look—awful.”
Rufelt’s paws were clenched. He snarled back at the Centaur.
“You think we haven’t tried? Lasica doesn’t want to go. She just wants to—”
Take the deal. Imani was patting his shoulder. She looked at his dirty fur, glared at Palt.
“Aren’t you supposed to be a diplomat?”
Palt shook his head.
“Ullsinoi are tricksters. Wistram is…Wistram. I’m sorry, I was too direct. It’s just…”
He looked at the Gnoll again, and then snapped his fingers. Rufelt stared at Palt, almost ready to take a swing at the Centaur, despite the height and weight difference. Then Palt held something up.
It was… a mirror. A magical mirror, a little spell, but it reflected what Palt saw, nonetheless. Rufelt looked into it.
What you do you see in the picture?
He saw a stranger. A Gnoll so filthy and wild-eyed and…worn that he wouldn’t have let him in his bar, even when he was just starting out. He looked at the image of himself, and wondered if he was dying.
“Is that me?”
Imani and Palt looked at him. Slowly, Imani took his shoulder.
“Rufelt, why don’t you come with us? You need to eat. Come to the inn, and we’ll get you something hot. And—then you should lie down.”
Rufelt shook his head.
“I need to go back to the bar. Lasica will be there.”
“I’ll go and leave her a note or tell her. You—you should get out of that bar. Come with us.”
Palt frowned at Rufelt, and snapped his fingers twice. Imani glanced at him. Rufelt hesitated. He rubbed at his face. He felt…tired. So tired.
“I can’t do that. I need—”
The Centaur frowned deeper. Imani tugged at Rufelt’s arm.
“Come on. Just a bite to eat. We can’t let you go without food. Just a bit?”
Palt muttered under his breath. Rufelt felt a tingle this time and glanced at Palt. The Centaur raised his hands, smiling.
“Come on, Rufelt. One meal. What’s your favorite dish?”
“I…like fried potatoes with meat. Lasica makes a hot dish in an iron pan.”
Rufelt remembered her making it for special occasions. Suddenly, his eyes tingled and he felt weak. He barely protested as Imani tugged at him, cajoling, encouraging. Palt helped usher Rufelt towards the inn.
“Just one bite, and we’ll let you go. Maybe a nap, too. I’ll tell Lasica.”
The [Bartender] protested, but he was too weak. Too tired and—he did feel his weakness, then. The image of himself had shaken the Gnoll. Palt let Imani do most of the talking. He gave it two more tries and Rufelt began to perk up both times and they got him moving before he could protest.
The Centaur watched Rufelt, eying him. He didn’t tell Imani, as she was talking to Rufelt, but he bit his blue cigarette and chewed it hard.
[Joyous Spirits] was a Tier 4 mood spell. Even if Rufelt was rock-bottom, it should have done more than that, and Palt had cast it three times! It felt like he was moving a rock, and he was panting as he burned mana. What was wrong with the Gnoll?
Rufelt stumbled on, letting Imani talk him into food.
“We have a room for you, okay? An open one. Just sit down and…”
He found himself nodding. Time…time might help. No dark bar. Just a day? He wanted to rest. To sleep without dreaming of what might be and what was.
It was time. But…one more day couldn’t hurt. He left Pallass, and somewhere else in the city, a certain figure paused.
The Stitch Witch turned her head and felt one of the threads change. It was still close in one kind of proximity, but the weave had suddenly jumped from here to somewhere far distant, geographically speaking.
She tilted her head left. Then right. She felt someone trying to interfere, but their magic could not interfere.
Belavierr was making many deals, but they were among the most valuable. She had cast no spell on Rufelt and Lasica; they were one of her clients, one group she had found in Pallass to do business with. If she had persuaded, it was with word and deed and offering them truth; she was honest in that regard.
But she would brook no interference, magical or otherwise. That too was part of the deal. She tilted her head unnaturally far, and then turned it back. A little [Mage] wouldn’t do much. She went back to sewing.
Business was good. Just a few more deals…and she could go back to her beloved daughter. The Witch smiled.
Everyone should have a child.
The inn was busier that night. Imani and Palt dragged in a smelly, mostly dead-looking Gnoll and fussed about him. Everyone seemed to know who he was, and Rags supposed it was another thing she’d missed.
She ate potatoes and meat quietly, savoring the Calescent spice that Imani had added in a mild blend. The Goblin [Spice Chef] grunted happily. He was among his kind here, and poked Rags.
“Chieftain. If Ulvama not stay, maybe I stay? Good place.”
She swatted at his hand.
“Shut up, Calescent. We have work to do.”
He sighed, but nodded. Rags knew her own sojourn at the inn had to end soon. She had seen Erin. She had talked to Erin and known what must be done. There was nothing here. Not in this quiet grave. So she would go and right what she could.
At least she hadn’t been attacked. Rags retired to her room, reflecting that the lack of a Relc and [Guards] trying to kill her was a plus—and she’d certainly justified the visit. All these new technologies, goods bought from shopping, and so on were worth it. Not to mention finding Ulvama and Numbtongue, even if Rags was dubious about taking Ulvama. Yet the [Shaman] had made a good case, so Rags decided she’d bring Ulvama.
She was trying to figure out if they should buy any last items—although they could always visit another city with those illusion rings—when she noticed something. It was lying on her bed.
A little…slip of paper. The Goblin’s eyes narrowed. She locked her doors, and no one came in or out, not even the Gnoll, Ishkr. Yet here was a discrepancy. She walked over to the piece of paper, checked it magically, and opened it. She read the thin writing, very small…and her crimson eyes opened wide.
Do you know why Goblin Kings go mad? Do you remember why Velan forsook his oaths?
The Goblin Chieftain whirled, going for her bag of holding. Rags nearly drew out her crossbow—then reconsidered. You couldn’t shoot a target that small. She hesitated.
“Who are you? Why do you ask?”
No response. Rags’ gaze swept her room. Her infrared vision checked all the corners and she paused for an infinitesimal moment. Ah.
She didn’t go for a weapon. Killing was a last resort, after all, and the question deserved questions of their own, especially if this was who she thought it was. The Goblin drew out something she’d had Calescent buy in Liscor.
A little bug-catching net.
She wandered around the room, pretending to check the corners—then spun and dove for the side of the dresser. The little person thought he was clever, but he’d made a mistake.
Rags saw heat. Abundance of it, and the absence. The cold patch was obvious as the sun! She swung the little net down, over the ice cube just large enough for a tiny man to lie prone behind it.
Rags looked down at the ice cube…and saw no man. Just the slightly-melting ice cube and a second piece of paper. She recoiled slightly.
Tricked! He’d—tricked her into believing he’d made a mistake from the time she’d spotted him during the Village of the Dead’s raid! She stared around again, checking every corner of the room. Now she had no signs. So she picked the piece of paper up and read the second message.
Answer my question. Do you know?
Don’t try to run.
Rags’ head slowly rose. She looked around the room. Not one sign of the Fraerling—that was what they were called. And he was tiny. Nevertheless…she didn’t try to run. Nor did she go for a weapon. She stood there, looking up, down, left, and right.
Nothing. The Goblin hesitated. She scowled, and barked a response.
That was all he was getting. She backed up towards the door, slowly, alert for anything. She’d fireball the entire room if she was attacked and risk the damage to herself.
A flicker of movement caught her eye. The Goblin whirled, finger pointing and burning with fire—
A third piece of paper fluttered down from a corner of the room. She stared up at the patch where it had been, but saw nothing.
Invisible? Some kind of tripwire, a delayed mechanism? Rags hesitated. She picked up the piece of paper, growling. She did not like this feeling of being outsmarted, but she wanted to know what the third question was.
Where did Velan leave his legacy? I know it exists.
Every hair on Rags’ head rose. She whirled, looking around, and didn’t touch the key at her neck. She turned—made a decision. Rags shot out the door, ready for—
Nothing. She sprinted downstairs to find Calescent and Ulvama, rattled. It was only when she was gone that Niers sighed.
He sidled out from the windowsill—on the outside of the inn. The tiny mirror he’d placed allowed him an angle on the Goblin and he’d seen her react to the last question. The Titan rubbed at his chin. There were some questions you could only ask a Goblin of Izril about, and he’d never met one—the ones on Baleros had no clue.
“So, they know where it is. Or that it exists.”
The Fraerling man jogged towards the open window he’d kept and hurried inside. There were few birds thanks to that Antinium, but he didn’t like being outside either way. Razorbeak memories haunted him.
Only then did he dump the shards of ice out his coat, swearing mildly. Most of it had melted, but it had been a trick and a half keeping himself ‘neutral’. As he’d guessed, the Goblin Chieftain wasn’t high-enough level to make out individual cold patches mixed with heat—only the overall temperature, especially at a distance. Foliana’s expertise had helped a lot in that regard. She knew more than Fraerlings about tricking people’s eyes.
As for what he’d learned…Niers shook his head. Now there was something he could take back to the Forgotten Wing Company. As secrets went—it was right up there with news of Earth. He shook his head. Not much he could do about it now, but he was certainly going to act on it. If he had given Wil Kallinad a treasure hunt worthy of the lad and his friends—this was one worthy of the Titan and his friends.
“One down. One to go.”
It took some doing, but he’d already fashioned little climbing aids; just pieces of wood, like a [Climber]’s picks. With them, Niers could scale most places in the inn, and even without Apista, it wasn’t hard getting into the next location.
He had to go. If the Fraerling settlements were under attack, the Titan could not wait. They were able to defend themselves, but this was duty.
He only regretted this inn was so fascinating. The occupants—the Titan sighed. He couldn’t take any of them with him and he would have if he could. Especially the young man named Kevin.
Kevin, Joseph, Rose, Galina, Troy, Imani, and Leon. Three of the seven were gone. To that list Niers had also appended the names of Ryoka Griffin, Geneva Scala, Erin Solstice, and Rémi Canada. The Singer of Terandria was also on it, though her name wasn’t listed.
He had names, even rough locations, and not one member of his company or any power. Niers Astoragon sighed as he stared around the room. He looked at the map of the world again—his world—and his gaze travelled left to the second map of…another world.
“So much to ask and not a second more to waste. Damn. This is torture.”
The map of Earth sat in front of him, next to a diagram of what he could only assume were multiple worlds. If ‘Earth’ was there…what were the lines? Magical tunnels? But the sun was in the center, so…
The Earth-rooms were a goldmine. All he could do, though, was make copies of everything here. He couldn’t take a mage-picture, and he couldn’t steal anything or leave traces he’d been here, even if he could carry the images off.
Of course, he’d found the rooms. Mrsha was smart enough to keep some secrets, but a Fraerling got everywhere, and air-holes were obvious, especially if they were big enough for him to squeeze through.
The Titan grinned as he worked, a pained, ecstatic grin.
“If only I’d come months earlier! If only!”
It took him quite some time to note it all down, and he’d already been making copies. He looked back just once, longingly.
He would be back for all of it. Then he went back to the garden and began planning his journey. He checked his travel provisions, route, and new equipment and sighed.
“They’re destroying the villages. Tulm—none of the Great Companies would do this. They want me. Peclir. He knows they’re our secret advantage.”
Niers Astoragon clenched a trembling fist. Time to return. This took priority, as this inn had little that was changing at the moment. It could wait. He’d be back. Right after he killed every single person hunting his people in all Baleros.
He was just leaving to pen the final note to the Watch Captain and Chaldion when he came across something…interesting in the inn. Niers stopped as he crawled out of the tiny air-hole and frowned.
“What’s this, now?”
They fed him and helped him get a bath and even gave him a soft bed. For a while, he felt better. However, Rufelt Owelt couldn’t sleep.
He tossed and turned and felt the bar calling to him. Lasica. He found himself rising, like a moth pursuing the flame even if it burned him.
He was walking down to the first floor when Palt found him. The Centaur was heading up the stairs and saw Rufelt.
“Mister Rufelt! What are you doing up? I thought you were lying down!”
The Gnoll smiled and indicated the door to the hallway with a paw.
“I’m—I’m going back. Can’t be away or Lasica might decide—I’m sorry. Thank you for your hospitality.”
Palt looked around, but Imani was tuckered out and most of the inn was heading to bed. He raised his hands, blocking Rufelt as the Gnoll tried to exit the common room.
“You’re frazzled. Sit, Mister Rufelt. Just take a seat. Let me get you something.”
The [Bartender] wanted to argue, but Palt had him sitting and handed him a glass of something that was most distinctly not a traditional beverage. He drank it anyways, just to make Palt stop fussing and shook his head.
“I appreciate it, but really—I have to go.”
The [Illusionist] gave Rufelt a second look.
“You—aren’t feeling mellowed out?”
“No. I have to—”
This time, the Centaur put a hand on his shoulder.
“Then something’s wrong. Because that was my best Calming Tonic and if you weren’t placid as a glass of frozen water—you’re not well, Rufelt. And I don’t mean just mentally. It’s magic or—something on you. Maybe a disease, maybe a spell, but I don’t see anything.”
Rufelt blinked. He looked at Palt and had a thought. Had she cast a spell on him? She’d said she wouldn’t use magic on them directly to change their moods. She’d twist their heads, torture them with pictures—but not coerce them with magic.
Doubt seeped into that assertion, and he’d already doubted her. Rufelt felt so…cloudy. It was lack of sleep. Palt fussed around him.
“Try a puff of this. It made Saliss blink.”
The Gnoll tried to refuse.
“I don’t smoke regularly. No thanks.”
“Just do it. This isn’t about smoking, it’s about…”
The little argument from the Gnoll and Centaur drew a sleepy head. Mrsha had been napping by the fire, having eaten a bellyful of potato and meat and no one had brought her up to bed yet; Ulvama was searching for something with Rags.
She came over to where Rufelt had just taken a puff and felt his head spin—then normalize. He looked down at Mrsha and she up at him. She saw his expression as he stared at the girl and averted his gaze. She would have scampered away, mindful of his grief, but then Mrsha hesitated.
One of her ears perked up. Rufelt thought he heard something…but Palt was muttering about other drugs and substances of various legal and illegal natures. Neither noticed Mrsha hurry upstairs.
“I have to go.”
“You’ll do no such thing. All my magic is bouncing off you! I’m not certain if you’re under an effect, but I can’t put one on you!”
That rankled the [Illusionist]’s pride. Rufelt shook his head.
“I just need to—to choose. I have to go.”
Palt put his hands on the [Bartender]’s shoulders. Rufelt growled, and it might have gotten physical, as desperate as he was to go back home—when Mrsha came back downstairs.
She waved her paws and the two adults looked at her. Rufelt saw her hand a note up and Palt took it.
“Mrsha, I’m kind of busy—actually, could you wake Bezale and Montressa? I need—hm?”
He frowned at the note. Then looked at Rufelt. The Gnoll could read it too.
Go into the [Garden of Sanctuary] for me! Pwease?
The Gnoll and Centaur both gave Mrsha a look, but she gave them her biggest, roundest eyes of pleading and Rufelt hesitated.
“I really have to—”
“No, Mrsha’s right. Just for a second or two.”
Palt was looking at Mrsha thoughtfully. Rufelt growled, but now Palt was whispering.
“You can’t cast the spell on…? Assuming you really can cast a T6 spell, now would be the time to—”
Mrsha shook her head and Palt sighed, but the two began ushering him to the Garden’s open door. It was night, of course, yet it looked serene.
“Just for a second. You stay in there five minutes, sir, and I won’t have Bezale put you in a chokehold.”
“I—fine! Five minutes! If you don’t let me go, I’ll shout for help!”
Rufelt snarled. He walked into the garden and turned around. He glared at the two—and then his face changed to one of bemusement.
He murmured. Rufelt looked around. The Garden was quiet, serene. Beautiful; the most beautiful garden of different climates he’d ever seen. Of course he remembered that, but he hadn’t wanted to go inside.
Erin lay here. Yet—Rufelt began to feel better all of a sudden, dead young woman or not.
Palt sighed, and gave Mrsha an admiring look. She looked smug herself. Rufelt felt at his head. Suddenly—it was as if the cloud was lifted from him.
“What’s going on? Was I ensorcelled?”
Palt admitted, after taking a note from Mrsha. He raised his brows.
“That’s—fascinating. Mrsha has a theory I agree with. You might not have been under a spell or Skill, Rufelt. That is to say, you weren’t being affected, but nothing I could do would change your mood either. It was just you being at your worst—naturally.”
The [Bartender] blinked at Palt. He recalled being horrifically worn down, stressed beyond belief, but in this place…
The Centaur gave him a wry smile.
“You came under the influence of a higher power, sir. Rather—the garden’s effect beat whatever was keeping me from helping. As Skills go, Erin inherited one of the most powerful. No malign magics can enter here—or if they can, they have to be stronger than whatever was on you. How do you feel?”
Rufelt felt…not at peace, but better. Calmer. He yawned.
“I’m…tired. I—I’m sorry. I’ve been so exhausted and I…”
He swayed on his feet. Suddenly, it was as if someone had taken his burdens away. At least, in part. Palt glanced at Mrsha.
“Why don’t you lie down? I’ll get a blanket and pillows.”
The two were nodding. Rufelt looked at the grass under his feet and decided—why not? It had been a long time since he’d slept like this, but the ground called to him. He sat down.
“What’s going on?”
A weary voice made all three look up. Mrsha saw a Hobgoblin standing there.
If there was peace in this place, Numbtongue still mourned. He looked almost as bad as Rufelt, and that was saying something. Mrsha scampered up to him, signing, and Palt explained as Numbtongue blinked slowly.
“I’m sorry—I forgot you were here. Rufelt’s unwell. He needs to rest in the garden. It’s just for a little bit, Numbtongue. He’s really not well and Mrsha thought it would help. Why was that, Mrsha?”
She scribbled and held up a note for all three adults to read.
Because the Garden is a safe place.
Rufelt smiled. Numbtongue eyed him and grunted.
He walked back up the hill, and the Gnoll relaxed. The garden’s power enveloped him and he let it soothe the turmoil inside. It wasn’t over, but at least he could relax, his burdens taken off him here. He closed his eyes—
And the Stitch Witch, irritated, wove more power into the spell.
Rufelt’s eyes opened wide. Mrsha and Palt, high-fiving, saw the Gnoll’s world crash down around him again. Rufelt put his head in his paws.
It was back. His anxieties flooded around him. The calming power of the garden vanished and Rufelt cried out, so much that the other people in the Garden, from the beavers to the people, looked up.
“There’s no escape. I have to choose. Choose one way or another.”
Rufelt rocked. The Titan hissed, aiming a finger at the Gnoll, uncertain if it would help. If it wasn’t the source, nulling the spell just let it be recast and this was powerful. His sense of unease deepened. What could beat this garden’s power?
“Mister Rufelt! Get ahold of yourself! Mrsha, run and get Bezale and Montressa. Something is really wrong here.”
Palt grappled with Rufelt as the Gnoll tried to get up, to run home and put an end to this. The power of the [Garden of Sanctuary] wasn’t infinite; Numbtongue was proof enough, but the Centaur was rattled. He saw Mrsha run for the stairs, but didn’t know what they could do short of knocking Rufelt out or restraining him; he was the emotions-expert here and he was outclassed!
It was as Rufelt was fighting Palt, even here, as he was struggling, that the last person in the Garden walked down the hill, past Numbtongue. He laid a hand on Numbtongue’s arm.
Rufelt stopped as he saw the last visitor. He couldn’t really punch Palt, not here. Not even with misery drowning him. He stopped though, not because the other visitor was strong enough to halt him, but because he was unexpected.
“Do I know you?”
The Antinium nodded at Rufelt.
“I am Pawn. We have met, Mister Rufelt. I heard you had lost a child due to the Demon’s magic. I am sorry for your loss; I could not express it until now.”
Palt, Mrsha, even Numbtongue and Niers stopped. Rufelt’s mouth worked, confronted by this unexpected gesture.
The Centaur coughed, still with two arms on Rufelt’s shoulders.
“That’s a bit insensitive, Pawn. And I should know.”
The Antinium looked at the Centaur and dipped his head in acknowledgement, but not guilt.
“I am aware my words can be hurtful rather than helpful, Palt. Even so, I would rather let Rufelt know I care. I do care. Some in Liscor suffered as well, from the Demon’s spell. Antinium likewise.”
Rufelt whispered. Pawn nodded, as the Gnoll relived horror as he did each time he met someone…the [Priest]’s face was hard to read, but his mandibles drooped.
“Yes. The Demon’s magic affected all peoples, even though Antinium are not born in the same way as others. We found some dead. We mourned them. Antinium are born with great regularity, it is true. We still mourned.”
It was then that Rufelt looked at someone else who could understand. Even if not entirely…he whispered, shoulders shaking.
“How can you stand there and deal with it? How can you look so calm? You don’t even look like you care.”
He hurled the words at Pawn, but the Antinium just stood there. He looked at Rufelt, at Palt, and Mrsha, and took his time before replying. He looked up to the hill where mists gathered and Rufelt realized how wrong he was to accuse Pawn of being calm, of not caring. Especially here.
At last, the [Priest] met Rufelt’s eyes.
“Because I must. To be Antinium is to know your kind dying each day. Less now, than before. But they die. I mourn them all, Rufelt. But I must continue even if I bleed. To make things better for the living—and the dead. I know terrible pain, and I may know worse still, though I cannot believe it. I continue because I believe it will end someday.”
There was something Pawn had that Rufelt didn’t. The Gnoll wanted to know how the Antinium was so certain. Pawn’s four arms moved, two spreading out, two clasping together.
“Faith. Faith that better times lie ahead. Sometimes—it is all I have. It is still hard. I still despair. But I come here and see—”
He looked at Numbtongue, at Rufelt. Pawn hesitated, and then reached out. He touched two people, the Gnoll and the Goblin.
“[Benediction]. To you, Rufelt and you, Numbtongue. Have faith. She will return. Better days lie ahead.”
In the darkness, there was a spark. Palt’s eyes widened, as did Niers’. Numbtongue and Rufelt jerked. Both pulled away, Numbtongue knocking Pawn’s hand down, and Rufelt recoiling, but it was done.
Both of them felt…something. Something warm, like a fire. It did not flow into them like a potion or magic spell. It did not change them.
For a second, they were simply there. Sitting in a good place, having eaten their fill, amongst friends. Like they sat in an inn and realized the world was good. Rufelt could close his eyes and remember every time in his life he had felt thusly—and it was so easy to forget.
He remembered hope. And memory was so often cruel and showed only regret and pain. He felt…contentment.
Slowly, the Gnoll yawned. He looked around and Numbtongue’s red eyes turned to Pawn’s. The [Priest] raised his hands.
“I am sorry if I overstepped.”
That was all the Goblin said. He went back to the hill, to sit in the night. Rufelt looked at Pawn.
Where the Garden had failed, where Palt and food and everything else—at last, he felt his worries ease. They didn’t shrink, or vanish temporarily. They were simply overcome by the emotion welling in his heart.
Hope. He looked ahead, to the future, and at himself.
“Thank you, Pawn. I—I think I need to sleep. I’m going to be okay, now, I think.”
The Antinium smiled. Palt looked at Rufelt, but the Gnoll didn’t run to leave the inn. He just…yawned. And then he slowly went back to the guest room and lay down.
Rufelt slept, and dreamed without nightmares for once. Mrsha looked up at Pawn, and the [Priest] nodded to her. She stuck out a paw, tentatively, a question in her eyes, and he touched her.
“[Benediction of Hope].”
Mrsha sighed, and then smiled and went to sleep. Pawn left the inn, as the Titan and Palt stared at his back.
Somewhere, the [Witch] stirred. She felt something overcome her power. Completely. So thoroughly she stopped everything she was doing and she crossed her brows.
In confusion and…annoyance.
“What was that?”
It had been a long time since Belavierr had ever uttered those words.
The next day, Pallass was in an uproar. Saliss’ actions and the siege of Oteslia by Zeres had thrown the issue of Magnolia Reinhart into the limelight once more. It was drama, it was tension as half the city seemed to support Saliss, the other half being against Magnolia. A remarkable split perhaps helped by the [Innkeeper] who had represented humanity and their own short encounters with the Lady of House Reinhart.
Drama and deliberation occupied the day, with Sir Relz and Noass discussing the issue and the social circles having their own talks on the issue.
As if they could do anything. As if they mattered. To one Drake, the day was as boring as the last; the news unimportant, trivial Drake politics.
Lady Salkis Blackwing, of one of the most venerable families in Pallass, was bored. The delicate, demure onyx-scaled Drake lay in her comfortable rooms, given privacy and luxury for her delicate health and temperament.
She swore, an epitet involving removing genitals and stuffing them in improbable locations, the kind of oath even a [Sailor] would look askance at. She fiddled with the device in front of her, drew a wickedly sharp, enchanted dagger, and stabbed her bedding—narrowly missing it.
Lady Salkis had a secret. While many took her to be the aristocratic daughter of a Walled Family in Pallass, sheltered by her father, always escorted by bodyguards, she was, in fact, a good deal more durable than anyone knew. A good deal more…violent.
She stared down at the strange device, the rectangle of unknown material with the glossy screen. It was a strange artifact, neither magical nor strictly mundane. She had no idea how it worked. It was not hers; she’d taken it from a Human shortly before ‘killing’ her right outside of Celum. Now, looking back, the Bloodfeast Raider wished she’d been more curious about the City Runner.
After all, Ryoka Griffin had gone on to become a Courier, having survived a mortal wound. She was difficult to touch, but the Bloodfeast Raiders did not like leaving someone like her alive. Still, their organization and mobilization wasn’t like an army’s—it was looser, secretive as they were.
The most feared group of criminals in all of Izril struck at random, north and south. They were small, and each one was a match for a Gold-rank. No one knew who they were; not a single one had ever been captured alive and no one could remember who they were.
Even Salkis herself didn’t know more than a dozen Raiders, but she knew their kind. She was one of them, and she chafed at pretending to be a good daughter. She studied the iPhone that Ryoka Griffin had handed over and growled.
“What’s wrong with you? Work, damn it!”
She tapped the screen, but it was no good. Salkis had had the item in her possession for a long time. However, she hadn’t been able to do much with it. For one main reason.
The Drake had figured out the different buttons. Power, volume…she had investigated each port and seen how the casing could be taken off. What had stumped her, though, was the workings itself. She stared down at the glowing, by now, familiar writing on the screen.
“iPhone is disabled. Try again in 5 minutes. What. Does. That. Mean?”
The word was unfamiliar. She tapped at the screen, then went and wrote down yet another series of four digits. She had tried nearly a hundred codes, and she remembered to turn the device off. She glowered at it.
The numbers in the upper right and that strange…jar…kept going down. It was running out of something. Power. Not magic. She’d covertly tried to get it filled up, like an item with magic, but her mana stones didn’t work.
She had tried everything. Everything available to her in secret. Salkis was no [Mage]; she was exceptionally good with the twin daggers she carried, but she had no magic of her own so her options were limited. Especially because she was smart enough not to show the device to anyone.
She had managed to keep it charged by figuring out the [Repair] trick—after hurling it at a wall in fury. Yet Salkis still didn’t understand why it wasn’t magical if it could light up. She didn’t know what the material was made of, and how a City Runner could have come into possession of this.
Salkis flopped onto her bed, exasperated. And bored.
Bored, bored, bored. She knew her father and mother were discussing the ‘Human issue’, and Salkis could participate as the demure daughter of House Blackwing, even talk to their obnoxious uncle, General Edellein—she could go for a visit, buy something with her allowance—she wanted none of that.
Life was boring unless it was filled with blood, risking your life! Yet she could only creep away from her family on rare occasions, trick them. And only when the Bloodfeast was called. It hadn’t been called for a while; she might not have been close enough to the other attacks. So, Salkis was bored.
Oh, there were…ways…for a young woman like herself to find entertainment. That was how the Bloodfeast Raiders had first found her. Salkis had found a lot of Pallass’ underground entertainments. Ironically, she’d been more free back then; once she’d been inducted, her escapades had to be curtailed.
Being in the Raiders is more like being cooped up in a Walled City than I could have imagined. If I’d have known, I’d have…have…Ancestors damn it.
Salkis growled, too wary to even voice her thoughts aloud. There was no refusing the Bloodfeast Raiders and surviving, or leaving their group and keeping your throat intact. She enjoyed the Bloodfeasts, but they were too far and few between for her liking.
There was so little she could do. Salkis flopped around in her bed and thought of all the amazing things she wished her family would let her do.
Skateboard, for instance. Skateboards were Pallass’ rage. The cause of a lot of injuries. A lot of fun. Salkis had as much chance of getting to ride one as the Flying Gnoll of Pallass did of actually…flying. It was her father’s fault. He was beyond stifling.
So much so that when Salkis did emerge to break her fast, her two bodyguards were already waiting. The black-scaled Drake put on a huge smile, ate, made light conversation, and turned to them with a bright smile.
“Now, what shall I do today, I wonder?”
The two Drakes gave each other a look. They were fairly burly, hired for looks as much as level. Looks over level, honestly. They could chase off any would-be [Kidnappers] or [Thugs] or hold them off long enough for the Watch to arrive, but Salkis sneered at their ‘experience’. She could have killed both before they drew their blades.
She smiled and wished there was another Bloodfeast. Or she would cause one here—
“Lady Salkis, perhaps a visit to the spa?”
Of course the orange-scaled Drake said that. They loved that idea, and so did the Drake serving the table. Salkis rolled her eyes, but internally.
“I’d like to go on a little trip…to the spa, how wonderful! Maybe a nice, day-long rest would help my fatigue.”
The two [Bodyguards] perked up. They liked the spa and certain areas because they could relax; the spa had enough security for them to slack off. Salkis smiled at their relieved looks and wanted to show them exactly how much better she was than they were at fighting.
But no. She accepted the offer, knowing they would make it because it benefited her too. The trick was…complacency. Her family thought she had delicate health, so Salkis could be ‘indisposed’ and have one of her [Attendants] take her place while she was sick. Of course, the stupid girl thought Salkis just went on little jaunts.
The same for a spa. She could be there all day, and had trained her bodyguards to expect that as she socialized with her friends and they covered for her. A lot of her peers had this unofficial agreement, so Salkis could slip away.
She had a plan, today. It had been the last straw, that damned iPhone failing for the hundredth time. She usually kept clear of [Mages] since they could identify her in Pallass and the risk of being caught was too great.
But happily, there was another Drake city nearby, wasn’t there? Salkis couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought about it, but until recently they’d been so strict on the checkpoint lists. Now, they were letting in day-visitors and all she had to do was slip in and out.
She tucked the iPhone into her bag of holding as she rose to go with her [Bodyguards]. Maybe she could find a [Mage] in Liscor to take a look at it. Even if they found something interesting—she could handle things.
Hope was something amazing. When it filled you, it was so completely powerful it blew away the darkness.
The fact that Pawn could touch people and give hope was a power beyond…well, power. And she had thought he was a poo-smelly face.
Well, he was a poo-smelly face with amazing powers. Mrsha the Priest decided it would be a good addition to her roster of classes. She had a number of classes on her list she was going to get when she became an adult.
[Druid], [Wizard], [Adventurer]…[Priest], definitely! Priestess? She didn’t know the rules. What did she have to do, pray like Pawn? Mrsha could do that.
Cookies, cookies, cookies.
She prayed in front of the kitchen for a good five minutes and resolved to do five more tomorrow. In short, Mrsha was buoyed up by hope for a good while; she’d even slept and saw pure visions of great things.
…Until it wore off. Oh, Mrsha remembered, but the [Benediction of Hope] was still temporary. It…might have worked better on Rufelt and Numbtongue, frankly. Maybe Pawn had been stingy, because the Gnoll certainly seemed more alive. He ate, thanking Imani and Palt, not rushing back to Pallass.
Good for him. Mrsha had bigger fish to punch. For instance, she was uncertain, but after three hours, she was convinced. She had breakfast with Ulvama, who asked her if she’d seen any ‘strange mice’ about. Mrsha lied and said no.
She did her math problems with Montressa, and passed them. Then she got to play! She went to the playground in Liscor.
Visma was there, and Ekirra. Mrsha had already apologized a lot after the Thronebearers visited, and she gave him a cookie. He made her eat a bit first, but then he accepted it.
Ser Dalimont himself came to pay her a visit, to inquire if she was well. Mrsha opined she was, and that she really didn’t want to visit the Terandrian embassy. He stroked his mustache.
“We intend to find Lyonette, Miss Mrsha. The situation has become rather—unstable, however. We are hoping to leave at first light. If there is anything we can do?”
Mrsha genteelly offered him a shake of the head. She didn’t hate the Thronebearers, but she doubted they’d have much luck. Lyonette told Mrsha about home and she never made much of their martial prowess. If Oteslia could be won on the dance floor or by bowing—they’d have a chance.
She went back to playing, and then got to visit the Adventurer’s Guild where Selys still put in some work. And the entire while, the certainty grew on her. After three hours, she was convinced. Unsettled. Even…jumpy. She pointed and handed Selys a note.
“Do you see the white Gnoll?”
Selys read. She looked up, but saw only Gnolls passing outside the windows of the guild as she finished her shift. She looked at Mrsha.
“What white Gnoll? You mean you? Yes, I see you, silly—”
Mrsha put her paw up and Selys stopped. She pointed, urgently.
There’s a white Gnoll following me!
She saw it everywhere. Him, rather. Mrsha had seen him yesterday, twice, but both times, it had been just a flash out the inn’s windows.
She looked out and saw a figure standing there. A…white Gnoll. Wearing a long cloak, even a hat. Looking at her.
Just for a second. Then Mrsha would turn her head, blink, and he’d be gone. She had thought it was her imagination. A trick of the light.
However, no one else had seen him. Not Bird. Not Selys, or Ekirra or Visma or…anyone.
“I do not see a white Gnoll, Mrsha. I would tell you if I could. But all I see is you. Now, here is a cookie for you. I am so nice.”
Ekirra didn’t see a Gnoll, or smell one. Visma had been looking the same way as Mrsha and not seen him.
He was just there, in the street! Mrsha pointed, but Selys saw no one. She even humored Mrsha by going out and checking.
“I think you’re seeing things, Mrsha. Or playing pranks. Hey…is this another prank? Like that restaurant? You know, you ruined their entire service and business? Drassi actually had to apologize and write a column about it in the newspaper so they didn’t lose business. We’re going to apologize today.”
Mrsha’s ears flattened, but she stamped her feet in annoyance. The problem with being the little Gnoll who poisoned people’s bowls of soup was that people didn’t take you seriously at times!
If it was a Raskghar, you’d pay attention!
Selys frowned. She took that more seriously and leaned on the table.
“Okay. Okay, if you want to put it that way…the next time you see the Gnoll, tell me.”
Mrsha saw the Gnoll in the restaurant, standing by a table as she was apologizing to the staff and manager. She pointed, sounded the alarm. Selys got the staff to block the entrances.
No one found a white Gnoll. Exasperated, Selys told Mrsha off. The Gnoll threw up her paws.
I demand to talk to Watch Captain Zevara! I’m being followed!
Her request…did not impress the Senior Guard at the desk. The Drake eyed Mrsha and refused to let the Gnoll upstairs, even when Mrsha pointed out she knew Erin and Lyonette.
“If you really didn’t see a Gnoll, I’m disinclined to report it to the Watch Captain. I can take a statement.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary. Mrsha—we found no one. I think you’re just seeing Gnoll’s fur in the light or something.”
Selys was fed up with Mrsha’s sightings of the Gnoll. By now, Mrsha was convinced something was up. The Gnoll would be among other people, and Selys or others would be looking his way—but only Mrsha would see him!
Do you see the white Gnoll?
She began to doubt it herself. She…Mrsha wondered if it was her mind playing tricks on her. After all, it was just glimpses of the Gnoll. Maybe it was her own reflection. If no one saw him, not even Bird—was Mrsha going crazy? Had eating five cookies messed with her mind, like Lyonette told her they would?
It was as Mrsha was giving up that she had an idea to ask the one group who would take her 100% seriously. More than the Thronebearers or Selys or even Ulvama. As seriously as Captain Z, who didn’t play games. After all, they had been with her from the start. So she marched off to talk to her oft-ignored protectors, as much unseen as the phantom Gnoll.
The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings always kept at least three Brothers in the trapped hallway on a kind of permanent sentry duty. They were fed, and traded off in shifts if one needed to stretch or use the restrooms. Sometimes they changed Brothers, but one of the ones almost always there was Crimshaw.
There were actually no less than six on duty at the inn at any time. You see—three always followed Mrsha about.
Six Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings was a lot to be tied up on permanent guard duty. They employed one door-guard for their sanctuary. Six?
They were discussing the issue. One of the younger Brothers leaned against the wall.
“It’s costing us money, Crimshaw. The other branches are asking what’s up. We already took numbers during the battle…all I’m asking is how long? Months? Years? The Gentlemen aren’t even taking pay for their job.”
Crimshaw was the older Brother, with a dagger, a little cap instead of a fancy hat, and more retiring than the rest. He shook his head.
“Normen. You have to consider the situation from a matter of honor. We had the job of guarding the [Innkeeper]. The Gentlemen did—but we took up the issue as a whole. They got careless. They slipped up the one time it mattered and she died. That’s a debt.”
“We fought for her.”
One of the others murmured, and Crimshaw adjusted his hat.
“So we did. A separate matter.”
“Seems a lot of Brothers have died for one woman. Not that I’m saying it’s wrong, Crimshaw, but this is all an affair of honor. Honor’s honor, on my hat, and it’s what we do. But there’s also coin flowing out our socks.”
Normen murmured. He was younger, and this duty clearly chafed at him. It was Crimshaw who fixed him with a patient…serious look. His hat was on, but the other five men looked up.
“Are you upset we died in the street with nary a mention, Normen? That the Gentlemen are far afield, risking their necks for no pay? The Gentlemen are our best—but no mistake. They play fancy at our ideals. They’re all flash, and they can back it up, but they are flash. They move like they’ll live forever.”
The other Brothers nodded. Wilovan and Ratici were Faces, legends. They saw Crimshaw shake his head, though.
“Don’t forget, Normen. They’re our best—but someday, a call will go out for two more Gentlemen. They’re by way of being good representatives of a long line of fellows, but some day they’ll end up lying in a gutter. You’re upset at how we died fighting [Assassins]? Their statues are in that garden. That’s immortality, and a finer end than any of us can hope for. There’s no peaceful death for men like us.”
He raised his voice, and all the Brothers looked up. Crimshaw looked around. He was old, old as they went in their line of work, and barely in his forties. He tugged at his cap.
“I will never be a Gentleman Caller. Now, lads. I know what it’s like to be hot-blooded and impatient. I know we’re bleeding coin. But here’s the question, as it were. The question is not whether we’re honorable men. The question is: do we like to pretend to be honorable men?”
The Brothers looked at Crimshaw. Then they grinned and settled back in their chairs. Normen took a seat. For the [Innkeeper] who called on everything they pretended to be…
They waited. Waited for trouble. They would not forsake their promises again. One of them began to set out another game of cards; another pair had gotten into chess. That was when the hidden door opened.
The Brothers had heard the sound. They’d also heard the pitter-patter of paws, so they weren’t surprised to see Mrsha. Crimshaw adjusted his hat.
“Now look who’s here. Did you want something, little Mrsha? You know you can’t leave without a respectful guardian, and we don’t count.”
The little Gnoll gazed up solemnly at them. The Brothers regarded her with a kind of wary affection; she was one of the few children they interacted with regularly and they were, by now, used to her escapades. Crimshaw saw Mrsha tentatively pad forwards.
Ishkr gave them food, but no one really talked to the Brothers. They were less sociable than the Gentlemen Callers and they were, when you got down to it, criminals. The one person who had done that was the same young woman who talked to Antinium and Goblins.
Crimshaw accepted the note and opened it. He had to read for quite a while; it was hard for him to make out the cursive and reading wasn’t a strength the Brothers looked for. But when he read her note, he looked up.
“A white Gnoll?”
He turned. The three Brothers who had gone with Mrsha glanced at each other.
“Never saw a wink of a fellow myself, Crimshaw. I was leaning against the wall of that restaurant, too. Would’ve seen someone going in or out. I thought it was a funny little prank.”
Mrsha folded her arms and shook her head emphatically. Crimshaw glanced at her.
He took her seriously, and squatted down.
“If there’s a fellow only you can see, Miss Mrsha, I’d call it proper important. ‘Specially white fur. That means something, don’t it?”
She nodded solemnly. Crimshaw eyed her. He drew a dagger from his belt. It was a wickedly sharp blade and she smelled faint blood on it. He offered it to her.
“Now, little Mrsha, I know you’re the sort who plays pranks. Not that you’ve done as much to us—but I want you to swear. On this. You’re not tickling our hats on this, are you? You saw a fellow with white fur watching you?”
She placed her paw delicately on the dagger and nodded. Crimshaw looked up and sighed. The other Brothers glanced at each other.
“Then, Miss Mrsha. I believe you. Now, what shall we do about it?”
That was how Mrsha ended up going back to the park. This time—alone. Well, Crimshaw had taken her. All six Brothers stood around.
Six Brothers with her, and four more in the inn. Crimshaw didn’t play games, as Mrsha had known. He’d called for backup.
The sight of six men with hats would have alarmed any [Guard] who saw them. But Mrsha didn’t see them. All six had vanished into hiding places. She couldn’t even smell them, they were that good.
The plan was simple. If there was a Gnoll or apparition stalking Mrsha, bait him out. Mrsha would play with the other kids, alone, and wait to spot him. The Brothers would be waiting and watching too.
It was a simple plan, and Mrsha felt safe with the Brothers. She was still apprehensive as she pretended to play around, though. She kept staring about, looking for a glimpse of that white Gnoll as before.
It had been nearly every fifteen minutes near the end. The Gnoll had always just been…standing there. Looking at her. Smiling. Waving. Pointing at his fur and hers.
As if to say—‘look, we’re the same’. Mrsha had been curious. And—nervous. She remembered all too well what strange furry people did. It reminded her of the Raskghar.
White Gnolls. Were there more than her? That Gnoll that the King of Destruction had saved had gained white fur too. Mrsha had never…really thought about it. She supposed it had to be rare. After all—the Tribes didn’t like Gnolls with white fur.
She made a sand castle and peeked around it. The street was full of people, Gnolls, Drakes, and Humans now, dropping kids off to play in this safe area, going to work…she looked around.
White Gnoll. White Gnoll…all she saw was her reflection on a metal slide. No white Gnoll appeared.
Mrsha began to feel uncertain. Was it just her imagination? No—she determinedly ran around the playground, looking for a glimpse of her pursuer. There! No? There!
No white Gnoll appeared. Mrsha waited. First fifteen minutes—then she leapt on the high-up swings, fell, let the magic enchantment save her from falling, played tag, then soccer—
Thirty minutes passed. Then an hour. Then an hour and a half. At that point, Mrsha was tired and upset.
It had been in her mind! She went to the edge of the playground and Crimshaw stepped out of an alleyway like a shadow himself. Mrsha looked up at him, ready to cry. She had to apologize. There was no white Gnoll and the only people who had believed her were going to think she was a stinking liar.
She hung her head as the other five Brothers emerged. Crimshaw smiled and ignored a suspicious parent’s look.
“All done, Miss Mrsha? Let’s get you back to the inn, then.”
All six walked around Mrsha. She tried to write, realizing they couldn’t sign. Mrsha sniffed as she handed up a note to Crimshaw.
I didn’t see anyone. I’m sorry. I thought there was someone! Did you see anyone?
Crimshaw read the note and glanced around.
“I saw no one and nothing. You fellows? I reckon you would’ve raised some commotion if you had done.”
“No unusual fellow. A few [Thieves]—nothing else.”
All five confirmed. They had seen nothing and no one. Mrsha hung her head. The Brothers walked around her, strolling back to the inn. Crimshaw smiled as he tucked the note into his pocket.
“So there you have it. We saw nothin’ and no one, Miss Mrsha. A damned fool I was for suggesting this outing.”
Mrsha hung her head lower. The Brother slowed, seeing her sniff and bent low. He looked down at Mrsha.
“Don’t slow. You were right. Hurry up. Casual now.”
Mrsha’s head rose. Crimshaw’s eyes were kind—and serious. He met her gaze.
“A damned fool. Back to the inn. Quick-like. Not too fast, though.”
What? He still believed her? Mrsha stumbled forwards. What did he mean? Crimshaw spoke out of the corner of his mouth. And now all six of the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings were…strolling, Mrsha realized.
Strolling, too casually. Grinning, heads on casual swivels. She realized they were tense.
“We saw nothing. All six of us.”
Crimshaw muttered. He put his hands in his pockets.
“That doesn’t mean nothing was there. There’s a way of telling you fell under a Skill, Miss Mrsha. Ways of knowing you were duped. All six of us were. Which means I’m a damned fool. You’re not being followed by a regular fellow. His level…it’s at least Level 40. Of all the times for the Gentlemen to be out. Either that, or he’s a specialist.”
The Brother muttered to Mrsha. Now their pace was quickening, but casually.
“Back to the inn. We’re calling in the rest.”
Mrsha tensed up. She was right! Her eyes were huge as the Brothers escorted her down the street. Now—she was more afraid by not seeing the specter than seeing him.
The white Gnoll. What did he want with her? Mrsha slowed as they turned down another street, close to the inn. And as if her thoughts had summoned him…Crimshaw swore under his breath. All six Brothers and the little girl came to a stop.
The white Gnoll stood in the middle of the street. People were glancing at him, Gnolls murmuring, pointing. He was visible to all. Mrsha froze.
The Gnoll grinned at her. His fur was pure white. No—there was a trace of brown on one paw as he raised it. Like…dye, wiped off.
The Brothers stood completely still. The Gnoll had on a travelling cloak, and hat, although he had very little clothing on, like many Plains Gnolls or even city Gnolls given their thick fur. He had a staff in one hand. And he was…smiling.
Crimshaw spoke quietly. Mrsha saw him shift. She looked up. Crimshaw bent down as the other Brothers spread out across the street. The Gnoll was watching them.
“Here. Now, I reckon you know another way to the inn. Take it. Run. Normen. Blow the alarm.”
The young man produced, of all things, a whistle. He blew it, and the piercing shriek was an echo of Liscor’s watch-whistle! He was…calling the [Guard]? Crimshaw smiled at Mrsha as her eyes went huge. He put something on her head.
A souvenir. His…cap. The Brother straightened.
Wanderer watched as six Brothers turned. The little Gnoll stood there—then ran. Five hats fell to the ground. The Humans were humming as they walked. They drew blades and weapons as the people scattered.
It was a familiar nursery rhyme.
“The night’s been long and the bodies are wet,
But don’t you fret; be quick and ain’t not a guard who’ll be upset
The good folk are rising, and we’re off to our beds,
The smart thieves away with the loot and the slow ones are dead.”
The Gnoll grinned. He looked past them as the Gnoll girl ran. He lifted a paw.
“I’m not here to fight you. What are a Human gang doing, following a child around?”
None of them answered. They walked forwards, murder in their eyes. Wanderer shook his head. So complicated. So long as they remained—he raised his staff and they tensed.
“We’re all running out of time. Don’t let her out of your sight.”
Crimshaw leapt at him, blades swinging. He saw the staff whirl, and Wanderer blocked each strike. One, two—then the Gnoll leapt backwards and ran around a corner. Swearing, Crimshaw followed. He skidded around the corner—
Wanderer was gone. The Brother slashed through the alleyway, looking up, around for hidden platforms, invisible Gnolls or someone leaping upward. Nothing.
Gone. He whirled, swearing, realizing how the Gnoll had played on the Brother’s unfamiliarity with bodyguard duty. Inviting them to fight rather than do what they should have done!
“Get back to the girl!”
The Brothers whirled as one. They ran backwards, each one cursing their stupidity twice! It was a feint! An accomplice! They were too late. Too—
Mrsha peeked back at them, wide-eyed. She was following a group of [Guards], who’d come running. A coincidence. The [Guards] shouted for the Brothers to drop their weapons, and the Humans complied after a second.
Wanderer sighed and leaned back around the corner, bare feet from Mrsha. Damn. Almost.
Mrsha returned to the inn with Crimshaw and Normen. The other four Brothers were in for questioning, but those two had gotten away. It was amazing, really. They’d been cuffed and escorted to the Watch House for questioning—or their doubles had. The two had strolled away, gotten Mrsha, and rushed her to the inn. Crimshaw’s Skill.
Well, Crimshaw’s Skill was the fake of him that would vanish as soon as he was inside. Normen’s was a bit meaner. The protesting Human had been dragged by the [Guard].
“It’s not me! Stop, stop! I don’t know this lot! I was—”
[You Have the Wrong Man]. Literally.
“Lock it down! Level 40’s on our tail! White Gnoll!”
Crimshaw snarled as they burst through the portal door. Four Brothers in the hallway shot to their feet, and they had already been ready. Liska looked at Mrsha.
“What’s happening? Why is everyone coming in today—”
“Where’s your brother? Get clear of the door! No one goes in—no one goes out! Move!”
Crimshaw hustled Liska down the hallway with Mrsha. Frightened, but relieved they were safe, Mrsha ran with him. Straight for the Garden.
She found a second scene playing out as she opened the door to the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Rufelt was standing in the inn’s common room, engaging in an argument with…
Lasica. The Drake [Chef] had found him thanks to Palt’s note. She was shouting at him. She looked awful. Rufelt had been bad—but a night’s sleep had done him better. Lasica looked terrible. Not in the same way, but just as worn.
“How could you just run off? What do you mean, you refuse? You were agreeing with me last night!”
“Lasica—Lasica, listen—it’s a Skill. She’s keeping us like this. Can’t you see?”
Rufelt was remonstrating with Lasica. The [Chef] shouted back.
“She’s giving us a choice! Can’t you understand that?”
Everyone was watching. Ishkr turned as Crimshaw seized his arm; Palt, Imani, Kevin, and the others guests were watching, unable to jump into the personal fight. No one really knew what was going on.
But it was becoming clear. Lasica was almost weeping.
“We could bring our child back, Rufelt. If you’d only agree! What’s wrong with you? Don’t you care at all? What would you give up for him? For her? For—us?”
It was the same bitter words. The same impossible choice, made worse by taut emotions, razorblades of feeling thrown at each other. Rufelt felt it begin to cut deep.
Yet he clung to it. The [Benediction of Hope]. It had been given to him. It was a gift. A blessing. He clung to it and closed his eyes. Keep it in you and make it last. For he would get no second chance.
It was time.
“Lasica. I will not take the [Witch]’s deal.”
The words came out. Palt started. He looked at Rufelt. Lasica recoiled.
“You don’t care. You don’t care at all, do you?”
She looked at Rufelt as if he was a monster. The Gnoll clenched his paws.
“How can you say that to me? Of course I care. But Lasica—it’s not worth it.”
“It’s just time, Rufelt. Fifteen years. Wouldn’t you give that up for a chance? I’ll pay the rest. I’ll do anything. Why…?”
Why wouldn’t you? Rufelt reached for her.
“I would. I would, Lasica. But—I don’t trust her.”
He forestalled her reply.
“I know. She swore by everything. Her craft, her own daughter—it’s still not fair. Fifteen years and your levels? It’s too much.”
“Wouldn’t you give it up for your child, Rufelt? They can come back.”
Everyone was looking at them. Even Crimshaw. Even Mrsha. What were they saying? Bring someone back? Not even [Necromancers] claimed to be able to do that. And what if she were telling the truth?
That was what was so hard. It was easier to call Belavierr a liar. But Rufelt believed her when she said she could do it. Part of him did. And if everything was on a level…life. Levels. For the ones you loved, wouldn’t you give it all away?
A parent’s nightmare. A terrible hope to offer. He had never had an answer for Lasica that could have taken the if away. Even now, he didn’t.
Rufelt was shaking. It was so easy for someone like Palt to say ‘these things happened’. The child had not been born? How dare you. It mattered to him and her and that was all that mattered.
And yet. His paws closed over her claws. She was glaring at him. Crying. As broken as he was by the choice. She knew what was being asked and she wanted to pay it. To turn back time.
That was not what Belavierr offered.
“Even if she was telling the truth, Lasica. Let’s say she could bring back our child. That we paid it all. If it were that alone, fifteen years, your levels—I might do it. But…”
“But? But what?”
His wife searched Rufelt’s face. There was no Pawn here. They did not stand in the Garden. Nor did Rufelt want those things. They could help. But this? It had to be them or not at all. No crutches. His grip tightened on hers.
“Lasica. But what about our second child?”
She looked at him.
The Gnoll [Bartender]’s head rose. He looked at her and drew something from his bag of holding.
“What do you see in the picture?”
He showed her the image of them. The child. Lasica looked at it.
“Yes. But only one child? Lasica—we never were going to have one. It was always two, remember. A Drake and a Gnoll. Are we going to give it all away? Fifteen years. That’s not enough time. I want more than fifteen years. More than fifty years. More than a hundred. What kind of a life would we give them, if we took the deal?”
She looked at him, shaking her head.
“So you’ll just let them die?”
Rufelt flinched. It was the same argument Belavierr had given Lasica. He refused to look away.
“If I could—Lasica. I thought about paying all the cost myself. Thirty years and my levels. I’d pay the full price. But I can’t leave you alone. I’m sorry. It’s selfish, but I can’t let you sacrifice everything you have left. Not like this. Not to her.”
“I’d pay it myself. If you agree—I’ll give her all of it. All I can.”
Lasica whispered. Rufelt drew her closer.
“No. No! What would I do without you? Lasica! I can’t bear to lose you as much as our child. Don’t you understand? That’s why it’s impossible! I can’t give up one for the other.”
She looked at him. Rufelt was crying. He tried to speak.
“I want you and children. Both. Don’t leave me. I’ve been terrified of that—that’s why I keep saying no. I can’t lose you.”
This was what he should have said all along. What he had been trying to say. What they needed to say. Only, she had been getting in the way. The words sprang from Lasica’s mouth, as something was broken. Perhaps not magic. Perhaps just dark thoughts.
“Don’t you blame me?”
“For losing…I tried to fight it. The magic. I tried, Rufelt.”
He threw his arms around her.
“You thought that? Never. How could I…? Not for a moment. It wasn’t your fault.”
A sob came out of her throat. Lasica held Rufelt. It felt like months since that had happened. Suddenly—Rufelt was holding his wife again. Not a stranger.
“It’s not your fault. Don’t go.”
“I was never going to go. I just—”
Their audience was forgotten. The two stood there, telling each other the truth. Like a dam bursting. Animosity gone. It was grieving all over again. But this time—Rufelt closed his eyes and sniffed. This time it was grieving together.
The Stitch Witch had failed to tear them apart. She had failed, because of a single moment. The moment when they finally looked at each other. It had been so close, but she had failed, despite her countless years of expertise and cunning.
She had failed.
Belavierr didn’t like failing.
The portal door was abandoned as Liska and Ishkr were told of the threat. Amid Rufelt and Lasica’s reunion and triumph, the inn was alerted to the danger.
There was a Gnoll out there with white fur. He was coming for Mrsha. Wanderer watched the inn from afar and cursed. He turned his head.
He was out of time. They were watching the wrong person.
The true hunters had arrived.
There were eighteen of them. Not eight. Not four. Not a small number. Nor were they weak. The Plain’s Eye played no games themselves.
“We’re in place. Tell the [Shaman].”
Their leader checked the inn from the vantage spot. The rest of the eighteen were approaching from multiple angles. He crouched in the grass, nigh-invisible next to the Gnoll with the furthest range. A longbow, enchanted.
One of the [Shamanic Warriors] traced a marking on his fur and it glowed. It would transmit the magic they shared back to their tribe.
Just a single message that didn’t work the way regular magic did. Undetectable to the Walled Cities.
A [Witch] heard it, but she was busy.
Their [Hunt Leader] murmured. They knew where their quarry was. It had taken some travel, to reach here via the roads instead of the door. But then—they were Plains Gnolls and didn’t trust Pallass to let them in or out.
Especially not with what they had come to do. They would not pass a truth stone test asking them if they intended violence. They had come here for one purpose.
They were Doomslayers.
“Eyes on the Doombringer?”
The other Gnolls saw nothing—yet. The Gnoll with the enchanted bow could hit the inn from this range, even a thousand paces away. They had the right Skills. And they were cautious. They replied, using a different magic than speaking stones. Each one was a warrior imbued with the magic of Gnolls. Tribal magic.
“Not from my angle.”
Another Gnoll spoke, voice a growl.
“There’s something in the tower. An…Antinium. I think it’s seen me.”
A pause. The Gnolls tensed. The one with the bow looked at the [Hunt Leader] and he lifted a furry finger.
“It’s waving. It thinks I’m a [Hunter]. Moving off.”
The Gnolls untensed. The [Hunt Leader] stared, his enhanced eyes spotting the figure in the tower.
“It’s watching you. Keep hunting. Kill something.”
“I see Doom.”
The others froze. One of the Gnolls had seen Mrsha in the common room padding towards a glowing hole in the wall. She hissed at the others. The [Hunt Leader]’s voice was steady.
“Do you have a shot?”
“Yes. No. The windows look reinforced. I don’t think [Piercing Shot] can go in.”
The Plain’s Eye Gnolls exhaled in frustration. The [Hunt Leader] spoke.
“Then from up close. Okrha, go in. If you see her—act. We will cover your exit.”
One of the Gnolls made for the inn’s doors. They had just arrived; they would not wait an hour or second longer. The Plain’s Eye Gnoll went through the front door and the others waited.
The [Hunt Leader] waited. The Gnoll didn’t respond. Maybe the inn cut off their magic? He looked at his companion. Both growled; either something unexpected had happened or…this might not be easy after all. They prepared for a full attack.
The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings were ready. The hallway was a killing ground and every window was secure. Four were ready—the other two patrolling the house. They were sending for reinforcements. But—
The door opened. They stirred. The actual, physical door to the inn opened. There was a sound from the entranceway.
All four Brothers waited in silence. They heard a muffled sound. A…crack. They tensed.
A Gnoll walked forwards. Not Okhra.
Wanderer. The Brothers stared as the Gnoll adjusted his hat. They knew without a doubt they had just heard someone die.
Crossbows rose. They waited. Somehow that Gnoll had been inside the inn without them telling. He might pass by the hallway unnoticed. They waited, ready for battle. Inside, Crimshaw was raising the alarm with the others, the [Mages] and other guests. Mrsha was in the garden.
Had he managed to teleport inside? Where was he? Was—
Wanderer walked into the hallway. The Brothers froze.
The Gnoll had white fur. He leaned on his staff. His eyes were sharp. He looked down the long hallway, at the holes in the opening, perhaps even smelling and hearing the Brother crouched with the jar of acid overhead, the ones in the walls. He stopped, just before the first arrow crenellations, aware of the crossbows aimed at him.
Nevertheless, he spoke.
“I’m out of time. She’s in danger. They’re here.”
This was how it was. Inside the inn, Ulvama was looking around, eyes narrowed. Rags was watching the door. There was a Gnoll after Mrsha?
Less concerning than the little man who might be the Titan of Baleros. Ulvama was searching for him with magic. Rufelt and Lasica were still hugging, remonstrating with each other, but Montressa, Palt, and Bezale were looking towards the entryway too. Crimshaw was cursing, looking about, and Wanderer was in the inn.
Plain’s Eye Gnolls were waiting for their comrade and hearing nothing but silence. The Brothers were listening, aiming, drawing a bead, and Lady Salkis was waiting impatiently in the checkpoint, wondering why no one was opening the damned door!
Niers Astoragon was swearing ten kinds of fury as he crouched on a beam with Apista, seeing the [Shaman] hone in on him. One of the attacks was here! Damn, damn—
Then he felt a hole open up in his stomach.
Wanderer turned, breaking off from his explanation. The Brothers hesitated, feeling something in the air. They stopped humming.
Rufelt and Lasica looked up, and the [Bartender]’s tearful, relieved smile faded.
The door to The Wandering Inn was closed. It showed only stone in Pallass. Salkis, dancing from one foot to another, was hissing with impatience, afraid the checkpoint security would ask more questions. She turned as someone walked through the checkpoint. She ignored the [Guard] who told her to stop. Their voices fell silent moments later.
Salkis felt a prickle on her neck. She turned her head as a tall figure stopped behind her.
She looked around and fell silent. A tall, tall woman with a hat so broad it cast a shadow looked down at her with glowing orange, ringed eyes.
“Are you waiting for the door to open?”
The Drake hesitated. The Bloodfeast Raider licked her lips, listened to her instincts, and held up her claws.
“Um—n-not really. Be my guest.”
She stood in front of the blank patch of wall and door and regarded it. It didn’t turn into a portal. Liska was with her brother, after all. Belavierr tilted her head. She looked at the door.
In The Wandering Inn the dial with the mana stones slowly began to rotate.
Click. Click. Click.
It stopped on the yellow gemstone. Then the door opened. Belavierr looked at the ground beyond.
She ducked her head and stepped through without a word. Salkis stared at the [Witch]’s back—and then edged backwards, to the checkpoint. She saw all the Drake [Guards] slumped in their seats or on the floor, passed out.
They all felt it.
Niers Astoragon’s head turned. Ulvama froze, ignoring Rags and Calescent’s search for the small man, forgetting her spells. Wanderer and the Brothers forgot their standoff. Both turned. The Gnoll with white fur felt all of his hair rise. He backed up.
A woman had walked out of the portal room. She was tall. Her dress was dark blue, so dark it looked like black until you saw closer. Her eyes…had so many rings of growing depth. All this was normal, and perhaps if you saw her, you would not realize how strange she was until you realized how still she could stand. How uncanny those eyes were, how strangely she talked and moved, as if walking a different world, obeying different laws of time.
Except that was not the Belavierr of now. This [Witch] looked down and Wanderer backed up.
“Hello. I am looking for Rufelt and Lasica. Where are they?”
“I—I don’t know who they are.”
The Stitch Witch nodded.
“Ah. Then excuse me.”
She walked past Wanderer. Through the hallway, and turned. Her eyes regarded the figures in the walls. Then she walked past them.
Normen managed to pull the trigger. It was instinct. He aimed at her and pulled and the crossbow snapped. The string struck him across the face as it broke and he fell, crying out.
The common room heard the sound. Everyone looked at the door. Mrsha, inside the [Garden of Sanctuary], felt…something in her tummy. It was like a shadow. Not just fear, but some presence. A superstition.
A certainty. And it was growing.
The Stitch Witch walked into the common room of The Wandering Inn. Her eyes flashed. She was angry.
“Rufelt. Lasica. There you are.”
The two had spun. Now—they backed up. Rufelt was muttering.
“Oh no. Oh no, I told you she wouldn’t let us go. I told you—”
His wife made no reply. As the woman appeared, the Drake whispered one word.
Someone jerked, recognizing her name. Everyone else just—looked on. They could tell what she was, even if they didn’t know her.
Ulvama was gripping Rags’ arm, a look of wild terror in her eyes. Rags had never seen the [Shaman] act this way. She saw the strange Human woman glance at her and Rags felt a jolt run through her entire being.
Her [Dangersense] didn’t need to tell her what her basic instincts did. Rags didn’t reach for her crossbow or shortsword. She didn’t have a weapon that would work. She just—watched.
Anger. Belavierr was in a state not even Ryoka Griffin would recognize. She still paused, looking around the inn, and murmured.
“What an odd inn. So many tangled threads.”
Then she turned to the [Chef] and [Bartender]. And…smiled.
It was a strange smile. A bad smile. It was like someone trying to smile while knowing what a smile was—without ever having done it, only having had it described to them. It was, Rufelt realized with a jolt, the kind of smile someone in his line of work gave to someone else.
Someone in the service industry giving a pair of unruly clients a smile to tell them everything was well, when it wasn’t. It was so disconcerting he lost his fear for a second. Then she spoke.
“I came to seal our pact, Rufelt and Lasica Owelt. I am prepared. I shall begin tonight, as the moons become full.”
She knew. But like a…saleswoman, trying to close a deal, she smiled. Pretending. That was almost as horrible as her presence.
Lasica said it again. The eyes swung down to her. Lasica looked at the [Witch] and quailed, but then at Rufelt. She took his hand and he gripped it firmly. She met the [Witch]’s gaze.
“I um—I—we—decided not to take your offer. We had a change of heart.”
“Indeed? How surprising.”
The [Witch] advanced. The couple backed up a step. And now they all saw it.
Belavierr was furious. Enraged. Not because she had lost the deal of a millennium. Not because she had lost something precious, or she feared losing it. Simply because she had failed.
And she did not fail. She tilted her head as she loomed over them.
“It seems strange powers have conspired to change your mind. I do not brook such—interference. Come, let us talk this over. You are not thinking clearly, Lasica. Nor you, Rufelt.”
The Gnoll gulped.
“Strange—strange powers? I just found hope again, Belavierr. Hope, where I couldn’t see anything but darkness around you!”
He dared to raise his voice, even point at her. The Human woman looked at him. The paw shook.
“I did nothing to you but tell you the truth, Rufelt. I showed you a few objects. Talked to you.”
“You—you cast magic on us. Palt said so himself right, Palt?”
The Centaur jumped. He was staring at the [Witch], in confusion. Imani leaned against him, worried. He cleared his throat.
“That’s—that’s eminently true. I don’t know who you are, Miss Witch, but I’m Palt of Wistram! I can tell when someone’s enchanted someone else and Rufelt was certainly under malign influence. That’s illegal in Liscor, Pallass, and Invrisil!”
His voice trailed off as he tried to wag a finger at her and his hand refused to rise. The name ‘Wistram’ didn’t even make Belavierr blink. Someone whispered with chattering lips.
“Palt. Shut up.”
He looked around. The nervous voice was coming from the one person who recognized the name. Of all people it was—Bezale. The Minotaur was looking at Belavierr with a gaze of horror.
The [Witch]’s huge hat rose and she gave Palt a look of…annoyance.
“I cast no spells to influence Rufelt and Lasica, Centaur. Only one to prevent them from being swayed by magic at all. I do not force those I make pacts with to accept any bargain. Do not cast such allegations again.”
Palt’s legs shook and he nearly sat down. He nodded rapidly, but Lasica cried out, letting fury overcome the sense of dread around the [Witch].
“You mean we were trapped! We couldn’t make ourselves feel better! You—you tortured us for weeks! Showed us images of what might have been, told us how simple it was! You call that fair?”
Again, that head tilted. Left. Right. In the garden, Mrsha saw the scariest Human she had ever met stare at Lasica. She didn’t even seem like the same species as Erin and Lyonette. She looked more like Moore in a way. Shorter, but she loomed.
“I force no one to agree by spell, Lasica Owelt. I do not twist their minds or tongues to agree, for that is against my craft. Such promises secured by magic are worth nothing. Of course I persuade. I have shown you what may be. All those who make pacts do such things.”
Rufelt was incredulous. Belavierr nodded once.
“You are free to choose. That is the basic law of all fair bargains.”
He laughed at her, voice shaking.
“I—I don’t care for your rules, Belavierr. There’s more to fairness than being unimpeded by magic or Skills! You twisted our minds. We’re free of that.”
A frown crossed her face.
“You would not have chosen this of your own accord. Someone interfered. Come. Let us speak further. Grant me a moment to change your minds.”
She bent down, reaching out. Rufelt made to shield Lasica and she dragged him back with a cry. They stumbled, and Belavierr reached out. Her fingers scythed gently through the air, clutching, grasping—
And ran into an invisible wall. Belavierr stopped. Rufelt gasped. Lasica blinked and they looked around.
They were in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Mrsha wiped at her brow with a trembling paw. She’d moved the door behind them! She smiled—then saw the [Witch] staring down at her.
“Is this where you changed your mind? I haven’t seen this garden in a long time. How. Strange. How…unpleasant.”
If possible, she seemed to grow angrier yet. Belavierr looked around.
“I feel fire. Someone familiar stood here. Rufelt. Lasica. Come out.”
She pressed her hands against the invisible barrier. Both Gnoll and Drake retreated. Belavierr spoke to them.
“The Garden is changing your mind. Come out. Let us talk. I am prepared. You could hold your daughter tonight.”
They shuddered. They quailed as something pressed against the garden’s barrier. Mrsha looked up and screamed.
Belavierr had changed. The garden had revealed something. No woman stood there, pressing in, demanding their presence. Mrsha screamed and the inn was ringing with sound, chaos. It had come again. Disaster! Doom! Belavierr made a sound and the Goblin leapt.
He did not know her. He did not know what was happening. But he had waited. Waited, for this day. For when he was needed. Numbtongue leapt through the doorway and planted the crystal sword in Belavierr’s chest. The blade pierced through her dress, through her ribs and came out the other side.
Belavierr staggered back, and her eyes opened wide. She stumbled, stepping backwards, as the glowing sword forged by a master of smiths ran her through. She stood in the inn as Numbtongue held the sword, twisting it slowly in her chest. The [Bard] stared the [Witch] in the eye. She stared at him, wide-eyed. Then—slowly—her face contorted into a look of malice.
Niers Astoragon breathed. He leapt from the ceiling as Rags drew her crossbow and loaded a flaming bolt. The Brothers charged out of the hallway as all three [Mages] lifted their wands. Wanderer burst into the room, as Numbtongue’s eyes widened. He drew the sword out, seeing it emerge, bloodless, and swung it in a second killing blow, towards her neck. Belavierr saw it all, and the abyssal rings in her eyes pulsated.
As if the entire room were one…layer. One level of reality. She spoke, as the sword curved towards her neck. As Mrsha, Lasica, and Rufelt saw the defenders of the inn charging at her, Niers, Apista, Ulvama, Palt, and more.
The brave Fortress Beavers as one rushed to flee upstairs exiting the garden, the only sensible beings. The sword sliced towards the [Witch]’s neck. Too late. The wrong weapon.
She spoke, and this is what Belavierr said in The Wandering Inn, the only words that mattered. The only words that fit.
The world beyond stopped. Numbtongue stopped, mid-cut. Niers, Ulvama…Mrsha saw the entire world turn dark. Freeze. And then there she was. Belavierr stood in the doorway, walking past the Goblin. With all the time in the world she stood at the open doorway. Then she smiled down at Mrsha.
“Hello, little girl. Won’t you let me in?”
Author’s Note: This is going to be a cliffhanger because I owe the revised chapter next time! Diana Gill will be editing it and showing her process and it will be intense! As intense as this chapter?
…Yes. Maybe. Possibly! It’s all coming together. So watch out! Thanks for reading and remember—the chapter will be delayed for Public readers until revised, whereas Patrons can read the original and revised edits! So…it might be an update or two of delays, but that’s for quality!
I improved markedly with the last revision process. Rebecca Brewer’s help was useful and I did notice writing tics—as well as the need to add more description and tighten up areas of my writing. I wonder what I’ll learn this time? Well, I don’t always get a chance to inject quality as I write fast, but that’s why we’re here. Thanks for reading and see you next time!
And don’t worry. The moment will keep. For as long as it needs to…
Goodbye Mrsha by Plushie!
Puppy Bed, Yvlon vs Draugr, and Ceria-Air by Brack!
Relc, Ressa, Ressa, Golem Dominance and more by pkay!