As they drove away from Riverfarm, Erin was napping. A little witch curiously watched her face as Erin dropped off.
One moment, she was full of energy, talking about her [Garden of Sanctuary] and promising to show Nanette around—the next?
She quietly fell asleep. Or rather, began dozing. She began murmuring and nodding along to Ser Sest reading out Mrsha’s pithy comments. Then she was sleeping with one shoulder against the carriage door.
What surprised Nanette was that no one else was surprised. Lyonette whispered to her as Gothica fished around the carriage.
It was Mrsha, Ser Sest, Gothica, Lyonette, Erin, and Nanette. A good mix for a single carriage. The other carriage and riders rode ahead of them. It was a quiet ride, not that bumpy, back to Invrisil.
“She’s almost out of energy. I think she ran out of stamina potion again.”
Lyonette nodded. Then, and only then, did Nanette learn that Erin couldn’t walk. At least, not without magical help. She stood and did everything with potions.
“She uses it to keep up her energy if she’s been running about all day. It’s getting expensive. At least Octavia provides the potions, but she’ll run out of her healing…gel…at some point.”
Lyonette commentated as the Goblin and Gnoll put the blanket over Erin. Nanette was astonished.
“I didn’t know Miss Erin was still recovering. No one did. Well—”
Then she thought of the older [Witches]. Maybe they had, but they’d respected Erin’s privacy, at least there. And Laken? Had he known?
Erin slept as Lyonette smiled wanly at Nanette. She reached out and patted the girl’s knee.
“Erin’s recovery has been slow, but she’s back. I trust you know about that?”
“All of Riverfarm knew that His Majesty was trying to help someone. I…”
She had been lost in her own world as distant as Erin’s. She looked at Erin, and Lyonette’s smile looked old. She sat there as Mrsha glanced up, and then Nanette saw it.
They looked like people her mother had met who had survived natural disasters or monster attacks. Not [Soldiers], but veterans, survivors of something. And it did not make them wholly poorer. Sometimes, Califor said, an earthquake downed houses. It broke walls and burst dams and shifted mountains. Then it unearthed steel in some people’s souls.
The [Princess] looked at Nanette.
“We all went somewhere. I journeyed to Oteslia, and—I made quite a number of mistakes. But we did what we could. You’ll meet more people who went further and did far more than I to bring Erin back. Now, we’re seeing what the inn looks like. It hasn’t been that long since Erin woke back up, Nanette. I hope you’ll fit in. We are all finding our way, as you’ll see. Even if some pretend better than others.”
She had a strange way about her, Lyonette. Nanette knew she was a [Princess], but she was also a mother, despite being just eighteen. If anything, she reminded Nanette of someone twice her age at times. Shyly, the young witch nodded. She liked Lyonette already. She hoped she would like this inn.
Yet she was no silent Gnoll, and Lyonette seemed keenly aware that Nanette would not fit into the same spot that Mrsha had when she first came to the inn. Nanette proved this in the next moment. She nodded at Erin.
“I’m glad Miss Erin did leave Riverfarm as friends. I don’t think she and His Majesty—Emperor Godart—really liked each other that much.”
“No, they quite respected…”
Then she fell silent. The carriage rolled on, and Erin began to dream. She had been half-listening to all of this, but too exhausted to speak and too tired to really remember what she heard consciously.
But she dreamed of things they had said. True dreams.
“You’ve never asked me about my story yet. Legends have presented themselves to you; that even I must admit. But I? I inform your very world, and few can match me, I swear. Don’t you want my secrets? I think we would quite like each other.”
Erin Solstice looked up, and Nerrhavia bent over her. The young woman was making a burger in the lands of the dead, and memory was forming, piece by piece. She was remembering cooking one up the first time she’d made one. The hungry ghosts were eating the enjoyment, the feeling of triumph as much as the taste.
Nerrhavia smiled, and Erin scowled.
“I don’t want to hear from you any more than Roshal’s people. I know what you did. Califor’s right. Words can be like poison, and you have poisonous fingernails.”
The ghost of the Immortal Tyrant innocently hid her painted nails behind her back. Her face-paint was a work of art, her body a second vision of perfection, or what she thought perfection was. She wore, as so many times, the gown in which she had died, still marred by her own blood.
“But you and I are so similar. Our moralities differ, but I was no high-born woman. I was not even cloth when I was first born into my fading kingdom. I was a simple scribe, a Human woman good with numbers. I made everything they curse me for, and ‘Nerrhavia’s Fallen’ now wastes. All because I sought it. You understand that.”
Because Erin did—she turned away. She put her fingers in her ears.
“Lalalalala. I’m not listening. There’s no scenario where I become a tyrant and enslave people. Forgetaboutit.”
Nerrhavia drifted past Erin, amused. She spread her arms to an imaginary wind, and the dark fabric of her dress shifted, as if it were a pair of black wings, as it blew behind her.
“Why would I make you a [Ruler]? You would be so very poor at it. But you know that even if the [Witches] get their way—all they are giving you is a power that sticks. Ultimately, your struggle will be far greater than even mine. Even empowered by legends and myth—there’s something none of them bring up, don’t you notice? Goblins.”
Erin glanced up. The Immortal Tyrant smiled in that superior way of hers.
“…There’s no Goblins here. There’s a lot of history. I get it. People died to the Goblin King.”
“And you protect them. You will be a [Goblinfriend] and set yourself against more enemies than I dreamed of. Do you not want to hear a piece of advice from someone who survived it all for a thousand years?”
Erin hunched her shoulders. Nerrhavia drifted until she was leaning over the [Innkeeper]. She whispered, so intimately that Erin tried to throw her off, but a sweet, calm voice spoke in her ears. Then it dropped away, turning more casual, not as eloquent or practiced, and Erin heard how the woman called Nerrhavia had crafted her image. And she wondered how much of Nerrhavia had ever been deliberate.
“…the secret for your great deed, Erin, is not to hesitate. You are a fine player of chess. You break your opponents who are lesser than you into pieces. A kind girl. A merciless player.”
She had watched Khelta lose to Erin along with a score of ghosts. Of all the talents that set the girl apart, and for all the awe around her, she was still one of the greatest in her talent. Such as it was, to Nerrhavia.
“I know to be ruthless. Is that all you’ve got?”
“No. Not all. Just don’t hesitate when you reach for a hand and find one covered in blood. Your ‘Goblins’ will let you down. I know people; how many will be murderers of innocents or harm people in self-defense? How many of your Redfangs are [Raiders]? Trust no one without loyalty. Don’t mistake me. But even if you want to be as pure as any [Knight]—you will always need someone like me.”
“To do the horrible things?”
Erin shivered. And Nerrhavia gave her a scornful look and tried to slap her across the cheek—lightly—and looked Erin straight in the eye.
“No, silly [Innkeeper]. No—because I think that if you had fallen into my kingdom when I first began to take it, or even later, when they screamed my name a thousand times, I would have made something of you. Something fierce and deadly, such that they would have called you the [General] who crushed any army. Or a [Queen] of your own, or perhaps just a [Witch] or the [Innkeeper] you are.”
She had said this time and time again, and Erin’s rebuttal was on her lips, her snide comment.
“Yeah, and if you met me, you’d be a great [Innkeeper]. Or a [Barmaid].”
Then, as they stood together, Nerrhavia threw her head back. She laughed, and the other ghosts looked at her askance; she bent over and kissed Erin on the lips. Or tried to. Erin felt the slightest touch of a ghost and recoiled and batted at Nerrhavia’s face. But the ghost whispered in her ear.
“Yes. Perhaps I would have been. You need souls like mine, Erin Solstice. And I think we will seek you out. For—what you do for Goblins—can you not do it for your guests? I would have needed you if you existed. Look at the Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets and his wretched tale. If he had known you, could you have filled that gap that drove him to death before greatness? Reach down and take my hand, poisoned or not, in my many forms, and I will reward you with loyalty.”
Then Erin knew she was dreaming and remembered all the things she wanted. She recalled this conversation exactly, even if so many things were hazy—
But she really hadn’t remembered the kiss. A dreaming Erin sat there, looking exasperated and worried.
—And the Erin of now stepped outside her body and regarded Nerrhavia in her dream. Poisonous and sinuous. Someone who had abandoned her very humanity in a literal sense. She had cut her flesh off and replaced it with cloth. Because she thought it suited her.
Every move she made was beautiful. Beautifully corrupt. Beautifully arrogant. But what made her alive even in Erin’s memory of the deadlands and the faded souls there was this:
She had never forgotten who she had been. A woman had become the Immortal Tyrant, but she had changed herself until she faced down Giants and other ghosts. That was the problem.
Erin looked at Nerrhavia and cursed her, because she always knew what to say to people. It was kind of good advice.
“…But how can I trust you, Nerrhavia? Even Roshal sounds like they make sense, if they speak to you long enough. I wish I didn’t sort of like you. I wish I had no enemies.”
She floated through her dream and that conversation between the [Innkeeper] and one of the ghosts who had shaped her upon waking. Erin almost woke there and then—until she saw that head turn.
Nerrhavia looked straight at Erin. Not the dream Erin, but the real one. Even dreaming, Erin felt her heart start in her chest, a rapid pulse. And the ghost of the Immortal Tyrant reached out. She caught Erin’s hand and lightly pinched with her nails. Erin flinched at the sudden flash of pain, but the tiny cut was all. Nerrhavia let go.
“Trust? You have been speaking to Drakes and Khelt’s folk too long, Erin. I trusted so few. Do you love something? Grasp it, even if it burns you alive. That is what the [Witches] taught you. But rather than hold fire like a pretty torchbearer—let it burn you and transform you. I leapt into seas made of venom and swam deep. Trust me? We are already embarking on our final adventure. And I have chosen you for my tale, [Innkeeper].”
She reached out, and Erin backed away, trying to wake up. Wake up—but the tyrant did not come for her with blades or poison, but gently caught Erin’s hand as if she were a suitor and bent to kiss it.
Then Erin woke. With such a start that Mrsha tossed up her hand of cards in surprise and the bad hand rained down around them.
It took a moment for Erin to come back to herself. It was evening, and she looked down and saw Nanette and Mrsha had been playing cards. Erin realized she’d been asleep in the carriage all day! Shakily, she looked around.
She gazed around and wondered if Nerrhavia had made it. She was still halfway in her strange dream. Then she woke up more, and relaxed.
Just a dream. Erin smiled until she noticed the tiny cut on her wrist. She stared at it for a long time, then brushed at her lips and shivered. She looked back at the cut, then decided to put it from her mind. Not to forget, but because she was sure—
This wasn’t over.
Lyonette wasn’t here; she’d traded coaches to hang out with the older passengers. Instead, Erin got Ser Dalimont, a snoring Ulvama lying on the other side of the carriage, Gothica, again, and the two children. Nanette was already learning Mrsha’s language.
Erin apologized for startling the others. She rubbed her eyes and wondered why she’d dreamed of Nerrhavia. Probably because of Laken. She had not liked him, for all he’d come across better than Magnolia’s Earthers had. If anything, that was why; he had his opinion, and hers differed.
But she quite respected him. Sort of. It was like the [Witches]. Erin realized that was his place, and she’d needed to bite her tongue at times. So why had she thought of Nerrhavia?
Perhaps she was sensing something. Or…Erin looked at Nanette and saw no guile, nor duplicity like Nerrhavia. But it was sometimes what you didn’t see that mattered. Erin closed her eyes, then spoke a name that almost no one had spoken—nor thought of—for most of the trip.
“Shriekblade? Tessa? Are you in here?”
Dalimont glanced up. Gothica jumped as a voice spoke.
“What do you want?”
Erin slowly looked up, and Mrsha and Nanette panicked as they realized the scarred Drake all in black was in the carriage—and she’d been clinging to the roof the entire time. Like some monstrous gecko, her tail curled around her waist—she stared down at Erin with two huge eyes.
“There you are. Do you get tired of hiding all the time, Tessa?”
“Nope. I feel great. Need me to hurt someone? Like a lamb?”
Erin wondered why she was bringing up the Sariants. Laken had hated them, but they’d barely done more than stare at her and Wiskeria. Of course, the [Witch of Law] had kicked at them every single time one got near, so they were right to be wary.
“No…I’m just wondering how long you want to keep doing this. I know Ilvriss has hired you—”
“What? Is something wrong? Do I smell? I can take a bath!”
Instantly, looking alarmed, Tessa swung herself down and landed in the center of the carriage. Dalimont was checking his side, but the Named-rank was fixed on Erin. The [Innkeeper] shook her head.
“No. But how long do you…want to keep guarding me and the inn? Do you want to do this until your contract runs out? How long is it?”
Tessa gave Erin a blank look.
“I have no idea. Someone manages my money at the Merchant’s Guild. Ilvriss didn’t say how long. I’ll do it forever. Or until I die.”
For answer, Tessa just produced a little, shining vial and smiled as she held it up.
“My cure. This is everything I want. Not even the Healer of Tenbault can do this. Just give me a few hours every week off. I don’t want gold, except for potions or whatever. I’m rich. I’ll pay you.”
She stared so longingly at the vial that Erin was worried she’d pop the lid and drink it now, but Tessa seemed to read Erin’s thoughts. She held up the sparkling vial. It kept changing colors; in the setting sun, it was gold, then orange, then a dark green against her black cloth armor.
“See? I don’t even need it. Breathing feels better. Someday, I might feel like having sex. Or…”
A blank look crossed her face, and Tessa looked around. Erin held her tongue, but she had to ask.
“Or what? Breathing feels better? Did it—not?”
Erin didn’t even think about breathing unless she was tired, in which case she felt a straining in her lungs, a sense as if she couldn’t inhale properly or ever fill her body with enough oxygen. But that was the failure of a body that had been frozen. Tessa just shrugged.
“I remembered a day when breathing didn’t feel like a chore. I don’t know why. The Healer of Tenbault made it so that I could lie in the sun and smile, but it always faded. The flowers make me…normal.”
Then a strange smile spread across scarred lips. Then Tessa blinked and felt at her expression. As if she didn’t know what it was on her face. She gazed at Erin.
“Don’t make me go. Eating is good. Watching plays—I laughed. Even bathing feels nice. What else? It doesn’t matter. I’ll serve you even if you need me to kill monsters every day. Alright?”
She looked at Erin pleadingly, and the [Innkeeper] half shook her head. But not in denial. After seeing that?
“I’ll never make you go. If that’s what you want—okay. But we’ll have to talk. And can you not disappear all the time if things are okay?”
Instantly, the Named Adventurer was relieved and burst into a real grin.
“You want me to appear? I can do that. Anything you want—even—well, anything.”
She was so eager to please Erin should have been relieved, but it was that first smile she was chasing, as frightened of itself as it was uncertain. She couldn’t bring it back now; she had no time. But she would find it again. For now, she let the Drake tuck that vial back in her clothing.
Tessa climbed back onto the ceiling of the coach as if her gloves were sticky and she were as light as a feather. Everyone stared up as Ulvama woke up to see a giant Drake hanging over her. Erin sighed as the [Shaman] screamed.
“Not like that. Just—normally.”
“Alright. I was sitting on the top of the carriage and looking for [Bandits], anyways. Be more visible. Anything else?”
“When we get to my inn—I want to talk with you. About you.”
“Sure. I guess that’s easy.”
Of all the things, that seemed to make Tessa more uncomfortable than the idea of killing monsters. She crawled out the window—or rather, rolled the glass down about four inches, then, disturbingly, squeezed out the crack as if her bones were liquid for a moment.
That was when Erin started hearing Nerrhavia’s voice in her ears. She wondered how badly—hurt—you had be to need Faerie Flowers. Halrac was one thing, but Tessa? She sat, troubled, as they headed back to Invrisil.
It was a two-day trip this time. The [Drivers] for this route back had a better set of Skills, so they claimed they could do a two-day haul and have them back in the morning.
It surprised Erin, because she’d assumed that the best [Drivers] were in Invrisil, and it had taken them three days. But the [Driver] up front assured Erin he was better.
“We might not be Named Drivers—”
His buddy chortled as they parked near the inn, and Erin raised her eyes, not knowing the secret system of [Drivers]. The man went on.
“—But we’re faster than most! [Rapid Driver] is Otto, here, and I’m a [Competitive Racer] in my spare time. I was a [Jockey].”
He was a shorter fellow, as many [Jockeys] were, and he had a very affable air compared to Otto. Well, Otto had a spike in his tongue. Ornamental, not a casualty of some injury.
“What’s with Otto’s tongue-spike?”
The other driver didn’t speak much, possibly due to it. The first [Driver] was named Cornerer, which Erin assumed was a nickname. Probably having to do with rounding corners? Or aggressively running his opponents off the road and into obstacles.
“It gets the ladies interested. We’re very respectable, Miss, but we do like the wild races you can find hereabouts. Driving is just a side-job.”
They came very highly recommended, which was why Lyonette had engaged their services. As for why two highly-qualified road-racers were part of the local scene? Cornerer looked astonished.
“Why, the local races are picking up strong around Riverfarm, Miss. No better place to be a [Driver] like us or race. I’m not surprised you got some slower fellows at Invrisil. We ran them out of business in the area.”
“One was a woman, but yeah. Why’s that?”
Otto winked at Erin as he chimed in.
“Riverfarm’sh shafe. Goblins?”
He spat in Numbtongue, Ulvama, and Gothica’s direction, but in a rather approving way, especially for Gothica’s bladed parasol. She gave his tongue spike an approving look and tugged Ulvama’s arm. The [Shaman] slapped the claw down in a way that said, in the Goblin’s parlance, ‘no, I am not piercing your tongue for you.’
“Goblinsh nothing. No [Bandits], no problem!”
It seemed as though Laken’s safe roads and empire were attracting interesting opportunities. At any rate, as everyone bedded down for the night, Erin was glad to spare a day of travel, and as always, she liked meeting people.
…She was less pleased to wake up in the middle of the night because she was so energized from her long nap. Erin would have probably still slept; she needed more rest, and this wasn’t her inn where she got twice as much sleep.
—But she happened to hear some loud, if distant voices and peeked out the window. There she saw a night-race involving Inkar, the two drivers, and among the competing racers—Numbtongue. He thundered down the town street on horseback past Erin’s window as she stared at him.
“Numbtongue. Are you being sliiiightly irresponsible? What if you got hurt? Why was Gothica up and betting, and what if you crashed?”
The Hobgoblin folded his arms and stared at the ceiling. He wore the expression of someone who was slightly irritated, mostly resigned, and sad about being caught.
…Because of Erin. She was trying not to lecture him. She’d just stood there in the common room of the foreign inn as he came in, and he acted like he was in trouble.
“It was safe. They had lanterns.”
“But you’re on horses, not cars or bikes.”
“Inkar said the horses could see. People don’t often die. I’m a big Goblin. Can I go to sleep now?”
The [Bard] stared past Erin’s head, annoyed. Then he glanced to the side.
“I’m not childish. Shut up.”
Then he turned the other way.
Erin opened her mouth. She assumed he was speaking to his ghosts. He wasn’t always that obvious about it, but she knew that at least two of them were Pyrite and Shorthilt. Numbtongue was recalcitrant on there being any more. She thought about it.
“I get it. You don’t want a lecture, huh? That’s way too bossy, and you’re an adult Goblin, like when you and Lyonette got into it about the computer. Don’t treat you like Mrsha. Am I right?”
He brightened up a bit.
Erin nodded amiably. Then she raised a palm and slapped his stomach as he stretched out. The [Bard] oofed reflexively and sat up hard. He glowered—and Erin poked him.
His eyes glowed with annoyance, but Erin poked harder, and he shifted to avoid the finger.
He growled, but Erin kept grunting and poking him. Numbtongue went to shove her away, lightly, then grabbed one hand. Erin made a fist. He grinned—annoyed—and went to grab her.
Numbtongue ducked the punch and smacked his face into the table. Erin waved her fist warningly. Don’t try that on me!
He let go of her hands, and she kept poking at him. At last, the [Bard] snapped.
Erin stopped communicating in the eloquent way of Goblin poking and folded her arms.
“I’m not Lyonette. I’m sure she lectures, but I’m just asking you if that was dangerous. I know you’re an adult, Numbtongue. Gonna behave like one?”
He turned red, stared at her, and then swatted at something by his side.
An invisible Goblin ghost had apparently made a snide remark. Now embarrassed, Numbtongue folded his arms again and stared sideways, blushing. He glanced sideways at Erin.
“Fine. Maybe Gothica was bad. She tried to get on horses too, but she’s too small if they go wild. I was safe, though. They have Skills to protect horses and riders. [Race Organizers].”
“Ah. See, that makes sense. You could have led with that.”
The [Bard] grudgingly nodded. He seemed astonished at being called out and probably remembered the other times he had asserted his difference from Mrsha and Bird. Erin quite appreciated it, but she had been making a point too.
“Numbtongue…nothing’s the same, is it?”
She sat in the dark inn, where the [Innkeeper] who had given them rooms for the night was peeking at Erin, much like a housecat stared at a lion who had wandered into her abode. Erin waved at the woman, and the [Innkeeper] ran away.
Numbtongue sat up, looked at Erin, and stretched out.
“Yeah. But you’re breathing. It’s pretty good, eh?”
“Yep. Breathing is better than being an icecube. No one, uh…cooled their drinks on my body while I was out, did they?”
The Hobgoblin began snorting as Erin grinned. Then she grew serious again. She kicked at the table and looked at Numbtongue.
“So you and Garia are sorta close? And…you and Octavia?”
The Hobgoblin bit his lip, then exhaled. If he did not appreciate being lectured by Lyonette on being ‘responsible’—this was the one conversation he didn’t want to have with Erin. Especially because she was trying to be tactful about it. But this day had to come. In fact—he looked at her and wished they’d had this kind of chat before she was shot.
Way back when Earl Altestiel had first proposed to her.
That damn [Knight Marshal of the Rains] had ruined everything. It served him right, getting rejected and bawling his eyes out before running back home.
That was how Numbtongue chose to remember and recollect the events to everyone he met.
A [Bard] was allowed to have creative license, but as Pyrite would calmly point out in that way of his—while Shorthilt teased and Reiss offered advice—
That had been a personal moment for Numbtongue. A moment when he had looked at Erin and hinted, hinted very strongly, but still not managed to say the thing that had been on his mind for a long time.
Which was that he quite liked Erin. A lot, in fact, and if she had not been the [Innkeeper], the person who had helped change his life, and if he had had any kind of hints—he would have said something long ago.
If she were a Goblin, in the Redfang tribe or just in general, it would be so much easier. Goblins had their own methods of attracting each other, and they were sometimes direct, but other times extremely subtle.
Numbtongue had heard from Headscratcher that once a Redfang [Smith] had forged her name onto another warrior’s blade. He had used it and bragged about it for six battles without ever noticing the tiny inscription near the handle. Then his buddy jumped him, won the blade, and offered it back to the [Smith] along with some Pallassian steel ingots he’d seized from a raid.
That was the level of romantic drama you got in even the Redfangs, the least subtle of tribes. Now, Erin was sitting right next to him and asking him about Garia and Octavia.
Mostly in the sense of whether or not both women were aware of the relationship and okay with that. Numbtongue would have rather talked about love with Mrsha; she’d run away in disgust. Even Bird. Even Lyonette!
But not Erin. He was…passing fond of Erin. In fact, Numbtongue had quietly wanted to say something long before Altestiel came along.
That he did not was for two reasons: first, he did not quite want to lose what they had. Second, because they were best of friends and family, and he didn’t know if that would have made them good lovers.
Life was too short for a Goblin warrior to hesitate. If Headscratcher were alive—Numbtongue would have held his peace forever. Which was ironic because Goblins could have open relationships, the very idea that Erin was struggling with. Of course Garia and Octavia knew.
“And they’re okay with that? None of them want to be, um, girlfriends with you?”
He gave her a blank look.
“I don’t want babies. I said that, and both of them agreed.”
Very vehemently. With that out of the way, what was the problem? It was not ‘girlfriend’ or ‘boyfriend’. It was just fun.
Very fun. Erin grew uncomfortable, and Numbtongue stared at her. He put his head back, stared at the ceiling, and Shorthilt stood over him.
“Say it. Say it. Say it—”
His ghostly finger poked Numbtongue in the forehead.
“Go away. No.”
He spoke, and Reiss and Pyrite pulled Shorthilt back because—Numbtongue looked up at Erin as she wrestled with the idea of an open relationship.
“As long as they know. That’s good! Y’know? Everyone should be happy. Everyone should find…someone. I mean, Lyonette has, I guess. I haven’t seen her and Pawn together that much.”
Numbtongue’s carefully blank stare intensified. Erin went on, frowning.
“Not that I spy on them. But I don’t pry! And Ishkr? Okay, now I think about it—only Jelaqua’s in a long-term relationship. Typhenous is trying to court Eloise. And Mavika. He’s sort of like you.”
Numbtongue opened his mouth and then thought of Typhenous. He decided the comparison was a compliment and closed his mouth. Meanwhile, Erin was talking herself into or out of something. She kept raising and lowering her hands.
“If she’s, um, doing well, that’s fine. I’m not a prude! It’s her life, and that’s fine. Yup. Yup. So as long as it’s good—”
She turned to him, and he grunted. It felt like someone was squeezing his chest.
“It is. What about you?”
Erin paused, and for a second, she looked at him. Really looked at him—and instantly glanced away. She stared into the darkness of the inn and hesitated.
“I…want to fall in love, I guess. But I don’t quite know how it’s gonna happen. I have a lot to do, but when I was dead—it was on my list of regrets. I don’t want to die without trying, Numbtongue.”
He waited. He looked at her so long he knew she sensed it. And she glanced at him, and she was silent.
That was why he said nothing. Because if Numbtongue could read Erin’s face, her troubled, mixed expression, then he was sure she could read his. She had once read him like a book and seen a person in a Goblin covered in blood, lost and wandering.
Whether it was kindness or a reluctance to change things, she never said anything to push him. But she definitely didn’t so much as hint, either. Perhaps she didn’t know.
Perhaps there was a chance. Numbtongue had had conversations with his three ghosts, like they were wingmen, for hours, in his head, at night, until they all walked off because even the dead got tired of speculating with him. Yes, they agreed, there was a chance.
A great chance, perhaps. So he could have waited. But it was like someone who was dying of thirst staring at a stream covered by a piece of unbreakable glass. It was like starving for one hint and a chance.
And Numbtongue had starved before, well and truly nearly died of hunger, not merely gone a few days in a fast. He was tired of it. You could die of it.
He looked at Erin in the darkness, and the [Innkeeper] looked palpably unhappy. So unhappy, so wretchedly uncertain that the [Bard] saw it.
Here was not the smiling [Innkeeper] who only slipped when she was going to therapy with the [Healer], or kept everything hidden away in her gardens. This person was as unsure and nervous—guilty as he wanted her to be. When she looked up, she searched his face as if she had never seen it before.
“Are you happy, Numbtongue? After all’s said and done and everything that’s happened? Do you still want to stay in the inn?”
He jerked and looked at her, but the moment of pain faded as he saw her look. So guilty. She raised her eyes, and he nodded.
“Yes. It’s good.”
It was all good. So why was this almost as painful as waking up and knowing she was a block of ice? Far better than that—far worse than anything he would wish on his brothers.
The [Witch] looked straight at Numbtongue with eyes that saw everything, and the [Innkeeper] gazed at her friend, who she knew possibly better than she knew herself. He wrestled with only his tongue.
“Do you think you’ll find love, Erin? Or go searching for it?”
He caught himself and corrected his words, cursing. The [Innkeeper] closed her eyes. She spoke to the ceiling.
“I liked Earl Altestiel a lot, Numbtongue. Even if he was a weirdo who called down rain—and you know, Niers is a weird guy.”
The Goblin’s heart sank. Erin nodded. She ran a hand through her hair.
“Yeah. I’ve heard things—and he’s really arrogant. Which I didn’t realize. But he’s also an amazing chess player. Brilliant, even though I’ve studied it forever. He could be an actual Grandmaster back home, you know. I wish I’d met him.”
The [Innkeeper] sat there. So breathless he thought she was thinking of something else. Until he realized—he’d spoken.
And she was looking straight at him. Then his heart stopped. Hazel eyes gazed down at him, guilty and shocked. They were silent for minutes, and the only sound was his heart, the creaking of the inn, and an answer he didn’t want to hear. Then—Erin whispered.
He almost stood up. Almost, but caught himself as he swung his legs up. Then he forced himself to stand, sit back down, and listen. Numbtongue listened as Erin looked him in his eyes.
“If I could try, you would be too close. I—I would be too afraid because you’re living here and—and I might like you too much. I already do, but that’s not the same, Numbtongue. It changes too much, and I think we’d never go back again.”
“Yeah. I thought so too.”
For a second, they understood each other, and Erin ducked her head. Numbtongue kept speaking.
“But maybe it would work? What about that?”
He waited, heart pounding, and Erin’s head lowered again.
“If I tried, maybe it would work out. But I just don’t try. I’m sorry. I’m afraid. I’m afraid, but—even if I want to, I can’t. I would rather mess up anything else than this. I’ve already lost three of your brothers. I never met Bugear. I’m afraid, Numbtongue—that I could be so terrible that I’d lose you as well.”
Lose me? Each word hurt him so badly he felt like punching something to get it out, but he kept seeing how Erin was hunched over. Barely able to speak for guilt and uncertainty.
Here, in this moment, she was no hill of personality and will. Here—she was as afraid of a Hobgoblin waking up in a foreign inn and wondering if this were all a trap, a dream, or a delusion.
“You’d never lose me. No matter what happened.”
“You don’t know that. Nothing I’ve ever tried has ever worked out in a relationship. I’m sorry, Numbtongue. But I can’t bring myself to—try. I like you, but I don’t know if we could have a future together. And once we go. We can’t go back. Sorry.”
It was the most complete answer she’d ever given. The Goblin listened, and he saw how painfully honest that was—and the words still unspoken. If it were him saying those words, in her place…for her, he would have tried. But that was the difference between the two. Numbtongue turned his head away. He exhaled and felt tired suddenly. But he made his voice as gentle as possible.
“Why are you sorry? That’s why. See? Thanks for saying.”
He got up, hurrying, but Erin called out.
“Numbtongue. Can I ask you one question?”
His shoulders hunched. With every passing second, he longed to quit this battle that he knew was lost and go. And go and bleed out somewhere else. But he turned and nodded.
Erin looked guiltiest of all now. But a desperate, painful light filled her eyes.
“When you—when you knew you liked Garia and Octavia—I know—when you knew, Numbtongue, what was it like? How were you sure you wanted to ask them?”
Ask them? It was the strangest question in Numbtongue’s life. Not the asking—the question behind it. He flashed back to propping up a sleepy [Alchemist] and making her eat breakfast. Or dinner or just food. Grumbling while braiding her hair or clumsily re-stitching a part of her thread.
Similarly, training with Garia. Burning with adrenaline, standing shoulder-to-shoulder to show her something or peer at her form. And that was before going south and risking their lives against armies.
How was he sure he liked them? Oh, every force in the world pushing him from behind. Wishing night were longer or that customers didn’t have to buy potions. Ask them?
Inviting Octavia on a ‘mining expedition’ or writing in a calendar when Garia was coming back from a run? Then—he sat down next to Octavia with a mushroom she wanted that he’d searched all over Celum’s wilds to find. When she kissed him on the cheek, he kissed her back.
“…I was sure.”
He ran out of words, thinking. When he looked at Erin, it was differently. He could and did like Garia and Octavia, and he had been relieved none of them wanted children, because then he would have had to think seriously. But Erin?
He wanted to see her smile at him in ways he could not imagine. The Hobgoblin turned away.
“What about you?”
Numbtongue was walking, head down, towards his rooms on the first floor. He just wanted to be dead now, thanks. Erin was far worse than the others, Garia, Octavia, or even Fierre or Salkis. He could quite like them in easy-to-explain ways or for many good reasons. But Erin?
She was right. He was afraid of how much he’d liked her. The [Innkeeper] called out after Numbtongue’s back, like a final parting shot or Bird’s damned ballista, straight through the back. The Goblin’s shoulders hunched.
“I don’t know. Either it’s something I missed a few times or it’s never happened. It doesn’t feel strong enough.”
He stopped and looked back at her. The Goblin saw a wretched face, an unhappy one. Searching, searching—and he realized—envious. Envious and lost and afraid, like he had once been, a Goblin of a group of five.
Then Numbtongue leaned against a wall. He closed his eyes, but actually smiled.
That felt better. And he felt a sympathy he hadn’t expected. He looked at Erin, smiling, and nodded.
“You’ll know it when you find it.”
Then, as gracefully as he could, the [Bard] walked away. He made it twenty steps, sat down in the surprisingly empty room, and wondered if Garia were pooing. Then he lay on his back and stared at the ceiling.
As for Erin, she kept sitting there. Hanging her head. Silently, she sat there for a long moment as Lyonette, wearing the Cloak of Balshadow, quietly fled. So did Garia, walking soundlessly down the hallway.
The last listener was Gothica. Unlike the invisible [Princess] on the staircase or the [Martial Artist] who’d held her breath, listening from a crack through a door, Gothica had been outside, petting horses and sulking about the race.
The [Goth] really…really wanted to go to bed, but she hadn’t been able to get inside and excuse herself. She ended up standing outside for forty more minutes before Erin went to sleep.
The next day, everyone was quite nice to Numbtongue in subtle ways. Lyonette barely batted an eyelash when Gothica recounted the horse races at night. Everyone—including Innkeeper Friendly—and yes, that was her name, Corse Friendly—was quite considerate of him.
They practically drowned his plate in toasted kipper, apparently a local breakfast specialty due to the fast-flowing river around here. Erin thought it was weird, but she didn’t miss how Garia kept trying to feed Numbtongue fish, and Miss Friendly got over her wariness of the Goblins enough to seat them in the center of the room, by the fire.
Numbtongue bore it well. If anything, Mrsha’s relentless attempts to steal his fish and badger him seemed to cheer him up. They engaged in a shoving match that he inevitably won.
Just you wait! I’ll get Gire!
Mrsha shook her fist at him. She was oblivious to the other adults’ introspection. It seemed like a wide net had been cast last night, fish notwithstanding, and someone had come around with a hammer and beaten all of the catches.
Hammer-girl Erin would have still tried to feel Numbtongue’s true emotions out—except for one hitch. She was in her wheelchair today, and her scowl was huge.
“I’m outta bisque? That’s impossible! I made enough for two weeks! I’ll puke it up, but I’ll eat it! Check the other bag!”
In response, Lyonette wordlessly pulled open a sealed glass container marked ‘bisque’. It looked like the stuff, but when she cracked the lid a hair, Mrsha nearly vaulted into the roaring fire.
“Oh dead gods.”
Garia covered her nose. It had gone bad. And the thing about magical cooking was—
It was really bad. Erin gagged as Lyonette hastily shoved the jar back in a bag of holding.
“I don’t even dare burn it. We’ll dispose of it later. Apologies, Innkeeper Friendly—Erin, you’ll have to put up with it. We only have half a day’s ride.”
“Noted. Bulkup Bisque has a shelf life of one week unrefrigerated! Even in bags of holding!”
It wasn’t so bad. She’d be riding in the carriages, so Erin only felt a bit useless as Numbtongue and Garia lifted her in. She scowled as he pointed to the other carriages and horses.
“I’m going to ride a horse. Inkar says it’s fine.”
“You sure? You…okay?”
The [Bard] shrugged expressively.
“Can’t get worse. You already gave me a good stomach-punch; good thing your legs don’t work.”
Erin’s face fell, but the [Bard] grinned at her expression, and Gothica cackled with delight. She hoped it helped. She had more things she wanted to say and ask—but it was clear right now a ride with Garia was better than a sit-down chat with Erin.
Especially because Mrsha was riding with them, and she was not the intended audience for a serious heart-to-heart. This time, Erin had no Gothica, who was so tired she was going to nap. Instead, she got Ulvama, Tkrn, Inkar, and Ser Lormel. No Tessa either.
It was a merry carriage ride at the start. Ulvama was the oddest Goblin—the one Erin didn’t really know, even less than Gothica.
However, Ulvama had cultivated a relationship with Mrsha, and even Lyonette seemed to grudgingly respect her. Erin had no notion of why until she saw Ulvama teaching Mrsha and Nanette a game.
“Here. You slap this hand. I slap this. One, two.”
She clapped her hands, then held a palm out to touch Mrsha’s paw. Erin’s mouth opened as she saw Ulvama teaching them…
Ulvama looked around as Nanette saw a variation on the game she knew by another name. As a Gnoll—Mrsha had no notion of the game since Gnoll paws and Drake claws weren’t ideal for this activity, but she liked it.
However, Ulvama proved that Goblin [Apprentices] who learned this game took it a step beyond the simple clap-touch routine. She would clap her hands, rotate them, slap the other paw or hand sideways, or twist her torso in an increasingly complex routine.
It looked quite fantastic when you did it right, and the game was so entertaining that Inkar and Tkrn tried it. Which left Erin to challenge Ser Lormel, much to what she thought would be the [Knight]’s chagrin.
…It turned out the Thronebearer was annoyingly good at the game. Erin scowled as she messed the routine up. She was as bad as Inkar, while Tkrn could keep up with Nanette and Mrsha and Ulvama.
“There. Now you ‘cool’. Show all friends.”
Erin was surprised by Nanette being able to address Ulvama and tolerate the Goblin’s company—glad of it, but surprised. Until she remembered that Ulvama had been in Riverfarm and that Nanette had actually befriended Pebblesnatch.
The Goblin, along with Riverfarm’s [Chefs], had packed a hamper full of food for the journey back for everyone. Ulvama cracked one eye open as she stretched out—across Ser Lormel’s lap. He looked very uncomfortable for half a second, but then kept his face straight as she smiled wide. It was a contest of classes.
Nanette reached up for a hat she didn’t have, then bobbed her head.
“Is this something Goblins [Shamans] learn for magic?”
Ulvama’s eyes brightened.
“Oh. Hm. Yes. Bits of magic. Good hand moves. Redfangs, stupid Redfangs and warriors, use it to learn punches. Smart girl.”
She reached out and patted Nanette on the head. Then she saw Erin watching and scowled.
“Heartbreaker innkeeper. Where food?”
Ulvama knew no chill. Erin turned beet red and folded her arms.
“Didn’t we just eat breakfast an hour ago, Ulvama?”
“…And isn’t it too early for food?”
The [Shaman of the Old Ways] gave Erin a long look.
“For you, maybe. For me? No. Food?”
The hamper was right up on a rack, but now Erin was frowning mightily. She looked around.
“But what if we ate it together with everyone later?”
Ulvama hmmed. Then she grinned wickedly and proved how she had maintained her status in the Mountain City tribe.
“You sound like [Princess]. Everyone too fat. No one eats, eh? Even poor girl.”
She patted Mrsha on the head as the Gnoll lay on her back and pretended to die of starvation. Erin’s face fell, and grudgingly, she looked at Lormel.
“…Maybe we could have a snack. For anyone who wants it! I wasn’t big on fish for breakfast, anyways. Who does that? British people, I tell you who. And they’re weird.”
So said the young woman who had invented the ‘Archmage of Syrup’s breakfast’, which was a hollowed out mountain of pancakes, syrup, and butter. Lormel took down the hamper but paused with a frown as he sensed something. Slowly, he opened the lid—then recoiled.
Erin saw him shut the lid, peek at what was inside, then look around. Instantly, everyone sat up in alarm.
“What? Oh no. Did it spoil? I knew Pebblesnatch hadn’t improved that much! Is it alive?”
Erin groaned, but Inkar had a different fear.
“Is the food…infested?”
Ulvama scooted away as Lormel searched for words. He stared into the hamper and then slowly raised the lid and showed everyone what was inside.
“Miss Solstice, I believe we may have…a stowaway.”
Then Erin saw a little, tiny head of a lamb poke up over the box, body covered by fluffy wool. The Sariant Lamb was as small as a cat, and its tiny round hooves and expressive face made it a member of the most lovable, adored species in the entire world. It was bleary from a food coma and probably a bit of asphyxiation in the enclosed hamper.
Erin stared at the lamb as Ulvama’s eyes widened then narrowed with instant hostility. She peeked into the hamper and pulled something out.
“But where food? What about…?”
She pulled out some food. A brown pellet. She sniffed it, and her face wrinkled up.
She threw out the inevitable conclusion of what happened if a creature ate too much. Everyone ducked as the pellet bounced around the carriage.
Erin just stared at the lamb. It looked sleepy, then alert, then—to her amazement—embarrassed? Its face was expressive, and Erin thought it looked like that! Or was it her imagination? For the next moment, the lamb made the cutest squeaking sound as it looked around and smiled at the coach.
Tkrn, Inkar, and Mrsha fell for it. Mrsha sat up, looking fascinated, and Tkrn and Inkar looked amazed. Nanette’s face froze up in horror, and Ulvama reached for the lamb and the hamper. She pulled the door open, revealing the carriage moving at amazing speed, and tried to chuck the lamb straight out.
Lormel saved the lamb as the creature screamed in alarm. Ulvama was unmoved.
“Stupid thing ate my food. Anyone got knife and fire? Going to be hard to bleed it…”
She eyed the lamb with incredible hostility, but Ser Lormel jerked the hamper back. He was clearly alarmed, but he turned to Erin.
“It seems one of the Sariants of Riverfarm has…accompanied us unwittingly, Miss Solstice. I fear we must arrange transit back.”
Erin nodded, still eying the lamb. Lormel sat down and used his speaking stone to tell Lyonette of the incident. Meanwhile, the lamb hopped out of the hamper and trotted up to Erin.
It smiled up at her, and the [Innkeeper]—edged away from it.
“Uh—these are the Sariants that Laken hated so much? Hi. Hi there…what were you doing eating all our food? You don’t look covered in poo. You smell sorta bad.”
The lamb nuzzled Erin’s leg, and the [Innkeeper] flapped her arms.
“Go on, why don’t you sit there? Shoo. Shoo…”
“Oh come on, Miss Erin.”
Tkrn lifted the lamb into his lap, and his eyes widened.
“So soft! Even your Shockwoolies aren’t this soft, Inkar! Isn’t it cute?”
He held up the lamb, and Inkar cooed at it. The lamb nuzzled a hand and licked Tkrn’s paw, and Mrsha peered at it. It looked frightened at first, then smiled at her.
“So cute! And not frightened of us at all. Don’t you like it, Erin?”
Inkar agreed. Erin Solstice hesitated. She saw the lamb smile up at her, and the [Innkeeper]…the lamb’s face fell as it realized a potential miscalculation here.
Erin was a [Witch]. And while Nanette could no longer sense what Erin could, she remembered.
Sariant Lambs. The cutest animal in the world, highly intelligent, virtually helpless, and expensive. So expensive, in fact, that Ser Lormel suggested the carriage drivers might take the lamb back to Riverfarm.
They were far, far. Too far away to turn around right now. By the time they stopped for lunch—that they had to buy, thanks to the lamb—the little creature had won over Mrsha, Inkar, and Tkrn. Even Lormel a bit; she—the lamb was a she—nuzzled hands and sat in laps, but she was so inquisitive and cute that even Mrsha ‘spoke’ to her, and to her delight, the lamb seemed only too happy to try and play ‘patty cakes’ with her hooves.
The other carriage disembarked in the town of Hoodlum, which suggested it might be seedy. However, it was only named after the founder’s class. A reformed [Hoodlum] had made this city, and the only thing that Erin could tell was off as the carriages parked on a dirt road was a bunch of men and women loitering and eying the visitors.
Hands in pockets, talking in groups, but they were fairly social. One raised a hand as Otto parked.
“Heading to Invrisil? Good spot to stay. You want to get some food? I know a great café or food to go from a [Grocer]. My pleasure.”
Erin murmured; the man led Ser Sest down the road as he procured vittles. The people did a double-take at the Goblins, but then one muttered.
“Must be the [Mercenaries]. Hey! You! No trouble, you hear? No one causes trouble in Hoodlum.”
It was like having a group of the archetypal friendly thugs around—something Erin had assumed only existed in television shows. They even had a style that would have been called trendy back home at one point—ragged knees on their pants and torn shirt cuffs. Give them some more accessories like earrings and, uh, spiked collars and they’d be a sight.
Half the carriage was fascinated with them, but the rest were just crowded around the Sariant Lamb, who was still, somehow, as appealing as an entire town as colorful as this.
She was like Elirr’s cats, but a lamb. Erin saw why people loved them as pets—the lamb waited, peering up at Garia, who stopped to give it a pat. Even Numbtongue, who looked wary, was amazed as the lamb trotted up to his guitar.
“Don’t let her bite my strings—”
He was hurrying over when the lamb clumsily strummed some of his guitar strings. The [Bard] stopped, and the lamb baahed.
“Baah, bah baaaaah baah~”
Was she singing? Instantly, the [Bard] picked up his guitar and began to play along to the melody as the lamb sang. She had a good singing voice, could do a little backflip, and could even stand up on two hooves. She seemed so starved for affection, it was incredible anyone had left her alone.
Lyonette looked half sorry as she lowered the stone.
“What an amazing creature! The one Mother keeps around isn’t nearly so energetic, but he is nearly twenty years old.”
“They grow that old?”
Erin was startled, and Lyonette shrugged.
“The creatures want for nothing. This one would go for fifty gold pieces—not that many would sell a pet. Of course, they’re almost as expensive to keep—I just heard from Laken. He says that he will ‘reluctantly accept the lamb back’. Which means we can send this lamb back once we reach Invrisil.”
The news was taken by Erin, Ulvama, and Nanette with some relief, as well as Ser Sest. However, the lamb heard this and began to mewl in the most piteous cries.
“Oh—I think it wants to come with us!”
Garia covered her mouth. The lamb ran over and tried to cling to one leg. Then it tried to do the same to Erin, and she backed away. Lyonette frowned at Erin, but she was consulting with Ser Lormel.
“Keep it? I don’t imagine His Majesty wants for lambs. But we can’t have a pet.”
“Why not? You have Apista.”
Numbtongue said this mostly to be contrary. He was amused by the little lamb—right until she tried to tug a waterbottle out of a pack for the sweaty Goblin. He pointed at it.
He turned to Erin and was surprised by her wary expression. Once again, the lamb looked at her, and Erin forced a smile.
“…Like I said, everyone can get a pet. But you’re a cat person, right, Numbtongue?”
“I like cats.”
He agreed amiably. The discussion of pets had come up, and he wouldn’t mind a Carn Wolf or a cool animal. But a lamb? Lyonette exhaled and looked around the small town in which they’d stopped. Ser Sest was returning with a loaded bag of food as the man who’d set him up helped carry the food back.
“You lot from the City of Adventurers? Or Orefell?”
He stared at the Goblins as if not quite sure they were real. Indeed, a small crowd had gathered, and Lyonette hurried to assure him that Numbtongue, Gothica, and Ulvama were friendly. To her surprise—the [Hoodlum] or whoever he was nodded.
“Don’t worry, we’ve seen weirder. Plus, I’m sensing some good vibes off this lot. Lots of style. And, uh…”
He meant Numbtongue’s guitar, Gothica’s…gothness, and mostly Ulvama’s breasts, which he kept staring at. Someone elbowed him as Lyonette politely raised her brows.
“Hoodlum’s no stranger to strangers. We sort out even monsters ourselves. ‘Sides, we’re close to Onononno.”
“Close to what?”
Erin swiveled her head around. She was eying a Runner’s Guild down the main street of Hoodlum’s town, parked next to the Mage and Adventurer’s Guilds, both modest but standard. The [Hoodlums] grumbled.
“The City of Slimes. Crazy. Dead gods, I’d take those singing Drakes over that lot.”
“We get visitors from there, now and then. Or people who think they want to stay there. Then they come here and ask for towels. Lots of them. Where you from again?”
Numbtongue’s grin was wide, as it always was when someone wanted to talk to him rather than point and run. Erin would have loved to ask about the City of Slimes or participate in the exclamations and questions from the people in the crowd, but she was dealing with the lamb. She eyed the little creature as Lyonette dithered over how to transport it back.
“We could ask a City Runner to take it back. It’s pricey, but no more than hiring the coach to go back. Emperor Laken has indicated he’s fine with either option, but I don’t know if a lamb should ride in a backpack—”
“I’m sure it’ll survive. Let’s do that. Heck, we’ll send the hamper.”
Erin shook her head. She kept trying to roll away and the lamb would follow her, much to her great annoyance. She turned to the Runner’s Guild, and again, the lamb set up a piteous wail.
“Erin! You’re heartless! What if I took in the lamb? Please? My father hates Sariants, but he’s never been around one—or we let it stay at the inn?”
Despite having been around the lamb for five minutes, Garia was instantly taken with the idea. Lyonette wavered.
“I’m sure His Majesty won’t object.”
Erin! Let it stay! Apista can have a friend!
Mrsha also liked the playful lamb. Erin, though, grew more and more hostile as everyone nodded. Ulvama was nudging her, and Erin glanced at her.
“Nope, sorry guys. [Innkeeper] rules. No lambs. Let’s just take it to the Runner’s Guild. Now.”
She picked up the lamb, and the female lamb began crying. It actually sounded like a cute wail not dissimilar to a baby’s, and every head in earshot turned to Erin. She saw the little lamb kick its short legs, squirm, and turn its head to stare up at her pleadingly. It tried to smile at her, and the [Innkeeper] bent her head down and whispered.
“I see you. You don’t fool me. What are you doing here?”
Only Mrsha heard that, and the Gnoll’s face grew instantly confused. For—what did she see?
A cute lamb who was so irresistibly friendly and attentive and intelligent it was like having all the best qualities of a pet with no apparent downside? Oh, you could know they were parasites who’d want to be pampered and only realize how lazy and devious they were later. But even knowing that, you could still like their perfectly-adjusted cuteness, which was literally so perfect that Erin thought a cartoon animal couldn’t do it better, let alone anything of nature.
Even Inkar was fooled. Even Numbtongue! But the lambs had one weakness, and it was this:
A [Witch] saw emotion. She was a kind of competitor in the space, albeit usually on the opposite end. And what Erin saw was the lamb’s true emotions.
Which was a level of hostility, contempt, and downright hatred of everything in the carriage so strong that it made the lamb’s innocent smile that much more sinister. It was as if she could see a sneering face behind the smile and the tears.
The lamb did not fool her. Erin was carrying it across the street when the wriggling, mewling creature dropped the act. It looked up at her, snarled, and bit her.
The [Innkeeper]’s wheelchair ground to a halt as Erin yelped. The lamb was biting her! It leapt off her lap and raced towards the carriage.
Erin stared down at the bite. The lamb was closer to omnivorous, but it was so small it had barely broken the skin.
“Someone grab it. And put it in the hamper!”
They tried. At first, the Thronebearers went off to corner the lamb, and then the Goblins began to help. However—the lamb fought and snarled and even defecated and vomited when they tried to take it away from the carriages. It grew so desperate and wiggled so hard that even Dalimont couldn’t hold onto it for fear he’d crush its bones.
Erin blinked. The lamb was struggling. It was so desperate to stay that it turned into a cute whirlwind of milk teeth and hooves.
Of course, that just amused everyone. Numbtongue ignored the biting lamb until it kicked him like a horse, digging its front hooves into the ground to kick him with the back hooves.
“Ow. Sort of strong. Why does it want to come with?”
The lamb was indeed desperate. Erin frowned as Ulvama hissed.
“Kill it! Here! Take this rock! No, I’ll do it.”
She went to bash its brains out, and she was stopped, but Numbtongue was carrying the lamb to the hamper. Then Erin saw the lamb inhale—and freeze.
It held its breath as the amused [Bard] laughed at it. He poked the lamb—then frowned.
“Hm? What is it…?”
He began to poke it, urgently, but the lamb turned redder under its dark grey skin as its cheeks puffed out. Thirty seconds, forty…a minute and Garia was trying to get it to open its mouth.
It was trying to asphyxiate itself! It would only breathe when Numbtongue took it away from the hamper.
“We can’t send it back! It’ll try to stop breathing! What is with it?”
Lyonette was mystified. Ulvama just whispered.
“Let it die.”
It didn’t seem like a bluff, either. One of the lamb’s eyes actually burst a blood vessel after nearly three minutes of holding its breath the third time Numbtongue tried to bring it to the hamper, and everyone was so alarmed they turned to Erin.
“Maybe Elirr can take it in? Come on, Erin. Don’t let it die! It must really want to visit Liscor.”
Erin exchanged a glance with Nanette. The witch whispered to Erin, standing on her tip-toes.
“Mother hated them and all the [Witches] do too—but only because they play with people’s emotions. Witch Erin, what do you see?”
Erin looked at the female lamb as it gasped for air, then stared at her. Glaring now, defiant. She muttered.
“…Desperation. But it doesn’t like us. It’s just pretending. And—isn’t there a rumor they control people? There’s a conspiracy?”
“That is a joke, Miss Solstice. You may have heard it from Earl Altestiel, and the lambs are intelligent, but no ‘lamb cartel’ exists.”
Ser Sest murmured, but he looked slightly unconvinced. Erin hesitated. She looked at the lamb and then beckoned Numbtongue over.
“Put her in my lap, Numbtongue. I won’t try to put her in the hamper.”
The exhausted lamb sat there as Erin peered down at it. The longer Erin stared, the more sure she was.
“You are the most hostile thing I’ve ever met. I bet Crelers are nicer than you.”
The lamb glared up at her. It was true; Erin had sensed less hostility and venom in Alevica. Whatever the lamb was pretending, it was obvious it hadn’t expected Erin to see through it. Perhaps it had hoped she wasn’t that good a [Witch]. Perhaps…
Perhaps it had nefarious plans. That sounded so stupid even Erin nearly laughed at it. But then she reconsidered.
Few people thought she was dangerous. Or Mrsha. She peered down at the lamb, and then she heard Nerrhavia whispering in her ears.
“Oh no. Or…oh yes. I bet she’d be so offended if I compared her to you.”
The lamb narrowed its eyes and backed up warily as Erin reached down. But the [Innkeeper] just sighed and lifted the lamb up. She whispered to it, and the lamb stared her in the eyes.
“How have the other [Witches] never seen that? Or is it just me?”
For she knew the [Witches] hated the lambs, and Erin could see why. If you saw a bunch of scheming, malevolent sheep twisting people’s emotions, you wouldn’t fall for their act and would hate them.
—But even Mavika, in all her coldness, would surely not have missed the true fear and desperation that Erin felt. The lamb was willing to hurt itself to keep it in Erin’s company. That wasn’t the act of a manipulator—or rather, a cowardly one.
Willpower. Perhaps Nerrhavia wouldn’t have been so offended at the comparison after all. Mrsha looked anxious, but Erin twisted a ring on a finger, and then she was speaking behind a spell such that even Mrsha couldn’t hear Erin.
Why? Well, because Erin was looking at the lamb.
“You want something from me, don’t you?”
The lamb actually made that cute sound, but it sounded—very distinctly—as if it was saying the word, rather than making it. It glared nervously at Erin, all tense in her hands. Ready to keep objecting.
So Erin just sighed.
“I don’t help people I don’t like. And I don’t like you—or whatever group you represent. Are you with the lambs?”
No reply. The lamb just kicked her legs until Erin nodded.
“Right. Keep your secrets. But I can and will send you back to Riverfarm. You can hold your breath until you suffocate; I’ll just have Palt put you to sleep. Or give you to Elirr.”
The lamb began to furiously bite, and Erin lifted a finger.
“—But I’ll let you stay. If you make me a deal.”
The little Sariant hesitated, and now it was definitely listening. Erin glanced at her worried companions.
“You can stay if you explain and ask. And if I think it’s okay? I’ll consider whatever you want. Or whatever you’re really after. But if you put me and my family or my inn and its guests in danger, I will ask Laken to round all the lambs up—no, I’ll just tell the [Witches]. Cross me, and the Titan of Baleros and the Cyclops of Pallass and everyone else will hear about you. Got it?”
The Sariant Lamb eyed Erin with the first look of genuine unease thus far. It stared at Erin, and for a second, she felt ridiculous, as if she were playing a game against Apista. Then she remembered that Mrsha had once lost to the Ashfire Bee. She waited, and slowly, the Sariant Lamb nodded.
It made the sound so close to a yes that Erin dropped it. It landed in her lap and gave her a sinister stare, but it nodded. Erin dropped the silence spell.
“Well, that’s that. We’re all doomed. Guys? I’m keeping the lamb.”
The rest of her company looked at Erin in relief—or, for some, a creeping suspicion, like Dalimont and Lyonette. After all, cute as the lamb was, Erin was treating it like a bomb. But Mrsha just celebrated. Erin sighed as the Gnoll held it out to Nanette to cuddle and the girl backed away. She eyed the lamb again as she looked at Lyonette.
“Do you have a name? Lyonette, ask Laken for a name. It looks like we’ve got another guest, besides Nanette. So long as it doesn’t cause trouble.”
She gave the lamb a long stare. The beaming little lamb smiled at her. Ulvama shouted furiously.
“No! Not that thing!”
She pointed at the lamb, and Erin turned her head. [Witches] were one thing, and clearly, Ulvama recognized the lamb’s duplicity. But that seemed to be because game respected game. The [Shaman] pointed at the lamb in outrage.
“Stupid manipulative thing—I am the one who manipulates! Go away!”
She shook a fist at the lamb, and Erin rotated her wheelchair enough to face the Hobgoblin.
“Ulvama, in your long shaman-memory, have you heard of the lamb cartel? The lamb gang? The Sariant conspiracy? The cult of the lamb? No wait, that sounds stupid.”
Ulvama eyed Erin as the Sariant Lamb looked as innocent as possible. She snorted as she poked it in the belly.
“This thing? New creature species. Not that old. Thousands of years, maybe, not like, um…Stitch-people. Weak. Sometimes play pranks and smart and thinks, but not a threat. Just annoying. Tastes good too.”
She gave the lamb an arch grin and sharp-toothed smirk. The lamb stared at Ulvama, then slowly began to urinate onto her leg.
A pet and a witch. On the second day, Erin found they were nearly at Invrisil, and the City of Adventurers was getting closer and closer just past midday due to the delay the lamb had caused.
Her name was Baroness Ichinee vel Tiena…according to the horrified Riverfarm folk who had realized she was gone. All of the Sariants—over eighty—had names. This lamb was apparently one of the ones who went from home to home, and so no one had quite noticed she was missing. They apparently never missed the opportunity to tell someone if they were wet, hungry, or tired.
Erin hated the name. And so did the lamb, who studiously ignored Tkrn trying to use it.
“Well, she needs a name. What about—Twoface? Baal…a? Capricorna? Satanbaah?”
Erin once again proved why no one let her name things as Mrsha fed the lamb pieces of grass, and the creature spat them out into the Gnoll’s palm. She did eat some crackers and drink some milk, and apparently they were low-maintenance in theory; they could even eat meat. They just demanded all kinds of things Erin didn’t want to offer, but Lyonette seemed willing to host the creature until Elirr came by.
Erin was itching to have a word with the beast in private, if it could even communicate. However, the name was important, and the lamb looked up sharply as the others speculated.
Numbornecorteva, Ruler of Clouds!
Mrsha held up a vote that was instantly shot down. By the lamb as much as the carriage; it wrinkled up its face when no one but Erin was looking at it and gagged. Nanette bit her tongue.
“How about Sidney?”
She proposed a normal name, which got her a shake of the head and a private look of disgust.
“Koehne? It’s a good, Gnollish name.”
Tkrn offered it to the lamb, who smiled sweetly at him—and instantly shook its head. Inkar tried one from Kazakhstan, and the lamb seemed to consider that and one of Lormel’s Calanferian names.
The next half an hour saw the lamb pickily reject every single name, and Erin suspected her appellation in Riverfarm had either been given to her without her will or accepted on sufferance. Idly, the [Innkeeper] leaned on her hands and propped her chin up.
Now it was clear that Erin knew the lamb wasn’t that nice, the lamb seemed disinclined to keep up her act—at least when only Erin was gazing at her. She gave Erin a sinister smirk, and Erin muttered.
“I can always send you to Laken in a box.”
The lamb squealed and hid behind Mrsha, who punched Erin’s leg and then offered profuse written apologies when Erin glowered at her. The [Innkeeper] scowled, rubbing at her leg.
“Y’know what your name should be? Nerrhavia. You’re giving me serious her vibes.”
Only Lormel and Ulvama got the reference. Lormel choked in horror; Ulvama gave Erin a side-long look and hooted with laughter. And the lamb?
She blinked, then beamed. Erin threw up her hands.
“Oh wow. I’m not calling you that. What about…Nerry? For short?”
Nerry the Lamb considered the name and gave Erin a grudging nod. Mrsha scooped her up. She and Apista were going to be best friends! Like Nanette was with her!
Erin really doubted that, and she was so annoyed by this imposed Nerrhavia 2.0…or Nerrhavia 0.00000463 as the case might be, that she turned to Ser Lormel.
“Can we put on the news, Lormel? We’re still like forty minutes out.”
He obliged her, and one of the scrying orbs that Erin hadn’t really touched save to give one to the old man swam to life. Erin settled back in her seat as, suddenly, Mrsha looked up and around and realized no one had told Erin.
Oh, Lormel knew the injunction, but he probably thought it was over since they were headed back. But without Numbtongue, Lyonette—Mrsha waved her paws and then wrote furiously, but it was too late.
Erin saw an image swim into place and then heard Drassi’s voice. Good old Drassi. She was speaking.
“—News Network, and I’m your [Honest Reporter], Drassi. Moving on from our story about the Terandrian nations entering Izril. I’m joining you live in a few moments with our [Mage] on the ground, who is reporting the third day of Orefell’s heroic salvation by the ‘Antinium Crusade’ as people are now dubbing the forces present in the city.”
Erin blinked as the image changed to a distant city with a crane in the background. She sat up as Ulvama twisted her head slowly around and Inkar and Tkrn stopped petting the lamb’s back. Tkrn glanced at Erin’s face and realized she didn’t know. Slowly, he pulled his Eyeshield out and propped it between him and Inkar and Erin.
Drassi went on as Erin stared at Tkrn, then at Mrsha, who was suddenly fascinated by the window, and Lormel’s expression. The lamb smirked at Erin as the broadcast continued.
“—It seems the Crusade is preparing to head home to Liscor at last with a veritable mountain of goods from Orefell. The Dwarves have, of course, already returned to their new home of Dwarfhalls Rest, and—”
“What? That’s my home! Get those bearded things out of there!”
Ulvama yelped, but Erin was staring at the Antinium marching ahead of wagons. Antinium with very familiar flags. And the Humans, marching with them in what Drassi was calling the greatest monster incursion from the High Passes since…
Wistram News Network even had a segment that helpfully recapped the battle. In case you were just tuning in. Erin slowly looked up as Mrsha opened the carriage door and debated leaping out at the ground whizzing past her.
Two carriages halted on the road to Invrisil. A number of people were travelling, including a City Runner who slowed and, wincing, put a hand on their raw feet. They had a piece of rock embedded in their skin, which they pulled out.
“Crelers take this. I’m wearing shoes.”
The [Runner] decided that the Wind Runner of Reizmelt was just crazy. But he was just in time to see an interesting event take place.
Which was, namely, watching a little Gnoll leap out of the back carriage and go racing to the other one. And then a [Princess] hurried out of the second carriage.
He didn’t know she was a [Princess]—until he saw the [Knights] and the very obvious red hair. The City Runner was searching for a name, but then he saw the Goblins.
“G-goblins? Hobs? Someone get an…”
An adventurer? The Goblins milled about as the two carriages emptied of everyone but one person in the back carriage. They all looked worried, and no one reacted to the Goblins. In fact, even a Sariant Lamb went scurrying for cover, looking uneasily back at the carriage.
That was when the City Runner and the people on the road felt an intense, nigh on visible hostility and anger coming from the carriage. Coincidentally—the roof caught fire.
“Water! Get water!”
Again, the City Runner was getting ahead of himself, because the fire was bright, but not red like a campfire. It was pitch-black and ominous.
Black, like the very depths of anger. Long past the first ignition—this was the kind of wrath that seeped into the bones like poison and burned deep there.
“Uh oh. This is your fault.”
By now, the passersby were watching, and they clearly heard the [Bard] turn to the [Princess]. The Hobgoblin poked her, and she slapped his wrist.
“My fault? You were the one having drinks with the [Emperor] and agreeing behind my back!”
“I’m just a Goblin. She already beat me up yesterday. You get today.”
The red-haired [Princess] spluttered—then squared her shoulders. She looked around, counting.
“I suppose someone has to talk to her. Are the Antinium back at Liscor, yet?”
“Nope. Adventurers—maybe. The Horns are probably going ahead of them, and the Halfseekers.”
That caught everyone’s attention. The famous Horns? The Antinium Crusade? The City Runner looked up the road and felt at his pack of autograph cards he’d brought just in case he made it on time. But the [Princess] was simply nodding.
Quickly now, the two carriages divided. The Goblins, all three of them, a little witch with no hat, the Gnoll girl, and everyone else, including another Runner, piled into the second carriage. A Human woman in a colorful riding dress and a Gnoll took the horses, which left…
Four Thronebearers and the [Princess] slowly entered the carriage. The [Princess] hesitated at the door, and one of the [Knights] actually lifted his arm, as if pushing something back. She steeled her spine, and the watchers saw a bright aura, faint, but protecting her, push at the intense hostility coming from within.
She entered the carriage, and the door clicked shut. Rather, the Runner had to imagine, like someone entering a box with a Ghoul. No escape.
Forty minutes. They had forty minutes to Invrisil. The Thronebearers, including Dalimont, had gotten a crash course in humility from watching their Order fail on the field of battle—and seeing a [Paladin] run and carry them for an entire day before fighting an undead horde practically unarmed. Then run back.
They could perform any diplomatic feat, but this was going to be forty minutes of close-combat warfare. Worse—they were the support, and all four realized they might catch worse than a hand in the ensuing battle. Being burned alive was not a pleasant way to go.
Nor was being strangled by the aura in the carriage. A Level 40 aura from someone with training at the height of an emotion?
Breathing was tough. They had to remember their training and concentrate their own wills. Yet the [Princess] sat there, arms folded.
It might be less than forty minutes; the poor driver, Otto, was pushing the carriage as if trying to outrun the fury behind him.
The conversation, when it began after six minutes of Lyonette folding her hands and looking past Erin at the seat to her left, was far more pleasant than the air in the carriage.
“An army of them. An army of Antinium going to get hurt and die. And you thought I shouldn’t know?”
“I never said that, Erin. Ser Lormel did not realize we had not spoken to you; it slipped our minds after the Elemental incident. If anything, it proves we had every intent to tell you. It was an honest mistake.”
Lormel nodded as if he were a bobblehead toy; Erin stared at him, and Dalimont actually reached over and held a shield out, blocking the aura. She turned her gaze to him, but then snapped back to Lyonette.
Her normally kindly hazel eyes were blazing with fury. But unlike when Erin got mad—this was furious. It was, to Lyonette’s relief, not the cool that had come over Erin before she jumped Montressa and the other [Mages]. She had seen that, and if Erin had been that calm, Lyonette would have worn armor, because it meant Erin would be throwing a jar of acid soon.
“So you meant to tell me. Mrsha said, ‘I shouldn’t be worried’. Me, worried. While Antinium are dying.”
Lyonette closed her eyes for a moment.
“Mrsha was concerned. We all were. This is a vacation, Erin—”
“So if Mrsha got hurt on vacation, I shouldn’t tell you?”
Lyonette’s eyes opened wide. The mother glared at Erin.
“An entire Crusade appeared at Orefell, Erin. By the time we knew about it, they were locked in combat. They saved the day! You couldn’t stop them. I swear on the Eternal Throne I knew nothing about it until I learned the battle was taking place.”
The [Innkeeper] didn’t get calmer, knowing the facts, she just switched targets.
“You could have told me. But you kept it from me.”
She was trying to stare a hole in Lyonette’s head. Now, the [Princess] rallied with some anger of her own. Her foot began to tap, and she gritted her teeth.
“And what would you have done but cancel the trip, Erin? Or worry and panic? You would never have learned your craft. You even leveled up! Twice!”
The Level 14 [Witch of Second Chances] just stared at Lyonette. Her body was trembling, whether from exhaustion or anger or both, it was hard to say.
“You kept it from me, Lyonette. You could have told me. I thought we were a family. Yesterday, I talked with Numbtongue about not treating him like a child. Only to find out everyone’s treating me like I’m made of glass! This—this isn’t like you.”
Now her stare swiveled to the Thronebearers, and Dame Ushar began to sweat. It beaded on her forehead and ran down the small of her back as it felt like the temperature went up ten degrees.
Lyonette interposed her head between Ushar and Erin.
“If you think the Thronebearers influenced my decision, they are simply here to support me, Erin.”
The gaze swiveled back. Erin stared at Lyonette.
“Then it’s the most [Princess]-like thing you’ve done since we met. It reminds me of Chaldion. It reminds me of how you talk about your family.”
Lyonette flinched a bit, and her face went white. Then snapped back.
“Well, perhaps it was for your own good! And whether or not you like it, there are times when keeping secrets is important! You needed to focus, and you could do no good.”
“I could have done something. I deserved to know! I need to trust you!”
Erin leaned forwards, and Lyonette refused to lean back.
“And I need to make sure you don’t collapse. You can barely walk, Erin! You are made of glass—and we have all seen just how quickly you can die.”
She recoiled from her own words as Erin turned paler. Then Lyonette clenched her hands.
“I—refuse—to let you endanger yourself like that again. If you had gone screaming off to Orefell trying to fight or save the Antinium, we would have had to tie you down. I was wrong not to tell you, later, about the Antinium. That was my mistake. I’m sorry. But I hid that from you because I feared you’d do exactly this!”
They were wrestling, invisibly, as Lyonette held her aura against Erin’s towering fury. The [Innkeeper] had to inhale, exhale or she’d grow dizzy.
“I—how am I supposed to trust you?”
“Trust us? We all agreed. From Mrsha to Numbtongue. We voted, and every single person knew that you would panic and cancel the vacation. If the Antinium were in trouble, we would have told you. But they won. They won without you, Erin. And that matters because your name isn’t tied to them. Erin—an army of the Antinium has now declared itself a seventh Hive. If you had been there, you would have never known peace. Nor the inn.”
Slowly, the [Innkeeper] digested this. Then dismissed it with a single blink of her eyes.
“You lied to me, Lyonette. We’re supposed to be a family.”
“Well, this is how I treat my family in Calanfer.”
Now, the [Princess]’ voice was rising. The Thronebearers all stared in different directions, somehow managing not to stare at any one person. As if the fraying seats were the Eternal Throne and had to be stared at or the universe would fall apart. Lyonette saw Erin scowl.
“I thought we were better than that.”
“You are. Mrsha certainly is. I trust Numbtongue more than all three of my brothers and most of my sisters combined! The same with Bird. But Erin—family keeps secrets from each other. Everyone does. If it meant you looked innocent of sending the Antinium out? I would keep the secret again. You know Chaldion, Erin. If he thought you were behind the Antinium marching? He might order some of his Eyes of Pallass to find six crossbows again!”
The [Innkeeper] was too mad to concede a point. She glared at Lyonette as she had to sit against the seat back to keep upright.
“Our ideas of trust and working together are different.”
Lyonette’s tone made the [Knight] jump, but neither young woman looked at him.
“Are there things the Thronebearers keep from the throne? Or that my family keeps from each other, to keep them safe?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Erin swiveled her head to him. Once again, she blasted Ser Sest with her aura made manifest—but to her surprise, he held her gaze. He blanched, but he held. Erin held the gaze back.
“I thought you were supposed to be there to help Lyonette. If I think you’ll pop her into a sack and run away with her, why would I let you stay with us?”
Ser Sest’s jaw tightened as he took a breath. But the four Thronebearers seemed to suddenly form a wall of gilded metal. Weak, ornamental—but somehow, firm. As if they would fall before maces, but not even a [King]’s aura could budge them. Dalimont answered for Sest.
“We are the Thronebearers of Calanfer, Erin Solstice. We do perform dark deeds and keep some secrets behind our armor. I will not pretend my Order is without copious faults or that we don’t answer to the crown. But we are still the [Knights] who rode to Rhir following the first queen of Calanfer. Please, Erin. Do you think after all that has been said and done we have not seen the change in Her Highness? Even a Thronebearer who had seen the Eternal Throne every day of his life—even he admires the rising sun.”
He sat back, and Ser Sest nodded wordlessly. Dame Ushar hesitated and cleared her throat wordlessly as Ser Lormel ducked his head in agreement. Erin looked at Lyonette, and the [Princess] had turned red.
That was the most startling thing Dalimont had said. It almost made Erin let go of her anger. Furious—she swung back to Lyonette, angrier because she was getting distracted from the point. She pointed at Dalimont without looking at him, lest she lose her feeling altogether.
“Your [Knights] keep secrets from you, Lyonette? Like what? Torturing people? Crimes? And you’re happy with that?”
“Nothing so direct. Sometimes it’s better not to know, for truth spells. Sometimes it’s better that you never knew anything. Let me give you an example, Erin. Do you remember the time Mrsha came back with a bloody nose from the playground?”
Erin narrowed her eyes, trying to figure this one out.
“Yeah. So what?”
“It turns out one of the other children, Unessi, bloodied her nose. She did not hit her face while playing with Ekirra’s soccer ball as we both thought.”
Erin was grappling with another kind of anger for a moment—and Lyonette’s voice grew heated.
“Yes! I was outraged to learn that a month later when I heard it from Unessi’s mother. But do you know why Selys lied to my face? Mrsha too?”
The [Innkeeper] was silent. The [Princess] spelled it out, tapping her palm.
“Because, I would have personally found Unessi and her wretched mother, and you would have too, and likely got us banned from the playground. Especially because Unessi called Mrsha a Doombringer.”
“She said that?”
“It is sorted and dealt with. By Selys. She did not tell me, and I was furious. But I believe Selys was right.”
Lyonette folded her arms, and Erin shook her head.
“I wanted to know about the Antinium. I wanted to know about Mrsha. Don’t keep any secrets from me.”
Now, the [Princess] was in full temper herself. She gave Erin the most scornful, indignant, angry look of her own, and her lips quivered. Then her arm shot out, and she pointed at Erin’s chest.
“Then tell me what the ghosts told you! All of it! Tell me what has you so nervous, and tell me how many quests and secrets are locked inside your head. Otherwise, don’t you dare lecture me about keeping secrets.”
The [Innkeeper] froze a second, and Lyonette waited exactly one more before she snapped.
“There, you see? I know you have more secrets than I can count. Yet I do one thing—and it was a mistake—and you explode so badly no one will dare to sit in the same carriage with you. It was my mistake, Erin, but do not, please, try hypocrisy on me.”
The two of them simmered as Erin tried to think of how to respond. Lyonette brushed at her pants as if they were a skirt repeatedly.
“I won’t keep Antinium or world events from you. That was a mistake. But you must trust me more, Erin. Erin! Do you really think we would have kept something from you if it wasn’t alright?”
The [Innkeeper] didn’t respond. Lyonette’s eyes shimmered a bit, but she held back her frustrations.
“I cannot follow your lead and just—let you do your ‘thing’, Erin. You’re playing the most dangerous of games, with other nations. Chaldion sits in your inn. The Titan courts you! I know you’re aware of how much power you have—so let me decide things myself. I am a [Princess] of Calanfer. And I cannot run from that. In Oteslia, I realized that I wanted my class. Because a [Princess] can sometimes command an army. She has [Knights]. Lionette Solstice had neither.”
Now they were going back. Backwards, to a discussion they’d gone over in history, but never in how they’d felt. Erin sat there, and Lyonette looked from side to side. None of the Thronebearers met her gaze.
At the very beginning, only Dalimont would have understood and been ashamed. Now? They knew their orders. Lyonette had a delay due to complications. But someday, they would have their orders.
Erin’s head turned to Lyonette, and she felt a flash of fear. And it took away from the anger she was trying to keep bubbling.
“I know how much you did, Lyonette. I do trust you. Remember Christmas? I’ve been letting you take charge. Heck, you practically run a lot of the inn, and that’s fine because you’re better than me. You take care of Mrsha…but I can’t give you a throne or my job. What else is there?”
The red-haired girl was just shaking her head, and she looked nothing like the 6th Princess that Ser Sest had volunteered to find. He had expected a frightened girl, in over her head in her ridiculous escapade, or a spoiled [Princess] who needed help before something caught up with her.
He looked over and wondered when she’d grown up. And he wished that her minders and tutors and her sisters and parents could see her. Let alone her subjects.
That wish, whether he knew it or not, ran counter to the desires in the [Princess]’s and [Innkeeper]’s hearts. Lyonette exhaled.
“I felt helpless in Oteslia, Erin. Then my past caught up, and I was almost glad of it, because I was leaning on Ilvriss’ authority, the Gentlemen Callers—and if they hadn’t helped, I would have been fairly helpless.”
“I know how that feels. That’s what it’s like. You can’t be the adventurer.”
“…But I am a [Princess]. And Erin—it was fun being your [Barmaid]. You found a spoiled, freezing, disgraceful failure of a [Princess]. I was, to my entire class. If not to how my parents raised my sisters and brothers—to what I should have been. And I knew it. You helped teach me.”
“By leaving you behind. By letting Toren torment you.”
“Yes. But you left me part of your inn, and you did the best you could. Well, now I am a [Princess] in truth, and everyone knows it. This was the first thing I did that you didn’t like since you woke up. I fear I’ll do more, and I need you to let me try. Because, either way—I won’t be able to be here forever.”
Now, she was speaking ahead of Erin’s wrath to something so distant and so close that Erin’s fury almost subsided completely. A pit writhed in Erin’s stomach, but she refused to turn away. She couldn’t as the carriage rumbled on.
Instead, Erin looked up, and the Thronebearers felt a crawl down their backs as Erin’s gaze turned cold one second.
“If…the Thronebearers found you, Lyonette, that’s one thing. But what if you actually dyed your hair? What if we used spells?”
“And Ser Dalimont and Ushar, Lormel, Sest?”
Erin shrugged slightly.
“…What if the carriage just stopped and they got out? Got out and went home? You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, Lyonette. I promise.”
She looked at the [Princess] as seriously as she had once faced down the Grand Strategist of Pallass and stared down Skinner. And Lyonette brushed at her eyes.
“You really would try. And you’d succeed, Erin. But my mother and father, my kingdom, will never stop. Even if we took all the precautions—and besides that? I don’t want to run from who I am. Erin, listen to me again. I want to be a [Princess]. A good one. The best of them. I could have chased away the Thronebearers. Pulled tricks like Mrsha. I haven’t. I am a [Princess] of Calanfer, and you have one in your inn. We have to reckon with that, because you’re a [Witch], and our classes have not gotten along. We have not always gotten along, but I want to, as long as I can.”
She looked at Erin, and now the flames were dying out and Erin looked troubled and tired. Lyonette reached out and gently took Erin’s hand. Erin squeezed Lyonette’s grip weakly, and the [Princess] sighed.
“…Because someday, I will go back to Calanfer. They will take or pull or force or cajole me back into returning. And I don’t know what will happen after that. Not what my parents expect, but Calanfer is so very far away, Erin. Even with magic doors. Nor is the Eternal Throne easy to leave. I did it once, but that was because I barely mattered to it.”
Her head looked out one of the glass windows, north. Erin took Lyonette’s hand urgently.
“They can’t keep you, Lyonette. Enough. I’ve seen the largest bullies in existence. You don’t have to ever go back.”
To that, the [Princess] just gazed back at Erin.
“But what if Calanfer needs me more than I need it, Erin? What if the cost of staying away gets too high? You taught me a hundred lessons, Erin. Yet you never taught me to run away.”
The [Innkeeper] blinked and then almost smiled. The [Princess] sat there, wistful, and Erin looked at her.
“So what are you going to do? Build a castle out of my inn? You be the [Princess] and I’ll keep doing my thing?”
“I don’t need a castle. Drevish’s plans are ostentatious enough for any number of royals. Erin. Can you forgive me about the Antinium?”
The [Princess] and all the relaxing Thronebearers looked up. Erin held her scowl, then slumped in her seat.
“Alright. Fine. Don’t do it again.”
“And will you tell me your plans? Your big ones? Even if not here…”
Lyonette stressed the word with a pointed look at Ushar, who reported to Queen Ielane and King Reclis directly.
“…Then soon? Talk to me regularly?”
“About your plans, Erin?”
The [Innkeeper] was slumping over in her seat.
“Sure. And what do I get?”
The [Princess] smiled sadly. A bit exasperatedly, as if she was talking to a child. And a quirky boss, the worst kind, and her friend.
“You need to tell me that, Erin.”
The [Innkeeper] was staring at the ground. Her head rose—and she gave Lyonette a sad look of her own. There was no [Witch] anymore with a flaming hat.
Just her first class. So Erin sat up, exhausted, but then she nodded a few times. She looked Lyonette straight in the eye.
“Lyonette. I get why you wanted to hide the Antinium Crusade from me. Don’t do it again. Don’t ever do something like that again. You can be—careful, but tell me. Understand? Sometimes we keep secrets, but not that kind.”
“Yes. I understand.”
Lyonette ducked her head. Erin opened her mouth, lifted a finger, then shook it a few times while thinking.
“…And that’s all I’ve got. Bleh. I overreacted a tiny bit, didn’t I?”
The Thronebearers and Lyonette looked at each other, then, as one, chorused in the most perfect way their emphatic denials. Such that Erin saw their complete dishonesty and the bald-faced lies on their tongues.
“I hate all of you. I’m just tired of secrets. Tired of things I have to keep hidden or else it’ll hurt—everyone.”
She tried to pull an Ulvama and put her feet up on Ushar’s lap. The [Knight] looked so uneasy that Erin stopped. Lyonette gave Erin a sympathetic look.
“Welcome to responsibility, Erin.”
The [Innkeeper] almost threw something at Lyonette until she realized the [Princess] wasn’t mocking her. She thought of Fetohep, who had done much the same thing. And her—with the knowledge of the deadlands to pretty much the entire world.
The [Princess] ducked her head. Then she spoke hesitantly.
“If it helps, Erin, I didn’t mention the Goblins for much the same reason. I really did fear they might die, and I didn’t want you to get so badly hurt. Everything has changed. For myself…I’m also glad you spoke to Numbtongue.”
Erin didn’t quite flinch. She stared up, remembering Numbtongue’s expression.
“Goblins? Yeah. Riverfarm’s okay. I thought they’d want to come back. Pebblesnatch as well. As for Numbtongue—that’s my fault too. But I didn’t know. Wait, were you listening to us?”
She sat up, and Lyonette’s open mouth snapped shut.
Erin’s eyes narrowed, and Lyonette stared out the window. Then she whispered.
“I, myself, believe I need to talk with someone too. Just to see where we are and what’s supposed to happen next.”
She gave Erin such an unhappy look that the [Innkeeper] sat there. Then Ser Dalimont coughed. Everyone looked at him, and the [Knight] cast himself into the blaze for the good of all.
“Apropos of what has been said—Princess Marquin, Miss Solstice, I believe, er, there is another element that Erin has not realized. From the, ah, coverage of the monster raid on the High Passes. In fact, I think the aforementioned Goblins might be closer to Liscor than we are.”
He was eying a [Message] scroll that had a few lines from Selys addressed to Lyonette. The [Princess]’ head swung to him, then to Erin with a dawning wide-eyed realization. Then Erin realized they were speaking about another group of Goblins than the one she thought, and her eyes widened.
“What? What? Whaaaaaaaaaaa—”
The scream was coming from the back carriage. Both had stopped on the road, and Mrsha crawled out of her carriage and hid behind the largest object.
Which was the half-Giant who bent down to let her cling to his shoulder. Jelaqua’s beaming smile turned uncertain.
“Is—is that Erin? She’s actually that mad?”
Ceria Springwalker leaned over her wagon, cackling, as the two undead horses that had been carrying the Halfseekers and Horns of Hammerad to Invrisil came to a stop. They were within spitting range of Invrisil’s gates, but despite being tired from the road, fighting, and all the drama—she felt better already.
Pisces had been subdued and thinking all ride, but now his brows rose as he turned from reading his spellbook. Ksmvr stopped eating the cheese that Vaunt had given him, and Yvlon stopped holding her nose. Ulinde was gulping down way too much cheese too, and it had been a smelly ride back.
“So you did not tell Erin about an Antinium crusade and Rags’ forces showing up in battle? And you thought this would, ah, resolve itself amicably?”
Pisces waved a feather bookmark that Bird had given him at Numbtongue. The [Bard] was wincing as he eyed the shaking carriage and nervous horses.
“Shut up. She was doing [Witch] stuff.”
“…Learning how to explode?”
Seborn Sailwinds glanced over at Mrsha, then at Nanette. The girl was looking worried about her new caretaker’s wrath, but she tipped her imaginary hat very politely to Seborn.
“Hello, sir. Salt below.”
His brows rose.
“Wind above. Pleased to meet you, Miss…?”
She shyly shook his hand, and Mrsha peeked out from behind Fort Moore as he rumbled.
“I can see why Erin is so angry. Not that she should take it out on her friends and family. At least we’re nearly back to Liscor. She can greet the Antinium when they arrive. It will be a day or two yet, even if they march fast.”
“Are they headed south via however they got here or overland? Will they make it to Liscor without—incident? They might be safe when they reach Celum, but that’ll take some time.”
The question suddenly provoked some nerves in the others. Garia gulped, imagining how many cities lay between Orefell and Liscor. None of whom knew Antinium.
“Wales’ forces are escorting them, so they should be safe.”
Numbtongue exhaled, and the adventurers realized—that the inn’s guests didn’t understand how good the reputation of these Antinium were in Izril’s lower north right now. Or how scary Xrn was.
Ceria was still chuckling, and then the inn’s guests saw how the adventurers had fared on their ‘vacation’. Despite having Orefell’s resources after the battle, everything had been so chaotic that no one but Yvlon had managed to clean up. They were smelly—Ceria had sticks in her hair from sleeping outside, and despite everything having been healed by potions and Zimrah, Moore kept rubbing his back, which he’d thrown during the battle. Jelaqua and Ulinde’s Selphid bodies were full of bite marks, and Ksmvr was so sleepy he could barely nibble on his cheese.
They were the victors of a great battle, a heroic moment, even if they had not been the sole key players. Mrsha looked up at Moore, then down at Seborn.
“Hey, water rat. You got any food? We shared most of ours with Orefell.”
He poked her in the side, and she gave him an outraged look, which turned slightly respectful. Mrsha hesitated, then grimaced and pointed. Everyone looked over, and Jelaqua made a delighted sound. Yvlon groaned.
“You’ve got a Sariant Lamb?”
“It found us. And ate all our food. That’s Nerry. Don’t ask what it’s short for. And we met Griffon Hunt!”
“I forgot they were over there! How’s old Halrac doing? How’s older Typhenous?”
The [Bard] snorted.
“Flirting with [Witches].”
Everyone laughed, and for a moment, they relaxed, watching the carriage. And yet—Mrsha saw the same City Runner who they had passed catching up. The young man pointed at the Horns, Halfseekers, and fished for an autograph card in awe. In fact, the gates were opening and the Watch was waving. Then Mrsha wondered what Lyonette and the other adults had hid from her, while they checked to see if anyone they knew had been hurt in the battle. She looked at Moore and wondered if he had been a hero again.
But then, he always was, and the half-Giant patted Mrsha gently on the head.
“Your boon was very helpful, Mrsha. Or rather, should I thank Lyonette too?”
“Oh. Yes. Where is Erin? I have a piece of my mind to speak to her about her admittedly helpful boon myself.”
Pisces snapped his spellbook shut for good. He frowned around, but Ceria was still watching the carriage.
“I think someone’s told Erin that Rags is at Liscor. She should be; she claimed she was flying, and I bet a Wyvern can make it from Orefell in two days.”
Everyone turned to stare at Ceria, and the half-Elf winked at Nanette in a friendly way. And sure enough—the doors of the carriage flew open, and Erin Solstice flopped onto the ground.
Everyone stared at the [Innkeeper] as four Thronebearers and Lyonette hurried out to pick her up. The [Innkeeper] was trying to push herself up.
“Rags is—the Goblins are—bisque! Where’s my stupid chair? I’m mad at all of you!”
Mrsha ducked behind Moore again, but Erin was excited. So excited that Ser Dalimont was unloading her chair and she was pointing to the gates when she noticed the adventurers.
“Wait a second. I’d know those filthy robes anywhere. Pisces! Seborn! Moore!”
“Jelaqua? Hey, Erin!”
The Selphid saw Erin being pushed over and laughed as Erin stared at them.
“I thought you were at Orefell!”
“We got bored and headed back. Hey, Erin. Killed a few hundred goats. How was your vacation?”
Ceria lifted a hand, still chuckling. Erin hesitated, and Numbtongue answered.
“She called a Water Elemental out of a river.”
A spray of cheese struck half of the adventurers in the wagon as Ulinde expectorated. It wasn’t that the famous Winebreath Blaster or variants thereof were that common. It was just that you tended to have someone with their mouths full of liquid or solids at helpful times.
Ksmvr barely looked up at Erin; he had instantly fixed his attention on Nerry and was offering her cheese and patting her with his patented four-pat technique. But Erin was barely able to focus on that.
“Yeah, I did. And there’s an Elemental of Law now. Stupid beeping thing hates me. Ceria—Pisces—did you see Rags? Dalimont says she’s at Liscor! We have to get there!”
“An Elemental of What Now?”
This time, even Ceria and Pisces felt that this was beyond the regular Solstice effect. They sat up, fascinated, but Erin pointed.
“If Selys says she is, Erin—Erin!”
The [Innkeeper] was trying to wheel herself past the wagon. She called to the Horns as she looked around.
“Sorry, guys. Hey, someone push me! I’ve got to get to the inn now!”
She was so frantic she rolled past the battle-weary Horns. Of course, that was not her fault; Erin had not seen the desperate battle against the Eater Goats and Gargoyles. But Lyonette had, and she saw the brief look of disappointment over Jelaqua’s face and Yvlon’s discontented expression.
They had nearly died out there. The Silver Swords had escaped unscathed, but the other teams had lost teammates.
Numbtongue was glancing at the adventurers, but to his surprise, Ceria lifted her skeletal hand, and he fell silent.
“Push me! Someone push me!”
Then a Drake appeared, and Tessa leapt off the wagon, freaking out everyone she’d been sitting next to. She grabbed the handles of Erin’s wheelchair.
“I can push.”
“Good! Take me into the inn—I forget the name! Just push, and we’ll find it. Sorry, you guys catch up—”
Then Shriekblade, the Named-rank Adventurer, began to push. Erin’s last words disappeared into a breathless scream. A blurring [Innkeeper] shot across the ground, and the first [Guards] and people coming to congratulate the adventurers scattered.
The distant scream from Erin’s mouth trailed off as Ceria snorted. Lyonette was apologetic. She looked at the adventurers, and she knew what they’d done.
But Erin was…thinking only of the Goblins.
“I’m sorry, everyone. Erin’s just—”
Ceria lifted an amused hand, and her pale eyes were calm.
“Don’t worry, Lyonette. We’re used to it. No one told her how heroic we were, right? Besides—”
The half-Elf glanced off into the distance where people were already shouting and Erin’s distant screams of ‘left, left’ were coming from. She grinned.
“—She’s got to go. Her first guest is waiting for her, and it’s been so long since they met.”
That was true. Suddenly, everyone wanted to go and see what was happening. The carriages and the wagons began starting forwards as Garia just began jogging, dragging Numbtongue past the [Guards] and the people. Pisces, though, refused to walk when he could let the skeletal horses pull the wagon.
He spluttered as they entered Invrisil, and Lyonette eyed the crowds and then the Horns, who waved at the people demanding autographs. The Halfseekers seemed pleased with the attention, and no doubt the Silver Swords, catching up after Dawil had marched north with some of his people, wouldn’t mind the autograph demands and mild cheering.
But Lyonette did. The [Princess] thought of Eternal Calanfer, so flawed, but so good at one thing. She looked around, and Ser Sest and the other Thronebearers straightened to attention. She crooked a finger as she spotted a Player of Celum in the crowds.
As for Pisces? He was spluttering as a few hooded figures watched him from afar and wondered how they’d meet with him ‘in private’ later. The [Necromancer] was outraged.
“First guest? First guest, Springwalker? If it refreshes your ailing memory, I remind you that I was Erin’s first true guest.”
The half-Elf laughed in his face.
“No you weren’t. That’s Relc and Klbkch if you want to get technical.”
“I was her first…paying guest.”
“No you weren’t. Relc and Klbkch paid for their food. You didn’t. You were her first criminal. You tried to extort her. No, wait, you were her first charity case.”
Mrsha punched Pisces’ leg as he turned red and spluttered. Yes, Mr. Third Guest! Beat it, bub! And Nanette sat amongst the adventurers as Nerry let Ksmvr scratch her head and comb her fur, and she wondered what this fabled inn looked like.
Goblins. It almost felt old and nostalgic to hear the call from the walls and the word spread through the city. Oh, the newcomers panicked a bit, but the real Liscorian citizens just looked up.
“Goblins! Goblins are at the gates!”
A panicking young woman ran into a square as a Drake looked up from watering some bushes she’d planted. Raspberries, fruitful.
“Goblins? Not Crelers? How many Goblins?”
“A hundred, some on Wyverns?”
The Drake [Gardener] thought about this.
“Do you have any moths? Undead? Is the [Innkeeper] back?”
The young woman looked at her and hesitated.
“N-no. I don’t think so. Why?”
“I just don’t see the reason to make all that fuss. Now, if it were a thousand Goblins. Or Hectval. Or an Archmage, maybe it’s worth screaming my eardrums out. Or maybe you could hold this basket while I gather my raspberries.”
Then the unfortunate young woman was holding a basket while the Drake, fearless of the thorns with her scaled claws, plucked raspberries.
The crazy thing was that it was only slightly bravado. Most of the Liscorians were headed to the western gates because they loved a good gawk, but they were doing it in an unafraid way. After all, Celum, Invrisil, and those Pallassians had to see how a citizen of Liscor handled adversity. They had a reputation they now needed to maintain.
But—Goblins. The word swept through the city, because it was not that [Bard] who played a pretty good tune or the Cave Goblins.
It was the first tribe. Even if they had changed—these were the Goblins who had once been pressed against Liscor’s gate. The ones who had fought against the Goblin Lord. So many had died that day, and the Watch Captain herself stood on the walls, sword at her waist, wondering if the group that had flown down on Wyvernback had a grudge.
Of course they did. Of course they remembered.
Why else would a single warrior, who rode on a gigantic Carn Wolf’s back, be the lone Goblin riding through the gates?
He was short, for a Hobgoblin. Tall for any regular Goblin and growing still, wiry, and his very appearance provoked a memory. But he was shorter than his father, his Chieftain, and he carried two blades, not one.
But one of those blades was red, as red as the paint that criss-crossed his arms and body. The Carn Wolf sniffed the air as the [Guards] and citizens drew back. Some called at him to stop, but Redscar simply trotted through Liscor’s gates.
Fearlessly, he looked around, not even resting his hands on the hilts of his blades. He swung right and left, appraising the crowd for threats. But no one threw anything at him—they just stared up at him with hostility and fear. Memory and guilt.
Antinium, Drakes, Gnolls, Humans…Redscar glanced over his shoulder as the rest of the Goblins clustered outside the gates and around a hill where a single inn stood. Watching him.
The Goblin held himself like a blademaster, tensed and relaxed simultaneously. He had trotted through those gates with all the will in the world.
Even if a thousand spears and bows had been aimed at him, he would have gone through those gates with will alone and cut them to pieces if he had to. For that was how much it mattered.
Yet, being here? Suddenly, Redscar didn’t know what came next. He raised his head, and Thunderfur sniffed the air.
Then—the Goblin turned and beheld an unfamiliar place. A city with sprawling streets, people largely unarmed. Children and houses. He stared at the insides of the walls.
A vision. Hundreds of thousands of Goblins had never seen it.
If they had—walked these streets—stumbled in here?
What might have happened? He looked around, craning his neck, as his wolf slowly padded forwards and the murmurs spread. Gazing for the Goblins who could no longer see, whose bodies were long gone.
Like a dreamer, he slowly got off his wolf. And walked forwards, a few steps. The people who watched him moved back, and they had only seen that look of baffled curiosity once before.
On an Antinium’s face. And Redscar’s was much easier to read. He stared at fresh loaves on display in a [Baker]’s window. Made with…‘baking soda’. The Goblin turned, and it seemed then as if he were blind or having some terrible dream.
For when he looked at a group of children peering at him, he saw little Goblins. Running about the streets. He looked at an oblivious [Builder] hammering a nail into a house being redesigned and wondered if a Goblin could ever look so idly bored at having a job in a city, instead of afraid.
It hurt worse because the dream was just that. It had died at those gates. Not everyone could meet his eyes. Some did, with the kind of blank anger that said they saw just a monster. And some saw Redscar’s distant look and perhaps saw a city that a Goblin Lord had dreamed of.
The Goblin who had never fallen in battle, who had fought every foe to the death, found his legs were shaking. He leaned against the great wolf, who sniffed the air. Thunderfur made a soft, whining sound in the back of his throat. But neither one said anything else to the watching citizens.
They reminded Liscor’s people of no debts. Redscar spoke no history or bitter words. For him, what would have been the point? He simply stood awhile as the Goblins outside the gates watched.
As if he were a [Soothsayer], trying to see a future that might have been.
A Goblin in Liscor. But know that this was only the beginning.
For an [Innkeeper] was coming. Now, she was so close that her inn felt it.
Dismounting Goblins who were leaping off saddles and helping down other less-experienced riders looked up in alarm at a sound. They reached for blades as a small Goblin held up a claw. It was no attack. The Antinium in the tower was waving at them and envying their pet birds.
The inn. The front door had swung open. The clacking sound was of every shuttered window swinging open too and a door to a garden appearing against one wall. A Goblin with a [Chef]’s hat, nervously clutching a pack of tools, oohed. More hopefuls chattered, checked they had everything, and rushed forwards excitedly.
Inside the inn, a Gnoll glanced up as his sister ran to tell him there were Goblins.
Liska found Ishkr carefully preparing two chalkboards, the kind of which hung over the inn’s bar.
“Ishkr! I said there are a hundred Goblins and Wyverns outside!”
“Huh. The stables won’t fit the Wyverns. I’ll have food ready in a moment. Hold on. Take this sign and hang it up.”
Liska stared at him, nearly tearing her fur out.
“Did you hear me? What’s this?”
Ishkr pointed at the menu overhead, and Liska saw he’d cut all the prices on the menu. Then he held out another board with identical items and began to write new numbers. He was marking everything up by 100%.
“What’s that board for?”
Ishkr sighed as his sister failed to even help him in one small way. As usual. He carefully wrote a price on the board.
“Goblin prices. Party prices. I’m getting ready. Can you at least hold the door to Invrisil open? Liska? Can you at least do that?”
Something was coming to Liscor. To the inn.
That something, well, one of the somethings, was a screaming [Innkeeper]. She was blurring across the city, the wheels of her chair spinning so fast they created a mirage where they looked like one solid object. She was leaning back—because Shriekblade was tilting the chair back and pushing.
It made Erin feel like at any second she would somersault backwards out of her chair and turn into paste. She was screaming as they zoomed past a City Runner sprinting towards the Runner’s Guild. The woman slowed and stared as she saw an [Innkeeper] moving at possibly fifty miles per hour, just missing pedestrians.
“Left! No, right! That street! We’re gonna crash!”
They were headed straight for a wall. And if Shriekblade stopped the wheelchair, Erin died because there was no seatbelt. Instead, she got a glimpse of how fast Shriekblade was. The Named-rank saw the brick wall, so she ran ahead of the wheelchair as she turned it left.
But sheer momentum kept the wheels—now in danger of being destroyed from friction—drifting towards the wall. So Shriekblade leapt up, braced herself against the wall, and pushed as the wheelchair came within mere feet of it.
All so fast that it looked to bystanders as if Erin suddenly did a 90-degree turn at the speed of—
Then she was gone, terrorizing another street as she headed towards the inn. But what was really happening was that things were setting up.
An [Innkeeper] rolling through Invrisil on an adventurer-powered wheelchair? Goblins in Liscor?
Setup, setup. And at least one [Head Server] knew it full well. It took a while to eventuate a party. Even the [Innkeeper] at the peak of health couldn’t do it in less than, oh, an hour.
And it would take more than that to pull a party across at least three cities. Probably four. But Lyonette du Marquin was everywhere. The first person she found in the crowd was the [Mayor] of Invrisil, who had come for an autograph.
He didn’t have security along the streets. The crowd was begging for autographs like [Beggars] for coin. There were no flower petals, no music—no celebration for heroes in battle.
Let alone Liscor! At least Invrisil had the excuse that it was only three Gold-rank teams. But this wouldn’t do. The confused [Mayor] was being harangued by Lyonette as his [Bodyguards] tried to block her—and ran into the Thronebearers, considerably more impressive in situations like this. Dalimont checked a huge woman with an arm and a look.
“…And I would strongly recommend you ask for Manager Temile’s cooperation in this endeavor, Mayor.”
“Temile? But the Players cost a fortune, and he’s booked for months! You can’t get the Players to do anything!”
Lyonette gave him a sweet smile, like a child pointing to a jar on the top shelf and claiming no one could reach it.
“Then I shall have a word for you and ask him to speak to you, Mayor. Now, I believe a budget is in order. How much is Invrisil willing to pay for adventurers? Or, to put it another way, how will the City of Adventurers treat adventurers who just answered the gravest of calls? Perhaps the Five Families would be willing to sponsor…? Oh, and I believe a call to Wistram News Network is in order. Or I can speak to Miss Drassi myself.”
He swallowed hard. He had heard rumors, but this was a woman in her element, young as she was, and it occurred to the [Mayor]…
“May I know your name, ah—ah—Miss?”
“Lyonette, Mayor Curle. Lyonette. Now, if you’ll excuse me. Liscor’s Council awaits.”
A storm. How did you create a storm? Lyonette had learned from the best, and she had to first seed the clouds in every city. With gold and words and intentions.
All the conditions were right; everyone had seen the news. She just had to push them. But she had to stoke the winds and throw flower petals or other suitably thematic elements into the air. Find the right [Actors], and she knew so many.
The Horns of Hammerad were halfway across Invrisil when a marching band of sorts began playing, and a [Crier] began shouting.
“The Mayor has declared a three-day holiday! To celebrate the victory at Orefell, the Gold-rank teams and the Antinium Crusade and soldiers of Wales, Remendia, Ocre, and…”
Then there was a flame in the air. A rumor running hot across Izril that if you wanted, you could, you must get to the City of Adventurers and perhaps go through the door to Liscor. Because there was going to be a celebration, obviously.
Only, it was going to be a multi-city event, and you could be in each one if you played your cards right. Nobles and [Merchants] scented the opportunity to rise in station or wealth.
All Lyonette had to do was start a fire, and she had learned from an expert who had thrown banquets with silver coins, not gold. Maviola El would have laughed.
But it was coming. Not here yet. For the first time, you could see it coming. A party. And who was invited?
Mrsha looked up as a boy strolled next to her wagon and inserted himself into it. She nearly kicked the street boy out in outrage.
Adventurers only, stupid! And their cool friends. Then her eyes widened as he gave her a gap-toothed grin, and Grev swung himself into the seat.
“Look who’s back! Hey, Miss Ceria!”
“Is that Grev? I thought you were with the Players in the north.”
He looked offended.
“Me? I’m a Face on the streets these days. I’m not going to First Landing. Too far. Heya, Numbtongue. ‘N who’s this? Hey, have we met before? You look familiar.”
He stared at Nanette, who blinked at the street lad. Then someone was jogging next to the cart as the impromptu band began to play. Mrsha saw a high-kicking group of sharply dressed women and a man with a trumpet.
They had chops. Even the adventurers and Lyonette noticed the band of eight. Seven women, all with trendy dresses that were—odd. They were uniforms, not just the latest fashions, in bright cloth as vivid as anything from Earth. Glossy, with an odd badge on the arm and chest, as if they were [Soldiers].
But they were no soldiers—or if they were, they were part of the most musical army in the world. One had a marching drum hung from her chest, and she was rattling off a song to the other instruments.
Horns, a brass trumpet in the familiar man’s hands. And the others were backing him up, with more horns—even a strange instrument that Mrsha had never seen before, with a long tube that kept moving as it changed pitches.
A trombone—and they played well. Dame Ushar’s eyebrows rose because the musicians were performing and dancing. [Bards]?
No, not quite. Nor was this a chance meeting. By themselves, the eight performers turned the street from a chaotic cavalcade into a parade. It wasn’t just how they moved, in unison, as if they knew how to celebrate, teaching the street by example how someone should move when the energy burned in their limbs—it was what they were. Professionals.
They had been here before. They had seen champions and legends and grand occasions, and they rekindled that feeling in a heartbeat.
Mrsha narrowed her eyes at the man in front. How did she know him? She had never seen his suit with the bright red cloth and shining lapels, like he was the owner of the menagerie or some high-level [Bard]. Yet he was looking at her, and one bright orange eye opened like a spotlight. Then he winked at her.
The little Gnoll stared at the performers sharply with a sudden suspicion, then she peered at the badges, but they were rolling past, and she only saw a sparkling inn on a tiny badge for a second. Then—
The [Vice Innkeeper] winked at her. Like pure mischief, an impish wink promising…Mrsha’s eyes widened.
Mrsha pointed two fingers at her eyes and pointed them at him. She would have done more, but they were moving on as Fierre shouted, trying to keep the umbrella over her head in the crowd.
“Ceria! Mrsha! It’s me! Fierre! Hey—what’s going on? Did anyone level up? Hey—”
Only when Numbtongue noticed her did she manage to climb on. Lyonette was hmming as she pictured how an entire army would come through Liscor’s gates. They needed a route, and the wagon was crowded—but visible.
Something to see. Calanfer’s citizens often greeted [Princesses] riding horses, but [Princesses] and dignitaries hated sitting on the animals—and the horses hated it too. She had no desire to be beaten to death by a certain [Druid].
But a wagon? What if you had a bigger wagon and painted it, a moving stage? Yes! She wondered if someone had invented her idea. Probably. That was the problem with Earthers. Come up with anything interesting and they said it existed and gave it a stupid name, as if they had personally come up with it.
They were coming, and it was going to be big. Pisces looked at the cheering crowds and then at Lyonette. The [Princess]’ eyes shone as she promised him there would be a hundred times this many people.
“We shall have flags. Flags—and do the Horns have a symbol? Nevermind, we can certainly do House Byres, the, um—Free Antinium’s Hive. Oh dear. But how about you, Ceria? Does the Village of Springwalker have a flag?”
Ceria scratched at her head.
“…You could put a squirrel and an icecube together on a piece of cloth. That’s as good as anything I’ve got. As for a symbol, we used to have a token. It’s a cool hammer. Let me find it for you. Well, Calruz thought it looked good.”
“Flags? Ooh, I’ve got one for my home!”
Jelaqua was agog at the idea. She looked delighted, and even Moore had one he wanted to display. Seborn had a [Pirate]’s flag, and Ulinde had Wistram’s banner.
“Come up with any you want by tomorrow at the earliest. Any of the Thronebearers will have it stitched up. Even a national flag will do, Ceria. Whatever kingdom your village is in.”
“Oh, that’s Erribathe, but we don’t mix with that lot. I’ll do the ice cube squirrel. That’ll be hilarious. Ksmvr, you draw your Hive.”
Ceria’s eyes danced with mirth, but Pisces was troubled. Lyonette turned to him.
“We could put up a flag of, er, the Kingdom of Glass and Glory, Pisces.”
He glanced up, and his eyes flashed.
“My kingdom? Ailendamus? In what scenario would I like to advertise my roots in such a manner, Lyonette?”
He regretted snapping at her, but the instinctive flash of anger and hatred ran through him. Nor did she take offense. The [Princess] just gave him a smile every bit as arch as he could muster. But one of one confidant to another. One Terandrian to another.
“Well, Pisces. I imagine nothing would be more poetic than for the great [Necromancer] of the Horns to claim Ailendamus as his own.”
Or annoy them more. He blinked at her. Then he smirked at imagining their reactions to that. Lyonette was fussing about, and Numbtongue tapped her on the shoulder.
“Lyonette. This sounds like fun—but will Erin be mad?”
This sounded like exactly the same problem as last time. For answer, Lyonette blew out her cheeks.
“I am going to tell her the instant we get back to the inn. But she has her Goblins, and I?”
She looked at the adventurers, who deserved a moment worthy of them. Much less the Antinium. Lyonette straightened the collar of her travelling shirt.
“I believe we’ve settled our roles. Erin can be the frosting. I shall bake this cake myself, this time.”
And hers was going to be organized. Numbtongue licked his lips.
“Get a lot of cakes. With chocolate.”
The coming storm of confections, delights, and, yes, chaos would engulf the inn today and in the days to come. Already, change was coming.
And the name of the change?
Goblins. Little Goblins were wandering around with older ones. One limped around, one-legged, poking at things, and eying her new place of work. The Antinium Workers didn’t quite know what to do.
“Server Ishkr. Server Ishkr. There is a Goblin in the kitchen.”
“Let them look around.”
Ishkr was eying his new coworkers. They were going to be…interesting. But he was busy seating Goblins and pouring mugs of whatever they wanted out as some slapped coins down and watched, to their delight, as it turned into something actually useful like a drink. But the Antinium Worker was nervous.
“Yes, Server Ishkr. But this one is…cooking!”
Then Ishkr poked his head into the kitchen and saw a grand [Chef] standing with a pinch of fiery dust, inspecting a pizza. He sprinkled it on delicately and blinked and waved at Ishkr.
He was still looking around, but Calescent had been promised a place, and this kitchen was very, very nice, if smaller than the ones in Goblinhome to feed everyone.
The [Spice Chef] was, in fact, very nervous. He wanted to make a good impression, so he nearly dropped the pizza as the Gnoll looked at him. But Ishkr didn’t bare his fangs or look alarmed. He just nodded.
“Have we met?”
The Hob hesitated. Rags had been here, the day Erin had woken up, and so had he. But that had been like a glorious flash of everyone speaking at once and a long-awaited reunion. They had not—spoken. So he glanced out the kitchen to where his Chieftain was waiting. Then, nervously at Ishkr. But the [Head Server] smiled so quick he beat Calescent’s nervous grin. As if the Hobgoblin were simply eager, not strange. Ishkr nodded to the buzzing inn.
“We’re a bit chaotic. Can you take that to whomever wants the pizza? Thank you. I’m Ishkr. You’ll meet Erin and Lyonette very shortly.”
There would be a lot of conversations. If nothing else—about proper spicing levels. But he had a Skill, so the [Chef] smiled and hoped.
Hoped, like the Goblins who had followed Rags on her long journey. The Goblins of Goblinhome, not Liscor.
The Flooded Waters tribe was still milling about, and Redscar and some of his people still staring around Liscor’s gates, when they felt it.
A door opened from Invrisil and Liscor. Someone came through.
Just that. But every Goblin’s head snapped up and turned to her. They felt it.
A friend. And the moment that she entered the inn, the air lit up. A drink burst into flames in a Goblin’s hand, and the Hob tossed it with a shout. The inn rumbled, and then a young woman shouted one word as a panting Drake wheeled her into the inn.
Erin Solstice looked around, and Ishkr appeared as Zevara stormed into the inn.
“Erin, these Goblins—”
“Rags? Where’s Rags? Ishkr, bisque!”
Amazingly, he actually had some in a pot. Erin was afraid, because she was looking around. At any second, she thought she’d see…Rags.
The little Goblin, scowling and demanding Erin’s attention with a poke of a claw. Or was that—that the same Goblin who’d kidnapped the Healer of Tenbault? The same Goblin who’d come to her inn and missed her?
Erin didn’t know who she was looking for, and several Goblins straightened. But none were Rags; Poisonbite was closest in height, if a bit taller, and she eyed Erin as the [Innkeeper] grabbed a spoon.
“Erin Solstice. We have a situation, and I need you to focus.”
Zevara snapped her claws at her, and Erin looked up. She lifted a spoon, and Zevara recoiled before Erin shoved a spoonful of cold bisque into her mouth.
“Eat or get out of my way! Ask Lyonette about everything. Where’s Rags?”
She stood up. For answer, Ishkr pointed. A Hobgoblin with a poofy hat had come out of the kitchen, and Erin stared at Calescent as he gazed at her.
Now, all the Goblins were looking at her. Few knew her. Some had seen her, once, waving a white flag, but so few knew her.
Except…for a single Hob who vaulted a table as Snapjaw looked up. Badarrow charged towards Erin, and she gasped.
He seized her up in a huge hug. Erin squeaked—she had seen him once, when she woke up, but then he had vanished. Now, it felt like a proper reunion.
“Badarrow! Where’ve you been, you silly Goblin. Are you thin? Why didn’t you visit more?”
She hugged him back as Snapjaw halted, uncertain. But Badarrow just rubbed his eyes in her hair.
That was all he said, but Erin just squeezed fiercely back, and then she was looking around.
“Snapjaw? And—is that Redscar guy here? Do I know…? Numbtongue’s almost back, Badarrow! You’re here! Is—do you know where Rags is?”
She felt guilty asking when he was right in front of her, but the [Sniper] seemed to understand. He had seen her, but there was only one person that Erin hadn’t seen since the beginning. Two—technically, of the living.
Then again, Toren was dead. So Badarrow pointed, and Erin saw.
The door to the [Garden of Sanctuary] was open. Bright sunlight spilled from beyond and the scent of fresh grass and the strange spice of Faerie Flowers. She looked beyond and knew.
“I’ll just—I’m just gonna say hi. I’ll be back in a second. And say hi to you, Snapjaw. Eat anything you want. Even tables. It’s just…”
Erin was already walking towards the open door, but she halted guiltily. Yet Badarrow just motioned her as the Goblins stared at Erin. And Zevara, who was watching Erin and not stopping her. Bird came down the stairs as Badarrow grinned.
The [Sniper] pointed, and Erin walked towards the garden. Bird threw up all four hands.
“Friend! I found you again!”
He hugged Badarrow as the [Sniper] laughed. But all of it, even her dear other guests, her inn, her family…
For a few minutes, Erin left it behind as she climbed into the garden. Her legs burned with effort, despite the magic keeping her moving, and she felt unbalanced, not ready for this.
Yet she had to go. So Erin climbed up the hill to the meadow and looked around. She opened her mouth.
No. Erin caught the word and then gazed about. She looked towards the jungle, the pond with the beaver’s dam, now vacated, the rock garden, the snowy patch, the arid biome with the new grove of cacao, coffee, and other trees.
There was surely only one place Rags would be. She always had a sense of the dramatic. So Erin began walking up the mist-covered hill. It was not far, and she walked into the damp mist and then saw statues.
Hundreds. Thousands. For her, there were many. But they all seemed to be organized on a hill larger than the entire garden itself. Erin walked past too many faces. Until at last, she found the Goblin.
Rags was sitting down. Erin looked up, panting slightly, and saw a stranger, sitting on a piece of…stone? She looked up and realized that her guest hadn’t known how long Erin might be. So she’d taken a seat.
Not upon the grass. Armored boots of decorated Wyvernhide dangled off the edge of a piece of flat stone. Not too high, but then, the Goblin was not that tall. Nor that old.
Her hair was long, spikey, even, and black. She wasn’t like Goblin children, who, like many species, were bald. She’d even grown; she was still shorter than the [Innkeeper], who halted, eyes wide, but she looked older by far.
She wore armor decorated with Carn Wolf fur, warm for mountain chill, and again, made of leather Wyvernhide. She carried a sword and buckler at her side, and if she had been fully armed, a familiar, worn crossbow on her back, made of Dwarfsteel painted black.
She did not have it on today, but she still seemed like a miniature warlord. Her crimson eyes focused on Erin at once, with such intelligence it seemed like she were sometimes reading a book, contemplating everything she heard.
Her pointed ears twitched as Erin drew in her breath. But what stood out to Erin was where Rags sat.
She sat upon a frozen bier. It was still cold, and frost still clung to the edges and turned the grass frozen. Mist drifted down around it, and a hundred gifts were strewn about the edges. A doll, flowers, a book…letters that Erin had only dared to look at, then put down because they were too raw.
That was where she had been for so long. That was where the Goblin had once found her. And now, it was where Rags sat.
She stood as Erin stopped there. For a while, neither one said anything. That was what the [Innkeeper] saw. A Goblin in armor, sure of herself, if not this moment.
So different from the small figure in rags who was both terrified and defiant. Who looked at chess and a plate of spaghetti as if they were the richest things in the world.
What did the Goblin see?
Rags saw a panting young woman, clutching at her side, face pale from her exertions. She wore plain clothing and, for some reason, even now, an apron. No longer stained with blood. An [Innkeeper].
She had matured from the young woman who had looked around a hostile world. But there was the same person there, who had slain a Hobgoblin, killed Skinner, and survived.
The girl who had hammered a sign in front of her inn and defied the world was still there. Just wearier. She looked smaller than Rags remembered. For a moment.
Then her lines of unhappiness, of stress and exhaustion, faded as she smiled. Those eyes lit up, and they were the same eyes that danced with something new. Something special.
An [Immortal Moment] was captured in that gaze. Teaching Antinium to play chess. The Goblin’s heart squeezed, and she looked up and saw flames.
Flames, burning over the [Witch]’s head in the shape of a hat. The same color and intensity as those in her eyes. The same determination. And when she opened her mouth, she laughed just like Rags remembered.
For a second, they were both here and in the past. A ragged Goblin and frightened [Innkeeper]—a [Great Chieftain] in armor and a [Witch] with a burning hat.
Then—Rags and Erin looked at each other as a great silence descended. And they had too many words and not enough time—even with immortality whispering around this hill. Rags stood there as Erin looked her up and down, lost for words.
But the Goblin had some. So she closed her eyes a second—and when she opened them, Erin was still there. Rags spoke in a clear voice.
“Hello, Erin. I’m back. I wanted to come, but I have been busy. I wanted to talk to you. Do you have time?”
Erin started. Her eyes went round, and Rags smiled at the look of pure disbelief, then delight and incredulity on the young woman’s face. Erin opened her mouth.
She’d said that before. She knew the truth, but it repeated itself. Their reunions, their past. Erin caught herself. She looked at Rags, and the Goblin gave her a familiar, slightly irked look, one eyebrow raised. Erin bit her tongue and thought for a long moment.
As the inn began to fill up. As the cities began to ring with cheers and these good days of chaos began and conversations and relationships rekindled, the [Innkeeper] searched and thought. Slowly, Erin nodded, her eyes shining with unshed tears and pride as she slowly bowed at the hips. Not out of fealty or service to any custom, but unconsciously, as she had never bowed to Dragons or [Kings].
“…Thanks for waiting.”
The Goblin grinned, and she reached out to steady the Human as she wobbled. She tried not to, but she gently leaned on the Goblin as they walked out of that hill of mists. The two of them slowly found a place to sit and talk, and tell each other how their lives had gone for a while.
Author’s Note: I cannot finish it. There is a huge amount of words and I realized that my plan to include the entire conversation with Rags and Erin would make this 30k. It deserves more rested-me to do it, anyways.
On the plus side, even if I can’t always do the Volume 1 chapter rewrites due to being tired, I am improving my editing skills. I just wish I had more energy, but you know me.
Lazy, at least when it comes to things I don’t find fun. Maybe if I do this for about 9.5 million words I’ll start to enjoy it like writing. I’m still evolving how I write most ideally. Like stream-writing; I’ve been far more consistent and productive than I used to be.
I used to stop and start and procrastinate by playing the video games for hours, and then I’d nap and wake up after a four-hour sleep to write in the middle of the night to try and get a chapter done because I didn’t know how to stay focused and motivated until I was done for the day.
So streaming helps–and I’ve moved off Twitch and onto Youtube because I think I can keep the videos of me writing instead of them being auto-deleted after a while. I don’t know if I’ll keep streaming on Youtube, but Twitch has been so good in all the areas that if you’ve been keeping up with the news, you can totally understand how I’m confident in the platform. So much so that I’m now on Youtube.
Anyways, I’m not delving into the rest of the world because I can barely keep up with this one. Maybe someday, but writing takes priority. Have a good night! Wish me energy.
Erin’s Hat and Rabbiteater by butts!
Lady Menrise, Costumes, ‘Traffy’ the Law Elemental and more by Brack!
Witch Hat, Hugs, and Relc Puzzles by pkay!