[The author is on break until July 30th! See the Author’s Notes for more things. There is an AMA on r/progressionfantasy on the 26th too!]
She did not appear in dreams often. Never for Mrsha before now, in fact. Which suggested that perhaps even dreams were afraid of Belavierr.
There she stood, in what might have been the inn’s hallway. Only—the wooden walls were decayed, rotten, the boards giving way to mold and the gnawings of termites, exposing black cracks in the wall.
The kind of gaps that you were afraid to go near. Infestation lay beyond. Something rotting—or worse still.
The Stitch Witch stood in the facsimile of the inn, her eyes glowing. Held at bay by a single door. Darkness lay all around the little Gnoll girl. Just like before.
Mrsha du Marquin stood there, shivering with terror. Too afraid to run and be tricked into leaving the garden. Sure that if she stayed long enough—she’d wake.
She knew this was a nightmare. But there was no laptop and silly movie to use. No Rufelt and Lasica. Just the Stitch Witch.
The [Garden of Sanctuary] protected Mrsha. However, even its power, which could foil Grimalkin, was not foolproof. It could not stop Belavierr’s illusions nor her Skills. Nor could it stop [Druids] who entered under peace and pact.
There were rules. Rules so old that even Belavierr didn’t know them all. Yet the Stitch Witch had been here before. So she mocked Mrsha, just like last time.
Rings of shadowed immortality, beckoning Mrsha deeper. Creatures that called themselves Belavierr, reaching out. Layers of methods to defy death, some only a madwoman would use.
The longer Mrsha looked—the more she saw. So she hid her face. But the [Witch]’s words were not so easy to block.
“You trust to this garden to hold me back. Yet it is not your Skill. The owner lies dead, and the true owner died long ago. You don’t have the full power of this place.”
The [Witch]’s eyes glittered and those words came back.
“You don’t even have the right door.”
Why was Mrsha dreaming of this now? She looked for Lasica and Rufelt—or her dream of them, because what happened next was visions and fighting—then angering Belavierr so much that she broke her own Skill. The Gnoll girl waited, and the specter of Belavierr beyond the door frowned.
A dark, puzzled frown. A gleeful—no, wait. It was just a frown. It twisted over her face for a second, and then she spoke, and the…aura of fear and despair around her faded.
“I broke no oaths. You summoned me here. Or a fragment. But why? How? Are you a [Dreamer] now, silly little girl? That would be unwise.”
She turned, and Mrsha’s hair rose higher as she realized the dream Belavierr wasn’t staying to script. The [Witch] peered around. The groaning hallway seemed less terrifying now—mainly because she was here.
“A strange dream. A silly nightmare. Why now? I cannot be lured into a dream. Unless I wish to be.”
Her eyes swiveled around crazily, with what Mrsha realized was sudden paranoia. Then—an analytical insight. The Stitch Witch backed up and produced a piece of chalk. She began to draw a door on the hallway walls.
Black chalk—flecked with brilliant gold Mrsha had seen before. Truegold? Belavierr whispered.
“Little door, little door, in dreams bore a hole. Darkest depths I yet not dream. Let me out, let me out, I whisper, before the nightmare shouts.”
She drew a simple doorknob and had her hand on the door, glancing around with what Mrsha felt was unwarranted fear. Because if Belavierr were looking over her shoulder, peering into the depths of the hallway—Mrsha wanted to be awake right now.
The Stitch Witch was about to yank the chalk door open when her hand froze on the doorknob. She turned slowly—and with evident relief as something oozed from the depths of the hallway. Mrsha backed up as the nightmare appeared.
A mass of bone and ghastly slime, more like toxic green ooze, crawled forwards. It had two glowing purple eyes and a familiar skeleton’s body fused with what an undead slime probably looked like.
The Slime-Toren monster groaned as one of Mrsha’s regular nightmares crawled forwards. Shield Spider legs from the Defenders of the Cave made it scuttle, and a bunch of wiggling rat tails stuck out all over its body. Belavierr stared at the nightmare as it groaned for Mrsha. It reached for the [Witch], making a rattling-chittering sound.
Belavierr let it grab her as she calmly reached for Toren’s skull embedded in the horror. She ripped it out, neck vertebrae and all. The creature squealed like a rat, and like the nightmare-monster it was, reared up—
The Stitch Witch’s hands cracked the fake Toren’s skull into pieces, and she opened her mouth, wide, wide. So wide it dislocated, forming a black hole in her face. She dumped the fragments of bone into her mouth and chewed.
Mrsha and her regular nightmare backed up. The Slime-Toren monster began to flee, and Belavierr whispered.
“No. This is neither trap for me, nor you. A dream is a dream. But why this one?”
Mrsha watched her nightmare flee Belavierr, back into the hallway. She saw Belavierr’s mouth moving and then saw ivory teeth moving in the hallway.
Vast teeth, closing around the Slime-Toren nightmare which made one last squealing sound before—
Belavierr swallowed. Mrsha nodded to herself.
Yep, she wasn’t going to wet the bed about Slime-Toren ever again. She was fairly sure, in fact, she would never have that nightmare again. Giant teeth hallways, now? Lyonette was going to be walking Mrsha to the outhouse a lot more often.
Belavierr turned back to Mrsha. She stared at the girl, but whatever promise she’d made, it was apparently enough to protect the girl even here. Belavierr stared past Mrsha. Then she recoiled.
“The door. The owner’s changed. The key. You found the key?”
She looked at Mrsha in disbelief. The Gnoll peered out of the doorway. She didn’t see the wood door with bands of iron that always appeared for her. Then she realized—the doorway looked different. Belavierr’s eyes widened.
“The half-dead [Innkeeper] found a key? She was—worthy? Unlikely. Promising. Symbolic? What will it change? What will it do? Everything old is rising. Did Califor have something to do with this? Of course she did.”
Belavierr’s eyes flashed rage as Mrsha raised her paw. She couldn’t say anything or—wait.
“Hey. What’s going on?”
The Stitch Witch turned to Mrsha as the girl found, to her delight, she could speak! It sounded like the faux-voice she and Gire had made. Mrsha waved her paws in delight.
“I can talk! I can say something! I’ve always hated you, but you have a great hat! F-forsooth! I can speak! I can—”
The [Witch] ignored Mrsha. She was tapping her lips. Then she shook her head.
“That one has Califor’s mark on her. A different kind of [Witch]. For now. All fire and dreams. However—even my own need my help, my advice, my craft. Recommend me to the owner of this garden and I may reconsider my vow of vengeance, girl.”
She reached for Mrsha, pressing one hand against the garden’s door. Mrsha gaped at Belavierr.
“Me? Help you? Go fuck yourself! Yay, I can say it! Go swallow a Creler egg and take a rusty shovel and—”
The [Stitch Witch] was no friend to Mrsha, but as one mother to another, she supposed that it was well for the child’s guardians that she could not speak normally. She snapped her fingers.
“I have no time for dreams. Another omen. Another mystery. If this owner finds the truth behind the door, won’t you dream of me, Mrsha? Such secrets are worth far more than even all the luck I stole. Now. To waking for you and my task for me. But a bit of revenge, first.”
She leered at Mrsha, her lips curving up in a toothless smile, like a black void. Mrsha backed up. She shook a fist at Belavierr.
“You don’t scare me! I have the door! You can’t get in you—stinky—person!”
Her insult game got bad when she was scared. Belavierr’s smile widened. Then that horrible thing in nightmares happened. You know, when you thought you were scared beyond belief? That moment when you were lying paralyzed in bed, sure a monster was around the corner, ready to leap out?
Just when you thought the nightmare couldn’t get worse—it did.
Belavierr’s eyes began to weep. Black, dark tears began to ooze downwards in a trickle, then a stream of water in umbral shades. Bits of seaweed, even a dead fish slowly poured out her eyes, then her mouth as she began to sink into the floor. Belavierr’s voice gurgled as she spoke, as if coming from…somewhere deep and wet.
“The door protects you even in dreams. I have sworn my oath to my first daughter. But tell me, silly little child. What happens when you wake?”
Mrsha stared at the waters rising in the hallway. She put one paw out as Belavierr kept sinking, and the water pressing at the Garden of Sanctuary was too wet. Too…real. Mrsha hesitated.
“What happens when I—oh—”
Then the [Witch] snapped her fingers, and Mrsha—
—Opened her eyes in her bed as Lyonette yawned and shook her.
“Mrsha, stop thrashing! Mrsha—”
The Gnoll girl sat up and began to howl a second before a wave of water poured out of the air. Lyonette’s scream was accompanied by the door to their room bursting open and a deluge of saltwater, a dead fish, seaweed, and other ocean debris knocked Normen and Alcaz flat as they headed downstairs for their morning workout. Mrsha lay at the bottom of the stairs, soaking wet, and shook her fist up at the sky.
She hoped Belavierr drowned down there. Wherever she was or whatever she was doing. Or got really, really pruney.
[Legacy: Garden of Sanctuary, authority recognized. Key of Reprieve granted.]
…And then she woke up. As sometimes happened, the level ups and announcements seemed to echo the moment she went to sleep and the moment she woke.
Actually—Erin realized that when she leveled up, she never dreamed. It was just the voice.
She woke, lay in bed for a moment, heart picking up speed until it was racing, and her eyes shot open as a spike of excitement ran through her heart.
That was the feeling. Like the first time she had gained a unique Skill, [Immortal Moment]. The feeling of seeing the Winter Fae before they spoke, looking outside at a new world—making something beautiful like flame or food.
Wondrous moments like these were the things Erin Solstice wanted from this world the most. They made up for some of the bad, the ill.
Key of Reprieve? What the heck was that? Her authority, recognized? Did that mean she’d just been a…a…?
“A squatter? No, wait. Does that mean someone else owned it and they died? That sounds dark. Maybe it means I proved myself. Does every Skill like this work this way?”
Erin knew of a bare handful of examples. Ryoka had mentioned Mihaela Godfrey, the Guildmistress of First Landing, had a legacy Skill. Erin had thought it was cool—although the idea of an oxygenless road sounded awful to her.
Now, Mihaela was on the top of Erin’s list of people to meet. The young woman lay there and realized two things:
I can’t let Chaldion/Niers/Grimalkin/someone else know about this right away.
There’s something under my pillow.
Erin’s heart pounded harder as she stuck a hand under her pillow. Just like the tooth faerie, just like, well, a story…she froze when she actually touched something hard and cold.
A key. And larger than Erin had thought! It wasn’t a modern key, but one of those old ones as long as her hand.
She gasped when she pulled out the Key of Reprieve, because one look told her that this was a magic key.
It was the subtle things, like the cloudy, rusted iron metal that looked plain—but revealed some glittering, blue, amber-like material within, clouded and laced with pearl. The handle of the key was shaped like a feather. Like…well, Erin didn’t know feathers, but it looked distinctive, flared at the edges in an odd cut pattern.
The teeth of the key were also different, not simple at all. It looked like someone had taken a square of metal and cut a series of tiny, wavy shapes out of it such that the teeth looked like twined grass, plants—and nigh impossible to use in a regular lock.
It wasn’t that heavy, and as Erin held it, she felt something rush through her hand. A kind of expectation.
A key for a door. Erin Solstice’s breath caught, and she tried to push herself out of bed. Then she remembered she couldn’t walk and groaned.
“Oh, come on!”
But nothing could deter her from crawling over to her chair and inserting herself into it. Erin rolled towards the wall. First bisque, then she’d tell—no, she needed to be careful.
New Erin. New [Knights] like Normen—new inn. She had to actually think, so Erin slowed down a second.
“…Don’t make a fuss. Play it cool. Everyone’s gonna talk about Normen. No one knows—”
Unless my new chess set is bugged.
Erin’s eyes narrowed as she turned her head. An innocent Fraerling stared back at her from her desk. She had asked Palt, and he said it wasn’t enchanted like that to his knowledge—but that if anyone could fool an Ullsinoi Mage, it was Niers.
“—about the Walled City of Shields. I could post that quest, but Chaldion makes just too good an offer. Damn. I’ve gotta tell him.”
Erin amended her statement. And if that doesn’t get Venaz bothering me within the hour, it’s probably not enchanted to listen to me.
The [Innkeeper] continued her planning mentally, since, to her knowledge, telepaths didn’t exist in the—in Izril at this moment, at least.
Okay, play it cool. The Garden can’t be entered, so I can explore with a crew. Normen needs his gear, and damn—I told Jewel I’d offer her some opportunities. Rabbiteater might have written me back! Or Ryoka! I’ll do all that and make a mess in the kitchen and pretend I’m tired.
Erin had big plans for the Order of Solstice, but this clearly took priority. She hesitated as she put her hands on her wheelchair.
“Oh—come on! I’ll work on it later! This is special!”
She lowered her head as her conscience nagged her.
“This Yelroan guy better be good at his job. Okay—do some important work before midday. Perfect.”
Maximum distraction-Erin. She rolled forwards determinedly and crashed into the wall. Erin jammed her knees straight into the wood before bouncing off.
“Ow! What the heck?”
She stared at the wooden wall, which should have opened into the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Erin Solstice rubbed at her knees—then tried again.
She pointed. The door did not appear. Erin’s jaw worked as she stared at the key in hand.
The young woman jabbed the key into the wall a few times. No obliging keyhole appeared.
“Oh no. That’s not good.”
Suddenly, Erin realized that this might not be a wondrous moment like a new Skill. She had never, ever heard an announcement like the one that had given her the key, even for the quests.
This might be…a gift under fae rules. Erin gulped.
“I’d better get some iron. And a helmet. And some acid.”
She had to actually open the door to her room and go into the hallway, and Erin realized she’d need help getting the wheelchair down the stairs. Well, someone could help her down and pull it after—
Erin stopped as she emerged into the second floor hallway. Only with the door open did she smell the fishy, nasty odor of seawater and see the fish scales, the absolutely flooded hallway, and Liska, staring at everything with a mop and an expression of dismay on her face. Erin stared at the Gnoll.
“What happened here? Liska, did you do this?”
“No! It was Mrsha. Again. You’d better take the garden down—and better not go to the common room. Or the basement. All the water drained down there, and a bunch of Antinium came up to complain we flooded their Hive.”
Erin was trying to process a response when someone else woke up. Ulvama opened the door to her room. She took one look outside, peered at Erin, and snorted.
“More [Witch] magic. Stop summoning water! It wakes me up.”
She slammed the door.
It was another day in The Wandering Inn.
This was a grand day. A beautiful day.
Eight Antinium were wearing suits. Yes, suits, the kind of thing you might see at a funeral or wedding. They had been awkwardly tailored and adjusted at first—before an Antinium who knew how to sew had created a far more suitable version that captured ‘suit’ without having to cover the back shell or being uncomfortable or unfashionable.
Each suit was fairly cheap; cotton, nothing finer. Yet they had a lot of gentle style, like the two silver antennae painted on the chest over the image of a mop. A kind of crest.
The Workers all had a bucket and mop. They raised the mops overhead and did a little twirl.
That wasn’t part of the process. It was just style. In fact, it was so much style that Ser Sest was conscious that he hadn’t buffed his armor for a few days.
Silently, the Workers twirled about. Then they stepped past each other, and the audience’s jaws dropped. The Workers were waltzing. Moving around in a coordinated pattern, like two lines of dance partners interweaving. Only—their partners were the swirling mops and the buckets they swung around as they moved.
Terandrian waltz music. That was what this scene called for. The Hobgoblin had his guitar, but he couldn’t replicate the feeling of a full quartet of strings and some brass. To his credit—Numbtongue didn’t even try as the maestro of this moment, the Antinium with silver antennae, smiled.
Silveran was smiling. No, he was beaming. This was a wonderful day. Here he was, with his best team, cleaning the inn.
And it was a mess. Oh, how wonderful! There was water everywhere, it was salty and would dry horribly, and it was already threatening to bloat the floorboards, warping them. Time was of the essence.
The entire inn needed cleaning, deodorizing—the basement was flooded, and a lot of the stored goods had water damage.
All of it required professionals. Ishkr had taken one look at Liska mopping water down the stairs and made the call.
Silveran’s Cleaners were here, and they danced like the [Princess] had once shown them. In fact, some of the larger shops and places where they worked had requested that the Antinium do this.
It wasn’t always efficient, but eight Antinium swirling around the inn’s floor like waltzing [Cleaners]—well.
Even Erin Solstice was staring. Even for The Wandering Inn—
“Wow. Silveran is amazing. Did you know he could do this, Lyonette? Did Pawn teach him? Lyonet—”
The [Innkeeper] turned her head, and the [Princess]’ bulging eyes were her answer. Pawn beamed as he took her hand.
“Silveran is very profitable. His business, like Garry’s, is one of the ones the Free Queen has approved.”
Dame Ushar’s eyes darted to the Antinium, and Lyonette jerked. She patted Pawn’s hand and gave him a warning smile.
“Thank you, Pawn. I—it’s so elegant. Calanfer would have [Cleaners] doing this with the Eternal Throne if we’d thought of it!”
“By Marquin’s sword—I shall recommend it at once!”
Ser Sest shot to his feet, and the Thronebearers were distracted. Pawn sighed, but then turned to Mrsha.
“How did you conjure so much water, Mrsha? I can only do two cups. Although mine is drinkable.”
She glared at him. Mrsha was wrapped in towels and grumpy. She wrote on the only good paper she had left; Belavierr had ruined a lot of her writing supplies.
“The stupid Belavierr! She was in my dreams!”
“Do we need to take precautions against hexes or dreams?”
Lyonette was horrified. She turned, and the Horns looked up from watching the entire event. Ceria scratched at her chin.
“…That’s not something Wistram teaches. I doubt even Ullsinoi knows how. But then again, Belavierr is a legend. So yes. If Mrsha’s not dead—maybe just ‘yes’ in a general sense for all of us. What a way to start the day, eh? Alright. I’ll have two sausage hot dogs to start off with all the condiments. And then we’ll see how I feel.”
She turned to Ishkr, and Yvlon looked askance.
Even Ishkr hesitated.
“…All nine toppings, Miss Ceria?”
“Nine? I thought there were seven. Let’s see. Ketchup, mayonnaise, relish, fish paste sauce, acid flies, that’s five—pork shavings, and, uh—sour cream?”
“—And honey and mustard.”
“Oh, right. Yeah, put all nine on there. Let’s see what happens.”
Ceria rubbed her hands together as some of the other guests of the inn turned green despite themselves. Hexel broke off from inspecting the water damage.
“—It’s just as well we’re changing the inn, Erin. I have you for your ‘big plan meeting’ in two days, but I would have bumped it up if only to help you sort drainage. Happily, there’s an Antinium tunnel to their Hive which did all that. As for that breakfast, I think I need mine to go. I’ll eat with, oh, Councilmember Elirr since the inn is wet. May I see what you have? Before Miss Springwalker gets her food, or I’ll be regurgitating mine.”
“Of course, Hexel! Sorry.”
Erin waved at Ishkr, and Yvlon folded her arms.
“Ceria, there’s no way it’ll taste good.”
“Complementary flavors, Yvlon. Name one thing that doesn’t go well together.”
“Acid flies and honey?”
“Delicious. Honey goes well with everything.”
“Sour cream and fish paste?”
“But with the honey…?”
“Contrasting flavors. Pisces, you want in? Ksmvr—”
The Antinium [Skirmisher] opened and closed his mandibles, for once not leaping at the opportunity to show group cohesion.
“I—I will participate in this shared trauma, which I understand is a unifying force, Captain Ceria. Despite my clear reservations.”
Pisces instantly refused, but Kevin leaned over seriously to talk Ceria out of it.
“Ceria, you can’t do this.”
“Oh, come on, I’m paying for it, I like weird food—is it because it’s two? That’s a lot for my stomach. Tell you what, Pisces, Ksmvr, Yvlon, everyone takes one bite. Mrsha? You too? Excellent.”
Ceria rubbed her hands, but Kevin forestalled her.
She turned to him, surprised by the look on the easygoing young man’s face. Kevin glowered.
“—you can’t have a hot dog without chili. Cheese! How are those not toppings? Baked beans too! Onions, avocado—wait, have we discovered those yet? Um. Coleslaw? Mac and cheese I’ve seen, too. Put all of them on, and I’ll have one too. Minus the flies.”
Ceria looked at him with delight, and Kevin raised a hand to high-five. Mrsha nodded excitedly, and Lyonette tried to remove her daughter from the equation.
“I don’t believe Mrsha needs to eat that. You two are welcome to your…food. But she—”
“She nearly drowned, Lyonette! She deserves a treat. You only live once.”
“Yes and I want her to survive breakfast!”
That was the kind of quality conversation you heard at The Wandering Inn. A Centaur shook his head as he trotted out of the inn.
He was still staying here. Mainly because Imani was—and that might soon change. Not that they’d sleep at Timbor’s inn, though the Drunken Gnoll was fairly nice.
No, they were thinking of a studio apartment over her kitchen. They had to build it first, but the Antinium had offered very lovely rates, and Hexel had said he’d do some personal designing and use two of his Skills if Imani gave him some exclusive dinners for a small company.
Everyone liked the best [Chef] in the city. It opened doors. To Palt, the veteran of Wistram’s secrets and politics, Liscor was easy-mode. He was Imani’s helper—and romantic paramour—which was how he liked to introduce himself, much to her chagrin.
But he was also the horseshoe behind Imani’s rising star. Namely, the horseshoe that played other, rival [Chefs] against each other. The ones looking to sabotage Imani or smear her name.
Palt was no amateur in the world of underhandedness. Culinary underhandedness, now? He’d had to call in a few favors, but Ullsinoi were full of rogues. Even their membership had a few cooking enthusiasts, and they’d taught him a few tricks for a few recipes.
For instance, one of them bore fruit as Palt did a daily check. He was in Barehoof Kitchens, the place he and Imani were running, when he halted a Street Runner doing deliveries with a bag of holding.
“Oho. Hold on. Your delivery’s been sabotaged.”
The Drake girl looked alarmed and nervous. Palt was inspecting some of the basic cooking goods that Imani had ordered.
“Did you get this all from the same supplier? Or was it through the Merchant’s Guild?”
“I—I don’t know. Believe me, Mister Palt, I would never—”
“No, of course not.”
Palt had already checked the Street Runners. But he showed her what he’d found.
“This bag of flour? Someone’s mixed a bunch of salt and sugar into it.”
“How can you tell?”
The Centaur smiled knowingly.
“Diffusion spells. It’s calibrated to detect if there’s two materials mixed together. Handy for an [Illusionist] or someone doing quality-control. Interesting—I don’t think the Merchant’s Guild is behind this.”
Palt indicated the bag.
“…Because it’s too much work. Normally, they just add some weight to the bag to claim they’re giving you more than they are. Enchanted sacks with [Leadweight], optical illusion spells—I even heard of a [Crooked Supplier] who had a teleportation spell wired into the basket so everything he poured out of it lost twenty percent in a hidden compartment. This? This is to foul Imani up, hopefully when she’s making something. She’d taste what she made, obviously, but maybe flour will be ‘out’ if she needs it. Interesting. Well, it’s not powdered glass. If it were—I’d have to get unpleasant.”
The Drake Street Runner was at a loss for words, but Palt’s ominous chuckle made her scales crawl. She had heard other [Cooks] she ran deliveries for muttering insults at Imani, who had managed to keep some of her recipes secret and eclipsed their own fame.
She hoped they didn’t escalate beyond pranks, because Palt, who was very genial and offered her some Dreamleaf for after work, was looking fairly dangerous.
“What—what should I do, Mister Palt?”
“Just one second. There’s some kind of worm or something in one of the produce. [Detect Life] is picking it up. Someone’s creative. How about this? I slip you two gold pieces and you swap this with another cook’s delivery.”
“Mister Palt! I couldn’t—”
“Four gold and I’ll show you how to change the Merchant Guild’s tags. And you find who could have messed with the delivery, and if we find who’s working for the competition, I’ll throw in twenty gold pieces.”
“—Let me run this back.”
The Centaur shook hands with the Drake, and she was just tucking the gold pieces away and heading out the door when Imani poked her head out the kitchen.
“Was that the delivery, Palt?”
“Yes, but she got a few things wrong, my dear! Oh, and you may wish to stay away from The Wandering Inn this morning unless you want to witness a crime against nature.”
Palt trotted over and gave Imani a kiss before relating the hot dog incident. Imani sighed.
“That’s Erin’s inn for you. Although, some fancy hot dogs would be fun to showcase. It’s the presentation—there’s this Japanese custom where you cut hot dogs into cute little octopi. They put them in their bento-boxes. As for poor Hexel—Palt, what are you thinking about?”
The Centaur had lifted a finger. He inserted a cigar into his mouth and puffed furiously.
Imani waited patiently, but Palt’s mind was working overdrive with sudden innovation. The Earthers weren’t the only ones who could do it.
“Hexel asked for a breakfast to-go, and we do that with our kitchen. Bags of holding make transport easier, but you know who never gets lunch even at our restaurants? Hexel again. He’s always too busy. He gets a burger from a stall or a snack. So…”
Imani’s eyes lit up.
“—We should corner the market on boxed lunches! Delivery as well!”
“I was more thinking delivery. Your world does both?”
“Yes—but Palt! I can do boxed lunches for adventurers or people who have to leave the city. We can do in-city delivery.”
Imani began writing notes furiously as she took a pad of parchment out of her apron.
“What if I took an hour to work out a prototype bento-box? We need something good. It’s this stacking box which locks together—a bit of clever woodwork. But it needs to be lacquered or something beautiful, elegant. Not tacky. If we had chopsticks as a culture—we can pack wooden tableware, maybe?”
He pointed at her. This. This was why he’d fallen in love with her over, well, even Erin. The [Innkeeper] had graduated to food tasting good, but Imani understood a truth that made her a [Chef], not a mere [Cook] or [Innkeeper].
Presentation. Feed the eyes, then the mouth.
“I’ll see about woodworking. I may have to go to…Invrisil, I think. Woodworking, a deal with the Runner’s Guild…”
“Get me some of Wailant’s produce if you’re going via door, would you?”
Palt trotted out of Barehoof Kitchens, puffing happily. Yes, life was good.
The Centaur stopped by the Drunken Gnoll to let Timbor know that Imani needed a small bit of flour; their morning delivery was delayed. The [Innkeeper] didn’t curse—he just checked his own breakfast diners.
“I’ll run it over right now myself. We’ve got enough breakfast set in the preservation cupboard for a good amount of customers. I wish I had an entire preservation field, but your kitchen’s better.”
Palt chuckled, and the [Innkeeper] nodded to his [Comfortable Barmaid]. His second-in-command, a cheerful, matronly Drake who put you at ease and quelled arguments by her sheer presence.
He could afford to do this himself, you see, because Timbor’s inn could run if he never showed up. That he did, and put in his time, was because he respected his class. But he had what Erin’s inn lacked—a trained workforce.
Anyways, it was also why Timbor’s inn got a lion’s share of the new customers in the area, and even adventurers, one of the most lucrative, if troublesome, types of guest. His food was excellent, the service was fast, and this inn was a friendly one to Gnolls, who comprised a lot of the staff and guests.
Humans gravitated towards it for that same reason but Gnolls still constituted most of the guests, which was why you could find Vok, Hickery, and a few Gnolls eating with Senior Guardsman Relc, who was paying for breakfast after their morning drills.
“Nah, don’t be an adventurer, Vok. You’re too young, and it’s too dangerous.”
“But if I level up to Level 15 in [Spearman]…”
“Try Level 25 or your parents’ll kill me. If you’ve gotta do it, hunt rats in the sewers.”
“Ew, Relc! Can’t Vok fight Corusdeer or something? Or Shield Spiders? There are still some nests the farmers want gone, that’s what I heard.”
Relc pointed his fork at Vok.
“One. Corusdeer will set your spear on fire with their horns. You try blocking antlers and you’re dead. You have to spear them like a boar, and that’s dangerous as hell. Two, Shield Spiders cover you and eat you alive. Screaming. Spears are really hard to kill them with.”
The Gnoll kids went silent, and Relc picked at his teeth.
“…This is how a lotta Bronze-rank teams go out. Join the Watch. Or do a bit of guard-work. Even [Merchants]’ll hire a young Gnoll who can hold a spear right to guard a warehouse. It’s more looking good and blowing a whistle so no one tries anything. Oh, hey! Klb! My partner’s here, guys.”
Klbkch walked into the inn and halted as all the Gnoll children stared at him. He raised a hand and spoke.
“Hello, I am Senior Guardsman Klbkch. Are you Relc’s…trainees? I am pleased to meet you all.”
He looked disconcerted by Relc’s popularity. And slightly awkward around the nervous Hickery. Klbkch tried to be friendly.
“Hello, young Gnoll girl. What is your name? Here, have a mint cracker.”
He handed over what had been a traditional treat in Liscor before ice cream, cake, and cookies had blown it out of the water—a mint leaf-infused semi-sweet cracker. Relc chortled as Hickery sniffed the cracker nervously.
Klbkch was so taken aback he never noticed he was being watched. Of course, it was pure chance he’d walked in here, but the young woman realized that he might be stopping by regularly.
Which meant this was her new favorite breakfast, lunch, and dinner inn. A crystal hand brushed a loop of red hair crossed with faint streaks of coral-blue. An iconic hair color to match the hand—which even the [Barmaids] stared at.
That was actually somewhat deliberate. Put on a glove and rub some dye gel in your hair and you were different. Was advertising her true hair color and hand dangerous? Yes, well…it was necessary. The young woman made no move, just watched and listened.
One did not trouble the Slayer of the Antinium. Not yet. The crystal hand that moved as perfectly as a real one was proof that a careless mistake would cost you forever. And this game was for keeps.
There was, in fact, a third unusual guest of Timbor’s inn as well. Although, in Jewel’s case, the only unusual thing was that she was sober today.
Her two teammates, who were part of Glitterblade, were glad to see it. Jewel had been, well…the laughingstock of the Adventurer’s Guild was putting it lightly. Accordingly, she’d fallen into depression.
Everything had been going so well hither to. They’d killed two Wyverns in the High Passes and had reaped a considerable profit, even for the amount they’d spent getting out there and camping out. They had survived the Village of the Dead raid, and while Jewel had nearly died—they had reaped the rewards.
But add offending Erin Solstice into the mix and having her name on the quest? That had been the biggest embarrassment of a lifetime, and Jewel had thought she had seen the worst when meeting Captain Todi after finally becoming Gold-rank.
Apparently, teams in Chandrar and Rhir had asked who ‘Jewel’ was. Which was name recognition, as Toimt pointed out.
Jewel, the [Swashbuckler], hadn’t wanted to hear it. But she’d come out of her funk, so she was eating and talking with the other two.
Toimt, Jewel, and Hilten. They were all mobile melee combat classes. To be precise, an [All-Range Duelist], a [Swashbuckler], and a [Spellblade]. Hence their name.
Toimt and Jewel knew each other from growing up and learning from the same old [Duelist]. Hilten was Toimt’s friend, and Jewel had gotten to know them, as fellow experts in rapiers and Terandrian fighting styles did. Few people preferred the lightly-armored style more known to the Human kingdoms of the northern continent. They disparaged the seemingly-flimsy blades that couldn’t penetrate real armor.
Which meant they’d never seen a fencer lunge and run someone in plate armor through the heart in a single move. Needless to say, the members of Glitterblade were the King of Duels’ biggest fans for showing the world the excellence of fencing.
Toimt carried a wand and épée, a heavier version of the fencing foil. He was quite capable of hitting a target while dodging and fighting in a melee.
Jewel used a rapier and a classic buckler shield and was capable of leaping across the ground and moving as fast as any [Skirmisher].
Hilten used a foil, the lightest and weakest of all blades and seldom used outside of practice. True, it was closer to the pariser, an actual sword, but the trick was simply the tip, which had been enchanted with a [Jolt] spell.
Low-level and far weaker than regular enchantments a Gold-rank adventurer carried, but Hedault himself had worked on it because the novel design meant that Hilten could tap you two dozen times with the nimble blade. And you would not be laughing with your arms numb when he ran you through with it.
…Did this matter? Well, only if their team would become famous. Right now, they were new to Gold-rank. They hadn’t emerged with a bang like the Horns, but they’d earned their certification well enough, mostly from their levels.
They had not yet made their mark, but they were going to. The eternal refrain of teams who weren’t world-famous. Now, it seemed like their ship had come in. Erin Solstice, the same person who had turned Jewel into a daytime alcoholic, had suggested Jewel talk to her about a kind of contract like the one Todi had with Selys.
Or even, perhaps, joining the Order of Solstice? They had a chance to become part of the news, and not as a laughingstock.
However, Jewel was relaxed this morning. She ate and reassured her two teammates she was out of her funk. But—surprisingly—she was reticent about visiting The Wandering Inn.
“Listen, you two. I appreciate Miss Solstice snapping me out of my silly mood. That was embarrassing. But it reminded me, once I sobered up, that we are Gold-rank adventurers.”
“New ones. We’re not even a year in, and the Horns are world-famous. We’re not, Jewel.”
She waved this off from Hilten. He was as cautious as his class and fighting style indicated.
“Yes, but we are Gold-ranks, Hilten. One of the youngest teams to get here! Erin Solstice is important, but think about it—do we want to work for coppers on gold just for her fame?”
Hilten and Toimt exchanged looks.
“—I think she’s pretty important, Jewel. Everyone in Liscor knows her inn, even if they don’t know her.”
“Yes, yes. If she wants to make a serious offer, we’ll hear her out. I just don’t want her to think she can embarrass us and offer us bad rates. We’re a Gold-rank team. Just remember that.”
Jewel leaned back, projecting reassurance to her teammates. That was right. No more being pushed around. She was reaching for another devilled egg when someone spoke up.
“Hey, Jewel! Mind if I scoot by for a sec?”
Jewel looked up. She was about to glare at whomever was speaking to Gold-rank Jewel when she saw Captain Jelaqua Ivirith of the Halfseekers.
“Oh! Captain Jelaqua! Sit—good morning. Anything up?”
Jelaqua sat down with a big smile. She was actually joined by Seborn, Ulinde, and a more cheerful Moore this morning.
“Hey, guys, we just came through Pallass. The door’s a bit odd right now—Erin’s apparently gonna raise rates. Ouch, and she’s renegotiating with the cities. But we’re friends of the inn. I’m heading back for a hot date with Maughin, but I wanted to catch you all. Are we taking your time?”
“Not at all. What do you want to order? We’re almost done with breakfast, but we have these nice eggs—”
Did they want to talk business? Pool gold to buy one of the artifacts? Jewel didn’t know as Jelaqua waved that off.
“Nah, I’ve got to get going soon. Just a word. Hot date. Maughin. Me.”
The rest of their team rolled their eyes as she emphasized that. Seborn leaned forwards.
“By hot date, she means she’s keeping him company while he works.”
Jelaqua elbowed him hard, and Jewel laughed politely. The Halfseekers sat down as Moore smiled.
“Have you been to the inn this morning? I saw it was flooded.”
“Flooded? But the door still works, right?”
Jewel’s nightmare would be being stranded and going back four hundred miles to Invrisil. Jelaqua waved this off.
“Nothing destroys that damn door. Not even Crelers…and that’s one of the perks of being a friend of the inn. Easy transit. Which is why I wanted to talk to you. Don’t worry, Erin didn’t send me, but I heard from a birdie called Typhenous that she was going to offer you a job.”
Jewel stiffened. Her teammates looked up. Word was already spreading? But then Jewel relaxed. So this was it. Erin was sending in a team to vouch for her. Classic upsell. Well—
She wasn’t prepared for the Selphid to glance around conspiratorially.
“Listen, Jewel. I think this is great for your team. A new group like the Horns? Wonderful. Just don’t mess it up, okay? And by that, I mean, don’t mess it up for her or for yourselves.”
Jelaqua looked more serious than Jewel thought. A good act—but then the Selphid nodded at Seborn.
“I just don’t want you to die. Seborn, you had a speech, right?”
The Drowned Man nodded.
“Yeah. Think of it like this. The Horns were Erin’s friends. A good Silver-rank team on their way up. Calruz, their leader, was low-Gold already, unofficially. Within a year of knowing her, all but one of the original team was dead or in prison. They killed an Adult Creler, and they’re now walking around with Relics after surviving a death-zone. That’s the odds. Us? We ‘only’ survived a siege, the Raskghar appearing for the first time, uh…”
Moore whispered. Ulinde waved a hand.
“Oh, and I joined up after I attacked you all!”
Jelaqua snapped her fingers.
“Exactly. And we had a reckoning with our traitor, Garen. He died, and we put years of vengeance to rest. I’m going to include killing and looting Wall Lord Dragial as part of that. Speaking of which, Lehra had better get here and divide the shares up or I’ll get suspicious, huh?”
She laughed and looked around the table. Jewel’s mouth was open slightly as the Selphid grew serious again.
“That’s what I mean, Jewel. Be ready for danger. Really think if you want to do this. Now, I know you’re Gold-rank, but Saliss of Lights nearly got killed doing something Erin-related. Think about that. A war with the King of Destruction wasn’t Erin’s fault—”
“—that we can prove—”
“—But that’s the thing. Don’t be Vuliel Drae. Have you heard about them?”
Glitterblade had, but only in the vague way that things got around. Jelaqua related the story of the Face-Eater moth disaster.
“I feel like they’re the other side of things. Well, grandmother’s tits, everyone’s lost a teammate except for the Silver Swords. Griffon Hunt—it’s a chance. That’s what I’m going to tell you. Named-rank or death. Believe me, Erin doesn’t try to get you killed, but even her ordinary missions?”
Moore was nodding with the rest.
“If she asks you to take Mrsha to the playground, you could be fighting [Rogues] to the death in the street. That happened once. Not our team, but a gang.”
The half-Giant patted Jewel gently on the shoulder as the Halfseekers rose. Jelaqua tossed some coins down.
“Let us get the bill. You can pay us back, but like I said—if she makes you a [Knight], insist on some enchanted plate armor. Mithril. Pelt can probably make it. That’s the perks. But I don’t know if our team would go on retainer. I’ve said my piece. Erin will kill us if Jewel refuses.”
She turned, and Seborn nudged her.
“I’ll back you up.”
“I will too. It was something you had to say, Jelaqua…”
In silence, Hilten and Toimt looked at Jewel. She spluttered as she stared at Jelaqua’s back.
“That—was exaggeration. A bluff. Erin just sent Jelaqua to say that.”
“Why would she warn us off?”
“Reverse…reverse psychology! It’s mind-games. Listen, I don’t think Erin can pay us to work for her. Not as a Gold-rank team.”
Jewel was just getting up when someone else sat down at the table. He appeared so suddenly that the odds were he’d been camouflaged by a Skill, or invisible.
After all, there was no mistaking Grand Strategist Chaldion. Jewel jerked back in her seat as four big Drakes wearing Pallass’ armor stood next to the table. Chaldion twisted his ring, and Jewel’s ears popped as he deployed a privacy spell.
“This may be true. However, Pallass and I, personally, are willing to pay you a considerable sum to accept Miss Solstice’s offer, Captain Jewel. ”
“I—I—Grand Strategist Chaldion?”
The Drake knew her name. Not only that, he nodded at her teammates.
“Hilten Coroes and Toimt Ironvell. I trust I will not have to repeat myself that this conversation will remain private, even if not all of you accept Miss Solstice’s request.”
“We haven’t agreed to do that! We cannot be intimidated!”
Chaldion raised one brow as his gemstone eye gleamed at Jewel.
“No indeed? I trust, however, that you would not mind reporting anything and everything you hear for due recompense? I am prepared to be exceptionally generous. Per valuable secret, I will pay you ten thousand gold pieces if you bring me back something actionable.”
Jewel’s mouth went dry.
“Wh—are you asking us to spy for…?”
Chaldion waved this off at once.
“Nonsense. Spies have a limited lifespan in The Wandering Inn. This is above-board, and I believe Miss Solstice surely expects this. The difficulty is that pre-existing agents are difficult to acquire.”
He pursed his lips, and Jewel could not understand his frustration. Money was no object, and Pallass had many levers…
…Few of which worked on the inn’s permanent staff. Mrsha could be bribed with sweets, but she lied like she breathed. Lyonette was a [Princess] and difficult to cajole. Goblins didn’t really value money or threats, and Bird was an enigma.
As for Ishkr, well. He had proven far more difficult than Chaldion thought, and the adventurers were equally tough. Chaldion didn’t tarry long.
“I have quite a lot of business to attend to. Please go to Pallass and ask to speak to a Watch Captain or other official in the military if you choose to accept. I am not exaggerating your fee.”
He rose, and Jewel’s ears popped again as he deactivated the spell. This time, her teammates just watched her with folded arms.
Before Jewel could rally, before she could even scream or protest one last time, a third party moved over and sat down.
Grand Strategist Chaldion actually turned in the doorway, but Wil Kallinad just smiled and bowed to him. He didn’t even bother to use a privacy spell or lower his voice as he spoke.
“Excuse me, Captain Jewel. I would just like to introduce myself. I am—”
“Lord Kallinad. The Titan’s student.”
Jewel had had a bit of a…he had been the [Strategist] she’d rooted for at Daquin. She stared at him as Wil nodded politely.
“That’s correct. I won’t take up your time. I would just advise you to reconsider taking Grand Strategist Chaldion’s offer. It would be, in my opinion as a [Strategist]—unwise.”
“Is that a threat?”
Hilten looked alarmed, and Wil considered the question.
“…No. More like a simple statement or warning. Not from me, you understand. The Titan of Baleros simply wishes it to be made clear to everyone. Grand Strategist! Could I beg for a game of chess later?”
The Drake glowered as Wil rose, and Jewel sat there. Her teammates avoided her gaze as Jewel looked around. She licked her dry lips.
“…I—I think, before we do anything, why don’t we get a round?”
A tipsy team left the Drunken Gnoll, and only when they were gone did Timbor poke his head out from the back and stare at the table where Jewel had been.
So that was the damn reason why he kept levelling up! He wondered if he could offer Jewel free room and board.
In a vacuum, it sort of looked unfair. It might have seemed like bullying, what was happening to Jewel.
Or, conversely, a lot of handouts that were entirely undeserved. And that was fair, especially if you looked at Mrsha’s smug face and considered a lifetime of pancakes for breakfast, Gold-rank friends, and a magical inn.
However, all children had it good. Except for the ones who didn’t. Some adults might indeed work a difficult job with little thanks and pay. They did not dream of Belavierr.
The point was—if you were going to do this? This time, for The Wandering Inn, there was no excuse. Do it right or the next statue was your fault alone.
Erin Solstice knew that. That was partly why she was afraid. Afraid, because this time she had, with full knowledge of what might come, put the first piece in front of Skinner, in front of an Adult Creler.
How did the Pawn feel when it was promoted to the Queen piece or, rarely, the Knight piece and saw the sacrificial play?
Normen felt like he was dreaming. A dream where someone looked at him, the boy who only the Watch paid attention to, the petty thug, and pointed at him. Then the [Innkeeper], eyes burning with flame, told him he was worthy to be a [Knight].
He was honorable, after all. It wasn’t an act.
The dream became realer when Ser Dalimont took him aside. The Thronebearer was brisk, and out of all the [Knights], he alone didn’t really question what he’d seen. The others were uncertain, because a [Knight] was a [Knight].
And Normen was now a [Knight]. In fact, the graceful [Cleaner] Antinium aside, the inn had a lot of guests this morning. Now that the door was back, they were far more regular. And the usual crowd had returned for the spectacle.
However, no less than two whole tables were packed with men who paid for their breakfasts up front, tipped their hats but didn’t take them off at the door, and wore plain clothes, sometimes stained or patched in suspicious places.
Rough men. Honorable men. Dangerous men—but not to the little Gnoll girl currently trying not to throw up her first bite of the everything hotdog. Men who eyed Ceria taking a huge bite of a hotdog with more apprehension than they would a [Brute] with a serrated knife at night.
…They were still men of principle.
“It seems to me that this inn has excellent food, as it were. A fine play for Normen. No one ask for one of the ‘hot dogs’, though—it’d be a pity to be abed the rest of the day.”
One of the leaders, an [Enforcer], advised the others. He glanced sideways as Typhenous slowly tried to sneak out of the inn. The hatman’s eyes glinted as Erin turned.
“Typhenous, don’t run off! I need to speak to you!”
Every Brother turned and politely stared at the Plague Mage, who winced and gave her a pained smile. The Plague Mage would, of course, have preferred not to be in plain sight.
However, the garden door wasn’t working, and Typhenous was wondering if he’d upset Erin. Or if he were being trapped.
In fact, Mrsha had run face-first into a wall, along with Numbtongue, Lyonette, and a number of guests of the inn. Something was up, and everyone was glaring at Erin and wondering if she was holding the door open somewhere. However, the penny hadn’t dropped for them yet.
Normen was the center of attention, and all the men with hats turned back to Ser Dalimont. The [Knight] was doing something odd.
He’d taken a braid of rope and tied it into knots at set intervals. Now, he was wrapping it around Normen’s shoulder at the armpit, his legs, even his chest.
It was something any [Seamstress] or [Tailor] would have recognized instantly. Measuring rope—but all the hatmen listened intently as Dalimont spoke.
“Looks like you’re well within standards, Ser Normen. Here are the exact measurements—anyone can use it to adjust armor, but you wanted this, Miss Solstice?”
Ser Normen. The men sighed, and they looked at Normen like…
Well, Normen understood those eyes, filled with the kind of longing there were no good outlets for. You couldn’t equate that feeling with any other desire. Not even the burning desire to impress a lady, the need to swing a fist, or the fury of a good fellow who saw something wrong to correct.
This was deeper. He took a shuddering breath as Erin turned.
To her credit, the [Innkeeper] knew what she’d done, and she repeated the words.
“Ser Normen! I like it. Thanks, Dalimont. Pelt says he’s ‘busy’ and that I need to get an ‘order’ in. That’s fine. We had some ideas about armor, anyways.”
“Isn’t there some good Shield Spider armor on sale in the market? Silver-rankers use it. Smith Raekea also does very good iron for cheap. If you go to Pallass, Maughin’s steel is unbeatable for Skills.”
Yvlon turned, rattling off the different types of armor you could acquire, if only to distract herself from watching Ceria eat. There was more topping than hot dog.
Pisces was already down. Ksmvr’s mandibles shook as he hesitated over his bite. The [Necromancer] was trying not to puke as he clutched at his stomach. Erin shook her head in response to Yvlon’s question.
“No, we’ve got a plan. We need the best armor. Not even good—Mrsha. Weren’t you gonna—Mrsha?”
The Gnoll girl ran, covering her mouth, and slammed into a wall. The garden door wasn’t open, so she turned, realized she had no time, and—
Ooh. Everyone looked away. Lyonette closed her eyes as Silveran glanced over and gestured. This required some fast-drying alchemical powder, some dedicated soap, a few drops of deodorizer, and…
Ceria was still eating as Mrsha the Vomitous sniveled and wiped at her nose. At this, Ksmvr made a judgment call and hid his hotdog piece in his bag of holding before pretending he’d eaten it. The half-Elf looked around.
“Yeah, this isn’t great. But hey, food is food.”
The hatmen nodded at each other. The [Enforcer] chuckled.
“Gold-rank stomach. Now there’s a lady deserving of her level, I dare say.”
Everyone nodded judiciously and turned just as Ishkr bustled out of the kitchen with a loaded tray of food. Liska followed him, grumpy, but Ishkr served out the breakfast plates to the less-than-hungry guests.
However, a curious scent caught each fellow’s nose, and Mrsha looked up from crying to Lyonette and blaming her for not stopping Mrsha from her bad decisions. It was odd, slightly burnt, and Kevin whirled from trying to take another bite of his hot dog.
“Wait. Is that…?”
“I know there are a lot of morning tea drinkers here, but would you all care to take a sip of our complimentary drink this morning? We have, ah, coffee, from Oteslia. Freshly brewed.”
Lyonette nervously clasped her hands behind her back as she presented the first batch of something new. Liska showed around the mugs, steaming, as Ishkr offered them about.
“There’s free milk and sugar with them. We’ll be offering it here, exclusively, for breakfast. Or whenever you wish, but it, ah, wakes you up.”
The Brothers eyed the drink with a lot of reservations given what they’d just seen Ceria eat, but the [Enforcer] grimaced.
“I’ll have one, sir.”
“You sure, Beytoc?”
The man nodded.
“A fellow does not turn down free drinks from a lady. Do I add in the milk or…?”
He consulted with Lyonette, who helpfully advised him to try it black, and then moved on. Beytoc hesitated, because it was a peculiar smell coming from the mug, and he worried it was burnt.
However, one look to the side and he saw Kevin almost shoot out of his seat. Kevin took a mug, looked around, and shouted.
“Coffee? We have—Joseph! Where’s he? Joseph, Imani—coffee! Sugar, milk—lattes. Iced coffee. Frappuccinos. The only damn good thing about home—”
He was almost crying as the coffee-drinker used to a Starbucks or similar drink every day found his habit once more. He expertly swirled some milk and sugar into the cup and took a big sip. He sighed—then his eyes bugged out.
“Whoa. This stuff tastes strong. Good, though. Ishkr, how much do you have? Can I take a canteen? Two? I could store it on my desk.”
The Gnoll hesitated, but that encouraged Beytoc to take a drink. He swilled the bitter drink around and decided no, it wasn’t bad. Peculiar, but unique. Could use some sugar if they were offering it, but he could see it being good straight—
And then the [Enforcer] realized why Kevin had wanted the coffee so badly. Because that rush you got from tea? The energy of caffeine?
This was Oteslian-grown coffee. Whatever Rickel had found to form the basis of the coffee plants had benefited from the magic in this world. In short—this coffee was stronger than Earth’s average bean.
It didn’t overload the man’s system, but his eyes opened, and he took another sip.
“Now this is a fine way to wake up without a fellow putting a hammer to one of your toes. Try it.”
The other Brothers sat up and all requested a mug. Ishkr realized he’d need another tray. He looked for Liska and saw she had a mug and was sipping at it.
“Liska! Go get another tray!”
He glared, but she kept drinking as she trotted into the kitchen.
Coffee in the inn. It wasn’t for everyone. Mrsha took one sip, spat it back out onto the floor for Silveran to clean, and handed her cup to Numbtongue to try as Lyonette grabbed her ear and scolded her. But then she turned to Erin and remembered Normen.
Oh! Right! She took Dalimont’s measurements and wrote, a huge frown on her face. Today was just not Mrsha-day. All these petty annoyances…
Ulvama sniffed the coffee mug, but didn’t like the scent. First witchy-magic—which she conceded Erin might not have done but that damn spider—now what?
Ulvama was a regular of the inn, but she hadn’t really seen Erin as much as the others. She had witnessed yesterday’s knighting and was in some shock. The [Innkeeper] could do that?
She was rapidly reconsidering Erin’s value. Her exile from Rags’ tribe was still a sore point. Technically, she was their [Shaman], but Rags hadn’t exactly rushed a Wyvern out to bring Ulvama back. The Hobgoblin had decided a life of pure hedonism wasn’t a bad thing, especially with Mrsha to tease. Now, though…
She read over Mrsha’s shoulder, and the Hob’s mouth opened. The [Shaman] stared at Mrsha, but the girl didn’t seem like she was lying like usual. Mrsha was writing a letter.
…and though it pains me, personally, to request anything in the way of personal debt, it would behoove you to send one of your suits of Demas Metal™ to the care of The Wandering Inn for one Ser Normen, [Knight]. Enclosed are his measurements.
You did promise me you’d help, and he needs armor. Please send it forthwith. Hoping you are alive, vaguely,
—Mrsha du Marquin.
And she’d get it. Ulvama pointed at Mrsha, but no one else seemed to notice. Numbtongue was going to take some coffee to Octavia. She was ranting about the Eir Gel shortage. Ulvama poked him.
“Hey. Little girl has Demas Metal? She gets a suit of armor? Like…”
Ulvama snapped her fingers. Disbelieving. One did not just ‘get’ a suit of armor! She was well aware of how valuable that was—no one else seemed to be! Numbtongue just wrinkled his nose.
“Her father makes it. Important Chieftain.”
“The first set is free? I know your…biological dad makes the stuff, but is it really okay, Mrsha?”
The Gnoll girl waved Erin off. Mrell owed her one suit of armor. And just like that—even the Thronebearers were glancing at Ser Normen. He was going to be wearing the new Demas Metal? Wasn’t that akin to a set of mithril armor…?
“Great. We’ll see about enchanting it later. Now, what kinda weapon are we gonna get? Actually, if Normen uses his club, we can get, like, an enchanted one. But if he needs to practice with a sword?”
Erin looked around and hesitated over a cup of coffee herself. She reached out, and a bleary, red-eyed Drake lifted it out of the tray. Saliss took one huge gulp, then two.
“Mm. Sorta weak. You don’t want a sword. Maces are good. Give the man a shield. That’s what he needs training in. Or something in his off-hand.”
Erin hadn’t seen the [Alchemist] in forever! The Drake turned to her.
“Looks like you’re on your feet. Magicing your way out of the problem, huh? Hey. What day is it?”
He looked awful. Mrsha exclaimed as Octavia practically bowled Numbtongue over as she shot out of her shop.
“Master Saliss! How are you?”
“Hey. Whoo. Look, it’s a naked Drake. Someone’s ancestors, I’m tired. Is this supposed to be waking me up? It’s not working.”
The yellow-scaled Drake looked far less annoying than usual. Erin wavered as Saliss sat down.
“It’s supposed to. It’s caffeine.”
The Drake eyed the coffee.
“Not stamina-replenishing, then? Just caffeine? It was better in Oteslia. But I had more sleep in me then.”
He sat down in a chair, groaning, as Octavia fussed around him.
“Master Saliss, you should have called me in to help! How are you? I haven’t seen you in a week!”
Saliss opened one eye.
“Some things I can’t get you to do. You’re not high-enough level, and I’m not scraping you off the walls. I’m nearly done with enough battle potions, and I’m poor. Wait. Did you say a week?”
Octavia nodded. The Drake stared at the coffee.
“…I thought it was only two days. Yeah, this might not be work—”
He put his head back, groaning. Everyone stared at him, but the Drake just lay there, head tilted up at the ceiling. Only when they heard the rasping snore coming out of his mouth did they realize he’d passed out.
“Was he awake for seven days? Don’t you die if you stay up for five in a row?”
Erin looked aghast. Lyonette just hurried over and threw a blanket over Saliss. He actually dodged the blanket. Saliss’ eyes shot open, and he whirled out of the way.
“Damn you assassins—oh. Thanks.”
He lowered the vial, grabbed the blanket, wrapped himself up in it, and then hit the floor, already asleep again. Shriekblade stared down at Saliss. She crawled over the rafters and whispered down to Pisces.
“See? Named-rank. He knows about Roshal, too. They’ll stab you in your sleep.”
Ulvama kicked Saliss gently as he lay there. A Named-rank Drake, Numbtongue the [Bard]—who was at least Goblin Chieftain in level, if not authority—the [Innkeeper]. She folded her arms.
“Lots of power. None for me.”
She was a [Shaman of the Old Ways] thanks to that meddlesome little man. However, Ulvama was a practical Goblin who had served under Tremborag. She knew that power was a tribe, not any one Goblin.
She had watched Tremborag die alone. The [Innkeeper] had figured out the basics of power in making that [Knight]. If Rags was never going to take her back—Ulvama figured she might as well begin consolidating power here.
It would be tricky with non-Goblins, but she figured she could at least get things she wanted, if not create a tribe. Numbtongue gave her a look of deep suspicion.
“Don’t cause trouble.”
“You have Stitch-girl. Shut up, fool. Go practice kicking each other between legs with [Farmer]. I don’t have relationship problems.”
She looked around. What she really wanted was maybe a bicycle. But you had to choose who had the most power. She eyed Erin.
Numbtongue gave Ulvama a sidelong look and laughed in her face.
“No chance with anyone here! This isn’t Mountain City tribe.”
His derisive tone made Ulvama’s eyes narrow. She turned to Numbtongue and tugged at the Drake shirt she’d made Mrsha buy her that she’d adjusted, mostly by removing most of the upper section.
“I am an expert. Silly little Goblin. Anyone can be mine.”
…Which was exactly the reason why Rags was still not exactly welcoming her to Goblinhome. Numbtongue made a scoffing sound and turned away. The [Shaman]’s crimson eyes narrowed. She turned, put two fingers to her lips, and blew a kiss. Then she flicked a red, sparkling orb through the air.
It curved slightly across the room, and Kevin, talking excitedly with Joseph, yelped as it struck the back of his neck. He turned and felt a warm pair of lips on—Joseph blinked at Kevin’s neck.
“Whoa. Kevin, did she just—?”
Numbtongue just snorted in derision. That wasn’t high-level flirting. It was just magical flirting—he’d seen more poetic overtures in the Redfang tribe, like combing someone else’s Carn Wolf. Ulvama sneered at him.
“Easy is easy. Anyone. I know them.”
Kevin was, apparently, easy. Numbtongue raised his brows. This was a challenge? He thought—then grinned wickedly and pointed at the figure slowly hanging upside-down from a beam overhead. Shriekblade snatched one of Liska’s coffee mugs and scared the Gnoll so badly the rest of the tray went flying. Silveran bustled over. Oh dear, more cleaning? He might be here all day.
Ulvama laughed in Numbtongue’s face. She fished around in her belt pouches.
“Hmm. One second. Need silly Centaur’s leaves and other things.”
Leaves? Dreamleaf? Then Numbtongue saw Ulvama pull out some distinctly powder-like stuff that made Octavia’s head snap around. The [Shaman] trotted over to Tessa, calling out.
“Scary adventurer girl. Want to have lots of mind-crazy things and—”
Oh no. Numbtongue dragged her back.
“Bad idea. Don’t do that.”
Ulvama hid the small pouch of powder as Tessa found yet another substance she enjoyed. She smirked at Numbtongue.
“Would work. See?”
She hid whatever it was so fast that Numbtongue suspected she hadn’t been serious. She was mocking him. His teeth bared furiously. Numbtongue looked around. What about…?
One of the [Knights]? Ser Solton, Dame Thuile, were all watching Normen. Ulvama scoffed.
“Takes time. Duh. Have to get behind armor. Under armor. Then—easy. Rich [Knight] is easiest. Likes money. All [Knights] are serious until armor comes off.”
Exasperated by her confidence, Numbtongue looked around. He felt like he was arguing the wrong thing—he didn’t like Ulvama’s surety that there was a way to push everyone’s button. Then he pointed down at Saliss.
Ulvama peered down at the Drake, and her confident expression…flickered. She developed a huge frown and walked around the Drake. She nudged him with a toe—he twitched out of the way a few times—as Numbtongue smiled triumphantly at her.
Then Ulvama brightened up. She grabbed Mrsha’s notepad, tore off a piece, and stole a quill as the girl punched her leg. Ulvama’s eyes were triumphant as she wrote, then stuffed a bit of folded paper into Saliss’ mouth.
The [Bard] gave her a disbelieving look as the [Shaman] walked off. Saliss woke up and spat out the piece of paper. He glanced at Ulvama, unfolded the paper, and his face didn’t change.
“No, I’m not selling you anything.”
He called out after Ulvama, and the Hob laughed. Saliss tucked the paper away and went back to sleep. Or at least, he closed his eyes. Numbtongue sneered at Ulvama, but she still claimed triumph.
After all, she’d written—
Want to come back later with me, pretty lady?
Which was a Relc-level line. And an Ulvama-level read. Saliss closed his eyes. There was just one problem. The one mistake Ulvama had made as an expert [Shaman] was this: she had read how to get to her target.
But now her target, Saliss, was seriously considering killing her.
The one person the [Shaman] was secretly glad that Numbtongue hadn’t pointed at was the young woman currently welcoming Jewel into her inn. Because if he had pointed at her, Ulvama would have obviously lied.
But, like a mountain climber staring at a glass wall, she would have had a really hard time finding even the beginning of a foothold. Everyone—in that reductive way Ulvama saw things like intimacy—could be gotten into. You got them mad, interested, and that was the first step.
Erin Solstice? Well. The [Shaman] would have had to really work out a plan. Nothing was impossible, though!
Except maybe Bird. But he was also a child, and a good one. He gave her all the eggs she wanted in exchange for stories about birds, made up and real.
Speaking of Bird, the Antinium was the first one to notice Erin’s big secret. Jewel was sitting in The Wandering Inn, drinking some coffee to sober up and not being pressured by Erin—just by Erin’s inn and everything else.
However, he was the only person not caught up in looking at Normen, watching Jewel’s colorful expression, or Ceria’s competition to find the most horrible food ever. By now, people like Menolit were challenging her, so she was spreading honey on some fermented sauerkraut. The smell was…
And yet, amidst all the chaos, Bird’s cheerful gaze fixed on Erin as she paused a second to stare at a tiny thing she took out of her pocket and hid in one hand. He peered at her—then walked over.
“Alright, alright! Stop bullying Jewel! Is that Wil? Man, is everyone gonna come in today? Welcome, welcome! Don’t step on Saliss.”
Everyone wanted a piece of the [Innkeeper], and Erin smiled to see the [Strategists] and Chaldion—and why not? She had just started a Knight Order. This was the day to talk to Erin, to see her wondrous moments in action.
It was just gonna make it really hard to explore the—Erin felt a hand tugging at her pocket. She whirled and shouted.
“Who the—Bird! No, no—”
Bird had something in his hand. He fled away from Erin, waving his hands as she tried to chase after him, cursing her weak legs.
“It is beautiful! I just want to see it!”
“Bird, give that back!”
No one else noticed, even Chaldion, assuming Bird was just being a silly Bird. But Erin’s eyes opened wide, because he had just seen and taken something out of her pocket.
The feathered key. Bird. Feathers. He ran upstairs.
“I just want to look at it! It is so beautiful. I have never seen something like it before.”
“What did Bird steal? Mrsha, go get it back, would you? Erin, we are being swamped here.”
Silveran had stopped cleaning to help serve tables. Lyonette barely noticed Erin’s look of alarm. The [Innkeeper] pointed up.
“Bird just stole—Mrsha, go get it back. Put it in my room and don’t take it out, alright?”
Mrsha nodded. She scampered upstairs and hesitated.
“Wait, what am I getting?”
Erin waved her hands. It might be dangerous letting Mrsha do it, but if she went upstairs, people would watch her, and she didn’t want Bird showing it to anyone.
“It’s…just a small key. It looks like a feather. And it looks—”
She was trying to describe the bright metal under the rust when Mrsha’s face turned confused. Lyonette stared at Erin.
“…Like a feather handle and a strange, magical key?”
“Yeah—huh? How’d you know—?”
Then Erin Solstice felt that prickle on the back of her neck. She turned her head to what Mrsha and Lyonette were staring at. A little key was lying on the table next to Erin.
Erin’s mouth opened. Accordingly—there was a wail from upstairs. Bird came running down, all four arms flailing.
“Erin! Erin, I have lost it! I was looking at it, and I did not want to make it disappear, but I did! I have the ability to make things vanish! This is not a lie, I promise!”
Erin grabbed the key as a few heads turned her way. Okay—this was a new level of crazy. Bird calmed down.
“Oh, you have the—”
Lyonette slapped a hand over his mouth, and Erin bit her lip. Oh no.
There was a problem with her clientele. And that was ever since Grimalkin, they had been growing increasingly wise to her methods and, sometimes, even her act. Post-Grimalkin guests were sharp.
So sharp, in fact, that Wil and Peki, who had both come in after Jewel, instantly, casually, turned. Wil began writing in a [Message] scroll, and Peki leapt out the door to find her teammates.
Chaldion’s eye gleamed as he removed it and inserted his [True Sight] one. Even Saliss’ head rose slightly. Erin Solstice cursed.
How many had seen the key? No, they hadn’t even seen it; Lyonette had been standing in the way of it, but it was Bird’s commentary. They were pressuring her timeline. But—Erin Solstice blew out her cheeks.
“Alright. That’s it. Employees, huddle in the kitchen! You too, Normen, Alcaz!”
Numbtongue looked around, and Bird, Lyonette, Mrsha, Octavia, even Ulvama, drifted in after Erin. Ishkr was already there with Liska—and Erin pointed.
“Oh no. Not guests!”
That included Gothica, a snooping Fierre, and a crowd of others. The Thronebearers blocked the doorway as Normen and Alcaz ducked in.
“Erin, what’s going on?”
The [Innkeeper] waited until Ser Dalimont raised a thumb and deployed a privacy Skill. Even then, she talked quietly, twisting her own ring.
“Alright. This is sort of related to Normen’s new class. Guess what? I leveled up too! Not to detract from your big moment, Normen, but—”
“You did? Erin! You’re so close to Level 50!”
Lyonette gasped, and Ulvama’s eyes bulged. Numbtongue’s jaw dropped, and Mrsha danced around in delight. Cake! This called for cake, dead gods damnit! Yet Erin wasn’t done.
“Yeah, but this was the weirdest level yet. Just listen—I didn’t get a Skill. I got something to do with the [Garden of Sanctuary]. I got…”
She showed them the Key of Reprieve, and everyone stared at it. Bird took the key.
“Ooh. So pretty.”
“Bird! This is all your fault! Don’t just take the key!”
The Antinium looked stunned at the accusation from Lyonette.
“I just wanted to look at it, Lyonette. It is not stealing if I give it back.”
Lyonette had cottoned onto the problem of the guests. She pulled at her hair in exasperation.
“Yes, but now Chaldion and the others will make a scene—although how bad would that be, Erin?”
“I dunno! I can’t open the Garden! I’m sure the key’s changed something. I was gonna investigate it, but I don’t want the others crimping our style.”
“So that’s why it’s not appearing. I thought Mrsha was just keeping it open somewhere.”
Octavia slapped her forehead. Erin nodded. She didn’t mind sharing the garden, but in truth—it was just so fun and wonderful that she didn’t want someone to ruin the experience by talking about ‘worldwide ramifications’ and essentially commodifying her new Skill. Like the [Strategists]. And it seemed like she had some agreement.
Bird still refused to give the key back—until it vanished. It just disappeared from his hand, and Erin blinked at it in hers.
“Whoa. See—that’s magic.”
“I just want to look at it!”
Bird pouted and snatched it back a third time. Lyonette covered her face.
“Bird, it’s not even a bird. It’s a key with a feather handle. Can’t you just…? I’ll get you another feather.”
“No, no, no! This key is special! Because I have never seen this feather before!”
Bird shook his head rapidly. The exasperated look on Lyonette’s face faded.
“Huh? Don’t be silly, Bird. It’s just a regular feather. Or an engraving.”
“You silly [Princess]. This is a fully-functional feather. I would know. I am Bird. I have never seen this…tapered end. It is actually shrunk—the pinion feather would be far larger. Perhaps even twice as long as the key? Yes, a wing-feather. One of the largest ones on a wing.”
Erin’s mouth opened. Bird expertly showed the others the key.
“See how tiny the actual fibers of the feather are? It should be about this big.”
He gestured with his hands. And that was a big bird it came from. Erin hesitated.
“What—are you sure, Bird? It could just be art.”
“Most artists who are not [Bird Watchers] cannot draw birds well, Erin. This is anatomically correct. But why the diagonal edges? I don’t know what kind of bird this came from. It must be a super-bird. A…”
The word dropped into the kitchen, and Normen and Alcaz turned. Numbtongue blinked and then looked at the speaker.
Ulvama was staring at the key. The [Shaman of the Old Ways] blinked, and the slightly clouded expression in her eyes vanished. Mrsha’s head snapped up, and Lyonette stopped protesting anything. Erin’s head slowly rose, and she recalled something.
When Eldavin had walked in the garden, hadn’t he said that it belonged to someone he knew?
Sheta, an [Empress] of…
“Harpies. This is a harpy-key. Or feather. For a Legacy Skill. I have never seen a Skill with a key.”
Ulvama’s eyes gleamed as she looked at Erin. The young woman took a deep breath, and her heart was fluttering. Bird whispered.
“Harpies? Are we going to see Harpies today?”
Erin shook her head.
“I don’t know, Bird. But I need to find the garden, find out what’s going on—”
“And find the right door. Belavierr realized you found the key. That’s why she flooded my rooms. Erin, this is big. Super big.”
Mrsha held up a notecard solemnly, and Erin saw Lyonette’s face grow tight with worry. Everyone looked towards the door, and Normen cleared his throat.
“Begging your pardon, Miss Erin. Maybe we should distract the others while you do what’s needed? That seems like a knightly thing to do.”
He smiled. Erin looked at him and then waved a finger in front of his surprised face.
“Oh no. You’re employees of the inn! You, Alcaz, Ishkr, Liska—”
The two Gnolls were surprised, but Erin folded her arms. She glanced out towards the curious guests. So the [Innkeeper] sighed—then smiled.
“Here’s what we’re gonna do. We unlock the garden. We go in and find out what’s new. No one else. Maybe friends—but none of the nosy nosers. Think we can do it?”
Mrsha developed the biggest smile in existence. Numbtongue chortled, and Octavia grinned, pleased to be part of it all.
The game was afoot. Outside, the opponents looked at each other. Oh, so we’re competing, are we?
Bring it on.
Oh, to be there. Not during the boring, exasperating parts. That was the trick. You had to be willing to put up with the disgusting hotdogs, the [Innkeeper] panicking to no point. The boring mundanity of it all.
For the moments when magic ran through the floorboards and crept up out of the tower to rain down like mystery and adventure. For the wonder.
When the [Innkeeper] turned to you with the glint of mischief and excitement in her eyes—that was when you were called forwards.
Some of them hadn’t even had the chance to experience it. The Titan of Baleros had only gotten to fight a war against a living legend.
Not once had he seen that smile. Erin Solstice’s look of mischief made his chest do funny things as she made shooing motions towards Venaz.
“Nothing’s going on, Venaz. Wait a second, is that a scrying orb?”
She looked into it, and the Titan froze—a second before Foliana put her face in the way.
“Mm. Thank you for the snacks.”
“Oh my gosh. It’s a giant squirrel!”
“It’s a short Human.”
Foliana threw up her hands lightly, copying Erin. The [Innkeeper] laughed in delight as Niers swore and tried to edge around her.
“Hello! Are you Three-Color Stalker? I mean, Foliana? You’re so beautiful.”
The Squirrel Beastkin smiled.
“I like you. You should work for me. We’re spying on you. Look, here’s Niers.”
She picked him up, and the Titan struggled wildly until he hung from his coat. Erin’s first true eye contact with Niers was sudden, undignified—and her eyes lit up.
“Hello! It’s you, isn’t it? Nice game yesterday. I loved that improvisation near the end. But ooh! You got me. I hate losing. Game tonight?”
His heart was thundering out of his chest. But at her casual words—Niers Astoragon felt himself being lowered onto Foliana’s paw. He looked at her and was reminded—this was also his chess opponent.
“I—good morning, Erin. It was about time I took a victory off you. A game tonight, indeed. What are you doing?”
Her eyes twinkled.
“Nonya business! Gottem. Relc, high-five!”
The Titan stared blankly as Foliana began to twitch and crack up silently next to him. Erin high-fived a Drake who spotted Foliana and then froze. The [Innkeeper] whirled away from the scrying orb.
“Alright, who else is spying on me? Nothing’s going on! Nothing at all! And if there was—what are you going to do about it?”
Go with her, obviously! The people in the inn were watching Erin like a hawk, but Ser Dalimont cut in front of Wil Kallinad smoothly, and no one could tell what was happening. Yet.
But the newly knighted Ser Normen was heading out of the back of the inn with Mrsha and a bundle of cloth, and Bird was hurrying up to his tower. By now, the [Spies] were treating this like a training exercise or a grand game.
“I don’t think our agents have had this much fun in Calanfer or Taimaguros.”
Earl Altestiel of Desonis was amazed. Kiish wasn’t even back yet, and the Sleeping Queen herself eagerly awaited the <Heroic Quest> that Erin had offered him. They were mobilizing a task force—and Erin just kept coming out with—
Well. He stared at her much the same way as the Titan, but also differently. The Earl could at least admit when a campaign had gone wrong. Or rather, he’d launched his attack and hadn’t even claimed a beachhead.
Even so, Erin-watching wasn’t just for romantic interests. If it had been, Altestiel didn’t think the man who sashayed across the room with a bowl of the new popped corn would be here.
The Lord of the Dance, Belchaus Meron, could not help but try the new ideas in footwork that he’d been hearing about. Obviously there were other elements, but he cared about the more individualistic dances of the modern century paired with whatever insights Earth had come up with.
Nothing for four legs or with people with tails or wings, but—well.
He’d leveled. Twice.
Nothing was scarier for his foes. Nothing was more astonishing for his allies. The Lord of the Dance was leveling.
“This is her?”
Like Niers, he stopped a second to take Erin Solstice in. Altestiel turned from his scrying mirror.
“This is Erin. What do you think?”
The Lord of the Dance saw Erin walking somewhat awkwardly around the inn.
“I can see she’s been injured. That looks like improper healing potions to me.”
“Potion of Regeneration on a frozen body?”
Lord Bel frowned and slid the popcorn bucket over between the two men.
“I suppose…does she have any galas-muscle? Nevermind, if she’s walking, then she’ll continue to heal naturally so long as she doesn’t continue applying potions. She looks mischievous. I would love to see how she dances.”
Altestiel rolled his eyes. A hammer saw the world in terms of nails. Similarly, the Lord of the Dance always asked that question.
“What do you think she’s—”
“Dead gods, what’s that?”
Belchaus had seen a merrily spinning Antinium whirling around with a mop in the background.. Altestiel saw him shoot to his feet.
“A dancing Antinium?”
“No, focus on Erin. She’s up to something—Bel. Lord Bel, I swear to Desonis—”
The two [Lords] fought over the scrying orb, shouting at their poor [Observer] to focus on Silveran, Silveran. A poor servant watched the two leaders of their nations squabbling like boys.
But that was the thing. Lord Bel looked at the inn and threw up his arms. He copied Silveran.
“He’s waltzing. A Calanfer—I should have gone with you! I want to go there!”
And that was it. They wanted to be there, even if they had never gone before. That was the magic.
Even Fetohep of Khelt, perhaps. Not to dance, but to just be there and speak to her in her land. Walk with her and see what happened next.
The Lord of the Dance, Altestiel, Niers Astoragon, Fetohep—and many more people watched The Wandering Inn. Warily, as friends or foes.
The difference was that some said nothing, just watched because they were rulers of a land and could not leave. Not now, no longer.
Others? Lehra Ruinstrider stood up in the rocking cart as Suxhel shielded her scrying orb.
“To Liscor! We’re missing all the excitement!”
She began to run ahead of her team on the wagons. For about ten minutes, until she got tired, flopped down, and crawled back into the wagon.
Some people were on their way. Others, like Niers, had missed his chance. Altestiel watched with a kind of longing nostalgia. Lord Bel stopped whirling about telling his subordinates to get on the scrying orb and came back into the room.
“Alright. It’s settled.”
The Lord of the Dance gave Earl Altestiel a peculiar look.
“My vacation, obviously. We won’t be able to take your land-route, but I’ll get there faster. Hopefully to see something else as fine.”
He smiled as the Earl of the Rains spluttered.
“You can’t be so—casual?”
“Why not? I don’t intend to go a-courting.”
So said the greatest [Lord] of Nadel, who had swept many a person off their feet with that casual confidence, married or not. Before Altestiel could say anything else, the [Innkeeper] whirled on camera. The twinkle in her eyes was still there.
“Mrsha! Don’t drop the—oh no!”
Half the guests were outside the inn, wandering after Normen and Mrsha, who had that suspiciously bulging bundle. The Gnoll girl was urging him onwards, and she got in front of Normen such that he tripped.
The cloth bundle went tumbling to the ground, and Erin appeared in the doorway to her inn. She pointed and shouted.
“The Helm of Fire! Don’t let anyone grab it!”
The what? Everyone whirled to the glowing helmet. Jaws dropped as the flaming helmet—a bright pink flame—burned in Normen’s hands. Then he and Mrsha began running.
Inside the inn, Ceria Springwalker had two mugs in hand, and she was laughing herself sick. The regular guests of the inn, even the talented newcomers like Venaz, didn’t rise to the bait. They had seen Ser Dalimont’s helmet suddenly go missing and Ulvama head into Octavia’s shop with a brush. A bit of fire and hey, presto, distraction.
“Oho. You lot aren’t bad. Well, I guess you all get to stay.”
Erin Solstice smirked at the guests left in the inn. She walked over to the door and locked it from the inside. Ishkr was securing windows.
Mrsha and Normen were the distraction play. They would come back through one of the windows.
“So, Miss Solstice. Which is it? Quest, something to do with your garden, magical fire?”
Chaldion sat at one table. Erin eyed him.
“Nothing! Why don’t you all go back home. Nothing’s happening.”
“I believe I’ll sit.”
“Okay. Suit yourself. I’m going upstairs. Food and drink is downstairs. Anyone who wants to follow me can. At your peril.”
The [Innkeeper] skipped upstairs, whereupon Menolit, Relc, and a host of other guests hesitated. It was entirely conceivable she could pull one over on them and disappear up there. Sitting was Chaldion’s play—he refused to get up.
The Titan took the bait. He sent Wil upstairs with Relc and the others. They saw Erin heading into her room.
“Aw, come on, Erin. Don’t leave me out of this! You need a Relc.”
“Oh no, buddy.”
Erin wasn’t going inside the garden, so everyone followed her through the door. Was it in her private room? Relc hurried through the door with Menolit. Erin’s room looked—different from what he remembered.
Bigger? No, just less furnished. He called out.
“Come on, Erin. I know you said family or employees or whatever, but I’m part of this inn!”
Which was true. He was just an unfortunate casualty. Some people like the Horns had every right to join in, but this was a game. Relc looked around as a dozen fools followed him through the door. Then someone shut it.
“Wait a moment. This isn’t Erin’s room.”
Relc realized something suddenly. There were no chess sets in here. He looked around. Then he saw someone snatch a glowing stone from the door. He looked up as Alcaz tipped his hat.
“I’m afraid we’re all out of luck, gentlemen.”
Relc’s jaw dropped as Alcaz flicked the mana stone into a bag of holding. Then—he looked around. They had gone through a door. The wrong door.
They were, in fact, in—
Timbor Parithad came upstairs and saw nearly a dozen people in one of his guest rooms. Wil bit his tongue as Merrik laughed in delight. This was as good as the games at Daquin! Relc raised his fists to the sky.
Poor Alcaz. He’d be making his way into the inn if he could shake off an angry Relc. Erin smirked—and then Ishkr closed the portal door. He and Liska hauled it up and his sister grumbled.
“This thing is heavy. Do we have to drag it down to the portal room now? It took eight minutes to figure out how to get it out of those stupid clasps!”
“Liska…just lift your end higher.”
Ishkr growled. Erin waved at both of them.
“Sorry, guys. I appreciate it!”
The portal door was an old trick, but it required moving the door itself around, which was getting harder and harder these days. Still, in the name of annoying guests, no cost was too high. Erin peeked downstairs and saw Venaz and Peki hadn’t fallen for the trap.
Neither had Chaldion, Saliss, nor a number of the smartest guests. Altestiel’s agent was a Gnoll who hadn’t left, and Erin counted.
“…Twenty-three. Do you have two scrying orbs, Venaz?”
“Wil had one. I have another. Backups exist for a reason.”
Niers had the numbers to cover all bets. Chaldion, by contrast, had been so sure Erin was playing tricks that he hadn’t ordered any of his bodyguards after her. Erin saw him glancing her way. Her smile grew wider.
“Alright. Time to get serious.”
What did that mean? The guests hesitated as she headed back upstairs. Chaldion waited a minute as a few guests hesitated, wary of another portal-trap. Then he stood up.
“Saliss, what is she doing?”
“Making the world’s top [Strategists] look like complete idiots? I love this inn.”
The Drake was smirking from his table. Chaldion hesitated—then began to summit the stairs slowly. He looked up, cursed, and called out.
Venaz strode up the stairs—but not onto the second floor. He blinked.
A shimmering [Forcewall] was blocking the way. Behind it? A frozen wall of ice. He could vaguely see, behind that, a wall of bone. Chaldion pointed at it.
“Break it down.”
“It could be a trick, Grand Strategist.”
The Drake glared.
“She’s going into her garden. Break it down.”
Sometimes you just used a hammer or a wall when you needed time. Erin Solstice heard the first people pounding on the wall, but unless Saliss helped out, she counted only some burly [Bodyguards], Venaz, and Peki. Ceria’s ice spells could stop even the [Martial Artist].
Chaldion had, in fact, fallen for a classic fork maneuver in chess. Either he went up and maybe got teleported or he missed the real ploy—
Namely, Lyonette, Bird, Numbtongue, Ulvama, and the other employees emerging from upstairs rooms. Erin peered out her room’s window.
“Let her in and shut the window!”
The [Knight] was running up the hill. He threw Mrsha up, and she landed on the roof and scampered up. Just in time—a [Spy] leapt up after her, slammed into the window a second after Erin closed it, and tried to open it.
Locked. And Bird’s door was closed. The second and third floors were now closed off, and Erin shouted.
“Break my windows and Shriekblade will poke you with her knives. Alright, guys. We’ve done it.”
She looked at her squad. Numbtongue, Mrsha, Ulvama, Octavia, Bird, Erin herself, Lyonette, Ishkr, Liska, Ser Dalimont, and Ser Sest. The others had sacrificed themselves for this.
“This is such a silly game, Erin.”
Lyonette looked exasperated as she checked to make sure Chaldion wasn’t breaking anything other than the magic walls. Erin shrugged.
“Eh, it’s funny. Now, um…did anyone find the [Garden of Sanctuary]’s door?”
That was the plan while they all searched. Liska raised one paw.
“It wasn’t in the basement.”
“Damn. Kitchen? Outside?”
“I walked all the way around the inn, Miss Erin. No door.”
“Second floor? Third?”
“I looked from the roof, but nothing, Erin.”
“It’s in no one’s room—I couldn’t open some of them, but Erin, you can’t just call it?”
The young woman’s face fell.
“No. And I’ve been trying. All I have is this key.”
She waved it around, annoyed. The garden’s door should have been there!
Mrsha stared at the door and then eyed the thumping on the magical walls. They weren’t lasting long.
“The door’s the wrong one. Belavierr said the door had changed.”
“It did? I mean—I don’t have another door besides the portal one. Maybe I have to summon it? Come forth, the real door to the [Garden of Sanctuary]!”
Erin spoke grandly, pointing at the hallway wall. There was a shout, muffled by Ceria’s ice.
“She said the garden! Erin, let us in!”
“Ah, heck. How’d Relc run back so fast? Wait, how’d he get into the inn? Darn. I thought we’d find the door and—”
Erin was panicking slightly as everyone thought. If they had a Ryoka Griffin here, the expert in fae rules, Erin was sure they’d have figured it out.
And credit where credit was due…Ishkr peered at the unique key. Lyonette inspected it as she turned to Ser Dalimont.
“That key looks like it fits a very magical lock. I can’t imagine it would work unless it was magic. Maybe the motif—it looks sort of like plants. It needs something to do with plants? Garden? Plants?”
“Maybe. Or maybe you need a [Druid]? Mrsha, what if you—”
Everyone turned. Ishkr looked up and blinked. The key was sticking out of Erin’s door. He’d closed the door, inserted the key, and turned it in the lock.
There was no way Erin’s key should have fit that door. Especially given the size. Yet, as Erin’s eyes bulged, she saw the key was smaller in the lock than before.
“I…wondered if it would fit any door. The garden’s door was always there. So if you had a key to no door—”
The sensible, logical [Head Waiter] gestured. Ulvama slapped her face.
“Duh. Everyone is stupid but Gnoll. Including me.”
“Ishkr! You genius!”
Erin reached for the handle as Ceria’s ice wall cracked and someone began kicking down the bone wall. She hesitated.
Then looked around.
Wait a second. This was really silly. Why was she making a game out of this? Erin supposed that she just didn’t want a crowd to invade whatever the garden was. She wanted something of the discovery, like when Mrsha had wandered into it the first time.
“But this is really silly, even for me. Maybe I’ve gotten a bit too pranky, guys.”
“No, Erin. The last thing we need is a bunch of scrying orbs. Just open the door.”
Lyonette looked exasperated. Erin looked at her, then blinked and nodded.
“You’re right. Alright, [Garden of Sanctuary]! You’d better have something impressive to show us or I’m gonna be mad!”
Venaz was putting his shoulder into the cracking bone wall with a Drake as Peki backed up for a flying kick. Erin stuck out her tongue at the glaring Drake. Then she put her hand on the doorknob as the key gleamed in the lock.
“Erin? What are you doing?”
Lyonette spoke urgently as the Minotaur kicked the pieces of bone aside, snorting. Numbtongue prodded Erin—but then he stopped.
The [Innkeeper]’s face had frozen. Her eager smile stopped dead on her face. Because as Erin went to twist the doorknob, she heard something she hadn’t for a long while.
A…ringing. Like a bell. It was ringing in her head. Slowly, the [Innkeeper] let go of the doorknob. The sound stopped. The moment she put her hand on the door? It returned. A ringing in her head no one else could hear. Her heart began to thump again.
Jewel hadn’t been paying attention to the games at the inn. One look at the Titan of Baleros and she was ordering a second round.
She missed the commotion, ignored the noisy smashing of magical barriers on the second floor. Only when people began being ejected from the inn did she look up.
“Okay, everyone out. Sorry, game’s over. All spies, non-critical guests—out. Back it up! Mrsha, you’re going outside with the Thronebearers.”
No. Noooo! NOOOOOO!
A thrashing Gnoll girl holding a series of notecards flailed in Dame Ushar’s arms. Jewel raised her head as a [Princess] strode past her.
“Get her out of here. Tell Zevara, Dalimont, and if you so much as hear a sneeze—”
“You will be able to tell the Watch Captain yourself, Princess. You are coming with us.”
“Absolutely—let go of—Erin! Apista was in the garden! What happened to her?”
“We’re gonna find out.”
Erin Solstice reappeared, and Jewel’s own internal sense of danger spiked. The [Innkeeper] was back—and she had a knife and jar of acid in her hands. The Hobgoblin had a sword, and Erin was looking around the room.
“We could use you, Venaz. Chaldion, you in or out?”
“I would ask you to wait for a squad from Pallass.”
The [Strategist]’s eyes were glinting with excitement and wariness. Erin frowned at him.
“Are they better than Gold-ranks?”
He hesitated. The Horns of Hammerad were getting up, wary. But a Drake just pushed past both.
“How loud’s the alarm? Minor? A loud bell? Screaming?”
“Uh—uh—low ringing, Saliss.”
The Drake nodded.
“That’s okay, then. You’ve got me. Who else?”
Erin jerked a thumb over her shoulder.
“Normen, Alcaz, Numbtongue, me—”
Half her guests chorused. Erin glared about.
“It’s my garden! Okay, here’s the plan. Who goes in first?”
Saliss stretched. Chaldion snapped back.
“Ignore the old idiot. I go in—Horns on standby. Halfseekers here?”
“We could send in a decoy skeleton—”
Ceria suggested. Erin looked around, and her eyes fell on the [Swashbuckler] and her team.
So it was then that the Gold-rank adventurer found herself sobering up twice that morning. Normen, Alcaz, two Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings, the Horns of Hammerad, Numbtongue…Saliss walked down the line, completely naked.
“Alright. What an oversized crew to take on the garden. Where’s the door?”
Erin pointed to the key, still in the lock. Saliss eyed it. He produced a single, tiny vial that set off everyone’s [Dangersense] again.
“Got it. Give me five seconds. You open the door, keep it a crack open, and if I don’t say anything, send the expendable ones after me. Dungeon rules.”
“What about a minion—?”
Pisces gestured to a pile of bones. Saliss raised his brows.
“It’s the garden. I am playing it up a bit. Whatever’s in there probably isn’t the worst if Erin’s dangersense is just ringing. So, on three. Erin, I think you have to pull the door open.”
He was jiggling the handle, which would have really ruined the suspense if he’d gotten it open. Probably just as planned. Erin caught her breath. Now—she felt apprehensive as she reached for the doorknob.
“Erin, if you need backup—”
Niers Astoragon’s voice warred with Chaldion snapping from below.
“Adventurer Saliss, [First Forwards, First Out]!”
Saliss rolled his eyes, but he hopped from foot to foot, a claw on the vial’s cork. Erin gulped. She grabbed the doorknob.
“Let’s just pull it open a tiny bit, Saliss.”
“Nah, throw it open. I leap in and you close it if I start screaming. Death or glory! For the Walled City of Inventions!”
“Stop that! Stop making me nervous! I’m gonna pee. Shriekblade? I forgot you were there!”
“…My [Dangersense] is going off too. Not from Saliss’ kill-vial.”
Tessa spoke quietly. She was staring at the door. The Gold-rank adventurers looked up. Jewel nearly swallowed her tongue. Ceria adjusted her circlet and narrowed her eyes.
“Something’s weird. Erin, I’m sensing—”
The [Innkeeper] turned and looked around uncertainly. Her hand twisted the knob slightly.
The door to the [Garden of Sanctuary] opened. Erin felt something kick her, and she went flying across the hallway. Something heavy, cold—wet—
Saliss of Lights and Tessa dodged. Tessa clung to the ceiling, and Saliss did a flying backflip, looked back, swore and laughed, and ran.
Ksmvr was tangled up trying to shield Pisces. Numbtongue stabbed his sword into the ground and didn’t move far, but all the others were knocked flying. Jewel looked up as a white wall of powder hit her.
For the second time that day, the inn’s hallways flooded as an avalanche of snow came pouring through the door. Erin Solstice tumbled down the stairs, screaming and slashing with her knife.
The guests on the bottom floor stared as a howling vortex of wind poured out of the door. Saliss whirled just in time to see Tessa drop. She stared through the garden’s door and then nodded.
Shriekblade drew her daggers as Saliss popped an ice-resistance potion. He saw the other Drake’s claw flash to her belt, draw a glowing dagger, and throw it. She said two words before she sprang through the doorway, more knives appearing in her hands.
Erin wondered if this was what it was like being dead and frozen. She flailed around in the snow until someone hauled her out.
Venaz kicked through the snow, looking disbelieving as people shouted.
“What is going on? Venaz, status report!”
The Titan was shouting as Chaldion spoke rapidly into a stone.
“Send them through now. I want ice-resistance gear and flame weapons. Where are the Flamewardens?”
Ice was packed into Erin’s ears. She had to dig it out and felt the horrible sensation of ice lodged deep into her canal. She spat out snow—she could have suffocated! A terrible way to die.
“What the hell was—”
Jewel poked her head out of the snow, dazed. But a half-Elf exploded upwards, sweeping it away from her team.
“It’s not just snow! There’s a damn blizzard up there.”
“And Snow Golems! Get your asses in here!”
Saliss roared from above. Erin saw Yvlon charging up the stairs, arms morphing into spikes. The inn was in chaos, but somehow, Erin was relieved.
“It’s not Crelers! Wait, did he say snow? Apista’s in there!”
She struggled to get up, but Normen was hauling her back.
“Miss Solstice, it’s not safe—”
“You’re a [Knight]. This is my inn! Let’s get in there!”
She shouted at him. He hesitated, but the Horns were already up and the shouting was excited—not alarmed. Erin didn’t wait. She tried to climb up the stairs and found that climbing through chest-high snow was hard.
“One side. Peki, Merrik, on me!”
Venaz charged into the snowdrift, trying to unsheathe his greatsword in the tight hallway. Peki followed him with a warcry.
Both slammed into the snowdrift as the snow compacted into a wall. The Horns had swept it aside with Ceria’s magic, but more kept pouring through.
Merrik stared as Venaz flailed wildly, trying to bulldoze forwards. Then he and Peki backed up, spluttering. Calmly, the Dwarf turned.
“We’re gonna need flame spells. Or another [Cryomancer].”
Erin hopped anxiously from foot to foot. All she heard were muffled shouts from above. The Horns, Saliss, and Tessa were up there. Oh—and Numbtongue, who hadn’t been swept away.
“Flame spells! Flame—Bezale, Palt!”
The two Wistram [Mages] came forwards and began melting the snow into icewater. Erin realized she could conjure her own—but decided to let the two do the work.
Icewater and snow ran down onto the floor, and the flames were scorching the hallway.
It was going to need some buffing out. And more water damage. An Antinium with a bucket happily sloshed water out of the basement. Silveran might be here all week!
By now, the people outside were realizing that the situation was not Creler-critical. But Lyonette’s greatest fear as she clutched a struggling Mrsha was the same as the girl’s and, surprisingly, Niers’.
What about Apista?
Apista the bee had been feeling weird all day. Of course, she didn’t fly as much, so she put it down to ground sickness.
She was getting used to being a lot slower around places. Crawling, not flying. Of course…she was sad about it.
But the little white Mrsha girl was back, and the inn was alive, and so she considered it a worthwhile trade. After all, one did not simply fly into the Meeting of Tribes, sting the greatest Gnoll [Shaman] in the eye—and Belavierr—and pay no cost.
She had been napping a lot in the garden, because all the feet were now life-threatening hazards. So of all the inn’s guests, Apista was the first to notice no one was coming through the garden.
She had made a little nest with Bird’s help in the jungle section. He had made her an actual bird’s nest and added a lot of fluff from his pillows for her. Apista had been waiting for Mrsha to run in to go to breakfast with her.
Sometimes the silly little Gnoll forgot, but then Apista just had some flowers. But Mrsha didn’t appear. And Apista realized—no one was coming into the garden.
It had confused her greatly. She had tried to make the door appear—and she normally could, yet nothing had happened. Then—then had come the click that rang through the garden. And the bee realized that it wasn’t her that was off.
Everything was. The [Garden of Sanctuary] was humming. Apista looked up, and the bee would have shouted if she had but a voice.
What was that? What was THAT? And what was happening to—she spun around and then crawled rapidly back to the safest spot in the garden: the hill with the statues. Because—the garden was going crazy!
The dome overhead had been faithfully reflecting the sky over Liscor. Mildly cloudy with no chance of rain, autumn, cool. The water mist that swept around the garden had been slightly chilly, but the bee avoided getting wet.
Nothing in Apista’s admittedly limited knowledge of climatology had suggested a snowstorm.
It was howling through the top of the garden, although the freezing cold wasn’t permeating that far down. But it was clear that outside this shelter, a new ice age had come! Fat snowflakes drifted down, dissolving, and Apista realized she and everything in here might freeze if the temperature dropped.
She had to—find shelter! The bee hesitated. The hill with the statues was no safe place. Maybe she had to dig a hole, use her limited ability to make fire to set parts of the jungle ablaze? Oh—oh—the bee rotated and then decided to make a beeline for her nest instead.
It took her nearly ten minutes to climb back to the jungle section, whereupon she realized two things.
Wait a second. Firstly, the snow coming down from above kept melting before it reached the ground. Second?
It wasn’t getting colder. The laws of thermodynamics meant that heat should be escaping the dome, but it wasn’t freezing. The bee expected the temperature to drop, but it hadn’t changed at all.
Ergo, she might not be about to freeze to death. The bee poked her head out of her nest, fanning her good wing.
Even so, what the heck was going on? She crawled over to one wall, staring up at the hole in the dome. Absently, Apista wished she had a view of the outside. Or wherever this was.
A loud whumph and flash of flame and heat blasted the bee from behind. Then she felt a terrible, biting cold. Apista rotated slowly and saw…
“Snow Golem? That’s not a Snow Golem! These are Snow Titans! Saliss, you liar—”
“Shut up and kill them! They’re just snow and ice!”
“They’re made of ice—”
A screaming Gold-rank [Swashbuckler] dove as a fist made of snow and ice pounded the ground. She could barely move in the snow that came up to her head—only her lightfoot Skills kept her mobile. An Antinium flashed past her, cutting at the arm as Apista looked up into a familiar…domed…room.
Only this one was filled with snow. Filled with it, and the towering Snow Golems, three of them, accompanied by lesser Golems, were currently fighting a naked Drake, multiple adventurers, and a Hob.
“Play your damn song, Numbtongue!”
Saliss shouted as he threw another vial, which exploded in a jet of fire that raced up one of the Snow Giants’ arms. Ceria raised a wall of ice as a fist came down, and Yvlon punched, her metal arms slicing wildly into one of the Snow Giants’ sides—
“Where are our reinforcements?”
“Leave ‘em! If they can’t make it through the snow, they’re no help here! Don’t get smashed flat! Don’t get—”
Apista couldn’t actually swing the door closed, but the [Garden of Sanctuary] was very obliging. The door swung closed for her. The bee stared at the sight of Jewel fleeing an angry Snow Golem and then the door shut, and the sound was gone.
…Today was a weird day. Apista wanted nothing more than to go back to the inn, have a smoke, and tell Mrsha that the garden was on the fritz. And suddenly—the door was back. Apista’s antennae waved wildly as she saw an [Innkeeper] pointing up at a hallway running with ice and snow.
“—gotta get Keldrass up there! Pisces says they’re huge Snow Golems!”
“In your garden? But I thought it was safe!”
“Me too! But these ones look like they formed due to all the snow!”
Lyonette and Erin were shouting amidst the chaos as a group of Drakes, one wearing the Heartflame Breastplate, came storming up the stairs. Venaz followed, and Captain Todi’s squad secured the lower floor, looking nervous. Lyonette pointed upstairs.
“What happened to Apista? If she’s up there, freezing—Mrsha, I said it’s not safe!”
Ser Sest ran after Mrsha as she raced around the common room. Erin waved a hand at Chaldion, directing more of Pallass’ [Soldiers] up after the others.
“It’s sorta safe. I just don’t get what’s happening.”
Mrsha came skidding to a stop. She froze—and bent down. Apista crawled forwards, and the girl put her on her head. Then she stared through the door at the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Mrsha turned her head to the stairs.
“It’s a world of ice! Fall back! Fall—”
Jewel came skidding down the stairs. A whumph and half the fighters came crashing down the stairs in another wave of snow. Saliss shouted back down from above.
“Cowards! Get back here and fight!”
Mrsha patted Apista urgently, seeing if she was okay. The bee fanned her wing reassuringly, and Mrsha trotted into the garden and looked around, Apista on her head. She felt the grass, sniffed the air, then looked up as Apista pointed a feeler at the odd, snowy landscape above. Mrsha’s eyes narrowed, and she scampered back into the inn.
“Miss Mrsha! Come with—”
Ser Sest found her, bent down to snatch her to safety, and froze when he saw the garden. Mrsha padded over to the two young women and tugged at Erin’s pants.
“Not now, Mrsha. We—whuh.”
Erin glanced over distractedly, and then her mouth fell open. Lyonette turned, and they stared at the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Then they looked upstairs where Yvlon was leading the charge back into the fight. Erin’s mouth opened wider.
“Two [Gardens of Sanctuary]? What?”
She looked from Mrsha to the door, and then it hit her. Erin Solstice closed her mouth.
“I unlocked the door, so we must be able to use the garden again! Door!”
The [Innkeeper] turned, and a door opened in front of Todi, who recoiled with an oath. Erin turned back.
“Door! There, the garden’s back. Then where the heck did Saliss run into?”
“What did you do, Erin? Is that—some kind of other garden?”
Erin threw up her hands.
“No! I mean, I don’t know! It’s supposed to be a [Garden of Sanctuary], not a garden of dying in the snow!”
“Did you…do anything different when you unlocked the door?”
Erin shook her head.
“Absolutely not! I just said, I wanted to see something impressive. Like—”
This time, she went deaf. Chaldion had been turning to the garden, having realized what was going on in part.
He was just in time for the bolt of lightning to touch down through the doorway. The thwoom of lightning and the flash of light took out two senses for quite some time. When Erin was done stumbling around, hands clapped to her ears, she saw the door was open.
Only this time—it was rain that came pouring down in that domed room. Rain without end, and lightning bolts hurling around the garden. Erin stared in disbelief at a room filled with a raging thunderstorm.
Exactly the same size as the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She even saw the domed roof stretching around the room, but everything was…different.
It was flatter, with a few cliffs built along the edges of the dome. What had once been plants was now running mud and debris, but there was still something in there.
Pillars of metal? Or—Erin peered inside, but Lyonette slammed the door.
“What is going on here?”
And then Erin had it. She spoke slowly and pointed at the wall as everyone turned towards her.
“Show me the ice room that Saliss is fighting in.”
The door opened, and Erin looked into a winter wonder-world, the snow piled so high it had cascaded into the inn when the door opened. More fell through again, but Erin looked at a Snow Golem a second before Saliss finally removed the icy truesnow in its head. It was hard to make out, but the dome, roof, and everything else was there.
…And what looked like a stone keep of some kind. Standing tall, all but buried under the snow that kept falling. Erin Solstice looked around, and a simple conclusion came to her. She whispered as her guests looked at her.
“They’re not my gardens.”
The Snow Golems were innocent. They were, admittedly, semi-sentient pieces of nature akin to elementals, dedicated to enforcing the tyranny of ice upon the world. And yes, they happily tried to murder the warm-blooded invaders.
But how would you feel if someone walked into your home, which had lain undisturbed for ages, and suddenly began blasting a flamethrower around then tried to cut off your head?
Two of the giants were down, and the third was throwing chunks of its body at the adventurers. And yes—they were not your first choice for diplomatic ventures either. The Hob was probably a better choice for meeting new species.
Credit to them—giant Snow Golems were a Gold Rank+ threat. These three hadn’t been able to grow forever in the limited garden. Big ones erased cities. Even these ones could have eaten countless Silver-rank teams.
To destroy them, you had to find their truesnow centers, and, often, you had to destroy a lot of their body mass. In short—compacted snow and ice. If you were a melee-team, you would need shovels. Your greatsword? Unless it was enchanted or you could cut boulders in half, it was useless.
Saliss beat the first one. He was packing his jars full of truesnow as the second went down. Not to Tessa. She had been stabbing for twenty minutes when she sneezed, got cold, and decided she needed more coffee.
The second fell to a combination of an annoying [Cryomancer] locking down parts of its body, an [Armsmistress] slicing apart the lesser golems and trying to tear it apart from above, an annoying [Necromancer] and [Skirmisher] slashing and blasting it with flame—
But finally, mostly, to a tactical mistake: swallowing a screaming [Swashbuckler]. She went into the grinding maw, and that was a death sentence if the frozen rocks and ice ground her up.
“Someone save Jewel!”
Bezale’s scroll flashed as the Minotauress unrolled it. Merrik turned.
“[Granite’s Armor]—ah, damn. We overlapped.”
Peki launched herself past Merrik in a flying kick that exploded another Snow Golem’s head into a shower of powder. She flapped around, wiping water out of her face.
“Weird. Snow sucks.”
She was used to Sand Golems. Wil himself had got a faceful of snow—one of the smaller Snow Golems was copying the largest one hurling chunks around. Venaz was dodging them as they tried to take down the second giant.
The problem was—even the smaller Snow Golem loaded up its snowballs with chunks of ice and pebbles. Wil wiped blood off his face and lifted his shortsword. He had a sudden, nostalgic memory of a few older bullies as a boy. He had a sudden desire to stab the Snow Golem dead.
Relc beat Wil to it. The [Spearmaster] extended his spear out, caught the end as the tip shot through the Golem’s head, and whirled it back, blocking another trio of snowballs.
“Yeah, this is what I’m talking about! Weird monsters! No Crelers! Erin, this is why you include Relc!”
He screamed at the sky. But then a swell of crackling chords drowned out his screaming. It turned into a second melody—a kind of glam rock. Relc turned as he saw a Hobgoblin playing, one leg braced on a rock.
Numbtongue’s eyes were gleaming as the [Bard] began a familiar song he’d been working on. Numbtongue needed to record a few vocal lines. But it was silly, energetic, sad, and brave.
[Ballad of the Horns of Hammerad].
A [Necromancer] sliding past him turned his head and blinked. He slammed into Ceria, and the two caught themselves as the [Bard] did the first bard-like thing in combat in an age.
“Bard music. [Strategist] Skills, a [Spellscribe] on enchanting, and Gold-rank support. Add in a master [Alchemist]…”
Merrik abandoned his hammer to jot down a few notes with excitement. Was this his ultimate strike force? Actually, the question was—
What did the ballad do? Even Numbtongue didn’t know. He was playing frantically, because the ballad wasn’t done. But his Skill was humming at him, telling him he had—
Four choices? The [Bard] glanced around, and he saw the Horns of Hammerad fighting. Of course! He hesitated, but he still didn’t have Ceria or Ksmvr figured out. That left Pisces—or…?
He pointed at Yvlon as the [Armsmistress] staggered back, eating a punch from a block of ice. Numbtongue’s playing picked up in speed. He shifted low into bass—and the pop song took a turn as the electricity picked up. Accordingly, the genre shifted—
Straight into metal. The Hobgoblin had no lyrics pre-written, but as Kevin had assured him—you could make up for that with sheer emotion.
He howled, as if he were part of a Redfang warband on the attack. Peki turned appreciatively, and Yvlon looked over in horror.
[Ballad of the Horns of Hammerad: Yvlon’s Fury].
The Skill activated as Erin Solstice peeked into the garden. She saw a furious [Lord] sprint past her and bury his sword in a Snow Golem’s chest.
“Berserk! Berserker charge! Get them!”
Relc was already a huge Drake. But his muscles bulged, and he leapt across the ground and brought his spear through a Snow Golem’s head, haft first. Jewel was thrashing around in the Snow Golem’s mouth, slashing around with her rapier, and half the people fighting had gone mad with rage.
“Anger! I am so angry! Aaaah! I am screaming for psychological effect!”
Ksmvr slashed around him as he charged at the Snow Golems. Surprisingly, the song stopped the fighting in several areas. Peki had become a whirling storm of punches and kicks until she suddenly backed up, shaking her head. She put her wings together and exhaled.
She stared ahead, focusing, and Venaz did the same. He caught himself, panting.
“I’m better than this.”
They backed off; Saliss was already hopping out of the first dead Snow Golem. He didn’t seem affected by the song.
Erin stared into the winter wonderland turned warzone as the second Snow Golem died. Jewel emerged from its head, cleaving out with her sword.
“I am invincible!”
She screamed at the sky, blood and icewater running down her face. Erin stared up at her.
“So she is a Gold-rank adventurer. Um. Numbtongue. Numbtongue—”
She poked the furiously screaming Hobgoblin in the side until he reluctantly stopped his Skill. The [Bard] was annoyed as all hell—he was finally doing his thing, and he really liked Yvlon’s effect. The Redfangs would have torn a path across Izril if they’d had this.
“What? Stay back, Erin!”
He pointed at the [Garden of Sanctuary], Erin’s garden, where Mrsha and Lyonette were watching from a double-line of guards. Erin peered past him at the fighting as Keldrass’ team charged the final Golem.
“Um. Numbtongue, you can stop playing. My [Dangersense] isn’t going off anymore.”
She looked up at the final Snow Golem giant as it groaned. The Hobgoblin stared at her and then at the giant ice-monster which could, honestly, turn Erin into a bit of red paste with one punch. It was definitely attacking the adventurers.
But Erin just stared up at it, then stamped her foot and shouted.
Her aura doused the last rage-effects from Numbtongue’s song. Even the Gold-rank adventurers slowed. Keldrass’ momentum came to a halt, and the Snow Golems backed away. Because they were inside Erin’s inn. Here, her aura was unmatched.
“Erin! That Golem’s going to—”
Lyonette shouted as the [Innkeeper] walked forwards. She stared up at the final Golem pressed against the wall of the dome. Snow cascaded around it as two eyes of frozen stone stared down at her. The jagged teeth of ice gleamed as the hulking amalgamation of snow bared its fangs.
Erin held something up. The Key of Reprieve shone in the air. She felt no [Dangersense]—she only had when the avalanche had knocked her flying. The Snow Golem stared at the key, and the lesser ones moved slowly. They backed away from Erin. No—just ignored her.
But the giant golem, which had formed here, against the purpose of the original [Garden of Sanctuary]? It hesitated—then it turned away from Erin. She smiled sadly.
“Oh no. Did I—”
The Golem punched Keldrass so hard that he hit the far wall of the garden. But for the Heartflame Breastplate, he would definitely have broken all the bones in his body. Erin’s mouth stayed open as everyone scattered.
“Okay. It’s just me.”
The second garden was a mystery. What was clear was this: the Titan of Baleros was running a rapid-fire analysis that he was not sharing with Chaldion or the others. But they had probably come to the same conclusion.
“There are now multiple of these gardens, Foliana. I’ve never heard of that. But we do have records of this Skill—it’s appeared for [Gardeners], [Queens], leaders…get me a list. Anyone who comes from a snowy landscape.”
He watched as the fighters trooped back into the inn for hot coffee. Also, some hot cocoa—the inn was serving hot food, and there was nothing like fighting Snow Golems to work up an appetite.
The last Snow Golem giant was dead. Saliss was collecting the truesnow, but the lesser Snow Golems were harrying the last adventurers as they left the dome. Keldrass spat some smoke out as he turned.
“We could wipe out the rest, Erin. So long as there’s that much snow, more will keep spawning. That much snow and magic…”
Erin shook her head as a snowball struck the Heartflame Breastplate and melted. She looked back, and the Snow Golems backed away.
“No. That big one definitely wanted to kill everyone. But the other ones are…less dangerous. And not to me.”
She looked sad. Unaccountably sad. Niers glanced up at Erin as he halted his rapid extrapolations. He understood—a giant Snow Golem protector was an asset. But frankly speaking, if it endangered Mrsha, it was completely understandable to exterminate it.
He did not consider relocating the Snow Golem giant viable, unless you wanted to dump it in hostile territory. Which would be useful—but—
“Lord Astoragon. How long does it take for a Snow Golem to get that big, naturally? Miss Erin, I think we’re due some explanations, at least.”
Merrik trooped over to the fire, his armor frosted with ice. Erin nodded as she glanced at the scrying orb. Niers spoke, and everyone listened in.
“Not the right question, Merrik. Good instincts—but Snow Golems can get that large in one winter. They have one of the fastest accumulation rates.”
“Ah, well then. Did you say that garden probably belonged to someone in the past, Miss Solstice?”
Everyone turned to her as Erin nodded to the Dwarf.
“Yeah. That was someone’s…[Garden of Sanctuary]. It’s not mine.”
And there it was. Mrsha stared round-eyed at the key Erin held. So that was what it meant. The Key of Reprieve was granting Erin authority over…
All the [Gardens]? Niers’ mind was racing with the implications, but he kept his face straight.
“It’s either Terandrian or Balerosian. It could be Izrilian, but I’m thinking Cenidau, one of the permanently frozen norths. No one would call that sanctuary unless they liked the cold.”
“Did Chandrar ever freeze over when it was green? It could be old beyond belief, sir. I saw something like a keep—Miss Solstice, could there be artifacts within?”
Merrik wondered aloud.
The [Innkeeper] hugged Mrsha as she accepted a towel from Ishkr. Apista crawled onto her shoulder and waved a feeler at Niers, who nodded back, as Erin replied.
“I don’t know. I didn’t know you could build things in—well, no. That makes sense. Anything the original owner left might be there. Like, if Mrsha left a ball or—”
If someone left treasure. Every adventurer’s eyes gleamed at the idea, but Erin just glanced back, troubled, as the door let in freezing air. It closed—much to the disappointment of the non-fighters who wanted to see.
She didn’t think you left treasure in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. But maybe. Niers was pulling up the limited records of people who had the Skill in the past, and Wil spoke up.
“Professor, don’t bother trying Terandrian nations. It’s Izril or Baleros, I think.”
“What are you basing this on, Wil?”
“…The snow tastes different.”
Everyone turned to Wil. The [Lord] shrugged self-consciously, but he’d gotten a few good mouthfuls from the snowball attacks.
“Sorry, it just does. You know how some people say the soil’s changed continent to continent? I just felt like it tasted different.”
“Do you…eat snow that much?”
Peki wanted to know, but Merrik nodded thoughtfully.
“Miss Solstice, can you open the door again?”
She did for him, and he took a handful of snow and tasted it.
“…Huh. He’s right. It does have a different taste to it. But that’s not down to climate, Wil. It tastes like soot. Soot and metal and stone. Almost like foundry runoff. Very mild, but it reminds me of Dwarfhome. Or…”
The Titan of Baleros looked up. His eyes glinted, and he swept all the files aside and spoke one word.
“Baleros. The frozen north of the Dullahan lands. Specifically—the great forge-city of the Iron Vanguard. Invictel.”
Everyone turned to him. Merrik raised his eyebrows, but waited as Niers held up a single file.
“It may not be accurate, but one of the famous skill-holders of a [Garden of Sanctuary] was a [General] of the Iron Vanguard. Dolost the Adamantine. In keeping with their traditions, the Dullahans made their [Generals] adamantium armor whenever it was plentiful.”
Everyone turned to Erin, and murmurs turned to stares of greed or shock. Erin? She didn’t miss Niers’ excited gaze, nor the call of adventure or stories of the past. But Niers missed the way her lips moved, her teeth biting one edge quietly before she smiled and spoke.
Foliana saw it. She glanced at Niers and saw, well.
The new garden was the subject of endless discussion. In fact, within thirty minutes, Relc and sixty people were in the frozen area, trying to excavate the keep.
It was going to take a while. Erin estimated the entire garden was full up on the falling snow. That was…a lot of snow and if the keep were as large as she thought it actually was…
“This garden’s lower down than mine, guys. So the keep’s big. They’ve gotta dig down further than Liscor’s walls. Good news? Unlimited ice. Bad news? Snow Golems.”
“Why do they attack people? You can’t even fight here, Erin.”
The inn’s family and closest employees were not taking part in the action. All the [Strategists] were—and watching each other to make sure no one ‘accidentally’ got a look at something fascinating.
In that sense, they were slightly silly. Peki, who did not mix well with cold, was wrapped up in a blanket and watching Erin through the original door to her peaceful garden. Erin could now generate two doors at once. Peki could not enter, but Foliana had told her to watch.
A few other spies were well aware they couldn’t follow Erin into the garden, but their employers had directed them to watch Erin. Because…
She was winning the game of distraction. Ironically, Chaldion, Altestiel, Niers—they were all focused on the snowy garden. Because what they valued was not what Erin valued. Wall Lord Ilvriss, even Magnolia Reinhart and a few others, understood.
Erin glanced at the other garden. She put her hands in her pockets and turned to Numbtongue, who was sipping from a hot cup of honey and milk with a blanket over his shoulders. He was too damn cold to continue digging in that garden, even with Erin’s magical warming soup.
“I know a few things. I know how deep that keep is buried. I know those golems won’t attack me. I know…I think I know why you can fight there. You can’t here, still, right?”
“Let me see.”
Ulvama did a run-up and tried to kick Mrsha. Her foot stopped, and the Gnoll tried to punch Ulvama’s leg—both turned into weak taps. Erin nodded slowly.
“Yeah. [Garden of Sanctuary] rules are in effect here. They’re not there. You could probably die.”
“Because that Dullahan [General] wanted to train or something?”
Liska frowned as Ishkr tried to shush his sister, but Erin shook her head.
“Nope. I think, Liska, everyone…it’s because it’s no longer a [Garden of Sanctuary]. Or rather, the owner isn’t alive. It’s only safe as long as the Skill-holder lives.”
She looked sad again. Mrsha felt Lyonette squeeze her gently, and the [Princess] spoke the real question. The question the others hadn’t cottoned on to yet. Ironically, Octavia Cotton had.
“Erin. Um. How many gardens do you think you have access to? Everyone thinks it’s just this one, but…”
She had seen the raining garden. Erin slowly looked up, and a shiver ran around the group. Slowly, the [Innkeeper] walked over to the door leading back to her inn.
“Hello. I’m Peki. I’m very responsible and a [Martial Artist] and a [Drop Strike Lieutenant]. You want to be my friend. Can I come into—”
Erin closed the door. Peki kicked the wall, but she had never gotten good marks on her negotiations classes.
Inside the garden, Erin Solstice turned. Her friends and family looked at her, and she raised a key.
“Guys. Do you want to go on a little adventure?”
They all stirred, and Erin smiled as she looked around.
“Hey. Can we see somewhere nice?”
A door opened, across the garden. Mrsha raced for it, and Lyonette scooped her up.
“Oh no, missy! Numbtongue, Ulvama, Bird, Normen, and Alcaz in front! Erin, your [Dangersense]—”
“Nothing, Lyonette. It’s wide open. In fact…”
Erin ‘knew’ what was beyond the next door before it opened. She had a sense of the room, what it contained, but even so…
Tears sprang to Erin’s eyes. She was staring at a vision of home that the Gnolls of the Meeting of Tribes might have recognized. A few of them, who had access to [The World of You and Me].
Erin herself recognized this scene. She had never been anywhere like this, physically, but it was familiar.
So familiar that Kevin rubbed at his eyes as he walked through a door meant for him and Joseph. The young men from America and Spain joined Erin.
“Did one of us make…?”
“No. Lyonette says it looks—Drathian.”
A breeze blew across Erin’s face, a warm spring breeze unlike the biting cold of before. The [Garden of Sanctuary] only had a single opening in the roof, but Erin realized that she could do far more to it than she had dreamed.
The other owners had understood you could change it, from the weather to the garden itself. Now she understood—they had all had the same garden to start with.
She saw the influences in this one. One corner—the rocky ground filled with pebbles—was almost identical. Yet the owner of this place had taken as much effort as the Dullahan. To move that pond, to add more water around the edges of the garden—
To remove the hill and create, in its place…a picturesque scene. That was it—the breeze blew the fragrance of flowers into the air. A spring day—where pink flower petals fell from the trees across the red-lacquered wood of the bridge.
Erin knew those trees. They were from Earth, the horticulturalist’s dream because of how striking they were. She thought they were sakura trees, some variant if not the exact ones.
A bridge over water, leading to a grove of the cherry trees that produced a gentle rain of pink and white, like a lovelier snow. Erin could just imagine spreading a picnic blanket and sitting under the trees.
Mrsha was doing just that with Lyonette, then getting up and running around as Octavia excitedly told Numbtongue about different alchemical uses for the petals. He just looked up, catching a flower petal in his clawed hand.
Numbtongue turned back to Erin as Kevin put his hands in his pockets. Joseph walked forwards, staring down at the water running around the entire garden in a slow pattern.
“There’re fish in here. Oh, wow. There are hundreds.”
Colorful fish infested this garden. Erin hadn’t realized it, but living species like the Fortress Beavers had remained. As with Snow Golems—the fish, koi breeds, had filled this pond to capacity. It seemed like their population had stabilized just enough to survive in this self-contained environment.
Erin had wondered what they ate—until she saw hyacinths, lilies, and other plants blooming underwater. This place was a vision to the eyes.
A terribly sad one, if you thought of who had been here. Numbtongue turned to Erin as Octavia sidled over to the water. She reached down, picked up a koi fish, and nearly dropped it; the fish didn’t even try to get away.
“Erin. Come explore.”
There was more to this garden as well. If not any structure aside from the simple features like the bridge, wooden gates, and so on—Erin looked at the Hobgoblin’s open hand.
“Okay. But I’m getting tired, so you have to help me walk.”
They walked across the bridge as Mrsha stared into the water and licked her lips, then begged Lyonette for lunch now. Erin Solstice wondered how long each garden had laid undisturbed as Numbtongue walked with her under the trees.
“I feel sort of bad for the fish, Erin. Are we going to eat them and harvest the Snow Golems?”
Octavia caught up on Erin’s other side and held the [Innkeeper]’s arm. Erin looked at Octavia and saw she wasn’t just thinking of selling all the fish and strip-mining the garden. The [Innkeeper] smiled at that.
“I think the fishes—we may eat some, but we’ll leave what we can. Sometimes the garden might have something dangerous. We don’t have to go in. At least—I think I’m safe. But we might eat some fish.”
Numbtongue grunted. The [Bard] stopped to admire a sculpture among many planted along the neat pathways. Somehow, the plants hadn’t overgrown them—it was as if the garden stayed as the owner had wished. He bent down and admired a little stone fox, carved so beautifully Erin’s heart hurt. It was curled up, resting by a cluster of four-leaved clovers.
“Good. I like fish. This isn’t like silly rats again, is it?”
He glanced up and gave Erin a challenging look. She put one hand on her hip as she gave him a mock-glare.
“No, but we’re not gonna wipe ‘em out, Numbtongue. I think the fish do die of old age, and some might eat each other. I dunno. But we’ll be respectful. Okay?”
He thought about that, then smiled.
“Numbtongue. Numbtongue, there’s an archery range over there. Targets and stuff! There’s even a bow—well, I think it was a bow. It’s so old, Joseph broke it when he touched it. Sorry, Erin!”
The Goblin brightened up as Kevin ran around the trail.
“Let’s see. I have crossbows everywhere. How many targets? Octavia, come, come.”
He pulled at the [Alchemist]’s hand and gestured at Erin, but she had spotted a bench.
“Give me one sec, Numbtongue.”
“You want me to…”
He stopped, and Octavia turned to help Erin, but she just motioned them on.
“I’m tired. I want to sit. Go check it out. But I’d better not catch you and Wailant and Viceria here in the middle of the night, naked!”
She had a sudden suspicion about why the Hobgoblin was so interested. Numbtongue bared his fangs.
“Okay, not at night. Got it.”
They ran off, and Erin watched them disappear and then exclaim. Mrsha went rolling down the slight incline as Lyonette chased after her.
“Come here, you silly girl! Oh, Erin, this place is elegant. We have to have a picnic here. But please—let’s not show the other guests? Not right now. I love Relc, but you know he’ll cause a mess. And Ceria? She’ll probably start eating the fish raw.”
“Not yet, Lyonette.”
The [Princess] smiled, and she looked—peaceful. Filled with wonder. Erin watched her run after Mrsha as Bird sat by the water.
“Bird? Are you having fun?”
The Antinium guiltily started. He hid something behind his back.
“I am doing nothing, Erin. And not having fun. At all.”
Erin stared at a familiar sight: a bunch of gaping koi mouths. And then she saw Bird tossing bread crumbs into the water.
“You’re feeding the fish?”
“No. And it is not very funny, and I do not enjoy it. I am loyal to birds. Fishes are stupid.”
Bird lied. His mandibles were open and raised, and Erin laughed. Bird went back to tossing crumbs into the water and giggling at the fishes eating. Erin looked around and saw Normen and Alcaz watching her.
The two Brothers were, like Ishkr and Liska, employees. However, even the Gnolls had stopped work for a moment to tour the garden, eyes wide with wonder.
Normen and Alcaz were sneaky fellows, though. They tipped their hats.
“Do you want an arm to lean on, Miss Solstice?”
She smiled at them.
“Can I go for a little walk, guys? I’ll be safe.”
Both hesitated—but then Normen gave her a bow. And that was why she liked them. They knew, unlike Lyonette’s Thronebearers—
Sometimes a fellow or a lady had to be alone. So Erin walked out of this garden, leaving the door open to the first one.
She was alone, for a moment, and felt the strength magic leaving her. But she had twenty minutes before it fully wore off, so tiredly, she hobbled up the hill. Then she realized she had one last person with her.
“Apista! Sorry, I forgot you can’t fly. Do you want me to bring you back to Lyonette?”
The bee was perched on her shoulder. Apista fanned her wing vehemently. Take me away from those evil fish!
Erin got the message. The [Innkeeper] laughed, and she and the bee climbed the hill. Then, Erin was almost fully alone. But Apista was good company, and so Erin looked around.
Two gardens and more. Her guests were in one, her family, another. She didn’t mind that, really. But Erin Solstice played a game against everyone, whether they knew it or not.
She held the Key of Reprieve up and stared at it.
Just a tiny bit of its true color, poking through all that rust. So old that magic had rusted? A key with a Harpy’s feather.
Empress Sheta, a Harpy, had been the first owner of this Skill, so Eldavin had told her. She had owned this key.
Had the other owners of the gardens? Or had they received a copy of the first garden and never realized the truth? Why had Erin…?
“Maybe it’s the statues. Maybe it’s because I was dead. Maybe it’s more. Apista—can you keep a secret? Even from Lyonette and Mrsha?”
Apista fanned her wing and used one of her remaining legs to pat Erin on the shoulder. She could keep great secrets! Like Belavierr’s eye or her honey. Not even the Titan would know.
Erin smiled and patted her gently on her head. Then she looked around and raised the key.
“…There are a lot of doors around here. But there’s only one true one, isn’t there? Garden? I’d like to open it now.”
Erin waited. From the top of the hill in the middle of the [Garden of Sanctuary], Erin could see the dome covered with old vines, circling this peaceful place. And now, instead of a single door—she saw many.
Erin stood on the hill, amidst yellow Faerie Flowers growing taller, awakening next to the glowing Sage’s Grass. The door to the sakura garden lay to her left. Erin could feel her family within, wandering it—and she could hear Bird’s laughter and Mrsha splashing around in the koi-infested waters from where she stood, a glimpse of two men standing on the bridge.
The [Innkeeper] looked around, and for a second, another door opened across the dome, showing a bunch of people throwing snowballs at the Snow Golems, digging energetically. Two doors at once—as if this garden was now a crossroads of the inn. Relc lifted a snowball and, without mercy, hit Wil in the back from six feet away. Erin laughed as the [Lord] went sprawling, but with sympathy too.
She continued turning, and the door to the inn was there, laughter and arguments pouring forth. Peki did a running leap, slammed into the invisible barrier, and Erin waved apologetically. A scrying orb on the floor reflected a single Squirrel-woman, peering at her, and Erin winked at Foliana. Even from so far away—she was sure Three-Color Stalker winked back. Then the [Innkeeper] turned all the way around.
—And there it was. She recoiled as a door appeared in the hill in the center. As if it had been there all along.
Apista fanned her wing excitedly as Erin backed away and looked up.
This was no wooden door, aged wood secured with plain iron and a brass handle. That door sort of fit Erin’s inn, but Erin realized…it was the door she wanted to see. A door for her. The others had owned doors that made sense for them.
This…this was the original door. Erin looked up and up and saw it was ten feet tall and twice as wide as a regular door. A frame of grey stone surrounded a door made of ancient marble, something worn with time.
—But unlike everything else, Erin saw enough to see the wings carved across the marble. And indeed, the door was engraved with the image of the very garden she stood in.
A hill surrounded by lands, each different. A vision of a meeting of places. Cold winter, jungle’s humidity, the arid grasslands—Izril’s plains.
Now, Erin understood why it had looked like this. Each owner had made their garden how they wanted it. The first owner—she wanted no cramped spaces. Just something to remind her of all the places she had been.
And she had been to every place you could fly. Her empire had reflected that. Erin reached out and slowly touched the door’s engravings.
For in the middle of that picture of the garden was the one thing absent from Erin’s copy—a single Harpy, wings folded, resting as she lay on the hilltop.
“Oh. It’s you.”
The Harpy lay there, looking relaxed, though Erin could not see her face, just the folded wings and the peaceful way she rested. Away from the world.
Then, Erin looked at the door. The sigils of an ancient empire ran above it, and words she didn’t understand.
The language of a species no longer present on Izril. She traced the door with her eyes as Apista saluted the last true Empress of Harpies.
Then Erin saw the keyhole waiting for her with a handle, not a doorknob, of faded metal. Scratched slightly—by a Harpy’s talons. Of course. Harpies would hate doorknobs.
Erin slowly inserted the Key of Reprieve into the lock and turned it. The door made no sound at all, but when she slowly put her hand on the handle, it swung open with a sound like dust ten thousand years old moving.
Like a sigh that ran through the inn. A whisper like relief—then Erin did see what even the Witch of Webs had wanted to glimpse.
And it came full circle. Though Erin could not have known that—but what she beheld beyond that door in the center of her garden was a hallway.
No nightmare hallway. No wooden walls. Rather…Erin Solstice slowly walked out onto cold marble. She turned her head left and right and saw there were no walls. Nothing but a long stretch of space in the void.
And doors. Oh—the doors.
Each one was different. Each one…familiar and not. Erin passed by the first, and it was her door. A humble inn’s door. She hesitated, and it swung open and showed her the garden once more. Her garden. She turned to her right, and another door was made of the same lacquered red wood, written with words she didn’t know in a beautiful script. Characters, not words. A single rose stood out on the woodwork, stylized and faded pink.
Each door was different. Erin passed by another and noticed the austere pattern, the metal, and the frost which clung to it.
A door you slipped into on the outside of a building, perhaps? A hideaway to lose your followers and soldiers?
Some doors were like that. Humble, disguised. One was actually made of sandstone and looked like you were meant to walk over to a dune and just open it there, concealed by the ever-changing desert.
However, other doors showed exactly what they contained. Erin shuddered as she passed by a door with padding and gilt.
“Wow, some people have no taste. And that’s me saying it. Look at this, Apista.”
Open it, open it!
The bee urged her, and Erin took the handle shaped like a Griffin’s claw and turned the door. She and Apista peeked into…
Well, it wasn’t a garden so much as it was a landscape of upholstery. The world’s most fabulous boudoir—and no other word would surely do; parlor was simply insufficient—stared back at her. Erin stared at a couch and had the urge to do a dive-bomb onto the pillows.
“Lavender. Mrsha should definitely see this. We could have the pillow fight of ages. Lyonette…maybe it’s good she never sees this, Apista. Or she’ll use this for furnishings.”
The bee nodded sagely. Erin was tempted to make another mocking comment. Then her eyes fell on something, and her teasing tone faded.
She closed the door quickly—but not before the little stuffed animal, a cute Griffin sewn by an expert, lovingly placed on a table with a tea cup in front of it, burned itself into her eyes.
Then it hit her again. Each and every owner was…
Erin walked on. No, she didn’t think many people had owned the Key of Reprieve. The doors stretched on, and Erin felt like there were not truly hundreds. She didn’t count, but she thought there might be less than…
Forty? It was a surprisingly low number. Erin wondered how many people had ever earned the right to this place. The requirements…she thought it was more than being important, especially since she wouldn’t have gotten the garden if that were the case. It wasn’t levels. It was something you wanted. Something you needed.
And it was not perfect. Erin stopped only one last time on her slow walk down the hallway.
One door was already open. She and Apista turned and flinched from what Erin saw inside. This garden had—once—been a true sanctuary. Erin thought she saw the remnants of some great throne-like chamber. A regal place, perhaps, for someone to sit in their own ego.
…The door was gone. And the burnt remnants of whatever had shattered it still lay within, along with naught but destruction.
Someone had broken this garden. Erin shivered and knew, then, that the door was not impervious to harm. She patted Apista. The bee was nervously hugging Erin’s shoulder.
“One last stop. Then we’ll go back. See?”
It was waiting for her at the end. Past all the other doors, which led to memory…Erin came to a stop at the end of the hallway.
There were no walls. There was no…structure to this place. But there were doors and rules. That was clear. Cleverer people had come here, to this place built of Skills or desire or something else, and found there were things you could do.
Like write upon the air itself. Erin halted in front of the door paler than chalk, and thought the surface, the substance of what it was made of, was smoother than glass. Yet even so, she felt like there were things she couldn’t see.
It unsettled her, and the hair on the back of her neck rose as she stared at the lock in the center. Not to the side—and there was no doorknob on this one.
She tried the Key of Reprieve in the lock, and it would not fit. Erin tucked the key away and then read what someone had written to the side of the door. Her lips moved, and Apista wished she could read. So Erin read it out to the bee, in a voice that shook slightly.
“To those that follow after me, I was the last Empress of Harpies. My name was Sheta. This [Garden of Sanctuary] is the last thing I will ever leave. Only the immortal will remember my name, I hope, across these endless ages.
The gardens welcome you, wherever and whenever they are needed. But they are not the only remnants of my legacy. I built them upon the rest. So, if you are worthy, find what came before me.
This door leads to the [Pavilion of Secrets]. If you continue, if you choose to explore onwards, understand this. It is not necessarily a gift, these Skills.
Sanctuary provides. Secrets empower. Fate illuminates.
Sanctuary can never shelter enough. Secrets grow vast unspoken. And Fate mocks us all. But I was glad of it. May my key help you protect what matters.”
That was all she wrote. Erin rubbed at her eyes. The last words from a long-dead woman, the first of them all, hung in the air next to the door. Apista hugged Erin’s neck.
“Thanks, Apista. But wait…there’s more.”
There was? Apista wasn’t sure she could handle more, but Erin pointed down to two more scratchings, less precise, below the first. And she realized this:
Two other people, at least, had held the Key of Reprieve. They had added to the messages so simply. Erin read, her voice a low murmur.
“I was worthy of Secrets. But what lay beyond I never achieved. I was truly honored; upon Secrets and Sanctuary, we built a House. May it endure proudly forever. Aleieta Reinhart.”
Her fingers trembled as they traced the last line. Erin pointed out the shortest message yet, written in red like blood. Like bitter tears, almost furiously dashed there.
“Secrets broke me. I gained this, as none of my kind ever have. It was no kindness. Cormelex, the Infernal Court.”
Erin looked at the words, the warnings, and then held up the key. She gazed at the mystery behind the door and wondered if it would come to her soon. Or if ever. Slowly, the [Innkeeper] exhaled.
Before she returned to the others and let them show her all the things they found—before she went into the inn, and later returned to see the tragic and beautiful things in each garden…
Yes, before that. Erin Solstice went into her garden and bent low upon the hill. She walked down that long hallway one last time, before her legs lost their strength. The bee watched as Erin bent down. She laid a single flower beneath the writing. Then she turned away.
When she was ready, if she was ever ready, she would be back. The key gleamed in Erin’s hand as she went to explore the gardens. When Erin stood in her garden, she looked up.
It could be anything she wanted. The [Innkeeper] spread her hands wide.
The light faded from her garden. It turned pitch black, and the bee looked up in alarm at the only light: that of the fading evening sky, a spotlight shining down on Erin in a world of darkness.
But not as fearful as Belavierr’s magic. The key gleamed with Erin’s authority. The [Innkeeper] raised her hand higher as she sat, too tired to move. She spoke.
“Falling lights. Like rain.”
Then—came drifting colors. It looked like glowing motes of color, each as vivid as only Erin understood them. Honor rained down like the green of a Goblin’s smile. Pink fire, flashing across mundane reds and oranges.
Light, like rain. Fire, like memory. Erin Solstice sat there a second. But it was too beautiful not to share. In a moment, she’d go get the others. To sit that night and watch. For now, she smiled.
“Now that is beautiful.”
Author’s Note: And there it is done. I ran out of energy a chapter ago. Parts of this chapter may be confusing—parts may be good because I didn’t feel the need to do a hugely complex narrative and plan it all out.
Sometimes that’s what you want. Part of the joy of writing is discovery. The issue is that as a story gets more complex, the stakes get higher.
However, I did enjoy this, and I am now on break for a while. As I said, I’m taking an early August break to go on a vacation in the wilds of…Canada.
But that’s all I’ll say for now, and I’ll let you know what happens. Thanks for reading. Oh—and if you’re on Patreon, check out that store. See you later. Go watch some cool things in a garden if you have one.
Pirate breakdancing by Placeholder…yes, this is happening. Pirate isn’t me, by the way, it’s a character I wrote but pirateaba is me and that’s my avatar so we get confused. Anyways, the point is that I can definitely, 102% breakdance. Just wait until the next image.
pirateaba Breakdance by Brack! I can totally do that. Yes. Fanart gets weird but in a completely authentic TWI-way.
Erin’s Knighting, what Normen sees, by pkay!