9.07

Another day dawned over The Wandering Inn, and a few people started their day in very different ways.

The sun was welcome these days, if only because the fall was getting cold. Cold enough that Lyonette had gone down to rekindle the fireplace in the hopes that it would warm up the inn. She’d doubled up on her blankets—and grumpily stared at the snoozing Mrsha who, furry and warm, hadn’t been affected by the night chill.

Picturesque. That was how the moonlight playing over purple, orange, and green grass looked. A foreign landscape for Earthers—or even for those not local to this area.

Pisces Jealnet was up before the sun began to chase the moons into the distance. He placed a mostly-untouched Faerie Flower drink on the railing of Bird’s tower.

It was the only place to really stare out at the landscape aside from your window or the roof, and he was fairly sure the occupants of the third floor would hear him walking about.

Now that he was here, Pisces understood why Bird spent all his time in the tower. It truly did have an unparalleled view of everything.

A beautiful night until dawn. Pisces’ eyes were tired, and he thought—now that he’d spent so long awake—he might finally sleep the moment he lay down.

Of course, he couldn’t. Pisces flopped into his bed, lay there for twenty minutes, then got up and spent another hour in the pre-dawn light filtering down from the High Passes.

He wondered what Cawe would have thought of it all. Greenery without end, water aplenty—far too much of it. When he had described it in their brief chats, she had claimed that was what any rich nation was surely like. And had been so disappointed to hear Liscor was not that rich. A Chandrarian Garuda had thought of water as unto richness.

Had she gotten to see it, in the lands of the dead? Maybe just for a few minutes.

From Chandrar to Baleros, then Terandria. No, she hadn’t made it to Izril after all. But she had visited more continents than he. All while being pursued by…what?

Erin hadn’t told him. She had looked him in the eyes—and never said the names. When he had pressed her, angrily, she had said only this:

“I can’t tell you. You’re not ready.”

That had been the angriest Pisces had been with Erin since…well, since that evening at the Adventurer’s Guild. It had not been a pleasant evening. Even now, it seemed, every second he could hear Erin whispering the words. Pisces felt as if Cawe were saying it.

“Tell Pisces I kept you out of their chains.”

He was watching her die. Only, instead of Igheriz, it was—what? Some monster that even ghosts feared? Why would Erin not tell him?

More questions, and he had thought he knew all the big ones, such as her world. Now this. Was he relieved?

The young man didn’t know. His head was empty and overfull, fixated on that single sentence and unable to focus on anything else. If there were anything he was grateful for—

It was that Igheriz had died twice.

He had told Erin everything. She knew his story already. Another unhappy realization—that Cawe had told Erin all of what passed. Yet the [Innkeeper] sat there, leaning forwards in her chair as they sat by the fire.

No one was allowed to disturb them that night. Pisces had seen his friends watching, but he and Erin had talked. It was not the relief he had hoped for. Some of it was—but other parts just brought the nightmare back.

“What of Riqre? Did he die twice?”

“He wasn’t there.”

So, no. He wasn’t ready to fall blissfully into rest. Pisces was going to be shorter on sleep than before. For a while. Yet the [Necromancer] was already trying to figure out how to tell his friends what had happened.

And he would. If only because, at the end of their talks, as Pisces demanded to know who had killed Cawe, Erin had turned to him and made him a promise.

“It’s the kind of thing where the more people who know, the more dangerous it is. The kind of secret that hurts people. Once you reach Level 50—I’ll let you know.”

Only she could be so…upliftingly aggravating. Pisces snorted as he took a light sip from the Faerie Flower drink. That seemed to bring memory clear, but not take him into visions or delusions.

“Level 50. She says that as if I will reach it within a decade. One supposes I have been holding myself back from levelling purely by inclination. She says it—

He ducked his head.

…With that aggravating surety in her gaze. Just when you thought she didn’t trust you or was supporting you in your fallibility—she looked as confident as the rising sun that he’d do it.

The [Necromancer] rubbed at his eyes as the first rays of light fell over him. Dawn. The earliest risers would be getting up. He saw a few birds rising and flitting about. Pisces raised his cup to a glowing bird—a Creona Flashbird, blinding its prey or predators.

“To the greatest [Pickpocket] in—twang.

An arrow shot past Pisces’ hand. The [Necromancer] saw the Flashbird dive in a scream—then a flash of light. When he could see again, Bird lowered the bow.

“I have missed. Wait. What are you doing in my tower? I am Bird. This is my home. Are you replacing me?”

The Antinium peered up at Pisces. The [Necromancer]’s mouth opened as he saw the alarmed bird flying away.

“No, I was merely enjoying the view. Pardon me, Bird.”

“You…were in my tower? Enjoying my view? Do people go into my tower when I am not there?”

Bird looked unaccountably upset. Pisces grimaced as the Antinium stared around as if searching for tower-assassins ready to leap into his abode.

“I assure you, it was a one-time affair.”

“Affair? With my tower? What have you been doing here? I know the meaning of the word affair. You will not put one on my head. Or over it.”

Dead gods. Pisces fled the aggravated [Hunter]. Bird looked around, then checked the door to his tower.

“I need a lock. People can just wander into my tower?”

 

——

 

Pisces Jealnet practically stumbled into his rooms, where he did fall asleep almost at once. Because of that, he missed the only other occupants of the inn awake at such an hour.

The Thronebearers and the other security.

Erin Solstice, even Lyonette, weren’t pre-dawn risers. The Thronebearers traded off by inclination. Shriekblade, Tessa, napped during the day and was often the nocturnal figure stealing food from the cupboards that had scared Mrsha to death when the Gnoll girl tried doing just that.

The sight of a Drake perched on the kitchen counter, eyes glowing slightly by moonlight as she stabbed a piece of cake with a knife—well. Good little Gnoll girls weren’t going to be stealing that cake anyways, were they?

So the nocturnal stay-awakers were in a different category from the real pre-dawn risers. Even with [Twofold Rest], it was a choice; most of the inn’s inhabitants just got better sleep than usual. Six hours of Erin’s inn giving them rest put them ahead of people who lived with only six—or four—or two hours of sleep each day.

A lot less midday naps required was the point. Only two goodfellows got up with Bird. And those were Normen and Alcaz.

What a strange time to be alive. Normen rolled out of his comfortable bed, and that wasn’t new. The Brothers had comfortable beds. They had lovely hideouts. They even had a generous hand with coin if everything was going well, and you couldn’t ask for more than that for a fellow who made a rough living.

—Or so he’d thought. But ever since tendering his partial resignation, Normen had discovered the joys of civilian life.

Namely, the feeling of sleeping in your own room, not a hideout, and that when you stepped outside, you might not have a target on your back.

Of course, he was now worried about someone putting one between Miss Solstice’s shoulder blades or on the lovable tyke, Mrsha, or the others. Yet guard-duty was not…being a Brother.

They’d thrown him a party. Just drinks and good company in one of the finer restaurants, and they’d all gone to one of the cheaper plays by the Players of Celum. Normen had been privately waiting for some…comeuppance for quitting the Brothers.

But they were an honorable lot, and the Gentlemen Callers had spoken up top. Mostly, Normen had learned—he and Alcaz had already been marked as dead. After Crimshaw had died and the chapter in Invrisil had taken so many casualties—anyone following the Tallman into a war and fighting Belavierr was probably dead. He couldn’t argue with that one.

Crimshaw deserved this. Normen stopped shaving with a bit of alchemical cream and a flick-knife. He stared into the mirror and around his room.

Not better than the Brothers’ hideouts or other accommodations he could afford. He’d earn far less than he might in a big job. And safety?

The inn was famous for being attacked. Normen had done the math on who might die in another Witch of Webs attack, and he was fairly certain how the first line of defense—himself and Alcaz—went. Yet there was a different feeling to this.

In the Brothers, you would get the call. One moment you’d be tipping your hat to a lady or gentleman on the streets, doing business in such a way that even the civilians didn’t look too afraid around you, although their kids were never present—the respectable ones with homes, that was.

The next? You took off that hat. And in the moments when your blood felt like fire and your heart was all you heard as you swung a club into someone’s face—you knew you’d be dead or breathing blood and relief in five minutes. And it was a coin toss on which it’d be.

Not a bad life. You could make it a while, and as Crimshaw had said when he vouched for Normen—sometimes a fellow stands for something. No [Slavers]. No harassing old folks or the worst of what could be done in the name of making coin.

You slept soundly in the Brothers.

In The Wandering Inn? Normen…rested.

“G’day to you, Alcaz.”

“Fine morning for it.”

The two Brothers greeted each other as they left their rooms, practically within moments. Not verbally—they mouthed the words and tipped their hats.

They were still Brothers. For now—it was all Normen knew, and he hadn’t lost the class. He was a [Courteous Mugger]. A man with a plan that involved hitting you until you lay down. He hadn’t consolidated his classes, though he had leveled up no less than five times in his adventure. Being in the Titan’s company and hitting [Soldiers] in battle did that.

He absconded with himself downstairs first as Alcaz prowled the upper floors. Normen didn’t go into occupied rooms, but he did go into unoccupied rooms. He’d do a circuit, check a few items, maybe straighten a chair, and leave.

He wasn’t a [Rogue]. Countering invisible foes was a hard, hard job. But Alcaz had a few tricks he’d shared with Normen.

They couldn’t use Seeme Dust or other expensive tools the Brothers would employ—not for long-term guard-duty. But a bit of dust just so meant that you could see it land where you sprinkled.

If someone were under the bed, for instance, even if they had a cloth mask so they didn’t sneeze, Normen might see the tiny bits of copper and silver mixed with the dust vanish or drift onto the invisible figure. Whereupon his foot would then connect with whomever was down there.

Was it necessary? Well—no. After four rooms, one of the Thronebearers emerged from a room she was checking and nearly ran into him.

“Oh, Miss Ushar.”

“Er—Ser Normen. Are you—checking rooms?”

“I…might have been insofar as I was having a walk about, miss.”

Embarrassed, the Brother tipped his hat, and the Thronebearer, Dame Ushar, gave a knightly bow. Both looked slightly askance—it was unprofessional to be caught out.

“What’re you using?”

“Just—grit and metal dust.”

“Oh. We have anti-invisibility charms, and we’ve been employing dust. Are you the reason why our [Trigger Runes] record recognized visits each day? We thought that was Shriekblade.”

Normen was entirely embarrassed. He hadn’t even seen the runes that Dame Ushar showed him. Not hidden in the doorjamb or anywhere on the floor, which he would have guessed. She flipped up a floorboard and showed him one written on the underside.

“That is—amazing work, Miss—I mean, Dame Ushar. I didn’t even notice it was altered. Do they teach magic to [Knights]?”

“More like runecraft for the purposes of defense. Each squad assigned to bodyguard has one magic-capable member. That’s me. We do still use dust, and we check glass for prints. But, er, if you are using silver, you may wish to switch to ground copper.”

“Why?”

“One of the guests—Miss Fierre—was complaining. Apparently, she is slightly, um, allergic because of an alchemical makeup she uses.”

“Oh. I see. Well, I shall tell my colleague, Alcaz.”

“If you wish to keep checking—”

Normen tipped his hat slightly and bowed.

“I can see when I’m outclassed, Dame Ushar. If I were one of the trickier fellows—I am not.”

The Thronebearers were good. Better than he was, and that embarrassed Normen to no end. He began to see why the Gentlemen Callers had encountered such difficulty.

They were not bodyguard experts. The Thronebearers were. Mind you—if it came to a fight, Normen would take the Hobgoblins over any one of the [Knights]. But if they were guarding the inn, what was his job?

He might have agonized, like Wilovan and Ratici, but Normen and Alcaz’s relationship was different. They were hired. They were—in no small way—part of the inn, not on contract.

Besides, Normen had found he had a lot to do day-by-day. So he decided he might do less rigorous sweeps per day as he headed down to the next part of his new routine.

And this—this was something the other Brothers had pestered Normen to get them. He was still in contact with his friends. There were a few, uh…in Liscor now, and he’d heard some might be heading south.

Which was an interesting development any [Guardsman] or Watch Captain would be really, really unhappy to hear about. But even the Brothers were in envy of one thing that Normen and Alcaz now had free access to:

The weights room.

Grimalkin had made a manual with pictures depicting how to use each set of weights after a few injuries. Alcaz was doing deadlifts as Normen strolled in and removed his jacket.

“Did you run into the [Knights] as well?”

They spoke, now that they were far enough from the guests to not wake them up. Alcaz shook his head.

“I fear I upset that Bird fellow. He was in a bit of a spot when I came into his tower, demanding to know if I was, er—fornicating with the woodwork?”

“Mildly hilarious, Alcaz.”

“I almost shat myself trying not to laugh, Normen.”

They smiled, because that was funnier than laughing. Then Normen began to lift. And he did enjoy that.

Dumbbells, bench press, deadlift station, and—Grimalkin kept trying to add more features, like some kind of compress for your legs and stretching bands. He hadn’t worked out how to copy some of the things he had been told about, but what he did have?

“I feel like I’ve gotten stronger. Maybe it’s my balance. I started at barely a hundred and sixty, you remember?”

Normen panted as he pressed the bar straight up, and Alcaz held one hand under the bar as he worked the other arm with a dumbbell. The other Brother raised his brows.

“Lack of balance.”

“Right you are—but even so.”

He was now up to two thirty-five, and he felt like he wasn’t at his ‘max’. He could do fifteen, though he had to stop after eight and then do them in smaller bursts. Sweat was already beading on his forehead as he switched stations.

“Ah—wait a moment.”

Erin Solstice was not in gym-management. But even she had begun remembering habits and routines from home. Alcaz caught Normen, and the Brother decided this was a day for embarrassment; he’d almost forgotten to wipe down the sweaty bench.

“Next—how do you do the plank-thing? I put my arms here—my legs here…”

Normen balanced over the two blocks as Alcaz offered to put some weights on his back. The other man refused—but he might accept in a week.

He felt like these weights were onto something. Every Brother, even the tricky ones, could move a knife fast and hard, but most, save for Wilovan, didn’t show their sometimes-surprising strength. Crimshaw had appeared to be a normal fellow, though his bulky jacket had gone some way to making him seem less formidable than he was.

Alcaz…felt like he was on a path towards defining his arms and legs and the alleged ‘core’ of which Grimalkin had so much praise for. Then again—the food also helped.

Consider why the other Brothers were envious when Normen described his lifestyle. After some light paranoid reconnaissance, he worked out for thirty minutes to an hour in the pre-dawn air. He might go to the bathroom, then for a walk around the inn, mostly just to take in the fresh air.

A fellow could rinse himself off with the well outside or schedule a trip to the bath houses later that evening. Yet just as he was getting hungry, the other occupants of the inn were up and there was breakfast.

“Normen, Alcaz? You’re up? Of course you’re up. Would you like to try Erin’s Bulkup Bisque? She just made it yesterday.”

Both Brothers looked up, and instead of a hearty breakfast of regular food, they found two delightfully-smelling bisques in front of them.

They had not known the inn’s poorer cooking, and Lyonette’s look of reservation was completely unfounded. One bite and Alcaz was trying not to move his spoon too fast.

“This—this is exquisite for breakfast, Miss Lyonette. Is this truly alright for us to have?”

The [Princess] was astonished.

“You’re employees, so naturally! Also, we need a test-crowd, and I saw you two in the gym.”

“Oh, if we were—”

“No, I was hoping you might tell me how effective this is! It’s supposed to make you stronger. It’s not…bad, is it? It’s mostly meat.”

“What kind?”

Alcaz was warier after hearing this was the magical food, but Lyonette reassured him.

“Wyvern meat. We needed strong, magical meats, so it’s Wyvern tendon, some bone, Corusdeer venison—muscle—some clotted cream, gumtree bark—that’s an alchemical ingredient, but it’s very edible! Makes the soup thick. And Weaverspider Silk, some beets, and—”

Normen felt like she skipped over an odd ingredient in the middle of her list, but it tasted fine. Before he was even done scraping his bowl, he felt…lighter.

When he went back to the weights room, he lifted the same weights bar in the bench press so fast he nearly clocked Alcaz in the face. The two Brothers looked at each other—then began to destroy the records list on the gym wall.

Lyonette clapped her hands together in excitement and relief.

“It works! How do you feel?”

“As if I could put on more weight. This won’t wear off suddenly, will it, Miss Lyonette?”

“Erin thinks it’ll wear off in a few hours, and even then be gradual. Thirty minutes. But she’s not sure. Be careful—and, um, let me know if there are any side effects. Do you think this will sell?”

Normen and Alcaz exchanged a long look before nodding rapidly to Lyonette. And Normen thought, for a moment, that the inn was going to be very busy today.

 

——

 

It almost made him regret quitting the Brothers. Because this? This was unfair.

There were tonics. Potions. Even very rare tinctures that you could drink that would give you the talents of someone else.

But they were expensive. So expensive that even a huge organization like the Brothers had to account for a single usage. Even the Gentlemen Callers had to justify using some of the tools.

This? According to Lyonette, the Bulkup Bisque would be ‘pricey’, especially since she wanted a good markup on the magical ingredients. Alcaz had inquired as to the price.

“Six gold coins, four silver. She’s thinking of making it six even.”

Six weeks of regular pay for a person for one meal. No regular client could afford that. But Normen?

I would pay for this every single day of my life. Especially if I were sorting out other gangs. 

One bisque. One tasty bisque and he could go toe-to-toe with a Level 30 [Brute] and have the advantage. And Normen was almost upon that level himself, with his recent gains.

With this bisque…with Level 30…the Brother caught himself thinking that he could be an officer. He could replace Crimshaw and make a mark. He could do that—but then the inn began to warm up, and he remembered why he didn’t.

Because the little girl who bounded down the stairs was the girl Crimshaw had died to help protect. Because—when he thought about going back to his old life, Normen didn’t know if he wanted to keep washing blood off his hands.

“Normen! Alcaz! Lyonette!”

Erin appeared out of the [Garden of Sanctuary]’s door in the wall, and Normen didn’t jump this time, though his skin always crawled when she snuck up on him. He tipped his hat and stood with Alcaz.

“Miss Solstice. Would you be wanting anything in particular of us today?”

“Oh, no…have you had breakfast? Hey, did you try my bisque?”

“They did, and no side effects yet, Erin. Nor has it worn off for…one hour. Don’t advertise it yet—we’re watching for anything else. I could use a bunch of ingredients for your next experiments…I have a list. Perhaps you could get it, Ser Lormel?”

The Thronebearer hesitated. They were reluctant to abandon their charge, so Alcaz doffed his cap instantly.

“I could run down and let Miss Krshia’s assistant know about the list, Miss Lyonette.”

“Would you? Oh—and if you’re going, can you send this? Today’s the day we get the door back. The City Council has a secretary at—”

“City Hall. Shivertail Plaza. I will be back in ten minutes.”

Take your time—

Alcaz was gone already. Normen settled back as Erin rolled over to a table and began tickling Mrsha. This was their job, so he listened with one ear as she spoke.

“I’ve gotta go to the [Healer]’s for exercises again, but I’m gonna help get the door back! What else? Is—is Pisces still up?”

“I think I saw him go to bed as I was waking, Miss Erin.”

Normen spoke up, and the [Innkeeper] shot him a relieved smile.

“That’s great. I’m—that’s good. Well after that, the Mage’s Guild. I wanna check up on Antherr!”

Every day, Erin Solstice made sure the Antinium on his way back from the Great Plains was still alright. Lyonette fussed about as she made Mrsha wear a bib, then served them some regular breakfast.

With a big salad for Mrsha, who instantly pointed an accusatory fork at a sausage that the Thronebearers each got.

“You get half of one and your eggs. Just eat your salad—don’t you put it in your bag of holding, Miss. I’ll be checking!”

Mrsha groaned and then took a huge mouthful of greens. Normen watched as she stared at Lyonette’s back, then scampered over to the wall. She spat into the Garden of Sanctuary and then innocently went back to her plate.

“Gross, Mrsha. Lyonette’s just trying to keep you healthy. Whaddya mean, starving you? When I was a kid, my mom made me eat veggies each and every day. That’s how you get big and strong!”

Mrsha peered at Erin. Then she turned to Numbtongue eating a decidedly green-free meal, aside from himself, of course. She held up a card, and the Hob read.

“…Nope. Sewer rats. Bad food. You want to get strong? Just grow.

He slapped his chest, and Mrsha looked at the ill-fed Numbtongue, who was over six feet tall, a Redfang in his prime, to Erin, who was…shorter. The [Innkeeper] threw up her hands.

“Fine! Don’t listen to me! Let’s see how tough you are—waitaminute.”

She realized she’d fallen into her own logical trap as Mrsha, conscientious of Erin’s slow recovery from her injuries, shoved the rest of her greens onto Erin’s plate.

Normen was smiling as they finished breakfast. Not that he was purely eavesdropping—he had a book on the Antinium Wars, and he was reading it.

If a fellow were going to stay at the inn, he felt like he should have some proper learning. Words weren’t as familiar to him written down, but he’d been listening to Mrsha take lessons.

“Alright, I’m ready for my exercises! Yay. Who am I going with? Numbtongue, wanna play some music while I work out?”

Resigned, Erin looked around, and Ser Dalimont nodded at Normen, who was already getting up to wheel Erin to her destination. That was a good job, an important job.

Numbtongue was a third bodyguard, but this time, he hesitated.

“I’m sort of busy today.”

“Doing what?”

The Hobgoblin hesitated again and then pointed to a rare breakfaster who’d joined them. Octavia Cotton paused on her way back to her shop.

“I’m—just working on some alchemical stuff. And Numbtongue’s keeping me company.”

“Working on her personal ballad.”

The [Bard] spoke helpfully. Erin frowned as Normen affected a straight face. The [Innkeeper] frowned at the [Alchemist] and Goblin. Numbtongue was straight-faced, but Octavia was avoiding Lyonette peeking out of the kitchen and Mrsha shaking her head.

“Hmm. Hmmmmm. Hmmmmmmmm.

Erin Solstice stared at Octavia and then at Numbtongue. She frowned…then blew out her cheeks.

“Yeah, I can’t figure it out. What would be a good theme song for Octavia? Something mad-science-y? This is why you’re the professional. Good luck!”

She smiled at Numbtongue. He blinked, and Ulvama, scratching her side as she headed into the kitchen for breakfast, turned back to stare incredulously at Erin. Was she real?

Well, that was a fascinating moment that only Erin missed. She let Normen help wheel her into the city, past the guards who gave him a longer look than Ser Dalimont, and they were down three streets when she spoke up.

“Wait a minute. I thought Octavia didn’t work this day of the week.”

Ser Dalimont’s face was amazingly straight as he opened the door to the [Healer]’s shop.

 

——

 

The [Healer] was a Drake. A middle-aged woman with a light-brownish scale coloration and the kind of gentle goodness that Normen was ashamed to be around. The kind that could turn to firmness when need be.

She kept Erin from telling too many jokes and had her stretching, standing using support, and working on her arms as well as her legs. She let Erin rest, offered her some tea for a break, and made the long road to recovery a pleasant one.

Sinew Magus Grimalkin was not so encouraging. After thirty minutes, Erin wiped some sweat from her brow, and the huge Drake, who had been silently observing today, spoke up.

Insufficient.

Normen winced as Erin Solstice looked up.

“What’s that, Grimalkin?”

“You can work harder. I was wondering how your progress was going, and if that’s the amount of effort you’re willing to put in, you won’t be seeing much progress.”

“Sinew Magus, we have discussed this.”

The exasperated Healer, Pemai, narrowed her eyes, but the Sinew Magus was unmoved. Erin pointed to her slightly sweaty hand.

“Hey! I worked out! I sweated! Isn’t this what you want with your…sweaty gym stuff?”

Grimalkin gave Erin’s hand a look as dismissive as if she’d just dunked it in a bucket of water.

“You can push yourself harder. I am not telling you to injure yourself—before you speak, Healer Pemai. I often have to mitigate excessive training off-duty for the soldiers I’ve reconditioned. But there is a difference between the bare minimum and pushing yourself.”

“I worked hard!”

Erin was outraged. Normen had seen her arms shaking as she walked back and forth, but he was silent because he felt like he knew what Grimalkin was going to say. And it was Normen’s attitude in the weights-room compared to, say, Mrsha’s.

“I know you can work harder. Do you know why?”

The Drake waited and then spoke as the [Innkeeper] glared.

“You did not, once, have to take a rest from any exercises you did. Growth is about pushing your boundaries.”

“Well, I don’t wanna grow and get super-muscles. I just want to walk.”

The [Sinew Magus] sighed.

“And walking is beyond you at the moment. By all means, continue Healer Pemai’s plan, but I cannot calculate how much slower your recovery will be. Push yourself, Erin Solstice. I know you can.”

Erin turned to Pemai, and the [Healer] briskly tidied up her cups.

“I find, Sinew Magus, that motivating my clients in the rare cases they need help is just as important as their effort. This is a long, difficult process.”

Erin nodded rapidly. Grimalkin’s response was curt.

“I do not motivate my apprentices nor those I work with. If Miss Solstice wants to walk—she will do what it takes. Consider repeating the exercises, Erin. Twice more per day.”

“I can’t just come back and bother Pemai.”

“I’m happy to offer more exercises you can do wherever you are.”

The [Innkeeper]’s glower made Normen decide to stand outside while she and Grimalkin argued. Privately—he felt like the Sinew Magus had a point.

Then again, Erin’s point was how hard it was. She could not walk—and he saw how frustrated she got at what she had been able to do every single day of her life up till now. It was frustration, not a lack of effort, he thought.

The other problem was that Erin Solstice had an aura and the ability to create fire. The fire of frustration burnt low and weakly at first—but it had nearly started a larger blaze in Pemai’s shop twice already when Erin accidentally created it. It was rust-brown, like an annoying stain or inelegant splotch, and Normen had gotten annoyed just stamping it out the two times it had appeared.

“That Grimalkin. He’s so preachy. Just because he…has giant muscles. I’m working hard! It’s not fun doing this stuff. I could do it twice a day. I guess. You know what he lacks? Bedside manner.

Erin was in a bad mood after leaving the shop. However, the Sinew Magus had apparently gotten to her. Possibly not a diplomatic win, but a win nonetheless for the Drake.

The danger was always in pushing too hard. Too little empathy. Normen tipped his hat as he pointed towards Shivertail Plaza.

“To see about the door, Miss Erin?”

“Nah. I’m mad, and Lism hates me. Lyonette calls me in as backup if she doesn’t get the door. Then—bam! Wheelchair to the knees! Let’s head back to the inn. I’d say I want to tour the city and see what’s new—but I’ll do it on my own two feet.”

The [Innkeeper] was unhappy, and Normen nodded. He had seen the new parts of Liscor, but a lot was still under construction. It wasn’t all paved, so Erin would have trouble with stairs or rocky parts. Or crowds.

It was just an imposition to be in a wheelchair when it was such a rarity in Liscor. Often, Normen had to slow, and Erin had asked Ser Dalimont not to clear people in her way.

Although…as they had to wait for another throng of people, Normen thought privately that this was a case where the Thronebearer should do when she said don’t.

He was learning his employer. And she was learning about him.

“How’s it going, Normen? Do you like the inn? Want to go back to, um, being a Brother?”

“Not at all, Miss Erin.”

The young woman sighed and relaxed a bit. A gaggle of Humans were passing across the road, not yet used to Liscor’s traffic, hence the holdup. They got some glares, but Liscor’s citizens were not outright hostile.

“That’s good. Ishkr has you helping, right? We’ve got new Antinium, but we’re going to need to train them, so I appreciate it.”

“It’s all quite pleasant, Miss Solstice. We’re by way of being more security, but it’s simple enough to haul some water up or move some chairs or bags from the basement. Mind you—I haven’t had to throw anyone out on their head yet.”

“Oh, like a [Bouncer]? Um…yeah, that’s good too! Wow, Liscor is busy, isn’t it?”

It was, with more species than any city other than Invrisil. And even in Invrisil or Pallass—Normen had noticed it was one species who held sway. Liscor was rapidly becoming a three-way tie of Drakes, Gnolls, and Humans.

But not all of them would stay. Some were visitors from other cities. And some?

Liscor had been the place for Silverfang Gnolls and Cellidel’s Gnolls to come to. However—it seemed many of the Humans flooding into the city might not stay for Liscor’s growth. All three waiting pedestrians heard a swirl of conversation.

“—heading to the New Lands. I hear some people are just grabbing enough food for a month, a bag of holding and supplies, and going.”

“With what? What’s there to go to?

“What do you mean? Some want to settle, found a city. Fancy being a [Governor]? Pickaxes, shovels—there could be buried treasure, shipwrecks—anything out there! If you’ve got combat classes, this is the time to go. But we’d have to leave now to be on time.”

“Really? I—I don’t know about going alone.”

“Entire Guilds are sponsoring people to go. I hear there’s a five-gold bounty on anyone with the right classes in the Merchant’s Guild. Not just guilds; the Empire of Sands was saying that anyone over Level 20 should contact their representatives to meet for an expedition.”

Normen listened with half an ear. Here was something else that he wanted—would have done but for this inn.

New lands. Just…pack up and go. Even a Brother might find a new life as a guard on the road.

It called to him. But Normen thought of Crimshaw and sighed.

No. You didn’t abandon what you paid in blood for. The Humans were excited as they talked, and Normen thought they were [Laborers], cheap builders for Hexel’s plans.

In fact, some of them were interesting. Not interesting in hair or skin tone—you got all sorts. But one had too much hair, if that made sense, that gave the impression of perhaps Gnollish blood. Another, the one tempted by new lands, had a personal pickaxe that was clearly enchanted with a frosted tip. To…break ground? Or just keep yourself cool?

And there was a young woman with a hand made of stone? Crystal? Semi-see through, like quartz. She hurried past as Normen blinked at her.

“What a colorful mob.”

Ser Dalimont remarked. Erin sneezed as some of the stone dust filled the air. She kicked the wheels of her chair, annoyed. Everyone else was navigating around the laborers, but she had to wait rather than accidentally hit someone.

“Yeah. I guess the new lands are big. I hope if any of my friends go they talk to me. It’s a shame the door’s not that strong…it’s so far.”

“Do you have any plans with the new lands, Miss Solstice?”

Erin looked up at Normen and, to his vague surprise, shook her head.

“Nah. I mean, it’s exciting but…I’m an [Innkeeper]. Liscor’s my place. I can’t see myself going, and I’m no adventurer. If the Horns or anyone else goes, I hope they’ll be safe. All I can do is make food. Speaking of which, how was the Bulkup Bisque? Did you like the name? How strong are you?”

Normen flexed his hand.

“I still feel as strong as an ox, Miss Solstice. Well, not an ox, but it’s like—[Lesser Strength]? On top of [Lesser Strength], since I have the Skill. You’ll make a fortune.”

“Yeah, if only we could sell it abroad and store it, huh? But hey, the inn will have an actual menu no one can beat. I just wish…”

I wish I could get stronger that fast too. The [Innkeeper] tried to push herself up slightly and fell back into her chair. They got moving at last, and she stared into the distance. Normen tried to cheer her up.

“It’s a magnificent creation, Miss Solstice. The kind of thing that’d get every Brother in the inn—not least for the gym!”

“Hey, we could do that! Workout and bisque.”

“Are you…sure?”

Dalimont looked slightly askance as he watched the crowds, but Erin smiled at Normen’s confused face.

“They’re well-behaved, right, Normen? I’m not opposed. If you want, invite them in!”

And that was why he was here. Because of one of the few people who’d say that to a Brother. Normen simply touched his cap.

“I’m sure some fellow’d be here tonight if I can pop out, Miss Solstice. They’ll love your bisque—”

Though they might need to take it to-go to avoid bringing trouble on her inn. But it might save his fellows’ lives. Normen smiled ruefully at Erin.

“It’s a crying shame that an [Innkeeper] can’t eat her own creations, eh? Like a [Chef] can’t enjoy their own meals.”

Erin nodded ruefully, then frowned.

“Well, yeah—I mean, Imani does like what she makes. So I don’t know if that analogy holds.”

“I meant, magically.”

“Oh! Well, Imani doesn’t do magic, but Palt gets high on his stuff. You meant me? I can totally eat what I make! It’s just that I don’t because I, uh, made horrible stuff. But if I—”

Erin’s mouth kept working as she suddenly realized what Normen had assumed. She slowly stared up at him, and he decided that it really wasn’t an act. Genius she might be—

But she really didn’t consider some things.

 

——

 

“Erin. What are you doing?”

Erin Solstice stuck a spoon in her bisque. Lyonette had been amazed when Normen rushed her back into the inn. In fact—Erin had demanded they return so fast that Grimalkin hadn’t finished updating his charts in the weights room.

He came out, saw her about to eat the bisque, and pointed a claw at her.

“I wouldn’t eat that, Miss Solstice. Remarkable effect. Would you consider selling the recipe to Pallass if we can replicate it?”

“What do you think, Grimalkin? And why can’t I eat it?”

“Because it’s a shortcut. We just spoke about effort?”

Erin eyed the bisque.

“Yeah, well—I don’t even know if it’ll work. And if it does, wouldn’t that be a great workout?”

Grimalkin made a disgusted noise as he watched Erin take a huge bite of food. The [Innkeeper] chewed timidly, then brightened up.

“Hey, it is as good as I thought! And you can’t even taste the spiderweb!”

Mrsha, about to sneak a bite, took a sniff of the bisque and decided to pass. She ran over to Grimalkin and began to pose in front of him. The Sinew Magus looked down.

“…What are you doing?”

Check out my gains, bruh. She made one arm and then flexed. Grimalkin hesitated. He patted Mrsha on the head.

“Very…impressive. Excuse me.”

He tried to get around her, but Mrsha raced after him. Okay, not impressed with that? She wrote and handed him a card. Exasperated—he was busy—the Sinew Magus took it, then hesitated.

“How is…Ferkr? Quite well. She’s leading some Gnolls back to Pallass, but my understanding is that she may be a permanent liaison to the tribes. A credit to her city.”

And to him, but he looked unhappy for some reason as he said it. Mrsha excitedly wrote, and Grimalkin peered over her shoulder.

“Is…she…yes, she’s contacted most of the tribes who remained on Izril. They appear to be—recovering. Not all the Gnolls were at the Meeting of Tribes, and the ones who avoided the fighting before the battle there have linked up with their people unmolested. I will inform Ferkr you mentioned her. What’s this?”

Mrsha handed Grimalkin a card with a smile. For a special friend? Grimalkin eyed the blank autograph card.

“…No.”

He flicked it back, and Mrsha caught it. But she wanted to brag to her friends! Then she heard an exclamation from the common room and whirled around. Grimalkin paused, then sighed. He walked back, and when Mrsha raced into the room, she stopped.

Erin was on her feet. The [Innkeeper] wobbled a bit—then slowly raised her head and took a few steps forward. She nearly fell, but caught herself as half a dozen hands reached out. She walked around—then did a little jump. It was still harder, but she walked—then she ran a few steps.

I can walk!

Grimalkin sighed slightly, but it was drowned out by the raucous cheering. The [Innkeeper] turned and wiped at her eyes. Mrsha threw up her arms, then tackled Erin and took her down, but the [Innkeeper] got right back up.

Beware.

In her office, Watch Captain Zevara got a slight chill on her scales as a [Guard] ran a message up to her. She read the note, then spoke as she folded her claws.

“I think we’re getting a bit poetic with our code phrases. Just…let me know what she does.”

The note read:

Chaos walks.

 

——

 

Chaos danced. It was never really boring in The Wandering Inn, was it? Relc came running into the inn with a huge smile on his face.

He was just in time to see Erin twirl across the room. She was doing an improvised dance—and so was Bird.

“I can walk! Relc! Look! No, don’t laugh—”

“Yay! Everyone’s happy. Do the Bird dance!”

The Bird dance was Bird waving all four arms in a semi-rhythmic fashion while spinning around in circles while walking. It was fairly hypnotic.

Mrsha was flailing about with excitement, but Erin had to stop after a second.

“Whew. I can feel that. I don’t think I’m doing any backflips right now. But look! No wheels! Take that!”

She kicked her wheelchair and then hopped on one leg. But the beaming smile never left her face. Relc grabbed Erin in a one-armed hug and laughed. Tessa poked her head out of the rafters as Klbkch followed him in—then Selys—then…

“Magic solves everything. See?”

Tessa looked around for someone to vouchsafe this to, but the [Necromancer] was still asleep, and the Hob wasn’t here. So she went back to sleep.

 

——

 

Now that really did feel like a return to form. When Ceria Springwalker heard Erin was walking, she smiled broadly.

But she couldn’t rush back to the inn just right now. The half-Elf sat back in the private backrooms of the Adventurer’s Guild. However, unlike other times, this was not a Gold-rank only area.

There were Silver-rank teams here, or rather, Captains. And of the Gold-ranks, only the ones who’d been on the raid or their proxies, including specially-warded scrying orbs, were present.

There were only three that the adventurers trusted to be even remotely secure enough to keep everyone from eavesdropping. Even then—

“Hi, Wistram. Remember me? You charged me eight silver coins for a [Message] spell your [Mages] ‘lost’. Where’s my money?”

Earlia peered into one of the scrying orbs, glowering as she hefted her warhammer threateningly. A voice echoed from the scrying orb.

“…Will someone get this idiot out of the way?”

Prince Zenol’s glower made Earlia blush. But yes, everyone did assume Wistram was watching. Come to that—Ceria eyed the Captains here.

Some, like Anith, were decent Silver-rankers who could keep their mouths shut. But their teams? Even Levil of Pithfire Hounds had talkative members. Ceria thought of her team, the original Horns, and wondered how long the details of this meeting would remain private.

“Hey, everyone. I’ve got some good news, so let’s get this over with. Settle down! This won’t take long. The arguing will.”

The other Captains turned as Ceria waved. She was still eating. She’d taken a bunch of kettle-chips with an entire basket of sauces and a drink to keep lubricated.

She was so casual. But perhaps that was how Ceria had wrangled any kind of agreement out of yesterday—and so quickly too.

Then again…

 

——

 

Typhenous was the representative of Griffon Hunt. His team was with Emperor Laken on guard-duty. They had debated heading to the Gnoll Plains, but Halrac, the veteran [Soldier], had made a simple call.

If Griffon Hunt went, the odds that they’d make it in time were remote. Secondly? They would almost surely die if they ran into a Drake army. They’d stayed at Riverfarm and Invrisil.

Waiting for Erin to wake up in case she needed backup. No one had expected Erin to fly off via pegasus. And no one could be more pleased than their team she was back and, apparently, on her feet.

Typhenous wished he could see Halrac trying to hide a smile. However, he was more curious about Ceria.

She had come into the contentious arguments and set all the parties mostly to rights. At least, the ones who could move the needle by influence. Elia Arcsinger’s team was the largest. And true—her presence had united the Halfseekers, Griffon Hunt, independent groups like Zenol’s team, and others around her.

But how in Rhir’s hells had she gotten Elia’s team to shut up and back her? The half-Elf who the Named Rank adventurer had sent was no adventurer. He was a [Negotiator], and a good one who’d been pushing for a Relic-class item for her team.

After one day, he sat there, upset and pale. Typhenous hadn’t missed how worried he’d gotten when Ceria started talking with him. The Plague Mage smelled underhandedness, and he was all in favor of it. He just wanted to know what Ceria had said.

 

——

 

The half-Elf smiled around the table, though the Captains had to sit or stand there were so many.

“Alright. I know everyone thought me and my team were dead. And I apologize for the delay. But at last—we’re ready to divide the loot from the Village of the Dead raid. Please, wait until I’m finished. Then object.”

“What, just like that? No ceremony? No—”

A Gold-rank Captain looked outraged. Dorgon, the Silver-rank Minotaur, rumbled behind him.

“Silence.”

Ceria rolled her eyes.

“Listen, you want ceremony? I’ll sprinkle roses and get a [Bard] to play while I hand your share out. But it’s coming out of your funds, Maeist. I know how hard it’s been for some teams, not knowing if they’ll get a fair share. So I’m going to come out and say it—we’re selling almost all the artifacts. It’s gold-shares, not loot shares.”

The sigh that ran through the room from most of the Captains was relieved. However, Keldrass and several Gold-rank teams objected at once.

“Those are Relic-class items, Ceria!”

“You want to just sell—you’re getting the Helm of—”

Silence!”

This time, Ceria shouted into a [Loud Voice] spell. Every Gold-rank in the room clapped their hands to their ears, and the Gnolls shouted invectives at Ceria. The half-Elf aimed her skeletal finger around, the frosted tip pointing at Keldrass.

“Cool it or I’ll start casting [Snow Plume]. Just let me explain my reasoning. Gold, not loot. Because if one person gets that [Legendary Swordbane…Drake Swordmaster]’s sword, even by fair and unbiased luck of the draw? There will be blood. You know it, I know it. That team won’t make it out of the city without a fight, from thieves and other teams.”

Keldrass opened his mouth, then nodded reluctantly. Ceria ticked off another point on her hand.

“Second? If we do loot, a lot of teams walk away with a pittance. We don’t have that much gear that people want. So no loot. It’s simple. Now, each team will get an equal share. Teams that were wiped? Fair share. Size? Doesn’t matter. I hope each team will allocate gold to teammates that fell, but it’s per-team shares. Silver-ranks get one. Gold-ranks, two. Named-ranks, three.”

This time, the muttering was a lot less happy. Ceria had just dumped a lot, and Typhenous was frankly surprised by some of it.

No extra loot for dead teammates? That was probably because it was per-team, and that made sense because it would have disadvantaged small teams for large, Silver-rank teams.

However, the distribution of loot was also colder, if more equitable, than he had assumed. Typhenous watched members like Dorgon’s faces, but the Minotaur was just listening for the end.

“Is it fair to let all Silver-rank teams be paid half what Gold-ranks get, Ceria? I mean, we’re not the same level, but that’s certification. Not level.”

One of the Silver-rank Captains glanced at Dorgon, bringing up the very same point. Ceria’s smile was bland.

“If you want to vote Dorgon’s team a Gold-rank’s share, I’ll let you all nominate him. But that’s the exception, not the rule. Listen. The Gold-rank teams went into the fire. We placed Silver-rank teams in support, not the vanguard. I’m not going to play this game—which is what has been going on here. If you want to say—Jelaqua’s team charged straight into the fighting, then we’ve got a problem, because now we’re comparing achievements. Fair, equal shares.”

“And the Helm of Fire for you. And what you pulled out of the treasure chambers. We never updated the haul with what you all got. We know you pulled a Relic-class sword out. What else did you get? Your message mentioned Relic-class items, and I heard there was a circlet in Savere. What about that, Captain Springwalker?”

One of the older Gold-rank Captains was glaring. Ceria’s return glance was bland.

“You know we claimed a Relic from the outset, Captain Derros. Let me finish. Everything that was recovered goes up for auction via the Merchant’s Guild. They’ll take their cut, but it’ll be small, and the overall gold gets portioned into shares and then given out. The Horns? I can tell you we’re claiming the sword, a spellbook Pisces found, and two rings Yvlon grabbed. We’re putting in two scrolls, and anything else we keep—”

The roar of protest was deafening.

That’s four Relics!

Ceria slammed her cup on the table.

“No, it’s two good rings, a sword, and a spellbook! The Relic is the sword—and it’s not ours. Some damn [Empress] is running around with it, so believe me—getting it back is going to be a problem. We went straight into the heart of the Village of the Dead, and it was a fluke we survived. Everything we got save for the two scrolls is ours.”

More protests, but the Gold-rank Captain Derros wasn’t done. He pointed a finger at Ceria.

“What about the circlet? That’s a Relic-class item!”

Everyone went silent, and Ceria Springwalker smiled crookedly.

“It might be. But I’ve got bad news for you, Derros. There’s no way you’re getting it. You know the Siren of Savere? The leader of the most dangerous nation of [Bandits]? How do you think I got out of there with my skin intact?”

The adventurers groaned as they realized what had happened. Derros’ mouth opened.

“She stole it?”

An interesting note here—there were truth spells and crystals all over the room. Most didn’t even bother to hide the fact that they were being used. A few changed colors depending on what was said, and there was a lot of interference with other people’s speaking, but the one closest to Ceria only flickered a bit as she spoke.

“Revine had it in a glass case in her personal rooms, and a Drake [Enchanter] was looking it over. You want to tangle with the Siren of Savere, be my guest. We’re laying claim to it—but it’ll be a headache. The Siren of Savere, uh, already has a bit of a grudge against me.”

The truth spells flickered a bit, but they all showed an unhappy truth to the adventurer Captains. All except Typhenous, whose eyes flickered because he didn’t use truth spells.

They were too easy to fool.

“Alright, but that’s still a huge amount of loot—we know you went into the Village of the Dead. Whatever that monstrous thing was you saw—Tolve…something—alright. But the Helm of Fire?”

Derros sounded almost pleading. And this was where Ceria relaxed.

“Oh. We’re relinquishing our claim on that. It’s going up for auction. That’s how we’re guaranteeing everyone gets a big cut.”

There was no shouting this time. Everyone exhaled, and Jelaqua gave Ceria a nod as Typhenous silently applauded. That was how you ran negotiations like this.

“Fair! Damn me, but that’s the best Relic because it’s so famous. Every Walled City wants it. The Five Families want it. I thought you needed it?”

Ceria waved that away.

“We were going to trade it for help for our friend. The Healer of Tenbault, an Archmage—yes, I want it, but we’re being fair. So here’s what we’re going to do. As I said, everything gets sold. But if a team wants an artifact—they have to pay full market price. Not auction price, but what the Merchant Guild appraises it for. You have two days, then it’s all going up for auction. It’ll take at least a week for the sales to go through and more for the division, but I intend to portion out the gold within a month.”

The teams listened carefully. Some were dismayed, because the conditions meant that a Gold-rank team could possibly buy a few artifacts from the haul. No Silver-rank team could.

“Monster parts? Sold. Loot from the undead? Sold. Fair shares to all. Now, listen. I know some of you were hoping you’d get an artifact, but let’s be real—that would cause the kind of infighting you hear about that leaves many teams dead. You’ll all get a share of the coin. But before you argue about Named-ranks getting three shares or bias, let me say this: you’re done.”

Ceria spread her hands on the table. The adventurers stirred. Was that a threat?

No. The half-Elf was smiling around at them. The Silver-ranks especially. Then…perhaps they felt it again, like they had after the [Sword Legend] had fallen. A leap in their hearts. Ceria looked at Earlia, Anith, Levil…and the same light from Albez was in her eyes.

“You new teams especially—this is your haul. The Merchant’s Guildmaster gave me some estimates. The Helm of Fire is probably going to sell for at least a million gold pieces.”

“A million?

“Under auction. Yes. It’s a relic. And true, there are a lot more teams here. Almost fifty, so it’s divided up, but I did some rough calculations, and I think we’re going to see each Silver-rank team walking away with at least 20,000 gold pieces from the Helm of Fire’s sale alone. Possibly double that. Or higher. That’s your haul. If you want to retire? Anyone who’s not in this for life is done with adventuring.”

The Silver-rank Captains had the same look Ceria had when she’d come out of Albez and began realizing how much they had. And unlike her—some were in tears.

They would retire. Retire with enough gold to set themselves up for a long time. If they managed their funds wisely. The Gold-rank teams were no less enthusiastic about those numbers.

That wasn’t just a few artifacts. That was…multiple artifacts per team member. Even divided up, the Village of the Dead raid was going to be one of the richest hauls in recent history.

Ceria Springwalker concluded with a smile.

“Given all this, I’d say drinks are on me. But since I know how much trouble you lot cause, it’s on the Merchant’s Guild. They’re throwing us a party, and we get to watch the auctions begin in two days. Food, drink—and don’t promise the [Merchants] anything. Now, who’s got questions?”

 

——

 

Yvlon could hear the cheering once the doors opened. They had been silenced, but the anxious adventurers waiting for their Captains to emerge burst into smiles when they heard that.

It had taken nearly two hours, even with Ceria’s straightforward distribution. Yvlon still thought it was a bit—cruel to teams like Lifwail Blades, but Ceria had pointed out a fair share to their families was enough to make anyone rich.

“We’re rich! We’ll never have to work again!”

Earlia kicked open the door and almost shouted the sum to her team before half a dozen adventurers grabbed her. Derros shouted.

“No numbers! Everyone talks in private, damn it! Do you want your city to eat half your gold? You’d better hope you don’t live near a noble or a Drake city!”

“They don’t strip us of gold like you Humans! Wait, damn. The income tax…”

Keldrass turned to Bevussa, who groaned. However, the jubilation was wild among the free adventurers, who had neither city nor anyone they owed dues to.

The Adventurer’s Guild was happy—they took a cut. The Merchant’s Guild took a cut. So food and drinks were already being rushed out as Yvlon found Jelaqua.

“Jelaqua—how’d it go in there?”

“Ceria’s a smooth leader, Yvlon. Don’t worry—she hit them with the old tough-but-fair breakdown. I was worried—you know? I’d be sweating up there, but Ceria laid it out, and almost no one objected. If anything, we thought your team took the biggest losses.”

“We did?”

“Well, two Relics both in Chandrar? And you’re giving up two scrolls most Named-rank teams would die for. At least you’ve got your rings. Sounds like that and whatever Pisces had were the biggest hauls. Sorry about that.”

“No, it’s fine.”

Yvlon felt her stomach twist when Jelaqua put it like that. That wasn’t much in-hand. She hadn’t thought that her two rings would be the biggest haul, but she hadn’t been thinking of that when Ceria broke it down.

Why was her friend so calm? Yvlon found Ceria talking to Eldertuin’s representative, who shook hands with her.

“Ceria, do you think it all worked out well?”

Ceria scratched at her head.

“Hm? Oh, absolutely. We kept a lot of what we took. We’re giving only the scrolls away, and that’s a lot of artifacts. We have to pick them up, but they’re ours.”

“True…but the Helm of Fire and the sword?”

“We were never going to get them. I hope Pisces’ backer isn’t mad, and Selys will be upset, but if we tried to take only the Helm of Fire, I think there would have been a fight. Pick your battles, Yvlon. Trust me. We got what we wanted. I did a lot of thinking about what to prioritize.”

Ceria gave Yvlon a significant look, but she had to break off to shake more hands. The Silver-rank teams wanted to thank Ceria especially, but the Gold-rankers clearly thought she’d done a fair job as well.

The only person who didn’t seem pleased was the half-Elf from Elia Arcsinger’s team, who left without even looking at Ceria. Yvlon whispered to Ceria.

“How did you get Elia to back down? By offering her team a triple-share? She had a lot more support for the Helm of Fire. She took down multiple giants.”

“With help. I just…persuaded her representative to shut up.”

“How?”

“By telling him I’d recall something publicly. Elia and I had a few words I don’t think she wants repeated. She’ll take the gold.”

Ceria winked at Yvlon. The [Armsmistress] blinked, but she didn’t get a chance to say anything more.

“Yvlon Byres. Ceria Springwalker. I would like to congratulate you on your negotiations. Is now a good time? House Isphel may attempt to purchase a few of the artifacts, although I fear the Helm of Fire is out of even our pockets.”

A voice spoke, and the two whirled and Ceria cried out.

“Prince Zenol! How are you?”

The Gold-rank Captain and [Prince] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen smiled, hands clasped behind his back as he stood in some rich room—the scrying spell didn’t show much. He looked unharmed, and Yvlon sighed in relief.

“Zenol. How—how is Nerrhavia’s Fallen? Queen Yisame?”

“As well as could be expected after the fallout of Pomle’s disastrous siege. The mood is—troubled. But I will not distract you from the moment.”

The Prince’s polite words reminded Yvlon that the last time she’d been there, he’d betrayed General Thelican and she’d essentially thrown Nerrhavia’s battle into chaos. Ceria chewed on a chip.

“We didn’t do you any services, Zenol. How much trouble is House Isphel in?”

His smile didn’t change.

“House Isphel has risen, not fallen, Ceria. As for the climate—well. Strained, but holding. I may not be an adventurer but a [Prince] for now, but I am grateful for my share in the raid. I hope you did everything you set out to accomplish?”

“Our friend, Erin, is alive. We owe you a lot, Zenol. Don’t ever hesitate to collect.”

He nodded slowly. Yvlon frowned at the small image of him in the scrying orb. The [Prince] nodded, and there was a slight glittering on his clothing. He made no move, just kept speaking.

“I must go, but again, as I have always said, my sincere respect to my Izrilian counterparts. If you do have the chance, Nerrhavia’s Fallen welcomes you both to return. Think on that if you intend to return to Chandrar.”

Ceria broke in idly before Yvlon could reply.

“Do you have…any kind of weather problems, Zenol?”

The [Prince] had begun to step away. He turned, and Yvlon saw that glittering…silver flash again, a tiny speck on the scrying orb.

“Just a bug problem, I believe. Nothing of note. Ceria, Yvlon—”

The image flickered out. Ceria eyed the scrying orb, then chucked it at a [Receptionist] across the room.

“Hey, put that into storage.”

Only when it was far away did she turn.

“Zenol’s in trouble.”

“Are you sure?”

Yvlon had picked up on some things, but Ceria just produced a few fingers.

“He was way too polite. Zenol isn’t shy about being direct. ‘Respect for my Izrilian counterparts’? Do you recall even a hint of that?”

Exactly the opposite. Which meant…Yvlon’s heart sank. Ceria nodded.

“Nerrhavia’s Fallen has it out for us. He was warning us off. I don’t know about the rest, but it sounds like there’s trouble for him. Did you notice that thing crawling up his clothing?”

Yvlon had. Zenol had deliberately not brushed it off. Ceria gave Yvlon a long look.

“A silver beetle.”

“This is my fault. He came back to Nerrhavia for me, and we might have made him a traitor.”

“Eh, you said Queen Yisame liked him. That counts for something.”

Yvlon bit her lip. She hadn’t told Ceria about Yisame’s frank…admiration for her. Or the Queen’s confession that a lot of Nerrhavia wasn’t under her full control. If Sage Etrikah hadn’t stopped the metal plague—

Her guilt wormed away at her as the adventurers celebrated. It was that reminder. Ceria seemed oblivious, but she had forged the fewest connections abroad. Everyone else could not help but remember—

Their friends were out there. And not all of them were safe.

 

——

 

The world was still in a better place than it had been a month ago. Erin was walking, and it seemed like the celebration at the Adventurer’s Guild produced more good news still.

“Hey, everyone! Look who’s rich!”

The Horns returned to cheers from the inn, and Pisces woke up, came downstairs, and found they were rich. Again. Ceria high-fived Kevin, grabbed another mug, and kept up her noshing on food as she congratulated Erin on being able to walk.

More news came in as Jelaqua finally dragged in Moore along with Seborn and Ulinde. Erin was hugging Typhenous when she saw the half-Giant.

Moore!

Mrsha ran up to him instantly. The half-Giant entered the inn, looking…gaunt. He didn’t seem as cuddly and nice as before. It was as if the dangerous Moore, when he got mad, had stuck. Mrsha leapt up—and he held up a hand.

She stopped, circled around, and Moore nodded to her.

“Hello, Mrsha.”

He backed off to a table, and Erin Solstice saw the girl staring at Moore. She went to hug one leg and climb up, but Moore tried to shoo her off.

“Oh boy.”

Seborn gave Erin a significant look, and the [Innkeeper] nodded to him. The half-Giant didn’t smile, and he reluctantly let Mrsha sit on his lap and scribble a smiling face she held up.

“Moore! Where’s my big smile? Jelaqua, Seborn, Ulinde, whatdya want to eat? Ishkr, do we have enough servers?”

“Perhaps. The new Antinium are here, and Silveran has…appeared to help out.”

A certain Antinium Worker was helping serve dishes. He ducked behind one of the adventurers as Lyonette tried to chase him off.

“Silveran! You’re not working here!”

“I can if I want to.”

Erin turned to Moore. The half-Giant nodded at her.

“I’m glad to see you’re walking, Erin. Here. Mrsha, go play.”

He tried to hand Mrsha off, and she squirmed in his grip. Mrsha looked betrayed and hurt. Erin picked her up. It was still harder to walk and move than normal, but any mobility felt like wings. She hesitated—but the Halfseekers were so loudly saying nothing that they were shouting it at her.

“Moore! My favorite half-Giant! What’s wrong? You look…um. Serious. Mrsha’s been dying to see you!”

She held Mrsha out, and the little Gnoll nodded, but Moore just hunched over.

“I’ve—been staying away. I’m glad to see Mrsha, Erin. But I don’t think she should be climbing over me.”

“Oh, because you’re so dignified? Too good to let Mrsha steal your snacks?”

“I would never do that! Not to Moore! Just everyone else!”

Mrsha wrote emphatically. The half-Giant hesitated, then looked up. The [Bloodearth Mage] hesitated, and then it burst out of him much like it had Pisces.

“I’m—dangerous, Erin. Children shouldn’t be around me. My magic and Skills have changed.”

“Moore!”

Jelaqua half-rose, and he hunched his shoulders. Erin saw Seborn looking at her, and the [Innkeeper] hesitated.

Instinct. Erin saw Moore lift a hand and then strode forwards. Even sitting, she had to hop and give Mrsha a toss. The little Gnoll girl yelped silently—and then landed on Moore’s head.

“Erin! Don’t throw Mrsha!”

Lyonette spun and shouted angrily, but Mrsha gave Erin a nod and then hugged Moore’s head.

“Mrsha, get off.”

He gently tried to pry her off, but stopped when she clung to his hair. Moore tried again, and Mrsha scampered onto his shoulder. He reached for her and saw the snot.

Mrsha’s eyes were running over with tears. So was her nose. She hugged him.

“Don’t you love me?”

She held a wet card. Moore hesitated.

“I do. But I’ve hurt people. Mrsha—after Erin—”

He looked at the [Innkeeper], and Erin grabbed his side. She hugged him fiercely.

“I heard you fought in a war for me. You—you silly half-Giant! I’ve been waiting for you to come here so I could do this! I just couldn’t chase you down in a wheelchair.”

“I’m too dangerous. I don’t grow plants. It’s all blood and death. Erin—don’t.”

“Make me! I bet you won’t. You hit bad people. Not Mrshas and Erins. Mrsha, get him!”

The Gnoll clung to Moore’s head, blubbering. The half-Giant didn’t seem to have the strength to pull her off.

Moore. I tolb you. We’re your teabmates.

The half-Giant looked around and saw Jelaqua oozing orange slime out of various orifices. The Selphid grabbed him.

“You big dummy. Ulinde, get in here! Seborn—”

“No.”

But the [Rogue] was watching, and Moore protested, but weakly.

“Jelaqua—no, really. Don’t hug—argh.”

“Seborn! Come on!”

It was a group hug, and the [Rogue] was the only one out. Seborn slowly stood up as his team beckoned to him. The Horns were watching. Half the inn was watching. Typhenous was definitely watching.

The Drowned Man slowly put a hand on Moore’s shoulder and rested it there. Then Erin pulled him in, and he embraced Moore’s arm for a second.

“Alright. Now let me go. I said let me—”

Moore’s arm trembled as he drew his friend into a hug. Mrsha patted him on the head, and he…sighed as he rubbed at his eyes. It sounded like relief.

 

——

 

You couldn’t hug away everything, but you could squeeze out a lot. Erin with legs was better than a wheelchair.

She could chase people down. And unlike Pisces, the real trick might have just been getting Moore into the inn.

Because Mrsha refused to let go of him once she got onto the half-Giant’s shoulder. She held a bowl of chips and kept feeding Moore bites and making sure he was eating. The anxious little Gnoll’s attention was enough to make Moore begin to tear up every few minutes.

Horns and Halfseekers. Adventurers in the inn, and Erin on her feet. Amidst all of it, a single man in a hat tapped Erin on the shoulder as she was resting her legs for a second and beaming around.

“Miss Solstice. I hate to trouble you, but I popped down to the Mage’s Guild on my errands, as it were. Was holding onto this, but I recognized the name and thought—”

Alcaz proffered a [Message], and Erin accepted it.

“Thanks, Alcaz! What’s this ab—Ryoka?

Every head turned. Lyonette groaned, and Mrsha looked up. Rather than let go of Moore, she hopped on his head and tugged at his hair like a driver.

“Mrsha, that hurts. Don’t do that.”

The half-Giant still obliged her by walking over. Erin was reading rapidly, and she exclaimed as Ceria walked over.

“Where’s Ryoka now? I haven’t heard of her since the Village of the Dead raid…tree rot. Is she okay?”

“I don’t know—does anyone know where Ryoka was?”

The other guests of the inn looked about. Klbkch raised one hand.

“I recall she was sighted in the presence of Lord Tyrion Veltras. Allegedly, he proposed to her.”

“He what? But—”

Relc choked on his drink. He hesitated.

“Well, yeah. You save someone’s life and it happens. He proposed…did she say yes?”

Levil called out.

“No, and I heard she appeared in Ailendamus. As a prisoner of all things! Or a guest. It’s hard to tell, but the Wind Runner was hobnobbing with some fancy [Princesses].”

“Right before she tried to murder the Archmage of Memory. Which is fairly typical for her.”

Lyonette scowled. Erin’s mouth opened as Mrsha began chucking salsa-dipped chips down at her mother. The [Innkeeper] blinked.

“So that’s where that was. Wild. Ailendamus…and what was—um. Nevermind. Well, she’s alive! And she’s out of jail.”

“She was in prison?

Half the guests exclaimed. Erin showed the letter around. It was brief, but Ryoka explained she’d been incarcerated and was on her way back to Izril and how were things?

Classic Ryoka. Erin sighed in relief. Then she remembered something else.

Rabbiteater!

She shouted in Selys’ face as the Drake went to read the letter. Selys nearly slapped her.

“Erin! What about him?”

“Wh-what happened to Rabbiteater? I mean…Ser Solstice.

Most of the adventurers didn’t know who Rabbiteater was, but the second name caused a lot of surprise. Levil nearly choked on his food.

“I don’t know who that other one is—but do you mean, Ser Solstice, the [Knight]? The new Lightherald of Calanfer?”

Erin’s mouth opened and continued to open as two-thirds of the inn instantly recognized the name and turned to her.

“No, I mean, my friend. Wait, is it the same Rabbiteater? He’s a—”

There was no time for anyone to stop her. Numbtongue, emerging from Octavia’s shop with the [Alchemist] in tow to figure out what the hell was going on, began to shout. But he was saved by the power of Ulvama.

The [Shaman] turned, saw Numbtongue’s expression, and then delicately, swiftly, and deliberately tossed her entire mug into Erin’s face. The [Innkeeper]’s splutter and ensuing shouting was enough time for Numbtongue to get over.

“Hey! Why did you do that—Ulvama?”

Erin glared. The [Shaman] stared at Erin.

“Acid bug on your face? I need another drink.”

She handed Ishkr her empty mug and took one off of Silveran’s tray. Erin was about to shout in confusion and anger when Numbtongue dragged her aside. Erin’s eyes went progressively rounder until she raised her head.

“There is no way. Does anyone have a recording of—what battles did you say he was in?”

Levil nodded eagerly.

“There’s an entire documentary. No, wait. What did Wistram say they were selling? A film of the war. You buy this memory crystal you can use with their cheap scrying orbs…hey, Ceria. Can I get an advance on my share? I’ll buy it all!”

Erin was glad for the commotion and recap. She had to sit down again.

“Rabbiteater’s a hero? No way.”

It wasn’t him being heroic that was so astonishing. Just—she hadn’t known about it. And she had thought she knew a lot of what happened.

Her friends, around the world. Erin suddenly looked up and found Alcaz trying to see if the bisque had fully worn off by now.

“I have to send him a [Message]. I hope he’s alright. Everyone—keep partying! I need a bath.”

Lyonette sighed.

“We can draw some water from the well later, Erin. It’ll take too long right now.”

“Darn. We need plumbing! And a bathroom! At least a towel. I’m sticky.”

Pisces pointed a finger at Erin.

“[Cleanse].”

Some of the sticky mead vanished from Erin’s clothing, and she sighed in relief. Pisces sniffed.

“As you can see, it is entirely effective in keeping oneself clean—”

Erin threw up her hands. But she was laughing.

 

——

 

The Bulkup Bisque had an effective duration of four hours. It wore off in the last thirty minutes. It also seemed like it shielded the users from some of the effects of their exertions.

At least, Normen and Alcaz claimed to feel a bit sore, but nothing to trouble anyone over.

Erin? She sat down abruptly in her wheelchair and then began yelping.

“Ow. Ow. Ouch, what’s—

Within five minutes she was grabbing a healing potion. She took one huge gulp.

Argh! My body is killing me!

The potion reduced the pain at once, and Erin relaxed—then realized she couldn’t stand up again.

“Damn! The bisque wore off!”

“…I assume that sentence made sense to someone else?”

Yvlon looked around. Erin groaned.

“I’m out of strength!”

Ceria was aware of Erin’s new food and looked around the inn, still full of activity. The new Antinium were learning the ropes and serving food to the adventurers, who were too high on relief to even care who was bringing them food and drinks.

“Well, why not eat more?”

“I don’t wanna eat bisque right now.”

“You could…oh, hey. Anyone know enchantment magic? Palt? Bezale?”

“What? Oh—[Lion’s Strength]? I could use a scroll, but that’s expensive.”

Bezale was reluctant, so Palt tapped Erin on the shoulder.

“How about [Rhinoceros Beetle’s Might]?”

“Isn’t that a Tier 3 spell?”

Ceria snorted, but Erin Solstice pushed hard and rose with a wobble. She clung to the table and blinked.

“Hey, this isn’t as strong as my bisque—but it’ll do! Bezale, how much is a [Lion’s Strength]…?”

“Eight hundred and twelve gold pieces. That’s the friend-discount.”

“…Bisque it is! I wonder if I can make it last longer? Probably more of the gumtree bark.”

It was enough for Erin to hobble around and move from seat-to-seat with. She decided a bisque would help her get around for four hours each day—or she could have two, but she didn’t know if she had enough room for bisque in her life. But if Palt enchanted her…

Well, the inn didn’t party into the night. Mostly because the adventurers left the inn to head into the town and hit the bars and celebrate. The Wandering Inn was, ironically, not the spot a lot of the teams wanted to be.

When you said, ‘I was at the Village of the Dead raid, and now I’m rich’, the guests in this inn tended to say, ‘okay, that’s great’. They didn’t buy you a drink or give you a star-struck look of wonder because they’d seen the team that went into Albez and slew Adult Crelers.

“Hey, Lyonette. Whatever happened to our door?”

Erin called out as adventurers began to head to Liscor to get back to Invrisil. She was worried Lyonette had been stonewalled before even getting to the Council, but the [Princess] just turned around.

“The door? The Council asked me to give them a day for all the arranged transits. But they promised to bring it here as soon as the gates open next morning.”

Erin’s mouth opened.

“…Huh? Wh—just like that? What about all the fees you wanted to collect?”

Lyonette’s face soured.

“For using the door? Councilmember Lism told me he’d discuss that tomorrow morning. Mrsha, dear. You’re going to get to play with Gire tomorrow morning!”

Mrsha looked up and then patted Moore excitedly on the head. She wanted to introduce one tall friend to another! She completely missed the adults’ looks of interest or reservation at Lyonette’s smile.

 

——

 

Presently, it was night and thus had gone another day of The Wandering Inn. Adventurers earning coin, friends abroad, and Erin walking.

Not a bad day at all by Normen’s calculations. Quiet, but dramatically quiet. It was indeed pleasant. He could see himself doing this for a long time.

Did he crave the new lands or feel some tinge of regret when he saw the adventurers? Yes. But the inn had a rhythm of its own. The [Innkeeper] led no charges in battle unless she did, but here…

Here things mattered. For instance, as Normen was eating his supper—he’d stayed sharp rather than eat with the guests—he noticed Erin walking into her garden, leaning on her chair for support. Normen turned to Ishkr.

“Can I help you clean up, sir?”

The Gnoll stopped with a huge load of plates.

“I’m fine, thanks. Liska will help me clean up.

He glowered at his sister and the two Workers who were bussing the tables. She glared back and began pulling chairs and tables to the side for sweeping.

Normen didn’t know how the [Servers] enjoyed that kind of life. He wiped his mouth, stood up, and sidled over to the garden. Mostly because a certain little Gnoll girl, who’d made Moore promise to come back tomorrow morning, was creeping in after Erin.

“Mrsha? It’s bedtime. Mrsha…”

Normen saw Mrsha turn, notice him, then hop through the door. He grabbed for her and missed.

“Come on, Miss Mrsha. A poor fellow—or girl—keeps a lady waiting.”

He whispered as he chased her around the outskirts of the [Garden of Sanctuary]. The new plants were growing nicely, although Normen wasn’t much of a plant person. Mrsha clearly wanted to run around some more, and the Brother obliged her.

They were quiet enough or Erin was preoccupied enough that she didn’t notice them slipping in behind her. She stood amidst the Faerie Flowers and Sage’s Grass at the top of the hill. Mrsha was wiggling in Normen’s grip, and he was sneaking back to deliver her to Lyonette when he heard Erin speaking.

“Whew, Numbtongue and Octavia? Who would have predicted that? I mean—it makes sense. But wow.”

Mrsha stopped wiggling, and she and Normen exchanged a look. The Brother blinked. So Erin wasn’t oblivious? And yet, he was almost completely certain the bisque hadn’t occurred to her without his suggesting it.

Erin folded her arms. She stood there for a few seconds, nodding, then shaking her head.

“I’m…I’m not having the talk! Octavia probably knows everything. Yeah. Alright, and Ryoka’s alive. That’s good. I guess I’ll find out what the heck she was doing later. How long does it take to sail from Terandria to Izril? Mysteries.”

She was talking to herself. Hyping herself up? Despite himself, Normen was a Brother of Serendipitous Meetings, and anyone on the street loved a secret. Mrsha was just a nosy girl. They listened, tip-toeing to the door when Erin spoke.

“Alright. Okay. Alright, okay.”

She took a few breaths and then let go of the wheelchair and thrust one hand into the sky as she planted her feet a shoulder’s width apart. Erin stayed like that—then she grabbed the wheelchair and shook her head.

“Nah. What about—”

She pointed forwards dramatically. Then she tried to copy Pisces’ thumbs-up pose. Mrsha was giggling so hard that Normen had to cover her mouth. Erin gave up in the end and just clenched a fist.

“Here goes nothing. <Post: Heroic Quest>!

Both Gnoll and Brother stopped smiling. They stared up as Erin raised her hand.

“Heroic Quest: Zeladona’s Trial of a Thousand Blades! Receive the [Walk of the Swordmaster] Skill! A thousand people must participate! Survival not guaranteed! Reward—the Skill. Posted rewards—um—wait.”

A charge flickered in the air. Just like the first time, Normen felt something wanting to set his hair on end, but unlike when Erin had nailed the quest to the Adventurer’s Guild—it wasn’t quite working. The [Innkeeper] leaned on her wheelchair.

“Darn. I’m missing something. It’s not the conditions…it’s the reward? I know how it works, but I can’t give out the—huh. Damn.”

She sighed. Mrsha and Normen exchanged a look of silent awe. Then, Erin Solstice closed her eyes. She took a breath—and the [Garden of Sanctuary] went very, very quiet. Normen felt his arms tremble, and Mrsha stopped breathing.

“<Post: Legendary Quest>.”

Erin’s words hung in the air, as if you could almost see the letters hanging there. She spoke slowly, and Normen felt like each word was trying to insert themselves into his head.

“Legendary Quest: Destroy Rosh—

She hesitated. Normen was about to shout at her. Don’t. Don’t post that quest.

There wouldn’t be an inn left. Not even if the entire Brotherhood were here. And the [Innkeeper] needed no Ulvama, nor Normen. She sighed, and the words faded out of the air.

“…Not yet. Not yet. Not that or anything else. Not—”

She turned, and Normen and Mrsha slipped out the door as Erin began rolling downhill. Silently, Mrsha accepted her scolding and went to bed, though Normen was sure she wouldn’t sleep easy.

Yes. This was why he was here. The Brother went to his own light sleep. Rather than this being too easy or calm, he only feared, even with his new levels? Even at Level 30?

He wouldn’t be able to do what was needed when the time came.

 

——

 

The next day, Erin Solstice was in more pain, but a healing potion sip sorted her out. She woke up, asked Normen to take her to the Mage’s Guild, and sent Ryoka a reply.

At the same time, she filed a request.

“Hey. Um. Do you know where [Witches] are? I’m looking for a ‘Nanette’. Can I send her a [Message]?”

The [Mage] had to lean over the counter to talk to her. The Drake hesitated.

“Do you mean a [Witch] in general? We don’t…just keep records of random [Witches], Miss Solstice.”

“Okay. But you have records, right?”

“Are you asking us to search through all the records of known [Witches] for a Nanette?”

“Yes. She’s on Izril, around Riverfarm, maybe? But she may have moved. Can you put out a [Message]-thing for all Mage’s Guilds in the area asking if she’ll talk to me? Say I’m, uh—trying to contact her regarding witch-stuff.”

“I suppose that’s possible. The cost will be…let me add this up.”

Erin interrupted the Drake as he fetched a kind of abacus out.

“Wait, hold on. Can I talk to Emperor Laken? I’ll ask him if he knows anything.”

“You mean—the [Emperor]? You can’t just send a [Message] spell to someone of that class randomly. He is on an exclusivity list. Even then, his [Messages] are vetted by his people.”

“Yeah, but I know him. He [Messaged] me, actually. Tell him I’m looking for Nanette.”

“You aren’t on his lists. I could inquire—”

Erin had to reach up to slap her hands on the desk.

“What do you mean, I’m not on the list? He talked to me! Isn’t that proof?”

The Drake was having a bad day. He had to confer with a senior and then groaned.

“Oh. You were dead, so you’ve been removed from—I have to contact Riverfarm’s Mage Guild and ask them to clarify. It may take a while—”

I’m not dead! Just tell him I’m not dead!

“Er, Miss Solstice. I’d hate to interrupt as it were, but this isn’t this gentleman’s fault, exactly.”

The Drake gave Normen a look of sincere gratitude as Erin hesitated. She looked around at the other customers waiting in line, staring at her.

“Classic Solstice moment.”

One of the Drakes, Menolit, of all people, chuckled. Erin turned beet red.

“I—I would like to inquire at Riverfarm. Thanks. Um…do you accept tips?”

 

——

 

When Erin got back to her inn, the portal door was being installed in Hexel’s room by no less than the [Architect] himself. Erin brightened up—she had been embarrassed into silence the entire ride back—right up until she heard the argument.

Lyonette, Lism, and the [Negotiator], Teliv, were having a duel in the middle of the inn’s hallway.

On one hand, you had Lyonette, flanked by two Thronebearers, the aura of royalty on her side and a [Princess]’ knowledge of negotiations. The Thronebearers themselves were as savvy in this field as any other non-combat profession.

On the other side—Teliv, a [Negotiator]. And Lism.

Lism’s stubbornness seemed to be winning. Teliv flinched when he saw Erin and tried to hide behind the [Councilmember], but Lyonette kept snapping.

“What do you mean, no remunerations? You’ve had that door running for months!”

“Yes, and we are completely willing to offer you credit on your taxes for the coming fiscal year. Ah, Miss Solstice! Your door is being returned to you. I hope you will remember Liscor’s tax on visitors, but we are delighted to return the door to its proper owner. We never intended to hold onto it, as you can see.”

The Drake’s smile was not being returned by Erin. She gave him a suspicious look.

“You’re being nice. What’s wrong? Are you not paying us? That’s illegal.”

“Indeed it is. Erin’s a citizen of Liscor. She had to pay her taxes—I demand a share of the profits. Not even half, but a—quarter will do for however long the door was running.”

Lyonette’s eyes flashed. She knew Liscor had funding from selling lands and their other recent economic ventures. They could afford to hire a famous [Architect] in Hexel.

Lism sighed as the [Innkeeper] joined forces with the [Princess]. Teliv was no help, so the Drake put up his claws.

“Very well, Miss Solstice, Miss Marquin. You win.”

He held out a claw.

“I believe that would be sixty gold pieces. We’ll round it up, but we’re two hundred and forty plus gold coins in the negative, so a quarter…”

Erin blinked at his claw. Lyonette’s mouth opened.

“You lost money on the door?”

Suddenly, it clicked. Lism glanced at the door being maneuvered into place.

“We did indeed. That damn door has been more trouble than it’s worth. I wish you the best of luck making a profit on it, but if you want the actual income—you’re not going to get it. For four months, we’ve been losing money on it. The only thing that even kept it from bleeding gold was sending supplies through.”

“But the fee for each person is six silver—”

“No, it’s ten. We upped the price to twelve, but then brought it back down. And even then, as I think you’ll find—recharging the door for all the foot traffic costs more than you can spend.”

“Impossible. That might be the case in Liscor, but Erin’s inn produces mana.”

Lyonette spoke flatly, and Lism laughed.

“You think so? There’s a bit more traffic coming through the door these days. Do you know how many Pallassians are willing to visit Liscor in a day?”

“No…”

“At least a hundred. How many can your inn sustain per day? And that’s just Pallass coming through one way. We’ve subsidized the costs against the business they bring. But we don’t make money on recharging the door. We’ve tried mana stones—that’s the way to bleed the most gold. It’s simplest to hire [Mages] to spend their mana on the door. You’ll need a rotation of at least forty. I’ll send a [Clerk] with the details.”

Erin and Lyonette looked at each other in horror. A hundred visitors per day? From Pallass? Lism was backing away slowly.

“As you can see, we consider it a public service, but we will be delighted to consider some credits in the future. Now, I must be—”

He was almost out of the inn when Ser Sest leaned against the doorway.

“Councilmember, please, have a seat! It would not do for such an important Councilmember to leave without refreshments. And as I’m sure Lady Lyonette and Miss Solstice would point out—the income of the door is still income, no matter the expenses Liscor chooses to take on.”

Lism cursed and tried to use Teliv as a battering ram, but Dame Ushar also spoke cheerfully.

“It would also behoove Liscor to negotiate for usage of the door.”

“What? We earn a tax! It’s implied we’re working together.”

“Yes…but what’s to stop Miss Solstice from recouping her losses by charging three gold coins per visitor? That would cut down on traffic nicely.”

Lyonette started breathing again as Lism put his back to the wall. He produced a quill like a sword and waved it back and forth.

“Teliv—get me our [Clerks]. And Krshia.”

They were squaring up for a battle for the ages. Erin glanced at Lyonette and whispered to the [Princess].

“…I really don’t want to be part of this. You handle the door, Lyonette.”

“Erin! You need to at least consider the inn’s finances! I’m managing it myself, but—”

—But the [Princess], despite acting as a manager for the inn’s affairs and finances, was not, in fact, good at high-level economics.

It was a realization that Mrsha had come to. She was trying to sneak up on Lism and plant a note on his back, but she had realized something of late.

Erin and Lyonette were sort of bad with money.

And it said a lot that a [Princess] of Calanfer was better than Erin. Lyonette at least counted the money coming in, but here was the thing—she was sort of, um, princess-like in how she regarded money.

In short, Lyonette’s funds went into a vault buried in the garden. The inn was the state or kingdom, and all proceeds went into the treasury. She then doled it out to vassals and could have really benefited from a [Chamberlain of the Coin].

Lyonette had been taught more to audit and make sure her council wasn’t mismanaging or embezzling funds, rather than how to use it. Erin? Erin just asked if there was enough to fund the newest project and thought that as long as more money went in than went out, everything was peachy.

Mrsha wasn’t exactly interested in numbers either, but she had been hanging out with Aunt Selys and Gire. And what she realized was that there was a difference between the two.

Gire hadn’t been able to meet with Moore, so Mrsha had just played with him that morning. Gire was, in fact, working out the Ekhtouch tribe’s affairs and delegating budgets of gold to various tribe members, ordering them to link up and managing purchases of healing potions across the continent through proxies.

Selys also got mad when Mrsha messed with her paperwork. She had [Clerks], budgets, and income reports.

Actually, she hadn’t been able to take Mrsha in that morning either to avoid her watching Lyonette’s showdown with Lism. She was with Kevin in the common room.

“Well? What does it look like?”

Pisces was hovering at their table and sniffing self-importantly now and then, but he was struggling to keep up. Kevin frowned at the numbers and the circled ones.

“…Yeah, you need double-bookkeeping.”

“What’s that?”

“Uh—something from home. This is way too confusing, but I think that’s on purpose. Whomever this guy is—he’s making some of the gold vanish.”

Woman, and I knew it. I’m going to the Watch.”

Selys slapped the table. Kevin exhaled as Pisces nodded hesitantly. He squinted at the list of numbers.

“It is quite, ah, adeptly concealed. How did you identify the thefts, pray tell?”

“Aside from the fact that I felt like I was spending too much gold? I…found these ledgers open on my desk. I must have been looking into them. See how I circled each bad entry?”

“Nice.”

Selys rubbed at her head.

“Yes. Nice. I barely remember it, but I’ve had a lot of late nights—”

Mrsha sniffed the ledger. It smelled like a rat. Well, the entire embezzlement was also fishy, so she let that slide.

In that sense, rats were better with money than Erin and Lyonette. Mrsha tugged at Selys’ arm.

“Not now, Mrsha. Aunt Selys has to go arrest a mean [Clerk]. What? Oh—the door.”

Selys knew what the fuss was about and grimaced. She’d explained to Pisces and Kevin, and the [Mechanic] winced. He stood up fast.

“I’ve gotta go. Before Erin thinks I can help.”

“Can’t you help her like me? You can at least put together numbers—”

Kevin backed away so fast he was practically moonwalking over to the hallway.

“No, absolutely not. I worked in my bike shop now and then, but I hate numbers. I hate them. I can barely do Solar Cycles’ work. In fact, we have a bunch of new orders for our big clients. The Empire of Sands. So, uh—bye.”

He vanished just as Erin turned from the discussions.

“Kevin! Don’t you know about—Kevin? Wait, come back! Oh, Selys!”

“Pass. I’m clearly not cut out to judge character, Erin. Excuse me. I need to find Relc.”

The Drake also got up, and Mrsha saw Erin’s face fall. The little Gnoll girl sighed. Lyonette had the Thronebearers’ help, but they didn’t manage businesses. They could negotiate, but it seemed, to her, that the inn was badly mismanaged economically.

What to do? She pondered for a moment, then brightened up.

Wait a second. Mrsha the Networker might be able to help out after all. Didn’t she know about someone who could help with business ventures? She scampered up to her room to find her [Message] scroll. Mrsha scribbled furiously with a self-satisfied smile.

 

——

 

King Fetohep of Khelt was reading. He was not happy while reading.

He had spent sixteen days straight repairing the damage to his realm, allocating new lands for the Gnoll tribes, but mostly—conducting diplomacy, a rarity for Khelt on such a level.

It was taxing, because, while he could write a [Message] or speak via spell while also doing paperwork, he had to pretend to devote all of his attention to a fellow ruler of state. But it was a certain trio of kingdoms that were demanding his attention.

Well, one in particular. However, his new expansion into Jecrass needed security, leadership, and restoration from the war. It was not monster-free, and the people were afraid of the undead. Worse, however…Khelt sighed.

The Claiven Earth and Medain. In fact, not just them, but several cities had, apparently, surrendered while he had ridden north. Khelt was now in possession of two kingdoms. The Claiven Earth were being very…very careful. He had not asked much of them, and they had not protested. Yet.

The armies he had sent across Khelt were fresh in everyone’s mind, but Fetohep was also aware many half-Elves had joined the exodus to Izril. He had to deal with them, but carefully. Simply…releasing them was an issue. There were many factors, but the half-Elves were at least intelligent. The cities who wanted to be part of Khelt could be dealt with.

Yet one man was somehow so…imbecilic that he was a worse headache than all of the other elements combined. Fetohep read the long [Message] accompanied by—he stared down at the shipment of spices from Baleros—a gift.

 

Your Exalted Majesty of Khelt, Eternal Protector of the Sands, King of Kings Fetohep of Khelt—

 

It was always a new combination of addresses. Was this hand-written? It was slightly harder to read.

 

—Your Obedient Friend and [High King] Perric would like to inform you that I have commissioned six statues in each major city of Medain. I have demanded their construction within the month, and I hope this small gesture will please you—

 

Fetohep groaned. He actually didn’t know what to do.

He said no parades; Perric threw him a banquet. He insisted on no banquets; statues appeared. It was even worse, because the High King was not a clever man.

If he were, he would have realized that Fetohep would have accepted statues of Khelta or Serept or any other ruler, but himself?

A month’s time? They weren’t even going to be good statues, and meanwhile, Medain would be looking upon the hated image of the tyrant.

“What does one say to a complete fool? I…cannot express the words in a straightforward enough manner. Perhaps a [Curse of the Dunce] would do when I pen my reply.”

He needed to cut Medain and the Claiven Earth loose. Just—Fetohep was reading the rest of the long address when a [Message] scroll flashed with new words. He looked to the side and saw it was one of his personal ones. Keyed to…

He read the brief message. Fetohep of Khelt raised a hand, and an enchanted quill poised to take his dictation.

“No.”

 

——

 

Fetohep: No.

 

Mrsha’s face fell. She wrote back furiously.

 

Mrsha: I don’t need your help, you stinky, lazy skeleton! Poo-brain! Creler-face!

Fetohep: I will draft a [Message] to Erin Solstice with the contents of your statements.

Mrsha: Have a nice day! Goodbye!

 

Well, darn. Fetohep was clearly a high-level [Mrsha Expert]. She couldn’t even get a rise out of him. Mrsha thought for a second and then thought of the other person she could contact.

Wait a second, yes! Didn’t he do math-things too? She should have asked Yelroan first! And like that, Mrsha wondered where he was.

Was he okay after the battle? She frowned and began to write a letter, then realized this [Message] scroll was keyed to Fetohep. She’d need to get to the Mage’s Guild, but that was okay.

“Miss Mrsha? What do you need, a walk to the Mage’s Guild? I believe Princess Lyonette will approve that. I shall go at once.”

Ser Lormel glanced over his shoulder, and Mrsha quite audibly heard Lyonette saying a few bad words to Lism. She almost wanted to stay, but Ser Lormel hurried her out of the inn. They were just heading down the hill when someone caught up.

“Hey guys…”

Erin Solstice had bisqued up and innocently avoided Mrsha and Lormel’s stare as Normen and Alcaz caught up. She put her hands in her pockets.

“Whatcha doing, Mrsha? Going to the Mage’s Guild? I see, I see. I’ll just tag along. Maybe Laken’s written me back.”

Mrsha pointed back at the inn accusatorially. Erin glanced over her shoulder.

“Lyonette? She’s got it. Let’s go. Right now. Come on, hup, hup, hup! I’ll race you!”

 

——

 

Laken had not written back to Erin, and the [Mage] at the desk visibly tried to duck down when Erin returned. But he took Mrsha’s [Message] with some relief as Erin tried to act…peaceable.

“Who is this Yelroan guy again, Mrsha?”

Mrsha wrote on a piece of paper for Erin.

“Yelroan is a considered scholar of the mathemagical world. I vouchsafe him as a good friend, if one with altogether too much style to be lumped in with the plebian academics. He has nice sunglasses. He reminds me of Saliss. He was working for the bad Plain’s Eye tribe, but then redeemed his actions by saving my life! He and Merish—of whom I have considerably less positive things to say—are the only two Plain’s Eye Gnolls worth a damn in my esteemed opinion.”

Erin glanced at Ser Lormel, and he dabbed at one eye.

“Such beautiful prose. Worthy of any Calanferian missive. I say, I say, well done, Miss Mrsha. Although I will note the foul language in the last line.”

The [Innkeeper] stared down at Mrsha’s beaming face. She liked her writing—Fetohep refused to reply if she wrote like this, though. He said it was ‘odious for a child to write so’.

Erin’s face fell as she remembered the tribe of doom-slaying Gnolls…that Mrsha had told her about. She had only stories, not lived it, but Mrsha still had friends abroad.

“The Meeting of Tribes. I always wanted to see it. Now…how are things?”

Mrsha sighed, which was answer enough. She shook her head and began to write. Meanwhile, a [Message] skipped around the world to a certain [Mathematician].

How were the Meeting of Tribes, the surviving Gnolls, doing? More importantly, now Erin and Mrsha wondered it—

What had happened to Plain’s Eye?

 

——

 

Yelroan was working when Mrsha’s [Message] found him. Unlike Fetohep of Khelt, he was not managing the affairs of his tribe.

Not anymore. Feshi had him doing his work for the other tribes at the Meeting of Tribes, taking lists of names and seeing who was dead and what was left.

But that was not the only thing the blonde-furred Gnoll was working on. He was the premier [Mathematician] of Izril.

Alright—the only one. So there were institutions aware of him. The Merchant’s Guild, for instance, hired him for the same thing Haldagaz had done for Selys.

Checking their numbers. Yelroan could, for instance, actually visualize numbers. It helped him spot trends and irregularities, but part of a [Mathematician]’s class were Skills that anyone could value.

“[Data Discrepancy]. Let’s see…it might just be a mistake in the ledgers.”

Yelroan’s quill circled an entry in red ink. He supposed a lesser [Clerk] might have this Skill, but he could tell almost at once this was probably only a bookkeeping error by an apprentice, not a systematic pattern. He was going to advise the Merchant’s Guild in Pallass to stop trading via their northeastern roads in steel products.

They were just not profitable. He’d done a comparative—and it was worth more to sell south, even to Oteslia’s weaker market forces. Manus was better, and Liscor was untried, but if the door kept charging the same rates, they’d make a fortune.

Now, Yelroan saw this based on the data, but he was aware there were surprises. He wasn’t a [Merchant]; his job was to take data, infer some conclusions, but mostly, present the data back to the employer in digestible formats.

He’d done that all the time for the late Chieftain Xherw and other Chieftains, so Yelroan wrote a brief summary with all the discrepancies he’d found as he packed up the files. Then he included his breakdowns of profits in their trading routes and his recommendation.

“[Message] for the Merchant’s Guild in Pallass. Care of Guildmaster Toiese. Ask them what to do with my files—store, return, or burn?”

Yelroan had a system. The Gnoll who had the [Message] scroll was one he’d worked with. She was…well. She took the [Message] without a word. Her eyes lingered on Yelroan for a second too long. Then she got to work, sending the data.

Store, return, or burn was common practice. Either Yelroan kept the data for use later or a City Runner brought it back—an expensive, slightly dangerous option. Lastly? He could just erase the valuable records, since the Merchant’s Guild obviously had their copies.

Some idiots only kept one copy and sent them to him. Yelroan shuddered at the worst practices he’d seen. He nodded to the message-Gnoll and retreated to his office.

His tent hadn’t been damaged in all the fighting. Amazingly, every warrior had just rushed past it or looked in, seen little to loot or destroy, and run on. Yelroan supposed that was a commentary on the value of numbers being disguised.

Today, over two weeks after the Meeting of Tribes, the betrayal of their entire tribe’s history, the death of his Chieftain and Shaman Ulcreziek, Yelroan worked with numbers.

No. He was not over it. If anything, he was working to avoid what he’d seen. If he stopped and thought about it—

He’d panic. It was a kind of denial, and it applied to the assistant sending [Messages].

What had happened—happened. It was hard to deny. But Yelroan sat in the Plain’s Eye camp. Or rather, what was left of it. He stuck a quill in an inkpot, ready to get back to calculating just how many healing potions the tribes used per month.

There was going to be a real shortage of potions. However, Yelroan’s quill scratched on the parchment.

“Out of ink? Damn.”

Yelroan cracked another inkwell…then another…then realized he was out. He looked around, bemused…and realized no one had refilled his paper sheaves either.

That was how he knew his tribe was ashambles. Just—no one remembered to give him ink. Yelroan got up slowly. He hesitated as he walked out of his tent.

The Gnoll who sent [Messages] had been placed next to his tent, so he spoke for a second.

“I’m just—heading out to get some ink. Do you know who has any?”

“Silverfang?”

She spoke after a second, her voice croaking with disuse. Yelroan vaguely recalled Satar talking about her free ink.

“That makes sense. I’ll be back.”

She barely nodded. He stepped out of the tent, and the sunlight gleamed off his fur. Yelroan looked around and inhaled, even now, the stench of death. But far away.

The blood was still clinging to them, even two weeks later. Not that many Plain’s Eye warriors were around. They were—split off, divided up. Some were under the care of other tribes. Others were serving their original subtribes in Plain’s Eye, but they were not a force anymore.

They could not be. The trust was not there.

Plain’s Eye was camped on the outskirts of the former Meeting of Tribes. A kind of…ragtag assembly from the great, organized tribe it had been. Many of their members were gone. More would leave, tomorrow, and the day after.

They were not a tribe any more. At least—Yelroan doubted they could ever be. The name was tainted. Their very purpose was called into question, and the Gnolls who had lived through the war in the Great Plains had become the most hated people of the plains.

Yet they were alive. Alive and not butchered for their deeds.

Chieftain Feshi had seen to that. Adetr Steelfur, the other Chieftains had refused to let this become a second slaughter. So there were many Plain’s Eye Gnolls alive.

There was just one thing. As Yelroan emerged from the tent, he saw many Gnolls glance his way. Just—glance and sometimes stare, then, often, look away. He was used to it by now, but for once, Yelroan was glad his sunglasses hid part of his expression.

He kept his face straight as the light yellow, blonde fur on his body waved in the breeze. He headed past Gnolls sitting aimlessly around. Children silently mending blankets, braiding cord to make rope.

Even fletching, cooking—but almost all trade goods. They needed to make money.

After all—they had to live. And many of the Gnolls who’d fled had taken a lot of the tribe’s coin with them. The work of making an arrow, tanning hide, that was distracting.

Yet it was hard for the Plain’s Eye Gnolls to ignore it for long. Because, unlike Yelroan—the reason why he was used to the stares? The [Mathematician] felt his fur rising, even now.

For everywhere he looked, all he saw were white Gnolls.

Doombringers. No—Doombearers. Every single one. Yelroan was the one Gnoll with fur any other color; every other Gnoll had snow-white fur. They would stare at each other, and that instinctive horror would rise—then they’d look down at themselves and remember.

An entire tribe, changed by the Witch of Webs’ magic. Save for Yelroan.

That last bit wasn’t actually that surprising. Yelroan had essentially exiled himself from the tribe by opposing Xherw. If it had not come to the end, he would have surely left his people forever rather than be part of the killing.

Was he spared? Why had he come back? Yelroan didn’t know. He just…

Knew math. He knew this job. So he worked. And slept little, but to see that battle where all the treachery had come to light. And he did not wake with nightmares to realize this was reality, but relief that at least Mrsha was alive. At least—

It was over. Now came penance, and Yelroan was at least willing to earn gold so the Doombearers might not starve.

It also made his life easier. The Gnoll guards at the Silverfang camp recognized him, but if he’d had white fur, they would have questioned him.

Sort of ironic, that. White fur was no longer the symbol of cursed fate. It was now a Plain’s Eye symbol. A mark of traitors.

Not a great move for white-furred Gnolls, but the few that Yelroan knew looked relieved it was over.

Then again—they didn’t have white fur either. Qwera the Golden Gnoll and Wer the Wanderer both had brown fur, dyed, and both had declined to ‘go natural’.

Yelroan saw Qwera briefly while he was asking for some ink from a Silverfang [Packmistress], who gave him four bottles in exchange for a signature and note that he’d taken it. Silverfangs were organized. Yelroan had a meeting with Gaarh Marsh to give them a better system of keeping track of things tomorrow.

The Golden Gnoll looked exasperated as she stood in the middle of the Silverfang camp. She was loading up her caravans. A [Merchant] sold what they could, but she needed to buy as well, so she had a lot of artwork, valuables from jewelry to ceramics, family treasures, all loaded up.

A lot of it was Plain’s Eye. They’d sold it to Qwera to raise funds, and she was going to send it, probably to Drake cities or further abroad, for a profit.

In return, she had offloaded much of her caravan’s supplies, but her generosity had limits. She was snapping at someone as Yelroan headed back to his camp.

“I have given you every deal I can, Merish.”

“You still have that Pallassian steel. There is enough metal for more than one tribe in those ingots.”

“Yes, and I’ve promised it to Weatherfur, who will divide it among the tribes.”

“But none for us.”

Yelroan stopped and turned his head. He saw a large, familiar Gnoll, two hand-axes at his side, speaking with his head lowered to Qwera. A few Silverfang Gnolls were watching him, but Merish had switched sides at the end and had been the one to kill Xherw. For that, he gained a pass.

Yet his fur was white. That was the difference between them. Merish noticed Yelroan and nodded to him, and the [Mathematician] stopped, but the [Shamanic Warrior] was still part of his tribe. If anything—he was one of the reasons Plain’s Eye had not completely disintegrated.

“I am not giving Plain’s Eye ingots to forge metal. Ask Feshi for some or what the other tribes make. I’m entirely aware of how poor your tribe is and how dire this coming winter is.”

The Golden Gnoll’s own brilliant fur gleamed in the light. Merish waited, but Qwera was done. She turned away and shouted.

Ysara! Are you done packing or are you going to dally here until your precious little sister appears on Baleros fighting Hydras?”

“I’m ready to go! She’s not doing that, is she?”

Ysara Byres was packing her single wagon. Qwera rolled her eyes.

“Not yet. Let’s say our farewells. Merish—”

She looked back at the Doomslayer with little love. Merish looked so tired as Yelroan approached, but Qwera gave him a single nod.

“You don’t have to keep being Plain’s Eye. Maybe it would be better if they did disband.”

“Even if they wanted to join other tribes and forget—we are white Gnolls. Someone must atone for what we’ve done.”

The Golden Gnoll glanced at Yelroan and then spat to one side.

“A shame you’re all wearing white fur now. But at least it’ll make the others less of a target if some idiots start all this again. Yelroan, are you really staying here?”

“For the moment, Miss Qwera.”

Yelroan raised a paw and nearly dropped an inkwell. Merish caught it, and Qwera sighed.

“My offer stands. I could always use someone with a head for numbers. Alright then. Off to Liscor or wherever! And about time, too. Tesy’s already raising hell in Oteslia.”

Tesy and Vetn were gone. Qwera and Ysara were moving out. A lot of Gnolls were going—but the remnants were still here, trying to figure out what to do. Merish turned to Yelroan.

“Ink?”

“I’m out. It’s nice to have Satar around. No steel for Plain’s Eye?”

“We don’t need weapons. We need—tools. And arrowheads. And any number of things. Few tribes can spare that even if they would trade with us. Did Ysara offer you a job as well?”

Yelroan shrugged self-consciously. He had always known he could quit his tribe and find a job anywhere from Rhir to a big city, but Merish hadn’t known that. Yelroan stuck with his tribe out of loyalty, not a need for work.

“I can always take her or anyone else up later. You need someone telling you how much you have. Are you still planning on a city?”

Merish rumbled in his chest as they walked out of the camp, back to their ragged mess.

“Yes. Most of the warriors are dead—even if all the other subtribes agree to rejoin us, we will need walls. In case of…anger.”

Reprisals. Not to mention Drake armies. Merish gestured vaguely to the west.

“Feshi has marked a spot westwards. We’ll set out soon enough.”

“Generous of her. We get to build a city or town right in Manus’ path if they come calling. Do you really think you can quarry enough stone in…”

Yelroan was no [Geomancer], but the flat Great Plains did not strike him as a good spot to build a city out of. Merish just shook his head.

“We cannot do what we’ve done. Plains Eye—no, whatever tribe we become, the white Gnolls here will need to survive the winter, first. And monsters, other tribes, Drakes—”

“Walls. Well, maybe some [Shamans] can raise the first walls out of dirt. I need to get back to work. Tell me if you need anything?”

Merish just nodded. Yelroan waited, and then he spoke.

“—You don’t need to be the one all the other tribes shout at. You…”

You killed Xherw. It made Merish less of an enemy to the other tribes, but more of a traitor to some of his people. Merish, though, just shook his head. He looked down, and Yelroan felt another chill on his fur.

Merish had taken Xherw’s axes. They were one of the few valuable things left that the other tribes had not taken. The [Shamanic Warrior] spoke heavily.

“Chieftain Feshi is not a cruel person. She is a [Strategist], but even she is reluctant to give us much. Yelroan, the other tribes will move away from here, those that don’t build their own settlement here.”

Out of the fort that they’d fought around and the Chieftains’ Tent, still hiding the secrets of Earth. Yelroan nodded. Merish glanced west.

“We have enough to eat and live off of now. Once winter sets in, if no preparations are made, tens of thousands will die with no one to beg for help.”

“Right. Well then. I’ll keep working on your budget. You need to find more [Shamans], Merish. Or we won’t even have dirt huts, even if we keep making more tents. Too many burned.”

It wasn’t cold, sleeping under the stars, unless it rained. Merish nodded, and Yelroan saw him walk through the camp.

Alone. Until the first Gnolls drifted up to him, and he gave them orders, which they began to follow. His sister, a little Lizardman letting a Gnoll girl cling to his back, warriors…

Somehow, despite the burden on him, Yelroan thought Merish looked better than he had when first he had come back from Rhir. His friend had told him that this, at least, gave him no more nightmares.

Just regrets.

Oh, a world full of regrets. The quiet Gnoll, as shellshocked as everyone else, blinked as Yelroan put an inkwell in front of her.

“Just in case you run out.”

“Thank you, mathematician.”

That was the first full sentence she’d said all day. He tried to smile—then he returned to his workspace. Yelroan stared at the inkwells, head in his paws.

All his ambitions for the future, all his dreams, the certainty of everything was gone.

This is what we deserve.

He knew that. But it still…Yelroan tried to count, blankly, how many gold coins they’d need. No—how many monsters might come calling.

That was when the Gnoll called out.

“Mathematician Yelroan, a personal [Message] for you.”

“Put it in my pile.”

“No…it’s from…her. The Doombr—the Doombearer. Mrsha du Marquin.”

Yelroan sat up, and his head rose as the first [Message] from that little, innocent Gnoll, found him. He strode out, read the [Message], and sighed.

 

To Yelroan,

Are you keeping well? It is me, Mrsha. I am writing to you in inquiries regarding your superlative mathematical talents. I have something of a math-related quandary with two dunces managing my inn and was hoping you had some insights into the subject.

Are you well? Is Qwera still there? I hope you are okay. It feels as though the Meeting of Tribes is so far away, but I still think of Chieftain Torishi, and I am very sad. However, I trust Feshi is in the peak of health, and I want you to be too.

You were nice. Are you okay? Can you help me with a math thing? We have a door that earns money, but Erin (she’s alive), doesn’t know how to make it earn money…

 

It was painfully ornate at times and also young. It hurt—more than anything. Especially because she remembered it all.

Torishi Weatherfur. Iraz Steelfur. Cetrule Silverfang, Firrelle Ekhtouch, Reizet Az’muzarre, yes, even Xherw and Ulcreziek Plain’s Eye.

Too many legends had fallen. Too many holes left in their people. Sometimes, Yelroan thought of what had happened, and his anger wasn’t just at Xherw—but at the Drakes.

Xherw had been a traitor to his people, made a monster, and tried to kill countless Gnolls. The Drakes? They were just—bastards.

He realized Mrsha had laid out a small business problem, and he thought of the door’s mana consumption problem as a numbers game. Not so much in terms of how to fix it, but deal with an unchangeable variable. Yelroan wrote back.

 

Dear Mrsha,

I am well. Plain’s Eye, or what we now are, is stable. The Gnolls are still mostly in shock, and we help out. Mostly, another tribe like Silverfang says it needs burial detail or asks for our artisans, and we work.

I’m still at my old job, to help pay for costs, mostly. Merish—I hope you don’t think too poorly of him—is keeping everything together. He thinks it will be a tough winter and is saving up. A lot of the subtribes fled, and we gave a lot of our goods and gold to the other tribes when they left. So you could say we’re now the poorest tribe in the world, but I’ve seen Greenpaw’s income.

I don’t know what’s coming next, but you gave me a simple problem. You’re going to have to get a deal with each city you connect the door to. Count each person who goes where—and they subsidize the costs. That means, if the actual cost of the door sending someone is twenty silver, but you only get paid ten, or six after taxes, they need to guarantee fourteen for the inn. More if you want a profit.

I can work out the average costs if you have data from Liscor. It’s not pleasant, but your only other alternative is raising prices to lower demand.

Frankly, I think Invrisil and Pallass will agree to terms. Their leaders will negotiate. Reach out to both of their offices. You want to go to the 6th Floor in Pallass and lodge an appointment with their Civic Management secretary. Entry or passports might help, but they mostly report to the Watch Captain, and this will need higher authority.

I don’t know who to go to in Invrisil, but try the [Governor]’s headquarters. If neither one pays attention to you, inform them the door is closed until you can come to a speedy agreement. 

I have sample contracts I can send you the wording on, but any Merchant’s Guild can probably do the same. Have Liscor’s send you a representative as a witness and get a Magical Contract, Tamperless-subtype. That’s very important. Then pay to send one copy to the care of Oteslia, and another to First Landing.

What that does is it means you have a witnessed, legal document proving the contract, so that if either city tries to not pay you or get out of it, you have a copy in two major cities they can’t change. Liscor will have one as well. 

That’s how to do subsidies, and if you can expand the door’s mana capacity or—I don’t actually understand what you meant when you said it runs on grass—you can obviously change the deal, but it’s not a bad idea to be paid by each city. Remember, you have a monopoly on the door.

…Do you have it secured? Also, frankly, if you’re going to be sending hundreds through the door each day, I’d be worried about bathrooms, lines, etcetera. It might be good to connect this door outside of your inn so you don’t worry about thieves or people to move through it. However Liscor did it? Ask them if you can hire the people who made it work last time. Also—

 

Yelroan dipped his quill into the inkwell and realized he was running out of space to reply. He had written all this automatically. Obviously, he was thinking, but this was sort of second-nature. Not that he’d ever seen magical doors being installed in a city, but even if he wasn’t in charge of this, you had to know this in his role which often went to more than math.

Idly, he gave the paper to the Gnoll to send back.

“I’ve got more. Are they still there?”

“Looks like it.”

“Alright, give me five minutes.”

Yelroan sat down and kept writing.

 

—security is an issue. Someone has to manage the lines, make sure no one cuts ahead or does anything like that.

I think you need to consider asking Liscor to just manage the door. Also, raise the prices. It will reduce the number of people travelling, which I know Liscor doesn’t want, but the needs of the inn are not that of a city. A hundred travellers from Pallass? Forty [Mages] to recharge one door? It’s also risky to have it connected to an army. This could really entangle the inn, Mrsha.

I’m not telling you how to do this, but bear it in mind. Oh, and you also need to make a deal with the Merchant’s Guild regarding transporting goods. You need to take a cut, but cities have import and export taxes as well as contraband.

The Merchant’s Guild will use your door to transport illicit goods and pretend they had no idea it was wrong and leave you in trouble. [Smugglers] will go through the door too—this is why Liscor and each city needs to organize it. Is there a checkpoint?

 

He handed the second piece of paper off and went to find a sample contract. After less than a minute, he got a response back.

 

This is too much work! 

:( 

Stop telling me to do things! Erin’s going to throw up all over. Pallass has a checkpoint thing with a really mean Drake! 

 

Yelroan almost smiled. He wrote back quickly, passing the contract over—the Gnoll sighed, but began to copy some of the wording so Mrsha could see. He was glad this was being paid for by her. Normally, he didn’t care, but this was now…

The Gnoll stared at the parchment, and his quill began to move faster.

 

I’m sorry, Mrsha. This is what happens when you have an object that everyone wants. You need to think about the future. Pallass would have an organized checkpoint, and the other cities should probably copy that. So should you.

I know it’s hard—you don’t have to do any of this. This is if you want this to be a civic, public door. Otherwise, just restrict access, make it exclusive, and put all these things in place on a smaller scale. It means only rich people will be able to use it, but it’s easier on you.

Change isn’t easy. It can be a good way to make money—you just need to ensure all your deals are fair, and the Merchant’s Guild can do that. You have a magic door.

I wish we did. Merish is going to lead our people westwards. Build something to keep us from starving in the winter or being attacked. It’s going to be difficult. I’m staying with him—I may remain with the other tribes, though, because I can make money here and I’m useless in a fight.

Every gold coin is going to count. Even the journey could end up with a…a lot of people dead. One big monster attack and there are a fraction of the warriors we used to have.

I know it’s necessary. No one trusts Plain’s Eye, and they shouldn’t. But the kids didn’t hunt Doombringers. Doombearers, like you. Some tribes are taking a few Gnolls on, but the white fur is risky.

I saw a zombie rise out of all the dead in the Meeting of Tribes. Then it fell backwards into a pit, and a Crypt Lord emerged. Spontaneously. Then it collapsed into two more, and whatever appeared took every Gnoll over Level 30 to fight. Lehra herself had to slay it.

That’s…bad luck. Once we’re away from the other tribes, more events like that could happen. No one can control their powers here. And the other tribes don’t want us around. 

 

He stared at the paper, then realized he was off-topic. Yelroan almost went to tear it up, but he couldn’t. He was writing what he wasn’t saying.

 

Sorry. For the door—if you’re not doing this already, do a schedule. One big transit per day or break them up if you have to. It will cut down on the inn’s guests too, and can’t you offer them food and drinks while they wait? I’m no [Innkeeper], but I bet this is all obvious. Just writing at random, sorry.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice was reading over Mrsha’s shoulder. So was Ser Lormel and even Normen, although Alcaz was glancing around.

“Whoa. This is such good advice! Who is this guy?”

Mrsha was beaming—right until that last part came in. Then her ears drooped. Erin bit her tongue as Yelroan’s emotions came spilling out onto the page.

“Oh no. That’s terrible. I didn’t know there was such trouble. Are they…this is the bad tribe, right?”

Mrsha nodded emphatically with a huge scowl. Erin tried again.

“But there are innocent kids and people? They’re not all bad.”

They’re all bad! Except for Merish and Yelroan!

Mrsha held up a furious sign. Then she amended it.

“Except for babies, maybe. But most are bad!”

“So how many babies are in the tribe? What’s Plain’s Eye?”

Ser Lormel coughed into one gauntlet.

“The…largest tribe in the world? Hundreds of thousands, perhaps more spread out in various sub-tribes? Millions?”

“How many babies is that?”

Mrsha’s face fell as Erin tried to work that out. The young woman felt her stomach clench.

“If only we could send them, like—help. Not a care package, but something like what Liscor gave to Esthelm. But they’re way too far south, right?”

Far too far from the door. And besides—Ser Lormel pointed out the obvious again.

“I believe Plain’s Eye could fill up Liscor to the brim. This is only one group, Miss Solstice. If a large one.”

“Maybe you could post a quest, Miss Solstice? Something to help them if they run into a monster? Or…send something?”

Mrsha raised her head.

I can send my allowance to Yelroan! To help babies. Only babies. Erin, give him your boon!

“My boon? I was gonna give that to Rabbiteater…hey, I haven’t booned anyone yet. Maybe. Although I’ve never met Yelroan…I don’t think I can boon anyone I haven’t met. I wonder if Ilvriss could help?”

And like that, Erin’s mind was racing. Didn’t Wil say that Feshi was a friend of theirs? Maybe—

“Salazsar is currently at war with Fissival. Sort of a tall ask if you want my opinion.”

Erin looked over and saw Menolit was still in line.

“Menolit! They are? I mean, I remember that. Sort of. What are you doing here?”

The Drake looked self-important.

“Organizing visitors for Liscor Hunted. I’ve got some clients who want to bag a Rock Crab.”

Erin rubbed her hands together. Yeah, yeah. Didn’t she know Ilvriss? And there was some Centaur that was also there—

She had lots of friends. Whom she could ask to help her do things. Like…protect and shelter and feed a few hundred thousand Gnolls.

Erin hesitated.

“Even Ilvriss isn’t gonna be happy with that one. I’d better think of some good incentives. Like a quest. I’ve got two. If I can figure out the big, big one. Or I, uh, bake him some muffins? Say, buddy, is Laken talking to me yet?”

The Drake [Mage] looked up with a sigh.

“No, Miss Solstice. The Mage’s Guild or whoever is over there is reviewing our request. But they get a lot of [Messages]…please check back tomorrow. It might take a while to reach someone in authority given our channels. Again, this is unfortunate—”

“Aw, come on! Wait, Griffon Hunt is there and Typhenous is here! I’ll just ask him! Duh! Why didn’t I think of it?”

Erin slapped her forehead. The [Mage] glowered as Erin turned to the others.

“If Nanette is there, I’ll ask Griffon Hunt to escort her back.”

“Is that team not on some sort of assignment? They cannot just take on an escort out of nowhere. That would be a tremendous breach of contract!”

Ser Lormel looked mildly horrified at the idea. Erin blew out her cheeks.

“Okay, I’ll get them to talk to Laken who sends someone with Nanette. If she’s there. Otherwise, we’ll find them. Uh—uh—maybe the Horns? Or Ryoka? If they’re willing.”

She was having a headache again. This time, Menolit, who by now was leaning on the counter and openly listening in, broke back into the conversation.

“You want to send a Gold-rank team to bring someone back? Or a Courier? I like that. That’s being rich for you. Pure overkill. Don’t use a [Flame Jet] spell to slay a rat, cast [Hurricane of Acid].”

Erin opened and closed her mouth. It was true. That did seem like a trivial waste of Ceria’s time when you put it like that.

Yelroan’s Gnolls, finding Nanette, and Erin had a bunch of other tasks like connecting with Goblinhome or looking into certain things. She had a bunch of friends, but they were people. With…desires. Interests.

“It’s too bad I can’t pay them to do that. But they’re Gold-ranks and Couriers. Damn. I need cheap…intelligent…labor.”

Mrsha the Mercenary puffed out her chest. Erin patted her on the head.

“Not you. I guess I could hire Silver-rank teams, right? Or actual [Mercenaries]?”

“That is how most people get things done, yes.”

Menolit’s face was deadpan. He was really enjoying this. Erin sighed.

“It’s too bad. But what if I got like—Vuliel Drae? That’s a bad roll of the dice. Oh, hey, Insill. Didn’t see you there. Sorry, but you guys did cause a moth attack.”

She waved at a mortified Drake. Erin felt like she was coming to some kind of a conclusion, but she turned back as Yelroan sent more files over.

“This Gnoll’s super smart, Mrsha. What did you say he did? Managed an entire tribe of Izril’s finances? I feel like that’s a difficult job. Do you think he could do our finances?”

Wistfully, Erin leaned on the counter and stared ahead. At this point, even the casual observers pretending to read newspapers or wait in line were giving her the side-eye.

This [Innkeeper] was really something, huh? Erin Solstice spoke slowly, coming to a conclusion she had really come to before being shot with crossbows.

“I think…I need more employees who can do that sort of thing. I don’t know about entire tribes, but more help’d be nice. Or…hey, Normen, Alcaz. Do you think you could go to, like, Riverfarm and find someone and bring them back?”

She looked at the two Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. Normen opened his mouth. He thought of all the hazards that lay on the road even for a resourceful fellow, especially if he had to guard someone. Not to mention…[Witches]?

Brothers didn’t mess with [Witches]. Erin stared at him innocently.

“What? Maybe both of you?”

Every spy, informant, and observer in the Mage’s Guild felt the two Brothers’ pain as one overworked employee to another in the face of the obtuse boss.

No—mostly obtuse. Erin was leaning on the counter hard, exhaustion playing as big a part as…unexpected weakness.

Normen saw it. The same young woman who could and did look Sinew Magus Grimalkin in the eye and not blink at his disapproval, who had challenged the Assassin’s Guild in Izril—and he had been there—

She feared Yelroan’s simple, straightforward instructions more than that. Erin was speaking faster.

“Can one person even help with an entire tribe? That’s an army, isn’t it?”

“No one fellow could do that, I’m afraid, Miss Solstice. Not even Wilovan, and you know he’s a true gent. I hate to say it—but I’m not your man to go find a [Witch]. Aside from a lack of decorum…we’re not able to assure her safety, as it were.”

For a moment, Normen saw Crimshaw tangled with a dozen Gnolls in the doorway of the inn. He tugged his hat down.

“…A fellow does the best he can. But I’m afraid I’m no Gold-rank adventurer.”

Erin nodded slowly, her eyes on Normen. Then the same Drake, Menolit, broke in.

“There is someone who could help protect most of the Gnolls in this tribe. At least, if they stuck to one place. Not all of them, obviously, but eliminate big threats, help with issues like cold—everything. The full affair.”

“Who?”

“Saliss of Lights. He’s not called Pallass’ one-Drake army for nothing.”

Erin frowned.

“I have literally never heard him called that. But yeah—he could probably blow up any monster he wanted. Or melt them. I saw him fighting Frost Wyverns.”

“Exactly. You want someone who can solve an entire, uh…tribe’s problems? Saliss of Lights. Or—an Archmage. Get Archmage Eldavin to teleport everyone to safety, build them a city, and reinvent a lost magic over breakfast!”

Menolit was warming to his theme. He gave Erin a side-eye.

“Saliss is back in Pallass. Think you might call him up?”

Everyone turned to the [Innkeeper] expectantly, and Erin just sighed.

“…I don’t give friends orders. The Horns could do that too. They’re not gonna do guard-duty for a few months if I ask.”

“Okay—what about a certain Fraerling that I heard plays chess with you?”

“Who? How do you—”

Menolit rolled his eyes. Everyone and their sister knew the Titan’s students were visiting Erin’s inn. Had Erin not remembered that Venaz had presented the Titan’s gift well within view of the walls?

“There’s about a few thousand Centaurs running around the Great Plains. They’re bound to be good at guard-duty. So—”

Ask the Titan of Baleros for help. Normen knew civilians asked for big favors. On the streets, any favor you got was one you could repay, and you would repay it. It was mind-boggling to him to even suggest. You’d get laughed at if you went to another gang and asked for something like that—or you’d receive a shiv in the ribs.

Erin seemed to have the same opinion.

“I’m not doing that. There’s a difference between…asking for help and getting armies to march around. That’s not a favor, that’s a relationship.”

Menolit was getting exasperated. Normen could not know it, but the Drake was a regular of Erin’s inn, and he had known Erin almost as long as most of her customers.

“Well, that’s sort of how business works, Erin. Didn’t you organize the Watch to help fight the Raskghar?”

“Yep. And I got adventurers too. Because it was a common threat. Menolit, the difference is simple. It’s like—Chaldion. Let’s pretend this is Chaldion, not Niers. Everyone knows Chaldion, right? Yay tall, has a cane, one eye?”

Erin indicated the air, and everyone agreed that they personally knew Chaldion and played chess with him all the time as if that were a natural thing.

Crazy Human. The [Spies] were really listening here, and not just in a professional capacity. Erin laid out her Chaldion-themed view of people.

“Chaldion—he’s fun. Sometimes. He’s definitely smart, and you know, if he wants something done, it gets done. Armies? He can probably mobilize a lot of Pallass. The thing about Chaldion is that…you don’t want to give him everything.”

“Why not?”

Menolit sort of got her perspective, but he was craning his neck around, trying to understand. Erin threw up her hands.

“Because he’s Chaldion! You give him a Wand of [Sparks] and he’ll burn down someone’s house with it! He does…mean things in Pallass’ service. Even I get that. When I ask Chaldion for help—if I do—it’s always something he and I both want. Like less Raskghar eating people. But I don’t ask him for favors. And if he does something, it’s because he thinks he’ll get something out of it. He does everything like a chess game. Only moves that help him come out ahead. I would rather give…uh…Magnolia Reinhart a magical fortress’ coordinates than Chaldion. At least there’s an outside chance she’d use it for more than just Pallass’ benefit.”

My goodness me. Lormel mouthed the words as everyone listened to Erin’s spiel. Some of the spies of a certain Drake persuasion who were reporting to the Walled Cities were alternatively amused or nervous.

Especially because a certain [Strategist] was going to hear this. Erin was too annoyed to care. She poked her palm with one finger.

“I know this. Why do you think I don’t invite Chaldion over to play chess every other day, even though he’s the only expert within walking distance? I can’t even talk about my bisque without worrying he’ll turn all of Pallass into bisque-city.”

That one made no sense, but Menolit protested.

“Hey, I’m a Liscorian kid, but even I know the Grand Strategist’s saved the cities more times than I can count. What has he ever done to you, specifically?”

Erin gave Menolit a mildly outraged look.

“Nothing. He’s always nice and polite and helpful.”

“So…”

“So what? I don’t need to see him doing bad things to me. I can see the other things he does. The next time you see Chaldion? Any of you. Look in his eyes. Eye. After every Wyvern in the world attacked Pallass, he looked like he was coming to my inn for drinks. He doesn’t blink. I don’t trust him. I don’t want to be in debt to Chaldion, or the Titan, or even Altestiel or Ilvriss. But I also need…”

Erin rested her head on the counter.

“…more employees.”

Ah. Normen felt like this was the moment when a lot of observers captured the duality of Erin Solstice. The ability to read a Grand Strategist and the inability to hire someone to clean the dishes. Erin stared down at the counter and then around the Mage’s Guild. She looked at Mrsha, and the Gnoll girl had an exasperated look on her face. Erin blinked at Mrsha, and her face turned suddenly rueful.

“This is me, again. Isn’t it?”

Mrsha hesitated as she wrote a scathing critique. She peered up at the [Innkeeper] as Erin looked around, and it was familiar.

Her breathing was too fast, even if she was burning energy by standing. She felt…harried. A bit frantic. The walls were closing in—and Erin felt like she had a while back.

In Invrisil, to be precise, in a fancy restaurant as a bunch of [Actors] and everyone threw her a big party. Or at the Christmas party, trying to keep things together.

She was fighting off the panic attack, but it was coming upon her when she thought of the things she not only did not want to do—but felt she wasn’t qualified for. This was why she was an [Innkeeper]. She wanted to help that poor Yelroan fellow; she needed to find Nanette.

But not like this. Yet Erin knew that if she ran away, if she went back and invented some kind of Spell Soufflé—she would only be solving part of her problems. She could not go back to the way things were. Erin stared down at Mrsha, writing on a card as she stood on two legs instead of scampering about. Mrsha had even put on her kilt to go into the city.

She turned to Menolit, and the owner of Liscor Hunted peered at her. When had that even happened? Erin looked at Normen, and he stood where Crimshaw had been, where Wilovan and Ratici had been. Erin closed her eyes.

“Yeah.”

If she had time to herself, she felt like she could work this out. Unfortunately—her time was up. Erin had stayed at the Mage’s Guild too long.

She hadn’t realized it, but her being bound to a wheelchair was, in a way, safety. Because it meant she rolled along with an escort and could not move about as freely. The inn was a safe haven in the way only a nigh-impenetrable building with a powerful hidden garden and a Named Adventurer running guard duty could be.

In fact, despite her comments, Chaldion, Niers, and the other individuals Erin knew were part of the reason why people had not been tearing down her front door to meet General Sserys. But she was back, and the consequences were this.

“Innkeeper Solstice? Aha!”

A panting figure burst through the doors of the Mage’s Guild, and Normen whirled. Alcaz had his hand on a knife, but neither man drew their weapons—yet. Ser Lormel moved in front of Erin, but the team of five Humans came to a stop.

“Who…?”

Normen’s sense of danger spiked, although none of the figures were holding a blade. He recognized enchanted artifacts, and the leader had a wicked throwing axe to complement a battleaxe strapped to his back. He wore iron armor—simple, cheap—strong. Perhaps a tad cheap for his level, but his team had invested into their enchanted weapons, which each of them carried. He threw Erin a salute.

“Captain Derros of The Axe Brigade. I participated in the raid on the Village of the Dead. Gold-rank team. This is Gaineos, Berob, Camiw, and Zeb.”

He introduced the four other teammates. Erin vaguely recalled him from last night’s celebrations.

“Okay.”

“Ser, I regret to inform you Miss Solstice is on business. Please allow us our private space. Miss Erin—perhaps we should return to the inn? This Yelroan can speak via a [Mage].”

Lormel was glancing out the window, catching onto something, but Derros kept speaking as the [Knight] tried to physically screen him.

“Miss Erin! You’re the owner of The Wandering Inn, right? I have an opportunity for you.”

“What? What opportunity?”

Derros beamed.

“My team is just about to come into a lot of gold as part of our share on the raid. I am prepared to offer you a very handsome sum for a quest. Personalized to my team. Something, oh, that might reward us with a Skill or treasure? I believe you can do it—and I’m willing to recompense you for something suitable. Just the quest, not even completing it!”

Erin Solstice looked at Derros, and there was a stir from around the watchers. Her heart sank, and she saw the first natural conclusion of all of her actions thus far beaming at her.

“I don’t—I can’t just give you a quest. Captain Derros? I don’t know you.”

“Ah, but I know the Horns of Hammerad. And I’m willing to pay you for…whatever you might offer quest-wise. Not even a <Mythical Quest>! In fact, we’d like to start lower. We could trial one of the, uh—is it <Rare Quests>? And work our way up. I’d love to talk it over. Do you want to eat in one of Invrisil’s restaurants? Here? We could discuss it, all paid for by us, of course. What do you have in stock?”

Erin backed up, and the three men blocked the Gold-rank team. The [Innkeeper] looked exasperated.

“I can’t just give out the things I may or may not know. It doesn’t work like that.”

“Why not? Do you need a price on it? Uh—uh—forty thousand gold. For the right quest.”

Normen’s head spun despite himself. Erin Solstice blinked once, then her scowl deepened.

“No. I told you—I don’t know you. You need to be…”

She struggled for a word.

“…worthy.”

Captain Derros’s brows shot together. Now he began to look annoyed.

“See here, Miss. We’re a Gold-rank team. Do we need to prove our worthiness somehow?”

“No, I meant trustworthy! Ethically worthy! Not a bad person!”

“We do plenty of charitable cases. Ask anyone—The Axe Brigade is a long-established team which takes in criminal classes and reforms ‘em. We’ve got twenty trainees all ranked Silver and more in Bronze-rank. If you want our history—”

“No! Mrsha, come here. Let’s go back to the inn.”

Erin tried to back away—but the Gold-rank team was in the doorway. She was circling around them when a second team burst into the Guild.

Wait! Whatever Derros’s offering you, we can match it!

Another adventurer that Erin had never met before threw out her hand dramatically. She had…makeup? No, something closer to exaggerated face-paint, and her clothes were colorful and flashy.

The [Fools] of Fortune have arrived! To bid on a quest!”

Mrsha’s jaw dropped. Derros instantly swung a fist at the [Fool].

“You Silver-rank idiots. Get away from—oh shit.”

It was a cuffing blow meant to miss, but somehow the woman walked straight into the fist. It sent her sprawling to the ground, and three figures running after her tripped up on her and went sprawling to the ground.

My face! He’s broken my face!

The [Fool] screamed. Derros swore as he reached for a potion.

“That was an accident! Don’t call the Watch—”

He was offering the potion when the [Fool] sprang up.

Aha! Acting! I auditioned for the Players of Celum, Miss Solstice! Even a Gold-rank team can be laid low! Give us the chance the Players of Celum never did, I beg you!”

She swept a leg, and Derros landed on his back. The [Fool] put a foot on his chest and then fled backwards as The Axe Brigade turned on them.

Erin’s mouth was still open. Mrsha was applauding her new favorite team. Most of the Mage’s Guild was chuckling now, watching the chaos. Menolit was whispering to the [Mage] on duty.

“Five silver says your guild explodes somehow. Chair, window, entire thing. Give me six-to-one odds. It’s good money for you, but I’ve won…twice.”

Erin backed away from the [Fool], running from Derros and his team as they tried to get to Erin. It was funny for everyone—

Except Normen and Alcaz. Lormel too, but he didn’t recognize the Fools of Fortune.

Normen did. He recognized folks from the street when they walked in, and this Silver-rank team might not have enchanted blades on par with The Axe Brigade—but Normen was sweating.

Knife-fighters. They could gut you from chin to groin in a flash.

“The fucking Parade gang’s members. Back off.”

Alcaz hissed, his blade half out as he thrust a palm out. One of the [Fools] laughed.

“Oh—whoops. Brothers! Shh! Don’t alarm the civilians! We’re reformed! We quit!”

Parade was like the Assassin’s Guild—but a lot less covert. There was nothing quite as nasty as a bunch of [Fools] laughing and dancing down the street suddenly surrounding you and knifing you two dozen times before pretending you’d ‘fallen down’. They didn’t hold territory—gangs hired them to off each other.

Mrsha stopped looking excited and backed off as her sharp ears caught the whispers. The [Fools] and Gold-rank adventurers were still trying to get to Erin.

“Out the back doors. This way, Miss Solstice.”

Normen didn’t even see how Lormel found the back doors, but the [Knight] apparently knew where they were. He blocked off the hall as Erin backed out the door. Normen followed, embarrassed, as Alcaz helped stymie the teams.

Damn it. Once again, Normen was reminded that the Brothers didn’t do protection. He really was behind the Thronebearers.

“Thanks, Normen. I guess Lyonette was right. I need you guys around. Let’s go to the inn.”

The adventurers were now trying to get out of the building, but it sounded like they were busy fighting each other.

“Summon the Watch!”

…And that would slow them down more. Normen sighed as he and Erin hurried down a street. The [Innkeeper] could barely go above a fast walk—she looked tired.

“Don’t pull me, Mrsha! Even with the power of bisque, I can’t run! Darn. I wanted to ask Yelroan more questions. Maybe Typhenous for Riverfarm. Lormel’s actually sort of impressive. Too bad they’re on loan from Calanfer, eh?”

Mrsha gave Erin a grudging nod. Normen saw Lormel exit the guild and run after them. He panted to Normen as he caught up.

“Your friend, Alcaz, got tangled with the Gold-rank teams. He’s fine—”

Lormel winced at the loud voices and crashing behind him.

“—I think. It’s just a fistfight.”

Erin opened her mouth. But Normen blurted his question in frank disbelief.

“How did you get out, Ser Lormel?”

Alcaz was a knife-expert, and Lormel was…well, no offense, but without armor, Normen would bet his life savings on his friend every day of the week. Ser Lormel gave Normen a slightly embarrassed smile.

“I know when not to raise my fists, sir. A fellow in armor isn’t much of a target if he backs away.”

A completely different attitude towards the fight. Normen nodded and resolved to work out how to change their methods with Alcaz. They were just heading down main street when the third group caught them.

Horse shit eatin’ slimes on a corpse pile.

The Brother of Serendipitous Meeting lost his temper. Entirely unprofessional, but Mrsha’s look of awed respect almost made it worth it. Crimshaw would have cuffed him on the head—but even the older man would have probably said something similar.

Because four [Knights] were headed straight towards them. And one of them was pointing at Erin Solstice.

“There she is. Pray thee halt, company! We require an urgent conversation on the manners of knightly affairs!”

They were each wearing a different kind of armor. One looked—fast. He was on a horse and had green and cobalt armor. Normen vaguely recognized him as Izrilian.

A second had armor in black and purple—Ser Lormel tensed up. Another? Light purple and green. The last was completely different from the other two; he was helmetless, had what looked like a scale and bag of coin on his chest, and he seemed older than the others by far. He also had a bag of holding on prominent display.

The Order of the Clairei Fields of Izril, the fastest Izrilian [Knights]. A member of the Order of the Hydra, and another from the Thirsting Veil of Ailendamus. Lastly? One of the Order of Haegris, a Haggle Knight of Terandria.

A Thronebearer of Calanfer!

The Hydra Knight spotted Ser Lormel, and her imperious tone changed to hostility at once. Lormel cursed. He raised a speaking stone to his lips.

Dalimont, to me! We have a problem—[Knights]! Miss Solstice, behind me. Halt! This person is under Calanfer’s protection and a citizen of Liscor! This is not Terandria!”

He held up a hand, and the Hydra [Knight] drew a spiked mace.

It is always a fitting place to battle Ailendamus’ enemies! I challenge you, Ser Thronebearer!”

“Dame Thuile. This is not the time for a duel. We are on the affairs of our Orders. Stand down.”

The Haggle-Knight spoke sharply, and the woman hesitated. The other figure on foot wearing the black armor of the Thirsting Veil spoke sharply.

“As [Knight Captain], I order you to stand down, Dame Thuile. My rank supercedes yours abroad.”

“Yes, Ser Lotorghast.”

The [Knight] lowered her mace, and the four [Knights] approached.

“Miss Erin Solstice? We would like to speak to you urgently. I realize this is quite inopportune, but may we have a brief word?”

The Haggle-Knight smiled. Erin stared at his chestplate. Mrsha backed behind her as Normen put out an arm.

“Back up, sirs and madam. Miss Solstice is busy.”

His temper was already up. Normen’s fingers curled around his club’s hilt. The Hydra Knight recoiled from him.

“I espie a brigand of some sorts. My Skill detects it. Stand down, whomever you are.”

Ser Solton pinched at the bridge of his nose. But Normen just reached up with his other hand and tore off his hat.

I said, back up or you’ll find yourself staring at the sky. This is not a moment to test my patience.

His hat was upon the ground. The Clairei Knight knew what that meant and went for his sword. But the Hydra Knight just stared at Normen—then she went for her mace.

She was fast. They both came up with mace and club as fast. Normen swung.

[Brute’s Swing]. A blow like someone swinging a bat, straight for the face. The [Knight] shoved an arm up and knocked his swing wide. She slid in, as if she were skating across ice.

[Shoulder Ram’s Charge]. Normen ate it as he tried to move back, stumbling. He stepped in with a roar.

[Flash Blow]! His club smacked the knight across the head, and she stumbled. The faintest of dents—

Then her mace swung into his side, blindingly fast. Normen felt a blinding surge of pain.

“—[Willow’s Counter].”

He was down and trying to get up when she pointed at him.

“[The Defeated Lie Still].”

She was…over Level 30. Even without the armor, there was a cut to her moves from the way she’d shoulder-charged into him like that to start the fight.

He’d never seen a [Knight] do that, nor use a counter-Skill. He didn’t think they had that. Even the Clairei Knight looked astonished.

Dame Thuile. Enough.”

The Thirsting Veil Knight looked upset at his impetuous comrade’s actions. He turned—and Ser Lormel was hurrying Erin down the street.

Halt!

Thuile charged after Lormel, clearly hoping he’d turn and fight. The Thronebearer whirled around. He raised his shield—and then began slamming the hilt of his sword into it.

Help! Rogue [Knights] on the streets! Summon the Watch!

“Oh dead gods.”

Ser Solton moaned. Ser Lormel backed up, still shouting, as the [Knights] halted. Normen, lying still, unable to move, saw Dame Thuile hesitate. Lormel backed up, the perfect choice to block the [Knights] while he got his ward to safety and the Watch stopped them.

Unfortunately, he made one mistake. He’d stopped dragging Erin away. The [Knights] were trying to call out this was all a mistake when Dame Thuile swore.

Ser Lotorghast!

She flipped her mace up and deflected the spinning frying pan. It clattered to the ground, and Ser Solton stared at it.

“Is that a frying pan?”

My arm!

Erin Solstice screamed as she grabbed at it. Then she pulled a glowing green jar out of her bag of holding.

“Let go of Normen or I’ll melt your faces.”

Normen really, really hoped she didn’t throw that. The [Knights] froze.

“Did anyone else’s [Dangersense] just go off? I think we’re getting off to the wrong start.”

The Clairei Knight spoke nervously. Dame Thuile raised her shield—right as a squad of [Guards] came skidding around the corner. She whirled as a Drake came barreling at her.

Relc kiiiiiiick—oh shit.”

He broke off the kick, dodged back as she whirled the mace at him. The Thirsting Veil Knight looked at Relc, the Watch, and then did two things. He kicked Dame Thuile in the back of the knees so she went over and raised his hands.

Enough! This is a mistake. We yield. Let us talk civilly, and if you say one more word, Dame Thuile, I will have you shipped back to Ailendamus in a rowboat.”

His voice was authoritative enough to stop everyone for a second. The [Guards] halted, and even Relc lowered his spear as Normen felt Thuile’s Skill on him break. Dame Thuile froze, and the [Knight Captain] removed his helmet as Erin approached, still waving the jar of acid.

“I apologize to the Watch of this city, as well as the Thronebearer of Calanfer and you, Miss Solstice. And to your…protector.”

He eyed Normen as the Brother scrambled up. Normen looked at the other [Knight] and, head lowered, fell back behind Erin.

“Who are you and why are you after me?”

Erin demanded hotly as the adventurers who had been after her caught up, saw the Watch, and decided to make a tactical retreat. It was Ser Solton who replied.

“We are the [Knights] who were—formerly—part of the Chandrarian crusade against Khelt, Miss Solstice. We were also present at the Meeting of Tribes and have ridden north at best speed to make it to Liscor. Some of us are heading home. Others—”

He nodded to the Knight of the Clairei Fields.

“—Have joined us on this mission of diplomacy.

He glared at Dame Thuile.

“The Order of the Hydra does not act for all of us. Our young associate is impetuous, and we will pay any fines necessary.”

“Ooh. Good. Fines. Hey, someone tell Watch Captain Z to levy a bunch of fines!”

Relc rubbed his claws. Ser Solton turned to Erin.

“Miss Solstice. Would you please lower that…weapon? We have, in fact, only come here to approach you about a certain matter of [Knights] that we thought you could answer.”

“Me? Knights? Normen, are you alright?”

“Nothing’s broken. A day’s rest will do me good, Miss Erin. Sorry to let you down.”

The Brother muttered. Erin glanced at him and glowered, but Ser Solton offered a healing potion and his bag of holding.

“We will repay any injuries, Miss Solstice. Ailendamus and Calanfer are at war. Dame Thuile was acting as most [Knights] do. On Terandria.”

He sighed.

“…I am just going to say this before we’re arrested or cause more trouble. Innkeeper Erin Solstice. Do you know or are you a member or associate of the ‘Order of the Solstice’, of whose members include the renowned Ser Solstice, the Goblin Slayer of Izril and Lightherald’s replacement in the Dawn Concordat’s war with Ailendamus? We would dearly like to meet a new Knight-Order and inquire into some of their codes of conduct regarding chivalry in battle and their inception as an Order.”

And then it came full circle. Ceria Springwalker skidded to a halt with the other three Thronebearers, Lyonette, and a very wrathful Numbtongue. She stared at the four [Knights] and recognized Dame Thuile from the boat.

Dame Thuile, of the Order of the Hydra, who had had contact with the famous Ser Solstice of Izril and heard tales of the Order of Solstice.

Ailendamus’ spy networks weren’t incompetent. You heard Solstice, checked on the few people who had that as a name, and found an [Innkeeper] who was also connected to the Walled Cities and a lot of strange events. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been such a big deal except for Rabbiteater hobgoblining around with [Princesses] and defeating the Dame of the Hills.

And perhaps it wouldn’t have gotten to this part but for a half-Elf assuring Dame Thuile the Order of the Solstice existed. Yvlon grabbed Ceria’s pointed ear.

Do you see what you’ve done? Your words have consequences!

Ceria eyed Erin Solstice, whose mouth was wide open in confusion. She grinned without a hint of regret.

“Yeah, but not for me. Dibs on the closest viewing seat. This is going to be great.

 

——

 

Fifteen minutes later, Erin sat in the inn with a bunch of advisors.

Lyonette du Marquin and Numbtongue, to be exact. Normen watched them as he hovered near their table, feeling about as useful as a bug.

The four [Knights] were all waiting, talking, as Ser Solton investigated the weights room and Dame Thuile received a loud dressing-down from her comrade in the Thirsting Veil. The Clairei Knight just kept staring at Numbtongue, but Erin was cloaked in privacy spells. Mostly because her advisors needed to hammer a few things into her head.

“No matter what, you cannot say that Rabbiteater is a Goblin, Erin. You will get him killed. It will be a scandal for the Order of Seasons, Calanfer, and us. Just tell them enough to get them to leave. Say…you know Rabbiteater—but say Ser Solstice!—and that you have no idea about an order.”

“Don’t say Goblin.”

Numbtongue nodded and poked Erin from the other side. She swatted at him.

“I’m not an idiot, you two! But why the Order of Solstice?”

“I don’t know. Yvlon says it’s Ceria’s fault, and if so, I’ll have it out with her. But just lie to them.”

“They can tell I’m lying, though. I bet they have truth spells.”

Lyonette rolled her eyes.

“So? Then they know you’re lying about something. Tell them nothing. Say nothing about Rabbiteater being a Goblin and they just know you’re lying.”

“Don’t say he’s not a Goblin either or they’ll know that’s a lie. Don’t be stupid.”

Argh! Enough! I’ve got this!

Erin threw up her hands. She chased the other two away and then sat there, glowering at the [Knights]. She didn’t leave the privacy field. Instead, she glanced around.

“Normen, you sure you’re okay?”

“Just my pride, Miss Solstice. I’m glad Ser Lormel was there. Now there’s a fellow who can do his damn job.”

The Brother sat at the table. Erin looked at him, then glared at Dame Thuile. The Hydra Knight had removed her helmet. Her hair was deep brown, and her skin was darker still—but crossed by a number of scars on her face. They looked like big talon wounds. Or—someone with claws?

Erin stuck out her tongue, and Thuile looked astonished at the levels of childishness. But then—she hadn’t seen Mrsha pouring pepper spice into the drink she was about to be served. Ishkr didn’t even stop Mrsha.

“All I’ve gotta do is lie to cover for Rabbiteater. Simple. This day sucks. It’s way too…busy. And I feel like I’m getting nothing done. I’m sorry you got hurt, Normen.”

“It’s my job, Miss Erin.”

She glanced at him sideways as she rested her chin in her hands.

“You can call me Erin, you know.”

Dame Thuile had finished being dressed down, and the other [Knights] were waiting for Erin. Her annoyed colleague in the Thirsting Veil was relaxing—just in time for Thuile to take a gulp of ale and spray it all over his armor.

That made Erin smile. Normen too. Alcaz was nursing a cut lip with a drink of his own, and he had earned it. Normen…

“I think I’d best leave the guarding to the [Knights], Miss Erin. I’m no good here. You can count on me to throw a few drunks out, but I’m no Crimshaw.”

Erin looked up slowly.

“Crimshaw. I know him, don’t I? He…what happened to him? I don’t remember—”

The guilt in her eyes was almost a good thing. Normen shook his head, smiling despite himself.

“You couldn’t remember. He—was caught up when a bunch of idiots attacked the inn. After you got shot.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. Was he your friend?”

“Sort of. More like—a mentor. That’s how you get into the Brothers. Someone guarantees you’re the right sort, and you live up to that. Any big mistakes are on them, and they show you how things’re done. Crimshaw was mine. It’s why I wanted to stay. And a fat lot of good I’ve done.”

Normen stared at his hands. Erin patted him on the shoulder.

“It’s not your fault. Look at those [Knights]. They’ve got armor, and Lyonette thinks they’re all important ones since they went on the crusade against Fetohep. Which was a bad idea, because he has, like—super-spells he could blast you with.”

It was all true, but the Brother didn’t feel better.

“It’s kind of you to say, Miss Erin. I just wish I could be more’ve a help. Maybe I’ll do some work waiting tables.”

“No. You’re great. You can guard the inn and…”

Normen shook his head.

“I can’t make sure you’re safe, Miss Erin. I just can’t. You know it, I know it. I can’t even go through civilized roads and find whomever you’re looking for in Riverfarm.”

“Nanette? No, I get it…you’d want an escort.”

Normen smiled bleakly.

“If I was Wilovan or even Crimshaw, I’d do it. In a heartbeat. An adventure like that, a small one for a good thing? I just don’t want to—see what happens if I fail. I’d go down to help them Gnolls too, but four baby Crelers’d do me in. I’m afraid I’m not the good sort, Miss Erin. That lot is. I know you don’t want to impose, but they’re the real ones.”

He nodded at Ceria, being scolded by Yvlon. Ksmvr was tugging on her other ear gently, and Pisces was staring daggers at the two [Knights] from Ailendamus. Erin looked at Normen, and her sympathy turned to…

Anger? No, outrage. She grabbed his arm as he turned.

“Don’t say that. You went into a war after Mrsha for me, and you didn’t have to do that. You—Rasktooth, Infinitypear? Even Ulvama? You’re all heroes. All she’s got is a set of armor.”

She jabbed a finger at Thuile, who watched Erin warily. Erin stomped over to the edge of the ward spells.

All you’ve got is some fancy, stupid armor! Yeah, you heard me!”

She waved her hands and sat back. Normen coughed.

“…She’s also better than me without armor, Miss Erin.”

“Oh. Well—she’s got fancy training! If you had those things, you’d, uh, be at least as good as she is! Twice as good!”

Normen considered this might actually be true. But so what? Erin just stared at the [Knights.]

“Rabbiteater’s the Goblin Slayer of Izril. Ser Solstice…the Order of the Solstice. That’s—nice.”

She rested a chin on her hand, looking thoughtful.

“Nevermind that he’s in trouble. Look at him. My [Champion]. And they don’t even know he’s a Goblin. I wonder if he wants to come back to Izril? I want to help him—if he needs help. Nah, I just want to hug him.”

She looked proud. Proud and thoughtful. Erin glanced at Normen. Then she stared ahead thoughtfully.

“…I’ve been a bit embarrassing today, Normen.”

“It’s all company at the bar today, Miss Solstice. I haven’t done well myself.”

Normen saw Erin’s lips quirk, but then she shook her head.

“I hate doing things like this. Really—I do. It’s so—uncertain. D’you know why I like chess? Chess has a lot of variables, and you have to think ahead. But no one dies if I mess up a chess game. It’s all just pride and scores. That’s okay. This?”

She looked morosely at him.

“…If I’d have known the Horns would go into the Village of the Dead for me, I’d—I wouldn’t have lived with myself if they died. I don’t want to get you killed or ask someone to die for me. Even if it’s people I don’t know via Niers.”

Normen looked around. He spotted a Drake sitting at a table with one gemstone eye flashing. Chaldion might have been trying to read their lips, but Palt had been running interference, and the Drake looked annoyed.

Possibly hurt by Erin’s comments this evening. The [Innkeeper] sighed, and Normen tipped his hat.

“It’s a decision we can all make. Myself, Alcaz—we’re ready for the call. Not eager, but if it’s the right reason, it’s why Crimshaw stayed. He could have run. He knew how to get out of any scrape, but he didn’t. Sometimes, Miss Erin. Things are worth putting down your hat for.”

Erin’s eyes shimmered as she met Normen’s gaze. She wiped her eyes.

“You—and that’s what they told me. They told me, when I didn’t want to do this. Yep. Even if I don’t want it—you’ll all do it yourselves. I’ve got crazy adventurers, and I’m going to get into trouble.”

“Who said what?”

The [Innkeeper] found a handkerchief and blew her nose.

“Oh—ghosts. Alright. I guess—I’ve got to do this.”

She stood up and glanced at Normen. He shifted uneasily, because Erin’s eyes looked straight at him.

She didn’t see a man in a hat. Nor a Brother. He had the feeling she was looking straight at him and seeing something even he couldn’t in a mirror. It was unnerving and intoxicating. Why he wanted to be here.

Because she saw something more than a criminal on the streets. The Gentlemen Callers, the Brothers…Erin whispered.

“Normen. I have an idea. Stick by me, would you? You don’t have to agree, but hear me out?”

His hat was on the table. Normen put it on and adjusted it.

“Always. What am I doing?”

Erin Solstice looked around, and her eyes alit on someone as the [Knights] waited for her. She pointed, and the figure rose uncertainly.

“First? Get me Ser Lormel.”

 

——

 

It was safe to say this was probably being broadcast, recorded, or watched in some way. The inn had guests, from Menolit to newcomers, and the [Knights] would report home. Even if Wistram News Network were not in this room—this would be news.

Moreover, it was also safe to assume that the inquiry from the four [Knights] was hostile to Rabbiteater in some way. Ser Solton and the Clairei Fields representative were more neutral parties, but two from Ailendamus?

If the Order of Solstice did not, in fact, exist, or if it were scandalous, it could reflect poorly on the Goblin Slayer abroad. At the very least, it was knightly-politics.

Knight-Captain Lotorghast didn’t even pretend, to his credit.

“A new Order of [Knights] is no light thing, Miss Solstice, hence our concern. Even new orders, like the Knights of the Petal in service to House Walchaís, required substantial representation, as well as the credentials of the esteemed [Chevalier]. One cannot claim representation in an unofficial order.”

“But Ser Solstice is a [Knight]. I don’t see the problem.”

Erin pointed out reasonably. Lotorghast nodded.

“That is not under question. A [Knight] is a [Knight], even if some Orders would take issue with such a simplistic analysis…we are not so fastidious. We would simply like to know if the Order of Solstice exists.”

“And meet with their membership. Peaceably. Again—this is all a huge misunderstanding.”

Ser Solton added. Erin sort of liked him. Not only was he intelligent enough to try bribing Mrsha with some of his loaded baked potato, he had checked his drink after Dame Thuile’s mishap.

Erin frowned as Ser Lormel stood there, backing her up as a member of the Thronebearers. Lyonette watched anxiously.

Please don’t say anything stupid. Please don’t say anything—

“The Order of Solstice? It totally exists. Ser Solstice, um—takes his name from the order! Anonymity and stuff. I’m not affiliated with the order per se, but I guess they liked my name? I’m like—a friend of the order. Which exists.”

All four [Knights] exchanged a look. They all had truth spells of some kind, as a [Knight] might well encounter trouble on their affairs abroad if they could not take people at their word. The problem was—

Erin’s statements weren’t entirely false. Not one thing she’d said was false—even that last part.

“The Order of Solstice does exist? Impossible. I have a fifteen gold bet that half-Elf made it up!”

Ser Solton jerked a thumb at Ceria. He really wasn’t a fool. But the [Innkeeper] folded her arms.

“No, it totally exists. Maybe it wasn’t, uh, properly recognized, but I’m recognizing it now. Bam. Order of Solstice, [Knights] of Izril. Sworn to protect the innocent and kick people they don’t like.”

Lyonette looked at Erin in horror. That wasn’t what Erin was supposed to say! Knight-Captain Lotorghast forestalled Thuile’s outburst, and the Clairei Knight spoke.

He was actually white-haired with age, he was so old, but he was fairly polite.

“Miss Solstice. You cannot simply instate a Knight-Order. I have no…prejudices against a [Knight] who appears naturally by his conduct. It’s simply a matter of falsely claiming membership, which is in and of itself no great crime. There are brilliant [Knights] who gain their class without any membership such as Ylawes Byres, whom I believe you know?”

“Brilliant. Ylawes. I get what you’re saying, but I’m telling you—the Order of Solstice exists! I’m making it exist!”

Erin waved her hands. The [Knights] tried to smile at the silly [Innkeeper]. A few covert scrying mirrors zoomed in on Erin for their viewers.

“Miss Solstice. You would have to have proper representation, the authority to claim all this. There are rules. A Knight-Order is more than a name. For instance, one cannot be a [Grandmaster Knight] without being part of an order. To start a chapter, why, you’d need at least a few [Knights] as members. Not one.”

Erin Solstice’s eyes glinted. Normen was watching everything, and he saw the silly look in Erin’s hazel gaze vanish suddenly. The other [Knights] didn’t notice, save for Ser Solton, who looked up sharply and then around.

“Oh, but the Order of Solstice does have multiple [Knight] members. It has three, and three’s all you need.”

Ridiculous. Ser Lotorghast, this [Innkeeper] is clearly bluffing.”

The younger [Knight] shot to her feet, but the Thirsting Veil Knight held up a hand.

“Then why is my truth spell only flickering, Dame Thuile? I agree, this is all very unusual. Miss Erin Solstice, I am no…Thronebearer of Calanfer. I do not know knightly customs, but even I am aware that a Knight-Order requires at least a hundred [Knights] of pre-existing class to be convened. Moreover, even if you try to create a Knight Order, Ser Solstice still lied, albeit in a minor way, when he claimed to be part of a Knight-Order.”

Erin Solstice’s smile was bland. As bland as Crimshaw who bought a drink for a fellow a few minutes before he shoved the glass pieces up the other fellow’s nose. The [Knights] saw her look around, and then the air changed.

“That’s what you think, is it, Ser Lotorghast? My, my. I guess you guys really aren’t old enough to remember the rules.”

Her eyes flickered, and they were suddenly—uncannily—sharp. Precise, as if she was zeroed-in on a target. As if she knew…

Everything.

The [Knights] hesitated. Erin Solstice looked up at the ceiling and then spoke, reciting something from memory.

“Regarding the issue of Ser Solstice representing himself as part of a Knight-Order—he did not lie. He was a [Knight] because he was a [Knight]. And he got to claim being ‘Ser Solstice’ and call his Order that because he was declaring his Intention of Familiarity to form a Knightly Order.”

“How do you know about the—”

The Clairei Knight started. Lyonette’s jaw dropped along with half of the inn’s, but Erin held up a hand.

“All of this is correct and fair under the codes of chivalrous statements.”

The four [Knights] had not come prepared for a showdown in knightly-culture. They turned to Ser Solton, and the Haggle-Knight hesitated, searching his own memory.

“True…but that would require at least one other [Knight] having expressed interest in the same causes. Intention of Familiarity implies multiple [Knights], at least two, wishing to create an Order.”

Erin raised one finger.

“There was another.”

“Oh, come now. Who? Ylawes Byres was never—”

The Clairei Knight fell silent. Lyonette looked up suddenly. There was only one person she could think of. And Erin—

She wouldn’t forget. Mrsha stopped trying to glue Thuile’s feet to the floor with a paste Octavia had given her. She looked up, and her eyes shone. Erin spoke slowly.

“Brunkr Silverfang was knighted at this very inn. He was the first Silverfang [Knight] in living memory. He wished to join a Knight-Order and was denied by the ones he applied to in the north. He is, posthumously, the first [Knight] of Solstice.”

Every Gnoll in the inn turned to Erin. She looked around, and a few figures tried to hide the scrying orb.

Terandrian Events, a live broadcast on their channel, saw the [Innkeeper] staring straight at them.

“Be sure to write this down. I, Erin Solstice, am formally declaring the Intent Valoris to form a Knight Order. It was already declared by two [Knights], and it will be formally recognized when enough members have declared their intention to be recognized as part of the order.”

“Two out of a hundred?”

Dame Thuile spluttered. Erin shot back.

“No. Two out of five. Only five members are needed.”

Ridiculous! A hundred is—”

Terandrian law. I am declaring the Order of Solstice a crusade-chapter. Based in Chandrar, but we’ll move it to Izril. One of its members is already on Terandria, and the others will not stay at a headquarters.”

Dame Thuile just looked at Erin. She didn’t even know what that meant, and even Ser Solton was confused. Then Ser Sest gasped.

Eternal Throne! That’s what she means! She’s invoking the Order via crusade law!”

“Crusade law…?”

The Clairei Knight looked bewildered, but Ser Lormel, one of the experts in all things not related to combat, explained to a fascinated audience.

“Ser Lotorghast is correct and incorrect that a Knight Order requires a hundred members to form in Terandria. That bar was actually raised after the Order of the Hydra was formed. But the authority of [Knights] in Terandria, is, well, Terandrian. The number is less in Izril, hence the Knights of the Petal containing far fewer members when they were incepted.”

Ser Sest nodded, taking up the explanation with visible excitement.

“Meaning that unlike Terandria, where the bar was raised to two hundred independent [Knight-Errants] or [Knights] of other orders, or Izril or Baleros or Rhir, where different dispensation was needed, Chandrar maintained that only enough [Knights] in good standing needed to pledge to form an Order as there were Shield Kingdoms. Symbolically, that was still dozens in antiquity. Now?”

Ser Solton spoke slowly.

“Four. Plus one leadership role.”

Erin’s eyes glittered as all the other [Knights] turned to her. Thuile was protesting.

“You cannot invoke a Chandrarian chapter of [Knights]! You are on Izril.”

“So? A [Knight] Order can be convened anywhere with enough authority.”

You are not affiliated with Chandrar! I happen to know a crusade is more than a word. I was just part of one!”

Thuile hammered a fist on the table, flushing with outrage. Erin Solstice put her hands on the table.

“Oh yeah? Well, I was friends with a number of [Knights] of Chandrar. Virtue Familaris allows me to invoke the crusade.”

“That’s ridiculous! You can’t call a crusade! That’s not…”

Erin’s eyes stilled Thuile’s tongue in her mouth.

“Not on Terandria. Not now. In the old days, when [Paladins] were an arm of [Knights], it was fair. The Crusaders of the Dawn Patrol were founded by a dozen [Knights] determined to fight against fangs in the darkness. They became so famous they fought across Rhir and every continent in existence. My friends are [Knights] of Chandrar. They are dead—but don’t you dare deny they were [Knights].”

The truth spells shone bright and clear with honesty as Erin jabbed a finger at Thuile, who leaned back each time.

“Who are they?”

Erin turned and fixed Lotorghast with a stare.

“You don’t get to know their names. Not right now. You came here demanding to call Ser Solstice a fake. Well, he has all the requirements to declare he’s part of an Order, and once three more [Knights] join, it will be real.”

“You have no headquarters, no armory, no squires nor livery nor anything else. An Order in name is but an idea, Miss Solstice.”

Ser Solton spoke kindly, but thoughtfully. Erin gestured around the inn.

“This is all the base they’ll need. Drinks are free for members of the Order of Solstice. As for an armory—they can buy armor. Weapons. Actually—Mrsha, didn’t you say you knew someone who made that Demas Metal stuff? Let’s get a suit of armor and ship it all the way to Terandria!”

Mrsha hesitated. Could she get Mrell to…? Yeah, she nodded thoughtfully.

She could probably do that. And it’d be one of the few actually useful things that he did. The [Knights] were hesitating, but now Erin was aglow.

Literally. She clenched her fists as pink fire burned on her palms. Glory. She was lying…but with the truth.

Bird realized how deep his class was as he beheld a master at work. A real, true genius did not lie, but made lies a reality.

“…It seems that the Order of Solstice is more legitimate than we thought. If still unrealized. We withdraw our complaint, Miss Solstice. Although I would still like to note that the Order of Solstice’s current, single member is somewhat dishonorable in how he conducts warfare.”

Ser Lotorghast spoke up at last. Thuile was astounded, but Erin just folded her arms.

“But he wins. Oh. And one more thing—I’m not doing this just to be cute.”

She pointed at her own scowling face. Ser Solton’s brows were in his receding hairline.

“Perish the thought. Are you planning on recruiting more [Knights]? This Ser Ylawes, perhaps?”

Yvlon choked on her drink at the idea of Rabbiteater and Ylawes being fellow [Knights]. Erin pursed her lips.

“If he wants to apply, we’ll consider it. But no. These [Knights] will do what they want. But some of them…some of them have causes here and abroad they’ll fight for. Tell me—what do you call someone who works for little to no pay, risks their life for something important, and is an expert, enough to make a difference wherever they go?”

She looked around the inn, and Mrsha was reminded of their conversation in the Mage’s Guild. A few guests called out. Relc raised a claw.

“A smart [Mercenary]? Oh wait, they don’t exist.”

Captain Todi.

“Gold-rank adventurers?”

Menolit raised his claw.

“Stupid Humans?”

He got a laugh. Erin Solstice raised her brows. She turned back to the four figures sitting across from her, and Ser Solton saluted her.

“[Knights], madam Solstice. [Knights].”

Then, a figure sitting almost forgotten behind the commotion and excitement felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. Those shining eyes turned across the room, and a plain man in a cap, a ruffian of little-good repute turned from glancing out the window for threats as Erin Solstice looked his way.

“Yes. [Knights]. If anyone wants to join, I’m willing to accept them. Knight Orders didn’t always just take [Knights], you know. They took [Crusaders] and [Paladins], [Chevaliers] and more. Even [Mages]. But a [Knight]…is an honorable person. A good man. It’s a class upgrade for most. And I’ll make sure anyone who joins gets a suit of armor.”

She looked at Normen, and Dame Thuile stood.

“That is a brigand. A criminal. I know this. This entire event is riddled with unvalorous statement and intent!”

Erin Solstice turned to the Hydra Knight. She smiled at Dame Thuile.

“You are speaking to one of my employees. Normen was part of one of the most famously honorable organizations in all of Izril. Isn’t that right, Mister Knight?”

The Clairei Knight looked like he was about to swallow his tongue.

“To—some sensibilities—that statement is broadly correct. You cannot be seriously saying you are going to knight someone…?”

Erin Solstice pushed herself up. She turned to Normen, and the Brother froze in his seat. He stared at her as Erin smiled his way.

“That depends on what he wants to be.”

 

——

 

“Sorry for springing it on you. You can say no, if you want. You can also quit being a [Knight]. It’s not forever.”

Ser Sest looked like he was about to faint at Erin’s words. Normen? But for Alcaz patting him on the shoulder, he thought he might swoon over, and since Mrsha was standing next to him, he doubted he’d be caught.

“Erin, this is insane! How did you know all that? Did you learn it when you were dead?”

Drassi had come barreling through the door upon hearing the story. Ceria, Yvlon—everyone was gathered around Erin as the [Knights] watched and Thuile had a breakdown in public. Erin glanced at Lyonette with that knowing look…then an impish smile crossed her face. She flapped one hand dismissively.

“Nope! I asked Ser Lormel if there were weird [Knight]-laws and traditions. Old stuff has all kinds of stupid rules. You should read up on them some time. I used to do it all night long when I was bored.”

What?

The [Innkeeper] grinned mischievously.

“I was pretty sure I could fulfill a lot of the requirements, but it was all Lormel’s knowledge.”

The Thronebearer executed a smooth bow, a pleased smile on his face.

“Never face a Thronebearer anywhere but the field, I believe it’s said. A privilege to serve.”

Lyonette looked like she was ready to kill Lormel, but Erin turned to her.

“Lyonette, can you make Normen a [Knight]? If he wants to?”

“Me?”

The [Princess] froze, and Normen’s heart leapt in his chest. He looked at Erin and then at Alcaz. His friend was giving him a wide-eyed look.

A [Knight]. Him? The Brothers often politely ribbed the few in Izril, or mugged them, but…Normen imagined himself riding around in a suit of armor. Would he speak in thees and thous?

Or—he looked at Erin, and she spoke.

“It wouldn’t be like a normal [Knight]. You need training. And armor. Demas Metal or at least steel. Pelt can forge a set. A lot of the time might just be here. But if I need something, if I think you can help…it’d be like resting at the inn and then going on adventures. Do you think you’d enjoy that life, Normen?”

Slowly, he took his hat from his head and stared at it. Normen looked at Erin, then at Alcaz. He wondered where Pivr was. He had resigned himself to perhaps seeing the strange Flying Antinium seldom. But he had wanted to see those Hives.

He wanted to go to the new lands of Izril. A Brother couldn’t hope to survive those journeys. Not even Wilovan.

But in a suit of armor…Normen whispered.

“I don’t know as I’d mind, Miss Solstice. If I could gain the class.”

“You can. Lyonette…?”

The [Princess] tried to hide her expression, but everyone saw the reservations on her face. She didn’t have to respond—Dame Ushar cut in swiftly.

“Lyonette cannot knight anyone, Miss Solstice.”

“But Brunkr—”

The female Thronebearer spoke carefully.

If Lyonette acted in…anonymity, that is one thing. Right now, she is a noted and recognized individual, even if her exact class is not on display. Anyone would be considered a Thronebearer of Calanfer. And as she has not the permission of the throne…”

She looked at Normen, and he bowed his head. He would doubt his candidacy too.

Erin Solstice’s eyes narrowed slowly. She stared Ushar down, and the Thronebearer refused to give way. The [Innkeeper] took a breath and spoke.

“Fine. In that case—I’ll do it myself. Normen. Do you want to be a [Knight]?”

She turned, and the Brother stood, looking down at her, because yes, she was shorter. But he felt like he was looking up at someone staring at him with two burning flames behind her eyes.

Like a ruler of Khelt, perhaps. Or just a strange [Magical Innkeeper]. Slowly, he closed his eyes, then opened them and nodded.

“If—”

His voice caught. With his helplessness. With desire, with a boy’s dream of being more than a piece of filth on the street who had to steal. With the crooked honor of a Brother who lied to himself that he wasn’t the worst in the world, that he might sleep.

“—If you think I could truly be one.”

For answer, Erin Solstice turned and found Bird, standing there among the crowd. She walked over and patted Bird’s shoulder.

“I knew a Knight. Long before Ylawes. He didn’t have the class, but I thought—he could have been one. He was an Antinium. Who you are doesn’t matter. If you are a [Knight], you are a [Knight]. Rabbiteater is a [Knight]. Normen. You can gain the class. Do you want to?”

Every Brother of Serendipitous Meetings in the world would later listen to those words, or the meaning. They would look up and think, even Wilovan and Ratici. For Normen Callesn slowly put his hat on his head and nodded to Erin as he tugged it straight.

“It would be an honor.”

 

——

 

So she took him out of the common room of the inn, but not out of the inn itself. Erin Solstice walked up, slowly, through a garden, taking her time because she was still weak.

But she walked…up a hill with glowing Sage’s Grass and yellow, brilliant and terrible flowers. Past a napping bee who crawled out to see what the fuss was about.

Up a hill, into the mist and statues. Normen had only been there once before, to her grave. He had felt—he didn’t have the right.

Someone was waiting for him there. More than just one person, but it was Crimshaw that Normen saw first. He stood idly, slouched to one side, as if he had been waiting for a while. But almost like he knew why he was here.

Those stone eyes found Normen as Erin Solstice accepted a sword that gleamed like red crystal from a Hobgoblin. She held it awkwardly and put the tip in the grass as she spoke, leaning on it slightly for support.

Four [Knights] watched from below, in disbelief, confusion, acceptance, and awe, as she spoke. The Thronebearers lined the edge of the hill as more guests watched from below. Erin’s voice carried to them in the breeze.

They gathered, faces turned up, like a memory. Moore looked up and remembered a frozen bier. The rage and despair that had haunted him—and now filled his veins like poison?

“Calm down.”

Seborn took Moore’s arm gently, and the half-Giant started. He unclenched his fists. He saw Mrsha turn and wave down at him, and he found a smile as he lifted his hand. Ulinde took Moore’s other hand, and though she wore a corpse’s body, the Selphid’s grip was reassuring to the half-Giant.

A loud sniff made the Halfseekers look over. Jelaqua was already crying again. This time, she was joined by Drassi, who was trying to speak to a camera-Gnoll.

“Jelaqua, stop crying. T-this is Drassi, reporting to you live…”

She was allowed to be here. The people at the doorway were pressed up, demanding to be let in, pleading. Klbkch came to a stop with Relc and looked up. Grand Strategist Chaldion glanced at him, and the Slayer regarded one of the leaders of the Drakes.

They both turned and looked up, higher, as the sunlight from an autumn sky filtered down through the dome’s center. Yet both Chaldion and Klbkch stayed where they were. Relc walked higher, and he found his boots crushing the soft grass. So he paused for a second and took them off.

The statues on the hill waited for him, like everyone. The most frightening and beautiful things of the garden. They stood for each person who knew them. Bird came to a halt and put a little flower behind the antennae of one of the Antinium. Then he pointed.

“See? Someone else wants your name, Knight. It was a good one.”

This was the place for such a moment. The air was still, but it hummed with expectation. Regrets…Erin looked at the statues, and she knew all of them.

Numbtongue stood next to Shorthilt and Headscratcher. Watching. If only there had been six Hobs. Six hundred.

A lifetime of regrets. A memorial. Erin stared at Numbtongue, and he nodded. For this moment might mean one less statue. They could only dream.

The voices, the people talking, all were a kind of background to the heart of a storm. A hurricane of gazes and desire and expectation, swirling around a calm void where the man knelt in the grass. Normen felt as though each second took an eternity and passed in a flash as he and Erin looked at each other.

An [Immortal Moment]. Enough so that the odd apron, her weak muscles, the entourage of a grinning Hob, a silly Gnoll girl with a bee on her head, and all the others felt grander.

Erin was burning. It was in the pupils of her eyes. Pink flame in one, and something else in the other.

Glory…and a second fire, slowly breathing itself into existence. Light green, like the open fields of the Great Plains. The endless horizon. But something else as well.

A Goblin’s smile. A figure in armor. The flash of green, holding a shield.

Flame like a Goblin’s honor. Burning bright. The [Innkeeper] spoke softly.

“Normen Callesn. I am no [Princess]. Nor am I royalty in any class.”

Lyonette started guiltily, but Erin went on without looking around.

“We don’t need such titles. Nor do [Knights] need a throne. They are traditionally associated with such things right now, but the old ways knew times when all that there was were memories. Shattered thrones. Dark skies and no kingdoms. A [Knight] is an idea. It is honor and duty and valor. It is a calling and a responsibility. In the ways of the oldest [Knights], I ask if you are willing to be a guardian of those in need. A protector of the small.”

Her smile was slight as she uttered a kind of heresy for the Terandrians. An idea for everyone else. Especially the Antinium and other peoples who watched.

The four [Knights] from farther lands could have objected here. Ruined the dignity of this moment. Protested with word, if not deed in this hallowed ground.

But they couldn’t. Not even Dame Thuile. They looked up—and the [Innkeeper] stood there, flanked by ghosts. No—the Hydra Knight’s eyes widened.

“Statues?”

They were different for each person. You saw only the ones you knew, most of the time. Some people saw nothing.

For a second, Thuile saw a gathering of figures upon that hill. Proud [Knights], their bodies stitched together, Garuda who flew through the skies. Even a Djinni with a helm.

Ghosts, in the company of an [Innkeeper]. Try as she might, Thuile could not make herself climb that hill and interrupt. The statues were just that. But she feared to interrupt their silence. As if they might come alive and judge her. They gave weight to every word the [Innkeeper] spoke, and the Hydra Knight put her head down and—listened.

The Brother was speaking haltingly. Terror was in every word. Not a terror of death, but something else. Failure. His head rose, and his hands clenched helplessly as he met the [Innkeeper]’s eyes.

“I…I am willing. I fear I’ll fail, though, as it were. And that would be a disgrace.”

Normen blushed at his poor response. He hung his head, but Erin waited until it came back up, searching.

“Everyone fails, Normen. The question is—can you try? Can you try and stand alone against a thousand foes? Will you run when you stand before monsters?”

He knew the answer to this one. Normen stared at Crimshaw, and his chin rose.

“I can stand until I fall forever. No. I would never run.”

The young woman nodded. And if you looked at her, maybe you saw how it was done. A weary warrior, bleeding on a battlefield, raising a sword before one who was worthy. That was all it took.

Ser Lormel, Ser Sest, Dame Ushar, and Ser Dalimont looked at Normen as Erin spoke, and they began to see it.

“Normen. Have you lived a life of honor?”

“I’ve…tried. I truly have. I’ve done things I wasn’t proud of, but there was always a line. There were rules. Or else I was a beast.”

The Brother of Serendipitous Meetings whispered. Erin nodded. Slowly, she lifted the sword.

“No matter what you do. Or where you go—will you vow to stay true to a dream? A dream of honesty, of doing what is right? Even if that dream drowns, will you reach down and lift it up? Will you fight when you must, and protect what you can? Will you be a Knight of the Order of Solstice?”

Normen looked up. He hesitated, and then his lips moved and a dry tongue tried to speak, for a second.

The [Innkeeper] waited, and across the world, a watching Hobgoblin wearing armor spoke. He spoke with a laugh of joy and said the same thing as the Brother—his brother in arms.

I swear.

Erin Solstice brought the flat of the crystal blade on Normen’s shoulder and tapped him on both sides. She managed not to decapitate him with the razor-sharp blade, then she gave it to Numbtongue and threw her arms around Normen.

There was no flash of light, no thunder—save for the sigh that came from every lip. They gazed at Erin Solstice and began to stir, dreamers in a waking vision coming back to life. Erin Solstice embraced Normen fiercely and spoke as she let go.

“There. It’s done.”

“Are you sure? Does anyone have [Appraise]…?”

Mrsha’s flying kick of rage made Thuile stumble and go tumbling down the hill. Erin whirled around.

“If anyone doubts Normen—step up. A [Knight] is a [Knight]!

There was no doubt in her eyes, and somehow, Normen didn’t doubt it himself. He looked up at her and rose, slowly. He felt lighter, not heavier. He felt as if he could run a hundred miles and lift five hundred pounds—okay, maybe three hundred.

“I won’t forget this, Miss Solstice. Ever. I’ll live up to this. I will, I promise.”

She turned to him and then Alcaz.

“You have time, Normen. And whatever you and Alcaz—or anyone—want to be?”

She looked at the guests, her new employees, and nodded.

“Yeah. I’ll make sure you get it. You need a trainer. And armor. And a whole lot of things—I don’t know. You know, Normen. This was easier than hiring someone to clean dishes.”

She gestured at all of the staring people, glanced at the new [Knight], and he nearly burst out laughing then and there. With exasperation as much as anything else. But then his breath caught as an Antinium fanned his wings and Pivr saluted him. Normen lifted a hand as Dame Thuile stared up at Pivr’s underbelly and shouted in horror.

Erin laughed. She motioned Normen down to greet his friend. The [Innkeeper] looked around and spoke to Mrsha and Lyonette and the others.

“It really is easier.”

“You mean—forming a Knight Order to solve all your problems abroad?”

“Not just [Knights]. We’ll recruit a bunch of people.”

“What, we’re not good enough, Erin?”

Jelaqua Ivirith scoffed, or tried to as she blew her nose messily. Erin eyed her.

“I assume you have your own life with Maughin, Jelaqua. I need my people. And I will make sure they have the best equipment! The best! Invisibility potions. Invisibility cloaks. Damn squids. That takes money, supplies, and someone organizing things. I just can’t do that, but I’ll [Knight] everyone. Not you, Mrsha. But anyone who wants it—or other classes.”

She looked about. Erin took a deep breath and felt that fluttering uncertainty again. But she knew what to do with it this time. She bent down, went to pick up Mrsha, and groaned.

“Mrsha, you’re heavy! I think the bisque is wearing off. Someone get my chair!”

Erin flopped into the grass, and Mrsha hopped into her lap.

“What can I do for you, oh mighty granter of classes? I would like to be a [Wizard], please.”

She held up a note, and Erin rubbed Mrsha’s head with a laugh.

“No, silly. Not yet. Plus, you only need a wand and a few other things for that. Can you help me with something? I want to offer Yelroan a job at my inn. Can you tell him there’ll be free room and board and maybe some of the Gnolls can make a living in Liscor or north? So—”

She hesitated. And the words caught on her tongue. Erin lifted a finger as Mrsha excitedly began to write and Lyonette looked concerned at this unknown Gnoll.

“Wait. Tell you what, Mrsha? Give me an hour. I need to work up a proper job offer. With numbers and everything.”

An actual job offer? Mrsha went tumbling down the hill in surprise. Erin sighed. Lyonette put her hands on her hips, but she was actually smiling.

“And how are we supposed to attract all the talent that even a Walled City wants, Erin?”

Chaldion was watching her. Erin blew him a kiss and winked. She looked at Lyonette and then gestured around.

“Tell him…I’ll do this for him. Tell him we’ve got a laptop and more math than he could ever dream of. Hexel will need help, and there’s trigonometry and algorithms and logarithmic numbers. But most of all? Tell him that I think we could do a lot of good here. I want…”

 

——

 

…to send people to help anyone in need. But she needs your help. Please say yes. 

—Mrsha

 

Yelroan looked at the [Message], then turned back to the scrying orb replaying the [Innkeeper] making a [Knight] out of someone. He thought of a laptop and…began to write his refusal. He was so busy trying to word it right that he didn’t notice Merish was there until the Gnoll read over his shoulder.

“Dear Mrsha, I’m afraid that I cannot in good conscience leave Merish and the others while—hrr. I see.”

Yelroan jumped. Merish calmly picked up the piece of paper and tore it in half.

“Merish!”

“You should think about it. If not there—then Pallass, or anywhere you always said you wanted to go.”

The other Gnoll looked tired. The new [Chieftain] met the [Mathematician]’s gaze, and Yelroan shook his head. But guiltily.

“I don’t—I cannot leave the tribe, Merish. You’re going to need someone helping you out.”

If he left, who would be there? But Merish just took a seat.

“A lot of the other tribes are willing to take some Plain’s Eye Gnolls who weren’t part of the Doomslayers and had no notion of anything. The ones who follow me will know what I’m getting into. It will be a hard winter. But I have spoken to Chieftain Akrisa, Chieftain Feshi—they are far kinder than they need to be. Do you know, Yelroan, what Silverfang did nearly two decades ago?”

“They sent Gnolls to Liscor. To earn gold.”

Yelroan spoke slowly. Merish nodded.

“They made a foothold in a city in case they failed or ran into trouble with their main tribe. They looked ahead to where Gnolls might flourish, and look at Liscor now? They send gold back and forth, to help start the city, and then support the tribe. You can earn more money somewhere safe behind walls, Yelroan. North of Liscor, white fur might not matter to Humans. It’s not a bad idea.”

“But you need me here.”

Merish didn’t deny that. However, he looked at Yelroan and shook his head.

“You are doing this to help me, Yelroan. Me and the tribe—but you’re not part of Plain’s Eye, are you?”

“I’m right here.”

“Yes. But look at this.”

Merish reached out and tapped Yelroan’s blonde fur. The [Mathematician] bit his lip, but Merish just shook his head.

“Xherw, Ulcreziek, and I never really understood you were so gifted, Yelroan. Take a job offer. Send money back if you want—but for once? Don’t let our tribe hold you back.”

Slowly, he stood, and Yelroan rose with him. He didn’t know what to say. He grabbed Merish’s shoulder and embraced his friend. Merish leaned on him for a while. But then he let Yelroan go and removed the last shackles on his friend.

You could be anything. Join the Order of Solstice. Become a [Knight]…and while the only member in Liscor had a lot of practicing to do and needed armor to fit, it was the first step. Perhaps only the [Innkeeper] saw it now as she tip-toed up on another recruit, a drunk and babbling [Swashbuckler], but she hoped everyone might one day see the inn abroad.

Wherever it needed to go.

 

——

 

[Conditions Met: Courteous Mugger → Courteous Knight Class!]

[Courteous Knight Level 27!]

 

[Skill Change – Brute’s Swing → Knight’s Riposte!]

[Skill – Knight’s Riposte obtained!]

[Skill – His Hat Held Wrath obtained!]

[Skill – My Cause is Just obtained!]

 

——

 

[Magical Innkeeper Level 47!]

[Legacy: Garden of Sanctuary, authority recognized. Key of Reprieve granted.]

 

She woke up with something under her pillow.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: This chapter was rough. I was deleting sections, struggling, getting frustrated—

And these are the hallmarks of burnout or just being tired. Well, burnout is long-term. I think I’m just tired. So I’m taking a break after next chapter! I’ll have an AMA on the 26th and do the Volume 1 rewrite after I come back. Then I’ll write about another chapter and uh…take another break.

I have a vacation with family I’m planning early August. Like August 8th? Thereabouts. My plane tickets keep getting CANCELED.

Wish me luck. However, I’m letting you know I’ll be taking a longer and irregular break and hope you understand that I want to go on a vacation. At least one this year, possibly more. I’ll try to write if I have time (and heck, I’ll probably want to), but I’ve gotta also have fun.

Anyways, one more chapter. I hope this one was fun and I’ll make the next one short if I have to. Thanks for reading and stay cool! It’s a hot summer.

 

Puppets by Brack!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe

 

Erin by Stardust!

Tumblr: https://stardustswirldreams.tumblr.com/

 

Kissing Booth by Vescar, commissioned by Linnet!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/vescar

 


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78 thoughts on “9.07

  1. Leave a typo for the power of [Knights]! They have swords! Armor! They’re cooler than [Mages]! This is an unbiased opinion!

    (Knightly readers: Gorexn, Litwickee, MrWiggles, Quynin, emphes, Axel Terizaki, Oakateer, HK-42, ChronoMager, JOHN)

    • “Oh, but the Order of Solstice does have multiple [Knight] members. It has three, and three’s all you need.”

      “Two out of a hundred?”

      Dame Thuile spluttered. Erin shot back.

      “No. Two out of five. Only five members are needed.”

      Well, he has all the requirements to declare he’s part of an Order, and once three more [Knights] join, it will be real.”

      Contradictory statements.

    • Finally caught up on this wonderful story. Started reading at the start of the year and it has been one amazing journey reading this. Ups downs; set ups to payoffs; subverting expectations to meeting and exceeding them. Your story so far has made me cheer and tear up for moments. You are an amazing writer and I’m so excited to see what more you have in store with the future chapters.

    • “Everything we got save for the two scrolls is ours.”

      Not wrong, but a bit awkward. Consider “Everything we got—save for the two scrolls—is ours.”

      “On one hand, you had Lyonette, flanked by two Thronebearers, the aura of royalty on her side and a [Princess]’ knowledge of negotiations.”

      “[Princess]’ ” should probably be “[Princess]’s”.

      “alright” -> “all right” x15

      And one inconsistancy. A previous agreement for loot division was made before the Village of the Dead raid in 8.17 H:

      “Treasure allotment is equal split with all teams and individuals based on your total levels.

      Only combat classes. As for payment for wounded or dead, we’ll take it out of the total.”

  2. I think this was an excellent chapter. Love to see the Order getting established, or started anyways.

    ” An entire tribe, changed by the Witch of Webs’ magic. ”
    Would anyone know that though?

  3. 💗💗💗💗💗💗 this chapter. It brought some information and maybe closure on several open storylines. It made me laugh and cry. Thank you Pirate.

  4. I’m starting to find that hill a bit suspicious. Like, white horses and wizards, knights and fairy dreams suspicious. And Erin went and planted a boatload of mana grass and dangerous magical flowers on it. What could possibly go wrong?

    Either that or the garden is really a giant’s discarded sombrero!

    • Maybe it’s a barrow? And I’ve always expected the fairy flowers to eventually turn into actual newborn fairies.

      • I forgot that the fairy flower that is doing wonder is still not mature yet. Now, I wonder whether there is other keys from the garden? and maybe Erin is the Fairy Queen reincarnate? She once said at the early chapter she is no king, she is the queen. (in chess) Just a wild guess ;)

    • Remember that the original Skill isn’t from Erin. She just got it. The Garden probably has special properties yet to be seen.

    • Teriarch tells Erin about the origin of the [Garden of Sanctuary] in 7.26:

      “It was first created by Empress Sheta of Iltanus. There is only but one. Tread these grounds with respect. If you will allow me—I will walk here.”

      Marveling, and closing his eyes. Remembering a fluttering Harpy, full-grown, leading him about it for the first time, telling him where she would plant flowers. And though they were different, they still bloomed aeons later.

      —————–
      We know from elsewhere that Sheta was the last Empress of the Harpies.

  5. >the portal door was being installed in Hexel’s room by no less than the [Architect] himself

    I think the intent is the portal room Hexel designed in V7? At first glance I read it as his personal room and it could be confusing.

  6. Erin has a problem with keeping normal people.

    Turns dishwashers into reporters, archers into (redacted by the Queen Ants), and now honest crooks into honest Knights.

    You got to love how forward her drive and goals can be sometimes and why it didn’t sound insane for someone to try waving a bunch of gold in front of her to see if they might get some of that luck and fortune.

    Also points of Erin studying on how to flip the table to an entire nation across the sea. Very few people can pull that trick off.

  7. This might be the first time the [Garden of Sanctuary] has been featured in a Wistram broadcast, so I wonder if the Harpie Deathless on Rhir or Harpies in general saw it. That and Pisces being seen by the Death of Chains and the Death of Magic, much less the plague guy in the Village of the Dead.

    Also dead gods Grimalkin is going to end up coming up with a fitness/magic training regime for the Order of Solstice isn’t he.

  8. It seems like each knight order has its own personality. I wonder what the Order of Solstice’s personality will end up being. If it follows the trend of Erin herself, then each member will send ripples throughout the world with their actions. Rabbiteater with his actions on Terandria and Erin with Izril. Maybe even Pisces will join as a [Necromancer] in the Order of Solstice and send shockwaves through Chandrar with his conflict with Roshal.

    “A protector of the small.”
    This line alone has a lot of awesome implications. Rabbiteater is protecting smaller kingdoms from the larger kingdom of Ailendamus, and Fraerlings might appreciate a knight order dedicated to looking out for the little guy, perhaps bringing the Order of Solstice into Belaros.
    Only time will tell how far this Order of Solstice thing will go, but I love it, and I also love how we get to immediately see how it takes a [Mugger] and adds better and whole new skills to him as a [Knight].

    • It’s also a maybe call-out to the “Protector of the Small” quartet by Tamara Pierce about another Knight.

      Not sure of PirateAba’s reading history, but we all have our influences.

  9. Ahaaaah! It happened!

    She actually did it. That crazy witch did it! Chaos walks INDEED!

    And… NOOOOO! Numbtongue! What in the damn!

    I can’t wait for the chaotic nature of the lineup for those wanting to be knighted in the Order of Solstice.

    Fetonep, I wonder how the conversation wil go down.

    Will Pivr become a knight?… That small hat still gets me.

    Oh. A math wizard comes to the Inn. Imagine those possibilities and problems being solved by the sheer might of the sunglasses.

    Way to outsmart them knights Erin.

    Now. Genius comes out to play.

    No flashy explosions needed. Too much wasted energy. Economical movements with a knowledge of the battlefield is far more superior.

    Authority recognized?… What will Erin do with that.

    Take classes Lyon Solstice. Erin be dishing out a plate full of pasta and blue fruit juice… alongside an acid jar of RELIEF! Aaah! The relief sizzles and burns!

    Would they? Or wouldn’t they? Horns, Seekers, Elites, Wings, Fellowship, Antinium, Goblins…

    Who will take up the call to the Order?

    Wyvern Lord? Peril? Maviola? The Chosen?

    Thank you for the twist.

    Numbtongue, you let me down. Dabbling in liquids when you should be practicing… I am ashamed to even read your name. Gonna pour some out for missed opportunities and dead homies.

    Lol

    Rabbit Eater! Hope you’re that saving grace I need after being disappointed by a certain name I shall never write for as long as paradoxes exist.

    Just… wonderful.

    Does anyone else get a Jack and Sally vibe from Toren and Maviola? Just saying. It’s a different kind of Nightmare and it makes me happy.

    Unlike a certain nameless hobo living in the Inn.

    I’m just saying. It’s cool to read of a possible worldwide catastrophe yet two undead meet. One with fiery purple eye sockets and the other with fiery… stitches?

    So sweet. And yet so deadly.

    Unlike a certain kind of string plucker. For the kids eyes, I replaced the capital F.

    When will Erin get her own end to end encrypted message scroll / speaking stones for her many connections?

    And enchant either those chairs or tables Erin. With food poison prevention or something for customer relief.

    Put that shaman to work on doing something productive.

    Unlike a certain type of Jerry from undertale.

    So the chapter was fun.

    Glad to see Erin’s special magic at work with the blood earth mage.

    Ooo, Vampire knights! Blood sucking and valiant.

    Welp..

    No one likes Jerry.

    I’m just saying!

  10. What a glorious chapter, burnt out or not this has been one of the best in awhile. I’d say hats off but… perhaps I’ll just tip it instead.

  11. This may be my favorite chapter of all time. The callback to Knight, Brunkr, Rabbiteater swearing in remotely, all fantastic. Also, honor fire??!

    Normen’s been more of a background character until now but I look forward to seeing more of him.

    I don’t usually comment but I just wanted to say I loved it. Do what you need to avoid burnout but IMO the story is the best it’s ever been.

  12. I really liked Erin’s slow realization that she can’t… well, Erin her way out of everything. It kind of ended up being that again this chapter (but it brought Normans arc to a very good end, so it’s fine) but I’m excited to see that developed further.

    • Also Yelroan! I love Yelroan! And Norman as a whole was Very Good. Too sleepy to express thoughts in an organized manner.

    • I saw it as more of a realization that she needs her own forces that are willing to listen when they aren’t in immidiate danger or the cause isn’t near and dear.

      She has an inner cadre. But she really needs blades to her name. That and money to finance her activities.

      Since [crusaders] can transition to [knights] that seems like a prime place to start recruiting. That war should end soon enough and those antinium likely won’t want to return to the current hives.

  13. I really wish that all the Knights of the solstice order will be give a bikes and the order’s unofficial motto will be “ Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these Knights from the swift completion of their appointed Quest”.

  14. High key, I can’t wait for the day that Erin realizes she has unintentionally created a nation, and the inn is her castle, upon a lone hill in a quite garden, sits her throne.

    • Nah. A nation wouldn’t work for her. You can’t do good as the leader of a nation, you have to be a jerk to serve your people’s interests above those of the rest of the world. Erin just wants to do good. Founding a knightly order is *exactly* the right way to do that in a medieval society. An independent group who don’t have to worry about anything except doing the right thing.

  15. Brunkr died in a chapter over four years ago, and the fact that he still is clearly so important to Erin that she immediately thought of him for this plan, and that Mrsha and Lyonette both realized who it was, drove me to tears

    • It is less than a year in Inntime, so not that strange.

      Also Brunkr tried to kill Mrsha early on, before she acquired all those enemies and was the only person (so far) knighted by Lyonette, so he is a pretty big deal.

  16. And that guys, gals, and non-binary pals, is why we love this webserial, and why Erin is bloody amazing!

    This was such a good chapter!!

  17. “To the greatest [Pickpocket] in—twang.” – guessing the “twang” belongs outside the quotes
    although their kids always were never present – delete “always”

  18. The mention of Brunkr felt like a kick in the teeth, but the entire knighting scene had me weeping as I read. Beautiful.

    “Everyone fails, Normen. The question is—can you try? Can you try and stand alone against a thousand foes? Will you run when you stand before monsters?”

    He knew the answer to this one. Normen stared at Crimshaw, and his chin rose.

    “I can stand until I fall forever. No. I would never run.”

  19. Bunch of random thoughts

    I wonder if that bisque does more than advertised. Might possibly build magic muscles.

    Erin’s description of Chaldion was accurate. I liked it.

    Erin almost having a panic attack. .. hit kinda hard… more than expected actually.

    New fire of honor. Yay!

    there’s more to her garden than I thought. What kinds of secrets does it hold?

    • There was a mention recently that when Erin was possessed the ghost might have begun growing a certain muscle specific to Drakes in her body? They posited that it could be a contributing factor to her remaining so weak for so long. Perhaps the bisque will expand on that? We shall see.

    • Water enchantments, privacy. Defense, And just a lot of enchantments in general. A fully enchanted wandering inn would be quite the sight to see, And live in too!

  20. This was a wonderful chapter. Thank you.

    I enjoyed the first half and I’m really glad that Menolit became such a colourful character. I remember when he was just a small background detail… Well, I just like the guy and I’m glad you let him get out of his slump.

    I thought that it would be the gentlemen callers who’d get knighted out of the brothers, but Norman has been a lovely character to follow and the knighting scene was wonderful and quite emotional. You have such a knack for knowing just the right way to convey and invoke emotions… At least to me.

    I like how Erin continue to bat for the hatmen. It’s a bit weird how she likes a criminal gang so much, I hope her new reform program will help more of their members. One hell of a recruitment base, that.

    When I realised that Erin was thinking about Brunkr I had such a goofy smile on my lips the entire time and I did get misty eyed when she said his name and recognized him for all the world. I do miss him, he really didn’t deserve such a brutal end but now he is part of a legacy and the founding tale of a knightly order. I hope that his mother sees it and find closure and can forgive krshia in time.

    Thank you again for a lovely chapter.

  21. It’s subtle — even by the illustrious standards of TWI — but Erin is accelerating up the power curve in multiple dimensions that may not be reflected in her level. Teriarch stated last chapter that her body may develop galas-muscle, which is apparently a huge deal. She appears to have an at-will gaze ability that reveals levels at a glance (in 9.05 she off-handedly noted that Pisces had more levels than any two silver ranks in a crowd, excluding Minotaurs) and discerns character with a stare. More than just granting classes (itself an ability only previously exhibited, IIRC, by royalty), she can transform classes: Normen went from being a mugger to a knight without losing a level; by contrast, Brunkr was only first level after being knighted.

    Some of this may be her as-yet unknown witch skills. Some may be attributable to the fact that she likely understands the class system better than anyone alive except Belavierr, Teriarch, and Nerrhavia. Maybe some is indirect compensation for being denied probably hundreds of levels and skills when she returned to life — quite possibly losing more levels in a purely numerical sense than anyone ever (or at least since the Creler wars). But maybe the ghosts had the right of it when even the greatest of them saw her as a queen in fact, if not by blood or class (and of course she did earn the Queen class, even if it was stripped; perhaps once a Queen, always a Queen?).

    Erin Solstice, Innkeeper Witch of ???, Queen of Consequences??

    • Rxoka could do the same with her change of perspective as far as I remember. I think this is something that is gained after meeting a certain amount of high level individuals and dealing with them.

  22. I hope Erin makes some healthy food that earns Grimalkin approval the kind that builds the body right than the shortcuts away the gain problem he worried about, hmm maybe a magic health smoothie could be popular?
    she got ice but she needs a smoothie maker or food processor…
    could Kevin make a primitive peddle chopper then work up?
    I bet healthy water be great
    I wonder if any of the earth kids kept some treats on hand to give to an alchemist to try to recreate or duplicate?

  23. I forgot how satisfying level-ups are. They’re a nice neat bow at the end of an arc that ties it all up. Well, most of the time, they’re also the worst cliff hangers… what the heck is “[Legacy: Garden of Sanctuary, authority recognized. Key of Reprieve granted.]”??

    • A legacy skill is a skill passed down to those who have proven worthy of it. Ksvmir inherited a legacy skill that used to be Kblch’s. As for the Key of Reprieve, it might further enhance recovery of stamina and rest, or perhaps even wounds?

      • Since Erin found the key under her pillow, I think there is now a lock in the garden that leads to a magical place.

      • Well, she granted a reprieve to Normen, one who never would have hoped to be more that what he was due to his perceived sins. So it is kind of fitting.

  24. This is the first chapter I’ve read as it released. I hope you enjoy your break. Rest assured, as rough as it may have been to write, the result was anything but.

  25. Great chapter! I wonder if Erin will make level 50 in this volume?

    I’m a bit sad that Mrsha isn’t using her sign language anymore! Totally understand that for some stuff she doesn’t have a sign yet and a lot of people don’t know her signs and so it’s easier to write things down but I think for day-to-day stuff I’d be easier to communicate with signing. I hope the antiniums are still using her sign language and maybe invented new signs!

    Anyways, enjoy your break and don’t feel obliged to write while you’re on vacation :)

  26. I finally caught up with the story as you finished book 8, and i must say….book 9 is proving to be on par with the rest of them. You are truly a magnificent writer with very few peers.

    Personally, i see the Order of Solstice to be what some would call chaotic good. They will certainly help those that are in need of it but ____ help those that wrong them or those they help. If other recruits are like Normen, their enemies better watch out. They wont even know what hit them. Normen went from a lvl 27 “thug” to a lvl 27 [Knight] and a [Knight] of THAT level is not an enemy to belittle. Especially since he has not forgotten the tricks of his former trade. They will now supplement the [Knight] class nicely. I honestly can’t wait for the next chapters to see how the Order will progress and who else will join in. Eris is truly upending the knightly world with this. Who knows who else will join the Order *wink*

  27. Loved the chapter! Erin erining things up without being a one-man-army that can fix everything is always nice to see. It makes me wonder what her first mythical quest will be, when there are so many possibilities.

    But I have to ask: what’s up with the weird pairings just dropped without any buildup at all? We just get a “they’re now fuckbuddies” and that’s it. Ironically, the only romance that got the proper amount of (retroactive) buildup was the taboo one between the Drake generals. Everything else comes out of nowhere as if spawned by a random number generator.

  28. Zevara: Chaos Walk: “Maybe we’re getting a little bit over-dramatic here.”

    Erin: Declares the foundation of a new Knight crusading order on both Chrandrar and Izril soil just because: “No, no, you were an adequate amount of dramatic I’d say”.

  29. “Mrsha’s flying kick of rage made Thuile stumble and go tumbling down the hill.”
    Violence in [Garden of Sanctuary] is impossible for Mrshas and Ulvamas.

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