9.03

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It was time to get back to work. Vacations were never long enough, even, apparently, if you were dead. You just got more homework from ghosts.

In Erin’s case, she equated ‘work’ with stressful activities. The not-a-party had arguably been that, but dodging a bunch of [Strategists]’ pointed questions while staring at a chess board and a life-sized miniature of the Titan of Baleros?

That was work.

However, Erin was arguably the master of the blank stare, the uncomprehending ‘huh’, and the irreverent shrug. Ignorance was a weapon to be used like a club on Pisces-type characters. Erin didn’t think it would be hard to play some chess games, thank the [Strategists] for their help in the Meeting of Tribes war, and figure out the Niers situation later.

That was why she was so surprised when Mrsha took her aside with a big scowl and handed her a note. For multiple reasons, really.

Her poofy little Gnoll girl was sometimes a rascal, other times a mascot or, arguably, a helper, and when it mattered, she could be very sensitive and kind. Right now, Mrsha was extra-furry, most likely due to the fall creeping on—or a lack of combing her own fur.

…But was she bigger than Erin remembered? Yes, it felt like it. Mrsha had been a child you could carry around, hug, and even toss up. At…one point. Now? Erin felt like she might be more prone to hurting her back.

And when had Mrsha gotten so good at walking? In fact, she had put on that patterned kilt today and had, to Erin’s disbelief, clogs. That was to say, a laceless slip-on shoe made of leather. Generously adapted for Gnoll feet.

“Mrsha, what has gotten into you? Hold on—you want a word?”

Mrsha nodded emphatically and since Erin was already sitting, Mrsha joined her in her lap so Erin could read over her shoulder. She began writing, and Erin found herself reading in real-time.

“Good morning, Erin. I hope you are doing well today. I wanted to touch thrones with you vis-à-vis the [Strategist] situation. Before I get ahead of myself, I think breakfast was very good. Although I notice Lyonette has been cutting down on my syrup rations of late. I would like this rectified.”

“Wh…okay?”

Mrsha raised an eyebrow and scribbled harder.

Okay? Is that a yes or a no?

“Uh—yes?”

Instantly, Mrsha’s quill accelerated.

Then you won’t mind if you sign this affidavit that ‘I, Erin Solstice, agree to a 50% increase in syrup for Mrsha each day, this cannot be revoked ever’? Sign here, ______.

Erin stared at Mrsha. Then she delicately crossed out the proposed agreement.

“Nope. Nice try.”

“Rats.”

It struck the [Innkeeper] then, that, aside from the somewhat crinkled bit of parchment Mrsha was using and the rapid skritch-skritch of her quill, Erin was talking to Mrsha.

“Mrsha! You write so fast!”

The Gnoll girl sniffed in a Pisces-approximation.

“I leveled up! Everyone leveled from the Meeting of Tribes! I. Am. A. [Scribbler]!”

She slapped her chest proudly and then added another note.

“I write fast now. Also, I think I deserve a special cake for my new class.”

It turned out Mrsha had gained that class from her friendship with Satar Silverfang more than the actual battle, but her statement went for all the people who had been there. Erin realized she had more catching up to do.

“I’m so glad you can write, Mrsha! C’mere, you! Now we can talk, and you can tell me everything—”

She cuddled Mrsha until the girl squirmed out of her grip.

“I have to go to my dignified house-visit with Visma. Gire is coming too. We are having tea and discussing scandals. Let me go, [Ruffian]!”

Okay, so there was a bit of adultness to her writing-voice, and she had a lot of Lyonette-ism. Yet Mrsha had a message for Erin today.

“Erin, you should be nice to the [Strategists]. You bullied them all yesterday, and that was bad. We should not be mean to other people. Like rats. Or cute Doombearers.”

“Wh—I didn’t bully them per se!”

Mrsha gave Erin a long look and didn’t even bother writing a reply—she just slapped one of the speaking stones, and a pre-programmed voice spoke.

“Yeah, right.”

That was, apparently, one of the sound bites that Mrsha thought she would be using on a day-to-day basis. Which was fair, because it was Mrsha. The girl pointed at the chess tables.

“You beat them in chess all night then fed them a Faerie Flower drink. You are a meanie. Be sad about yourself. I have to go now. Take care. Think about what I said, especially the cake.”

And then she left. Erin sat there, speechless, as Lyonette took Mrsha into the city on her play-date. Mrsha the Morally Upstanding was lecturing her on bullying and being nice to people?

What a way to start the day. However, Mrsha then decided to come back for a second; Lyonette was having the Thronebearers check for danger, and that was apparently a five-minute process.

Things changed. The girl grumped for a moment, and Erin leaned over.

“I’ll think about it, Mrsha. But you know I’m trying not to let on the you-know-what’s about Earth and stuff? The Titan’s like—the Titan. And even if most people know…”

She was keeping her voice down, because while the inn was still banning visitors in the mornings, there were people who didn’t know everything. Like Ishkr and Liska, the Gnolls—who probably heard a lot from Kevin and the others back when they’d been here. Or the Antinium, some of whom were interviewing for a job! Who probably didn’t care, and Ryoka had told Klbkch and Xrn, the most important two. Or—the Goblins like Ulvama and Gothica. Who—

The point was that the [Strategists] and Niers knowing was dangerous. As bad as Chaldion. Erin said as much to Mrsha, and the Gnoll girl nodded understandingly.

“You make a lot of saline points, Erin.”

“Um, I think you meant ‘salient’.”

Mrsha glared and crossed out that word. She looked around the inn, took a breath, and then gazed at Erin seriously.

Niers might know about everything.

Erin didn’t have a glass of water to choke on, so she settled for her own saliva. Mrsha wrote hurriedly.

Even if he didn’t! You should be nice to the [Strategists] even if they don’t know.

“Wh—why?”

Mrsha stared at Erin. Then the [Innkeeper] saw Lyonette sneaking glances at her as she waited at the door. A Goblin with a guitar poked his head out of the kitchen where he was gathering breakfast, and a Bird peered at Erin down the stairs then jerked back. The [Innkeeper] realized she might have been set up.

And guess who’d lost the game of cards and had to break the news? Mrsha the Bad Card Player wrote a note and slid it over the table. Everyone knew Erin could bluff and evade even Grimalkin, and obfuscation worked. It did. However, there was a point to telling someone the truth, and it was this:

“They might find out eventually. Niers is really scary. He also has lots of armies. It would be nice not to get shot or sieged or eaten by monsters.”

Erin’s mouth opened, and Mrsha slipped out of her seat. She pointedly plucked at her white fur and then moved her paw in a circle around the inn.

Just saying.

Then she left. Erin stared at Mrsha’s back and called out as Numbtongue ducked back into the kitchen and Bird pretended he didn’t exist.

I see you doing this! I know! Don’t you think I know? I was dead! I…”

She caught herself as Lyonette led Mrsha out the door, telling her what a wonderful job she’d done. Calanfer’s [Princesses] did approve of a delicate touch and occasional hammer to the fingers, conversationally speaking.

Erin pushed her chair back from the table.

“I’ve been thinking about it. Really, I have. It’s just scary.”

Numbtongue decided to pull in with Bird as the second wave, just as planned. They flanked Erin at the table, and Numbtongue sat down with a huge slice of pizza.

“What’s harder? Telling people and making allies or getting shot? What is so hard?”

He looked challengingly at Erin as she blew out her cheeks. She inhaled, exhaled, sighed, and glanced at the door where she was sure the [Strategists] would soon be coming in. Time to get back to work indeed. And yes, they were right. Yes, she wanted to do it. She had promised.

Even so, she fixed the slightly grinning Hobgoblin with a stare that made his teeth click as he took a bite of pizza. And she revealed she had been thinking of the issue already.

“Time paradoxes.”

Bird scratched at his antennae. He stood back up, patted Numbtongue and Erin on the shoulders, and nodded.

“That is difficult. I withdraw my objections. Goodbye.”

Numbtongue looked at Erin with his mouth open slightly. Kevin raised his head from a table and stared at Erin over breakfast.

Wht trr fkk. We’re going there?”

He swallowed hard. Erin nodded.

“Oh yeah. We’re already in one.”

The [Mechanic] rubbed at his hair. He pinched himself and looked around.

“Dude. You’d think we’d notice.”

 

——

 

Erin wasn’t a dummy. She might have been foolish, idiotic, and stupid at times, but she could remember.

And what she remembered was the future. Or at least—a few words from it. Which made her wonder about the consequences of her actions.

As she’d laid it out, it was simple, and she took Kevin and Numbtongue into the secret Earther rooms in her inn to show them.

The rooms had gone sort of unused during her death since the original group from Magnolia’s place didn’t need them as a repository of knowledge anymore. Numbtongue practiced music there alone, but Erin had repurposed one of the blackboards.

“I have it on good authority that it’s not a big time problem or we’d all be dead or breathing out our fingernails or something. I think.”

“Did you meet yourself?”

“Um…no. And I can’t tell you what happened because it’s probably really super-dangerous and—”

“That’s cool. I don’t really want more secrets or anyone else important breathing down my neck.”

“Me either.”

Kevin and Numbtongue fist-bumped, and Erin realized the two most laid-back members of the inn were the right call to introduce time paradoxes to. She took a breath.

“Okay. Here’s the thing. I might know about my future. Slightly! I did something, and I think I know what I did.”

Goblinfriend of Izril. Kevin nodded.

“Because it was obvious? Or the consequences came back, Terminator-style?”

“What’s that?”

Numbtongue poked Kevin. The young man grinned.

“Awesome movie. Movies. I’ll tell you about it later.”

“Ooh. Nice.”

Guys.

Erin waved her hands and showed them her project. She had ‘I become GF’ written on the chalkboard on one side and ‘I am Here’ on the other. Then she’d drawn a line and added a bunch of notes.

“Here’s the big event. It’s in the future, but not so far that I’m not too old.”

Or how else would he recognize her? Erin had written up to ten years, tops. She pointed to the end result.

“I didn’t learn…exactly what did it, and I think it was a lot of things that made me become this. So the question is—should I do it again? Because, uh, it sounded like not everything went well last time.”

“Oh. Man, that’s the time traveller’s paradox. So you’re saying that what you did has huge consequences. Like you killed a kingdom?”

Kevin looked worried, but Erin waved her hands.

“No, no! Actually—I don’t think I did much wrong.”

“Wait, what?”

Unlike most time-traveller stories, Erin didn’t actually think Nereshal’s warning applied to her. It applied to, well, him. And the actions of one of the most powerful kingdoms in the world.

Hence her dilemma. Erin pointed at the board.

“I didn’t hear anything that I’d done wrong. I mean—I’m sure a lot of people don’t like what I did, but he—er—the person didn’t tell me I made huge mistakes. And I was alive. So why not do what I did, right?”

Kevin pointed at Erin.

“But you don’t know what you did.”

Numbtongue was rubbing his forehead. His brain already hurt, but Pyrite and Reiss were arguing about the implications. Erin double-pointed at Kevin with finger guns.

“Aha! But I can guess. Because what other-Erin did was something I’d probably do, right? And I actually know what might have gotten me that nickname. Er…”

The Goblinfriend of Izril. Logically, it was something Erin would think of. So she should be able to think of it. Yet Kevin pointed out another problem.

“But you don’t want to do the same thing. You want to…what, warn something? Avert something?”

“Yeah, I can do that. In fact, I’m told I’ll get my chance. However, Kevin. Here’s the thing—since I have that warning, the future will change anyways.”

So there’s no point and this is stupid!

Numbtongue threw up his hands. He went to erase everything, yet Erin stopped him.

“Not quite. If I know the future is uncertain after I change time, I know one thing for sure: what I did worked. And if what I did worked…and if the future is changed, I don’t need to worry about this ever again.”

That’s where she’d been headed after her third straight night of migraines worrying about this. Kevin and Numbtongue exchanged a look.

“…So what’s your point?”

Erin took a breath. She tapped the chalkboard and then drew a second line from her future as the Goblinfriend of Izril to now. Only—this time, she made a little line-break in the center.

“My point is that if I know what I did worked—I’ll do it twice as fast. I’ll do it now. And I’ll think about what I would have done and be where I was faster than the alternate me. Because I was told my future, I’ll figure out what I did faster.

That was how you used a time paradox, right? Erin looked from Kevin to Numbtongue. The young man gave her the gesture of his mind exploding with accompanying sound effects. Numbtongue just stared at the chalkboard.

“You could have just done that without making my head hurt.”

Erin sighed.

“Yeah, try living with that, Numbtongue. I guess…you were right. Mrsha was right.”

He looked up and blinked at her. How did this relate to Mrsha…? Erin wheeled over to the chalkboard and dusted off the formula of confusion. She turned to Kevin and Numbtongue before biting her lip.

“There are…things I don’t want to think about. Or, y’know, do. I made a lot of promises, but some things—aren’t just hard, but listen, guys. Maybe I’m wrong. I mean—I’m just an [Innkeeper]. I don’t want to do something, um, like what Ryoka says she does. Rock the boat. But time travel and allies. So—what do you think?”

Surely if Ryoka Griffin were here, she’d understand Erin’s reluctance to make mistakes. In fact, Erin felt a lot more sympathy for Ryoka’s point of view.

Kevin and Numbtongue exchanged a long glance that Erin didn’t miss. The [Bard] frowned at Erin.

“You just said all that about time travel. Now you don’t want to do…what?”

She raised her hands defensively.

“Listen, Numbtongue. I don’t appreciate the attitude. What I’ve got is big stuff. Like that quest? I don’t want to make more trouble, especially now! After I just un-deaded myself! It’s like—let sleeping lions lie, you know? Let old potatoes…stay in the ground? There’s some kind of phrase, I’m sure!”

They had left the Earther rooms by now and were headed across the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Bird poked his head up from gathering blue fruits to help Ishkr.

“Do you mean…‘let buried Crelers lie’? I have heard this expression before.”

Numbtongue grunted.

“Stupid idea.”

“That’s not what I—Kevin, back me up!”

He shook his head, grinning. Bird walked over, concerned.

“Where are the Crelers, Erin? Why would you let them stay buried? Are there Adult Crelers?”

They rolled back into the common room of the inn, and Bird’s comment made a few figures tense at their table.

“What was that, Bird? Did you just say Adult Crelers?

Yvlon cautiously put down her fork. Ceria sat up sharply, and Ksmvr reached for his swords as Pisces groaned. Erin waved her hands, but Bird answered calmly.

“Erin is letting Crelers stay buried. We are attempting to dissuade her from doing so. Even Jexishe the Friendly Creler should not be buried.”

Pisces’ lips moved soundlessly as he blinked at Bird. The worst part was that he wasn’t even lying yet. Erin threw up her hands.

There are no Crelers! I’m just debating doing something. It might mean people get hurt and—and it’d be my fault! Plus, I don’t know if it’s a problem. We’ve had so much stuff happen…”

Numbtongue poked Erin in the side. She swatted at his finger. But then Bird poked her on the other side. The Goblin-gesture was even copied by Kevin. The Horns looked at each other, and all of them except for Yvlon got up and began poking Erin.

Fine. I get it. Stop it! I’ll bite you!

Red-faced and trying not to laugh, Erin glared around the table. She sighed. Work.

Here was the thing. She didn’t know what other-Erin had done. And the less Erin thought about her alternate-universe selves the better. But there was…well, just as Erin had said, knowing she needed to move meant that there were intelligent conclusions she could come to.

Things to do. And while Erin knew she wasn’t able to do a lot, there was a bit she could logic out. So—reluctantly—she asked for a favor.

“Kevin? I know you have, like, a lot of [Message] scrolls.”

“We can get Bezale to do one for you, Erin. Or me and Pisces can send a public one, just not private.”

Ceria assured Erin, but the [Innkeeper] shook her head. Kevin frowned.

“Yeah, I get a lot of contacts. Why?”

“Do you have…a speaking stone for, um, powerful nations?”

The owner of Solar Cycles scratched at his chin.

“Lots. Khelt, Ailendamus, two Great Companies, uh, Rhir has a funny one, and I’ve forgotten all their passwords—”

“All those nations?”

Pisces’ eyes bulged, but Kevin shook his head.

“Most are just flunkies. I only speak to a few. Like—Fetohep?”

He looked at Erin, and the young woman bit her lip.

“Not yet. W-well, I guess I should [Message] him too. But first? Um. Can you get me one to Nerrhavia’s Fallen?”

Yvlon Byres’ head slowly turned, and she put a hand to her side as Kevin exchanged a glance with Numbtongue. The Goblin began gobbling his pizza, then went to poke Ulvama and Gothica and everyone else to watch more Erin madness.

 

——

 

My Fondest Friend Yvlon Byres…

That was how Yisame’s first missive to Yvlon had begun, incidentally. The first of six since Yvlon had returned to Izril. So that was one every two days.

They were largely conversational, if a bit too personal with what Yvlon thought might be state secrets. She had written a reply to each one and gotten another letter—which was at least five pages long, hand-delivered by a City Runner, and vouchsafed as top-security in the Mage’s Guild by the by—within a day, each time.

That had nothing to do with Erin Solstice, of course. Not at all, and Yvlon decided not to mention this association. For now.

Erin’s conversation with the Nerrhavian representative went about as well as could be expected. She was wheeling back and forth with one hand, speaking into the stone in a too-loud voice.

Solstice. No, not the [Knight] order. What [Knight] order? I’m calling from The Wandering Inn—I know this is Kevin’s stone. Kevin, from Solar Cycles. He lives in my inn. Well, I don’t know how to get in contact with—I have an important message for someone in Nerrhavia, and you want to hear it! Hello?”

“Erin, maybe you should, uh, mention your inn posted the quest?”

Erin glanced up as Ceria whispered to her.

“That’s right. I posted a big <Mythical Quest> the other day! That’s me. From the inn. And I’ve got, um, Gold-rank adventurers in my inn. So—hello?”

Yvlon watched as, possibly for the first time in the modern era, someone was put onto hold. Then hung up on. The [Silversteel Armsmistress] bit her lip as Erin cursed and tried to call back, then Kevin.

“Oh, silver and steel.”

“Yv?”

Ceria turned as Yvlon stomped out of the inn. It only took her twenty minutes at a jog to get down to Liscor, to her destination, and back up to the inn. She even beat the speaking stone that Erin had been glaring at suddenly lighting up.

“Hey! Listen, Chaldion of Pallass is a guest at my inn, and I know that’s not much, but—oh. The [Chancellor of Foreign Affairs]? Um. H-hi. Why are you…that’s me.”

Yvlon pretended to blend in with the back of the room, but she didn’t miss the sardonic look her team threw her way. Well, Pisces and Ceria. Ksmvr just looked intrigued by all this.

The conversation had been elevated fast, and no less than a [Chancellor] from the Court of Silk was speaking to Erin. With a certain Great Sage of Nerrhavia’s Fallen listening in the back.

On a hunch, and not just because the [Queen] had ordered it. Erin took a breath.

She was really not going to enjoy this. She was certain, positive, that another Erin would not have done this. Not now. Oh, the other Erin might have had the thought in the back of her head—but this one?

There were clues Erin had remembered. Not just from the quests. Not just from her knowledge of [Witches] or the Gnomes’ will. There were clues in the levels she’d gained—and not. So she took a few breaths in the [Chancellor]’s ear.

“Sorry—sorry. It’s just—I’d like to ask a big question. Um. You know Nerrhavia? Nerrhavia as in…the Immortal Tyrant? The person who sorta did horrible things until she was killed?”

You mean, the basis for Chandrar’s largest empire, whose name was so hated her enemies formed a nation after her death? Yvlon could just imagine the response. Erin turned red.

“Well I—okay. So, uh…Nerrhavia’s buried under your kingdom, right? Like, her actual bones?”

Yvlon knew that was a fact. Under the royal palace itself, in fact, Tyrant’s Rest. ‘Step on the grave of tyrants’ wasn’t just an expression in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Erin was nodding.

“Right. I know it’s a Named-rank dungeon. Or used to be, because there are traps and stuff. But you’ve got her bones, and your capital was founded on top. Tyrant’s Rest actually has eighteen levels underneath the ‘basement’ that have the palace and your secret v—no, nevermind! What? You must have misheard me!”

She was sweating. So was whomever was on the other line, probably. Yvlon was listening worriedly, her metal hands clenched together. Next to her, Pisces and Ceria were trying not to suffocate laughing.

“Uh huh. Uh huh. Nooooo. That was just a guess—no one told me. Nope.”

Erin was looking around for her lifeline, and no one was stepping in. By now, the regulars had gathered, and Chaldion would be spitting fire that he had missed this. But hey—his colorful range of expressions was more than made up for by Venaz’s slack jaw and Wil silently screaming with Merrik and Peki.

Now they got to it. Erin glanced around and exhaled. She went for it in one go.

“I’m just calling because, uh, what if, hypothetically speaking here, or, um, not hypothetically—Nerrhavia wasn’t entirely dead?”

Instantly, the stone broke into shouting so loud everyone could hear it. Erin held the stone away from her face and shouted back.

I’m not saying I kn—no, I’m not sugg—I didn’t bring her back! Not that I’d know if she was back or—”

The mad girl. The audacity. An undead rat on a window ledge was having trouble keeping the telepathic link despite the mastery of one of the greatest [Necromancers] to ever exist—mostly because of the screaming voice on its end.

That would be bad enough, oh yes. Even the suggestion. Even the warning. But Erin Solstice wasn’t done. She licked her lips and spoke as whomever was on the other side was elbowed out of the way by a Fox [Sage].

“Listen to me. I don’t know. I really don’t. I have no proof that I could show you…but let’s just say the worst came to pass. You don’t want it. I don’t want it. She sounded like a horrible person, and she’d have all the levels and power she had in life. Worst-case scenario.”

In the worst case, they would be ready. They would make a war on the Immortal Tyrant that would make the Blighted Kingdom’s battle against Demons look like a playground spat. It would unite Chandrar, possibly the world.

And you know, the thing about being even two hundred years old, a Necromancer, say, who’d experienced that happening to him on a smaller scale, was that you knew that might happen.

So if Nerrhavia were to hypothetically still be there, it behooved anyone with sense not to recreate her body and disguise her. And learn to control her first. And do something about the attitude and actually hurtful insults.

Perhaps the [Innkeeper] realized this too, because she went for the kill in a way that the Immortal Tyrant would have respected. If she were still ‘alive’, of course. Erin Solstice looked up and met Yvlon’s eyes for a second, purely by chance. Her eyes flickered with a knowledge that made Yvlon’s skin crawl with excitement and dread as she spoke.

“I have something to tell you. Nerrhavia might have the contracts. She might have her levels or—I dunno what. She wasn’t a [Mage] or a [Warrior], and apparently she didn’t even get dressed by herself. Who does that? But if she ever came back, her power isn’t just in her class. You built a palace on her tomb and reclaimed her city after the war. But I think you might know—her real palace isn’t…on Chandrar. Well, it is, but it isn’t. And it’s still around. No one ever managed to get back to it. So, um. You might wanna get on it. Just in case.”

Erin Solstice listened to the quiet, intense voice on the other end of the stone.

“There’re ways to get to it. Do you have a piece of paper and a quill? You’re going to need armies. I can tell you all I know. But…would you like me to post a quest?”

 

——

 

“That wretched [Innkeeper]. What has she done now?”

There was something wrong with the noble lady’s head, but the Drake was having tea with a cortège of her closest confidants. She jerked a bit, glancing towards the window where the [Butler] had brought in the news.

“Perhaps we should have returned anon to the inn, Wall Lady Seele?”

Another Gnoll noble-woman ventured, who had married into the Walled Family in the way of things. Of course, it had been due to the pressures of the Hectvallian war.

Indeed, Wall Lady Seele…of Liscor…was currently gossiping about the affairs of the city. And she pish-poshed the suggestion.

“We have plenty of time, Egrhe. Business does not wait. We must buy, um, fifteen—thousand—pounds of Dwarfsteel. And sell it in Pallass for twice as much!”

This was met by applause from the small tea circle. One of the other Drake noblewomen looked like she was having trouble with the concept, but Egrhe applauded.

“And we’ll make a fortune. Let’s put the money in today! We shall be three times as rich, but we’ll have to beat the greedy [Merchants]. And Chaldion!”

There were some serious nods from around the table. At last, the newcomer had to raise her claw.

“Er…noblewomen. How are we buying the Dwarfsteel?”

“From…abroad. From the Dwarves.”

Seele frowned at this logistical question. The newcomer hesitated. She turned her head delicately.

“Er—and how are we transporting fifteen thousand pounds of Dwarfsteel?

“By bags of holding, obviously!”

“But no bag of holding could do that much. How much is transport and security, and if we brought that much to Pallass, no [Smith] could work it except maybe Maughin. Are we talking about pre-made goods? We’ll crash the market, and we need to store it and—”

At this point, Lady Seele’s offended huffing turned into a claw poking the hand holding Lady Egrhe in the side. Visma whispered to Mrsha.

“Gire’s not good at this, Mrsha.”

Both turned and stared up at Gire as the tea-party of Liscor’s nobility halted for a second. Visma’s doll collection was being shared among six girls of various ages. Mostly around Visma’s age.

Plus Gire.

The giant [Paragon] was larger than all six other girls combined, and Visma’s mother kept staring every time she left snacks out. She was, indeed, bad at playing with dolls.

She kept adding logic in. Visma made Seele snap open a little fan dramatically.

Lady Eisna, we have the matter well in hand! We will be rich! Do not concern yourself with [Merchant] affairs.”

“I’m so sorry, Lady Seele.”

Gire muttered as Mrsha elbowed her. She manipulated her doll quite well. Visma glanced at the ‘door’ in her little courtroom she’d made out of pillows and bits of painted wood. The other girls stared too.

Seele was not a nice Wall Lady. She was rich and had contributed largely to the Hectvallian war, but she had a dark past. A sordid love affair with ten of the other dolls who made up the doll-society the other girls had.

And…Mrsha glanced towards the door as someone knocked three times. The other ladies fell silent, and Seele rose to her feet.

“Who dares to disturb our most noble, fancy party? We are the only ladies of Liscor!”

The door swung open, and a familiar doll-person appeared. Seele gasped.

“You?”

The last doll was worn and a bit ragged, despite the mostly contained environment she had been in for months. The frozen temperature had not helped, and yet…the most precious doll, the little Gnoll, might not have had Seele’s dress, and she was frayed from much love over the years.

But Lady Herna Vissi of Liscor was back. Seele fell back against the cushions, pale-faced.

“You! I thought you were—”

Dead?

The other ladies backed against the walls as the other girls in Visma’s friend-circle watched. Visma put on the best sessions, and she had promised them the event of the year.

Herna stalked into the room as Visma brought her forwards. Gire watched, glancing at Mrsha’s enraptured expression as she nibbled nervously on a snack.

Gire…didn’t get it. She had expected gossip like talking about cute boys or something city-Drakes and Gnolls would do. She did not expect the dagger in Herna’s hand as she pointed at Seele.

“That’s right, Seele. You had me shot with crossbows and buried in the snow. But guess what?”

You lived?

Seele’s voice was trembling. The girls turned to Herna, and the Gnoll noblewoman laughed.

“I didn’t. I died…and I became undead. Now you will join me!

Then she rushed forwards and began stabbing Seele in the heart. Visma was careful not to damage her dolls too badly, but she inserted the dagger in Seele’s heart and put Herna on the seat, facing the other dolls.

“Now, I believe it’s my turn to bring order to Liscor. What’s this about a war? And step carefully, ladies. Or you might be next.”

“You’ll never get away with this, Herna! You monster! Die!”

Another Drake girl, Yesne, broke in excitedly at this point. Visma scowled and whispered.

“Yesne! That’s not supposed to happen!”

“Lady Meera would never let undead live. Her father fought the Necromancer! Die!”

She grabbed the sharp little sewing needle, and Visma pulled her doll away.

“No, you can’t hurt her! She’s too strong!”

“Yes, I can!”

Instantly, the owners of the dolls began arguing over what should happen next as Visma protected her doll from Yesne, who jabbed angrily. Mrsha, who had borrowed one of Visma’s dolls and was debating getting one of her own, took Visma’s side.

Gire, quite overwhelmed, tried to stop the aggressive poking with two paws.

“Hey, maybe someone should call the Watch instead?”

All of the other girls gave her such a look that Gire wavered. However, then, caught up in the moment, Yesne lunged. Visma protected the head of Herna—and the sewing needle jabbed her hard in the center of her clawed hand.

Mother!

Visma wailed and ran as Yesne hid behind the others. She was bleeding from her claw! The needle was in fairly deep, and Mrsha and Gire tried to calm Visma down.

“It’s okay, Visma! It’s not in deep—just let me pull it out—”

Gire had the bloody needle as Visma’s mother rushed in and saw it.

Visma! Did you take one of my sewing needles? What is this?”

The Drake girl sniffed as the appalled mother stared at the needle and took it away.

“It’s my dagger! No, give it back!”

Visma was in tears as Yesne apologized. Visma’s mother Selena, who was normally painting, scolded Visma as the girl held her claw up, showing her the wound.

“Why were you even playing with this? Your doll is murdering Seele? With a knife? Because she’s undead?

Selena gave Gire a look that said that this was normal…and disturbed her as much as the [Paragon]. Which went to show that adults had poor memories of when they were children.

“Visma, I’m sorry.

Yesne was in tears, and Mrsha patted her on the back with the others as she went to apologize. Visma sniffed.

“I forgive you, Yesne—but not Meera! She’s got to be put to death!”

The other children agreed. They looked to Gire, and the [Paragon] thought she had a handle on this situation now. She put herself into character and nodded, lifting her doll up. She cast one claw down.

“I, Lady Eisna, also move for summary execution. Meera will be, uh, strangled with silken cord at dawn.”

She felt like that was fairly reasonable; none of the children wanted to cut off their dolls’ heads even for the best roleplay. But Visma, Yesne, and Mrsha all looked up at Gire and then whispered amongst each other before shaking their heads.

“That’s so evil. Maybe Herna would forgive Meera after all, Visma.”

“I think so. Lady Eisna is too cruel.”

Too…? But she was trying to…Herna had just stabbed Seele to death! Gire looked at Mrsha, and the little girl sighed. Gire was way too into this. She made things too real.

Before they continued the tea party, though, Visma felt at her claw.

Mother! I need a healing potion! I’m hurt!”

There were no bandages nor anything else needed in a regular household. Just a healing potion. However, Visma’s mother hesitated.

“Oh—Visma. It’s just a little poke in your scales.”

Mommy!

Visma looked outraged, but Selena just sighed.

“Healing potions are twice as expensive as they were a month ago, Visma, and the [Alchemist] told me they might get more costly. No is no. Maybe you’ll learn not to play with needles.”

“Mrsha, lend me your healing potion!”

The Gnoll girl obliged Visma with a drop in secret, but Gire’s ears prickled a bit. Potions were getting more expensive in Liscor? She wondered if the fall of the Plain’s Eye tribe and damage to the other tribes had contributed to that. They didn’t have many [Alchemists], but their people were both [Traders] and supplied herbs.

Then again, to Gire’s knowledge, healing potions were easy to manufacture. But perhaps it was also the demand of adventurers or the new businesses like Liscor Hunted. Or the army gobbling up supplies. And yes, the tea party went back to discussing Liscorian politics and voting in their new member. For Liscor was changing even in the world of dollhouses.

“You want to admit an Antinium and a Goblin into our circle? Are you mad?”

One of the girls parroted one of her dolls. Mrsha wrote furiously, and Visma read out loud.

“They’re both noblewomen! They’ll be—ooh! A female Prognugator who’s Xrn’s distantly-related half-cousin’s sister? And a Goblin Lady?”

“I’m not playing with Goblins!”

A Gnoll girl broke character and folded her arms. Mrsha glared. She was going to buy a Goblin doll—well, she’d have to get it custom-made—and an Antinium one too!

“Bina…”

Visma looked at the Gnoll girl, but the black-furred girl pointed at Mrsha.

“You can’t have a Goblin! Even if you have one in your inn—they’re bad!”

Mrsha bridled, but Visma had an idea.

“Bina, Bina! What if you got a Human doll? And then Mrsha could get her dolls? We’ll let more people in.”

The girls thought about this. One of them, who was fiddling with her worn Drake doll, raised a timid claw.

“C-could I get a new doll too? My birthday is coming up. But I don’t want a Human or Goblin or Antinium. I want…a Garuda.

“Do they even sell Garuda dolls in Liscor?”

Visma was agog with the notion. Surely not! But the girl whispered confidentially to the others.

“They sell them in Pallass. I’ve got a reservation for tomorrow, and I’m going to get one made with real feathers! There’s one of Bevussa.”

“Oh, get one, get one! And I’ll get a Dullahan!”

“No fair! I want one!”

Visma stamped her foot and clapped her claws together loudly. She rallied the group as they turned to her.

“We’ll share! But we need to figure out what their names will be, and what their stories are—and who’s marrying whom! We need more dolls! Who has more?”

“Einne, the daughter of the Carpenter’s Guildmaster, has two dozen.”

“I hate Einne.”

“Let’s invite her. Come on, Yesne. We should get a Garuda, a Dullahan—and they can be the nobles from Pallass. Then they’ll come here, and the Goblin, um…falls in love with a Pallassian [General]!

Everyone oohed at this stroke of brilliance. Another Visma classic. Gire rubbed at her head. She felt—instinctively—that maybe it was time to find Ekhtouch again. Mrsha was a great and wonderful friend. But…Gire decided first she’d finally talk to them and tell them to get a price count in other cities and tribes for healing potions. Then they needed to gather, but they should be establishing ties with other tribes, so she’d send a [Message] to Feshi first…

It wasn’t fun, but it beat playing with damn dolls.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice had a hammer, a nail, and a sheet of parchment.

Tekshia Shivertail had a spear.

“Stay away from my guild.”

It was being rebuilt, and Antinium were already working on the foundation—more advanced [Builders] under Hexel himself would finish once a framework was up. That was one of the newer systems in Liscor that allowed work for both groups.

“Aw, come on, Tekshia. I’ll just—I’m not gonna break it twice, and if I do, what’s left to break? Okay—okay! Don’t stab me. How about…the Watch House?”

“How about your inn?”

Erin ignored that. But she never made it to the Watch House, Liscor’s City Hall, or even the Mage’s Guild. A wall of [Guardsmen] blocked her, and a desperate [Mage] threw up a [Forcewall].

“You guys! Aw, man. Do I have to do my inn? I really don’t want to knock down my own walls.”

Even she was apprehensive as she wheeled back to her inn. Lyonette hesitated.

“Erin—if you think it’ll do any damage—don’t post that quest.”

“Fine, fine. I think I can stop it. Geeze, you make one guild fall down and everyone thinks you’ll do it again.”

A crowd followed Erin up the hill. She hadn’t said she was posting another <Quest>, but everyone could tell.

However, did they know what she’d said to Nerrhavia’s Fallen? No. Only the people in the inn knew, and while most were reporting to their friends or allies, you could argue people were still in denial.

As in, they said things like ‘yes, she posted a <Mythical Quest>, but so what? Other [Innkeepers] can do that. She’s an important [Innkeeper], but that’s all.’

The irrefutable proof was when Erin Solstice got a gift from the Titan of Baleros. When you began to add up the events she was involved in, or the rumors about her. Indeed—in the courts of Nerrhavia’s Fallen and to Yisame herself, the question was rapidly becoming not ‘who is Erin Solstice and why do I care?’, but ‘how can I talk to Erin Solstice?’

For she had something they wanted.

Erin Solstice took a breath, put the piece of parchment up, and watched as Ishkr bailed out a window. He landed in the grass, and Apista crawled out after him.

“Oh, come on, guys—”

Aah! Wait! I must run! I do not want to fall to my death!

Bird panicked in the tower, and Erin blew out her cheeks. She raised the hammer and concentrated. Everyone flinched as the hammer came up, and Erin struck the nail.

Tep.

The sound was so small only the Gnolls heard it, and Erin bent the nail sideways. She tried to recorrect, blinking, and hit her thumb.

Argh! My thumb! Hey! What’s going on?”

Erin took a few more swings at the piece of paper and hammered the parchment into the wall a bit. Then she stared at the parchment. She tugged at it and it tore right off the nail. Erin poked at the ink and then looked up at her guests.

“…Uh oh.”

 

——

 

She didn’t post the quest. In fact, Erin was pretty sure she couldn’t post the quest. Which raised an interesting conundrum.

“What do you mean, you can’t post it?”

“I just can’t, Lyonette. It doesn’t feel like it’ll work. And you saw it. I can’t make it…click. Like, you know, I know all the requirements are there and it’ll work? Just like the <Basic Quests>. But this time, I feel like I could post it. It’s just not time yet.”

Lyonette looked helplessly at Kevin, and the young man scratched at his head.

“…The <Mythical Quest> is on cooldown. She probably can’t post one the day after the last one. That’s how things work in games.”

Oh. But Erin could post a <Basic Quest> every hour!”

Erin was nodding. She sat at the table as the other guests tried not to listen in too obviously.

“Yeah, but that’s <Basic Quest>. I never tried <Rare Quest>, but I bet it’s at least a day. And then there’s <Heroic Quest> and then <Mythical Quest>. So…if that’s the case, how long do I have to wait?”

She felt a sudden sinking sensation in her chest. Because she’d just had a thought.

I have a lot of quests I want to post. She didn’t know if it was wise to post them all at once, and she’d been worried about that. Now, it occurred to Erin that the problem might not be if it was wise to hand out too many secrets or goals—maybe she wouldn’t be able to post them at all.

“How long do you think it would take for the <Mythical Quest> to…recharge?”

Lyonette looked at Kevin, and he had no answers. At this point, Venaz lifted his head up from his notebook.

“Let’s confirm a few details, Miss Solstice. There’s a ranking order, and I have it as Basic-Rare-Heroic-Mythical; is that the highest? Are there deviations within these ranks? How do you know about this palace of the Immortal Tyrant to post a quest for it or did Nerrhavia grant you that ability?”

Erin Solstice’s shoulders hunched, and she turned her head slowly. She’d almost forgotten about them.

Wil Kallinad, Peki of Pomle, Merrik Stoneshield, and Venaz of Hammerad.

“Oh, hey, guys. I didn’t see you come in.”

“Miss Solstice. I hope we’re not disturbing you?”

Wil gave her his most polite smile and bow from his seat. Venaz just stared until Merrik elbowed him.

“Ah—good morning, Miss Solstice. I was hoping to have a rematch of chess and then get your take on historical events of the last year. From your perspective. About these quests? I would be happy to explore any nuances of the phenomenon. I am—that is, we are the Titan’s finest students.”

The Minotaur gave Erin his winning smile, and Erin stared at it.

“…Nah. I’m good. Why don’t we continue this discussion in, um, the garden, guys?”

She looked at Lyonette, and Venaz stood up instantly, distressed.

“Miss Solstice! We are accredited [Strategists] and students of the Titan! He instructed us to help you in any way possible.”

“Great. It’s just—you guys give me real Chaldion vibes. So, um. Thanks, but I’ll let you know.”

“Is that a compliment?”

Peki whispered to Merrik. He rolled his eyes.

“What do you think?”

“No…?”

Erin wanted to roll away, but Lyonette hissed in her ear.

“Erin, that’s Wil Kallinad of House Kallinad of Pheislant! Remember what we said this morning?”

The [Innkeeper] groaned. Before she could make a determination on whether or not she cut the [Strategists] into her learning about <Quests>, the door opened.

The bouncers at the door were still the Thronebearers, but they had been at least augmented by the two former Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings, Normen and Alcaz. They were letting in guests and the general public, because Lyonette had decided it was time to start earning money.

There wasn’t the same…rush that Normen vaguely remembered. Oh, there were a lot of lookie-loos who wanted to see what Erin was doing, but they bought snacks and drinks. Which saved Ishkr since the staff wasn’t there, true.

It was actually amazing that the [Head Server] was covering all the tables with Liska and Lyonette’s occasional help plus a few Antinium trainees. Still, that was because the guests were simpler in their desires.

Lyonette was wavering between helping Ishkr and persuading Erin not to flee. The [Strategists] weren’t making it any better—Venaz had pulled over Niers’ chess board and the [Message] scroll.

“The Titan of Baleros is available to talk, Miss Solstice.”

“Mm…okay. But am I?”

The Players of Celum might not be performing, but that was a good floor show, watching Venaz’s reactions. Lyonette found herself serving a Human whom she had never met before.

“Hello! I’m sorry about the slight delay—we’ve just reopened. But I can get your order to you right away. Are you new to Liscor?”

“I just came through that magical door from Invrisil. On holiday. I—oh, interesting. I think I’ll have a ‘blue fruit’ to start with, please. Everyone said that was the unique drink to get. Because it’s poisonous.”

“We make sure it’s not here, sir. And to eat?”

The man looked blankly at the menu.

“Pizza, hamburgers, ice cream, oh, even cake and…”

Lyonette smiled as he ran down the list of new foods—and those weren’t even the complex ones! Yet the finger went down the list of fine foods as well, and he frowned.

“—I think I’ll pass, thanks.”

“Huh?”

Lyonette did a double-take and wondered if she was looking at…an Earther? Another one? But this man was in his forties, and he looked very comfortable in his [Trader]’s vest and attire. He leaned back and patted his stomach and decided, no, he wasn’t hungry.

“Maybe some of your ‘Fireflake Fries’, then. I’ve eaten most of the new foods at other restaurants.”

“Y-you have?”

The [Princess] gave the Human man an uncomprehending stare, and he offered her a cheery smile.

“There’s pizza on option in almost every restaurant. Some of the dishes aren’t on your menu—wonderful spread. But I was just at The Drunken Gnoll, which is one of the eateries.”

Lyonette realized the problem instantly. Imani cooked for Timbor. And she, since The Wandering Inn was closed, had developed a name for herself as the food provider in the much more accessible, safe inn.

Worse? All of Erin’s foods had long since been stolen. The man saw Lyonette’s expression and hastened to reassure her—or try to.

“I had to come to The Wandering Inn and see where all the foods started. The Players of Celum, the foods—it’s a fine establishment. Entertaining. Vintage. Classic.”

That last word sounded like the doom of establishments to Lyonette. She bit her lip, but then put on a big smile and got the food. And then the significant guest walked into the inn.

Venaz was trying to get Erin to play a game of chess in vain—she was giving him a smile about as genuine as his when someone interrupted them.

“Erin Solstice. Might I trouble you for some time?”

Erin glanced up and then blinked.

“Oh! Kiish!

And there she was. [Strategist] Kiish of Desonis, the right-hand of Earl Altestiel, glanced at the students of the Titan of Baleros as they turned and sized her up. Venaz blinked.

“Strategist Kiish?”

He met her gaze, and the woman fiddled with her glasses.

“What a surprise to meet the famous students of the Titan of Baleros. It’s lovely to see new faces in our class. Erin, do you have time?”

She ignored the students as Erin turned.

“Of course, Kiish! I thought you were leaving…?”

“Presently. My work is done, but the Earl wondered if you might spare some time to talk? I have a speaking stone, and I believe he’s free this afternoon.”

Erin blinked. Time for the [Earl] who’d helped bring her back to life? She didn’t see Wil groan and Venaz writing a note to the Titan.

“Of course. Hey, would you like a game of chess?”

Kiish smiled.

“I believe the Earl would like one first if possible.”

“Hey, let’s pull up a board!”

Kiish nodded and then glanced around. She met Merrik’s eye for a moment and then seemed to spot the chess board coincidentally placed on a nearby table. She pulled a speaking stone from her pouch and cued it up as she began setting the board. She picked up the Titan of Baleros and put his chess piece in the ‘king’ spot.

“Earl Altestiel, Miss Solstice is here. Would you like to play a game?”

Her eyes glittered. Erin missed it as she greeted Altestiel, but Venaz had stopped writing abruptly. The Minotaur suddenly wondered if The Wandering Inn was scrying-proof. Probably not. And if it were—he was fairly sure informants and other methods could give you a clear view into the inn.

Peki was the one who summed it up best. She looked from Niers’ gift to Erin having its inaugural game with the Earl of Rains, to Kiish, to Erin, and whispered to Merrik.

“Ooh. Nice cross-counter.”

 

——

 

“So…how’re things, Altestiel?”

“Desonis is technically at war, Erin. Although our forces have not advanced on Ailendamus. We’re watching the borders.”

“Oh, right. The Ailendamus stuff. It looked pretty tough the…last time I heard about it. You know, I really have to thank you.”

“There’s no need, Erin. I only hope that you can visit Desonis sometime. I would offer to travel, but I doubt that will happen so long as the possibility of war remains.”

“I—don’t know if that’s likely.”

Erin Solstice fiddled with a pawn, then moved it forwards two spaces. Oh, it felt like last time they’d met. Dancing on uncertainty.

However, the Earl was entirely understanding. Lyonette was less so. She pinched Erin’s arm and leaned over.

“Earl Altestiel, I pray that you will allow me to visit your estates someday soon. Once I return to Terandria, I will surely call on you if that is acceptable.”

“I would gladly accept, Miss Lyonette.”

Erin looked up, and Lyonette’s face was sad. But she glanced at the Thronebearers and then at Erin. They didn’t have forever.

The young woman sighed. She put her head on the table and stared at the board where her game with Altestiel had begun. Then she saw Kiish, playing a ‘casual’ game with Wil as Venaz watched.

“—Lord of the Dance is also exceptionally glad you made a recovery, Erin. And as I said, if you need any help, Kiish is present to effect it until she leaves.”

“Hm? Oh—I don’t need—Lyonette, pinch me one more time and I will do something.

Erin snapped and heard a laugh from Altestiel. She blushed, then looked down at the pieces they were playing with. She stared at the Earl’s speaking stone.

“Alright, alright. I get it. Lyonette? Grab something for me. One second, Altestiel?”

“Of course. Let me just ponder my move…”

He didn’t know what was going on, so the clacking sounds didn’t make sense to him, nor the scritch or muttering as Erin made Lyonette set the table up. Altestiel had to confer with Kiish, who looked over her shoulder and wrote a very fast reply.

A second chess board had appeared, and the magical pieces looked very familiar. Also—Erin was writing in a [Message] scroll.

 

Hey, is this thing working?

 

Oh snap. The dolls-playdate with Visma and her friends had ended at The Wandering Inn—so Mrsha could contribute some snacks and money to the new doll fund. Visma looked up from sipping from her cup of blue juice and stared at something far more fascinating than the life and times of the Wall Ladies of Liscor.

“Ah, Erin?”

“Oh, don’t mind me, Altestiel. Still your move.”

Erin pushed forwards a knight and wondered if she wouldn’t get a response. But then a piece moved against it, and she grinned. A line appeared on the [Message] scroll.

 

Hello, Erin. 

 

She froze only for a moment as Kiish glanced at the speaking stone and then at Erin’s quill.

 

Is this my mysterious chess opponent?

None other.

Erin: It’s me, I guess you knew that. Are you Niers Astoragon, the Titan of Baleros? Your students said you were, but I’m just checking.

Niers: That would be me, yes.

 

Erin’s only reaction was a slight outtake of breath. Then she moved a piece against Altestiel.

“Sorry, Altestiel. I’m just playing a second game here. What were you saying about the Lord of the Dance?”

“Who? I—oh, well—he’s an old friend. Famous, in his way. As I said, Desonis is doing quite well. I heard about your <Mythical Quests>. Is that new?”

“Yep. I’m trying to figure it out myself. I’ve got a lot of people who want to know everything, but guess what?”

“Er, what?”

“Turns out <Mythical Quests> have cooldowns, can you believe that? I’m worried it might be weeks or months before I can post another one. But hey—”

Erin reached for a cup of water, took a sip, and then looked around the inn. She stared at Venaz as he went to take a long drink and waited until the mug was halfway up.

“—I’ve got <Heroic Quests> for some stuff. And <Legendary Quests>.”

He began drowning on land. Erin winked at Lyonette. Is this what you wanted? Then she went back to writing.

 

Niers: I hope you didn’t find my gift too troublesome. I was at your inn, actually. I wanted to drop by unannounced, but I ran into some troubles of my own making.

Erin: I heard. Wars and, uh, a coup? No, wait, just a war because it was another Great Company, right?

Niers: A former one. It’s not resolved, but the crisis is over. I believe I have your people to thank, actually. I levelled up in the nick of time to gain an advantage. As for the rest—I’m sorry I wasn’t there when it mattered.

Erin: You did a lot. Really, I can’t believe it. Thank you. Is everything resolved?

Niers: There are a lot of dead bodies, and my commander, Foliana, is wounded. Perorn’s in Izril, but she’s resourceful, and I hope you’ll call on her if you need any help. But I’m pulling on threads, and I’ll have it under control soon.

Erin: Foliana…is she Three-Color Stalker? The giant Squirrel-woman?

Niers: Haha, yes. She’s hurt.

Erin: Badly?

Niers: No, she’ll live. Just completely laid up. Hazards of work; she’s been cursed. But she’ll heal naturally, and it’s just a few cuts.

 

At this point, a huge finger poked the Fraerling in the back as a magical eye glared out of a body with a ‘few cuts’ that included a chunk that was missing from her side. But Erin couldn’t know that.

 

Niers: I’m just sorry we couldn’t meet. I hope Mrsha and Numbtongue and Bird are well, along with Gna and the Fellowship of the Inn?

Erin: Did they really call themselves that?

Niers: I heard it once or twice. Say, are we playing chess? You really are the most difficult opponent I’ve found.

Erin: Thanks.

 

She was, in fact, moving chess pieces across Altestiel’s board as well as Niers’, and so she had almost constant time to be moving one piece or another on her side of the board. Altestiel was trying to keep up with the conversation on his end.

“—tribes that left with the King of Destruction might face a hard time on Chandrar.”

“I don’t know about Chandrar, Altestiel, but I hope that they’ll be safe. Didn’t Fetohep take some in? They’ll be safe in Khelt if anywhere’s safe.”

“Ah, yes. Khelt. I heard a few strange rumors from there when you were—incapacitated, Erin. Do you know Fetohep of Khelt, by any chance?”

Erin stared up at the ceiling for a moment, and her lips moved.

“We’ve talked. But never met face-to-face. I mean, maybe my dead body, but that doesn’t count, right?”

“I see. About these <Quests>. I suppose I should tell you my [Queen] and the leading [Strategist] of Desonis would also want to know about them, so I’d need to report—we can do <Heroic Quests>, you know.”

“Really? Get out! What’s the quest?”

“Er—it is to slay a nest of Hydras that we know has cropped up in some aquatic ruins. Highly dangerous; Gold-ranks would need to go in at least. The crown put gold into the [Innkeeper]’s hands to effect the quest, and multiple teams are going to try and complete it. I’ll say one thing about <Quests>—for now, the incentive is there. If only we could keep that enthusiasm going for quests to kill sewer rats.”

“Ew. I guess you’ll get a few takers, but I’m interested to know what the extra rewards are for the <Heroic Quest>. Will you let me know?”

“Absolutely. And you’re sure there will be extra rewards? As in—ones not promised? I noted in your <Heroic Quest> you offered a Skill. Our [Innkeeper] couldn’t, but he did add ‘experience in <Combat> classes or <Beast Management> professions’. As if those were categories. Do you know anything about that?

“Mm. Only guesses. It’s sort of like instinct, Altestiel. I didn’t know I could do that until I was posting it—it’s sort of like the extra rewards. I wish I could say for certain.”

“I really should have stayed in Liscor a few more months. There’s no chance that magic door has been upgraded anywhere near First Landing, is there? The seas are still completely upset, but perhaps Kiish could help you with any issues? Desonis does have the resources as well, and aside from this war nonsense, it’s quite free for time. The ‘Bedtime Queen’ proves that.”

Erin moved a piece across Niers’ board and took a bishop. She was writing and speaking, albeit slower on both ends.

She’s playing them against each other.

Venaz whispered loudly in Wil’s ear as he took a game off Kiish. She might be a higher-level and more senior [Strategist], but there was no fiercer competition than in the academy. Wil grimaced.

“You think she’s pulling the same trick the Professor did?”

“Why not? It’s a cunning move.”

It would be, wouldn’t it? Erin turned her head and stuck out her tongue at Venaz.

“Rude! Hey, you, Minotaur guy.”

Altestiel and Niers replied at once.

“Minotaur? You mean Calruz?”

The Earl of Rains was a bit too innocent. As for Niers…

 

Niers: What is that idiot doing this time? 

Erin: I don’t recall writing anything about Venaz.

Niers: I may have an ear or two around.

Erin: You and everyone else.

Niers: I don’t make a habit of spying on my chess opponents. This is a rare case. The Earl of Rains is someone I’m acquainted with, actually. I hope I haven’t offended you.

Erin: Nah.

 

Venaz looked at Erin as she pointed a finger at him.

“Listen, Venaz. I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. You’re some big student from the Titan’s academy, right?”

“I am a [Strategist] of Minos studying in Elvallian, so you’re broadly correct. I trust I’m not offending you, Miss Solstice. I can be—abrasive, or so I’m told. I’m simply stating my mind. Feel free to correct me; mistakes are the foundation of learning.”

Venaz folded his arms cautiously. Erin gave him a blank look as she twisted in her seat.

“What am I, a teacher? I’m not your mom, either. I’m not playing either Altestiel or Niers against each other. Why would I do that?”

“Because you’d be certain of drawing or winning against at least one? It’s a clever move that some [Strategists] have even used in war.”

The Minotaur had an instant response ready. Erin just blinked at him.

“Yeah. But why would I do that? It doesn’t sound like fun. It’s just to make people look silly or teach them a lesson. Come over here if you want to watch, and you can see. I’m playing no one against each other. I’m beating both of them.”

She cracked her fingers as Venaz strode over. Both Altestiel and Niers were silent for a moment. Erin twisted her neck and winced as it popped.

“Whoo. Nothing like a good game of chess to get your mind moving. Check, Altestiel. Your move, Niers.”

The thing was that if she were writing and speaking at the same time—her opponents were arguably more distracted than she. And they had forgotten that when it came to chess, Erin was better than both of them.

The silence followed by the clacking of pieces was broken presently by Erin herself. She sighed.

“Yeah. I do owe you a big favor.”

Who was she addressing? All eyes swung to the stone and [Message] scroll as Erin covered her writing. She wrote something to Niers and spoke something completely different to Altestiel out loud.

“Altestiel, does Desonis need anything right now?”

He paused.

“Aside from more arable land, protection from monsters large and small, a talented generation, and three dozen enchanted, self-repairing fortresses? We have done fairly well as nations go, Erin. I’m not up-to-date on the minutiae, but we have no glaring issues at this time.”

Erin heard some chuckles from around the room at his response. She smiled and stared down at what she’d written:

 

Erin: I’ll definitely find a way to repay you.

Niers: There’s no need. As I said, I’m only sorry we couldn’t meet and that I didn’t do more. I hope we will be able to speak in person.

Erin: Sure thing. I’d like that too, but I have just one question I was hoping you could answer.

Niers: Go ahead. If you have any questions, incidentally, or would like to test any <Quest> theories, let me know. I have some resources in Baleros, and the answers are worth most effort in and of themselves.

Erin: Thanks. How do you feel about Goblins? I was told you teleported a Goblin tribe to Baleros. What’s going to happen to them?

Niers: Give me a second to think about my answer.

 

Back to Nereshal’s warning and clues from the future. It was conceivable that Erin could have been known just as that [Innkeeper] who kept Goblins safe and treated them well. However…would some important [Mage]—no, arguably the most important [Mage] in all of the Blighted Kingdom know her at first sight from just that?

Erin thought she knew what she’d do. So she spoke out loud to Altestiel.

“Hey, Earl Altestiel. How cool is your [Queen]?”

Now there was a loaded question. The Earl hesitated.

“She can be completely asinine, which is not an expression of disloyalty, just personal preference. And she keeps entirely too many pets ar—hydras!

It sounded like someone had just tossed a pet at him from the clatter and swearing. Then—Lyonette began sweating because it occurred to her that two major powers were probably listening into the casual chess games. She’d told Erin to make allies, make friends.

But even so—the [Innkeeper]’s eyes glinted as she stared out the window at the High Passes. It was a busy day today. Liscor was changing. And somewhere up in those mountains was Goblinhome. A place that at least Chaldion knew about, and which had kidnapped the Healer of Tenbault.

“So she’s sorta cool. Do you think she’d ever consider signing a petition or agreement around…well, I’m getting ahead of myself. I owe you a big debt for Kiish helping me. She’s great.”

Erin smiled at Kiish, and the [Strategist] looked gratified and surprised as she dipped her head. Erin turned back to the speaking stone.

“You said Desonis doesn’t lack for anything except for, like, a dozen magical fortresses. And stuff. I dunno about a dozen. But what about one? Might be sorta wet, though.”

“…What?”

“A magical fortress.”

“You mean the palace of—er—no, a magical fortress?

“Yup. Not belonging to any [Tyrants]. Completely unrelated. I think. Would you like to have one?”

The [Innkeeper] was watching a very long paragraph being written on the scroll when Lyonette seized her arm. Venaz was waving a clear blue truth stone in the others’ faces and shouting in whispers.

Erin!”

“Aw, come on, Lyonette. I’m doing what you wanted!”

Erin gave Lyonette a rare, genuine scowl. But the [Princess] drew her back, whispering urgently.

“Erin! You don’t give fortresses to [Earls]! It’s—historically—very dangerous!”

The young woman gave Lyonette a blank look.

“Okay, then I’ll tell Kiish. She can report to her [Queen] first, and Desonis can use it. But it’d be a load off my mind. And who else do I know in Terandria who needs, like, an entire fortress?”

The [Princess] hesitated and retorted.

“C-Calanfer?”

“Psh, you’re not going back to Calanfer.”

Erin waved that off. The Thronebearers in the room looked at Lyonette, and before she could respond, Visma broke in. The little Drake ran up.

“Miss Erin, do you know where a fortress is?”

Everyone waited on the response. Erin Solstice picked up Niers’ scroll and read what he’d written.

 

Niers: Chieftain Shaik of the Ghostly Hand tribe and most of her people are well. That was a strategic move, and as I think Numbtongue could tell you, I have a different perspective on Goblins. I’m aware they are intelligent, loyal, resourceful, and more. 

My company used to employ them in numbers, and I knew Velan the Kind. So if you’re asking if I’ll trust or harbor them—I cannot. Not again, and not without proof what happened then won’t repeat itself.

Of the many mistakes I’ve ever made, the level of death and carnage he caused is perhaps the greatest. With that said, I’m willing to listen to what you might have to say. Do you know why Goblin Kings rampage against the world?

 

To that, she wrote a simple reply as he held his breath.

 

Erin: Not yet.

 

She looked up when Venaz burst out.

“Miss Solstice, are you actually implying you are intending to give away a fortress? Or that you know the location of one?”

The [Innkeeper] frowned at him.

“I’m just doing my thing, Venaz. I sorta get why Niers has this exasperated vibe with you. You know what your problem is? You’re not adaptable. You need to take lessons from him. Go with the flow more.”

She pointed at Kevin, and Venaz’s head cricked around. Erin clarified.

“I can’t just…give stuff away. But I wonder what kind of <Quest> it is. I don’t think it’s <Mythical>. So yes, I know things. Some of the stuff I know is out there sounds really cool, but we’re fine here, right guys?”

Erin looked around for agreement. Mrsha the Explorer of Fortresses looked up at Erin Solstice with the pain of someone too young to be responsibly allowed to explore for hidden treasure. As for Erin, she nodded to Lyonette.

“There’s not that many hidden fortresses in the ocean or whatever. And I agree, we need to be careful. But a thank-you?”

Her eyes twinkled as she turned back to the speaking stone.

“I’ll send you a letter via Courier, Altestiel. If you want one.”

“I—er—yes? That would be fairly—where?”

“Lemme write it down. Actually, I need a Courier, damn—”

“I know there’s Hawk in the city! I’ll get him.”

“No, me!”

Every guest in the inn was suddenly a Street Runner. Erin turned from the hesitating Altestiel to Kiish. She pointed to the [Garden of Sanctuary] and winked.

I’ll tell you later. Erin mouthed, and the [Strategist] blinked at the sly wink. Erin hoped Hawk might refuse this one. She didn’t think he wanted to be the one carrying a blank letter and dodging everyone across the continent.

Erin Solstice had two edges on the competition right now that no one else knew she had. The first? Her new class, which she had not explored but she knew.

[Witch]. Erin’s eyes flickered as she glanced at Mrsha, and the little Gnoll’s eyes went round. She realized what Erin was going to do.

Cooldown or not—you could make a <Quest> personal. You didn’t have to nail it to an inn at all. You only did that if you wanted attention. Erin winked at the Gnoll girl. Then she spoke to the inn.

“Alright, good chess games. I need some privacy to write that letter. Kiish, maybe you can tell me how I address it? In the garden. As for after that, no more chess, I’m afraid. I’ve got to do some cooking.”

“Cooking, you?”

Lyonette had to sit down as Erin rolled on past with a suddenly very helpful Mrsha pushing the chair. Erin nodded.

“I might, um, be out of gifts in a <Quest> sense. So I’ll send Niers some baked goods. I feel like that’s a nice gesture. Although…darn, I guess I can’t send it unless it’s by Courier, and that’ll take—”

I’m fairly certain he’ll pay to have it teleported from Invrisil.

Wil interrupted, and Erin blinked at him.

“That’s a lot of money. You sure?”

“I think—he’ll take it.”

Kiish stared at Erin, and between Altestiel and Niers, she couldn’t tell who’d won. Then she amended that thought.

Almost definitely—Erin Solstice.

 

——

 

It was rare to see a line of people in a place like this. A shadow slipped out of the crowd and stood, almost identical to the next passing man or woman.

You couldn’t have said, upon reflection, how tall this person was, if they were male, female, or what they were wearing aside from a trench-coat and pants.

They moved through the world as an observer, neither combatant nor defender, sympathizer nor antagonist.

They were here to watch and report. And they were…

“Excuse me. Is this the right spot?”

The next person to walk out of the crowd was a Drake—right up until she pulled the mask off and revealed a slightly sweaty Human woman’s face beneath. The first observer nearly leapt out of his skin.

“What? I’m not anyone you know. I must have taken the wrong—”

“Yep, you’re in line. [Informant]? [Spy]? [Observer]?”

The formerly-masked woman got into line as the generic watcher hesitated.

“[Infiltrator], actually. Not my specialty.”

“Oh, nice. Do you make your own masks?”

“Yep. Want to try this one on? It adjusts to your face.”

Lovely.

The door opened. The group of waiting people heard a voice as a figure flitted out, as quiet as a shadow under moonlight.

“Next?”

For a moment, the [Clandestine Observer] saw the enchanted steel door reveal a big shape. A Golem—steel.

“That’s big security for a new-timer.”

The [Infiltrator] muttered. The person ahead of the two who’d just arrived replied absently.

“She’s already nearly been killed once, apparently. And if she’s got the premium on information—she’ll have a target on her back.”

The [Clandestine Observer] felt at this point like the mystique and subterfuge of his class was being spoiled by standing in line and waiting for the door to open. He cleared his throat.

“I…was told this was the most reliable source. Do you know how long we must wait? I have clients demanding answers—now.”

“Don’t worry, the door’s opening every five to ten minutes at most. What’s your class?”

“I prefer not to say.”

The [Spy] or whomever it was ahead of the [Observer] rolled his eyes exasperatedly.

“Suit yourself. But you know, the blank-man routine gets you killed where I’m from. It stands out.”

Chuckles up and down the line as the [Observer] turned red. The others looked at him with transplanted magical eyes, artifacts, and in one case, a sniff that revealed everything a glance wouldn’t. A Dullahan woman with scars around a glowing bright, blue eye eyed the [Observer]. Her gaze saw everything.

“Red silk underpants? Classy.

 

——

 

Fierre wondered what the laughter was about. But she didn’t have time to waste.

The [Chameleon Agent] who’d entered her shop didn’t like the Golem or being in line, and he was already blending in a bit with her floorboards as he stared at the desk.

It was covered with paper, and Fierre was sorting through it—a mountain of notes, missives slipped under her door, and correspondences. Even if she’d only been away a few months, she’d been sorting for nearly a week.

“Excuse me. Are you—”

“Opener, information broker—I don’t do fence work. I assume you’re here for the same thing as the rest?”

One eyebrow rose—Fierre tried not to roll her eyes.

Spooks like the people waiting for her help were all the same. Runners were pretentious sometimes, often in a hurry and impatient with it, but the covert groups who wanted information loved the cloak-and-dagger mystique.

“And what are the others here to learn about, if that’s free information?”

Fierre grabbed for a toppling stack of papers and glared at the person standing before her.

“The [Innkeeper]. And if you want information on her, you can get a copy in an hour when someone shares what I’ve got. But I bet you’re in a hurry, and so am I, so if you’ll drop the word-games, we can both get back to work.”

“Oh. Sorry. I—what do you have?”

An embarrassed cough sounded, and Fierre mollified her tone.

“Sorry—it’s been a long day. Here are the facts—yes, that was the Titan of Baleros and Altestiel, the Earl of Rains. Yes, she just talked with someone in Nerrhavia’s Fallen.”

“You have confirmation? Are you certain—

The [Agent] was excited but cautious, and understandably so, because a false report would be his reputation on the line. Fierre grabbed something on her desk. A big folder of paper, even illustrations.

“Third page, all reports from people who saw the Earl of Rains here. Watch Captain’s report from Liscor and other cities of his presence. The [Strategists] are the Titan’s students, as you know. I have Mage’s Guild testimonies on the Nerrhavia’s Fallen one from both sides—only Erin Solstice calling in, then a redirect to Tyrant’s Rest. If you’re not comfortable putting that on your authority, I recommend just reporting those facts.”

The [Agent] spent a few seconds paging through the files and reading quickly. Fierre went on, filing more reports away.

“No, she can’t spit blood. Yes, someone stole her body. Note the table of contents and each rumor around her. There’s a ‘true’, ‘false’, or ‘complicated’ and page numbers. Oh—and I’ve included the recent reports on <Quests>. Legendary exists. There’s a cooldown and a hierarchy.”

“This is—exceptionally well done. I can practically send it on as it is.”

The [Agent] was muttering in relief. Fierre smiled and wiped at her arm. It had been worth the bad sunburn and the gold to rush the packet to a [Scribe] for copying. The [Agent] glanced up.

“How much for the entire thing?”

“Six gold. If you don’t like that—”

Six gold pieces appeared on the table, and Fierre swept them into a drawer that jangled happily. Oh yes, she was making a killing.

Information brokering was the Vampire girl’s specialty, even if she’d taken a road-trip across southern Izril and fought in a war. It felt like a bit of a dream to Fierre, but this was reality.

Profitable reality. The trick with hot information that everyone would know was this: unlike a super-secret, which you might sell once and at cost, speed was key to flipping something like Erin’s secrets.

The contents of her information was probably already being disseminated and reprinted right now. However, the other information brokers in Liscor, Pallass, Invrisil, or anywhere else were wasting minutes if not an hour having to re-check and re-print the folders Fierre had.

That meant that in the precious time they had nothing—she had everything. And there were so many high-level agents that needed to answer to their employers now that handing them a folder like this was making her literal gold on coppers.

It did something else for Fierre too, and that was the appreciative look the [Agent] gave her. He hadn’t looked twice around the room, only to check for weapons and eye the Golem. Now, he took a moment.

“What’s the name of this…place?”

He didn’t ask hers, so Fierre gave it anyways.

“I’m Fierre. No name but the ‘steel door’, but I’m going to use the alias of Bloody Secrets. You can find me via the right channels.”

The man nodded and tucked the folder under one arm.

“I’ll remember it and reference you if I need anything. Much appreciated, Miss.”

He left, and Fierre called the next client in. She was running down the same spiel when a letter addressed to her caught her eye.

She hadn’t been in contact aside from [Message] spells, and those were costly, so all this information that she’d had in her office was probably out-of-date and/or only good for someone who wanted all the past information.

But this—this was just addressed to her, so Fierre cracked it open with one finger and cursed. The nervous [Spy] jumped, but Fierre waved a hand.

“I’m sorry—personal information. Oh no. I’m going to be in trouble.”

“Bad news? Something that I should be concerned about?”

The worried Gnoll sniffed, but Fierre shook her head.

“Worse. Family.

She checked the sun outside, but if it wasn’t too late—there was no way in heck she was turning down this much gold! She groaned and decided she’d make it up to them with something good to eat. Or fresh blood or something.

After all. It wouldn’t be hard to visit anymore.

 

——

 

Bird sat in his tower, humming. He was back to the basics. Shoot birds, eat birds, and probably poo birds at a later date, but even he didn’t see the resemblance anymore.

“I am Bird. And my life is back to normal now. There is nothing to be worried about. Cow.”

He sang, and the [Liar] realized he had truly advanced his class.

Because now he was lying to himself. Bird the Hunter aimed his bow at some dino-birds out of range and looked around the Floodplains.

“There are a lot of wagons. Much more than before. And less spiders. And I am so happy.”

“Bird.”

“The wind, it is so nice on my shell.”

Bird, come down here.

“I cannot hear anything but the sunshine on grass.”

Someone threw a rock at him. Bird ducked and peered out of his tower. He stared down at Klbkch, and the Slayer pointed.

“You are summoned to the Free Hive. The Queen is waiting. Xrn is waiting. I am waiting.

Bird, who could form a Unitasis Network, the foundation of True Antinium, stared down at Klbkch. The Centenium could have leapt up there and grabbed Bird. Or hustled him down through the secret tunnels.

However, Bird had screamed the last time he’d done it, and Klbkch was wary of the wrath of Erin Solstice.

And all the spies watching him. Bird looked down at Klbkch.

“The Free Queen said if I ever returned I would be killed.”

“She has rescinded that order. Come down, Bird.”

“I have quit the Free Antinium. I am a free bird. You do not rule me.”

Klbkch twitched an antennae irritably.

“You cannot quit the Antinium, Bird.”

“Ksmvr did.”

“Ksmvr was exiled. There is a distinction.”

“Then I exile myself. La, la, I am Bird. I am going to play in the grass. And if you don’t like it, Miss Erin will be mean. Therefore, Klbkch, as Kevin says—”

Bird turned around and awkwardly bent forwards.

“Kiss my ass.”

He waited, then looked over his shoulder and dove down the stairs just before Klbkch threw a rock and cracked part of his tower. Bird popped back up and shot an arrow, but Klbkch could now catch them.

This is why I need a ballista!

 

——

 

The two Antinium fighting was a sight to see, even by the standards of Liscor. For outsiders? It was like a nightmare turning into a sock-puppet performance. Simultaneously hilarious, confusing, and terrifying.

“Mother. Am I sick or are those two Antinium throwing rocks at each other?”

Perhaps it was a touch of the vapors. It was entirely conceivable, especially because the entire family was garbed from head-to-toe in thick black wool, despite the daylight, and multiple layers at that.

However, the pale-skinned woman who stared at the distant inn felt at her son’s forehead, and the icy chill made her sure he had no fever.

Colfa val Lischelle-Drakle looked around for Fierre for the umpteenth time, but even after seventeen letters, she had not deigned to respond once, nor meet them at the end of their long journey.

Longer still, because there was no way to use the portal door to teleport the six loaded wagons, each pulled by a pair of horses or donkeys, and the herd of sheep and all the other animals heading over another of the Floodplains.

A curse behind her made Colfa look back.

Colfa, the wagon’s stuck again. We need a hand.”

Bamer was glaring at the wheels dug into the grass from all the weight in the wagon. They were off the road, which would have prevented this kind of thing, but almost at their destination. Colfa sighed, but walked downhill.

“You’re getting old, Bamer.”

“It’s heavy. One, two—”

The woman reached down with one hand and Bamer with both of his. The horses, who’d decided to take a break, stared as the wagon, thousands of pounds, lifted slightly and cleared the rut. The two Vampires looked at each other and lowered the wagon to the ground.

“We’ll have to be more careful near a city.”

“No one was watching.”

Rivel, the youngest of the four, assured the rest. He slid down the hill, and the other five wagons caught up. The driver of one of them raised his head and adjusted the thick scarf around his neck.

“Colfa, what did you see?”

“Antinium. Fighting. We could keep going, Himilt.”

“And head to fully Drake lands, past the Bloodfields? No, I don’t think vagrant Humans would be any more welcome than Gnolls were. Here, at least, the land is guaranteed. Or it will be. Bamer, the contracts?”

The old man rubbed at his back, but it was more pretense than anything. He produced a sheaf of magically-stamped documents with a resigned air.

“As good as the last hundred times you checked, Himilt. And this…is it.”

They stared around, and the other riders on the wagons slipped off and gathered on the hilltop. One produced an umbrella; another stooped under the shade of the wagons.

They all had red eyes, pale skin, and elongated canines. Well, pale for whatever skin they’d had originally; one did have dark brown skin, but she appeared to be permanently paler, as if the blood had rushed from her body.

“This is the spot?”

“Look, there’s even a marker.”

All of them gathered around a little sign posted into the ground. It was written in the Drake script, but there was a Human version beneath.

 

Village Founding Site #14, Property of Liscor.

Now claimed by ‘val Lischelle-Drakle’. Welcome to Liscor! Please visit our city at your earliest convenience for help settling in.

—Councilmember Lism, Liscor’s Council.

 

And that was all. If Himilt looked around and stood on the top of his wagon, he could just about see other sites that had been recently colonized—or had a sign indicating a lot.

All of them were the highest hills above the flooding mark, and he’d done his research on the spring rains. Apparently, there had been more structures in the past, but the Antinium Wars had destroyed them.

Now…[Farmers] were coming back. Especially because the Shield Spiders were dead—they saw the grasslands, and for all their slopes and valleys, they saw fertile land. Still, it was a commitment to try and set up new roots here.

But for a Vampire, all Himilt cared about was that Liscor was no Human city. He nodded to the others.

Not just the four members of his family minus Fierre. There were others of his kind who’d joined this long journey. And what a journey it had been.

They had set out from their ancestral estates, and it had sold a month into their trip. Four months of heading south across Izril was a fast pace if you weren’t a Courier. Of course, they hadn’t worried about [Bandits] and monsters as much.

They had sold their home. Sold the home Himilt’s great grand-parents had lived in, and they had been Vampires, so the place was old.

But it was poisoned, and for all every [Farmer], [Herder], and [Shepherd] within a hundred miles had said it was a tragedy and tried to talk them out of it—they had no idea the real reason the Lischelle-Drakle family had left.

The wells were bad. The water was bad. If they stayed—they died.

Here, in Liscor, was the first place Vampires were even considering moving to. And it might be they’d have to go further than that, maybe even leave the continent.

“…But here, there’s a chance. Let’s set up. Someone might notice us and come to greet everyone, so be normal. Bamer, you and I will go to Liscor and check on things.”

The others looked up as Himilt gave orders. He glanced at Colfa and felt a tightness in his stomach.

“…Don’t unpack too much.”

Bamer came with Himilt as they left the hilltop and headed back down to the road and to Liscor. They walked fast, but ‘normally’, and kept their conversation light.

Even so, both were worried. Not just because heading to Liscor would be an answer to whether they stayed.

“I’m told Fierre’s been seen in Invrisil. I think she just forgot to write you, Himilt. It turns out she hadn’t even been there, but in the south.”

“South? We’ll ask after her as soon as night falls. I’m not worried.”

Himilt lied. Bamer shook his head and coughed into his sleeve. It was a bad cough, too deep and loud by far, and he wiped at his mouth. His eyes glinted, and he looked up at Himilt.

“Don’t be. She’s true and free. More than anyone will ever be.”

That was all that could be safely said in the open. But it made them quicken their steps and head to Liscor’s gates. They avoided the inn, for now. The Antinium made Himilt’s skin prickle.

They were as foreign to Izril as Vampires had once been. Yet—he knew some of his people had marched south under Reinhart’s banner despite the risks. If they had come north, the Black Tide would have run into fang and claw and shadows in the night.

He wondered what they tasted like. But there was little desire to act on it there. That was just a habit.

His people had fought the Goblin King, too. When Terandrians made war on Izril, during the battle at the Bloodfields, sometimes, they fought.

They were part of Izril too, even if Izril had long since forgotten they remained. But the north was poisoned to them.

All because of one family. One house. Centuries, thousands of years of work turning Izril into a final trap, an execution by generations.

House Byres.

Himilt forced the emotions down as he walked and waited at the gates. A younger man…a younger Vampire would have had a different reaction to that news. A younger Himilt had far less to lose. Right now, he only craved getting his people out of a place where they’d continue to add poison into their veins.

Liscor…might be that place.

Himilt and Bamer were surprised by the efficiency of the [Guards] at the gates. He was worried for a second they’d ask him to remove his clothes, but they only asked for him and Bamer to remove their caps and scarfs, and unlike Fierre, they wouldn’t burn in the few seconds the Drake took to scan their faces against wanted lists.

“Are you already feeling the chill? Sick? I’d hope you go to a [Healer]’s rather than pass it around.”

“We just dress like this, sir. We’re [Farmers] from far north. About Reizmelt—we’ve come to Liscor to settle.”

That did get the Drake’s attention. He signaled to a Gnoll, who trotted off, and Himilt felt a warning prickle on his spine. But he kept his face smooth as the Drake nodded.

“More [Farmers]? That’s excellent. Well, you are free to enter. We do have rules about goods coming in and out, but the Merchant’s Guild has a list. Do you need directions anywhere?”

“Is there no Farmer’s Guild?”

Bamer frowned, and the Drake almost laughed, then caught himself.

“There hasn’t been enough [Farmers] in Liscor for a guild in ages. There are [Farmers], but they go through the Merchant’s Guild. They’ll have a list. It’s right past Shivertail’s Plaza. Head down this street, and you won’t miss the signs.”

“Thank you, sir. One more question—is the Adventurer’s Guild that way too?”

“Absolutely. Have you seen monsters…? Our Watch can take care of Rock Crabs and mark Shield Spider nests for destruction.”

“Not yet, sir. We find it’s best to know where the adventurers are.”

Bamer reassured the Drake, and the two headed into the city. All things considered, Himilt thought the Watch looked sharper than average. Gnolls and Drakes…

“I feel like I stick out even more here, Himilt.”

“Think of it like this, Bamer. Humans look more alike to non-Humans.”

“True. Ah…”

The slight exclamation was of surprise, because one of the first things the Vampires saw were a trio of huge Gnolls.

Gnolls were already tall, and Himilt was tall for a Human, so he was roughly equal to their height at six-foot-something. But these Gnolls were glossy-furred and giants among their own kind.

Even the other Gnolls turned to stare at the female Gnoll talking to the other two.

“…prices are that high in Zeres? Why?”

“We don’t know, Chieftain.”

“Don’t call me—then buy, um, two hundred.”

Two hundred?

“As much as you can afford with our people. Per city, and don’t go above three gold pieces per bottle.”

“Chieftain, the cost—”

“Do it. I’m your Chieftain—if prices are rising, we’ll bet they rise higher and add to the demand. If not? We’ll hold onto the potions and make a profit either way.”

“How?”

“The new frontier needs potions. Armies need potions. Just—buy them and stop arguing!”

Gireulashia snapped as Bamer and Himilt listened with their enhanced ears, which were almost as good as a Gnoll’s. Bamer nudged Himilt.

“I told you they looked higher. But we don’t need them as much…I wonder why? Mana potions were the same.”

“Probably a shipping shortage at sea. Step left. The strong metal.”

Both instantly moved across the street as a group of Gnolls passed by. They were polite and wouldn’t have crowded the two men, but even the proximity made Himilt’s skin crawl and Bamer sneeze.

“Damn. They were wearing pure silver. Are you sure this is wise?”

Himilt just shook his head. He was getting more and more reservations, but they had one sure check.

“Excuse me. Is this the Adventurer’s…Guild?”

For some reason, the entire guild was a bunch of rubble swarming with Antinium clearing it out and laying a foundation. A Drake behind a counter in the building next to them waved both over.

“Hello! My name is Maviss, how can I help you today? I’m sorry about the mess—our guild is being reconstructed. Do you have an urgent issue?”

“No, Miss. We were actually…wondering if we could inquire after a famous team? A Gold-rank one.”

The Drake sighed, but quietly, and looked around at the copious notes that had been salvaged from the last guild office.

“We can help you. Is this a complaint or…?”

“We were hoping to hire them. If they’re in the area.”

Bamer lied. That was the best way to inquire, they’d found. The Drake brightened slightly; hiring a team by name was always a bit of coin in the guild coffers.

“Which one? We actually have a number of Gold-rank teams in the city…”

“The Silver Swords.”

“The Silver…oh, they’re not here. I’m sorry, they left ages ago.”

“Is that so?”

Himilt and Bamer knew that, of course. You kept track of your enemies, and that lot had gone to Wistram a while back. Bamer looked disappointed and cleared his throat.

“Do you know—if they’ll be back any time soon? We have a long-term contract. A kind of—finding our ancestors’ homes and searching for treasure. Do they often come to Liscor?”

He was wording himself very carefully, because truth spells existed. Nothing he said implied that he was going to hire the Silver Swords, and they did in fact know where older generations of Vampires might have buried something.

The [Receptionist] fussed with her notes, then snapped her claws.

“Why am I looking for that? I can just tell you—the first time the Silver Swords came to Liscor was earlier this year. They’re not common around here, although I know they’re more famous in the north.”

Himilt’s heart didn’t know whether to rise or sink at this. So they weren’t here regularly, which meant the wells might be clean. But if they’d been here once—

Well, they could rely on the groundwater and the rivers. Given the Floodplains’ yearly flooding, it was probably far safer. But Liscor’s wells would inform a lot of their animals and food, even healing potions.

“Do you know if they…”

Bamer began, but Himilt stopped him. They couldn’t just ask about well seeding. The [Receptionist] waited, quill raised.

“Can I send them a [Message] you’re here and might be interested in a request, gentlemen? It’s a small fee, but we lump such messages together for Gold-rank teams, and while they might not see it…”

“No, thank you, Miss. It’s—if they’re only here once, would they be likely to return?”

“Maybe. I think they have ties to the inn. I’m sorry, The Wandering Inn. But aside from that or the dungeon, I don’t know how likely it is. Between you and me—they didn’t exactly come at a good time. They were trapped in the city for a siege, and I heard their Captain got arrested once.”

Maviss whispered confidentially. Himilt blinked. The upstanding [Knight] got arrested?

“For doing what? Starting fights with the Antinium?”

That was Bamer’s guess. Maviss wrinkled her snout.

“I…don’t know. Maybe someone else does. Hey. Selys! Why did that Ylawes Byres get arrested that one time, remember?”

A female Drake speaking to an older Drake, possibly the Guildmistress. The way she held the spear made Himilt’s back prickle with wariness. Selys sighed and came over.

“Hello! Ylawes? He didn’t get arrested, Maviss. You’re exaggerating. He was only put in a cell for about fifteen minutes so Zevara could prove she was serious.”

“Why?”

Selys scratched her tail idly and stared at the makeshift temporary Guild. A few adventurers were watching the two [Farmers] idly—‘ancestors’ and ‘treasure’ had a way of doing that to an adventurer. However, no one came forward to ask if they could take on the request.

Especially not the day-drunk [Swashbuckler] with her head on the table. Jewel looked at Himilt and Bamer and stayed put. She’d learned her lesson.

“Ylawes? Oh—he and the snooty half-Elf, Falene, got arrested for trying to dump alchemical stuff in the wells. Actually, he asked me how many wells Liscor had and started grumbling about not having enough for some weird Human tradition. Watch Captain Zevara told him not to do it.”

Himilt and Bamer listened with bated breath. Did that mean…?

Drakes were very peculiar about public security, and from the sounds of it—the two thanked the pair of Drakes and declined to leave a [Message].

“None or little of the bright stuff in the wells. Flooding—and I’ll be tanning in the summer if I didn’t see some beautiful grass that made the sheep perk up. They’re not huge on herds or farms either, Himilt. We might make some money here.”

The Vampire agreed quietly. He was almost ready to give Liscor a chance. Everything was uncertain, but he was tired of the road, and this was as good a place as any aside from the new world, and there was no telling what dangers waited there.

Vampires could die to monsters just like anyone else. They were tougher, stronger—a lot stronger—but they had no levels. Apart from Fierre, they were not true Vampires.

But one thing was bothering him. And it was the feeling he was being watched. It was the worry that they had given up one threat in the north for another.

Some people still hated their kind, and there were intelligent members of every species. The Antinium were here, and so Himilt sensed the people headed their way before Bamer did.

“Bamer…”

Himilt glanced around, but the street was crowded, and then—they were right on top of the Vampires.

“Hello, is this Himilt val Lischelle—er—[Farmer] Himilt? I heard you were in the city, and I was dying to meet you. Councilmember Lism and Councilmember Raekea.”

Himilt turned around, and a Drake with purple scales accosted him. Himilt blinked as Lism seized his gloved hand and shook it once, and a Gnoll nodded.

“Hello?”

Councilmember Lism of Liscor had appeared himself to greet Himilt—and meet the newest [Farmers] to hopefully supply Liscor with produce. Nothing would do but for him to take them to the nearest restaurant for a meal on the city and tell them about the wonderful opportunities they would have here.

Himilt glanced at Bamer out of the corner of his eye as he was offered a…pizza slice. Bamer tried to drink the tomato sauce and found to his disappointment it was just sauce, but the Vampires didn’t mind free food.

It was certainly a friendly enough city. Even if the Councilmember was pushy. Himilt was just on the fence as Lism gave them a quick tour of the things that no other city had, from the Players of Liscor to the Players of Liscor and mostly the Players of Liscor, because Liscor was not that amazing, when his head turned and he pointed to an odd building next to one of the [Healer]’s.

“What is that?”

Lism glanced over his shoulder.

“Oh, a ‘blood bank’. Damndest idea. It’s sort of an add-on to our [Healers], but we don’t have much use for it right now. Potions still beat it, but some adventurers pay for stale blood to use as bait in traps, so at least it has a point there. Pay it no mind.”

 

——

 

An old age thought long lost was coming again. Or was it a new age?

Both, perhaps. The bones of the old world had never truly been lost, but it had taken the sacrifice of thousands to reach this point.

The Waning World ends, and The Wandering Inn changes, leaving memories that become legend and flame. Flame fades, and even memory is old and dust when the next age rekindles the spark.

Erin Solstice was cooking again. Numbtongue sat like an old man next to the kitchen door. He had no beard, but he stroked Mrsha’s head as she rubbed her furry chin and told the others of the bygone era when Erin Solstice would actually put in effort and do her job.

Shut up, you guys!

Vexed, Erin threw a muffin out the kitchen, and it bounced off the dark contempt for the world that was Gothica’s aura. The [Innkeeper] turned her back and took a few more deep breaths.

“Okay. Thank-you gift. I can do this. It’s gotta be magical, and I’m ready.”

Her eyes narrowed, and then it occurred to Erin—she had no idea what she was going to make. Mrsha slapped her face, and Ulvama, watching with the rest of the audience, poked Numbtongue.

“Why this matter?”

“She makes good food. Sometimes. Magic food.”

“Heh.”

The [Shaman] gave Numbtongue a look of frank disbelief and walked off. However, the rest of the new guests to the inn, the ordinaries, were watching eagerly, like the [Trader], and Lyonette was calling for more snacks. This was the specialty of the inn, and she hoped Erin would live up to expectations.

The problem was, as Numbtongue hurried over to give Erin a pep-talk—Erin was poking a muffin she’d pulled out as inspiration.

“All I know is that Niers and Foliana like muffins. Or maybe she does? He’s, um, small.”

“A Fraerling.”

“Right, so should I make super-small…?

Wil interrupted.

“The Titan can eat more than he weighs in food, Miss Erin. Tailor whatever you want to a normal person.”

Erin jumped and nodded. Kiish spoke loudly as well, elbowing Wil out of the way. She tried it on Peki and got a side-chop to the liver. Amazingly, Kiish still got the words out while holding her side.

“I’m sure…Earl Altestiel…wouldn’t mind anything you were going to make, Erin.”

The [Innkeeper] sighed. As if she didn’t have enough pressure on her back.

“Erin. Just put in effort.”

Numbtongue’s advice got the [Bard] a genuinely irritated glare, and he decided to tag in Imani instead. The [Chef] had hurried up to the inn the moment she’d heard, and Palt was trotting in with Bezale.

“Is it happening? We just galloped up here and…oh, hello. The [Strategists]. Cigar? I have some very fine stuff if you’re partial to…”

More watchers. And for once, Imani wasn’t the person Erin wanted to see. The [Chef] briskly looked around.

“Alright, Erin. Are you making more magical food? Let’s not make sludge. Do you actually know what you’re going to make?”

“I’m fine, Imani. I’ll just…feel it out.”

“That’s what you never do, Erin. You always have an idea of what you’re going to make, or a recipe.”

Exasperated, Imani looked at Erin, and she eyed the muffins.

“Let’s make some muffins. You can think of how to add your magic in. We’ll just start with…”

“Nope. Imani, I know you’re a great [Chef]. But I need backup, not, uh, direction. Because I’ve been doing training. While I was dead. And what I’ve learned is that my cooking style does work.”

Imani stopped and traded a glance of unease with Numbtongue, the [Strategists], who began to fear for their leader’s life, and Mrsha, who was now trying to take herself off the taste-tester list. Imani blew out her cheeks with exasperation and threw up her hands.

“Erin—who cooks blindly and just tosses things into a recipe—”

[Witches], Imani. Haven’t you seen their cauldrons?”

And there it was. Imani stopped, and Ulvama, napping as she balanced a drink and a straw on her chest while leaning back in a chair, cracked one eye open. Erin pulled something out and showed it to Imani.

This is what I’m putting into what I’m making. I don’t know what it is—the form matters, but I know what’s going into it. This.

It was her pot filled with emotions after the outside barbecue. Imani eyed it, because the lid was…vibrating slightly. She gulped.

“How do you cook with magic?”

Erin’s eyes twinkled.

“Don’t worry. I’ve had lessons from the best. You just help me figure out how to make something appetizing—I’ll handle the magic.”

She was rolling up her sleeves when it vaguely occurred to her that not once had the greatest coven of [Witches] in the world ever, remotely, in their timeless lessons of how to practice a [Witch]’s craft…ever suggested that what they made was tasty.

 

——

 

Magical cooking was still fascinating to the guests, so much so that Palt was mildly amplifying Erin’s voice as Lyonette and Ishkr struggled to keep up with demand.

Those two, because the few Workers had to be shown the ropes and Liska was…well, about Safry or Maran-level. However, everyone, even Lyonette, had a keen ear trained to Erin’s kitchen.

Before, she had used [Wondrous Fare] to make food, but it was clear Erin had no idea how it worked and was, rather like a mad scientist, tossing in magical foods and creating, with much trial and error, something that had a beneficial effect.

This time? She sounded like she knew what she was doing, and everyone was curious how you actually put magic into food. Even Octavia drooped into the inn, looking like she hadn’t slept in days.

“We’re making thank-you gifts, Imani. That’s important to keep in mind. Nothing for Altestiel, which I feel sorta bad about, but you can’t split targets.”

“Why not? Just make twice as much if it works…”

“No, no. That’s logical with food. Think magic. See this pot?”

Erin waved around the covered pot.

This is in limited supply, and it’s like, um, Wyvern steak. We can’t waste it. Also, that’s why it’s a thank-you gift. Because this fits the theme.”

The pot was filled with all the emotions from that gathering. Imani was struggling to make sense of it, but she was taking mental notes, and Palt was pulling a Grimalkin as well. Both had the thought that maybe Erin was teaching them where their class might go if they continued levelling.

And if so, they were going to do a better job when it was their turn. So Imani nodded.

“Thank-you gift. It fits with…the emotion? Do you have to do that?”

Erin thought about the question and shook her head.

“I could turn it into something else. Something nasty, even. But that’d be a waste.”

“Why?”

Ulvama had come back, and the [Shaman] stared challengingly at Erin. The [Innkeeper] frowned at the Hob she didn’t really know and replied slowly.

“Because it’s contentment. Happiness. Relief…well, it’s not all nice. Some of it’s bitter or—it’s like a soup stock. It wants to be one thing. And I could turn it into something completely opposite like wrath because it is power, but I’d lose like…two-thirds since I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Oh. The [Mages] got it. Bezale murmured to Palt.

“Sounds like elemental magicore.”

The Centaur shuddered.

“Dead gods, I hope not. She’d kill all of us if it’s anywhere near that toxic.”

Ulvama, on the other hand, just gave Erin a nod, as if she’d passed some basic test. Erin was trying to put it into simpler terms for Mrsha.

“Okay, let’s say you have vegetable soup stock. You could make something super meaty out of it like you would with beef broth, but why would you when it clearly goes well as vegetable soup stock? It takes more effort, and in this case, you’ll get less soup.”

Numbtongue raised a hand.

“Is soup like magic?”

“It is for [Witches]. Doesn’t it make sense?”

It seemed a bit too simple, so Imani pushed Erin slightly.

“Okay, Erin. What are we making?”

“Um…something that can be made in a pan. Like this. I could transfer it, but I don’t really want to try. What’s nice to eat? Any ideas?”

The [Bard] lifted one eyebrow.

“Soup?”

He was kicked out of the kitchen. A thank-you gift was not soup, and soup was very hard to magically transport. Mrsha leapt around excitedly and held up a card.

Sugar! Sweet things!

“Ooh, good idea, Mrsha! Imani, now it’s your turn. What sugary things do you make in a pot?”

The [Chef] was having some novel cogitation here, because Erin was demanding something that was adjacent to cooking—but not quite. It was like playing a game of Scrabble rather than writing an essay; Imani had to run down a list of pot-based sweets.

“Er…melted sugar? As in, sugar glass? I was going to do some of that. Or a sauce or jam, but—”

Erin waved excitedly at Imani.

“Oh! Oh! That’s a great idea! Candy, or a lollipop! But I hate those, so maybe just a candy. Like…gemstones, yeah. Only edible. And I could fill them up with something tasty. You know what I’m talking about?”

All the Earthers had an image of the quintessential candy treat. Numbtongue just imagined eating sweet gemstones and hoped his teeth could handle it.

“Well, I can help you with that. Let’s get the ingredients out.”

Relieved at some direction, Imani began the basics for sugar glass. She didn’t know how to make the exact candies Erin wanted, but she’d done sugar glass for fun before. It was actually very simple, although they had no corn syrup or cream of tartar. Happily, Imani had a few Skills to make up for that.

“[Ingredients Stabilization]. Once we get it into liquid form, that will stop the sugar from becoming crystals. But it won’t have much beyond sugar, water, and whatever flavoring you want—Erin!

They were making a bowl of sugar, water, and what Imani thought could substitute for cream of tartar—lemon juice. Erin had the pot heating on the stove under a mild flame, but she refused to open it to let ‘the good stuff’ out until they were ready to dump the ingredients in.

However, she had already begun to deviate from normal as she chopped up a piece of Sage’s Grass. Innocently, Erin sprinkled it in along with some sweet blue juice.

“What? Come on, Imani. This won’t hurt it.”

“Just—warn me before you throw something in! Once we make the sugar glass, what’s the plan?”

“A…muffin.”

Imani raised the spoon she was using to stir the mixture with dangerously. Erin waved her hands.

“No, listen! A sugar glass muffin! And then we fill it with batter or something nice. Doesn’t that sound cool?”

“It sounds like you’ll cut your mouth to pieces eating a hard shell and then a weird, underbaked interior.”

“Okay. Maybe lollipops or just regular candies. This is why you’re here, Imani.”

“I don’t want credit for this. Literally, don’t reference me in any part of the finished product.”

Erin sighed, but she opened the lid of the pot and quickly dumped in the sugary water. She closed the lid as the pot began to warm the sugar glass mixture, and Imani objected again.

“Erin! It’ll boil way too fast with the lid on! You’ll burn it—you need to be stirring and watching the sugar glass constantly!”

The [Innkeeper] cursed.

“Darn, you sure? The good stuff needs to be in there! It’ll get out! Stay, stay—

She spoke to the pot like it was a dog or something was inside and opened it to stir rapidly, then closed the lid. Imani closed her eyes.

“I—guess you could keep the lid closed, but keep checking! It needs to not heat up fast or it will caramelize. But it does need to get to—I don’t know the temperature. [Burn Protection]!

She pointed at the pot, and Erin raised a hand.

“Alright! [Chef] and [Innkeeper] powers combined!”

She never got an answering high-five. Imani grabbed the spoon.

“Keep stirring. Are you going to taste-test it?”

“You have all these great ideas, Imani. Although…it’s a [Witch]’s brew.”

“So they don’t taste-test what they make?”

“Eh…it’s sorta risky. But hey, that’s what we have volunteers for, right, Numbtongue? Numbtongue?”

 

——

 

It was still fun to watch. Lyonette kept dashing into the kitchen to pull out plates because the guests had flipped on having a dinner.

“I’m so sorry we’re delayed, sir—”

Even with pre-made food, she was having trouble, but the [Trader] waved it off. He looked at Ishkr, balancing eight plates and scolding Liska as he took half the room. Lyonette was the one falling behind. She, like Erin, had no Skills in the field.

“Not at all. Is that a [Preservation] that makes the food so fresh?”

“Yes, exactly! A Wandering Inn specialty! We—I’m sorry, I have to go!”

The man watched as Lyonette sped off. There was no one at the bar, which meant people were waiting for drinks. A Drake leaned on the counter.

“I’ll have a Frost Dragon shot, no bones.”

“A…I’m sorry, one second. A what?”

Drassi was supposed to be the [Bartender], but she’d moved on to bigger and better things. Lyonette, flustered, began to call Ser Sest over, but the Thronebearers and Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings were occupied.

 

——

 

“Excuse me, Miss Erin.”

Ser Sest appeared at the kitchen window and nearly scared Imani and Erin to death. They were watching the sugar, which had come to a boil, cool. It was a very simple thing, making sugar glass.

Erin just made it so darn complicated. Imani leapt and grabbed for Erin—but the apologetic [Knight] simply grabbed a piece of air and began towing it away.

“You may wish to close the shutters.”

The air was yelping and turned into a shadowy figure with a mask on. Erin stared at Ser Sest.

“Wow, those Thronebearers are good.”

Wil Kallinad nodded appreciatively. There was a thump and a brief scream as Normen kicked someone trying to come through the second-story window. The rest of the clandestines decided infiltration was a bad idea.

And they couldn’t come through the front door, either, because Dame Ushar had some kind of ability that meant that the people waiting to get in she mostly admitted—except for every covert operative whom she would politely direct away.

The [Lord] of Pheislant murmured to the others.

“Never challenge a Thronebearer in court. Find him on the battlefield and beat him to death. I think that’s a saying I heard growing up from the Order of Seasons.”

Erin chortled and went back to checking her glass. It looked like it was cooling, but Imani was right.

“Let’s get a taste-test. We can cool down a little spoonful—it should just taste like sugar. Any volunteers?”

She inserted a spoon quickly and removed some syrupy liquid that was deep, clear blue. Apprehensively, everyone drew back, and a little girl writhed in pain.

Even Visma was afraid, but Mrsha looked at the spoon and saw free sugar. Free magic sugar. She weighed this against a burnt tongue or eating something bad and raised a paw. She closed her eyes as Erin let Palt blow cold air over the spoon, then Erin popped it into her mouth.

“Mrsha?”

 

——

 

In a moment like this, everyone stared at the little Gnoll, or the [Innkeeper], or the pot. Which was why, in Shriekblade’s experience, that was when you should drop from the ceiling and behead everyone.

Since that wasn’t what she wanted to do, she looked for anyone about to do that. The Named-rank Adventurer heard a commotion below her, but she was looking out for…well.

The people not even the Thronebearers or the Brothers could find. They were good bodyguards, and Tessa was no specialist. She was a [Rogue], but even the specialized Thronebearers could run into someone much higher-level than them.

If there was someone like that in the inn, that was whom Tessa hunted and killed.

She didn’t think there was, at least, not anyone she’d not already marked. Anyone around her level knew she was in the inn since she wasn’t trying to hide her presence that much. If they tried coming through the second floor window like an idiot, they knew they were risking their lives.

Still, she was trying to prove how valuable she was to the [Princess], so when Lyonette, panting, drew Ser Dalimont aside for a checkup on security, Tessa joined them.

“Only spies, Dalimont? No one high-level?”

“Not that we could find.”

“Me either.”

The Thronebearer nearly drew his sword, and Lyonette muffled a scream as Tessa appeared. As if they’d forgotten her. Well, she hadn’t moved for two days from her hiding spot. Just enjoyed being free of that nagging cloud in her head.

“Tessa! Adventurer Tessa—you’ve been watching? No one’s…come in?”

Lyonette had an eye on Ishkr and the bar. People were waiting for drinks, and Liska was messing them all up. She groaned, and Tessa shook her head.

“High-levels are easy for me to spot.”

“But if they have concealment—”

“I’m high-level. It’s easy for me. Saliss is obvious. He moves too well.”

Dalimont politely nodded, still watching Tessa. She shook her head.

“There’s a lot of Level 30’s in this inn. But I’m certain only three people are above Level 40, including me.”

“That’s a relief.”

Lyonette sighed and then frowned as she had a thought.

“Over Level 40? Is Saliss here?”

“No.”

“Chaldion? Grimalkin, Pelt?”

“Nope.”

“Then who…”

Erin Solstice was one. So was Tessa herself. Lyonette’s first thought was that one of the Horns or another adventurer had reached that lofty goal, or Kiish or the [Strategists], but Tessa thought that they were hovering below that capstone. There were other members of the inn’s family that were pushing Level 30.

She eyed Ser Dalimont.

“He’s sitting in the common room. He’s not hostile. You let him in.”

Dalimont paled.

“That’s impossible. Ushar would notice a [Spy], even Level 50, if they walked up to her—”

“Well. He’s not a spy.”

Lyonette spun towards the common room just in time to see someone stand up and move across the room. Tessa’s claw pointed out the [Trader] as he stepped over to the bar where the angry queue was haranguing Liska.

“No, a Frost Dragon shot. No bones! That means—”

Liska was about to snap back and tell the Human with his worn vest he couldn’t be behind the bar when he removed his vest in one go. It vanished into a bag of holding, and she blinked at the long, white sleeves, deep maroon overcoat, and oddly trim look to his attire. He took the bottle she was trying to measure into a shot, and his hands blurred.

Tessa could stab a man eighteen times before he blinked. She saw the newcomer’s hands move about as fast—only his result wasn’t a dead body but a shot glass, which slid into the angry Drake’s claw.

“Frost Dragon shot. Firebreath Whiskey, one half, Cenidau Frostsip. No bones; no ice. Apologies for the wait. Here is your drink, your drink, your drink—and there appears to be no bourbon in stock.”

Three orders appeared, and the man moved past the bar as the startled customers paid up or sipped at the drinks. Lyonette started across the room.

“Who is that—

She heard an exclamation and then saw him reappear with two dozen orders. This time, the rest of the guests had noticed him, and Numbtongue put a hand on his sword. He stared at the stranger as a floating plate zoomed across the room onto a table.

The ‘[Trader]’ winked at Lyonette and then stepped back as Ser Dalimont charged at him. He side-stepped the [Knight], and as Ser Dalimont turned, a table moved of its own volition and blocked the [Knight]. Ser Dalimont slammed into it, and the newcomer raised his hands.

“Forgive me if I’m disturbing things. I just saw the inn was understaffed and decided to lend a hand. I’ll remove myself if I’m unwanted, but at least let me see what she’s going to make.”

His eyes twinkled, and he stood taller as Lyonette pointed at him. Tessa was still relaxed. Lyonette grabbed her arm, and Shriekblade nearly stabbed her.

“Who is that?

Tessa removed Lyonette’s arm fast and shrugged.

“I thought you knew? He’s not dangerous. The Gold-ranks are more threatening. He’d be annoying to fight since this is an inn, but he’s just an [Innkeeper]. Definitely over Level 40.”

Lyonette looked up and saw eyes like twinkling stars. As if the pupils had a shine. That innocuous man turned, and he had the air like one of the Players of Celum. A pause about him, and then she saw his uniform and that wink. He strode forwards with another wink as the table and chairs moved out of Ser Dalimont’s path.

“Do you need a hand, Miss? The innkeeper’s floor is a battleground, but a [Princess] is outmatched in our territory.”

“Are you…?”

There was one stop along her journey south that the [Princess] Lyonette had wanted to make, but she had been wary of being spotted. Yet it was a famous inn, the most famous in the continent. She looked at the [Innkeeper] and realized—

The competition had come to scope out Erin Solstice.

 

——

 

Erin didn’t notice the commotion at first. She was staring at the pot as it cooled. She was a bit disappointed.

It wasn’t as magical as she was hoping. Oh, it was made well, but she glanced sideways at Imani and felt a bit…annoyed.

Imani was making the cooking good. But good was not magic. It was like a tug-of-war, and Erin felt like she’d lost something.

It’d still do something. And judging from Mrsha’s reaction, it was the best darn sugar glass she’d ever had. She was rolling around, waving her paws at the others.

“Is it good or did she burn her tongue?”

Mrsha was smiling hugely, but she leapt about, doing jump-kicks. She was feeling amazing! It was like a happy rush had filled her from toes to her ears. No, not happy—she felt like she had at the barbecue, but concentrated.

“It’s not one thing yet. See, it’s all kinds of emotions, so I think Mrsha’s getting it unfiltered. I’ll need to change it up.”

Erin sighed as she stared at the pot. It was still trying to remove the lid, and the steam was making it rattle slightly. Imani frowned at the pot and then at Mrsha.

“Is it—are we just making magical drugs, Erin?”

“I’ll try the next—”

Palt backed off as Imani glared at him. Erin shook her head.

“No, that’s not how it works. Think back to the picnic, Imani. How did you feel? It was a relief, wasn’t it? A bit healing? That’s what I’m trying to put into the glass.”

“Oh. Well…I suppose that’s better. So Mrsha’s just getting that?”

The little Gnoll’s antics were beginning to concern the audience. She had gone from grinning excitedly and a sugar-high to suddenly running about and rolling on the inn’s floor. She squirmed, and Erin frowned.

“Hm. Maybe there’s not enough sugar?”

Not enough—

“I mean…that’s a small pot. I needed a cauldron, and it’s not much sugar glass. Maybe it’s too concentrated.”

That was a lot of emotion packed into a little amount of liquid. Mrsha was rolling about, panting. Erin glanced at the pot and hesitated.

Was it vibrating? The heat was off, and the sugar glass should have mostly been solid. But the lid was rattling. Erin put one hand on it to keep it shut…and then she developed a worried look on her face.

“Wait a second. Can you be too full of contentment and happiness?”

The others looked blankly at Erin. She elaborated, feeling something building in the pot. Erin gazed at Mrsha, hugging Ulvama’s leg and kicking at the ground, as if trying to subdue the feeling bursting in her, out of control. Pinch me! I’m too happy!

“Like you want to roll around and cry because you’re so happy and everything is so nice? Like you could burst with…?”

One spoonful had done that to Mrsha. And an entire pot of it was sitting on the stove. Erin felt the pressure rising, and Imani’s eyes slowly drifted down to the very small pot, now trying to contain…she looked at the [Innkeeper] and realized her mistake.

She shouldn’t have been here. She and Palt shouldn’t have come to the inn. Imani had been trying to avert another culinary disaster. Instead?

She was standing right next to ground-zero. Erin lifted the pot, and her eyes went wide. She grabbed it to her chest with both hands and squeezed the lid shut.

There was no steam to release, or gases like from baking soda or carbonation, but the lid was shaking, and the pot was making ominous sounds. Erin looked around and then shouted.

“Oh no! Run for it! It’s gonna explode!”

The observers around the doorway broke apart, leaping for safety as Erin Solstice charged out of the inn. The strange [Innkeeper], Lyonette, the guests, saw Erin rolling forwards, holding the lid shut.

Out of the way! It’s gonna go boom! Push me outside, someone! Hurry!

One brave soul—Venaz—grabbed Erin’s wheelchair and ran her past the guests as everyone leapt from their tables. Erin was halfway out the door when she saw the people waiting to come in, the Thronebearers, and saw her mistake.

 

——

 

Consider the psychology of some [Spies] or operatives ordered to watch the inn. You were already jumpy because Shriekblade was on the prowl, and there were a lot of people in your line of work, and you’d been blocked from entering the inn, which already made you feel outclassed.

Then the [Innkeeper] you were supposed to watch came rolling out the door, holding a pot. She held it up and screamed.

No, take me back in! It’ll kill everyone out here! The [Garden]! Get me to—

A stampede began outside as the door slammed shut. The [Guards] on the wall watched, called in the alarm, and took bets on whether this would escalate. Most veterans didn’t even flinch, to the rookies’ amazement.

This wasn’t even noteworthy unless the top of the inn blew off. Then they’d pay attention.

 

——

 

There was only one place devoid of people that Erin could get to. She made Venaz turn, and the door to the [Garden] opened. Erin prayed that Bird wasn’t in there and threw the pot. It had begun to jerk, and she swore she felt the metal deforming as the pressure reached a critical point.

Too late she realized something. Her concoction of not-quite-finished magical cooking?

She’d just hurled it into the most magically charged room in the inn. Straight at the hill filled with Sage’s Grass. The door slammed shut, and Erin turned her head and screamed.

Take c—

 

——

 

Numbtongue hadn’t really expected much from the pot. It might blow its lid in, what, a cloud of deadly happiness? But he thought Erin was overexaggerating as she tossed the pot.

Then the inn shook. A rumble went through the walls and his feet. He almost staggered, and the guests cried out in alarm. The Hobgoblin decided to draw his sword again.

“What was that? What was—Himilt, a Goblin—

A man was ducked under the table next to another one. Both had faintly red eyes, and Numbtongue thought they were fairly handsome. Nice teeth. They stared at him with a bunch of red jars on the table as the Hobgoblin rushed forwards with everyone else. Erin Solstice had her hand on the door to the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She opened it with a trembling hand as the mysterious [Innkeeper] and the other guests crowded around.

Erin looked into the garden and gasped. Mrsha, recovered from her contentment-overload via the application of mortal terror, peeked around Erin’s wheelchair and gasped as well.

The garden was not a shredded wasteland from the pot exploding. The top of the pot had blown off as the contents were released, free from Erin’s grip at last.

The pot’s lid was still in the air. Bird had seen it shoot out of the roof of the inn and was staring up at it as it soared into the distance.

Pot birds? Why did no one tell me—

But the contents of the pot hadn’t gotten that far. They’d showered up, and now—

They were drifting down. Erin looked up at the failed sugar glass, which had always been too sensible by half. The nearly-cooled mixture hadn’t been able to take that much emotion after all. It had exploded upwards like shrapnel. And that—that was what was drifting down, defying the laws of gravity.

It looked like splinters of glass, some light blue, others flecked with brilliant flakes of currant or rose-red. Shards of semi-transparent sugar, warped like a fragment of wood from the incredible stresses only an explosion could create.

“Sugar daggers.”

Shriekblade gazed up as the magical pieces of glass spun as they fell to earth. Venaz reached out and almost took one, but hesitated. Erin caught one in her hand, and the edges were sharp and nearly cut her skin.

“Wow. Now that’s something.”

“Erin…”

Lyonette was lost for words. Even the foreign [Innkeeper] looked startled as Erin held up her odd creation to the light. What were you supposed to do with this? There was no making regular confections out of this.

Erin had a feeling that the explosion had changed the sugar glass in other ways, too. But she held the piece of deadly, beautiful sugar up to the light, and that was when her instincts twinged.

[Wondrous Fare]. She hadn’t had a plan other than ‘thank-you’ going into this. And as Imani said, that was always a bad idea. Now? Something she’d been told mixed with an idea in her head.

“I know how to salvage this. Hey—grab the pieces of glass! And don’t nibble it! It’s not done!”

Her guests looked at her and then scrambled into the garden to grab the rest before they fell. Pisces pointed and whisked the pieces out of the air around him.

Erin rolled past Imani, back to the kitchen.

“Sorry, Imani. I’m gonna ask you to sit this one out, okay? I’ll ask if I need help with how to make something. Is that okay?”

“Perfectly.”

The [Chef] answered faintly. Erin was looking around, frowning.

“We’ve got strawberries and raspberries, and I guess that’s what jam is. Tomatoes…nah. But what about those glowing red things?”

“Sweetberries? I have some in our kitchen.”

Palt started. Erin pointed at him.

“Get them! I need red! But not just red. It’s—darn. You can’t squeeze a steak. That’s gross, and it’s not good enough. Unless there’s, like, a super-rare on—what’s that?”

She stopped on her way across the inn and peered at something. A pair of men stared back.

“Hello. Do I know you?”

“No, Miss [Innkeeper]. That is—we’re new to Liscor, and we just stopped by—”

Fierre had the worst recommendations. Himilt tensed as Erin pointed to the jars they’d bought.

“What’s that?”

“Er—just—”

Bamer was sweating, but Erin peered at the jars.

“They’re blood. Hey, this is from the blood bank!”

“We’re using it as pest deterrents. To bait monsters and—”

“Can I have a jar? I’ll pay you back.”

The two Vampires, tensed and wary, looked at each other. Imani covered her mouth.

Erin! You can’t be—

Erin plucked a jar of blood up and gazed at it. Her eyes flickered, and she lifted a finger to her mouth.

“Imani, I appreciate it, but we’re not cooking in your world anymore. We’re doing witchcraft.”

Her eyes began to sparkle. She dipped the shard of glass in the jar of blood, and then it really did look like a dagger made of crystal, stained crimson. Say what you will—half the inn was horrified.

The other half? Gothica, Numbtongue, the Vampires, Shriekblade, and certain people with a predilection for the macabre?

They loved the aesthetic.

You should definitely make sure your blood wasn’t nasty. Bring it to a light boil, and yes, it probably ruined the blood-qualities for transfusion, especially if you mixed it with glowing sweetberries and a raspberry paste.

But that wasn’t the point. Erin added some purified water next and let the mixture boil down. Then she had to think.

A pile of super-sharp pieces of magical sugar glass was resting in a bowl. Her sweet blood sauce was closer to savory, but even if she packaged both, something was missing.

You’d bleed for a bite of this. If the sharp sugar didn’t get you, dipping it in the sauce meant blood would be spilled either way. But that wasn’t the theme of this dish. Pain was not. Erin had called upon all the power of that night outside, and it was still there.

What was it? Past the sharp bite of pain, unleashed in the explosion of magic…Erin smiled as she found it.

Some of the pieces of blown glass were hollow. They’d expanded in the explosion and had trapped air inside.

“I need a needle. Or something very fine.”

Apista offered her stinger. Numbtongue offered his sword. Erin decided not to use Pelt’s kitchen knife.

In the end, Erin put on a glove and used an ordinary, super-hot needle to poke a hole in the glass. Then she filled it up with a funnel and dropper from Stitchworks and sealed the hole by melting the glass together.

“Erin—it’s not even my best work—it’s probably stale!”

Octavia wrung her hands anxiously, but Erin insisted. The amount of healing potion was minute, anyways.

“That doesn’t matter, Octavia. The point is that the healing potion was used. And it saved your life, didn’t it, Numbtongue?”

“Got stabbed right here. Good stuff.”

He had given her the half-opened bottle he’d kept from the Meeting of Tribes. Erin barely used more than half of the remaining liquid, and then she looked at what she’d made.

The final thing was a two-fold package. Delicately wrapped splinters of exploded glass, light blue, sometimes so faint it was only visible as you held it up to the mirror, flecked with bits of ruby Sage’s Grass. Some were filled with glowing liquid, light orange or yellow speckled with bits of violet. Healing potion.

But you dipped and drizzled it with a crimson sauce that added to the glow, because it was slightly luminescent. A blood-sauce.

And all of it was sugary, it tasted good, but it was a confusing gift. Nevertheless, Erin sent it off with Wil, and the impatient Titan of Baleros had set it up so that he got it within twenty minutes from Erin finishing the product.

All the [Lord] had to do was get to the Mage’s Guild and let them teleport it. The [Mages] had been ready for the last half-hour; as he’d said, money was no object.

 

——

 

Numbtongue would have paid a lot to see Niers’ face when he received this thank-you present, as would all of his students.

Foliana didn’t have to pay as she saw the basket and jar of sauce, neatly tied together with a ribbon and a card, delivered into the Titan’s room. Niers blinked at the basket and then grabbed for the note.

“What’s…I, ah, it’s very interesting.”

Niers tried not to act like he knew what it was. He had tried not to peek, but he already knew what Erin had sent him. Even so—up close, he stared at a shard of glass as long as he was, and his lips moved when he read the instructions.

“…blood sauce? Does she think we eat people in Baleros?”

“Mm. Maybe it’s because you’re a warlord.”

“Shut it, Foliana. It’s—well, it’s unique. And I can’t say I’ve ever had anything like it before. Yes—extraordinary. And made with magic. I’ll need to cut pieces off. I don’t think I can actually eat it unless I want a mouthful of this sugar glass each time. But I’ll, um…”

The Fraerling paced around the basket, still reading from the card. He was trying to talk it up, Foliana could tell.

She was enjoying this, despite the hole in her stomach. The bandages were bloody again, and she was just glad she wasn’t stuck in the casket. She thought it was a stupid gift if it was intended to be romantic or even much of a thank-you gift.

That was, until she saw the Titan freeze, mid-step, and glance her way. Foliana’s nose twitched.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Give me the card.”

Niers tried to shield it, but Foliana reached over, felt some of her healing wounds tear, grimaced—and snatched the card. It was worth the pain. She stared at the writing, and then the most evil, diabolical smile appeared as she lowered it.

“It’s for me.

Suddenly, it made sense. Niers blustered as Foliana reached for the gift.

“I’m sure Erin got it confused. She probably thought that since you’re technically my superior—Foliana, don’t you dare. It was addressed to—Foliana!

She picked up the first bit of sugar and felt a prickle on her fingers. It cut into her fur even holding it gently. She dipped it into the blood.

“Mm. I eat blood sometimes. Favorite foods. You don’t.”

“I’ve bathed in the blood of my enemies. I’ll eat raw meat if I have to. Give me one.”

Foliana ignored him. She tasted the blood sauce and found it was savory. Then she nibbled at the piece of sugar glass. Then—took a big bite.

For all his bluster, even Niers winced at the first bite Three-Color Stalker took. Because even if she was a Named Adventurer and had been a [Gourmand]—she sliced up her mouth on the glass.

It hurt. But it was only faint cuts, not a sharp pain. Foliana chewed with a faint grimace, then felt something else tingling on her tongue.

The potion inside. It soothed the cuts, and the pain she’d braced herself for faded. It didn’t make the experience of chewing glass any less painful, but the entire treat was symbolic.

The pain was no fun, but it was what came after that made Foliana’s eyes widen and stop. Niers had a moment of panic, because he’d never seen that expression on Foliana’s face.

The gift had been watched from the moment it left Erin’s inn to now. There was no way it was poison or dangerous—unless Erin wanted them dead. But she wouldn’t…

Complacency. He had fallen for a trap, because he’d been blind once before. Niers croaked.

[Healer]. [H—

A paw gently shot out and stopped him from calling for help. The Titan breathed again as Foliana blinked. Then she swallowed.

“What was that? Foliana? What did it taste like?”

For answer, she showed him the card. At the bottom, Erin Solstice had written the name of her new treat. Her invention.

It wasn’t something she’d make much of. It was a very special, accidental bit of magical cooking. Frankly, not even sugar-loving Mrsha would enjoy hurting herself to complete the experience.

But what was the sensation you had when the potion kicked in? What…could Erin distill from that long picnic?

The emotions around her death, the quiet contemplation of all that had been done and sacrificed? She could have drawn many emotions from there. Contentment. Happiness. Grief, even uncertainty or satisfaction.

But what she’d pulled out of the explosion, what she’d decided to make for the wounded commander of the Forgotten Wing Company was something simple. It was written right there in the name:

 

Shards of Relief, from The Wandering Inn.

PS. Get well soon, Foliana! I’ve never met you, but you seem nice.

 

The Squirrel Beastkin reached for another piece of the snack and dipped it in the sauce before taking a bite. Niers stared up at her and, despite himself, couldn’t feel petty about that. He watched Foliana grimace as she ate the sharp treat.

“I know you like weird food, Foliana, but maybe save it for later? There’s no healing potion while you’re cursed.”

He saw her eyes flicker down to him. Foliana stuck out her tongue at Niers.

“Bleh. You can’t have one.”

“I wasn’t saying—just one would—hm?”

Foliana’s tongue was red. Probably from the sauce. But Niers frowned as he saw a distinct lack of the microcuts he was sure were in her mouth. And then his eyes narrowed as she tore open a second crystal and sipped from the nectar inside. Foliana sighed—and then her eyes sharpened. She stuck her tongue out another time, and he saw no cuts.

“Wait a second. Foliana…you’re cursed.”

She’d left a lot of blood, and the [Assassin] she’d failed to kill had kept her from healing from her wounds with curse magic. There was no way a healing potion, especially a low-grade one, would bypass those Skills or the hexes.

Yet Foliana stretched slightly and this time failed to tear open her stomach wound. In fact…she smacked her lips and turned her head to the door.

“Get me a big healing potion. Now.”

A servant ran as Niers gazed at Foliana. Three-Color Stalker took another bite of the Shards of Relief.

“…How?”

That was all he could think to say. He was stunned. The Commander of the Forgotten Wing company, one of the greatest [Rogues] in the world, savored each bite of the sharp thank-you present. And she decided that it was one of the best she’d ever gotten. Amused, she gazed down at Niers.

“Nothing like a [Witch] for breaking curses. There must have been a lot of magic in these things.”

All the magic of a Level 46 [Innkeeper] and her closest guests. Niers Astoragon whistled softly. And the apprehension—exasperation, fine—and a bit of pique he’d been feeling faded into…something else.

He reached for the smallest Shard of Relief, and Foliana flicked him off the table.

“Mine.”

“Foliana!”

 

——

 

Imani knew that nothing would ever be the same. Not because Erin had worked wonders there.

Or rather, not just because she’d done something crazy, dangerous, and magical.

The Wandering Inn would change, because, after Erin sent off the Shards of Relief, after she changed the world in her way, she wheeled herself back into the kitchen and went back to cooking.

“Okay, this time, let’s make them a lot softer. Less sharpness, more…candy. Can we do jello stuff? I think it should be blue. Blue fruits are our specialty! We need, like…what’s jello made of?”

“Gelatin? We actually have some, Erin. You would not believe how we got a source, actually.”

Imani watched as Erin poured a new base into a pot. She’d lost all her witchy-magic, so she was back to [Wondrous Fare].

That was enough. Erin poured a mana potion into the pot in lieu of water. Far less sugar, a bit of gelatin…she hummed as the guests calmed down outside.

“~~ Sugar glass, sugar glass. Put a bit of mana in it and it’ll be done in a flash! And taste like—”

Mrsha and Bird waited for her to finish her song, but Erin hesitated. Numbtongue tried to say what rhymed with flash, but Lyonette covered his mouth.

Unfortunately, Mrsha figured it out. She was still rolling about and giggling silently as Erin tried to work the quickly cooling sugary ‘glass’ into what she needed. This time, it was a lot less sharp. But she was trying to pour the cooling mixture into something other than a pan.

“I need—perfect circles! Spheres! But hollow! Is there a mold I could use or something? Tiny spheres! I’m making candy!”

Kevin raised one hand.

“Take two half-circles and put them together. There’s gotta be something circular in the inn. Maybe just use shot glasses if you have to and, like, cut then glue them together. Any [Carpenter] can make a tray.”

Erin pointed at him.

“Kevin, you’re a genius.”

“Um. No, it’s sorta basic shapes. But thanks.”

It took Erin nearly an hour in the kitchen. In truth, she took that long because the first batch wasn’t enough, and she made copious mistakes. But small ones, like overheating her mix, then figuring out how to extract the hardened, resinous candy without breaking them or the shot glasses into pieces.

Erin decided she needed to order custom molds like Kevin said, but got the second batch to work with a bit of oil coating the glass so she could pop it out when the mix was done.

Then she had two semi-transparent light cyan semi-spheres which she could glue together, carefully, carefully. Erin muttered as she put the last of barely ten candies on the table.

“Okay, I need to put them together, seal them—with a bit of heat—and then bore a hole and fill them up. Each. Wow, this is too much work. I quit! I’m out!”

Exasperated, she tried to wheel away, but Mrsha tugged her back. Erin grumbled.

“…Fine. How about some blueberries? Also, I need Sage’s Grass and, um…what else is magical? You know what, blue juice and Sage’s Grass might do. It’s not going to be the biggest thing ever, right? Get me more mana potion and…you know, it needs something else.”

“Dreamleaf extract? I’ve got—”

“Palt, I will stab you! How about some honey?”

Even then, the filled circular candies were missing something. A bit of the razzle-dazzle. Erin thought they were fairly magical, but even if they were far less involved than the Shards of Relief…she pursed her lips.

“It’s not magic-y enough. Octavia? How do you make something super-magical? Pisces? Ceria?”

Three of her friends looked up, and each replied with a different answer.

“Kill something even more magical and use its parts. Or soak it in magical bases for months.”

“Uh—put it in the center of a magical leyline of some kind? Or a small focusing ritual?”

“Bury it in a graveyard for a century?”

Erin looked at the three and pointed a finger.

“…Ceria. Ceria’s our person. Pisces too, sort of. Even Octavia.”

“Yay, me.”

The [Innkeeper] pointed at her [Garden of Sanctuary].

“What we’ll do is—we’ll bury these in a little jar. They’ll stay good, especially if it’s airtight. We just bury it around the Sage’s Grass and pull it out after a few days or a week or more. And tada, more magic! But these will probably do as prototypes. Wanna taste?”

She offered them around, and since they looked decent and nothing had gone boom this time, her guests all took one and thoughtfully chewed or bit it in half.

They were sweet pieces of sugar glass that had a bit more give than pure glass thanks to the gelatin. And if you decided you didn’t want to wait for them to dissolve, you’d get a burst of honey and blue juice in the center.

Delightfully sweet. Ceria put three in her mouth and got the ire of everyone else because that meant only seven were left. Mrsha sucked on hers happily. Yep, this was pretty good! Then she frowned and produced her wand. She made a big ball of [Light] appear.

“Mrsha! That’s wonderful! Did Gire teach you that?”

Mrsha nodded absently. She felt her hair lifting on end and then glanced at Erin. The [Innkeeper] waited.

“Well? Do you feel mana-full?”

“It’s like…a weak, weak, weak mana potion.”

Octavia chewed on hers thoughtfully. Erin beamed and clapped her hands together.

“Yes, exactly! I call it—mana balls! No, mana orbs! Orbs of mana! Mana…magic…”

“Mana Candies?”

Palt removed one from his mouth and decided this was the best mana potion he’d ever eaten. The regular mana potions? Sometimes he did think if he kicked up a ball of dirt and added it to the mana potion it would taste better.

Erin agreed. She explained to her test group the theory behind her Mana Candies.

“So what you do is you eat it. And it’ll slowly release mana, hence the shell. And inside is, like, more mana concentrated. I think kids’ll love it and [Mages] too. Best of all, it’s not the hardest thing to make, and I don’t need to gather stuff like for the Shards of Relief. What do you think, Bezale?”

Erin tried to include the Minotauress into the discussion since Montressa was gone and Bezale looked left out. That turned out to be a mistake. The [Spellscribe] folded her arms.

“…So it works exactly like a mana potion? Except it’s less potent, you have to wait a bit for them to fill you, and they’ll go bad unlike mana potions, which last a long time if the bottles are sealed.”

The reproachful look Erin gave Bezale made the Minotauress relent a bit.

“…But they taste sweet.”

“Yep. Not like that’s cool or anything. Not like I just made some lovely candies that anyone can eat. I don’t see anyone else selling candy. See if I make you a candy cane come Christmas. I could even do cool shapes, but too bad it’s only slightly magical.”

Erin sulked as Mrsha patted her on the hand and glared at Bezale. The Minotauress closed her eyes.

“I’m sorry I don’t enjoy sweet things that much. Will they have more effects if you bury them in the ground for a while?”

The [Innkeeper] sighed.

“Nah, probably not. They’ll just restore more mana. They’re really just treats and stuff. I think it’ll sell? It’s a Wandering Inn-exclusive, though! Imani can’t make these without [Wondrous Fare].”

“Oh no, whatever will we do, dear? She’s running us out of business.”

Palt hugged Imani dramatically and planted a kiss on her head. Erin rolled her eyes, but everyone was chuckling in relief. Erin nodded as she noted the recipe down.

“Just ordinary mana candy restoratives. But you probably don’t get mana burn from these.”

Ceria slowly stopped chewing on her huge mouthful of candy. She narrowed her eyes. What, as in the conundrum of all [Mages] when you drank so many mana potions you were incapable of replenishing your magic without poisoning yourself? Bezale froze and turned back to Erin.

“…go on.”

 

——

 

The Wandering Inn was filled with cheers when Erin Solstice came out with the mana candies. Lyonette went around the tables, telling everyone that they’d be a regular on the menu in a week—and they’d keep for another week!

Maybe they wouldn’t be an adventurer’s new standby, especially since they would grow stale, but they were useful and the first of new magical foods. The Wandering Inn was back!

Erin Solstice was back, and people were marking her name down. Not in the same category as the Titan of Baleros, but if there was a map for people, not places, hers was on it. And The Wandering Inn got its own spot on regular maps.

Individuals in Izril and elsewhere that had never bothered to look into a few coincidences sat up and marked her name. They looked into her background and began factoring her into their plans. As an obstacle or ally. She could be either, and if she were an enemy—well, at least it was proven that she had a weakness to being shot.

Which, to be fair, was most people’s. However, the proof of this was in none other than the man who greeted Erin Solstice in front of all the tables he’d helped serve with Ishkr. He looked like a performer, an [Actor], and a [Waiter] all crossed together.

“Erin…this is…”

The [Innkeeper] had been cooking all day, so she’d barely left the kitchen. She blinked as the man offered her a bow.

“No way. Are you an [Innkeeper]? Like Timbor? You’re…high-level.

“Miss Erin Solstice, my name is Barnethei, and I must apologize for the subterfuge earlier. I came to Liscor last week and did a tour of the city. My inn is The Adventurer’s Haven in the north. I wonder if Liscor has heard of it?”

Erin’s brows shot together. The Adventurer’s Haven? It sounded so…

“Erin, that’s the most famous inn in Izril! It’s up north, close to First Landing! This is—”

The highest-level [Innkeeper] in Izril. Or was he? Erin felt a similar level of—intensity from him. She felt he could do amazing things, and certainly, he could make dishes levitate, and she suspected that was only a drop in the bucket of his talents.

Yet he wasn’t more than her. In fact, Barnethei gave Erin a deep bow.

“I’m afraid your [Princess] is mistaken, Innkeeper Solstice.”

Lyonette started and looked around hurriedly.

“I’m not a—”

Mrsha, Numbtongue, and half the guests rolled their eyes. Yes, yes. Skip that part, would you?

The other [Innkeeper] nodded to Erin.

“I should be clear. I am a Level 41 [Vice Innkeeper]. I was sent here to see The Wandering Inn, and I am glad I did. It may be slightly understaffed—but I can see how it earned its reputation. I will report back to my boss.”

“Your boss?”

His eyes shone, and the [Innkeeper] nodded.

“I am her second-in-command. The Adventurer’s Haven is a large establishment. The highest-level [Innkeeper] on Izril is over Level 50. She was an adventurer of some acclaim back in the day. I was sent here to see Liscor’s finest. She will see you soon, Erin Solstice.”

He took a bow, and Erin Solstice saw him smile like a challenge. Competition? Lyonette looked at Ishkr and Numbtongue and Mrsha, and the Gnoll girl folded her arms.

Well then. Bring it on. Erin Solstice stopped Mrsha from offering Barnethei fisticuffs. She smiled uncomprehendingly.

“I’d—like to meet her. Is she going on vacation or something? We’re sort of far from First Landing, even by magic door.”

For answer, the [Vice Innkeeper] just smiled widely.

“Not to worry. We’ll come to you soon enough. It’s been a long time since The Adventurer’s Haven has gone far—but our inn moves.”

He saluted her and stepped out the door as Erin Solstice’s jaw dropped.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I hope you found this chapter salutary. I feel a bit—discombobulated. Which, I know, is not encouraging for the start of my writing month.

But in fairness, I just finished a 46,000 chapter for The Last Tide Pt. 2. And that was a fight. I actually took my break to recharge since it was so hard and I realized it wasn’t just burnout or fatigue—sometimes chapters are hard to write.

I had to go back to my roots, and outline heavily. Plan ahead—I think I had at least 7,000 words in my outline or more. I think it wasn’t bad what I got out, but big chapters are hard.

This one was more spontaneous, but I have been planning ahead for Volume 9, and so parts are ‘pre-written’. I know the scene. For instance, in this chapter I had actual parts of dialogue written around Erin making the Shards of Relief and mana candies. I knew that the Vampires were coming to Liscor, so I added that with no pre-written notes.

Planning is hard. Keeping secrets is hard. But you know what isn’t hard? Joining the sweepstakes for free merchandise. If you didn’t see the huge…obvious…picture at the top of the page, what were you doing? Hit the link, take a look, and join in! I’ll let you know more, but I’m excited to announce it.

That’s all from me for now. Thanks for reading, check out the giveaway, and vote in the Patreon poll! It should be up right with this chapter. See you next time! Hopefully no chipmunks. Did I tell you it came back? Pro tip for rodents: don’t hide in the dryer. It was…sad. That particular chipmunk will not be coming back.

 

 

Giveaway, Defenders of the Cave, Troll, and more by BoboPlushie!

 

Shh Erin, Gire and Mrsha, and Pie Relc by pkay!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/peekay

 

Tok by LeChatDemon!

 


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72 thoughts on “9.03

  1. Leave a typo for new stuff! Mana candies! Merchandise! Moving inns!

    (Movable readers: MrWiggles, Quynin, Litwickee, Gorexn, Robb, Dillon James Mills, Linnet Melody, Maladal, joe, Murmur)

    • Agreed. Vanaz’s question about implying higher ranks is jarring. I’ve re-read the context a couple times and it feels like there was some dialogue of Erin’s that was either supposed to be there or got edited out to elicit that comment.

    • Hostone or Stoneshield
      Which one exactly is Merrik surname?

      Chapter 9.02
      “Merrik Hostone, of Deríthal-Vel, ___

      Chapter 9.03
      ___ Peki of Pomle, Merrik Stoneshield, and Venaz of Hammerad.

    • “Alright” -> “All right” x5

      Not really typos:
      “Chaldion? Grimalkin, Pelt?”

      This sounds kind of like Lyonette is asking Tessa about Chaldion abut asking Pelt about Grimalkin.

      “She had ‘I become GF’ written on the chalkboard on one side and ‘I am Here’ on the other.”

      I keep reading GF as “girlfriend” even though I know what it means. I’m surprised that Kevin didn’t read it that way too.

    • Yes she did, but remember that the Rare Quest was about bringing the Antinium Soldier, Antherr Twotwentyonethree Herodotus (Crusader 221-3) safely back.

      Erin had posted first the Mythical Quest and Heroic Quest, and then the Rare Quest for a couple of reasons, one of which was to distract the majority of people to focusing on her and the Quests, instead of Antherr.

      In here she lied so that no one ask what was it about or remembers it, for Antherr safety.

  2. The Innkeeper Wars have started :O

    Barney and the Adventurer’s Haven are clearly tired of their boring lives!

    Chasing excitement, not knowing what the excitement is orbiting.

    • Honestly, it wasn’t the same atmosphere because the first 2 chapters were dealing with the end of V8. Maybe Erin wasn’t as physically disabled, or the atmosphere as tired, but I still really enjoyed it. Maybe she is just mostly “over” being down like the start of V7 with her blue “sadness” flames?

      • I think it was because I expected us to see the chess games between Erin and the titans students. See their thoughts and Erin grappling with her thoughts on what was going on. I did not expect that jumpcut witch made Erin seem less mature after the chapter about her doing emotionally challenging things. Felt like a random rollback on character development.

  3. An Inn that wanders around? Oh, I see, Erin was actually the decoy protagonist this whole time, and now the real main character is going to show up. XD

  4. Wandering Inn… Because of course an Inn that Wanders was in the works. Take that random NPC that questioned the name of the inn!

    Also will it be chicken legs or something more stable like floating magic or wheels?

    Still got to love the exploding shards of glass candy that can cut curses… And then sugar potion orbs for any mage near the inn.

    • Oh and also the other [innkeeper] probably took Erin posting a mythic quest and the ability to make a legendary quest personally. After all before they were the top inn for ight before this new commer who isn’t even a year old just swept in trying to take the number 1 spot in crazy innkeeper stuff!

      Of course the new [Innkeeper] has to respond to that challenge that Erin made (without her knowledge)

  5. Bezale might enjoy less sweet magic food maybe a coffee cake or dark chocolate maybe sour? when Erin learns about the beans it blue coffee time she has to invent it! like if she roasted the bluefruit seed after drying could be a new coffee type! They are different coffee beans after all!

  6. Now why would someone send a scout down from First Landing looking for competition? I’m not too sure, but a part of me suspects that the highest level innkeeper in First Landing doesn’t level up by the same ways that Erin does. I suspect that their inn travels to compete with other high-level inns, and by out-performing the competition, they gain experience.

    At least, that’s my suspicion. Why else would the innkeeper in first landing care about moving into the same town as someone thousands of miles away? It just doesn’t make sense.

    • I would be disappointed by this. I hope it’s not really someone looking for competition, just someone looking for something new. The owner was an adventurer, so maybe it just that side of her.

      • I actually think it would be nice. There would be a competitive and adversarial mini plot to go through, which I think TWI could use. Not every threat the characters face should involve the fate of the world and life-or-death scenarios. Having a smaller-scale challenge show up would be a great start to Volume 9. It is just a hunch though.

      • Not only an adventurer, she was a Named Rank. So her [Innkeeper] class is almost certainly some odd class consolidation with whatever her adventuring class was.

        No way she made it to Named Rank and then got to over 50 in [Innkeeper]. Just like there is no chance she made it to Named Rank as an [Innkeeper].

        • If she did and her Adventurer and Innkeeper class are seperate, then her adventurer class would be only at most lvl 10, since that would put her at lvl 60. Of which we know that the combined levels of classes is what you’re actually at and the more classes, the harder it is to level (since their combined levels push you further and further towards that cap of 100 (soft or hard cap, we don’t know).

          Honestly surprised this hasn’t been discussed more since Ryoka, Krishia, Klib and all the monarchs of nations know about this and why it is important to stick with one class.

          Also the fact that barely any in the world make it to lvl 60 with pretty much no one in the current world making it to 70 (with the exception of the necromancer at lvl 80… or so it is to be believed).

          So yes, it would be safe to assume that the lvl 50 innkeeper is a consolidated class if they were a named adventurer before that.

          …..that is unless Pirateaba forgot about all this leveling stuff themselves………

          • I think Niers has it wrong…maybe.

            I’ve thought a bit about this.

            On one hand the Quarass has shown us that knowledge of class consolidations is a thing. So as long as your classes will consolidate at some point collecting other classes aren’t an end game issue. You can even get a level hit with a consolidation which, as a mini-max build is what you want. Relc for instance probably picked up 2 level 30 capstone skills, [Triple Strike] and his Spear Dance.

            On the other hand if you go the class consolidation route your level acquired Skills can be pulled from the pool for any of the classes you’ve acquired. Rags, for instance, could get a Skill for [Scavenger] which probably wouldn’t be hugely useful to her.

            Foliana probably consolidated [Rouge] and [Gourmand] as some point which explains her odd food related Skill

            So by not branching out in clases Niers, while lowering the volume of Skills he’ll acquire, is assured that they will all be relevant.

            If it were me, and I had the resources to do it, I’d start with a level 50-60ish consolidation and work backward.

          • Remember that everything we know about combined levels of classes counting towards leveling difficulty comes from Ryoka making things up based on almost no information. Klb provided some confirmation of it but I really doubt there’s enough data out there to say it’s strict addition. We’ve seen people consolidate some pretty high level classes together and they haven’t suddenly spiked massively in leveling speed afterwards. It would be very hard to get a good baseline because there are so many variables.

            And the level 100 cap is 100% speculation by Ryoka with absolutely no basis besides it being a round number.

    • I don’t think he’s moving to liscor, I think liscor is a pit stop as the inn focused on adventurers travels to the biggest adventurer hotspot in the world right now. the new land

    • Boredom?
      Once you pass level 50 you probably don’t need to work or level, and if you have no cause, you might come ro crave entertainment.

      Competion angle is the most likely, but it might be more to learn new tricks from as many innkeepers as possible rather than to humiliate other innkeepers. The [Vice Innkeeper] seemed fairly friendly.

      A competition for customers could help Erin get closer to level 50 in her main class.

  7. This chapter was downright therapeutic. I am a big fan of the wars and spectacle and intrigue that the Wandering Inn has developed over the years but it is stuff like this, the more wholesome victories and heartfelt moments that really keep me coming back like an addict.

    I may have missed it in Volume 7 but did anyone ever eat the shadow bread that Erin made? I keep waiting for someone like Gothica to find it.

  8. Ceria is going to have the largest mana pool in the world after microdosing on mana candies until she explodes

    • That is a good point, those might be a way to safely do that and you can give them to children without any ill side-effects. Liscor had a mana problem and Erin might have just fixed it with candy.

  9. Erin returning to form, and throwing half-a-dozen nations into a panic wondering what on earth she knows of under Tyrant’s Rest, and whether the Titan is somehow involved.

    And time to see what a Level 50 Innkeeper can do. Though it’s odd that the Vice Innkeeper is so close in level, unless they were hired whilst already higher level. That or they must do most of teh day to day running, and levelling whilst over level 50 must be hard.

    • My guess is they were part of an adventuring team and stuck together as they transitioned from adventurers to innkeepers. Both of them probably consolidated their classes.

  10. I still feel the Mythic and Legendary ranks should be flipped.

    To my mind, Mythic quests would be far more exotic/transformative and push the bounds of what is understood. For example, the legendary city of Troy and Achilles’ mythic deeds done there. Finding one: amazing. Evidence of the other? Watershed. Nothing is the same again.

    • I had to think about this a bit, but I like mythical below legendary here.

      To me, mythical is is more focused on magical powers and acts of ancient gods. In Innworld, that’s just normal history. I would say legendary would be something no one has ever done before. Mythical is something that is impossible without extreme magical intervention. In our world, Mytical is higher, in Innworld Legendary is higher.

  11. Did anyone get the ‘almost’ wheel of time intro?!

    The Waning World ends, the Wandering Inn changes, leaving memories that become legend and flame. Flame fades, and even memory is old and dust when the next age rekindles the spark.

    Good reference. WOT is my favorite read. TWI is my second.

  12. “The Waning World ends, and The Wandering Inn changes, leaving memories that become legend and flame. Flame fades, and even memory is old and dust when the next age rekindles the spark.”

    THAT WHEEL OF TIME REFERENCE OMFG!!!!
    Amazing. Love it

    • Is it? I tried reading the book but got confused in the first few chaps and gave up pls gemme a bit of spoilers to know if it is worth it.

      • “The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.”

        It’s 1,000% worth it. In between other series I go back to WoT. Whenever I reach the end of the saga I just go right back to the first one and start reading again.

      • Do it.

        The advice I give people is to usually skip the book 1 prologue (but read it later!). It’s a different character in a completely different time period then the rest of the book. It’s super interesting, but only after the world has been established.

  13. This sentence does seem right… It doesn’t flow right, and the second “from” should be deleted…
    “She’d left a lot of blood, and the [Assassin] she’d failed to kill had kept her from healing from her wounds with curse magic.”

    If the “left” is changed to “lost”, it sound better…
    “She’d lost a lot of blood, and the [Assassin] she’d failed to kill had kept her from healing
    her wounds with curse magic.”

    Or if you changed the “had kept” to “used it to keep”…
    “She’d left a lot of blood, and the [Assassin] she’d failed to kill used it to keep her from healing her wounds with curse magic.”

    Just saying, Pinworthy

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