It said a lot that her first friend was Mrsha.
Not about Gireulashia’s judgment of character or Mrsha herself. Rather, that it took her fifteen years to make a friend, and that her first friend was half her age and less than half her height. Less than a third if Mrsha ran around on all fours.
It was hard to make friends in Ekhtouch. It…had been hard for Gire. Because she was the best. When two Gnoll cubs of around equal talent in one field grew up, they were often partnered together to compete. No one could beat Gire except adults, so she made all her friends amongst the older Gnolls. And those weren’t friendships, more like mentorships.
Mrsha would have been instantly disqualified in other times because she would drag Gire down by association; she was not superlatively gifted in any one attribute—except for her ability to cast magic and get into trouble—even her nose was weaker than Ekhtouch children who were set to be [Trackers] or [Hunters].
And yet, Mrsha made Gire smile. Mrsha had done things, seen things that even the best of Ekhtouch couldn’t say they’d done.
She had amazing friends. And so, when Gire woke up in the temporary housing that Ekhtouch’s Gnolls had been given by Liscor’s Council for a month, gratis, she thought of Mrsha.
Gire had terrible dreams. They persisted when she woke. Even with dawn’s light breaking on the horizon, the High Passes left Liscor dark longer than other cities. In the faintest light, Gire looked around the spartan room, and her eyes could pick out rough imperfections on the ‘smooth’ wall left by a less-than-perfect trowel. Most people wouldn’t be able to see them; Gire could.
She could smell the two Gnolls outside her room, sitting there, smell what they’d eaten for breakfast—slightly stale jam tarts, probably from a [Baker] yesterday, since it was far too early to buy them fresh.
She could hear them breathing, though her door was closed. Hear the light snores of a Gnoll next door and the buzzing of a fly passing her window and every sound in a thousand feet—but she had learned to filter the sensory overload.
The dark room with creeping shadows did not bother her in and of itself; her night-vision was amazing. Yet it seemed, to Gire, there was the faintest tinge of orange or red, despite this being impossible. She looked around the room and saw, for a second, Firrelle’s head, staring at her from the center of her bed. A bloody stump where Gire had cut it from the Chieftain’s shoulders, a slightly surprised, melancholy look on her face.
Gire fled the illusion. She did not stay in her room. She did not like being by herself.
The [Paragon]’s exit from her room was fast. She was out the door and vaulting the third-story railing of the apartment complex so fast the two Ekhtouch Gnolls were still rising as she leapt. One called out.
He turned and saw Gire land and speed across the courtyard. She was so fast that she was three dozen feet away before the Gnolls could put one leg over the railing to copy her jump.
They’d never catch her, and they knew it. So they gave up; they knew where she was going, anyways.
Gireulashia ran, and she left a trail of wind in her wake. She blew past the young Gnoll girl practicing a spear routine with eleven others, and Hickery stared after Gire, mouth agape. Vok had sneezed and missed the [Paragon].
The apartment complex was actually fairly similar to Cellidel’s, and since it was in the new quarter, it smelled of fresh bricks and mortar, paint and stone dust from all the construction. Soon, the [Builder] teams would be hard at work laying more streets; if you walked past the temporary walls, you’d see a new area in progress.
Hexel was a trained Balerosian [Architect]. He didn’t ‘finish’ a district without putting some kind of wall up, and the Watch was diligent in making sure this weak spot in Liscor’s defenses was patrolled.
They did have a heavier presence in the new district, the western part of the city, but as any Cellidel Gnoll would tell you, it was a pleasant change to have Gnolls who’d greet you and smile rather than suspicious Drakes who only came to arrest someone.
It was strange to Gire, and she knew she alarmed the Watch when she ran full-tilt, so she slowed a bit. Even so, a [Guardswoman] on patrol, a Drake with a nasty scar across her forearms, still whirled before she realized it was Gire.
“—it’s that giant Gnoll girl—”
Gire was sure they had a file on her. She had always been told Drake cities were like that; no one could be private. Everyone was watched, and if you stepped out of line, you were removed, unlike a tribe where everyone was supposed to be together.
Or was that something else that she’d been lied to about, like Xherw and Doombringers? The [Paragon]’s brow furrowed.
Nothing is the same. Firrelle is dead, the old ways are suspect…and magic is back.
She pushed away the words the other Ekhtouch Gnolls had spoken to her. She didn’t want to think of it. Instead, Gire hesitated and then broke off her beeline to The Wandering Inn.
She could get there in five minutes at a run, even without alarming the Watch unduly, but she instead slowed and came to the main Watch barracks and heard the sound of voices and even the clack-clack of wood hitting wood in the morning.
“Recruits, I want to see those practice weapons moving! Anyone who cannot keep up will not make [Guard] within the month! You think a [Thug] will give you an opening before she puts a blade between your ribs? Will a Raskghar? Push yourselves and level!”
That sounded like Senior Guardswoman Beilmark, who had returned to duty. Sure enough, Gire peeked over the wall of the practice courts and saw a Gnoll shouting at Gnolls and Humans and Drakes; new candidates for the Watch.
They needed to expand, but Zevara demanded a level of efficiency, and Gire saw a double-line of trainees battering at each other.
Interesting. A lot were using batons, not spears or swords. The Watch might know how to kill monsters, but they didn’t use that on civilians.
At least, not in this city. Chieftain Werri of Woven Bladegrass had stories…but Gire wasn’t interested in the trainees so much as a duo sparring in the furthest court.
“Oh. That’s…Sir Relz? No. Relc?”
They had too-similar names, so even Gire’s memory took a second. But she saw the brawny Drake whirling his spear into a lancing series of thrusts and a swift parry to a silver blade, and stopped—
For she recognized masters when she saw them. Like everything, Ekhtouch aspired to create experts in any weapon, but even so—it was rare to see a [Spearmaster] and [Swordmaster] sparring, let alone in the Watch.
Perhaps those weren’t their exact classes. Gire wondered what the Antinium gliding into attacks with his silver blades had as his class. Something unique to his kind? There was a mesmerizing pattern to the blades, and the Drake was cursing loudly.
“Stop shining light into my eyes, Klb!”
“It is a valid tactic. Stop being distracted.”
“Oh yeah? Stop—[Tail Attack]!”
The Drake broke off his display of spear mastery and whirled around and tried to hit the Antinium with a slap from his tail. In response, Klbkch raised one blade.
“Argh! You bastard!”
Gire giggled as she peeked over the wall. That Relc was just as funny as Mrsha said! He punched and kicked, but the Antinium was very good.
Relc was less so. He was tough and fast, but the other one…Klbkch the Slayer was more refined. There was what her Ekhtouch sword-trainer, Yeith, would have called a roughness to Relc’s style.
It befitted Relc in battle, and Gire knew he’d beaten no less than Lulv the Battle Wolf, one of Manus’ [Spearmasters]. Anyways, Gire had observed that battles were quite different from duels or sparring.
Time was passing, though, so Gire glanced across the practice yard. She could go through the front of the Watch house, of course, but that defeated the purpose. The side door was right there, but there were so many eyes…she needed just three seconds.
She got it when Relc launched himself into a [Relc Kick], and even the trainees turned to stare as Klbkch dodged away. Beilmark glanced over, rolling her eyes.
“Don’t emulate those two! When you get your mastery, you can be idiots. Back to training! Swap attack and defense!”
She looked over and frowned. Had someone left the back door ajar?
Three seconds. Gire’s [Perfect Basic Action: Stealth Roll] carried her into the Watch House unnoticed. Of course, that was one of her favorite tricks.
She had more, now. For instance, when Gire slipped in and realized that there were a number of eyes of casual [Guards] looking around the Watch House, she clapped two paws together.
A [Guard] whirled at the thunderclap of sound. Everyone turned, and Gire zoomed left, around the turning Drake, and did a second [Stealth Roll] past the other guards and people in the barracks.
She could do two in a row, now. Passing Level 20 as a [Paragon] seemed to have done it. But even a stealth Skill wouldn’t save a nine-foot tall Gnoll girl rolling around from a room full of decent [Guards].
[Unnoticed by One, Invisible to All]. Gire poked her head up as she crouched by the day-sergeant’s file cabinet, staring at folders. Until one person really saw her, she benefited from being passed over, like a [Thief] or [Rogue].
She’d gotten that from her battle against the Drakes with Tkrn. The rest of her Skills—well. Gireulashia had leveled up vastly during the final battle at the Meeting of Tribes.
Everyone had. Gire could not think of one person who wouldn’t have leveled up in some way. One of her new Skills, for instance, was [Lesser Speed].
She was already fast. Now, as a [Paragon]—she was even faster. Gire knew she had bare seconds before people looked around, so she was scanning the drawer for a file on Ekhtouch or her or…
E? Ekirra, Eldavin, Elirr, Eqour…are they criminal records or just notes? She knew Ekirra was Mrsha’s friend, so perhaps the Watch had him on file.
Erin’s was huge, but Ekhtouch had none. G? No Gireulashia…frowning, the Ekhtouch Gnoll plucked a file and stood up.
“What was that sound?”
Beilmark opened the door, and Gireulashia casually re-entered the Watch House, glancing around as if she was coming in for the first time. Someone looked up as the [Paragon] pretended to close the front door, paging through the folder and reading quickly, but everyone was trying to find the origin of the loud sound. Gire seemed like she’d just come in and read while smiling to herself.
Mrsha had a file. Lacking one on her—which sort of proved she wasn’t on their watch list, or if she was, it was something only the Watch Captain had—Gire had elected to see what they thought of her friend.
Which was nothing, really. They had notes about her Doombringer status, a hefty number of references to ‘Erin Solstice’ or the ‘Solstice files’ or ‘Solstice contingencies’, but aside from a few misdemeanors like poisoning another child with super-hot peppers, it was mostly about the things she’d survived.
Gire was contemplating a break-in to Zevara’s office once she replaced the files with another distraction. It was funny, really.
Everyone thought that a giant Gnoll was easy to spot sneaking around, but it was all about sightlines. If you weren’t looking in her direction, and she took into account peripheral vision, Gire was invisible. Manipulating a room full of people to stare where you wanted and exploiting that with basic [Rogue] Skills was easy. After all, Gire was a [Paragon]. She was…
“Ahem. Young lady, what are you doing in my Watch House?”
The claw that went to pinch Gire’s ear missed because the Gnoll dodged, but Zevara’s [Freeze, Criminal] Skill made Gire’s flight impossible. And the glare the Drake gave her was followed by an amused Relc and Klbkch in the doorway.
“I told you I saw something.”
Klbkch nudged Relc. The Drake just grinned.
“I had my back turned. Isn’t that, um, Gireumlashina?”
“Gireulashia of Ekhtouch. Who has apparently stolen a file in the middle of a Watch House without anyone noticing except you two.”
Zevara plucked the file from Gire’s paws as the [Paragon] stared at the Watch Captain and Senior Guard duo. Zevara gave her a long look as Gire wilted.
Okay, it turned out a Watch Captain who’d survived Raskghar and every menace that had been thrown at Liscor was good enough to detect Gire in her own building.
Gire didn’t receive a fine, just a fifteen minute scolding and a warning. The Watch Sergeant got chewed out far more. Gire slunk out with her head hung low.
Embarrassing. She hadn’t really thought she’d find super-valuable information on her here; that would have been in City Hall or Zevara’s office, after all. But she’d done this because she thought she could without anyone catching her.
The surprises. That was why she liked Mrsha. That was why she liked The Wandering Inn. Well, at any rate…if she didn’t have a file before, Zevara had given her a happy smile and told Gire she had a file now.
“Gire! My friend! Good morning! I am happy!”
Mrsha’s voice was a series of pre-programmed lines she triggered via runes. They were, funnily enough, in Gire’s own voice, but Gire had made it higher-pitched to sound like Mrsha.
The Gnoll girl leapt off her table, and Gire caught her and swung her around.
“Settle down, you two. Hello…Gire. Would you like breakfast? Erin is coming down in a bit. Today is pancakes. Ser Sest? The Archmage’s Well breakfast special, I think.”
Lyonette’s greeting was more reserved, and she eyed the giant Gnoll like she had the last ten days, but she’d learned enough about Gire’s incredible appetite to order the super-breakfast, including the stack of pancakes hollowed out so a well of syrup and butter could be poured in.
“The Archmage’s Well?”
Gire looked delighted and confused and Mrsha rolled her eyes. She wrote the answer back.
“Duh. From the Archmage of Syrup! The greatest Archmage to ever live!”
That was a crime against food, but not to Gire. Mrsha sat next to her on a high seat, wagging her tail as she banged her fork and knife on the table.
“Mrsha! Have you forgotten your manners while I’ve been away?”
Lyonette scolded, but gently. Mrsha couldn’t help but tap another rune.
She and Gire giggled over Lyonette’s long sigh—despite only being three years older than Gire, she was the adult. Gire was a child.
She wanted to be a child. Children didn’t have to be Chieftains. A child didn’t kill her Chieftain.
Dark thoughts. They were running from things they’d done, some of them. Everyone was back—well, many people—but they’d changed. Gireulashia was not the only person who woke up with nightmares.
You just didn’t hear Pisces shouting because he was smart enough to [Silence] his rooms. She would have noticed anyways, but she didn’t have to.
A [Witch] could tell. Vaguely—but she was an [Innkeeper] too, and the classes were linked across some talents. Erin Solstice slowed as she wheeled through the [Garden of Sanctuary].
It was like a dark cloud over Gire—but it passed like the sun blooming as Mrsha offered her a bite of the decorative fruits on top of the Archmage of Syrup’s damned creation. That was good. They really did like each other.
Still, after the wonderful campfire and talks, Erin felt like today was a day for something. She brought the pot she’d filled last night and put it on the breakfast table. Mrsha reached for the top, and Erin stopped her.
“Not so fast, Mrsha. You’ll let it out!”
“Your…magic? I have breakfast, unless you want something else, Erin?”
Lyonette carefully reappeared, holding a more normal-sized pancake and egg and bacon breakfast.
“The good old American stuff is fine with me, Lyonette! Just like Mom used to make. Well, aside from the lack of blueberries. And, actually, it was my dad who made this breakfast. So exactly not like my mom used to make.”
Lyonette blinked at the references, but Erin just smiled, and she very deliberately thought—Shauna Solstice. Gregori Solstice.
She remembered them, and not just the fake memories of waking up. It was…hard to focus on them, like a name you kept forgetting. But because she knew why it was hard, Erin could pull the names and the memories out.
“Is this what you ate every day, Erin? No wonder you cook like, um…”
“If anyone brings up roasted corn today, I’m gonna shove this piece of bacon up…an ear.”
Erin waved a fork around dangerously. Gire and Mrsha were nudging each other, clearly daring one another to do it, and Ser Sest reappeared with a drink.
The inn was weird. Thronebearers, all four of them, practically helped Lyonette into her seat and provided her with a more elegant meal of crepes. Which Mrsha instantly stole half of. And then the Horns came down to their table—well, all but Ceria. She was still snoring apparently.
The inn began to fill up with a few more guests. No Relc nor Klbkch, and Kevin had apparently gone back to Solar Cycles and never returned.
“Already out the door. He has to train Pallass’ football team.”
“I think he didn’t sleep here. Maybe he was working late after he left the fire?”
Mrsha rolled her eyes as Lyonette answered Erin’s questions. But neither young woman noticed it. Erin gazed around the fairly empty inn just in time for Numbtongue to appear.
He was carrying a dead body. No—wait. It was just Octavia. The [Alchemist] only stirred from her zombie-like state when Numbtongue waved a bowl of porridge in front of her face.
“Numbtongue! And Bird! What are you doing with Octavia, Numbtongue?”
The Antinium wandered down in pursuit of breakfast as Numbtongue nodded at Erin. The [Bard] shrugged.
“Found her in her shop. She forgets to eat.
“I do not! I just…delay my meals sometimes.”
The Hobgoblin eyed Gireulashia’s huge breakfast with respect and rubbed his claws together as another standard plate was put in front of him. He reached for a fork, and Ulvama snatched the plate.
She walked off, and Numbtongue began to rise.
“Another plate for Numbtongue. Miss Ulvama! You can’t do that!”
Lyonette rose with a huge frown, but the [Shaman] turned. Archly, Ulvama stared at the [Princess].
“My food, now.”
“Yes, but that was his—”
The [Shaman] put a thumb on her chest then pointed at Mrsha.
“I save silly little girl.”
“Good, good. Goodbye.”
And with that, the Hobgoblin walked off and went to the lounge to watch the scrying mirror over breakfast. Lyonette and Erin looked at each other. Erin leaned over to Mrsha.
“Is that normal?”
Numbtongue, scowling, was torn between going after Ulvama and starting a fight and decided to sit as another plate came out of the kitchen. Mrsha sighed and wrote on a notecard.
“That’s Ulvama. Very rude. And has big butt.”
Erin stared at the hallway and decided not to ask for elaboration. Lyonette puffed out her cheeks.
“Well—the nerve of her! We’ll put a stop to that once the inn opens. And speaking of which—I think today’s the day, don’t you, Erin?”
“Hm? Absolutely! I mean, uh, I’m still a bit slow with the wheelchair, but—”
Lyonette smiled at Erin and began to tie her hair back.
“Don’t you worry, Erin, I have it covered. You just…add in anything that’s helpful. But The Wandering Inn is back in business! We have to be, since we didn’t charge anyone for last night.”
“Ah. But it wasn’t much more than corn, and it was friends of the inn…”
The [Princess] sighed.
“Yes, yes, I know, Erin. But that’s why we need regulars. So! I’m going to make sure we’re all stocked up, and let’s say—open at lunch?”
“Yep, that’ll work. I’ll help. Mrsha, what are you going to do today?”
“Mrsha and I were hoping we could play in the [Garden of Sanctuary] again? And she’s going to show me some magic. Then, after that, we’re visiting Selys.”
“I—suppose that’s all very good. Just so long as you stay in the inn! And we’ll let Selys pick you up and send Dame Ushar with you.”
Lyonette approved the plans, and the two Gnoll girls ran off at once. Erin blinked at the Archmage’s We—
“Where did it go? She ate that?”
Numbtongue agreed, staring at the plate where only syrup remained. Lyonette closed her eyes a moment.
“…We have to open the inn soon.”
Money was not an issue for The Wandering Inn, but it was going to be. Not just because Gire ate like eight Mrshas—because she ate like that and didn’t pay for what she ate.
No one currently visiting The Wandering Inn did. Some, like the Horns, were long-standing guests, and it just hadn’t been brought up because it had been part of their tabs, which they repaid weekly.
Other guests? They didn’t have money.
Gothica, for instance, who’d come in this morning from who-knew-where, was happily eating a load of black eggs. Not Noelictus-eggs—she’d just asked for someone to add a bit of charcoal or something to make them look dark.
The same for Infinitypear, Ulvama, and even the Thronebearers. Lyonette knew it was tough, but she had to bring it up.
“Um. Erin. We have to charge them for their food.”
Erin broke off from staring at the pot and frowned at Lyonette. The [Princess] frowned back.
“Not immediately and not for everything so far! But I am saying—we have to charge them for food. Or how long do you intend to keep feeding them?”
“It’s only a few meals each day.”
“Across how many people? All of the Fellowship? The [Crusaders]? That’s over a hundred Antinium each day at—”
“Okay, okay! Fine! But I’m not charging them today. Or tomorrow. Or…”
Lyonette was prepared for this. She had done some thinking and gave Erin an easy alternative. In fact, she even volunteered to make the announcement as Squad 5 filed in for breakfast—they were still on leave.
“Excuse me, everyone! I have something a tiny bit difficult to say. I must tell you all that The Wandering Inn will begin charging you for food and rooms!”
Gothica looked up, concerned, as Rasktooth and Infinitypear stopped chowing down and glanced at each other worriedly. Squad 5 didn’t look worried, but they had money.
“Charge us for food? I saved—”
Ulvama appeared in the hallway, and Lyonette glared at her. She spoke over the Hobgoblin.
“For one month, everything is free. That means twenty—nineteen more days, to be exact. After that, we will regretfully begin charging you for food and accommodations. We hope you can understand.”
The request didn’t go over as well as the [Princess] had hoped. Pisces Jealnet frowned at her and then rose to his feet with a sniff.
“Excuse me, Miss Lyonette. But I must point out that, despite the braggadocious nature of the statements, we did abandon our causes and fight for our very lives in a war for the inn or the people within. Surely there is some…egregious nature to charging us for simple food and drink after a mere thirty days? I hope you can see how odd that sounds.”
Yvlon glared at him, but Lyonette took a huge breath.
“I understand, but Pisces—we cannot afford to do more than a month. Frankly, we may serve up to a hundred guests free of charge. Not every day, hopefully, but…there is not enough gold in our coffers, understand?”
She flushed a bit, and Pisces hesitated. His supercilious expression faded, and he coughed.
“Well, I, ah—I understand fiscally this all makes sense. And I, personally, have to say that the Horns could and always intended to pay for our food, without needing for a month’s reprieve. We are Gold-rank adventurers after all.”
He backpedaled so fast that he was sitting down and applauding her choices as Lyonette sighed. Erin waved a hand urgently.
“I know it’s tough, but I’ll make it up to everyone in other ways. Lyonette’s just pointing out that we can’t give away food forever, and one month is sorta fair? The Wandering Inn isn’t that poor! We’ve got money! I think.”
Laughter from the tables, and everyone relaxed. Lyonette was relieved the message went over well, although she knew she’d have to repeat it for other guests. But most, she thought privately, would pay anyways.
Saliss, Grimalkin, and a number of guests did not exactly hurt for coin. It was harder on the Goblins and Antinium, but Gothica looked very pleased at learning she had nineteen more days of guaranteed food and ordered a bloody piece of pork to go along with said eggs.
“We can even afford the quest bounties that Erin put out without asking me quite easily. So don’t worry—we’ll manage a month once the inn opens. Which is today! I just need to make sure we’re good on food and we have the Players. Oh, and the staff!”
Lyonette was joking in relief with everyone else. An aged voice spoke up as Tekshia Shivertail cleared her throat.
“Wonderful news. Then I suppose you won’t mind me leaving this bill here? I’ll take payment in full by the end of the day.”
Uh oh. Erin Solstice froze as Tekshia walked forwards. The old [Spearmaster] was smiling, and the Guildmistress of the Adventurer’s Guild had a piece of paper in her claw.
“Uh—Tekshia! I’m so glad you’re here! I—please don’t stab anyone.”
Tekshia didn’t have her spear, but with bags of holding, you never knew. However, the old Drake just sighed as Erin rolled forwards.
“I’m not going to hurt you. So put your Hobgoblin away.”
She nodded at Numbtongue, who sat down with a grin. He liked old, tough people of any species. Tekshia handed Erin the slip of paper with a long stare.
“I am glad you seem well enough to cause trouble again. And in light of everything, I’m even willing to give you a pass for destroying my old Guild. It was in need of repairs anyways; the damned city was willing to move it around, but not give it a redesign, which it needed.”
She glanced around Erin’s inn.
“…Is this all Antinium work? I think I’ll be quite happy if Liscor’s Council advances some gold like they promised. Cheap building, and that [Architect] knows what a proper Guild should look like. Three or four floors, twice as large—completely redone. So just pay what the old one cost and I will happily let you in again. Destroy the second one and I’ll stab you.”
Erin smiled weakly, but all things considered, this was the most reasonable response, and from Tekshia, no less!
“I can do that, Tekshia. And believe me—I didn’t know it’d knock down the guild. So, um, how much is—yikes!”
Lyonette du Marquin did not like the sound of that. She peeked over Erin’s shoulder and blanched.
“Two thousand gold pieces?”
At Pisces’ table, all three Horns winced. For a Gold-rank adventurer, it wasn’t the worst price tag. You’d pay that for an expendable Wand of [Fireballs]. But then again…that was the cost of a wand that shot explosive balls of fire.
A Silver-rank team would scream at such a price. And an inn?
“That’s so much! Are you sure this is right?”
Erin was protesting to Tekshia, but the Drake just gave her a long look.
“It’s the price I came to for rebuilding a guild. Not a house. The average house in Liscor can cost a hundred gold coins, Erin.”
“A hundred? That’s so much!”
Erin understood that the average person could earn around a gold coin a week in Liscor. Tekshia shrugged.
“Once again, that is to build from the ground up. I imagine that Hexel can do it for a fraction, and it would cost more depending on where it is. Wood, for instance, is far too expensive here. But that is a house. My guild is in pieces. You caused it.”
“But doesn’t Liscor have, um, insurance? And the Council is going to help, right?”
Tekshia stared at Erin.
“What’s insurance? You mean rebuilding spells? No, we do not have that, and yes, Liscor’s Council has assigned me funds for rebuilding. Which I will use along with the money you owe me. If anything, I am not charging you as much as I could ask. Can you pay it now? If not, I will give you time…and add another thousand gold.”
She waited, eyes glinting. Erin was shaking her head, but Lyonette grabbed her arm.
“One second, Miss Tekshia?”
The Drake nodded, and Lyonette dragged Erin back to whisper to her.
“I’m sorry, Lyonette! What are we—”
“Erin, we can pay that.”
The [Innkeeper] stopped.
Lyonette was grimacing. But she glanced towards the [Garden of Sanctuary] where Mrsha and Gire were playing in blissful oblivion of adult fiscal responsibility.
“We have money in our safe. Exactly three thousand one hundred and twenty-four gold coins. Ninety-six silver, and four hundred and two copper coins, unless Ishkr took some out for use.”
She knew exactly how much money they had in the vaults. Erin blinked at her.
“How do you—do you count the money?”
“Erin. Why would I not know how much money is in our coffers?”
They could pay the hefty price tag for Erin’s quest, but it punched a hole in their reserves, and Lyonette knew a thousand gold coins was a ‘lot’ for non-adventurers and non-nobility, and they’d eat into it replenishing their food supplies, rehiring everyone…but they’d begin making it back.
Grimacing, the two came back to Tekshia and agreed to pay her up front rather than take a year’s extension at a thousand coin addition. Tekshia did have to wait while they filled up her bag of holding from the safe—but she was generous enough not to count.
“I’m sure you’re as good as your words. I’ll take this to the Merchant’s Guild now. I’m very pleased we can settle this. I didn’t even have to fetch my spear. Feel free to visit any time. Liscor’s new Adventurer’s Guild should be constructed within the week. Hexel has made it a priority.”
She smiled, got two painful faces of bared teeth in reply, and was gone. Erin didn’t meet Lyonette’s gaze as she rolled back to the table.
“So, um…let’s open tonight. I think we can really—really make a profit if we get coffee sales in. And the Minotaur’s Punch sells well at good margins, you said?”
Lyonette kept a straight face.
“Absolutely. I’ll get the Players to stop in. Imani for cooking, Ishkr’s agreed to rehire, and the Players for entertainment. Would you like to help me? That would take a load off my shoulders.”
Erin took a huge breath and sighed.
The story of Lyonette’s life, really. The first people she went to talk to were obviously the Players of Liscor and the Players of Celum. Imani was already the [Chef], and the staff were important, but the Players had to set up.
“…so we’d be exceptionally pleased if you could see about letting the Players of Liscor or Players of Celum perform, Temile. I know it’s an imposition to ask, and I don’t expect the Players of Celum to do so! But…”
Lyonette felt odd, finding Temile. Because he was no longer the former [Actor] from the startup troupe who performed out of an inn, but the [Producer] of the Players of Liscor. And yes, they were not the continent-famous Players of Celum still going north and apparently performing at noble estates, but the Players of Celum had a theatre in Invrisil, multiple teams, and they did not leave their cousin-groups out to dry.
Temile wore bright, eye-catching clothing like he were an [Actor] himself, a cascade of yellow and blue tastefully put over a black surcoat that made him look like a cross between some [Lord] and, well, a [Troubadour], but bridged the gap into maintaining both dignity and entertainment.
No less than a Level 40 [Seamstress] had worked on it, Invrisil’s finest, and the Players of Liscor were no longer in need of housing at The Wandering Inn.
They had received funding from the Players of Celum—indeed, to help the Players of Pallass start up as well—and there was a certain largesse that Lyonette noticed in the back rooms. Far more complicated makeup, magical artifacts to aid in their illusions or getting ready, and even the chairs were plush, costing no little amount of gold per embroidered seat.
And yet, despite all this, Temile instantly nodded.
“We’ll have a group playing in your inn tonight, Lyonette! You have my word. Maybe not our best team because they are booked for the theater here, but I’ll arrange it so our best group from the Players of Liscor performs, with maybe the Players of Celum performing every month at least once?”
“That is so generous. Thank you, Temile!”
Lyonette exhaled and then took a look around.
“But what about your theatre here?”
They were standing in a new building in the developing western district of Liscor. Temile waved it off.
“We can fill it. But The Wandering Inn is where we began—well, the Frenzied Hare, but you know what I mean—and The Wandering Inn is where we’ll perform. Until the next time it shuts down. Er, do let us know if the monsters are going to attack.”
He laughed, and Lyonette noticed his missing thumb and laughed too, but weakly. Still—the Players of Liscor were exceptionally generous.
“I will let you know, Temile. We need to make sure the staff can accommodate a crowd—can I send a runner to confirm?”
“Absolutely. We’d like to set up in…two hours at the latest?”
“I will let you know by then, thank you.”
Lyonette hurried away from the guild, resolved to make sure she had staff. But that was when she ran into the complications, because when she went to see how Ishkr was doing, she found Erin Solstice talking with Imani in front of Timbor’s inn.
The [Innkeeper] was there too, and Erin waved Lyonette over.
“I, um, really appreciate it, Imani. But are you sure it’s okay?”
Oh no. Erin’s generous nature was getting the better of her. Lyonette cursed as she hurried forwards, Dalimont and Lormel behind her. And a shadowy Drake too, but Lyonette couldn’t even deal with that.
“Absolutely, Erin. Timbor has agreed to let me change jobs, and—it’s the least I can do.”
Imani was smiling, but both turned to look at Timbor. He had a long history with Erin, but the man mustered a smile. He didn’t look…happy, but who would want to let go of a star [Chef] like Imani?
“It’s quite all right, Miss Erin. Miss Imani started in your inn, and I—I would have hoped for her to leave my inn a month ago.”
“That’s very kind. But you’re sure, Imani?”
“Erin, is there a problem with Imani cooking at The Wandering Inn?”
Lyonette hadn’t heard the beginning of this conversation, but she understood the moment Imani’s gaze slid sideways.
“It’s…not too great an issue, Lyonette. I just need to discuss my hours. I can try to work ahead of time, but your guests eat a lot of food. I think Palt will just have to manage the kitchen here by himself until I work out a way to divide my time.”
“What kitchen? Oh—”
And then Lyonette realized she’d been out-of-touch with Liscor almost as much as Erin, because she turned and there it was.
Barehoof Kitchens, [Chef] Imani and [Illusionist] Palt.
The sign hung over the building next to Timbor’s Drunken Gnoll with an odd logo—that of a hoof upon a dinner plate. It was certainly something. The artwork was very well-done, and Lyonette knew it had to be Palt who’d done all of it, including the painted lettering.
“You…have a kitchen, Imani?”
The [Chef] tried to appear modest, but it was clear she’d been dying to tell Erin all about it.
“It began with my cooking classes. You remember that, Erin? Well, I was leasing kitchens but at such prices that Palt began grumbling how it would be easier to buy a new building since they were going up. We looked into it, and it cost a bit more than that, but we’ve more than made up for it with the classes. In fact…we provide for more than Timbor’s inn. The classes are just part of what we do. I come up with new recipes from home…”
She looked meaningfully at Erin.
“…or my take on it. And I’m creating new dishes, of course!”
“Good luck. They’ll steal your recipes instantly, those jerks!”
“Not if they pay Imani to teach them how to make it. That’s a Wistram sales-model. Coin for knowledge. Coin for secrets. My unshod darling, are we going to rescue The Wandering Inn’s dire cuisine once more?”
Palt trotted forwards, and Imani took his hand as he smiled at Erin. The young woman eyed the growing beard on the Centaur’s face.
“Yuck? Imani didn’t protest!”
Palt looked wounded as he covered his beard. Imani sighed.
“I didn’t not protest. He can always hide it with illusion spells. Palt, I need to work at The Wandering Inn. You get to run the kitchen.”
“I—suppose that works. We can hire some of our assistants full-time, I think, and devote one to the inn?”
“No, no, I’ll work there for the day. Let’s ask if Meritss can work full-time. If not…”
The two began conferring, and Lyonette glanced at Erin, who was standing with Ser Sest and a bored Numbtongue, who was placated eating Imani’s attempt at a spicy fried bean tofu and rating it on a placard Palt had designed.
She felt it too, no matter how hard she wanted to ignore it.
Could they do this? Lyonette smiled weakly.
“Er—how good is business, Imani?”
“Booming! There are so many new places opening up with all the Gnolls and Humans—and I’m getting people from Invrisil, Pallass, and beyond! The Wandering Inn will be good advertisement, I guess. Especially if the Players are performing. They are, aren’t they?”
“Temile promised his best group would perform regularly.”
Timbor whistled with envy.
“That will fill the inn alone. I offered him to keep every ticket sale and a margin on what I make from the common room, but he had his theatre, and I can’t compete with that.”
Lyonette and Erin exchanged a glance. Imani was taking an apron when Erin cleared her throat as Lyonette sighed and gave her a slow nod.
“Imani…maybe we can find someone else after all. Um. How good are your assistant chefs?”
It was not fair. Yes, the Players of Celum owed everything to Erin Solstice, and they had not forgotten it.
However, Lyonette heard an echo of the argument she’d used on Erin to justify only offering a month of food for people fighting in a literal war for the inn.
Could they ask Temile and Imani to give up their business for The Wandering Inn? Well, obviously, yes. But was that fair?
It was fairer to…ask Barehoofs to send some of their food to The Wandering Inn, not demand their [Chef]. It was fairer to tell Temile that his second-team could perform at The Wandering Inn and cut him at least a portion of the profits.
It just wasn’t easy. Erin and Lyonette went back to the inn, discussing the problem.
“Okay, so Temile will send his junior [Actors] some nights. That’s great! We don’t have to always have chaos. We just need a new [Cook].”
“[Chef]. Erin, competition is going to be more difficult. We need a [Chef].”
“Bah, I can cook a bit. Just let me get out of my wheelchair and…”
The [Princess] halted Erin with a look. Ser Sest kept pushing her despite that.
“Erin, you have never liked cooking as much as you need to. Besides…you might have [Advanced Cooking], but that’s the only Skill you have. And that’s not as great as it was anymore.”
Erin puffed out her cheeks indignantly.
“What? I’ll have you know that Ilvriss was super surprised I had it! It’s not common in Liscor—”
“It wasn’t common earlier. Now? Erin, I think most [Chefs]—and they are [Chefs]—have that and a dozen Skills you don’t. Imani has [Expert Cooking].”
The [Innkeeper] hesitated and gulped. There it was. Erin Solstice had, despite herself, raised the bar with cookies, ice cream, and, yes, actually interesting ideas that Liscor hadn’t tried. So now she was looking up at the bar. And she was in a wheelchair.
“Fine. [Chef]. We still have our magical foods.”
“No one’s eating your blue paste.”
“It’s magical. I’ll make something good! I have tons of new ideas. For the food, for the inn—and my pot! Let’s just open up today and play it by ear.”
The two entered the inn, nodding to each other, and found Ishkr reporting for duty with Liska and a whole lot of empty space next to him. The [Head Server] gave Erin an embarrassed look as the [Princess] and [Innkeeper] came to a stop. Lyonette groaned.
Ishkr had tried. He really had. He went around to every former employee except for Silveran, and they had all refused to work at The Wandering Inn.
“Why not Silveran?”
“Because he runs a company that can pull in more money in one day than we can pay him in a month, Erin.”
“Oh. Right. Continue.”
Ishkr looked embarrassed as he played with his apron pockets.
“I, er…asked the other former employees, Erin. Cisca? She already had good, steady work. Thoss joined the army. And the rest either had jobs that paid as much as we did or they didn’t want to come here.”
“Why not? Because they were working?”
Ishkr coughed into one paw.
—And they really didn’t want to die. The Wandering Inn was famous for being attacked. It had been overrun by Crelers, stalked by Raskghar, and blown up three times. So when Ishkr had gone to headhunt individuals, over half had heard The Wandering Inn and refused flat out.
“The other problem is that I did go to many, many pubs, inns, and taverns. Even Invrisil!”
He’d spent six hours today rushing around, and yesterday too. Lyonette looked at him.
“Not one employee volunteered?”
“No. I had as many as sixty I interviewed. Not one was suitable.”
And here it got interesting. Erin peered at Ishkr, and Lyonette frowned.
“We could have interviewed them, Ishkr. What do you mean, not suitable?”
The Gnoll began ticking off points on his fingers.
“I do have a Skill or two, Miss Lyonette, Miss Erin. As [Head Waiter], yes? I could tell some were simply criminals. Petty [Thieves], untrustworthy. Those were easy to sort out. However, I took the liberty of—testing them.”
“Asking if they’d serve a Goblin or Antinium food. And then, if they did, I would ask them to take a fried bee out to Bird. Then pour acid in the outhouses to clean them. Finally, I asked them to throw a seed core at a Rock Crab.”
It was a basic litmus test, and Lyonette gave Ishkr an approving look. Frankly—it wasn’t even the most onerous stuff a staff member might be expected to do. However, the results?
Bird had gone hungry. Most people hadn’t even gotten to the Rock Crab before deciding they could get just as good pay somewhere else. And that was fair.
Erin Solstice was already sitting down, but Lyonette had to find a seat. The trio looked at each other as Liska poured herself a drink behind the bar.
“Wait a second, Erin. Wait…Ishkr? How many employees—ever—has The Wandering Inn retained?”
“Including you, Miss Lyonette?”
“Not including me.”
Ishkr hesitated. He glanced at his sister.
And that was him. Now, many establishments like an inn had low employee-retention rates. That was just a reality in the service industry in any world. But The Wandering Inn might have had the worst retention-rate of any inn in Liscor or a thousand miles.
To be fair, it wasn’t even that the inn was so bad they all quit! Look at Drassi! Look at Imani, for that matter! They had quit because they had found something even more successful. Even Kevin and Joseph had upgraded.
It didn’t solve the problem, but it made Lyonette and Erin feel a bit better when Ser Dalimont pointed this out. Then the [Princess]’ face fell.
“…But that means it may be even harder to hold onto any good employees we do get. They’ll leave because Erin turns them into a [Sword Fire Slaying Saint Rockstar] or something.”
“Hey! I wouldn’t do that! Unless I could, because that sounds sort of cool.”
Numbtongue nodded vigorously from one table. Lyonette stared at her hands.
“I think the problem is that we need…workers who are capable. Trustworthy, who can serve Goblins and Antinium well. Who are good at combat or can at least survive a dangerous situation.”
She began ticking off points on her hands, and Ishkr and Erin nodded. Lyonette looked around.
“We need a [Bartender], a [Chef], servers, security—”
She glanced at the Thronebearers, but they wouldn’t be here forever, hopefully, and they weren’t hers.
“—and even a stable handler, cleaners, and so on.”
“A stable? Aw. Wait—don’t we have one?‘
Erin peered out the window vaguely. Lyonette nodded.
“Yes, we do. And Erin, if someone wants to have their horse staying here overnight—can you make sure it’s bedded down and fed? Do you know how to undo a saddle?”
Erin squinted suspiciously at Lyonette.
“I bet there are belts and buckles and stuff. I could figure it out.”
Lyonette ignored that. She was drumming her fingers on the table, trying to figure out where you got people like that. And once again, Ser Dalimont spoke up with a slight smile.
“You have aptly described a group of employees, Pr—Miss Lyonette. I fear they may refuse your offers, but they do exist.”
“I have? Who?”
The Thronebearer bowed slightly.
“Lady Magnolia’s staff meets all such descriptions to a tee.”
The face Erin made said her opinion on hiring Magnolia’s staff. Lyonette shook her head. She sat there.
“Aside from the fact that we cannot hire them, Ser Dalimont—no. I think we have to make do. I’ll tell Temile we can open. You four will simply have to serve the tables.”
She glanced at the Thronebearers. Erin brightened up. That wasn’t a bad idea! They were certainly elegant, and the Thronebearers knew their way around all manner of tasks including cooking.
That was why it was so disappointing when all four Thronebearers instantly refused.
“I fear we cannot, Miss Lyonette. Despite any orders you may make—we will serve you and those with you without hesitation, but to work a busy inn would compromise our duty as bodyguards.”
“Not even…? Well, then—we have to hire someone else! Ulvama, Numbtongue! That’s it—Gothica and the Fellowship!”
Erin snapped her fingers and came to a realization. Of course! The Fellowship of the Inn!
They had nowhere to go with the exception of Sergeant Gna and Salkis. But this would solve that! She turned to them, and Gothica raised one finger.
“No one makes me work.”
Erin’s face fell. Numbtongue glanced up with a huge frown.
“I don’t want to work either.”
Ulvama had just wandered in to get a bowl of ice cream. She walked away so fast Erin was left spluttering.
“But Numbtongue—we’d pay you!”
The [Bard] gave Erin a long look. Slowly, he reached into one belt pouch and produced an uncut emerald. He put that on the table.
“Oh, your hobby. But th—”
He put a nugget of gold there next, then silver, then a citrine. Erin waved her hands, scowling.
The [Goth] did not want to wait tables. Which was fair. Erin put her head down, and Lyonette realized they might not be able to actually open the inn today after all.
“I guess we have to reconsider our options. Maybe if we raised prices…but the cost is already…Ishkr, we need to calculate how much we can raise the pay to. Do you remember…? Erin? Where are you going?”
She turned, and the [Innkeeper] looked around guiltily as she wheeled towards an inviting door in the wall.
“Um—lunch break! Let’s think about it later.”
Gireulashia didn’t want to ever stop playing with Mrsha. It wasn’t always fun.
In fact, it wasn’t often fun after ten days. It was hard for the two to play a lot of games together. Tag? Gire won. Hide-and-seek? Gire won. Triumphs? Gire won so badly Mrsha sulked for ten minutes.
They were different in ages; Mrsha still didn’t like walking on two legs. Gire could do a triple backflip from a standing position.
And yet, they managed. For one thing, practicing magic was something where Mrsha was ahead, and Gire’s look of wonder hadn’t faded from just casting [Light].
“Mrsha, you’re so smart.”
“I know, I know.”
Mrsha modestly tucked Pisces’ wand into its holster as she produced a patch of grass. She peered at Gire as the [Grow Grass] spell failed for Gire again.
“All I can do is a single blade of grass. I’m going to keep practicing! I’ve already figured out how to cast [Flame Arrow], but it’s so weak. I’ll cast a hundred—a thousand times per day of [Grow Grass] as well.”
Mrsha hesitated. She scribbled on her notepad.
Hold up, you cast that spell how many times?
Gire scratched her head.
“I can’t do a thousand. But I did a hundred mini [Flame Arrows]. With mana potions. I stopped when I felt like I was getting one of those giant headaches or mana burn, but I won’t learn unless I practice, right? How much do you cast your spells?”
All the time. Every day. Every hour, really. I can’t not think when I don’t practice.
“Mhm. Me too. I’ll catch up soon!”
Ekhtouch had a different attitude towards training. However, play was more important. And Mrsha was the master of play. Also, because they had shared all secrets, Gire was someone whom Mrsha could share everything with.
“Mrsha, what is this? Is this…a super-phone?”
Gire’s eyes went round as Mrsha presented Kevin’s laptop. The two sat down and began playing Numbtongue’s favorite video game. Mrsha showed Gire how it worked as she proudly erased Numbtongue’s save files.
“How does it work? You—aah!”
Gire jumped as Mrsha demonstrated her amazing [Gamer] skills on the easiest difficulty. She had to use the touchpad, and it was hard using Gnollish finger pads. Bam, bam! Look how good I am!
“Amazing! Mrsha, I want to try! And you do—look out!”
Boom. Mrsha sighed. Another death. But she, Mrsha the Space Warrior, could show Gire a new level of combat! She graciously handed the laptop to Gire and hopped into the [Paragon]’s lap to watch her fumble around.
…Yes, even Apista could tell what was going to happen next. Gire finished the first level without dying once. She might have done so on a harder difficulty, but Mrsha snatched the computer back and set it to the hardest mode instantly.
Legendary. Gire played for six minutes without dying as Mrsha’s mouth opened wider in outrage.
She was good at the game! But she did die at last because she didn’t know where the enemies were coming from and the game was genuinely hard; Gire could only move as fast as the character in the game. Mrsha sighed—then looked up at Gire’s face.
It was shining with excitement.
“Mrsha, I lost! It’s hard! Did you see? Let me try again!”
Mrsha blinked up at Gire and saw not a trace of the smug, stupid Hobgoblin’s grin and the condescending pat on the head that Numbtongue gave her. Gire…was having fun.
So Mrsha sat up and began guiding Gire on advanced tactics, like knowing where the enemy was coming from. They were just high-fiving a victory that had ended with Gire dying spectacularly when Erin’s voice came from behind them.
“Damn you gravity! I’ll fight you!”
Both Gnolls turned around and saw a young woman trying to get up the hill with her wheelchair. It was not going well. Gire stood up, and she and Mrsha pushed Erin up the hill.
“Thanks, guys. Whatcha doing? Oh! Video games! What are you playing, Minesweeper? Oh, Halo.”
Erin pshed, much to the indignation of Mrsha and Gire.
“Oh yeah? Oh yeah? You think you’re great? How good are you, huh, huh?”
Erin pushed Mrsha’s face out of hers.
“Mrsha, it’s just not fun on a touchpad. You really need a mouse. I’ve played that game! You need a multiplayer thing. So both of you can play.”
Mrsha and Gire locked onto Erin’s words. Mrsha instantly sat on Erin’s lap and gave her a sweet smile.
Tell me more, wise and generous person.
Erin laughed and looked at Gire. The [Paragon] ducked her head.
“Hello, Miss Erin. Thank you for letting Mrsha play with me. I have lots of fun with her.”
“You’re here every day, right? Does your tribe want you? I mean, I’m glad you can come. Come every day! I’m just curious.”
Erin saw Gire hesitate and her face close off.
“I—they want me to go back. Most of them are still at the Meeting of Tribes, but Chieftain Feshi is there, and we’re…we’re reduced. I don’t know if Ekhtouch can rebuild. Fir—our Chieftain is gone. It’s too much to do. We should probably join Gaarh Marsh or Weatherfur or Wild Wastes. Plain’s Eye is gone, and a lot of tribes will probably ally or join together.”
Mrsha looked at Gire, and the big girl twiddled her thumbs.
“My tribe wants me to help, but I’m too young. I can’t—I just want to learn magic. I’m too young. Like Mrsha.”
She picked up Mrsha and put her on one shoulder. Erin stared up at the giant Gnoll.
“Well, yeah. That’s true. You’re really young, right? Even though you’re so tall.”
Had Gire ever told Erin that? The [Paragon] looked delighted that Erin had noticed.
“How can you tell?”
“Easy! Mrsha isn’t friends with old people. Even Relc—she doesn’t play with them like you.”
Mrsha nodded proudly from Gire’s shoulder. Old people got tired too fast!
Gireulashia was relieved that Erin wasn’t pressing her, however gently like Krshia or the others did. She sat down and began trying to figure out if they could play together on the same computer. Meanwhile, Erin watched, glancing towards where Lyonette and Ishkr were planning.
“I totally get it. I’m not good at planning for the future. It’s too much work. What can I do? It’s…that’s how I’ve felt.”
Gire nodded rapidly. Her paws danced over the keyboard, and she focused on it, but talked absently. The words slipped out of her mouth.
“It’s too much—what if I got things wrong?”
Erin scowled in agreement. She still had the pot from last night, but she looked at it and gave voice to a feeling she’d had. A familiar one.
“Yeah! Why do we have to get only one chance? Only one…and then it’s gone forever. Even if you can try again, it’s not the same. If you screw up…”
She looked at the pot and shook her head, troubled.
“It’s a lot of work. The world’s okay in some parts. I mean, it’s not okay, but Krshia’s smart, and the inn’s okay. If it continues, that’s good, right?”
Mrsha and Gire nodded. Gire liked this game. Even though it was about killing, she looked at it like a dream. When you died, everything was back to the way it was. There were no consequences, aside from Mrsha deleting Numbtongue’s save data.
This…was fine, wasn’t it?
Erin Solstice heard an echo of her words from the Mrsha-Gire childhood alliance. This was how she’d felt. It was good to hear them agreeing with her, getting it.
Except that one was an actual child, and the other was a giant [Paragon] pretending to be Mrsha’s age.
Except…Erin felt at her chest. She shook her head, troubled. Then she eyed the unearthed safe now depleted of much of its gold.
“Drat. I guess we do have to make money, but we made money anyways. I’ll just…Mrsha, help me bury this again?”
One second! Gire, left, left!
Mrsha grabbed Gire’s arm, and the [Paragon] yelped.
“I can’t hear you, Mrsha. Don’t—blue exploding thing!”
Both Gnolls dove off the hill away from the laptop. They got up, giggling, and Mrsha began to roll towards Erin and then slowed.
She realized Erin was staring down into the safe. Erin had found something. She had it in her hand, and Mrsha saw a beautiful flash, beyond silver, like what you imagined starlight smithed would be.
A little round coin, too big for any modern coinage. The Gnoll slowed, not because that was unusual.
It was the look on Erin’s face.
Perhaps the coin had been in Erin’s room, but it was entirely conceivable in the chaos that Ishkr had found it and put it into the safe. Certainly, if Erin had seen it before that—
She held the mithril coin with Tamaroth’s name on it up to the light. Gire stared at Erin, perplexed.
“What a strange coin? What word is that missing?”
She couldn’t think of it, and the [Paragon]’s brow wrinkled up. Erin just stared at that coin. And if ever there were a reminder—she looked around slowly. Something’s words echoed to her, in another world.
“Headscratcher says goodbye.”
Mrsha tapped the rune stone, but the [Innkeeper] didn’t turn. She just held the coin up, and her eyes were suddenly distant. She looked it over, playing with it in her hands, and it almost looked like she might smile.
But she never did, and the coin gleamed as if a second brightness fell upon it. Was it growing…more beautiful? Mrsha began to walk forwards, but Gire stopped her. The [Paragon] squinted at Erin’s hand. Then she pulled Mrsha back.
“Don’t touch. Miss Erin?”
The [Innkeeper] didn’t respond. She held up the coin to the light, and it looked…odd. A bit squatter than it had before. Mrsha blinked at it. The faint writing, the engravings, did they look—
Was the coin drooping in Erin’s hand? Yes—yes it was. That pure glow of hard mithril had changed, and it looked…luminescent.
Wet. Then Mrsha realized the metal was melting. Mithril was—
“Her hand. Mrsha, what is that fire?”
Gire pointed, and Mrsha stared at Erin’s hand. She only saw the empty air or a faint shimmer of…every hair stood up on her body.
Invisible fire. The [Innkeeper]’s flame of hatred did not engulf her, but it burned that coin. Burnt and burned—until she noticed the Gnolls looking at her.
The coin stopped melting. It began cooling, and Erin hurriedly tossed it from her hand.
“Uh oh—it’s probably—”
She aimed it at the pond, and it was very, very lucky that no fish or Fortress Beavers lived there anymore.
Because the explosion of steam and water blasted into the ceiling of the dome. Lyonette ran in with the Thronebearers.
“Erin! What did you do?”
It was raining in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Erin rolled over to the edge of the pond and stared down as Lyonette waved her arms. She saw a little glimmer down there.
“I’ll grab it, Miss Erin.”
“Don’t touch it.”
Erin stopped Gireulashia from diving in. Mrsha backed up too—her fur had gone up on end as she reached into the very depleted pond for it. Erin demanded a long-handled scooper and had to fumble for five minutes to pick it up herself, but she let no one else handle it.
It was a mangled, melted bit of mithril, dirty and nowhere near as fine as the coin. Just a lump of twisted metal. Lyonette stared at it as Erin made Mrsha promise never to touch it.
“Why not? Is it still hot?”
“Nope. Just warm. It’s just cursed. Or you could use it in a curse.”
The [Witch] said it so lightly. She put the bit of twisted metal away in one pocket as Lyonette threw up her hands, and Mrsha looked uncertainly at Erin. But the [Innkeeper] suddenly looked tired, and she gazed at Gire. Then into her reflection in the pond.
“…Yeah. I think I need a video game too. Mrsha, grab the laptop before the rain destroys it. Gire? Do you want to play a game of chess?”
Mrsha’s head turned, and Lyonette blinked as the [Paragon] innocently put her paws behind her back.
“Chess? I’m not very good at it.”
She lied to Erin’s face, and the [Innkeeper] smiled.
Erin didn’t explain to the others what the explosion had been about, and it was a sign of The Wandering Inn’s state that no one who was a regular even really asked.
It did mean the four prospective candidates from Liscor who’d come in instantly told Ishkr they didn’t see themselves working out here, but at this point, Lyonette was already in happy despair.
As for Gireulashia, she was thinking.
She knew Erin was very, very good. So Mrsha had said, and if what Mrsha had implied was to be believed…
But Gire had also beaten Venaz in around half their games of chess. If anything, Gireulashia’s attitude towards the game was unlike Eldavin, Venaz, or Niers.
She was excited to lose. She only hoped Erin could deliver. The [Paragon] bounced in her seat as Erin brought out one of the many cheap chessboards, and they began to play.
“I think it’s lunch. Can I get a…food?”
Erin waved vaguely at the kitchen, and Lyonette sighed, but obliged her. The [Innkeeper] played Gire, and the [Paragon] began a calculated game, trying to feel Erin out.
She hadn’t made a habit of studying chess moves, but as Venaz had learned, Gire simply was able to think ahead and see obvious weaknesses. She was, as ever, the [Paragon] of Ekhtouch.
And she lost that first game soundly. Mrsha proudly sat up next to Erin as Gire smiled.
“Good game! Do you want to play again?”
The second game was quicker than the first. Erin played with one eye on the board, but she was eating, and her limbs were prone to getting tired with even that simple task. And she was reviewing their finances with Ishkr.
“No…I dunno how much we earn per night. We had a hundred and twenty guests back in the day, and if you sell them all a blue juice drink—”
“But Erin, we have our overhead. Food prices—you cannot offer them the same prices you offered Safry and Marian.”
“I know that. Let me think on who we could ask for [Chefs]. Um…how about Esthelm?”
“We tried. Ishkr’s interviewing them now, but we need many people on staff. If it’s anything like Celum and Invrisil—”
“But they know Antinium and Goblins.”
“So do Liscor’s citizens. And how many of them are working here?”
Gire could multitask too, but she was concentrating on the game. Erin was…good. It came out in the way she placed her pieces. Sometimes she thought, but she would place a piece for reasons Gire couldn’t understand until four moves proved how it really had been the best play.
Experience. Both Erin and Gire were playing fast, and that made it enjoyable for Mrsha, who hated the games where both players sat with serious faces and got really mad if Mrsha made a loud sound behind them. The [Paragon] played her absolute best and was very interested.
[Superiority Made Manifest] wasn’t working. Perhaps Erin wasn’t using any Skills? Gire was only too happy to make this a battle of wits and even happier that Erin was pressing her so hard. Then she took the second game.
“Hey, a win and a loss! That’s great! Normally you draw at a higher level.”
Erin smiled. Gire looked up, and Erin frowned.
“Guess I’ve got to try harder. Another game or are you bored?”
“It just took eight minutes. Mrsha, I’ll play with you later, okay?”
Mrsha sighed, but Numbtongue’s outraged voice rose.
“Who deleted my—”
Gottago! Mrsha ran off. The third game between Erin and Gire was fast; the [Innkeeper] upped her tempo to Gire’s fast play, without growing visibly upset or worried. It was a draw, and Gire smiled…and felt an odd sensation.
Hm? What’s this?
“Another game? Sorry, I won’t stop playing unless I have something to do. It’s fun for me.”
“Sure. Is everything okay, Miss Erin?”
“Oh, you know…I have to think about the future. What do I want The Wandering Inn to be? Can I hire people? I mean, that’s what we’re doing now, but I’ve thought about it. What do I want to do? I kept the inn running like normal because that’s all I wanted to do. All I could do back when he was first here. Those were crazy days. Back then, you had five naked Hobgoblins creeping around at night.”
Numbtongue slowed as Erin jerked a thumb at him. She grinned and kept playing as Gire felt the odd sensation again.
“So—is that a problem, Miss Erin?”
“Keeping the inn running? Check? Nope. Aw, you got me. I forfeit. Another game?”
The [Innkeeper] saw she’d made a critical misplay and scowled. Gire blinked at her, but reset the board. She was doing worse than against Venaz statistically, but what was that odd sensation she was feeling? It took her another two rapid games to figure out, and Erin was speaking the entire while.
“It’s a tricky thing. If you can do something, I mean. If you can’t, you just do your best. But if you have all the freedom in the world—what would The Wandering Inn do? Assuming you could make a difference.”
She glanced up, and Gireulashia remembered the sound the [Innkeeper] had made when she hammered a Mythical Quest into the walls of the guild. It was at odds with the casual player sitting here in front of her.
Casual? Yes, that was it. Erin was playing lightly, relaxed, chatting to Gire with one hand holding a fork. She was getting distracted, telling Numbtongue not to hold Mrsha upside-down and threaten to dunk her head in the pond. Erin Solstice stared at the board as they drew—and Gire had been fighting for that draw—and smiled.
Now Gire was sure. The [Paragon] stared at Erin as the [Innkeeper] played. Erin mused out loud.
“What would you do if you had all the power in the world to change something? What should it all look like? What’s realistic to do? I get it. I did nothing. And look what happened. Something crept up on me. But you’re fifteen. Is it…difficult?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know, Miss Erin.”
Gire avoided the question, but she couldn’t avoid the board game. She looked up as Erin won a second game. She was very good, but Erin was complimenting Gire.
“You play so well. Bird should play you, or Belgrade if he isn’t in the army again. The army. I don’t know. Anyways, another?”
Gire pushed the board back. She looked at Erin, and that odd feeling became a reality. She stared at Erin with a deep frown.
“Miss Erin. Are you—not playing your hardest?”
The [Innkeeper] looked up at Gire and blinked once. Those innocent hazel eyes fixed on Gire’s face, and Erin shrugged.
“No. You said you weren’t good at chess. That’s okay. If you want, I can spot you a piece. Have you ever played a game like that?”
Gire’s mouth opened, and it hit her. Erin Solstice was…patronizing her! Taking it easy on her!
She, Gire, had never had anyone take anything easy on her. She was the best in any game, even if she was defeated. But someone deliberately playing worse?
She didn’t like that. She didn’t like that at all. With a huge frown, the giant Ekhtouch girl sat forwards just in time for two of her people to win past Ser Sest after a long, long argument.
“I would like you to play me at your utmost, Erin Solstice.”
The two Ekhtouch Gnolls entered the common room of the inn as Pisces got his bucket of popcorn ready. He looked around vaguely for the rest of the chessheads and wondered if it behooved him to call for Belgrade, Chaldion, and so on. Ceria had just woken up—it was possibly 1 PM.
Yvlon, exasperated, was reading a book with one eye on Erin as Pisces crunched and shared his popcorn with Ksmvr. Mrsha had reappeared with the vengeance of a wet Gnoll just in time for everyone to hear Erin speak to Gire.
“Play you at my best, you mean?”
“That’s right. I’m a [Paragon] of Ekhtouch. I can beat you in chess. We could bet on it.”
The [Innkeeper] chewed on the proposal. She looked Gire in the eye and shook her head.
“You can’t play me at my best.”
Mrsha slowed, and the Ekhtouch Gnolls, Gire included, looked at Erin at a loss for words. The [Innkeeper]’s eyes were sharp as she stared at her chessboard, the two Gnolls, and Gire.
“I can. Try me.”
“I know you can’t. I can only play at my best if I have someone to play against. And you’re not there yet. Sorry. I’m sounding mean. I try not to ever say that because that’s what people told me when I was playing. Mostly when they were worse than me. But I can tell. I’ve played this game every day of my life for years. I’ve played actual Grandmasters back home and here, I think. You’re a talented amateur. But you don’t know this game.”
“Then play me as hard as you can.”
Gire challenged Erin. The [Innkeeper] sighed.
“If you want me to. I’ll try.”
The next game was far slower as Gire played as best she could, thinking over every move. Erin still beat her. Annoyed, Gire decided to speed up and press Erin by moving a piece within five seconds of it being her turn.
“There’s no timer. But okay, I’ll pretend it’s speed chess.”
Erin failed to take the first lightning-round of chess, but she drew. Then she drew the next game. Then she drew a third game. Then she won. Then she drew the game. Then she drew…then she won again. The entire time, she watched Gire’s increasingly frustrated face. Because, while the [Paragon] could tell Erin was concentrating, the [Innkeeper] bore her words out in the games.
Gire couldn’t match her. It was like playing a brick wall. Sometimes Gire drew—sometimes the brick wall reached out and punched her.
“What’s it like succeeding at everything?”
Erin wanted to know. Gire snapped back as the two Ekhtouch Gnolls watched them play.
“I’m not the best at everything. I can tell. You can tell.”
“No, I mean…being good at everything? You’ve probably never practiced chess except lightly. Almost no one can just…sit down and do this. I saw you playing that game with Mrsha. You’ve never played it before, but you did it as good as Numbtongue, and he has no life when he gets obsessed.”
Gire glanced up at Erin. She shrugged self-consciously and retorted.
“I only know what it’s like to be me. It’s as confusing for me to look at everyone else who can’t…just do things.”
Erin nodded. Her eyes were locked on the chess board, but every now and then she looked at the pot, sitting there.
“Yeah. That’s fair. And you’re not the best at everything. I can imagine it would be really scary if some weirdos were chasing you around and asking you to be a [Chieftain] or something. It’s a lot of pressure for someone. I wouldn’t want to do it and I’m old.”
So said the twenty-one year old girl, and the Ekhtouch Gnolls stirred. Gireulashia didn’t know what to say to that, so Erin went on.
“It’s fair. My answer isn’t yours because you’re a kid. Don’t expect to beat me or play me at my best, because you and I have years of difference in this game.”
“But I’m not a child.”
Gire’s voice sounded sulky, and she heard it. Erin glanced up at her.
“Kids get to be silly. Adults get to face consequences. No…both do. But it’s only the fault of the old ones. I thought everything was fine when it wasn’t. Then, one day, I ran into a bunch of people with crossbows.”
Her friends were looking at her and listening to her words more than the game. Gire was listening too, despite herself. Erin sighed. She looked at Gire, then at Numbtongue.
“I think I stopped deciding to change because everything was good enough. But that’s not how it worked. A while ago, I did a lot of big things because I thought these five strange guys needed help. And it caused a lot of trouble. But it was for the best. Before I died, I think I didn’t want to rock the boat because it was good enough. Even though so many things were going wrong. That’s the difference.”
She looked up, and Gire’s paws trembled as she placed the chess pieces, refusing to meet Erin’s eyes. The [Innkeeper] shook her head.
“It’s…not easy. And it’s not fair. But if you want something different, I guess the saying’s true. Do it yourself. And there are things I want to do, but I can’t. There’s someone I need to find. Her name is—Nanette. But I don’t know where she is right now. She could have moved.”
Lyonette frowned at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] looked up sharply. A Hobgoblin had just begun choking on her food, but Erin put it down to Ulvama trying to eat a double-strawberry cake in one bite.
“But could I protect her here? And that’s just one thing I need to do. I have more quests to post.”
Everyone listening stirred at that, and someone called out.
“Post ‘em already! I’ll take at least one! Just let me find the City of Stars, first!”
Jelaqua Ivirith had arrived with the entire team of Halfseekers. Moore, Ulinde, Seborn, and Jelaqua. Mrsha ran over in delight, but slowed. The half-Giant raised a hand, and she didn’t leap into his lap. His face looked shadowed.
Erin half-rose, but she had a game, and…Jelaqua’s broad smile flickered as Erin looked her up and down.
Searchingly. The Selphid had the Demas Metal flail she’d found in the fighting. Ulinde was still appraising the gear they’d…found…off Wall Lord Dragial’s corpse.
Moore looked scarier than ever, and Seborn had the light of faith in his eyes. They had leveled from their experiences. And yet Erin just smiled, took a gulp of water, and replied clearly into the silence.
“You’re not ready yet.”
The Halfseekers sat up. The Gold-rank team looked at Erin, and her gaze circled the inn. Ceria blinked as Erin gazed at her team.
“No one I know is. Not even Saliss. I can’t post something if it can’t be done. There are things I want to do, not just quests. Things I want to make. They can’t be made. So I guess I’ll wait. But not for long. Not forever. If I want it done, I need to do something first, right? And this inn…it isn’t even functional.”
She waved at Ishkr, hurrying around with Lyonette and the Thronebearers. Erin Solstice looked around the inn and asked the real question.
“What’s The Wandering Inn going to look like? What comes next for us? Good, happy things. If you want, Gire, you can stay here forever.”
She patted the big girl’s paw, but then Erin turned. She gazed into the empty kitchen, at the tables so few were willing to wait, and nodded.
Calmly, Erin checkmated Gire’s king and stood up. She managed to stand long enough to stretch, then collapsed into her chair with a sigh. The Gnoll looked down at the least fun game she’d ever played, then at Erin as the [Innkeeper] rolled her shoulders.
“Man, I’m stiff. You know what I want? A bathtub.”
“We have one, Erin.”
“Well, I want a bigger one. A real hot tub. No, no. A hot springs. With a slide and…a rubber duckie.”
She was speaking madness. The [Innkeeper] looked around the inn.
“And that jerk was right, there are things we could add. We have all the space in the world, but you know what? It’s not super safe. Someday…no. We really do need better security. And my door. But the staff should be nervous. So yeah, Bird’s no good in his tower by himself.”
“Gasp. I am hurt. Am I out of a job?”
Bird raised his head, and Erin waved a hand at him.
“No, silly. We just need to get you support. Why not…yeah. Why not a ballista?”
Lyonette nearly slipped carrying a tray out.
“Erin, you cannot be serious.”
She looked up, and Erin gave her a long, exasperated look.
“Why not? Has Bird ever hit anyone, anyone, with an arrow that he didn’t want to? What is he going to do besides shoot a Wyvern that would probably eat us anyways?”
Bird was nodding so fast he was vibrating.
“These facts are shaking me to my core. I am shook. Mrsha, stop shaking me. We will all have a turn with the promised ballista.”
“Are you actually serious about putting a ballista on the inn, Miss Solstice?”
Dame Ushar spoke slowly, as if trying to drip reason back into Erin’s head. The [Innkeeper] looked at her.
“Yes. That isn’t crazy. Crazy is some of the stuff I want to do. Anyways, I guess I figured it out. Lyonette, send a [Message].”
“To whom? I’m not going to if it’s insane.”
The [Princess] balled up her hands in her apron with anxiety. Erin gave her a blank look and shrugged.
“We can talk it over, but I just figured it out. It’s past time. I’ve solved our worker crisis. Send a [Message] to…Rags.”
Numbtongue’s mouth opened wide in delight, and Erin glanced sideways.
“And Silveran or Pawn. But Rags first. Ask her if we can have that cool guy with all the pepper. Calescent. And if she has Goblins who want to work at the inn. I’ll hire as many Workers and Soldiers as I need to if the Goblins won’t come.”
Waxworks. The Thronebearers were horrified to the point where at least one had stopped breathing. Lyonette gasped. She looked at Ulvama and Numbtongue.
“More—but they’re welcome—but as workers?”
“They’re already welcome in the inn. Who knows how to fight and doesn’t get worried when they see Goblins or Antinium? See, this is where you use your brain.”
Erin Solstice smiled. She tapped her head and heard that word echoing again. She frowned, because it was a dangerous one. But surely it had started like this, even if it had taken her longer the other time.
The Goblinfriend of Izril looked out her window to Liscor and then around.
“They’ll be here and never leave. Not so long as I’m here. And why not? Are…Normen and Alcaz here? The two hat guys?”
The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings looked up and raised their caps from where they’d been drinking with Pivr. Erin turned to them.
“I know you have your organization to get back to.”
“Soon, Miss Solstice. We were…considered replaced already, as it were. Without rancor; we’ll be welcome back, but our fellows were entirely understanding about the entire incident. Complimentary, in fact.”
Normen spoke carefully. Erin smiled at him.
“Well, and this is just an offer, but would you like to work here as security?”
“After last time, Miss?”
Alcaz sat up in his seat. Erin flapped a hand at him.
“I believe…in second chances.”
Why she laughed like that, no one knew, but they understood. Erin looked at Normen and Alcaz, then meaningfully at the Thronebearers.
“This time, we’ll get you proper training and equipment. As my employees, not someone else’s. I don’t know if you can quit your jobs, but we have a steady wage. We might need to fill the roster, but we could pay the rest of you. I know you don’t want to wait tables, but what about it?”
She looked at Gothica, Ulvama, Infinitypear, Rasktooth, Dirtmouth, and more. Some of the Goblins grinned. The Antinium looked at each other and then at Bird, the luckiest Antinium in the world.
Not all would stay, but Erin’s mind was made up. The Wandering Inn wouldn’t reopen today, but when it did—the staffing would be different. And if they grew and leveled, well, that was fine for them. Erin had a feeling there might always be more.
Mrsha clapped her hands as Gireulashia watched the young woman make up her mind. Then the [Paragon] looked at the Ekhtouch Gnolls waiting for her.
“Isn’t there anyone else?”
She whined, but softly. One of the [Warriors] looked at Gire strangely.
“There are many, Chieftain. But you claimed Firrelle’s role. If you refuse it, we will find someone else. But we are waiting.”
Maybe that was why…Gire looked at her little friend, Mrsha, and sighed. She kicked at the ground and muttered.
“…If I do become Chieftain, we’ll move north. Past Liscor. But near the door.”
Wham. That was the sound of Chaldion walking into the common room’s door on his way to see a [Paragon] playing chess. Erin sighed. Then she looked at the Horns and the other teams.
“Well, that’s what I’m doing today. What’s happening next?”
It was time to change, it seemed. Ceria began to wake up slightly, and the Halfseekers looked at each other, considering that question. Then all eyes went to the map that Lyonette had bought from the Mage’s Guild, a rough sketch of Izril and a tentative new spot. Ksmvr tilted his head.
“It still looks like a buttocks after all. I cannot unsee it.”
It was the small things that made the difference. The little things that pushed the envelope until you wondered why you were tumbling down a cliff.
It was not that Erin Solstice had Goblins in her inn that people were talking about in Liscor, it was that she might have an all-Antinium and Goblin staff. Which—wasn’t a problem with the Antinium. Although, was the food going to be clean and bug-free?
And like that, they never noticed that the issue had shifted away from having a Goblin, singular, in the inn. Which meant that, in some way, at least here, Erin had won. But rather than wait there, as any good [Strategist] could tell you, that just meant you pressed the attack.
In the same way, you had to consider the ramifications of one of the [Innkeeper]’s requests: transport an Antinium to Liscor.
Yes, it had been done before, in the early days of the war, often in secrecy by military convoys to interrogate and learn from the Antinium. But this wasn’t a prisoner of war. Erin was asking someone to escort an Antinium like a person.
It would be done. That was the crazy thing. Already, the Gnolls had guaranteed the escort.
“It’s, um…the Pride of Kelia. Silver-ranks, good with bows. They’ve got horses and a buncha Silverfangs and even some ‘Ekhtouch’ are going to Liscor. So we’re riding with an escort of around 10-30. It’s not clear, but they’ll keep up, and it’s heavy security.”
“For anything except a full attack. Every city will take a swing at that Ant.”
“Not against Gnolls…well, not now, surely? And even Pallass and Salazsar have already put out the word that it’d be really, really bad to kill an Ant.”
“Would it be war?”
Soft chuckles at that. But the room of people discussing the issue didn’t laugh too loudly. They were a bit—nervous. Mostly because at the end of this banter, someone would be on the hook.
You see, there was one more group beside the Drake cities, Gnoll tribes, and Antinium that had a real stake in this undertaking. Yes, the Gnolls were providing a lot of the muscle, but they couldn’t spare that many, and they were probably only taking the Antinium for the…quest.
A quest. Eighty gold coins. That wouldn’t go far split up, although a two-gold coin bounty for a long ride was not something you turned your nose up at.
Yet they had been called upon because they were needed. They were always needed. This group was, arguably, the most important guild in all of Izril. The Assassin’s Guild? Forget about it. The Merchant’s Guild was nothing without them, nor even the [Alchemists] or other professions. Even the Runner’s Guild knew that, for all their ‘fast deliveries’—it was the Driver’s Guild of Izril that took the real products where you wanted to go.
“Looks like they’re asking for speed Skills and an option on secrecy. The Gnolls, that is. So…who wants to go?”
The [Wagon Drivers], [Carters], [Caravan Leaders], and plain [Riders] who made up the Driver’s Guild in one of the larger waystation cities had all gathered for a conference on the issue. They were mostly Drakes and Gnolls since this was south of Izril, but here you’d find more Humans than almost anywhere else, even a Mage’s Guild.
A [Wagon Driver] could go anywhere, after all, and while it was rare for someone to go past the Bloodfields, if someone did go through in the winter, a lucrative if nerve-wracking trip, they were stuck till next year.
Why did you need a Guild for drivers as opposed to the Merchant’s Guild? Well, because [Merchants] were the rich bastards who weren’t looking out for you. Because you needed a way for all the people on the road to let each other know about Bloodfeast Raiders, wars, monster nests, and so on.
There was a lot of respect between the races here. The motto was, ‘you left your tail and fur on the ground’. Which was how non-Humans said it.
However, there was still a pecking order, and north-vs-south relations meant that a lot of the Humans were currently jocular and not leading the conversation. Well, the same went for the Drakes not bringing up any unpleasantness in the Gnoll Plains. But one of the veteran [Drivers] raised a claw.
“It might be best if a non-Drake wagon were to take the lead. Seems like they could use one or two big wagons. Someone with fast Skills. We’ll sit this one out.”
All the Drakes nodded instantly and got glares from everyone else. It was obvious what they were doing. The other [Drivers] instantly began objecting.
“Well, I can’t do it. I don’t have anything nearly big enough for an Antinium.”
“Psh. You’ve got a Farmer-class wagon.”
“Barely. It’s not rated for a lot of weight. And they’ll have gear, supplies—I just can’t do it. What about you, Eithe? You were a Plains Gnoll.”
Eithe instantly demurred.
“I’m not quick enough. This—look, we all know it’s going to get attacked. I’m not doing it.”
She just went out and said it. The [Drivers] looked at each other, but the men and women in travelling vests, often with caps or cloaks, just…didn’t want this assignment.
It was a bad one. But the Driver’s Guild had to accept. It looked really bad if they didn’t; this was a Quest, and everyone wanted to know if it would succeed. The Gnoll tribes almost certainly lacked for specialists in the art of driving a wagon.
And it was an art. You could have a fancy [Rider] who could blaze a hundred miles on a horse, but could said [Rider] also haul two thousand pounds of weight without a bag of holding? Wagons carried a lot of cargo.
It might have gotten ugly at this point where one unlucky, younger [Driver] was cajoled and bullied into the job, but then one of the Drakes perked up.
“Hold on. Hold on—I’m checking our maps, and I’ve got our driver. He’s nearby.”
The rest of the Guild looked up. The way the Drake said it was an indication already. There was a certain cadence, like when you said ‘Named Adventurer’.
The Drake had found a name on a ledger of one [Driver] that surely everyone knew about. Marked with a star, no less. He tapped it proudly.
“Let’s call for him. Termin the Omnipresent.”
Everyone looked at each other and instantly agreed. Of course. Termin.
There could be no other option.
The man on the wagon rolled into the city of Illuice later that day, grumbling as he had to stop for one of the Drake [Guards] searching his wagon.
Admittedly, they did it fast and accepted his passport, because the Driver’s Guild was a known quantity, but he was in a bad mood. So much so that he snapped at everyone, except for Erma and Fox, his two ponies.
Termin’s old wagon rolled through the streets, a slow progress to let foot-traffic pass, but he knew the route to the Driver’s Guild by heart; it was usually close to the gates. Now, he didn’t drive a Farmer-class wagon, which referred to the extra-wide, reinforced wagons that could carry the most produce aside from a Caravan-class vehicle.
He had a Traveller-class wagon, which meant it could only haul, unaided by magic or Skills, a bunch of people, not an entire mine’s worth of ore, for instance. Without Skills, that was.
With Skills, Termin could and did run trips for some farms, but he didn’t make it his line of work. Some drivers were completely supply-run types, but that was boring. Nor was Termin a driver that always chose somewhat dangerous routes. He did, sometimes, but he didn’t roll around with a bow in the driver’s seat. Nor did he have two braying stallions; Erma and Fox were somewhat elderly ponies who often slowed as Termin nagged them.
And yet, as the two wagons parked in Illuice’s Driver’s Guild and a young [Stablehand] went to unload the goods for local pickup—and tend to the ponies—Termin’s presence was not only expected but slightly noteworthy.
“Are you Termin the…”
“Shh! And yes, I am. Are they expecting me?”
The glare from the man made the Drake boy quail, but he got an instant claw pointing him to the humble guild. Termin jumped off his wagon and stomped around to put feeling into his legs.
He had a long travelling cloak, plain brown pants, and a somewhat dirty frock coat of the same color, although he hadn’t pulled out a scarf yet.
It was becoming fall, and felt the chill far more than young man he had been, who had ridden through rainstorms without getting a cold. And again, he was in a bad mood, so he snapped at the boy.
“I’ve got a bunch of Prelons. Have them ready for a [Merchant] Gwe or whatever her name is—carefully. Don’t even unload them; I’ve seen idiots bruise dozens.”
“Yes, Mister Termin. What about the ponies?”
“Leave ‘em. He’ll rub them down.”
Termin jerked a thumb, and the Drake boy turned. He blinked as a second figure swung down from a second wagon. He had assumed that this was another [Driver] coming in and a second stablehand had been coming out, but it appeared they were together.
And then Termin stomped into the guild, and the two stablehands took the measure of the newcomer.
“Termin the Omnipresent doesn’t have an apprentice, does he?”
One of the Drakes looked blankly at the young man offering a snack to Erma and Fox, then the pair of donkeys who were pulling his wagon. He heard them and turned.
He was a Human, and like Termin, he had a long traveller’s coat and hat on to beat the sun, but he hadn’t gone for the cloak. He blinked around the Driver’s Guild in a way that told the [Stablehands] he was new to the driving game; most [Drivers] had been to every city. Illuice was clearly new to this fellow.
His skin was black, which was interesting, because the two Drakes mostly saw pale-skinned Humans unless they came from other continents. He also looked up when they mentioned Termin’s nickname.
“What did you call him? Termin the…what?”
He smiled, but the two Drake [Stablehands]’ serious expressions made him blink.
“You don’t know? Everyone knows Termin. Termin the Omnipresent. He’s a famous [Driver]. Word is they’re making him do the Antinium-delivery. Are you going with him? You might be in danger.”
The young man fetched a brush out and unhitched the ponies as the stablehands gave him some help. The two ponies slobbered over his treats, and Fox tried to eat his hat, but the Human seemed to have their affection, if not respect.
“There is no way that’s Termin’s nickname. He’s never said it to me.”
“Well…what’s your name? Are you actually his apprentice?”
“Yes…I have been for three months now. I’m a [Wagon Driver]. Level…above Level 10. Rhaldon.”
He held out a hand and thus acquainted himself with the stablehands and younger [Drivers] who came out to meet the famous Termin’s protégé. And all throughout, there was the faintest smile of disbelief on Rhaldon’s face.
Termin was famous?
He got proof of that sooner than he expected, because after about twenty minutes of talking outside, the guild doors opened and Termin walked out. He was not stomping—but only because he was talking genially with a few [Drivers].
However, from the way Erma relieved herself right then and there, it was clear Termin was not happy and his animals sensed it. He was smiling in a way that suggested he’d just kicked a post with his big toe and was trying to walk it off without shouting.
“I’ll get on the road, then. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity.”
“Termin, Termin—don’t be like that. We’ll all buy you a round when you get back. But you know that only you can roll there fast enough.”
“…Don’t you have [Racer’s Wheels] on your wagon, Ummlt?”
“—But I don’t have your abilities, Termin! And you have two wagons now that you have an apprentice; plenty of room for supplies!”
The hearty laugh from the other man was accompanied by a slap on the back. Termin’s returning glare was interrupted by the others approaching Rhaldon.
“Rhaldon. He’s working with me. Sensible—doesn’t get the wagon into jams, and we’ve been doing bigger deliveries together. He got started in the business three months ago. First just managing the seat, then I got him a wagon. He shot past ten levels in three months. If that’s not talent…”
Now that was interesting. The first ten levels were quick, but that was very fast. So the young man got a second look from all present.
He was rather silent, which you could take as respect, but it was more of a personality thing since he wasn’t bursting to say something. But he did seem to be taking in everything. He was armed with a cheap shortsword at his hip, but that was practically standard. Termin himself had a long club in his seat.
“Really? You just took on an apprentice like that, Termin? Not even a junior [Driver]?”
One of the Gnolls hmmed, and Termin hesitated, but context was needed, so he leaned over.
“Actually, it was purely coincidence. I found him lying by the road, bleeding to death. A big hole in his shoulder. Rhaldon had no idea where he was—bit of the forgetfulness. Probably hit by [Bandits], right, Rhaldon?”
“That’s right, Mister Termin. He saved my life. Rhaldon. Pleased to meet you all.”
And the young assistant was quite charming once he smiled and his reserve vanished for a moment. The other [Drivers] instantly began talking about Bloodfeast Raiders, damned [Bandits] and lazy Watches up north, and wasn’t it a good thing that Rhaldon had met Termin?
“Well, we don’t want to keep you. It’s already been a day and a half, and you’ll want to get to the Meeting of Tribes or wherever they meet you. Best of luck, Termin!”
“Thank you. I’ll hold you to that drink.”
Termin was still annoyed as he got in the wagon, and the two ponies protested having to get on the road again, but Termin bought them off with feed bags and oats sweetened with sugar. It took twenty minutes to leave the city, mostly because of the exit check at the gates and the slow progress of getting through the streets.
But once you were out of the city, you just got on the road, and aside from rude City Runners or some idiot, you just kept on the right side of the road and drove forwards. Naturally, you had an eye on traffic, for bumps or things that could injure your wagon or animals, and threats, but there was a lot, a lot of time most drivers spent sitting there.
You could read a book, talk, admire the sights—it was a personality that dictated the [Driver] class.
Or a lack of any other option. However, Rhaldon was silent until they were a good six minutes from the city. Only then did he begin speaking up, and his reserve turned into a quite chatty discussion with Termin.
“Termin the Omnipresent?”
The man was eating one of the bruised Prelons they’d gotten from the Drake city of Cellidel, which had not been doing too well. Two cities and both times he couldn’t even stay for the night. He was grumpy, but not at his assistant, so he moderated his tone.
“That’s just their stupid nickname. Everyone who’s someone gets it in the Driver’s Guild. You know, Named Adventurer names? We just do it like that. It’s fun to exaggerate.”
“But you are high-level compared to them.”
It wasn’t a question. Termin jerked a thumb over his shoulder and snorted. Fox passed gas rudely, and Rhaldon was glad he wasn’t behind Termin.
“That lot? Highest-level is Level 30, and that’s only Ummlt, the Drake with the scar on his lip. Don’t let him fool you. He’s got a fast [Wagon], but that’s about it. And he got that scar opening a bottle of wine with a knife. Slashed his lip right open.”
The young man snorted. Rhaldon glanced sideways at Termin, and the [Wagon Driver] looked back.
“Not as nervous around the Watch this time? We could have stayed in the city except for this stupid job.”
Rhaldon rolled his shoulders.
“…No. Cellidel was different.”
Termin had already produced a pipe; he’d gotten some very nice Dreamleaf from the Strongheart farm, and it lasted him months. He normally put only a bit in the pipe, but he was in a bad mood, so he filled it up.
“Yes, it was. I chewed your ear off, but you were right. Turns out they had riots; that was on me wanting a rest. You’ve got good instincts. It’ll take you far. Especially if you keep leveling up like you’re fighting Crelers.”
The two wagons rolling side-by-side were overtaken by one of the fancy carriages running down the middle of the trade roads—Izril’s Wonders. The [Driver] in charge might have been in the Driver’s Guild, but he was probably a freelancer who thought himself too good for the low-down wagon drivers like Termin and Rhaldon.
His superior look certainly indicated that as the Drake passed by. Termin frowned at him and then waved at a few Drake children who were pointing at the Humans. Rhaldon eyed him again.
“So about Termin the Omnipresent…”
“Shut it. It’s just a few Skills. I’m not that high-level.”
But he was, in a way. Embarrassed though he might be, Rhaldon had figured that much out from the first week of Termin saving his life. Yes, his wagon was plain and he didn’t have any magical gear.
Then again, that was probably why most [Bandits] didn’t look twice at Termin. He was literally not worth robbing unless it seemed like he really had something valuable. And if they tried, well—
It was hard to catch Termin. He had a knack.
Termin had been to the Strongheart’s farm. He had also been to Reizmelt, First Landing, and as far south as Zeres. He got around.
In fact, going from where he’d found Rhaldon to the west of Invrisil along the Vail Forest, down to here in Illuice, around the western edge of the Gnoll Plains, was no small feat in three months, let alone because the Bloodfields were active, and Termin was doing deliveries the entire way.
How did he do it? Well…Rhaldon saw very little changing as he and Termin chatted, mostly about the other [Drivers]; the road rolled onwards, and the Drakes had done a good job paving it, unlike some of the muddy, untended roads you could find in the unsettled parts of the north.
They had time to call out to other drivers, exchange words with the friendlier travellers, and Termin even talked with a jogging City Runner coming their way who was only too happy to ride with them for twenty minutes and jaw about gossip.
The life of a [Wagon Driver] didn’t have to be fast-moving action. It almost never was. And yet, despite the sedate pace of Erma and Fox—including them actually veering off the road to relieve themselves again, despite Termin cursing them—it seemed to Rhaldon that they were making good time.
It was subtle clues, like the distance markers that the trade roads had. And…at one point, a fancy carriage with a brilliant trim of blue across the grey sides raced past that said Izril’s Wonders. The Drake [Driver] who was very familiar scoffed at the two wagon-drivers…then he stared at Termin and Rhaldon’s faces and nearly crashed the coach.
“I’m pretty sure that was just being petty, Termin.”
Rhaldon commented as Termin cackled at the rearing horses and swearing oncoming traffic berating the Drake. The old man winked.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Rhaldon. Say—you don’t mind the Antinium, do you?”
“Never met them. Bugs?”
“The Black Tide, aye. You must be from Baleros or Terandria or Chandrar if you hadn’t met Gnolls or Drakes. Anything jogging your memory?”
Not at all for someone from a world with only Humans. But of course, Rhaldon didn’t say that. He just shook his head and demurred.
And he was sure Termin knew he was lying. But he didn’t press Rhaldon, and as the young man had observed—Termin had secrets of his own.
Rhaldon had surreptitiously fished out the book he’d bought with his first payday, but he kept talking to Termin, trying to get more out of him. There were interesting facts about Termin. Again, he did not have magical artifacts. Rhaldon had seen him surrender his cargo to the [Bandits] who’d held them up, and he and Termin had let the Watch know and not done anything as stupid as trying to fight.
And yet, here was an interesting fact for you: Rhaldon had learned that Erma and Fox, the too-intelligent ponies who could pull the quite heavy wagon along, were old friends of Termin’s. They had little discipline, could be fussy, but were quite affectionate and fairly hard-working despite their clear age—both were grey like the way Termin’s hair was going, despite him buying hair dyes from [Alchemists].
They were also both forty-six years old. Termin had bought them when he started his career, and he had never changed animals.
Horses lived for about thirty years on average. Ponies had a longer lifespan by about a decade. Rhaldon was not actually a huge expert on livestock, but he’d read that fact one time, and it had stuck out to him.
Of course, since magical animals existed, he’d struck up a conversation with a [Hostler] at the next town and been assured that was not normal for two ponies in a [Wagon Driver]’s care, especially ones that weren’t magical breeds.
Every fact Rhaldon knew was suspect, so he made a habit of cross-referencing them with this world’s facts. Sometimes what he was told was suspect, but—anyways.
The second thing was that Termin went places. But again—he didn’t zoom about. He just…appeared.
He was very cagey about his Skill, and Rhaldon was still new to the idea, but he had three months, and this time he knew the nickname Termin had never uttered once around him. At last, the exasperated [Driver] let it slip as they took a lunch break.
“All right, all right! Yes, it is a Skill. Happy? I can’t make Erma and Fox cross a hundred miles in a day. That makes you stand out.”
And standing out got you killed because aforementioned [Bandits] thought you had something important. Rhaldon nodded, chewing on some soft jerky. Fox still tried for a bite.
“Right, so how does it work?”
Termin glanced around.
“I…tend to meet people. Sometimes I think—‘I should go down this road’. And then I run across a familiar face or someone I want to meet. Does that make sense? It’s sometimes hairy. Remember the story I told you about running into those damn screaming frogs?”
“I remember. Is it profitable?”
“Sometimes. I’ve met some pretty important people in my time. Very interesting stories. Come to that—most of my Skills are for avoiding trouble. That stupid nickname is just jealous idiots.”
Termin the Omnipresent. It certainly fit his Skills. And Termin’s glance at Rhaldon…well. No one could be more grateful than Rhaldon. He wasn’t a medical…expert, but he was pretty sure he’d been shot through an artery when the [Wagon Driver] had poured a potion on him and saved his life.
“How’d you get so many levels, then, Termin?”
If Rhaldon was right, Termin was a Level 40+ [Wagon Driver], which made him one of the best on the continent. The man grumbled, but looked pleased at telling stories. He had seemed bored, which might have been why Rhaldon had made it as his assistant.
“I kept getting into scrapes. That’s the trick. Reasonably risking my life now and then. Not in a big way. I never tried bashing an Adult Creler’s head in, but I’ve carried folk away from a Creler infestation. I’m ashamed to say I’ve seen some terrible things happen and couldn’t do a thing. But I’ve transported adventurers, [Ladies] and [Lords], even [Knights] and whatnot in this wagon. Even saw the Goblin Lord’s army or part of it. Damndest thing. I leveled up from that—although it might have been me meeting Grand Magus Eldavin before he revealed himself.”
He looked proud about that. And that was probably why all the [Drivers] gave him that nickname; when it came to telling stories, you couldn’t beat Termin.
“So who’re the other famous drivers? There has to be at least one with a name like that.”
Rhaldon teased Termin, and the man sighed.
“Let’s get ‘em moving. I can feel the road calling. We might skip all the way into the Great Plains, but I don’t know…maybe it’s a new meeting. Be very respectful; that’s the ticket. You never know who’ll become famous.”
Rhaldon scrambled to stomp out the fire and get things moving. He did stuff like that, like unloading or arranging the night’s rooms as the apprentice. Termin looked glad not to, and only when they were on the road again did he speak.
“…Nicknames. Nicknames? Ah, got one. You haven’t met her, and you’d better be on your best behavior around her. No weird questions. Not around Karsy.”
“Her nickname’s…Karsaeu the Unmarked. She rolls the Unmarked Coach, and you don’t ever trouble her or her passengers. Who else has a stupid name? Oh—Chaoisa, the Contempt of Man.”
Rhaldon snorted, but Termin gave him a serious look.
“That’s the actual nicknames we get given. So ‘Termin the Omnipresent’ is better than some.”
Rhaldon supposed that when you were a bored [Wagon Driver], nicknaming yourselves in the most grandiose way possible was a way of coping. He badgered Termin for six more names, then, as usual, they fell into a peaceful silence. Termin hummed as they left the road, following a trail only he knew, and they rolled onto the grasslands. It was hard for Rhaldon, and the donkeys had to struggle despite his smaller wagon; Termin’s rolled across the grass as if it were perfectly maintained stone.
“Watch for soft spots. I don’t want you stuck. Follow me exactly; I’ll maneuver us.”
Even then, Rhaldon could still steer very easily since the donkeys could follow the wagon in front of them. He spent his time reading.
Baleros, Chandrar, adventurers and wars. And we’re going to the spot where the Gnolls were nearly all murdered by Drakes. This is history—and none of this is for me. I can’t do much unless…
Rhaldon pulled out his money pouch and stared at the singular gold coin and silver he had. He had spent most of his earnings, and Termin had bought the donkeys and wagon, so it was quite fair how much Rhaldon got, or so he understood.
Not nearly enough to make any purchases, and since Plain’s Eye is gone, I don’t think Gaarh Marsh will be selling anyways.
Maybe after they did this trip. Termin glanced over his shoulder.
“You still looking to buy some fancy glassware and such?”
“And other things.”
“Wait ‘till Liscor, then. They’ve got this fancy magic door that connects to Pallass and Invrisil. You’ll do all your shopping then, and by the sounds of it, we’ll both get at least a few gold.”
That did seem good. Rhaldon relaxed and nodded. Termin was smiling again.
“Did I say that I know the [Innkeeper]? Even transported her magic door with those Gold-rank adventurers.”
“Yes, Termin. You’ve mentioned it.”
“She came back from the dead, even. ‘Course, that’s how it is for me. I told you about that [Farmer] that I took from his farm, right? Eldertuin the Fortress?”
“Him too. And the Wind Runner. And the Horns, yes. And Griffon Hunt, and the Halfseekers…”
“I once had Elia Arcsinger herself in here, you know. Just a ride to Dwarfhalls Rest, since her team was tired.”
Rhaldon sighed. The one problem with Termin was—
He did like to brag. But Rhaldon was quite grateful. He just—
He was not going to be a [Wagon Driver] all his life. Hopefully. That was not what he was good at. And yet, how else were you going to make enough money to get all the things he needed? Adventuring? No shot. He had no experience with any weapons, and even if he had a gun, he’d heard Termin talking about Crelers.
Acting as a [Merchant]—maybe. Rhaldon had a very good head for numbers, but starting that required capital. He had really toyed with the idea of apprenticing himself in his chosen profession, but he might have years of a regular apprenticeship, and all his expertise would not jive well with this world’s understanding of his field.
Better, far better to work with Termin, especially because it paid far more than regular [Wagon Drivers] earned. Once he had a few gold coins, maybe Rhaldon would see about his first foray into the world he knew.
But then again—from all he’d heard, alchemy was an explosive, mad-science approach to creating potions and whatnot. He had worked in chemical labs where an explosion never occurred.
Rhaldon hummed with Termin as they slowly came over a hill and saw a ruined battlefield and a bunch of Gnollish huts. Termin’s eyes focused on a single Antinium Soldier drawing pictures on the ground, surrounded by Gnolls as they spotted the two wagons. The Earther gazed at the foreign bug-man that the world hated so much.
It certainly wasn’t ever boring with Termin.
Unfortunately, Termin was a boring fellow. At least on first blush. So while Chieftain Feshi herself met with him to make sure he understood his task, she left the escorting duty to Nailren of Kelia’s Pride, the Silverfangs, and the Ekhtouch warriors.
Termin was not famous enough to warrant Rose meeting him. And even if she had—no. But Antherr would be going to Liscor, possibly a bit faster than usual.
Erin Solstice was happy to learn that Antherr had a ride, though, and she did a double-take at the name listed.
“Termin? Wow, he gets around, doesn’t he? Why’s he down south?”
“I don’t know. Is he that [Wagon Driver] that’s helped you out, Erin?”
Lyonette vaguely remembered the name, but Erin nodded with a huge smile.
“That guy’s cool. I mean—I’ve met him a few times, and so has Ryoka. Weird. He gets around.”
That was all she thought about Termin the Omnipresent. It would take him a while to arrive, and Erin was simply glad of the news.
However, there was a bit of unhappiness in today’s employment decisions. And that person came by the inn to protest in person.
“I am sad.”
A Worker with silver antennae announced his grief. He poured a cup of water over his head.
Erin stared at him. Water dripped off the Antinium’s head. He drooped.
“Have I failed? I have levelled up. Is my cleaning no good?”
“Silveran? Wh—what’s wrong? Why are you sad?”
“You do not want me.”
Erin had to make him bend down so she could hug him. She didn’t get why the [Cleaner] was so upset until he sat down.
“You wish to hire [Cleaners] from me. And the Free Hive. But not me. I am no longer needed? I cleaned my best, but Ishkr said the inn was closed. Did I clean the wrong stores? I will stop now.”
He was trembling, he was so upset. And as Erin looked at the water dripping from his mandibles, she realized he had learned to cry.
“Silveran, that’s the exact opposite reason! You’re…too good at cleaning!”
The Worker stopped crying and stared at Erin. Too good at cleaning? Was such a thing possible? He opened and closed his mandibles.
“But I was told I could not be employed at The Wandering Inn any longer.”
For answer, Silveran pointed an indignant Erin to the culprit.
“That’s not what I said! I would never—I said Silveran is too successful!”
The Antinium did not understand the difference. Lyonette hurried over, flushing, and defended herself as Erin realized the miscommunication.
“Silveran runs Silveran’s Cleaners, Erin. He employs dozens of Antinium! I told you we couldn’t match his prices.”
“I will work for free. I earn enough money so I will work for free, please. Or I can pay you…”
Silveran was calculating his income, and Erin started chuckling. She put a hand on Silveran’s.
“I get it. Silveran—Lyonette is saying you’re doing so well it would be wrong of us to make you work here for a fraction of the pay. It’s not fair.”
“But I wish to work here.”
The Worker was still upset. Had he cleaned his way out of his dream job? He succeeded into failure! Erin urgently patted his hands and called for a bracing bowl of acid flies.
“Silveran, that’s not it. Now you can send us some of your good Workers and even Soldiers if they can clean stuff. Listen—I know you don’t want to hear it, but it’s better if you keep Silveran’s Cleaners running. Doesn’t it really help?”
It did, and many [Shopkeepers] told Silveran his prices and quality couldn’t be beat. It also meant Workers got to have a paying job and far better conditions than the Hive.
And yet…Silveran closed his mandibles sharply.
“I do not want to help. I want to work here.”
He knew that was wrong, but it seemed to him that by helping everyone, he had thusly made himself less happy. He wanted to be…here.
He looked around The Wandering Inn, and the [Innkeeper] hesitated. Then a big smile crossed her face, and she poked one of his ‘cheeks’ since there was nothing to pinch.
“You silly Silveran, you! Don’t you get it? You might not be able to work here as a [Cleaner] all day—but that just means you can come here whenever you want. And hang out with me!”
The Antinium gave Erin a blank look. She rubbed his head.
“Yes, you can. And you don’t have to clean, so you and I can hang out and play chess.”
“I do not enjoy chess. But this sounds enjoyable.”
The betrayal. The drama. But Silveran looked at Erin, and his overwhelming distress faded into…well, he still wanted to work here. But maybe he could pay to sweep the floors? And if he was a paying customer, could he not, in fact, eat all the acid flies he had ever wanted but been too afraid to ask for?
“Erin. If I can pay for food—may I ask for two bowls of acid flies?”
The gluttony. Erin looked at Silveran and began laughing. Then she personally brought him a bowl, and Silveran began to appreciate money in ways he had never thought of before.
“Do you and the Workers actually spend money, Silveran?”
Fascinated, Erin rested her chin on her hands as she sat with him. Silveran replied absently, gobbling acid flies.
“We pay for food. And pillows.”
“And paint? Garry has a bakery which offers food for coins. We often spend money there.”
“Nothing else, Silveran?”
The Worker hesitated. Now that he was a [Cleaning Manager], he did understand money. He had kept trying to offer some services for free, but he got paid, and so he had divided much of his profits to his Workers—but he had needed to keep money for supplies and such.
He understood the myriad things that people spent money on, but he, as a Worker…Silveran glanced at Erin, and in many ways, he was as much of a stranger to Antinium as Yellow Splatters, Pawn, or even Crusader 57.
It was just that Silveran was to economics what Pawn was to faith. He had brought pets to the Free Antinium. Now, he had the most devious of thoughts.
“…I do not spend coins, Erin. But I could. Could I pay you for a…room in your inn?”
Erin blinked at Silveran and glanced at Lyonette.
“Absolutely! Why, we’d let you stay for—Lyonette! Lyonette!”
The [Princess] had devised a new method for dealing with Erin while she was wheelchair-bound. Which was to roll Erin away from Silveran and sit down. Silveran put down a payment on a room and then was told he could move in now.
He walked upstairs, peered into his room of choice, and decided that he didn’t want Bird for a neighbor, so he took one down the hall that he liked. It wasn’t that Bird was noisy—he just left rotting birds around his room, and Silveran objected to his lifestyle.
The inn had its first new (paying) guest. Despite her being slightly annoyed at Lyonette, Erin was glad of it and smiled.
“Now we just need Workers and Goblins. Hey—I guess we might need more rooms, Lyonette. Especially if we’re putting them all up here.”
“In that case, we need to talk to Hexel. But let’s talk to Rags first.”
Erin nodded instantly and frowned.
“Speaking of which—she’s at Goblinhome, right? Maybe I can go there. I’d like to see it.”
Erin wistfully looked around. The person she owed speaking to most was arguably Rags. There were others, of course, like Fetohep and such—but Rags?
Yet it seemed like the little Chieftain had left and not come back, and Erin didn’t know why. The only people who would know how to get to her would be Numbtongue and Ulvama.
And Kevin, for some reason. Erin found Numbtongue first. He was playing cards with Gothica, Octavia, and Liska over lunch.
“I’m working! I just sat down because they asked!”
Liska abandoned the table in a flurry, and Lyonette frowned after her as Numbtongue blinked at Erin.
“We’re going to hire Rags’ Goblins if any want to work here. I think they will, right?”
Numbtongue stared at Erin’s face and around the famous inn and at what might be the only [Natural Ally] of Goblins.
“Great, great! Well, I haven’t seen her either, and I bet Goblinhome is hard to get to. Especially for, y’know.”
Erin gestured at her wheelchair. She leaned forwards.
“So I was thinking—why don’t we ask if Rags can put a teleportation stone in Goblinhome? Once we get the magic door back, obviously.”
Numbtongue heard a snort from Gothica. He himself kept a blank face as he took Liska’s cards and reshuffled them into the deck.
“Huh? Why not? I don’t really want to ride a Wyvern or something. It looks really uncomfortable even if I could get up there.”
The [Bard] gave Erin a long ‘are-you-serious’ look, and when she didn’t blink, he sighed.
“Think about it.”
The [Innkeeper] frowned at him, but it took her only a minute before she sighed.
“Oh. Not a good idea?”
“Nope. Lots of people hate Goblins.”
“Okay, then we’ll just send a [Message]. Can you tell me who to send it to? Lyonette needs to know.”
Numbtongue scowled as Gothica took the hand. He pushed two coins forwards, and Ulvama sauntered over to the table. She was dealt in as Erin waited.
“What she want to do, send [Message] to Rags?”
Numbtongue rolled his eyes and nodded. Ulvama laughed.
Erin looked from Goblin to Goblin and then folded her arms.
“I get it, I get it. It’ll reveal them. Fine. Then we’ll send a messenger or something. Er—how do we do that? Maybe we have to hire someone to hike up there?”
“Into the High Passes?”
Octavia had to interject at this point, and Erin scowled as she heard what she sounded like.
“Well—how are we supposed to talk to Rags? Wait until she comes down?”
“She might not come down. Tenbault’s [Healer] is making a huge fuss. If she comes down by Wyvern, they follow the Wyvern back.”
“Or shoot it for bounty.”
Ulvama agreed. Erin looked from Ulvama to Numbtongue with an increasing frown.
“Then—if she goes on foot or with those wolves? And disguises her trail?”
Both Hobgoblins considered the idea as Gothica tried to peer at Octavia’s cards surreptitiously and got a glare from the [Alchemist]. Someone whispered in Erin’s ear.
“Can’t do that. They’re watching the inn.”
Erin jumped. She turned, and a Drake with scars all over her face stared at her with huge, piercing eyes.
Numbtongue and Ulvama nearly shot out of their seats with Octavia, but the Named Adventurer just stared at them and then pointed out the window.
“They’re watching the Goblins. And you. And the [Princess].”
Erin rolled over to the window and stared blankly out at the grasslands. She didn’t see much, just a lovely orange sheen on some of the grass. She could see the Blue Fruit grove from here, a Dinobird flying well out of Bird’s range, and one of the new villages under construction.
“Who’s watching? Or is that a general thing?”
The Named Adventurer pointed. Erin squinted.
“…Nope. I don’t see anything.”
Shriekblade popped the window open and clambered out. Erin saw her race across the ground and draw two daggers in her claws as she ran low, eyes fixed on—
Erin jumped as someone wearing a camouflaging cloak that looked just like the grass leapt up and ran screaming. She caught sight of a spyglass, a terrified face—and then Tessa was walking back. She crawled through the window.
“Want me to stab everyone I see? I could kill them or just…stab them.”
Erin turned back to Ulvama and Numbtongue and saw both nodding appreciatively. She frowned; she hadn’t sensed the people outside, but they were well away from her inn. She turned back to the others.
“Wait a second, is that why Rags left so fast? She was afraid of being tailed?”
“Probably. You said she was smart.”
Ulvama poked Numbtongue, and he grouchily poked her back. Erin looked out the window at the High Passes looming beyond.
“But hold on—how will she come back? How will I speak to her?”
No one had an answer for that, and Erin looked around. The mission changed from being…recruit Goblins to something else.
Find a safe way to Goblinhome. Erin rubbed at her head.
“Why is everything so hard? I just want to send Rags one message without it being difficult. Numbtongue, could you get there if you were, like, invisible and we made sure no one was tailing you?”
The [Bard] considered this.
“Yes…but I don’t want to climb the High Passes alone. Sounds like a good way to get Eaten-Death.”
Erin’s face fell. She looked at Ulvama, and the [Shaman] stared back. Does it look like I’m going to go hiking, ever?
Erin gazed around, and someone waved a claw in her face.
“Me? I could go. No one finds me.”
Tessa stood to attention, and Erin blinked at the strange Named Adventurer. She hadn’t really said much more than she was here to guard Lyonette. Had Ilvriss sent her or…?
“You’d do that, Tessa? We can’t really pay—are we paying you?”
“Nope. But I’ll work for free. Just keep giving me Faerie Flowers. I can go now. It’ll only take two days if it’s not too high up.”
Erin looked back at Numbtongue. He eyed Tessa. Send a Named Adventurer to Goblinhome? Erin sighed.
“Yeah, don’t give me that look. I get it, I get it. Bad idea. Darn. Damn, even.”
Erin was rolling around in frustration, trying to come up with a good way of doing things. Goblinhome…that was another problem for the future, and unfortunately, even the wisest ghosts hadn’t had much input on Goblins.
Except for Zineryr. Well—Erin wasn’t out of options yet. She rolled back to the table with the pot, and Ulvama looked up from her card game as Erin tapped the pot.
Did it vibrate slightly? Even Tessa stared at the pot; it was faintly magical, but this was not spellcraft like most understood.
“I could try to send something to Rags. I don’t know how to do, um, sendings. Or—what would it be? Not a hex, but maybe a physical vessel? I might have to do one of those messenger spells, but I don’t know how.”
Or rather, she needed a teacher and practice. Erin thought to herself.
“What if…I made like a flying soufflé that homes in on Rags? I probably have enough power here to do that.”
Octavia looked at Gothica, and the Cave Goblin shook her head. Clearly insane, fold. Ulvama spoke up as Erin frowned at her pot.
“Waste of power. Don’t waste that, stupid.”
She pointed indignantly at the valuable well of power. Erin jumped.
“It’s just a thought! Hey, you’re a [Shaman], right?”
Ulvama gave Erin a suspicious look. Erin waved her hands.
“Can’t you—tell Rags something secretly?”
Ulvama, the [Shaman] of the Flooded Waters tribe, thought about it.
Numbtongue put down his cards and glared at her. Erin lowered her hands.
“Wh—you can? Then what am I doing asking for help? Can you send something to Rags, please?”
Ulvama yawned, looking very reluctant to bestir herself over this trivial issue. She snapped her fingers and looked around.
They were keeping score on a piece of parchment. Octavia handed Ulvama a quill and a scrap to write on. Ulvama lazily scrawled on it then folded it up, flicked open her claw twice over it in a vaguely magical way, and handed it to Erin solemnly.
“Here. Use to contact Rags.”
The [Innkeeper] hesitated, because…she could tell Ulvama had not cast any magic. But perhaps it was some kind of trick. She opened the piece of folded parchment and read what Ulvama had written.
Go talk to Kevin.
The [Shaman] smirked as Erin lowered the parchment and gave her a narrow-eyed look.
“Talk to Rags? Sure! I’ve got the private speaking stone right here. It’s not live, so you send a message and she gets it. Do you want me to leave her something? Erin? Erin?”
Kevin looked around for the rogue-type speaking stone that Rags had been given by her ‘contacts’ in the underworld, and Erin kept smacking her head into his desk.
“Ulvama didn’t tell me—she just let me—”
“She’s sort of like that. I think she’s testing you. Okay, let me record a message. ‘Hey, Rags, it’s me, Kevin. Erin wants to know when you can meet secretly because of all the watchers. And, uh, she’d like to hire Calescent to cook in her inn, and other Goblins. Peace. Let’s hang soon. Kevin out.’ Sound good?”
It was the most Kevin message ever, which Erin supposed was a type of cipher in itself. She thanked Kevin and rolled back to the inn with Numbtongue pushing her.
She glared at Ulvama, and the [Shaman] looked up from her game of cards.
“Shamanic wisdom. Pay me later.”
Erin’s eyes narrowed, but she missed the way Lyonette glanced sharply at Ulvama. The Hobgoblin was a guest with everyone else for helping save Mrsha and bring Erin back. But there might be a reckoning sooner rather than later. Oh, yes…
But perhaps it was simply time to have those conversations being put off. Erin’s heart thumped hard at the idea of speaking to Rags. She’d heard some of what the Goblin had done.
Kidnapping a [Healer]? Attacking a city? That wasn’t good—and yet she had come to Liscor leading a tribe of Goblins.
How had she changed? What would Erin say? And…the [Innkeeper] slowed as Numbtongue came to a stop and looked towards the card table.
“Erin, you want to go anywhere now?”
She hesitated, but someone spoke up.
“I could push her, Numbtongue. If she wants to go anywhere. Erin. Do you want to speak now?”
The [Innkeeper] looked to her left, and Ceria Springwalker walked forwards. Erin’s expression changed slightly as Numbtongue stepped back.
“Ah. Ceria. I…is now a good time?”
Ceria had her hands in her pockets. She looked at Erin apprehensively, but nodded slowly.
“Now’s as good a time as any. Should we go for a walk in the [Garden of Sanctuary] or…?”
Mrsha was playing with Gire inside, and they had ears like a hawk. Or ears like a hawk had eyes. Erin glanced out the window.
“Why don’t we go outside? Assuming there are no spies everywhere.”
“I can keep them away.”
Tessa offered. Lyonette looked up in alarm.
“Why don’t I send, uh, Ser Dalimont and—”
“No. I’ll take Erin. We’ll be safe together. Does that sound good, Erin?”
The [Innkeeper] looked at Ceria as Lyonette began to protest. But the [Cryomancer] just took Erin’s chair as the [Innkeeper] nodded, and the two headed outside.
Erin didn’t see any obvious watchers as Ceria wheeled her into the sun, but she thought she felt some eyes on her. Ceria looked around and pointed the way Erin had seen before.
“Most of the Shield Spider nests are gone, I hear. What if we did a big loop around there? It’s mostly flat. All we have to do is get down the hill without you crashing. And without anyone watching us via spell.”
“I should have anti-spying gear thanks to Saliss.”
The half-Elf nodded. Ceria gestured, and Erin dug her feet into the ground, ready to help slow the descent down the fairly steep hill. But to her surprise, she felt herself sliding—
“Oh no! Ceria—whoooooaa!”
That was because instead of going down the hill and wiping out again, Erin felt herself rolling down a slick ramp of ice. It wasn’t nearly as steep as the hill, and she looked back as she flailed and saw Ceria skating behind her.
“Ceria! That’s amazing! It’s a rollercoaster!”
The half-Elf laughed.
“I have no idea what that is. Here we go.”
She came to a stop and began pushing Erin across flatter ground. The ice ramp melted behind her, and Erin looked at Ceria. It was so—effortless. She had seen Ceria learning to cast [Ice Wall], but this?
“That’s amazing, Ceria. Is this all magic you learned in Chandrar or the Village of the Dead raid? I never said…thank you properly for everything. I’m sorry for jumping you with the stuff about Gerial yesterday. It’s just—”
“One second, Erin. We’re out of magical surveillance, but I think we should be in private, don’t you? No watchers?”
Ceria looked to one side, and Erin hesitated. The half-Elf’s pale gaze was focused, and her voice was cold as she stared at a patch of air.
Something rippled as another watcher fled. Ceria kept staring as Erin blinked at her.
“No watchers. And no second warnings, understood?”
Erin blinked at Ceria and looked around. Nothing seemed to move that she could see, and she wondered how many invisible or unseen observers there could be. Ceria pushed Erin onward four steps. Then she pointed a finger.
Erin heard a short scream. Then she saw a pillar of ice punch a hitherto invisible figure up into the air. Erin’s head tracked the figure going up and landing. It did not sound like a good landing.
“We—we could go back to the inn, Ceria. It’s private, and the garden’s secure. I could ask Mrsha and Gire—”
“You have to warn them at some point, Erin. Looks like they’re clearing out.”
Indeed, it looked like one of the observers was even tending to the one who’d gotten their ribs broken. Erin looked at Ceria, and one of the masked watchers raised two hands and backed up. The half-Elf nodded, and they recovered the wounded person.
She’s changed. That didn’t seem like a Ceria-move. Insulting poor beavers with foul language? Yes. This? Maybe Ksmvr’s talk about displaying dominance was rubbing off on Ceria.
Yet, when the half-Elf looked down, her rueful smile was completely familiar.
“Dead gods, Erin. You just can’t come back from the dead quietly, can you? The world will never be the same. Yvlon nearly swallowed a chair when she saw the Quest.”
“I, uh—well. I did it to help Antherr. And it’s not like anyone didn’t want to find the City of Stars.”
Erin spluttered, but she smiled in relief. Ceria shook her head.
“If it exists, you mean. Now we know it exists and—you came back from the dead, and I thought surviving the Village of the Dead and teleporting to Chandrar was going to be the big story. Now I’ll be lucky if anyone buys me a drink.”
“Hey! That’s huge! I can’t believe you did that.”
“Neither can I. We went—sort of crazy. When you died, I mean. In hindsight, that was a really, really stupid thing to do. Attack a death-zone with Gold-ranks and two Named-ranks? We should have died, but we got bailed out by a real adventurer. Do you know what happened?”
“I—only the clips.”
Erin tried to explain.
“The video recordings of the scrying orb.”
“Oh, I see. Clips. That’s another word from your home, right?”
Ceria glanced at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] nodded. It was amazing how many secrets lay between them. Yet…Ceria just moved on, and Erin stared down at the lovely orange grass they were moving on.
“—You did that for me. People died. Seborn nearly got killed, I heard. And some people. There were deaths.”
The half-Elf nodded. Her voice was level. But not emotionless. She took a deep breath and spoke in a sigh, looking sad.
“There always are, Erin. Don’t blame yourself. Do you think all the teams that went there went for you? They went because we told them there was a shot. Adventurers go in and go out. You remember how we went into Liscor’s crypt. We knew we might be underlevelled, but we prepared as much as we could. We do risky things. The Village of the Dead was stupid.”
“Not stupid. Not that I—”
Ceria stopped Erin.
“It was stupid. It was a calculated risk, but going into a death-zone? Going into a dungeon even with all the precautions in the world? That’s what adventuring is. Whatever you want to call it—if I could go back in time knowing what I do, Erin? I’d try the raid again. Only, I’d get more Named-rank adventurers, prepare a bit longer.”
“Really? Even knowing what happened with that crazy sword-guy?”
Erin looked at Ceria, and the half-Elf smiled crookedly.
“He wasn’t the worst thing there. But believe me, Erin. What we got from that raid was more than worth what we, the Horns, put in. I can’t speak for everyone. And what happened in Chandrar doesn’t count. Myself? I’d take it all, but I’m not—Pisces.”
Erin looked up and nodded slowly. Her smile faded, and she bowed her head.
“No. I need to talk to him. Do you know what…?”
“No. He won’t talk to me, Yvlon, or even Ksmvr about the specifics. We left some of his friends behind.”
“For me. Again. Ceria—”
The half-Elf waited as Erin struggled for words. The [Innkeeper] burst out at last.
“If you’d died, I’d never have forgiven myself. I’m glad you made it—but I wish you hadn’t done that! What would have happened if you died?”
Ceria thought about it. She was walking at a sedate pace. After a moment, she flicked Erin’s forehead gently with a finger.
“I think you would act just like we did after you died, Erin. We weren’t thinking straight.”
“You didn’t know a bunch of Drakes were lying outside the inn with crossbows. Erin. I’m not blaming you for anything we did. The Horns of Hammerad are big boys and girls, except for Ksmvr. We went into everything with eyes open, just like Halrac and Jelaqua’s teams, and everyone else. We will settle our dues. Tree rot, they still have that Helm of Fire, and they’ve been negotiating for it for months.”
Ceria sighed, and Erin stirred.
“Oh, the artifacts? Wait, they still haven’t distributed the loot?”
“Adventurers and the biggest raid in decades? Nope. We complicated it too, by being alive instead of dead. Personally, I think the teams are waiting to see what we have before claiming some of it. That’s going to be—a problem.”
She scratched at her head.
“…They’re not getting our stuff. I think we’ll have to sort it out, but that’s our problem.”
Erin didn’t envy Ceria that, but this wasn’t the core of what they needed to say. They were circling.
“How was Savere, Ceria? It sounds like a really nasty place.”
The half-Elf shrugged.
“It isn’t so bad. There are some truly unpleasant characters, like this half-Elf I met, but I got through it by being cool-headed.”
She winked, and Erin groaned at the pun. Ceria went on after a moment of thought.
“…It’s very different from Izril or Terandria in many ways. Chandrar, that is. But the people were still people. I bet you can understand that.”
“Yep. So—Fetohep of Khelt really helped you out? Or did he take you away from what you needed to do?”
Erin squirmed in her chair. Ceria chewed that over.
“He helped me. I didn’t lose too much. Yvlon, Ksmvr, Pisces, they all had things to do. But me? I made one huge change in Chandrar, and all my challenges were simpler on my side, I think. I feel like coming back to Izril is where things will…matter.”
She was speaking very casually about everything. There was something off about Ceria that Erin couldn’t explain, but then she heard the half-Elf curse.
“Tree rot, I’m going to explode if I don’t bring it up. Erin! Tell me what Gerial said.”
She slowed, and Erin saw Ceria walk around to face her. Then she saw the half-Elf’s face and the barely suppressed nervousness in Ceria’s eyes.
It was there, and Erin relaxed because that was the half-Elf she knew. Ceria raked at her hair.
“I ran away when you brought it up. I’m sorry.”
“No, I’m sorry, Ceria. I shouldn’t have said it like that. And I had no proof. But…”
Erin’s mouth had gone dry. She spread her hands.
“…Believe me. I met ghosts. I…believe me?”
Ceria sat down cross-legged. She picked up some grass, put it into her mouth, and spat it out.
“I believe you. I believed you the moment you said that.”
“Wh—you did? Then why did you…?”
Why’d you run off when you were about to hear the words of your dead friend? Numbtongue was right. Erin did have stupid ideas.
Ceria was scratching at one cheek, and she kept glancing at Erin. Her face was trying to smile, but she was rubbing her fingers together on her skeletal hand and making a faint rasping sound.
“I…I think I’m ready, now, Erin? What was he like? What was it—no. You go ahead. I’ll just listen. I’ll shut up. I’m…ready.”
She fell silent, and Erin’s own heart beat painfully in her chest. The [Innkeeper] opened her mouth, croaked, felt a lump, swallowed it, and felt her eyes stinging.
“He…Gerial was great. Just like he was. You know? They all were. It wasn’t bad. He—he saved me before I came back to life, you know. He was the bravest.”
“Gerial? He got to be a hero?”
Ceria’s look of apprehension faded, and she smiled slightly. Erin nodded, and Ceria exhaled.
“Good for him. He always wanted to be in the storybook.”
That one line was all it took. Erin began blinking hard. Ceria waved at her.
“Don’t you dare! Or I’ll start crying! Don’t you—what did he say?”
The two laughed, and Erin pinched herself.
“I’m trying. He…we talked for a while. But you know—you know—you know? He said the words right before I left.”
Tears spilled from Erin’s eyes. She sniffed, and Ceria looked at Erin blankly. Then she rose; Ceria couldn’t help herself.
“He said it? Death before dishonor? That…twice?”
The way she said it—Erin had started crying, but then she started giggling and put her hands over her mouth. Ceria looked torn between a laugh and a sob.
“He couldn’t think of something better?”
Then that was it. They began laughing. Erin tried not to fall out of her chair, and Ceria’s eyes were wet with tears. It was the meanest thing she could have said. And it proved how much she had cared for him.
When the laughter faded enough for her to speak, Erin was able to talk again.
“He had a message for you and Calruz too, Ceria. Well…part of it is private. He said—he said he had no regrets. He wanted to be a hero, but he was just glad you survived.”
Ceria had stopped laughing and smiling, but it returned as Erin spoke. This time, though, it wasn’t wild humor, but the smile of someone like Ceria. Like Erin, in a way.
It was sixty years old, and it had seen friends go. It was old, but she looked like she had when she sat with the Horns, the originals, as Erin told her what Gerial had said. Then she whispered in Ceria’s ears, and the half-Elf laughed sadly.
“Yeah. That sounds like Gerial. As much of an idiot as Calruz in his way. He only pretended to be sensible.”
That last part was only for the half-Elf. Ceria wiped at her face, then she grabbed a handful of grass and blew her nose with it.
The half-Elf looked rattled. She took several deep breaths in and out, then brushed some grass from her nose. She wiped her face and then looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] had a handkerchief. Another deep breath, and Ceria set herself. Erin blinked at her as the half-Elf squared her shoulders.
“Okay. Okay. That one hurt. But I…I’m really glad you told me. I’m glad—”
She trailed off, then closed her eyes. Ceria took a few more breaths, faster now, and opened her eyes and clenched her jaw.
“I’m ready. Who’s next?”
Erin looked at Ceria, and the half-Elf frowned at her.
“Who’s next? Hunt? Marian—my—just let me know.”
Then Erin understood why Ceria was so afraid. There was a look of fear in the half-Elf’s eyes, circlet or not. The kind of knowledge that had come from not only believing Erin, but thinking.
Only, she was wrong. She was waiting to hear their words. Just like Gerial.
All of them. Everyone she had ever known, and she was a half-Elf. Even if she wasn’t old…Erin understood why Ceria had run away. She raised her hands.
“I don’t…I don’t have anyone else, Ceria. I didn’t meet them all. There was fighting—it was only Gerial.”
It was like Ceria was waiting for a blow, but she untensed and then Erin hit her. Because there were no words. None from her…
None from her grandmother. None from her teammates. None from Calvaron or…she blinked and passed a hand over her face.
“Oh. I see. Silly me.”
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize you thought—”
“No. I mean, yes. I’m relieved? I’m…”
The half-Elf looked at Erin.
“Just Gerial. There were millions, but I met so few of them. And there were terrible things there.”
Erin bowed her head. Ceria looked at her.
“Will we have to fight these things?”
The [Innkeeper] stared down at the grass and a little ladybug or something similar wending its way forwards. She looked up once and scared the half-Elf again.
Ceria looked at Erin and then stood up. She wiped at her face again, but her tears were dry.
“I’ll have to…I’m going to have a lot of drinks tonight. But thank you, Erin. Thank you. Gerial did it, didn’t he?”
“I’m only here because he bought me time.”
Erin answered truthfully. Ceria turned.
“Good. You need to tell Calruz. I…thanks. We’ll sort out the rest as it comes. But I did hear you back in the inn this morning. Did you mean what you said about us not being able to do it?”
Erin squirmed in her chair, but Ceria just waited, and Erin nodded.
“Don’t be sorry. You’re being honest. I think I get why. I was at the Great Plains, and I saw those ghosts crack Izril. And they still lost. So. When the time comes, hopefully we’ll be ready.”
Ceria turned, and for a second, Erin thought she saw—but then the half-Elf smiled at her. She scratched at her head.
“I guess it’s time to get back to work. New lands await. Let me know if you find those Crossroads of Izril or get your magic door to go four thousand miles instead of four hundred. It’d be nice not to waste time travelling.”
Erin flapped her hands at Ceria.
“I’m not part of the new lands, Ceria. I have my hands full here.”
An exasperated look filled Ceria’s gaze. She rolled her eyes.
“Sure, whatever you say, Erin.”
“I mean it! I have nothing to do with the new lands! I don’t even know how you’d get there aside from that quest. Even the Gnolls I don’t have much to do with.”
“Mhm. And it’s a quiet inn life for you now as well?”
Erin flapped a hand at Ceria.
“Don’t be mean. I’m serious.”
“Yep. Say, look over there, Erin?”
Erin turned her head, and the Human and half-Elf stared at a quartet of people who’d begun walking their way from the city. They had either missed Ceria’s warning or didn’t care. Ceria raised one eyebrow as Erin hesitated.
It was a Minotaur, but not Calruz. He had two arms and a greatsword made of green diamond on his back. The second was a [Lord], peering at Erin and Ceria. The third, a Dwarf with a hammer on his shoulder and gesturing at a Garuda flying overhead to come down and be polite. Ceria glanced at Erin.
“What about him?”
She didn’t mean any of the three male [Strategists] here. Erin Solstice bit her lip.
“…I’m working on it. I don’t know what to say, really. But—he’s not as crazy as they say, right? Mrsha exaggerates a lot of stuff, and Bird told me he’s a [Liar].”
For answer, the half-Elf just looked at her friend and started guffawing until a ladybug flew into her mouth. Then she swallowed it.
The four [Strategists] walked forwards hesitantly. They were supposed to be a group of six. But Feshi would never go back to the academy. The adventure they’d gone on—
It had led them here. And whilst they’d seen a lot of what happened, they were newcomers to a strange story.
But every piece had their role to play. However unwillingly. Venaz the Minotaur looked more apprehensive than he ever had in his life.
Partly because there was an Antinium aiming a bow at him. And at least two Hobs glaring at him out the window. The Minotaur ignored the [Knights], but the [Strategists] got the same message the spies did.
However, they had—orders. And an overwhelming desire to meet her. Wil hesitated. The [Innkeeper] was talking with the Gold-rank adventurer and waving them over.
“Does this mean we don’t get shot if we walk over? I think we do—Peki, stop that.”
She was embarrassing her friends. The [Martial Artists] kept flying through the air, rotating left, dipping down, and Merrik was hissing at her to behave.
“We’re all nervous, Peki, but this is not helping! Remember your diplomacy class!”
She’d nearly failed that. However, the Garuda wasn’t doing it on purpose. She squawked back.
Venaz looked at Wil and then focused on the Antinium in the tower. Peki looked uncomfortable. Merrik squinted up at the figure.
“He’s got a bead on you? He can see you.”
“He’ll hit me. There.”
Peki landed in the only safe spot she could find. Behind Venaz. Then she began fidgeting again.
“Here, too? I’ll catch the arrow. Let’s go.”
It was already off to a bad start. No, this plan of engagement was fundamentally flawed to begin with. Wil hadn’t understood his lessons on why sometimes even great [Strategists] and [Generals] lost wars. He knew sometimes you got bad orders, but he’d always argued that, no, when it came down to the wire, he’d stand up and say ‘absolutely not’.
And yet here he was. Walking into a bloodbath. And he wasn’t even the [Marked Target]. They’d gone five rounds of Lizcards, and Venaz had lost.
“Merrik, break my legs. I can’t do it.”
The Minotaur whispered to the other three as they marched forwards to the half-Elf and [Innkeeper]. The Dwarf retorted.
“Not on your life. Just get it over with.”
There she was, the young woman who employed a [Princess]. Or were they working together? The girl who came back from the dead and who had been possessed by the ghost of the greatest [General] of the Drakes in a hundred years.
Erin Solstice. And oh, if only Wil could have come at any other time. But she was smiling warily as they approached.
“Hello! You’re the, um, [Strategist]-students, aren’t you? The ones with the shiny swords?”
That was one way to put it. The four stopped as Ceria raised a hand. She glanced at Venaz’s greatsword and Wil’s shortsword. Most people did, but there wasn’t the starstruck effect that sometimes came over people.
That was to be expected. The young woman stared at Venaz the most, then Merrik. The [Strategists] tried to feel out the [Innkeeper] as they introduced themselves.
“Wil Kallinad, Innkeeper Solstice. House Kallinad of Pheislant, but I am a student of the Forgotten Wing company in Baleros. Honored to make your acquaintance.”
She didn’t hold out a hand, but she did smile. She blinked at Merrik and visibly hesitated as he introduced himself.
“Merrik Hostone, of Deríthal-Vel, Miss Solstice. Nominally from Deríthal—I’ve done mercenary work across the nations thereabouts. [Stoneshorn War Leader].”
Everyone looked at Merrik at that. He’d actually used his real, full class? He was trying to make a real impression. Erin blinked and then smiled.
“Wow! Another Dwarf from the same place! I guess that’s really the home of all Dwarves, eh?”
“Most of us, Miss. Although—no, most.”
Merrik blushed as he stumbled over his words. Erin smiled and then hesitated. She looked sideways at Ceria, and the half-Elf nudged her.
“Oh, come on. Merrik, do you know, um, Dawil of the Silver Swords? Or Pelt?”
Ceria sighed, Merrik blinked.
“Er—yes. A Gold-rank adventurer and Master Smith Pelt? Former…yes, I do.”
“See, it’s just them.”
“It’s still weird, Erin. It’s like asking if he knows…”
“Calruz of Hammerad?”
Venaz interrupted the whisperers, and Ceria jumped. He gave Erin a brisk clasp of a fist across one shoulder. Erin’s head snapped up.
“I am Venaz, likewise of Hammerad. A [Strategist] in training in the Forgotten Wing Company. I hail from the House of Minos. I hope to speak with you on the judgment of Calruz of the Beriad, Innkeeper Solstice, and you, Captain Ceria, as acquaintances of his.”
He kept his face very formal, and he definitely had their attention. Ceria nodded, and Wil felt a prickle as she focused on Venaz. She had a disconcerting aura—the [Lord] felt cold looking at her.
A Gold-rank adventurer indeed. It was all going well, and even Peki offered Erin a clasped fist.
“Peki of Pomle. [Drop Strike Lieutenant].”
“Ooh. Pomle! That’s…hm. Why do I know that? I think someone’ll want to talk to you, right, Ceria?”
“Absolutely. It’s a pleasure to meet you all. I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself. I’m Ceria, Captain of the Horns of Hammerad. [Cryomancer].”
Wil saw Ceria nudge Erin, and the [Innkeeper] blinked and smiled.
“And I’m Erin! But you knew that, I think. The crazy Human of Liscor! Er—[Innkeeper]. Pleased to meet you!”
Swimmingly, swimmingly. Wil would have thought this was a splendid, if somewhat awkward meeting, because the [Strategists] were gazing at Erin like—like—
Like the only chess player who could best Niers Astoragon. No, that wasn’t right. Even Cameral had taken a game off Niers in the game of Go. But—this was someone who beat him more than she lost.
This was his mysterious opponent. Oh, Wil had a thousand questions, but he felt sweat sliding down the back of his neck.
They had to do it. They had to, but Wil would have rather not. He tasted defeat, but they had orders.
I should have stayed with Feshi and Yerra. All three of the students were looking at Venaz. He was biting his tongue, but he slowly looked at Erin as the [Innkeeper] was motioning to the inn.
“Let’s go inside. I think that’s best for this, and I owe you some drinks. You helped save my friends—aren’t you a long way from home? I saw you guys on those ships. Ceria, I might need some help with that hill.”
The Minotaur fished in his belt pouch.
“Before that, Miss Solstice. I have an…I have an obligation…you must know our teacher, the Professor, as we call him. That is to say, the Titan of Baleros.”
Erin Solstice slowed her roll. She looked over her shoulder, and Merrik, Peki, and Wil jockeyed to hide behind Venaz. The Minotaur saw Erin turn.
“Yes…he’s an interesting guy, or so I’ve heard. He was here, wasn’t he? Likes to play chess? Sorta…short?”
She looked as wary as Venaz, suddenly. Ceria glanced at the Minotaur’s tight fist, and suddenly she was all smiles. She stepped back and watched as Venaz nodded like a puppet.
“Absolutely, yes. In substance, Miss Solstice. The Titan of Baleros was here, and I believe he missed you due to your—”
“Me being dead?”
“Yes. And you may know he quite enjoys games of chess. Therefore he has sent—”
—Via very expensive magical transmission and a letter that brooked no argument. Wil squeezed his eyes shut.
The thing about the Titan of Baleros was that he was an amazing [Strategist]. He adapted, he could be ruthless, but he remembered why morality existed. He had his flaws, like overconfidence.
He was arguably—bad—at romance. And in his debriefing of what had gone down in Izril, he had identified the weakness of hesitation. He had missed his opportunity, thanks in part to the Witch of Webs. So he was determined not to make the same mistake.
But as he’d once told Wil, making another mistake to cover your old one didn’t make it better. Hence, Venaz’s stilted language. He slowly opened his palm, and Ceria crammed a fist into her mouth to stifle the sounds.
They really should have done this inside. Because far as it was, there were still eyes on them. But they had wanted to get it over with. And—and it was not as bad as the now-famous story of Tyrion Veltras.
But a continent away, Lord Pellmia Quellae could feel a terrible tingling in the back of his mind. For the Minotaur proffered a little…figurine to Erin.
It was a six-inch tall man, carved of stone and painted to exact likeness. He stood on a little dais, and he was part of a matching set in the chessboard that Merrik lifted. Foliana was the Queen, incidentally.
Erin stared at the Niers chess-piece as Venaz forced the next words out through the war-wound of embarrassment.
“The Titan of Baleros apologizes for missing you, Miss Erin. He hopes you will continue your regular games and offers you this as a gift. There is also a letter.”
He produced a stamped letter with the crest of the Forgotten Wing company and offered the entire set to Erin Solstice. The [Innkeeper] stared down at the chess set in Venaz’s hands.
It was the piece. The Professor was standing there with one foot on a little rock, holding his ludicrous hat with the feather in one hand, smiling jauntily up at Erin. Wil glanced at Peki and saw she had put both wing-hands over her face.
“Is it done yet?”
The [Innkeeper] had developed a smile much like the one Venaz and Wil were wearing. Ceria was lying on the ground, dying from lack of air. The young woman reached for the chessboard, and Wil thought at least they could get over this and talk the Professor up, and then it happened.
The instant Erin’s hands touched the chessboard, there was a slight flash of magic. Ceria sat up, and Venaz jerked, but it was too late. It was just a simple spell probably hardwired to some element of Erin touching it, but Niers’ voice emerged.
“—and may I congratulate you, Miss Solstice, on your fine recovery and victory. I hope to speak with you soon. Venaz has a [Message] scroll keyed to me for discussion on chess and whatnot. Please give my best to Bird and Mrsha and the rest.”
And he did it. He did it. Wil closed his eyes and wondered if Lord Tyrion Veltras could have topped that.
The chess board was superfluous after the first one, which was okay—everyone liked a unique chess board, even one so pointed.
The life-sized figurine was bad. The hand-delivered missive was another thing. Niers had overcorrected from doing nothing.
They could even survive the automated message. But—Erin stared at the tiny figurine of Niers. It had only shifted a bit with the magical spell. Yet instead of holding his hat, the little Niers had—
Erin Solstice slowly looked up at Venaz. The Minotaur was sweating as he gazed back. The pain in his eyes…everyone waited.
Message received. Totally, completely, you cannot ignore this. Earl Altestiel of Desonis was surely taking notes on how to be more explicit in his advances. Pellmia could feel a dark power calling him back home.
As for Erin? She stared at the chessboard and, without a word, slowly turned her wheelchair around and began maneuvering it back towards the inn. The four students saw her receding back as Erin rolled away. Then—very faintly—Wil heard her begin to chuckle.
Author’s Note: You may hate it. Some people said, ‘we will surely never achieve more cringe than Lord Tyrion Veltras’. And you were wrong.
You may deny it. But tell me you don’t believe that Niers Astoragon would do this. With Foliana watching, encouraging, egging him on. This. This is what happens when you lose your Perorn.
Anyways. With that said, I feel like I’ve lost my Perorn. In a vague sense.
It’s always the same when I take my week off. You wouldn’t think it, but I feel like I lose a tiny bit of my focus and I have to work to get it back. In the same way, these three chapters are fine, fine…
But the ending of Volume 8 had me at my most intense. So I’m trying to regain that but I need to outline, plan, and I think I’m still recovering a bit. But I want to improve and write more amazing chapters.
Including the opening to Volume 1. I told you I’d be devoting at least one update per month to it—I plan to take the next update to rewriting. I’ll definitely show you what I’ve got, but I’m nervous.
Writing is hard, sometimes. Rewriting is harder. Can I do it? We’ll find out. It might not be new—but I hope you’ll like it. See you next update at the very start.
9.02 Sketch, Shopping, Breezy, and Honored Berr by Artsynada!
Pebblesnatch by amartamon!
Goblin by tobinkusuma!