They called it the Waning World, the era of decline where magic was somehow less magical and legends were only sort of inspiring. When the world’s greatest foe, the King of Destruction, was a conquering [King] rather than the world-ending horde of Crelers, for instance.
These were the days when Dragons might be around. When Giants were agreed to be the last. The Demon Kingdom still existed, but the world was just that.
That was the age of less than ten days ago. The facts had not changed: Dragons were still not something anyone expected to see. The old species were still dead.
However, this world was not the same. Ghosts had appeared in numbers never glimpsed since the oldest days of myth and legend. They had brought Skills and knowledge, dire warnings, and something terrible had occurred.
In Ailendamus, at Talenqual, and upon the Great Plains, the world had changed in dramatic ways. The Archmage of Chandrar was free.
This was now the Journey of the Living, a new era named by the ghost of Archmage Kishkeria, a Gnoll who had split Izril in twain with two other ghosts—then raised new lands.
If you’d been there, you would remember any one of those events forever. The day the truth of Doombearers was revealed. The sight of a thousand ghostly [Kings] taking to the field.
A Fraerling City appearing for the first time in eight thousand years. Well…an intact Fraerling city.
And yes, the price for such moments was beyond high. The world might never know the sacrifice of the dead. However, the bodies of the living could be counted.
Gnolls had died by the tens of thousands. Fraerlings—likewise. The Dyed Lands were overrun, and entire cities had vanished. Despite many officers surviving behind the front, the Drake armies had hurled their soldiers into the fire.
…Those were just numbers. People, people you knew, with an entire future ahead of them, had died. Tribes had been wiped out or shattered.
A terrible cost paid to reveal and bring down a tribe led by a monster hoarding luck. A sacrifice to stop the Walled Cities from wiping out the foes they saw in the Gnolls.
Armies, fighting ghosts, countless people, and even nations working together to bring back one person:
It may not be what the world focused on. It might not ‘matter’ in the grand scheme of things. Yet. But was it worth it?
Nine days after the events at the Great Plains of Izril. Nine days after the end of the Waning World and the event that some [Historians] were already calling the Days of Return—after the ghosts, since calling it ‘the treachery of those Drakes’ or ‘the Gnolls’ new lands’ was already in debate.
Nine days later, the dead were still being put to rest.
The Great Plains were filling with undead. They rose from the ground, the water that had covered them and the mud they’d sunk into now revealing foul, rotted corpses buzzing with acid flies and stinking of battle.
Drakes, Gnolls…but mostly Gnolls. The Walled Cities had recovered many of their dead and disposed of the bodies in ways that would not allow death magic to gather.
However, in the aftermath of the war, the armies that could have put down the dead and dealt with the issues of burial—left.
Khelt and Chandrar’s armies had to fall back or be encircled by hostile Drakes. Likewise—the Drakes had fled the wrath of the Gnolls’ ancestors. Which left the tribes with a battlefield filled with death.
It was not something anyone had considered at the time, obviously. But even when the undead began to spawn, the Drakes didn’t offer any help.
Doubly ironically, the one nation that could have dealt with all these issues and even used the undead that rose—Khelt—was already on Chandrar. So it was amidst the mud and ruined ground caused by the split in Izril as well as Zeres’ First Tide—and the mass-attack spells that had torn up the ground, and the fire that had rained down as Plain’s Eye cast their spells—that the Gnolls of the plains had to behold as they tended to their home.
There might be an undead army if they were left unchecked. So, weary Gnolls loosed arrows while warriors kept back the faster, more dangerous undead like Ghouls. Emerging Crypt Lords and more powerful undead were simply blasted where they stood by adventurers and Gnoll [Shamans].
Or [Mages]. A few Gnolls held staves, wands, and tossed weak [Flame Arrow] spells at the undead. They glimmered with magic reclaimed.
Some Gnolls had brown fur, others black, or red, or…white. A few had white fur. Ironically, most of these were still despised and worked alone, but for different reasons this time.
A filthy, broken piece of land scattered with ruined tents, people scavenging for valuable armor or weapons amidst rotting bodies where the Meeting of Tribes had been just two weeks ago. None would be held here in the future; the death aside, the landscape was ruined. If you stood in the center of it, in the corpse-filled bog, the buzzing flies, groans of undead, and smell of gasses bloating and changing them…
That was a hell. If you had seen the slaughter, senseless, as the Witch of Webs killed with a laugh for mortality, you might ask what the point of even fighting had been. Had you even made a difference?
Still, he smiled. Though he could smell the rot. Though the pain in his back and legs hadn’t stopped, only become a burning haze that sometimes disappeared when he fell unconscious. Though they were dead.
He smiled, for he had done it. He had been there and looked at the sea. The white froth as it surged against the ground, rushing so cool and terrifyingly powerful against his armored legs. A vast world of water without end—and he could not swim.
He saw it still. As he held the warhammer in his four arms, an army of scales, mostly green or blue, coming towards him, the neck-spines protruding behind the angled helmets. Zeres, the City of Waves, surging towards the little white Gnoll he’d heard so much about. And Erin Solstice, the sky herself.
All he heard, then and now, was the roar in his head, louder than the battlefield. Louder than his heart. He felt the thud as the Beriad of the Antinium stomped, singing with pride. It burned in him like nothing had ever before.
Honor and pride. This mattered. That was what Calruz the Minotaur had given him—all of them. A hundred Antinium made their stand in the waters that turned green and red with blood. And a Minotaur had stood with them, holding a green blade of diamonds, and the Beriad had seen The Crimson Soldier and then…
They had felt the other minds and known they were not alone. A Unitasis Network. He had felt the minds of the Queens, bigger than he could have guessed, wearier and more afraid than he had ever known—and more familiar than he expected.
For a glorious few minutes, it had been like that. Then Zeres had overwhelmed their position. But for a minute, perhaps two, the Beriad had held back the City of Waves. That was glory. That was duty, and it was that he clung to in his grave. Even if he had not been killed, only wounded, and his issued healing potion smashed, he couldn’t move, and the undead were rising around him.
But he’d done it. He’d made a difference. So he smiled. Through the pain, through his fear of death and grief. And never once did the Soldier realize that if he had stood in front of Calruz or Venaz or any warrior with a heart, that smile would have been familiar. It would have marked him as something else. The new kind of Antinium that Klbkch and the Free Queen had once dreamed of. The same kind of warrior that had lived and breathed since the world was created.
Nothing would ever be the same again. The Soldier might not have known that, but he had seen the Sky and the white Gnoll, and thus he considered he had been among the most fortunate of Antinium who had ever lived.
He had also heard the Minotaur, and he considered that was the most important person of all. To him. He couldn’t speak for the rest of the Crusade, but the Minotaur had been…
Not kind. Not gentle. In many ways, far more than Klbkch, but what a standard, eh? No, what he had been was certain. He had told the Beriad what honor was. And honor was meaning. He had given them a reason to fight and not fear they had no meaning. For this Soldier, Crusader 221-3, the third replacement, he considered it had all gone far better than he could have hoped.
It just hurt. It hurt, and not even his levels stopped the pain. He had a bunch of nifty Skills…that didn’t help. His legs wouldn’t move. His shell was broken; he felt the pieces digging into his flesh, but he’d stopped bleeding. His arms were pinned, and not even his strength could shift the weight pressing down on him.
He was buried alive, and that he hadn’t suffocated was because the bodies on him were letting some air in. He might drown if it rained.
All these things being equal, Crusader 221-3 was just…waiting. Waiting, and between sleep and pain, reliving that moment of glory. He’d been there. He’d felt their minds. He’d—
“…Down there, I’m certain.”
A voice? The Soldier stirred, but aside from the groans or sounds of undead moving, he hadn’t heard anything aside from the wind or insects. This voice was faint, but it grew louder, and there was another one, with that delightful growl in some words.
“You’re sure, yes? It looks like a pile of bodies. It could be a…a fox?”
“No, it’s far too big. I’m certain. There’s another survivor.”
“Well, if they’re down there, they’ve been trapped for nearly ten days. I need…there are too many zombies, and more might be in that pile. I need thirty, now. Where’s…”
The voices receded a second, and Crusader 221-3 didn’t know what to make of this situation. Was it good or bad? He could detect Gnoll voices, but his understanding was that if it wasn’t a Liscorian army—he was still dead. However, then the first voice came back.
“Hey! We know you’re down there! We’re going to come back, okay? Just hang on a little while longer!”
What a friendly voice. Two Gnolls, then. Crusader 221-3 spent the next amount of time guessing what they’d be like. Tall? Short? Um…extra furry?
He was ready for whatever came next. He just hoped that if he was going to die, he could do an honor-duel to the death. Calruz had explained that it wasn’t honorable to kill someone in a duel, unless it was clearly a matter in which death resolved a lack of honor, but the act of honor-duels was, in itself, honorable if honorable. Otherwise, it was stupid, and the King of Minos (who was actually female, but who cared?) had outlawed it.
It was that kind of lesson that the Beriad had spent a lot of cognitive power figuring out. So far, Crusader 221-3 understood that the most honorable way to go out was in battle like he had, holding the line against overwhelming odds to do something important like save lives. Or live a fulfilling life filled with charitable and good acts of intent and die surrounded by your loved ones and children. Given the options, Crusader 221-3 had understood he had one choice.
…The Gnolls came back at some point. The Soldier realized he was somewhat delusional, because he hadn’t noticed them return and start removing bodies and killing undead. His thoughts were…addled.
He hoped they understood that he’d done his best to fight to the end. He didn’t want anyone to tell Calruz…
The Beriad had all fought without running or flinching. He’d just failed to die when the Drake had cut him down and woken up later. He hoped they understood as well.
Nine days was a long time to go without food or water. Some of the First Tide that Zeres had conjured had left muddy runoff that Crusader 221-3 had ingested. But really…he had gotten hungry.
And the dead Drake on top of him still tasted better than paste in the Free Hive. A lot better, actually.
Crusader 221-3 had no direction on the honor of eating the dead, a surprising oversight from Calruz. So when the rescue crew got to him, they were dismayed to find a bit less of the corpse than they’d thought.
“Eugh. What happened to—are the undead eating each other?”
“Better hope not. I heard that some undead cannibalize each other. Or living people. They’re dangerous. Like…super Ghouls.”
“That’s all we need. If there’s a Drake down here, I swear I’ll—”
“Enough. Shaman Theikha’s declared a peace. Better to get gold anyways.”
“Yeah. Yeah. I think…aah! Oh, it’s just a dead Antinium.”
Daylight. Crusader 221-3 didn’t blink or react much, because he didn’t have a nose or eyelids, but he was still blinded. With daylight came fresh air, a sprinkling of dirt, and…
A furry pair of faces. One male, one female, pulling back the Drake’s corpse with a grimace. Behind them, weary Gnolls were covering the dead bodies with arrows and tossing the rest on what looked like a pyre.
“One of the Ants? Looks like it took down all the Drakes with it.”
Only nine. They had fought together, back-to-back, seeing through each other’s eyes. With the knowledge and Skills of the other Antinium crowding their heads. He had felt his comrades dying. But he had smiled—because not all of them had.
The Soldier decided at this point it was time to prevent the Gnolls from being surprised. So he clicked his mandibles very gently as the two Gnolls hauled the Drake body back.
The effect was actually underwhelming. One of the Gnolls, the male one, blinked.
“Did you see…?”
The female Gnoll glanced around and saw Crusader 221-3 trying to move his head. He could wiggle a bit, but it hurt, so he stopped. He clicked his mandibles and waved one good antenna. She stared down at him.
The two Gnolls looked at each other and slowly, sloooowly, stepped back from the pit. They put the Drake body down. Crusader 221-3 saw them vanish out of sight—then a furry head pop back and stare at him.
“Yep, it’s definitely a living Antinium.”
The Gnoll turned, looked around, and to Crusader 221-3’s vague disappointment, didn’t scream ‘Antinium’. Like Crusader 221-3, the Gnoll had seen too much at this point. What he did do was raise his voice.
“[Shaman]! We found your survivor! We’ve got…Antinium! What do we do?”
There was a moment’s pause. Then someone irate and clearly wiping at one muddy ear shouted back.
“You have…what did you say?”
So this was it. Crusader 221-3 waited for the arrow or spear. He was under no illusions. No Antinium survived a battlefield if they didn’t make it back to their side.
Hectval had taken no prisoners that he knew of. He’d survived a good while. But this wasn’t Liscor. This was Izril, and Antinium, the Black Tide, were the enemies of Drakes, Gnolls, Humans…
That was how it was, and even the young Soldier knew his history and the basic politics well enough to get that. But Crusader 221-3 made one mistake, and it was this:
The world was changing. So, when the Gnolls returned, they did have bows and spears and a [Shaman] with a glowing staff, but they merely trained the weapons on the Soldier while six Gnolls dug down and ended up pulling him out with ropes. Crusader 221-3 felt a lot of pain, and one of them stopped and shouted.
“It’s bleeding—um, green! Are there any healing potions? Looks like the Antinium’s legs are all busted up.”
So they stopped and poured some on him, and he felt great about that. Crusader 221-3 wiggled his limbs and found three out of the six worked, which was pretty good. He stared up as the Gnolls surrounded him and he didn’t die.
Instead, the [Shaman] who wore a mix of dyed paints, a Weatherfur [Shaman], stared into Crusader 221-3’s eyes. He clicked helpfully, and the [Shaman] recoiled. Then the female Gnoll turned.
“This is too much for me. Find Strateg…Chieftain Feshi. Make sure the camp knows no one is to harm the Antinium.”
The Gnolls didn’t even really argue, just debate how best to carry Crusader 221-3 back to their camp. Carry, as if they couldn’t drag him on his shell.
Crusader 221-3 stared up at the blue sky and smelled all the aforementioned rot and destruction. But he also tasted something else on his mandibles.
Perhaps it was regret. Guilt for leaving his comrades behind. But Calruz had told him to continue on. So the Antinium stared up at the sky, then the curious, sad face of a [Strategist] who everyone called ‘Chieftain Feshi’.
“A live Antinium. If it were a few months ago, the Professor would tell us…what? A security risk? You can’t gain anything from Soldiers or Workers—aside from Roshal’s damned bounties. Today?”
Feshi Weatherfur, standing among the Weatherfur tribe and the Gnolls still inhabiting the Great Plains, looked at Crusader 221-3 as he sat, chewing on some honeycomb with his mandibles and clicking now and then. She looked around as his head rose, and though he had no pupils…there was something in that gaze. The Gnoll shivered, but not with fear.
“What orders, Chieftain?”
Feshi almost snapped at the person who asked, but she was the [Strategist] who’d taken command after Chieftain Torishi…died. Somehow, no one had ever relieved her of that duty. She held the hilt of the black diamond dagger of Serept as she thought a second. Crusader 221-3 looked at her, and the Gnoll nodded once.
“Keep a light guard. Find one of the cages we have for the Drake [Soldiers], but give the…this Antinium blankets. Food. But before that, I need a [Message] spell. Send it to Liscor. Send it to—what was it called?”
She snapped her furry fingers a few times before she had it. Crusader 221-3 was waving his hand, but he remembered he didn’t have a voice, and he hadn’t figured out how to ‘speak’ like The Crimson Soldier. He wished he’d spent the last nine days practicing, but he really thought he was going to die.
Well, that was honey on his face. Crusader 221-3 wiped some off and tasted it as Feshi came up with the name.
“Send a message to The Wandering Inn. Tell them we have an Antinium here.”
The city of Liscor didn’t smell like death today. What it did smell like was baking.
Baking soda and rising dough, from a lot of bakeries working overtime. Not just in general; Liscor was full of more people than it had ever been. The army—the civilian army—had returned and dumped a lot of off-duty soldiers as they maneuvered back to the war front.
Also, there were Gnolls, survivors from the Great Plains battles as well as…Silverfangs.
But Silverfang Silverfangs, if that made sense. Not your average Gnoll who kept up with the community but was a City Gnoll with that last name, but the Plains Gnoll who strode about with silver earrings and a hunting bow on her back and would shoot you a hare for eight copper coins in a heartbeat.
They were about as perplexed by Liscor as the citizens were by them. More so, in fact; the Silverfangs had spent a lot of time at the latest attractions. If only to distract themselves.
Plays, ice cream, stall food like hamburgers, and the door. More Gnolls had visited Invrisil in the last nine days than had ever occurred in the history of the city.
Pallass, was, for some reason, not a popular tourist destination for said Gnolls at the moment.
At any rate, it smelled of baking. Bread coming out golden and fluffy from the ovens, not flat like the little Gnoll could still remember eating. Of course, flatbread was wonderful too, and you could really chew it down with a lovely stew and dip your bread in the bowl, and if you were lucky, there was some butter or Sweetberry jam.
But this was good too. The little white Gnoll girl, sitting outside the inn on the hill, could actually smell the almonds baked into one piece of bread. And another was filled with spiced ground meat…
That was the level of Gnoll noses. With every good gust of air, she got happier. If you thought the world was just bread, it was indeed simple.
A younger, less mature girl of a few months ago might have run down into the city with some coins and gotten herself into a scrape like the scamp she was. However, this Gnoll girl knew that if she did leave this hill, she would not only alarm the caretaker watching her with one eye as she cleaned the tables, but get into trouble.
If she wanted to go into the city, she had to request authorization from the overlady, and that red-haired tyrant would make her go into the city with a guardian.
Which could be good, right? Wrong. The guardian might be, in and of themselves, a fun fellow with a guitar or a bird-obsessed maniac—but one you loved—or even a shockingly competent and boring [Head Waiter]. However, that wasn’t the problem.
The problem was…the chores. There would be no easy bread run. There was always, ‘Mrsha, dear, would you get some yogurt?’ or, ‘Mrsha, can you just send this to Krshia while you’re there’?
As if she were made of time. The Gnoll girl huffed to herself as she folded her arms. And while she grumbled, she was…if not happy, content.
Overwhelmingly content that this was something she could grumble about. Because it beat everything else that had been. So she sat and smelled bread and thought—how wonderful it is that I can do this.
It didn’t feel real, and she pinched herself now and then. And glanced up towards a certain window three from the left of where she sat.
That window…well, the occupant wasn’t up yet. But she was there. And that was strange, too. In fact, The Wandering Inn, even nine days later, felt a bit hushed. A bit shocked, as if there was still some uncertainty.
Had these days returned? Was this reality?
If so, it was the good stuff. And though tragedy still made the little girl cry at times…one good thing had happened. One amazing, unbelievable thing.
Then there it was again. Uncertainty. The girl hesitated and stared at the window. It would be the work of a moment to climb up the stairs and open the door a crack. But, of course, the occupant needed her sleep. Or she could use the door to the [Garden of Sanctuary] and take a peek, but she—and everyone else—had been scolded for doing that, and the owner of this inn got grumpy.
But was she really…? A doubt crept over Mrsha du Marquin once more. Though it had been nine days and probably nine hundred peeks and moments where she reminded herself, she wasn’t certain.
Then something struck her from above. A revelation. It blossomed in her head, words, not just words, but meaning, a kind of certainty that wrote itself in her mind. So neatly that the girl gasped and her eyes went wide. It was more than a thought, and it wasn’t hers. It was…
<Basic Quest – A Bucket of Water!>
Limits: Mrsha, 10 Minutes
Dear Mrsha, will you fetch a bucket of water? It’s important because I’m pretty sure we’re out. Please give it to Ishkr or put it in the cauldron! We should really get a pump or something, but I dunno. Thanks!
Posted Reward: Erin Solstice’s huge gratitude, love you, Mrsha! Plus, um, pancake breakfast?
Quest Reward: 2 Copper Coins, experience in <Housekeeping> classes.
The little girl’s eyes flickered as the information was presented into her mind, but she took a few seconds to process it. It was there if she wanted to access it, but understanding the quest wasn’t instantaneous.
The moment of wonder and surprise turned to…a hefty sigh as she felt the quest waiting for her to accept or refuse. Ten minutes? A bucket of water and two copper coins.
Now, if this were the Mrsha of nine days ago, if she got a quest, she would flip out, grab her wand, and do whatever was required. But that Mrsha was a fool, a peon with no understanding.
This Mrsha had completed thirty-one quests. Over the latter five days, since the first four had mostly been sleeping, recovering from the fighting, and processing it for everyone.
Thirty-one quests. Clean the Tables! Fetch Me a Cup of Milk! Give Bird a Big Hug!
She was getting sick of it. Especially since the rewards were just trash. Two copper coins? Mrsha might have lost her bag of holding, but if she poked Selys, she could get some allowance that would make up for all the quests she’d done and more.
And yet…and yet…it proved the quest-giver was alive. And awake. And apparently desirous of water. Mrsha folded her arms and grumped for a minute. Then she got up and, sighing, walked over eight feet and stared at a well.
She tossed a bucket into it, waited for the splash, and began to haul on the rope, grumbling to herself. Bucket this. Bucket that. Now, if it were the stream, she’d be fighting for her life against those biting, jumping fish. But this?
She had a bit of fun with it at the end by leaping up and hauling the bucket up by using her own weight to pull the rope down. Then she nearly fell into the well and decided to haul it up responsibly.
Bucket acquired! It wasn’t much water, and it slopped around a bit as Mrsha pulled it up, filled the second bucket, and began to carry it into the inn.
She didn’t actually resent the quest that much. It was just—when you thought about it, it was clearly just a way to have fun. Because Mrsha’s single bucket wouldn’t do much, would it? Now, Ishkr could take like four buckets to the inn. In terms of water-hauling, Mrsha would freely admit she was a poor choice for optimization.
But someone loved posting quests—at least for Mrsha. So the Gnoll was fumbling with the door handle, cursing the tyranny of tall people and doorknobs and wishing she were an Antinium with four arms, when someone opened the door and bowed.
Now, it was important to understand that at this point, Mrsha wasn’t actually that upset. She was more grumbling for the fun of it, and the quests hadn’t lost their allure entirely such that she was upset. She was enjoying being put-upon and rather glad that she’d gotten the quest.
However, the moment the door opened and the shining figure in gold armor bowed, one hand across his chest, the other moving back—she got an actual scowl on her face.
“Lady Mrsha? May I assist you w—”
Sir Sest backed away as she swung the bucket dangerously. Mrsha slapped something on her hand as he reached for the bucket, and a little, dangling stone chirped a sound.
She fumbled with it, and another pre-programmed response played.
“I’m busy. Go away.”
Sir Sest ran a finger along the thin, perfectly plucked mustache running across his upper lip. Mrsha thought it looked like a black centipede. His hair was perfectly combed. and his armor gleamed, a vivid gold that was brighter than the actual thing.
The motifs of Calanfer, the Eternal Throne, shone on the Thronebearer’s armor as he bowed.
“I see. It must be a grand quest, Lady Mrsha. Then allow me to humbly assist you upon your task!”
And he proceeded to hold the door open as Mrsha glared at him. Yes, it made her life easier, but the Thronebearer followed her as she walked into the inn on two feet, and then he bowed to the harried [Princess] cleaning tables.
“Mrsha? Oh, is it water? Thank you. It’s a quest, isn’t it?”
Yup. And I’ve got a leech.
Mrsha gave Lyonette du Marquin a glare and jerked a thumb at the Thronebearer. Lyonette sighed, but she didn’t reprimand Ser Sest. If anything, the Thronebearer got what Lyonette probably thought was a covert nod of approval.
Mrsha’s glare intensified. Yes, the inn was back, but things were different. And…
Well. Lyonette was here. Her mother was scrubbing tables, and even if a horrified Ser Lormel was doing likewise with Ishkr to spare her the work—even if Ser Sest was almost always lurking around, or Dame Ushar or Ser Dalimont—
Mrsha would take it over the bad times of before any day. It was just annoying. So, sighing, she walked into the kitchen.
“Breakfast isn’t ready. I told you, Palt. Timbor has to w—oh, Mrsha?”
A harried [Chef] with her hair tied back was snapping before she saw Mrsha. Imani pointed Mrsha at the water cauldron, which was running low.
“Thank you, Mrsha! Have you seen Palt?”
Mrsha had not, and Imani was whipping together breakfast anyways. True, she could just reheat some pre-made food, but fresh, hot food was still something good. It looked like today was a sweet yogurt and salads.
So that’s where it went. Well, Mrsha brightened up as she saw a bowl that looked very tasty. Chock full of sweet fruits and even a glowing Sweetberry. Imani noticed the look.
“It’ll be six minutes or less, Mrsha. Can you put the water there? Is Erin…?”
She’s awake. Mrsha nodded, and Imani glanced towards the door.
“I have to finish up and run to the Drunken Gnoll. Just put the water there, please.”
Mrsha was already tipping the bucket into the cauldron. She checked the glowing crystal half-submerged in the clear water just in case; it glowed a pure blue.
No contaminants. It was one of the things Imani had brought to the kitchen. Apparently most [Chefs] invested in such things, especially for water.
The quest was done. Mrsha the Water Fetcher closed her eyes, and even in her rush, Imani slowed a moment.
For here it came. The water being deposited into the cauldron was something only Mrsha, Imani, and Ser Sest saw. It was conceivable that the quest-poster might have sensed the water being poured, just as she had noticed the water running low, but she didn’t need to be actively monitoring the situation.
Something else was watching, and Mrsha felt a vague thrill even for the thirty-second time as she heard that voice in her head announce…
<Basic Quest – A Bucket of Water completed!>
Nothing other than that, at least in words. But the feeling of completion was instantaneously followed by a small sound and a glow of light. Imani looked up, and Mrsha opened her paws.
Even now, she stared up in awe at something…new. Something unheard of, that everyone was speculating about. The new power of [Innkeepers]—all [Innkeepers] apparently, and even some people working in related professions.
But especially this one. Mrsha saw the glow of gentle light turn from bright white into…two copper coins.
They fell out of the air and into her paws, and she stared at them. Just two copper coins, one slightly notched in the side, worn from use. They had Pallass’ logo on them; they must have been minted in the Walled City, and the Merchant’s Guild had ratified them.
Ordinary copper coins. Which had just appeared the instant she finished her quest.
That was magic. That was…well, frankly unbelievable.
Quests? Were they living in a fairy tale or Numbtongue’s video games? Mrsha flipped a copper coin up and down and felt it. Then she noticed something else.
Hold up. Hold up. Mrsha’s eyes went round, and Ser Sest murmured.
Something else floated down from the air. Imani blinked as a third flash of light produced…Mrsha grabbed for the falling object in astonishment. It had happened again! She held up the huge, bright blue feather and heard the voice speaking.
<Quest Reward: 2 Copper Coins awarded. Bonus Item: Arctic Corabird Feather awarded.>
A bonus item. Mrsha knew that had not been on the quest description. It had not been guaranteed. It was…a bonus.
But where had it come from? Nowhere? Somewhere? Bird’s stash? Mrsha stared at the feather and knew, knew that Bird didn’t have a feather this nice. It was a brilliant cobalt-blue, but it had this wonderful white striation near the base. Faint white lines like snow across the sky.
It was probably worth more than two copper coins. Possibly as much as eight, if you sold it to a [Fletcher]. Then again, a certain feather-maniac would give Mrsha gold coins without a second’s hesitation for this.
Did the voice know that? Or was it just a random reward? Was this bird native to Izril, or was it truly just coincidence that Mrsha got a feather? Then again, she’d also been awarded with a bit of quartz, an extra copper coin, and a tomato in the last ten quests.
Not even a good tomato, and no, she hadn’t been allowed to eat it. Imani didn’t freak out like everyone had the first time it had happened, but she still gasped and stopped working.
“It happened again! A feather this time? Good job, Mrsha!”
She smiled, and Mrsha did too, for the sheer wonder of it. She put the feather behind her ear and turned…and Ser Sest spoiled her mood by applauding loudly.
“Well done, Lady Mrsha! Another feather in your cap, eh? A splendid job!”
Mrsha and Imani gave him a long look, but the Thronebearer had [Total Immunity: Shame], apparently. Mrsha sighed, walked past him, and handed him the copper coins.
“Er, Lady Mrsha…?”
She kept the feather.
This was The Wandering Inn. And if you thought it was quiet, well, that was only because the regulars weren’t allowed in until actual morning. Or you’d have people camping out just to come in.
It was also quiet because a lot of the new guests or people who’d come to Liscor were giving the inn some space. It was quiet because…of her.
The crazy Human. The [Innkeeper]. The girl who lived…then died…then lived again. Not General Sserys, but she had been. The friend of Goblins and Antinium.
Erin Solstice, who had nothing to do with the war in Ailendamus. Or the battle with the Gnolls—or Khelt. Certainly nothing to do with any ghosts. A humble [Innkeeper], and don’t let anyone catch you spying on her or your legs will be broken.
…It was safe to say there were eyes on the inn. But from a distance, because a few inquiring minds had found that you couldn’t spy on the inn that easily. The Thronebearers, for all their glitter, were very good as bodyguards, and there were incredibly powerful [Mages], Gnolls, and other people who would evict anyone causing trouble.
There would be no trouble. Or crossbows. Not again. Never again. Erin Solstice had returned, and as she woke up, she came downstairs via the [Garden of Sanctuary].
The door opened, spilling in light, a garden’s scents, and a female voice, laughing and light, coughing a bit as she spoke. Mrsha whirled, and the few people in the inn looked up. It was time to open. She was awake, and that voice was already calling out.
“Numbtongue, stop it! Go back and play your video games! I’m fine! Come for breakfast! Did Mrsha do her big quest? Good morning, everyone!”
Erin Solstice appeared through the door to the garden as Ser Lormel stepped over and went to hold open the door—not that it was necessary, since it opened by itself. Smiling, the [Innkeeper]’s face appeared as Mrsha’s heart fluttered.
Though it had been nine days, there was still a moment of uncertainty. A thought that Mrsha could be dreaming. But then she saw the hazel eyes, the brown hair. A voice that could be silly or serious as the need arose, and two bright eyes that were only scary when she was angry. More than anything? It was that smile that made Mrsha smile and brighten up and scamper over, but respectfully.
Erin Solstice slowly wheeled the chair through the door, waving to Mrsha. The [Innkeeper] snagged the wheels as she came off the grass, but she pushed and got onto the hardwood floors before Ser Lormel could help her. Mrsha raced up next to Erin, and the [Innkeeper] swatted at the [Knight]’s hands.
“Shall I escort you to a table, Miss Solstice?”
“No! Shoo! I can push myself. Mrsha, you want to do it? Oh—fine. But I don’t want to go racing around, got it?”
Mrsha kicked at Ser Lormel and the Thronebearer retreated. Carefully, she got up and pushed at the two handlebars of the chair and moved Erin gently towards a table. It was not the same as a wheelchair from Earth, incidentally.
Mrsha had seen the mockups Kevin had made, and she understood that there were apparently better ones. This was just a padded chair that Hedault had helped to enchant with some alterations like the wheels. It had been an odd concept and project since these things didn’t really exist in the common mindset.
Palt had brought up floating chairs, which some of the nobility used, and other methods, but Erin wanted to maneuver around herself. Besides—this wouldn’t be forever, so she didn’t want to waste energy on it.
There were still things that needed to be done, so the table that Mrsha pushed Erin to was lower. The [Innkeeper] smiled over her shoulder.
“Didja do my quest, Mrsha? It’s two whole coppers.”
Mrsha gave Erin a polite smile and waved the feather.
“Ooh! Is that a bonus reward? That’s amazing! See? This is why you do quests! Next time we’ll get you washing dishes! All the dishes!”
Dead gods, please no. Mrsha shook her head, but Erin’s eyes were twinkling.
“I bet you I can make a super basic quest. I mean, I haven’t done anything else beyond, um, ‘fetch quests’, Kevin called it? But I’ll figure out some big one and see what kind of reward I can post. It’s too bad I have to pay for it. How about a thousand dishes? And if you break one, you fail! But I bet you’d get, like, [Dishwasher] guaranteed! No? How about doing the trash for…”
Erin was getting excited and speaking faster. Then she began to cough. Mrsha heard the wheezing, deep cough as the young woman had to stop a second. Imani, coming out of the kitchen, paused as Erin panted for air. Coughing.
Mrsha stared at her anxiously, but Erin regained her breath. There was only a slight wheeze as she looked at Mrsha then around.
She was no fool. But she smiled.
“Just…catching my breath. Okay, fine. Maybe not a thousand dishes. Is it time for breakfast? I’m hungry!”
And there it was. Lyonette never missed a beat as she walked over, and Mrsha climbed into a seat. A Hobgoblin poked his head through the garden, and Bird came down the stairs. They were the first, but the rest of the guests seemed to pop up as if by magic.
Or, as if they’d been waiting for her to wake. But they didn’t crowd her. Nor…nor did they bring the same level of drama into the inn, at least not by intention. Erin Solstice noticed it all, but she waved in her wheelchair and called out to people as they came down the stairs. They were cautious of her, that was all.
She was the same young woman that Mrsha remembered. But perhaps older. Something had changed Erin Solstice when she’d been dead. Not just her body, but she seemed…
Well, she hadn’t said much yet. Just asked what had happened to the others. Demanded to see the events that had been captured on scrying orb. Hugged everyone, including Mrsha.
Erin Solstice was back. But she couldn’t walk, and she had trouble breathing sometimes. She had been dead. It was a miracle to see her, and nothing was the same. For now, Mrsha sat next to Erin, close enough to feel the young woman moving as she raised a hand.
This was good enough. More than enough.
The Horns of Hammerad had been watching for the moment Erin appeared. They came down the stairs, trying to look like they hadn’t all been waiting there.
It was a bad act. Not only was Yvlon a poor actor—Pisces was infamous for usually sleeping in. However, they were changed from Chandrar and, well, it didn’t matter.
“Pisces! You’re up early!”
Erin made the same joke she’d made for the last four days straight. The [Necromancer] rolled his eyes, but didn’t sniff.
“Early is a relative term, Erin. I could point out that most inns are up at the crack of d—”
Ceria kicked him in the ankle so hard tears sprang to his eyes. Erin Solstice’s smile slipped only a second.
“Yeah, well, Lyonette’s taking over, and I’m a bit tired for now. So…don’t compete about sleep with me, buddy! Or I’ll give you a quest to wake up at, um, 3 AM! Every day!”
“I believe I would refuse that. Is there not a law…governing trivial quest posting?”
“Nope. I can be as trivial as I want. I’m the ultimate trivial quest-poster. I just made Mrsha fetch water!”
The little white Gnoll sighed loudly at the table as Ceria grinned. Ksmvr waved with all four hands as he stepped towards the table with Yvlon.
“Hello, Miss Erin. Hello, Mrsha. Hello, Princess Lyonette…”
“It’s just Lyonette, Ksmvr.”
The inn wasn’t open for the public, but Lyonette still looked around. Yvlon gave Lyonette a half-bow that only added to the agony on the [Princess]’ face, but she was eying the Thronebearers. Ser Sest himself was carrying over the yogurt breakfast.
“How can you hide it, Lyonette? With…”
Ceria gave a nod to Sest, and Lyonette sighed.
“I’ll…figure something out.”
She said that out of the corner of her mouth as the two Thronebearers politely pretended not to hear anything. Yet there it was. The Thronebearers had found their [Princess].
What might happen next? For that matter…the Horns glanced at each other, and then Ceria finally identified the prickling on the back of her neck. She couldn’t see anything or anyone, but her new magical abilities allowed her to sense relative heat.
Even then, she couldn’t detect the unseen watcher, but her circlet helped her pick out a whiff of magic in the room. Pisces kept glancing around, and Yvlon scowled because she knew that the watcher was there.
The clue was the Thronebearers glancing every now and then towards one of the beams across the ceiling of the tall common room. Erin Solstice was the other clue; she just stared straight up at the Named Adventurer.
“Um. Do you want to come down for breakfast…Tessa?”
There was a muffled sound, and Ceria saw a flicker of movement, then a figure leapt towards the hallway. Tessa, Shriekblade, paused a second with what looked like a looted steak from the kitchen and vanished.
“Huh. You know, I think she gets mad that I can sense her.”
Erin grinned around the table, as if being able to spot a Named Adventurer trying to hide were normal. But that—that was Erin.
Ceria was just sitting down at the table when more guests began to appear. Not all stayed at The Wandering Inn. Few did, in fact. Once they had learned of Erin’s condition, many had voluntarily removed themselves.
There was also the issue of staffing, if not rooms, so the first visitors to win admission past Ser Sest were the friends of the inn.
Friends, not acquaintances. Nor even comrades in arms. They would surely come later—if Lyonette didn’t block them first. Not everyone could make it every day, but one person came like clockwork. And she was tall.
“Mrsha! Is that yogurt I smell? Mrsha, I learned a new spell!”
Gireulashia, the [Paragon] of Ekhtouch, bounded into the inn, and Pisces had a hand on his rapier. The sight of a nine-foot-tall Gnoll entering like a storm of red and brown fur—well, that could scare you.
“Gire, be careful—”
Lyonette heard a warning voice but it was too late. Gire grabbed Mrsha as the Gnoll girl performed a flying leap from her table into her friend’s arms. The [Paragon] swung Mrsha around in a dizzying arc and sat down in a chair next to Mrsha, all in one move.
“Gire! Be careful! Erin’s…”
The admonition faded as someone else hurried into the inn after Gire. A scolding Drake, Selys Shivertail, caught herself and waved a claw as she adjusted her light dress. Erin Solstice frowned—at Selys.
“Selys, it’s okay! Hi, Gire!”
“Hullo, Miss Erin.”
Gire ducked her head abashedly, but Erin just smiled hugely.
“Gire can have all the fun she wants, right, Mrsha? I’m not made of glass!”
She looked around challengingly, and no one exactly met her eyes. Ksmvr replied brightly.
“No, you are not a Golem. Although, I would say that in light of your condition, if you wanted to replace your legs, I have observed that a housecat has benefited very well from…”
Another kick, this time from Pisces and Yvlon each, shut him up. Ksmvr then made it worse by covering his mandibles with all four hands.
Four hands. Not three. His last hand was a bit stumpy since the digits were regrowing, but the Antinium could apparently regrow limbs with their gel. It didn’t work on Goblins or anyone else. They had asked, again, for Erin.
The [Innkeeper] bore it all in stride as they began to eat their colorful breakfast of fruit. Numbtongue hadn’t said much this morning, only patted Mrsha on the head. He looked a bit sleepy, but he never missed breakfast.
No one would. Even Bird had come down. Of course, he and Numbtongue glumly stared at their meatless, birdless dish, but they began to eat up as Imani narrowed her eyes at them.
“I have to run. Erin, I’ll see you later.”
“Oh, thanks, Imani. Um, do we have food for today? I could…”
“You’re all set. No need to cook.”
“Right, right. Gotcha. Thanks for breakfast!”
Imani vanished out the door with a smile. Not the magic door…it wasn’t at the inn. The regular door. Erin dug a spoon into her bowl just in time for a vibrating Bird to break the silence.
“Mrsha. Where did you get that feather? Have you been hunting without me? Is there a blue bird around Liscor? I. Demand. Answers.”
He slapped the table hard enough to make the bowls jump. Gire watched with a look of delighted fascination as Mrsha waved the feather in Bird’s face.
“Bird, do not be crude. It’s Mrsha’s quest reward.”
Lyonette scolded Bird. Instantly, he sat up.
“You can get feathers as rewards for Erin’s useless quests? Then they are not so useless.”
“Hey! They’re great! It’s the random rewards. It’s so amazing. Whaddya mean, useless?”
Erin protested. Everyone coughed or looked away. The [Innkeeper] was hurt.
“I’m putting down good money for easy quests!”
“I am Bird. I do not wash dishes.”
Mrsha, Numbtongue, and Ceria nodded emphatically.
“Guys. Listen. Quest posting isn’t easy. I’m still figuring it out. I can’t post just any quest. Believe me, I tried.”
“Oh, really? Pray, would there be anything to drink with this repast? Ser Knight, I shall have an orange juice, perhaps. Or some other refreshing beverage. Tea, if nothing else.”
Pisces flagged down Ser Sest, who gave him an affronted look. It was Selys and Yvlon’s turn to try and kick Pisces, but he had lifted his feet, so they just kicked Ceria instead. Mrsha and Gire giggled in delight and put in their order for goat’s milk, and since Lyonette asked for tea, Ser Sest obliged them all.
There were not, as yet, the Halfseekers. Or Joseph, Kevin, the [Strategists], Krshia or the other Gnolls, or even Tkrn or Inkar. Or Salkis, Gna, Rags, Badarrow, Snapjaw, Infinitypear…the list went on.
However, the gathering was small today. Actually, that was for the best. The first few days after Erin woke up, everyone was here—which meant nothing got done all day. People just sat there and tried to convince themselves she was alive.
In fact—Erin jumped halfway through her bowl and scowled.
“Numbtongue, stop that!”
He had poked her in the side. The Hobgoblin withdrew a finger. Mrsha prodded Erin’s arm, and the young woman slapped her hands around.
“Stop that! We’re not doing this again!”
She was alive. Just checking. The conversation at the table was light as Erin groused.
“You people think it’s easy posting quests? It’s super hard. I have to figure everything out, and I can’t post it without having the reward in my hands. Plus, I can’t post more than one Basic Quest per hour.”
“And you waste it on hauling water?”
Pisces jerked back from the napkin Erin threw at him so fast his chair went crashing backwards. He was on his feet, and Erin lowered her hand, blinking. Yvlon stared as Pisces caught himself, and his hand was on the hilt of his sword…
He relaxed, but that was—something. Another something which no one said anything about as Pisces sat back down. Erin hesitated, then went on as if nothing had happened.
“I—uh—yeah. Because I can’t do other quests, see? I had this idea to try and post a quest to kill a Rock Crab, right? But then I thought—is that animal cruelty?”
Selys instantly replied. Erin waved a hand.
“Yeah, but I felt bad. So then I said—Shield Spiders. There are still some, even if Nathalimoo…Nathalristretoseto…lous…wiped out most of them. So I was gonna post a quest: wipe out a nest!”
Ceria was watching Pisces. His breathing was calm after a moment, and his face was blank. But…no, not the time. They hadn’t discussed it, but if you looked, you could see scarred, rough flesh around his neck.
They didn’t talk about it. Nor did anyone see much different with Ceria. She looked like normal: pale blue eyes, blonde hair, a skeletal hand.
And a circlet on her head. But no one saw it. Ceria’s fingers drummed idly as Erin gesticulated.
“I couldn’t post it! I kept trying—I was gonna do a Wyvern, right? No dice. I tried Rock Crabs, Eater Goats, and it didn’t work. But then I figured out the problem. I can’t post a quest if I don’t know the target…thing…exists!”
The table exchanged glances. Bird raised a hand.
“Rock Crabs do not exist? Then…what have I been seeing all this time?”
His mandibles opened in horror. Mrsha immediately began giggling with Gire. Erin waved a hand.
“No, I mean—I don’t know there’s a Rock Crab around so it doesn’t work, Bird. Rock Crabs exist.”
“So you need to know they’re present? That’s oddly specific, Miss Erin. Then you can’t post a quest like the Adventurer’s Guild to exterminate a number of pests. It seems odd. Aren’t quests supposed to be what we adventurers do?”
Yvlon frowned, chewing as she thought. Erin corrected her.
“Aha! But I’d be able to post the quest if I knew there was a problem. I’m pretty sure. I just can’t say—I ‘think’ there’s like a bajillion Shield Spiders out there. Go stomp ‘em. In fact, I don’t think I can ask for a bajillion Shield Spiders on my quests.”
“Because that is not a number, correct.”
Pisces saw Erin lift her hand, but she caught herself and waggled a finger at him.
“Listen, buddy. Don’t use facts against me. I’m saying that I can feel it wouldn’t work. I cannot post a Basic Quest to kill more than…a nest or two of Shield Spiders. A thousand is way too much. For now? Huh. But I could post a Rare Quest to destroy a thousand Shield Spiders. However, I…I know I can’t ask you to do it for cheap. I could offer two copper coins to destroy a Shield Spider nest as a Basic Quest. I can’t do the same for a Rare Quest.”
Everyone tried to work that out. Gireulashia had emptied three bowls of yogurt.
“So you’re saying there are minimum requirements per quest.”
“Yes! Hey, that’s a great way of putting it.”
Mrsha patted Gire’s arm proudly. Bird took her feather, and Mrsha snatched for it, but he stopped her with one hand.
“I have the feather. It is mine by right of force and—”
Gire snatched it back so fast Bird was left staring at his hand. He gazed up at the [Paragon], who put it behind Mrsha’s ear.
“Oho. I have been challenged. Is it war?”
“Oh, dead gods. Bird—stop that!”
He raised all four arms and tried to grab for the feather, but Gire slapped the hands down in a blur, still eating with her other hand. Numbtongue looked quite amused…and somewhat intimidated by the fifteen-year-old [Paragon]. He joined Bird, and the blur of hands and Mrsha flailing her fists made Lyonette try to break up the fight.
“Stop that! We are having breakfast! Be civil, you two! This is not some—some backwater court!”
“No, it’s an inn. Shoo, shoo.”
Numbtongue retorted. Lyonette tried to stop them, but all the combatants were having fun. Then Bird picked up a cup.
“Aha! Water attack!”
He splashed at Gire, and the [Paragon] evaded the attack, rolling with Mrsha up in her arms. Numbtongue was less graceful, and Ceria also went ducking with a curse and smacked her head on the table.
Then it happened. The dishes went bumping around, and Pisces and Yvlon rescued their side of the table with Ksmvr. Selys had already backed up from the child fight, but the jostling and dodging people knocked Erin Solstice over. Her chair—not perfectly designed—rotated at the wheels, and she hit the floor.
Instantly, the commotion stopped. Mrsha leapt down as Erin pushed herself up.
“Ow, you guys! Bird, you’re not a Pokemon. Don’t…”
Everyone surrounded Erin, and she looked up into the hush. Slowly, Erin began to push herself up but her arms trembled. Numbtongue instantly lifted Erin, and Pisces bent down on the other side.
“Guys, I’m fine. Guys…”
Erin was back in her wheelchair in a few seconds, but the mood had lost its playfulness. Mrsha hugged Erin, and Bird put the cup behind his back.
“I am sorry, Erin. It was all…Selys’ fault. She made me do it.”
The [Liar] pointed to Selys, and the Drake slapped his shoulder. Erin smiled, but weakly.
“I’m not hurt. It’s lots of fun, right?”
Everyone agreed. Super fun. No one was hurt.
The silence remained. Erin Solstice looked around and blew out her cheeks.
“I’m fine. Really.”
She’d just been dead. The [Innkeeper] stared around at all her loving friends and family and their uncertain looks behind the smiles. She took a huge breath and coughed. And coughed.
Coming back from the dead wasn’t easy. And before anyone could say anything else or get back on track, the first person broke into the inn.
“Excuse me—excuse me, Erin!”
Someone had gotten past Ser Lormel on door-duty. Garia Strongheart jogged into the inn, and everyone turned in relief. Garia was waving a slip of parchment with a [Message] on it.
“I have a missive from Feshi Weatherfur! There’s an Antinium they found in the Great Plains!”
Instantly, everyone became alert. Ceria glanced at Bird and Ksmvr, and both Antinium looked at each other. Numbtongue cursed and closed his eyes, and Gire’s smile flickered. Lyonette turned to Erin, and the [Innkeeper]…hesitated.
While Crusader 221-3 was in the Great Plains, he learned a few things. One of which was that he would walk again.
It turned out that the wounds he’d taken were bad; he’d shattered the lower back half of his shell, had a hand severed, and been practically hamstrung by the blade that had slashed his abdomen and taken him down, but no wounds had been of the limb-dismembering kind, aside from his hand.
“It is only a surprise the healing potion did not kill him…it. You should not have used it on the wounded.”
The [Healer] admonished the Gnolls who’d found Crusader 221-3. Abashed, they ducked their heads, but Crusader 221-3 would have happily referred them to the Antinium’s very low attrition rate due to infection as a defense. He had been engineered to survive worse.
Now, if that were all, and he was checked up on—they gave him enough pillows and blankets to construct the legendary Fortress of Fluff of which Crusader 221-3 had heard so much about—and given good food, he would have considered himself the luckiest of Antinium.
However, he was in his ‘prison’ all of three hours. That was as long as it took to get a [Message] back from Liscor, and apparently his situation was the cause of concern, so Chieftain Feshi was organizing something.
But Crusader 221-3 was let out of his prison the moment an old Gnoll with grey fur walked over to his cell and demanded he be let out.
Then the old Gnoll glared, and the guards instantly let Crusader 221-3 out. Thus, he met Shaman Theikha of Gaarh Marsh.
Crusader 221-3 had no idea who the old Gnoll was or that she was the oldest, arguably highest-level, and certainly most respected Gnoll [Shaman] living among all Gnolls. Then again—he didn’t need to be told.
He felt it. He saw it. He…heard it.
Whomever Shaman Theikha had been before the Meeting of Tribes was not the Gnoll that Crusader 221-3 met. Oh, the body was the same. He imagined that, before, the Gnoll would have looked smaller. A bit shrunken, which happened to old people—not Antinium—but the Drakes and Gnolls he’d seen in Liscor on patrols. She would have probably had a very kind smile and the manner that made children and adults who acted like children rethink causing trouble.
She would have been fairly nimble, but…faded. A glorious candle with enough energy for one last deed. One last Meeting of Tribes. Before she faded away or burnt out in a blaze.
She had done just that. In the last great battle, Shaman Theikha’s heart had stopped. Then, the Earth Elemental, Khoteizetrough, had given her one last gift. Theikha’s heart continued to beat.
And, oh, Crusader 221-3 heard it.
It was slow, unhurried, and so audible that he heard it, possibly even felt it through his feet. Shaman Theikha’s heart was now so loud any Gnoll within ten feet of her could hear her when she was calm.
The old [Shaman] was still old. But it seemed like a vitality had sprung up behind her eyes. As if…those ancient brown eyes had a layer of green beneath, as pure and vibrant as spring. As if the withered oak shell of a dying tree had been filled with new growth from within.
Was it all Theikha, or something more? All Crusader 221-3 knew was that the Gnoll who stared down at him as he stood up—he wasn’t shackled—was not so much terrifying as impressive. He didn’t feel endangered by her, but he felt like he had when Erin Solstice met his eyes.
“Do you have a name, Soldier of the Antinium? I am Shaman Theikha. Forgive me if I err. I hope I do not misjudge you either. It is a strange time. A terrible moment for Gnolls. But if we do not learn and grow—then we are fools twice.”
Theikha let Crusader 221-3 out of his cell, and he didn’t know what to say. He nodded…then raised his fingers. He had three hands, so he put them together. Happily, he had digits lower than ‘5’ in his name, so he could show her.
“Two. Another two. A one…and then a three? You are…two two one three? Or are you, ah, eight?”
Theikha’s brows came together, and Crusader 221-3 nodded helpfully. She got it with a bit of help.
“You are 221-3. But the three is separate from 221. I see.”
He nodded. She was clearly the wisest of Gnolls; she’d figured out what Liscor’s [Soldiers] had to be told outright. Theikha regarded Crusader 221-3 for a moment.
“Are you in pain, 221-3? Do you require more food? Anything else?”
He shook his head twice and waved his hands. What else could you want? Besides…honor.
Perhaps Theikha realized that a rich internal life and monologue was going on behind Crusader 221-3’s eyes. She certainly seemed to guess that he had something to say.
“Will you walk with me, 221-3?”
“But [Shaman], Chieftain Feshi is arranging a way for him to go to Liscor and…”
“And he is Antinium? A threat?”
Theikha turned, and the Weatherfur [Guard]—who hadn’t actually lifted the axe he carried—hesitated. He shook his head quickly, adjusting the hide armor he wore.
“Not to you, Shaman. I just—wonder if we cannot do whatever needs to be done?”
The answer pleased Theikha. She smiled briefly.
“There are many things that need to be done, but learning…this is an Antinium in our midst, and I think that if we had time, all Chieftains would be here to talk and learn. The Meeting of Tribes has ended, but this is still vital. Since we are all busy and some are at Liscor—ask when Gireulashia will return. I will accompany 221-3 for now.”
“Yes, Shaman Theikha.”
Thus, the Soldier found himself leaving the cells for prisoners of war, and he saw the new circumstances of the Plains Gnolls. He passed by cages where sullen Drakes sat and flinched from him and Theikha. He walked into a camp much like the Meeting of Tribes.
Only, with less tribes and a lot of soldiers rotating in from killing undead or keeping an eye out for Drakes. They looked—dispirited. They looked like they were grieving. Crusader 221-3 heard some howls, but he mostly just saw exhaustion.
Exhaustion, crossed with hope when they saw Theikha. Strangely, even when they saw him. Great tribes had perished, like Az’muzarre, or were forever broken like Steelfur, which had no more Iraz to give them their famous fur.
However, they had survived, so what propelled every Gnoll on their feet was a kind of exhausted daring. Like someone throwing out their hands and baring their chest and daring the world to throw just one more thing at them.
And it was Theikha who promised them that there would be that future. Her beating heart. No…not just that.
From ash, there would be some new life. All Crusader 221-3 had to do to believe that was to look out and see…
A new land. It ran through the Great Plains, but it stretched into the distance. Like a crack, a splinter driven into Izril, it was not so much a ‘chunk’ as a wedge, and that new land had been yanked from the bottom of the ocean, blanketed in magic. It had changed the landscape, forcing the great river that Khelt had sailed up to pool into a lake caused by the fighting before diverting and rejoining its old course.
The new lands had forced Zeres away, creating a huge divide between Drake cities across the southwest of Izril. And while Crusader 221-3 could not see far into that strange landscape…he saw where it began.
At the Meeting of Tribes, where the grand tent still stood, scorched but a semi-permanent headquarters. It stood next to a fortress of dirt and wood where the Doombearers’ allies had fought. To mark this place would be this battlefield, this great camp of Gnolls.
And the hill that had been Khoteizetrough, blooming with so many flowers that it dazzled the Antinium’s eyes. A small swamp had already formed around it.
“You fought for our side, did you not, 221-3? This is the folly of Gnolls in part. It will not be our end. Even now, my people set foot on Chandrar, and while the tribes have been badly decimated, our kin from cities and elsewhere on Izril make for us here. We have you to thank, yes?”
Crusader 221-3 modestly waved his antennae. He didn’t know about that. One moment he’d been rushing to where Company 3 had vanished, the next Erin Solstice told him to hold the line. So he did.
He was very modest about himself. Not the Beriad. They were the heroes beyond heroes, and each one would never be forgotten. They had died with honor, and he would write their names on the walls of the Painted Antinium if he were allowed. They might not have been Painted Antinium—not all the crusade had been—
But they had been something new. Beyond [Crusader].
And Theikha saw it. She looked at Crusader 221-3 with wisdom and kindness and gratitude, and she spoke.
“I have many questions to ask you, but I realize it is difficult for you to answer, 221-3. If we had but asked…no. We did try, and no Antinium had any answers to give, even your Centenium, only war. Perhaps now is the only time to ask. Will you allow me to do what I think is wise in two ways? I promise, it should not hurt or harm.”
He nodded. Crusader 221-3 had never been asked his opinion on anything, so he felt good about agreeing. Unless he should have refused? However, Calruz did say that an honorable warrior underwent any trials for the benefit of all.
Thus, Shaman Theikha led Crusader 221-3 up towards the biggest tent. On the way, she called for an artifact. When one was found that matched her requirements, she eyed the monocle with great reservation, then put it to her eye.
“There are some magics, you see, 221-3, that do not come to [Shamans]. That will change now that we have regained magic, but slowly. I can do what [Mages] cannot in many ways. But this…ah. So your name was Crusader 221-3! I apologize.”
He froze and nearly fell over in surprise, but Theikha just studied him and murmured.
“Strange. I would imagine you had more classes and a higher level. You are called ‘Crusader 221-3’, yet you bear not that class.”
Odd. Crusader 221-3 realized she was appraising him! Which was wise! Yet it seemed Theikha suffered the same problem as Strategos Olesm; his [Crusader] class and certain Skills didn’t show up.
However, Theikha did see his other class. And that was enough to make her eyebrows lift straight up. She brushed some lichen off her fur—her shaman’s dress looked like it had been grown out of the wild—and murmured.
[Immortal]. Crusader 221-3 puffed out his chest. He knew it didn’t mean immortal immortal, but it was probably the reason he’d survived nine days after being cut two dozen times.
“You have many powerful Skills. As one who survived such a battle should. Forgive me for peeking, but it is a question among some whether Antinium even have levels. The Soldiers and Workers, at least.”
Crusader 221-3 waved it off. He didn’t care. Among the Skills he’d gained, some were:
[Body: Staunched Bleeding]. Which was probably how he hadn’t bled out despite the huge gashes on his body.
[Greater Endurance]. He was very proud of that—he was a Level 11 [Immortal], and he assumed it was his Level 10 capstone Skill.
[Ironshell]. The voice in his head had wavered between [Ironhide] and [Ironscales] before figuring it out.
And [Honor’s Shield – Single Use]. Which he was completely in the dark about.
Once again, Shaman Theikha seemed to read his mind.
“You may not know what all these Skills do, yes?”
Crusader 221-3 shook his head obediently, and Theikha chuckled.
“A problem for many. Not all Skills make sense. One would have thought there was an instruction manual! I may not know all, and you have secrets, but I am old enough to show you one. Here. Let me show you how your [Honor’s Shield] works. Turn around.”
Obediently, the Crusader did. Several Gnolls watching the Antinium curiously saw Theikha raise her staff. She briskly smacked it over the back of Crusader 221-3’s head.
The horrified shout came from no less than…Rose. The young woman ran forwards as she and a metal Gnoll reached the scene just in time to see the assassination attempt on Crusader 221-3…fail.
Theikha’s staff bounced off a glowing disc of light, rather like a buckler. It disappeared as Crusader 221-3 looked around.
He hesitated, but Theikha tapped him on the back of the head, just enough that he felt it. She smiled as Adetr slowed and Rose came to a stop. Adetr, catching up, stared at the first Antinium he’d ever met outside a battle.
“You see? Once. A very handy trick for an honorable person, yes?”
Crusader 221-3 could only agree. He turned, and Rose pointed at him.
“It’s an Antinium Soldier! Not a Painted Antinium after all, like I thought.”
“A live one. What will we do, Shaman? Send it back?”
The metal Gnoll rumbled, and Adetr Steelfur, the only Gnoll to still have a body of metal, looked at Theikha. She nodded as Rose gobbled for words.
“That is for Chieftain Feshi to decide. I am simply…speaking with Crusader 221-3. Thank you for coming, Rose. You know Antinium; I hope you can help.”
“I do! But, um—I only know Pawn. Hello! I’m, uh, Rose. I know Pawn! And Bird! And…Belgrade?”
Rose was actually more nervous than Theikha and hesitated before putting her hand out. Since he couldn’t speak, Crusader 221-3 put his hand out, but his digits were more for making fists or shovel-hands. He shook her grip, and Rose hesitated.
“He’s a Soldier. They don’t speak. I mean…Yellow Splatters does, but. Um. Hi! We’ll get you back to your Hive! I’m Rose!”
“You said that. I am Adetr Steelfur. Chieftain…temporary Chieftain of Steelfur. Antinium, you will cause no harm.”
It wasn’t really a question, but Crusader 221-3 shook his head anyways. Rose was hesitating.
“What will you do? Can you…give him a pencil, Theikha? Translate his words like Mrsha?”
“I do not know [Greater Translation], Rose. Nor do I think Crusader 221-3 could manage to write.”
Nor had he been taught. Crusader 221-3 shook his head helpfully. He couldn’t even read! He did know the Crusade’s sign-language adopted from Mrsha’s paw-signs, but no one here was fluent, at least in their dialect.
However, as he had observed, you didn’t become the Great Shaman of the Tribes without having some really good ideas in your head. Or just…common sense? Possibly both, which made Theikha very rare. Because she continued walking them all up to their destination.
The big tent where the Chieftains had met. Rose was confused for a minute, then she understood. Adetr just gave Theikha a look of wild surprise then a deep bow.
“You are very wise, Shaman. I have…much to learn. I hope Gaarh Marsh will not return to their homes yet. Steelfur—what remains of it—needs you. If we are to continue at all.”
“Hrm. No, I am not. I simply thought about what I could do. Do not think I have something you do not have, Adetr. It is a difficult thing to lead, but not entirely unknown.”
Crusader 221-3 saw the metal Gnoll nod. He was an impressive warrior, not as tall as some Gnolls, but he looked as heavy as two Crusader 221-3’s put together, and his body was metal. Even his eyes had more grey than brown. He could have held still and been mistaken for a statue.
Yet he seemed smaller. Diminished. Worn down by enough loss to extinguish even his desire for battle. As for Rose…she seemed like a nice Human. Well-scrubbed, wearing some bright clothing, and a bit uncertain among all the Gnolls. But it seemed to Crusader 221-3 that if a strong wind blew it wouldn’t touch Theikha, but it would knock Adetr over. Rose was helping prop him up a bit. Although, if he did fall over, he’d squish her.
Now, as to their destination—that did make Adetr look up with that desperate hope Gnolls had. Indeed, the tent had some Gnolls in it already. Not just Chieftains or [Shamans], but regular Gnolls, some of whom looked disbelieving or shocked. They parted for Theikha, and when they saw Crusader 221-3’s destination, they gave her the same looks as Adetr and Rose.
Admiration for a common-sense idea. Which was this: Crusader 221-3 stared down at [The World of You and Me], the bound Skill which swirled in the center of the Chieftain’s Tent.
A simulation of Earth. A gateway to another world. And he…stepped into the barrier after Theikha asked if he was willing to try.
Before she even finished asking. The first Antinium walked into Earth. And nothing was ever the same.
Getting Erin Solstice out of the inn was harder than it used to be. Legs weren’t the only factor here.
Mrsha was going with Erin, of course, to the Mage’s Guild to see about this Antinium who’d been found. However, she was on the periphery of the work.
And it was work, for multiple reasons. Erin Solstice clearly wanted to just roll out the inn through her magic door and into the Mage’s Guild and do something.
Well, her magic door was still in Liscor. It was sending people across the continent, and bringing it back to the inn would have required re-doing the schedule last week. So they hadn’t. Plus, the traffic would have meant less security, and everyone agreed that Erin should be resting.
Everyone but Erin had agreed with that. However, even going into Liscor was harder, because Erin got halfway down the hallway before Lyonette insisted they stop.
“I need Dame Ushar and Ser Dalimont to join us, Erin. And are you sure you’re ready?”
“I don’t have to pee.”
Erin was mildly outraged, but Lyonette was looking her up and down. Numbtongue prodded Erin.
“Erin, you forgot your rings!”
Mrsha saw Erin’s face adopt a rather familiar look of annoyance; Mrsha had seen it in the mirror many times. But then Lyonette sent Mrsha herself scampering into Erin’s room to bring back a pair of rings.
“You should have them on all the time. Hedault even got you rings because you didn’t like the amulet.”
“Yeah, but I’m not a ring-person. I already have…had Ilvriss’ ring.”
Erin put them on, grumbling, and then saw two more Thronebearers appear.
“No. We’re gonna go in with them? Come on. Guys?”
No one had her back, not even Bird, who was pushing her. The Horns strolled ahead, but Erin had to have people with her. Lyonette did as a matter of course, but the Thronebearers had Erin under guard too.
“Miss Solstice, we will try to be as unobtrusive as possible.”
Ser Dalimont bowed with a look that said he knew how stupid a statement it was. Erin waggled her hands at them.
“Erin, it’s not that difficult.”
“Not that…they’re like giant lightbulbs. They’re shiny! I don’t want to go around with them. That’s so lame!”
The Thronebearers looked a bit hurt. Erin caught herself.
“Sorry, guys. That’s rude.”
“Not at all, Miss Solstice.”
Dame Ushar bowed. Erin corrected herself with a glint in her eyes.
“You’re just not as useful as Numbtongue would be. Or Bird.”
Got ‘em. She grinned around…but Mrsha just gave her a sad sigh and patted Erin’s arm. She scribbled as Erin’s face fell.
“You uncouth fool. The difference between a bodyguard and warrior exceeds the scope of my patience to inform you. Forsooth.”
She had a lot to learn, and the lessons of old were ingrained in everyone else. Erin was so flabbergasted by Mrsha’s retort that they got down the hill without much fuss. It was a straight shot from the inn to the gates, anyways.
“Hello! Any business today?”
The [Guard] knew Erin, of course, and they seemed relaxed. Lyonette assured one on duty all was well.
“We are simply headed to the, um, Mage’s Guild. Perhaps Liscor’s Council, even? There’s a situation in the Great Plains.”
She was a bit worried because they all sensed it. Mrsha was antsy.
This could be bad. An Antinium? He wasn’t harmed, apparently, but he was an Antinium far from home. Erin looked resolved, but to everyone’s surprise, the [Guard] just nodded.
“Liscor’s Council has already moved on the issue. We had orders to let Miss Solstice know they’re prepared for a brief meeting at her convenience. I believe Strategists Venaz and Wil also visited the guild, and, um, Strategos Olesm had a brief communication with Magus Grimalkin.”
“Huh? Wh…they did?”
The rest of the guard on the gates was watching Erin, but the [Innkeeper] was more surprised than anyone. In fact—as the party moved into the city, to Mrsha’s keen ears, one of the [Guards] could be heard whispering.
“Is that the Human? She’s not nearly as scary as everyone said. She’s shorter than I thought, too.”
Erin twitched a bit and frowned, but the [Guard] gave them no more trouble. Indeed…although citizens of Liscor noticed Erin, it was almost the procession that attracted more attention.
Four Thronebearers, a Doombearer, Gire the [Paragon], and a Gold-ranked team. All surrounding Erin. And when they reached the Mage’s Guild where Garia had been sent from with a copy of the [Message]…
Well, everything was sorted.
“Wait, what you do mean, sorted?”
“We’ll handle it. We’re requesting transport for the Antinium; the trick will be getting an escort or the Drake cities to hold off…doing anything. It’s very tricky, but I wish to be clear—we do not need Goblins…or Antinium…or anyone else sallying out there. In fact, I was going to ask if the Horns of Hammerad would accept a discounted escort request.”
Councilmember Lism steepled his claws and looked over the table as Erin Solstice stared around Liscor’s Council. Mrsha waved at Krshia and Elirr and got nods from them and Raekea. Erin Solstice opened her mouth, but Ceria got there first.
“Pass. That’s a long way to go there and back.”
“Understandable. The Tribes are also willing to discuss the issue. What we don’t need, Miss Solstice, is Antinium…disruption. Senior Guardsman Klbkch was very understanding on the issue. Pallass has also agreed to move their door to allow the Antinium to skip the Bloodfields trip, provided he makes it there. So. We’ll look into the trip back. It may be a matter of funding, but Strategos Olesm has expressed a desire to use any funds for a soldier of Liscor’s 2nd Army. And the Antinium have agreed to also fund any escort…”
It was all very relaxed. Stinky Lism didn’t even sneer, although Mrsha still didn’t like him. They had a plan, and they’d put it into action.
To help the Antinium Soldier get back. Erin hesitated.
“Yeah, but…what if he gets hurt? What if someone goes after him?”
“We will endeavor not to let that happen. Believe me, Miss Solstice, no one wants more bloodshed.”
Councilmember Jeiss replied. And it was true, but still Erin hesitated.
“But if we could be sure…”
“Miss Solstice. The most dangerous thing would be for a…Goblin riding a Wyvern to suddenly appear in the Great Plains. Wouldn’t you agree? We’re aware there’s a risk of kidnapping given the value of—”
Today was the day of kicks. Mrsha noticed these things because she was lower to the ground, so she saw Krshia stomp on Lism’s tail. He shut up, and Erin nodded rapidly.
“So there is a risk! I’ll, um…”
She looked at the Horns and around the room, and the Council rose to their feet.
“Miss Solstice, there’s no need. We will send you daily updates. On the hour, if need be, and I will let you know how the transport is arranged, and…we’ll put one of our [Clerks] on it. But please, I trust you’re recovering well?”
Lism spoke rapidly, and Erin hesitated.
“Um…I just need to do some muscle strengthening. You know, rest up the body. I can’t keep trying to regenerate with a potion. I got stabbed, apparently, and someone dropped me two hundred feet onto the ground. Sort of sucks.”
“Indeed. Well, I hope you will recover very soon. If we can help at all.”
“But about the Antinium—”
“Leave it to us, leave it to us. Best wishes, Miss Solstice, get well soon, and may I personally thank you on behalf of the Council for your valuable time—”
And before they knew it, they were standing in the hallway, and Erin had the most mystified look on her face. She opened her mouth and almost went to wheel herself back into the room, but then she gave up.
“Lyonette. They’re actually competent! What do I do?”
“Maybe…let them do their jobs, Erin? Isn’t it for the best?”
Erin Solstice looked around. Numbtongue leaned down and whispered to her.
“Don’t worry. If the Council is stupid, the Fellowship will go get him. We’ll take horses. Very smart.”
“I…the Fellowship will?”
“Or Strategist Perorn. The students of the Forgotten Wing Company will also ensure it. Chieftain Feshi is one of them.”
Gireulashia murmured. Erin Solstice hesitated, and Bird nodded importantly.
“They will make sure he gets back even if they must send an army. I will ensure it, Erin, do not worry. I have carried Niers in my hat and beaten him in chess. Therefore, I believe I occupy a rank somewhere under Commander Perorn. I will make the order if no one else does.”
And there it was. Mrsha didn’t even have to write her own note to her friends in the Meeting of Tribes. It was done and dusted. Erin had nothing to worry about. So please, please…Mrsha saw the Council peeking at them from the windows as they left City Hall, and she suspected a few [Guards] and onlookers were observing.
Please don’t do anything silly.
In a sense, the world didn’t need Erin Solstice as much as it used to. More people liked Antinium. More Antinium had voices and power. There were groups that were capable of making reasonable decisions without needing someone to push them. They had organization and competence.
What a frightening change to Liscor. It seemed even Erin realized that her best efforts might not be…helpful.
“I was just going to, like, ask if anyone wanted to escort him to Liscor. Some adventurers.”
“I’m sure that’s the first thing the Council asked, Erin.”
The [Innkeeper] was trying to think.
“Okay…then—then we’d ask for someone nearby that we knew to help. Like—who lives near there?”
“Weatherfur’s tribe? Any Gnoll tribe, Erin. The Forgotten Wing has a Centaur force; the Soldier will be safe along the Great Plains. Past that, he’ll need an escort.”
“So if we asked someone to—”
“Erin, I’m sure Liscor will take care of it.”
Mrsha glanced at Erin as the little Gnoll let Gireulashia carry her and saw Erin’s mystified look. Almost frustrated. Lyonette was cajoling her in that tone that was meant to be motherly and soothing and grated like only mollycoddling could.
“Why don’t we go to the [Healer] instead, Erin? We have to anyways, and we can always go early. Or…should we tour the new part of the city?”
Erin relented with a frown and sigh.
“Let’s go to the [Healer]. Not that everyone has to come with.”
They all did. At least, long enough to see Erin helped out of her chair and stretching her legs, working on her arm and leg muscles.
The issue was not, apparently, that General Sserys had done irreparable harm to Erin’s body when he’d possessed it. He had done a lot of harm and stupid things like getting an arm cut off, but the Potion of Regeneration was as powerful as could be.
The problem was more that he had made Erin’s body do things a Level 50+ [General] was capable of, forcing her to regrow limbs and fight a war after just being unfrozen. Erin was suffering the effects of that now.
She had been dead, so being as weak as a kitten was partly inevitable; her body had suffered from freezing and refreezing on a cellular level. Her muscles were shot, and her lungs were recovering. Part of her rehabilitation the [Healer] had come up with after much consultation with Grimalkin was to make Erin do simple leg lifts—or try.
“Mrsha, stop that!”
Mrsha was doing sit ups next to Erin as the young woman struggled, red-faced, to use a rope to haul herself up and down. Erin half-laughed as Mrsha stopped that and began practicing magic with Gireulashia.
Gnolls practicing magic in the open. Gire had a nose in a book, and the Silverfangs were debating how best to use the spellbook that Teriarch had given them. Speaking of which…
There were other people whom Erin had to meet or reconnect with. She was panting after an hour of exercise, but at last, the [Healer] said they were done for the day.
Erin let Lyonette push her out of the clinic, and Mrsha, who’d been napping on one of the tables, leapt up and sniffed the air. She raced outside as Erin wiped at her forehead, and then Mrsha pointed.
“Mrsha, don’t run off—oh! Look who it is!”
Lyonette’s warning turned into an exclamation of glad surprise. The two figures approaching were hardly rare sights, in Liscor historically but…Erin sat up in her wheelchair when she saw a duo on patrol. A Drake sauntering forwards next to a graceful Antinium.
A classic duo.
A smile burst across Erin’s face as she waved, and the two picked up their pace a moment. Everyone else might be cautious around her, but Mrsha saw Relc bound over and give her a one-armed hug.
“There’s my favorite Human! Wait, is that racist? It’s true, anyways! And here’s my…one, two, eight…ninth favorite Gnoll! Hey, kiddo!”
Mrsha punched his claw, and Relc grinned. She beamed up at him, and the Drake twirled his spear. This—this was familiar, and even Lyonette relaxed as Klbkch approached. The Thronebearers did not and surrounded Lyonette as Klbkch ignored Bird and Ksmvr.
“Erin. I informed Relc that you would be at the [Healer]’s for another hour. You have clearly moved up your schedule and thus I am not an ‘idiot who cannot tell the time’. Kindly inform Relc that rescheduling meetings is a practical and normal thing for people to do.”
“Not in the army! Klbkch is just mad he’s wrong. And that he’s not the only Antinium on duty, so everyone likes the new Antinium better.”
Klbkch paused, and Mrsha admired his new body. It looked…scary. Even Gire was a bit wary of him, but the Horns were at ease, arguing about whether or not Ksmvr needed the skin cream he’d been talked into buying and if they needed to demand a refund.
“Be nice, Relc!”
“Nice? I’m super nice! I’m just saying—Klbkch needs to be friendlier. He’s a decent guard—nothing on a [Trusted Sergeant of the Watch] of course, but his interpersonal skills? Let’s just say those new Workers and Soldiers get more smiles because they have paint and names. They’re adorable. Klbkch?”
The other Antinium folded his arms.
“I am an exemplar of my species—the only member of the Watch for a decade. My reputation is without question, Relc.”
“Yeah. Yeah. And Old Miss Tisheff gave that Antinium Worker her cookies and not you. That’s the real difference.”
“She did not. Did she? A [Guard] should not take presents anyways. But she always offers me…”
Relc patted Klbkch on the back. Mrsha patted him on the leg. The Antinium looked at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] laughed.
For once, she didn’t cough, and Relc and Klbkch smiled as they revealed how popular some of the new Antinium were.
“But Klbkch, I thought you had more duties! Not that I’ve been able to talk with anyone…is it such a big deal?”
Erin teased him. The Antinium Revalantor folded his arms harder and seemed to withdraw into himself.
“It is not at all. Why would you have that impression, Erin? I am a Senior Guardsman, and that is a rank that no Antinium can match.”
Relc’s huge grin could have been a mirror of Mrsha’s. Klbkch twitched—then he unsheathed one sword and swung it at Relc’s side.
It was so fast Mrsha recoiled only after she saw Relc had casually blocked it. The two [Guardsmen] stood there as Gire froze, an arm raised, and the Thronebearers and Horns whirled. But—Relc and Klbkch were grinning, one with teeth, the other with mandibles raised. Relc twirled his spear as Klbkch sheathed his sword.
“Ancestors, it is not fun practicing with you in the mornings, Klb.”
“It is not? Aside from Jeiss, I believe you are the only partner I can practice with. And vice versa.”
“But I have to work! True…it’s getting me back in shape.”
The [Spearmaster] and [Swordslayer] had a different relationship since both had come back to Liscor. If anything…it seemed better than before. Almost like they’d changed traits.
Relc was a bit more responsible. A bit. And he actually knew the law sometimes. Klbkch? He seemed…well. More ready to smile.
It was good to see, and while it might alarm everyone else not used to the two, Erin Solstice was beaming. A few Humans looked very disconcerted; it wasn’t everyday you saw two true masters of weapons on a Watch patrol.
But then, this was Liscor. And it seemed like they were about to get into it, that familiarity, when it happened again. Mrsha, beaming, heard Erin scolding the two.
“Don’t you two fight when I’m, like, a foot away! You could have cut my head off, Klbkch! And you, Relc! When did you get a spear?”
The pause in the air was interrupted by Relc’s laugh.
“You mean my new spear? It’s the same one, Erin! I gave the other one I took from that [Spearmaster], uh…what’s his name from Manus, to the Antinium. Hey, maybe I could sell it?”
He showed Erin his anti-magic spear, and she blinked at him.
“No. I don’t remember that. You don’t use a spear, Relc! You punch people! What’s this new Relc I’m seeing? Did you learn that at Cellidel too?”
The silence that fell next made Mrsha’s heart sink into her stomach. Everyone turned to Erin.
“Relc’s always had his spear, Erin. From the day we met. Do you mean his magical spear?”
Klbkch looked from Erin to Relc, and the [Innkeeper] shook her head.
“No way. I don’t remember that at all. He’s always used his fists, remember? Like when he fought…Skinner? And Pisces. And when he cut—no. But he probably used a knife or…? But he doesn’t use a spear!”
“He taught Embria how to use a spear.”
Klbkch reminded Erin again, and the [Innkeeper]’s brows drew together.
“He did. But he doesn’t have—wait. That makes no—but I don’t remember. You have a spear, Relc?”
She looked up, and Mrsha saw the most uncertain look on Relc’s face. He covered it with a grin and a laugh.
“Who knows, Erin? I have all kinds of stuff I forget. Like—underwear!”
Erin laughed, but Mrsha saw it. There was, for a moment, a brief look of fear on Relc’s face. She couldn’t read Klbkch the same way, but Erin looked around and—
There it was again. Erin kept talking.
“I don’t remember it. I really don’t. Not once. A spear? I don’t…”
She put a hand to her head, and Mrsha saw her eyes flicker. Something was gone. It seemed one way to the living, but that memory wasn’t just lost somewhere.
Something had eaten it in the lands of the dead. But Erin looked at Relc, and that strained smile reappeared.
“I guess I forgot a few things. So…you look pretty good with that spear.”
Relc traded a glance with Klbkch and nodded.
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess I do.”
She didn’t seem like the person who had been possessed by General Sserys. Nor someone that Khelt held in such high regard that Fetohep of Khelt knew her name. Nor someone whom Wall Lord Ilvriss had bought and sent a Potion of Regeneration for.
That she was damaged by her ordeal was clear, but the…watchers…didn’t see anything to alarm their employers overmuch.
Oh, friendship with the Antinium and Goblins? Maybe, but they were well past that. There were new lands, prophecies from ghosts, and far more to worry upon.
For instance, the Antinium Soldier was a topic of discussion. No matter how Liscor’s Council had downplayed it to Erin, the truth was that the discovery of a survivor had planted a thought in many concerned powers.
It was common knowledge that Antinium did not break under torture or questioning. There was no point. But those were the Antinium of the past with no levels or anything to learn from.
This was one of the ones that General Sserys had apparently called from the front, the ones that had fought Hectval, and this was a Free Antinium. Acquiring one might be worth the effort.
There were other things to do like investigate the new lands, but the world was actually somewhat silent at the moment.
No one was doing much more than preparing. The worst had happened. Now, people checked the walls and counted soldiers and thought of what came next, and everyone was uncertain, but it meant that the Antinium’s fate was a flashpoint.
The Gnolls had him in custody, and he may well be a guest. But there were a lot of miles between there and Pallass, let alone Liscor. Then again, he had no voice. How valuable was he? They debated and left the [Innkeeper] alone. No matter her level now, she was not General Sserys. She had been inhabited by fire and wrath and the spirits of the dead.
Now she was just some [Innkeeper]. The truly interesting person was the Soldier. Especially because he was changing. The wisdom of Shaman Theikha had done what even an Antinium Queen would struggle to do.
She had given him…a voice.
This was the story of a man named…Edmund.
Edmund worked for a company in a big building where he was Employee #17. Perhaps they didn’t have numbers, but he’d counted.
Employee #17’s job was simple: he sat at his desk in Cubicle 3E and pushed buttons on a keyboard.
Presumably, he would do that all day and follow each order he was given, receiving recompense for it, but Edmund did not do that this day. One day, Edmund sat up at his desk, looked at the computer screen, and freaked out.
The first thing he did was scream. Then realize he had two hands. Then his coworkers came over. Then Edmund realized he had a voice.
Of course, ‘Edmund’ was Crusader 221-3. And he lost his job, mostly because screaming incoherently while fending off half the office with a clipboard was grounds for termination. But that was for the best, because when security threw him out of the building, Edmund was on Earth. And he realized what a beautiful Skill it was.
Perhaps for one species to see another in an unbiased way. Perhaps to show technology or foster relations between worlds.
But for an Antinium? Crusader 221-3 looked around in a world where no one wanted to kill him, no one was angry at him—unless he began to take off his clothes or walk in front of cars—and where he could do things he had always dreamed of.
Like walk up to a person in an apron, hand over a bunch of bills, then insert them into the jar of ‘tips’ and get a huge smile, and eat an éclair and have a coffee. Of course, people looked at him askance for the way he ate it—inserting the entire éclair into his mouth and nearly choking to death—but no one killed him for it.
Then Crusader 221-3 stumbled into the street and stared up at the skyscraper. He chased after pigeons. And he learned what laughing and crying was.
This is the story of Crusader 221-3. And when Satar Silverfang, Adetr, Rose, and Theikha found him—mostly by following the disturbances in the simulation—they found a man on a swing being given the side-eye by some concerned parents, just staring up at the city in the park with a lot of chocolate around his mouth.
And when he did speak, Crusader 221-3 said this:
“I…I would like a name.”
The Gnolls and Human looked at him in shock and awe, and in time he did choose one.
It was not Edmund.
Erin Solstice dreamt that night. She dreamt of a game of chess against a woman with three faces. She dreamt of a sad [Necromancer], a burning [Lady], and a land of sand and pride. She dreamt of horror and faces, thousands, who whispered to her their stories.
She dreamt of friends and a great cause and a smiling little man. And in that dream, she was helpless but also resolved.
…And then she woke up. Erin Solstice woke in the middle of the night, gasping, crying out, in pain—
Because she’d forgotten to breathe, again. Because her lungs hadn’t been working for months and the soul inside this body had forgotten that you needed to breathe to live.
Choking, gasping for air, Erin tried to stand up, but her body hurt. It felt…as weak as a feather and pulled, like someone had taken elastic and stretched it until it would never recover.
That was one thing. The worst? The worst was that as she caught her breath, she saw a pair of glowing eyes staring at her from a dark garden’s door cracked open against one wall. She looked up and saw two red eyes—terrifying to some, but to her, just Numbtongue, peeking in next to Lyonette. The shirtless Goblin stood next to the anxious [Princess], and when they jerked back and Erin turned her head, she saw Pisces peering at her from her window.
“I’m not dead!‘
Erin shouted at them, and they fled. But could she blame them? Erin felt at her chest and coughed again.
No. Not really. It was just…frustrating. Erin Solstice lay on her back in the inn. And nothing was the same.
She knew how protective everyone was of her. Erin wasn’t stupid…and she had the distinct memory of someone with a pointed hat disagreeing. But the memory was half-there. Half…
Tears sprang to Erin’s eyes, and she rubbed at them weakly. She was as weak as a mouse. Mrsha could beat her in wrestling, and she had—until she looked so uneasy that she backed away and apologized.
With words. She had a speaking…stone thing. She had always been able to write, but now she had speech! And a friend! The giant Gireulashia was Mrsha’s best friend, and Mrsha had been declared a Doombearer.
A luck-Gnoll. Of course, Erin knew that Doombearers were the inheritors of fate and luck. Gnolls who lost their tribes sometimes received a blessing or curse, but the power of Doombearers was traditional among the Gnoll tribes.
Everyone knew that…didn’t they? Or had someone told Erin that?
That was the Archmage who had appeared amongst the dead and split Izril. Erin Solstice felt like she knew the name very well, but she’d probably heard it when they caught her up on the news. Why did it feel like she knew more than that?
She had been dead, and she had met people there. It was not all clear; she was still processing it, like someone trying to sieve an ocean through a small funnel. It would come, but it was so frustrating.
Her body was…ruined.
“Thanks, Sserys. Couldn’t you have not…gotten my arm cut off or something? Or, like, left me with super-abs? I thought you were a great [General].”
Erin tossed and turned in bed, but even that made her tired. She knew she should try and work out her arms and legs, but it was so much effort. She had never known how hard it was just to…raise one leg.
It was scary. But the scariest part had been that morning when she saw Relc’s face. When she realized she’d…forgotten he had a spear. She was utterly convinced he never had one, but everyone else thought differently.
Reality is not real. Why did that put a chill down her spine? Erin tossed around in her bed until she realized what she was doing.
It took her nearly twelve minutes to get to her wheelchair next to her bed and pull herself over to the table, but she sat at it and moved a glowing piece in the night. It was dark, and she thought she wouldn’t get a response—so she was setting up another board when the piece moved.
Without a second’s hesitation, Erin began to play. Quickly, running through familiar tactics, pressing her opponent hard. He—and it was a he—had tried to write something on the Go board, but Erin just set that up and began to play.
She went after her ‘mysterious opponent’ like a fireball. He wasn’t prepared for the onslaught and gave her a game, but rallied to a draw in the second one. Since he didn’t know Go as well as she did, she took another win there.
Three games became five, then six. Then Erin realized she’d been playing for two hours and called it a night. Her opponent signed off with a ‘gt wll sn.’
She didn’t know what to say back to him. She just wrote ‘tnks’ on the chessboard. That was familiar, but it wasn’t what reassured her.
I lost one game. It was hard. I’m not…trapped.
Erin Solstice breathed out again and was reassured. She vaguely remembered why. She remembered an ominous presence, a conversation…and yes, a name.
But she refused to speak it. The young woman wheeled herself back to her bed and lay down once more.
She forgot nothing. The scope of what she had seen and done might be too much for a mortal mind, but the quests burned in her head. The promises.
If she thought of it, she would weep. If she thought of it, she burned to stand up, and—Erin gritted her teeth.
She tried to get up. She tried to summon a sword or an umbrella and prop herself up. She clung to the memories of glorious ghosts and pushed herself out of her bed.
It was Lyonette who found Erin crawling on the floor, trying to push herself up. The [Princess] saw the [Innkeeper] staring up at her.
“Erin? Ushar, Ushar—”
They got her back to bed. Erin didn’t explain. She didn’t think she needed to. She knew her frustration had to be on her face. She just wished they weren’t so…hesitant.
All my fault. I never should have gone for a walk.
Erin remembered dying. She remembered the surprise, the fear…she shuddered and remembered their faces.
Never again. But that went double for everything. She had woken up, but she was not the same Erin Solstice who had gone to sleep. She couldn’t…
She couldn’t do this. Not anymore. Erin Solstice lay there.
“I just woke up, and I’m already tired. But I have to…”
She tried to move limbs of lead and growled. The inn groaned uneasily in the night, and Erin Solstice whispered.
In the morning, it was no better. Oh, Erin had things to distract herself with, but she…
She couldn’t talk to them.
Not Mrsha, nor Lyonette, nor Ceria. Erin hadn’t even tried at first, just hugged them and listened to all that had passed since she had died. She hadn’t even heard the whole story, she knew. Pisces hadn’t told her much, but somehow…
Somehow she knew his story. And a name appeared in her mind.
She knew their faces. Yet nine days had passed, and at first, Erin had slept most of the days, as if she had the sleeping sickness, mono. That was her recovering from fighting a war, and it went double for everyone else. Now…
Well, the poor Soldier who needed to get to Liscor was one thing, and Erin knew it wouldn’t be easy. She wanted to help—but Lyonette was right that Erin wasn’t the most organized.
She was wrong in that Erin could do nothing anyone else could. Erin could now post quests, and she was figuring that out. But she knew something else.
Or did she? Because the [Innkeeper] was doubting it, in part. She felt—well, like the opposite of déjà-vu constantly. As if, when Mrsha told her with Gire and Krshia’s help, the truth of Doombearers and Plains Eye’s treachery—as if she had already known that.
Which was silly. Or was it? Why did Erin know…
The quests. She knew. But she was having trouble convincing anyone else. Erin experienced it that very morning over a quiet breakfast.
Mrsha had gone to eat with Gire at the Drunken Gnoll. That was where Imani was working; she’d come back to help fill The Wandering Inn with food, but she had another job, and Erin didn’t know if she’d come to work here again.
For that matter—Ishkr was handling the light traffic and he’d pulled his sister back to work, but even Silveran wasn’t back yet.
“Where’s Silveran? Is he…okay?”
Erin was afraid of the answer, but Lyonette just gave her a strange look and slapped her forehead.
“He’s running Silveran’s Cleaners. I don’t think he can work, Erin. Nor can we pay him enough.”
That was the experience Erin had. Every two seconds, every single person was somewhere else. Changed, doing something. For instance, when she asked about good old Menolit, who surely wouldn’t change, Ishkr told her about Liscor Hunted, the popular tourist trap…literally, if you fell into a Shield Spider nest.
She’d thought he was pulling her leg and refused to believe him until he showed her a t-shirt that said ‘I Survived Liscor Hunted’. And combining that with her Relc spear moment…well, it was that kind of thing that made Erin doubt reality.
And the morning’s incident didn’t help either. Erin was eating with Ceria; she’d woken up late after her nocturnal antics, so the sleepy half-Elf was munching on a plate of fries.
Fries for breakfast. Covered with relish and sour cream.
Some things didn’t change. Well, the food did and it was horrifying, but that was Ceria for you. Erin poked her friend in the arm.
“Is, um, your breakfast good?”
Erin nodded a few times and took a bite of cereal. She hesitated and glanced at the missive she’d gotten from Liscor’s Council. They had updated her, as promised, and they were going to escort the Soldier back to Liscor.
Crusader 221-3 was his designation according to Strategos Olesm. But Shaman Theikha, through Chieftain Feshi, had listed a different name:
Antherr Twotwentyonethree Herodotus. And that…that was a name. Gnollish, Antinium—because if you could have a middle name, that was 50% more name, and one based on the history of Earth and Persia.
Not that Erin knew that last part. It was a cool name, but she was worried about him. Yet something tugged at her heart, her very mind, and she had to say it. Erin glanced around the inn, still absent of regular visitors, and spoke.
“Ceria. Do you…can we talk about Gerial?”
The half-Elf stopped eating abruptly and looked up. She gazed at Erin with a pained, even afraid expression.
“Gerial? My teammate?”
“Yes, of course. I remember him.”
“I—good. What—what about Gerial? Do you mean his family? Or…?”
Erin was regretting bringing it up already, yet something in her was telling her to.
“His last words.”
“I remember them.”
Ceria spoke flatly, but her grip was tight on a fry. She looked at Erin.
“I—what about him?”
“No, not those last words. I mean…I know…what he would have said to you, Ceria. I remember his last words.”
Erin blinked with almost as much astonishment as her friend as they came out. Yet she was certain.
Yet when she looked up, Ceria was shaking her head. Her features were wan, and there was pain in her gaze as she pushed her plate back.
“Erin, you weren’t there. He died in the crypt, remember? I was there. I heard him. He talked to you at the inn.”
“No, Ceria, I talked to him. He had a message for you and Calruz.”
The half-Elf hesitated. She stood up.
“He—I’m sure he did. But you weren’t there when he died, Erin. Sorry, can we discuss this later? I actually do have to go and…”
“I—yes. But it’s not that, Ceria. I met him.”
The half-Elf was already backing away. Erin had seen Ceria unruffled in far more trying circumstances, but she seemed pained and nervous. Afraid Erin was forgetting what happened. What mattered. Erin tried to push herself up.
“I know what you think, Erin. But just give me a moment. I’ll hear you out later.”
“Ceria. I saw him in the lands of the dead.”
The half-Elf froze on her way towards the door. She looked back at Erin, and the young woman sagged on the table, panting just trying to keep herself upright. Ishkr froze as he swept behind a table, and a [Knight], Ser Dalimont, paused on his walk around the inn. All three looked at Erin, but Ceria just hesitated. Her pale eyes lingered on Erin’s face and looked her up and down.
She had known Erin the longest among all of the [Innkeeper]’s friends. And yet—even the half-Elf hesitated. Was she afraid of it being true or…?
“I’m…not doubting you, Erin. But can you prove that? Because if you can’t—no offense, but I don’t—I don’t want to hear it. Sorry.”
She backed up and almost ran from the inn. Erin collapsed into her chair, panting. And there it was.
She believed. But like the most vivid of dreams, like Relc’s spear…how could she prove it? Erin clenched a fist and wanted to run after Ceria and apologize.
It had slipped out. A terrible compulsion. Like how she wanted to shout and find a—a—
“Nanette? And—and—find—a map…”
The needs and things she had to do pressed on her again. Erin put her hands to her head. But how could she prove…?
“Miss Solstice, is everything well?”
Ser Dalimont approached with a cool glass of water. Erin looked up at a man…whom she had never really met. One of Lyonette’s [Knights]. And he was going to be a problem, but no one wanted to talk with Erin about it.
Lyonette would ‘deal with it’. Erin needed to rest. They had it covered.
But that was the last thing the [Innkeeper] wanted. Erin squinted at Ser Dalimont as she sipped the water.
“Sorry. I—that was the wrong way to do it.”
“Perhaps, Miss Solstice.”
This particular Thronebearer was refreshing in that he didn’t lie. Erin blinked, but then smiled a bit. She invited Dalimont to sit.
“I—I’m not sure what’s real. You heard that?”
“Yes, Miss Solstice. Did the dead speak to you?”
She squinted at him, but the man didn’t smile or smirk.
“Do you believe that?”
Ser Dalimont rubbed at his chin.
“Shall we say, Miss Solstice, that I don’t doubt the dead can do anything? I have seen ghosts.”
“Everyone has, apparently.”
“Mm. Before the incident at the Great Plains as well.”
Erin was fascinated, and Ser Dalimont hesitated longer.
“It is not my tale to tell, but I may say that it concerns Calanfer, another [Princess], and the Kingdom of Shade, Noelictus. That ghosts can walk amongst the living is a fact. If you were dead and they spoke to you—that does not beggar belief.”
“No. But Ceria’s right. If I can’t prove it…”
“Can you prove it, Miss Solstice?”
Ser Dalimont was watching her. The [Innkeeper] sat there, thinking for a moment. And her eyes flickered. When she looked up, the [Knight] was surprised not by the doubt, but the uncertainty. Instead of questioning herself, Erin looked at Dalimont and scared him greatly.
“If I can prove it, Ser Dalimont…should I?”
She didn’t wait for a response. Erin Solstice wheeled herself back from the table. She looked at Dalimont and then around at the inn.
“They won’t believe me, otherwise. And I didn’t come back to sit around.”
She began to roll towards the [Garden of Sanctuary] that opened for her. Dalimont didn’t know what to say, but the generic Gnoll sweeping behind a table called out anxiously.
Ishkr. He met Erin’s gaze, stolid, unnoticed at times, an ordinary [Head Server] in the craziest inn. Which made him unordinary in the extreme.
“Just for two weeks, Miss Solstice? It’s only been ten days.”
[Thought-Provoking Statement]. A Skill for a [Hero] of common sense. For a reply, Erin just turned. She smiled at Ishkr and looked around the inn.
“…It’s so quiet. And no one will tell me what they really went through. They treat me like glass, and I gotta admit I’m in a wheelchair. But I need to hear them. And they need to listen to me. It’s been how long, Ishkr?”
“Around four months, Miss Solstice.”
The Gnoll calmly swabbed a table with a dustrag as Dalimont looked from Ishkr to Erin. Dalimont had a prickling feeling, as if he were listening to a [General] addressing a veteran officer in the moments before the battle joined.
Erin sighed. She looked at herself and at the quiet inn. Then she stuck out her tongue.
“Bleh. Was it boring?”
Ishkr looked up, and Erin Solstice looked at him. And the Gnoll…bared his teeth slightly.
“Exceedingly, Miss Erin.”
She nodded and smiled ruefully.
“That’s what I get for being dead. Better check the pantries for plates and food and stuff, Ishkr. Oh…and don’t tell Lyonette I’m going outside.”
Dalimont strode forwards, but Erin was already zooming through the Garden of Sanctuary’s door, and he lost her for that crucial second. Dalimont turned and heard a laugh from the hallway where the front door was. He looked back as Ishkr chuckled, and he saw the Gnoll smiling.
Lyonette du Marquin had briefed Dalimont on Erin and what they might expect as he was the most sensible [Knight] in the inn. But even she hadn’t expected this. They thought Erin Solstice would come back from the grave a changed woman, and certainly she was. But what they failed to realize was that she’d had four months of inactivity. Of being a guest to terrible and great deeds.
Four months of rest. She had no time, no time at all to waste.
Prove it? Erin thoughtfully wheeled out the door as Ser Dalimont ran after her. She closed it, and he slammed into the door. Despite her not locking it, he was unable to open the door.
“[Innkeepers] can control their inn. I think that Drevish, the Architect, told me that. But what do I know? I guess we’ll find out in a sec. Don’t worry. I’ve got the stupid rings on. I’ll be back in a moment.”
He was lost for words. Erin Solstice slowly wheeled herself across the grass, cursing the increased friction. But she didn’t have to go far, and she sighed as she stared at the city of Liscor.
Prove it. Everything that happened after this would depend on that, wouldn’t it? Because she had something to ask of them. More than any one person should. Ceria wasn’t wrong.
Slowly, Erin Solstice pushed herself to the lip of the hill, where the incline began. She hesitated—and then wheeled herself down the hill. Slowly, the wheelchair began to speed up, and Erin realized she’d made a mistake.
“Uh oh. Someone always helped me d—waitasecondI’mgoingtoofast! Argh!”
She couldn’t grab the spinning wheels. That was how the Watch saw a screaming [Innkeeper] going down the hill towards the eastern gates. Bird stared down from his tower at Erin as she blurred down the hill and then hit a bump.
“Ooh. Ah. Ouch.”
He looked down at the sprawled figure on the grass as a [Guard] ran over to her. But Bird felt it. Slowly, carefully, he inserted an egg between his mandibles and crunched on it.
“Erin is back. Yay, yay. I wonder what will explode first?”
The [Guardsman] on duty was a Drake on the force, five years experience, no Senior Guardsman, but he’d seen all the big action.
His name was Vamolt, and he knew.
They all knew. The eastern wall had seen the [Innkeeper] leaving her inn, unattended. True, she could have been going for a little roll, but everyone was super protective of her. That she then went down the hill and wiped out?
They knew. But like men and women staring down at the pebbles of dirt careening down the slope, they thought it might not be an avalanche.
The little clod of dirt spun and bounced. The [Innkeeper] was swearing as she levered herself up.
“Miss Solstice? Can I help…?”
“That was scary! Who does that for fun? Actually…I could do that again. But not if I crash! Hey, thanks, who are you?”
“Guardsman Vamolt, Miss Solstice. Can I help you back to your inn?”
Vamolt saw Erin Solstice smile as he helped her into her chair and brushed grass and dirt off her arms. She shook her head.
“Nah, I’m just…going into the city for a bit. The Adventurer’s Guild. I’ll pop in and out, don’t worry.”
She gave him a quick grin, and he gave her a sickly salute and smile. She wheeled past him, muttering about getting a wheelchair with brakes. And he knew.
The [Guards] on the eastern wall had watched her wheel past. They waved him over, and he almost ran towards his coworkers. A Gnoll hissed at him. A pair of Humans were staring at Erin, looking amused and uncomprehending. New hires. Oh, they were from Celum and a village respectively, but they didn’t know.
“Did you see that smile? Your Ancestors, it’s happening.”
“I know. Did the Watch Sergeant see?”
One of the two Humans looked at the Gnoll and Drake whispering.
“Uh, Vamolt, Senior Guardsman Derra, what’s wrong? That’s the [Innkeeper], right? She didn’t cause trouble yesterday.”
“Yeah. But she’s smiling. Watch Sergeant—”
The Watch Sergeant on the walls came hurrying down.
“I saw it. I’ve sent a [Message] to Watch Captain Zevara already. Are you two sure? I’m sure.”
The two Humans looked from the Drakes and Gnolls with growing apprehension. Vamolt shuddered.
“It’s the smile. No chance yesterday with the [Princess] and the escort.”
“Shush, newbies. Catch up on common knowledge. This is crucial. We’re all in agreement, then?”
The [Guards] nodded. The Watch Sergeant closed her eyes and then nodded.
“Alright. I’m confirming with Zevara, and I’ll send a copy of the [Message] to the Council. The betting pool wins—ten days! Did she say where she was going?”
“Um…Adventurer’s Guild. A ‘little errand’.”
“Dead gods have mercy on them.”
Erin Solstice didn’t really notice the quiet movement in the streets as she wheeled around. She was worriedly looking for Lyonette or another snitch, so she missed the actual people stalking her.
“Patrol 1 is in place, Watch Captain. Solstice Contingency active.”
Watch Captain Zevara didn’t see Erin, but she was already striding to the location.
“She’s on track to the Adventurer’s Guild?”
“Advise them to clear out now. Anyone who wants to stay—can. Where are Guardsmen Klbkch and Relc?”
“Relc’s asleep. We’re getting him out of his apartment, and Guardsman Klbkch said that he’ll be on the surface in five.”
“Good, good. [Message] to Lyonette du Marquin?”
“She’s on her way.”
Watch Captain Zevara nodded to herself. You could play this multiple ways. Lyonette du Marquin might be able to defuse the situation, but in Zevara’s experience, Lyonette couldn’t always trump Erin.
There had been some discussion internally about the issue, and Jeiss had suggested they do something stupid like try and stop the next event. Which was foolish; it was like trying to cover a bursting dam. If you stopped her in one spot, she just caused havoc somewhere else. You contained the event.
Now, any other Watch Captain would have probably laughed their tail off at Zevara or called this some kind of satire. They would keep laughing until they realized that Zevara was not exaggerating. She was taking the relaxed approach, trusting Erin.
That was the mistake [Spies] made. They said ‘yes, she is probably a Level 40+ [Innkeeper]. She is almost definitely responsible for many of the tales coming out of Liscor, and General Sserys may have possessed her. It stands to reason that half the rumors about her are true’.
And that was their error. They thought it was half. Now, Zevara knew that Erin Solstice could not always work miracles. She had seen Erin die, after all, and knew she was not infallible.
However…Erin Solstice had come back from the dead. She had somehow, somehow been part of the greatest events in world history, and now she was heading into Liscor with all the hallmarks of a Solstice Event™. Even in Zevara’s most optimistic opinion—
She didn’t think this was going to be small at all. And to be honest? The Watch Captain was all here for it, although she would deny that to her dying day.
But what would this one be? The Watch had bets, and that was the thing. They knew she could do it. Not what…but Erin Solstice had come back from the lands of the dead.
It was interesting. So interesting that Watch Captain Zevara had to intercede herself before Erin got to the Adventurer’s Guild.
“Miss Solstice. Good morning.”
“I didn’t do anything y—oh, hi, Watch Captain Zevara.”
The young woman jumped guiltily in her wheelchair and looked back at Zevara with a terrible fake smile. Or was she as cunning as Mister Soot had been?
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Miss Solstice. I just wanted to greet you. I hope you’re feeling better after…everything?”
Zevara met Erin’s eyes and looked the young woman up and down. She did see the wheelchair, with two of Solar Cycles’ wheels, and the way Erin was already tired from this trip. She looked frailer, but she smiled as she drew in some air, coughed, and nodded.
“I’m—good. I mean, I was dead. But I’m gonna get better with time. I’m just…going to the Adventurer’s Guild to put up a q—a notice.”
“Of course. Good day to you.”
Zevara gave Erin a crisp salute and saw those hazel eyes glance at her. Erin Solstice turned to go, and Zevara was sure.
What a strange thing. Lyonette had come to her office just the other day for their get-togethers, which had resumed once the [Princess] came back to the city, and she’d talked Zevara’s earholes off about how difficult it was and how frail Erin looked.
Which was true. Zevara had seen [Guards] laid up after wounds that had Erin’s pallor. But those eyes.
She’d brought something back from the lands of the dead after all. Zevara hadn’t missed the rolls of parchment Erin was trying to hide on her lap. And Erin?
She glanced back mischievously, and the Watch Captain realized she might have lost that exchange. Because the [Innkeeper] winked as she rolled away.
“Innocent until I do something bad, right?”
Uh oh. Zevara kept her polite smile, and her claw waved urgently at the [Guard] patrol with her. This might be bigger than she thought.
Watch Captain Zevara was sure. Everyone else was less so.
In fact, Timbor Parithad, the owner of The Drunken Gnoll, a new inn in Liscor that did some really fine business with the Human and Gnoll populations now overturning the huge Drake majority—he was certain that Erin Solstice was made of glass.
At least, that was how the people in his inn talked about her. The Wandering Inn was, as mentioned, empty. Even Erin’s friends treated it like a sanctuary for the wounded [Innkeeper].
Which meant they came to his inn while they kept away. It was inevitable; Imani was working here, so Palt and his acquaintances would prefer it over another inn. Timbor liked to think he ran a nice inn, with fast food on your table and always a clean seat, even in the rush hours. But the truth was that Imani was now a huge lure because she was an excellent [Chef].
He was worried he’d lose her, because she was from The Wandering Inn, and Timbor was making his peace with that and planning for the future. However, in the interim, he had the dubious pleasure of hosting Erin’s regulars.
And they were weird.
For instance, not only did Timbor have Goblins in his inn, he had a number of adventurers and even celebrities like Joseph who wandered in and out. In fact, they spent an inordinate amount of time here.
Staying away from Erin. Timbor happened to overhear them as he put some baked potatoes down as snacks.
“…Did she fall out of bed as well as stop breathing?”
“No, that was something else. I don’t know, man. She’s going to get better, right?”
Kevin and Joseph barely looked up as the [Innkeeper] surreptitiously cleaned a table. They did go for the food, mainly because if they didn’t it would soon vanish. They lost a loaded baked potato anyways—a shadowy hand grabbed it, and two red eyes glowed beneath a canopy of darkness.
Gothica sat with Kevin, Joseph, and a somewhat perplexed Inkar at the table. The [Goth] had a parasol that seemed to make everything under it darker. Combined with charcoal eyeliner and a black dress, she was turning heads whenever someone unfamiliar with her walked into the room.
Goblins. Timbor had no sign that said ‘No Killing Goblins’. They weren’t allowed in the city…but there were a number of Goblins that came and went. Unlike Erin, he had a method, which was that a [Server] at the door would grab anyone about to scream for the Watch and give them the rundown. Then about sixty percent of the customers would sit down and stare at the Goblin, and that was free business.
Timbor had calculated that the optimal ratio of non-Goblins to Goblins was about 9:1. Any more Goblins or Hobs and people were more likely to back away.
At any rate, this was an encounter of people who knew Erin, if only by name, but weren’t at The Wandering Inn. Why? Well…
Joseph hesitated as he dug a fork into his potato.
“We could go up and check.”
“I dunno. Lyonette gave me a death-glare last time I was talking about Solar Cycles. I have a, um…well, I want to talk with her about a lot. Rags is still around, or maybe she’s going back from here to G…to her place. But yeah. There’s so much I want to say, but that’s a lot to put on her.”
Kevin shrugged self-consciously. He lowered his voice, but Timbor had ears like a hawk when it came to gossip.
“Well, there’s this thing with the Goblins after they kidnapped the Healer of Tenbault. And, uh, now we’re a bike shop, everything’s great, but I had Grimalkin walk in two weeks ago with a list telling me there would be five hundred and fifty-six deaths in Pallass each year unless I stopped selling skateboards. Because of the ramps and people hitting each other. So I was just going to ask what Erin thought of that. What do you think, Joseph?”
The [World-Renowned Coach] of Pallass and Liscor’s soccer teams, who was embroiled in an inter-city rivalry himself and trying to weigh the ethics and challenges of establishing a soccer league without too much bias…hesitated.
“Fuck, I don’t know.”
Timbor slipped on his table. What did Kevin just say? They were the ones who…? Kevin nodded and looked around.
“What about you, Inkar?”
The young woman jumped and looked for Tkrn, but he’d gone to the lavatory and hadn’t come back. She spoke nervously.
“I haven’t truly met Erin. I would like to. I…don’t know about football. Or Goblins.”
And that was a perfectly reasonable response. When most people, Timbor included, were asked what their opinions were on the ethics of skateboarding, they might give their opinion, but not if they were going to be held responsible for anything that came next, thank-you-very-much. That was a terrifying thing.
As for Kevin’s other issue, it was also a rare person who made a habit of looking up at Sinew Magus Grimalkin and telling six feet and hundreds of pounds of pure muscle ‘no’ as a hobby.
Gothica kept eating as she listened to the Humans talk. She hadn’t met Erin either—not as Gothica. And she wanted to. But it was hard to get time with Erin, and these were not easy things to talk about.
Like the Horns of Hammerad, who’d decided to base themselves in Timbor’s inn. Ceria had found Pisces, Ksmvr, and Yvlon having a sedate conversation about the new lands of Izril.
“So, some people are suggesting as much as a third of Izril has been added. But in a wedge, so it’s shifted Zeres here. If we’re redrawing the maps based on what the [Cartographers] think…”
Yvlon was trying to work out what had happened to the world with Pisces and Ksmvr. The [Necromancer] objected instantly.
“Yvlon. Yvlon, surely that also implies the northern section swung up?”
“What, the entire continent? Don’t be ridiculous, Pisces. The crack is here, and there’s this landmass here…”
Yvlon was doodling on a piece of parchment with some charcoal, trying to figure out what the continent might look like. Pisces tried to redraw the north.
“Why not? The ghosts split a continent—they might have well shifted everything up or even changed Izril’s angle. We can agree that there is land roughly here and here.”
He made two ovals demarcating where people were assuming the furthest reaches of the ‘new lands’ were. Images were actually scarce, but people had seen the cliffs of this new part of Izril from sea and Chandrar. Yvlon growled at him as he erased her markings. Ksmvr stared down at the map.
“The new part of Izril looks much like a buttocks.”
Ceria’s drink came out her nose as she broke her silence. Pisces and Yvlon stared down at the map, and Pisces erased the outlines.
“How would you know, Comrade Pisces? A buttocks is a reasonable image of comparison. It is a natural image. I observe you have one, and Yvlon, and Captain Ceria.”
The [Silversteel Armsmistress] pinched the bridge of her nose.
“…Izril does not have a buttocks now, Ksmvr. I refuse to…my continent does not—it’s a sketch. But we do know that Zeres is off from its original location. Silver and steel, there’s so much to explore!”
“Only a bit of a continent.”
Yvlon looked outraged. She stabbed a metal finger into the table, and Timbor winced as he saw her gouge a divot out of the wood. The Horns instantly tried to play it cool, and he pretended not to see.
He’d add it to their tab. Yvlon went on irately.
“Only a bit of a continent? That’s thousands of miles! New land never seen! And also—the Dyed Lands are completely changed. They’ve overwhelmed their old area, and they’re expanding. I can’t even imagine what the adventurers in the area are doing.”
“Forget them. Armies are forming a containment zone.”
Ceria pointed out—the Dyed Lands were a Baleros problem, but they were as captivating as everything else. A piece of Baleros had sped up centuries, and unfortunately, it had been the most magically charged area. Yvlon shook her head again.
“Ah, but it’ll be adventurers who go in, Ceria. It…I wonder how much that’s worth? Some people said they found a dungeon from the people who lived there, but it’s mostly just the Dyed Lands itself. Is that worth risking your life for?”
She glanced at Ceria, and the half-Elf chewed over the thought.
“Depends on the reagents. I remember when I was a child, I heard something about a rare alchemical reagent being found and adventurers hunting the animal for its hair. Some kind of elk? There has to be at least one valuable monster or thing in the Dyed Lands. You can make a fortune if you bring back the next Sage’s Grass.”
The adventurers nodded. It wasn’t a relic-class item, but that was another kind of way you became a legendary success. Ksmvr clicked his mandibles, making notes of all this, and then looked up brightly.
“So, are we to go to the new lands of Izril or the Dyed Lands? It seems this would be the moment to go as everyone else is in the same horrible boat on water to use an expression. This is a competition to explore.”
The Horn’s light chat cut off. Pisces shifted, and his eyes, fixed on the map, suddenly rose, troubled. Ceria chewed on a bit of potato, scratching at her head, but she was mainly looking at…
Pisces. And Yvlon herself looked troubled. Ksmvr gazed at Izril’s map and then further down at the tip of Chandrar outlined there.
What the Horns did talk about was what most people were talking about in Timbor’s inn. The new world, the events of the Gnoll tribes. What they didn’t say was so heavy that Timbor sometimes walked into it, like a cloud.
They too were waiting for a word. And if anyone deserved a word with Erin Solstice, it was surely them. But they were letting her rest. Timbor went back to work, but he felt a tingling on the back of his neck. He felt like something was up today, but he couldn’t say why. Not yet.
They were all being considerate of her. Which Erin Solstice respected. They thought she was tired, and they were all probably exhausted by what they’d done for her.
She bore that in mind. She’d been thinking hard. About this Crusader 221-3 or…Antherr Twotwentyonethree Herodotus. She wanted to meet him.
But what could she, Erin, do? She didn’t know any adventurers in the Great Plains personally, and people were going to arrange transport and protection.
Lyonette made a good point that Erin was not herself more organized or capable of helping than Liscor’s Council, the Gnolls, or the Forgotten Wing company.
She had been the [Innkeeper] like that. The [Innkeeper] with friends, and her reach was her friends, some of whom were very important. But that was all. Erin had thought that was all she needed.
“Well, I guess I’m wrong. That’s egg on my face and crossbow bolts in my chest, right?”
The young woman wheeled into the Adventurer’s Guild clutching a few rolls of parchment in one hand. Was she nervous? Yes…especially if this didn’t work. Because she’d look silly.
But she was pretty certain it would work. Was she concerned about the…the consequences? Of course.
Did it have to be done? Erin took a few breaths and looked around Liscor’s guild for comfort.
It was the same slightly-homey place that she remembered. Oh, it had been expanded to make room for actual Gold-rank teams coming for the dungeon and actually physically relocated, but this was the same place she had once walked into. Nostalgic. They’d pulled the counters, worn tables filled with nicks and stains, and even most of the walls so someone could build a newer building in the old spot. So it was the same guild to Erin, down to the floorboards. Why, this was where she’d met Selys back in the day.
And…well, where a few things had happened.
“Hello, Miss! Do you need a hand getting to the [Receptionist]’s desk?”
At first, Erin thought she was being teased, but the adventurer looked genuinely interested in her chair and seemed to want to do that thing where people pushed you around. Erin had not been in a wheelchair long, but she already resented someone pushing her without asking.
“No, thanks. I’m just…going to look around. Hello!”
“Hello, yourself, Miss! Are you making a request of the guild? The [Receptionist]’s desk is over there.”
The speaker was a friendly woman, in fact, a Gold-rank adventurer. Jewel of Glitterblade, a small team, was new to Liscor. She had been here a few times and even participated in some of the incidents, but four months and a dead [Innkeeper] had been obscured by everything else that had happened. The quiet girl in the wheelchair was not the same girl who had led the Antinium into Invrisil.
She thusly didn’t recognize Erin. Nor had she taken the [Guardsman] seriously when he advised those within the guild to perhaps leave.
She was being friendly to the clearly injured young woman, but she let go of the wheelchair’s handlebars as Erin looked around for Selys. She didn’t see Selys or the grumpy Tekshia, and she didn’t recognize any receptionists by name.
“Um…excuse me? Sorry, I’m Erin.”
What a familiar name. Jewel thought she knew it, but where had she…? She put on a big smile as she nodded.
“Adventurer Jewel, Miss. What are you looking for, exactly?”
“Where’s your, uh, job board? That place where you put up requests?”
Jewel instantly pointed to a cork board at one side of the guild where a few adventurers were perusing the assignments on display. Kill a certain monster in the dungeon and harvest its parts, eradicate pests or dangers to the villages—those were stock standard. Some people put bounties on pests in their homes or something more interesting, but Jewel was used to not actually accepting many requests.
Frankly, killing monsters and getting their bounties in the dungeon was more profitable, or hoping you found a treasure room. Not that she’d been doing either; her team had come back from a semi-profitable Wyvern hunting expedition for that huge bounty. Two Wyverns was four thousand gold pieces. Not bad for a week of jumping at every shadow in the High Passes and waiting for a Wyvern to take the bait.
Yes, the bounty was still being claimed because there was still money in the Adventurer’s Guild vaults. Until it ran out…well, Liscor was the place to be in Jewel’s mind. It had access to two major cities, and she’d heard so much about it.
Not enough, apparently, to recognize Erin’s name. The young woman thanked her and began wheeling over to the board. She had two pieces of parchment, and she’d even brought her own hammer and a nail.
“Oh—excuse me, Miss Erin. You can’t do that.”
Jewel intercepted the young woman and saved her from making a mistake. Erin frowned at Jewel.
“What? Why? I’m just going to put this up…”
“I’m afraid only registered requests can go up there. You’ll need to run it by a [Receptionist]. Just over there, see?”
Plus, who hammered nails into a cork board? Erin Solstice opened her mouth and hesitated.
“But I have an, uh, an actual quest type thing. I know Selys, one of the [Receptionists]. I’ll just…”
She tried to wheel around Jewel, but the Gold-rank adventurer was insistent.
“You can’t do that, Miss. That’s a board for Gold-rank requests, anyways.”
Erin was trying to get to a sparsely-occupied board. It wasn’t the backrooms of Invrisil’s Adventurer’s Guild with its pecking order, but there were still a few Gold-rank teams in Liscor, and Jewel blocked Erin. She was treated to a kindly, if exasperated smile.
“I know, excuse me. I’ll talk to the Guildmistress or anyone. I’m just going to…”
“Let me just get a [Receptionist] for you, Miss. Gold-rank requests are very expensive, and you have to put down gold first to prove you can back it. I’m sure it’s vital—excuse me! Can we get a [Receptionist] for…?”
And then Jewel turned Erin around in her chair and began rolling her towards the counter. It was all very well-intentioned, if pushy, but it was a continuation of Erin’s treatment for the last ten days.
By a stranger. Now, at this point the real question was: what would come next? Also, why had no one stopped Jewel?
Surely someone in the guild knew her. Of course they did. But half the [Receptionists] had already slipped out the back doors and were staring through the windows. As for the other Gold-rank teams or veterans?
“Hey. Hey. Anith. Look what that Gold-adventurer’s doing.”
Insill whispered in horror as he watched the entire event unfold. Anith looked up from his book as Vuliel Drae watched Jewel first meet Erin. Anith hesitated.
“We should stop her.”
He knew Erin Solstice, but before the Jackal Beastkin could move, someone else grabbed his arm.
A deep voice echoed from where Seborn was sitting, taking his ease. He hadn’t greeted Erin. Anith stared at the Drowned Man’s serious gaze. Like the other Halfseekers, Seborn had ‘given Erin her space’ after returning to Liscor. Or rather, he’d followed Jelaqua’s lead.
“Why not, Seborn?”
He was treated to a serious look from the [Rogue]-[Faith Seeker]. Seborn’s face was grave as he whispered back.
“Because it will be the funniest thing I’ve seen in months.”
And like that, Jewel was left alone to her fate by the other adventurers. She pushed the protesting Erin forwards until the young woman stopped her with her feet.
“Let go of my chair, please. I’m going to do my thing. Get a [Receptionist] if you want, but they know me at this guild.”
Erin looked annoyed at this point, and Jewel hesitated. At this point, she thought she should just let this young woman be admonished.
Incidentally, she was younger than Erin, but as a Gold-rank adventurer, Jewel was trying to be the responsible party. She watched Erin wheel up to the Gold-rank request board and then realized the same thing Erin did.
…The [Innkeeper] was too short to reach the board properly in her chair. Erin tried to get up twice, then gave up. She scowled at the bottom of the request-board.
“You think this makes you better than me? I don’t need you anyways!”
She waved a hammer at the board, and Jewel began wondering if Erin were actually just crazy. She got her answer a second later as Erin, grumbling, unrolled one piece of parchment and put a nail in place.
She was going to hammer it into the wall!
Jewel hurried over. Erin ignored her until she felt herself being pulled back again. This time—Erin turned her head once.
Jewel’s hands leapt from the wheelchair’s handlebars, and she jerked back. It was like a shock, as if the handlebars had been charged.
An aura? She stared at Erin in surprise. But then she reached for Erin.
“I can’t let you—”
Erin calmly let Jewel grab one arm—it was a gentle grip, if strong. So it was a gentle flame that covered Jewel’s arm.
“Aaah! What the—”
The Gold-rank [Swashbuckler] leapt back, waving away a bright orange flame. Even Seborn stirred at this point, because he had never seen that before. The grumpy flame of irritation covered Jewel’s hands, scorching her lightly before she could remove it. She had to stomp on it; it refused to go out.
“Huh. New fire. And it’s lame.”
Erin peered at the ground then shrugged. Jewel looked at Erin and then around the room. Now…as her other two teammates half-rose and gazed at their captain, Jewel realized she was being watched.
Situational awareness. A real veteran would have noted they were walking into a trap already, but Jewel was new to her rank. She hesitated and looked at Erin.
Was this some kind of advanced hazing prank? She could walk off, but she had embarrassed herself already. She was in too deep.
But what was the move? The young woman was clearly high-level in something, so Jewel was wrong in that she had no right to do whatever she was doing. Pulling her away would cause a scene, and she was ignoring Jewel.
So, the right thing to do that the [Swashbuckler] came up with was to approach, somewhat humbly, rubbing her burnt hand and smiling. Erin glanced over with resignation.
“You came back. Are you really going to do this a third time? Because it’s gonna be bad.”
Jewel hesitated. She could hear some titters in the background from the peanut gallery, but she put the best smile on her face and swept Erin a slight bow.
“Miss Erin. I, um—I’m sorry for bothering you. Let me make it up to you. I’m Jewel, Captain of Glitterblade. A Gold-rank team. As an apology, I’d be happy to accept any request you’re putting up.”
That was her way out. A bit of the old Moribus Oblige—adventurer’s responsibility in the old language. It might have even worked on someone else.
Erin Solstice stopped with the hammer raised. Jewel noticed that the cheap parchment that the young woman was writing on had…glittering lettering. Some fancy [Alchemist]’s ink? Erin gave Jewel a long look that made the [Swashbuckler] feel as if she were looking straight through her. Then Erin smiled.
“Yeah. That’s a kind offer. But I don’t think it’ll really work. Your team might be under-level for this one. No offense.”
The sheer audacity of that statement left Jewel at a loss for words. The laugher that ran around the room made Jewel flush. So she grabbed the request.
“She’s killing herself. I’m going in!”
Insill stood up, but half a dozen hands from other adventurers pulled him back. They were watching all of it like a wagon heading towards an adamantium wall. Jewel was making a lot of mistakes, but again, to be fair—she was something of a prodigy.
A Gold-rank adventurer at her age? She had over 30 levels in [Swashbuckler], and her team had killed fearsome monsters, if not Adult Crelers. Being told she was underleveled for Erin’s request had to sting—and Erin was in her antagonistic mode.
Grabbing the parchment was still the wrong move, though. Erin’s eyes flashed as Jewel snapped to everyone present.
“I’ll be the judge of that, Miss. My team will do it free if it’s—”
And then someone came to spoil this wonderful moment. Lyonette du Marquin charged into the guild with all four Thronebearers behind her. She spotted Erin and pointed.
“No! Selys—get in here!”
Here came the cavalry. Selys Shivertail ran into the guild followed by a second group. No less than Todi’s Elites and Todi himself. All of them, [Knights], adventurers, [Princess], and [Heiress] ran at Erin.
“No, you don’t, Erin! What are you doing?”
Lyonette advanced on the [Innkeeper] as Erin groaned. Erin put her hands up.
“Lyonette, I have to—”
“You’ve just recovered! Do you have to make a scene?”
“It’s really important. No one believes me. Dalimont, tell her! I was dead! And I had this—”
“You didn’t tell me. What are you doing? Give me that, Miss.”
Lyonette grabbed for the parchment, and Jewel held on, staring at Todi. Selys was looking around.
“Todi, grab that. Erin, do you have your rings on?”
“Stop babying me! And if one of you Thronebearers puts a hand on my wheelchair, I’ll set you on fire! Back, back!”
Erin produced a knife, and because it was Pelt’s, everyone backed up as she waved it around. Lyonette was sweating, and Selys saw the parchment in Jewel’s hand. Both [Princess] and adventurer were fighting for it, and the funny thing was—
They thought they could stop this. Seborn was chortling so loudly that Todi noticed him. The Gold-rank veteran hesitated, but Selys snapped.
“Todi, get the parchment.”
“Todi? What are you—let go! I’m going to accept—who is this?”
“Give me that, Jewel. What are you, a Bronze-rank rookie?”
Todi snapped and tried to grab the parchment, but Jewel was hanging onto it like the last shreds of sanity. The piece of parchment stretched between all three hands as they fought for it, and then Lyonette, Jewel, and Todi realized something.
Erin had used foolscap parchment, cheap, frayed, and practically tearing itself to write down her little request. It already had a few breaks, but despite all three practically leaning on it, it wasn’t so much as fraying.
And then they noticed that lettering…shining. Selys Shivertail looked at the words, and one stood out to her. Slowly, she looked at Erin, who was watching the altercation with exasperation and amusement.
“Erin. What is that?”
Everyone turned to the [Innkeeper] as Jewel finally let go, and Lyonette and Todi went stumbling. Erin smiled. It was that wide, too-innocent smile of someone who knew exactly what they were doing.
“Todi, right? Give me that.”
He had it in his hands. Selys and Lyonette held out their hands, but Erin beckoned.
“Give. I can always make a new one, I think.”
The Gold-rank Captain looked from the [Princess] of Calanfer to Selys, his employer and [Heiress] and owner of the Heartflame Breastplate. Then at Erin Solstice. He performed a quick calculation and handed the parchment over.
Selys and Lyonette began to argue, but Erin was already turning back to the wall. Todi stepped back, checked his wand and sword, and elbowed Jewel hard. She jumped and looked at him.
“That’s how a Gold-rank adventurer does it, amateur.”
Never let it be said that Todi couldn’t read the room. He watched Selys and Lyonette trying to dissuade Erin Solstice. Jewel stared at Erin, and so did Todi. Because they, like Selys, had seen something of what that parchment said. Erin raised the hammer and nail as Tekshia Shivertail woke up from her nap in her office upstairs and wondered what all the damn shouting was about.
On the topic of Quests. The announcement that had rung through the ears of every [Innkeeper] in the world ten days ago was one of the many things that had happened.
To inquiring minds, it was very significant. As much as new lands rising? Well…in some ways, yes.
For instance, Timbor Parithad had heard the announcement in his head like this:
<Class: Innkeeper> [Quests unlocked.]
[Post: Basic Quest obtained!]
[Post: Rare Quest obtained!]
Very respectable for a Level 30+ [Innkeeper] like him. He, like every other [Innkeeper], had panicked a bit, made sure everyone else had heard it, and done some experimentation.
The benefits were already becoming apparent—if figures of authority even knew this had happened.
Chaldion of Pallass, for instance, knew. Because he was Chaldion, and the owner of The Noble’s Fancy, the fanciest inn in Pallass, had let him know what was going on via way of Rufelt.
That had incidentally gotten one of the junior [Strategists] assigned to sifting through reports reprimanded severely, because she hadn’t forwarded the information to Chaldion, considering it not worth his time given all that was going on.
Right now, he was standing with the Drake in the aristocratic halls of the inn, which was more like a mansion and catered to the richest clients. If you wanted to feel like Terandrian royalty—this was the place.
“So you can post [Rare Quests], but nothing more?”
“No, Grand Strategist.”
“What is your level at this moment, Innkeeper Adalton?”
The Drake hesitated. He was wearing a suit rather reminiscent of a butler, but he’d added some flared inner cloth that shone bright yellow with Pallass’ colors when he moved to the somber exterior. He had a lot of respect for Chaldion, but he was still a private person.
“Let me rephrase that. Are you over Level 40?”
Rufelt coughed, because he knew the answer to this one. The Drake hemmed and hawed, and Chaldion sighed.
“No, then. I could assume Level 40 is the cutoff for…whatever comes next. Hrm. If that’s the case…”
He had one fake, gemstone eye that stared ahead, this one glowing bright blue, but his real one flickered to the doors. Rufelt had the same thought that Chaldion did.
“I may confirm it later. Although my source is—recovering. This can’t be a coincidence. Ten days ago exactly?”
“Yes, Grand Strategist. And I might add—I can post a [Basic Quest] on the hour.”
“Killing rats, hauling grain. And the rewards are sometimes…random?”
“Extra rewards, yes, Grand Strategist. Why, I had my neighbor’s son clean the gutters—a huge project for a lad like him, but I promised him thirteen silvers for it. When he got the silver it was the instant he finished cleaning up—and he did a better job than regular for the quest to finish! Then he got the silvers…and a football. One of the good ones.”
Chaldion’s voice was flat. The [Innkeeper] nodded rapidly.
“Exactly the same as the one on display he’d been saving up for. Only, I did think it might have been taken or something, and the [Shopkeeper] swore his inventory was still there, but he thought it was a replica! Oh, and the boy got the [Cleaner] class after sleeping. He’s less happy about that.”
Chaldion didn’t say impossible because that was an objectively stupid thing to say when presented with fact. However, he might have said ‘concerning’. Or more.
As a [Strategist], the news set the Drake’s mind racing. For instance—if you could get more value than what a Quest posted was worth…what kind of rewards could you get if you could get a football?
What would a [Rare Quest] look like? Did you really advance a class from doing a quest? And how in the name of Dragons had this occurred?
Well, he suspected many of his answers lay in another inn. Respite or not, he would have them. Chaldion also knew that this matter would be surfacing across the world, and he was determined to have an edge on the competition.
No matter what it took. He was thanking Adalton absently and pressing him for any more salient details while trying to plan out his attack.
He’d have to use [Path to Victory], but his opponent had beaten it before. Chaldion needed to assemble his forces carefully. Grimalkin was good, but sometimes a negative impact. He’d have to call in…Saliss too, but he might be sabotaged from within. Rufelt and Lasica, definitely.
Someone had to run interference with the [Princess]—and did they need a bribe? Chaldion could almost envision the battle ahead, and it would be a tough one to drag anything helpful out of the jaws of the [Innkeeper] of The Wandering Inn, but he had a Walled City’s resources to call upon. It might just work.
Chaldion was just about to muster the troops to sally forth when it happened. Adalton was about to speculate on a [Rare Quest] if Chaldion would help him figure out how to get the conditions right, and they were a bit tricky.
In Liscor, Lyonette was reaching for Erin’s shoulder, and a much more sensible Selys was fetching a broomstick to prod Erin with. The stubborn [Innkeeper], watched through the windows by the adventurers and Zevara and her Watch, raised the hammer and placed the nail on the piece of parchment.
She brought the hammer down and struck the nail slightly, tapping it into the wood of the Adventurer’s Guild wall.
“What was that, Grand Strategist?”
Adalton turned as Chaldion began to walk away. The Grand Strategist looked back.
“Oh, my mistake.”
The Drake looked around, frowning. The [Innkeeper] glanced around The Noble’s Fancy, wondering if one of the brats of his…esteemed guests had found a hammer.
“Do you hear that?”
Rufelt, Chaldion, and his escort looked back. Adalton rubbed at one earhole.
“Nothing. But I could swear—huh?”
TOC. This time the sound was louder. And the Drake felt it in his scales, like a vibration. He flinched, and Chaldion’s magical eye fixed on him.
“That sound! Can you hear—hey! Who’s—it’s not in my inn. My head!”
Adalton grabbed his head and looked around. The sound changed. The sound of a hammer hitting a nail had grown louder, but it couldn’t be called that now.
Thum. It echoed. Adalton gazed around wildly, then his head turned and fixed in a strange direction.
“What in the name of flying squirrels is that?”
Chaldion held up a claw, and one of the [Soldiers] escorting him hesitated, a claw on his sword. The [Strategist] eyed Adalton’s head and looked at the wall.
“What direction is that?”
“Grand Strategist? Er…”
Rufelt confirmed quietly. Both Chaldion and the [Barkeeper] looked at each other and knew at once. Chaldion wavered between here and the door. He decided to stay and watch, but turned to one of his escort.
“Get me Grimalkin. Send him into Liscor now. Signal Manus, and tell them to find an [Innkeeper]. High priority.”
Adalton flinched again. The sound was growing louder. And his inn—Chaldion looked up as, finally, the other people heard it and saw it.
The walls vibrated. And if they were moving here—the sound in Adalton’s head grew louder. He clapped his claws over his earholes.
And in Liscor?
“What is going on in my Guild?”
Tekshia Shivertail came down the stairs with spear in hand, screaming. When she saw Erin Solstice, she stopped.
She would have gone for Erin, but then it happened again. The [Innkeeper] raised that hammer in slow motion…everything felt like it was slow. The [Spearmaster] wondered if it were a time dilation Skill. She started forwards, and then the [Innkeeper] struck the nail again, hammering the piece of parchment into the wall.
The entire Adventurer’s Guild shook. Tekshia raised her spear, but what was she going to do? Instead, she looked around.
“Get—get out of the guild! Now!”
No one needed to be told twice. Todi was already running Selys out. Lyonette hesitated.
The [Innkeeper] didn’t seem to hear her, she was so focused. Lyonette looked around.
“Stay with her!”
She ordered the Thronebearers forwards and ran for it. Tekshia hesitated, but this was more than just worry about the sound. Erin brought the hammer down one more time, and Tekshia saw and felt her guild—
Crack. A splinter cracked the old, sturdy masonry on one wall. Tekshia stared at it in horror; it was like the earthquakes she’d seen! The crack ran up to the ceiling in a flash. Then part of the ceiling collapsed.
The [Spearmaster] howled. And then that hammer drew back again, and she saw the words glowing on the parchment. Tekshia froze.
The hammer fell once more. Outside, the audience saw a wall fall down and the guild begin to collapse. Watch Captain Zevara had her head in her hands.
She had not expected this.
Timbor Parithad was shouting. Everyone in his inn was staring as the [Innkeeper] stumbled around.
“What’s going on, Timbor?”
Imani came out of her kitchen, and Timbor stumbled past her. The Horns were on their feet. They had the same thought as most.
“The Wandering Inn. Get to—”
They ran, but in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, Timbor found something. He grabbed a piece of paper he used for noting orders and a quill.
The sound in his head was so loud, but there was something else that seized his mind. He did not have to—but he wanted to write it down. Just to show them. To prove he wasn’t mad.
The same sound, the same words, surely—they must echo in the [Innkeepers]’ minds in Celum, from Agnes to Ulia, and even as far away as Pallass.
How far could they hear this?
The answer was simple. Every [Innkeeper] in Izril heard it. Even ones on Terandria’s southern shores or Chandrar’s northeast. Ones further still felt…something. The highest-level even heard words.
The second-highest level [Innkeeper] on the continent hammered the nail into the wood and sat back. As she did, Timbor wrote, transcribing the words she’d scrawled on that simple piece of parchment down verbatim. He could have slept and done anything else and he would remember it. It was in his head, waiting for him to speak it.
It was…a Quest.
Erin Solstice rolled back from the wall a bit and exhaled. Only then did her intense focus slacken enough for her to look around. She felt drained, but she had done it.
Then she jumped and nearly fell out of her chair.
“What the—where’d the guild go?”
Erin Solstice looked left and saw not the tables and chairs and walls of the guild. She looked past a dusty, wide-eyed Ser Dalimont with a shield raised overhead at the bright, shining sun and collapsed…rubble…
And the crowd, staring at what remained of Liscor’s Adventurer’s Guild. Erin Solstice goggled at them and saw Watch Captain Zevara, Relc, standing on his tiptoes and laughing next to Seborn, who was almost doubled-over, the other staring adventurers…
Then she looked around and realized there was no guild. Not behind her, certainly not above…in fact, the only thing that remained of the guild was the wall she’d been hammering into.
It was still there. Sort of. It had broken to pieces around the piece of parchment now fluttering in the breeze. Erin slowly wheeled past it and gulped. Behind the wall, she saw Tekshia Shivertail standing there and staring at the four-foot high piece of wood and stone that was all that remained of her guild.
“Oh. H-hi, Tekshia. Fancy meeting you here.”
The Guildmistress had a spear in her hand, but she was at a loss for words. Erin looked around, and the only person in this moment with anything beyond shock, awe, fear, or curiosity was Jewel.
Who felt a bit of schadenfreude that she had been right after all. But what was the quest? Before Tekshia began screaming and trying to stab Erin, before the commotion and shouting, everyone had to read what it said.
It burned across the continent in a moment. [Messages] lit up from city to city, asking whether this was a hoax. Was this real? Erin Solstice held up her hands and refused to explain anything, even when Tekshia shook her.
She knew what she was doing. And what she was doing was a trick Erin had learned long ago. When a poor Antinium Soldier was in danger of being kidnapped by interested powers, what was the right move? Arrange proper transport, responsible guards, and take logical countermeasures? Sure, sure.
Or you could set fire to the High Passes and distract everyone with that. Erin Solstice’s quest, and it was Erin Solstice’s quest, appeared in every inn and guild in the world within a day. It read thusly:
<Mythical Quest – Find the Lost City of Stars!>
Limits: No armies, max of twenty adventurers per group for reasons. Big reasons.
The City of Stars is called Mershi! It’s one of those lost Walled Cities, but it’s totally out there. Find it. Search for the Blades of Mershi, and the keys will lead you home.
The Walled City is waiting, but there’s a lot of danger. Like, Named-rank+ danger.*** To get to it, you need more than just the keys. You need to find the ways back, and all the ones in regular Izril are shattered.
Does the City of Stars need to come back? Maybe not. They did a lot of bad things, but they were still a Walled City, and their legacy is lost. No one deserves to go out the way they did. The world might need what they have in the days to come, and it’s all there.
The Crossroads of Izril (Isssryssil?) are your first key. Please see the Heroic Quest or come to The Wandering Inn to inquire for details. Free lunch to whomever finds the City of Stars.
Posted Reward: Free lunch at The Wandering Inn. Lots of glory? I’ll shake your hand.
Quest Reward: Renowned legend class of <Drakes>, the key to the Armory of Stars.
*** (Too hard for Jewel or her team!)
There were also two more quests that Erin Solstice posted…lower down on the piece of broken wall. One was attached to that first quest.
<Heroic Quest – Connect the Crossroads of Izril!>
The Crossroads of Izril are totally a thing that exists. It’s like this…crossroads…that people went on. But it was a cool place that let you travel to other places that were more magical!
I don’t know how to get there aside from waystones. And it’s apparently not a fun place anymore. But it’s pretty darn important, and the old Walled Cities might have a way in or something. Oh, and you can get to other places from there.
They were never meant to be closed off. Find a way to open at least one gate that everyone can use, and everyone will benefit. But, um, make sure to lock the door before someone gets security around it. There might be things there.
Posted Reward: None, see Quest Rewards. And 10 gold pieces. (Imlerith was the City of Crossroads, btw. You need the passphrase to go to all the cool places).
Quest Reward: The Passphrase of Imlerith, experience in <Explorer> classes. Access to the [Crossroads of Izril] Skill.
Two quests beyond the scope of most [Innkeepers] to even contemplate posting. They hadn’t even known they existed.
The real question was how she could do it. As every [Innkeeper] would come to realize—as Erin Solstice herself had, the quests were not an Adventurer’s Guild’s fare.
They shouldn’t even have been posted in an Adventurer’s Guild. They belonged to inns. Because you could not post a quest without knowing the truth.
Without guaranteeing the Quest Reward. And she could. The [Innkeeper] wheeled herself back from posting the second quest, panting a bit. She looked at Lyonette, and the [Princess]’ eyes were wide.
“Just something I picked up. I guess I’ll leave it at that. Oh—well, there’s this one, but I don’t have enough wall.”
Erin decided to hammer it into the side of the broken wall instead. This one didn’t echo in anyone’s minds but the [Innkeepers] of Liscor. Yet it was the last one which also mattered.
<Rare Quest – Bring Him Home!>
Limits: Not a jerk to Antinium. Has a vehicle or something.
His name is Antherr Twotwentyonethree Herodotus or Crusader 221-3. He’s a Soldier, and he’s in the Great Plains of Izril, camp of Weatherfur. Please see Chieftain Feshi Weatherfur for exact location.
Transport him safely back to Liscor! If he dies or is hurt, the quest is off. Keep him safe from bad people like Walled Cities or [Bounty Hunters]. Oh, and keep him fed and happy.
Posted Reward: Free food for a week! Within reason.
Quest Reward: 80 gold pieces, experience in <Escort>, <Guard> classes.
Erin Solstice smiled and looked around as she regarded her three posted quests. Then she stretched and turned to her audience.
By now, they were all there. The Horns, Mrsha, Goblins, citizens of Liscor, and even Apista, buzzing on top of Rasktooth’s head. Erin Solstice inhaled—then began hacking because there was dust everywhere.
She caught her breath and looked at everyone. Erin rubbed at her face and smiled.
“I’m back, guys. And I brought something with me. I have…messages for some of you.”
She looked at Ceria Springwalker, and the half-Elf flinched slightly, but she was caught by Erin. The [Innkeeper] swept her gaze over them, and they realized what she meant. She had brought something back.
From the lands of the dead. For them. Erin Solstice stared at Octavia, then a naked Drake jogging up. And the secrets of alchemy whispered in her mind, waiting to be posted as quests. She looked at Numbtongue, and the Hobgoblin felt an electric thrill run up his spine as Erin fixed her gaze on his sword.
What she said was this. With a smile, with weariness, but also, leaning forwards on her wheelchair, speaking earnestly.
“I’m a bit tired. I know you’ve all done so much, and I have to do things differently. We all do. But I’m back, and I won’t be still forever. I want to talk to you. So talk to me. And…and I think we need to do more good things.”
She looked around.
“I want to have more fun. I want to experience great moments with you all and help you with anything you want to do. And fall in…”
She trailed off. Erin Solstice looked back and met their gazes. Then she coughed again.
“Sorry about the guild. I guess I’ll post the other quests later. Party at The Wandering Inn!”
Slowly, she pushed herself forwards, and one of the Thronebearers helped her over the rocky ground. Erin rolled forwards until the silence became voices. Then cheering as Numbtongue and Jelaqua and the others lifted her chair overhead. She left behind a broken Adventurer’s Guild and chaos.
And The Wandering Inn? It was back in business. The first Mythical Quest was posted again on the walls later that day. It would not be the last.
Author’s Note: …And we’re back. Volume 9 has begun and I’m tired. Time for another break!
I’m kidding. Or am I? In truth, I think I actually spent the first fourteen days of rest just recovering. Only after that period did I feel like a person, and I ran into some severe exhaustion, but I think a lot of it’s cleared up.
I definitely needed the month off and, as promised, I’m back. But also as promised—I’m trying to take it easy.
With a 28,000 word chapter to bring us into Volume 9. It could be 38,000. It could be 48,000. It’ll be a work in progress, filled with false promises I’m sure, but we’re going to try and take it easy.
And work on Volume 1’s rewrite! And maybe other stuff! I will keep you posted and no, the schedule I showed Patreons will not be the set plan. I’m going to play it by ear this month and get back into writing. Also, no side story poll! Sorry, but for the first few chapters it’d be weird if you voted on the first few chapters.
Hopefully you liked our first chapter back. I feel rusty, ironically, but I think I’ll get back into the best flow soon enough. Thanks for reading and tell your friends! Tell your enemies! Tell the bees—The Wandering Inn is back.
And so is Erin Solstice.
Waking Up and Let’s Go Mrsha by BoboPlushie!
Ceria by laavente, commissioned by Finn_Ryan!
Erin by slaetus!