Now you believe. Of course, when the evidence is irrefutable, like a voice in your head, a destroyed Adventurer’s Guild, and a quest felt across a continent, most people tend to believe.
Most of these reasonable people would then say, ‘yes, you have my attention. What can we do (within reason and convenience for me at little personal risk) in this situation?’ And they thus demonstrate why they will never be called upon.
Because if you well and truly believed before that it had to be proven concretely, you were already there. If it mattered, you had been there. What came next was not for you either, probably. No matter how much you wanted it.
All this to say that when Erin Solstice tried to return to her inn, everyone wanted to talk to her. Especially Guildmistress Tekshia, but even she was willing to waive her considerable grievances for a few hints. Maybe a quest or two. Or just a few answers to the thousands of burning questions in their minds.
The [Innkeeper] refused to answer anything. For once, she let the four Thronebearers surround her, and you had to say this for them: they might not be the greatest combatants on a battlefield, but they knew how to keep the onlookers back.
“Back, good people! [By Appointment Only]!”
Ser Lormel checked a Drake trying to get to Erin with a plated arm, and Erin realized that Calanfer’s [Knights] were probably masterclasses in keeping their wards from interacting with the public.
As for Erin—well, she shouted a lot of things, but very little of it made sense.
“Sorry about the guild, Tekshia! I’ll, um…I have to go to my inn! I didn’t know it would do that, honest! Good thing I didn’t do a bigger one, huh? I can’t talk about it right now! Watch Captain, please don’t arrest me—where’s Mrsha?”
The press of bodies and shouting made it hard for onlookers to see what happened next, but there was a moment of panic where the [Princess] whirled—and then a giant Gnoll picked up a little white Gnoll girl and put her on her shoulders. Mrsha thusly secured, the Hobgoblin, Antinium, and the adventurers cleared a path towards the inn.
By the time Erin Solstice got to her inn, people were trying to climb through windows, but they found them all locked, and the inn was a fortress. The front door was a lovely chokepoint for Dame Ushar to block off, and, ironically, the lack of the magic door was the most beneficial of all.
For, oh, you knew who was coming next. It was all the old hits, and that too was nostalgic.
Magus Grimalkin, storming up the hill, followed by Chaldion of Pallass, Saliss, and even a number of [Senators] and some of the military officers in the city. This was a Level 11 Erin Solstice event, even for her.
However, they had to tangle with the Thronebearers at the entrance to the inn, rather than getting to Erin the regular way. That was new. Indeed, Sir Relz, Noass, and Drassi all came with a camera crew moments after Chaldion.
They got even less than the onlookers did; Wistram News Network had really dropped the soccer ball here. Even if the [Spies], [Informants], and [Watchers] couldn’t get into the inn, the smart ones had a recording of most of what had gone down, starting with Erin Solstice rolling into the Adventurer’s Guild.
The really perspicacious ones had seen her emerge from The Wandering Inn. It was thusly safe to say that every [Spy] who’d decided Erin Solstice wasn’t that interesting was fired within the hour.
The same for any [Spymasters] who’d pulled surveillance early. All in all, Erin Solstice’s stunt destroyed Liscor’s Adventurer’s Guild and also cost over thirty-eight jobs, but you couldn’t blame her for the latter part.
Fetohep of Khelt, for his part, had seen it all. He did not brook incompetence, and a professional [Observer] did not shirk their duty for lack of interest. He watched Erin Solstice disappear into the inn and marked all who followed after.
Some he recognized based on first-hand encounters or pen pal correspondence. Others, by virtue of their names.
The Horns of Hammerad, Mrsha, Gireulashia, Krshia Silverfang, Bird the Hunter, Klbkch the Slayer, naturally. The Thronebearers were a known entity, Lyonette du Marquin of Calanfer was known to him on a political level—but even he hadn’t been entirely aware of the Goblin component of the inn.
“She mentioned that one. Numbtongue, I believe. Flag the Goblin’s face and details for the file.”
Fetohep spoke briefly, and one of Khelt’s servants hurried to note down the moment in the video. The ruler’s fingers drummed on the armrest of his throne. He turned his head slightly, and one of the servants paused the recording as Fetohep gestured.
“Who is the Drowned Man?”
“Sailwinds…a relation to Therrium Sailwinds? The Drowned Captain [Pirate]?”
“Y-yes, Your Majesty. A member of the Halfseekers.”
It was one of those coincidences that entangled Erin Solstice further with events far from Liscor. Was it coincidence? Only if you lacked a sense for the grand scheme of things.
Fetohep calmly noted who was allowed into the inn, but he didn’t direct the [Observer] to try to gain entry. Shriekblade and the Thronebearers were among the inn’s defenses, and they would deter almost any covert infiltration until the inn opened.
Besides—he’d seen enough. The King of Khelt was one of the most sedate and laid back personalities watching the events in Liscor unfold. Because, of course, he understood.
Not all of it. He had been as surprised as everyone else by the quests, but he knew from whence they came. Nor did Fetohep send a [Message] to Erin Solstice.
Not yet. He was now sure she remembered. How much was still up for debate. But it was enough.
“I weary of the recording. Leave me. Inform me only if a significant development occurs. I am not to be disturbed.”
The King of Khelt lifted a hand, and the servants bowed and hurried out of the throne room. They left him alone, glancing back over their shoulders in wonder.
There sat Fetohep, who, two weeks ago, had been the center of the world’s attention. The Revenant who had blazed across Chandrar, humbled a Walled City, and single-handedly held off five Walled Cities before rescuing the Gnolls and reshaping Izril by summoning the ghosts of ancient Gnolls.
Oh, and he’d fought an army of Seamwalkers and possibly averted the end of the world when no one was watching.
That was how his people described the events, anyways. It was also fairly notable that despite all the fallout of the war in the Great Plains, few people had contested that interpretation of things.
Indeed, Fetohep’s return to Chandrar had been amazingly smooth. After whisking the King of Destruction and some Gnoll tribes away, Fetohep had returned home. The Drakes had declined to give pursuit or attempt to block his progress, and the same went for Medain, the Claiven Earth, or any nation between him and Khelt.
He had ridden Sand at Sea back with magical tailwinds across the sea and taken a slower, if constant ride back at speeds only undead could sustain on land. Fetohep had also done a lot of dropping people off.
The half-Elves, including the Herald of the Forests, Ierwyn, in the Claiven Earth.
King Raelt and Jecaina in Jecrass.
Orthenon, the King of Destruction, Gazi, and Amerys in Reim. Trey Atwood as well, and some of the Earthers. A few had come to Khelt when the offer had been made.
The Quarass to Germina, the Hero of Zethe, Doubte, to a spot a good thirty miles from his home for anonymity reasons—a horse had been provided.
Frieke of Khelt, Alked Fellbow, and Herdmistress Geraeri had returned to the capital, and Fetohep had let the Gnoll tribes disembark where they pleased. Many had indeed gone to Reim to join their kin; others had asked to be dropped in the north or along the Zeikhal, and he had obligingly tasked Sand at Sea with placing tribes who wanted to be away from it all where they wanted.
Interestingly, Fetohep had actually offered three entire Gnoll tribes citizenship of Khelt. All three had accepted. Such an influx would normally stun Khelt and be the topic of huge interest, but his nation was still processing everything else. When Fetohep had returned to his palace, the procession had provoked such silence they’d only begun cheering twenty minutes in.
…They were still cheering. Fetohep had not but sat down when news came about the quest being posted in Liscor.
So, now he was back and alone. The Revenant considered the frozen recording, and a few thoughts occurred to him. He was far from the only one to make the same observations Chaldion had about the potential of Quests.
The undead ruler murmured, though his mouth never moved. His glowing eyes flickered behind a worn body turned to dried flesh hanging off yellow bone only visible in places. He still wore the armor of battered gold, stained with salt and blood from another continent, over his royal robes writ with countless names.
In time, he would remove the armor, order his robes repaired of the slightest damage, and ensure any damage to his body in combat was repaired as best it could be. A ruler had to be impeccable at all times, after all.
In time, Fetohep knew, he would do a painstaking overview of his entire kingdom. From the undead buried in Khelt to their dispositions abroad and any damage caused by the Jaws of Zeikhal rising and so on. It might take a thousand hours, but he would not rest, so he would ensure every aspect of Khelt was returned to where it should be.
He would also make such appearances to reassure his people and communicate with his allies. Then, perhaps chase down Vizir Hecrelunn’s location, although Fetohep doubted his ability to control Hecrelunn now. Now that…
Khelt’s rulers were dead.
Fetohep paused and considered that. Oh. Yes, that. Once he got back to normal, everything would return to how it had been.
Except that no ghosts would ever speak to him again. Except that the lands of the dead lay empty. Except that glorious Khelta, Xierca, his Queen, Heroes, His-Xe, Serept…
Except that they were all gone. Yes. That.
Fetohep returned to his other projects. He would have to dismantle the ritual they’d used to let ghosts inhabit the bodies of undead as Revenants. It was now a liability, but his [Mages] might learn much from the process, and even he would not lightly discard the materials that had been spent.
“…Settle the Gnolls temporarily. It may be simplest to construct multiple settlements. A city, perhaps, bordering one of the wider flatlands? One city, a township, and two villages. I may also issue a permit for them to form a number of nomadic camps as the People of Zair do.”
Yes, all those sounded like the most pressing projects. Take a look at his [Innkeepers], ensure the Gnolls were adapting to Khelt well, and wait for the living to pester him as they surely would. In many ways, Fetohep’s existence was simpler than many monarchs across the world. His role was maintenance; his ambitions were only for his people, and he worried little about the opinion of a court or treachery or his death.
Then again…Fetohep’s golden flames flickered. When he died, he would not guide his successor. When he died, only oblivion or worse awaited.
Khelta was gone.
The mundanity of his work could only keep the truth away for so long. Fetohep had felt it on the journey back, but that had not been the time, with enemies and allies watching him.
However…the Revenant was all practicality. He had been doing what needed to be done. Only now, as he sat on the throne, did he fidget. An uncharacteristic tightening of ancient muscle. He stared down at a fist on his throne.
It trembled. He had no need to move, but he did. Fetohep stood. He did not ask for Khelta, to check if she was there.
He knew. And so the King of Khelt looked around. At his empty throne room; that had never bothered him.
“Gone. So Khelt is—”
His voice rose, and there was a sound in it, a warble of emotion. Fetohep broke off instantly and turned.
“Your Majesty summoned us?”
A servant appeared at the doorway. Fetohep’s golden gaze pinned the scared young man, but he was doing his job. The job many citizens of Khelt volunteered for.
The Revenant saw the servant hurriedly bow and withdraw, murmuring deepest apologies. He was forgiven; despite Fetohep’s injunction not to be disturbed, when a monarch spoke, someone had to attend.
He was reminded that the few servants working this week were still in the palace. They did not expect Fetohep to speak unless he had an audience or was conducting business.
There was no door to close to the throne room; what need had a Revenant for privacy in death? So Fetohep stood, silent. Then he sat down and stared at his hands on his armrest.
He sat perfectly straight, and you could have used his back to measure one of Drevish’s walls. He put both arms on his armrest and was thus the model of a king, staring ahead, chin elevated the barest hint, not like Terandrians to stare down so openly, just as a king should.
…After two and a half minutes of perfect posing, Fetohep leaned on his left side, adjusted his legs to be crossed, and touched the tip of his chin with two skeletal fingers. The ruler in contemplation; the repose of a monarch passing judgment or thinking long upon empire and state.
Then he performed the Nerrhavian Recline, which was to scoot forwards to the edge of the throne, gripping the armrests, and lean back, as if bored of it all, looking down with the sheer contempt of tyrants.
The posing did not help. Fetohep considered calling for Trey Atwood or Teresa. But he had not demanded either accompany him to Khelt. Unlike before, the issue was not boredom or the desire for their company.
Fetohep knew what the issue was. He stared down at his hands as he returned to his first pose. He could begin inspecting Khelt. Or summon the first [Innkeeper]. Or so many things that could be done.
But first? He looked down at his shaking hands and stood slowly. Then he left his throne room.
The servants in the palace mostly cleaned up dust or checked on matters of state, people requesting an audience, [Messages] for Fetohep, etc. They were largely preoccupied with denying requests for a conversation from anyone not on Fetohep’s list, and since that was a very short one, they were occupied.
None noticed Fetohep leaving the palace. He was far more knowledgeable of its passages than they were, and it was a vast, empty place.
Emptier, perhaps, than it had ever felt before, but the servants put that down to the activity and drama of earlier. If there was something that perplexed them, it was…well, not even Khelt could control the earth completely.
Still, it seemed like the earthquake had run through the palace for almost thirty minutes now. A trembling in the very foundations. They were quite relieved when it stopped abruptly. But then—if there were anything to fear, Fetohep would have surely told them.
Erin felt a lot better after posting her quest.
The babble of voices shut off as Lyonette slammed the inner door to the common room. Panting, the [Princess] gave orders like a [Sergeant].
“I want everyone to double-check that all the windows are locked. Second floor, too. Ishkr! Drinks, food for our guests. Ser Sest, help Ushar. No one comes in unless I say so or Erin does.”
The Thronebearers were already securing the windows. Ser Dalimont closed the shutters on a staring Gnoll with his face pressed against the glass. Erin saw him shouting something, but then she turned.
“I hope the guild isn’t, um, too expensive to replace. Maybe I should see about—”
“I’m sure the Council will quote us a bill. Tekshia will definitely do that—but I’ll talk to Pawn or someone later about getting the Antinium to rebuild. We can have it done cheaply with Hexel helping, and it’s reasonable to point out that having a Mythical Quest in Liscor will make it more popular. Besides, they owe you for four months of using your door, so we might not even get that bill, just a reduction in how much we’re paid. You just sit there and think of what you’re going to say!”
Lyonette pointed at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] felt it again. Competence. A disturbing authority coming from Lyonette.
How things had changed. Lyonette had begun being the manager, but she had the inn scurrying around before Erin could give an order. That wasn’t the most significant shift in personality, but then Erin saw some of the people who’d come into the inn with her helping out.
“Watch Sergeant Relc! Back it up—back it up! No pushing or you’ll crush some poor idiots out there! I’m off-duty, but I’ll make you stand back if I have to!”
“Was…was that Relc doing something responsible?”
Erin rubbed at one ear. Then she saw something else terrifying.
Mrsha. The little Gnoll had raced down with the others upon hearing Erin had begun to post the quest. Now, the little rascal, always at the heart of trouble, was looking at Erin Solstice after seeing a Mythical Quest being posted about the lost City of Stars.
And she was currently writing something down in a little book next to Gireulashia, without racing around like a maniac or badgering Erin to tell her everything. She looked up as Erin stared at her, and the [Innkeeper] saw Mrsha heave a huge sigh. The little Gnoll shook her head at Erin and busily dipped her quill into an inkpot, writing with a frown as she dealt with Erin’s outbursts of chaos.
Erin had to roll over, and she saw what Mrsha was writing. She was working on a note:
…Suxhel, please convey my strongest urgings to Lehra that she should take her team and visit The Wandering Inn to entreat my [Innkeeper] about this issue, as I believe she can well agree. I can only regret the impromptu and frankly irresponsible timing, but it is sadly irreversible. Please also copy the contents of this update to one Feshi Weatherfur, Shaman Theikha, and other interested parties…
And the next note, which was not a [Message] but a little card.
Please accept my most heartfelt condolences, as I fear we must postpone our tea date to another time at your best convenience. I have been embroiled in something of a ‘to-do’ as I am sure will be apparent once you receive this missive.
I can only apologize once again, as needs must when The Wandering Inn comes to chaos. Rest assured, I will attempt to find time in my schedule perhaps tomorrow to catch you up with all the hullabaloo and nonsense…
The writing was the same. The attitude? Erin gazed down at Mrsha as Gire giggled and greedily scarfed down a pawful of fries that Ishkr was already passing around.
And Seborn was still laughing. The Drowned Man chortled as he sat at a table, and Erin turned, glad to see something hadn’t changed!
“Seborn, Jelaqua! Hi! Look, before anyone says anything, I didn’t know the guild was going to fall down. It’s not my fault! It probably had termites. I, um…”
She looked around, and the stares were familiar. Exasperation, surprise, confusion, and mirth. This was The Wandering Inn’s classic.
“Erin, you’ve been back from the dead ten days, and this is the first thing you do? C’mere! I thought you were too fragile to hug, but I’m going to do it again!”
Jelaqua bounded over and, wearing the body of a Gnoll woman, rubbed her cheek against Erin’s. It was rather like being embraced by a dead, hairy fish, but Erin grinned and protested.
“Jelaqua! Aw, come on. Save that for Maughin.”
That just made the Selphid laugh. Seborn stopped chuckling at last as the Gold-rank Captain looked around and grinned.
“Maughin himself might come here if only to be part of the moment! Unless he’s working on his mistress, that is.”
Jelaqua blinked as Erin wondered if a lot had changed. The Selphid laughed.
“Oh—I meant his stupid Adamantium ingot. Sorry. That’s what I call it.”
“Thank goodness. Also, I’m glad you two are here! And that you found all that hilarious, Seborn.”
“Immensely. I have had enough of gloom these last months. Maybe Moore will start smiling again. If he can make it through that lot. You are feeling better?”
Seborn walked over, and Erin grinned weakly.
“Good enough to knock down a guild, at least. I’m, um…I’m back. So I don’t want anyone coddling me anymore!”
Jelaqua saluted with a glint in her eyes.
“Perish the thought. We just held back because we thought you needed time. But if you’re feeling up for it, we’ll start taking meals here again. That’s wonderful. And we do have a lot to catch up on.”
The faint orange glint behind the dead body’s pupils found Erin, and the [Innkeeper] sombered for a moment. That was completely true. Erin looked around and saw her Quest had worked; everyone else was seeing her in a different light.
“Well, Erin. I should have known you wouldn’t give us a month before causing a mess. Grandmother is going to kill you. As for me?”
Selys put her claws on her hips, but she couldn’t hide the faint smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
“…I’m just glad you’re still surprising us all. What is that new power? A Mythical Quest?”
“Exactly! How did you do it, Erin?”
Lyonette was back from checking the windows, and she turned to Erin as the Horns came over. Ceria was giving Erin a long look, and Pisces was rubbing at his hair, as astonished as Yvlon. Ksmvr? Ksmvr was hiding behind Yvlon as Klbkch stared at him, and Relc came stomping back into the common room.
“Um…it’s complicated. But when I say…things…I mean them. I just—I need to prove it.”
Erin spoke to the group, but Ceria in particular. The half-Elf gazed at Erin and looked away, but everyone goggled at Erin with a mix of confusion and awe.
“But I thought quests could only be posted if you had the reward and you knew…do you have the key to the Armory of Stars or whatever that was?”
Yvlon was bewildered. Klbkch just studied Erin from head to toe. Jelaqua shook her head instantly.
“There is no way Erin just had that in her back pocket all this time. Is there?”
Erin waved her hands.
“No, I don’t have it! I just—I knew the City of Stars existed. And I sort of knew I could post the Quest because, um, well, if you got to the city wherever it is, the key’s not too hard to find, right? I didn’t add that to the quest rewards, but I guess it qualified? That’s my theory. All I offered was the location. And the free lunch, but that’s posted rewards, so I don’t have to honor it.”
Pisces’ eyes flickered as he opened his mouth. Lyonette put a hand over her head, looking ready to swoon in exasperation. Klbkch slowly lifted a finger.
“Interpreting that statement, Erin. Can I assume then that you know details about a lost Walled City, know the location of the key to their armory of what sounds like artifacts and powerful weapons—all of which are legends which I have understood have no basis in any kind of fact outside of Wall Lord Dragial’s infamous search, which many considered lunacy—and that you may not feed the finder lunch?”
“N—y—well, I just said I don’t have to feed them lunch. That’s the difference between posted rewards and quest rewards. One’s guaranteed. I’d totally make lunch! Great lunch! Amazing lunch! The best lunch you’d ever see in your life for someone who found Mershi!”
She looked around indignantly. Let no one say Erin Solstice didn’t provide free lunch for people who found Walled Cities! Klbkch just looked at Relc. The Drake raised a claw.
“So you know where a lost Walled City is.”
Selys gaped at her. Pisces lifted a finger.
“And the Crossroads of Izril, a place I have never heard of in modern parlance.”
“Eh, maybe they forgot? It was totally something people knew about. I mean…it was. Yeah, totally. I bet you a [Historian] would know about it.”
Erin couldn’t believe that part. How did you forget about a crossroads? She scratched at her head, but Ksmvr waved a hand urgently.
“And you are also capable of posting Mythical-rank quests?”
“That’s about right. Legendary t—”
Erin Solstice’s mouth ran ahead of her mind, and she bit back the words too late. Erin saw and heard Gire begin choking on her fries at the table. Selys’ jaw dropped, and Lyonette covered her eyes as Pisces’ eyes bulged with the implications. Yvlon just fainted.
The thud of Yvlon going over made everyone gather around her, but Relc scratched at his head slightly.
“Wait, is that really impressive? I get it looked cool, but what’s ‘Mythical Quest’ even mean?”
Selys was exasperated as she bent over Yvlon. Ksmvr helpfully dumped a pitcher of water over the [Armsmistress]’ face.
“Relc! I was told Peslas, a Level 30+ [Innkeeper], can only post Rare Quests. I know there are Heroic Quests and Mythical only because a Level 55 [Innkeeper] confirmed they could post them! And they’re a former Named Adventurer! Now think what Legendary means.”
“Oh. Ohhh. Ancestors! Erin can—and she just—”
Relc threw up his claws, and Erin heard more laughter. Not from Seborn; he was grabbing Jelaqua in shock as Yvlon stirred. Erin looked around, and Bird and Numbtongue were laughing now, leaning on each other.
“See? She is as silly as she was before. Erin is better now. This is very good. I am happy. And I am Bird, and I know silly.”
Bird clacked his mandibles as Numbtongue grinned at Erin. Flushed a bit, she waved back and did a little bow in her wheelchair. Klbkch glanced at Bird, then turned to Selys.
“A Level 55 [Innkeeper] is capable of posting Mythical Quests? Intriguing; I have heard one on Baleros cannot post Mythical quests, and they are also above Level 50.”
“That is interesting. So maybe there’s other requirements. Which means…”
Both turned to Erin, and the young woman lifted her hands.
“Listen. I know you have questions. All I can say is—Mrsha, don’t eat Gire!”
Everyone whirled except for Seborn and Klbkch. Erin Solstice wheeled rapidly towards the Garden of Sanctuary.
“Gotcha, suckers! I’m back! Chaos! Classic me! You’ll never get answers, only confusion!”
She was enjoying herself, and yes, playing it up a bit. However, she’d miscalculated how hard it was to make a getaway on wheels. Erin saw Klbkch walk forwards to grab her wheelchair as she gunned it for the door.
The open Garden of Sanctuary was filled with green, sunlight—and the shouting from outside, echoing distantly through the hole in the roof. Erin raced towards it, shouting with glee.
Then she slammed into the shins of the female Hobgoblin wandering out the door. Ulvama screamed. Erin screamed.
Ulvama screamed louder, holding her legs as Erin jerked to a stop. She rolled around as Erin stared down at the—
“Who the heck is—”
“Ulvama? You okay?”
Numbtongue stopped laughing long enough to check on the cursing [Shaman]. Ulvama glared up and saw the [Innkeeper] staring down at her.
“What? You—look where you’re going! Stupid!”
She got up, kicked Erin’s wheelchair, which provoked a gasp of outrage, and hobbled over to a chair to cradle at her shins. Erin stared, mouth open wide as she looked at the female Hobgoblin.
She was pretty sure she had never met Ulvama in her life. Heck, Erin couldn’t even remember many female Hobgoblins that she’d talked to aside from the brief time the Redfang tribe had come to her inn!
“Who is—who is this? Numbtongue? A friend of yours?”
Numbtongue turned, and a dumbfounded expression crossed his face. Then he recalled with everyone else.
“Ulvama? You’d never have met…oh.”
Lyonette gasped. She herself only had a passing acquaintance with Ulvama, having left to go to Oteslia, but she had at least known Ulvama existed. But Erin?
“When did we get another Goblin? And why haven’t I seen her in the last ten days?”
Erin demanded, bewildered. Ulvama just snorted as she eyed Erin up and down. She winced, rubbed at her shins, and produced a healing potion and applied it liberally. Then she poked Numbtongue, who was searching for words.
“This icy girl? Looks better than corpse. What happen? Everyone started shouting. Ruined my nap.”
She pointed to the Garden of Sanctuary. Which she could apparently enter and leave at will. Erin waggled her hands at Numbtongue, demanding an answer. He tried to start from the beginning.
“Erin, this is Ulvama. She helped bring you back. Sort of. She was…the Mountain City tribe’s [Shaman]. Now she’s…some [Shaman]. She came from somewhere else and helped us find Mrsha. She can cast good magic. And she knows Pebblesnatch! Pebblesnatch is okay.”
“Sh—what? Pebblesnatch? What? WHAT?”
Erin’s scream of delight made Ulvama clap her hands over her ears. She threw a cup at Erin, and Klbkch smacked it out of the air.
“Shut up! I already liked you better as dead girl! I was with Rags. Stupid Rags.”
She folded her arms huffily. Erin recalled that Rags had retreated after their first two days of meetings—possibly out of self-preservation for the Goblins as Chaldion and a number of people who didn’t know or respect the score had been occupying the inn. Rags had promised to come back when it was quieter and Erin was better.
That explained where Ulvama had been, and if her scowl were any indication, Numbtongue guessed she hadn’t been able to secure a spot in Goblinhome.
Or perhaps she had come back for the free food. Erin was at a loss for words.
It was strange and a little rude to have someone just walk out of your inner sanctum and treat your inn like her home. Ulvama was already ordering food from Ishkr, and she went over and poked Mrsha after a moment and got a swat from a paw. The Hobgoblin stared at Gire as the [Paragon] stared back.
“Ooh. You tall. Good girl.”
She had to hop up on a chair to pat Gire on the head. Then she sat down and began to chomp on fries.
Okay. Okay, so apparently there was a somewhat rude [Shaman] at the inn now. Erin decided that was okay. She thought she remembered an Ulvama helping Mrsha, and if she was a friend of Rags, she was a friend of Erin’s!
Erin was already getting some things wrong about Ulvama, but then more people were arriving, and she had to deal with the effects of her quest. She was, at least, prepared for that.
“Lyonette, unleash the hordes! But only the, um, ones I know, I guess. I’ll take them here? Form a line!”
Her guests sighed but filed into a line as Grimalkin came bursting through the doors. He’d almost strong-armed his way past the Thronebearers, their Skills or not, but he had less luck here.
“Erin Solstice. I need a w—”
Grimalkin halted, because it was that or run into Klbkch’s sword, one of Seborn’s daggers, and a cupcake held by Bird. The Sinew Magus saw the line of eight glaring at him.
“Back of the line, Sinew Magus. We all want a word with Erin.”
Jelaqua cheerfully jerked a thumb over her shoulder. Grimalkin growled.
“—content to wait. Sinew Magus, don’t make a scene. Hold our place. Miss Solstice, I’m glad to see you well.”
Erin beamed past Klbkch as the Grand Strategist walked in with a bodyguard of five Drakes, who stared at Erin like she had antennae growing out of her head. Then a naked Drake walked in.
“Erin, please. If you love me, don’t let Chaldion have a word all day. If you hate me…do it for the hilarity. I saw your work at the guild. Beautiful.”
Saliss blew a kiss from his claws, and Erin laughed. Her eyes lit up, and she waved at Saliss. He winked around the room, saw Klbkch, and grinned with all his teeth.
“Looks like the inn’s back in business. Do you mind letting Rufelt and Lasica in? They want to come through, but the shiny pots won’t budge. And I am on my best behavior, so I didn’t turn them invisible.”
“Oh! Rufelt and Lasica—I forgot to add them to the list. Erin, I need to be at the door. Who am I letting in besides people we know?”
Lyonette cursed and hurried forwards. Erin hesitated.
“Is Ilvriss in Pallass or something?”
Lyonette chorused with a few others. Erin hesitated as Lyonette wavered by the door.
“Then—just people we know! I guess Lism if he wants. And, uh—Antinium, obviously! Any of them. And Goblins! And…”
“Wistram News Network?”
“No! Well, maybe Drassi.”
Chaldion calmly added from his seat.
“In a non-reporter role.”
Lyonette waited for Erin’s nod before hurrying into the hallway. Erin was smiling as she looked at Klbkch. And this was familiar too.
“So. Erin. I am pleased you seem recovered enough to post quests. May I ask how you gained this ability?”
Klbkch glanced over his shoulder, and everyone in line pretended not to be listening intently, except for Bird and Grimalkin. Erin smiled. She felt a flutter in her heart, but…she had known from the start.
“I guess I have to explain. I don’t know—”
She hesitated and wished for a moment she’d talked to…to Fetohep?
Yes, Fetohep! Erin’s eyes widened. How could she forget? Fetohep and—
Khelta. Califor. Her face fell, and Klbkch watched as the [Innkeeper] went from surprised to melancholy, then determined, angry, and wary in a heartbeat. In anyone else, he would have been wondering about insanity. In Erin…she took a deep breath.
“No kidding? Dead? Ancestors preserve me, I thought you were asleep!”
Saliss clutched at his chest from a table. Chaldion threw a fork at him, and Ulvama laughed in delight. Erin glanced over.
“Hey! Quiet in the peanut gallery! I was dead, and I got, um, some special powers. Some information. But it’s sort of hazy, and I, uh, just know a few things. Because I may have talked to ghosts?”
She looked around with an uncertain smile on her face. That was what she’d decided to say. It would be common knowledge anyways. She just didn’t add who she’d talked to.
Erin was prepared for disbelief, shock, incredulity, and mockery. However, the guests just looked at each other. Grimalkin muttered one name that pretty much summed it up:
“Khelt. The pieces fit.”
She wasn’t prepared for the lack of incredulity. However, to say there was no reaction was wrong. Jelaqua stopped grinning and focused on Erin. Pisces’ eyebrows were melding with his hair, and again, Ceria…
Ceria met Erin’s eyes and nodded slightly. Erin gulped.
“I have some things to tell you all. There’s a lot to catch up on. I want to hear it all. For now, just know that I have a few more quests I can post. Not all as cool as finding a lost city, but—well, that’s for later.”
Klbkch studied Erin.
“I see. I assume you will not furnish us with information about Mershi?”
“Are you…taking the quest?”
The Antinium considered the question.
“Let us say I am. The Antinium would not be averse to finding the City of Stars.”
Chaldion’s head rose slightly, and Saliss stopped chortling. Grimalkin’s eyes bored into the back of Klbkch’s head, and the Antinium looked around.
“He just said it. Everyone was thinking it, and he just said it. That’s my partner! Stupid as a rock!”
Relc beamed as he sat at a table. Klbkch visibly hesitated in front of Erin, then he turned and gave Relc a thumbs-up. Erin, Relc, and Klbkch stared at the gesture, and Klbkch lowered the hand. He turned back to Erin as if nothing had happened.
“I am…readjusting to Liscor. I may not be able to stay, Erin, but I hope I can call on you in quieter times? With less observation.”
He stared right at Chaldion as he said that. Erin nodded.
“Sure. Um…I can’t tell you about Mershi, Klbkch. I mean, I can totally tell you about it and stuff, but I don’t know where it is.”
“Ah, hence the quest.”
“Yep. Especially because all the ghosts of Mershi who were actually there got got.”
Klbkch blanked at the slang. Erin elaborated.
“They got, uh, poofed. Not by the s—I mean, no one ever saw their ghosts when Mershi vanished. So no one knows exactly what happened, but I do know where all the searches ended up. The Crossroads of Izril. Which is why I posted that quest. If you want to know about Mershi, I know tons of stuff. Tons of stuff. You know, they have Starpuffs? That’s this cool filled pastry. But yeah. Not about where it is.”
“You know this from conversations with dead people.”
Klbkch stared at Erin. She met his gaze honestly, eyes round and wide. Klbkch nodded. He lifted a finger as someone burst through the doors.
“TELL ME EVERYTHING!”
Fierre shouted, then was shushed and pointed at the line. She joined it, fishing out a notepad. Garia entered more sedately, but flushed with excitement. Klbkch went on after a meaningful pause.
“One last question, Erin. In your time amongst the dead. Did you speak to any Antinium?”
If there had been a pause at his first question about searching for Mershi, this one provoked the kind of silence that you could serve for lunch. Erin met his gaze and shook her head slowly.
“No…but if they died on Rhir, I wouldn’t have met them anyways.”
Chaldion’s head swung from Klbkch to Erin as he nodded grimly.
“That is what I would assume upon thought. Thank you. I will be back shortly. I will have a bowl of spaghetti with blue fruit juice.”
He stood up and walked out of the common room. Erin heard Selys let out a breath and then gasp for air.
And that was her first guest in line.
By the time Lyonette came back, the crowds outside the inn had been removed from pressing at the windows. They were, in fact, reluctantly gathered around the base of the hill. No one was allowed higher unless they passed one of the Thronebearers.
Not that four [Knights] alone were holding off the mob of people who absolutely had something they wanted from Erin Solstice or just wanted to get inside the inn and eat some pizza. The Watch had been mobilized along with Pallass’ soldiers.
Yes, their soldiers. Chaldion had ordered twenty through the door to keep a cordon around the inn, having anticipated their need.
It was causing a bit of friction, especially since Pallass’ army was not Liscor’s Watch. They did not react well to a bunch of heavily armed Antinium marching towards the inn.
One of the Drakes put up a claw and hesitated. He reached for a speaking stone to talk to Chaldion.
The Antinium did not halt. Pallass’ [Soldiers] bristled and then did a headcount. There were twenty Watch [Guards] who were watching the Antinium marching forwards without reaching for their weapons. Twenty of Pallass’ finest, a Walled City’s standing forces, finest of the fine!
…And the Antinium were Pawn and Belgrade, Yellow Splatters and Painted Antinium. And the ones who had fought against Hectval and pushed back Manus’ strike force.
Pawn had, in fact, stopped when asked, but a squad of ten kept walking, as did a group of nearly twenty Soldiers, each one holding a big, big weapon. In fact, one of the smaller Antinium, a Worker with a giant two-handed sword, a zweihander, stomped straight at the [Lieutenant].
“Halt! Grand Strategist, there are at least sixty Antinium—”
The [Lieutenant] jumped backwards as Chaldion gave the order to let them pass just in time. He swore, moved out of the way of Crusader 57, and nearly got kicked in the shins as the Worker lashed out with an armored boot.
Squad 5 of Battalion 1 marched past the Pallassian [Soldiers], much to the chagrin of Drakes and even the other Antinium. Crusader 57, a known quantity within his Hive, the Aberration, the Worker, the rude Antinium, didn’t leave it there either.
As the outraged Drakes watched, he kept one hand on the zweihander to keep it balanced on his shoulder. He devoted the other three hands to giving them middle fingers as he turned and passed.
“…Is that—a new type of Antinium?”
One of the [Soldiers] whispered as they watched Crusader 57 stomp up the hill. The soldiers watched as Pawn hurried after them and they entered the inn. Then they saw more hopefuls trying to enter.
“Ah, if the Antinium are entering—one side! Wistram News Network is on the—hey!”
Noass tried to push forwards as Drassi was finally admitted past the Thronebearers, without any scrying devices. The [Soldiers] blocked him, and the Drake frowned. He looked at Sir Relz, and the other [Commentator] gave him an encouraging nod. Noass squared his shoulders, kicked the [Lieutenant] in the shins, and raised a middle finger.
“Did anyone hear that?”
Erin Solstice’s second person in line was Seborn. He actually got up to look through a window and started laughing again.
“What’s going on?”
The young woman craned her neck as everyone went to a window. Grimalkin just shook his head; Ulvama began cackling, and Numbtongue guffawed. The two Hobgoblins doubled over as Seborn relayed what was going on.
“The Drake, Noass, is getting shock spelled. This is what I came here for.”
He went back and sat down, and Erin eyed that smile.
“You seem different, Seborn. Did you fall in love or something?”
The Drowned Man took a huge gulp of water.
“Not me, or I’d be carving poems into a clamshell or something inane like Jelaqua.”
He looked at Erin and calmed down a bit, but the smile still lingered. One eye in Seborn’s face glowed slightly, and half his body was a lobster, but it was amazing how…well, how normal that was. How much Erin had missed it.
“I’m just tired. Like I said. Tired of not having this. It’s good you’re back.”
The Drowned Man nodded as Erin searched for something to say to that. He looked at her.
“So, you know where a bunch of treasure is. Stories of ghosts. Got any sunken treasure chests for me to dig up? I could give you half.”
“Um. No…no, I wouldn’t know anything about that. Plus, they probably moved with the currents.”
The Drowned [Rogue]’s smile grew wider. Grimalkin made a footnote in his journal, and Selys sat up slightly.
Erin was sweating slightly as she floundered.
“I’m, uh, it’s a lot, and I have to think—”
“I get it. I’m not an idiot like that lot. I’d rather open oysters with my bare fingers than try to get something out of you right now.”
Jerking a thumb at the people in line, Seborn sat back. The smile still played around his lips, but he looked at Erin.
“Just promise me one thing.”
Seborn glanced towards the door.
“…When you get a chance, talk to Moore? He needs it, I think. The rest can wait. The tide’s flowing backwards and it’s all sweetwater and that’s fine. But give him a day.”
And with that, the Drowned Man got up and nodded to Erin.
“Good to have you back. If there is any buried treasure or something to do with the sea, you owe me a chance.”
“Sure. Good to see you, Seborn! I, um—next?”
Erin had the briefest moment of hesitation there. She didn’t have anything for Seborn specifically, but she wondered if he were up-to-date on how to catch invisible squid.
There was so much to do. But it occurred to Erin that Seborn was right. This was not the time. Even if she decided to embark on the highest priority things like finding a dungeon—Erin glanced at Grimalkin and Chaldion.
She was beckoning for the third person, who was in fact Pisces, when the doors opened and Antinium marched in. Erin turned, and her mouth opened.
A crusade entered the inn, and Pisces looked at the heavily armed, heavily armored Antinium who marched through the doors, formed into ranks, stopped, and stared.
At Erin. She stared back, eyes wide, and what did they see?
She saw Antinium she only vaguely, vaguely remembered from when she’d woken up, part of the hullabaloo. Antinium with no colors, but not regular, faceless Antinium either. Soldiers.
They saw a Human woman, riding across the battlefield as they were thrown into war. They saw General Sserys of Liscor.
They saw a frozen bier and the cause that had led them to fight Hectval in the war. They saw the sky of the Free Antinium and the person who had begun it all.
Crusader 57 spoke into that silence as Crusader 53 touched the Dragonbone mace at his side, looking at her in awe, and Crusader 55 shook like a leaf.
“Where’s our food? I was promised food.”
Erin blinked, and the spell wore off before it had even finished casting. Four Antinium nudged Crusader 57, but in a resigned way. Erin tried to rise, realized she couldn’t, and turned.
“Pisces, sorry—who are these Antinium? I mean—welcome! That Worker has a giant sword!”
She pointed at Crusader 57’s weapon. Pisces stepped back as Erin wheeled forwards, smiling.
“Hello! Welcome! I’m—I’m Erin Solstice.”
How they twitched at that. Their antennae, poking through the holes in their helmets, twitched, and Erin saw them lock onto her. Even the Worker with the giant sword.
She wanted to stand, take their hands, or hug them, but more Antinium were coming through. Erin looked around and gestured to the tables.
“Sit, come in! Food’ll be here in a second—Ishkr, Lyonette! Who…I’m Erin. I said that. We have to talk. Just sit down for now and, um, maybe put your weapons at the door? Do we have a weapon rack or something? At least the sword.”
The zweihander and the big weapons that another group of Antinium with horns on their helmets were carrying were going to be hazards, even if they leaned them against the table. Forget tripping over an umbrella or bag; you’d cut yourself if you ran into that big blade.
Erin pointed vaguely to a corner, and Crusader 57 glanced at it. His response was instantaneous and, unfortunately, predictable.
“fUcK yoU. No one takes my sword.”
Erin’s mouth unlatched itself once more. Mrsha turned in her chair like the student meeting the wise master of profanity. Lyonette clapped a hand over her mouth and then tried to cover Mrsha’s ears, and Seborn began clutching at his sides again.
Instantly, all of Squad 5 slapped Crusader 57 on the shoulder and back, and he slapped back. Erin Solstice looked at him, at a loss for words.
“Um. Who are you?”
The question had an odd effect on the group, because they came to attention, and even the amazing Worker responded.
“Crusader 57, Squad 5, Battalion 1 under Commander Dekass. Liscor’s Army. Acid Jar Battalion.”
He offered her a sarcastic salute, and Erin Solstice stared at him.
The question threw Squad 5 harder than appearing in the middle of the Great Plains in a war. They looked at Erin and saw the lack of knowledge behind her eyes. They beheld the sky…and the sky had no idea who they were.
Erin knew there had been a war against Hectval, but no one had told her everything. She looked at the [Crusaders], then the Beriad as they formed a line. Then Pawn and the other Antinium coming in and around the room.
Lyonette might have known, but she wasn’t at Liscor. Same for the Horns, and even if they had been in the area, like Grimalkin or Selys, this hadn’t been their war. It was something Erin had to be told; not her fault for not knowing.
She’d been dead. But as Erin looked at Squad 5, she felt a tremor in her heart. A deep uncertainty which only grew as the door opened and a grinning Cave Goblin clinging to an Antinium Worker’s back came in.
Rasktooth and Infinitypear. Erin didn’t know either one, but she realized the piggybacking Goblin wasn’t doing it just for fun as the Worker helped put him into a chair. She glanced around as Squad 5 introduced themselves.
“Crusader Toni. Crusader 52-3. Crusader 53, the original. Crusader 54-6, Crusader 55. Crusader 56-2. Crusader 57-7 is me, but I’m just Crusader 57 because it’s my name. Crusader 58-4, Crusader 59-2, and Crusader 60.”
What a strange kind of name. They had no formal names, just that number.
Just like…Antherr had. Erin listened to the way they said it, and something came together in her mind.
“What does—what does the number after the first one mean? Crusader 57…7?”
The Worker looked at Erin blankly and then explained slowly.
“It means six Crusader 57’s died before me. You didn’t know that either.”
Erin looked at him and then around the inn. Chaldion peered at the [Crusaders], his gemstone eye flashing. Relc just sighed and raised a mug for Squad 5, who waved at him. They seemed cheery, gazing around wonderingly, except for Crusader 57.
He might have got it first. Erin sat there and decided it was time to ask.
“I know there was a…war with Hectval. Didn’t Pawn say—what’s this about a crusade?”
She looked up as the [Priest] himself entered the inn and stopped. Pawn’s smile found Erin’s disturbed face, and his mandibles closed a bit and drooped. Pisces exhaled and decided to find a seat.
The ghosts of the dead were all gone. All gone, and there was nothing in the afterlife anymore. But still, somehow, they entered the inn. Erin had known there was a cost. She saw it unspoken behind some eyes, but Gire went still at her table, and Mrsha gazed sadly at the Antinium. Erin tried to count as she was offered a dozen explanations, but the number was too high.
Erin Solstice had already been grieving ten days, in part. She knew Khelta was gone and all the others. She was aware that good people had died to bring her back.
She remembered how she had felt after the Siege of Liscor and how it had crushed her for weeks.
This was not the same. The dead probably deserved it, but Erin was ashamed that she wasn’t catatonic with grief. She’d had too long to process it. She was…too grateful to be alive.
Even now, it was hard to believe it.
“The Antinium went to war to…for revenge.”
She looked around at the Antinium sitting with her, and Yellow Splatters nodded.
Pawn quickly interjected, looking at Yellow Splatters and then the other Antinium in the room.
“Not just for you, Erin. It was necessary. Hectval had to be stopped. Each [Crusader] volunteered. Ah, not [Crusaders]…special soldiers.”
They were glancing at the Drakes listening into the conversation, but that word had been dropped enough times for Grimalkin’s quill to not even bother noting it down. Erin gulped.
“And how many…?”
“I believe an exact count would not be productive.”
To Erin’s surprise, it was Belgrade who said that. The Worker seemed—different. For one thing, he’d brought some of the only non-Antinium guests that weren’t friends of Erin’s into the inn. He nodded at the wide-eyed Drakes and Gnolls currently begging autographs from some of the Gold-rank adventurers or looking around the inn.
“All of Liscor fought, Erin. My command squad is here as well, and I believe they would like to meet you. It was not just the Antinium.”
“So Drakes, Gnolls, Humans, and Antinium died.”
“They had to. It was a war. Hectval continued to launch attacks on Liscor. We are still at a state of war, but I believe it has been limited to skirmishes. At least, Yolden has joined us, and the alliance has fallen back to around their cities.”
The other Antinium nodded, and Belgrade clacked his mandibles.
“Commander Olesm is in the field, but I hope I can relieve him so he may return.”
“Commander Olesm. What’s Yolden? Another city?”
Selys broke in.
“I told you about it, Erin. Remember?”
Belgrade politely raised a finger and interrupted Selys.
“Actually, I believe [Strategos] Olesm is the more appropriate term, but we say ‘Commander’ as a catchall.”
“Huh? Huh? Huh?”
It was definitely too much to take in, but what Erin got from the introductions were…well, the important parts to her. She knew, despite Pawn’s attempts to downplay. Especially when she met the Beriad, who had fought against Zeres.
Antherr’s company, which had been a group of a hundred Antinium.
There were seventeen of them here, and many had limbs still in the process of being regrown. Or simply scars. Then Erin noticed the Goblins.
Ulvama was here, and she acted like she’d always been here and Erin was the new guest. Which was one thing. But Erin sensed there were more…Goblins in the inn than just that.
The Goblin waved as Erin came to his table. Infinitypear looked at the other Antinium, but oddly—he was not as familiar with them, and they nodded at him much like a stranger. Awkwardly.
Which was an interesting dynamic, and Erin recalled that he must have been part of the Mrsha-rescue alliance. Rasktooth cackled as he took Erin’s hand.
“Frozen [Innkeeper] all better. Good! Little bee, too.”
Apista crawled off his head and onto the table. Erin had never seen Apista so friendly, but Rasktooth and she were instantly given a cup of sweet blue juice. Rasktooth looked around his chair, but didn’t get up. There was a big scar on his stomach and back, and Erin gazed at him and then looked for Numbtongue and Bird. The Hobgoblin [Bard] met Erin’s gaze calmly and nodded. Numbtongue’s gaze was sad. And proud.
Not all of the Fellowship of the Inn had made it. But most had, and Erin hesitated as she gazed around, at the ceiling, at a wall…
“…Is there a Goblin in my basement?”
Everyone glanced at the floorboards, and when Ishkr went to check, he came back as a Goblin dressed all in black with eyeliner, a sharp umbrella, and even lipstick appeared. Gothica the [Goth] grinned at Rasktooth and waved at Erin as the [Innkeeper] silently pointed.
“Don’t ask me. I didn’t do it. But yeah, she’s a [Goth]. Not even a Visigoth. You think that’s weird? Wait until you meet Fightipilota.”
Kevin muttered as he scanned around for Goblins he knew. Gothica, for her part, stared at Erin with interest, but she’d been having fun in the basement.
There were tons of dead bodies down there for the Selphids, and she’d been pretending to be one then scaring the daylights out of Ishkr at random. She’d been doing it the last week as a hobby. And levelling.
It was all far, far too much for Erin to figure out. She turned back to Squad 5 and decided to do the only thing she could do.
“You’re super-welcome to my inn, everyone. Help yourself to anything on the menu and whatever you want to drink. I have people I need to talk to, but I’m gonna talk to you all. That’s a promise. I hope you enjoy The Wandering Inn!”
Squad 5 did cheer up at that, and they all nodded eagerly. They were reading the menu, which had its own Antinium-section for foods they could eat. Erin was almost breathing out when Crusader 57 spoke up again.
Crusader 57, the myth, the legend. It was safe to say most of the Free Antinium had heard of him already, although he hadn’t returned to the Hive more than twice since becoming a [Crusader]. However, word spread about the not-Aberration Worker with a foul mouth who’d told Klbkch to go perform intercourse on himself and was part of the famous Squad 5.
Not all of what was rumored about him was good. He was as famous as Silveran, but he occupied the negative space in public opinion, which made him a rarity. Only the horrible Furfur could compete, or Klbkch himself. He was rude, mean, and he hurt people’s feelings.
In this case, he didn’t even say anything that negative; he just spoke up where most Antinium were silent.
“So this is the inn that’s so special. Everyone talks about how wonderful it is. We’ll see.”
If ever there were a comment to make Erin sweat…she focused on Squad 5, who had hurled themselves into war for her, and turned.
“Um—I-Ishkr? Let’s start with some blue fruit juice and acid flies. For appetizers! Then they can order what they want.”
A bowl of acid flies for each [Crusader], and because Ishkr had been harvesting them for four months with few customers, he had enough for all the Antinium guests to fill their bowls and then some. Nevertheless, it was accompanied by blue fruit squeezed fresh into a glass, and Imani had arrived with Palt to reinforce the inn’s culinary staff. Lasica had already begun making backup dishes.
Erin watched Squad 5 eat with relish as they crunched down the big, black flies, which had the faintest taste of, yes, acid. It was not a sight for the faint-of-heart, and new guests to the inn, like Gire, seemed nauseous as they glimpsed a few innards gushing from cracked flies. The Antinium also experienced the joys of sugar as the blue fruit drinks were served.
This is good.
One of the Beriad signaled with the Antinium’s developing language. He was carefully, painstakingly weighing his options between a Cheesicore Omelette—an omelette filled with cheese, Corusdeer venison or other meat, and local veggies, or the Antinium-version of a Grainbite Trout, which meant instead of crumbs and spices stuffed inside, it was acid flies and spices.
It was possibly the hardest choice he would ever make in his life, and if Antinium could sweat, he would have. One of his comrades came to his aid in this dire hour to suggest he get the trout, which meant they could split the dish.
That was the kind of tactical thinking you got from being a [Soldier] in Calruz’s squad. It didn’t occur to the Beriad that they could order more than one dish apiece.
In a way, the Antinium lacked for some of the inn’s wonderfulness because they didn’t realize ordering a dish and having it appear literally less than five minutes later, steaming hot, was a luxury. However, they certainly appreciated actual food, seats and utensils designed for them, and the ambiance of the inn.
There was the sky herself, and even if she didn’t create a manifestation of Heaven just by being near them, some people were climbing onto the stage, the Hobgoblin was tuning his guitar, and the inn felt…cosy. Even if Klbkch had returned, the inn was inviting to them like no place they had ever been, except the Painted Antinium’s barracks. And there was the little fluffy white Gnoll they’d heard about!
Like [Tourists], they looked from thing to thing they’d heard about in the stories. The [Innkeeper] looked relieved that they were pleased, and even Crusader 57 could readily admit that the food was good and the inn was nice.
But that was just it. He leaned forwards as Erin wheeled over to the table.
“How’s that, guys? Squad 5? Enjoying yourselves?”
All of Squad 5 tried to cover Crusader 57’s mouth, but he just bit at their fingers.
“The food is good. It’s a nice inn. Not worth dying for. You’re okay too.”
Pawn and Belgrade froze at their table and stared at Crusader 57’s back. Bird calmly tossed a Garry-gluten roll at Crusader 57’s head. It bounced off his helmet, and Erin shook her fist.
“Bird! I’m…I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were fighting. I would have said…”
Crusader 57 stared at Erin blankly.
“It’s not your fault. We were going to die in the Hive anyways. Fighting Hectval is better. And easier, even with Manus. It’s just not worth it for the inn.”
He glanced around defiantly as the other Antinium glared at him. Crusader 57 was rapidly plummeting to the depths only Klbkch, Furfur, and Ksmvr had ever enjoyed in the Antinium popularity poll.
But the thing was…Erin studied him. She could recognize an Aberration’s voice, and he didn’t have that shaking dissonance in his words. But he was still a very angry Worker. And he wasn’t wrong. Slowly, Crusader 57 got up.
“They talk about the statues too. Can we see them? That would be good.”
The statues. Pawn, Numbtongue…everyone looked up. Erin instantly nodded, but then she had another thought. Her face fell.
“Oh no. I mean—yes, obviously. But—”
But when they went up that hill, into the mists where the statues waited for all those who knew them, Squad 5 halted. For they saw nothing but a bench and the statues of other people. Antinium, Goblins, Humans, Drakes, Gnolls, yes. People who mattered.
Yet Crusader 51 was not there. Yet none of the others were there because Erin Solstice didn’t know them. She had never met them and never would. Crusader 57 nodded slowly.
“Yep. I knew it was just okay.”
He turned, and Erin flinched slightly, but the Worker walked calmly past her and went back to eat more food. Because he hadn’t expected anything. That was worse. It sank into Erin as she looked at Squad 5, at the Beriad, who watched as Pawn, Belgrade, and Bird stood in their circle.
They were dead, and she hadn’t known them. But then Erin gazed around her [Garden of Sanctuary] and realized…there was no Califor. No Khelta.
It sank over her again, just like all the other times. Then Erin looked up and wondered where Krshia was. Surely she’d be here, or the Silverfangs.
The answer was that they might, but probably not today. After all—the tribes were still in mourning.
They were still burning the dead in the Great Plains, but it was also true that a species was in mourning. Not just the Gnolls, of course; there were reasons to mourn across the world.
The city of Paeth had appeared in Talenqual, but so many Fraerlings had died they had to weigh that with the sheer need to protect their vulnerable city.
The Forgotten Wing company had won a terribly bloody battle at their capital. But they were [Soldiers]. Mercenaries who kept moving.
Ailendamus and the Dawn Concordat had fallen back to count their losses, but the war was still going on. They were still mourning Great General Dionamella, but the immortals of Ailendamus also counted Fithea, the last Dryad, amongst their losses.
However, the greatest death toll had come from the Great Plains and the Gnoll people. So yes, ten days was not enough time to mourn. Ten days was enough for the shock to wear off, to actually try and begin honoring the dead.
Silverfang was not in the mood to join the inn or even pay attention to the Mythical Quest. So how did a species mourn? Someone watched. He gazed through eyes of magic, not as a voyeur, but someone who cared.
Who had woken up. Who was counting the costs of his slumber. He knew mourning. Teriarch, the last Dragonlord of Flame, observed the Silverfang tribe among many others.
Each city or tribe was different. Of course. But species figured out different ways to process grief through their long existence and history. For instance, in Pallass, Salazsar, and Oteslia, but most of all in Fissival, Zeres, and Manus, where they had taken the most casualties, the Drakes mourned in private ceremonies. They buried the dead who had been retrieved, but the public mourning was the military parades.
They were going on in all six Walled Cities. Lines of armored [Soldiers] marched down the widest streets as civilians cheered them. To the sensibilities of other species, the Dragon understood how it could look.
See, we have tried to slaughter a people and now we celebrate. They were throwing these parades in honor of the fallen, the courage of combat, and the cheering filled the air. The Walled Cities were perhaps lucky Erin Solstice had chosen today to post her quest; otherwise, this might have been the coverage of the day.
That was one read on what the Drakes were doing. The Dragon heard and saw something else. The cheering of the Drakes in the crowds was a roar of exuberant voices. Raw. His eyes could pick out some people wearing white for death screaming their lungs out, tears in their eyes.
It mattered. The parade meant that the dead soldiers had been heroes. They had to be heroes. If they weren’t…the celebration had a desperate tinge to it in parts. Cheering so loud it drowned out tears a moment. Then, the Dragon knew, the living would attend the funerals for the deceased, often cremation. Richer or more important Drakes would occupy the very contested graveyards, but a memorial would be put up.
After the burial, sometimes literally minutes afterwards, the families and loved ones would attend the wills being read out and possessions of the dead being divided up. It was customary.
“What? They’re fighting over inheritance minutes after they bury their own?”
Erin heard an indignant voice as she returned from the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She found Maughin had arrived at the inn, but he was late.
He had been attending a funeral, and apparently, he had been named as a beneficiary of one of the Pallassian [Soldiers] who had perished in the Meeting of Tribes. It was a topic of outrage from Lyonette, who had bristled at learning Pallass was throwing a huge parade—that all the Walled Cities were.
Erin slowly wheeled forward as the [Smith] awkwardly took off his head and bowed to her, then let Jelaqua sit his head next to her. He replied gravely.
“It is customary, I understand, Pr—Miss Lyonette. Dullahans are more reserved, but each people to their own.”
“Yes, I understand, but a will minutes after…?”
Selys didn’t quite meet Lyonette’s gaze, but the angry young woman was rarely undiplomatic. She glared around.
“That should be at least—at least a day removed. Why do it that way?”
“Because, Lyonette, it means they cared.”
If Selys was unwilling to get into Drake customs in light of recent events, Lasica was more than willing, and she emerged from the kitchen with a deep frown for the [Princess]. The [Chef] spoke sharply.
“It means they cared. Almost all Drakes have a will when they’re sixteen or older. Nothing fancy, but [Soldiers] especially list things out. You often don’t get much if you’re not close, close family, but even distant friends get a trinket.”
She nodded at Maughin, who had received a fine whetstone. Lasica went on, not taking her eyes from Lyonette, who had begun to look a bit uneasy.
“It means they were thinking about you, and you have something to remember them by. I don’t know how Humans do it, but it matters to us. With that said, I don’t expect the Gnolls to be sympathetic, but I will thank you not to insult the Drakes who fought for the tribes.”
It was a Drake idea; a very material way to let someone know you mattered, like how Selys had gotten Zel’s Heartflame Breastplate by accident. Or, alternatively, one last way to tell someone they were getting nothing from you and you always hated their guts.
It sort of made sense to Erin. She turned to Gireulashia and Mrsha, the only two Plains Gnolls in the inn thus far.
“What…what about Silverfang, Gire? What’s happening with the tribes?”
Gire started guiltily and responded slowly.
“If it’s Silverfang, they might do something else…but I think they’re probably—feeding the animals.”
“Hm? What does that mean?”
Gnoll tribes had vast flocks of animals. It was a matter of practicality to them that even in the depths of grief, you could not abandon them.
So, instead, one of the days of mourning was devoted to sitting down with flocks of sheep, dogs, or other livestock, and giving them as much as you could to eat. A rare treat, assuming the situation wasn’t dire. Then combing them, pampering the sheepdogs, as a community.
Gnolls would stop moving and eat and drink foods devoted to these hours, but the main thing they did was…tell stories.
For each person you knew had passed, you told a story. One day, you told a silly story about them. The next, you told those listening a tale you might never have shared in life, that had made you angry. A tale of failure. The third day, you told their triumphs or how they died.
Krshia Silverfang had been telling stories in between the mandatory meetings with the Council from sunup to sundown.
There were too many Gnolls she knew who had died. Too many, and even in her immediate family—
Shaman Cetrule was dead. In the Great Plains, apparently Satar Silverfang was going around, writing down every story she could, and many came to the young [Historian] such that she was constantly working. It was for the best, Krshia thought. It helped her to have something to do.
When she had talked with her sister in the scrying orb, she had seen the difference in Cers. He, by contrast, just clung to Akrisa’s paw as she went from place to place. Silent as a ghost.
Krshia should have stayed there. None of the Silverfangs who had come to Liscor had gone to the inn.
Silverfangs did something else unique to their tribe. Many Gnoll tribes would be honoring their dead, and when they met, Silverfang would surely honor Ekhtouch, Weatherfur, Gaarh Marsh, even Steelfur’s warriors in their way and tell more stories.
But Silverfangs were making something, carefully pouring wax into molds, and delicately, delicately writing or even drawing on the candles with silver paint.
They would make a candle in honor of those they knew and light it on the final day. When it burnt low, they would return to work.
There was not enough wax in Liscor for everyone. So, yes. Krshia did not begrudge Erin returning to excitement. She was glad for Erin and even the distraction the Mythical Quest had caused for a moment. But she still had to mourn. And how were you supposed to do it? Krshia’s paws faltered as she wrote Cetrule’s name on a candle. She gazed at a line of candles she had already made, not with the stories and even words from everyone on each candle, such that they were a temporary work of art.
Twenty-eight candles sat there. It was too much, even for their customs. How was she supposed to mourn…?
How and where? The scope was beyond imagining—at least in this age. The Dragon had seen worse. There was no comparison in his mind, but he had seen worse.
Even so, he didn’t know himself, so he watched them for answers. Teriarch let the scrying spells lapse to silence. He closed his eyes, but forced himself to watch one last person.
He could not sleep. Not anymore. So, with all the delicacy in the world, he focused the spells on a final person, despite the considerable wards and privacy that was surely deserved. But Teriarch needed to know. So he searched for Fetohep of Khelt.
It was not the palace of Khelt, nor the great city of Koirezune, the capital, where the undead stood. He had left his glorious palace of countless floors and wonders silently, and his servants never noticed his passage.
It was not far from the capital that you could find empty land, if you took a steed that feared neither exhaustion nor injury. Here, the sands were scattered with bits of ivory and rock, often blown in from distant lands. For Khelt did border Zeikhal, and was still very much a desert in places.
Only water, time, and the ceaseless work of undead kept it from becoming a wasteland once more. That was why Khelta the First had founded her nation here; no one would want this land.
Here, oblivion stretched from the bright sand onwards to the horizon, where the Great Desert lay. The wind blew lightly, and the sun still shone down and made everything painfully bright.
There, a man stood. No, a corpse. Both? He looked like he had died here, arms outstretched, the wind blowing at his robes and dirty armor hanging off a withered frame. His dark brown skin, almost calcified with age and rot, was paper-thin, but the mummified corpse held himself there.
His head was turned up to the sky, bright blue, and two golden flames burned in the eye sockets. In that way you knew he was alive and a powerful undead, but the figure did not move.
He had not moved for a few hours. He could have been a scarecrow, albeit the most richly decorated scarecrow in the world. The one thing that was unlike Fetohep, that would have struck anyone who saw him thusly, was this:
The yellowed teeth of his jaw shone faintly under the light. His mouth was open, exposing long-decayed insides to the world. A jaw fully agape, open, and that was something…Fetohep did not eat. He did not move his jaw, even to speak, for he had no lungs nor need of a tongue.
Yet the mouth was open, and if you looked down at him, what did you see?
An undead soul screaming to the heavens. That open mouth, howling in silence. Like the winds blowing across Zeikhal, agony frozen in a single expression even a corpse could convey.
Yet not a word, not a sound could be heard save for the winds. For even far, far from his capital, even with no chance of anyone overhearing—
A ruler did not scream. A king could wail and gnash his teeth. But they would not find him here, screaming to the skies. So the undead figure stood there as the sun burned across the sky. That voiceless howl went on and on.
Khelt had died.
That they were ghosts hadn’t mattered. Khelt had died, and the last person besides Erin Solstice who could mourn them stood there and knew how empty these lands were.
Teriarch watched Fetohep of Khelt as long as he was able. Which was not long. He closed the scrying spell and lay there in his cave.
No young Dragoness was present, nor the [Maid]. They had both returned to their homes—for now. Like Fetohep, like Erin Solstice, the Dragon knew he had deeds before him.
But first—he had a question. And it was this:
How did you mourn a people?
He did not know. And he had watched each species as if hoping to find a clue, but he hadn’t been able to find his answer. Fetohep of Khelt’s expression had been too close. For if he knew every great ruler and ghost of Khelt was gone…
Every Dragon had also gone as well. They had already been dead, but that was the thing. He had made his peace with each one.
He had not thought to see them and see them all perish at once. To know there would never be a reunion. Worse, worse…he had not expected to be given his charge.
Worst of all, Teriarch had not looked for the glory he saw. The Dragonlords fighting an impossible foe. Burning across the skies with pride and defiance.
“What am I supposed to do?”
He had no idea. The Brass Dragon knew every manner of burial and mourning. He had attended more funerals than any other being in existence that he knew of.
Dragons had mourned their kind in many different ways over the ages. At first, they had created memorials for the greatest of their kind—and watched the mortals tear them down or their edifices break and wear, even the most beautiful.
So then they had decided another thing, which was to take an item they loved out of their hoards—and Dragons were greedy and possessive, by and large—and gift it. To mortals who had known the Dragons, to others of their kind. That was the origin of Drake wills, if he remembered right. The gift mattered as a way of remembrance.
“…There are none left who remember half the Dragons who died, even the greatest. I would empty my hoard. To whom?”
He laughed at the idea and looked around blankly at things he only half-remembered acquiring. There was little here that…mattered. No. Some things greatly, but not that either.
“In the last ages of our kind, when a Dragon passed, we would reveal ourselves to the nearest mortals and speak to them of who had died. Impart a brief, fleeting memory for a single lifetime, no matter how short. Let their names be heard once more before silence.”
He toyed with the idea of that, appearing before one of the adventuring teams in the High Passes, or a [Shepherd], and telling them of the arrogance of Muzarre, the Dragonlord of Earth. Or perhaps the contradictory nature of the last Knight-Dragon, Yderigrisel, full of honor and bravado at times. Better than most Dragons for the causes he championed, and damned in Teriarch’s eyes for the victory he claimed at the end.
But he had no time for all the stories, and it would not be fair to tell just one. Perhaps that inn would be suitable.
And yet—Teriarch shuddered. He did not remember that young woman, Erin Solstice. He did not know her. But they had met. And that knowledge, the contradiction of certainty and a gap in his self, was most terrifying of all.
All too tempting to curl up and sleep until the moment was long behind him. With every instinct, Teriarch had to fight that urge.
“Not again. Nevermore.”
Slowly, he slunk from his cave. Or waddled. His body felt leaden. His wings flapped, ungainly, and he peered around, blinking irritably in the sunlight.
“Why me? Why not the first Dragonlord of Gems, Saracandre, or haughty Xarkouth. Why not…why not a Djinni, damn it? I may be one of the oldest, but…”
It had all been planned out. He understood that. They had waited for him, scolded him and laughed at him, and sent him back with an impossible mission like he was a copper-a-dozen [Hero] trying to take down a Kraken with a shiny rock.
Perhaps it was simply who had resurrected him. As the Dragonlords died, the spell might have well failed on them, and it was too great a risk to take. Teriarch wondered if it were also that only one name would have really mattered to the person they had to convince.
“Why me? Who are you? What were you, to me?”
All he knew was a name. And though he could guess, there was nothing there. No flicker of emotion, no spark of even the faintest memory.
“Ryoka Griffin. Magnolia Reinhart…”
Nothing. The Dragon shook his head. Then he spread his wings and flew. He did not have the words to mourn so many, nor the time. He had not the elegance—not anymore, nor even did his vast wealth suit the occasion.
What were you supposed to do in these times? When you grieved, but you had grieved before? When even a garden would not showcase your loss? The Dragonlord climbed higher, searching.
And an [Innkeeper] looked around.
Erin had let Crusader 57 down. She knew it. Him and others. The Wandering Inn had food coming out of the kitchens, but contrary to Mrsha-belief, food did not equate to everything.
Her garden didn’t have the statues. And she herself was…well. Erin wanted to hug Crusader 57, stand up, and…
What could she do? That was the question. Erin thought about it, and this was still only an hour after she’d just posted a Mythical Quest.
Everyone still wanted to talk about that.
“Miss Solstice. As I was saying, Pallass is willing to offer…”
“Yeah, yeah, Grimalkin. Shush. Did you actually think I’d go for it?”
“At first offer? No. But I am prepared to offer you—”
Erin looked up at the Drake and frowned.
“Are you going to threaten me if bribing me doesn’t work?”
The [Sinew Magus] closed his mouth, and Erin folded her arms. He slowly glanced over his shoulder, and Erin traced his gaze back to Chaldion.
“…I am representing Pallass, Erin. You understand it’s my—duty—to do all I can in that regard.”
Something was odd about the way he said ‘duty’. Erin studied Grimalkin, and her distraction turned to a moment of curiosity.
Even he seemed different. But she couldn’t chase down that momentary flicker. It was not the time.
“…Can we skip the threats? Let’s say you try again…in two days?”
Grimalkin eyed Erin, then made a note on his pad.
“Very well. It would appear that’s for the best. Especially since I gather you are distracted…I will not waste our time. Thank you, Erin.”
Erin blinked, but he rose and left the table without a word. Chaldion glared, and the two began arguing as he sat back down. He was right, though. Erin kept staring at the [Crusaders]. And Rasktooth. And Gothica.
She had no way to thank them, and she couldn’t tell the others about Khelta and…not with what it would do.
But she had to do…something, right?
Perhaps, though, everyone else felt it too, because Grimalkin was not the only person who decided to leave things for later. Pisces had abandoned what he was going to say when he saw the Antinium come in, and even Seborn and Klbkch had all known the score.
This was the hour of the Solstice Effect™ after all. What would come next? The [Innkeeper] seemed frustrated as she wheeled around in her chair, so, after a moment’s hesitation, someone stood up and sidled over.
“Psst. Erin. Do you need…this?”
The young woman glanced around and saw…Kevin. He had something he was shielding with his back. It was…his laptop.
“Huh? Kevin? What for?”
The [Mechanic] gave her a huge wink. He had a program open on the computer.
“I’ve got a bunch of songs loaded up. Not all your style, but maybe take a look and find something you want? Or the movies! I bet Palt could put one up on the big screen.”
The young man scratched at his head as Mrsha sat up in her chair, interested.
“For…something? Party? Movie-night? I’m just saying—give the word.”
“The word. For the laptop. Okay.”
Erin’s brows scrunched together. She saw what Kevin was getting at. He was expecting something. So was Ishkr.
He had already, with the help of his sister, Liska, begun pulling up kegs from the basement and was counting mugs. He had a wand to start little flames, a bunch of coins for spare change, and some Faerie Flowers, pre-dried, lying in his work kit.
Erin stared at Ishkr, then at Lyonette as she came over.
“Erin, I’d like a heads-up whenever anything begins.”
“When what begins, Lyonette? I’m not—”
The [Princess] held up an overly patient hand and gave Erin a smile as Ser Sest stood behind her.
“I’m sure you’re not. But when—if it begins, I’d just like to know what it’s going to be. Let me handle pricing, and I think we can agree that maybe it should be outside? Or at least Mrsha and the Goblins and Antinium should be separated from the huge crowds. For safety.”
“Absolutely. But what am I doing?”
Lyonette du Marquin gave Erin a long look.
“You tell me.”
The inn was so ready you could feel it. Mrsha was writing down a brief explanation to Gire about what was going on, and even Seborn was drinking very lightly so he didn’t miss anything happening next. Relc rubbed his claws together as Klbkch returned—with Embria in tow.
“Did I miss anything, Relc?”
“Nah, just those Antinium coming through. And Noass getting electrified.”
Embria nodded. She glanced at Squad 5, then sat down.
“Hey, kid! Did you see Vok or any of the Gnolls from Cellidel in the crowd? They might not be able to come up. Maybe I’ll get them—oh! Oh, wait, she’s moving!”
Everyone stared at Erin as she slowly wheeled across the inn. She glanced around, and they pretended not to be watching. Erin scratched at her arm.
“I’m going to the bathroom, okay?”
They watched her leave the inn, and Jelaqua immediately put money down against Saliss on whether or not Erin was actually going to the bathroom.
Erin went to the bathroom, but she mainly did it to think. This was her fault. She’d done this too many times. She’d even told them there was a party at the inn! And she could see where Kevin was coming from.
It wasn’t hard. Wave your hands around twice, boot up Shrek, and you had the makings of something already. Or you did something like, uh…getting a stick, a few flat rocks, and having Ceria freeze over the baseball field and invent hockey.
“Actually, what about Hedault? I haven’t seen him in a while, but I bet he still likes skateboarding. And Kevin has got to have, like, eight skateboards. Could Ceria or Grimalkin and Moore make, like, a skate park? Can you skateboard on ice?”
Erin could just imagine Gireulashia doing some kind of ridiculous backwards wavefront triple-axel spin-kick somersault on a skateboard. Yep, and then you’d have a competition and—
“Oh! Skateboarding? That means—I, um, uh—”
Erin nearly jumped out of the outhouse as a loud voice in the stall next to hers rang out. Someone quickly burst out the door and fled. Erin shouted back.
“I know that was you, Drassi!”
Everyone wanted a party, and if Erin didn’t act fast, it was going to start without her. In fact, she thought it made sense. After all that had happened, a Wandering Inn classic was just what you needed for a palette cleanser, right? It wouldn’t solve the world’s ills, but—that was something she could eminently do, and so she owed it to people.
Just do it. Wait, wait…do I invent a shoe company? Nah. But give them what they want, right? Skateboarding…movie…quest? Do those things work together?
The thing was, Erin didn’t think it was the right thing to do. It was the easy thing to do, and it had worked every single time before, more or less. Maybe a party would make Crusader 57 say this inn had something cool. But Erin thought she’d let him down.
Back when the Antinium had nothing, a plate of spaghetti meant the world to them. These days, Crusader 57 got camp food, and that was sometimes better than what Erin could cook. She had been very useful to Goblins and Antinium at the start with very little, but that was because they had had nothing at all.
These days, if she offered Bird a fried egg, he’d ask her to put salt on it first and would it kill her to add some ketchup in the form of a bird on top? Erin was afraid that if she did her party, it would be what they wanted, and it wouldn’t be worth it at all.
I had no time to really talk to Klbkch. He has something he wants to talk to me about. And so does Seborn. Moore? Even Grimalkin the Pushy, Grimalkin, left me alone.
Because…they knew they weren’t going to get anything out of Erin today. She just caused a scene, vamoosed, and then she’d do something cool and they’d hear what mattered in five days. Even Tekshia and Zevara had let her go.
And Erin couldn’t tell them about the ghosts. At least not the way she wanted. The Gnolls were dead.
So Erin pushed open the door to the outhouse and spent five minutes getting into her wheelchair. And she knew that it wasn’t the same as she slowly began to wheel back to the inn.
However, the people gathered below the inn all pointed to her, and someone actually shouted up.
“Hey! When is it starting? Do something already! I have the night shift in five hours!”
Erin sighed louder. She wheeled back to the inn, glumly thinking about just posting a Legendary Quest. Then at least she’d buy time rebuilding the inn.
She had her hand on the door and was thinking how to start it off. She wanted to answer their needs, she really did. Then, later, maybe she’d find a way to securely talk to Fetohep. And say…sorry. And talk to Krshia, though that wasn’t her fault. And ask Crusader 57 to tell her everything.
Erin realized she was still pressing on the door and stared at it.
“It opens outwards? When did that happen?”
The world was topsy-turvy. Erin rolled back a bit and realized the issue with wheelchairs and doors that opened into said wheelchairs. She rolled back a bit more, extended her arm to reach out, and gave up. She looked over her shoulder at the crowd and then at the inn. Then Erin Solstice slowly wheeled her chair forwards, past the door, and came to a stop after a minute.
She was still sitting there when Ishkr found her. He opened the door with the intuition of someone realizing that Erin might be having trouble getting into her wheelchair or into the inn, but saw that the outhouses were open. So he studied the crowd and saw them all staring ‘behind’ the inn.
The Gnoll found Erin Solstice sitting on the edge of the grass hill, under the sun. It was fall, but some days were warm enough, and she was gazing down at the Floodplains.
“Look at all those colors, Ishkr. Did you know that the grass changed to orange and red and yellow like this?”
Purple too. Erin was seeing the Floodplains change color for the winter. Ishkr hesitated.
“I’ve lived here for most of my life, Erin. Yes.”
The [Head Server] waited, but Erin didn’t say anything else. She glanced up after a moment and added.
“I mean, I saw it last year, but I guess I forgot. Anyways, it looks cool.”
It was pretty, but Ishkr was more worried about Erin’s face. She didn’t seem like a woman with a plan, nor did she have the too-bland look she got when she was actually about to unleash havoc. She was just…staring out across the Floodplains. Most of the crowd was on the other side, watching the front of the inn, although some were sidling around to stare at her. Some had scrying orbs, others had Grimalkin-style notepads.
Erin ignored them all.
“I wish we had the magic door. Then I could slip out somewhere else. I guess that’s on the list of things to do.”
“I am sure Miss Lyonette has it on her list. Can I wheel you inside, Erin? Or do you need anything?”
If she had said, ‘Ishkr, get me two mops, a jar of magicore, and a banana peel’, he would have done so at once. But the [Innkeeper] just sat there.
“I don’t think so, Ishkr. They’re all ready for a party, aren’t they?”
She didn’t move. Ishkr was even sure that if Erin really wanted to, she could have used the [Garden of Sanctuary] to get into the inn. Yet she didn’t go anywhere, and after a minute of him standing there uncomfortably, she glanced up.
“Why don’t you take a seat, Ishkr? I’d offer you mine, but this thing doesn’t have brakes. Sort of a design flaw. I might go rolling down and kill someone.”
A few Gnolls at the base of the hill decided not to stand right below her. Erin smiled a bit, and Ishkr awkwardly sat down.
“Can I get you anything, Miss Erin?”
“Erin’s okay. You’ve been here super long. As long as Lyonette, that was when we hired you. Man, that was a weird time. Remember that?”
Awkwardly, the Gnoll adjusted his apron and sat cross-legged. He didn’t know what kind of devious plan this was…but the grass was quite lovely, and they’d cleared the damn bear traps someone had left here once. He’d been terrified of walking around here for ages. Erin noticed his hesitation.
“Ah—nothing. It’s just that there were bear traps around here at one point. Not any longer—”
Ishkr explained briefly, and Erin looked around.
“Whoa, that’s bad. I did that? Those Raskghar got in my head. Don’t worry—I can sort of tell what’s around my inn. We’re safe. And you still decided to work at my inn?”
“The pay is good.”
That said nothing, and both of them knew it. Erin laughed.
“Why did you work here? To begin with?”
Ishkr pondered the question and shifted, embarrassed.
“Honestly, Erin? Krshia told me to. She wanted someone to let her know what was going on now and then and make sure you had good help.”
“That Krshia! Well—why did you stay?”
“Because it was interesting. Besides which, there are worse jobs for a [Server]. You do not shout at me, even when I make mistakes, and you do pay better than some places. The plays helped, and I liked it here.”
“Wow. But you survived, like, Creler attacks and Raskghar. And the moths. And you kept the inn running when I was dead, and I guess you survived this Stitch Witch? And…are we paying you enough?”
Erin was counting on her fingers, and she turned to Ishkr. He politely folded his hands in his apron and saw the people pointing up at him and Erin. It was a bit disconcerting, so he focused on the [Innkeeper].
“You could pay me more.”
“Let’s do that. How—how was it when I was, y’know, dead?”
Ishkr didn’t know why she was asking all this, but he could only answer honestly.
“Quiet. Very quiet. Aside from the beginning when the [Witch] came and the Titan was in the inn…it was quiet. Nothing happened some days. The others could tell you about the, ah, exciting moments.”
“No, go on. Tell me what happened when things weren’t blowing up.”
He shrugged awkwardly. This was the longest they’d talked that he could remember. She’d ask him how his day was, but always in a busy inn. This?
“I—would sweep up, make sure there was food for the guests, and then I’d have days when no one came in. Sometimes I’d poke my head into the garden to make sure everything was the same, but it was quiet. I…just read books.”
“A few. But I think I just took naps or sat there. Thinking. I just kept the inn from getting dusty. It was hardly as heroic as anything anyone else did.”
“But someone had to. I appreciate it. I really do. And your sister’s working here now, so I guess this really is sort of like home, right? Your parents…”
She coughed, and Ishkr made a face.
“My sister is, ah, a good worker. Sometimes. She gets into trouble with the Watch, but they’re reasonable about it. Most of the time.”
“She picks fights with them. Her and her…nevermind. It is complicated. And my parents haven’t been able to talk to her. So she comes to me with her problems.”
“That’s a problem. What’s—”
Erin coughed again, and there was a wheeze in her voice. Ishkr saw her face go red, and he stood up.
“Do you need a drink?”
Erin nodded. She saw Ishkr half-rise, then a smile crossed his face. He looked at her.
“Do you have an order?”
Her throat was super-dry, or there was pollen or something. Erin wheezed.
“Anything. Just a drink—”
She coughed, and when she raised her head, Ishkr had a clear cup of deep violet juice. Erin blinked, but took the cup and tasted sour juice. Yet with a dash of sweet; even so, she puckered her lips and took a gulp and felt the urge to cough vanish.
“Waitasecond. Is this the watermelon juice from Wailant’s spitting watermelons?”
“Yes, Miss Solstice.”
“How’d you—do you just have watermelon juice in a bag of holding?”
Erin looked, but Ishkr didn’t even have a bag of holding. He smiled, pleased with himself.
“[Menu: Instantaneous Order]. I believe I gained it after the Titan visited the inn.”
“That’s so cool! Thanks, Ishkr!”
Erin sipped from the cup in relief. She’d all but forgotten they served the juice. Ishkr sat back down, and Erin sighed. She saw him watching her, and after a second, Ishkr spoke.
“…There isn’t a party you had in mind, is there, Erin?”
“Nope. I mean, I could do it like that.”
Erin snapped her fingers and looked at the inn.
“Just crack a window open and I shout ‘movie night’ and we’re good. But I can’t. I…can’t. Listen, it’s okay. I’ll take the heat. Can you get an order for yourself?”
“Not for another…twenty minutes.”
“Whoa, that’s a fast cooldown, isn’t it?”
“Not when it’s rush hour, but it is a helpful thing. If you would like, I can get a straw or ice. It would only take me six seconds.”
“Ooh! You can do the [Garden of Sanctuary] trick too?”
The most adept inn-goers had learned they could maneuver around the inn by entering the garden and moving the door to where they wanted at amazing speed. But their conversation broke off when someone shouted from below.
“Hey! Stop drinking juice! I have a bet on the party!”
It was the same Drake from before. Erin grimaced, and Ishkr half-rose, but Erin waved him down.
“Nah, nah. I have something for this. Lyonette made me take all kinds of artifacts. Here’s the one for not getting shot again…here’s the anti-scrying one Saliss gave me, and the appraisal—aha!”
She slapped a little bit of gemstone on the third ring, and Ishkr’s ears popped as a bubble of silence enveloped them. Erin winked at him.
“Eavesdropping measures. But it probably won’t work on Grimalkin or even Saliss. Or Pisces—he reads lips. So I couldn’t talk about the big stuff.”
So there was big stuff. But then, Ishkr and even Mrsha knew that. He waited for Erin to suggest they go in, but she kept sipping drinks.
“I know they want us, Ishkr. But let’s keep sitting. Is it okay if I ask about Liska? She seems sort of, um, Ryoka-ish? Does she just go around punching people and that’s why she’s in trouble? You don’t have to tell me.”
Indeed, Ishkr did not, and he had never, ever brought it up. Because it might mean trouble, and Ishkr didn’t invite that sort of thing, despite working at The Wandering Inn. So he hesitated.
But it was also Erin Solstice, and she had a habit of defending Goblins, Antinium, and Doombringers. So he leaned over and whispered.
“She…has a female companion. Which is not as much of a problem as it would be in some cities, but it is still Liscor. She does not like people trying to stop her either, so she starts fights.”
“A female c—oh. I get it. A girlfriend.”
Erin blinked a few times.
“Huh. Thanks for telling me. I mean, I won’t tell anyone. But I thought she did something really bad like breaking windows.”
Ishkr heaved a heavy sigh.
“She does that too, sometimes. Do you know Sellme?”
“What? No, the [Magical Painter]…the one who causes trouble. They’re an influence on Liska and…”
Ishkr hesitated, because he had a sudden suspicion. So did Erin, and she leaned on her chin.
“Huh. Well, I guess we’re gonna have to watch our windows if Mrsha’s friends come over. Then again—ours are pretty tough to break. But that’s hard, being the older brother. Do you, like, need anything?”
The Gnoll [Server] shook his head instantly.
“Actually, since the Watch comes to the inn, it has helped more. Senior Guardsman Beilmark, Councilmember Jeiss, and Senior Guardsman Relc have all stepped in rather than arresting her.”
“That’s good. But let me know if you need help, okay? And I guess we’ll hire Liska. Keeps her out of trouble, and we need the crew back. Even if Silveran can’t come.”
Ishkr looked up, and Erin smiled. Then her stomach growled, and she poked it.
“You traitor. I was just having a good time! Wait, I never had lunch, and it’s…”
She stared out, and it was definitely getting into the first hours of evening. The sun was still warm, but Ishkr rose. Instead of asking if she wanted to go inside, he gestured at a door at the back of the inn.
“Could I get you anything?”
“Um…I need our menus. I’m not in the mood for fries, y’know? Can you get…”
Erin didn’t really want a snacky food like onion rings, and something more filling like a full steak was also not really a ‘sit outside’ meal.
“I can check for anything?”
“Yeah, yeah. Just a fruit or vegetable thing. Maybe some bread?”
Ishkr vanished, and Erin sat there a moment, kicking her legs. Because of the bubble of silence, she felt the wind blowing on her, the sun warming her chair, but she didn’t hear anything until someone walked through the magical barrier and spoke.
“—rin! Whoa, was that a spell? What’s going on? Everyone’s wondering if you have stomach problems or if you’re getting something really big ready. They’re sort of antsy.”
Kevin came through the bubble of silence, and Erin jumped.
A few people had gone to check on Erin, but it was Kevin who’d peeked around the back of the inn first. He focused on the drink and how relaxed Erin was and hesitated.
“I, uh, got the laptop ready. Mrsha wants to show Gire a movie.”
“She hasn’t already?”
“No, I think they were all too busy. Do I boot it up or do you have plans for something else?”
He waited, and Erin considered the question. She took another sip from her drink.
“…I’m not doing a party. I don’t want to, Kevin.”
Well, what did that mean? Kevin hesitated and then saw a door open. Ishkr had returned with a basket of different foods and a harried look.
“They’re asking where you are, Erin. Should I…? Oh. Mister Kevin.”
“Hey, Ishkr. I was just telling Kevin the party’s off. I guess we should let them know. Kevin, did you know Ishkr can do an instant order?”
Kevin gave Ishkr a vague thumbs-up, and the Gnoll nodded. They both stood there for a second, then Ishkr sat down, so Kevin copied him.
Okay, so today was going to be one of those sad days. Get the tissues and keep Joseph out of the drinks. That was Kevin’s other take on the day’s progress—until he saw Erin’s face.
She didn’t seem depressed or blank. She just seemed tired, but she perked up as she investigated Ishkr’s haul.
“What is this stuff, Ishkr?”
“Lasica and Imani were interrogating me in their kitchen. I apologize—”
Ishkr had a mismatch of bread, fruits, and what he’d thought was a baguette. It turned out he’d grabbed a block of wood for the ovens in his haste. Erin tapped it against the wall of her inn, amused.
“Unless one of the Fortress Beavers gets here, I don’t think anyone’s eating this. What else is there? Tomatoes, ooh, corn! Is that a squash? Where did we get all this?”
“Oteslia sent a huge basket for Miss Lyonette.”
“Aha. Say, where are the beavers? Are they…?”
Erin’s face fell, and Kevin broke in, hurrying to reassure her.
“They’re at Selys’, Erin. I think they’re sort of her guard…beavers.”
Erin turned from Ishkr to Kevin as if they were pulling her leg, but both nodded.
“Some thief broke in, and apparently they broke his legs and sat on him. Selys decided to build them a pool and everything.”
“Beavers. They are big…but beavers? Guard-beavers? I mean, okay. Kevin, what would you eat? A raw tomato?”
She waved it at him vaguely. It was at this point Kevin realized that Erin didn’t want to go back into her inn. He didn’t exactly blame her. Cross-legged, Kevin vaguely inspected a squash.
“I bet you’d have to cut that up and…roast it.”
“I have my super-knife, but I don’t do well with cutting boards, and I’m not slicing off my hands. Corn?”
“Corn’s edible raw.”
And it was still fresh from whenever it had been brought into the inn thanks to the power of the inn’s [Field of Preservation]. Erin knew you could eat corn raw, but she gave Kevin a disturbed look.
“You want me to eat cold corn? Not hot? You boil corn, Kevin. Then you put salt and butter on it…Ishkr, you might have to fight past Lasica and Imani again.”
He groaned, but Kevin protested mildly.
“That’s not the old kind of corn, Erin. You can also grill it.”
“Grilled corn? I’ve sort of heard of that…but what kind of monster grills corn?”
Erin turned to Ishkr, then caught the most offended look she’d ever seen coming from Kevin, no less.
“You’ve never had grilled corn?”
“Nope. Boiled is how you eat corn. What, do you just stick it in a fire or on a grill?”
“Yep. You can do more like add parmesan cheese or other toppings, but…”
Erin made a gagging sound, and Kevin twitched. He was deeply offended, especially as someone who had been a connoisseur of street-vendor grilled corn, which came in many delightful flavors.
“Get me a fire and I’ll make you one right now. I’ll do it in the fireplace!”
“Pssh. Who needs a fireplace? I’m Erin, the crazy Human with fire, remember? Watch this!”
Erin put out her hand and frowned at it. Then she looked up.
“Hey Ishkr, say something annoying. I think I need hot fire, so I need irritation.”
“Lyonette wants to go over the inn’s finances again?”
“Ooh, good shot! No, it’s not working.”
The idea of grilling corn with magical irritation-fire seemed like a recipe for disaster to Kevin. Exasperated, he stood up.
“I’ll just get a coal from the fireplace. Give me one minute—”
“There you are.”
A shadow crossed the world. Everyone fell into darkness, and Erin peered up at the tower of muscle that was Grimalkin. He had found them, and Erin sighed gustily.
“Look who’s here. The fun police got us, Ishkr, Kevin. We’re going away for a long time. I guess everyone wants us back?”
The Drake crossed his arms.
“Strategist Chaldion is wondering. I simply want to investigate. What are you doing?”
“We were making a fire. A regular one, but if you want to go back to talking about Pallass…”
Erin pulled a face. Grimalkin looked at her and then pointed at the block of wood she’d tossed down. It burst into flames, and Kevin blinked as the Sinew Magus sat down in one movement.
“…That was part of my job as Magus of Pallass. I didn’t expect you to reply. Nor will Chaldion push today. But you know they will not let up. This isn’t even knowing information about the Antinium, Erin. You have been marked a person of interest by all the Walled Cities.”
Erin eyed Grimalkin. That was unusually…no, he was always honest, but there was a difference to how he sat and stared at the block of burning wood. Ishkr uneasily eyed the grass, but Kevin grabbed the husk of corn. Erin and Grimalkin stared at it as he searched around for something to attach it to.
“There’s not much of a fire here. Just a block of wood. I need…kindling. Dried wood.”
“There is firewood around back. Let me get some.”
Ishkr trotted off and came back with a pair of logs. Grimalkin saw Kevin try to place the burning block of wood in between the other two in some logical way to create embers. The art of building a proper fire…
Grimalkin got up, came back with five more logs, and arranged them with Ishkr. Then he pointed down and poked a finger through the largest one.
Erin felt a rush of heat, and when Grimalkin withdrew his claw, the wood was already a smoking ember from within, and flames began to rise across the rest of it. He waved his finger, and Kevin gave him a look of respect.
“That’s cool magic.”
“Physical augmentations. My specialty, after all. What is this for?”
For answer, Kevin chose his spot carefully and laid the husk of the corn between two logs. Then he frowned.
“I don’t want it to touch the fire. I need a poker or something.”
“I can find one.”
Ishkr left, and Grimalkin raised one eyebrow. Erin folded her arms.
“Roasted corn. Or grilled or whatever. Can you believe this guy? I mean, I guess it’s a new food, so everyone’ll be excited.”
Grimalkin eyed Erin.
“…Roasting corn is not a new invention, culinarily speaking, Erin Solstice. I have eaten roasted corn hundreds of times before.”
“Oh. Well, I haven’t.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
Kevin joked, and Grimalkin’s lips actually twitched. He glanced at Erin, then down at the crowd blanketed by the silence spell. People were pointing up at Erin in confusion and craning their necks.
“Are you not going to do something…interesting, Miss Solstice?”
“I don’t think I can. Not what people want. I just wanted a snack—oh, thanks, Ishkr. Okay, Kevin. Show me this so-called vaunted grilled corn of yours.”
“All I need is a bit of butter…”
“Why’s it in the husk? Don’t you peel it first?”
Grimalkin looked at Kevin, and the Earther decided just to keep at browning the corn. Who had [Basic Cooking] here again? Well, no one needed it, and it wasn’t going to be the best thing ever. But there was already a faintly pleasant smell in the air, and the fire might be warming, but a faint chill of fall was making the heat enjoyable.
“Grimalkin, did you have to get me or something?”
The Sinew Magus was like a boulder as he sat next to Kevin. He replied slowly. Almost…bitterly?
“My duties to Pallass mean I must do quite a lot, Erin. Not this. Contrary to what you may believe, I am not wholly Pallass’ instrument. Pallass and I do not align on all matters. I realized that recently.”
Erin saw Kevin glance up and then go back to his roasting. Ishkr decided to get some butter, and Erin turned to Grimalkin.
“…You mean Ferkr?”
She knew what had happened at the Meeting of Tribes. Grimalkin didn’t answer. Which was an answer in itself, because he was normally very talkative about all matters. He prodded Kevin.
“The corn appears to be roasted.”
“You sure? Gah!”
Kevin snatched his fingers back from the steaming corn, which had indeed begun to smoke very heavily. Grimalkin was about to rescue Kevin from the frailties of skin when a gnarled hand reached out and a voice snorted.
“Weak as a Human. Can’t handle a hot plant? You’ll never forge Adamantium. There. Eugh. What’s this?”
Pelt the [Master Smith] husked the corn and stared at the crisped kernels with some lovely browning. Erin blinked.
“Pelt! When did you get here?”
“When I heard some idiot had posted a quest to the City of Stars. I expected to find the inn burning and all the Drakes dancing naked in the streets. It’s quiet. You going to eat this?”
The ‘hey’ was because Pelt instantly snapped the corn in half. He put half on a plate that Ishkr had brought and grabbed the bowl of soft butter. He dipped the other half of the roasted corn into it and took a huge bite, then did another dip.
“Good. You can share. What’s this thing? Too crunchy on the inside, but the yellow things are good. I’m hungry. Haven’t taken a break from smithing all day.”
He had eaten the corn and the cob in one huge bite. Which, yes, was technically edible, but…Erin protested as she put some butter on her portion.
“Pelt! That’s my corn! Don’t you know what corn is?”
“This is corn? You’re joking. This isn’t corn.”
Pelt nearly dropped the piece of corn. He pointed at it, aghast.
“Corn’s dark. It looks the same, but it has black leaves, and it’s pale as snow.”
“No…what kind of corn do you eat?”
Grimalkin snapped his claws.
“Snowcorn, from Noelictus, the Kingdom of Shade. They are Terandria’s breadbasket—they provide most crops. Deríthal-Vel would import it.”
“Right. Are you telling me corn’s not white and black? Damnit. Those undead-kissing freaks. It’s the same as bread all over again.”
Grumbling, Pelt sat down, and Kevin’s stomach rumbled. He looked at Ishkr.
“Do you, um, have more corn, Ishkr? We could fry more. Or—how about bread? Hey, we’ve got some.”
As he did, Kevin simply tore some of the fresh loaf of bread and began trying to roast that over the fire.
He set fire to the bread. Erin laughed as Kevin blew frantically, then she gingerly picked up the grilled corn and inspected it. It certainly smelled good, and she was hungry. She frowned as she took a few bites.
“Now that you mention it—maybe I have eaten this before? At fairs and stuff. Weird. Is this how people eat corn elsewhere?”
“They do it in Michigan too.”
“Nah, nah. Boiling is how it’s supposed to be. This is like an alternative way.”
“Erin, you’re making me mad. I’ll push your chair down this hill.”
Pelt’s loud crunching interrupted the squabble. He’d just eaten the entire corn cob. He licked his fingers—which were sooty—and nodded.
“That’s not bad.”
“Pelt! You don’t eat the entire cob!”
Pelt and Grimalkin challenged Erin instantly.
“Indeed, it is far more beneficial to consume the entire product. Baby corn is edible in its entirety; I observe [Farmers] feeding the cob to goats.”
“Yeah, and they’re goats. I’m a person.”
“Do you peel your apples first and not eat all of it? Humans.”
“Hey! What, you eat the core too? And the seeds? That can kill you!”
“What? That’s stupid. Is a [Druid] going to make them explode in my stomach? You hear this, Sinew Magus? I bet she cuts the crusts off bread too. Like an infant.”
The squabble was interrupted by a loud crunch. Everyone turned and saw Kevin biting into toasted…toast. He winced at a shell of charcoal on his failed first attempt, but then brightened up.
“Ishkr, you’re a genius.”
The Gnoll had come back with all the corn he could liberate, a chunk of parmesan, a grater, a bowl, and another jar of honey. Kevin slathered some honey over his bread, but when he announced he would now create roasted corn with parmesan, that was the step too far.
“There is no way that will taste appetizing.”
Grimalkin refused to hear of it. Pelt was all for it and tossed the corn husks on the fire without fear of flame. Erin just smirked at him.
“You started us down this dark road, Grimalkin. You’re gonna eat it! I’ll have a bite too. Pelt, what’s up?”
“You mean, besides you coming back to life? The Gnolls nearly getting wiped out by the damn Drakes? Izril cracking like a bad egg?”
“Nothing. Aside from someone ‘inventing’ Demas Metal. Gah, I suppose he has a right to it. If he’s even alive after the damned Drakes tried to send Gnolls the way of Halflings and Harpies.”
He looked up from arranging the corn expertly—of course a [Smith] knew how to grill anything to the heat he wanted. He met Grimalkin’s eyes.
“Sorry, I guess.”
Erin, Kevin, and Ishkr turned to the Sinew Magus, but Grimalkin just sat there a moment before glancing up.
“…You haven’t said anything that a reasonable observer couldn’t claim. I don’t believe this is the moment to defend the Walled Cities. Nor was it defense that motivated five Walled Cities to bear arms against the Gnolls. Excuse me—three. As Oteslia and Salazsar were clearly acting in defense of the tribes.”
Erin bit her lip, and Kevin exhaled slowly. This was the kind of thing that she hadn’t talked about. Erin had gotten several accounts of the Meeting of Tribes, and she had even been there, albeit as Sserys. But they’d talked about it in the manner of recalling it. Normally, they’d drop it there, but…Erin looked around and realized there was no need.
She wasn’t going back into the inn, and the corn was grilling once more. Ishkr reached and pulled out a butterspice tea for Grimalkin and a mead of some kind for Kevin and Pelt.
“…Grimalkin. I bet you don’t know or you can’t say, but you trained in Fissival, right? Is it true that the Drakes were stealing magic from the Gnolls?”
Everyone stirred. Grimalkin looked up. His face was shrouded despite all the light.
“I cannot prove it. And before you ask, no, I didn’t know about it. But the facts line up. To what end is a mystery, but they did.”
“So the Drakes stole Gnollish magic to weaken them. Then—when the tribes found out, they marched into the Meeting of Tribes to…kill them?”
Pelt spat sideways off the hill.
Erin shook her head.
“The Walled Cities occupy a certain mindset. They regard any foe as an inevitable clash—it only matters when. They thought, clearly, that they could win an advantage by striking first. It almost succeeded, but for Khelt, one could argue.”
Grimalkin’s voice was flat. Erin watched him, and Kevin spoke up.
“It seemed like hell, Grimalkin, man. I know Pallass didn’t fight the Gnolls, but I was watching it happen. I don’t know if I could ever look at Manus, Zeres, or Fissival the same way.”
The [Sinew Magus] sat there. He didn’t meet Kevin’s eyes, and Erin held her breath.
“No. I don’t believe many people could, Kevin.”
Kevin hesitated, then spoke quickly, raising one hand as Pelt flipped a piece of corn.
“But it isn’t your fault. You were far from the Meeting of Tribes, and I know you’re….I’m just saying the other Walled Cities.”
Grimalkin didn’t say anything at first, and Erin replied slowly for him.
“…But he could have been. He didn’t do anything, but the Walled Cities still did this, and Pallass didn’t really stop them. And Ferkr was there. Is she okay?”
The Sinew Magus glanced up.
“Ferkr? She is my finest apprentice, though I barely trained her as much as some of the others. She is well. Nothing you’ve said today is wrong. I have been reflecting on much the same.”
There it was. Erin Solstice raised her cup to sip, and it was empty. She handed the cup to Ishkr with a pleading look.
“Can I get another? With a straw?”
Erin turned back to Grimalkin.
“What could you do, though, Grimalkin? I mean…I get it. If I was—alive—when it happened—”
Everyone smiled a bit, and Erin went on.
“—I’d have tried to do something. But you…what could you do? I mean, it’s done. So what?”
Kevin’s mouth fell open, and Pelt sat up. He flipped husks of corn onto a plate as Erin looked sharply at Grimalkin.
“You don’t mean that, do you?”
His eyes were very calm as he met her gaze.
“My options are simple, Erin. At their very core—there is a binary. Everything I do falls within those two outcomes. I consider everything. And as I learned, it is not impossible to quit a Walled City.”
He looked pointedly at Pelt, and the Dwarf grunted. He unwrapped one piece of roasted corn and began to lather it up with butter as Kevin did likewise. The Dwarf slapped away the bowl of parmesan.
“Pallass is just another city to me, Drake. I left my real home. No, I was exiled. There was nothing for me anywhere. Now…with my pride, I chose Esthelm, but think carefully. You can never go back again.”
He met Grimalkin’s gaze, and the Drake wavered. Erin held her breath. Then she took a piece of corn with cheese on it and stared dubiously at the concoction.
You got the powdered cheese to hold onto the corn with butter. Or mayonnaise, which sounded even more heinous. Erin took a bite and then chewed thoughtfully.
“Hey, this is pretty good! It sounds disgusting, but…Grimalkin, have one. You too, Pelt!”
“Put that in my face, Kevin, and I will feed you a coal.”
“Ishkr! Come and have—”
The Gnoll reluctantly put down his tray of drinks, but when he took a bite of the corn and instantly spat it back out, that made Pelt ironically try it. The Dwarf found he enjoyed it, as did Grimalkin. Ishkr growled.
“I hate cheese. Sorry.”
“What? You hate cheese? All cheese?”
“Yes. It’s not even that I hate it—I get very sick. I even get puffy. And er—other things.”
“Wait, like bad poo? How long have you—I don’t really recall you hating pizza.”
Ishkr shook his head.
“I’ve had a slice or two and it was good, but I just—cannot have cheese. Butter is fine, actually. But no milk, no cheese.”
“Wait a second. That’s lactose intolerance.”
Kevin spoke up, and Grimalkin looked at him. Ishkr hesitated as Pelt decided to toast some bread.
“What does that mean?”
Erin wavered, then shrugged helplessly.
“…He’s allergic to milk. Intolerant? One of the two.”
That bombshell of information—fizzled out on the ground as Ishkr growled thoughtfully and then nodded along with Grimalkin and Pelt.
“That—makes sense. I guess I just never said it like that. You can be allergic to milk?”
“Sure, Antinium are allergic to wheat and stuff. Gluten. Wait a second…didn’t they fix that?”
Grimalkin raised a claw.
“They did. My reports indicate that Antinium are non-lethally and non-significantly intolerant to wheat-based products, or, as you say, ‘gluten’. I had to research the matter because some idiotic [Tactician] in the Walled Cities considered dumping flour on them in battle. I also found that at least a few members like their Centenium were resistant.”
“And Ksmvr eats the stuff. All the time. Because of his amulet of food poisoning or something—waitasecond.”
Erin snapped her fingers excitedly and looked at Kevin.
“Kevin, no way. Do you think instead of a food poisoning amulet it’s an—”
“Anti-allergy amulet? No way.”
Kevin looked from Grimalkin to Pelt. The Dwarf held up his hands.
“Get Hedault. I’m no [Enchanter]. Maybe it’s the same thing.”
Grimalkin instantly shook his head.
“It isn’t. But perhaps that enchantment is more sophisticated than we thought. Where did it come from?”
“Uh. Albez? Maaaaybe…”
The Drake tapped one claw on the ground meaningfully as Ishkr took a big bite of regular roasted corn and happily chewed.
“Are you saying that you think those adventurers found a regular anti-food poisoning amulet from Albez in, if I recall correctly, Warmage Thresk’s personal stash?”
Erin and Kevin opened their mouths. Erin replied weakly.
“Well, when you say it like that, it sounds stupid. No way. Anti-allergy…”
Kevin leapt to his feet, shouting.
“Shrimp! Damn shrimp!”
Everyone peered at him. Kevin slapped his chest.
“I’m allergic to shrimp! Nothing else—but do you know how tough that makes eating seafood in—in where I live? I need that amulet!”
“Let me try it too!”
“Just get the spell.”
Grimalkin called after Kevin. And Erin felt a tingling on the back of her neck. She gaped at Grimalkin.
“Did…did we just solve allergies?”
“Hardly. Spells like this surely exist already. If you had enough coin, I imagine an [Alchemist] could create a nullifier for you. Even if we isolate this enchantment, unless it is mass-producible—and even if it is—it will end up being a widespread allergy cure for the middle class at most in twenty years’ time.”
“That sounds pretty good.”
“It would be. But it isn’t a cure. It would only save lives at a [Healer]’s if they had a charm like that to prevent such deaths and end up as a net positive for society. I’ll look into it.”
And there it was. Erin looked at Pelt, and he snorted.
“I’m not allergic to anything. Hey, are we going to eat this corn all day or do we go inside the inn?”
“D’you want to?”
The Dwarf considered this as he brushed kernels out of his beard. He scratched at his chin and glanced around. The sun was still high in the sky, the grass was soft, and the act of grilling food was fun enough that Erin wanted to do a sausage or two.
Erin smiled and focused back at the fire. She glanced up after a minute and brought up something she had wanted to ask.
“Are the Walled Cities going to attack the tribes, do you think, Grimalkin?”
He was about to answer, but was cut off. Kevin was hurrying back with Ksmvr and Yvlon, and the two stopped when they saw the fire.
“Erin! This is where you were? Everyone’s expecting you to summon a Frostmarrow Behemoth or something! They’re getting imp—are you grilling corn?”
Yvlon walked over, and Erin motioned them down as Grimalkin replied.
“Candidly, Erin? I think the answer is ‘no’. But you would have to ask Chaldion. I could support my reasoning with facts, but he knows the answer.”
Erin frowned. She turned to Ishkr, and the tingling grew into a certainty.
“Ishkr? Can you get him? Oh, and bring back some sausages. No one’s invented marshmallows yet—can you toast sugarcubes?”
By the time Grand Strategist Chaldion appeared through the [Garden of Sanctuary], Ksmvr, Yvlon, Grimalkin, Pelt, and Kevin were all passing around food that Ishkr had snuck out of the kitchen.
“What is this?”
“We’re just sitting around. Chaldion, are the Walled Cities gonna attack the Gnoll tribes after this? If you’re not going to answer, I’ll make you go sit in the inn.”
Erin waved at him, and the Drake—hesitated. But the [Innkeeper]’s eyes were gleaming, and she was sitting up a bit.
But no, she wasn’t running around, and this was not the legendary party. The excited Erin that the naive guests of the inn were still expecting to come bursting through the door—or a wall—wasn’t there.
Yet neither was the depression and magical flame. This was just…a regular fire. However, it was exactly for that reason that Erin was smiling.
“I could discuss that with you later along with your quests—”
“How about now, with everyone?”
The old Drake hesitated. And there it was. Erin had no time in the inn. At least, not with everyone in a line. Here, though? She’d just heard something from Grimalkin that had clearly been bubbling within him. There was no time in a party to ask the long questions.
But they had a lot of time while corn roasted. Well…long enough. Especially because the fire was only large enough to do a few husks at a time, and so Kevin was already making more for Yvlon and Ksmvr.
“The Walled Cities have no interest in fighting the tribes. I believe most are safe from any attacks until the scope of the new lands are explored. The Walled Cities do not want to make greater enemies than they have. They took losses fighting at the Great Plains. They are wary of the Antinium and other forces that may seek Izril.”
Chaldion sat down in the end. Erin frowned at him.
“Are they worried the tribes’ll fight back? Get revenge?”
“Possibly. But I believe that is not a concern, the tribes sieging a Walled City. Not in their current state.”
“…Which implies that the other cities that aren’t Walled Cities may suffer as a result.”
Grimalkin spoke, and Chaldion glanced at him. The Drake nodded once. He turned to Erin and was rewarded with a huge smile.
“Well, we’ll see what happens. I just asked, Chaldion, because if they try that again while I’m awake, I’ll nail my next quest to Pallass’ walls.”
The Grand Strategist actually hesitated a moment before nodding blandly.
“Your point is well taken. Many mistakes were made during those events. In hindsight…”
He trailed off, and everyone looked at him. Because no one interrupted him, Chaldion finished his thought.
“…in hindsight, I believe I would have had that idiot, Dragial, buried in an unmarked grave. Fissival expelled him because they had to, but they never abandoned him. He would be attacking your inn within the month if he were alive and heard you post that quest.”
“Huh. What did he do? Wait—he was the one who led Fissival’s army, right? Who killed him?”
“Us. I knew it. I knew she was up to something.”
Jelaqua Ivirith strode around the corner of the inn and pointed accusatorily at Erin. And then Seborn, Maughin, and Jelaqua joined the group.
“Aren’t we going inside? Where’s the excitement, Erin?”
“There’s no excitement, Jelaqua. We’re grilling corn. And Kevin puts cheese on his. Pull up a seat, and Ishkr can get drinks. Actually, he should take a break. Maybe someone can help…?”
The Gnoll stood up.
“I’m fine, Erin. It’s just drinks.”
The Selphid seemed crestfallen, but Seborn had already sat down. Erin smiled.
“No party. Just…a picnic. Or is it a campfire cookout?”
Jelaqua didn’t seem to get the difference until she sat down and felt it. It was the tempo. The amount of guests could vary, but the atmosphere was relaxed. Erin had a moment, and in that moment, she had to ask.
“So…you killed Dragial?”
“He was going after Lehra and her team—that’s the Stargnoll. She owns the Blade of Mershi.”
Erin nearly sprayed her watermelon juice over Maughin.
“W—someone found one already? Well then, I guess that quest’s like a quarter done! I thought that would be the hard part! Hey, does it speak to her? I mean, uh…nevermind.”
“Speak to her? I don’t know, but that Wall Lord wanted her dead. He hired her to find it; it’s a famous tale. I guess you never knew it because you were in Liscor, but Lehra’s been famous for, what, two years? There was a huge argument because Dragial always said she stole the artifact. I thought she was sort of a thief—until I met her.”
Chaldion lifted a finger.
“Technically, as he was employing the Ruinstrider tribe when the relic was found, it was his. However, when he saw the relic in her possession, my understanding is he tried to put the Stargnoll and her people to death, forfeiting his claim. He argued otherwise, but his pursuit of Lehra endangered countless lives and ruined cities.”
“And you killed him?”
Jelaqua sat there as Maughin stared at his lover, and her eyes were steady.
“We did. Lehra’s team is new, but that Drake brought an army to try and end her. We learned our lesson with Garen. And we knew it even before that. We might not be welcome in Fissival, but I hope it’s not a problem here?”
She glanced around, and Chaldion and Grimalkin shook their heads. Grimalkin picked up a sausage and frowned at it.
“…Pork. No, Wall Lord Dragial was a talented [Mage], but even when I was in Fissival, he was single-minded. You acceded to his will or he ruined your career or reputation.”
Chaldion merely nodded.
“No objections here, either. Would you like a medal on behalf of Pallass? I can arrange that.”
“Are you…actually serious?”
“Entirely. It would be political and send a message. Salazsar is already formally at war with Fissival, and the mood is against the City of Magic. Moreover, for the Gnolls…yes. Would Beithday work? I could convene a ceremony in the late afternoon.”
“Wait, what was that about a war between the Walled Cities?”
Erin urgently waved a hand as Maughin and Jelaqua whispered. Everyone gave her that look that said it was common news she didn’t know. Since it was clear Jelaqua was getting a medal so Maughin could brag, Erin turned to Ksmvr and Yvlon.
“How are you two doing?”
That was the bland-salad answer, so Erin rolled over and lifted an experimental, melty, half-browned sugarcube up from the metal tray. She offered it on a spoon to Yvlon.
The look the [Armsmistress] gave her was an answer, but Ksmvr tried it.
“Ooh. Hot! But sweet! Hot! Hot!”
He delicately inserted another piece of what was essentially burnt sugar and ash into his mouth, and that was too much. Imani and Lasica came stalking around the corner of the inn.
“I knew it. So that’s where you’ve been taking all the food. Ishkr!”
Imani pointed at the Gnoll, and he jumped guiltily. Erin groaned with the others; it had become sort of a game trying to hide what was happening from the people in the inn. Lasica, on the other hand, just took one look at Erin’s ‘sugar-mellows’ and rounded on the [Innkeeper].
“You are a menace to the world of cooking, Erin. I cannot understand how you ever achieved [Advanced Cooking].”
“Hey! Caramelized sugar is a thing! Pull up a seat, Imani. We’re doing a fire-thing. Grilling corn and stuff.”
“Without a grill?”
The [Chefs] didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, Palt and Rufelt joined them and were sent to get a pan, a metal grille, and more cookery ingredients. Soon, Lasica was telling Erin that, yes, grilled corn was a thing, and real enjoyers put pepper flakes on them instead of cheese.
“Mild, but hot enough that you feel like you’re really getting a mouthful. Look at the colors.”
She sprinkled expertly and handed Erin a piece of corn to sample. The [Innkeeper] blew on it appreciatively and took a bite.
“Yum. Hey, now I feel bad about leaving everyone in the inn. Do you think we should tell them there’s no party?”
Rufelt was grumbling as he put down a host of spices he’d taken from the kitchen, but the [Bartender] still found time to produce a mug with a perfect head of foam. He handed it to Lasica, who took a long gulp, before nodding over his shoulder.
“Frankly, Erin, I think you don’t have to worry about that.”
The occupants of The Wandering Inn were getting restless, waiting for Erin to come back. At first, they didn’t notice the slowly diminishing headcount of guests and mostly just asked anyone who came back in whether Erin was ‘up to something’.
“What? Oh—definitely. She’s scheming. Er, she’s just, ah, getting Grimalkin and Kevin to help her with something.”
“They’re making sure she isn’t too crazy, right?”
Lyonette interrogated Jelaqua as the Selphid came back in. The adventurer nodded, biting her lips hard. She winked at some of the Antinium, and they looked puzzled, but Lyonette didn’t notice.
“Hey. Where’s Erin?”
Numbtongue stopped Ishkr next and got a different response.
“Er, the outhouse, still.”
“Oh. Bad poo? Orange? Red?”
“I—did not inquire.”
It was a game, and the longer you stayed in the common room of the inn, the more you lost. Now, some people who might have picked up on the commotion outside were hampered by the inn’s thick walls and closed windows, which let in no sound nor sight of the picnic outside.
They were also getting false information, but mostly, they were expecting Erin to come back inside like a storm. A few went out to see if she needed help and mostly figured it out, but the ones not in the know waited with growing impatience and anticipation.
The Gnolls figured it out very quickly. Mrsha and Gire began sniffing the air and nudging each other. Gire whispered to Mrsha.
“Are you sure? I can smell it…but why corn? Popcorn? I smell cheese, too. Should we…?”
They slipped out via the garden and never came back. Next was Relc and Klbkch. Relc was putting his feet up on a chair, and he turned his head slightly.
“Klbkch, my guy. I’m not super good at the Watch stuff where we interrogate people. I just do the hitting part. But it seems to me that those stories don’t match up. Erin’s in the outhouse, working with Grimalkin, and Kevin ‘didn’t see her’.”
Klbkch raised one finger as he whispered back.
“In fact, all statements have been false.”
“You knew that?”
“Yes, of course. Shall we investigate?”
“Damn right. Embria, let’s go take a look.”
Their departure meant that a number of Antinium relaxed when Klbkch was gone, but Pawn, anxiously waiting for Erin’s return, realized something was up soon after that.
“Yellow Splatters, let us all go and take a look outside. I believe we are, to use an expression, being punked upon.”
“How do you know that?”
The Antinium regarded Pawn, and the Worker pointed. A smirking little white face disappeared, but it was too late.
“Mrsha gloats. And she does not like me.”
The Antinium began to get up, and even Lyonette couldn’t miss that.
“Don’t go! I’m sure Erin will be right back—Ser Sest, go find her. Let me get you another round.”
She was so busy trying to placate the Antinium she never noticed Pisces and Ceria looking up from their table and following the drift of the inn.
“Hey, Pisces, Yvlon and Ksmvr never came back from searching for Erin.”
“Indeed, Ceria? I note a certain diminishing of the inn’s population.”
The two [Mages] exchanged a glance, and their finely honed Wistram instincts from their days as students told them something.
“Something interesting is going on, and we’re being pranked. Let’s move. Watch out for buckets of dust overhead or something.”
“Erin wouldn’t do that.”
“Good point. Watch out for jars of acid, I guess.”
By now, it was just embarrassing for whomever was left. Numbtongue stopped tuning his guitar as a sly claw poked him. Gothica jerked one claw towards the door, and the Hob narrowed his eyes as she whispered to him.
“Lots of shadows where? Hrm.”
He reached over, poked Ulvama, and the poking went round to Rasktooth and then Bird. All of them filed out of the inn, and at last, Lyonette looked around, bewildered.
“Where’s everyone going?”
Saliss of Lights had been napping in a chair. He sprang up, looked around, and groaned.
“Oh no—no—I’ve been Xifed! No!”
He dashed out of the inn, and Lyonette followed with the remainder of the guests. They charged out of the front door, just in time to see Numbtongue disappear around the side of the inn. The crowd outside was mostly gone, and all the sound and noise was coming from—
“Saliss is one of the last ones? Who bet on that?”
Laughter and voices and the smell of frying food greeted the guests, and Saliss threw up his claws.
“I was asleep! You—you—”
He pointed a finger at Erin as Lyonette put her hands on her hips. The [Innkeeper] just waved a piece of corn on a stick at Saliss.
“Hey, Saliss, grab one of Kevin’s disgusting pieces of corn. It’s really tasty!”
“Erin, this is your big plan?”
Lyonette demanded, flushing at the merry laughter coming her way. Erin’s smile didn’t dance or sparkle or twinkle like usual. She just leaned back in her chair and shook her head.
“Nope. We’re just sitting here. No party, no host of guests, and no money, sorry. But we could use some ice cubes and maybe some more firewood.”
Lyonette began to puff up like an exploding mushroom, but then she saw what was going on and deflated. Without a word, she flopped into the grass, provoking a scandalized look from Dame Ushar, but Mrsha hopped in her lap, and then?
And then the conversations continued. They were far, far richer than the loud chaos. Because although there were private subtopics and whispers and, yes, some confusion when someone raised their voice or someone accidentally put their tail into the fire, they could hear each other speak.
This is what they said:
“So Erin…what was it like, being dead? You talked to…ghosts?”
The question at the top of everyone’s mind fell out as Ceria tried her hand at cooking something on the fire. She watched the pieces of popcorn she’d attached to a metal poker slowly ignite one by one. Pisces rolled his eyes as he tried to toast a banana, and Yvlon gave both [Mages] the look of someone regretting being associated with them.
Erin was sipping from a beer. She made a face and handed it off to her left.
“You have bad taste.”
Numbtongue grumbled as he took it and sipped appreciatively. He took Ishkr’s tray and passed it to Octavia and Garia. Salkis wasn’t here, nor were a number of other people who could have claimed a seat.
No Gna, for instance, or Zevara, Olesm, Krshia and the Gnolls…or Moore. Erin was counting the people she knew and were absent, but there was still a crowd of crowds.
Everyone was looking at her. The sun was coming down in the sky, but it was still plenty bright, and the crowd outside the inn had realized there would be no party.
So they’d decided to copy Erin and make their own fires. Erin stared at the way the flames played across the embers, that hypnotizing dance you could stare at forever.
The world of the dead had nothing so beautiful or real. It had no heat, and it was made of memories. Even the most glorious ones tarnished and grew old.
“Yes, I saw them. I talked to some.”
The [Innkeeper] saw Mrsha was leaning back against Lyonette, who had her arms folded around the Gnoll. A Thronebearer, Dalimont, was watching Bird aim a bow at a distant sparrow with distinct wariness. The Antinium were all gathering around a second fire being built, clearly relishing the challenge of starting it without magical help.
“Blow, blow! You don’t have enough kindling! Double it!”
Relc was hopping from one foot to another as a tiny ember tried to ignite kindling. The sight of a bunch of Antinium trying to blow on the fire was very funny, but they eventually got a spark to catch and began shaking each other’s hands instantly.
Then they turned back to Erin as she went on.
“It was a war.”
Gireulashia stopped greedily pretending to ‘toast’ a slice of cake she and Mrsha were going to ‘share’. She looked up, and Chaldion stared at Erin. Everyone did.
“A war? What kind of war?”
The [Innkeeper] gazed into the fire with that half-smile no one had ever really seen on her face. A complete mystery raised her eyes and regarded everyone.
“…It doesn’t matter. I don’t remember all of it. All I can say is that it was a big war. A terrible one. Just like every one.”
She looked to her right, and Relc nodded. So did Chaldion, Grimalkin, the [Crusaders]…too many people knew exactly what Erin meant. Garia raised one hand, tentatively licking her lips.
“Did we win? No—who was we? Were there sides?”
“Just one. Everyone was on one side and…I don’t know.”
“That’s how you know it was a war.”
Saliss commented, eyes darting to Erin’s face. He saw a trio of pokers tied together move past him, holding a single piece of corn on one end. The entire contraption threatened to break at any moment as the pokers were joined by a piece of twine, but it was the only way for a sulking Fierre and Gothica to roast anything from their seats in the shadows of the inn’s roof.
They believed her. That was the amazing thing to Erin. But the living had seen too much to deny it. And yet, they hung on her every word because she had been there. What did they imagine?
Seamwalkers? They would have been right, that was the thing, but then Pawn raised one trembling hand.
“Erin. Then you were amidst ghosts. Tell me. Were they there? Did you see—Heaven?”
The [Innkeeper] looked up and met the [Priest]’s eyes. He was aglow with faith, but some of the Antinium seemed terrified of the answer. Yellow Splatters clenched his fists as the [Innkeeper] gazed at Pawn, and the [Priest]’s ardor faded.
“No, Pawn. I never saw a single Antinium. Or Goblin.”
She glanced at Ulvama, and the Hob didn’t seem surprised. Numbtongue stopped chewing on his corn, but Ulvama just laughed.
“Dead lands don’t let Goblins in either. Same, same.”
Klbkch said nothing, but Relc nudged him and offered him one of the sausage links. The Antinium gazed at it and took it without a word as Embria glanced at her father and his partner. Perhaps only she saw the way Klbkch’s fingers trembled.
“I—I see. They weren’t there?”
Pawn’s voice shook a bit, but Erin’s distant look returned to normal in a second. She turned as an entire people’s faith wavered suddenly in a cold breeze. The dying fire grew as Grimalkin inserted another log of split wood into it, and she smiled.
“No, that’s a good thing, Pawn.”
The young woman watched him.
“—Because wherever I was, whatever it was supposed to be or had been—it wasn’t heaven.”
The [Priest]’s mandibles opened slightly, and his antennae went still. The Antinium gazed at him, and Pawn spoke one word.
These casual words were shaking Chaldion’s clawed hand more than any party. He reached for a cup of tea and nearly knocked it over.
A slender hand grabbed the cup, and Saliss actually caught the liquid about to spray outwards with a flick of his claw. He put it down—on Chaldion’s snout, and the Grand Strategist almost snarled, but then he took a sip of tea.
“You should try that coffee stuff that Lyonette brought back, old man. That’s better.”
“What? You found coffee?”
Erin was distracted a moment, and Lyonette spluttered at the non-sequitur.
“Yes, but—go back to the other part!”
“Nah, nah. Coffee? That’s great! I was going to post a quest for someone to find some, but I guess I won’t. First chocolate, now coffee. That’s the real quality stuff. What else has ‘c’ in the name that we need?”
Joseph spoke up, and Selys jabbed him in the shoulder with a glare. Completely unabashed, Kevin raised a hand.
“Corn. Grilled corn.”
Erin shook a fist at him, but she smiled and looked around before growing serious.
“It’s all over, now. There’s…nothing left. So that’s what happened. There was a war, and a lot of people died again. They told me a few important things, and I—I wish I’d been able to help. But I have some things I need to tell you.”
She regarded Ceria again, and every head turned to the half-Elf. But then Erin glanced at Pisces, and he turned white.
In that moment, suddenly—everyone was terrified of Erin’s gaze. Numbtongue, Chaldion, Saliss—Mrsha switched from Lyonette to her bigger protector, and hid her head in Gire’s arms, but the big Gnoll girl looked away from Erin too.
That was terrifying. Not a single one of them…Erin felt guilty.
“I’m sorry. I’ll wait until you ask. I shouldn’t have tried to spring it on anyone.”
“But that means there is a life after death. It means the [Witches] are right. I mean, ghosts…but there’s organization. There’s something. Right? Will there be more crossovers of the dead and living?”
Fierre spoke up, trying to make sense of it all. She looked at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] saw right through her. The Vampire felt a prick of fear as Erin spoke.
“No. Not anymore.”
And like that, they all learned the greatest, most frightening truth that Erin Solstice had carried back into the lands of the living. Mrsha just closed her eyes as she leaned against Gire, but Chaldion’s claws tightened around his cup until Saliss began tapping him on his opposite shoulder and pretending it was Maughin who was doing it.
Each to their own reaction. Erin saw what effect her words were having, so she shook her head.
“Let’s talk about something else. Something…all these bad things have happened. We did our best. All of us.”
She looked about and got countless nods. Grimalkin couldn’t meet her eyes, but Erin whispered as the conversations halted and then began again, around her words.
“There has to have been a point to all of it, right? It meant something. But what?”
The answer was surely obvious. He knew it. He had always known it. Each ruler of Khelt had said it from the day they accepted their heavy burdens.
They would lay their lives across the bridge of time and wear themselves thin, so thin even their souls ached and their bodies fell to pieces, that a kingdom might be radiant, even glorious. But most of all—that it would be safe and the people happy.
That was the point. And if that were the point, then the rulers of Khelt had done just that. It was not the bright bloody glory of battle, but the legacy that led countless statues and tributes to bear their names. It was the richness of culture and children who feared no monsters nor the darkness of night.
But still, even though Fetohep knew it, he grieved. He feared the coming days and years as he had feared no foe.
When he returned to his palace, he found his servants in a mild panic.
“Your Majesty! We know you were not to be disturbed, but—”
“Be at peace. What is the issue?”
Fetohep felt the aegis of duty fall back upon his shoulders and was almost glad of it. To work, then. Who would be first?
“The Quarass of Germina requests your presence along the border of Khelt and Ger, sire.”
That was interesting. She had scarce returned as well, but she would naturally want explanations. Fetohep had been sparse with explanations, but if anyone deserved answers, it was surely her.
“I shall grace her with my presence. Need she transport to Khelt?”
The servant hesitated, for here was the tricky part.
“The Quarass of Ger, with all due deference, has humbly requested Your Majesty visit her location. She has endeavored to make it as close as possible.”
It was only a four hour ride to the edge of Germina with the right Skills and undead horses. Fetohep sighed.
“Prepare me a horse.”
“And an escort?”
Fetohep hesitated. The odds were remote the Quarass would try to assassinate him, and—
“…No. I shall go alone.”
Thusly, he spent the next four hours riding across Khelt, wondering what the Quarass wanted. It took closer to five hours as he did slow to reassure his people he was not embarking on another world-ending tour, and because many towns emptied themselves to cheer his passing.
There were things for Fetohep to do whilst riding, like rebury some of the undead and send out [Messages] telling various officials to report to him in person in the coming weeks. He also received a notice that Erin Solstice was apparently eating corn while sitting outside of her inn.
“Aptly like her.”
By the time he reached the location the Quarass was to meet him in, Fetohep was curious. She was a savvy diplomat, the world’s finest, if cruel, mind. Some Quarasses had an excess of pride or their current form influenced their genius, but this one seemed cunning and relatively honorable.
Fetohep didn’t really consider murdering an Archmage and infiltrating Wistram that dishonorable. He knew the Quarass had killed Archmage Nailihuaile; she had the Serkonian Lance after all, and only she would have been that capable, or Gazi or Amerys.
The Quarasses had done far, far worse in the name of protecting Ger. That this one kept her word was fairly good. But he was curious, then, why she summoned him. He was infamously touchy about protocol most times, and why this location?
It turned out to be a somewhat salutary building on the border of Ger, one of those waystations by the looks of it—albeit surrounded by what was probably the Quarass’ escort. Too many horses for the stables and a decent contingent of travellers besides.
Some of them were people seeking entry to Khelt. Fetohep remembered many in times of war near Khelt, but he was surprised by how many looked up and pointed at him and screamed, sometimes in awe.
Interesting. Khelt’s reputation had certainly changed. But why this place? Security? If that were so, Khelt’s palace was nigh-impossible to eavesdrop upon. Perhaps the Quarass felt associating with Khelt was dangerous? This didn’t feel that covert with people pointing to him.
An assassination after all? Khelt’s power might alarm the Quarass, but she had to know his replacement would seek vengeance. Perhaps she had convened a ceremony to name Khelt a Shield Kingdom.
That would be just like her. There were duties Shield Kingdoms had to each other, and while Khelt had petitioned for the honor before—Fetohep would have to refuse her if that were the case.
Fetohep wondered if he should have brought Alked Fellbow and Frieke just in case. Too late now—and he was tired. Bone-weary, so he was perhaps too reckless as he strode towards the doors of the waystation.
“Your Majesty, the Quarass is—”
A shadowy figure materialized. One of the top bodyguards, no doubt. Fetohep did not turn his head.
“—expecting me. I am here.”
To their credit, the bodyguards he sensed visibly or invisibly did not try to stop him. The door swung open, and Fetohep of Khelt strode through, ready for anything. He saw a somewhat full room of travellers, a few stunned citizens of Ger, including bodyguards, and there was a short girl dressed in the rich thread of her office, young, her brown skin and black hair unremarkable in a sea of children.
Only the eyes showed an age beyond ages, and the way she held herself as she turned with…a pair of tankards in hand…and beamed at him.
“Welcome! We’ll be with you in one one moment. Please have a seat. A drink for His Majesty.”
The Quarass of Germina put two mugs of Yellat Ale down on a table and beamed at a hooded [Assassin] of Ger.
“Can I get you anything else, Miss?”
The trained killer was stuttering as she stared at the mug. The Quarass’ wide smile never wavered as she nodded.
“Please, don’t be shy to order more. I recommend you try our lamb kebap—we don’t have any Sariant, which the original calls for, but it is very good. A Jecrassian special, I promise. Don’t forget to save room for dessert!”
Then she swung back towards a terrified [Server] and accepted another plate and drink and whisked it to a second table. Fetohep stared at the Quarass. Then he saw someone gesturing him to a table.
An undead Revenant sat down at a table in the makeshift inn, and he felt like the normal one in some surreal dream. The Quarass had a big smile on her face as she bent over to ask a boy practically her age what he’d like to eat.
The guests were giving the Quarass much the same look as Fetohep. It seemed the waystation was occupied by half her personal guard and people of Ger, the other half travellers.
“Quarass of Germina. What are you doing?”
“Give me six minutes, Fetohep. Would you care for a non-magical drink?”
“No. I have holes in my stomach.”
Literal holes in his body, which meant that going to an inn was an entirely pointless endeavor unless it served the undead-only concoctions. But once again, the Quarass surprised him.
“We do have a Deathbeil Draught on tap. One for His Majesty!”
“You have a Deathbeil Draught on tap. In an enchanted keg with a pewter-bone cup.”
One appeared as a black keg glowing with preservative runes was wheeled out and a cup was poured by the world’s most terrified [Barmaid]. The Quarass winked at Fetohep.
“I anticipated my guest. Have as many as you want. Excuse me—do you need the outhouse? It’s just—”
He knew what she was doing by the time the Quarass sat back down. Fetohep of Khelt lowered his cup.
“An [Innkeeper]? Truly?”
For answer, the Quarass of Ger lost her ‘work-smile’, which was in its way scarier than Fetohep’s corpse grin, and gave him a cold-eyed look of exasperation.
“The Quarass of Ger takes whatever class she must, Fetohep. I will admit—not once in my entire existence have I sought out the [Innkeeper] class if I did not already have it. But I have been an [Innkeeper] before. Twice.”
“Of course you have. Is it purely for Quests?”
The Quarass seemed amused.
“You say that as if you do not know the potential. Finding the City of Stars is a quest. If these quests are unlocked by knowledge alone—I will benefit. I simply must continue this for a day in earnest. Which means I have a few hours before my night shift. Do you wish anything else?”
“I have been sufficiently amused, thank you. Why else did you summon me?”
Fetohep had to admit that the sight of the Quarass waiting tables had made him feel like Erin Solstice were still dead. But that gloom settled over him once more.
For a reply, the Quarass signaled, and someone brought her a mug. She glared at the [Barmaid], who fled into the kitchen. She peered into the mug darkly and eyed her bodyguards, who decided to leave a vast tip and leave the inn.
“Wine would surely not be appropriate for your age.”
“Nor will it be for a decade. Bah. You there. Claiven Wine, one of the tree vintages. I will have it in a clean cup or vessel. It need not be a large cup, but I will drink it with the King of Khelt. Now. Or the next drink you imbibe will be more memorable still.”
The little girl turned in her seat, and a [Server] froze. Fetohep raised one brow, and the Quarass turned as the drink she wanted appeared in front of her within seconds.
“A drastic threat.”
“Betimes one masks them. For every idle boast and claim I make, for all the wisdom I have sometimes doled out, I have in every lifetime backed my words with steel and magic. They forget so quickly. Sometimes examples are made.”
“So speaketh the tyrant of Ger or the wise woman?”
The Quarass didn’t rise to the bait as Fetohep lifted his pewter goblet.
“Both would tell you that proof is necessary. Or have you learned to trade and rule on naught but words? If I recall correctly, Khelt’s words were toothless in Medain and the Claiven Earth until you marched an army north.”
In other times, the ruler of Khelt quite enjoyed a proper dialogue with someone like the Quarass. Now, he had no mood for it and simply nodded.
“Your point is well made, Quarass. Why have you requested my presence?”
For answer, she swished the wine around in her cup. It was not made to hold one of the tree-vintages of a half-Elven nation, which might have been stored in casks hollowed out of a living tree, the wine made of grapes flowering upon vines centuries old at the least.
A rich vintage, for an important moment, just like the Deathbeil Draught. Nevermind the arguably poor [Innkeeper] experience; Fetohep was sure his presence alone would help qualify her for at least one level in the class.
No, the Quarass lost the slightest edge of amusement all of this had put in her voice. She took a small sip of the wine and sighed. Despite her words, she was fairly cautious about her lifespan and body. But she lifted the cup and admired the way the light played across the faintest yellow tint of the wine as she glanced out the window towards the setting sun.
“Would you believe, Fetohep of Khelt, that not twenty feet from where we sit, I first met Khelta when she staked this land out for a kingdom?”
Fetohep’s hand froze with the mug raised. He focused on the Quarass, and she splayed one hand across the table and got a splinter. Frowning, she glared at it and went on.
“I believe I mocked her, at the time. You must understand, I was a rather jaded man, I think. Too tired of watching Shield Kingdoms forget their calling within my lifetime to believe a Necrocracy would ever stand. I was far humbler the second time, but I think no less than six of my incarnations met Khelta. She lived long, and though her corpse never ruled—I learned to respect her will. We all did, the rulers of her age. In the first days, we thought Khelt was something to be pushed around, an expendable army of undead led by a single powerful [Necromancer]. Then she won the admiration of countless nations, until even marauding Giants knew better than to tread across her lands lest a giant of bone rise and do battle.”
Fetohep didn’t say anything at first. He saw the brown eyes flit up a second, focus on him, as if she could read even a corpse’s face, and then the Quarass flicked the splinter away.
She knew. But all the Quarass did was take another sip.
“She was rather impertinent, though. If you were her enemy or put yourself against her, she would remember it and spend no little time humiliating you in the years to come. I have often thought Khelt’s rulers modeled themselves after that in some ways.”
“She—she was imperious. But not among the most strident of—Khelt’s rulers.”
The Quarass smiled. She closed her eyes and thought, and Fetohep understood now. He gazed around the emptying room, save for the two of them—for who else could be part of this but the two oldest? Those who knew. And he was a mayfly to her years.
“No, that would be Queen Emrist and her Scourgeriders. Or His-Xe. Or—and I say this not lightly at all—Hecrelunn, who was practically a ruler in his own right. Intriguing, is it not, that the most passionate of Khelt’s rulers left Revenants?”
“You knew them all, then?”
Of course she did. The Quarass nodded. She looked at Fetohep, and he gazed around the simple waystation. A poor place for either one to be in, but the palace wouldn’t have suited after all, would it?
After all—this was a wake. So Fetohep lifted his cup.
“Tell me of them, then. I knew only their ghosts, and only recently. If I thought of them before, they were beneficial presences. If I remembered…Xierca. She was my Queen.”
“Yes. And a good one, in her way. But too fond of strange plants.”
Fetohep almost jumped.
“The—those damned orchids? You recall them, the garden?”
The Quarass snorted.
“The most heinous of arrangements? Xierca always styled herself as something of a visionary when it came to horticulture.”
“I had to—regrettably—destroy many of them and relocate the rest these last months.”
She actually laughed at that. Then the Quarass began a story about Xierca’s youthful follies, both as a living woman and as the dead ruler. And Fetohep listened. The keg of ghostly liquor and mundane wine emptied a bit as the Quarass and Fetohep sat there. Talking about the dead. And he took heart, when he looked at her.
For when he was gone—even if he couldn’t watch over Khelt—she would remember him too. And then Fetohep knew that she was the most lonely of all. That great, tyrannical, cunning, kind, aged ruler of Germina.
An undead king and a ruler made of a thousand lifetimes drank deep into that night, celebrating the dead, and a Dragon flew. He alone, that Lord of Flame, had no one else to mourn with that knew their names. Not even the Quarass. But though the night was long, he followed his heart.
Despite what might come next, despite not knowing whom he was flying to, despite the wrongs he had committed, he flew, bearing a few things, to meet someone he knew only by name. And he was a Dragon, so he flew fast, but the journey was far. Nevertheless, Teriarch went onwards.
To what would be in this world, at least, perhaps the last true gathering of Dragon and Wyrm.
They hadn’t moved from the hill outside The Wandering Inn, although the sky was growing dark. In contrast, the fire glowed brighter, and it was like a magnet. Though people got up to stretch their legs or go to the bathroom, they returned and sat back down.
And talked. Not all of it was as dramatic as Erin’s words. In fact, it got entirely silly at times. However, these were conversations that you might never hear the people here speaking about, held over a bit of corn or sausage or a roasted banana.
“It’s happiness, isn’t it? Isn’t that the point of it all? To be happy? I mean, there’s other stuff in life when you boil it down to the roots. When I was a little squirming Selphie, I thought I’d be a grand adventurer and then make some new Selphids and tell stories in my later years. What else is there to do?”
Jelaqua was speaking next to Maughin, going after Erin’s question from earlier. So—so it was a philosophical discussion.
What was the meaning of life? Or, alternatively, what was happiness? It was like the fire setting dragged the question out of those present.
“Is happiness the meaning of life? Are you sure?”
The question came from Garia, whose head rose, frowning from a handful of yeasted popcorn with butter she was eating with Numbtongue. The question stumped Jelaqua.
“Isn’t it? Don’t you want to be happy in life? I mean, you earn a job and coins to buy things you want like food, a roof over your head—but if you had all the gold in the world, you might not work. So what else do you do but things that make you happy? Kids, adventuring, leveling—it’s all for happiness, isn’t it?”
“Maybe. It just—seems kind of basic.”
At this, Maughin nudged Jelaqua and murmured.
The City Runner lifted a hand, and the Selphid relaxed slightly. Garia looked around, a bit embarrassed.
“What do you all think?”
The people sitting around the fire with Erin looked at each other. Erin was dozing a bit, but she saw Grimalkin lift a claw and begin to pontificate.
“I believe the question is inherently misleading, with all due respect to Adventurer Jelaqua. You see, happiness is conflated with purpose. One cannot be happy without fulfillment of some kind. [Mages] used to run emotional detection spells in Walled Cities to understand various policies, the effects of classes, distribution, etc. and they found excessive wealth did not indicate higher levels of happiness. The opposite, usually. The most happy individuals had a certain degree of wealth and levels and purpose.”
The brief lecture made Relc yawn.
“[Mages]. But you need money.”
“I said certain degrees of wealth. Happiness is linked to fulfillment. That is my answer in brief.”
Grimalkin folded his arms. He was instantly countered by Selys, who disagreed in a major way.
“I don’t think you need to work to be happy, though, Grimalkin. Not once have I said at my jobs, ‘gee, I wish I could keep doing this for the rest of my life’. Retired folks are plenty happy not to do anything, some of them.”
“Anecdotal, Miss Shivertail. A completely aimless life is often a void into which vices are piled without restraint.”
Grimalkin shot back, and Rufelt raised a paw next to Lasica.
“I can attest to that. Drowning in your cups is not a good way to go.”
“But I’m not saying that—I’m just saying you don’t need a job. Someone back me up.”
Selys looked about, and the gray-furred paw that raised belonged to Elirr. He and Hexel were sitting together, and he had brought some pets, having arrived late to the gathering. Hexel was scratching a purring tomcat’s stomach much like he couldn’t do for Elirr with everyone watching.
“I will take Selys’ side. My cats do nothing but eat, play, and sleep, and I have often envied them.”
His aforementioned cats gave the crowd a smug look, and those present considered the happiness and point of life vis-à-vis the cat theory. However, Seborn decided to weigh in.
“That’s all very well, but I’d die of boredom. If I wasn’t an adventurer, I’d drink myself into oblivion. Even if it means risking my life, I want to do this.”
“The Drowned bastard’s right. I may have quit the life of sea, but I didn’t enjoy peace and quiet until I went through some misery. Besides, there’s always going to be a monster or day when something bad happens. Happiness isn’t the point of living because you’re not always happy.”
Wailant added with a big nod. Selys protested.
“You…could be. Couldn’t you have a great house, do your favorite things all the time, assuming you didn’t get bored and found something new to do regularly, visited friends, pet cats—or dogs—or beavers—”
The former [Pirate] snorted.
“Issat a euphemism? I agree! Got to pet beavers and whatnot. Don’t throw things at me! But no week’s guaranteed happiness. Let me tell you—all you have to do is step on a rake and there goes your happy day.”
He was just lucky his comment passed over the little Gnoll’s head. Mrsha was napping a bit as Gire kept eating, but she woke up a bit to this interesting debate. She began scribbling and tugged at Lyonette’s arm and made her read her response.
“Mrsha says—I’m reading it, dear. Mrsha says, ‘being happy isn’t one day. It’s a long, loooong time. Even if you have days where you step in poop.’ Mrsha! Language!”
The Gnoll gave Lyonette a long, narrow-eyed look as she was scolded for her writing. She took the card back, crossed out poop, and wrote ‘shit’ instead. Pisces chortled alongside Ceria, but people took Mrsha seriously.
“She is correct. Lives can be cut short in moments. You may not agree with the practices of all Walled Cities, but the lifespans of citizens within are longer than average than those outside. Happiness…grief…better to have both than have it all cut short.”
Chaldion spoke quietly, staring into the fire. He’d removed his gemstone eye, and he seemed almost as ready to sleep as Mrsha.
“Then what’s happiness, Grand Strategist? Living a long time?”
Jelaqua challenged Chaldion, frowning, and got another nervous nudge from Maughin, but the leader of Pallass’ military just took his time sipping from the drink named after him before replying. His voice was hoarse when he did speak, and each word seemed dragged out of him.
“Happiness? Happiness is—ignorance. It is not for everyone. Happiness for a city or a people is something the few sacrifice so the many may achieve. It is the luxury of safety. Of victory. It has a high cost.”
“Spoken like a tyrant.”
Saliss snapped back, sitting up from where he’d been lying on his back. Chaldion said nothing; he didn’t even turn to Saliss. Lyonette closed her mouth—she had been nodding slightly. Gireulashia cut off another Saliss-Chaldion argument.
“That sounds like something Xherw would have said. Or Ulcreziek.”
That was a conversation-killer. Right up until Bird raised a hand.
“No, silly, big Gnoll whose name I do not know. That sounds like Niers.”
Everyone studied him. Bird hesitated.
“Niers…Nierseffson…Jealnet. Nierseffson Jealnet, whom I do not know. And is not the Titan of Baleros.”
He folded his arms and smiled. Lie achieved. Pisces looked at Bird and choked a bit, but Saliss bit back what he was going to say and turned to Bird.
“What’s happiness to an Antinium, then?”
That was an objectively fascinating question, and Bird took his time responding. Numbtongue muttered to Wailant.
“Five gold he says ‘happiness is a bird’.”
The [Pirate] began choking with laughter, and Viceria covered her mouth. Bird looked over at Numbtongue and opened his mandibles wide.
“Happiness? I am not that much happier when I shoot a bird, Numbtongue, or eat one.”
Everyone chorused. Erin sat up just in time to hear Bird correct himself.
“I mean, I am not much happier because I am a happy Bird. That was not a lie. Yet. I know I should be dead. I was a Worker, and I never saw the sky. I was meant to die fighting something horrible and never eat acid flies. I should be dead, and I am not. Every day I am not dead and know this. If I forgot, I would be a very silly Bird. So happiness is me winning over death itself.”
He folded his hands together over his belly and rocked back, satisfied. Since the ground they were sitting on was the hill and his back-shell was rounded, Bird went over in a somersault. In silence, everyone watched him tumble down the hill like a pillbug.
“Uh oh. Ouch. Watch out below. Whee—”
That was so entertaining that Mrsha and Gire rolled out of the conversation. Wailant put out his hand, and Numbtongue spat into it. It was Joseph who decided to break the silence.
“Antinium are depressing.”
Drassi raised both brows.
“That’s news? I’m not reporting it.”
The laughter went around the people sitting there, but the question lingered. So, Ksmvr turned and brightly looked at his mentor.
“Yvlon, what is happiness to you?”
The [Armsmistress] stuttered and turned red as everyone glanced at her.
“I, uh—happiness? Well, I—it’s—I think it’s not—uh—”
She was lost, and like a friend, Pisces lifted his hand.
“I believe happiness, or the point of existence, is more than just emotion, as Magus Grimalkin says. There are spells that provoke happiness and insanity. If you cast such spells on yourself, are you happy? My answer is no, so it follows that happiness is a lasting accomplishment or…deed that provides it.”
“What, does everyone have to go on a quest to be happy, then?”
Selys shot back instantly, but Pisces just sniffed at her.
“Hardly. That’s a simplistic read on my statement, Miss Shivertail. Happiness can be a child, as Jelaqua indicated, or yes, fame and glory, or a home. I just maintain it has to be linked to something.”
“I can buy that.”
The Drake [Heiress] admitted grudgingly. Pelt tossed another stick into the fire with a snort.
“Spoken like a Human and Drake. Everything has to be something you can touch.”
“Says the master-smith.”
Palt raised his brows, and Imani squeaked as Pelt tossed a bit of ash at them. The Centaur blew it away with a spell, and Pelt glowered back.
“Everything breaks. Even the greatest metals. Craft is invisible, and you may never hold what you make. The deed doesn’t have to be there.”
“Is that happiness, Pelt?”
Erin wanted to know. The Dwarf looked up at her and then away.
“…How should I know? I’ll tell you if I ever find it. You don’t need it to live.”
They were teetering on the edge of other conversations, but Yvlon had apparently found her answer. She stood up as if she were giving a speech, and her voice was slightly tremulous.
“I, um, have my answer. Happiness is a lack of something. In other words, I mean—it’s not being in pain. It’s not being hungry or wanting for anything. If you have nothing holding you back, you’ll probably be happy. You should be.”
Fierre tilted her head left and right. She was sitting as far away from the silver-armed woman as possible. She whispered to Octavia, with her brows raised.
“Isn’t that backwards?”
No. It was just a revealing answer. And for a moment, Erin wished that she had been able to meet Ysara and this Qwera. But then Ksmvr was nodding.
“That is not my answer, but I will write this down in case the question comes up again, Yvlon. I have a good answer. I have it here.”
He rose, and everyone saw what he was holding. The black cat went meow in Ksmvr’s hands. He supported it, stroking its fur gently.
“Happiness is a cat.”
He showed it around, and the purring animal let him scratch behind its ears. Everyone waited for Ksmvr to say something else, but he just sat back down happily.
Kevin grinned from where he’d gotten up to refill his drink. The conversation was resuming, and it looked like it was Viceria who was giving her take on the nature of happiness. Ksmvr stepped back, still holding his cat, and Kevin heard another group of people that were listening into the central conversation talking.
“They are discussing happiness. And we’re eating roasted foods around a fire. This feels like when we are on campaign. It’s not very exciting. I was told she sometimes made the inn explode.”
Kevin looked around, and there was Crusader 57. He did seem like he enjoyed complaining, because the rest of Squad 5 elbowed him and, despite his comments, the Worker had eaten eight pieces of corn.
Some of the Fellowship of the Inn and soldiers were sharing another fire, and before Kevin could Kevin his way in—which was a surprisingly familiar thing given that Kevin2 and Kevin3…and Kevin were all parts of the army—someone else spoke up.
“Excitement, sir? That’s not always the best.”
Crusader 57 challenged the fellow with a cap on his head. Normen gave a cautious tug of the cap as he, Alcaz, and Pivr all toasted pieces of bread to dip in a bowl of honey. A little bee indignantly stared at them plundering all this honey with their flesh-proboscises as she lay in the little sling Lyonette had fashioned for her across the [Princess]’ front.
Normen shook his head. He had a rather splendid cigar that the Centaur had given him, and he was taking delicate puffs and enjoying himself. He elucidated his point for the [Crusaders] very simply.
“The thing about excitement, sir, is that sometimes, all you remember is the excitement. Which is good enough. But this? You’ll remember this in detail on a cold night and think back to just how it tasted.”
He tapped the slice of bread, which he’d added a bit of cheese and honey to. The [Crusaders] nodded slowly. Kevin sat down.
“Exactly. I mean, it’s great for me too. Hi, I’m Kevin.”
“Oh, another one.”
Crusader 57 twitched his antennae as Kevin gave him a blank look. But the young man was smiling. He looked down, and his face went slack for a moment, then he laughed ruefully.
“What is so funny? Inform me, strange Human whom I vaguely recall. Then we shall be chummy. Friend.”
Pivr fanned his wings gently. Kevin tried to explain what was so ironic.
“A cold one on a porch—or the back of the inn, I guess, around a fire with a snack? It’s just—I’m turning into my dad.”
He glanced down ruefully, and no one got the joke except maybe Normen and Alcaz, who smiled briefly. Kevin took a sip from his mug and changed his tune.
“…I guess he had a point.”
A few more people drifted away from the central fire, mostly because someone had passed really, really bad gas. Ksmvr walked away, chasing a cat who’d fled the stink bomb, and realized Pivr was here when the cat hissed at the Flying Antinium.
“Oh, Pivr. You are here. Many Antinium are here, I note.”
The Flying Antinium nodded cautiously. There were Antinium from the army, from the Free Hive, and the Fellowship. In fact, Klbkch was returning from washing his hands to where Relc was laughing with Embria and some of the Watch and [Soldiers]. He stopped.
Ksmvr jumped, and all the Antinium fell silent.
“Oh. K-Kblkch. Hello. Good to see you.”
The two faced each other, former Prognugator and Revalantor. Klbkch stared at Ksmvr’s regrown hand.
“You and I have not spoken since your return from Chandrar. I note that Xrn authorized the regrowth of your hand.”
“Yes…and I am thankful for your well-wishes. My team is doing very well. Is the Hive well? Our formalities are concluded, goodbye—”
Ksmvr edged back, but Klbkch folded his arms. He looked Ksmvr up and down.
“I am also pleased to note your new sword school. My sword school. My Skills.”
“Oh. I, um. I’m very grateful for their usage?”
The [Skirmisher] would be sweating if he could. Klbkch was rapidly advancing his [Loomer] class, and his voice was amazingly flat.
“I note you did not inquire as to my preference when inheriting my Skills and abilities that I worked for.”
Ksmvr could have run, but the cat suddenly decided it wanted more petting, so he picked it up. He looked defiantly at Klbkch and spoke.
“I noticed you were not using them, so I decided someone should, Klbkch.”
Oh snap. Kevin’s mouth moved slowly as Klbkch’s antennae went still. Ksmvr wasn’t taking everything lying down—and it was probably a combination of Pisces, Ceria, and Yvlon that was adding to his retorts.
Before anything else could happen, though, another shape came bounding forwards, and there was a gentle woof. A little puppy ran towards the [Crusaders], who all stared at it. Then, before it could beg for treats, a hand reached out and picked it up.
The little dog whined, and there he was. All the Antinium turned as a figure appeared with a dustpan. The dread Antinium. The most hated being in the Free Hives.
Furfur. The animal caretaker was helping shepherd some of the Free Antinium’s pets and Elirr’s cats, and he stopped as he noticed the gathering. What might have happened next was anyone’s guess, but then one last figure appeared.
“What is this? What is this? So many familiar faces. There is Pivr. Where have you gone? We could have used you during the war. We still can.”
Prognugator Dekass walked forwards, carrying an entire lasagna tray in two arms and a pair of drinks—both for him—with his other two. He still had his armor on, the repaired damage from battle shining on his breastplate, and he had a slight limp, but he seemed as happy as could be.
And then—the [Crusaders], the Free Antinium, they realized they were all here. The six legends. The myths of the Free Hive.
Furfur, Klbkch, Ksmvr, Dekass, Pivr, and Crusader 57. The six most hated Antinium in one spot for various reasons.
Ksmvr, who had once nearly gotten Liscor overrun in his brief tenure as Prognugator and who had hurt Pawn.
Dekass, who had been completely objectionable for most of his stay at the inn.
Pivr, doubly objectionable.
Klbkch the Slayer, executioner of Antinium, feared for his cold attitude towards others.
Crusader 57, who could be mean and hurt people’s feelings.
And Furfur, who made animals go take naps.
Clearly, this was a vortex of evil Antinium, and the only question in each Antinium’s mind was—who was in the top five? Did they have to update the rankings?
Of course, even the Antinium knew that it wasn’t that serious of a ranking. It was mostly just…fun. But it seemed at least one of the Antinium was self-aware, because Ksmvr turned to Furfur.
“They call you Furfur. Your name is known to me as a dread Antinium of ill repute.”
The [Pet Trainer] stopped in confusion as the dog barked quietly. Ksmvr met his gaze, and if sparks could fly…slowly, he lifted the cat in his hands as Klbkch stared at him in confusion.
“Furfur, I respect your class and abilities. But I fear—my time in Chandrar has given me insights you cannot dream of. I have been friends with the Empress of Beasts, and she has taught me many things. So—observe the forbidden technique. [Fourfold Petting].”
With that, he began demonstrating a 100% increase in the techniques of ear scratching, tummy-rubbing, and cat-pampering. The cat practically writhed with delight in Ksmvr’s hands as Klbkch stared at him.
He stalked past Ksmvr, and Dekass wandered away since he had been told the cats were not part of the food being served. Furfur watched in silence as Ksmvr amazed the onlookers with his talents. The little dog stared at the cat as Furfur put him down, and he raced over to get a scrap from Crusader 53.
What would be his response? Furfur was very still as he fished in a belt pouch. Then…he produced a short-toothed comb and brush.
Instantly, the cat abandoned Ksmvr and leapt into Furfur’s hands. He began to comb and brush the cat’s fur as Ksmvr’s mandibles fell open. Furfur nodded to Ksmvr and picked up the dog; it was getting late, and they needed to sleep.
“Ksmvr, where did you go?”
The Antinium came back to the central fire as Ceria, Pisces, and Yvlon showed him the cake slice they’d safeguarded for him. The Antinium didn’t touch it. He sat there and looked at his comrades.
“My team, I have been bested, humiliated, and defeated. It is a strange feeling, to be so roundly thrashed. I may never recover. And yet—I must train harder.”
He clenched one fist. Yvlon turned to Ceria, uncertain whether or not they should get up and avenge Ksmvr or not.
And the night went on.
In the end, there were a lot of theories about happiness and the meaning of life, if you’d even thought about it in a grand sense.
“The meaning of life? Uh—”
Joseph completely blanked when he was asked. He glanced around and stuttered.
“Well, they say lots of things, right? Like, um, to ‘crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.’”
Kevin began choking on his drink with laughter as Erin’s head swiveled, and she gave Joseph an outraged look. But the people sitting around Joseph took him at face value. Numbtongue gave Joseph a long, long look and a frown.
“…And then what?”
“What do you do after that?”
The Hobgoblin gave Joseph a very distrustful look, and Seborn broke in.
“Pillage and plunder, obviously. And worse. That’s your meaning of life?”
He gave Joseph a deeply disturbed look, and the young man raised his hands hurriedly. Imani was horrified. She might have been from Earth, but she had no idea what he’d been quoting.
“That’s what you want to do, Joseph?”
“It’s clearly what he meant from the context. What are you, some kind of Bloodtear Pirate or those insane raiders?”
A Drake twitched at her spot around the fire, but Joseph was the one trying to defend himself.
“It’s not me—it’s just a quote, guys. It’s just one theory, right? I mean, no one knows the answer—”
Pawn raised one hand politely. He had been creating some bread for extra food, and he turned to Joseph.
“I have seen my enemy driven before me many times. I have also crushed their heads with a mace. It is not best in life to me, but I respect your attitude towards the game of football. No wonder you are a [Coach].”
It was getting dark, and the laughter from the fire where Joseph’s name was being dragged through the mud almost woke a sleepy little Gnoll in Lyonette’s arms as she carried Mrsha to their rooms. But most people were sitting around the glowing embers in the darkness.
When they rose, they’d have to go home or beg a room for the night and face consequences like how much they’d just eaten or the work they had tomorrow or just—life.
But this night had been quiet and enjoyable. Not mind-blowingly fun or crazy. Just—good. In fact, that was why even the Silverfangs had arrived near sunset.
They did not feast, exactly, but they had eaten and listened and talked. They would not have come for a great party, but this—this was close enough to their ceremonies.
Krshia Silverfang sat with a cup in her paw as she spoke, a nigh-invisible shadow with a glinting necklace of silver in the darkness.
“This talk of happiness, of life—I wish I had but an answer.”
She looked around, and Erin Solstice heard her growl in the darkness.
“We cried all our tears a while back, but it wasn’t enough. I should have stayed to bury the dead but I couldn’t face it. Cetrule…Torishi…Silverfangs left one dead Gnoll for every six that lived. I cannot smile for new lands or a glorious age. It comes at too high a cost.”
There it was again, and no one ran from it. The distant laughter faded, as if they heard, but someone did reply to Krshia.
It was Kevin. He spoke, thoughtfully, into the silence.
“In another world, there really wouldn’t be any point.”
Everyone looked at him, Grimalkin, Pisces, Erin, Krshia, Selys, Saliss, and Numbtongue—those were the people in the central spot. Kevin surely knew he was being listened to, but he didn’t care. He went on.
“At least we level up, here. At least that’s not forgotten. Sometimes I see things that have no meaning, and I…I don’t get why it happened. At least here I can say—maybe I’ll be able to do something in time. I couldn’t, even if I tried, even if I was there. Before. That’s something, right?”
Erin felt like he was looking at her. She knew he was speaking to her. It was something she’d said, and Ryoka.
So that was where he was. They were all changing, and Kevin’s words hung in the air. Until Erin interrupted him.
This night, this evening with the fire, was good. She pushed herself up with her elbows in her chair and shook her head.
“No. Even if it were a place without levels or rewards or quests or magic…”
The others focused on her, and she sensed each one here, though they were a bunch of people as still as statues, shadows in the night. But she knew their faces and…Erin inhaled, and the air was smoky, making her cough. Oh, but it was real. So she had to tell them—tell Kevin he was a bit wrong.
“We are bound together by the things we lose and the things we’ve done. I’ll never forget that. I never did, even when I died.”
Pisces looked at Erin, but it was something only she could say. Erin turned to Krshia, and the Gnoll [Shopkeeper] studied the Human. They had met when Erin first visited Liscor, and Krshia was one of Erin’s first friends.
“I know what the Gnolls did, Krshia. They helped Mrsha. They did many things.”
“Some selfish. If it is a debt…”
“It’s not just a debt, Krshia. I know what they did. What they went through. I won’t forget what happened, and I wasn’t even there. I didn’t see it all, but I don’t think Lyonette will ever forget. Or anyone else. I’ve said this before. For Goblins. But today and every day afterwards—no Gnoll of the Plains will ever go away hungry if they come here or have to sleep on the ground. Or Antinium. They’ll always be friends. Hopefully, if there’s one thing we can keep, it’s that.”
It wasn’t much, but it was all they had left. Erin looked around and felt Krshia’s grief. She felt the contentment of some, Grimalkin’s conflict of duty and purpose. Chaldion’s bone-weary despair and fear.
Hidden emotions in some, words still left to say. Ceria was staring at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] felt something bubbling in her chest. It was something you could feel and maybe even forget, but Erin had learned many times that these moments mattered.
She jumped as a claw touched her side. Saliss poked Erin with one huge eye open.
“Free food and shelter? How about Drakes?”
Erin swatted his claw down, and Numbtongue lifted a hand.
“I think the Goblins generally feed themselves.”
Erin stared pointedly at Ulvama, eating half a cake, and Numbtongue laughed. Her gaze roamed the gathering of people, and she heard little conversations. People she didn’t know, speaking.
Like that Cave Goblin, Rasktooth. He’d been merry enough, eating and drinking and chattering to the Worker, but he could not walk.
And unlike Erin, no [Healer] had told him he would again. He looked around and smiled hugely.
“Good night. Good day. If I die, I am happy.”
He looked at the Worker sitting next to him, and Infinitypear seemed shocked.
“Why will Rasktooth die?”
The Cave Goblin tapped his legs with an expression like it were obvious.
“Useless Goblins die. So I die.”
To his surprise, Infinitypear shook his head vehemently. The Worker picked up the Cave Goblin and put him on his shoulders.
“No. I am your legs.”
“Not always. Don’t be silly.”
Rasktooth poked him in the head. In response, Infinitypear poked him back.
“I will never put you down. You will not die. Not without me.”
It was such a stupid…it was such a thing to say that the Cave Goblin laughed. He raised a hand to punch the Antinium, but then patted him on his head. And all he said was this as he rubbed at his eyes.
Infinitypear smiled as he carried Rasktooth away from the fire. He agreed.
“Brother. And friend.”
Erin had heard all of it. She needed something to blow her nose with, so she used the hem of Pisces’ robe.
But he didn’t stop her, just grimaced. Erin wiped her face.
“Sorry. But that’s what they need to say. We need time. It’s too much. We have to say it slowly. Even though…”
They also had so much to do. Pisces looked at her as the people began rising, breaking up for sleep. But that moment…his eyes fixed on her.
“I—do have something to say to you, Erin. But I—I cannot—now is—”
He glanced around the fire, and Ceria, Ksmvr, and Yvlon were there. But Pisces couldn’t say it. Not with people. Maybe not even alone. He looked at Erin’s shadow, and he didn’t see how her eyes fixed sadly on him. But Erin didn’t say the things that would ruin this moment. She just patted his hand.
“We have time. I’ll get it out of you when you’re ready.”
The [Necromancer]’s head bowed.
“…Time? It’s been ten days. More. I left…”
He was about to shout it, say it, but Erin just tightened her hand on his.
“For another day, rest. Just one day.”
He nodded, and Erin wheeled herself away from the fire. She had something to do too, and she heard the quiet voices speaking in the night.
They were not all good conversations. There were fights and even stupid questions. Like…
“Was it worth it? Do you regret anything?”
It might have been a random guest who asked that, or even a friend of the inn. It was a stupid question, whether it was Rasktooth or anyone else who was asked.
Of course you regretted not dodging. Of course it hurt, and of course you regretted the pain and what might never come back.
How could you ask a person that? Let alone a tribe, even, especially in hindsight? It was the kind of question that deserved a stinger in the eye on general principle.
The little bee fanned one wing as Lyonette put her on the windowsill. She had a bowl of honey water waiting for her, but she’d been stuck in the sling all night. She would have loved to fly…but she wouldn’t. Never again.
She would have crawled around on the ground outside, but it was too dangerous for her, and she understood that. She could not fly, and Apista regretted that.
She had no answer, but the little white girl was sleeping in bed and the [Princess] smiled so much she almost cried. Apista felt it. As Lyonette went to sleep, Apista limped to the slightly open window and lit a bit of one of Palt’s cigars with some flame she produced.
A drink and a smoke on a moonlit night. Worth it…she fanned her stub of a wing and dragged herself forwards with her good legs. She didn’t know about worth. But this?
Yeah. That felt nice.
It was dark now, and the last moments of this gathering were breaking up. But all it had meant, all the powerful feelings that had been shed here, even in part, still lingered. What was it? Could you name it?
The [Innkeeper] didn’t know, but she went around, wheeling her chair into shins, apologizing, and bidding people goodnight. But she had a problem.
“Excuse me. Do you know where Alcaz and Normen went? Pivr? I saw he had…they’re already in Liscor? Darn. Hey. Um. Do you have a hat? Ceria? Yvlon? Helmet? Grimalkin? Relc, buddy?”
The sleepy people looked at Erin, and she realized none of them had a hat. This was a hatless crowd. Aside from the Brothers—they were anti-hat.
“What’s with you guys? Not one of yous has a hat? Not you, Ser Sest? Give your helmet! …Where’s your helmet?”
“Why do you need a hat, Erin? You don’t wear hats!”
An exasperated Selys snapped back. Erin rolled around with increasing urgency.
“Lasica! You’re a [Chef]. Poofy hat? Bah, what kind of [Chef] are you? Pebblesnatch would have my back. Did Garry…? Argh!”
She rolled forward, and the door to the Garden of Sanctuary appeared. Erin rolled through room after room, disrupting the occupants, but she had no hat. At last, in desperation, she rolled into the kitchen.
Her guests followed her. Bemused, but that air of happy charm, of…something, lingered. In fact, it more than lingered.
It was here. The pleasant conclusion of the evening. Fading, but lingering around…
Selys stared at Erin, and a sleepy Lyonette came downstairs because she’d felt it too. Not an aura, but something…close.
Her friends saw Erin Solstice pull something from a cupboard, inspect it, and bite her lip.
“I hope this’ll do. It’s not how I was taught, but—I’m an [Innkeeper]. Okay, here goes.”
With that, she raised a pot and put it over her head, the handle facing backwards because that was cool.
Erin stared at her friends with a pot on her head. Pisces began laughing, a slow laugh, and Ceria snorted, and Yvlon rubbed at her eyes.
“Just wait. Okay, I tip it like that and…gotcha!”
Her shout was triumphant, and then Erin snatched the pot from her head. She glanced around, decided she was not wearing that all day and night, and slammed a lid over it. She stared at the covered pot along with everyone else.
“Erin—what did you just do?”
The [Innkeeper] winked at her friends, and they gave her looks of great suspicion. For there it was. The crazy Human of Liscor, Erin Solstice, the [Innkeeper], the girl whom Nereshal called the Goblinfriend in times to come…she was many things they knew.
And something they didn’t. Pisces’ eyes widened, and Ceria gasped as the circlet helped her mind jump to a conclusion. Grimalkin just checked off a box and went to bed, smiling, without telling the weary Chaldion.
And Erin? The [Witch] winked at her guests.
“I’ll show you later. Have a good night, everyone. Just…ask yourselves one thing when you go to bed, and for the future.”
They focused on her, and Erin took a breath. She put the pot on her lap and folded her hands together.
“Do you have…a wish?”
Lyonette blinked at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] smiled.
“Yes. Ask yourselves that. A wish. Something you’ve always wanted, deep down. Or something you realized you wanted.”
She looked around, and the little pot vibrated with something.
“Not a dream or something you really want. A wish. It might not be possible, but maybe it is. Something you want to do. In the days to come—I want to see what we can do. I want…I think we should get a pet. Make this inn worth even more than it is. Is Crusader 57 here?”
Joseph jumped as one of the figures raised a hand. Erin laughed in the darkness.
“I hope this inn was okay, at least. But not perfect. You wanted more, didn’t you?”
The Worker considered the question for a long time. All the guests of the inn waited, and Squad 5 poked him vigorously, but he would say his piece no matter what, and when he replied…
It was with a shrug, and even perhaps, a slight raising of the mandibles.
“No. But you helped the Free Antinium do everything that came afterwards. So it’s good enough. You’re good enough.”
He looked around in the silence and scowled.
“What? That’s what I meant.”
Erin laughed. Then she wheeled forwards and took one of his hands.
“Next time, Crusader 57—okay, maybe not next time if it’s tomorrow. But next time you come here—there will be something for you. I promise. And for everyone else, something great. Something that matters.”
Someone sighed into the darkness. Not because they denied it, but because they believed her. Ser Dalimont. He looked past Erin, as if he had seen just that.
“A triumph of a lifetime. What comes next? Do we just live the rest of our lives satisfied or give up?”
She shook her head.
“No, you continue on, and everything’s even better thereafter. Have a good night.”
So, the [Innkeeper] closed a door as she bid the last guests farewell and put the pot full of promises next to her bed. She took a while to go to sleep, but when she did—perhaps the world was a bit better.
Author’s Note: Before you say anything, in the comments, some chapters are inevitable. We all need time to process things and that’s what I think some stories lack or don’t show enough of.
Sometimes…we need to sit around a fire and isn’t it strange how Erin has never done this before? At least in this way.
With that said, I may not come back to you on Saturday with a chapter in Volume 9. I need to write Volume 1, The Last Tide Pt. 2, and so I’m devoting writing days to that. I will be up-front if it’s something in secret; if not I’ll post whatever I write and link you to it.
However, this is our pace. Not the slowest, hopefully, for slice-of-life shouldn’t be nothing at all, in my opinion. But neither is it Volume 8’s straight run.
PS: I was going to write this but again, I have trouble with lyrics since I don’t think in rhythm or verse. But it was going to be a Roald Dahl nod. Just a little moment when people are figuring out what’s happening outside. Since it’ll never be used, here it is:
Inside The Wandering Inn, there were three people. Lyonette, Bird, and Numbtongue.
Lyonette, Bird, and Numbtongue.
Lyonette, Bird, and Numbtongue.
One royal, one silly, one green.
This trio of friends, sat in the inn
Waiting for Erin to come back again.
They were mostly good people. But they were somewhat silly too. Lyonette was so busy ordering the Thronebearers around that she never noticed the inn’s occupants sneaking out the garden’s door or going to the bathroom and not coming back.
That’s all from me. See you later. Roast some bananas for me.
[Anchoring Stab] and Successor by Brack!
Healing Slime by Vescar!
Erin by Sedeto for AxelTerizaki’s Birthday!